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German literature comprises the written works of the German-speaking peoples of central Europe. It has shared the fate of German politics and history: fragmentation and discontinuity. Germany did not become a modern nation-state until 1871, and the prior history of the various German states is marked by warfare, religious turmoil, and periods of economic decline. This fragmented development sets German literature apart from the national literatures of France and England, for instance, which enjoyed uninterrupted brilliance from the middle Ages to the modern era. Nevertheless, German literature has experienced three periods of established greatness.
Pre-Christian and early Christian periods
The Germanic tribes immigrating to mainland Europe from Scandinavia from the 1st century bc onward brought with them a rich culture. Since its language-related heritage was orally transmitted and its recipients saw no need to replace the physical presence of the singer of tales with written texts, most of it is lost. The rich mythology and epic-heroic poetry are partly recoverable from later written sources, all from the 13th century and beyond—the Old Norse Eddic poems, the German Nibelungenlied, and various poems about the hero Dietrich von Bern/Theodoric. Only broken bits of this culture remain: runic inscriptions, mythological motifs on gold amulets, a few magic incantations, preserved in the Merseburg library and a 67-line fragment of a heroic song depicting a tragic clash between the warrior Hildebrand and his own son. The imagination of this nomadic warrior culture envisioned human destiny as being inescapably tragic. In Norse mythology, even the gods themselves fall prey to malice and revenge and are swallowed up in the cataclysm known as Ragnarǫk, the Doom of the Gods.The society’s heroic pessimism and inability to free itself from revenge cycles made it ripe for a religion of reconciliation and atonement. The conversion of the Germans to Christianity thus presented a great challenge: that of re-educating an entire people and of adapting and translating the literature of Christianity into a language that had no written tradition. The earliest known effort to this end is the remarkable late-4th-century Gothic Bible translation of Bishop Ulfilas. Educational reforms instituted in the age of Charlemagne brought scattered religious texts in one or another of the dialects of Old High German. In the late 11th and throughout the 12th century, religious literature in early Middle High German proliferated. These works warn of the sinfulness and perils of earthly life, painting it as an illusion and a net of the Devil to trap unwary fools. Their texts, which have no literary significance, dwell on the theme memento mori: think only of death and dying and live life as a preparation for its end.
They arose out of conflict between church and state, the so-called Investiture Controversy and they served the interests of reactionary, ascetic movements toward monastic and church reform. They aimed at providing religious instruction for the laity—and were therefore written in the vernacular—but they were also a kind of propaganda rejecting the worldliness of secular rule and the subordination of the church to the state that occurred increasingly in the course of various imperial dynasties: Carolingian, Ottonian, and Salian. It is a peculiar feature of German literary history that the first abundant texts in the German language reflect not mainstreams culture and its secular manifestations but the conservative religious reaction against it.
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This page was last updated on September 17, 2021