The Brothers Grimm (Brüder Grimm, in their own words, not Gebrüder - for there were five surviving brothers, among them Ludwig Emil Grimm, the painter) were Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Hessian professors who were best known for publishing collections of authentic folk tales and fairy tales, and for their work in linguistics, relating to how the sounds in words shift over time (Grimm's Law).
Jakob Ludwig Carl Grimm and Wilhelm Karl Grimm were born in 1785 and 1786, respectively, in Hanau near Frankfurt in Hesse. They were educated at the Friedrichs-Gymnasium in Kassel and later both read law at the University of Marburg.
The brothers traveled widely throughout what is now Germany and other countries, performing field research for their linguistic work, which involved trying to find patterns in how the vowels and consonants which made up specific words changed over time. To determine these patterns, they needed to hear many different examples of authentic speech by various speakers of different ages and in different regions. They eventually discovered that one of the easiest ways to convince older local residents to give them lengthy examples of their natural speech was to ask the residents to tell their favorite stories to the brothers. As the brothers recorded the style of speech of the speaker for their research (which eventually led to the formulation of Grimm's Law), they also recorded the various stories that they were told, and eventually published them (in 1817). The stories became immensely popular, and were widely reprinted. Ironically, the brothers are now most widely known for these collections of stories, which were essentially an unexpected byproduct of the linguistic research which was their primary goal.
In 1830, they formed a household in Göttingen where they were to become professors.
In 1837, the Brothers Grimm joined five of their colleague professors at the University of Göttingen to protest against the abolition of the liberal constitution of the state of Hanover by King Ernest Augustus I of Hanover. This group came to be known in the German states as Die Göttinger Sieben (The Göttingen Seven). Invoking their right to resist on reasons of natural and constitutional justice, they protested against the King's hubris to abrogate the constitution. For this, all professors were fired from their university posts and some even deported. Though politically divided by borders of duchies and kingdoms at that time, public opinion and academia in German realms almost unanimously supported the Grimms and their colleagues against the monarch.
Wilhelm died in 1859; his elder brother Jacob died in 1863. They are buried in the St Matthäus Kirchhof Cemetery in Schöneberg, Berlin. The Grimms helped foment a nationwide democratic public opinion in Germany and are cherished as the progenitors of the German democratic movement, whose revolution of 1848/1849 was crushed brutally by the Kingdom of Prussia, where there was established a constitutional monarchy.
In 1812, the brothers published a collection of German fairy tales they had gathered in a volume titled Kinder- und Hausmärchen ("Children's and Household Tales"). They published a second volume in 1814 ("1815" on the title page), as well as many further editions during their lifetimes.
In the very early 19th century, the time in which the Brothers Grimm lived, the Holy Roman Empire had just met its fate, and Germany as we know it today did not yet exist; it was basically an area of hundreds of principalities and small or mid-sized countries. The major unifying factor for the German people of the time was a common language. There was no significant German literary history. So part of what motivated the brothers in their writings and in their lives was the desire to help create a German identity.
Less well known to the general public outside Germany is the brothers' work on a German dictionary, the Deutsches Wörterbuch. Indeed, the Deutsches Wörterbuch was the first major step in creating a standardized "modern" German language since Martin Luther's translation of the Bible to German. Being very extensive (33 volumes, weighing 84 kg) it is still considered the standard reference for German etymology.
The brother Jacob is recognized for enunciating Grimm's law, Germanic Sound Shift, that was first observed by the Danish philologist Rasmus Christian Rask. Grimm's law was the first non-trivial systematic sound change ever to be discovered.
Between 1990 and the 2002 introduction of the euro currency in Germany, the Grimms were depicted on the 1000 Deutsche Mark note—the largest available denomination.
The Brothers Grimm (1982). Fairy Tales. Julian Messner. ISBN 0-671-45648-2.