The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


A worthy man does good things so that people will praise him. - TEICHNER, 1, vv. 10-11.

Historians of German literature usually divide the older literature into heroic, ecclesiastic, courtly, and didactic periods. Although convenient, this chronological division is not entirely justifiable, since these were not really periods but rather concurrent movements or traditions. The German courts of the High Middle Ages, being the successors of the ancient tribal courts, inherited an ancient, even if somewhat altered, tradition. Likewise the didactic poets of the waning Middle Ages were continuing an unbroken tradition intro­duced by the earliest missionaries. The two traditions, heathen-­heroic and Christian-ascetic existed concurrently during the entire period.

The fact that the secular code found little written expression during the Cluny Reform is no proof that it had ceased to dominate the thoughts and actions of the secular courts during that period. Both the Waltharius and the Ruodlieb, for example, reveal an acceptance of worldly values. Even though the clerics preferred to devote their parchments to the Lord's service, there was no shortage of scops and minstrels to entertain the courts with oral tales of worldly courage, success, and honor. This is proved by the emergence of the ancient Germanic themes and values almost unadulterated in the written literature of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. As we shall see, the Lay at the Nibelungs, which was written down at the beginning of the thirteenth century, expresses the ancient heathen-­heroic values almost intact.

To be truly representative of an age, literature must be social. That is to say, it must be sung, recited, or acted before a group of representative people. Such literature must concur with the values of the group, or at least not run counter to them, if the author is not [to] be rejected or ridiculed. Thus the public is a decisive factor in the poet's choice of subject matter and in his manner of treatment. Samuel Johnson once said of playwrights in the eighteenth century: "Ah! Let not Censure term our Fate our Choice, The Stage but echoes back the publick Voice. The Drama's Laws the Drama's Patrons give, For we that live to please, must please to live."1

What Johnson said of the dramatists of his day held equally of the court poets of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, who, as the Swabian poet Hartmann of Aue frankly admitted,2 wrote what their patrons wanted to hear. Sometimes the poets expressed their own views on the professional honor of poets, for example when Walther von der Vogelweide, medieval Germany's greatest lyric poet, praised the art of Reinmar of Hagenau or when Gottfried praised that of Henry of Veldeke, Hartmann of Aue, Reinmar, Walther, and others.3 Gottfried of Strassburg, the author of Tristan, even paraphrased Cicero in saying that honor and praise create art, since art is created for praise.4 Despite these few references to their own professional honor, the court poets stressed almost only the aristocratic honor code. It is not unusual for court poets like Hart­mann and Wolfram to address their public personally and consult them in various matters; and we may be sure that they seldom deviated far from the values professed by the courts.

1. The Poems of Samuel Johnson, ed. D. N. Smith and E. L. McAdam, Oxford, 1941, p. 53.

2. "daz man gerne hoeren mac, dâ kêrt er sînen vlîz an" (Iwein, vv. 26-27).

3. Walther, 83, 1-13; Tristan, vv. 4619-4818.

4. Êre und lob diu schepfent list, dâ list ze lobe geschaffen ist" (Tristan, vv. 21-22). "Honor alit artes, omnesque incenduntur ad studia gloria" (Cicero, Ad Tusculanum, 1,4). In the Inferno (I, v. 87), Dante says that Vergil's beautiful style has brought him honor (10 bello stile che m'ha fatto honore).

The court epics, being a social literary form, were the most important expressions of current concepts of honor. The court lyrics, on the other hand, have very little to contribute to an understanding of that ideal. This is surprising, since the courtly lyric, or minnesang, as it was called in Germany, was an outgrowth of feudal custom. As we have seen, it was the duty of a warrior or knight to enhance his liege's honor by fighting for him in battle and serving him at court. By analogy, it was the duty of a court poet to enhance his liege's honor by singing his praise. In other words, he too performed liege-service (Herrendienst) by singing vassal-songs, or sirventes, as they were known in Old Provencal.

Good birth was particularly stressed in courtly poems, which were written for wellborn people jealous of the privileges due their rank. The old Germanic distinction between free and unfree status played little part in most courtly verse, which distinguished more between courtly and boorish manners and between aristocratic and common birth. In the Lay of the Nibelungs, on the other hand, the tragedy begins when Brunhild scorns Kriemhild as a bondswoman (eigen diu) because she believes Siegfried a vassal. Hartmann's Poor Henry, which will be discussed at some length, is an exception among

courtly epics in having its hero marry a peasant girl. However, it is clear that she is of free birth;1 and it is to be remembered that the work, although courtly in style, is religious in intent.

Despite all Church teachings to the contrary, the upper classes continued to assume that only nobly born people are capable of virtue.2 As the hero of Conrad of Würzburg's epic Engelhart says to Dietrich, "I should have detected without any doubt from your virtue that you were of noble and distinguished birth."3 As in the earlier Germanic sagas, a man's honor could be smirched only by his social equal, and he did not have to accept the challenge of a man of inferior birth. Also, the shame of defeat was all the greater if the victor had no high rank. This fact is illustrated in Erec, an Arthurian romance by Hartmann of Aue, at the turn of the thirteenth century. When the hero of this tale defeats Guivreiz and Mabonagrin, they are relieved to learn that he is well born.4 Rudolf of Ems also claimed that the disgrace of defeat is greater if the victor has no "high name".5

The Church taught the equality of all men before God; yet it never convinced the upper classes that God did not prefer the wealthy and wellborn. This fact is indicated by Rudolf of Ems in his Good Gerhard, when he boasts that the church endowed by Gerhard accepted only princes as canons.6 Hildegard of Bingen explained that she had only noblewomen in her convent because it would be a crime against God to mix the classes, like mixing cattle, asses, sheep, and goats.7 This may be an echo of Leviticus, which says, "You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind."8 God himself continued to be described as wealthy, and rîch was his standard epithet. Wolfram expresses this sentiment when he tells God that he is his kinsman, "I poor, and Thou very rich."9

1. Her father was a "vrîer bûman" (Armer Heinrich, v. 269).

2. See Bopp, p. 36.

3. "ich möchte ân allen zwîfel gar an dîner tugent hân gespurt daz dû waere yon geburt edel gar und ûz erkorn" (Engelhart, vv. 1480-1483). Cf. "ir tragt geschickede unde schîn, ir mugt wol volkes herre sîn" (Parzival, 170, 22-23).

4. Erec, vv. 4514-4534, 9339-9365.

5. "hohen namen" (Willehalm van Orlens, v. 11,1417).

6. "er nam ze kôrherren dar niht wan der fürsten süne gar" (Gerhard, vv. 191-192).

7. "Et quis homo congreget omnem gregem suum in unum stabulum, scilicet asinos, oves, haedos, ita quod non dissipet se?" (Migne, Ser. Lat. Vol. 197, Column 338). She then goes on to prove that God is really a respecter of persons.

8. "Iumentum tuum non facies coire cum alterius generis animantibus" (Leviticus, 19, 19).

9. "ich arm und dû vil rîche" (Willehalm, I, v. 18).

Throughout the High Middle Ages wealth continued to be a major source of honor, provided that it was not hoarded but shared generously. Not only the heroic ethos, but also Christian dogma taught that the value of money lay in its expenditure, as Thomas Aquinas avowed.1 Words referring to wealth remained among the most frequent in descriptions of worthy knights. Even the most ideal of the courtly poets stressed the ignominy of poverty. Wolfram lets Gurnemanz, Parzival's teacher in courtly matters, tell him to succor those in want, particularly men of gentle birth, who have lost their wealth and therefore contend with shame.2 Christian charity has progressed enough here, at least towards one's social equals, to change scorn into pity; yet poverty is still considered a disgrace.3

In Hartmann's Gregorius the abbot advises his poor young friend not to aspire to knighthood, for "if you have won the rank of knight, then you will needs be ashamed of your poverty. Now what will your knighthood avail you, if you do not have the power of wealth? "4 His contemporary, Gottfried of Strassburg, lets Tristan say that, if he had great wealth, he "would not be ashamed to be called a knight";5 and on another occasion he uses the word scham almost as a synonym for poverty.6 Elsewhere he describes the ideal knight as handsome, faithful, courageous, generous, and rich,7 and he says that two things make a man, his person and his wealth.8 Hartmann expressed the prevailing view, in saying that the beautiful, but impoverished, Enite "lacked nothing but wealth to be a praise­worthy woman".9 Conrad claimed that a nobleman can not be wert if he is poor and that he loses his wirde if he has no money.10

1 "usus pecuniae est in emissione ipsius" (cited from Sombart, p. 13).

2 "der kumberhafte werde man wol mit schame ringen kan (daz ist ein unsüez arbeit): dem sult ir helfe sîn bereit" (Parzival, 170,29-171,2).

3 Three centuries later the Middle Scots poet Weddirburne could still write: "Thairfoir thow sowld richt prudently perpend The danger The dishonor and defame Off povertie or ane mischevous end" (Bannatyne MS, IV, 100, vv.71-73).

4 "dû hâst gewunnen ritters namen: nû muostû dîner armut schamen. nû waz touc dîn ritterschaft, dû enhetest guotes die kraft?" (Gregorius vv. 1665-1668).

5 "daz ich mich ritterlîches namen noch er sich mîn niht dörfte schamen" (Tristan, vv. 4407-4408).

6 "in fremdem lande êre unde gemach unde schame in vater rîche" (Tristan, vv.11,600-11,601).

7 "des lîbes schoene und wunneclîch, getriuwe, küene, milte, rîch" (Tristan, vv.249-251).

8 "zwô sache enmachen einen man: ich meine lîp, ich meine guot, von disen zwein kumt edeler muot und werltlîcher êren vil" (Tristan, vv. 5700-5703).

9 "und waere sî gewesen rîch, so gebraeste niht ir lîbe ze lobelichem wîbe" (Erec, vv. 333-335).

10 "sô mac vil kûme ein edelman wert gesîn in kranker habe. an hôher wirde gêt im abe, swenn er des geldes niht enhât" (Engelhart, vv. 270-272).

On the other hand Rudolf of Ems, another bourgeois poet, maintained that a sufficiently wise and brave man can achieve praise in spite of poverty,1 but it is to be noted that Rudolf was not a true court poet. Dietrich of Bern, or Theoderic the Great as he was known in German popular epics,2 continued to receive honor when he was expelled and impoverished by a rival king, and somehow he retained his epithet of "the rich".3 Nevertheless, when he confesses to Rüdeger that he has lost his wealth, Rüedeger exclaims, "Alas for the great shame."4

Worthy and shamefaced heroes were always embarrassed by their poverty. Because he has less money, Parzival does not think it fitting to use the familiar form of address in speaking to his own wealthy brother.5 In the story Peter of Staufenberg the hero refuses the king's daughter because "she is free by birth. It would be un­fitting for her to marry a poor man like me."6 Here poverty is contrasted with freedom, which was essential for enjoying honor. Even though wealth could come and go, it was usually felt to be an integral part of the person, just as health, beauty, and intelligence are still felt to be. Today we compliment a person by saying, "You are very beautiful" or "You are very clever"; but we do not say, "You are very wealthy". In the Middle Ages, on the other hand, "rich Sir" and "rich Lady" were perfectly proper modes of address. Despite much clerical moralizing, which will be discussed, poverty continued to merit shame, as Thomas Hobbes observed in the seventeenth century.7 Otherwise no one would have bothered to say that poverty is no disgrace (Armut ist keine Schande). Perhaps the older attitude toward poverty lingered longest in the contempt felt by propertied people in the South of the United States toward the "po' whites".

Stricker, a thirteenth-century aphorist, expressed the prevailing view, in complaining that lords were going with poor women;8 and clerics defended the inequitable distribution of wealth as an inviolable part of the divine scheme. Throughout MHG literature the admirable knight is almost invariably wealthy, and in many epics the word rich is the most frequent complimentary adjective.

1. "Wie menic ander notic man Ritters pris alda gewan Der siner armut niht engalt, Er wäre also wis und also balt Das man im hohes prises jach" (Willehalm van Orlens, vv. 7741-45).

2. The term "popular epic" (Valksepos) is commonly used to designate less polished epics usually dealing with native themes. Because they deal with native rather than classical or Arthurian matter, they are also called "national epics". The Lay of the Nibelungs is a "popular epic" with regard to matter, but a "courtly epic" with regard to style.

3. "der rîche" (Dietrichs Flucht, v. 4774).

4. "owê der grôzen scham" (ibid., v. 4776).

5. "bruoder, iuwer rîcheit glîchet wol dem baruc sich: sô sît ir elter ouch dan ich. mîn jugent unt mîn armuot sol sö1cher lôsheit sîn behuot, daz ich iu duzen biete, swenn ich mich zühte niete" (Parzival, 749, 24-30).

6. "wan sü ist von gebürte fri: ez were ir ungezeme daz sü mich armen neme" (Rittermaeren, vv. 890-892).

7. "Riches, are Honourable; for they are Power. Poverty, Dishonourable" (Leviathan, X).

8. "armiu wîp" (Stricker, p. 61, v. 263).

Just as guot (wealth) is usually associated with êre, rîch is often associated with êrlîich (honorable).1 Whereas poverty normally indicated failure and was therefore shameful, voluntary poverty was honorable, provided the public knew that the beggar had formerly been rich but had renounced worldly wealth for heavenly rewards. Naturally it was no great performance for a poor man to renounce the world. Consequently, most European saints, like Buddah and Josaphat before them, were recruited from the wealthier classes of society, regardless of what Scripture says about the difficulty encountered by rich men and camels.

As we have seen, the Epistle of St. James says not to show respect to someone because he is rich; yet thirteenth-century society considered it poor taste not to do so. In the Lay of the Nibelungs, when Etzel's messengers come to Worms, the people of the city see that they are rich and therefore open their gates to them.2 Whereas St. James had preached against showing deference to fine clothing, men of the High Middle Ages thought otherwise. Riding through a forest, the hero of the popular epic Wolfdietrich finds a well-dressed corpse and exclaims: "Alas, hero! Your fate troubles me. You may well be noble. Silken are your clothes."3 Although the logical con­nection is not expressed explicitly, it is easy to see the causal relationship. Because he wears silk he is noble and deserves more sympathy. And hence the great emphasis upon clothes throughout the Middle Ages.

Today, when we say that clothes make the man, we do so with a note of irony and disapproval. But not so with medieval poets. Just as a man's wealth was an integral part of his person, his clothes were an outward and visible sign of his inner worth. The Poetic Edda had stated the view bluntly by saying, "The naked man is naught,"4 and most later medieval poets concurred.

1. "reich und erber" (Erzählungen aus altdeutschen Handschriften, ed. A. v. Keller, Stuttgart, 1855, p. 334, v. 5).

2. "daz si vil rîche waren, daz wart da wol bekant. man schuof in herberge in der wîten stat zehant" (Nibelungenlied, 1176, 3-4). While preparing to confront Brunhild and demand precedence, Kriemhild tells her ladies that, to free her of shame, they must show their good clothes and thus prove that her husband is not a bondsman: "Nu kleidet iuch, mîne meide... ez muoz âne schande belîben hie mîn lîp. ir sult wollazen schowen, und habt ir rîche wat. si mac sîn gerne lougen, des Prünhilt verjehen hât" (Nibelungenlied, 831, 1-4).

3. "dîn kumber ist mir leit; du macht wol edele wesen: sîdîn sint dîniu kleit, (Wolfdietrich, A, 563, 3-4).

4. Hovamo1 49, in Poetic Edda, p. 38.

Gottfried was perfectly sincere in saying that Tristan's person and his clothing made a chivalrous man, and this explains why honor-seeking Tristan wore unusual clothes.1 When a poet occasionally praises a women in spite of her rags, as Hartmann does in the case of Enite, this does not diminish the importance of elegance. Quite to the contrary; being attractive in poor apparel is convincing proof of beauty. Whereas expensive clothes won honor from people in general, they won honor from the ladies in particular. After describing the gorgeous trappings worn by Feirefiz, Wolfram explains, "The unbaptized hero strove for women's reward. That is why he bedecked himself so beautifully. His lofty heart compelled him to strive for worthy love."2

Today we are bored by the interminable descriptions of wealth in the MHG epics; yet the public of the time must have liked them, or else the poets would not have produced them. This is particularly true in the case of clothing, and we can only feel sympathy for the doughty heroes of the courtly epics who had to wear so many costly garments at one time just to win the approval of their peers or of their authors' public. Clothes had to be costly and they had to be changed often and be discarded after one wearing. For the trip to Brunhild's land, Gunther and his friends in the Lay of the Nibelungs have to change their clothes three times a day in order to avoid schande; and for their return Kriemhild must attire her ladies so that they will receive lob and êre.3

The descriptions of expensive clothing not only enhanced the status of the heroes in their public's eye, but also brought vicarious pleasure to the public, of whom few had ever worn, or even seen, such finery. The detailed descriptions of extravagant festivals were not merely settings for the action; they were an intrinsic part of the narrative material. This is indicated in the opening verses of the Lay of the Nibelungs, in which the poet promises his public that they will hear marvels not only of heroes and battles, but also of joys and festivals (fröuden, hôchgezîten).

The poets of the High Middle Ages continued to praise power just as their heathen predecessors had done.4 Even after the Church had preached for centuries against violence, poets still acclaimed aggressive rulers; and the epithet "the Great" has been bestowed on more conquerors than pacifists.

1. "der êregire Tristan truoc sunderlîchiu kleider an" (Tristan, vv. 4999-5001); "sîn geschepfede und sîn wat die gehullen wunneclîche enein: si bildeten under in zwein einen ritterlîchen man" (Tristan, vv. 11,102-11,105).

2. "Der ungetoufte gehiure ranc nâch wîbe lône: des zimierte er sich sus schône. sin hôhez herze in des betwanc, daz er nâch werder minne ranc" (Parzival, 736, 20-24).

3. "daz ich selbe vierde ze vier tagen trage ie drîier halide kleider und alsô guot gewant, daz wir âne scande rûmen Prünhilde lant" (Nibelungenlied, 360, 2-4). "die suochen ûz den kisten diu aller besten kleit, sô wirt uns von den gesten lob und êre geseit" (Nibelungenlied, 568, 3-4).

4. Cf. "Er het den wunsch der êren. . . man vorhte sîne sterke" (Nibelungenlied, 723,1-4).

Most medieval writers, even clerical ones, praised aggressive rulers and even delighted in their violence. It is not surprising that a popular epic, like the Lay of the Nibelungs, praises Siegfried's resolve to pillage the castles and lands of the Saxons, even though that naturally inflicted untold sufferings on the innocent peasantry.1 On the other hand, it does seem strange when a clerical writer, like Suger, praises Louis VI of France in the twelfth century for punishing his enemies by depopulating their lands, ruining them with fire, and exposing them to plunder.2

Notwithstanding centuries of clerical questioning, might was still right; and victory in battle or duel counted as God's will. The strong­est man was still the most valuable, and vrum could still mean brave as well as useful. Likewise, tiur could mean either strong or worthy, as is evident in Hartmann's most courtly epic, Iwein. After the hero of this work has killed a knight named Askalon, the latter's widow, Laudine, needs a husband to preserve her land and her honor from King Arthur, who is reported to be approaching. Lunete, her lady-­in-waiting, finally persuades her to marry her husband's slayer by convincing her that he must be more vrum and tiur than the man he has slain.3 Similarly, in Rudolf of Ems's Alexander, after Alexander has conquered Darius, the latter's mother says that Alexander might well be their lord, since God has let him conquer a man whose honor no one has yet taken.4 In general, those are tiur who have wirde or werdekeit, as Rudolf states elsewhere.5 In other words, those who enjoy honor are tiur. If a poet sings a woman's praises, she becomes more tiur. That is, she becomes getiuret, as we can see in a plaint by Walther.6 The MHG verb swachen, which literally meant "to weaken" also meant "to diminish one's honor". Even the modern German verb kränken, which originally meant "to make sick or weak", now means to insult or offend. As Thomas Hobbes observed, "reputation of power is power."7

1. "mit route und ouch mit brande wuosten si daz lant" (Nibelungenlied, 176, 3); "ich gelege in wüeste ir bürge und ouch ir lant" (Nibelungenlied, 885,3).

2. The Portable Medieval Reader, ed. J. B. Ross, The Viking Press, 1956, p. 268.

3. Iwein, vv. 1819-1970.

4. "dû maht wol unser herre sîn, wan dir die gate hânt gegebn ein alsô saelderîchez lebn daz dû betwungen hâst den man dem êre nieman an gewan" (Alexander, vv. 7774-7778).

5. The "tursten" are those who "in der hoehesten wirdi swebent" (Willehalm von Orlens, v. 2132).

6. "Ich hân ir sô wol gesprochen, daz si maneger in der welte lobet: hât si daz an mir gerochen, owê danne, sô hân ich getobet, daz ich die getiuret hân und mit lobe gekroenet, diu mich wider hoenet" (Walther, 40, 19-25). Henry of Morungen uses the same argument: "dîne redegesellen die sîn swie si wellen, guoter worte unde guoter site, dâ bist du getiuret mite" (Minnesangs Frühling, 146,23-26).

7. Leviathan, X.

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page