Wednesday, 30 November 2016

On how Otfrid von Weißenburg produces a new form of German poetry in his Evangelienharmonie (c.863-871)

Look how happy he looks.

By any measure Otfrid von Weißenburg’s Evangelienharmonie is a Great Leap Forward in terms of what it achieves in the history of German literature. Otfrid is our first named German author; the Evangelienharmonie is the most copied Old High German text; its sheer length is unmatched; it is the longest Bible epic since the start of the genre in the 4th century; it is our first instance of a German literature autograph (it being rare even in Middle High German to have works in the hand of the author themselves); and it has as its explicit goal the establishment of German as a literary language, establishing the gospel stories as literary matter worthy of being written ‘theodisce’ or in the vulgar tongue. Of this shopping list of records that the Evangelienharmonie sets, it is perhaps the last which is of greatest interest to us. That Otfrid set out at all to create a Biblical epic in the vernacular of his day is itself remarkable; that it is such a vast, complex work full of structural and poetic innovations even more so. From this marker-stone we can glance back to antiquity, to Ambrosius and Saint Jerome, and forward to the blooming medieval period of Parsival and Tristan and indeed on to Luther’s Bible translation of the 1520s and 1530s.