05.01.01, Gentry, ed., A Companion to Middle High German Literature

Main Article Content

William Layher

The Medieval Review baj9928.0501.001


Gentry, Francis G., ed.. A Companion to Middle High German Literature to the 14th Century. Leiden:Brill, 2002. Pp. xi, 502. ISBN: 90-04-12094-7.

Reviewed by:

William Layher
Washington University in St Louis

This volume stands apart from most of the other Companions of medieval German literature that have appeared in recent years (on the Nibelungenlied[1998], on Parzival[1999], on Gottfried's Tristan [2003]), in that this book is not devoted to one specific text. Instead, it tackles almost 1000 years of literary culture in medieval Germany, with each of the stand-alone chapters addressing a specific literary genre or topic:

"Medieval German: History of Emperors and Empire" (Frassetto);

"The Older German Language" (Howell);

"German Literature to 1160" (Gentry);

"Courtly Love Lyric" (Classen);

"Medieval German Heroic Epic" (McConnell);

"Love and Adventure in Germany: The Romances of Hartmann von Aue, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Gottfried von Strassburg" (Hasty);

"Drama" (Wailes);

"Technical Literature/Fachliteratur" (Adamson);

"German Mystical Literature to 1350" (Tobin);

"Vernacular Chronicles" (Dobozy);

"Pre-Courtly Epics" (Johnson);

"Continuation and Innovation in Narrative Literature of the Thirteenth Century" (Andersen);

"Didactic/Gnomic Literature of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries" (Classen).

One might ask--given the immense scope of the inquiry, which stretches from the runic inscriptions on the 5th-century Gallehus horn to the dawn of the 15th century--if a Companion is really preferable to a History when it comes to presenting and contextualizing such a massive amount of information for an English audience that has limited knowledge of the period. In large part, the answer is a qualified yes--as long as the Companion holds true to its ideals. Whereas some Histories may come across as antiseptic, distanced, more concerned with "coverage" and chronology than analysis or commentary, a Companion aspires to a different standard. A true Companion presents itself as a vade mecum through unfamiliar terrain, one which grants the reader insight into the material, balances retelling with analysis, and sets forth not only the facts of the matter, but their relevance as well. To continue the vade mecum metaphor, the difference between a History and a Companion is analogous to that between reading a guidebook and traveling with a tour guide: the latter is more personal, potentially much more enlightening, but also--depending on the tour guide--unpredictable. No two tours are ever the same.

Such is the case with this Companion. Although the canonical texts and authors of the early 13th-century "Blütezeit" tend to cast a long shadow over the field as a whole--the scholarship on Minnesang, Parzival, the Nibelungenlied, Hartmann von Aue, Walter von der Vogelweide, and others is voluminous and ever-increasing--one key asset of this Companionis its audacious scope: it gives broad consideration to the full spectrum of medieval German literature up to the 15th century, and there are comprehensive chapters devoted to such lesser-known genres as Fachliteratur, Drama, mystical literature, vernacular Chronicles; there is even a linguistics chapter on the evolution of Middle High German as a literary language (Howell), which is superlative. The book opens with a historical overview of Germany from c. 750 to c. 1350 (Frassetto) that progresses chronologically through the vitae and life-and-times of numerous German (and Frankish) rulers. The tone is succinct, and briskly informative, the bibliography well-stocked with publications in English. After a chapter on OHG and MHG (Howell), follow chapters by Gentry, Classen and McConnell (see below). The Romances of Hartmann, Wolfram, and Gottfried are ably discussed in a chapter by Hasty, and the focus on the tension between Love and Adventure in these works leads to some interesting insights, e.g. the discussion of 'concealment' in Gregorius. One might quibble that Wolfram's Willehalm is not technically a Romance--ditto for Der Arme Heinrich--but their clear connection to the overarching theme of Love and/versus Adventure would seem to endorse their inclusion in this chapter. After a contribution on medieval German drama (Wailes, see below) comes a unique chapter on Fachliteratur, in which all matters of technical writings--from encyclopedic entries to Kräuterbücher and Arzneibücher and works of alchemy and gastronomy (the Buoch von guoter spîse)--receive their long-overdue introduction to an English audience. Although all of these works had a German reception, many of them are extant only in Latin--a clear reminder that the concept of "literature" during the German Middle Ages should not be restricted to include only German texts. Chapters on German Mystical Literature (Tobin) and Vernacular Chronicles (Dobozy) follow next. Dobozy focuses primarily on the Weltchronik phenomenon in the High Middle Ages, and devotes considerable space to Jans Enikel and his reception. Tobin's superlative chapter on Mystical Literature begins not with the texts or their authors (the latter sections focus on Mechtild, Meister Eckart, Suso, and Tauler), but with a review of some pressing questions in the field--including the problematic status of the word "mystic"--and a survey of critical receptions and responses to these often enigmatic texts. Here, the reader is completely drawn into the richness and complexities of the scholarly field, with the result that the chapter offers probably the best overview available in English on this subject. Following this is an uneven chapter on Pre-Courtly Epics (Johnson) which grapples with texts as disparate as König Rother, the so-called Spielmannsepen, the Rolandslied and Veldeke's Eneide. The concluding chapters examine 13th-century and 14th-century Narrative (Andersen) and Didactic/Gnomic Literature (Classen). Andersen's chapter deserves special accolades for its lively treatment of Mären (Stricker, Konrad von Würzburg et al), its discussion of the poetics of post-classical Arthurian epics like Daniel von dem blühenden Tal, and the attention it pays to the reception of historical works: Rudolf's Alexander and Konrad's Trojanerkrieg, among others.

A successful Companion shows engagement with contemporary scholarship, guides the reader by sifting-out different approaches to the text, provides extended analyses of significant scenes or motifs, and makes some attempts to help the inexperienced traveler negotiate around whatever remaining "problem spots" these works present. For all its strengths, however, there are shortcomings in this Companion as well. That there is no chapter on medieval German Spruchdichtung or didactic poetry is a glaring oversight in such a comprehensive volume; some of the most famous poems of the German Middle Ages, such as Walther's political stanzas or his Leich ("I sat upon a stone") are passed over in silence. And although this is a handsome book, with a sturdy cover, thick creamy pages, and elegant typeface, the proofreading is hit-or-miss; three of the chapters (Classen, McConnell, Johnson) were plagued by a glut of typographical errors and other editorial oversights. A third--perhaps inevitable--shortcoming is the fact that the chapters in collaborative projects such as these tend to be uneven. As the flyleaf notes, the authors "were given the freedom to arrange their chapters as they felt most appropriate." That freedom is a blessing to the author, occasionally also a challenge for the reader.

On the whole, this volume met that challenge; when it failed to reach the mark, it did so not for lack of erudition but for lack of empathy with its novice readers. I have selected four chapters from this Companion that illustrate just how precarious the balance between data and contextualization can be in a Companion, especially in one that is intended for non-specialists. Two of these chapters tackle perennial favorites from the classical period of the early 13th century (Courtly Lyric and the Heroic Epic), while the other two cover lesser-known topics (Drama) or periods (German Literature to 1160).

"German Literature to 1160" (Gentry)

This is a lively and engaging chapter, one that successfully bridges the linguistic and stylistic "break" between Old High German and early Middle High German literature that tends to fracture standard literary histories of the pre-1200 material into two distinct halves. Especially in the latter sections of this chapter, where Gentry lays out the historical background of such works as the Annolied, Georgslied, Ezzolied, Memento mori, Kaiserchronik and shows how their focus on topics of justice and social order reflects the tenor of the times, the material really comes to life. On occasion, some specific, small details are not given the careful consideration they warrant in a chapter that is intended for readers unfamiliar with the medieval German world. One example is the rather misleading statement (61) that Charlemagne collected a number of Germanic heroic poems into a "Heldenliederbuch (Book of Heroic Songs)" in the early 9th century. The paraphrase is poorly chosen, for actual Heldenbücher codices-- compilations of end-rhymed heroic epics, primarily featuring Dietrich von Bern--did not appear before the late 15th-century. Thus the use of the term Heldenliederbuchto describe Charlemagne's (lost) collection of barbara et antiquissima carminagives a false impression about continuities that might have existed (but do not) between the 9th-century and the 15th-century literary fashions and the way in which heroic poems were collected into cycles or transmitted in written form.

Another missed opportunity is the lack of any discussion of the formal aspects of Old High German poetry--Stabreim, alliteration, meter and so on--, which leads to problems later on in the chapter. The uninitiated reader will find it hard to appreciate the significance of Otfried von Weissenburg's innovations in poetic form with his Evangelienbuch--"he was the first to consistently use end rhyme rather than alliteration" (73)--because the fundamental role that alliteration played in the structure, composition, and preservation or transmission of older Germanic poetry had never been brought up. Unless the reader is clever enough to notice the alliteration of Hildebrand with Hadubrand in the brief snippet of Hildebrandslied on page 63, this key formalistic aspect of early Germanic poetic culture that cuts across linguistic borders--Stabreim occurs in Anglo-Saxon, Old Saxon, Old Icelandic, Old High German--is never brought into the discussion. A brief definition of Stabreim as "alliterative long-line verse" is given a few pages after the Hildebrandslied is discussed (68), but the relevance of the "long-line" verse is not explored further, leaving some readers to perhaps wonder whether the "3, 388 short lines" of religious poetry composed by the female poet Frau Ava in the early 12th century represented a new innovation in poetic meter--a shortened, truncated line?--or something else altogether (112).

"Courtly Love Lyric" (Classen)

The chapter on Courtly Love Lyric is comprised of twenty-three brief vignettes about the culture of love and its lyric expression in medieval Germany. This topological approach, with entries on "Minne," "Women's Songs," "Minne Terminology," "Text Versus Melody," and so on, gives a kaleidoscopic view of Minnesang, its development, and its expression. Taken individually, the vignettes are dynamic and chock-full of useful information, but on the whole the chapter suffers greatly from a lack of organization; like a kaleidoscope, the discussion seems constantly in motion, the facts turning and blending, important details coming into view, then disappearing and reappearing pages later--all of which makes it difficult for the novice reader to gain any real understanding of Minnesang until the chapter is laid to rest. Basic concepts and first principles are not laid out in a consistent and orderly fashion. The lack of organization causes minor irritation--for example, the "Heidelberg manuscript A" is mentioned briefly on page 131 while its date, provenance and relevance as a major collection of Minnesang texts is not given until page 140--but it manifests itself in serious ways as well. Such is the case with the very nature of Minnesang as a concept. It is not until the twelfth page of the chapter that Classen mentions for the first time the fundamental and all-important caveat that Minnesang was not "true" lyric poetry in the modern, Romantic sense but, rather, a kind of role-playing on the part of the poets, in which typified personae--the spurned lover, the unrequited lover, the Dawn-Song lover, and so on--give voice to different aspects of the Minne complex. It is unfortunate that this revelation comes so late in the chapter, because much has already transpired before the reader is presented with this information. Already on the second page, for example, we are told that the poet Rudolf von Fenis "laments" that he gains little from his devotion to his lady, or that Friedrich von Hausen "suffers" from pangs of love (118). Because the essential artificiality of Minne and Minnesang had not yet been presented, locutions such as these tend to blur the distinction between poet and poem and, in doing so, skew the reader's perceptions about the genesis, topicality and reception of these poems in their 12th and 13th-century context. Perhaps as a result of its fragmentary vignette style, the chapter is rife with such whiplash moments, in which previous assertions or statements are re-visited or augmented pages after their first mention (e.g. some biographical information on Friedrich von Hausen appears on 126, but much more is given on 142). The bibliography is comprehensive, with two oversights: the poet Mechthild von Magdeburg is quoted on 133 ("Flowing Light of the Godhead") but the edition is not listed under her name in the bibliography, and, for a Companion intended for English readers, it is puzzling that so few English books on Minnesang are mentioned. Olive Sayce's anthology Poets of the Minnesang would be a good starting point for most readers with limited German skills who want to consult an edition of representative texts.

"Medieval German Heroic Epic" (McConnell)

This chapter begins with a highly focused and idiosyncratic reading of the Nibelungenlied, which concentrates on the psychology of Kriemhild and her (thwarted) quest for revenge. While insightful in parts, especially in the discussion about the important role played by memory in the second half of the epic (160f.), the lengthy Nibelungenlied portion of this chapter is much more an interpretation of the epic than a "companion" to it; readers who disagree with the psychoanalytic approach to medieval texts will profit little from these pages. In my view, the argumentation relies all too heavily on what the characters might have felt or thought in specific situations where the text is silent. McConnell attempts to fill in the blanks for us--"it is certainly possible that Kriemhild may still have (fleetingly?) recalled the dream subsequent to meeting and marrying Siegfried and that we are told nothing of it" (157); "Etzel refuses to believe (that is, he represses or denies) that his spouse's main objective is to exact revenge for prior wrongs" (158)--but these statements do not carry much weight, as there is little basis for them in the text itself (and at any rate, no direct quotations from the Nibelungenlied stanzas are ever provided). This emphasis on behavioral analysis of the main characters leaves other important aspects of the text by the wayside, and readers not already intimately familiar with the epic will strain to follow the discussion. What is an âventiure (158, 161) and how does it relate to the structure of the epic? In what way do the different manuscripts of the Nibelungenlied disagree on key concepts of characterization? It does little good to state that "Hagen ... is called a murderer in manuscript C but not in either A or B," that Kriemhild's condemnation "is tempered in manuscript C ... in contrast to what we find in MSS A and B," and that "the compiler of manuscript C" placed Kriemhild's guilt in a different light without telling the reader what these manuscripts are and, at least, providing some context for the textual variants mentioned here (156, 159, 168). More questions arise as one reads on: If the alte m¾ren in the opening lines of the epic "no longer exist," how can we be sure that "these alten m¾ren were concerned with both Siegfried and the Burgundians"? (155) Over what kind of "powerful non-human enemies" (note the plural) does Siegfried triumph in the "Otherworld"--and what (where?) is that "Otherworld" anyway? (158) One last example from the discussion of another heroic epic--the Kudrun of the early 13th century--highlights one of the general flaws of this section, that of assuming too much specialized knowledge on the part of the reader. In the closing discussion about Kudrun and its affinities with the Nibelungenlied, the former epic is summed up--with no explanation given--as a "'buoch von Chudrun'." (172) What is the uninitiated reader to make of this? The phrase is not translated into English, its origin is undocumented, and its relevance to the subject at hand is left unexplained. Lacking all contextualization, details such as these are more of a stumbling block than a boon to the inquisitive traveler.

The rest of the chapter addresses the Dietrich epics,Biterolf und Dietleib, Ornit, Wolfdietrich, and the Rosengarten. These pages stand apart in tone and approach from the previous section, for much more attention is paid here to the plots and literary contexts of these--for English audiences--relatively unknown epics. The treatment of the "historical" Dietrich epics is well done, and much of it can profitably be read by scholars and students alike. My only quibble would be with McConnell's use of the terms "ahistorical" or "fairy-tale" to describe the aventiurehafte heroic epics (152), as those terms--both of which are loaded with misleading connotations--have not met with general consensus in the field, neither in German nor in English.

"Drama" (Wailes)

The opening lines of this chapter describe the scope of medieval German drama as stretching "vom Sakrament bis zum Exkrement" (the quote is from Hansjürgen Linke). Although this comprehensive look at Drama in medieval Germany falls a bit short on the latter--most of the bawdy carnival plays were composed after the 14th century, and thus fall beyond the scope of the book--the former is well-represented and contextualized here. This broad focus stands as a welcome corrective to many histories of medieval German literature which--provided Drama is given any serious attention at all--tend to overemphasize the prominence of Fastnachtspiele or other late-medieval plays in the German theatrical tradition. This chapter focuses on sacred drama (in Latin and in the vernacular) and on Hrotsvit von Gandersheim's 10th-century Latin comedies, which were written in a monastic setting.

The chapter opens with a discussion of "Basic Considerations" (289) that outline the non-Aristotelian aspects of medieval drama, the sociology of theatrical expression, the relative lack of surviving texts (and corresponding ambiguity of many that did survive), and the importance of musicality and visual culture in medieval performance. Wailes then proceeds to an engaging (and lengthy) discussion of Hrotsvit's six Latin comedies, some of the earliest extant plays from German-speaking Europe. This is fascinating reading, but a few key points are swept under the rug. First, it should be stated more clearly that Hrotsvit's plays were Lesedramen rather than play texts for performance; and second, readers should be told that these plays had no reception in medieval Germany (the Hrotsvit manuscript was discovered in the late 15th century and published in 1501) and had no impact on the theatrical tradition there. The chapter gives sufficient coverage of the 12th-century Tegernsee Antichrist Play, a startling and unique piece of Hohenstaufen political theater, although one wishes that some aspects of the text--such as its elaborate staging--could have received even greater attention. The speculation about "equestrian" performances of this play that took place on something like a "polo field" (299) strikes me as outdated, however, and Froning's 1892 edition of the play is not the best scholarly reference for today's readers; vastly preferable is the facing-page, 1967 Latin/English translation by John Wright, which contains an extensive introduction and commentary in English.

Following this, a brief interlude orients the reader as to the "origins of sacred drama" (300), the development of liturgical dramas, and the distinction between Osterspiel and Osterfeier. Then the chapter tackles the Benedictbeuren Passion Play, the Easter Play of Muri, and numerous other texts. Here, the plays and manuscripts are handled with a deft touch--a judicious mix of summary and historical context that shows a Companion in its best light. The discussion of the Frankfurter Director's Script in particular--an enigmatic 14th-century scroll that appears to be a prompt copy of a Passion Play--gives valuable insight not only into the text but also into the sources and methods of research on medieval German drama.

In sum, this Companion makes a significant contribution to the field of medieval German literature, and it is commendable that Gentry brought this volume--with its unprecedented scope--to press. There is no better guide in English for much of this material. Unfortunately, as is often the case with this type of book, the steep price will likely discourage all but the most stouthearted travelers (and libraries) from purchasing it.

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William Layher

Washington University in St Louis