Charles de Coster.

The Legend of Ulenspiegel. Volume 1 of 2

He had the Abbey of Saint Bavon pulled down in order to rear on its site a fortress from which he could pierce his mothers bosom with cannon shot.

Like a good son eager to come into his inheritance, he confiscated all that belonged to Ghent, revenues, houses, artillery, munitions of war.

Finding her over well defended, he knocked down the Red Tower, the Toads Hole Tower, the Braampoort, the Steenpoort, the Waalpoort, the Ketelpoort, and many others wrought and carven like jewels in stone.

When strangers thereafter came to Ghent, they said to one another:

What is this flat, desolate town whose wonders and praises were sung so loudly?

And the folk of Ghent would make answer:

The Emperor Charles hath taken her precious girdle from the good town.

And so saying they were shamed and wroth. And from the ruins of the gates the Emperor had the bricks for his fortress.

He would have Ghent poor, for thus neither by toil nor industry nor gold could she oppose his haughty plans; therefore he condemned her to pay the refused quota of the subsidy, four hundred thousand gold carolus, and besides this, one hundred and fifty thousand carolus down and six thousand every year in perpetuity. She had lent him money: he was to pay one hundred and fifty pounds interest yearly. He took possession by force of the deeds recording his debt and paying it in this way, he actually enriched himself.

Many a time had Ghent given him love and succour, but he now smote her bosom with a dagger, seeking blood from it because he found not enough milk there.

Then he looked upon Roelandt, the great bell, and hanged from the clapper the fellow who had sounded the alarm to call the city to defend her right. He had no mercy for Roelandt, his mothers tongue, the tongue with which she spoke to Flanders: Roelandt, the proud bell, which saith of himself:

Als men my slaet dan ist brandt.
Als men my luyt dan ist storm in Vlaenderlandt.

When they ring me there is fire.
When they toll me there is storm in Flanders.

Finding that his mother spoke too loud and free, he took away the bell. And the folk of the flat country say that Ghent died because her son had torn out her tongue with his iron pincers.


One of these days, which were bright fresh days of the springtime, when all the earth is full of love, Soetkin was talking by the open window, Claes humming some refrain, while Ulenspiegel had put a judges cap on the head of Titus Bibulus Schnouffius. The dog was working with his paws as though endeavouring to utter a judgment, but it was merely to get rid of his headgear.

Suddenly Ulenspiegel shut the window, ran into the middle of the room, jumped on chairs and tables, his hands stretched up to the ceiling. Soetkin and Claes saw that all this energy was to catch a pretty little bird that was crying out with fear, its wings fluttering, cowering against a beam in a corner of the ceiling.

Ulenspiegel was on the point of seizing it, when Claes said quickly:

What are you jumping for like that?

To catch it, answered Ulenspiegel, and put it in a cage, and give it seed and make it sing for me.

Meanwhile the bird, crying shrilly with terror, was flying about the room and dashing its head against the windowpanes.

Ulenspiegel did not cease jumping after it: Claes laid his hand weightily on the lads shoulder:

Catch it, he said, put it in a cage, make it sing for you, do, but I, too, will put you in a cage, shut in with stout iron bars, and I will make you sing as well.

You like to run, you will not be able to run; you will be in the shade when you are cold, in the sun when you are hot. Then one Sunday we shall go out, forgetting to give you any food, and we shall only come back on the Thursday, and returning we shall find Thyl dead of hunger and stark and stiff.

Soetkin wept, Ulenspiegel sprang forward.

What are you going to do? asked Claes.

I am opening the window for the bird, he answered.

And indeed, the bird, which was a goldfinch, went out of the window, uttered a cry of joy, shot up like an arrow in the air, then setting itself in an apple tree close by, it sleeked its wings with its beak, shook out its plumage, and becoming angry, hurled a thousand insults at Ulenspiegel in its bird speech.

Then Claes said to him:

Son, never take liberty from man nor beast for liberty is the greatest boon in this world. Leave everyman to go in the sun when he is cold, in the shade when he is hot. And may God judge His Sacred Majesty who, having fettered freedom of belief in the land of Flanders, has now put Ghent, the noble town, in a cage of slavery.


Philip had married Marie of Portugal, whose possessions he added to the Spanish crown; he had by her a son, Don Carlos, the cruel madman. But he did not love his wife!

The Queen was ill after the birth. She kept her bed and had with her her ladies in waiting, among whom was the Duchess of Alba.

Philip often left her alone to go and see the burning of heretics, and all the lords and ladies of the court the same. Likewise also the Duchess of Alba, the Queens noble nurse.

At this time the Official seized a Flemish sculptor, a Roman Catholic, because when a monk had refused to pay the price agreed for a wooden statue of Our Lady, he had struck the face of the statue with his chisel, saying he would rather destroy his work than sell it for a mean price.

He was denounced by the monk as an iconoclast, tortured mercilessly, and condemned to be burned alive.

In the torture they had burned the soles of his feet, and as he walked from prison to the stake, wearing the san-benito, he kept crying out, Cut off my feet, cut off my feet!

And Philip heard these cries from afar off, and he was pleased, but he did not laugh.

Queen Maries ladies left her to go to the burning, and after them went the Duchess of Alba, who, hearing the Flemish sculptors cries, wished to see the spectacle, and left the Queen alone.

Philip, his noble servitors, princes, counts, esquires, and ladies being present, the sculptor was fastened by a long chain to a stake planted in the middle of a burning circle made of trusses of straw and of faggots that would roast him to death slowly, if he wished to avoid the quick fire by hugging the stake.

And all looked curiously on him as he sought, naked or all but naked as he was, to stiffen his will and courage against the heat of the fire.

At the same time Queen Marie was athirst on her bed of childbirth. She saw half a melon on a dish. Dragging herself out of bed, she seized this melon and left nothing of it.

Then by reason of the cold flesh of the melon, she fell into sweating and trembling, lay on the floor, and could not move hand or foot.

Ah, she said, I might grow warm if someone could carry me to my bed.

She heard then the poor sculptor crying:

Cut off my feet!

Ah! said Queen Marie, is that a dog howling for my death?

At this moment the sculptor, seeing about him none but the faces of enemies and Spaniards, thought upon Flanders, the land of men, folded his arms, and dragging his long chain behind him he went straight to the straw and burning faggots and standing upright upon them with arms still folded:

Lo, said he, how the Flemish can die before Spanish butchers. Cut off their feet, not mine, but theirs, that they may run no more after murder! Long live Flanders! Flanders for ever and evermore!

And the ladies applauded, crying for mercy as they saw his proud face.

And he died.

Queen Marie shivered from head to foot, she wept, her teeth chattered with the cold of approaching death, and she said, stiffening her arms and legs:

Put me in my bed, that I may be warmed.

And she died.

Thus, even according to the prediction of Katheline, the good witch, did Philip everywhere sow death, blood, and tears.


But Ulenspiegel and Nele loved with surpassing love.

It was then in the end of April, with all the trees in flower; all the plants, bursting with sap, were awaiting May, which cometh on the earth with a peacock for companion, blossoming like a nosegay, and maketh the nightingales to sing among the trees.

Often Ulenspiegel and Nele would wander down the roads alone together. Nele hung upon Ulenspiegels arm, and held to it with both hands. Ulenspiegel, taking pleasure in this play, often passed his arm about Neles waist, to hold her the better, he would tell her. And she was happy, though she did not speak a word.

The wind rolled softly along the roads the perfumed breath of the meadows; far away the sea murmured to the sun, idle and at ease; Ulenspiegel was like a young devil, full of spunk and fire, and Nele like a little saint from Paradise, all shamefast at her delight.

She leaned her head on Ulenspiegels shoulder, he took her hands, and as they went, he kissed her forehead, her cheeks, her darling mouth. But she did not speak.

After some hours, they were hot and thirsty, then they drank milk at a peasants cottage, but they were not refreshed.

And they sat down on the green turf beside a ditch. Nele was pale and white, and pensive; Ulenspiegel looked at her, alarmed.

You are sad? she said.

Ay, said he.

Why? she asked.

I know not, he said, but these apple trees and cherries all in blossom, this warm soft air, as it were, charged with thunder fire, these daisies opening and blushing upon the fields, the hawthorn there beside us in the hedgerows, all white Who shall tell me why I feel troubled and always ready to die or to sleep? And my heart beats so hard when I hear the birds awaking in the trees and see the swallows come back, then I long to go beyond the sun and the moon. And now I am cold, and now hot. Ah! Nele! I would fain no more be in this low world, or give a thousand lives to the one who would love me

But she did not speak, and smiling happily, looked at Ulenspiegel.


On the day of the Feast of the Dead, Ulenspiegel came away from Notre Dame with some vagabonds of his own age. Lamme Goedzak was lost among them, like a sheep in the midst of wolves.

Lamme freely paid for drink for everyone, for his mother gave him three patards every Sunday and feast day.

He went then with his comrades In den rooden schildt, to the Red Shield, whose landlord Jan Van Liebeke served them with the dobbele knollaert of Courtrai.

The drink heated their wits, and talking of prayers Ulenspiegel declared plumply that masses for the dead are good only for the priests.

But there was a Judas in the band: he denounced Ulenspiegel as a heretic. In spite of Soetkins tears and Claess entreaties, Ulenspiegel was taken and cast into prison. There he remained in a cellar behind bars for a month and three days without seeing any one. The gaoler ate three quarters of his pittance. In the meanwhile, inquiries were made into his good and bad reputation. It was found merely that he was a sharp jester, flouting his neighbours continually, but never having missaid Monseigneur God, or Madame Virgin or messieurs the saints. And so the sentence was a light one, for he might have been branded in the face with a red-hot iron, and whipped till the blood came.

In consideration of his youth, the judges condemned him merely to walk in his shirt behind the priests, bareheaded and barefooted, and a candle in his hand, in the first procession that should go out from the church.

That was on Ascension Day.

When the procession was returning, he must stand still under the porch of Notre Dame and there cry aloud:

Thanks to my Lord Jesu! Thanks to messieurs the priests! Their prayers are sweet to souls in purgatory, yea, refreshing; for every Ave is a bucket of water falling on their back, every Pater a cistern.

And the people hearkened most devoutly, not without laughing.

At the Feast of Pentecost, he must again follow the procession; he was in his shirt, barefoot and bareheaded, candle in hand. Coming back, standing beneath the porch, and holding his candle very reverently, not without pulling a waggish face or two, he called in a loud clear voice:

If the prayers of Christian men are a great ease and solace to souls in purgatory, those of the dean of Notre Dame, that holy man perfect in the practice of all the virtues, assuage so well the torments of the fire that it is transformed to ices all at once. But the devil-tormentors have not so much as one crumb.

And the people once more hearkened devoutly, not without laughter, and the dean, well pleased, smiled ecclesiastically.

Then Ulenspiegel was banished from the land of Flanders for three years, under condition of making pilgrimage to Rome and returning thence with absolution from the Pope.

Claes must pay three florins for this sentence; but he gave still another to his son and furnished him with the habiliments of a pilgrim.

Ulenspiegel was brokenhearted on the day of departing, when he embraced Claes and Soetkin, who was all in tears, the unhappy mother. They convoyed him a long long way on his road, in company of several townsfolk, both men and women.

Claes, when they came back to their cottage, said to his wife:

Goodwife, it is exceeding harsh, for a few mad words, to condemn so young a lad to so heavy a penalty in this fashion.

Thou art weeping, my husband, said Soetkin. Thou dost love him more than thou showest, for thou art breaking into mans sobs, which be lions tears.

But he made no answer.

Nele had gone to hide in the barn that none might see that she also wept for Ulenspiegel. A long way off she followed Soetkin and Claes and the townsfolk; when she saw her friend disappearing alone, she ran to him and leaping on his neck:

You will be finding many beautiful dames over there, said she.

Beautiful, replied Ulenspiegel, I cannot tell; but fresh as you, no, for the sun has roasted them all.

Long they went their way together: Ulenspiegel was pensive and now and then would say:

Ill make them pay their masses for the dead.

What masses, and who will pay? asked Nele.

Ulenspiegel replied:

All the deans, curates, clerks, beadles, and other bigwigs high or low that feed us on windy trash. If I were a stout workman, they would have robbed me of the fruit of three years toil by making me go pilgrimaging. But it is poor Claes who pays. They shall repay me my three years an hundredfold, and I will chant them as well the mass for their dead money.

Alas, Thyl, be prudent: they will burn you alive, replied Nele.

I am pure asbestos, answered Ulenspiegel.

And they parted, she all in tears, he brokenhearted, and in anger.


Passing through Bruges on the Wednesday market, there he saw a woman led along by the executioner and his knaves, and a great crowd of other women around her crying and howling a thousand vile insults.

Ulenspiegel, seeing the upper part of her dress equipped with pieces of red cloth, and seeing the stone of justice with its iron chains, at her neck, perceived that this was a woman who had sold for gain the fresh young bodies of her daughters. They told him her name was Barbe, she was the wife of Jason Darue, and would be brought in this costume from place to place until she came back to the great marketplace, where she would be set up on a scaffold already erected for her. Ulenspiegel followed her with the crowd of shouting people. Once back in the great marketplace she was set on the scaffold, bound to a stake, and the executioner laid before her a bundle of grass and a clod, signifying the pit of the grave.

They told Ulenspiegel, too, that she had been whipped already in prison.

As he was going away, he met Henri le Marischal, a swashbuckling rogue who had been hanged in the castle-ward of West Ypres and still showed the track of the cord around his neck. He had been delivered, he said, while already hoisted into the air, by saying one only good prayer to Notre Dame of Hal, in such wise that, by a true miracle, the bailiffs and the judges having gone, the cords, already loosened, broke, he fell to earth, and was in this manner saved and sound.

But later Ulenspiegel learned that this rascal delivered from the rope was a counterfeit Henri Marischal, and that he was left to run about retailing his lie because he was bearer of a parchment signed by the dean of Notre Dame de Hal, who by reason of the tale of this Henri le Marischal saw flocking to his church and lavishly feeing him all those who smelled the gallows from near by or far off. And for a long time Our Lady of Hal was surnamed Our Lady of the Hanged.


At this time the inquisitors and theologians for the second time made representation to the Emperor Charles:

That the Church was going to ruin; that its authority was contemned; that if he had won so many glorious victories, he owed it to the prayers of Catholicism, which upheld the imperial power on its high throne.

A Spanish Archbishop asked him to have six thousand heads cut off or the same number of bodies burned, in order to root the malignant Lutheran heresy out of the Low Countries. His Sacred Majesty deemed this insufficient.

And so, everywhere the terrified Ulenspiegel went he saw nothing but heads on stakes, girls thrust into sacks and cast alive into the river; men stretched naked on the wheel and beaten with great blows of iron bars, women laid in shallow graves, with earth over them, and the executioner dancing on their breast to break it in. But the confessors of all, men and women, that had first repented, were richer by twelve sols a time.

He saw at Louvain the executioners burn thirty Lutherans at once, and light the pile with gunpowder. At Limburg he saw a family, men and women, daughters and sons-in-law, walk to the scaffold singing psalms. The man, who was old, cried out while he was a-burning.

And Ulenspiegel, full of fear and grief, journeyed on over the poor earth.


In the fields, he shook himself like a bird or like a dog loosed from the lead, and his heart took comfort before the trees, the meadows, the clear sun.

Having walked for three days, he came to the neighbourhood of Brussels, in the powerful commune of Uccle. Passing before the hostelry of the Trumpet, he was enticed by a celestial fragrance of fricassees. He asked a little tramp who, nose in air, was regaling himself with the odour of the sauces, in whose honour this festival incense arose to heaven. The other replied that the Brothers of the Good Red Nose were to assemble after vespers to celebrate the deliverance of the commune by the women and girls in olden time.

Ulenspiegel, spying from far off a pole surmounted by a popinjay, and all around goodwives armed with bows, asked if women were becoming archers nowadays.

The tramp, sniffing up the odour of the sauces, replied that in the days of the Good Duke those same bows, in the hands of the women of Uccle, had laid low more than a hundred brigands.

Ulenspiegel, desiring to know more of this, the tramp told him that he would not say another word so hungry and so thirsty was he, unless he gave him a patard for food and drink. Ulenspiegel gave it him out of pity.

As soon as the tramp had his patard, he went into the Trumpet Inn, like a fox into a henroost, and came out in triumph with half a sausage and a great hunch of bread.

All at once Ulenspiegel heard a soft noise of tambourines and viols, and beheld a great troop of women dancing, and among them a comely matron with a gold chain about her neck.

The tramp, who laughed for joy at having had something to eat, told Ulenspiegel that this handsome young woman was the Queen of the Archery, was called Mietje, the wife of Messire Renonckel, the sheriff of the commune. Then he asked Ulenspiegel for six liards for drink: Ulenspiegel gave them to him. Thus having eaten and drunken, the tramp sat down in the sun and picked his teeth and trimmed his nails.

When the women archers caught sight of Ulenspiegel in his pilgrims array, they set to work dancing about him in a ring, saying:

Good morrow, handsome pilgrim; do you come from far away, youngling pilgrim?

Ulenspiegel replied:

I come from Flanders, a fine country rich in loving girls.

And he thought sadly of Nele.

What was your crime? they asked him, desisting from their dancing.

I would not dare to confess it, said he, so great a one it was. But I have other things that are not small.

They smiled at that and asked why he must travel in this wise with staff and scrip and oyster shell.

Because, said he, lying a little, I said that masses for the dead are of advantage to the priests.

They bring them in good coin, replied they, but they are of advantage to souls in purgatory.

I wasnt there, rejoined Ulenspiegel.

Will you eat with us, pilgrim? said the prettiest of the archers.

I will gladly eat with you, said he, and eat you, and all the others turn about, for you are titbits for a king, more delicious than ortolans or thrushes or woodcocks.

God give you food, said they, this is game beyond price.

Like all of you, dear ones, he answered.

Aye, verily, said they, but we are not for sale.

And for the giving? he asked.

Ay, said they, of blows to the overbold. And if you need it, we will thrash you like a sheaf of corn.

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