Experience of winter nowadays and then

Uns hât der winter geschadet über al … Us has winter harmed over all …

Some members of SHH like to create winter maps. The landscape in white looks lovely to many of us. In the winter of the Northern Hemisphere, the weather is cold and nature is frozen. It is the time of short days and long nights. Western civilisation has, mainly, tamed winter. When it’s cold out there, we wrap up warm. When the sports ground is snowy, we have invented skiing or stay inside and play our favourite Stronghold game. When darkness falls, we turn on the light (and perhaps even light up the keyboard).

Imagine a life without books, newspapers, radio, stereo, TV, computer. Imagine having no central heating (no glass windows), no proper clothing or housing, not enough food due to persistent bad harvests. People in the Middles Ages did not look at nature with “romantic” feelings and subjectivity (which came up in the 18th century). It was a time of suffering for them, above all. Without modern technology and media, people then experienced nature more directly than we do today.

Also there was the impact on peoples’ mood by the change of nature through the seasons. The dark months made people feel tired and gloomy (“winter blues”). Many were depressed and lacked the motivation of spring and summer. Winter was a bitter time especially for the majority of peasants. They found some heat only next to the open fire and the cattle. Hunger, dampness and smoke filled air led to respiratory and rheumatic diseases.

As winter work, they butchered animals, threshed crops, cut wood and vines, repaired tools and fences, processed wool (spinning and sewing). For a game, they had dice, for entertainment: playing instruments, singing and dancing. The main feast was Christmas, the longest break of the year, which lasted until 5th January. Rich and poor ate and had amusement.

The upper class in their houses and manors felt winter less keenly but still experienced the omnipresent cold. Nobles passed their time hunting sows and bears or playing board and card games. Wars were usually conducted between May and September for weather and supply reasons. Journeys across the unpaved “roads” were also best avoided in winter.

Winter in medieval poetry

Poets called winter “ill-fated, disastrous”, wished “That I could sleep away the time of winter!” and sighed that heath and meadow lacked their flowers.

Many songs written in those days have the pleasant seasons as background, of course. But there are also a few texts which mention the weariness of winter and the longing for spring.

Many songs have an introduction that describes nature. The seasonal condition of nature makes up the background, in accordance or contrast, for delight or sorrow of love. May, flowers, singing of birds, green forest moving the feelings. And, seldom only: snow, ice, cold, and lack of nature life from autumn on. What we can detect is, how direct (immediate, unfiltered) the sensations were and what sort of fun people cultivated in winter: indoor dancing, singing, playing instruments, as always throwing the dice, and sledging.

Here are quotations long and short, with few remarks.

Carmina Burana

Scholars were ecclesiastics. They did things in style and enjoyed life. Many of their 12th or 13th century songs, either in Latin or the Middle High German local lanaguage, have been collected in the “Songs from (Benedict)Beuern”, an early Benedictine monastery.

In the cold winter time
when all the meadows are snow-covered
and the streams ice-covered,
everybody runs into the warm inn
where everyone boozes by the game of dice.
After the big round,
friend and friend invite each other to dare a game.
Who came in warm clothes will complain naked.
Hey, wealth and possessions are trembling
while poverty carelessly consorts with the gamblers.

(CB 203, pp.607-609)

Astonishingly many songs are about gambling, throwing the dice with the free hand on a wooden board. Results could be devastating. Often, people lost literally everything: their clothes, farm and wife.

Walther von der Vogelweide

(c. 1170 – c. 1230)

The art form of the Minnesang was created from the courtly culture. It was a highly ritualised love (= minne) poetry. Walther was the most famous and skilled lyric poet of those times.

The world was yellow, red and blue,
green in the forest and elsewhere,
the little birds sang there.
Now croaks again the hoodiecrow.
Has it surely got a new colour? – Yes,
it has become pale and more than grey,
that’s why alot eyebrow contracts.

The idiots say: do snow, snow!
And poor people: Woe, woe!

(L 75,25 Walther 248-251)

Us has winter harmed over all.
Heath and forest are both now pale
where many voices echoed that lovely.
If I saw girls in the street throwing the ball
then the singing of birds would come to us again.

That I could sleep away the time of winter!
(If) I’m awake during that while I feel hate against it (= winter)
because its power is so broad and wide.
God knows, it will leave the (battle) field to May.
Then I will pick flowers where now frost lies.

(L 39, Walther 252-253)

That winter would want to pass quickly,
then I’d forget all my sorrows that I have.
Another he did not do me
than that he prolongs the lovely expectation,
me will encounter a joy admidst of May.

I wish that winter would dissolve
if he does not contain more joys
than cold wind and along with it rain and snow,
this hurts the eyes unpleasently.
Blessed be the green: leaves and clover!

(L 167,1, Walther 252-255)

Neidhart von Reuental

(c. 1185 – after 1237)

The dice
want to be played in the parlour again.

Thereby, Kuenzel wants to be the master (= minder).
He prohibits laughing, talking and eyes-blinking.

(NvR 9)

Children, prepare your sledges for the ice.
The bad, cold winter is here.
It has taken us the many delightful flowers.
Many a green lime tree is covered with ice and snow.
Without singing is the forest.
That all has come from the wrath of frost.
Look, how it has damaged the heath.
It (= heath) is pale by its (= frost) guilt.
Thereto, the nightingales
all have flown away.

Megenwart has a big parlour.
If you all like it,
let’s have the parlour dancing of the sunday there.

a dance around the table

(NvR 10)

Listen! I hear dancing in the parlour.
Young men,
ahead you go!
There is an entire swarm of village girls.

Two fiddled.
When they were silent
(which pleased the cocky swains)
look, then it was sung (= to the audience) in sequence.
Through the windows, the noise roared.
only danced with two very young girls at a time.

Clear the stools and chairs!
Let carry away
the tables.
Today, we want to dance till we drop.
Open the parlour, then it’s cool
so that the wind
can blow softly through the bodices of the girls.
When the leading dancers have finished
you all will be summoned
to step with us
a courtly dance to the fiddle.

A roundel

(NvR 11 “Sinc an”)

A historical interpretation of
Sinc an

Burkhart von Hohenfels


Let’s receive winter in the dance room.
Now then, let’s hurry to the dance.
Follow me, we will smile at each other with the eyes
and wink and throw surreptitious glances at each other.

Nice spinning around in the dance and jostling.
If we lack the pipe we will start singing.
Bundling together the trains of the dress
let us push, lure, tease
and tear each other. This honours the dance.

(Ougenweide CD All die weil ich mag)
OUGENWEIDE Wintertanz German Folk-Rock

Oswald von Wolkenstein

(c. 1376 – 1445)

He was a nobleman and knight from Tirol (German then, Dolomites, north Italy nowadays). He travelled most of the known world as knave and fighter, pilgrim to Jerusalem and messenger of King Sigmund I. Oswald wrote various types of poems. The biographical genre wherein he tells the history or anecdotes of his life is new. Back from his journeys, in his castle Hauenstein, Oswald sang the winter blues, being adverse to others. (Local personal disputes are in the background, too.)

A lot of cold, hoarfrost and deep snow,
the stream is covered with ice.
This comes from the “Bösaier” (badeggs) farm. That name I don’t extol,
cause: good fruit of a bad egg
no bird has bred yet.
The grass, the flowers, green clover,
they have totally disappeared,
the birds have flown away
from the tress, the leaves are snatched,
from the sun, the ado of winter
at Hauenstein (Oswald’s castle) took the shine.

An exact description: Hauenstein, at the north slope of the Schlern massif, lacks the sun for months in winter.

Alas, Cologne and Vienna and Mainz, Paris,
and Konstanz (place of a Council), Nuremberg, Avignon –
what of beautiful things I’ve ever experienced,
this stays far away from me here!
Cause instead of the lowlands, I dwell
on a high mountain too often. Guilty for that
is my wife of Schwangau (his otherwise beloved Margarete).
We live together under one roof (= consolidated).
Thereto a swarm of children,
it almost drives me mad.
Because always I have to consider
how I can protect them here
so that the wolves won’t wrest
the bread and the wine from them.

(Kl 104. Kühn 392-396)

What I was granted honours
by many rulers and queens

no more fine contact but
only calves, she-goats, he-goats, cattle
and knotted people, ugly, black,
full of snot in winter.
Makes happy like watered wine

Out of anxiety, I often hit my children
into the corners.
Then, their mother comes rushing
and starts complaining.
(If she fisted me
I’d have to bear it.)
She says: What did you beat
the kids to a flad bread!

(Kl 44. Kühn 341-344, Wachinger/Brunner 198-202)

As closing words to this article, there are greater pains than winter in human life. Oswald knows about an inward one.

Cold, rain, snow have never hurt that much, with sudden frost,
(that not) I glow, heated by the sun of the beloved.

(Kl 18. Wachinger/Brunner 137)

And a CB singer states:

But love
needs not to shun the violence and wind of winter.
It strive for renewing
what the rigid frost destroyed.

(CB 69, pp. 221-223, compare CB 83)


CB = Carmina Burana. Fischer/Kuhn, 1974.

Walther von der Vogelweide. Werke. Band 2: Liedlyrik … Schweikle, 1998.
L = Die Gedichte Walthers von der Vogelweide, ed. by K. Lachmann (1827), 13. ed. by H. Kuhn, Berlin 1965.

NvR Neidhart von Reuental, Lieder. Selection … Lomnitzer, 1984.
Kühn, D., Neidhart aus dem Reuental, 1988

Oswald von Wolkenstein, Lieder. Selected texts … by Wachinger/Brunner, 2007.
Kühn, D., Ich Wolkenstein. Biographie, 1977/1996.
Kl = Die Lieder Oswalds von Wolkenstein … ed. K.K. Klein (1962), 3. ed. by H.Moser et al., Tübingen 1987.

Article Winter in the Encyclopedia about the Middle Ages by Schels.

The paintings of the Minnesingers are taken from the Codex Manesse (c. 1300).

Examples of historical music performances:
youtube clip
youtube clip
youtube clip

and electronically amplified:
youtube clip

A scenic introduction into Minnesang (in German).

Videos of medieval dancing:
youtube clip
youtube clip
youtube clip
youtube clip

Medieval and Renaissance pictures of dancing


Courtesy of http://www.musical-geheimtipp.de/

Courtesy of Living History Museum Adventon, D-74706 Osterburken

Article written by Peter2008.