Story of Knighthood
Modern imaginations of what the life of a knight must have been like and the historical reality of what it was actually like, are two very different things. But how can we tell the difference between story and history? This selection of books from the archives of the MoneyMuseum shows that ever since the Middle Ages people have not taken the distinction between fact and fiction, truth and lie all that seriously.
Chivalry was called for during a tournament – but those who wrote about tournaments, on the other hand, were sometimes less chivalrous. For instance, in his famous tournament book, Georg Rüxner, a 16th century German herald, had a quite lax handling of the truth. What is more, he used different names for his writings: Rüxner, Brandenburg, Jerusalem, Rugen... But what is a tournament book, anyway?
Let us remember: The knights’ craft was warfare, which also constituted an essential part of class consciousness. A knight proved his abilities in so-called tournaments. These competitions had a sophisticated set of rules. The most important thing at these meetings, however, was to cultivate high-tone relations with one’s peers and introduce one’s daughters to the market of courting bachelors. People intensified already existing contacts, established new ones, and distanced themselves from outsiders.
At Rüxner’s times, this distancing was particularly important. As the knights spent more and more money on their tournaments, the city’s upper classes purchased aristocratic titles and equipped their halls with shining armor – and often paid for the knightly competitions in the city. After all, the knights were often lacking both the space and the money to organize the expensive festivities themselves. However, strict regulations were imposed to prevent any bourgeois climber from taking part – the participants were not allowed to trade, had to have committed absolutely no criminal offence, and had to present knightly ancestors who, in turn, had to have been participants in tournaments on a regular basis as well. The judges checked all this during the helmet inspection. The next day, the hewing and stabbing began. Banquets and dances followed thereafter, as part of the aristocratic self-portrayal.
With his tournament book, Rüxner takes us into this world of dazzling banners and shining armor. It lists 36 tournaments, which are said to have taken place between 938 and 1487, with all participants, it states the names of the winners and organizers, and illustrates pivotal moments with engravings. Rüxner’s tournament book was not the only one of its kind, but it was particularly successful. Many knights referred to it as a kind of “Genealogical Handbook of the Nobility”, which registered the alleged deeds of the illustrious ancestors.... At that time, the knights were anxious to prove their exclusive right to the tournaments. The tournament book helped to set oneself apart from the ambitions of the patricians of the city. However, today, the first 14 tournaments are considered to be completely fictitious, whereas the later have to be taken with a pinch of salt.
At any rate, Rüxner added a lot of creativity to what he did in his other works, the genealogies. There he met the need of numerous “clients” to get a family tree that reached as far back as possible. According to Rüxner’s “research”, Count Palatine Johann II von Simmern, to whom the tournament book was dedicated, was a descendant of the Trojan hero Hector!
In order to prove his tournament book to be historical and to protect himself from competition at the same time, Rüxner provided a particularly imaginative example of fictional sources: A Magdeburg-based vicar had presented him with a tournament book written in Low German that contained a list of the oldest tournaments. After he had translated it into High German, the vicar had burned the original. Rüxner thus claimed that only his tournament book could be used as a source for the oldest tournaments. As a matter of fact, apart from his claims, we have no evidence of these early, invented events.
In this first book, the author, how shall we say, helped along the truth a little bit. Our next book presents a different case. Here, we’ll look at a famous medieval love story with no reliably identifiable historical origin – and yet, some people are trying to find one…
Tristan and Isolde are possibly the most famous lovers of the Middle Ages. Well, maybe the second most famous, after Lancelot and Guinevere. Quite understandable, as the legend contains all the ingredients of a really good story: a mystical setting, bloody battles, a bit of magic, passionate love, loyalty, betrayal and a tragic ending. No wonder it was handed down over centuries in Europe and written down in countless versions. There is little historical evidence as to whether the story is originally Celtic, English or French. Nevertheless, there have been some researchers, such as Joseph Bédier, claiming to have found this original ‘Ur-Tristan’...
Cornish Knight Meets Irish Princess
The story is quite long and complicated, so we’ll just be focussing on the essential parts here. It all begins on the British Isles, at some point between around 500 and 1000 AD. King Mark of Cornwall wants to marry Isolde, the daughter of the Irish king. He sends his nephew Tristan to Ireland, to ask for her hand on his behalf. The mother of the beautiful Isolde, also called Isolde, wants to make absolutely certain that her daughter’s marriage is a happy one, so she gives her a love potion for her and Mark to drink. And that’s the first big mistake. The second big mistake is when Tristan and Isolde accidentally drink the potion on the crossing from Ireland to England and fall madly in love. Whoops.
The pair then have a lengthy secret love affair, until King Mark finally finds out about them and Tristan has to flee to Germany. Once there, he meets – hold onto your hats, folks – the third Isolde, Isolde Weißhand (‘of the White Hands’). He marries her to forget about Isolde of England, but then one day, he is wounded in battle by a poisoned spear and the only thing that can save him is an ointment brewed according to a secret Irish recipe. The only people who know this recipe are Isolde Senior and Isolde Junior. So Isolde Junior sets off with the ointment in hand to rescue her beloved Tristan, but she is stopped by a ruse played by the German Isolde. Tristan dies believing that he cannot be saved. When Isolde of England arrives shortly afterwards with the medicine that could have saved her beloved, she finds him dead. She becomes extremely ill and soon dies too, of grief.
A Joint European Effort
Despite the best efforts of researchers, it is not possible to determine the precise origins of the story with any certainty. What we do know is that there was a number of oral folktales and Celtic legends that fed the story. There have also been written sources since the Middle Ages, but these are usually only fragments, i.e. incomplete. Among the earliest manuscripts preserved to this day are some fragments by one Thomas, an Old French court poet. It is not clear whether this poet’s correct byname would be ‘of England’, ‘of Brittany’ or ‘of Britain’. We simply don’t know enough about his life. The medieval poet Gottfried von Strassburg († around 1215) used Thomas’ work as a model for his Tristan. But he died before he could finish his verse novel, which meant that other medieval authors then continued the story in various ways.
An Allegedly French ‘Ur-Tristan’
So as you can see, due to the problematic nature of the source material, the condition of the manuscripts – which have often only been preserved in fragments – and the fact that the Tristan story has been adapted so many times and in so many different languages, it is extremely difficult to identify a ‘right’ version or to establish a clear line of tradition. Nevertheless, in the 20th century, French medievalist Joseph Bédier claimed that every version of the Tristan story had to have a single source, or an ‘Ur-Tristan’ as it was dubbed. This 1926 edition is Bédier’s retelling of the story and an attempt to reconstruct this original Ur-Tristan. What’s particularly interesting here is the culturally patriotic approach with which he tries to claim the story as originally French and dismisses the non-French adaptations of the story – such as the Middle High German version by Gottfried von Strassburg, for example – as ‘imitations’. Against this backdrop, it’s rather fitting that the book bears the endorsement ‘with distinction from the l’Académie Française’. The Académie, of which Bédier was also a member by the way, is known as something of a self-declared guardian for the preservation of French language and literature.
This book is a significantly modernised version of the story, though it still contains references to its medieval origins. For example, each individual chapter is preceded by short quotes from the medieval epic verses, e.g. by Béroul and Gottfried von Strassburg. The first letters of each chapter are stylised, modernised initials, reminiscent of the splendid, colourful illuminations of medieval manuscripts.
Other Things You Might Be Interested in:
There is a digital version of the oldest surviving manuscript by Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan available courtesy of the Bavarian State Library.
If you’d like to find out more about the story of Tristan and Isolde, I recommend – as I often do – the BBC podcast In Our Time, the episode ‘Tristan and Iseult’.
The Tristan story is one of the many Arthurian legends, just like the chivalric novel ‘Iwein’ by Hartmann von Aue, which you can find in the MoneyMuseum archive.
Historically, Miguel de Cervante’s parody of chivalry came a little later. We’ve already discussed the novel Don Quixote on Bookophile.
Blood and thunder, love and betrayal, no wonder the story of Tristan and Isolde was so popular. But careful: If you read too many of such exciting fictions, or so people used to think, you were in danger of losing your grip on reality…
Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, Rocinante – everybody knows these names. Miguel de Cervantes’ novel about the adventures of the Spanish knight regularly appears on lists of the best books of all times, and numerous comic duos were created on the model of the two main characters (tall skinny guy, short fat guy). But you know how it is with the classics: one would like to read them, but never has the time for it. And so you don’t really know what the book’s about. We would like to help out, tell you what happens in The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha and talk about the cultural and historical significance of the novel.
The protagonist Don Quixote, an impoverished nobleman from La Mancha in central Spain, loves to read chivalric novels very much. A little too much, because at some point the good man completely loses touch with reality and believes himself to be a knight. He saddles his warhorse, puts on his armour, gets himself a squire and goes into battle. There is just one catch: the armour is self-made, the old nag is no warhorse, the simple farmer no squire and Don Quixote no knight. That, however, doesn’t seem to bother him in the slightest because his vivid imagination turns inns into castles, prostitutes into noble damsels and the famous windmills into dangerous giants, whom he fights bravely. This rarely ends well. Usually, the adventurous escapades end with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, his loyal shield-bearer, getting beaten black and blue.
Reading Chivalric Novels: the Guilty Pleasure of Late Medieval Times
A little background information about the time when the novel was written helps to better understand this tragicomic story about the failed knight. The first part of the novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha was published in 1605. This was quite a while after the golden age of chivalry. The stories about the legendary King Arthur and his round table, about Gawain, Lancelot, Guinevere and the quest for the Holy Grail were already famous between the 12th and the 15th century. But as they were extremely popular, many adaptations were written until the later Middle Ages, including Amadis novels, a genre that was widespread in the Spanish-speaking area and was called that way because of its hero Amadis de Gaula. This ‘chivalry popular literature’ became more and more absurd and implausible until someone came and took the mickey out of it – his name was Miguel de Cervantes.
However, describing Don Quixote as a parody of chivalry novels isn’t the only possible interpretation. In the 16th century, Spanish literature also created what is known as ‘picaresque novels’. These works follow a roguish hero of low social class as he goes on all sorts of journeys and adventures. And since ‘pícaro’ is the Spanish word for rogue, these works are called picaresque novels. The protagonist gets to know the young and the old, the poor and the rich, and provides the esteemed reader with a colourful overview of the society of his time. This is what happens in the story of Don Quixote, who encounters farmers, innkeepers and prostitutes. So if you want to make a good impression at a cocktail party in the future, you can now easily drop an intelligent remark about Cervantes and the picaresque novel...
Fiction and Reality
I started this article with the fact that this novel is undoubtedly considered a classic of world literature and can be found on many “The 100 Best Books of All Times” lists. One reason why books end up on these lists is that they do not only tell a specific story but that they address the issue of storytelling as such. It’s literature about literature, if you will.
You remember that the hero reads so many chivalric novels that at some point he can no longer tell what is fiction and what is reality. Believe it or not, that was actually a widespread assumption at the time: reading is dangerous. People who read too much will no longer be able to find their way around the real world. This might seem very strange for us because we generally have a high opinion of reading as an uplifting, intellectually stimulating activity – compared to watching TV, for example. In the 17th and 18th centuries, however, the book was still a rather new medium, at least as an object of entertainment for a wider audience. And just as is the case with any new medium, some scholars were sceptical about it at first.
One has to note that the novel itself does not support this hypothesis – too much imagination does harm to the individual – at all. On the contrary. What makes it such an outstanding literary work is the fact that it fundamentally questions the relation between reality and imagination, between idealism and pragmatism, while allowing for different interpretations.
An Export Hit from Spain
In a way, Don Quixote had something to offer for every reader: a good story, interesting characters from all social classes, something to laugh about and something to think about. The book became an instant success. Only a short time later, several pirated copies were passed around. When Cervantes published the second volume ten years later, another author had even tried to benefit from his success by writing an unofficial sequel.
This cumulative edition of six volumes proves that the novel was also a successful hit in other European countries. The volumes of the MoneyMuseum’s French set aren’t of the same edition, but of three different ones: volume 1 was published in Paris, volumes 2 to 5 in The Hague and volume 6 in Frankfurt. A collector probably wanted to own a complete set from the 18th century and so he collected them one by one. Cervantes’ masterpiece was translated into numerous languages and probably remains the most successful export hit of Spanish literature to this day – something which, in this case, also shows in the book’s collecting history.
Other Things You Might Be Interested in:
Numerous artists transposed Cervantes’ novel into paintings, including Gustave Doré, Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso. Here you can see Dalí’s illustrations on the website of the Dalí Museum.
Here you can read Cervantes’ entire novel, translated by John Ormsby.
Here you find out why tournaments were so important for chivalry.
For the film lovers among our readers: In 2018, director Terry Gilliam, who is well-known for his irreverent takes on historical material – for example on the Arthurian legend in Monty Python and the Holy Grail or the life of Jesus in Life of Brian – brought the latest adaptation of Cervantes’ material to the big screen. Here you can watch the trailer of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Certainly, books can carry us away to different worlds and times, and make us forget the present. Sometimes, however, it is just the other way around. In our last book we begin with a story and we’ll see that it takes us back to history – to historical events and even to the story of one’s own life.
I admit it: I don’t always understand right away why a certain book is considered particularly important, interesting or valuable. Sometimes that particular piece of (literary) history just lies outside my educational horizon. In those cases it is all the more satisfying to tackle the matter and, with a little perseverance, to find incredibly interesting literary clues. That is exactly what happened to me with a work from the MoneyMuseum’s book collection that I would like to present to you today.
At first, I was only looking at a French retelling of an old chivalric tale from the Carolingian saga that did not really speak to me at all. The plot of the story was incredibly long and complicated, its point anything but obvious. Then I came across depictions of a bronze statue of the legendary Four Sons of Aymon, which can be found in Cologne not far from my old school. I must have passed by the statue countless times when I was younger. I investigated further and found out that there are several overlapping chivalric sagas and legends of saints whose narrative strands meet in my home town of Cologne – even in the very monastery of my baptism, St. Pantaleon. I’ll tell you the short version of how the French knight Renaud became Saint Reinold of Cologne.
Who Are the Sons of Aymon?
“The Four Sons of Aymon” is a well-known Old French chivalric saga. In the Middle Ages, these chansons de geste (heroic songs) were, as the name suggests, passed down orally and sung by minstrels with musical accompaniment. The book of our collection is a retelling of this saga that was printed much later. The exact date is not known, but it was probably published in the late 18th or early 19th century.
The saga revolves around the conflict between Charlemagne and one of his vassals, Duke Aymon of Dordone, or rather his four sons Allard, Richardet, Guichard and Renaud of Montauban. Basically, the tale is about the emperor’s intention to centralise his power and the resistance of some Carolingian noble families. This conflict unfolds in a very detailed saga that goes on for years and years: there are magicians and magical horses, betrayal and deceit, wine and ham are shot at a besieged castle with catapults to save those imprisoned from starvation, and at the end of this lengthy conflict Charlemagne and Renaud, the strongest and most prominent of the four knights, make peace anyway. Renaud only has to promise to go on a pilgrimage to atone for rebelling against the emperor and to give back the magical horse Bayard. (Whereupon Charlemagne tries to drown the horse in a river – why he would do that is beyond me!) Thus, for the time being the saga ends with the rebellious noble family being repentant and the vassals subjecting themselves again to their emperor.
Saint Reinold of Cologne
But why is there a bronze statue of the Four Sons of Aymon in Cologne? Well, there are different versions of the story. One of them runs as follows: After Renaud had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and rendered outstanding services in the fight against the pagans, he went to Cologne to help build Hildebold Cathedral, the predecessor of the Cologne Cathedral. The good man, who has become very pious in the meantime, does not want to be paid and asks only for board and lodge as well as for God’s mercy. Being way too keen, working night and day without rest and without pay, he makes himself unpopular with his colleagues, until one night they kill him and throw him into the Rhine.
There are also different stories about what happened afterwards. A blind woman has a revelation and retrieves the body from the river. And/or all bells of the episcopal city of Cologne start to chime at the same time. And/or Renaud’s body is carried by fish and surrounded by angels. Anyway, it was agreed that the man was a saint even if he was never officially canonised. Until today, I did not know that there was a Saint Reinold of Cologne, who is, after all, immortalised in stone in the north portal of the Cologne Cathedral. Next time I’m there, I’ll try to find him.
The Patron Saint of Dortmund
But the best part of the story comes at the very end: As legend has it, the people of Cologne tried in vain to bury the body of Renaud or Reinold. The cart started moving on its own and drove away until it came to a halt in Dortmund, of all places. There, they built a church for him on the very spot the cart had stopped moving and made him the patron saint of the city. In the picture above we can see the head of the statue of Reinold in Dortmund’s St. Reinold’s Church.
It is unlikely that all these stories are actually about the same historical Reinold. It is much more likely that at least three legends were mixed together: a German and a French version of the saga about the Four Sons of Aymon and a legend about the saint of Cologne’s martyr Reinold, who lived as a monk in the monastery of St. Pantaleon. By the way, St. Pantaleon, one of the oldest Romanesque churches of the city, still exists today and also happens to be the church where I was baptised. Thus, sometimes it’s worth getting to the bottom of a book’s history – you might find clues that tell you something about the story of your own life.
Other Things You Might Be Interested in:
You can find a commented French version of the text La Chanson des quatre fils Aymon on Wikisource.
Find out more about Saint Reinold of Cologne in the Ecumenical Encyclopaedia of Saints (in German).
And here you can read the English translation of the Four Sons of Aymon.
And so we’ve come full circle. From history to stories – and back again.