To H, flower of flowers, crowned with the garland of courtesy,
model of virtues, even paradigm of virtues,
who is like honey and the turtle-dove knowing no gall,
sends whatever is joyous, whatever can be propitious,
in the present life, and whatever is sweet in the eternal one,
what Thisbe gave Pyramus, and at last, after all else, send herself
and then again herself,
and whatever she has that’s better than herself.
This is the beginning of a remarkable set of three letters written in verse, preserved in a 12th century manuscript from Bavaria, which tells a story between a man and a woman and their deep relationship. It has been studied in a recent article by Peter Dronke, one of the leading scholars of medieval Latin literature.
Dronke’s article, “Women’s Love Letters from Tegernsee,” examines several letters from this manuscript, but focuses on three in particular – the first written by an unknown woman to a man only identified as H, followed his response, and finally her reply. Dronke offers these observations on who he thinks these people might be:
We should envisage her not as a nun, but as a well-born girl who is spending some years at a cultivated women’s foundation which is, so to speak, her finishing-school, from where she will probably return, highly prized for humanistic education, to a world of curialits and aristocratic marriage. The friend with whom she corresponds is a scholar, probably from a nearby scholastic or monastic institution, who acted as her teacher as well as inspiring in her affections that, developed imaginatively and made literary, never lose virtuous and gracious behaviour from sight.
Dronke praises the exquisite character of her letters, which include references to ancient authors like Cicero, and parts of the Bible, such as the Song of Songs. “When she writes to him,” Dronke explains, “she is not imitating an art of composition; rather, she is boldly experimenting with her own words and feelings. Beyond the imaginative and verbal artistry she shows, we have no way of gauging the extent of her inner involvement; but it would be foolish to rule any such involvement out.”
The first letter by the lady, which runs 136 lines, focuses on the the themes of friendship and faithfulness. For example she write;
For from the day that I first saw you I began to love you.
You penetrated my heart’s inmost being forcefully,
and, through the advance of your most joyous conversation,
have, wondrous to tell, arranged your own seat there,
and, lest any impulse should topple it,
have fastened it most firmly by your letter writing,
as if the seat were a stool, or rather, a throne.
Hence no forgetting can ever wipe you from my memory,
no darkness will be able to obscure you,
no clash of winds and clouds, however violent, can disturb you.
For were what is changeable comes to pass,
how can it ever be called steadfastness?
Indeed I confess I call that truly to be,
if in your presence I could be continuously.
But since such being is snatched away from me.
So bring it about that I can apprehend true being,
In a playful section she seems to be responding to a letter he had sent earlier, where H warned her to beware of knights:
I have cast off all other joys for the sake of your love.
I depend upon you alone,
in you I hold placed all my hope and trust.
But that you urge me to beware of knights,
as if they were some kind of omen, you do well.
Indeed I know what to beware of
so as not to fall into a pit.
Yet, saving the faithfulness I have to you,
I don’t reject them entirely,
as long as I don’t surrender
to the vice that you accuse them of.
For through them, so to speak, the precepts of courtliness are controlled,
they are the fount and origin of all probity.
She ends with a promise to be faithful to him:
I could have written more; I said, there is no need:
You are mine, I am yours,
of this you shall be sure.
You are locked
within my heart,
the little key is lost,
and there within you must forever rest.
Next, we have H’s response, which is only about 62 lines (and the last 18 are too damaged to be legible). It begins with much happiness:
Having read the letter expressing your intimacy
with most loving care,
I delighted in your manifold praise of faithfulness and friendship,
and, like the field, the wintry
season now having passed,
have been renewed again with flowers of joyfulness.
However, the letter soon turns more negatively, as he seems to be responding to her talk about not letting herself be tempted by knights. According to Dronke, H is upset that she did not sleep with him either:
While it was well-watered by you in faithfulness and friendship,
it had begun to flower and bear fruit,
but a sudden flow bitterness has flooded it,
withering all its delectable loveliness.
For, stretching out your branches,
adorned in comeliness
with leaves of words, towards me,
you allured my heart,
but, that I should not pluck
any fruit of your tree to taste,
you have warded me off.
For this is the fruitless fig-tree of the gospel,
and poetic subtlety without cultivation:
and why does it still remain in the ground?
Finally, we have the lady’s reply, which runs 64 lines. It begins:
For I was hoping there’d be no need for any writing, but
“Again I am called to arms, ”,
and “I am compelled to begin songs” that I did not intend.
Who can hold back words that have been begun?
Dronke, noting that the letter is a mix of Latin and German, finds that she makes uses of a little humour with tenderness. “We see her rebuttal of the reproaches in his letter moving into a loving attempt to restore his self-esteem” Dronke explains. Here is part of it:
But don’t be angry with me
as I show what things the commotion of my mind conceives.
I wrote to you, to tell the truth, more intimately
than any before you
could ever extort from me.
Indeed you men who are shrewd,
or, to put it better, craftly,
are wont to captivate simple young girls like us by your words,
for oten, walking with you,
in simplicity of mind, into the field of words,
you strike us with the – as you thing, just –
reasoning of your shafts.
That is why you likened the letter
that I lately destined for you
to certain monstrous animals
which, though non-existent,
nonetheless are not without pointing
and afterwards you weren’t afraid to do the same again,
slandering your friend.
In her final section, the lady promises to remain faithful to him and to love him:
For if you were not dear to me
I would allow you
to rush into a whirlwind, so to speak,
of ignorance and blindness.
But you don’t deserve that,
for in you are the fruits of honour and probity.
I’d probably have written more to you,
except that you are so sensitive
that you know how to gather much from little.
May you be steadfast and joyous always.
Sadly, we have no other known writings by either of these two people. Some of the literary sources the writers used indicate they might have lived at or near the Benedictine Abbey of Tegernsee. Meanwhile Dronke offers this take on whether or not these letters were genuine:
Are the two letters authentic? Are they purely literary? Perhaps we should refuse the terms of such a dichotomy and simply say: they show a remarkable degree of poetic individuality; they are authentic inasmuch as they are quite unstandardised.
You can read Peter Dronke’s article, “Women’s Love Letters from Tegernsee,” which includes a full edition and translation of these three letters, in Medieval Letters: Between Fiction and Document, edited by Christian Hogel and Elisabetta Bartoli, published by Brepols in 2015.