Wolfram von Eschenbach Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: In the era of the High Middle Ages, Wolfram was a master in the tradition of the courtly epic; his works constitute one of the high points of the narrative writing produced during this first golden age of German literature.

Early Life

As is the case with many medieval figures, little is known about the life of Wolfram von Eschenbach. He was born and died in the town of Eschenbach bei Ansbach and was a Frankish knight in the service of the Count of Wertheim. He was married, had a child, and possessed a modest estate. His grave in the Frauenkirche of Eschenbach was unmarked and has become lost over the centuries. He was well-read but had received no formal education. Wolfram was a man who felt close to the common people and was deeply committed to the ideals of Christianity.

Wolfram lived during the reign of the Hohenstaufen dynasty—its most notable ruler being Fredrick I Barbarossa. It was the age of the Crusades and feudalism. European knighthood was in full bloom, especially in France, England, and Germany. The knights were the bearers of a culture which centered on the courts of the liege lords to whom they had sworn fealty. During a period when Christianity was in competition with the secular domain for political and cultural hegemony, the ethos of knighthood constituted an attempt to merge religious and profane values.

Since the courtly culture of the time was a formative influence on Wolfram and his writings, it would be helpful to summarize some major aspects. The knightly code of behavior was guided by a number of prominent formal virtues, some of which had descended from older Germanic tribal codes. Honor (êre) was foremost and meant that the knight would not do anything in thought or action to disgrace himself or the order of knighthood before God and the king. The courtly culture was concerned with proper form, and a knight’s appearance before the world was of the greatest importance. Loyalty (triuwe) meant that the knight kept his oath of allegiance to his liege lord. Discipline (zucht) indicated that the knight must maintain his proper knightly attitude on the battlefield and in court. Moderation (mâze) suggested that he must avoid all extremes and maintain his formal bearing. A knight’s goals in life were threefold: to own property (such as an estate), to maintain his honor before his peers, and to strive for God’s blessing. As a landed knight, Wolfram was committed to the values of his class, and they are evident in his works. A deeply religious man, he regarded the institution of knighthood as a manifestation of God’s will on earth.

The High Middle Ages was also the period of the highly formalized institution of courtly love (Minnedienst). Although occasional sexual liaisons undoubtedly occurred, courtly love was not an erotic affair but a form of spiritualized service in which the knight pledged his loyalty and honor to the defense of a lady of the court and thereby believed himself ennobled. The knight’s adoration of his lady was most often manifested in the writing of love poetry (Minnesang). Wolfram did write some poetry, although he is not known primarily for this type of literary production.

Life’s Work

Wolfram’s greatest achievements were in the genre of the courtly heroic epic. Before turning to his individual works, a few words about this form of literature might be in order. The literary models for the German courtly epic came primarily from France in the chansons de geste, tales of great heroic deeds, such as the Chanson de Roland (c. 1100; Song of Roland), and especially in the tales of knightly glory that were associated with the legendary King Arthur and his Round Table. The French writer Chrétien de Troyes, who lived toward the end of the twelfth century, had given classic form to the genre with his Arthurian epics, and his works were an important influence on later German authors.

Wolfram’s most famous text was his courtly epic Parzifal (c. 1200-1210; English translation, 1894), which consists of sixteen sections and was handed down in more than eighty manuscript versions and fragments. The text is written in rhymed couplets, the form characteristic of medieval German narrative poetry. It is based on Chrétien’s Perceval: Ou, Le Conte du Graal (c. 1180; Perceval: Or, The Story of the Grail), stories surrounding the legendary chalice which was held by Christ at the Last Supper and was used by the disciple Joseph to catch Christ’s blood. Wolfram’s version is the story of the young and naïve Parzifal in his quest for the Holy Grail and for his true relationship to God and knighthood. Parzifal serves as a literary representative of his social class.

Since his father, the heroic knight Gachmuret, had been killed on a crusade, Parzifal’s mother, Herzeloyde, rears her son alone in a secluded wood so that he might be saved from the worldly fate of his father. One day, however, the young...

(The entire section is 2082 words.)

Wolfram von Eschenbach Biography

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

To possess factual information pertaining to the life of any courtly poet is a rare occurrence; the poet as professional writer and public figure is, after all, a relatively recent phenomenon. In the case of Wolfram von Eschenbach, few documented details exist. Fortunately, Wolfram was a personable poet who could not refrain from injecting his experiences and opinions into his works. From his utterances, scholars have been able to reconstruct a plausible, if sketchy, vita.

Drawing on literary references, dialect evidence, and geographical speculation, scholars have concluded that Wolfram’s home was probably in Eschenbach, a Franconian town southeast of Ansbach in present-day Bavaria. There is no record of his family, of his formative years, or of his schooling. In fact, Wolfram’s innocent pronouncement in Parzival, “I don’t know a single letter of the alphabet,” has become enigmatic: Does he intend to admit his unlearned background, to boast of his literary accomplishment despite his inability to read and write, or to twit his educated principal critic, Gottfried? In any event, it is clear that he was not formally educated, for influences of classical Latin writers (a staple in the monastery schools) are absent in his poems. Significantly, Wolfram himself never mentioned having “read” from his literary sources; his frequent references to having “heard” information leads scholars to presume that source material was...

(The entire section is 511 words.)

Wolfram von Eschenbach Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Few facts are known about Wolfram von Eschenbach (VAWL-frahm vawn EHSH-uhn-bahk), the strongest of the thirteenth century epic poets writing in Middle High German. Probably born in Eschenbach bei Ansbach, Franconia (now in Germany), about 1170, he was a member of a noble Bavarian family, apparently impoverished, as he says jestingly in his poetry. Many scholars claim that he was a younger son. He served powerful overlords, like the counts of Wertheim and the landgrave Hermann of Thuringia. His feats of sword and spear are subjects for his boasting rather than for his poetry. He mentions being unlettered, yet the French chanson de geste known as La Bataille d’Aliscans was his source for Willehalm, and French originals inspired much of his other poetry. His own work is characterized by acute observation, deep psychology, broad toleration, and sense of humor.{$S[A]Eschenbach, Wolfram von;Wolfram von Eschenbach}

The greatest of his poems is Parzival, a romance of twenty-five thousand lines believed to have been composed between 1200 and 1210. Its popularity is proved by the fifteen complete manuscripts of the work still in existence. Wolfram accredited it to the troubadour Kyot le Provençal, who has never been identified. Its praise of noble marriage and its high moral tone may derive from the personality of the author. Wolfram was admired by all as a deeply religious man; in fact, one contemporary wrote a poem selecting him as the champion of Christianity against an evil enchanter. Willehalm deals also with a noble knight remarkable for his chivalrous treatment of the Saracens. This work, unfinished at Wolfram’s death, was continued by Ulrich von Turkheim (fl. 1235-1250) and Ulrich von dem Türlin (fl. 1261-1270). Titurel, a third romance left only in fragments, was completed by one Albrecht about 1260.

When the landgrave died in 1216, Wolfram apparently left Wartburg Castle and returned to his native town, where he died about 1217. He was reportedly buried in the Church of Our Lady in Eschenbach, but the location of his grave has never been determined.

With the rise of German nationalism in the nineteenth century, Wolfram became a cultural icon. In his opera Tannhäuser (1845) Richard Wagner dramatized the famous, though probably apocryphal, story of a singing contest between Wolfram and his contemporary Tannhäuser, and he based the libretto of his last opera, Parsifal (1882), on Wolfram’s text.