Ulrich von Liechtenstein has been a hero of mine for some time, ever since I first of heard of him and what he had done in his life. I know some of you are thinking of the movie from a few years back by the the name of A Knight’s Tale, which starred the late Heath Ledger and somewhere in the back of your mind you recall that was the assumed name the peasant turned jousting knight used. Someone associated with the movie must have actually had a bit of medieval history in their background, for there was indeed a true knight from the 13th century by the name Ulrich von Liechtenstein.
The real Ulrich had a life that was probably just interesting, perhaps more so, and certainly as ruled by the notions of courtly love and how to win the favor of his this lady that inspired in him all things. Further, the true Ulrich was not only a knight and jouster of some reknown during his lifetime, but he was further was educated and used his talents to write poetry describing his exploits pursuing the love that spurned him. The title of the work the famed poet-jouster, as he is often called, wrote in the original Middle High German was Frauendienst. Translated to modern English, it reads as The Service of Ladies. The work itself is, as noted, poetic in nature and is largely an autobiographical account of Ulrich’s attempts to win the attention and love of a Lady that somehow captured his young heart at the tender age of twelve. It is a true, or at least as true by the accounting of it, story of a knight-errant on the mission of all that is embodied in the terms courtly love. I am sure some of my friends find me, who reenacts an English knight sometimes in France are amused that I am pointing to a Germanic figure as a hero.
Ironically I found a copy of these yesterday at the half-price book store here in Lexington yesterday. And though I have read some excerpts here and there, I have never had the full piece to devour in its whole until now. For those that are interested, they did have three more copies and I am sure it is also available via Amazon. It has quickly bumped up to the top spot on my current reading lists of about six or seven books that I have going at any given time, even for the short-term bumping the biography of Sam Clemens.
What we know about Ulrich is that he is a real person, of noble birth (the von signifies that in his name) in modern-day southern Austria. We do not however, know if he was a first son or otherwise, which would have been important in regards to his right to inheritance and such. We know the picture above was likely done a few years after his death and certainly after he was no longer jousting regularly. Despite that though, it does show fairly correctly the chain mail and great helm that would have been appropriate for the time period that would have actively been involved in tournaments and his acts of courtly love. Further, we are relatively sure that picture does depict his actual arms on both the shield and again repeated on the trappings his mount presents.
We also know that during this time that outside of the crusades, their was relative peace, especially in the areas where Ulrich was located. We know that it was some time, despite having served as a page and later a squire in good and faithful service, before he was made a knight, largely because of the lack of war. However, we know that he did actively participated in tournaments of the day and apparently gained some deal of renown in doing so. Tournaments consisted of two types at the time for the most, the melee, where mock armies started with a horse charge and the victory was determined usually by whoever was less bloodied with the blunted weapons at the end of the day. The second types is the early version of the joust we see depicted in the moves, horses charging toward one another, lance drops and hits the opposing rider, splintering into a pieces.
A brief excerpt to give you and idea of the flowery language:
Women are rich in charm and grace.
To match their lovely form and face
is more than angels hope to do.
A woman, virtuous and true,
who has no faults of any kind,
must have an angel’s heart and mind
and like an angel seems to glow.
You have my word that this is so.
The story told by Ulrich begins with his proclaiming that all ladies deserve everything a man can do for them to honor them, for they are just that great and full of grace and the only way men can if hope to do well is to do so by striving to serve the ladies, otherwise it is all for naught. He then goes on to tell of how at twelve he fell fully into love, but was spurned because of his youth by this older woman. Later he arranged to be a squire and page in her household in order to be close to her, but she still yet spurned him. He eventually begins to take to the jousting field wearing her colors and wins acclaim and she still denies him. He wrote her poetry, professes his undying love to her, and continues with jousting in her honor often, and still she takes not any notice. At one point, she does note that an injured finger from jousting must have been mild and Ulrich was just a whiner who complained to much. In response, he apologized and supposedly removed one his fingers and sent it to her as a token (and we though Jocelyn in the movie was hard on the Heath version of Ulrich), and this gesture began to break the ice between them. Even then though she thought he was plain and undesirable due to a facial flaw, which he has corrected through surgery, again just for her.
Eventually he took an oath tourney for the love that inspired him, vowing to met all comers during a month of travels, that he called the “Journey of Venus,” in honor to the goddess of love, the honor his own love that inspired him, and indeed all women from which all love must obviously originate. During this journey, he reportedly styled himself and dressed as the goddess Venus both during the joust and when traveling otherwise. During the month of this journey he boasts of having broke 307 lances for the honor of his love. Also of note, it is during this time he gave a ring to any comer that was able to break a lance on him, or basically strike him with a the lance. He gave out 271 such rings, meaning he was struck that many times himself.
Eventually his love does allow him to find her favor and one would think they would have lived happily ever after right? You can here the record in the background being scratched across the surface as the happy music stops abruptly. The “courtly love” was apparently one of an arrangement of patronage. For it is noted, that during the time of trying to win such approval from this lady, Ulrich himself was indeed married and had an apparently lovely wife who bore him children. In fact, his son, also named Ulrich, married well enough to secure a small region that become its own country, Leichtenstein, which still exists today.
Of particularly interest to me, in 1240, at forty years of age Ulrich organized a new round of tournament jousting based on Arthurian legends. He himself played the role of Arthur and those that would joust him assumed names such and Gwain, Kay and Lancelot. I have to think that it is good to know as I myself approach forty that there is historical evidence I can keep going. Further, forty then, would more like sixty today I suspect. Now I need to find that love which will inspire me thusly and challenge all comers to prove such love!