Heinrich von Veldeke  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Hendrik van Veldeke (aka: He(y)nric van Veldeke(n), German Heinrich von Veldeke, before or around 1150 – after 1184) is the first writer in the Low Countries that we know by name who wrote in a European language (rather than Latin). He was born in Veldeke, a hamlet on the territory of Spalbeek, which has been a community of Hasselt since 1977. The ‘Vel(de)kermolen’, a water mill on the Demer river, is the only remainder of this hamlet.

Veldeke’s birth and dying year are uncertain. He must have been born before or around 1150, as he was literary active in the early seventies of the twelfth century. There is no evidence that Veldeke was born in 1128, as is often suggested. He certainly died after 1184, because he mentions in his Eneas that he was present at the court day that emperor Frederik Barbarossa organised in Mainz at Pentecost of that year. He must have died before Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote his Parzival, which was completed between 1205 and 1210. Wolfram mentions in that work that Veldeke died prematurely. Veldeke probably was a member of a ministrial class (unfree nobles) family. The existence of such a family is mentioned in deeds from the thirteenth century. It may be concluded that he received a thorough education, as he used Latin sources in his works.

Eneas Romance

Veldeke’s most sizeable work is the Eneas Romance, which he based on the Old French Roman d'Enéas, that in its turn is inspired by Virgil’s Aeneis. Veldeke wrote the largest part around 1175. According to the epilogue of the Eneas, Veldeke allowed the countess of Cleves to read his work when it was for four fifths completed. She in turn entrusted one of her ladies in waiting with it. The work was stolen, and it was only returned to Veldeke in 1184 by count palatine Herman of Thuringia, who gave him the order to finish it. The identity of the thief remains unclear. Some believe it was Hendrik Raspe, brother to Herman of Thuringia; others believe the thief was Heinrich von Schwarzburg. The latter had a feud with landgrave Louis III of Thuringia, Herman’s eldest brother and also bridegroom to the countess of Cleves.

Veldeke’s Eneas is the first courtly romance in a Germanic language. He devoted a lot of attention to courtly love, courtly virtues (moderation, self-control, eloquence, …) and the beauty of courtly life. Despite the tragic events of the story (e.g., Dido’s suicide and the death of Pallas, Eneas’ brother-in-arms, and of many other heroes), a positive tone is dominant. For example, at the end of the romance he describes with great enthusiasm Eneas’ and Lavinia’s wedding feast, where he represents an optimistic view of humanity and the world as the apotheosis of the romance. Veldeke also insists on comparing the wedding with the court day that emperor Frederik Barbarossa organised in 1184 in Mainz. This is one of the argument that is often used as proof that Veldeke wrote for the imperial entourage. It is in this context that the choice of material may perhaps be viewed. The story of Eneas is, after all, also the story of the foundation of Rome; the German emperors considered themselves the heirs of the Roman Empire. Medieval royal houses quite often had falsified family trees made that went back to the Trojans.

That the Eneas Romance has only been preserved in Middle High German versions has given rise to the question whether the part of the romance Veldeke showed to the countess of Cleves was originally written in Maaslandic or Middle High German. Germanists such as Otto Behaghel (in his 1882 edition) and Theodor Frings and Gabriele Schieb (in their edition of 1964-1970) believed Veldeke wrote the Eneas in his mother tongue, Maaslandic. They have attempted to reconstruct such a lost version. This reconstruction is considered too hypothetical by many modern philologists. Usually, Ludwig Etmüller’s critical edition of 1852 or Hans Fromm’s diplomatic edition of the beautifully illustrated Berlin manuscript (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek Preuβischer Kulturbesitz, germ. fol. 282) from 1992 get preference.

According to the Germanist Thomas Klein (Bonn), Veldeke used neutral rhymes. This means Veldeke consciously selected rhyme couples that were possible both in Maaslandic and Middle High German. Wapen / slapen in Maaslandic becomes wafen / slafen in Middle High German; the Maaslandic rhyme couple jare / mare on the other hand becomes jâre / mære in Middle High German. Klein believes Veldeke applied the same technique in his Servatius. Apparently, he hoped to reach as large an audience as possible with as little an effort on the part of a scribe as possible.

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