Medieval German Literature

From Academic Kids

German literature begins in the Carolingian period, first in Latin and then in Old High German. The most famous work in OHG is the Hildebrandslied, a short piece of Germanic alliterative heroic verse which is the sole survivor of what must have been a vast oral tradition. Other important works are the Evangelienbuch (Gospel harmony) of Ottfried von Weissenburg, the short but splendid Ludwigslied, and in the northern dialect of Old Saxon, a life of Christ in the style of a heroic epic known as the Heliand. 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. The most impressive example of EMHG literature is the Annolied.

Middle High German proper runs from the beginning of the 12th century, with the Kaiserchronik as one of its first monuments. It was about this time that Ava became the first woman to write poetry in German. In the second half of the 12th century, there was a sudden intensification of activity, leading to a 60-year "golden age" of mediaeval 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 "big name" here is Walther von der Vogelweide, but there are many others, and some of their melodies have survived. The same sixty years saw the composition of the most important courtly romances, the three key authors being Hartmann von Aue, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Gottfried von Strassburg. 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 works like the Nibelungenlied and Kudrun, in which the ancient Germanic oral tradition can still be discerned, but tamed and Christianized and adapted for the court. These high mediaeval heroic epics are written in rhymed strophes, not the alliterative verse of Germanic prehistory.

From the later 13th century, we see the rise of urban literature, which becomes the dominant force from the mid-14th century onwards. The first important urban author was the Viennese chronicler Jans der Enikel. This urbanization and the introduction of printing in the 15th century are the main developments marking the very vague boundary between late mediaeval and early modern German literature. Various dates have been given for the end of the German literary Middle Ages, the Reformation (1517) being the last possible cut-off point.

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 such as the 14th-century Dukus Horant (the "Jewish Kudrun") or the 15th-century Bovo Bukh belong equally to the fields of Medieval German Studies and Jewish/Yiddish studies.

The most comprehensive guide to this literature currently available in English is the first three volumes of the Camden House History of German Literature, with a chapter in volume four on the transition to the modern period (various editors, Camden 2004-5). A good single-volume guide to the classical period is Francis Gentry's A Companion to Middle High German Literature to the Fourteenth Century, Brill 2002.

Other works of the Old High German period are:

Other authors and works of the high Middle Ages include:

Important writers of the transition period from late mediaeval to early modern German literature are:


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