1902 Encyclopedia > Germany > [German Literature] The Later Middle Ages

(Part 34)


The Later Middle Ages

After the fall of the Hohenstaufen dynasty the age of chivalry in Germany virtually came to an end. The breaking up of the old duchies set free a large number of petty nobles from their allegiance to mediate lords ; and as there was no longer a strong central authority, either to hold them in check or to provide them with such outlets for their energy as they had found in the crusades and in the imperial expeditions into Italy, nearly the whole class sank from the high level to which it had temporarily risen. Many knights became mere robbers, and thought themselves honourably employed in taking part in the innumerable little wars which shattered the prosperity of the nation. Men of this kind were not very likely to inherit the free and poetic spirit of Walther von der Vogelweide. In the course of the 14th and 15th centuries attempts were still made by Wolkenstein, Muskatblüt, and other writers to imitate his style ; but in their hands the lyre of the minnesänger gave forth only feeble or discondant notes. For a long time the princes were more inclined to literature than the nobles ; they were to much occupied with mutual jealousies, and with incessant attempts to shake themselves free of the crown, to give head to anything so removed from practical interests as poetry.

It so happened that during this period the cities rose to a position of higher importance than they had ever before occupied. There was a while when it even seemed possible that by their leagues, and by alliance with those emperors who had insight enough o recognized their strength, they might become the preponderating element in the state. Driven from the castles of the princes and the towers of the nobles, literature took refuge in these young and growing centres of a vigorous life. Not one or two here and there, but multitudes of honest citizens, became possessed by the desire to distinguish themselves in the art which they had been so much surpassed by the nobles of a previous generation. Unfortunately, they had no literary training ; they were not familiar with any great models ; few of them had leisure for the cultivation of style ; and the character of their daily employments was not such as to kindle thoughts that demand poetic utterance. At that time every trade had its guild ; and they now formed guilds of poetry, the task of whose members was in intervals of leisure to produce songs according to a body of strict rules, as in hours of business they produced shoes or loaves. The rules were called the "Tabulatur," and the rank of each member was determined by his skill in applying them. The lowest stage was that of a man who had simply been received into the guild ; the highest, that of a master, who had invented a new melody. Between these were the scholar, the friend of the school, the singer, and the poet. Literature produced under such conditions could not have much vitality. It amused the versifiers, and developed a certain keeness in the detection of outward faults ; but the spirit of poetry was wanting, and there is hardly a "meistersänger" whose name is worthy of being remembered.

Much more important than those tedious manufacturers of verse were the unknown authors of the earliest attempts at dramatic composition. In the 10th century Hroswitha, the abbess of Gandersheim, wrote Latin imitations of Terence ; but they were without influence on the progress of culture. The real beginnings of the modern drams were the crude representations of scriptural subjects with which the clergy strove to replace certain pagan festivals. These representations gradually passed into the "Mysteries" or "Miracle Plays," in which there was a rough endeavour to dramatize the events celebrated at Easter and other sacred seasons. They were acted at first in churches, but afterwards in open courts and market places ; and for many hours, sometimes day after day, they were listened to by enormous audiences. The fragments of a Swiss "Mystery" of the 13th century has survived ; but the earliest that has come down to us in a complete form is a play of the first half of the 14th century, treating of the parable of the ten virgins. Like those of France and England, these mediaeval German dramas display little imagination ; and they are often astonishingly grotesque in their handling of the most awful themes. Along with them grew up what were known as "Shrove Tuesday Plays," dialogues setting forth some scene of noisy fun, such as a quarrel between a husband and wife, with a few wise saws interspersed. They were declaimed without much cereomony in the public room of an inn, or before the door of a prominent citizen, and gave ample occasion for impromptu wit. Nuremberg seems to have been particularly fond of "Shrove Tuesday Plays," for one of its poets, Hans Rosenblüt, who flourished about the middle of the 15th century, was the most prolific author of them. A little he was extensively imitated by Hans Folz, a Nuremberg barber and meistersänger.

By far the most interesting writters of he 14th century were the mystics, who continued the movement started by Eckhart. Johannes Tauler of Strasburg (1300-61) had not the originality and force of his predecessor, but the ultimate mysteries of the world had an intense fascination for him, and his tender and sensitive spirit opened itself to lights which find no way of entrance into more robust and logical intellects. He did not in the main pass beyond the speculations of Eckhart, but he added grace and finish to their expression, and made them a greater popular power then they could have become through the master’s writings. Heinrich Suso, of Constance (1300-65), who has been called "the minnesänger of the love of God," made the doctrines of Eckhart an occasion for the outpourings of a full and sometimes extravagant fancy. Eckhart’s teaching was also put into shape by an unknown author, whose work was afterwards published by Luther under the title Eyn deutsch Theologia. To all these writers the phenomenal world is in its nature evil, but it is also unreal ; the only reality, they recognize is a world outside the limits of space and time, in union with which man rises to his true life. They are chiefly of importance in the history of speculative thought, but even from the point of view of literature they were of high service in the development of a rich and vigorous prose.

A plain narrative prose style was cultivated in the chronicles which began at this time to be written in different parts of Germany. The Limburg Chronicle written between 1336 and 1398, the Alsace Chronicle about 1386, and the Thuringian Chronicle, by Rothe, a monk of Eisenach, about 1430, have all considerable historical value ; and the fact that they are in German, not like previous chronicles in Latin, proves the rising respect among the people for their native speech.

During the latter part of the 15th century there was in Germany, as in the other leading European nations, a great revival of intellectual life. And it was due to the same causes as prevailed elsewhere,—especially the rediscovery of Greek literature and the invention of printing. The movement was naturally most powerfully felt in the universities. The first of these institutions had been founded early in the 14th century by Charles IV. in Prague. Soon afterwards others were established in Vienna, Heidelberg, Cologne, Erfurt ; and in the 15th century universities were set up also in Rostock, Greifswald, Tübingen, Leipsic, and elswhere. For a long time law and divinity were almost the only subjects studied ; but when the Renaissance passed from Italy into Germany, university teaching became the instrument of a freer and larger culture. Scholastic philosophy fell into disrepute ; the most active minds occupied themselves only with the intellectual treasures of the ancient world. The men devoted to the new studies were called "Humanists," and they carried on continual warfare with the more ignorant and intolerant of the clergy. Unfortunately they knew nothing of the value of their own language ; they wrote, as the scholastic philosophers had done, solely in Latin, and they gave but slight and contemptuous attention to the movements of popular literature.

Yet the popular literature of their time was quite worthy of study, for the stir of new life had affected not only scholars but all classes of society, citizens and even peasants included. It is surprising how many books found their way to the public between 1450 and the outbreak of the Reformation ; every one seemed anxious that the newly discovered process by which writers could appeal to so wide an audience should be turned to the utmost possible advantage. Of this great mass of literature a comparatively small proportion was created in obedience to the free impulses of the intellect. The problems of the time were mainly social and practical ; men were less moved by ideal interests than by questions as to the tyranny of the princes, the greed and sensuality of the clergy, the worldliness of the papacy , the powerlessness of the crown to enforce peace and order. Multitudes of little tales in prose and verse appeared, in which the princes, the nobles, the clergy, and sometimes rich citizens, were held up to ridicule. The "Shrove Tuesday Plays," which now became extremely popular, also expressed the general discontent ; and there were even "Miracle Plays" whose objects was to reveal the wrongs of the people. In one of them, the leading character of which was Joanna, the mythical female pope, a clerical author did not hesitate to pour contempt on the Roman see itself.

By far the greatest of these satirical writings was the epic narrative, Reineke Vos. It has been already stated that the stories of "Reynard the Fox" and "Isengrim the Wolf" probably belong to prehistoric ages. They became current, through the Franks, in Lorraine and France ; and from the 11th to the 15th century they formed the subject of many works in Latin, French, and German. The epic to which allusion is now made appeared in 1498, and was probably by Hermann Barkhusen, a printer of Rostock. It is in Low German, and its materials were obtained from a prose version of the tale which had appeared some years before in Holland, and of which Caxton printed an English translation. Originally, the story had no satirical significance ; it was a simple expression of interest in what may be called the social life of wild animals. In the hands of he author of this Low German poem it becomes an instrument of satire on some enduring tendencies of human nature. He does not lash himself into fury at the vices he chastises ; he laughs at while he exposes them. His humour is broad and frank, and he did more than any one else to make Reynard the type of the resource and cunning which overmaster not only brute force but even truth and justice. There are several renderings of the poem into High German, the most important being the well-known work of Goethe in hexameters.

Another popular satirical work was the Narrenschiff ("Ship of Fools") of Sebastian Brandt, published in Basel in 1494. It is an allegorical poem of more than a hundred sections, in which the vices are satirized as fools. This work passed through many editions, and was rendered into more than one Low German dialect, and into Latin, French, and English ; it was even made the subject of a series of sermons by Geiler, of Kaisersberg, a well-known preacher of the day, who had himself some satirical talent. Brandt was personally of a mild and unassuming character, and the fact that he became a satirist in spite of himself is a striking proof of the confusion which had fallen upon both church and state. Now that the occasion of his book has passed away, it is difficult to realize that it once enjoyed almost unprecedented popularity. We cannot but feel that the writer was an honest man; but his allegories are with out force or charm, and his moral lessons have been the commonplaces of every civilized society. A satirist of a bolder type was Thomas Murner, who, although he lived far into the age of the Reformation, belongs in spirit altogether to the preceding period. He was a preacher, and both in sermons and in secular writings attacked without mercy the classes who were the butts of his fellow-satirists. After the beginning of the Reformation he included Luther among the objects of his comprehensive dislikes. His laughter was loud and harsh, and can hardly have been favourable to any small buddings of charity that many have revealed themselves among the antagonisms of his generation.

One of the favourite books of this time was Tyll Eulenspiegel. It was published in 1519, and the author (probably Murner) seems to have included in it many anecdotes already well known. According to the preface, Tyll was a Brunswick peasant of the 14th century, who went about the country perpetrating practical jokes. The force of his humour mainly consists in taking every word addressed to him in its most literal sense, and in giving it applications altogether different from those intended by the speaker. There are readers who still find amusement in his rough pleasantries.

During the better part of this stirring period Maximilian I. was emperor, and he interested himself a good deal in the current literature. As in politics, however, so in poetry, his sympathies were altogether with an earlier age; and he attempted to revive the taste for mediaeval romance. From a sketch said to have been prepared by him, Melchior Pfinzig celebrated in Theuerdank the emperor’s marriage with Princess Mary of Burgundy. The work was splendidly printed, and attracted much notice ; but romantic poetry, once so fascinating, produces in its pages the effect of an elderly coquette who, refusing to believe in the ravages of years, tricks himself out in the gay adornments of youth. An earlier book, the Weiss Kunig, an autobiography of Maximilian, written by his direction in prose by his secretary Treizsauerwein, has the excellence neither of a chronicle nor of a romance ; it is for the most part the fantastic work of a mind which misunderstood its epoch and its own powers.

Behind the strife and noise of contending sections there was slowly growing up an admirable intellectual product of Germany,—its popular poetry. One of the earliest writers who struck the note of the popular poets was Veit Weber, a Swiss who fought with his countrymen against Charles the Bold, and who celebrated in vigorous verses the battles of Granson, Murten, and Nancy. From this time the German people had always a living poetry of their own, created by unknown authors, but caught up by the masses, passed on from village to village till it was everywhere known, and handed down by each generation to its successors. This popular poetry ultimately reflected every aspect of daily life among the humbler classes ; each section among them had its appropriate lyrics, and there were songs of youth, of age, and middle life. There is no elaboration in these offshots of the popular fancy, but many of them have an artless beauty which touches the fountains of smiles and tears, and which had an irresistible fascination for the poets of the greatest period of German literature.

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