Medieval German literature

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Medieval German literature refers to literature written in Germany, stretching from the Carolingian dynasty; various dates have been given for the end of the German literary Middle Ages, the Reformation (1517) being the last possible cut-off point.

Old High German[edit]

The Old High German period is reckoned to run until about the mid-11th century, though the boundary to Early Middle High German (second half of the 11th century) is not clear-cut.

Epic Poetry[edit]

The most famous work in OHG is the Hildebrandslied, a short piece of Germanic alliterative heroic verse which besides the Muspilli is the sole survivor of what must have been a vast oral tradition. Another important work, in the northern dialect of Old Saxon, is a life of Christ in the style of a heroic epic known as the Heliand.

Lyric Poetry[edit]

Works include the short but splendid Ludwigslied, celebrating the victory of the Frankish army, led by Louis III of France, over Danish (Viking) raiders at the Battle of Saucourt-en-Vimeu on 3 August 881. There is also the incomplete Das Georgslied about the life of Saint George, and the Wessobrunn Prayer, a praise of Creation and a plea for strength to withstand sin.

Other Literature[edit]

Works include the Evangelienbuch (Gospel harmony) of Otfried von Weissenburg, the Latin-German dictionary Abrogans, the magical Merseburg Incantations, the Old High German translation of the theologian Tatian, and the lyric poem Der Busant.

Middle High German[edit]

Middle High German proper runs from the beginning of the 12th century. In the second half of the 12th century, there was a sudden intensification of activity, leading to a 60-year "golden age" of medieval German literature referred to as the mittelhochdeutsche Blütezeit (1170–1230). This was the period of the blossoming of MHG lyric poetry, particularly Minnesang (the German variety of the originally French tradition of courtly love). The same sixty years saw the composition of the most important courtly romances. These are written in rhyming couplets, and again draw on French models such as Chrétien de Troyes, many of them relating Arthurian material. The third literary movement of these years was a new revamping of the heroic tradition, in which the ancient Germanic oral tradition can still be discerned, but tamed and Christianized and adapted for the court. These high medieval heroic epics are written in rhymed strophes, not the alliterative verse of Germanic prehistory.

Epic Poetry[edit]

The Kaiserchronik is one of the first monuments of Middle High German. The three key authors of courtly romances are Hartmann von Aue, Gottfried von Strassburg, and Wolfram von Eschenbach, in particular his Parzival, which is regarded as one of the supreme literary achievements of the period. The revamping of the heroic tradition is visible in works like the Nibelungenlied and Kudrun. Another epic of the High Middle Ages is Herzog Ernst; other authors include Konrad von Würzburg, Rudolf von Ems, and Ulrich von Türheim.

Lyric Poetry[edit]

The most impressive example of Early Middle High German literature is the Annolied. It was about the beginning of the 12th century that Ava became the first woman to write poetry in German. The "big name" of Minnesang is Walther von der Vogelweide, but there are many others, and some of their melodies have survived. Other notable works include the incomplete Christherre-Chronik, a 13th-century world chronicle from Thüringen, and the works of Heinrich Frauenlob.

Transition to Renaissance literature (1350 to 1500)[edit]

The Middle High German period is by convention taken to have ended in 1350. The period between 1350 and 1500 is one of transition between the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the German literature of the 15th century, medieval genres (such as the latest works of classical Minnesang) overlap with works of early Humanism, and by the end of the 15th century early popular literature in the form of the Volksbuch (Fortunatus, Till Eulenspiegel).[1]

From the later 13th century, we see the rise of urban literature, which becomes the dominant force from the mid-14th century onwards. This urbanization and the introduction of printing in the 15th century are the main developments marking the very vague boundary between late medieval and early modern German literature. The first important urban author was the Viennese chronicler Jans der Enikel. Other poets include Hans Folz, Johannes von Tepl, and Sebastian Brant.


From the late 13th century, there is evidence of the beginnings of the Yiddish language, which in the early phase is a variety of Middle High German, not distinct enough even to be described as a dialect, but written in Hebrew characters. In its early phase, it is normally referred to as Judeo-German; from the 15th century it becomes Old Yiddish. Poems in this idiom belong equally to the fields of Medieval German Studies and Jewish/Yiddish studies.

Notable works include the 14th-century Dukus Horant (a narrative poem known as the "Jewish Kudrun") or the 15th-century Bovo Bukh, the most popular chivalric romance in the Yiddish language.


  1. ^ Dorothea Klein, 'Wann endet das Spätmittelalter in der Geschichte der deutschen Literatur?' In: Forschungen zur deutschen Literatur des Spätmittelalters. Festschrift für Johannes Janota, ed. Horst Brunner, Werner Williams-Krapp, Tübingen 2003, 299-316. Hugo Kuhn, Entwürfe zu einer Literatursystematik des Spätmittelalters, 1980.
  • Camden House History of German Literature, vol. 4 (transition to the modern period), Camden 2004-5.
  • Francis Gentry, A Companion to Middle High German Literature to the Fourteenth Century, Brill, 2002.

See also[edit]