Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1060

Hartmann von Aue was one of the foremost German poets of the Middle Ages, and he is known to have been admired by his contemporary Gottfried von Strassburg for the clarity and purity of his “crystalline words.” Beyond that encomium, information on Hartmann is limited to brief self-descriptions, as the...

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Hartmann von Aue was one of the foremost German poets of the Middle Ages, and he is known to have been admired by his contemporary Gottfried von Strassburg for the clarity and purity of his “crystalline words.” Beyond that encomium, information on Hartmann is limited to brief self-descriptions, as the one that begins Der arme Heinrich, in which he speaks of being a well-educated knight who can read several languages. It is known approximately when his works were written, but his birth and death dates are uncertain, as is the location of the “Aue” where he was born. Several different towns lay claim to him, all with some justification. As with most medieval works, the original manuscript of Der arme Heinrich has been lost, and the work survives in only three complete manuscripts from the fourteenth century. Manuscript A, the best, was destroyed in Strassburg in 1870 in the war between the Germans and the French. Manuscripts Ba and Bb, presumably copies of that source, are preserved in Heidelberg and Genf-Cologny, Hungary. There are also three fragments of the work, manuscripts C, D, and E (manuscript E, which contains verses 29 to 255, was discovered in 1965; its pages had been used to insulate organ pipes).

The reason for Hartmann’s emphasis in the opening lines on his ability to read is that medieval audiences were interested above all in authenticity. Many of the famous German epics, including Erek, Iwein, Parzifal, and Tristan, are reworkings of British Arthurian legends as presented to European audiences by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes, and Hartmann’s Gregorius is based on the Oedipus legend. Audiences first and foremost wanted to know the source of the story. It is all the more unusual, therefore, that no source has been found for the story of Der arme Heinrich. Since the main character, Heinrich, is said to come from the same “Aue” as the author, Hartmann, critics have speculated that Hartmann may have had a personal reason for writing this poem, namely to present in a positive light the marriage of one of his ancestors to a member of a lower class, a marriage that, without mitigating circumstances, would have defied the feudal class system. It is generally agreed that Der arme Heinrich is one of Hartmann’s later works, written when his reputation was sufficiently established to allow his departing from convention.

Heinrich’s sin, symbolically punished by the contraction of leprosy, is presumption, superbia. He believes that he deserves his health, wealth, and the respect of others because he is a good man. However, in concentrating on worldly pleasures—which Hartmann emphasizes by the repeated use of the adjective “worldly” in the opening pages—Heinrich is flouting the primary moral imperative of the Middle Ages, that of pleasing first God and then the world: “got unde der werlde.”

People in medieval times were all too aware of the transience of worldly success and happiness. In their literature, the world is frequently personified as “Frau Welt,” who when seen from the front is a seductively beautiful woman, but when seen from the back is rotting and riddled with worms. Heinrich’s leprosy serves as a constant reminder of the ugly side of the world.

The conclusion of Der arme Heinrich has often been compared to a fairy tale. Heinrich’s leprosy is cured, his youth and wealth are restored to him, he marries the girl, and the two of them live a long and happy life. However, these are merely the external manifestations of the actual miracle, which is that of insight. For most of the story, Heinrich’s way of thinking is worldly. He thinks he can buy favors: from the surgeon for a huge sum of money, from God for his gifts to the poor, and from the young woman for his gifts of ribbons and trinkets. He calculates his actions according to what others will think of him. Initially, he is afraid to accept the girl’s offer not because it will cost her her life, but because he will look foolish in the eyes of others if the attempt fails. The miracle consists of his decision to stop the surgeon regardless of what others might say and to place his life entirely in the hands of God. Only when Heinrich has submitted fully to the will of God is he able to experience the grace of God.

The young woman, though nameless, plays easily as important a role as Heinrich in the work, for she is his counterpart. Heinrich needs to concentrate more on pleasing God, but the girl needs to concentrate more on pleasing the world, so that both of them in the end attain the medieval virtue of mâze, or moderation. Whereas the girl might at first appear to be saintly, her premature renunciation of the world is morally flawed, for her motive is not selfless. In believing that God will be obliged to reward her for her sacrifice by making her a queen in heaven, she is trying to force his hand.

The critic Ernst Rose has explained her death wish as a fearful overreaction against her awakening sexuality, a reaction that is not surprising given the fact that the man she loves is hideously deformed by leprosy. John Margetts makes even more explicit the sexual nature of the relationship between Heinrich and the girl by explaining Hartmann’s brilliant use of double entendre in the scene where the girl lies bound and naked on the surgeon’s table. Modern psychology has provided precise terminology for the human feelings accurately described in literature since the beginning of written record. The interpretation of Der arme Heinrich is enhanced by an understanding of the sexual element that is undeniably present. Heinrich’s repeated reference to the girl as his gemahel, or wife, is evidence that he did not think of her as a child.

Der arme Heinrich is a short but intricately written tale that supports many levels of interpretation. The significance in the work of the number three, for example, is unmistakable. Like the Holy Trinity, three represents perfection and completion. The girl’s parents consent to her sacrifice on the third day, but Hartmann gives the reader a numerological sign that their decision is too hasty by noting that the discussions leading up to the decision lasted only two nights.

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