German Language and Literature

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German Language and

The language and literature of Germany went through a transformation during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Beginning in the mid-1200s, Latin—the language in which most official documents had been written—gradually gave way to German. This change produced a bilingual* literature in Germany that was both rich and diverse.


Between 1350 and 1650, Germans spoke and wrote in a variety of regional dialects. The forms, spelling, and pronunciation of words all differed from place to place. "Standard" forms of German began to emerge during the 1500s, and by the end of the century a widely accepted written language had developed.

Several factors played a role in the standardization of German. The form of the language used at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor* had a significant influence on spoken and written German. Perhaps the most important figure at the imperial court was Johann von Neumarkt, chancellor to the emperor Charles IV in the mid-1300s. Neumarkt contributed to the development of both German and Latin. For international correspondence, he created a version of Latin modeled on that of the early Italian humanists*. At the same time, he combined two existing German dialects to produce a flexible and elegant form of German for everyday use.

A second significant factor in the development of German was Johann Gutenberg's printing press, invented around 1455. Some scholars believe that printers tried to reduce the use of regional dialects in their books in an effort to reach the widest possible audience. However, they did not create a single standard form of written German. Instead they developed several so-called printers' languages, all distinctly different.

The most important factor in the development of a standard German language was probably the German translation of the Bible that religious reformer Martin Luther produced in 1534. Widely distributed in German-speaking lands, this book spread its version of written German to thousands of readers. During Luther's lifetime, printers produced half a million copies of his Bible. This number is especially impressive considering that most Germans at the time could not read. Some writers have credited Luther with "creating" modern German, but this claim is an exaggeration. However, he did contribute greatly to the development of the German that appeared in later literature. Luther's language was colorful and earthy. He had a good ear for rhythmic balances and a gift for meaningful phrases, and his writing abounded with images of everyday life.

Any history of the German language must include the linguistic societies that developed in the 1600s. The most important of these was the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (Fruit-Bearing Society). Modeled on an Italian academy, the group aimed to purify and preserve the German tongue. The society replaced numerous foreign words with newly coined German words, many of which are still in use.


Various social and religious changes shaped German literature during the Renaissance. One major trend was the emergence of a middle class in European cities. Members of the new middle class demanded books that were both entertaining and instructive. At the same time, the development of printing made more books available, while the growing number of people able to read created a market for them. Most importantly of all, the Protestant Reformation* in the early 1500s challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Its influence touched every aspect of Renaissance life, including the types of literature that were produced.

Religious Pamphlets. In the wake of the Reformation, thousands of religious pamphlets flooded the German market. They took a variety of forms, including letters, sermons, parodies, songs, and fables. Often illustrated with woodcuts*, pamphlets urged readers to take a stand for or against the new religious ideas of the day. Aimed at average citizens, pamphlets were written in the vernacular* rather than in Latin, which until that time had always been used for religious writing.

Most pamphlets were published anonymously, but several major authors made their names public. Chief among these was Martin Luther. According to estimates, over 3 million copies of his works were sold between 1516 and 1546—not including the many editions of his German Bible. Another important writer of pamphlets was Hans Sachs, a shoemaker from NÜrnberg. Both men also distinguished themselves in other literary forms, including lyric poetry*.

Lyric Poetry. The most important forms of lyric poetry during the German Renaissance were two types of religious songs. Church hymns, called Kirchenlieder, reflected the influence of Protestant ideas. Luther composed approximately 40 hymns, including the famous and still popular "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." The Reformation also affected the songs of the Meistersingers (master singers) who met regularly after Sunday services to perform solo songs without instruments. Thousands of these songs, called Meisterlieder (master songs), were written and performed during the Renaissance, although few are remembered today. Hans Sachs alone wrote more than 4,000 such pieces, making him the undisputed master of the master singers.

Drama. Drama in Germany in the 1500s fell into two categories. One type of play celebrated the festival called Carnival, a period of madcap celebration that preceded the serious season of Lent (several weeks before Easter). The other major dramatic form was modeled on Latin humanist drama, which drew on the styles of ancient Roman playwrights. At the time, Germany had no theaters and no professional actors. Amateurs performed plays in schools and universities, inns, public squares, and private homes.

Hans Sachs occupies a special place in German Renaissance drama. With little or no Latin and no firsthand knowledge of ancient or humanist drama, the shoemaker wrote about 130 plays. These pieces feature a collection of colorful stock characters—greedy merchants, simpleminded peasants, jealous spouses, lustful priests, cruel tyrants, and nosy neighbors. At a time of religious upheaval, Sachs's plays offered moral guidance and solid middle-class values, such as hard work, obedience, and thrift.

Narrative Forms. German narrative* forms of the Renaissance drew on sources from other parts of Europe. In the 1400s two women of noble birth, Elisabeth von Nassau-Saarbrücken and Eleonore of Austria, translated works from French into German. Early German humanists contributed translations from Italian and Latin, including the works of Giovanni Boccaccio, Petrarch, and others. These translations introduced new ideas, themes, and stories into the German literary tradition.

The reading public enjoyed short humorous tales called Schwänke, written in prose or verse and often published in collections. One immensely popular work of this kind was Till Eulenspiegel. Modeled after a real person, Till is a prankster who constantly outwits the people he encounters. His name, which means "owl mirror," may come from an old saying that most people recognize their faults as little as an owl sees its ugliness in a mirror.

One of the most influential books of the time was The History of Dr. Johann Faust. It relates the legend of a scholar who turns from religious studies to magic and sells his soul to the devil in exchange for 24 years of riches, pleasure, and knowledge of all things. Intended as a cautionary tale against pride, it became a symbol for humankind's dangerous striving for knowledge at the expense of faith. Published anonymously in 1587, the story of Faust was immediately translated into several European languages and inspired novels, plays, and operas by many noted artists of later years.

(See alsoArt in Germany; Cities and Urban Life; Printing and Publishing; Religious Literature. )

* bilingual

speaking or using two different languages

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* Protestant Reformation

religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches

* woodcut

print made from a block of wood with an image carved into it

* vernacular

native language or dialect of a region or country

* lyric poetry

verse that expresses feelings and thoughts rather than telling a story

The Legend of Dr. Faust

The History of Dr. Johann Faust was one of the most influential works in the German language. During the Renaissance, it inspired the play Doctor Faustus by the English dramatist Christopher Marlowe (a contemporary of Shakespeare). In the early 1800s, the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe turned it into a dramatic poem about a man who sold his soul for knowledge but was saved in the end. Author Thomas Mann used it as the basis for a novel in 1947, and many composers—including Charles Gounod of France and Franz Liszt of Hungary—based operas and other works on it.

* narrative