George Veditz: The Hohenstaufen Era of German Literature

The Hohenstaufen Era of German Literature

Delivered By G.W. Veditz, at the Presentation Day Exercises of the National Deaf-Mute College, Wednesday, May 7th, 1884.


In the period from the middle of the twelfth to the end of the thirteenth century, the German race reached a height of national glory which it has never at any time surpassed. The ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries cover a formative period, when, through its conflicts internal and external, the nation was developing its strength and preparing itself for the great part it was to play.

In the twelfth century, when we find the Hohenstaufen line swaying the sceptre of Charlemagne, the nation had emerged into a period of comparative quiet. It had undergone a complete regeneration. Old doctrines and old habits had been swept away by the influx of new ideas and new fashions, and an active vitality was infused, giving strength for the effort that was to be put forth.

The language had undergone the same vicissitudes as the people. It had before been broken up into the dialects of the various dukedoms and provinces; but, with the people it too had become settled and unified, the powerful example of the imperial house giving the ascendancy to the Suabian tongue.

Literature then left the seclusion of the monasteries, and turned to the more genial atmosphere of the royal court and of the castles of the nobility. Hitherto, the Church had wielded the greatest influence, but now the knight–the beau ideal of chivalrous manhood–became the central figure in the popular mind; and the monotonous chant of the monkish rhymer gave place to the livelier and more stirring song of the knightly minne-singer.

At the same time the Crusades and the Wars of the Guelphs and Ghibellines gave a stimulus to the martial and chivalrous spirit of the people, and furnished the theme for many a beautiful song. Moreover, the magnificent court of Frederick Barbarossa entertained with princely hospitality the brilliant and brave from far and near. The beauty of the women of this court, the splendor of its festivals and tournaments, attracted crowds of noble guests from Brittany and Flanders, Normandy and Provence; and the aspiring German mind being thus brought into contact with the ardent and chivalrous spirit of the south, caught the fire, and adopted with enthusiastic eagerness the fashions of the visitors. The Norman trouveres taught their lays and virelays to the German minstrel; and the Provencal singers of "Tristan and Isolde" and of Enid and Geraint found themselves eclipsed by their own pupils. In short, German literature blossomed forth into a vigorous and beautiful spring–the intense life and feeling of the time finding its expression in a burst of lyric and epic song, which even the golden age of the last century has not surpassed.

The sons and grandsons of the great Frederick were all cast in his heroic mould; and under them the nation advanced in the career so gloriously begun. Thus it is that the German of today not only looks upon the period of the Hohenstaufen of Suabian dynasty as one of greatest splendor in the annals of his country, but also gives its name to the first era of a distinctively German literature.

The bard who sounded the first note heralding the literary pageant of the era was Heinrich von Veldeck, who, in his version of the "Æneid," does not scruple to make

"Pan to Moses lend his Pagan horn,"

metamorphosing Virgil's Greek and Trojan princes into adventurous German knights. But he is the first truly German poet of the age, and was followed by a long array of brilliant signers, lyric and epic–by Walther von der Vogelweide, Ulrich von Lichtenstein, Ofterdingen, Tannhauser, Hartman von der Aue, Gotfried von Strasburg and Wolfram von Eschenbach.

Of the lyric poets–the so-called minne-signers, or minstrels–Walther von der Vogelweide is the acknowledged chief. He was born about 1170, of poor but noble parentage. His youth was spent among the Tyrolean hills, whose primeval beauty early quickened the poetic soul within him–

"As yet a child and all unknown to fame,
He lisped in numbers for the numbers came."

When a youth of twenty, he left his native hills, and, attaching himself to the imperial court, was from that time, till his death in 1227, one of the conspicuous figures on the national stage. He fought under the banners of the Empire in Palestine and Italy, and as an ardent Ghibelline took an active part in the politics of the day, making fierce and bitter attacks upon the corruptions in the church.

His poems breathe an intense love of nature and of truth, and are singularly pure and elevated in sentiment. His earlier songs fairly overflow with youthful luxuriance and gaiety, but as he grows older his verse assumes a more thoughtful and graver tone, and finally exhibits the serious and philosophic temper of old age.

Of the minne-signers, Walther is the best known to the modern German reader. He is inseparably connected with the "Minstrel War of Castle Wartburg," and, as our Longfellow intimates in his beautiful ode on the old bard, his very name suggests the springtime meadow with its flowers and its song of the lark and nightingale. The productions of this grand old master are every day becoming better and better known to the German world, and they deserve to be–they are German to the core.

Besides Walther, we have a long and noble line of other minnesigners, whose poems have come down to us, and attest the marvelous literary activity of the age–ranging in excellence from the clumsy Bacchanalian song to the pure and impassioned lay addressed to the Virgin.

But we find the most interesting and distinctive feature of the period in the metrical romance, or the tale of knightly adventure in song. These works are numerous and varied, the subjects being drawn from already existing Provencal or Norman models. The stories had a tendency to group themselves about illustrious historical names, some having Alexander, some Charlemagne, and some the British Arthur as their central figure. They are vital with the spirit of chivalry, varying in dignity and interest from the true epic poem to the mere commonplace story of love and adventure.

The greatest of the epic writers is without question Wolfram von Eschenbach, a noble Franconian knight, the companion and friendly rival of Walther von der Vogelweide. He has left us two great epics, "Titurel, or the Guardians of the Grail," and the "Parsifal," besides the charming fragmentary love tale of "Sigune." They form together the noblest relics of old German poetry, and are perhaps the first works of European literature which venture upon a profound analysis of human nature.

"Titurel" and "Parsifal" are both based on the old Armorican legends of the Holy Grail. "Parsifal" is the greatest work both of the poet and the age. It is the story of a man of noble and exalted mind, open-hearted and enthusiastic, at once credulous and skeptical, who falls into doubt and is driven by this doubt into a fierce despair, which makes him renounce both God and man. But after a bitter struggle, his doubt gives place to conviction, his obstinate pride to a noble humility; and henceforth we see him in an earnest pursuit of truth and eternal life, in the search for the Holy Grail. Wolfram makes him the hero not only of physical strife, but also of the nobler struggle of the soul with the world, of pride with humility, of faith with skepticism.

This poem is the most brilliant production of this brilliant period, and its great popularity in Germany at the present day—shown by the many editions it has passed through—gives witness to its extraordinary merit. Some German critics even place it on a level with Goethe's Faust, in so far as a comparison can be drawn between an epic and a drama.

Next to Wolfram we have Gotfried von Strasburg and Hartman von der Aue. These three tower high above the throng of their contemporaries. Gotfried, in his "Tristan and Isolde," and Hartman, in ["Iwein,"] his "Gawain," and in ["Erec,"] his "Enid and Geraint," rise far above all modern poets who have handled the same subjects, and are but faintly echoed by Scott and Coleridge and Tennyson, and by our own Lowell.

Though the works in question are in some sense imitations of foreign models, yet the greater among their authors had genius enough to raise them to the level and dignity of truly original works. There is also a group or cycle of epics of genuine native growth; and of these are the "Gudrun" and the "Niebelungen Lay." They are based on the ancient legends of the Teutonic race, which it brought with it from the frozen north. They celebrate the most renowned old German heroes, and they are poems on which the Germans look with a just pride, calling the "Niebelungen" their "Iliad" and the "Gudrun" their "Odyssey." They are familiar to English readers by means of translations and critiques; and, moreover, both they and Wolfram's and Gotfried's peerless songs have been made the subject of the grandest of Richard Wagner's compositions—the "Niebelungen Ring," and the "Parsifal," and "Tristan and Isolde."

This splendid era of German literature falls wholly within the Hohenstaufen period, and it seems as if its existence was bound up with the life of this princely house. The rout of Tagliacozza, in 1268, meant not only the death of Conradin, the last Hohenstaufen, but also the blight of the literary tree that had flourished in such beauty and splendor under this dynasty. The decline was rapid, for the very heart was dead. The lyricists lost all the grace and passion of Walther and Lichtenstein, and their songs became inane and degraded, pandering to the sensual taste of the time. The soulless meister-song succeeded to the lays of the old minstrels; while such epic poets as still existed, Rudolph von Ems and Konrad von Wurzburg, complain bitterly of the hostility and bad taste of the people, and seem at the same time to be aware of their own inferiority. This literary barrenness lasted for two hundred years, until Luther, at Wittenberg and Worms, roused anew the heart of the nation, and modern German literature begins.

One of the most marked features of the present time is our interest in the past. Our old literatures have ardent and loving students, who daily find new treasures of the richest poetry which have long lain concealed. Percy and Scott have resuscitated the exquisite old English ballads, while Scott in his "Triermain," Coleridge in his "Christabel," and Tennyson in his "Idyls," have made the heroes of the Round Table as popular now as they were in the heyday of chivalry.

In Germany, the comparative poverty of its literature makes the so-long-unknown gems of the Hohenstaufen time, a gift of priceless value, and they now shine refulgent in the literary diadem of the nation. Through the genius of Richard Wagner, Bodmer, Von der Hagen, and a host of others, these old works are becoming daily better known and daily dearer to the patriotic German heart. And so should it be. Let the present and the past in literature always confront and interpret each other, and, in the words of the English Laureate,

"Their echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow forever and forever."

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