Jesse Bullington

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart

Copyright © 2009 by Jesse Bullington

Dedicated to








The story of the Brothers Grossbart does not begin with the discovery of the illuminated pages comprising Die Tragodie der Bruder Gro?e Barte tucked inside a half-copied Bible in a German monastery five hundred years ago, nor does it end with the incineration of those irreplaceable artifacts during the firebombing of Dresden last century. Even the myriad oral accounts that were eventually transcribed into the aforementioned codex by an unremembered monk hardly constitute a true starting point, and, as the recent resurgence in scholarship testifies, the chronicle of the Grossbarts has not yet concluded. The pan- cultural perseverance of these medieval tales makes the lack of a definitive modern translation even more puzzling, with the only texts available to the contemporary reader being the handful of remaining nineteenth-century reprints of the original documents and the mercifully out-of-print verse translations of Trevor Caleb Walker. That Walker was a better scholar than a poet is nowhere more evident than in that vanity edition, and thus came the impetus to retell Die Tragodie in a manner that would transmit the story as it would have been appreciated by its original audience.

The distinction here between stories and story represents what is, presumably, a first in the field-rather than treating Die Tragodie as a collection of independent fragments, comparable to the contemporaneous Romance of Reynard, I have focused on the quest continuously reiterated by the Grossbarts themselves in order to cobble together a cohesive and linear narrative. A benefit of transforming the work into a single account is the inclusion of previously unlinked stories, divergences that illuminate aspects of the greater narrative even if they at first seem quite disparate save for their era and locale. Another consequence of this approach is that small leaps occasionally occur in the journey as overly repetitious adventures are elided.

Scholars curious as to whether this humble author sides with the apologists Dunn and Ardanuy or the revisionists Rahimi and Tanzer will be disappointed-this tale is intended for those members of the public having no previous acquaintance with the Grossbarts, and is thus unadorned with academic grandstanding. For this reason, and to avoid unduly distracting the average reader, the following pages lack annotation, with the most popular interpretation of any given incident defaulted to when variations arise. As has already been stated, the adventures of the Grossbarts are often remarkably similar save for locale-reflecting regional differences on the part of the original storytellers-and so marking up these deviations would defeat the entire purpose of the project, which is to convey the tale as it would have come across in its original form. After all, the average German serf would be no more aware that his Dutch neighbors blamed his region for spawning the Grossbarts than the merchant of Dordrecht would be that down in Bad Endorf the Germans insisted his town was where the twins were born.

This is indicative of the gulf separating contemporary readers from the original audience, an audience alien almost to the point of incomprehensibility. Those first storytellers and listeners might, for example, have taken the fantastic and violent elements much more seriously with only hearth or campfire to stave off the perilous night. The fourteenth century, wherein the tales were both told and set, was, as Barbara Tuchman opens her history of that era, a “violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating age, a time, as many thought, of Satan triumphant.”

Yet it was no arbitrary decision that led Tuchman to title that work A Distant Mirror. Tragedies and atrocities may seem inherently worse when appraised from long after they occurred, but despite all we have accomplished wars rage, righteous uprisings are viciously suppressed, religious persecution thrives, famine and plague decimate the innocent. This is not to excuse or apologize for any cruelties peppering the following pages, but simply to provide a lens, should the reader require one, through which to view them.

We will never know if the Grossbarts were heroes or villains, for as Margaret Atwood observes in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, “We may call Eurydice forth from the world of the dead, but we cannot make her answer; and when we turn to look at her we glimpse her only for a moment, before she slips from our grasp and flees.” That the Grossbarts themselves would take umbrage at both being associated with the witchery of Orpheus’ quest to the underworld and this particular account of their deeds seems probable, but whether their medieval audience would approve remains forever unknowable. This tale is exhumed for our enlightenment, and while I have done some tailoring for our modern sensibilities their spirit remains just that, and as such, unquenchable. “As all historians know,” Atwood concludes that selfsame quote, “the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.” With that wisdom in mind, let us cock our ears and squint our eyes toward the Brothers Grossbart and a beginning in Bad Endorf.

I. The First Blasphemy

To claim that the Brothers Grossbart were cruel and selfish brigands is to slander even the nastiest highwayman, and to say they were murderous swine is an insult to even the filthiest boar. They were Grossbarts through and true, and in many lands such a title still carries serious weight. While not as repugnant as their father nor as cunning as his, horrible though both men were, the Brothers proved worse. Blood can go bad in a single generation or it can be distilled down through the ages into something truly wicked, which was the case with those abominable twins, Hegel and Manfried.

Both were average of height but scrawny of trunk. Manfried possessed disproportionately large ears, while Hegel’s nose dwarfed many a turnip in size and knobbiness. Hegel’s copper hair and bushy eyebrows contrasted the matted silver of his brother’s crown, and both were pockmarked and gaunt of cheek. They had each seen only twenty-five years but possessed beards of such noteworthy length that from even a short distance they were often mistaken for old men. Whose was longest proved a constant bone of contention between the two.

Before being caught and hanged in some dismal village far to the north, their father passed on the family trade; assuming the burglarizing of graveyards can be considered a gainful occupation. Long before their granddad’s time the name Grossbart was synonymous with skulduggery of the shadiest sort, but only as cemeteries grew into something more than potter’s fields did the family truly find its calling. Their father abandoned them to their mother when they were barely old enough to raise a prybar and went in search of his fortune, just as his father had disappeared when he was but a fledgling sneak-thief.

The elder Grossbart is rumored to have died wealthier than a king in the desert country to the south, where the tombs surpass the grandest castle of the Holy Roman Empire in both size and affluence. That is what the younger told his sons, but it is doubtful there was even the most shriveled kernel of truth in his ramblings. The Brothers firmly believed their dad had joined their grandfather in Gyptland, leaving them to rot with their alcoholic and abusive mother. Had they known he actually wound up as crow-bait without a coin in his coffer it is doubtful they would have altered the track of their lives, although they may have cursed his name less-or more, it is difficult to say.

An uncle of dubious legitimacy and motivation rescued them from their demented mother and took them under his wing during their formative man-boy years. Whatever his relation to the lads, his beard was undeniably long, and he was as fervent as any Grossbart before him to crack open crypts and pilfer what sullen rewards they offered. After a number of too-close shaves with local authorities he absconded in the night with all their possessions, leaving the destitute Brothers to wander back to their mother, intent on stealing whatever the wizened old drunk had not lost or spent over the intervening years.

The shack where they were born had aged worse than they, the mossy roof having joined the floor while they were ransacking churchyards along the Danube with their uncle. The moldy structure housed only a badger, which the Grossbarts dined on after suffering only mild injures from the sleepy beast’s claws. Inquiring at the manor house’s stable, they learned their mother had expired over the winter and lay with all the rest in the barrow at the end of town. Spitting on the mound in the torrential rain, the Brothers Grossbart vowed they would rest in the grand tombs of the Infidel or not at all.

Possessing only their wide-brimmed hats, rank clothes, and tools, but cheered by the pauper’s grave in which their miserable matriarch rotted, they made ready to journey south. Such an expedition required more supplies than a pair of prybars and a small piece of metal that might have once been a coin, so they set off to settle an old score. The mud pulled at their shoes in a vain attempt to slow their malicious course.

The yeoman Heinrich had grown turnips a short distance outside the town’s wall his entire life, the hard lot of his station compounded by the difficult crop and the substandard hedge around his field. When they were boys the Brothers often purloined the unripe vegetation until the night Heinrich lay in wait for them. Not content to

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