Stories from German History - Florence Aston

In the Days of Chivalry


Germany had developed greatly in the tenth century under the Saxon kings. The Empire was consolidated and its boundaries defined. The prestige of the Emperor had risen in the hands of men who commanded the respect, not only of their own subjects, but of foreign princes and nations, and chivalry developed until it became a system. Since the days of Henry the Fowler the freemen had served in the King's armies on foot or on horse, but the horsemen, who took the name of riders or knights, had risen in position above the ordinary freemen, since their duties about the King's person caused them to be looked upon with respect.

To guard themselves from dangerous neighbours, these knights had built castles in commanding positions on the hills, and having given names to them, they then added the name of the castle to their own names, prefixing it with the word 'of,' or von, as the Germans say.

This fashion of using the name of the home as a surname survives among the German nobles to the present day.

These castles were surrounded by a moat filled with water, and a drawbridge led up to the castle gates. This bridge was drawn up at night or in time of danger, so that the castle was completely cut off by the water from the rest of the world.

Within the outside walls lay the castle courtyard, containing buildings which served for stables and store-chambers and servants' quarters. The chapel adjoined the castle proper. The chief room in the castle itself was always a large banqueting hall—the hall which has been the scene of many a ballad and story of the knights of yore.

In such a ball sat Charlemagne when young Roland stole the cup, in such a hall Rudolph of Habsburg listened to the minstrel who sang of his pious deeds, and in 'the high hall of his fathers' the King of Thule quaffed for the last time the golden goblet of his love.

Round the walls hung trophies of victory in war and of the chase, weapons and even paintings of honoured forefathers. From the ball opened rooms belonging to the ladies and children of the family, and a castle usually contained one chamber, known as the armory, in which were stored those weapons that were served out in time of war.

Over the building itself rose the great castle tower, on the top of which, day and night, the warders watched to announce with blasts of their horns the arrival of friendly visitors, or to spy the first sign of foes.

Warders watched too at the gates, and at a signal from those above, who would be the first to catch sight of arrivals, they would run out to welcome friends and lead them to their lord, or to draw up the huge chains of the bridge and close the great gates in the face of the foe.

The sons of noblemen were educated with the object of fitting them for the life of a knight.

At seven years of age it was usual for a boy to be removed from the women's apartments and sent to serve as a page in the house of some neighbouring knight. There, from his seventh to his fourteenth year, he would run messages, serve at table, ride horses, and learn to shoot with the bow and arrows and practise sword-exercise. He would run and wrestle, ride and box, until his growing body was toughened and inured to hardships.

In the best days of knighthood and chivalry, while he indulged in athletic exercises, the gentler arts were not forgotten, for the page was generally instructed in singing and playing on the lute, and would often learn to converse in a foreign language. But above all, he was never suffered to forget the great duties of knighthood-loyalty to God and His servants the priests, fidelity to the lord, service to ladies and protection of the weak.

A beautiful description of the British knight Lancelot was given by one of his sorrowing companions as he gazed upon the dead face of that mighty warrior: "Thou wert the courtliest knight that ever bare shield," he said. "Thou wert the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrode horse, and thou went the truest lover among sinful men that ever loved woman, and thou went the kindest man that ever struck with sword, and thou wert the wisest person that ever came among the press of knights, and thou wert the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies, and thou went the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in breast."

Although these words described a knight who was supposed to have lived in the sixth century, they were actually written at a much later date, and represent the spirit of chivalry at its best.

In the early days of chivalry, as depicted in the Song of Roland, prominence is given to the service of the feudal lord and to the duty of fighting the infidel. But later on, when the Crusades were over, and the knights sought adventures nearer home, the ideal conduct of the valorous gentleman toward the lady of his choice finds expression.

As soon as he was fifteen years of age, the page accompanied his lord to war, and performed the offices of squire. He cared for his lord's horse and armour, fought by his side and shared his honour if successful, or, when the worst befell, dragged him wounded from the fight and brought him home, living or dead, to his lady.

The young ladies of noble family had also many duties to perform. They too entered the houses of noble lords, and took their place among the ladies-in-waiting who surrounded the mistress of the castle. On festive occasions these ladies would grace the board at the banquet and receive honoured guests, or distribute the prizes at tournaments, but usually they lived a quiet life in the retirement of the women's apartments. Here their chief employments were weaving, spinning, and embroidery, beautiful specimens of which still exist, mute expressions of the thoughts and ideals of these ladies of olden time.

When a squire received the order of knighthood, or indeed on any occasion of rejoicing in knightly families, a tournament was usually held to celebrate the occasion.

The lists, so called because barriers were raised, covered with a certain rough kind of cloth named list, were erected on the market-place of the little town which generally grew up round a castle. Or sometimes a plain outside the city walls would be used for the purpose, or the foot of the hill on which the castle stood, or even the courtyard itself inside the castle walls. Scaffolding for seats would be erected round the lists, with a special place of honour for the lord, his family and guests. The arena was spread with sand to prevent the horses from slipping in the mud.

A herald invited the guests, travelling from castle to castle and town to town, and they would arrive with trumpets blowing and banners displayed, each knight bringing the ladies of his family and a company of squires and servants, who encamped within the castle or were quartered in the town, or even, in the summer, dwelt in tents upon the castle hill.

After greetings exchanged and weapons proved for the last time, all would take their places for the tournament The knights usually attacked each other in companies with large swords, seeking to unhorse their opponent or cut off the crest of his shining helmet And afterward would take place the single combats, in which the young knights showed their prowess against experienced and proven warriors, while the squires and pages watched with envious eyes, longing for the day when they too would be admitted to such noble sport.

Last of all, some noble lady would name as victor the knight who had acquitted himself the most bravely, and the gay company would break up to banquet in the castle, and dance in the stately hall.

These were the joys of castle life in the old German realm.

Other interest was provided by the landless knights, who travelled from town to town seeking adventures, and serving any lord in an honourable cause. These knights were very welcome as the winter days drew on, for when winds blew chill and rain beat against the castle walls, no pastime could be indulged in save the chase. Minstrels, too, were received with joy and the household would gather round the blazing wood fire to hear songs and stories of adventure. But when snow blocked the passes and admitted of no access, the days were dark and dreary, and life was very dull to the dwellers in the castle. The stone rooms of the castle were draughty and cold, and it might even happen that actual want was felt when necessities were difficult to procure.

Such was the life of the knights, who were to play a leading part in German history, as the nobility rose in power, and became an important factor to be reckoned with by all succeeding kings.


We learn much of the days of chivalry from songs and epics which have been preserved. Some of the legends are so grand and noble that they must have fired the imagination and stirred the higher nature of many a German boy, and thus exercised a widespread influence upon German social life. Fiore old songs relate the deeds of the twelve Paladins or Peers, which was the name given to the twelve chief knights of Charlemagne's court.

As time passed, these deeds were exaggerated in the records handed on by word of mouth from father to son. The knights were said to have overcome giants, to have tamed wild beasts, slain winged dragons, and done other marvels, which shows how wondrous myths gather round the names of ancient heroes. But apart from exaggeration we can see that these men were nobler, gentler, more chivalrous than the ordinary men of their day, and that although the average German may have been rough and uncivilized, he appreciated and reverenced their nobility.

The two most famous of Charlemagne's knights were Roland and Oliver. To decide a dispute of their lords they were selected to fight in single combat, but since each wore a helmet that hid his face, neither knew that he was fighting his dearest friend. Two long hours they strove, and neither gained the advantage. At last they paused, panting and trembling, and then, with a wild bound, sprang upon each other. Roland's sword pierced Oliver's shield, and Oliver's sword shivered against Roland's breastplate and broke off at the hilt. Then, with arms outstretched, they sprang upon one another once more, and wrestled fiercely, each succeeding in tearing the other's helmet off.

Great was their surprise when each recognized his friend. "I yield," said Roland quietly. "I yield," said Oliver, each wishing to give the honour of victory to his friend. From this incident arose the expression, which is still used: 'A Roland for an Oliver.'

Chanson de Roland, or Song of Roland, is a famous old poem which relates the story of Roland's death at Roncesvalles on the retreat from Spain.

That death was on him he knew full well;

Down from his head to his heart it fell.

On the grass beneath a pine-tree's shade,

With face to earth, his form he laid,

Beneath him placed he his horn and sword,

And turned his face to the heathen horde.

Thus hath he done the sooth to show,

That Karl and his warriors all may know

That the gentle count a conqueror died.

When King Harold of England advanced against William of Normandy at the battle of Senlac in 1066, the English heard the sound of singing, and saw that in front of the Norman army rode their noted minstrel, Taillefer. He was throwing up his sword in the air and catching it skilfully by the hilt as it descended, all the while singing gaily, and the song that he sang was La Chanson de Roland.

In the south of France the troubadours of the twelfth century sang their songs in the lovely Provencal tongue. Many of them belonged to the knightly class, and they had much to relate of the days of chivalry in their songs, which reveal the gay and courtly life led by the knights of old.

Other minstrels who could not compose the songs, but only sing them, were called jongleurs, and both troubadours and jongleurs  wandered from court to court, northward in France and southward to Italy.

The Germans, too, contributed to the literature of chivalry, and their poets of the thirteenth century, who were known as the Minnesingers, or singers of love—love being the chief subject of their poems—were greatly influenced by the finch lyrists, whom they much admired. Yet the German singers were distinguished from the French by the greater attention which they paid to other subjects than love.

One of the most famous of their Minnesingers was Walther von der Vogelweide, who died about 1228, whose poems are full of devotion to his fatherland.

Wolfram von Eschenbach, who lived at the same time, is famous for his beautiful song of Parsival, the true knight who sought the Holy Grail, which none but the pure in thought, word and deed could see. Because he failed to speak a word of sympathy to a suffering man, he was obliged to atone for long years, until he learnt that only through pity and humility and faith in God does man see the Holy Grail.

Up to the tenth century architecture developed very slowly indeed in Europe, except in Italy and those Eastern countries which fell under Italian influence. Saint Sophia at Constantinople was built by the Emperor Justinian. The ancient name for Constantinople was Byzantium, and the style of architecture in which the cathedral was built was called Byzantine. It had round domes and cupolas and rows of pillars connected by round arches, and all was adorned with lavish brilliancy of colour. Another splendid example of Byzantine architecture is the Cathedral of Saint Mark in Venice.

In Spain the Moors built beautiful palaces in their own style, the best known of which is the Alhambra. It contains courts and pavilions with rows of pillars and arches. Their decoration was very rich, but as their religion forbade them to imitate anything having life, their scheme of decoration was somewhat conventional; a notable exception to this rule, however, is to be seen in the 'Court of Lions' at the Alhambra.

Before the year 1000, Western Europe was far too deeply engaged in war to take much notice of art, but at the beginning of the eleventh century we learn that the monks, who lived more peaceful and secluded lives than the laity, began to study the science of architecture with greater attention. The Byzantine style never became popular in Germany, but we find specimens of the Romanesque semicircular arches and heavy walls and pillars. These churches were generally built in the form of a cross; the walls were very thick, with small windows which let in little light. Near the end of the twelfth century the pointed arch which was one of the characteristic features of the Gothic style appeared all over Western Europe. The name Gothic is very misleading and was merely a term of contempt applied to this architecture by later builders, who despised it. The buildings were erected in a lighter and more graceful style, with pointed arches and slender pillars. A round arch can only be half as high as it is wide, but the adoption of the pointed arch gave much more scope to the builder, as the height and width can be varied. The walls were not so thick and heavy as before, and the pressure from the arches was borne by buttresses and flying buttresses erected outside the buildings instead of by uniformly solid walls. A strange love of the grotesque appears, and queer bat-like figures squatted on the corners of the roofs and grinned from the tops of pillars.

Cologne Cathedral


One of the finest specimens of Gothic architecture in Germany is Cologne Cathedral. It was begun in the year 1248 and not completed until 1880.

The Gothic churches had numerous windows and little wall-space, so we do not find many paintings or mosaics on the walls inside, but the great number of windows gave scope for the development of beautiful work in coloured glass.

The pieces of glass were stained the required colours and afterward cut into the shapes of the figures to be represented and joined together by narrow strips of lead.

Statues, too, in abundance adorned the Gothic churches, and were carved in stone or marble. Images of saints filled the churches and memorial statues decorated the tombs.