Peasant Knights from Wittenwiler’s Ring

A short excerpt for today – Mondays are long days. This is from the very beginning of the poem Der Ring when the peasant protagonists assemble for a tourney:

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)

The fourth was known as junkher Troll, a man as strong as a butter cake (anchenzoll)…

The sixth was known by the name Twerg (dwarf). He was high-born, on a mountain, and his coat of arms showed three flies in a glass.

The seventh was known as Her Eisengrein, the snorter. He bore on his shield nine spoons in a bowl.

The eighth was, I believe, called Graf Burkhart with the ganglion cyst (mit dem überpain). He had made as his arms two beets (ruoben) roasted well.

The tenth did a good deal of damage, he was called Jächel Grabinsgaden (roughly: the housebreaker), and by his ancient lineage he bore four cow’s milk cheeses on a hurdle (as his arms).

The name of the eleventh is also known: He was called Rüefli Lekdenspiss (lick-the-roasting-spit). He was the reeve of his village and his arms were eggs.

(lines 118-154)

This is the kind of vicious mockery the wealthy visited on their inferiors in so much German literature and art. Peasants are described as ugly, uncouth, venal and stupid, slaves to coarse appetites. Here, the would-be knights are assembling for a tournament that will predictably end in a muddy brawl with iron rods hidden in straw cudgels. Their names betray the expectations of the author, but such bynames were not uncommon in fifteenth-century Germany. Their arms display stereotypical peasant fare: cheese, eggs, and root vegetables (ruoben, Rüben, is a catchall term), shared bowls and dirty glasses.

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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