Josef K. Glowa

title.none: Classen, trans., Late-Medieval German Women's Poetry (Josef K. Glowa)

identifier.other: baj9928.0610.011 06.10.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Josef K. Glowa, Moravian College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Classen, Albrecht, trans. Late-Medieval German Women's Poetry: Secular and Religious Songs: Translated from the German with Introduction, Notes, and Interpretive Essay. Series: The Library of Medieval Women. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2004. Pp. vi, 157. $70.00 1-84384-021-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.10.11

Classen, Albrecht, trans. Late-Medieval German Women's Poetry: Secular and Religious Songs: Translated from the German with Introduction, Notes, and Interpretive Essay. Series: The Library of Medieval Women. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2004. Pp. vi, 157. $70.00 1-84384-021-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Josef K. Glowa
Moravian College

In his book Late-Medieval German Women's Poetry , Albrecht Classen attempts to infuse scholarship with new and fresh perspectives on medieval German women writers, although he chooses to forgo traditional periodization and extends the time-frame of the medieval period up to 1600. This move allows him to examine a larger number of texts, especially from the sixteenth century. Classen sees these later texts in the context of a tradition that harks back to earlier and well-known medieval writers, such as Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, Hildegard of Bingen, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Elisabeth of Nassau-Saarbrücken. Classen firmly believes that there were many more women composing literary texts, but as he points out in the introduction to his book, "the history of medieval German literature is almost entirely dominated by male writers" (1). He leaves no doubt that he considers this a grave misconception, which he aims to undermine with his selection of secular and religious songs by German women poets.

Classen is already known for a number of studies on the role of medieval German female writers, a topic he has focused on for more than a decade. The present volume introduces an English-speaking readership to his translations of secular and religious songs composed by female poets in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The book opens with an introduction, followed by Classen's translations, an interpretive essay, and ends with a helpful annotated bibliography and index.

In his introduction, Classen begins with a summary of well-known views regarding the contribution of women writers, primarily mystics, from the tenth through fifteenth century, and he concludes that research on medieval female authors has practically come to a standstill. He laments that traditional scholarship by and large has focused on women writing solely religious texts. His search for new women writers has also yielded new religious songs, but his main focus and passion lies in championing the fact that women also contributed many secular songs. The present volume comprises the fruits of his thorough research in German archives, resulting in "English translations of a vast corpus of women's heretofore ignored poetic texts from the late Middle Ages and the sixteenth century" (2). However, there is historical evidence of female authorship only for religious songs, and Classen himself repeatedly questions whether one can attribute many anonymous secular songs to female authors because of non-existing archival evidence. Though this aspect weakens his argument, he is confident that there are ways of learning more about female authorship in the German Middle Ages, and he quite convincingly presents evidence to support his claim that new insights "depend very much on research methods, investigative and selection criteria, and perception of what constitutes, in the first place, women's literature" (7).

After these initial reflections, Classen sketches an overview of recent scholarship on medieval and early modern German women writers since 1985. He agrees that we have expanded our understanding of the life and literary activity of medieval women, but at the same time he points out that increased scholarly interest in medieval and the early-modern women writers "has not led to any new significant insights about the cultural-historical conditions of women and has yielded no names of new medieval women writers" (13). He applauds current medieval feminism and emphasizes that "Gender Studies" has opened up new research avenues, but he deplores the fact that most research has been limited to theoretical investigation into gender roles. Classen calls for new critical approaches to correct the course of inquiry and research. He sees the present book as a contribution to female authored literature from this time period, as his archival research has uncovered a large number of secular love songs that Classen claims were composed by women poets. In determining the gender of the authors, however, scholars face great difficulties, as the authors of all these secular songs remain anonymous. Female authorship, therefore, must be determined otherwise, for example, by examining "context, the poem's language, and the statements clearly marked by female interest"(17). Here Classen could be accused of vagueness, but he convincingly makes a plea that new criteria for the evaluation and constitution of women's literature need to be established in order to move ahead in scholarship.

For his translation Classen has selected a number of secular and religious songs from his previously published books in German. The first one, Deutsche Frauenlieder des 15. und 16. Jahrhunderts (1998), consists of anonymously composed vernacular songs, and the second book, Mein Seel fang an zu singen. Religi#246;se Frauenlieder des 15.-16. Jahrhunderts (2002), presents a surprisingly rich selection of religious songs. With the exception of Clara H#228;tzlerin's songbook, all of Classen's translations of secular and religious songs are taken from sixteenth century songbooks or authors. He is aware of this limitation, but he hopes that future scholars will continue his work and do more research on previous centuries.

The translation section is divided into two large chapters: there are 34 secular songs (25-74), and 13 religious songs (75-111). Each chapter is again divided into sub-chapters that feature individual songbooks, or as in the case of religious songs, individual authors. Each of these chapters includes a short introduction that either provides biographical information on the female authors, or the humanist compilers of popular songs, such as Georg Forster and Ludwig Iselin, or briefly sketches the editorial history of the songbooks used in the present volume.

All this is followed by an interpretive essay (113-140), in which Classen reiterates his call for a re-examination of medieval and early modern German poetry and for a study of new or thus far ignored sources. He focuses in particular on whether women composed popular song, especially love poetry. He addresses this question by analyzing 12 of the secular songs in order to detect the emergence of a "true female voice" or the reflection of a female experience within these poems. In the final analysis, Classen is aware of the fact that one cannot prove beyond doubt that German women composed love poetry. A case in point is the song in Ambras (no. LXV): Ach mutter liebste mutter mein ; the content provides the reader with information that the singer is a goldsmith's daughter, but Classen himself admits that one cannot always and with absolute confidence confirm female authorship because it might be just another case of a male poet hiding behind the mask of a female voice. In spite of these reservations, Classen believes that a careful reading of many anonymous songs provides enough indicators, allusions, and insinuations to affirm female authorship.

In the case of religious songs, the situation is much clearer. Every author can be documented, and Classen's most important contribution to scholarship is to show that the time of reformation was not exclusively dominated by men. Women such as Elisabeth Crucigerin, Elisabeth, Duchess of Brunswick-Calenberg, and Magdalena Heymairin, to name just a few, prove that women represented an independent creative force in the sixteenth century. In his interpretive essay, Classen comments with great insight on the powerful poetic language these women developed in their quest to establish a relationship with God in a time of great turmoil, but he also stresses the challenge to identify particular gendered themes in these songs. This, on the other hand, does not seem to be so important as the fact that women largely participated in and contributed to the religious literature of the time.

At the end of the book, the annotated bibliography highlights a selection of relevant English and German primary and secondary texts from an interdisciplinary point-of-view, providing a valuable tool for students and scholars with little or no knowledge of German, who would like to deepen their understanding of medieval and early-modern German women's poetry. The annotated bibliography is complemented by extensive footnotes connecting to a large corpus of scholarly literature on the life and artistic activity of medieval women in general.

Classen's translations are highly readable, but as he points out, he has not made the attempt to recreate the rhyme scheme or the poetic meter (21). Those who would like to compare the translations with the originals are referred to his two original books in German. However, juxtaposing his translations with the German originals would have been helpful for scholars with some reading knowledge in German and facilitated the use of this volume in undergraduate classes.

All in all, this book is an important contribution to the study of medieval and early modern German women's literature, and Classen's search for new female authors will certainly have an altering impact on the literary canon, serving as an inspiration to women's studies across interdisciplinary lines.