Gender comedy belongs to the ages. The fragility of manliness has always lain dangerously near the foundations of state, making things precarious for the powerful and easy for the satirist. Surely our recently fashionable imperative for tolerance toward gaydom conceals no little Angst.
This story, beneath the light-hearted war between the sexes, takes on some big issues by capsizing an ancient myth. Aphrodite's girdle, source of her unfair advantage over every rival, means the eternal, irresistible power of femininity. In our tale, the bright heroine sells her chastity for magic sword-belt powers. A brief male masquerade is then required to channel them to her husband, thus saving his career and re-instituting fidelity in their rattled marriage. Shall he be grateful? Or has she worn the pants (iron ones, here) a little too convincingly?
The virgin's belt had analogues in the Germanic classics (pagan Aphrodite, no patroness of virginity, had to restore hers by more bathing than the Germans would have liked). As told in the Nibelungenlied, the great heroic compilation of the early thirteenth century, Queen Brunhilde remains magically indeflorable to Gunther, slack ruler of the doomed Burgundian kingdom, until Siegfried, by combining hard-core valor with magic, bests her in a triathlon to rob her of her girdle. It turns out to be an unexpectedly potent trifle. He gives it to Kriemhild, the wife Gunther has awarded him in payment. She exhibits it to prove that Siegfried, having cuckolded her royal brother Gunther, outranks him. Epic genocide ensues.
"Sir Heinrich" achieves results more benign, better in tune with attitudes much changed since Siegfried's unforgiving days. She can be femininely irresistible and yielding, or martially invincible, when properly equipped. But her strength in the tourney seems to come as much from somewhere within as from her illicit booty. The strength is real, of course, not magic, and the more warmly human and funny for it. Sir Conrad suffers from deficiencies that mere desperado courage can't cure, aggravated also by the doubtful construction he puts on the code of honor (by deserting her) and then on the rules of manly comradeship. She at last invigorates him by conferring on him in forgiveness not magic but herself, like a critical ingredient. They live happily not ever after but to their fill of worldly years. Beneath the magic and fantasy, life is real.
On a social level, we hear several themes typical of late medieval stories. The extravagant passions of the adultery scene are not just gratuitous prurience. Chivalry, seen through the magnifying glass of popular imagination, demanded not only fabulous bravery, wealth, and skills, but also outsized sensibilities as the marks of distinction normal for its so exclusive membership. A knight who did not rave, vault bulwarks, swoon, or take wild vows at the sight of a highborn lady was no knight at all and would have poisoned the whole game. Our author is making sure everyone knows his errant has top qualifications, although his only function is to inseminate the plot, so to speak. He quickly spends his magic equipment and is not heard from again.
Consider also the new role for woman. The grandest days of chivalry had called for a lady who stood at the opposite pole from her lord in most respects. She formed the nucleus around which knightly behavior orbited. She was desired, served, protected, won, lost, traded, and made the type goddess besung in every hymn to devotion and passion (not what we would call love) the poets could invent, but seldom did she do anything. In contrast, Sir Conrad's consort fights henceforward at his side. This knight and lady together form a kind of social unit chivalry never knew.
Another invention is marked by the debut of the innkeeper as tournament capitalist. Here he acts only as agent and confidant; later stories will show him also as speculator in knightly futures. Such commerce between lord (or lady) and churl would have been unthinkable in Parzival's day, but by Sir Conrad's time was just business as usual. Dash and bravery had slipped over to the nostalgia side of the ledger, and if you still wanted to bet on them, the stake had to be in hard currency.
Typical also is the attention paid to the meaning of personal appearance. For a long time, convention had decreed that external splendor necessarily bespoke intrinsic quality (and vice versa). A champion was at once recognizable as such, anywhere. Occasions for descriptive pageantry abound in the literature of chivalry, where poets vied the might and breeding of their hero against all comers by covering him with finery and entraining lordly squires and vassals behind him. (Vassalage was not ignoble servitude but a formal pledge of loyalty. A vassal might be of high birth, gain further power and social standing proportional to those of his liege, and, like Hagen in the Nibelungenlied, personify a culture's proudest virtues. Conrad's offer of fealty to his incognito wife compliments himself, just as much as her).
The mighty Breton in our story, too, is marked by his appearance as a champion, and hence certainly a son of the nobility. Yet ingloriously he gets bowled off his horse by a woman. Protected though she be by magic, the author still instinctively prepares his audience for such an astounding inversion of natural law by sending her into the ring only after a cap-à-pie review of her outfit. The equipment makes, in this case spuriously, the man.
Magic belts, swords, capes, and like implements, of course, are nothing new in literature. Conventionally, they mark, not make, the heir or worthy, who alone can master them. The unfit have no more success with them than Penelope's suitors with Odysseus' bow. But in this age of fading valor, it was the storytellers who kept the faith. Power, whether rooted deep as the family tree or strapped on with finery, was power.
An epilogue names the poet, an otherwise uncelebrated Dietrich von der Glezze, perhaps referring to the old settlement of Glatz, in Silesia, south of Breslau. If that is correct, then Dietrich's patron was probably Wilhelm von Weidenau, a minor nobleman who could still afford to commission entertainments. He died in 1296, according to town records, meaning that Dietrich probably composed his only surviving work not long before the advent of the fourteenth century.