German Literature and Language

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GERMAN LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE. German literature of the early modern period is as heterogeneous as the patchwork of principalities constituting the Holy Roman Empire at this time. The variety of literary forms, particularly during the Renaissance, reflects a panoply of political, social, and confessional interests among contemporary patrons and audiences.


When compared with German literature around 1200 or 1800, few works of this "middle" period have entered the canon of world literature. To explain this deficit, many scholars point to the Protestant Reformation and its seventeenth-century progeny, the Thirty Years' War (16181648), both of which diverted substantial creative energy toward theological debate, political diatribe, and at times sheer survival. However, the lack of a cohesive polity played an equal role, depriving authors of a central focal point for literary activities, such as a royal court or an emerging capital as found in England or France. Nonetheless, German literary works of the Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque reward their readers with intimate views of a society shaped by the opposing forces of city and court, Protestantism and Catholicism, and high and low culture.

The late medieval inheritance. Medieval literature proved especially long-lived in Germany. Some traditions or genres lasted well into the sixteenth century, although they frequently underwent substantial transformations as they adapted to changing tastes and audiences. For example, the meistersingers of Nuremberg and other cities considered the minnesinger Wolfram von Eschenbach one of their forebears and adhered strictly to the tripartite barform stanzas practiced around 1200, even if Wolfram sang of secular love for the nobility, as opposed to the primarily religious songs composed by the meistersingers for their bourgeois audience. The prestige of aristocratic models remained strong, prompting urban authors to adapt them to their own uses.

This is most evident in the continuing popularity of knightly tales of combat, romance, and exotic encounters. Medieval verse epics, such as Gottfried von Straßburg's Tristan und Isolt, Wirnt von Grafenberg's Wigalois, or the anonymous Nibelungenlied, retained broad appeal and appeared as some of the earliest chapbooks, both in prose (Tristrant und Isalde, 1484; Wigoleis, 1472, by Ulrich Füetrer) and in newly versified forms (Das Lied vom Hürnen Seyfrid, or The Song of Horned Siegfried; c. 1530). Other chapbooks presented stories adapted from French sources, such as Melusine (1456) by Thüring von Ringoltingen (1410/14151483) or Huge Scheppel (c. 1437) by Elisabeth von Nassau-Saarbrücken (c. 13931456). Later works introduced bourgeois heroes such as Fortunatus (1509), who succeeds with the aid of a magic purse. Meanwhile, clever peasant protagonists got the better of other social classes in works like Salomon und Markolf (c. 1482) and Till Eulenspiegel (c. 1510). Nonetheless, chivalry remained strong, as evidenced by Emperor Maximilian I (ruled 14931519), often known as "the last knight." With the aid of court ghostwriters, Maximilian produced Theuerdank (1517; Lofty thinker), a rhymed allegory of his courtship of Mary of Burgundy. He is also responsible for the Ambraser Heldenbuch (15041516; Ambras book of heroes), a compilation of twenty-five medieval courtly epics.

Perhaps the most lingering literary legacy of the Middle Ages was that of medieval theater, which encompassed both religious drama, such as Passion, Easter, and Last Judgment plays, as well as the secular tradition of Fastnachtspiele, or Carnival plays. Easter plays focused on Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection, while Passion plays treated the totality of salvation history from the Creation to the martyrdom of saints. These texts are generally grouped according to "families" such as the Rhine-Hesse group, whose related scenes suggest some form of theatrical exchange among the communities involved. Carnival plays traditionally transgressed social mores and are similarly grouped into regional traditions. In Nuremberg, performances took place in inns, while in Lübeck, Sterzing (Tyrol), southwest Germany, and Switzerland, these were open-air events. The tradition grew less ribald following the Reformation. The Nuremberg plays of Hans Sachs (14941576) are perhaps the best-known Fastnachtspiele from the sixteenth century, but Lucerne produced important late Catholic examples of the genre alongside the Lucerne Passion Play, performed until 1616 and the best-documented play of its type.

Renaissance humanism. Following the development of movable type in the 1440s and 1450s, books became more affordable, leading to widespread changes in reading habits and the dissemination of knowledge. Illiteracy and the high cost of manuscripts had meant that literary works were most frequently read aloud in a group, but now an increasingly educated bourgeoisie began to read in private. Education itself, once the domain of the church, expanded to secular institutions with the proliferation of municipal schools and the continued expansion of universities. As a result, an educated, nonclerical class developed, nourished by towns' and territorial rulers' growing need for administrators. This group proved especially receptive to the rediscovery of classical learning and arts at the heart of the Italian Renaissance.

The resulting humanist movement had a farreaching impact on learning and literature. Although Latin was the humanists' primary language, their adaptation of classical models established the course of "high" German literature for much of the early modern period. Early humanists, such as the Swabian scholars Niklaus von Wyle (c. 14151479), Albrecht von Eyb (14201475), and Heinrich Steinhöwel (1411/121479), focused on translations in an effort to cultivate their "barbaric" native tongue. Members of the next generation engaged predominantly in imitation, producing Neo-Latin works intended to rival those of antiquity. Conrad Celtis or Celtes (14591508), Germany's "arch-humanist" and first poet laureate (1487), followed Horatian models for his Quatuor Libri Amorum (1502; Four books of Amores ), while Johannes Reuchlin (14551522) wrote Scaenica Progymnasmata or Henno (1497), the first successful Terentian comedy north of the Alps. By the early 1500s, northern humanists were producing original works of lasting influence, such as the sublimely humorous Moriae Encomium (1509; Praise of folly) by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466?1536) or the poetically supple Basia (published 1539; Kisses) by another Dutchman, Janus Secundus (15111536).

A humanist also produced the single most successful German literary work prior to the Enlightenment: Das Narrenschiff (1494; Ship of fools) by Sebastian Brant (c. 14571521). In the 112 chapters of the original edition, each accompanied by an illustrative woodcut with a three- to four-line motto, the author moralizes against all manner of "follies" ranging from gluttony and greed to excessive ecclesiastical benefices. Four unauthorized editions of the work appeared within its first year of publication, but it was not until its Latin adaptation by Brant's protégé Jacob Locher (Stultifera Navis, 1497) that it became a true pan-European sensation. In its wake, a tradition of Narrenliteratur (Fools' literature) emerged, with authors such as Thomas Murner (14751537), Jörg Wickram (c. 1505c. 1562), and Hans Sachs among Brant's direct or indirect heirs. The Narrenschiff 's "Sankt Grobian" (Saint Uncouth) was to provide a model for sixteenth-century conduct books, and the work's melding of text and image anticipates later emblem books.

Reformation. While some early humanists seemed to prize poetry over piety, later proponents of the studia humanitatis eagerly applied the motto ad fontes ('to the sources') to religious texts. Johannes Reuchlin was the first to promote Greek and Hebrew studies, considering the latter so important that he cautioned the emperor against an effort to destroy Jewish writings. Scholastic opponents charged Reuchlin with heresy, and the resulting dispute became a humanist cause célèbre, producing the Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum (15151517; Letters of obscure men), a satire of Reuchlin's ineloquent adversaries written by Crotus Rubeanus (c. 1480c. 1545), Ulrich von Hutten (14881523), and others. Erasmus became the leading Christian humanist, editing the writings of St. Jerome, along with other church fathers, and following in his footsteps as biblical translator by producing the Novum Instrumentum (1516), a Greek edition of the New Testament with an accompanying Latin translation distinct from the Vulgate.

In 1522, another translator of the Bible, Martin Luther (14831546), based his German translation of the New Testament on the second edition of Erasmus's work. Beyond its religious significance, the Lutheran Reformation had a profound impact on vernacular literature. For the first time, the power of printing became manifest, with Protestant authors churning out broadsides, dialogues, plays, and songs to promote the new faith. Catholic authors responded in kind, but not in quantity, since many considered the common vernacular inappropriate for theological debate. Luther's hymns and above all his Bible stand as lasting artistic achievements. His success as a translator lay in his ability to render biblical Hebrew and Greek in the idiomatic German spoken by "the mother at home, the children in the street, and the common man at market," as described in his Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen (1530; Letter on translation), which defends Luther's rendition of contested passages against Catholic detractors.

Despite an initial alliance, humanist support for Luther was mixed at best. By the mid-1520s, the debate between Luther and Erasmus over free will signaled a break between the two movements. Still, Protestants embraced humanist educational ideals, and Luther's colleague Philipp Melanchthon (14971560) is known to posterity as the "Teacher of Germany" for his widely influential reforms.

Mid- to late sixteenth century. In adapting countless classical, medieval, and Renaissance works for a bourgeois audience, Hans Sachs embodied the humanists' belief in the edifying power of literature. Although his meistersongs far outweigh his other production, Sachs remains best known for Carnival plays such as Der fahrende Schüler im Paradies (1550; The traveling scholar in paradise) or Das Narrenschneiden (1536; The Foolectomy), later produced by Goethe in Weimar. He was also a leading author of confessional literature, producing Reformation dialogues, numerous broadsheets, and "Die Wittenbergische Nachtigall" (1523), which compared Luther's preaching of the Gospel to the song of a nightingale.

Other important authors from the latter half of the century include Jörg Wickram, like Sachs a meistersinger and playwright, but best known for his prose works. His Rollwagenbüchlein (1555; Stagecoach stories) became a model of short, entertaining fabliaux, while Der Goldfaden (1557; The golden thread) is considered the first German novel based on a plot of the author's own creation. Johann Fischart (c. 15471590) produced the exuberant Geschichtklitterung (1575; revised second edition 1582), a playfully punning translation of François Rabelais's Gargantua et Pantagruel. Leading playwrights are Nicodemus Frischlin (15471590), known for his Neo-Latin biblical plays, and Duke Heinrich Julius von Braunschweig (15641613), whose vernacular works show the mark of itinerant English troupes active on the Continent.

In terms of lasting influence, however, no late-sixteenth-century work can compare with the Historia von D. Johann Fausten (1587; History of Dr. Johann Faust), a purported biography of this part-historical, part-legendary necromancer. In typical humanist fashion, Faust desires to recreate antiquity, but the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake is now demonized. Soon after its publication, the chapbook found it way to England, where playwright Christopher Marlowe created The Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus (1588; published 1604). Goethe began to occupy himself with this material around 1775, with Faust I published in 1808 and Faust II, posthumously, in 1832.

The baroque period. Seventeenth-century Germany saw a resurgence of courtly patronage and Catholicism. The Jesuit order worked actively to restore the old faith, adapting popular genres as Protestants had done before them. Jesuit drama proved especially effective: the eternal damnation portrayed in Cenodoxus (1602) by Jakob Bidermann (c. 15771639) drove fourteen spectators into spiritual retreat in 1609 to take up the Exercises of St. Ignatius. The leading author of Catholic hymns was Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld (15911635), also a member of the Society of Jesus. Protestants pursued an inner spirituality as well, apparent in the poetry of Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg (16331694) and Johannes Scheffler, who became Angelus Silesius (16241677) upon his conversion to Catholicism in 1653. Nonetheless, Protestant literary traditions remained strong, as demonstrated by the hymns of Paul Gerhardt (16071676).

The publication of Das Buch von der deutschen Poeterey (1624; The book of German poetics) by Martin Opitz (15971639) marked the true beginning of baroque literature in Germany. The work is a concise handbook with practical recommendations for versification, rhetorical devices, and genre distinctions. The significance of Opitz's metrical reform cannot be overstated. Long schooled on Latin and French verse, which were based either on vowel length or syllable counting, German authors ignored the natural alternation of accented and unaccented syllables. Opitz restored this rhythm with the result that the Alexandrineriambic hexameter with a central caesurabecame the standard verse form for the German baroque. The four-beat doggerel Knittelvers of Hans Sachs and others became a thing of ridicule, as illustrated by Andreas Gryphius's Absurda Comica oder Herr Peter Squentz (1658; Comic absurdities or Mr. Peter Squentz).

Lyric poets also embraced Opitz's recommendations. In addition to those mentioned above, among the most talented poets were Paul Fleming (16091640), Simon Dach (16051659), Georg Philipp Harsdörffer (16071658), Christian Hofmann von Hofmannswaldau (16171679), and Caspar Stieler (16321707). Together they introduced a highly ornamented language replete with tropes and figures. Faced with the horrors of the Thirty Years' War, such authors frequently treated the themes of vanitas (the vanity of worldly pursuits) and carpe diem (seize the day). Amatory poetry was equally in vogue, as found in the Petrarchism of Fleming or the gallant poetry of Hofmannswaldau. Popular forms were the sonnet, the epigram, and figural or concrete poetry, in which the printed text evoked the item described.

Opitz did not include the novel in his handbook, but by 1700 it had become an acknowledged genre. Baroque authors produced three basic novel types. Arminius (16891690) by Daniel Casper von Lohenstein (16351683) and Aramena (16691673) by Duke Anton Ulrich von Braunschweig (16331714) are prime examples of the heroic-gallant novel, which treated seventeenth-century dynastic politics in Roman guise. Die adriatische Rosemund (1645) by Philipp von Zesen (16191689) is considered Germany's prime pastoral novel, although Rosemund's idyllic existence as a shepherdess is a mere interlude in an otherwise tragic story set in a bourgeois milieu. Representing the Schelmenroman (picaresque novel) is the most famous German baroque novel of all, Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus (1668; The adventurous Simplicissimus; Continuatio, 1669; Continuation) by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (1622?1676). Like Grimmelshausen himself, the novel's protagonist leads a peripatetic life marked by the vicissitudes of war. Forced from home by marauding soldiers, Simplicissimus begins as a simpleton and moves through several stages of life and experience before finally withdrawing from the world.

Baroque vernacular theater is inextricably linked to the contemporary culture of court pageantry. Elaborate stage machinery allowed for striking visual effects, and baroque playwrights employed these to delight or disarm their audiences, particularly in the popular tragedies (Trauerspiele, literally 'sad plays') of Andreas Gryphius (16161664) and Daniel Casper von Lohenstein. Gryphius is known for martyr dramas such as Catharina von Georgien (c. 1647), but also for Cardenio und Celinde (c. 1648), in which the lovers, unlike Romeo and Juliet, renounce their love before it leads to a tragic end. Gryphius, along with Harsdörffer and others, also composed opera libretti, such as Majuma, performed for the coronation of Ferdinand IV of Habsburg in 1653. None other than Opitz founded German opera with Daphne (1627), adapted from an Italian libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini, although the corresponding score by Heinrich Schütz (15851672) is unfortunately lost. In its combination of word, image, and music, opera became the most celebrated performance genre of the century.

Toward a standard language. Linguistically, early modern Germany was as disparate as its political landscape. As today, the Low German dialects of the north differed substantially from southern German variants, but in 1450 no well-established standard existed to allow easy communication between them. The emergence of New High German by the late seventeenth century was a slow and complicated process, and the transitional period between roughly 1350 and 1650 is known as Frühneuhochdeutsch, or Early New High German.

Unlike the Middle High German of medieval authors, which was rooted in the language of the Hohenstaufen court in southwest Germany, Frühneuhochdeutsch was not based on any one regional dialect. However, some areas exerted more linguistic influence than others, in particular through the chancelleries of cities and leading courts, which gradually abandoned Latin in favor of a "common" German stripped of specific regionalisms. The Prague chancellery of Emperor Charles IV, the Habsburg chancellery in Vienna, and the Saxon chancellery in Meißen are all important in this regard. Indeed, Luther himself followed the model of the Saxon chancellery, and the ubiquity of Luther's Bible did much to hasten the development of a standard language. However, Luther did not singlehandedly create the basis for New High German, as Jakob Grimm and others once claimed. Rather, recent research has demonstrated that Luther, the chancelleries, and early printers all adopted linguistic trends in process around them.

As the need for a unified language became increasingly apparent, humanists and their successors strove to normalize orthography, lexicon, and grammar. Sixteenth-century efforts, such as the dictionaries of Petrus Dasypodius (Dictionarium Latino-Germanicum, 1525) and Josua Maaler (Die Teütsch Spraach, 1561), or Johannes Clajus's Grammatica Germanicae Linguae (1578; Grammar of the German language), were produced primarily for foreigners familiar with Latin. Later, baroque Sprachgesellschaften (literary societies) worked to cultivate the language by freeing it from foreign influence. Philipp von Zesen (16191689) and others created German neologisms to replace borrowed terms, while Justus Schottel (16121676) produced his Ausführliche Arbeit von der Teutschen Haubt Sprache (1663), considered by many the first systematic grammar of the German language.

Recent research. Early modern German literature is the most under-researched period of German literary history. However, its transitional position between Middle Ages and modernity, once considered a disadvantage, has now become its asset, attracting fresh research on shifts in political, social, and intellectual paradigms. As in other fields, recent work has turned from an emphasis on canonical works to an exploration of the margins that bounded and defined "high" literature. Representations of gender and minorities have generated substantial interest, with women authors gaining a new appreciation. Popular literature, such as Carnival plays, has also enjoyed a positive reassessment. Much work is inter-disciplinary in nature, due in no small part to authors' polymathic interests, which included medicine and alchemy.


German literature of the eighteenth century is usually thought of as being a break with the traditions of the period from 1450 to 1700. At last, such thinking goes, German emerged as a literary language easily read by modern readers. In addition, many of the earlier writers were considered to be nothing more than precursors of Schiller and Goethe. By 1780, literary culture in Germany was on the threshold of its golden age, the Klassik (17851830), and all that preceded it was but a prelude to greatness. Such views of German literature and language of the period are not entirely invalid, yet the creative achievement of eighteenth-century writers may be measured as much by its continuity with the past as by its own accomplishments. In each genrelyric poetry, drama, epic verse, and proseGerman literary culture in the years 17001780 stood on its own, even as it pointed in the direction of modernity.

Intellectual foundations. The foundation of the intellectual ferment that became the German Enlightenment, the Aufklärung, was constructed by Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (16461716). A truly cosmopolitan intellect in the mold of early modern scholars, he laid the philosophical groundwork for eighteenth-century rationalism. His disciple, Christian Wolff (16791754), popularized his master's thinking even as he freed philosophical discourse from the strictures of theology. His watchword, Vernunft, meaning systematic reasoning, became a significant component of the century's mindset. In the writings of Johann Christoph Gottsched (17001766) such rationalist thinking was applied to literature, specifically in his Versuch einer Critischen Dichtkunst vor die Deutschen (1730; Attempt at a critical poetics for the Germans). There, Gottsched replaced early modern descriptions of literary forms by Martin Opitz (15971639) and others with logical discourse, which rationally defined literature's didactic and social functions. Comic drama, for example, was to instruct bourgeois viewers about human foibles by means of Verlachen, satiric laughter about a comic figure's lack of Vernunft. Literature and theater served to perfect human behavior, a view reflected in Gottsched's espousal of the exemplary quality of French classicist drama.

Pietism was an equally important component of the eighteenth-century mindset in Germany. Believing participants in this early modern movement within Lutheranism sought a one-to-one, often emotionally charged relationship to their God. The heart rather than the mind governed this mode of perception. The individual mattered. Even though Johann Jakob Breitinger (17011776) and Johann Jakob Bodmer (16981783) were not Pietists, their focus on imagination and illusion, on literary description, which inspires and affects the heart of the reader, was analogous to this strain of religious experience. Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock's (17241803) daring epic poem Der Messias (1748/1773; The Messiah) was the culmination of such spirituality. For Klopstock, writing poetry was the celebration of the sacred. The writer undertook a transcendent, even prophetic, act. To the extent that the text ecstatically inspired the reader, literature achieved its desired result.

Literary developments. German culture of the early modern period saw the proliferation of literary forms, a wide array of stylistic experimentation, the struggle for the creation of language fit for differentiated expression. Additionally, German literature was highly derivative: dramas derived from Greek and Roman models; lyric poetry looked to classical Rome and contemporary France, Italy, and the Netherlands; novels were modeled on Spanish and French forebears. During the eighteenth century, German writers looked to external models (specifically to England), but also found their own voice. An examination of historical developments within each genre from 1700 to 1780 bears this out.

Poetry. Barthold Hinrich Brockes (16801747) focused in his collection, Irdisches Vergnügen in Gott (in nine volumes 17211748; Worldly joy of God), on God's rational order even in the smallest of plants. Albrecht von Haller's (17081777) Die Alpen (1732; The Alps) described Switzerland's landscape set among the towering mountains as the locus of virtuous life and human fulfillment. Countless Pietist hymn writers, notably Gerhard Tersteegen (16971769), extolled their religious vision, while Christian Friedrich Henrici (17001764) wrote cantata texts and the libretti of the St. Matthew and St. Mark Passions for Johann Sebastian Bach (16851750). All of these, along with Klopstock's uplifiting odes and the magisterial verse epic Messias, itself inspired by the grandeur of John Milton's Paradise Lost, spoke to the function of poetry as a purveyor of religious values and a full range of human experiences.

Other lyric poets turned their attention to worldly matters. With stylistic grace, Friedrich von Hagedorn (17081754) wrote of youthful love and friendship and the virtues of the rural life, adapting Horace to the times. Christian Fürchtegott Gellert's (17151769) immensely popular fables and tales in verse (from 1741 on) appeared in the periodical press and reinforced bourgeois values. Anna Luisa Karsch (17221791) astounded her readers with lyric virtuosity. Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim (17191803) recognized Karsch as being a natural, even as he himself adroitly refined the ancient conventions of lilting verses on wine, women, and song (Versuch in scherzhaften Liedern; 1744, Attempt at witty songs). Every young poet of the age tried his hand at such verse in imitation of the ancient Greek poet Anacreon. Poets of the Göttinger Hain (Göttingen Circle), an assembly of kindred young spirits, picked up on Anacreon as well as experimenting with ballads. Gleim had introduced the ballad (1756) to the German-language repertoire, and Johann Gottfried von Herder (17441803) collected and translated ballads from the English in his Volkslieder (1777/78: Folk songs). Herder's work inspired Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832) and the writers of German Romanticism.

Drama. Dramatists in 1700 wrote for three venues, each a holdover from traditions that originated in the sixteenth centuryprincely courts, schools, and open-air stages. This was slow to change, but by 1780 permanent theaters with scheduled public performances and professional actors in cities like Hamburg, Mannheim, and Vienna had been established, often only temporarily. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's (17291781) Hamburgische Dramaturgie (17671769; The Hamburg dramaturgy), a collection of reviews of performances and interpretations of Aristotle's theory of tragedy, documented the state of the theatrical arts in Germany, as tenuous as it was.

An examination of the career of Lessing as a dramatist may serve as a touchstone for the development of drama during the period. He had participated in schoolboy drama, Schuldrama, in his provincial hometown Kamenz near Dresden in Saxony. His studies took him to Leipzig, where he fell in with players in the troupe of Friederike Caroline Neuber (16791760), a woman whose productions had for a while featured those French dramatists most favored by Gottsched, namely Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, and Molière. She had fallen out with the professor of poetics, all the more reason for the young Lessing to have her produce his comedy about a preposterously erudite fool, Der junge Gelehrte (1747; The young scholar). He perfected the conventions of the so-called sächsische Komödie (Saxon comedy) to expose the irrational. Later, Lessing excoriated Gottsched for his predilection for formulaic French drama. He himself championed Shakespeare's authentic language and true-to-life dramatic plots and inaugurated Germany's admiration of Shakespeare.

In Berlin, Lessing's journalistic critiques of the literary scene and his interest in the theory of drama resulted in a tragedy situated in the bourgeois milieu, Miß Sara Sampson (1755; Miss Sara Sampson), arguably the first bürgerliches Trauerspiel (bourgeois tragedy) in Germany. The heroine was not of high social station, not a princess, and her tragic fate moved audiences to tears. Performed to this day, Minna von Barnhelm (1767), a comedy, bordering on tragedy, extended the limits of the dramatic form. As earnest as it was, it was the first modern German comedy. Emilia Galotti (1772), a tragedy born of the conflict between virtuous bourgeois Emilia and a lecherous prince, criticized the reality of absolutist society. Its first performance was in a court theater, where the message was sure to prick the conscience of the listeners.

In Nathan der Weise (1779; Nathan the wise), his last play, Lessing continued to break new ground. He introduced blank verse to German literature; the unrhymed iambic pentameter flowed as naturally as the prose speech of his other plays. The protagonist was a Jewish merchant, another first. Nathan was as rich in humane wisdom as he was in economic terms, a break with stereotypical characterization. The action was set in medieval Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades and it was the wise Jew, rather than his Christian and Moslem counterparts, who forwarded a vision of Toleranz, the mutual acceptance of religious beliefs. The play delivered the central message of the Aufklärung as the emancipation of the German Jews commenced and just prior to Immanuel Kant's philosophical definition of the process of human enlightenment.

By 1780, then, German drama had emerged as a truly progressive cultural force. The works of women playwrights such as Luise Gottsched (17131762) (and also those who wrote under male names) appeared. That they were writing and publishing exemplified the emancipatory aspirations of the Enlightenment. The hotheaded playwrights of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and stress), a cultural phase (17651785) often seen as the radicalization of the Enlightenment's idealistic pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, was a further case in point. The plays of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (17521792) and Friedrich Maximilian Klinger (17521831), but especially Friedrich Schiller's Die Räuber (1781; The robbers), were revolutionary in both form and content. Dynamic and larger-than-life types called loudly for the immediate reform of a corrupt society largely made up of emasculated weaklings. The language was as brashly explicit as the message. The works of these women and men signaled that German drama had arrived.

Epic prose. Early modern epic prose from the satiric chapbooks and didactic novels of the sixteenth century to the satiric picaresque, the cloying pastoral, and the complex allegorical political novels of the seventeenth century gradually lost relevance for eighteenth-century readers. Early prose was eventually supplanted by novels modeled on English sentimental forms that tell of bourgeois family life of the landed gentry. A growing interest in the depiction of human psychology, rather than the grand sweep of adventure, reflected both the effects of Pietism and the didactic intentions of Enlightenment authors.

Johann Gottfried Schnabel's (1692c. 1750) four-volume Insel Felsenburg (17311743; The island Felsenburg), a transitional work, combined elements of Robinson Crusoe adventures and utopian thinking. It depicted an ideal bourgeois spiritual community situated far from European realities, one founded on the principles of Pietist virtue and God-given Vernunft. Gellert's Das Leben der Schwedischen Gräfin von G*** (1746; The life of the Swedish countess G***), a biographical treatment of horrific personal trauma, depicted the personal depravities of an imperfect world. The moralizing impulse implicit in both novels became the era's stock in trade. For example, Sophie von La Roche's (17301807) Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim (1771/72; The story of Miss von Sternheim) told of the uplifting triumph of personal virtue, while Johann Heinrich Jung-Stilling's (17401817) Heinrich Stillings Jugend (1777 and sequels 17781804; Heinrich Stilling's youth) engagingly traced the life of a Pietist soul. The ups and downs chronicled in Ulrich Bräker's (17351798) true-to-life Lebensgeschichte und natürliche Ebentheur des Armen Mannes im Tockenburg (1789; The biography and real adventures of the unfortunate man in Toggenburg) implied that the day-to-day struggle of the provincial commoner was noteworthy, even noble.

What Lessing was to drama, Christoph Martin Wieland (17331813) was to the novel. He early turned his attention to the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and his later interaction with Bodmer attuned him to the strains of literary Empfindsamkeit (sentimentality) and ecstatic religiosity. His first novel, Der Sieg der Natur über die Schwärmerei, oder Don Sylvio von Rosalva (1774; The triumph of nature over enthusiasm or Don Sylvio von Rosalva), a fantastic story modeled on the Spanish novelist Cervantes, dealt with the central categories of the century, true-to-life reality versus inspirational illusion. Don Sylvio was an updated Don Quixote, a German dreamer. An embedded fairy-tale narrative led to the novel's appeal. Wieland's Geschichte des Agathon (17661767, with revisions 1773 and 1798; The story of Agathon) investigated the same issues as they played themselves out in an imagined ancient Greece. The whole vocabulary of sentimentalism appeared in the novel; sentimental souls were those who feel most accurately, feeling was their test of truth. Love was not desire, but a condition based on Empfindung (sentiment).

Lessing considered Agathon to be the century's best novel, even as he rejected Goethe's European bestseller Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The sorrows of young Werther), because of Werther's excessive, ultimately suicidal desire. The threshold crossed between Wieland and Goethe marked the German novel's true coming of age.

The achievement of the era 17001780. German-language literary culture of the eighteenth century was unlike that of the years preceding 1700 on several counts. While the canon of texts enumerated above is generally well-known internationally, the dramas of Lessing are routinely staged in Germany and elsewhere. The phrase "Lessing, Schiller, Goethe" resonates with any German. Each author has at least one museum (such as the Lessing Museum in Kamenz), a named journal (The Lessing Yearbook in Cincinnati), and a named institution of scholarship (Lessing Akademie in Wolfenbüttel) devoted to the author's achievement. The triumvirate is as much a component of German cultural memory as the familiar "Three B's"Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. Not coincidentally, it was the eighteenth century that saw the emergence of such notable figures who pointed the way into the long nineteenth century. Along with literature and music, modern western philosophy originated in the mind of the stylistically effective writer Immanuel Kant (17241804).

Any answer as to why this period of cultural achievement came about is speculative. Some would pin it on the transition from the priority of theology to the priority of science and philosophy, on curious questioning rather than on believing acceptance. This explanation emphasizes, correctly, the remarkable extent to which German thinkers were sensitive to religion, in contrast to those in many other countries. Others would look to the gradual shift to a bourgeois ethics in line with the emancipatory values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. While the controlling administrative institutions of the Holy Roman Empire might still have been in place, a self-confident citizenry in cities like Berlin, Leipzig, and Hamburg was a match for the long-entrenched aristocratic social order. Lessing, for example, sought to earn his keep in the marketplace of publishing. Even though he was ultimately unsuccessful in freeing himself from courtly patronage, the attempt to earn a living by writing was part of the cultural process that eventually led to modernity.

See also Brant, Sebastian ; Drama: German ; Dutch Literature and Language ; Enlightenment ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von ; Grimmelshausen, H. J. C. von ; Herder, Johann Gottfried von ; Humanism ; Kant, Immanuel ; Klopstock, Friedrich Gottlieb ; Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim ; Luther, Martin ; Melanchthon, Philipp ; Nuremberg ; Pietism ; Reformation, Protestant ; Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von ; Wieland, Christoph Martin .


Primary Sources

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Secondary Sources

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Brown, F. Andrew. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Twayne World Authors Series 113. New York, 1971. A good introduction to Lessing's life and works.

Browning, Robert M. German Poetry in the Age of the Enlightenment: From Brockes to Klopstock. University Park, Pa., 1978. A useful overview of the genre.

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Daphnis. The leading journal of early modern German literature.

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Kord, Susanne. Little Detours: The Letters and Plays by Luise Gottsched (17131762). Rochester, N.Y., 2000. An excellent introduction to Luise Gottsched's life and works.

McCarthy, John A. Christoph Martin Wieland. Twayne's World Authors Series 528. Boston, 1979. A good introduction to Wieland's life and works.

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Schade, Richard E., managing ed. The Lessing Yearbook/ Jahrbuch. Vol. 1 (1969)34 (2002) ongoing. Scholarship in English and German on Lessing and his era. Complete listing of articles available at

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Glenn Ehrstine, Richard E. Schade