Aysha Strachan is a Joint-PhD candidate in the department of German at King’s College London and the Humboldt University of Berlin under the supervision of Dr Sarah Bowden and Professor Andreas Krass. The working title of her thesis is: “Female Sexual Transgression in Middle High German Literature”.


Konrad von Würzburg’s Middle High German Partonopier und Meliur, thought to have been finished c. 1277, is believed to be based on the Old French Partonopeus de Blois, composed by an unknown author c. 1170–80. In an ironic tone that is typical to Konrad’s narrative style, his narrator nods to the Old French origins of his tale in the prologue and excuses his departure from it, as he claims not to speak a word of French: “franzeis ich niht vernemen kan” (l. 212) [I cannot understand French].

While the Old French text has seven complete or near-complete manuscripts, an estimated three lost fragments incorporated into an anthology codex and two later versions, there are only three extant manuscripts of the Middle High German. (Click here for transcriptions of and information about all twelve manuscript witnesses of the Old French Partonopeus from The University of Sheffield). Due to its comparative lack of manuscripts and the fact that all versions are left unfinished, Konrad’s Partonopier is far less studied than its Old French analogue. One key difference between the French and German traditions lies in their treatment of the enigmatic, fay-like female figure: Melior or Meliur, the lover and (eventually) wife of the protagonist. While Penny Shine Gold argues that the ending of the Old French hints at harmonious reunion of two realms through the lovers’ marriage and implicitly condemns Melior for having separated Partonopeus from his family, feudal companions and duty to his homeland, no such judgement is passed on Meliur by Konrad’s narrator. In the French text, Partonopeus appears forgiven by Meliur, wins her hand in marriage at a three-day tournament and becomes Emperor of Byzantium. Konrad’s German text is unfinished, however, and leaves the hero fighting on the battlefield to protect Meliur’s kingdom against his love-rival, the Sultan of Persia. Although it is impossible to know what specific adaptations Konrad might have made, his incomplete German narrative leaves space for significant gender trouble concerning the figure of Meliur.

In both texts, the eponymous Frankish prince loses his way while hunting and arrives via an enchanted ship on the shores of the abandoned kingdom of Chef d’Oire (French) or Schiefdeir (German)—located vaguely in the Byzantine Empire. The prince is guided by an invisible hand through the splendid yet abandoned city and castle, eventually arriving in Melior/Meliur’s bedchamber. Despite later admitting to using “nigramance” (OF, l. 4604), “nigrômancie” (MHG, l. 8096) to orchestrate his arrival, she acts surprised and offended at the hero’s arrival in her bed, taking advantage of him when he is weary, delusional, and much younger than she. He must promise not to see her and it is only under the cover of darkness and secrecy that they can sleep together each night, to protect their love from societal order that would make their relationship impossible. But the hero breaks his promise. Encouraged by his mother, who believes Melior/Meliur to be a devil, he peeks under her robes with an enchanted lantern and in doing so is able to identify her by her genitalia as a shining, angelic specimen of humanity. The audience might not be so convinced, though. Is this conclusion – that Melior/Meliur is “human” – enough to smooth out the ambiguities of her character, particularly given the strikingly odd way in which her lover obtains this knowledge? Can we ignore the issues of consent and the subversion of power and gender roles in their relationship? As a powerful female ruler, Meliur is strikingly aware of how to play the dominant role in her own relationship, controlling her invisibility, using her voice to convince her lover of her trustworthiness and powerful status and capitalizing on her much younger partner’s vulnerability. In choosing her own lover, Meliur transgresses the stereotype of the passive feminine figure to take control of her own sex life. It’s striking that Konrad’s Meliur has somewhat stumped scholarship, which widely disagrees on whether she presents the traits of a woman, actually is a woman, or is a demonic fay.

Codex_Manesse_Konrad_von_Würzburg.jpg

“Meister Chůnrat von Würzburg” pictured instructing his scribe in the Zürich codex of the "Great Heidelberg Book of Songs” (c. 1300 – c. 1340), which is considered the most comprehensive collection of ballads and epigrammatic poetry in Middle High German language. Cod. Pal. germ. 848, Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift (Codex Manesse), f. 383r. Full digitisation available here.

Turning now specifically to Konrad’s text, it seems that Meliur’s ambiguous depiction could be deliberate. She has often been connected to the Melusine tradition of Jean d’Arras’ Roman de Mélusine (c. 1392), later adapted by Thüringen von Ringoltingen (c. 1456). In one manuscript version, Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, mgf 1064 (c. 1471), both Partonopier und Meliur and Thüringen’s Melusine appear together, suggesting that the texts were thought of as participating in the same literary tradition, at least for the patron: Christoph Ruether von H. Wincklär. Melusine differs from Meliur in one fundamental aspect: her physical description, with her human upper body and fish tail which the male protagonist spies through a peep-hole while she is bathing. Although Meliur’s hybridity is not expressed in such physical terms—she is kept entirely invisible for the first half of the text—the way in which she controls her visibility until the male voyeur steals this power from her resonates strongly with the tradition of Melusine. The fact that these hybrid female figures are represented through the voyeuristic male gaze of the narrator encourages the recipient to gender the body they are invited to look at and question the relationship between what they are presented with and what they choose to accept as the truth.

Mélusine image BnF fr. 24383.jpg

BnF fr. 24383, f. 19r. Melusine’s secret half-mermaid identity is discovered by her spying husband. From the Roman de Mélusine by Jean d'Arras (c. 1392). Melusine, like Meliur, is a hybrid woman whose supernatural powers rely on not being seen, yet the recipient is encouraged to spy on her body with an erotic, masculine eye. Source: Gallica, Biblissima.

The exoticism, mystery and ambiguity of Meliur’s character is deeply connected to her involvement with “magic”. There is a wider literary tradition of female figures who are magical lovers, such as Morgana in the Arthurian tradition or Marie de France’s Lai de Guigemar and Lanval. The depiction of Meliur in the Partonopeus tradition also resonates with mythical female figures in classical antiquity: the recipient might be reminded of Circe and Calypso who are both strongly connected to liminal, enchanted space and use the “supernatural” to entice—even trap—a male partner. Although we cannot ascertain to what extent our Partonopeus authors were influenced by these traditions, it is evident that supernatural abilities are frequently linked to female figures who are transgressive in other ways, whether they are social outcasts or unideal—sometimes even illicit—partners for the male protagonist. Nevertheless, given that the boundaries between science, magic and religion were by no means clearly defined in the Middle Ages, it is not possible to conclude that her necromancy would have been perceived as “devilish” in any way: “magic” was neither construed in an exclusively negative manner, nor did it necessarily oppose Christianity. Instead, “magic” constantly escapes boundaries and avoids definition, here providing the author with the opportunity to assert his poetic prowess through his description of unfathomable objects, forces—and even female figures.

[Illustrations_de_La_Mélusine_L'Histoire_[...]Jean_d'Arras_btv1b22000077.jpg

‘Comment Raimondin par l'admonestement de son frere regarda Melusine sa femme estant au baing et il en fut courouce contre son frere’ [How Raymond, following the advice of his brother, saw his wife Melusine in the bath and was angry with his brother because of what he saw]. Engraving taken from L'Histoire de la belle Mélusine, reproduction en fac-similé de l'édition de 1478. Source: Gallica

Compared to the Old French text, it is striking that Konrad has chosen to rationalize Meliur. In his German work, Meliur’s sexual transgression is glossed over constantly by another factor that makes her “other” to the protagonist: her age, her location, her skills, her powerful status. Konrad provides exhaustive detail on what her powers entail, offering a reasonable and practical excuse for her use of it. Wise men teach her all the languages of the world, but only due to the fact that there is no male heir to learn the ways of ruling the Empire. By exaggerating her superior intelligence and hinting at the intellectual unbalance between the two lovers, Konrad allows her to subvert gender norms and adopt a position of typically masculine dominance as ruler of the Empire. She has learnt most of the seven liberal arts, from rhetoric to astronomy (ll. 8090–4) and lists “nigrômancîen” [necromancy] (l. 8096) among the lengthy list of acquired skills, claiming to use it to produce “friemdiu wunder” [foreign wonders] (l. 8999). While the Old French describes Melior’s skills in the liberal arts in near identical terms, Konrad exaggerates her difference even further by describing her as a “houbetmeisterîn” [High Steward(-ess)] (l. 8086): the only traceable example in Middle High German of the feminine suffix on the term “houbetmeister”. Konrad depicts Meliur as having an unusual and strikingly masculine awareness of court politics and an active role in helping to run the Empire. He simultaneously excuses her use of necromancy for practical reasons and underscores her transgressive, masculine authority and political prowess, unsettling the recipient’s acceptance of Meliur as a suitable match for the hero.

The modern reader should not be fooled, however, into thinking that this is a feminist portrayal of a strong, independent ruling woman. On the contrary, both the French and German texts are male-centred works which project a male erotic fantasy from a male author with a masculine narrative perspective. Melior and Meliur continue to be defined by what they can offer the hero: sex, land and status. In both versions, all problems with her suitability for the hero are cast aside with the lover’s marriage. Her threat to gender norms—and thus by extension to the hero and the patriarchal society he nominally represents—is pacified through their eventual marriage which re-casts her into a more submissive role, as he assumes rulership of her land. In making Melior/Meliur so excessively different to the western hero, both texts also reframe her sexual agency. By performing what is essentially a construct of exoticized femininity created by a man, she functions as a reflection of the male fantasy of “woman” and as such exposes the instability of literary tropes and gender constructs both inside texts and in society more generally. Her sexuality can thus be seen in Butlerian terms: as a theatrically-produced construct within a normative discourse, revealing the instability of identity categories on a larger scale.

In comparing Konrad’s text to his Old French analogue, it can be argued that the Middle High German author has used the slipperiness of language to explore and test the stability of constructs inside and outside of his literary oeuvre. By employing self-contradictory language and rich symbolism to tell the story of Partonopier, Konrad plays with and challenges the stability of constructs such as language, text and identity. He uses his verse to challenge the recipient to scratch beneath the surface of the text and actively question what they are presented with. Konrad has thus renegotiated gendered values in the Partonopeus tradition, by capitalizing on the linguistic opportunity that translating and adapting his source presents, to create a wondrous yet undefinable character with which to enchant and beguile his audience.


Aysha Strachan
(King's College London)

Bibliography

Bartsch, Karl, ed. Konrads von Würzburg Partonopier und Meliur (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1970).

Butler, Judith, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”, in Diana Fuss, ed. Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 1991), 13–31.

Collet, Olivier, Pierre-Marie Joris, ed. and trans., Le Roman de Partonopeu de Blois, (Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 2005).

d’Arras, Jean, Melusine; or, the Noble History of Lusignan, ed. and trans. Donald Maddox, Sarah Sturm-Maddox (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012).

Eley, Penny, Partonopeus de Blois: Romance in the Making (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011), 1–18.

Handschriftencensus: http://www.handschriftencensus.de/werke/209

Suerbaum, Almut, “Augenschein und inneres Sehen in Thüringen von Ringoltingen ‘Melusine’”, in Sehen und Sichtbarkeit der Literatur des deutschen Mittelalters XXI. Anglo-German Colloquium 2009, eds. Ricarda Bauschke, Sebastien Coxon, Martin H. Jones, (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2011), 425–40.