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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: Mediæval German Literature

By Gerhard Richard Lomer (1882–1970)


IN Europe it is the southern countries which first give expression in the form of art to their national characteristics and their peculiar genius. Greece, Rome, Mediæval Italy, and France had all developed a literature before the Germans became sufficiently self-conscious as a people to rise from the level of aggression by force of arms to that of constructive expression through the arts of civilization.

For this comparative lateness in literary maturity there are sufficient causes both in space and in time. Topographically and chronologically the German tribes were at a disadvantage from the point of view of cultural development. The northern wilds in which they lived were separated from Mediterranean civilization by almost impassable mountains. Those Germanic tribes such as the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, which turned westward in their migrations and came in contact with Roman customs and Roman speech in northern Gaul and in Britain found in the southern civilization a helpmeet which, when married to their rugged northern energy, was destined to become the “alma mater” of modern France and modern England.

It was not, however, until comparatively late that the northern German tribes which occupied the central portions of Europe developed to the degree of civilization which flowers in art. Their social life was too rude, their political existence too uncertain, their habitations too temporary to foster an architecture or a literature. For these we have to wait until there comes gradually a settling down of the tribes into a nation, for with nationality comes a social self-consciousness out of which alone can a high art be developed.

Furthermore, not only as a nation, but also as individuals, the Germans were, for Europeans, unusually slow in intellectual development. Stolidity, comparative lack of imagination, abounding physical energy, an unwieldy but solid thought close to common life—these we find to characterize them, but none of the ease of expression, none of the facile grace of manner, the fine spiritual penetration, or the devastating blast of human passion that meet us again and again in the literature of mediæval Italy.

Period of the Migrations (5th to 9th Centuries)

The early history of Germany is the story of the migrations of various tribes racially related though politically independent, coincident with and contributing to the disintegration of the Roman Empire. Of these tribes, originally coming from the region of the Rhine and the Danube, the Visigoths under the leadership of Alaric in the fifth century traversed the Balkans and then moved westward along the track of Greek and Roman civilization until they ultimately settled in Spain. Like a forest fire blasting everything in the way, the Vandals next swept over Europe a few years after Alaric, set foot in Africa, and held the shores of the inland sea fair prey for their ruthless piracies. The Burgundians came next and moved successively from the Oder and the Vistula to the Rhine and to the Rhone, where they ultimately settled.

To the southward, German tribes, filled with the inexhaustible energy of the north, are overcoming the disintegrated remains of what was once the proudest empire of the earth. In 476 the city that was the centre of the Roman world and that knew the glory of Augustus, heard on its roads the tread of a Germanic conqueror and bowed to Odoacer, leader of the Heruli, as “patricius” and King of Italy. The centuries that follow are full of change and warfare and destruction. The Ostrogoths under Theodoric (454–526) succeed the Heruli, only to fall in their turn before the power of Byzantium (552). In northern Italy, from 568 to 774 the Langobards hold a temporary and barbaric sway, but they too pass without permanent influence, for time preserves only the ruins of great civilizations. In the meantime the Franks in Gaul have risen to power and under Charlemagne (?742–814) have sought to restore the semblance of the empire of ancient Rome. Thus practically ended the wanderings of the many Germanic tribes, except for the Norsemen who, in 912, settled on French soil and a century later won the Battle of Hastings and thus began a new régime in England.

While these political changes were taking place as a result of the restless energy and the warlike instincts of the German tribes, social changes no less far-reaching in their effects were making themselves felt in the lives of the people. Before the migrations the Germanic peoples were free and independent tribes, living in the open, owning no law but the sword and no god but the god of battle. At the end of their prolonged and conquering migrations they find themselves the subjects of an almost absolute emperor; they dwell in cities; and they worship a meek and crucified God instead of the former fierce and pagan deities of their northern wilds. Forgetful of the stormy sea-coasts of the north, the long severe winters, and the silences of the great forestlands, they now become acquainted with the fruitful vineyards and the sunny fields of the warm south, with wide acres of farmland, and with the busy hum of men in the markets of the world. As a result, traits of their character hitherto dormant are warmed to life. The dull northern spirit expands and grows great in a more kindly environment. The arts of war begin to give way to the arts of peace, and, as the ploughshare takes the place of the sword, the monastery and the school take the place of the camp.

In the opening words of the “Lex Salica,” the national code of the Franks, the pride, self-esteem, and consciousness of superiority which characterize the German tribes, are sounded in no uncertain note: “The glorious people of the Franks, whose founder is God Himself, brave in arms, firm in peace, wise in council, noble in body, radiant in health, excelling in beauty, daring, quick, hardened,… this is the people which shook the cruel yoke of the Romans from its neck.”

As we look back over this period of national development what impresses us most is the enormous physical energy of the people which finds expression for itself in great personalities and in memorable deeds. Here, we feel, is the source of a literature to come, for out of these personalities and the remembered deeds of men grows ultimately the art of vigorous expression in language. The Germanic race at this time is as yet in its adolescence: it has all the apparently inexplicable contradictions and all the seemingly miraculous possibilities of such a period of growth and expansion. In its vitality we see the hope of its future and the promise of a high achievement.

The Epics

The period of the migrations of the Germanic tribes was especially significant from the point of view of literature, since it supplied the materials for the heroic sagas which in the fifth and sixth centuries were to begin to emerge from the vague mythopœic beginnings of Germanic literature.

It is natural to find here, as in the early literature of England, that the great chieftain, the venturesome mariner, the victorious warrior, is the hero of these early stories of doughty deeds. The contributions of actual history become so metamorphosed as to be unrecognizable, and grotesque invention and unbridled imagination take the place of any attempt to reflect truthfully the political or religious life of the day. But the poems are alive with the stress and the strife of the times, full of fighting and the fate that are of the essence of epic greatness.

Among the continental Germanic tribes the custom of reciting these epics was similar to that described in the Anglo-Saxon ‘Beowulf.’ A Byzantine named Priscus has left an account which gives an interesting description of an evening at the court of Attila. “Towards the evening,” he relates, “they lit torches, and two barbarians, stepping in front of Attila, recited songs celebrating his victories and war-like virtues. The guests looked intently at the singers, some enjoying the poems, some inspired by the thought of their own combats; others, however, whose bodies had become feeble and whose impetuosity had become calmed by advancing years, burst into tears.”

The form of these poems was that familiar to us in ‘Beowulf’—unrhymed, alliterative verse, with the two half-lines separated by a cæsura. This large, sonorous, and simple scheme was particularly suited to the primitive grandeur of the incidents described, and to arouse the strong emotions that are associated with warlike memories.

Of all the old sagas, the ‘Nibelungenlied’ is the greatest and the most interesting. The Nibelungs are a race of dwarfs, the children of the mist, the possessors of the famous hoard and ring which Siegfried subsequently won. The traditions of the saga go back to the time of the Burgundians and Attila, who appears as Etzel in the poem; but the mythological element harks back to shadows of early heathen times. The story of Siegfried and his deeds is summarized in the article on the ‘Nibelungenlied’ and is familiar to the lover of Wagnerian opera. When compared with the Arthurian romances, it gives one the impression of belonging to an age infinitely older, wilder, and more primitive. It has an immortality like that of an eternal snow-capped mountain, ancient of days, forbidding familiarity yet challenging one with all the lure of great antiquity. It has the inevitability of things very aged and truly great. In the foreground move primitive desire, revenge, battle, murder, sudden death, against a background of catastrophe for whose equal we can only go back to the pervading fatalism of the great Greek tragedies.

Religious Literature

During the ninth century when the influence of Christianity was leading to the building of monasteries and to the establishment of monastic schools, not a little literature of a religious tone was produced under the spur of the then prevalent preoccupation with the things of the life eternal. Of the German centres of learning, the monasteries at St. Gall on Lake Constance and Weissenburg in Alsatia were the most important, and, for Low German, that at Fulda. It was largely owing to the encouragement which Charlemagne gave to learning that reading was taught, learning fostered, and literature produced. The influence which he had upon German literature was somewhat akin to that exercised by King Alfred in England. Of these early religious writings the old Saxon poem called ‘Heliand’ (or “Saviour”) is the most interesting.

Mediæval Germany (9th to 13th Centuries)

The period covering the ninth to the thirteenth century in Germany is a period of social consolidation and of growing political organization. It is a time during which the Roman Church and the German State begin to take definite form and to mark out the boundaries of their respective powers.

The three great nations of continental Europe at this time were France, Italy, and Germany, and with each of these the Church of Rome, in the pursuit of its temporal interests, came in conflict. To such an extent was this the case that between 1075 and 1122 Germany was in the throes of a civil war directly traceable to the impossible position in which the clergy were placed—of having to try to serve two masters who demanded contradictory service.

The earliest striking literary product of this period comes from the hand of the monk Otfrid of Weissenburg in Alsace. This ‘Book of the Gospels in the Vernacular,’ which dates from about 868, is important because it is the first example which we have of rhymed verse in German. In using a form sanctioned by the custom of the Latin hymn-writers of the Church, Otfrid manifested his dislike of the alliterative meter used in the epics and ballads, or, as he called them, “the obscene songs of the laymen.”

In Germany, as elsewhere in Europe, the monasteries were the centres of learning, and the monks kept the flame of literary genius from utter extinction in those troublous times. St. Gall, Fulda, Gandersheim, and Reichenau were the chief monasteries during this period, though such ecclesiastical centres as Mainz, Köln, Metz, and Hildesheim are important because there the clergy served as a link between the governing class and the common people—a dual relation which left its mark on literature, for it brought the clerical writers in contact with courtly culture and the classics on the one hand, and with the realism and frankness of ordinary city life on the other hand.

In the tenth century the influence of women of piety and of intellect is unusually noticeable in Germany. Without excepting the ladies of the royal courts, Hroswitha of Gandersheim stands out as the most cultured and noteworthy woman of the time. Her plays, which are the earliest dramatic effort of modern Europe, deal with the struggles between the virtues and the vices, a combat ever dear to the heart of the mediæval moralist. The dialogue, though naïve and stilted when judged by modern standards, nevertheless has life and interest. Though the action is obviously controlled by the moral ideal of a didactic nun, and the characters are static types rather than developing individuals, Hroswitha succeeds in giving a remarkable illusion of reality and life to her people. Apart from her personal achievement, the work of Hroswitha is of historical significance in the development of mediæval drama and as showing the influence of the texts of the later Roman comedy upon mediæval education.

By the twelfth century the minstrel song began to assume prominence, and the heroic poem is represented by such works as the ‘Rolandslied’ (c. 1132), a Teutonic and less admirable ‘Chanson de Roland,’ in which the majestic figure of the Emperor Karl moves, a fine picture of the religious hero of the day; and in the ‘Alexanderlied’ (c. 1138), in which there is portrayed in the rich colors of an elder day the ideal outlines of the worldly hero.

The development of the Feudal system in Germany produced among the many other changes which it involved, a body of secular poetry of which the ‘Minnesong’ is the crowning achievement. This method of lyrical expression was an embodiment of the chivalric conception of love, with its system of ideal worship which is much more of the imagination than of the heart. It numbers its devotees by the hundreds, but of all of them Walther von der Vogelweide is the outstanding figure. We feel in him some of the true-heartedness of Dante, some of the Italian’s conception of the deep significance of love; and indeed we might easily fancy ourselves wandering among Dante’s pages when we read: “O blessed hour, when I found her who has conquered my body and my soul, when all my senses became allied with her whose goodness has made me her own. That now I never can leave her, her beauty and goodness have done, and her red lips that laugh so strangely fair.”

The Revival of National Epics

The old material of the ancient heroic sagas which belong to the period of the migrations now undergoes a process of modernization. The primitive characters and the rugged action of the earlier tales have thrown over them the newer glamour of a chivalric age. Both the mediæval Church and the mediæval State have had an easily recognizable influence upon them and have added both a new moral vision and a new physical ideal of manly prowess and womanly virtue, so that in the legends of the Nibelungs, of Gudrun, of Ortnit, of Wolfdietrich, of Walthari, and of Dietrich von Bern we find the old, vague, time-worn outlines redrawn with modern color and with less uncertain touch by the literary craftsman of a more polished age.

The result of this revived interest in the old epics was an attempt to achieve a similar treatment of foreign material imported especially from France. This literature was essentially courtly and was not intended for the common people. It is full of conventions, of the minutiæ of etiquette, of the complex rules of the great mediæval game of courtly love. While such a treatment made for delicacy and a self-consciousness out of which art rarely emancipates itself towards greatness, it tended also to fall back into conventions, into superficial description, and into an almost infinite series of episodes of courtly life and love, without causal connection, devoid of motive, and quite heedless of character development.

From this gradually narrowing literature of chivalric convention, three men free themselves and stand out as writers of no mean literary power. They attain individuality in an age which came dangerously near submerging the one in the many, and of choking genius in the tares of aristocratic social propriety. These three men were Hartmann von Aue, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Gottfried von Strassburg.

Hartmann von Aue (c. 1170–1215) in his elaborate variations of the chivalric motif, ‘Erec’ and ‘Iwein,’ comes closest to the conventional and commonplace type of story of aristocratic love and duty. In these two works we have adventures galore, narrow escapes, amazing deeds, love strained almost to the breaking-point of forbearance, and doubt dispelled by enduring faithfulness. Both these tales are based generously upon the work of Chrétien de Troyes and serve to remind us of the fundamental kinship of material in all the European literatures of this time. In Hartmann von Aue’s ‘Gregorius’ we have a legendary tale of contemplative atonement for the unconscious commission of crime; and in ‘Der arme Heinrich,’ the simple and touching narrative of the healing and regenerating power of faith embodied in the self-sacrifice of a simple peasant girl for the sake of her master. Here, as in his other works, the author’s concern is to show that virtue does not go unrewarded. Thus early begins that moral preoccupation with the springs of human conduct which is to culminate—in Kant, Schopenhauer, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel—in a more abstract and systematic philosophy of life.

In Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1170–c. 1220) this ethical outlook upon experience is even more clearly seen than in Hartmann. Indeed, one may say without exaggeration that in Wolfram we have the Dante of Mediæval Germany. In his work we find a clear conception of character development and a deep sympathy with the struggles and vicissitudes of man striving to be moral. Parzival is in reality the story of the development of a soul, a Paracelsus with a difference, but with no less earnest an aspiration after attainment. The story moves through one experience after another in which the unspoiled heart of youth is tried by fire and tested and found worthy. Ignorance has gone, and with it innocence, but through doubt he has come full circle round to faith again. A tolerant and truly human writer is Wolfram, who realizes that a strong right arm and a good sword can help to win the battles of the spirit, for, as he says of Parzival, “the body’s prize, yea and the soul’s paradise vanquish with shield and with spear.”

Gottfried von Strassburg (fl. 1210) is a writer of a different stamp. He has none of the spiritual enthusiasm of Wolfram, none of his ethical earnestness and subjective preoccupation. Yet nowhere else in the German literature of this period do we get a more intimate or convincing portrayal of the effect of the “world’s unrest, Love, the huntress of hearts” as she steals upon the soul and changes all things utterly. Gottfried von Strassburg seems to be careless of the idealism of chivalric life and mediæval religion, but to be intensely delighted with the details of courtly conduct, for to him manners make the man. He is carried away, too, with the exquisite pain of tyrannous love until passion o’erleaps itself and works its own ruin.

Chronological Table

  • 410Visigoths under Alaric sweep over Balkans, Greece, Italy, and Spain.
  • 429Vandals over-run southwestern Europe and cross to Africa.
  • 437Burgundians, defeated by the Huns, leave the Rhine and settle on the Rhone.
  • 449Angles and Saxons cross into England.
  • 451Huns, under Attila, defeated at Châlons.
  • 476Fall of the Western Roman Empire. Odoacer becomes “patricius” and King of Italy.
  • 742–814Charlemagne (reigned 771–814).
  • 842Oath at Strassburg.
  • 843Treaty of Verdun divides the Empire between Lewis (Germany) and Charles (France).
  • 962–973Otto the Great, Emperor.
  • c. 980Hroswitha writes first mediæval drama.
  • 1000Hungary becomes a kingdom.
  • 1095–1099First Crusade.
  • 1138–1152Conrad III. the first of the Hohenstaufens.
  • c. 1140‘Nibelungenlied.’
  • c. 1150Minnesingers.
  • c. 1170Gottfried von Strassburg.
  • c. 1170–1215Hartmann von Aue.
  • c. 1170–c. 1230Walther von der Vogelweide.
  • 1241–1669Hanseatic League.
  • Reading Recommended

    Transition Period (1350–1600)

    After the life of the Middle Ages had reached its height, there came a period of transition in which the intellectual and spiritual forces of the race were gathering power for new growth, and in which the beginnings of the modern outlook on life are to be seen. It is a period of preparation for the great movement of the Reformation which, in the intellectual life of Germany, holds a place akin to that of the Renaissance in the life of Italy.

    The evidence of the decadence of the old ideals and of the disappearance of the old interests is to be seen in the rough and popular versions and imitations of the older heroic stories, in the allegorical poetry of the genre of the ‘Roman de la Rose,’ and in the increasing use of prose in the ‘Volksbücher.’ The only names which emerge from the mediocrity of this period are those of Hugo von Montfort (1357–1423) and Oswald von Wolkenstein (1367–1445). Even the former freedom of the older lyric singers gives place to dogmatism and rule—a sure sign of the passing of inspiration.

    To offset this withering, however, there is a new growth of lyric poetry, more popular and more vital, the Volkslied, whose energy and freshness serve by contrast to make the artificial and perfunctory character of the Meistergesang all the more obvious. Here we find richness of subject and of melody and a live interest in war, in love, in the seasons of the year and the periods of past history, in the holy zeal of the hymn and the physical exuberance of the drinking song. One might, in passing, note the stories associated with ‘Till Eulenspiegel,’ recently brought to our attention in choreographic form, and the ‘Narrenschiff’ (1494) of Sebastian Brant (1458–1521), a stinging satire in which impatience with the gross ignorance of the common people is mingled with the desire, then particularly strong as a prelude to the Reformation,

  • “To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
  • Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”
  • The mediæval interest in animal stories continues, as may be seen from the translations of Æsop and the story of Reynard the Fox, scathing in satire, full of interest, and of wide influence in comparative literature.

    The Drama in Germany, as in England, grew out of the services of the Church, but more slowly, and to a less magnificent blossoming, though following the same seasons of Christmas, Passion Week, and Easter.

    German people of this age are more deeply interested in the things of the spirit, and they are very much influenced by Mysticism, which numbers among its leading exponents, Meister Eckhart (?1260–1327), foremost among German mystics, Heinrich Suso (1295–1366) and Johannes Tauler (?1300–1361), all of whom insist upon that personal interpretation of the facts of religion which was to be the fundamental attitude of those who were soon to protest, vehemently and successfully, against the Roman Catholic institutional ideal and the subordination of individual reason and conscience which it involved. To these mystics we owe an early translation of the Bible into German (Strassburg, 1466).

    Side by side with Mysticism as a force preparatory to the Reformation went Humanism, which sharpened men’s wits and polished their speech largely through the intellectual discipline that comes through a love of the classics. But above all at this time must be reckoned Martin Luther (1483–1546), apart from whom it is difficult to conceive the intellectual life of the age. It was on the last day of October in 1517 that Luther published his ‘Theses against Indulgences’ and thereby started the reform which became the Reformation. Just as Chaucer rendered an inestimable service to England by standardizing the English language, so Luther in his translation of the ‘Bible’ (1522–1534) gave the people of Germany a classic which set the standard for the literary language of his country.

    Close to Luther in aim, though more humanistic in sympathy, were Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560) and Ulrich von Hutten (1488–1523). At the other extreme, indulging in satire, often unscrupulous, scurrilous, or coarse, sometimes clever and ingenious, we have such writers as Thomas Murner (1475–1537), Johann Fischart (1546–1591), Bartholomaeus Ringwalt (1530–1599), and Georg Rollenhagen (1542–1609).

    The drama during this period was much influenced by Latin comedy. Nuremberg gave to the world Hans Sachs (1494–1576), one of the great singers and story-tellers of Germany, and less of a dramatist. Conditions for original dramatic development, however, were not favorable, and the Renaissance cast the pall of Senecan tragedy over the land not many years before the Thirty Years’ War rendered the life of the theatre so precarious that it ceases, for the time, to be of interest or importance.

    Chronological Table

  • 1378Death of Charles IV., and partition of his dominions.
  • 1389Hapsburgs recognize Swiss independence.
  • 1409University of Leipsic founded by Frederick the Warlike.
  • 1410Three rival emperors (Wenceslaus, Jodocus, and Sigismund), and three rival Popes (Benedict XIII., Gregory XII., and John XXIII.).
  • 1415John Huss put to death by the Council of Constance.
  • 1416Jerome of Prague put to death by the Council of Constance.
  • ?1439Invention of Printing by John Gutenberg.
  • 1493Maximilian I. unites all the Hapsburg possessions.
  • 1517Luther posts his ‘Theses’ against the sale of indulgences.
  • 1519Luther, excommunicated by Leo X., writes ‘Address to the German Nobility.’
  • 1521Diet of Worms condemns Luther’s books and doctrine.
  • 1529Minority protests—“Protestants”—at Diet of Speyer’s reaffirming edict of Worms.
  • 1530Augsburg confession formulated by Melanchthon.
  • 1531Protestant cities unite in League of Schmalkalden.
  • 1545–1563Council of Trent.
  • 1546Death of Luther.
  • 1552Treaty of Passau: Lutherans gain freedom of worship.
  • 1555Peace of Augsburg.
  • 1556Charles V. abdicates. Philip II. and Ferdinand I. divide Hapsburg possessions.
  • 1607–1609Protestant Union and Catholic League formed.
  • 1618Thirty Years’ War begins.
  • 1630Gustavus Adolphus lands in Pomerania.
  • 1634Murder of Wallenstein.
  • 1640–1688Frederick William of Brandenburg, the Great Elector.
  • 1638Peace of Westphalia.
  • Reading Recommended

  • Sebastian Brant (1458–1521)
  • Martin Luther (1483–1546)
  • Hans Sachs (1494–1576)