Letter from the Abbess of Reading Abbey

by Gundrada Sidricsdottir

I don't know why I went into the church at all; it's such a dry and dull place, everybody quiet, and little enough contact with the monks next-door. Apart from the odd fling among the younger novices life is very dull, so all I can do is sit here and write. The other day I was sitting in the cloister writing the story of my mother, once Lady Albion, when I turned over the page of an old Bible, and I found it was graffitid! By a monk! It was a poem addressed to a German nun I know quite well, and I can guess at the writer. This was the poem.

Du bist min, ich bin din, (You are mine, I am yours,
des solt du gewis sin, you should be sure of this,
du bist beslozen in minem herzen, you are locked up in my heart,
verlorn ist daz sluzzelin, the little key is lost,
danne muost du ouch iemer darinne sin. so you must always be inside it.)

Not quite the sort of thing you expect to find written in the margin of an illuminated Bible, and certainly not by a monk, but then this is nearly the thirteenth century, and I see even the monks have caught this new Minnesang . If you are as out of touch with the secular world as I am, let me try and explain this phenomenon. It has come from the east with the Arabs, this idea that women are not all full of sin like Eve, but creatures to be worshipped like the Virgin Mary. (Just what many of us have been saying all along!)

So we have got the troubadours in Provence, the trouveres in France and the Minnesanger, (love singers) in the German lands, where this poem came from. They propagate the crazy ideals of courtly love, the adoration of a knight for an unattainable lady whom he sets on a pedestal, cheered by a simple smile or a wave of her hand, but probably hoping in secret for a little more. (Minnesanger are all men.) The songs they all sing, although there is no music written down with this one, are all intended to praise a certain lady. She must not be named, but you'll all have the experience of a close-knit court, where you don't need to know the name to guess who the singer means.

Of course it's just not done to sing of a less than pure, chaste love for the lady- this man is writing of their two hearts being joined, rather than...well, anything else being joined. The lady tends to be referred to as a saint or even compared with the Virgin herself. This is the ultimate compliment to a gentlewoman's chastity, although there are some singers I have heard of, such as Walter von der Vogelweide, who have become disillusioned by singing to noble (and likely fairly ugly) ladies. He says that "woman" is a higher title than "lady"

The rhyme scheme and metre of this poem is a bit hazy, but this may be becase IÆm far from sure how Middle High German should be pronounced. There's a sort of competition between Minnesanger to write a new metre, a new rhyme scheme and presumably a new tune to nearly every poem they write, which fortunately gives a refreshing change to the old "muhn" and "juhn" formula. This errant monk has even managed internal rhyme!

As in the case of this poem, it sometimes seems that the singer gets his girl, but I think a lot of the time he's just exaggerating his exploits to bolster up his image. (A thing NONE of you courtiers in Albion would ever stoop to.)

But, you may be thinking, why such a fuss about this silly little poem? Exactly! This combination of perfect chastity and the singer's creeping humility makes for a sickly little love song, but then it seems to appeal to some of my nuns!

But I think in time the Minnesangers will grow more experienced and start writing poems which, although the wouldn't be Minnesang if they didn't keep to the above rules, will branch out and be a bit more inventive. If I come across any more interesting ones I'll write and let you know.

Gundrada Sidricsdottir

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