Here is a prime specimen of a very popular type of story, the lay homily. Peopled with favorite stock characters--the wealthy, braggart commoner, the penurious but incorruptible knight, the maiden heiress, the divine messenger--it mixes long-winded adventure with superstition and miracle to produce, apparently, a sermon on one of the several capital virtues by which chivalrous conduct was defined.
Technically, the theory of chivalry divided personal honor into two main categories: an internal quality of uprightness, and the more tangible one of reputation, comprising in addition to moral respect the admiration commanded by splendid possessions and a grand style of living. Our poet's first purpose here is to underscore the mutual contingency of these inner and outer virtues. Sir William deservedly, inevitably, gains vast wealth by moral resolve. Being good still pays.
It follows that writers and readers of the time cared little for distinctions between sacred and secular literature. Good, clean entertainment was in demand, so ripsnorting adventure naturally blended with ethereal piety, or hymns to the Virgin might throb with earthy passions. Theology, once queen of the sciences, exclusive property of the learned, descended more and more, as in this story, into popular fable and superstition.
And the once-glorious edifice of chivalry was literally bankrupt. Through the thin smoke of divine trials and visions, we see clearly the main problem. Here, as in many stories, another member of the formerly wealthy aristocracy, once sole owners and hence arbiters of society, can continue the old, elegant practices of his class only on credit. He is forced to stoop before the new breed of bankers and traders who suddenly were running the world. Successful heroism, in itself, generated no hard profits. There had to be the inheritance (as here), the dowry, the grateful king, the pot of gold, or whatever. Even miracles had to be solidly capitalized.
Still, this fiscalized world gestated with otherworldly forces everywhere--migrant souls hide in dung heaps, visions infest the halls, a horse trade may lead to hell or paradise. How much of this shall we credit to whimsy? It's not easy to say. But the earnestly transcendental centuries preceding must have made it seem wise always to act the gentleman.
The German version of this story, preserved in only a single manuscript copy, is modeled on an Old French epic in Alexandrines (an interminable imitation hexameter). There the hero is named Lyon, the son of one Herpins de Bruges. The German text transplants everything to "Muntaburk," which von der Hagen presumes refers to Montabaur, an old fortification surviving today as a small town between Koblenz and Limburg. In any case, the story seems native to the lower Rhein.