The New International Encyclopædia/Minnesinger
MIN'NESINGER. The common name for those German poets who flourished at the various feudal courts of Germany in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The themes of the minnesingers are first epic, then mainly religious in inspiration. They also described the beauties of nature. More often than the troubadours they were of noble birth, but, like the troubadours, they roved from court to court. Minne-poetry has three epochs. In the first, a little after 1150, lyric poetry begins to free itself from the epic; the second is its brilliant period; the third, beginning about 1300, marks its decline and the rise of the meistergesang, cultivated by the meistersinger (q.v.). The minnesingers employ either the verse with four beats, or the long line with rhymes in pairs, and often their songs are only a strophe long. Remnants of old German poetry show that the chanted long line and the rhymed verse with a regular beat were collaterally employed. The former was better suited to heroic songs or narrative; the latter, being lively, fitted the lyric. The oldest extant love songs in German are in rhymed verses with fourfold arsis, or they are in the long line. Not seldom variety was obtained by the introduction of an ‘orphan’ or rhymeless verse, or by having long and short lines in one and the same strophe. The ditties of early singers such as Dietmar von Aist, von Kürenberg, Meinloh von Seveningen, and the burgraves of Regensburg and Rietenburg, are marked by simplicity of thought, by absence of repining, and by the use of assonance. The minnesingers, like the troubadours (q.v.), throve in the heyday of chivalry. How deeply each of the minnesingers was influenced by the troubadours, and to what degree they drew upon the traditions and customs of their own land, or finally to what extent they imitated once genuine emotions or spoke from their hearts, is often extremely problematical. Certainly, the oldest poems utter true experience, though we must allow for the fiction which presents the lover and his lady in colloquy. Some of the most ancient German poems are put into woman's mouth, but we can scarcely conclude that women were therefore among the minnesingers, though several ladies, as for instance, the Countess of Dia, wrote love poems in Provençal.
With the more artful verses of the Burgrave Rietenburg, Provençal influence becomes clear. To all people minne meant love, but to the lordlier poets or to those who sang in their halls minne had an exalted significance. Platonic love had ousted the older and far more genuine sentiment between men and women. We shall find that the minnesingers were merely doing what had been done a little sooner by the troubadours, but the minnesong was not so brilliant, though it was almost as artificial as the poems written in the best period (1100-1260) of Provençal literature (q.v.). The Germans cultivated such forms as were popular in Southern France, as the love-poem proper, the sirventes (q.v.) and the tenzon (q.v.). Like the troubadour, the minnesinger sang the praises of his lady, who was often his patron's wife. Of her he made an earthly angel, and whatsoever boon she might grant him was his bliss. The minnesingers whose dialect puts them on the western boundary of Germany first show French influence. Provençal influence is earliest perceptible in Friedrich von Hansen, a Franconian from the Rhine. The dactylic rhythm bears witness also to a romantic origin. Minnesingers who used it were, besides Friedrich von Hansen, Heinrich von Veldeke, Heinrich von Morungen, Hartmann von Aue, Walther von der Vogelweide, Hildbold von Schwangau, and Ulrich von Liechtenstein.
With Friedrich von Hansen we first meet the Crusading song. Walther von der Vogelweide gave the fullest utterance to the minnesong. In him we find both courtly and popular elements. Walther also modeled poems after romantic patterns. Austria was the centre of court poetry. There Reinmar had lived and there Walther had learned his art. Neidhart had first composed for peasants songs and dances, but his ambitious tendencies displeased them and he turned to the Court. With Walther and Neidhart the road goes in twain, and each had his followers. Princes had been among the troubadours. So it was in Germany, where Henry VI. and Conradin were singing in the south, while farther north were Duke Henry II. of Anhalt, Margrave Otho IV. of Brandenburg, and Henry III. of Meissen.
Consult: Pfaff, Der Minnesang des 12. bis 14. Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart, no date); Uhland, “Der Meistergesang,” in Schriften zur Geschichte der Dichtung und Sage, vol. v. (Stuttgart, 1870); Scherer, Deutsche Studien (Vienna, 1870, 1874); Burdach, Reinmar der Alte und Walther von der Vogelweide (Leipzig, 1880); Lyon, Minne- und Meistergesang (ib., 1883); Lechleitner, Der deutsche Minnegesang (Wolfenbüttel, 1893); Grimm, Geschichte der Minnesinger (Paderborn, 1809). For the history of the German gnomic poetry consult Roethe's edition of the Gedichte Reinmars von Zweter (Leipzig, 1887). For a general collection consult von der Hagen, Minnesinger (ib., 1838); for a selection consult Bartsch, Deutsche Liederdichter des 12. bis 14. Jahrhunderts (3d ed., Stuttgart, 1893).