WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT
Here is a collection of stories told by experts long ago. Although their time and language and world were far different from ours, and are gone now, the things they told about live on, familiar to us all—love and greed, sex, courage and wickedness, priests, whores, heroes, thieves, and ordinary men and women whose ordinary affairs come to life again through the magic of storytelling.
The examples here all belong to the time we call the Late Middle Ages. Great changes were taking place during those several hundred years, in many ways laying the foundations for our day, for our way of thinking, living, storytelling, and seeing the world as we now suppose it to be.
These little specimens are remnants from a splendid but brief golden age of literature then in its decline. Over just some fifty years, at the end of the twelfth and into the dawn of the thirteenth century, an aristocratic elite of poet-performers (many illiterate, some combatively proud to be so) had created a canon of literary masterpieces still ranking with the greatest ever produced by any age or culture. This was the literature of chivalry. Its works center on codes of noble and ideal-inspired behavior prescribed by, and for, the brotherhood of chevaliers or (in Middle High German) riter, meaning literally "riders."
Chivalry as a way of life depended on an interlocked system of feudal loyalties uniting everyone, from serf to king, in a chain of mutual obligations and social position. High birth and rank had their active counterpart in correspondingly high standards of behavior (so also for the low end of the scale). Noble blood could not be disguised or mistaken. The standard knightly epic begins with the hero ignorant of his parentage. His innate valor, however, sooner or later (normally much later, after no end of thrilling trials) installs him among his peers and entitles him to their privilege.
A distinct plot shift signaled feudalism's decay. Now the hero, of whatever lineage, sets out to re-enact the glorious deeds and adventures of old. He has the idea backwards. If he aspires to be a noble knight, he supposes he has to start by behaving like one. But gallantry alone could not make the blood run blue, nor did high lineage necessarily require noble actions, or confer privilege. Chivalry was dead.
What had killed it was the rise of a social order based not on fealty to one's lord or any other institutionalized abstraction but on commerce and business success. The cart, literally, now came before the horse. The knight-king-hero who strove over the chasm between heaven and earth (on horse) could no longer compete with the industrious tradesman and shopkeeper, who by trundling about with his bales of merchandise (by cart) might soon amass an estate and power the princes would be forced to bow to (and borrow from, ruinously). Thus enabled, the common townsman might indulge whatever he took to be princely tastes, but he could not in so doing alter or even disguise the fact that the rules of the game and its stakes had changed entirely. The magic castles were paying taxes, the Holy Grail had been smelted into coinage, the loftiest princess had laundry to do.
The result for literature was that the elegant congruence of subject and form, the mark of medieval classicism, burst at the seams. Out flowed a wonderful mix of creative experience. In long-winded sequels to the great classics, would-be poets vied not to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion but precisely to keep that from happening, to continue the string of ever more fantastic (and mundane) adventures, to keep the public, now vicarious knights at best, demanding more. But no poet then living had the epic breath control of the masters. Nor would that have served him in the halls emptied of reveling courtiers. In what spare time their new jobs permitted, those worthies were learning to read. Such a situation put a premium for writers on an episodic style, which in turn readily splintered into independent, short narratives.
And so a whole new species of literature evolved. Its skeleton was anecdotal, pivoted on one simple plot idea, with plenty of fast action and wit to supply the muscle. Favorite locales, replacing the royal court of King Arthur's heyday, are the marketplace, an inn, shops, homes and farms, and replacing knights of the Round Table are townspeople, or if knights indeed, a depauperate, anachronistic subspecies thereof.
Social satire abounds. Its thrust, though sharp, seems the more benign when not aimed so narrowly. Greed, vanity, ignorance are found infecting all, from the highest to the lowest. Virtues dwell no longer exclusively with the high-born. Temperance and wit outrank bravery, and common sense puts booklearning to shame.
And the poet? Instead of courting royal favor, he now had to produce something that would sell, like everybody else. A story for these new consumers was better piquant than monumental. Plots wanted more suspense than morality. That is the point where we, trapped in the living present, have the best chance of making contact with that lively past, sharing its sense of fun and anticipation in terms we have no trouble understanding.
But by no means did this require that the artistry so spectacularly won in the old high days should be abandoned. These men (rarely female) were poets. The courtly verse form brought to perfection in classical Middle High German is a fluid cascade of rhymed couplets. In the hands of a master, it sang. Not for hundreds of years, until the seamless power of Martin Luther's prose, would it be supplanted. It remained the standard for narrative.
While the subject matter thought suitable for artistic treatment broadened considerably, the old ways long held on here too. Many of the plots and characters of popular narrative followed a course from Greek or Latin into French or Provençal verse, and thence into verse in the Germanic and Romance vernaculars. Thus we can expect to find, for a German version of a story, an immediate Old French source, but we needn't be surprised to hear it again from Chaucer, Boccaccio, or Sheherezade. For a lot of wise science on this vast topic, go read Robert Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion.
And so too did the creation of poetry in the Middle Ages demand a special skill in translation. The poet exercised his originality less in pure fabrication, which was often regarded with suspicion, than in how well he shaped his matter to fit his immediate ends.
I have aimed in translating at something like this. Certainly, modern English prose can convey little notion of the original rhythmic, rhymed couplets, but twisting the language we speak today into a contrived replica of verse in a very different, long disused one, is worse, as proved when I lapse here and there into doggerel.
These tales have all been translated from the Middle High German versions collected and edited from manuscripts in the mid-19th century by the philologist Friedrich Heinrich von der Hagen (Gesammtabenteuer: hundert altdeutsche Erzählungen. Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1850.) Other versions, where pertinent, are mentioned in the commentaries.
While translation thus accords with medieval storytelling practice, my purpose in one respect has been very different. I have tried to give some idea of what it was like to be alive long ago in that time and place. But the poets themselves were trying to find and show what on earth was going on then, in a world undergoing changes perhaps as momentous as any today. As the Middle Ages drew to a close, ways of seeing and thinking had to be refitted to the new world of the Renaissance, to new classes of society, to science, to the revolution in religious experience. God had become personal, man a splendid (or sordid) individual, and the world round, divided by now traversable oceans into continents known and strange, abounding with an infinitude of curiosities crying out to be plundered, and the whole incongruously fascinating puzzle was surely in motion, adrift somewhere in space. It no longer made sense to pretend to be a knight or to prattle moralities about the calamitous wickedness of the Devil. The time had come to make a deal with him, to see just what the old soul was really worth in this amazing new currency. The Faustian age had arrived. But that is another story . . .