(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Walther von der Vogelweide c. 1170-1228

Austrian poet.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.”

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Selected Poems of Walther von der Vogelweide [translated by Walter Alison Phillips] 1896

Songs and Sayings of Walther von der Vogelweide, Minnesaenger [translated by Frank Betts] 1917

“I saw the world”: Sixty Poems from Walther von der Vogelweide [translated by Ian G. Colvin] 1938

Walther von der Vogelweide [translated by George Fenwick Jones] 1968

*German Poetry: A Selection from Walther von der Vogelweide to Bertolt Brecht, in German with English translation [translated by Gustave Mathieu and Guy Stern] 1971

*German and Italian Lyrics of the Middle Ages [translated by Frederick Goldin] 1973

Walther von der Vogelweide: The Single-Stanza Lyrics [translated by Frederick Goldin] 2002

*This anthology includes a selection of Walter's poetry.

Edmund W. Gosse (essay date 1879)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Gosse, Edmund W. “Walther von der Vogelweide.” In Studies in the Literature of Northern Europe, pp. 197-229. London: C. Kegan Paul & Co., 1879.

[In the following essay, Gosse examines Walther's life, traces the succession of his patrons, and explains how politics, religion, and folk songs influenced his poetry.]

When the history of mediæval poetry comes to be written we shall understand, perhaps, what must remain very dark till then, how it was that during the marvellous twelfth century, amid all the chaos of the shattering and building of empires, such sudden simultaneous chords of melody were shot crosswise through the length and breadth of Europe,...

(The entire section is 9582 words.)

W. T. H. Jackson (essay date 1960)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Jackson, W. T. H. “The Medieval Lyric.” In The Literature of the Middle Ages, pp. 262-73. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.

[In the following excerpt, Jackson cites Walther's use of humor and parody in his love lyrics and commends him for maintaining earnest goals in his political poetry.]

It is worth noting that, in the best poets of the Minnesang, the Natureingang is the exception rather than the rule. After Walther von der Vogelweide it becomes a rigid and exasperating formula. The Tagelied is also rare, although Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote some brilliant specimens. The earlier Minnesänger use one or two types rare...

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M. O'C. Walshe (essay date 1962)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Walshe, M. O'C. “The Courtly Love-Lyric.” In Medieval German Literature: A Survey, pp. 113-26. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962.

[In the following excerpt, Walshe explains how Walther naturalized and humanized courtly literature and analyzes his shifting political allegiances.]

The great blazer of new trails was Walther von der Vogelweide. We do not know with any certainty where Walther was born.

The statement, still sometimes repeated, that he came from the Layener Ried in the valley of the Eisack in what is now Italian South Tyrol is supported by no other evidence than the existence there of a...

(The entire section is 6050 words.)

Kenneth J. Northcott (essay date 1983)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Northcott, Kenneth J. “Walter von der Vogelweide.” In European Writers: The Middle Ages and the Renaissance, edited by William T. H. Jackson, pp. 287-308. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983.

[In the following essay, Northcott provides historical background and literary analyses of Walther's poems, which he groups into four categories: love, social, religious, and political.]

Hêr Walther von der Vogelweide
Swêr des vergæz', der tet mir leide.

Sir Walther von der Vogelweide, I would be sorry if anyone were to forget him.

The lines quoted above were written by Hugo von Trimberg...

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SunHee Kim Gertz (essay date 1991)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Gertz, SunHee Kim. “‘Habe ime wîs unde wort mit mir gemeine’: The Traditional in the Poetry and Criticism of Walther von der Vogelweide.” Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 3, no. 1 (spring 1991): 189-219.

[In the following essay, Gertz surveys critics' responses to Walther, noting that their interpretations have been influenced by their preconceptions, their choice of approach, and their critical styles.]

The questions that scholars of medieval literature might pose are, of course, manifold. It appears, however, that their responses to such questions must be more constrained than those of critics of more contemporary...

(The entire section is 11462 words.)

Jeffrey Ashcroft (essay date 2000)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Ashcroft, Jeffrey. “The Sinner, Not the Song: On Walther von der Vogelweide's Self-Reflexions, L. 62,6 and 66,21.” In Blütezeit: Festschrift für L. Peter Johnson zum 70. Geburtstag, edited by Mark Chinca, Joachim Heinzle, and Christopher Young, pp. 67-86. Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2000.

[In the following essay, Ashcroft studies two of Walther's songs in which the poet, after reflecting on his life and legacy, judges his work as ultimately corrupt.]

Walther's lyric presents an extraordinary variety of first-person subjects. In part these are genre-determined, like the male and female voices in his versions of pastourelle,...

(The entire section is 8979 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


Chinca, Mark. “A Song and Its Situations: Walther L. 69, 1.” In Blütezeit: Festschrift für L. Peter Johnson zum 70. Geburtstag, edited by Mark Chinca, Joachim Heinzle, and Christopher Young, pp. 101-22. Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2000.

Analyzes textual variations in different Walther manuscripts.

Clark, S. L. “‘Ein schoenez bilde’: Walter von der Vogelweide and the Idea of Image.” In From Symbol to Mimesis: The Generation of Walther von der Vogelweide, edited by Franz H Bäuml, pp. 69-91. Göppingen, Germany: Kümmerle Verlag, 1984.

Analyzes Walther's use of imagery and discusses...

(The entire section is 396 words.)