Wednesday, October 29, 2008

EDW: Oswald von Wolkenstein

Let's revisit Theo Hobson's ravings for a moment. In bemoaning the coarseness, violence and immorality of the James Bond series he complains that Bond debases the traditions of chivalry:

In reality chivalry is simply incompatible with sexual hedonism. The heroic knight of medieval epic is a warning against sexual adventurism: his conquests are not of women but of various temptations. Chivalry is a tradition that encourages us to admire the sublimation of male desire rather than its indulgence.

Ah the good old middle ages: a time of brotherly love, virtue, easy living and tolerance. No matter that the chivalric literature of the day was as much escapism as the Bond stuff: in the 20th/21st century people like to dream of transcending the constraints and moral codes of an ordered society and acting pretty much as they please; in the middle ages courtly literature allowed the aristocracy a constraints from a harsg, cruel life defined by service to one's lord. The Knights Errant of literary tradition, you see, can go off on a whim for whatever cause they please rather than being bound by their feudal obligations and women are transformed from being either peasant girls to be ravished or units of property to mysterious, pure damsels.

At least the latter is how, I assume Hobson sees women in medieval literature. Its all bollocks, of course, there are quite a few "favours" granted to the knights in courtly literature. But it's easiest to grasp how much of a fantasy chivalry is by looking at the lives of some of the real life poet knights. The obvious English example is Thomas Malory: who wrote Le Morte d'Arthur, so tradition has it, while in prison for burglary, banditry and rape.

We don't know Malory's life story for sure, though, so let's go for an Austrian instead. The rather forbidding looking gent up top is Oswald von Wolkestein. He was something of a freebooter, travelling to the Holy Land, across southern Europe and Scandanavia. ("Gen Preussen, Littwan, Tartarei, Türkei, über mer, /gen Lampart, Frankreich, Ispanien mit zwaien küngesher /traib mich die minn auff meines aigen geldes wer.") You'll note he only has one eye, he lost that whilst having fun at a carnival, and spent much of his life feuding with his neighbours. He was also an accomplished poet, the last of the Minnesingers indeed, and an innovative composer.

Sadly I can't find any English translations of his poems, and I don't have one to hand, but his works give you a good flavour of the chivalric lifestyle. Ain guet geporen edelman, for instance, is a long litany of complaint about all the people who'd done him wrong, the misfortunes he'd suffered and includes the classic line "And then I got married just to make things worse." There are also love poems, of course, but many of the women encountered in his ballads are given the James Bond treatment; desires indulged rather than sublimated. In reality one suspects that he didn't indulge his desires as much as he would have liked to (does any man?) and so had to use his imagination instead.

Still, quite a fellow - and has a certain sense of style too (nice ermine that). I doubt Theo Hobson would have approved of him had they met.

Post Script: It's sometimes argued that the Age of Chivalry ended with Agincourt. Last week a group of eccentric Frenchmen tried to get the results retrospectively amended by charging the English with war crimes. Doubtless they would have been by modern standards, but that's the middle ages for you. The long tradition of holding up that era's mass slaughters as moral exemplars is far more pernicious than enjoying the adventures of a louche, fictional spy or a few legendary knights.

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