The Elixirs of the Devil

Lars elixirs of the devil 815 x 490

Last year the famous (appropriate or not) writer Dan Brown visited the Netherlands, curious enough to take a peek at the fine Frisian horses that the North of our country has to offer. As he was there, the national literary scene seized the opportunity and awarded him a prize because his most recent book Inferno had sold 14 million copies.1 People who have graduated in history, like me, off course suffer allergic reactions to Brown’s stories, where historical details get mingled into a narrative in which everything is enigmatically connected to each other by some conspiracy or mystery. But hypocritical as I am the same kind of stories get interesting when they are written by the so called dark romantics of the Nineteenth century.

Nineteenth century Germany has one famous dark romantic in store: his name is Ernst Theodor Wilhelm (he later changed his third name to Amadeus because of his love for Mozart) Hoffmann. He is mostly known for his fairytales, which became subject to an opera of Jacques Offenbach.2 In 1815 one of his more curious stories appeared. It is not as widely known as his fairytales, but The Elixirs of the Devil offers the same intricate patterns that would prove so successful in later centuries. But who was this Hoffmann anyway?

Fleeing into worlds of the fantastic

Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann was born in Königsberg (the modern Kaliningrad) in the year 1776. He was the son of a bon vivant father and his twelve year younger cousin, who was a cultivated and decent girl. No wonder that the marriage didn’t last. From the moment that his father left the family the young Ernst Theodor was raised by his mother.3 As so many future poets in the nineteenth century, Hoffmann studied law. But he was one of the few upcoming poets who were able to strictly separate their studies from their love of arts, taking a special interest in painting and music. After successfully finishing his studies he started a career as a state-employee at the court of Posen (modern Poznan in Poland) and was also able to combine this with being active as a music-teacher.

After it was discovered that it was Hoffmann who had fabricated some popular caricatures of local military men, he was transferred to the small provincial town of Plozk. There he lived as a strict and incorruptible state servant, painter, and musician until he got another position in Warsaw, which was then under German control.4 When Napoleon’s armies entered Warsaw, the days of German reign were over and Hoffmann and his wife Mischa went to Berlin to find a new way of subsistence. That proved a hard mission and his expedients in portrait painting were not successful enough to sustain the family. He had a short stay as composer and director in the opera-house of Bamberg but mismanagement soon caused the demise of this institution. In this time of struggle for daily subsistence Hoffmann started writing stories that facilitated an alternative world of the fantastic.5 After some short stories published in 1814, The Elixirs of the Devil appeared in 1815. If you are into occult thrillers, this is the book you want to read.

How it all starts

The story starts with an introduction in which an anonymous writer tells that he will present us with a manuscript that has been hidden away in a monastery for decades. It contains the memoirs of the monk Medardus and the abbot of the monastery is very reluctant in handing them over. In his opinion the manuscript should have been burnt long ago.6 So there is dark romantic tension before the story really starts, and there are loads more of that to come.

Medardus starts the story of his life at the moment of his birth at a pilgrimage site. He never knew who his father was, but his mother told him that he came to the site to atone for his grave sins and died comforted and peaceful the moment his son was born. And old painter, who also happens to be at the site, urges his mother to let her son become a cleric because the boy has many great gifts but the sins of his father are boiling in his blood. He exclaims that “the boy is able to become a fighter for religion, let him become a monk!”7The young boy starts his studies of theology as soon as possible and the moment he is old enough he enters a monastery in the locality simply named B. He chooses the name Medardus and is developing into an ardent monk. But trouble is brewing…

Falling in love with an altarpiece

Medardus gets bestowed on him the honor to assist the elder brother Cyrillus in attending the relics that the monastery is housing. Cyrillus shows him a case that contains the one relic that is never displayed to the public. It contains one of the bottles of elixirs that the devil used in one of his many futile attempts to seduce Saint Antony.8 When some local nobility get a tour of the monastery things go wrong: Medardus shows them the relics and an attending nobleman immediately sets his eyes on the case containing the devils elixir. When Medardus tells the story, the count exclaims that he has never heard such humbug and that the case probably contains some fine Sicilian wine. Medardus cannot prevent the nobleman drinking from the bottle and confirming that it is indeed a fine wine. Medardus does not drink from the bottle himself, but the scent of the elixir is enough to get him out of balance. And when Medardus does decide to drink the bottle’s remaining content a few days later, a feeling of utmost wellbeing immediately fills his body.9

Not long after this Medardus starts acting crazy: he falls in love with a painting depicting the martyr’s death of the Holy Rosalia. He is sure that Rosalia is his lady lover. When a girl looking exactly like this Rosalia shows up in church to confess to Medardus the sin of being in love with a monk, Medardus loses it. He spends hours lying before the altar of Rosalia crying like a maniac. The abbot at long length decides it is better to send Medardus on a mission to Rome.10

Murder and mayhem

Soon after starting his journey Medardus arrives at a cliff. Now the bloodshed begins: standing at the cliff is a nobleman, and when Medardus wants to greet him he tips over and falls down to be crushed to death for certain. As soon as this has happened, the nobleman’s courtier arrives and starts complimenting Medardus with his disguise as a monk. The courtier leads him to a palace where the countess has invited a monk to cure her stepson of a major depression. At least that is what she tells her husband. In reality the nobleman, who was her secret lover, had to turn up disguised as a monk and have fun with the countess. And then Aurelie, the daughter of the house, appears who looks exactly like the Rosalia(s) Medardus fell in love with. In the end, Medardus flees the house after stabbing the son of the house and letting the countess drink the poison she had prepared for him to drink. Before he jumps out of the palace he strangely exclaims while wildly laughing: “I am not who you think you are, I am the count Viktorin!”11

Medardus continues his journey arriving at a local forester who is also hospitable to a crazy monk that came crawling out of a cliff en was found in the forest. After that rendezvous, Medardus arrives at another local court where Aurelie identifies him as her brother’s murderer. Just before Medardus will be executed, however, the crazy monk from the forest arrives and admits that he is the murderer. This turn of events makes Aurelie want to marry Medardus, but just before the ceremony starts Medardus kills Aurelie and flees from the town to wake up in a hospital in Rome.12

The mystery unveiled

After confessing his sins to a local abbot Medardus learns that Aurelie survived the attack. Nevertheless Medardus starts atoning for his sins in such a radical way that he gets the admiration of the people and the attention of the pope. The abbot presents a book to Medardus that should explain all the mysterious things that have happened until now.

The book contains the memoirs of the painter who was present at the pilgrimage-site when Medardus was born, and is telling a family history of the kind not to be proud of. It starts with the story of Francesko, who is heir to the throne of Genua but choses to become a painter. He takes lessons in the workshop of Leonardo Da Vinci and soon regards himself as the greatest painter alive. He lives the live of a playboy, forming a secret society with some friends that gorge in pagan rituals and drinking orgies. When Francesko gets the assignment to paint a picture of the Holy Rosalia, he jokingly provides her with the face of Venus. After that Francesko falls very ill and is not cured until his buddies present a mysterious wine to him that makes his blood boil again. In this frantic state Francesko marries a local prostitute and conceives a child with her.

But then Francesko receives a vision of the Holy Rosalia and suddenly gets aware of the grave sins he committed. He tries to find atonement in visiting the monastery that ordered the portrait of Rosalia. He leaves his child-son in a cave while travelling there but when he arrives he learns that the painting has been sold to a monastery in (rumble, rumble) a place simply called B.

While Francesko is frantically atoning for his sin anyway by painting the interior of the church at the pilgrimage-site that is already known to us, his left child-son is found and raised by the count Filippo. Coincidentally the boy is called Francesko as well and when growing older he falls in love with Filippo’s wife. He conceives two children, Pietro and Angiola, with her and when he leaves the court to marry another woman, the countess is left with a grave sense of her own sinfulness. Francesko then conceives another son with his lawful wife: Paolo Francesko. From now on the family starts to have its own dynamics of reproduction. Paolo Francesko rapes Angiola and Angiola bears his child. Pietro, on his turn, seduces Paolo Francesco’s wife and conceives a child with her. Subsequent generations always turn out to rape or seduce each other’s half-siblings and by that perpetuating the sinful genealogy of which Medardus and Aurelie are the most recent descendants. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the nobleman who fell into the cliff was a certain Count Viktorin who is also the crazy monk and happens to be Medardus’ half-brother!13

Something of an happy end

After learning all this, Medardus returns to the monastery in B. where he learns that Aurelie is becoming a nun. Medardus still is not healed entirely of his evil disease: when Aurelie is initiated he attends the ceremony and is closely watched by his abbot. Medardus is feeling the urge to kill Aurelie but manages to restrain himself. But, alas, the crazy monk then storms in and stabs Aurelie multiple times. Medardus sinks down to her dying body and Aurelie speaks her last words to him.

She tells Medardus that she also got aware of her family history. She reveals that the devil has seduced all descendants of this family to get into a sinful relationship with each other to continue the evil history that was started by the painter Francesko. Now, after many close calls, Aurelie and Medardus have broken this chain of sinfulness with Aurelie dying as a virgin and Medardus finally returning to his life as a cleric. Whilst Aurelie is speaking this, the image of Rosalia turns alive and blesses the couple, making the crowd of bystanders sink down in admiration. Medardus dies years later and his deathbed is mysteriously surrounded by the smell of roses.14

And that is just a summary of the story that takes about 350 pages. I did leave many more or less important details and observations out. So despite the fact that this article did not provide a spoiler alert, reading the story is still worthwhile when you like this kind of stuff.

A nice story by a crazy writer?

In the year 2014 we are probably used to a degree of weirdness in fiction, but the German literary world of the early nineteenth century wasn’t. In the newspaper Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände (morning paper for the educated classes) one critic exclaimed that the story of Medardus was nice, but was possibly written in some feverish frenzy or a state of lunacy.15 I could not retrieve any sales figures for his book but it will certainly not have been the 14 million copies that Inferno sold. Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffman was in financial trouble until his death. But on the other hand: there is no famous opera based on the work of Dan Brown, and please let that stay that way.

P.S.: Hofmann also composed music. Most critics do not have a high opinion of it and regard him as a mediocre imitator of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Just have a listen and judge for yourselves:

Pittige verhalen
Joe Speedboot
Buiten is het maandag

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders studied history at the University of Groningen and specialised in the history of post-war Germany. Is addicted to fine prose and has a keen interest in representations of the devil and what Ian Kershaw once punningly classified as the lunatic fringe of politics.
Lars Sanders
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  1. http://www.parool.nl/parool/nl/26/BOEKEN/article/detail/3575116/2014/01/10/Wat-deed-Dan-Brown-in-het-Rijks.dhtml, last seen 13th of august 2014  

  2. Les Contes d’Hoffmann from 1881, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/581433/The-Tales-of-Hoffmann, last seen 13th of august 2014  

  3. M. Hürlimann, Einleitung: Hoffmanns Leben in E.T.A Hoffmanns ausgewählte Werke Band I (Zürich 1965) 7-28, there 7  

  4. Ibidem, 14 

  5. Ibidem, 19 

  6. E.T.A. Hoffmann, Die Elixiere des Teufels (1851, Zürich 1965) 8  

  7. Ibidem, 12 

  8. Ibidem, 27 

  9. Ibidem, 42 

  10. Ibidem, 50 

  11. E.T.A. Hoffmann, Die Elixiere des Teufels, 93 

  12. Ibidem, 253 

  13. E.T.A. Hoffmann, Die Elixiere des Teufels, 274-297 

  14. Ibidem, 354 

  15. H.Laxhuber, E.T.A Hoffmann als Satiriker? Stationen der Rezeptionsgeschichte eines “schwierigen Authors” (Dissertation at the University of Hamburg 1999) 77