Early Modern

[This page by Madeleine Brook]

The early modern period was a time of great change in German society and culture. It saw the rise of the Habsburg dynasty as Holy Roman Emperors and devastating military conflict, as well as a fundamental shift in the relationship between laity of all social strata to orthodox religion, and changes in approaches to knowledge and learning.

German literature in this period starts in the second half of the 15th century, with folk-based literary traditions carried over from the medieval period, such as the Schwank (often humorous short tales) and the Fastnachtspiel (carnival play), as well as satirical works inspired by the new ideas of humanism. The Bible constituted the most popular publication of the 16th century, but religious issues were a popular theme in all genres. This period gave birth to at least two enduring mythical figures of German literary culture: Faust and Till Eulenspiegel, who would later figure in the work of more modern writers, such as Goethe (Faust I (1808) and Faust II (1832)), Erich Kästner (Till Eulenspiegel, published posthumously in 1980), Christa Wolf (who co-wrote the narrative for the 1975 film, Till Eulenspiegel), and Daniel Kehlmann (Tyll, 2017).

The German 17th century was heavily influenced by other European literatures and cultures, for example, the commedia dell’arte of Italian drama, the pícaro figure of early Spanish novels, Dutch approaches to poetic conventions, English strolling players, French comedy, and, in the late part of the century and into the early 18th century, the French roman galant. This period is depicted memorably and vividly in the picaresque novels of Grimmelshausen (which later influenced Brecht, Grass and Morgner).

For the historical background of this period, see Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700 (London: Penguin, 2004)

Renaissance humanism

Renaissance humanism was an intellectual movement throughout Europe in the latter part of the medieval and the early modern periods whose most important principle was the importance of the word. This included writing itself, as well as the study of literature and linguistic expertise, such as the skilled application of rhetorical style. Renaissance scholars increasingly turned to the original texts of classical writers, such as Aristotle, Cicero and Plato, an interest that was aided by the increased availability on the European market of Greek texts in particular after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Demand for books also increased, thus facilitating the spread of the use of the printing press and movable type.

The principle of ‘going back to the original’ (ad fontes) had implications for all areas of knowledge in this period. In the field of natural philosophy, for example, Andreas Vesalius’s (1515-1564) dissection work revealed the anatomical views of the great classical authority, Galen, to be flawed. However, possibly the most famous and influential of the north European humanists of this period is Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (c.1466-1536), who wrote the satirical Morias Enkomion (1509-1511; ‘In Praise of Folly’). His insistence that humanist principles concerning language and source texts must be applied to Christian texts had a fundamental impact on Christian faith in the 16th century.

Humour is an important aspect of 16th-century literature in Germany. Even before Erasmus, the German humanist, Sebastian Brant, was giving the theme of folly in society satirical treatment in his wide-ranging and imaginative work, Das Narrenschiff; The Ship of Fools (1494), which found popularity across Europe, including in France and England.

Important German humanists from this period include Johannes Agricola, Sixt Birck, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, Conrad Celtes, Philip Melanchthon, Johann Cochlaeus, Willibald Pirckheimer, Sebastian Franck and Ulrich von Hutten. Many, though not all, were proponents of the Lutheran Reformation.

Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation

The 16th century was a time of religious reformation, which centred at first on the religious ideas propounded by Martin Luther (1483-1546) in Wittenberg, the capital of Electoral Saxony, from the late 1510s onward. His interest in translating and then conveying a ‘true’ version of first the New Testament, then also of the Old Testament, to the public led him to develop a number of radical ideas. The most important of these ideas were justification by faith alone (sola fide) and the priesthood of believers, which struck at the heart of late medieval Catholicism. The rapid spread of Luther’s ideas was aided by a boom in pamphlet publication, as well as the political conditions of the Holy Roman Empire in the late 1510s and early 1520s. These ideas were picked up and elaborated on by other reformers and reforming groups as early as the 1520s. The Protestant Reformation splintered into a number of new denominations led by the likes of Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531), Thomas Müntzer (1489-1525), who was a key supporter of the Anabaptists and the Peasants’ War, and Kaspar Schwenckfeld (1490-1561).

The Reformation had far-reaching consequences for society, amongst other things by redefining the relationship of the laity to organised religion and by placing a new importance on the status of marriage and the family unit within society (as opposed to clerical celibacy).

Apart from the theologians at the heart of the Reformation in this early period, other key writers, poets and dramatists are: Hans Sachs (especially his Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall; The Wittenberg Nightingale (1523) and his Reformation dialogues), Sixt Birck, and Paul Rebhun.

Religious writing continued to form a key aspect of early modern literature throughout the period, with writers such as Andreas Gryphius, Anna Ovena Hoyers, Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg, and Angelus Silesius producing a range of different styles of devotional poetry.

The Thirty Years War (Dreißigjähriger Krieg) (1618-1648)

The 17th century was marked by the devastating Thirty Years War (Dreißigjähriger Krieg) (1618-1648). It began as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the Holy Roman Empire, but it soon spread to encompass most of western Europe, including France, Sweden and Denmark, as the various states fought for the balance of power on the continent. The devastation wrought by the war was exacerbated by the effects of large armies of mercenary soldiers. The war came to an official end in 1648 with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia.

The significance of the war for contemporary society can be seen in the literature of the time: it features as the backdrop to Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s cycle of Simplician novels, provides material for consolation and vanitas poetry by Martin Opitz, Paul Gerhardt and other poets, and the social effects of war are examined in comic dramas by Andreas Gryphius, who, alongside Daniel Casper von Lohenstein, is considered one of the greatest dramatists of the early modern period.

Literary Reform

Until the early 17th century, Latin was the language of the literary and educated elites. Inspired by the rise of the vernacular in the Netherlands, German thinkers began to argue for the value of their own language for poetic expression. This is perhaps best exemplified in Martin Opitz’s revolutionary work, Buch der Deutschen Poeterey; Book of German Poetics (1624), which was a significant inspiration for the work of the poet Paul Fleming. Attitudes to poetics altered over the course of the early modern period, with, for example, Hoffmann von Hoffmannswaldau frequently poking fun at the Petrarchan conventions found in much of Fleming’s work. The century also saw a flourishing of literary societies dedicated to fostering the German language in literature, for example, the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (Fruitbearing Society), founded in 1617 by members of the court at Weimar, and the Pegnesischer Blumenorden (Pegnitz Flower Society), founded in 1644 by the poets Georg Philipp Harsdörffer and Johann Klaj. The latter continues to be active today.

Further Reading

Georg W. Brandt and Wiebe Hogendoorn (eds.), German and Dutch Theatre, 1600-1848 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)

Euan Cameron (ed.), Early Modern Europe: an Oxford History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)

Euan Cameron, The European Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)

Sebastian Coxon, Laughter and Narrative in the Later Middle Ages: German Comic Tales c. 1350-1525 (Oxford: Legenda, 2008)

L. W. Forster, The Icy Fire. Five Studies in European Petrarchism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969)

James Hardin (ed.), German Baroque Writers, 1661-1730 (Detroit, MI: Thomson Gale, 1996)

A. J. Krailsheimer, The Continental Renaissance 1500-1600 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971)

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700 (London: Penguin, 2004)

Alan Menhennet, Order and Freedom: Literature and Society in Germany from 1720 to 1805 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973)

Peter N. Skrine, The Baroque: Literature and Culture in Seventeenth-Century Europe (London: Methuen, 1978)

Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly, Triumphall Shews. Tournaments at German-Speaking Courts in their European Context 1560-1730 (Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 1992)

Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly, 'The early modern period', in The Cambridge History of German Literature, ed. by Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 92-146

Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly, 'Women's writing in the early modern period', in A History of Women's Writing in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, ed. by J.M. Catling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 27-44

Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly, Court Culture in Dresden from Renaissance to Baroque (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)

Joachim Whaley, Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Volume I: Maximilian I to the Peace of Westphalia, 1493-1648; Volume II: The Peace of Westphalia to the Dissolution of the Reich, 1648-1806

Gerhild Scholz Williams and Stephan K. Schindler (eds.), Knowledge, Science, and Literature in Early Modern Germany (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996)

Web Links


Albertina Museum in Vienna. Online gallery includes world-class collection of Renaissance prints, e.g. Albrecht Dürer


Austrian Baroque Corpus (in German)


Texts by early modern German-speaking women


Reformation pamphlets in the Taylor Institution Library, Oxford University