Charles de Coster.

The Legend of Ulenspiegel. Volume 1 of 2


Ulenspiegel being now at Bois-le-Duc in Brabant, the magnates of the town would fain have appointed him their fool, but he would none of this dignity. Pilgrim on pilgrimage cannot play fool as a permanency, but only at inns and on the highways.

At this same time Philip, who was King of England, came to visit the countries of his future inheritance, Flanders, Brabant, Hainault, Holland, and Zealand. He was then in his twenty-ninth year; in his grayish eyes dwelt sour melancholy, savage dissimulation, and cruel resolution. Cold was his countenance, and stiff his head covered with tawny hair; stiff, too, his meagre torso and spindle limbs. Slow was his speech and thick as though he had wool in his mouth.

Amid tourneys, jousts, and feastings, he visited the joyous duchy of Brabant, the rich county Flanders, and his other seignories. Everywhere he swore to observe and confirm the privileges; but when at Brussels he took oath upon the Testament to observe the Golden Bull of Brabant his hand clenched so tight that he must needs take it away from the sacred book.

He went to Antwerp, where they put up twenty-three triumphal arches to receive him. The city disbursed two hundred and eighty-seven thousand florins to pay for these arches and for the costumes of eighteen hundred and seventy-nine merchants all clad in crimson velvet and for the rich livery of four hundred and sixteen lackeys and the brilliant silk trappings of four thousand burgesses, all clad alike. Many feasts were given by the rhetoricians of all the cities in the Low Countries, or nearly all.

There were seen, with their fools male and female, the Prince of Love, of Tournai, mounted upon a sow that was called Astarte; the King of Fools, of Lille, who led a horse by the tail and walked behind; the Prince of Pleasure, of Valenciennes, who amused himself counting how many times his donkey broke wind; the Abbot of Mirth, of Arras, who drank Brussels wine from a flask shaped like a breviary, and that was gay reading; the Abbot of the Paux-Pourvus, of Ath, who was provided with linen full of holes and boots down at heel, but had a sausage with which he made good provision for his belly; the Provost of Madcaps, a young man mounted on a shy goat, and who trotting in the crowd got many a thwack because of her; the Abbot of the Silver Dish, from Quesnoy, who mounted on his horse pretended to be sitting in a dish, saying there is no beast so big that fire cannot cook him.

And they played all kinds of harmless foolery, but the King remained sad and severe.

That same evening, the Markgrave of Antwerp, the burgomasters, captains and deans, assembled together to find out some game or play that might win Philip the King to laughter.

Said the Markgrave:

Have ye not heard tell of a certain Pierkin Jacobsen, the town-fool of Bois-le-Duc, and far renowned for his merry tricks?

Yes, said the others.

Well! said the Markgrave, let us summon him to come hither, and bid him do us some nimblewitted turn, since our own fool has his boots stuffed with lead.

Let us summon him hither, said they.

When the messenger from Antwerp came to Bois-le-Duc, they told him that the fool Pierkin had snuffed out his candle with over-much laughing, but that there was in the town another fool, a bird of passage, called Ulenspiegel.

The messenger went to look for him in a tavern where he was eating a fricassee of mussels and making a petticoat for a girl with the shells.

Ulenspiegel was delighted when he knew that it was for him the courier of the commune had come all the way from Antwerp, mounted upon a fine horse of Vuern-Ambacht and leading another by the bridle.

Without setting foot to ground, the courier asked him if he knew where to find a new trick to make King Philip laugh.

I have a mine of them under my hair, answered Ulenspiegel.

They went away together. The two horses galloping loose-reined brought Ulenspiegel and the courier to Antwerp.

Ulenspiegel made his appearance before the Markgrave, the two burgomasters, and the officials of the commune.

What do you intend to do? asked the Markgrave.

Fly in the air, replied Ulenspiegel.

How will you set about this? asked the Markgrave.

Do you know, asked Ulenspiegel, what is worth less than a burst bladder?

I do not know, said the Markgrave.

A secret that has been let out, replied Ulenspiegel.

In the meanwhile, the heralds of the games, mounted upon their handsome steeds caparisoned with crimson velvet, rode through all the main streets, squares, and carfaxes of the city, sounding clarions and with beat of drum. In this fashion they announced to the signorkes and the signorkinnes that Ulenspiegel, the fool of Damme, would fly in the air at the quay, there being present upon a staging King Philip and his high illustrious and distinguished company.

Over against the staging there was a house built in the Italian fashion, with a gutter running along the whole length of the roof. A garret window opened upon the gutter.

Ulenspiegel on this day went through the city everywhere riding upon an ass. A footman ran alongside him. Ulenspiegel had donned the fine robe of crimson silk the magnates of the commune had given him. His headgear was a hood, crimson as well, on which were seen two asses ears with a bell on the tip of each. He wore a necklace of copper medallions embossed with the shield of Antwerp. On the sleeves of the robe there tinkled at each pointed elbow a gilt bell. He had shoes with gilt soles, and a bell at the tip of each.

His ass was caparisoned with crimson silk and on each thigh carried the shield of Antwerp broidered in fine gold.

The footman brandished a donkeys head in one hand and in the other a branch at the end of which chimed a cowbell from a forest-bred cow.

Ulenspiegel, leaving his ass and his footman in the street, climbed up into the gutter.

There, shaking his bells, he opened out his arms as if he was on the point of flying. Then leaning down towards King Philip, he said:

I thought there was no fool in Antwerp save only me, but I perceive the town is full of them. If you had told me you were going to fly, I should not have believed you; but let a fool come and tell you he will do it, and you believe him. How would you have me fly, since I have no wings?

Some laughed, others swore, but all said:

This fool says what is none the less quite true.

But King Philip remained stiff as a king of stone.

And the magnates of the commune said softly one to the other:

There was no need to make such great festival for such a sour-face.

And they gave three florins to Ulenspiegel, who departed, first perforce restoring to them the robe of crimson silk.

What are three florins in the pouch of a young man but a snowball before a fire, a full bottle in front of you, wide-throated drinkers? Three florins! The leaves fall from the trees and sprout again upon them, but florins leave pouches and return thither no more: the butterflies flitter away with the summer time, and the florins, too, although they weigh two estrelins and nine as.

So saying, Ulenspiegel contemplated his three florins closely.

What a haughty mien, murmured he, hath the Emperor Charles upon the obverse, cuirassed and helmeted, holding a sword in one hand and in the other the globe of this poor earthly world! He is by the grace of God Emperor of the Romans, King of Spain, and so forth, and he is most gracious towards these our countries, this emperor in the cuirass. And here on the reverse is a shield on which are graven and displayed the arms of a duke, count, etc., pertaining to his divers possessions, with this goodly device: Da mihi virtutem contra hostes tuos: Give me strength against thy enemies. He was valiant indeed against those of the reformed that have goods to confiscate, and he inheriteth them. Ah! were I the Emperor Charles, I would have florins minted for everybody, and each man being rich, no one should work more.

But Ulenspiegel looked in vain at the lovely money; it was gone towards the land of ruin to the clinking of quart pots and the chiming of bottles.


While he displayed himself on the gutter all clad in crimson silk, Ulenspiegel had not seen Nele who from the crowd was looking on him smiling. She was living at this time at Borgerhout near Antwerp, and thought that if some fool was to fly before King Philip, it could only be her friend Ulenspiegel.

As he marched along the way, plunged in reverie, he did not hear a sound of hastening steps behind him, but felt two hands that were laid flat upon his eyes. Guessing Nele instinctively:

Are you there? said he.

Aye, she said, I have been running behind you ever since you came out of the city. Come with me.

But where, said he, where is Katheline?

Thou dost not know it, said she, that she was tortured unjustly for a witch, then banished out of Damme for three years, and that they burned her feet and burned tow upon her head. I tell thee this that thou mayest have no fear of her, for she is out of her wits because of the cruel torment. Often she spends whole hours looking at her feet and saying: Hanske, my sweet devil, see what they did to thy dear. And her poor feet are like two wounds. Then she weeps, saying: Other women have a husband or a lover, but I live at this moment as a widow. I tell her then that Hanske will hate her if she speaks of him before other folk than me. And she obeys me like a child save when she sees a cow or an ox, the cause of her torture; then she flees running without stay, and nothing can stop her, fences, streams, or ditches, till she falls for weariness in some corner of the wayside or against the wall of a farm, whither I go and take her up and dress her poor feet that are by then all bleeding. And I deem that in burning the hank of tow they burned also her brain in her head.

And both were grieved thinking upon Katheline.

They came to her and saw her sitting upon a bench in the sun against the wall of a house. Ulenspiegel said to her:

Do you know me?

Four times three, quoth she, it is the sacred number, and the thirteenth is Thereb. Who art thou, child of this wicked world?

I am Ulenspiegel, he answered, the son of Soetkin and of Claes.

She shook her head and knew him; then beckoning him close with her finger and bending to his ear:

If thou see him whose kisses are as snow, tell him to come back to me, Ulenspiegel.

Then showing her burned hair:

I am ill, she said; they have taken my wits, but when he comes he will fill my head again, which now is all empty. Hearest thou? it sounds like a bell; it is my soul knocking at the door to depart, because it burns. If Hanske comes and has no mind to fill me my head again, I will tell him to make a hole in it with a knife: the soul that is there, ever knocking to come out, grieveth me cruelly, and I shall die, yea. And now I never sleep, and I look for him always, and he must fill me my head again, yea.

And sinking down again, she groaned.

And the peasants that were coming back from the fields to go to dinner, while the church bell called them to it, passed before Katheline saying:

There is the madwife.

And they made the sign of the cross.

And Nele and Ulenspiegel wept, and Ulenspiegel must needs go on upon his pilgrimage.


At this time as he pilgrimaged he entered into the service of one Josse, surnamed the Kwaebakker, the cross baker, because of his vinegar face. The Kwaebakker gave him three stale loaves every week for his food, and for lodging a sloping garret under the roof, where the rain rained and the wind blew marvellously.

Seeing himself so evilly entreated, Ulenspiegel played him different tricks and this among them. When they bake in the early morning, the flour must be bolted over night. One night, then, when the moon was shining, Ulenspiegel asked for a candle to see to work and had this answer from his master:

Bolt the flour in the light of the moon.

Ulenspiegel, obeying him, bolted the flour upon the earth, where the moonlight was shining.

In the morning the Kwaebakker, coming to see how much work Ulenspiegel had done, found him still bolting and said to him:

Does flour now cost nothing at all that it should be bolted on the ground like this?

I bolted the flour in the moonlight as you had bidden me, answered Ulenspiegel.

The baker replied:

Pack-donkey, it was in a sieve you should have done it.

I thought the moon was a new-fangled kind of sieve, replied Ulenspiegel. But there will be no great loss, I will scrape up the flour.

It is too late, answered the Kwaebakker, to get ready the dough and to bake it.

Ulenspiegel rejoined:

Baes, our neighbours dough is ready in the mill; shall I go and take that?

Go to the gallows, replied the Kwaebakker, and fetch what is on that.

I go, baes, answered Ulenspiegel.

He ran to the gallows field, found there the dried hand of a robber, brought it to the Kwaebakker, and said:

Here is a hand of glory that maketh invisible all those that carry it. Wilt thou henceforward conceal thy evil disposition?

I shall inform the commune against you, replied the Kwaebakker, and you will see that you have infringed upon the rights of the overlord.

When they were both before the burgomaster, the Kwaebakker, wishing to tell the whole rosary of Ulenspiegels misdeeds and delinquencies, saw that he was opening his eyes to their widest. He became so angry at this that interrupting his deposition he said to him:

What do you want?

Ulenspiegel replied:

You told me you would accuse me in such wise that I would see. I am trying to see, that is why I look.

Out of my eyes, cried the baker.

If I was in your eyes, answered Ulenspiegel, I could only come out, seeing that you shut them, through your nostrils.

The burgomaster, seeing that this day was the day for the fair of japes, would listen to them no longer.

Ulenspiegel and the Kwaebakker went away together, the Kwaebakker raised his cudgel on him; Ulenspiegel dodged it, saying:

Baes, since it is with blows my flour is to be sifted, you take the bran of it it is your anger: I keep the white it is my gaiety.

Then showing him his nether face:

And here, he added, is the door of the oven, if you want to bake.


Ulenspiegel as he pilgrimaged would gladly have turned highway robber, but he found the stones too heavy to carry.

He was trudging by chance on the road to Audenaerde where there was then a garrison of Flemish reiters charged with the defence of the town against the French bands that ravaged the country like locusts.

The reiters had at their head a certain captain, a Frisian born, by name Kornjuin. They also overran the low country and pillaged the peoples, who were thus, as usual, devoured on both sides.

Everything was good in their eyes: hens, chickens, ducks, pigeons, calves, and pigs. One day, as they were coming back laden with plunder, Kornjuin and his lieutenants saw at the foot of a tree Ulenspiegel lying asleep and dreaming of fricassees.

What do you do for a living? asked Kornjuin.

Im dying of hunger, replied Ulenspiegel.

What is your trade?

To go on pilgrimage for my sins, look on at others toiling, dance on the rope, paint pretty faces, carve knife handles, play the rommel-pot, and blow the trumpet.

Now if Ulenspiegel spoke so bold of trumpets, it was because he had learned that the post of watchman to the Castle of Audenaerde was vacant after the death of an old man who had held it.

Kornjuin said to him:

You shall be trumpeter to the town.

Ulenspiegel went with him and was posted on the tallest tower on the ramparts, in a little box of a cell well ventilated by the four winds, all except the south wind that fanned it only with one wing.

He was enjoined to sound the trumpet as soon as he might see an enemy coming and, to that end, to keep his head clear and his eyes keen; and so they did not give him overmuch either to eat or to drink.

The captain and his soldiers stayed in the tower and feasted there all day long at the expense of the low country. There was killed and eaten there more than one capon whose one crime was to be plump. Ulenspiegel, always forgotten and forced to be satisfied with his meagre soup, found no pleasure in the smell of the sauces. The French came and carried off a great deal of cattle; Ulenspiegel did not sound his trumpet.

Kornjuin climbed up to his cell and said to him:

Why did you not sound the trumpet?

Ulenspiegel said to him:

I give you no thanks for your provender.

The next day, the captain ordered a great feast for himself and his soldiers, but Ulenspiegel was still forgotten. They were on the point of beginning to gorge, when Ulenspiegel blew his trumpet.

Kornjuin and his soldiers, thinking it was the French, left their wines and meats, leapt upon their horses, rode hastily out of the town, but found nothing in the country but an ox chewing the cud in the sun, and brought him back with them.

Meanwhile, Ulenspiegel had filled himself with wines and meats. The captain as he returned saw him standing, smiling, and his legs tottering at the door of the feast hall. He said to him:

It is traitors work to sound the alarm when you do not see the enemy, and not to sound it when you do see them.

Master captain, said Ulenspiegel, I am in my tower so puffed out and swollen up with the four winds that I could float like a bladder if I had not blown in my trumpet to ease me. Have me hanged now, or another time when you need an asss skin for your drums.

Kornjuin went away without a word.

Meanwhile, news came to Audenaerde that the gracious Emperor Charles was about to come to the town, with a most noble company. On this occasion the sheriffs gave Ulenspiegel a pair of spectacles that he might the better discern His Sacred Majestys coming. Ulenspiegel was to blow three blasts on the trumpet as soon as he saw the Emperor marching upon Luppeghem, which is a quarter of a league away from the Borg-poort.

Thus the townsfolk would have time to ring their bells, to make ready fireworks, to put the meats in the oven, and to broach the hogsheads.

One day, towards noon, the wind was blowing from Brabant and the sky was clear: Ulenspiegel saw on the road leading to Luppeghem a great band of horsemen mounted on caracoling steeds, the long feathers in their caps streaming in the wind. Some carried banners. He who rode proudly at their head wore a bonnet of cloth of gold with great plumes. He was arrayed in brown velvet broidered with brocatel.

Ulenspiegel put on his spectacles and saw it was the Emperor Charles the Fifth who was coming to give the folk of Audenaerde permission to serve him their choicest wines and their choicest viands.

His whole band was moving leisurely, snuffing up the fresh air that awakens appetite, but Ulenspiegel thought that they made good cheer by custom and might very well fast for one day without perishing. So he looked on at them as they came and did not blow his trumpet.

They came on laughing and talking freely, whilst His Sacred Majesty looked into his stomach to see if there was enough room for the dinner of the Audenaerde folk. He appeared surprised and displeased that no bell rang to announce his coming.

At this juncture a peasant entered the town running, to announce that he had seen a French band riding in the neighbourhood and marching upon the town to devour and pillage everything.

At this word the porter fastened the gate and sent a servant of the commune to warn the other porters of the town. But the reiters feasted without knowing anything.

His Majesty was still coming on, annoyed not to hear bells and cannon and arquebuses sounding and thundering and volleying. Straining his ears in vain, he heard nothing but the chime marking the half hour. He arrived before the gate, found it shut and beat on it with his fist to have it opened.

And the lords in his retinue, angry like him, muttered sour speeches. The porter who was on the summit of the ramparts cried out to them that if they did not put an end to this hubbub he would spray them with grapeshot to cool their impatience.

But His Majesty in a fury:

Blind hog, said he, dost thou not know thy Emperor?

The porter answered:

That the least hoggish are not always the most gilded; that he knew, besides, that the French were good mockers by their nature, since the Emperor Charles, at this moment waging war in Italy, could not be at the gates of Audenaerde.

Thereupon Charles and the lords cried out the more, saying:

If thou dost not open, we shall roast thee on the point of a spear. And thou shalt eat thy keys first and foremost.

At the noise they were making, an old man-at-arms came out from the artillery room and showing his nose above the wall:

Porter, said he, you are all wrong, it is our Emperor yonder; I know him well, though he has aged since he took Maria van der Gheynst from here to the Castle of Lallaing.

The porter fell down stiff as death with terror, and the man-at-arms seized his keys and went to open the gate.

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