Friday, April 14, 2006

Friday poetry blogging: Medieval German poetry weirdness

This is a poem that I've always found vaguely unsettling. For a start, the form is kind of odd for a 13th century poem. With the short lines, especially near the end of each verse, and the way it doesn't quite scan in places, it has an edgy, slightly modern feel, even in the original.

Then there's the subject matter. It starts off all Disneyesque with these happy children playing in the fields, scoffing strawberries, but then they all come out in measles? (or at least a rash of some kind). And there are snakes. And a slightly sinister forester. It turns all Grimm Brothers with lost children in the woods, a poisoned horse, and then ends up with a religious analogy and the suggestion of rape.

And someone (maybe not the author, but probably later editors) have decided to call it "Song of Childhood". A dark, threatening sort of childhood, it seems to me.

The other weird thing about this poem is that it has childhood as subject matter at all. Early medieval German literature doesn't really go in for the childhood concept. Children are usually depicted as little adults (see, e.g. the early Tristan), and there is hardly ever any suggestion that their lives are different from adult lives. This is one of the few windows onto German medieval childhood we get, and look at what it shows us (scroll down for my translation):

Der wilde Alexander (c. 1280)

Hie bevor dô wir kint wâren
und diu zît was in den jâren
daz wir liefen ûf die wisen,
von jenen wider her ze disen;
dâ wir under stunden
vîol funden,
dâ siht man nu rinder bisen.

Ich gedenk wol daz wir sâzen
in den bluomen unde mâzen
welch diu schœnest möhte sîn.
dô schein unser kintlich schîn
mit dem niuwen kranze
zuo dem tanze.
alsus gât diu zît von hin.

Seht dô lief wir ertber suochen
von der tannen zuo der buochen
über stoc und über stein
der wîle daz diu sunne schein.
dô rief ein waltwîser
durch diu rîser
'wol dan, kinder, und gât hein.'

Wir enpfiengen alle mâsen
gester dô wir ertber lâsen:
daz war uns ein kintlich spil.
dô erhôrte wir sô vil
unsern hirte rüefen
unde wüefen
'kinder, hie gât slangen vil.'

Ez gienc ein kint in dem krûte:
daz erschrac und rief vil lûte
'kinder, hie lief ein slang în,
der beiz unser pherdelîn:
daz ne heilet nimmer.
er müez immer
sûren unde unsælic sîn!'

'Wol dan, gât hin ûz dem walde!
unde enîlet ir niht balde,
iu geschieht als ich iu sage:
erwerbet ir niht bî dem tage
daz ir den walt rûmet,
ir versûmet
iuch und wirt iur vreuden klage.

Wizzet ir daz vünf juncvrouwen
sich versûmten in den ouwen
unz der künc den sal beslôz?
ir klag und ir schade was grôz,
wande die stocwarten
von ir zarten,
daz si stuonden kleider blôz.'

Song of Childhood
Alexander the Strange(r)

Once upon a time when we were children
and were of the age
where we ran around in the fields,
from this one to that one;
we sometimes
found violets
where you now see cows pastured

I remember well how we sat
among the flowers and judged
which the prettiest were.
You could see our childishness shine through.
With a new garland
we went dancing.
And so time passes.

See how we went looking for strawberries
from pine to beech
up hill and down dale
as long as the sun shone.
Then a forester called
through the thicket
'Come now, children, and go home.'

We all got spots
that time we picked strawberries:
it was just a childish game for us.
Suddenly our watcher called to us
'children, the woods are full of snakes.'

A child went poking into the thicket:
he startled and shouted
'children, a snake came through here,
and bit our little horse:
That will never heal.
He will always
be miserable and unlucky!'

'Come now, come out of the woods!
and if you don't hurry quickly,
it will come to pass as I say:
If you don't succeed by daylight
in getting out of the forest,
you will be too late
and your joy will turn to sorrow.

Did you know that five virgins
once dawdled in the meadow
until the king locked the hall?
Their sorrow and their pain was great,
because the watchmen
tore their clothes off,
so that they stood there naked.'

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New Kid on the Hallway said...

Oooh, I love this! Thanks for posting it. It really does feel like a glimpse into the medieval mind.

Anonymous said...

I've been trying to translate what appears to be 13th century German text, but I could use a few pointers. I ran across your blog while researching the word, "jâren" -- and lo and behold found it in this 13th century German poem. (Coincidence, I think not.)

Anyway, if you wouldn't mind having a look/see, I would very much appreciate your expertise on the subject matter. Would you be inclined to view the text and see if it can be translated, or if it's just gibberish? I can be reached via email: ladyfere(at)
I look forward to hearing from you! :-)