Wolfram of Eschenbach: Willehalm (Fragments)


The epic Willehalm was composed by Wolfram of Eschenbach sometime after the completion of his Parsifal in circa 1210–20. The work extends to 13,988 couplet verses but it seems to be somewhat unfinished. The source came to Wolfram by Landgrave Hermann I of Thuringia (ruled 1190‒1217) and is, in its individual features, an unknown version of the old French poem Aliscans, a chanson de geste (an epic poem on the Charlemagne legends) composed in the late 12th century. Its main topics are the wars of Charlemagne and his successors. Aliscans belongs to the extensive cycle of epics having the legendary figure of Guillaume d'Orange at its center. Guillaume d'Orange resembles, to some extent, William of Toulouse, a cousin of Charlemagne and a warrior against the Saracens in the years around 800. There remain only ten existing fragments of a formerly large and lavishly illuminated manuscript (the so-called “Große Bilderhandschrift”) of about 230 leaves containing 1,380 scenes, which seems to have come from Saxony or Thuringia. Eight leaves of the codex are preserved in Munich and the remaining two small fragments in Nuremberg. The colored outline drawings, mostly three to a page, run parallel with the text and in slightly wider columns, and offer a richly symbolic interpretation of the verses they accompany. The abundance and expressive power of the illuminations, the latter particularly notable in the gestures of the characters, make this one of the finest, as it is one of the earliest, sets of illustrations of a German courtly epic. The original codex is often considered to have been the most splendidly illuminated German manuscript of the Middle Ages. It presumably was cut into pieces in the 16th century and was subsequently used as cover material. The Bavarian State Library was able to purchase the first two fragments in 1829. In 1959 and in 1968 the last (as of now) ten known fragments of leaves were acquired from a private collection.

Last updated: November 16, 2017