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The Mediaeval Period


The history of hymnody in Germany up to the time of Gerhardt falls naturally into two periods which might be called the Mediaeval Period, extending from the beginning of the eighth century to the end of the fifteenth century, and the Reformation Period covering the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth centuries.

The Hymns used in the services of the early church in Germany were, for obvious reasons, Latin hymns, for St. Boniface, the Apostle of Germany, though of English birth, entered Germany by the way of Rome. It was a Latin Christianity which he preached and the church services were, of course, those of the Mother Church. While the general use of the Latin language was favorable to preserving the unity of the Church and facilitated literary intercourse among scholars, this circumstance prevented for a long time the free and full development of a hymnody in the vernacular. The innate love of poetry, however, produced many sacred lyrics for private devotion and caused to be made metrical translations of Latin hymns and portions of the Psalter. In the consideration of the earlier period of hymnody reference will be made to a few Latin hymns, which though not of German authorship were yet used in the religious services of the Germans and had some influence in the development of the German vernacular hymnody. And in this consideration of hymns and hymn writers it will be convenient in the main to follow the chronological order.

Probably it cannot be known what and when Latin hymns were first translated into modern languages. If the statement made by Dean Milman in a footnote of his Latin Christianity, that the hymns of Ambrose were translated into German in the ninth century, is well founded, then probably the "Deus Creator omnium" and "Aeterne rerum Conditor," which are undoubtedly by Ambrose, were among the earliest of Latin poems to be so translated.

The oldest German poet is the Benedictine monk, Otfrid of Weissenburg, who was born about the beginning of the ninth century, according to some authorities in Franconia, according to others near the Lake of Constance. 7 He settled as a monk and priest at Weissenburg, where he wrote and completed (about 865) his Evangelienbuch, a versified gospel history, and a most interesting work from a philological as well as a hymnological point of view. This is the earliest example of a long German poem in rhyme. Of the rhymed prayers which some on doubtful authority have ascribed to him two have been translated by Miss Winkworth, "Du himlisco trohtin" ("Thou Heavenly Lord of Light") and "Got thir eigenhaf ist" ("God, it is thy property").1616This latter is regarded by some authorities as from the pen of St. Gregory the Great.

A celebrated Latin hymn of early date, which is known to have been used as early as 898, is the "Veni Creator Spiritus"; it has been constantly sung throughout Christendom at the consecration of kings and at great ecclesiastical solemnities. It has been ascribed to Charlemagne, Charles the Bald, Gregory the Great and various others.1717For a scholarly discussion of the authorship of this famous hymn cf. Julian: Dictionary of Hymnology, p. 1206 ff.

To this early period belongs Notker of St. Gall, called Balbulus, the "Stammerer," who was born in Switzerland about 840 and died in 912. He wrote in Latin and was the originator of a form of Latin hymnody called "sequentia" or "prosa," which, when translated into German, gave rise to the earliest German hymns with which we are acquainted. Whenever in the eucharistic service a "Hallelujah" was introduced it had been customary to prolong the last syllable and to sing on the vowel "ah" a series of elaborate passages to represent an outburst of jubilant feeling. These were termed "sequences" because they followed the "Hallelujah" and repeated its notes. They were of course without words and what Notker did was to write words for them. Notker was characterized as a man of gentle, contemplative nature and "accustomed to find spiritual and poetical suggestions in common sights and sounds." One of the most remarkable of his sequences, "Media vita in morte sumus," is said to have been suggested to him while observing some workmen constructing a bridge in a precipitous and most dangerous place. This sequence was long used as a battle-song; one of Luther's funeral hymns, "Mitten wir im Leben sind," is a translation of it and portions of the Burial Service of the Church of England are taken from it. St. Gall, which was for a long time the especial seat of German religious literature, produced besides Notker several distinguished sequence-writers, presumably his pupils, Hartmann, Hermann, and Gottschalk. To Gottschalk has been ascribed the "Alleluiatic Sequence ("Cantemus cuncti") well known in England by the translation, "The strain upraise of joy and praise."


An early example of the change of sequences from a rhythmical to a metrical form is seen in the so-called "Golden Sequence," "Veni Sancte Spiritus," called by Archbishop Trench "the loveliest of all the hymns in the whole circle of Latin sacred poetry." Tradition assigns its authorship to Robert II, King of France (997-1031). Its merit is attested by the many translations made of it into German, English and other Ianguages.

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