In the first of two blogs on courtly display, David Murray looks at aspirational living in the Middle Ages, how murals are useful for historians, and why you should always visit the castle privy….
One of the most valuable things you can have as a historian of any kind is a sense of what is was like to be in the place you are studying. Happily, for the student of the European Middle Ages, this is not a particularly difficult thing to acquire. There are castles, cathedrals and so on. But given the ‘Take up thy bed and walk’ approach to home furnishing favoured by rulers in the Middle Ages (and indeed long after—just think of Elizabeth I’s extraordinary summer Progresses), some of the more ephemeral elements have gone amiss in the intervening centuries. And it is of course exactly these trappings of daily life that make the past a bit more real. (For instance, I cannot be the only person whose first action on visiting a castle is to find the privy…)
As such, the extraordinary series of wall paintings in the rather romantic castle of Runkelstein, (now northern Italy), discovered from the middle of the nineteenth century, offers a vivid idea of what a self-respecting man of means liked to have on his walls around at the end of the fourteenth century. They are certainly an antidote to any lingering suspicions anyone might have about the dreary Middle Ages. Quite the riot of activity and colour, the paintings combine pictures of favourite characters from courtly romance like Tristan, Wiglaois and the now less-well known Garel, with what seem to be scenes of everyday courtly folk in their natural habitat.
What is most remarkable about Runkelstein is the extent of the paintings: for a relatively small castle, there is an astonishingly large area of preserved mural, inside and out. For instance, on the gallery of the so-called summer house are triads of the greatest heroes of the Christians, Jews and heathens—as they would probably have labelled them. For instance in this picture, you can see on the far left of the gallery a sliver of King Arthur, Charlemagne and Geoffrey of Bouillon.
Inside, an idea of the sheer scale of the decoration from the room devoted to the story of Garel vom blühenden Tal, a romance by the Salzburg poet of the mid-thirteenth century Der Pleier (currently the object of renewed interest in medieval German studies). Left to right, we see Garel, a knight of the Round Table defeat the forces of Ekunavers of Kanadic who had had Guinevere abducted at the beginning of the romance. Garel takes the captured enemy knights to King Arthur—the meeting with the king is the middle scene. Finally, the right-most scene, all Arthur’s knights gather around the Round Table.
Particularly striking, and much-celebrated, are the terraverde cycle of images dated to around 1410, telling the story of Tristan and Isolde. Here is the death of the hero, the copious blood alarmingly bright against the muted colours. The frescos are of particular value to historians of costume, as they give a detailed overview of fashions over a number of decades. For instance, where the sleeves of the ladies tending to Tristan are gathered at the wrist, those of the ladies playing ball in the West Palace are fitted along the arm, a style thought to be more fashionable in the decades between 1360 and 1390.
At any rate, the murals give a certain image of how courtly life was imagined to be. Imagination, after all, was always central to the idea of the court, and is famously sent up in the beginning of Hartmann’s Iwein, a translation-plus of Chrétien de Troyes’ Chevalier au lion. Hartmann, his eyebrow gently raised, opens by describing King Arthur’s Whitsuntide court as:
ein alsô schœne hôchzît
daz er vordes noch sît
deheine schœner nie gewan
…sich gesament ûf erde
bî niemens zîten anderswâ
sô manec guot ritter alsô dâ.
ouch wart in dâ ze hove gegeben
in allen wîs ein wunschleben
While this topos is normally called laudatio temporis acti or praise of times past, Hartmann makes it quite clear that these are times that never happened. Indeed, he goes on to say that he would rather not have lived in those times, preferring to live in the present and to enjoy the stories about them.
In fact, this idea of a ‘wunschleben’ rings true in the story behind the paintings at Runkelstein. The man who commissioned the paintings, Nicklaus Vintler, was himself not noble, coming from a major mercantile family from Bozen. He was a counsellor to Leopold III, the Habsburg duke of Carinthia, as well as acting as his castellan at the important castle of Reinegg, ten miles south of Runkelstein; nonetheless, he did not have his own coat of arms (but made one up), and had bought the castle. The beautifully ornamented castle he bought with his brother was thus very much the Vintelers’ dream, a fact made all the more real when the family was dispossessed in 1409 by Friedrich mit den leeren Taschen, [‘with the empty pockets’], duke of Tyrol. Ruined by the impecunious prince—who resented the close relationship the Vintlers had had with another branch of the Habsburgs—Nicklaus’ brother Franz had to sell the property definitively after Nicklaus’ death.
So next time you see a mock-Tudor house, spare a thought for the brothers who went one better with their mock-Arthurian palace. Now that’s aspiration.