Wolfram von Eschenbach (ca. 1170-ca. 1230), a German writer of chivalric romances, was one of the greatest poets of the Middle Ages. His masterpiece, Parzival, deals with the problem of man's attitude and relationship to God.
Wolfram von Eschenbach was born into a family of ministerial or lackland knights, probably in Wolframs Eschenbach (so named since 1917) in central Franconia near Ansbach. Roving, he practiced knighthood in Bavaria, Swabia, and Styria, as well as at home. In 1203 he visited the Wartburg court of Landgrave Hermann I of Thuringia. Wolfram probably wrote a part of his 25,000-line Parzival in Wildenberg Castle in the Odenwald. He held an unproductive fief near his home-town and thus was a vassal of the Count of Wertheim.
Early in his career Wolfram composed nine short poems, mostly "dawn songs"—a genre based upon the alba of Provençal troubadours, in which two lovers must end their nocturnal tryst. With their taunting mood and mastery of language they exhibit Wolfram's superiority to the courtly minnesingers.
From 1197 to 1210 Wolfram worked on Parzival, revising, filing, deepening, and completing it in conventional four-foot couplets, with only three beats when the rhyme is feminine. It is written in a lapidary language pregnant with meaning and in a versatile style, the whole revealing stern independence, creative power, and sly humor.
Parzival is based only in part upon the fragmentary Perceval (ca. 1179) of the French trouve're Chrestien de Troyes. Wolfram's basic themes of morality and respect for others, richness of humor, and individuality of style derive little from Chrestien. Nor does Chrestien dwell upon the slow, painful educative development of Perceval from an eager, well-meaning lad, gauche but pure of heart, to noble, mature manhood, embodying the medieval ideals of human perfection, as does Wolfram in Parzival. Parzival progresses from despair of heaven to compassion and to humble, confident reliance upon God. His story is one of the gradual awakening of man's best instincts. Wolfram employs much symbolism but little allegory. Parzival's quest for purity and nobility and his struggle for true religious devotion are symbolized by his search for the Grail, which succeeds only upon his second attempt. The Grail, a familiar object in the romances of chivalry, acquires a deeper meaning in Wolfram's treatment. He describes it as a "stone" from heaven with miraculous powers. It becomes a cornucopia, a preserver of life, and a bearer of divine messages. Significant too is the poet's idea of the fellowship of knights sworn to perform noble deeds—a fellowship on two levels: the worldly Arthurian Round Table and the sacred company of the Knights of the Grail.
Wolfram not only deepened the meaning of Chrestien's tale; he also expanded the plot. He added the story of Gahmuret, Parzival's father, and his first marriage to a Moorish princess, Balakane, who bore him the pagan piebald son Feirefiz, the exemplar of heathen nobility, which Wolfram rated as high as its Christian counterpart. This receives stress when Feirefiz and Parzival meet in combat unrecognized.
Perhaps to conceal his originality, which was no asset to a medieval poet, Wolfram emphasized another source, the work of Kyot, a mysterious writer of Provençal provenance. Scholars have vainly expended much ingenuity to ferret out Kyot. To account for Wolfram's not always orthodox religious views, some critics have discovered traces of Albigensian heresies in Parzival, but most writers credit Wolfram with a devout layman's piety.
Titurel, one of Wolfram's two unfinished epic poems, is written in four-line stanzas with feminine rhyme, each line divided by a caesura. Only two fragments of this poem exist. It deals with the earlier history and love of two of the minor characters of Parzival. More important is the compactly written but also incomplete knightly legend of Willehalm, composed between 1212 and Wolfram's death. It is based upon several chansons de geste. The titular hero, a vassal of Louis the Pious, is a devout fighter for God who does not share the scruples that trouble young Parzival. His heathen wife, Gyburg, converted to Christianity, is drawn as a noble character.
Wolfram's reputation remained high even after knighthood had faded. In the Wartburgkrieg of the late 13th century, he is pictured as the defender of Christianity against the heathen sorcerer Klingsor. The Meistersingers of the 15th century regarded him as one of their founders. In the 19th century Richard Wagner paid Wolfram homage in his operas Tannhäuser and Parsifal. In the latter opera he dealt freely with the source but showed respect for the poem's deeper meaning.
Two recent English translations of Parzival, both of which contain a critical introduction, are Edwin H. Zeydel and Bayard Q. Morgan, Parzival (1951), which, with the exception of less important passages, is in the original meter; and Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage, Parzival (1961), presented in prose, which divorces the highly important form from the content. See the chapter on Parzival by Otto Springer in Roger S. Loomis, ed., Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History (1959). Recommended for historical background are Frederick B. Artz, The Mind of the Middle Ages, A.D. 200-1500: An Historical Survey (1953; 3d rev. ed. 1965), and Maurice O. Walshe, Medieval German Literature: A Survey (1962).