AmblesideOnline AO Parents' Review Articles

The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Der Bucherbund

By Elsa D'Esterre-Keeling.
Volume 2, 1891/92, pgs. 755-763

X. The History of German Prose.

Babies sing before they speak, and nations sing before they speak; in other words, poetry precedes prose.

German literature of the first period--from, say, 350 A.D. to 1150, from the Volkerwanderung to the Crusades, a period covering eight centuries--is wholly lacking in prose. Lacking in prose, too, is the second period of German literature, that grand time, from 1150 to 1300, in which flourished the poetry of the people, collected by One Unknown, and given to the world as Nibelungenlied and Gudrun, and the poetry of chivalry, upheld by those three men of genius--Heinrich von der Aue, Wolfram von Eschenback, Gottfried von Strassburg. This, too, was the time of the Minnesanger, of that sweet singer, Walther von der Vogelweide; their "first classic period," so Germans love to call it; and, if we use "classic" in the sense of "excellent" the phrase may stand. But let no one look for classicality in the writers above-named! That terrible thing came into German literature two centuries later.

We have come ot the third period--1300 to 1500. The Crusades have ended, but the nations have not quieted down. They are restless, body and mind--especially mine. The Crusader of the North still fights a battle of the Cross, but with a difference. He calls himself a Red Cross Knight. The Northern poet, Spenser, tells his story. He sallies out to fight--not the Saracen; there is no longer any danger from that man of flesh and blood--but the uncanny monster, Error. He succeeds, so we are told, in doing this, and ends with espousing the Lady Una. Who is she? one asks. The One Church. What Church? Spenser shall answer--The Protestant Church. Protestantism is at the end of the third period of German literature. There is not yet peace on earth; the fighter is still to the fore; it is only his weapon that is changed. The man of war has become a man of words; he hurls, instead of a spear, a protest; hence the name that they give him of Protestant. The Church is weakened by a split. The old order changeth; disorder takes its place. Lawlessness takes the place of law; might is right; Faustrecht--fist-right--holds sway. Such a time could not be favourable to poetry--"the best words in the best order." [1] Chivalry was dead and done with; commerce began to be of importance. Traders filled the land, and the poets--for so the rimesters called themselves--traded with the rest. The Meistersanger, as I have already had occasion to say, were tradesmen singers. What we call prose had invaded life; it had to do that before it could invade literature. The glorious outburst of song, marking the second period of Germany's literature, was followed by a dreary spell of prose.

There is little to rejoice one in this third period. It is no figure of speech to say that in it the class of men, who had hitherto employed themselves in making poetry, employed themselves in--unmaking poetry; for Germany's first prose consisted of paraphrases of poems. Instances of this are The Seven Wise Masters, [2] Herzog Ernst, [3] Wigalois [4] in their early prose form. Translators also had a busy time. The French tale of Melusine was translated into German. Melusine was ancestress of the house of Lusignan and of that Guido who, having become King of Jerusalem, gave up his kingdom to our Richard of the Lion Heart in exchange for Cyprus. Melusine, having taken her mother's part against her father, was condemned to become every Saturday a serpent from her waist downwards, which transformation being once witnessed by her horror-stricken husband, the miserable lady uttered that cry which has made the phrase "cri de Melusine" proverbial. And Melusine does not live only in poetic and prose narrative and phrase, but the children of Lusignan still love a sort of cakes called "melusines," which bear the impress of a lady with a serpent's tail.

Prose chronicles came into vogue, and sermons found readers as well as listeners. During the fourth period of german literature, the time of the Reformation, prose advanced steadily side by side with the didactic poetry which held sway. Schwanksammlungen--collections of merry tales--came into fashion. Compilers of these were Pauli and Kirchhof. Pauli's best-known work is "Jest and Earnest" ("Schimpf [5] und Ernst") The following is a specimen of his jest:--

Ein Mann hatte drei Tochter; jede Tochter einen Freier; zugleich aber konnte er sie nicht ausstatten, also sollten die Tochter looszen, welche zuerst heirathen sollte, und diesz bewerkstelligte der Vater dadurch, dasz er ihnen befahl die Hande zu waschen, und an der Luft ohne Gebrauch des Handtuchs trocknen zu lassen. Die, deren Hande zuerst trocken sein wurden, sollte zuerst einen Mann haben. Das geschieht; das jungste Tochterchen aber wehrt und ficht bestandig mit den nassen Handen; "ich will keinen Mann, ich will keinen Mann," und des Tochterchens Hande werden durch das Wehen zuerst trocken, und es bekam zuerst einen Mann.

English: A man had three daughters, each daughter a suitor; but he could not dower them all at once, so the daughters were to draw lots as to which first should be married, and the father hereupon bade them wash their hands and dry them in the air without the use of a towel. She whose hands would first be dry was first to have a husband. This accordingly was done; but the youngest daughter [6] was wroth and stirred her wet hands without ceasing, saying, "I don't want a husband, I don't want a husband." And this daughter's hands, by being thus stirred, became first dry, and she first got a husband.

The jest is very pretty; I give a companion bit of earnest. [7]

Eine Burgersfrau hatte ein Vergehen begangen, fur welches sie offentliche Strafe am Halseisen leiden sollte. Ihr Mann aber hatte sie aus der Maszen lieb, und konnte es nicht ertragen, dasz seine liebe Frau offentlich also sollte gehohnt werden. Deshalb kam er mit dem Strafherrn uberein, gab Geld und brachte es dahin, dasz er fur sie die Strafe tragen durfte und an das Halseisen gestellt wurde, welchen Hohn und Schmach er um seines lieben Weibes willen geduldig ertrug. Wenn es sich aber spaterhin begab, dass die Hadersucht in dem Weibe uberhand nahm, und sie mit ihrem Ehegatten uneins wurde, warf sie ihm seine erlittene Strafe vor, und sprach offentlich vor den Leuten: "Ich habe doch nicht am Halseisen gestanden wie Du!"

English: A townswoman had committed a crime, for which she was to suffer public punishment in the stocks. But her husband loved her out of all measure, and could not bear that his dear wife should be thus shamed. Therefore he made a compromise with the judge, bribed him, and so contrived that he might bear the punishment for her, and be put into the stocks, which mock and shame he bore in patience for teh sake of his dear wife. But when it so happened later that quarrelsomeness got the better of the woman, and she lost temper with her husband, she would upbraid him with the punishment that he had borne, and would say openly before the people: "I have not stood in the stocks, as thou hast done."

This is terribly hard on woman; no modern cynic has written aught more pitiless. Pauli has a capital tale of a man who could not learn the Lord's Prayer, till his debtors, as instructed by his priest, took the names of the different clauses, as this, the first, Ourfatherwhichartinheaven; the second, Hallowedbethyname, and so on. These remarkable names the close-fisted creditor found no difficulty in committing to memory, and so learnt the Lord's Prayer. Another of Pauli's tales is the well-known one: How a Herdsman became an Abbot, "Wie ein hirt ein Apt ward." [8] The three questions put to the herdsman are in Pauli's old German:--"Was haltestu von mir?" (What deemest thou me worth?)--the answer is the one we all know; "Wa ist es mitten auff dem erdtrich?" (Where is the middle of the earth?)--the answer is: "Mein gotshauss ist mitten auff dem erdtrich; wollent ihr es mir nit glauben, so messen es uss" (My church is in the middle of the earth, and if you don't believe me, measure it out). "Wie weit ist gluck und ungluck von einander?" (How far are good-hap and ill-hap from each other?)--"Nitt weiter dann uber nacht: wann gestern was ich eyn sawhirt, hewt bin ich ein Apt" (Not further than night from day; for yesterday I was a swine-herd, who to-day am Abbot).

Der Juncker sprach: "Bey meinem eyd, so mustu apt blieben!" Vnd blib auch also Apt; er hielt aber den alten apt [9] auch in ehren, als auch billich was.

English: The nobleman said: "And by my troth, abbot thou shalt remain." And he remained abbot; but he paid all honour to the old abbot, as was right.

That last little bit is thoroughly German in sentiment.

Johann Paulie, the compiler of the book from which these tales are taken, had been a Jew, but became the zealous disciple of the good preacher Geiler, of whom more hereafter. Most of his "Schimpf und Ernst" consists of translations from mediaeval Latin divines; some of it is adapted from the Englishman, Bromyard.

Kirchhof compiled a work called "Wendunmuth,"--"Kill-Care." This writer was a Burggraf, or landed count, of Spangenberg. He was a Hessian, and his book is full of Hessian jokes.

To this Reformation period belong also the well-known Volksbucher, chap-books: Tyll Eulenspiegel, Finkenritter, Schildburger, Doctor Faust, and Ahasver.

Till Eulenspiegel, the merry-andrew, is supposed to have been a real personage whose home was in Brunswick, where he was born at Kneitlingen. He is said to have died at Molln near Lubeck, and there his tombstone is still shown. The tale of Eulenspiegel appeared first in Plattdeutsch. This is the name given to the German language as spoken in the North German Lowlands. The oldest written work in Plattdeutsch [10] is the Heliand. [11] It was replaced in the language of literature in the seventeenth century by Hochdeutsch, the last Bible in Plattdeutsch appearing in 1622. The language has now degenerated into a dialect, which, however, is an admirable one, and one that has been used with capital effect by the humorists Karl Groth and Fritz Reuter.

While some assert that the name Eulenspiegel means mirror-cleaner, and is a person-name derived from a calling, like Smith, the story generally believed to underlie it is this--that Eulenspiegel had his name from the circumstance that he--not altogether peculiar in this respect--saw his faults as little as an owl, before a mirror, sees its face. This story favours the English translation, Owl-Glass. The French have a charming word, "espieglerie," which the Germans are proud of having given them; the rude materials of it will be found in Eulenspiegelerei Many of the pranks of Tyll are capital reading, but other many are unlovely and unclean. One story tells "How Eulenspiegel caused three tailors to fall from a window-ledge and then made the town-folk believe that the wind had blown them down." This was a very harmless prank, for the tailors had jeered at Tyll; besides, to raise a laugh at tailors is a jester's license all the world over. Four-and-twenty tailors, it would appear from a story in another Teutonic language, could not slay a snail; that the wind could blow down so small a fraction of four-and-twenty tailors as is formed by three any Teuton can believe.

Another story tells "Hoe Eulenspiegel at Bremen bought milk of the market-women, and made them pour it all into one vat." Her pint from one, her quart from another, her gallon from a third, an so on--Tyll bought up all the milk, and only when the vat was full did he clap his hands to his pockets and find--he had no money in them. Picture the dismay of the market-women, the dipping in of the mugs--the pint-mug and the quart-mug; picture the jostling and the elbowing, the hurry and the flurry--they lack the repose of Vere de Vere, these women; and picture outside the circle Eulenspiegel, the rascal, laughing fit to break his sides. Suddenly the vat is lifted up by an indignant dame, whose claim to several pints the others dispute. The result of this is that the milk splashes all the women and flows about the market-place. Sad! oh, very sad! and, of course, it was very wrong of Tyll, but Tyll is now where no scolding can reach him, and the market-women are now where they need to sell no more milk, but the wealthy town of Bremen stands to-day as it stood then, and to one who lives in it among the getters of gain it is pleasant to know that mery mad Eulenspiegel once cut his capers here in the market-place, and the picture of the women, red with rage and white with milk, is, at this distance and time, as funny as that of the tailors flying (wind-blown, according to Tyll) out of the window. You do not only read these things; you see them. That is what makes you enjoy the book. The mere moralist will frown, but his little children will laugh--unless he has made mere moralists of them. It is different in the case of such antics as those which Carlyle quotes in connection with Eulenspiegel. There is nothing in them to make even the little thoughtless children laugh, and he who is merry and wise will shake his head at the story's end. The truth is, we must select. The book is no more all good than Chaucer's tales are all good, or than Shakespeare's plays are all good, or than an ear of wheat is all good. We get chaff and corn in all of these, and we get chaff and corn in Tyll Eulenspiegel. In Finkenritter the central person is that curious one, the "Lugenheld." [12] Shakespeare's ironical "travellers ne'er did lie," [13] sums up the book. It has much in common with Munchhausen, which appeared two centuries later. The author of Munchhausen in fact borrowed freely from this book and others similar.

Schildburger, or, as it is sometimes called, the Lalenbuch, is a satire on siple townsfolk, their pride and folly, above all, on the absurd spectacle presented by those among them who are drest in a little brief authority. The Schildburger are citizens of Schilda, and this place is described much as Wieland, two centuries later, describes Abdera in his charming prose work "Die Abderiten," an account of which will be given later.

The chap-book of Dr. Faust some regard as a satire on superstition. One Jonann Faust, of Suabia, a clever impostor, skilled in the so-called black art, is thought to have lived in the beginning of the sixteenth century. A queer being, his favourite companion was his dog. There was something uncanny in that to the people, and in course of time they came to believe that the devil was in Faust's dog. The reader of the superb poem of "Faust" will remember the use which Goeth made of this popular belief. His drama is based on the chap-book, though it can hardly be doubted that Marlowe's mighty line helped to inspire some thoughts in it.

Ahasver, or die Sage vom ewigen Juden--The Legend of the Everlasting Jew--belongs, as a German chap-book, also to this time, the sixteenth century, and teh Jew described in the chap-book is supposed to have been a native of Hamburg. The idea of an everlasting Jew is very old, and such an one was written of in England as early as the thirteenth century by Matthew Paris, the chronicler. According to the most widely spread myth, Ahasuerus was a shoemaker of Jerusalem, who repulsed Jesus from his hosue, where the Saviour wished to rest on his way to Golgotha. In punishment for this, Ahasuerus was to have no rest until the Day of Judgment. In the story as told by Matthew Prior, the Everlasting or Wandering Jew is called Kartaphilos, and is said to have been the porter of Pilate, who dared to strike Jesus as he was being led away from the justice-hall. Lenau, a Shelleyan German poet, who lived madly and died mad, [14] twice handled the legend of the "Wandering Jew," and his treatment of it should be compared with that which it met at the hands of the English poet in "Queen Mab." It is a sorry story, not true, and ill-invented; small wonder if the young poets of two nations grew bitter over it.

Besides its being provided with these chap-books, prose translations from the French were offered to sixteenth-century Germany: The Fair Magelone, Fierabras, Pontus and Sidonia, Hugschapler, Genoveva, Die Vier Haimonskinder, Amadis of Gaul. Most of these tales will be found in Feyerabend's Buch der Liebe, published in 1587.

The Fair Magelone was a princess of Naples, loved by a prince of Provence. The course of true love is very much ruffled, and the fair Magelone is once forced to disguise herself as a pilgrim. But all ends well. Fierabras was a heathen giant whose pride was humbled by Oliver. The story which underlies Pontus and Sidonia will be found in Ritson's "Ancient Romances," where it is called "Hornchilde and the Maiden Rimenild." Hugschapler is a curious instance of Germanising. Hugues Capet is the name under which the world knows Hugschapler. By Genoveva is meant, not Arthur's queen, but a duchess of Brabant, the lady whose holy lifewon her the title of "the Saint." Being slandered to her husband, she was driven into the forest of Ardennes, where her child was born, and was nourished by a white doe. Die Vier Haimonskinder tells of the four sons of Haimon, a French count. The youngest of these slew with a chessboard a peer of the Court of Charlemagne, this leading to a combat which lasted for sixteen years. The romantic tale of "Amadis" is regarded as the first German Roman. [15]

Very light literature all this. Serious folks asked for serious books, and they were providd with sermons by Geiler of Keisersberg and Luther. [16] Philosophy found a writer in Jacob Boehme, the cobbler-philosopher, born in 1575, a year before that in which died the cobbler-poet.[17] History proper was not yet written, but chroniclers were busy. [18] Critics began to wield the pen, and we have an annotator. His name is Schnitter, but he calls himself Agricola. Fiction, homily and criticism having all appeared, German prose may be said to have been fairly launched prior to 1600. In conclusion this remark. It is worthy of notice that, whereas among England's six great poets--Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, and Wordsworth--only one has written prose of the first excellence, among Germany's six great poets--Klopstock, Wieland, Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Schiller--there is only one who has--not written prose of the first excellence. The reader need only to call to mind Wieland's "Abderiten," Lessing's "Laocoon," Herder's "Kritische Walder," Goethe's "Leiden des jungen Werthers," Schiller's "Aestetische Briefe."

Questions for Club Students.

(First Class Paper.)

1. Turn into German the closing paragraph, beginning: "Serious folks asked..."

2. Write in German your idea on Jest and Earnest, quoting good instances of both in English, French, and German literature. Touch on "Schimpf und Ernst" in the above.

(Second Class Paper.)

1. Question 2, above, in English.

2. Turn the obsolete German in the story of the "Abbot and Herdsman," as told in this paper, into modern German, modernising the orthography, and not changing the words except when necessary.

Books of interest in connection with German prose:--

The five Classics last named.


Miss Maud Lloyd, Miss Dixon, Miss Picton-Warlow.

[1] Coleridge. The italics are mine.
[2] Vide Bucherbund VII.
[3] Vide Bucherbund II.
[4] Vide Bucherbund IV.
[5] Here used for Scherz.
[6] Pretty is the German "Tochterchen," daughterkin
[7] Both these extracts are taken from Vilmar. The German is modernised.
[8] Notice the capital A, but small h.
[9] The poor ex-abbot has lost his capital initial!
[10] The word is synonymous with Niederdeutsch.
[11] See Bucherbund I.
[12] In Carlylese, the liar as hero.
[13] "Tempest."
[14] In 1850.
[15] Of "Amadis" I shall have more to say later, under the heading Roman.
[16] In the Bucherbund for February I intend to deal with "Luther, his Predecessors, Contemporaries, and Successors."
[17] Boehme will be reated in the Bucherbund under the heading Philosophisches.
[18] These will be dealt with under "Germany's Historians."

Typed July 2013 by Ella Jacobs