Wednesday, 10 May 2017

On "Von den Elben" by Heinrich von Morungen (early 13th century)


Customary in the twelfth- and thirteenth- century art of Minnesang is frequent reference to 'Hohe Minne', that is to say to an exalted love - often on a more hyperbolic or hyperreal plane than we may recognise. The fifth poem in Heinrich von Morungen's oeuvre, 'Von den Elben', leans heavily into this tendency towards the supernatural, specifically the ways in which a spell a woman can cast over the man who is besotted with her resembles a more magical reality than the everyday.

The lexis of the supernatural begins, of course, with the reference to 'elben' in the first line, and the popularly held fear that men could be seduced off paths by impish, mischievous elves; the poet doesn't fear such phenomena, however, but rather is seduced by the overwhelming love he feels towards his beloved lady. Typical of Minnesang is the extent of this love and its attendant high stakes; it is 'gróze[...] liebe' and his lady is '[die] besten, die ie dehein man ze friunt gewan'. We are very quickly plunged into the traditional format of the poet praising his lady above all others. Such hyperbole naturally leads into the adunaton with which the poet ends his first stanza: in asserting that the lady delights him so much that it may well end his life, which we may well see as impossible or illogical or contradictory, Morungen has already indicated just what kind of all-consuming passion it is with which we are dealing: Liebestod - dying for the sake of love - has already been invoked.