Review of Annegret Oehme’s The Knight without Boundaries: Yiddish and German Arthurian Wingalois Adaptations

Ossnat Sharon-Pinto

Annegret Oehme. The Knight with­out Bound­aries: Yid­dish and Ger­man Arthuri­an Wiga­lois Adap­ta­tions. Lei­den: Brill, 2022. 189 pp. $149.00.

“Exploring the Wigalois adaptations reveals a more intimate form of cultural fluidity […] – the one told through stories.” (The Knight without Boundaries, 82)

A major challenge for scholarship of Jewish history and Jewish-language literatures is the need to consider the cultural output of the majority communities among which Jews lived: Christian or Muslim communities’ traditions, stories and songs, which – more often than not – were known and experienced to some degree by neighboring Jews, as well as vice versa. Disciplinary enclosures erected generations ago (“Jewish Studies”, “German Studies”, etc.), and scholars’ consequential lack of lingual and cultural literacy in the relevant variety of languages, sometimes stand in the way of identifying shared traditions across community boundaries. On a more technical level, we sometimes fail to identify that a text before us is in fact a translation from a neighboring language – or, if identified, fail to understand the significance of such transactions. In the still-sparse field of Old Yiddish literature (i.e. literature written in the “Western Yiddish” of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), Annegret Oehme’s new book The Knight without Boundaries: Yiddish and German Arthurian Wigalois Adaptations gives comprehensive consideration to one such site of mutual cultural entanglement: The narrative of Sir Wigalois of Arthur’s Round Table (or, by his Yiddish name, Viduvilt), as mutually transmitted between two communities – the Christian and the Jewish. Oehme makes the compelling case that “the Wigalois/Viduvilt tradition can only rightly be understood as a product of both German- and Yiddish-speaking cultures and their engagement with each other’s narrative and cultural traditions” (15).

The rhymed chivalric romance Wigalois by Wirnt von Grafenberg was composed in Middle High German in the early thirteenth century. In it, Sir Gawain of the Round Table is whisked away from King Arthur’s court to a distant land, marries a foreign princess, and leaves her pregnant to visit Arthur’s court one more time. He soon realizes that he is prohibited by magical circumstances from returning to his new family. When his son, Wigalois, comes of age, he makes his way to Arthur’s court in search of his father. From there Wigalois sets off on a series of adventures to prove his worth, defend King Arthur’s honor, free a far-away kingdom from the demonic control of a heathen adversary, and marry a princess of his own as a reward.

Tales of swashbuckling knights being wildly popular among early modern European-Jewish readers, Wigalois was translated into Yiddish several times throughout the early modern period, with its titular character renamed Viduvilt. Interestingly, German familiarity with Wigalois was in fact rekindled by one of its Yiddish adaptations: by the late seventeenth century, the medieval epic had fallen into obscurity in the German-speaking world, and was reinserted into popular culture by Hebraist Johann Christoph Wagenseil, who, with missionary intentions in mind, seized on an available “Jewish” romance as an entertaining vehicle for Yiddish language instruction and published a bilingual German-Yiddish edition of a relatively recently printed Yiddish Viduvilt. In the early nineteenth century, with the rediscovery of Wirnt’s medieval work, this “Jewish” version of the tale was renounced as inferior – but not before inspiring a series of influential German adaptations which left their mark on German culture.

As a theoretical framework for her discussion of this rich storytelling tradition, Oehme offers the paradigm of adaptation studies – a school of thought which traditionally contends with the transfer of contents across diverse media, especially late-modern media, such as the reworking of novels into films. This is thus not an obvious choice for a study of textual adaptation of text, and one that allows her to rely on some thought-provoking premises – some of which prove to be more fruitful than others.

Following a general and methodological introduction, The Knight without Boundaries is divided into five chapters, each of which analyzes one version of Wigalois/Viduvilt. The subject of Oehme’s study is not any particular version (and it certainly isn’t the “original” work) so much as the boundary-crossing tradition itself. Indeed, her succinct presentation of this entangled corpus to the English reader is of great value to scholarship. Her discussion articulates the dynamic quality of this literary tradition, as well as its innate reflexivity: many of the creators of this corpus, named or anonymous, are shown to be explicitly aware of their participation in a fluid storytelling tradition and express as much in their work.

Chapter one is devoted – strikingly – not to Wirnt’s thirteenth-century Wigalois, but rather to a late-eighteenth-century iteration adapted from Wagenseil’s Viduvilt: Ferdinand Roth’s 1786 anti-Catholic satire Vom König Artus und von dem bildschönen Ritter Wieduwilt: Ein Ammenmährchen [Of King Arthur and the Handsome Knight Wieduwilt: A Fairy Tale], a “model adaptation in its reflection of the text’s heritage, identity, and potential for a contemporaneous audience” (35). This serves as a useful entry point as it allows for a potent demonstration, and further elaboration, of Oehme’s theoretical and methodological perspective. In her discussion of the definition and meaning of adaptation in this context, Oehme puts forth the interesting idea, refining a formulation by historian Ludger Lieb, that “the adaptors do not simply recreate and renarrate the story of Wigalois but rather offer an actualization of its potential” (25). She also emphasizes “adaptation studies’ abolition of the strict focus on diachronic processes” (27): The reader may first engage with the storytelling tradition through any of its iterations without prior knowledge, which may impact her experience of the tradition as a whole. Oehme’s choice to begin her discussion in medias res, with Roth’s late iteration, may also be seen as a realization of this principle.

Chapter two returns to the medieval Wigalois, and demonstrates, through an analysis of its extraordinary marvelous components and the ethno-religious construction of key characters, that it too is “a fantastic story of hybrid nature” (99) which weaves together a variety of genres and influences, including canonical historiographical works of European vernacular literature and heterogenous religious inspirations – which, in my eyes, may serve as a reminder that no source text is without sources of its own. The following chapter deals with the appearance of the early modern Yiddish Viduvilt – offering a welcome differentiation between its separately translated Yiddish iterations, and discussing the nature of Wigalois’s transformation. While ״Viduvilt does not present its audience with an explicitly Jewish tale” (99), it is a considerably different work than its source. Most notably, many of Wigalois’s unique “un-Arthurian” attributes – supernatural, religious, and messianic themes and images – were edited out in the Yiddish iterations – which, following previous researchers, 1 1 See: Jerold C. Frakes, Early Yiddish Epic, (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press) 2014, 182; Jaeger, Ein Jüdischer Artusritter, 403. points to the adaptors’ prior familiarity with Arthurian lore, and their tendency to bring this errant knight closer to “home” in this respect.

Wagenseil’s 1699 bilingual edition, which is very much the heart of Oehme’s case, is the subject of chapter four. As this iteration of the tale is published alongside a lengthy introduction, it offers a unique perspective into its creator’s understanding of language, authorship, and intercultural dialogue. Focusing not only on the text but also on the book’s material aspects and actual use within contemporary culture, Oehme demonstrates that while “Wagenseil’s case illustrates that practices such as translation and transcription do not necessarily imply positive approaches to all cultures” (128), intercultural transmission is in fact far more dialectic – and messy – than its authors may intend it to be. Wagenseil’s proffered “Jewish” Arthurian Romance is more German in origin than he seems to realize; his denigration of Yiddish as corrupt German actually highlights its unique linguistic qualities; his bilingual edition, meant to teach German readers Yiddish for missionary purposes, is equally efficient as a tool for Yiddish readers who wish to learn to read German; and history shows that his work’s most notable influence was related not to language as he intended, but to content, in that it reintroduced the adventures of Wigalois/Viduvilt to the German-reading public and inspired multiple adaptations.

The book’s final chapter addresses the curious case of Riter Gabein, a prose adaptation of Viduvilt printed in Frankfurt an der Oder in 1789 in what might be termed German in Hebrew letters. This short novella has Riter Gabein (Sir Gawein) whisked off to China and traversing a fictional geography which includes Sardinia, Greenland, and England (which is distinct from Arthur’s realm), thereby displacing Arthur’s Camelot almost entirely. This story is devoid of marvelous elements but reinvested with lengthy personal prayers and references to the grace of God. In Oehme’s interpretation, “the author of Gabein […] presents the text’s heroes, Gabein and Widwilt, as positive impersonations of cosmopolitanism” (162), celebrating the ability of a devout knight of non-specific monotheistic faith to transcend political and cultural boundaries with ease. Oehme also argues that this story demonstrates “that the Arthurian tradition is susceptible […] to colonialism” (152-153) — in this case, colonialist fascination with China. And since China in this text is depicted very much like a European superpower, Oehme offers Homi Bhabha’s theorization of the “familiar space of the other” as a pertinent framework for its discussion. As with Wagenseil’s Viduvilt in chapter four, here again Oehme addresses the physical and linguistic aspects of the text – stating that Riter Gabein has survived only in a Latin transcript created by researcher Leo Landau in 1912, the original now being lost. This loss has left researchers puzzling over Landau’s sometimes-odd transcription choices, and a language that – in spelling as well as grammar – is, agitatingly, not Yiddish but not quite German, either.

Oehme’s analysis of Riter Gabein is astute and valuable. However, it lacks the benefit of important context. First, a Hebrew-script Riter Gabein, which seems to have eluded several scholars, is in fact extant, in a different but similarly phrased edition. Second, this Hebrew-script edition is longer. It now appears that Landau’s edition is missing a portion of approximately 1150 words which would have appeared at the turn of page 9a and seems to have been accidentally skipped. Third, the Jewish print output of Frankfurt an den Oder at the turn of the nineteenth century provides an important backdrop for Riter Gabein’s editorial choices. All this additional material is instrumental to assessing Riter Gabein’s language, genre, and even unique geography, as will be shown in a paper I am currently preparing – and for which Oehme’s work is nonetheless immensely helpful.

Oehme’s extensive use of adaptation theory merits some discussion. This was, for me, a first encounter with this research paradigm, and it has left me both curious and doubtful regarding its pertinence to The Knight without Boundaries’ subject matter, while alternative paradigms such as translation studies and folkloristics may claim better suitability for analyzing a text-to-text narrative tradition across cultures and languages. As mentioned above, the idea of adaptation as a realization of a source text’s potential strikes me as particularly fruitful, as well as a useful corrective to said paradigms. Oehme’s emphasis on adaptors’ reflexivity and deliberate participation in a fluid storytelling tradition, also inspired by adaptation theory, is also both suitable and illuminating. The non-privileging of “origin” works as opposed to adaptations is, however, a bit of a stickier matter, in my opinion. A reader’s introduction to a narrative tradition, Oehme holds, may well come from a late iteration, and thus – exposure to the greater tradition may not at all follow the diachronic nature of its development, and instead may be far more synchronic in nature: the reader may immerse herself in the materials in any order, or even simultaneously, rendering the order of their creation far less strictly relevant to discussion. One part of this claim – that there is inherent value to reading late iterations independently of early ones – is, to my mind, a very important one to any cultural-historical reading of literature. 2 2 This has been my own contention as well; see: Ossnat Sharon, “Elephant, Leviathan and Nineveh the Great City: Sibbuv Petaia Mi-Regensburg and Midrash Yonah, Printed Side by Side” (Hebrew), Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Folklore 30 (2016), 37–73.
The other part, however – regarding synchronic reading – assumes a reader who, after their initial encounter with an(y) iteration of the narrative tradition – has access to the rest of its materials. This assumption is valid – in fact, invaluable – when dealing with the late modern world, in which any and all texts – films, books, fanfics – are available at one’s fingertips. But it does not hold true for probably any readers of Wigalois/Viduvilt, save its few modern-day researchers. Chances are that most early modern readers had at their disposal one or two versions of Wigalois/Viduvilt, at most, and the wider literary tradition was therefore mostly absent from their reading process.

Oehme’s book is largely about the instability of literary creation. Our crude, implicit cultural assumption that texts are stable entities is very much a construct which emerged following the printing revolution, when manuscript culture was replaced by books as distinct, bound,
mass-produced commodities, 3 3 This issue is hotly debated in: Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (London, New York & Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1998). and is currently collapsing again when faced with the fluid nature of the internet. Oehme is reaching across the age of “textual stability”, applying postmodern theory to a pre-modern (and early modern) textual phenomenon. But the nature of fluidity and plurality in each case is essentially different. Material that was once almost impossible to come by has become imminently accessible, changing our reading processes entirely. The inherent status of the “source” is also fundamentally different: the age of mechanical reproduction has rendered it far more “fixed” than a manuscript or even an early book; but in the digital age, content is also in a new and dizzying state of flux, far removed from the rate, and nature, of transformation in the medieval and early modern world. The question whether tools intended for one age of textual instability are suitable for another must therefore be weighed carefully – and other theoretical paradigms considered.

The Knight without Boundaries appears to particularly address scholars of adaptation studies: It is concerned with broadening this paradigm’s scope and devotes considerable effort to assessing its suitability to the book’s subject matter and suggesting appropriate modifications. To the scholar of Old Yiddish and Jewish literatures, this discussion is often not as beneficial as Oehme’s discussion of the texts and overarching analysis of the Wigalois/Viduvilt tradition.

This is not, of course, to suggest that adaptation theory, and critical literary theory in general, is not valuable to this project and others like it. It seems that literary scholars and cultural historians are faced with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to paradigms meant to address the transmission and dissemination of narratives, motifs, and tropes through time and space. Confusingly, many such paradigms, though they originally evolved to accommodate the study of a particular form of transmission (i.e., oral storytelling, novel-to-film adaptations, etc.), increasingly evolve to overlap with one another and accommodate, at least nominally, the study of many (or any) forms of transmission. The trick is, perhaps, to recognize the inherent uniqueness of each paradigm and employ it to the greatest benefit, without committing too strongly to any one school of thought. Oehme attempts, boldly, to reassess the possibilities and limits of adaptation studies in the context of a form of transmission quite distant from this paradigm’s comfort zone. While the success of this theoretical venture is sometimes uneven, she brings stimulating ideas to a rich, entangled corpus of material which certainly begs to be recognized and richly described as such.

Sharon-Pinto, Ossnat. “Review of Annegret Oehme's The Knight without Boundaries: Yiddish and German Arthurian Wingalois Adaptations.” In geveb, June 2023:
Sharon-Pinto, Ossnat. “Review of Annegret Oehme's The Knight without Boundaries: Yiddish and German Arthurian Wingalois Adaptations.” In geveb (June 2023): Accessed Apr 20, 2024.


Ossnat Sharon-Pinto

Ossnat Sharon-Pinto is a postdoctoral researcher in the field of early modern Jewish cultural History.