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Erec by Hartmann von Aue

Introduction to the Text, its Summary, and its Manuscript Tradition

Erec (Erek, Ereck) is a poem written by Hartmann von Aue in Middle High German rhyming couplets. According to Joachim Bumke (2006), this poem is thought to be the earliest of Hartmann’s narrative works and dates from c AD 1185.  A version of Chrétien de Troyes’ Érec et Énide (Erec and Enide), it is the first Arthurian Romance to be written in German.  Erec tells the tale of how Erec, a knight of King Arthur’s court, gains the love of the beautiful Enite, but then through an excessive commitment to his wife, disregards his responsibilities as a knight and a noble.  Realising his mistake, he sets out on a series of progressively more difficult adventures in which he judges Enite’s loyalty and obtains understanding into the core goals of knighthood.  Different from Hartmann’s later romance Iwein, which survives in 16 complete manuscripts, Erec is contained in only a single, much later manuscript, the Ambraser Heldenbuch, and in four groups of small fragments (MS K – Koblenz; MS V – Saint Pölten; MS W – Wolfenbüttel, both the “old fragments” and the “new fragments”; and MS Z – Zwettl Abbey).  Andreas Hammer, Victor Millet, and Timo Reuvekamp-Felber (2017); and Albert Leitzmann, and Kurt Gärtner (2006), tell us that despite this limited manuscript tradition, contemporary and later references show that the work was influential.

Brigitte Edrich and the present author agree that establishing a text for Erec is problematic.  Edrich (2014) goes on to say that the main manuscript, Ambraser Heldenbuch (MS A), has no text matching the first 80 lines of Chrétien’s poem, and starts in mid-sentence.  According to Leitzmann and Gärtner, the text of the Wolfenbüttel fragments (MS W) shows that MS A has a gap of 78 lines late in the poem.  The non-rhyming lines point to several separate uncompleted couplets.  Hammer, Millet, and Reuvekamp-Felber state that the manuscript was written around 330 years after the work was created.  Even though the scribe, Hans Ried, appears to have based his text on a good source, its language shows many features that could not have been part of a 12th Century AD version.  Edrich states that syntactic features that were common in Middle High German, but would have been archaic in the 16th Century, have been more or less consistently modernised.

In the Ambraser Heldenbuch manuscript, the passage which corresponds to Chrétien’s poem is immediately preceded by a free-standing (and uncompleted) Arthurian episode, now known as Der Mantel (The Cloak/Mantle), which pertains to a chastity test using a magic cloak (mantle).  Of all the ladies in the court, Enite comes nearest to completely passing the test.  This episode is introduced by a single header which recognises Der Mantel and Erec as comprising a single text.  According to Joachim Bumke, Der Mantel (generally credited to Heinrich von dem Türlin) has its source, not in Chrétien but the (nearly contemporary) late 12th Century AD Old French fabliau Du Manteau Mautaillié (Le Mantel Mal Taillé) (The Ill-Fitting Cloak).  In 1883, Otto Warnatsch ascribed Der Mantel to Heinrich von dem Türlin, whose Diu Crône (The Crown) was thought to contain a reference to a lost Lancelot romance of his which included this theme of the chastity-testing mantle.  According to Gudrun Felder (2006) and Werner Schröder (2004), this attribution is now generally discounted and the work regarded as anonymous by most, except for the present author.  Hammer, Millet, and Reuvekamp-Felber insist that the most recent editors of the Ambraser text make a case for accepting the manuscript compiler’s view that Der Mantel is part of Erec as a preface, with the primary narrative showing how Enite became the worthy winner of the mantle.

According to Werner Schröder, even if the dating of the German version is uncertain, the dating of the Old French original to the last decade of the 12th Century AD or later, as advocated by Glyn Sheridan Burgess and Leslie C Brook (2013), (after the composition of Erec) appears to disqualify the German adaptation as an original part of Hartmann’s work.  Burgess and Brook go on to say that one specific change made to the French tale by the author of Der Mantel links it with Erec: in the original, the mantle is won by Caradoc’s wife, Briebriz, while the German author grants it to Erec’s wife, Enite.  Whether this change was undertaken specifically to make it a suitable preface to Erec, or whether it was made independently and is the reason for two texts becoming associated, is impossible to determine, as is the likely date of their combination into the single work that Hans Ried used as a source.  Appearing to be a free adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’ Érec et Énide, Hartmann’s Erec is substantially greater in length and differs in numerous details.  Christoph(er) Cormeau tells us that in some cases, Erec is closer to the Welsh Geraint ac Enid, which suggests that Hartmann may also have drawn on an oral tradition independent of Chrétien.  As stated by Wendelin Foerster in 1909 and by Brigitte Edrich in 2014, Chrétien himself mentions this tradition and distances himself from it: “This is the tale of Erec, son of Lac, which those who attempt to live by storytelling habitually distort and corrupt before kings and counts.” (lines 19–22)  The use of another written source is discounted by Christoph(er) Cormeau and Wilhelm Störmer in 1993.

Detail of Eric and Enite’s Story as Told within the Poem

After a prologue, the story begins with a Pentecost festivity at King Arthur’s court, where an ample number of aristocratic guests have gathered.  On the banquet’s third day, those present are waiting after morning Mass to begin the meal.  Arthur refuses his guests sustenance because he is starved for adventure.  Finally, on behalf of his anonymous fairy mistress, who detests all the ladies of the court, a young courier brings a magical cloak (mantle) to Arthur’s court, which will suit only a woman who is perfectly constant and true to her man.  According to Werner Schröder (2004), all the ladies of the court fail the virtue test miserably, to the consternation of the men.  Eventually, Erec’s wife Enite puts on the mantle and it fits her save a few absent inches on the lower hem, which shows that Enite is well-nigh perfectly pure.  (The remainder of the episode is incomplete.)  (From Chrétien: The Arthurian court is celebrating Easter.  Arthur desires to bring back the tradition of hunting the white stag.  Whoever kills the stag must kiss the most comely maiden.  The knights commence the hunt.  With a maidservant, the Queen proceeds to follow the knights.  Erec then follows after the Queen and her maidservant.)

Riding with the two ladies, the young, untried knight Erec, son of King Lac, is dishonoured by the dwarf of a wandering knight (Iders) before the eyes of Queen Guinevere.  Being armourless, Erec cannot instantly contend with the knight, but he pursues the group and makes it to the castle of Tulmein.  Exploring for accommodation, Erec encounters the destitute Lord Coralus, who offers him living quarters.  Erec is tended to by Coralus’ gorgeous daughter Enite.  From Coralus, Erec finds out about the forthcoming sparrowhawk challenge.  The sparrowhawk is the prize for the most beautiful lady, whose right must be defended by her knight.  Erec then hears that the knight he had been pursuing was called Iders and had come to protect his lady’s right to the sparrowhawk.  Erec wishes to participate in the tournament, but only if Coralus can lend him some armour.  If he is victorious, Erec promises that he will marry Enite.  In the next day’s tournament, Erec defeats Iders.  Erec returns to Arthur’s court with Enite.  Along the journey, the two fall in love.  The white stag having been killed in the hunt, Enite is proclaimed the most resplendent maiden and accepts a kiss from Arthur.  Erec and Enite are married, and Arthur announces a tournament in Erec’s honour, at which he defeats all opponents.  The couple journey to Karnant, the castle of King Lac.  The King then renounces the throne in favour of his son, Erec.

Erec now gives himself over to a life of affluence.  He spends his days in bed with Enite, neglecting his obligations as sovereign.  Nevertheless, he overhears Enite lamenting the fact that he has become the laughingstock of the kingdom, and resolves to go forth in secret to find adventure.  Enite accompanies him, yet he forbids her to verbalise a single utterance, on pain of death.  Erec has a series of skirmishes and in each case, it is Enite who, contrary to Erec’s bidding, warns him of the forthcoming danger.  The couple is assailed first by three and then by five robber-knights.  Erec defeats them all, rebukes Enite for breaking her silence, and makes her lead the captured horses.  A count attempts to entice Enite away from Erec, but she fools the count and warns Erec, who then defeats the count.  Erec is attacked by the dwarf king Guivrez and wounded, but defeats him and receives him as a liege-man.  Brigitte Edrich tells us that there is probably a gap in the text here, since a warning from Enite, later referred to and present in Chrétien’s text, is absent.  Erec encounters the Arthurian court, which is engaged in a hunt.  They insist that he stay with them but he refuses, feeling still unworthy to be in their company.

On his way to Arthur’s court, Cadoc had been taken by two giants.  Erec hears the cries of Cadoc’s lady wife.  Erec kills the giants and liberates Cadoc.  Gravely injured in his combat with the giants, Erec passes out.  After a lengthy bemoaning, thinking Erec dead, Enite prepares to kill herself with Erec’s sword, when Count Oringles is attracted by her cries.  After Enite refuses Oringles’ appeals to marry him, he begins to strike her, but her protests awaken Erec, who then kills Oringles.  Erec and Enite reconcile, Erec apologising for testing her.  A squire escaping from Oringles’ castle goes to tell Guivrez in the neighbouring kingdom how his lord has been slain by a dead man.  Guivrez, reasoning that this must be Erec, rides with his retainers to aid him.  Not recognising each other, Erec and Guivrez do battle.  Erec, already weakened by his injuries, is defeated, but when Enite implores in the hopes of saving Erec’s life, Guivrez recognises her.  The couple is invited to stay at Guivrez’s castle, Penefric.  Guivrez’s sisters give Enite a horse, which is described in detail.

Accompanied by Guivrez, Erec and Enite go forth in search of Arthur’s court but take a wrong turn and end up at Castle Brandigan.  There Erec undertakes a concluding adventure called Joie de la Curt (Joy of the Court): by the castle is an orchard, guarded by Sir Mabonagrin the knight.  He has been coerced into defending the orchard against all who would attempt to enter by a foolhardy vow to a lady, from which he will only be freed if he is defeated.  Thus far he had killed 80 challengers, whose heads were displayed on stakes and whose widows were housed in the castle.  Erec disregards all counsel against setting about on this adventure and fights and defeats Sir Mabonagrin.  He is thankful for his defeat, and his lady is disclosed as a cousin of Enite’s.  Erec and Mabonagrin leave the orchard together, and Erec and Enite comfort the widows and extend an offer to take them to Arthur’s court.  The widows agree and are received with approval.  From Arthur’s court, Erec and Enite return to Karnant, where they are greeted with a jubilant celebration.  Erec renders gratitude to God for his enduring renown.  After living a long temporal life of honour and righteousness, both Erec and Enite are rewarded with eternal life.

Further Influence of the Poem

As stated earlier, Hartmann’s Erec was highly influential.  In 2006, Joachim Bumke stated that all the early German Arthurian romances drew on it — Wirnt von Grafenberg’s Wigalois (Guinglain), Heinrich von dem Türlin’s Diu Crône (The Crown), and Ulrich von Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet (Lancelot).  According to Leitzmann and Gärtner, also in 2006, the anonymous Friedrich von Schwaben, dating between AD 1185 and 1350, took five passages directly from Erec with minor changes.  Not only were Hartmann’s works influential, but he also had a personal reputation, recognised as the founder and first master of the genre of Arthurian Romance in German.  As William H Jackson puts it, “The reception of Hartmann’s Arthurian romances shows a strong profiling precisely of the author.”  In 2015, John Cherry stated that Erec also inspired the “earliest known setting of any mediæval romance in applied art” in the form of the gold processional cross now residing in the treasury of the Wawel Cathedral, Kraków, Poland.  The cross is constituted by two crowns, with that forming the horizontal arm portraying scenes from Hartmann’s Erec.  According to Pia Selmayr (2015) and James A Rushing Jr (2005), the Erec crown-cross was probably made in the Upper Rhineland in the period AD 1225–1250 and may be attached to the court of Frederick II.  Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II does have a passing connection to the eventual fate of “Excalibur”, but that is beyond the scope of this article.  James Rushing remarks that “the convoluted structure of the [horizontal] crown’s visual narrative would be hard to follow without fairly extensive prior knowledge of the story”.

Conclusion

Erec is a poem written by Hartmann von Aue in Middle High German rhyming couplets.  This poem is thought to be the earliest of Hartmann’s narrative works and dates from c AD 1185.  As a free adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’ Érec et Énide (Erec and Enide), it is the first Arthurian Romance to be written in German.  Hartmann’s Erec is substantially greater in length and differs in numerous details from Chrétien’s Érec et Énide.  In some cases, Erec is closer to the Welsh Geraint ac Enid, which suggests that Hartmann may also have drawn on an oral tradition independent of Chrétien.  Erec is contained in only a single manuscript, and four groups of small fragments.  Despite this limited manuscript tradition, contemporary and later references show that the work was influential.  Erec tells the tale of how Erec, a knight of King Arthur’s court, gains the love of the beautiful Enite, but then through an excessive commitment to his wife, disregards his responsibilities as a knight and a noble.  Realising his mistake, he sets out on a series of progressively more difficult adventures in which he judges Enite’s loyalty and obtains understanding into the core goals of knighthood.  All the early German Arthurian romances drew on this poem.  The anonymous Friedrich von Schwaben, dating between AD 1185 and 1350, took five passages directly from Erec with minor changes.  All in all,  Hartmann von Aue’s Erec occupies an unique place in the development of that particular storyline within German Arthurian romances and Arthuriana in general.