Jacques Maritain Center : Greatest of Centuries


It would be a supreme mistake to think because the idea of literature in the Thirteenth Century is usually associated with the Arthur Legends, the Nibelungen and Dante, that all of the literary content of the century was inevitably serious in character or always epical in form. As a matter of fact the soul of wit and humor had entered into the body social, as we shall see in subsequent chapters, and the spirit of gaiety and the light-hearted admiration for nature found as frequent expression as at any time in history. With these as always in literary history there came outbursts of love in lyric strains that were not destined to die. While the poets of South Germany and of Italy sang of love that was of the loftiest description, never mingled with anything of the merely sensual, their tuneful trifles are quite as satisfying to the modern ear in both sense and sound as any of the more elaborate vers de société of the modern times. The German poets particularly did not hesitate to emphasize the fact that sensuality had no part in Minne -- their pretty term for love -- and yet they sang with all the natural grace and fervid rapture of the Grecian poets of the old pagan times, worshiping at the shrines of fleshly goddesses, or singing to the frail beauties of an unmoral period. Nothing in the history of literature is better proof that ideal love can, unmixed with anything sensual, inspire lyric outbursts of supreme and enduring beauty, than the poems of the Minnesingers and of some of the French and Italian Troubadours ot this period. It is easier to understand Dante's position in this matter after reading the poems of his predecessors in the Thirteenth Century.

For this feeling of the lofty character of the love they sang was not, in spite of what is sometimes said, confined only to the Germans, though as is well known from time immemorial the Teutonic feeling towards woman was by racial influence of higher character than that of the southern Nations. As Mr. H. J. Chaytor says in the introduction to his Troubadours of Dante, there came a gradual change over the mind of the Troubadour about the beginning of the Thirteenth Century and "seeing that love was the inspiring force to good deeds," the later Troubadours gradually dissociated their love from the object which had aroused it. Among them, "as among the Minnesingers, love is no longer sexual passion, it is rather the motive to great works, to self-surrender, to the winning an honorable name as Courtier and Poet." Mr. Chaytor then quotes the well known lines from Bernart de Ventadorn, one of the Troubadours to whom Dante refers, and whose works Dante seems to have read with special attention since their poems contain similar errors of mythology.

        "for indeed I know
Of no more subtle passion under heaven
Than is the maiden passion for a maid,
Not only to keep down the base in man,
But teach high thought and amiable words,
And courtliness and the desire of fame,
And love of truth and all that makes a man."

A sentiment surely that will be considered as true now as it ever was, be the time the Thirteenth Century or earlier or later, and that represents the best solution of social problems that has ever been put forward -- nature's own panacea for ills that other remedies at best only palliate.

In the early Nineteenth Century Carlyle said of this period what we may well repeat here:

"We shall suppose that this Literary Period is partially known to all readers. Let each recall whatever he has learned or figures regarding it; represent to himself that brave young heyday of Chivalry and Minstrelsy when a stern Barbarossa, a stern Lion-heart, sang sirventes, and with the hand that could wield the sword and sceptre twanged the melodious strings, when knights-errant tilted, and ladies' eyes rained bright influences; and suddenly, as at sunrise, the whole earth had grown vocal and musical. Then truly was the time of singing come; for princes and prelates, emperors and squires, the wise and the simple, men, women and children, all sang and rhymed, or delighted in hearing it done. It was a universal noise of Song; as if the Spring of Manhood had arrived, and warblings from every spray, not, indeed, without infinite twitterings also, which, except their gladness, had no music, were bidding it welcome."

This is the keynote of the Century -- song, blithesome and gay as the birds, solemn and harmonious as the organ tones that accord so well with the great Latin hymns -- everywhere song.

"Believers," says Tieck, the great collector of Thirteenth Century poetry, "sang of Faith; Lovers of Love; Knights described knightly actions and battles; and loving, believing knights were their chief audience. The Spring, Beauty, Gaiety, were objects that could never tire; great duels and deeds of arms carried away every hearer, the more surely the stronger they were painted; and as the pillars and dome of the Church encircled the flock, so did Religion, as the Highest, encircle Poetry and Reality; and every heart, in equal love, humbled itself before her."

The names of the Meistersingers are well-knewn to musical lovers at least, because of the music drama of that name and the famous war of the Wartburg. The most familiar of all of them is doubtless Walter von der Vogelweide who, when he was asked where he found the tuneful melodies for his songs, said that he learned them from the birds. Those who recall Longfellow's pretty ballad with regard to Walter and his leaving all his substance to feed the birds over his grave near Nüremberg's minster towers, will not find it surprising that this Meistersinger's poetry breathes the deepest love of Nature. and that there is in it a lyric quality of joy in the things of Nature that we are apt to think of as modern, until we find over and over again in these bards, that the spirit of the woods and of the fields and of the spring time, meant as much for them as for any follower of the Wordsworth school of poetry in the more conscious after-time. This from Walter with regard to the May will serve to illustrate very well this phase of his work.

Gentle May, thou showerest fairly
Gifts afar and near;
Clothest all the woods so rarely,
And the meadows here;
O'er the heath new colors glow;
Flowers and clover on the plain,
Merry rivals, strive amain
Which can fastest grow.

Lady! part me from my sadness,
Love me while 'tis May;
Mine is but a borrowed gladness
If thou frown alway;
Look around and smile anew!
All the world is glad and free;
Let a little joy from thee
Fall to my lot too!

Walter could be on occasion, however, as serious as any of the Meistersingers and is especially known for his religious poems. It is not surprising that any one who set woman on so high a pedestal as did Walter, should have written beautiful poems to the Blessed Virgin. He was the first, so it is said, to express the sentiment: "Woman, God bless her, by that name, for it is a far nobler name than lady." Occasionally he can be seriously didactic and he has not hesitated even to express some sentiments with regard to methods of education. Among other things he discusses the question as to whether children should be whipped or not in the process of education and curiously enough takes the very modern view that whipping is always a mistake. In this, of course, he disagrees with all the practical educators of his time, who considered the rod the most effective instrument for the education of children and strictly followed the scriptural injunction about sparing the rod and spoiling the child. Walter's opinion is for that reason all the more interesting:

"Children with rod ruling --
'Tis the worst of schooling.
Who is honor made to know,
Him a word seems as a blow.

The birds were always a favorite subject for poetic inspiration on the part of the Minnesingers. Bird music rapt poetic souls into ecstasies in which the passage of time was utterly unnoticed. It is from the Thirteenth Century that comes the beautiful legend with regard to the monk who, having wondered how time could be kept from dragging in Heaven, was permitted to listen to the song of a bird one day in the forest and when he awoke from his rapture and went back to his convent found that a hundred years had passed, that all of the monks of his acquaintance were dead, and while his name was found on the rolls of the monastery, after it there was a note that he had disappeared one day and had never been heard of afterwards. Almost in the same tenor as this is a pretty song from Dietmar von Eist, written at the beginning of the Thirteenth Century, and which was a type of the charming songs that were to be so characteristic of the times:

There sat upon the linden-tree
A bird, and sung its strain;
So sweet it sung that as I heard
My heart went back again.
It went to one remember'd spot,
It saw the rose-tree grow,
And thought again the thoughts of love,
There cherished long ago.

A thousand years to me it seems
Since by my fair I sate;
Yet thus to be a stranger long
Is not my choice, but fate;
Since then I have not seen the flowers,
Nor heard the birds' sweet song;
My joys have all too briefly past,
My griefs been all too long.

Hartman von Aue was a contemporary of Walter's and is best known for his romantic stories. It is rather curiously interesting to find that one of the old chroniclers considers it a great mark of distinction that, though Hartman was a knight, he was able to read and write whatever he found written in books. It must not be forgotten, however, that not all of these poets could read and write, and that indeed so distinguished a literary man as Wolfram von Eschenbach, the author of Percival, the story on which Wagner founded his opera of Parsifal, could neither read nor write. He had developed a very wonderful memory and was able to store faithfully his poems in the course of their composition so that he was above the need of pen and paper. Hartman is most famous for having written the story of Poor Henry, which Longfellow has chosen so effectively for his Golden Legend. Hartman's appreciation of women can be judged from the following lines, which accord her an equal share in her lord's glory because of her sufferings in prayer at home.

Glory be unto her whose word
  Sends her dear lord to bitter fight;
Although he conquer by his sword,
  She to the praise has equal right;
He with the sword in battle, she at home with prayer,
Both win the victory, and both the glory share.

Occasionally one finds, as we have said, among the little songs of the Minnesingers of the time such tuneful trifles as could be included very appropriately in a modern collection of vers de société, or as might even serve as a love message on a modern valentine or a Christmas card. The surprise of finding such things at such a time will justify the quotation of one of them from Brother Wernher, who owes his title of brother not to his membership in any religious order, very probably, but to the fact that he belonged to the brotherhood of the poets of the time.

Since creation I was thine;
Now forever thou art mine.
I have shut thee fast
In my heart at last.
I have dropped the key
In an unknown sea.
Forever must thou my prisoner be!

Wolfram von Eschenbach was the chief of a group of poets who at the close of the Twelfth and beginning of the Thirteenth centuries gathered about the Landgraf Hermann of Thuringen in his court on the Wartburg, at the foot of which lies Eisenach, in the present Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar. They shaped tales of knightly adventure, blended with reflection, spiritual suggestion, and a grace of verse that represented the best culture of the court, and did not address itself immediately to the people. Wolfram was a younger son of one of the lower noble Bavarian families settled at Eschenbach, nine miles from Ausbach, in Middle Franconia. He had a poor little home of his own, Wildenberg, but went abroad to seek adventures as a knight, and tell adventures as a poet welcome to great lords, and most welcome to the lavish friend of poets, Hermann of Thuringen, at whose court on the Wartburg he remained twenty years, from 1195 to 1215, in which latter year his "Parzival" was finished. From some passages in his poem it may safely be inferred that he was happily married, and had children. The Landgraf Hermann died in 1216, and was succeeded by Ludwig, husband of St. Elizabeth.

We cannot ascribe to English writers alone the spiritualizing of the Grail Legends, when there is Wolfram's "Parzival" drawing from the same cycle of myths a noble poem of the striving to bind earthly knighthood to the ever-living God. While Gawain, type of the earthly knight wins great praise in love and chivalry, Parzival -- Percival -- finds his way on from childhood up, through humble searchings of the spirit, till he is ruler in the kingdom of the soul, where he designs that Lohengrin, his eldest son, shall be his successor, while Kardeiss, his younger son, has rule over his earthly possessions.

How beautifully the Minnesingers could enter into the spirit of nature and at the same time how much the spirit of Spring has always been prone to appeal to poetic sensibilities may be judged from the following song of Conrad of Kirchberg, which is translated very closely and in the same meter as the original old high German poem. It is very evident that none of the spirit of Spring was lost on this poet of the olden time, nor on the other hand that any possibility of poetic expression was missed by him. There is a music in the lilt of the verselets, eminently suggestive of the lyric effect that the new birth of things had on the poet himself and that he wished to convey to his readers. Of this, however, every one must judge for himself and so we give the poem as it may be found in Roscoe's edition of Sismondi's Literature of the South of Europe.

May, sweet May, again is come;
May, that frees the land from gloom.
Up, then, children, we will go
Where the blooming roses grow,
In a joyful company
We the bursting flowers will see;
Up! your festal dress prepare!
Where gay hearts are meeting, there
May hath pleasures most inviting
Heart, and sight, and ear delighting:
Listen to the bird's sweet song,
Hark! how soft it floats along!
Courtly dames our pleasures share,
Never saw I May so fair;
Therefore, dancing will we go:
Youths rejoice, the flowrets blow;
    Sing ye! join the chorus gay!
    Hail this merry, merry May!

At least as beautiful in their tributes to their lady loves and their lyric descriptions of the beauties of Spring, were the Troubadours whose tuneful trifles, sometimes deserving of much more serious consideration than the application of such a term to them would seem to demand, have come down to us though the centuries. One of the best known of these is Arnaud de Marveil, who was born in very humble circumstances but who succeeded in raising himself by his poetic genius to be the companion of ruling princes and the friend of the high nobility. Among the provencals he has been called the great Master of Love, though this is a name which Petrarch reserves especially for Arnaud Daniel, while he calls Marveil the less famous of the Arnauds. An example of his work as the Poet of Love, that is typical of what is usually considered to have been the favorite mode of the Troubadour poets runs as follows:

All I behold recalls the memory
Of her I love. The freshness of the hour
Th' enamell'd fields, the many coloured flower,
Speaking of her, move me to melody.
Had not the poets, with their courtly phrase,
    Saluted many a fair of meaner worth,
I could not now have render'd thee the praise
    So justly due, of "Fairest of the Earth."
To name thee thus had been to speak thy name,
And waken, o'er thy cheek, the blush of modest shame."

An example of the love of nature which characterizes some of Arnaud de Marveil's work will serve to show how thoroughly he entered into the spirit of the spring-time and how much all the sights and sounds of nature found an echo in his poetic spirit. The translation of this as of the preceding specimen from Arnaud is taken from the English edition of the Historical View of the Literature of the South of Europe by Sismondi, and this translation we owe to Thomas Roscoe, the well known author of the life of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who considering that Sismondi does not furnish enough of specimens of this Troubadour poet, inserts the following verses, for the translation of which he acknowledges himself indebted to the kindness of friends, a modest concealment doubtless of his own work:

Oh! how sweet the breeze of April,
  Breathing soft as May draws near!
While, through nights of tranquil beauty,
  Songs of gladness meet the ear:
Every bird his well-known language
  Uttering in the morning's pride,
Revelling in joy and gladness
  By his happy partner's side.

When, around me, all is smiling,
  When to life the young birds spring,
Thoughts of love, I cannot hinder,
  Come, my heart inspiriting --
Nature, habit, both incline me
  In such joy to bear my part:
With such sounds of bliss around me
  Could I wear a sadden'd heart?

His description of his lady love is another example of his worship of nature in a different strain, which serves to show that a lover's exaggeration of the qualities of his lady is not a modern development of la belle passion.

Fairer than the far-famed Helen,
  Lovelier than the flow'rets gay,
Snow-white teeth, and lips truth-telling,
  Heart as open as the day;
Golden hair, and fresh bright roses --
  Heaven, who formed a thing so fair,
Knows that never yet another
  Lived, who can with thee compare.

A single stanza from a love-song by Bertrand De Born will show better than any amount of critical appreciation how beautifully he can treat the more serious side of love. While the Troubadours are usually said to have sung their love strains in less serious vein than their German brother poets of the North, this has the ring of tenderness and truth about it and yet is not in these qualities very different from others of his songs that are well known. The translation we have chosen is that made by Roscoe who has rendered a number of the songs of the Troubadours into English verse that presents an excellent equivalent of the original. Bertrand is insisting with his lady-love that she must not listen to the rumors she may hear from others with regard to his faithfulness.

I cannot hide from thee how much I fear
The whispers breathed by flatterers in thine ear
  Against my faith. But turn not, oh, I pray!
That heart so true, so faithful, so sincere,
So humble and so frank, to me so dear,
  Oh, lady! turn it not from me away.

At times one is surprised to find pretty tributes to nature even in the midst of songs that are devoted to war. The two things that were nearest the hearts of these Troubadour poets were war and their lady- loves, but the beauties of nature became mixed up not only with their love songs but also with their battle hymns, or at least with their ardent descriptions of military preparations and the glories of war. An excellent example of this is to be found in the following stanza written by William of Saint Gregory, a Troubadour who is best known for his songs of war rather than of tenderness.

The beautiful spring delights me well,
  When flowers and leaves are growing;
And it pleases my heart to hear the swell
  Of the birds' sweet chorus flowing
    In the echoing wood;
And I love to see all scattered around
Pavilions and tents on martial ground;
    And my spirit finds it good
To see on the level plains beyond
Gay knights and steeds caparison'd.

Occasionally the troubadours indulge in religious poetry though usually not of a mystical or profoundly devotional character. Even the famous Peyrols, who is so well known for his love songs, sometimes wandered into religious poetry that was not unworthy to be placed beside his lyric effusions on other topics. Peyrols is best known perhaps for his lamentations over King Richard the Lion Heart's fate, for he had been with that monarch on the crusade, and like most of the Trouhadours who went with the army, drank in deep admiration for the poetic king. After his visit to the Holy Land on this occasion one stanza of his song in memory of that visit runs as follows :{1}

I have seen the Jordan river,
  I have seen the holy grave.
Lord! to thee my thanks I render
  For the joys thy goodness gave,
Showing to my raptured sight
The spot whereon thou saw'st the light.

Vessel good and favoring breezes,
  Pilot, trusty, soon shall we
Once more see the towers of Marseilles
  Rising o'er the briny sea.
Farewell, Acre, farewell, all,
Of Temple or of Hospital:

Now, alas! the world's decaying.
  When shall we once more behold
Kings like lion-hearted Richard,
  France's monarch, stout and bold?

{1} Translated by Roscoe.

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