Dr. Craig Davis

title.none: Murdoch and Read, eds., Early Germanic Literature and Culture (Dr. Craig Davis)

identifier.other: baj9928.0602.023 06.02.23

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dr. Craig Davis, Smith College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Murdoch, Brian and Malcolm Read, eds. Early Germanic Literature and Culture. Series: Camden House History of Germanic Literature, vol. 1. Rochester: Camden House, 2004. Pp. x, 334. $85.00 1-57311-199-X. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.02.23

Murdoch, Brian and Malcolm Read, eds. Early Germanic Literature and Culture. Series: Camden House History of Germanic Literature, vol. 1. Rochester: Camden House, 2004. Pp. x, 334. $85.00 1-57311-199-X. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Dr. Craig Davis
Smith College

This collection of essays serves as an introduction and first contribution to a series of ten volumes on the literary history of Germany. It comprises a distillation of scholarship on eleven aspects of early Germanic culture and expression out of which a written tradition of literature in the High German language grew. The editors divide the studies into three categories: the preliterate cultures of the Germanic-speaking peoples, the first extant writing in Germanic languages and the development of distinctive literatures in Old Norse, Old English, Old High German, and Old Saxon, after which they provide a thumb-nail history of linguistic change and political events through the modern period (1-25).

Preliterate Germanic Cultures

Heinrich Beck writes on "The Concept of Germanic Antiquity" (25-38), as it was first imagined by scholars since the seventeenth century, who focused their efforts upon discovering the Urheimat, "original homeland," of the people whom Roman historians had called the Germani, the closeness of these Germani to earlier Indo-Europeans and later Germans, and the Volksgeist or spiritual essence of the German people as reflected in their earliest cultural manifestations. Today, the study of Germanic antiquity, though not an academic discipline per se, embraces many other disciplines from philology to archeology to botany in order to illuminate the cultural history of central and northern Europe from approximately 1000 B. C. to 1000 A. D.

In "Origo gentis: The Literature of Germanic Origins" (39-54), Herwig Wolfram discusses the earliest Latin accounts of various Germanic peoples. These texts follow the ethnographic models of Tacitus' Germania and the Old Testament, adapting "pre- ethnographic" oral traditions to create the kind of national character that would have validity in the eyes of Romans and Christians. Wolfram concentrates upon a lost history of the Goths by the Roman senator Cassiodorus, composed for Theoderic the Great and epitomized as the Getica of the Byzantine writer Jordanes c. 550 A. D. Wolfram insists on calling Cassiodorus, rather than Jordanes, the author of the extant work, because he believes that the legends recounted there, including the identification of Sweden as the Urheimat of the Goths, derive from a genuine oral tradition preserved at Theoderic's court at Ravenna. For a pointed critique of Wolfram's approach, see most recently, Walter Goffart, "Jordanes's Getica and the Disputed Authenticity of Gothic Origins from Scandinavia," Speculum 80 (2005).

Adrian Murdoch considers the dynamic cultural responsiveness of Germanic tribes living under or near Roman authority on the imperial frontier in "Germania Romana" (55-72), especially in the areas of warfare, trade and social organization. The most interesting archeological pattern noted is that "most domestic sites throughout Germany end simultaneously toward the end of the fourth century" due to "the huge disruption caused by the tribes coming into Germania Romana from the east" (68).

Rudolf Simek explores the nature of pre-Christian "Germanic Religion and the Conversion to Christianity" (73-102), including the problematic characterization of pagan religious belief and practice by writers who were themselves baptized Christians. Simek stresses that the regional variations of Germanic religion should be seen as an evolving set of customary social practices involving sacrifice and communal feasting, rather than as "singular devotion to particular gods" on the model of monotheistic religions (74). Nonetheless, "by the ninth or tenth century, a common, personalized Germanic pantheon had been developed and widely accepted in all Germanic areas" (83) and the first recorded myths of these divinities reveal the influence of Christianity through the long contact of Germanic peoples with Christian ideas.

R. Graeme Dunphy considers what may be deduced about the preliterate poetic and storytelling traditions of the Germanic-speaking peoples in "Orality" (103-120), accepting the view of Walter Ong (1984) and others that the thought processes of pre-literate peoples are fundamentally different from those who have been exposed to literate modes of consciousness through the presence of educated subcultures like the clergy. Dunphy thus distinguishes between the "primary orality...of a culture that has never had any contact with writing" (104)--the context in which he believes arose the alliterative heroic verse reflected at some remove in the Old English Beowulf and the Old High German Hildebrandlied--and a "secondary" kind of orality. This latter milieu yielded work both by literate artists who could imitate traditional oral forms and by performers who employed oral compositional techniques to imitate what they knew of certain literary forms, as in the Middle High German Spielmannsepik "minstrel epics." Finally, Dunphy stresses that virtually all medieval literature, even when quietly composed by learned authors from their private reading, was designed for some form of public listening or oral reception.

Earliest Writing of Germanic Languages

Klaus Duwel details the manifold interpretive difficulties, both in theory and practice, presented by early inscriptions in "Runic" (121- 48), but offers his own summary assessment of their origin and function: "runic script was created on the basis of a Mediterranean alphabet, most likely Latin, in the time from around the birth of Christ into the first century A. D., in the region of the western Baltic (perhaps with some impulse from the Rhine area) by one or more 'intellectuals' as a means of communication for secular, but also for sacral and magic use" (138).

In "Gothic" (149-70), Brian Murdoch discusses the invention of an alphabet by the Arian missionary Ulfila in the fourth century A. D. to translate the Bible into language of the Visigoths by adapting mainly a Greek script, but also six Latin letters and two Germanic runes. Murdoch notes other surviving records of the Gothic language through the seventeenth century and neatly summarizes the history of the various Gothic peoples, including later references to Gothic legend in medieval Latin, Old High German and Old Norse literature, as well as the several semantic permutations of the adjective "Gothic" through the end of the twentieth century. Murdoch reminds us that there is no archeological evidence for the claim by Jordanes that the Goths originated in Sweden. The earliest material remains of this people have been located at the mouth of the Vistula in Poland, before they moved on to the Black Sea, so that the place-names Vaster- and Ostergotland in southern Sweden, and that of the Baltic island Gotland, remain only problematically suggestive.

Early Germanic Literatures

Theodore Andersson charts the rich proliferation of "Old Norse- Icelandic Literature" from the ninth century to the turn of the fifteenth by focusing on the development of particular genres: skaldic verse, eddic verse, early prose, sagas about early Icelanders, romances, and legendary sagas (171-204). However, rather than celebrating the many reflexes of earlier Germanic myth and legend that have been preserved in medieval Icelandic texts--for instance, the eight eddic poems and prose Volsunga saga that retell parts of the Burgundian/Hunnic/Gothic story, which is independently recounted in the Middle High German Nibelungenlied--Andersson stresses the distinctiveness of the Icelandic literary achievement: "In the Germanic context Icelandic literature is not the hard core, as historians once supposed, but the most original, idiosyncratic, and autonomous offshoot" (198). Andersson's conclusion thus poses a surprising challenge to the very premise upon which this whole collection of essays is based: "the more we study Icelandic letters," he insists, "the more apparent it becomes that...the idea of a larger [Germanic] cultural heritage is an illusion" (197-98).

Fred C. Robinson takes the opposite view in surveying the similarly rich and various literary forms of "Old English" (205-34), which survive in about 30,000 lines of verse and hundreds of prose texts. In fact, Old English prose dominates poetry 12 to 1 in count of words, but the latter has received far more scholarly attention, in large part because of a single poem, the compelling 3,182-line Beowulf, which describes "heroic deeds performed by pagan Germanic peoples living in and around the areas on the continent whence the Anglo-Saxons migrated to Britain" (215). Robinson interprets the poem as a poignant reflection by an admiring Christian poet on the spiritual darkness in which his noble ancestors lived. Robinson further stresses continuities between Anglo-Saxon and Germanic poetic tradition in The Battle of Brunanburh, Widsith, Deor, and the Old English elegies, in particular, The Wanderer, which Robinson feels expresses an "heroic-age" ethos in which one "must accept the hard blows of fate and the brevity of life with quiet dignity" (218). Even Old English biblical poetry reveals a "cultural syncretism" (222) and The Dream of the Rood "stands out as an especially important witness to the way in which Old English poetry at its very best could express the deepest thoughts and feelings of Anglo-Saxons as they adjusted their Germanic culture to Christian ideals," one in which Christ could be depicted "not as a passive victim but as a valiant warrior embracing his fate" (225).

Brian Murdoch discusses writing in "Old High German and Continental Old Low German" between the years 750 and 1200 (235-62). He notes that the first native term for the German language as a whole without distinction between high and low, is diutisk or diutsch (yielding Modern German Deutsch), which means popular, demotic speech as opposed to the lingua romana, the Latin or "Romanish"/Romance tongue (14). Old High German includes several southern dialects--Old Bavarian, Old Alemannic, Old Frankish, etc.-- that found written form centuries before the concept of a unified standard High German appears. Murdoch compares what is probably the earliest extant Old High German text from the earlier part of the ninth century, the fragmentary alliterative heroic poem Hildebrandlied of a little over 60 lines, with that of our first named author Otfrid of Weissenburg, who wrote his Gospel Book in 7,000 long-lines of Frankish verse, which rhyme internally at the end of the two half-lines. Other Old High German texts are the alliterative Wessobrunn Prayer on the creation of the world and Muspilli on its "Final Destruction" (243), as well as poems that use Otfrid's internally rhyming long-lines, such as the Ludwigslied and the Georgslied. Translations by Notker of St. Gall and Williram of Ebersberg are the strongest examples of vernacular prose, though these authors can use a Mischsprache or "double-Dutch" of both German and Latin. Murdoch also notes the preservation of a number of Christian prayers and charms, including two from Merseburg that contain fossilized allusions to the old Germanic divinities.

Writing in the Old Low German includes varieties of Frisian, not recorded until a later period in legal texts, Old Low Franconian that gave rise to Dutch and survives in glosses of the Latin Psalms, and Old Saxon, in which was composed "The Old Saxon Heliand ['Savior']," a 6,000-line alliterative Gospel narrative described by G. Ronald Murphy (263-84), as well as an alliterative poetic paraphrase of Genesis, used as the source of the Old English Genesis B. The Heliand is "the earliest known blending of Germanic warrior virtue with Christian religion. God the All-Ruler is made to request that John [the Baptist] be raised specifically to practice the warrior virtue of treuw, unflinching loyalty in battle to one's chieftain" (266). St. Peter is characterized as "the very model of a Saxon warrior-companion" (267). In addition, the traditional Germanic notion of uurd, "fate," (cf. Old English wyrd) is invoked in the poem as an implacable force in the course of human events to which even Christ himself submits with stoic resignation, since it is also conflated with the will of God. Thirdly, prayers are conceived as magical spells and miracles as their thaumatugical results. Fourthly, the Gospel scenes are reconceived on an epic scale centered on the Transfiguration in the middle of the poem at Song 38, on either side of which episodes are organized in a kind of balanced or ring structure familiar from other epics like the Iliad. And finally, Murphy stresses the positive central role of light and radiance in the poem, one of the features of its overall imagery and poetic diction that he believes would bear fruitful comparison with that of the Old English Beowulf, a parallel Germanic epic likewise revealing the "confluence" of native and Christian values (282).

The depth and freshness of these overviews is not perfectly even, but the reader can confidently turn to this volume, as to a kind of specialized encyclopedia, to find a very useful summary of the state- of-the-question on most aspects of early Germanic literature and culture. This reader found especially full and cutting-edge the contributions by Simek on religion, Andersson on Icelandic literature, Brian Murdoch on both Gothic and continental Germanic literatures, and Murphy on the Heliand. There is an index of names, titles and a few subjects; 10 maps, photos and other illustrations; brief notes on the contributors; a bibliography of edited and translated primary texts, as well as of selected secondary studies on language, mythology, archeology, history, and literature.