Cheating and Cheaters in German Romance and Epic, 1180-1225
By Stephanie Desmond
PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2013
Abstract: An Alsatian poet named Heinrich, writing around 1180, composed a beast epic, based on French sources, about a trickster fox named Reinhart. Some sixty years later, a poet known to us only as Der Stricker composed a work of similar length and structure, about a trickster priest named Amis, and his diligent efforts to cheat various anonymous individuals out of their money. Other works by this poet bear out the Stricker’s consistent emphasis on strategy over brute force, prudence and intelligence over unconsidered actions. These stories both illustrate that power, when not directed by intelligence, is useless or dangerous, even to the one who wields it.
Tricksters and cheating also appear in a surprising range of works contemporary to the Stricker’s Pfaffe Amis and Heinrich’s Reinhart Fuchs. Romances have their own trickster characters, conducting their cheats using methods and structures that recall those of these two Schwank-type epics. Cheaters like Amis, and Tristan’s Isolde generate twin situations. One of them is true/hidden, and can influence the characters, and one is false/apparent, to which the victim characters are forced to respond. This artificial, apparent reality persists even after the cheater has left the scene, occasionally taking on a truth of its own.
Both Reinhart and Amis, whatever their motivations, work evil everywhere they go; and yet the audience is expected to treat them as sympathetic characters. Because the trickster universe functions to turn systems upside-down, it also rejects the concepts of good and evil, forming a universe in which all that matters is who wins and who loses. The place of the villain belongs now to the fool; any character who becomes deceived deserves to be, and is treated with indignation by the narrator, just as the traditional villain might be.