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Updated:  Aug 12, 2013
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The oldest complete work of German literature

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.

Heliand, the (Germ. Heiland, Savior), the oldest complete work of German literature. Matthias Flacius Illyricus (1520-75) published in his "Catalogus testium veritatis" the Latin text of the "Praefatio", reciting that Emperor Louis the Pious had ordered a translation of the Old and the New Testament into the Saxon language, to make Christianity better known to his Saxon subjects. A fragment of the manuscript of the "Heliand" in the Cottonian Library was discovered by Junius before 1587, and extracts from the poem were first published by George Hickes in 1705. In 1720 J. G. von Eckhart identified it with the Old Saxon poem mentioned in the "Praefatio" of Flacius. The full text appeared in 1830, edited by J. Andrew Schmeller, from a Munich manuscript. To Schmeller also is due the title "Heliand". The genuineness of the "Praefatio", important because it bears witness to the language of the Heliand as Saxon, and to its composition under Louis the Pious, (c. 830), was for a long time doubted, because it asserted that Louis had also commissioned the Saxon bard to write poetic versions of the Old Testament.

Since 1894, however, when K. Zangemeister found fragments of a Saxon translation of Genesis in the Bibliotheca Palatina, the genuineness of the "Praefatio" is generally acknowledged. The Heliand is an epic poem whose theme, like that of the Anglo-Saxon Caedmon, is the life of Christ. The author is unknown; some, like Ruckert, are convinced that the poem was written by a priest, while others, like Piper, advocate the authorship of a layman. The basis of the story is thought to be Tatian's "Diatessaron" (Gospel Harmony), or a work like it. The author, however, has also consulted various commentators, among whom are mentioned the Venerable Bede and Rabanus Maurus. This fact favors the view that the author was a priest, while his intimate mastery of the formulae and metrical shifts of the Old Saxon minstrels suggests that he was a skop and a layman. Certain theological inaccuracies also make for the latter opinion. The author was a man of poetic power, for unlike Ottfried, who shortly after him wrote the rhymed Gospel Harmony, in High German, he produced a work of real poetic inspiration. His work was difficult. The Saxons had been forcibly converted to Christianity by Charlemagne only a few years before. They were a rude, vigorous and warlike race, loyal to their chiefs, without culture and learning, who cared little for religious speculations. To interest such men in the story of the Divine Teacher and His doctrines was of course difficult. The poet therefore adopted a bold expedient. He represents Christ not so much as a Divine Teacher but as the Prince of Peace, the Sovereign Ruler, who gathers about him his loyal vassals, the Apostles. With their aid He founds His kingdom upon earth, and appears throughout His career as the beneficent Lord of men. His life is related from His birth to His ascension in accordance with the Gospel narrative. Just as the atmosphere of the masterpieces of the great Christian painters of Italy is Italian, so the atmosphere of the Heliand is purely German. The marriage at Cana takes place in the great banqueting hall of a German lord. The guests are seated on long rows of benches and there is an imposing display of tankards and viands. St. Thomas and St. Peter are bold German warriors who cannot restrain their valor and their loyalty, when their Liege-Lord is assailed by the traitorous Jews. The Saxon minstrel seems to have been a skilled seaman, for he revels in the description of the storm on Lake Genesareth. He is throughout animated with the warmest devotion to his Lord. He respects, honors, but above all loves Him. For St. Peter, too, he entertains a feeling of deep loyalty and admiration, and beholds in him the God-given chief of Christendom. The personality of Christ gives unity to the long epic. To secure the needful movement he confines the didactic side of Christ's career to one or two cantos, the nucleus of which is the Sermon on the Mount. The poem is composed in the alliterative verse in which the pagan Saxon lays were probably written, and he handles this instrument with considerable skill. Even without the statement found in the "Praefatio", that Louis selected a bard well known among his people for poetic genius, to sing for his countrymen the wonderful story of the Old and the New Testament, the versification, the poetic language, and the frequent use of poetic formulae, some of which still betray their pagan origin, convince the reader that the old Saxon Homer must have been a popular bard. His recital is characterized by simplicity and the absence of grandiloquence. Modern critics have judged the work variously. Some, like Scherer, approach it with the feeling that it was primarily a kind of Saxon tract in verse, and condemn it because of its didactic character. Others, like Behringer and Windisch, regard it as a perfect work of art. Vilmar declares it to be the finest Christian epic in any language. The interest aroused by the poem may be measured by the fact that since its publication in 1830 two hundred and seventy-three books and pamphlets on the Heliand, including some ten editions of the text, have been published in Germany and elsewhere.


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