Gottfried von Strassburg


Gottfried von Strassburg
(ca. 1180–ca. 1220)
   Although we know next to nothing about the Middle High German poet Gottfried von Strassburg, he certainly enjoys the greatest respect for his TRISTAN ROMANCE (ca. 1210), which easily proves to be the best version of the entire medieval TRISTAN tradition. In the fictionalized portrait of Gottfried in the famous Manessische Liederhandschrift (ms. C, early 14th century), the poet is identified as meister (master), which signals his learned background. By the same token, he was probably not of noble origin. Apart from his Tristan, Gottfried also composed a number of COURTLY LOVE songs, contained in the Manessische Liederhandschrift (ms. C) and in the Kleine Heidelberger Liederhandschrift (ms. A). His Tristan enjoyed tremendous popularity, as documented by 11 complete manuscripts and 17 fragments. Many contemporary and subsequent poets expressed profound respect for Gottfried and his literary accomplishments. Based on his name and his language, we know that he hailed from Strassburg (Strasbourg) or its vicinity, where he obviously received a solid education in the trivium, the quadrivium, classical literature, rhetoric, and theology.He is one of the first medieval poets to reflect critically on his predecessors and to identify some of the best contemporary poets within the literary excursus of his Tristan. A rather obscure and negative comment in his review of other Middle High German poets might be aimed at his competitor,WOLFRAM VON ESCHENBACH, whose writing style and poetic art he obviously disliked very much.
   Gottfried mentions in the prologue to his text that he searched far and wide for the best source for his Tristan, examined many libraries, and studied many books in French and Latin until he found the version by the Old French poet THOMAS OF BRETAGNE (ca. 1170). He then translated this text and expanded it considerably. As was common in the Middle Ages, poets such as Gottfried were not much interested in developing an original story; instead they were proud of their ability to create literary variations and adaptations of their sources. Gottfried’s prologue is important also for his teaching about “noble hearts,” as only true lovers would be allowed to join the community of those determined by true spiritual nobility. Gottfried created the remarkable image of readers of love stories who enjoy these texts like bread, almost in a eucharistic sense of the word, implying that true lovers need stories of true love.
   In his Tristan, Gottfried develops a number of new concepts regarding the love between Tristan and Isolde. First we learn about the history of Tristan’s parents, Rivalin and Blanscheflor, whose son is born illegitimately, which causes severe military and political problems with Rivalin’s inheritance, the kingdom of Parmenie. Consequently, the young hero Tristan, by now an orphan, has to grow up in hiding, but he receives tremendous learning, especially in languages and music. Later he kills his deceased father’s opponent, King Morgan, but then departs for the court of his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. Similarly as in EILHART VON OBERG’s Tristrant, the young hero wins the Irish princess Isolde the Fair as a bride for his uncle Mark, but accidentally both drink the love potion brewed by Isolde’s mother, also called Isolde, who had intended it for her daughter and her future husband to guarantee happiness in their marriage. The effect of the love potion, however, is quite different from Eilhart’s version, as their newfound love will last forever, and they cannot survive a day without seeing each other. The adulterous couple struggles hard to defend themselves against the courtly spies and Mark’s suspicions, and at one point, Isolde has to undergo a trial by ordeal with the hot iron. Significantly, here we observe the young woman emerging as the true protagonist as she secretly orchestrates a deceptive game. She officially professes never to have lain in the arms of a man except her husband and the poor pilgrim who had carried her from the ship to the shore, and then had fallen under her weight. This pilgrim, however, was Tristan, and subsequently Isolde’s oath is accepted, as the narrator states, by God who, like a windswept sleeve, ignores her outrageous lie as he supports the lovers against the jealous husband. Isolde demonstrates her intellectual maturity and mastership of love again in the Petitcrîu scene. Petitcrîu is a little dog who wears a magical bell around its neck, and anybody who listens to the bell’s music immediately experiences complete happiness and forgets all his sorrows. Tristan wins this dog for his beloved by killing a giant, which then allows him to claim the dog as his prize, causing enormous misery to his previous owner. Contrary to his expectations and limited understanding of the nature of love, however, Isolde tears off the bell and thus destroys the musical “drug,” as she does not want to enjoy happiness without Tristan. In fact, here Isolde proves to possess a truly “noble heart,” whereas Tristan seems to think only of material happiness.
   At the end of his narrative Gottfried has the lovers taking refuge in a magical cave in the midst of a forest after they have been discovered by the king in flagrante and were expelled from the court. In the cave they enjoy each other and live their love in a utopian setting,without need for any food and drink. One day Mark happens to find the cave and sees, to his surprise, a sword strategically placed between the two young people while they are sleeping in bed. This erroneously convinces him that Tristan and Isolde are innocent—he does not know that Tristan heard him arrive at the cave and intends to deceive him with the sword. Full of love for both his wife and his nephew, Mark allows them to return to his court. Yet when Mark catches them in tender embrace once again, Tristan must depart for good, leaving Isolde behind full of grief. In distant lands he meets another young woman, also called Isolde (Whitehand), who falls in love with him, whereas he is still longing for Isolde the Fair. Before the narrative can develop this intricate situation further, the text breaks off, whereas in Eilhart’s version and in many subsequent Tristan romances, Tristan and his true beloved Isolde eventually meet their death just when she is coming to rescue him from a mortal wound.
   Not one of the many manuscripts containing Gottfried’s Tristan offers a conclusion, which forces us to accept that the poet left his text as a fragment, either because he died too early, or because he could not or did not want to complete his romance. Gottfried not only composed a highly intriguing romance of adulterous love, but also incorporated much scholastic learning, reflected intensively on ancient classical literature, such as Ovid and Cicero, and combined religious concepts with amazingly unorthodox concepts of love.
   Bibliography
   ■ Des Minnesangs Frühling. Edited by Hugo Moser and Helmut Tervooren. 38th ed. Stuttgart: Hirzel, 1988.
   ■ Gentry, Francis, trans. Tristan and Isolde. New York: Continuum, 1988.
   ■ Gottfried von Strassburg. Tristan und Isolde. Edited by Karl Marold. 3rd rev. ed. 1906. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1969.
   ■ Hasty,Will, ed. A Companion to Gottfried von Strassburg’sTristan.” Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2003.
   Albrecht Classen

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

Look at other dictionaries:

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  • Gottfried von Strassburg — flourished с 1210 German poet, one of the greatest of the Middle Ages. Little is known of his life. His courtly epic Tristan und Isolde (с 1210) is the classic version of the famous love story. The unfinished poem is based on an Anglo Norman… …   Universalium

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  • Gottfried von Strassburg — Gott•fried von Strass•burg [[t]ˈgɔtˌfrit fɔn ˈʃtrɑsˌbʊərk[/t]] n. big fl. 1210, German poet …   From formal English to slang

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  • von — /von/; Ger. /fawn/, unstressed /feuhn/, prep. from; of (used in German and Austrian personal names, originally to indicate place of origin and later to indicate nobility): Paul von Hindenburg. * * * (as used in expressions) Friedrich Leopold… …   Universalium


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