The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


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In studies appearing between 1949 and 1952 Friedrich Maurer convincingly showed that the word êre did not have subjective meaning in the writings of Hartmann, Wolfram, and Walther.l Therefore it is surprising that this pupil, Miss Riechert, claimed to find such meaning in the word as used by Conrad and Rudolf, who can scarcely be said to be very much more advanced culturally than their illustrious predecessors. Some years earlier another doctoral candidate, Hildegard Emmel, had been misled by the word êre in the works of Hartmann and Wolfram and in the Lay of the Nibelungs, which she defined as the "socially recognized possession of virtue".2 In this she erred: she should have defined êre as "social recognition of the possession of virtue". This may sound like quibbling, but there is an immense cultural difference between the two definitions. When Iwein defeats Guivreiz, the victim tells the victor that his courage has restored his êre. Miss Emmel explains that Erec "is thereby again in possession of his lost virtue."3 In other words, she believes that êre is a virtue, instead of merely the reward of virtue, as Aristotle had said of timê and as Cicero had said of honos.4

In a recent dissertation on the meaning of the word êre in the pre­courtly period, Lotte Norwood cites many parallels in which êre is juxtaposed with piety, chastity, humility, etc. Nevertheless, she is astute enough to observe that "in these passages the meaning of the word itself is not changed. The word still refers to the person's esteem or social position."5 What she says about the objective nature of the concept êre in pre-courtly poetry would hold by and large for the court poets such as Hartmann and Wolfram and even for their successors such as Conrad and Rudolf.

1 Maurer, "Zum ritterlichen,Tugendsystem' ", p. 526.

2 " êre allgemein formuliert meint bei Hartmann den von der Gesellschaft anerkannten Besitz der Tugend" (Emmel. p. 31).

3 "wan daz dir diu êre geschiht von dîner manheit" (Erec, vv. 4451-4452). "Erec ist damit wieder im Besitz der verlorenen Tugent" (Emmel, p. 36).

4 "for honour is the prize of virtue, and it is to the good that it is rendered" (Aristotle, Ethics, IV, 3, trans. Ross). "cum honos sit praemium virtutis studioque civium delatum ad aliquem, qui eum sententiis, qui suffragiis adeptus est, is mihi honestus et honoratus videtur" (Cicero, Brutus, 81, 281. See also Epist. ad. lam. X, x, 1ff.). Cf. "cum honor sit premium virtutis, et omnis prelatio sit honor, omnis prelatio virtutis est premium" (Dante, De Monarchia, III, 3).

5 "In diesen Stellen ist die Bedeutung des Wortes nicht verändert. Das Wort bezieht sich noch immer auf das Ansehen, die Stellung des Menschen" (Norwood, p. 280). In expressions such as "waz bedorfte ein gôt knecht rîch­tûmes mêre, behelde er trûwe unde êre", she lists êre in the category; "der konkrete Gegenstand, die Person oder Begriff, der zur êre aller beiträgt" (P. 220). Nevertheless, she attributes to it, "ehrenhafte Gesinnung im mo­dernen Sinne" (p. 254). Chapter III is particularly commendable.

In a dissertation written in 1957, Hans Schulz proved that the word êre still had no ethical significance in the Middle German version of the Book of the Maccabees or in the Chronicle of Prussia, both of which appeared in the early fourteenth century.l His thoroughly objective and convincing evidence would suggest either that the clerical authors of these two texts were culturally behind Conrad, who had written more than a century earlier, or else that Miss Riechert had misinterpreted her evidence because of being misled by her modern ideas concerning honor.

Through a queer combination of historical ignorance and wishful thinking, the German Romantics and many subsequent European intellectuals believed the High Middle Ages to have been a period of universal harmony. An extreme expression of this naive view was given by Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known as Novalis, whose essay, Christianity or Europe, described a golden age of happy people blissfully united by a single unquestioned faith.2 Modern scholars still refer to such harmony, but they usually attribute it to some period other than their own period of specialization.3

Hardenberg's views do not concur with historical fact. The High Middle Ages, like preceding and succeeding periods, was a time of spiritual tension as well as of political discord. Officially there may have been only one Christendom in Western Europe, but that was at the cost of eradicating the Albigensians and other dissident groups. Also, men constantly found themselves torn between secular fealty and Christian obedience; whenever a Christian prince was excommunicated, his followers had to choose between following him at the cost of their eternal soul and deserting him at the cost of shame in this world. Vassals usually remained true to their liege, unless they preferred to use the excommunication as a pretext to deprive him of his power. Many poets found it difficult to reconcile their Christian faith with the political machinations of the Papacy. Perhaps the best known of these was Walther, who consistently sided with the emperor against the pope's devious conspiracies.4

1 Hans Schulz, Studien...

2 Novalis Schriften, ed, E. Heilborn, Berlin, 1901, I, pp. 399-420.

3 Siegfried Puknat, in discussing the chapbooks of the 15th and 16th cen­turies, says, "Medieval harmony between inner life and outer activity has yielded to a sheer materialistic attitude..." ("The Volksbuch of the 15th and 16th Centuries", Journal of English and Germanic Philologie, 47, 1948, p.362).

4 Walther, 33,1 - 34, 34.

The Romantic view of the Middle Ages was furthered by the rediscovery of medieval art and by the erroneous assumption that great art always expresses social harmony and spiritual tranquility. It may also have been influenced by a misunderstanding of certain literary works from the age of chivalry. These works should not be taken as a picture of the times, but rather as an escape from a very contrary reality. The poets were not trying to record for us how their contemporaries lived or felt, but rather to instruct their contemporaries in how they should live and feel. Such harmony can be found in the realm of the Holy Grail, but only because this is a never-never land where all insoluble problems are ignored.

The task of the courtly poets was to reconcile Germanic and Christian tradition into a harmonious way of life. From their heathen ancestors they inherited respect for wealth and worldly honor; and from the Christian missionaries they acquired a desire for God's grace, These values, which were the goal of every hero in courtly literature, were conventionally combined into the triad guot, êre, and gotes huld, the concept êre sometimes being expressed as "the world's favor".l On one occasion Walther associates honor with wealth and subordinates them to God's grace, and thus he confesses a guilt culture.2 On another occasion he associates God's grace with honor and raises them above life, wife, and child, which one should sacrifice rather than lose the first two.3 In this case he seems to equate the incentives of shame and guilt culture. In all these cases the word êre obviously refers to objective honor, that is, to the acclaim of society.

Nevertheless, scholars have misinterpreted êre in these passages ever since Gustav Ehrismann identified it with Cicero's honestum in his inspiring, but incorrect, article on "The Chivalrous Code of Virtues" in 1919,4 In this article Ehrismann associated the triad guot, êre and gotes huld with the Ciceronian triad utile, honestum, and summum bonum, even in cases where êre is modified by the adjective "worldly" (werltlich) and is associated with wealth and contrasted with God's grace. As a result, Ehrismann interpreted many poems and epics falsely, and so did his disciples. Although Ernst Curtius discredited his elaborate system in 1943,5 his views are still echoed, for example even in a literary lexicon of 1956.6 In 1950 Friedrich Maurer convincingly demonstrated that MHG êre meant honos rather than honestum.7

1 "Der wîse minnet niht sô sêre, alsam die gotes hulde und êre" (Walther, 22, 24-25). "swem ez (wealth) ist lieber danne got und werltlîch êre, ich waene, er tobe" (Winsbeke, 28,6-7). "der werlde hulde" (Parzival, 827,22).

2 "diu zwei sint êre und varnde guot... daz dritte ist gotes hulde, der zweier übergulde" (Walther, 8, 14-17).

3 "Der wîse minnet niht sô sêre, alsam die gotes hulde und êre: sîn selbes lîp, wîp und kint, diu lat er ê er disiu zwei verliese" (Walther, 22, 24-27). Cf. "swem ez (wealth) ist lieber danne got und werltlîch êre, ich waene, er tobe" (Winsbeke, 28, 6-7). I believe that Walther, 22, 29, is erroneous.

4 Ehrismann, "Das ritterliche Tugendsystem".

5 E. R. Curtius, "Das 'ritterliche Tugendsystem' ". See Wentzlaff-Eggebert, pp. 253-257, and Maurer, "Das ritterliche Tugendsystem", pp. 274-285.

6 Hermann Pongs, Das kleine Lezikon der Weltliteratur, Stuttgart, 1956, col. 311, states that Cicero's honestum and utile affected the knightly ethics of the High Middle Ages, for example, in Walther's "êre und varnde guot".

7 Maurer, "Zum ritterlichen 'Tugendsystem' ". In his "Das ritterliche Tugend system", which was first written in 1944, Maurer still interpreted êre as honestum.

Many poets found no difficulty in reconciling the unreconcilables: Eilhart of Oberge merely states that one will always prosper if he loves God with his heart and strives for honor,l a thought possibly derived from St. Paul's epistle to the Romans.2 The hero of many epics merely excels in all worldly virtues and enjoys worldly honor; then, by professing allegiance to God and doing some good works, he wins God's grace and assurance of further glory in heaven. In his William of Orléans Rudolf of Ems lets Duke Jovrit enter a cloister with the words, "In order to preserve my soul, I wish to relinquish the honor I have had in this world."3 Hartmann's Erec and Iwein are typical of this happy breed, but it is clear that Hartmann has evaded rather than solved the problem. In his Gregorius he writes from a more other-worldly view, without really trying to give this world its due. Only in his Poor Henry does he seem to face the problem.

The hero of Hartmann's Poor Henry is an ideal knight endowed with all goods of body and fortune and all aristocratic virtues. His description is so typical that it deserves to be quoted. "His heart had forsworn all falsehood and villainy and kept its oath firmly to the end. His birth and station were without shortcoming. He had been given as much as he could wish of worldly honors, which he could well increase with all sorts of pure virtue. He was a flower of youth, a mirror of worldly joy, a diamond of constant triuwe, an entire crown of good breeding. He was a refuge for the needy, a shield for his kinsmen, an equal scale of largess. He had neither too much nor too little, He bore a heavy burden of honors on his back.4 He was a bridge of counsel and sang well of love. Thus he could win the world's praise. He was courtly and wise."5

1 "swer got von herzin minnet und nâch den êrin ringet dem volgit selden unheil" (Tristrant, vv, 3113-3115).

2 "iis quidem, qui secundum patientiam boni operis gloriam et honorem et incorruptionem quaerunt, vitam aeternam" (Romans, 2, 7),

3 "Dar uf das ich die sel bewar, Wil ich die ere lassen gar Die ich ze dirre welte han" (Willehalm von Orléans, vv. 14,813 - 14,815), This was also Trevrizent's solution.

4 The image of a man bearing a burden of honors on his back probably originated in an earlier Latin version of the story, because it was traditional to relate the words honos and onus. Marcus Terentius Varro, a contemporary of Cicero, gave this etymology in his De Lingua Latina (V, 73): "Honos ab onere: itaque honestum dicitur quod oneratum, et dictum: 'Onus est honos qui sustinet rem publicam," Cf. "'tis a burden Cromwell, 'tis a burden" (Henry VIII, iii, 2).

5 "sîn herze hâte versworn valsch und alle dörperheit und behielt vaste den eit staete unz an sîn ende, âne alle missewende stuont sîn geburt find sîn leben. im was der rehte wunsch gegeben von wertlîchen êren: die kunde er wol gemêren mit aller hande reiner tugent, er was ein bluome der jugent, der werltvreude ein spiegelglas, stæte triuwe ein adamas, ein ganziu krône der zuht. er was der nôthaften vluht, ein schilt sîner mâge, der milte ein glîchiu wâge: im enwart über noch gebrast, er truoc den arbeitsamen last der êren über rücke. er was des râtes brücke und sanc vil wol von minnen. alsus kunde er gewinnen der werlde lop unde prîs. er was hövesch uncle wîs" (Armer Heinrich, vv. 50-74).

At first sight this description seems to owe a great deal to Chris­tianity; yet, except for his moderation, courtliness, and ability to sing of love, he had only the virtues long since praised in the heroes of the sagas. Like them, his various gifts and abilities served chiefly to win the world's praise. This was all that could be asked of a worldly knight, enough for either Erec or Iwein. However, in this poem, which was probably written for an ecclesiastical patron, Hartmann wished to show that only a fool thinks he can enjoy wealth and honor without divine aid.l Because Henry knows no humility before God, God smites him with leprosy, which at once deprives him of all worldly êre.2 After at first trying to find worldly aid, Henry is at last cured when he submits to God's will and refuses the lifeblood of a young maiden who has offered to die for him. Thus Hartmann reconciles the demands of this world and the next through recourse to miracle and magic.

Other poets also expressed the opinion that it was possible to enjoy the goods of fortune and God's grace too. Thomasin, a thirteenth-century Italian churchman who wrote a didactic poem in German, said that nobility, power, pleasure, reputation, wealth, and sovereignty are not really desirable goods, since a wicked man can have them. On the other hand, they need not be bad, since a well-disposed man often has them too. Like Hartmann in his Poor Henry, Thomasin said that we are wrong in thinking that strength, sovereignty, nobility, reputation, and power will enable us to come to God.3

In other words, these poets championed the Church's view that man could avail nothing without divine aid. This was perhaps the greatest break with the Germanic past, which let the praiseworthy hero rely entirely upon his own resources. The courtly epics conventionally gave lip service to the Church's view; and the poets constantly attribute the hero's success and honors to divine favor.4

1 "daz si êre unde guot âne got mügen hân" (Armer Heinrich, vv. 398-399).

2 In Conrad of Würzburg's Engelhard people show Dietrich smâcheite and unêre (vv. 5578, 5610) after he catches leprosy. Passage 5604-5619 shows how keenly loss of face was felt. According to the Mirror of the Saxons, lepers could not inherit property (Sachsenspiegel, 1,4).

3 "ich mein diu sehs dinc, adel, maht, gelust, name, rîchtuom, herschaft. si sint gerlîch guot niht, wan ez eim übeln manne geschicht daz er si hât, daz ist wâr. sô sint si ouch niht übel gar, wan si hât dicke ein wol gemuot" (Welscher Gast, vv. 5745-5751). "wir wænen daz uns gebe kraft herschaft, adel, name, maht daz wir kommen hin ze got" (Welscher Gast, vv. 6113-15).

4 William of Orléans thought "an die werdekait Und an die grossen salde brait Die er uf der erde hie Von Gottes gnaden enpfie" (Willehalm van Orlens, vv. 15,531-15,534). Likewise, Jovrit says, "Ich waere eren also rich So dehain furste min gelich: Die genade tet mir Got" (vv. 14,805-14,807). Cf. "Got ist der êren hôchstez zil, ân êre in nieman reichet; er teilt ouch êre, swem er wil: gein aller crêâtiure sô ist er aller êre anevanc" (Reinmar von Zweter, 76, 4-6). Reinmar devotes several strophes to praising êre (71-79), which he uses almost as a synonym of righteousness.

However, the hero's virtue remains the decisive factor, as it had in the older epics; and God actually plays little more of a role than that formerly played by fate. Often the author states that the hero's wealth and honors are a gift of God, since all honor comes from God; yet the hero is admired and praised for these possessions. Even the ancient concept of the king's heil lingered in literature. In the Lay at the Nibelungs, King Etzel thanks his heil when he escapes Volker, and he later thinks his heil will protect his liege man Rüdeger.l

Whereas some poets could not see that wealth and honor con­flicted with God's grace, many saw the difficulty of achieving all three goals at one time. Wolfram pondered the problem with the words, "It is a useful travail if anyone can end his life in such a way as not to forfeit his soul to God through the guilt of his body and yet can retain the favor of the world with dignity."2 In other words, he must meet the demands of a shame culture and of a guilt culture, even though they conflict. Wolfram succeeds in solving this problem in his Parzival, but only by recourse to a fantastic ivory-tower realm of the Holy Grail. Spervogel, a thirteenth-century aphoristic poet, also commented on the difficulty: "A man should enjoy êre and should nevertheless be good to his soul at times in order that his pride will not mislead him too far. "3 The same doubt is implied by Freidank, who says that a man should pursue wealth and honor and yet keep God in his heart.4 In Walther's best known political poem the poet deplores the strife and lawlessness of the realm which make it almost impossible for wealth, worldly honor, and God's grace to come into one heart.5 At least this suggests that it should be possible to combine these three values in normal times, whereas the demands of the world were actually irreconcilable with those of God.

1 "ich dankes mînem heile, daz ich dem tiuvel entran" (Nibelungenlied, 2001,4); "ouch trûwe ich mînem heile daz du maht selbe wol genesen" (2165,4).

2 "swes leben sich sô verendet, daz got niht wirt gepfendet der sêle durch des lîbes schulde, und der doch der werlde hulde behalten kan mit werdekeit, daz ist ein nütziu arbeit" (Parzival, 827,19-24).

3 "Ein man sol haben êre, und sol iedoch der sêle under wîlen wesen guot, daz in dehein sîn übermuot verleite niht ze verre" (Minnesangs Frühling, 29 34 - 30,2).

4 "guot und ere sol ein man bejagen und doch got in sime herzen tragen" (Freidank, 93, 22).

5 Walther, 8, 4-27.

When in a religious frame of mind or when writing for churchmen, the courtly poets let their heroes strive for both the world's praise and the soul's salvation.l There were many faults which could jeopardize both; miserliness, for example, was an offense against both heathen and Christian ethics. Walther says that, if you love wealth too much, you may lose soul and honor;2 and Stricker says a wicked man gives his soul and honor for wealth.3 In such contexts, honor and soul are allies, instead of bitter enemies, as usual; and one might erroneously think they are being used as synonyms. Poets often equated schande and sünde (sin),4 since some evil practices, like avarice and heresy, were both; yet they could not always be equated. Avenging an insult was sinful but honorable, whereas forgiving an insult was godly but shameful. Nevertheless, the clerics considered sinful and shameful synonymous. As we have seen, a well developed sense of shame was considered virtuous by both court and cloister.

The clerical and secular attitudes toward sin and honor are neatly contrasted in the Lay of the Nibelungs, when Rüdeger assures Kriemhild that he is ready to risk life and honor by fighting the Burgundians in order to keep his oath to her, but that he is re­luctant to lose his soul by breaking his troth to them after leading them to the Huns' land, since he has promised to protect them.5

1 In a song urging participation in a crusade, Hartmann says that any knight whose shield has striven for high praise is unwise if he denies it to God's service; for those who take part will win "der werlte lop, der sêle heil" (Minnësangs Frühling, 209,37 - 210,10). Likewise, Duke Ernst decides that he and his retainers should go on a crusade to win both honor and salvation: "sô komen wir sîn mit êren abe, ê wir uns sus vertrîben lân. wir haben wider gote getân daz wir im billîch müezen ûf sîn hulde bûezen, daz er uns die schulde ruoche vergeben her nâch" (Herzog Ernst, vv. 1816-1822). .

2 "wilt aber dû daz guot ze sêre minnen, dû maht verliesen sêle unt êre" (Walther, 23, 5-6). Cf. "Der wîse minnet niht sô sêre, alsam die gotes hulde unt êre: sîn selbes lîp, wîp unde kint, diu lât er ê er disiu zwei verliese" (Walther, 22,24-27). Compare with Luther's "A Mighty Fortress".

3 "der gît sêle unde êre umbe guot" (Stricker, XII, v. 300).

4 Wolfram invokes St. Willehalm: "mîns sündehaften mundes galm dîn heilekeit an schrîet: sît daz dû bist gevrîet vor allen hellebanden, sô bevogete ouch mich vor schanden" (Willehalm, 4, 14-18). Notice how the word heilekeit could still be understood in its pagan and practical sense. Cf. "sünde­baeren schanden" (Parzival, 471, 10). For several examples from a single work, see Wittenwiler's Ring, vv. 663, 695, 735, 785, 800, 6732. A possibly authentic folksong in Theodor Storm's Immensee says: "Was sonst in Ehren stünde, Nun ist es worden Sünde".

5 "Daz ist âne lougen, ich swuor iu, edel wîp, daz ich durch iuch wagte ere und ouch den lîp: daz ich die sêle vliese, des enhân ich niht gesworn. zuo dirre hôhgezite brâht' ich die fürsten wol geborn" (Nibelungenlied, 2150). "Owê mir gotes armen, daz ich ditz gelebet hân. aller mîner êren der muoz ich abe stân, triuwen unde zühte, der got an mir gebôt. owê got von himele, daz mihs niht wendet der tôt" (2153).

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