May 112014


Today is the birthday (1720) of Hieronymus Carl Friedrich Baron von Münchhausen, a German nobleman and a famous tall tale teller. He joined the Russian military and took part in two campaigns against the Ottoman Turks. Upon returning home, Münchhausen is said to have told a number of outrageously farfetched stories about his adventures. Münchhausen’s reputation as a storyteller has been exaggerated by writers, giving birth to a fully fictionalized literary character usually called simply Baron Munchausen. Münchausen syndrome and the Münchhausen trilemma are named after him.

Baron Münchausen was born in Bodenwerder in the Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg, into an aristocratic family originating in the region of Hanover. His father’s second cousin, Gerlach Adolph von Münchhausen was prime minister under George III. As a boy Münchhausen was a page to Anthony Ulrich II of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, and followed his employer to the Russian Empire during the Russo-Turkish War (1735–1739).

In 1739, he was appointed a cornet (second lieutenant) in the Russian cavalry regiment, the “Brunswick-Cuirassiers.” The following year, he was promoted to lieutenant. He was stationed in Riga, but participated in two campaigns against the Turks in 1740 and 1741. In 1744 he married Jacobine von Dunten and in 1750 he was promoted to Rittmeister, a cavalry captain.


In 1760 he retired to his manor and estates in Bodenwerder, where he lived with his wife until her death in 1790. It was there, especially at dinner parties and similar aristocratic social gatherings, that he acquired a reputation as a storyteller, developing witty and highly exaggerated accounts of his adventures in Russia. Nonetheless, Münchhausen was considered an honest man in business affairs. As one contemporary put it, Münchhausen’s unbelievable narratives were designed not to deceive, but “to ridicule the disposition for the marvelous [incredulous] which he observed in some of his acquaintances.” Münchhausen married a second time, to Bernardine von Brunn, in 1794, which ended in divorce. He did not have any children.


The fictionalizing of Münchhausen began in 1781–1783, when seventeen tall tales attributed to him appeared in the eighth and ninth volumes of the Vademecum für lustige Leute (A Manual for Merry People). An English version was published in London in 1785, by Rudolf Erich Raspe, as Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, also called The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It remains unclear how much of Raspe’s story material derives from the Baron himself, but the majority of the stories are based on folktales that had been in circulation for many years before Münchhausen’s birth.

In 1786, Gottfried August Bürger translated Raspe’s stories back into German, and extended them. He published them under the title of Wunderbare Reisen zu Wasser und zu Lande: Feldzüge und lustige Abenteuer des Freiherrn von Münchhausen (Marvelous Travels on Water and Land: Campaigns and Comical Adventures of the Baron of Münchhausen). The real-life Baron Münchhausen was said to be deeply annoyed that his name had been dragged into public consciousness as the Lügenbaron (Baron of Lies) through the publication of stories under his name. In the 19th century, the story had been expanded and translated into numerous languages, totaling over 100 various editions. Mr. Munchausen, a new collection of Munchausen adventures by the American humorist John Kendrick Bangs was published in 1901, and combines the traditional fictional Baron with the literary genre now known as Bangsian fantasy.


In the 20th century there were numerous screen adaptations of Münchhausen tales. Various silent shorts were made about the Baron’s life, including the silent films Les Aventures de baron de Munchhausen (1911) by the French pioneer Georges Méliès and The New Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1915) by the British director Floyd Martin Thornton. In 1943, Bürger’s book was adapted into a German feature film, Münchhausen, with Hans Albers in the title role. The 1958 German film Münchhausen in Afrika was directed by Werner Jacobs, and in 1961, the Czech director Karel Zeman directed Baron Prášil (Baron Munchausen), using animation and live actors.


Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame (see 22 Nov. 2013) adapted the stories into the 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, with John Neville as the Baron and nine-year-old Sarah Polley as Sally Salt.

In 1951, the British physician Richard Asher published an article describing three cases of patients whose factitious disorders led them to lie about their own states of health. Asher proposed to call the disorder “Munchausen Syndrome”, commenting, “Like the famous Baron von Munchausen, the persons affected have always travelled widely; and their stories, like those attributed to him, are both dramatic and untruthful. Accordingly, the syndrome is respectfully dedicated to the baron, and named after him.” Asher’s term did spark some controversy at the time. While Asher was praised for bringing cases of the disorder to light, some critics objected variously that a literary allusion was inappropriate given the seriousness of the disease; that its use of the Anglicized form “Munchausen” showed poor form; that the name linked the disease with Münchhausen himself, who did not have it; and that the name’s connexion to works of humor and fantasy, and to the essentially ridiculous character of the fictionalized Baron, was disrespectful to patients suffering from the disorder.  The disorder was dramatized in an episode of House M.D., “Deception,” first aired in 2005.

The name has spawned two additional terms: Münchausen syndrome by proxy, in which illness feigning is done by caretakers rather than patients, and Münchausen by Internet, in which illness feigning occurs in online venues.


The Münchhausen trilemma (named after Münchhausen, because of a story that he pulled himself and the horse he was riding out of a swamp by his own hair), is a philosophical term coined to stress the impossibility of proving any truth even in the fields of logic and mathematics. Its use in the philosophy of knowledge dates back to the German philosopher Hans Albert. More traditionally it is called Agrippa’s Trilemma after the Greek skeptic, Agrippa.

This trilemma argues that when we seek proof that a statement is true we have three basic options:

1. The circular argument, in which theory and proof support each other. For example, “the Bible is the word of God because it says so in the Bible.”

2. The regressive argument, in which each proof requires a further proof, endlessly.

3. The axiomatic argument, which rests on accepted precepts; that is we follow the regressive argument until we reach a set of principles which we take as bedrock and do not need to be proved. All mathematics uses the axiomatic argument.

#1 is completely flawed. You cannot use your premises to support your conclusion. This fallacy is also known as “begging the question” in philosophy, a term which is now completely misused in popular speech – to my endless irritation. #2 is flawed because it leads you into an infinite regress in which the original proposition is never proved (until you reach infinity I suppose!). #3 is unsatisfactory because at some point you simply accept bedrock axioms on faith (and faith is not proof!). Take that all of you who think that proof of ANYTHING is logically possible. You cannot even prove to me that Münchausen’s tales are untrue. I’ll catch you in a logical fallacy.

I first came across Münchausen in my Grade 7 reader where I learnt of many tall tales, including one that argues that the aromas of food can make you put on weight. This proposition is “proved” by the fact that all chefs are fat – because they are in the presence of the smells of cooking all day! Not much there for a recipe of the day, though. But, by coincidence, today is also the birthday of Salvador Dalí, legendary prankster and fabulist. To celebrate Dalí I gave a recipe for cooking salmon in a dishwasher by the “Surreal Chef,” Bob Blumer, last year (see here).

Using a dishwasher to cook fish certainly seems Münchausen-esque enough, but I don’t want to re-use old material. I will evoke Blumer again, however. Here is a video of him producing a boiled egg that is not an egg. You’ll have to watch the video to see how he does it.

Here is another video of Blumer “proving” that you can cook a dish of pasta with tomato sauce “from scratch” quicker than you can heat a can of spaghetti-o’s. I’ll leave you to figure out the fallacy here. It’s the same fallacy that is used to “prove” that you must buy the Magic Bullet blender because it allows you to create fabulous meals in under 90 seconds.

Where would advertisers be without the trickery of Münchausen and the gullibility of the general public?