As is the case with many medieval poets, documentary evidence attesting the life and deeds of Hartmann von Aue is sparse. The few tantalizing clues that have survived have become the topic of continuing scholarly debate and controversy. From brief statements within the works of Hartmann and his fellow courtly poets, from contemporary events, and from astute speculation, a plausible biography has been established. Hartmann’s birth date, for example, can be surmised only by backdating—that is, by assuming that his earliest work was composed at approximately the age of twenty. Thus, since the first work attributable to Hartmann appeared around 1180, he was probably born between 1160 and 1165. His noble appellation “von Aue” indicates that he lived in the German territory known as Swabia, located in present-day northwestern Switzerland and southwestern Germany. From the introduction to Der arme Heinrich, in which Hartmann describes himself as “learned”—that is, able to read Latin (and presumably French)—one can assume that he enjoyed an education, most likely in a monastery school. As an adult, Hartmann became an unpropertied knight in the administrative service of a noble lord.
Hartmann’s earliest works convey his involvement in courtly society and its chivalric conventions, but his failure at Minne (courtly love), the death of his beloved lord and patron, and his eventual participation in a Crusade reflect a gradual but fundamental change in his life. Hartmann forsook the conventions of Minne and his role as Minnesinger, placing himself in the service of Christ and composing instead songs of the Crusades and of renunciation. Although Iwein appears to have been the last secular work that Hartmann wrote, scholars now believe that this work was merely the completion of an earlier commission and thus does not accurately reflect Hartmann’s mature stance. There is no evidence that Hartmann wrote anything during the last ten or more years of his life. The date and circumstances of his death remain a mystery to this day. Poets of the time implied that Hartmann was still living in 1210, but by 1220 he was mentioned as being among the deceased.