A Burning Issue: Isolde's Oath in Its Historical Context
Middle High German literature offers us few glimpses into the legal position of women and none more tantalizing or baffling than Isolde's trial by fire in Gottfried von Straßburg Tristan. Accused of adultery with her husband's nephew, Tristan, she undergoes the ordeal of the hot iron, carries it, and is not burned, though she is guilty. One of the high points of the work, this scene can tell us much about women and society in the Middle Ages if we examine this incident in its historic and literary context.
Attention to other literary ordeals as well as the historical practices and attitudes connected with them in the period from 1150 to 1250 enhances our understanding of Gottfried's work by revealing considerable differences in the way various genres treated the ordeal. Four sources that present the ordeal in widely differing ways, -- the Kaiserchronik, Ebernand von Erfurt Heinrich und Kunegunde, Tristan, and Der Stricker Das heiße Eisen -- can scarcely present the modern reader with a faithful mirror of actual practices and beliefs. In each case, the purpose of the writer lay elsewhere.
The framework necessary for understanding the ordeal in literature comes from recent legal and social historical studies dealing with the ordeal. With the historical underpinnings in place, we can more clearly see how the presentation of the literary ordeal paralleled or departed from contemporary practice and how the writer used these similarities and differences to reinforce his intent. This analysis of Isolde's trial, part of a larger study of the ordeal in the works mentioned, will place Gottfried's account in its literary context.
In the century between 1150 and 1250, social changes caused major developments in the notion of what constituted proof. While the ordeal, which had its roots in Germanic society, had attracted clerical criticism from the ninth century on, it had performed a useful social function for certain types of cases until clerical participation in it was forbidden in 1215 by the Fourth Lateran Council, shortly after the probable date of composition of Gottfried's work. In the cultures in which the ordeal arose, the natural order was often