On 11 May 1720 in a small town of Germany Hieronymus Carl Friedrich von Münchhausen was born. For many non-Germans, this historic fact might not be as significant as it was for the Germans back in the days and only after his death baron’s tales have taken the world of literature by storm, especially Europe and Russia, thanks to Rudolf Erich Raspe, who published an English version of The Adventures of Baron Muenchausen in London in 1785, while the baron was still alive.
Personally, Baron Münchhausen was not really happy about the book, but for everyone else, he became a prominent both historic and fictional figure, whose stories entertain the people of all ages across the world.
Carl Münchhausen was a German nobleman, who grew up in a small German town of Bodenwerder in a relatively small house, in comparison to many German noble houses, given to him by his father, who himself resided in a very large castle not too far from Carl. However, this is not why Carl became knows as THE Baron Münchhausen.
Münchhausen’s reputation as a storyteller has gained its worldwide awareness because he seemed to fascinate and cause some major trauma to the people around him, some of whom wanted to believe his tales and some who wanted to stop an end to them, but mostly, these kind fictional stories were entertaining everyone around him so much that when later they were turned into the book, the readers of other countries became aficionados of his character, even though most of his stories have been exaggerated by the writers, the fact that upset the baron.
But in truth, in any time of the history, one way or another, people need kind stories, stories that might be absurd, but which inspire and allow to dream. And this is how Hieronymus Carl Friedrich von Münchhausen became just Baron Münchhausen, known to and adorned by many children and adults around the world.
If you’ve never heard of Baron Muenchhausen, you might be the rare person in the millions around the world who does not know this character.
Growing up in pretty much anywhere in Europe and Asia (where his character is most popular of all), one must have definitely read the tales of this 18th-century German nobleman – The Adventures of Baron Muenchausen and not only because the amazingly entertaining tales of Baron Carl Muenchhausen have been published in more than 100 countries – from Russia to USA but also because his stories are not like any other ones.
Mentioned above, an English version was published in London in 1785, by Rudolf Erich Raspe, as Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, also called The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen. In 1786, Gottfried August Bürger translated Raspe’s stories back into German, and extended them. He published them under the title of Wunderbare Reisen zu Wasser und zu Lande: Feldzüge und lustige Abenteuer des Freiherrn von Münchhausen (“Marvellous Travels on Water and Land: Campaigns and Comical Adventures of the Baron of Münchhausen”).
This book is like a ‘Bible’ for the Germans. I’m pretty much sure every German child grew up with it, not to mention that every Russian child most like did too. Just ask.
As a matter of fact, this real character means so much for his native country – Germany, that Germans have dedicated the whole city to Baron Münchhausen, and I’ve discovered it along the small towns I’ve been discovering in Germany since 2005.
When last May I came to visit my parents in Germany, my parents told me in a state of very high excitement that they know where Baron Münchhausen lived and that it’s only half an hour of drive from the town of Gottingen they live in.
Imagine, having grown up with the books, movies and cartoons about this notorious Baron Münchhausen, learning that I could actually see the place, where he not only resided, but where he made up and told his stories, was like learning, where the house of “Tom and Jerry” was for the American kids. I couldn’t wait to see it! And this is why I’ve been encouraging so many readers of mine, as well as my friends, family and other avid travelers to discover the small parts of a country they are traveling too, because small towns is a whole different experience of history, culture and lifestyle – that is, if you are interested.
The house, neighbors and the memorabilia of Baron Münchhausen
In the Lower Saxony part of the country there is a town Bodenwerder, which is an amazing and almost ‘cartoonishly’ looking place, where each inch of the city lives and breaths Baron Carl Münchhausen.
He’s, literally, in every inch of the city – from the sculptures dedicated to his tales and real estate – the house, where he lived with his family – with his wife, Baroness, to the museum, cafes, pharmacies, squares, fountains, parks and ponds dedicated to him. They even call the city and its suburbia – The Land of Münchhausen.
Baron Münchhausen museum holds everything one can imagine about the baron – from the silverware he used to the fictional characters of his tales – like the eight-leg hare and the deer grew the deer with a cherry tree between its antlers, which grew as a result of Baron Münchhausen’s shooting the dear with a cherry pit, as well many covers of The Adventures of Baron Münchhause book, printed in many languages around the world.
Walking around the small town of Bodenwerder, one might discover how special Baron Münchhausen is to the local residents. They kept his house and the little terrace above the house, where the baron used to tell his tales, turning the house into the City Hall (Rathaus), but leaving the summer terrace untouched, which anyone can visit and gaze at the baron’s house and garden from above the terrace.
The streets of the town – besides the town being well kept, beautiful and old – feature many architectural symbols of the baron’s existence – the sculptures of his tales’ characters, wood engravings on the houses of the baron himself, even the cafes and their napkins are engraved with the Baron’s name. Growing up with his tales, one can only imagine the excitement of seeing all that symbolizes and made the Baron is a real treat.
Check out this video, where I’ve pictured a sculpture from one of the most known baron’s tales – the tale about the half horse that kept on drinking and couldn’t satisfy its thirst because all the water it was drinking was coming out right out.
Of course, no doubt it’s a fictional tale that the baron used to tell up on that terrace to his friends and family, but it might have been one hell of the tale and one hell of the story-telling style that fascinated the people around so much that they wanted to publish it and share it with the rest of the world.
There’s more to the baron than the tales
He joined the Russian military and took part in two campaigns against the Ottoman Turks. Upon returning home some of the tales from the war became part of the stories that were published and told many times over. Of course, many of the stories told about the baron that were became part of the many full feature films made about him were fictional, like the story about his wife. According to the historic fact, he’s lived in love with his wife – Jacobine von Dunten – for forty years until her death, while in the films it was often portrayed like an ill-fated marriage, which he wanted to get out of, when he ‘fell in love’ with a beautiful young woman.
Born into an aristocratic family of the Hanover region, his father’s second cousin, Gerlach Adolph von Münchhausen was prime minister under George III.
Münchhausen himself started as a page to Anthony Ulrich II of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, and followed his employer to the Russian Empire during the Russo-Turkish War (1735–1739).
In 1760 Münchhausen retired to his manor and estates in Bodenwerder, where he lived with his wife until her death in 1790.
It was there, especially at dinner parties and similar aristocratic social gatherings, that he acquired a reputation as a storyteller, developing witty and highly exaggerated accounts of his adventures in Russia, one of the reasons his character has been so popular among the Russian people.
At the same time, Münchhausen was considered an honest man in business affairs. As one contemporary put it, Münchhausen’s unbelievable narratives were designed not to deceive, but “to ridicule the disposition for the marvellous which he observed in some of his acquaintances”.
After his wife’s death, Münchhausen married a second time, to Bernardine von Brunn, in 1794, which ended in divorce, who was almost fifty years younger.
The fictionalization of Münchhausen began in 1781–1783, when seventeen tall tales attributed to him appeared in the eighth and ninth volumes of the Vademecum fur lustige Leute.
The real-life Baron Münchhausen was said to be deeply annoyed that his name had been dragged into public consciousness as the Lügenbaron (German: “Baron of Lies”) through the publication of stories under his name.
In 1901 Mr. Munchausen, a new collection of Munchausen adventures, was written in 1901 by the American humorist John Kendrick Bangs, and combines the traditional fictional Baron with the literary genre now known as Bangsian fantasy.
If you ever end up in that part of the country, do stop by this beautiful small town of Bodenwerde, even if you haven’t read Baron Münchhausen’s tales, because there’s more to it than the baron.
For example, when we visited the town, we witnessed the flooding in the town by the river that runs through the town – as it does in many small towns of Germany. In Europe, the towns were, almost always, built around or through the river, because it’s one secure way of having a water-based trade – from bringing the goods to feeding the family and by charging the fees from the nearby counties for using the town’s river for trading. The presence of the river is always a sure way to live through the hardships if they’d happen.
I also find it amazing how many towns, and not only in Germany, but in other countries, choose to live near the restless body of water, regardless of how damaging it could be to the town and its residence.
Bodenwerder, for example, have already lived through the floods, the most powerful and damaging ones happened in 1909, 1923, 1929 and 2005, when the people transport around the town on floats. However, despite the severe floods, the buildings survived and have been barely damaged, which brings me to another point – some of the oldest and historic places you might see, when traveling, are in the small towns.
That’s said, do try their local trout, it’s delicious!
The wonders of Bodenwerde suburbs
If you are in the area already, you might as well visit the Castle (Schloss) Neuschwanstein, which I’ll talk in my next article. Stay tuned!