Around 1200 the German poet Hartmann von Aue took on the task of adapting Chrétien de Troyes’s popular Arthurian romance Yvain (ca. 1177). Hartmann was perhaps the most renowned German poet of the era, serving as a model for authors like Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Iwein (ca. 1200) is one of his most celebrated works. It tells the tale of a knight of the Round Table who must go on many quests and overcome personal hardship, while at the same time trying to maintain his responsibilities as husband. Over the course of the story he endures a collapse into madness and can only recover by balancing his competing responsibilities.
The passage here tells the story of Iwein’s struggle with madness, during which he abandons civilized society and lives as a wild man in the woods. Strikingly, he is described as taking on the appearance of a Moor as he descends into savagery. On the surface this may seem a straightforward case of a pejorative association with blackness, but there are important nuances to consider. The very notion of civilization was defined first and foremost by religion and class, such that wild men were wild not simply because of their habits but also their godlessness, while noble heathens–often represented with dark skin–could have high manners but still not be considered fully civilized. Indeed, there were many narratives of conversion to Christianity (and thus civilization) that involved a miraculous physical transformation from black to white. So perhaps Hartmann was bringing those two references together to enhance Iwein’s savagery. But romances like Hartmann’s were very secular works, and so other scholars point instead to medieval psychological theories, in which an imbalance of black bile, visible here through Iwein’s skin, was understood to be responsible for melancholy.
Having been publicly rejected by his wife for abandoning her and failing to live up to his chilvalric ideals, Iwein loses loses his sanity and tries to escape human society. He tears off his clothes and runs naked into the wilderness and becomes a fool, living off his hunting skills and eating meat raw. He meets a hermit who cooks his food in exchange for skins, but Iwein otherwise lives senselessly:
But as heroic as he [Iwein] was, and as steadfast in body and mind, still Lady Love enabled a frail woman to transform both his body and mind. For he who had been a real jewel of knightly virtue was now, in no time at all, running about in the forest, a fool.
So the demented man stayed in the forest and lived on this food until the noble fool’s whole body resembled that of a Moor. In no way did he resemble the man who was so well regarded by a high-born lady, who had broken a hundred lances, who had struck fire from a helmet, who had bravely won praise and honor, who had been courtly and wise, noble and rich. For now he ran around bereft of his clothing and his senses, until one noon when three ladies found him lying asleep beside the highway on which they were riding.
The three ladies recognize Iwein, and one of them takes pity, bringing a magic salve that can heal his madness. She applied it over his naked body while he slept, and then hid. When he woke, he was sane again but his appearance made him wonder if his glorious past had been real or just a dream:
When he sat up, observed himself, and saw how terrifying he looked, he addressed himself, saying, “Is it you Iwein, or somebody else? Have I been sleeping till now? Help, Lord, help! Let me sleep forever! My dreams presented me with a very splendid life.
So he was a stranger to himself, confused, and it seemed to him that he had dreamed of being a knight and going on all his journeys. He said, “My dream taught me something: I will win honors of I can get a suit of armor. The dream estranged me from the marks of my class. But however completely I may be a peasant, my mind is full of jousting. My heart is incommensurable with my body: my body is poor, my heart is rich. Did I dream my life? Or, if not, then who has made me look so ugly? Probably, though, I should give up this knightly attitude, because I lack both the appearance and the wealth for it.” When he saw fresh clothing lying at his side, he was surprised, saying, “These are clothes like those I often wore in my dream. Since I don’t see anyone here to whom they belong, and since I need them, let them be mind. I wonder if they will become me. Before, in my dream, rich clothing looked very good on me.” He quickly put the clothes on. As soon as he had covered his black body, he looked just like a knight.
The woman who brought him the salve had been hiding, and when it seemed that Iwein was himself again, she offered to take him to her lady so he could recover:
She took him to her lady, who had never been so happy to see a person. He was well taken care of–clothes, food, bath–until he showed no more signs of his misfortune. Sir Iwein found good treatment here and he recovered from his affliction. … [He] remained here until his wild look disappeared and he became a handsome man again.
Source: Hartmann von Aue, ‘Iwein,’ in Arthurian Romances, Tales, and Lyric Poetry: The Complete Works of Hartmann von Aue, tran. by Frank Tobin, Kim Vivian, and Richard H. Lawson (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), pp. 3239-3702.