The literature of any culture may be said to begin a long time before its first extant works were written down in manuscript form; the earliest manuscripts of German literature extend back to the eighth century. We can be sure of this because there exist in other Germanic languages, notably Gothic, Old English, and Old Norse, similar works that clearly belong to a common Germanic tradition. The events they recount, so far as they are historical, took place during the «Völkerwanderung», the mass-movement of Germanic peoples (375-568), that is, before the Germanic tribes split into the people we now designate as German, Scandinavian, and Anglo-Saxon. There can be no doubt that these troubled times gave impulse to creating songs, sagas, and legends, and that singers and poets?often summarily referred to as ´skopsª?gave them artistic form. Historical events were interwoven with mythological elements and motifs from other cultures, but there is a great deal of material common to all the Germanic literatures. It should be noted in this context that the appearance of any literature of note was contingent upon the de facto, if only superficial, incorporation of the Germanic tribes into the Church (DeBoor). It was during this early period that there developed the peculiar form known as alliterative poetry or «Stabreimdichtung», whose characteristics are the use of regular alliteration of stressed syllables and a four-beat line, associated in Norse poetry with the poetical device of kennings or descriptive periphrases of nouns.
Although we are aware of the existence of this body of oral poetry and can trace its influence on works that are extant, it is risky to attempt to reconstruct Germanic works or to posit a «Germanic hero» type, in the sense that such heroes are supposedly endowed with qualities not found in other literatures. In fact, the heroes of Germanic works, so far as we can determine, share many of their characteristics with early heroes of other cultures. Nevertheless, they do possess some distinguishing moral and social values which will be considered later.
Medieval literature in Germany is generally divided into Old High German, early Middle High German, the classical period of Middle High German literature, and later Middle High German Literature, often also including earliest New High German Literature. The first of these divisions, which covers the period from about 775 to about 1075, is more of a linguistic than a literary division. It actually includes works written in several dialects, and one of the most important poems of the period, the Heliand, is written in Old Low German (that is, Old Saxon). The second period encompasses widely divergent literary monuments of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. The classical period, during which almost all the outstanding works of medieval German literature were written, ex-tends from about 1170 to 1230. Its important cultural and literary characteristics are clearly
defined. The long period from 1230 to 1500 produced a great deal of poetry and an increasing amount of prose.
Most of the works of the Old High German period that have come down to us are Christian didactic works, translations of works basic to the conversion of the Germanic tribes, and pieces concerning the creed and confessions of sin. Important from the literary point of view are the translations of Gospel harmonies, such as the translation of the Gospel harmony of the Syrian Tatianus, and those of the harmonies written by the early Church Fathers. Such works spread to ancient Germany the Christian Latin tradition of learning. They broadened the vocabulary of the fledgling German language by direct borrowing or loan translation of technical religious terms, and they introduced Christian morality. The Old High German period is thus in one important respect a time of absorbing material from a ‘neighboring’ culture. At first the number of people directly affected by these changes was small, for only monasteries had the opportunity to wrestle with the literary aspects of Christianity. It is unlikely that the effect on the population as a whole was very great during the beginning stages, since translations were, in the main, devoted to ecclesiastic literature. The clergy may have despised popular literature, but they certainly feared it, and hence such works were seldom written down. The «Spielleute», the professional singers of poetry, however, continued to be esteemed, and the strength of the native tradition is demonstrated by the Hildebrandslied, the only representative we possess of a type that must have been very common—the heroic lay («Heldenlied»). In a terse and alliterative style it narrates a grave story of the conflict of duties, between kinsmen and feudal lord, one of the staple subjects of Germanic poetry. It typifies one of the most important features of this kind of poetry with its effort to influence the audience by the representation of exemplary actions of noble ancestors. This function was to continue long after the ‘heroic’ style of poetry had become modified by other influences.
There can be little doubt that the ideal of «Gefolgschaftstreue» (Lat. comitatus), i.e. a bond between thanes and lord, remained a powerful influence even after the introduction of Christianity. The concept of external honor—«äußere Ehre»—enhanced a man’s reputation as his most precious possession, and the preservation of his honorable reputation determined his standing in the community. Honor remained the most important motivating force in the majority of medieval narrative works. The modified Christian concept of honor—«innere Ehre»—as a reconciliation of man's conduct with his conscience, is not as often present in medieval German literature as one might expect.
Do we find traces of Germanic religion and mythology in early German literature at all? The Merseburger Zaubersprüche, for instance, name some gods, but they hardly at-tained a lasting literary stature. Several figures in later works, such as the Nibelungenlied, have mythological antecedents, as perhaps the god of light in the figure of Siegfried. Yet the connection to mythology cannot be said to have an overriding significance for the interpretation of these works as literature.
On the other hand, it is necessary to note that the influence of so many authors such as Virgil, Ovid, Statius (whose Silvae, a collection of occasional poetry, and the epic Thebaid were so popular in the Middle Ages that Dante places him in Purgatory together with Lucan and Horace), and Cicero increased as medieval culture developed, and works once accessible only to the learned few soon became the property of an increasing literate minority in the German speaking area. Of even greater importance was the influence of Latin rhetoric. Its rules had not only been propounded by the writers of ancient Greece and adapted by Cicero and Quintilian, but the training in what we could now call literary appreciation and style was received in monastery schools. These schools exercised their students in various types of embellishments and in the use of standard commponplaces such as the ideal landscape, the war of love, female beauty, and heroic battle. E.R. Curtius, in his Europäische Literatur und Lateinisches Mittelalter—first published in 1948—, has given the name «topoi» ("Klischees, die literarisch allgemein verwendbar sind") to this type of formalized commonplace. The use of «topoi» as themes on which variations could be played is an important aspect of medieval literature. The impact of classical literature, however, occurred through training in the part of the «trivium» called rhetoric rather than through the reading of classical authors in their entirety.1
Another more indirect influence also came to German authors through works written in French. The works of the twelfth century owe a debt to the writers in French and Provençal. The themes of both epic and lyric poetry and even the details of the stories are largely derived from French models, and the style and treatment, the lyric meters, and the imagery are of Romance origin. These matters will be discussed in more detail later.
Although the masterpieces of the German Middle Ages often lack specific Christian references, the impact of religious values is always present. The Augustinian contrast between the eternal and the transitory secular world is as implicit in the Arthurian romance as it is inThe City of God. Christian concepts of virtue and vice are interlaced with ingredients of a knight’s courtly behavior. The highly developed use of allegorization, that is, the interpretation of individual events and actions in terms of general concepts, influenced secular as well as religious works. Secular love can be described in terms alluding to a mystical love of God, the pursuit of the Holy Grail in terms of the Christian search for Heaven. There is a controversy among scholars as to the formal aspects of Christianity in medieval literature, and whether works not obviously moral or didactic in tone express normal medieval ways of thinking. But it would be equally questionable to imagine that any work, however secular in conception, could be written without being permeated by the prevailing intellectual climate, which was thoroughly Christian.