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The Nibelungenlied: 12th century

The shared memories of the Nordic people, first written down in Iceland literature, have been recited and sung wherever Germanic tribes have settled - including the central lands of Germany itself. In the southeast of this region, in modern Austria, the legends about the fall of Burgundy to the Huns achieve their fullest and most influential expression in a version of the late 12th century.

This is the great German epic poem known as the Nibelungenlied ('Song of the Nibelungs').

The first half of the Nibelungenlied is essentially the story written down two centuries earlier in Iceland's Elder Edda, involving Siegfried and Brunhild as tragic hero and heroine. Additional elements, recorded also in the Icelandic Völsunga Saga, involve the dragon Fafnir, guardian of a golden treasure and a magic ring, and the eventual sinking of the treasure in the Rhine (see Nibelungenlied - the story).

The Nibelungenlied, rich in detail and incident, has been profoundly influential - and has been given added fame in Wagner's Ring. Although later than courtly epics such as the Chanson de Roland, the poem retains the darkness and violence of its Germanic tribal origins.

German courtly poets: 12th-13th century

The poetry recited or sung in German courts of the later Middle Ages closely follows the examples set by France. The influence of Chrétien de Troyes makes themes from Arthurian legend particularly popular. Tristant und Isolde, written by Eilhart von Oberge in about 1170, is an early example.

The best known of the German courtly epics is Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal (dating from about 1205). It tells the story of the gauche knight, Sir Percival, whose innocence enables him to succeed in the quest for the holy Grail. Again, as with the Nibelungenlied, it is Wagner's interest in Wolfram von Eschenbach which has given the Percival legend its modern fame.

The other important aspect of French courtly literature, the lyric poetry of the troubadours, has its direct German equivalent in the Minnesinger (those who sing of Minne, an old word for 'love'). Again Wolfram von Eschenbach is a leading practitioner, though Walter von der Vogelweide is considered a greater artist in this lyric form - which is used by the Minnesinger to deal with a range of subjects not restricted to love.

Tannhäuser, a historical Minnesinger, becomes the central character of a legend which also attracts Wagner. In Tannhäuser he competes against Walter and Wolfram in a singing contest which prefigures the traditions of the Meistersinger.

Meistersinger: 14th - 16th century

From the 14th century there develop, in German towns, guilds devoted to the writing and singing of songs. Their members, mainly consisting of craftsmen and tradesmen, believe themselves to be the heirs of the courtly Minnesinger. It is more probable that their origin lies in groups of lay singers trained to take part in medieval church services.

Certainly the musical tradition of the guilds (who call themselves Meistersinger, or master singers) derives ultimately from Gregorian chant. And the main events of the Meistersinger calendar, their singing competitions, are held in church.

By the late 15th century a stultifying conservatism characterizes the guilds, with every aspect of composition and performance stipulated in very precise rules. But a new lease of life is provided by some degree of relaxation, in a reform which begins in Nuremberg.

This change makes possible the climate in which Hans Sachs, a shoemaker of Nuremberg, becomes both the most successful Meistersinger (author and composer of more than 4000 mastersongs) and a leading popular poet. Hans Sachs first becomes famous with a verse allegory of 1523 praising Luther as Die Wittembergisch Nachtigall (the Wittenberg nightingale).

Luther: 1522-1534

The Reformation brings an unexpected benefit to the literature of many Protestant countries through the text of the Bible becoming widely familiar in vernacular languages. This is particularly true in Germany, the home of the Reformation, thanks to Luther himself having a direct and forthright style.

This is evident in his letters and conversation as well as in his tracts. Describing the unusual experience for a monk of being married (to Catherine von Bora in 1525), he comments with admirable simplicity: 'There is a lot to get used to in the first year of marriage. One wakes up in the morning and finds a pair of pigtails on the pillow which were not there before.'

The same forthright quality with a dash of humour enlivens a tract called Concerning Married Life. Reason, discussing the matter with Christian Faith, says: 'Why must I rock the baby, wash its nappies, change its bed, smell its odour, heal its rash? It is better to remain single and live a quiet and carefree life. I will become a priest or a nun and tell my children to do the same.'

Christian Faith replies: 'The father opens his eyes, looks at these lowly, distasteful and despised things and knows that they are adorned with divine approval as with the most precious gold and silver. God, with his angels and creatures, will smile - not because nappies are washed, but because it is done in faith.'

Luther translates the New Testament in a similarly vivid vein during his period of hiding in the Wartburg. It is published in September 1522 (with woodcuts by Cranach). Luther has completed the Old Testament by 1534. The appetite of the public for the holy text in this accessible form proves impressive. In the next half century one firm in Wittenberg prints 100,000 copies of the Bible.

Through this medium, and through his many hymns (such as Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott, 'A stronghold is our God', published in a collection of 1529), Luther's robust way with language becomes part of the German literary tradition.

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