By Danièle Cybulskie
If you’ve ever seen A Knight’s Tale, you’ll know that the titular knight takes on the name of Ulrich von Liechtenstein in order to joust on the tournament circuit and win the hand of his lady fair. What you may not have known is that there seems to have been a real thirteenth-century knight named Ulrich von Liechtenstein, who spent his youth jousting to win the heart (and body) of a capricious lady, and then wrote a book about it. Ulrich’s book is simply called The Service of Ladies (all references here are to the J.W. Thomas translation), and it is a fascinating tale of tournaments, ladies, and unrequited love (or maybe just lust).
According to Ulrich, he spent four years of his childhood as the page of a (never-named) married noblewoman. He learned as he grew that the greatest ambition for a knight was to serve a lady steadfastly and well, and to hope to be rewarded for such good service – preferably by becoming the lady’s lover. Ulrich took this to heart, bringing his lady flowers, and even going so far as to secretly drink the water she used to wash her hands before eating. Eventually, he had to leave that household to learn how to become a knight, and he began tourneying in order to win himself (and his lady) honour in his late teens. He claims to have been one of two hundred and fifty knights to be knighted by Leopold of Austria at his daughter’s wedding.
Realizing that his lady has no idea that Ulrich’s tournament successes are dedicated to her, he decides to ask her to accept his service by using his aunt as a go-between, sending the lady a love song to please her. The lady accepts the song, and remembers Ulrich’s service fondly, but refuses his love and service because of his “most unsightly lip”. In speaking to a friend, Ulrich mentions that his mouth “looks like three lips,” so it’s possible he had a cleft palate or other long-standing physical difference. This is worth mentioning not only because it shows the shallowness of the lady, but because Ulrich opts for surgery to correct his lip, and then tells us about it.
At first, his aunt and friends try to dissuade him – after all, any medieval surgery was potentially life-threatening – but Ulrich is determined, and finds himself a specialist in Graz who will operate. The doctor recommends that Ulrich is bound to keep him from moving, but Ulrich in his knightliness never moves “a fraction of an inch,” despite the surgeon’s cutting.
After a long recovery, Ulrich’s mouth is declared “just fine” by his aunt, but Ulrich’s lady is only marginally impressed. She allows him to ride by her to speak his mind, but when he is too shy to speak, she tears out a lock of his hair while he lifts her down from the saddle as his just desserts. This is only one of the strange and violent episodes of this tale of chivalry. Another occurs when Ulrich severs a finger and sends a messenger to the lady for sympathy as it is slowly healing back onto his hand. She accuses his messenger of lying; after all, it doesn’t count as severed if it’s healing. As repentance, Ulrich re-severs the finger and sends it to her (she accepts it).
The central event of The Service of Ladies is an extended tour of southern Europe (referred to as the Journey of Venus) which Ulrich undertakes, dressed throughout in the guise of Queen Venus, in honour of love. On this tour, he gives out scores of gold rings, one for every knight who breaks a lance on him. He sends out advance notice to the cities he is going to visit, and knights come out in every city to win honour in the name of their own ladies against this knight in disguise. Although the description of the tour is much like Malory’s Morte D’Arthur in that there are lots of splitting lances, lovely ladies appearing, and knights of unsurpassed chivalry, it’s fun to poke through and see what might have been true in this sea of larger-than-life moments. One of my favourites is the countess who insists that Queen Venus lift her veil to receive the kiss of peace at mass: although she laughs when she recognizes him as a man, she kisses him anyway, on behalf of all womankind.
Despite all his efforts winning glory during his Journey of Venus (with a brief stopover to visit his actual wife), his lady is still unimpressed, and accuses him of being devoted to another woman (presumably not his wife). She then tests him again by making him stand outside her castle with the lepers, disguised as one himself, and leaving him to sleep out in the rain. The lady then decides to let him climb up a bedsheet to her chamber, but only to thank him for his loyalty: she has no intention of sleeping with him. When he insists that he’s not going anywhere until she does sleep with him, the lady says she’ll let him down the sheet and when he comes back up, she’ll relent.
The moment Ulrich is halfway down the sheet, however, she drops it. Ulrich is so distraught he just about drowns himself, but his messenger saves him with lies about the lady’s promises. Trying to distract himself while he waits for the next rendezvous, Ulrich attends another tournament, at which point the lady tells his messenger that she’ll sleep with Ulrich if he’ll go on a sea voyage (the implication is of a crusade). He agrees, and she tells him that it’s not necessary after all; she just wanted to see if he was loyal.
That summer, as he waits to finally be with the lady of his dreams, Ulrich says she does “an awful thing,” but he doesn’t say what. He writes her a lament, and when she reads it, she does “a thing which hurt a lot.” After this unnamed thing, Ulrich finally gives up on serving his lady for good, and although he goes a while “lady-free,” he ends his book in praise of – and longing for – true love.
Ulrich’s story tells us a lot about chivalry in that it shows there is a definite set of expectations placed on both the knight and the lady, not all of them healthy. For her part, the lady tells Ulrich over and over and over again in very explicit terms that she isn’t interested in a relationship, and that she will never sleep with him, and yet he persists in the thinking that she owes him this in return for his good service. When she finally invites him to climb to her room, she has cleverly kept people around (including Ulrich’s aunt) in the event that Ulrich may try to force himself on her. He admits that he’d “wrestle her”, if those people weren’t around, and that she would eventually “grant the prize of victory,” which tells you quite a lot about his romantic notions of the act. When she outsmarts him into climbing back out the window, it’s not surprising that she drops him. One has to wonder what it could have been that finally made him give her up when being so blunt obviously didn’t work. The fact that the narrative implies that she’s being a tease and not saying what she means is a testament to the gender roles inherent in chivalry: both knight and lady have parts to play, and things don’t end happily ever after when people deviate from the romantic ideal.
All that being said, it’s impossible to know how much of Ulrich’s story we can take seriously, especially because it so cleanly follows the narrative of knightly hardship in the name of a “coy” lady. Interspersed are vivid moments like Ulrich’s surgery, the young boy drinking a washbowl of water, and the man huddled together with lepers and shivering in the rain. Taken as a whole, Ulrich’s story is both a fascinating look at the self-invention of a medieval knight, and a tall tale all its own.
It seems fitting to end this short look at Ulrich’s story with his own take on things, so I’ll leave you with a short section from The Service of Ladies. Here’s the lament that the lady found so offensive, called “The Twentieth Dance Tune” in this edition:
You noble ladies, so refined and lovely, take my part;
before you all do I accuse the mistress of my heart
for she has robbed me so of joy and left me only pain
that because of her I must evermore complain.
I grieve that she’ll not recognize my service, as is right,
although I’ve served her long and truly like a faithful knight.
That she is praised so highly everywhere by many a tongue
is because I’ve spread her fame with the songs I’ve sung.
I charge my lady with committing theft and robbery,
for it is robbery and theft (what other could it be?)
that she should seize my happiness without declaring war
and deprive my heart of joys, all for evermore.
I say she is a robber and is guilty of a theft
so great I’ll ne’er replace the things of which I am bereft.
If she should give me back enjoyment, which she can and may,
yet imagine what I’ve lost: many a lovely day.
Because of her I suffer more than I can tell or share
from agonizing, yearning pangs which secretly I bear.
Alas! Alas, that she was born to cause me such distress,
she whose love I most of all wanted to possess.
Were I not silenced by manners and by hopes of love,
Then you’d believe, because of all the things she robbed me of
(should I reveal my longing heart and give each crime a name),
that the colour of her face would turn red with shame.
If anyone can reconcile us this would please me so
I’d not be angry anymore nor burdened down with woe,
no one would hear me say of her a word of censure then
and, whate’er she later does, this, at least, has been.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist