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There are no written monuments before the eighth century. The earliest written record in any Germanic language, the Gothic translation of the Bible by Bishop Ulfilas, in the fourth century, does not belong to German literature. It is known from Tacitus that the ancient Germans had an unwritten poetry, which among them supplied the place of history. It consisted of hymns in honour of gods, or songs commemorative of the deeds of heroes. Such hymns were sung in chorus on solemn occasions, and were accompanied by dancing ; their verse form was alliteration. There were also songs, not choric, but sung by minstrels before kings or nobles, songs of praise, besides charms and riddles. During the great period of the migrations poetic activity received a fresh impulse. New heroes, like Attila (Etzel), Theodoric (Dietrich), and Ermanric (Ermanrich), came upon the scene; their exploits were confused by tradition with those of older heroes, like Siegfried. Mythic and historic elements were strangely mingled, and so arose the great saga cycles, which later on formed the basis of the national epics. Of all these the Nibelungen saga became the most famous, and spread to all Germanic tribes. Here the most primitive legend of Siegfried's death was combined with the historical destruction of the Burgundians by the Huns in 435, and affords a typical instance of saga-formation.

Of all this pagan poetry hardly anything has survived. The collection that Charlemagne caused to be made of the old heroic lays has perished. All that is known are the "Merseburger Zaubersprüche," two songs of enchantment preserved in a manuscript of the tenth century, and the famous "Hildebrandslied," an epic fragment narrating an episode of the Dietrich saga, the tragic combat between father and son. It was written down after 800 by two monks of Fulda, on the covers of a theological manuscript. The evidence afforded by these fragments, as well as such literature as the "Beowulf" and the "Edda," seems to indicate that the oldest German poetry was of considerable extent and of no mean order of merit.


Between the years 500 and 700 occurred the High German soundshifting, which divided the dialects of the South, High German, from those of the North, Low German. The history of German literature is henceforth mainly concerned with High German monuments. In fact, until the close of the Middle Ages Southern Germany occupies the leading place in literary production.

The Goths, the first Germanic tribe to be converted, embraced Christianity in the form of Arianism. But they soon gave way to the Franks, who became the dominant people, and the conversion of their king, Clovis, to Christianity, in 496, was of decisive importance. The conversion of Germany, vigorously carried on since the eighth century by Irish and Anglo-Saxon missionaries, notably by St. Boniface (d. 755), was completed when Charlemagne (d. 814) forced the heathen Saxons to submit to his rule and to be baptized, and united all the German tribes under his sway. Under him and his successors Christianity was firmly established. The clergy became the representatives of learning; the newly established monasteries and their schools, above all those of Fulda and St. Gall, were the centres of culture. The language of the Church was Latin, but preaching and instruction had to be carried on in the vernacular. The prose literature that arose to serve this purpose is only of linguistic interest. The poetry that developed during this period was wholly Christian in character. Examples are the "Wessobrunner Gebet" and the "Muspilli," the latter an alliterative poem on the destruction of the world; both date from the ninth century. The Church, naturally, opposed the old heathen songs and strove to supplant them by Christian poems. Thus arose the Old Saxon epic, the "Heliand," which was composed between 822 and 840 by an unknown poet, at the suggestion of King Louis the Pious. It is written in Low German and is the last great poem in alliterative verse. The story of the Redeemer is here told from a thoroughly German point of view, Christ being conceived as a mild but powerful chief, and His disciples as vassals or thanes. The same subject is treated in the "Evangelienbuch" of Otfried, a monk of Weissenburg, the first German poet known by name. It was completed about 868 and dedicated to Louis the German. While not possessing the literary merit of the "Heliand," it is of the greatest importance because it definitely introduces into German poetry the principle of rhyme, already familiar from the Latin church hymns. Rhyme was also used by the unknown author of the "Ludwigslied" to celebrate the victory of Louis III over the Northmen at Saucourt (881). This is the only song of the period not purely religious in character, though its author was probably a cleric.

During the ninth and tenth centuries German poetry fell into neglect; at the courts of the Saxon (919-1024) and Franconian emperors (1024-1125) and in the monasteries the Latin language was almost exclusively cultivated, and thus a body of Latin poetry arose, of which the tenth-century "Waltharius" (Waltharilied) of Ekkehard, a monk of St. Gall (d. 973), the "Ruodlieb" (1030), and the "Ecbasis Captivi" (c. 940) are the most noteworthy examples. The "Waltharilied" relates an old Burgundian saga and is thoroughly German in spirit, while the "Ecbasis" is the oldest medieval beast epic that we possess. The Latin dramas of the nun Roswitha (Hrotsvitha) hardly belong to German literature.

The great master of German prose in this period was Notker III, surnamed Labeo (about 952-1022), the head of the convent-school of St. Gall. His translations from Boethius, Aristotle, Marcianus Capella, and especially of the Psalter, are the best examples of German prose until the fourteenth century.


In the eleventh century, under the influence of the reform movement that emanated from the Burgundian monastery of Cluny, a spirit of stern asceticism begins to dominate in literature. The Church in its struggle with the emperors turned again to the people, to carry through the reforms of Gregory VII , and although the poets of the beginning of this period were almost exclusively clerics, they at least wrote in German. The literature which they produced consists mainly of rhymed versions of Biblical stories and other sacred themes, and is represented by Ezzo's "Lay of the Miracles of Christ," Williram's paraphrase of the Canticle of Canticles (both c. 1060), and the poems of Frau Ava . Some of the best poetry of this time was inspired by devotion to the Blessed Virgin, as for instance the "Driu Liet von der Maget" by a Bavarian priest named Wernher (c. 1170). In these songs the characteristic German trend towards mysticism is unmistakable. A most noteworthy product of the age is the half legendary "Annolied," a poem in praise of Archbishop Anno II of Cologne (d. 1075). The "Kaiserchronik" (c. 1150), a bulky poem narrating the story of the world, presents a strange medley of legendary and historic lore. The bitter hostility of the ascetic spirit to the worldly life finds expression in the scathing satire of Heinrich von Melk (c. 1160). But asceticism was losing ground; under the influence of the Crusades the prestige of the knightly caste was steadily rising. A compromise with the secular spirit became imperative, and the clerical poets, to keep their audiences and meet the competition of the gleemen, now had recourse to worldly subjects. For their models they turned to France.

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A priest named Lamprecht composed the "Alexanderlied" (c. 1130), while a priest of Ratisbon, named Konrad, wrote the "Rolandslied" (c. 1135). In both cases the authors drew from French originals. The minstrels began once more to come to the front, and a number of popular epics date from this period. Among these "König Rother" (c. 1160) is conspicuous. Its subject is an old Germanic saga, and the role which the Orient, Constantinople in this case, plays therein shows the influence of the Crusades. Still more noticeable is this fondness for the Orient in "Herzog Ernst" (c. 1190), where the historical hero, Duke Ernest II of Swabia (d. 1030), is represented as a pilgrim to the Holy Land and the subject of marvellous adventures in the Far East. From this period dates also the first German beast epic, "Reinhart Fuchs," by Heinrich der Glichesaere (c. 1170).

The rule of the Hohenstaufens (1138-1254) marks the first great classic era of German literature. Many causes contributed to bring about a great literary revival. The Crusades instilled new fervour into religious life. Many thousands of German knights followed King Conrad III in the crusade of 1145-47. They were brought into contact on the one hand with the Orient and its wealth of stories and marvels, and on the other with their more cultured French neighbours, whose polished customs and manners they adopted with avidity. Chivalry, an institution essentially Romance in origin and spirit, was thus raised to predominance in the social life of the age. The cultivation of poetry passed chiefly into its hands; the clergy ceased to be the sole purveyors of learning and culture.

The poets of this period are, as a rule, of knightly rank. Many of the poorer knights depended on the generosity of princely patrons, such as the landgraves of Thuringia or the dukes of Austria. The only kinds of poetry cultivated in this epoch were the epic and the lyric, and the former was either courtly or popular. Form received the most careful attention; versification was regulated by the strictest rules; the classic Middle High German, is extremely elegant. This classic poetry was essentially a poetry of caste, and conformed absolutely to the ideals of courtly society. Brilliant as it was, it was mainly a poetry of translation and adaptation.

The courtly epic deals almost exclusively with foreign subjects; its models were derived mostly from France. The subject most in favour was the matière de Bretagne , the legends clustering around King Arthur and the Round Table, with which that of the Holy Grail had been combined. This subject was made especially popular by the versions of the French trouvere, Chrestien de Troyes, who exerted great influence on the German courtly epic. Chivalry and the cult of woman are the leading motifs of this poetry. The court epic was introduced into Germany by Heinrich von Veldeke, a knight of the Lower Rhineland, whose "Eneit" (c. 1175-86), based on a French model, treats the story of Æneas in thoroughly medieval and chivalric spirit. The court epic was transplanted to Upper Germany by the Swabian, Hartmann von Aue (d. about 1215). In his "Erec" he introduced the Arthurian romance into German literature; his "Iwein" is from the same cycle; his "Gregorius" is an ascetic version of the Oedipus story. His best-known work is "Der arme Heinrich," which, as a purely German story of womanly devotion, occupies a unique position among the creations of the courtly poets -- greatest of these poets is Wolfram von Eachenbach (d. about 1220), whose chief work is his "Parzival," the story of the simpleton who overcomes doubt and temptation and ultimately becomes King of the Holy Grail . As in Goethe's "Faust," we have here the story of a human soul. To the cycle of Grail-romances belong also the so-called "Titurel" fragments, while Wolfram's last work "Willehalm," is a historical legend which, however, remained incomplete. Opposed to Wolfram in spirit is his great rival, Gottfried von Strasburg, whose "Tristan" (c. 1210) is a glorification of sensual love and of somewhat dubious morality. With Gottfried the court epic reached its highest development; with him excessive artificiality begins to appear, and soon this species of poetry declines rapidly. The succeeding poets, in trying to imitate the great masters just mentioned, fall into tedious diffuseness, and their epics too often become a meaningless string of adventures. Rudolf of Ems (d. 1254) and Konrad von Würzburg (d. 1287) are the most gifted among these epigones. The former is the author of narrative poems like "Der gute Gerhard" and "Barlaam und Josaphat," an old Buddhistic legend in Christian form. The latter wrote a bulky epic on the Trojan War, for which he used the French romance of Benoit de Sainte-More as a model. Far more meritorious are his shorter romances, like "Herzemaere" and "Engelhard." His "Goldene Schmiede" is a poem in honour of the Blessed Virgin. Thoroughly independent of courtly influence is the powerful and realistic poem "Meier Helmbrecht," a tragic village story written by a Bavarian priest named Wernher der Gärtner (c. 1250).

By the side of the courtly romances developed the popular epic. On the basis of old songs still current among the people, arose about 1200 in Austria the great German epic, the "Nibelungenlied," telling of Siegfried's death at the hands of Hagen and Kriemhild's fearful vengeance. The author is unknown, though he was probably of knightly rank. The poem is in strophic form, and, though the subject is primitively Germanic, the influence of chivalry and Christianity is throughout apparent. In Austria arose also, but little later, the "Gudrunlied," a story of the North Sea, telling of Gudrun's loyal devotion to her betrothed lover, King Herwig of Seeland. Of far less interest are the other popular epics, which also date from the beginning of the thirteenth century; they are mostly related to the saga-cycle concerning Dietrich von Bern. The most notable are the "Rosengarten," "Alpharts Tod," "Laurin," "Eckenlied," and "Rabenschlacht." Three other epics, "Ortnit," "Hugdietrich," and "Wolfdietrich," take their subjects from the Langobardic saga-cycle; in them the influence of the Crusades is very noticeable.

Lyric poetry also flourished brilliantly in this period. Lyric poetry of a popular kind seems to have existed in Austrian territory long before the Romance influence came in from the North-west; but it was under this Romance influence that the lyric attained its characteristic form. Minne , i.e., the conventional cult of woman, is the leading motif , but other times, religious or political, are not wanting, and the Spruch , a poem of gnomic or sententious character, was also in great favour. Most of the minnesingers were of knightly rank. Tradition mentions Heinrich von Veldeke as the pioneer of minnesong. He was followed by Friedrich von Hansen, Heinrich von Morungen, and Reinmar von Hagenau. A disciple of the last-named, the Austrian, Walther von der Vogelweide (c. 1165-1230), is the greatest and most versatile lyric poet of medieval Germany. He is equally great in the Minnelied and in the Spruch . He was a stanch partisan of the emperors in their fight against the papacy, and many of his poems are bitter invectives against pope and clergy. But he never attacked the doctrines of the Church ; his religious fervour is attested by such poems as that in honour of the Trinity. With his successors the Minnesang enters on its decline. Ulrich von Lichtenstein's life, as revealed in his autobiography, "Frauendienst" (1255), shows to what absurdities the worship of woman could go. Neidhart von Reuenthal (d. about 1245) holds up to ridicule the rude life of the peasants and so introduces an element of coarseness into the aristocratic art. Lastly, Reinmar von Zweter (d. about 1260) must be mentioned as a distinguished gnomic poet.

The didactic spirit, which now becomes prominent, is exhibited in longer poems, like "Der wälsche Gast" (1215) of an Italian priest Thomasin of Zirclaere, and especially in Freidank's "Bescheidenheit" (c. 1215-30), i.e., wisdom born of experience, a collection of rhymed sayings. Though these works are strictly pious in tone, outspoken criticism of papal and ecclesiastical matters is frequently indulged in.

Prose was very backward in this period. Latin was the language for history and law. About 1230 appeared the "Sachsenspiegel," a code of Saxon law written in Low German by Eike von Repgowe, and this example produced in Upper Germany the "Schwabenspiegel" (before 1280). The first chronicle in German prose, the "Sachsenchronik," was written by a Saxon cleric (before 1250).

A great impetus was given to German prose by the preaching of the mendicant friars, who were rising into prominence early in the thirteenth century. They reached the hearts of the people, on whom the aristocratic literature of chivalry had no influence. The sermons of David of Augsburg (d. 1272) are not preserved. His disciple, Berthold of Ratisbon (d. 1272), was immensely popular as a preacher. His dramatic, passionate eloquence, born of the sincerity of conviction, turned thousands of his hearers to repentance and a better life.


The decline of the knightly caste brought with it a decline of the literature of which this caste had been the chief support. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were not favourable to the development of an artistic literature. The Empire was losing its power and drifting into anarchy, the emperors were bent chiefly on increasing their dynastic power, while the princes strove to make themselves independent of imperial authority. They were no longer patrons of poetry. The clergy also in great part, followed worldly pursuits and undermined the reverence in which they had been held. The rise of the cities and their commerce was fatal to the prestige of knighthood and its ideals; life became more practical, more utilitarian, less æsthetic, and as a consequence the didactic tone becomes more and more prominent in literature. The universities which sprung up in Germany during this period -- the first being founded at Prague (1348) -- widened the gap between the learned classes and the people and prepared the way for Humanism, which towards the end of the fifteenth century begins to be a force in German letters. The influence of Humanism was not wholly beneficial. It was a foreign institution and fostered Latin as the language of scholarship at the expense of the native idiom. Gradually the Humanists turned against the dominant Scholastic philosophy , and soon a spirit of revolt manifested itself against the Church and its authority. The schisms within the Church and the worldliness of many of its dignitaries stimulated this spirit, which took a violent form, notably in the Hussite movement. The way was thus prepared for the great Lutheran revolt .

The romance of chivalry degenerated into allegory and tedious description, of which a typical instance is the "Theuerdank" (1517), an allegorical description of Emperor Maximilian's courtship of Mary of Burgundy, written at the suggestion of the emperor himself. The heroic epic fared no better, its tone became coarse and vulgar. Rhymed chronicles still supplied the place of histories, the most noteworthy being the chronicle of the Teutonic Order translated from the Latin of Peter von Dusburg by Nikolaus von Jeroschin (c. 1340). Of higher poetic value are the legends, fables, and anecdotes that enjoyed such popularity in this period. The best-known collection of fables was "Der Edelstein," containing a hundred fables translated from the Latin by Ulrich Boner, a Dominican monk of Berne (c. 1340). Of the many didactic poems of this period, by far the most famous was the "Narrenschiff" (Ship of Fools) of the learned humanist Sebastian Brant (d. 1521), which appeared in 1494 and achieved a European reputation. This is a satire of all the vices and follies of the age, of which no less than one hundred and ten kinds are enumerated. A satiric tendency pervades also the "Reinke de Vos," a Low German version from a Dutch original of the famous story of Reynard the Fox (1498). The allusions in this poem to the vices of men high in Church and State are unmistakable.

As for lyric poetry the Minnesang dies out, Hugo, Count of Montfort (c. 1423), and Oswald von Wolkenstein (d. 1445) being its last representatives. The cultivation of the lyric is now taken up by the burghers; the Meistersang displaces the Minnesang . Poetry in the hands of this class became a mere matter of technic, a trade that was taught in schools established for that purpose. The guild system was applied to art, and the candidate passed through different grades, from apprentice to master. Tradition names Mainz as the seat of the oldest school, and Heinrich von Meissen (d. 1318) as its founder. Of the many cities where schools flourished, none gained such a reputation as Nuremberg, the home of Hans Sachs.

Very little of the poetry of these meistersingers has literary merit. The best lyric poetry of this period and the following is found in the Volkslied , a song generally of unknown authorship, expressive of the joys and sorrows of people in all stations and ranks of life. Contemporary events often furnished the inspiration, as in Halbsuter's song of the battle of Sempach (1386). Other songs deal with legendary subjects, as for instance the song of Tannhaeuser, the minstrel knight who wandered into the Mountain of Venus and then journeyed to Rome to gain absolution. The religious lyric of this period is largely devoted to the praise of the Blessed Virgin; in this connexion Heinrich von Laufenberg, a priest of Freiburg im Breisgau, later a monk at Strasburg (d. 1460), is specially noteworthy.

Another literary genre that now rose into prominence was the drama, the origin of which here as elsewhere is to be sought in the religious plays with which the great Christian festivals , especially Easter, were celebrated. These plays had a distinct purpose; they were to instruct as well as to edify. But gradually they assumed a more secular character, they were no longer performed in the church, but in the marketplace or some public square. Laymen also began to participate, and in the fourteenth century German takes the place of Latin. Besides the Passion, Biblical stories and legends were dramatized. One of the oldest and most striking of such plays is the Tegernsee play "Antichrist" (twelfth century). A famous drama of which the text is preserved is that of the wise and foolish virgins, performed at Eisenach in 1322.

The origin of the secular drama is not wholly clear. In the fifteenth century this genre is chiefly represented by the Shrovetide play, which undoubtedly traces its origin to the mummeries and the coarse funmaking indulged in on special occasions, notably on Shrove-Tuesday. No doubt the religious drama exerted its influence on the development of the secular drama. As a rule the latter was extremely crude in form and also incredibly coarse in language and content. The chief place for these plays was Nuremberg, and Hans Folzs and Hans Rosenblüt are the best-known authors in this line. In their plays appears the tendency that was to make of this literary genre an effective vehicle for satire.

In this period of utilitarianism prose comes to occupy a leading position. The romances of chivalry were turned into prose, foreign romances were translated, and thus arose the Volksbücher , of which the most noteworthy is that of Till Eulenspiegel, a notorious wag, around whom gathered all kinds of anecdotes. The original Low German book of 1483 is lost, the oldest High German version dating from 1515. In connexion with translated literature the names of the earliest German humanists, Heinrich Steinhöwel, Niklas van Wyl, and Albrecht von Eyb should be mentioned.

History was now written in German prose. Of prose chronicles we possess a number, as that of Strasburg (to 1362), of Limburg (to 1398), and the Thuringian chronicle of Johannes Rothe, a monk of Eisenach (1421).

But the best German prose of this period is to be found in the writings of the mystics. The founder of this school was Master Eckhart (d. 1327), a Dominican monk, and the Dominican Order became its chief exponent. Eckhart was accused of pantheism, but repudiated any such interpretation of his utterances. His disciple, Heinrich Seuse (Suso), also a Dominican (d. 1366), was less philosophical and more poetical. The third great mystic, Johannes Tauler (d. 1361), a Dominican of Strasburg, gave the teachings of his predecessors a more practical turn. The service which the mystics rendered to the German language in making it the medium for their speculations can hardly be overestimated.

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The greatest preacher of the period was Geiler von Kaysersberg of Strasburg (d. 1510), whose series of sermons based on Brant's "Ship of Fools" was especially famous.


The effects of Humanism in Germany began to be felt in the attention given by such men as Erasmus and Reuchlin to the study of the Bible in the original languages. For German literature the Reformation was a calamity. The fierce theological strife absorbed the best intellectual energy of the nation. Literature as an art suffered by being pressed into the service of religious controversy; it became polemic or didactic, and its prevailing form was prose.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) is the most important figure of this period and his most important work is his translation of the Bible (printed complete at Wittenberg, 1534; final edition, 1543-45). The German translations before his time had been made from the Vulgate and were deficient in literary quality. Luther's version is from the original, and although not free from errors it is of wonderful clearness and thoroughly idiomatic. Its effect on the German language was enormous; the dialect in which it is written, a Middle German dialect used in the chancery of Upper Saxony, became gradually the norm for both Protestant and Catholic writers, and is thus the basis of the modern literary German. Luther's pamphlets have only historical interest; his catechism and sermons belong to theological literature. His "Tischreden" (Table-Talk) shows the personality of the man. Force and strength of will mark his character and writings. But his firmness often savours of obstinacy, and in dogmatism he yields no tittle to his opponents, while the bluntness, or still better the vulgarity, of his language, gave offence even in an age accustomed to abuse. As a poet he appears in his religious songs, among which "Ein feste Burg" is famous as the battle-hymn of the Reformers. Other writers of Protestant church hymns were Paulus Speratus (d. 1551), Nikolaus Decius (d. 1541), Nikolaus Herman (d. 1561), and Philipp Nicolai (d. 1608).

As a rule, the German Humanists were indifferent to the Reformation, but Ulrich von Hutten (d. 1523) was a zealous partisan of the movement; his writings are mostly in Latin. One of the bitterest enemies of Luther was Thomas Murner, a Franciscan monk (1475-1537), who in his earlier satires castigated the follies of the age. At first he showed sympathy for the reform movement, but when Catholic doctrine was assailed, he turned, and in a coarse but witty satire "Von dem grossen Lutherischen Narren" (1522), he unsparingly attacked the Reformation and its author.

The best poet of the sixteenth century was the Nuremberg shoemaker Hans Sachs (1494-1576) who, although a follower of Luther, was not primarily a controversialist. He displayed amazing productivity in many fields, mastersong, Spruch , anecdote, fable, and drama. His Shrovetide plays display a genial humour that even today is effective. The spirit of the worthy master's verse is thoroughly didactic, and artistic form is altogether lacking.

Towards the middle of the sixteenth century, the Counter-Reformation set in, and regained much of the ground lost to Protestantism, which had now spent itself as a vital force and was divided by the dissensions between Lutherans and Calvinists. The most prominent polemical writer on the Protestant side was Johann Fischart (d. 1590), much of whose satire is directed against the Jesuits, notably his "Vierhörniges Jesuiterhuetlein" (1580). His most ambitious work is the "Geschichtklitterung," a free version of Rabelais's "Gargantua" (1575). Fischart is not an original writer, and his extravagance of language and love for punning make his work thoroughly unpalatable to a modern reader.

Narrative prose is very prominent in the literature of this period. Collections of anecdotes, such as Jörg Wickram's "Rollwagenbuechlein" (1555) and especially "Schimpf und Ernst" (1522) of Johannes Pauli , a Franciscan monk, were very popular. Translations of French and Spanish romances like the "Amadis of Gaul" were also much in favour. Then there were the "Volksbücher," with their popular stories, among which those connected with Faust and the Wandering Jew have become especially famous. Didactic prose was represented by the historical work of Aegidius Tschudi (d. 1572), Sebastian Frank (d. 1542), and Johannes Thurmayr (known as Aventinus; d. 1534); the collections of proverbs and sayings made by Frank and Johann Agricola (d. 1566) are also to be mentioned in this connexion. In theology Bishop Berthold of Chiemsee represents the Catholic side, with his "Tewtsche Theologey" (1528); the Franciscan, Johann Nas (d. 1590), a Catholic convert, in his "Sechs Centurien Euangelischer Wahrheiten" also champions the old Church. The chief Protestant writer was Johann Arndt (d. 1621), author of the "Vier Bücher vom waren Christenthum," one of the most widely read books of the time. Contemporary with Arndt was the famous shoemaker, Jakob Boehme (d. 1624); a mystical philosopher in whose writings profound thoughts and confused notions are strangely blended.

In the dramatic field there was also much activity. Luther, though opposed to the passion play, had favoured the drama on educational grounds. Nikolaus Manuel, a Swiss (d. 1530), used the dramatic form for satirizing the pope and the Catholic Church. The Biblical drama was in favour, and many of the learned writers of school comedies chose their subjects from the Bible , as for instance, Paul Rebhun (d, 1546) and Sixt Birck (d. 1554). The most prolific dramatist of the period was Hans Sachs, who wrote no less than 208 plays, which in spite of their lack of all higher literary quality, make a promising beginning. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, English strolling players appeared in Germany, and through their superior histrionic art gained the favour of the public. Jakob Ayrer (d. 1605), the leading dramatist of that age, shows their influence; still more so Heinrich Julius, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbuettel (d. 1613), the first to write German dramas in prose instead of verse.


The religious strife inaugurated by the Reformation culminated in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) which practically destroyed Germany as a nation. National feeling almost died out. The Catholic League looked for support to Spain and Austria, while the Protestant princes betrayed the national interests to Sweden and France. A servile spirit of imitation was abroad. The German language was neglected and devised in aristocratic circles and was corrupted by the influx of foreign words. Literature was devoid of originality and substance ; the formal side absorbed the chief attention of the writers.

The literary leader of this period was Martin Opitz (1597-1639), whose treatise "Von der deutschen Poeterey" (1624) enjoyed undisputed authority as an ars poetica for more than a century. Intelligibility and regularity rather than imagination and feeling were to be looked for in poetry. The theory of Opitz was drawn from the practice of French and Dutch Renaissance poets and left no room for originality. The book had a salutary effect, however, in that it put an end to the mechanical counting of syllables and made rhythm dependent on stress. Its protest against the senseless use of foreign words was also laudable. Opitz is the author of a number of poems, moralizing, didactic, religious, or descriptive in character, but of little real merit. His best-known work is "Trostgedicht in Widerwaertigkeit des Kriegs" (1633). The poets who followed the leadership of Opitz are known as the First Silesian School, though not all were Silesians by birth, and included some of real talent like Friedrich von Logau (d. 1655), the witty epigrammatist, and Paul Fleming (d. 1640), the lyrist. The poets of the so-called Königsberg Circle were also followers of Opitz. Among them, Simon Dach (d. 1659) is pre-eminent. In this connexion may be mentioned also, Andreas Gryphius (1616-64), the chief dramatist of the period. His tragedies, based mostly on Dutch models, are marred by their stilted rhetoric and predilection for the horrible; his comedies are far better, though they did not meet with the same favour. It was chiefly diction and versification that benefited by the poets of this school. Literature in their hands was a mere product of scholarship, entirely out of touch with the people. The linguistic societies that sprang up at this time, the most famous of which was Die fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (1617), did not change this condition. The language, not the literature, improved through their efforts.

As a reaction against the cold formalism and utilitarianism of the Opitzians, the writers of the Second Silesian School, Christian Hofmann von Hofmannswaldau (1617-79) and Daniel Kasper von Lohenstein (1635-81) fell into the opposite extremes of bombast and exaggeration. Their style was modelled on that of the Italian Marini. The lyric poems of the former and the dramas and novels of the latter are written in an unnatural and inflated style, overloaded with metaphors. In their style, as well as in their immorality, these writings reflect the taste of contemporary courtly society. In opposition to this fashionable tendency, Christian Weise (d. 1708) in his school dramas and satiric novels strove for simplicity, which in his work and that of his followers degenerated frequently into triviality and inanity. The best poetry that the seventeenth century produced was the religious lyrics, especially the hymns. The tone of these poems is no longer one of combat, but rather of pious resignation. The greatest of Protestant writers in this line was Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). Others deserving of mention are Joachim Neander, Georg Neumark, Johann Franck, and Philipp Jakob Spener. Among Catholic writers the most prominent were the Jesuit, Friedrich Spe (1591-1635), the intrepid defender of the victims of the witchcraft tribunals, author of the lyric collection "Trutznachtigall," and Johann Scheffler, better known as Angelus Silesius (d. 1677), a convert and later a priest, in whose poetic collections "Heilige Seelenlust" and "Der cherubinische Wandersmann" mysticism again finds a noble expression. Another Jesuit poet, Jacob Balde (1604-68), did his best work in Latin, though his German poems are not without merit.

The novel began to flourish in the seventeenth century. The heroic and gallant romance, of which Lohenstein was the chief exponent, was high in favour with aristocratic society, but of small literary value. The romances of roguery, coming in under Spanish influence, were far better. The prose classic of the century is the "Simplicissimus" of Christoph von Grimmelshausen (d. 1676), a convert to Catholicism. In the form of an autobiography it unfolds a vivid and realistic picture of the period of the Thirty Years War. Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" brought forth a flood of imitations, of which Schnabel's "Die Insel Felsenburg" was the best. Satire is represented by Christian Reuter's "Schellmuffskys Reisebeschreibung" (1696) and the writings of Johann Balthasar Schupp, a Lutheran pastor of Hamburg (d. 1661), as well as those of Ulrich Megerle, known as Abraham a Sancta Clara (1644-1709), who as court preacher at Vienna was noted for his wit and drollery. German prose began now to be used for philosophy and science. The pioneers in this line were Christian Thomas and Christian Wolff, who inaugurated the Rationalistic movement in Germany.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century German literature was still in a low state. The drama especially was in a bad plight, coarse farces with the clown in the leading role being most in favour. A reform was attempted by the Leipzig professor, Johann Christoph Gottsched (1700-66). His intentions were praiseworthy, but unfortunately he was anything but a poet. Poetry for him was a matter of the intellect ; its aims were to be practical. For the mysterious and the wonderful he had no use. Good taste was to be cultivated by imitating the French classic drama, which was supposed to be the best exponent of the practice of the ancients. Gottsched's literary dictatorship was undisputed until he became involved in a controversy with the Swiss critics, Bodmer and Breitinger, who insisted on the rights of imagination and feeling and held up the English poets as better models than the French. Gottsched was defeated and in consequence lost all authority.

Slowly poetry began to improve. This improvement is distinctly noticeable in the descriptive poem "Die Alpen" of Albrecht von Haller (d. 1777) and the graceful verse of Friedrich von Hagedorn (d. 1754). The most popular author of the day was Christian Fuerchtegott Gellert (1715-69), whose fables were familiar to every German household. He also wrote stories, moralizing comedies, and hymns. But neither these writers nor those of the Halle circle, Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim, Ewald Christian von Kleist, and Johann Peter Uz, were in any sense great writers.


Many causes contributed to the rise of a great national literature in the eighteenth century. The victories of the Prussian King Frederick the Great quickened national sentiment in all German lands. This quickening of patriotism is discernible in Klopstock's poems; it encouraged Lessing to begin his campaign against the rule of French classicism. Religious movements also exerted a powerful influence. Pietism came as a reaction against the narrow Lutheran orthodoxy then prevailing, and though it ultimately added but one more petty sect to those already existing, the deepening of religious sentiment that followed it was beneficial to poetry. With the appearance in 1748 of the three opening cantos of "Der Messias" a new era opened for German literature. The author, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803), was hailed at once as a poet born not made. Poetry again had a noble content: love, patriotism, and religion. The theme of the "Messias" is the Redemption. In spite of its high seriousness and lofty purpose, the poem is a failure as an epos. Klopstock's gift was lyric; he is at his best in his odes. Impatient of the pedantic rules of versification followed by poets since the days of Opitz, he discarded rhyme altogether and chose for his odes antique metres and free rhythms. This, as well as their involved diction, has stood in the way of their popularity. Another defect that mars all of Klopstock's work is its excessive sentimentalism, a defect that is disagreeably noticeable in most of the literature of that time. The poet's patriotism found vent in odes as well as in patriotic prose dramas, the so-called Bardiete , in which an attempt was made to revive Germanic antiquity and to excite enthusiasm for Arminius, the liberator of ancient Germany from Roman subjugation. As drama these productions are utter failures, though their lyric passages are often beautiful; their chief effect was to stimulate the "bardic" movement represented by von Gerstenberg, Kretschmann, and the Viennese Jesuit Denis. Klopstock's Biblical dramas like "Der Tod Adams" (1757) are now wholly forgotten.

Of far greater influence on literature than pietism was rationalism, whose watchword was "Enlightenment." Reason was to be the sole guide in all things; tradition and faith were to conform to it. For dogma of any kind there was no room in such a system, which frequently tended towards undisguised atheism, as with the English Deists and especially the French Encyclopedists. Frederick the Great was an adherent of their views and made them dominant in Church and State as far as Prussia was concerned. In Germany, however, rationalism did not go to the length of atheism ; as a rule a compromise between reason and revealed religion was attempted. The broad humanitarianism of the great writers of this period, Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Schiller, shows the influence of the Enlightenment. Certain it is that all these writers were out of sympathy with any of the orthodox forms of Christianity. Often, however, the Enlightenment degenerated into a shallow, prosy rationalism, destitute of all finer sentiment, as in the case of the notorious Nicolai (d. 1811). As a reaction against the one-sided sway of rationalism, came a passionate revolt against the existing order. This revolt was inaugurated by Rousseau and manifested itself in German literature in the Sturm-und-Drang-Periode (Storm and Stress Period). The final product of the whole rationalistic movement was the epoch-making "Critique of Pure Reason" of Immanuel Kant.

The representative of the Enlightenment in its best aspect is Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81), one of the greatest critics of the century. In the "Literaturbriefe," a series of essays on contemporary literature, his wonderful critical ability was first shown. Here Shakespeare is held up as a model and the supremacy of the French drama is challenged. In 1766 appeared the "Laokoon," in which the spheres of poetry and the plastic arts are clearly defined, and their fundamental differences pointed out. The attempt to establish a national theatre at Hamburg resulted in the "Hamburgische Dramaturgie" (1767-69), wherein Lessing investigates the nature of the drama, and refutes the claim of the French that their classic drama is the true exponent of the practice of the ancients. The rules of Aristotle are accepted as final, but it is shown that the French have misunderstood them, and their German imitators are therefore doubly in error. With all its one-sidedness, the polemic was fruitful for it put an end to pseudoclassicism and made a national German drama possible. Lessing led the way. His "Miss Sara Sampson" (1755) is the first bourgeois tragedy of the German stage. It was followed by "Minna von Barnhelm" (1767), the first German national drama, on a subject of contemporaneous interest with the Seven Years War for a background, and by "Emilia Galotti," the first classic German tragedy (1772) as an adaptation to modern conditions of the story of Appius and Virginia. Lessing's last drama "Nathan der Weise" (1779) was the outcome of the theological controversy in which he had been involved, through the publication of the Wolfenbuettel fragments. These had been written by Reimarus and contained a bold attack on Christianity and the Bible . A bitter feud between Lessing and Göze, the champion of Lutheran orthodoxy, was the result in the course of which Lessing wrote a number of polemics in which he asserted that Christianity could exist without, and did exist before, the Bible . When a decree of the Duke of Brunswick forbade further discussion, he had recourse to the stage, and wrote his "Nathan." In this he uses Boccaccio's famous parable of the three rings to enforce the thesis that there is no absolutely true religion. Not faith, but virtuous action is the essence of religion, and all religious systems are equally good. For a dogmatic religion there is, of course, no room in this view, which is a frank expression of Lessing's deistic rationalism. His last prose works, notably "Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts" (1780), are philosophical in character and treat of ideas related to those expresse

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