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German Literature: The Old High German Period (c. 750-1050)

Written by: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

Of all the Germanic races, the tribes with which we have more particularly to deal here were the latest to attain intellectual maturity. The Goths had, centuries earlier, under their famous bishop Ulfilas or Wulfila, possessed the Bible in their vernacular, the northern races could point to theirEdda, the Germanic tribes in England to a rich and virile Old English poetry, before a written German literature of any consequence existed at all. At the same time, these continental tribes, in the epoch that lay between the Migrations of the 5th century and the age of Charles the Great, were not without poetic literature of a kind, but it was not committed to writing, or, at least, no record of such a poetry has come down to us. Its existence is vouched for by indirect historical evidence, and by the fact that the sagas, out of which the German national epic was welded at a later date, originated in the great upheaval of the 5th century. When the vernacular literature began to emerge from an unwritten state in the 8th century, it proved to be merely a weak reflection of the ecclesiastical writings of the monasteries; and this, with 784very few exceptions, Old High German literature remained. Translations of the liturgy, of Tatian’s Gospel Harmony (c. 835), of fragments of sermons, form a large proportion of it. Occasionally, as in the so-called Monsee Fragments, and at the end of the period, in the prose of Notker Labeo (d. 1022), this ecclesiastical literature attains a surprising maturity of style and expression. But it had no vitality of its own; it virtually sprang into existence at the command of Charlemagne, whose policy with regard to the use of the vernacular in place of Latin was liberal and far-seeing; and it docilely obeyed the tastes of the rulers that followed, becoming severely orthodox under Louis the Pious, and consenting to immediate extinction when the Saxon emperors withdrew their favour from it. Apart from a few shorter poetic fragments of interest, such as the Merseburg Charms (Zauberspr?che), an undoubted relic of pre-Christian times, the Wessobrunn Prayer (c. 780), the Muspilli, an imaginative description of the Day of Judgment, and the Ludwigslied(881), which may be regarded as the starting point for the German historical ballad, the only High German poem of importance in this early period was the Gospel Book (Liber evangeliorum) of Otfrid of Weissenburg (c. 800-870). Even this work is more interesting as the earliest attempt to supersede alliteration in German poetry by rhyme, than for such poetic life as the monk of Weissenburg was able to instil into his narrative. In fact, for the only genuine poetry of this epoch we have to look, not to the High German but to the Low German races. They alone seemed able to give literary expression to the memories handed down in oral tradition from the 5th century; to Saxon tradition we owe the earliest extant fragment of a national saga, the Lay of Hildebrand (Hildebrandsliedc. 800), and a Saxon poet was the author of a vigorous alliterative version of the Gospel story, the Heliand (c. 830), and also of part of the Old Testament (Genesis). This alliterative epic—for epic it may be called—is the one poem of this age in which the Christian tradition has been adapted to German poetic needs. Of the existence of a lyric poetry we only know by hearsay; and the drama had nowhere in Europe yet emerged from its earliest purely liturgic condition. Such as it was, the vernacular literature of the Old High German period enjoyed but a brief existence, and in the 10th and 11th centuries darkness again closed over it. The dominant “German” literature in these centuries is in Latin; but that literature is not without national interest, for it shows in what direction the German mind was moving. The Lay of Walter (Walthariliedc. 930), written in elegant hexameters by Ekkehard of St Gall, the moralizing dramas of Hrosvitha (Roswitha) of Gandersheim, the Ecbasis captivi (c. 940), earliest of all the Beast epics, and the romantic adventures of Ruodlieb (c. 1030), form a literature which, Latin although it is, foreshadows the future developments of German poetry.