The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


One should pursue wealth and honor and yet keep God in his heart.- FREIDANK, 93, 22.

In contrast to the worldly literature of the court poets, the other­worldly tradition continued unbroken, often finding expression in the works of the courtly poets themselves. The best German version of the Gregorius legend was written by Hartmann of Aue; and the best version of the St. Alexius legend was written by Conrad of Würzburg, who also contributed works on worldly themes.1 Even more conducive to developing public morality than the courtly and monastic romances were the collections of wise maxims like the German Cato, Freidank's Bescheidenheit, and Thomasin's Welscher Gast, which became popular in the thirteenth century. The wisdom in these works was mostly of clerical origin, much of it directly from Scripture, especially from the books then attributed to King Solomon; yet the references to honor, like those to moderation, came largely from Roman-Stoic tradition, since Scripture was not particularly concerned with these subjects. Much of this wisdom can be traced directly to a group of twelfth-century churchmen gathered at Chartres, among others Alain of Lille, John of Salisbury, Bernard Silvester, and William of Conches.

Of all literary traditions, the didactic tradition probably contributed the most to our present concept of honor, it being the one most thoroughly disseminated among the populace. Its short pithy proverbs were easily committed to memory and served as good nourishment for generations of school children, of souls still young enough to be molded. In addition to furnishing reading matter for scholars, these collections provided source material for the Spruch­dichter, or popular aphoristic poets, who transmitted their wisdom even to the illiterate bulk of the population. The moralists, or didac­tic poets, understood the word êre chiefly in its external sense, that is, as the acclaim of society.2 To be sure, like Plato before them,3 they contended that this acclaim should be won not by wealth, birth, and rank, but rather by virtue. Moreover, honor was due not only to heroic deeds, but also to loyal performance of duty and to resignation to divine will, as it had long been in the monasteries. Thus they began to distinguish between true and false honor. Worldly acclaim was still a positive goal, but only when achieved through righteous deeds and disposition.

1 ed. R. Henczynski, Berlin, 1898, Acta Germanica, VI, 1.

2 This is evident in Freidank's discourse on honor, in which he collects the best-known commonplaces on the subject (Freidank, 91,12 - 93,25).

3 Plato, Laws, 697 B-C (trans. R. G. Bury).

As we have seen, both Germanic and courtly society were based on the inequality of man, and the ruling classes never questioned the value of noble birth despite all Christian teaching to the contrary. The court poets thought only wellborn persons entitled to honor, everyone else being boorish and unworthy of mention; and they used the words for noble, courtly, and honorable almost synonymously. Ancient Greek and Roman society had also been based on a caste system, which was taken for granted by most philosophers. Nevertheless, some thinkers, particularly the Stoics, questioned whether noble birth alone could make a man virtuous. Juvenal, a Roman satirist who wrote at the beginning of the second century of this era, devoted his eighth satire to attacking nobility of birth; for the only true nobility is virtue (Nobilitas sola est atque unica virtus).

Since honor is rightfully shown to nobility and true nobility is virtue, then honor should be shown to any virtuous man. As we have seen, St. Martin of Braga claimed that one could attain the vita honesta by practicing the four virtues of prudence, magnanimity, continence, and justice. Early in the twelfth century Petrus Alphonsus, a converted Spanish Jew, claimed to quote Aristotle as saying that true nobility derived not from noble birth, but from the mastery of the seven liberal arts, the seven virtues (industriae), and the seven accomplishments (probitates).l St. Anselm of Canterbury expressed the view as "Noble is he who shines with the virtue of the spirit, illborn is he alone who is pleased with an evil life."2 Although these scholars knew that the word nobilitas literally designated a good of the body (not of the mind) as the Moralium Dogma quoted Cicero as saying,3 they sometimes used the word in the transferred sense of moral excellence.

1 Disciplina Clericalis, p. 10.

2 In Carmen de Contemptu Mundi ; Migne, Patrologia Latina, 158, 695. For numerous other examples of this topos, see E. Wiessner, Kommentar zu Heinrich Wittenwillers Ring, Leipzig, 1935, p. 161.

3 Moralium Dogma, p. 54, line 8.

Freidank expressed St. Anselm's thought more succinctly by saying, "Whoever does right is wellborn," and Thomasin said about the same thing.'1 With this new definition of "noble" he can say that all "noble" people are God's children.2 This theme was repeated constantly during the following centuries in a myriad of variations. A good example of this topos is found in Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale", which says, "Looke who that is moost vertuous alway, Pryvee and apert, and moost entendeth ay To do the gentil dedes that he can; Taak hym for the grettest gentil man."3

We have seen that Siegfried, after reviling Gunther for his dastardly deed, still addresses him as "noble King" and thus shows that the word applied to one's rank regardless of one's behavior. Through the efforts of the moralists the word edel gradually began to assume its modern meaning. The Latin word nobilis, which is related to nosco, originally meant recognizable, known, or famous. Being conventionally applied to the ruling classes, it became associated with the German word edel, which, as we have seen, originally referred to the owners of allodial property. These two words seem to have developed their modern ethical meaning simultaneously and perhaps through reciprocal influence.

When courtly poets and pedagogues said that true nobility derived from noble behavior, they were not attacking the social order, but merely saying that "noblesse oblige". In other words, in order to receive the honor due to noble birth, one must play the part by being brave, generous, trustworthy, and dutiful to God. Although they admitted that not all men of noble birth practiced these virtues, they often implied that only wellborn persons can do so, commoners being by nature incapable of the finer things.4 Frederick of Sunnenberg, a thirteenth-century aphoristic poet, said, "The noble and wellborn man gladly strives for honor; likewise, a peasant naturally loves disgrace and disgraceful things. The peasant is pleased with misdeeds, that is innate in him. The noble man occupies himself with good conduct and worthiness. Whenever the peasant acts knavishly, he is happy and very contented. The noble­man strives for honor."5 One might argue that by "peasant" he is not referring to a particular social class, but just to depraved

persons in general. Be that as it may, the very choice of this term implies that all rural commoners were scorned.

1 "Nobilis est iste, qui sectatur bona gesta". "Wer reht tuot, der ist wol geboren" (Freidanks Bescheidenheit, lateinisch und deutsch, ed. H. Lemke, n.d., 196b, 10. See Helmbrecht, vv. 506-507; Helbling, VIII, vv. 359-362; Renner, VV. 889-972; Minnesangs Frühling, 24, 33-34; Ring, vv. 4421-4422. "Nieman ist edel niwan der man der sîn herze und sîn gemüete hât gekêrt an rehte güete" (Welscher Cast, vv. 3860-3862); "swer rehte tuot zaller vrist, wizzet dasz der edel ist" (vv. 3923-3924); "der tugend hât, derst wol geborn und êret sîn geslehte wol" (Winsbeke, 28, 5-6).

2 "Sô wizzet daz die edel sint die sint alle gotes kint" (Welscher Cast, vv. 3925-3926). Thomasin devotes many verses to this argument (vv. 3855 ff.).

3 Chaucer, ed. Robinson, III (D), vv. 1113-1116.

4 "bî zuht die edeln man ie kande: unzuht ist noch gebiurisch schande. gebiuwer und herren kint, swâ die glîcher tugende sint, dâ ist daz lemrîn worden bunt" (Konrad von Haslau, Der Jüngling, ed. M. Haupt, ZfdA, 1, 1851, p. 550, vv. 5-9).

5 "Der edele wolgeborne man nach eren gerne stat. So mynnet ouch von art eyn bur diu schande unde dartzu schanden rat. Dem gebure ist wol mit missetat. Daz ist im an geboren. Der edele man der vlizet sich an tzucht, an wirdechait. Swell der gebur schelchliche tut so ist der vro unde vil gemeyt. Der edele man nach eren steit. Diu ere hat ym gesworn" (Die Jenaer Lieder­handschrift, ed. G. Holz, Leipzig, 1901, I, p. 115).

When Gottfried states that he has written his Tristan for "noble-hearts",1 he does not mean for all wellborn persons, but merely for the few dis­criminating ones. Nevertheless, even though he was a burgher himself, his epic is concerned only with people of gentle birth, in the usual meaning of the word.

The popular Spruchdichter, on the other hand, usually argued that true nobility derives from good behavior and is thus within the reach of everyone. As Freidank expressed the idea, "Be he serf or be he free, if anyone is not noble by birth, he should make himself noble by virtuous behavior."2 Therefore honor, which the courts tried to monopolize for the nobility, was also attainable by any virtuous person, regardless of his birth. By such arguments the moralists acknowledged the dignity (cf. dignitas) of labor and the laboring classes. Perhaps one of the most touching expressions; of this view is to be found in Farmer Helmbrecht, Germany's oldest "village tale" and one of the finest gems of medieval story telling.3

This tale, avowedly an eye-witness account, tells of a peasant youth who is dissatisfied with his social station and aspires to become a knight. Against the better advice of his father he leaves his family and takes service with a robber-knight and becomes a

notorious bandit. Finally he is captured and punished by the loss of his eyes, his right hand, and his right foot. Driven from his father's house, he wanders as a beggar for a year until he is finally lynched by some outraged peasants.

1 "edelen herzen" (Tristan, v. 47).

2 "Er sî eigen oder frî, der von geburt nicht edel sî, der sol sich edel machen mit tugenlîchen sachen" (Freidank, 54, 8). Similarly, Wittenwiler says, "Ein gpaur der wirt ein edelman, Der sich dar nach gewenen kan" (Ring, vv. 4400-4402).

3 Cited here from Meier Helmbrecht, ed. F. Panzer, Tübingen, 1953, ATB no. 11. An English translation is available in C. H. Bell, Peasant Life in Old German Epics, New York, 1931.

The father, a symbol of the contented peasant, tries to persuade his ambitious son to remain on the farm by assuring him that he can win more honor at home than at court. "Follow my advice", he says, "and you will have profit and honor, for he never succeeds who strives against his order." If the son goes to court, he will win only disgrace and ridicule from the true courtiers. If he plows his fields, he can be buried with great honors like his father, who has paid his tithes every year and lived with loyalty and reliability and without hate. Honor and profit come to him who follows good teaching; and harm and disgrace to him who ignores his father's advice.1

When the son claims that he is noble because his godfather was noble, the father answers that he prefers a man who does right and remains constant. Such a man, even if of low birth (von swacher art), pleases the world better than a king's descendant who has never achieved virtue or honor (tugent noch êre). If a virtuous man of low condition (ein frumer man von swacher art) and a nobly born man who has never shown any breeding or honor (zuht noch êre) came into a country where nobody knew who they were, people would prefer the poor man's child to the noble wellborn man who has chosen dishonor (schande) rather than honor (ere). Therefore, if his son wishes to be noble, he should act nobly; for "good behavior is surely a crown above all nobility".2

Although the father praises the peasantry, he never questions the sanctity of the social order. One might even say that the chief theme of the story is. found in the words, "He never succeeds who strives against his order." During this period the Church agreed with the nobility in believing social boundaries divinely ordained and not to be transgressed. Even though a peasant had to remain a peasant, he was none the less entitled to honor within his group. As Freidank put it, "A peasant has enough honor if he is foremost in his village."3

Whereas the courtly poets scorned all productive work, as the ancient Teutons had done before them, the didactic poets praised it as the monastics had done. Father Helmbrecht followed this tradition in praising the virtue of farming.4

1 "nû volge miner lêre, des hastu frum und êre; wan selten im gelinget, der wider sînen orden ringet" (Helmbrecht, vv. 287-290): "dîn laster dû gemêrest, sun, des swer ich dir bî got; der rehten hoveliute spot wirdestû, vil liebez kint" (vv. 294-297); "swer volget guoter lêre, der gewinnet frum und êre: swelch kint sînes vater rât ze allen zîten übergat, daz stât ze jüngest an der schame und an dem schaden rehte alsame" (vv. 331-336).

2 "mir geviele et michel baz ein man der rehte taete und dar an belibe staete. waer des geburt ein wênic laz, der behagte doch der welde baz dan von küneges fruht ein man der tugent noch êre nie gewan. ein frumer man von swacher art und ein edel man an dem nie wart zuht noch êre bekant, und koment die bêde in ein lant dâ niemen weiz wer si sint, man hât des swachen mannes kint für den edelen hôchgebom der für êre schande hât erkom" (Helmbrecht, vv. 488-508).

3 "Ein gebûr genuoc êren hât, der vor in sîme dorfe gât" (Freidank, 122, 9-10).

4 "sô bûwe rnit dem phluoge; sô geniezent dîn genuoge: dîn geniuzet sicher­lîche der arme und der rîche, dîn geniuzet wolf und ar und alliu creatûre gar und swaz got ûf der erden hiez ie lebendic werden. lieber sun, nû bouwe: jâ wirt nû manec frouwe von dem bûwe geschoenet, manec künec wirt gekroenet von des bûwes stiuwer. wan niemen wart sô tiuwer, sîn hôchvart waere kleine wan durch daz bû aleine" (Helmbrecht, vv. 545-560). The didactic poet Suchenwirt expressed the thought as: "Wenn gepawrn nicht mer ist, So wirt der schimpf entrennet: Wes denn lebent die selben frist, Die herren sint gennennet? Die fürsten nicht mit phluegen gan, Die purger sich sein schamen, So muozz man underwegen lan Auf aekcher werffen den samen" (Suchen­wirt. p. 111, no. 37, vv. 21-28). Cf. "Won allü froed waer gar zenicht. Waer des bumans nicht" (Teufels Netz, vv. 12,414-12,415).

Praise of the honest husbandman became common in didactic literature, and Chaucer's idealized Plowman was but one of many. Clergymen assured the peasantry that they had an essential and honorable part to play in the divine scheme. Typical is a song by Henry of Meissen, a thir­teenth-century mastersinger: "People have been divided into three classes since the beginning, as I read. Peasant, knight, and priest, each was, according to his measure, ever equal to the other in nobility and condition. What is the intent of the priests? They teach us good behavior, art, wisdom. and the power of all virtues, peace, shame, and reverence. Give knighthood to the knight. The peasant has reserved the right to produce food for the other two with profit. Now priest, worthy priest, leave the other orders alone. You, proud knight. cause knighthood to smile on you, do not assume another condition. You, peasant, should not strive higher. I teach you that for the sake of lasting glory."1

Because the Stoics recognized the individual but not society, they denied the value of external honor.2 The Church Fathers, on the other hand, recognized external honor as the greatest worldly value, and for that very reason they denounced it as a worldly value that distracted men from their quest for salvation. Gradually these two traditions fused in the writings of the didactic poets. Since a purely negative view toward honor would have little appeal to men of honor, who were naturally the politically and socially leading element, the didactic writers compromised by saying that it was permissible to seek honor as long as it was sought in ways pleasing to God. The old virtues of courage, loyalty, and largess had value in so far as they served the will of God. According to Joinville, King Philip Augustus of France distinguished between a preu home (brave man) and a preudhome (brave and righteous man), that is, a man who has his prowess from God and serves God free of sin.3

1"In driu geteilet wâren von êrst die liute, als ich las. bûman, rittaer und pfaffen, ieslich nâ sîner mâze was gelîch an adel und an art dem andern ie. wie stêt der pfaffen sin? Si lêrent wol gebâren, kunst, wîsheit, aller tugende kraft. vride, scham und dar zuo vorhte. dem ritter lîchet ritterschaft. der bûman het sich des bewart, daz er den zweien nar schüef mit gewin. Nu pfaffe, werder pfaffe, lâz ander orden under wegen; du stolzer ritter schaffe, daz ritterschaft dir lache, niht nim and dich ein ander leben; du bûman solt niht hôher streben..," (Leiche, 244,1-18). In his translation of Boethius's De Consolatione. King Alfred had already divided a king's subjects into "men of religion, men of war, and men of work" (Highet, p. 46).

2 Eckstein, p. 19.

3 Joinville, Histoire de Saint Louis, ed. N. de Willy, Paris, 1890, p. 235.

A similar distinction seems to have been made by the German didactic poet Teichner. Although the word bider normally meant brave, he claimed that a piderman is one who fears and loves God.l

For the sake of convenience, this study has distinguished between the court poets, who affirmed worldly honor, and the didactic poets, who negated it. Actually this distinction is too arbitrary, inasmuch as all the court poets showed the influence of didactic clerical writers, and the didactic poets in turn had to write their works to appeal to secular audiences. As we have seen, Wolfram and other court poets taught that honor can be won only through practicing moderation, moderation even in courage and largess.

We have also seen that some poets, such as Hartmann of Aue, could write either worldly or otherworldly works to suit the taste of their patrons. In the opening verses of his Gregorius, Hartmann explains that he has sinned in his youth by writing worldly works and that now he is going to do penance by writing a religious one. Strangely enough, many scholars have taken him at his word and have believed that this confession indicated change of heart, instead of merely conformity to literary tradition.2 Because Hartmann wrote his worldly Iwein after his Gregorius and Poor Henry, it is more probable that such conversion was fictitious. Before Rousseau and Goethe, people did not insist that great literature express personal experience; and Hartmann frankly admitted that he wrote what people wanted to hear.3

Many poets followed Hartmann's example and treated other­worldly themes in the style and language of the court epics. Foremost among these were Rudolf of Ems and Conrad of Würzburg, who selected both secular and spiritual themes. Because they stand firmly in didactic tradition, one might expect them to use êre primarily in a moral sense. This is not the case. Miss Irmgard Riechert, who has made a painstaking study of Rudolf's and Conrad's many uses of the word êre, concludes that Rudolf scarcely ever employs it in its inner sense and that, of some 900 times it appears in Conrad's works, it has definite ethical meaning some 71 times and possible ethical meaning some 51 times more.4 Whereas some people might be surprised that êre so seldom had inner meaning, I think that Miss Riechert's estimate is far too high. In fact, I find no passage where inner value is absolutely certain.

1 "ein pider man daz ist der got furichten chan und got hat lieb für allez gut" (Teichner, 252, 3-5). He devotes a whole song (no. 333) to teaching that honor can be won by practicing humility.

2 Such credulity still appears in H. de Boor, Geschichte der deutschen Literatur, Munich, 1953, II, 68.

3 "daz man gerne hoeren mac, dâ kêrt er sînen vlîz an" (Iwein, vv. 26-27).

4 Riechert, p. 97.

Miss Riechert herself acknowledges that there are no absolutely reliable criteria for judging whether the word êre in a given passage designates an inner or an external valuel and I cannot accept any of the criteria which she uses. She thinks a good criterion to be Conrad's practice of localizing êre in a person's heart;2 but medieval poets often used the heart as the seat of desire, be it good or bad.3 Even today we can say, "He has his heart set on riches," or "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." When Conrad says that someone's heart is a chest of êren, it need mean no more than that his heart causes him to strive for honors, as is quite apparent in one passage in his Trojan War.4 Miss Riechert also thinks that êre, when used in connection with an oath, must have inner meaning;5 but, as we shall see, this new value became attached to oaths only in modern times. Even when Conrad seems to be using êre in a moral sense, the context will often show that this is not the case. In his epic about Alexander the Great, he lets Aristotle warn against drunkenness: "Be on your guard against drunkenness, which harms virtue and êren." But then he continues, "It is the cause of disgrace and an opprobrious grave of worldly honors."6

1 Riechert, p. 68.

2 Riechert, pp. 8-9. As evidence she cites, among other passages, one from Conrad's Partonopier. However, when read in context, it is clear that the êren are to be understood objectively. Partonopier says of the sultan: "benamen dirre werde man nâch hôhem prîse werben kan als ein ritter ellentrîch. kein fürste wart im nie gelîch an êren, die sîn herze birt" (Partono­pier, vv. 16,067-16,071). Since the sultan can strive for praise, it is clear that the honors that his heart (i.e. courage) produces are merely worldly praise, not inner integrity. Likewise, Miss Riechert cites the verses, "sîn herze ist in der smitten der êren lûter worden". However, here too the nature of the êren is clarified a few verses later when Partonopier comes into the battle "gerennet dô nâch prîse" (vv. 21,064-21,065; 21,071). In all such passages, the word êre refers to the praise and prestige a man wins when his heart is set on glory.

3 'Walther says, "jâ leider desn mac niht gesîn, daz guot und weltlich êre und gates hulde mêre zesamene in ein herze komen" (Walther, 8, 19-22). Here, either tangible wealth or intangible honor can come into the heart.

4 "sîn herze vleiz sich alles des, daz wirde heizen mohte; swaz hôhen êren tohte, dar ûf twanc er sich alle wege" (Trojanerkrieg, vv. 6368-6371).

5 She cites (pp. 53-54) this passage: "daz er mich ûz dem prîse der êren hât gevellet" (Partonopier, vv. 7936-7937). Judging by the strictly objective sense of êre in the remainder of the poem, it is clear that Partonopier merely means that he has lost the glory of a good name.

6 "wis vor trunkenheit behuot diu tugent und eren schaden tuot. si ist der schanden urhap unci ein lasterlîchez grap weltlîcher êren" (Alexander, vv. 1751-1754). Likewise, when Rudolf of Ems appears to be using êre as a moral value, it sometimes happens that he is following a Latin source where this is not the case. In Barlaam (218, 24-26), he says that it is an êre for a child to obey its father, but the Latin original merely uses the amoral word laus (Riechert, pp. 135-136). Cf. "Ich trunke gerne dâ man bî der mâze schenket, und dâ der übermâze niemen niht gedenket, sît si den man an lîbe, an guot und an den êren krenket" (Walther, 29, 25-27).

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