On Householding from Wittenwiler’s Ring

This is the second larger excerpt from Wittenwiler’s Der Ring. The story is that friends and relatives give advice to the protagonist Bertschi ahead of his wedding, in this case on good husbandry. The wedding feast is the main source on food and eating in this text, but we get some interesting glimpses here, too:

Front page of Wittenwiler’s poem Der Ring courtesy of wikimedia commons (and yes, I think Bertschi, the dapper fellow on the left, is doing exactly what it looks like he’s doing. It is that kind of poem)

Now said Härtel Saichinkruog (strain-into-the-mug): “Very well, so be it. I will teach you as best I myself understand it how to honourably keep house. First of all, you shall try to carry a second house built of silver with you so you can buy, as you unavoidably will, hay, fodder, straw, wine, grain, wood, millet and kraut, that is the custom, beans, peas, barley, smaltz, lentils, dried meat, salt, household goods and bedding, cheese, fruit, and many other things, each in its time. That will always prove useful. And only ever buy the best if you do not want to regret your purchase.

Feasting and invitations every day – that brings honour once and damage twice. Do not spend your estate with guests on musicians, and jewelry if you wish to keep your belongings and good name, that is my teaching. But expenditures on knighthood are very honourable, you must know, and especially have pity on your poor friend (i.e. the speaker).

Do not build houses at any price unless you are forced to. A built house, a book filled with writing, a woman one has slept with, cloth that has been cut, and pots full of old stuff (hefen alter plunder) are valued so little it is a wonder. A dripping roof can be repaired; Small damage is better than large. Honourable clothing, not too elaborate, is praiseworthy if it is clean, not beshitten (beschissen), well mended and not torn, and suitable for the season. The latest fashion is worn by (reit, literally: rides on) fools only.

You shall be glad to hear chickens crying and geese singing, because you gain from them. Your dog shall be a strong male who loyally guards what is yours. Spending money on training your children is also good, and also do not stint on their dowry (haimsteur). If you give to the poor, this (merit) will follow you to your grave, but see your profit is much greater than your daily expenses. Something can always happen that eats up the savings of a long time quickly.

I will forthrightly tell you how to secure gain and avert damage: Be the master in your own house. If your wife wears the pants, she will be your hail and your curse before God and His commandments. And you will be mocked for it. Thus watch her closely (sitz ir auf dem nak, lit: sit on her neck) and hold her like a fox in a net. Make her carefully preserve what is given into her hands. Also see to it that kitchen, table, and bed are well kept and clean from the start if she wishes to grow old with you. Oder her to clean, sew, spin, milk and suckle (säugen – probably breastfeed infants) if you wish to amount to something. Rarely allow her to be idle. And you must understand the same applies to your daughters from the start. If they do not know how, see that they learn it soon, day and night, as speedily as four people. For what your wife can do for you is also good for another man (i.e. their future husband).

Do not give the travellers’ staff to your son, and Saint Bernard says. Quickly teach him a craft as you can, or trading, but above all reading and writing if you want to secure him a position. But if he does not properly achieve anything with you, send him away; That is his steuer (dower).

If you have servants in your care, do not supper pride (übermuot) from them. Also trust no flatterer (gleichsner). Note, a servant should be obedient, loyal, able to work long, chaste and patient, not too rich, smart and speedy without complaint. But they must also have an honourable master who rewards them enough – coarse food as is their due – and does not withhold their wages overnight because he can. Thus pay and feed them well, and see that they earn their keep. If you would have certain gain, rise early with them and see to your livestock yourself if you do not want to lose it. Do you know what I know? Your own eye makes your cattle fat. But if you are lazy in your own affairs, so will be your servants and, which is worse, they will incline to evil thought.

When you leave your house, be aware of what you have to do, and when you return, check what has been taken from it. And if your grain has not increased, know that you have lost that day.

If you have good neighbours, be glad. Be useful to them as much as you can and your house will flourish for a long time. If you would sell wine and grain, approach them first and sell it cheaper than you would to strangers. I will also add: Sell as dearly as you can to your enemies. That is your gain. You are avenged and no blood has flowed – the best revenge.

If you would sell part of your land or – when something is for sale – add to it, guard against a co-owner who is more influential than you or one whose reputation is not spotless if you want to be without worry. But especially I will advise you: It is better to suffer hunger than to sell your estate. Yet it is better, this is widely agreed on, to sell part of your property than to give all of it in surety to a usurer.

Do not gladly borrow unless you know from whom. And if you know them, borrow even less gladly. Those who put their trust in borrowing will perish in great shame. Thus you can see that you should be happy to repay.

Therefore, if you are wise, make your will while you are healthy so you pay your debts before the clergy has access to your estate, and also do not forget your servants as the sick often do. Leave to your wife what is her due. And tell her kindly, if God calls you to himself, to conduct herself honourably for the sake of your children and, if she can, remain without a husband in pious memory and for a better (after-)life. But you shall not force her with an oath, with money, or by other means, for a legitimate husband is better for a woman than a lord or a servant as a lover. Also more readily support the daughter and the small child than your grown sons who can maintain themselves.

Finally: If your sons would become merchants, advise them to divide the heritage among them. This way they make a better profit. If they would be artisans, let them do as they please. But if they wish to be idle, tell them to stay together without dividing the estate. Each separate head wants its hat and each single house its fire. I will say no more.”

(lines 5016-5200)

Despite the Grobianic style of much of the poem, this speech, like the earlier one by the physician, is meant to be taken seriously. It is what contemporaries would have seen as commonsense advice, though much of it clearly envisions a much more substantial household than that of a peasant. Most likely it reflects the perspective of the author, an educated and wealthy urban professional.

The list of purchased items is interesting, though not unexpected, and the focus on careful husbandry and economy indicates the values of non-noble classes. Feasting and display are the ways of the nobility, not of the burghers or the peasantry. The household is seen as an economic unit designed to produce profit and accumulate wealth as insurance against an uncertain and dangerous future. All of this is familiar from many other sources.

The role of women in all of this, too, is conventional, and the focus on future generations a universally shared value of the time. It in interesting how little religion or the church feature here. The clergy only appears as a danger to the inheritance, God as a general guardian of decency. All of this seems very Early Modern and foreshadows the anticlericalism and self-righteousness of the sixteenth century. It is not surprising to learn that the author was an episcopal official versed in canon law and intimately familiar with the inner workings of the church.

Heinrich Wittenwiler‘s massive poem ‚Der Ring‘ (the ring) is a somewhat puzzling piece of literature. Most likely produced in Constance around 1408-10, it tells a complex story of love, adventure, and deceit set in a peasant environment exploited for comedy value, but seems to have a genuine didactic purpose, though one often enough achieved by satirically describing the very opposite of desired conduct. In this, it resembles later Grobianic literature. I will limit myself to translating the parts that are relevant to food and table manners, but would advise anyone with enough command of German to read it in its entirety.

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