Walther von der Vogelweide Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Walther von der Vogelweide was the greatest lyric poet of the German High Middle Ages; his writings set high standards of artistic quality in the genre of the courtly love lyric as well as that of political poetry.

Early Life

Few details are known regarding Walther’s life. He was born within the area of Austria and was in Vienna around 1190 at the court of the Babenberg rulers. At the death of his sponsor, Duke Frederick, in 1198, he wandered around Austria in search of another wealthy patron. He resided at various royal courts and finally settled in Würzburg at the court of the Emperor Friedrick II, from whom he received a small stipend in 1220. Only one document exists that testifies to his life: a note that he was given money by Wolfger, Bishop of Passau, in 1203 in order to purchase a winter coat. He is depicted in a colorful illumination (from the famous Manessische Handschrift manuscript) as the “king of poets,” in a pose described in one of his most famous poems.

Walther was born toward the end of the period of the German High Middle Ages, when the culture and art of the royal courts were at their zenith. Courtly society was highly codified and stratified; hierarchies of rank and authority were carefully observed. This period was the legendary age of chivalry and knightly virtues, an era whose ideal knight combined the bravery of the Germanic warrior with the spiritual discipline of Christianity. The knights were a class of soldiers who pledged fealty to a lord and were in attendance at his court when not engaged in battle or a crusade. Since many were literate, they were devoted to the arts of song and the lyric.

The knightly caste had strict rules of conduct that promoted certain primary social virtues. Honor, loyalty, and discipline were important qualities of the warrior who served a lord in battle. Mildness and steadfastness of character and moderation in all behavior were social and psychological virtues that complemented as well as moderated the more aggressive qualities of the soldier. The goals of a knight were threefold: to attain worldly honor, material wealth, and, above all, the blessings of God.

Knights who were in attendance at a court often practiced devotion to a noble woman of higher station (Minnedienst); the knight who undertook such a commitment dedicated all of his heroic efforts to his lady and composed in her honor highly stylized love poetry (Minnesang). This idealized love was thought to be a spiritual exercise that would ennoble the soul of the knight. If the knight were dutiful in his service to the lady, she might grant him the favor of a glance or a nod.

Since Walther both incorporated and transcended the conventions of the courtly love lyric in many of his poems, a closer look at the genre and its history is in order. The tradition of the love lyric in Germany was determined primarily by foreign influences, descending from the older cultural heritage of Arabic love poetry by way of the Moorish invasion of Spain and then subsequently from the Provençal area of France, where the tradition of Latin love poetry remained and where the ideals of knighthood also flourished. Provençal poetry reached its high point around 1100 in the songs of the troubadour. Prominent poets of the French tradition were Bertrand de Born, William of Poitou, and Bernard de Ventadour.

These Provençal poets devoted themselves and their poetry to an unreachable ideal, to the honor of a married lady of the court—which therefore (usually) excluded the possibility of physical love—and this striving for the ideal in attitude and behavior ennobled their souls. Love expressed to a young, unmarried woman was discouraged. The earlier Christian tradition of love poetry dedicated to the Virgin Mary is here also an obvious influence. Since this love service to the married woman was extremely passionate, in spirit at least, the affairs of the knight and his chosen lady were closely watched by others of the court. Secret meetings between the lovers were presumed by all, and such a clandestine rendezvous was a perennial theme in much of the poetry. The alba, or morning song, for example, celebrated the awakening of the two lovers after a night of secret passion. They were usually outdoors and romantically awakened by the singing of a bird. These motifs became highly stylized and were part of the poet’s standard lyric repertoire.

The German reception of the French tradition of courtly poetry began in northern Germany and the Low Countries (by way of northern France) in the realistic love lyrics of Heinrich von Veldeke. From there, it was transmitted to the Rhineland area in the works of Friedrich von Hausen and to Middle Germany in the poetry of Heinrich von Morungen. These early German poets gave fresh inspiration to the conventions of the genre, writing lyrics which captured the passion and intensity of this spiritualized love experience in...

(The entire section is 2053 words.)