Draughty corridors and icy stone chambers.
Medieval castles were anything but cosy. It was a time when
glass was still a luxury that few could afford. During winter months,
pelts and animal skins, instead of glass, covered the openings, or they
were simply boarded up altogether. Castle kitchens promised a fire, where
the residents gathered out of necessity to warm themselves around its
large hearth. At times chivalrous life may have been adventurous, but it
certainly was not easy. The medieval German lyric poet and soldier, Oswald
von Wolkenstein, whose castle was in South Tyrol, complained that he led a
wretched life. He struggled for his daily bread and in the lives of those
around him, he saw nothing but intense hardship: ungainly people, filthy
goats and cattle, all blackened by the soot of fires; nor could he take
pleasure in the sounds he heard around him: braying donkeys and screaming
The bleak existence of daily life may explain the
medieval passion for elaborate and lively banquets; these were frequent
and certainly would have filled their dining halls with food and good
cheer. Residents and guests at the Frohburg Castle (which literally
translated means "happy castle") in Switzerland, for example, devoured
"106 wild boar, 73 deer, 61 bear, 3 elk and 2 aurochs (now extinct)"
during the course of a long winter. These festivities also meant good
business for the Teutonic troubadours or minnesingers. Most of these
minnesingers were errant knights, meaning that they were "chansonniers".
Their songs dealt with Platonic or chaste courtly love.
When chivalry was at its peak in the twelfth and
thirteenth centuries, courage and loyalty were not the only virtues to be
sung. Songs which praised a pure Christian life, defended the poor and,
above all, paid homage to the ladies of the court, could also be heard.
Although aristocratic ladies were always under the authority of their
fathers, brothers or husbands, they enjoyed the status of goddesses in
chivalric society. Courtly love, Minne, became an ideal because it
exacted the patience, endurance and submission of its practitioners. Men
courted the favour of ladies whose social status was often higher than
their own. Consequently, they had to "earn" the favour they sought by
winning tournaments or writing poetry, setting it to music and singing it.
The most important itinerant troubadour in central
Europe was Walther von der Vogelweide. Born in about 1170 in Lower
Austria, be lived at various courts until he received a fief from the
Emperor Frederick II which ensured him a steady income. Some of his poetry
has been preserved in the Manesse illuminated manuscript, which contains
nearly 6,000 stanzas of verse written by 140 poets between 1160 and 1350.
It is said to have been collated and illuminated at the court of Ruedtger
Manesse, who represented the knights' estate in the Zurich City Council
from 1264. This magnificent codex, which includes sumptuous full-page
portraits of the authors, is one of the most important medieval
illuminated manuscripts in the world.