Word of the Week: Minnelied

Jun 21, 2013

Every Friday, Germany.info and The Week in Germany highlight a different "Word of the Week" in the German language that may serve to surprise, delight or just plain perplex native English speakers.


Minnesänger Enlarge image Minnesänger in Wartburg (© picture-alliance / akg-images) Parzival, Richard the Lionheart, Walther von der Vogelweide, Duke Leopold of Austria ... All of these characters knew a thing or two about our word of the week: "Minnelied". A "Minnelied" is the main form of "Minnesang", a specific tradition of lyric and song writing of love poems that flourished in Germany between the 12th and 14th century, the High Middle Ages. The poems were presented by singers called "Minnesänger" (Minnesingers), who would perform them in the court of kings and dukes. In English, the closest word for the performers is minstrel, so let's translate "Minnelied" as a minstrel's song. You may, however, use Minnelied and Minnesang (or the slightly adapted derivative Minnesong) in English - a favorite of spelling bees!

The language of the Minnelied was Middle High German, which is decidedly more different from modern German than Shakespearean iambic pentameters from modern English. Just to give an example, even the Middle High German key word “Minne” is not in use anymore - "Minne" means "love", and the modern German word is “Liebe”. However, the word “Minne” refers not simply to love, but to an entire culture that existed around it within nobility in those centuries. “Minne” is courtly love, the love felt between nobles, and, more specifically, the love a knight may feel for a noble lady, frequently unreachable to him for a variety of reasons. The Minnelied often contains class differences, flowery language, a comparison between the safety of the castle and the wildness of the forest. There is tension in a traditional Minnelied, but usually the tension is derived from anticipation, desire, and bittersweet romance. Often there is made up language, and new phrases, symbolic of the language of love. 

Knight and Lady Enlarge image Traditional artwork associated with Minnelieder. (© picture alliance / akg-images)

Some Minnesänger were part of high nobility, possibly dedicated to various young noble women. One of the most renowned writers of Minnelieder, Walther von der Vogelweide, spent time in the company of kings and noblemen. Later, the Minnelied tradition found its way into epic poetry, musicals, and operas. Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Richard Strauss’ Guntram, both well known operas, have clear elements from the Minnelied tradition, the first based on the epic minstrels' contest on the Wartburg. 

Perhaps the most famous Minnelied is "Unter der Linden" (under the linden trees, which b.t.w. is a term of German origin in the American language, whereas the British would say lime trees) by Walther von der Vogelweide, which features the poet's onomatopoetic invention "tandaradei" of the nightingale's tweeting that people still understand today:

Under der linden
an der heide,
dâ unser zweier bette was,
dâ muget ir vinden
schône beide
gebrochen bluomen unde gras.
Vor dem walde in einem tal,
schône sanc diu nahtegal.

(Modern German equivalent)

Unter der Linde
an der Heide,
wo unser beider Bett war,
da könnt ihr finden
schön beide
gebrochen Blumen und Gras.
Am Waldrand in einem Tal,
schön sang die Nachtigall.

(Modern English translation)

Under the linden tree,
on the open field,
where we two had our bed,
you can still see
lovely both
broken flowers and grass.
On the edge of the woods in a vale,
sweetly sang the nightingale.

© Germany.info

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