Letter 91a

91a. Alexander von Humboldt to Wilhelm Gabriel Wegener in Berlin: Göttingen, 17 August 1789 [*]

Göttingen, 17 August 1789

. . . You asked for news about Michaelis [1] . . . Well, here it is! though I do not really have an equal acquaintance with everyone in this poikile [2] of great men.

Michaelis — I saw him only this morning. Although I have no need to extol his considerable erudition to you of all people, he can hardly get a single lecture course going now since Eichhorn has been lecturing on the Old Testament. Michaelis’s delivery is abominable, as is his voice, and is full of vulgar jokes. [3]

Concerning his character, consider this conversation my brother had with him on Barth:

My brother: “Doctor Barth will probably be imprisoned for 4 years in Spandau.” — Michaelis (smiling): “Four years, not bad; certainly appropriate. I myself would advise giving him life, even though” — here in a tone of extreme approval — “four years is certainly acceptable.” — My brother: “and in Spandau, no less.” — Michaelis: “Spandau is a pleasant enough locale, I would recommend they send him to the Sternschanze in Magdeburg. [4] Of course, under the previous king he would not have been punished at all in the first place. [5] Which is why 4 years in Spandau is certainly acceptable.”

Madame Michaelis: “But my God, his poor wife and children!” — Michaelis: “They have nothing to do with it; they cannot excuse him; God’s honor on earth must be maintained. The scoundrel has insulted so many distinguished people” — here Michaelis was referring to himself.

One peculiar feature in Michaelis’s personality is his love of war and the military. He is quite disturbed by the entrenchments the king had built near Danzig. He lives wholly with the Prussian military rankings.

His house, by the way, is quite pleasant, always with a free, unceremonious atmosphere. I am there a lot. He has a couple of daughters who are quite well educated, one of whom, however, quite plays the erudite one. [6] . . .


[*] Source: Jugendbriefe Alexander von Humboldts an Wilhelm Gabriel Wegener, ed. Albert Leitzmann (Leipzig 1896), 64–65. Back.

[1] Both Humboldt brothers were studying in Göttingen at the time; Wilhelm had been there since the spring of 1788, Alexander since 25 April 1789. Back.

[2] Greek, variously the painted hall or portico, associated with the Stoic philosophers, on the north side of the marketplace in Athens with various murals; according to Pausanias it was apparently located close to both the Athenian Agora and Gymnasium; also refers to a “varied collection.” Back.

[3] For another assessment of Caroline’s father as a professor, see Friedrich Adolf Ebert, “Charakteristik einiger Göttinger Professoren in den Jahren 1766–1769,” Ueberlieferungen zur Geschichte, Literatur und Kunst der Vor- und Mitwelt, vol. 1, issue 1 (1826), 65–71, here 68–71 (text see supplementary appendix 91a.1). Back.

[4] Citadel and prison in the Berlin district of Spandau, located ca. 18 km west of Berlin (Rudolf Koch and Fritz Kredel, Deutschland und angrenzende Gebiete [Leipzig 1937]):


Here the town and citadel in an excerpt from a larger engraving (Matthäus Merian der Ältere, Die Stadt und Festung Spandaw [ca. 1638]):


The Magdeburg citadel Sternschanze was so called because of its similarly star-shaped form, though it also had a reputation for being a grim place to be incarcerated. Here the outline of the fortress and an illustration of the prisoner Fridrich Freiherr von der Trenck, who was incarcerated for ten years tethered with 68 pounds of chains (O. Peters, “Der ‘Stern’ und seine Geschichte,” Geschichts-Blätter für Stadt und Land Magdeburg: Mittheilungen des Vereins für Geschichte und Alterthumskunde des Herzogthums und Erzstifts Magdeburg 39 [1904], 96/238–114/256 [double paging], accompanying plates):




[5] The “previous king” was Friedrich II of Prussia, who mistrusted Johann Christoph Wöllner’s penchant for intrigue but who died in 1786; Wöllner (whose policies were essentially the cause of Bahrdt’s problems) was then able to ingratiate himself with his successor, Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia. Back.

[6] Presumably Caroline, though she had been in Marburg since approximately Whitsun 1789. Wilhelm von Humboldt, however, had been in Göttingen since the spring of 1788. Neither Luise nor Lotte Michaelis otherwise had such a reputation. Back.

Translation © 2011 Doug Stott