Late-Medieval German Women's Poetry: Secular and Religious Songs

By Garber, Rebecca L R | German Quarterly, April 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Late-Medieval German Women's Poetry: Secular and Religious Songs


Garber, Rebecca L R, German Quarterly


Medieval Literature and Culture Classen, Albrecht. Late-Medieval German Women's Poetry: secular and Religious Songs. Translated from the German with Introduction, Notes and Interpretive Essay. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004.157 pp. $65.00 hardcover.

In his text, Classen makes several calls for an expansion of the canon of medieval women writers. He contributes to this task by expanding the scope of medieval German literature beyond the so-called Blütezeit into the later medieval period of the 15th and 16th centuries. In his examination of secular songbooks (Volksliedbücher) and collections of religious songs (Kirchenlieder), Classen claims to have found evidence for a continuing female contribution to medieval German literature.

In his introductory essay, Classen discusses the current level of scholarship on medieval women writers as well as recent research by feminist medievalists, and provides an introduction to the texts. The 34 secular and 13 religious poems are grouped separately by manuscript or early print source, and are followed by an interpretive essay.

Although written in the female voice and generally found in manuscripts composed for or collected by a female reader, all of the authors of the secular poems remain anonymous to both their medieval and modern readers. This requires of the modern scholar the extremely difficult task of interpreting authorial gender from a limited number of stanzas. Within Middle High German lyrics, this conundrum is compounded by the tradition of Frauenlieder, that is, men composing songs in women's voice. Indeed, Classen determines within his interpretive essay that a number of the poems he includes were probably written by men, such as those which appear within the tradition of cleric versus merchant as lovers, the anti-monastic song, and those which include fairly explicit sexual references. The criteria for determining whether a song was composed by a woman appear to be "references to woman's concern," "aggressive criticism" of or bitterness towards the disloyal male lover, "discomfort" on the part of a male poet singing "such passionate expressions," and references to woman's marital ideals and/or pregnancy. As only one-third of the songs are discussed in the interpretive essay, and because the criteria for determining female authorship are vague, the burden of interpretation is placed upon the reader.

With regard to these secular songs, skepticism remains about an effort which is based upon such short texts and which evinces the scholar's own biases as to what a medieval man or woman would be comfortable in uttering. …

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