The period of courtly love poetry presents several insoluble problems for the modern reader. Little is known of the poets as individuals, of the circumstances in which their songs were created and performed, or of the melodies that accompanied the songs. Few manuscripts survive, and these were often copied down generations after the fact; by the time individual songs were committed to parchment, deviations from the original text were inevitable. These factors impose limits on any analysis of Hartmann von Aue’s poetry. Although his surviving works are few in number—sixteen songs and five works of substantial length—they are rich in variety, reflecting his changing concerns and the gradual refinement of his style.
The earliest work attributable to Hartmann is Die Klage (lament), a relatively youthful attempt at conventional courtly poetry. The title is somewhat misleading, for the content clearly represents disputation or rational debate. Here a young knight, unsuccessful in courtly love, engages the service of his “body” and “heart” to clarify their roles in this delicate struggle. This didactic piece, clearly a product of reflection and not of immediate personal suffering, recommends traditional chivalric qualities such as discipline, loyalty, and dependability; moderation and modesty; striving and denial. In spite of its relative superficiality and clumsy logic, Die Klage represents the first rational clarification of the redemptive and civilizing qualities required by courtly society. Hartmann’s goal here was no less than to determine those qualities that allow the individual to find favor in the eyes of God and his fellow man. This question and the contemplative search for an appropriate answer characterize Hartmann’s entire oeuvre.
In the same period in which he wrote Die Klage, Hartmann composed the first of his courtly love songs. These earliest poems also uncritically propagated the chivalric qualities necessary for attaining the favor of a noble lady, though Hartmann soon demonstrated his unwillingness to feign joy over the pains of unrequited love. Later poems reflected a greater sorrow that had befallen Hartmann—the death of his lord and patron. The poet had mentioned his failure to win the favor of a particular lady, but that was only a temporary disappointment when compared to the loss of his lord. (Although more recent scholarship questions the sincerity of the singer-patron relationship, suggesting that the poet’s expression of gratitude was purely conventional, Hartmann was doubtless loyal and grateful to his patron. Obviously, the death of his lord had a lasting effect on Hartmann’s life and thus on his poetry.)
In any case, Hartmann’s failure in love prompted him to assess his position. While not questioning the conventions of courtly society in general or of courtly love in particular, Hartmann did come to the realization that he himself was not suited to such Minne service. As he wrote at the time: “True joy is never having loved.” He was too honorable to place blame on the lady in question, reserving all culpability for himself. In truth, Hartmann was not made for such a contest. The protest against his personal suffering eventually grew into a denial of courtly love, couched in a typically objective critique. Hartmann no longer praised this idealized, unrequited love, celebrating instead a mutually harmonious relationship with a woman of less than noble stature beyond the stifling bounds of the court. At the same time, this shift in Hartmann’s attitude toward courtly love was motivated by an intense spiritual reorientation: For the salvation of his and his patron’s souls, Hartmann joined a Crusade, creating songs of dignified devotion as a religious stimulus to others of his class. These changes in Hartmann’s outlook took place only gradually, and their development can be traced in his works.
Hartmann’s Erec is German literature’s first Arthurian romance, a genre that has retained its popularity to this day. Though Hartmann relied on an earlier work by Chrétien de Troyes for his source, he should not be accused of plagiarism: In the Middle Ages, it was assumed that authors would choose their themes from an established collection of plots; true inventio, or originality, appeared in the manner of presentation. One noticeable innovation in Hartmann’s version is the role of the narrator; actual dialogue is subordinated to the third-person narrative, in which an objective distance from event and character is achieved.
While Chrétien had described the successes of a mature hero, Hartmann’s story begins with an impetuous youth. Overwhelmed by his passion for the beautiful Enite, Erec ignores his obligations as knight and ruler, thus bringing dishonor on himself, his court, and his land. He can regain his honor only by renewed, mature striving within the dictates of courtly society; by doing precisely that, he, too, gains personally through a more mature and balanced relationship with his wife. Their love nurtures the well-being that now permeates their entire sphere of influence.
Hartmann’s young Erec has failed abysmally and must undergo a lengthy and painful process of maturation, until he can prove himself worthy of being the leader of a court and the ruler of a kingdom. The major tension in this work is provided by the concepts of personal and social love. Personal, possessive love (that is, passion) must not prove destructive to the greater good represented by a harmonious, integrated society. The prevailing motif of beauty is subtly compared and contrasted to substantiate this point: Sensual beauty is destructive, for it lures the knight to thoughts and deeds of sexual excess, but beauty can also be the outward manifestation of inner harmony, as exemplified by Enite and the lovely ladies at King Arthur’s court. Hartmann explores these conflicts to demonstrate how the individual can enjoy his personal life while remaining a constructive member of society.
Symmetrically placed episodes reinforce this theme: Erec’s immature adventures at the outset of the work are paralleled by his mature successes at the conclusion. In tracing the development of the titular hero from a self-centered youth to a responsible ruler, Hartmann reminded his contemporaries of the responsibilities of the individual knight to others and to society as a whole; Hartmann saw the courtly social code calcifying into a set of rules for membership in an exclusive club.
Hartmann’s Iwein, based on yet another tale by...
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