Walther von der Vogelweide c. 1170-1228
Recognized as the greatest medieval lyric poet in the German language, Walther is best known for revolutionizing the highly stylized Minnesang (love song) genre by adding naturalism, humor, sincere emotion, and irony—elements frequently found in folk songs of the time. Mostly praised for his love songs, he also wrote religious, didactic, and political verse. Walther, in addition, transformed the tradition of the simple Sprüch (short narrative poem) by using the form to voice his strong political opinions and ideas of German nationalism. Although a devoted Catholic, he was particularly vocal against the Pope's involvement in government. Walther inspired numerous contemporary poets and singers with his inventive handling of seemingly simple verse.
Walther's birthplace is unknown, but most accounts point toward somewhere in Austria. Possibly born of lesser nobility, Walther may have received a formal education in his youth, and subsequently enjoyed contact with individuals of elevated social rank. Although nothing is known of Walther's parents or family, it is certain that he inherited no land from them and was therefore financially dependent on patrons throughout most of his life. He most likely moved to Vienna in about 1190, and there learned the art of music and verse composition from the great Minnesänger Reinmar the Old. Walther was held in favor at the Austrian court of Duke Frederick I, where he practiced his craft until the Duke's death in 1198. Frederick's successor, Leopold VI the Glorious, was not fond of song, and so Walther began his course through the courts of a succession of noble patrons, next serving Philip II of Swabia. After the death of Emperor Henry VI, Philip became engaged in a struggle for the German throne with Otto IV; each had been crowned by a different archbishop in a different location. The struggle lasted ten years, during which time Walther wrote numerous poems supporting Philip, largely because Walther felt that he was less under the influence of the Pope. After Philip's assassination in 1208, Otto IV also opposed papal forces—a policy that endeared him to Walther and which he celebrated in several poems. In 1210 Walther's patron was Duke Berhard of Karinthia; in 1211 he went to the court of Hermann von Thüringen on the Wartburg; next to Dietrich, Margrave of Meissen, where he remained until 1213. In 1214 Frederick II became undisputed emperor and, six years later, he granted Walther a small fief near Würzburg, where Walther remained until his death in 1228.
Approximately two hundred poems by Walther are known to exist, sometimes categorized for easier reference under the headings of love, political, social, and religious poetry. Since they generally lack titles, most are referred to by their first line, as they lack titles. Although some of his political works may be reasonably dated by the mention of specific historical events, Walther's love verses are difficult to sequence. His earliest love lyrics are likely those which show the influence of his teacher, Reinmar. “Unter den Linden” is probably his most widely recognized work and is the perfect example of Walther's departure from Reinmar. Remarkable for its use of natural imagery, the poem focuses on a woman of common birth with unusual sexual frankness. “Dê swar Reinmar, dû rinwest mich” is a tribute to Walther's teacher, written after Reinmar's death. In “Ich hân min lêhen aldue Werlt, ich hân min lêhen” the poet praises his new patron and humorously rejoices in finally receiving a fief from Frederick II. Many of Walther's religious works also contain eloquent critiques of political issues, as does “Allerêrst lebe ich mir werde” (also known as “Palestine Song”). “Ir sult sprechen willekome,” a typical political poem, responds to rising French influence in continental Europe and is so pervaded with German nationalist sentiment that it later appeared in some Nazi anthologies of literature. Some other major works include “Ich saz ûf eime steine,” “Elegy,” and “Aller werdekeit ein füegerinne.”
The end of the twelfth century was a turbulent period in central European history, characterized by frequent disruptions in imperial authority. Many critics who have discussed Walther and his age have regarded his role as vital in bringing clarity amid social and political chaos. Summarizing the political element of Walther's verse, Edmund W. Gosse has noted Walther's “desire of order and hatred of anarchy, yearning for the unity of Germany, and deep-rooted suspicion of the Papacy.” Many commentators have found Walther's religious verse to be rooted not in his own views about the individual's relationship with God, but in his passionate conviction that involvement in German politics by a corrupt Papacy made the Church incapable of attending to the spiritual needs of its people. Turning to formal and structural elements in his work, such critics as W. T. H. Jackson and S. L. Clark have frequently praised Walther's use of simple language, natural imagery, and genuine feeling in his love songs. Among the infrequent negative appraisals of Walther's work, some critics have deemed his use of imagery simple, obvious, and unsophisticated. Scholars have repeatedly discussed Walther's desire to break through the conventions of love poetry by writing about both upper class and peasant women. Critics like M. O'C. Walshe have suggested that Walther often changed political views, siding with whomever supported him financially at the time. Although scholars have generally admired the purely literary qualities of Walther's poetry, some have also drawn attention to the fact that he was not only the lyricist, but also the composer and performer of his songs. Acknowledging that evidence is hard to marshal because so few of his compositions survive, some critics have suggested that Walther's may have introduced humorous or subversive elements into ostensibly serious songs through his use of simple physical gestures or musical conventions.