Images, Papers

Fortunatus: A German view of Italians in London

I promised a sequel to my last post, in which I looked at what the Libelle of Englyshe Polyce has to say about English attitudes to foreign merchants operating in the country in the late Middle Ages. This time, I’m looking at how those relationships feed into a non-English view of the situation by offering you an episode of the German proto-novel Fortunatus. I’m taking the opportunity to post this now, as term is about to start, and I don’t expect to have much time for blogging.

But first, an introduction. Fortunatus was first published in Augsburg (a centre of German vernacular printing) in 1509, and it draws upon various travel narratives which were circulating at the time, including John Mandeville and Bernhard von Breydenbach, whose book I’ve written about here. This reliance on older texts means that, for example, Fortunatus finds himself in what appears to be a pre-1453 Constantinople (i.e. before the Fall), visiting

Sant Sophia kirchen/ darinnen gar ain schöne kappel ist/ geweicht in der eer unser lieben frawen

[the Hagia Sophia, in which there is a lovely chapel dedicated to Our Lady]

The storyline, briefly, follows Fortunatus and his sons. While travelling through the woods, Fortunatus meets Lady Fortune, who gives him a purse full of money, which can never run out. He later supplements this by stealing a magic hat from the sultan in Alexandria – a hat which has the power to transport its wearer wherever he wishes. But Fortunatus begins his travels long before. Early in the narrative, he finds himself in London. There is a second London episode, involving Fortunatus’s son, Andalosia, but it’s only Fortunatus’s time London I want to talk about here. As Jurij Striedler has pointed out (quoted in the Reclam edition of Fortunatus), only this first episode has to be set in London. In the Andalosia episode, the location plays ‘so gut wie gar keine Rolle’: the action could take place anywhere.

Not so for the first London episode! As Striedler points out, the author seems to be pretty well informed about the city, and it’s portrayed as more than just a harbour and a commercial city. There’s a moment in which I’d like to think that the author is adding a bit of local colour: Fortunatus goes for a drink, and we read

Sy sprach zu ir magt / “gang bring ym ain pint bier”

[She said to her maid, “Go and bring a pint of beer”]

The word ‘pint’ is glossed as ‘Kanne’, and it does appear in Lexer as ein flüssigkeitsmass (a measurement of liquid), but there aren’t many references given.

But I think it’s important not to stretch Striedler’s latter point: London is primarily represented in the text as a centre of trade. The first thing we hear about it is that it’s the capital of England and,

da nun von allen orten der welt kauffleüt ligend und da iren gewerb tribent

[where merchants from all over the world carry out their business]

Although Fortunatus doesn’t specifically go to London to involve himself in the mercantile world, London as a centre of trade enables pretty much everything in this section of the narrative. The very first people he meets have been sent there for commercial purposes:

zwen jung die reich vätter in Cipern hetten / die sy ayff der Galee auch gen Lunden sandten und ynen vil kostliche kauffmannschatz bevolhen / sy waren auch vor nyemer auß gewesen und  wißten nut vil wie man sich regieren und halten solt in frembden landen / dann sovil sy von iren vätern gehört / in guote underweisung gegeben / hetten sy in gevolget

[two young men with rich fathers in Cyprus who had sent them to London on a galley, and entrusted them with a lot of valuable merchandise. They had never travelled abroad before and knew only what they had heard from their fathers about how to conduct themselves and behave in foreign countries. It was good advice, if only they had followed it]

We already have a sense that London is not safe for non-locals. Fortunatus then goes to the mercantile hub of Lombard Street to find a job – small details like this bear out the author’s knowledge of London – and he is taken on by a wealthy Florentine merchant, Jeronimus Roberti. But things soon go wrong. Another Florentine in London, a wicked young man named Andrean is asked by Jeronimus to secure the release of an imprisoned nobleman. He takes the nobleman back to Jeronimus’s house, and murders him, hoping to steal his jewels. He then tells everyone in the house that the nobleman had tried to kill him, and that he had acted in self-defence; stuffs his body down Jeronimus’s privy; and escapes to Alexandria, where – for good measure – he renounces Christianity.

Disposing of the body. 1509 Augsburg woodcut, as reproduced in 2007 Reclam edition.

Fortunatus is not in London when Andrean commits murder, and disposes of the corpse, and the reason is historically plausible.

Als sich nun die sach verloffen hett / do was Fortunatus nit tzu Lunden Sonder er was in seines herren dienst in ain statt gefarenn genant Sanduwick / da er seim herren guot in ain schif geladen het

[When these things were happening, Fortunatus was not in London, but had travelled on his master’s business to a town called Sandwich, where he was loading his master’s goods onto a ship]

As Caroline Barron explains, Florentine and Genoese merchant ships did dock in Sandwich, but Venetian ones didn’t.

The story of the murder, of course, comes out. Roberti and his entire household are condemned to death and taken to the new gallows which are:

zwüschen der statt und Vestminster / [where there] ist gar ain schöner pallast. ist darinne des künigs radthauß / und ain grosse schöne kirchen

[between the town and Westminster [where there] is a really beautiful palace, and inside is the king’s council chamber and a large and beautiful church]

Being led to the gallows. 1509 Augsburg woodcut, as reproduced in the 2007 Reclam edition.

Fortunatus is spared at the last minute. Ascending the gallows, Roberti’s cook, who:

was ain Englischer der schray mit lauter stym / das es maniglich höret / das Fortunatus nit umb die ding wißt

[was an Englishman, cried out loudly so that many people heard him, that Fortunatus didn’t know anything about it]

Now there is an argument that, in London, the chances are that it would be an English person who saves him, but the author didn’t have to emphasise Fortunatus’s saviour’s nationality. Indeed, by emphasising his nationality, we realise how few English people Fortunatus engages with in his time in England – we’re thinking about a really insular merchant community (no pun intended). And this is probably Fortunatus’s only positive interaction with an Englishman. After discussion with the judge, Fortunatus is saved from the gallows

so er auch nit ain Florentin / und unschuldig was

[since he was not a Florentine, and was innocent]

Both reasons seem to be of equal weight! He is nonetheless advised to leave the country because the (female) mob will kill him:

nu mach dich bald auß dem land / wann die frauwen der gassen werden dich zu tod schlagen

[Now get out of the land quickly, or the women in the alleys will beat you to death]

This is given weight by the king granting permission to sack Jeronimus’s house, and the reactions of the other Italians in London to this officially-sanctioned looting:

Do die andern Florentiner und Lambarder horten wie man also sackman gemacht het / do forchten sy sich übel / ires leibs und ires guots

[When the other Florentines and Lombards heard about the plundering, they were afraid for their lives and goods]

London would presumably have been well-known to Fortunatus’s German audience as a trading centre largely because of the presence of the Hanseatic League in the Steelyard – they had been in London since 1282. Relations between the League and England were complex, and particularly bad during 1470-74, in the Anglo-Hanseatic War. This ended with the Treaty of Utrecht (1474), which granted the League possession of the Steelyard. In 1493, though, a mob broke into the Steelyard and set fire to some of its buildings. This aspect of London’s trade, though, is entirely left out of the text – at least explicitly. What we do see, though, is something of a witch-hunt of people associated with a certain place: a Florentine household is implicated in a murder; every member of the household is executed; and the other Florentines and Lombards in London become afraid because the king’s men are plundering Jeronimus’s property.

It is through commercial London that the plot is moved on: by his trip to Lombard Street, a centre of international, mercantile London, where Fortunatus becomes involved with the Florentine merchant community. And it is the reality of how international trade worked in London that takes him to Sandwich – and means that he is ultimately freed from implication in the murder. After the miscarriage of justice which culminates in the execution of Jeronimus Roberti, Fortunatus is absolved of guilt essentially because he isn’t a Florentine. In Fortunatus, the bad treatment of foreign merchants trading in London is precipitated by Andrean’s murder of the nobleman, but – as we’ve seen – in the late Middle Ages, there was significant English resentment towards foreigners trading in London. The fact that Andrean is also a Florentine emphasises that, in many ways, the merchant community is being understood as a separate society within London, but the reactions of the other Italians show a familiar fear of the scapegoating of an entire group. Ralph Flenley writes that Italian merchants were the largest group of foreign merchants in England in the period, and the target of the most hostility. G.A. Holmes, in an article on Florentine merchants in England wrote: ‘One of the conspicuous features of the Lancastrian period was English hatred of the foreign merchant’. He refers to an Italian poem of the time by Frescobaldi, warning merchants travelling to England that they should wear dark clothes and keep away from men of the court.

If we think back to my previous post, which thought about foreign merchants in England from the English perspective, perhaps this episode in Fortunatus is not that surprising, and the fears of the Italian merchants who were not directly implicated in the murder committed by Andrean look perfectly reasonable. It seems that an English reputation for mistreating foreigners, and Italians in particular, had sunk into the popular imagination by the time that Fortunatus was written.

Fortunatus ed. by Hans-Gert Roloff (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2007)
Caroline M. Barron, London in the Later Middle Ages : Government and People, 1200-1500 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
Ralph Flenley, “London and Foreign Merchants in the Reign of Henry VI,” English Historical Review, 25 (1910), 644-55.
M.S. Giuseppi, ‘Alien Merchants in England in the Fifteenth Century’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 9 (1895), pp. 75-98.
A. Holmes, ‘Florentine Merchants in England, 1346-1436’, The Economic History Review, 13 (1960), 193-208.

If you don’t read German, you might be interested in Michael Haldane’s translation of Fortunatus, where you can also see all of the woodcuts.

Images, Incunabula, Papers

The ‘Libelle of Englyshe Polycye’: An English view of Europe in the Fifteenth Century

It can be useful to take a non-linear approach to events – to look back and see our present reflected in the past. The debates filling newspapers and website about the forms British trade with Europe could or should take have made me cast my mind back to the subject of a paper I gave in 2014, in which I looked at the portrayal of merchant life in London in the late Middle Ages. My attention was caught by an anonymous poem which appeared in the middle of the fifteenth century. It was called the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye.

It can’t have been fun, being a foreign merchant in late-medieval England. There were frequent attempts to control the merchant population by ever-increasing taxes, by restricting them from carrying more than half of their income out of England – that is to say that they had to spend half of what they made in England and, briefly, in the middle of the fifteenth century, there was an ordinance which stated that while they were in England, they had to live with a host. In Robert Bale’s Chronicle of London, we read: ‘In the which parliament was ordeyned that the lumbardes shuld goo to host for VII yer’. That is to say that for the next seven years, any Lombards entering the country had to stay with an English sponsor. He also reports that that ‘all maner alienes enherite in the land shuld yerely pay a tribute to the kyng’ (p. 114).

But it’s the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye which is really of interest to me here, and I’d like to pull out a few sample quotations. Its opening, for example, is as follows:

Here beginneth the Prologe of the processe of the Libelle of Englyshe polycye, exhortynge alle Englande to kepe the see [sea] enviroun and namelye the narowe see [the Channel], shewynge whate profete commeth thereof and also whate worshype and salvacione to Englande and to all Englyshe menne

Sixteenth-century map by the Dutch cartographer, Christiaan Sgroten. Source: Wikipedia.

The poet goes on to recommend bluntly (and in a rather repetitive manner) ‘that we bee maysteres of the narowe see’. Towards the end, he describes the sea as:

the rounde wall,
As thoughe England were lykened to a cite
And the wall environ were the see.
Kepe than the see, that is the wall of Englond,
And than is Englond kepte by Goddes sonde

In addition to promoting keeping tight control over the Channel, the poet also lists the various commodities of foreign merchants, and how to take advantage of them. The poet is particularly unflattering about Florentine and Venetian merchants, who – so he says – bring nothing of value into the country, but remove many costly goods in exchange. Perhaps this was a way around being required to spend half their earnings in England. Their imports are, apparently:

Nifles, trifles, that litell have availed
And thynges with whiche they fetely blere oure eye,
Wyth thynges not endurynge that we bye

The goods which they take away, however are another matter. The Italians:

bere hens oure beste chaffare
Clothe, woll and tynne, whiche, as I seyde beforne,
Oute of this londe werste might be forborne

The poet then provides a substantial amount of text outlining what he considers to be deceitful behaviour on the part of the Florentines and Venetians. They are not, though, the only objects of the poet’s ire. He treats as many nations as possible in a similar fashion – including Scotland:

Therefor if we wolde manly take on honde
To kepe thys see fro Flaundres and fro Spayne
And fro Scotelonde lych as fro Pety Bretayne,
Wee schulde ryght sone have pease for all here bostes,
For they muste nede passe by oure Englysshe costes

This rather negates his later recommendation that, with England’s ‘wall’ secured:

thus shuld everi lande, one with another,
Entrecomon as brother wyth his brother,
And live togedre werreles in unite
Wythoute rancoure in verry charite

He is, however, careful to follow these pious wishes with a reiteration of his opening lines:

Here endithe the trewe processe of the libelle of Englysshe policie, exhortynge all Englande to kepe the see environ and namely the narowe see, shewynge whate worshipe, profite and salvacione commeth thereof to the reigne of Englonde, etc

The message is clear: peaceful coexistence means interacting as little as possible with your neighbours.

Setting sail in late-medieval Europe (from Fortunatus). Source:

About fifteen years after the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye, in 1456, there were riots in London against the Italian merchants. These were recorded in William Gregory’s Chronicle of London as ‘the rysynge and wanton reule of þe mayre and the mercers of London a-gayne the Lombardys’, which resulted in many Italian merchants leaving London. Many were incarcerated, and Gregory comments that ‘the comyn talkynge and noyse was that they shulde nevyr be delyveryd butt contynue in perpetualle preson’ (p. 199). Robert Bale describes the aftermath of the riots – Londoners were punished for their parts in riots, but this only led to more discontent (pp. 143-144):

And the Saterday folowyng were endited of ffelony a sherman dwelling at algate and a noþer man of the citee and a lordes man for a rising and riflyng that was made upon lumbardes and þen after they wer hanged. Wherwith the peple sore grucched

Caroline Barron suggests a couple of possible reasons for these riots: partly the fact that Italian merchants were doing well, and this made them easy targets, and partly the fact that they had previously disappeared from London in the fourteenth century, ‘and their re-emergence provoked resentment’(p. 113). Words reflect, or are reflected in, contemporary sentiments and actions.

I’m writing this post with a sequel in mind. I first discovered the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye when I was reading the German Fortunatus of 1509. The narrative tells of a young man who travels far and wide, eventually acquiring a purse which is constantly refilled with money. Early on, he falls in with merchants in London, with near disastrous consequences. In my next post, I’ll take a quick look at that episode – it seems that an English reputation for mistreating foreigners had by this point taken root in popular imagination.

The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye – online text
Caroline M. Barron, London in the Later Middle Ages : Government and People, 1200-1500 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Ralph Flenley (ed.), Six Town Chronicles of England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911)
James Gairdner (ed.), The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London in the Fifteenth Century (London: Camden Society, 1876)
George Warner (ed.), The libelle of Englyshe Polycye: A Poem on the Use of Sea-Power (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926)

Guest Post, Manuscripts, Papers

  Source Criticism in the Digital Age

I was asked to translate this Call to Action from the Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands, originally written by Eva Schlotheuber and Frank Bösch. There has been a significant reduction in the teaching of fundamental historical skills (palaeography, codicology etc) in German universities. This situation is hardly unfamiliar to us in the UK.

Here is Eva Schlotheuber on the background for the debate:
In Germany, a move to organise programmes of study on a modular basis has led to the virtual disappearance of academic source criticism from the university curriculum. As a result, a third of university chairs in the area of ancillary historical skills (palaeography, codicology, epigraphy etc) have been lost in recent decades. At the same time, however, there has been substantial financial and scholarly investment in the digitisation of archival and manuscript sources, largely thanks to the DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft), the main German research foundation. If, however, we are to make full use of this digitisation project, it is imperative that the gap in skills training is addressed, before we find ourselves facing a situation in which the Faculty also lacks the relevant expertise. Our aim is to begin a debate about the discipline’s scholarly foundations, culminating in in a discussion at the Historikertag (the annual convention of all German historians) in Hamburg in September 2016.

Please read and comment over at the original English post – discussion is an integral part of this process!

See the whole Call to Action at the Teaching the Codex WordPress site:

  Source Criticism in the Digital Age


St Oswald’s Temperamental Raven

Search online for “St Oswald”, and you won’t have to look too far before finding an image of the saint holding a raven. The raven generally belongs in the continental Oswald tradition, but it has become a fairly standard part of his iconography, as you can see from the following images:

St Oswald's church, Durham Coat of Arms of Altmannsdorf, Vienna St Oswald's Way

The images are, respectively, a window from St Oswald’s Church, Durham, the coat of arms of Altmannsdorf in Vienna, and the symbol for the St Oswald’s Way path.

When I wrote my article on post-death conversion in the Munich Oswald and St Erkenwald, it wasn’t the right forum to discuss the rather hoity-toity raven who enables (and then disappears from) the narrative. I did, though, have the opportunity to think about the raven just over a year ago when I presented a form of this post as a paper to the Medieval German Seminar in Oxford. This is not detailed analysis, but rather a summary of the raven’s appearances, and intended to trigger discussion, rather than to provide the answers.

Before looking at Oswald (Munich or otherwise), there are a few points I’d like to raise about ravens more generally. There’s something quite mysterious about ravens, and they have all sorts of associations, from the mystical to the mundane, even today. There’s the story, for example, that if ravens leave the Tower of London, then it will fall, which is probably a Victorian invented tradition, rather than anything earlier.[1] The same range of associations was also present in the Middle Ages – on the one hand, for example, in Noah’s Flood, which is probably originally early fifteenth century, the ravens, as lowly scavengers, are amongst the last birds to get onto the ark. On the other hand, ravens appear frequently in hagiographical legends – St Oswald isn’t the only saint to be associated with ravens. Dominic Alexander, in his book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages, has surveyed the appearances of ravens, identifying Elijah being fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:6) as having a particularly strong influence on hagiography. Ravens, though, have some less savoury connotations, and Alexander notes that other creatures often take their place – in the Vitae Patrum angels, rather than ravens, tend to bring food.[2] The association with angels, as it happens, has some relevance to the Munich Oswald. For some less helpful ravens, Alexander recounts an episode in the anonymous life of St Cuthbert, which dates from around the end of the seventh century: they take material from the roof of his house for themselves, and are banished in the name of Jesus, but after three days, they beg forgiveness and bring Cuthbert lard as a gift, and are allowed to stay.[3] The Legenda Aurea records ravens protecting the corpse of St Vincent of Saragossa from being eaten by vultures. And on a non-Christian note, Odin is associated with two ravens who brought him would fly out and bring him news.

So we have ravens as scavengers, which is connected particularly with their tendency to scavenge on battlefields. They are therefore often associated with battle and bloodshed. We have ravens as messengers. And we have ravens who do God’s will with regard to saints. All of those are to some degree relevant to the tradition of St Oswald.

There are distinct traditions about Oswald’s connection with the bird. The English tradition, based on Reginald of Durham’s Life of Oswald, concerns a raven carrying Oswald’s arm away from his mutilated body on the battlefield.[4] We can’t pin down the German origins of the raven so easily – while we know that Oswald was venerated in southern Germany in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, we don’t know for certain that Early Middle High German versions of the legend existed. It’s likely though, that there was some kind of twelfth century original for the later texts we do have. These survive in fifteenth and sixteenth century manuscripts, but can probably be traced to the fourteenth century. The two most important Oswald texts are the Munich Oswald and the Vienna Oswald – which is about half the length of the Munich Oswald. I’m focusing on the Munich Oswald,[5] which is named after its principal manuscript, but was probably written in Regensburg sometime between the 12th and 15th centuries. The raven, it has to be said, fulfils a rather different function in the German tradition, particularly in this example!

To summarise the Munich Oswald, then, King Oswald embarks upon a quest (divinely inspired, naturally) for the hand and conversion of the daughter of the pagan king Aron, who lives in a distant eastern land. His drawn-out mission is aided by a series of miraculous events and a vain and touchy raven, who has conveniently learned to talk, and acts as an emissary to the princess, at one point getting itself imprisoned. Ultimately, the raven succeeds in converting the princess and getting her to agree to marry Oswald, and she entrusts a ring for Oswald to the raven. Oswald, though, still needs to free her from her father. He sets off to do this, accidentally leaving the raven behind. The raven is furious, and sulks at home in England for over a year, until an angel comes to remonstrate with it. Eventually the angel tricks the raven into going to Oswald’s aid, and it miraculously flies to the king in four days. Upon arrival, it resumes its position carrying messages to the princess, and acting as a look-out. Oswald is ultimately successful in carrying off the willing princess, but is pursued by Aron’s men and forced to do battle. At this point, the raven drops out of the narrative. Having killed all of his opponents, other than Aron, Oswald demands that Aron convert – but is met with a blank refusal. The conversion is ultimately achieved after a series of increasingly dramatic miracles, including the resurrection of the entire pagan army and the production of water from a rock. After this, everyone is baptised, and then the pagan army dies again. But that’s not the end! Jesus subsequently comes in disguise to Oswald’s court, requiring him to prove his generosity, and – as if that were not enough –commands the king to maintain a chaste marriage. He provides a useful tip for this – namely that Oswald should keep a cold bath by his bed, and spring into it whenever he is feeling lustful. The final touch is that Oswald is then informed that he will shortly die.

The raven is a rather comic figure, as well as one of the driving figures in the text, and I’d like to point out some of his ‘greatest hits’. As I mentioned, the raven conveniently learns to talk, and it is this which enables the whole narrative – the word ‘conveniently’ was not (entirely) facetious. The context is this: a pilgrim has come to the court to suggest the bridal quest, and explains that sheer force won’t win the princess for Oswald, but there is another way. He has a raven, which could be used as a messenger:

du hast erzogen ainen edlen raben:
den soltu zuo poten haben.

(ll. 351-52)

The reason that it would make such a good messenger is that it has learnt to speak:

daz dein rab ist redent worden

l. 357

Oswald finds this understandably hard to believe – he has had the raven for twelve years, during which time he never heard it speak:

ich kainer schlacht stimme
von im nie pin warden inne

(ll. 363-64)

The king decides to summon the bird, but the impudent bird (‘rab vermessen’, l. 377) is sitting on a tall tower, and can’t be reached. The pilgrim tells Oswald that God will summon the raven, and so he does. The bird perches on the table and his first words are overtly Christian. He says to the pilgrim:

du solt mir gotwilchomen [gottwilkommen] sein

(l. 406)

This brings to light one of the raven’s most important characteristics – he is a Christian. But there is plenty more to him – I rather like Marion Gibbs’ and Sidney Johnson’s description of his character: ‘He is a Christian, likes to eat and drink, is easily offended and needs to be mollified; he plays chess and displays a very courtly manner while providing a certain amount of comedy for the story’.[6]

Oswald gives the raven a message to take to the princess, and he sets off. His voyage is filled with dangers, from starvation, to capture by mermaids who mistake him for an angel. This is a particularly amusing episode, for even the mythical mermaids, who live under the sea and eat bread rolls and venison, and drink wine, are confused by what the bird represents. This is where the angelic connection comes in, for the mermaids debate whether he is an angel, or simply a wild bird. One suggests that he is an angel, sent by our saviour in heaven, and should therefore be received with honour. Another mermaid thinks that she’s talking nonsense, and that they are simply faced with a wild bird. Neither, of course, is quite correct:

daz mag wol ein engel sein!
der himlisch hailant
hat in uns her gesant:
durch den himlischen fursten her
süll wir im erpieten grosse er.”
do sprach ein ander merweib:
“die red laß beleiben,
wann ez mag kain engel gesein,
daz hab auf die treue mein;
ez ist nür ein wilder vogel.

(ll. 670-80)

When he speaks, they are so impressed that they bring him a feast – but they are not keen to let him leave. In order to escape, the raven then tells them that the apocalypse is on its way, and flies off in the confusion.

Once he arrives in King Aron’s court, he ingratiates himself. When making his bid for the princess, though, he makes the mistake of mentioning salvation and the grace of Our Lady as an incentive for Aron to marry Oswald’s daughter:

du solt im dein tochter geben gern!
und wirt dein tocher sein weib,
so ist auch hälig ir paider leib:
si choment aus aller schuld
und erwerbent unser frauen huld.


This does not go down well. Aron immediately tries to have him captured, despite earlier assurances that this would never happen. During this sequence, the raven is treated very much as a human, and the king even threatens to have him hanged (‘so wil ich in hahen pald’, l. 1035), apparently oblivious to the impracticalities of attempting to hang a bird.

Despite the threats of execution, the raven secures the princess’s conversion and her promise – sealed with a ring. He sets out on his return journey, during which he is beset by gales, and drops the ring, but encounters a hermit who tells him that he knows of him and his quest, and that he has been commanded to pray for Oswald. The raven, though, is despondent, and says that he can never return to England, for he has failed in his task. Fortunately, a miracle is at hand. The hermit prays and a fish leaps out of the water with the ring (a familiar topos). After this, the raven returns to Oswald’s court without further incident, and gives instructions for the journey to claim the princess, including the instruction to bring a golden stag: ‘ainen ubergulten hirsch muostu haben’. The stag is part of a rather convoluted plan to free the princess. It is used as a distraction – Aron and his men are sent off to hunt it, while Oswald and his men (who have been pretending to be goldsmiths for some time) help the princess to escape from the castle. The stag miraculously escapes the pursuing heathens and comes back to Oswald’s men.

There is one final major episode including the raven. After sailing for a year, Oswald finally lands in Aron’s country. Only now does he realise that he has left the raven behind, and he is distressed, as he had been intending to send it to the princess once more as a messenger. God sends an angel to the raven to persuade it to follow Oswald and help him out. The raven is – perhaps understandably – rather annoyed. Oswald has, after all, failed to notice his absence for a year, and has only realised it once the raven is of use. The raven is also unimpressed that Oswald remembered his advice to bring a gilded stag, but failed to remember the source of the instruction. The raven and the angel have a debate, and the raven makes it clear that he has no intention of flying to Oswald, whose disregard for the raven has led to its going hungry during the king’s absence, as the servants have refused to treat him as a member of court, telling him to eat with the dogs. As a result, even if he wanted to go, he is in no state to fly:

von hunger lait ich grosse not.
mein gevider ist mir zerzerret ser
meinen herren chan ich nicht gehelfen mer

(ll. 1865-67)

Eventually, though, the angel tricks the raven into flying to Oswald. He says that if the raven is unable to maintain a certain height (three spears), but falls back to earth, he will have proven his loyalty, and will be off the hook whatever happens to the king and his army. The raven attempts to prove his point, but has failed to think through the implications of accepting a challenge from an angel. The angel makes him rise to the height of twelve spears, and refuses to let him land, with the result that he has to fly to his king – something he miraculously achieves in four days:

der engel den raben des betwang
daz er sein gevider hoch erschwang
und flog hin uber daz wild mer
und eilet zuo sand Oswalts her
und cham an dem vierden margen

(ll. 1887-91)

When it arrives, the raven airs its grievances about its treatment at home since the king left, specifically naming those members of staff who were of particular annoyance (the cook and the steward, predictably).

ich muoß dir also vil clagen
uber den choch und den chelner

(ll. 1961-62)

Oswald doesn’t have much time for the raven’s complaints, though, and he is rapidly enlisted once more as a messenger, and sent off to contact the princess.

The episode raises a number of interesting points. Of course it’s amusing to witness a raven debating an angel, especially in the context of the mermaid who thought that the raven was an angel. But the episode also outlines the raven’s importance to the mission, his jealousy over the stag and his expectations about where it should eat – that is, not with other animals.

After this, the raven essentially fades out of a narrative to which he has been crucial. But he has left his mark. Readers (especially modern readers, given to detailed analysis) are left to consider what it means for the raven to be a Christian. This is a story about conversion and salvation, but we never find out whether the raven’s Christianity extends as far as his being endowed with a soul. Equally, while the raven is a particularly visible example, there are various other animals in the text, all loaded with symbolism of their own: the fish which finds the ring, the golden stag, the dogs with whom the raven is expected to eat. There are also the mermaids – they are of course not animals, but they are not in a dissimilar category to the raven. They are, just as he is, on the borders of human society, and have both an awareness of the divine … and a preoccupation with food.

[1] The Guardian

[2] Dominic Alexander, Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2008), p. 25

[3] Dominic Alexander, p. 46

[4] For more about the raven and the English Oswald tradition, see this blogpost

[5] All quotations are from: Michael Curschmann, ed., Der Münchener Oswald (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1974)

[6] Marion Gibbs and Sidney Johnson, Medieval German Literature: A Companion (New York and London: Routledge, 1997, repr. 2000), p. 112