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GE8: German literature, thought, and history from 1700 to 1815 (including Goethe's works to 1832)

This paper is available for the academic year 2021-22.

(Paper subject to revisions with effect from Michaelmas Term 2022. More details to follow.)

The period from 1700 to 1815 was one of rapid and far-reaching change. It saw the emergence of modern German culture, and produced some of the greatest poets, philosophers and politicians in the history of the German-speaking lands: Goethe, Kant, Frederick the Great, to name but a few. Paper Ge8 offers an accessible and stimulating introduction to this era, and seeks not least to highlight the concerns which are still relevant to our own time.

Topics: 

Topics are described in detail below. Specific guidance on preparation will be provided by lecturers and supervisors.

The forms of feeling (2 lectures)

German poetry was revolutionised in the eighteenth century: forms became freer and modes of expression more spontaneous. This was the age of feeling, and the first part of this topic addresses the development of the lyric in that context. We consider the entire spectrum of ‘feeling’, from sensation to emotion, and its treatment by some of the major poets of the era, from Brockes to Brentano and Eichendorff. The pivotal figure in this first section is Klopstock who, more than anyone else in the period, made poetry move, and for whom the physical and the metaphysical were intimately linked. The second part of the topic serves as an introduction to the two greatest poets of the era, Goethe and Hölderlin. The lecture will compare and contrast their technique and preoccupations, but students are encouraged to explore the two poets on their own terms in supervision essays.

Primary texts:

  • Selected poems by Brockes, Klopstock, Goethe, Hölderlin, Eichendorff and Brentano.

Students wishing to focus exclusively on Goethe may do so.

Theatre, society and humanity (2 lectures)

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the turning away from ancient and neo-classical models towards domestic drama, the advocacy of Shakespeare and the establishment of theatres in various parts of Germany helped to produce a large number of literary plays that established modern German drama. In the first part of this topic we study Lessing’s comedy Minna von Barnhelm and consider the relation between comedy and tragedy in the dramas of the Sturm und Drang, which focussed on social issues and the problems of self-realisation in the late Enlightenment. The second part of the topic focuses on the emergence of classical German drama in plays by Lessing, Goethe and Kleist. Lessing’s Nathan der Weise presents a plea for religious tolerance, while Schiller turns to history in Maria Stuart, and questions of power are at the centre of Kleist's Prinz Friedrich von Homburg. 

Primary texts:

  • Lessing, Minna von Barnhelm
  • Lenz Der Hofmeister
  • Goethe, Götz von Berlichingen
  • Lessing, Nathan der Weise
  • Schiller, Maria Stuart
  • Kleist, Prinz Friedrich von Homburg
  • Students wishing to focus on Goethe should add Iphigenie auf Tauris and Die natürliche Tochter.
  • Students who wish to focus exclusively on Goethe may do so.

Full recordings of some of the plays are available on youtube.com. Recordings of trailers of recent productions of many plays can be found by typing in the title. Other recordings (DVDs and CDs) of the plays are available from the MML Faculty library.

Society and the subject (2 lectures)

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers was Goethe’s first major success as a writer, and it marked a turning point in German literary history. In many ways the culmination of certain eighteenth-century trends –the epistolary novel, for example, or the cult of sensibility – it also became the mouthpiece for a new generation of writers, and of readers. We shall assess the impact of this novel both on Goethe’s own career, and on the subsequent development of the literary landscape.

For many writers in the period around 1800, however, it was short prose which particularly fired their creativity. We shall look at outstanding examples of the mode, from Goethe’s ‘Märchen’ to Tieck’s Kunstmärchen to Kleist’s Erzählungen, and we will also consider Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen: an unfinished novel which exploits all the expressive possibilities of short prose. Despite their many differences, the texts in this topic all share an intense preoccupation with the life of the human subject. Some, like Werther, engage directly with the question of the place of the individual in contemporary society, whilst others may appear to be running away from the ‘real’ circumstances from which they emerge; but all are, in fact, profoundly concerned with German-speaking society at the end of the eighteenth century.

Primary texts:

  • Goethe, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, ‘Märchen’ from the Unterhalthungen deutscher Ausgewanderten
  • Novalis, Heinrich von Ofterdingen
  • Tieck, Der blonde Eckbert, Die Elfen
  • Kleist, Das Erdbeben in Chile, Michael Kohlhaas.

Students wishing to focus on Goethe should add Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and / or Die Wahlverwandtschaften.

Women and writing (2 lectures)

In recent decades, increasing critical attention has been paid to the distinctive contribution made by female writers in the period. They played a key role, for example, in the literary salons that developed in the late Enlightenment, and were also active as translators. We look at particularly compelling examples of work by women, such as the lyric poetry of Sophie Mereau and Karoline von Günderrode, and the prose writing of Sophie von La Roche and Dorothea Schlegel, and we consider the extent to which these authors either reflect or challenge trends in ‘mainstream’ writing (such as the poetry and prose studied elsewhere on this paper). Our view will also pan out to the broader conditions in which women in the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth centuries were writing. We address the social factors which affected them, such as the disparity in the level of education offered to men and women at the time, and we will explore the effects of early theorizing about gender. Finally, we consider the process of canon-formation, and the possible reasons why women writers were overlooked for so long.

Primary texts:

  • Sophie von La Roche, Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim
  • Dorothea Schlegel, Florentin
  • Selected poems by Sophie Mereau and Karoline von Günderrode
  • Wilhelm von Humboldt, ‘Ueber den Geschlechtsunterschied und dessen Einfluß auf die organische Natur’

Goethe's Faust (1 lecture)

In this topic, we get to grips with Goethe’s best-known and – especially outside Germany – most influential work. We trace the genesis of the piece: the expansion of Urfaust, that intense burst of ideas from a writer in his early twenties, into Part One, and the addition of Part Two in Goethe’s old age. The spirit of radical experimentation and innovation which characterised the very first instalment did not dwindle as the Goethe grew old: if anything, it became more ambitious. We also discuss the central problems posed by the work, which have lost none of their bite in our own time: the nature of guilt and responsibility, the temptations of power, and the relentless drive of modernity.

Primary texts:

  • Goethe’s Faust. Erster und Zweiter Teil

Standard and Stigma: Shaping the German Language (2 lectures)

In the middle of the eighteenth century, Johann Christoph Gottsched revived the topic of a standard and national linguistic form for German writing. The founding of a national academy along the lines of those established in France and Italy was mooted, and the vigorous intellectual debates which had born little fruit in the Sprachgesellschaften of the seventeenth century were reanimated. Gottsched’s work on the subject brought about conflict between Northern and Southern views of how German should be, in the form of the spätbarocke Sprachenstreit. Austrian scholars like Antesperg and Popowitsch defended a separatist view, with support from figures like Leopold Mozart, and alongside Swiss scholars like Bodmer and Breitinger made attempts to establish a separate southern form of German. One lecture will explore the context for this debate and consider its failure. In the second, we will look at the work of Gottsched’s most notable successor, Johann Christoph Adelung, author of the grammars and the dictionary which was the reference work of choice of Goethe, Schiller and their circle. Between them, Gottsched and Adelung determined what would be seen as correct, and what would be stigmatised as ‘Bad German’, judgments which have held in many cases ever since. The eighteenth century is a period of linguistic pragmatism, where writing on language is shorn of the mysticism which preceded it and the romantic medievalism which was to follow. Beyond the firming up of descriptive language rules, the application of a rational approach led scholars to try to explain the origins of language without reference to the Biblical narrative, and to look outwards comparatively at languages of the New World alongside the languages of the Old.

Primary texts:

  • Adelung, J.C. Grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der hochdeutschen Mundart.(1774–86)
  • Gottsched, J.C. Grundlegung einer deutschen Sprachkunst (1748)

Intending participants can gain a useful initial overview of the topic by consulting the relevant chapters of Andreas Gardt, Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft in Deutschland (1999) or, by the same author, Sprachreflexion im Barock und Frühaufklärung (1994).

Sample question:

‘Linguistic thinking in the eighteenth century saw its goal as perfecting rhetoric and the elegant structuring of discourse, rather than the minutiae of linguistic form: yet its success was to influence the language at every level.’ Discuss.

Jews and Germans in the Eighteenth Century (2 lectures)

This module explores the history of the Jews in the eighteenth-century Holy Roman Empire. By 1750 there were about 70,000 Jews in the German territories, living in both towns and rural areas, and enjoying varying degrees of protection from princes and urban magistrates. Most were poor and lived on the margins of society. Others, however, prospered and began to attend universities and to interact socially with Christians, for example in the new coffee houses. We examine the entry of the Jews into German society, the controversies that Jewish engagement with the social and intellectual movements of the time provoked within the Jewish communities, and the emergence of a Jewish Aufklärung or Haskalah; we also look at the role of Jewish women and their salons in Berlin from the 1780s. We consider the discussion of the Jews and their position within Christian society by leading Aufklärer, which revealed the limits of enlightened Christian toleration. We also explore the ideas of the Berlin philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), a friend of Lessing and Friedrich Nicolai and one of the few Jewish-German public intellectuals, who opposed both the critics of the Jews and the conservative rabbis. We conclude by reflecting on how these developments shaped Jewish thought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the subsequent history of the Jews in Germany.

Enlightenment and the Meaning of History (2 lectures)

The German Enlightenment or Aufklärung represents the most significant intellectual event in the period covered by this paper. Though they are generally considered less radical than their French counterparts, Enlightenment philosophers such as Christian Wolff, Moses Mendelssohn, G.E. Lessing and Immanuel Kant played a crucial role in a movement that revolutionized man’s understanding of his place in the natural as well as the social world.

This module introduces students to the central ideas of the German Enlightenment – rationalism, universalism, religious tolerance, progress – and examines how they were applied to the study of history. Finding an overarching, non-religious meaning and purpose in history was the goal of the Aufklärer – and laid the foundations for what would later be known as Geschichtsphilosophie.

Focussing on the writings of Kant and Johann Gottfried Herder, we will explore different attempts to define the causes and ends of the historical process – and lay to rest the myth that Enlightenment philosophies of history were imbued with a facile, triumphalist belief in humanity’s inexorable march towards ever higher levels of rationality, emancipation, and civilization.

Set texts:

  • J.G.Herder, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit [1784-91], Book XV, in: J.G. Herder, Werke in 10 Bänden, vol. 6, ed. Martin Bollacher (Frankfurt 1989)
  • I. Kant, ‘Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht’ [1784], in: I. Kant, Schriften zur Geschichtsphilosophie, ed. M. Riedel, rev. edn (Stuttgart 1992)
  • Additional primary reading: J.G. Herder, Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung der Menschheit [1774] (Stuttgart 1990) (=Reclam edn)
  • F.M. Barnard, Herder on Social and Political Culture (Cambridge 1969), esp. the extracts from the Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Mankind [1784-1791], pp. 253-326
  • I. Kant, ‘Mutmaßlicher Anfang der Menschengeschichte’ [1786], in: I. Kant, Schriften zur Geschichtsphilosophie, ed. M. Riedel, rev. edn (Stuttgart 1992)
  • I. Kant, ‘Rezensionen zu J.G. Herders Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit‘ [1784-5], in: I. Kant, Schriften zur Geschichtsphilosophie, ed. M. Riedel, rev. edn (Stuttgart 1992)
  • I. Kant, ‘Das Ende aller Dinge’ [1794], in: I. Kant,Was ist Aufklärung? Ausgewählte kleine Schriften, ed. E. Cassirer and H.D. Brandt (Hamburg 1999)

The Romantic Revolution in Thought (2 lectures)

German Romanticism is traditionally viewed as a cultural movement, defined by a new set of aesthetic values and criteria – subjectivity, expressivity, and the autonomous creativity of the imagination – that still inform popular perceptions of what is modern in modern art.

This module offers a different perspective on the Romantics in that it highlights their philosophical concerns, in particular their growing scepticism about the possibility to identify objective, empirically validated and universal truths; their increasingly subjective and relativist approach to morality; their emphasis on the individual and his sentiments (Gefühl), on contingency and historicity; their articulation of new political ideas such as nationalism, republicanism, and anti-colonialism.

We will concentrate on the early Romantics, notably Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel, and the writings they published in the journal Athenaeum between 1798 and 1800. The aim is to approach German Romanticism as an intellectual movement, one that is deeply engaged with genuinely philosophical problems, especially those raised by Kant’s First Critique (1781) and Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre (1794).

Set texts:

  • Novalis [d.i. Friedrich von Hardenberg], Blüthenstaub [1798], in: Novalis [d.i. Friedrich von Hardenberg], Novalis: Die Christenheit oder Europa und andere philosophische Schriften (Cologne 1996)
  • Novalis [d.i. Friedrich von Hardenberg], Glauben und Liebe [1798], in: Novalis [d.i. Friedrich von Hardenberg], Novalis: Die Christenheit oder Europa und andere philosophische Schriften (Cologne 1996)
  • Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeum Fragmente, in: F. Schlegel, Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, ed. E. Behler et al., 35 vols (Munich 1958–2002)
  • Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Fragmente, in: F. Schlegel, Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, ed. E. Behler et al., 35 vols (Munich 1958–2002)
Preparatory reading: 

Please see primary reading and reading lists as outlined above.

Teaching and learning: 

Lectures cover all the topics listed here. In addition, two introductory lectures are offered on historical context; these are for background and do not equate to specific supervision topics and exam questions. Attendance at all lectures is essential: even topics which you choose not to cover in depth will help to develop your understanding of the period.

Ge.8's Moodle site can be accessed here.

Assessment: 

The division of GE8 into Section A and Section B, reflected in past exam papers, no longer applies. Students may answer on any combination of topics.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Charlotte Lee