THE NEIDHART PLAYS:
A SOCIAL AND THEATRICAL ANALYSIS
VICTOR RENARD COOK
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL OF
THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Assistance from Mr. Jesse R. Jones, Jr., of the Graduate Research
Library at the University of Florida is acknowledged and deeply
To the members of his examining committee, Professors G. Paul Moore,
C. Frank Karns, and James Lauricella, the writer offers his thanks.
lie is particularly grateful to Professors Sarah Robinson of the
Department of Anthropology and Melvin Valk of the Department of German,
for the tij..e they spent reading draft copies of this study. Their
suggestions and advice concerning the sociological and philological
aspects of the subject were invaluable.
Finally, the writer acknowledges the debt he owes Professor L. L.
Zilmerman, the principle director of this study. Professor Zimmerman's
patience, wisdom, and good humor made completion of this work possible.
'FABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS . . . . . . . . . .
INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . .
PART ONE. THE SOCIAL SIGNIFICANCE
OF TIE NEIDHART PLAYS.
THE NEIDHART PLAYS AS SOCIAL DOCUMENTS . . . .
TIHE ORIGINS OF THE CONFLICT . . . . .....
THE DEVELOPMENT OF TIE NEIDHART LEGEND . . ...
PART TWO. TIE NEIDHART PLAYS
AS WORKS OF THEATRICAL ART.
THE THEATRICAL ORIGINS 03 TIE NEIDHART PLAYS .
THE DESCRIPTIVE ANALYSIS OF THE NEIDHART PLAYS .
THE THEATRICAL FORM OF THE NEIDHART PLAYS .. ..
CONCLUSIONS .. . ....
APPENDIX A . . . . .
APPENDIX B . . . . .
APPENDIX C . . . . .
APPENDIX D . . . . .
BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . .
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .....
The purpose of this study is to expose the social and theatrical
significance of four of the five extant late medieval German dramatic
works based on the legendary character of Neidhart. The works in
question are the fourteenth century St. Paul Neidhart Play, the fifteenth
century Greater Neidhart Play, Lesser Neidhart Play,1 and Sterzing Scenario.
The four plays have no known authors. The fifth play, Der Neidhart mit
dem Feiel, written by Hans Sachs in the middle of the sixteenth century,
is not considered in this study inasmuch as it belongs to the Renaissance
rather than the medieval tradition.
The plays, along with a contemporary medieval legend titled Neidhart
Fuchs, were based on the life and poetry of a thirteenth century poet,
Neidhart von Reuental. Both the plays and the legend have roughly similar
plots. The protagonist is a homeless knight, named Neidhart, who professes
courtly love toward the Duchess of Austria. As proof of his love, he sets
out on a quest for the first violet of spring. This spring violet was
customarily plucked by the most beautiful lady in the land, and its discovery
was proof that winter had passed and the joys of summer and love were near.
In the plays, Neidhart is always successful in his quest. He finds the
violet, addresses it tenderly, covers it with his hat, and then goes to
1Hereafter, the plays will be referred to as the St. Paul, the Greater
Neidhart, and the Lesser Neidhart. These plays first appeared in a master's
thesis by Victor R. Cook, "The NeiJhart Plays: An Analysis and Translation
of Three Medieval German Folk Dramas" (University of Florida, 1964). The
Sterzing Scenario has not appeared in English translation to date.
fetch the Duchess and her entourage of maidens. A peasant chief named
Engelmair, or one of his lieutenants, Elschenprecht, or Enzlman, has been
secretly observing Neidhart. Mien Neidhart leaves to seek the Duchess,
the peasant stealthily leaves his hiding place, lifts the hat, picks the
violet, and then defecates on the spot where it stood, lie then places
Neidhart's hat on the feces and returns to his hiding place to see what
will transpire. Neidhart returns with the Duchess who is beside herself
with joy at the prospect of receiving the violet. When she lifts the hat,
however, her joy turns to great sorrow or anger. She threatens Neidhart
with death, banishment, or promises he will be shamed because of his
insult to her. Neidhart, thus disgraced, vows he will punish the miscreant
whom he knows somehow must be a peasant. In the meantime, the peasant
miscreant has returned to Zeislmauer, the place where the peasants are
celebrating the return of spring. His neighbors are overjoyed at his
cleverness in bringing Neidhart into disgrace. Their joy, like that of the
Duchess, is short-lived, however, because Neidhart arrives, often with armed
companions, and proceeds to punish the peasants. In one version, he hangs
two of them, then tricks the remainder into believing they are monks, at
which point he shears their locks and confines them in a moncstary, where
devils are set loose on them. In all versions of the plays and in the
printed version of the legend, the peasants are bound to "stilts" because
Neidhart hacks off their left legs. The plays, with one exception, end
with at least the presumption that Neidhart returns to a state of grace
at the ducal court.
The Neidhart plays are worthy of study from both sociological and
theatrical viewpoints. Their social significance is twofold. First, they
represent the expression of a portion of the late medieval world-view.
Secondly, the plays stand as records of an older and ongoing social
dilemma -- the conflict between peasant and warrior. The theatrical
significance of the plays is considerable. The St. Paul is the earliest
extant secular play in the German language. The Greater Neidhart is the
longest medieval secular play in any language. The Lesser Neidhart
is a typical fifteenth century fastnachtspiel, and the Sterzing Scenario is,
to this writer's knowledge, the earliest secular prompt book from the medieval
period. Thus, study from both view points is warranted.
Since the treatment of the plays in this study involves a considerable
amount of medieval German history, the following brief historical outline
is offered to orient the reader to the three historic periods which pertain
to the analysis of the Neidhart plays.
The first history of the Germans is recorded in Julius Caesar's
Memoirs of the Gallic War, published in 51 B.C. When Caesar fought the
Germans, they had a primitive economy based on hunting, herding, and farming,
with land being owned by family groups rather than by individuals. The
second historical account available is Tacitus' Gernania, published in
98 A.D. This work indicates that in the ensuing interval the Germans had
become more adroit at farming, and also, their material wealth seems
to have permitted a greater differentiation of labor. In addition, certain
clans became more important than others. In terms of an individual's rank
in society, a dual system of recognition appears to have been operative.
Individuals could either be ranked on the basis of land and kinship, or
on the basis of their prowess in war.
The Middle Ages traditionally begins in 410 A.D. with the "sack of
Rome" by the Visigoths. With the advent of the Carolingian Dynasty of the
ninth century, the warrior system of ranking took formal precedence over
the land/kin based system. The beginning of the High Middle Ages and the
feudal order is dated from this century. The High Middle Ages saw its
peak in Germany during the reign of Fredrick I, Barbarossa (1152-1190),
with the apogee of medieval German artistic activity occurring very
shortly thereafter. The Poets Wolfram von Eschenbach (d. circa 1225),
Walther von der Vogelweide (d. circa 1230), and Neidhart von Reuenthal
(known from 1215 to 1236) span this period of excellence.
The last period considered here is the Late Middle Ages. It was
marked by the dissolution of the feudal order and the shift from the
Middle High German language to the Early New High German. The period
opened with a political crisis known as the Interregnum which involved
the seventeen year gap between the Hohenstaulen and Habsburg dynasties
(1256-1273) and left the German states in complete shambles. In terms
of artistic endeavor, the Late Middle Ages is known as the "silver age"
of German literary art. The Neidhart apocrypha (spurious poetry attributed
to the historical character Neidhart) was written during this period.
In the fourteenth century, the German social situation became more
chaotic. Peasant coalitions took over Switzerland, a coalition of merchant
city states called the Hanseatic League humbled the crown of Denmark, and
knight and peasant coalitions attacked cities in Alsace. With respect to
other events in the period, gunpowder was introduced to the science of
warfare, the Black Plague decimated a quarter of the population of
Europe, an economic depression began, and the most astounding drunkard
in history, the Good King Wenceslaus (d. 1410), ruled Germany during the
last years of the century. A legend was also born about a knight named
Neidhart Fuchs, "enemy of the Peasant," and the first of the plays considered
here (the St. Paul) was written in the midst of this period.
Fifteenth century German history is a record of both crises and
development. In terms of the former, between 1415 and 1417, the Church
found itself without a pope, after having as many as three in the previous
century. It was in this century also that Jan Hus, the Czech reformer,
attacked Germany with mortars and horse-drawn tanks, and when he was
burned at the stake, his general, Ziska, attacked anew. When Ziska, in
turn, was .lain in battle, it was rumored that his skin was flayed from
his body by his followers and made into a war drum, the sound of which
reputedly made German soldiers quake. In some states, fifteenth century
Germans saw justice meted out by the Vehmic, courts which were secret
tribunals composed of vigilantes. The end of the century, and of the
Late Middle Ages, saw the beginning of humanism, the birth of the printing
press, and the somewhat more stable political situation which prevailed
during the Renaissance. The last three plays treated in this study were
written during that portion of the fifteenth century in which the social
situation might be said to have been least well-ordered.
The three historic periods outlined above show something of the
social and political milieu which influenced the development of the
The plan of analysis of the four plays falls into two parts. Part
one exposes the social significance of the plays, and part two is
concerned with the history and significance of the plays as works of art.2
Each of the two parts contains three essays, which, respectively, identify
pertinent historical and critical features of the plays.
The analytic method employed in the social analysis with which the first
part of the study is concerned is an adaptation of Claude Levi-Strauss'
"Structural Analysis of Myth."3 This approach, described in detail in
Chapter one, resembles the pragmatic branch of semiotics in that it deals
with the qualitative description of the latent content of communication.
This method was deemed preferable to the traditional content analysis
because the plays were not vehicles of overt propaganda. The quantitative
description of the manifest content of communication, which is the goal
of content analysis, works best when the communication represents one
viewpoint. The viewpoint in the plays under examination is unique, however,
inasmuch as the Neidhart legend is a part of the "folk" tradition of the
Late Middle Ages. That is, it had a general audience rather than an
audience restricted to a given estate. Furthermore, taken as a corpus,
the plays manifest conflicting and ambivalent tendencies which makes them
difficult to analyze without referring to the underlying meanings. Moreover,
the discropency which becomes apparent when events of plays are compared
2Previous works which bear directly on the plays as works of art include
Konrad Gusinde, Neidhart mit dem Veilchen in Germanistische Abhandlung,
XVIII (Breslau, 1899), and F. Hintner, "Beitr'ge zur Kritik der deutschen
Neidhartspiele des 14 und 15 Jahrhunderts" in Jahreshericht des Stadt
Gymnasiums (Wels, 1903-07). Both deal primarily with poetic and literary
analysis and bear a tangential relationship to this study.
Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, tr. Claire Jacobson and
Brook Grundfest Schoopf (New York, 1963). Ldvi-Strauss applies this approach
in "Four Winnebago Myths" in Culture in History, ed. Stanley Diamond (New
4Bernard Berelson, "Content Analysis" in Handbook of Social Psychology
(Reading, Mass., 1954), p. 489.
with the nature of the historic moment make it necessary to interpret the
various motifs found therein, for one cannot say that the events which
occur in the plays generally happened or, in fact, ever happened at all.
Knights did not mutilate peasants as a rule, as the earlier synopsis
of the legend suggests, since there was a desperate need for the
peasants' produce, and conversely, peasants certainly did not gratuitously
insult armed men on horseback. The events in the plays, then, are not
a reflection of what the situation actually was, but rather of what men
imagined it to be.
The definition of the social situation contained or reflected in the
plays did not directly reflect the material, economic, or social truth
of the time. Nevertheless, it is important, for in the words of W. I.
Thomas' famous aphorism, "If men define situations as real, they are real
in their consequences."5 If the plays had reflected directly and coher-
ently what actually occurred in fourteenth and fifteenth century Germany,
it would have been an incredible feat of sociology and history, if not
of art, for according to the respected medievalists Strayer and Munro,
the confused state of affairs which characterized the fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries in Germany . defies description."6
The structural analysis undertaken in this study reveals the form of
a set of basic assumptions about the relationships of three pivotal social
statuses: the duke, the knight, and the peasant in this, the waning of
the Middle Ages.
5Social Behavior and Personality, ed. Edmund H. Volkart (New York,
1951), p. 81.
6Joseph Reese Strayer and Dana C. Munro, The Middle Ages, 4th ed.
(New York, 1959), p. 502.
Before going on to a survey of Part Two of this work, a justification
for the sociological approach to the study of art; especially dramatic
art, will be submitted. This justification will discuss the kinds of
information one can expect to obtain via the social analysis of art,
what the limitations of that type of analysis are, and finally, factors
limiting the amount of information one can derive from it.
Arnold Hauser, the noted art historian and authority on the social
aspects of art, provides answers to the questions posed above in his
discussion of the general topic of art and its relationship to society.
He holds that art and society are mutually influential. Art works are
not solely the product of individual imagination and experience, they are
rather .. the outcome of at least three different types of conditions;
psychological, sociological and stylistic."7 Society itself is influenced
by art in various degrees because of the use of art as an overt form of
propaganda or because of the incidental credence on the part of the
consumer in the basic assumptions found in the art work.8 The information
one can derive from the social study of art is an interpretation of
natural and historical events as seen through the eyes of a representative
individual of a group. One can discover their . opinions and valua-
tions of prestige and other social aims."9 Among the other social aims
one ought to consider is the necessity for the individual and the group
to maintain adequate definitions of the situation in which they find
7Arnold Hauser, The Philosophy of Art History (New York, 1959), p. 13.
8bid., p. 7.
Ibid., p. 21.
themselves. For while material interests are important to human beings,
"the fundamental motive of human behavior is not self-preservation, but
preservation of the symbolic self."10 Social groups, speaking through
a representative individual, express their symbolic selves in the form of
a definition of their respective situations. An examination of art from
a sociological viewpoint exposes, in part, the particular definition of
the situation reached by the group examined.
Some of the limitations of the sociological approach to the study
of art arc immediately apparent. Questions concerning style and psychology
are tangentially related to sociology. They act as co-factors in the final
product since the individual psyche and the individual style are affected,
but not determined, by social influence. As Hauser says, "all art is
socially conditioned, but not everything in art is definable in socio-
logical terms."11 Other limitations of this mode of inquiry include the
fact that artistic excellence is not definable in sociological terms,12
and conversely, popularity, which is distinctly a social phenomenon, has
no correlation with artistic merit.13
The final aspect of the social study of art which must be considered
here is the relative amount of information one can derive from particular
forms of art. Three general factors seem to affect the informative
potential of a genre.
1S. I. IIayakawa, Symbol, Status, and Personality (New York, 1963),
Hauser, The Philosophy, p. 8.
12Ibid., p. 8.
13Ibid., p. 10.
The first of these factors has to do with the relative degree of
reactance of the form to its social milieu, social reactance being a
function of the social distance of a cultural construct. For example,
instrumental music has a greater distance from its social origin than
does epic poetry. The degree of social/ideological saturation is less
in the former and more in the latter artistic genre. The theatre and its
associated literary form traditionally have the least social distance of
all the arts since it deals most often with the illusion of interacting
human beings. Thus, from a sociological standpoint, dramatic literature
has a relatively high informative value.
The second factor affecting the sociological value of an art work is
the degree to which it tends toward popular, or toward esoteric appeal.
The highly informative art work is that one which pleases the broadest
portion of society. There are, of course, some works of art which are
"great" in a critical sense, but which are appreciated by a very few
people. The social analyst, therefore, finds his richest source of
information in those works which are highly prized by a mass audience,
rather than in those works which are appreciated by a few, however culti-
vated that few may be.
The final factor which determines the informative value of a work of
art concerns the degree to which the work is traditional, or to which it
tends to be innovative. Simply put, the sociological value of a popular
work of art increases proportionally to the amount of time the work
enjoys popularity. A myth or folktale is a rationalization of the
fundamental and enduring needs of a society,14 and as such, warrants more
1Clyde Kluckhohn, "Myths and Rituals: A General Theory" in Harvard
Theological Review, XXXV (1942), 78-79.
attention than does the art object which has a momentary burst of
popularity, however brilliant.
The analysis of the Neidhart plays from a sociological viewpoint is
trebly justified: first, as dramatic works they are socially reactive;
secondly, they, as well as the legend with which they were associated,
were created for a popular audience rather than for a select few; finally,
they are traditional rather than innovative works. Thus, one could expect
that a considerable amount of information would result from a sociologically-
based examination of the subject plays.
In Part Two of this study, the plays will be examined as art objects.
The first item to be considered will be the theatrical origins of the
plays (Chapter Four). In Chapter Five, all four plays will be subjected
to a descriptive analysis, and in the final chapter, an exposition of the
probable modes of their production will be given.
The history of the theatrical origins of the Neidhart plays, of
necessity, will be one which is tentatively offered because of the
paucity of primary evidence pertaining to the plays, or to any other type
of secular drama during the period considered.
In the descriptive analysis of the plays (Chapter Six), the usual
critical approaches which seek to explain drama in terms of archetypical
patterns, artist's intentions, metaphors, or architectonic structure have
been rejected in favor of the general approach of R. S. Crane and the
so-called Chicago school of criticism. This critical position, simply
put, isolates and defines the underlying formulative principles in a given
art work as a whole. In this approach, neither particular portions, nor
inferred universal properties, of the art work obscures the critic's
task of describing the art form per se.15 The application of this approach
to the Neidhart plays will demonstrate that the least well organized of
the plays possesses more coherence than would be generally supposed.
The final chapter offers suggestions concerning the manner in which
the plays may have been produced. The staging practices and spatial
organization of the several productions are examined, and the relationship
of the Greater Neidhart and the Sterzing Scenario to productions of religious
dramas and the para-theatrical tournament will be exposed.
The bases for the historical, dramatic, and theatrical analysis which
constitutes Part Two of the study were chosen because they complement
rather than duplicate those found in Part One. They also avoid, for the
most part, the concerns of previous works on the Neidhart plays.
Ultimately, the purpose of this study is to say what hasn't yet been
said about the Neidhart plays of the Late Middle Ages.
15R. S. Crane, The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry
(Toronto, 1953), pp. 184-185.
THE SOCIAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE
The Neidhart Plays as Social Documents
This chapter will establish and discuss that portion of the late
medieval world view which is implicit in the Neidhart plays. It will
be shown that this world view, or definition of the situation as it
will be referred to hereafter, while not a particularly realistic
one, functioned to inculcate, integrate, and validate social value
sets.1 The analysis which follows will identify the social message
of the Neidhart plays and establish its relationship to the real social
situation in which the plays existed.
The analytic method employed here is derived from the structural
approach to the study of culture devised, for the most, by the French
anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. In a collection of essays entitled
Structural Anthropology, Levi-Strauss describes his heuristic structural
approach as being concerned ". .. primarily with universals, that is
the basic social and mental processes of which cultural institutions
are the concrete external projections or manifestations."2 The
design for cultural analysis put forward by Levi-Strauss represents a
departure from traditional ethnographic-historical culture studies.3
William R. Bascom, "The Four Functions of Folklore" in The Study of
Folklore, ed. Alan Dundes (Englewood, N. J., 1965), pp. 292-294.
Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, p. ix.
To better understand the basis of the analytic method employed in this
chapter, therefore, the following comparison of the goals of the struc-
tural anthropologist and the historian is offered.
'rhe issue can thus be reduced to the relationship between
history and ethnology in the strict sense. We propose to show
that the fundamental difference between the two disciplines is
not one of subject, of goal, or of method. They share the same
subject, which is social life; the same goal, which is a better
understanding of man; and, in fact, the same method, in which
only the proportion of research techniques varies. They differ,
principally, in their choice of complementary perspectives:
history organizes its data in relation to conscious expressions
of social life, while anthropology proceeds by examining its
In the study being presented here, the motifs and events of the
literature provide the raw data from which the aforementioned universalss"
are derived. These motifs and events form what Levi-Strauss calls gross
constituent units or mythemes.5 The true building blocks of myth,
however, are found in the "bundles" or categories in which the mythemes
exist. The structure of the myth or dramatic work is determined by the
relationship which exists between those categories.
Procedurally, to establish mythic structure in the manner under-
taken in this chapter, it is necessary, first, to reduce the work or
works to mythemes.6 Secondly, the mythemes are displayed in a matrix
which is generated horizontally by the narrative line of the plays'
development, and vertically, by the categories of mythemes.7 Thirdly,
4bid., p. 18
5bid., p. 211.
Ibid., p. 212.
the categories are labeled in such a way that the fourth step, a state-
ment of relationship between the categories, is possible.8
If the analysis of the works is restricted to the sociological
viewpoint, the most difficult step is to determine which portion of the
detailed business of a play or myth is socially significant. That dif-
ficulty increases if the work is culturally and/or temporally distant
from the analyst. For instance, if the script calls for a certain
group of characters, say peasants, to dance, a decision must be reached in
terms of whether that dance is a simple interlude between episodes or
whether it is, in fact, an elaborate parody of the dance of the higher
social class, the aristocracy. Of course, it could be both. The value
of structural analysis from a cultural or social viewpoint, therefore, is
directly proportional to the knowledge the analyst has of the subject
The process of distributing the mythemes in a two-dimensional
matrix (Step Two) is begun by placing the mytheme first encountered in
the narrative in the upper left hand of the matrix. The next mytheme is
placed to the right of the first unless it is found to be in the same
category, in which case it would be placed below the initial similar
mytheme. The rest of the mythemes are treated in a like fashion until
they are distributed throughout the matrix. The third step consists of
labeling the vertical columns within the matrix. The labels must permit
a general statement concerning the relationship of the clusters.
The fourth step in the analysis involves the formulation of a
statement relative to the relationship between the clusters of signifi-
cant events. In this step, maintenance of a consistent analytical
standpoint is vital to the production of useful information. llile,
conceivably, it may be possible to discover psychologically and philo-
sophically significant patterns among the clusters as well as those which
are purely sociological, the mixture of the three in one statement of
relationship will confuse rather than illuminate analysis.
The Neidhart dramas lend themselves to the kind of structural
analysis outlined above inasmuch as the narrative is traditional and,
of the four variations of the central myth represented in the plays, at
least one of the plays is long enough and repetitious enough to disclose
the underlying structure.
The first cluster of mythically significant events in the Neidhart
plays is the salute or vaunt. The salute is the verbal expression of
the status relationship between the speaker and his auditor. The vaunt
differs from the salute in that it is usually said prior to some form
of aggressive behavior. For example, a knight in the Lesser Neidhart
I am a young strong knight.
I am so filled with gall
To fight with them is my fancy.
I'll strike the four rude peasants
At both their heels and heads
So they lie before me like split logs.
(227, 195, 13)
9References in the text to specific lines in the St. Paul, Lesser
Neidhart, and Greater Neidhart will be followed, first, by the page number
in the appendix on which the line appears, then by a margin number which
corresponds to the source page, and, finally, by the line number. Refer-
ences to the Sterzing Scenario will consist of the page and margin numbers
since most of the speeches in that work are incomplete.
The St. Paul play opens with the Proclamator's salute to the
ladies and gentlemen in the audience. In turn, the Duchess salutes
Neidhart, and Neidhart, after finding the violet, salutes the Duchess.
The Greater Neidhart play begins with a similar salute or direct address:
Princes, counts, so be you;
Lords, knights, and noble heirs.
Also shopkeepers, who can handsomely
Affect a high fashion,
And therefore be i:ell born.
(152, 393, 6)
In the Lesser Neidhart all but a few lines involve the use of the
vaunt. Moreover, the same vaunts are heard in the Sterzing Scenario
prior to the tournament between the knights and peasants. The importance
of this mytheme is evidenced by both its elaboration and frequency of
The next two categories of mythemes include a series of highly
repetitious events which expose the diametric opposition of the knights
and the peasants. The dance scenes in the Greater Neidhart are the best
example of this structural element. First, after a series of gracious
invitations to dance, the knights and the maidens dance the courtly
round. Immediately afterward, the peasants enter the playing area and,
after much cruder invitations to participate, they do a grotesque version
of the same dance. In contrast to the knights who win the hearts of
their beloved maidens with courtly discourse, the peasants charm their
serving maids with lewd suggestions.' Other scenes and speeches confirm
this contrast between the fortunes and characteristics of the two statuses.
For example, in the Greater Neidhnrt play, Lucifer notes that:
They (the peasants) diminish
The nobles every day.
The peasants rise
And the knighthood falls
As you have just been told.
(200, 439, 31)
But from this day
On the earth
There shall be no proper peace
Between the peasants and the knights.
(202, 441, 21)
Similarly, the stage directions in the Sterzing Scenario call for
a series of peasant-knight physical confrontations. Thus, the diametric
opposition of the two statuses is expressed in physical terms as well as
The next structurally significant cluster of events are the repeti-
tious cases of mistaken identity or misjudgements. These include
Neidhart's act of mistaking feces for a violet. In one instance, he
is accused by a courtly maiden of being unable to "tell a turd from a
violet" (225, 195, 5), while others accuse him of playing a joke on the
Duchess. In either case, he is guilty of poor judgement. The peasants,
in turn, are equally unable to estimate their situation correctly. Indeed,
Neidhart deceives them time and again. In the Sterzing Scenario he
deceives them by posing as a peasant, while in the Greater Neidhart
the peasants mistake him for a sword sharpener, a monk, and finally for
a fallen nobleman who would be their ally. In the monastery sequence
of the latter play, the peasants don't even know who they themselves are.
Similarly, in the Lesser Neidhart play, on one occasion the peasants mis-
took Neidhart for a doctor inasmuch as "Once at a fair/ . /he/ sold
us a salve/ Which made our bellies swell" (228, 196, 4). It is clear
that peasants and knights share this inability to make sound judgements.
In contrast to the cluster of significant incidents involving lack
of judgement on the part of both the knights and peasants, the Duke and
Duchess appear to be fully capable of accurate discrimination. They
weigh and balance evidence pertaining to any concern and make just and
reasonable decisions. For example, it is the Duke or Duchess who consider
Ncidhart's merits or apparent lack of them and first condemn, and then
forgive, him. Proof of the discrimination which inheres in, or is at-
tributed to, the ducal court is provided by the fact that not even a
decision about the propriety of conducting courtly love is left to the
knights; they must appeal to the court for a decision (171, 404, 15).
An instance which clearly reveals the contrasting jural authority of
the Duke occurs when the peasants bring suit against Neidhart for the
injury of two of their company. The Duke rules against them because of
their obvious bias, stating,
Gentlemen, I tell you thus,
You have a great hate and envy for him.
You love him not a wit.
You have done him much evil.
(192, 429, 10)
In essence, the mytheme revealed above involves the opposition of
the landed aristocracy and the peasant and knight statuses. The last of
the structurally significant cluster of events is that which involves
"binding legs to wood." In all of the plays, reference is made to the
mutilations of peasant's legs. In the St. Paul, Greater Neidhart, and
Sterzing Scenerio, the mutilated legs are immediately replaced with wooden
prosthetic devices. In the Lesser Neidhart, Engelmair, the peasant chief-
tain who is Neidhart's principle rival, incongruously enters on stilts
(stelzen = stilts and/or prosthetic legs). The importance of this peculiar
practice as an element, in the covert structural message is undeniable.
There are more than ten separate references to binding peasants to wood;
moreover, the actual or threatened mutilations occur at pivotal points
in the dramatic narrative. For instance, the last line of the St. Paul
reads: "As forfeit you must leave a leg here/ And go home on stilts"
(161, 370, 57). In the other three plays, the mutilation of the peasants
is the pivot point about which Ncidhart's fortunes turn. For instance,
in the Greater Neidhart both the fifth knight and Lucifer gloat over
this peculiar punishment which Neidhart metes out to the peasants.
The Fifth Knight. . Neidhart was not happy
And he contrived so
That he punished them well.
Thus he broke
Thirty-two of their left legs.
They must without exception
Creep on stilts and crutches.
(187, 424, 5)
Lucifer. They/thepeasants/ say: I never thought
iie would make a full thirty-two cripples.
The importance of this mytheme in the plays is confirmed by the
fact that the legend of Neidhart Fuchs contains this incident and, in
addition, the legend manuscript has wood cuts depicting the scene immediately
after the mutilation.10
The matrix formulated from the six clusters of mythically significant
events found in the Neidhart plays is presented in Figure 1. A label has
been provided at the bottom of each file of mythemes in the matrix to
indicate the significance of that file.
In the matrix, the highly repetitious vaunts and salutes have been
interpreted as an expression of an elaborate concern for status (see the
foot of file one). With respect to the term status, it sociologically
indicates a particular position within a social structure. In modern
1Felix Bobertag, ed., Narrenbuch in Deutsche National Litteratur, XI
(Stuttgart, 1885), 189.
Knights and peasants
opposed and inversely
related in fortunes
*Appears in but one version
+Appears in all versions
law, and in societies which are organized into estates, a status
is defined by a set of rights and obligations.1 Since the particular
rights and obligations of a status were to a great extent locally
defined in the Middle Ages, a vaunt or salute which identified the origin
of the speaker, as when a peasant announced he was Mayr von Prunnan, told
the audience not only who the individual was but what he was.
The second and third files of the matrix express the differences and
inverse relationship which was thought to exist between the statuses
knight and peasant. In each play, these differences are made manifest
by word and deed. Instances which best illustrate the polarity of the
two statuses can be found in the Greater Neidhart play and the Sterzing
Scenerio. In the former, Engelmair, the peasant chief, diesel2 and the play
ends with a strong statement of Neidhart's good fortune. In the latter play,
Neidhart dies and presumably the peasants can proceed with their festival
without further aggravation. The idea that whatever helps a peasant must
hurt a knight and vice versa is clearly and profoundly expressed.
In the fourth and fifth files of the matrix, a set of contrasting
motifs is presented. Essentially, the peasants and knights consistently
make poor judgements while the Duke and Duchess make accurate judgements
with facility. It should be remembered also that the blatant stupidity
of the peasants is matched in degree, if not kind, by Neidhart's mistake
1Concerning the confusing history of the term status, see Paul
Bohannon, Social Anthropology (New York, 1963), p. 155, 165-166.
Texts of both plays are vague about both deaths. At one point
Engelmair is pronounced dead (216, 457, 31); at another he seems to be
recovering (215, 45S, 15). In the Storzing Scenario, the directions indicate
the actor playing Neidhart leaves the barrel before it is hacked open
(251, 262), but subsequent lines seem to suggest that the illusion of his
demise was intended.
with the violet which makes him an extremely ludicrous character.13
The Duke and Duchess, on the other hand, issue their decisions with
gravity and decorum. Although mythemes two and three show the knights
and peasants being opposed, mythemes four and five indicate they possess
a common incapacity -- the poor judgement which distinguished them from
the Duke and Duchess.
The last of the matrix categories is labeled the panacea. This
label was deemed appropriate inasmuch as, invariably, the solution to the
problems in the plays involves hacking off a peasant's leg and then binding
him to wood. The insistent quality of this mytheme is as great as it is
puzzling. As early as the time of the historical character Neidhart von
Reuental (early thirteenth century), reference is made to knocking peasants
off their stilts.1 After the relationships between the other categories
are made clear, an extended discussion of this motif will be provided.
The process of providing a statement concerning the relationship of
the mytheme categories requires more qualification than do the proceeding
three steps in the structural analysis. While it is reasonable to assume
that two individuals equally well-versed in the history of the subject
culture could arrive at the same configuration of mythemes within the
matrixes, there is unfortunately no assurance that their interpretation
of the data thus derived will be the same. A case in point can be seen
in Levi-Strauss's model analysis of the Oedipus myth. In his analysis of
that myth, the fourth and final column of the matrix contains proper names
13This scene becomes quite amusing in Hans Sachs' play on Neidhart.
This sixteenth century version ridicules all of the statuses included in
the traditional narrative including the Duke and Duchess.
SMoriz Haupt, Neidhart's Licder, 2nd ed. with revisions by Edmund
Wiessner (Leipzig, 1923), p. 104.
which all refer to lameness (Labdaoes, Laios, and Oedipus). Levi-Strauss
interprets this as the persistencee of the autochthonius nature of man."15
Without debating the specific merits of this interpretation, one can
point out that this same motif would be regarded by the late British
mythologist, Lord Raglan, as the ritual wounding of the God King.16
When one assumes Raglan's point of view, an equally consistent statement
concerning the relationship of the mytheme categories of the Oedipus
myth is possible. The problem generated by the possibility of two
different, but valid, statements based on the same data is that of
achieving a cogent statement concerning the relationship of the various
structural elements with some degree of certainty regarding its correctness.
It may be that judgements concerning the relationship of matrix
categories cannot be made with absolute certainty by anyone and that, at
best, only a tentative explanation can be offered. It seems reasonable
to assume, however, that the probability of achieving a correct state of
the relationship of structural elements within an artifact or work of
art is enhanced in direct proportion to the general knowledge of the
culture possessed by the analyst. In addition, the validity of the
analytical data can be enhanced by consistency of the investigator's
approach. As a consequence, this study employs a strict sociological
approach in the hope of yielding a strictly sociological structural
statement. In any case, it behooves the analyst to explain carefully
why alternate interpretations do not fit.
15LIvi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, p. 215.
1Lord Raglan, The Hero (London, 1949), p. 192.
The following identification of the relationships between the
structural elements takes cognizance of the above considerations. Con-
sidering these relationships, it would appear reasonable that the elaborate
concern for status (file one) is caused by the paradoxical social situation
suggested in files two through four. The other alternative, however, is
that the relationship between file one and the two pairs of opposition
was reflexive. Elaborate concern with status may have exacerbated and
widened the differences between the statues.
If file one suggests simply that a problem exists, files two through
four define the nature of the problem in the form of a paradox. Those
who are absolutely divided by the inverse relationship of their personal
qualities and fortunes are, nevertheless, united in that neither possesses
the facility to make accurate judgements. An alternate statement concerning
the relationship of files two through four might be that the two statuses
are divided because they lack the ability to make sound judgements. The
final file, number five, contains the solution to the problem defined in
files two through four. If the problematic metaphor is abandoned, it could
be said that "binding legs to wood" is the resolution to the situation
described in the previous files.
Before any comprehensive statement can be made about the structure
of the works as a whole, the meaning of the last file must be decoded.
While the meanings of the other files are relatively straightforward, the
process of "binding legs to wood" appears to have no meaning at all. Of
course, if the paradox were solvable by logical or sociological means, it
is doubtful that a myth would have been generated. The search for meaning,
therefore, can only be directed toward what inevitably must be an un-
reasonable, but mythically satisfying, solution to the problem.
The mythic source of satisfaction of that problem may well inhere
in a system of symbolism found in the plays. Each of the social statuses
have symbolic analogues which are interjected into the formulation of
the narrative much as algebraic symbols are in an equation. In passing,
it might be noted that this interpolation of symbols for men creates puns
of dubious humor. The first and most clear union of a symbol and a
status is that involving feces and peasant. Manure is the substance
with which the peasants worked. Manure, in medieval Germany, was an
extremely valuable commodity (which was nevertheless held in very low
esteem). Such was the case with the peasants. The second symbol is the
violet which is said to be the judge or proof of spring. It is termed
"powerful" and "noble" (178, 413, 28). Elsewhere, it is seen as proof
that winter is passed (176, 411, 1). By virtue of these attributes, it
is the symbolic analogue of the Duke and Duchess. It has power, pres-
tige, and jural authority. It stands as the mediator between polar
opposites. The last status, the knight, is less certainly represented
by a symbol. Of the symbols available, "wood" seems to be the most
logical. The sacred grove and the framm (wooden javalin) were associated
with the ancient initiation rites of the young warriors.7 Furthermore,
in the plays the peasants attack a wood post to show what they would do
if they caught Neidhart (219, 462, 1).
17Tacitus Germania ix. 2. xii. 1; Annales ii. 12. iv. 73; Historiae iv. 14.
The aforementioned symbols are integrated into the plot via a
series of puns or through partially congruent interrelationship with the
"real" elements of the play. When the feces is dropped under Neidhart's
helmet, he is receiving his feudal due. In symbolic respects, the peasant
was giving himself. When Neidhart observes tlat a great blow can separate
one from one's ankle (217, 459, 15) he may be saying, metaphorically,
that one can be deprived of one's progeny. That possibility is suggested
by the fact that, in German, the word for leg is bein. Bein also means
bone. Further, there is clear evidence that the Germans recorded kin by
bone terminology. Colaterals extended from the neck to fingertips and
there is some evidence that lineal relatives were reckoned vertically.18
If the term bein was associated with kin ties and various bones of the
leg represented one's progeny, then cutting one's leg beinn) would connote
disrupting one's kin ties (which at least among the Norse would be tanta-
mount to enslavement). Viewed in this light, the act of "binding to
wood" would homeopathically oblige the bound peasant to the knight whom
the wood symbolized.
Pursuing the study of symbolic integration further, it should be
noted that although the late medieval society was not organized around
actual kinship tics, fictive kin terms were used to indicate close coali-
tion. Regenbart is called Vetter, a word which once meant any male
1Bohannon, Social Anthropology, p. 127. The French spoke of carnall
brotherhood," see Marc Bloch, Feudal Society (Chicago, 1961), p. 124. A
grandson was an enkel which is cognate to the English "uncle." Occationally
a grandchild was called diehter (upper thigh), G. S. Ghurye, Family and Kin
in Indo-Europe Culture (Bombay, 1962), p. 234.
Frederick Seebohm, Tribal Custom in Anglo-Saxon Law (London, 1911),
relative sprung from ego's paternal grandparents,20 or Gefator (godfather).
Moreover, godfathers were thought to be able to transmit character
qualities to their godchildren. Neidhart is called Oheim by his followers
(Honored Uncle, once reserved for ego's mother's brother).21
The disruption of the fictive kin coalitions and the subsequent
binding of the peasant to the knight solves the paradox posed by the
plays' elements. It must be remembered that though the peasants were
not bound to Neidhart, both the peasants and the knights were bound to
the Duke, hence the Duke has the dual attributes of power and privilege
and the concomitant ability to make sound judgements. If the knights
and peasants were to unite, however, their union would possess all of the
qualities needed to "hold court."
A statement concerning the structural meaning of the Neidhart
plays now becomes possible. Elaborate concern with status was caused by
the paradoxical social situation in which peasants were absolutely opposed
to knights. The peasants and knights were alike, however, in that they
both were opposed to Dukes. That opposition was fostered by the fact
that neither the knights or peasants could lay claim to being a whole
status. The solution to the paradox, a solution couched in symbolism,
is that the two half statuses (knights and peasants) might unite and thus
achieve the possibility of a full round of existence (subsistence and
It was suggested in the introduction to this portion of the analysis
that the definition of the social situation which is implicit in the
20Ghurye, Family and Kin, pp. 235-239.
211bid., p. 236.
Neidhart plays was not realistic. In fact, it bears nothing but a tan-
gential relationship to the actual situation found in Germany in the Late
Middle Ages. Since myths and other imaginative narratives are often
thought to directly reflect the social situation in which they exist,
some attention must be given to the factors which cause individuals and
societies to adopt patently false notions about their circumstances.
That information will make it be possible to discover why the aforemen-
tioned panacea was couched in symbolism, and establish the precise
relationship of the plays to their environment.
The mythopoeic and dramatic impulses operative on the social level
have analogues at the level of the individual. People act out their
illusory definitions of the situation. Reasons for the adoption of a
false definition of a given situation are suggested by the results of a
recent experimental study by contemporary sociologist Peter McHugh who
deliberately exposed subjects to a disorienting social experience.
Although the subjects were given an idea of what was to occur, in the
course of the experiment it became abundantly clear to a number of them
that what was happening did not coincide with their expectations.
Specifically, McHugh noted the following patterns of behavior:
1. After the disorienting experience, the anomic behavior of the
subjects fell into three categories. The first was characterized by a
feeling of powerlessness, the second by a feeling of being out of place,
and the third by a feeling of meaninglessness.22
22Defining the Situation (Indianapolis, 1968), p. 120.
2. The protocol of those experiencing feelings of powerlessness
and of being out of place were orderly. Feelings of meaninglessness were
3. Nearly one-third of the subjects experiencing anomia reinvoked
their original definition of the situation. Over half of those experiencing
the meaningless variety of anomia reinvoked the original definition.24
This would indicate that orderly behavior on the part of the individual
is dependent upon his ability to give a coherent account of his surround-
ings. The trueness or falseness of his particular definition makes
no difference. If the individual is to function, he must construct an
integrative rationale. It is equally important to notice that there seems
to be some propensity to reinvoke the original assessment of the situation.
On the societal level, analogous processes occur when the society
as a whole undergoes change. Clyde Kluckholn points out that myth and
ritual are devices by which cultures adapt and adjust to stress.25 Myth
supplies a rationale for, and dramatization (ritual) acts out, the con-
flicts and the solutions which are typical of a society.
Although myth and ritual are related in the above-mentioned sense,
one is not the cause of the other.26 Dramatization has its own reason
for being. In terms of the case materials of this study, the legend of
Neidhart Fuchs provided a rationalization for the social order, or dis-
231bid., p. 103.
241bid., p. 119.
25"Myth and Rituals," p. 78.
261bid., p. 56.
order in this case, of fifteenth century Germany. The plays rooted in
that legend would, essentially, act out and thereby reinforce the organizing
principle of the late medieval world view. An exhaustive cross-cultural
study of initiation ceremonies conducted by Frank W. Young would suggest
that it is quite in order to assign a role or function such as this to
these fifteenth century dramatizations. Specifically, Young's study
Dramatization is the communication strategy typically
employed by solidarity groups in order to maintain their
highly organized but all the more vulnerable definitions of the
Dramatization, then, acts in defense of the status quo. The
institutional state of solidarity, and its rationalization in the form
of a myth, are maintained by dramatization. The Neidhart plays are an
instance which suggests a corollary proposition, to wit, dramatization
is the communication strategy typically employed by societies in order
to maintain a minimum level of organization of their definition of the
situation. A dramatic imperative exists at both organizational extremes.
The highly organized solidarity group, and the poorly organized insti-
tution or society, use drama to intensify the mythic and social bonds
which characterize them. The anomic social situation requires drama-
tization to establish or reestablish a minimum level of social-
The necessity for a coherent account of one's environment and the
function of myth and dramatization in filling that need explains, in
27Initiation Ceremonies: A Cross Cultural Study of Status Dramatiza-
tion (Indianapolis, 1965), p. 3.
part, why the previously identified panacea was couched in symbolism.
Open advocacy of a knight-peasant union would obviously alarm the aris-
tocracy and perhaps cause the advocate to lose his head. It might be
posited, also, that the major impetus toward that symbolism came from a
less obvious, but more compelling, set of circumstances.
In the period in which the Neidhart legend and plays evolved, union
of the knight and the peasant statuses was socially inconceivable. Hildi
HUgle, in Der deutsche Bauer im Mittelalter, knows of but three instances
in which knight-peasant coalitions occurred. These associations, Which
were brief, occurred in Alsace (1336), Gotha (1391), and Worms (1431).28
InteresLingly enough, these unions were not directed against the plays'
third status (the Duke), but against the new middle class in the cities.
These instances to the contrary, knight-peasant associations were
generally impossible; the only conceivable way in which a peasant could
be united with the knight was via the traditional feudal bond. Yet
in the Late Middle Ages, this too was impossible because there had been a
shift in the major economic and political patterns of organization. A
transition had been made from fief to indenture.29 The nexus of social
interaction was placed in the market-place of the cities, rather than
the courts of the lesser nobility.30 Exploitation of the peasants con-
tinued with as much vigor as in former days, but rent and taxation were
28In Sprache und Dichtung, XLII (Stuttgart, 1885), 2-3.
29Bryce D. Lyon, From Fief to Indenture (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), p. 1.
James Westfall Thompson, Economic and Social History of Europe in
the Later Middle Ages (New York, 1960), pp. 126-130.
the new means of achieving the ancient end. Furthermore, the fundamental
mode of social organization was shifting from the estate system, which
was composed of legally defined statuses with definite sets of rights and
obligations, to a class system. In the latter, theoretically at least,
all men would have the same rights before the law. They were grouped,
however, by equally theoretic differences in traits. The panacea con-
tained in the plays was, in fact, an impossible solution.
The solution which the panacea offered was false. More than that,
the problem it purported to solve was unrealistic in both form and content.
The oversimplified and nearly mechanical relationships between the subject
statuses did not in fact exist. Moreover, the central issue of the plays
was, in itself, an evasion of the principal, and very real, problem which
faced the age.
The falseness of the Neidhart definition of the situation is best
seen in the simplistic sets of social relationships it sets forth. First
of all, the fortunes of the knights and peasants were not really unalter-
ably opposed. Since the economy of the whole culture was still largely
agrarian based, what was bad for a peasant was for the most part bad
for everyone. Peasants and laborers were so scarce that a law was
passed forbidding people to be idle.31 The demand for productive
people was so great that the laborers, flattered by all of this attention,
attempted to establish the first five-day work week. "Montag ist Sontag's
bruder,"32 as the saying went. It is certain that knights did not go
31Ibid., p. 390.
32Ibid., p. 391.
about needlessly mutilating peasants in such hard times.33
A further indication of this inaccurate definition of the situation
can be found when the actual power and privileges of the ducal courts
are considered. The serene Duke, who possessed power and prestige in
contrast to the half statuses of knight and peasant, did not actually
possess or enjoy the authority which was his ancient right. The cities,
and the city patriciate, the upper-middle class, challenged the authority
of the aristocracy at every point. In fact, the idea that the serious
social conflict in this era was between knight and peasant is itself
an evasion of the central and fundamental problem facing fourteenth and
fifteenth century Germany. The real battles were between the upper and
lower classes of the cities34 and between the cities and the aristocracy.35
The fact that the plays put forth a type conflict and a type solution
which bore no relationship to the real vicissitudes besetting the audiences
stems, in a circular fashion, from the chaotic and insoluble nature of
those same circumstances. The actual situation was, as Strayer and
Munro say, too chaotic to describe; hence, a totally unrealistic defin-
ition of the situation in the form of the Neidhart legend. By virtue of
this definition, life could have meaning and the possibility of orderly
behavior could be assumed. The dramatization of this legend provided
confirmation and intensification of the weak bonds formed by the demon-
strably oversimplified and largely false definition which was implicit
It should not be assumed that peasants were spared the ravages of
the wars which were constantly being waged. Indeed, whole villages
disappeared in the worst of those conflicts. There was, however, no
systematic persecution of the peasant as a class.
34J. I. Thoipson, Economic and Social History, pp. 398-414.
35Geoffrey Barrac ough, The Origins of Modern Germany (Oxford, 1949).
It is interesting to note in passing that the behavior of both
Neidhart and the peasants falls within the anomic categories posited by
McHugh. Neidhart, who is privileged but without power, assaults the
peasants and bewails his situation. The experimental subjects, who had
comparable feelings, reacted similarly to their situation.36 The
peasants on the other hand are powerful but without privilege. They
feel out of place, as well they might since economics and their own
ambitions had moved them from their customary social situation. They
assault Neidhart as an individual, rather than the knighthood as a class
or the situation per se. This is precisely the kind of behavior McHugh
discovered was typical of subjects experiencing feelings of alienation.37
In conclusion, it has been shown that the Neidhart plays are socially
significant works of dramatic art even though they bear but a tangential
relationship to the true social situation in Germany during the last
portion of the Middle Ages. The structural analysis of the plays reveals
a covert, but genuine, anxiety about status. It also disclosed the nature
of the problem as the people of that era saw it. A symbolic remedy, which
in fact was no remedy at all, provided a solution, albeit removed by one
level of abstraction, to the paradoxical situation defined in the mid-
portion of the structure of the plays. The relationship of the plays
to their environment has been shown to be one in which the dramatization
functioned to confirm and intensify the tenuous organization of the
society's order-producing definition of the situation.
36McHugh, Defining the Situation, p. 117.
The Origins of the Conflict
In the previous chapter, the social message of the Neidhart plays
was described as an unrealistic and over-simplified evasion of the
central problems confronting fifteenth century Germany. Even the
conflict of the plays, though not the central issue of the age, was
shown to be much more than a senseless battle between arbitrary foes.
Instead, it was an on-going quarrel which had its roots in the High
Middle Ages, some two hundred years before.
The purpose of this chapter is to expose the origins of the
conflict presented in the Neidhart plays. First, it will be shown that
though owning land was a prerequisite for achieving an esteemed status
among the primitive Germans, tilling the land was considered reprehensible.
Secondly, the structure of the society in which Neidhart von Reuental,
the thirteenth century poet whose life and times became the source of
the Legend of Neidhart Fuchs, will be examined. Finally, the wide range
of contemporary attitudes toward knight, peasant, and duke will be
exposed and then contrasted with the particular view expressed by
Neidhart von Reuental.
Primitive Germans observed two principles of land tenure and use
which bear directly on the social patterns of the High Middle Ages.
First, holding an allod, that is a piece of land which is held in absolute
independence, was deemed necessary if an individual was to be a free
adult. Second, to exploit the land by tilling it was considered absolutely
reprehensible. These two principles are not as paradoxical as they
appear at first. The primitive Germans had a mixed economy, one that
combined hunting, gathering, and agriculture. The first specialization
of labor which occurred in that culture relegated the task of hunting to
the warriors, and farming to the women, old men, and slaves.
Since hunting was the economic activity of a warrior, and farming
was the economic activity of women and despised men, it is not surprising
that a situation such as that described by Tacitus (98 A.D.) developed.
When the state has no war to manage, the German mind
is sunk in sloth. The chase does not afford sufficient
employment. The time is passed in sleep and gluttony. The
intrepid warrior, who in the field braved every danger,
becomes in time of peace a listless sluggard. The management
of his house and lands he leaves to the women, to the old men,
and the infirm part of his family. He himself lounges in stupid
repose, by a wonderful diversity of nature, exhibiting in the
same man the most inert aversion of labor, and the fiercest
principle of action.1
Tacitus not only exposed the existing division of labor in primitive
Germany, but suggested something of the warrior's attitude toward things
domestic.2 Despite the fact farming was considered an odious occupation,
owning an allod was the only way in which an individual could become a
free adult male. It should be noted, however, ownership of land did not
1Tacitus Germania xv. 1.
2Since, in that period, German men revered their women to a degree
which astonished Romans, one can presume the association of slaves with
farming was what made it an odious occupation. Ibid. vii. 2.
connote, as it does now, the ability to dispose of that land as one
pleased. The primitive German land owner was also, and inseparably,
the head of an extended family. Each of his children and nephews had
a birthright which was a non-partible share of the allod. The landowner
did not covet his position because he loved any intrinsic quality of
land, but because as the head of an extended family he was its mund
(spokesman) at tribal assemblies. Political power was thus associated
with the familial heirarchy and the family was part and parcel of a
The primitive German male who had not yet come into his inheritance
from his father or elder brother was a gwas, cniht or knecht, depending
on the linguistic region4 in which he lived; all meant "initiated boy"
and, ultimately, all came to mean vassel or knight. With respect to
the young warriors in that society, it can be said they were respected;
indeed they could become a graf (count or colonel) or a herzog (duke
or general) in the military organization (commitatus). Significantly,
however, the warrior was not a part of the system which governed the
inner and outer kindreds and it was this fact that fostered his desire
to own land.
Some thousand years later, during the period called the High Middle
Ages, the feudal social system had, to varying degrees in different
3Edward Jenks, Law and Politics in the Middle Ages (New York, 1908),
p. 78. For a survey of what was known in general about the Germans from
the time of Caesar to the time of Tacitus, see E. A. Thompson, The Early
Germans (Oxford, 1965). Limited generalizations are drawn from diverse
and later sources in Seebohm, Tribal Custom.
Norman F. Cantor, Medieval History (New York, 1963), p. 121.
places, replaced the land/kin social structure. Feudalism is usually
considered either "a group of political and legal institutions, as a
system of decentralized government--public power in private hands. .,"5
or as a complex social organization of a whole culture.6 Under either
definition, one is tempted to see the salient feature of feudalism as
being its relatively stable heirarchical structure. While the feudal
period of the High Middle Ages was in fact relatively stable, the
principle of its organization involved two dramatically opposed considera-
tions. These two opposing elements created wide variations in organiza-
tional configurations from country to country, and in the case of Germany,
from district to district.
The status of individuals who played roles within the feudal system
was simultaneously that of vassal and overlord. The interests or view-
points typically attending these statuses were diametrically opposed.
The overlord attempted to make the land under his jurisdiction produce
warriors. He gave to his vassal a precarium, a fief of land, in return
for service in warfare. On the other hand, the vassal's interests were
best served when he could secure an indisputable title to the land in
return for as few services as possible. The dynamic quality of this
relationship is apparent to those who are acquainted with the tensions
inherent in buying and selling in a marketplace. There was, however,
another powerful, but less apparent, stress in this relationship.
The thought of giving away land for any reason was alien to the German
5Ibid., p. 238.
6Ibid., p. 240.
mind; it was a Roman custom, whereas the desirability of securing an
allod was time-honored.
In addition to the tensions existing between the dual roles of
vassal and overlord, there was also a formal incongruency. A large
number of the nobility were neither bachelor knights nor kings, conse-
quently, most played the roles of vassal and overlord simultaneously.
It was to one's advantage to have as many vassals as possible, but to
swear fealty to only a single powerful overlord.7 Thus, as vassal, the
typical feudal lord attempted to divest himself of obligations, while as
overlord, he tended to encumber as many subordinates as he could with
complex obligations. The feudal system was therefore in a constant
state of disequilibrium.
This dynamic quality of generic feudalism produced as many species
as there were nations, and in Germany, it produced a wide range of
locally defined subspecies.8 Understanding the social milieu in which
Neidhart von Reuental lived requires some knowledge of these varieties
of feudal organization.
Three distinct patterns of feudal organization evolved in the
Middle Ages. Probably the most successful was that found in Norman
England. There, the king required that all nobles, from lowest knight
to most powerful duke, swear loyalty to him. This created a nation of
vassals committed ultimately to one overlord. In France, prior to the
Ibid., p. 246. See also Joseph R. Strayer, "The Development of
Feudal Institutions" in Twelfth Century Europe and the Foundations of
Modern Society (Madison, Wisc., 1961), pp. 77-88; Sidney Painter, Medieval
Society (Ithaca, N. Y., 1951), pp. 11-27.
8James Westfall Thompson, Feudal Germany (Chicago, 1928), p. 321.
9Cantor, Medieval history, p. 247.
ascendency of the Capetian kings (twelfth century), the dominant figure
was the baron.10 The individual castle proprietor was the hub of a be-
wildering variety of feudal ties. For example, William Stern Davis struc-
tures a typical barony of thirteenth century France in which a particularly
successful baron enjoyed the sole allegience of twelve dependent vassals.
That baron, in turn, was the vassal of two dukes, one bishop, and a
neighboring baron.11 The third pattern of feudal organization found in
Germany requires special attention because of its effect on the life
of Neidhart von Reuental. The central figures in German feudalism
were the dukes and counts. Their sovereignty became so absolute that
one justifiably might say that the extreme social positions in the
feudal heirarchy, those of emperor and simple knight, were all but
excluded from the political organization of the German state. These
territorial princes elected their emperor, rather than an emperor choosing
them as princes. Indeed, these princes often chose to deal directly
with free peasants rather than go through the existing social chain of
command.12 During the period when this latter organizational pattern
existed, the emperor could console himself by considering his demesne
and high, if meaningless office, but the poor knight had no office and
only a precarious hold on his fief, if he was fortunate enough to have a
fief. The knight, like the emperor, had the privilege of being noble,
but did not have the substance, political or material, to conduct himself
as a noble.
10Ibid., p. 475.
11Life on a Medieval Barony (New York, 1923), pp. 10-11.
12J. W. Thompson, Feudal Germany, pp. 293-294; Cantor, Medieval
History, pp. 470-472; Barraclough, Origins, p. 143.
At this point, one can see the justification for calling the
peasants and knights in the Neidhart plays "half statuses." The lower
knighthood possessed no secure land holdings, yet land was the basis of
power in the Middle Ages. The German peasant, though often eigen (free)
by virtue of his patrimonial allod, was not in a privileged estate.
The third status treated in the plays, the duke, possessed both power
and privilege. Gehard Lenski provides an excellent abstract model which
explains, in part, the triadic relationship of the three statuses. Lenski
suggests there are three factors which affect distribution of goods within
a society: power, privilege and prestige.
Power -------- Prestige
As the model indicates, power accounts for privilege and power plus
privilege equals prestige.13 In the Middle Ages, however, power began as
a Janus-like land/kin meld, later it came to be based on a land/warrior
union, and finally, land and money were wedded. The prestigious statuses
were those in the privileged estate who controlled both elements of
the power ratio.
The feudal social system described above was one which permitted a
variety of differing attitudes towards the relationship of the statuses.
A sanguine openess and tolerance for difference of opinion characterized
the High Middle Ages -- a condition which was absent in the late medieval
period. The society of the High Middle Ages was one composed of vertically--
oriented strata. These strata, called estates, were distinguished, not
13Power and Privilege (New York, 1966), p. 45.
by traits, but by customary occupations. Thus, it was possible for
the priests, artisans, farmers, warriors, and governors to have a full
range of positive and negative feelings toward one another. Since this
period preceded the Inquisition, individuals tended to express themselves
in a relatively free fashion.
Though every estate, from the priesthood to the merchants, received
value laden literary attention during the High Middle Ages, this study
is solely concerned with the attitudes expressed toward the statuses of
knight, peasant, and duke. While at one time or another, each of the
latter three statuses received both praise and blame, the subsequent
examples of attitudes found in the literature of the High Middle Ages
differ greatly from those expressed in the Neidhart plays. Specifically,
these examples indicate that there were no commonly and rigidly held
opinions about the three subject statuses. Knights could be pictured
as evil and crass; peasants could be thought of as being steadfast and
loyal, and dukes and other landed aristocrats could be accused of poor
In the High Middle Ages, knights were not all pictured as loyal,
heroic, and brave but gentle individuals. For example, in the song
Raoul de Cambrai, Raoul, the hero, orders that his tent be pitched in
the church of a defeated city.
You will place my bed before the alter,
You will lodge my hawks on the Golden Crucifix.1
In keeping with the period's view or portrayal of knights, Raoul
14Loon Gaultier, Chivalry, tr. D. C. Dunning (London, 1965), p. 6.
then proceeds to rape the nuns in the collocated convent. Raoul, unlike
the legendary Neidhart, loved neither church, women, nor his landed
aristocratic superior. Another reference to the wanton cruelty of a
parvenue knight can be found in Meir Helmbrecht, a piece written in the
middle of the thirteenth century by Wernher der Gartenaere. In it, a
robber knight boasts of his treatment of the peasants.
I seldom bring the peasants joy
That in our neighborhood are found.
Their children, where I've been around
Eat water-soup that's thin and flat.
I make them suffer more than that!
I quickly press the one's eyes out,
On other's backs I lay about.
Across an ants' nest one I stake,
Another's beard I jerking take
With pincers piecemeal from his face.
All that the peasants have is mine!15
This type of attitude and conduct is in marked contrast to that of
the dramatic figure of Neidhart who, in the plays, ostensibly only
injures the peasants because they have injured him. In any case, the
selections cited above indicate that the people of the Middle Ages could
regard a knight as less than a romantic hero.
It should be noted, also, that in the High Middle Ages the peasant
was not always considered a boorish filthy beast. He frequently was
depicted as a hard working, simple, but good man whose relationship with
the lord of a manor was an honorable one. The good knight protected the
good peasant and the peasant, in turn, supported the knight. Some of the
period's attitude toward these two statuses was reflected by Hartman von
Aue who, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, wrote Der arme Heinrich
which describes the knight Heinrich as,
15Clair Hoyden Bell, Peasant Life in Old German Epics (New York, 1931),
.a certain knight
In Swabia begotten.
In him there was forgotten,
Of manly virtues, none, in truth,
That any noble in his youth,
To win full praise, must have . .16
Later in the piece, a peasant who is Heinrich's ward is pictured
as living in pastoral contentment.
This forest clearing isolated
Was at the time still cultivated
By a peasant, freeborn and content,
Who very seldom underwent
Any great discomfort, such
As other peasants suffered much,
Who had worse overlords to bear,
Since these latter did not spare
Them hard exactions or commands
Whate'er was done by this man's hands
For Heinrich, that appealed to him
As quite enough. He shielded him
So that he suffered, and his farm,
From no one, violence or harm.
Hence it was, that far around
No man so prosperous could be found.17
There is an immense difference between this picture of a traditional,
trouble free knight-peasant relationship and the raw acrimony which the
statuses display toward each other in the Neidhart plays. The above
poem also challenges the notion that the only bond that could exist
between knight and peasant was that of lord and man. In the poem, the
peasant's daughter offers up her life in order to cure the knight of a
strange malady. Heinrich, the knight, is so smitten by this gesture
that he marries the young maiden. In fifteenth century Germany, such a
match would have been unthinkable.
161bid., p. 93-94.
17Ibid., p. 100.
Since Der Arme Heinrich is doubtless the kindest treatment of
the peasant status in the Middle Ages, it should be noted that it does
not represent the attitude with which the peasants were generally viewed.
A view of peasants which is closer to the modal attitude of the age is
that found in Ruodlieb, a story written by an eleventh century monk.
In this story the whole peasant estate is viewed as "rough and unculti-
vated, but full of sturdy thriftiness."18
The last of the three statuses to be considered here, the duke,
received the same wide range of treatment by medieval poets. While
some works, such as the Kaiser-Chronik, created a fictive linage which
traced the ancestory of the recently risen Welf family back to the time
of the Romans,19 other works contain attacks on the persons and offices
of the middle aristocracy. The bulk of the poets veiled their criticism,
a typical example being Reinhart der Fuchs, a work written about 1180.
This narrative, which bears some resemblance to the Neidhart Fuchs
legend, is an account of a clever fox who is outwitted by small animals,
but who finds it easy to fool the wolf and lion who live in castles.
Landed aristocrats are also repeatedly defeated in the narrative,
Lanzelet, a work translated from the Anglo-Norman about 1200 by Urich
von Zatzikhoven. The hero of the latter story is a magically disinherited
knight who goes about conquering castle proprietors until he finally
discovers and regains his birthright. In other works, such as
Spuchdichtung of W'alther von der Vogelweide, there are direct assaults
on the powerful men in Germany. Walther, incensed by his dismissal from
18Walshe, Medieval German Literature, p. 54.
Kuno Franke, A History of German Literature, 4th ed. (New York,
1901), p. 52.
the ducal court at Vienna and by papal and princely politics, issued
broadsides at a variety of aristocratic targets with little more damage
to himself than an occasional insult.20 In all, dukes and other princes
were not immune to criticism of their judgement or their characters. The
remote, dignified, and judicious Duke of Austria presented in the Neidhart
plays some several hundred years hence would have appeared in quite a
different light in the actual social situation of the High Middle Ages.
In the midst of the wide ranging expressions of attitude toward
knights, peasants, and dukes which prevailed during the High Middle Ages
one finds that put forth in the poetry of Neidhart von Reuental. That
poetry not only contained the basis for attitudes expressed in the legend
of Neidhart Fuchs, but for attitudes found in the Neidhart plays of the
fourteenth and fifteenth century as well. It will be shown below that
Neidhart's poetry reflected his personal view of the vicissitudes which
beset the landless German knight of the High Middle Ages.
Neidhart von Reuental, the knight to whom both the legendary and
dramatic figures can be traced, flourished from 1210 to 1236. He was a
poor knight, dependent upon the patronage of the courts of Bavaria and
Austria. His precarium was pitifully small and not in any way secure.
Walther von der Vogelweide not only knew of him, but knew enough of his
poetry to liken it to the croaking of frogs.21 Neidhart, unlike the
20Walshe, Medieval German Literature, pp. 117-120. For more examples
of the wide range of attitudes toward the various statuses in the High
Middle Ages, see Erwin Gudde, Social Conflicts in Medieval German Poetry
in University of California Publications in Modern Philology, XVIII
21Walshe, Medieval German Literature, p. 127.
majority of his fellow knightly balladeers, did not write of
unobtainable love and dashing deeds. Rather, he wrote of the very
obtainable love of peasant wenches and of the coarse deeds of their
fathers and lovers. In terms of his subject matter, Neidhart makes
his own best apology.
And now I am to sing?
The corn sheaf sings each morning
To him who tends a manor.
And Engimair, whom I hate,
Did Fridrauna's mirror break.
How ought I behave?22
His question concerning an appropriate form of behavior was well
taken, indeed, since the forces and conditions in his life were too
complex to provide simple, non-equivocal behavioral guidelines. As
knight, he was confronted by the fact that while the ideas of chivalry
had their source in the early German initiation rites, they had been
refined by the French who disdained farming. Whether or not Neidhart
actually did manual labor-cannot be known for certain, but it is known
that the Norman French invaders of England could not tell a Saxon noble
from a Saxon peasant at harvest time. It may well be that Neidhart's
hands, which from his viewpoint were meant for grasping swords and
narrow.-waisted women, occasionally graced a pitchfork.
To appreciate Neidhart von Reuental's plight, it is essential
to know what imperatives were associated with his status. Ideally, he
had certain rights and obligations which governed his relationships with
others. For instance, the obligations of knighthood were to honor and
22Haupt, Neidhart's Lieder, p. 39.
defend the Church, protect the weak, love one's country, to be brave,
to prosecute the infidel, to perform one's feudal duties, to be honest,
to be generous, and to defend the right.23 The qualities of a proper
knight included zuht (good breeding and manners), which were seen in
maze (measured self-restraint) and ere (honor). The knight was filled
with mannes muot (bravery), and was wary though intrigued by the hAher
muot (exalted spirits) found in courts. This hoher muot was feared by
churchmen who likened it to superbia, the sin of Lucifer. The knight
was above all possessed of milte and erbUrmde (generosity and mercy).24
Neidhart von Reuental was also faced with a typical sociological
dilemma; whereas the obligations of a status are clearly spelled out,
even codified, the concommitant rights and privileges are not nearly so
well defined. It is known, however, that the French provided the model
for courtly life during the High Middle Ages, in fact, even the French
vocabulary of chivalry was adopted by German knights.25 Leon Gaultier's
study of the "fifteen relaxations" of knighthood reveals that, if a knight,
one went to tournaments, hunted, fished, and strolled in the orchard,
or if one wished to remain indoors, he sat
.warming himself in winter in the chimney corner of
the great fireplace; according open house to wandering
minstrals, hearing all their songs and forming an
orchestra with them; taking or giving fencing lessons;
enjoying the luxury of watching wild animals in combat,
contests dear to all primitive peoples--fights between wild
boars and bears, fights to the death; playing twenty games
of chess interspersed with backgammon and dice; and above
all, eating heartily and making short work of his store of
23Gautier, Chivalry, pp. 9-10.
24Walshe, Medieval German Literature, pp. 92-94.
25Ibid. 26Gautier, Chivalry, p. 213.
Though it is not mentioned in the quotation above, it should be
remembered that these pleasures were conducted in halls richly lined
with tapestries and in the presence of numerous ladies. Ladies were
the object and the subject of minne, the higher love. Romantic love,
as it is known in the present century, was born in the songs of the
pleasantly distraught knights whose love increased in direct proportion
to the remoteness and unattainability of their favorite lady.
If the knightly pastimes and way of life described above is in any
way an indication of what Neidhart thought was expected of him, and what
he could reasonably expect of his society, it is possible to envision
what he must have felt when confronted with the actual circumstances of
his life. From what is known of Neidhart's life, it would appear that
he consciously attempted to meet his obligations, but that he in my way
obtained what he reasonably expected was his due. There were no fine
ladies in his life, only peasant girls. He did not watch wild boars fight,
rather he watched his pigs root in their sty. While, in his mind's eye
he lived in a castle surrounded by gardens and orchards, in terms of fact,
he lived in a rural Bavarian manse which was built about an open hof
wherein a rich rotting pile of manure steamed throughout the year, with
smirking peasants increasing its bulk by pot and cart load as part of
their feudal due.27
Though Neidhart von Reuental attempted to live up to the code of
chivalry, accounts of his life would indicate he found it impossible
27Manure was an extremely valuable commodity in the Middle Ages.
Peasants had to pasture their animals on the land of their lord and a
periodic pot of the stuff was often required by feudal lords, Marc
Blbch, French Rural History (Berkely, 1966), p. 25.
to obey at least two of its injunctions. Although he was bidden to
protect those beneath him and to be generous, he lacked the ability to
do either. That fact, alone, would account for a large part of the
unhappy world view he presented in his poetry. To be specific, the
Alpine peasants who lived about him were hardly in need of protection.
They were the same peasants who, within one hundred years of the time
Neidhart had received his small fief from Leopold, Duke of Austria,
revolted and created the republic of Switzerland. Rather than having
to succor those beneath him, Neidhart noted that the peasants, who by
law were forbidden to wear weapons or bright colored clothing28 were
armed with swords "as long as flails."29 As for generosity, he had
neither the wherewithal nor the potential for largesse. Indeed, the
difference between the fortunes of the peasants and Neidhart appears to
have been insignificant. This lack of economic and military differentia-
tion between the peasant and knight resulted from the Alpine ecology
which produced a bare subsistence. The differential distribution of
goods which characterizes societies with an elite, and which would have
been essential in order for Neidhart to assume the role of generous
benefactor, is dependent on a generous surplus of goods, and is largely
impossible in a subsistence economy such as his age possessed.30 His
hopes of serving as a protector were likewise thwarted by the fact that
knights were not militarily powerful in mountainous regions because of
28HUgli, Der deutsche Bauer, 42, 53.
29Haupt, Neidhart's Lieder, p. 99.
30Lenski, Power and Privilege, pp. 44-45.
the positive disadvantage of being on horseback and in the open when
facing hidden, well-protected antagonists.
The peasants, for their part, didn't make it easy for a knight
to feel paternal about them. Neidhart von Reuental, who in his own
eyes ought to have been surrounded by gentle ladies of the court, had
to make do with peasant maids. This no doubt pleased the maids, but it
might well have created a tense situation with the understandably
irritated men. In fact, the peasant men stole the gifts he had
presented to the girls he wooed and made fun of his courtly love.
As Neidhart put it,
Giselbolt and Engelram
Disparage me, my singing.
The same two hie themselves to Engelmair
Who with force, took Fridrauna's mirror.3
Neidhart von Reuental imagined that his lack of suitable women
pleased the peasants, and in a state of mind approaching paranoia, he
became convinced their intentions were evil.
Is not my own.
My love-lack gives him joy, him and Uodelrich.
He plots my downfall with a secret diligence,
He and Eberbolt, the unmitigated beast.
Eberbolt and Amelune,
Uodelger and Undelhart
Have signed a pact against me.
Many evil things come of this.
How they boast of the shame they'll cause me!
Covertly and openly
They pledge this boast anew!32
31Haupt, Neidhart's Lieder, p. 96.
32Ibid., p. 109.
At one point in his writings, Neidhart's anger at the peasants'
temerity and open rivalry for the favors of the peasant maids brings
forth the following angry promise.
He, whoever of his company,
Who takes the hand of her with whom I dance,
Shall be split an ells width, that is certain.
No help he'll find
In doublet or in helm
To prevent this injury!33
The dismal condition of Neidhart's own wardrobe made the rich
peasants' violation of the existing sumptuary laws even more hateful
in his eyes. For instance, Neidhart promises Hildemar, an overdressed
peasant, a dire future if anyone from court ever sees him with his hood
which has pretty birds embroidered all about it.
Brash, he would be the equal of men of high degree,
Who have spent their days at court and there from
youth have grown.
His hood, if they catch him, will be stripped off
Before he knows what's happened to him, his birds
will all have flown.
Let this reward he'll receive
Be his ambitions yield.34
All of the poems which picture Neidhart von Reuental's unpleasant
relationship with the peasant men are called winter songs because they
begin with a naturalistic description of a winter scene. Neidhart's
more felicitious relationships with the peasant maids are described in
his summer songs. The latter, for example, contain such items as a
village maid's discussion of the chances and the probity of an alliance
33Ibid., p. 83.
34Ibid., p. 154.
with the knight of Reuental. Significantly, in that dialogue a friend
or mother always cast doubts upon the feasibility or desirability of
such an occurance. The maid, of course, will have no other. Peasant
lads, if they are mentioned at all in the summer songs, are the losers
in the contest for the maids' affections.
The fawning subservience which characterizes the fifteenth century
relationship of the legendary Neidhart Fuchs to the mythic Duke has its
origins in the poetry of Neidhart von Reuental. Whether or not Neidhart
von Reuental felt this way about his overlord is difficult to tell.
There is some suggestion that the von Reuental parody of peasant manners
may have been a double-edged sword. The higher love of the courts may
have been the object of a subtle attack by him.35 In any case, in his
poems, Neidhart von Reuental was manifestly polite and even servile
toward the Duke. At one point he thanks him for his gift of land and
wonders if the feudal due might be waived.36 A similar degree of
subservience is evidenced when he asks for a house to hold the casket
of silver the Duke has given him. Later, Neidhart pledges that, in life,
he will serve the Duke by his hand, and in death, should he see God,
his tongue will sing a song of praise so that the Duke will be known the
breadth of Paradise.37 Finally, proof of the servility of Neidhart can
be found in the fact one poem even professes pleasure over the fact that
the Duke saw fit to draft Neidhart's own men, Bcreluip, Irenwart, and
35Walshe, Medieval German Literature, p. 127.
36Ibid., p. 128.
37Bell, Peasant Life, pp. 180-181.
Uoge, into the army. The poem in question concludes with the following
thinly veiled allegory.
lie who has a bird whom he bids sing
Throughout the year,
Should the while
Mend the birdhouse
And give him food,
So that this same bird
Can sing sweetly.38
The examples of Neidhart's work cited above provide an outline
of his definition of the social situation in medieval Germany. This
definition was not unwarranted. His irritation at the peasant men for
their rivalry and their presumptions adoption of knightly usages was
justified both by law and by custom. His subservience to the Duke is
equally understandable since only the Duke could rescue him from his
penury and lack of land. It is equally obvious, however, that Neidhart's
definition of the social situation was not the only one. His contemporary,
Hartmann von Aue, the author of Der arme Heinrich, was a simple knight
who lived in circumstances which would have been similar to those
experienced by Neidhart. Nevertheless, Ilartmann's works contain the
kindest literary treatment of the peasants in the Middle Ages.
It has been shown that the origin of the conflict found in the
Neidhart plays can be traced to the organization of the feudal structure
in Germany during the High Middle Ages. Seeds of the conflict are found
in the fact that armed peasants who were for the most part free were,
nonetheless, entirely without privilege, for privilege belonged to the
nobility. In turn, the lower nobility, the knights, possessed privileges
381bid., p. 151.
without the means to exercise them. Though this was the typical situation
in southern Germany, there were radically different definitions of that
situation. The poetry of Neidhart von Reuental created one definition
which pictured knights as "song birds," dukes as warders of birdhouses,
and peasants as presumptuous poltroons. It was this definition which
served as the genesis of the legend of Neidhart Fuchs, "enemy of the
The process of the historic selection of Neidhart's definition of
the situation over all others will be the subject of the next chapter.
The Development of the Neidhart Legend
In the preceding chapters, the social significance and the social
and literary origins of the Neidhart plays were discussed. It was
found the unrealistic, but functional, definition of the social
situation implicit in those fourteenth and fifteenth century plays
stemmed from the world view held by Neidhart von Reuental, a poor
German knight of the early thirteenth century. The purpose of this, the
last portion of the.social analysis of the Neidhart plays, is to consider
factors affecting the process by which the views and motifs of Neidhart
von Reuental's poetry became part of the traditional literature of the
Late Middle Ages. The initial portion of this examination traces the
development of the legend from the time of its source in the historic
figure of Neidhart von Reuental to its fruition in the fifteenth century
plays. That accomplished, the factors which favored the adoption of
Neidhart's world view over other prevailing views will be considered.
Finally, the process by which the Neidhart world view was adopted will
The development of the Neidhart myth falls into three definable
phases; the first is Neidhart von Reuental's personal definition of
the situation, a definition which evolved in the first half of the
thirteenth century. The second is found in the corpus of poetry known
as the Neidhart apocrypha (Haupt's Unechte Lieder) which stems from the
time of the historic character to the advent of the fifteenth century.
The third and final phase is encompassed in the plays and the legend
of Neidhart Fuchs. Richard M. Meyer points out there is a logic in
this progression or development, namely, the first phase is Neidhart, the
second like Neidhart, and the third about Neidhart.1
If one recalls the tone, motifs, and structure of the plays, and
then compares them to the brief exposition of Neidhart's poetry presented
in Chapter Two, it becomes apparent that the development of the myth
involved an adaptation of the works of Neidhart von Reuental as it did
adoption of them. Although earlier discussion has taken significant
note of that historic character's dislike of the peasantry, his views
on that issue must be contrasted with the even more extreme expressions
found in the later works. Therefore, the positive, less extreme aspects
of his attitude toward peasants must receive attention.
In order to trace the development of the Neidhart legend, the
first facet in the work which must be considered is the shift in the
emotional tone of the writings from that found in the poetry of the
historic Neidhart to that of the traditional narrative. Neidhart von
Reuental was a realistic, perhaps satiric, poet who was exclusively
occupied with attempts to attain and protect the rights he felt were
his. One senses a sad, world-weary quality in a good number of his poems.
"Die Neidhartlegende" in Zeitschrift fur deutsches Altertum und
deutsche Litteratur, XXXI (1887), 66.
Some modern students of German literature feel he was resigned to the
fact that peasants such as those he dealt with were there to stay.2 In
the second phase of the legend's development, the Neidhart apocrypha,
Neidhart's attitude and accompanying treatment of the peasants reveals
a small but distinct tendency toward bitterness and direct assault. It
is in the final phase of development, however, that the greatest change
takes place. The fifteenth century plays and legend have little of
the sad, world-weary quality discernable in the earlier works. That
early quality is replaced by a mcod of violence, cruelty, and acrimony
which is evident even in the translation of the plays. By the time the
legend of Neidhart Fuchs went into print in the last quarter of the
fifteenth century it was, if anything, even more profoundly steeped in a
spirit of hatred. Thus, a clear progression can be seen from the
relatively mild almost passive quality of Neidhart von Reuental's
poems to the active, harsh quality of the later narratives.
The treatment of the peasant characters in the various phases of
the legend's development parallels the progression in mood noted above.
Insofar as the man Neidhart von Reuental is concerned, it would be
incorrect to state that he had any great appreciation of peasant men in
general. It should be noted, however, his hatred was directed toward
specific peasants -- namely, Engelmair and his lieutenants, not toward
the peasant class as a whole. Indeed, when he joins the peasants in a
sleigh party he calls them "youngsters" (kint) and joins their dance by
A. T. Hatto and R. J. Taylor, The Songs of Neidhart von Reuental
(Manchester, 1958), p. 5.
a warm stove. This is hardly the language and behavior of a man filled
with hatred. In a similar scene in the first of Neidhart's winter
songs, he describes a winter which is so cold it has driven all of the
young people indoors into the house of Engelmair, the one who, in time,
is to be the epitome of peasant villiany. In the poem, the peasants
dance and laugh while Neidhart composes a new song so that all might
forego heavy hearts. The warm atmosphere and happy people, secure from
winter's depredations, make Neidhart declare: "Engelmair, your lodge
is good."4 This brief and grudging praise of Engelmair cannot be construed
as an encomium, but it is in marked contrast to the unrelenting and
general hatred of peasants found in the later works.
Neidhart's poetic treatment of peasant women offers an even greater
basis for establishing a difference in the attitudes and belief sets
between the High and Later Middle Ages. The Neidhart whom history
records appears to have taken a positive view toward the peasant women
around him. ile refers to one of his peasant loves as ein jungiu meid
(a young maiden) and to the others as maids (magde). Moreover, the girl
Fridrauna, appears allegorically, if not in fact, to have been Neidhart's
chief peasant love, and when his poems make reference to her they tend
to lose their sardonic quality. As a case in point, one might consider
the following reference to her.
Now the meadow is a lace of flowers
With wide-eyes roses
Bright upon the heath
3HIaupt, Neidhart's Lieder, p. 60.
4Ibid., p. 55
SIbid., p. 7.
A garland of these sent
To . Fridrauna.
It would appear, therefore, Neidhart von Reuental did not take
a totally negative or bitter view of the peasants. lie could see some
good in peasant men, even in Engelmair at one time, and in various ways
he "loved" the peasant maidens.
In tracing the development of the legend, and in particular
attitudinal shifts within it, the Neidhart apocrypha represents a
transition from the position found in the poems of the historical Neidhart
to that found in the legend of Neidhart Fuchs. It is the apocrypha
collection which contains the first explicit statements or examples
of bitter hatred toward the peasants. For instance, after depicting a
peasant brawl the pseudo-Neidhart says:
Holerswan and Bezeman
Were cut to the quick.
Not that I care much.
They could have all died.
May God with the same dispatch of my departure ever
Curse these louts!7
The extent to which this attitude represents a departure from the
attitude of the original knight and poet is clearly seen by comparing
the ending of an analogous scene written by Neidhart von Reuental. After
the latter has depicted the fatal conflict between Holerswan and Bezeman
he simply says: "He must on this same place lie dead./ Isn't that a
shame?" Whhereas Neidhart von Reuental was indirect, and at the most
61bid., p. 38.
71bid., p. lii.
sarcastic, the pseudo-Neidhart was quite direct and bitter.
In the third phase of the development of the legend from which the
plays were derived, the peasant men and women have an entirely different
character than their High Middle Age counterparts. Engelmair, who is
pictured as boorish and aggressive in Neidhart von Rouental's poems,
becomes the evil, sly, and violently discourteous peasant of the Late
Middle Ages. Likewise, his wife and daughters do not remain the simple
rural women who could tempt a knight to something like a profession of
love. Instead, they are imbued with the distinctly inferior attributes
of city servants. The Greater Neidhart provides within its stage
directions the best evidence of this change of character. Its author
begins by calling the peasant women paurdiern (peasant wenches), then
he slips into hausdiern (house wench, scullion), and finally he refers
to them as simple diern (wenches). In addition, an examination of the
Sterzing Scenerio reveals evidence of the beginnings of a naive class
consciousness. In it, the prologue asks the audience not to censure the
actors who stammer their lines for some can't read (232, 237) and
Engelmair solemnly requests that the messenger read Neidhart's challenge
because he had never been to school (242, 249). Literacy, which had
been the property of the church in Neidhart von Reuental's time, had
apparently become a commodity which could be purchased by the affluent
middle class of the Late Middle Ages. So, as the legend developed, the
A survey of the literature of the late medieval period establishes
this to be the general attitude expressed. See HUgli, Deutsches Bauer,
9 bid., p. 97.
peasants not only came to be viewed as sly devils or scullion wenches,
but as ignorant illiterates.
The third and final facet of the legend's development to be
considered involves the origin and development of the concept of the
inversely proportionate distribution of fortunes and desirable character-
istics between knights and peasants. This idea differs considerably
from the simple declaration that peasants are bad and knights are good.
It involves a ratio that functions as a formula for both dramatic and
social action. It suggests that if, perchance, a peasant should come
into good fortune, the fortunes of a knight must or will decline. Parity
even by accident is precluded. When the poems of the original Neidhart
von Reuental are considered, it is apparent his contribution to this
idea is slight and certainly not explicitly stated in his poetry. There
were two formal divisions of his works, however, which may have suggested
something of this idea to later writers. Neidhart von Reuental chose
to record his conquests in the joyful summer songs and his defeats at
the hands of the peasant men in the winter songs. While this mild
dialectic tendency receives no further amplification in the apocrypha, it
was fully set forth by the time of the plays and the writing of Neidhart
Fuchs. For example, by then Frederich of Sunnenberg, an aphoristic poet
of the second half of the thirteenth century, had written:
Noble and wellborn man gladly strives for honor;
likewise, a peasant is pleased with misdeeds, that is
innate. The nobleman occupies himself with good conduct
and worthiness, whenever a peasant acts knavishly he is
happy and very contented.10
10George Fenwick Jones, Honor in German Literature (Chapel Hill,
1959), p. 106.
The above is an exact formulation of the attitude or concept
identified in the structural analysis of the Neidhart plays. Even
the ethical systems of the two statuses are inverted. What is virtue
in a knight is vice in a peasant, etc. In the final phase of the
legend's development, this definition of status relationship was widened
to include every class and occupational group. For example, the story
of Til Eulenspiegel, which was written at the turn of the fifteenth
century tells of how Til, a clever peasant lad, outwits and cheats
every one from priest, to baker, to landed aristocracy. At this
point in history, it was believed that what was good for peasants was
bad, not only for knights, but for every one else.11 In the Greater
Neidhart a precise formulation of this fortune-character ratio is
stated by the character Lucifer who says of the peasants:
The nobles' stature every day.
The peasants rise
And the knighthood falls
As you have just been told.
(201, 439, 31)
11The depth of peasant-hatred in the last part of the fifteenth
century and early sixteenth century cannot be exaggerated. The peasants'
brief rise in wealth was over and they were once again sinking into abject
poverty which was to provoke, in part, the Peasants War of 1525. Yet the
"humanist" Bebel writes:
Be silent, peasant, mark what I say: I do not wish to hide
the truth. You should be punished annually, as a willow tree
is trimmed with a knife every year. When its sap is drained the
tree yields much more, while overgrowth would hamper the wood.
Peasant, you have become too proud because they leave you too much
Translated by Erwin Gudde, Social Conflicts, p. 126.
So this, the third salient feature in the development of the
Neidhart legend, like the general tone and specific treatment of the
peasant status, changed from a passive, open definition of situation
at the time of its adoption to an active, closed, almost mechanical
definition of both the cast and action of the social drama.
Now that the adoption and adaption of Neidhart von Reuental's
world views have been reviewed, the further task of this chapter is to
explain what factors favored the choice of his definition of the high
medieval social situation over all others.
Examination of the factors which affected the selection of Neidhart's
definition of the situation is warranted if one recalls that Hartmann
von Aue, the author of Der arme Heinrich, lived in the same period and
among the same people as did Neidhart. Hartmann's radically different
view of peasant-knight relationships was as well known and perhaps
better liked than Neidhart's (witness Walther von der Vogelweide's
criticism),12 however, his world view was, nowhere, perpetuated in sub-
sequent literary effort. In spite of its popularity, Hartmann's work
remained a curiosity in a sea of anti-peasant sentiment, while Neidhart
von Reuental's poetry evolved as the putative source and hallmark of
peasant hatred. The factors which influenced this selection suggest, in
part, why this became the case.
12He likened Neidhart's poetry to the "croaking of frogs." Walshe,
Medieval German Literature, p. 127.
The first and perhaps most important factor involved in the
creation of a favorable climate for the view of society implicit in
Neidhart von Reuental's poetry was that, in a way, it explained a
troubling social phenomenon found in agrarian cultures which possess an
hereditary elite estate. Briefly, this phenomenon consists of a
perpetually falling nobility. Neidhart's explanation of this peculiar
state of affairs was based on the common, but fallacious, mode of
reasoning: Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Following that line of reasoning,
it was assumed that if the nobility were falling and some of the peasantry
rising there must be a connection between the two events. In actual
fact, however, that causal relationship did not exist, as the following
discussion will show.
Although the social structures which are common to agrarian cultures
are often thought of as rigid, architectonic constructs, in reality
they have the capacity for a considerable degree of social mobility.
This mobility is difficult to detect from the vantage point of our
modern Western civilization because the idea of an upper class in a
permanent state of decline is largely inconceivable. The agrarian societyI
in which Ncidhart lived had a structural feature, however, which made
upward mobility a possibility, but downward mobility the rule. Each
rank within the privileged estate breeds more individuals than there
are status vacancies for them to fill.13 If a given society employs the
13Lenski, Power and Privilege, pp. 289-291. The anomalies which can
result from this feature of agrarian social organizations border on being
incredible. In eighteenth or nineteenth century Russia, some nobles were
so poor they ate and slept with their peasants in one large hut. Some
serfs bought their freedom and had enough money left over to live as
wealthy men for the rest of their lives.
principle of primogeniture, the effect is to increase the rate of decline
of the nobility. For example, in Neidhart's day, a baron produced one
baron and several bannerets; that is, his eldest son assumed his title,
but his younger sons automatically were members of a lower feudal rank.
A banneret was usually assured a holding of land he might pass on to his
eldest son, but his younger sons were assured of nothing except that
their uncle, the baron, would in time make them knights. In Germany, as
pointed out previously, no secure holding of land was associated with
knighthood. Further, since knighthood was an achieved status at the
bottom of the ranking system, it produced no other of its kind. Knights,
therefore, generated squires, priests, minstrels, robbers, or waspish-
tempered free peasants. This, the last step, was critical because it
was here that one dropped out of the aggregate of governing statuses.
In contrast to this rule of downward mobility, upward mobility from the
estate of peasant to noble was less certainly achieved. The uncertainty
of this rise is not nearly as important to comprehension of the source
of misunderstanding between peasant and knight as is the means by which
the extremely fortunate peasant rose. In feudal Germany, a peasant or
member of the lower class could rise by becoming a bureaucrat. One
could manage a remote holding of land for a baron and, in time, be
rewarded by knighthood. In no case, however, did a peasant directly
replace a knight of declining fortune. Knights and peasants were not
customarily rivals for these bureaucratic positions. Not only did the
established aristocracy prefer employing the less prestigious and
therefore more malleable members of the despised peasant estate, but
the fallen aristocrats were reluctant to go into the service of another.
While it is obvious that this structural and organizational configura-
tion made the oldest brother of any aristocrat his natural rival, the
rivalry between knight and peasant was stressed, moreso perhaps, because
it encompassed the nexus of vertical motion in this society.
One reason for the acceptance of Neidhart von Reuental's view over
that of his contemporaries is apparent at this point. While the early
part of the thirteenth century was receptive to any explanation of the
state of social affairs, Hartmann von Aues view, for example, offered
society as a whole only an intensification of the paradox. Indeed, a
view such as his would have required the knights to love those whom they
imagined were displacing them. It is not surprising, therefore, that
the populous came close to embrace Neidhart's common sense definition
of the situation.
The second factor which caused a favorable response to Neidhart
von Reuental's views grew out of historic considerations.
Two historic tendencies increased the structural tensions within
Neidhart's society and created a receptive atmosphere for his definition
of the situation. The first of these was the fact that after the Black
Plague the peasants became materially well-to-do because of a scarcity
of labor. The second was the fact knighthood was dropped as a significant
part of the socio-economic organization of the Later Middle Ages. It
suffices to say of the peasants that, when they began to drink better
e and ar better clothes than their less well-to-do superiors,14
wine and wear better clothes than their less well-to-do superiors,
J. 1W. Thompson, Economic and Social History, p. 484.
they were less loved than ever. In a sense, the plight of the knights
was like a Ccrvantian tragicomedy. Knights created associations which
alternately united with the dukes against the cities,15 or with the
cities against the dukes,16 or even with peasants, as was the case in
three occasions mentioned in Chapter One. Whoever was allied with the
knights had to feed them, and any peasant with a pike, long bow, or cannon
could defeat them. Since there was literally no place for them in the
evolving society, the knights' behavior reflected little regularity and
less purpose. The coincidence of these two historic tendencies confirmed
the common belief that the peasants were pushing the knighthood out of
their (the knights') place in the social structure.
The combination of the social and historical factors which caused
the selection of Neidhart von Reuental's views over those of his contem-
poraries by the populus of medieval Germany constitutes but one part of
the explanation of why the legend of Neidhart Fuchs came to be. After
all, the views of an historic personage may be adopted by a later period
without any identification of the man with those views. To understand
why the fifteenth century legend specifically linked Neidhart von Reuental's
name with his definition of the situation, it is necessary to review
those aspects of his personal history which made him a likely candidate
for becoming a cultural hero. It will be shown, first, that certain
events in his life correspond to those of a Western archetypical hero.
15Barraclough, Origins of Modern Germany, p. 336.
16Ibid., p. 330.
Then, secondly, the marginality of Neidhart von Reuental's social position
will be shown to have facilitated his transformation into a particular
type of traditional hero known as the "trickster" -- a hero who haunts
the boundaries of acceptable human behavior.
Neidhart von Reuental's personal history is shrouded in mystery.
Nothing is known of him until he went to war in 1217, and nothing is
heard of him after he was received at the court of the Duke of Austria in
1230. As has been stated above, the middle portion of his life was filled
with adversity which he overcame when he became the ward of the Duke.
This history meets several of the canonical features of the archetypical
hero derived by Lord Raglan.17 Raglan divides the "hero's" history into
twenty-two typical events. If these twenty-two events are considered
on a three-part divisional basis, it becomes apparent that what one does
not know about the first and last part of the life of a hero is very
important. As Raglan conceives of the hero, his origins and ultimate
"destination" are cloaked in mystery. In a sense, a hero must be an open-
ended construct. That is, the circumstances surrounding his entrance
and exit from the mythic arena must be loose enough to permit the unusual
behavior expected of him. While Neidhart von Reuental killed no dragon,
his eventual victory over the major obstacle in his life (landlessness),
plus the mystery surrounding his birth and death, made him a likely
17Raglan, The Hero, pp. 178-179. Raglan's construct works well enough
for Western heros. Its validity decreases as one moves toward the Far
East. See Victor R. Cook, "Lord Raglan's Hero: A Cross-Cultural Critique"
in The Florida Anthropologist, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Part 1, pp. 147-153.
candidate for legendary apotheosis.
In a consideration of factors which may have facilitated the
transformation of Neidhart von Reuental into a traditional hero of
legend and drama, it should also be noted that the marginality of
Neidhart's social position provided certain distinct parallels to the
traditional mythic character known as the trickster. As has been noted
before, the defining social relationships which constituted the status
knight were never very rich in medieval Germany. The knight was excluded
from a meaningful role in the political and economic systems of his
culture. At the time Neidhart von Reuental lived, the last significant
bond of the knight to his society (military capability) was being
weakened by bow and pike. In the light of these factors his status does,
indeed, appear marginal. In a way, this unhinged quality of Neidhart's
social position permitted him a kind of freedom which he would not have
possessed had he played the role of a landed aristocrat. For example,
one of Neidhart's knightly contemporaries, Ulrich von Liechtenstein, is
said to have drunk the water in which his lady had washed her hands; then
he chopped off his little finger and sent it to her; finally, he dressed
as Venus and made a trip through southern Germany, challenging those who
dared to snicker.18 Such wide-ranging, anomolous behavior, which a
knight's marginal status made possible, is precisely the stuff from which
trickster heroes and gods are made. For example, mythologist Victor W.
i8Walshe, Medieval German Literature, p. 130.
Turner has described a trickster as:
A homeless wandering spirit. . he is present whenever
there is trouble and also whenever there is change and
transition . in most Trickster tales there are many
scatological and even coprophagous episodes exemplifying
the katabolic nature of the Trickster . .
Other traits ascribed to Tricksters include
combined black and white symbolism, aggression,
vindictiveness, vanity, [and] defiance of
The trickster is called a "liminal" character because he is an
edge man,20 a creature who acts out the range of possible behavior in a
period of transition. The Greek, Hermes, the Norse god, Loki, and the
Winnebago, I'akdjunkaga are examples of this type of mythical hero. This
liminal characteristic of the trickster has its social analogue in the
character who has a marginal status within his society.
The mythic offspring of Neidhart von Reuental, Noidhart Fuchs,
corresponds in many ways to the liminal character of the trickster. He
is certainly a homeless, wandering spirit who is found where trouble is.
Also the scatology, vanity, vindictiveness, and aggression attributed
to the trickster are evident enough in the real life character of Neidhart
von Reuental. Indications of Neidhart's defiance of authority is veiled
in the plays, as it understandably would have to be in an event presented
publicly in the fourteenth century, but it is clear in the legend that
his relationships with the high-born ladies of his superiors were not
as platonic as decorum would dictate. Moreover, in both the play and the
legend, Neidhart's antinomous nature is indicated by his love of disguise.
19Victor Turner, "Myth and Symbol" in The International Encyclopedia
of the Social Sciences, ed. David L. Sills (New York, 1968), 581-582.
Then took the black and white symbolism so typical of the trickster
tales is evident in the names of the play's central characters. Since
Neidhart is without a doubt the protagonist of the dramatic works, it is
interesting to note that his name, in root translation, connotes something
far less noble or savory. Neid means wickedness and envy, while the
combination Neidhart means "hard in battle."21 Neidhart was also the
name of a famous devil found in a tenth century tale.22 The same symbolic
phenomenon can be observed with respect to the peasant Engelmair who,
in the plays, displays distinctively villianous characteristics; the
Engl in Engelmair is a cognate of our word "angel." In fact, on one
occasion it is used as a name for a specific angel (Englmar).23 Thus,
the narratives fostered by Neidhart and his life tend to duplicate or
perpetuate a type of antithetic symbolism favored in the trickster tales.
It is obvious that Neidhart Fuchs qualifies in many ways as a
trickster tale, and it is equally obvious that the anomolous behavior
associated with Neidhart von Reuental's marginal status acted as an
additional aid in the process of transforming him into a tradition hero.
Since the development of the legend and factors which favored its
development have been exposed, it is now possible to examine the relation-
ship between the changing Neidhart myth and the changing society. This
does not involve a recapitulation of the development of the legend, or
21Samuel Singer, Neidhart Studien (TUbingen, 1920), p. 11.
of the factors which caused the general adoption of Neidhart views.
Rather, it involves the calculus of mythic and social processes which
occurred in this historic instance.
As used here, the phrase "a calculus of social and mythic processes"
refers to a description of the consequential relationships between
certain evolving secondary social systems and a simultaneously evolving
myth. Before proceeding to such an identification or description, it
should be understood that cause and effect relationships cannot be
claimed or established if the terms are used in their strictest sense.
Shifts in the social system and in the myth do not directly affect one
another. Rather, they are met in the psychological processes of human
beings. It must be understood, also, there is no invariable response
to a given stimulus from either term in the relationship. Thus, no
universal or "lawful" statement concerning the process can evolve. What
is left after observation of these rather stringent qualifications is the
possibility of describing the influence, or as Arnold Hauser says,
"conditioning" of one element upon the other.
The description of the specific processes of interaction between
myth and secondary social systems requires a general discussion of the
functional relationship between systemic levels in any society and some
specific treatment of the structure of belief in human individuals. The
story of these factors subsumes three of the four steps through which
influence from either the social system or the myth will be traced.
Societies can be divided into three functional levels. The first
level includes the institutions which provide for the basic needs of
man (e.g., the family); the second level is composed of systems which
provide instrumental support for the first level institutions (e.g., the
educational system); the third level provides for the integrative and
symbolic needs of the society as a whole (e.g., religion or myth).24 In
addition to this clear vertical line of need and need fulfillment, there
is also a descendent functional relationship between the three levels.
For instance, knowledge at the third function level not only fills the
content need of the system of education at the second function level, but
also to some degree, it shapes the form of that system. Furthermore,
the educational system not only fulfills the needs of primary institu-
tions for skilled producers, but it also influences the tastes and needs
of the consumer. The functional relationship of the three levels is thus
a reflexive one.25
It is customary and proper in most sociological investigations to
treat man's needs as being apart from man himself since those needs pertain
to psychology. Such a restriction in scope is not possible, however, if
one wishes to discuss specific processes taking place between functional
levels inasmuch as the medium of the interaction is within the individual
psyche. Since the relationship between the medieval German social system
24Bronislav Malinowski, "The Group and Individual in Functional
Analysis" in American Journal of Sociology (May, 1939): 938-964.
25R. H. Tawny successfully attacked both those who held that Calvinism
gave rise to capitalism and those who claimed to the contrary that
capitalism gave rise to Calvinism. He concluded that both were mutually
influential, see Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (New York, 1952),
and the art and myth of Neidhart von Reuental crosses the second and
third functional levels within society, the specific medium of their
interaction must be examined. This medium was the belief system of the
medieval German populus.
As groundwork for this phase of the consideration of the inter-
action of the Neidhart myth and prevailing secondary social systems, it
will be helpful to note that Milton Rokeach, an eminent experimental
psychologist, has established the existence of five distinguishable
types of belief which lie on a central to peripheral axis. Respectively,
these levels represent primitive beliefs which are held by all the members
of the society (type A); primitive beliefs which are equally incontro-
vertible, but which are held only by a given person (type B); authority
beliefs which are essentially ethical judgements about significant
individuals and groups (type C); derived beliefs which eminate from
authority (type D); and finally, inconsequential beliefs which are
incontrovertible because they spring from direct experience, beliefs
deemed inconsequential because they are not connected with other beliefs
and have no significance outside of themselves (type E).26 Matters of
taste, or opinions on less than important matters, are expressions of
the latter kind of belief. Of the five levels of belief enumerated
above, the first was found to be held the most tenaciously by experimental
subjects. The remaining four, being less central, were less tenaciously
held to by the subjects. It is through these outer or peripheral four
26Belief, Attitude, and Value (San Francisco, 1968), pp. 6-11.
levels of belief that the interaction process between the Neidhart myth
and the medieval German social system takes place.
The discussion of the process of interaction between the Neidhart
poetry and the Neidhart myth which follows will be divided into four
stages. The first stage will begin at the time of the historical
Neidhart and the last stage will represent the time immediately prior
to the invention of the legend of Neidhart Fuchs and the Neidhart plays.
Each of the four stages will be divided into four synchronic steps. In
this process, the item to be treated first -- social system or poem/myth --
will be determined by the direction of the line of influence. In turn,
either a transaction or a belief will be discussed, the order, again,
being determined by the direction of the line of influence. It should
be noted at this point that the word transaction means simply some human
activity which brings the extreme terms of the formula into contact.
After the synchronic relationships in a given stage have been discussed,
the succeeding stage will be treated.
State one begins with the social situation in Germany during the
High Middle Ages. In addition to the previously noted features of this
society (see Chapter Two), there is the fact that Neidhart lived in an
age in which the economy not only involved market exchange, but stressed
reciprocal exchange and the redistribution of goods and services. The
markets, which served as a kind of communication system as well as a
medium for commerce, were mostly rural because big city markets were
not yet free of feudal domination. This locally centered economic and
political feature of the high medieval society, which isolated or
insulated local groups, permitted pluralistic definitions of the situa-
tion. This factor combined with the social vicissitudes discussed in
the previous chapter to influence Neidhart von Reuental's view of himself
and his neighbors. His belief in this regard was of the primitive
incontrovertible personal variety (type B). This firmly held, though
unique, view fostered his creative endeavor (transaction step) and his
poetry because it satisfied an existing symbolic need, which represents
the third functional level of society.
Stage two of this myth-poetic interaction begins with the poetry
of Neidhart and shows the counterinfluence which the poetry had on the
society from which it sprang. Since the poem, once created, stands
free and is independent of its author and the society influencing him,
its use or value is dictated, not by the factors affecting its genesis,
but by its subsequent interaction with an inevitably changed and changing
society. The second step in this phase of the poem-myth relationship
is marked by the poetry's influence on the belief systems of the aggregate
of its audience. Insofar as individual members of that audience liked
or disliked Neidhart von Reuental's poetry, their belief (attitude)
concerning it was of the most peripheral sort (incontrovertible, but
insignificant). Those beliefs were a matter of taste and, as such, they
had no external consequence. For example, there is little doubt that
many of the people who were familiar with Neidhart's poems had also
heard Hartman von Aues' story of the good peasant and the kind knight.
Moreover, it is probable they responded to Hartmann's tale with equal
enjoyment and without a trace of anxiety about the manifest inconsistency
of the two poems social implications.
The diversity of peripheral belief mentioned above came at a time
when social systems in medieval Germany had begun a new stage of
development. During the Interregnum (1250-1273), the major cities of
Germany became independent political entities. In addition, a big city
market economy with widely expanded trade and transportation routes
supplanted German economic particularism; the traditional rural market
no longer served as the economic center of the nation and the principles
of reciprocity and redistribution were done away with in rapid fashion.
In a short time, Germany became the most urban of any European nation.27
This development interacted with the existing Neidhart poetry in an
important way. It created conditions which tended to narrow the range
of definitions of the situation, and it enhanced the possibility of
consensual appreciation of Neidhart von Reuental's views.
The increase in trade and transportation which followed the
urbanization of Germany was, in effect, a communication system. It
brought more people from different areas together in brief, but intense,
periods of social interaction. This type of improved interpersonal
communication tends to encourage conformity in a twofold manner. People
avoid what is called "cognitive dissonance," and they attach extreme
value to belief congruence.28 For example, if several medieval German
27J. W. Thompson, Economic and Social History, p. 126.
28Rokeach, Belief, pp. 20-21, 88.
merchants held disparate views on peasantry, they would have tended to
resolve their differences in direct proportion to the frequency and the
intensity of their social interaction in the market place.
Once developments in trade and transportation had established the
interaction potential outlined above, the altered social situation
exerted an influence on the belief systems of the general population
which aided in the eventual popularization of Neidhart von Reuental's
works. When it became necessary to work and trade with a multitude of
people, and when individuals found that their personal views were shared
by others, the population's beliefs about Neidhart's poetry ceased to be
merely a matter of individual taste. With respect to the advent of this
more uniform pattern of belief, it should be remembered that consensus
is more than an aggregate of similar views; it is also a group awareness
of similarity of belief. An inconsequential belief which one holds as
a matter of taste takes on the weight of a derived or authoritative
belief if one discovers it is shared by significant others.29 The next
phase of the popularization of Neidhart's work stems from this consensus.
Evidence in support of this proposition is found in the fact that since
there is no large corpus of apocryphal works dealing with the life,
world view or efforts of Hartman von Aue, who was more highly thought
of as a poet than Neidhart von Reuental, it would appear Neidhart had
the "better explanation" of the social situation during this period of
social and economic integration.
29Ibid., p. 10.
The next step in this process of mythic and social interaction began
with the writing of the Neidhart apocrypha by the pseudo Neidharts and
lead through the transaction called assimilation30 which, in turn,
influenced the belief structure of the general population. Belief in
peasant wickedness became not only a derived belief based on consensus,
but in addition, it became a valuation of negative authority; that is,
a negative belief about a significant (reference) group. The social
utility of negative reference individuals and groups has been clearly
pointed out in several studies.31 An individual knows what he is, in part,
by virtue of what he is not. It would be an exaggeration to classify
peasants as deviants in the strict sense of the word, but it would be
proper to call them "pariahs" in the sense of Paul Bohannon's use of
the term.32 Like deviants, pariahs tend to mark the boundaries of
accepted social existence. When this final alteration in attitudes of
the populace of medieval Germany occurred, it interacted with a new
shift in the social system.
The disintegration of the estate system of stratification in
medieval Germany began at the same moment that the thrust of urbanization
was in full force (1250-1276). As noted previously, that estate system
was a series of vertically oriented, legally defined social divisions.
Each division was a social entity in itself with a distinct or given
30The identification of a characterized subject with the characteriza-
tion, e.g., a peasant who acts "uppity" is regarded more as "uppity" than
peasant. Ibid., p. 91.
3Kai T. Erikson, The Wayward Puritans (New York, 1966); Robert A.
Dentier and Kai T. Erikson, "The Functions of Deviance in Groups" in
Social Problems, VII (1959), 98-107; George Herbert Mead, "The Psychology
of Punitive Justice" in American Journal of Sociology, VIII (1918), 571-602.
32Social Anthropology, pp. 183-184, 205-206.
purview. With respect to the disintegration of the estate system, it
should be pointed out that during the Interregnum, the Sachsenspiegel
(law of the Saxons) was translated into the vernacular. Its contents
bore the seeds of many revolutions, but its immediate effect was to
replace, in part, the particularism of the German legal system33 and
thus undermine the estate system of stratification. Whereas the
medieval estate system was based on equality in the eyes of God and
inequality by law, the Sachsenspiegel suggested that men were naturally
endowed with certain rights and, thus, were fundamentally equal before
the law as well as God.34 When the Sachsenspiegel and the other
comprehensive law systems which followed it brought about the dissolu-
tion of intra-estate law, the way was opened for social stratification
by class, a stratification which was in effect a horizontal division
by social traits.
For the purposes of this study, the process of interaction between
the social systems of medieval Germany and the Neidhart myth may be
considered to have culminated at this point. Neidlhart Fuchs, the enemy
of the peasant, and Neidhart plays of fourteenth and fifteenth century
Germany can be legitimately viewed as the product of an evolving class
system interacting with an assimilated myth based 'upon wicked peasants
who fictively displaced their betters, WI'en the assignment of traits to
classes began, the nobility was deemed honorable, and in time the middle
class was thought of as sturdy and thrifty, but the peasants for reasons
33J. W. Thompson, Economic and Social History, p. 487.
34Rudolf Huebner, "Man, Right, and Association" in Anthropology cnd
Early Law, ed. Lawrence Krader (New York, 1966), p. 237.
promulgated centuries earlier were thought of as sly devils and loose
In this, the last portion of the social analysis of the Neidhart
plays, the development of the Neidhart myth has been traced from Neidhart's
poetry to the legend of Neidhart Fuchs. It has been shown that Neidhart's
view of his situation was chosen from the many others because of the
existence of conditions of receptivity in the society, and because his
character was easily transformed into that of a liminal cultural hero. /
The process of the development of the myth and of the change in the social
systems was one in which both were affected by the reflexive quality of
Of the mythic antagonists, there now remains but one, the peasant.
The knights rode out of the socio-political structure of Europe leaving
behind nothing but the idea of being gentlemen. Engelmair's descendents,
who did not become gentlemen, still tilled the fields having given up
hope of dancing at court when the middle class moved in.
THE NEIDHART PLAYS AS WORKS OF THEATRICAL ART
The Theatrical Origins of the Neidhart Plays
The primary concern of the portion of the theatrical analysis of
the Neidhart plays is to expose their antecedent theatrical forms. Al-
though there have been attempts at synthesis,1 scholarship relative to
the medieval theatre and its forms falls, roughly, into two categories--
that which maintains its origins are secular, and that which places its
beginnings within the liturgy of the Christian church. Although the
study of the Neidhart plays does not depend entirely on the theories of
the secular school, or claim refutation of those arguments concerning
Christian origin, the implications of the study affect both lines of
thought. Accordingly, both are treated below.
Those who hold that the origin of the theatre in the Middle Ages is
non-Christian posit as its source either the professional mime or pagan
religious ritual.3 The ritualistic practices which are said to survive
in the secular drama of the Late Middle Ages, or in the much later folk
plays, are of the sort recorded by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough.
R. Pascal, "On the Origins of the Liturgical Drama of the Middle
Ages," in Modern Language Review, XXXVI (1941), 369-387.
2Hermann Reich, Der Mimus (Berlin, 1903).
3Robert Stumpfl, Kultspiele der Germanen als Urspung des mittel-
alterlichen Dramas (Berlin, 1936); Benjamin Hunningher, The Origin of
the Theatre (New York, 1961).
They include the acts of dancing leaping, mock marriage and mimed
death which the secularists consider homeopathic magic practices.4
Adherents of this position view the Latin drama of the church primarily
as a reaction to the popularity of the professional and/or pagan drama.
Scholars representative of the alternate view believe, variously,
that drama sprang from the Christian mass or that it sprang from the
office.6 In either case, the latter group see the ritual of Christian
worship as the seed from which the elaborate religious drama of the Middle
Ages grew. The secular theatre of the Later Middle Ages, if it is treated
at all by members of this school, is seen as the ultimate product of a
secular trend in the religious drama.
Generally, both sides of the dispute have a common ground in that
they believe that religion generates drama at some stage in its develop-
ment. The central question which separates them is not so much how drama
developed in the Middle Ages as it is from which religion did drama
develop? The dispute has, in forensic terms, developed little "direct
clash" except in the case of Benjamin Hunningher's work. His efforts are
4James George Frazer, The New Golden Bough, ed. Theodor H. Gaster
(New York, 1961), pp. 50-57, 73, 80-81.
50. B. Hardison, Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages
6Chief among others, Leon Gautier, Histoire de la Poesie Liturgique:
les Tropes (Paris, 1886); Wilhelm Creizenach, Geschichte des neueren
Drama (Halle, A. S., 1893); E. K. Chambers, Medieval Stage (Oxford, 1903);
Karl Young, The Drama in the Medieval Church (Oxford, 1933); Hardin
Craig, The English Religious Drama of the Middle Ages (London, 1960).
dismissed for less than substantial reasons at times. For instance,
Hunningher's carefully reasoned argument and cautious conclusions were
treated with a one line rejection by 0. B. Hardison, . and this
challenge, because it begins by ignoring the obvious, has come to nothing
"8 Perhaps because he considers the obvious so obvious, Mr. Hardison
does not choose to elaborate. One can presume, however, Hardison's
position is that the corpus of plays which form the basis for his con-
clusions number in the hundreds, whereas Hunningher has but three plays
from the High Middle Ages with which to establish his theory of secular
origin. This is hardly a valid attack since secular drama, if it existed
at all, would have been part of the oral tradition (not literary) by
reason of the lack of time, money, literacy, and inclination of its
practitioners. Ultimately, the quarrel between the groups may be a
7The bulk of German scholarship on the subject is dismissed as being
Nazi-oriented; see Richard Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages (Cam-
bridge, Mass., 1952), p. 199; Walshe, Medieval German Literature, p. 405.
Prior to the Second World War, however, Neil C. Brooks of the University
of Illinois reviewed Stumpfl's Kultspiele der Germanen in a critical,
but positive, fashion. See Journal of English and Germanic Philology,
XXXVII 91938), pp. 300-305. Also see F. E. Sandbach, Modern Language
Review, XXXII, (1937), pp. 317-322. Hardison, in Christian Rite,
assaults the secular school for its lack of historical data, adopts the
axioms of its position (pp. x-xi), attacks his predecessors Chambers and
Young for a super-abundance of data (pp. 8, 26) and the evolutionary
basis of their histories (p. 33), and in several cases falls into
instances of his own doctrine. He cites Honorius of Autun (c. 1100) to
the effect that the mass is tragical and the priest a tragedian (pp.39-41)
and neglects to say that Honorius also wrote that no actor (joculatores)
had any chance of redemption for "in their whole aim they are Satan's
ministers." In the former instance, Honorius is speaking metaphorically,
in the latter instance, he was rendering explicit judgement against an
ancient ever-present threat to the church, the professional actor. See
Allardyce Nicoll, Masks, Mimes, and Miracles (New York, 1931), p. 168.
8Hardison, Christian Rite, p. vii.
semantic one. Certainly if one used the term drama to mean a particular
literary form, the antiquity and primacy of the Christian drama cannot
be contested. This, however, does not preclude the possibility of the
production of plays on secular themes which, from a theatrical viewpoint,
may have been more artistic than the turgid mysteries. As Hunningher
points out, Adam de la Halles' Jeux de la Feuillee (1262) is better
written from a modern viewpoint than any extant religious drama from any
The relationship of the study of the Neidhart plays to the two
schools of thought on medieval theatre is one which is not easily
identified with either position. Discussion of the pagan religious
rituals in connection with the Neidhart plays will be waived for the
moment because there is no direct evidence that either the fourteenth
and fifteenth century plays, or their antecedent theatrical forms, had
anything to do with a religious ceremony per se. The subsequent discussion
of the plays and pagan practices will be based on the idea that a distinc-
tion exists between pagan usage and pagan religious usage. The relation-
ship of the theatrical antecedents of the Neidhart plays to the theory
of the Christian origin of the drama is that of being another historic
instance which is inexplicable in terms of that theory.
Since the relationship of this study to the two major schools of
thought on medieval theatre has been examined, discussion of the main
topic can proceed.
9Hunningher, The Origin of the Theatre, pp. 82-83.
The theatrical origins of the Neidhart plays fall into three cate-
gories. The first two of these categories are similar in that both are
called tanzspielel0 (dance-plays) by Hintner and Gusinde, the authors of
the major works on the subject plays. These "dance-plays" are subdivided
into two subordinate divisions, bauertanzspiele (peasant-dance-.plays) and
rittertanzspiele (Knight-dance-plays). The third source of theatrical
influence on the Neidhart plays is the Christian drama of the Middle Ages.
These influences on the fourteenth and fifteenth century Neidhart plays
will be discussed in the order given above.
The bauertanzspiel, which bears directly upon the development of the
later Neidhart plays, is recorded in three Middle High German manuscripts.
They are the Weingarten M. S. (early fourteenth century); the large
Heidelberg M. S. (early fourteenth century); and the Preussische Staats-
bibliothek M. S. Germ. fol. 779 (fifteenth century).11 The date of their
origin might be anywhere from 1215, when Neidhart is first known, to
some one hundred years later.12 Along with other works, each of the above
manuscripts contains poetry of Neidhart von Reuental and the Neidhart
apocrypha. The bauertanzspiel described in the Neidhart apocrypha opens
with a description of winter's recent demise. To mark its passing,
Fridebolt, a peasant, and his companions are preparing for a dance with
swords both long and wide. At that point, the narrator begins to directly
address the company:
10"Beitrbge zur Kritik," VI, 42-59; Neidhart mit dem Veilchen, pp.
218-222; Karl Weiss, Geschichte der Stadt Wien, I (Wien, 1882), 538.
11Olive Sayce, The Poets of the Minnesang (Oxford, 1967), p. xxiv.
12Singer, Ndidhart Studien, pp. 7-8, believes the poem may be older
than Neidhart. Neidhart's view from the cask might have been a later
Otte, should the Easter play come this way
Let me know your mind!
KUnze, you have many friends,
Tell me how it goes with love.
Fridebolt lead the dance from here
Bind your sword on the left.
Be happy for KUnze's sake!
Lead us before the high court gates. 13
Let the dance ride out upon the meadow.
Since the first line of address in the poem contains the word
Osterspiel (Easter play), and since Grimm notes no meaning for the term
which does not denote some kind of theatrical performance at spring,14 it
might be said that the study of the Neidhart plays relates in a negative
way to the theories of Christian origin of drama in the Middle Ages.
Certainly the subsequent lines in the passage above make it abundantly
clear that this "Easter play" was not in the Christian tradition. It
apparently employed swords, may-brides, and mutilation, and had nothing
to do with the passion of Christ.
The poem's narration continues by praising May time and the love it
brings to all. The apocryphal poet begins to tell of how the countryside
is filled with gaudily dressed peasants all converging on Zeislmaur, a
village. In his words, . and so they gather here,/ Many more than
a hundred./ They herd themselves upon the green/ To form a new group."15
Next, they are named in an endless and hilarious fashion. . Lumpolt,
Rumpolt, Kumpolt/ . Ezzel, Wezzel, Brezzel, and the younger Lanze."6
1311aupt, Neidhart's Lieder, p. xxxviii.
14Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsches WUrterbuch (Leipzig, 1854), p. 1380.
15Haupt, Neidhart's Lieder, p. xlvii.
16Ibid., pp. xlvii-xlix.
At that point, the poet declares, "Now I have of these empty louts/ Named
full fifty-two,"17 and he goes on to complain that there are yet three
whom he has not mentioned who hailed him before the court. Of the latter,
he says, ". . They think themselves so free that I must be stepped
upon.'18 At that point, activity on the green suddenly begins.
Giselbreht pounds upon a dog hide.1
Limmenzun and Friderun press against the crowd.
Now a play begins, which was too much before such
a rich bride.20
I lay squeezed in a barrel
Near by the wine
Until there began a conflict
Which resulted in great injury.
In the passage pertaining to that activity, several incidents occur
which are of interest. The text states: "Here begins a spiel (or play)."
Unfortunately, this in itself does not guarantee that the event or action
in question is necessarily a schauspiel or theatre piece. Spiel has the
same wide range of meaning in German as "play" does in English. Thus,
the term might have been used simply as a reference to some non-serious
and non-dramatic act. It could be that the play was a simple round or
garland dance which ended in a conflict. There are, however, three bits
of evidence which tend to legislate against these non-theatrical possi-
bilities. The first is the previously noted fact that the word 0sterspiel
was usually reserved for theatrical performances, especially of the
Christian variety. The second piece of evidence is found in the statement
18Ibid., p. 1.
Giselbreht rler in des hundes huit. Probably a drum made of a dog
S. vor ciner richen bruite. Sarcastically spoken, perhaps
referring to the may-bride celebration.
"Gisolbrcht pounds upon a dog hide." This may have meant a drum, and
if that were so, it would parallel the medieval custom of playing pipes
and other musical instruments prior to a theatrical performance: see
the Sterzing Scenario (232, 237). The final fact which lends credence
to the belief that the action or activity in question was a theatrical
item (play) stems from the phrase "Limmenzun and Friderun press against
the crowd." In the medieval outdoor theatre, it was custom for the
wogmacher to make way through the crowds for the performers. In view
of that, Limmenzun and Friderun may well have been the ones designated
to perform that function before the start of the poem's theatrical event:
see the Sterzing Scenario (231, 236). Though the evidence offered above
does not completely over-rule the possibility that the spiel to which the
poem refers was non-theatrical, it makes it a distinct probability.
Immediately following the passage cited above comes one in which
the cause of the conflict of the bauertanzspiel becomes apparent.
Lord Engelmair was deceived,
lie and his companions.
He broke the mirror
Which crowned Fridrauna's flowers of May.21
The above four lines represent the apocrypha's version of the incident
which caused the historical Neidhart von Reuental such anguish. Signifi-
cantly, however, there is a difference in the rendering of it in this
later version. In this reference, both Lord Engelmair and his companions
are deceived. The reason for that deception becomes evident in the
210berthalben ires main er Friderun den speigel brach. The meaning
of the phrase is obscure. llaupt holds that mein = meinol = mons veneris.
[bid., p. li, Singer, Neidhart Studien, p. 6, suggests mein = mcien =
Then began a rumble and a brawl,
Then I saw two now swords, each with a fine hilt,
Which caused Lord Engelmair to be set on a stilt.
I was reassured.
hMen someone [a companion] joined me
For should they have known my whereabouts,
I should have no longer lived.
I behaved accordingly.
I saw fifteen suits of iron
Four who were . [missing] guests.
On them were hung doublets.
Engelmair's penance remained the same:
He went about with his left leg in a spoon [billed borer]22
His cleverness made me sad.
Ilolerswan and Bezeman
Were cut to the quick,
Not that I cared much,
They could have all died.
I didn't wait any longer. Lord Ber
Was making a conquest before the ladies.
Hard there on, I heard a word
Which caused me some alarm.
Erkenbolt called from up above in the lane
"Never call me friend again, if Lord Neidhart does
not lie within the cask!"
May God with the same dispatch of my departure ever
curse these odious louts!23
It is important to note that Lord Engelmair's rash act (the breaking
of the mirror) produces the mutilation on which the fourteenth and fifteenth
century plays focus so much attention. In this version, however, it is not
Neidhart who revenges this disgrace, rather, it is the deceived companions
of Engelmair. Moreover, it is not even suggested that Fridrauna was
Neidhart's girl friend. She seems to be the consort of the peasants, as
she was in the later plays. One other feature in this passage is worth
2LUffel = spoon-billed borer postholee digger) in mountainous Germany.
Engelmair probably put the stump in the concavity and stumped about on
the handle. The sound of the word lUffel is amusing to Germans. It also
means a foolish person and is conjoined with other words in nonsense
poems, see Grimm, Deutsches WUrterbuch, p. 1123.
2311aupt, Neidhart's Lieder, pp. 1-lii.
noting. The historical Neidhart von Rcuental's visits to the peasants
were always open, and the peasants seemed for the most part to tolerate
his presence even if they didn't care for the attentions he addressed
toward their women. Here in the Neidhart apocrypha, however, there is a
radical departure from that state of affairs. The peasants are engaged
in an activity which they definitely don't want Neidhart to see, and
Neidhart appears well aware of the danger involved in his voyeurism.
Considering the above actions and conditions, and in particular the
difference between the apocruphal poem and the descriptions of attitudes
and conduct in the poetry of Neidhart von Reuental, several items might
be posited in regard to the action depicted in that apocryphal literature.
First, the Easter play to which the poem refers could have been a sword
dance play of the variety which still survives in the folk tradition of
England and Germany. Secondly, Fridrauna may have been the traditional
name for the may-bride who helped usher in spring and her "mirror" may
have been a figure in the sword dance. Thirdly, if the above is true,
the sword dance may have been a kind of secular morality play which
dramatized the need for peasant solidarity. In the paragraphs which follow
these propositions will be treated in the order given above.
The association of the sword dance with German coalitions is at
least as old as the observations of Tacitus (98 A. D.). In the spring,
large tribal assemblies would gather to make plans for war, to allocate
land, and to initiate new members into the adult society. The initiation
ceremony included arming the youth with a wooden javalin (framm) before
the open assembly. At that moment the youth became a free adult who was
at the bottom of the kin/political system of ranking, but nevertheless
the peer of every simple warrior in the war band associations (commitatus).
Tacitus notes that the young men did a dance which involved swords.24 He
makes no definite connection between the dance and the initiation rites,
but a recent cross-cultural study makes it appear likely that any event
relating to war band solidarity would possess some dangerous test or
hazing as a prerequisite to membership.25 The sword dance, since it is
known to have existed at the time, would appear to have been ideally
suited to the needs of that initiation practice.
The sword dance as a type of amusement and initiation has no certain
history through the High Middle Ages, but mention of it begins again in
the fourteenth century. According to Stumpfl and Richard Wolfram, at
this point in history and thereafter, it is definitely associated with
secret societies.26 Whether these societies were pagan religious
survivals or simply social fraternities is debatable and not important to
the discussion at hand. The point of the foregoing discussion simply is
that, since sword dances functioned as ritual work in Germanic coalitions
from the earliest times to the twentieth century, there is a likelihood
that peasant groups in the High Middle Ages might have made use of them
as a rite of intensification.
24Tacitus Germania xxiv. 1.
25Young, Initiation Ceremonies, pp. 75, 79, 81.
26Kultspiele der Germanen, pp. 14-15; "Sword Dances and Secret
Societies" in Journal of English Folk Dance and Song, I (1932), 38-39.