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A.D. 900-1100.

Barbarian Incursions

The two centuries we have now reached are a very barren period for literature. Charlemagne had given an impulse to arts and letters of which the effects are traceable as long as there were any pupils left of the circle of learned men whom he gathered round his court. But these gradually died out, and his vast empire fell to pieces. Then came a time when men had something else to do than to read or write; had too often to fight or flee for their lives to have much leisure or thought for more peaceful tasks. The frontiers of Germany had to be secured, its lands brought under cultivation, its towns built, its social polity developed. It was not until the great defeat of the Normans in 891 by Arnulf, at Loven on the Dyle, that Germany was delivered from their attacks, and its eastern portion was kept in constant alarm by the incursions of the Hungarian and Slavonic tribes, until nearly the close of the eleventh century. Thus on one occasion, early in this century, the whole of Germany between the Elbe and the Oder was ravaged; the most horrible cruelties were practised, especially against monks and priests, and all the churches were burnt down. The 22 cause of offence was that the chief had asked in marriage the daughter of the Duke of Saxony, and had received the scornful reply that it was not meet to give a Duke's daughter to a dog,--a play on the words Hun and Hund, or hound.

A vivid description of one of these incursions is left us by Eckhard IV., a monk and chronicler of St. Gall. In the year 924, an invasion of the Hungarians took place, which lasted for two years. The wild hordes first burst into Bavaria, swept over all the south of Germany, and then vanish from our story as they pass down the Rhine. They carried with them cattle and carts containing their plunder. At night they placed their carts in a circle, lit watch-fires, and stationed watchmen outside the barrier, while within it they encamped on the ground. By day they ravaged the country, plundering and burning on all sides; so that their approach was heralded by the red glare of burning villages on the horizon. When the abbot of St. Gall heard of them, he assembled the brethren and all the dependants, and commanded that they should at once begin to make spears, and shields, and other weapons, and also prepare a fortified asylum in case of attack. He himself and the other monks put on their coats of steel, and drew over them the monk's cloak and cowl, and laid their own hands to the work of fortifying the point he had chosen, a spot at the junction of three streams, which could only be approached by a narrow way. The monks and servants would not believe in the coming danger, and so it was but just in time that they transported their valuables to this retreat. The very next day the Huns appeared. Only two persons had 23 been left in the convent, a holy woman who had made a vow of seclusion and refused to leave her cell, and a half-witted monk who could not be induced to accompany his brethren into their fortress. The former was murdered, the latter was treated with a rough good-nature, and given as much wine and meat as he could take,--"though of a truth the discourteous people, when I had drunk enough, forced me to drink more with blows," he said afterwards. The Hungarians took all they could find, and observing that the highest point of the building, the vane, was crowned by a shining cock, they concluded this to be the god of the place, and supposed his image would be of gold. Two men therefore tried to ascend the tower and bring down the weathercock, but both fell and were killed. Their companions, enraged, next endeavoured to burn down the church, but its thick walls defied their efforts, on which they withdrew to the gardens, saying that the god was too strong for them. They then sent spies to examine the abbot's place of refuge, but these reported that its natural strength and the determination of its defenders seemed so great, that it would be best to leave it alone; and so, after a long and wild banquet in the convent gardens, the barbarians gradually drew off, and fell upon the neighbouring villages. For some weeks, however, the abbot could not venture to leave his fort, fearing their return, but every day he and some of the bolder monks stole down to the abbey, and said mass at its altar. At last he heard that the enemy was really gone. One of the suburbs of Constance had been burnt down, but the town itself and the abbey of Reichenau, 24 which had been next attacked, had been successfully defended, and the barbarians were on their way to the Rhine.

By very slow degrees these wild people were either subdued and converted to Christianity, or pressed back into the vast plains and thick forests and morasses of Central Europe, and the frontiers of Germany became at peace. But within them was constant fighting still. All the great nobles claimed the right of private war; there was no regular administration of justice; trial by ordeal was practised; and a revolt against the Emperor himself appeared to his powerful vassals the most natural thing to be undertaken when they had any grievance to avenge, or when his absence in Italy offered a fair opportunity. These early Othos and Henrys of the Saxon and Salic lines, were indeed, for the most part, men of ability and energy, who strove hard to establish order and promote civilization; but their power in the State depended almost entirely on their personal character and the wealth and consequence of their families, and was weakened by their frequent absences in Italy.

The Truce of God

In Germany itself, the clergy, on the whole, frequently sided with the Emperor as against the nobles, and to some extent thus constituted themselves protectors of the common people. They treated their dependants more mildly than other lords did, and their methods of agriculture were superior to any other; they gave employment, too, to many handicrafts, and thus it was not unnatural that towns gradually grew up or rapidly increased round the great abbeys and bishops' sees. It was to 25 two assemblies of bishops, moreover, that the distracted world owed that Truce of God, proclaimed in the year 1032, which gave breathing-time to the poor down-trodden peasant or townsman, and was the beginning of a more settled state of society. It was an agreement that no violence or weapons of any kind should be used from sunset on Wednesday to sunrise on Monday, nor on any high festival of the Church, and whosoever violated this peace was to pay his fine or wehrgeld, or suffer excommunication. Many of the nobles at first refused to submit to this, and declared their intention of adhering to the good old customs of their forefathers, and fighting on every day in the week: but a succession of bad harvests and a great dearth which occurred about this time was pointed out to them by the bishops as a sign of God's anger with their conduct; and even the turbulent Normans of France yielded to this argument. Nor indeed was it untrue, for it is evident that the local scarcities of food, which were of terribly frequent occurrence at this period, were in great measure due to the evil passions and ignorance of men. From this time onwards, however, we can trace an increase in the extent of land brought under cultivation; mining was introduced in the Harz district, and the towns steadily grew in wealth and importance. But how much of heathen superstition still lingered in the most Christian and civilized places, is curiously shown by a Mirror of Confession written by a Bishop Burchardt of Worms, early in the eleventh century. There we find penances assigned for worshipping the sun, the moon, the starry heavens, the new moon, or an eclipse, and for trying to restore the moon's light 26 when eclipsed, by wild outcries, "as though the elements could help thee, or thou couldst help them." So, too, offering prayers and sacrifices by a well, at a cross-road, or to stones is forbidden, and so is the old wives' custom at the birth of a child, of placing food and drink and three knives on the table to propitiate the Parcae or Three Sisters. The good old bishop believes in trial by ordeal, but we cannot but feel a great respect for him when we find the belief in the possibility of witchcraft and in divination classed among utterly vain and empty superstitions; and when we observe the heavy penalties affixed to slaying a bondsman even at the command or by the hand of his lord, unless he were a thief and a murderer; and to selling or entrapping any human being into slavery. To the former of these offences it seems no secular penalty was then attached, the lord possessing the power of life and death over his bondsman. Yet side by side with these superstitions there was a great deal of genuine Christian faith, among the laity as well as the clergy. The separation between these two classes was not indeed so marked as it afterwards became. Many of the secular clergy were married--Bishop Burchardt imposes a penance on any one who should despise or refuse the ministrations of a married priest,--and the monks often vied with the knights in field sports, as they did with the farmer in agriculture. When the need arose of defending land or faith by arms, the abbot raised his troops like the lord of any other fief, and could even on occasion, as we have seen at St. Gall, put on his own coat of mail and become general himself. On the other hand, many knights rivalled the monks in pious exercises, 27 and the cloister was their natural refuge when pressed by conscience or the troubles of a restless life. It was in the secular school of the convent that their children were educated, and it was among the higher clergy that the princes sought for State-advisers and secretaries.

Ezzo of Babingberg

Throughout this period the literature of Germany remained exclusively in the hands of the clergy, and was written in Latin, the then universal medium of communication for the learned class. Even so truly popular a subject as the story of "Renard the Fox" was treated in Latin, for the earliest existing MS. of it is a Latin version, which it is, however, supposed was based on a Flemish original now lost.44The earliest German version dates from 1170. This was indeed a sort of flowering time of mediaeval Latin poetry, while native German poetry was almost extinct. Only a very few German poems remain from these centuries, and these are not remarkable except for their date. The principal are two long poems, by Ezzo, a learned canon of Babingberg, on the miracles of Christ, and on the mysteries of redemption and creation.

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