The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature

CHAPTER IV: KNIGHTLY HONOR - THE NATIVE HERITAGE

Page 2

Although some romances had their knights-errant set out to kill dragons and to succor damsels in distress, others let theirs ride out frankly in order to find a fight. In the Lay of the Nibelungs, Siegfried journeys to Worms and challenges Gunther to fight for their two

kingdoms. Later he leads the Burgundians against the Saxons, partly as service to Kriemhild, partly through sheer love of fighting. In the courtly epics, too, the hero is praised for his love of fighting, which is not necessarily justified by any ideal higher than the desire for renown. In Hartmann's Iwein, the hero explains that he has journeyed forth to find a fight in order to win praise and glory. Then, after he has defeated and severely wounded Askalon, he must pursue and kill him so as to have some trophy with which to parry Sir Kay's mockery at court.1 Even religiously tinged works of the High Middle Ages made no apology for military expansion: Wolfram does not make Feirefiz justify himself, when he boasts that he conquered with his hand whatever land was good.2

As in pagan days, victory always indicated right and was decided by God. When Erec defeats Yders, by whose dwarf he was slapped, he taunts his victim with the fact that God has willed his victory.3

Honor was still shown to the victor, regardless of the nature of the conflict; and defeat brought shame, no matter how courageously the loser had fought or against what odds. As Rudolf expressed the idea, "No one ever lost honor when he won the victory."4 In Moritz of Craun the Trojans begin to lose their êre as soon as Hector falls, even though they continue to fight bravely.5 In Ulrich of Zatzikhoven's Lanzelet, after Iweret has made a noble resistance, Lanzelet defeats and kills him and thereby deprives him of his life and êre.6 Because êre was so often associated with victory and schande with defeat, they could often be used as replacements for those words.7

1. Iwein, vv. 1062-1074.

2. "swelch lant was werlîch unde guot, daz twang ich mîner hende" (Parzival, 771,12).

3. Erec, vv. 965-985. Cf. "Good fortune (if lasting,) Honourable; as a signe of the favor of God" (Leviathan, X).

4. "vil wênec iemen êre vlôs, dô er aldort den sic erkôs" (Alexander, vv. 2565­2566). Cf. "unde wirt er denne sigelôs, sô ist er iller êrenlôs" (Lamprechts Alexander, vv. 6501-6502).

5. "Dô aber Ector gelac, dô swachete ir êre tegelîchen sêre" (Moriz von Craun, vv. 46-48). Cf. "die dâ heten maht und êre wurden ze Troje geniedert sêre. dâ Trojâ gewunnen wart, si wurden dô gelastert hart" (Welscher Gast, vv. 3395-3398).

6. "ê er im haete benomen beidiu lîp und êre" (Lanzelet, vv. 4554-4555). In a poem by Stricker one king says of another: "der râche erwinde ih nimmer, unz ich im sîn êre benim" (Stricker, p. 3, vv. 30-32).

7. E.g., êre equals victory in a joust, Parzival, 460, 13; schande equals defeat, Parzival, 359, 26. Goethe attributes the same values to the Italian Renaissance when Tasso, in speaking of tournaments, says: "Des Siegers Ehre, des Besiegten Schmach" (Tasso, II, 1).

Since defeat brought dishonor, a man who risked his life in battle also hazarded his honor. In the Chanson de Roland, although the pagan emir has fought nobly, the queen tells the king that he has died in great dishonor.1 Four and a half centuries later Edmund Spenser expressed the same view in his Fairy Queen. When the Saracen chief Sans Foy fights nobly but loses, the poet adds, "There lies he now with foule dishonor dead."2 Spenser's contempo­rary, Montaigne, was most advanced in believing that it can be just as honorable to fight (combattre) as to win (battre).3

Today's literature and popular fancy usually contrast life and honor in battle: the hero who dies nobly preserves his good name, even in defeat. The general who makes a wrong decision and needlessly sacrifices his men can vindicate himself by dying bravely, and the admiral who has blundered can save his honor by going down with his ship. This was not so in the Middle Ages, when defeat brought shame. It will be noticed that the ancient Teutons who sought death in unsuccessful battle did not win glory but merely escaped a life of shame. Likewise, in courtly poetry it was assumed that defeat brought dishonor. When Iwein offers to fight in a trial by combat for a young princess who has been wronged by her older sister, the young princess says she would rather be burned than have such an honored man lose his life and honor for her.4 Wolfram is afraid Gawan will lose his êre if he fights Parzival; and Hartmann's Erec is afraid he will suffer disgrace as well as death if defeated by Guivreiz.5 In the Lay of the Nibelungs Brunhild warns Gunther that he will lose honor and life if she beats him in their contests; and Hagen later warns the Burgundians that they will lose honor and life if they accept Kriemhild's invitation.6

Poets of the High Middle Ages still endorsed the ancient view that death with honor is better than a life of shame. In Hartmann's Erec, Mabonagrin would rather die than let his honor perish;7 and in Hartmann's Gregorius the young hero thinks it better to die de­fending his mother than to live in shame.8

1. "a si grant hunte" (Chanson de Roland, v. 3643).

2. Fairy Queen, II, 24, 4.

3. "Le vrai veincre ha pur son rolle l'estour, non pas le salut; et consiste l'honur de la vertu a combattre, non a battre" (Montaigne, II, p. 260). In the Ackermann aus Böhmen (xxxiii), God says: "Darumb, klager, habe ere! Tot, habe sige!

4. "ê ein sus gêret man den tôt in mînem namen kür oder sîn êre verlür, mîn lîp und unser beider lant waeren bezzer verbrant" (Iwein, vv. 7304-08).

5. "laster und den tôt" (Erec, v. 4408).

6. "ir muget wol hie verliesen die êre und ouch den lîp" (Nibelungenlied, 425, 3); "ir muget dâ wol verliesen die êre und ouch den lîp" (1461, 3). See also 1774, 2148, 2150.

7. "ob ich mit êren sterbe clan an den êren verderbe" (Erec, vv. 9364-65).

8. "mir ist lieber daz mîn lîp bescheidenlîche ein ende gebe dan daz ich lasterlîchen lebe" (Gregorius, vv. 2064-2066).

Nearly two centuries later the Swiss poet Henry Wittenwiler still maintained that it is better to die frightfully for honor than to live in shame.1 This mode of expression probably went back directly to the previously mentioned statement attributed by Tacitus to his father-in-law Agricola: honesta mars turpi vita potior.2

All captives of war lost their êre, which then passed to the victor; for only free men could enjoy êre. This fact explains why, when the hero of Rudolf's Good Gerhard ransoms some prisoners, they thank him for giving them "honor, wealth, and life".3 Captivity brought contempt and shame, regardless of its cause. In Lanzelet the Queen fears that Walwein and Erec will lose their êre if they surrender themselves to Malduc, even though they are doing so voluntarily and out of loyalty to their king.4 It was amazingly modern of Francis I, after being captured at Pavia in 1525, to say, "All is lost save honor." (Tout est perdu, fors l'honneur).

We have seen that the ancient Teutons could win complete honor only if they had a strong kinship; and this view seems to have lingered for centuries. After living for thirteen years as Etzel's wife and brooding over her injured honor, Kriemhild wishes to invite the Burgundians to visit her in hope of getting revenge. As a pretext, she tells her husband that she is afraid his subjects may think she is in exile and has no kinsmen.5 The Burgundians are naturally of high­born condition.6 This does not necessarily mean that they are of ancient lineage, as later poets might have said, but rather that they are a powerful dynasty and therefore innately endowed with its might and virtue. Walther, who often wrote from a more modern perspective than his colleagues, argued that friends are more important than kinsmen. It is a greater honor to win friends than to inherit relatives, and they help more when needed.7

1 "Won besser ist nach weiser ler Fraisleieh sterben um die er Dann mit schanden leben" (Ring, vv. 6831-32).

2 Agricola, 33. In the Chanson de Roland (v. 1091), Roland says, "Melz voeill murir que huntage me venget".

3 "wan dû uns wider hâst gegeben êre guot lîp unde leben" (Gerhard, vv. 2783-2784).

4 Lanzelet, vv. 4013-4014.

5 "ich hoere mîn di liute niwan für ellende jehen" (Nibelungenlied, 1403, 4); "die Hiunen wellent waenen daz ich âne vriunde sî" (1416, 3).

6 "von arde hôhe erborn" (Nibelungenlied, 5, 1).

7 "Man hôhgemâc, an friunden kranc, daz ist ein swacher habedanc: baz gehilfet friuntschaft âne sippe. lâ einen sîn geborn von küneges rippe: er enhabe friunt, waz hilfet daz? mâgschaft ist ein selbwahsen êre: so muoz man friunde verdienen sere. mac hilfet wol, friunt verre baz" (Walther, 79, 17-24). Cf. "ezn habe deheiniu groezer kraft danne unsippiu geselleschaft" (Iwein, vv.2703-2704).

However, the older attitude toward kinship continued to prevail in literature. When Parzival's widowed mother takes him to the forest and lets him grow up apart from his kinship, she is doing him a grave injustice. Only after he has finally been reunited with his kinsmen is he truly a man. It is symbolic that all his worldly and other­worldly knowledge is gained from kinsmen. When Parzival kills the Red Knight with his javelin, his moral guilt is not so much that he has killed a fellow human being, or even a fellow Christian, but rather that he has killed a kinsmen, even though he is unaware of the relation. His confessor, Trevrizent, makes it clear that his sin was parricide, not just homicide.1 Throughout the Middle Ages and down to modern times a foundling suffered dishonor because of his lack of kinsmen. Gregorious leaves home after his foster mother has reviled him for having no relatives, and one of his reasons is the disgrace he has suffered from her reproach.2 Since honor depended largely upon kinship, it was inadvisable to marry a women without relatives, as Henry Wittenwiler could attest as late as the beginning of the fifteenth century.3

Primitive Germanic society recognized only two distinct classes: the free and the unfree. Among the free, those with the greatest wealth, power, and influence had the greatest êre ; and the leader of the most powerful dynasty was called king. By the High Middle Ages, on the other hand, free men had been divided into a complicated gradation of ranks, such as emperor, king, prince, duke, count, marquis, and baron, each of which enjoyed a particular degree of honor. Although honor emanated directly from the rank, it lasted, in theory, only as long as merited. When Cundrie comes to King Arthur's court to denounce Parzival for failing to ask the vital question at the Grail Castle, she says: "King Arthur, you used to stand high above your peers in praise. Now your rising fame is sinking, your great dignity is limping. Your high praise is declining, your fame has proved itself false. The great fame of the Round Table has been crippled by the company given it by Sir Parzival, who also bears the mark of knight there."4

1 "dû hâst dîn eigen verch erslagen. wiltu vür got die schulde tragen, sît daz ir bêde wart ein bluot, ob got dâ reht gerihte tuot, sô giltet im dîn eigen leben" (Parzival, 475, 21-25).

2 "daz ein ist diu schande die ich van itewîze han" (Gregorius, vv. 1490-91).

3 "Ist sei ungefreund und arm, So hast du wirser nie gevarn" (Ring, vv. 2961-2962).

4 "Künc Artûs, du stünde ze lobe hôhe dînen gnôzen obe: dîn stîgender prîs nû sinket, dîn snelliu wirde hinket, dîn hôhez lop sich neiget, dîn prîs hât vâlsch erzeiget. tavelrunder prîses craft hat erlemt ein geselleschaft die drüber gap hêr Parzival, der ouch dart treit diu ritters mâl" (Parzival, 315, 1-10).

A similar situation obtains in Hartmann's Iwein when Lunete denounces the wayward husband. "I shall inform these gentlemen," she says, "that they are to consider you from now on a perfidious (triuwelôs) man... and the king can disgrace himself if he keeps you any longer in the rank of knight, since triuwe and êre are dear to him."1 Nevertheless, the Church taught that a Christian must show honor to his superiors without exception, be they good or bad, as St. Paul preached in his Epistle to the Romans.2 Realizing that many rulers did not merit honor, St. Thomas Aquinas said one should honor them because of the dignity they enjoy as God's ministers, for by honoring them one honors the community they represent.3

In theory every free man, including a free peasant, had more honor than any unfree man, regardless of his wealth or function. As the didactic poet Hugo of Trimberg expressed the view, a "free peasant is the equal of lords except that he has no wealth."4

1 "nû tuon ich disen herren klint daz sî iuch haben vür dise stunt vür einen triuwelôsen man... ouch mac der künec sich iemer schamen, hât er iuch mêre in rîters namen, sô liep im triuwe und êre ist" (Iwein, vv. 3181-3189).

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

3 "Dicendum quod si praelati sint mali, non honorantur propter excellentiam propriae virtutis, sed propter excellentiam dignitatis, secundum quam sunt Dei ministri. Et etiam in eis honoratur tota communitas, cui praesunt" (Summa Theologicae, II, II, 103, 1, ad. 2).

4 "Ein frî gebûr ist herren genôz: Alein er sî des guotes blôz, Doch ist er von gebürte frî" (Renner, vv. 1407-1409).

However, during the High Middle Ages an unfree class of warriors and administrators, the ministeriales, reached prominence and began to enjoy more honor than the free peasantry, who were gradually lumped together with the unfree peasantry and serfs. Much, if not most, courtly literature was written by this new class of ministeriales, and consequently it places great stress on noble rank and the respect due to it.

Only the nobility was tolerated at court, and the words courtly (höfisch) and noble (edel) were practically synonymous. For the nobility, honor could be won only at court or in the service of the court; and therefore the Latin word honestus could be used to render the word höfisch. The love manual of Andreas Capellanus, Liber de Arte Honeste Amandi, is rightfully called The Art of Courtly Love, since the kind of love he advocated was certainly neither honest nor honorable, in the modern sense of the words. The older order, in which landed peasants were socially equal or superior to the landless ministeriales, is portrayed in Schiller's William Tell, in which the peasants Melchtal and Stauffacher seem to enjoy more dignity than Gessler, the envious Austrian governor.

As we have seen, in ancient Germanic days courage was the greatest virtue and cowardice was the greatest vice and the most seriously punished crime against the kinship. The custom of hanging cowards and shirkers or drowning them in the bogs seems to have lasted for a millennium; in Wolfram's Willehalm all the French knights who refused to take part in the campaign are declared without rights (rehtelôs) and are disgraced by having a sack and rope tied on them.1 The charge of cowardice continued to be the most serious reproach.2

Like their heathen ancestors, the courtly knights had to express "high spirits" (hôher muot) in order to enjoy honor, high spirits being the surest indication of one's success or prosperity. Naturally the churchmen still damned high spirits, which they considered superbia, since only the poor in spirit were truly blessed. This was incongruous to the laymen, who could not distinguish between blissful and blessed, both of which were expressed by the word sælec, a word which most often meant fortunate. Despite the teachings of the church, laymen continued to envy and admire their more joyful fellows and scorn those who sorrowed.3 The word êre contrasted with the word leid not only in its sense of insult but also in its sense of suffering.

As feminine influence increased at court, the term hôher muot expanded to include the joy of the court at large rather than merely the pride, arrogance, and self-reliance of successful individuals. As we shall see, hôher muot, or fröude as it was often called, prevailed at the courts where the fairest ladies presided. It was precisely this quality that endeared King Arthur's court to the poets.4 Despite the new meaning acquired by the term in courtly language, the original meaning continued, one might say predominated, even in the works of the most courtly poets. In Eilhart of Oberge's Tristrant, Tinas intercedes for the guilty hero by telling King Marke to con­sider his hôher muot and let him live;5 and in this case the term designates magnanimity born of superiority. Walther advises the German princes to be soft toward their friends but to show hôhge­muete to their enemies,6 in which case the term means haughtiness or arrogance. In Gottfried's Tristan King Marke advises his nephew to be hôchgemuot toward rich and powerful people.7

1 Willehalm, 185, 7-19.

2 Rechtsalterthümer, II, 206-208.

3 See Willehalm van Orlens, vv. 4117-4120. Cf. "Sît daz nieman âne fröide touc" (Walther, 99, 13). Perhaps sorrow was confused with the sin of tristitia.

4 See Iwein, vv. 31-58.

5 "Dorch iuwern hôhen muot lâzit den wîgant genesin!" (Tristrant, v. 4014).

6 "sît gegen friunden senfte, tragt gein vînden hôhgemüete" (Walter, 36, 12).

7 den armen den wis iemer guot, den rîchen iemer hôchgemuot (Tristan, v.v.5029-5030).

Parzival is not alone when he rides through the forest: he is accompanied by his hôher muot, which is so courageous that it should be praised by women. Perhaps courtly poets used the term hôher muot most frequently to designate the vital joy experienced when enjoying honor, especially honor won by success in war or love.1

Whereas the Church urged all Christians to devote their energies to prayer and good works, knighthood demanded that, to win honor, a knight must ever exert himself in warfare or else in hunting and tournaments as practice therefor. In theory a knight could win worldly glory and God's grace by righting wrongs, but there was more opportunity to engage in ordinary local war and plundering expeditions. Nevertheless, inactivity brought infamy. Sir Kay, the comical contrast-figure to the ideal knight of the Round Table, prefers gemach (indolence) to êre,2 even though that brings him shame.3 Freidank says only a sluggard would wish a soft life without êre,4 and Gottfried states that gemach is the death of êre.5 When Gregorius wishes to ride out in search of adventure instead of remaining in the cloister as the abbot wishes, he says he could not obey the abbot unless he preferred indolence to honor.6 The contrast of êre and gemach was a favorite topos in courtly literature.7

Triuwe, which remained an important factor in the literature of the High Middle Ages, was still motivated chiefly by desire for approval, as was the case in Tacitus's day. A thousand years after Tacitus, the German version of the Song of Roland stated that Roland's heroes "were of such a disposition that they sought death rather than leave their lord through any peril of battle and not bring him from the fray with êre."8

1 "diu guoten (women) gebent hôhen muot: ir lôn ist êre umbe guot" (Mariz von Craun, vv. 413-414). The word guot, which appears to belong to the world of minstrelsy, seems to be here only for the sake of the rime. When Kriemhild sees Etzel's wealth and power, her anticipation of power raises her spirits: "des wart dô vroun Kriemhilde vil wol gehoehet der muot" (Nibelungenlied, 1347,4).

2 "ze gemache ân êre stuont sîn sin" (Iwein, v. 76).

3 Helbling (I, vv. 43-47) says a wealthy man wins schem rather than êre if he looks for gemach.

4 "Der fûle gert niht mêre wan senfte leben ân êre" (Freidank, 92, 9-10).

5 "gemach daz ist der êren tôt" (Tristan, v. 4430).

6 "wolde ich gemach vür êre, sô volgete ich iuwer lêre" (Gregarius, vv. 1677-1678).

7 "verlegeniu müezekeit ist gote und der werlte leit" (Iwein, vv. 7171-72). MHG often denoted erotic indolence as "sich mit wîp verligen". An important motif of Hartmann's Büchlein is the conflict between sloth and honorable activity. "swer nâch êren wil streben, er muoz gemaches sich begeben" (Moriz van Craun, vv. 443-444). "Sô sprichet lîchte ein boeser man, der mannes herze nie gewan, 'wir sun hie heime vil sanfte belîben, die zît wol vertrîben vil schône mit wîben" (Heinrich yon Rugge in Minnesangs Frühling, 98, 27-31). "si (êre) kumt den êregernden man mit gemache selten an" (Alexander, vv. 14,979-14,980). Thomasin repeats all commonplaces about sloth in knights (Welscher Gast, vv. 7706-7820).

8 "die helde wâren sô gemuote daz si ê suhten den tôt denne si durch dehainer slachte nôt chômen von ir herren, sine brêchten in mit êren von dem volcwîge" (Rolandslied, vv. 7874-7889). p

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page