Article abstract: In the era of the High Middle Ages, Wolfram was a master in the tradition of the courtly epic; his works constitute one of the high points of the narrative writing produced during this first golden age of German literature.
As is the case with many medieval figures, little is known about the life of Wolfram von Eschenbach. He was born and died in the town of Eschenbach bei Ansbach and was a Frankish knight in the service of the Count of Wertheim. He was married, had a child, and possessed a modest estate. His grave in the Frauenkirche of Eschenbach was unmarked and has become lost over the centuries. He was well-read but had received no formal education. Wolfram was a man who felt close to the common people and was deeply committed to the ideals of Christianity.
Wolfram lived during the reign of the Hohenstaufen dynasty—its most notable ruler being Fredrick I Barbarossa. It was the age of the Crusades and feudalism. European knighthood was in full bloom, especially in France, England, and Germany. The knights were the bearers of a culture which centered on the courts of the liege lords to whom they had sworn fealty. During a period when Christianity was in competition with the secular domain for political and cultural hegemony, the ethos of knighthood constituted an attempt to merge religious and profane values.
Since the courtly culture of the time was a formative influence on Wolfram and his writings, it would be helpful to summarize some major aspects. The knightly code of behavior was guided by a number of prominent formal virtues, some of which had descended from older Germanic tribal codes. Honor (êre) was foremost and meant that the knight would not do anything in thought or action to disgrace himself or the order of knighthood before God and the king. The courtly culture was concerned with proper form, and a knight’s appearance before the world was of the greatest importance. Loyalty (triuwe) meant that the knight kept his oath of allegiance to his liege lord. Discipline (zucht) indicated that the knight must maintain his proper knightly attitude on the battlefield and in court. Moderation (mâze) suggested that he must avoid all extremes and maintain his formal bearing. A knight’s goals in life were threefold: to own property (such as an estate), to maintain his honor before his peers, and to strive for God’s blessing. As a landed knight, Wolfram was committed to the values of his class, and they are evident in his works. A deeply religious man, he regarded the institution of knighthood as a manifestation of God’s will on earth.
The High Middle Ages was also the period of the highly formalized institution of courtly love (Minnedienst). Although occasional sexual liaisons undoubtedly occurred, courtly love was not an erotic affair but a form of spiritualized service in which the knight pledged his loyalty and honor to the defense of a lady of the court and thereby believed himself ennobled. The knight’s adoration of his lady was most often manifested in the writing of love poetry (Minnesang). Wolfram did write some poetry, although he is not known primarily for this type of literary production.
Wolfram’s greatest achievements were in the genre of the courtly heroic epic. Before turning to his individual works, a few words about this form of literature might be in order. The literary models for the German courtly epic came primarily from France in the chansons de geste, tales of great heroic deeds, such as the Chanson de Roland (c. 1100; Song of Roland), and especially in the tales of knightly glory that were associated with the legendary King Arthur and his Round Table. The French writer Chrétien de Troyes, who lived toward the end of the twelfth century, had given classic form to the genre with his Arthurian epics, and his works were an important influence on later German authors.
Wolfram’s most famous text was his courtly epic Parzifal (c. 1200-1210; English translation, 1894), which consists of sixteen sections and was handed down in more than eighty manuscript versions and fragments. The text is written in rhymed couplets, the form characteristic of medieval German narrative poetry. It is based on Chrétien’s Perceval: Ou, Le Conte du Graal (c. 1180; Perceval: Or, The Story of the Grail), stories surrounding the legendary chalice which was held by Christ at the Last Supper and was used by the disciple Joseph to catch Christ’s blood. Wolfram’s version is the story of the young and naïve Parzifal in his quest for the Holy Grail and for his true relationship to God and knighthood. Parzifal serves as a literary representative of his social class.
Since his father, the heroic knight Gachmuret, had been killed on a crusade, Parzifal’s mother, Herzeloyde, rears her son alone in a secluded wood so that he might be saved from the worldly fate of his father. One day, however, the young...
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