by Roderick Conway Morris

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Trostburg, the birthplace of Oswald von Wolkenstein in 1376 or 1377

Troubadour Country in the South Tirol

By Roderick Conway Morris
VOELS AM SCHLERN, Italy 15 September 1995


Oswald Von Wolkenstein, the South Tirol's polyglot, peripatetic late-medieval poet, wandered far and wide in Europe and the Near East, but returned over and again to the district of forest and upland meadow of his birth.

Happily, even five and a half centuries after the poet's death in 1445, this stretch of countryside, which inspired some of his most memorable lyrics, remains a land still fit for troubadours - as visitors who take to its winding rural paths can discover for themselves.

The original Wolkenstein family seat was a castle amid the soaring dolomitic pinnacles at the head of Val Gardena. The village of Selva is still known as Wolkenstein to German speakers, though little is left of the fortress. Later the family acquired Trostburg, at the lower end of the valley, a castle commanding a strategic position where Val Gardena meets the Eisack Valley - 'the Emperor's Way' linking Germany and Italy via the Brenner Pass. Oswald's father chose Trostburg as his home, and it was here in 1377 that the poet was born.

Above Trostburg, at around 3,000 feet, is a beautiful swathe of rolling grasslands, punctuated by three exceptionally attractive villages: Kastelruth, Seis and Voels am Schlern - the later taking its name from the massif, called Schlern in German and Sciliar in Italian, whose dizzy, cloud-capped peaks rising to nearly 8,000 feet, vertical cliffs and steep forested slopes tower dramatically over the scene. The delightful walk between Kastelruth and Voels (or vice-versa), which brings you en route to Oswald von Wolkenstein's own castle of Hauenstein, can comfortably be done in a day (including stops for refreshment) by following the well-maintained post paths that run along the Schlern's flanks.

As a younger son Wolkenstein had little chance of inheriting Trostburg and so, at the tender age of ten, he was entrusted to a knight errant with whom he traveled from place to place, mainly in Eastern Europe, and gained his first battle experience. Wolkenstein's meager financial resources and his need to 'sing for his supper' was no doubt a reason he quickly set about mastering the arts of music and composing verses. He also displayed a flair for languages - even writing macaronic lyrics using several of them in the same poem.

When Wolkenstein returned to Trostburg in about 1400, his father was dead and his eldest brother in possession of the castle, leaving the poet homeless. When his mother's legacies were divided he received a third share of the nearby castle of Hauenstein, but was still obliged to seek his fortune elsewhere.

This launched him on a new series of military adventures and an attempt to enrich himself through commerce. Having fitted out a vessel for a trading expedition to the Black Sea, he was shipwrecked and survived adrift on an empty wine barrel for three days. Further travels followed, including a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and, as King Sigismond of Germany's ambassador, journeys to England, Ireland, Portugal and Spain.

By 1417 Wolkenstein had finally raised enough money to marry Countess Magarethe von Schwangau, with whom he went to live at Hauenstein and raise a family. After a hectic life, he was not immune to boredom and winter gloom, and sometimes groused about the lack of civilized and entertaining company, but the natural beauties of his surroundings could soon inspire him to the kind of cheerful lyricism he displays in his 'Vergangen ist meines Herzens Weh':

'My heart's sickness has gone away/ Since the snows have begun to melt.../ The sweet smells of the earth are reawakened/ The mountain streams are swollen/ That go down from Kastelruth to the Eisack.../ And in my woods around Hauenstein/ I hear birds great and small/ Let music fill their throats/ With shrill notes of joyful song.'

Hauenstein, which sits atop a gigantic boulder below the Schlern's majestic crags, is now but a romantic ruin, but the poet is still remembered hereabouts and has given his name to a lively annual equestrian event. To encourage the preservation of horse raising, handling and riding skills in an area where only recently have horses ceased to be used for farm work (the principal reason why this and some other parts of the South Tirol have retained their magic is that the exodus of small farmers from the land that has taken place all over Europe has not occurred here, and cultivation of this precipitous landscape is still largely carried out by traditional methods).

The local community instituted in 1983 the 'Oswald Von Wolkenstein Ritt', a series of vigorous mounted competitions held at Kastelruth, Seis and Voels's Schloss Proesels. The events, some of which are reminiscent of the exercises Wolkenstein himself would have practiced, include hurling and catching lances through suspended iron rings at full gallop, as well as challenging obstacle courses. Over 40 teams and 170 horses now take part.

The South Tirol of Wolkenstein's era represented, as it does today, the southern limit of the dominance of German language and culture. And German kings and emperors of the past constantly tried to find ways of containing the secessionist tendencies of these hardy mountain folk. In the 11th century the Bavarian King Conrad II created two powerful 'Prince-Bishoprics', Brixen (Bressanone) and Trent (Trento), to counterbalance the turbulent, separatist leanings of the South Tirolese nobility.

The Prince-Bishops' grip was reduced by the Count of the Tirol Meinhard II (1258-1295), who managed to make the region an independent state (this remarkable figure's life and times is currently the subject of an excellent exhibition - 'The Dream of a Prince: Meinhard II and the Birth of the Tirol' - at Schloss Tirol in Meran, till 31 October).

By Wolkenstein's time the Tirol had fallen notionally under the sovereignty of the Habsburgs, but the Prince-Bishops still held sway over large areas of the territory. The Prince-Bishops had an ambiguous relationship with the local nobility - constantly in competition with them, but in need of their military clout to enforce their rule over their estates.

Thus it was that Wolkenstein, in the early 1400s between foreign ventures, spent a spell in the service of the Prince-Bishop of Brixen - today, with its pretty medieval houses, frescoed cloisters and impressive, yet strangely domestic, cathedral and Prince-Bishops' palace, the loveliest of the South Tirol's ancient towns. There Wolkenstein took up residence with a strong-willed and characterful Brixen townswoman, Anna Hausmann, to whom he addressed dozens of love poems and songs. When Wolkenstein later married, Hausmann turned nasty. And when he illegally appropriated some lands around Castle Hauenstein, she conspired with his enemies to have him ambushed and carried off to Innsbruck where he was thrown in a dungeon and tortured.

A more fortunate and durable association that Wolkenstein formed during his stay in Brixen was with the famous Neustift (Novacella) wine-producing Augustinian monastery, on the banks of the Eisack just to the north of the town. When he returned from Palestine he made a down payment of 100 silver pieces in return for a percentage of the monastery's future revenues - the equivalent of an old-age pension fund at the time. Wolkenstein was clearly a popular and eagerly-awaited visitor to Novacella - so much so that when the 50 marks he had lodged there proved insufficient for his funeral, the abbot and monks buried him in their church with full honors anyway.

In due course the exact location of Wolkenstein's grave was lost. But his bones were unearthed by the baptismal font in the 1970s, and transferred to a niche in the subterranean chamber on the left at the back of the church (its entrance is covered with wooden boards), where the monks of this 850-year-old, very active monastery are laid to rest. Wolkenstein would, one feels, have enjoyed the present riotous, pink and gold Baroque interior of the church, and we may be sure that this most congenial of troubadours will be with us in spirit when we take ourselves off to the monastery's well-stocked wine cellar to sample a restoring glass of their Mueller-Thurgau or Blauburgunder.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023