Hans Sachs 1494-1576
German poet, playwright, and prose writer.
One of the most popular poets in Germany in the sixteenth century, Sachs was a writer of prodigious literary productivity. His enormous output includes more than 4,000 Meisterlieder (master songs), almost 2,000 Spruchgedichte (poems), 85 Fastnachtspiele (pre-Lenten carnival plays), 128 other dramas, and six prose dialogues. A critical and keen observer and chronicler of his times, he was also a champion of the Lutheran cause. Today, only a small fraction of his oeuvre is familiar to the general public, but he remains an invaluable source of information on the society and culture of early modern Germany.
Sachs was born in Nuremberg on November 5, 1494, the son of a prosperous tailor. He attended a Latin school in Nuremberg, an experience which awakened what was to become a lifelong passion for books. From 1509 to 1511 he was apprenticed to a shoemaker, and in the spring of 1512 he began his travels as a journeyman throughout large parts of Germany. During his travels he became acquainted with the Meistersinger guild, craftsmen who practiced the art of the Meistergesang. Evidence suggests that he arranged his travels to take him to places where Meistersinger guilds existed. The earliest of his surviving literary efforts come from this period. On September 19, 1519, Sachs married Kunigunde Kreutzer; the marriage would produce seven children and would last until Kunigunde's death forty-one years later. In January of 1520 Sachs became a master shoemaker. Aside from a few trips to the trade fair in Frankfurt am Main, Sachs spent the remainder of his life in Nuremberg, which at the beginning of the sixteenth century was one of the most important commercial and manufacturing cities in Germany. Sachs was a supporter of Martin Luther, and had in his library some forty Lutheran pamphlets. In 1523 he published the poem Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall (which may be translated as “The Wittenberg Nightingale”), a work that denounces the Catholic Church and endorses Luther's teachings. It was an immediate success, going through several editions and making Sachs famous throughout Germany. The following year he issued four lively prose dialogues treating a range of social and religious subjects. In 1527 Sachs collaborated on Eyn wunderliche Weyssagung von dem Babstumb (which may be translated as “A Strange Prophecy of the Papacy”), an antipapal pamphlet combining illustrations and text. The Nuremberg censor banned the work and prohibited Sachs from further publishing. Although Sachs observed the ban for the next three years, he eventually resumed his commentaries on the religious, social, and political issues of his day, though in poetic form and disguised as allegories, dreams, and mythological stories. Even while he was banned from publishing, the composition and performance of Meisterlieder were at the center of Sachs's creative work. From 1524 to 1560 he was the Nuremberg Meistersinger guild's undisputed leader. Toward the end of this period Sachs began to edit and collect his works. Three volumes appeared before his death on January 19, 1576, and two volumes were published posthumously.
Of Sachs's diverse body of writings, his best known works pertain to religion and are connected with the Reformation. Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall is an allegory in which the nightingale represents Luther, the lion Pope Leo X, and other animals represent bishops and prelates. The poem denounces the Catholic Church, its institutions, the cult of relics, and the veneration of saints, and it expounds in simplified form Luther's teachings of justification through faith alone. Sachs's four prose dialogues, with their wide spectrum of religious and social topics, vivid depiction of characters, and dramatic structure, are considered some of the best prose of the sixteenth century. Disputation zwischen einem Chorherren und Schuchmacher (which may be translated as “Disputation between a Canon and a Shoemaker”), featuring an indolent canon and a Bible-quoting cobbler, clearly takes sides with the Lutheran cause. Ein gesprech eins Ewangelischen Christen mit einem Lutherischen (which may be translated as “A Conversation of an Evangelical Christian with a Lutheran”) articulates Sachs's uneasiness with some of the radical changes taking place. Social and economic problems posed by monasticism are the topics of Ein gesprech von den Scheinwercken der Gaystlichen, und iren gelubdten (which may be translated as “A Conversation about the Phony Works of the Clergy and Their Vows”), in which Sachs contrasts the productive lives of craftsmen with the parasitic existence of monks. Although Sachs never wavered in his commitment to the Lutheran cause, his initial hope that the acceptance of Luther's teachings would inaugurate a more just social order was eventually replaced with disillusionment. This is clearly seen in his fourth dialogue, Ein Dialogus des inhalt: ein argument der Romischen wider das Christlich heuflein den Geytzn … betreffend (which may be translated as “A Dialogue to the Effect: An Argument of the Romans against the Christian Crowd Concerning Excessive Profit Seeking and Other Public Vices”).
Sachs's Meisterlieder treat a wide range of topics, from the sober and serious to the humorous and farcical, from ancient to modern, and from literary to anecdotal. These works demonstrate that his curiosity was insatiable and his reading enormous, as is evidenced both by his sizable library and by the list of ancient, medieval, and contemporary sources on which he drew. Although Sachs is known as the outstanding Meistersinger of Nuremberg, it is doubtful whether any of his Meisterlieder are actually read or sung today. His Fastnachtspiele, on the other hand, are still read and performed. Reliance on reason and the power of the mind, as well as belief in the improvability of humanity, lie at the core of Sachs's view of human nature and of his self-concept as a poet: the poet's function is to help the individual to see his or her own foolishness. Works that demonstrate this in a very powerful way are Sachs's carnival plays, among the best-known of which is his 1536 play Das Narren schneiden (which may be translated as “The Foolectomy”). In 1568 Sachs collaborated on a book describing contemporary professions, trades, and crafts in words and pictures. Published in 1568 under the title Eygentliche Beschreibung Aller Stände auff Erden (which may be translated as “Exact Description of All Ranks on Earth”), this work allowed Sachs to condemn egotism and leisure and to emphasize a community-oriented work ethic. Today, it is considered a valuable document for insight into the social history of sixteenth-century Germany.
Sachs is chiefly remembered as the shoemaker-poet and leader of Nuremberg's Meistersinger Guild in Richard Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1862). Most critics agree that whether Sachs used literary sources or drew on his own observations, he created a colorful array of characters in his works. Although he was never totally forgotten, the literary climate of the two centuries after his death did not favor artisan-poets. However, on the two-hundredth anniversary of his death a new appreciation of Sachs began in Weimar. For the Romantics, the image of the upright cobbler-poet merged with that of an idealized Nuremberg with its maze of medieval streets. In the nineteenth century, Sachs became the subject of poems, dramas, and operas. Richard Wagner's depiction of Sachs as a shoemaker-poet and leader of Nuremberg's Meistersinger Guild in his opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1862) is the work that has most strongly shaped the modern image of Sachs. The Sachs renaissance reached its high point in 1894 when Nuremberg celebrated the four-hundredth birthday of its native son. Although Sachs had little formal schooling, critic Eli Sobel has given him high praise: “Sachs may be Germany's best representative of that post-medieval creativity that one usually associates with the much better known writers of Italy, France, Spain, and England in the sixteenth century.” While many critics have commented on the political and social elements of Sachs's works, Sobel has also argued that the writer was very interested in leading his readers to live a proper life, “with freedom of conscience and the surety of faith.” Similarly, Richard Erich Schade has claimed that Sachs “consciously views himself as an admonisher, as a selfless curer by means of warning words.” The idea that one could improve throughout one's life is one that many modern critics have considered an essential part of reading Sachs. Ralf Erik Remshardt has argued that Sachs had a “certain dogged confidence in human perfectibility and in man's faculty to rid himself of ‘fool's work’ by his own moral surgery.” Sachs's prolific literary activity, carried out while actively pursuing the shoemaker's trade, has provoked astonishment in Frances H. Ellis: “[Sachs's] great talent for spinning out his verses, and the amount of reading he did, all the while working long and hard to perfect himself in his trade,” the critic has declared, “are astounding.”