Gottfried von Strassburg Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Gottfried was one of the great writers of the German courtly epic during the High Middle Ages.

Early Life

Little is known of Gottfried von Strassburg’s life. It is presumed that he was of middle-class origins, and since he was well educated perhaps he was also a member of the clergy. He may have been born in the Alsace region. He lived around 1200, the zenith of the European Middle Ages and the high point of German courtly culture. It was the era of feudalism, with society composed of the knightly class, the serfs, and the clergy. As the custodians of religious and secular heritage, the priests and monks were the most educated (literate) of the three classes.

During this time, the court of the king and his knight-vassals was the center of worldly culture. It was the age of the courtly love lyric, a well-defined canon of poetry in which the knight proclaimed his love for his lady and pledged to do great deeds in her honor. Through such devotion, the knight was to be lifted to a higher spiritual existence. The great stories of love and adventure, the romance—from the Provençal romans—also had their origin in this period of European culture.

Life’s Work

As one of the three greatest writers of the courtly epic in Germany (the other two being Wolfram von Eschenbach and Hartmann von Aue), Gottfried was a master of the genre and told his tales with a perfected sense of verse forms and a brilliant command of imagery. He is best known for the epic Tristan und Isolde (c. 1210; Tristan and Isolde), one of the great romances of the period. Eleven manuscript copies of his text have survived, most of them written in Alsatian dialect. His tale was never completed, and two later writers, Ulrich von Türheim and Heinrich von Freiberg, completed other versions of the Gottfried text. The love story is legendary, that is, a fictionalized account of a historical event the details of which have long been forgotten. The primary source for Gottfried’s version was that of the Anglo-Norman poet Thomas von Britanje. There had been an earlier German rendering by Eilhart von Oberge, composed around 1180, which certainly had some influence on Gottfried’s tale. The themes of Gottfried’s Tristan and Isolde are the demoniac and transcendent, or healing, powers of love.

Told in thirty chapters, Gottfried’s epic relates the tragic tale of the fated lovers, Tristan and Isolde. Tristan was the child of the model English knight Rivalin and his love, Blancheflor. Their story foreshadows to a degree the later fate of their son. A knight at the court of King Mark of Cornwall, the young, inexperienced, and somewhat rash Rivalin meets the beautiful and equally youthful Blancheflor. In the typical manner of the courtly romance, they keep their love secret from the world. Their budding relationship is interrupted by the call to battle, and the brash Rivalin suffers a mortal wound. Disguised as a doctor, Blancheflor visits him on the battlefield, and they consummate their love. He is revived from his wounds by her kisses, yet after the two elope, he perishes in a battle. Blancheflor, unaware of her lover’s fate, brings a child into the world but dies of grief in the course of premature childbirth when she learns of Rivalin’s death. That child is Tristan—whose name, from the French triste, suggests sadness. He was conceived in that moment of passion that had revived his father from the brink of death and that would later lead to the loss of his mother. Thus, the story of Tristan’s parents ironically establishes the association of love and tragic death that will be the theme of the son’s story.

Tristan is reared by Rual and Floraete. He develops into a model student and is skilled in the manly virtues of knighthood. Like his father, he eventually goes to the court of King Mark and impresses all with his skill and learning. King Mark further undertakes Tristan’s upbringing and becomes his most trusted friend. On one of his heroic adventures, Tristan visits Ireland and King Morold, who has been demanding large tributes from Mark. He engages in battle with King Morold and kills him. Wounded by the king’s poisoned sword, Tristan can be healed only by Morold’s sister. Disguised as a minstrel, he visits her and is healed. He then instructs her beautiful daughter, Isolde, in music and the social graces. When he returns to England, Tristan tells King Mark of Isolde’s...

(The entire section is 1845 words.)