continuing sadness of Heinrich von Morungen’s medieval alba

In Heinrich von Morungen’s alba (dawn song), which this minnesinger composed about the year 1200, a knight and a lady remembered at dawn separating from their mutual embrace. He remembered her lovely face shining as brightly as the full moon:

Oh! Oh!
Will nevermore the glow
of that fair form as white
as newly fallen snow
come to me through the night?
The sight deceived my eyes.
I thought I saw arise
the bright moon in the skies.
Then came the dawn!

{ Owê,
Sol aber mir iemer mê
geliuhten dur die naht
noch wîzer danne ein snê
5 ir lîp vil wol geslaht?
Der trouc diu ougen mîn.
ich wânde, ez solde sîn
des liehten mânen schîn.
Dô tagte ez. }[1]

Maybe he had seen the moon. But he hadn’t recently seen her. She lamented that she might never see him again:

Oh! Oh!
And will he never know
the daybreak here again,
nor watch the darkness go,
nor share my sorrow when
I cry: “Alas, ’tis day!”?
That he too used to say
when he beside me lay.
Then came the dawn!

{ Owê,
Sol aber er iemer mê
den morgen hie betagen?
als uns diu naht engê,
daz wir niht durfen klagen:
‘Owê, nu ist ez tac,’
als er mit klage pflac,
dô er júngest bî mir lac.
Dô tagte ez. }

In our starkly ideological age, such love between a woman and a man is scarcely imaginable. Women have been treated as men’s property, as men’s chattel, throughout all of history, so they say. In medieval Europe, the Church’s police force harshly regulated everyone’s sexual activities, women hadn’t yet fully civilized men, and the unmanageable risk and horror of getting pregnant petrified women. Medieval women wouldn’t dare engage in illicit love affairs with men even if they were interested in doing so, which they weren’t. That’s the medieval anti-fairy tale that everyone is now taught.

The mid-thirteenth-century minnesinger Tannhäuser freely delighted in what he saw with his male gaze. It was Christmas time, and he invited beautiful young women to dance to his song:

When the pretty maid
skips forward all my troubles are allayed.
The silken sash above
her hips waves up and down and sometimes brings me thoughts of love.

You’re kind and lovely, too.
But stop a bit, joyous wonder, you!
How fair each curly tress,
red lips and eyes as I would have them be,
your cheek is like a rose,
with your white throat how well the neck brooch goes,
you doll in summer dress
with yellow ringlets, just the kind for me,
how firm and round your breasts!
Now whirl my sweet — where all my longing rests —
and show your cute behind
a moment just for me, and I shall nearly lose my mind.

Laugh at me if you will!
Whene’er you show your pretty toes I thrill,
so well-shaped and so white.
You lovely figure, darling of my heart,
dance on and on, my sweet!
There never were before such dainty feet,
and whom they don’t delight,
I tell you, really isn’t very smart.
Her legs are white and rise
to a brown and curly mound, and soft, smooth thighs.
Her bottom’s nicely curved,
and all one wants in women she possesses, I’ve observed.

{ so sich dú gůte
schreket vor so ist mir wol zemv̊te.
vnd ir gúrtel senken.
machet dc ich vnder wilent liebe mv̊s gedenken.

Dv liebes dv gv̊tes.
tv̊ hin la stan. dv wunder wol gemv̊tes.
wol stent dine loͤkel.
din múndel rot din oͤgel als ich wolde.
rose var din wengel.
din kelli blank da vor stet wol din spengel.
dv rehtes svmer toͤkel.
reit val din har. rehte als ichs wúnschen solde.
gedrat dine brúste.
nv tanze eht hin min liebes min gelúste.
la sitv́li bleken.
ein weninc dvr den willen min. da gegen mv̊s ich schreken.

Nv lachet aber min flehen.
ich schreke so dir bloͤzent dine zehen.
die sint wol gestellet.
vil schonú forme vnd herzeliebú minne.
nv tanze eht hin min svͤssel.
so hol so smal so wurden nie kein fuͤssel.
swen dc niht gevellet.
dc wisset der hat niht gv̊ter sinne.
wis sint ir beinel.
lindú diehel reit brvn ist ir meinel.
ir sizzel gedrolle.
swc man an frowen winschen sol. des hat si gar die volle. }[2]

Tannhäuser had observed closely one of the dancing women. Cuckolds laugh to hide their contempt for men, beauty, and humanity. Preventing men from dying of lovesickness has been achieved by eliminating the incidence of lovesickness. Men deserve better healthcare than being numbed to female beauty.

Of course women shouldn’t sexually harass or rape men. In Heinrich von Morungen’s alba, the knight fondly remembered:

Oh! Oh!
A thousand times, it seems,
she kissed me as I slept,
and, til I left my dreams,
how bitterly she wept.
But then I knew how best
to put her tears to rest.
She drew me to her breast.
Then came the dawn!

{ Owê,
Si kuste âne zal
in dem slâfe mich.
dô vielen hin ze tal
ir trehene nider sich.
Iedoch getrôste ich sie,
daz sî ir weinen lie
und mich al umbevie.
Dô tagte ez. }

Under modern college sex regulations, kissing a person while she’s asleep is sexual assault. Sleeping persons cannot consent to mouth-to-mouth amorous contact. Women in medieval Europe were ignorant of such modern scholastic thinking. Not seeking to invoke the penal punishment apparatus, this woman marveled in remembering her beloved knight’s male gaze:

Oh! Oh!
So many times has he
seen what he already knew
and full uncovered me.
He wanted just to view
this form all bare and bright.
I marveled that my knight
so much enjoyed the sight.
Then came the dawn!

{ Owê,
Daz er sô dicke sich
bî mir ersehen hât!
als er endahte mich,
sô wolt er sunder wât
Mîn arme schouwen blôz.
ez was ein wunder grôz,
daz in des nie verdrôz.
Dô tagte ez. }[3]

The dawn brings light. Yet before dawn, uncovering her, he could see her beautiful body naked in the darkness. She shone like the moon. Men, romantically simple and highly visual, like to see naked women. Medieval women desired to be desired and delighted in men’s desire for them.

The alba typically enacts at dawn sorrow in the man’s departure from his beloved woman in bed. Heinrich von Morungen’s alba is usual in having the woman and man alone, sadly recalling their dawn departure. Remembering is the beginning of reconnecting men and women in love.

The male gaze is gone.
The male gaze is gone away.
The male gaze is gone, baby,
the male gaze is gone away.
You know you done me wrong, baby,
and you’ll be sorry someday! [4]

* * * * *

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[1] Heinrich von Morungen 30, “Alas, shall it ever again {Owê, sol aber iemer mê},” stanza 1 (of 4), Middle High German text from the medieval German faculty of Heinrich-Heine-Universität, English translation from Thomas (1963) p. 6. Here’s Leonard Cottrell’s English translation of the whole poem. The subsequent three quotes above from Heinrich von Morungen’s alba are sourced similarly, unless otherwise noted, and serially comprise the complete poem.

[2] Tannhäuser 11, “Now we should all decide {Gegen disen winnahten},” vv. 9-36, Middle High German text from the Codex Manesse, English translation (modified slightly) from Thomas (1974) p. 159.

[3] Thomas’s translation of the concluding stanza interpolates moral disapprobation of the man’s gaze:

Oh! Oh!
So many times has he
seen more than was his due
and quite uncovered me;
he wanted just to view
this form all bare and bright.
I wondered that my knight
so much enjoyed the sight.
Then came the dawn!

Thomas (1963) p. 7. The close translations of Saville (1972), p. 265, and Ryan (2012), p. 24, make clear that no such moral disapprobation exists in the Middle High German text. I’ve modified the English translation to be more faithful to the Middle High German.

Regarding verse 4.5, Ryan observed:

There has been some dispute over whether the words “min arme” refer to her arm, or whether the phrase might not mean “poor me.” I prefer the first of these alternatives, according to which “arme” is a metonym for the woman’s body as a whole.

Ryan (2012), p. 24.

[4] Cf. “The Thrill is Gone,” written by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell in 1951, popularized by B.B. King’s rendition in 1970. Here’s B.B. King singing “The Thrill is Gone” at the Montreux Jazz Festival (Switzerland) in 1993.

[images] (1) Recording of Heinrich von Morungen’s “Owê sol aber mir iemer me,” music by Frank Wulff & Stephan Wulff, from Sol’s album Ougenweide (Hamburg, 1996). Via YouTube. Here’s a sparse, mournful recording by Alrun und Olaf, Corina Kuhs’s version with harp, and a lively, folk-rock version. (2) Tannhäuser with beloved woman at dawn. Painted by Gabriel von Max about 1878. Preserved as accession # M.Ob.500 in the National Museum in Warsaw. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Ryan, Judith. 2012. The Cambridge Introduction to German Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Saville, Jonathan. 1972. The Medieval Erotic Alba: structure as meaning. New York, London: Columbia University Press.

Thomas, John Wesley. 1963. German Verse from the 12th to the 20th Century in English Translation. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Thomas, John Wesley. 1974. Tannhäuser: poet and legend, with texts and translations of his works. University of North Carolina Studies in the Germanic Languages and Literatures, no.77. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1974.

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