Late Medieval German Literature

Albrecht Classen

in Renaissance and Reformation

ISBN: 9780195399301
Published online June 2011 | | DOI:
Late Medieval German Literature

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy


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Despite many lines of traditions running through the late middle ages, 15th-century German writers reflected profound changes and followed new directions, influenced by multiple contacts with cultures and people beyond the borders. In three areas we observe major transformations taking place: (1) the emergence of Shrovetide plays and the further development of religious plays; (2) the rise of prose novels (Volksbücher); and (3) the creation of popular song books. In order to understand the intellectual-literary developments, we need to keep in mind the considerable expansion of urban life, that is, especially, the growth of cities as the economic, cultural, and political centers of their time, which facilitated the emergence of new literary genres, the rise of new social groups responsible for the creation of literary texts, and the establishment of a book market (Classen 2009, cited under Social Context and Historical Background). In the late Middle Ages anticlericalism abounded, whereas private and lay devotion and piety gained new emphasis. Many of these developments were only possible because people were increasingly capable of reading and writing and finally gained new access to printed books since the invention of the movable type by Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1450). By the end of that period German literature both appealed to and was produced by the nobility and the learned urban population (many medical doctors), but it was also of great significance for the so-called Meistersänger (master singers or craftsmen poets). More than ever before, satirical authors, chroniclers, and travelogue writers found a receptive audience. Two final aspects deserve to be considered. In the late Middle Ages, the central power of the German emperor eroded considerably, whereas territorial princes acquired almost near independence. Consequently, cultural life shifted remarkably from the royal or imperial court to regional courts but then also to the cities. At the same time, many new universities were founded throughout Germany, producing the intelligentsia necessary for the establishment and maintenance of an early-modern bureaucracy, health-care system, and legal system. Not surprisingly, medical doctors, lawyers, craftsmen, and administrators were increasingly responsible for the creation of late-medieval German literature. It would be difficult in light of this transitional process to draw a clear demarcation line between the late Middle Ages and the early modern world.

Article.  15203 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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