Were the Middle Ages really so different?

Guest post written by Brian Murdoch, editor and translator of the book Three Political Tales from Medieval Germany.

The Middle Ages were a long time ago and the three works in this collection were in German, so how can they possibly be relevant to the modern reader? Besides, they are about emperors and kings, and empires have quite a lot of problematic historical baggage. In spite of all that, I wanted to translate and present these three texts together because they have two distinct qualities: they are good stories, and they also contain implied political messages which relate quite easily to modern events.

The first two – the stories of Duke Ernst and of Henry of Kempten – are lively narratives. The former is almost an early fantasy or science fiction text, as the hero boldly goes beyond the limits of the known world and encounters natural dangers (like magnetic mountains), and strange creatures (heavily armed monopods), before returning home. The second tells about a daring rescue and the memorable defeat of some would-be assassins by a knight who is naked apart from his shield and sword.

But both tales are political. Ernst goes on his adventures when he is driven out of the Holy Roman Empire, in which he had held a high position, by a jealous adversary, whose lies about Ernst are believed and force him to fight against the emperor. The words “emperor” and “state” are interchangeable. The emperor is not perfect, but in that age he represents stability, and Ernst learns the importance of this. Henry of Kempten also attacks his emperor, this time after an initially trivial incident escalates very rapidly, leaving him with his dagger at the emperor’s throat. This emperor is himself unpleasant and impulsive, but again he represents the stable state, and although in the event a potential civil war is avoided, when Henry knocks his crown to the floor, this is symbolically horrifying. I mention in the introduction two parallels: the attempt to blow up Parliament and kill the king in England in 1605; and the rather more recent attack on the US Capitol and the threats made to those in office. The status quo may not be perfect, but it is very easy to upset social stability.

Animal fables show beasts acting with human beastliness. Reynard the Fox is a small-time confidence trickster, not always successful, but always determined to get his own way. The story darkens as he moves from trickery to worse crimes, including rape. Arraigned by the Lion King of the Beasts, he manages to avoid a series of court cases, and becomes the king’s trusted physician. By his habitual lies and manipulation, Reynard not only kills the king, but takes revenge on all those who spoke against him, and some who did not.

Three entertaining stories, then, which are at the same time warnings to stay vigilant.

Brian Murdoch, Three Political Tales from Medieval Germany. Duke Ernst, Henry of Kempten, and Reynard the Fox (Translated with an Introduction).

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