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Index by Period

Gothic Literature

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.


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