History of Literature








German literature


 

CONTENTS:

Origins and Middle Ages

Late Middle Ages and early Renaissance


The 18th century

The 19th century

The 19th century. Fin de siecle movements

The 20th century




 


German literature
 



Origins and Middle Ages
 


"The Nibelungenlied"  (PART I, PART II, PART III, PART IV)
"The Ring of the Nibelung" illustrations by Arthur Rackham

Joseph Bédier "The Romance of Tristan and Iseult"
illustrations Mac Harshberger from "Tristan and Iseult"  by Joseph Bedier

Gertrude Hall "The Wagnerian Romances"
H.A. GUERBER "STORIES OF THE WAGNER OPERA"

Reinmar von Hagenau
Heinrich von Morungen
Walther von der Vogelweide
Heinrich von Veldeke
Hartmann von Aue
Wolfram von Eschenbach
Gottfried von Strassburg
Rudolf von Ems

Konrad von Wurzburg
Saint Albertus Magnus
Meister Eckhart
 



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: the high Middle Ages (c. 1160–c. 1230), the turn of the 18th to the 19th century (the “age of Goethe”), and the turn of the 19th to the 20th.

This article provides a concise historical survey of German literature. Its major periods, movements, works, and themes are discussed and set into their political and cultural context. The aim is to characterize major and representative works and ideas and not to attempt a complete or even thorough survey of authors and the literary scene.


 

Origins and Middle Ages



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 (the “Merseburger Zaubersprüche” [“Merseburg charms”], preserved in the Merseburg library, which reveal pre-Christian origins), and a 67-line fragment of a heroic song depicting a tragic clash between the warrior Hildebrand and his own son (Hildebrandslied [c. 800; “Hildebrand’s Song,” Eng. trans. The Hildebrandslied]). 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 Ragnarok, the “Doom of the Gods.”
 

 


Dietrich von Bern/Theodoric

heroic figure of Germanic legend, apparently derived from Theodoric the Great, an Ostrogothic king of Italy who reigned from c. 493 to 526 ad.
Dietrich’s exploits are related in a number of south German songs preserved in Das Heldenbuch (“The Heroes Book”)—including Dietrichs Flucht (“Dietrich’s Flight”), Die Rabenschlacht (“The Battle of Ravenna”), Alpharts Tod (“Alphart’s Death”), and a number of additional stories—and, more fully, in the 13th-century Icelandic prose Thidriks saga. This legend also has a connection with the Middle High German epic Nibelungenlied. Driven by Ermenrich (Ermanaric) from his kingdom of Bern (Verona), Dietrich lives for many years at the court of Etzel (Attila), until he returns with a Hunnish army to defeat Ermenrich at Ravenna. Etzel’s two sons fall in the fight, and Dietrich returns to Etzel to answer for their deaths. Later he has his revenge by slaying Ermenrich. Dietrich’s long stay with Etzel represents Theodoric’s youth spent at the Byzantine court. The exile is adorned with amazing exploits, most of which have no connection with the cycle.
Dietrich typifies the wise and just ruler as opposed to the tyrannical Ermenrich. Many of the incidents told about him have no basis in the story of Theodoric, although some could be related to the experiences of Theodoric’s father, Theodemir. Other figures in the Dietrich cycle are his weapons master, Hildebrand, with his nephews Alphart and Wolfhart; Wittich and Heime, Dietrich’s traitorous vassals; and Biterolf and Dietleib, the king of Toledo and his son, who join Dietrich in battle at Worms.
 

 

 

Hildebrandslied

English Song of Hildebrand

Old High German alliterative heroic poem on the fatalistic theme of a duel of honour between a father and a son. The fragment, dating from c. 800, is the sole surviving record of Old High German heroic poetry. Its hero, Hildebrand, appears in Germanic legend as an elder warrior, a magician, and an adviser and weapons master to Dietrich von Bern, the poetic incarnation of the Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great. In the Song of Hildebrand the hero is forced into a duel by the aggressions of a young warrior, Hadubrand, who does not know that Hildebrand is his father. The fragment leaves no doubt that Hildebrand kills his son.
 

 

 

Ragnarok

(Old Norse: “Doom of the Gods”), in Scandinavian mythology, the end of the world of gods and men. The Ragnarök is fully described only in the Icelandic poem Völuspá (“Sibyl’s Prophecy”), probably of the late 10th century, and in the 13th-century Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson (d. 1241), which largely follows the Völuspá. According to those two sources, the Ragnarök will be preceded by cruel winters and moral chaos. Giants and demons approaching from all points of the compass will attack the gods, who will meet them and face death like heroes. The sun will be darkened, the stars will vanish, and the earth will sink into the sea. Afterward, the earth will rise again, the innocent Balder will return from the dead, and the hosts of the just will live in a hall roofed with gold.

Disjointed allusions to the Ragnarök, found in many other sources, show that conceptions of it varied. According to one poem two human beings, Lif and Lifthrasir (“Life” and “Vitality”), will emerge from the world tree (which was not destroyed) and repeople the earth. The title of Richard Wagner’s opera Götterdämmerung is a German equivalent of Ragnarök meaning “twilight 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 (largely accomplished by the end of the 5th century) thus presented a great challenge: that of reeducating 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. (In order to execute it, Ulfilas seems to have developed the Gothic alphabet.) Educational reforms instituted in the age of Charlemagne (768–814) brought scattered religious texts in one or another of the dialects of Old High German (for instance, Otfried of Weissenberg’s Evangelienbuch [c. 870, “Gospel Book”], a rhymed version of the Gospels). 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 (a power struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire), 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 (750–887), Ottonian (936–1002), and Salian (1024–1125). It is a peculiar feature of German literary history that the first abundant texts in the German language reflect not mainstream culture and its secular manifestations but the conservative religious reaction against it.
 

Nibelungenlied

The other major epic from this remarkable decade, 1200–10, takes the reader into a social and ethical world designed as the antithesis to that of the civilized, refined courtesy of the romance. The Nibelungenlied (“Song of the Nibelungs”) is a return to a more primitive, pre-courtly, Germanic heroic world. The hero, Siegfried, arouses envy and suspicion by marrying Kriemhild, sister of King Gunther of the Burgundians. Her family, led by the dark assassin Hagen, murders him treacherously and steals the fabulous Nibelung treasure. Years later she remarries, lures her family to visit, and exacts her revenge in a disastrous battle that leaves thousands on both sides dead, including all the protagonists.

Parzival progresses from an unthinking brutality to a sensitive, compassionate humanity. Kriemhild goes in the opposite direction; she reverts from courtly modesty to mayhem and raving. Deceit, assassination, and gruesome revenge are the major elements of this work, and they unfold against the background of a thin veneer of politeness, courtesy, and courtly restraint overlying the characters’ behaviour. The work is a reactionary rejection of the civilizing trends advocated by courtly literature. It returns to the heroic Germanic past to construct a doomed world where the tragic demise of whole peoples was inevitable and glorious at the same time, courteousness was stupidity, and trust and love were childishly naive.

 

 


Nibelungenlied

"The Nibelungenlied"  (PART I, PART II, PART III, PART IV)
"The Ring of the Nibelung" illustrations by Arthur Rackham

 

Nibelungenlied, Sigle b 1436/1442
Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

"The Ring of the Nibelung"
illustrations by Arthur Rackham

 

German epic poem
(German: “Song of the Nibelungs”)

Middle High German epic poem written about 1200 by an unknown Austrian from the Danube region. It is preserved in three main 13th-century manuscripts, A (now in Munich), B (St. Gall), and C (Donaueschingen); modern scholarship regards B as the most trustworthy. An early Middle High German title of the work is Der Nibelunge Not (“The Nibelung Distress”), from the last line of the poem. The superscription on one of the manuscripts from the early 14th century is “The Book of Kriemhild.”

The story has a long history and, as a result, contains a number of disparate elements. For example, the word Nibelung itself presents difficulties. In the first part of the poem, it appears as the name of Siegfried’s lands and peoples and his treasure, but, throughout the second, it is an alternate name for the Burgundians.
The poem’s content falls into two parts. It begins with two cantos (aventiuren) that introduce, respectively, Kriemhild, a Burgundian princess of Worms, and Siegfried, a prince from the lower Rhine. Siegfried is determined to woo Kriemhild despite his parents’ warning. When he arrives in Worms, he is identified by Hagen, a henchman of Kriemhild’s brother King Gunther. Hagen then recounts Siegfried’s former heroic deeds, including the acquisition of a treasure. When war is declared by the Danes and Saxons, Siegfried offers to lead the Burgundians and distinguishes himself in battle. Upon his return, he meets Kriemhild for the first time, and their affections develop during his residence at court.

At this point a new element is introduced. News reaches the court that a queen of outstanding strength and beauty may be won only by a man capable of matching her athletic prowess. Gunther decides to woo Brunhild with the aid of Siegfried, to whom he promises the hand of Kriemhild if successful. Siegfried leads the expedition to Brunhild’s abode, where he presents himself as Gunther’s vassal. In the ensuing contests, Gunther goes through the motions of deeds actually performed by Siegfried in a cloak of invisibility. When Brunhild is defeated, she accepts Gunther as her husband. Siegfried and Kriemhild are then married as promised, but Brunhild remains suspicious and dissatisfied. Soon the two queens quarrel; Brunhild ridicules Kriemhild for marrying a vassal, and Kriemhild reveals Siegfried’s and Gunther’s deception.
Now Hagen becomes a prominent figure as he sides with Brunhild and takes the initiative in plotting vengeance. He wins Kriemhild’s confidence and learns Siegfried’s one vulnerable spot and then strikes the fatal blow.

During these events, Brunhild drops almost unnoticed out of the story, and the death of Siegfried does not appear to be so much vengeance on her part as an execution by Hagen, who is suspicious of Siegfried’s growing power. Siegfried’s funeral is conducted with great ceremony, and the grief-stricken Kriemhild remains at Worms, though for a long time estranged from Gunther and Hagen. Later they are reconciled in order to make use of Siegfried’s treasure, which is brought to Worms. Kriemhild begins to distribute it, but Hagen, fearing that her influence will grow, sinks the treasure in the Rhine.

The second part of the poem is much simpler in structure and deals basically with the conflict between Hagen and Kriemhild and her vengeance against the Burgundians. Etzel (Attila), king of the Huns, asks the hand of Kriemhild, who accepts, seeing the possibilities of vengeance in such a union. After many years, she persuades Etzel to invite her brothers and Hagen to his court. Though Hagen is wary, they all go to Etzel’s court, where general combat and complete carnage ensues. Kriemhild has Gunther killed and then, with Siegfried’s sword, she slays the bound and defenseless Hagen, who to the last has refused to reveal where Siegfried’s treasure is hidden. Kriemhild in turn is slain by a knight named Hildebrand, who is outraged at the atrocities that she has just committed.

In the Nibelungenlied some elements of great antiquity are discernible. The story of Brunhild appears in Old Norse literature. The brief references to the heroic deeds of Siegfried allude to several ancient stories, many of which are preserved in the Scandinavian Poetic Edda (see Edda), Vǫlsunga saga, and Thidriks saga, in which Siegfried is called Sigurd. The entire second part of the story, the fall of the Burgundians, appears in an older Eddaic poem, Atlakvida (“Lay of Atli”; see Atli, Lay of). Yet the Nibelungenlied does not appear to be a mere joining of individual stories but, rather, an integration of component elements into a meaningful whole.
It is the second part of the poem that suggests the title “The Book of Kriemhild.” The destruction of the Burgundians (Nibelungen) is her deliberate purpose. The climax of the first part, the death of her husband, Siegfried, prepares the ground for the story of her vengeance. Furthermore, Kriemhild is the first person introduced in the story, which ends with her death; and all through the story predominating attention is paid to Hagen. This concentration on Kriemhild and on the enmity between her and Hagen would seem to suggest that it was the poet’s intention to stress the theme of Kriemhild’s vengeance.

The Nibelungenlied was written at a time in medieval German literature when the current emphasis was on the “courtly” virtues of moderation and refinement of taste and behaviour. The Nibelungenlied, with its displays of violent emotion and its uncompromising emphasis on vengeance and honour, by contrast looks back to an earlier period and bears the mark of a different origin—the heroic literature of the Teutonic peoples at the time of their great migrations. The poem’s basic subject matter also goes back to that period, for it is probable that the story of the destruction of the Burgundians was originally inspired by the overthrow of the Burgundian kingdom at Worms by the Huns in ad 437, and the story of Brunhild and Siegfried may have been inspired by events in the history of the Merovingian dynasty of the Franks in about ad 600. Much of the heroic quality of the original stories has remained in the poem, particularly in the author’s conception of Hagen as the relentless protector of King Gunther’s honour.

Probably no literary work has given more to Germanic arts than the Nibelungenlied. Many variations and adaptations appeared in later centuries. The most significant modern adaptation is Richard Wagner’s famous opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1853–74).

 


"The Death of Tristan"
illustrations Mac Harshberger from "Tristan and Iseult"


 

Joseph Bédier "The Romance of Tristan and Iseult"
illustrations Mac Harshberger from "Tristan and Iseult"

Gertrude Hall  "The Wagnerian Romances"
H.A. GUERBER "STORIES OF THE WAGNER OPERA"
 

PART I.
Parsifal  (libretto by R. Wagner)

Illustrated by Franz Stassen
 

PART II.
The Ring of the Nibelung
The Rhine-Gold
The Valkyrie
Siegfried
The Twilight of the Gods
The Master-Singers of Nuremberg
The Flying Dutchman

PART III.
Tristan and Isolde (libretto by R. Wagner)

PART IV.
Lohengrin  (libretto by R. Wagner)

PART V.
Tannhaeuser
 (libretto by R. Wagner)

 


 

High courtly literature: Middle High German Classicism


Cultural trends and mores unquestionably emanated from the German empire and the royal-imperial court, which from the 8th to the 13th century developed a rich and influential culture. Its literature was almost exclusively in the Latin language. The humanistic imperial culture and its politics were nourished from the idea of Classical revival. The motto renovatio imperii Romanorum (“renewal of the Roman Empire”) appears on German royal seals from the reign of Otto III on. The legitimacy of German rule rested on its derivation from Roman rule. Ideals of dress, behaviour, and speech were adapted from the Roman Empire’s ideals of the statesman and orator.

The values of the imperial courts were eagerly adopted by courts of dukes and counts. Beginning in the 12th century, these lesser feudal courts, first in France and Norman England, then in Germany, together produced one of the most brilliant bodies of literature in the West.

The literature of courtly society documents a civilizing process. It both represents and creates one of the most significant transformations of ethics and values experienced in the post-Roman West: the transformation from the rough-cut, brutal warrior values of early medieval Europe to courtly society’s ideals of restraint, humanity, elegance, and refined love.


 


The lyric poetry of courtly love


In a period of some 20 years, about 1160 to 1180, German emerged as a literary language. It was a remarkable transformation. By the end of the Classical period, c. 1230, courtly society had produced a radiant literary flowering where apparently nothing (at least nothing written) had existed before.

“Courtly love” (the Provençal troubadours’ fin’amors, the Middle High German hôhe minne) is the central theme of aristocratic lyric poetry from the 12th century to the end of the Middle Ages. A common stance of the courtly lover is long-suffering endurance of the coldness of an unapproachable, unyielding high noble lady whom he serves in the vain hope of some day winning her love. Love is suffering, sickness, and a magic spell that imposes patience and endurance on the lover. Hôhe minne is less an erotic experience than a process of ethical formation and of courtly education. The lover, held at bay by his lady, is made to polish his speech, his manners, and his virtues to a high standard of courtly excellence. He is denied her love until he passes her tests.

This typical posture of the courtly lover is found, for instance, in the verse of Reinmar von Hagenau and Heinrich von Morungen. The idea of yoking the erotic to a program of education is foreign to modern sensibilities but consistent with a long tradition (Greek and Roman) of the disciplining of desire to create self-control and a mature, civil character.

But the 12th century, the great divide between the ancient and the modern world, also raised individual experience of love to the level of an ideal for the first time in the West, and tensions between the artifice of love pedagogy and the experience of passion are everywhere evident in courtly literature. Walther von der Vogelweide, the greatest of the German courtly poets, commemorated, in his poem Unter der Linden (“Under the Linden Tree”), a love meeting that was mutual, intense, and passionate, in which the woman delights in uninhibitedly yielding to her lover. The poem is a challenge to the poetry of hôhe minne, high courtly love, and its chaste eroticism. It represents a kind of love that Walther called playfully “low love” (niedere minne) but valued the more highly for its naturalness and spontaneity. This conception was probably favoured by the philosopher-teacher Peter Abelard and his learned student and lover, Héloïse, in their tragic relationship.

 


Reinmar von Hagenau


Reinmar der Alte in the Codex Manesse
(14th century).
 

byname Reinmar the Elder, German Reinmar der Alte

died c. 1205

German poet whose delicate and subtle verses constitute the ultimate refinement of the classical, or “pure,” Minnesang (Middle High German love lyric).

A native of Alsace, Reinmar became court poet of the Babenberg dukes in Vienna. Among his pupils was Walther von der Vogelweide, who later became his rival. The purity of Reinmar’s rhymes, the evenness of his rhythms, and the fastidious taste that rejected any phrase or emotion that might offend courtly sensibilities made him idolized by his contemporaries as the “nightingale” of his day. His constant theme was unrequited love. Of the numerous songs attributed to him, only 30 are now considered authentic.

 

 


Heinrich von Morungen


Codex Manesse. Heinrich von Morungen

 

died 1222, near Leipzig

German minnesinger, one of the few notable courtly poets from east-central Germany.

A native of Thuringia, he spent much of his later life in the service of Duke Dietrich of Meissen. His poems, of which some 33 are to be found in the Heidelberg manuscript, are all devoted to the fashionable cult of love. His poems show more originality and spontaneity than those of his contemporaries because of his vivid imagination and the intensity of his emotion. As a result his poems appeal to the modern reader more than those of any other minnesinger with the exception of Walther von der Vogelweide.

 

 


Walther von der Vogelweide

Portrait of Walther von der Vogelweide. From the Codex Manesse (Folio 124r).


born c. 1170
died c. 1230, Würzburg? [Germany]

greatest German lyric poet of the Middle Ages, whose poetry emphasizes the virtues of a balanced life, in the social as in the personal sphere, and reflects his disapproval of those individuals, actions, and beliefs that disturbed this harmony. He was no respecter of persons: whoever came between him and his ideals, even the pope himself, received the full force of his anger.

The place of Walther’s birth has never been satisfactorily identified, though the title hêr, which he is given by other poets, indicates that he was of knightly birth. It is clear from his poetry that he received a formal education at a monastery school. He learned the techniques of his art at the Viennese court of Leopold V, duke of Austria; but, when one of the latter’s successors, Leopold VI, took up residence in Vienna, Walther failed to win his favour (for reasons perhaps connected with his rivalry with Reinmar von Hagenau, the most sophisticated of the earlier minnesingers, who was resident at the Viennese court). Instead, he gained the patronage of the Hohenstaufen Philip of Swabia, by writing in support of the Hohenstaufen cause against the Welf faction during their struggle for the kingship following the emperor Henry VI’s death in 1197. Pope Innocent III came out on behalf of the Welfs, and from this time dates the antipapal feeling that runs through much of Walther’s political poetry.

Disappointed with Philip’s treatment of him, however, Walther then served several masters until, in 1212, he once more entered the political arena—this time in support of the Welf emperor Otto IV against Innocent III. Again he was not treated with the generosity he expected, and, in the same year, when Frederick II reclaimed the throne for the house of Hohenstaufen, Walther turned to welcome the new ruler, who was crowned in 1215. From him he received a small fief, symbol of the security he had so long desired. Two 14th-century records suggest that it was in the see of Würzburg, and it is likely that he spent the rest of his life there.

Rather more than half of the 200 or so of Walther’s poems that are extant are political, moral, or religious; the rest are love poems. In his religious poems he preached the need for man actively to meet the claims of his Creator by, for instance, going on pilgrimage or on crusade; in his moral-didactic poems he praises such human virtues as faithfulness, sincerity, charity, and self-discipline—virtues that were not especially prominent in his own life. As a love poet he developed a fresh and original treatment of the situations of courtly love and, ultimately, in such poems as the popular “Unter der Linden,” achieved a free, uninhibited style in which the poses of court society gave way before the natural affections of village folk.
 





Courtly romance

Courtly romance, a new narrative form in the 12th century, was the major vehicle for Middle High German Classicism. The earliest courtly narratives were “romances of antiquity.” They show Achilles, Hector, Ulysses, and Aeneas behaving like 12th-century chivalric knights, fighting boldly but with noble restraint on horseback with lances, wondering in long inner monologues whether they can win the love of their ladies, and writing them love letters and poems. The northern German poet Heinrich von Veldeke produced the Eneide (c. 1170; written in an intermediate dialect that contained elements of both Low and High German), a “modern” version of Virgil’s Aeneid adapted from the anonymous Old French Roman d’Énéas. It turns on the two loves of Aeneas—one passionate and destructive (Dido); the other chaste, courtly, and the foundation of family and empire (Lavinia). The Trojan War was another popular theme from antiquity.

But the tales received from the ancient world paled before the wild popularity of the figure of King Arthur and his knights (Arthurian legend). Arthurian romance in the wake of its great inventor, the French poet Chrétien de Troyes, overwhelmed other contenders for dominance of narrative poetry.
 


Heinrich von Veldeke


Codex Manesse. Heinrich von Veldeke
 

born c. 1140–50, near Maastricht, Lower Lorraine [now in the Netherlands]
died c. 1190


Middle High German poet of noble birth whose Eneit, telling the story of Aeneas, was the first German court epic to attain an artistic mastery worthy of its elevated subject matter.

While at the court of the landgrave Hermann of Thuringia, Heinrich completed the Eneit, modeled on the French Roman d’Eneas rather than directly on Virgil’s Aeneid. Eneit was written not in Heinrich’s native Flemish but in the Franconian literary language of such works as Eilhart von Oberg’s Tristrant und Isalde. Following its French example, Eneit greatly expands the episode of Aeneas and Dido and transforms Virgil’s epic into a courtly romance that minutely analyzes the psychology of love. The epic poets Gottfried von Strassburg and Wolfram von Eschenbach both testified to the value of the Eneit as a model. The language of the poem is simple and direct, if somewhat pedantic and conventional, and the verse flows smoothly.

Heinrich also wrote a religious epic, Servatius (c. 1170), on the life and miracles of the patron saint of Maastricht, and a number of lyric poems. In these, as in his epics, he appears as the ideal transmitter to Germany of the new courtly literary fashions introduced in Romance models. Because of his borderland dialect, he is also claimed by the Dutch as the earliest known poet in their literature.
 




Hartmann von Aue

A Swabian knight, poet, theoretician of love, and writer of Minnesang (courtly love lyrics), Hartmann von Aue was the first to bring the new tales of King Arthur to Germany. He adapted and translated into elegant Middle High German verses two of Chrétien’s romances: Erec (c. 1180–85), from Érec et Énide, and Iwein (c. 1200), from Yvain; ou, le chevalier au lion. These works created a new structure for narrative and with it a new conception of the destiny of the hero: his education and gradual achievement of ethical perfection through making amends for shameful conduct, expunging guilt, resisting temptation, and avoiding behaviour conducive to tragic failure. Erec is the tale of a knight’s quest to repair his reputation, damaged when he neglects his duties as knight to spend all his time with his bride. In Iwein a great knight falls from grace by disregarding a seemingly trivial deadline. Denounced before King Arthur’s court by his wife, Iwein loses his mind and is reduced to living naked and wild in the forest. Restored by a magic salve and accompanied by a lion whom he has helped fight a dragon, he sets out on a series of grand chivalric undertakings, rescuing the helpless and those unjustly accused. Eventually, his acts of justice and compassion bring about a reconciliation with his wife.

The obsession with guilt expunged and shame overcome found its most poignant expression in Hartmann’s two “chivalric legends,” Gregorius (c. 1185–95) and Der arme Heinrich (c. 1195; “Poor Henry”). Gregorius is a chivalric-Christian adaptation of the Oedipus story, a tale of double incest in which the tragic hero, born from an incestuous union and later wed to his own mother, is raised to the position of pope after 17 years of suicidal penance for his sins as knight and lover. “Poor Henry,” a wealthy, virtuous, and famous knight, is stricken with leprosy and loses his possessions and standing. The only medicine that can cure his disease is the blood of a virgin willing to sacrifice herself for him. The youngest daughter of the family that takes him in at once offers herself and refuses to take no for an answer. Ultimately her sacrifice is rejected and the will accepted in place of the deed. Miraculously cured, the grand lord marries the young peasant girl.

Hartmann’s elegant simplicity and his gentle, noble sentimentality were greatly admired both in his own time and since. (Selections from his works can be found in English translation in The Narrative Works of Hartmann von Aue, 1983.) His younger contemporary, Gottfried von Strassburg, crowned him with the laurel wreath and praised him extravagantly. No less an author than Thomas Mann admired Hartmann’s legends of great sin and profound forgiveness; his late novel Der Erwählte (1951; The Holy Sinner) adapts Hartmann’s Gregorius.

 


Hartmann von Aue



Portrait of Hartmann von Aue from the Codex Manesse (folio 184v).
 

born c. 1160
died c. 1210

Middle High German poet, one of the masters of the courtly epic.

Hartmann’s works suggest that he received a learned education at a monastery school, that he was a ministerialis at a Swabian court, and that he may have taken part in the Third Crusade (1189–92) or the ill-fated Crusade of the Holy Roman emperor Henry VI in 1197. Hartmann’s extant works consist of four extended narrative poems (Erec, Gregorius, Der arme Heinrich, Iwein), two shorter allegorical love poems (Büchlein I and II), and 16 lyrics (13 love songs and three Crusading songs). The lyrical poems and the two Büchlein appear to have been written first, followed by the narrative poems—his most important works—in the above order. Gregorius and Der arme Heinrich are religious works with an openly didactic purpose. The latter, Hartmann’s finest poem, tells the story of a leper who is healed by the readiness of a pure young girl to sacrifice her life for him. The two secular epics Erec and Iwein, both based on works by Chrétien de Troyes and belonging to the Arthurian cycle, enshrine Hartmann’s ethical ideal of restraint and moderation in human conduct, and are complementary in that they depict the return to grace of wayward knights.

Hartmann regarded his works as instruments of a moral purpose. Edifying content mattered more than elegance of style, for his narratives are characterized by clarity and directness and by the avoidance of rhetorical devices and displays of poetic virtuosity.
 


 

Wolfram von Eschenbach


The high point of Classical Middle High German literature is the work of the two great literary rivals Wolfram von Eschenbach and Gottfried von Strassburg. Wolfram presents himself as an unlearned, rough-cut genius:

I am Wolfram von Eschenbach, and I know a thing or two about poetry.…I was born to knighthood, and any woman who lovesme for my writing instead of my boldness must be weak in her wits.…I don’t know a single letter of the alphabet.

Gottfried, the elegant, highly educated humanist-courtier poet, classified Wolfram as a teller of wild stories persuasive to “dull minds.” Wolfram’s style is eccentric and brilliant. His works, with a high ethical seriousness at their core, are full of a robust humour that can shade into the grotesque.

Wolfram adapted his major work, Parzival, from Chrétien de Troyes’s unfinished Perceval; ou, le conte du graal (Perceval: The Tale of the Grail) and completed it about 1205. He also wrote a long fragment of a heroic legend (chanson de geste, or “song of heroic deeds”), Willehalm, and two short fragments called Titurel, a spin-off from the Grail story begun in Parzival. (Wolfram probably stopped working on Willehalm and Titurel at some time after 1217.) In addition to these works, he composed a number of lyric poems.

Parzival has been compared with Dante’s Divine Comedy and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. It is a kind of summation of the human condition in its 12th-century embodiment: the sinful knight questing to reconcile the demands of God with those of life in the world. Parzival is the simpleton with a grand destiny. He becomes king of the Grail castle and overcomes his youthful sins by steadfastly loving his wife, by learning discipline, compassion, and courtesy, and by remaining loyal to his own human destiny as knight and fighter. In fact, Parzival seems to reiterate the parable of the prodigal son: the good man who has sinned and fallen into doubt of God (zwîvel) is the candidate for grace. Parzival shares with Goethe’s Faust the idea that the very effort to perfect flawed human nature has redemptive power. The work contains a grand symbol of this obligation to maintain life and destiny, raised to the level of a religious symbol: the Holy Grail. Parzival becomes king of the Grail by remaining a knight and loyal husband. In this he is an answer to Hartmann’s Gregorius, who could find redemption only in complete renunciation of his human identity. Wolfram’s Parzival is a rejection of ascetic Christian values and a grand confirmation of the worth of life in this world.
 


Wolfram von Eschenbach


Portrait of Wolfram from the Codex Manesse.

 

born c. 1170
died c. 1220

German poet whose epic Parzival, distinguished alike by its moral elevation and its imaginative power, is one of the most profound literary works of the Middle Ages.

An impoverished Bavarian knight, Wolfram apparently served a succession of Franconian lords: Abensberg, Wildenberg, and Wertheim are among the places he names in his work. He also knew the court of the landgrave Hermann I of Thuringia, where he met the great medieval lyric poet Walther von der Vogelweide. Though a self-styled illiterate, Wolfram shows an extensive acquaintance with French and German literature, and it is probable that he knew how to read, if not how to write.

Wolfram’s surviving literary works, all bearing the stamp of his unusually original personality, consist of eight lyric poems, chiefly Tagelieder (“Dawn Songs,” describing the parting of lovers at morning); the epic Parzival; the unfinished epic Willehalm, telling the history of the crusader Guillaume d’Orange; and short fragments of a further epic, the so-called Titurel, which elaborates the tragic love story of Sigune from book 3 of Parzival.

Parzival, probably written between 1200 and 1210, is a poem of 25,000 lines in 16 books. Likely based on an unfinished romance of Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval, ou Le Conte du Graal, it introduced the theme of the Holy Grail into German literature. Its beginning and end are new material, probably of Wolfram’s own invention, although he attributes it to an unidentified and probably fictitious Provençal poet, Guiot. The story of the ignorant and naive Parzival, who sets out on his adventures without even knowing his own name, employs the classic fairy-tale motif of “the guileless fool” who, through innocence and artlessness, reaches a goal denied to wiser men.

Wolfram uses Parzival’s dramatic progress from folk-tale dunce to wise and responsible keeper of the Grail to present a subtle allegory of man’s spiritual education and development. Parzival also figures as the hero of Richard Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal (1882). The complexity of Wolfram’s theme is matched by his eccentric style, which is characterized by rhetorical flourishes, ambiguous syntax, and the free use of dialect.

Wolfram’s influence on later poets was profound, and he is a member, with Hartmann von Aue and Gottfried von Strassburg, of the great triumvirate of Middle High German epic poets.
 





Gottfried von Strassburg


Gottfried’s Tristan und Isolde is an unfinished masterpiece of some 19,000 lines. Its source was the Roman de Tristan by the Anglo-Norman poet Thomas. Gottfried died about 1210 without completing it. In almost every point it is the opposite of Wolfram’s work. It is a tragedy of adulterous love whose hero is fatally bound by a love potion to Isolde, the wife of King Marke of England. The work is revolutionary in many ways. It rejects a strong tendency in tales and lyrics of “courtly love” to make the woman into the man’s educator and an administrator of courtliness and virtue. The concept of love in Tristan crosses the aforementioned great divide between the ancient world (in which love was regarded as an ennobling, educating force) and the modern world (which perceived love as obsessive, a lofty but destructive passion). The tragedy of Tristan and Isolde contradicts the love pedagogy that had shaped Érec and Énite, Iwein, and Parzival into models of marital fidelity and courtly humanity. Tragic love is still ennobling, but it ennobles by glorifying suffering, melancholy, death, and the fusing of joy and sorrow in love. Gottfried dedicates his work to the elite of “noble hearts” who can appreciate the exquisite benefits of tragic passion.

The work is also revolutionary in its style and form. It is poetry of the highest order. The language of secular narrative poetry in Germany was a newborn, so to speak; at least it was no more than half a generation old. But in Tristan und Isolde the German language achieves a high point of elegance, allusiveness, and sophistication that it would not reach again until the late 18th and 19th centuries. Gottfried studied in the humanistic Latin schools of France or in those of Germany, and he brought a wealth of Classical knowledge to his composition. In Tristan the traditions of Classical Latin literature inform, deepen, and strengthen German poetry.

The hero is no longer a chivalric knight earning fame and love by combat but rather a courtier and an artist who makes his way in the life of a royal court by eloquence and talent, by his skill in music and the hunt. As in any court novel, deceit loses some of its negative moral charge and becomes a skill parallel to art and learning. Tristan and Isolde become tricksters and illusion makers in order to conceal their affair from her husband and his uncle, the cuckold King Marke.

In the work there is an idyllic “adventure” when the lovers, banished from the court, live in a magical “cave of lovers.” Their cathedral-like love temple is interpreted by the poet as an allegory of the virtues of love.
 


Gottfried von Strassburg


Portrait of Gottfried von Strassburg from the Codex Manesse (Folio 364r).

 

died c. 1210

one of the greatest medieval German poets, whose courtly epic Tristan und Isolde is the classic version of this famous love story.

The dates of his birth and death are unknown, and the only information about him consists of references to him in the work of other poets and inferences from his own work. The breadth of learning displayed in Tristan und Isolde reveals that he must have enjoyed the fullest education offered by the cathedral and monastery schools of the Middle Ages. Together with the authoritative tone of his writing, this background indicates that, although not himself of noble birth, he spent his life in the society of the wellborn. Tristan was probably written about 1210. Gottfried is thus a literary contemporary of Hartmann von Aue, Walther von der Vogelweide, and Wolfram von Eschenbach.

The Celtic legend of Tristan and Iseult (German: Isolde) reached Germany through French sources. The first German version is that of Eilhart von Oberg (c. 1170), but Gottfried, although he probably knew Eilhart’s poem, based his own work on the Anglo-Norman version of Thomas of Brittany (1160–70).

Gottfried’s moral purpose, as he states it in the prologue, is to present to courtiers an ideal of love. The core of this ideal, which derives from the romantic cult of woman in medieval courtly society, is that love (minne) ennobles through the suffering with which it is inseparably linked. This ideal Gottfried enshrines in a story in which actions are motivated and justified not by a standard ethic but by the conventions of courtly love. Thus, the love potion, instead of being the direct cause of the tragedy as in primitive versions of the Tristan story, is sophisticatedly treated as a mere outward symbol of the nature of the lovers’ passion—tragic because adulterous but justified by the “courts of love” because of its spontaneity, its exclusiveness, and its completeness.

Although unfinished, Gottfried’s is the finest of the medieval versions of the Tristan legend and one of the most perfect creations of the medieval courtly spirit, distinguished alike by the refinement and elevated tone of its content and by the elaborate skill of its poetic technique. It was the inspiration for Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (1859).
 





Post-Classical Middle High German literature


The flowering of Middle High German courtly literature lasted about 60 years. In its wake literature did not subside; it mushroomed. But these latecomer authors, interesting as their works can be, are imitators, and, in the shadow of a Classical period, they sensed their own mediocrity. The major figures of this post-Classical era are Heinrich von dem Türlîn, who wrote an obscure and lengthy baroque romance of Sir Gawain called Die Krône (c. 1220–30; The Crown); Rudolf von Ems, who authored various longer epics and a chronicle of world history; and Konrad von Würzburg, a versatile stylist who continued the Classical style of Gottfried in a variety of narrative works—Partonopier und Meliur (“Partonopier and Meliur”), Der Schwanritter (“The Knight of the Swan”), and Engelhard. His magnum opus is Der Trojanerkrieg, a courtly retelling of the Trojan War in an epic poem of more than 40,000 lines (Parzival was long at about 25,000 lines).

The autumn of courtly forms corresponded to a decline in the political position of Germany brought about by the victory of the papacy in the Investiture Controversy and the consequent weakening of central political authority. The “Holy Roman Empire” proclaimed by the propaganda of the emperor Frederick Barbarossa existed mostly in name and ceremonial form. The last great emperor of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, Frederick II (1220–50), moved the imperial residence to Sicily. This period set loose on Germany the plagues that ravaged the political life of that country until its reunification in 1989–90: political fragmentation, provincialism, dependence on Italian and French culture, and a lack of confidence in its own culture that alternated with convulsive attempts to establish German culture and national identity.

 


Rudolf von Ems



From the Weltchronik: King David with scribe and musicians
(illumination from a manuscript in the Zentralbibliothek Zürich).

 

born c. 1200, Hohenems, Swabia [now in Austria]
died c. 1254, Italy

prolific and versatile Middle High German poet. Between about 1220 and 1254 he wrote five epic poems, totaling more than 93,000 lines.

Though the influence of earlier masters of the courtly epic is evident in his work—his style is modeled on Gottfried von Strassburg, while his moral outlook derives from Hartmann von Aue—Rudolf’s poems show considerable originality in subject matter. His earliest preserved poem, Der guote Gerhart (“Gerhard the Good”), is the story of a Cologne merchant who, despite his unaristocratic calling, has all the courtly qualities of an Arthurian knight. His charity and humility result in his being offered the crown of England, which he rejects. The charm and realism of this poem were not equaled in Rudolf’s other works: Barlaam und Josaphat, a Christian version of the legend of Buddha; and the three historical epics, Alexander, Willehalm von Orlens, and Weltchronik, an ambitious, uncompleted world chronicle that ends with the death of Solomon. The popularity of Rudolf’s writings can be gauged by the fact that there are more than 80 extant manuscripts and manuscript fragments of the Weltchronik alone.
 

 

 


Konrad von Würzburg



Portrait of Konrad von Würzburg from the Codex Manesse

 

born c. 1225, Würzburg, Würzburg
died Aug. 31, 1287, Basel, Switz.

Middle High German poet who, during the decline of chivalry, sought to preserve the ideals of courtly life.

Of humble origin, he served a succession of patrons as a professional poet and eventually settled in Basel. His works range from love lyrics and short didactic poems (Sprüche) to full-scale epics, such as Partonopier und Meliur, on the fairy-lover theme, and Der Trojanerkrieg (The Trojan War), an account of the Trojan War. He is at his best in his shorter narrative poems, the secular romances Engelhart, Dasz Herzmaere (The Heart’s Tidings), and Keiser Otte mit dem Barte (Kaiser Otte with the Beard) and the religious legends Silvester, Alexius, and Pantaleon.

Konrad’s originality is one of form rather than content. Taking Gottfried von Strassburg, one of the masters of the epic of courtly life, as his model, he developed Gottfried’s stylized techniques often to the point of exaggeration. In one of his poems every syllable rhymes. The complexity and the explicitly didactic character of his poetry earned for him the esteem of his contemporaries. A century later the rising generation of artisan-poets known as Meistersingers named him as one of the “12 old masters” of medieval poetry from whom they claimed descent.
 

 

 


APPENIX


 


Saint Albertus Magnus




German theologian, scientist, and philosopher
English Saint Albert The Great, German Sankt Albert Der Grosse, byname Albert Of Cologne, or Of Lauingen, or Doctor Universalis (Latin: “Universal Doctor”)

born c. 1200, Lauingen an der Donau, Swabia [Germany]
died November 15, 1280, Cologne; canonized Dec. 16, 1931; feast day November 15

Main
Dominican bishop and philosopher best known as a teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas and as a proponent of Aristotelianism at the University of Paris. He established the study of nature as a legitimate science within the Christian tradition. By papal decree in 1941, he was declared the patron saint of all who cultivate the natural sciences. He was the most prolific writer of his century and was the only scholar of his age to be called “the Great”; this title was used even before his death.

Albertus was the eldest son of a wealthy German lord. After his early schooling, he went to the University of Padua, where he studied the liberal arts. He joined the Dominican order at Padua in 1223. He continued his studies at Padua and Bologna and in Germany and then taught theology at several convents throughout Germany, lastly at Cologne.

Sometime before 1245 he was sent to the Dominican convent of Saint-Jacques at the University of Paris, where he came into contact with the works of Aristotle, newly translated from Greek and Arabic, and with the commentaries on Aristotle’s works by Averroës, a 12th-century Spanish-Arabian philosopher. At Saint-Jacques he lectured on the Bible for two years and then for another two years on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the theological textbook of the medieval universities. In 1245 he was graduated master in the theological faculty and obtained the Dominican chair “for foreigners.”

It was probably at Paris that Albertus began working on a monumental presentation of the entire body of knowledge of his time. He wrote commentaries on the Bible and on the Sentences; he alone among medieval scholars made commentaries on all the known works of Aristotle, both genuine and spurious, paraphrasing the originals but frequently adding “digressions” in which he expressed his own observations, “experiments,” and speculations. The term experiment for Albertus indicates a careful process of observing, describing, and classifying. His speculations were open to Neoplatonic thought. Apparently in response to a request that he explain Aristotle’s Physics, Albertus undertook—as he states at the beginning of his Physica—“to make . . . intelligible to the Latins” all the branches of natural science, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy, ethics, economics, politics, and metaphysics. While he was working on this project, which took about 20 years to complete, he probably had among his disciples Thomas Aquinas, who arrived at Paris late in 1245.

Albertus distinguished the way to knowledge by revelation and faith from the way of philosophy and of science; the latter follows the authorities of the past according to their competence, but it also makes use of observation and proceeds by means of reason and intellect to the highest degrees of abstraction. For Albertus these two ways are not opposed; there is no “double truth”—one truth for faith and a contradictory truth for reason. All that is really true is joined in harmony. Although there are mysteries accessible only to faith, other points of Christian doctrine are recognizable both by faith and by reason—e.g., the doctrine of the immortality of the individual soul. He defended this doctrine in several works against the teaching of the Averroists (Latin followers of Averroës), who held that only one intellect, which is common to all human beings, remains after the death of man.

Albertus’ lectures and publications gained him great renown. He came to be quoted as readily as the Arabian philosophers Avicenna and Averroës and even Aristotle himself. Roger Bacon, a contemporary English scholar who was by no means friendly toward Albertus, spoke of him as “the most noted of Christian scholars.”

In the summer of 1248, Albertus was sent to Cologne to organize the first Dominican studium generale (“general house of studies”) in Germany. He presided over the house until 1254 and devoted himself to a full schedule of studying, teaching, and writing. During this period his chief disciple was Thomas Aquinas, who returned to Paris in 1252. The two men maintained a close relationship even though doctrinal differences began to appear. From 1254 to 1257 Albertus was provincial of “Teutonia,” the German province of the Dominicans. Although burdened with added administrative duties, he continued his writing and scientific observation and research.

Albertus resigned the office of provincial in 1257 and resumed teaching in Cologne. In 1259 he was appointed by the pope to succeed the bishop of Regensburg, and he was installed as bishop in January 1260. After Alexander IV died in 1261, Albertus was able to resign his episcopal see. He then returned to his order and to teaching at Cologne. From 1263 to 1264 he was legate of Pope Urban IV, preaching the crusade throughout Germany and Bohemia; subsequently, he lectured at Würzburg and at Strasbourg. In 1270 he settled definitively at Cologne, where, as he had done in 1252 and in 1258, he made peace between the archbishop and his city.

During his final years he made two long journeys from Cologne. In 1274 he attended the second Council of Lyon, France, and spoke in favour of acknowledging Rudolf of Habsburg as German king. In 1277 he traveled to Paris to uphold the recently condemned good name and writings of Thomas Aquinas, who had died a few years before, and to defend certain Aristotelian doctrines that both he and Thomas held to be true.

Albertus’ works represent the entire body of European knowledge of his time not only in theology but also in philosophy and the natural sciences. His importance for medieval science essentially consists in his bringing Aristotelianism to the fore against reactionary tendencies in contemporary theology. On the other hand, without feeling any discrepancy in it, he also gave the widest latitude to Neoplatonic speculation, which was continued by Ulrich of Strasbourg and by the German mystics of the 14th century. It was by his writings on the natural sciences, however, that he exercised the greatest influence. Albertus must be regarded as unique in his time for having made accessible and available the Aristotelian knowledge of nature and for having enriched it by his own observations in all branches of the natural sciences. A preeminent place in the history of science is accorded to him because of this achievement.
 

 

 



Meister Eckhart





German mystic
English Master Eckhart, original name Johannes Eckhart, also called Eckhart von Hochheim, Eckhart also spelled Eckehart

born c. 1260, Hochheim?, Thuringia [now in Germany]
died 1327/28?, Avignon, France

Main
Dominican theologian and writer who was the greatest German speculative mystic. In the transcripts of his sermons in German and Latin, he charts the course of union between the individual soul and God.

Johannes Eckhart entered the Dominican order when he was 15 and studied in Cologne, perhaps under the Scholastic philosopher Albert the Great. The intellectual background there was influenced by the great Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas, who had recently died. In his mid-30s, Eckhart was nominated vicar (the main Dominican official) of Thuringia. Before and after this assignment he taught theology at Saint-Jacques’s priory in Paris. It was also in Paris that he received a master’s degree (1302) and consequently was known as Meister Eckhart.

Eckhart wrote four works in German that are usually called “treatises.” At about the age of 40 he wrote the Talks of Instruction, on self-denial, the nobility of will and intellect, and obedience to God. In the same period, he faced the Franciscans in some famous disputations on theological issues. In 1303 he became provincial (leader) of the Dominicans in Saxony, and three years later vicar of Bohemia. His main activity, especially from 1314, was preaching to the contemplative nuns established throughout the Rhine River valley. He resided in Strasbourg as a prior.

The best-attested German work of this middle part of his life is the Book of Divine Consolation, dedicated to the Queen of Hungary. The other two treatises were The Nobleman and On Detachment. The teachings of the mature Eckhart describe four stages of the union between the soul and God: dissimilarity, similarity, identity, breakthrough. At the outset, God is all, the creature is nothing; at the ultimate stage, “the soul is above God.” The driving power of this process is detachment.

1. Dissimilarity: “All creatures are pure nothingness. I do not say they are small or petty: they are pure nothingness.” Whereas God inherently possesses being, creatures do not possess being but receive it derivatively. Outside God, there is pure nothingness. “The being (of things) is God.” The “noble man” moves among things in detachment, knowing that they are nothing in themselves and yet aware that they are full of God—their being.

2. Similarity: Man thus detached from the singular (individual things) and attached to the universal (Being) discovers himself to be an image of God. Divine resemblance, an assimilation, then emerges: the Son, image of the Father, engenders himself within the detached soul. As an image, “thou must be in Him and for Him, and not in thee and for thee.”

3. Identity: Eckhart’s numerous statements on identity between God and the soul can be easily misunderstood. He never has substantial identity in mind, but God’s operation and man’s becoming are considered as one. God is no longer outside man, but he is perfectly interiorized. Hence such statements: “The being and the nature of God are mine; Jesus enters the castle of the soul; the spark in the soul is beyond time and space; the soul’s light is uncreated and cannot be created, it takes possession of God with no mediation; the core of the soul and the core of God are one.”

4. Breakthrough: To Meister Eckhart, identity with God is still not enough; to abandon all things without abandoning God is still not abandoning anything. Man must live “without why.” He must seek nothing, not even God. Such a thought leads man into the desert, anterior to God. For Meister Eckhart, God exists as “God” only when the creature invokes him. Eckhart calls “Godhead” the origin of all things that is beyond God (God conceived as Creator). “God and the Godhead are as distinct as heaven and earth.” The soul is no longer the Son. The soul is now the Father: it engenders God as a divine person. “If I were not, God would not be God.” Detachment thus reaches its conclusion in the breakthrough beyond God. If properly understood, this idea is genuinely Christian: it retraces, for the believer, the way of the Cross of Christ.

These teachings are to be found in his Latin works too. But the Latin Sermons, Commentaries on the Bible, and Fragments are more Scholastic and do not reveal the originality of his thought. Nevertheless, Eckhart enjoyed much respect even among scholars. In his 60th year he was called to a professorship at Cologne. Heinrich von Virneburg—a Franciscan, unfavourable to Dominicans, anyway—was the archbishop there, and it was before his court that the now immensely popular Meister Eckhart was first formally charged with heresy. To a list of errors, he replied by publishing a Latin Defense and then asked to be transferred to the pope’s court in Avignon. When ordered to justify a new series of propositions drawn from his writings, he declared: “I may err but I am not a heretic, for the first has to do with the mind and the second with the will!” Before judges who had no comparable mystical experience of their own, Eckhart referred to his inner certainty: “What I have taught is the naked truth.” The bull of Pope John XXII, dated March 27, 1329, condemns 28 propositions extracted from the two lists. Since it speaks of Meister Eckhart as already dead, it is inferred that Eckhart died some time before, perhaps in 1327 or 1328. It also says that Eckhart had retracted the errors as charged.

Although Eckhart’s philosophy amalgamates Greek, Neoplatonic, Arabic, and Scholastic elements, it is unique. His doctrine, sometimes abstruse, always arises from one simple, personal mystical experience to which he gives a number of names. By doing so, he was also an innovator of the German language, contributing many abstract terms. In the second half of the 20th century, there was great interest in Eckhart among some Marxist theorists and Zen Buddhists.

Reiner Schürmann
 

 

 
 
 
 

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