Ulrich von Liechtenstein: The Poet Knight

Like many others who have watched Heath Ledger’s film, A Knight’s Tale, I assumed the character of Ulrich von Lichtenstein was a made up person, invented to tell the story of a lowly peasant claiming to be a knight, so that he could fulfil his dream of jousting. It wasn’t until I was researching the history of tournaments, in connection with my favourite person, Anthony Woodville, that I came across the real-life Ulrich. During his lifetime, he was not just the knight you expect him to be, but also a poet, high ranking commander, steward, and provincial judge.[1]

Ulrich von Lichtenstein was born into a low status but prosperous minor noble family in Styria, now modern-day Austria around 1200. His first connections with the knightly world came during his teenage years, when he became a page to the son of a Duke. He held this role until he himself was knighted by Duke Leopold VI of Austria in his early 20s.[2] After this position was bestowed upon him, it was clear that he would have certain skills and expectations to hold. However, during the thirteenth century, there was relative peace across Europe, meaning that many knights were idle and were having to find new ways to entertain themselves, and to practise their skills.[3]

joust
Two men on horseback, wearing lavish armour, facing each other at a jousting tournament. Colour lithograph, by Th. und C. Senefelder, 1817, after H. Östendorfer, 1541. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In the century before Ulrich’s knighthood, the lance had first emerged as a weapon for cavalrymen, meaning that tournaments were beginning to help train and exercise the talents required to use it.[4] When they were originally formed, tournaments, or tourneys as they were called, were not just about the jousting tournaments we now understand today. They were melees, disorganised ‘peaceful’ versions of battles, designed to prepare soldiers for the real experience of war. These events also included hostage taking and could become highly political, as well as being obviously dangerous and disruptive to any town they took place at. Jousting did take place but was only a side-line activity in the days leading up to the grand melee.

It was not until the 1220s, around the time Ulrich began participating in tournaments, that jousting became an accepted part of a knight’s training in its own right.[5] Melees were still an accepted part of tournaments until the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, but the 1220s saw an acknowledgment of jousting as an art form. Ulrich von Lichtenstein played a large part in this as he became one of the many travelling knights who would tour across Europe following the tournaments. The tournament slowly became agreeable to organisers of these events, who began to see the advantages of jousting tourneys rather than melees. By devoting whole days to jousting, there would be less disruption and less competitors, but also the same areas could be reused easily as there would be less destruction to the fields used.[6] These smaller scale tournaments were still a form of training for war, but also focused on providing entertainment for the elites by using pageantry and individual skill.[7]

unknown artist; Knights Jousting
Unknown Artist, Knights Jousting, Photo credit: Preston Park Museum & Grounds

During Ulrich’s lifetime, there was an increasing association with Arthurian legend. Many of these new tournaments were known as Round Tables and Ulrich’s version in 1240 is an interesting example. During this jousting tour, he dressed as King Arthur and challenged knights to joust him, proclaiming that if any were found worthy enough, they would become one of his Knights of the Round Table.[8] This finished with a single event where a pavilion was erected to represent the Round Table, with the knights then given 5 days to defend the table.[9] This event, alongside many others were recorded in Ulrich’s poetry, written in the 1250s, some 20-30 years after they supposedly took place.

Whilst his poetry must have had some exaggeration, including the pageantry of his tournament career, there must be some basis of fact underneath, no matter how small that may be. Ruth Harvey suggests that the tales he told in these poems were a mixture of fact and fiction which “are jumbled together in a single kaleidoscopic medley”.[10] This is probably best seen in Ulrich’s description of a helmet crest he wore in 1226, which was made from gilded metal, and was laced with a fan of peacock feathers.[11] Whilst we may never know if he did wear something similar during his jousts, it is true that from the early history of tournaments, emblems were used, whether worn on the body or head, as well as on banners, to show a knight’s status and to make them identifiable. The use of these emblems had been changed from an exclusive military purpose, to include this civilian setting.[12]

What is certain from Ulrich’s writings is that he had a love and respect for women. Unusually for writers of his time, he wrote about the problems and terrible experiences women had to endure, such as drunken husbands, being beaten, and men attempting to ruin their reputation and chastity.[13] Of course this is written from a male perspective, but it does show a certain respect for women and commends their strength.[14] His love of women first started in his teens, when he fell in love with a married, older, and higher ranking noblewoman. His love remained unrequited. However, throughout his career, Ulrich dedicated his victories to her. She was flattered by this, but nothing more.

A-Knights-Tale-Heath-Ledger
Heath Ledger and Shannyn Sossamon in A Knight’s Tale (2001)

The tournaments he fought in her name and their acquaintance are detailed in his Frauenbuch or The Service of Ladies. Despite his best attempts at wooing this woman with his jousting prowess, it took something more drastic to catch her attention. He had an operation to fix a cleft lip, hoping it would improve his chances.[15] In some ways it did as she invited him to join a horse ride with her and her friends, but this backfired when he was too shy to speak to her. Feeling insulted, she banned him from using her colours in tournaments.[16] Ulrich eventually got the message when she threw him into a lake, but even this couldn’t stop his feelings.[17]

In some ways, despite some artistic license, Heath Ledger’s Ulrich von Lichtenstein was not so different from the real one. He certainly loved to show off on the jousting field, as well as having a love for women, especially one in particular, no matter how out of reach she was. Despite exaggerations in his poetry detailing his career with a lance, the danger was very real, just as is shown in A Knight’s Tale. The real Ulrich lost a finger during a tournament in 1222 and in 1226, an opponent’s lance pierced through his chain mail, cutting his chest, and causing his white outfit to turn red with blood.[18]

[1] Smallwood, K., A Knight’s Tale: The Real Ulrich von Liechtenstein http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2015/12/knights-tale-real-life-ulrich-von-liechtenstein/

[2] Smallwood, K., A Knight’s Tale: The Real Ulrich von Liechtenstein http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2015/12/knights-tale-real-life-ulrich-von-liechtenstein/

[3] Smallwood, K., A Knight’s Tale: The Real Ulrich von Liechtenstein http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2015/12/knights-tale-real-life-ulrich-von-liechtenstein/

[4] Saul, N., Chivalry in Medieval England (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 15.

[5] Crouch, D., Tournament (London: Hambledon and London, 2005), p. 116.

[6] Crouch, D., Tournament, p. 116 and 119.

[7] Keen, M., Chivalry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), p. 92; Crouch, D., Tournament, p. 119.

[8] Crouch, D., Tournament, p. 118; Keen, M., Chivalry, p. 92.

[9] J. Bumke, Courtly Culture: Literature and Society in the High Middle Ages, translated by T. Dunlop, cited in Crouch, D., Tournament, p. 118.

[10] Ruth Harvey, Moriz von Craun and the Chivalric World (1961) cited in Keen, M., Chivalry, p. 92.

[11] Ulrich von Lichtenstein, Service of Ladies, translated by J. W. Thomas cited in Crouch, D., Tournament, p. 147.

[12] Saul, N., Chivalry in Medieval England, pp. 54-55.

[13] Bein, T., ‘1275, January 16: Truth and Fiction’, in Wellbury, D. (ed), A New History of German Literature (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), p. 135

[14] Bein, T., ‘1275, January 16: Truth and Fiction’, p. 135.

[15] Smallwood, K., A Knight’s Tale: The Real Ulrich von Liechtenstein http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2015/12/knights-tale-real-life-ulrich-von-liechtenstein/

[16] Smallwood, K., A Knight’s Tale: The Real Ulrich von Liechtenstein http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2015/12/knights-tale-real-life-ulrich-von-liechtenstein/

[17] Smallwood, K., A Knight’s Tale: The Real Ulrich von Liechtenstein http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2015/12/knights-tale-real-life-ulrich-von-liechtenstein/

[18] Ulrich von Lichtenstein, Service of Ladies, translated by J. W. Thomas cited in Crouch, D., Tournament, pp. 100-101.