Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm lived in this house in Steinau
from 1791 to 1796.
Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm was born on 4 January 1785, and his brother Wilhelm Carl Grimm was born on 24 February 1786. Both were born in Hanau, in the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel within the Holy Roman Empire (present-day Germany), to Philipp Wilhelm Grimm, a jurist, and Dorothea Grimm née Zimmer, daughter of a Kassel city councilman. They were the second- and third-eldest surviving siblings in a family of nine children, three of whom died in infancy. In 1791, the family moved to the countryside town of Steinau, when Philipp was employed there as district magistrate (Amtmann). The family became prominent members of the community, residing in a large home surrounded by fields. Biographer Jack Zipes writes that the brothers were happy in Steinau and "clearly fond of country life". The children were educated at home by private tutors, receiving strict instruction as Lutherans that instilled in both a lifelong religious faith. Later, they attended local schools.
In 1796, Philipp Grimm died of pneumonia, plunging his family into poverty, and they were forced to relinquish their servants and large house. Dorothea depended on financial support from her father and sister, who was the first lady-in-waiting at the court of William I, Elector of Hesse. Jacob was the eldest living son, and he was forced at age 11 to assume adult responsibilities (shared with Wilhelm) for the next two years. The two boys adhered to the advice of their grandfather, who continually exhorted them to be industrious.
The brothers left Steinau and their family in 1798 to attend the Friedrichsgymnasium in Kassel, which had been arranged and paid for by their aunt. By then, they were without a male provider (their grandfather died that year), forcing them to rely entirely on each other, and they became exceptionally close. The two brothers differed in temperament; Jacob was introspective and Wilhelm was outgoing (although he often suffered from ill-health). Sharing a strong work ethic, they excelled in their studies. In Kassel, they became acutely aware of their inferior social status relative to "high-born" students who received more attention. Still, each brother graduated at the head of his class: Jacob in 1803 and Wilhelm in 1804.
After graduation from the Friedrichsgymnasium, the brothers attended the University of Marburg. The university was small with about 200 students and there they became painfully aware that students of lower social status were not treated equally. They were disqualified from admission because of their social standing and had to request dispensation to study law. Wealthier students received stipends, but the brothers were excluded even from tuition aid. Their poverty kept them from student activities or university social life; ironically, however, their outsider status worked in their favor, and they pursued their studies with extra vigor.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in an 1843 drawing by their younger brother Ludwig Emil Grimm
The brothers were inspired by their law professor Friedrich von Savigny, who awakened in them an interest in history and philology, and they turned to studying medieval German literature. They shared Savigny's desire to see unification of the 200 German principalities into a single state. Through Savigny and his circle of friends—German romantics such as Clemens Brentano and Ludwig Achim von Arnim—the Grimms were introduced to the ideas of Johann Gottfried Herder, who thought that German literature should revert to simpler forms, which he defined as Volkspoesie (natural poetry) as opposed to Kunstpoesie (artistic poetry). The brothers dedicated themselves with great enthusiasm to their studies, about which Wilhelm wrote in his autobiography, "the ardor with which we studied Old German helped us overcome the spiritual depression of those days."
Jacob was still financially responsible for his mother, brother, and younger siblings in 1805, so he accepted a post in Paris as research assistant to von Savigny. On his return to Marburg, he was forced to abandon his studies to support the family, whose poverty was so extreme that food was often scarce. He took a job with the Hessian War Commission. In a letter written to his aunt at this time, Wilhelm wrote of their circumstances, "We five people eat only three portions and only once a day".
Jacob found full-time employment in 1808 when he was appointed court librarian to the King of Westphalia and went on to become librarian in Kassel. After their mother's death that year, he became fully responsible for his younger siblings. He arranged and paid for his brother Ludwig's studies at art school and for Wilhelm's extended visit to Halle to seek treatment for heart and respiratory ailments, following which Wilhelm joined Jacob as librarian in Kassel. The brothers also began collecting folk tales at about this time, in a cursory manner and on Brentano's request. According to Jack Zipes, at this point "the Grimms were unable to devote all their energies to their research and did not have a clear idea about the significance of collecting folk tales in this initial phase."
During their employment as librarians—which paid little but afforded them ample time for research—the brothers experienced a productive period of scholarship, publishing a number of books between 1812 and 1830. In 1812, they published their first volume of 86 folk tales, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, followed quickly by two volumes of German legends and a volume of early literary history. They went on to publish works about Danish and Irish folk tales and Norse mythology, while continuing to edit the German folk tale collection. These works became so widely recognized that the brothers received honorary doctorates from universities in Marburg, Berlin, and Breslau (now Wrocław).
In 1825, Wilhelm married Henriette Dorothea (Dortchen) Wild, a long-time family friend and one of a group who supplied them with stories. Jacob never married but continued to live in the household with Wilhelm and Dortchen. In 1830, both brothers were overlooked when the post of chief librarian came available, which disappointed them greatly. They moved the household to Göttingen in the Kingdom of Hanover where they took employment at the University of Göttingen, Jacob as a professor and head librarian and Wilhelm as professor.
During the next seven years, the brothers continued to research, write, and publish. In 1835, Jacob published the well-regarded German Mythology (Deutsche Mythologie); Wilhelm continued to edit and prepare the third edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen for publication. The two brothers taught German studies at the university, becoming well-respected in the newly established discipline.
In 1837, they lost their university posts after joining in protest with the Göttingen Seven. The 1830s were a period of political upheaval and peasant revolt in Germany, leading to the movement for democratic reform known as Young Germany. The Grimm brothers were not directly aligned with the Young Germans, but five of their colleagues reacted against the demands of Ernest Augustus, King of Hanover, who dissolved the parliament of Hanover in 1837 and demanded oaths of allegiance from civil servants—including professors at the University of Göttingen. For refusing to sign the oath, the seven professors were dismissed and three were deported from Hanover, including Jacob who went to Kassel. He was later joined there by Wilhelm, Dortchen, and their four children.
The brothers were without income in 1838 and again in extreme financial difficulty, so they began what became a lifelong project: the writing of a definitive dictionary. The first volume of their German Dictionary (Deutsches Wörterbuch) was not published until 1854. The brothers again depended on friends and supporters for financial assistance and influence in finding employment.
Berlin and later years
The graves of the Brothers Grimm in Schöneberg
, Berlin (St. Matthäus Kirchhof Cemetery)
In 1840, von Savigny and Bettina von Arnim appealed successfully to Frederick William IV of Prussia on behalf of the brothers who were offered posts at the University of Berlin. In addition to teaching posts, the Academy of Sciences offered them stipends to continue their research. Once they had established their household in Berlin, they directed their efforts towards the work on the German dictionary and continued to publish their research. Jacob turned his attention to researching German legal traditions and the history of the German language, which was published in the late 1840s and early 1850s; meanwhile, Wilhelm began researching medieval literature while editing new editions of Hausmärchen.
After the Revolutions of 1848 in the German states, the brothers were elected to the civil parliament. Jacob became a prominent member of the National Assembly at Mainz. Their political activities were short-lived, as their hope dwindled for a unified Germany and their disenchantment grew. In the late 1840s, Jacob resigned his university position and saw the publication of The History of the German Language (Geschichte der deutschen Sprache). Wilhelm continued at his university post until 1852. After retiring from teaching, the brothers devoted themselves to the German Dictionary for the rest of their lives. Wilhelm died of an infection in Berlin in 1859, and Jacob became increasingly reclusive, deeply upset at his brother's death. He continued work on the dictionary until his own death in 1863. Zipes writes of the Grimm brothers' dictionary and of their very large body of work: "Symbolically the last word was Frucht (fruit)."