July 07, 2008

A Cure for Arrogance

In Hartmann von Aue’s most famous non-Arthurian work, Der arme Heinrich (AD 1195), nobleman Heinrich is struck with leprosy at the height of his prosperity. His life was too indulging, too focused on the here-and-now, and not directed at all on the hereafter. At the peak of his arrogance an incurable disease sends the party-boy in a frenzy to find a cure. He visits a specialist doctor in distant Salerno who claims to have a remedy for leprosy: Find a child who’s willing to die for your cure.

Today the current greatest soccer player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, undergoes surgery on his ankle at a specialist in Amsterdam, not at his home in Manchester. The party-boy plays beautiful soccer with a noticeably stiff and upright posture, contrary to the crouched athletic pose we’re usually told to use to prevent injury. Ronaldo is at the height of his fame and spoils the tabloids with his arrogance and exploits. Maybe they’ll insert a modicum of modesty during the operation and hopefully he’ll be back to playing awesome soccer again soon.

In Hartmann’s work, Heinrich finds a peasant’s daughter willing to sacrifice herself for him. They travel to Salerno together; while the girl lies naked on the doctor’s table, Heinrich peeks through the operation room door’s keyhole and gazes upon her. He suddenly changes his mind. The girl protests because she wanted to see what heaven was like, but Heinrich can’t allow her to be killed for his sake. On their way home, Heinrich is unexpectedly cured. He experiences a new way of being good (in Middle High German, “eine niǔwe güete”), and lives a more modest and still prosperous life as the peasant girl’s husband. The story contains one of the common instances in the Middle Ages of marriage between different familial ranks, which has probably become more uncommon today.

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