CHAPTER VII. THE MIDDLE AGES: GERMANY
Epic Poems: Nibelungen. Popular Poems. Very numerous Lyric Poems. Drama.
FIRST LITERARY WORK.—The most ancient monument of German literature is the Song of Hildebrand, which goes back to an unknown antiquity, perhaps to the ninth century, and a very beautiful fragment of which has been preserved by a happy chance. We are entirely ignorant of works written in German between the Song of Hildebrand and the Nibelungen, except for some religious poems such as the Heliand in low German and the Book of the Gospels in high German.
THE NIBELUNGEN,—The Nibelungen form a vast poem, written probably in the thirteenth century (or, at that epoch, formed by juxtaposition of more ancient popular songs). It is a great national monument wherein are collected the legendary exploits of all the ancestors of the Germans, Huns, Goths, Burgundians and Franks especially. Portions possess admirable dramatic qualities. The analogy with the Iliad is remarkable, and the comparison may be made even from the literary point of view.
VARIOUS PRODUCTIONS.—Then come productions less national in type, imitations of French poems. Song of Roland, Alexander, songs of the Cycle of Arthur or of the Round Table, imitations of Latin poems: for instance, the Aeneid, etc. Here, too, was spread the Story of Renard, as in France, and even now the question is unsettled whether the first poem of Renard is French or German. Religious and satiric poems were abundant in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but what is highly characteristic is the large number of lyrical poets (Dietmar of Ast, Kuerenberg, Frederic of Hausen, the Emperor Henry VI, etc.) produced by the Middle Ages in Germany. This poetry was generally amorous and melancholy, sometimes full of the warlike ardour which is found among our own troubadours. The poets who, as in France, wandered through Germany, from court to court and from castle to castle, called themselves minnesingers (singers of love). The one who has remained most famous is Tannhaeuser. A fantastic and touching legend has formed about his name.
Germany, like France, possessed a popular drama, less prolific possibly, but very similar. Among the most ancient popular tragedies now known may be cited The Prophets of Christ and the Game of Antichrist, which are curious because of the juxtaposition of biblical acts and contemporaneous events. Later came The Miracles of the Virgin, The Wise and Foolish Virgins, dramas more varied, with more numerous characters, more elaborate mounting, and with the interest relatively more concentrated.
COMEDY.—Comedy, as a rule very gross in character, enjoyed wide esteem, especially in the fourteenth century. What were performed under the title of Carnival Games were generally nothing but fablesin dialogue, domestic scenes, incidents in the market, interludes at the cross-roads. Here was the vulgar plebeian joy allowing itself full licence. The literary activity of Germany in the Middle Ages was at least equal to that of the three literary western nations.