Minnesong and Emperor Otto IV.

Otto IV. spent part of his youth at the court of his uncle, Richard the Lionheart. The court of the Plantagenets was regarded as one of the culturally most influential courts in Europe. Otto received his knightly and courtly education there and learned the art of minnesong.

The minnesong is an important era of German literary and music history that started with the ‘Donauländische’ minnesong (the most famous song from those time is ‘Ich zôch mir einen falken’ by Kürenberger) and ended in the 15th century with the comprehensive work of the ‘last minnesinger’ Oswald von Wolkenstein.  

Medieval minnesong used love and the accompanying pain and joy as its main theme. The singer sang the praises of an inaccessible noble lady who he was willing to serve without any hope of ever finding a hearing. This theme is truly timeless as unhappy as well as happy lovers recognised it in the past as much as they do today.

The origins of minnesong

The origins of minnesong lie in France where the so-called troubadours and trouvères performed their mostly very sad love laments. William IX. of Aquitaine, the great-great grandfather of Otto IV., is called the first troubadour which makes Otto a direct offspring of the first minnesinger ever. Otto got to know and love this courtly tradition at the court of Richard the Lionheart where he grew up. According to the well-known French novel ‘Novel of a Rose’ that was written in the 13th century, Otto has performed minnesongs as well as composed them.


The biggest difference between lyric poetry (as well as epic poetry) of those days compared to ours today is that it was performed as a song. Today we cannot quite comprehend exactly how that sounded as for a majority of the pieces only the texts have survived. In the cases where we do have a record in notation any comment about the musical arrangement and the way it was made rhythmic are missing. But the pictures from the ‘Mannessische Liederhandschrift’, that dates back to the 11th century and is one of the most important collections of minnesongs, suggest that a recital accompanied by instruments like small harps and lutes, hurdy-gurdy and bagpipes, flutes and shawms as well as various rhythmic instruments was part of the musical experience as well as the solo recital.

Minnesong and unfulfilled love

German minnesingers took over the contents, the forms and in the beginning the melodies from the troubadours who performed their songs as early as the middle of the 11th century at different courts. The main theme was not unfulfilled love as such but the unsuccessful and painful courtship of a noble lady who does not reciprocate this desire and who was miserly with even a small sign of affection like a smile or a particular look. Minnesongs received their tension from this suffering of unfulfilled desire.

The crusades and minnesong

Numerous contacts between people from the German- and the Roman-speaking countries were made during the second crusade that took place in the forties of the 12th century. One result of these contacts was the cultural influence on German knightly poetry: French songs were either translated or re-written or certain ‘tones’, i.e. verse melodies were endued with new words. Forms like the ‘Alba’ – which in German became the ‘Tagelied’ (see underneath) - and the ‘Crusader Song’ were absorbed. German minnesong had its first heyday at the court of Henry II., Duke of Austria and Bavaria. Poets like the Kürenberger, Meinloh von Sevelingen and Dietmar von Eist slowly developed an independent German minnesong from Romanic examples. At the end of the 12th century minnsong spread to many other courts. The standards and skills increased and a standardised model of minnesong emerged. The Rhenish emperor’s court of the Hohenstaufen dynasty around Frederick Barbarossa and Henry VI (a poet and singer himself) became the new centre. The first masters of this genre Friedrich von Hausen, Heinrich von Rugge, Hartmann von Aue and Albrecht von Johansdorf developed their craft here and were driven to lyric peak performances by their lust for suffering at the hands of an inaccessible lady.

Walther von der Vogelweide

Whilst the songs of the troubadours developed a flirtatious and amorous tone, the German-speaking regions drove the code of renunciation to nearly masochistic heights. This was meant to set an example for the social behaviour of knightly men in general. This tradition came to an end with the art of the great sufferer Reinmar von Hagenau who was a poet at the Babenberger court in Vienna and who, for a while, was a teacher of Walther von der Vogelweide. Later on these two fought a bitter literary feud where both poets took on parts of their respective work and nastily criticised and ironised them.

Walther von der Vogelweide questioned not only the demand for renunciation in minnesongs in order to lead the way to fulfilled love with the expression ‘ebene Minne’  but he also became an early master of the sprechgesang – a political-moral type of poetry – that developed parallel to minnesong. In his ‘spoken songs’ he gave his opinion on numerous topics of his time and daily events. This sometimes inspired him to lyric statements of a time-transcending relevance which is shown in his magnificent empire lament (Reichsklage) ‘ich sâz uf eime steine’. During the fight between the Guelphs and the Hohenstaufers over the German throne he loyally supported the Hohenstaufen side. After Phillipp’s assassination and Otto’s coronation as emperor he supported Otto for a few years. He dedicated the ‘Ottenton’ to Otto that has been handed down with a melody by the ‘Meistersinger’. He welcomed the emperor as a bearer of peace and challenged him to lead a crusade. He also supported Otto’s position during a dispute with the pope. The Otto biographer Bernd Ulrich Hucker also sees Otto IV. as a source of inspiration for a type of poetry that is unique to Walther’s work: the lai, a sacred poem consisting of 156 verses. Towards the end of Otto’s reign Walther distanced himself from him and supported Frederick II.

Wolfram von Eschenbach

Wolfram von Eschenbach who also wrote magnificent minnesongs but made his mark in the history of literature with his epics ‘Parcival’, ‘Willehalm’ and ‘Titurel’ could also be found by Otto’s side. Famous minnesingers like Otto von Botenlauben and Bligger von Steinach were also connected with Emperor Otto IV. Neidhart von Reuental was a radical innovator of minnesong who very often lead the subtle nature descriptions and longing minne laments of his opening verses into drastic scuffles and rivalries between knights and village yokels. He composed a literary monument to the emperor with his song ‘Der widerslag’. In this song appears a yokel named Durinhart who is vilified because of his overly familiar behaviour towards ladies. He threatens the singer with revenge by sword: ‘He who wishes a peg leg on me, beware of my wrath – even Emperor Otto could not forbid me to retaliate.’

Explanations and hints