May I introduce you to: Der Strickaere

March 23, 2011

It appears that I almost missed my knitterversary. Ok, not almost, I actually did miss it: It is now one year and a little more than a week since [m] first initiated my into the arcane art of knitting. This, of course, would call for a post about knitting, but alas, I don’t have anything on the needles at the moment. I have, however, just purchased some fabulous yarn and already decided on which project to use it for, so I’ll be back in the game anytime soon. Still, for now, the closest thing to a knitting related post I have to offer, is this:

As already mentioned on this blog, soon after becoming a knitter I joined [online knitting community] Ravelry. Naturally, in order to create an account I had to choose a user-name and, after some consideration, I called myself derStrickaere. In modern German “der Stricker” means “the [male] knitter” and I figured that in the predominantly female world of Ravelry it would be appropriate to give myself a name that was explicitly gendered as male – if only for those who read German.

But apart from marking me out as one of the relatively few men on Ravelry, the user-name I picked also marks me out as a medievalist – if only for those who know that Der Stricker was a medieval poet active in Austria in the first half of the 13th century. Writing in Middle High German, he himself spelled his name Der Strickaere. In spite of what Wikipedia will want to make you believe, this, however, does not translate as “The Knitter”. Rather, it means a cord-maker, “Strick” being the German word for rope or cord. This has lead some scholars to believe that the Strickaere actually was a craftsman by trade and something like the first artisan poet of the German speaking world. It is much more likely, though, that the name is simply a nom de plume as they were frequently employed by medieval gleeman and strolling minstrels. In other words, the Strickaere most likely made his bread and butter as a professional entertainer and the textile-related name he gave himself metaphorically alludes to his ability at spinning tales and weaving stories.

What the Strickaere is best known for are of his short didactic stories, moralizing fables and didactic exempla. While many of them are rather dour and contain serious educational messages, some of them are also quite funny and sparkle with almost burlesque humour. This is especially true for a set of comic tales about the Pfaffe Amis [Priest Amis], a trickster and prankster who, despite being a cleric, walks through the world playing nasty jokes on his fellow men.

But the Strickaere also wrote the lenghty epic Karl, an adaption of the Chanson de Roland narrating the exploits of Charlemagne and his heroic men, which was probably commissioned by Duke Leopold VI. of Austria. And then there is his other, er, full-lenght-feature, an Arthurian Romance titled Daniel von dem Blühenden Tal [Daniel of the Flowering Valley], written around 1220. For me, this is not only the Strickaere‘s most interesting work, it’s also one of the most interesting Arthurian Romances written by any medieval poet. It certainly qualifies as the weirdest of them. It’s so weird, in fact, that some scholars have even deemed it a parody!

As with most medieval novels, the plot of the Strickaere‘s Daniel is complex and twisted, but as with all Arthurian Romances it basically boils down to this: The hero rides out from King Arthur’s court all by himself, overcomes a host of fiendish dwarfs and giants, beasts and monsters along the road, comes to the rescue of a handful of damsels in distress and eventually saves Arthur’s realm from an outside threat. To give you an idea of the things the hero has to face, here’s a little sample… One of the damsels Daniel meets on his journey is being terrorized by “a devilish creature” which she describes to the hero like this:

Its head is similar to that of the devil and so huge that two men could hardly carry it. It doesn’t wear any clothes but is scrubby all over, and it has absolutely no belly. It doesn’t have any bowels either for its arms and legs grow directly from its head. Believe me, Sir, its chin reaches down right to its knee, and never have there been two eyes larger than those the creature carries in its head. Its mouth is wider than a cubit. However long you would set out to search, you wouldn’t find any creature as monstrous as this.

Having done away with this odd creature, Daniel comes across a giant who may not be as monstrous but is just as dangerous and fearsome. Not only is that particular giant incredibly huge and strong, he also has skin so hard that it cannot be harmed by any sword in the world. So, naturally, when Daniel approaches him, the giant is quite self-confident and boastful:

The giant spoke: “You fool, stop and turn around! Truly, I tell you: if you ride forth even one foot further, I’ll tear you into pieces like a chicken.

What the hapless giant doesn’t know, though, is that Daniel has just won a rather special sword off of a fiendish dwarf, a sword with seemingly supernatural powers, a sword that will cut through anything including giants no matter how hard their skin. So, before you read on, be warned that the following paragraphs will contain graphic descriptions of violence:

Since the giant had never been wounded by any weapon, he didn’t know that he ought to take care. He raved in anger and didn’t consider that he might fall. As Daniel of the Flowering Valley rode against him, the giant strode forward and beat against Daniel with his angrily raised fist. But Daniel took heed of this and held up his sword. The giant didn’t care about this: filled with fierceness he hit his fist against the sword so that there was a jingling sound and his hand together with a third of his arm came off. This was the first harm he received from Daniel’s sword. In jest, Daniel exclaimed: “Tell me truly, have you already thrown to death many people with your hand?” (…)

This enraged the giant. He walked over to a large rock in order to hurl it at Daniel. But Daniel dashed forward and cut off the giant’s leg. Still he managed to heave the rock and threw it against Daniel’s shield so that it was almost too much for Daniel, and his horse went down on its knees. The giant wanted to avenge himself even better and reached for another rock, but he couldn’t stand on just one leg for any longer. So he sat down and wanted to defend himself in a seated position. But God didn’t intend to save him – and that must have grieved him – for Daniel’s horse regained its strength, the knight dashed nearer and chopped off the giant’s other arm as well. Now the indignant fellow fell down on his back and had only one leg left.  This angered him even more, and with his remaining leg he kicked so hard against the horse’s side that it tumbled three times. Thereby, Daniel almost lost his life, for he wasn’t used to falling. Red with anger, he walked up to the giant on foot and cut off his head.*

If this reminds you of the famous Black Knight-episode from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, rest assured that you’re in good company: At least one eminent scholar in the field of medieval literature has made that very same connection…**

P.S.: A word on the images in this post – they show details from the marvelous Romanesque relief frieze on the main gate of Vienna’s Stephansdom [St. Stephen’s Cathedral]. Those stone carvings were executed around 1240, i.e. ca. twenty years after the Strickaere‘s Daniel was written, so I actually feel a bit guilty about using them here – it’s like writing about the early days of Monty Python’s Flying Circus but using scenes from A Fish Called Wanda as illustrations. On the other hand, the reliefs were done during the Strickaere‘s lifetime and I believe they do give a good impression of the bizarre and wondrous world his heroes inhabit…

* Like most medieval romances, the Strickaere‘s Daniel is written in verse, but I thought it advisable to render it in prose, loosely basing my English translation on Helmut Birkhan’s prose translation into modern day German: Daniel von dem Blühenden Tal vom Stricker, translated from the Middle High German, introduced and annotated by Helmut Birkhan, Kettwig: Phaidon 1992.

** That scholar being, of course, Helmut Birkhan who makes the connection on pp. 39-40 of his book quoted above – and who is kind of a colourful character himself


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