This article provides a summarized overview of the major developments of German literature, that is to say, the novels, poetry, and plays written in the German language from the earliest stages (ca. 9th century) until the present day.
German-language literature and literary theory have long been influential and admired among the world literatures and it has had a number of renowned representatives, such as Goethe, Hermann Hesse, and Elias Canetti. Twelve authors writing in German have received the Nobel Prize in Literature, including Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Elias Canetti, and Günter Grass.
Although there are many different ways to organize such material, such as by genre or period, it is here more convenient to divide the article primarily according to period since genres and subgenres develop and change through time.
Definition and division
We include in this article the literature of all peoples and authors produced in recognized dialects of German at all stages of historical development. For modern literature this means including not only literature produced in the modern Federal Republic of Germany but also that written by authors from Austria and Switzerland.
For older literature, this definition becomes more problematic as it is not always easy to correlate historic linguistic, historic, and ethnic divisions according to modern political divisions. For instance, the position of older Dutch literature before ca. AD 1100 as a separate literature is considerably arbitrary since the territory of what is now Belgium and the Netherlands was at that time fully incorporated into a political and linguistic German continuum. Nevertheless, since World War II Dutch medieval literature has been treated as a separate entity. Similarly, the inclusion of the small corpus of Gothic texts under the heading of German literature, not uncommon among literary scholars of the nineteenth century, is no longer generally accepted.
Early Middle Ages (until ca. AD 1050)
Very little survives from the earlier parts of the Middle Ages that could be classified as literature in the modern sense. Since Latin was the primary language of the educated in the first millennium AD and Christianity was by far the most important topic of instruction, practically everything that has come down to us of the literature of early medieval Germany, with some notable exceptions, is either written in Latin or reflects attempts to communicate religious material in the vernacular. Much of it is translation from Latin, although “translation” in the Middle Ages should not be conceived of as word-for-word reproduction of the original and often could include considerable adaptation by scholars, translators, and copyists. A good deal of interest in the earliest German texts are of a linguistic and historical rather than literary nature.
Among the earliest texts of interest are glosses, such as the Abrogans, and translations of Latin Christan texts, such as the Old High German Isidor (a fragment of a translation of Isidor of Seville’s “De fide catholica ex veteri et novo testamento congtra iudeos”) and Tatian (a translation of Tatian’s famous gospel harmony). Notable is also the work of the Swiss monk Notker III of St. Gall, who created a prodigious output in educational texts in both theology and science.
Judging by surviving material from other Germanic countries, Germany must have had its store of oral poetry, but only very little of it survives. Among the scraps are the fragmentary Muspilli (a German apocalyptic poem), though it is influenced by Christian thought. The only truly Germanic poem to have come down to us and also the oldest literary text in German is the Lay of Hildebrand (German Hildebrandslied). It tells the story of father and son meeting as combatants in opposing armies. Though the end of the poem is missing, the fatalistic tone suggests a tragic ending of the conflict, something that is confirmed by a later version of the story recorded in Old Norse.
The native and foreign models are blended in exquisite fashion in the Old Saxon Heliand (from the word for 'Savior'), a paraphrase in Germanic alliterative verse based in large part on Tatian's gospel harmony and other gospel commentaries. Similar in style and content is the Old Saxon Genesis, which is closely related to the Old English Genesis B—indeed, it has been proven that the latter is a translation of the Old Saxon poem.
The poem Waltharius ("Lay of Walther") is an odd product of the German Middle Ages; it is a Latin translation or paraphrase of a Germanic heroic poem. It relates legendary material about Atilla the Hun also found in the Hildebrandslied, the Nibelungenlied, the Old Norse Thidrek's Saga, and various other Germanic epic poems.
High Middle Ages (ca. 1050 - 1350)
Early Middle High German literature
In the period between the death of Notker III of St. Gall—the last important author of Old High German era (d. 1022)—and the end of the twelfth century, German literary output was thin. What has survived consists mostly of vernacular religious texts (many in verse) of a didactic nature. It differs from the earlier Christian material in that these poems are nearly all new creations by German authors struggling with more sophisticated theological doctrine. The Old High German religious poetry were largely historical arguments in favor of Christianity, while the religious poetry of the period 1050 - 1170 is more deeply catechetical in nature. Among the these texts are the Ezzolied, the Anagenge, and Die Rede vom Glauben (The Discourse on Faith). Remarkable are also two commentaries on the Song of Songs: Williram's Paraphrase of the Song of Songs and the St. Trudpert Song of Songs. Among the texts that are less directly theological in nature are the Physiologus, a compendium describing various animals that goes back to Latin and Greek sources and survives in various different versions, and the fragmentary creation poem Merigarto.
Four historical poems of note survive from this period: the Annolied, the Kaiserchronik (Chronicle of the Emperors), the Alexanderlied, and the Rolandslied. The first two stand in the tradition of biblical world history, describing the rise and fall of four empires (Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman), while the latter two are the first examples of German poems with French sources.
By the middle of the twelfth century, literary styles, strongly influenced by French literature, became more involved with elegant life at the noble courts, hence the term "courtly literature" (höfische Literatur). This was already reflected in some so-called minstrel epics (Spielmannsepen) such as König Rother and Herzog Ernst in both of which the action revolves around high adventure of noble heroes. These tastes developed rapidly in the second half of the twelfth century when German poets started writing what became known as courtly romances, a new genre imported from Old French literature (roman courtoise) that dealt with material largely from Celtic sources and includes many of the Arthurian stories that have remained popular to the present day. In these stories, the quest motif of the noble knight-hero becomes more developed. They revolved around the moral values and cultural tastes of the royal court and noble society. Many of the epics produced in this period included lavish descriptions of courtly life, plot lines impinging on knight's honor, and the (often but not always platonic) love for the courtly lady.
The first two epics of Germany's rich courtly period are the Tristrant by Eilhart von Oberge and the Eneas (or Eneid) by Heinrich von Veldeke, both reworkings of Old French examples. The first is remarkable because it is the first recorded version of the Tristan and Isolde material in German, predating the famous version by Gottfried von Straßburg. It is, however, the second author who is most commonly listed as the first master of courtly literature, in particular because he was praised by all his contemporaries and immediate successors as the one who, in the words of Gottfried von Straßburg, "grafted the first shoot on the German language" (Tristan, ll. 4738-39).
Together with Hartmann von Aue and Wolfram von Eschenbach, Gottfried himself is universally listed as one of the three greatest authors of German courtly literature, despite the fact that he is only known with certainty to have written one work (Tristan) which he did not complete. But his poetic and narrative mastery puts his reputation beyond question. The other two, Hartmann and Wolfram, are both best-known for their works involving material from Arthurian legend. Hartmann produced two Arthurian epics, Erec and Iwein, which in view of their plots can almost be considered diptychs. Wolfram's Parzival, the story of a foolish young knight who attains honor and religious insight, remained popular through the ages, and inspired the nineteenth-century German composer Richard Wagner to write his Parsifal. All three of these works (Erec, Iwein, and Parzival) also form, in some sense, an homage to the French author Chrétien de Troyes, since they are each translations of his works.
One other masterpiece of Middle High German literature is the anonymous Nibelungenlied (Lay of the Nibelungs), which deals with legendary material related to Theodoric of Bern, which was very popular across Northwestern Europe in the Middle Ages (see esp. the Old Norse Völsunga Saga).
The courtly period also produced a large body of lyric poetry, especially love poetry, known as Minnesang (from German Minne 'love' + sang 'song'). Many of the poems were indeed songs and tunes survive for them. Among the masters were Heinrich von Veldeke, Walther von der Vogelweide, Hartmann von Aue, Heinrich von Morungen, and Neidhart. Topics of a Minnelied (love song) could be the platonic service of a distant noble lady, as well as implicit allusions to sexual encounters.