The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature

CHAPTER IV: KNIGHTLY HONOR - THE NATIVE HERITAGE

Page 3

The same is true of the popular epic Laurin, in which Dietrich must save his vassal Witege, who has been downed by the dwarf, or he will suffer schande.l As Tacitus mentioned, a Germanic warrior had to bring back the slain even when the battle hung in the balance, or else he would lose his honor. The Jómsvíkings Saga tells how a hero named Bjorn retrieved the corpse of a friend to keep it from being desecrated by the enemy. "Then Bjorn got hold of the dead man and put him on his back and returned with him to his men. He did that mostly for glory's sake."2 Not only the Norse poets, but even idealistic poets of the High Middle Ages frankly admitted that such brave deeds were done to win praise. In Wolfram's Willehalm the hero must save his nephew's corpse from the enemy. "If I leave you here behind me through fear," he says, "no greater reproach (unprîs) ever happened to me."3

In the MHG tale St. Oswald, the pagan king casts Oswald's raven into prison after having promised him safe conduct. His daughter thereupon rebukes him for having broken his word, "You will always suffer disgrace for that. If he loses his life during your truce (vride), it will be bad for your reputation and you will ever suffer infamy (laster) because of it wherever people sing or tell of it. People will say you have become faithless (triuwelôs) and that you will never be the fellow of worthy men."4 A century later Rudolf of Ems let Alexander tell his vassals that they would suffer reproach and disgrace if they broke their faith,5 and he also let his hero William warn that any man who breaks his word will be triuwelôs and without honor.6 This would imply that triuwelôs did not mean "faithless" so much as "convicted of faithlessness". It is the condition one suffers when a superior "speaks against his loyalty" or "speaks against his honor".7

1 "neinâ, du vil kleiner man,... lâ den helt geniezen mîn: jâ ist er mîn geselle, daz wizze, swer dâ welle, und ist mit mir ûz komen, würden im solhiu pfant (his hand and foot) genomen, des hête ich iemer schande, swâ man ez in dem lande seite von dem Bernaere. daz waeren mir hertiu maere" (Laurin, vv. 383-394).

2 Jómsvíkings, p. 61.

3 "ob ich dich lâze hinder mir durch vorhte hie, sus grôz unprîs geschach mir nie" (Willehalm, 71, 14-16).

4 "des muost du iemêre schande haben! verliuset er in deme vride daz leben sîn, daz stât übele an den êren dîn unde muost sîn ouch iemêre laster haben, wâ man ez sol singen oder sagen: man sprichet, du sîest worden triuwe1ôs, unde wirst niemêre deheines biderben mans genôz" (Oswald, vv. 1008-1014).

5 "brechent die ir triuwe an mir, daz laster und die schande ist ir" (Alexander, vv.14,553-14,554).

6 "Brichet er danne die warhait, So muos er iemermere Truwelos sin und ane ere" (Willehalm van Orlens, vv. 9494-9496).

7 "an sîne triuwe sprichet" (Tristan, v.6365). "und sprach im an sîn êre" (Iwein, v. 112). "ir sprechet alze sêre den ritern an ir êre" (Iwein, vv. 167-168).

In the MHG version of the Secreta Secretorum, Aristotle says to Alexander, "If you wish to have êre, take care not to break your triuwe. Let your oath always be steadfast."1 Hartmann of Aue says that no man can be completely worthy (vrum) without triuwe ; and Rudolf of Ems maintains that all who are getriuwe are called children of honor.2 Eberhard Cersne says, "Whoever maintains triuwe can grow old with êren. Triuwe wins great praise and gives manifold pleasure (freude)".3 Both Rudolf and Boppe, a thirteenth-­century didactic poet, say that triuwe is a garment of êre.4 Conrad of Würzburg says it is its foundation, and Henry Wittenwiler says it is its key.5 Both Boppe and Conrad, using allegorical language, associated Lady Triuwe with Lady Ere; but it is to be noted that Lady Ere represents objective honor, since she can take high praise away from people.6

Consequently, the worst fate that could befall an êre-seeking hero was to be accused of breaking his triuwe, regardless of his guilt or innocence. It is a blow against Iwein's honor to be accused thus, and he even goes mad as a result.7 Perhaps it is symbolic that Iwein, while without honor, lives like a wild beast; for it had been a commonplace that honor was the quality that distinguished a man from an animal, as Simonides had told Hiero so many centuries earlier.8 Likewise, Parzival refuses to appear at King Arthur's court after being accused of breaking his word.

1 "hute dich ouch vil sere, wiltu haben ere, daz du icht brechst die truwe din. din gelubde laz stete sin" (Secreta Secretarum, vv. 1143-1146).

2 "daz niemer ein wol vrum man âne triuwe werden kan" (Iwein, vv. 3179-3180); "Aelle die getruwe sint Nemmet man der eren kint" (Willehalm van Orlens, vv. 11-12).

3 "wer an sich haldit truwe vil, der mac eren werden alt. truwe irwerbit hoen prys, sye gebit liebe menigfalt" (Minne Regel, vv. 689-692). Cf. "daz (getriuwe sein) ist zen êren uns gewant" (Nibelungenlied, 1211,4).

4 "Truwe, zuht, beschaidenhait sind der eren beste klait" (Willehalm von Orlens, vv. 3404-3405). "Diu triuwe ist ein kleit der êren" (Boppe, cited from Vollmer, p. 18).

5 "es ist der êren fundament unde ein hort der saelikeit, daz man triuwe in herzen treit und swaz der man versprichet, daz er daz niht enbrichet" (Partanopier, vv. 6442-6446). "Die treuw ein schlüssel ist der er" (Ring, v.4714).

6 Lady Ere is with Ladies Erbarmeherzekeit, Triuwe, Staete, Bescheidenheit, Güete, Milte, Schame, Mâze, Zuht, Kiusche, Wârheit, Minne, and Kunst (Klage, 9,1-12,7). "Frau Êre im hôhen prîs beneme, diu lûter und diu blîde, und allez lop daz im gezeme von fluche er immer lîde" (Klage, 29,5-8). Reinmar von Zweter (71,3-6) associates Êre with a similar list of personified virtues.

7 "ein slac sîner êren" (Iwein, v. 3204).

8 Henry Wittenwiler echoes this view by saying that we should not live like dogs, "den kain er ist worden chunt" (Ring, v. 2850).

Triuwe, in the sense of feudal obligation, could force people to act against their personal wishes and thus furnished the tragic motive in many medieval epics. Scholars of German literature often see in this dilemma a typically German motive, which they explain as a conflict of duties, or, to use Schiller's terminology, a struggle of duty (Pflicht) against inclination (Neigung). As the prime example of this tragic conflict they often cite a scene in the Lay of the Nibelungs, in which Rüdeger's fealty to Kriemhild compels him to fight against the Burgundians, who are now his kinsmen, because one of them has just married his daughter. Rüdeger's dilemma is surely great when he begs Kriemhild to free him from his obligation and even offers to return all her gold and silver and castles. When she persists, he has to fight his kinsmen and is killed by the very sword he has given his new son-in-law.

But is this really a conflict of duties, as so many scholars maintain, or even a choice between duty and inclination? Rüdeger's real dilemma lies in the fact that he will lose his good name, no matter what he does, since it was dishonoring to break either feudal or familial bonds. He himself acknowledges this fact when, in his anguish, he says, "All people will reproach me".1 This situation may be typically Germanic, but it is to be noted that Friedrich Panzer traced this whole episode to a French source. Ogier, Rüdeger's prototype, is afraid he will never have honor again in any land2 and thus suffer like Beowulf's faithless followers. Hartmann's Iwein suffers a similar dilemma when he is honor-bound to remain and defend his host from a giant but also to hurry to the aid of Lunete, whom he has promised to champion in a trial by combat. He will be dishonored if [he] rides away, yet he will be disgraced if he remains, and in either case he will be considered a coward.3

Whether triuwe was due, in modern parlance, to ethical motivation or to hope of acclaim and fear of reproach, it was nevertheless a deterrent to misdeeds. In Gottfried's Tristan and Isolde, the heroine's mother says that by killing Tristan they will violate their triuwe and their êre.4 In this case triuwe probably means reputation for trust­worthiness, for the word was often used, along with êre, to designate a good which one must forfeit if one breaks one's word.5

1 "mich schiltet elliu diet" (Nibelungenlied, 2154, 3). Cf. "in schalt diu werlt gar" (Erec, v. 2988).

2 "Jamais honor n'auroie nul jor en nul pais, Ains seroie honis, dolereus et mendis" (cited from Panzer, Studien, p. 67).

3 "ich bin, als ez mir nû stât, gunêret ob ich rîte und geschendet ob ich bîte" (Iwein, vv. 4884-4886). "sô hânt sî des iemer wân daz ich dês lîbes sî ein zage " (Iwein, vv. 4912-4913).

4 Tristan, vv. 10,211-10,215. The mother says they cannot kill him because she has taken him into her fride (v. 10,220).

5 Rüdeger uses the word this way when he says that he will lose his triuwen and zühte if he attacks the Burgundians (Nibelungenlied, 2153,3). According to Werner Bopp (p. 33), the word tugent could mean praise or public recognition for praiseworthy behavior. In this case it was a synonym of êre and an antonym of schande.

Gradually the term triuwe, under influence of religious concepts, acquired sentimental and spiritual overtones. In religious and amatory verse it gradually lost its primary meaning of truce, oath, or feudal bond and began to connote loyalty, devotion, sincerity, and sympathy.1 These new meanings are particularly frequent in Wolfram's works; yet he too continues to use the word in its older feudal sense as well.

We have seen that every Christian had to maintain his triuwe to God as his liege lord; and therefore it followed that he should maintain his triuwe to God's other vassals too. Thus triuwe could be considered a service to God, no matter to whom it was shown. Rudolf lets William of Orleans remind his vassals that they owe him fealty and that they cannot be esteemed of God or of the world for half a day without triuwe.2 This helps explain Rüdeger's great dilemma at the close of the Lay of the Nibelungs. If he fulfills his feudal triuwe to Kriemhild by fighting the Burgundians, he will break the triuwe which he owes to them as friends, guests, and kins­men; and thus he will lose his soul,3 since God has granted him triuwen and zühte.4 Wolfram confirms the religious sanction of triuwe by saying that, although many believe that poverty has no value, "if anyone suffers it through triuwe, his soul will escape hell's fire."5 Because breach of faith brought loss of good name, one could validate an oath by pledging either his triuwe or his êre.6 In formulas meaning "on my honor", honor was understood as an external yet very real possession, more important than life itself, which was forfeited by a breach of faith.

1 Vollmer, p. 141.

2 "Ir herren, ir sint gemant Der truwe das ich bin genant Iuwer herre, ir mine man, Und gedenket wol dar an Das niemen ainen halben tac Ane truwe werden mac Gotte noch der welte wert" (Willehalm von Orlens, VV. 8695-8701). The poet of the Klage, a sequel to the Lay of the Nibelungs, says of Kriemhild: "sît si durch triuwe tôt gelac, in gotes hulden manegen tac sol si ze himile noch geleben. got hât uns allen daz gegeben, swes lîp mit triuwen ende nimt, daz der zem himelrîche zimt" (Diu Klage, vv. 571-576).

3 "daz ich die sêle vliese, des enhân ich niht geswom" (Nibelungenlied, 2150,3).

4 "Aller mîner êren der muoz ich abe stân, triuwen uncle zühte, der got an mir gebôt" (Nibelungenlied, 2153, 2-3).

5 "swer die durch triuwe lîdet, hellefiwer die sêle mîdet" (Parzival, 116, 17 -18). Cf. "îr vil getriulîcher tôt der vrouwen wert die hellenôt" (Parzival, 128,23-24).

6 "Ich gibe iu mîne triuwe und sicherlîche hant, daz ich mit iu rîte heim in iuwer lant. ich leit' iuch nâch den êren oder ich gelige tôt" (Nibelungenlied, 2340, 1-3).

Largess remained an important virtue in the High Middle Ages, and poets continued to stress its practical function. Time and time again the poets tell that the admirable donor is distributing his wealth to impress and obligate the recipients. When King Arthur celebrates Lanzelet's victory over Valerun, much is consumed for the sake of êre ; and the same thought is expressed more explicitly when Arthur opens his treasure rooms so that people might praise him all the better.1 Lanzelet and Guinevere also spend generously for praise and fame.2 In the Lay of the Nibelungs, Siegfried's parents can well acquire êre with guote.3 One might contend that guote in this context meant goodness, but the succeeding verses make it clear that the guote was material wealth. The same can be conjectured of similar passages in other works in which this fact is less evident, as, for example, in Moriz of Craun, whose exemplary hero bought 'praise and êre with many kinds of guot.4 Like many other poets, Walther praised this practice by stating that King Philip should know how one wins praise and êre with gifts.5 As we shall see, a worthy knight was expected to give the minstrels wealth in return for praise, that is, guot umbe êre geben.

Poets often revealed the commercial nature of milte. We have seen that Kriemhild's uncle advised her to buy êre; and it is clear that her lavish gifts are given in return for service. The Lay of the Nibelungs presents numerous passages which show that all service is in direct return for previous gifts; and even Rüdeger must fight his friends because he has received gold, silver, and castles.6 In Salman and Morolf, a twelfth-century minstrel epic, Morolf wisely advises his king, "Give the heroes your red gold, and then they will follow me into peril wherever I carry the flag."7 In Duke Ernst, another minstrel-epic of the time, the generous duke gives treasures freely and thus makes everyone beholden (hold).8 Although the word hold

1 "dâ wart durch êre vil verzert" (Lanzelet, v. 5404); "der künic Artus wolte brechen sîne treskammeren umbe daz, daz man in lobete dester baz" (vv. 5596-5598).

2 "er hâte vil durch ruom gegeben" (Lanzelet, v. 5670); "dâ mite beharte siu wol ir êre ze vlîze" (v. 5742).

3 "die mohten wol bejagen mit guote michel êre; des teilte vil ir hant" (Nibelungenlied, 29, 2-3).

4 "mit maneger slahte goute er koufte lop und êre" (Moriz van Craun, vv. 1642-1643).

5 "dir ist niht kunt wie man mit gâbe erwirbet prîs und êre" (Walther, 19, 21-22).

6 Seeing Rüdeger approach, Hagen says: "an uns wil dienen Rüedeger sîne bürge und sîniu lant" (Nibelungenlied, 2173,4).

7 "gip den helden dîn golt sô rôt: war ich den vanen kêre dar volgent sie mit in die nôt" (Salman, 376, 3-5).

8 "machte er im die werlt holt er ensparte silber noch daz golt vor keinen sinen eren" (Herzog Ernst, v. 153). The same sentiment is expressed in Konig Rother (vv. 146-148): "sie waren dem kuninge alle holt; daz machete silber unde golt daz er in kunincliche gab". King Oswald also reminds his vassals that they owe him allegiance because he has rewarded them well: "ir suit mir triuwe erzeigen wande ir sit alle min eigen - darzuo gibe ich iu richen solt, beide silber unde daz golt, ich wil iu lihen unde geben, die wile ich han daz leben" (Oswald, vv. 1551-1556). In Lanzelet (vv. 1212-1216), when Galagandreiz has been killed by his daughter's lover, she assembles his vassals and says: "sît mîn vater nu ist tôt, sô ist daz erbe an mich komen. ich schaffe gerne sînen vromen, swer mir triuwe erscheinet und mich yon herzen meinet".

had begun to acquire sentimental and spiritual overtones, it still meant basically "obliged" and remained the usual term to designate the obligated status of those who accepted mille. It is not merely their rime that makes the words hold and gold appear together so painfully often in MHG poetry, for example, not less than nineteen times in the Lay of the Nibelungs.

Germanic hospitality remained famous in Germany long after it was praised by Tacitus. In his essay Of Honour of ca. 1596, Robert Ashley wrote that in "Germanie, and in the low Countreyes to banquett and feast their friends often ys thought a great and magnificent thing, though not so in other places."1 The German poets of the High Middle Ages revealed the practical purpose of hospitality, and without disapproval. In Lanzelet, when Gilimar escorts his guests from his castle, as Tacitus said a Germanic host should do, he does so "for his own honor".2 In Wolfram's Willehalm, when the noble merchant Wimer invites Willehalm to stay with him, he frankly says that he is doing it so that his peers will praise him;3 and, when Willehalm takes his leave, he assures his host that he will have honor.4 Later he says it is difficult to find hospitality because his pack horses have brought no gold, or else people would be better disposed (hold) toward him.5 In the Lay of the Nibelungs, Gunther serves good food to his guests in order to avoid reproach;6 and, after the Burgundians have visited Rüdeger, the host's generosity is related far and wide.7 When Liudeger's ambassadors dare not refuse Gunther's gifts, this suggests that his generosity was moti­vated in part by a will to superiority.8

1 Ashley, p. 53.

2 "durch sîn selbes êre" (Lanzelet, v. 6630).

3 "mich dunket unverlorn, swaz ich iu zêren biute: gewert ir mich des hiute, her nâch giht ieslîch mîn genôz, daz mîn prîs sî worden grôz" (Willehalm, 131,2-6). Cf. 135,15.

4 "iuwer güete ist an mir worden schin: des wirt gehoehet noch iuwer pris" (Willehalm, 135, 14-15). Thomasin says, if a guest is not worthy of hospitality, at least the hosts have honored themselves: "ist sîn ein vrömeder man niht wert, si habent sich selben geêrt" (Welscher Gast, vv. 379-380).

5 "trüegen mîne soume golt, sô waeret ir mir alle holt" (Willehalm, 140, 1-2).

6 "In der hôhgezîte der wirt der hiez ir pflegen mit der besten spîse. er hete sich bewegen aller slahte scande" (Nibelungenlied, 309, 1-3).

7 "dô wart dâ getân von des wirtes milte daz verre wart geseit" (Nibelungen­lied, 1691, 3). The Spruchdichter Spervogel later alluded to his generosity by saying, "Dô der guote Wernhart an dise werlt geborn war;, do begonde er teilen al sîn guot. do gewan er Rüedegêres muot, der saz ze Bechelaeren und pflac der marke mangen tac: der wart von sîner frümekeit so maere" (Minne­sangs Fruhling, 25,34-26,5).

8 "dine torsten niht versprechen" (Nibelungenlied, 166,3).

Hospitality enhanced the prestige of the host at the expense of the guest, and therefore Erec, being a most shamefaced young knight, blushes with shame when he has to ask Enite's father for hospitality.l Walther also declared that a guest must be ashamed of his dependent position.2

The poets of the High Middle Ages often attest the public nature of honor and disgrace. Brunhild is not dishonorable when Siegfried deflowers her, but only after Kriemhild reveals the fact in public. Tristan and Isolde do not lose their honor when they commit feudal and marital infidelity, but only after their misbehavior becomes generally known. Even the little lass in Walther's pastourelle, "Under the Linden", would be ashamed of her folly only if someone knew.3 As Friedrich Maurer mentions, one could be dishonored only in public;4 or, as Walter Gehl said of the ancient Teutons centuries before, the basis of all morality was society.5 The external nature of medieval honor is suggested by the etymology of the German word unbescholten, which now means "irreproachable" but originally meant "unreproached". A knight with a quick sword was seldom reproached, regardless of his conduct; and he remained unbescholten as long as no one dared offend him. The same is suggested by the French term sans reproche, which now means "irreproachable" but formerly meant "without reproach". The same is true of "blameless", which now means "not meriting blame" but formerly meant "not suffering blame, unblamed".

In the twelfth-century Latin dialogue Salomon et Marcolfus, it is the wise Salomon, not the facetious Marcolf, who says, "It is better to suffer damage in secret than disgrace in public."6 Elsewhere he says, "There are many who do not know how to feel shame."7 Such indifference to public opinion struck the Germans as the most grievous character fault possible; and their greatest opprobrium was the epithet verschamt (shameless), which, strangely enough, had the same meaning as the modern word unverschamt. The most virtuous man was the one most concerned with his reputation, since it was his concern with fame and good name that made him practice the virtues.

1 "'her, mir waer herberge nôt' diu bete machte in schamerôt" (Erec, vv. 302-303).

2 "wirt unde heim sint zwêne unschamelîche namen: gast unde herberge muoz man sich vil dicke schamen" (Walther, 31,25-26).

3 "Daz er bî mir laege, wessez iemen (nu enwelle got!), sô schamt ich mich" (Walther, 40,10-12). .

4 "... zur Entehrung gehört die Öffentlichkeit..." (Maurer, Leid, p. 19); "Zur ere, zum Ansehen, zur Anerkennung des Ritters (und der Dame) gehört die Gesellschaft, die Öffentlichkeit" (p. 49).

5 "Die Gesellschaft ist die selbstverständliche Grundlage altgermanischer Sittlichkeit" (Gehl, p. 20).

6 "Melius est habere dampnum in abscondito quam verecundiam in publico" (Salomon et Marcolfus, p. 8, line 8).

7 "Multi sunt qui verecundiam habere nesciunt" (Salomon et Marcolfus, p. 10, line 18).

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page