Tuesday, 9 May 2017

On the phenomenon of "Minne" in Hartmann von Aue's "Erec" (c.1191-2)

Hartmann von Aue's early Arthurian romance Erec, thought to have been composed between 1191 and 1192, reflects in multiple ways the dichotomy of effects 'Minne' (the Middle High German word for courtly love) can have upon couples - effects both beneficial and deleterious. Ultimately Hartmann's work positions Minne as an opposing extreme to chivalry, portraying both essential aspects of courtly life as necessary and yet to some extent potentially destabilising.

The primary sphere upon which this dichotomy acts is the couple at the narrative centre, namely Erec and Enite. Upon their introduction we have a clear sense of these two figures as protagonist roles, not least because of the extent of description and hyperbole Hartmann invests in convincing us of their worth. In a number of respects they seem a perfect match; by the story's end the reader is convinced of the worth and value of their relationship. But such a point has only been reached through 'übele zite' - suffering and anguish which Enite, in particular, has had to undergo.

The pain love causes begins shortly into their happy life as a couple: specifically, the extent to which sensuous, passionate, almost obsessive love swallows the duo up, and means Erec neglects his knightly duties. We read that it is almost as if he had not become 'der man', the generic noun standing in for hero, victor, renowned fighter - and, crucially, protagonist. By lying in blissful 'triute' with Enite all day (getting up only for the occasional meal) is not just a matter of dismaying the courtiers close at hand, but figuratively derails the entire story Hartmann is keen to tell. While we are never called upon to detest Erec as such, it is clear that Hartmann intends for us to disapprove of the grip Minne has over the supposedly manly hero: 'die minnete er sô sêre', he writes, that it is as if his 'êrevanishes altogether - thus presenting Minne as something honour-ruining rather than a transcendent goal. It is also of note that this is the second occasion Hartmann has rhymed 'sô sêre' with 'êre' in discussing Erec; the first, very early in the tale, ran 'erschamte sich sô sêre / daz diese unêre / diu künegin und ir vrouwen sach', wherein dishonour is compounded when men are made to look weak, feeble or passive in front of women.

It is unsurprising, then, that Erec's response is so electric when his wife first informs him of the damage done to his reputation among the court, and all for Minne's sake. Not only is Enite the bearer of bad news (albeit a bad news she never intended him to hear, given she thought Erec asleep), but she has spoken out of turn, addressing him above her station as his (subservient) wife: not only does she use the 'du' form of address, but she even calls him 'du vîl armen man'! The memorable sequence whcih follows - Erec and Enite ride through the woods, he having imposed a blanket ban on her using her voice at all - sees Hartmann's protagonist at his most unlikeable to our modern sensibilities, yet nonetheless reflects the commonly held courtly belief that a man should punish his wife for a more presumptuous or aggressive tone of voice than was assumed appropriate.

Even so, Hartmann presents the lengths Erec has gone to here as being quite outside the acceptable boundaries of Minne. First labelled a 'spaehe' and then a 'vremde waehe', the increasingly rough punishment Erec imposes on his wife are in fact reactions to what ultimately proves a truthful, loyal love: Enite warns him of the imminent attack of three robbers, then five, and so on, though not before much inner deliberation. It is a painful sequence made all the more so by the brigands' alleged rationale of 'saving' Enite from the clearly oppressive man journeying with her, forbidding her to speak, treating her as his squire, and so on. The course of true love truly never did run smooth, if this even is true love at all.

Yet within the wider framework of Erec as Arthurian romance the understood convention is that order must be restored and the central protagonist must strike the right balance between Minne - love - and chivalry. Having leaned first to one extreme (prioritizing love as his goal to the extent that it endangers his occupation as a knight), Erec reverts to the other, seeming callous and unfeeling towards Enite. Therefore it can be argued that the story's emotional climax is in fact not Erec's triumph over Mabonagrin, nor indeed his triumphant homecoming with Enite, but rather the moment he awakes to hear her cry and he leaps to her aid from the 'arch-chauvinist' Graf Oringles, as one critic describes him[1]. This turning point is essential for several reasons, but primary among them is the fact that Erec listens, and in so doing redeems himself - he listens not just to Enite's cry, but, later, to her account of what has happened; he specifically asks her to tell him, confirms he was testing her to see if she was the 'rehtez wîp', and thus enables reconciliation between the two of them.

Whether we find Erec's about-turn convincing or not is in one sense irrelevant: either way, Hartmann presents him as having learned about what real Minne is and not to indulge or abuse it, thus making the couple a positive contrast with Mabonagrin and his paramour, she whose relationship with him was far from 'rehte minne'. That Minne can cause pain, however, remains in evidence even to the story's end - most notably in the moving appearance of the widows, classically beautifully young women, each more so than the last, whose husbands have all been slain. Once more, Minne - and specifically Minne in conjunction with chivalry, since the grief is caused by the alignment of the two - brings not joy but rather pain, albeit a pain which Erec and Artus go to some lengths to rectify. 

The journey Erec and Enite make together in Hartmann von Aue's Erec is no easy one: she is mistreated, abused, silenced and put through the emotional wringer for the name of Minne. Far better that she, 'ein unklagebaere wîp', should die than her lover, 'ein vorder man', she says whilst deliberating whether to break her oath to Erec by warning him of the robbers' presence - yet later Erec declares that if he is killed 'so bin ich tôt / daz ist der werlde ringîu nôt'. The male protagonist has come to accept that his own life and honour is not the most important thing at stake ... but that finding a correct middle path between Minne and chivalry is, one which allows both to flourish in their proper place, as goals to attain without necessarily endangering oneself or the loved ones around you.

McConeghy, Matthew, "Women's Speech and Silence in Hartmann von Aue's Erec", PMLA Vol 102 No 5 (Oct 1987), Modern Language Association, pp772-783.
von Aue, Hartmann, Erec, Reclam, 2008 (edited with an introduction by Volker Mertens).

[1] McConeghy, Matthew, "Women's Speech and Silence in Hartmann von Aue's Erec", PMLA Vol 102 No 5 (Oct 1987), Modern Language Association, pp772-783.

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