Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2017-18: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time
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Unit VII: Christianity and Late Antiquity to A.D. 600

Week 26: Gregory of Tours, 538-594
Hildebrandslied, ca. 800

Hildebrandslied, p. 1.

A late mediaeval manuscript illumination, depicting the baptism of Clovis, which laid the foundation for Trinitarian Christianity in France.

For this week, please read:

 

This week’s reading is a little something different — selections from Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks. It will give you a chance to read something of the historical writing of the early Middle Ages. It’s a pity that you can’t read it in Latin: Gregory’s Latin is some of the most outrageous ever produced. Latin veterans will be amused to know that Gregory will use a genitive or accusative or dative absolute almost as freely as an ablative, for example. There’s an example in the chapter of Mimesis that should suffice for most. If you’re in need of more of the Latin text, let me know, and I’ll see what I can rustle up for you. Still, his prose has a kind of quiet composure, written from the vantage point of a bishop in a tumultuous and difficult age; and it will give you access to one of the finest chapters in Auerbach’s study as well. Its value in a literary course may not be immediately apparent, but read Auerbach’s chapter and consider what it means. What view is Gregory taking on the world around him, and how does it affect his writing? How does it compare with your view?

It will probably be helpful to have a map at your disposal as you work through this — Gregory is recounting events from all over the Frankish kingdom.

Those who find this work terrifically interesting may want to read a more extensive selection of Gregory at this address. Those who are completely entranced by Gregory’s quirky story-telling can get a complete translation in the Penguin Classics series.

Finally, I’m asking you to read a very short poem — a fragment, actually, which is all that remains of something that was probably not much longer, called the Hildebrandslied. This is written in Old High German, a language rather different from the modern forms of German. Its date is not entirely clear, but it probably stems from the period not long after Gregory was writing, though from further east. Both are Germanic cultures, and nominally Christian, but the Hildebrandslied is, underneath the surface, not far removed from heroic pagan traditions of a sort that may remind you more of Homer than of anything characteristically Christian. My question to you is this: how did the poem end, do you suppose? (Since the ending doesn’t remain, there is really no telling, but the conclusion is generally agreed upon by scholars in the field.) What do you think?

The sole (and fragmentary) manuscript of the Hildebrandslied, usually considered the oldest surviving German poem. This is the whole text.

Hildebrandslied, p. 1.Hildebrandslied, p. 2.