Hans Christian Andersen's Upbringing in Odense
By Senior Curator Ejnar Stig Askgaard
On June the 4th 1931, the opening of a new museum, located in Munkemøllestræde, was celebrated in Odense. The house had been carefully rebuilt to its original dimensions, but there was not much space. Similarly, at the time of the original measurement of the rooms in 1804, there were 44 square cubits (17.3 square metres) divided into a sitting room, a kitchen and an area that could possibly be described as 'half a hallway', that is to say a small entrance hall that separated one tenancy from another somewhat smaller one next door, which also became a part of the museum.
This small museum served history well, because this was where fellow townsmen and honorary citizen Hans Christian Andersen had lived as a child, and it was from here that his childhood memories sprang. It was only natural that the small house was named H. C. Andersen's Childhood Home.
The opening of Hans Christian Andersen's childhood home did not get much coverage in Fyens Stiftstidende the 5 June 1931. The Danish Constitution Day dominated the news headlines, as did descriptions of the violent demonstrations in Germany, in which demonstrators and police violently confronted each other, and the news that Charles Lindberg planned a heroic flying expedition over the Pacific Ocean.
But on page 8 the opening is briefly mentioned in half of the column under the local news. The entrance fee was 25 or 15 øre and respectively allowing old and young guests a visit to the unfurnished rooms: The paper explained, "Unfortunately it has been impossible to reproduce a furnished interior that honours to any degree the buildings themselves. It has not been possible to procure any of the items that were found in the poor sitting room and its small kitchen ... a reconstruction would to any degree be based on pure fantasy."
The newspaper reports also recounted that the Museum Board had decided "in the highest respects to let the small rooms speak for themselves in their own quiet yet powerful tale of the humble surroundings in which the fairytale writer grew up". Although the rooms were unfurnished, they were not empty.
There were various pictures on the walls allowing people to form an idea of how Odense looked at the time of Hans Christian Andersen. It was not the first time that the small house in Munkemøllestræde was subject to special attention.
On Hans Christian Andersen's 70th birthday, the 2 April 1875, there was a party in the narrow lane. Around noon, a plaque was inserted into the gable of the house, which, at its corner, peeps at Klingenberg. This was arranged by the City Council. The plaque, which can still be seen, bears the following inscription:
"The sweetest of, the poet, Hans Christian Andersen's childhood memories are bound to this house.
The City Council of Odense erected this stone on April 2nd 1875, on the poet's 70th Birthday."
A few hundred people were present at the unveiling of the plaque. The city band was playing and the bishop Engelstoft gave a speech, taking care to remind the bystanders of how humble a start the poet's otherwise rich life had been.
It was not down to capricious fate that Hans Christian Andersen was famous, honoured, respected and loved, concluded the bishop. It sprang from a "spark, which from the very start had gleamed and simmered from the soul, which was awoken in this house, knowing how to draw nourishment from all that shone and see the goodness surrounding it... it came from the spirit that had taught him to speak in the language of poets that all, young and old, understood and took delight therein", read the summary in Fyens Stiftstidende.
After the crowd had given heartfelt cheers for Hans Christian Andersen, the music continued for another hour accompanied by more loud cheers and fanfare.
That very same day a deputation from Odense, lead by mayor Mourier, went to see the ageing poet at Nyhavn no. 18. They brought with them a reprint of the plaque that had been unveiled in Odense. Hans Christian Andersen was quite moved, and, from the paper's description, when giving his words of thanks, he began the speech by telling how delighted he was when his birth town had made him an honorary citizen some years before.
He could not think a day would ever be greater or more wonderful for him, but now he had to admit that it had happened. Furthermore, the old poet told how the childhood home "appeared before his soul, showing how his mother had polished the stove and decorated it using twigs from beech and birch trees found in the woods of Næsbyhoved at the time of the spring celebration. But even more joyous was the Christmas celebration in their little home; you wouldn't believe that Christmas was not lacking for him.
The rice pudding and roast goose were on the table, indeed he had never since, even at more grand and affluent Christmas dinners, felt a greater Christmas spirit that could surpass that, which he had felt in that little house. A small poem, which appeared the following Sunday in 'Søndagsposten' along with an illustration of his childhood home, proved that he hadn't forgotten it"1. It was real enough.
In Søndags-Posten, April 4th 1875, exactly four months before Hans Christian Andersen succumbed to cancer, his poem, beautifully illustrated with the woodcut of the childhood home, which earlier in honour of being made an honorary citizen in Odense in 1867 had appeared in another version, was used in Illustreret Tidende. Hans Christian Andersen's poem deserves in that respect to be repeated here:
My Childhood Home
Close to Odense-Munkemølle
Where the convent fell into ruin,
There was, as you can see here,
A small half-timbered house therein.
Such festive times we had,
When the Whitsunday bells rang;
Small white Summer curtains
In the sunshine of the window hang.
Orpines were placed in the rafters,
And the stove shone more than bright enough -
The scent of birch wood twigs
Stood alongside garlands of sweet woodruff.
A sitting room, a tiny kitchen -
However all looked good and grand.
Christmas Eves spent there,
Never surpassed those of any castle in any land.
The rice pudding and the goose -
the Christmas games - played with zest!
Our Earth is blessed - it feels,
In our childhood home the best!
The poem presents us with an idyllic impression of the childhood home, as contemporary readers would interpret it. But in 1875 it was read in another, and more sombre, way: the poem was painfully familiar to the vast majority of people, all too able to recognise the contrast and wretchedness that the true homes of poor people represented. Therefore there is good reason to look beyond the embellishing words and not only dwell on the "beloved childhood memories", but to view things with a wider perspective.
When Andersen ended his poem about the childhood home with the words: "Our Earth is blessed - it feels/ In our childhood home the best!" he is trying to identify the happiness with the fact that the childhood home was the only home where he, the poet, had experienced a family life. Since 4th September 1819 when the 14-year-old son of a shoemaker left Odense, he was entirely on his own, for better and worse, and was to spend the rest of his life in his own company.
Loneliness was a heavy burden. Therefore in the late autumn of the poet's life he saw the greatest wealth in the poor home's hardworking family life, where celebrations marked time together as the greatest and happiest thing: "The Christmas Eves spent there, never surpassed those of any castle in any land."
On 21st April 1807 the small shoemaking family, "Piber Hans Andersen and Wife", moved from Klaregade into a rented part of Huus's house in which they stayed for 12 years before moving in April 1819 further down the road to a new lease bringing their sparse furniture.
The death of the owner of Huus' premises, widow Maren Hansdatter in June 1818, meant the premises had to be sold. "The Childhood Home" accommodated a great number of people. Six families were registered as residents in 1809. The house had three tenancies of which the northernmost windows belonged to 'freelance' shoemaker Andersen's lease.
The Køcker family was their next door neighbour. They shared the main entrance and the "hallway". The glover's journeyman Frantz and his wife Cathrine Køcker had seven children, but they hardly occupied the small home all at the same time.
The eldest daughters Sidsel, Kirstine and Anna Margrethe were all married off at the time of their father's death in 1820. We know about the other residents from Andersen's memoirs. The former hatter's journeyman, Chr. Philip Schenck, who had become a porter at Odense Gaol, had invited the Andersen family to his own 'family party', the poet recounts in Life and Works.
The party was held at Odense Gaol but Hans Christian was unable to enjoy it: "... there was food and drink, two prisoners served us at the table. I would not move to taste even the slightest bit. I avoided even the sweetest items. My mother said that I was sick and I was laid on a bed, but I kept hearing the sound from the Skotrok2 (spinning wheel) nearby, and jolly party songs.
I do not know whether it was my imagination or not, but Ido know that I felt great anxiety, tension and yet found myself in an agreeable mood as if I had just entered a farmer's tall tale castle."
When much older, a few years after having been made an honorary citizen of Odense, Hans Christian Andersen met the son of the porter - the then 67 year old Gotfred Schenck. "Yes, Gotfred, you have given me many beatings, but it is nice that you have come to see me now", Hans Christian Andersen said to the old fisherman and handed him half a guinea.3
We mainly hear about the Køcker family in the childhood memories: Hans Christian Andersen, inspired by Wessel's Love without Stockings and Euripides' tragedy Medea, summoned the courage to write a tragedy himself, but was "frightfully troubled by ending [taking] everyone's life".
The young poet succeeded, when the last person in the play, the old hermit, falls on the floor uttering: "I sense Death / In all my breath". After the neighbour's wife, Cathrine Køcker, had read the probable tiresome tragedy, she suggested to Hans Christian a change of title from Abor og Elvire to Aborrer og Torsk (perch and codfish) - arather mocking pun.
Andersen's mother consoled her son reassuring him that Cathrine had suggested it out of envy since her own son, his namesake Christian, did not have it in him to write such wonders.
On the whole, Andersen's mother thought very little of Cathrine's son: "He is a stupid boy", she said of the neighbour's boy who was one year younger than Hans Christian, comparing his interest in his homework to that of her own son who hardly ever opened a book. "He is always reading, whereas my [Hans] Christian never opens a book and yet something comes of it!"4.
Behind the ill will against Christian Køcker, who became a day-labourer, was the motherly love of Anne Marie Andersdatter and perhaps also a violent incident, which Hans Christian Andersen at a much later time confided to his young friend Jonas Collin (JC junior).
In a small note, now located at the Royal Library, he wrote Andersen's verbal account down. Therefore the family name is spelled incorrectly, although phonetically correct. The note states: " One day when [Hans Christian Andersen] was about 4 years old and still wore a bell, he was sitting on the table in his parents sitting room as the boy next door strolled in (he will be known as A remembering, Christian Kögaard).
Presumably at random, the boy lifted A's bell and bit him in the private parts. A cried out and the other boy was punished with the rod. A was in great pain and could not pass water for an entire day.
The doctor was fetched (the only time, A thinks that they found it worth their while to ask his advise), and A's mother was in despair. She carried him on her arm and rocked him to and fro. She also kept urging him to: ' Piss, my sweet boy, piss' -" The somewhat laconic, parenthetic remark: that it was the only time they found it worthwhile to call a doctor was probably down to the old poet's painful recollection of his father's death.
When his father had a high fever, it was not the doctor who was fetched. On the contrary it was Hans Christian who had to find the wise woman in Ejby, who bound yarn around the boy's wrist and gave him a leaf from "The Tree of Christ" at the same time saying: "If he dies, you will meet his spirit on the way home."
It is hard to fathom the terror, which followed the 11 year old Hans Christian walking home along the road beside Odense Å [Small river] that April evening in the year 1816, where religion and superstition dominated over reality itself and free thinking wasted away as did the delirious father, who passed away 2 days later.
Hans Christian Andersen grew up to be a meek and superstitious child on whom local folklore had a great impact, which later enabled him to create his own fairytales. A universe he had actually as a child lived in and known so well - for better or worse.
In his first fairytale, "Dødningen (The Spectre)" , the poet lets his pseudonym "Johannes" roam the world after his father's death and the crickets then songfully chirped in the corner. And the pixie waves farewell to the world traveller from the church tower.
In his last fairytale, "What Old Johanne Told" , the poet returns to his childhood home. We hear "old Johanne" tell about: the cooking pot being brought to boil to make sure their beloved one, no matter where they were, had only one desire, that is to return home.
Weak, pale and soulless, the bewitched one returns only to breathe their last breath, in the same way Andersen's father did after his military exile. In the pseudonym between Hans [Christian], Johannes and Johanne, the poet completes his speech and returns the fairytale treasure to its source, to the childhood home, the family and the supernatural world.
Throughout the entire body of Andersen's work an enormous number of motifs are deeply rooted in the childhood home and its world. "As I know that you once had a great interest in old Johanne, who served in the Bunkeflod household, I thought I'd let you know that she passed away", the poet's mother dictated to the letter-writer on the 13th of October 1827 in a letter to her son.
Workhouse inmate Johanne Jantzen (ca. 1759-1827), as she was known, served widow Bunkeflod, the neighbour opposite. It was in her house that Hans Christian Andersen found his creative vocation. It might have been the same Johanne, who was the wise woman that foretold Hans Christian's incredible destiny. But it was also the old Johnne who told Hans Christian about the boiling cooking pot that summoned a beloved one from abroad. Needless to say, the pot was boiling for the father during his military exile in Holsten, from where he returned a mere shadow of his former self.
When the father lay dead in his bed, the cricket chirped and the mother who lay on the floor with her son cried: "He is dead; you don't have to sing to him, the Ice Maiden has taken him!" The childhood home was where "The Snow Queen" - the fairytale about faith and superstition - took shape: "From the kitchen you go up a ladder to the attic, in the gable between the neighbour's and our house is a box containing chives and parsley, my mother's entire garden, and in my fairy tale The Snow Queen, it still thrives".
The childhood home houses the boy and his alcoholic mother, the washerwoman. "She Was Good for Nothing." "My sweet mother!" the child said as the tears rolled. "Is it true that she was no good?" "No, she was good!" said the old girl and looked up to heaven. "I knew her for many years and was with her the last night of her life.
And I say that she was good; and God in His heaven will say the same. Let only the world say that she was no good." There are many examples that deserve to be named, but these words beautifully define the fairytale "Let only the world say that she was no good."
To judge poor people, because of their destitution and misery is one of the world's injustices. Mankind's true worth should not be judged by appearance alone but from the one truth - kindness and compassion.
When old Johanne's prophecy came true and Hans Christian Andersen was applauded as an honorary citizen in Odense on 6th December 1867, in the afternoon shortly before the torchlight parade Andersen chose to read from: "What the Old Man Does is Always Right."... "If only my parents could have experienced this joy", he wrote to bishop Engelstoft in Odense.
By 1833 he had no family left. The news of his mother's death reached him and he had to come to terms with the thought of "no longer belonging to anyone that by blood or nature might love me". The ageing poet did highlight his parents by choosing to read from "What the Old Man Does..." In these scenes from a marriage, the husband's course of life and conduct is driven invariably only towards making his wife happy. Driven by love for her, he gets the best deal on the market by exchanging his riches for a sackful of rotten apples.
With this sackful the poor woman gets the best thing of all - retribution for the humiliation she had to suffer when the schoolmaster's wife refused to lend her chives for the omelette she wanted to make for her husband. "Not even a rotten apple!" could the wife lone. "Now I can lend her ten rotten apples, or even a whole sackful, if she wants them. That is funny, Old Man!" said the poor rejected wife and gave her husband a kiss. If poor people are being stripped of their dignity, there is nothing left.
Like the poor wife in the story, Andersen's mother, the washerwoman, also had to suffer the ignominy of being denied even the most basic in life. In a letter dated 12th September 1829 Anne Marie Andersdatter had a scriber writing to her son - as Andersen's mother could not read or write herself - about the well-heeled Madam Krag, widow after the owner of Munke Mølle (a mill) located at the bottom of the lane: "...I have often asked her for at small amount of barley for porridge, which they gladly give away at other mills, but I was given nothing.
She went on as if she was worse off than me. Therefore I am in no mood to ask any favours of her again... My good boy Christian! You promised me a little help when you arrived in Copenhagen and I wish you would send it to me whenever you are able to..." The mother having to humiliate herself, and her moving plea, must have pained the young Hans Christian Andersen who had scarce means himself and only occasionally was able to help her financially. But through poetry he was able to grant her the retribution she truly deserved, and he did so in Odense on that day in 1867.
The timber house in Munkemøllestræde is small and impecunious, and yet, as in Hans Christian. Andersen's poem: grand and abundant. There is not much to offer for the eye but fortunately the poet's childhood home has been preserved to view and reflect on. The place is a considerable piece of social and cultural history with new exhibitions to boot.
In 2005, on the occasion of the bicentenary of Hans Christian Andersen's birthday the museum was renovated and the sitting rooms furnished for the first time.
In 1931, Fyens Stiftstidende made the readers understand, that "a reconstruction would to any degree be based on pure fantasy"; but we let our imagination prevail. From Hans Christian Andersen's detailed accounts it was possible to create an interior analogous to the one the poet described, and the exhibition is, with everything taken into account, a figurative reconstruction of the poet's memoirs.
Therefore the story of the poet's childhood in Odense is told exclusively by Hans Christian Andersen himself. The thought was to let Hans Christian Andersen act as a spokesman, as the small home contains such a great and certainly not easily comprehensible story and that the only true person who should rightfully show guests around the childhood home was the poet himself.
1) Fyens Stiftstidende 3rd April 1875
2) "Skotrok" is the name of a large hand operated spinning wheel, which was used at spinning mills and gaols to spin tows and other coarse material, which was in use when Hans Christian Andersen was a child.
3) Quoted from H.G. Olrik: "H. C. Andersen and Odense" in Hans Christian Andersen, H. Hagerup, Copenhagen. 1945, p. 12.
4) On the 12th December 1822 Anne Marie Andersdatter wrote about Christian Køcker and his younger brother Johan Franz Køcker to her son: "Chrestian Køger still has no apprenticeship, he is an idler; Johan likewise. That is all I have to say about the two of them."
My Childhood Home. The woodcut from 1867 that accompanied Hans Christian Andersen's poem in Søndags-Posten, 4th April 1875, in a revised form.
Floor plan from 1819 of the childhood home sent to Hans Christian Andersen by a fan, gardener Meiborg in Odense, March 1875. "Oddly styled letter, methinks. Drawing of floor plan not correct", the poet noted in his diary. H.C. Andersens Hus.
The stamp dated 20th June 1974 made by Alan and Sven Havsteen-Mikkelsen (in the postal series "Landsdelsserie Fyn" [Region Funen]), allegedly depicting Hans Christian Andersen's childhood home. However, it is not the childhood home itself, but the other two abodes. It is not a shame, because the stamp also depicts the museum's official residence, thus honouring former custodian, Ketty Rasmussen, who until 2004 had been the museum's loyal custodian guardian and muse for thirty years. H.C. Andersens Hus.
"We are unable to procure any of the objects originally present in the poor sitting room and its small kitchen", Fyens Stiftstidende wrote on Constitution Day in 1931. However, fours years later the museum received this small wooden box decorated with plates. Hans Christian Andersen gave the box to colonel Kühle's daughter in Helsinore in 1846, telling her that it originally came from his childhood home. Hans Christian might have hid his savings in it, savings which enabled his trip to Copenhagen in 1819. Photo by Jens Gregers Aagaard, 2005. H.C. Andersens Hus.
In 2006 Hans Christian Andersen's childhood home in Munkemøllestræde celebrated its 75th Anniversary as a museum. It is a rather small museum but despite its humble settings the tiny house has its own rich story to tell.
Despite the poverty suffered there Hans Christian Andersen profoundly expressed the joy and happiness he had felt there in the poem from 1875, where he recalls it as the time where he still had his family and was not left to live on his own.
In 2005, on the occasion of the bicentenary of Hans Christian Andersen's birth, the museum was renovated and was equipped with new exhibitions. The museum was furnished according to the detailed accounts written by the poet himself in his memoirs.
The writer of the article describes the history of the house and the Schenck and Køcker families that used to accommodate the small living quarters with the Andersen family. Many memories are bound to the house - for better and for worse. Many of these were used as subjects for Hans Christian Andersen's stories and fairy tales.
Despite the humble settings, the small house is an enormous treasure in Danish social and cultural heritage and a cultural sight well worth seeing.