Josef Glowa

title.none: Murdoch, ed., German Literature (Josef Glowa)

identifier.other: baj9928.0509.019 05.09.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Josef Glowa, Moravian College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Murdoch, Brian, ed. German Literature of the Early Middle Ages. Series: Camden House History of German Literature, vol. 2. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2004. Pp. xii, 283. $85.00 1-57113-240-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.09.19

Murdoch, Brian, ed. German Literature of the Early Middle Ages. Series: Camden House History of German Literature, vol. 2. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2004. Pp. xii, 283. $85.00 1-57113-240-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Josef Glowa
Moravian College

Upon first encounter with this volume, I found myself wondering if we really need another literary-historical study of German literature. After all, there are many reliable works out there, particularly when it comes to the German Literature of the Middle Ages. My ultimate conclusion was that this book written in English indeed fills a void in the scholarship. Many of the well-established standard works have been written in German, including Karl Bertau's Deutsche Literatur im europäischen Mittelalter (1972/73), Wolfgang Haubrich's focus on the beginnings of German vernacular in the early Middle Ages in his excellent book Die Anfänge: Versuche volkssprachiger Schriftlichkeit im frühen Mittelalter (1988), published as volume I/1 in Joachim Heinzle's series: Geschichte der deutschen Literatur von den Anfängen bis zum Beginn der Neuzeit, and last but not least, Dieter Kartschoke's Geschichte der deutschen Literatur im frühen Mittelalter (1990, 3rd ed. 2000). In the past years some thorough contributions in English were published as well, such as the volume German Writers and Works of the Early Middle Ages: 800-1170 (1995), edited by Will Hasty and James Hardin, which features short articles on authors and anonymous works. Two other noteworthy publications are Marion E. Gibbs' and Sidney M. Johnson's Medieval German Literature: A Companion (1997), and a recent contribution A Companion to Middle High German Literature to the 14th Century, edited by Francis G. Gentry (2003). The last works seek to be "companions" to those looking for a trustworthy guide to German literature of the medieval period. Murdoch's volume 2 of the Camden House History of German Literature is a welcome addition because it differs in approach and focus, and it manages to offer a fresh look at the core texts of the early medieval period and the context in which they were produced.

This volume focuses on a period in German literature (roughly 750-1100) that is often neglected or glossed over in literary studies, although Murdoch rightly considers this time crucial as the writings discussed here "show us the birth of a modern literary language" (26). The book opens with a well-balanced introduction by Murdoch, in which he presents an overview of the period and sets the stage for the following nine sections. He stresses three aspects from the beginning; namely, the unifying force of the Christian church, which provided an intellectual basis for the early flowering of German, the predominance of Latin as the preferred tool of written communication, and last but not least, the classical context, the so-called translatio imperii. These ideas are certainly not new, as Ernst Robert Curtius already highlighted the importance of classical antiquity in his seminal study European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1948). However, Murdoch and his fellow contributors manage to gain fresh insights by stressing the two-facet character--Latin and vernacular--of Early Medieval German Literature.

In the first section, entitled "Into German: The Language of the Earliest German Literature," Jonathan West picks up on the idea of Latin literary culture and stresses its significance to the development of Old High German writing. In fact, he states "the Latin context is so pervasive that no text can be fully understood, or even read aloud with any pretence to authenticity, without reference to it" (35). He goes on to analyze some characteristics of written Old High German, including the way it can be studied in numerous glossed texts and glossaries of the period, and then moves to early translations of Latin texts into Old High German. He points out that glossing represented the first step and an important foundation for more sophisticated translations. His section closes with a more detailed discussion of an anonymous translation of Isidore of Seville's De fide catholica ex veteri et novo testamento contra Iudaeos.

At the beginning of the following section on "Charms, Recipes, and Prayers," Murdoch reiterates his initial argument that "all the material that we have in Old High German was written down in the context of the Christian Church" (57). However, in spite of the overwhelming dominance of the church and Latin, some early German texts "contain at least some clues to pre-Christian, pagan writings and religious thought" (57). Murdoch describes various types of writing, for example charms, medical recipes, prayers, and blessings, and concludes that this material is above all "functional, Gebrauchsliteratur in the strictest sense" (69).

Linda Archibald returns to Latin texts in section three, dealing with "Latin Prose: Latin Writing in the Frankish World, 700-1100." She argues persuasively that the role of Latin on the western fringes of the Carolingian empire was different from the central and eastern areas, "where Germanic dialects and languages prevailed" (73). Contrary to people who lived in those areas where today's Romance languages are spoken, educated people in areas where Germanic languages prevailed, "needed to be bilingual if they were to operate equally well in spoken and written contexts. It is around this time, therefore, that we begin to see large numbers of glosses, translations, and multilingual editions of key documents" (73). However, the volume of Latin texts in that period exceeded by far the texts in vernacular, and Archibald emphasizes in her concluding sentences that "Latin prose writing provides the context within which the new Germanic literature emerges" (84).

In the fourth section on "Latin Verse" Stephen Penn opens his contribution by further developing the overarching theme of this volume, asserting that the writing in early medieval Germany "was dominated by the production of Latin texts rather than those in the vernacular" (87). He also points out that as far as literary activity is concerned, "Old High German remained comparatively neglected, lacking both the authority of Latin and the weight of an established literary tradition" (87). His focus is on Carolingian poetry (88-99), Ottonian and Salien Literature (99-107) and Latin epic from Waltharius to the Messiad of Eupolemius (107-115).

In the next section on "Heroic Verse," Murdoch revisits literary activity in the vernacular by focusing on "orally transmitted heroic poetry associated with the warrior aristocracy and consisting of tales of kings, warriors and heroes, a poetry of action and conflict, set within a particular class of society, and comparable with early poetry in many other cultures" (121). He is, however, very skeptical about how much of the authentic oral tradition actually survived in written form because of the censuring influence of the church and "problems of transmission" (122). With these words of caution he presents a detailed examination of three essential heroic poems of the early medieval period, the Hildebrandlied, the Latin Waltharius, and the Ludwigslied.

Otfrid of Weissenburg's Evangelienbuch is the subject of the second contribution by Linda Archibald. She considers Otfrid to be the "most significant figure in the early history of German literature" (139) and offers an illuminating discussion of the literary merits, the narrative framework, the religious context, and linguistic peculiarities of Otfrid's Gospel harmony, the "first example of a new vernacular verse tradition for the whole of Western Europe" (155).

In the next section on "The Shorter German Verse Texts," Christopher Wells directs the reader's attention to written documents that "are often verse texts, reflecting a pre-literary, pre-textual origin, since rhythm, alliteration, assonance and, later, rhyme, make the material memorable and carry it from generation to generation until it is written down" (157). Echoing Murdoch's cautious introductory remarks, Wells, however, notes that this "poetry comes to us refracted through writing; we know nothing directly of popular oral poetry and song among the illiterate Germans, and what we know indirectly comes mostly from condemnatory statements by concerned clerical writers" (157). Besides a detailed discussion of the Wessobrunner Gebet and the Muspilli, he also focuses on hagiographies, such as the Petruslied, the Georgslied, and the Galluslied. In addition he examines several other texts, among them the laudatory poem De Heinrico, the early cosmographical text known as Merigarto, and an Alemannic Memento Mori from about 1070.

The penultimate section by R. Graeme Dunphy deals with "Historical Writing in and after the Old High German Period." Right from the start he points out two defining features of medieval historiography: the classical Greek and Latin traditions and the incorporation of "a series of theological concepts that impinge on the way history must be presented" (201). Dunphy singles out in particular "the doctrine of creation as a devine act, which gives history a definite beginning, and the literal belief in the Biblical end-times" (201-2). These preliminaries serve him as a springboard for a compelling discussion of literary forms such as annals, chronicles, and biography.

A second contribution by Jonathan West concludes this volume by providing a thorough overview of "Late Old High German Prose." As the most influential figure of the time, he singles out Notker III (ca. 950-1022), also called Labeo("thick-lipped"), or Teutonicus (the German) because of his contributions to the development of the German vernacular as a literary vehicle. Notker is particularly known for his translation of Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae and for his " 'canon' (Notker's Auslautgesetz, his 'Law of Consonants in Final Position')"(231). West gives enlightening insights into Notker's skills as translator and commentator, and traces his influence to Williram of Ebersberg, who is known for his paraphrase of the Song of Songs (ca. 1069).

All in all, this is a valuable introduction to the study of early German literature. However, someone who reads the book from beginning to end may be mildly annoyed by the repetitive nature of certain passages throughout the individual sections. The repeated emphasis on the predominance of the Latin language throughout the era could have been toned down and recurring full references to the same writers and texts at times seem redundant. Apart from these minor quibbles, Murdoch's volume 2 of the Camden House History of German Literature is a carefully edited book. Students and teachers/scholars will both benefit from the concise and stimulating analysis of core texts, as well as from the very helpful notes, bibliography of primary and secondary literature, and index.