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Wolfram von Eschenbach

Wolfram von EschenbachBorn: c. 1170
Birthplace: Wehlenberg, Germany
Died: c. 1220
Cause of death: unspecified

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

Nationality: Germany
Executive summary: Parzival

Wolfram von Eschenbach, the most important and individual poet of medieval Germany, flourished during the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th century. He was one of the brilliant group of Minnesingers whom the Landgrave Herrmann of Thuringia gathered around him at the historic castle of the Wartburg. We know by his own statement that he was a Bavarian, and came of a knightly race, counting his achievements with spear and shield far above his poetical gifts. The Eschenbach from which he derived his name was most probably Ober-Eschenbach, not far from Pleinfeld and Nuremberg; there is no doubt that this was the place of his burial, and so late as the 17th century his tomb was to be seen in the church of Ober-Eschenbach, which was then the burial place of the Teutonic knights. Wolfram probably belonged to the small nobility, for he alludes to men of importance, such as the counts of Abenberg, and of Wertheim, as if he had been in their service. Certainly he was a poor man, for he makes frequent and jesting allusions to his poverty. Bartsch concludes that he was a younger son, and that while the family seat was at Eschenbach, Wolfram's home was the insignificant estate of Wildenburg (to which he alludes), now the village of Wehlenberg. Wolfram seems to have disdained all literary accomplishments, and in fact insists on his unlettered condition both in Parzival and in Willehalm. But this is somewhat perplexing, for these poems are beyond all doubt renderings of French originals. Were the poems read to him, and did he dictate his translation to a scribe? The date of Wolfram's death is uncertain. We know that he was alive in 1216, as in Willehalm he laments the death of the Landgrave Herrmann, which took place in that year, but how long he survived his friend and patron we do not know.

Wolfram von Eschenbach lives in, and is revealed by, his work, which shows him to have been a man of remarkable force and personality. He has left two long epic poems, Parzival and Willehalm (the latter a translation of the French chanson de geste Aliscans), certain fragments, Titurel (apparently intended as an introduction to the Parzival), and a group of lyrical poems, Wächter-Lieder. These last derive their name from the fact that they record the feelings of lovers who, having passed the night in each other's company, are called to separate by the cry of the watchman, heralding the dawn. These Tage Lieder, or Wächter Lieder, are a feature of Old German folk poetry, of which Richard Wagner has preserved the tradition in the warning cry of Brangaene in the second act of Tristan. But the principal interest of Wolfram's work lies in his Parzival, immeasurably the finest and most spiritual rendering of the Perceval-Grail story.

The problem of the source of the Parzival is the crux of medieval literary criticism. These are the leading points. The poem is divided into sixteen books. From III to XII, inclusive, the story marches pari passu with the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, at one moment agreeing almost literally with the French text, at the next introducing details quite unknown to it. Books I and II, unrepresented in Chrétien, relate the fortunes of the hero's father, and connect the story closely with the house of Anjou; the four concluding books agree with the commencement, and further connect the Grail story with that of the Swan Knight, for the first time identifying that hero with Parzival's son, a version followed by the later German romance of Lohengrin. At the conclusion Wolfram definitely blames Chrétien for having mistold the tale, while a certain Kiot, the Provençal (whom he has before named as his source), had told it aright from beginning to end. Other peculiarities of this version are the representation of the Grail itself as a stone, and of the inhabitants of the castle as an ordered knighthood, Templeisen; the numerous allusions to, and evident familiarity with, Oriental learning in its various branches; and above all, the connecting thread of ethical interpretation which runs through the whole poem. The Parzival is a soul-drama; the conflict between light and darkness, faith and doubt, is its theme, and the evolution of the hero's character is steadily and consistently worked out. The teaching is of a character strangely at variance with the other romances of the cycle. Instead of an asceticism, based upon a fundamentally low and degrading view of women, Wolfram upholds a sane and healthy morality; chastity, rather than celibacy, is his ideal, and a loyal observance of the marriage bond is in his eyes the highest virtue. Not retirement from the world, but fulfilment of duty in the world, is the goal he marks out for attainment. Whether views so large, so sane and so wholesome, are to be placed to the credit of the German poet, or of his French source (and modern criticism is leaning more and more to a belief in the existence of Kiot), the Parzival is the work of a remarkable personality, and, given the age and the environment, a unique literary achievement.

Wolfram has moments of the highest poetical inspiration, but his meaning, even for his compatriots, is often obscure. He is in no sense a master of language, as was Gottfried von Strassbourg. This latter, in a very interesting passage of the Tristan, passes in review the poets of the day, awarding to the majority praise for the excellence of their style, but one he does not name, only blaming him as being so obscure and involved that none can tell what his meaning may be; this unnamed poet has always been understood to be Wolfram von Eschenbach, and in a passage of Willehalm the author refers to the unfavorable criticisms passed on Parzival. Wolfram and Gottfried were both true poets, but of widely differing style. Wolfram was, above all, a man of deeply religious character (witness his introduction to Willehalm), and it seems to have been this which specially impressed the mind of his compatriots; in the 13th-century poem of Der Wartburg-Krieg it is Wolfram who is chosen as the representative of Christianity, to oppose the enchanter Klingsor von Ungerland.

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