Week 1 – German Literary History (Part 1)

Welcome to week 1 of our Oktoberfest learning materials.

The topic for this week is German literature – more specifically, the people behind Germany’s best literary works. Infosheet 1 takes you all the way from classics like Goethe and Schiller to contemporary authors such as David Safier and Cornelia Funke.

In this two part blog we thought we would take you on a short journey throughout the German literary periods. One trend which is immediately noticeable is that German literature has always been strongly influenced by what was happening in the country, with religion and politics having the strongest influence. So let the literary journey begin…



The Origins and Middle Ages

Pre-Christian and early Christian periods: Around the first century BC the Germanic tribes moved from mainland Scandinavia to the area which we know today as Germany. Their tales were generally orally transmitted, and all that remains are a few broken runic inscriptions. Years later, when Germans converted to Christianity, most literary works were religious texts, largely focusing on topics such as sin, the Devil and death.

Middle High German: Literary works from this era document a very civilized process – they highlight a significant transformation in ethics and values in the post-Roman western society. This transition was from the rough and brutal warrior values developed during the medieval period in Europe to a society filled with ideals of love, elegance and humanity. Throughout the years 1160 to 1180 German flourished as a literary language and there was a strong focus on ‘courtly love’ – a conception of love which emphasized nobility and chivalry (for example, knights going on adventures, such as slaying a dragon, for a lady due to their ‘courtly love’).

Late Middle Ages/ Early Renaissance: In the late middle ages, after many years of literary works focusing on courtly love, the theme of death, yet again, became the focus of German literature. Whilst the renaissance period began – famous for its rich art and architecture – it was a poor time for German literature, with only a few notable works being written in this period.



Early Modern German Literature

Reformation: The 16th century in Germany marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible. Almost the entire century’s literary works focused on religious topics which were now able to reach larger audiences due to the invention of the printing press (but more about that next week…).

The Baroque: The 17th and early 18th centuries in Germany were another poor period for German literature. The era was a time of chaos filled with contradictions and extremes: particularly extreme religious views and differences in wealth. German literature from this period reflected this state of chaos by focusing on extremes such as deep love, death, corruption and the illusory nature of life (the idea that life is an illusion is very prominent in Baroque literature).



Eighteenth Century

Age of Enlightenment: The enlightenment period brought with it drastic revolutions in in science, philosophy, society and politics with strong ideals of freedom and equality spread throughout the masses. This period was rich in literature around Europe, including Germany: from poems to plays, to short stories and novels. There were dramas, tragedies, comedies – you name it, the enlightenment period had it!

Late Enlightenment – Sturm und Drang: The Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement extends the ideas of the early enlightenment period and focused on topics such as natural law (a system of right or justice for all humans, regardless of status, and derived from nature, rather than from the rules of society), constitutional government, and the rights of the middle-class (particularly those of middle-class women!). There was a further trend towards bourgeois tragedies, historical dramas and dramatic satires, with authors attacking political and social conditions.



Images and information retrieved from:





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