German Baroque Literature: Characteristics & Examples

Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

German Baroque literature flourished from 1600-1720, alongside great social and political changes. This lesson will introduce you to the main characteristics of German literature from this period, and discuss some of its most important examples.

Background and Characteristics

The Baroque style influenced the arts in many different countries, making it hard to pin down its precise characteristics. Generally, though, the Baroque displays exuberance and grandeur in design and action, a love for detail, and a sense of drama. German Baroque literature is likewise multifaceted, and a range of genres belong to it--from high poetry to popular novels and a particularly German kind of tragedy called Trauerspiel.

The Impact of the Thirty Years' War

The Thirty Years' War raged in Europe during the early Baroque. Actually a series of wars fought over both religious differences between Catholics and Protestants as well as struggles between various European political powers, the Thirty Years' War was long, destructive, and deadly. The war left a deep mark on German literature of the time, with many authors exploring its impact in their works.

The Aftermath of the Reformation

Along with the Thirty Years' War, the Protestant Reformation brought sweeping changes in social and religious life, as numerous groups and individuals broke away from the influence of the Catholic Church. It's worth keeping in mind that Martin Luther, who many credit with igniting the Reformation, was a German. Some Baroque literature of the time treated the changes in religious life or featured characters who participated in them. Texts by Luther and other leaders also circulated widely, influencing the language and literature of the time.

The Rise of Popular Literature

At the same time, individuals during the German Baroque period were undergoing personal changes as well. The invention of the printing press in the late 15th century led to a rise in the circulation of literature and reading rates. As technological and agricultural progress continued, people were able to turn more attention to personal pursuits, and the literature of the time reflected this. For instance, the German Baroque period witnessed the birth of popular novels as we know them today as well as a strong tradition of personal poetry.

Notable Examples of German Baroque Literature

Novels

One of the most famous examples of German Baroque literature is a novel by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (1621-1676). Simplicius Simplicissimus (1669) tells the story of a character of the same name.

Cover of Grimmelshausen

It is a picaresque novel, meaning that it tells the story of a series of adventures and exploits that Simplicius gets himself into, including fighting in the Thirty Years' war, traveling around the world, and visiting a land populated by mermen. In the end, Simplicius rejects the world and becomes a hermit. This may be Grimmelsausen's bitter response to the destructiveness of the Thirty Years' War, which he himself lived through. The novel was quickly translated into several European languages. Relatively speaking, it was a huge hit, kind of like the Harry Potter of its day.

Poetry

Martin Opitz (1597-1639) is widely considered the foremost poet of the German Baroque period. Prior to his work, many thought that only languages like Latin or Greek were fitting for high poetry. They were the languages of the ancient Roman and Greek models which were so admired during the Renaissance, the period preceding the Baroque. Opitz wrote essays and poetry that proved German was just as good for poetry and better at capturing the spirit of the age. His most famous book is the Book of German Poetry (Buch von der deutschen Poeterey, 1624). The text was very influential in establishing the style, rhythm, and rhyme of a characteristically German poetry. But perhaps Opitz could have found a more original title for his book.

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