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Wolfram von Eschenbach: Life and Work

  1. Wolfram's Sources
  2. Wolfram and Chretien
  3. Wagner and Wolfram

  "By common consent, Wolfram is the  greatest  medieval poet before Dante." -  Victor Duruy, 1891.

Wolfram von Eschenbach
Right: Wolfram von Eschenbach as depicted in Die Minnesinger in Bildern der Manessischen Handschrift

The minnesinger Wolfram von Eschenbach (died c.1230?) is generally regarded as the greatest of the medieval German narrative poets. He was probably a member of a Bavarian family of the lower nobility who served first at the court of a Franconian lord and later that of Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia. Wolfram left some brilliant lyric poems but is chiefly respected for his narrative poems, including Parzival, the work that is often said to have inspired Wagner's Parsifal. Wolfram and his patron appear as characters in Wagner's Tannhäuser.

open quotesThe Eschenbach from which he derived his name was most probably Ober-Eschenbach, not far from Pleinfeld and Nuremberg; there is no doubt that this was the place of his burial, and so late as the 17th century his tomb was to be seen in the church of Ober-Eschenbach, which was then the burial place of the Teutonic knights. Wolfram probably belonged to the small nobility, for he alludes to men of importance, such as the counts of Abenberg, and of Wertheim, as if he had been in their service. Certainly he was a poor man, for he makes frequent and jesting allusions to his poverty. Bartsch concludes that he was a younger son, and that while the family seat was at Eschenbach, Wolfram's home was the insignificant estate of Wildenburg (to which he alludes), now the village of Wehlenberg. Wolfram seems to have disdained all literary accomplishments, and in fact insists on his unlettered condition both in Parzival and in Willehalm. But this is somewhat perplexing, for these poems are beyond all doubt renderings of French originals. Were the poems read to him, and did he dictate his translation to a scribe? The date of Wolfram's death is uncertain. We know that he was alive in 1216, as in Willehalm he laments the death of the Landgrave Herrmann, which took place in that year, but how long he survived his friend and patron we do not know. close quotes
Jessie Laidlay Weston's article in the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1911.

Memorial to Wolfram in his home town of Eschenbach Right: The memorial to Wolfram in his home town of Eschenbach.

Wolfram's Sources

C hrétien's work, together with additional information that Wolfram claims was provided by one Kyot of Provence (or Guiot = Guy) formed the basis for Wolfram's Parzival. Kyot, possibly a minstrel or a troubadour, might have told stories that he had heard in Spain, where there were both Moslem and Jewish philosophers, or the Oc region of southern France, a region strong in heresy. Wolfram claims that Kyot learnt about the Grail in Toledo: it is possible that Kyot is Wolfram's invention, perhaps to avoid any accusation of having been in contact with a Moslem philosopher in Spain. In Wolfram's account, both the Grail and the Question are a little different from their counterparts in Chrétien; but his Condrie is recognisably the same character as the Loathly Damsel. Wolfram gives names to some previously nameless characters, including Titurel, Anfortas, Sigûne, Condwiramurs, and Condrie. He adds some further details about the latter, including her knowledge of herbal medicines which she used to bring relief to the stricken Anfortas (Parzival, book 11).

Wolfram and Chrétien

These poets were working in a wider and developing tradition of Grail romances: Wolfram acknowledges some of his predecessors and (claimed) sources. Wolfram, at the end of his poem, is disdainful of Chrétien, although he also claims to have corrected and completed the story of Perceval that was left unfinished by his predecessor.1 R.S. Loomis drew attention to six elements of Wolfram's poem that were not found in Chrétien or the First Continuation (a story about Gawain), although some of them were found in later works. Loomis argued that these elements were part of the older Celtic and Old French Grail tradition, possibly known to Wolfram, who was familiar with French literature. This is revealed by the names of some of his characters. Many of the names used by Wolfram, such as Anfortas, Condwiramurs, and Repanse de Schoye, suggest an origin in an otherwise unknown Old French text. Wolfram freely admits that he found the story in French sources, which he then rendered into German:

open quotesswaz er en franzoys dâ von gesprach,
    bin ich niht der witze laz,
    das sage ich tüschen fürbaz. close quotes
Parzival, 416:28-30

open quotesOne of the marked peculiarities of Wolfram's poem is the number of proper names with which it abounds, there being scarcely a character, however insignificant the rôle assigned, that is left unnamed. In the other versions of the Perceval legend this is not the case, consequently there are a vast number of names occurring in the Parzival to which no parallel can be found elsewhere, and which are no unimportant factor in determining the problem of the source from which Wolfram drew his poem.close quotes
Jessie L. Weston, Parzival: A Knightly Epic, page 211.

Parzival meets the pilgrims on Good Friday, painting by A. Spiess (?)
Right: Parzival meets the pilgrims on Good Friday in this painting from Ludwig's castle of Neuschwanstein.

Wagner and Wolfram

There are many elements of Wagner's Parsifal that were without doubt derived, at least in part, from Wolfram's epic poem. It is not accurate however to say, although it often is said, that Wagner's drama was "based upon" Wolfram, or even that (as Jessie L. Weston put it) Wolfram's poem was "the" source of Wagner's drama. Wagner was dismissive of the alleged influence of the medieval poet. He told Cosima that Wolfram's text was irrelevant; when he first read the epic (at Marienbad in 1845, after which he did not look at it again until Mathilde Wesendonk sent him a new edition in 1859) he had said to himself that nothing could be done with it, but a few things stuck in my mind - the Good Friday, the wild appearance of Condrie. That is all it was. On another occasion he said of Parzival, I almost agree with Frederick the Great who, on being presented with a copy of Wolfram, told the publisher not to bother him with such stuff! According to an entry in Cosima Wagner's diary, he was irritated by a letter from a man in Duisburg, wanting to link a study of Parsifal to a study of Wolfram's Parzival... [Richard] says, 'I could just as well have been influenced by my nurse's bedtime story'.

Parsifal by Hermann Hendrich
Right: A painting by Hermann Hendrich (1854-1931)

Among the elements that Wagner included from Wolfram were his account of Parzival's boyhood, some of his account of the brotherhood at Monsalvat, the encounters between Parzival and his cousin Sigune (who became incorporated into Wagner's Kundry), the castle containing a very old king and a wounded king, the meeting with the hermit on Good Friday and as Wagner himself mentioned, the wild appearance of Condrie. Those he rejected included the identification of the Grail with a stone, all of the story of Gawain except for the liberation of the Castle of Maidens, the healing question and Wolfram's primary theme of constancy versus inconstancy. Some elements of Wolfram's poem that were adapted by Wagner are common to many of the medieval Grail romances, such as the arch structure of the Grail myth: youth arrives at the Grail Castle where he fails to ask the healing question; youth grows from folly to wisdom through experience; youth returns to the domain of the grail where he heals the wounded king. This arch became the underlying form of Wagner's drama, although within it he changed important details: the question was replaced in the inner action by understanding through compassion and in the outer action by the recovery of the spear.

The progress of the title character is central both to Wolfram's poem and to Wagner's drama. In the latter however it is a particular kind of progress: the gaining of wisdom through compassion for suffering. As in Tristan und Isolde the theme of suffering (a central idea of Schopenhauer's philosophy) is present through all three acts of Parsifal. Whilst on the surface it might appear (as it did to Jessie Weston) that Wagner was following Wolfram and the Grail romances in general in showing how the title character was able to bring healing to the wounded king, on closer examination it is clear that Parsifal does more than this: he brings to an entire community both healing (although it is a misreading that he heals a wasted land) and the spiritual leadership that will enable the knights to go out into the world again, in order to bring healing to that world. There is irony in Kundry's words to Parsifal: redeem the world, if that is your mission.

It is often stated that Wagner found inspiration for Parsifal in Wolfram's poem. It was not until I sat in the garden of the Villa Wesendonck, under the ancient linden tree looking out over the lake, that I realised that this was partly true. In that garden on a spring morning in 1857, I believe, Wagner found his inspiration by identifying Wolfram's sheltered youth venturing out into the world with another sheltered youth to whom old age, sickness and death were revealed for the first time on a day that changed his life.

Further Reading

Online articles and references

English Translations of Parzival

  • 1894, Parzival: a Knightly Epic, tr. Jessie L. Weston, D. Nutt, London; translated into English verse
  • 1951, tr. E.H. Zeydel and B.Q. Morgan, University of North Carolina Press; in the original metre
  • 1961, tr. H.M. Mustard and C.E. Passage, Vintage Books; in prose
  • 1980, tr. A.T. Hatto, Penguin Books Ltd., UK; in prose
  • 1991, tr. André Lefevere, The Continuum Publishing Company, New York; in prose
  • 2009, tr. Cyril Edwards, Oxford University Press; in prose
Footnote 1: See for example the chapter on Wolfram's Parzival in Parsifal und der Gral in deutscher Sage des Mittelalters und der Neuzeit especially pages 134-135, for a discussion of Wolfram's source references.