Despite all efforts by courtly poets to maintain the impression of stability and continuity within the courtly world, by the early thirteenth century individual texts such as the poems by Neidhart and the anonymous verse narrative Mauritius von Craûn signal transgression of the ideal of courtly love. These texts undermine traditional courtly values, thus illustrating how much the Arthurian world lacked any real strategies to combat moral and ethical threats affecting aristocracy at large. (AC)
Despite all wishful thinking, courtliness and courtly values have never represented ideals that were solidly founded on specific historical conditions or that might have been permanent and concrete aspects characteristic of medieval society. For instance, we have never been able to identify even one unique historical court resembling-more or less-the chivalric ideals as practiced at King Arthur's court in countless medieval romances.1 The very fact that courtliness represented an ideal specifically constructed and projected by many participants in this literary and cultural amalgamate since the early twelfth century indicates its imaginary, idealistic quality, and hence also the futility to anchor it solidly in material reality.2 The more medieval poets attempted to come to terms with that kind of ideal, the more they also revealed, voluntarily or not, the impossibility of reaching such a goal, assuming this ideal was not predicated on internal contradictions and was, ultimately, evanescent in the first place as an ethical platform beyond human reach.
Neither Arthur himself nor Gawain, Erec, Yvain, Perceval, Tristan, Wigalois, or any other medieval knightly figure glorified in courtly literature, ever actually represented this very ideal. Failure and collapse, disaster and desperation, fear and insecurity come to the surface in courtly romances more often than we might have assumed, especially if we think of a romance such as Heinrich von dem Türlin's Diu Crône (ca. 1220/1230). Gawain in the Middle English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (ca. 1370-1380?) might be the almost perfect knight, but at the end he also proves to be fallible, a fact which everyone at King Arthur's court greets with sympathetic laughter. It seems justifiable to argue, if we take a comparative perspective, that whereas heroic figures (Beowulf, El Cid, Roland, Siegfried, etc.) simply do not experience any existentialist, psychological conflicts and fight for their military and political goals and values without any afterthoughts or internal conflicts,3 the protagonists in courtly romances are often deeply marked by doubt, insecurity, desperation, and a sense of being forlorn in the metaphorical forest of possibilities and dangers-very much in contrast to the modern popularized image of the poised and self-assured knight in shining armor. To question critically the individual decision and the specific path one might pursue toward self-fulfillment indicates a remarkable transition from the heroic world: there the individual struggles against his destiny and external forces but not against the historical self because it is solidly grounded and not in need of any psychological reconfirmation.
The courtly hero, by contrast, is constantly confronted by the danger of failure in his public performance and regularly has to combat internal insecurity, lack of stable identity, and loss of values. We can easily admire Roland, Dietrich, or Hagen, but we would probably rather identify with Erec or Iwein (Hartmann von Aue) because of their deeply human qualities-and shortcomings that look so familiar to our own. Once we have confirmed this polarity, or these dialectics, we might, however, have to go one step further and probe how much the medieval court was not only subject to internal challenges but also had to face external ones, constantly confronted by the threat of transgression, i.e., breaking the social, ethical, and moral norms of courtly society. …