In only one generation, from 1180 to 1210, the great flowering of Middle High German courtly culture under the Hohenstaufen Dynasty produced—in addition to four great epic writers, Hartmann von Aue, Gottfried von Strassburg, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and the anonymous author of The Nibelungenlied (c. 1200)—numerous lyric poets, the most renowned of them being Walther von der Vogelweide. Even princes and emperors ranked among the courtly love poets. The roots of this German medieval poetry are multiple: Provençal and northern French courtly love poetry, indigenous songs and Goliardic verse such as that collected in Carmina burana (1847), and a variety of Latin secular and religious genres (eulogies, sequences), some dating back to antiquity. Medieval German poetry features a great variety of meters and melodies, since the minstrel was expected to compose a new meter and melody for each song.
Courtly love poetry (Minnesäng) was symptomatic of a new secular culture that rejected the “contempt of the world” preached for centuries by the monastic orders and that sought instead to harmonize eternal salvation with earthly happiness. The role of women in the courts and castles was to elevate and dignify life and to convey a certain hoher muot (joy of life) which was the crowning virtue in the knightly code. Although the love songs sometimes have a trace of the occasional in them—they often are addressed to a particular woman and reflect specific circumstances—such love poetry was not a stylized proposal for a literal love relationship, but an artistic achievement, a fictional, public musical presentation on the theme of love for the amusement and edification of the entire court (estimated as usually comprising between thirty and seventy persons). Since the idolized woman was supposed to be of high rank, married and virtuous, no erotic reciprocation was expected but, at most, a greeting or token of appreciation. Praise of the woman was not a means to an end but an ennobling activity in itself, for the lady represented the humane ideal of beauty and dignity for which this secular knightly society was striving. Her being not only was physically beautiful and charming but also encompassed a catalog of virtues such as honor, self-discipline, constancy, moderation, and loyalty—traits of a proud, aristocratic society.
Walther von der Vogelweide regarded highly his function as a courtly love poet who could express for the men and women of his society the emotions of body and soul. Under Vogelweide’s predecessor and teacher, Reinmar von Hagenau, Minnelyrik (love poetry) had degenerated into a genre that was obsessed with the monotonous theme of the unrequited lover. Vogelweide broke with this tradition—and from von Hagenau—and introduced many new dimensions into the thematics of courtly love poetry. His...
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