Gothic poems were sung in the time of Attila; but the Gothic
language and monuments have everywhere perished except in Spain,
where the Spanish Monarchs are anxious to trace their descent
from the Gothic Kings. Attila, Odoascar, Theodoric, and the
Amali, with other heroes, Frankish and Burgundian, all appear in
these old poems. The German songs that Charlemagne had collected
and put in writing are undoubtedly the outcome of these ancient
Gothic poems of the first Christian era. Their substance is found
in the Nibelungen-lied and the Heldenbuch.
As in the legends of Troy and Iceland, so also in the
Nibelungen-lied, the story centres on a young hero glowing with
beauty and victory, and possessed of loftiness of character; but
who meets with an early and untimely death. Such is Baldur the
Beautiful of Iceland, and such, also, are Hector and Achilles of
Troy. These songs mark the greatness and the waning of the heroic
world In the Nibelungen-lied the final event is a great calamity
that is akin to a half historical event of the North. Odin
descends to the nether world to consult Hela; but she, like the
sphinx of Thebes, will not reply save in an enigma, which enigma
is to entail terrible tragedies, and lead to destruction the
young hero who is the prey of the gods.
In this we can trace a similarity to the life's history and death
of Christ. In the Middle Ages a passionate love of poetry
developed in the Teutonic race, and caused them to embody
Christianity in verse. The South Germans, and the Saxons in
England, tried to copy the old heroic poems.
In the time of Theodoric, the Goths began to influence the Roman
language and literature; and it is at this period that Roman
antiquity comes to an end and the Roman writers from that time
are classed as belonging to the Middle Ages.
The whole history of literature during the Middle Ages was of a
twofold character. The first, Christian and Latin, was found all
over Europe, and made the protection and extension of knowledge,
its chief object. The other was a more insular literature for
each nation, and always in the language of the people. Theodoric
the Goth, Charlemagne, and Alfred the Great, the chief patrons of
the literature of their age, sought to carry on, side by side,
and to improve, these two literatures, the Latin and the
vernacular. They aimed to refine and educate man by the Latin,
and to increase the national spirit by preserving their national
poetry. While these old heroic poems of the different races are
full of interest and charm for us, we must not forget that the
Latin kept alive and preserved from extinction the whole of
classical and Christian antiquity.
The Middle Ages, so inaptly called "dark," are in truth little
understood. A German writer of the nineteenth century, Friedrich
von Schlegel, says:
"The nations have their seasons of blossoming, as well as
individuals. The age of the Crusades, of chivalry, romance and
minstrelsy, was an intellectual spring among all the nations of
the West. In literature the time of invention must precede the
refinements of art. Legend must go before history, and poetry
before criticism. Vegetation must precede spring, and spring must
precede the maturity of fruit.
"The succeeding ages could have had no such burst of intellectual
vigor, if the preparing process had not been going on in the
Middle Ages. They sowed and we reaped."
Hence, it will be seen that what is looked on as a period of
stagnation and ignorance, was in truth, the waiting time, during
which the inner process of development was going on, soon to
blossom into glorious fruit.