The Chivalrous Poetry of German Minstrels

The cultural concept of chivalry describes the social norms that medieval knights were expected to uphold in their interactions with women. These ideals of chivalry and standards of chivalrous conduct gave rise to a new romantic culture. Historians frequently refer to courtly love as the cradle of romantic ideals (Karandashev, 2017).

During that time, chivalric ideals and courtly love became popular in many European countries, including Spain, France, and Germany.

All over Europe, the fascinating chivalry tales of the Middle Ages popularized courtly love. Stories like Don Quixote’s from Spain and Ulrich von Lichtenstein’s from Germany were among them. These tales depicted noble chivalry and the beauty of courtly love. Other examples of poetry, songs, and folklore of medieval European societies also made important contributions to the history of romantic ideas of love. Some of these were the poems about knights by the German minnesinger and the Provencal troubadours. These examples demonstrate how the history and psychology of love in these countries were similar in some ways while being different in others. Here, I take a quick look at what Henry Finck (1887/2019) says about the chivalrous poetry of German minnesingers.

Who Were the German Minstrels

The German wandering minstrels, like their French counterparts, the troubadours, belonged primarily to the aristocracy. They gave their addresses primarily to married women. In both cases, of the German minstrels and French troubadours, the rigid chaperonage of the young was a reason. Since men were not allowed to make love properly, they did it improperly. However, the Minnesingers, at least in verse, were less amorous than the Troubadours. However, the minnesingers, at least in verse, were less amorous than the troubadours.

What German Minstrel Songs Were About

As American music historian Louis Elson (1900/2015) commented in his History of German Song:

“The Troubadour praised the eyes, the hair, the lips, the form of his chosen one; the Minnesinger praised the sweetness, the grace, the modesty, the tenderness of the entire sex. The one was concrete, the other abstract.”

However, abstractness is not a desirable quality in poetry, the essence of which is concrete imagery. As a result, with a few exceptions, the German Minnesingers are not poets on par with their French counterparts. Friedrich Schiller, a German poet of the 18th century, was very critical of these early writers. Schiller once remarked to a friend,

“If the sparrows on the roof ever undertake to write, or to issue an almanac of love and friendship,” he once remarked to a friend, “I would wager ten to one it would be just like these songs of love.”

“What a dearth of concepts in these songs! A garden, a tree, a hedge, a forest, and a sweetheart are just a few of the things that can be found in a sparrow’s head. Then there are fragrant flowers, mellow fruits, twigs on which a bird sits in the sunshine and sings, and spring comes and winter goes, and nothing remains but ennui.”

This criticism of Schiller, however, was too broad. There were notable exceptions to these sparrow-poets. One of them was Johannes Hadlaub, a Minnesinger of the 14th century. As Wilhelm Scherer, a German historian of literature, described him in his History of German Literature,

“He introduces human figures into his descriptions of scenery, and shows us, for example, in the summer, a group of beautiful ladies walking in an orchard, and blushing with womanly modesty when gazed at by young men.”

Then, Wilhelm Scherer compared the challenges of love to those of hardworking men such as charcoal-burners and carters.

“Hadlaub tells us more of his personal experiences than any other Minnesinger. Even as a child, we learn, he had loved a little girl, who, however, would have nothing to say to him, but continually flouted him, to his great distress. Once she bit his hand, but her bite, he says, was so tender, womanly, and gentle, that he was sorry the feeling of it passed away so soon. Another time, being urged to give him a keepsake, she threw her needle-case at him, and he seized it with sweet eagerness, but it was taken from him and returned to her, and she was made to give it him in a friendly manner. In later years his pains still remained unrewarded; when his lady perceived him, she would get up and go away. Once, he tells us, he saw her fondling and kissing a child, and when she had gone he drew the child towards him and embraced it as she had embraced it, and kissed it in the place where she had kissed it.”

How Minstrel Songs Changed Over Time

The differences between the earlier and later Minnesongs indicate a gradual change in the social and amorous position of women. As Professor Scherer observes in the early poems, “The social supremacy of the noble woman is not yet recognized, and the man woos with proud self-respect.”…

Another rejects a woman who desired his love… A fourth brags about his victories. He claims that “Women are as easily tamed as falcons.” In another song, a woman describes how she tamed a falcon, but he flew away and now wears different chains. …

“In the later Minnesongs it is the women who are proud, and the men who must languish.”

The German folk songs that came after the periods of Minnesotan music show an even more striking change.

“The women of these popular love-songs are not mostly married women; they are, as a rule, young maidens” [at last, pure Romantic Love!] “who are not only praised but also turned to ridicule and blamed. The woes of love do not here arise from the capricious coyness of the fair one, but are called forth by parting, jealousy, or faithlessness. Feeling is stronger than in the Minnesong, and seeks accordingly for stronger modes of expression.”

As Henry Finck (1887/2019) commented in his book, the first appearance of true romantic love in these folk songs was no mere coincidence. Some gifted people from the lower classes composed those folk songs. Among them, chaperonage, as the archenemy of love, was less strict than in the upper classes.

The Spanish and German Medieval Stories of Militant Chivalry

The concept of chivalry usually refers to chivalrous codes of behavior that knights and gentlemen of medieval Europe should demonstrate in their social interactions. In the time period of about 1170 to 1220 CE, knights created the social rules of the chivalric code of conduct.

The word “chivalry” came from the Old French word “chevalerie,” which means “horse soldiery.” Initially, it referred to the men who rode horses. But later it denoted the ideals of a knight.

Medieval literature popularized chivalric ideals, which later shifted their meaning to noble social and moral qualities. The aristocracy and noble people of medieval France, Spain, and Germany widely accepted such chivalrous norms of behavior. Chivalry has become an essential feature of the courtly love art (Karandashev, 2017).

According to Henry Finck, chivalry practice was much less refined than its literary representation.

Many historians have praised the moral virtues of chivalry. However, some knightly behaviors appeared to be less than morally virtuous. It is true that the knights took a solemn oath promising to defend widows, orphans, and ladies. They also showed respect for and deference to them. Nevertheless, they treated women harshly when they invaded cities or stormed castles. Henry Finck defined this kind of chivalry as militant chivalry (Finck, 1887/2019).

Let us read his writings. Chivalry militant was most common in Spain, Southern France, and Germany. The warm climate and friendly nature of those countries provided ideal conditions for wandering knights in search of adventure. Here are two examples of medieval chivalry and the art of love. One is the story of the Spanish Don Quixote, and another is the story of the German Ulrich von Lichtenstein.

The Spanish Images of Chivalry

For example, it appears that the medieval knights of Spain were wandering around the country, interfering in every quarrel.

In the literary genre, Cervantes presented a lifelike picture of knight-errantry in Don Quixote. His intention was to make fun, not so much of chivalry as of trashy contemporaneous romances of chivalry. However, he could not avoid depicting the comic side of chivalry itself. It was indeed “difficile satiram non scribere.”

Each knight had his own Dulcinea, whom he may not have seen. Nevertheless, he fights all these battles for her honor and love. And whenever he meets another knight, he immediately challenges him to admit that his Dulcinea, whom he has never seen, is the most beautiful lady in the world.

The other knight repeats the challenge on behalf of his Dulcinea. Therefore, he fights the battle through the inexorable logic of superior strength, intended to prove the superior beauty of his chosen lady-love. The victor celebrates victory and sends the defeated knight as a prisoner to the victor’s mistress with a love message.

The German Images of Chivalry

When medieval German knights came into close contact with French knights, the Germans adopted the idea and the fantastic aspect of chivalry from the French. And they pursued the code of chivalry with great diligence. As the 19th-century German cultural historian Johannes Scherr noted,

“Spain has imagined a Don Quixote, but Germany has really produced one.”

(cited in Finck, 1887/2019,p. 100).

His name was Ulrich von Lichtenstein. He was born in the year 1200.

“From his boyhood, Herr Ulrich’s thoughts were directed towards woman-worship, and as a youth he chose a high-born and, be it well understood, a married lady as his patroness, in whose service he infused method into his knightly madness. The circumstance that meanwhile he himself gets married does not abate his folly. He greedily drinks water in which his patroness has washed herself; he has an operation performed on his thick double underlip, because she informs him that it is not inviting for kisses; he amputates one of his fingers which had become stiff in an encounter, and sends it to his mistress as a proof of his capacity of endurance for her sake. Masked as Frau Venus, he wanders about the country and engages in encounters, in this costume, in honour of his mistress; at her command he goes among the lepers and eats with them from one bowl…. The most remarkable circumstance, however, is that Ulrich’s own spouse, while her husband and master masquerades about the land as a knight in his beloved’s service, remains aside in his castle, and is only mentioned (in his poetic autobiography) whenever he returns home, tired and dilapidated, to be restored by her nursing.”

Johannes Scherr, cited in Finck, 1887/2019, p. 100.

When a German knight chose a Dulcinea, he adopted and wore her colors. He was now her love-servant and stood in the same relationship to his mistress as a vassal to his master. As Scherr continues his writing,

“The beloved gave her lover a love-token—a girdle or veil, a ribbon, or even a sleeve of her dress; this token he fastened to his helmet or shield, and great was the lady’s pride if he brought it back to her from battle thoroughly cut and hewn to pieces. Thus (in Parzival) Gawan had fastened on his shield a sleeve of the beautiful Olibet, and when he returned it to her, torn and speared, “Da ward des Mägdlein’s Freude gross; ihr blanker Arm war noch bloss, darüber schob sie ihn zuhand.”

Johannes Scherr, cited in Finck, 1887/2019, p. 100.

Chivalry Love Across Cultures

Here I presented two cultural examples of chivalry. However, romantic ideas of chivalry and courtly love similar to European conduct of love evolved in South Asia and Japan during 900–1200 CE. American historian William M. Reddy (2012) explored the depiction of courtly love and of the emerging ideal of chivalry in twelfth-century romances.