Walther von der Vogelweide (c. 1170 – c. 1230) is the most celebrated of the Middle High German lyric poets.
For all his fame, Walther's name is not found in contemporary records, with the exception of a solitary mention in the travelling accounts of Bishop Wolfger of Erla of the Passau diocese: "Walthero cantori de Vogelweide pro pellicio v solidos longos"--"To Walther the singer of the Vogelweide five shillings for a fur coat." The main sources of information about him are his own poems and occasional references by contemporary Minnesingers. He was a knight, but probably not a wealthy or landed one. His surname, von der Vogelweide, suggests that he had no grant of land, since die Vogelweide ("the bird-pasture") seems to refer to a general geographic feature, not a specific place. He probably was knighted for military bravery and was a retainer in a wealthy, noble household before beginning his travels.
Walther’s birthplace remains unknown, and given the lack of documentary evidence, it will probably never be known exactly. There is little chance of deriving it from his name; in his day there were many so-called “Vogelweiden” in the vicinity of castles and towns, where hawks were caught for hawking or songbirds for people's homes. For this reason, it must be assumed that the singer did not obtain his name primarily for superregional communication, because it could not be used for an unambiguous assignment. Other persons of the high nobility and poets who traveled with their masters used the unambiguous name of their ownership or their place of origin; therefore, the name was meaningful only in the near vicinity, where only one Vogelweide existed or it was understood as a metaphoric surname of the singer. Pen-names were usual for poets of the 12th and 13th century, whereas Minnesingers in principle were known by their noble family name which was used to sign documents.
In 1974, Helmut Hörner identified a farmhouse mentioned in 1556 as “Vogelweidhof” in the urbarium of the domain Rappottenstein. At this time it belonged to the Amt Traunstein, now within the municipality Schönbach in the Lower Austrian Waldviertel. Its existence had already been mentioned without comment in 1911 by Alois Plesser, who also did not know its precise location. Hörner proved that the still-existing farmhouse Weid is indeed the mentioned Vogelweidhof and collected arguments for Walther being born in the Waldviertel. He published this in his 1974 book 800 Jahre Traunstein (800 years Traunstein), pointing out that Walther says “Ze ôsterriche lernt ich singen unde sagen” ("In Austria [at this time only Lower Austria and Vienna], I learned to sing and to speak"). A tradition says that Walther, one of the ten Old Masters, was a Landherr (land owner) from Bohemia, which does not contradict his possible origin in the Waldviertel, because in mediaeval times the Waldviertel was from time to time denoted as versus Boemiam. Powerful support for this theory was given in 1977 and 1981 by Bernd Thum (University Karlsruhe, Germany), which makes an origin in the Waldviertel very plausible. Thum began with an analysis of the content of Walther’s work, especially of his crusade appeal, also known as “old age elegy”, and concluded that Walther’s birthplace was far away from all travelling routes of this time and within a region where land was still cleared. This is because the singer pours out his sorrows “Bereitet ist daz velt, verhouwen ist der walt” and suggests he no longer knows his people and land, applicable to the Waldviertel.
Additionally in 1987, Walter Klomfar and the librarian Charlotte Ziegler came to the conclusion that Walther might have been born in the Waldviertel. The starting point for their study is also the above-mentioned words of Walther. These were placed into doubt by research, but strictly speaking do not mention his birthplace. Klomfar points to a historical map which was drawn by monks of the Zwettl monastery in the 17th century, on the occasion of a legal dispute. This map shows a village Walthers and a field marked “Vogelwaidt” (near Allentsteig) and a related house belonging to the village. The village became deserted, but a well marked on the map could be excavated and reconstructed to prove the accuracy of the map. Klomfar was also able to partly reconstruct land ownership in this region and prove the existence of the (not rare) Christian name Walther.
Contrary to this theory, Franz Pfeiffer assumed that the singer was born in the Wipptal in South Tyrol, where, not far from the small town of Sterzing on the Eisack, a wood — called the Vorder- and Hintervogelweide — exists. This would, however, contradict the fact that Walther was not able to visit his homeland for many decades. At this time Tyrol was the home of several well-known Minnesingers. The court of Vienna, under Duke Frederick I of the house of Babenberg, had become a centre of poetry and art.
Reinmar the Old
Here it was that the young poet learned his craft under the renowned master Reinmar the Old, whose death he afterwards lamented in two of his most beautiful lyrics; and in the open-handed duke, he found his first patron. This happy period of his life, during which he produced the most charming and spontaneous of his love-lyrics, came to an end with the death of Duke Frederick in 1198. Henceforward Walther was a wanderer from court to court, singing for his lodging and his bread, and ever hoping that some patron would arise to save him from this "juggler's life" (gougel-fuore) and the shame of ever playing the guest. He had few if any possessions and depended on others for his food and lodging. His criticism of men and manners was scathing; and even when this did not touch his princely patrons, their underlings often took measures to rid themselves of so uncomfortable a censor.
Thus he was forced to leave the court of the generous duke Bernhard of Carinthia (1202–1256); after an experience of the tumultuous household of the landgrave of Thuringia, he warns those who have weak ears to give it a wide berth. After three years spent at the court of Dietrich I of Meissen (reigned 1195–1221), he complains that he had received for his services neither money nor praise.
Generosity could be mentioned by Walther von der Vogelweide. He received a diamond from the high noble Diether III von Katzenelnbogen around 1214:
Ich bin dem Bogenaere (Katzenelnbogener) holt – gar ane gabe und ane solt: – … Den diemant den edelen stein – gap mir der schoensten ritter ein
Walther was, in fact, a man of strong views; and it is this which gives him his main significance in history, as compared to his place in literature. From the moment when the death of the emperor Henry VI (1197) opened the fateful struggle between empire and papacy, Walther threw himself ardently into the fray on the side of German independence and unity. Although his religious poems sufficiently prove the sincerity of his Catholicism, he remained to the end of his days opposed to the extreme claims of the popes, whom he attacks with a bitterness which can be justified only by the strength of his patriotic feelings. His political poems begin with an appeal to Germany, written in 1198 at Vienna, against the disruptive ambitions of the princes: "Crown Philip with the Kaiser's crown And bid them vex thy peace no more."
He was present in 1198 at Philip's coronation at Mainz, and supported him till his victory was assured. After Philip's murder in 1208, he "said and sang" in support of Otto of Brunswick against the papal candidate Frederick of Hohenstaufen; and only when Otto's usefulness to Germany had been shattered by the Battle of Bouvines (1214) did he turn to the rising star of Frederick, now the sole representative of German majesty against pope and princes.
From the new emperor, Walther's genius and zeal for the empire finally received recognition: a small fief in Franconia was bestowed upon him, which — though he complained that its value was little — gave him the home and the fixed position he had so long desired. That Frederick gave him a further sign of favour by making him the tutor of his son Henry (VII), King of the Romans, is more than doubtful. The fact, in itself highly improbable, rests upon the evidence of only a single poem, the meaning of which can also be interpreted otherwise. Walther's restless spirit did not suffer him to remain long on his new property.
In 1217 he was once more at Vienna, and again in 1219 after the return of Duke Leopold VI from the crusade. About 1224 he seems to have settled on his fief near Würzburg. He was active in urging the German princes to take part in the crusade of 1228, and may have accompanied the crusading army at least as far as his native Tirol. In a poem he pictures in words the changes that had taken place in the scenes of his childhood, changes which made his life there seem to have been only a dream. He died about 1230, and was buried at Würzburg, after leaving instructions — according to the story — that the birds were to be fed at his tomb daily. His original gravestone with its Latin inscription has disappeared; but in 1843 a new monument was erected over the spot, called Lusamgärtchen (Lusam garden), today sheltered by the two major churches of the city. There is also a statue of the poet at Bolzano, unveiled in 1877, which is located in the middle of the Walther Von der Vogelweide-Platz (often shortened to Piazza Walther in Italian), a place named after him.
Walter Alison Phillips, in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, evaluates Walther's work as follows:
- Historically interesting as Walther's political verses are, their merit has been somewhat exaggerated by many 19th and early 20th century German critics, who saw their own imperial aspirations and anti-papal prejudices reflected in this patriotic poet of the Middle Ages. Usually considered to be of more lasting value are his lyrics, mainly dealing with love, which led his contemporaries to hail him as their master in song (unsers sanges meister). He is of course unequal. At his worst he does not rise above the tiresome conventionalities of his school. At his best he shows a spontaneity, a charm and a facility which his rivals sought in vain to emulate. His earlier lyrics are full of the joy of life, of feelings for nature and of the glory of love. Greatly daring, he even rescues love from the convention which had made it the prerogative of the nobly born; contrasts the titles "woman" (wîp) and "lady" (froûwe) to the disadvantage of the latter; and puts the most beautiful of his lyrics — Unter der linden — into the mouth of a simple girl. A certain seriousness apparent under the joyousness of his earlier work grew on him with years. Religious and didactic poems become more frequent; and his verses in praise of love turn at times to a protest against the laxer standards of an age demoralized by political unrest. Throughout his work, his attitude is regarded as healthy and sane. He preaches support for the crusade; but at the same time he suggests the virtue of toleration, pointing out that in the worship of God “Christians, Jews and heathen all agree.”
- He fulminates against "false love"; but pours scorn on those who maintain that "love is sin." In an age of monastic ideals and loose morality, there was nothing commonplace in the simple lines in which he sums up the inspiring principle of chivalry at its best: "Swer guotes wibes liebe hat Der schamt sich ieder missetat." (He who has a good woman's love is ashamed of every ill deed.) Altogether Walther's poems give us the picture of not only a great artistic genius, but also a strenuous, passionate, very human and very lovable character.
- Phillips, Walter Alison (1911). "Walther von der Vogelweide". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. This works in turn cites: Wilmanns, Wilhelm (1882). Leben u. Dichten Walthers von der Vogelweide (in German). Bonn.
Walther is one of the traditional competitors in the tale of the song contest at the Wartburg. He appears in medieval accounts and continues to be mentioned in more modern versions of the story such as that in Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser. He is also named by Walter von Stolzing, the hero of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, as his poetic model. Walter is mentioned in the story by Samuel Beckett: The Calmative. "Seeing a stone seat by the kerb I sat down and crossed my legs, like Walther."
The Gedichte (poems) were edited by Karl Lachmann (1827). This edition was re-edited by M. Haupt (3rd ed., 1853). Karl Simrock created an übertragung (literally "transfer", in fact a re-writing) in 1833 that is still available from Insel Verlag. It has the original (but normalised) text on the left page and Simrock's "transcription" on the right. Franz Pfeiffer edited Walther v. d. Vogelweide, which comes with an introduction and notes (4th edition, by Karl Bartsch, Leipzig, 1873). C.A. Hornig wrote Glossarium zu d. Gedichten Walthers, nebst e. Reimverzeichnis (Glossary for the poems of Walther along with a list of rhymes; Quedlinburg, 1844). There are translations into modern German by B. Obermann (1886), and into English verse by W. Alison Phillips — Selected poems of Walter van der Vogelweide, with introduction and notes (London, 1896). The poem Unter den Linden is not included in Phillips' collection. It was freely translated by T.L. Beddoes (Works, 1890). Phillips translated it more literally in the Nineteenth Century for July 1896 (ccxxxiii. p. 70). The most recent book-length translation of poems by Walther into English is by Frederick Goldin, Walther von der Vogelweide: The Single-Stanza Lyrics (New York: Routledge, 2003).