The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


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Both classical and Christian influence can be seen in the thirteenth­ century attitudes toward bragging and ridicule. In most shame cultures, like that of the Teutons, the chief reward of victory is praising oneself and ridiculing the vanquished. The heroes of the court epics, on the other hand, usually refrain from boasting of their success. When Erec taunts Yders, whom he has defeated, he attributes his good fortune to God rather than to his own prowess.l When courtly poets do say something to their own credit, they often apologize for having to brag.2 Likewise, the more admirable characters refrain from ridicule; and it is significant that Sir Kay, who indulges most in ridicule, is no man of honor.3

As feminine influence became more prominent at court, court poets began to sing their praises just as they sang the praises of their lords. That is to say, they performed frauendienst as well as herrendienst. As the knight won his lady's favor or huld by serving her in battle or tournament, so the minnesinger won it by singing her praise. Whereas, in actual practice, vassals and poets alike served in return for tangible rewards, in theory they served only for the honor of being recognized by their lords and ladies. Thus the entire fiction of literary frauendienst was based on an exchange of êre in the sense of honor or prestige. Nevertheless, the word êre and the concept of honor play a smaller role in court lyrics than in the court epics. Being subjective, lyrics could not by rights be greatly concerned with honor as long as honor was an objective value. Later, in the songs of the mastersingers, it played a more important role; but by then honor was becoming an inner moral value and the mastersongs (Meistergesang), although lyrical in the sense that they could be sung, were less subjective and were actually only versified didacticism.

Although generally considered a source of honor, women actually had little honor in themselves but merely reflected the honor of their menfolk. When a man died, his wife lost her marital status and the honor acquired by it.4 This explains why Kriemhild must avenge Siegfried's murder even against her own brothers.

1 "doch hât mir got die saelde gegeben" (Erec, v. 973) Thomasin associates ruom with lüge and spott (Welseher Gast, vv. 185-296).

2 "Ob ich mich selben rüemen sol" (Walther, 62, 6); "daz mac ich wol ane rüemen sagen" (50, 38); "rüemaere unde lügenaere, swâ die sîn, den verbiute ich mînen sanc" (41, 25-26); "sîn rüemen daz was c1eine" (Parzival, I, v. 6); "ob ich ungerüemet wol und âne unvuoge sprechen mac" (Winsbeke, 48,1-2). See Waltharius, vv. 561-565.

3 Iwein, vv. 113-221. Thomasin says, "boeser liute spot ist unmaere, hân ich Gaweins hulde wol, von reht mîn Key spotten sol" (Welseher Gast, vv.76-78).

4 When Alexius is buried, his wife says: "mîn vröude und al mîn êre sint versenket und begraben" (Alexius, 1268-1269).

If a woman's honor was publicly attacked, it could be defended only by a man: when Iwein defends Lunete in a trial by combat, her life and honor depend upon his prowess, unless perhaps it is God who intervenes. Whereas a, woman's honor depended originally upon the rank, wealth, and power of her male guardian, she could increase or diminish it through honorable or dishonorable behavior, such as liberality or penuriousness toward minstrels.

The Church tried to brand extramarital sex as sinful; yet the Germanic peoples were not soon impressed, and secular writers scarcely stressed the point for many centuries. The damsels of the courtly epics seem to suffer no reproach for giving themselves to their lovers, provided they do so with decorum and not too much haste. Sexual reticence was due to class pride more than to religious tabu. In Eilhart of Oberge's Tristrant, when Kehenis attempts to force his attentions upon Gymelen without any preliminaries, the

outraged young lady exclaims, "Are you out of your mind? You can well see that I am not a peasant girl. Because you ask me for love in so short a time, I believe you are a peasant."1

When ladies in courtly literature are ashamed of erotic behavior, their shame is usually due to the circumstances, not to the sin. In Parzival, Gawan tells of a damsel who has been overwhelmed by a knight and regrets that she has lost her chaste maidenhood to a

man who has never served her,2 and this seems to imply that it would have been all right if he had done so. When Peter of Staufen­berg's mysterious lady refuses to grant his request in the open field, she invokes Christ to prevent it from happening there and to let no one see their first union on the green heath.3 In other words, it was not the act, but the place, that was disgraceful. Both Peter of Staufenberg and his lady make God and the Virgin Mary confidants and helpers in their affair,4 and Tristan and Isolde likewise see no incongruity in asking God to protect them from being taken in adultery. God, being a courtly God, does so.5 Incredibly enough, some nineteenth-century scholars refused to believe that the wanton little lass in Walther's "Under the Linden" used the Virgin Mary's name as an exclamation during her rendezvous.

1 "Wâ tût ir hen ûwirn sin? jâ sêt ir wol daz ich nicht bin eine gebûrinne daz ir mich bittet umme mine in sô gar korzir zît: ich wêne ir ein gebûr sît" (Tristrant, vv. 6679-6684).

2 "riuwebaerec was ir site, durch daz ir hête genomen der nie was in ir dienst komen ir kiuscheclîchen magetuom" (Parzival, 526, 2-5).

3 "davor behüete uns min Crist, der unser aller heifer ist, daz semlich ding iht hie geschehe und kein mensche niemer sehe unser erste hohgezit uf dirre grüenen heide wit" (Rittermaeren, vv. 432-437).

4 "Maria, himelkünigin, ich bevilh dir iemer mere lip sele guot und ere, daz ich han ie an dich verlan" (Rittermaeren, vv. 530-533). This mysterious lady is a "frouwe clar und schanden fri" (v. 324) although she submits to her lover, and she maintains that she has preserved him from all schanden during his campaigns (v. 362). She also refuses to go to bed with him while he is on God's errand, because "er sünd swer dirz werte" (v. 452).

5 "jâ, hêrre got, erbarme dich über sî und über mich! unser êre und unser leben daz sî dir hînaht ergebenl" (Tristan, vv. 14,657-14,660). See also vv. 14,711, 14,726, 14,730, 15,542, 15,654, 15,678, 17,683, 17,733, et passim. "gotes höfscheit" (Tristan, v. 15,556). Hartmann praises a h ö vesche got, one who lets Erec kill his enemy (Erec, v. 5517).

A woman lost her honor, not only if seduced by an inferior man, but also if raped. In Conrad of Würzburg's World Chronicle Tamer regrets losing her honor after Amon has violated her.l Since a woman could lose her honor along with her virginity, it is easy to see how the word honor could acquire the added meaning of "chastity", at least in the case of women.2 A good name, rather than moral integrity, was the most usual and most approved incentive for continence. Conrad expresses this attitude in great detail and with great clarity in his Partonopier in a plaint by Meliur, who is afraid she will lose her good name if people learn that she is Par­tonopier's mistress. People will point their fingers at her, she will suffer laster and lose her êren, and she will be geschant in front of all her friends.3 Another lady expresses the same fear in Conrad's Trojan War.4

More than a century later Chaucer could still say concerning an ideal woman, "no wyght mychte do hir noo shame, She loved so wel hir owne name."5 In ancient days women had guarded their chastity, marriage vows, and widowhood "nat for holynesse, But al for verray vertu and clennesse and for men schulde sette on hem no lak; And yit they were hethene, al the pak, That were so sore adrad of alle shame."6 This would seem to imply that Christian women were virtuous for "holynesse", but this more likely referred to holy women who had taken vows of chastity. Although concern for reputation usually protected against inchastity, it could also cause it. In Hartmann's Gregorius, when the sister is about to be violated by her brother, she fails to cry out for fear that the deed will become known and they will lose their honor.7

1 "war solich nu keren, sit du an minin eren so sere hast geswechet mich und dich selbin?" (Weltchronik, vv. 29,171-29,173). See II Kings, 13,13.

2 NED honour sb. 3. "(Of a woman) Chastity, purity, as a virtue of the highest consideration; reputation for this virtue, good name." Wittenwiler says that the bath-woman can help young maids "von den eren" (Ring, v. 2568); and Emser says that the two elders tried to deprive Susannah of "ir eer und lobe" (Emser, v. 46).

3 Partonopier, vv. 8180-8211.

4 mîn lop in disen landen ze tôde wirt geswachet, wirt iemer kunt ge­machet, daz ich worden bin dîn wîp" (Trojanerkrieg, vv. 17,106-17,109). See also vv. 8699, 8705, 8724.

5 Book of the Duchess, vv. 1017-1018, in Chaucer, ed. Robinson.

6 Legend of Good Women, vv. 296-300, in Chaucer, ed. Robinson.

7 "sô habe wir iemer mêre verloren unser êre" (Gregorius, vv. 389-390). See also vv. 461, 489, 500, 531.

Love, which had been incidental in the older Germanic literature, became essential in the literature of the courts, which were presided over by ladies. This new cult of love and womanhood seems to have been influenced by Ovid's Art of Love and Christian Mariology and perhaps by contact with higher Saracen civilization during the Crusades. The apotheosis of women in love lyrics may have stemmed from the Catharist or Albigensian heresy of Provence; for the rhetoric of the troubadours and minnesingers has much in common with Catharist prayers and liturgy.1 For the purpose of this study, women will be considered only for their effect upon the concept of honor. The Church, being dominated by celibates, took a decidedly anti-feminine position, regardless of the arguments of recent apologists. Whereas St. Jerome's tirade against women in his letter versus Jovinus may be a bit extreme, many of its views prevailed in clerical writings. Women, being a pleasure of the world, hindered a man in his quest for salvation because "he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife".2

As a result of this anti-feminine tradition, many men considered women dangerous to a man's honor as well as to his soul. This point of view was reinforced by classical references to the softening influence of Venus upon Mars. According to the Roman historians, the Teutons considered sexual activity debilitating. In his Gallic War (VI, 21), Caesar states that those Germanic youths who have re­mained chaste the longest receive the greatest praise among the people. They think that, in this way, growth is promoted, physical powers are increased, "and muscles strengthened. To be intimate

with a woman before the twentieth year is considered among the most shameful acts. As we have seen, Tacitus likewise stated in his Germania (c. 20) that Germanic youths did not exhaust their powers by mating early. Caesar and Tacitus apparently agreed with the Teutons in believing that sexual activity detracted from virility, as Plato had done before them.3 In the J ó msvíkings Saga, a hero named Vigfus whets a spear while reciting a verse stating: "We have a fierce fight to expect. While the woman's friend lies at home, the fight approaches. I think that the one fond of women enjoys a warm spot under a woman's warm arms: we get our spears ready, he expects something different from battle."4

1 Rougemont, pp. 75-102.

2 Adversus Jovinianum Libri Duo, Migne, Patrologia Latina, tom. 23, 276ff. Many of Jerome's views, which originated with Theophrastus, appeared in medieval works, for example, in Wittenwiler's Ring, vv. 2688-2782. "Qui autem cum uxore est sollicitus est quae sunt mundi, quomodo placeat uxori et divisus est" (I Cor. 7, 33).

3 In his Laws (VIII, 840), Plato told how Iccus of Tarentum owed his athletic victories to sexual restraint. .

4 Cited, in verse, in Jómsvíkings, p. 97. This literal prose version was kindly sent me by Professor Lee M. Hollander.

Following either native or classic tradition, Saxo Grammaticus expresses the same view in telling how a hero named Hjalte leaves the embrace of a wench to come to the aid of his king as soon as he hears the sound of fighting in the palace. "Preferring courage to lechery, he chose to seek the deadly dangers of Mars rather than to indulge in the alluring enticements of Venus."1 After cutting off the nose of his sweetheart to mar her beauty, he hurries back to the king's retainers and awakens them. While doing so, he waxes eloquent on the advantages of winning glory in battle rather than shame in love-making.2 Also, a king named Frode won disgrace as a rover, because his sailors were newly married and preferred the pleasures of the bed at home to labors of war abroad.3

Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose Histories of the Kings 0f England were an important source of the Arthurian legends, had anticipated this tradition by saying, "For where the use of weapons is seen to be absent and enticements of dice and women and other amusements to be present, there is no doubt that whatever there was of virtue, honor, audacity, and fame will be besmirched by cowardice.'4 Fear of such reproach compels the Burgundians to seek certain death at Kriemhild's hands rather than stay at Worms and love the fair ladies, as the kitchenmaster Rumolt advised.5 Geoffrey's argument, via Chrétien of Troyes,6 found its best German expression in Hartmann's Erec and Iwein. As previously mentioned, the first of these tales concerns the loss of the hero's êre through an uxorious life and of his recovery of it through deeds of arms.7 The hero of the second tale commits the opposite fault; in his pursuit of êre he neglects his wife and thereby breaks his triuwe and loses his êre.8

1 Gesta Danorum, p. 58, vv. 23-25. Cf. Waltharius, vv, 150-164.

2 op. cit., p. 59, vv, 1-25.

3 op. cit., p. 216, vv. 17-18.

4 "Quippe ubi usus armorum videtur abesse. allee autem & mulierum inflammationes. ceteraque oblectzmenta adesse dubitandum non est etiam id quod erat uirtutis. quod honoris. quod audacie, quod fame, ignauia commaculari" (Historia, IX, 15).

5 "und minnet waetlîchiu wîp" (Nibelungenlied, 1467,4). Heinrich von Rugge disapproved of such an attitude: "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'" (Minnesangs Fruhling, 98, 27-31).

6 In Chrétien's Erec, Enide is ashamed that Erec is recreant (v, 2466) and has lost his pris (v. 2548). She hopes he will be able to wipe out their blasme (v. 2567) and regain his earlier fame (los, v. 2568) (Christian van Troyes, Sämtliche Werke, ed. W. Forster, Halle, 1890, III). In his Ywain, Gauvain eloquently expresses the knightly view toward uxorious marriage asstultifying and making a husband unworthy of his wife's love (op. cit., II, vv. 2484-2538).

7 Erec not only vindicates himself after his uxorious life, but he also saves Mabonagrin from his oath to serve his wife at the cost of his honor,

8 Gawan describes Iwein's ignoble life as "durch wîp verligen" (Iwein, v. 2790).

Thus the two of them risk the infamy that, according to Corneille, pursues both the cowardly warrior and the perfidious lover.1 In Shakespeare's All's Well that Ends Well, the countess says of her son Bertram, who deserts his bride to seek adventure: "his sword can never win the honour that he loses," for even deeds of prowess cannot compensate for perfidy.2

Centuries later Richard Lovelace. alluded to love's competition with honor in his famous lines, "I could not love thee, Dear, so much, loved I not honour more." Even though the New English Dictionary considers this an early use of the word honour in its moral sense,3 I believe that Lovelace was merely following the courtly tradition that a warrior could not be worthy of love unless he preferred his good name.4 Three centuries earlier Conrad of Würzburg had expressed the same thought by saying, "If anyone cannot love êre, how should he love a pure woman with loyal thoughts?"5 Although Tennyson often seems to give modern motivation to his medieval characters, he follows Chrétien's meaning when he says that Geraint, who is captivated by Enid, is "Forgetful of his glory and his name."6 Here it is clearly reputation, not moral integrity, that is at stake. This literary topos lasted to modern times. A good example appears in Ibsen's Doll's House, when Helmer tells Nora that "no man sacrifices his honor, even for the one he loves."7

Whereas the Church taught that women were a danger to men's souls and some secular writers thought them a danger to their honor, other writers of the High Middle Ages considered them prime incentives to honor. In the animal kingdom stags, bucks, bulls, and cocks seem to fight more bravely when surrounded by their mates; and this seems to hold true of man too, perhaps through some ata­vistic echo of older sexual selection. When Erec is being worsted in his fight with Yders, a glance at Enite makes him fight all the more valiantly.8

1 "L'infamie est pareille, et suit également Le guerrier sans courage et le perfide amant" (Le Cid, III 6, vv. 39-40).

2 All's Well that ends Well, III, 2, vv. 96-97.

3 NED Honour sb. 2. "Personal title to high respect or esteem; honour­ableness; elevation of character; 'nobleness of mind, scorn of meanness, magnanimity' (1.); a fine sense of and strict allegiance to what is due or right (also, to what is due according to some conventional or fashionable standard of conduct)."

4 See G. F. Jones, "Lov'd I not honour more," Comparative Literature Vol XI, 1959, pp. 131-143.

5 "swer niht ere meinen kan, wie sol der geminnen reines wip mit sinnen retriuwen" (Leiche, 17, 37).

6 Idylls of the King, (The Marriage of Geraint, 52).

7 "Men der er ingen, som ofrer sin aere for den man elsker" (Henrik Ibsen, Samlede Digterverker, Oslo, 1937, IV, p. 205).

8 "und als er dar zuo an sach die schoenen froun Enîten, daz half im vaste strîten" (Erec, vv. 935-936). When Partonopier's blows begin to weaken, Gaudine says: "an Meliûren kapfen sult ir mit vollen ougen: sô wirt iu sunder lougen maht unde kraft gegeben wider. niht henket iuwer houbet nider: schouwet daz vil werde wîp, sô wächset iu muot unde lîp van ir liehten angesiht" (Partonopier, vv. 16,090-16,097).

As we have Seen, Tacitus mentioned how the Germanic women stood behind their men in battle and exhorted them to even greater effort; and we have also seen that the women in the ancient sagas shamed their fathers, husbands, brothers, or sons into wreaking vengeance. Saxo Grammaticus tells how a Hunnish princess refused a Danish suitor because, "in olden days no one was considered suitable to marry illustrious women, unless he won for himself great fame through the brilliance of his deeds. In a suitor sloth was the greatest vice. Nothing was damned more in a suitor than a lack of fame."1 Saxo also tells of a hero who has to fight a duel to prove his valor before he can win his wife.2

Since only the brave deserve the fair, the ladies of courtly literature often test their lovers' courage by sending them on dangerous missions. Sometimes this backfires, as in the case of Sigune and Schionatulander, whose sad story furnishes an episode in Wolfram's Parzival and the central theme in his misnamed Titurel. To test her childhood lover's courage, Sigune sends him to retrieve the leash of a straying hound; but he dies in the quest. Whereas worthy men strove hard for the praise of other men, they strove even harder to win praise from or in the presence of women. In describing a perfect knight, Conrad of Würzburg says, "He strove diligently for honors for the sake of lovely women's reward;"3 and Iwanete tells Parzival that, if he jousts often, people will praise him in front of women."4 Just as honor was sweetest when witnessed by women, so too disgrace was most bitter. Erec is doubly humiliated when the queen and her lady-in-waiting see him slapped by the dwarf,5 and Parzival's shame is all the greater when a woman sees his trousers torn.6 Feierfiz, Parzival's brother, is motivated almost solely by love in his battle with Parzival.7

1 Gesta Danorum, p. 124, vv. 1-3.

2 ibid., p. 194, vv. 14-17.

3 "der fleiz sich êren harte durch minneclicher wîbe lôn" (Trojanerkrieg, vv.30,002-30,003).

4 "man lobt dich vor den wîben" (Parzival, 158, 12).

5 "ern gelebt im nie leidern tac danne umb den geiselslac und schamt sich nie sô sêre, wan daz dise unêre diu künegin mit ir frouwen sach" (Erec, vv. 104-108).

6 "ob iu ist zetrant inder iuwer nidercleit, daz lât iu durch die vrouwen leit, die ob iu sitzent unde sehent. waz ob die iuwer laster spehent?" (Parzival, 535, 20-24).

7 "Sîn gir stuont nâch minne. .. Diu minne kondewierte in sîn manlîch herze hôhen muot, als si noch dem minne gernden tuot", etc. (Parzival, 736, 1-8).

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