Post-classical history

Wolfram von Eschenbach

Acknowledged as the greatest narrative poet of the German Middle Ages, much of whose work deals with crusading themes. Wolfram portrays himself in his narrator persona as a professional warrior who is ignorant of books and letters, but for a self-confessed illiterate, he handles Old French sources with confident originality and constructs immense and intricate narrative structures. No documentary evidence of his life survives. His main patron was Landgrave Hermann of Thuringia, crusader and power broker between 1190 and 1215.

Wolfram’s Grail romance, Parzival, composed in the first decade of the thirteenth century, is set in a fictional world. Its problematics are internal to Christian chivalric society, yet significant details foreshadow the crusades. Parzival’s father, Gahmuret, fights for the caliph of Baghdad. His son by the heathen queen Belakane, the piebald Feirefiz, is eventually baptized and sent by his half-brother, the Grail King Parzival, to convert the East; Feirefiz’s own son will be Prester John. Through his son Lohengrin, linked in twelfth- century legend with the family of Godfrey of Bouillon, Parzival becomes ancestor of the Christian kings of Jerusalem. The celibate knights who defend the Grail kingdom are called templeisen, presumably a calque on “Templars.”

War between Christendom and Islam is the dominant theme of Willehalm, begun around 1210 and broken off, unfinished, around 1220. Wolfram’s source, the Old French epic stories of the warriors Guillaume and Rainouart, he adapts with typical freedom. As in Konrad’s Rolandslied (c. 1170), the ideological concerns of high medieval German Empire and crusade are injected into the epic tradition of Carolingian holy war. Although Wolfram and his characters frequently invoke events and heroes of the Rolandslied, Willehalm is the story of the second Carolingian generation. The age of Charlemagne’s and Roland’s aggressive expansion of Christian faith and empire is over. The Islamic Empire of Terramer fights back, and Willehalm must defend his marcher county of Provence against overwhelming heathen armies. Crushingly defeated, he seeks reinforcements. While his kinsfolk rally to the cause, King Louis proves a vacillating coward. Though he grudgingly pledges troops, he refuses to lead the army. It is Willehalm, not Louis, who must assume the mantle of Charlemagne. Yet victory is only won by the heroic prowess of Rennewart, the young pagan who, unknown to all, is the lost son of Terramer, but who for his refusal to be baptized has been consigned to menial service in Louis’s kitchens. Willehalm recognizes his innate nobility and enlists him in the Christian army.

The catalyst of this conflict between Christians and Muslims is Willehalm’s marriage to Giburg, Terramer’s daughter, who had freed Willehalm from captivity by her father. Here Wolfram connects an old epic motif with the idealization of marriage as an ethical agency common in courtly fiction around 1200. For Giburg, love for Christ and love for Willehalm are inseparable impulses. Yet Willehalm can only defend his wife and their faith by sacrificing the lives of their Christian and heathen kinsmen. This personal dilemma concretizes a larger ambivalence within the idea and practice of crusade. Willehalm and his army, die getouften (“the baptized”), wear the badge of the cross, and death in battle earns the martyr’s reward. Yet Giburg reminds them that they and the “heathen” they slaughter are children of one creator. Christian victory is won by the heathen Rennewart, Terramer’s son and Giburg’s brother. The internecine conflict ends in a welter of blood. Willehalm fears that Ren- newart, who disappears in the rout of Terramer’s fleeing army, may be the last casualty of a pyrrhic victory. Lamenting the carnage on both sides of the religious divide, he shows mercy toward the defeated enemy.

But it is the narrator Wolfram whose more dispassionate voice articulates the ultimate question: “Is it not a sin to slaughter like cattle those who never heard tell of baptism? I say it is a great sin, for they are all creatures of God’s hand” [Wolfram von Eschenbach, Willehalm, ed. Heinzle, lines 450, 15-19]. This radical repudiation of crusade might have been partly revoked had Wolfram completed his story. In the source epics, Rennewart reappears, accepts baptism, and marries Alyse, King Louis’s daughter, offering new hope of reconciling East and West. Wolfram is not alone in the 1220s in questioning the theological and human justification of crusade, but Willehalm remains unique in its time for the cogency with which it challenges the validity of holy war.

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