History of Literature

German literature

Wolfram von Eschenbach


Wolfram von Eschenbach

Portrait of Wolfram from the Codex Manesse.


born c. 1170
died c. 1220

German poet whose epic Parzival, distinguished alike by its moral elevation and its imaginative power, is one of the most profound literary works of the Middle Ages.

An impoverished Bavarian knight, Wolfram apparently served a succession of Franconian lords: Abensberg, Wildenberg, and Wertheim are among the places he names in his work. He also knew the court of the landgrave Hermann I of Thuringia, where he met the great medieval lyric poet Walther von der Vogelweide. Though a self-styled illiterate, Wolfram shows an extensive acquaintance with French and German literature, and it is probable that he knew how to read, if not how to write.

Wolfram’s surviving literary works, all bearing the stamp of his unusually original personality, consist of eight lyric poems, chiefly Tagelieder (“Dawn Songs,” describing the parting of lovers at morning); the epic Parzival; the unfinished epic Willehalm, telling the history of the crusader Guillaume d’Orange; and short fragments of a further epic, the so-called Titurel, which elaborates the tragic love story of Sigune from book 3 of Parzival.

Parzival, probably written between 1200 and 1210, is a poem of 25,000 lines in 16 books. Likely based on an unfinished romance of Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval, ou Le Conte du Graal, it introduced the theme of the Holy Grail into German literature. Its beginning and end are new material, probably of Wolfram’s own invention, although he attributes it to an unidentified and probably fictitious Provençal poet, Guiot. The story of the ignorant and naive Parzival, who sets out on his adventures without even knowing his own name, employs the classic fairy-tale motif of “the guileless fool” who, through innocence and artlessness, reaches a goal denied to wiser men.

Wolfram uses Parzival’s dramatic progress from folk-tale dunce to wise and responsible keeper of the Grail to present a subtle allegory of man’s spiritual education and development. Parzival also figures as the hero of Richard Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal (1882). The complexity of Wolfram’s theme is matched by his eccentric style, which is characterized by rhetorical flourishes, ambiguous syntax, and the free use of dialect.

Wolfram’s influence on later poets was profound, and he is a member, with Hartmann von Aue and Gottfried von Strassburg, of the great triumvirate of Middle High German epic poets.




Wolfram von Eschenbach

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Wolfram von Eschenbach (born c. 1170, died c. 1220) was a German knight and poet, regarded as one of the greatest epic poets of his time. As a Minnesinger, he also wrote lyric poetry.

Little is known of Wolfram's life: there are no historical documents which mention him, and his works are the sole source of evidence. In Parzival he talks of wir Beier ("we Bavarians") and the dialect of his works is East Franconian. This and a number of geographical references has resulted in the present-day Wolframs-Eschenbach, previously Obereschenbach, near Ansbach in Bavaria, being officially designated as his birthplace. However, the evidence is circumstantial and not without problems - there are at least four other Eschenbachs in present-day Bavaria, and Wolframs-Eschenbach was not part of Bavaria in Wolfram's time.

The arms shown in the Manesse manuscript come from the imagination of a 14th century artist, drawing on the figure of the Red Knight in Parzival, and have no heraldic connection with Wolfram.

Wolfram's work indicates a number of possible patrons (most reliably Hermann I of Thuringia), which suggests that he served at a number of courts during his life. In his Parzival he claims he is illiterate and recorded the work by dictation, though the claim is treated with scepticism by scholars.

Wolfram is best known today for his Parzival, sometimes regarded as the greatest of all German epics from that time. Based on Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, le Conte du Graal, it is the first extant work in German to have as its subject the Holy Grail. In the poem, Wolfram expresses disdain for Chrétien's (unfinished) version of the tale, and states that his source was a poet from Provence called Kyot. Some scholars believe Wolfram might have meant Guiot de Provins (though none of the latter's surviving works relate to the themes of Parzival), however others believe Kyot was simply a literary device invented by Wolfram to explain his deviations from Chrétien's version.

Wolfram is the author of two other narrative works: the unfinished Willehalm and the fragmentary Titurel. These were both composed after Parzival, and Titurel mentions the death of the Hermann I, which dates it firmly after 1217. Wolfram's nine surviving songs, five of which are dawn-songs, are regarded as masterpieces of Minnesang.

The 84 surviving manuscripts of Parzival, both complete and fragmentary, indicate the immense popularity of Wolfram's major work in the following two centuries. Willehalm, with 78 manuscripts, comes not far behind. Many of these include a continuation written in the 1240s by Ulrich von Türheim under the title Rennewart. The unfinished Titurel was taken up and expanded around 1272 by a poet named Albrecht, who is generally presumed to be Albrecht von Scharfenberg and who adopts the narrative persona of Wolfram. This work is referred to as the Jüngere Titurel (Younger Titurel).

The modern rediscovery of Wolfram begins with the publication of a translation of Parzival in 1753 by the Swiss scholar Johann Jakob Bodmer. Parzival was the main source Richard Wagner used when writing the libretto to his opera, Parsifal. Wolfram himself appears as a character in another Wagner opera, Tannhäuser.

In Hugo Pratt's comic book The Secret Rose, Corto Maltese speaks to a mural painting of Wolfram. In this book Corto is searching for the Holy Grail.



Type of work: Poem.
Author: Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1170-1220?)
Type of plot: Chivalric romance
Time of plot: The chivalric age
Locale: Western Europe
First published: Thirteenth century manuscript


Parzival, the masterpiece of Germany's greatest medieval poet, provided the basis of the great body of Wagner's operas written on knightly themes. Eschenbach was instrumental in raising the moral tone of the Arthurian legends by upholding in his poem such chivalric virtues as fidelity to the plighted word, charity to one's fellowman, and reverence for God. In terms of plot, it is interesting to note the poet's use of a precious stone of supernatural powers as the Grail, rather than the chalice used at the last supper.


Principal Characters

Gamuret (ga'moo-ret), the younger son of King Gan-dein, who leaves Anjou to seek his fortune. He rescues Belakane and marries her.
Gandein (gan'de-en'), king of Anjou.
Belakane (be-la-ka'ne), a Moorish queen who is falsely accused of killing Eisenhart, her lover.
Friedebrand (fre'de-brand), king of Scotland and uncle of Eisenhart. He besieges the castle of Belakane in an attempt to avenge his nephew.
Feirefis (fi'ra-fis), the son of Gamuret and Belakane, who almost vanquishes Parzival. Together they fight in many tournaments.
Herzeleide (her'tse-ll-de), Queen of Waleis (wa'lis), at whose tournament Gamuret is the victor. She marries him after the tourney.
Parzival (par'ze-fal), the son of Herzeleide and Gamuret.
Queen Kondwiramur (kon'dwe'ramoor), whom Parzival marries and later deserts.
Lohengrin (lo'hen-gren), the son of Kondwiramur and Parzival.
Jeschute (ya-shoo'te), who gives Parzival a token.
Orilus (o'ri-loos), the jealous husband of Jeschute. He fights Parzival but is pacified.
The Red Knight, who knights Parzival.
Gurnemanz (goor'ne-mants), the prince of Graharz, who instructs Parzival in knightly precepts.
Baruch (ba'rookh), the ruler of Alexandria, for whom Gamuret fought and was finally slain.
King Kailet (ki'lat), the companion of Gamuret in Spain.
Arthur, king of Britain.
Queen Guinevere, Arthur's wife.
Sir Kay (ka), the seneschal, defeated by Parzival.
Sir Gawain (ga'wfn), who introduces Parzival to Arthur's Round Table.
Orgeluse (or'gel-oose), the wife of Gawain.
King Meljanz of Lys (mel'yants), for whom Sir Gawain fights Duke Lippaut.
Antikonie (an-tl'ko-пё), the daughter of King Meljanz, who is courted by Gawain.
Gramoflanz (gra'mo-flants), whom Parzival offers to fight because, unknowingly, he has wounded Sir Gawain while that knight was riding to do battle with Gramoflanz. The challenge is rejected because Gramoflanz refuses to meet any knight but Gawain.
Trevrezent (trav're-zant), a hermit who indicates that Parzival is the nephew of Amfortas, the Grail King, and himself.
Amfortas (am-for'tas), the Fisher King who shows Parzival the mysteries of the Grail and is himself cured of his grievous wound miraculously.
Kondrie (kon'dre), Parzival's guide to the Grail Kingdom.
Repanse de Schoie (re-pan'se de shoi'e), the wife of Feirefis and mother of Prester John.
Sigune (si-go'ne), the woman who tells Parzival of his lineage.


The Story

Gamuret, younger son of King Gandein of Anjou, refused to live as a vassal in the kingdom of his older brother, notwithstanding the brother's love for Gamuret. The young man, given gifts of gold by his king-brother, as well as horses, equipment, and men-at-arms, left Anjou to seek his fortune across the world. Hoping to find for himself fame and love, Gamuret went first to battle for Baruch at Alexandria; from there he went to the aid of the Moorish Queen Belakane. Belakane had been falsely accused of causing the death of her lover, Eisenhart, and was besieged in her castle by two armies under the command of Friedebrand, king of Scotland and Eisenhart's uncle.
Gamuret, after raising the siege, became the husband of Belakane, who bore him a son named Feirefis. But Gamuret tired of being king of Assagog and Zassamank, and so he journeyed abroad again in search of fame. Passing into Spain, Gamuret sought King Kailet and found him near Kanvoleis. The two entered a tournament sponsored by Queen Herzeleide. Gamuret did valiant deeds and carried off all the honors of that tournament, thereby winning a great deal of fame as the victor.
Two queens who had watched the lists during the tournament fell in love with Gamuret, but Queen Herzeleide won his heart and married him. They loved each other greatly, but once again the call of honor was too great to let Gamuret remain a housed husband. Receiving a summons from Baruch, he went once more to Alexandria. In the fighting there he was treacherously killed and given a great tomb by Baruch. When news of his death reached the land of Waleis, Queen Herzeleide sorrowed greatly, but her sorrow was in part dissipated by the birth of a child by Gamuret. Queen Herzeleide named the boy Parzival.
Parzival was reared by his mother with all tenderness and love. As he grew older he met knights who journeyed through the world seeking honor. Parzival, stimulated by tales of their deeds, left his homeland in search of King Arthur of Britain. He hoped to become one of Arthur's knights and a member of the order of the Round Table. During his absence his smother, Queen Herzeleide, died. On his way to Arthur's court Parzival took a token from Jeschute and thus aroused the jealous anger of her husband, Orilus. Farther along on his journey, he met a woman named Sigune and from her learned of his lineage and his kinship with the house of Anjou. Still later Parzival met the Red Knight and carried that knight's challenge with him to King Arthur. Having been knighted by the king, Parzival set forth again in quest of knightly honor. Finding himself in the land of Graharz, he sought out Gurnemanz, prince of the land, who taught the young knight the courtesy and the ethics of knighthood.
From Graharz, Parzival journeyed to Pelrapar, which he found besieged by enemies. He raised the siege by overthrowing Kingron. After this adventure Parzival fell in love with Queen Kondwiramur, and the two were married. But Parzival, like his father before him, soon tired of the quiet life and parted from his home and queen to seek further adventures.
Parzival journeyed to the land of the Fisher King and became the king's guest. In that land he first beheld the fabulous bleeding spear and all the marvels of the Holy Grail. One morning he awoke to find the castle deserted, Parzival, mocked by a squire, rode away. Later he met Orilus, who had vowed to battle the young knight for taking Jeschute's token. They fought and Parzival was the victor, but he was able to reconcile Orilus to Jeschute once again and sent the couple to find a welcome at the court of King Arthur.
Arthur, meanwhile, had gone in search of the Red Knight, whose challenge Parzival had carried. Journeying in search of King Arthur, Parzival had the misfortune to fall into a love-trance, during which he overthrew Gagramor and took vengeance on Sir Kay. He met Gawain, who took him back again to Arthur's court. There Parzival was inducted into the company of the Round Table.
At Arthur's court, both Gawain and Parzival were put to shame by two other knights. When in his anger and despair Parzival set out to seek the Holy Grail and Gawain rode off to Askalon, the whole company of the Round Table was dispersed.
While Parzival sought the Grail, Gawain had many adventures. He joined the knights of King Meljanz of Lys, who sought vengeance on Duke Lippaut. When the fighting was over, Gawain rode to Schamfanzon, where he was committed by the king to the care of his daughter Antikonie. Gawain wooed the maiden and thus aroused the wrath of the people of Schamfanzon. Gawain was aided, however, by the girl and Kingrimursel. After Gawain swore to the king that he would ask Scherules to send back some kinsmen to him, Gawain left, also to search for the Holy Grail.
Parzival, meanwhile, had traveled for many days in doubt and despair. In the forest of Monsalvasch he fought with a knight of the Holy Grail and passed on. Then, on Good Friday, he met a pilgrim knight who told him he should not bear arms during the holy season. The knight bade him seek out Trevrezent, a hermit, who showed Parzival how he had sinned in being wrathful with God and indicated to Parzival that he was a nephew to Amfor-tas, one of the Grail kings. The two parted in sorrow and Parzival resumed his search for the Grail.
Gawain, continuing his adventures, had married Orge-luse. When Gawain decided to battle Gramoflanz, King Arthur and Queen Guinevere agreed to ride to see that famous joust. Before the joust could take place Gawain and Parzival met and did battle, each unknown to his opponent. Gawain was defeated and severely injured by Parzival, who was filled with grief when he learned with whom he had fought. Parzival vowed to take Gawain's place in the combat with Gramoflanz, but the latter refused to do battle with anyone but Gawain himself.
Parzival, released from his vow, longed to return once again to his wife. One morning before dawn he secretly left the camp of King Arthur. On his way back to his wife Parzival met a great pagan warrior, who almost vanquished him. After the battle he learned the pagan knight was Feirefis, Parzival's half brother, the son of Gamuret and Belakane. The two rode back to King Arthur's court, where both were made welcome by the king. In company the half brothers went into the lists and won many honors together. At a feast of the Round Table Kondrie entered the great hall to announce Parzival's election to the Grail kingdom. Summoned to Monsal-vasch, Parzival, his wife, and Lohengrin, Parzival's son, were guided there by Kondrie. Feirefis, although he failed to see the Grail, was baptized and married to Repanse de Schoie. With her he returned to his kingdom, which was held later by his son, Prester John.


Critical Evaluation

The life of Wolfram von Eschenbach, author of Parzival, spanned the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth centuries. It was a time of political and religious turbulence—the Crusades reached their height in the twelfth century—but it was also a time of a flowering of the arts in general, and literature in particular. At a time when Richard the Lion-Hearted and John ruled England, some of the greatest names in German literature were already writing. Among Wolfram's contemporaries were Hartmann von Aue, Gottfried von Strassburg, and the lyric poet Walter von der Vogelweide. The anonymous author of The Song of the Nibelungs also wrote at this time.
Wolfram was born about 1170, in Eschenbach, a small village on the border between Swabia and Bavaria. He was a knight, but of very limited means, and was therefore dependent on patronage for support during the composition of his works. He wrote Parzival somewhere between 1197 and 1215. His other works include a handful of lyrics, some fragments of a romance, and a poem, Willehalm, which was left unfinished. The date of Wolfram's death is not known, but it was probably before 1220.
The method of the composition of Parzival is in doubt, since Wolfram claimed not to be able to read or write. Since the poem comprises 24,810 lines, the oral composition of the work would have been a formidable task, but not one beyond possibility, or, for that matter, without precedent. In a time of near-universal illiteracy, what would today seem to be phenomenal feats of memory were taken for granted. The oldest works in many languages are poems of epic length composed orally and either learned by rote or re-created for recitation according to set formulas. It should be noted too that John Milton, prevented from writing by his blindness, composed Paradise Lost orally.
Wolfram's main source for his story was Chretien de Troyes' Li Contes del Gral. This collection of Arthurian romances furnished Wolfram with the material for eleven of the sixteen books of his poem. The source of the initial two and final three books of Parzival remains a puzzle. Wolfram several times refers to a Provencal poet named Kyot, who supposedly gave him the correct version of the story. This Kyot is a mystery to scholars, though, for a variety of reasons. No Provencal poem on the Parzival theme has survived, if any ever existed. Kyot is a northern, not a southern, French name, and many critics believe that Kyot is simply a joke of Wolfram's, as is, perhaps, his claim of illiteracy. Yet Wolfram's statements cannot be disposed of out of hand, since customarily medieval poets worked from sources rather than the product of their own imagination.
Despite their cloudiness, Wolfram's sources are clear in comparison with the origin of the subject matter of which his poem is only one part—the Arthurian romances. Myth and legend shaped the origin of these tales of King Arthur and his court, and their beginnings are buried in now-lost Welsh and Irish stories. During the twelfth century, corresponding to a great rise in interest, written versions of the Arthurian material began to appear. About 1135, Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welshman, composed in Latin a long compilation of fancy called The History of the King of Britain, the last third of which is devoted to Arthur. In 1155, an Anglo-Norman named Wace used Geoffrey's book as the basis for his French poem, Brut (the poem's title refers to a mythical Brutus, great-grandson of Aeneas, to whom Geoffrey had attributed the founding of the line of British kings). But neither Geoffrey nor Wace are used by Chretien de Troyes; the French poet may have had other materials, now lost, from which he worked.
One other bit of Arthurian material should be mentioned: the Mabinogion. The Mabinogion is a Welsh collection of stories; it was put in writing after 1300, but probably composed at least a century earlier. The Mabinogion includes a version of the story that interested Wolfram, but the hero is named Peredur. (Chretien de Troyes, either following his sources or for reasons of his own, did not use the Welsh form of the name; Parzival is Wolfram's rendition of the form used by Chretien, Perceval.) Critics believe that Peredur is the existing version closest to the oral Welsh stories from which all the written versions are ultimately derived.
The object of Parzival's quest is, of course, the Grail in Wolfram's poem, but what the Grail is forms a story in itself. In the Welsh folklore from which so many of the romances derive, we hear of two miraculous objects— a horn of plenty, and a dish which increases the food put in it. In Old French, the word for dish or platter was graal, and although Chretien de Troyes used the word graal, the object of the quest, the Grail, is a jeweled relic. Nor is there a wonderful dish in Parzival. The grail in Wolfram's work is apparently a magical gem—but the motif of plenty does appear: whatever food one wishes for appears at once in front of the gem; whatever drink one desires appears in his cup. Wherever Wolfram got this detail of his story, the source is definitely not Chretien de Troyes. The conception of the Grail as the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper comes from a different tradition.
The poem itself is divided into sixteen books of rhyming couplets, grouped into sections of thirty lines. The poem is difficult to read in the original, since an involved syntax is characteristic of Wolfram's style, and the dialect in which he wrote is not a direct ancestor of modern German. Even readers of modern German find it convenient to use a translation.
When the Reformation came to Germany in the sixteenth century, Wolfram's poem was forgotten, and it did not again become popular until the nineteenth century. Wagner's opera Parsifal did much to recommend the poem to a wider audience. The careful structure of the poem, its wide-ranging action, its insightful handling of the growing character of Parzival himself, and its story— one that has fascinated readers of Western literature for almost a thousand years—place Wolfram's Parzival among the greatest works of our medieval heritage.



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