Polyglots in Medieval German Literature: Outsiders, Critics, or Revolutionaries? Gottfried von Straßburg’s Tristan, Wernher the Gardener’s Meier Helmbrecht, and Oswald von Wolkenstein
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Whereas the ability to speak different languages has always been regarded as a amajor intellectual accomplishment and a key tool in building bridges between cultures, the polyglot might also be in a dangerous position of belonging to no language group and being left outside of all communities. Medieval German poets were quite aware of this phenomenon, as illustrated by Gottfried of Strasbourg’s Tristan, Wernher the Gardener’s Helmbrecht, and Oswald of Wolkenstein’s maccaronic poems. Tristan knows many languages, but he does not acquire friends with his miraculous linguistic skill, and soon enough the entire court seems to hate him and makes every effort to betray this god-like but adulterous protagonist to the king. Young Helmbrecht tries to assume the posture of a polyglot, but the more he employs foreign language phrases in the exchange with his family, the more he becomes isolated and is in danger of being excluded from his old community. Oswald, on the other hand, playfully included many different language phrases in his poetry, but met with little interest among posterity. Languages are extremely important, but those who are fluent in many might find themselves without an identity and hence without a community.
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