Hartmann von Aue (c. 1160-c. 1205) was a medieval German literary figure who wrote epic poems in the minnesang tradition. The Minnesinger were court poets who lived and worked inside the great castles of princes and other nobles and whose work paid homage to the concept of "minne," or love. Their predecessors were the Provençal troubadours of the eleventh century, and von Aue's work shared attributes of both these and the Arthurian legends popular at the time.
Of Swabian Origins
Little is known of von Aue's life, save for the fact that he lived and worked in the later decades of the twelfth century and was alive during the first years of the 1200s. The Middle High German language of his verse has Alemannic traces, which points to his origins near the region that became Swabia and the state of Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany. He was also referred to later in the Middle Ages in one source as "from the land of Swabians." Scholars believe that one of von Aue's ancestors may have married unwisely, which drastically reduced the family's economic circumstances. In one of his works, he refers to himself as a dienstman, or servant, for the minnesinger were part of the ministeriale class at court. They were its functionaries, administrators, and servants, and were not free to leave.
In illustrated volumes of Minnesang from the period, one depicts von Aue with a coat of arms that has been linked to the Zähringer family in Swabia, and the surname "Aue" was also present in the region. He possessed knowledge of French, which showed that he spent time in France at some point in his life, and of Latin, hinting that he received some education, probably at a cloister or a cathedral school. He wrote in one of his works that he was a rîter (knight) who could also read and write, and from this scholars infer that this combination of talents was uncommon. Other clues that place von Aue in the service of the Zähringer court were that family's links to the patrons of French writer Chrétien de Troyes, whose Erec et Enide (c. 1165) was the basis for von Aue's Erec some 15 years later.
The Troubadour Tradition
Like Chrétien's work, von Aue was strongly influenced by the ideals of chivalry and courtly love. This marked a new era in European literature, for prior to this epic works usually centered around overtly religious themes. Scholars believe Die Klage ("The Complaint") to be von Aue's first work. It is a narrative poem in rhymed couplets and shares similarities with some French works of the era. Its verse relates a conflict between the body and the heart in the form of an allegorical dialogue. It mentions krûtzouber von Kärlingen, a magical root from France, as a part of a formula that can create the ideal man. To become such, one requires milte (generosity), zuht (appropriate behavior), diemut (modesty), triuwe (loyalty), staete (constancy), kiuscheit (purity), and gewislîchiu manheit (dependable manhood) to be present in a heart absent of hate.
Von Aue's first adaptation of an Arthurian work was Erec. Scholars date it to at least the year 1180, for it contains a reference to Connelant, or Ikonium, and it was known that Emperor Friedrich I, called Barbarossa, made diplomatic contact with this kingdom around 1179. The Arthurian legends originated in Celtic Britain, and provided the basis for other epic works, such as the Gereint and Enid, from Wales, and the Norse Erexsaga. Von Aue may have consulted these in writing his own. It begins at the court of King Arthur, with the announcement of a contest involving the hunt for an elusive white stag. Erec, a knight, does not take part in the hunt, but instead accompanies the Queen and one of her attendants. They meet an unknown knight, a lady, and a dwarf servant who whips the Queen's attendant and then Erec. He vows to avenge the slight, and follows the trio to a thriving town near a castle. He meets Koralus, a impoverished count, who offers Erec hospitality and introduces him to his daughter, Enite.
Adventures and Romance
Erec learns that the knight he seeks is called Iders, and the townspeople have assembled for a beauty contest. Iders's lady has been its winner twice before, but captured the title through Iders's intimidating tactics. If she wins a third time, the contest will conclude forever, and she will receive a sparrow hawk. Koralus lends Erec armor and weapons in order to beat Iders, and in return for this help, Erec promises to wed Enite. At the contest, the lady moves to take the sparrow hawk, but Erec declares Enite most beautiful in realm instead. He and Iders battle, and Erec is victorious. The dwarf is duly thrashed, a wedding at Arthur's court takes place, and Erec and Enite return to Erec's land. This concludes the first part.
In the second part of Erec, the knight is so enamored with his new bride that he neglects all other duties. He is unaware of the loss of honor until Enite one day utters words of regret when she thinks Erec is asleep. Ashamed, Erec vows to change his ways, and they leave the castle and set off on a series of adventures. They ride through a forest, where robber knights try to kidnap her. Then Enite believes Erec has died battling fierce giants. She is captured by a devious count, but refuses to marry him. Erec rescues Enite after her weeping has roused him from his deathlike state. Erec's final battle of the story is with Mabonagrin, who has been isolated from Arthur's court and resides in a garden surrounded by stakes, on which are impaled the heads of those he has defeated. Erec wins this battle, and both knights return to the court. Erec tells Mabonagrin, "Bî den liuten ist sô guot" ("It is so good to be with other people").
Wrote More Spiritual Work
Scholars assume that von Aue's next work was Gregorius, and date it to about 1187. Its tale begins with an orphaned brother and sister, whose parents had been rulers of Aquitaine. The songs of the "minne" influence the brother negatively, and he begins to desire his sister. They commit incest, and both are guilt-stricken. He atones by joining a Crusade to the Holy Land, but remains lovesick and dies. His sister became pregnant, and the new ruler of Aquitaine as well. She places the infant in a boat with some gold marks and an ivory tablet attesting to its noble lineage but sinful origin. The tablet instructs the child to atone for its parents' wrongdoing. The princess is courted by a powerful neighbor, but refuses to marry him. He attacks her and the kingdom and takes all but the capital city. Meanwhile, the infant is discovered and raised by fishermen. The local abbot names him Gregorius. He accidentally learns of his tragic origins as a young man and flees to become a knight. As such, he helps free Aquitaine's besieged city and receives the princess's hand in marriage. Neither realize that they are mother and son, but she discovers the ivory tablet after another act of incest has recurred, and both resolve to atone once again for their sin.
Gregorious instructs a fisherman to take him out to sea and chain him to a rock. The key is then tossed into the ocean. He lives on nothing but water for 17 years. Church officials in Rome learn of this and believe him to be extraordinarily holy. Legates from Rome arrive with an invitation to become the new pope. The legates visit the fisherman, who serves them fish; inside its stomach is the key once tossed into the sea. Gregorious accepts the offer, and his mother— the princess—comes to ask forgiveness for her sin from him. "From the lowest depths of sinfulness, Gregorius is raised by God's grace to the position of God's highest earthly servant," wrote Will Hasty in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. Hasty notes that Gregorious, with its absolution of a sin that was involuntarily committed, "seems to be characterized by a religiosity that more closely corresponds to the values and customs of the lay nobility than to the practices of the church."
May Have Chronicled Ancestor's Fall
Der arme Heinrich ("Poor Heinrich"), which scholars date to the year 1191, is perhaps von Aue's best known work, even earning praise from eighteenth-century German Romantic writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The theme of this epic poem can be linked to the medieval myth that leprosy could be cured by blood from human sacrifice and from the belief that the severely disfiguring disease was a form of divine punishment, God's retribution for rotten soul. Its hero, Heinrich von Aue, is a wealthy and powerful noble who contracts leprosy. He is told that the sacrifice of a young maiden, willing to die for him, will cure him. He gives his riches to the poor and the church, and moves in with a peasant family. To their eight-year-old daughter he gives many gifts and even calls her his bride. A period of three years pass, and she learns that his illness can be cured by sacrifice and resolves to be his savior. She and Heinrich journey to a doctor, who explains that he must extract her still-beating heart from her body. Heinrich hears the doctor sharpening his blade and cries out to spare her. He asserts that he will accept his illness as God's will. She objects vehemently, and the experience shatters her health. They journey home, and both are restored to health along the way. Heinrich returns to a position of nobility, even richer than before, and marries the girl. Such a match between a noble and a peasant could bring financial ruin, and scholars believe that von Aue's ancestor may have entered into an disadvantageous match, which reduced the family's fortunes and caused their descent into the ministeriale class.
The Exemplary Iwein
It is thought believe that von Aue may have taken up arms and joined the Crusade organized by Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI in 1197. His next work, Iwein, dates from about 1203, and is considered by scholars as the zenith of his literary talents. "Nowhere is his simple elegance of style and aesthetic conception more evident than in Iwein," opined Hasty. A large number of surviving manuscripts from the Middle Ages attest to its popularity at the time, and the story was also reproduced in tapestries and frescoes. The work opens at the court of Arthur, where Iwein and his cousin Kalogreant serve as knights. Kalogreant relates a story that he once met a wild man, who instructs him to journey to the land of a fountain. He battles with Ascalon, a watchman at a bridge, and is unhorsed. The knights at Arthur's court vow to avenge him. Iwein arrives first, fights Ascalon, but becomes trapped in the land of his foes. He is helped by a servant, Lunete, who gives him a magic ring, and in time marries the lady of the castle, Laudine.
In the second part of Iwein, the hero leaves the land, but Laudine states that she will wait only one year for him. Iwein and another knight, Gawein, embark on a series of adventures. He forgets his promise to Laudine, and Lunete arrives to take back the ring. He realizes that he has lost his love and his lands, and he succumbs to madness. He strips his clothes and runs to live in forest as a wild man.
In 1210, Tristan, a work by Gottfried von Strassburg, mentions von Aue as still living. Another German poet, Heinrich von dem Türlin, wrote Krone some time between 1215 and 1220, and paid homage to the late von Aue. "Besides the elegant clarity of his style, Hartmann's individual mark on German courtly literature may well be the social concern of his works," noted Hasty in the Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. "Even those works addressing religious questions deal with one's obligations to others, with conflicts that can result from such obligations, and with false and legitimate solutions to these conflicts."
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 138: German Writers and Works of the High Middle Ages: 1170-1280, edited by James Hardin and Will Hasty, Gale, 1994.
Medium Aevum, Fall 1995, p. 189.