The troubadour movement spread from France to southern Germany, and flourished there in the golden age of the Hohenstaufen emperors. The German poets were called Minnesänger, love singers, and their poetry coincided with the Minnedienst (love service) and Frauendienst (lady service) of contemporary chivalry. We know over 300 of these minnesingers by name, and have a plentiful legacy of their verse. Some of them belonged to the lower nobility; most of them were poor, and depended upon imperial or ducal patronage. Though they followed a strict law of rhythm and rhyme, many of them were illiterate, and dictated the words and music of their Lieder; to this day the German term for poetry—Dichtung—means dictation. Usually they let minstrels sing for them; sometimes they themselves sang. We hear of a great Sängerkrieg, or song contest, held at the Castle Wartburg in 1207; there, we are told, both Tannhäuser and Wolfram von Eschenbach took part.30* For a century the minnesingers helped to raise the status of woman in Germany, and the ladies of the aristocracy became the life and inspiration of a culture more refined than anything that Germany would know again till Schiller and Goethe.
Wolfram and Walther von der Vogelweide are classed as minnesingers because they wrote songs of love; but Wolfram and his Parzival may be better viewed under the heading of romance. Walther “of the Bird-Meadow” was born somewhere in the Tirol before 1170. Knight but poor, he made matters worse by taking to poetry. We find him at twenty singing for his bread in the homes of the Viennese aristocracy. In those youthful years he wrote of love with a sensuous freedom frowned upon by his rivals. His Unter den Linden is treasured to this day in Germany:
Unter den linden,
an der heide,
da unser sweier bette was;
du muget ir vinden
gebrochen bluomen under gras.
Vor dem valde in einem tal—
schone sanc diu nahtegal.
Ich kam gegangen
zuo der ouwe;
do was min friedel komen e.
Da wart ich empfangen,
Daz ich bin saelic iemer me.
Kiste er mich? Wol tusend stunt;
Sehet, wie rot mir ist der munt.
Do het er gemachet
von bluomen eine bettestat.
Das wirt noch gelachet
kum iemen an daz selbe pfat,
bi den rosen er wol mac—
merken wa mir’z houbet lac.
Daz er bi mir laege,
wesse ez iemen
(nu en welle Got!) so schamte ich mich
wes er mit mir pflaege,
bevinde daz wan er und ich
unde ein kleinez vogellin—
daz mac wol getriuwe sin.31
Under the linden,
On the heather,
For us two a bed there was;
There could you see,
Broken flowers and bruised grass.
From a thicket in the dale—
Sweetly sang the nightingale.
I sped thither
Through the glade;
My love had reached the spot before.
There was I snared,
Most happy maid!
For I am blessed evermore.
Many a time he kissed me there—
See my lips, how red they are!
There he contrived
In joyful haste
A bower of blossoms for us both.
That must be still
A fading jest
For those who take the selfsame path
And see the spot where on that day—
My head among the roses lay.
How shamed were I
(Now Heaven forfend!) had there been nigh.
There we two lay,
But that was known
To none except my love and I,
And the little nightingale—
Who, I know, will tell no tale.32
As he grew older his perception matured, and he began to see in woman charms and graces fairer than any budding flesh, and the rewards of unity in marriage seemed richer than the surface titillations of variety. “Happy the man, happy the woman, whose hearts are to each other true; their lives increase in price and worth; blessed their years, and all their days.”33 He deprecated the adulation with which his fellow warblers perfumed the ladies of the court; he proclaimed wip (Weib, woman) a higher title than vrouwe (Frau, lady); good women and good men were the real nobility. He thought “German ladies fair as God’s angels; anyone who defames them lies in his teeth.”34
In 1197 the Emperor Henry VI died, and Germany suffered a generation of chaos until Frederick II came of age. The aristocratic patronage of letters fell away, and Walther wandered from court to court, singing unhappily for his meals in competition with noisy jugglers and prideless clowns. An item in the expense account of Bishop Wolfger of Passau reads: “Five solidi, November 12, 1203, to Walther von der Vogelweide to buy himself a fur coat against the winter cold.”35 It was a doubly Christian act, for Walther was a zealous Ghibelline, tuned his lyre against the popes, denounced the shortcomings of the Church, and raged at the way in which German coins flew over the Alps to replenish Peter’s Pence.36 He was, however, a faithful Christian, and composed a mighty “Crusader’s Hymn.” But at times he could stand above the battle and see all men as brothers:
Mankind arises from one virgin;
We are alike both outward and within;
Our mouths are sated with the selfsame fare;
And when their bones into confusion fall,
Say ye, who knew the living man by sight,
Which is the villein now, and which the knight,
That worms have gnawed their carcasses so bare?
Christians, Jews, and heathens, serve they all,
And God has all creation in His care.37
After a quarter century of wandering and poverty, Walther received from Frederick II an estate and an income (1221), and could spend in peace his remaining seven years. He mourned that he was too old and ill to go on crusade. He begged God to forgive him for not being able to love his enemies.38 In a poetic testament he bequeathed his goods: “to the envious my ill luck; to the liars my sorrows; to false lovers my follies; to the ladies my heart’s pain.”39 He was buried in Würzburg Cathedral, and near by a monument proclaims Germany’s affection for the greatest poet of his age.
After him the minnesinger movement lost itself in extravaganzas, and shared in the disasters that shattered Germany after the fall of Frederick II. Ulrich von Lichtenstein (c. 1200–c. 1276) tells in his poetic autobiography, Frauendienst, how he was reared in all the sentiments of “lady service.” He chose a lady as his goddess, had his harelip sewed up to mitigate her repulsion, and fought for her in tournament. When told of her surprise that he still had a finger which she thought he had lost in her honor, he cut off the offending member and sent it to her as tribute. He almost swooned with delight when fortune permitted him to drink the water in which she had washed her hands.40 He received a letter from her, and carried it for weeks in his pocket before he found someone whom he could trust to read it for him secretly; for Ulrich could not read.41 On promise of her favor he waited two days in beggar’s clothing among the lepers at her gate; she admitted him; and finding him importunate, she had him lowered in a bed sheet from her window. All this time he had a wife and children.
The minnesinger movement ended with some dignity in Henrich von Meissen, whose songs in honor of women earned him the title Frauenlob, “women’s praise.” When he died at Mainz in 1317, the ladies of the city carried his bier with tuneful laments to bury him in the cathedral, and poured upon his coffin such abundance of wine that it flowed the full length of the church.42 After him the art of song fell from the hands of the knights, and was taken up by the middle class; the romantic mood of the lady worshipers passed, and was succeeded in the fourteenth century by the robust joy and art of the meistersinger, announcing to Parnassus the ascent of the bourgeoisie.