Sir Ulrich went a-maying. Of courtly love and cross-dressing knights.

1 May 1227, Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein, dressed up as “Frau Venus”, begins his quest of jousting and tourneying for the honour of his mistress in Venice

“des smielten al die vrowen gar / daz ich ez also blide an vie / und ouch in wibes chleidern gie / und also schoene zöpfte truoc – des wart gelachet da genuoc” (The ladies all smiled a lot because I was going along so merrily and was wearing women’s clothing and was wearing such beautiful braids – there was a lot of laughing about that. Ulrich von Liechtenstein “Frauendienst”)

Portrait of Ulrich von Liechtenstein,
dressed up as Frau Venus, from the Codex Manesse (14th century)

’amor, Hohe Minne, courtly love. It was something like a wraithlike, spiritual sexual revolution that hit the upper echelons of western society during the early 12th century. The Cluniac Reforms and the apocalyptic mood of the year 1000 had left Christian nobility from Carlisle to Cracow with a general mood, or at least the ideal, of world renunciation and asceticism, condemning everything worldly, especially earthly love and reduced women basically to a state of something that might have escaped from one of St Paul’s more misogynous musings. Mulier taceat in ecclesia and all. It was, in hindsight, ironically enough for all sides involved, that the continuous contact with Islam in Southern Europe brought about a paradigm change. The culturally advanced Muslim courts in Al-Andalus and the Arabic upper class of Sicily, recently conquered by the Normans, had a long standing tradition of courtly love and poetry with roots in ancient Persia and the idea of loving a very un-otherworldly female between the poles of erotic desire and spiritual attainment began to creep slowly across the borders, into the Languedoc and Italy, from there into France until crusader returnees brought back home the very same ideals and the whole of Christian Europe had caught the Minne fever. The role of Europe’s noble women had fundamentally changed, from a bare necessity into an object of adoration. St Paul would have foamed at the mouth.

Queen Guinevere as mistress of a court of love, exchanging glances with Sir Lancelot, by Herbert James Draper (c. 1890)

It’s not that Christian mysticism and heroic tales of blood and thunder were completely displaced from European courtly culture, but fin’amor gave the first significant rise to poetry in the Occident since the end of antiquity and Hohe Minne became probably the most cherished pastime of nobility besides hunting and slaughtering each other, from quests to participating in courts of love and winning favours of adored ladies in tournaments, admittedly along with gaining the wickedly expensive equipment of downed opponents. A hundred years later, beyond the verses of Minnesingers and troubadors, the game of amour courtois was distorted into grotesque forms more often than not, though. The Styrian knight Ulrich von Liechtenstein had put his rather outré deeds and experiences in writing in 1255. His “Vrouwen Dienest”, Frauendienst, Service of the Lady, tells the semi-autobiographic story of a young squire who wishes to enter the service of courtly love of a highborn Austrian lady. He promptly gets the brush-off, in writing, since poor Ulrich had a harelip and the lady wrote that his “camel-like mouth” was not kissable at all. And even if the 13th century Austria’s idea of a camel were probably rather vague, Ulrich wandered heartbroken to Vienna and underwent cosmetic surgery, the first such operation documented in European literature. The Lady wasn’t interested at all and Ulrich began touring the tournaments in Austria and Bohemia, jousting for the honour of his vrouwe, his lady, and when one of his fingers remained stiff after an accident, he turned van Gogh, cut off the limb and sent it, post haste, to his lady as a sign of his devotion. The beloved was rather appalled and still wouldn’t answer Ulrich’s prayers.

Edmund Leighton’s imagination of one of the most popular motifs of High Medieval courtly literature, Tristan and La Belle Iseult, after “The End of the Song” (1903)

The situation called for desperate measures, obviously, and Ulrich von Liechtenstein began his famous pilgrimage, dressed up as Frau Venus. That meant he wore a nightie over his jousting armour and the goddess of love as crest on his helmet, took part in every tourney and challenged every knight he met on then 29 days of his way from Venice to Prague to break a lance, promising the winner a golden ring and forcing losers to bow to the four winds and praise the honour of his lady. And then, following the exertions of his chivalrous pilgrimage, Ulrich returned home to his wife, Perchta von Weißenstein, and his children and get a rest. Of course, Ulrich was married, like his lady and the rest of the participants of the game of courtly love. The temporary, unobtainable and often unapproachable, quasi mystic and other-worldly character of courtly love, in contrast to the very down-to-earth character of dynastic marriages, was a definingly piquant characteristic, picked up by the Romantics since the “Sorrows of Young Werther” more than 500 years later in its lachrymose algolagnia. Ulrich, however, saw the folly of his ways, at least in regards to his first beloved, after a few more ludicrous episodes and bid his last goodbye after the lady committed “the worst vice”. Whatever that was, in the skewed perception of Ulrich’s day, remains open for debate to this day, at least among historians and specialists of medieval literary studies.

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