On Beards and Table Manners

This poem by the König vom Odenwald has got to be the longest-winded lesson in table manners I have ever seen.

14th-century beard fashion: John of Luxembourg (d. 1346 of archery), courtesy of wikimedia commons
VII Of the long beards of people
that they wear nowadays for ten reasons

Hear of the rare tales
That I will relate
They walk about in the world;
As many ideas as there are heads.
I saw in a dream
Underneath a tree
A beautiful woman met me
And received me honourably
I thanked the virtuous lady
She spoke to me politely:
kunig, what is your wish?”
I said “Lady, I would sit with you.”
She said “I would ask you one thing
If it does not make you overproud
You shall tell me one thing
This I ask of you,
I said “Lady, ask me
I will tell you if I can.”
She said to me quietly:
You shall counsel me on this:
Men who wear long beards
You shall tell me about those
What they mean to signify
That you must answer me.
If a wearer feels it a pleasure or a pain (
als sur siech oder als suz)
Or whether he is forced to wear it.”
“Lady, I will not say that of them”
Said I “I know of a different meaning”
The lady said properly
“You shall let me know this, then.”
Why the first one wears a beard
I said: “Lady, one man bears another ill will
Who has lost his friendship
For he did him an ill deed
And so he vowed by himself
That he will never cut his beard
Until he has avenged himself.
That is why he wears his beard
Whether others like or dislike it.”
Of the second beard
The lady said “So tell me more
What is the matter with the other one?”
“The second has a different intent
For he is guilty of a transgression
And he will not cut off his beard
Until he has made restitution
And he intends to hold himself to this
So he will not cut his beard.”
Of the third beard
The lady now asked mannerly
“Now tell me of the third.”
“The third would go on pilgrimage
That is why he is wearing his beard
So he will not be rid of it
Until he has completed his pilgrimage
And therefore he wears it
On smooth roads and on crooked ones.”
Of the fourth beard
The noble lady then asked me
What the fourth was thinking
“The fourth thinks himself too tender (of age)
And lets his beard grow out
To signal his manhood
That is why he is now wearing a beard.”
Of the fifth beard
The lady said “Then tell me now
Something of the fifth man.”
“The fifth thinks highly of his beard
And is free in his choice
He thinks to do it for other people’s sake
And wears his beard boastfully
My simple mid teaches me so
It is said of him, so it is.”
Of the sixth beard
The lady said “Then tell me quickly
How is it with the sixth?”
“The sixth is a prisoner
Who longs to be free
So he wears his beard until
He is at liberty again.”
Of the seventh beard
Then the noble lady said gently
“What motivates the seventh beard?”
“The seventh man wears it
For the same reasons as anyone (lit: this and that one)
So he thinks by himself
To also wear a beard (i.e. copy the fashion).”
Of the eighth beard
The lady said: “Now say,
How does the eighth live?”
“The eighth is crazy within himself
He foolishly resolved
To make love to a lady
And he has her on his mind
So he resolved not to cut his beard
Until he has had his will with her
That is why he wears his beard
And see how hard it is on him.”
Of the ninth beard
The lady said: “Tell me now
How do you like the ninth?”
“The ninth wears it for his love
And is no secret admirer (
For he seeks nothing else
But to also be lovely in her eyes
And thinks of the lady of his heart
When he shows himself with a beard
In her service at all times
See how much it affects him.”
Why the tenth wears a beard
Then the honoured lady said
“Now tell me this finally
If you know anything of the tenth
You shall not keep silent”
“I tell you, lady, quickly,
The tenth is obliged to
Those who wear beards in his order
Suffer such pain for God
I cannot think of any other reason
Why they should be bearded.”
The lady said: “I am richer
To have learned this from you.”
She said: “
Kunig, may God reward you”
She turned around and walked away
When I could no longer see her
She called to me and said:
“Kunig, you forgot one thing
That you must also consider”
“I said “Lady, gladly,
Tell me, what is it?”
She said: “I would be pleased
If they did not let their beards
Hang in the wine as they drink.
So that it drips off them.
It is better to drink
From clean twigs
Of sage or hyssop
Than from the hair of their beards.”
I said: “Lady, very well,
So go forth and tell them
I, my gentle lady,
Will not need the reminder.”

This is an entertaining poem, but it doesn’t tell us very much. The style follows earlier courtly poetry in which a pure beloved lady teaches a knight important lessons and asks questions that precipitate great deeds. The König vom Odenwald, of course, subverts this trope by bringing it quite solidly down to earth. Here, the narrator is questioned about beards and taught to mind his own while drinking wine. This is not really a difficult feat, but it may have appeared so; In the early 14th century, beards returned to fashion in Western Europe after a long period when clean-shaven was the preferred look. Thus, it would have seemed reasonably to asky why men would choose to wear facial hair, much as the question was raised in the 1960s why men chose to wear their hair long. There was no established etiquette for managing beards yet.

Der König vom Odenwald (literally king of the Odenwald, a mountain chain in southern Germany) is an otherwise unknown poet whose work is tentatively dated to the 1340s. His title may refer to a senior rank among musicians or entertainers, a Spielmannskönig, but that is speculative. Many of his poems are humorous and deal with aspects of everyday life which makes them valuable sources to us today.

The identity of this poet has been subject to much speculation. He is clearly associated with the episcopal court at Würzburg and likely specifically with Michael de Leone (c. 1300-1355), a lawyer and scholar. Most of his work is known only through the Hausbuch of the same Michael de Leone, a collection of verse and practical prose that also includes the first known instance of the Buoch von guoter Spise, a recipe collection. This and the evident relish with which he describes food have led scholars to consider him a professional cook and the author of the Buoch von Guoter Spise, but that is unlikely. Going by the content of his poetry, the author is clearly familiar with the lives of the lower nobility and even his image of poverty is genteel. This need not mean he belonged to this class, but he clearly moved in these circles to some degree. Michael de Leone, a secular cleric and canon on the Würzburg chapter, was of that class and may have been a patron of the poet. Reinhardt Olt whose edition I am basing my translation on assumes that the author was a fellow canon, Johann II von Erbach.

I only translate the poems that deal with aspects of food or related everyday life here. There are several others which are less interesting as sources. They can be found in the newest extant edition by Reinhard Olt, König vom Odenwald; Gedichte, Carl Winter Verlag, Heidelberg 1988.

This entry was posted in Uncategorised and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *