Charles de Coster.

The Legend of Ulenspiegel. Volume 1 of 2

When little Nele, her daughter, was weaned, she took her home and only let the child go to Soetkins when she had called her her mother.

The neighbours said it was well done of Katheline, who was well to do, to feed the child of the Claes, who for the most part lived in poverty their toilsome life.


Ulenspiegel found himself alone one morning at home, and for want of something better to do, he began to cut up one of his fathers shoes to make a little ship. Already he had planted the mainmast in the sole and bored the toe for the bowsprit, when at the half door he saw passing the bust of a horseman and the head of a horse.

Is any one within? asked the horseman.

There are, replied Ulenspiegel, a man and a half and a horses head.

How so? asked the horseman.

Because I see here a whole man, which is me; the half of a man, which is your bust; and a horses head, which is that of your steed.

Where are your father and your mother? asked the man.

My father has gone to make bad worse, replied Ulenspiegel, and my mother is engaged in bringing us shame or loss.

Explain, said the horseman.

Ulenspiegel answered:

My father at this moment is deepening the holes in his field so as to bring from bad to worse the huntsmen who trample down his corn. My mother has gone to borrow money: if she repays too little twill shame us, if too much twill be our loss.

The man asked then which way he should go.

Where the geese are, replied Ulenspiegel.

The man went away and came back just when Ulenspiegel was making an oared galley out of Claess other shoe.

You have misled me, said he: where the geese are is nothing but mud and marsh in which they are paddling.

Ulenspiegel answered to this:

I did not tell you to go where the geese paddle, but where they go.

Show me, at any rate, said the man, a road that goes to Heyst.

In Flanders, it is the travellers that go and not the roads, said Ulenspiegel.


One day Soetkin said to Claes:

Husband, my heart is sad: it is now three days since Thyl left the house; dost thou not know where he is?

Claes replied ruefully:

He is where homeless dogs are, on some highway with a crew of other vagabonds of his own kidney. God was cruel to give us such a son. When he was born, I beheld in him the joy of our age, a tool more in the house; I looked to make a craftsman of him, and wicked fate makes him a thief and a drone.

Be not so hard, husband, said Soetkin, our son being but nine years old is in the heyday of childish thoughtlessness and folly. Is it not so that like the trees, he must shed the young buds before the coming of the full leaves, which for the human tree are honour and virtue? He is full of tricks, I am not blind to them, but they will turn later to his advantage, if instead of employing them to ill ends, he applies them to some useful trade.

He is prone to flout his neighbours; but later this will help him to hold his own in merry company. He laughs ever and always; but faces sour before they are ripe are an ill omen for the countenance to come. If he runs, tis that he must grow; if he does not work, it is for that he is not yet of an age to feel that work is duty, and if now and then he spends day and night away from home for half a week together, tis that he knows nothing of what grief he gives us, for he has a good heart, and he loves us.

Claes wagged his head and made no answer, and while he slept, Soetkin wept alone. And in the morning, thinking that her son was sick in a corner of some highway, she went out on the doorstep to see if he was not coming back; but she saw nothing, and she sate near the window, looking thence into the street. And many a time her heart danced in her bosom at the sound of the light foot of some lad; but when he passed, she saw it was not Ulenspiegel, and then she wept, poor dolorous mother.

In the meanwhile, Ulenspiegel with his vagabond companions was at Bruges, at the Saturday fair.

There might be seen cobblers and shoemakers in booths apart, tailors selling clothes, miesevangers from Antwerp, who catch tits with an owl at night; poultry sellers, dog stealers, vendors of catskins for gloves, waistcoats, and doublets, buyers of every kind and condition, burgesses and their womenfolk, menservants and maidservants, pantlers, butlers, and all together, sellers and buyers, crying up and crying down, vaunting and disparaging the wares.

In one corner of the fair there was a fine canvas tent erected on four poles. At the door of the tent, a churl from the flat country of Alost, with two monks who were there to get something for themselves, was showing the curious devout, for a patard, a piece of the shoulder blade of Saint Mary of Egypt. Hoarsely he bawled out the saints merits, and omitted not from his song how, having no silver, she paid a young ferryman in kind, so as not to sin against the Holy Ghost by refusing the labourer his hire.

And the two monks nodded their heads to show that what the churl said was true. By them was a woman fat and ruddy, lascivious as Astarte, violently inflating a wretched bagpipe, while a pretty young girl sang beside her like a nightingale; but no one listened to her. Above the entrance to the tent was hung on two poles, held by cords in the two handles, a bucket full of holy water that had been blessed in Rome, according to the fat woman, while the two monks waggled head to bear witness to her tale. Ulenspiegel, beholding the bucket, became pensive.

To one of the poles supporting the tent was fastened a donkey that was fed more upon hay than on oats: head down it was gazing at the earth, with no hope of seeing thistles spring up from it.

Comrades, said Ulenspiegel, pointing with his finger at the fat woman, the two monks, and the ass, since the masters sing so sweetly, we must make the donkey dance as well.

So saying, he went off to the next booth, bought six liards worth of pepper, pulled up the donkeys tail and clapped the pepper underneath.

The donkey, feeling the pepper at work, looked round under his tail to see whence proceeded this unwonted heat. Thinking he had a red-hot devil there, he would fain run away to escape him, began to bray and rear, and shook the tent pole with all his might. At the first shock, the tub between the two poles spilled all its holy water on the tent and on those who were within it. And presently collapsing, the tent covered with a moist mantle those who were hearkening to the history of Mary of Egypt. And from under the canvas Ulenspiegel and his companions heard a great noise of moaning and lamenting, for the devout who were there were wild with anger and exchanged furious thwacks and thumps with one another. The canvas rose and fell at the struggles of the combatants. Every time Ulenspiegel saw a roundness shape itself under the cloth, he stuck a needle into it. Then there were louder shrieks beneath the canvas and a more liberal distribution of thwackings.

And he was transported, but more still seeing the donkey fleeing and dragging behind him tent, tub, and poles, while the baes of the tent, his wife and his daughter, hung desperately on to the baggage. The donkey, which could run no longer, lifted his head into the air and ceased not to sing, except in order to look beneath his tail to see if the fire there burning would not soon be extinguished.

All this while the devout were going on with their battle; the monks, without giving them a thought, were picking up the money that had fallen from the collecting dishes, and Ulenspiegel was helping them, most devoutly, not without profiting.


Whilst the vagabond son of the coalman was growing up gay and frolicsome, in lean melancholy vegetated the dolorous scion of the sublime Emperor. Lords and ladies saw the pitiful little weakling dragging through the rooms and corridors of Valladolid his frail body and his tottering limbs that could scarce sustain the weight of his big head, covered with fair stiff hair.

Ever seeking out the darkest corridors, there he would sit for hours thrusting out his legs in front of him. If a servant trod on him by accident, he had the man flogged, and took pleasure in hearing him cry out under the lashes, but he never laughed.

The next day, going elsewhere to set the same trap, he would sit again in some corridor with his legs thrust out. The ladies, lords, and pages who might pass there going fast or slow would trip over him, fall down and hurt themselves. He took pleasure in this, also, but he never laughed.

When one of them, having run into him, failed to fall, he would cry out as if he had been struck, and he was delighted to see their fear, but he never laughed.

His Sacred Majesty was informed of his behaviour and gave orders to take no notice of the boy, saying that if he did not wish to have his legs trodden on, he ought not to put them in the way of peoples feet.

This angered Philip, but he said nothing, and no one saw him after, except when on bright summer days he went to warm his shivering body in the sunshine in the courtyard.

One day, coming back from the wars, Charles saw him steeped in melancholy in this fashion.

Son, said he, how different art thou from me! At thy age, I loved to climb among trees to hunt the squirrels; I had myself lowered by a rope down some steep cliff to take eaglets from the nest. At this play I might have left my bones behind me; they but became the harder for it. In the chase the wild things fled to their dens when they saw me coming with my good arquebus.

Ah, sighed the boy, I have a pain in the belly, monseigneur my father.

The wine of Paxaretos, said Charles, is a sovereign cure.

I do not like wine; my head aches, monseigneur my father.

Son, said Charles, thou must run and leap and romp as do other boys of thine own years.

My legs are stiff, monseigneur my father.

How, said Charles, how can they be otherwise if thou usest them no more than if they were legs of wood? I will have thee fastened on some nimble steed.

The boy wept.

Do not so, said he, I have a pain in my loins, monseigneur my father.

But, said Charles, you have a pain everywhere then?

I would not be ill at all if I were left in peace, replied the child.

Dost thou think, rejoined the Emperor, impatiently, to pass thy royal life in brooding as do clerks? For them, if it must be, in order that they may soil their parchments with ink, from the silence, solitude, and retirement; for thee, son of the sword, there needs hot blood, the eye of a lynx, the cunning of the fox, the strength of Hercules. Why dost thou make the holy sign? Gods blood! tis not for the lions cub to ape paternoster-mongering females.

Hark, the Angelus, monseigneur my father, replied the child.


This year May and June were verily the months of flowers. Never did any see in Flanders hawthorn so fragrant, never in the gardens so many roses, such heaps of jasmine and honeysuckle. When the wind that blew up out of England drove the incense of this flowery land towards the east, every man, and specially in Antwerp, nose in air with delight, would say:

Do you smell the sweet wind that comes from Flanders?

In like wise the busy bees sucked the flowers honey, made wax, laid their eggs in hives too small to harbour their swarms. What music of labour under the blue sky that covered the rich earth with its dazzling tent!

Men made hives out of rushes, of straw, of osiers, of plaited hay. Basketmakers, tubmakers, coopers were wearing out their tools over the work. As for the wood carvers, for a long time they had been unequal to the task.

The swarms were of full thirty thousand bees and two thousand seven hundred drones. The honeycombs were so delicious that because of their rare quality, the dean of Damme sent eleven to the Emperor Charles, by way of thanks for having through his edicts restored the Holy Inquisition to all its full vigour. It was Philip that ate them, but they did him no good.

Tramps, beggars, vagabonds, and all that ragtag and bobtail of idle rogues that parade their laziness about the roads, preferring to be hanged rather than to work, enticed by the taste of the honey, came to get their share of it. And they prowled about by night, in crowds.

Claes had made hives to attract the swarming bees to them; some were full and others empty, awaiting the bees. Claes used to watch all night to guard this sugared wealth. When he was tired, he used to bid Ulenspiegel take his place. And the boy did so with a good will.

Now one night Ulenspiegel, to avoid the cold air, had taken shelter in a hive, and, all huddled up, was looking through the openings, of which there were two, in the top of the hive.

As he was on the point of falling asleep, he heard the little trees and bushes of the hedge crackling and heard the voices of two men whom he took to be robbers. He looked out through one of the openings in the hive, and saw that they both had long hair and a long beard, though the beard was the mark and sign of noble rank.

They went from hive to hive, and came to his own, and picking it up, they said:

Let us take this one: it is the heaviest.

Then they carried it off, using their sticks to do it. Ulenspiegel took no pleasure in being thus carted in a hive. The night was clear and bright, and the thieves walked along without uttering a word. Every fifty paces they stopped, clean out of breath, to go on their way again presently. The one in front grumbled furiously at having so heavy a weight to bear, and the one behind whimpered melancholy-wise. For in this world there are two kinds of idle cowards, those who grow angry with work, and those that whine when there is work to be done.

Ulenspiegel, having nothing else to do, pulled the hair of the robber who went in front, and the beard of the one behind, so that growing tired of this game, the angry one said to the snivelling one:

Stop pulling my hair, or I will give you such a wallop on the head with my fist that it will sink down into your chest and you will look through your ribs like a thief through the bars of his prison.

I wouldnt dare, my friend, said the sniveller, but it is you that are pulling me by the beard.

The angry one answered:

I dont go hunting vermin in beggar fellows fur.

Sir, replied the sniveller, do not make the hive jump about so much; my poor arms are nearly breaking in two.

Ill have them off altogether, answered the angry fellow.

Then, putting off his leathern gear he set the hive down on the ground, and leaped upon his comrade. And they fought with each other, the one cursing and swearing, the other crying for mercy.

Ulenspiegel, hearing the blows pattering down, came out of the hive, dragged it with him as far as the nearest wood so as to find it there again, and went back to Claess house.

And thus it is that in quarrellings sly folk find their advantage.


When he was fifteen, Ulenspiegel erected a little tent at Damme upon four stakes, and he cried out that everyone might see within, represented in a handsome frame of hay, his present and future self.

When there came a man of law, haughty and puffed up with his own importance, Ulenspiegel would thrust his head out of the frame, and mimicking the face of an old ape, he would say:

An old mug may decay, but never flourish; am I not your very mirror, good sir of the doctoral phiz?

If he had a stout soldier for client, Ulenspiegel would hide and show in the middle of the frame, instead of his face, a dishful of meat and bread, and say:

Battle will make hash of you; what will you give me for my prophecy, O soldier beloved of the big-mouthed sakers?

When an old man, wearing ingloriously his hoary head, would bring Ulenspiegel his wife, a young woman, the boy, hiding himself as he had done for the soldier, and showing in the frame a little tree, on whose branches were hung knife handles, caskets, combs, inkhorns, all made of horn, would call out:

Whence come all these fine nicknacks, Messire? Is it not from the hornbeam that groweth within the garden of old husbands? Who shall say now that cuckolds are folk useless in a commonweal?

And Ulenspiegel would display his young face in the frame alongside the tree.

The old man, hearing him, would cough with masculine anger, but his dear wife would soothe him with her hand, and smiling, come up to Ulenspiegel.

And my mirror, she would say, wilt thou show it to me?

Come closer, Ulenspiegel would answer.

She would obey, and he then, kissing her wherever he could:

Thy mirror, he would say, is stark youth with proud codpiece.

And the darling would go away also, but not without giving him florins one or two.

To the fat, blear-eyed monk who would ask to see his present and future self, Ulenspiegel would answer:

Thou art a ham cupboard, and so thou shalt be a still room for cervoise ale; for salt calleth upon drinking, is not this true, great belly? Give me a patard for not having lied.

My son, the monk would reply, we never carry money.

Tis then the money carries thee, would Ulenspiegel answer, for I know thou dost put it between two soles under thy feet. Give me thy sandal.

But the monk:

My son, tis the property of the Convent; I will none the less take from it, if I must, two patards for thy trouble.

The monk gave them. Ulenspiegel received them graciously.

Thus showed he their mirror to the folk of Damme, of Bruges, of Blankenberghe, nay, even as far away as Ostend.

And instead of saying to them in his Flemish speech: Ik ben u lieden Spiegel, I am your mirror, he said to them, shortening it, Ik ben ulen spiegel, even as it is still said to-day in East and West Flanders.

And from thence there came to him his surname of Ulenspiegel.


As he grew up, he conceived a liking for wandering about through fairs and markets. If he saw there any one playing on the hautbois, the rebeck, or the bagpipes, he would, for a patard, have them teach him the way to make music on these instruments.

He became above all skilled in playing on the rommel-pot, an instrument made of a pot, a bladder, and a stout straw. This is how he arranged them: he damped the bladder and strained it over the pot, fastened with a string the middle of the bladder round the knot on the straw, which was touching the bottom of the pot, on the rim of which he then fixed the bladder stretched to bursting point. In the morning, the bladder, being dried, gave the sound of a tambourine when it was struck, and if the straw of the instrument was rubbed it hummed better than a viol. And Ulenspiegel, with his pot booming and sounding like a mastiffs barking, went singing carols at house doors in company with youngsters, one of whom carried the shining star made out of paper on Twelfth Night.

If any master painter came to Damme to pourtray, on their knees on canvas, the companions of some Guild, Ulenspiegel, desiring to see how he wrought, would ask to be allowed to grind his colours, and for all salary would accept only a slice of bread, three liards, and a pint of ale.

Applying himself to the grinding, he would study his masters manner. When the master was away, he would try to paint like him, but put vermilion everywhere. He tried to paint Claes, Soetkin, Katheline, and Nele, as well as quart pots and sauce-pans. Claes prophesied to him, seeing his works, that if he would be bold and persevering, he might one day earn florins by the score, painting inscriptions on the speel-wagen, which are pleasure carts in Flanders and in Zealand.

He learned, too, from a master mason how to carve wood and stone, when the man came to make, in the choir of Notre Dame, a stall so constructed that when it was necessary the aged dean could sit down on it while still seeming to remain standing.

It was Ulenspiegel who carved the first handle for the knife used by the Zealand folk. This handle he made in the shape of a cage. Within there was a loose deaths head; above it a dog in a lying posture. These emblems taken together signify Blade faithful to the death.

And in this wise Ulenspiegel began to fulfil the prediction of Katheline, showing himself painter, sculptor, clown, noble, all at once and together, for from father to son the Claes bore for arms three quart pots argent on a field of bruinbier.

But Ulenspiegel was constant to no trade, and Claes told him if this game went on, he would turn him away from the cottage.

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