Later Medieval Literature 365
Later Medieval Literature
The number of literary works written during the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries exceeds that of the classical period by far. In addition to works of the kind that had flourished at the end of the twelfth century, there were others, such as the drama, short narrative poems («Mären»), didactic works, and mystical writings. Although many of these can be considered important, one cannot argue convincingly that any of the literary works of these centuries is comparable to the great achievements of the classical period. The romances become longer, the stress is shifted from the development of the individual to the more superficial aspects of description and action, and there is an increasing tendency to stress formal religion and morality. Rudolf von Ems (fl.1220-54) is an excellent example of these developments. His output is vast, his themes are largely taken from French literature, and he is a conscientious but uninspired writer. Konrad von Würzburg was roughly a contemporary (c.1225/30-1287) and presents the same genres with greater talent and technical skill. The Arthurian tradition appears at its best in this period in the Jüngerer Titurel (1272) of a certain Albrecht who may be identical with Albrecht von Scharfenberg (fl.1260-1275).
The heroic material is represented by the Dietrich epics, but the extant versions of these are usually very late reworkings. Although the Nibelungenlied continued to be popular, the only original work in the tradition was the Gedicht vom Hürnen Seyfried, a thirteenth century work extant only in a sixteenth-century printed version.
Lyric poetry continued to be composed in the «Minnesang» tradition, and much of it is nothing more than variations on the clichés of this type of poetry. The more interesting poets—Steinmar (c.1250-1300), Gottfried von Neifen (fl.1234-55)— follow the tradition of Neidhart von Reuental in parodying the «Minnesang» by giving it a peasant background. Other poets, particularly Frauenlob (c.1250-1318), stress the didactic and religious elements, whereas Ulrich von Lichtenstein (fl.1198-c.1275) and Johannes Hadlaub (c.1300-1340) introduce a biographical element, which, whether accurate or not, makes their poetry more personal. The poetry of Oswald von Wolkenstein (c.1377-1445) encompasses all these elements, for his poetry is in turn formal, religious, personal, coarse, and realistic. The lyric poetry of the period is never far from didacticism, and several poets wrote both love lyrics and «Sprüche». Longer didactic works are Der Renner by Hugo von Trimberg (c.1230-c.1313) and Freidank’s (c.1200-c.1233) Von der Bescheidenheit (c.1215-1230), a collection of pithy sayings, gnomic verses, and epigrams on topics ranging from religion to ethics, which retained its influence well into the 16th century.
Although the old types of courtly literature continued to be written, the audience for them changed completely. The courts of the great nobles ceased to be the centers of literary
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activity—their place being taken over by the towns. Here the patrons were naturally the wealthy merchants, and their tastes are reflected in the literature they sponsored. They mistrusted the idealism of the courtly literature of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries and probably did not understand the unofficial code of virtues it celebrated. They felt that literature ought to have an obvious purpose, such as entertainment or moral instruction. Thus they not only caused the existing types to be modified but they also encouraged new types, particularly those concerned with moral behavior. Perhaps the best example of these are the works of Der Stricker (c.1215-c.1230), whose Pfaffe Amîs, the first German collection of «Schwänke» or farces, greatly influenced the developed of narrative prose, and the various «Mären». The latter are short stories with an obvious moral, of which by far the most effective is Helmbrecht by Wernher der Gärtner (fl.c.1250-1280). This work also reflects another new aspect of literature: concern for the peasant. Many of the works in which peasants appear are far from being sympathetic to them, and we should beware of thinking in terms of ‘realism.’ The village-types are often stereotyped characters in stereotyped situations, but this does not prevent the scenes presented from being very amusing and vividly drawn. The two favorites were the peasant wedding and the drunken brawl, which appear at their most comic in Heinrich Wittenwiler’s (c.1350-1436) encyclopedic Ring (c.1400).
Much the same can be said about the short poems on the relations between man and wife. Occasionally a virtuous woman is depicted, but far more frequently there are scenes of quarreling, violence, or sheer eroticism. Such works provided a great deal of the source material for Hans Sachs’ plays.
As might be expected, the later Middle Ages saw a great advance in prose writing. In theology in particular a distinctive style was developed and the specialized vocabulary enlarged by the vernacular works of Meister Eckhart (c.1260-1327), Heinrich Seuse (1295-1366), and Johannes Tauler (1300-1361), who together virtually created a new means of expression for mystical theology. On a more mundane level, the great poetical works of earlier ages were put into popular prose form. Short stories, such as those about Till Eulenspiegel, were also very popluar. By far the most distinguished prose work of the later Middle Ages is the Ackermann aus Böhmen (c.1400), a debate between Death and the Ploughman.
There is a considerable amount of drama from the later Middle Ages which will be discussed in some detail in the introduction to the Osterspiel von Muri (c.1250) and Ain Vastnachtspil (c.1450).
Some of the most effective writing of the later Middle Ages is in Low German. The Theophilus play is extant in a Low German version and there are several other plays in various dialects. By far the best known type, however, is the beast epic, which is concerned with the struggle between the cunning and amoral fox Reynard (Reinart, Reineke,
Later Medieval Literature/Märendichtung 367
Reinke) and the equally amoral but stupid wolf Isengrim. These epics developed entirely in the Low Countries, and versions are extant in Latin, French, Dutch, and German. The various stories in verse, which are known collectively as the Roman de Renart, appeared in France in the late twelfth and in the first part of the thirteenth century, but there was a parallel, if less well documented, development in Holland which resulted in the production of several very similar versions of the story, in prose at Gouda (1479) and Delft (1485), and in verse at Antwerp in 1487. The earliest Low German version appeared in verse in Lübeck in 1498. It was frequently reprinted. The beast epic was a very effective form of social and political satire and was employed with great gusto by both sides in the Reformation struggle.
In his Studien zur Märendichtung (Tübingen, 1968), Hanns Fischer added many new insights to the discussion of the «Märe» as a separate type of short narrative—as distinguished from the later «Novelle»—which became rather popular with the beginning of the decline of traditional courtly culture in the 13th century. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c.1387) and Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decamerone (c. 1348-1358) are the best-known examples of this genre in world literature. «Mären» range from short exemplary («moralisch-exemplarisch») narratives, legends («legendenhaft»), courtly short epics, and farces («Schwank», a type of narrative which, incidentally, was greatly influenced by the lyrics of Neidhart von Reuental whose poetry and themes already contained the seed for the late fifteenth century collection of anecdotal strophic poems, referred to as Neidhart Fuchs 1), to lengthy stories, often written by anonymous authors. In these stories, courtly ethics are often summarized by a moral, usually at the end of the tale, in the form of a warning, such as in Helmbrecht—which is often referred to as the first German ‘village story,’ or «Dorfgeschichte»—or in the form of an exhortation, as is the case in Schneekind, or Konrad von Würzburg’s Herzmære which concludes with an appeal to the audience to learn a lesson and to preserve the ideal of love. So popular were the the various «Mären» that an entire manuscript is devoted to them, the 1393 Codex Vindobonensis which contains both the Herzmäre and the Schneekind. The following selections from the «Märendichtung» represent somewhat of a cross-section of the above-mentioned variants.