The Legend of the Glorious Adventures of Tyl Ulenspiegel in the Land of Flanders and Elsewhere

by Charles de Coster
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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1212

Tyl Ulenspiegel was born with two marks, one the sign of a lucky star, the other the print of the devil’s finger. Katheline, the midwife, had a vision in which she saw Ulenspiegel as the incarnated spirit of his native Flanders. At the same time Philip of Spain was born. In her vision Katheline saw Philip as the butcher of Flanders. She was afraid.

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As a boy Ulenspiegel roamed the fields of Flanders. His playmate was Nele, the illegitimate daughter of Katheline the midwife. As the children played, gloom gathered over the lowlands. The father of Philip fished in the pockets of the people, and each day new edicts announced torture and death for heretics. The Inquisition was beginning, and neighbor turned against neighbor in order to inherit half his possessions. Katheline was tortured as a witch on the complaint of a neighbor. As a result of this experience, the poor woman went mad.

Ulenspiegel, as a young man living by his wits, traveled into many lands. Sometimes he was hard-pressed to escape with his life, but his high spirit and great strength served him well. When he returned at last to his homeland, he had to put his youthful follies behind him, for trouble had come to his family. Claes, Tyl’s father, had been convicted of heresy on the testimony of a fishmonger who wanted to inherit part of his wealth. The good man was tortured and burned to slow death. Soetkin and Ulenspiegel wept, helpless to save him. Ulenspiegel took ashes from Claes’s heart and wore them in a bag around his neck after swearing eternal vengeance upon the murderers. Because Soetkin and Nele had hidden Claes’s money, the searchers looked for it in vain. Then Soetkin and Ulenspiegel were put to torture, but although they were broken on the wheel and burned, they would not reveal their secret. Meanwhile Claes’s ashes beat against Ulenspiegel’s heart.

In spite of their courage the money was lost. Mad Katheline told Hans, her evil lover, and Nele’s father, where the money was hidden. Hans and a friend robbed the widow and son of their inheritance. Then Hans, not knowing that mad Katheline watched him, killed his accomplice. Ulenspiegel, meeting the lying fishmonger, threw his enemy into the water. Philip, now King of Spain, robbed and murdered his people and the people of Flanders.

After Soetkin died of her grief and her torture, Ulenspiegel vowed to avenge her and Claes and all of his loved homeland. Mad Katheline conjured up a vision from which Ulenspiegel learned that he could be avenged if he sought and found the Seven. Not knowing who the seven were he left Nele to seek them. With him went Lamme Goedzak, a fat buffoon seeking his wife, who had left him because she had been told by a monk to give up lusts of the flesh and enter a nunnery. Lamme drowned his grief in food and wine, but the ashes of Claes burned against Ulenspiegel’s heart. Knowing no peace, he looked only for the Seven.

He and Lamme joined the army of William of Orange, leader of the forces against Philip and the Inquisition. They traveled over many lands, sometimes alone and sometimes with Prince William’s troops. Often, they were in danger of death by torture, but God protected them and kept them safe. Several times Lamme or Ulenspiegel caught glimpses of Lamme’s wife, but Lamme could not catch up with her. The two friends saw much blood spilled, until they were weary of war and torture. Ulenspiegel continued to look for the Seven.

Ulenspiegel served Orange well. In spite of all resistance, however, Philip conquered all the Low Countries, and the people suffered and starved. When Hans returned to Katheline for more money, the mad woman, not knowing what she did, accused him of witchery. He was tortured and condemned to slow death by fire. Katheline, too, was given a witch’s trial by water. Although she sank to the bottom, proving her innocence, the poor madwoman died three days later from the chill and the shock.

Nele, now an orphan, left Flanders and traveled to Holland. There she saved the life of Ulenspiegel, who was on the gallows for accusing his commander of false promises. The two lovers were married. Together they traveled with Lamme, who continued to seek his wife. Still the robbery and killings went on, and still Ulenspiegel searched for the Seven who could tell him how to avenge his family and save Flanders. William of Orange began to gain victories. Philip was enraged and demanded more bloodshed.

Ulenspiegel was placed in command of a ship, with Lamme for his cook. After a battle in which Lamme was injured, they brought on board a captive monk who was fat and lustful. His torture was that he must eat all that Lamme prepared for him, seven times a day, and he must live in a cage just big enough to enclose his great bulk. Before Lamme could get the monk fat enough to burst, Lamme’s wound reopened. In his delirious condition, he had to be tied to the ship so that he would not fall into the sea.

One night Lamme’s wife came aboard the ship, treated his wound, and cured it. He pursued her as she fled in her boat, caught her, and heard her story. A monk, the one whom Lamme had imprisoned in a cage, had preached to her and ordered her to give up lusts of the flesh and follow him. In her innocence she had deserted her husband and gone away with the monk. Lamme feared that she had given herself to the monk, but when he learned that she had not, he took her again as his wife. The two happy lovers left Ulenspiegel and Nele and went to restore their lost home.

After William of Orange lost his life, his son carried on the battle for liberty, and the lowlands were soon freed. In a vision Nele and Ulenspiegel saw at last the Seven that were and the Seven that should be, if their native land was to be free. The Seven that were now were Pride, Gluttony, Idleness, Avarice, Anger, Envy, and Lust. In the vision Ulenspiegel was told to burn the Seven. When he burned them, they were reduced to ashes and blood ran. Then from Pride came forth Noble Spirit; from Gluttony, Appetite; from Idleness, Reverie; from Avarice, Economy; from Anger, Vivacity; from Envy, Emulation, and lastly from Lust sprang forth Love. Then a mighty hand hurled Nele into space and came again and hurled Ulenspiegel into space after her. Nele awoke from the vision, but Ulenspiegel lay as one dead for two days and two nights. When a priest passed by on the way to a burial, he ordered a grave dug that Ulenspiegel might be buried by the church. Ulenspiegel, however, rose up from the grave and threw off the dirt, for he knew that his motherland was free at last. The new Seven would be her salvation. He knew, too, that Nele was the heart and he was the spirit of the new Flanders and that they could never die.

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