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by Bamber Gascoigne

Rudolf Erich Raspe (1737-1794) & Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Baron (Freiherr) von Münchhausen (1720-1797)


The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is one of the most famous book of tall tales. It is based on stories told by Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen, a retired army captain, who was noted for his exaggerated and fantastic accounts of his war adventures and hunting experiences. The German scientist and librarian Rudolf Erich Raspe produced the first, small book based on these and some other stories. His work was followed by enlarged collections, composed by other authors, of whom Gottfried Bürger (1747-1794) is the most notable.

"I made a balloon of such extensive dimensions, that an account of the silk it contained would exceed all credibility; every mercer's shop and weaver's stock in London, Westminster, and Spitalfields contributed to it: with this balloon and my sling I played many tricks, such as taking one house from its station, and placing another in its stead, without disturbing the inhabitants, who were generally asleep, or too much employed to observe the peregrinations of their habitations. When the sentinel at Windsor Castle heard St. Paul's clock strike thirteen, it was through my dexterity; I brought the buildings nearly together that night, by placing the castle in St. mGeorge's Fields, and carried it back again before daylight, without waking any of the inhabitants; notwithstanding these exploits, I should have kept my balloon, and its properties a secret, if Montgolfier had not made the art of flying so public." (in The Surprising Adventures of Baron Muchausen, 1895)

Rudolf Erich Raspe was born in Hannover, Hanover, in humble circumstances, the son of  Christian Theophilus Raspe and  Luise Catharina von Einem.  He studied philology and natural sciences at the universities of Göttingen, and Leipzig. After receiving his master's degree, he worked as a librarian in university libraries (1762-1766). Raspe then moved to Kassel where he became a teacher at Collegium Carolinum, and custodian of the collection of gems and coins owned by the landgraf of Hesse-Kassel. For his knowledge of ancient English poetry, Raspe acquired much academic fame, and in 1769 he was elected to the Royal Society after publishing a paper on the bones and teeth of elephants and other animals found in North America and various boreal regions of the world.

Specimen historiæ naturalis globi terraquei (1763), which was Raspe's first geological work, is considered one of the more interesting of the 18th century theories of the earth. It advanced the ideas of Robert Hooke, whose forgotten work, Lectures and Discourses on Earthquakes and Subterraneous Eruptions (1705), he had found from the Royal Library. Basically Raspe rewrote the book and added his own innovation to it, "islands born from the sea," as an example of geological processes. His subsequent major publication was an edition of Leibniz's unpublished papers, which contained the Nouveaux Essais sur l'entendement humain (New Essays on  Human Understanding), originally written in 1703-05.

In 1771 Raspe married Elisabeth Lange, the daughter of a Berlin doctor; they had two children. Nachricht von einigen niederheissischen Basalten (1771), which applied volcanic theory to rock in Germany, was called by Goethe "a milestone of German science". For a period, Raspe worked as the curator of the collection belonging to the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel and held also the chair of antiquity at Cassel University. As librarian, he catalogued Landgrave's coins, but was unable to resist the temptation of "borrowing" from the collection.

Soon Raspe's carefree life-style led him into troubles. Deeply in debts, he asked his employer for a rise, but was turned down. Then "the Princely Serene Highness's most humble, most obedient, most devoted servant" was found to have been selling the precious gems and medals in his care for about five years. In police advertisements issued for his arrest he was described as "a man with red hair, who usually appeared in a scarlet dress embroided with gold" and "a long-faced man with small eyes, a crooked nose and a jerky gait." The Landgrave said that Raspe "walks, in general, hastily". ('Forging Figures of Invention in Eighteeth-Century Britain' by Sarah Tindal Kareem, in The Age of Projects, edited by Maximillian E. Novak, 2008, p. 346)

Raspe fled in 1775 first to Holland and then to England, where he befriended with James Hawkins, a future Fellow of the Royal Society, who said of Raspe that he "possessed a more extensive knowedge of any man I recollect." For British scientists and industrialists he provided valuable connections to scientists in Sweden and Germany. His friends also included Benjamin Franklin  –  "Be so kind as to present my respectful Compliments to the good Baron Munichausen," Franklin wrote in a letter to Raspe. One of those public figures, who was not caught under his spell of his personality, was the legendary Captain Cook, who declined Raspe's request to accompany him on his third (and final) voyage to the South Seas. 

After being dismissed from the Royal Society, Raspe found work as a mining expert for Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster. During this period he produced Baron Münchhausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels (1785), which was published anonymously. As his source he used Münchhausen's hunting stories, which had appeared in Berlin in the magazine Vade Mecum für lustige Leute (1781 -1783). Some of tales were created by Raspe himself – they also show the influence of Swift's Gulliver's Travels. It is assumed that Raspe had known the fabulous Baron when he was living in Göttingen  – at least he had had been acquainted with his kinsman.

Münchhausen's stories were in defiance of the rationalism of the Enlightenment. As a character – a lovable narcissist and sociopath – he was much more humorous than Comte de Saint-Germain who claimed that he had lived hundreds of years. The stories themselves were in debt to earlier travelers' tales and anecdotes. From the ancient Greek, the deeds of Odysseus can be classified as tall stories, and examples can be found in Pliny the Elder's Natural History (1st c. AD), Lucian's Dialogues (2nd c. AD), Rabelais's Pantagruel (1532) and Gargantua (1534), and Voltaire's Candide (1759). The Adventures of Baron Munchausen defy logic or laws of physics, or everyday thinking. The "Baron of lies" dances in the belly of a whale, rides on a cannon ball, and gets with one shot and a ramrod seven hazelhens.  And he rides on a horse which was cut in two, and the back part of the horse ran to a meadow. This story had appeared already in Heinrich Bebel's book Facetia Bebelianae (1508). Also from older sources is derived the story in which he ties his horse to a stake during a heavy snow storm. In the morning, the snow has melted and the horse is dangling from a high steeple.

The poet Gottfried August Bürger translated the second edition of Münchhausen's Narrative into German as Wunderbare Reisen zu Wasser und zu Lande, Feldzüge und lustige Abenteuer des Freyhernn von Münchhausen (1786). He also included several of his own stories into it. Bürger's work became the most popular, and a new edition was published in 1788. Raspe's groundwork was forgotten, but it was revealed in 1847 in Heinrich Döring's biography of Bürger.

In addition to translating German treatises on mineralogy and geology, he rendered into English Lessing's Nathan der Weise, which advocated religious tolerance. This edition was published by  J. Fielding in 1781. 'Essay on the Origin of Oil Painting' (1781), a subject of which Raspe probably knew nothing, was published through the help of Horace Walpole, who also bailed him out of jail, where he ended up after being unable to pay his tailor. For Matthew Boulton, who manufactured James Watt's steam engines, he worked unofficially as an industrial spy. On his route through continental Europe, he searched out expert engravers for Boulton's mint at Soho. He was also an assay master in the Cornish tin mines. For the 1791 July 14 banquet in Birmingham, he made the set piece of George III's head as a portrait medallion. 

Eventually Raspe's picaresque adventures in England came to a sorry end: he had to flee again in 1791, under suspicion that he was swindling his employer, Sir John. This time he had planted opulent ores on a promising mining property. Later Sir Walter Scott introduced him as the villaneous Hermann Dousterswivel, "the 'impudent, fraudulent, mendacious quack", in  The Antiquary  (1816). Its leading character, Jonathan Oldbuck, complains that Dousterswivel "has enough of practical knowlwdge to speak scholarly and wisely to those of whose intelligence he stands in awe. . . . But I have since understood, that when he is among fools and womankind,  he exhibits himself as a perfect charlatan". (Possible Scotlands: Walter Scott and the Story of Tomorrow by Caroline McCracken-Flesher, 2005, p. 37) 

Raspe headed to Ireland, where he died of a fever on 16 November 1794, in Muckross, County Kerry. It is possible that Raspe was a friend of the poet and translator James Macpherson (1736-96), whose Ossianic poems gained a huge success. Raspe had been one of the first scholars, who had examined the work of Ossian, the supposed author of epic poetry "discovered" in Scotland. He had published in 1764 an article and extracts of Ossian in his German translation in Hannoverisches Magazin; this and other magazines brought the poems to the notice of the German literary establishment. Moreover, Raspe told the influential German philosopher and literary critic Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) that he considered Ossian a greater poet than Homer. (Scotland in Music: A European Enthusiasm by Roger Fiske, 1983, p. 44) For his own reasons, Macpherson presented the work as his rendering into English of an ancient Gaelic epic. Some critics were sceptical, and Samuel Johnson denounced it as a fraud. Later it was found that Macpherson had treated the Gaelic poems in a "free and selective fashion".

Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr v. Münchhausen (also known in England as Baron Muchausen) was born in Bodenwerder, Hanover. He was sent as a page to the court of the Duke of Braunschweig. At the age of seventeen he joined the army. He served in a Russian regiment and gained in 1739 the rank of Lieutenant and later he became cavalry captain. It is possible that he fought in two Turkish wars in 1737-39, although there are not much documents about his military career from this period. After resigning in 1752 he retired to his country estate. Münchhausen loved the company of his old friends, and storytelling, although he was not happy about his sudden fame as a liar, Lügerbaron. His straight-faced narrations of his supposed adventures as a soldier, hunter, and sportsman were based on his skillful improvisations, but apparently his audience did not record immediately these tales.

Münchhausen's first marriage with Jacobine von Dunten was childless. After his first wife died in 1790, he married a young woman, who made his life miserable – Münchhausen complained about her extravagance and how she spent too much time with her young friends. Baron Münchhausen died in Bodenwerder on February 22, 1797. After his death it was nearly forgotten that Münchhausen was not a fictitious character. However, a monument was built in memory of the Baron's "ride on half a horse" in front of the Town Hall of Bodenwerder.

Karl L. Immermann's novel Munchhausen: A Story in Arabesques (1838-39) was about the nephew of the famous prevaricator, but also took ideas from Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels, and other books. Before launching the famous Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967) wrote a series of stories for the magazine Electrical Experimenter (May 1915 - February 1917), in which the Baron was transformed into an inventor. Although the preface to The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen states that "I do  not say that the Baron, in the following stories, means a  satire on any political matters whatever," the name of the great fabulator has been dragged into all kinds of debates. Political commentators  have even compared President Donald Trump to a modern day Baron Munchausen.

Adventures of the world's greatest liar have also inspired movies, starting from silent a version, Les Hallucinations du Baron de Münchhausen (1911) by Georgés Méliès. Josef von Baky's film Münchhausen (1943), starring Hans Albers in the title role, Brigitte Horney, Wilhelm Bendow, and Michael Bohnen, was made in the middle of World War II, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the UFA studios. The spectacular Agfacolor production was set in motion by the propaganda minister Josef Göbbels. Erich Kästner wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym of Berthold Bürger – his work had been banned since 1933 by the Nazis. After the film was released, Hitler ordered that he should receive no further commissions. Baron Munchhausen (1962, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen), directed by Karel Zeman, used animations and actors moved against the deliberately artificial backgrounds of Doré illustrations to Bürger's book. Zeman had made in 1958 The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, in which he had used 19th century engravings. Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989), inspired by Doré's illustrations, was visually elaborate and expensive – its budget was over $50 million. John Neville played the Baron, Eric Idle (Gilliam's Monty Python buddy) was his trusted assistant, Oliver Reed was Vulcan, and in other roles appeared among others Sarah Polley, Charles McKeown, Uma Thurman, Don Henderson, Sting, Ray D. Tutto (Robin Williams). Gilliam got the idea for his project from the 1962 Czechoslovakian movie; he did not like the German version. He had much troubles during the shooting and Columbia made just 115 prints of the film.

For further reading: 'Forging Figures of Invention in Eighteeth-Century Britain' by Sarah Tindal Kareem, in The Age of Projects, edited by Maximillian E. Novak (2008); Der Münchhausen-Autor Rudolf Erich Raspe: Wissenschaft - Kunst - Abenteuer, edited by Andrea Linnebach (2005); Münchhausen - Vom Jägerlatein zum Weltbestseller, published by Münchhausen-Museum Bodenwerder (1998); 'Paroni von Münchhausen, tarinaniskijäin kuningas' by Anto Leikola, in Portti 4 (1998); Münchhausen: Ein amoralisches Kinderbuch by Bernhard Wiebel und Thekla Gehrmann (1996); 'Rudolf Erich Raspe - humanist, geolog, storljugare' by Nils Edelman, in Kulturtidskriften Horisont 34 (1987); 'The Travels and Campaigns of a Fortunate Finder,' by Edward W. Nield, in New Scientist, December 20/27 (1984);  Münchhausen und Münchhausiade by Werner R. Schweizer (1969); Real Munchhausen: Baron of Bodenwerder by Angelita Von Munchhausen (1960); The Prospector, Being the Life and Times of Rudolf Erich Raspe, 1737-1794 by John Carswell (1950) 

Selected works:

  • Specimen historiæ naturalis globi terraquei, præcipue de novis e mari natis insulis, et ex his exactiùs descriptis & observatis, ulteriùs confirmandâ, Hookiana telluris hypothesi, de origine montium et corporum petrefactorum ... Autore Rudolpho Erico R, 1763
    - An Introduction to the Natural History of the Terrestrial Sphere, Principally Concerning New Islands Born from the Sea, and Hooke's Hypothesis of the Earth, on the Origin of Mountains and Petrified Bodies, to Be Further Established from Accurate Descriptions and Observations, 1970 (translated and edited by A. N. Iverson and A. V. Carozzi. Hafner)
  • 'Nachricht von den Gedichten des Ossian, eines alten schottischen Barden; nebst einigen Anmerkungen über das Alterthum derselben,' 1763 (Hannoverisches Magazin, No. 92)
  • 'Auszug und Uebersetzung des Fingal, eines alten epischen Gedichtes. Von. R.E.R.,' 1763 (Hannoverisches Magazin, No. 97)
  • Oeuvres philosophiques latines & françoises de feu Mr. de Leibnitz, 1765 (publ. par Rud. Eric Raspe)
  • Nachricht von einigen niederheissischen Basalten, 1771
  • Beytrag zur allerältesten und naturlichen Historie von Hessen, 1774
  • An Account of Some German Volcanos:  With a New Hypothesis of the Prismatical Basaltes, Established Upon Facts: Being an Essay of Physical Geography for Philosophers and Miners, 1776
  • Travels Through Italy, in the Years 1771 and 1772. Described in a Series of Letters to Baron Born, on the Natural History, Particularly the Mountains and Volcanoes of That Country, by John James Ferber, 1776 (transl. from the German; with explanatory notes, and a preface on the present state and future improvement of mineralogy, by R. E. Raspe)
  • Nathan the Wise. A Philosophical Drama. From the German of G.E. Lessing, ... Translated Into English by R.E. Raspe, 1781
  • Baron Münchhausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, 1785
    - Gulliver Revived or the Singular Travels, Campaigns, Voyages and Sporting Adventures of Baron Munnikhouson, Commonly Pronounced Münchhausen, as He Relates them Over a Bottle When Surrounded by his Friends, 1786 (enlarged by other anonymous contributors)
    - Wunderbare Reisen zu Wasser und zu Lande, Feldzüge und lustige Abenteuer des Freyhernn von Münchhausen, 1786 (expanded and translated by Gottfried Bürger; many illustrated editions: Gustave Doré, 1862, George Cruikshank 1867, etc.)
    - Translations into Finnish: Paroni von Münchhausenin seikkailut, suom. Rauni Kanerva (1980); Paroni von Münchhausenin ihmeelliset matkat ja seikkailut, suom. Taisto ja Anna-Maija Nieminen (1978); Paroni von Münchhausenin seikkailut, suom. Samuli S. Otava (1960); Parooni von Münchhausenin ihmeelliset matkat ja seikkailut maalla ja merellä, suom. Aulis Savolainen (1952); Parooni von Münchhausenin ihmeelliset seikkailut maalla ja merellä ja retki maan keskipisteeseen, suom. Yrjö Korhonen (1947); Paroni Mynkhausenin merkilliset matkat ja seikkailut, suom. Aino Caselius (1904); Parooni Mynkhausenin Merkilliset matkat ja seikkailut, suom. Ano Caselius ( 1903); Paroni von Münchhausenin retket ja seikkailut, suom. Samuli S. Otava (1903); Parooni Münchhausenin erinomaisen kummalliset ja ihmeelliset matkat ja retket maalla ja merellä, joita hänellä oli tapana lasin ääressä ystävilleen jutella, suom. K. Waurio (1903); Parooni Mynkhausin kummalliset matkat ja retket maalla ja merellä (1856)
  • Ueber das Anquicken der gold- und silberhältigen Erze, Rohsteine, Schwarzkupfer und Hüttenspeise. Vienna, Chr.F. Wappler, 1786
    - Baron Inigo Born’s New Process of Amalgamation of Gold and Silver Ores, and Other Metallic Mixtures, 1791 (translated into English by R.E. Raspe)
  • Koeningsmark der Räuber, oder Schrecken aus Böhmen, 1790
    - Koeningsmark the Robber, or The Terror of Bohemia, 1802
  • A Descriptive Catalogue of a General Collection of Ancient and Modern Engraved Gems, Cameos as Well as Intaglios, 1791  (2 vols., with James Tassie)
  • Baron Inigo Born's New Process of Amalgamation of Gold and Silver Ores, and Other Metallic Mixtures, 1791 (translated into English by R.E. Raspe)
  • The Singular Adventures of Baron Munchausen, by Rudolph Raspe and Others, 1952 (edited by John Carswell and illustrated by Fritz Kredel)
  • Baron Munchausen; Fifteen Truly Tall Tales, by Raspe and Others, 1971 (retold by Doris Orgel, selected and illustrated by Willi Baum)
  • 12 Adventures of the Celebrated Baron Munchausen, 1978 (selected and illustrated by Brian Robb)

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