In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Late Medieval German Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Late Medieval Prose Novels
  • Meistersang Poetry
  • Late Medieval Song Poetry
  • Women’s Literature

Renaissance and Reformation Late Medieval German Literature
Albrecht Classen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0154


Despite many lines of traditions running through the late Middle Ages, 15th- and 16th-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. We also need to consider the further development of verse narratives (mæren) and their transition into prose tales, or Schwänke. In order to understand the intellectual-literary developments, we need to keep in mind the considerable expansion of urban life, 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. In addition, we observe the explosion of artes literature, or scientific, medical, and practical literature concerning cooking, dancing, fencing, hunting, building, and painting. 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.

General Overviews

For several decades now, the history of late medieval German literature has attracted growing interest. Many names and their works have surfaced that were previously regarded with disdain or little concern. Rupprich 1970 represents the more traditional position; Wehrli 1997 is a most insightful and comprehensive literary history; Meid 1998 (cited under Reference Works) proves to be most useful in giving us brief synopses of the individual works and writers; Cramer 2000 is based more specifically on the Verfasserlexikon, informing us also about the manuscript situation; and Hardin and Reinhart 1997 presents articles on the major writers and texts from the late Middle Ages. Ertzdorff 1989 summarizes most of the major texts and offers interpretations. Vivian 1992 contains specific articles for each period in English. Wellbery, et al. 2004 contains specific articles on individual texts in their historical context. But older literary histories, such as Ehrismann 1918–1935, still deserve our respect. It stands out for the breadth of information and depth of details provided. Recently, nonfictional literature was also included in the study of late medieval German literature; see Haage, et al. 2007. Between 2011 and 2016, Wolfgang Achnitz edited his eight-volume Deutsches Literatur-Lexikon, which relies heavily on the Verfasserlexikon, but expands considerably the respective bibliographic sections and utilizes both genre and chronology as the overarching structuring principles (see Achnitz 2011–2016, cited under Reference Works).

  • Cramer, Thomas. Geschichte der deutschen Literatur im späten Mittelalter. 3d ed. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2000.

    This is a very useful literary history that spans the period from the end of the 14th century to the early 16th century, drawing most of its information from the famous Verfasserlexikon (Ruh, et al. 1978–2008, cited under Reference Works), neatly summarizing the incredible wealth of data contained there.

  • Ehrismann, Gustav. Geschichte der deutschen Literatur bis zum Ausgang des Mittelalters. 4 vols. Handbuch des deutschen Unterrichts an höheren Schulen 6.1–2. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1918–1935.

    Ehrismann provided a most comprehensive survey of the history of German literature from the earliest time to the late Middle Ages, giving good content summaries and providing concise bibliographies relevant up to the early 1930s.

  • Ertzdorff, Xenja von. Romane und Novellen des 15. und 16. Jahrhunderts in Deutschland. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1989.

    This excellent survey provides detailed summaries of the most important prose novels and short stories produced during the late Middle Ages.

  • Haage, Bernhard Dietrich, and Wolfgang Wegner, with Gundolf Keil and Helga Haage-Naber. Deutsche Fachliteratur der Artes in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit. Grundlagen der Germanistik 43. Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag, 2007.

    The widest range of nonfictional texts, dealing with craftsmanship, medicine, geography, agriculture, hunting, and hygiene, but then also with necromancy and magic, is introduced and discussed critically. Although not literature, these texts belong to the vast corpus of late medieval text production and are of great significance for the cultural-historical context.

  • Hardin, James, and Max Reinhart, eds. German Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation 1280–1580. Dictionary of Literary Biography 179. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.

    Major writers and texts are discussed by individual scholars. Each entry contains excellent bibliographies of all primary and secondary texts. Each article is accompanied by historical illustrations. The information about the manuscript and incunabula tradition is excellent. This volume addresses both the student and the scholarly reader.

  • Rupprich, Hans. Die deutsche Literatur vom späten Mittelalter bis zum Barock. Part 1, Das ausgehende Mittelalter, Humanismus und Renaissance, 1370–1520. Geschichte der deutschen Literatur von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart 4.1. Munich: Beck, 1970.

    This standard literary history, monumental in its sweep, continues to be one of the most comprehensive studies. However, it is a little outdated and should be complemented by more recent work on the subject.

  • Vivian, Kim, ed. A Concise History of German Literature to 1900. Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture. Columbus, SC: Camden House, 1992.

    Each period in the history of German literature is presented by individual authors. Albrecht Classen’s contribution covers the late Middle Ages.

  • Wehrli, Max. Geschichte der deutschen Literatur im Mittelalter: Von den Anfängen bis zum Ende des 16. Jahrhunderts. 3d. ed. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1997.

    Wehrli takes a sweeping view, summarizing everything we know about medieval German literature from the earliest time (c. 8th century) to the mid-16th century. The late Middle Ages are divided by genres as well, such as religious literature, didactic and satirical literature, lyric poetry, plays, verse narratives, and prose literature. Originally published in 1980.

  • Wellbery, David E., Judith Ryan, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Anton Kaes, Joseph Leo Koerner, and Dorothea E. von Mücke, eds. A New History of German Literature. Harvard University Press Reference Library. Cambridge, MA, and London: Belknap, 2004.

    Focusing on particular dates and historical events, this literary history covers the entire history of German literature, closely associating a major text with the historical and intellectual context. The late Middle Ages represent only a short section, but each entry is well researched. The large scope of this introductory work, however, also leaves many gaps.

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