The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) had already begun when Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen was born in this house around 1621 or 1622.
At that time the house was already some 450 years old, since it already existed in the twelfth century when Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa founded Gelnhausen and gave it the rights and privileges of a city. Originally this was a knight’s house, but from the fourteenth century it was used as a bakery and a pub.
The house, now the Grimmelshausen Hotel, is currently half-timbered on the upper floors, but I assume the outer walls were all originally made of stone. I have read that half-timbered buildings only became common in Gelnhausen in the second half of the seventeenth century while the city was being re-built after the destruction of the Thirty Years’ War, because it was cheaper and faster to build that way.
This plaque on the house describes Grimmelshausen as “the greatest German writer of the 17th century”, which he indisputably was, primarily because of his huge, brilliant and very graphic novel on the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, Simplicius Simplicissimus or The adventurous Simplicissimus. (The plaque gives the year of his birth as 1620, which is a year or two earlier than the year given by most other sources.)
Gelnhausen was looted and burned to the ground at least three times during the Thirty Years’ War. Grimmelshausen describes one of these attacks, probably the first, in his novel.
At the age of twelve (or so) he was kidnapped by marauding soldiers and forced to become a musketeer. In other words, he was what today we would call a child soldier. At some point he was captured by Croatian troops and later fell into the hands of Hessian soldiers, who took him to Kassel. Later, as an adult, he became a regimental clerk and finally regimental secretary in the regiment of Colonel Schauenburg.
After the war he converted from Protestantism to Catholicism so he could marry Catharina Henninger, the 21-year-old daughter of a lieutenant in Schauenburg’s regiment. He never returned to his home town of Gelnhausen, but eventually settled in Renchen, a town in the Rhine Valley between the Black Forest and Strasbourg, where he had a position as a magistrate. It was there that he wrote most of his novels and stories during the last decade of his life.
My first encounter with Grimmelshausen’s great novel was on a dark winter’s night around 1960, when I read parts of it from a tiny yellow Reclam edition by the light of a tiny round reading lamp in a Greyhound bus on an all-night run from Chicago to New York, on my way back to college at the end of the Christmas vacation.
These Reclam books are really tiny paperbacks, measuring 14.7 x 9.6 centimeters (that’s 5.75 x 3.8 inches), that have been published in this form as “Reclam’s Universal Library” since 1867.
By contrast, the edition of Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus that I have on my desk right now measures 28.5 x 18.5 centimeters — nearly twice as high and twice as wide — and is much heavier and has larger print.
And I’m sure I understand a lot more of it now than I did back then on the Greyhound bus, since Grimmelshausen’s 17th century German prose was a bit challenging for an American undergraduate who had never even been to Germany. I remember that I soon stopped looking up words and just let myself be swept along by the story, leaving the details for some other phase of my life. (Which turns out to be now.)
My reason for reading Simplicissimus at the time was that it was assigned reading for a German literature course that I was taking at college.
The opera Simplicius Simplicissimus by Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) begins with a spoken prologue, which at the Frankfurt Opera was spoken by individual musicians from down in the orchestra pit, with each musician speaking one sentence:
In the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and eighteen there were twelve million people living in Germany, twelve million people in Germany.
Then came the great war, the belief in the one God was split, the Holy Empire was dismembered; princes rose up against the emperor, knights against councilmen, farmers against city dwellers, soldiers against soldiers, and bitter death was the lord of them all. [. . .]
Thirty years later:
In the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and forty-eight there were no longer twelve million, there were only four million people living in Germany.
And there was one who knew nothing of the court, far away, in solitude, a little boy with the sheep, who knew neither God nor people, neither heaven nor hell, neither angels nor devils, who couldn’t tell the Good from the Bad, the most simple-minded of all: Simplicius Simplicissimus. [my translation]
Of course Grimmelshausen’s huge novel is much too long for an opera, so the composer just chose three scenes from the childhood and youth of Simplicissimus.
In 2004 the stage director Christof Nel created a brilliant production of this opera in Stuttgart, and in 2009 this same production was bought and staged by the Frankfurt Opera — with two of the same singers, mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke as the boy Simplicissimus and tenor Frank van Aken as the Hermit. (Both these singers later became members of the Frankfurt Opera ensemble and both have been guests at my opera appreciation courses.)
My photos in this post are from 2010. I revised the text in 2017.