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Walther von der Vogelweide

Walther von der VogelweideBorn: c. 1170
Birthplace: Wipthal, Tirol
Died: c. 1230
Location of death: Würzburg, Germany
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Poet

Nationality: Germany
Executive summary: Medieval German lyric poet

The most celebrated of medieval German lyric poets. For all his fame, Walther's name is not found in contemporary records, with the exception of a solitary mention in the travelling accounts of Bishop Wolfger of Passau -- "Walthero cantori de Vogelweide pro pellicio V solidos longos" ("To Walther the singer of the Vogelweide five shillings to buy a fur coat"), and the main sources of information about him are his own poems and occasional references by contemporary Minnesingers. It is clear from the title hÍr (Herr, Sir) these give him, that he was of noble birth; but it is equally clear from his name Vogelweide (Latin aviarium, a gathering place or preserve of birds) that he belonged not to the higher nobility, who took their titles from castles or villages, but to the nobility of service (Dienstadel), humble retainers of the great lords, who in wealth and position were little removed from non-noble free cultivators. For a long time the place of his birth was a matter of dispute, until Professor Franz Pfeiffer established beyond reasonable doubt that he was born in the Wipthal in Tirol, where, not far from the little town of Sterzing on the Eisak, a wood -- called the Vorder- und Hintervogelweide -- preserves at least the name of his vanished home. This origin would account for what is known of Walther's early life. Tirol was at this time the home of several noted Minnesingers; and the court of Vienna, under the enlightened duke Frederick I of the house of Babenberg, had become a center of poetry and art. Here it was that the young poet learned his craft under the renowned master Reinmar the Old, whose death he afterwards lamented in two of his most beautiful lyrics; and in the open handed duke he found his first patron. This happy period of his life, during which he produced the most charming and spontaneous of his love-lyrics, came to an end with the death of Duke Frederick in 1198. Henceforward Walther was a wanderer from court to court, singing for his lodging and his bread, and ever hoping that some patron would arise to save him from this "juggler's life" (gougel-fuore) and the shame of ever playing the guest. For material success in this profession he was hardly calculated. His criticism of men and manners was scathing; and even when this did not touch his princely patrons, their underlings often took measures to rid themselves of so uncomfortable a censor. Thus he was forced to leave the court of the generous duke Bernhard of Carinthia (1202-1256); after an experience of the tumultuous household of the landgrave of Thuringia he warns those who have weak ears to give it a wide berth; and after three years at the court of Dietrich I of Meissen (reigned 1195-1221) he complains that he had received for his services neither money nor praise. Walther was, in fact, a man of strong views; and it is this which gives him his main significance in history, as distinguished from his place in literature. From the moment when the death of the emperor Henry VI (1197) opened the fateful struggle between empire and papacy, Walther threw himself ardently into the fray on the side of German independence and unity. Though his religious poems sufficiently prove the sincerity of his Catholicism, he remained to the end of his days opposed to the extreme claims of the popes, whom he attacks with a bitterness which can only be justified by the strength of his patriotic feelings. His political poems begin with an appeal to Germany, written in 1198 at Vienna, against the disruptive ambitions of the princes:

Crown Philip with the Kaiser's crown
And bid them vex thy peace no more.

He was present, on the 8th of September, at Philip's coronation at Mainz, and supported him until his victory was assured. After Philip's murder in 1209, he "said and sang" in support of Otto of Brunswick against the papal candidate Frederick of Staufen; and only when Otto's usefulness to Germany had been shattered by the battle of Bouvines (1212) did he turn to the rising star of Frederick II, now the sole representative of German majesty against pope and princes. From the new emperor his genius and his zeal for the empire at last received recognition; and a small fief in Franconia was bestowed upon him, which, though he complained that its value was little, gave him the home and the fixed position he had so long desired. That Frederick gave him an even more signal mark of his favor by making him the tutor of his son Henry VII, is more than doubtful. The fact, in itself highly improbable, rests only upon the evidence of a single poem, which is capable of another interpretation. Walther's restless spirit did not suffer him to remain long on his new property. In 1217 we find him once more at Vienna, and again in 1219 after the return of Duke Leopold VI from the crusade. About 1224 he seems to have settled on his fief near WŁrzburg. He was active in urging the German princes to take part in the crusade of 1228, and may have accompanied the crusading army at least as far as his native Tirol. In a beautiful and pathetic poem he paints the change that had come over the scenes of his childhood and made his life seem a thing dreamed. He died about 1230, and was buried at WŁrzburg, after leaving directions, according to the story, that the birds were to be fed at his tomb daily. The original gravestone with its Latin inscription has disappeared; but in 1843 a new monument was erected over the spot. There is also a fine statue of the poet at Bozen, unveiled in 1877.

Historically interesting as Walther's political verses are, their merit has been not a little exaggerated by modern German critics, who saw their own imperial aspirations and anti-papal prejudices reflected in this patriotic poet of the middle ages. Of more lasting value are the beautiful lyrics, mainly dealing with love, which led his contemporaries to hail him as their master in song (unsers sanges meister). He is of course unequal. At his worst he does not rise above the tiresome conventionalities of his school. At his best he shows a spontaneity, a charm and a facility which his rivals sought in vain to emulate. His earlier lyrics are full of the joy of life, of feeling for nature and of the glory of love. Greatly daring, he even rescues love from the convention which had made it the prerogative of the nobly born, contrasts the titles "woman" (wÓp) and "lady" (froŻwe) to the disadvantage of the latter, and puts the most beautiful of his lyrics -- Unter der linden -- into the mouth of a simple girl. A certain seriousness, which is apparent under the joyousness of his earlier work, grew on him with years. Religious and didactic poems become more frequent; and his verses in praise of love turn at times to a protest against the laxer standards of an age demoralized by political unrest. Throughout his attitude is healthy and sane. He preaches the crusade; but at the same time he suggests the virtue of toleration, pointing out that in the worship of God "Christians, Jews and heathen all agree." He fulminates against "false love"; but pours scorn on those who maintain that "love is sin." In an age of monastic ideals and loose morality there was nothing commonplace in the simple lines in which he sums up the inspiring principle of chivalry at its best:

Swer guotes wibes liebe h‚t
Der schamt sich ieder misset‚t.

Altogether Walther's poems give us the picture not only of a great artistic genius, but of a strenuous, passionate, very human and very lovable character.

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