Kiril Petkov

title.none: Classen, Erotic Tales (Kiril Petkov)

identifier.other: baj9928.0805.019 08.05.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kiril Petkov, University of Wisconsin, River Falls,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Classen, Albrecht, trans. Erotic Tales of Medieval Germany. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, vol. 328. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2007. Pp. x, 176. ISBN: $25.00 (pb) 978-0-86698-374-7 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.05.19

Classen, Albrecht, trans. Erotic Tales of Medieval Germany. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, vol. 328. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2007. Pp. x, 176. ISBN: $25.00 (pb) 978-0-86698-374-7 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Kiril Petkov
University of Wisconsin, River Falls

In this sleek volume Albrecht Classen offers translations of twenty tales of love, sex, marriage, and a good deal of wishful thinking on erotic subjects in which medieval Germans of all walks of life appear to have delighted. The tales are known as maeren: Middle High German short verse narratives mostly composed between ca. 1250 and 1500. The earliest tales have been attributed to an Austrian goliardic poet known by his artistic pseudonym "the weaver" who lived some time in the early thirteenth century; the genre remained popular until the late sixteenth century. Most of the maere seem to have been composed by urban literati. Some are clearly the product of the poetic dabbling of the lower nobility or the court officials affiliated with them. Over two hundred of these narratives are extant, some in just one manuscript, others in a dozen or more copies. As a literary genre the maere bear resemblance to the Old French fabliaux, the Latin ridicula, or the entertaining stories of Italian provenance so admirably rendered by Boccaccio. In fact, in function, style, composition, subject-matter, and didactic bent the maere display several features characteristic of other vernacular genres. Literary "contamination," such as borrowing and sharing motives and plots, transpires in most of the tales; at least a dozen are almost direct correspondents to prototypes first developed in the fabliaux and the novelle and fazetiae.

But the maere have a distinct Middle High German ring to them, and it is visible not only in the implicit references to the courtly romance canon of Middle High German literature and the familiarity with it that the audience was expected to possess. While the urban setting and courtly and noble personages are frequent features of all related genres of entertaining narratives in verse or prose, the maere's ethos stands apart from that of other vernacular traditions. The value systems informing the tales, the moral lessons their authors sought to impart, the social and literary agency and their parameters, the perceptions of social order and its transgressions, and the role of love and sex in weaving these issues together as well as the expressive style of their authors put the maere in a category of their own.

The implicit and explicit conventions of the tales make the point clear. All women are beautiful and nicely shaped, most burghers are hard-working fellows, and almost all knights are decent men, except when besotted by sexual desires. The knightly ethos in the spirit of the courtly romance is a strong leading thread in several of the tales. The expressive style is very restrained, with a decency that borders on the prudish. Graphic--and even less so, pornographic-- sexuality, so beloved by the fabliaux, is practically lacking. Eroticism is at times so thickly veiled, as in von Zimmern's "Disappointed Lover," for example, that one is hard put to detect it. Female honor is at premium. Chaste ladies are praised more, and more often than the woman who would reach for sex as a device of self- fulfillment. The horror story of "The Innocent Murderess" is a case in point. Even when a bit of extramarital sex is involved, the woman meant nothing but to uphold the honor and social standing of her husband, as the noble lady in "The Belt" does, teaching her husband a lesson to boot. The trope of the chaste, worthy, and faithful wife and the foolish husband is a commonplace, "The Search for the Happily Married Couple" and "The Two Merchants and the Loyal Wife" being perhaps the best examples. And even the straying woman would be, as in the very first tale, "The knight underneath the bathing tub," a fabliaux-derivate, sincerely in love. Illicit sex almost always goes with that ennobling spark of love, which rationalizes and justifies it. Characters tend to talk more than they act. Misogyny is muted: women may know many tricks and be predisposed to play them but it is men's fault that they fall for them and fail to measure up to, or satisfy, or realize the virtues of their women. The bourgeois ethos of "hold onto what you have" is underlying theme in such cases. It is, however, mocked as well, as in "The Little Bunny Rabbit" and "The Knight with the Sparrow-Hawk." The inherent mobility and instability of the bourgeois world is thus limited to the extreme. Wit does, occasionally, out-weigh morality, mostly when applied by clever women caught in trespass, but it mostly serves to uphold rather than challenge the conventional order of the day. The main characters, knights and honorable burghers as well as their wives and women rarely turn sex into a commodity, and when they do, as in the "Warm Donation" it is, again, to reinforce a lesson about traditional Christian values. The abject commodification of sex is reserved for the lower classes, the servants and the squires mired in their base circumstances, and they get their just deserts. The didactic intention is very strong too and at times overwhelms the entertaining component of the tale. Eroticism is a means, not an end in itself. While the medieval German audience could have had a different sense of what constitutes a "real fun story," to the mind of the present reviewer some of the tales might have better served as instructional reading for both men and women.

With all this the maere do make a fine comparison to the other medieval vernacular traditions indulging in erotic themes. Their complexity and multi-layered narratives will certainly repay a closer scrutiny in literature and history classes aiming at disentangling the fascinating world of sex, love, and marriage in the medieval Western experience. Classen has done a fine job rendering in a readable and flowing prose the habitually coded and occasionally inscrutable Middle High German verse. Each of the tales is prefaced by a short blurb with literary and historic background information and references to their critical editions. The short bibliography is a helpful tool for those enticed to look up further reading.