1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Minnesingers

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MINNESINGERS (Ger. Minnesänger from Minne, love), the name given to the German lyric poets of the 12th and 13th centuries. The term Minnesang, strictly applicable to the poems expressing the homage (Minnedienst) rendered by the knight to his mistress, is applied to the whole body of lyric poetry of the period, whether dealing with love, religion or politics. The idea of amour courtois, with its excessive worship of woman, its minute etiquette and its artificial sentiment, was introduced into German poetry from Provençal literature; but the German Minnesang was no slavish imitation of the poetry of the troubadours. Its tone was, on the whole, far healthier and more sincere, reflecting the difference between the simple conditions of German life and the older and corrupt civilization of Provence. The minnesinger usually belonged to the lower ranks of the nobility, and his verses were addressed to a married woman, often above him in rank; consequently the commonest lyric themes are the lover's hopeless devotion and complaints of the lady's cruelty, expressed with a somewhat wearisome iteration. That real passion was sometimes present may be safely assumed, but it was not within the rules of the game, which corresponded fairly closely to the later sonneteering conventions. The poet was not permitted to give the lady's name, or to betray her identity; and a direct expression of passion would also have contravened the rules. The poems were from the first sung in open court to a melody (Weise) of the poet's own composing, with the accompaniment of a fiddle or small harp. That the minnesinger was no improvisatore is evident from the complicated forms of his verse, which were partly borrowed from the Provençal, but possibly owed something to the Latin rhymed verse[1] of the wandering scholars. The older songs consisted of a single strophe cast in three divisions, two (known as Stollen or doorposts) identical in form, stating and developing the argument, the third (Abgesang) of different form, giving the conclusion. Later on, two or more strophes were used in a single poem, but the principle of their structure was retained. In this form were cast the Tagelied, a dialogue describing the parting of lovers at dawn; and the crusading song. Side by side with these existed the Spruch, written in a single undivided stanza, destined for recitation and often cast in the form of a fable. The lay (Leich) was written in unequal strophes, each formed of two equal divisions. It was applied in the first instance to sacred lyrics. and was first used in love poems by the Alsatian minnesinger Ulrich von Gutenberg.

The origin of the native lyric, which flourished especially in Austria and Bavaria, is perhaps to be sought in the songs which accompanied dancing. These were not necessarily love songs, but celebrated the coming of spring, the gloom of winter &c., the commonplaces of Minnesang throughout the two centuries of its existence. The older lyrics, which date from the middle of the 12th century, are simple in form and written in the ordinary epic metres. The earliest minnesinger whose name has come down to us is Der von Kürenberg (fl. c. 1160), a scion of an Austrian knightly family whose castle lay on the Danube, west of Linz. These songs, however, contradict the root idea of Minnedienst, since the lady is the wooer, and the poet, at the most, an acquiescent lover. They take the form of laments for an absent lover, complaints of his faithlessness and the like. Among the other Austrian and south German lyrists who show small trace of foreign influence was Dietmar von Aist (d. c. 1171), though some of the songs attributed to him seem to be of later date. While the love-song remained in the hands of noble singers, the Spruch was cultivated by humbler poets. The elder of the two or three poets concealed under the name of Spervogel was a wandering singer who found patronage at the court of the burgraves of Regensburg, one of whom himself figures among the earlier minnesingers.

The characteristic period of German Minnesang begins at the close of the 12th century with the establishment of the Provençal tradition in western Germany through the poems of Heinrich von Veldeke and Friedrich von Hausen. National elements abound in Veldeke's songs, although the amour courtois dominates the whole; Friedrich von Hausen (d. 1190) followed Provençal models closely. The long crusading song Sie darf mich des Zîhen niet, is a good example of his powers. A close disciple of the troubadours Peire Vidal and Folquet de Marseille was the Swiss Count Rudolf von Fenis.[2] The greatest name among the earlier minnesingers is that of Heinrich von Morungen, a Thuringian poet who lived on in popular story in the ballad of “The Noble Moringer.” He brought great imaginative power to bear on the common subjects of Minnesang, and his poetry has a very modern note. The formal art and science of Minnesang reached full development in the subtle love-songs of Reinmar, the Alsatian “nightingale of Hagenau.” Uhland aptly called him the “scholastic philosopher of unhappy love.” As a metrist he developed a greater correctness of rhyme, and a better handling of German metres. He became a member of the court of Duke Leopold V. (d. 1194) of Austria, and there Walther von der Vogelweide (q.v.) was first his disciple, and then perhaps his rival. Walther, the greatest of medieval German lyric poets, had Reinmar's technical art, but in feeling was more nearly allied to Morungen. He raised the Spruch to the dignity of a serious political poem, which proved a potent weapon against the policy of Innocent III. In 1202 at the court of Hermann, landgrave of Thuringia, he met Wolfram von Eschenbach, who is said to have taken part in the tourney of poets known as the Wartburgskrieg, made world-famous through Wagner's Tannhäuser. The Tagelieder of Wolfram give him a high place in Minnesang, although his fame, like that of Heinrich von Veldeke and Hartmann von Aue, chiefly rests on his epics. A new style — called by Lachmann höfische Dorfpoesie — was marked out by Neidhart von Reuental (d. c. 1240), who belonged to the lesser Bavarian nobility. He wrote songs to accompany the dances of the village beauties, and comic and realistic descriptions of village life to please the court. He was acknowledged by the Meistersinger as one of the twelve masters of song. Nevertheless, with him the decadence may be said to have begun.

The Styrian poet Ulrich von Lichtenstein (d. c. 1275) unconsciously caricatured chivalry itself by his Frauendienst, in which he relates the absurd feats which he had undertaken at his lady's command, while Steinmar (fl. 1276) deliberately parodied court poetry in his praises of rustic beauty and good living. In the lays, songs and proverbs of Tannhäuser something of both elements, of the court and the village, is to be found. He seems to have lived as a wandering singer until 1268, and there very soon grew up round his name the Tannhäuser myth which has so little foundation in his life or poetry. The Austrian poet Reinmar von Zweter (d. c. 1260) left some hundreds of Sprüche political or social in their import. Among the princes who practised Minnesang were the emperor Henry VI., though the two songs preserved under his name are of doubtful authenticity, Duke Henry IV. of Breslau (fl. 1270-1290), King Wenceslaus II. of Bohemia, the margrave Otto IV. of Brandenburg, Wizlaw IV., prince of Rügen and the unhappy Conradin, the last of the house of Hohenstaufen, beheaded by the order of Charles of Anjou before he reached his seventeenth year.

The didactic motive came more and more to the front in the 13th century. The wandering Swabian poet Marner (d. c. 1270) cultivated especially the Spruch, laughed at the Provençal and courtly tradition, and there is no very great step from his learning and his feuds to the conditions of Meistersang. Heinrich von Meissen (1250-1319), known as “Frauenlob” (“ladies' praise”), was one of the last minnesingers, and his pedantry and virtuosity entitle him to be called the first meistersinger.

Bibliography. — The chief MSS. containing the work of the 300 or more minnesingers whose work has been partially preserved, are the old Heidelberg MS. (13th century), the Weingarten—Stuttgart MS. (14th century) and the Great Heidelberg MS. (14th century), formerly known as the Manasse MS. This last is the most comprehensive of all. The collection on which it is based was made by Rüdiger Manasse (d. 1304) and his son Johannes at Zürich. It is quaintly illustrated with imaginary portraits of the poets (that of Hartmann von Aue in full armour with closed vizor!), and pictures of their coats of arms. It was printed by F. Pfaff (Heidelberg, 1899). The completest collection of the minnesingers' verses is F. H. von der Hagen, Deutsche Liederdichter des zwölften, dreizehnten und vierzehnten Jahrhunderts (4 vols., Leipzig, 1838), vol. iv. of which contains biographical matter and a discussion of the music; K. Lachmann and M. Haupt, Des Minnesangs Frühling (3rd ed., edited F. Vogt, Leipzig, 1882) is a collection of the minnesingers earlier than Walther von der Vogelweide; there is a comprehensive selection of 97 minnesingers by Karl Bartsch, Deutsche Liederdichter des zwölften bis vierzehnten Jahrhunderts (ed. W. Golther, Berlin 1901) with bio-bibliographical account of individual minnesingers; see also F. Pfaff, Der Minnesang der 12 bis 14 Jahrhunderts, pt. i. (Stuttgart, 1892). English translations of early German lyrics are F. C. Nicholson, Old German Love Songs, translated from the minnesingers of the 12th to 14th centuries (London, 1907). See also Walther v. d. Vogelweide.

Of historical and critical work on the minnesingers, see K. Goedeke, Geschichte der deutschen Dichtung, vol. i. (Dresden, 1881); H. Paul, Grundriss der germanischen Philologie, vol. ii. (Strassburg, 2nd ed., 1901), where further references will be found; also A. E. Schönbach, Die Anfänge des deutschen Minnesanges (Graz, 1898); F. Grimme, Geschichte der Minnesänger, vol. i. (Paderborn, 1892); K. Burdach, Reinmar der Alte und Walther von der Vogelweide (Leipzig, 1880); A. Schultz, Das höfische Leben zur Zeit der Minnesänger (2nd ed., Leipzig, 1889); J. Falke, Die ritterliche Gesellschaft im Zeitalter des Frauencultus (Berlin, no date).


  1. See the Carmina Burana, ed. J. A. Schmeller, 4th ed., Breslau, 1904.
  2. Rudolf II., count of Neuenburg (d. 1196), or, according to some, a nephew of his who died in 1257.