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Der Arme Heinrich: An enigmatic tale from the Middle Ages

by Julian Scutts

What are we to make of a story that runs like this?:

A respectable knight, getting on a bit in years, contracts leprosy. He learns that he will never be cured of this malady unless a pious virgin willingly and without reserve sacrifice her heart to him, quite literally, in the course of the requisite medical procedure. A young virgin accepts these terms whereby the knight can be saved. She and Heinrich travel to  Spain, at the time under Saracen rule. Just at the juncture when the operation is about to begin, the knight refuses to go through with the sacrifice of the girl’s life and thus resigns himself to remaining a leper. He is miraculously cured on the spot, marries the girl and they live on happily ever after.

 The title of the story is “Der Arme Heinrich” in Middle High German. As “arm” in modern German means “poor,” one could unadvisedly translate the title into English as “Poor Henry,”  but such a translation fails to convey the connotations of “arm” when the story was composed, for this  also implied spiritual destitution and  the countervailing humility and contrition needed to overcome it. The author, Hartmann von Aue, was one of the foremost poets in the golden age of courtly poetry composed   in Middle High German that began in the mid-twelfth century under the impulse of epic tales written by Chrétien de Troyes;  he, in turn, had developed, and greatly expanded on, the Arthurian themes provided  by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Suppose that a modern writer had written the narrative outlined above, we would probably assume that the writer alluded to the sacrificial practices of the Aztecs. Needless to say, Hartmann von Aue had no way of knowing of the existence of these practices. In accord with the poetic convention of his times, he did not admit to inventing any element contained within his narrative but claimed to have consulted traditional sources as the basis of his account. No such sources readily come to mind even if we exclude the part of the story that concerns the excision of a virgin’s heart.  We might conjecture that Hartmann synthesized elements in biblical motifs such as the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter and the last-minute reprieve of Isaac as he awaited death at his father’s hand. Leprosy in the biblical tradition was not just  an illness like any other, for it had a moral and spiritual import as a punishment for unjustified accusations in the case  in the case of Miriam when carping at Moses after his marriage to a Cushite woman, or deceitful practices as in the case of Gehazi, Elijah’s servant. The moral of Hartmann’s story was surely directed against the hubris of an otherwise noble man who took his own life to be more important than that of a humble woman of lower class extraction. Thus, Hartmann’s narrative implicitly transcends the gulf between the medieval categories of Hohe Minne and Niedere Minne, where the former idealized the high courtly and well-nigh unapproachable lady, and the latter treated love relations in a realistic and down-to-earth manner in keeping with the status of ordinary girls in the field if not the street.


Now to the question as to whether “Der Arme Heinrich” poses an anomaly in the midst of chivalric literature in the Middle Ages: The very thought that the extraction of a virgin’s heart could cure leprosy is essentially pagan in nature and certainly ran counter to doctrine of Redemption through the ministry of the Church. However, it is a striking feature of Arthurian literature in general that it explored areas lying very much at the perimeter of the prevailing moral code in its dealings with matters like marital infidelity and incest. Hartmann himself wrote a verse epic devoted to the life of Pope Gregory, who according to Hartmann’s narrative owed his birth to the incestuous love between siblings. The same motif underlies the story of Tristram and Isolde as told by Gottfried of Strasbourg. Even before, Chrétien de Troyes had introduced Sire Lancelot and his affair with  Queen Guinevere into Arthurian literature. At the same time the romance literature of the period was deeply imbued by profound religiosity, and concerns with marital infidelity and incest found cover under the mantle of  doctrines averring the Pauline principle that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” or Saint Augustine’s demonstration that the greatest among sinners may become the greatest among saints. Even so, one detects in the works of Gottfried of Strasbourg, in particular, a propensity to flirt with heretical concepts of love found elsewhere in the Troubadour poetic tradition. Perhaps the newfound freedom of writers to break away from the chronicler’s devotion to historical voracity, a freedom that owed much to  Geoffrey of Monmouth’s groundwork,   found a concomitant in an urge to test the restraints imposed by a rigorous observation of orthodox doctrines. Besides, writers of all ages have discovered the achievement of  popular attention and acclaim requires adding that ingredient of “human interest”  we find in Wagnerian opera, the poetry of Lord Tennyson and the film Camelot as well as in the medieval works from which the artistic achievements just mentioned have sprung