Der arme Heinrich

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Der arme Heinrich (Poor Heinrich or, as we were encouraged to call it "Sir Henry in his Distress") is a Middle High German narrative poem by Hartmann von Aue. It was probably written in the 1190s and was the second to last of Hartmann's four epic works. The poem combines courtly and religious narrative patterns to tell the story of a noble knight who has been stricken by God with leprosy; he can only be cured by the heart's blood of a virgin who willingly sacrifices herself for his salvation.


Prologue of Poor Heinrich (Heidelberg, University Library)

After a short prologue, in which the narrator names himself and from which we have most of our information about Hartmann von Aue, the story begins: Heinrich, a young Freiherr (baron) of Ouwe in Swabia commanding great material wealth and the highest social esteem. He embodies all knightly virtues and courtly behavior including being skilled in the Minnesang.

Heinrich plummets from this ideal life when God afflicts him with leprosy and those around him turn away from him in fear and disgust. In contrast with the biblical Job, Heinrich is unable to come to terms with this and visits doctors in Montpellier, who are unable to help him. At the famous Schola Medica Salernitana, he learns from a doctor that the cure does exist, though it is not available for Heinrich: only the life blood of a virgin of marriageable age, who freely sacrifices herself can cure him. Despairing and without hope of recovery, he returns home, gives away the greater part of his worldly goods and goes to live in the house of the caretaker of one of his estates.

There the daughter of a farmer becomes the second main character. The girl (in manuscript A she is 8, in manuscript B she is 12) is not afraid of Heinrich and becomes his devoted companion. Soon Heinrich jokingly calls her his bride. When, after three years, she overhears Heinrich telling her father unhopefully what he needs for his cure, she is determined to lay down her life for him. She wants to sacrifice herself for him, because she believes it is the only way to escape this sinful life and as the quickest way to get to everlasting life with God in the hereafter. In a speech whose rhetorical power is ascribed by her parents to divine inspiration, she convinces her parents and Heinrich to accept her sacrifice as God's will.

Heinrich and the girl travel to Salerno. As the doctor, who had tried to talk the girl out of it before the operation, is about to cut out the girl's heart out, Heinrich sees her through a chink in the door, naked and bound to the operating table and intervenes at the last minute. He says that as he compared her beauty to his disfigured form, he became aware of the monstrosity of their undertaking. In this sudden change of heart he accepts his leprosy as the will of God. Thereupon the girl flies off the handle, strongly criticizing him for not letting her die and taunting him as a coward.

On their return journey Heinrich is cured miraculously by God's providence and returns home with the girl where the two are married despite the difference in their social standing. Heinrich returns to his earlier social position and his estate's caretaker becomes a yeoman farmer. Heinrich and the girl both achieve eternal salvation.

Place in the literary-historical record[edit]

Poor Heinrich among Hartmann's works[edit]

Hartmann von Aue (notional portrait from the Codex Manesse, circa 1300)

The date of origin of Poor Heinrich can only be approximated. Chrétien de Troyes' Erec and Enide, the model for Hartmann's first novel Erec, was probably well known by 1165. Therefore, Hartmann probably emerged as an author some years after that, perhaps around 1180. At the latest all four of Hartmann's novels were known by 1205 or 1210, because Wolfram von Eschenbach refers to Iwien, Hartmann's final work, in his work Parzival.

In the chronology of Hartmann's work, Poor Heinrich is, for stylistic reasons, counted as the third of his narrative works. The first is generally considered to be the Arthurian novel Erec followed by the legendary story Gregorius. His final work is the second Arthurian story, Iwein, which was possibly begun right after the completion of Erec but only completed later. Hartmann's Minnelieder (love songs) and Crusades poems are very difficult to date or order, though his short poem Klagebuechlein is usually placed prior to the four novels.

Subjects and sources[edit]

Hartmann speaks in the prologue of stories that he has found in books, which he simply wants to retell. However, such sources have not been found in German, French, or Latin records of the Middle Ages, so one could conclude that the report of the source is fictional and intended as a literary device to underscore the authenticity of the story. The traditional Latin stories from the 14th or 15th centuries Henricus pauper and Albertus pauper are probably derivative of Hartmann's story rather than its sources.

One traditional source is spoken to directly in the text, that of Job, who in the Bible was tested by God with leprosy. Among other stories of supernatural cases and cures of leprosy are the legend of Pope Sylvester I, who was supposedly healed by Constantine the Great as well as the Amicus und Amelius of Konrad von Würzburg.


The poor system of transcription led to a number of inconsistencies and obscurities in the story, most of which have to do with the nameless farmer's daughter. There are two surviving manuscripts as well as various fragments. Most glaring, Manuscript A give her age as 8 when Heinrich comes to live at the steward's house while Manuscript B gives it as 12, though there are a number of other differences.

The central question that the story leaves open is the reason God has stricken Heinrich with leprosy. On the one hand it can be considered punishment for his worldly lifestyle—this is how Heinrich himself understands it and there is also a comparison with Absalom early in the work which support this reading. On the other hand, the leprosy can be interpreted as a test from God, supported by the comparisons with Job. However, unlike Job, Heinrich does not at first accept the test; he seeks a cure and then despairs.

The role of the girl presents another central problem. That she remains nameless seems to push her into an inferior position that belies her critical role in the story. The rhetorically masterful and theologically expert speech, which she gives to Heinrich and her parents, convincing them to accept her sacrifice, is attributed to the Holy Ghost. It remains unclear whether she is motivated by true altruism or by a sort of "salvation-egoism," wanting to buy the saving of her own soul, as it often seems.

The girl falls back into a secondary role at the end of the book, though not without being raised to the nobility through her marriage. The social position of the female protagonist presents a real conundrum. The life of Heinrich with his vassal farmer, who at the end becomes a yeoman farmer, can be read as a kind of societal utopia. Equally utopian, is the idea that a farmer's daughter could have been raised to the nobility as the legitimate wife of a baron. It stands to reason that the free or unfree birth of the girl, which Hartmann overtly wished to thematize, is also to be understood as a spiritual allegory.

Also striking is the similarity of the main character's name, Heinrich von Ouwe, with the author's, Hartmann von Aue. One can read it as an attempt at clarifying family history--to explain that the Ministerialis-class (the lower, unfree nobility) of von Aue's family was due to an ancestor's marriage to a commoner. Indeed, Germanist Daniel Shumway, concluded that the stories referred to in the prologue were likely from a family history, since lost.[1] However, Hartmann is silent on the subject.


Von Aue's story was first translated into Modern German in the late 18th century but only became well known in Germany through an adaptation by the Brothers Grimm in 1815. Around that time, it was translated into a number of other languages, including English.

The story was the original basis for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's loose adaptation in an 1851 poem "The Golden Legend."[2] Longfellow's poem was adapted into a very popular cantata of the same name by Arthur Sullivan with libretto by Joseph Bennett first performed in 1888.

The poem was later, independently adapted into a full, German-language opera by Hans Pfitzner with the libretto by James Grun. It opened in 1895 in Mainz and was later performed in numerous German cities.

The story was also adopted into a play by Gerhart Hauptmann, which opened in 1902 in Vienna.


  1. ^ Shumway, Daniel (1920). "Der Arme Heinrich". The Encyclopedia Americana. Retrieved May 15, 2012. 
  2. ^ The Golden Legend. "Notes" Longfellow's notes to The Golden Legend. Google Books

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