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Volker Meid, Die deutsche Literatur im Zeitalter des Barock (C.H. Beck, 2009)

Volker Meid, Die deutsche Literatur im Zeitalter des Barock: Vom Späthumanismus zur Frühaufklärung 1570-1740.Vol. 5 of Geschichte der deutschen Literatur von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. Munich: C.H. Beck, 2009. ISBN: 978 3 406 58757 3. 984 pp. Hbk. €78.

Reviewed by Max Reinhart

[1]  Since his groundbreaking work in the early 1970s on the German Baroque novel, Volker Meid has been one of the most prolific and versatile literary historians of Frühe Neuzeit (the early modern period), particularly in his specialty field of seventeenth-century Germany. The choice of Meid to rewrite Richard Newald’s magisterial, but long outdated, volume 5 on the Age of Baroque (published 1951; subsequent editions revised the original only minimally) of C.H. Beck’s standard twelve-volume history of German literature, could not have been better advised. Not everyone possesses the breadth and depth to succeed at an assignment of this unique kind, which demands not only scholarly rigor to make it useful to experts, but also the writerly craft to attract and communicate with a general audience. Meid, who taught at the universities of Freiburg, Bielefeld, and Massachusetts at Amherst before becoming a freelance writer, happily combines these indispensable talents.

[2]  No other area of German literary history has undergone as thorough a remaking since the 1960s—overhaul of the canon, exacting new standards of source scholarship (especially for critical editions), a major historiographical reconceptualization. The full reach of early modernity extends from the mid fourteenth century (Early Humanism) to the mid eighteenth (Sentimentality). Formerly, this span of time was organized, studied, and taught in discrete “ages” (Late Medieval, Renaissance and Reformation, Baroque, Early Enlightenment). The sociohistorical school and the Annales method, however, discerned the sustained movement across this time of the very structural forces (religious, social, political, cultural, institutional, mental) that created our modern world. Scholars accordingly now began to view this long duration in macroepochal and interdisciplinary terms, thereby bringing into diachronic and synchronic view a wealth of new relationships and previously hidden constellations of meaning. Nothing less than the subsequent flourishing of early modern research on the subperiod 1570-1740 is what the author of this volume has attempted to account for.

[3]  The first and most obvious difference between Meid’s and Newald’s histories is the introduction itself, expanded by Meid into an eighty-page exposition of the early modern political and cultural formations (he calls them “Epoche”) within which baroque writing took place. Teachers of early modern German history would do well to include Meid’s introduction in their lists of required course readings. With respect to the study of German literature of the seventeenth century, I have never come across a better, more succinct yet thorough essay than this one.

[4]  While the authors treat precisely the same temporal frame (Newald concluded his history ten years later, at 1750), Meid’s history, at just under 1,000 pages, nearly doubles the earlier volume’s length. This quantitative difference reflects the surge in German Baroque research within the larger framework of early modern German scholarship. Largely missing in the Newald era was due consideration of many of the forms now deemed significant, if not always for their literary quality per se, certainly for their cultural relevance as written artifacts. These include secretarial conventions, the etiquette of proper naming and titles, medical and botanical catalogues, demonologies, musica politica, writings pertaining to habitus and the private sphere, travel reports, even “speaking” architecture. The three classical poetic genres of lyric, drama, and epic prose are not simply reprised in Meid, but greatly expanded in consideration of the vast amount of related studies in early modern rhetoric, material culture, narratology, and mixed genres—especially emblematics, but also the many newly appreciated intertextual, intermedial, and prosimetric forms (notably the ubiquitous prose eclogue). Our understanding of the baroque novel has benefited especially from narratological theory, a trend that is reflected in some 100 pages of discussion in Meid as compared to only half that in Newald. Additionally, because early modern research is practiced per definitionem with a wide lens, it tends toward the comparative view, at all times registering responses to aesthetic, cultural, and political conventions, habits, and trends elsewhere in Europe and even much further afield, be it the Orient, Asia, the Mideast, or the Americas. Himself a first-generation early modernist, Meid brings this global awareness to his account of the German Baroque subperiod.

[5]  One of the most captivating observations in Meid’s rewriting of Newald is how certain writers, subsequent to the paradigm shift in early modern German studies, came to occupy a position of enhanced authority or significance in the Baroque. The Nuremberg poet, translator, educator, linguist, and connoisseur and importer of high European literary culture, the patrician Georg Philipp von Harsdörffer (1607-1658), is surely the most notable example. Always acknowledged in German literary history as an important, if somewhat eccentric, figure, it was only with the advent of early modern studies—which both views literature in terms of wider culture, and culture itself semantically as a kind of text—that Harsdörffer’s real impact started to become evident. By about 1990, international scholars, following the lead of the Italian Harsdörffer specialist Italo Michele Battafarano, had discovered his true genius, namely, as a “modernist” avant le lettre. Since then, the stature of this “son of Europe” (Battafarano) has been commensurate with that of Opitz. Meid’s history reflects this development; his coverage of Harsdörffer is roughly four times greater than Newald’s.

[6]  Whereas the reevaluation of Harsdörffer followed from the Europeanization of early modern research, others spring from the new appreciation for regional and urban historical analysis, a method applied most effectively over the past thirty years by the Osnabrück literary historian Klaus Garber but in fact originally espoused by Newald and several others of that generation. Some modern historians have been reluctant to sanction this approach, since it was once associated with a kind of racist, or völkisch (populist) ideology. But as Garber has repeatedly demonstrated since the 1970s, it does nothing more nor less than mirror the early modern territorial structure down at least to the Peace of Westphalia. It thereby provides a window onto a main avenue by which ideas and movements were translated across geopolitical space. European Calvinism is a case in point: it was a cog in the engine that drove seventeenth-century intelligence, which emanated not only from the universities but especially from the network of regional intellectual societies (often called, misleadingly, Sprachgesellschaften, language societies). In Germany the leading intellectual society was the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft in Anhalt-Köthen (founded 1617). It maintained intimate ties with the Calvinist court at Heidelberg at the critical moment at which Friedrich V was deciding to vie for the imperial leadership (importantly, the young Calvinist patriot Martin Opitz was in residence there at the time). In the wake of the disaster at White Mountain intelligence began to flow back and forth between Anhalt-Köthen, Strasbourg, and the eminent Cabinet Dupuy in Paris. One of the agents in this intercourse was sent to Paris from Wroclaw by way of Strasbourg in 1630 by the Catholic governor of Silesia, Karl Hannibal von Dohna: Martin Opitz, the future “father of German literature.”

[7]  Perhaps in no other single area has this reevaluation been more striking than that of women and gender. Many of the women writers who were unknown or little appreciated even only a generation ago are now established, influential figures, routinely anthologized, researched, and cited; critical editions for several have been produced. What, then, are we to make of the paucity of discussion in Meid of the results of this research? The traditionally recognized major women writers are all here, to be sure, though they too receive only brief presentation: Sibylla Schwarz, one page; Anna Ovena Hoyers, one page; Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg, three pages. More recently discovered authors of significance are passed over ever so lightly: Gertrud Möller (1641-1705, praised by the Königsberg literary society); the highly educated spiritual writer Juliana Patientia Schultt (1644-1718, a disciple of August Hermann Francke in Halle); the distinguished circle of seventeen women in Altenburg, including Margaretha Susanna von Kuntsch (1651-1717) and the learned Susanna Elisabeth Prasch (1661-1693; one paragraph in Meid, p. 533). The only sustained discussion of women writers I find seems to be the six pages between 844 and 850, on women’s autobiography. As for the growing body of research over the past twenty years on early modern men as gendered subjects in their various social roles and sexual behaviors, there is nothing. Queer theory is ignored despite its striking contributions to our knowledge of early modern sexuality and sexual semantics; the same holds for related subthemes, such as that of crossdressing in the plays of Caspar von Lohenstein.

[8]  This deficit might otherwise be attributed only to a question of trying to achieve balance in what is indeed a mountain of information. But a look at the forty-page bibliography (Register) reveals that much of the research is missing that would have demanded its fair place in the discussion. The problem has two aspects: one, the citations come largely from older scholarship (research after 2000 is palpably scarce by comparison); and two, the traditional bias of native German scholars against non-German-language scholarship, while gradually diminishing in recent years, is on full display here (a randomly selected two-page spread finds only two of thirty-five entries in a language other than German). One may reasonably infer that certain undertreated areas in Meid, such as gender studies, owe to some combination of those two criteria. Older scholarship ignored so much of what has been of interest to the newer early modern scholarship; and in many instances, these new areas of research have been driven by scholars writing in other languages, especially English.

[9]  There is another serious problem with the editorial apparatus as well, if less critical than that for the bibliography. For a volume of this length and complexity, particularly one that expressly solicits non-expert readers, it is shocking to find no index rerum. This is to say nothing of an index of place names, something all the more bewildering given Meid’s stated regard for regional history (p. xv). Newald, by the way, included both, a distinct point advantage to the earlier history! Meid’s rather detailed table of contents (Inhaltsverzeichnis) hardly provides an adequate substitute for this major omission, which will put even experts at a disadvantage. The table of contents may tell us that the topic of Sprachgesellschaften occurs on pages 31 through 38. But what of all the other references to the topic throughout the volume, many of which are of substance and therefore essential for a more complete account? The student who wants to know all that Meid has to say about intellectual societies in the German Baroque has no help in selecting the pertinent references. To illustrate the problem, I offer the following quick list of relevant pages, by no means complete: 108f, 119f, 133-135, 148, 164f, 176-190, 233, 256 […] 474, 483f, 504-508, 524, 542f, 599, 687, 707-709, 761, 766, 783f, 818f, 871, 892.

[10] I t is unfortunate that the editorial apparatus of this volume does not do justice to the discussion itself, which is brilliant and, except in certain few significant areas, thorough, indeed generous. Meid’s literary history of the Age of Baroque clearly supplants Newald and will be indispensable to all students of early modern Germany.

University of Georgia, December 2010

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