1902 Encyclopedia > Germany > [German Literature] The Age of Chivalry

(Part 33)


The Age of Chivalry

The reign of Henry IV., during which the struggle between the empire and the papacy began, had a disastrous effect on the national culture ; and the evil was not remedied under the disturbed rule of his two immediate successors. But under the Hohenstaufen dynasty, during the period of Middle High German, the country passed through one of the greatest epochs of its literature. The more learned of the clergy interested themselves deeply in the development of scholasticism through the nominalists and the realists ; and in the 13th century Albertus Magnus, a native of Swabia, produced the first systematic exposition of Aristotle, in the full light of Arabian research. It was, however, in poetry that Germany achieved the highest distinction ; and her most important poets were members of the knightly class, which at this time rose to its utmost power and fame. There were many reasons why the members of this class became sentive to the higher influences of the imagination. In the first place, they had the elevating consciousness of a life shared with a vast community which set before itself the loftiest aims. Historians sometimes take a malicious pleasure in contrasting the mean performance of many knights with their vows ; but these vows at any rate introduced into the life of rough nobles an ideal element, and inclined them to take interest in the gentler and nobler and inclined them to take interest in the gentler and nobler aspects of existence. In the Italian wars of Frederick Barossa the German knights saw more then they had ever before done of Southern civilization, and their minds were continually stimulated by the varying fortunes of their adventurous emperor. Of still greater importance was the influence of the crusades, in which the Germans first took an active part under Frederick’s predecessor, Conrad III. The crusaders had a remote and unselfish aim, connected with all that was most sacred and most tender in their religious ideas ; and this would have created a sentiment favourable to poetic aspiration. But, besides this, the far-off Eastern lands, with their strange peoples and mystical associations, awoke dreams could not have other than harmonious utterance, and on the return of the warriors they stirred the fancy of their friends with reports of a new and greater world. While the crusades lasted, the knights were forced into intimate acquaintance with the clergy, whose refined culture inevitably to some extent softened their rudeness ; they also formed friendships with representatives of French chivalry. In France the works of the troubadours and the trouvères formed one of the most prominent elements of the national life, and the French nobles did not forget in Palestine the songs and romances of their own home. The better minds in the German armies caught the inspiration, and longed to distinguish themselves by like achievements. And their desire was deepened when, by the acquisition of the Free Country of Burgundy, Frederick Barbarossa opened a new pathway by which intellectual influences might pass from the western to the eastern bank of the Rhine.

The poetic impulse which thus entered Germany affected a wide circle ; the highest princes as well as the humblest knights felt it power. Even the emperor Henry VI. himself is said to have been moved by the prevailing feeling, and to have composed verses. At the imperial princely courts poets were encouraged to give expression to their genius ; and the ladies whose beauty and virtues they delighted to praise stimulated their endeavours by marked appreciation. Thus the national imagination found in the whole temper of the age an atmosphere well adapted to the blooming of its first spring-time.

The most characteristic outcome of this active era is the series of poetical romances produced in the 12th and 13th centuries. The German poets might have found magnificent material in their old, native legends ; but for the most part they preferred subjects which had already been artistically wrought by the trouvères, whose methods and style they also closely imitated. Among the themes they selected may be mentioned the legends of Alexander the Great, of Charles the Great and his paladins, of Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, with the allied legend of the Holy Grail. The fortunes of Tristram and Exercised a powerful charm over many minds. These and all other chosen subjects were treated wholly in the spirit of chivalry. The poets of the Middle Age had no idea of being true to the characteristics of a particular epoch ; their own time was the only one they attempted to understand. Ancient heroes became in their hands mediaeval knights ; men who had died long before the rise of Christianity were transformed into devoted servants of the Church. And in every romance the supreme aim was to present an idealized picture of the virtues of knighthood.

One of those who prepared the way for the chief romance-writers was Conrad, a priest in the service of Henry the Proud, who, before 1139, composed the Rolandslied, setting forth, in imitation of the French Chanson de Roland, the overthrow of Roland, the favourite paladin of Charles the Great, in the pass of Roncesvalles. He was followed by another priest, Lamprecht, who, also working upon a French original, relates in the Alexanderlied the deeds of the Macedonian hero. Greater than either of these was Heinrich von Veldeke, the first of the poets who may claim to rank as German trouvères. His great work was the Eneit, written between 1175 and 1190. It is not only in armour and in dress that Virgil’s characters are here changed ; in thought and feeling they are recreated. The language of the poem is so carefully chosen, and the incidents are narrated with so much spirit, that it is still possible to understand the immense popularity it once enjoyed. Hartmann von Aue, in Der Arme Heinrich and other poems, selected themes that are extremely repulsive to modern feeling ; but he was endowed with genuinely plastic force, and interests us by touching certain mystical aspects of mediaeval sentiment. The master in whom these aspects were most fully represented was Wolfram von Eschenbach, a member of a noble family of Franconia, who was born during the reign of Frederick Barbarossa and died during that of is grandson, Frederick II. He was one of a group of poets who established themselves at the Wartburg, the court of the brilliant landgrave Hermann of Thuringia ; and his chief poem, Parzival, was composed there towards the end of the 12th century. Germany did not during the Middle Ages a more truly mind, and it is curious to observe how exactly he anticipated some of the qualities for which she long afterwards became famous. He has all the dreaminess, the sentiment, the passion for the ideal, which are, or rather at one time were, her most attractive characteristics. The hero, trained by his mother amid circumstances of idyllic simplicity, suddenly passes into a world of movement and adventure, and he is brought by accident to the gorgeous palace of the Holy Grail, of whose kingdom he ultimately becomes lord. The object of the poem is evidently to depict the strivings of a restless but noble spirit, dissatisfied with passing pleasure, having always before it a high and spotless aim. It is difficult for modern readers to detect the spiritual significance of many of the scenes ; the poet seems to escape from us into a far-off region, whence his words reach us rather as dim echoes than as clear, ringing sounds. And some of the descriptions are in themselves tedious and superfluous, while advance from one stage of the tale to another apparently proceeds according to be arbitrary whim of the moment. Nevertheless, the character of Parzival is a true conception of genius, and enables us to understand, better than any other imaginative creation of mediaeval Germany, that discontent with life as it is, that sense of being haunted by visions of spiritual loveliness, which, throughout the Middle Ages, existed side by side with unrestrained delight in the outward world.

A complete, almost a dramatic, contrast to Wolfram von Eschenbach is found in Gottfried of Strasburg, the greatest of his literary contemporaries. These two men representative of a distinction which incessantly recurs,—that between the poet who fashions spirits of a finer mould than those we actually know, and the poet who contents himself with penetrating into the innermost recesses of existing character. Gottfried’s theme is Tristram and Iseult ; and the charming tale, which unfortunately he did not live to carry to the end, was perhaps never more beautifully told. There are no mystic longings in the men and women he presents to us : they love the earth and the sky, with their gorgeous colours, graceful forms, and happy sounds ; they care not to inquire what may lie these, or whether in the scheme of things there is a place for moral law. Few poets have set forth so powerfully the fascination of youthful passion. In his glowing pictures we find no shadowy figures like those of Wolfram, with step so light that they appear to be the figures of a dream ; his images are clear, sharply cut, like those of the world from which they are taken. And psychological analysis was unknown to him, the actions of his characters display keen insight into the secrets of human hearts when entangled in the most confused meshes.

Mediaeval romance bore its richest fruit in the works of these of great ; and most of their successors imitated one or other of them. Those who followed in Gottfried’s steps came nearest to a happy result, for Wolfram was one of those lonely and daring spirits remote path it is given to few to treated without stumbling. The best known of Gottfried’s imitators was Conrad von Würzburg, who wrote on the Trojan war and many other subjects, and is considered one of the most artistic of mediaeval writers. Towards the end of the 13th century the movement showed signs of exhaustion, and romances began to make way for rough popular tales and rhymed chronicles.

Fortunately the poets of the age of chivalry did not all occupy themselves with the subjects of French romances. A few, whose names we do not know, turned towards the rich material in the metrical legends of their native land. Of these poets the most important was he who collected and put into shape the ancient ballads which make up the Nibelungenlied. How far he modified them we cannot tell. In the form in which we possess them, they probably owe something of their force to his genius ; but he needed rather to arrange and to curtail then to invent, and, although a genuine poet, he was not at all times competent for his task. The work includes the legends of Siegfried, of Gundicarius, or Günther, king of Burgundy, of Dieterich, and of Attila ; and the motives which bind them into a whole rate the love and revenge of Kriemhild, the sister of Günther and Siegfried’s wife. She excites the envy of Brunhild, the Burgundian queen, whose friend, Hagen, one of Günther’s followers, discovers the vulnerable point in Siegfried’s enchanted body, treacherously slays him, and buries in the Rhine the treasure he has long before conquered from the race of the Nibelungen. There is then a pause of thirteen years, after which Kriemhild, the better to effect her fatal purpose, marries Attila, king of the Huns. Thirteen years having again passed, her thirst for vengeance is satiated by the slaying of the whole Burgundian court. The Germans justly regard this great epic as one of the most precious gems of their literature. It has little of the grace of courtly poetry ; its characters are without subtlety or refinement ; we are throughout in the presence of vast elemental forces. But these forces are rendered with extraordinary vividness of imagination, and with a profound feeling for what is sublime and awful in human destiny. The narrative begins with epic calmness, but swells into a torrent, and dashes vehemently forward, when the injured queen makes a fearful return for her wrongs, and is herself swept away by the tragic power she has called to her service. In the management of the story there are occasional traces of mediaevalism ; but its spirits is that of a more primitive time, when the German tribes were breaking into the Roman empire, when passions, were untamed by Christian influence, and when the necessities of a wandering and aggressive life knit closely the bonds that united the chief to his followers. Deliberate villany hardly appears in the poem ; the most savage actions spring either from the unrestricted play of natural feeling, or from unquestioning fidelity to an acknowledged superior. Here and there we come upon touches which indicate that the poet who preserved the ancient legends was not incapable of appreciating finer effects than those at which he generally aims. The sketch of the hospitable and chivalrous Rüdiger, who the Burgundians on their way to the court of Attila, and afterwards dies while unwillingly fighting them in obedience to his queen’s command, is not surpassed in the most artistic of the mediaeval romances.

Gudrun is another epic in which a poet of this period gave form to several old legends. They had for centuries been current along the coasts of Friesland and Scandinavia and the society they represent is essentially the same as that of the Nibelungenlied,—a society in which the men are rude, warlike, and loyal, the women independent and faithful. Although full of serious episodes, Gudrun is as happy in its ending as the greater poem is tragic ; and we feel throughout that the beautiful Princess Gudrun of Seeland, whom the Northern have carried from her home, and on whom the cruel Queen Gerlind heaps indignities, will at last be restored to King Herwig, her brave and passionate lover. The characters stand out clearly in their rough vigour ; and several happy strokes call up a vision of the bleak coasts and changeful northern sea which are the scenes of their adventures.

In the 15the century a German writers brought together in a single volume which he called the Heldenbuch—the "Book of Heroes"—a number of old legendary tales that must have been frequently on the lips of the people and of the wandering minstrels, while the knightly poets were singing of Tristram or of Arthur. This work, which was partly written by Kaspar von der Rhön, will not compare in imaginative force with its more famous rivals. The most powerful of the stories is probably the "Grosser Rosengarten," in which a monk, Ilsan, displays a very unclerical, but truly Teutonic, passion for war.

The age of chivalry was remakable not only for its romances and epics but for its lyrics. All the leading writers of the time exercised themselves in lyrical poetry, and it was laboriously cultivated by multitudes who did not feel equal to the task of a prolonged effort. Among those who gained more or less distinction may be named Heinrich von Morungen, Reinmar der Alte, and Gottfried von Neifen. The poets of this class were known as Minnesänger, because their favourite them was Minne or love. They began by imitating the troubadours, whose metres they often reproduced when not penetrated by the emotion which originally found in these forms a genuine expression. At a later stage it was considered a point of honour for each poet to invent a stanza of his own, whether or not those already existing were appropriate to his feeling. Thus many of the minne songs produce an impression of unreality and coldness, seeming at best to be but clever pieces of handiwork. But when the utmost deduction has been made, it is surprising how much of what was achieved by these ardent writers still appeals to us. The best among the strike notes which respond in every age to a master’s touch ; and they do it with a fine sense of beauty, a trained instinct for the appropriateness of words, and an evident delight both in simple and in subtle melody.

Perhaps no group of writers has ever had a deeper under tone of sadness than is to be detected in the greatest of the minnesänger. They had a vivid consciousness of the evan escence of human pleasure, an abiding feeling that corruption lurks behind the gayest forms and brightest colours. But they caught with proportional eagerness the passing rapture, letting no drop escape from the cup that would soon fall from their grasp. This intensity of feeling is reproduced in their lays, yet it was purified and generalized as it passed from the fleeting reality to the permanent realm of art. Their treatment of love, although sometimes, according to modern ideas, extravagant and fantastic, often displays genuine elevation of sentiments. They sing also in impassioned strains the loyalty of the vassal to his lord, the devotion of the Christian to his church. If they do not exhibit the soaring spiritual ambition of Wolfram’s Parzival, they have a kind of pathetic memory of a lost paradise, a vague longing, by some distant difficult service, in battle with the infidel, to attain to a world in which the discords of the present life may be forgotten or harmonized. And behind all their images is the background of nature, whose loveliness they do not the less appreciate because they refrain from elaborately describing it. To the dwellers in dreary towers winter had often a cheerless and melancholy aspect ; but this made all the more enchanting the new life of spring. It is in hailing the returning warmth and colour of the young season that the minnesänger attain their happiest triumphs.

Of all the minnesänger the first place belongs without question to Walther von der Vogelweide, probably of Tyrol, whom Gottfried of Strasburg praises as heartly as he slyly depreciates Wolfram von Eschenbach. Walther lived sometime at the Wartburg, and was the friend of King Philip and Frederich II ; he died on a little estate which the latter gave him in fief. Other Minnesänger lavished praise on generous princes ; Walther was of a more manly character, and seems always to have maintained an independent bearing. Besides the usual themes of the lyrical poetry of his time, he wrote which enthusiasm of his native land ; he also frequently alludes to the strife between the spiritual and secular powers, and sternly rebukes the ambition of the papacy. Beyond all his rivals he gives us impression of writings with ease and delight. The structure of his stanzas does not hamper the movement of his feeling ; it appears to provide the conditions of perfect freedom. Such a lyric as his Unter der Linden an der Heide, with its musical refrain Tandaraldei, although a masterpiece of art, is exquisite in its childlike simplicity ; it has the unaffected grace of a flower, the spontaneity of a bird’s song.

As the expression of all that was fantastic and ridiculous in the age of chivalry, must be mentioned the Frauendienst of Ulrich von Lichtenstein, a work which was written about the middle of the 13th century, and had a certain popularity in its time. It is an autobiography, with a number of lyrics interwoven to give variety and animation to the narrative. The solemn gravity with which the author relates the amazing tasks imposed upon him by his mistress shows how easily the worship of womanhood degenerated into almost incredible childishness. Ulrich is sometimes compared to Don Quixote, but this is to do extreme in justice to Cervantes’s hero. Amid all his illusions the knight of reality passes from absurdity without a touch of idealism to redeem his folly. And his lyrics are the tasteless manufacture of a thoroughly prosaic spirit.

Several of the minnesänger, Walther von der Vogelweide especially, display at times a strongly didactic tendency. From the beginning of the period this tendency was developed by writers who took little interest in poetry for its own sake, and it became more and more prominent as the purely lyrical impulse away. The didactic poet, however significant his labours may be to his contemporaries, has necessarily the stamp of commonplace for posterity ; and the gnomic writers of the 13th century form no exception to this rule. But several of them have at least the interest that attaches to sincerity and earnestness. There is genuine enthusiasm for pure morality in the Welsche Gast of Thomasin Zerklar ;and the Bescheidenheit of Freidank expresses so high a conception of duty, and expresses it so well, that the work was ascribed to Walther himself. Reinmar von Zweter and Heinrich Frauenlob came a little later, and they were followed by Hugo von Trimberg, whose Renner sets forth un-impeachable lessons in homely and satirical verses. A higher tone is perceptible in Der Winsbecke, a collection of sayings in which we find and echo of the reverence for noble women that marked the epoch at its dawn. Among didactic writings must be classed the well known Der Krieg auf der Wartburg ("The Contest at the Wartburg"). It includes the verses supposed to have been sung at a tournament of poets attended by Heinrich von Ofterdingen, Walther von der Vogelweide, and Wolfram von Eschenbach.

As Latin continued to be the speech of scholars, and the passion for metrical expression pervaded the higher classes, there was not much scope for the growth of prose. Nevertheless, it is in this age that we find the first serious attempts to secure for German prose a place in the national literature. The Sachsenspiegel and the Schwabenspiegel, two great collections of local laws, although of a scientific character, and mainly interesting because of their social importance, had considerable influence in encouraging the respect of the Germans for their own language. The preachers, however, were the principal founders of prose style. Preaching became about the middle of the 13th century an agency of great power in the life of German. A number of the clergy, dissatisfied with the technicalities of scholasticism, and with the mere forms under which spiritual aspiration was often crushed, strove to attain to a fresh vision of religious truth, and to kindle their own enthusiasm in the minds of others. Of this generous band the most popular was Brother Berthold, a Franciscan monk, a man of a noble and commanding temper, and an orator of the highest rank. Love for the poor was his dominant motive, and he sometimes expressed it in language a modern socialist might envy. Having something of the imaginative glow of the minnesänger, he gave such colour to his abstract teaching as made it at once intelligible and attractive. Of a less poetical nature than Berthold, Master Eckhart, the next early master of religious prose, was more deeply philosophical. Although familiar with the scholastic systems, he broke away from their method, and became the founder of the mystical school which was one of the most potent factors in preparing the way for the Reformation. Eckhart’s reasonings are sometimes hard to follow, but he is not a confused thinker ; his obscurity arises rather from the nature of his themes than from his mode of handling them. He occassionally touches profound depths in the spiritual nature of man, and it is refreshing to pass from the formal hairsplitting of the scholastic philosophers to the large conceptions of a mind which obeys it own laws and is evidently in direct contact with the problems it seeks to solve.

Read the rest of this article:
Germany - Table of Contents

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-21 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries