Grimm, Jacob (Kassel, principality of Hessen-Cassel 1785 – Berlin, Prussia 1863) and his brother Wilhelm (Kassel 1786 – Berlin 1859). The brothers – this article will deal principally with the more active and exposed of the two, Jacob – were of a middle-class background of state officials. The early death of their father left them with reduced financial and career prospects, mitigated by the patronage of an aunt with court connections, who made it possible for them to enter Marburg University in 1802. There they became close to the renowned legal scholar Friedrich von Savigny, who introduced them to the study of old manuscripts (paleography being a historical ancillary to legal studies), love of old German literature, and his dislike of Napoleon-imposed innovations. Savigny took Jacob to Paris in 1805 as his amanuensis in legal history. The Parisian sojourn saw Jacob develop his dislike of things French – an experience he shared with many intellectuals of his generation, such as Arndt, F. Schlegel and Görres – while making grateful use of the riches of the bibliothèque nationale. It was during this stay that Grimm sighted early French and Latin versions of the Reynard Fox satires (recently given fresh literary fame by Goethe’s Reineke Fuchs) and began to ponder the provenance of the literary material (French or Frankish?) in what later would become his particular brand of historical-comparative philology.
Shortly after the Parisian trip, Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor and merged the Grimms’ Hessian homeland into the newly-established Kingdom of Westphalia, reigned over by his brother Jérôme. While the move was resented by the traditionalist, anti-French brothers, they also profited from it: they were appointed librarians to Jérôme’s court library in 1808. Moreover, they had been introduced by Savigny to the Bökendorf Circle (thus named after their convivial gatherings at the Bökendorf estate of the Haxthausen family, in a region now also united into Westphalia). The Bökendorfers collected folksongs, which resulted in Achim von Arnim’s and Clemens Brentano’s epoch-making collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1805-08). Savigny himself had married into the Bökendorf Circle by marrying Kunigunde Brentano, thus becoming brother-in-law to Clemens Brentano and to Bettina Brentano, who herself had married Achim von Arnim. Another literary figure linked into this familial and convivial network was Jenny von Droste-Hülshoff, who briefly may have formed a tender friendship with the shy, socially inferior Wilhelm Grimm. (Wilhelm himself was later to marry a childhood friend; Jacob remained unmarried.)
The Grimms combined the Bökendorfers’ interest in folk-culture with their Savigny-inspired historicism. The initial result was their collection of folk and fairy tales, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812-15), followed by the Deutsche Sagen (1816-18), undoubtedly the most influential collection of oral culture of all time and the beginning of folktale and folklore studies in the 19th century. Its impact registered from Norway (Asbjørnsen/Moe) to Sicily (Pitrè) and from Russia (Afanas’ev) to Ireland (Croker). Although it is now understood that the Kinder- und Hausmärchen were to some extent manipulated in their selection, tone and diction so as to convey a greater (and to some extent contrived) sense of folksy homeliness, they went beyond Herder’s and Arnim/Brentano’s earlier endeavours. Earlier anthologies of culture had been anthropological rather than historicist: Herder and Arnim/Brentano had presented their material as artless but admirable manifestations of spontaneous folk-creativity. The Grimms, however, presented it as a cultural heirloom emanating from a long-standing national tradition handed down across the generations. Later on they would become increasingly explicit in linking oral materials as remains of a primal, forgotten or eroded epic or mythological national culture.
Although Jacob earned his doctorate from Marburg in 1819 (despite having formally abandoned his calling for jurisprudence), the Grimms’ “etymological” view of folk-culture met with reservations, notably from A.W. Schlegel. Schlegel’s scathing comments on what he considered amateurish speculation had prompted Jacob to adopt a more rigid scientist method. Meanwhile Jérôme Bonaparte’s Kingdom of Westphalia had been swept away in the ruin of Napoleon’s empire, and the Grimms had entered the employ of the reinstated landgrave of Hessia-Cassel. Jacob’s standing was now such that he was in the entourage of a delegation attending the Congress of Vienna, and was sent to Paris with a mission seeking the return of ancient manuscripts purloined by the French as war booty. Even so, the reinstatement of ancien-régime class barriers meant that the Grimms were locked into a subaltern position as assistant librarians, which over the next years would prove increasingly irksome.
Jacob followed philological developments attentively, noticing almost every new publication in reviews for the Göttingsche gelehrte Anzeigen and other learned journals. His scientific turn led him to abandon his interest in tales and myths such as the Reynard Fox material, which would be kept on hold until his Reinhart Fuchs edition of 1835. Instead, he undertook a comparative grammar of the Germanic languages, in wich he drew on his interest in old Gothic and the Scandinavian languages, Wilhelm having developed a special proclivity for old Danish kjämpeviser. After an initial volume (1819, dedicated to Savigny), Rasmus Rask’s comparative insights in vowel and consonant mutations led Grimm to reconsider these, and in Rask’s wake Grimm formulated what is now known as “Grimm’s Laws”: the insight that consonant mutations establish a regular pattern of divergences around and between the various members of the Germanic language family, and that these patterns can be correlated and historically schematized so as to arrange these languages into a family “tree”. The second edition of the first volume (1822) and the succeeding volumes of the Deutsche Grammatik (1826, 1831, 1836) definitively established Grimm as the leading practitioner of a new type of German philology, on a historical-comparative basis focused on structural linguistic patterns – the method also applied by Franz Bopp to the larger Indo-European language family, but here applied specifically to the German and Germanic.
Grimm was never taxonomically clear-cut in what made a given language “German” or “Germanic”. For him, the word deutsch could mean either the High German language as standardized in Luther’s Bible translation (including the dialect variants current in its catchment area and its earlier medieval forms), or else the Germanic language family as a whole, including more far-flung outriders such as Frisian, Dutch and Flemish, Anglo-Saxon and English, and the Germanic languages of Scandinavia. In his conception, German in the narrower sense was the central core of a diffuse cloud of Germanic linguistic variants. It is here that his cultural commitment to his native tongue and culture could shade into political chauvinism. At various points, Grimm allowed his linguistic reasoning to inspire a Pan-German unification which would draw into its ambit peripheral areas such as the Low Countries, Schleswig-Holstein and even Jutland, allowing only a separate political existence for England and for a Scandinavia united around Sweden. The attitude was close to the thought of Ernst Moritz Arndt, while his firm belief in the superior moral status of German culture owing to its inherited purity and resistance to alienating influences such as Latinization/Romanization was close to the ideas that the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte had propounded in his Reden an die deutsche Nation of 1808. Unlike Arndt or Fichte, Grimm never outlined a specific political agenda; his position must be inferred from various letters and reviews, and the interventions made in the fateful year 1848 (the dedicatory introduction to the Geschichte der deutschen Sprache and his speeches in the Frankfurt Parliament of that year).
The national chauvinism of Grimm’s politics has been generally outshone by his more famous critiques of arbitrary and aristocratic government. Grimm had chafed against class privilege in his native Kassel, and moved to Göttingen in protest at being passed over for promotion at the court library there. In Göttingen, he and Wilhelm took up professorial chairs (1830), from which they were dismissed in 1837 as part of the notious episode of the “Göttingen Seven”. The death of William IV having ended the personal union between Great Britain and Hannover, the new King there, Ernst August, abrogated the constitution granted by his predecessor, and demanded of his civil servants that they take an oath of loyalty to his person. A number of Göttingen professors demurred: they felt that it was capricious to invalidate oaths taken under a previous constitution. The “Göttingen Seven” included some of the leading lights of the new German philological sciences: the Grimm brothers, Dahlmann and Gervinus (to whom Grimm was later to dedicated the Geschichte der deutschen Sprache). Ernst August dismissed them out of hand, in what became a notorious scandal marking a yet wider rift between the restored German monarchs and the intellectuals of the anti-Napoleonic generation. The affair placed the Grimms in a precarious financial position, although they were reluctant to take up the many employment offers extended to them from various universities. Although Jacob published (in Switzerland) a dignified and widely-read apologia for his political stance, which made him a European hero in the cause of academic freedom, he was thenceforth extremely careful to enter into political arguments, strenuously disavowing for instance the more radical stance taken by his adepts such as Hoffmann von Fallersleben. Grimm was, however, to propose an amendment to the ill-fated German draft constitution of 1848, which aimed to abolish servitude and establish civic freedom across all German lands. This combination of liberal, anti-aristocratic politics and national-expansionist chauvinism, contradictory in modern eyes, was shared by many intellectuals and literati of his generation.
After a few years of precarious semi-employment in their native Kassel, the Grimms (through the intercession of Savigny and Lachmann) were offered a position in the Prussian Academy of Sciences at Berlin. From 1841 to their death they were to reside in that city as respected scholars, their attention taken up by editions of source materials from legal history and the project of a German dictionary. The idea for a Deutsches Wörterbuch was formally launched at a congress of German philologists, historians and legal scholars convened at Frankfurt in 1846. This Germanistenversammlung followed the example of similar gatherings by legal historians. It marked the definitive consolidation of a new scholarly discipline called Germanistik, although Grimm’s totalizing idea of a national anthropology uniting the study of German language, literature, folklore, history and jurisprudence (distantly echoing the programme laid out by Giambattista Vico in the Scienza Nuova of 1725) was too widely-conceived and Germanistik would later become a more narrowly philological discipline. What is more, the Frankfurt meeting of 1846 marked the ambition of Germanistik to become a nationally useful science, and saw many delegates (ineffectively chaired by a hesitant Grimm) using the occasion to proclaim grandstanding arguments in support of a German annexation of Danish-controlled Schleswig-Holstein. As such, the Germanistenversammlung has sometimes been seen as a finger exercise for the Parliament of 1848, held at the same venue (St Paul’s church in the Free Imperial city of Frankfurt) and with many of the 1846 Germanisten taking seats in the 1848 assembly. It was here in 1846, finally, that the project of the German Dictionary got under way: a very ambitious venture to enshrine the history and vocabulary of the German language – which, in the Grimms’ philological view, was tantamount to the canonization and consolidation of the essence of German nationality.
The Grimms themselves were to work on the dictionary until their deaths in 1859/1863. The full project did not come to completion until 1960, when its final, 33th volume was published. Meanwhile, during the Grimms’ lifetime, it had inspired similar ventures in the Netherlands (the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal was proposed at a congress of Netherlandic Scholars in 1849 and completed in 1998) and Britain (the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, now better known as the Oxford English Dictionary, being first proposed in 1858 and finished in 1928). Also, it had played an important role in German linguistic nationalism. The vignette on the title-page showed an angel surrounded by laurel and oak leaves and holding a book with the words, taken from the Gospel of St John, Im Anfang war das Wort (In the beginning was the Word) – symbolically placing the very core and origin of human culture in its language, turning the metaphysical meaning of the logos into a national essentialism, and proclaiming this dictionary to contain the very foundation of what made Germans German. This was in line with Grimm’s ultimate tendency to see all ancient cultural heirlooms (phrases, tales, themes) in an ultimately anthropological perspective, with a pagan, aboriginal Germanic mythology for its vanishing point. Grimm published his Deutsche Mythologie in 1835 (3rd ed. 1854).
The position of Jacob Grimm in intellectual history is secure, thanks to his seminal fairytale-collecting, his lexicographical and philological achievements and most importantly his formulation of the regularity of consonant- and vowel-shifts, which lifted historical linguistics to a new scientific footing and made him the Newton of this new scientific discipline. Grimm also marks the adoption of historicism in the human sciences, in a sensible intellectual shift from the more anthropological work of Herder before him. Institutionally, his works was crucial in giving German philology a central position in the new German pursuit of learning and in the new university system; although he cherished life-long enmities (e.g. with Friedrich Heinrich von der Hagen), his network in essence established the scholarly field of Germanistik. Internationally, his network was no less widerspread and influential: Grimm was tangentially involved in te development of Slavic studies through his correspondence with Dobrovský and Kopitar, and his positive interest in the work of Vuk Karadžić; in the development of Romance philology, through his adept Diez). The career of the Grimm brothers is also exemplary for the way in which the pursuit of cultural learning changed from a branch of Polite Letters pursued by learned amateurs, often of a privileged background (e.g., the Bökendorf circle, in which the Grimms were out of their depth) to an academic discipline carried by scholarly networks of professional men of letters. The Grimms garnered many distinctions, honorary doctorates, academy memberships and book dedications, and their rise to social prominence is perhaps best symbolized by the fact that by 1859, Wilhelm Grimm’s son Herman was in a position to marry Achim and Bettina von Arnim’s daughter Gisela.
The role of the Grimms in the development of cultural nationalism is threefold.
Internationally, like Herder before them, they exercised an important inspirational function on intellectuals in different parts of Europe. The historical-philological investigation of a country’s vernacular culture; the readiness to see contemporary folklore as the echo of a primordial epic-mythical national substratum; that a language deserved to be traced and analysed in its historical changes so as to take its rightful place within Europe’s national-linguistic spectrum: these attitudes spread far and wide across Europe, were enabled by the Grimms’ example, and often bolstered by the Grimms’ endorsement (witness the cases of La Villemarqué in Brittany and of Lönnrot in Finland).
Within Germany, they counted, largely because of the fairytales and the dictionary, as the nation’s cultural wardens, proclaiming a sense of German identity, rooted at once in homely, familial popular culture and in a long, august cultural history reaching back, by way of the Nibelungen and the ancient Goths, to a primordial Nordic-tribal mythology. Meanwhile, their role model in the academic institutions marks the rise of a chauvinistic nationalism in the self-image of the German academic, and a propensity towards a moral and geopolitical German ethnocentrism that was to take on unfortunate forms in the decades after their deaths. Also, in recent years, antisemitic letters have come to light which had been kept out of the published correspondence editions.
Accordingly, the Grimms’ expansionist way of viewing German and Germanic culture in the European scheme of things has made their position more contested in countries immediately neighbouring Germany. The 19th century saw a long quarrel between French- and German-style philology, involving, among other things, the best way to edit a manuscript and the true origin of the Reynard Fox tales, and feeding into the general sense that France and Germany represented two distinct and inimical moral-intellectual traditions in Europe. Similarly, the various national claims laid on Edda myths, Beowulf and the courtly poet Henric van Veldeke likewise fed into national frictions; all this having been made possible in part by the Grimms’ habit of raising national flags over medieval sources. The early rift between Rask and Grimm, for example, from 1812 onwards involved the type of Danish-German enmities that in the political arena would lead to two wars over Schleswig-Holstein (hence also the massive absenteeism of Danish philologists from the 1846 Germanistenversammlung); in England, too, the Anglo-Saxonism proclaimed by Grimm’s adept Kemble was a contentious issue.
Word Count: 2776
Arnim, Achim von
Arnim, Bettina von
Afanas’ev, Aleksandr Nikolaevič
Arndt, Ernst Moritz
Asbjørnsen, Peter Christen
Croker, Thomas Crofton
Diez, Friedrich Christian
Fichte, Johann Gottlieb
Gervinus, Georg Gottfried
Görres, Johann Joseph
Hagen, Friedrich Heinrich von der
Herder, Johann Gottfried
Hoffmann von Fallersleben, August Heinrich
Karadžić, Vuk Stefanović
Kemble, John Mitchell
La Villemarqué, Théodore-Henri Hersart de
Moe, Jørgen Engebretsen
Rask, Rasmus Christian
Savigny, Friedrich Carl von
Schlegel, August Wilhelm
Droste-Hülshoff, Jenny von
Oral literature and popular culture : German