Page images
PDF
EPUB

WALTHER VON DER VOGELWEIDE.

IT
T may be doubted whether there could be found, in the annals of

any literature, a character more thoroughly typical of the age in which he lived than the old German Minnesinger Walther von der Vogelweide. Posterity has accepted the unanimous verdict of his contemporaries, which assigned him the first place amongst the minstrels of courtly love as the tenderest and most refined, as well as the most gifted and the most correct, of the tuneful and chivalrous brotherhood. In his charming love songs he lays before us a complete and striking picture of Minne-life in the highest phase of its development, and enables us to trace, in all their subtle details, the various forms of love which inspired the Minnesinger's verse.

But love is not the only source from which Walther draws his poetic inspiration. His deep and ardent patriotism reproduces in his verse the hopes and the fears, the despondency and the exultation with which he followed the varying fortunes of his country in its struggle for political freedom, and in its endeavours to shake off the papal power. It is more particularly this—the political-aspect of life that we purpose to develop in the following pages.

There was full scope for the enthusiasm as well of the patriot as of the poet in the events amongst which Walther's chequered life was thrown. His career began in the spring-tide of Minne-song. His youth and early training fell within the brilliant period of national glory under Frederick Barbarossa and Henry VI. at the close of the twelfth century. Whilst singing of May and Minne, amidst the delights of the Austrian Court, as the favourite of a happy nation, he formed his lofty ideal of German imperial power and world-wide sway. The accession of the powerful and ambitious Innocent III. to the papal throne marked the beginning of the minstrel's wanderings from court to court and from camp to camp. He was a witness of the stirring scenes in the mighty civil war which resulted in the ruin of the empire, in the wreck of the happiness and greatness of the German nation. In the evening of his life, when civil strife had subsided, another movement awakened his enthusiasm, and called him forth from the hearth for which he had so ardently longed in

the years of his wanderings, and which imperial liberality had at last given him. In accents of which age had not weakened the power, he called upon the German land to send forth its warriors for the deliverance of the Holy Places which had witnessed the birth, the miracles, and the death of the Redeemer. The remnant of his strength was devoted to the cause of the Cross, and the last scene of his eventful life closed with his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

It is not possible to fix with absolute certainty the year of Walther's birth, but we know that it must fall within the decade from 1160 to 1170. Still greater uncertainty prevails as to the poet's birthplace. No fewer than nine districts lay claim to him, but the weight of evidence seems to be in favour of Tyrol. As regards the origin of the name which the poet bore, there can be but little doubt. In Old High German the word “fogilweida” signified, according to the glossaries, an "aviarium.” The simplest and most reasonable supposition is, that either Walther's father, or one of his ancestors, was appointed to superintend an “aviarium,” and that Vogelweide, from being the name of a preserve, became that of the family to whose care this preserve was entrusted.

It is generally allowed that Walther was of noble descent. He gives himself the title “Herr,” which, in those days, was a knightly distinction, and his contemporaries also designate him as "Herr” Walther and “Herr” Vogelweide. This is notably the case with Wolfran, whose pride of birth was such that he declares his noble rank to be dearer to him than his fame in song, and wlio, most assuredly, would have been the last to bestow the distinctive epithet of nobility on a mere commoner. The illumination prefixed to one of the manuscripts of Walther's poems evidently attributes knightly rank to him. He is represented, as he describes himself in one of his poems, seated in the attitude of sad meditation on a moss-grown stone. Against the stone a knight's sword, with belt attached, is leaning. Moreover, the same volume gives us Walther's armorial bearings, which are : on gules a cage quadrate, or, the wires argent, pale-wise ; within the cage a falcon close, passant and regardant.

Concerning Walther's family and early life we know absolutely nothing. That he left the paternal roof at an early age we gather from his poems, but under what circumstances we cannot even conjecture. We only know that it was at the Court of Leopold VI. of Austria that he first appeared and laid the foundation of his fame as a Minnesinger.

In Austria I learnt to sing and say.
Leopold's court was one of the most brilliant in the whole empire,

NO. 1822,

VOL. CCLIII.

II

and Vienna was considered second to Cologne only in size, wealth, and importance. The Duke's generosity had attracted thither the most renowned of the Minnesingers, and amongst them the fainous Reimar the Elder, the nightingale of Hagenau. In him the youthful Walther found not only a model, but a zealous teacher and a warm friend. Unfortunately, however, the friendship between the two poets was not lasting. Although we are not told in precise words the cause of this estrangement, the hint contained in Walther's poem on the death of Reimar leads us to suppose that, in some form or other, jealousy and rivalry were at the bottom of it.

At the time that Walther left the retirement of his Tyrolese home for the stirring life of ducal Vienna, the German Empire stood at the zenith of its greatness and of its might. The aged Barbarossa had just brought to a close the twenty years' struggle with Italy. A few years later, Saladin's triumphs in the East led the chivalrous Emperor to undertake, in the decline of his glorious life, the most splendid and imposing of the expeditions that ever Christianity sent forth to check the power of the Infidels. Barbarossa was succeeded on the imperial throne by Henry VI., one of the most powerful sovereigns that ever ruled the empire of the West. His weak body was animated by all Frederick's energy, without any of his considerate scruples. He aimed at nothing less than a power such as Rome had possessed in the palmiest days of the Cæsars—at an empire under which the sovereigns of Europe should be the vassals of the German Crown. But all these lofty plans were dispelled like vain dreams by Henry's sudden death at Messina in 1198. The glory of Germany fell with him, and was succeeded by years of civil war and misery and humiliation.

By a singular coincidence this national catastrophe, sufficient in itself to turn the whole current of Walther's life, was accompanied by a complete change in the circumstances which had made his sojourn at the Court of Vienna a period of almost unalloyed happiness and prosperity, under the genial influence of which his fame had sprung up and spread to every court and through every province where the German tongue was spoken.

Walther's first patron, Duke Leopold, died in 1194, and was succeeded in Austria by his eldest son Frederick, and in Styria by his second son Leopold. The possible accession of the younger brother to the ducal throne seems to have been overlooked by the courtier poet; and he had put himself to no pains to secure the young prince's favour. Indeed, the mention of "an old offence' would appear to point to something more than mere indifference. When Frederick joined the ranks of the Crusaders in 1197, Leopold was appointed regent of Austria during his absence. From that moment Walther's position at court underwent a change.

But when, on his brother's death in 1198, the regent suddenly became duke, Walther at once recognised that for him “ the gate of fortune was barred.

With but a bleak prospect before him, the minstrel was obliged to abandon the scene of his early happiness and fame, and to seek shelter and patronage from some more friendly prince. It is under such circumstances as these that his wanderings begin. We can picture him as the illumination of the Manessian manuscript represents him. He is in the flower of his age : long flowing locks hang over his shoulders. His features, though not handsome, as he himself allows, are noble and manly, and set off by a full, fair beard. He wears the close-fitting cap of the time : his doublet is of a rich blue colour which contrasts sharply, but not unpleasantly, with his red hose. Mounted on his horse, and girded with his sword-for though a minstrel, he does not forego the privilege of his knightly rank,—with his violin by his side, he goes from castle to castle and from court to court. His wanderings have no fixed goal. He sets out in the morning not knowing whither his footsteps may stray, and commending himself to that same Providence that cares for his fellow-minstrels, the birds :

With Thy grace let me rise to-day,
Be Thou, God! with me on my way,

Lead and protect wherever I may ride. He is not always a welcome guest, for there are some to whom the warblings of the lark and the strains of the nightingale are importunate; and there are rude barons and churlish monks who have no hospitality for the minstrel and no praise for his lays. From these the wanderer turns with some disappointment but with no ill-will, at most flinging at them an epigram that will immortalise their meanness, as at the friars of Tegernsee. But when the great will not receive the minstrel, he can always depend on the generosity and the enthusiasm of the people. If the monks send him away “merely damper from drinking water," the citizen will share with him his can of wine. Though his Minne-lay may not reach the ear of noble dame, it will be learnt and treasured by the simple burgher-maid, for he does not disdain to play in the streets of towns or on the green of humble villages. He scatters music and poetry about him for the enjoyment of high and low alike, as impartially as the sun sheds its light and the breeze spreads its freshness. Thus he will visit "many lands from the Elbe to the Rhine and back to Hungary :" he will

learn “the manners of men from the Seine to the Muor, from the Po to the Drave."

At the death of Henry VI. his son Frederick was only three years old. Philip of Suabia, the child's uncle, at first endeavoured to secure the succession for his nephew, but yielding to the entreaties of the national party, he consented to accept the crown which Frederick was too young to wear, and was crowned, with the real crown jewels, at Mainz. Meanwhile, however, the papal faction had also been at work. It had chosen Otto of Braunschweig, and caused him to be crowned at Aachen, though only with false crown jewels-a circumstance of no small importance in those days. The anarchy and confusion consequent on this double election first drew Walther into the political arena. He at once declared his sympathy for the national, as against the papal, party. It is not surprising, therefore, that, on leaving Austria, Walther should have directed his steps towards the Rhine, where Philip held his court. He had left Vienna early enough to be present at Mainz on the coronation-day, and he embraced the opportunity which this gave him of laying his poetical homage at the feet of the new sovereign. The youthful Hohenstaufen, “the young sweet man,” received the poet with his wonted affability, and Walther's head, which “had sunk to his knee" at the death of Frederick of Austria, was again “raised in joyful carriage.” “The Crown and the Empire” have taken him under their protection, and in his delight he undertakes “to fiddle for whoe'er will dance.”

Having been amongst the first to call upon Philip to accept the crown and to congratulate him on its assumption, Walther doubtless thought himself entitled to throw in a word of advice, and that advice was not altogether disinterested. Liberality is its burden. Alexander is quoted as a model of royal munificence; "he gave and gave, and giving won the kingdoms of the earth.” It would have been wiser to impress upon Philip the necessity of economising the gold in his coffers. His liberality was such that, instead of bringing him all the kingdoms of the earth, it obliged him to sell or pawn his inheritance to satisfy the claims of his soldiery. And yet, in spite of this, there were still murmurs at his parsimony, and even Walther seems to have been disappointed in his expectations. In a later poem he again impresses on Philip the virtue of liberality, recalls the saying of Saladin, that “a prince's hands should be pierced with holes," and cites Richard of England, who owed it to his own generosity that his people collected the immense sum demanded for his ransom.

Amidst the misery and distress that marked Philip's short reign,

« PreviousContinue »