The legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table often reverberates in our cultural consciousness as the clip-clop of coconuts from the 1975 British comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The absurd film is just one of many takes on the medieval tale of chivalry and heroism that traces its origins back to fifth- or sixth-century Europe. Stories of Arthur — who ascends to the British throne, builds the castle Camelot, and defends the city from evil with the help of his wife Guinevere, magician-adviser Merlin, and a team of knights — appear across the centuries and in English, Welsh, French, and German.
And Yiddish? One Arthurian figure, Wigalois, has piqued the interest of Annegret Oehme, a University of Washington assistant professor of Germanics who specializes in pre-modern literatures and languages. She argues that the story of Wigalois (pronounced vee-gah-loy) is an intercultural production between medieval German and Jewish societies. Not only does Wigalois appear in Yiddish, but Oehme argues that it interacted with and influenced Germanic versions of the story.
“It’s really important to see that the Jewish community was familiar with courtly literature, they participated with transmission, and didn’t just read and produce religious texts,” Oehme says.
The son of prominent Arthurian knight Gawain, Wigalois grows up in a fairylike land with his mother before setting off to find his father in Camelot. While at court, he accepts the quest of a maiden seeking aid for her kingdom, which is under siege. Battling dragons and giants along the way, Wigalois successfully defeats the usurper and frees the kingdom, becomes a knight, and marries a princess.
The tale packs enough action for an HBO series, yet Oehme argues the real stakes of the story lie in what it tells us about early modern Yiddish culture. Several adaptations of the Wigalois story written in Yiddish interacted with and influenced their German counterparts, leading to a collaborative construction of the tale. “So many people participated in the story, changed [it], and made it relevant for their time, language, and religious background.”
The original German text, written around 1215 by Wirnt von Grafenberg, includes Christian themes and subplots that the Yiddish interpretation, produced in the 14th or 15th century, removed. In doing so, the Yiddish version became more applicable to various cultures and time periods, increased the longevity of the story, and furthered Arthurian legend — even influencing later German adaptations. Moreover, Oehme notes that the Yiddish adaptation adjusted the original German text in favor of a more traditional Arthurian romance format. “It shows a lot about the literary culture of the time,” Oehme says.
Her research pushes back against the presentation of the medieval literary canon, which poses German interpretations as dominant. “This is a narrative where Yiddish doesn’t just adapt a German text or retell the story, but where later German texts actually built on Yiddish text. [Later Germans] had no clue that at some point there was a medieval German text from the 13th century, and instead kept adapting and retelling the story based on the Yiddish tales.”
Oehme, whose Twitter handle is @medieval_ista, pushes back on mainstream medieval narratives to “give voice to unheard voices, or voices that are lost nowadays.” Both online and in the classroom, she explains the importance of Yiddish texts in creating the Arthurian tradition, which empowers Jewish culture as essential to medieval literature. “I really want to decolonialize my syllabus and go beyond the majority-established voice that students are confronted with,” she says. Her methods challenge customary notions of the Middle Ages — which she argues have been whitewashed to portray a nationalist narrative — and allow students and the general public to explore medieval stories in new contexts, such as feminist and queer theory. It’s a quest worthy of an Arthurian knight, and Oehme is doing her fair share of slaying dragons.
Though Oehme researches the joint storytelling between early modern Jewish and German cultures, she is hesitant to extend this collaboration to the cultures’ overarching interactions. “I don’t want to draw a happy picture of the early modern German and Jewish relationship,” she says. “I don’t offer a complete counter-narrative to pogroms or expulsion.” What she has found is positive interactions between early modern Germans and Jews in intimate, shared spaces where stories could be passed back and forth, such as courts, marketplaces, and weddings. “Storytelling brought different cultures — the majority and repressed minority — together and inspired stories not about separation but about hope.”