Secret Societies of All Ages - Charles Heckethorn




V. German Students

"What shall I call thee, thon high, thon rough, thou noble, thou barbaric, thou lovable, unharmonious, song-full, repelling, yet refreshing life of the Burschen years? . . . Thy ludicrous outside lies open, the layman sees that, . . . but thy inner and lovely one, the miner only knows, who descends singing with his brethren into the lonely shaft."
—Hauff's Rothsceller in Bremen.

381. Customs of German Students.—A fellowship of a very different kind, but still a compagnonnage, is that of the students at German universities, to which a few lines may therefore be devoted. The student or Bursch—from the mediaeval German Burse, i.e. Bursari, the college buildings being called bursae—looks upon the inhabitants of the town, whose university he honours with his presence, as "Philistines"; and town and gown rows are as usual in Germany as in this country. All non-students are Philistines, whether they be kings, princes, nobles, or belong to the canaille. The students form two grand associations, the Burschenchaften, consisting of students from any state; and Landsmannschaften, composed of students of the same state only. Each has its own laws, regulations, and officers, ruling according to a charter; but all members of the universities acknowledge moreover a general code, called the "Commentary." Such as refuse to belong to one of these associations are held in very slight estimation, and are called by all kinds of opprobrious names, such as Kameele (camels), Finken (literally, "finches," figuratively, "low fellows"), and others still more abusive.

The collegiate students (sizars), called Frosche (frogs), cannot take part in the meetings of the Burschen. The freshman anciently was called a Pennal, from the middle-age Latin pennale, a cylindrical box for pens, which the newly-arrived student had to carry after the older students for their occasional use. He was afterwards called Fuchs (fox), which nickname alludes both to the timidity of the animal and that of the new student, and its use in this sense is very ancient, for we find it mentioned in the Salic Law (fifth century), which imposes a fine of 120 pence for applying it to a person. The freshman is also called a Goldfuchs (golden fox), because he still has a few gold coins from home. After six months he becomes a Brandfuchs (canis melanogaster); to explain the cause of this term being applied to him would take us too far, but his arrival at that state is celebrated with ridiculous ceremonies. In the second year the Brandfuchs rises to the dignity of Jungbursch (young Bursch); in the third he becomes an Altbursch (old Bursch), altes Haibs (old house), or hemoostes Haupt (mossy head. Students who are natives of the university town are called Curds, because their mothers can send them, if they please, a dish of that article of food for their suppers.

To rise from one degree to another the Fuchs has to go through a series of probations, especially putting to the test his powers of drinking and smoking. On his first visit to the Commerzhaus as the tavern which the students patronise is called, he is unfailingly made drunk, at his own expense, and while at the same time entertaining all the "old houses." The next morning he awakes with the Katzenjammer (cat's lamentation). He dresses in a fantastic style, wearing a Polish jacket, jack-boots with spurs, and a cap of the colour of the society to which he belongs; to his button-hole is attached an enormous tobacco-pouch; in his mouth he carries a long pipe, and an iron-shod stick in his hand. He endeavours above all things to become flotter Bursch, a student de pur sang, and is proud if an "old house" makes him his Leibfuchs (favourite fox).

The Philistine who offends the students is condemned to the Verruf (outlawed); and frequently the students have turned out against the citizens, forming with their Stiefelurichser (boot-cleaners, or gyps) an array not to be despised by the military. The cry of Burschen raus! students turn out! would send terror through the small peaceable towns of Germany. Sometimes they would punish the town by leaving it in a body, and only return on their terms being agreed to. Such emigrations took place at Gottingen in 1823, at Halle in 1827, and at Heidelberg in 1830. A few details of these "emigrations" may be amusing.

On the last-named occasion the students, who had again secretly formed a Burschenschaft, put under the ban the Museum of that town, because the rules for its management displeased many of them. For this the ringleaders were seized and brought to trial. But on the cry of Burschen Waust all the students, hastily snatching up what articles they most needed, threw thein into chaises, on horses, on the backs of the shoeblacks, and marched out of the town to Schwetzingen; and it was only when their demands with regard to the Museum were conceded that they returned to Heidelberg. Another marching forth had occurred many years before. A student, as he went past the watch-house, forgot to take the pipe from his mouth. Thereupon arose a contention between him and the soldier on guard; the latter called an officer, by whom the student was grossly insulted. This gave occasion to an "emigration," which, however, proceeded no further than to a place about a mile from the city, whence the students at once returned, all their demands being conceded; which were that a full amnesty should be granted for all that had passed and the soldiers removed. Moreover, the military were obliged to post themselves on the bridge, the officers at their head, and to present arms, while the students marched past in triumph, with music playing before them.

But though the German student would thus seem to think of nothing but smoking his pipe, to which he gives the elegant, but appropriate, name of Stinktopf, drinking unlimited quantities of wine, beer, and punch, entertaining the daughters of the cits, which daughters he gallantly calls Geier (vultures), whilst grisettes are Besen (brooms), running into debt, and calling importunate creditors Manichaeans, fighting duels—to be called dummer Junge (stupid youngster), is an insult which necessitates a challenge—and generally ruining his health, yet when he buckles to work he will accomplish mental feats that would astonish many an Oxford first-class man, or Cambridge wrangler. Out of all this fermentation and froth there comes at last good wine, and all the intellectual greatness of Germany, and much of its political progress, are due to the roystering Burschen, of whom I cannot speak but with a sort of sneaking kindness, retaining many pleasant personal recollections of them.

382. Ancient Custom of Initiation.—In the following account of the customs prevailing as late as the first half of the seventeenth century at the matriculations of German students, the reader may detect many ceremonies analogous to those practised in the initiations to the ancient mysteries.

The scholar who had not commenced his university career was termed a Beanus, the Fox of to-day. This word has been fancifully derived from the initials of the words Beanies Est Animal Nesciens Vitam Studiorum, an acrostic, as the reader will perceive. But as the word Beanus forms a portion of the sentence itself, its origin is not explained thereby. The fact is, the word is a coiTuption of the French Bec jaune, shortened into Bejaune literally, a yellow beak (the German Gelbschnahel), a term applied to a young, inexperienced person (because young unfledged birds have yellow beaks); the French term is blanc-bec, meaning a greenhorn. The word Mjaune in mediaeval Latin became Beanus. Sometimes, by way of variety, the beanus was called a bestia cornigera. It would seem that a trace of this appellation has survived at Cambridge, where a student, who has not come into residence, and thus has no claim to be called a "Varsity man," is necessarily a beast.

On arriving at the university the Beanus, or modern "Fox," announced himself to the dean of the philosophical faculty, and prayed that he might through the deposition be received among the students. When the Beani amounted to a certain number, the dean appointed a day on which to celebrate the deposition; and sommoned, besides the Beani, the depositor with his instruments, and an amanuensis. They appeared on the appointed day before the dean; the depositor in the first place put on a harlequin's dress, caused the Beani to attire themselves in the same style, And put on them other ludicrous articles of dress, especially hats and caps with horns, and distributed amongst them the instruments with which the deposition should be executed—coarse wooden combs, shears, axes, hatchets, planes, saws, razors, looking-glasses, stools, and so on. The depositor then marshalled the Beani in rank and file, placed himself at their head, and conducted them to the hall, where the deposition should be performed, and there addressed a speech to the dean and the spectators, who consisted of students. The depositor commenced the deposition by striking the Beani with a bag filled with sand or bran, and compelling them to scamper about with all manner of laughable gestures and duckings in order to escape the strokes of the sand-bag. He then propounded to them certain questions or riddles, and they who did not answer them quickly received so many "Strokes with the sand-bag, that the tears often started from their eyes. The Beani then gave up the instruments which they had held in their hands, and laid down on the ground, so that their heads nearly touched each other. The depositor then planed their shoulders, filed their nails, pretended to bore through and saw off their feet, hewed every limb of their bodies into shape, knocked off their goat's horns, and tore out of their mouths with a pair of great tongs the satyr's teeth stuck in on purpose. The Beani were then caused each to sit on a stool with only one leg. The depositor then put on them a dirty napkin, soaped them with brick-dust, with shoe-blacking, or even viler and more filthy matter, and shaved them so sharply with a wooden razor that the tears often started from their eyes. The combing with the wooden combs was equally rough, and after the combing their hair was sprinkled with shavings.

After all these operations the depositor with his sand-bag drove them out of the hall, took off his grotesque attire, put on his proper costume, and commanded the Beani to do the same. He then reconducted them to the hall and commended them in a short Latin speech to the dean, who replied also in Latin, explaining the custom of deposition, and adding much good advice. Luther, who occasionally presided at such ceremonies, and was not superior to the coarse tastes of his time, found in the depositio a figure of human life, with all its troubles and misfortunes. The dean finally gave to each of them, as a symbol of wisdom, a few grains of salt to taste, scattered in sign of joy some "drops of wine over their heads, and handed to them the certificate of the accomplished deposition. The last ceremony of this sort is said to have been performed by a professor of Altdorf (Bavaria) in 1763. The university of that town, founded in 1622, was merged in that of Erlangen in 1809.

It is scarcely necessary to point out the analogies between the above initiation into student life and that into the ancient mysteries and modern Freemasonry; the disguises, trials, addresses, and whole ceremonial are all on the model of the secret society, most of them foolish, and not a few barbarous. Hoffmann's Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr—"Opinions of the Tom-cat Murr," or, as we might say more briefly, Tom Murr, is a capital satire on German student-life. The German scholar—there is, as far as I know, no English translation of the work—may there see how "Tommy" becomes a Flotter Katzbursch. The political secret associations of the Burschenschaft are described in Book XIII.