Literary Quests 

Journeys are a recurring theme in literature, and can take many forms: for adventure, for love, for business or simply as travel from one place to another. One very popular journey in stories is the quest – where those undertaking the journey do so in search of a specific goal or prize, and always meet peril, intrigue and adventure on the way.

The idea of the quest is probably as old as storytelling itself, and literature is full of surviving examples: Odysseus’ quest to return home in The Odyssey, the many quests of King Arthur and his knights, and Frodo Baggins’ quest to destroy the One Ring, to name but a few.

Stories of questing were hugely popular in the Middle Ages (as the examples of the Arthurian quests show), and the following three books show how one German monarch used the idea of the quest to build his own legend and secure his reputation for posterity.

Portrait of Maximilian I, painted by Albrecht Dürer, 1519. Albrecht Dürer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)
Portrait of Maximilian I, painted by Albrecht Dürer, 1519. Albrecht Dürer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Emperor Maximilian I’s Quest for Immortality through Literature 

Emperor Maximilian I was one of the most important rulers in Europe in the early 16th century. Born in Austria in 1459, he was Archduke of Austria, King of the Germans, and from 1493 Holy Roman Emperor.

He was in many ways a perfect example of a Renaissance monarch: a skilled diplomat and politician, a patron of the arts, a great thinker, personally courageous. He was reputedly fearless in battle – often leading his troops from the front, and was also a very keen jouster who sponsored and took part in many tournaments.

Through a combination of marriage alliances, treaties and military pressure Maximilian I added vast lands to the traditional Austrian holdings; securing the Netherlands, Hungary and Bohemia, and Spain and the Spanish empire. This made him the pre-eminent leader and his family, the Habsburgs, the most dominant in 16th-century Europe.

Maximilian I was also an arch self-publicist, and, having achieved so much, was concerned to preserve his deeds and his actions for posterity. He channelled a huge amount of his effort and resources towards this goal in his later years, and several projects were undertaken to achieve this.

A Trilogy of Illustrated Stories

“The skill and new invention of the harness mastery” – The White King visits an armoury. Examples of armour parts and armourer’s tools can be seen in the image. (Royal Armouries - from the 1891 facsimile of Der Weisskunig, p. 109)
“The skill and new invention of the harness mastery” – The White King visits an armoury. Examples of armour parts and armourer’s tools can be seen in the image. (Royal Armouries – from the 1891 facsimile of Der Weisskunig, p. 109)

Among the works commissioned by Maximilian I to commemorate his life and deeds, were a series of three lavishly illustrated books, entitled Der Weisskunig, Freydal, and Theuerdank. All three books were intended to be produced using the latest technology – the printing press, and were to be illustrated with hand-carved woodblock prints produced by some of the finest artists and craftsmen of the day. Together, the three books were intended to tell the whole life of Maximilian I and each book deals with different themes and events. Although semi-autobiographical, the books draw heavily on late medieval German court literature for stylistic inspiration, and present a romantic version of events heavy with symbolism and allegory.

Book 1: Der Weisskunig 

Chronologically the first of the three books is Der Weisskunig. It describes the ruler’s childhood and youth as well as his military campaigns. Although the most autobiographical of the three works, Der Weisskunig nevertheless fictionalises names and uses symbology to describe the characters; Maximilian himself is Der Weisskunig – the White, (or “Wise”) King. The first section of the books gives a brief summary of the reign of Maximilian’s father Frederick III (The Old White King), to set the scene.

The second section then deals with the White King’s youth, his interests, skills and training. We see him in one illustration playing with toy weapons, and in another training with real (albeit practice) ones. The White King is seen touring an armourer’s workshop, learning about how armour is made, and in others learning about military tactics, architecture and craft skills. This section of the book could almost have served as a primer for the education of a Renaissance prince, as it shows the kinds of skills and knowledge that they were expected to have; both practical and cultural.

The final section then details the events of Maximilian I’s reign from his marriage to Mary of Burgundy (1477) until 1513. There are numerous battle scenes as he extends and protects his realm, and secures his rule and his own historical legacy. The 251 illustrations are rich in detail; the armourer’s tools are all carefully drawn in the scene of the armourer’s workshop, and the depictions of the battlefields graphically convey the carnage of early modern warfare.

A battle scene, depicting infantry and cavalry in combat, with artillery in the foreground. The White King’s forces are on the right of the illustration under banners with a St. Andrew’s cross. (Royal Armouries - from the 1891 facsimile of Der Weisskunig, p. 206)
A battle scene, depicting infantry and cavalry in combat, with artillery in the foreground. The White King’s forces are on the right of the illustration under banners with a St. Andrew’s cross. (Royal Armouries – from the 1891 facsimile of Der Weisskunig, p. 206)

Der Weisskunig sets the scene for the other books to follow; chronicling Maximilian I’s glory, triumphs and tragedies. Although heavily fictionalised this book is the most like a history of the three works: the other two would lean into allegory and the idea of the romantic, chivalric quest much more heavily.

Book 2: Freydal

The second book in the series is Freydal. It is less rooted in reality; depicting the tournaments in which the hero (Freydal) participates as he searches for a wife. The book begins with three noble maidens, who encourage Freydal to demonstrate his worthiness by taking part in tournaments. He accepts, and the story continues by chronicling his participation in sixty four tournaments against the finest of opponents

An Italian joust of peace, in which Freydal jousts against Jacques of Savoy, Count of Romont. Maximilian I did joust against Jacques of Savoy in 1478. (Royal Armouries – from the 1882 edition of Freydal, Fol. 205)
An Italian joust of peace, in which Freydal jousts against Jacques of Savoy, Count of Romont. Maximilian I did joust against Jacques of Savoy in 1478. (Royal Armouries – from the 1882 edition of Freydal, Fol. 205)

The details of the tournaments are very true to life: Maximilian I was a keen participator in tournaments and was a great innovator and inventor of types of jousting. The story includes accounts of all the different types of joust and foot combat then in vogue, and is therefore a highly detailed tournament history, despite being largely a work of fiction.

As well as jousting and foot combat, each tournament concluded with a masquerade ball, which are also illustrated, so the work also provides us with a description of late medieval high status entertainments and parties.

Freydal was the most lavish of the three monumental books; with 255 illustrations commissioned for it from more than 30 artists. The characters in the story, both combatants and partygoers, are named in the text and illustrations, and many of them were real people who were known to Maximilian I; some of who did indeed cross lances or swords with him in real life.

 

A Masquerade following a tournament, depicting a circle dance. The text names one of the dancers as Matthias von Liechtenstein, who was a boyhood companion of Maximilian I. (Royal Armouries – from the 1882 edition of Freydal, Fol. 24)
A Masquerade following a tournament, depicting a circle dance. The text names one of the dancers as Matthias von Liechtenstein, who was a boyhood companion of Maximilian I. (Royal Armouries – from the 1882 edition of Freydal, Fol. 24)

By the end of the book Freydal emerges triumphant and has won the right to marry (one of the noble maidens from the beginning of the story reveals her identity and her love for him). Though the story is complete the quest is not – for our hero still has to seek out his love. The journey must continue…

Book 3: Theuerdank

The final book in the series is Theuerdank, which details the dangers the chivalric hero faces on his quest to marry Princess Ehrenreich (“Rich in Honor”). The work is loosely based on Maximilian I’s earlier adult years and his marriage to his first wife, Mary of Burgundy, (1457-1482), but again is heavily fictionalised and romanticised. Theuerdank is composed of 118 images with accompanying text, each chapter depicting a different scene or event.

 

Hunting wild boar in the woods. Theuerdank is using a longsword, which means he needs to get close to the boar. His squire is armed with a bow – possibly in case the boar gets too close. (Royal Armouries – from the 1884 facsimile of Theuerdank, Chapter 17)
Hunting wild boar in the woods. Theuerdank is using a longsword, which means he needs to get close to the boar. His squire is armed with a bow – possibly in case the boar gets too close. (Royal Armouries – from the 1884 facsimile of Theuerdank, Chapter 17)

In this book we see our hero facing peril in more dangerous pastimes such as hunting, jousting and foot combat, and also the occasional real combat on the battlefield. His quest is constantly dogged by three enemies; Accident, Envy and Impetuousness – personifications of the supposed vices of youth. Despite these dangers, Theuerdank achieves his goal, and proves himself worthy of Ehrenreich’s hand by defeating six knights at her court.

Although in the story we see Theuerdank overcome all odds and achieve his romantic quest, there was a tragic footnote in real life. Maximilian I’s marriage to Mary of Burgundy was contracted for political reasons but it is clear that they were a love match as well. She died aged 25 after only five years of marriage, following a fall from a horse while out hunting.

Theuerdank engages in Foot combat in full harness with longswords. (Royal Armouries – from the 1884 facsimile of Theuerdank, Chapter 106)
Theuerdank engages in Foot combat in full harness with longswords. (Royal Armouries – from the 1884 facsimile of Theuerdank, Chapter 106)

History and legacy

Although all three books were commissioned around the same time, only Theuerdank was published within the Emperor’s own lifetime, in 1517. The work involved in all three, as well as several other memorial projects, was enormous and resources were stretched thin. Furthermore Maximilian I himself was heavily involved in the editorial process, as surviving drafts of the text and images with correctional comments prove. This hands-on approach means that the surviving work is undoubtedly an authentic record of Maximilian’s wishes, but it also slowed production to a crawl.

The question as to why Maximilian expended so much effort in his later years to preserve his image for posterity in an interesting one, and seems to have been much more than merely self-aggrandizement. His memorial works certainly served as political propaganda, but as Maximilian was probably the most powerful ruler in Europe he had no need to bolster his self-image. He seems to have been far more interested in preserving objects and memories; evidence of the past so that future generations could learn from them – a concept we might think of as very modern.

Maximilian I died in 1519. His physical legacy was secure in the hands of his grandsons Charles V and Ferdinand I (his own son Philip had predeceased him). They were also tasked with continuing his memorialisation and literary legacy – his earthly journey may have been complete, but Maximilians’ quest for immortality had only just begun. The fact that we remember him now is proof of its success.

It was left to later generations to collate and publish the surviving material of the other two books; Der Weisskunig by Habsburg descendants in 1775, and Freydal eventually in 1882 (and again in 2019). The Royal Armouries’ is fortunate to have copies of both editions of Freydal, as well as facsimiles of Der Weisskunig and Theuerdank (published in 1891 and 1884 respectively) in our library collections.

In the centuries since his death Maximilian’s image has continued to evolve: he is seen as the evocation of late medieval chivalry, and as a great statesman and nation builder. Numerous artistic works, stories, poems and plays have been written about him and his achievements. The one thing missing is a Hollywood epic – perhaps the journey is not over yet!