Beast epic and beast fable in German literature
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The beast fable, which apparently originated in India, entered Germanic lands, through Latin writers, by way of Greece. A collection of beast fables, published by Heinrich Steinhovel in 1480, is one of the sources of those which in various languages are now called Aesop's Fables. The beast epic, however, bears the mark of the country in which it was written. The oldest recorded beast epic, the Ecbasis Captivi, was written by a monk of Lorraine in about 940. It is an allegory which portrays the authors regeneration after having strayed from the fold. The second Latin beast epic Ysengrimus, was written by a Magister Nivardus about two hundred years later. This poem, unlike the Ecbasis, is definitely satirical and uses the clergy as the butt of its satire. The next development of the beast epic occured in France between 1170 and 1250. Twenty-seven "branches" of the Roman de Renart came into existence during this period. In 1180, an Alsatian minstrel, Heinrich der Glichezaere, wrote the first High German beast epic, Reinhart Fuchs, based on "branches" of the Roman de Renart. The poem is permeated by ridicule, but behind the ridicule lies a bitter scorn for the corruption and ignorance inherent in human nature. A Flemish Van den vos Reinaerde, written by Willem, a poet of East Flanders, about 1250, and also based on some of the "branches" of the Roman de Renart is the source of all the Fuchs epics which have come down to us. The satiric and didactic elements which seem inseparable from the beast epic in all its forms, took an even more prominent place in a version published in Antwerp by Hinrek van Alkmar. This writer provided his version with a gloss in which the moral and religious bearings of the poem were set forth. This gloss is known as the Catholic gloss, to differentiate it from succeeding versions, beginning in 1539, which contained a revised gloss from the standpoint of the Reformation and called the Protestant gloss. The beast epic, with its capacity for satire, was used as a weapon for the Protestant cause during the Reformation. Writers such as Georg Rollenhagen and Wolfhart Spangler, who were familiar with the Fuchs stories used the ideas found therein in their own writings. Rollenhagen wrote a parody on Aristophanes Batrachomyomachia (the Battle of the Frogs and Mice), and Spangler used geese for his models in der Ganskonig. The beast fable also reached a high point in its cultivation through the efforts of Martin Luther, Erasmus Alberus, and Burkard Waldis. The polemics which these writers incorporated into their fables ·were also a potent force for the Protestant cause during the Reformation. Luther revised a collection of Aesopian Fables and included a preface for their use in teaching the young. Albertus Magnus and Burkard Waldis specialized in polemics against the Pope and Rome respectively. After the Reformation and during the Baroque period, the fable seemed to be in a state of suspended animation. It was not until the eighteenth century that it again came into its own, and very few writers who had not distinguished themselves as Fabulists, could venture to claim the honors of a literary man. The outstanding examples during this period were Christian F. Gellert and Gotthold E. Lessing. Gellert's fables which appeared in 1746 and 1748 were, with the exception of Luther's Bible, the most popular books in Germany. His fables show the influence of La Fontaine, but at the same time, his naive simplicity shows through whatever he appropriates. His artlessnes and ironical good nature can be observed in many of his fables. Lessing turned to the fable so seriously that he published a volume of fables, accompanied by a critical essay, in 1759. In this essay, Lessing sets up rules about the style, format, and treatment of the fable. He points out that the fable is not to be used as a medium of entertainment, but only to present a moral. By thus circumscribing the fable with various rules and regulations, Lessing succeeded in stifling a pleasant form of entertainment and substituting a dull and spiritless form of literary endeavor.
Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University
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