The mind of Germany, in the century that followed Luther’s Theses, was lost in the hundred years’ debate that prepared the Thirty Years’ War. After 1530 the publication of ancient classics almost ceased; in general, fewer books were issued; they were replaced by a torrent of controversial pamphlets. Thomas Murner, a Franciscan monk with an acid pen, scourged everybody with a chain of booklets about rascals or dolts —Schmelmenzunft (Guild of Rogues), Narrenbeschwörung (Muster of Fools)... all proliferated from Brant’s Narrenschiff.* Many of the fools lashed by Murner were churchmen, and he was at first mistaken for a Lutheran; but then he celebrated Luther as “a savage bloodhound, a senseless, foolish, blasphemous renegade.” 43 Henry VIII sent him £100.
Sebastian Franck was of finer metal. The Reformation found him a priest in Augsburg; he hailed it as a brave and needed revolt, and became a Lutheran minister (1525). Three years later he married Ottilie Beham, whose brothers were Anabaptists; he developed sympathy for this persecuted sect, condemned Lutheran intolerance, was expelled from Strasbourg, and made a living by boiling soap in Ulm. He ridiculed the determination of religious orthodoxy by the German dukes, noting that “if one prince dies and his successor brings in another creed, this at once becomes God’s Word.”44 “Mad zeal possesses all men today, that we should believe .... that God is ours alone, that there is no heaven, faith, spirit, Christ, but in our sect.” His own faith was a universalist theism that closed no doors. “My heart is alien to none. I have my brothers among the Turks, Papists, Jews, and all peoples.” 45 He aspired to “a free, unsectarian... Christianity, bound to no outer thing,” not even to the Bible.46 Shocked by sentiments so unbecoming to his century, Ulm banished him in its turn. He found work as a printer in Basel, and died there in honest penury (1542).
German poetry and drama were now so immersed in theology that they ceased to be arts and became weapons of war. In this strife any jargon, coarseness, and obscenity were held legitimate; except for folk songs and hymns, poetry disappeared in a fusillade of poisoned rhymes. The lavishly staged religious dramas of the fifteenth century passed out of public taste, and were succeeded by popular farces lampooning Luther or the popes.
Now and then a man rose above the fury to see life whole. If Hans Sachs had obeyed the magistrates of Nuremberg he would have remained a shoemaker; for when, without securing the civic imprimatur, he published a rhyming history of the Tower of Babel, they suppressed the book, assured him that poetry was obviously not his line, and bade him stick to his last.47 Yet Hans had some rights, for he had passed through the usual stages to become a Meistersinger, and the anomaly of his being a cobbler and a poet fades when we note that the guild of weavers and shoemakers to which he belonged regularly practiced choral song, and gave public concerts thrice a year. For this guild, and at any other opportunity, Sachs wrote songs and plays as assiduously as if he were mouthing nails.
We must think of him not as a great poet, but as a sane and cheerful voice in a century of hate. His basic interest was in simple people, not in geniuses; his plays were almost always about such people; and even God, in these dramas, is a benevolent commoner, who talks like some parson of the neighborhood. While most writers peppered their pages with bitterness, vulgarity, or ribaldry, Hans portrayed and exalted the virtues of affection, duty, piety, marital fidelity, parental and filial love. His first published poems (1516)proposed “to promote the praise and glory of God,” and “to help his fellow creatures to a life of penitence”;48 and this religious spirit warmed his writings to the end. He turned half the Bible into rhyme, using Luther’s translation as a text. He saluted Luther as “the Nightingale of Wittenberg,” who would cleanse religion and restore morality.
Awake! awake! the day is near,
And in the woods a song I hear.
It is the glorious nightingale;
Her music rings on hill and dale.
The night falls into Occident,
The day springs up in Orient,
The dawn comes and sets alight
The gloomy clouds of parting night.49
Now Sachs became the bard of the Reformation, satirizing the faults of Catholics with doggerel tenacity. He wrote plays about rascally monks, and traced the origin of their tribe to the Devil; he issued burlesques and farces which showed, for example, a priest seducing a girl or saying Mass while drunk; in 1558 he published a History in Rhyme of the Popess Joanna—a fable which most Protestant preachers accepted as history. But Hans satirized Lutherans too, denouncing their lives as scandalously contrary to their creed: “With your flesh-eating, your uproars, your abuse of priests, your quarreling, mocking, insulting, and all your other improper behavior, you Lutherans have brought the Gospel into great contempt.”50 He joined a hundred others in mourning the commercialism and immorality of the age.
All in all, and discounting Wagner’s idealization, Hans Sachs may typify the bluff and crude but kindly German who, at least in the south, must have been in the majority. We picture him happy and melodious for forty years in his home and his poetry. When his first wife died (1560) he married, at sixty-eight, a pretty woman of twenty-seven, and survived even this trial. There is something to be said for an age and a city in which a cobbler could become a humanist, a poet, and a musician, acquire and use a large library, learn Greek literature and philosophy, write 6,000 poems, and live in reasonable health and happiness to die at the age of eighty-two.