German Literature of the Early Middle Ages

By Paddock, Mary | German Quarterly, October 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

German Literature of the Early Middle Ages


Paddock, Mary, German Quarterly


Murdoch, Brian, ed. German Literature of the Early Middle Ages. Rochester: Camden House, 2004. 283pp. $85.00 hardcover.

It is certainly heartening to medievalists to see that this volume, which covers the Old High German period, is actually the second in the ten-volume "Camden House History of German literature" series. The first, co-edited by Brian Murdoch and Malcolm Read (Early Germanic Literature and Culture, 2004), discusses the pre-literary German Middle Ages, and deals with the broader tradition of Germanic literature. The current volume examines, as the editor emphasizes, the beginning of writing in the German literary tradition in the years 750-1100, which is characterized above all by its fragmentary and eclectic transmission.

For the purpose of this collection, "literature" is defined as anything that has been written down and preserved for posterity, as opposed to the oral tradition examined in Volume 1. Thus we encounter an essay on "Charms, Recipes, and Prayers" (Murdoch) alongside essays on "Heroic Verse" (Murdoch), "Historical Writing" (Dunphy), and "Late Old High German Prose" (West). Jonathan West ("Language") discusses the non-literary glossing of Latin texts and Christopher Wells, in his erudite survey of shorter German verse texts, confirms that even in this literary context one cannot speak of an Old High German verse tradition as such, because the texts are generically too diverse.

Most interestingly, "German" not only comprises linguistic and geographic categories, but describes any work written down by or for Germans. The essays in this collection explore, as Murdoch explains, the "literature of the early Middle Ages in Germany" as opposed to "Old High and Low German literature" (18). On that basis they consistently take into account the dominant Latin culture of the time and its relationship to the emerging vernacular literature. Thus two of the collection's nine essays are dedicated explicitly to the Latin literature of this period; the importance of Latin stressed in both essays is certainly well taken. However, the contribution on Latin prose (Archibald) would have better served the overall approach of the book if the author made more direct ties between the Latin tradition and emerging Germanic literature such as those we find in the essay on Latin verse (Penn).

The initially surprising but ultimately convincing approach of the book is moreover consistent with the discussion of the Germanic works within the context of their commitment to parchment, rather than that of their original (perhaps oral) composition, which is less certain. …

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