Der Stricker c. 1190-c. 1250
The poet known as der Stricker, a German author of two works of epic romance and an assortment of innovative short narrative verse composed in the first half of the thirteenth century, is considered a transitional literary figure of the German Middle Ages. Flourishing after the close of the medieval Blütezeit—a high-point of classical German literature from about 1170 to 1230 that witnessed the composition of courtly romances by Hartmann von Aue, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Gottfried von Strassburg—der Stricker is thought to have initiated a significant reorientation of artistic sensibilities in the ensuing post-classical period. With his short verse pieces, which combine elements of traditional moral-didactic poetry with satire, humor, and irreverent social critique, der Stricker made seminal and enduring assays into several developing German genres of verse narrative, including the Schwank, bîspel, and maere. In mastering these forms, the poet recognized the appeal of narratives located outside the confines of the then dominant aristocratic literary tradition and featured characters and situations drawn from everyday life among the peasantry and common folk. In the contemporary period, scholars have asserted the originality and poetic versatility of der Stricker's writings, acknowledging the outstanding merit of his collected short works in Kleindichtung (c. 1250), as well as the inventiveness of his Arthurian romance Daniel von dem blühenden Tal (c. 1210-25; Daniel of the Blossoming Valley).
Almost nothing is known of der Stricker's life except what can be surmised from evidence within his writings. The name der Stricker (which means “knitter” or “weaver”) is thought to be a pseudonym that refers to the writer's self-proclaimed status as a weaver of poetic tales. While it is possible that Stricker may also have been a family name, most commentators maintain that it was likely an adopted nom de plume. Analysis of the dialect used by der Stricker in what is probably his first major work of poetry, Daniel, suggests his origins in Germany, possibly in the southwestern German regions of Franconia or Bavaria. He appears to have spent a significant portion of his adult life in Austria, probably living in the vicinity of the Danube valley around 1240. Der Stricker makes reference in his writings to the Osterlant, which roughly corresponds to the modern region of Lower Austria. Several of his shorter works, including the poem “Die Herren zu Österreich,” suggest his connections to aristocratic houses in that area. Scholars also believe that der Stricker may have been an itinerant poet or wandering minstrel who traveled German-speaking lands in search of artistic patrons. Since he is thought not to have been of aristocratic birth, der Stricker was most likely an educated commoner with possible ties to either the Dominican or the Franciscan monastic orders. Definitive evidence concerning der Stricker's financial supporters or a link to any particular religious organization, however, is unavailable. Scholars estimate that der Stricker was probably born in the late twelfth century, note that he flourished professionally in the second quarter of the thirteenth century, and assume that he died around 1250.
The extant manuscript tradition of der Stricker's works is relatively rich, with several texts surviving from the period nearly contemporaneous with the poet's death. Forty-one manuscript versions of his epic Karl der Große (c. 1217-25) are extant, including twenty-three complete texts. A number of these date to the thirteenth century. Nine complete and two fragmentary manuscripts of Die Schwänke des Pfaffen Amîs (c. 1225-50) have survived. The oldest of these, housed in Berlin, was likely transcribed in the late thirteenth century. Nearly forty manuscripts are available with portions of der Stricker's Kleindichtung. Codex Vindob. 2705, found at the Austrian National Library in Vienna, contains versions of most of der Stricker's shorter works. This collection, as well as another located in Heidelberg, are considered authoritative due to their age and comprehensiveness. Five fifteenth-century manuscripts of der Stricker's Daniel have survived into the present era. The first four are respectively housed in Copenhagen, Dresden, Frankfurt am Main, and Munich. A fifth, missing since World War II, was rediscovered in Krakow, Poland decades later and remains in the possession of the Jagiellonian University. No copies of the Daniel in der Stricker's native dialect are extant, although the Frankfurt manuscript is thought to be the closest to the original. The standard German edition of this work was published in 1983 under the editorial direction of Michael Resler, who also produced its first English translation in a 1990 edition entitled Daniel of the Blossoming Valley.
Composed in Middle High German, der Stricker's Arthurian romance Daniel of the Blossoming Valley represents the first known original work in this genre in medieval German literature. Allegedly based upon a French model, a spurious work der Stricker attributes to the poet Alberich de Besançon, Daniel relates the adventures of its eponymous hero, a freely devised figure who departs from the tradition of Arthurian legend in his definitive and frequent reliance on list (cunning) rather than bravery or brute strength to save the day. Daniel's exploits include slaying a messenger giant, a representative of the neighboring land of Cluse, who threatens King Arthur's court with a declaration of war. In order to accomplish this feat, Daniel obtains a magical sword from the evil dwarf, Juran—an invisible blade that allows him to pierce the giant's otherwise impregnable armor. Daniel employs his wits, craftiness, and a variety of supernatural aids to outmaneuver and defeat several other adversaries, including King Matur of Cluse, whose queen he takes as his wife and whose kingdom he thereby inherits. Der Stricker's epic poem Karl der Große is based upon the Rolandslied, composed by Pfaffe Konrad in about 1170, a work that was itself a German adaptation of the French Chanson de Roland. Its subject is the Frankish King Charlemagne (742-814) and his battle against encroaching heathen forces in neighboring Spain, a popular theme throughout the late medieval period. A work of comic satire in verse, Die Schwänke des Pfaffen Amîs concentrates on the false cleric Amîs, an irreverent trickster character whose adventures form the twelve sections of this episodic poem. In these verse tales, Amîs plays upon the hypocrisy and ignorance of his compatriots, who include clergymen as well as commoners and knights. By the end of the narrative, a repentant Amîs renounces his past deceits and enters a monastery to become its abbot. Der Stricker's combined works of short narrative poetry, collectively known as the Kleindichtung, comprise nearly 170 individual pieces. Typically either religious or moral-didactic in nature, many of these writings evince a strong comic element, although several address more serious themes. Principally comprised of a variety of discursive and allegorical works, the Kleindichtung includes seminal examples of three subgenres of medieval German narrative verse: the Schwank, a comic anecdote, the bîspel or fable, and the maere, a tale that often features elements of fantasy or the supernatural. The subjects of these writings embrace all levels of feudal society, frequently include components of parody and satire, and depict several shared themes, such as the efficacy of Christian virtue, the effects of outwitted folly, and relations between men and women. Among der Stricker's religious narratives, “Die Klage” is a critique of heresy that describes a Luciferian mass and denounces other forms of pernicious belief, moral corruption, and depraved behavior der Stricker witnessed in thirteenth-century Austria. More humor can be found in “Der Richter und der Teufel,” a cautionary tale featuring a heartless judge duped by the Devil into relinquishing his soul. Included in der Stricker's works of short satire, “Der nackte Ritter” mocks the aristocratic social conventions associated with the knightly code of chivalry, while “Der wunderbare Stein” lampoons human gullibility and arrogance, as well as the inequities of the medieval social order. A significant number of der Stricker's Kleindichtung portray the common theme of marital strife. Among these works, “Die eingemauerte Frau” relates the tale of a cruel husband who walls his disobedient wife into a small room until she repents her recalcitrant behavior. In “Der begrabene Ehemann,” roles are reversed as a husband submits to being buried alive at the urging of his adulterous wife. Offering a more positive view of gender relations, “Die Frauenehre,” a treatise on love, celebrates the virtues of women in marriage.
Owing to the contemporary popularity of the subject, der Stricker's Karl der Große was probably his single most successful work during the medieval period, a likelihood corroborated by the survival of more than forty manuscripts of the poem. In the modern era this work has been considered largely derivative despite its occasional flashes of narrative and lyrical brilliance. Reaction to der Stricker's Daniel, inversely, was far less favorable until the twentieth century, with early critics viewing it as inferior to the Arthurian romances of his German poetic predecessors Hartmann von Aue and Wolfram von Eschenbach. Contemporary scholarship has modified this view considerably, emphasizing the originality of der Stricker's work. In particular, scholars have noted his departure from a number of the genre's tropes, notably in the representation of a hero who generally succeeds through cunning and eschews the conventions of courtly love. Modern perceptions of the work forward the idea that der Stricker deliberately modified or rejected the generic principles of his forebears for his own artistic purposes, rather than simply misinterpreting them. The title character of der Stricker's Die Schwänke des Pfaffen Amîs has been said to anticipate a later classic of German satire, the sixteenth-century trickster Till Eulenspiegel, some of whose exploits resemble those of this amusing abbot. This work also shares in the acclaim of der Stricker's shorter narrative poems, which in both the medieval and modern periods were among his most popular and critically admired. Of special interest to contemporary commentators have been der Stricker's critique of the feudal social order and its oppression of the lower classes in these pieces, as well as his view of gender relations in the thirteenth century. Additionally, scholars have explored der Stricker's break with the traditions of courtly love, or minne, in these poems, and his consequent departure from the traditions of the medieval Blütezeit poet Walther von der Vogelweide. Regarded as an enduring and highly original composer of medieval narrative verse, der Stricker continues to elicit the interest of modern scholars eager to explore open questions related to the poet's origins and social position, his intellectual, social, and theological orientation, and his influence on subsequent German literature.