The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


Page 3

Nevertheless, in spite of all his concern for his immortal soul, he is really more concerned with his worldly honor and therefore obeys his feudal obligation. Thus he is like the ancient ruler mentioned in the Gospel of St. John who "loved the praise of men more than the praise of God."1 It is not surprising that he is called an "honor-­thirsting" man,2 since he cares more for fame than salvation. In other words, he acknowledges the older shame culture more than the new guilt culture.

Since good behavior brings êre and bad behavior brings schande, it is possible to extend the meaning of these two words to include the behavior by which they are won. By using the words in such an extended sense, Teichner could claim that one can win heaven through êre and hell through schande.3 On the other hand, scham, or the desire to avoid disapproval, is actually a Christian virtue, provided one's peers disapprove of sin.4 Although at first glance it appears that êre and schande had acquired Christian significance among the courtly poets, these poets generally used them in their external sense. Hartmann reveals this fact by saying that the world "has many a man who was never concerned with any êre, yet has more salvation (heil !) than one who has êre and whose heart tends toward virtues."5 It is to be noted that the word virtue (tugent) here clearly means virtues in the older sense, as was no doubt the case in his description of Poor Henry, who could increase his worldly honors through all sorts of pure virtues. Walther also uses êre exclusively in the external sense; for example, when he says that no one has honor and wealth except him who does evil.6

The objective nature of êre is indicated by the traditional complaint that honor is often undeserved; for it was a commonplace to dis­tinguish between merited and unmerited honor.7 In Gottfried's Tristan the steward wins unmerited honor when he returns to the Irish court with the head of the dragon slain by Tristan.8

1 "Dilexerunt enim gloriam hominum magis quam gloriam Dei" (John, 12,43).

2 "êre gernde" (Nibelungenlied, 2218, 3).

3 "dew werlt ist nur schant und er. mit schanten gewint man hell ser, mit eren gewint mans himelreich" (Teichner, 250, 15-17).

4 "zwô tugende hân ich... schall unde triuwe" (Walther, 59, 14-15); "Schame deist ein grôziu tugent, sie bezzert alter unde jugent" (Freidank, 52, 24-25). The thought is repeated in a dozen variations in the following few verses, with numerous parallels in the notes. See Ring, vv. 4919-4934.

5 "Ouch hât diu werlt manegen man, der nie ahte gewan ûf dehein êre, und hât doch heiles mêre dan einer der die sinne hât und dem sin muot ze tugenden stât" (Büchlein, vv. 755-760).

6 "êr unde guot hât nû lützel ieman wan der übel tuot" (Walther, 90, 29-30).

7 Shakespeare expresses the thought as: "for who shall go about To cozen fortune, and be honourable Without the stamp of merit? Let none presume to wear an undeserved dignity. O that estates, degrees, and offices Were not deriv'd corruptly, and that clear honour Were purchas'd by the merit of the wearer!" (Merchant of Venice, II, ix, vv. 37-43).

8 Tristan, vv. 9097 ff.

Likewise, Sir Kay tries to gain unmerited honor by bringing the wounded Erec back to King Arthur's court,1 As Thomasin said, Sir Kay strove for honor with lies and inconstancy, with scorn and villainy.2 Whereas êre was actually a good of fortune, it was nevertheless a most admirable one; and therefore medieval man considered a concern for it to be a virtue, just as the Greeks had done. As we have seen, Geoffrey of Monmouth listed honores along with virtutes, audacia, and fama. In other words, honor and fame are virtues in so far as a concern for them inspires good works, even though the good works are done in hope of acclaim rather than for their own sake.

The Romantics' image of knighthood was largely due to the ideal that the Church concocted for it. In his Policraticus, John of Salisbury said that the function of the knights was "to protect the Church, fight against wickedness, venerate the priesthood, repel injustices to the poor, pacify the province, shed their blood for their brothers as the conception of their oath teaches, and, if necessary, lay down their lives."3 This is very fine, but we must remember that this was an ideal for the knights, not the ideal of the knights. The Boy Scout Law, similarly, is an ideal for our youth, but not necessarily the ideal of our youth; and we may be sure that most of our young­sters judge their peers by a somewhat different set of standards, such as athletic prowess, impudence to teachers, and possession of expensive clothes and fast cars.

1 Erec, vv. 4628-4632.

2 "wan der her Key nâch êren strebet mit lüge und mit unstaetekait, mit spotte und mit schalkeit" (Welscher Cast, vv. 1068-1070).

3 "Quis est usus militiae ordinatae? Tueri ecclesiam, perfidiam impugnare, sacerdotium venerari, pauperum propulsare injurias, pacare provinciam, pro fratribus, ut sacramenti docet conceptio, fundere sanguinem et, si opus est, animam ponere" (Policraticus, VI, 8). Winsbeke (19, 1-4) says to the aspirant to knighthood: "Sun, wilt du genzlîch schiltes reht erkennen, so wis wol gezogen, getriuwe, milte, küene, sleht, sô enist er (the shield) niht an dir betrogen". This churchly admonition to meekness is also expressed in Chaucer's idealized knight, who was "of his port as meeke as is a mayde." Cf. "Was never Prince so faithful and so faire. Was never Prince so meeke and debonaire" (The Fairy Queen, II, 23).

Feirefiz, Parzival's half-brother, is the son of a French father and a Moorish mother, and as a result he is half white and half black. These colors do not blend into grey but remain in spots of pure and distinct color. Being piebald, he might well symbolize his age, an age of unreconciled contradiction. As we have seen, our poets profess the ideals and values of their Germanic forebears almost unaltered, and at the same time they profess the ideals and values imported by the Christian church. Many see no contradiction: they let their heroes ask God's help in achieving revenge and thank him for his aid in despoiling their victims. Now the poet praises the world, now he damns it and praises heaven. Today he praises worldly honor as the purpose of life, tomorrow he damns it as a snare of the devil.

The dualism of the Middle Ages explains the anagogical method of writing, the custom of writing on different levels of meaning. When the sensus, or apparent meaning of a literary work, is completely worldly, there may be more hidden sententia, or esoteric moral significance. Modern readers are often tempted to consider the sententia a mere excuse for the poet to tell an entertaining tale; because the Church taught that literature should serve only to glorify God and instruct mankind. Even when the poets were in a pious frame of mind, they could use holy conventions in a way that strikes modern man as frivolous. Walther, for example, varies the old triad of wealth, honor, and God's grace as God's grace, his lady's love, and the delightful court of Vienna, where Duke Leopold was so liberal.1 Hartmann, like other secular poets, saw no offense in using Christian symbolism in narrating the worldly affairs of his chivalrous heroes. He even likens Erec's liberation of Mabonagrin to Christ's redemption of the world.2

It is difficult for modern man to understand how medieval writers could be both pious and blasphemous, and even the most callous student is shocked by the abuse of holy language and liturgy in medieval parody, such as that collected by Paul Lehmann.3 It is especially difficult for a modern man to see how his ancestors could serve both Venus and the Virgin Mary simultaneously, as they often did.4 Consequently, historians of the Middle Ages have peopled twelfth-century Europe with a race of goliards, or wandering scholars and defrocked monks, who journeyed from university to university singing the praises of Venus and Gula.5 As charming as this fiction is, one needs no such race of vagabonds to explain away such blasphemies. Perhaps it would be safer to say that most goliards were merely pious monks in moments of relaxation. Bored by the tedium of copying monkish lore, a restless cleric may well have remembered his Ovid and put down his Augustine long enough to give vent to his pent up urges, before dutifully returning to his task of damning all such thoughts as works of the devil.

1 "gotes hulde und mîner frowen minne... der wünneclîche hot ze Wiene" (Walther, 84, 7-10).

2 See H. B. Wilson, "Sin and Redemption in Hartmann's Erec", Germanic Review, 33, 1958, pp. 5-14.

3 Paul Lehmann, Die Parodie im Mittelalter, Munich, 1922.

4 Wittenwiler dedicated his Ring, replete with pornography, to the Virgin (Marien, muoter, rainen mait, v. 2). It includes a love letter invoking both Jesus and Venus to aid the lover (Euch geseg in steg und weg Jesus in seinr güeti! Ewer phleg in leb und sweb Venus in irm gmüeti!, vv. 1909-1912).

5 Helen Waddell, The Wandering Scholars, London, 1932, accepts this tradition.

Although so many medieval scholars seemed untroubled by contradiction, some seemed aware of the dualism of their society and felt crushed by its contradictory demands. In spite of its duplicity, medieval society can be safely considered, by and large, burdened by sorrow and disillusion.1 The poets conventionally set their idealized stories into a vague past, an age far happier than their own. Ask any medieval poet you wish, and he will assure you that the world is now sad and confused, whereas it was joyful and carefree in his youth. On the other hand, if you ask earlier poets, who wrote during the age he remembers so fondly, they will assure you that that age was sad and confused, in comparison with the golden years of their own youth.2 And so ad infinitum. Even modern historians fall into this trap. It is not unusual for a historian, in describing a

rough and brutal episode during the Middle Ages, to assure his readers that this was after, or perhaps before, the "age of chivalry", an age which no one is quite willing to date. Perhaps William Cory was right when he suggested that "Bayard was the first rather than the last of true knights."3

1 Walther's disillusioned poem to Dame World, although following literary conventions, seems convincing (100, 24 - 101, 22). Dame world was often presented as a woman with a beautiful front, but with a back putrid and devoured by worms and serpents.

2 The era described so idyllically by Meier Helmbrecht senior (vv. 913-983) was approximately the same era so damned by Walther (124, 18-40) in comparison with the happy days of his own youth.

3 Cory, p. 460.

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