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Brainiac

Songs of passion, scandal from medieval Europe

Codex Manesse, between 1305 and 1315

Codex Manesse, between 1305 and 1315.

When it comes to scandalous lyrics, contemporary pop singers have nothing on Neidhart von Reuental, or just Sir Neidhart, as he was known to his adoring fans in 13th-century Germany. Now, after centuries of obscurity, he’s making a comeback with the release of “Neidhart,” the first English-language translations of his bawdy, subversive songs.

Around 1210, when Neidhart started composing, Europe was in thrall to the Arthurian romances of Chretien de Troyes: Guinevere, Lancelot, knights in shining armor, dramatic unrequited love. Neidhart took those lofty themes and turned them on their heads, writing instead about the down-and-dirty passions of everyday people.

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“The Neidhart poems are more about the real thing, actual flirtation and infatuation, the double standard that if a woman fools around it’s going to have different consequences than if the man does,” says Sara Poor, professor of medieval studies at Princeton University and editor of a series of translations from Middle High German in which the Neidhart collection appears.

Neidhart’s songs typically tell the story of a singer or a knight nosing around the village looking for love. To a contemporary audience, they would have read as a send-up of the familiar tale of a knight pining after a noble lady.

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“In the classic love song, there’s a noble lady and the lowly knight singing to her. She never notices him, he is in pain. For Neidhart . . . it’s a peasant lady and she’s often more than willing to requite the knight’s love,” says Kathryn Starkey, professor of German studies at Stanford University and translator of the Neidhart poems.

Even without those class tensions, there is still plenty of drama in Neidhart’s tales. In one, a mother tries (unsuccessfully) to prevent her daughter from going outside to a roving singer. “[The mother] says, remember your friend, she got pregnant from dancing the gimpel-gampel,” remarks Starkey, referencing a Neidhartian euphemism for rolling in the hay.

In another song, the peasant girl initially resists the singer’s advances, fighting him off with “many rough blows.” Finally, she relents (or something like that) and in the last verse the singer proclaims cheerfully and directly, “Since then she has made it up to me on a drying rack/ by her aunt’s house under a hedge.”

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Neidhart’s poems remained popular for hundreds of years after they were composed before fading from view in the 16th century. When modern scholars started translating medieval works in the 19th century, they focused more on high literature. Starkey explains that another reason Neidhart’s poems languished for so long is that they contain many humorous idiomatic expressions that are hard to understand at such great historical remove. For example, the same poem where the woman beats off the singer includes a strange line about pears.

“He says she roasted six pears and gave him two, and this nourished her and saved his life,” says Starkey. “It’s sort of a weird metaphor, it’s not clear why she would be baking pears, but it seems there is something sexual being implicated that we don’t have access to.”

Neidhart’s poems create a similarly hard to interpret picture of medieval sexual politics. It’s tempting to view long-ago cultures as more chaste than our own, yet Neidhart’s poems suggest that human nature won out even then. Sara Poor observes that the longer she’s studied the Middle Ages, the harder she finds it to come to a single view of the period’s sexual values.

“I work myself on religious literature, and they’re always talking about high values where both men and women are supposed to be celibate,” she says. “But on the other hand, you have stories with friars going around having sex with other people’s wives and nuns giving birth to children. It’s probably just as hard to generalize for the Middle Ages as it is for now.”

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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