I was talking with my Austrian roommate about national legends when she offered me this one, a piece of her friend’s hometown’s legendary history.
Another Austrian legend that I know is one that is based in my friend’s hometown, which was once the last town to be occupied by Turkey. This fact is a very big part of her town’s history. They have signs and everything, as they were the only ones left standing during the Turkish invasion and occupation. And I remember this story. There was a king named Lowenerz, who was caught by someone and thrown in prison. Lowenherz began to sing a song that he used to sing with his friend. Lowenherz’s friend walked and walked and walked until he finally heard Lowenherz’s singing the song they always sang together, and rescued Lowenherz.
I did a bit of research, and found that the translation of Lowenherz is “Lionheart.” I was quite surprised when I found out that Lowenherz most likely referred to King Richard the Lionheart, the English King who went on the Crusades during the 12th century. Digging into his life, I found out that the Lionheart was imprisoned in Austria where he wrote a song that detailed his feelings on his capture. He was essentially ransomed by the European royalty to his brother King John. I find it interesting how the historical account of what happened to the Lionheart became changed, twisted, through the retellings of the story. Historically, the Austrians were the “bad guys” per se, the ones who had captured Lionheart and held him captive, but in my roommate’s version of the story, it is the Turkish who are the bad guys who captured Lionheart. To me, this shows how legends and stories can be created from factual events, of how the times changed. Lionheart was, while not overtly antagonistic of Leopold V, who was from Austria’s first ruling dynasty, was not exactly buddy-buddy with him either, and this story shows how the same story, simply told from a different tellers’ viewpoints, can be twisted by the tellers into showing the teller’s people as being in the good, while another’s viewpoint shows them in the bad.
My roommate this semester is from Austria, from a tiny village about half an hour by car from Vienna, and I asked her if she knew of any national legends. She then began to tell me the legend of how the Austrian flag came to be what it is.
She said, “So you know how the Austrian flag is red-white-red? Well there was a king, and he supposedly wore a white mantle/cloak and he fought in a war and he got bloody all over, but he won in the end, but his mantle at the end of the battle/war, was bloody over here [as she gestures to one area of her body] and bloody over here [she gestures to the opposite side of her body] and was white in the middle. And that’s how the Austrian flag developed.” She then told me that she had been told that legend while in elementary school by her teacher.
I did a bit of research, and the king mentioned in the tale was not a king, but a duke, Leopold V, and he fought in the crusades. During the battles, he was soaked in the blood of his enemies and his white cloak turned red. However, the small strip of his coat that was underneath the belt remained white, and so when he took of his belt, there was a horizontal strip of white separating the two swathes of blood-soaked cloth. Leopold V was from the first ruling dynasty of Austria, and this red-white-red became a part of their coat of arms and eventually came to represent Austria as a whole.
I believe that this legend is a classic example of a national legend, or origin story. It is based in fact, after all, many European nobles traveled to the Middle East to fight in the on-again-off-again wars called the Crusades in the late Medieval Period (11th-13th centuries, mainly). Whether or not Leopold V actually wore a white coat on the battlefield, which is not too much of a stretch of imagination, as the Knights Templar wore white cloaks emblazoned with a red cross, or whether or not he actually got so soaked in his enemies blood that it turned that white coat red, is up for debate. However, it is a Romanticized tale that is at the very least based in facts; whether or not it is true does not really matter. This story also reveals something about the Austrian people, Leopold V was a great warrior who accomplished great feats on the battlefield. To have adopted the colors he wore at the end of one of the bloodier wars of the Middle Ages shows that the Austrians are proud of their military might, of their warriors.