During my research trip I was absorbed in the romance of Tristan as it was written by Gottfried von Strassburg. Although I knew that the work could not be decisively attributed to the city, I nonetheless read it for evidence of a bourgeois outlook on the medieval world.

However, I began to question whether or not Gottfried could be described as a Burger. The characters readily deploy disparaging words about merchants and all those outside the court, and the only strong portraits of burgers are negative (they are the merchants who kidnap Tristan and bring him to Cornwall). Moreover, Tristan’s disguise as the son of a merchant sometimes reads like a parody.

Is there a bourgeois worldview in the romance? Answering this question has taken me forward to the nineteenth century to see how German nationalists and Alsatians fought over medieval patrimony in a battle to establish authority over German site of memory.

[This is a three part series. Part II is here, part III is here.]

Gottfried wrote during a remarkable period in German history. 1170-1230 was a literary golden age when three of the triumphs of medieval literature were produced: the Niebelungenlied, Parzival, and Tristan (all of which became Wagner operas). But it was also an era in which the power and reach of the Holy Roman Empire began to wane.

The story of Tristan and Isolde
passed through many hands before it reached Gottfried. It is a tragic romance that takes place at court between a knight and his queen, brought to each other’s arms by a love potion. The degree to which the two lovers are responsible for their affair changes with each version of the poem, some writers weakening the potion in order to impugn their character. Gottfried dispenses with the scandal. In his version the effects of the potion are unescapable and everlasting. Without a cure, Tristan and Isolde cannot be guilty.

Gottfried borrowed, by his own admission, the story as written by the Anglo-Norman poet Thomas. Gottfried’s plot moves in the same manner as Thomas’. By his own admission, Gottfried is not interested in creating an original narrative or a new version of the story, but using the story in order to comment on the nature of love (as well as other things). One of the most remarkable passages is the allegorical Cave of Love, a refuge for Tristan and Isolde that allows Gottfried to explore the topography of emotions.

“[The cave’s] roundness inside betokens Love’s Simplicity: Simplicity is most fitting for Love, which must have no concerns, that is, Cunning or Treachery. Breadth signifies Love’s Power, for her Power is without end. Height is Aspiration that mounts aloft to the clouds: nothing is too great for it so long as it means to climb, up and up, to where the molten Crown of Virtues gathers in the vault to the keystone … .”

Unfortunately it is impossible to separate Gottfried from Thomas: most of the latter’s stanza have been lost, so that the former is the only evidence of how the latter was structured. Conversely, Gottfried’s ending is lost, usually replaced with the remaining verses of Thomas.

Reading both straight through reveals how Gottfried used Thomas’ text, diverging from the narrative to discuss matters of philosophy, law and literature in beautifully poetic terms. He even criticizes Thomas in the process, saying that he had to replace elements that were either too fantastic or incongruous with known reality. If there is a weakness, it is that Gottfried was a stranger to court practices and the Anglo-Norman realm and relied on information about them from Thomas — and sometimes misunderstood that information.

Go to Part II.

History : Germany : Literature