Medieval German literature
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|History of 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
The Old High German (OHG) period extends to about the mid-11th century, although the boundary to Early Middle High German (second half of the 11th century) is not clear-cut.
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 Old Saxon, is a life of Jesus Christ in the style of a heroic epic known as the Heliand.
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.
Works include the Evangelienbuch (Gospel harmony) of Otfried von Weissenburg, the Latin-German dictionary Abrogans, the magical Merseburg Incantations and the Old High German translation of the theologian Tatian
Middle High German
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.
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.
The most impressive example of Early Middle High German lyric poetry is the Annolied or Song of Anno. Towards the beginning of the twelfth century A.D., the poetess Ava became the first woman to write poetry in German.
During the Middle High German period, Minnesänge, songs about courtly love, were very popular. The most notable of all the Minnesänger was Walther von der Vogelweide, whose most famous Minnesang is the poem "Unter der Linden", but there were also many others. Some of the melodies for these Minnesänge have survived to the present day, but most have been lost. The only one of Walther's songs for which the melody has survived is the Palästinalied, which is not a Minnesang. Other notable works of Middle High German lyric poetry include the incomplete Christherre-Chronik, a thirteenth-century world chronicle from Thüringen, the lyric poem Der Busant, and the works of Heinrich Frauenlob. Parodies of courtly poetry also exist, among them Der Weinschwelg.
Middle High German mysticism, often called "Rhineland mysticism," is a key prose genre. Three fourteenth-century Dominican authors are particularly important: Meister Eckhart, Henry Suso (also known as Heinrich Seuse), and Johannes Tauler. Female religious writers also made significant contributions, particularly Mechthild von Magdeburg (The Flowing Light of the Godhead) and Margareta Ebner.
Transition to Renaissance literature (1350 to 1500)
The Middle High German period ended around 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).
We see the rise of urban literature starting in the later 13th century, which becomes the dominant force from the mid-14th century onwards. This urbanization and the introduction of printing in the 15th century (beginning in Mainz, but quickly spreading across Germany) are the main developments marking the 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.
- Meinolf Schumacher: "Die Konstituierung des „Heiligen Landes“ durch die Literatur. Walthers „Palästinalied“ und die Funktion der europäischen Kreuzzugsdichtung." In Orientdiskurse in der deutschen Literatur, edited by Klaus Michael Bogdal, Bielefeld: Aisthesis Verlag, 2007, pp. 11–30 ISBN 978-3-89528-555-4
- McGinn, Bernard (2008), The Harvest of Mysticism in Medieval Germany (1300-1500)
- 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.
- A very extensive online anthology with translations into Modern German: Wimmer, Albert, Anthology of Medieval German Literature
- A thorough English introduction: Gibbs, Marion; Johnson, Sidney, eds. (2002), Medieval German Literature: A Companion, Routledge