The eyes of the lady as rods of love in the Romanic and German troubadour traditions 

Dr. Joan Dalmases Paredes, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

Abstract: This essay offers an example of the literary contacts between the Occitan, French and German troubadour traditions through a succinct comparison of the use of the motif of the rod in three compositions by Raimbaut d’Aurenga, Blondel de Nesle and Ulrich von Gutenburg. The textual trio offered here is a small part of my wider postdoctoral research project, that analyses and compares many Occitan, French and German troubadour texts, funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and entitled Die Rezeption der romanischen höfischen Frauenstimme im Minnesang.

Death for love. The painful separation between the lover’s heart and his body. The hypnotic glance of the lady as a gateway to the tortuous love experience. These are just some of the literary themes and images related to the fin’amors that the Occitan troubadours repeatedly used and reworked in a range of different poetic contexts. Many of these themes would end up fossilizing as the core of courtly love expression and would expand beyond the borders of Occitanie from the middle of the 12th century, as witnessed in the formal and/or thematic convergences between some Occitan and French poets, like Raimon Jordan (ca. 1178–1195) and Thibaut de Champagne (1201–1253), as well as between authors of the Romanic and Germanic spheres, such as Folquet de Marsella (ca. 1155–1231) and Rudolf von Fenis († ca. 1196). The rapid expansion of the Occitan troubadour lyric throughout Europe should not come as a surprise; approximately 2500 songs and 250 melodies from the Oc tradition have been preserved, all of them composed by hundreds of troubadours and transmitted in 95 manuscripts from the 13th and 14th centuries –some of which obtained a wide diffusion.

            So far it has not yet been possible to determine when the influence of Occitan and French troubadours reached the Germanic territories. However, it is clear that the German compositions began to change around the second phase of the Minnesang (ca. 1170), which Touber and Mertens1 refer to as the Romanisierende Phase. From that juncture, and with Minnesänger such as Kaiser Heinrich (1165–1197), Friedrich von Hausen († ca. 1190) and Heinrich von Veldeke († ca. 1190), many German lyrical works adopted the subject matter, terminology and motifs of their Romanic predecessors and contemporaries. Thus, despite some relevant differences –including the structure (the Stollenstrophe instead of the various Occitan and French strophic typologies) and syllable count (qualitative instead of quantitative)– it is possible to compare Romanic and German troubadour texts in order to interrelate them. Especially those that were written during the second half of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century, namely during and after the reception of the Romanic models but before the Minnesang could take advantage of its own poetic tradition to innovate with authors like Walther von der Vogelweide († ca. 1230) or Neidhart (13th century).2

            As Touber points out,3 approximately 70% of the Minnesänger of this transitionary period draw on one or more elements previously used in the Romanic tradition. This also includes the borrowing of melodies even beyond the indicated period, with perhaps the most significant example being the Palästinalied by Walther von der Vogelweide (L 14,38), a contrafactum of Lanqand li jorn son lonc en mai by Jaufré Rudel (BEdT 262,2). It is, nevertheless, worthwhile mentioning that, despite the obvious general influence of the art of the troubadours and the trouvères on Medieval German Lyric, the number of German songs in which it is possible to identify a specific and clear Romanic contact is limited. Only around 20 contrafacta between Minnesänger and troubadours/trouvères have been confirmed to date.4 The most imitated poets were, among others, Folquet de Marsella, Chrétien de Troyes (ca. 1130–ca. 1190), Gace Brulé (ca. 1160–ca. 1213), and one of the authors discussed in this essay, Blondel de Nesle (ca. 1155–ca. 1210).

            In her 2005 doctoral dissertation, Nicola Zotz5 identifies five possible methods by which a Minnesänger could integrate his Romanic precedents. He could: 1) be inspired by the general meaning of an entire song; 2) rewrite a strophe and insert it into a new context; 3) build a new composition based on several sources; 4) take a whole song to create a new one himself; and 5) reuse one or more literary motifs. The last point is of particular interest in this essay, as it will allow us to offer a particular example of the contacts between the Occitan, French and German troubadour traditions.

            In the canso Ar resplan la flors enversa (BEdT 389,16), the Occitan troubadour Raimbaut d’Aurenga (1147–1173) expresses his euphoric state which contrasts with the icy winter that surrounds him. As much as everything is frozen and dead, the joy of falling in love keeps the lyrical subject cheerful (Mas mi ten vert e jauzen Joys v. 7). However, the poet confesses that his happiness is tempered by a single flaw: his own lack of initiative in the pursuit of love. The inability to act is directly connected with the beautiful eyes of his beloved, described as two whips or sticks that attack and subdue him (vostre belh huelh mi son giscle/que·m castion si·l cor ab joy vv. 30–31). These two lethal canes continuously punish the poet’s heart and fill it with the joy of love. In just two verses, Raimbaut summarises the origin and nature of love through what we could call the “literary motif of the rod”.

            If we move to France d’Oïl we will realise that, around the same time, the trouvère Blondel de Nesle (ca. 1155–ca. 1210) uses this same motif in Bien doit chanter cui fine amors adrece (R482). Love, merciless and brave, is described as a force that has infiltrated the poet’s body and has violently assaulted his heart –an image comparable to the one used by Raimbaut d’Aurenga. Aware of the lover’s weakness, Love has also transformed the lady’s sweet gaze into the rod with which she strikes and wounds the trouvère, leaving him subject to the will of his beloved (d’un douz regart fist verge a moi ferir;/las, mar la vi de si biaus euz garnie vv. 43–44). The poet can only mourn and cling to the hope of being reciprocated and “healed” by her.

            Finally, from the world of the German troubadour lyric we find a third piece that not only uses the motif of the rod, but also replicates the same metric scheme as Blondel de Nesle’s song (ababbbbab). Ich hôrte ein merlikîn wol singen (MF 78,15) by Ulrich von Gutenburg († ca. 1220) has already been identified as a contrafactum of the French text by Spanke6 and has been well-studied by Zotz. The Minnesänger, adhering to his predecessors, relates the instance of falling in love with the first exchange of glances between the lyrical subject and the lady, whose eyes are once again described as two rods (ir schœnieu ougen, daz wâren die ruote,/dâ mite si mich von êrste betwang vv. 26–27). Despite the joy he experienced at first, this pair of sticks that strike the poet make him feel unjustly punished and despised by the lady. Ulrich von Gutenburg, like Blondel de Nesle, accepts suffering as the only way to achieve love.

            The close resemblance between the three briefly analyzed compositions no doubt represents only a small amount of what were surely numerous literary connections between the Romanic and German territories in the 12th and 13th centuries. At the same time, this trio demonstrates how the analytical method of comparative literature can complement historical research, as it provides evidence of direct and indirect contacts between distant authors and texts when other historical documentation or archaeological evidence is lacking.

            Furthermore, beyond the importance of building links between traditions to establish an intertextual network of antecedents and influences, comparative methodologies also allow us to determine elements in order to distinguish the tendencies and culturally specific markers of each literary tradition. In utilising such an approach, we can detect which literary elements the authors considered relevant in their models and adopted in their own texts, how these models were reworked and combined with other elements, and what was left out. Thus, the interconnectivity of German texts with their Romanic precedents not only enables us to discover the origin and meaning of certain verses and literary motifs, but also enables us to establish which are the unique, original and innovative elements of the Minnesang.

Photo: Codex Manesse (cpg 848) S. 181v, Engelhardt von Adelnburg.

  1. Touber, A.; Mertens, V.; 2012: Germania Litteraria Mediaevalis Francigena (GLMF), Band III, Berlin/Boston, De Gruyter, p. 85. []
  2. Kellner, B.; Reichling S.; Rudolph A.; 2021: Handbuch Minnesang, Berlin/Boston, De Gruyter, p. 110. []
  3. Touber, A.; 2005: “Romanischer Einfluss auf den Minnesang. Friedrich von Hausen und die Hausenschule”, in Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur, 127: 1, Berlin, De Gruyter, pp. 62–81. []
  4. Touber, A.; Mertens, V. 2012: 54. []
  5. Zotz, N. (2005): Intégration courtoise. Zur Rezeption okzitanischer und französischer Lyrik im klassischen deutschen Minnesang. Heidelberg. Winter. []
  6. Spanke, H; 1929: “Romanische und mittellateinische Formen in der Metrik von Minnesangs Frühling”, in ZRPh 49, Darmstadt p. 300. []
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