Monday, October 19, 2015

Goethe and Christiane wed on this day

"Why did Goethe marry Christiane Vulpius," asks Peter Schwartz in an article in volume 15 (2008) of Goethe Yearbook, "his companion of 18 years, on 19 October 1806, five days after Napoleon's victory over Prussia at the battle of Jena-Auerstedt?" Marriage is also the subject of Peter's book After Jena: Goethe's Elective Affinities and the End of the Old Regime, in which appeared the chapter "When Did Goethe Marry When He Did?"

An early legend grew up around the event, namely, that Goethe was grateful to Christiana for her fierceness in the face of plundering by French soldiers, who entered their house in Weimar, raided their larder, and barged into Goethe's bedroom. There is, however, as Peter points out, already a precedent in Goethe's own ouevre, namely, Hermann und Dorothea. The events in the epic concern refugees fleeing the western side of the Rhine, occupied by French Revolutionary armies, and seeking refuge on the eastern side. In this small work the "outsider" Dorothea, defending "home and hearth" (as Peter writes) from French incursion, becomes worthy of an "insider's" marriage and acceptance by Hermann's parents.

More likely, it was precisely Napoleon's incursion into the heart of German lands that prompted the wedding ceremony, performed by Wilhelm Christoph Günther, who was court chaplain of the Jakobskirche in Weimar. As several contemporaries noted, it was a time when the foundations of the old order had been sent trembling. Besides worrying about the fate of all of his papers, documents, art collections, and so on, Goethe now had to be concerned, in the event of his death, with the legal consequences that would arrive should the French Civil Code be enacted in German territories. According to Napoleon, it was not in society's interest to recognize bastards, which was the status of Goethe's "natural son," August. Under the French code, inheritance rights of illegitimate children were not recognized. Thus, although Goethe had named August as his heir in his will of 1797, his ability to do so and to guarantee August's inheritance depended on Carl August's dispensation. Although in the end the duchy retained its own legal system, it was not certain in October 1806 "what sort of laws would obtain in Weimar from that time forward."

Battle of Jena-Auerstädt, October 14, 1806, at 10 a.m.
In part, Goethe's earlier hesitation in marrying Christiana was related to the court's censure of a marriage between a nobleman (Goethe) and a nobody (Christiane). Living together out of wedlock was provocative enough. Friedrich Riemer, Goethe's friend, alluded afterward to Goethe's gift of knowing when to seize the right moment, and their marriage certainly took place at such a moment. As Johann Heinrich Voss wrote in a letter shortly afterward, the moment was one when people were distracted -- many in Weimar had lost everything they owned through the French plundering -- that they would hardly be aware of such a "Kleinigkeit"; and when they did notice, it would already be old news.

Still, Goethe seems to have been hesitant. As Peter writes, it may have been the advice of a French general billeted in Goethe's home who convinced Goethe to marry, enumerating the liabilities that would be in store under Napoleonic law. After finally taking the big step, Goethe rapidly moved on to solidify his affairs. "In the days and weeks after Jena, Goethe was working to set his entire civil estate onto solid legal ground." Thus, he wrote to Carl August in January of 1807 requesting legal title to the house in which he .had been living He also revised his will in early 1807.

All the privileges Goethe enjoyed as a favorite of Carl August would have evaporated under the French Civil Code. As Peter writes: "A legal and political climate more hostile to the feudal state of exception within which Goethe had lived until then could hardly be imagined. His marriage normalized this state of exception to such a degree that Goethe was able to revoke his will and rely on the normal order of inheritance -- on the laws of the land, whatever they were to be -- without fear of untoward consequences."

Picture credits: Emerson Kent

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