The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature

CHAPTER IV: KNIGHTLY HONOR - THE NATIVE HERITAGE

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Scholars often minimize the thirst for fame in the Middle Ages in comparison with that in the Renaissance. In his edition of Chaucer's House of Fame, F. N. Robinson says that Chaucer's "concern with the behavior of Fame and the circumstances of human reputation is something different from the craving for worldly immortality which is held, rightly or wrongly, to have distinguished the men of the Renaissance."1 C. W. Previté-Orton seems to accept the impor­tance of fame in the Renaissance; for he says that the humanists of the Renaissance considered fame among men "the best reward and the desire for it no excusable infirmity but the most laudable of motives."2

On the other hand, Frederick Artz claims that "Petrarch is modern in his almost childish desire for earthly fame."3 Thus he considers modern the very desire for fame that Previté-Orton considers a most laudable motive among the Renaissance humanists, of whom Petrarch was surely one. As we shall see, a craving for worldly immortality was common to the entire Middle Ages, and the desire for fame was no excusable infirmity, but the most laudable of motives. Castiglione's The Courtier, perhaps the best expression of Renaissance attitudes, contains scarcely a statement about honor that had not been anticipated in the thirteenth century.

Artz's belief that Petrarch was "modem" in his desire for earthly fame seems to echo Jacob Burckhardt's misleading chapter on "Modern Fame" in his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, which declared such a desire to be an innovation of the Renaissance.4 Actually, most of the phenomena that Burckhardt thought charac­teristic of the Renaissance had appeared in medieval Europe too, as this study has shown. Dante's yearning for the poet's laurel wreath was nothing new; for Gottfried had been concerned with it a century earlier.5 Likewise, German poets had long looked upon themselves as the proprietors and propagators of their lieges' honor and fame.6

1 Chaucer, ed. Robinson, p. 331.

2 C. W. Previté-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, Cambridge, 1952, II, p. 1108.

3 F. Artz, The Mind of the Middle Ages, New York, 1953, p. 342. Elsewhere he says, "A youth who joined the order of chivalry... (had to have)... a high sense of honor, a conception unknown to the ancients" (p. 344). Here it would appear that Artz is referring to inner integrity. However, on the same page he says that a knight often had "an absurd desire for glory and sense of honor that made him haughty and contentious," and this would suggest that he used the term "sense of honor" in an objective sense.

4 Burckhardt, pp. 170-180.

5 "lôrzwî" (Tristan, v. 4637); "lôrschapelekîn" (v. 4641); "loberîs" (v. 4647)

6 Illustrated in subsequent notes. Franz Settegast (p. 7) says that the twelfth­-century troubadours of Provence "lived in a time when the pursuit of honor and glory was as strong and general as in any other time. Therefore they soon had to realize that they could not win their patrons' favor more surely in any other way than by proclaiming their fame."

Because Burckhardt claimed that northern Europe had had only saints' legends and legend-like stories of princes and clerics, which were independent of fame in the sense of personally achieved notoriety,l one might suspect that he had never read of Beowulf, Siegfried, or Dietrich of Bern. That the desire for individual self­-aggrandizement was not new to the Renaissance is indicated in Hartmann's Iwein when the hero sneaks away from Arthur's court to fight the keeper of the magic well. Although Arthur has announced his intention to visit the well, Iwein surreptitiously steals a march on the rest in order to win all the honor for himself rather than wait and let his friends have a chance. Incidentally, his behavior was considered highly admirable. Jan Huizinga came nearer the truth than Burckhardt when he said, 'The thirst for honour and glory proper to the men of the Renaissance is essentially the same as the chivalrous ambition of earlier times, and of French origin."2

Johannes Bühler states that the aristocratic concept of honor during the Middle Ages "is to be distinguished from the thirst for fame of the Renaissance. It is already a transition to the modern sense of duty, and the nobleman is the first who begins to have any notion of what it means to do a thing, a good thing, for its own sake."3 Unfortunately he does not prove this statement; and I have been unable to find any evidence for it in medieval literature. Nearly all chivalric poets maintain that good deeds are done for fame, even though the Church objected to such motivation.4

Henry Teichner expressed the usual medieval view when he said, "a worthy man does good works so that people will praise him";5 and poets often gave their heroes epithets expressing a desire for fame.6

1 "Der Norden aber besass, bis Italien auf seine Autoren... einwirkte, nur Legenden der Heiligen und vereinzelte Geschichten und Beschreibungen von Fürsten und Geistlichen, die sich noch deutlich an die Legende anlehnen und vom Ruhm, d.h. yon der persönlich errungenen Notorität wesentlich unabhängig sind" (Burckhardt, pp. 177-178).

2 Huizinga, p. 59.

3 Johannes Bühler, Die Kultur des Mittelalters, Leipzig, 1931, p. 182.

4 "Non tamen est vere virtuosus qui propter humanam gloriam opera virtutis operatur" (Summa Theologiae, II, II, 132, 1, ad. 2).

5 "darumb tut ein pider man guteu dinch, daz man in preis" (Teichner, I, vv. 10-11).

6 Tristan says you should give êre to "den êre gernden" (Tristan, v. 227). Tristan (v. 4999) is êregire; and Rüdeger (Nibelungenlied, 2218, 3) is êre gernde. Cf. "den êre gernden soltû geben ze rehte dinen werden gruoz" (Winsbekin, 5, 5-6).

Eilhart of Oberge lets Isalde say that Tristrant strives gladly for êre,'1 and Wolfram maintains that Kiot of Catalonia "aimed at high praise, undaunted by cost or deed" and that "he won praise with largess and prowess."2 Rudolf of Ems dedicated his poem William of Orleans to Conrad of Winterstet, because "his disposition and his thoughts and all his virtues were aimed at the world's praise";3 and his Alexander indicates that a purpose of virtuous behavior is to protect a man from reproach.4 Where then are the good deeds done for their own sake, which Johannes Bühler claims were not done from a thirst for fame?

Fame being the chief incentive to good deeds, people urged good actions by appealing to desire for praise. Lanzelet promises that anyone who fights successfully for the queen will be well spoken of; and Sir Kay tells the queen that it would become her name better if she refrained from reproaching him.5 When Gernot asks Etzel to let the Burgundians fight in the open, he assures him that it will bring him honor; and Dietrich reminds Kriemhild that it will bring her little honor if she attacks her kinsmen, who have come in good faith.6

Just as hope of honor incited men to good, fear of shame deterred them from evil; for honor and shame flee one another.7 As a result, a well developed sense of shame was a guarantee of winning honor. When Erec forces Yders to the ground in their fight, he withdraws to let his enemy stand up, because he does not want people to say that he has shamed himself by killing a man while he is down.8

1"he wirbet gerne umme êre" (Tristrant, v. 2427).

2"sîn herze was gein hôhem prîs ie der kost und der tât unverdrozzen" (Titurel, I, 14,4); mit milte unde ellen" (I, 16, 2). In Lanzelet, the hero leaves the mermaids' country "durch niht wan umb êre", Kurâus sets out "durch ruom und durch vermezzenheit", and he "erwarp niht wan urn êre" (Lanzelet, vv. 351, 686, 1256), In Willehalm, Count Landrîs raises the banner high "durch sînen prîs" (373, 2) and many princes follow Poidjus "durch rîcheit und ouch durch mom", (379,1).

3"wan sîn gemüet und ouch sîn sin Und aller sîner tugende rât Gar nâch der welte prîse stât" (Willehalm van Orlens, vv. 2326-2328).

4"ein man der ganzer tugent phligt und alles valsches sich bewigt, des tugent schirmet sînen lîp umb werde man und werdiu wîp, daz er scheltens wirt erlân" (Alexander, vv. 1505-1509).

5"dem wirt dicke wol gesprochen" (Lanzelet, v. 5023). "daz zaeme iuwerm namen wol" (Iwein, v. 163).

6"daz ist iu êre getân" (Nibelungenlied, 2096,4); "Diu tete dich lützel êret" (1902,1).

7"êre unde schande vliehent einander" (Mariz van Craun, vv. 93-94). Peter of Stauffenberg says God should help him who "kan schande fliehen und wil sich lan beziehen zuht trüwe milte êre" (Rittermaeren, vv. 21-23).

8"daz tete er umbe daz daz ie man des möhte jehen daz im diu schande waer geschehen daz ern ligende bet erslagen" (Erec, vv. 827-830).

The ancient Teutons would have agreed with Aristotle that warriors "face dangers because of the penalties imposed by the laws and the reproaches they would otherwise incur, and because of the honors they will win by such action; and therefore those people seem to be bravest among whom cowards are held in dishonor and brave men in honor."1 This is practically what Tacitus said of his fearless barbarians.

Whereas the ancient Teutons had usually equated disgrace with cowardice, the poets of the High Middle Ages also associated it with non-conformity to accepted conventions, be they social or moral. Thus Wolfram could say that Parzival was never lost because a sense of shame (scham) gives praise as a reward and is yet the crown of the soul."2 Parzival had to be sensitive to shame, since a pure heart ceases to feel shame only when it dies.3 Reinmar of Zweter said that a sense of shame is fitting for a nobleman, together with triuwe and good breeding.4 St. Ambrose, the fourth-century bishop of Milan, had already made shame a Christian virtue by saying that verecundia is the ally and friend of a tranquil mind, that it flees impudence, is foreign to all luxury, loves sobriety, cherishes honesty, and seeks propriety.5 Walther maintains that if any man has intelligence, manhood, silver, and gold, yet remains in disgrace, he will lose the reward of the heavenly emperor and also of the ladies.6 It seems a safe conclusion that fear of disgrace was accepted as a Christian virtue even before love of honor was so recognized.

Honor and disgrace were important not only in this life, but even afterwards. Ulrich of Zatzikhoven states that "praise lasts when the body perishes."7 This probably reflects the ancient Germanic belief in the immortality of earthly fame; yet it could just as well echo a passage in Sirach, which says of famous men: "Their bodies were buried in peace, and their names live to all generations."8

1 Aristotle, Ethics, III, 8 (trans Rose).

2 "wan scham gît prîs ze lône und ist doch der sêle crône" (Parzival, 319,9-10). Cf. "verschampter lîb, wax touc der mêr? der wont in der mûze rêr, dâ im werdekeit entrîset unde in gein der helle wîset" (Parzival, 170,17-20).

3 "sol lûter herze sich niht schemen, daz muoz der tôt dervon ê nemen" (Parzival, 358,19-20). Parzival prays that he be saved from "werltlîcher schame" (Parzival, 269,12).

4 "waz einem rehten hêrren zimt ze tuonne unt ouch ze lâzen, swer daz gerne wol vernimt, dem nenne ich triuwe vor unt dar nâch zuht mit eigen­lîcher schame" (Reinmar von Zweter. 68,1-3). "der êren spiegel ist diu scham" (Der Marner, XV, v. 10,181).

5 "verecundia est socia ac familiaris mentis placiditati: proterviam fugitans, ab omni luxu aliena, sobrietatem diliget, et honestatem fovet, et decorem requirit" (cited in Summa Theologiae, II, II, 144,1,3). Cf. "inter pudentem et verecundum hoc interest, quod pudens opinionem veram falsamque metuit: verecundus a autem non nisi veram timet" (Isidore, Etymologiae, from Leo Spitzer, Modern Language Notes, 62, 1947, p. 508).

6 "Witze unde manheit, dar zuo silber und daz golt, swer diu beidu hât, belîbet der mit schanden, wê wie den vergât des himeleschen kaisers solt! dem sint die engel noch die frowen holt. armman zuo der werlte und wider got, wie der fürhten mac ir beider spot!" (Walther, 13,6-11).

7 "der lop wert sô der lîp zergât" (Lanzelet, v. 8680).

8 "Corpora ipsorum in pace sepulta sunt, et nomen eorum vivit in genera­tionem et generationem" (Ecclesiasticus 44,14).

Hartmann expresses the same view in a passage at the beginning of his Iwein, which deserves to be quoted in full: "If anyone applies himself to true virtue (rehte güete), fortune and honor will follow him. Sure proof of this is given by good King Arthur, who knew how to strive for praise with knightly disposition. He lived so well during his life that he bore the crown of honors then, and his name still bears it. His countrymen are right in this: they say he is still alive. He has achieved renown. Even though his body has died, his name still lives. Anyone who conducts himself as he did will guard himself from reproach (lasterlîche schande)."1

Like children today, the knights of old still insulted their enemies to make them lose face, and the insulted party lost not only public but also personal esteem until he avenged the insult. Courtly poets, like Hartmann, often composed rhetorical invective to serve as a model for their noble young audience in their own squabbles.2 Perhaps one of the most eloquent displays of gentlemanly vituper­ation is found in the abusive charges made by Bolingbroke and Norfolk in the opening scene of Shakespeare's Richard II before their trial by combat. Insults are not limited to words alone. The action of Hartmann's Erec begins when Yder's dwarf slaps the unarmed hero, who, like the relentless heroes of the sagas, must stalk his enemy until he finally obtains satisfaction. Although many medieval poets like Hartmann knew the Stoic writings, they could not presume to tell their courtly audiences to ignore a slap, as Seneca had advised.

1 "Swer an rehte güete wendet sin gemüete, dem volget saelde und êre. des gît gewisse lêre künec Artûs der guote, der mit riters muote nâch lobe kunde strîten, er hât bî sînen zîten gelebet alsô schône, daz er der êren krône dô truoc und noch sîn name treit. des hânt die wârheit sîne lantliute: sî jehent er lebe noch hiute: er hât den lop erworben, ist im der lîp erstorben, sô lebet doch iemer sîn name. er ist lasterlîcher schame iemer vil gar erwert, der noch nâch sînem site vert" (Iwein, vv. 1-20). Henry of Meissen also mentions Arthur's immortality: "Künc Artûs mit der rîchen tât vil hôhen prîs erwarp; wie daz er ouch erstorben sî, sîn reinez lop doch nie verdarp" (Heinrich von Meissen, 329,13-16).

2 For a good example of invective, see the altercation between Kalogreant and Sir Kay in Iwein (vv. 113-221). Because Sir Kay is not a man of honor, nothing comes of this.

A particularly grievous type of insult was that suffered by the husband of an unfaithful wife or by the father or male guardian of a seduced or abducted woman. The woman too lost her honor, whether seduced or raped, yet her husband or guardian suffered even more, since men had more honor to lose. No one was more dishonorable than a cuckold. When Parzival, who is still a pure fool, enters the tent of the sleeping Jeschute and kisses her and takes her ring, she is dishonored. When her husband returns and suspects infidelity, he complains that his knightly honor has been changed to disgrace.1 In Tristan, Isolde's infidelity harms King Marke's honor,2 and Hagen partially vindicates Gunther's honor as a hus­band when he kills Siegfried. This kind of "point of honor" reached its most extreme expression in Spain, where it may have been influenced by Arabic customs. However, old Gothic survivals would have been enough to explain the tradition.3

In studying the value code of the court poets, one must remember that people and things were judged by their repute rather than by their intrinsic values, even though some clergymen saw the danger of error in such judgments.4 As in the case of the Romans, dignitas depended upon the honors received rather than upon those merited. Wolfram of Eschenbach describes this process by saying that, if dignitas (werdekeit) is the most splendid praise (prîs) and if praise is werdekeit, the two are a single thing, so great that it fulfils happi­ness.5 One might argue that prîs (from pretium) meant worth as well as repute (i.e., value as well as price); but Wolfram, like most MHG poets, invariably uses prîs in the sense of praise, fame, or public acclaim.

The most usual synonym of prîs was lob, which also rendered Latin laus. Conrad of Würzburg, writing nearer the end of the thir­teenth century, used wirde, werdekeit, prîs, and lop practically as synonyms of êre.6 Some years earlier Rudolf of Ems had written, "In India a wise king turned his thoughts to the praise of this world. His excellence (tugent) enhanced his werdekeit in foreign lands. Through his excellence he prepared for himself great wirde beyond other kings".7 This is only one of many bits of evidence that werdekeit was felt to be an external possession rather than an internal quality.

1 "wer hât mich entêret?" (Parzival, 131,8); "mir ist nâch laster gendet manec ritterlîcher prîs" (133,8-9).

2 "an sin e und an sin ere" (Tristan, v. 13,652).

3 Stuart, p. 251.

4 St. Martin had said that you will show prudence, which is a means to the honest life, "si omnia prius aestimes et perpenses et dignitatem rebus non ex opinione multorum sed ex earum natura constituas" (Martin, Formula 2,2). St. Thomas Aquinas expressed a similar belief in his Summa Contra Gentiles (III, 29): "Cognitio autem famae, in qua gloria humana consistit, est imperfecta; est enim plurimum incertitudinis et erroris habens".

5 'ist werdekeit van prîse hêr und ist der prîs die werdekeit, diu zwei sint einez wol sô breit, dâ von gelücke wirdet ganz" (Willehalm, 14,16-19). Thus the heathen Morgowanz has complete praise with dignity: "des prîs mit werdekeit was ganz" (32,18).

6 Partononier, 16,030-16,046.

7 "in Indîâ ein künic wîs, der gar an dirre welte prîs sîn gemüete kêrte: in vremeden landen mêrte sîn tugent sîne werdekeit. er hâte sich dar zuo bereit mit tugentlîchen dingen daz man sîn lop sach dringen vür ander künege wirde grôz" (Barlaam, 9,19-27).

Modern editors, wishing to attribute incentives other than fame, often see fit to interpret MHG words too freely. When the Lay of the Nibelungs says that Rüdeger refuses Etzel's gifts because it would be unpraiseworthy (unlobelich) to accept them, the editor of the most popular edition explains the word to mean improper (unange­messen),1 even though the characters are motivated elsewhere almost exclusively by other people's opinions rather than by absolute standards of right and wrong.2 Likewise, when Kriemhild marries Etzel to enhance her power, her uncle advises her to give lavishly and thus to buy honor just as Etzel's first wife had done. The same editor explains the word "buy" (koufen) to' mean "acquire" or "earn", although the transaction is clearly to be a purchase of êre in return for guot.3 Conrad of Würzburg states this commonplace by saying that mille buys popular favor.4

1 Footnote to strophe 1153, in Das Nibelungenlied, ed. H. de Boor, Leipzig, 1949.

2 Several passages illustrating this fact have appeared in the preceding notes.

3 "unt daz sie ir êre koufte als Helche hete getân" (Nibelungenlied, 1330,3). De Boor says "erwerben, verdienen".

4 "der liute gunst die milte koufet" (Leiche, 18, v. 7).

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