The Northern Way

Song and Legend From the Middle Ages

German Literature

Page 11<

Lo! I enjoin ye, with God's will

That this my longing ye fulfill.

I pray ye all have but one voice

And let your choice go with my choice."

Then the cries ceased, and the counter-cries,

And all the battle of advice,

And every lord, being content

With Henry's choice, granted assent.

Then the priests came to bind as one

Two lives in bridal unison,

Into his hand they folded hers,

Not to be loosed in coming years,

And uttered between man and wife

God's blessing on the road of this life.

Many a bright and pleasant day

The twain pursued their steadfast way,

Till hand in hand, at length they trod

Upward to the kingdom of God.

Even as it was with them, even thus,

And quickly, it must be with us.

To such reward as theirs was then,

God help us in His hour. Amen.

-----Tr. by Rossetti


In the twelfth century, Germany had a remarkable outburst of lyric poetry, chiefly songs of love. The influences of the crusades, the spread of the romances of Arthur and Charlemagne roused over all Germany the spirit of poetry. The poets of this new movement are called Minnesingers. It is interesting to notice that the same poets who wrote these love lyrics, wrote also long romances of chivalry; the greatest names among them being Hartmann von Aue, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, Gottfried von Strassburg, and Walther von der Vogelweide. They were of all ranks, but chiefly belonged to the upper classes---knights, squires, princes, and even kings being numbered among them. Their extraordinarily large number may be gathered from the fact that from the twelfth century alone the names of one hundred and sixty Minnesingers have come down to us. Their names and their songs have been handed down largely by tradition, since the mass of them could neither read nor write, and for a century or more their work was preserved orally.

The subject of these songs was almost always love---generally love of a sweetheart; sometimes of the simpler aspects of nature, sometimes the love of the Virgin. Besides this they wrote also many didactic, religious, and patriotic songs. The rhythmical and metrical structure of their verse was very complicated and generally very skillful, sometimes, however, running into eccentricities and barren technicalities. The Minnesinger generally composed the music of his song at the same time with the verse.

The bloom of the Minnesong passed away in the latter half of the thirteenth century. The songs became theological, didactic, political, more and more forced and complicated in form, more and more filled with quaint new figures, far-fetched conceits, and obscure allusions. Then gradually developed the school of the Meistersingers, who formed themselves into a guild of poets to which only those were admitted who passed examination upon the difficult technical rules that had been built up. The poetry of the Meistersingers was, for the most part, tedious and artificial. The poets were not nobles and soldiers, but brughers and artisans. They reached thier highest development in the sixteenth century. The most famous of them was Hans Sachs (1494-1575), who, in the space of fifty-three years, wrote 6181 pieces of verse.


Twelfth Century

By the heath stood a lady

All lonely and fair;

As she watched for her lover,

A falcon flew near.

"Happy falcon!" she cried,

"Who can fly where he list,

And can choose in the forest

The tree he loves best!

"Thus, too, had I chosen

One knight for mine own,

Him my eye had selected,

Him prized I alone:

But other fair ladies

Have envied my joy,

And why? for I sought not

Their bliss to destroy.

"As to thee, lovely summer,

Returns the birds' strain,

As on yonder green linden

The leaves spring again,

So constant doth grief

At my eyes overflow,

And wilt not thou, dearest,

Return to me now?

"Yes, come, my own hero,

All others desert!

When first my eye saw thee,

How graceful thou wert;

How fair was thy presence,

How graceful, how bright!

Then think of me only.

My own chosen knight!"

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