History of Literature

German literature

Gottfried von Strassburg


Gottfried von Strassburg

Meister Gottfried von Straßburg


Gottfried von Strassburg

German poet

died c. 1210

one of the greatest medieval German poets, whose courtly epic Tristan und Isolde is the classic version of this famous love story.

The dates of his birth and death are unknown, and the only information about him consists of references to him in the work of other poets and inferences from his own work. The breadth of learning displayed in Tristan und Isolde reveals that he must have enjoyed the fullest education offered by the cathedral and monastery schools of the Middle Ages. Together with the authoritative tone of his writing, this background indicates that, although not himself of noble birth, he spent his life in the society of the wellborn. Tristan was probably written about 1210. Gottfried is thus a literary contemporary of Hartmann von Aue, Walther von der Vogelweide, and Wolfram von Eschenbach.


The Celtic legend of Tristan and Iseult (German: Isolde) reached Germany through French sources. The first German version is that of Eilhart von Oberg (c. 1170), but Gottfried, although he probably knew Eilhart’s poem, based his own work on the Anglo-Norman version of Thomas of Brittany (1160–70).

Gottfried’s moral purpose, as he states it in the prologue, is to present to courtiers an ideal of love. The core of this ideal, which derives from the romantic cult of woman in medieval courtly society, is that love (minne) ennobles through the suffering with which it is inseparably linked. This ideal Gottfried enshrines in a story in which actions are motivated and justified not by a standard ethic but by the conventions of courtly love. Thus, the love potion, instead of being the direct cause of the tragedy as in primitive versions of the Tristan story, is sophisticatedly treated as a mere outward symbol of the nature of the lovers’ passion—tragic because adulterous but justified by the “courts of love” because of its spontaneity, its exclusiveness, and its completeness.

Although unfinished, Gottfried’s is the finest of the medieval versions of the Tristan legend and one of the most perfect creations of the medieval courtly spirit, distinguished alike by the refinement and elevated tone of its content and by the elaborate skill of its poetic technique. It was the inspiration for Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (1859).



by J. W. Waterhouse


Type of work: Poem
Author: Gottfried von Strassburg (fl. late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries)
Type of plot: Romantic tragedy
Time of plot: The Arthurian period
Locale: Northern Europe, Ireland, England
First transcribed: с 1210


Tristan and Isolde, the famous metrical romance attributed to the medieval German court poet Gottfried, belongs to the tradition of the Minnesang but differs from the line of chivalric tales in its emphasis upon ecstatic romantic love rather than knightly deeds of valor.

Edmund Blair Leighton

Principal Characters

Tristan (tres'tan). the courtly son of Rivalin and Blanchefleur. Orphaned at birth, her is reared by Rual the Faithful until he joins King Mark's court after his escape from Norwegian kidnappers. He serves his lord well by killing Duke Morolt and winning the hand of Isolde the Fair for Mark. However, Tristan and Isolde drink a love potion by accident and fall helplessly in love. The two lovers deceive Mark until Tristan is forced to flee. Later Mark marries Isolde of the White Hands, but it is a marriage in name only.
Isolde the Fair (ezol'de), the wife of King Mark and lover of Tristan.
Mark (mark), the vacillating King of Cornwall, uncle of Tristan, and cuckolded husband of Isolde the Fair.
Rivalin (гё-va'lin, ri-va'len), a lord of Parmenie. On his travels he marries Blanchefleur and fathers Tristan before his death in battle against Duke Morgan.
Blanchefleur (blansh-flcer'), the sister of King Mark, wife of Rivalin. Upon learning of Rivalin's death, she dies giving birth to Tristan.
Brangene (bran'ga-пё), the companion of Isolde and her substitute in Mark's wedding bed.
Rual the Faithful (roo-аГ), the foster father of Tristan.
Duke Morolt (mo-rolt'), the brother of Queen Isolde. He is killed by Tristan when he demands tribute from Cornwall for Ireland.
Duke Morgan (mor'gan), the enemy of Rivalin, later killed by Tristan.
Isolde of the White Hands (ё-zol'de), the wife of Mark in name only.
Queen Isolde of Ireland, the mother of Isolde the Fair.


The Story

Rivalin, a lord of Parmenie, tired of baiting Duke Morgan, the wicked ruler, signed a year's truce and set off for Britain, where King Mark of Cornwall was establishing peace and order. Badly wounded while fighting in the defense of Cornwall, Rivalin was pitied and nursed back to health by Mark's sister Blanchefleur, whom he took back to Parmenie as his bride. Later, hearing of Rivalin's death at Duke Morgan's hand, Blanchefleur went into labor and died during the birth of her son. Rual, Rivalin's faithful steward, and his wife reared the boy out of loyalty to their dead lord and mistress and to thwart Duke Morgan's vindictiveness. The boy was named Tristan, in keeping with the sad events preceding his birth and a prophecy of grief to come.
Tristan's education was courtly, both at home and abroad; it included music, art, literature, languages, falconry, hunting, riding, knightly prowess with sword and spear, and jousting. These accomplishments he used to great advantage throughout his short life. He was loved deeply by his foster parents, his stepbrothers, and the people of Parmenie as well.
Kidnapped by Norwegians, Tristan managed to make his way to Cornwall after an eight-day storm at sea. He immediately attached himself to King Mark's court as a hunter, later the master of the hunt. When his royal lineage was revealed, he became his uncle's knight and vassal.
Known far and wide as a doughty knight, Tristan returned to avenge his father's death by defeating and killing Duke Morgan; his lands he gave to Rual and his sons. Meanwhile, Duke Morolt of Ireland, who had exacted tribute from King Mark, demanded further payment or a fight to the death in single combat with the Cornish king. Tristan acted as King Mark's emissary to the Irish court, where his efforts to have Duke Morolt recall his demand for tribute were unsuccessful. Duke Morolt did agree, however, to let Tristan fight in King Mark's place. They met and fought in Cornwall. After wounding Tristan in the hip, Duke Morolt suggested that the young knight
yield so that his sister Isolde, Queen of Ireland, could nurse him back to health. This offer was refused, and the fight waged fiercely again. Tristan finally sliced off Duke Morolt's head and hand.
Tristan, disguised as a beggar, went to Ireland to be cured. Calling himself Tantris, he ingratiated himself with Queen Isolde, who cured him of his hurt. Afterward he became the tutor in music and languages to her daughter, Isolde the Fair. When the young Isolde learned that he was the murderer of her uncle, the queen mother forgave him and allowed him to return to Cornwall.
In Cornwall, Tristan sang the praises of the Irish princess. Because King Mark had made the young knight his heir, some jealous noblemen, hoping to have Tristan slain, suggested that he return to Ireland and bring Isolde back as King Mark's bride. On his arrival in Ireland Tristan killed a dragon which had long ravished the kingdom. In gratitude, Queen Isolde entrusted her beautiful daughter to Tristan's care.
On the return voyage, Brangene, the faithful companion and cousin of Isolde the Fair, failed to guard carefully the love potion intended by the queen for Isolde and King Mark on their nuptial day. Tristan and the princess drank the potion and were thenceforth enslaved by love for each other. They both experienced conflicting duty and desire, turned red then white, became both depressed and exalted, and finally gave in to love. To deceive King Mark, Bran-gene stole into Isolde's bed so that Tristan and Isolde might meet in secret.
After some time had passed, Isolde grew apprehensive lest Brangene betray her, and she ordered her companion's death. Fortunately, the queen relented before Brangene could die, and all went on as before until the king was at last informed of Tristan's treachery. King Mark made many attempts to trap the lovers, meanwhile vacillating between trust and angry jealousy. Each time a trap was set, Tristan and Isolde proved their false innocence by some cunning ruse.
Finally the lovers were exiled. The king invited them to return, however, when he discovered them innocently asleep in a cave, a sword between them. Although King Mark urged propriety on their return to court, Tristan and Isolde almost immediately abandoned all caution, driven as they were by the caprices of love. Knowing that the king would have them killed if they were discovered, Tristan set out from Cornwall after accepting a ring from his beloved as a token of their fidelity to each other.
During his travels Tristan performed deeds of knightly valor in Germany, Champagne, and Normandy. In gratitude for his services in Normandy the duke gave him his daughter Isolde, called Isolde of the White Hands to distinguish her from Isolde the Fair, as his bride. Lovesick and dejected, Tristan accepted his bride in name only—the name Isolde.
(At this point Gottfried's narrative breaks off abruptly. From his source materials and from related versions, it is likely that Tristan was fatally wounded by a poison spear and that Isolde the Fair, summoned from Cornwall, arrived after her lover had died. Shock and grief caused her death also. King Mark, learning of the love potion, forgave them and ordered the lovers buried side by side in Cornwall.)

The Death of Tristam


Critical Evaluation

Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan and Isolde is unique in many ways. Though its material is courtly in nature, the poem ends tragically, rather than in the usual redemptive resolution, and the sphere of reference is not specifically courtly. In his prologue, Gottfried defines his audience as those "noble hearts" who share the sufferings and joys of love, and who are willing to accept the power of love as the central value in life. All other courtly values—honor, religious faith, feudal fidelity—are subordinated to the one overriding force of passion, conceived as an external objective force symbolized in the magic potion. Even Gottfried's conception of love departs from the courtly pattern, for rather than the usual unfulfilled longing and devoted service of the Minnesanger, love here is mutual and freely given, and cannot be contained within the conventions of courtly society. It is in fact a law unto itself and destructive of the social order.
The material of the legend, like that of the Arthurian sagas, may be traced back to Celtic origins, though no versions prior to the twelfth century are extant. In the late 1100's the story takes shape, and it is the French version by the Anglo-Norman poet Thomas of Britanny (c. 1160) that provided the direct source for Gottfried— and which enables us to guess as to the probable ending of Gottfried's unfinished work. In Thomas' version the approach is still distinctly courtly; Gottfried's departures from the norm may be attributed both to his own origin and to his time. Gottfried was most likely not a member of courtly society himself, but rather a member of the middle class of the important commercial city of Strass-burg, wealthy and well-educated—as evidenced by his extensive knowledge of theology and law—and familiar with both French and German literature, as well as the Latin that was the universal language of higher education at the time. His work shows mastery of formal rhetorical devices and a knowledge of Latin literature remarkable for his time. His literary sophistication is evident in the extended discussion of German authors of his day that he inserts into the story at a point where Tristan's investiture would be discussed. It is in this literary excursus that he voices his praise of Hartmann von Aue and castigates Wolfram von Eschenbach for his excessively difficult and erratic style. This critical attitude toward his courtly contemporaries is reflected in his whole approach to the conventions of courtly romance and helps to explain the uniqueness of his work. He is not above mocking even the rituals of the Church, as when Isolde successfully passes a trial by fire through an elaborate ruse that enables her to avoid perjury on a technicality, but destroys the intent and integrity of the trial. "Christ," Gottfried says, "is as pliable as a windblown sleeve." One must in fairness point out that by 1210 such a mockery would not be terribly shocking to the educated classes, who would regard the whole idea of trial by fire as rather archaic and superstitious. What must have appeared virtually blasphemous to some, however, is the elevation of love to a quasi-religious significance. There is considerable borrowing from the language of mystical writers in Gottfried's discussion of love, both in the prologue, where the elevating and ennobling qualities generally ascribed to courtly love take on religious significance through the use of specifically religious metaphor, and in the body of the work, where both in his imagery and in his presentation of a scale of values, Gottfried stresses the sacred and transfiguring power of love. St. Bernard of Clairvaux in particular has been pointed out as a source of much of Gottfried's religious love imagery. Scholars are divided on the degree to which one should view this cult of love as an attempt to create a surrogate religion; there is no question, however, but that Gottfried viewed love's claims as exerting a powerful counter-force against the social and religions conventions of the time.
The turning away from the public, external values of the courtly epics toward the inner, personal, emotional values of Tristan and Isolde is consistent with the wider cultural trends of the time: the new grace and sensitivity evident in the sculptures of the North Portal at Chartres, and the break with the conventions of courtly love in the later songs of Walther von der Vogelweide, in whose poems we also find the development of an ideal of love in which physical consummation replaces the state of prolonged yearning which is the subject of the poetry of the earlier phase of courtly love. The mystical qualities of this love are portrayed in the scene in the Cave of Love, which is an elaborate allegory expressing the ideal state toward which love strives. But the sequence of trials and traps surrounding Tristan and Isolde depicts the reality experienced by the "noble hearts" whom Gottfried is addressing in his poem when they must live in a world which does not accord to the power of love its due respect. In this world, the lovers are in fact far from ideal. Isolde uses her servant Brangene shamelessly and even considers murdering her to prevent possible exposure, while Tristan, banished from the court at last, falls in love with Isolde of the White Hands, lacking the sustaining power of fidelity that Isolde demonstrates. How Gottfried might have resolved this dichotomy can only be guessed, but viewing the work from the stance of the prologue, it is clear that Gottfried saw the company of "noble hearts" as forever torn between love's joy and sorrow, and accepting both as equally valid. It is precisely this quality of bitterness that separates love's votaries from the mundane world of pleasure seekers, and it is in relation to this ambivalent state that Gottfried explains the purpose of his work: sad stories of love do indeed increase the pain of a heart that already feels love's sadness, yet the noble heart cannot help but be drawn again and again to the contemplation of love. Like the sacraments of the Church, Gottfried's work offers mystical communion: "Their death is the bread of the living." In this insistence upon the centrality of love, Gottfried's romantic tragedy is both the culmination and turning point of the tradition of courtly love in Germany.


La Muerte de Tristan e Isolda


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