Tannhäuser was a German knight and poet. He is particularly well known for his ‘Minnelieder’, a style of medieval love songs. The real-life Tannhäuser is often confused with the mythical Tannhäuser of 16th century folklore, who was immortalised by Richard Wagner in the opera of the same name.
Many aspects of Tannhäuser’s biography are unclear, but his poetry is dated around 1245 to 1265. Traditionally, it was assumed that he was born in Swabia into the family of Thannhausen, residents of Thannhausen close to Ellwangen, but increasingly it is presumed that he is a descendent of the Tanhusen family from Nordgau, Bavaria. Paintings usually depict him in the garb of a knight of the teutonic order and it is possible that he might have served in the sixth crusade under Emperor Frederick II during the 1228/1229 campaign. We do know that Tannhäuser was an active courtier of the Austrian duke Frederick the Warlike, who ruled between 1230 an 1246, and after whose death he left Vienna.
Tannhäuser was most famous for his ‘Minnesang’ in particular the ‘leich’, a particular style of Minne including song and dance. Many of his poems include great humour, parodying the genre with irony and wit. However, he also composed the ‘Bußlied’, which is a poem of atonement.
Based on the ‘Bußlied’, Tannhäuser became a mythical figure and subject to legends. It suggests that he, Tannhäuser, a poet and knight, found the subterranean home of Venus, the Venusberg, where he spend time worshipping the goddess. After leaving her domain, however, he is filled with remorse and travels to Rome to be absolved by the pope. Urban IV (1261-1624) denies him absolution and forgiveness, claiming that it is as impossible to achieve as for his papal staff to blossom. Three days hence, the staff suddenly changes and flowers appear, leading to a messenger being sent after Tannhäuser, who unfortunately has already returned to the Venusberg, never to be seen again. The legend has been interpreted in various ways and has been a popular piece of folklore since the 16th century, as well as being immortalised by Richard Wagner in form of an opera (1845). In modern times, the legend of Tannhäuser inspired the plot of Neil Gaiman‘s story “Neverwhere” as well as the BBC TV series Life on Mars. The result is a blurred line between the real-life Tannhäuser and his mythical alter-ego.
It is unlikely that more detailed knowledge about Tannhäuser can be gathered, but he is an excellent example of a well-known and loved figure that has gone down into folklore.