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German Literature: The Transition Period (1350-1600)

Written by: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

(aThe Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries.—As is the case with all transitional periods of literary history, this epoch of German literature may be considered under two aspects: on the one hand, we may follow in it the decadence and disintegration of the literature of the Middle High German period; on the other, we may study the beginnings of modern forms of poetry and the preparation of that spiritual revolution, which meant hardly less to the Germanic peoples than the Renaissance to the Latin races—the Protestant Reformation.

By the middle of the 14th century, knighthood with its chivalric ideals was rapidly declining, and the conditions under which medieval poetry had flourished were passing away. The social change rendered the courtly epic of Arthur’s Round Table in great measure incomprehensible to the younger generation, and made it difficult for them to understand the spirit that actuated the heroes of the national epic; the tastes to which the lyrics of the great Minnesingers had appealed were vitiated by the more practical demands of the rising middle classes. But the stories of chivalry still appealed as stories to the people, although the old way of telling them was no longer appreciated. The feeling for beauty of form and expression was lost; the craving for a moral purpose and didactic aim had to be satisfied at the cost of artistic beauty; and sensational incident was valued more highly than fine character-drawing or inspired poetic thought. Signs of the decadence are to be seen in the Karlmeinet of this period, stories from the youth of Charlemagne, in a continuation of Parzival by two Alsatians, Claus Wisse and Philipp Colin (c. 1335), in an Apollonius von Tyrus by Heinrich von Neuenstadt (c. 1315), and a K?nigstochter von Frankreich by Hans von B?hel (c. 1400). The story of Siegfried was retold in a rough ballad, Das Lied von h?rnen Seyfried, the Heldenbuch was recast in Knittelvers or doggerel (1472), and even the Arthurian epic was parodied. A no less marked symptom of decadence is to be seen in a large body of allegorical poetry analogous to the Roman de la rose in France; Heinzelein of Constance, at the end of the 13th, and Hadamar von Laber and Hermann von Sachsenheim, about the middle of the 15th century, were representatives of this movement. As time went on, prose versions of the old stories became more general, and out of these developed the Volksb?cher, such asLoher und MallerDie HaimonskinderDie sch?ne MageloneMelusine, which formed the favourite reading of the German people for centuries. As the last monuments of the decadent narrative literature of the middle ages, we may regard the Buch der Abenteuer of Ulrich F?etrer, written at the end of the 15th century, and Der Weissk?nig and Teuerdank by the emperor Maximilian I. (1459-1519) 787printed in the early years of the 16th. At the beginning of the new epoch the Minnesang could still point to two masters able to maintain the great traditions of the 13th century, Hugo von Montfort (1357-1423) and Oswald von Wolkenstein (1367-1445); but as the lyric passed into the hands of the middle-class poets of the German towns, it was rapidly shorn of its essentially lyric qualities; die Minne gave place to moral and religious dogmatism, emphasis was laid on strict adherence to the rules of composition, and the simple forms of the older lyric were superseded by ingenious metrical distortions. Under the influence of writers like Heinrich von Meissen (“Frauenlob,” c. 1250-1318) and Heinrich von M?geln in the 14th century, like Muskatblut and Michael Beheim (1416-c. 1480) in the 15th, the Minnesang thus passed over into the Meistergesang. In the later 15th and in the 16th centuries all the south German towns possessed flourishing Meistersinger schools in which the art of writing verse was taught and practised according to complicated rules, and it was the ambition of every gifted citizen to rise through the various grades from Sch?ler to Meister and to distinguish himself in the “singing contests” instituted by the schools.

Such are the decadent aspects of the once rich literature of the Middle High German period in the 14th and 15th centuries. Turning now to the more positive side of the literary movement, we have to note a revival of a popular lyric poetry—the Volkslied—which made the futility and artificiality of the Meistergesang more apparent. Never before or since has Germany been able to point to such a rich harvest of popular poetry as is to be seen in the Volkslieder of these two centuries. Every form of popular poetry is to be found here—songs of love and war, hymns and drinking-songs, songs of spring and winter, historical ballads, as well as lyrics in which the old motives of the Minnesang reappear stripped of all artificiality. More obvious ties with the literature of the preceding age are to be seen in the development of the Schwank or comic anecdote. Collections of such stories, which range from the practical jokes of Till Eulenspiegel (1515), and the coarse witticisms of the Pfaffe vom Kalenberg (end of 14th century) and Peter Leu (1550), to the religious and didactic anecdotes of J. Pauli’s Schimpf und Ernst (1522) or the more literary Rollwagenb?chlein (1555) of J?rg Wickram and the Wendunmut (1563 ff.) of H.W. Kirchhoff—these dominate in large measure the literature of the 15th and 16th centuries; they are the literary descendants of the medieval Pfaffe AmisMarkolf and Reinhart Fuchs. An important development of this type of popular literature is to be seen in the Narrenschiff of Sebastian Brant (1457-1521), where the humorous anecdote became a vehicle of the bitterest satire; Brant’s own contempt for the vulgarity of the ignorant, and the deep, unsatisfied craving of all strata of society for a wider intellectual horizon and a more humane and dignified life, to which Brant gave voice, make the Narrenschiff, which appeared in 1494, a landmark on the way that led to the Reformation. Another form—the Beast fable and Beast epic—which is but sparingly represented in earlier times, appealed with peculiar force to the new generation. At the very close of the Middle High German period, Ulrich Boner had revived the Aesopic fable in his Edelstein (1349), translations of Aesop in the following century added to the popularity of the fable (q.v.), and in the century of the Reformation it became, in the hands of Burkard Waldis (Esopus, 1548) and Erasmus Alberus (Buch von der Tugend und Weisheit, 1550), a favourite instrument of satire and polemic. A still more attractive form of the Beast fable was the epic of Reinke de Vos, which had been cultivated by Flemish poets in the 13th and 14th centuries and has come down to us in a Low Saxon translation, published at L?beck in 1498. This, too, like Brant’s poem, is a powerful satire on human folly, and is also, like the Narrenschiff, a harbinger of the coming Reformation.

A complete innovation was the drama (q.v.), which, as we have seen, had practically no existence in Middle High German times. As in all European literatures, it emerged slowly and with difficulty from its original subservience to the church liturgy. As time went on, the vernacular was substituted for the original Latin, and with increasing demands for pageantry, the scene of the play was removed to the churchyard or the market-place; thus the opportunity arose in the 14th and 15th centuries for developing the WeihnachtsspielOsterspiel and Passionsspiel on secular lines. The enlargement of the scope of the religious play to include legends of the saints implied a further step in the direction of a complete separation of the drama from ecclesiastical ceremony. The most interesting example of this encroachment of the secular spirit is the Spiel von Frau Jutten—Jutta being the notorious Pope Joan—by an Alsatian, Dietrich Schernberg, in 1480. Meanwhile, in the 15th century, a beginning had been made of a drama entirely independent of the church. The mimic representations—originally allegorical in character—with which the people amused themselves at the great festivals of the year, and more especially in spring, were interspersed with dialogue, and performed on an improvised stage. This was the beginning of the Fastnachtsspiel or Shrovetide-play, the subject of which was a comic anecdote similar to those of the many collections ofSchw?nke. Amongst the earliest cultivators of the Fastnachtsspiel were Hans Rosenpl?t (fl. c. 1460) and Hans Folz (fl. c. 1510), both of whom were associated with Nuremberg.

(bThe Age of the Reformation.—Promising as were these literary beginnings of the 15th century, the real significance of the period in Germany’s intellectual history is to be sought outside literature, namely, in two forces which immediately prepared the way for the Reformation—mysticism and humanism. The former of these had been a more or less constant factor in German religious thought throughout the middle ages, but with Meister Eckhart (? 1260-1327), the most powerful and original of all the German mystics, with Heinrich Seuse or Suso (c. 1300-1366), and Johannes Tauler (c. 1300-1361), it became a clearly defined mental attitude towards religion; it was an essentially personal interpretation of Christianity, and, as such, was naturally conducive to the individual freedom which Protestantism ultimately realized. It is thus not to be wondered at that we should owe the early translations of the Bible into German—one was printed at Strassburg in 1466—to the mystics. Johann Geiler von Kaisersberg (1445-1510), a pupil of the humanists and a friend of Sebastian Brant, may be regarded as a link between Eckhart and the earlier mysticists and Luther. Humanism was transplanted to German soil with the foundation of the university of Prague in 1348, and it made even greater strides than mysticism. Its immediate influence, however, was restricted to the educated classes; the pre-Reformation humanists despised the vernacular and wrote and thought only in Latin. Thus although neither Johann Reuchlin of Pforzheim (1455-1522), nor even the patriotic Alsatian, Jakob Wimpfeling (or Wimpheling) (1450-1528)—not to mention the great Dutch humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536)—has a place in the history of German literature, their battle for liberalism in thought and scholarship against the narrow orthodoxy of the Church cleared the way for a healthy national literature among the German-speaking peoples. The incisive wit and irony of humanistic satire—we need only instance the Epistolae obscurorum virorum (1515-1517)—prevented the German satirists of the Reformation age from sinking entirely into that coarse brutality to which they were only too prone. To the influence of the humanists we also owe many translations from the Latin and Italian dating from the 15th century. Prominent among the writers who contributed to the group of literature were Niklas von Wyl, chancellor of W?rttemberg, and his immediate contemporary Albrecht von Eyb (1420-1475).

Martin Luther (1483-1546), Germany’s greatest man in this age of intellectual new-birth, demands a larger share of attention in a survey of literature than his religious and ecclesiastical activity would in itself justify, if only because the literary activity of the age cannot be regarded apart from him. From the Volkslied and the popular Schwank to satire and drama, literature turned exclusively round the Reformation which had been inaugurated on the 31st of October 1517 by Luther’s publication of the Theses against Indulgences in Wittenberg. In his three tracts, An den christlichen Adel deutscher NationDe captivitate 788Babylonica ecclesiae, and Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen (1520), Luther laid down his principles of reform, and in the following year resolutely refused to recant his heresies in a dramatic scene before the Council of Worms. Luther’s Bible (1522-1534) had unique importance not merely for the religious and intellectual welfare of the German people, but also for their literature. It is in itself a literary monument, a German classic, and the culmination and justification of that movement which had supplanted the medieval knight by the burgher and swept away Middle High German poetry. Luther, well aware that his translation of the Bible must be the keystone to his work, gave himself endless pains to produce a thoroughly German work—German both in language and in spirit. It was important that the dialect into which the Bible was translated should be comprehensible over as wide an area as possible of the German-speaking world, and for this reason he took all possible care in choosing the vocabulary and forms of his Gemeindeutsch. The language of the Saxon chancery thus became, thanks to Luther’s initiative, the basis of the modern High German literary language. As a hymn-writer (Geistliche Lieder, 1564), Luther was equally mindful of the importance of adapting himself to the popular tradition; and his hymns form the starting-point for a vast development of German religious poetry which did not reach its highest point until the following century.

The most powerful and virile literature of this age was the satire with which the losing side retaliated on the Protestant leaders. Amongst Luther’s henchmen, Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), the “praeceptor Germaniae,” and Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523) were powerful allies in the cause, but their intellectual sympathies were with the Latin humanists; and with the exception of some vigorous German prose and still more vigorous German verse by Hutten, both wrote in Latin. The satirical dramas of Niklas Manuel, a Swiss writer and the polemical fables of Erasmus Alberus (c. 1500-1553), on the other hand, were insignificant compared with the fierce assault on Protestantism by the Alsatian monk, Thomas Murner (1475-1537). The most unscrupulous of all German satirists, Murner shrank from no extremes of scurrility, his attacks on Luther reaching their culmination in the gross personalities of Von dem lutherischen Narren (1522). It was not until the following generation that the Protestant party could point to a satirist who in genius and power was at all comparable to Murner, namely, to Johann Fischart (c. 1550-c. 1591); but when Fischart’s Rabelaisian humour is placed by the side of his predecessor’s work, we see that, in spite of counter-reformations, the Protestant cause stood in a very different position in Fischart’s day from that which it had occupied fifty years before. Fischart took his stand on the now firm union between humanism and Protestantism. His chief work, the Affentheuerlich Naupengeheurliche Geschichtklitterung (1575), a Germanization of the first book of Rabelais’ satire, is a witty and ingenious monstrosity, a satirical comment on the life of the 16th century, not the virulent expression of party strife. The day of a personal and brutal type of satire was clearly over, and the writers of the later 16th century reverted more and more to the finer methods of the humanists. The satire of Bartholomaeus Ringwaldt (1530-1599) and of Georg Rollenhagen (1542-1609), author of the Froschmeuseler (1595), was more “literary” and less actual than even Fischart’s.

On the whole, the form of literature which succeeded best in emancipating itself from the trammels of religious controversy in the 16th century was the drama. Protestantism proved favourable to its intellectual and literary development, and the humanists, who had always prided themselves on their imitations of Latin comedy, introduced into it a sense for form and proportion. The Latin school comedy in Germany was founded by J. Wimpfeling with his Stylpho (1470) and by J. Reuchlin with his witty adaptation of Ma?tre Patelin in his Henno (1498). In the 16th century the chief writers of Latin dramas were Thomas Kirchmair or Naogeorgus (1511-1563), Caspar Br?low (1585-1627), and Nikodemus Frischlin (1547-1590), who also wrote dramas in the vernacular. The work of these men bears testimony in its form and its choice of subjects to the close relationship between Latin and German drama in the 16th century. One of the earliest focusses for a German drama inspired by the Reformation was Switzerland. In Basel, Pamphilus Gengenbach produced moralizing Fastnachtsspiele in 1515-1516; Niklas Manuel of Bern (1484-1530)—who has just been mentioned—employed the same type of play as a vehicle of pungent satire against the Mass and the sale of indulgences. But it was not long before the German drama benefited by the humanistic example: the Parabell vam vorlorn Szohn by Burkard Waldis (1527), the many dramas on the subject of Susanna—notably those of Sixt Birck (1532) and Paul Rebhun(1535)—and Frischlin’s German plays are attempts to treat Biblical themes according to classic methods. In another of the important literary centres of the 16th century, however, in Nuremberg, the drama developed on indigenous lines. Hans Sachs (1494-1576), the Nuremberg cobbler and Meistersinger, the most productive writer of the age, went his own way; a voracious reader and an unwearied storyteller, he left behind him a vast literary legacy, embracing every form of popular literature from Spruch andSchwank to complicated Meistergesang and lengthy drama. He laid under contribution the rich Renaissance literature with which the humanistic translators had flooded Germany, and he became himself an ardent champion of the “Wittembergisch Nachtigall” Luther. But in the progressive movement of the German drama he played an even smaller role than his Swiss and Saxon contemporaries; for his tragedies and comedies are deficient in all dramatic qualities; they are only stories in dialogue. In the Fastnachtsspiele, where dramatic form is less essential than anecdotal point and brevity, he is to be seen at his best. Rich as the 16th century was in promise, the conditions for the development of a national drama were unfavourable. At the close of the century the influence of the English drama—brought to Germany by English actors—introduced the deficient dramatic and theatrical force into the humanistic and “narrative” drama which has just been considered. This is to be seen in the work of Jakob Ayrer (d. 1605) and Duke Henry Julius of Brunswick (1564-1613). But unfortunately these beginnings had hardly made themselves felt when the full current of the Renaissance was diverted across Germany, bringing in its train the Senecan tragedy. Then came the Thirty Years’ War, which completely destroyed the social conditions indispensable for the establishment of a theatre at once popular and national.

The novel was less successful than the drama in extricating itself from satire and religious controversy. Fischart was too dependent on foreign models and too erratic—at one time adapting Rabelais, at another translating the old heroic romance of Amadis de Gaula—to create a national form of German fiction in the 16th century; the most important novelist was a much less talented writer, the Alsatian Meistersinger and dramatist J?rg Wickram (d. c. 1560), who has been already mentioned as the author of a popular collection of anecdotes, the Rollwagenb?chlein. His longer novels,Der Knabenspiegel (1554) and Der Goldfaden (1557), are in form, and especially in the importance they attach to psychological developments, the forerunners of the movement to which we owe the best works of German fiction in the 18th century. But Wickram stands alone. So inconsiderable, in fact, is the fiction of the Reformation age in Germany that we have to regard the old Volksb?cher as its equivalent; and it is significant that of all the prose writings of this age, the book which affords the best insight into the temper and spirit of the Reformation was just one of these crudeVolksb?cher, namely, the famous story of the magician Doctor Johann Faust, published at Frankfort in 1587.