History of Friedrich II of Prussia— Volume 4

Author: Thomas Carlyle

Chapter I. Childhood: Double Educational Element.

Of Friedrich’s childhood, there is not, after all our reading, much that it would interest the English public to hear tell of. Perhaps not much of knowable that deserves anywhere to be known. Books on it, expressly handling it, and Books on Friedrich Wilhelm’s Court and History, of which it is always a main element, are not wanting: but they are mainly of the sad sort which, with pain and difficulty, teach us nothing, Books done by pedants and tenebrific persons, under the name of men; dwelling not on things, but, at endless length, on the outer husks of things: of unparalleled confusion, too;—not so much as an Index granted you; to the poor half-peck of cinders, hidden in these wagon-loads of ashes, no sieve allowed! Books tending really to fill the mind with mere dust-whirlwinds,—if the mind did not straightway blow them out again; which it does. Of these let us say nothing. Seldom had so curious a Phenomenon worse treatment from the Dryasdust, species.

Among these Books, touching on Friedrich’s childhood, and treating of his Father’s Court, there is hardly above one that we can characterize as fairly human: the Book written by his little Sister Wilhelmina, when she grew to size and knowledge of good and evil; [<italic> Memoires de Frederique Sophie Wilhelmine de Prusse, Margrave de Bareith <end italic> (Brunswick, Paris et Londres, l8l2), 2 vols. 8vo.]—and this, of what flighty uncertain nature it is, the world partly knows. A human Book, however, not a pedant one: there is a most shrill female soul busy with intense earnestness here; looking, and teaching us to look. We find it a VERACIOUS Book, done with heart, and from eyesight and insight; of a veracity deeper than the superficial sort. It is full of mistakes, indeed; and exaggerates dreadfully, in its shrill female way; but is above intending to deceive: deduct the due subtrahend, —say perhaps twenty-five per cent, or in extreme cases as high as seventy-five,—you will get some human image of credible actualities from Wilhelmina. Practically she is our one resource on this matter. Of the strange King Friedrich Wilhelm and his strange Court, with such an Heir-Apparent growing up in it, there is no real light to be had, except what Wilhelmina gives,—or kindles dark Books of others into giving. For that, too, on long study, is the result of her, here and there. With so flickery a wax-taper held over Friedrich’s childhood,—and the other dirty tallow-dips all going out in intolerable odor,—judge if our success can be very triumphant!

We perceive the little creature has got much from Nature; not the big arena only, but fine inward gifts, for he is well-born in more senses than one;—and that in the breeding of him there are two elements noticeable, widely diverse: the French and the German. This is perhaps the chief peculiarity; best worth laying hold of, with the due comprehension, if our means allow.


His nurses, governesses, simultaneous and successive, mostly of French breed, are duly set down in the Prussian Books, and held in mind as a point of duty by Prussian men; but, in foreign parts, cannot be considered otherwise than as a group, and merely with generic features. He had a Frau von Kamecke for Head Governess,— the lady whom Wilhelmina, in her famed <italic> Memoires, <end italic> always writes KAMKEN; and of whom, except the floating gossip found in that Book, there is nothing to be remembered. Under her, as practical superintendent, SOUS-GOUVERNANTE and quasi-mother, was the Dame de Roucoulles, a more important person for us here. Dame de Roucoulles, once de Montbail, the same respectable Edict-of-Nantes French lady who, five-and-twenty years ago, had taken similar charge of Friedrich Wilhelm; a fact that speaks well for the character of her performance in that office. She had done her first edition of a Prussian Prince in a satisfactory manner; and not without difficult accidents and singularities, as we have heard: the like of which were spared her in this her second edition (so we may call it); a second and, in all manner of ways, an improved one. The young Fritz swallowed no shoe-buckles; did not leap out of window, hanging on by the hands; nor achieve anything of turbulent, or otherwise memorable, in his infantine history; the course of which was in general smooth, and runs, happily for it, below the ken of rumor. The Boy, it is said, and is easily credible, was of extraordinary vivacity; quick in apprehending all things, and gracefully relating himself to them. One of the prettiest, vividest little boys; with eyes, with mind and ways, of uncommon brilliancy;—only he takes less to soldiering than the paternal heart could wish; and appears to find other things in the world fully as notable as loud drums, and stiff men drawn up in rows. Moreover, he is apt to be a little unhealthy now and then, and requires care from his nurses, over whom the judicious Roucoulles has to be very vigilant.

Of this respectable Madame de Roucoulles I have read, at least seven times, what the Prussian Books say of her by way of Biography; but it is always given in their dull tombstone style; it has moreover next to no importance; and I,—alas, I do not yet too well remember it! She was from Normandy; of gentle blood, never very rich; Protestant, in the Edict-of-Nantes time; and had to fly her country, a young widow, with daughter and mother-in-law hanging on her; the whole of them almost penniless. However, she was kindly received at the Court of Berlin, as usual in that sad case; and got some practical help towards living in her new country. Queen Sophie Charlotte had liked her society; and finding her of prudent intelligent turn, and with the style of manners suitable, had given her Friedrich Wilhelm to take charge of. She was at that time Madame de Montbail; widow, as we said: she afterwards wedded Roucoulles, a refugee gentleman of her own Nation, who had gone into the Prussian Army, as was common for the like of him: She had again become a widow, Madame de Roucoulles this time, with her daughter Montbail still about her, when, by the grateful good sense of Friedrich Wilhelm, she was again intrusted as we see;—and so had the honor of governessing Frederick the Great for the first seven years of his life. Respectable lady, she oversaw his nurses, pap-boats,—"beer-soup and bread," he himself tells us once, was his main diet in boyhood,—beer-soups, dress-frocks, first attempts at walking; and then also his little bits of intellectualities, moralities; his incipiencies of speech, demeanor, and spiritual development; and did her function very honestly, there is no doubt.

Wilhelmina mentions her, at a subsequent period; and we have a glimpse of this same Roucoulles, gliding about among the royal young-folk, "with only one tooth left" (figuratively speaking), and somewhat given to tattle, in Princess Wilhelmina’s opinion. Grown very old now, poor lady; and the dreadfulest bore, when she gets upon Hanover and her experiences, and Queen Sophie Charlotte’s, in that stupendously magnificent court under Gentleman Ernst. Shun that topic, if you love your peace of mind! [<italic> Memoires <end italic> (above cited).]—She did certainly superintend the Boy Fritzkin for his first seven years; that is a glory that cannot be taken from her. And her pupil, too, we agreeably perceive, was always grateful for her services in that capacity. Once a week, if he were in Berlin, during his youthful time, he was sure to appear at the Roucoulles Soiree, and say and look various pleasant things to his "CHER MAMAN (dear Mamma)," as he used to call her, and to the respectable small parts she had. Not to speak of other more substantial services, which also were not wanting.

Roucoulles and the other female souls, mainly French, among whom the incipient Fritz now was, appear to have done their part as well as could be looked for. Respectable Edict-of-Nantes French ladies, with high head-gear, wide hoops; a clear, correct, but somewhat barren and meagre species, tight-laced and high-frizzled in mind and body. It is not a very fertile element for a young soul: not very much of silent piety in it; and perhaps of vocal piety more than enough in proportion. An element founding on what they call "enlightened Protestantism," "freedom of thought," and the like, which is apt to become loquacious, and too conscious of itself; terming, on the whole, rather to contempt of the false, than to deep or very effective recognition of the true.

But it is, in some important senses, a clear and pure element withal. At lowest, there are no conscious semi-falsities, or volunteer hypocrisies, taught the poor Boy; honor, clearness, truth of word at least; a decorous dignified bearing; various thin good things, are honestly inculcated and exemplified; nor is any bad, ungraceful or suspicious thing permitted there, if recognized for such. It might have been a worse element; and we must be thankful for it. Friedrich, through life, carries deep traces of this French-Protestant incipiency: a very big wide-branching royal tree, in the end; but as small and flexible a seedling once as any one of us.

The good old Dame de Roucoulles just lived to witness his accession; on which grand juncture and afterwards, as he had done before, he continued to express, in graceful and useful ways, his gratitude and honest affection to her and hers. Tea services, presents in cut-glass and other kinds, with Letters that were still more precious to the old Lady, had come always at due intervals:, and one of his earliest kingly gifts was that of some suitable small pension for Montbail, the elderly daughter of this poor old Roucoulles, [Preuss, <italic> Friedrich der Grosse, eine Lebensgeschichte <end italic> (5 vols. Berlin, 1832-1834), v. (Urkundenbuch, p. 4). <italic> OEuvres de Frederic <end italic> (same Preuss’s Edition, Berlin, 1846-1850, &c.), xvi. 184, 191.— The Herr Doctor J. D. E. Preuss, "Historiographer of Brandenburg," devoted wholly to the study of Friedrich for five-and-twenty years past, and for above a dozen years busily engaged in editing the <italic> OEuvres de Frederic, <end italic> —has, besides that <italic> Lebensgeschichte <end italic> just cited, three or four smaller Books, of indistinctly different titles, on the same subject. A meritoriously exact man; acquainted with the outer details of Friedrich’s Biography (had he any way of arranging, organizing or setting them forth) as few men ever were or will be. We shall mean always this <italic> Lebensgeschichte <end italic> here, when no other title is given: and <italic> OEuvres de Frederic <end italic> shall signify HIS Edition, unless the contrary be stated.] who was just singing her DIMITTAES as it were, still in a blithe and pious manner. For she saw now (in 1740) her little nursling grown to be a brilliant man and King; King gone out to the Wars, too, with all Europe inquiring and wondering what the issue would be. As for her, she closed her poor old eyes, at this stage of the business; piously, in foreign parts, far from her native Normandy; and did not see farther what the issue was. Good old Dame, I have, as was observed, read some seven times over what they call biographical accounts of her; but have seven times (by Heaven’s favor, I do partly believe) mostly forgotten them again; and would not, without cause, inflict on any reader the like sorrow. To remember one worthy thing, how many thousand unworthy things must a man be able to forget!

From this Edict-of-Mantes enviroument, which taught our young Fritz his first lessons of human behavior,—a polite sharp little Boy, we do hope and understand,—he learned also to clothe his bits of notions, emotions, and garrulous utterabilities, in the French dialect. Learned to speak, and likewise, what is more important; to THINK, in French; which was otherwise quite domesticated in the Palace, and became his second mother-tongue. Not a bad dialect; yet also none of the best. Very lean and shallow, if very clear and convenient; leaving much in poor Fritz unuttered, unthought, unpractised, which might otherwise have come into activity in the course of his life. He learned to read very soon, I presume; but he did not, now or afterwards, ever learn to spell. He spells indeed dreadfully ILL, at his first appearance on the writing stage, as we shall see by and by; and he continued, to the last, one of the bad spellers of his day. A circumstance which I never can fully account for, and will leave to the reader’s study.

From all manner of sources,—from inferior valetaille, Prussian Officials, Royal Majesty itself when not in gala,—he learned, not less rootedly, the corrupt Prussian dialect of German; and used the same, all his days, among his soldiers, native officials, common subjects and wherever it was most convenient; speaking it, and writing and misspelling it, with great freedom, though always with a certain aversion and undisguised contempt, which has since brought him blame in some quarters. It is true, the Prussian form of German is but rude; and probably Friedrich, except sometimes in Luther’s Bible, never read any German Book. What, if we will think of it, could he know of his first mother-tongue! German, to this day, is a frightful dialect for the stupid, the pedant and dullard sort! Only in the hands of the gifted does it become supremely good. It had not yet been the language of any Goethe, any Lessing; though it stood on the eve of becoming such. It had already been the language of Luther, of Ulrich Hutten, Friedrich Barbarossa, Charlemagne and others. And several extremely important things had been said in it, and some pleasant ones even sung in it, from an old date, in a very appropriate manner,—had Crown-Prince Friedrich known all that. But he could not reasonably be expected to know:—and the wiser Germans now forgive him for not knowing, and are even thankful that he did not.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: History of Friedrich II of Prussia— Volume 4

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: History of Friedrich II of Prussia— Volume 4

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Thomas Carlyle, "Chapter I. Childhood: Double Educational Element.," History of Friedrich II of Prussia— Volume 4 in History of Friedrich II of Prussia—Volume 4 Original Sources, accessed April 16, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=97AH1B17MAL779I.

MLA: Carlyle, Thomas. "Chapter I. Childhood: Double Educational Element." History of Friedrich II of Prussia— Volume 4, in History of Friedrich II of Prussia—Volume 4, Original Sources. 16 Apr. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=97AH1B17MAL779I.

Harvard: Carlyle, T, 'Chapter I. Childhood: Double Educational Element.' in History of Friedrich II of Prussia— Volume 4. cited in , History of Friedrich II of Prussia—Volume 4. Original Sources, retrieved 16 April 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=97AH1B17MAL779I.