03.02.02, Edwards, The Beginnings of German Literature

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Elmar Seebold

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.002


Edwards, Cyril. The Beginnings of German Literature: Comparative and Interdisciplinary Approaches to Old High German. Series: Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2002. Pp. xviii, 197. ISBN: 1-57113-235-x.

Reviewed by:
Elmar Seebold

The title of this book is in a way misleading: The book is not an introduction to "the beginnings of German literature", although for the student of Old High German literature (and to a certain extent even for the student of Old High German language) it is an excellent means to broaden his knowledge of the background of the texts he is interested in and to facilitate their understanding, even if he will not necessarily agree with the suggestions and hypotheses offered by the author. Furthermore the book is not a comprehensive representation of the subject, but a series of seven essays, together with a preface and a (very general) introduction, bibliography and index. Two of the essays are reprints from an earlier publication, another one is a revision of an earlier article. For two of the essays there are co-authors.

The subject is not, as the title suggests, OHG literature as a whole, but -- as the preface (XV) states more precisely -- "seven essays which address themselves to the shorter poetic texts of the period." And these poetic texts (perhaps with the exception of the lyrics in Chapter 6) are not really a beginning, but the relics of an older stage of poetry (Hildebrandslied, Merseburg Charms) or attempts to apply older techniques to the new Christian themes (Wessobrunner Gebet, Muspilli) -- but these attempts were soon abandoned in Germany (in contrast to the development in England). The real new beginning (poetry with end rhyme) is only touched on in the preface and in chapter 6 (The Beginnings of the German Lyric). So in fact the essays deal with the earliest texts, but not with the beginning of a literary tradition.

First I would like to make some remarks on the essays, beginning with the last one (7: The Strange Case of the Old High German Lullaby). This text is not known to the average student of Old High German, because it is considered a forgery. Edwards gives a short 'typology' of lullabies, describes the Wiegenlied and puts forward the evidence for its being either 'genuine' or 'a forgery'. This treatment is very instructive. The practice of text-books, to omit texts that are (for good reasons) supposed to be forgeries ignores the necessity for the student of older texts to be able to identify forgeries (quite apart from the fact that the method of demonstrating that a certain text is a forgery is very instructive for the classification and explanation of genuine texts as well). There is a similar problem in another methodological chapter by Edwards (3. "Unlucky Zeal": The Hildebrandslied and the Muspilli under the Acid) which deals with the rash use of acid in manuscripts in order to make the writing more legible -- with the result that these pages are now black and nothing is legible any more (the Abecedarium Nordmannicum is another case in point). The possibility of later misreadings because of the late and external influences is well discussed for the examplex given.

Two other essays are concerned with the Wessobrunn prayer (1. tohu wabohu: The Wessobrunner Gebet and Its Analoques; mainly concerned with the dark passage enteo ni uuenteo; 2: Ego bonefacius scripsi? More Oblique Approaches to the Wessobrunn Prayer, concerned mainly with the document or copy of a document contained in the codex). Both make very interesting reading, even if the reader sometimes gets the impression that the discussion is a little off the point. I would like to make one more remark on the first essay (27f.): the properties of the text, which very often contradict each other, and the casual use of runes have led to the discussion whether the text was originally English, or whether an Anglo-Saxon monk and a High German-speaking monk collaborated in producing it. But there is a mistake in the belief that English runes are necessarily produced (or at least introduced) by Englishmen. The geographical distribution of manuscript runes points, for the early period (the first half of the ninth century) unmistakably to Northern France (St. Amand and Fleury), and later to South German monasteries like St. Gallen and Freising, and even to Italy. In most of these places Anglo-Saxon missionaries were never of any importance. But in all these places Irishmen had a considerable impact. And a detailed study shows that the use of runes in manuscripts has to be seen mainly from the point of view of the Irish obsession with foreign scripts (and to a certain extent foreign languages). As there are substantial hints of other Irish influences in the Wessobrunn manuscript (Edwards quotes Ute Schwab: Sternrune 1973, 53f.), it might be worth considering what difference an Irish monk would make compared to an English one.

Two further essays are devoted to the Merseburg Charms (4: The Merseburg Charms: Contexts and Function; 5. The Merseburg Charms: Conjectures). The first is again concerned with parallels, the other with the heathen gods, mentioned or not mentioned in this charm. Concerning the first point (which is again discussed in a quite enlightening way) I only want to say that the connection between the horse charm and the picture on C-bracteates (one-sided Germanic, mostly Nordic, gold coins) springs from the wish to establish connections between the very scarce information we have for the pre-literary Germanic times. In fact it is quite clear from a comparison of the bracteates that the quadruped had to be inserted into a very narrow place left free under the bust of the emperor (or whoever else was meant in later times). The more explicit forms show quite clearly that the quadruped (later it is definitely a horse) is walking.

In essay 5 Edwards tries to show that in the place of Phol (Phol ende uuodan uuorun zu holza) the name of the god Thorr/Donar should be read. Here I think he is definitely going too far (although I read his argument with interest and benefit). Apart from the quite far-fetched way of replacement, Thorr usually has no special connection to horses. In my opinion it would be better to take one god out instead of adding another one. I think there is only one male god in the charm, and that is Wotan. I still believe (although that is a hypothesis as well) that balderes is an intrusion and "Ph" is for "F" (Fol ende uuodan fuorun zi holza Du uuart demo folon sin fuoz birenkit). And there are (again in my opinion) only two goddesses (with two others by way of better identification), and they are there in order to give Wotan the third place which is extremely important in charms.

The last essay to be mentioned is 6: The Beginnings of the German Lyric. The main point of discussion here are the Federproben mainly from St. Gallen, especially for Hirsch und Hinde, with many parallels for the use of the word Hinde in literal and metaphorical sense. There is no comment on the relationship of the rhyming Liubene lines to Otfrid, although if dating the Liubene lines to c. 900 they would definitely be older than Otfrid. But the emergence of end rhyme was probably beyond the scope of the book.

In any case the book offers rewarding reading for any student of Old High German who already knows something about the subject and who wants more information and a broader background. The discussion of the poems is well situated in these contexts which makes for a heightened awareness of the linguistic and literary problems involved. In one or the other case the reader may even agree with the author in his particular propositions for the poems (although Edwards is usually quite reserved in propagating a special interpretation).

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Elmar Seebold