The Morning. A. D. 1100-1250
A wonderful change came over Germany during the next two centuries. There was a great change in the mere external aspect of the country. The peasant who looked out from the door of his farmstead saw a very different landscape from that which greeted his forefather's eyes. The forest indeed still skirted the horizon, but the cleared spaces were wider, and the monotonous green of the broad stretches of pasture land was broken up by the more varied colouring of arable crops. The villages were far more thickly studded over the land, and nearly every one had its wooden church with its one tinkling bell; while farther off, by the river-side, stood some great abbey with its stone buildings, round which a busy town was rapidly growing up, where the village found a market for its produce and employment for its superfluous population. But one new feature would not please the peasant quite so well: on any neighbouring height which commanded the fertile meadows beneath, there was almost sure to be perched a new stone dwelling, inhabited by some armed follower of the prince or great lord of the country, and from these strongholds a lawless crew often issued to carry off the fruits of peaceful industry. During the next two hundred years, indeed, the most marked changes in the social aspect of the age were the growth of the great towns in size, wealth, political power, and all the arts of life; and the rise of a large class of armed and mounted followers of the great lords of the empire, whom the institution of chivalry placed, in a certain sense, on a level with their chiefs, while it constituted a barrier between them and the unknightly classes -- an order which in after-times developed into the lesser nobility of the empire.

Frederick Barbarossa

But it was altogether an era of rapid growth, one of those times when men's minds are awake and alive, and full of energy to attempt new enterprises in any field. Germany was ruled by the Hohenstauffens, a vigorous, ambitious, warlike race, whose dream it was to prove themselves true heirs of Charlemagne by re-establishing the Empire of the West, and who fell at last in that struggle with the popes of which the real basis was the question whether the headship of Western Christendom was to belong to the State or the Church. The noblest of them, Frederick Barbarossa (1152-1189), had all the qualities that made him the darting hero of the people: brave, handsome, able in war and in council -- a liberal patron of the singers and builders, whose arts were beginning everywhere to flourish on the German soil -- the champion of his country against the Papal chair -- the conqueror of the warlike Normans of Southern Italy, -- he stirred the hearts of the people with an enthusiasm that was in itself an education. The very manner of his death threw a legendary halo round his memory. That their monarch should at last have taken the Cross in his old age, and far away in the Eastern land, when a river had to be crossed, should have plunged in on horseback before his whole army, to show the way, and perished in the attempt, seemed a fitting end for so brave a life; yet the mass of the people would not believe he was dead: in the popular imagination he became confounded with his great predecessor Charlemagne, and the legend was transferred to him, of the sleeping monarch in a hidden cave who was to start to life again in his country's utmost need.

The Crusades

But not only did the frequent expeditions of the Hohenstauffens into Italy bring the Germans into contact with the more refined culture of the Lombard cities and the southern Normans, yet wider fields were opened to them by the Crusades. It was at this period that one mighty impulse thrilled through Western Christendom, and drew men, women, and children even, nobles and peasants alike, to the service of the Cross. It was no wonder that men's hearts were attracted to a service which in this new form touched the springs of loyal allegiance to the invisible Lord, and of reverent compassion for His earthly sufferings, and also of worldly ambition and love of adventure, and opened to the soldier a means of securing as high a place in the heavenly kingdom by his own craft of fighting, as the monk could gain by prayer and mortification. And so for the next two hundred years there was a constant stream of Crusaders going to and returning from the East, and rendering the intercourse between the East and West almost as close as that between Europe and America in our own day. If these expeditions wrought much harm and misery by their terrible drain on the strongest part of the population, by the wild habits and unknown forms of disease (such as the Oriental leprosy and plague) which were brought home by returning bands of pilgrims, they also wrought much good. Many joined them from a true impulse of devotion, and came back trained and tempered knights and warriors who had learned letters and refinement from the Normans and Provençals; the priest and scholar brought back new ideas and new manuscripts from Greece; the merchant discovered new channels for commerce, and carried home new fruits and luxuries to his native fields and city. Germany, however, was less affected by the universal enthusiasm than the other European nations: it was longer before the fire was kindled in the slow hearts of the people: the struggles with the popes made enterprises patronised by them less popular; and there were never wanting men who looked on them with a disenchanted eye. "If it were of a truth so grievous to our Lord Christ," says one of the Minne-singers, "that the Saracens should rule over the spot of His entombment, could not He alone humble the power of the heathen nation, and would He need our hands to help Him?" An old monkish chronicle of Wurzburg begins its narration of the second crusade under the Emperor Conrad III., by declaring that in the year 1147, "there came into the country false prophets, sons of Belial, sworn servants of Antichrist, who by their empty words seduced Christians, and by their vain preaching impelled all kinds of men to go forth to deliver Jerusalem from the Saracens." It goes on to describe the mixed multitude that was gathered together for this purpose, and the very mixed motives that actuated them. "The one had this, the other that object. For many were curious after new things, and went forth to behold a strange land; others were constrained by poverty and the meanness of their circumstances at home, and these were ready to fight not only with the foes of the Cross of Christ, but with any good friends to Christendom, if thereby they might but get rid of this their poverty. Others again were burdened with debt, or hoped secretly to escape from the services they owed to their lord, or they feared the merited punishment of their misdeeds; all these simulated great zeal for God, but they were zealous only to throw down the heavy load of their own troubles. Scarce a few could be found who had not bowed the knee to Baal; who were guided by a pious and meritorious intention, and were so inflamed by the love of the Divine Majesty, that they were ready to shed their blood for the Most Holy Place. But we will leave this matter to Him who can read all hearts, only adding, that God best knoweth who are His." Similar judgments are expressed by many other writers throughout the twelfth century; and even where the poet or chronicler is filled with enthusiasm for the great idea embodied in these enterprises, we find a curiously frank and shrewd exposure of the defects in their execution. This mood of mind, a sort of slow practical good sense and perception of actual facts, may explain the circumstance noticed by many of their contemporaries, that the Germans were the last to join and the first to discontinue the Crusades. Still there is also a great capacity for enthusiasm in the German people, and they by no means stood apart altogether from what constituted the great life of Europe in those days. Four of their emperors took the Cross, and were followed to the East by immense armies, and many knights joined in other expeditions.

The immediate fruit of this participation in the common life of Christendom was the rapid development of the institution of chivalry, and of a national literature -- the first great outburst of German poetry and song. It came almost suddenly. We seem to pass at a bound from an age when literature was almost exclusively Latin and in the hands of the clergy, to one when it is German and chiefly in the hands of the knightly order. A few compositions indeed remain from the early part of the twelfth century which mark the period of transition; for though in language and subject they approach the new school, they are still the work of the clerical class. Such in religious poetry are the "Life of Jesus," by a nun who died in 1127, the version of the Pentateuch, and in secular poetry the Lays of Roland and of Alexander, &c., written by priests. But very soon a whole large [5] class of lyrical poets sprang up who are known to us as the Minne-singers; their works are in German, and show a wonderful mastery over the language. Instead of the imperfect rhymes and halting metre of the previous age, we have long poems in intricate metre and crowded with rhymes, which occur often in the middle as well as at the end of each line. It became the fashion to compose if possible, at least to learn and sing these poems. They flew over the country on the wings of the tunes attached to them; wandering knights and grooms taught them to each other; they were sung at village-wakes, and at courts and tournaments; and ladies had collections of them written on slips of parchment and tied together with bright-coloured ribbons. The subjects of this new poetry were, except in some rare cases, limited in range. It concerned itself almost entirely with ladies' love, with feats of arms, and with that contrast between the bright and dark side of human life which was so strongly felt throughout the mediaeval times, and never more so than at this period. It was, unlike that which had preceded it, an age when there was great enjoyment of life, -- delight in adventure, in social intercourse, and knightly pastimes; delight in natural beauty, such as the glow of summer and the song of birds, in the beauty of women, of costume, of verse, of stately buildings. There is a strain of almost childlike gaiety to be heard in most of these old poets. But it was also a time when life was peculiarly uncertain; when long partings from home and friends, strange vicissitudes of fortune, or death, might overtake at any moment those in highest place; while the Christian faith had awakened in the thoughtful Teutonic race that sense of the incompleteness and inadequacy of all finite beauty, of remorse for sin, of mysterious awe in face of the eternal destinies of man, which once roused could never be wholly laid to sleep again. The very changes of the seasons came with a sharper contrast to those men in their rude uncomfortable abodes than we in our ceiled and glazed houses can well imagine. Winter was a time of darkness, discomfort, and isolation; spring brought life and hope, and was welcomed all over the country by symbolic festivals at which the prince and princess of May and their followers encountered and overcame the representative of savage Winter. Summer brought the happy out-of-doors toil to the husbandman; the tournament, or the real combat, or the wandering life to lady, and knight, and squire. No wonder then, that in the poetry of these days, the alternation of joy and sorrow, "Freud und Leid," meets us in every form; in the happiness of greeting and the pain of parting; in the gloom of winter and the joyousness of the May-time; in the praise of pleasure, and in meditations on penitence and death.

another prayer ninth century
Top of Page
Top of Page