Academic journal article German Quarterly

Traversing the boundaries of language: Multilingualism and linguistic difference in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Willehalm

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Traversing the boundaries of language: Multilingualism and linguistic difference in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Willehalm

Article excerpt

Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from then did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

Genesis 11.9

man mohte iewedernthalben sin,

dar zuo vor im unde hinden,

vil grozer storje vinden,

mit der sprache ein ander gar unkunt.

da vuor manec sunder munt,

der niht wesse, waz der ander sprach,

ob er erge oder guete jach.

Willehalm, 399, 24-30(1)

In Wolfram von Eschenbach's heroic epic Willehalm the narrator describes the final battle between Saracens and Christians on the field of Alischanz as a microcosm of the multilingual world created by God's destruction of the tower of Babel. In the passage from the epic cited above, the confusion of languages evokes the auditory chaos recounted in the story of Genesis: the sounds of various battle cries fill the air in the multiple languages spoken by the combatants; heathen cannot be distinguished from Christian, nor friend from foe; all communication breaks down into a cacophony of mutually unintelligible languages. An environment of such linguistic diversity, the narrator implies above, is fraught with problems of communication and recognition.

At first glance, the story of Willehalm falls into the generic category of heroic epic, but it also contains elements of a legend and of a saint's life.2 It is the German version of the French chanson Bataille d'Aliscans, and it tells the story of two great battles fought by the Margrave Willehalm of Oransche against the onslaught of immense heathen armies. As the story commences, the heathens are pursuing the hero in retaliation for his escape from captivity in Arabia and for his abduction of his captor's wife Arabel, who has converted to Christianity, been baptized as Gyburg, and married Willehalm. When Willehalm's army is overwhelmed, he is forced to seek out support from King Lays of the Roman Empire. During his brief and conflict-ridden stay at the imperial court, which ultimately results in his achieving the necessary support, Willehalm encounters Rennewart, a heathen boy of superhuman strength who agrees to fight for him against the heathen armies. Loys informs Willehalm that he purchased the boy from two merchants, and that although he is of noble birth, he is banished to the kitchens because he refuses to convert to Christianity Only the audience is aware that Rennewart is Gyburg's brother. With Rennewart's help, the Christians ultimately overcome the heathen armies led by Gyburg's father Terramer and her former husband Tybalt. On the face of it, the story of Willehalm thus presents us with a conflict between Saracens and Christians in which Christianity ultimately reigns triumphant.

Seventy-eight extant manuscripts and fragments of the poem bear testimony to an active medieval reception of the story. Indeed, in the entire corpus of medieval German vernacular literature, the number of Willehalm manuscripts is superseded only by the number of Parzival manuscripts. Medieval extensions and reworkings of the tale further attest to a sustained interest in the poem. From the thirteenth through the fifteenth century, Wolfram's Willehalm appears in codices beside heroic and spiritual tales. It is co-opted into chronicles, such as Heinrich von Munchen's Weltchronik and, from the end of the thirteenth century on, it is most frequently embedded in a trilogy, providing the centerpiece between a prelude by Ulrich von dem Turlin (Arbel) and a continuation by Ulrich von Turheim (Rennewart). The fact that Wolfram's Willehalm is the most frequently and richly illustrated text in the medieval German vernacular tradition is further evidence of its tremendous popularity.3

Although for many years largely ignored, in the last decade a resurgence of interest in W//halm has resulted in productive scholarly debate on many of the thematic and structural elements of the poem. …

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