Walther von der Vogelweide from a medieval manuscriptInspired by talking about music with an old friend of mine, I rediscovered this beautiful medieval song: “Palästinalied” (“Palestine Song”) by the great German poet, Walther von der Vogelweide (ca. 1170-ca. 1230), a contemporary of St. Dominic.  It’s actually a song I learned back in the mid-90s, where  I often heard it played in the goth clubs I frequented (!).

This song is written in the vernacular Middle High German.  I read a translation sometime back, and if memory serves, the song tells of a crusader coming to the Holy Land.  He is stricken with wonder and devotion at the fact that this is the land where God became man, where He was born, lived, worked, taught, suffered, died, was buried, and was resurrected.  Basically, the poet was making a case for the Crusade, that Christians had a right to the Holy Land.

[UPDATE]: I did find one modern English poetic translation, though apparently not of the entire poem:

Now my life has gained some meaning
since these sinful eyes behold
the sacred land with meadows greening
whose renown is often told.
This was granted me from God:
to see the land, the holy sod,
which in human form He trod.

Splendid lands of wealth and power,
I’ve seen many, far and near,
yet of all are you the flower.
What a wonder happened here!
That a maid a child should bear,
Lord of all the angels fair,
was not this a wonder rare?

Here was He baptized, the Holy,
that all people might be pure.
Here He died, betrayed and lowly,
that our bonds should not endure.
Else our fate had been severe.
Hail, O cross, thorns and spear!
Heathens, woe! Your rage is clear.

Then to hell the Son descended
from the grave in which He lay,
by the Father still attended,
and the Spirit whom none may give a name:
in one are three,
an arrowshaft in unity.
This did Abraham once see.

When He there defeated Satan,
ne’ er has kaiser battled so,
He returned, our ways to straighten.
Then the Jews had fear and woe:
watch and stone were both in vain,
He appeared in life again,
whom their hands had struck and slain.

To this land, so He has spoken,
shall a fearful judgment come.
Widows’ bonds shall then be broken
and the orphans’ foe be dumb,
and the poor no longer cower
under sad misuse of power.
Woe to sinners in that hour!

Christians, heathen, Jews, contending,
claim it as a legacy.
May God judge with grace unending
through his blessed Trinity.
Strife is heard on every hand:
ours the only just demand,
He will have us rule the land.

I love that first line: “Now my life has gained some meaning.”  Today, many people have this view of the Crusades as this horribly corrupt, unjust war, a disgrace to Western civilization.  And I don’t deny that there were instances of corruption, injustice, and disgrace (the sacking of Constantinople comes to mind).  But I think the poem suggests the deeper, purer motivation–the Holy Land was precious and of great importance to the medievals and to their religious and spiritual lives.  They had a deep-seated love and reverence for it, as the land where God became man.  They needed it and longed for it.  It was the very heart of the world to them.  It was worth holding, keeping, protecting, fighting for, and dying for.  I can understand these sentiments; they resonate with me.  I can also understand how they could be lost on many people today. [END UPDATE]

What makes the Palästinalied especially exciting is that the original melody seems to have survived as well, and I think it’s a real beauty!  I’ve heard several modern renditions, some more beautiful than others.

Here is an instrumental version, with the straight melody and drums beating out a steady march. Click on the play button in the black box at top right.

Here is a version by a group called Unto Ashes.  It has simple instrumental accompaniment and harmonization:

And here is the very modernized version by a group called Qntal, which they played in the goth clubs.  So of course, the music is more synthesized, with more harmony and rhythm added in.  But the vocals are beautiful, the melody still takes precedence, and even with the electro-gothish stylings, you still get the medieval feel:

If you click through to the Youtube page for this last video, in the information box, it gives the M.H. German lyrics and what looks like a translation into modern German.  In case that helps anybody.

So, there’s our medieval culture lesson for today.

Maybe it’s just me, but medieval culture should be very near and dear to the hearts of western Catholics.  It’s such a tremendous part of our heritage and patrimony.  It wasn’t a perfect age–what age is?–but I would consider it a golden age.  I think the medievals strove for perfection.  That’s what all Catholics in every age should be doing.  No matter how bad or difficult or dark an age we live in, and no matter how outnumbered we are, we can always strive.  I would say that it’s every Catholic’s duty to strive for perfection–all through the grace of God (that has to be understood–I’m no Pelagian!).  Personal perfection first, and then who knows, you might bring bits and pieces of society along with you!

Nothing annoys me more than Catholics (usually in the political arena, as candidates and as voters) who try to excuse themselves from this striving by throwing up their hands and saying, “Oh, it’s no good, we’re never going to make this a Catholic nation, people won’t support us if we practice our faith, and then we’ll never be able to accomplish anything, it’s just useless, I tell you, blah blah blah.”  Giving into despair is no excuse, people!  Strive as though your very life depended on it!  Your eternal life just might.

But I digress… My point being to suggest that our modern society–and individuals–could really stand to have some good old medieval boldness and crusading spirit injected into them.