03.11.01, Simmler, Textsorten deutscher Prosa

Main Article Content

Richard Ernest Walker

The Medieval Review baj9928.0311.001


Simmler, Franz, ed.. Textsorten deutscher Prosa vom 12./13. bis Jahrhundert und ihre Merkmale: Akten zum Internationalen Kongress in Berlin 20. bis 22. September 1999. Series: Jahrbuch fur Internationale Germanistik, vol. 67. Bern: Peter Lang, 2002. Pp. 662. ISBN: 3-906767-16-7.

Reviewed by:
Richard Ernest Walker
University of Maryland College Park

This imposing, impressive collection of presentations delivered at an international conference held September 20-22,1999 at the Freie Universität in Berlin draws attention to areas of research and analysis that have not always been at the forefront of German studies, namely, the forms of differentiation and analysis of German prose in various manifestations from the twelfth to the eighteenth century. The identification of types of prose texts (Textsorten) is not as simplistic as it may sound, and it is a strength of this collection that the variety, flexibility, and complexity of prose expression are convincingly represented. The thirty-five presentations/articles have been grouped into conceptual categories: literary, religious, historiographical, and miscellaneous (cookbook, herb-book, calendars, consolatory letters, fantasies).

The cultural aspect of the collection is of interest; it includes the work of researchers from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and Russia, and draws attention to German-language manuscripts and government documents from the late medieval and Early Modern periods in Germany and in archives outside the typical German-speaking areas. To cite just one example: for the period up to 1500, the Bratislava/Pressburg city archive holdings include 2,224 German-language letters and documents and approximately 165,000 manuscript pages. The period 1245-1500 is represented by 4,219 Latin and German manuscripts. These resources have in large part not yet been adequately exploited for linguistic or cultural research purposes.

Given a collection of articles of this size and diversity, it would be difficult to treat each presentation fairly in the limited space of a review. Nevertheless, it is important to give a sense of the variety of genres, topics, and approaches represented to emphasize the value of the collection for an assessment of the trends and directions of current research in the Germanistic disciplines. An effort will be made here to select several representative examples from the categories given above while hoping to convey a very positive impression of the collection as a whole; just to enumerate the avenues of research outlined here and those suggested/implied for future investigation would require a separate review.

The point should be made that this is a collection of conference papers which have undergone various degrees of revision for presentation in this format; this has both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side is the variety and diversity of thematic material and the imaginative critical approaches to a number of text types which have not received in-depth treatment in the more canon-oriented surveys common to German Studies disciplines. Despite the disparate nature of the collection, it is also an important contribution to the understanding of the use of German prose in a variety of contexts. The negative side (600+ pages) is not really a negative if one considers that a text of this type has primarily reference value. Depending on ones interest(s), any one of the articles in this collection, and the brief bibliographical apparatuses appended to each, provides analytical guidelines that could be used either to launch an independent investigation or to elaborate on the subject of the article itself. While this use may go beyond the typical scope of such a collection, its value as a textbook of analytical approaches should not be underestimated.

The four categories of texts are in themselves quite diverse: (I)"Literary texts" includes articles about translations, anecdotes, obituaries, pastoral poetry, folk literature, 'Eulenspiegel'-editions, legends, and stylistic studies of Martin Opitz, Rulman Merswin, Johannes Reuchlin, and Huldrich Zwingli. (II)"Religious texts" covers sermon style and syntax, spiritual tracts (Aegidius Albertinus), translations (Rule of St. Benedict), Franciscan prose writers (13th c.), and an interesting examination of the "Diatessaron" tradition (9-15th c.). The last two categories, (III) "Historiographical texts" and (IV)"Miscellaneous" cover a range that is daunting in its diversity: letters, chronicles, manuscripts in Slovakian archives, coronation descriptions (Habsburgs), cookbooks/recipes, herb books, calendars/almanacs, consolatory letters, language usage handbooks (German for Germans), and several articles of a general nature that are difficult to classify thematically.

Given the difficulty of reviewing each of the thirty-five articles adequately in a limited space, a more reasonable approach seems to be to select several which thematically or analytically suggest the innovative aspects of the approaches contained in this collection.

Laure Abplanalp (Lausanne) addresses an area of interest that has become increasingly important in recent years: the nature and techniques of translation. Her article "Fragen des Übersetzungsvergleichs in pragmatischer Sicht: ein Vorschlag" draws upon the "Relevance" theory of Dan Sperber and Dierdre Wilson (Relevance. London, 1986) and poses basic questions: How did the translator read/understand the original text? What was retained from the original, and why? What criteria must the translator take into consideration before beginning to translate? The point is made, however, that the relevance theory is not primarily a theory of translation but rather of communication. As a research approach for texts of any period for which an original and one or more translations exists, the benefits of the suggested approach for comparative language analysis and communicative understanding are clear.

Thomas Althaus (Münster), in his article "Kurzweil; Überlegungen zum Verhältnis von Darstellungsintention und geringem Textumfang in der Kleinen Prosa des 16. Jahrhunderts," examines short prose texts in an effort to identify genre-specific aspects as regards structure, intention, mentality, consciousness of purpose, and reception. The discussion effectively draws attention to the mis-application of the thematic terminology "Kurzweil" (entertainment) to a variety of prose forms which can range from amusing anecdotes to, in some cases, gruesome reports of family atrocities. However, one aspect that seems to be common to all of the examples, and here is generalized to the genre, is the backdrop of everyday settings and activities familiar to readers as well as listeners. Texts as different as the "Calendarium Historicum" of Abraham Saur (1594), Luther's "Fabeln," Wockram's "Rollwagenbüchlein," or Bebel's "Facetiae" all seem to rely on a structure of truth, or verisimilitude, and values that, though more often implicit rather than explicit, provide a context and perspective for the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.

Ralf Georg Bogner (Heidelberg / Mannheim) acknowledges at the outset that the title of his presentation might strike some as odd; "Der Nachruf als literarische Gattung. Möglichkeiten und Grenzen einer Definition." The suggestion that obituaries might be considered as a literary genre is less likely to seem odd, in my opinion, than simply to raise the interest level and expectations of the reader; Bogner follows through with sound analysis and insightful observations. In his view, the appearance of the term "Nachruf" (obituary) in reference works dates from the 18/19th century, which, he considers, would seem to have disqualified his study from this collection. Campe's dictionary (1813), for example, does not include the term; Kluge, relating it to "Nekrolog," dated its use to the mid-19th century; the Grimms' "Deutsches Wörterbuch," however, provides the first comprehensive definition and a 19th century context (e.g., the Anacreontic poets; Jean Paul). Bogner has identified texts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which have the intention if not the genre-designation, namely, written or spoken words in praise of someone who has recently died. This definition of sorts includes funeral sermons, eulogies, elegies, and brochure-like remembrances of a deceased person. The distinction Bogner draws between the earlier texts and the latter ones (18/19th c.) is that in the latter the departure from this life is subordinated to the lamentable absence from a social group or a place of residence. He does a good job of identifying common thematic features of various text-types, for example, praise of virtues, service to the group or community, and outstanding accomplishments of the deceased. He also sees a consistent rhetorical structure over time and across types: lamentatio (lament), laudatio (praise), and consolatio (comfort or consolation). In general, Bogner's approach and analysis invalidate the "odd" notion mentioned at the outset because his results, and work being done on this topic by others, show this to be an area quite worthy of critical attention.

Having emphasized the variety of themes and diversity of approach in this very useful and informative collection, it may be more valuable at this point to consider the underlying research principles of the project which inspired these valuable presentations/articles, as outlined in the introduction by the editor, Franz Simmler.

The central object of research interest is prose as it occurs in medieval manuscripts and in printed texts of the Early Modern and Modern periods. Simmler draws attention both to problems in working with current editions of older texts and to desiderata for future editions. Those working with medieval texts will agree with his comments about the practice of orthographic normalization fostered by those who wished to produce a text most closely resembling the original, which most probably would not have been available to individual researchers; the negative aspect, as he points out, is that the actual text of the original recedes into the background, making effective analysis of linguistic structures virtually impossible. Additionally, when one considers the Early Modern German period (1350-1650) and the period from 1650-1800, there are still texts in need of modern or updated editions and linguistic-oriented analysis and evaluation. The strength of the approach suggested in this collection is that it brings together specialists from different disciplines (linguistics, medieval studies, scholars of Early Modern and Modern periods) who use different approaches and methodologies to achieve a common goal. To summarize Simmler's view, the goal is to go beyond sentence-level structures to larger semantic and syntactic units (macrostructures) which, especially in earlier manuscripts or printed texts, may or may not be clearly marked or obvious to the reader. The identification of such structures and others equally important to the understanding of language usage and meaning is essential to this approach and, when investigated thoroughly and with the level of analytical insights seen in this collection, will contribute greatly to the broader goal, the development of a more comprehensive history of German prose.

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Author Biography

Richard Ernest Walker

University of Maryland College Park