Eulenspiegel and the Carpenter

Bank note for Braunschweiger Staatsbank, 1921, Falkenstein/Bildagentur Historical Collection.

Have you ever worked with someone who, despite being given detailed instructions, never gets the job done right? (Don’t answer that if you work by yourself.) The end of another workweek is a good time to meet, or be reintroduced to, Eulenspiegel. He has a five-hundred year history in European literature with his exploits translated into multiple languages. His first name is variously Dyl, Til or Thyll. His surname might be shown as Ulenspiegel and in English he is Owlglass or Howlglass. His stories have been studied by historians and humorists as they provide another level of detail about 16th-century life and society.


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Cover of the 1515 Straßburg edition, woodcut attributed to Hans Baldung Gruen, student of Albrecht Dürer.

Eulenspiegel Who?
Till Eulenspiegel was a fictional character in a series of tales were written in Low German and published in the first decade of the 16th century. His stories take place in the 14th century with his birth in 1300 and death in 1350. Although he travels elsewhere, much of his story takes place in Northern Germany. Eulenspiegel means owl mirror and he is depicted with both an owl and a mirror on the covers of his books. He is a wily rogue and through his antics he exposes hypocrisy, greed and foolishness in all he meets. He spares neither the aristocrat nor the common man. 

The humor in Eulenspiegel’s exploits is how he carries out the exact commands given to him, no more, no less. Those who employ him make assumptions, react favorably to his assurances and later feel the consequences of their readiness to hire this unknown person. The owl and mirror, symbols of wisdom and reflection, are much lacking in those you are unfortunate enough to meet Eulenspiegel.

The tales of Eulenspiegel are bawdy and earthy (not to mention inordinate quantities of excrement) as was typical of 16th-century humor. If you have read editions published in the latter half of the 19th century and in the 20th century the indelicate bits have been taken out. Although some of you will be disappointed, there were no indelicate bits that needed to be excised to present the tale of Eulenspiegel and the Carpenter.

How Eulenspiegel Became a Carpenter in Dresden and Failed to Win Much Praise

Eulenspiegel came into Dresden, near the Bohemian forest, upon the Elbe River and declared himself a carpenter. It so happened, to his good fortune, that a master carpenter in the town heard of this, and lacking his own journeyman due to Blue Monday, hired Eulenspiegel to be his journeyman.

The master was to attend his cousin’s wedding that afternoon and was pressed for time to have a job completed. He told Eulenspiegel of the wedding and instructed his new journeyman to work diligently and glue four boards together for a table. Eulenspiegel asked to be shown the boards. The master took the four boards and stacked them together on the bench. Satisfied his new journeyman knew what was need, the master informed Eulenspiegel he would return late in the evening and departed for the wedding. Eulenspiegel got to work.

Woodcut from “Eulenspiegel Keimensweiß” by Johannes Schmidt, 1572. This was an edition written in rhyme.


He bored holes in each of the boards and stacked them together, one atop the other. The glue pot was put on the fire to heat and when it was ready he poured and brushed the glue to bind all the boards together. He then carried the boards to the roof so the glue would dry in the sunshine.

17th-century woodcuts of Eulenspiegel working as a carpenter, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford University.

When his work was done Eulenspiegel make it an early night and went to bed. The master and his wife returned late in the evening, both tipsy and a bit befuddled. He roused Eulenspiegel to ask about the day’s work and was assured that all was done exactly as requested. The master was pleased to have found a good worker and remarked to his wife that one does not find such a good fellow every day.

Early the next morning the master bade Eulenspiegel to show him the table top that had been glued together the previous day. When the master saw how Eulenspiegel had ruined the boards meant for a table, he was enraged and demanded to know where Eulenspiegel had learned the art of carpentry. Eulenspiegel was confused to be asked such a question and said as much. The master shouted that Eulenspiegel had spoiled costly wood. Moved by the master’s anger and shouting, Eulenspiegel responded he had only done that which was commanded and if the wood was ruined it was the master’s fault not his. Grabbing his iron square, the master shouted to Eulenspiegel to be gone his workshop, for of the work that was done he would have no profit. Thus, Eulenspiegel departed with very little praise for his work.

Eulenspiegel’s End

The last few tales of Eulenspiegel’s life relate his death and burial in 1350. His burial was a very appropriate ending for such a waggish character. As the story goes, a hollowed-out tree was used as his coffin (or perhaps a regular wooden coffin). Two ropes, one at each end, were used to lower the coffin. Unfortunately, the lower rope broke and the coffin was stuck standing upright. Those attending the funeral decided to let his coffin remain as it was as it seemed a fitting burial for Eulenspiegel. His tombstone was sculpted with an owl holding a mirror in its talons.

Eulenspiegel’s burial from a broadsheet illustrating Eulenspiegel’s life, 1729, British Museum.

There are many notable people from human history whose burial sites are unknown, but there is no doubt about where Eulenspiegel’s fictional remains are buried. As a measure of his beloved status there is tombstone that still stands (or pretends to stand) in Mölln, Germany.

If you are a newer reader of the LAP blog and puzzled by Blue Monday (or are an old hand and want to relive your youthful hangover days) you can read a post I wrote about Blue Mondays here.

Suzanne Ellison


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