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Trial by Fire and Battle in Medieval German Literature

Trial by Fire and Battle in Medieval German Literature

Vickie Ziegler
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Trial by Fire and Battle in Medieval German Literature
    Book Description:

    Medieval judicial ordeals, especially trial by fire or battle, conjure up vivid pictures in the modern imagination. Yet popular perceptions of the Middle Ages leave the reader without a context in which to understand these most drastic of medieval judicial remedies. This book analyzes literary texts that provide some of the most vivid and detailed accounts of the medieval ordeal: the dramatic treason trials in late medieval Charlemagne epics. The two epics chosen -- Stricker's 'Karl der Große' and the 'Karlmeinet' -- treat trial by battle as the living legal reality it was in those times, yet display very different attitudes toward feud and punishment in their respective (13th- and 14th-century) societies. Gottfried's 'Tristan' contains an ordeal by battle, of which the author approves, and an ordeal by fire, of which he does not, reflecting a common position of the intelligentsia of the time. Well after the condemnation of ordeals by the Fourth Lateran Council, the Kunigunde legend preserves the ordeal by fire much as it was portrayed in the mid-12th-century Richardis legend, while Stricker's short secular burlesque "The Hot Iron," written in the mid 13th century, makes sport of this formerly serious legal proceeding, reflecting its sudden abandonment as a legal proof following the council's decision. The study brings extensive background material in legal and cultural history to bear on literary texts, helping both medievalists and general readers understand the function of the ordeal in the texts as well as in the larger society for whom these works were written. Vickie L. Ziegler is professor of German and Director of the Center for Medieval Studies at the Pennsylvania State University.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-650-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
    V. Z.
  5. List of Abbreviations Used in Endnotes
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Introduction: Historical Background
    (pp. 1-20)

    Proof, a cornerstone of any legal system, archaic or modern, has always been a vexing problem in the long development of the rule of law. In medieval times, as we shall see, types of proof, such as eyewitness evidence, and means of establishing facts to prove something, such as inquests and hearings, were part of courtroom procedure; today’s tribunals consider similar material. Early medieval legal life, however — not far removed from the practices of Franconian tribal law, where the ordeal was known, and not yet influenced by the great revival of Roman law in the twelfth century — relied, as well,...

  7. 1: Decoding the Codes: Treason in the Late Medieval Karlsepik — Der Stricker’s Karl der Grosseand the Karlmeinet
    (pp. 21-113)

    Treason, in whatever age and under whatever conditions, cuts to the heart of the human condition, since it ruptures those bonds of trust on which we base our lives. The gravity of the deed explains its perennial appeal, particularly when it destroys not only trust but also lives, as is the case with those epics dealing with the betrayal of Roland, the nephew of the great Frankish emperor, Charlemagne. Turoldus’s Old French Chanson de Roland, written around 1100, describes the ambush of Charlemagne’s rear guard by Muslims in Spain — an ambush arranged in this work by none other than Roland’s...

  8. 2: The Ordeals of Tristan and Isolde
    (pp. 114-145)

    While the charlemagne epics provided us with dramatic contexts of murder, treason, and power struggles for trial by battle, trial by fire — the ordeal of choice in cases involving adultery — is more at home in the romance. This ordeal makes its most famous literary appearance in one of the great narrative traditions of medieval literature, the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde. In the case of the Tristan material as Gottfried von Straßburg shaped it, including his famous commentary on the ordeal by fire, we are in the fortunate position of being able to compare contemporary attitudes toward both...

  9. 3: Saintly Queens under Fire in the Kaiserchronik and in Heinrich und Kunegunde
    (pp. 146-167)

    While Isolde’s ordeal certainly represents the most dramatic of the ordeals by fire in secular German literature, it needs to be seen in the context of the legends of saintly queens who underwent similar ordeals, since there seems to have been cross-referencing and implicit comparison between legend and secular literature.¹ Though Isolde was sexually active in both marital and extramarital contexts, the Richardis of the Kaiserchronik maintains that she has been faithful to her husband; the marriage of Heinrich and Kunigunde is portrayed in the legend as a spiritual or chaste one, though there is no historical evidence that such...

  10. Coda: Der Stricker’s “Das heisse Eisen” and Conclusion
    (pp. 168-174)

    The preceding commentaries on trial by fire in secular literature and legend were all written before or shortly after the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215: in spite of the obvious difference in attitudes toward the ordeal evidenced in Tristan, on the one hand, and the legends, on the other, all of these works contain explicit legal and liturgical references to the ordeal and the procedures connected with it, as they deal with the cases of queens caught in a web of accusations of sexual misconduct that had grave implications for the monarchies in question.

    The final literary ordeal by fire...

  11. Appendix I Der Stricker, Karl der Grosse: Plot Summary
    (pp. 175-178)
  12. Appendix II Karlmeinet:Plot Summary
    (pp. 179-183)
  13. Appendix III Tristan: Plot Summary
    (pp. 184-187)
  14. Appendix IV Richardis: Plot Summary
    (pp. 188-188)
  15. Appendix V Ebernand von Erfurt, Heinrich und Kunegunde: Translation
    (pp. 189-192)
  16. Appendix VI Comparison of Parallel Texts from the “Additamentum” and Ebernand von Erfurt
    (pp. 193-194)
  17. Appendix VII Der Stricker, “Das heiße Eisen” [The Hot Iron]: Translation
    (pp. 195-198)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 199-222)
  19. Index
    (pp. 223-234)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 235-235)