From The Life of Courage by Johann Grimmelshausen


By Johann Grimmelshausen


Johann Grimmelshausen’s THE LIFE OF COURAGE (first published in 1670) was the initial inspiration for Brecht’s MOTHER COURAGE.  Grimmelshausen is perhaps best known for his medieval masterpiece entitled SIMPLICISSIMUS , a picaresque novel of an eternal innocent who makes his way through the Thirty Years War, it is during these various misadventures that we first meet Courage.  THE LIFE OR COURAGE, narrated by Courage herself, is a sequel of sorts to SIMPLICISSIMUS.  The motivation for Courage’s own tale is to get her literary revenge on Simplicissimus who treats her rather dismissively in his memoirs.


The Translator  Mike Mitchell notes, “Although Brecht borrowed the name Courage and the regimental canteen she runs for part of the book, that together with the background of the war and devastation, is really all the two works have in common.  Grimmelshausen’s Courage, for example, is barren and has no children.  Whereas she often manages to come out on top, and always comes up smiling, Brecht’s character is a rather grim survivor.”  But let’s let the original Courage speak for herself:


Chapter 1

A Very necessary explanation of the reasons why the old swindler, vagrant and gypsy Courage felt impelled to recount her truly strange and remarkable life and to whom the account is addressed.


‘What?! ‘ I can hear you gentlemen say. ‘Who would have thought that the old bag would have the cheek to try and escape G-d’s wrath on the Day of Judgement?  But needs must when the devil drives, I suppose.  Her youthful frolics are over, her wanton high spirits have evaporated, her anxious conscience has woken and she has reached that sour faced age which is ashamed to continue its foolish excesses and feels disgust at the idea of keeping all her previous misdeeds locked up inside her.  It has begun to dawn on the old reprobate that death is sure to come knocking on her door soon to collect her last breath and send her off to another world, where she will have to account for all her actions on earth.  That’s why she’s starting to unload her poor pack horse of a soul of its heavy burden in full public view.  She’s hoping she can relieve it of enough to qualify for divine grace after all.’


Yes, gentlemen, that is what you will say, that is what you will think, such will be your astonishment when the news of my general and public confession reaches you.  And when I hear your reaction I will forget my age and laugh fit to burst, or perhaps even to make myself young again.


‘Why, Courage?  Why will you laugh so much?’


Because you believe that an old woman who has enjoyed life for so long she feels her soul has taken root inside her should think of death?   That a woman such as you know me to be and to have been all my life should think of turning over a new leaf.  That a woman who has lived such a life that the priests tell me I am heading straight for hell should now think of going to heaven.

I openly admit that I cannot yet bring myself to prepare for that journey, much as the priests are trying to persuade me to, nor entirely to give up those pleasure they say will hinder me.  For there is one thing that I am short of and others (a pair in particular) I am over endowed with.

What I mean, of course, is that I lack remorse when what I ought to lack is greed and envy.  If I hated the pile of gold I have amassed at danger to life, limb and even, some say, my eternal soul, as much as I envy my neighbor, and if I loved my neighbor as much as my money, why yes, then I might enjoy the heavenly gift of remorse.


I know from my own experience the way women are at different ages and my example confirms the saying that you can’t teach an old bitch new tricks.  With the years my yellow bile has increased and I can’t remove my gall-bladder, as a butcher would a pig’s stomach, to give it a good clean-out, so how can I be expected to resist anger?  Who can rid me of my excess of phlegm and cure me of my lethargy?  Who will clear my body of the melancholy humor and with it my inclination of envy/?  Who can persuade me to hate ducats when I know from long experience they can rescue me from need and the sole comfort of my old age?


O you priests and preachers, the days of my youth and innocence would have been the time to set me on the path you say I should follow now.  Even though I was approaching that dangerous age when the flesh starts to itch with carnal desire, it would still have been easier for me to resist my hot-blooded urges than now to ward off the violent attacks of the three other humors combined.  Address your sermons to young people, whose hearts have not yet been defiled, like Courage’s, with other images, and instruct, exhort, beseech, implore them not, out of heedlessness, to let things go so far as poor Courage has done.


‘But listen, Courage, if you don’t mean to mend your ways, why are you going to tell the story of your life and confess all your misdeeds to the whole world?’


I am doing it to spite Simplicissmus, because it is the only way I can get my own back on him.  That nasty piece of work not only got me pregnant (or so he thought!) and then ditched me by a mean trick, now he goes and announces our shame to the world in his fine autobiography.  So I’m going to tell him what an honest pussy he was dealing with so that he’ll know the truth of what he was boasting about and perhaps wish he’d kept quiet.  The lesson for respectable society is that stallion and mare, whore and whoremonger are each as bad as the other.  Birds of feather flock together, as the devil said to the charcoal burner and sinners and their sins are generally punished by other sins and other sinners.