Goodreads: Peasant Life in Old German Epics
The two epic poems in this volume are among the rare medieval writings which depict the life of ordinary people, and thus they offer significant perspective on daily life in feudal time.
Meier Helmbrecht, a didactic satire, is a vigorous portrayal of the social conditions of folk life; its theme is the decay of knighthood, and it tells the story of a young peasant boy who joins the retinue of a robber knight. Der arme Heinrich is built on the theme of vicarious sacrifice, and paints a pictue of the relations between a noble landowner and his dependent peasantry. The two poems, translated from the Middle High German of the thirteenth century, are the first unified, national stories, German in theme and in setting, developed in German literature.
Peasant Life in Old German Epics contains the full text of both poems in line-for-line translations; an introduction placing the poems in their historical and literary settings; and detailed notes and bibliography. The book is illustrated with a map and six halftone plates.
I picked up Peasant Life in Old German Epics because, it’s true, I don’t believe I have a read a medieval text that presents any peasants as serious characters. Most texts, if they mention peasants at all, depict them as crude shepherds or other mockable characters, present only for a few lines or so as they do something like give the main character, generally a noble knight, directions or otherwise conveniently advance the plot for their social betters. And of course peasants of the time did not produce literature and so never wrote about themselves. So I was considerably interested to find this book in the library, containing two long narrative poems with actual peasant characters.
Translator/editor Clair Hayden Bell suggests in the introduction that these poems are sympathetic to peasants…and perhaps that is comparatively so. After all, she notes that in Meier Helmbrecht, the protagonist himself is a peasant, and though he’s a scoundrel, he’s given an unusual amount of what one might call interiority for literature of the thirteenth century. Personally, I wouldn’t call this a positive representation of peasants, however. As noted, our “hero” is a thief and a murderer, and the whole point of the story is how he gets his just punishment for daring to attempt to rise from the peasant class to earn a place at court (aka marauding with a local robber knight). Bell notes that there was actually some social mobility between the peasant classes and lower knight class in Germany at this time (certainly not something one really sees in England or France in the Middle Ages), but the poem certainly frowns upon this attempt at mobility.
The “good” peasant of the story is Helmbrecht’s father, who spouts wise words about how necessary farmers are to society as a whole, and who argues that true nobility is related to one’s character, not one’s social class. But he also knows his place and consistently argues that his son should not attempt to rise above his station and should be content being a peasant.
Plot-wise, I found the story quite interesting. It’s sometimes heavy on the dialogue as people make lengthy speeches about their intentions, morals, etc., but this is hardly unusual for literature of the period and shouldn’t really put any reader off.
Der arme Heinrich
The second poem, Der arme Heinrich, features a knight who is struck by leprosy as the protagonists. The peasants—a couple and their virtuous young daughter—are side characters but still quite central to the plot. These are genuinely good characters, as they take in their sick and ostracized master when no one else will and care for him with true compassion. Again, I don’t know that the poem is exactly a manifesto for the greatness of peasants, when the message seems to be that their goodness is equated to their loyalty to their noble master, but it certainly is much more sympathetic to peasants than most of medieval literature.
The poem also delves a bit into the realities of peasant lives, (though not nearly as much as Meier Helmbrecht does) as the characters come to realize that much of their good fortune is dependent on their master being a relatively generous one. If he dies of his leprosy, they will lose much.
The translator does note at the beginning of the book that she is translating both poems more for content than for form, though she would like to stick to as close to a line-by-line translation as possible, so those readers who own an edition of the original Middle High German text can easily compare it with the English. She does, more or less, retain the rhyming couplets that both poems were composed in, though frequently the lines do not scan and several of the “rhymes” do not rhyme at all. It’s fine if one is reading for the plot; the translation is certainly not good poetry in its own right.
The explanatory notes at the back of the book are extremely useful, and the introduction also gives readers a nice overview of both poems, as well as what is known about their authors. Though I studied medieval literature, much of my reading has been restricted to England and France, so this gave me some useful background into the German tradition.
I have a hard time in general persuading people that medieval literature is interesting and worth reading, but these two poems really do stand out from the crowd for their subject matter. They should be appeal to people interested in the stories, the history of the period, or both. If nothing else, they’re short, at under 2000 lines each, so they’re not much of a time commitment for the uncertain reader.