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University of Basel

A great Basel poet: Konrad von Würzburg

Gert Hübner, Seraina Plotke, Stefan Rosmer

The tales of Perceval’s quest for the Grail and the love of Tristan and Isolde are firmly embedded in cultural memory. These stories acquired their definitive literary form in the high Middle Ages, in the work of poets such as Wolfram von Eschenbach and Gottfried von Strassburg. Equally famous at the time was a Basler, Konrad von Würzburg. Over the past few decades, the complex body of work that he left behind has become a focus of research; recently it has been attracting increasing interest from medievalists in Basel itself.

One of the most distinguisted poets of his time: Konrad von Würzburg (left) with a scribe. (image: Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Grosse Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, page 383r).
One of the most distinguisted poets of his time: Konrad von Würzburg (left) with a scribe. © Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg (Grosse Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, page 383r).

Basel’s most important writer is unknown in the city. There is no writers’ museum, memorial plaque or street name to remind us of him; even people with an interest in literature have not heard of him or his works. We are talking about Konrad von Würzburg who lived in Basel in the second half of the 13th century and wrote many of his works here. As with most medieval writers, the ‘von Würzburg’ affixed to his name was not a mark of noble status but a reference to his place of origin. His name was Cuonrât and he came from Würzburg – and that is how he referred to himself.

Aristocratic patrons in Basel

Although Konrad was born in Würzburg between 1220 and 1230, from the 1260s he must have been based in the Upper Rhine region, as in his works he names patrons living in Basel. The verse romance Partonopier und Meliur was written for Peter Schaler, a mayor of Basel, while another verse romance, the Trojanerkrieg, was financed by Dietrich an dem Orte, who as cathedral cantor held one of the highest offices in the diocese. In his legends of the saints, too, Konrad refers to aristocratic patrons: the cathedral canon Liutold von Röteln, the city councilor Johannes von Arguel, Heinrich Iselin and Johannes von Bermeswil.

Konrad is also mentioned in three non-literary sources. First, in the Annals of Colmar, compiled by an unknown Dominican friar between 1266 and 1306, the entry for the period 8 to 22 October 1287 reads: “Obiit Cuonradus de Wirciburch, in Theutonico multorum bonorum dictaminum compilator” (Konrad von Würzburg died; he was the compiler of many good poems in the German language). This is a remarkable piece of information, as no other surviving Latin chronicle from the 13th century or earlier mentions the death of a poet writing in German. The second reference is in a Basel document from 1295, on the settlement of a legal dispute over a house in the Spiegelgasse (now the Augustinergasse); this is said to have been situated next door to the house formerly belonging to Konrad von Würzburg (“magistri Cuonradi de Wirzeburg”). Third, the cathedral’s obituary books record that Konrad provided for a mass to be celebrated on 31st August each year for the repose of the soul of himself, his wife and their two daughters. According to this entry, the family was buried in the chapel of St. Mary Magdalene in the cathedral cloisters.

In German Studies circles, Konrad is often described as a professional poet. This is true in the sense that he was paid for writing, which probably took up a significant amount of his time. However, it is unlikely that writing alone would have secured him a house on the cathedral hill and a grave in a cathedral chapel. He must, therefore, have had another profession; his place of residence suggests a link to the prince-bishopric. Given the location of his house and grave, together with his ability to attract clients from the city’s social and political elite, the immigrant Konrad von Würzburg could be described as a prime example of successful integration.

Praise from his fellow writers

To categorize Konrad as a successful immigrant is to apply modern standards, which can be misleading. Seen in this light, the claim that he is Basel’s most important poet is a double-edged sword, as such accolades are always linked to value judgments on the part of those bestowing them. There was, however, no doubt about Konrad’s status during his lifetime. That is clear not just from the striking reference to Konrad in the Annals of Colmar but from the testimony of his fellow poets. Hermann Damen and Rumelant von Sachsen in central and northern Germany, far away from his sphere of activity in Basel, class him as one of the best living lyric poets. The lyric poet Frauenlob – the most celebrated literary figure around 1300 – dedicated a eulogy to him in which it is said that art itself died with Konrad.

What sets Konrad apart from his contemporaries is the sheer range of his output, a great deal of which has survived. He wrote verse romances, legends of the saints, shorter verse novellas, a long poem in praise of the Virgin Mary, a description of a tournament, Minnelieder (courtly love songs) and Sangsprüche (short didactic poems). This places him firmly in the tradition of courtly poetry that became established in the Provençal-, French- and German-speaking lands during the 12th century. For a long time medieval scholars regarded him as an epigone, but more recent work in the field has recognized just how exceptional he was, endorsing the view of contemporaries and subsequent tradition. Among medievalists in Basel, too, there is now an increasing focus on Konrad’s works, as the following examples show.

The Trojanerkrieg – a courtly romance with Greco-Roman roots

The Trojanerkrieg is Konrad’s most ambitious work. The story of the war waged by the Greeks against Troy was well known in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, largely thanks to two late-antique Latin prose narratives. Homer’s Iliad, by contrast, was known mainly from a short Latin summary dating from the 1st century AD. The French poet Benoît de Sainte-Maure used these sources as the models for his courtly romance Roman de Troie, written around 1165. At around 30,000 lines, the Roman is considerably longer than the works on which it was based, largely because the author invented many new details.

In the 1280s, Konrad made use of Benoît’s work, integrating into his own text references to the Troy story from Virgil and Ovid. With the help of these additional sources, he was able, in particular, to reconstruct precisely the chain of events leading to the war. Like Benoît, he also embellished his text with much material of his own invention – concerning the love affair between Paris and Helen that triggered off the war, for example. A primary focus of research in Basel has thus been the relationship between poetic invention and the truth claim that is central to literary narrative during the 12th and 13th centuries. To gain a proper understanding of the characteristics of medieval narrative, we need to link this practice – which is not unique to Konrad – to rhetoric and to historical conceptions of truth and reality.

Partonopier und Meliur – a romance of love and adventure

Medievalists in Basel are preparing a new edition of Partonopier und Meliur, which will include the first translation of the work into modern German. As well as providing fertile ground for research, this tale of love and adventure, running to around 22,000 lines, is well worth reading for its own sake. The poem describes how Partonopier, the son of a count, gets lost while hunting and finds himself in a splendid but seemingly deserted city. There he embarks on an affair with an invisible woman, Meliur, the fairy-like daughter of the Emperor of Constantinople, who possesses magical powers. She reveals to him that he may marry her in two years’ time but is not allowed to see her before then. At first Partonopier devotes himself to the war against the pagans, but then, urged on by the archbishop, he breaks the taboo on seeing Meliur. Having lost her, he has to undergo a series of trials to win back his beloved. In his work, Konrad deals with a wide range of contemporary cultural issues, two of which are briefly considered here:

  • The action of the piece is set within the cultural triangle of Christian West, Orthodox Christian Byzantium, and the Muslim East, which played the defining role in a Europe shaped by the crusades. Here literature enters into a dialogue with real historical events. As Stephen Greenblatt would put it, the text “negotiates” cultural relations between Europe and the East by using particular configurations and patterns of behavior to play out different modes of relationship and to redefine lifeworld situations in relation to one another. The fantastic trials the hero undergoes in foreign lands are thus reflections on present events, reflecting the writer’s perception not just of foreign cultures but of his own.
  • Konrad’s work experiments with the reordering of gender relations by picking up the narrative pattern of the fairy story and the so-called “Mahrtenehe” (generally a tabooized sexual union between a human being and a magical creature), which was very popular in the high and late Middle Ages and has been adapted by modern writers (Goethe, Tieck, Fontane, Ingeborg Bachmann) right up to the present day. This narrative model is characterized by the way in which it uses the fairy motif and the taboo confronting the human partner to explore modified forms of gender relations and to challenge socially accepted gender stereotypes. The power structures governing relations between the sexes are reconfigured, along with their scope for freedom of action, while the motif of the taboo and its breaking opens the text up to ethnological, psychoanalytical and socio-political readings that link in with questions of gender history.

A distinguished lyric poet

Besides the narrative texts, a corpus of Konrad’s song lyrics has survived; although few in number, these are of high quality. He composed works in the two great genres of medieval German song-writing, the Minnelied and the Sangspruch. Generally, a Sangspruch consists of a single stanza performed as a song; it usually takes the form of pithy aphorism on a particular subject, delivered as a universal truth. The genre deals with a range of subjects covering all aspects of courtly life. These include advice for princes, praise and censure of rulers, politics of the day, general advice on how to behave at court, writers’ requests for payment, complaints about avarice, religious instruction, prayer-like verses, natural history, and the conduct of men and women.

Konrad’s love poetry is noteworthy for its generalized portrayal of love. Typically, the Minnesang is written from the perspective of a person in love, but here that is abandoned: The focus is on love itself rather than the love pangs of a particular individual. In terms of their formal artistry – verse form, use of rhyme and poetic diction – Konrad’s love songs are quite remarkable. His Sangsprüche are equally well-crafted as regards their use of rhetoric, rhyme and meter, giving his lyric works a pivotal place in the history of poetic style. Of particular importance in this context is the tension between rhetoric as a historical text production theory and the practice of poetry writing.

Konrad’s Sangsprüche are important for the subsequent history of sung lyric poetry. Whereas the other genres of courtly poetry saw a break with tradition in the first quarter of the 14th century, the Sangspruch continued to be handed down and produced. In the process, the genre underwent fundamental change, eventually resulting in the urban Meistergesang (mastersong). The use of elaborate verse forms in combination with melody must have played a crucial role in this process. The mastersingers of the 15th and 16th centuries regarded Konrad as one of their forerunners and as a poetic authority – one of the ‘twelve old masters’.

Professor Gert Hübner is Associate Professor of Medieval German in the European Context at the Department of German at the University of Basel; Dr. Seraina Plotke is a lecturer in Medieval German at the Department of German and an associate lecturer in Early Modern Latin at the Department of Classics; and Dr. des. Stefan Rosmer is a research associate in Medieval German at the Department of German.

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