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Walther von der Vogelweide
    Walther is undoubtedly the greatest of the lyric poets of the Middle High German period and has a good claim to be considered the greatest lyric poet of the Middle Ages. His claim rests not so much on his supremacy in any one lyric type—Heinrich von Morungen and Reinmar der Alte are both better poets of true «Minnesang»—but on his great range, profound humanity, and mastery of love poetry, political poetry, and religious verse. His deep concern about reflecting questions, which troubled not only the Germans of the Hohenstaufen period but which are the universal concern of thinking men at all times, gives him a timelessness rare in medieval poets. His love poetry moves into a freer treatment of spontaneous love between two human beings, instead of being merely a study of the inner conflicts arising from courtly love service. Love for Walther is, in his best poems, natural in the sense that it is part of nature’s plan. Moreover, Walther also found it possible to treat the phenomenon of love with irony and humor. He was deeply involved in the politics of his time, and it would be sentimental to say that his support of one or other candidate for the imperial throne was always based on his sense of what was best for Germany, or that personal considerations in these matters were unimportant; there is direct evidence to the contrary in his poetry. Yet Walther had strong feelings about the role of a secular and, in particular, an imperial government in the world order which, according to medieval political thinking, was the ideal that all rulers must seek. His call for strong government and for the exclusion of papal influence from German affairs is based on a real concern for the welfare of the German state. He knew that outside interference could lead only to disunity among the German princes and the collapse of orderly government. How correct this judgment was, can be appreciated if one reads the history of Germany in the thirteenth century.

    Although he attacked papal interference in secular affairs, Walther was far from being an irreligious man. Throughout his work he reveals his belief in the overriding importance of God’s mercy and in the necessity of living one’s life on earth in accordance with Christian concepts. His last poems are deeply concerned about the need for a new crusade, not only to defeat the ‘infidels’ but primarily to rehabilitate the souls of Christian men.

    Walther’s birthplace is uncertain. Many towns claim him, but such evidence as there is points to somewhere in Austria. Like Hartmann von Aue he was a «Ministeriale», a member of the service nobility, who had no land and was dependent for his livelihood on the whim of this or that member of the greater nobility. This fact was to cause Walther much anguish, for he made his living by singing, by composing lyric poetry for patrons. For a man of his independent temperament this was a hard lot, and we can sense his anger and frustration and guess at the sudden termination of some of his relationships. He learned his trade at the court of the Babenbergs in Vienna, where his teacher was none other than the great «Minnesänger» Reinmar der Alte of Hagenau in Alsace. A change of regime in 1198 forced him to leave—the new ruler, duke Leopold VI, did not care for poetry—and for many years he served different patrons, among them two very slippery politicians, Hermann von Thüringen and Dietrich von Meißen. Walther spent considerable time at one or the other of their courts and mentions Hermann’s court in very uncomplimentary terms (poem IV). Their self-seeking political maneuvers certainly must have disgusted him, even as he tried to praise them in his poetry. We know also that in 1203 the poet was in the service of Bishop Wolfger of Passau, for his name appears in a record of the bishop’s travel expenses as the recipient of money for the purchase of a fur coat—the only historical record of Walther’s life.

    Of much more significance than any of these connections were his relations with three imperial candidates: Philip II of Swabia, Otto IV, and Frederick II. Emperor Henry VI died on a crusade on September 28, 1197. Although the German nobles had agreed prior to his departure that they would accept his infant son (born in 1194) Frederick as emperor in the case of his death, the boy’s age (he was not quite three) soon forced the regent, Henry's brother Philip, to abandon the pretense of regency and declare himself

320 Walther von der Vogelweide

emperor. He was supported by some of the nobles and crowned with the proper insignia but in Mainz, not Aachen, and by the Archbishop of La Tarentaise in Savoy, who happened to be in Mainz at the time, instead of the Archbishop of Cologne. The September 1198 coronation had been anticipated by a rival claimant to the throne, Otto of Braunschweig, a member of the Welf (Guelph) family, who had the support of his uncle Richard I (the Lion-Hearted) of England and the newly elected pope, the able and ambitious Innocent III. Otto’s coronation took place in Aachen and was conducted by the proper ecclesiastic. Thus each candidate had some claim to legitimacy. The struggle between the two lasted until 1208. Walther took service under Philip and wrote some of his best poetry in the form of one-strophe calls to the princes of Germany to rally to the support of Philip, and to Philip urging him to assert his divinely given rights. Walther almost certainly supported Philip because he saw in him the emperor who was independent of foreign, and particularly papal, influences. The struggle was going against Otto when Philip was murdered by Otto of Wittelsbach in 1208. There seems to have been no suspicion of any complicity by Otto IV in the murder. Indeed, he tracked down and punished the assassin.

    Otto was elected as Otto IV without opposition. Although ed emperor by Innocent in Rome, he soon made it clear that imperial policy changed little from that of his predecessor. His expeditions to Italy caused him to attack papal territory and in 1210 he was excommunicated. Many of the German nobles plotted against him, and he had to return north in great haste to prevent the crown from slipping from his grasp.

    Walther now supported him eagerly, since he was no longer under papal influence, but his poems show that he had little personal liking for the crude and stingy Otto, and he does not hesitate to compare him unfavorably with his generous predecessor. Meanwhile the pope had thrown his support to Frederick II, seventeen years old and brilliantly talented. Frederick attracted support among the nobles, but the decisive blow was struck in northern France when Philip Augustus completely defeated Otto and his English allies at Bouvines near Lille. Thus in 1214 Frederick became undisputed emperor and remained so for the rest of Walther’s life. Although Walther had not been among his supporters, Frederick proved more generous than either Philip or Otto. He presented the poet with a small fief near Würzburg, which resulted in return in one of Walther’s most heartfelt poems (poem VIII).

    It may be presumed that from 1220, when he received the fief, until about 1230, when he died, the poet lived on this fief. His last years were materially more prosperous, but his later poems reflect a profound concern over the decline in the courtly spirit and the disinclination of his fellow countrymen to serve either God or the emperor. It is easy to attribute such an attitude to the discontent of an old man, but events were to prove that Walther was right. The continued absence of the emperor in Sicily and the lack of central authority did result in a decline in the Hohenstaufen culture which had raised German-speaking lands to a level as high as that in France. It was to be centuries before such a period returned. The last datable reference in Walther's work is to the excommunication of Frederick II by Gregory IX in 1227 for his failure to lead a crusade as he had promised.

    Many attempts have been made to produce an accurate chronology of Walther’s poetry, but there is no real agreement. His first efforts were certainly love poems in the style of Reinmar der Alte, but he abandoned this style at a relatively early stage in his career, and about the time that he left the Viennese court he engaged in a poetic controversy with his mentor which touches on the very nature of love poetry. His new view of love poetry was echoed in some of Walther’s best known works, the so-called «Mädchenlieder», poems addressed to women of a lower social status, not courtly ladies. These probably belong to the midpoint of his career, but they are naturally hard to date exactly. Later in life, Walther returned to the poems of «hohe wîp-Minne», but with an emphasis on the moral aspects rather than the forms of love.

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    Much easier to date, and in some ways more significant, are the poems Walther wrote about specific political events of his day. They reflect his own views not only of the event in question but also of its importance to the survival of the Germany (in a very broad linguistic sense) that he loved. Such political poetry—«Sprüche»—, written during the Middle Ages, was usually concerned with the activities of a liege lord and was either for or against a specific person. Walther alone sees the wider issues involved in the struggle. His political poems are one-strophe works, but they can be grouped together by the melody («Ton») used, as reflected in the strophic pattern of lines of varying length. Thus a group of poems on Otto IV contains poems written exclusively in the «Ottenton», all of which presumably were sung to the same melody. It is unnecessary to stress how effective this grouping would be in emphasizing the continuity—or in calling attention to changes—of policy.

    Coupled with the strophes on specific events are the longer poems on political and moral subjects. These extend throughout Walther’s active career, from his three «Reichssprüche» of about 1198 to his elegy "Heimkehr", which clearly belongs to the last years of the poet’s life. Their tone changes from the firm but optimistic note of the earlier years to the deep melancholy of his last works, but in all these poems there is a profound sense of the divine order of the world.

    Walther displays the linguistic and stylistic ability of a true poet—the ability to write poetry of great profundity and power in language whose apparent simplicity conceals its art. Not only his versification is as highly wrought as that of Reinmar, but he is a master of variety in strophic pattern and hence of melody. His greater attribute as a poet, however, remains his simplicity and his wide humanity.

Kaiserkrone Ottos des Grossen


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Walther von der Vogelweide
Political Poetry


I 1 Ich saz ûf eime steine I 1 
und dahte bein mit beine, 
dar ûf satzt ich den ellenbogen; 
ich hete in mîne hant gesmogen 
5 daz kinne und ein mîn wange. 5 
dô dâhte ich mir vil ange, 
wie man zer welte solte leben. 
deheinen rât kond ich gegeben, 
wie man driu dinc erwurbe, 
10 der keines niht verdurbe. 10 
diu zwei sint êre und varnde guot, 
daz dicke ein ander schaden tuot. 
daz dritte ist gotes hulde, 
der zweier übergulde. 
15 die wolte ich gerne in einen schrîn: 15 
jâ leider desn mac niht gesîn, 
daz guot und weltlich êre 
und gotes hulde mêre 
zesamene in ein herze komen. 
20 stîg unde wege sint in benomen; 20 
untriuwe ist in der sâze, 
gewalt vert ûf der strâze, 
fride unde reht sint sêre wunt. 
diu driu enhabent geleites niht, 
[diu zwei enwerden ê gesunt.
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Walther von der Vogelweide
Political Poetry
(I) This is Walther’s most famous political-moral poem. Some critics regard the stanzas as separate entities, based on references to different historical events, such as Henry VI’s death in 1197, and Philip’s election and eventual excommunication in 1201. The three sections, however, are so closely linked, that one can assume that it is to be read as one. The author portrays himself as contemplating the times which are marked by the dual election of 1198. He then discusses the problem of combining Christian ethics with worldly honor and material goods. The triad he mentions has often been interpreted as the moral trio of values (cf. the introduction to the Classical Period). Walther wishes to show that without protection from a secular authority, the chance of achieving a union is remote.

The second strophe refers to the universal struggle Walther observes in nature—the urge of all living creatures to appoint a strong ruler. This ‘natural law’ he uses as a basis to call on Philip to assert his rights against the petty kings (l. 47). He is undoubtedly referring to Richard I of England and Philip Augustus of France, who supported the opponents of Philip II, and he emphasizes their lower estate by his reference to their coronets ("cirkel," that is, foreign crowns which, unlike the imperial crown, were made up of circular bands), as compared to the emperor’s crown with its "weisen," a large precious stone, the top stone of the brow plate, which was popularly referred to as the stone of wisdom,1 although it was an unusually large solitaire («Waise»). Thus any prince who stepped back would see the sign of imperial supremacy.

The third strophe refers directly to the struggle with Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) and accuses Rome of using excommunication as a political weapon. Very effective is the introduction of the hermit, representing simple Christian faith, who complains about the pope’s conduct.


(1) Ich saß auf einem Stein und hatte ein Bein über das andere geschlagen, den Ellbogen hatte ich darauf gestützt,
(5) Kinn und Wange hatte ich in die Hand gelegt. Da dachte ich gründlich darüber nach, wie man in dieser Welt leben sollte. Ich wußte [mir] keinen Rat zu geben, wie man drei Dinge erlangen könne,
(10) ohne daß eines davon Schaden nähme. Zwei davon sind Ansehen und weltlicher Besitz, die einander oft beeinträchtigen, das dritte ist die Gnade Gottes, unendlich viel wertvoller als die beiden andern.
(15) Diese [drei] besäße ich gern in einer Truhe. Ach leider, das kann nicht sein, daß Besitz und Ansehen in der Welt und dazu die Gnade Gottes zusammen in ein Herz kommen.
(20) Stege und Wege sind ihnen verwehrt, Untreue liegt im Hinterhalt, Gewalt hält die Straßen besetzt, Friede und Recht liegen auf den Tod danieder.2 Wenn diese beiden nicht gesund werden, so finden jene drei kein sicheres Geleit.

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2 25 Ich hôrte ein wazzer diezen 2 25 
und sach die vische fliezen, 
ich sach swaz in der welte was, 
velt, walt, loup, rôr unde gras. 
swaz kriuchet unde fliuget 
30 und bein zer erde biuget, 30 
daz sach ich, unde sage iu daz: 
der keinez lebet âne haz. 
daz wilt und daz gewürme 
die strîtent starke stürme, 
35 sam tuont die vogel under in, 35 
wan daz si habent einen sin: 
si dûhten sich ze nihte, 
si enschüefen starc gerihte. 
si kiesent künege unde reht, 
40 si setztent hêrren unde kneht. 40 
sô wê dir, tiuschiu zunge, 
wie stêt dîn ordenunge! 
daz nû diu mugge ir künec hât, 
und daz dîn êre alsô zergât! 
45 bekêrâ dich, bekêre, 45 
die cirkel sint ze hêre, 
die armen künege dringent dich. 
Philippe setze den weisen ûf, 
[und heiz si treten hinder sich! 
3 Ich sach mit mînen ougen 3 
50 mann unde wîbe tougen, 50 
daz ich gehôrte und gesach 
swaz iemen tet, swaz iemen sprach. 
ze Rôme hôrte ich liegen 
und zwêne künege triegen. 
55 dâ von huop sich der meiste strît 55 
der ê was oder iemer sît, 
dô sich begunden zweien 
die pfaffen unde leien. 
daz was ein nôt vor aller nôt, 
60 lîp unde sêle lac dâ tôt. 60 
die pfaffen striten sêre, 
doch wart der leien mêre. 
diu swert diu leiten si dernider 
und griffen zuo der stôle wider: 
65 si bienen die si wolten 65 
und niht den si solten.
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(2) (25) Ich hörte ein Wasser rauschen und sah die Fische schwimmen, ich sah, was es auf der Welt gab, Feld und Wald, Laub, Schilf und Gras. Was kriecht und fliegt
(30) und auf vier Beinen geht, das sah ich, und [ich] sage euch: Keines von allen lebt ohne Feindseligkeit. Wilde und kriechende Tiere kämpfen gewaltige Kämpfe aus,
(35) ebenso tun es die Vögel untereinander; nur ein vernünftiges Prinzip haben sie [alle]: Sie würden sich verloren geben, hätten sie nicht eine mächtige Rechtsordnung geschaffen. Sie wählen Könige und Gesetz,
(40) sie bestimmen, wer Herr ist und wer Knecht. Weh dir, deutsches Volk,wie steht es um deine Ordnung! Daß die Mücke jetzt ihren König hat und daß dein Ansehen so verfällt!
(45) Bekehre, bekehre dich! Die Kronreifen sind zu mächtig, die kleinen Könige bringen dich in Bedrängnis. Setz Philipp den Waisen auf und weise sie in ihre Schranken!

(3) Ich sah mit meinen Augen
(50) insgeheim den Männern und Frauen zu, da hörte und sah ich, was jedermann tat, was jedermann sprach. Ich hörte, wie man in Rom log, zwei Könige betrog.3
(55) Davon entstand der gewaltigste Streit, der je war und je wieder sein wird, als sich Zwietracht unter den Geistlichen und den Laien erhob. Das war eine Not größer als alle Nöte;
(60) Leib und Seele gingen zugrunde. Die Geistlichen kämpfen heftig, doch waren die Laien in der Überzahl. Da legten sie ihre Schwerter nieder und griffen wieder zur Stola.
(65) Sie belegten die mit dem Bann, die sie [bannen] wollten, und nicht den, den sie hätten [bannen] sollen.

Codex Balduineus [Festmahl](1308)
326 Walther von der Vogelweide: Political Poetry
dô stôrte man diu goteshûs. 
ich hôrte verre in einer klûs 
vil michel ungebære; 
70 dâ weinte eine klôsenære, 70 
er klagete gote sîniu leit: 
    "Owê der bâbest ist ze junc; hilf, hêrre, dîner kristenheit!" 

II Diu krône ist elter danne der künec Philippes sî: II 
dâ muget ir alle schouwen wol ein wunder bî, 
wies ime der smit sô ebene habe gemachet. 
Sîn keiserlîchez houbet zimt ir alsô wol, 
5 daz si ze rehte nieman guoter scheiden sol: 5 
ir dewederz dâ daz ander niht enswachet. 
Si liuhtent beide ein ander an, 
daz edel gesteine wider den jungen süezen man: 
die ougenweide sehent die fürsten gerne. 
10 swer nû des rîches irre gê, 10 
der schouwe wem der weise ob sîme nacke stê: 
der stein ist aller fürsten leitesterne. 

III Philippes künec, die nâhe spehenden zîhent dich, III 
dun sîst niht dankes milte: des bedunket mich 
wie dû dâ mite verliesest michels mêre. 
Dû möhtest gerner dankes geben tûsent pfunt 
5 dan drîzec tûsent âne danc. dir ist niht kunt 5 
wie man mit gâbe erwirbet prîs und êre. 
Denk an den milten Salatîn: 
der jach daß küneges hende dürkel solten sîn, 
sô wurden sie erforht und ouch geminnet. 
10 gedenke an den von Engellant, 10 
wie tiure er wart erlôst von sîner gebenden hant. 
ein schade ist guot, der zwêne frumen gewinnet.

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Da zerstörte man die Gotteshäuser. Weit weg in einer Klause hörte ich großes Wehklagen;
(70) dort weinte ein Klausner, er klagte Gott seinen Kummer: "O weh, der Papst ist zu jung; hilf, Herr deiner Christenheit!"4

Der Leitstern für alle Fürsten

(II) This poem, like the next two, is written in a strophic form and its accompanying melody came to be called the «Erster Philippston», since it is always connected with poetry concerned with Philip II. Philip was crowned on September 8, 1199, in Mainz, with the authentic imperial regalia (crown, sceptre, and orb) but by the wrong bishop and in the wrong place (cf. introduction to the Classical Period). Walther therefore stresses how well the crown suits the king and the significance of the «Waise», the precious stone already mentioned above (I: 48).

Die Krone ist älter als der König Philippus; ihr alle könnt darin ein Wunder erblicken, wie passend für ihn der Schmied sie geschaffen hat. Sein kaiserliches Haupt paßt so gut zu ihr,

(5) daß kein Wohlmeinender von Rechts wegen sie mehr trennen soll; weder tut sie ihm noch er ihr Abbruch. Sie lachen beide einander an, der Edelstein und der herrliche junge Mann; diese Augenweide sehen die Fürsten gern.

(10) Wer jetzt noch unsicher ist, wer das Reich verkörpert, der sehe den, auf dessen Haupt der Waise ruht! Dieser Stein ist der Leitstern für alle Fürsten.

Saladin und Richard

(III) This poem shows Walther at his worst. He is begging shamelessly and deliberately, comparing Philip with two opponents, Richard I (the Lion-Hearted) of England and Sultan Saladin, a Muslim. Although the latter was reknowned as a noble opponent and generous man (he died in 1193), the comparisons are nevertheless decidedly odious. Richard I had been kept under arrest by Henry VI in 1194 at a fortress near Krems, Austria. Walther was no longer at Philip’s court at this time. He intentionally uses the «Erster Philippston» to remind the emperor of his earlier poems in his praise.

Die genauer zusehen, König Philipp, werfen dir vor, deine Freigebigkeit komme nicht von Herzen. Mir scheint, dadurch verlierst du viel mehr als du gewinnst. Besser ist es, du gibst tausend Pfund mit freien Händen
(5) als dreißigtausend widerwillig. Du weißt nicht, wie man durch Schenken zu Ruhm und Ansehen kommt. Denk daran, wie freigebig Saladin war: der sagte, Königshände müßten durchlässig sein, dann würde man sie fürchten und lieben.
(10) Denke an den von England, wie seine schenkenden Hände ihn loskauften mit teurem Geld. Gut ist ein Schaden, der zweifach nützt.

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