Poetry of holy war in German survives from Carolingian times, and pilgrimage hymns of the eleventh century anticipate aspects of crusade, but literature that engaged with the idea and reality of the crusades began in the second half of the twelfth century, following the first major involvement of Germans in crusading in the form of the various expeditions that made up the Second Crusade (1147-1149). From the 1180s onward, a lyric of the crusades (songs propagandizing specific military expeditions) exploited the allure of courtly love poetry or expounded the themes of sermons and church pronouncements. Before and after 1200, major narrative works articulated a specifically German conception of crusade as imperial holy war. From the later thirteenth century onward, lyric and narrative texts reflect the decline of the crusading movement up to a last revival in the verse chronicles of the Teutonic Order.
“Precrusading” literary traditions can only be briefly illustrated. The Old High German Ludwigslied (881/882) adapts ancient traditions of Germanic heroic song to propagate a conception of just war, eulogizing Louis III, king of West Francia, for his victory over Norse invaders at Saucourt in 881. In Old Testament fashion, God punishes the Franks for their sins by sending the Vikings to scourge them, testing the mettle of the king, his chosen leader. Louis heeds God’s summons and leads his penitent men into battle, singing the Kyrie eleison. God’s might gives Louis victory. Though they fight as “God’s vassals,” the warriors’ reward is restricted to the secular. Military service of God in holy war by warriors whose fealty to God is channeled through their allegiance to a sacral monarch will later become a central theme of crusading epic.
Religious lyrics in Middle High German from the years just before the First Crusade (1096-1099) that express a more personal spirituality centered on pilgrimage and the veneration of the Cross survive. The Ezzolied, a song sung on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem led by Bishop Gunther of Bamberg in 1064-1065, expounds the ancient image of life as a voyage to the Heavenly Jerusalem and apostrophizes the Cross, which is the mast of the pilgrims’ boat. A little strophe, In gotes namen fara wir (“We journey in God’s name”), sung by the army of Emperor Henry VI at the battle of Tusculum in 1191, is quoted in sources up to the fifteenth century but may go back to the eleventh century. The full verse is “We journey in God’s name, seeking his grace. May His strength aid us, and the Holy Sepulchre in which he was laid. Kyrie eleison” [Müller, Kreuzzugsdichtung, p. 9]. The Middle High German word faren ranges in meaning from going to war to making pilgrimage, setting out on crusade, and traveling in general. The song suggests how fluid the boundaries were between different forms and conceptions of Christian and secular life in the Middle Ages, and how flexible our notions of a literature of crusade should be.
Middle High German lyric, beginning with songs of the Third Crusade (1189-1192), relates most closely to major historical expeditions to the Holy Land and thus matches a strict definition of literature of the crusades. The 1180s saw a first flowering of courtly love lyric at the imperial German court, and poets in the entourage of Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa responded with propaganda songs when he took the cross in 1187. Friedrich von Hausen, well documented as a soldier and diplomat in the service of Barbarossa and his son Henry VI, borrowed the melody of an Old French lyric by Conon de Béthune and with it the motif of conflict between heart, in thrall to a lady, and body, committed to service of God. In two further songs, Hausen resolves the conflict by contrasting the sure rewards of divine love with the foolish deceit of secular passions. This model is imitated by Heinrich von Rugge, notably in a long lament for the death of Barbarossa. Albrecht von Johansdorf, in another imitation of Conon’s song, offers an alternative rationale for the knight caught between worldly and divine love. In his songs, the beloved woman reinforces the crusader’s commitment and hope thus to share in his spiritual reward.
These alternative ways of exploiting the cultural allure of courtly love poetry for the propagation of crusade are developed in songs that relate to the crusade of 1197. The poets Reinmar (der Alte), at the Austrian ducal court, and Otto von Botenlauben, in the service of Henry VI, composed elegant variations on the theme of the divided self. Hartmann von Aue exploits both approaches in songs that vehemently renounce courtly love and love-song or that recruit the courtly lady to send her lover on crusade and claim half his reward. Hartmann’s songs are innovative in their fervent expression of a personal spiritual conversion prompted by the death of his (unidentified) lord, which impels him to fight “in Christ’s host.”
We may assume that poet-singers who performed to their courtly public in the persona of crusader had themselves taken the cross. Friedrich von Hausen died in combat at Philomelion in Asia Minor in 1190. Otto von Botenlauben went on crusade in 1197 and settled near Acre, having married Beatrix, daughter of Joscelin III of Courtenay, seneschal of Jerusalem. Hausen vilifies Conon de Béthunefor reneging on his vow. Walther von der Vogelweide, cleric and the first non-noble, professional singer in German courtly literature, cannot assume the role of courtly lover turned crusader. His songs, which span the decades between the crusades of 1197 and 1227-1229, adapt the manner and content of sermons and encyclicals, ranging from vigorous images of imminent apocalypse to intense meditations on the theology of the Cross, but always stressing the necessity of inner conversion. Only in his Palastinalied, where the pilgrim retraces the earthly footsteps of Christ, does he speak as if from first-person experience. Walther’s verses of political comment and satire, produced over the same thirty-year span, are often savagely critical of temporal and ecclesiastical leaders. Leopold V, duke of Austria, is savaged for his capture of the crusader Richard I of England. The emperors Otto IV and Frederick II are harassed into taking or fulfilling their crusading vows. Pope Innocent III is lampooned for extorting crusade taxes from guileless Germans to fill his own coffers. In this pivotal phase of crusading history, Walther’s songs reflect both its continuing spiritual energy and its ensnarement in politics. A younger contemporary known as Bruder Werner imitates Walther’s political satire in songs urging Frederick II to set off to the Holy Land.
Frederick II’s extraordinary expedition of 1227-1229 provoked lyrics that again illuminate a wide diversity of attitudes. Rubin and the poet known as Burggraf von Lienz return to the tradition of adapting forms of courtly love-song to express the emotions of departing crusaders. The clerical moralist Freidank, torn between pilgrim fervor, relief that Jerusalem is in some sense “ours” again, and disgust at the behavior of the pope and the Franks of Outremer, delivers a devastating critique of Frederick’s dealings with the Ayyûbid sultan and condemns the cynical exploitation of crusaders by the inhabitants of Acre, who are “undistinguishable from the heathen.” The two most prominent lyric poets of the period, Neidhart and Tannhauser, sing facetiously of homesickness and seasickness as the worst terrors the crusader contends with. Ulrich von Lichtenstein’s self-ironical alter ego in the Frauendienst, his lyric autobiography composed around 1250, argues that love for the woman who promises him sexual reward for fighting on crusade is the only persuasive argument for taking the cross, and that this will move God to add spiritual benefits. A rare return to older religious commitment in Hawart’s two devotional songs may perhaps be associated with the Crusade of Louis IX of France to Tunis (1270-1272). But what may be deemed to be the last medieval crusading song in German, by the Tyrolean knight Oswald von Wolkenstein (c. 1410), is a burlesque dialogue of parting lovers in which a woman instructs the knight sailing in a boat and teaches him the polyglot names of the Mediterranean winds. The pilgrim is now little more than an adventurous tourist.
The first narrative account of crusade in German occurs in the Kaiserchronik, a Middle High German verse history of Roman emperors, written in Regensburg after 1150. The chronicle propounds the ideal of cooperation between Roman Church and Roman Empire, exemplified in its depictions of Constantine the Great and Pope Sylvester I, and Charlemagne and Pope Leo III. In recounting the conflict of empire and church in the later eleventh century, it firmly supports Pope Gregory VII against Emperor Henry IV. Its account of the First Crusade provides a kind of compensation for Henry’s disturbance of the divine order. Though the anonymous clerical poet draws in detail on the chronicles of Ekkehard of Aura and Albert of Aachen, he depicts Godfrey of Bouillon as the divinely ordained, sole leader of the crusade, acting without papal authorization, and, within the Kaiserchronik’s structure of imperial biographies, a surrogate for the absent and unworthy emperor. This inaugural narrative of crusade assimilates it into a Carolingian model of imperial holy war. Ironically, the manuscript of the Kaiser- chronik breaks off at that point when Bernard of Clairvaux recruits King Conrad III as a crusade leader in 1147.
The first major German epic of crusade also has its roots in the Second Crusade. Around 1170, Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony and Bavaria, commissioned the Rolandslied from a cleric named Conrad, probably the court chaplain of that name documented in the 1170s. It had been Henry and other northern European nobles who persuaded St. Bernard to obtain papal approval in 1148 for the extension of crusading status to a campaign against the Slav-speaking, still largely pagan peoples in the lands beyond the Elbe, which had been a theater of imperial wars of conquest and conversion since the reign of Emperor Otto I. Henry, grandson of Emperor Lothar III and a member of the Welf dynasty, which claimed descent from Charlemagne and thus qualification for royal status, fought throughout the 1150s and 1160s to establish his control over these colonial territories. Marriage to Mathilda, daughter of Henry II of England, gave him access to a manuscript of the French Chanson de Roland, which he used as the basis for his German poem.
The priest Conrad infuses the chivalric ethos and redemptive spirituality of crusade into Carolingian imperial holy war. God’s angel commands the emperor, Karl, to conquer and convert pagan Spain. His warriors wear the badge of the cross, and he promises them the penitential benefits of crusade. Conrad’s verse is suffused with echoes of Bernard’s writings for the Templars and his sermons of 1147-1148, as also with the arsenal of biblical reference familiar from crusade chronicles. The Rolandslied assimilates crusade into the narrative tradition of imperial holy war and allows the pope no role in its direction. Henry the Lion may have looked to Conrad’s epic for an idealized image of his pagan wars, for a confirmation of his Carolingian lineage, and, as seen in Roland, on whom Conrad confers lion heraldry, for a paradigm (in the event perhaps uncomfortably austere) of crusading knighthood.
In fact it was Henry’s great rival, Frederick I Barbarossa, who came closest to realizing Conrad’s vision of imperial crusade, but his death at the outset of the Third Crusade, then Henry VI’s death on the eve of the crusade of 1197, made Germany’s experience of crusade deeply problematic. It was full forty years after the writing of the Rolandslied that the greatest of medieval German narrative poets, Wolfram von Eschenbach, received the manuscript of another French chanson de geste (epic poem) from his patron Landgrave Hermann of Thuringia. Hermann, his elder brother Ludwig III, and his son Ludwig IV were all crusaders between 1190 and 1227, and their dynasty was prominent in royal and imperial service. But the story Wolfram tells, in the very different climate of the 1220s, is that of a weak King Louis (a historically inaccurate version of Emperor Louis the Pious) and Willehalm, whose marcher lordship in Provence is imperiled by an aggressively militant Islam.
This recourse to older Christian epic in quest of validating narratives for the medieval crusade presents the age of barbarian threat and pagan resurgence in the later ninth century as a metaphor for crisis in empire and Holy Land around 1200. Charlemagne’s son is a feeble cipher, lacking all resolve or military capacity to wage holy war. Although Willehalm and his warriors wear the cross and the fallen go as martyrs to Paradise, their crusade wins only desperate knife-edge victory in what threatens to be an interminable war of mutual attrition between two entrenched ideologies. More than that, key characters, and Wolfram von Eschen- bach in his authoritative narrator’s voice, raise questions that potentially strike at the heart of the idea of crusade itself.
Human love and the mutual recognition of chivalric virtue cross the battle lines of warring faiths, yet these crossings of armed frontiers simultaneously break through and transgress boundaries. The Muslim queen Giburg falls in love with Willehalm and with Christ, but it earns her the hatred of her kinsmen. Her brother Rennewart, who is alienated from his Muslim family but not integrated into the Christian world, loses faith in heathen gods yet cannot commit himself to the Christian God. He fights for Willehalm and wins victory for the Christian army, yet only by killing his own kind. The work is unfinished, and we cannot know whether the nobility of individuals would prevail against the intransigence of ideologies. What Wolfram does say, before the story breaks off, is that he believes it is a sin to slaughter like cattle those who are the handiwork of God the Creator merely because they had no knowledge of Christian baptism.
The Rolandslied and Willehalm, commissioned by crusading princes, reflect major issues in the history of crusade and articulate a distinctive German conception of the holy war of empire and church. From the later twelfth century, though often preserved only in late medieval manuscripts, a group of short narrative poems, of anonymous authorship, documents the reception of crusade at a less ambitious cultural level. Herzog Ernst (c. 1180) adapts elements from the contemporary conflict of Henry the Lion and Frederick Barbarossa. In Oswald (after 1196), God’s angel charges the king with a dual mission, to win a heathen queen and to convert the heathen. Konig Rother (c. 1195) and Graf Rudolf (before 1200) have the same merging of reflexes from the Rolandslied with the folktale motif of bride-quest. Orendel (after 1196?) links the bride-winning journey with the legend of the Grey Mantle, the seamless garment worn by Christ at the Crucifixion. These short narratives suggest that in the last quarter of the twelfth century, alongside the rise of high courtly lyric and epic of crusade, contemporary interest in the events in the Holy Land was sufficiently strong to generate a more informal genre of adventure story.
In the thirteenth century, a heterogeneous body of narrative poetry was generated partly by the enduring influence of Wolfram von Eschenbach, though none of these works matches either the aesthetic or the spiritual achievement of Willehalm. In the 1260s, Ulrich von dem Türlin composed Arabel, a prelude to Willehalm that expands the story of Willehalm’s imprisonment and his wooing of Arabel, who escapes with him, marries him, and in baptism becomes Giburg. Ulrich von Türheim’s Rennewart (1240s) sets out to complete Wolfram’s story. At inordinate length, and without the psychological and thematic complexity of Wolfram’s characterization of Rennewart, Ulrich deploys an older apparatus of miraculous divine interventions in battle and depicts Rennewart as a crudely aggressive warrior, unaware of any potential for mediating between Christendom and Islam. A more profound tribute to Wolfram is Ulrich von Etzenbach’s Wilhelm von Wenden, composed at the court of King Wenceslas II of Bohemia between 1287 and 1297. Wilhelm is a heathen Wendish prince moved by an encounter with Christian pilgrims to surrender all and imitate Christ. Baptized by the patriarch of Jerusalem, he takes the cross, though, like the patriarch, he is imbued with a sense of pity and mercy for the unbaptized handiwork of God.
A less specific but still significant obligation to Wolfram’s narrative art is discernible in two verse romances composed soon after 1300. In these, crusading themes and oriental milieu become more and more a matter of exotic surface than of deep structure; the end of the Christian kingdom in the Holy Land seems to relegate crusade to a legendary past. Reinfried von Braunschweig (c. 1300) is an account by an anonymous poet of a crusading expedition prompted by the fall of Acre in 1291. It is quite unhistorical, drawing motifs from Herzog Ernst and, particularly, Arthurian romance. Reinfried’s crusade is prompted by the Virgin’s pledge that he will be granted a male heir if he goes to the Holy Land, from which she promises him safe return. The motivation of his army is still more mixed. Of eight reasons the narrator cites for taking the cross, six are wholly secular and material. Battle with the heathen is in the spirit of courtly joust, and Reinfried lacks the conviction to refute the defeated opponent, who rejects baptism, arguing that enforced or hypocritical conversion is valueless. In Johannes von Würzburg’s Wilhelm von Osterreich (before 1314), the story of the conversion of the heathen King Agrant is interwoven with the love story of Wilhelm and the heathen princess Aglye. Wilhelm fights at different times for and against the heathen, always on expedient rather than religious grounds. Crusading motifs and themes are incidental to erotic and chivalric adventure, as when Richard the Lionheart and Philip II of France interrupt their siege of Damietta to defend the (heathen) queen of Candia against King Agrant.
The classic epics of crusade make a quite different claim to historical truth: both Conrad and Wolfram insist on the warheit (truth) of their stories, and narrator and characters of Willehalm cite events of the Rolandslied as though they were authoritative instances for their own historical experience. Abridgements of both works then appear in redactions of the Weltchronik of Heinrich von München (the Roland- slied in the revised version by Der Stricker), along with Ara- bel and Rennewart. Vernacular verse chronicles of the historical crusades arise only at a late stage. Die Kreuzfahrt des Landgrafen Ludwig (completed 1301) has first an account of the deeds of the kings of Jerusalem up to Saladin’s victory at Ascalon, then relates the Third Crusade, foregrounding the figure of Ludwig III, landgrave of Thuringia, with little regard for historical fact. Ottokar von Steiermark’s Osterre- ichische Reimchronik (c. 1300-1320) contains a description of the siege of Acre during the Third Crusade. It is not reliable as historiography either, conflating the sieges of Acre and Damietta and importing to Acre a cardinal legate clearly modeled on the figure of Pelagius from the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221). Criticism of the military orders for their arrogance and worldliness does echo contemporary sources. The Teutonic Order, however, is shown as the ultimately faithful servant of Rome. Ottokar places blame for the dire situation of the Latin kingdom squarely on the church and has heathen leaders criticize crusading theology, notably the perceived absurdity that Christians may earn absolution for murdering fellow Christians by slaughtering Muslims.
The pervasive sense of waning belief evident in narrative sources by 1300 is not, however, the final state of German literature of the crusades. In the areas of northeastern Europe to which the sanction and privileges of crusade were transferred in 1147, crusading enthusiasm held firm throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Soon after 1200, the popes encouraged the transfer of the Teutonic Order, founded in Acre in 1190, to Prussia and the Baltic lands, which became its exclusive concern after 1291. The order provided its knight brethren with libraries of vernacular texts, which included Der Stricker’s Karl, the thirteenth-century modernization of the Rolandslied, verse paraphrases of biblical narrative, notably the Books of the Maccabees, and legends of the Virgin, patron saint of the order. Its most interesting commissions are vernacular chronicles of its own military history, such as the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle (1291/1297), dealing with the conquest and conversion of Livonia, and the German translation by the chaplain Nikolaus von Jeroschin (1330/1340) of the slightly earlier Latin chronicle by Peter von Dusburg, which provides a full- scale history of the order from its beginnings to the time of composition.
The transmission of the order’s crusading ideology and the education of the knight brethren in the aims and ethos of missionary war are Jeroschin’s overriding priorities. His work was a response to a historical moment when the order had vital need of effective propaganda for its work and for its defense against powerful critics, even in Rome. The utter conviction with which he deploys a vision of crusade close to that of Conrad the Priest around 1170 brings the history of German crusading literature startlingly full circle after all the vicissitudes of the movement and its poetry over almost two centuries.