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

(Part 32)


The Early Middle Ages

When the German tribes began to accept Christianity the clergy everywhere opposed the native poetry, and strove to replace its rude conceptions by the milder images of the gospel. Among the Goths of the 4th century Bishop Ulfilas took the most effectual means of achieving his purpose by preparing a clear, faithful, and simple rendering of the Scriptures.—a translation which has been of inestimable value in the scientific study of the Teutonic languages. No clergyman of like genius arose in Germany itself ; but there, too, pagan compositions were steadily discouraged. Charles the Great was the first to check this hostile movement. He showed his love of his native4 speech, not only by beginning to put together a German grammar, but by issuing orders for a collection of old German poetry. Louis the Pious had little sympathy with the taste of his father, but he could not efface the impression produced by the great emperor. Many of the clergy ceased to dislike that which so mighty a friend of the church had approved, and in some monasteries there were ardent collectors of ancient epic fragments and ballad.

These Treasures of Old High and Low German literature are nearly all lost, but from the small portions which have come down to us, and from hints in Latin chronicles, we can at least make out the themes with which many of them dealt. Ermanrick, or Ermanaricus, the famous Gothic king of the 4th century, was the subject of a large number of poetical legends. Siegfried continued to be a great epic hero, and from about the 7th century he appears to have been no longer treated as superhuman. The legend of the overthrow of the Burgundian King, Gundicarius or Günther, by Attila assumed many forms, and was at a later time connected with the story of Siegfried. Around the name of Theodoric the East Goth, as Dieterich, several legends soon grouped themselves ; and from about the 9th century he was associated with Attila, with whom in history he had nothing to do. Unfortunately, the fragments which have been preserved—all of which are alliterative—do not treat of these supreme heroes ; their subjects are of subordinate importance and interest. The Hildebrandslied, which was written from traditional narratives early in the 9th century, and is in mixed dialect, introduces us to a follower of Dieterich. Hildebrand, returning from the wars carried on by his lord, is compelled to fight his own son ; but we are left in uncertainty whether father or son is conqueror. The Ludwigslied is a ballad of the latter part of the 9th century, written in honour of victory gained over the Northmen by Louis III., the West Frankish king. The author was probably a monk who had been a favourite at the court of Charles the Bald. There is also an Old High German ballad celebrating the reconciliation of Otto I. with brother Henry ; and similar ballads are known to have kept up the fame of Duke Ernest of Swabia, who rebelled against Conrad II., and of many other popular heroes. Walter of Aquitania, who flies with his bride from the court of Attila, and at Worms fights King Günther and his warriors, is the hero of a Latin poem of the 10th century, written by a monk of St Gall, whose materials were evidently taken from a more vigorous German original. The Merseburger Gedichte, two songs of enchantment, were written in the 10th century, but must have come down from a much remote period. They are chiefly interesting for the light they throw upon the religious beliefs and customs of ancient Germany.

The old ballads, which were intended to be sung as well as recited, were handed down from generation to generation and necessarily underwent many changes. They were preserved from an early period in the memory of the people by professional minstrels, who were held in considerable honour in the time of Charles the Great, but were afterwards rather tolerated than encouraged by the higher classes. Many of them were blind men, and in their solitary wanderings the ancient stories must often have assumed in their minds new shapes. They usually accompanied their singing with the zither or the harp.

Of the works with which the church sought to counteract pagan influences very few remain. The most important is Heliand, a low German poem in alliterative verse said to have been written by a Saxon at the request of Louis the Pious. It is a narrative of the life of Christ, and follows closely the Four Gospels, whose separate accounts it attempts to harmonize. The author has considerable force and freedom of expression, and seems to have been so absorbed in the grandeur of his theme as to have deliberately rejected rhetorical ornament. The so-called Krist of Otfrid, a High German poet, who dedicated his work to Louis the German, has the same subject, but is not nearly so effective. It is the first rhymed German poem, and the necessities of rhyme often compel Otfrid to fill out his line with words and phrases which obscure his meaning. His lyrical passages are too didactic to rank as genuine poetry. The fragment of Muspilli, a Bavarian poem of the 9th century on the Last Judgment, indicates power of a much higher order. Its form is alliterative ; and reminiscences of paganism are strangely mingled with its Christian ideas.

During the reigns of Charles the Great and Louis the Pious secular learning was zealously cultivated in the monasteries of Germany as well as in those of other portions of the Frankish empire. The school established by Hrabanus Maurus in the famous abbey of Fulda vied with that of Tours, where Hrabanus had been a pupil of Alcuin, in the excellence of its teaching. In the wars with the Northmen, with the Magyars, and with the Slavs under the later Carolingian kings, many of the ecclesiastical institutions were destroyed ; but they sprang up again under the protection of Henry I. From the time of his son Otto I. the Germans stood in direct relation with Italy ; the marriage of Otto II. with the princess Theophano brought them into connexion with the learning and refinement of the Byzantine court ; and Gerbert, the friend of Otto III., afterwards Pope Silvester II., introduced them to some of the achievements of Arabian science. These influences quickened the energies of enlightened churchmen, and originated an intellectual movement which to some extent continued during the vigorous reigns of the first two Franconian sovereigns, Conrad II. and Henry III. The chief subject of study was the scholastic philosophy, to which, however, in its earlier stages, Germany made no supremely important contribution. The Neo-Platonic tendencies of Scotus Erigena were opposed by Hrabanus Maurus, who remained loyal to Aristotle and Boetius ; and his example was generally followed, not only by his successors in Fulda, but by the members of all other German schools. The school of St Gall was exceptionally active, and one of the monks, Notker Labeo, who died in 1022, wrote some original philosophical books, and translated into German the De Consolatione of Boetius and two of Aristotle’s works. In pure literature very little was done ; but there are several well-written Latin histories belonging to the 11th century. The best thought of the age was manifested in its Romanesque architecture, and in the then subordinate arts of paintings, sculpture, and music.

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