The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


Page 2

The term "vagabonds" included all wandering minstrels, these being lumped together under the terms "poor people" ( arme liute) and "traveling people" ( varendiu diet). These two epithets alone were enough to assure them social opprobrium, for vagrancy was as detestable as poverty. For centuries one of the worst insults was to call someone a vagrant.1 It is not surprising, therefore, that the Mirror of the Saxons allowed minstrels to avenge themselves only on a man's shadow.2 Minstrels were forced to be vagabonds by the very nature of their profession, which required them to move to newer fields as soon as their repertory was exhausted in a given area. They were scorned not only for their poverty and vagrancy, but also for their practice of taking wealth for honor ( guot umbe êre nemen). The mastersinger Michel Beheim described this function with the words, "The prince had me in servile pay, I ate his bread and sang his song. If I come to another, I shall write for him too. If he rewards me for it, I shall praise his name."3 Helbling tells of a minstrel who says, "Sir, give me something and I shall spread your fame."4 Because of this practice, minstrels were accused of giving unjust praise and thus contributing to unmerited honor. A thirteenth-century poem complains that, for gifts, a minstrel "praises him who should be reproached and reproaches him who should be praised. "5

1. Cf. "herverlauffner buob" ( Ring, v. 456) with harverloufen, verl ü ffner buobe, her verloufer b ö ser wiht, herkumer schalk, and hergeloffenen Weib (documented in Edmund Wiessner, Kommentar zu Heinrich Wittenwilers Ring, Leipzig, 1935, p. 41).

2. "Spellûten und alle den, die sech zu eigene geben, den gibt men zu bûthe den scheden eynis mannis" ( Sachsenspiegel, III, 45, 9).

3. "Der furst mich hett in knechtes miet, ich ass sein brot und sang sein liet. ob ich zu einem andern kum, ich ticht im auch, tut er mir drum. ich sag lob sinem namen" ( Reimchronik, strophe 1485). Cf. "cuius enim panem manduco, carmina canto". This was still quoted by Otto Ludwig: "Wes Brot ich esse, des Lied ich singe" (Erbf ö rste, I, 9). The Provencal troubadour Peire Vidal had said of the king of Hungary : "Et aurai gran honor, Si m'a per servidor, Qu'eu posc far sa lauzor Per tot lo mon auzir E son pretz enantir Mais d'autr'om qu'el mon sia" (cited from Settegast, p. 8).

4. "herre, gebt mir eteswaz sô mach ich iuwer êre breit" ( Helbling, II, v. 1312).

5. "der spilmann, der um gâbe lobet den, der da zu scheltende ist, unn den schiltet, der do zu lobende ist" (cited from Grimms Deutsches Wö rterbuch. X, 1, column 2409).

The expression "guot umbe êre nemen" had the further meaning of selling one's honor for pay, since the Germans had always scorned persons who accepted compensation for entertainment. In de­scribing the sword dances of the ancient Germanic youths, Tacitus had made it clear in his Germania (c. 24) that they would not accept pay but performed to increase their skill and to entertain. The ancient prejudice against paid entertainers is reflected in the Lay of the Nibelungs, which states that Volker the Fiddler was really a free and wealthy lord, and was called the Fiddler only because he could play a fiddle as well as fight.1 To symbolize the dishonorable status of minstrels, the Mirror of the Saxons denied the right of revenge to "minstrels and all those who give themselves into bondage."2

Ever since the Romantic Movement poets have tried to glorify the minstrels of old and put them on an equal footing with their aristo­cratic audiences. It is true that noblemen often dabbled in music, which was an acceptable leisure-class pastime; but they scorned the professional minstrels who sold their honor. Gentlemen like Hart­mann and Wolfram made it clear that they were primarily knights and wrote only in their spare time, and they did not beg their patrons for donations. Walther, on the other hand, was no "man of honor", no matter how noble his sentiments may have been; for he was not ashamed to beg for gifts. Although he rode a horse, dressed as a courtier, and received honor in the villages, he was probably treated as a lackey by his courtly patrons.

Walther's designation von der Vogelweide (from the bird meadow) was likely fictitious and scarcely suggests noble birth. He himself admitted being a mendicant on many occasions; and the only historical document concerning him records that he received a gift.3 One of his poems begins, "Could anyone now alive say that he ever saw greater gifts than we received in Vienna in return for praise?"4 Later generations assumed that Walther was of noble birth and depicted him with a coat of arms. In the seventeenth century Martin Opitz mentioned Walther, "Emperor Philip's privy-counselor", in order to prove that aristocrats had once engaged in poetry in spite of their noble birth.5 Today, if an irate citizen addresses an editorial to the president, we do not call him a "presidential advisor". In actuality, professional musicians were not accepted socially by their patrons until Beethoven won that honor. Even Mozart had been carried on the archbishop's rolls as a valet de chambre.

1 "durch daz er videlen kunde" ( Nibelungenlied, 1477).

2. "kempen und ir kinder, spellûde, unde alle die uneht geboren sîn... die sin alle rehtelôs" ( Sachsenspiegel, I, 38, 1).

3. "sequenti die apud Zeize Walthero cantori de Vogelweide pro pellicio V solidos longos".

4. " Ob ieman spreche, der nû lebe, daz er gesaehe ie groezer gebe, als wir ze Wiene haben dur êre enpfangen?" (Walther, 25, 26-28).

5. "Walter van der Vogelweide, Keyser Philipses geheimen rahte. . . wie hoch sich selbige vorneme Männer, ungeachtet ihrer adelichen ankunfft und standes, der Poeterey angemasset" ( Buck van der deutschen Paeterei, IV).

The minstrels also suffered the animosity of the clergy, who resented their competition. Not only did their flattery lead to pride, but also their music incited men to dancing and other sins. Besides that, the public devoted their time and money to music rather than to ser­mons. Saxo Grammaticus followed clerical tradition in reproaching an ancient king for giving gifts to jugglers and minstrels;l and Berthold of Regensburg preached against giving money to flatterers and minstrels for the sake of praise or fame.2

The dishonorable people included not only unrooted or un­propertied persons, but also several gainfully employed professional groups, which, along with their children, were excluded from all honorable guilds. Among these were the millers, who were accused of robbing both clients and employers. Millers may have originally owed their dishonorable condition to their servile status as em­ployee of the feudal lord, but later they were scorned because of their purported dishonesty. Since the seigneur could force his peasants to grind their grain at his mill, his miller had a monopoly and was not subject to the peasants' choice. Moreover, the exactions of the seigneur were naturally blamed on the miller. In any case, the miller's dishonesty and rascality were a popular theme in medieval literature, as I have shown elsewhere.3

Bathers or bath attendants were likewise in ill-repute either because their predecessors in the Roman world had been public slaves or because their services were intimate and personal. More­over, the baths also served as brothels, and the proprietors were procurers and the female attendants were often prostitutes or, if superannuated, procuresses. Consequently, female bath attendants played a comical stock role in medieval literature. In describing a bath woman who is acting as a go-between in a peasant courtship, Henry Wittenwiler says, "She could wash and also massage and do business with sluts and thereby help young maids from their honor. And if one could do no better, she would fall on the grass herself."4 The author of the Devil's Net says, "The bathers and their assistants are gladly whores and knaves, thieves, liars, and panders, and they know all the gossip. They can do business with laymen and priests too. They can also procure young ladies for those who want to indulge in lechery."5

1. "mimos ac ioculatores" ( Gesta Danorum, p. 186, v. 5).

2. "gîst aber dû ez den lotern unde den gumpelliuten durch lop oder durch ruom, dar umbe muostû gate antwürten" (Bertold, I, p. 25).

3. "Chaucer and the Medieval Miller", Modern Language Quarterly, 16, March, 1955, pp. 3-15.

4. "Die chond waschen und auch reiben, Chauffmanschaft mit schloern treiben, Da mit jungen mägetein Helfen von den eren sein; Und moht man nicht gevaren bas, So viel sei selber in daz gras" ( Ring, vv. 2566-2570).

5. "Der bader und sin gesind Gern huoren und buoben sind,... Dieb, lieger und kuppler, Und wissend alle fremde maer. Och kunnend si wol schaffen Mit laigen und och mit pfaffen, Die ir uppkait wend triben, Und kunnend die fröwlin zuo in schiben Und denn aber in daz bad gan" ( Teufels Netz, vv. 10,277 - 10,286).

According to legend, Emperor Wenceslas was rescued from cap­tivity by a heroic bath maid; and, filled with gratitude, he not only rewarded her for this service but also granted a charter to the bathing guilds in 1406. This charter forbade people to scorn the bath attendants or to belittle their honorable service.l Since tolerance cannot be legislated, people continued to shun the bathers long after they had been officially declared honorable. The socially, even if no longer legally, dishonorable status of bathers and surgeons explains why the Bavarians could not tolerate the morganatic marriage of their young duke, Albert, with the bather's daughter, Agnes Bernauer, whose sad fate was so convincingly dramatized by Friedrich Hebbel in 1851.2

Weavers were in ill repute because their sedentary occupation made them unsuitable for military service, as the Roman military historian Vegetius observed.3 In one of Seifried Helbling's allegories, Manliness says "I will chase cowardice from me into a weaver. He always sits without a loin-cloth, and by that his cowardice is recognized."4 Of all the weavers, the most scorned were the linen weavers, who were legally dishonorable. Because they had no guild, they could not protect themselves from free competition, and thus they usually had to work under sweat shop conditions. Because of their poverty, it was jocularly said that "the linen weavers accept no apprentice who can't fast for six weeks."5 Their pitiful condition lasted until the mid nineteenth century, if we may trust Gerhard Hauptmann's play The Weavers, in which the avaricious entre­preneur Dreissiger threatens to beat down his weavers' poor wages by warning them how much worse off the linen weavers are.6

Skinners and tanners owed their dishonorable status to tabus against blood and to the accusation that they misappropriated parts of the hides entrusted to them; for, like the millers and tailors, they processed other people's goods and were therefore suspected of dishonesty. A popular rime declared that skinners were first cousins of the shepherds,7 who were also accused of theft.

1. Beneke, pp. 57 ff.

2. Although Hebbel set his play in the years 1420 to 1430, he let Caspar Bernauer, the heroine's father, tell her that she has an honor to lose, even though fifty years earlier she would not have been tolerated at a tournament.

3. Vegetius, I, 7. See J. Petersen, Das Rittertum in der Darstellung des Johannes Rothe, Strassburg, 1909, p. 67.

4. "diu Manheit sprach: 'ich wil den zagen von mir in einen weber jagen: der sitzet ân schamgewant, dâ bî sîn zagheit ist erkant' " ( Helbling. VII, vv. 791-794).

5. "Die Leineweber nehmen keinen Lehrjungen an, Der nicht sechs Wochen hungern kann" (S. Liptzin, The Weavers in German Literature, Göttingen, 1926, p. 15).

6. Gerhard Hauptmann, Die Weber, Act One. "Sie sollten mal die Nase hübsch wo anders 'neinstecken und sehen. wie's bei den Leinwandwebern aussieht. Die können von Not reden".

7 "Schäfer und Schinder - Geschwisterkinder".

These two groups were declared honorable by the same law and were among the last to be vindicated. Article 4 of the Imperial Law of August 16, 1731, decreed that the dishonorable status of skinners should continue for the first and second generation, but that succeeding generations should be admitted to every honorable handicraft and profession.1 As we shall see, Heinrich von Kleist saw fit to allude to the dishonorable status of the skinner in his story Michael Kohlhaas, which was set in the sixteenth century.

Executioners were also dishonorable until the eighteenth century, as one can see in the case of Karl Huss, an acquaintance of Goethe, who was born in Bohemia in 1761. Although he was an exemplary pupil, he had to withdraw from school when the parents of the other pupils discovered that his well educated father was an exe­cutioner; and eventually he had to follow the profession of his father, no other being open to him.2 Scorn for hangmen appears in German literature from the Middle Ages down to the present.3 Court deputies and bailiffs were also social outcasts until the nineteenth century. Friedrich Hebbel's Maria Magdalene, which appeared in 1844 and described a contemporary milieu, ends tragically because the self-respecting cabinet-maker, Master Anton, once refused to drink with the bailiff and advised him to drink with his confrere, the skinner.4

Thus we see that most of the dishonorable professions were shunned even after they had been officially declared honorable. As Otto Beneke says, "When the division into seven honorable social classes ( Heerschilden) had long been forgotten, the stigma of these people remained so well in the memory of the guilds that had flourished meanwhile that they refused them and their sons entry into their honorable corporations".5

1. Beneke, p. 91.

2. Briefwechsel und m ü ndlicher Verkehr zwischen Goethe und dem Rathe Gr ü ner, ed. J. S. Grüner, Leipzig, 1853, pp. 61 ff.

3. Meier Helmbrecht (vv. 1013-1019) says that the virtuous ways of old are now as unwelcome as a hangman (h á haere). In Clemens Brentano's Kasperle und Annerl of 1817 an old peasant woman asks the narrator if he is an honorable man or perhaps a Henker ( Kasperl und Annerl, p. 100). In Aquis Submersis Theodor Storm says, "denn ein Ehrsamer Rath hatte dermalen viel Bedrängniss von einer Schinderleichen, so die ehrlichen Leute nicht zu Grabe tragen wollten." According to Van Eerden & Ulmer, Deutsche Novellen, Holt, 1942, p. 272, a Schinderleichen was the "corpse of a person executed or of the executioner himself. The hangman, his assistants, and his relatives were formerly considered 'dishonorable' ".

4. "Gevatter Fallmeister" ( Maria Magdalene, II, 3).

5 Beneke, p. 11.

It is often claimed that, after its brief flourish during the age of chivalry, German literature degenerated in the hands of the bour­geoisie. Be that as it may, the bourgeoisie were not to blame as long as the courts continued to exist and had every right to foster first­-rate literature. Besides that, there is no proof that the writers of courtly literature were mostly gentlemen. Gottfried, the most courtly of all, is generally assumed to have been a burgher, and it is possible that some of the so-called "ministeriales" poets only acted the role in order to be presentable at court.

Medieval aristocrats were fighting men and, as such, unproductive. According to accepted belief, the function of the nobility was to protect Christendom; but, except on the frontiers of heathendom or during crusades, the nobles could protect their coreligionists only from the other Christian knights. In other words, they remained parasitical and furnished the kind of "protection" given by gangsters during our era of prohibition. After the invention of firearms, the mounted knight had less advantage over the burghers, who could now employ mercenary artillerymen to destroy the castles of the knights who pillaged their convoys. As the burghers attained economic and political leadership, they also became the bearers of culture. Their new values gradually set the standard for society in general, even if the displaced aristocracy tended to retain their old value code. Honor, in the sense of social position and public esteem, was still the reward for virtue; but bourgeois virtue differed greatly from the old virtues of courage, prowess, fealty, and largess.

Although there were a few educated noblemen like Ulrich von Hutten, most education was in the hands of the bourgeoisie, often of the petty bourgeoisie, like Conrad Celtis and Luther, who were the sons of peasants. Being a gentleman was a full-time occupation, what with its demands of fighting, hunting, dressing, dancing, and taking one's genteel pleasures; and little time was left for study.1 Likewise, the nobility are usually conservative and have little desire for social progress or other change. Consequently Goethe was right in asking, "And whence came the best culture, if it was not from the burgher?" (Wo kam die schönste Bildung her, Und wenn sie nicht vom Bürger wär?)

Germany 's literary output was of poor quality during the four­teenth and fifteenth centuries; and most of what appeared had been written before and better. Even the few good works, such as the Plowman from Bohemia (Ackermann aus Bohmen), were largely compiled from traditional materials.2 In general the mastersingers repeated the formulas of the Minnesinger and Spruchdichter but did not achieve their excellence. This holds especially true of literary expressions of honor, which scarcely made any progress during the period. Even works as late as the Ship of Fools of 1496 and the plays of Hans Sachs a half century later show no real advance over the didactic writers of the thirteenth century.

1. In her introduction to The Vulgaria of John Stanbridge, London, 1932, Beatrice White shows that the sixteenth-century English gentry in general had little respect for the study of letters. This would have held also of the German nobility of the time. In spite of their leisure and educational ad­vantages, the German nobility have contributed but an infinitesimal part of German culture.

2. For the traditional nature of such literature, see the sources traced in the notes to Johannes von Tepl, Der ackerman, ed. W. Krogmann, Wiesbaden, 1954.

The Ship of Fools repeats the old clichés found in Farmer Helm­brecht in these words: "All nobility is made of virtue. If one has good behavior, honor, and virtue, I consider him a nobleman; but, if anyone has no virtue, breeding, shame, honor, or good behavior, I consider him void of all nobility, even though his father were a prince. All nobility comes from virtue."1 The tenacity of these commonplaces is shown by their appearance in Molière's Dom Juan, which was written a century and a half after the Ship of Fools and nearly four centuries after Farmer Helmbrecht : "And finally know that a nobleman who lives badly is a monster in nature; that virtue is the first title of nobility; that I have far less regard for the name that one signs than for the deeds that one does, that I would value the son of a porter who was an honest man more than the son of a monarch who lived like you."2

Nevertheless, these fallow centuries were not entirely lost, since they provided time for the good seed to take root and begin to grow. The new ideas introduced by the clerics and didactic poets in the thirteenth century were novel and not always convincing; but centuries of repetition made them so commonplace that they gradually won over the public at large, even if only in theory. The invention of printing naturally helped disseminate the new values.

1. "Uss tugent ist all adel gemacht Wer noch gut sytt, ere, tugent kan den haltt ich fur eyn edel man. Aber wer hett keyn tugent nitt Keyn zucht, scham, ere, noch gute sytt Den haltt ich alles adels laer Ob joch eyn fürst syn vatter wer Adel alleyn by tugent stat Vss tugent aller adel gat" ( Narren­schiff, 76, 56-64).

2. "Apprenez enfin qu'un gentilhomme qui vit mal est un monstre dans la nature; que le vertu est le premier titre de noblesse; que je regarde bien moins au nom qu'on signe qu'aux actions qu'on fait, que je ferais plus d'etat du fils d'un crocheteur qui serait honnete homme, que du fils d'un monarque qui vivrait comme vous" ( Dom Juan, IV, 6).

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