The legend of DANHUSER, as related in German folk-songs of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and their variants in Low German, Dutch, and Danish, is as follows.
Tannhauser, a Templar minstrel knight, enters the mountain of Venus (la grotta di VENERE) a sort of subterranean paradise where the heathen goddess holds her voluptuous court, and for seven years he revels in its unholy pleasures.
Then a longing (or boringness) seizes upon him to return to earth, and when, through the aid of the virgin Mary, whom he invokes as his wife (!), his wish is realized, he hastens to Rome to implore pardon for his sin from Pope Urban IV -- a Frenchman who gets condemned for eternity.
This the pope refuses to grant -- and thus condemns both Danhuser and himself to eternity.
Tannhauser cannot be saved any more than the staff in the Pontiff's hand can put forth fresh leaves.
In despair the knight returns to the mountain of Venus and is not seen again.
In later versions an old man is seen and he is identified with this Danhuser, as keeper of the gate to the Mount of Venus.
Soon after, the staff bursts into blossom and now messengers are sent to seek the knight, but too late, as usual.
No doubt we have here a tale of originally heathen character, subsequently Christianized and even more subsequently turned "protestant" -- the pardon comes from God, not from the Pope.
Its theme is the familiar story of the seduction of a human being by an elf or fairy.
But all the delights of the fairy realm cannot make him forget his earthly home, for which he longs.
His desire is granted but he is not happy -- perhaps he feels unholy to go back to his 'wife', the Virgin Mary, and thus decides his trip to Rome for 'purification -- and in the end returns to the fairy-land.
This motif‘ is a commonplace in folk-lore literature.
In the German legend the seductive fairy is identified with the ancient Roman goddess of love, and the story is given a distinctly religious colour through the introduction of the pilgrimage of the repentant sinner to Rome.
The miracle of the withered staff bursting into blossom has also many parallels in sacred legend, and is evidently a later addition.
How the legend came to assume the form outlined above can only be surmised.
Of the poems that we on the subject none dates further back than the middle of the fifteenth century.
The famous Volkslied ("folk-song") that gives the above version is from the sixteenth century.
A passage in Hermann von Sachsenheim's poem, “Die Morin" proves that the legend, with its essential traits, was already known in 1453 when the poem was written.
There Danhuser is referred to as the husband of Dame Venus.
Now the historical Tannhauser was a Minnesinger of the thirteenth century -- the thirteenth member of a circle of twelve --, who seems to have led a roving life, in the course of which he experienced many changes of fortune. (And he fought against the Pope under Emperor FEDERICO I in the sixth crusade).
His checquered career is reflected in his poems, which exhibit a strange mingling of dissolute boasting and pious sentiment.
In one poem ascribed to him, repentance is expressed for foolish and sinful living, and this poem is supposed to be responsible for his appearing in the legend in the role of t e penitent knight.
But this is purely conjectural.
As a matter of fact, the only connexion between the legendary and historical Tannhauser is the identity of name -- which shouldn't be dismissed so easily!
It is noteworthy that a legend strikingly similar to that of Danhuser is attached in Italy to the Monte della Sibilla near Norcia.
It is related at length by Antoine della Sale in his “Salade”, written between 1438 and 1442.
He visited the sibyl's cave in 1420, and heard the story from the people of the neighbouring region.
A still earlier reference to the legend is found in the famous romance “ Guerino il meschino" of Andrea dei Magnabotti (1391).
The Italian version does not mention the name of the cavalier entering the cave.
The queen of the subterranean paradise is the Sibyl of ancient prophetic fame, transformed into the goddess of pleasure.
In view of these parallels which antedate the appearance of the legend in German literature Gaston Paris disputes the German origin of the 'Iannhauser legend, and righlty regards Italy as its home.
Its ultimate source he finds in Celtic folk-lore -- perhaps Ligurian.
But this cannot be proved, since the earlier history of the legend is not attested by any extant literary monuments in Italy.
It is to be noted that in the German version there is a distinct tone of hostility to the Papacy, wholly lacking in SOME of the Italian variants. For example GUERINO is pro-Papist, since the Pope absolves the knight. Andrea dei Magnabotti is however anti-Papist (the same sort of anti-Papacy which we'll later encounter in the 'melodrammi' by Verdi!)
In act the miracle (due to God) of the blossoming staff is a pointed proof of the Pope’s harshness -- since the IMPLICATURE of the Pope's actual utterance is that the knight's soul is condemned for eternity.
This can readily be explained if the legend developed in Germany, where anti-papal feeling was strong after the days of the Hohenstaufens.
The dominant idea of the legend is the glorification of God's infinite mercy to sinners. (For Riccardo Wagner, "Danhuser" -- Bologna, 1872 -- redemption is via love -- ELISABETTA's love -- the fact that Wagner bases his Elisabetta on SANTA ELISABETTA D'UNGHERIA is telling, though!)
But this ideal is set forth in a spirit most unfriendly to the Roman Catholic Church.
The attitude ascribed to the Pope by the Volkslied is wholly contrary to Catholic doctrine -- and totally Protestant in character. Wagner knew that my locating the melodramma in Varteburgo (the country of Santa Elisabetta d'Ungheria ovvero di Turingia, but also the country of LUTERO) he was making a strong point!
Gnasss. Der Tannhduser and cwr'ge Jude (Dresden. 1861)
Gnasss. Der Tannhduser and cwr'ge Jude (Dresden. 1861)
VON ScnLsnn-rz. Wagner's Tonnhduser and Siinaerkn'eg auf der Wartbum (Meran. 1891). especiall 127-178;
Gem-mm. Geochwhle Tannhduser—Saqe un Dichtung in Baureuther Taschevikalmder (1891). 829 s .;
Scrnno'r. Tannhduser in Sage und Dadmmq in Nord and ad (Nov.. 1892)
Soosaumnu, Ant-owe de La_Sale et la léqende de TannMuaer in Mémm'res de la, soczété nio-Phzloloa‘l‘que 1‘: IleLn'nafm's. II (1897). 101—167; PARIS, Légendcs riu Mal/m Age (Paris 1903), 111—145
Rnuscmzn, Die Tannhtiuser e 111 Am J'ahrbr'icher far do! Klasm'sche Allerlum. Geschic s and deulache Lurml'v- XIII (Leipzig. 1904). 653-667.