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Early Germanic Literature and Culture.

Early Germanic Literature and Culture. Ed. by BRIAN MURDOCH and MALCOLM READ. (Camden House History of German Literature, 1) Rochester, NY: Camden House. 2004. x+334 pp. $85; 60 [euro]. ISBN 1-57113-199-x.

German Literature of the Early Middle Ages. Ed. by BRIAN MURDOCH. (Camden House History of German Literature, 2) Rochester, NY: Camden House. 2004. xiv+283 pp. $85; 960. ISBN 1-57113-240-6.

The first two volumes in the Camden House History of German Literature together provide the reader with an admirably innovative guide to tackling the earliest literature in German and in related Germanic languages. The decision to make Old High German the focal point of the second, rather than of the first, volume of a literary history of German may initially seem surprising (as Brian Murdoch suggests in his preface to the second volume), but proves to be entirely justified by the lively and unusual intellectual programme of the first volume.

The series opens with an interdisciplinary approach to 'Germanic' culture in all its manifestations, starting with problems of definition. The term 'Germanic' is inevitably a loaded one, with associations going well beyond the merely philological, and it therefore seems appropriate that the first block of essays should engage with the relatively recent intellectual and political history which colour our conception of the 'Germanic'. Thus Brian Murdoch and Malcolm Read outline the various basic approaches (philological, geographical, ethnological, historio graphical) to the term; Heinrich Beck analyses the particular circumstances under which 'Germanische Altertumskunde' (Germanic antiquity) was developed and promoted as an academic discipline in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and Herwig Wolfram examines historiographical texts which give a Germanic twist to the literary topos of the origo gentis (the origins of a given people). In conceptual terms these three contributions, which engage most directly with the recent cultural implications of the construction of the 'Germanic' (not least in relation to German national identity), are among the most ambitious in the volume. However, this dimension is also touched on in a number of other essays: for example, Adrian Murdoch's discussion of Germania Romana quotes Heine in order to illustrate the significance ascribed to the 'Varusschlacht' in the nineteenth century.

The subsequent essays in the volume are largely focused on providing an informed overview, either of particular literary or cultural practices, or of the body of literature associated with a particular Germanic language. So, for example, Rudolf Simek covers Germanic religion and the conversion to Christianity, while the cultural status of the written word is addressed in fairly theoretical terms by Graeme Dunphy (looking at the Mundlichkeit/Schriftlichkeit dichotomy), and in practical terms by Klaus Duwel (explaining the runic alphabet). The particular Germanic languages covered are Gothic (Brian Murdoch), Old Norse and Icelandic (Theodore Andersson), Old English (Fred Robinson), Old High German and Continental Old Low German (Brian Murdoch), and Old Saxon as represented by the Heliand (Ronald Murphy). Of these language-specific contributions, the one on Gothic stands out as particularly useful for newcomers to the subject: while there are plenty of other handbooks in English on Old Norse, Old High German, and Old English, it is difficult to find an equivalently concise, well-written, and well-annotated introduction to the particular challenges of studying Gothic. The contribution on the Heliand presents its subject-matter in a particularly enthusiastic manner, which might serve to stimulate student interest in this text-although the author is arguably prone to overstating the importance of this text, as when he claims that the Heliand-poet created a 'unique cultural synthesis between Christianity and Germanic warrior society' which 'would plant the seed that would one day blossom in the full-blown culture of knighthood and become the foundation of medieval Europe' (p. 263).

In this first volume, Brian Murdoch's short, but excellent, contribution on Old High German serves as a taster for Volume ii, which also does not disappoint. The most obvious comparator for this volume is John Knight Bostock's A Handbook on Old High German Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, rev. 1976 by K. C. King and D. R. McLintock), which remains the classic for students of the subject, even if the bibliographical references are now very out of date. The present volume is unlikely entirely to displace Knight Bostock, not least because it does not aim to provide anything equivalent to the latter's detailed philological discussion of key texts. However, the present volume covers a much wider range of texts: Knight Bostock might be more detailed in the presentation (say) of Notker as an individual writer and orthographical innovator, but Jonathan West places Notker's endeavours in the context of the prose output of figures such as Williram von Ebersberg (translator of the Song of Songs and of a commentary thereon) and the translator of the Old High German Physiologus. Similarly, Christopher Wells's contribution on the shorter German verse texts features an admirable and well-synthesized diversity of material.

Overall, the volume follows the interdisciplinary approach of its predecessor in the series and promotes the programmatic foregrounding of intellectual context in the broadest possible sense. This may be illustrated most clearly by reference to those contributions which present Old High German material within the broader intellectual parameters of Latin-dominated Frankish culture. Admittedly, key Latin texts with an obvious 'German' connection (Waltharius and Ruodlieb) are also discussed by Knight Bostock, but Linda Archibald's contribution on Latin prose and Stephen Penn's on Latin verse provide a far-ranging survey of the various kinds of literary material surviving from the Carolingian and Ottonian courts--be it narratologically complex beast epics, songs on Pythagorean subject-matter, liturgical tropes, or erotic macaronic verse. The inclusion of Latin material also means that there is some engagement with the works of female writers (Dhuoda, Hroswitha von Gandersheim).

This reinforces the point that although we have not identified any women writing in Old High German, this does not mean that the written word was an exclusively male preserve at the time. Finally, Graeme Dunphy's contribution on historiography provides further bridging, not only between Latin and German, but also between the Old High German and the Middle High German periods (with some discussion of the Annolied and of the Kaiserchronik). This forward look is very helpful, and the volume could possibly have benefited from further close consideration of writings on the cusp of the two linguistic eras.

Within this careful delineation of the cultural and intellectual contours of Old High German writing, two works emerge as the star attractions: the Hildebrandslied and Otfrid von Weissenburg's Evangelienbuch. While discussion of the Hildebrandslied will inevitably form the cornerstone of any account of Old High German (and discussion of this poem is central even to the short Old High German section in Volume i), the prominence accorded to the Evangelienbuch is perhaps somewhat surprising: while this rhymed Gospel narrative is clearly substantial in both length and ambition, its author is often dismissed as a rather pedestrian poet. Furthermore, the consistency of the Christian programme means that this text, unlike, for example, the mysteriously titled Muspilli, lacks what might be construed as tantalizing glimpses into pre-Christian belief systems or 'Germanic' cultural practices. However, the present volume clearly takes issue with this implicit devaluation of the Evangelienbuch: whereas here even the Hildebrandslied is featured only as part of a wider discussion of heroic verse, Otfrid von Weissenburg is the only writer to have an entire contribution devoted to him. In this contribution, Linda Archibald provides a robust defence of his achievements, arguing that 'to compare the Evangelienbuch unfavorably with heroic epic [...] is to misunderstand its purpose [...] [Otfrid's]work is not a poorly executed Christian epic, but a carefully crafted textbook for use in an educational context' (p. 154). Furthermore, Archibald draws attention to the formal and generic innovations achieved by Otfrid: 'This rhyming Gospel harmony is the first example of a new vernacular tradition for the whole of Western Europe and for this Otfrid is to be remembered' (p. 155). Of course, the heroic epic has long been regarded as the archetype of 'Germanic', supposedly reaching back into a pre-Christian, pre-literary past. Furthermore, the scarcity of German-language representatives has added to the prestige of the genre, encouraging fervent speculation about the splendours which may have been lost. However, as Brian Murdoch notes in the first volume, 'we cannot easily (and convincingly) examine what we do not have' (p. 235). The one large-scale poetic text which we do have is the Evangelienbuch, and it is to the credit of this volume that it places positive engagement with Otfrid's work so firmly on the agenda.


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Author:Volfing, Annette
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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