The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


Whence came the best culture, if not from the burgher? - GOETHE.

Most of the didactic poets discussed so far, including Spervogel, Freidank, Stricker, and Hugo of Trimberg, were clearly commoners, as were the pseudo-courtly poets Rudolf of Ems and Conrad of Würzburg. Although popular fancy later ennobled some of these worthies, it is unlikely that many if any wandering or professional poets or singers were of genuine noble rank. As a general rule of thumb one might say that modern scholars attribute noble birth to medieval minstrels in direct proportion to their obscurity. Some people seem misled by the preposition von found in names like Conrad von Würzburg, but this preposition indicated only domicile, not noble rank,1 for it would be absurd to suppose that Conrad or his ancestors ever owned that famous ecclesiastical city. Probably most of the didactic poets, like ninety-five per cent of their compatriots, were of peasant birth. However, since they did not till the soil, we can include them in the general term burgher, which will designate everyone not a priest, nobleman, or peasant.

Although many patrician families claimed descent from urbanized noblemen, their claims were largely fictitious; nearly all burghers were descended from peasants and rural laborers who had left the soil. No doubt many of them were descended from runaway serfs, ­ who had become free by escaping to a city, where urban air emanci­pated them ( Stadtluft macht frei). Consequently, the nobility drew no social distinction between burghers and peasants and excluded both from their code of honor. As the saying went, "Nothing distinguishes a burgher from a peasant but the city wall." The very pillars of bourgeois life, namely productive work and trade, were beneath the dignity of the gentry.2

1. See George F. Jones, "Heinrich Wittenwiler - Nobleman or Burgher?" ( Monatshefte, 45, 1953, pp. 67-68).

2. ibid., pp. 71-74. Johannes Rothe says of the knight: "Sal her danne eyn hantwerg dinge? daz geborit eme doch nicht zcu" ( Ritterspiegel, vv. 2175-2176).

Being excluded by birth and profession from the aristocratic code of honor, the burghers developed their own criteria for judging their peers. Like the aristocracy, they admired wealth, which now took the form of cash and credit rather than lands and rents; and it became just as respectable to earn wealth as to inherit, seize, or extort it. Even though sumptuary laws forbade them to wear the expensive finery of the ruling classes, the burghers could never­theless flaunt their prosperity by maintaining fine houses and furnishings.

Being unable to win acclaim in battle, the burghers took especial pride in their professional prowess, be it commerce or handicraft. As a result, they aspired to those virtues that bring financial success, such as sobriety, industry, thrift, and providence, all of which had been preached in the cloisters but largely ignored at the courts. Respectability and uprightness thus began to displace courage as the highest virtue, as is indicated in the semantic development of biderbe (brave) into bieder (upright), of tühtic (doughty) into tüchtig (hard working), and of wacker (valiant) into wacker (honest). In other words, in bourgeois circles ein braver mann gradually changed from un homme brave into un brave homme. The word honesty ( Ehrlichkeit) slowly acquired a sense expressed by our term "middle class respectability".

The ancient Germanic virtue of triuwe retained its meaning of oathkeeping but was now concerned more with commercial than feudal contracts. Having no vassals, the burghers did not have to practice milte as such; yet they were expected to perform charity not only to buy salvation and win glory of men, as the nobility had done, but also to prove their financial solvency. Being a new order without ancient traditions, the bourgeoisie were more receptive to the teachings of the Church, which was their chief protection against the rapacious nobility. Being enclosed by the same wall with church and churchmen, the burghers had closer contact with them than the rural aristocracy had; and it became a sign of bourgeois respecta­bility to take active part in church affairs as a layman.

Having little military power, at least in their beginnings, the bourgeoisie agreed with the Church in questioning the tenet that might makes right; and, at least in theory, they were more willing to live in accordance with God's recht or justice. To enjoy complete respect, a burgher had to profess a certain regard for the personal property rights of other people, at least of his peers and superiors. Consequently, the bourgeois ideal of honor gradually became a life of "secular piety"( Weltfrömmigkeit). Although the Sermon on the Mount had praised poverty and trust in God's bounty, the bour­geoisie put more faith in treasures safely stored on earth; and gradually the belief developed that making money was not only permissible but even pleasing to God.

This mercantile value code, which suggests Max Weber's anachro­nistically termed "Protestant Ethic", lasted almost unchanged until modern times, In his Der Bourgeois, Werner Sombart traces this attitude to the fifteenth century, when it was found in the writings of the Florentine merchant Leon Battista Alberta,l He could have gone back fully two centuries earlier to a work called De Cura et Modo Rei Familiaris, which was formerly attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux and later to Bernard Silvester, one of the scholars of Chartres. Even though it may not have been written by Bernard, it was doubtlessly written during his lifetime and expressed the values of his circle. This letter explained the art of housekeeping from a practical and therefore uncourtly point of view. It is ironic that it was purportedly written to a knight ( miles), but this was probably a subterfuge to give it social respectability.2

The middle-class attitudes in this letter, such as that thrift and productivity are respectable, can be traced directly to ancient philosophers. Xenophon himself saw fit to devote an entire work, the Oeconomics, to the art of practical living. In his De Officiis, Cicero quotes Xenophon in saying that it is a virtue to make money, but only by honorable means, and that it is also a duty to save it and increase it by care and thrift.3 Seneca himself must have seen no dishonor in speculation, since he was one of the wealthiest businessmen of his day, The bourgeois attitude toward business, particularly toward investment, seems to have been justified and even furthered by a literal interpretation of Christ's parable about the talents.4 Success in business became an indication of the amount of God's grace that men enjoyed, just as success in warfare had been for the aristocracy. The Old Testament itself had praised diligence by saying, "A man skillful in business, he shall stand before kings."5

1. Sombart, p, 242. Cf. "Never let your expenditures be greater than your income,"

2. Migne, Patrologia Latina, 182, 647-651. This is echoed in Wittenwiler's Ring, vv. 5019-5200. Wittenwiler advises such thrift and frugality to one who wishes to keep house "mit eren",

3. "Res autem familiaris quaeri debet iis rebus, a quibus abest turpido, conservari autem diligentia et parsimonia, eisdem etiam rebus augeri" ( De Officiis, II, 24, 87).

4. For an example of this interpretation, see Wittenwiler's Ring, etc., ed. G. F. Jones, Chapel Hill, 1956. pp. 226-227.

5. "Vidisti virum velocem in opere suo coram regibus stabit" ( Proverbs, 22,29).

In nearly all bourgeois writings, as in the aristocratic literature before it, honestum and êre usually referred to the respect or recog­nition which one enjoyed, rather than to the virtues or dispositions through which they were won. Also, good behavior and attitudes were usually a means to an end, not an end in themselves. The ultimate goal was now more modest, being social recognition and approval, rather than awe, fear, or superior status, as in the aristocratic code.

The bourgeoisie identified feminine honor with chastity. That is to say, they accorded honor only to maids and faithful wives. As we have seen, the ancient Teutons demanded marital fidelity; and marriage was guaranteed by oath and sealed with material gifts. Moreover, in the case of the ruling classes, with whom most literature was concerned, there was the great problem of legitimacy; for accusations of infidelity against a queen might cause violent political repercussions. Even though marital fidelity was demanded of women, the matter did not play a great role in medieval literature; and poets and minstrels generally assigned the epithets "good" and "bad" to' courtly ladies according to their generosity to poets and minstrels.

According to Montaigne, when his contemporaries spoke of' a "good woman" or a "woman of honor and virtue", they meant no more than a chaste woman. To bind women to chastity, people seemed to ignore all other duties and to give them free rein to commit any other fault provided they would remain chaste.1 This explains why, in Shakespeare's All's Well that Ends Well, Mariana can tell Diana that, "the honour of a maid is her name, and no legacy is so rich as honesty."2 It was not a woman's behavior that counted, but rather her good name. As Castiglione explained in his Courtier, "whereas a dissolute life is neither a vice, nor a fault, nor a disgrace for a man, it is such utter infamy and shame in a woman that, once spoken against, she is disgraced forever, whether the calumny be true or false."3 Since feminine morality was one of the few fields in which the burghers could compete on equal terms with the aristocracy, they made the most of it; and fallen women were subjected to great cruelty. Still, if a fallen woman had a sufficient dowry; she could always find a man to "make an honest woman of her". Also, it was no dishonor for a maid to sell her chastity for a high enough price, and a royal mistress was held in esteem, in contrast to her sisters on the street.

1. "Tout ainsi que notre passion, et cette fievreuse solicitude que nous avons de la chasteté des femmes, fait aussi qu'une bonne femme, une femme de bien et femme d'honneur et de vertu, ce ne soit (en effaict) á dire autre chose pour nous qu'une femme chaste; comme si, pour les obliger á ce devoir, nous mettions á nonchaloir tous les autres, et leur lâchions la bride á toute autre faute, pour entrer en composition de leur faite quitter cette-ci" (Montaigne, 11,7).

2. All's Well, III, 5, v. 13.

3. "e questo perché noi stessi avemo fatta una legge, che in noi non sia vicio né mancamento né infamia alcuna la vita dissoluta e nelle donne sia tanto estremo obbrobrio e vergogna, che quella di chi una volta si parla male, o falsa o vera che sia la calunnia che se le dà, sia per sempre vituperata" ( Cortegiano, II, 90, ed. Maier, p. 322). According to Cervantes, "El honor de las mujeres consiste en la opinión buena que dellas se tiene" ( Don Quixote, cited from Americo Castro, Semblanzas, p. 365).

As we have seen, the ancient Teutons had divided society into two sharply separated groups: the free and the unfree. Later, perhaps under the influence of Romance customs, the Germans began to divide secular society into two orders: the nobility and the peasantry, the latter being despised and oppressed whether of free or unfree origin. When the burghers began to assert themselves, they too were included in the term "peasant", even in the case of wealthy and powerful commoners like Philip van Artevelde.1

While acknowledging the social superiority of the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie had the satisfaction of feeling superior to their country cousins, whom they scorned as unworthy of honor. Before telling the story of Cincinnatus, the seventeenth-century writer Hans

Kirchof found it necessary to explain that in Rome it was quite honorable to cultivate the fields, and this indicates that the burghers of his day would not have thought so.2 The burghers took the peasants' dishonorable status so completely for granted that they seldom mentioned it in their literature; yet it does appear occasion­ally. In a Shrovetide play by Hans Sachs, the shoemaking master­singer of Nuremberg, a country bumpkin named Hans Dolp knocks at the door of a rich burgher, who has just welcomed a nobleman as guest; and the burgher refuses him on the grounds, "I receive only honorable people."3 This remark naturally referred to Dolp's social status rather than to his moral behavior, there being no evidence of bad character on his part.

It is significant that Hans Sachs found it fitting for a nobleman to accept a burgher's hospitality, in view of the fact that the burghers refused to consort with the peasants. The dishonorable status of all peasants is suggested in Wittenwiler's Ring, which on two occasions alludes sarcastically to the honorable status of its villagers.4 The chief purpose of declaring all peasants dishonorable was to exclude them from the guilds, which the artisans and mer­chants had formed to protect themselves from fair competition.

1. Huizinga, p. 90.

2. "denn zu Rom hielt man gar für ehrlich, wer das felt bauwet oder der ritterschaft pflegte" ( Wendunmuth, I, p. 27).

3. Hans Sachs, 15, v. 52.

4. "erbrer leuten" ( Ring, v. 2640); "erber leut" (v. 3624). Likewise, they are "namhaft" (v. 3645).

Professing to be Christians, the burghers sought divine sanction for their scorn and mistreatment of the peasantry. For this purpose they adopted the very arguments used against them by the nobility. Among these were the Biblical stories of Adam's unequal children, Esau's sale of his birthright, Abraham's begetting Ishmael by his bondswoman Hagar, and many more. At the beginning of the fif­teenth century Henry Wittenwiler related the story of Noah's cursing of Canaan as proof that the classes were separated by divine will. When one of the peasants in his Ring asks if all men are not Adam's children, another explains, "It is quite true that everyone has come from Adam and his wife Eve; yet some individuals were so worthy that they were chosen by the people and elected as lords. Some were good and some were bad; goodness always made its way inside and wickedness begged at the door, just as it happened to Sir Noah's sons. When one of them saw his father drunk, he began to ridicule him and therefore became a bondsman; but those who honored their father then became honorable free men. Therefore we are not equal. One is poor, the other rich, one a peasant, the other noble."1

1. "Es ist wol war, daz iederman Chomen ist von Adams leib Und von Evan, seinem weib! Doch sein etleich sunderbar, So from gewesen (daz ist war), Daz seu von dem volk derwelt Sein ze herren und gezelt. Etleich warent tugenthaft, Etleich auch gar ungeschlacht. Die tugend die prach alweg für, Die bosshait chrangelt vor der tür, Sam her Noes sünen geschach: Do einr sein vater trunken sach, Do huob er sein ze spotten an; Dar umb ward er ein aigen man; Und die den vatter erten so, Die wurden erber frien so. Also sein wir nicht geleich: Einr ist arm, der ander reich, Einr ein gpaur, der ander edel" ( Ring, vv. 7225-7244). It is interesting that the words from, tugenthaft, ungeschlacht, tugent, and bosshait (which had formerly meant useful, strong, illborn, strength, and weakness) are used here in a moral sense. This ex­planation of the origin of the social classes would be correct if these words were read in the amoral sense.

It will be noted that Wittenwiler does not differentiate between the two dutiful sons, a fact which suggests that he felt no barrier between burgher and nobleman. In any case, everyone except the peasant is honorable. It will be remembered that the Norse Lay of Rig had accounted for three classes, of which the two free classes appeared to be honorable. It seems strange that people still cited the curse of Canaan in the fifteenth century, in view of the fact that Eike of Repgau had discredited it so thoroughly a century and a half earlier.

Of all country dwellers, perhaps the lowliest were the herdsmen, no social distinction being made among shepherds, cowherds, and swineherds. Herdsmen were scorned because they owned no property and tended other people's beasts. Because they lived apart from other people, they were suspected of occult powers and com­munications with evil spirits. Rightfully or wrongfully they were accused of stealing the animals entrusted to them and, having no recognized honor, they could not defend themselves from such accusations. The profession required little skill or intelligence and was open to the dregs of society; and open competition kept the wages low. In spite of a fiction of genteel swains and shepherdesses in pastoral literature, actual shepherds were always shunned. Ronsard later expressed the prevailing view when he described some make-believe shepherds: "Those are not shepherds from a country cottage who, for pay, lead their sheep to the fields to graze, but from a high and noble family."1

In addition to rural laborers, the burghers excluded certain other social and professional groups whom they branded as "dishonorable people"( unehrliche Leute). Having no honor and therefore no civil rights, these pariahs were beyond the pale of good society. Their number included Wends, priests' children, wandering minstrels, millers, bath attendants, barbers, linen weavers, skinners, tanners, bailiffs, and executioners.2 Not only these individuals, but also their families and descendants were scorned and ostracized by decent people. No distinction being made between being morally and socially dishonorable, people tended to consider them infamous in both meanings of the term. According to Otto Beneke, "between 1472 and 1525 master artisans had to swear that their guild candi­date was of honorable ( namhaft) parents, that he was free and no one's serf, nor the son of a bather, barber, linen-weaver, or minstrel. "3

The dishonorable groups derived from both native and classic tradition. In native tradition, all captives and serfs had been without honor, and their curse remained upon their descendants beyond the proverbial third and fourth generation. After the Germans began their drive toward the East, most prisoners were Slavs, particularly Wends; and, as a result, the Wends and their descendants remained stigmatized, even after they had become legally free, just as the American Negroes continued to suffer the handicaps of slavery long after their emancipation. According to Wilhelm Raabe, "down into the eighteenth century no German guild accepted a Wend. The members of that despised race were dishonorable like the exe­cutioner and other infamous people. No one received them as guests under his roof, no one sat at table with them. In the thirteenth century 'Wendish dog' was the worst reproach that one Germanic Christian could offer another."4

1. "Ce ne sont pas bergers d'une maison champestre Qui menent pour salaire aux champs les brebis paistre, Mais de haute famille et de race d'ayeux" (Ronsard, Eclogues, I, first speech).

2. See Otto Beneke, Von unehrlichen Leuten, Hamburg, 1863, and C. von Schwerin, Germanische Rechtsgeschichte, Berlin, 1944, p. 169.

3 Beneke, pp. 79, 11.

4 Raabe, p. 189.

The Wends were eventually absorbed into the German majority and have therefore played a minor role in modern German literature. Even in MHG literature they played a minor role, since this literature was written mostly in southern and central Germany, whereas the Wends lived in the northern districts where the vernacular was Low German. Raabe describes their sad plight vividly in a short story explaining the origin of the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. Although he wrote his story in the nineteenth century, he claimed that it was based on authentic records. According to him, the Pied Piper was actually a thirteenth-century minstrel whom the young men of Hameln mistreated because he was a Wend. In revenge, he led the youth of the city into an ambush laid by their enemy, the Bishop of Minden, from which not one returned.l

As we have seen, a Teuton owed his honor and legal rights to his membership in a clan, all "outcasts and exiles being without rights or honor. For this reason illegitimate children did not enjoy complete honor. In order to prevent priests from trying to transmit ecclesiastical property to their children, priests' children were particularly severely treated. According to the Mirror of the Saxons, the blood money of priest's children was set at as much hay as two year-old oxen can pull;2 in other words, their death could not be legally avenged, and thus they had no honor. Ridicule of priests' children is reflected in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Symkyn, the hero of the "Reeve's Tale", married a wife of "noble kyn", whose father was the parson of the town.3 Thus both spouses were "dishonorable", regardless of their pretentions.

As long as honor depended upon ownership of property, all unpropertied people were refused social recognition. This condition lasted until modern times, being maintained by property quali­fications and poll taxes; and all vagrants and vagabonds were denied civil rights.4 As long as good behavior was motivated chiefly by what one's neighbors and kinsmen might say, people without neighbors and kinsmen could not be trusted, and it was assumed that people who leave home must have some reason for doing so. As Joseph de Maistre expressed this international prejudice, "the man who has property, family, morals, and reputation stays in his own country."5 When honorable people traveled, they needed recommendations to honorable families in order to be socially accepted.

1. Raabe, pp. 171-207.

2. "Paphen kindere unde die unecht geboren sîn, den gibt men zu bûthe eyn vûder howis, alse zwêne jârige ossen gethên mugen" ( Sachsenspiegel, III, 45,9).

3. Chaucer, ed. Robinson, C.T., A. 3942-3943.

4. Lisei's father was accused of theft with little evidence because, "Ach, wir haben kei Heimat, kei Freund, kei Ehr; es kennt uns niemand nit" ( Pole Poppensp ä ler, p. 72), Pole's mistress is surprised that he is in jail, because she thought his child was "ehrlicher Leute Kind" (p. 71). Later Lisei says she should not marry Pole because "wir sind landfahrende Leut. Was werden sie sagen bei dir daheim" (p. 78), They are not "zunftberechtigt" (p. 37).

5. Cited in Coulton, p, 542.

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