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.
That the Evangelienharmonie thus has one foot in antiquity’s traditions is clear; the degree to which it draws on the New Testament gospels is obvious. But it also has one foot striding forward with new innovations. Streamlining the four gospels into one, and reconciling the numerous contradictions inherent within them, is itself something of an innovation, even if Otfrid was not the first to do it - indeed, we might look back to the Althochdeutsche Tatian, an OHG translation of the 6th century Latin version of the 2nd century Syrian Tatian’s own Evangelienharmonie, or perhaps the old Saxon biblical poetry of the Heliand, which owes plenty to the Tatian - but the addition of reflections on literature and the ways his gospel retelling relates to the Volkssprache of OHG and the Latinate formalising of OHG verse is what makes his text stand out. These reflections are found in the letter of dedication to the Bishop Liutbert and in I,1, but also in instances such as the mystice, moraliter and spiritualiter which recur throughout the work, each owing its exegesis to thinkers like Bede, Alcuin, Hrabanus and the Saints Augustine and Jerome - little homilies which follow the gospel account and interpret it, such as linking the six pitchers of wine at the Wedding of Cana with what Otfrid understands as the six epochs of the world.
The “master version” of the Evangelienharmonie, the Wiener Handschrift, is in the südrheinfränkisch dialect, and to write the Gospel story entirely in this down-to-earth language, a language for which there were no obvious colloquial or contemporary models to follow, is itself something of an achievement. Intrinsically less regulated than Latin, Otfrid’s OHG specifically aspires to what he calls in his prologue the ‘usus cottidianus’, the quotidian, the Umgangssprache: the everyday language of working folk. One can see, too, the degree to which Otfrid grows more comfortable with his ambitious project as he goes on: at first, for example, he doesn’t particularly pepper the text with instances of the coniugatio periphrastica (the “sein + Partizip” construction of a finite verb), yet such instances appear more frequently from Book II onwards[1].
The typical Otfrid-Zeile consists of an An- and Abvers, with a caesura inbetween the two; two such lines form a single strophe. What Otfrid does in using the rhyming of final syllables (Endsilbenrheim) is particularly significant: though not the first such usage in German[2], it is the first such usage in a large, all-encompassing work of this kind, thus setting the gold standard which other biblical and later secular epics of the MHG variety will employ. The Hymnenstrophe of Bishop Ambrose have been pointed to as a particularly important precursor, indeed perhaps a starting point, with two Ambrosian short lines neatly fitting together to form an Otfrid-like longer line (Langzeile). Regarding Otfrid’s verse an sich, Vollmann-Profe calls it “keine spektakuläre Neuheit”[3], citing the Anglo-Saxon epics as doing similar things. Rather, as she sees it, Otfrid’s achievement was the usage of this particular form of poetry in “ein großes episches Werk der Volkssprache”: blending seamlessly the world of the heathenish Germanic epic and the Latinate biblical tradition. From the former, Otfrid borrows the usus cottidianus and the vocabulary; from the latter, the regularity of verse in the hope that aping Latin’s general high standing will bestow something noble, or even more strongly something sacrosanct, upon the mere Volkssprache in which he is writing. He is, in fact, at pains to point this out (‘regula therero buachi uns zeigot himilrichi’, he says in the dedication to King Ludwig): it is the very ordered and structured nature of his take on OHG verse which elevates it above mere Volkssprache.
Thus Otfrid continually straddles the two literary conventions which he interweaves. On the one hand, it is an express goal of his to render the Biblical story as intelligible as possible for the layperson, an attitude which would seem to correspond with a certain antipathy towards the Latin. One Otfrid manuscript (the Fuldaer Handschrift) even has neumes alongside it, indicating it was to be sung in OHG - or at least, specific heightened sections with angelic voices like the annunciation to Mary were meant to be sung. And yet, on the other hand, Otfrid expressly borrows Latin’s better qualities to elevate the Volkssprache such that it is worthy of depicting the Gospel story, and spins a tale of having been pressed into producing an OHG translation by “geistliche Freunde” and a “fromm zurückgezogen lebende adelige Dame”[4] (namely, ‘matrona Judith’).  
It is, in fact, questionable whether the work is really for as wide a readership as Otfrid might want us to think - whether it is really for everybody - and more a matter of honouring King Ludwig by appealing to the superiority of the Franks, namely Ludwig’s lineage back to the Caesars, and indeed helping to create an East Frankish identity (such an aspect “zielt auf eine adelige Oberschicht”[5], according to Vollmann-Profe). Even such sentiments as making the Biblical narrative as intelligible as possible for those with minimal Latin - an explication, of course, which Otfrid delivers in Latin - are faintly couched in the tone of an experiment, with a scholar’s pleasure at the aptitude of his decisions. Otfrid justifies his decision to split the four gospels into 5 books by writing ‘hos, ut dixi, in quinque, quamvis evangeliorum libri quatuor sint, ideo distinxi, quia eorum quadrata aequalitas sancta nostrorum quinque sensuum inaequalitatem ornat’ - that is to say, the theological profundity of the four gospels “makes holy” the general day-to-day aspect of our five senses (one of which is bound up, of course, with the mouth which permitted the audience to say the OHG words which Otfrid uses). Some, indeed, have argued[6] that Otfrid’s text does not function properly unless it is read side-by-side with the Latin (“[Otfrid] schreibt für Leser, die den lateinischen Text neben seinem Gedicht liegen haben”[7]): helpful as a comparative exercise, but not so much a biblical retelling for the masses.
The Evangelienharmonie that results from Otfrid’s efforts, then, is neither fully a commentary - a purely theological exercise of interpretation - nor a verse work that stands completely on its own. We might assume from the experimental, indeed intellectual, approach that Otfrid was really writing for a “fellow cleric”[8], not a quasi-literate layperson, and that this was not necessarily the revolution we might think. But a flawed step forward though it might be, it is nonetheless a step forward in terms of German poetry: an elevation to a stratus such where it may sit alongside Latin, yet have a poetic character with its own ancestry, however heathen that ancestry might previously have been.

  1. Braune, Wilhelm (ed.), Althochdeutsches Lesebuch, Max Niemeyer, 1994.
  2. Engelberg, Bruno, Zur Stilistik der Adjectiva in Otfrids Evangelienbuch und im Heliand, Max Niemeyer, 1913.
  3. Kleiber, Wolfgang, Otfrid von Weissenburg: Untersuchungen zur handschriftlichen Überlieferung und Studien zum Aufbau des Evangelienbuches, Francke Verlag, 1971.
  4. Kleiber, Wolfgang (ed.), Otfrid von Weissenburg, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Darmstadt, 1978.
  5. McKenzie, Donald, Otfrid von Weißenburg: Narrator or Commentator? A Comparative Study, AMS Press Inc., 1967.
  6. Müller, Stephan (ed.), Althochdeutsche Literatur: Eine kommentierte Anthologie (Zweisprachig), Reclam, 2007.
  7. Patzlaff, Rainer, Otfrid von Weißenburg und die mittelalterliche versus-Tradition: Untersuchungen zur formgeschichtlichen Stellung der Otfridstrophe, Max Niemeyer, 1975.
  8. Sonderegger, Stefan, Althochdeutsche Sprache und Literatur (3. Auflage), de Gruyter, 2003.
  9. Vollmann-Profe, Gisela, Kommentar zu Otfrids Evangelienbuch, Rudolf Habert Verlag, 1976.
  10. Vollmann-Profe, Gisela, Nachwort to Otfrid von Weissenburg: Evangelienbuch, Reclam, 1987.

[1]Vollmann-Profe, Gisela, Nachwort to Otfrid von Weissenburg: Evangelienbuch, Reclam, 1987.
[2]Fränkel, Hermann, Aus der Frühgeschichte des deutschen Endreims, ZfdA, LVIII.
[3]Vollmann-Profe, Gisela, Nachwort to Otfrid von Weissenburg: Evangelienbuch, Reclam, 1987.
[6]McKenzie, Donald, Otfrid von Weißenburg: Narrator or Commentator? A Comparative Study, AMS Press Inc., 1967.
[7]Fränkel, Hermann, Aus der Frühgeschichte des deutschen Endreims, ZfdA, LVIII.
[8]McKenzie, Donald, Otfrid von Weißenburg: Narrator or Commentator? A Comparative Study, AMS Press Inc., 1967.

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