The greatest medieval German lyric poet and first exponent of German political poetry, active in the period 1190-1230. A clerically educated professional singer, he was the first nonchivalric German poet of crusade.
Walther composed four songs of recruitment and religious motivation and some twenty topical verses commenting on crusading issues within the broader context of imperial and papal politics. He had many patrons, including King Philip, the emperors Otto IV and Frederick II, Landgrave Hermann of Thuringia, the Austrian dukes Frederick and Leopold VI, and Wolfger, bishop of Passau and patriarch of Aquileia, as well as lesser magnates, such as Diether of Katzenellenbogen. Frederick II conferred an unspecified fief on him around the year 1220.
Walther’s four crusading songs cannot be firmly dated. Owe, waz eren sich ellendet von tiuschen landen (“Alas, how honor flees the German lands”) [Walther von der Vogelweide, ed. Cormeau, L 13, 5-32] is an eschatological summons to penance. In Vil süeze waere minne (“Most sweet true love,” L 76, 22-78, 23), a meditation on divine love and redemptive sacrifice, each stanza ends with an appeal to liberate Jerusalem. The song’s metrical form resembles Latin hymns. Both of these songs speak in the collective first-person plural. Nu alrest lebe ich mir werde (“Now at last my life has worth,” L 14, 38-16, 35), also known as the Palastinalied (Palestine Song), voices the pilgrim’s first-person singular celebration of treading in the earthly footsteps of Christ, visiting the scenes of Nativity, Passion, Resurrection, and anticipating Judgment and God’s adjudication that Christians are rightful heirs of his earthly kingdom. Walther’s melody for this song survives, based on Latin hymn types. Owe, war sint verswunden alliu miniu jar (“Alas, where has my whole life vanished,” L 124, 1-125, 10) contains a personal lament for his exclusion, as “needy man” (III, 11), from the rewards of the chivalric crusader. He depicts the courtly world suddenly stricken with disaster, pleads for penitence, and beseeches the knighthood to seize the offer of redemption, “the dear journey overseas” (III, 15). The catalyst of spiritual crisis is “stern letters from Rome” (II, 9). The song has traditionally been linked with the excommunication of Emperor Frederick II in 1228, despite Walther’s polemics since 1201 against papal abuse of spiritual sanctions against German kings.
In his political satires, Walther comments frequently on crusading issues. He castigates Duke Leopold V and Duke Frederick I of Austria for holding King Richard the Lion- heart to ransom after his return from crusade; urges Emperor Otto IV to lead a crusade after his imperial coronation in 1209; lampoons Pope Innocent III for the crusade tax of 1213; and praises Leopold VI of Austria for crusading in 1219. Repeatedly he urges Frederick II to fulfill his crusading vow, though he defends him from critics in Germany and Rome, and he reminds the archangels that even they have left the heathen unscathed.