The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


Page 3

Although they professed Christianity, the early missionaries and monks seem to have admired the worldly values they denounced so eloquently. A good example of this contradiction can be found in the preface to the Gospel Book of the ninth-century Alsatian monk Otfried, who claimed in a letter to Archbishop Liutbert of Mainz that he had written this long religious work in order to displace worldly lay songs.1 In spite of his religious purpose, he shows himself quite worldly in his preface, in which he explains why he has written his book in his Frankish vernacular. The Greeks and Romans have written in their tongue, he states, so why should the Franks not do so? Are they not just as brave as the Romans and the Greeks? They are intelligent and are bold in field and forest. They are wealthy, very brave, and swift with their weapons; nor are they disgraced by their good land, which is rich in gold and silver and other metals. They are quite able to defend themselves from their enemies. If their enemies dare begin anything, the Franks quickly defeat them. No one who borders on their land can escape having to serve them, and everyone fears them. There is no nation that will fight with them, they have discouraged it and proved it with weapons. They taught them that with swords, not at all with words, with very sharp spears, and that is why they still fear them so. No nation might consider fighting with them, even though it be the Medes or Persians, without it being all the worse for them. I have read somewhere in a book that, by blood and kinship, they are of the dynasty of Alexander, who so threatened all the world and scattered it all with the sword and subjected it to his control with very hard bonds. Like the Macedonians, the Franks will accept no king unless they have reared him at home2 . . . And thus this pious, yet patriotic, monk expresses his surviving pagan values.

1. Braune, XXXII, 21, vv. 7-14.

2. Braune, XXXII, 4, I, 1, VV. 57-94. Similar praise appears in Hartmann von Aue's Gregorius : "Sîn lant und sîne marke die bevridete er alsô starke, swer si mit arge ruorte daz er den zevuorte der êren und des guotes" (vv. 2263-2267).

For vivid descriptions of violence and savagery the converts did not have to delve into the Germanic past, since the Old Testament brought examples enough. Even the fourth-century Christian poet Prudentius supplied an extreme example of violence in his Psycho­machia or "Soul Battle", which depicts the struggle between the Virtues and Vices. Although the warring ladies are only abstractions, their battle is presented as blood-thirstily as any conflicts in Homer. Moreover, as each Virtue overcomes her corresponding Vice, she exults maliciously over her victim's fate. Thus it appears that Prudentius himself must have had a latent love for brutality and revenge.

The Old Testament also brought much justification for social and economic inequality, especially in the stories of Abram's begetting of Ishmael by the bondswoman Hagar, Esau's selling his birthright, and Noah's cursing Canaan . The guilt of these people naturally passed on to their descendants, the medieval serfs and bondsmen. Even the New Testament justified inequality. In his epistle to the Romans, St. Paul, says, "Render therefore to all men their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour."1 In other words, a good Christian has to show honor, as well as submission, to those in power.

Although the Christian missionaries extolled poverty, peace, and meekness, deep in their hearts they still admired the goods of fortune and the warlike virtues cherished by the heathens; and they attributed precisely these qualities to their newly imported God. This may have been in part a concession to public taste; yet these newly converted missionaries seemed to revel in their warlike descriptions. In any case, they presented their God as a rich and powerful king, who delighted in glory and who practiced the virtues of courage, fealty, largess, and revenge.

God's thirst for glory or êre is expressed in St. Martin's account of the fallen angels: "One of these, who had been made chief archangel of all in heaven, seeing himself shining in such great glory, did not give glory to God his creator, but claimed to be his equal; and for this pride he, along with many other angels who had agreed with him, was cast out of that seat in heaven into this air which is under the heavens."2 The Biblical story is understood somewhat similarly in an episode added to the Anglo-Saxon Genesis, which may have been translated from an Old Saxon source.3 It did not dismay the Suebi or Saxons that God was so jealous of his glory, since glory, or êre, was a proper goal for a king. Centuries after the conversions, a MHG version of the Chanson de Roland has Charlemagne invoke God's help with the words, "Gracious Lord, now think of Thy glory (êre) and show Thy strength."4 The Hebrews had also appealed to Jehovah's pride in their many exhortations to him to do things "for his name's sake". This was logical, since Jehovah had created man for his own glory.5

1 "Reddite ergo omnibus debita, cui tributum tributum, cui vectigal vec­tigal, cui timorem timorem, cui honorem honorem" (Romans, 13,7).

2 "Ex quibus unus, qui primus omnium archangelus fuerat factus, videns se in tanta gloria praefulgentum, non dedidt honorem deo creatori suo, sed similem se illi dixit; et pro hac superbia cum aliis plurimus angelis qui illi consenserunt de illa caelesti sede in aere isto qui est sub caelo deiectus est." (Martin, De Correctione, 3, 3).

3 In Heliand, pp. 211-219.

4 "Gnaedec1icher herre, nu gedencke an dîn êre. erzaige dîne tugende" (Rolandslied, vv. 8417-8419).

5 "And everyone that calleth on My name, I have created him for My glory" (Et omnem, qui invocat nomen meum, in gloriam meam creavi eum, formavi eum et feci eum), Isaiah, 43, 7.

God's courage did not have to be greatly stressed, since he, like many famous worldly rulers, was conceived as an older person who let his vassals fight for him. After defeating Lucifer he really had little opposition, except when heathens on earth attacked his honor and forced him to call upon his earthly champions, usually the Franks, to defend it. As a generous liege lord, God repaid the service of his earthly vassals with his favor, or huld, as it was expressed in feudal terminology. Since God was a dependable oath-keeper, possession of his huld was assurance of salvation, that is, of patronage and protection from the devil on the Day of Judgment.

This fact is delightfully explained in an OHG alliterative poem called the Muspilli,l which was scribbled into a theological work in Bavaria toward the end of the tenth century. The poem, which is really a sermon in disguise, warns of the coming Day of Judgment. First it tells how the fate of the individual soul is decided, as soon as it leaves the body, by a struggle between the armies of heaven and hell. Then it tells how God, like a tribal chieftain, convenes his council and summons all souls to judgment. Again there is a trial by combat this time between Elijah and the Antichrist. At last all the dead are resurrected and forced to stand judgment for their sins on earth. Although the poem appears to recall the spirit and substance of Germanic legal customs, it actually follows scripture and theo­logical tradition very closely.

1 Braune, XXX.

In order to appeal to the this-worldly heathens, the earliest missionaries had taught that God rewarded his worthy vassals in this world. However, since such recompense was not always forthcoming, they gradually shifted the emphasis to the rewards in the world to come. The word heil was used not only to designate one's ability to give help, health, or prosperity, but also to designate one's own welfare, luck, or success. In this way it meant about the same as our word luck in expressions such as "he was born lucky" or "he just naturally has luck"; for it was an innate quality of the person, not just a momentary smile from Dame Fortune. If a man succeeded, he had heil ; if he failed, he lacked heil ; and thus his heil exactly equaled his success and also his honor. Because the missionaries taught that the only true prosperity was that of the soul after death, the word heil acquired the added meaning of salvation. With man as a reference, heil meant welfare or future bliss; with God as reference it meant the ability to bestow, or the bestowal of, welfare or future bliss. Thus, in both cases, it amounted to salvation.

God not only rewarded his friends with heil in this and the next world, but also punished his enemies with unheil both here and there. The unnecessary cruelty in the later Crusade epics exceeds the usual violence expressed in old Germanic verse, even when heroes ran berserk; for the furor Teutonicus tended to be only as intense as military necessity demanded. The almost malicious joy in the suffering of the pagans in the Crusade epics may be influenced by the Old Testament, which reveled in the pain inflicted upon the enemy. If this is so, it would be a case where conversion represented a cultural relapse. During the sack of Jerusalem in 1099, God's champions acted just as brutally as their pagan ancestors had ever done a millennium earlier; and nearly three centuries later the Teutonic Knights, as the Virgin Mary's champions, were just as cruel to the


God was not only warlike, but also rich; and the word rich remained his most frequent epithet down until the Reformation. Because we no longer think of God as being rich, many translators render God's attribute rich as "powerful" or "almighty". But, this is not necessary, inasmuch as wealth and power were merely two aspects of a single condition. Later, when it was better known that Christ had selected voluntary poverty on earth, his wealth and good birth were borne vicariously by the Virgin Mary, who was always depicted in the finery befitting a regal origin. As a rich ruler, God was generous, and his milte surpassed that of any worldly monarch. According to the Wessobrunn Prayer, an early Bavarian alliterative poem, God was the "most generous of men", just like Beowulf.2 More valuable than any stores on earth or even worldly fame was God's favor or huld, which brought heil or everlasting rewards and glory in heaven.

1. See Chronicon Terrae Prussiae for examples of Christian depredations.

2. "manna miltisto" (Wessobrunner Gebet. v. 8, in Braune. XXIX); "manna mildust" (Beowulf. v. 3181). Cf. "mildi god" (Heliand, v. 3239).

Perhaps the most pleasing picture of Christ in Germanic literature is in the Heliand (i.e., "Heil-bringer"), the previously mentioned Low Saxon epic about Christ. Charlemagne, as one of God's many Frankish champions, had done his best to spread Christ's message with fire and sword, even to the extent of baptizing an entire captive army by marching it through the Weser . Total immersion is not total conversion, and there were many backsliders. Charle­magne's successor, Louis the Pious, tried less violent means, such as encouraging the missionaries to explain Christ to the heathens in their own language. A result of this effort was the Heliand, a biogra­phy of Christ based upon Tatian's harmony of the Gospels. But Christ has suffered more than a sea change, he emerges as a Germanic war lord, surrounded by his twelve trusted thanes, who journeys to and from Nazarethburg in a style fitting his social station. Even though Christ and his heroes are described in literary cliches taken directly from aristocratic-Germanic literary tradition, the message that he teaches follows very closely the word of the Gospels as harmonized by Tatian.

In reading the various references to Christ in medieval epics, one will note that Christ and God are one person and that the Holy Ghost is scarcely mentioned. This is surprising in view of the fervor with which the Franks had championed the Trinity in extirpating the Unitarian heresy of the Goths, Burgundians, Lombards, and other Arian landowners. To be sure, catechisms, prayers, and liturgy stressed the three persons of the Deity;l yet this dogma made little impression upon the laymen of the West, who were not deeply concerned with the theological niceties that so disastrously plagued the more speculative minds of Byzantium . In any case, down through the chansons de geste and the later German Crusade epics, Christ and God are generally one person, who resembles a jealous Jehovah more than a meek Jesus. This is mentioned only to explain why, in the discussion of such epics, the words Christ and God are used inter­changeably.

Although Christian dogma denied the value of worldly honor, the entire Church was organized in a complicated hierarchy of honors and dignities; and God's vicars on earth were rightly called dignitaries or Würdenträger. The costly garments of the higher clergy were a far cry from sackcloth and hair shirt; yet they could be justified as fitting tokens of respect to a God so jealous of his own glory.

During the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, after it had become more firmly rooted, the Church made more effort to enforce some of its other-worldly values. This puritanical movement, which centered in the monastery of Cluny in France and is known as the Cluny Reform, affected German literature greatly by damning all worldly values as the works of the Devil. This attitude is well illustrated, for example, in an ascetic work ascribed to a monk named Hartmann, which attributed all wealth and worldly fame to the Devil.2 The other-worldly values of the Cluny Reform were nothing new, for nearly all the arguments of the memento mori tradition can be found, along with Scriptural documentation, in a letter by Boniface, the Anglo-Saxon missionary to the

Germans.3 Christians had always had before them Isaiah's admonition: "Fear not the reproach of men, and be not dismayed at their revilings."4 Thus the clerics were trying to undermine the very foundations upon which feudal society was based.5 Needless to say, such works were read mostly by other clerics.

1. For catechisms, see Braune, XLVI. For vivid explanation of Trinity, see Ring, vv. 3943-3977.

2. Rede vom Glouven, vv. 1926-1941.

3. Talbot, pp. 65-66.

4. "nolite timere opprobrium hominum et blasphemias eorum ne metuatis" (Isaiah, 51, 7).

5. "Targîs vacht umbe êre, Anseîs umbe di sêle, Targîs umbe ertrîche, Anseîs umbe daz himilrîche" (Rolandslied, vv. 4719-4722). The author of the Makkabäer (I, 5, vv. 57 ff) says that the ancient kings who sought honor for their own sake rather than for God and Israel were sinful.

The extreme asceticism preached by the Cluny movement is expressed in numerous saints' legends, a good example of these being that of St. Alexius, a saint cultivated in many countries. This saint, as a young man, was heir to a throne and was endowed with all the gifts and virtues befitting his rank. Soon after his engagement to a beautiful princess, he began to fear for his immortal soul; and, leaving home and crown and bride, he wandered to the Holy Land, where he suffered untold hardships. Finally, returning as a beggar to his father's house, he lived there under the stairs in voluntary poverty for thirty years without ever revealing himself to his grieving bride or parents.1 This selfish concern for his own soul was considered most admirable.

Such an austere idea of poverty and renunciation was extolled as an ideal by the Church, which made little effort to evolve a reason­able compromise that people could actually practice. Thus the whole medieval world was a period of dualism, and man was ex­pected to conform to two contradictory ideals. Some poets resolved this dilemma by telling of wealthy and powerful rulers who fought successful wars, amassed great wealth, married beautiful women, and then, just before it was too late, renounced all worldly honor and entered a cloister.

1. A life of St. Alexius, written in the eleventh century, is the oldest extant piece of French literature. The best German version was written some two centuries later by Conrad of Würzburg.

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