Friday, April 27, 2012

Frauenlob the Outsider

Listening to the recording of Frauenlob’s Marienleich included in our text reinforced its context as a song to be performed.  Somewhat uniquely among our Marian readings, this performance was not primarily meditative or liturgical, but first and foremost entertaining.  From the liner notes provided on the Sequentia Ensemble as well as from Newman’s text, I glean that the recorded performance is based upon surviving copies of Frauenlob’s original musical score (see p. 144).  The harp accompaniment is modern (albeit presumably in the medieval style of improvisational accompaniment), as is the ensemble performance (Frauenlob would have performed the song alone, also singing the Mary parts).  The notes for the main vocal line are Frauenlob’s.

Assuming the recording provides at least a relatively accurate account of the song’s “mood” as performed (bear with me: I don’t study music formally), what struck me as particularly appealing was its accessibility.  While the poetry of the Marienleich is certainly fraught with complexity and erudition, I can picture Frauenlob’s noble patrons finding his performances entertaining and even vaguely catchy (I am thinking of strophe three).  Perhaps this is intentional: strophe three especially conjures the sensual love-related images of the Song of Songs.  In any case, the extent to which the Marienleich as a musical performance can be said to be popular as well as devotional music interested me.

Newman’s contextual material about the poet’s life and art paint Frauenlob as quite the celebrity.  Like many (musically serious) modern entertainers, he was deeply engaged with a group of like-minded contemporary artists, both competing with them and borrowing elements of their work to carry on shaping the craft.  He also appears flamboyant, eager to show off, and perhaps a bit egotistical, as befits a man calling himself “praise of ladies”.  As much as this perennial entertainer’s showiness - in combination with his secular noble audiences and vernacular composition - conjures up an image of medieval rock star, Frauenlob’s portrayal of Mary as God’s wisdom in Nature hints at deeper ambitions. 

Frauenlob’s mysterious origins outside the cloister and the noble court render his distinct erudition noteworthy among his minstrel peers, as Newman maintains.  The question of how he obtained his unlikely education aside, does he advance his philosophical knowledge in the Marienleich purely as a theological statement, or as a means to showcase his ability before wealthy patrons?  While those motivations may certainly underlie Frauenlob’s work, his sapiential portrayal of the Virgin suggests the poet was deeply concerned with matters of unification and the theme of coming together.

As we discussed in class, each of the Marienleich’s strophes explores various means in which Mary both can be understood by and participates in the various branches of medieval humanistic scholarship.  In a sense, by personifying God’s wisdom present at the moment of creation and enduring into the present as the figure of Mary, Frauenlob unifies the liberal arts, recombining the classical female wisdom figures into one supremely Christian entity.  At the same time, he denies the charge that the conception and theotokos confound the principles of logical thought, instead choosing to weave Mary intimately with those very principles.  By injecting the universal into the categories, Frauenlob not only demonstrates his own learning, but also may show a concern for bringing disparate elements of his society together. 

At the risk of becoming overly anecdotal regarding a figure for which I lack the proper autobiographical information, it seems Frauenlob’s position as itinerant minstrel – while allowing him access to prestigious noble courts throughout the Empire – also made him something of an outsider.  As Newman mentions in her contextual material, traveling entertainers like Frauenlob were appreciated for their talents but also looked upon with suspicion (or opportunism) as potential spies (p. 48-49).  Frequenting the courts of high nobility, Frauenlob was not himself noble; gaining access to devotional material and theological treatises of monks and nuns, his position remained firmly outside the cloister.  It is possible that this rare position in medieval society colored Frauenlob’s art, leading him to draw connections between the many worlds he saw during his travels rather than to solidify their differences. 

As a possible case in point, Newman frequently mentions the paradoxical fact that while Frauenlob is poetic champion of ladies and of Our Lady, there is no surviving material about any of the real women in his life.  Although this may be a symptom of lack of evidence, medieval German society as a whole – especially among the nobility – was very male-oriented in a way places further west were somewhat less so.  With perhaps few opportunities to enter the “world of women”, Frauenlob attempts to draw them into favorable connection with the patriarchal mainstream, again showing a concern for linkage and cohesion over division.

To return for a moment to the accessibility and what must have been the popular form of the musical performance, it can be argued that this mode of presentation made the otherwise difficult metaphorical puzzles and allusions more palatable to a lay audience.  Frauenlob does not compromise in maintaining the complexity and mystery of the poetry in the manner of Hildegard’s songs, but couches these intricacies in a medium his audience will enjoy, encouraging them to seriously contemplate them.

Newman rejects the notion that Frauenlob’s work was didactic in the way Walter of Wimborne’s may have been.  Frauenlob is an artist before he is a teacher.  But this does not necessarily negate the possibility that the Marienleich carried some social weight.  The picture Frauenlob paints of a Mary who embodies the divine wisdom of God and thus unifies the disparate notions of sense, spirit, and intellect goes hand in hand with another unification: bringing serious contemplation of the Virgin out of the cloister and into the seat of worldly power.  Perhaps the only kind of person who can succeed in this feat must come from neither one.



  1. PWR: This is a very good post. Without doubt, the complexity presented in Frauenlob’s persona and his work is impressive and intriguing. (“Medieval rock star”? Yeah, why not?). Exploration of Frauenlob’s figure and the contexts of his performances is a temptation too intriguing to pass up. But it also gives us ways to think about the “where” and “how” of Mary in these medieval societies.

    Your suggestion that Frauenlob is drawing connections between the different spheres he inhabited is well taken. I particularly like the entire paragraph wherein you write about Frauenlob’s uniting medieval humanistic scholarship by presenting Mary as permeating all of it.

    Out of curiosity, in these specific cases ("Mary in the curriculum") is Frauenlob “bringing disparate elements of his society together,” or does it just seem so to us? Would those educated in the trivium, quadrivium, etc., also have been taught of the Virgin’s “participation” in the curriculum? If so, would these elements already be united in their understanding? If not, would they “get” this out of Frauenlob’s performances?

  2. I love the image of Frauenlob as a "medieval rock star"--definitely! I am less sure about how far we can take him as a sort of rebel against patriarchal society, though. I think that you are right to point to the apparent paradox of his couching abstruse, technical learning in a catchy performative style, but isn't it possible that this is what his patrons liked? King Wenceslas II, in whose court Frauenlob arguably spent some time, was very devoted to the Virgin. Perhaps Frauenlob was playing off of his patrons' interests, not just trying surreptitiously to shape them. We need to be wary of injecting our own culture's embarrassment about intellectualism into medieval art. Just because modern audiences like their popular art undemanding doesn't mean that is what the counts and dukes for whom Frauenlob performed preferred.