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German Literature: The Middle High German Period (1050-1350)

Written by: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

(aEarly Middle High German Poetry.—The beginnings of Middle High German literature were hardly less tentative than those of the preceding period. The Saxon emperors, with their Latin and even Byzantine tastes, had made it extremely difficult to take up the thread where Notker let it drop. Williram of Ebersberg, the commentator of the Song of Songs (c. 1063), did certainly profit by Notker’s example, but he stands alone. The Church had no helping hand to offer poetry, as in the more liberal epoch of the great Charles; for, at the middle of the 11th century, when the linguistic change from Old to Middle High German was taking place, a movement of religious asceticism, originating in the Burgundian monastery of Cluny, spread across Europe, and before long all the German peoples fell under its influence. For a century there was no room for any literature that did not place itself unreservedly at the service of the Church, a service which meant the complete abnegation of the brighter side of life. Repellent in their asceticism are, for instance, poems like Memento mori (c. 1050), Vom Glauben, a verse commentary on the creed by a monk Hartmann (c. 1120), and a poem on “the remembrance of death” (Von des todes gehugede) by Heinreich von Melk (c. 1150); only rarely, as in a few narrative Poems on Old Testament subjects, are the poets of this time able to forget for a time their lugubrious faith. In the Ezzolied (c. 1060), a spirited lay by a monk of Bamberg on the life, miracles and death of Christ, and in the Annolied (c. 1080), a poem in praise of the archbishop Anno of Cologne, we find, however, some traces of a higher poetic imagination.

The transition from this rigid ecclesiastic spirit to a freer, more imaginative literature is to be seen in the lyric poetry inspired by the Virgin, in the legends of the saints which bulk so largely in the poetry of the 12th century, and in the general trend towards mysticism. Andreas, Pilatus, Aegidius, Albanius are the heroes of monkish romances of that age, and the stories of Sylvester and Crescentia form the most attractive parts of theKaiserchronik (c. 1130-1150), a long, confused chronicle of the world which contains many elements common to later Middle High German poetry. The national sagas, of which the poet of the Kaiserchronik had not been oblivious, soon began to assert themselves in the popular literature. The wandering Spielleute, the lineal descendants of the jesters and minstrels of the dark ages, who were now rapidly becoming a factor of importance in literature, were here the innovators; to them we owe the romance of K?nig Rother (c. 1160), and the kindred stories of OrendelOswald andSalomon und Markolf (Salman und Morolf). All these poems bear witness to a new element, which in these years kindled the German imagination and helped to counteract the austerity of the religious faith—the Crusades. With what alacrity the Germans revelled in the wonderland of the East is to be seen especially in the Alexanderlied (c. 1130), and in Herzog Ernst (c. 1180), romances which point out the way to another important development of German medieval literature, the Court epic. The latter type of romance was the immediate product of the social conditions created by chivalry and, like chivalry itself, was determined and influenced by its French origin; so also was the version of the Chanson de Roland (Rolandslied, c. 1135), which we owe to another priest, Konrad of Regensburg, who, with considerable probability, has been identified with the author of theKaiserchronik.

The Court epic was, however, more immediately ushered in by Eilhart von Oberge, a native of the neighbourhood of Hildesheim who, in hisTristant (c. 1170), chose that Arthurian type of romance which from now on was especially cultivated by the poets of the Court epic; and of equally early origin is a knightly romance of Floris und Blancheflur, another of the favourite love stories of the middle ages. In these years, too, the Beast epic, which had been represented by the Latin Ecbasis captivi, was reintroduced into Germany by an Alsatian monk, Heinrich der Glichez?re, who based his Reinhart Fuchs (c. 1180) on the French Roman de Renart. Lastly, we have to consider the beginning of the Minnesang, or lyric, which in the last decades of the 12th century burst out with extraordinary vigour in Austria and South Germany. The origins are obscure, and it is still debatable how much in the German Minnesang is indigenous and national, how much due to French and Proven?al influence; for even in its earliest phases the Minnesang reveals correspondences with the contemporary lyric of the south of France. The freshness and originality of the early South German singers, such as K?renberg, Dietmar von Eist, the Burggraf of Rietenburg and Meinloh von Sevelingen, are not, however, to be questioned; in spite of foreign influence, their verses make the impression of having been a spontaneous expression of German lyric feeling in the 12th century. The Spruchdichtung, a form of poetry which in this period is represented by at least two poets who call themselves Herger and “Der Spervogel,” was less dependent on foreign models; the pointed and satirical strophes of these poets were the forerunners of a vast literature which did not reach its highest development until after literature had passed from the hands of the noble-born knight to those of the burgher of the towns.

(bThe Flourishing of Middle High German Poetry.—Such was the preparation for the extraordinarily brilliant, although brief epoch of German medieval poetry, which corresponded to the reigns of the Hohenstaufen emperors, Frederick I. 785Barbarossa, Henry VI. and Frederick II. These rulers, by their ambitious political aspirations and achievements, filled the German peoples with a sense of “world-mission,” as the leading political power in medieval Europe. Docile pupils of French chivalry, the Germans had no sooner learned their lesson than they found themselves in the position of being able to dictate to the world of chivalry. In the same way, the German poets, who, in the 12th century, had been little better than clumsy translators of French romances, were able, at the beginning of the 13th, to substitute for French chansons de geste epics based on national sagas, to put a completely German imprint on the French Arthurian romance, and to sing German songs before which even the lyric of Provence paled. National epic, Court epic and Minnesang—these three types of medieval German literature, to which may be added as a subordinate group didactic poetry, comprise virtually all that has come down to us in the Middle High German tongue. A Middle High German prose hardly existed, and the drama, such as it was, was still essentially Latin.

The first place among the National or Popular epics belongs to the Nibelungenlied, which received its present form in Austria about the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries. Combining, as it does, elements from various cycles of sagas—the lower Rhenish legend of Siegfried, the Burgundian saga of Gunther and Hagen, the Gothic saga of Dietrich and Etzel—it stands out as the most representative epic of German medieval life. And in literary power, dramatic intensity and singleness of purpose its eminence is no less unique. The vestiges of gradual growth—of irreconcilable elements imperfectly welded together—may not have been entirely effaced, but they in no way lessen the impression of unity which the poem leaves behind it; whoever the welder of the sagas may have been, he was clearly a poet of lofty imagination and high epic gifts (see Nibelungenlied). Less imposing as a whole, but in parts no less powerful in its appeal to the modern mind, is the second of the German national epics, Gudrun, which was written early in the 13th century. This poem, as it has come down to us, is the work of an Austrian, but the subject belongs to a cycle of sagas which have their home on the shores of the North Sea. It seems almost a freak of chance that Siegfried, the hero of the Rhineland, should occupy so prominent a position in the Nibelungenlied, whereas Dietrich von Bern (i.e. of Verona), the name under which Theodoric the Great had been looked up to for centuries by the German people as their national hero, should have left the stamp of his personality on no single epic of the intrinsic worth of theNibelungenlied. He appears, however, more or less in the background of a number of romances—Die RabenschlachtDietrichs FluchtAlpharts Tod,Biterolf und DietliebLaurin, &c.—which make up what is usually called the Heldenbuch. It is tempting, indeed, to see in this very unequal collection the basis for what, under more favourable circumstances, might have developed into an epic even more completely representative of the German nation than the Nibelungenlied.

While the influence of the romance of chivalry is to be traced on all these popular epics, something of the manlier, more primitive ideals that animated German national poetry passed over to the second great group of German medieval poetry, the Court epic. The poet who, following Eilhart von Oberge’s tentative beginnings, established the Court epic in Germany was Heinrich von Veldeke, a native of the district of the lower Rhine; hisEneit, written between 1173 and 1186, is based on a French original. Other poets of the time, such as Herbort von Fritzlar, the author of a Liet von Troye, followed Heinrich’s example, and selected French models for German poems on antique themes; while Albrecht von Halberstadt translated about the year 1210 the Metamorphoses of Ovid into German verse. With the three masters of the Court epic, Hartmann von Aue, Wolfram von Eschenbach and Gottfried von Strassburg—all of them contemporaries—the Arthurian cycle became the recognized theme of this type of romance, and the accepted embodiment of the ideals of the knightly classes. Hartmann was a Swabian, Wolfram a Bavarian, Gottfried presumably a native of Strassburg. Hartmann, who in his Erec and IweinGregorius and Der arme Heinrich combined a tendency towards religious asceticism with a desire to imbue the worldly life of the knight with a moral and religious spirit, provided the Court epic of the age with its best models; he had, of all the medieval court poets, the most delicate sense for the formal beauty of poetry, for language, verse and style. Wolfram and Gottfried, on the other hand, represent two extremes of poetic temperament. Wolfram’s Parzival is filled with mysticism and obscure spiritual significance; its flashes of humour irradiate, although they can hardly be said to illumine, the gloom; its hero is, unconsciously, a symbol and allegory of much which to the poet himself must have been mysterious and inexplicable; in other words, Parzival—and Wolfram’s other writings, Willehalm and Titurel, point in the same direction—is an instinctive or, to use Schiller’s word, a “na?ve” work of genius. Gottfried, again, is hardly less gifted and original, but he is a poet of a wholly different type. His Tristan is even more lucid than Hartmann’s Iwein, his art is more objective; his delight in it is that of the conscious artist who sees his work growing under his hands. Gottfried’s poem, in other words, is free from the obtrusion of those subjective elements which are in so high a degree characteristic of Parzival; in spite of the tragic character of the story, Tristan is radiant and serene, and yet uncontaminated by that tone of frivolity which the Renaissance introduced into love stories of this kind.

Parzival and Tristan are the two poles of the German Court epic, and the subsequent development of that epic stands under the influence of the three poets, Hartmann, Wolfram and Gottfried; according as the poets of the 13th century tend to imitate one or other of these, they fall into three classes. To the followers and imitators of Hartmann belong Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, the author of a Lanzelet (c. 1195); Wirnt von Gravenberg, a Bavarian, whose Wigalois (c. 1205) shows considerable imaginative power; the versatile Spielmann, known as “Der Stricker”; and Heinrich von dem T?rlin, author of an unwieldy epic, Die Krone (“the crown of all adventures,” c. 1220). The fascination of Wolfram’s mysticism is to be seen in Der j?ngere Titurel of a Bavarian poet, Albrecht von Scharfenberg (c. 1270), and in the still later Lohengrin of an unknown poet; whereas Gottfried von Strassburg dominates the Flore und Blanscheflur of Konrad Fleck (c. 1220) and the voluminous romances of the two chief poets of the later 13th century, Rudolf von Ems, who died in 1254, and Konrad von W?rzburg, who lived till 1287. Of these, Konrad alone carried on worthily the traditions of the great age, and even his art, which excels within the narrow limits of romances like Die Herzemoere and Engelhard, becomes diffuse and wearisome on the unlimited canvas of Der Trojanerkrieg and Partonopier und Meliur.

The most conspicuous changes which came over the narrative poetry of the 13th century were, on the one hand, a steady encroachment of realism on the matter and treatment of the epic, and, on the other, a leaning to didacticism. The substitution of the “history” of the chronicle for the confessedly imaginative stories of the earlier poets is to be seen in the work of Rudolf von Ems, and of a number of minor chroniclers like Ulrich von Eschenbach, Berthold von Holle and Jans Enikel; while for the growth of realism we may look to the Pfaffe Amis, a collection of comic anecdotes by “Der Stricker,” the admirable peasant romance Meier Helmbrecht, written between 1236 and 1250 by Wernher der Gartenaere in Bavaria, and to the adventures of Ulrich von Lichtenstein, as described in his Frauendienst (1255) and Frauenbuch (1257).

More than any single poet of the Court epic, more even than the poet of the Nibelungenlied, Walther von der Vogelweide summed up in himself all that was best in the group of poetic literature with which he was associated—the Minnesang. The early Austrian singers already mentioned, poets like Heinrich von Veldeke, who in his lyrics, as in his epic, introduced the French conception of Minne, or like the manly Friedrich von Hausen, and the Swiss imitator of Proven?al measures, Rudolf von Fenis appear only in the light of forerunners. Even more 786original poets, like Heinrich von Morungen and Walther’s own master, Reinmar von Hagenau, the author of harmonious but monotonously elegiac verses, or among immediate contemporaries, Hartmann von Aue and Wolfram von Eschenbach, whose few lyric strophes are as deeply stamped with his individuality as his epics—seem only tributary to the full rich stream of Walther’s genius. There was not a form of the German Minnesang which Walther did not amplify and deepen; songs of courtly love and lowly love, of religious faith and delight in nature, patriotic songs and political Spr?che—in all he was a master. Of Walther’s life we are somewhat better informed than in the case of his contemporaries: he was born about 1170 and died about 1230; his art he learned in Austria, whereupon he wandered through South Germany, a welcome guest wherever he went, although his vigorous championship of what he regarded as the national cause in the political struggles of the day won him foes as well as friends. For centuries he remained the accepted exemplar of German lyric poetry; not merely the Minnes?nger who followed him, but also the Meistersinger of the 15th and 16th centuries looked up to him as one of the founders and lawgivers of their art. He was the most influential of all Germany’s lyric poets, and in the breadth, originality and purity of his inspiration one of her greatest (see Walther von der Vogelweide).

The development of the German Minnesang after Walther’s death and under his influence is easily summed up. Contemporaries had been impressed by the dual character of Walther’s lyric; they distinguished a higher courtly lyric, and a lower more outspoken form of song, free from the constraint of social or literary conventions. The later Minnesang emphasized this dualism. Amongst Walther’s immediate contemporaries, high-born poets, whose lives were passed at courts, naturally cultivated the higher lyric; but the more gifted and original singers of the time rejoiced in the freedom of Walther’s poetry of niedere Minne. It was, in fact, in accordance with the spirit of the age that the latter should have been Walther’s most valuable legacy to his successors; and the greatest of these, Neidhart von Reuental (c. 1180-c. 1250), certainly did not allow himself to be hampered by aristocratic prejudices. Neidhart sought the themes of his h?fische Dorfpoesie in the village, and, as the mood happened to dictate, depicted the peasant with humorous banter or biting satire. The lyric poets of the later 13th century were either, like Burkart von Hohenfels, Ulrich von Winterstetten and Gottfried von Neifen, echoes of Walther von der Vogelweide and of Neidhart, or their originality was confined to some particular form of lyric poetry in which they excelled. Thus the singer known as “Der Tannh?user” distinguished himself as an imitator of the Frenchpastourelle; Reinmar von Zweter was purely a Spruchdichter. More or less common to all is the consciousness that their own ideas and surroundings were no longer in harmony with the aristocratic world of chivalry, which the poets of the previous generation had glorified. The solid advantages, material prosperity and increasing comfort of life in the German towns appealed to poets like Steinmar von Klingenau more than the unworldly ideals of self-effacing knighthood which Ulrich von Lichtenstein and Johann Hadlaub of Z?rich clung to so tenaciously and extolled so warmly. On the whole, the Spruchdichter came best out of this ordeal of changing fashions; and the increasing interest in the moral and didactic applications of literature favoured the development of this form of verse. The confusion of didactic purpose with the lyric is common to all the later poetry, to that of the learned Marner, of Boppe, Rumezland and Heinrich von Meissen, who was known to later generations as “Frauenlob.” The Spruchdichtung, in fact, was one of the connecting links between the Minnesang of the 13th and the lyric and satiric poetry of the 15th and 16th centuries.

The disturbing and disintegrating element in the literature of the 13th century was thus the substitution of a utilitarian didacticism for the idealism of chivalry. In the early decades of that century, poems like Der Winsbeke, by a Bavarian, and Der welsche Gast, written in 1215-1216 by Thomasin von Zirclaere (Zirclaria), a native of Friuli, still teach with uncompromising idealism the duties and virtues of the knightly life. But in theBescheidenheit (c. 1215-1230) of a wandering singer, who called himself Freidank, we find for the first time an active antagonism to the unworldly code of chivalry and an unmistakable reflection of the changing social order, brought about by the rise of what we should now call the middle class. Freidank is the spokesman of the B?rger, and in his terse, witty verses may be traced the germs of German intellectual and literary development in the coming centuries—even of the Reformation itself. From the advent of Freidank onwards, the satiric and didactic poetry went the way of the epic; what it gained in quantity it lost in quality and concentration. The satires associated with the name of Seifried Helbling, an Austrian who wrote in the last fifteen years of the 13th century, and Der Renner by Hugo von Trimberg, written at the very end of the century, may be taken as characteristic of the later period, where terseness and incisive wit have given place to diffuse moralizing and allegory.

There is practically no Middle High German literature in prose; such prose as has come down to us—the tracts of David of Augsburg, the powerful sermons of Berthold von Regensburg (d. 1272), Germany’s greatest medieval preacher, and several legal codes, as the Sachsenspiegel andSchwabenspiegel—only prove that the Germans of the 13th century had not yet realized the possibilities of prose as a medium of literary expression.