Alan Deighton

title.none: Thomas, trans., Alexander and Oswald

identifier.other: baj9928.9505.010 95.05.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alan Deighton, University of Hull

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Thomas, J.W., trans. The "Strassburg Alexander" and the "Munich Oswald". Pre-courtly Adventure of the German Middle Ages. Series: Studies in German Literature, Linguistics and Culture, Vol. 44. Columbia, South Carolina: Camden House, 1989. Pp. 118. $34.00 (hb). ISBN: ISBN 0-938100-69-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.05.10

Thomas, J.W., trans. The "Strassburg Alexander" and the "Munich Oswald". Pre-courtly Adventure of the German Middle Ages. Series: Studies in German Literature, Linguistics and Culture, Vol. 44. Columbia, South Carolina: Camden House, 1989. Pp. 118. $34.00 (hb). ISBN: ISBN 0-938100-69-6.

Reviewed by:

Alan Deighton
University of Hull

This title is only one (and not the most recent, either) of the now substantial series of translations into English of Middle High German literary works to come from J. W. Thomas, emeritus professor of the University of Kentucky, a series which, with the exception of Hartmann von Aue's "Erec" (1982) and "Iwein" (1979), has concentrated on the second-ranking context against which the works of the towering geniuses Gottfried von Strassburg, Wolfram von Eschenbach and the author of the "Nibelungenlied" have to be read and interpreted. We find here, besides anthologies of lyrics and novellas, the thirteenth-century works of Ulrich von Liechtenstein (1969), Wirnt von Grafenberg (1977), Heinrich von dem Tuerlin (1989) and Pleier (1992); from the period preceding Gottfried and Wolfram Eilhart von Oberg (1978), Heinrich von Veldeke (1985) Pfaffe Konrad (1994); and a sequence of works representing a tradition of non-courtly verse novels beginning in the middle of the twelfth century. It is to this tradition that the present two works belong.

The "Strassburg Alexander" - Strassburg, because that is where the only manuscript was preserved until the destruction of the University Library in 1870 - is a completion and reworking, dating from around 1170, of Lamprecht's German version of the earliest vernacular life of Alexander the Great, that of the Provencal Alberic of Pisancon. Standing chronologically at the beginning of the enormous interest in the figure of Alexander evinced by medieval Germany (though the thirteenth century went back to the Latin sources of Quintus Curtius Rufus and Walter of Chatillon) the "Strassburg Alexander" has still not cast the Macedonian king as a medieval prince and courtly knight, let alone a key figure in the salvation of mankind. His life is a sequence of military campaigns set in a world that grows more fantastic and alien the more remote it is. It is a life which culminates in an attempt to conquer Paradise and in the warning, which is taken to heart, that Alexander "is master of many kingdoms, but ... no matter what he has or what he can do, he is only a man and therefore must at last become weak and die; he cannot live forever" (p. 81).

From this moral, occasionally quaint, but frequently tedious tale, which is unlikely to interest many apart from literary historians, the reader moves on in Thomas's volume to the "Munich Oswald". This work is one of a group of five verse narratives traditionally, though probably inaccurately described by Germanists as examples of "Spielmannsepik". They are thought to date from the twelfth century, though in part survive only in much later manuscripts and versions, and are works of a neither heroic nor courtly, nor yet religious, nature that share a number of narrative motifs and structural features. The "Munich Oswald", - named after the location of the main manuscript - is probably the most reliable representative of the original narrative, which, as Thomas outlines in his introduction, is a mixture of motifs tenuously related to Bede's "Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Bk. III)" and a related twelfth-century life of Saint Oswald by the English monk Reginald with a "Brautwerbung" tale, a story about the courtship and abduction of a bride, which figures in all but one of the other works in the group, though in the "Munich Oswald" the wooing takes on the character of a crusade as the bride's father, as was the case with the real Oswald, is a heathen. In the introduction Thomas also underlines what was already noticed by Walter Haug in 1982 ("Das Komische und das Heilige. Zur Komik in der religioesen Literatur des Mittelalters", Wolfram-Studien VII (1982), 7-31): this work, unlike the others in the group, exploits the "Brautwerbung"-motif in order to parody it, showing how in the face of human incompetence only Divine intervention can save the day. The main source of humour in the work is the figure of the messenger and go-between often found in such narratives. In the "Munich Oswald" this role is played by a "saucy" raven (p. 86) who has all the superficial courtliness, vain conceit and deep-seated coarseness of a parvenu court official. For this masterly creation alone the work deserves to be better known.

Professor Thomas's translations of both these works read well but nonetheless follow the original texts sufficiently faithfully to permit their use as study aids in fairly close analysis of the original. To this end paragraphs are preceded by line numbers. Within the limited space of twenty pages Professor Thomas has provided an introduction to the two works which clearly places them within the literary context of the second half of twelfth and early thirteenth century in Germany, dealing with their sources and literary influences and providing useful pointers to further secondary literature.