The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997

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Heinrich von Aue, a Swabian knight, is a fortunate man. Wealthy and of noble birth, he is known throughout the land for his high standard of honor. His goal is to fulfill his obligations as a knight; nothing but purest virtue and upright truth mark his life. Suddenly, however, his life is blighted by disaster: Heinrich becomes a leper. As in the case of Job in ancient times, his physical appearance deteriorates rapidly, but he does not have the patience of Job. All his life seems a curse to him, and his pride has left him without friends. His cheerfulness vanishes, and he detests even the light of day. Only the hope of a cure for his terrible disease keeps him alive.

Trying to find a cure for his malady, he seeks out the most famous doctors in all Europe. The school of Montpellier is known for its able doctors, but when he goes there, he learns that they know of no medicine to heal him. Disappointed, he travels to Salerno, where he talks to other skilled physicians. At last he meets a master who tells him that there is a cure, yet the cure is of such a nature that it will be impossible to achieve; therefore, the doctor prefers not to talk about it. In desperation, Heinrich begs the doctor to reveal his remedy. After some hesitation the physician yields and tells the knight that he can be cured by the heart’s blood of a virgin who will willingly, out of love for him, submit to a fatal operation.

Heinrich realizes the hopelessness of his situation and returns sadly to Swabia. All his worldly belongings he gives to the poor and to the monks. Of his land and estates, he keeps no more than a clearing in a wood where a poor but contented peasant lives with his family. Heinrich decides to join them in their house in the wood, and the peasant and his family do all they can to ease the suffering of the leprous man. They love the knight and are concerned for his health because they realize that they will never find such a good master again. The peasant’s young daughter, in particular, is deeply moved by Heinrich’s suffering.

One day, the peasant asks why the doctors have been unable to help. Heinrich tells him of the visit to Salerno and describes the impossible cure of which the doctor spoke. The young daughter overhears this tale. That night she awakens her parents with her tears. The next night she decides that she wants to be the virgin who can save their master’s life. Her parents are horrified when they hear her request, and her father threatens physical punishment if she dares to mention the subject again. They listen in amazement as their daughter begs with heart-moving words to be allowed to gain the eternal life that would be assured her. She speaks also of the uncertainty her earthly life offers and of the catastrophe that could befall the whole family if their master should die and a harsh ruler scourge the countryside. At last she is able to convince her parents that her service to God and her master would be the most honorable thing she could do. Sorrowfully they give their consent to her intended sacrifice.

Very early the next morning she tells the unbelieving Heinrich of her willingness to help cure him. He warns her that she should not talk lightly about such a subject and assures her that she will soon forget her impulsive idea. After the parents confirm the seriousness of their daughter’s wish, Heinrich takes a long time to consider her offer. Finally, he, too, yields to her pleas.

Beautiful clothes and furs and a fine horse are bought for the young woman, and she and Heinrich set out on their journey to Salerno. When the doctor there hears from Heinrich that the young woman is willing to sacrifice herself in that fashion, he doubts the knight’s words and takes the girl aside to implore her to speak the truth by telling him whether she is ready of her own free will to face so horrible a fate. Impressed by her sincerity and beauty, the doctor declares that he would be much happier not to take her heart’s blood. Still the woman remains steadfast and begs the doctor to proceed with the operation at once.

Sitting in a neighboring room, Heinrich hears the doctor sharpening his knife. The knight peers through a small hole in the wall and sees the girl tied to a table. For the first time he realizes how beautiful she is, and he bitterly accuses himself of trying to circumvent the judgment of God by sacrificing the girl’s beauty to his ugliness. At the very last moment, before an incision is made, he is able to stop the doctor. Although the young woman implores him not to be weak and even calls him a coward and a man without the courage of a true knight, Heinrich disregards her insults and leaves with her for home.

During the return journey, the grace of God touches Heinrich, and his leprosy disappears, for he and the peasant girl passed the test given to them by God. Heinrich looks younger and handsomer than ever before. The rumor of his miraculous cure spreads throughout the countryside, and Heinrich’s vassals come to meet the travelers three days before they arrive at their destination. The happy parents are the first to meet them, and all thank God for her deliverance and the knight’s cure. In spite of the peasant girl’s low birth, the council of knights agrees that the hand of God surely chose her to become Heinrich’s wife. All in the land, rich and poor, rejoice when she and Heinrich are wed. After a long and happy life, they both enter the eternal kingdom of God.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 279

Fisher, Rodney W. “Hartmann’s Arme Heinrich: The Classical Mediaeval Dilemma of Ere.” In Die Ehre als literarisches Motiv, edited by August Obermayer. Dunedin, New Zealand: University of Otago, 1986. Fisher suggests metaphorical significance for the scene in Salerno. Compares Heinrich knocking on the door to Christ knocking at the door of the human heart.

Margetts, John. “Observations on the Representation of Female Attractiveness in the Works of Hartmann von Aue with Special Reference to Der arme Heinrich.” In Hartmann von Aue: Changing Perspectives, edited by Timothy McFarland and Silvia Ranawake. Göttingen: Kümmerle, 1988. Draws on research into colloquial German vocabulary to demonstrate double entendre in the scene with the girl awaiting the surgeon’s knife. Concludes that a sadomasochistic element is found in all of Hartmann’s works, perhaps reflective of a repressive society.

Rose, Ernst. “Problems of Medieval Psychology as Presented in the ‘Klein Gemahel’ of Heinrich the Unfortunate.” The Germanic Review 22, no. 3 (October, 1947): 182-187. An excellent article of enduring significance, which portrays the girl as precociously pubescent and afraid of her awakening sexuality. Her desire to be sacrificed is driven by unconscious masochism.

Swinburne, Hilda. “The Miracle in Der arme Heinrich.” German Life and Letters 22, no. 3 (April, 1969): 205-209. A solid summary and analysis of the events surrounding the narrative turning point. Enumerates Heinrich’s temptations and analyzes the situations in which both Heinrich and the maiden are tested by God.

Wallbank, Rosemary E. “The Salernitan Dimension in Hartmann von Aue’s Der arme Heinrich.” German Life and Letters 43, no. 2 (January, 1990): 168-176. Informative research into the respected medical schools in Montpellier and Salerno in the twelfth century and a discussion of their rigorous curricula and surgical practices.

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