Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Palastinalied - A Musical Time Capsule from the World of the Crusades

In "Jerusalem," the 16th Century story in my novel, Omphalos, as my protagonist, Richard Mabon, a Catholic priest from Jersey, steps onto the shore of the Holy Land at Jaffa, he notices his German ship-mates gathering around their most prominent compatriot, the knight, Heinrich von Dessau, who leads them in the singing of a song. Since Mabon does not understand German, I present, in the novel, one verse of the song as he would have heard it (in the original Middle High German):

"Kristen, Juden und die Heiden,
Jehent daz diz ir erbe si.
Got muesse ez ze rehte scheiden,
Durch die sine Namen dri.
Al diu Werlt diu stritet her,
Wir sin an der rehten ger.
Reht ist daz er uns gewer."

Here is the song performed by the Austrian early music ensemble, Dulamans Vroudenton, and below is an English translation (from J.W. Thomas 1968, Medieval German Lyric Verse in English Translation - University of North Carolina Press) of the verse above:

"Christians, Heathens, Jews contending,
Claim it as a legacy.
May God judge with grace unending,
Through his blessed Trinity.
Strife is heard on every hand,
Ours the only just demand.
He will have us rule the land."

Heinrich von Dessau is a fictional character, but any German pilgrim singing the song in 1517 would have understood that it was already ancient. It was written by Walther von der Vogelweide (1170-1230), a prolific author of both love-lyrics and martial poetry, but this song, "Palestinalied," is the only one for which we have the original music as well as the words.

Walther von der Vogelweide, as depicted in the Codex Manesse (1305-15), University Library, Heidelberg (image is in the Public Domain).

Walther was born, almost certainly, in what is now Austria. His armorial bearings suggest that he was a knight, but probably not a landed or wealthy one ("Vogelweide" refers to fields in which singing birds, and hawks for hunting, were captured, hence the main device on his shield). The helmet and sword suggest that he was knighted for military service. "Palastinalied" may have been written to drum up support for the Fifth Crusade (1213-21), which would end in failure on the Nile, but it is unlikely that the poet took part in this campaign, since, at 43, he would almost certainly have been considered to be beyond military age.

It is, to my mind, rather more likely that he participated in the Third Crusade (1189-92), setting out at the age of 19, in the retinue of Leopold V of Austria. Leopold's overlord, the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, was accidentally drowned in a river in Anatolia on 10th June, 1190, and many of the German knights, struck by grief, returned home. Leopold, however, continued on to the Holy Land, seizing Acre (but not Jerusalem) from the Muslims. I think it likely that Walther remained with his army.

The Siege of Acre, during the Third Crusade (image is in the Public Domain).

Certainly this would make sense of the first verse of "Palastinalied," clearly written in the voice of a knight setting foot in the Holy Land for the first time:

"Now my life has gained some meaning,
Since these sinful eyes behold
The sacred land, with meadows greening,
Whose renown is often told.
This was granted me from God:
To see the land, the holy sod,
Which, in human form, He trod" (translation as above).

The old city of Acre, where Walther might have stepped, for the first time, onto the shore of the Holy Land. Photo: Maksim (image is in the Public Domain).

The Medieval fortess of Acre. Photo: CristianChirita (licensed under GNU).

It may have been in the course of this campaign that the young Walther first met Reinmar of Hagenau, a celebrated singer and poet, known as "The Nightingale," who seems to have participated in it. Returning to Austria, Walther seems to have become Reinmar's pupil, and later served himself as a musician at the courts of Carinthia, Meissen and Brunswick. Walther von der Vogelweide's reputation, like that of his master, endured: Walter von Stolzing, the hero of Wagner's opera, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, claims him as a model.

The "Sangerkrieg" of Wartburg, in which Walther participated, and which inspired Wagner's opera. Codex Manesse, University Library, Heidelberg (image is in the Public Domain).

Although a pious Catholic, Walther consistently supported the Holy Roman Empire against what he saw as the impositions and excesses of a frequently hostile papacy. Why, one might ask? Frederick Barbarossa was, perhaps, the greatest of all the Holy Roman Emperors after Charlemagne. It is hardly likely that Walther would have met him, but he might well have seen him, and even heard him speak, and perhaps his example provided the young poet and songwriter with an ideal to pursue throughout his life.

Reliquary bust of Frederick Barbarossa, Cappenberg Abbey, Germany. Photo: Dr Hans Chr. Rieldelbauch (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. I hadn't heard of this gentleman. How fascinating! I wonder, by the way, what kind of relic you'd keep in a reliquary with Frederick Barbarossa on the lid?

  2. That's a really good question, Sue! It was made during Frederick's lifetime (presumably on his commission), and given to his godfather, Count Otto of Cappenberg, in 1171. What I suspect it may have contained is part of the skull of one of the three magi (Frederick misappropriated the remains of the magi in 1164 and translated most of them to Cologne), but making it in his own image was surely a hint as to what it might contain some years later! Given his turbulent relationship with the Vatican, that was hardly likely to happen - his organs were buried in Tarsus, his flesh in Antioch and his bones in Tyre!