Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On the means by which Heinrich von Veldeke adapts Virgil's classical Aeneid (19BC) into the Eneasroman (c.1180AD)

Tracing the narrative, themes and aesthetics of Heinrich von Veldeke’s Eneasroman back to its nominal inspiration and source material, Virgil’s Aeneid, is a problematic task, primarily because of the vast gulf of transmission between the two – Virgil penned his Roman epic between 29 and 19 BC, whereas Veldeke finished his Eneasroman, one of the oldest secular German works, at some point in the late 1180s. What complicates the issue further is that Veldeke received his themes and ideas primarily from the French Roman d’Énéas, which appeared in the 1160s. Thus when reading the Eneasroman, we must consider the three layers of authorship: there is the initial narrative framework of Aeneas’ fleeing the fall of Troy, encountering Dido, Turnus, Lavinia and so on, as recounted by Virgil; there is the French adaptation, in which discussion of love between the major characters is rendered more important; and finally, there is Veldeke’s own take on the story, fashioned as it is to reflect his own ideas about courtly romance.
Foremost among the differences between the Aeneid and the Eneasroman, and probably the single greatest innovation Veldeke made in refashioning Virgil, is the experiment he plays with genre. Virgil’s original work falls under the category of an Epic, a ‘Secondary Epic’ if, as Lewis does, we wish to define it further. The primary function of a Secondary Epic as opposed to the mere heroics of a Primary Epic such as the Iliad is, in Lewis’ eyes, that it express ‘the large national or cosmic subject of super-personal interest’. That is to say, Virgil’s account of Aeneas’ journeying, of his obstacles and his resolution to fulfil his destiny, is suffused with an awareness of its own importance (as well it would have been, if one considers it was written expressly to conform to Augustus’ campaign for Roman moral values by turning to the foundation myth of Rome itself). In the Aeneid, destiny is paramount, and the kind of greatness it achieves ‘arises only when some event can be held to effect a profound and more or less permanent change in the history of the world, as the founding of Rome did’. Such import is not stressed in the Eneasroman, or perhaps it would be a more nuanced view to say it is import of a very different kind.
As in the Roman d’Énéas, Veldeke’s focus is much more on the internal journey of an individual, on the themes of love in the public and private sphere, and on small-scale male-female relationships as it is on the profound permanence of this particular quest. One small linguistic example is the use of Eneas’ name: Virgil employs it very rarely, being much less focused on the individual, but it is constantly recounted throughout the Eneasroman, the work putting at the centre as it does his life itself rather than any grand designs. More broadly, there is no backdrop of a pantheon of Gods to the extent there is in Virgil – Jupiter is practically non-existent; though Juno does appear briefly, her role is much reduced; and notably the triumvirate of deities who are frequently mentioned (Venus, Cupid and Amor) are explicitly linked to Eneas on a personal and familial level, intervening at various stages in his human relationships here on earth:

‘do geschûf sîn [Eneas’] mûder Vênûs
und sîn brûder Cupidô,
daz in diu frouwe Dîdô
starke minne began’ (742-5; many other examples elsewhere)

If it is too strong to describe this as completely jettisoning the wider trappings of Greek and Roman mythology for the sake of focusing in on Eneas, Dido and Lavinia as individuals, it is at least minimising the role played by antique gods, and this is what distinguishes Veldeke most significantly from Virgil.
First and foremost, it allows him to tell a different kind of story for a different kind of audience: this is no Epic per se, but it takes the imagery and narrative power of a pre-existing epic framework and rewrites it as courtly romance examining Eneas as an example of knightly behaviour (what Kartschoke calls ‘ein ständisch bezogenes, höfisches Sentiment’). Along the way it borrows from both the anonymous French author of the Roman but also another classical master, Ovid. As Chinca says, ‘although Veldeke largely took what the Roman gave him, he was, thanks to his familiarity with the classical background, an intelligent and independent adapter, who systematised the Frenchman’s presentation of the story, changed its emphases and, above all, infused it with his own doctrine’.
Primary amongst these changes of emphasis, and fitting appropriately both with the genre within which Veldeke works and the doctrine he wishes to impart, is the shift towards an examination of Minne, one of the few capitalised – and thus important – nouns in the Eneasroman. A word exclusively reserved for the German courtly tradition, it is indicative of how much Veldeke transposes Eneas’ love affairs into the vernacular of his day that he should speak of ‘der rehten minnen art’. On the purely linguistic level, this is of course a result of the work being written in Middle High German and for a court. But it is also surely emblematic of the way Veldeke refashions a tale of colossal fortune and destiny into a medieval lyric. Minnegespräche and Minnemonologe both appear several times in the text, as familiar elements of the courtly romance. The work is bookended by the ‘Dido’ and ‘Lavinia’ segments, encapsulating as they do Eneas’ character, a conscious choice on Veldeke’s part. Virgil’s tale concludes with the military victory over Turnus – in the German adaptation we see what comes after, the romantic victory of Eneas and Lavinia, their happiness culminating in the beginning of their great line of descendants. Life has quite literally triumphed over death, procreation and offspring being the final cadence of a work quite literally plunging its readers into death in medias res; that has seen many thousands brutally killed; and even toward the end saw the deaths of both Turnus and the Königin.
Critics such as Maurer, Kistler and others have focused on the obvious dichotomy of Dido and Lavinia, especially given the symmetrical positioning of their roles in the narrative, the one threatening to destabilise Eneas at the beginning of his quest, the other providing stability at its end. At the core of this dichotomy, it seems, is a division between unminne, or the absence of love, and rehtiu minne, love as it ought to be. But as Volfing suggests, this opposition is ‘rendered all the more difficult because Veldeke’s Dido is not an ‘evil temptress’ but a woman whose emotional response to Eneas is exactly comparable to that of [Lavinia]’. The difference between the two is not qualitative, but resultant from circumstance and Eneas’ different attitudes. By the end of the work, the variety of heterosexual loves displayed in the Dido section, whether casual or faithful, married or forbidden, etc., has been streamlined into the a simple equation of heterosexuality as coterminous with marriage, with the will of God, with the fulfilment of destiny and with bestowing political peace. This is done to render more unequivocal the audience’s faith in the suitability of Eneas’ and Lavinia’s union, and it is unmistakeably 12th century in its approach.
Another interesting aspect of Veldeke’s treatment of love is the debt it owes to Ovid, rather than merely to Virgil. Let it not be said that Virgil cannot convey passion – the sequence beginning ‘Wretched Dido burns’ and describing her as an ‘unwary deer struck by an arrow’ is terribly effective at conveying her feverish state. But Ovid has a lightness of touch that is quite unlike Virgil, and the portrayals in particular of Lavinia and Eneas in the grips of Minnesymptome and Minnekrankheit, the luxurious word choices to show us Eneas in his bedroom, resonate far more strongly with the Ovidian. ‘In matters of literary taste the twelfth century was an aetas Ovidiana’, claims Chinca, and well we can detect this strand in Veldeke’s work, better refined here than it is in the Roman d’Énéas, easing as it does the awkward mash-up of Ovidian passivity with Virgil’s martial hero. Thus Veldeke draws on a broader range of the classical tradition of which he was evidently previously aware; this is important in that it signals to us his knowledge of the antique world and his understanding of which parts are worth keeping and which worth updating.
It is also worth pointing out the degree to which Veldeke’s work takes a self-conscious place in the literary tradition. It is not unusual for an medieval poet to discuss his own name and work on the text, but Veldeke cites his inspiration, Virgil, throughout as well – ‘Virgilîûs der mâre, der saget uns’ (41-2), ‘diu Virgiljûs dâ von screib’ (13 511), and so on. On one occasion he is referred to as ‘der helt’ (357) – literary fame being equated with military prowess, despite these being two distinct skillsets in the ancient world. Similarly the narrator appeals at various points to his audience’s familiarity with this age-old material, such as ‘daz weiz gnûch lûte vor war’ (432) and indeed the opening line ‘ir habet wol vernomen daz’ (1). What he is doing here is explicitly referencing the non-alienness of this story, such that it might be more palatable, more relatable, in the courtly setting.
An equivalent affect is achieved by the treatment of God and gods. As already discussed, the Roman mythology has been largely excised; but the Christian God is certainly present, if not exactly explicitly playing a role – ‘got gebiete û daz ir wol tût’ (5963) or in line 7206, the medieval belief in a sparing, forgiving God: ‘wan daz im got wolde geben’. There even seems to be a certain cynicism about the many gods of the ancient world – ‘her nam sînen liebsten got, der andern aller her vergaz’ (11 844-5). All of these examples show a subtle Christianization of the story which culminates in the closing segment, at which point a medieval poet traditionally imparts a Christian reflection, such that the audience might be edified before it goes on its way. The twist here, of course, is that Eneas’ destiny, having led to the foundation of Rome, gives rise to the world in which Christ is born. Veldeke recounts that Christ was sacrificed for them all, and concludes:

‘sîn gnâde sale s walden
und sal uns gesterken
an solîchen werken,
als uns zer sêle gût sî.
âmen in nomine dominî’ (13 424-8).

Clearly, Veldeke self-identifies with his Christian courtly audience much more than he does with his (nominally) classical characters. The work is permeated and infused with Heinrich von Veldeke’s age and time, such that it is a very different prospect from the Aeneid altogether. The author has taken his Ovidianized Aeneid by way of the Roman d’Énéas and used the characters, imagery and events within to tell a different kind of story. This narrative substitution, such that what we thought was one genre (an epic of colossal proportions) turns out to be another (a courtly romance about a man learning how to love a woman in the right way, against a backdrop of Veldeke’s Christian society), is thrilling in its deconstruction of the former and its formation of the latter. That Veldeke could so successfully transmute the one story into material fit for courtly consumption is a testament to the profound vision of the courtly romance, and its ability to tell stories that alchemically turn our baser natures – Eneas’ leaden disinterest in Dido – into solid gold.


Chinca, Mark, ‘Heinrich von Veldeke und Ovid’, Medium Aevum, 1995.
Kartschoke, Dieter, ‘Nachwort’, Eneasroman, Reclam, reprinted 2004.
Lewis, CS, ‘Preface to Paradise Lost’, Oxford University Press, 1942.
Syndikus, Anette, ‘Dido zwischen Herrschaft und Minne – Zur Umakzentuierung der Vorlagen bei Heinrich von Veldeke’, Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur, Zeitschriftenband 1992, pp57-107.
Veldeke, Heinrich von, Eneasroman, Reclam, reprinted 2004.
Volfing, Annette, ‘Sodomy and rehtiu minne in Heinrich von Veldeke’s Eneit’, Oxford German Studies 30 (2001), 1-25.

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