The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


He who has a good woman's love is ashamed of a misdeed. - WALTHER, 93, 17-18.

In contrast to the warrior code of honor inherited from their Germanic forebears, the thirteenth-century German knights developed a chivalric code of honor somewhat refined by foreign influences. Naturally the greatest of these influences was the Christian Church, whose teachings had been universally accepted, at least nominally, centuries earlier. Perhaps the next most important influence was classical antiquity: Greek thought reached medieval Europe first through derivative Latin works and later, during the thirteenth century, via the Arabs of Spain. Another refining influence upon literature was the greater participation of women at the courts, particularly as patrons of the poets. One might say that warriors became gentlemen when women began to preside at court.

We have seen that Christianity ran counter to the Germanic concept of honor. Although the Church taught men to turn the other cheek, even the most gentle of the court poets could not demand this of their heroes. Nevertheless, they were able to teach men to look upon revenge as just punishment, not merely as personal satisfaction. Unlike their Germanic ancestors, the knights of the High Middle Ages were expected to avenge themselves on the individual offender rather than on just any member of his kinship. Still, the older idea of vicarious revenge still appears. In the Lay of the Nibelungs, when Hagen finally admits killing Siegfried, he says that Siegfried had to pay because Kriemhild had insulted Brunhild.1 Since a women was not capable of giving satisfaction, Germanic custom demanded that revenge be taken on some important member of her vridu, preferably her nearest kinsman or her legal guardian. Because a dwarf is by nature incapable of satisfaction, Erec cannot take revenge on the dwarf, but must defeat his master and ha the dwarf thrashed.

1. "wie sêre er des engalt daz diu vrouwe Kriemhild die schoenen Prünhild schalt" (Nibelungenlied, 1790,3-4).

In spite of a half millennium of Christian preaching about for­giveness, homicide was still demanded of so-called Christian knights when their honor was impugned. Gurnemanz, Parzival's courtly mentor, tells him he should show mercy and accept surrender provided his enemy has not committed a heartfelt injury (herzen kumber) against him.1 This reservation, which put the final decision entirely at the discretion of the victor, explains the cruel vengeance wreaked by the saintly crusader Willehalm in Wolfram's other great epic. When Willehalm downs Arofel, the latter begs for mercy and offers ransom; yet, after much deliberation and discussion, Willehalm kills his defenseless victim in cold blood because of the heartfelt injury (herzeser) which Arofel had caused him by killing his sister's son. Wolfram seems to approve Willehalm's act because he has preferred revenge to rich ransom, even though he then despoils and beheads the corpse.2 His deed is naturally herzeser for Arofel's kinsman, Terramer.3 When Erec defeats Yders, the defeated knight begs for mercy, in the name of God and all women, on the grounds that he has not caused Erec enough herzenleit to require fatal vengeance.4 After gloating a while in his victory, Erec deigns to spare his life. In many Crusade epics revenge is consistently brutal in all episodes until the very end, at which point the hero forgives some minor character so that the clerical author can sermonize on the virtue of forgiveness. A similar situation obtains in the Lay of the Nibelungs when Siegfried, following courtly innovations, pardons the captured kings Liudeger and Liudegast, whereas the older ethos prevails in the gory revenge wreaked at the end of the poem. Gurnemanz's advice about killing prisoners was repeated two centuries later, with somewhat less refinement, by Henry Wittenwiler, who said you should spare your prisoner unless he is a whore's son, in which case you should wring his neck.5

1 "an swem ir strîtes sicherheit bezalt, ern habe iu sölhiu leit getân diu herzen kumber wesen, die nemt, und lâzet in genesen" (Parzival, 171, 27-30).

2 Willehalm, 79, 15-81, 18.

3 Willehalm, 204, 16.

4 "durch got erbarme dich, edel ritter, über mich. êre an mir elliu wîp unde lâz mir den lîp, und gedenke dar an, daz ich dir, tugendhafter man, solch herzenleit niht hân getân, du maht mich wol bî lîbe lân" (Erec, vv. 956-963).

5 "Einn hüerrensun den schol man vahen, Wie man mag, und dar zuo gahen Und würgen im den drüssel ab, Wie wol man im verhaissen hab, Mocht er an versichern nicht Gevangen werden" (Ring, vv. 8483-8488). Again, it is left to the victor's discretion to decide whether his victim is a "whore's son".

Whereas the Church could not persuade men of honor to forgive insults, it did succeed in making it honorable for victors to spare the vanquished, provided these had committed no heartfelt injury. Courtly epics give many examples of clemency, usually performed

ostentatiously, like Siegfried's liberation of Liudeger and Liudegast. Although Siegfried renounces ransom in order to enhance his and Gunther's prestige, hope of ransom was one of the chief causes of medieval wars. Whereas knights were not allowed to forgive insults to their honor, ladies sometimes were. Iblis, a lady in Lanzelet, at once forgives the hero for having killed her father;1 Laudine, the heroine of Hartmann's Iwein, promptly forgives the slayer of her husband;2 and even Isolde forgives Tristan for killing her uncle. All these ladies are moved by love. The poet is not minimizing the importance of revenge: quite to the contrary, he is using its omission as proof of love's overwhelming power.

The Church taught not only mercy and forgiveness, but also charity in the sense of alms to the poor. While the code of knight­hood encouraged men to give in return for praise, the Church taught that they should give in return for God's favor and rewards in the world to come. Wishing success both here and there, the perfect knight gave for both purposes simultaneously. The popular epic Hugdietrich says that its hero could both bestow and give for God and for êre,3 and Duke Ernst says that its hero distributed every­thing he had for êre and for God.4 Whether God or êre came first in this cliche seems to have depended only upon the need of the rime. Conrad of Würzburg states that milte can buy people's favor and God's grace and that miltekait enhances one's honor.5

In all these cases the do ut des relation was frankly expressed. Henry Teichner says that gluttons eat their substance instead of buying heaven by feeding the poor.6 Walther considers it very commendable that Duke Leopold has gone on a crusade to win future êre in heaven, and Hartmann says that those who take up the cross will win both the world's praise and the soul's salvation.7 Wolfram's Willehalm often refers to the practicality of fighting for God. The Christians struggle for "everlasting glory", whoever suffers for Christ will receive eternal reward, and the Franks will receive peace of soul and buy seats in heaven. Gyburg will be repaid for the poverty of her body with the wealth of the soul, etc.8 Since medieval man believed in the resurrection of the body, it was an advantageous exchange, because the heavenly wealth would last somewhat longer.

1 "wan si so schiere vergaz daz er ir vater het erslagen" (Lanzelet, vv 4600-4601).

2 Iwein, vv. 2039-2050.

3 "durch got und durch ere beide lihen unde geben" (Hugdietrich, 7,4).

4 "beide durch ere und durch got teilte er swaz er mohte han" (Herzog Ernst vv.98-99).

5 "der liute gunst die milte koufet unde gotes hulde wizzent daz diu miltekeit hoher eren spiegel breit" (Leiche, 18,7-10).

6 "wolt man daz himelreich erchramn" (Teichner, 53, v. 31).

7 "der werlte lop, der sêle heil" (Minnesangs Frühling, 210,10). Walther says that Duke Leopold went on a crusade to earn future glory: "Dô Liupolt spart ûf gotes vart, ûf künftige êre" (Walther, 36,1-2. Cf. 125,5-8).

8 "nâch clem êweclîchen prîse" (Willehalm, 19, 28); "swer sich vinden lât durch in in nôt, der emphaeht unendelôsen solt" (31,12-13); "der sêle vrid, (32,6); "die stuol ze himele kouften" (16, 24); "der mac michs wol ergetzen und slîbes armuot letzen mit der sêle rîcheit" (216,27-29). See also 37,20-21. 90

Rudolf of Ems lists the medieval reasons for charity in an ascending order: "In whosoever's name you redeem the poor and comfort them, his name will reward your heart's desire. If you do it for money, they will repay you; but if you do it for êre, they will praise you all the more. If you do it because of God's commandment, then know rightly that God will give you on their account the everlasting crown as a reward."1 In other words, one could give to win wealth, fame, or God's huld. To give for the sake of giving would have been wasted effort.

Perhaps the greatest difference between courtly largess and Christian charity was that the former was given from one's abun­dance and the latter from one's scarcity. In the Lay of the Nibelungs, Gunther rewards the Saxon emissaries because he has so much to give; and Brunhild asks who will help her distribute her wealth, "of which I have so much."2 Since she is giving to impress and obligate, she must make it clear that she still has sufficient wealth left. On the other hand, Thomasin followed Christian teaching by saying that, to perform true milte, one must suffer lack through the gift.3

Unlike his Germanic forebears, the medieval knight was supposed, at least in clerically inspired works, to be moderate in his largess. Quoting Aristotle, churchmen said that largess was the golden mean between prodigality and avarice.4 As Gurnemanz tells Parzival, a knight should be neither too liberal nor too parsimonious: it is dishonorable either to give away everything or to collect too much treasure.5 In Rudolf of Ems's William of Orléans, Jovrit warns the hero to give with largess of spirit, but with prudence, if he wants people to praise his ambition for honor (êre gernden muot), and later he says that largess with prudence brings the crown of praise.6

1 "in welhem namen dû lôstest die armen und si trôstest, des naeme lôn dîns herzen gir. tuost duz durch gelt, sî geltent dir: tuost aber duz durch êre, man lobt dich immer mêre: tuost duz durch gotes gebot, sô wizzest rehte daz dir got gît umbe sî ze lône die immer wernden krône" (Gerhard, vv. 1859-1868).

2 "der het in ze gebene Gunther genuoc" (Nibelungenlied, 166,2); "des ich sô vil hân" (513,3).

3 Welscher Gast, vv. 6189-6200; 13,715-13,718; 14,029-14,034; 14,298-14,302.

4 "Qui dat quibus dandum est et retinet quibus retinendum est, largus est. Et qui prohibet quibus prohibendum est et quibus non est prohibendum, avarus est. Et qui dat quibus dandum et quibus non est dandum, prodigus est" (Disciplina Clericalis, p. 32). See Aristotle, Ethics, II, 7,4.

5 "ir sult bescheidenlîche sîn arm unde rîche. wan swâ der hêrre gar vertuot, daz ist niht hêrenlîcher muot: sament er aber schaz ze sêre, daz sint ouch unêre" (Parzival, 171,7-12).

6 "Ob du niht durch tumben mut Wilt ane ere swenden din gut Wuestende des gutes. Wis zerhaft wises mutes! Miltekait des mutes, Furbesicht des gutes, Diu zwai in ainem mute Bejagent mit dem gute Das man den ere gernden mut Lobt und hat an im vergut Sin halden und sin lazen, Kan er su baide mazen" (Willehalm von Orlens, vv. 3341-3357). "Milte mit beschaiden­hait, Du alles lobes crone trait!" (vv. 3401-3402).

The Church taught moderation in all things, even in courage and honor. In his handbook on the honorable life, St. Martin had said that one should not seek danger like a foolhardy person, nor should he fear it like a coward.l Whereas this advice was largely ignored by courtly poets, they did sometimes preach against excessive am­bition, especially in religiously tinged works. Hartmann says that Gregorius would have conquered all lands, had he not wished to practice moderation for the sake of God.2 Likewise, Rudolf of Ems lets Darius tell Alexander that moderation is good even in honor.3 In spite of these platitudes, most courtly poets described heroes of unlimited ambition. Nevertheless, moderation in honor is the moral of Hartmann's Erec and Iwein. In agreement with Aristotle,4 Hartmann believed that a perfect man should show neither too much nor too little concern for his reputation. After restoring his injured honor by defeating Yders, Erec loses his newly restored honor by devoting himself to his wife Enite to the exclusion of tournaments. Learning that he is being reproached for his indolence, he sets out to restore his honor once more by undergoing a series of perilous adventures. Thus he goes from one extreme to the other. Eventually, although wounded, he tries to block a road to all comers. When Guivreiz, whom he has previously defeated, unhorses him, he realizes that he has erred in his immoderate desire for honor.5 Iwein's fault is also a lack of moderation in pursuing honor: in his excessive pursuit of honor he breaks his pledge to return to his wife, and thus he loses all the honor he has won.

Another tenet introduced by the Church at this time, and perhaps also derived from Aristotle,6 was the idea that it was praiseworthy to be humble to the weak and arrogant to the strong.

1 "Eris magnanimis, si pericula nec appetas ut temerarius, nec formides ut timidus" (Martin, Formula, 3,10). See Aristotle, Ethics, II, 8, 7; II, 6, 12.

2 "enhaete erz niht durch got verlân, im müesen wesen undertân swaz im der lande was gelegen, nû wolde aber er der mâze phlegen: durch die gotes êre sô engerte er nihtes mêre wan daz im dienen solde: vürbaz er niene wolde" (Gregorius, vv. 2269-2276).

3 "bî der êre ist mâze guot" (Alexander, v. 14,989). This is found in a long discussion of êre, which includes many commonplaces (vv. 14,963-15,010). "

4 "With regard to honour and dishonour the mean is proper pride, the excess is known as a sort of 'empty vanity', and the deficiency is undue humility" (Aristotle, Ethics, II, 7, trans. Ross).

5 "sît daz ich tumber man ie von tumpheit muot gewan sô grôzer unmâze. . . dô ich alters eine iuwer aller êre wolde hân" (Erec, vv. 7012-7022).

6. "It is characteristic of the high-minded man... to be lofty in his behavior to those who are high in station and favored by fortune, but affable to those of the middle ranks; for it is a difficult thing and a dignified thing to assert superiority over the former; but easy to assert it over the latter" (Aristotle, Ethics, trans. F. H. Peters, IV, 3, 26).

Gottfried of Strassburg lets King Marke tell his nephew Tristan, "Be humble and undeceitful, truthful and wellbred. Always be good to the poor and haughty to the rich."1 Similarly, the abbot in Gregorius tells the young hero to watch his behavior and be strong to the lords and good to the poor.2 Some poets advised showing meekness in general, not only to the rich and strong; and Chaucer's perfect knight was not alone in being as "meeke as is a mayde."3

Although the thirteenth-century German courts retained the ancient virtues of courage, wealth, power, fealty, and largess, honor could also be gained from genâde (favor or recognition from one's lord or lady), fröude (joy), trôst (hope, confidence), mâze (moderation), hövischheit (courtliness), etc. These words owed their new meanings largely to being associated with the terms merci, joi, solatz, mezura, cortezia, etc., as they were understood at the courts of Provence; for Provence, having never entirely lost contact with its Greek and Latin past, was the center of the most polished courtly culture.

Throughout this study the MHG word hövischheit is rendered by courtliness, never by courtesy as it usually is elsewhere, since the latter word now implies a disinterested kindness or consideration not necessarily implied in the MHG term. Courtly poets were frank in saying that the purpose of courtly behavior was to enhance one's own êre or prestige. This fact is made quite clear in Wolfram of Eschenbach's Parzival, which is perhaps the outstanding example of German courtly epic. In this poem King Arthur says that anyone who says nice things about him is really honoring himself, since he is saying them to be courtly and not because they are merited. 4 In Hartmann of Aue's Iwein, Queen Guinevere unexpectedly joins a group of Round Table knights and only Kalogreant sees her in time to jump up and bow to her. Sir Kay, the uncourtly steward, then begrudges him the honor he has won and tries to spoil it by saying that they all would have jumped up if they had seen the queen. 5

1 "wis diemüete und wis unbetrogen, wis wârhaft und wis wolgezogen; den armen den wis iemer guot, den rîchen iemer hôchgemuot" (Tristan, vv. 5027-5030).

2 "wis dîner zuht wol behuot, den herren starc, den armen guot" (Gregorius, vv. 251-252). Cf. "sît gegen friunden senfte, tragt gegen vînden hôhgemüete" (Walther, 36, 12); "wis gegen den vînden hôchgemuot, den vriunden niht mit dienste laz" (Winsbeke, 39, 6-7). This topos must have reached even Iceland, where Snorri "was good to his friends but strict with his enemies" (hann var gôdr vinum sínum en grimmr óvinum góðr. Brennu-Njálssaga, CXIV, 4).

3 Chaucer, ed. Robinson, I, A, v. 69. "Sun, wilt du genzlîch schiltes reht erkennen, sô wis wol gezogen, getriuwe, milte, küene, slecht, sô enist er niht an dir betrogen" (Winsbeke, 19,1-4).

4 "er êrte sich, der filch geprîset wider dich und gein andern liuten hât. sîn selbes zuht gap im den rât mêr dan ichz gedienet hân: er hât ez durch höf­scheit getân" (Parzival, 767,11-16).

5 Iwein, vv.99-135.

In the Lay of the Nibelungs, which has an unconvincing courtly skin over its Germanic core, Volker tells Hagen that they should stand up when Kriemhild approaches them with her retinue. By showing honor to the queen, they will enhance their own prestige.l

A whole volume could be written on the significance of salutations in German literature. Greetings were more than a social nicety: they were less often tokens of friendship than conscious admissions of economic or social inferiority on the part of him who greeted first. It was customary for juniors or subordinates to introduce themselves first, as is seen in the case of Hildebrand and Hadubrand, yet Feirefiz agrees to introduce himself to Parzival first even though it will bring him disgrace.2 Because one's worth or dignity depended upon the greetings one received, poets were most careful in recording them. As in the case of modern military salutes, the inferior was expected to salute first, and his failure to do so was construed as an attack against, or at least an affront to, his superior's higher position. In the Lay of the Nibelungs Kriemhild is highly indignant (i.e., loses her dignatio) when Hagen refuses to greet her, since this appears to be an aggression against her position as queen. The chief characters of most courtly epics are actually sovereign persons, and consequently their greetings follow a protocol as punctilious as that between diplomatic representatives of sovereign states today. Because kings were the source of honor, a nod from a king or queen brought honor to the recipient, even if it was only in return, as we saw in the case of Kalogreant when the queen acknowledged his greeting.

According to Freidank, a bad or weak person (der boese) must suffer indignity and a weak greeting (swacher gruoz).3 Farmer Helm­brecht, of whom we shall hear later, is blinded and maimed because he has given his parents a swachen gruoz ; in other words, he has failed to honor them as God has commanded.'4 At first, men saluted only superiors; but, as more polished customs were introduced, it became customary for knights to greet ladies, even of their own rank, first. In the make-believe world of minnesang, or courtly love-lyrics, the lovelorn knight dared ask his lady for no more reward than a friendly greeting or a nod of the head.5

1 " Nu stê wir von dem sedele ... si ist ein küneginne; und lât si für gân.

bieten ir die êre: si ist ein edel wîp. dâ mit ist ouch getiuret unser ietweders lîp" (Nibelungenlied, 1780).

2 "ich wil filch nennen ê und lâ daz laster wesen mîn" (Parzival, 745, vv. 26-27).

3 "Der boese dicke dulten muoz unwirde unde swachen gruoz" (Freidank, 89,10-11).

4 Meier Helmbrecht, vv. 1690-1694.

5 "Ich sanc hie vor den frowen umbe ir blôzen gruoz: den nam ich wider mîme lobe zu lône; swâ ich des geltes nû vergebene warten muoz, dâ lobe ein ander den sie grüezen schône..." (Walther, 49,12-15).

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