The Adventures of a Simpleton as a Primer for Princes

As well as being a picaresque novel, The Adventures of a Simpleton* is in part a primer for princes.  As the chivalric and courtly romances taught certain norms of behaviour at court and toward women, Simpleton instructs rulers, or anyone in a position of rulership, in the failties of their position and the means to address those frailties.  A contemporary “realistic” novel, Simpleton provides the flesh for the society of the Thirty Years’ War, primarily describing the social interaction of the peasantry with the nobility and the army, and secondarily, both groups’ interaction with the merchant class.

In a dream, Simplicius envisions the structure of German society as a forest of trees, in which the peasants are the roots from which the society takes its nourishment. The classes higher up on the tree steal or otherwise appropriate peasant resources and power to fuel their own ambitions.  Mobility between the classes at the base of the tree, the peasants, merchants and mercenaries, is fairly easy; however, a large stretch of smooth bark, slippery with wax, intervenes between these classes and the nobility, inhibiting further climbing without the aid of those above–and those above aid only their relatives.  As the novel progresses, and Simplicius is tossed by the accidents of war, we see this model of society in action.

Naive Simplicius leaves the forest after his guardian the hermit dies, and attempts to enter the garrison town of Hanau, where he is captured.  But the pastor of his village, who had often helped the hermit and him, is also at Hanau, the village having been raided by Hanau’s garrison. The pastor pleads for Simplicius’ pardon, and Simplicius is made a page and bathed.  However, after he makes a scene with a noble young lady at a dance, he is again jailed.  The Governor of Hanau and his retinue decide to make a fool of Simplicius by convincing him that he has gone to hell and heaven, and has been turned into a calf. Having been warned by the pastor, Simplicius pretends that he is a calf.  Whereupon he becomes the court’s jester.

As jester, Simplicius, lacking social conditioning, is able to observe and comment on the foolishness of the court, and so amuses them.  On being asked whether he would not desire instead to be in the place of the Governor, he expounds on the folly of the Governor’s position:  “I assure you, my lord, that you are the most miserable person in Hanau” (65).  The cares and worries of defending Hanau sit heavily on the Governor’s shoulders. And to keep Hanau well-supplied, he “must hold the surroundng countryside to ransom.  When you send your men out for this purpose their usual course is robbery, theft, arson, and murder. . . .They have their booty, but you bear a heavy responsibility before God” (66).  And the Governor has no way of knowing who will in the end profit from his endeavors, and treasure does not go with him when he dies.

A calf may sleep well at night, for even though he knows that one day he will face the axe, until then he is safe.

You, however, are beset by a thousand intrigues, and your life, inconsequence, is one of eternal care and wakefulness.  For you must fear friend and foe alike, who seek to strip you of your life, your money, your reputation, your command, or whatever else–just as you seek to strip them of theirs. . . . Even your subordinates you cannot trust completely (66).

But the worst of the Governor’s state, according to Simplicius, is that he is not aware of these things, that he has been spoilt by his courtiers and no longer knows himself:

everything that you do they praise, and all your vices they declare and proclaim virtues.  They call your fury justice, and when you devastate the countryside and bring ruin to its people they say you are a good soldier. Thus to the people’s misfortune do they egg you on, in order to retain your favour and to line their pockets (67).

In these few paragraphs, Grimmelshausen via Simplicius outlines the prince’s vulnerabilities.  Later, when Simplicius begins his rise in the world as the Huntsman of Soest, Grimmelshausen demonstrates how the acquisition and practice of power creates these problems, and suggests partial remedies.  There is, however, no complete remedy, for the problems of envy and intrigue are intimately associated with the nature of power.

I was called upon whenever a contribution had to be levied anywhere.  This made my purse as big as my name; my officers and comrades loved their Huntsman, the foremost enemy partisans were terrified, and the country-folk kept on my side by a mixture of fear and love:  I knew how to punish the obstinate and to reward lavishly those who had given me even the smallest assistance. (109)

He spent his booty on rewards and payments to spies, and thus knew all that happened in the area. He treated his prisoners with courtesy, often at his own expense.  If he could help the enemy, especially officers, without betraying his duty, he would.  All these things stood him in good stead.

While on an ambush, his troop runs out of food.  Simplicius scouts out the town with the aid of a former student there, Happy Go Lucky, and finds easily stolen bread, and bacon secure in the rectory.  He cannot leave the bacon, so he shimmies down the chimney.  After sending the pork up by rope, the rope breaks under his weight.  This wakes the priest.  Simplicius terrifies the priest into thinking that he is a devil, and slips out the side door, which happened to have been unlocked.  After the ambush is successful, the Huntsman of Soest sends a rich ring to the priest as payment for the pork.  The priest forgives him, and offers his services in turn.  The baker is also paid for his bread.  Now that the Huntsman has friends in that village, they will help him the next time he is in the area.

When Simplicius is captured by the Swedes, they know his reputation, both as predator and as gentleman, and so he is treated with consideration.  They ask him to change sides; however, Simplicius will not be forsworn, as he is pledged to the Emperor.  While he remains a prisoner, the Swedes grant him a measure of free movement, in the hopes that one day he will change his mind and accept an officer’s  commission in the Swedish army.

* Walter Wallich, trans., Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, The Adventures of a Simpleton (New York:  Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1963).

Copyright © 1993, C. William Cox, Jr.