Renchen is a quiet town of 4,472 people located in the Rhine Valley not far from the Black Forest. The nearest large city is Strasbourg, across the river on the French side of the border. Renchen’s main (in fact I would say only) claim to fame is that the great seventeenth century German writer Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen lived here for the last decade of his life after being appointed Schultheiß of the town.
Schultheiß is variously translated as sheriff, mayor or magistrate. Actually I think “city manager” would be a more accurate translation, but that sounds a bit mundane, doesn’t it? In any case, he had two policemen to help him, and the job left him ample time to finish writing his many books.
Today he is best known for Simplicius Simplicissimus, his big blockbuster novel on the Thirty Years War.
The statue in the middle of Renchen, in front of the town hall and the Simplicissimus House, shows “The Hunter of Soest”, a character in Simplicius Simplicissimus. The statue is by the Italian sculptor Giacomo Manzù (1908-1991) who completed it in 1977.
During his lifetime, Grimmelshausen published most of his books under various pseudonyms such as Samuel Greiffensohn von Hirschfeld, German Schleifheim von Sulsfort, Melchior Sternfels von Fugshaim, Philarchus Grossus von Trommenheim, Michael Rechulin von Sehmsdorf, Eric Steinfels von Grufenshohn, Simon Lengfrisch von Hartenfels and Israel Fromschmid von Hugenfels.
It took 150 years before anyone realized that these names were all anagrams (more or less) of Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, who was the true author of all the books.
No, this is not the house where Grimmelshausen lived when he was the Sheriff or Mayor or Magistrate of Renchen from 1667 to 1676. His house, wherever it was, was burnt to the ground by French troops in 1689 (on orders of Louis XIV’s war minister Louvois) along with nearly everything else in Renchen.
The house that is now called the Simplicissimus House, next door to the town hall, was built in the 1730s and is one of the oldest still-existing houses in Renchen. The house was bought by the city of Renchen in 1984 and renovated for use as a museum.
The trouble was that they had absolutely nothing from Grimmelshausen or his time that they could have displayed in a museum, because anything that might have remained after his widow died in 1683 was destroyed in the great fire six years later. Also no one even knew, in the eighteenth century, that Grimmelshausen was the author of Simplicissimus, so interest in him was minimal.
Eventually a small group of dedicated people came up with a new concept for a museum, namely to display the illustrations, in some cases the originals, from the many illustrated editions of Simplicissimus that were published in the twentieth century.
The Simplicissimus House is only open on Sundays from 3 to 6 pm (which is when I went), but at other times you can also ask Ms Sester at the Citizens’ Bureau across the street, and she’ll let you in so you can have a look around by yourself. (The Citizens’ Bureau is also the Tourist Office, not that they have many tourists coming through.)
This was one of those situations where I was (at first) the only visitor to the museum (two others arrived later in the afternoon), so I was seized upon by one of the curators and given a very detailed and enthusiastic personal tour of the displays.
She was delighted that I had actually read parts of Simplicissimus and had some idea what she was talking about.
A similar thing had happened to me a few months before at the Grétry Museum in Liège, Belgium, where I was the only visitor on a rainy Saturday morning.
My guide at the Simplicissimus House in Renchen turned out to be the widow of one of the artists whose illustrations were on display. She was a native of Renchen and assumed she was somehow descended from Grimmelshausen, who had ten children with his wife Catharina during the years they were living in Renchen.
For those who don’t get a personal tour of the displays, there are also free audio guides in German, English and French.
Admission to the Simplicissimus House costs all of 3.00 € for adults but is free for students, children and young people (as of 2017).
An interior wall of the house has been left open to show how the house was constructed in the early eighteenth century.
This illustrated edition of Simplicissimus, from the year 1970, is the one we have at home.
The Simplicissimus House in Renchen also has a copy of this edition on display, but their copy is in better condition than ours, without the coffee stains.
This sculpture on the main street of Renchen shows Grimmelshausen being advised by a friendly imaginary creature, half man, half bird and half fish (that makes three halves, but never mind), about what he should include in his books.
The sculpture is based on this historic illustration from an early edition of Simplicissimus from the year MDCLXIX, meaning 1669.
Next to the church on the main street of Renchen there is a monument to Grimmelshausen (without a statue) that was erected there in 1879.
The text on the front side of the monument reads: “Hans Jakob Christoph von Grimmelshausen, the great German poet of the seventeenth century, magistrate in Renchen, died in Renchen on August 17, 1676, erected on his burial site in his memory on August 17, 1879.”
On the back side of the monument are the titles of his four main books: Simplicissimus, Courasche, Springinsfeld and Wunderbares Vogelnest.
This crucifix on the way to the station testifies to the fact that Renchen is a traditionally Roman Catholic town.
Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen was originally a Lutheran, as were most people from his home town of Gelnhausen, but he had no qualms about converting to Catholicism so he could marry Catharina Henninger in 1649.
The inscription at the base of the crucifix reads: “1771. Christ our salvation. Erected by Bernd Schwer. Renovated by his grandchildren 1882.”
My photos in this post are from 2011. I revised the text in 2017.
See also: Grimmelshausen’s birthplace in Gelnhausen, Germany