Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

In the period of national origins history and legend are inextricably mingled. In the course of oral transmission historic narrative necessarily becomes more or less legendary. Details are emphasized or exaggerated, actions ascribed to different motives, facts are forgotten or suppressed, chronological and geographical data confused, and traits and motifs from older tales are added. Gradually this tradition, passing from mouth to mouth, takes on a more definite shape and a more distinct outline, and finally it passes into literature and receives a permanent and fixed form. We are seldom able to give a clear and connected account of the origin and development of a saga or legend. In most cases the literary sources on which we depend for our knowledge are of comparatively late date, and even the earliest of them present the legend in an advanced phase of evolution. Of preceding phases we can form an opinion only through a critical analysis and comparison of the sources. In this process of reconstruction much must be left to conjecture; uncertainty necessarily prevails, and difference of opinion is unavoidable.

We shall treat here of the following legends:

  • Germanic Heroic Saga
  • Legends of Charlemagne
  • Roland
  • Geneviève (Genovefa) of Brabant
  • Arthur (Artus)
  • Tristan and Isolde
  • Lohengrin, the Knight of the Swan
  • Tannhauser
  • Robert the Devil
  • The Wandering Jew
  • The Flying Dutchman
  • William Tell
  • Faust

Germanic Heroic Saga

A brief notice of this vast subject must suffice. The Euhemeristic method of interpretation, which attempts to explain the sagas on a purely historical basis, is now generally discredited. A blending of mythic and historic elements is now conceded to be a necessary process in all saga-formation. But the view, until recently generally accepted, which interprets the mythical traits as due to the personification and symbolization of natural phenomena, has been criticized on good grounds. No doubt, nature symbolism plays a large rôle in mythology proper, but it seems to have little, if anything, to do with the development of the primitive hero-tales. Their roots seem to lie rather in fairy-lore. Thus in the greatest and oldest of Germanic heroic sagas, that of Siegfried, the nucleus is apparently a primitive Low German tale of greed and murder and cruel vengeance, amplified by motifs like those of the dragon-fight and the Sleeping Beauty. Siegfried, who owns a treasure, is murdered by his covetouss brother-in-law Hagen. Grimhild (Kriemhild), Siegfried's widow, marries another king, who actuated by greed, murders Hagen. Grimhild in revenge murders her second husband. This seems to be the bare outline of the old tale which was combined with a new historic saga, traceable to the destruction of the Burgundians by the Huns in 437, and the sudden death of the great Hunnish leader, Attila, after his marriage to a German princess, Ildico (i.e. Hilde), in 452. Now, when the two sagas were fused, Ildico was conceived as a Burgundian princess who slew Attila in revenge for the destruction of her kin. Sweeping changes in the action and the motives of the story were a necessary consequence of this fusion. The Norse version ("Edda", "Volsungasaga") and the German version of the "Nibelungenlied" both tell of Grimhild's revenge. But in the former she kills her husband, the slayer of her brother, as in the older form of the legend; in the latter version she kills her brothers, in revenge for the murder of her husband (see GERMANY, sub-title Literature , III).

While Siegfried is a mythical figure, Dietrich of Bern is historic. He is the famous East-Gothic king, Theodoric, who ruled over Italy (493-526). Dietrich and Bern are the German forms of Theodoric and Verona. The heroic figure of the king became the centre of the great mass of Gothic tradition, and a whole cycle of sagas gathered about his name. Many local legends were drawn into this cycle. The basic historic facts were completely distorted in process of legendary formation, and when the great Dietrich saga appeared in literature, in the Old High German "Hildebrandslied", in numerous Middle High German epics (see GERMANY, sub-title Literature , III), and the "Thidrekssaga" (which, though written in Norse about 1250, is based on Low German tradition), little that is historical remained.

Myth and history are also combined in the Beowulf saga, which forms the subject of the oldest English epic. Beowulf, a prince of the Geátas, comes to help the Danish king, Hrothgar, against Grendel, a fiendish monster, who had ravaged the Danish realm. In two mighty combats he slays Grendel and Grendel's mother. Returning, he becomes king of his people, over whom he rules happily for fifty years. Once more the aged hero goes forth, to battle with a fire-breathing dragon that devastates the land. He kills the monster, but dies of injuries sustained in the fight. It is generally believed that the Beowulf saga is of Scandinavian origin. But whether the epic arose in Scandinavia or in England is a question that has not been decided.

Legends of Charlemagne

It was inevitable that Charlemagne should become the hero of romance and legend. His actual exploits were magnified and additional ones were invented or transferred to him from other popular heroes, especially Frankish kings of the same name, like Charles Martel and Charles the Bald. The formation of legend relating to Charlemagne began even during the lifetime of the great ruler. In the book of the so-called Monachus Sangallensis, which was written after 883 on the basis of oral tradition, he appears already as a legendary figure. Among the stories there related are those of the Iron Charles entering Pavia, where the Langobardian King Desiderius, and Otker the Frank await his coming, and the latter swoons at the sight of the mailed emperor; or of the giant Eishere who, in battle against the Slays, spears seven to nine heathens like frogs on the point of his lance; of the ruthless slaughter of all those captured Saxons whose stature exceeded the measure of the emperor's sword. Unlike the heroic sagas, the Charlemagne legends from their very inception show an ecclesiastical tinge. In this connexion we may recall the canonization of Charles by the antipope Paschal III in 1165, which, of course, never possessed validity.

When the Franks lost their Germanic character their hero became identified with the French nationality. Stories connected with his name were more or less current in various parts of Germany. It was said that he did not die but resided in the Odenberg, Hessia, or the Untersberg (near Salzburg ), whence he would reappear to bring back the empire to glory. His justice also was proverbial, as is attested by the story, told in German chronicles, of the serpent ringing the bell that Charles had set up before his palace for all those having a grievance to bring to his attention. But he never became prominent in German literature, whereas in France he became the very centre of the national heroic épopées . His legendary deeds and those of his paladins were celebrated in numerous epics or "Chansons de Geste" ("Chanson de Roland", "Pèlerinage", "Aspremont", "Fierabras", "Ogier", Renaud de Montauban ", etc.). At first these poems were only loosely connected; later on attempts were made at cyclic unification, resulting in such compilations as the "Charlemagne" of Girard d'Amiens (c. 1300), the German "Karimeinet", the Norwegian "Karlamagnússaga" and the Italian prose romance "Reali di Francia " of Andrea de' Magnabotti. Much legendary material is also found in chronicles, like those of the above-mentioned monk of St. Gall, of the monk of Saintonge, of Alberic de Trois Fontaines (c. 1250), of Philippe Mousket (c. 1241), and the German chronicle of Enenkel.

What is related of Charlemagne in these sources is a medley of fact and fiction. The story of his parents, Pepin the Short and Bertha (in "Berte aux grands pieds"), is the familiar theme of virtue slandered but in the end vindicated. To escape the persecutions of his bastard brothers, Charles takes refuge in Toledo with the heathen king Galafre, whose daughter Galienne he marries, after he has punished his wicked brothers and regained his father's kingdom ("Charlemagne", "Karlmeinet", "Karleto", "Cronica general"). Possibly this reflects historical events from the period of Charles Martel, who was of illegitimate birth and experienced difficulties in his accession to he throne. At any rate, Pepin and Bertha are historic personages. Wholly fabulous, however, is the story of the pilgrimage undertaken by the emperor and his peers to the Holy Land, whence they bring back the Passion relics, which were deposited in the Church of St. Denis. Probably the legend arose in connexion with these relics, which were actually presented by the Patriarch of Jerusalem about 800.

In the poems and romances that deal with the wars of Charlemagne in Spain [(778) "Chanson de Roland"] and Italy [(773) "Ogler", "Fierabras", "Aspremont"] the principal rôle is assigned not to Charles, but to his paladins (Roland, Olivier, Turpin ) or vassals (sons of Aimon, Ogier). The Saxon wars have left little trace in French poetry [Bodel's "Saisnes" (c. 1200), and an older "Guitalin", known only from the Norse version in the "Karlamagnússaga"]. In Germany their memory is preserved by many a legend concerning the heroic Widukind (Wittekind). In French versions the conversion of the Saxon chieftain is represented as insincere and of short duration, in German legend, on the contrary, it is glorified by miracle. While Widukind in the disguise of a beggar attends the Easter celebration in the Frankish camp, he sees the image of the Christ-Child at the moment of the elevation of the Host during Mass and his conversion is the result (Grimm, "Deutsche Sagen", 448). In a narrative of the life of the Empress Mathilde (974) Widukind is made to fight in single combat with Charles, and on being defeated turns Christian. The French version also knows of this combat, but here Guiteclin is killed. The name of Frankfort (the ford of the Franks ) is explained by a German legend which relates how the hard-pressed Franks were saved by a hind that showed them a place where they could cross the River Main in safety (Grimm, op. cit., 449).

In the older French epics, devoted to the glorification of royalty, Charlemagne is represented as the incarnation of majesty, valour, and justice, the champion of God's Church against the infidel. In the later epics, the so-called feudal épopée ("Ogier", "Renaud de Montauban ", "Doon de Mayence", etc.), which reflect the historic struggles of the monarchy with turbulent vassals, the great emperor appears in quite a different light, as a vindictive tyrant and unjust oppressor. Nor does he appear to advantage in the vanous legends that tell of his love affairs, among which is the well-known German legend of his attachment to a dead woman due to the magic power of a jewel hidden in her mouth. This legend was localized at Aachen. A courtier who had gained possession of the talisman dropped it in a hot spring. Henceforth the emperor felt an irresistible love for this spot and caused Aachen to be built there.

Through French mediation the Carlovingian romances came to other nations. In England, Caxton published "The Lyfe of Charles the Grete" (1485) and "The four sonnes of Aymon" (1486). Lord Berners translated "Huon of Bordeaux" in 1534. In Germany the "Rolandslied" of Konrad der Pfaffe the poem of Stricker (thirteenth century), the "karlmeinet" (fourteenth century), and the chap-books of the fifteenth century, in Scandinavia the "Karlamagnússaga" (c. 1300), in the Netherlands numerous translations like "Carel ende Elegast" show the spread of the Charlemagne legend. In Italy it was especially favoured. There it inspired the Franco-Italian epics and the bulky romance of Magnabotti, and culminated in the famous chivalric epics of Boiardo and Ariosto.

Roland

Of the paladins, usually twelve in number, with whom legend surrounds Charlemagne, the most famous is Roland, whose heroic death forms the theme of the "Chanson de Roland" (c. 1080). This poem relates how the rear-guard of the Frankish army, returning from a victorious campaign against the Saracens in Spain, is treacherously surprised by the enemy at Roncevaux, and how Roland, Olivier, and Turpin, after incredible deeds of valour, are slain before the emperor arrives to bring help. The events narrated here have a historical basis; the battle of Roncevaux (Roncesvalles) actually took place on 15 August, 778. According to Einhard (Vita Caroli Magni, IX) the Frankish rear-guard was cut to pieces by Basque marauders, among the slain being Hruodlandus, prefect of the March of Brittany. In the poem the defeat is laid to the treason of Ganelon; the vengeance which the emperor exacts from the enemy and the punishment of the traitor are vividly narrated. The legend represents Roland as Charlemagne's nephew, the son of the emperor's sister Bertha and of Duke Milo; of Aglant. The story of their romantic love, their quarrel with the emperor, and their ultimate reconciliation to him figures prominently in Italian versions ("Reali di Francia "). Roland is a paragon of knightly virtue. Quite young he distinguishes himself in wars against the Saracens in Italy ("Aspremont") and the Saxons, in both campaigns saving his uncle from threatened disaster.

In Italian literature Roland becomes the chief hero of the chivalric épopée represented at its best by Pulci's "Morgante maggiore" (1482), Boiarde's "Orlando innamorato" (1486), and Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso" (1516). In Spain the tradition underwent a complete change; the defeat of the Franks was regarded as a Spanish victory, and the real hero of Roncevaux is the national champion, Bernalde del Carprio, Roland's opponent. The German poem of Konrad der Pfaffe has been mentioned above.

Geneviève (Genovefa) of Brabant

This legend may be discussed in connexion with the Carlovingian cycle, inasmuch as the events therein related are usually assigned to the eighth century, to the period of the wars of Charles Martel against the Saracens. It has for its theme the familiar story of persecuted innocence, and is therefore closely akin to the legends of Griseldis, Hildegard, Hirlanda of Brittany, and other heroines of suffering. According to the usual version, Geneviève is the wife of the Count Palatine Siegfried, residing in the region of Trier. When he is called away on an expedition against the infidels, he entrusts his wife and castle to the care of his major-domo Golo. Inflamed with sinful passion, Golo makes advances to the countess, and on being repulsed, falsely accuses her to her absent lord of adultery. The count sends word to put his wife and her new-born son to death, and Golo bids two servants execute this command. But moved by pity they let her go, and she takes refuge in a cave in the Ardennes together with her child, who is miraculously suckled by a roe. At the end of six years Count Siegfried, who has in the meantime repented of his rash deed, is led to this cave while pursuing the roe, and a happy reunion is the result. Golo dies a traitor's death, his limbs being torn asunder by four oxen. The legend adds that a chapel was built and dedicated to Our Lady at the very spot where the cave was. It is the Chapel of Frauenkirchen, near Laach, and there Geneviève is said to be buried.

The origin of the legend is wholly unknown. The oldest versions are found in manuscript dating from the fifteenth century, most of them hailing from Laach. An account was written in 1472 by Matthias Emichius (Emmich) a Carmelite friar, later auxiliary Bishop of Mainz. The learned antiquarian Marquard Freher appended a version of the legend drawn from a Laach manuscript to his "Origines Palatinæ" (1613). The legend is told in connexion with the foundation of the chapel of Frauenkirchen. In all these versions the time of action is that of a Bishop Hildulf of Trier. But no such bishop is known. Nor is it possible to identify Geneviève with any historic personage. As for Siegfried, there were several counts of that name, but nothing is known of them to permit of an identification. An historical basis for the legend has not been found. The arguments for a mythical origin are futile. So the opinion has been advanced (by Seuffert) that the legend is the fabrication of a monk from the monastery of Laach, and dates from the fourteenth century.

The fame of the story is due to the work of the French Jesuit René de Cerisiers. His book, entitled "L'Innocence reconnue ou Vie de Sainte Geneviève de Brabant", won immediate popularity. The oldest datable edition is from 1638. Two years later this story, together with those of Jeanne d'Arc and Hirlanda, was reprinted in "Les trois états de l'innocence affligée", etc. In Cerisiers' version the legend has been considerably amplified; its pious character is emphasized, especially through the copious introduction of miracles. Here also the child receives the Biblical name Benoni (i.e. son of my sorrow, Genesis 35:18 ) whence the "Schmerzenreich" of the German version. Reference to Charles Martel fixed the eighth century as the time of action.

Cerisiers' work inspired a number of Dutch and German books on the legend, in all of which the material is treated with more or less freedom. The authors of the first two German versions are Jesuits ; these versions were followed by the "Auserlesenes History-Buch" (Dillingen, 1687) of Father Martin of Cochem (d. 1712), a Capuchin friar. Here the story of St. Geneviève is given among a number of pious legends, and it was this version that made the legend popular in Germany, where it became the subject of chap-books. Some of these books base their account on Dutch versions, the first of which had appeared in 1645. In these Protestant influence is unmistakable; the miracles, already curtailed in the German version, are here completely expunged. Of English versions we have at least two, one of which "The Triumphant Lady, or the Crowned Innocence" (London, 1654) is by Sir W. Lower.

Arthur (Artus)

A famous legendary King of the Britons, and the central figure of a great medieval cycle of romance. His court is represented as a model court for the cultivation of every knightly virtue. He himself presides over the famous Round Table, about which is assembled a band of chosen knights. The adventures of these knights form the subject-matter of the numerous romances of the Arthurian cycle.

The history of the origin and development of the Arthurian legend is not clear. The very existence of Arthur has been doubted, and attempts have been made to reduce him to a myth. But it is now well known that he was an historic figure, a British chieftain of the end of the fifth and the beginning of the sixth century A.D. , who championed the cause of the native Britons against the foreign invaders, especially the Angles and Saxons.

The oldest British chronicler of Wales, Gildas, in his "De Excidio Britanniæ" (c. 540) knows of the great victory of the Britons at Mount Badon, but makes no mention of Arthur. The first record of him is found in the "Historia Brittonum" (written 796), ascribed to Nennius. There he appears already as a legendary figure, the champion of an oppressed people against the cruel invaders, whom he defeats in twelve great battles, the last being fought at Mons Badonis . So by the end of the eighth century the legend of a great champion was already current among the Celtic population of the British Isles and Brittany and this legend was further developed and amplified by the addition of new legendary traits.

It received its literary form in the "Historia regum Brittanniæ", a Latin chronicle, written between 1118 and 1135 by the Welsh monk Godfrey (Galfridus, Gruffydd) of Monmouth. This work, purporting to give a history of the British kings from the mythical Brutus to Cadwallo (689), is a curious medley of fact and fable. The exploits related of Arthur are wholly fabulous. His father is Uther Pendragon (Uther dragon-head), his mother Igerna, wife of the Duke of Cornwall. Merlin the Wizard by a trick has effected their union. Arthur becomes ruler at the age of fifteen and at once enters upon his career of victory by defeating the Saxons. He marries Guanhumara (Gwenhwyvar Ginevra, Guinevere) and establishes a court the fame of which spreads far and wide. In a series of wars he conquers Scotland, Ireland, Norway, and Gaul. Finally he makes war against Rome, but, though victorious, is compelled to turn back to protect his wife and kingdom from the treacherous designs of his nephew Mordred. In the battle of Camlan (Cambula) the latter is killed, but Arthur, too, is mortally wounded and mysteriously removed to the Isle of Avalon, whence he will reappear (so other chronicles relate), some day to restore his people to power.

It is not known with certainty what sources Godfrey used. Probably he drew his information from Welsh chronicles, as well as from oral tradition preserved by Breton story-tellers. Much, also, is his own invention. The work won immediate favour, and became the basis of several other rhymed chronicles, such as the "Brut" of Wace (or Gace) written about 1157, and that of Layamon (c. 1200), the first English work in which the legend of Arthur appears. In Godfrey's history mention is made of Arthur's court as far-famed, but the first explicit reference to the Round Table is found in Wace's "Brut". From this reference it is perfectly clear that this legendary institution was already well known in Brittany when Wace wrote. At a later period, when the Grail legend was fused with that of Arthur, the Round Table was identified with the Grail table instituted by Joseph of Arimathea, and was then said to have been founded by Uther Pendragon at the suggestion of Merlin (so in the Grail romance of Robert de Boron).

Towards the end of the twelfth century the Arthurian legend makes its appearance in French literature in the epics of Chrestien de Troyes. How this material, the matière de Bretagne , was transmitted, is one of the most difficult and disputed questions in connexion with the history of medieval French literature. It is admitted that Godfrey and the chroniclers cannot have been the only sources; the subject matter of the romances is too varied for that, and points to the influence of popular tradition. Moreover, the material has been entirely transformed under the influence of the ideals of knight-errantry and courtly love. These deeds dominated all the Arthurian romances, and gave them their immense vogue with the polite society of the Middle Ages. Arthur plays but a passive rôle in them; the chief stress falls on the adventures of the Knights of the Table Round. Of these Gawain (Gwalchmai, Gauvain) already figured prominently in the history of Godfrey, where he is called Walgannus. Perceval, the Peredur of Welsh folk-tales and of Godfrey, has become especially famous as the hero of the quest of the Holy Grail. Originally his legend, like that of the Grail, was wholly independent of that of Arthur. Other famous legendary heroes like Lancelot and Tristram were also joined to the company of the Table Round, and their legends likewise incorporated into that of Arthur. So the great cycle of Arthurian romances gradually came into existence.

Though French mediation these romances spread through Europe. In Germany they inspired the courtly epics (see GERMANY, sub-title Literature , III). They also came to Italy, Spain, and Norway. In England Sir Thomas Malory gathered them and used them for his famous prose romance "Morte Arthure" (finished 1470, printed by Caxton, 1485). To Malory the legend of Arthur owes its popularity in England. Its influence is felt in Spenser's "Faerie Queene", and Milton, as is well known, thought of writing an English Arthuriad. In modern times Tennyson has revived the legend in his "Idylls of the King".

Tristan and Isolde

Among the knights of Arthur appears also Tristan (Tristram), whose love for Isolde and its tragic end are the subject of some of the most famous romances in literature. Here, too, we have an originally independent legend of Celtic origin, but elaborated by French poets into a love romance. The names Tristan and Mark point to Celtic heroic saga as the root of the story -- Drust or Drustan as a name of Pictish kings can be traced as far back as the eighth century. The name of Morholt is probably Germanic; so is Isold (i.e. Iswalda) or Iselt (i.e. Ishilt). These Germanic elements date from the period of Viking rule in Dublin during the ninth and tenth centuries. The legend, no doubt, took shape in Britain and then wandered to Brittany, experiencing in the course of its development various modifications. New motifs , like that of the love potion, the story of the vicarious wooing, the trick whereby Isolde successfully undergoes the ordeal, were added. They are familiar from story-literature. Other motifs , such as the ship with black sails, are clearly traceable to antique romance, in this case to the Theseus legend. By the middle of the twelfth century a full-fledged Tristan romance existed, but the literary versions that we possess are of a later date. It is known that Chrestien de Troyes wrote a poem about Mark and Isolde, but it is lost. The French versions extant are those of Bérol a Breton jongleur , or glee-man, and of Thomas, an Anglo-Norman trouvère , who wrote between 1160 and 1170. Bérol's version, the date of which is a matter of dispute, is the basis of the German "Tristan" of Eilhard von Oberg, while Gottfried von Strassburg followed Thomas. Both versions agree for the main traits of the legend, however much they differ in detail.

Lohengrin, the Knight of the Swan

In Wolfram's "Parzival", where a brief outline of the story of Lohengrin is given at the close, the legend appears as a part of the Grail cycle, and therefore also of the Arthurian cycle. But originally it was wholly independent of both. In the oldest literary versions, the French poems of the "Chevalier au cygne" (the earliest dates from the beginning of the thirteenth century), the tale of the Knight of the Swan is connected with Godfrey of Bouillon, and the French poems themselves are part of an epic cycle dealing with the Crusades. How this connexion came about is not known. But it was certainly well known by the end of the twelfth century, as is proved by an allusion to it in the history of the Crusades written by Bishop William of Tyre (d. about 1184). The purpose was evidently to glorify the House of Bouillon by ascribing to it a supernatural origin. The story as given in the French poems is as follows: before Emperor Otto holding court at Nymwegen the Duchess of Bouillon pleads for justice against the Saxon Duke Renier, who has made grave charges against her. She cannot find a champion to prove her innocence in single combat, when suddenly an unknown knight appears in a skiff drawn by a swan. He defeats her opponent and marries her daughter Beatris. But he imposes the condition that his wife must never ask his name or lineage. When, after seven years of wedded life, she breaks this command, the unknown knight leaves her. A daughter named Ida has resulted from this union. She marries Count Eustache of Boulogne and becomes the mother of Godfrey of Bouillon .

The kernel of this legend seems to be an old genealogical myth, such as that told of Scyld in "Beowulf". A mysterious stranger arrives in a rudderless ship among a people becomes their ruler and the ancestor of the reigning house. When his time is fulfilled, he departs as mysteriously as he has come. Such a myth was current among Germanic tribes inhabiting the sea-coast. Possibly the mysterious stranger originally was a solar deity and the swan a symbol of the cloud. The story was designed to show the divine descent of the ruling house. Its origin, whether Celtic or Germanic, is in dispute. The theme of the Lohengrin legend, the union between a supernatural being and a mortal, is of frequent recurrence in mythology and folk-lore.

With the tale of the swan-knight was combined an old Germanic fairy tale of some children changed into swans by the evil arts of a wicked stepmother. Only the little girl escapes and becomes the means of rescuing her brothers. this story is familiar to readers of Grimm's fairy tales. In the French poems on this subject, the children are the offspring of a union between a king and a fairy, and the king's mother plays the villain's part. Their transformation into swans is the result of their being deprived of the necklaces which they had when they were born. When these are restored they regain their human form, all but one, who has lost his necklace. He remains a swan and henceforth draws the skiff of his brother, who is therefore called the knight of the swan. It is clear that this story was added to account for the mysterious origin of the hero. Its earliest literary record occurs in the Latin romance "Dolopathos", a collection of stories, mostly of Oriental origin written by Jean de Hauteseille (Johannes de Alta Silva) at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Here the characters are as yet unnamed. In the French poem known as "Elioxe" (end of twelfth century) the hero is a king named Lothair, the fairy is called Elioxe (Eliouse). In the versions of the "Chevalier au cygne" the king's name is Oriant, his wife is called Beatris, his mother Matabrune.

Through French mediation the legend passed into other lands. In England we have the poem of the "Chevalere Assigne" and the prose romance of "Helyas, Knight of the Swan" (edited by Thoms in "Early English Prose Romances"). In Spain the legend was incorporated in the "Gran Conquista de Ultramar" (xlvii sq.). There are also versions in Italy and Iceland. Of special interest is the development of the legend in Germany.

In the French versions the swan-knight is called Helias (Elie). In Konrad von Würzburg's epic "Der Schwanritter" (c. 1260) he remains unnamed. The lady in distress is the Duchess of Brabant, the emperor is Charlemagne. The swan-knight is not the ancestor of Godfrey of Bouillon, but of the dukes of Cleves. Konrad's version is based on an unknown French source. So is the brief outline given by Wolfram at the close of his "Parzival". There the legend is connected with that of the Grail in that the hero is the son of Parzival, the Grail-king. Here also he is called Loherangrin (i.e. Loherenc Garin, Garin the Lotharingian). The duchess is Elsa of Brabant. Whether these changes in names are Wolfram's own, or whether they were in his French source cannot be decided. On the basis of Wolfram's outline, but amplified and expanded by the introduction of wholly extraneous matter, arose between 12S3 and 1290 the bulky German epic "Lohengrin", the work, it seems, of two different authors, but unknown. The Lohengrin story is here a mere episode of the legendary minstrel contest held at the Wartburg castle and is put into the mouth of Wolfram himself. The accuser is here Count Friedrich Telramund, the emperor is Henry I the Fowler, and a Duchess of Cleves instigates Elsa to put the forbidden question. We see that in German versions Cleves figures in the legend; in fact, in some chronicles the scene of action is laid there (see Grimm, "Deutsche Sagen", 4th ed., ed. Steig, Berlin, 1905, no. 535), and the date given is 711. Fantastic continuations are found in the poem called "Der jüngere Titurel" (c. 1260) and in the bulky versified narrative of Ulrich Füetrer "Buch der Abenteue" (written c. 1490). According to the account there given, Lohengrin sallies forth a second time, and comes to Lyzabori (Luxemburg) where he marries the Princess Belaye. An attempt is made on his life by her jealous relatives, and, though it is repulsed, Lohengrin succumbs to a wound received in the struggle. His wife dies of grief.

Tannhauser

This legend, as related in German folk-songs of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and their variants in Low German, Dutch, and Danish, is as follows: Tannhauser, a minstrel knight, enters the mountain of Venus, a sort of subterranean paradise where the heathen goddess holds her voluptuous court, and for a year he revels in its unholy pleasures. Then a longing seizes upon him to return to earth, and when, through the aid of Mary, whom he invokes, his wish is realized, he hastens to Rome to implore pardon for his sin from Pope Urban IV . This the pope refuses to grant; Tannhäuser cannot be saved any more than the staff in the pontiff's hand can put forth fresh leaves. In despair the knight returns to the mountain of Venus and is not seen again. Soon after, the staff bursts into blossom and now messengers are sent to seek the knight, but too late.

No doubt we have here a tale of originally heathen character, subsequently Christianized. Its theme is the familiar story of the seduction of a human being by an elf or fairy. But all the delights of the fairy-realm cannot make him forget his earthly home, for which he longs. His desire is granted, but he is not happy, and in the end returns to the fairy-land. This motif is a commonplace in folk-lore literature. In the German legend the seductive fairy is identified with the ancient goddess of love, and the story is given a distinctly religious colour through the introduction of the pilgrimage of the repentant sinner to Rome. The motif of the withered staff bursting into blossom has also many parallels in sacred legend, and is evidently a later addition. How the legend came to assume the form outlined above can only be surmised. Of the poems that we possess on the subject none dates further back than the middle of the fifteenth century. The famous Volkslied that gives the above version is from the sixteenth century. A passage in Hermann von Sachsenheim's poem, "Die Mörin" proves that the legend, with its essential traits, was already known in 1453 when the poem was written. There Tannhäuser is referred to as the husband of Dame Venus. Now the historical Tannhäuser was a Minnesinger of the thirteenth century, who seems to have led a roving life, in the course of which he experienced many changes of fortune. His checquered career is reflected in his poems, which exhibit a strange mingling of dissolute boasting and pious sentiment. In one poem ascribed to him, repentance is expressed for foolish and sinful living, and this poem is supposed to be responsible for his appearing in the legend in the rôle of the penitent knight. But this is purely conjectural. As a matter of fact, the only connexion between the legendary and historical Tannhäuser is the identity of name.

It is noteworthy that a legend strikingly similar to that of Tannhäuser is attached in Italy to the Monte della Sibilla near Norcia. It is related at length by Antoine de La Sale in his "Salade", written between 1438 and 1442. He visited the sibyl's cave in 1420, and heard the story from the people of the neighbouring region. A still earlier reference to the legend is found in the famous romance "Guerino il meschino" of Andrea dei Magnabotti (1391). The Italian version knows that the cavalier entering the cave is a German, but does not mention his name; the queen of the subterranean paradise is the Sibyl of ancient prophetic fame, transformed into the goddess of pleasure. In view of these parallels which antedate the appearance of the legend in German literature, Gaston Paris disputes the German origin of the Tannhäuser legend, and regards Italy as its home. Its ultimate source he finds in Celtic folk-lore. But this cannot be proved, since the earlier history of the legend is not attested by any extant literary monuments either in Italy or in Germany. It is to be noted that in the German version there is a distinct tone of hostility to the papacy, wholly lacking in the Italian variants. In fact the miracle of the blossoming staff is a pointed reproof of the pope's harshness. This can readily be explained if the legend developed in Germany, where antipapal feeling was strong after the days of the Hohenstaufens. The dominant idea of the legend is the glorification of God's infinite mercy to sinners. But this ideal is set forth in a spirit most unfriendly to the Church. The attitude ascribed to the pope by the Volkslied is wholly contrary to Catholic doctrine .

Robert the Devil

God's boundless grace to sinners is also the theme of this legend as presented in French romances. Robert is the devil's own child, for his mother, despairing of heaven's aid in order to obtain a son, has addressed herself to the devil. From the moment of his birth the boy shows his vicious instincts, which urge him, when grown to manhood, to a career of monstrous crime. At last the horror which he inspires everywhere causes him to reflect, and, having found out the awful secret of his birth, he hastens to Rome to confess to the pope. He undergoes the most rigorous penance, living in the disguise of a fool at the emperor's court in Rome. Three times he delivers the city from the assault of the Saracens, but, refusing all reward, he ends his life as a pious hermit. According to another version he marries the emperor's daughter, whose love he has won in his humble disguise, and succeeds to the throne.

The oldest known account of this legend is a Latin prose narrative by a Dominican friar, Etienne de Bourbon (c. 1250). Then it appears in a French metrical romance of the thirteenth century, also in a dit of somewhat later date, and in a miracle play of the fourteenth century. A French prose version was also prefixed to the old "Croniques de Normandie" (probably of the thirteenth century). But the legend owes its popularity to the story-books, of which the earliest known appeared at Lyons in 1496, and again at Paris in 1497, under the title "La vie du terrible Robert le dyable". Since the sixteenth century the legend was often printed together with that of Richard sans Peur; it was published in completely recast form in 1769 under the title "Histoire de Robert le Diable, duc de Normandie, et de Richard Sans Peur, son fils."

From France the legend spread to Spain, where it was very popular. In England the subject was treated in the metrical romance, "Sir Gowther", the work of an unknown minstrel of the fifteenth century. An English translation from the French chap-book was made by Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton's assistant, and published without date under the title "Robert deuyll" (reprinted in Thoms, "Early English Prose Romances", London and New York, 1907). Another version, not based on the preceding, was given by Thomas Lodge in his book on "Robin the Divell" (London, 1591). In the Netherlands the romance of Robrecht den Duyvel was put on the index of forbidden books by the Bishop of Antwerp (1621). In Germany the legend never attained much of a vogue; not until the nineteenth century did it pass into the Volksbücher , being introduced by Görres. It was treated in epic form by Victor von Strauss (1854), in dramatic form by Raupach (1835). Meyerbeer's opera "Robert le Diable" (1831) enjoyed great favour for a time. The libretto, written by Scribe and Delavigne, has little in common with the legend except the name of the hero.

The Wandering Jew

This legend has been widely popular ever since its first appearance in a German chap-book of 1602. There it is told as follows: When Jesus bore his Cross to Calvary, he passed the house of a cobbler, Ahasuerus by name, who had been one of the rabble to shout, "Crucify him." Sinking beneath his burden, Jesus stopped to rest at the threshold of the cobbler, but was driven away with the words; "Go where thou belongest." Thereupon Our Lord gazed sternly at Ahasuerus and said: "I will stand here and rest, but thou shalt go on until the last day." And since then the Jew has been roaming restlessly over the earth.

The first literary record of such a doomed wanderer is found in the "Flores Historiarum", a chronicle of Roger of Wendover, a monk of St. Albans (d. 1237). The account there given was incorporated with some slight amplifications into the "Historia Major" of Matthew Paris (d. 1259). The story is told on the authority of an Armenian bishop who visited England in 1228 and had personally known the doomed man. According to this version, Cartaphilus, a doorkeeper at Pilate's mansion, saw Jesus as he was led forth to be crucified and struck him contemptuously, crying at the same time : "Go Jesus, go faster, why dost thou linger?" Whereupon Jesus replied: "I go, but thou shalt wait till I come." And so the offender has not been able to die, but still waits for the coming of Christ. He is leading a quiet, saintly life. Whenever he reaches the age of a hundred years he is miraculously restored to the age of thirty. Since his conversion to Christianity his name is Joseph. A similar version, also on the authority of the Armenian bishop, is given by the Flemish chronicler, Philippe Mousket, Bishop of Tournai (about 1243). No doubt, this version is the basis for the story given in the chap-books.

Now the legend is surely not the invention of the Armenian bishop, as has been sometimes claimed. It was well known in Italy during the thirteenth century and must have existed long before that. According to the astrologer Guido Bonatti, who is mentioned by Dante (Inf., xx, 118), the wanderer passed through Forli in 1267. Philip of Novara, a famous jurist, in his "Livre de Forme de Plait" (c. 1250), refers to a certain Jehan Boute Dieu as one proverbially long-lived. Now Philip resided for a long time in Jerusalem and Cyprus ; this, together with the fact that the account in the English chronicles also localizes Cartaphilus in Armenia, seems to point to an Oriental origin for the legend. Probably it was part of a local cycle that sprang up in Jerusalem in connexion with the Passion, and was brought to Europe by crusaders or pilgrims. A legend of a surviving witness of the Crucifixion, who is represented as the victim of a curse, was certainly current in Jerusalem, and is repeatedly referred to in accounts of travels to the Holy Land. The name of the accursed wanderer is generally given as Joannes Buttadeus, in Italian as Bottadio, which evidently means "God-smiter". An old Italian legend knows of a similar punishment inflicted on the soldier who struck Christ before the High Priest ( John 18:22 ), and later on this soldier was identified with Malchus whose ear was cut off by Peter. This legend was furthermore confused, it seems, with one current about St. John, to whom tradition ascribed immortality on the basis of a passage in John, xxi, 20 sqq. The names Johannes and Cartaphilus ( karta philos "much beloved"), given to the wanderer, lend some colour to this theory.

But, whatever its origin, the legend owes its fame and popularity to the above-mentioned German chap-book, which appeared anonymously in 1602 under the title: "Kurtze Beschreibung und Erzehlung von einem Juden mit Namen Ahasverus", etc. There the story is related on the authority of a Lutheran clergyman, Paulus von Eitzen (d. 1598), who claimed to have met the Jew in person in Hamburg in 1542, and to have heard the story from Ahasuerus himself. In a later edition of 1603, "Wunderbarlicher Bericht von Einem Juden Ahasver", etc., where the anonymous author assumes the pen-name of Chrysostomus Dudulæus Westphalus, the meeting is assigned to the year 1547, and in an appendix the fate of the Jew is made the subject of an exhortation to the Christian reader.

The legend at once sprang into popular favour, and numerous editions followed. From Germany it spread to Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and especially to France, where it has enjoyed a great vogue up to the present. The best-known French version is the "Histoire admirable d'un Juif Errant" dating from the seventeenth century. Here a tragic touch is added by the recital of the dangers which the Jew courts in the vain hope of ending his misery in death. Stories of the actual appearance of the Jew also began to be common, many of them, no doubt, traceable to impostors who played the rôle with success. Of such a one we have a well authenticated record from Italy in 1415.

Various names are given to the Wandering Jew in different countries. The English chronicles call him Cartaphilus. The Italian form is Bottadio and this corresponds to Boudedeo in Brittany and Bedeus in Saxon Transylvania. In Belgium he is known as Isaac Laquedem, probably a name of Hebrew origin. In Spain his name has undergone the significant change to Juan Espera-en-Dios (John Trust-in-God). Why the German version calls him Ahasverus is not clear. This name is familiar from the Old Testament ( Esther 1:1 ) as the surname of a Persian monarch (written Assuerus in Catholic versions). It is to be noted that the original wanderer was not necessarily a Jew ; Cartaphilus, the door-keeper in Pilate's mansion, must have been a Roman.

The Flying Dutchman

The theme of the doomed Wanderer recurs in this legend of the sea. The superstitious belief in a spectre ship is widespread among mariners. But the legend springing from this belief never attained a fixed form; the versions given of it vary considerably. The most common version as current among Dutch sailors relates how a captain by the name of Vanderdecken or Vanderstraaten from the Terneuse district, while on a voyage to India, is delayed off the Cape of Good Hope by a calm or a storm. In his rage he swears a


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Acts 3:1-10
1 Once, when Peter and John were going up to the ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 105:1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8-9
1 Alleluia! Give thanks to Yahweh, call on his name, ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 24:13-35
13 Now that very same day, two of them were on their ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for April 23rd, 2014 Image

St. George
April 23: Pictures of St. George usually show him killing a dragon to ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter