58 The Classical Period


The Classical Period

    The period from about 1170 to 1230 was one of the most productive in the entire history of German literature. The rule of the Hohenstaufen (1137-1208: Konrad III, Friedrich I Barbarossa, Heinrich VI, Philipp von Schwaben; 1215-1254: Friedrich II),1 the impetus of the crusading idea, relative prosperity and tranquillity, and an interest in secular literature combined with cultural influences from abroad to produce a climate extremely favorable to literature. Most important of all, there appeared several writers of a stature that was not to be equaled for several hundred years. It is no exaggeration to say that for this short time German literature dominated the European scene.

    Two literary genres are of outstanding importance, the romance, that is, epics written in the vernacular,2 and the lyric, both of which owe their form and much of their content to French influence. The period also saw the appearance of the Nibelungenlied and Kudrun, the finest examples of the «Heldenepos» or «Volksepos», that is, ‘national’ epic. It is common practice in German literary histories to refer to the romance as ‘das höfische Epos’, since its background, attitudes, stories, and ethic are dependent on French models which influenced the aristocratic members of society, in contradistinction to the ‘popular’ «Heldenepos». The distinction is not quite so valid as appears at first sight, but it is well established.

    The term «höfisch», or ‘courtly’, needs definition. It was used during the Middle Ages to designate an attitude and a type of behavior conditioned by training and upbringing. Many attempts have been made to show that there was actually a code of courtly behavior in the sense of a philosophical system. Gustav Ehrismann sought to demonstrate that the knightly code was based on moral philosophy derived from Aristotle and transmitted into German literature through the translation into verse by Wernher von Elmendorf (c. 1170-80) of the Moralium dogma philosophorum. The Latin work, ascribed without valid reasons to Guillaume de Conches, is a collection of moral sayings from numerous ancient authors, and Ernst Robert Curtius may be right in his contention that it could not have formed the basis for a courtly code.

    There is a real question whether such a code actually existed. The twelfth century certainly sought higher standards of morality among laymen and, among the upper classes, higher standards of social behavior. It is certainly possible to enumerate some specific qualities that were regarded as essential to courtly conduct: «milte» (generosity), «triuwe» (loyalty), «tapferheit» (courage), «zuht» (good bearing), «stæte» (persistence), and «maze»

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(self-restraint). Yet most of these qualities would have been expected of any hero in the Norse Edda or the Anglo-Saxon BeowulfThe courtly knight’s concern with his «êre» (honor, reputation) would also have been characteristic of earlier works. The difference lies in the stress on what would later be called polite behavior3—the ability to converse in the major languages («Kultursprachen», such as those mentioned in Tristan), to play musical instruments, to honor women and those weaker than oneself, to show humility to one’s superiors and to the aged, and above all self-restraint, which meant that a man must control his sensuality and greed, grant mercy to a defeated enemy, and allow no quality («tugent»), not even a good one, to dominate his actions. If the knight observed all of the above, he would reach that state of exaltation that was termed «joi» in France and «hôher muot» in Germany.

    This state was also characteristic of true love—«hohe Minne», which the poets of southern France called «fin amors»—. The love for a good woman was a vital part of the life and courtliness of the hero of the romance. A great deal has been written about ‘courtly love’, which is a nineteenth-century term coined by the French critic Gaston Paris. Much of what has been written is based on the assumption that the information given in the De amore or De arte honesti amandi (‘on loving like a gentleman’) of Andreas Capellanus, written about 1180, is directly applicable to all literary works in the courtly tradition. This is not so. The frequently heard statement that courtly love was adulterous, which is based on the statement by Capellanus that there could be no true love between married people, is clearly disproved by the fact that Iwein, Erec, and Parzival all find true love in marriage. In fact, only those narratives in the Tristan tradition and some of those in the Lancelot tradition depict adulterous love, and even they illustrate how it leads to disaster.

    The situation is different in lyrical poetry. There the lady is shown as unattainable, and in the works of the classical period we may assume that, as a «frouwe», she is married, but the fact is nowhere stated, nor is it of importance, for the jealous husband has little or no significance in the best German poems, as distinct from much of the Provençal tradition. He would be important in the «Tagelied», or dawn-song, but few of these were written in the period we are discussing.

    It cannot be stated that love was a simple phenomenon in either the lyrics or the romances. Scholars are still far from having a clear idea about what influences caused the writers of Provençal lyrics in southern France («troubadours»), of narrative poetry in northern France («trouvères»), and their imitators in other countries to present a view of women and love that contrasted rather sharply with the attitudes of the medieval Church and even with the classical treatment of love between the sexes. From the earliest times, the Church had regarded celibacy as the ideal state and marriage as second best for those

60 The Classical Period


who lacked the sprititual discipline necessary for celibacy. A good marriage was charac- terized by calm companionship rather than by sensual attraction. To this, the writers con-trasted an idea of love that glorified women as beings not only of beauty but also of nobility of character, spiritual sensitivity and, unfortunately, complete aloofness. Naturally she is also of noble birth and she has the same position vis-à-vis the poet as a liege lord has to his liegeman. He adores her, obeys her every command, never expecting a reward, but always hoping that a miracle will occur and that she will accept him as her lover. Yet even this he does not really desire, for if she yielded, the very quality that made her so desirable would be lost. He is thus in a state which cannot be resolved, suspended between sorrow and joy. It should be emphasized that this state is to be found only in lyric poetry. In the narrative works the problem is not the winning of the lady’s love, which usually proves reasonably easy, but the recognition that love is not a purely sensual emotion. It must be combined with the other duties of a knight’s life so that his life is a harmonious whole. When love becomes obsessive, as it does with Lancelot and Tristan, it becomes a destructive force, not only destructive of the lovers but also to the very society of which they form a part; they may obey the rules, the lover may carry out every whim of his mistress, even when she demands the unreal and ridiculous, their love may in itself be a fine thing, infinitely superior to the passions of normal men, and even to the refined love of the court, but if this love is the sole preoccupation of a man and a woman, it will destroy them.

    The romances are entertainment but, like all medieval literary works, they are also didactic in as much as they show us men and women struggling with a difficult problem: How can a man reconcile his Christian duty to God and his desire to save his immortal soul with his duties to an earthly secular society? St. Augustine had said that the city of this world is unimportant. Our eyes must be fixed on the City of God. Subsequently, his-torians modified this view without denying its validity. They had seen in the Roman Empire the divinely ordained body politic that allowed the Christian Church to develop, and sometimes they had extended this divine purpose to include their own country, as the French did with Charlemagne. The romances are concerned with a non-historical society, and it behaves according to an ideal set of values. The knights do not fight in wars, and the individual who has been trained at the court leaves it to test his own prowess in a series of independent adventures. He finds these in ‘uncivilized’ areas away from the court, he makes mistakes, undergoes a complete change that amounts almost to a rebirth at one point in the narrative—always leaving the structure of the romance bipartite—and finally recognizes that his life must be a series of purposeful adventures to help those to whom the enlightenment of the court has not yet come, even though they may sometimes be members of it. The emphasis is always on the individual and his struggle to attain a moral and spiritual state which will enable him to function in the ideal society of which he forms a part. We have already pointed out that in some of the romances there is a tragic failure to attain this state, although the knights who merely seek it are in every way as good as those who do attain it—except for the one important quality of «maze».

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    The idealized Arthurian world is Christian only in a formal sense. It has its own values, and we hear little of a struggle for the soul. It is probably for this reason that Wolfram von Eschenbach (and even Chrétien de Troyes in France) rejected it in his Parzival romance and that later romances place more and more stress on the mystique of the Grail. For whatever its origins, the Grail was a Christian symbol, a symbol of yearning for a spiritual state the courtly world could not offer, a higher spiritual ecstasy that surpassed even «hôhe minne».

    Christianity is inevitably present even in the most secular of the romances. The courtly qualities are largely Christian too, although their application may be different. Gottfried von Straßburg can think of no better terminology for the love between two «edele herzen» than that of mysticism. The more serious a poet was, the more immediate seemed to him the problem of reconciling the highest secular achievement with Christianity. From these attempts emerge the famous ‘three goods’ of antiquity: wordly prosperity, ethico-moral conduct of upright men, and the wisdom of the philosopher. They are clearly a trinity, equally clearly—though indirectly—connected with the Platonic division of the human being into the body, the spirit, and the soul. Ehrismann saw a recurrence in the Middle Ages of «utile», «honestum», and «summum bonum», though by way of a Christian reinterpretation which was best expressed by the "driu dinc" in Walther von der Vogelweide’s poem "Ich saz ûf eime steine": "varnde guot, êre, gotes hulde" (worldly prosperity, esteem, and grace). Ideas from many sources have affected the treatment of the problem, but it remained difficult for the twelfth-century men and women of the Hohenstaufen culture to see how they could reconcile their spiritual with their worldly duties. To Walther von der Vogelweide, as to many others, it seemed that the crusades offered a solution to the dilemma. This seemed especially true when the brightness faded from the courtly scene, and it was ridiculed or used for base purposes.

    It was essential for anyone who believed in courtly society also to believe in a divine order. The values of courtliness were basically aristocratic, not so much because it was believed that noble birth alone would ensure good qualities and make a man fit to be a knight, but because the entire Hohenstaufen civilization was that of an élite. Knighthood was the highest quality, not royal birth, but the existence of a court, whether it was King Arthur’s at Camelot, Priam’s at Troy, or Alexander’s in Hellenist Greece, was the essential cultural focal point. One also believed in an «ordo mundi», where everyone was in the place that God thought he or she should be, and it was believed that while each person fulfilled his or her function, the secular world could be thought of as part of the divine order. This belief, often called gradualism, offered a partial solution to the question of the purpose of the secular world, for it implied that the secular society in which they lived was as much a part of God’s purpose as was the divine city in Heaven. Such a belief could be held, however, only if the social order was stable and not subverted. It is typical that the complaints of Walther von der Vogelweide are almost all directed against those who would change the order.

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    The ideal, evolved in the twelfth century, continued to dominate people’s minds for centuries, even though they often understood only its externals—its exaggerated love scenes and its formal jousts—but not its spirit. However, this attitude toward women has remained the ideal of Western culture to this day.

    The individual authors of the classical Middle High German period will be discussed in the respective introductions preceding their selections. Here it will suffice to state that Heinrich von Veldeke, a poet of the northwestern area of Germany, was the first to introduce the French romance to Germany in his Eneit (finished c. 1189). It is an adaptation of the French Roman d’Enéas.4 Hartmann von Aue began his work with a brief didactic treatise, the Büchlein . About 1180 he wrote a free adaptation of the Erec of Chrétien de Troyes, followed by two works with Christian overtones, Gregorius about 1187-1189 and Der arme Heinrich about 1195. His last work, Iwein, inspired by Chrétien de Troyes’s Yvain, is dated about 1200. Hartmann is thus the earliest of the great writers of romance. He is mentioned by his successors with admiration, attesting to the fact that he had affected them profoundly. Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival and Gottfried von Straßburg’s Tristan were written in the first decade of the thirteenth centrury. It is impossible to determine exactly which preceded the other, and probably the authors knew parts of each other’s work before it was completed. Wolfram worked on his Willehalm in the second decade of the thirteenth century and on his Titurel at approximately the same time.

    Other romances appeared during this period. The Troy story was presented by Herbort von Fritzlar (c.1195), the Lancelot story by Ulrich von Zazikhoven (c.1194), although the loosely connected episodes of his Lanzelet have little in common with the well-known version of Chrétien de Troyes.

    The «Heldenepos», somewhat misnamed as ‘popular epic’ («Volksepos»), was affected only tangentially by the rise of the courtly epic. A brief account of its main features will be found in the introduction to the NibelungenliedThe only other work of any significance was Kudrun, preserved in the Ambraser Handschrift,5 a strange mixture of motifs from various threads of the heroic tradition and of Christian virtues.

    Literary activity in the Middle High German classical period was concentrated in the areas of romance and lyric. No drama written in German is extant, very little prose indeed, and hardly any didactic poetry. One special type, the beast epic, is represented by the work of Heinrich der Glichezære (1180), but his work is a mere anticipation of the developments that were to come later.