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The War Poetry of Oswald von Wolkenstein

Few medieval warriors could say they had such an interesting and varied career as Oswald von Wolkenstein. Fewer still could say they also wrote poems and songs about it.

Born around the year 1376 in what is today northern Italy, Oswald would find himself entering a military career at the young age of 10, when he began serving as a squire. Over the next 14 years he would find himself travelling throughout Europe and beyond, taking part in wars in North Africa, the Middle East, Lithuania and Georgia. Even when Oswald returned home in 1410 he still found himself in many conflicts, including with his family and the Duke of Austria.

His many adventures have been recorded in poems or songs that Oswald wrote and performed, in which he talked and sang about war, lovers, religion and travelling. Over 300 of his works are known to exist, and today Oswald is considered one of the most interesting composers of the 15th century.

Portrait of Oswald von Wolkenstein from 1432. All the images of him have his right eye closed - examination of his body showed he had a congenital defect.

Several of the poems have been recently translated by Richard Sieburth, including the following piece - it tells the story of when Oswald and his two brothers were besieged by Friedrich IV, Duke of Austria at Castle Greifenstein in the year 1423:

Let’s roll!      said Michael von Wolkenstein
After them!     said Oswald von Wolkenstein
Mount up!       said Leonhard von Wolkenstein
Drive them     out from Greifenstein

All hell broke     loose scorching flames
Gore splattered     on the rocks below
Iron helmets     armor and bows
Ditched as they fled     whoops of rage

The huts and tents      and engines of war
Reduced to ashes       on the upper sward
Bad debts (they say)        come home to roost
So here, Duke Friedrich      take your reward

No one could sort     the smoke of battle
From the fog of war     at Ravenstei-on-Ried
Crossbows twanging     whoosh of arrows
Nails yanked from     the ooze of marrow

Peasants of St. George     the whole damn parish
Conspired against us     the whole damn bunch
Then our Ravenstein     buddies turned up
Greetings, neighbours     yes we’re in a crunch

Shoving and shooting    hue and cry
Breaking out below     hear the battle whoop
My fellow knights     here we either win or lose
Mice roasting in every roof    the smell of soot

The troops from Bozen     from Ritten and Meran
From Hafling and Molten     want to cook our goose
Stouthearted men from     the Sarntal and Jenes
Let them try to entrap us     and we’ll vamoose

You can read more of the poems in Songs From a Single Eye, by Oswald von Wolkenstein, which is published by New Directions in 2019. Click here to learn more about the book.

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