[This page by Cyril Edwards]

Medieval German literature can be divided into three distinct periods: Old High German (OHG, circa 750-1050); 'classical' Middle High German (circa 1050-1300); late medieval German (circa 1300-1450).

Old High German (OHG)

The first major religious poem in the German language is the Wessobrunn Prayer, dating from c. 800 AD. Early in the ninth century the alliterative lay, the Hildebrandslied, was written down, the only surviving trace of heroic epic from this period. Also surviving from the Carolingian period are a number of magical texts, charms, intended generally to protect the speaker against illness; the most fascinating of these are the Merseburg Charms, which hark back to pagan Nordic mythology, involving Wodan, Balder and Freya. The Ludwigslied, dating from the late 9th century, tells of a Franconian king's battle against the Vikings. Hirsch und Hinde is the earliest surviving German love-lyric: 'Hart whispered / into hind's ear: "D'you want more, hind?"' Useful introductions, with translations: J. K. Bostock, revised by David R. McLintock, A Handbook to Old High German Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976); Cyril Edwards, The Beginnings of German Literature (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2002).

'Classical' Middle High German (MHG)

‘Classical’ MHG saw the first great flowering of secular literature in German. It had its home in the courts of the aristocracy, in knightly culture. Adapted freely from the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes, Hartmann von Aue's Erec and Iwein reflected the great interest in this new genre. They were followed by the greatest of the Grail romances, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival. Gottfried von Straßburg penned the greatest version of the legend of Tristan and Isolde early in the 13th century. It tells the story of the doomed, passionate love between the Breton Tristan and Isolde of Ireland, bedevilled by Isolde's dynastic marriage to King Marke of Cornwall. Gottfried uses the device of the love-potion to bring about the adulterous relationship. The romance is coloured by resonant use of irony and, stylistically, highly elaborate word-play.

Also dating from c. 1200 is the heroic epic, the Nibelungenlied, although its origins go much further back, to the times of Theodoric the Great and Attila the Hun.

Lyric poetry also throve from c. 1150 onwards: two poets deserve especial mention: Walther von der Vogelweide (c. 1180– c. 1230) and Heinrich von Morungen (d. 1220). Morungen's corpus consists entirely of love-lyrics, whereas Walther composed not only love-lyrics, but also political propaganda, reflecting the civil wars in Germany, and religious poetry. The first religious drama in German, the Easter Play of Muri, also dates from the early 13th century. Erec, Iwein, Parzival, the Nibelungenlied and Tristan are all available in English translation, the latter three as Oxford World's Classics and Penguin Classics. Access to the MHG versions of all these (except Iwein) is easiest through the Reclam paperback editions, although it should be noted that the translations in these parallel text editions are far from reliable.

In the second half of the 13th century Mechthild von Magdeburg described her ecstatic spiritual experiences in Das fliessende Licht der Gottheit.

Late medieval German

Late medieval German literature saw further religious drama, such as the Innsbruck Easter Play, and a late flowering of lyric poetry. The most important lyric poet in this period is Oswald von Wolkenstein, whose lyrics have been much recorded on CDs recently, notably by Andreas Scholl.

Further Reading

Howard Jones and Martin H. Jones, The Oxford Guide to Middle High German (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019). A reader/compendium/guide, suitable for students and the general reader. Highly recommended.

Philip Wilson (ed. and trans.), The Bright Rose: Early German Verse 800–1250, Trilingual English / Middle High German / Old High German edition (Todmorden: Arc Publications, 2015)

Web Links

Codex Manesse. Illuminated manuscript from around 1300, containing pictures of all the major MHG poets

Bibliotheca Augustana. Reliable online versions of medieval German texts

Text of the Hildebrandslied, including a facsimile of the MS

Website for Hartmann von Aue's Erec, giving access to the manuscript in Vienna, the Ambraser Heldenbuch