Poor Heinrich

Poor Heinrich, by Hartmann von Aue

I have missed being here!  It's not that I ran out of books, or had a reading slump, or even a blogging slump.  I just couldn't seem to grab some time to blog in.  So I have some fun things to tell you about, and the first is going to be Der armer Heinrich, by this Hartmann guy.

Hartmann von Aue himself!
If you were here for my Arthurian literature project of 2014, you know that the mania for knightly romances and Arthurian tales spread through Western Europe in the 1100s.  I read French and German tales as well as English ones.  There were three great German poets of the courtly romance: Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote Parzival, and Gottfried von Strassburg wrote Tristan, but before them came Hartmann von Aue, who introduced the idea into Germany in the first place in the 1190s.  He has not become nearly as well-known in English as the two later poets, and in fact I had an interesting time finding a copy.  I only heard about Hartmann at all through my brother, who is a German professor specializing in the literature of Middle High German.  He assigns Heinrich in class.

Hartmann wrote four narratives: Erec and Iwein, based on Chretien de Troyes' Erec and Yvain, Gregorius, based on a French tale and enduringly popular (eventually showing up as The Holy Sinner by Thomas Mann), and Der armer Heinrich, which to my surprise turned out to be very short indeed, only about 20 pages.

Heinrich is a very fortunate knight; he is young, handsome, skilled, rich, and popular at court.  But he is proud and arrogant, and God sends him a plague of leprosy in order to humble him.  Poor Heinrich consults the best doctors, but the only cure is to find a pure young girl willing to give her life for him.  Her heart's blood would cure him.  Heinrich figures that will never happen and resigns himself to the life of a leper.  He gives away all his lands and money, keeping only a farm run by a kind peasant who takes him in and lets him live with his family.  The farmer's little girl (age 8) becomes very fond of Heinrich, and when she overhears his story about the impossible cure, she resolves to save him.  She gives a long, theologically dubious speech that persuades her parents to let her die, but Heinrich remains reluctant.  Finally they set off for Salerno and the doctor prepares to sacrifice her, but Heinrich decides once and for all that he cannot allow it, though the girl begs and pleads.  On the way home, Heinrich's humility is rewarded by a miraculous cure from his leprosy, so he marries the girl instead and everybody is happy.

Kind of a strange story, but very interesting and hey, he doesn't let the little girl die!  Good job, Heinrich.

Wikipedia says that this story attracted Longfellow and Rossetti, so I looked that up.  Rossetti translated the story in 1846 as Henry the Leper: a Swabian Miracle-Rhyme, and Longfellow's 1851 narrative poem The Golden Legend uses the story and calls him Prince Henry.  So I'll have to look those up.

I'd quite like to read the other three Hartmann tales too, but the book I got isn't all that great for prolonged reading.  Hartmann has only been translated into English a few times, most recently in 2001 in what looks like a very nice edition of his tales, but nobody wanted to lend their nice copies to me through ILL.  Instead, I got an edition from 1983 with practically no notes--just a little preface about the translation.  And it seems to have been done on a typewriter!  I think Fisher, the translator, just typed the whole book, and the publisher took a photostat, reduced it to 50%, and printed it.  The result is quite difficult for my eyes to focus on for long, and the book is fragile enough that I'm not sure I want to try to read it all.  I have to give it back in a couple of days, so the other tales will just have to wait.

I love this portrait of Hartmann.  Evidently the eagle must have been his badge, but it looks more like a nervous or grumpy parrot.


  1. Haha, you're right -- that "eagle" reminds me of Iago the parrot from Disney's Aladdin. Anyway, it's too bad that the edition you got to read wasn't very good. Perhaps eventually one of the nicer editions will be available to you and you can read some more stories from Hartmann, without the eye strain.


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