Albrecht Classen

title.none: Maria E. Müeller, Jungfraulichkeit in Versepen des 12. und 13. Jahrhunderts

identifier.other: baj9928.9601.002 96.01.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Müeller, Maria E. Jungfraulichkeit in Versepen des 12. und 13. Jahrhunderts. Munich: Fink, 1995. Pp. 395. $. ISBN: ISBN 3-7705-3000-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.01.02

Müeller, Maria E. Jungfraulichkeit in Versepen des 12. und 13. Jahrhunderts. Munich: Fink, 1995. Pp. 395. $. ISBN: ISBN 3-7705-3000-4.

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

The concept of virginity constitutes one of the cornerstones of Western Christianity, as a huge number of theological and literary texts and many other cultural documents demonstrate. Virginity is the renunciation of the world and the deliberate turn away toward the call of God. Virginity represents, therefore, one of the highest ideals of the Christian Church. But seen from the point of view of secular society, it constitutes a challenge of profoundest dimensions and endangers the continuation of humanity at large. Sexuality serves to secure progeny, and as such would not be condemnable at all. From a religious perspective, however, service for God in the role of a cleric, monk or nun, or even as a beguine was always preferable to any other station in life (see 1 Corinthian 7).

Maria E. Müller, in her "Habilitationsschrift" submitted to the Freie Universität Berlin in Summer of 1992, which is a qualifying dissertation for the promotion to Associate Professor with tenure, presents a critical discussion of religious and secular Middle High German texts composed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in which the concept of virginity is discussed and examined from many different angles. Some of these texts are well known among medievalists even outside of Germanistics, but others are of a rather obscure nature and have never received full attention by scholarship. Whether the new interest is justified because Müller succeeds through her interpretation to make these texts interesting and meaningful again, is hard to determine. But they all provide significant messages with respect to the notion of virginity and its role within courtly society.

The study is divided into two major sections, first a treatment of "legendenepische Texte" (religious tales), then followed by an examination of courtly narratives. The first section is divided into a chapter focusing on the relevance of the monastery for the preservation of virginity, and one focusing on the role of marriage in the struggle for virginity.

The second part is also divided into two sections, the first highlighting virgins in courtly epics modeled after classical-antique tales, and the second examining virgins within medieval tales not influenced by antique narratives.

In the first section of the book, Müller discusses religious tales which are of minor importance in the history of German literature. These are: Priest Arnolt's legend of the holy Juliana from the middle of the twelfth century, composed in the area of Munich and preserved in a manuscript from a monastery in Upper Styria; Brother Hermann's Leben der Gräfin Iolande von Vianden, composed shortly after 1283 in the area of Luxembourg; and Hugo von Langenstein's Martina, dated 1293, which is considered to be one of the longest legendary tales from the Middle Ages.

In her intermediate summary Müller concludes that these tales succeed in developing the ideal of virginity through projection mechanisms--whatever that term might mean--and strategies supporting the admiration of the heroines (118). The morality and ethics of these women are tested through challenges of their resistance to sexuality and their abilities to overcome their own physical desires. The virgin is the reenactment of the Virgin Mary, and is also the contrastive image to Eve. This is a very simplistic concept and does not reveal any new insights into the narrative and religious patterns, but the author resorts to an abstract language which insinuates innovative conclusions. For those who can read German, here is a typical example: "es begegnet stereotyp die Aufspaltung des Frauenbilds, das in admirativen oder perhorreszierenden Mustern der projektiven Absicherung des männlichen Selbstbilds dient" (120; stereotypically we encounter the duplication of the female image which serves in its admirable and horrifying models the projective protection of the male self image). It would have been much more interesting to explore the maso-sadistic tendencies in Hugo von Langenstein's texts where he describes Martina's martyrdom in extremely explicit language, but then Müller would have had to enter a whole discussion with Carolyn Bynum's various seminal studies on the body and mystical visions. She is aware of her scholarship, but unfortunately, at least in this case, does not engage in a critical analysis.

Instead Müller perceives in her texts ideological documents with which the life in a convent was to be idealized because only there the concept of virginity could be fully safeguarded.

The conflict between the concept of marriage and virginity comes to the fore in the following tales: the pre-courtly Munich Oswald, the parallel Vienna Oswald, and Orendel. Müller observes the disappearance of sexual traumas and the fear of the body. Instead the significance of chastity is played out to a much larger extent within the realm of marriage and rulership. Another example is the legendary tale Kaiser und Kaiserin by Ebernand von Erfurt, composed sometime between 1203 and 1240, where virginity also gains the upper hand within marriage, this time, however, as the result of the husband Heinrich's desires to stay virginal.

The second section focuses on the "classical" courtly literature, which combine various literary traditions that all show the common denominator of the ideal of virginity. Müller first takes into account the following texts as examples for prophetic, virginal figures who challenge the protagonist's: Heinrich von Veldeke's Eneas with its Sibyl figures, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival with its liminal figure Kundrie, and Herbort von Fritzlar's Liet von Troye. The other role analyzed in this section is the Amazon who also pursues a virginal lifestyle, such as in Heinrich von Veldeke' Eneas, in Herbort's Troy poem, then briefly in the Strassburger Alexander, and Rudolf von Ems' Alexander. Not surprisingly, the Amazons are here integrated into the courtly world and gain familiarity, but Müller does not establish really new interpretations, and in a way simply paraphrases the content of the various stories, which is not the only time this happens in this study.

The problem becomes method in the last section, although the author certainly manages to cover the relevant scholarship for each individual text. Here she explores the relevance of virginity within the courtly love discourse, and examines the following texts: Hartmann von Aue's Der arme Heinrich, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival and Titurel, and Albrecht's (von Scharfenberg?) Juengere Titurel. The virginal figures such as the nameless peasant girl in Hartmann's poem and Sigune in Wolfram's and Albrecht's narratives invite many different interpretations, and many of those are certainly skillfully pursued in Müller's examination. There is also no question that these almost saintly women play a major role influencing the male protagonists, but many of the author's conclusions do not break new ground, and instead rephrase, as sophisticated as they might sound, rather traditional perspectives. Müller argue s that the concept of virginity is developed within the framework of a new self-referentiality; bodily vulnerability and preservation of one's innocence gain major attention (of course! That is the decisive aspect of a virgin decided to dedicate herself to God); a heightened awareness of the body; the invincibility of the virgins and largely an absence of true temptations (343). Some catchy phrases such as "spiritual sexualization of female virginity" and "spiritual desexualization" (343) do not really make sense but indicate the trend of Müller's discourse--reaching untrodden ground by coining new phrases with which a well-established state of knowledge is rediscovered.

It would have been important to stress more the difference between courtly and urban projections of literary virginality and to examine the subtle but significant opposition between these two social spheres. The conclusion mentions this opposition, but in the main body it is not fully developed and here comes as a surprise.

In one point Müller is absolutely correct: virginality represents a liminal experience, a radical challenge of secular society, and the exploration of new forms of human existence in close proximity with God (346).

Overall, Müller presents the results of hard work and industrious compilation of scholarly interpretations. She is also to be praised for her untiring efforts to deal with often rather boring and therefore largely ignored texts. But she buries the most interesting observations under a pile of deliberately abstract and vague phraseology which make it difficult to identify in how far she opens closed or open doors in her examination of virginity as a theme. To be sure, her topic receives extensive attention, but the conclusions are somewhat short of a new understanding both of the texts under investgation and of the virginal figures presented therein.