Hans Sachs Sachs, Hans - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Von der Lieb. Ich bin genant der liebe streit. Sag von der liebe wunn vnd freyt. Darzu von schmertz vnd trawrickeit. So in der lieb verporgen leit (poetry) 1515?

Ein kleglich lied von eines Fürsten tochter vnd einem Jüngling die von lieb wegen beyde jr leben haben verloren. Vnd ist in Fraw Eren thon zu singen (poetry) 1515?

Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall Die man yetz höret vberall. Ich sage euch wa diese schweygen so werden die stein schreyen Luce 19 (poetry) 1523

Disputation zwischen einem Chorherren vnd Schuchmacher darin das wort gottes vnnd ein recht Christlich wesen verfochten würdt (prose) 1524

Ein Dialogus des inhalt: ein argument der Römischen wider das Christlich heüflein den Geytz auch ander offenlich laster betreffend (prose) 1524

Ain gesprech eins Ewangelischen Christen mit einem Lutherischen Darinn der ergerlich wandel etzlicher die sich Lutherisch nennen angezaigt vnd bruderlich gestrafft wirdt (prose) 1524

Ein gesprech von den Scheinwercken der Gaystlichen, vnd jren gelübdten, damit sy zuverlesterung des bluts Christi vermaynen selig zu werden (prose) 1524

Eyn wunderliche Weyssagung von dem Babstumb wie es yhm bi an das endt der welt gehen sol, jn figuren oder gemäl begriffen, gefunden zu Nürmberg ym Cartheuser Closter vnd ist seher alt. Eyn vorred Andreas Osianders. Mit gutter verstendtlicher aulegung durch gelerte leut verklert. Welche Hans Sachs yn teutsche reymen gefast vnd darzu gesetzt hat [with Andreas Osiander and Erhard Schön] (poetry) 1527

All Römisch Kaiser nach ordnung vnd wie lang yeder geregiert hat zu welcher zeit was sitten der gehabt vnd was todes er gestorben sey von dem ersten an bi auff den yetzigen gromechtigsten Kaiser Carl (poetry) 1530

Ein kurtzweilig Fanacht Spiell Vonn einem bsen Weib durch Hans Sachs (poetry) 1530

Ein lobspruch der statt Nürmberg. Der Stadt Nürmberg ordnung vnd wesen Findstu du in disem gdicht zulesen (poetry) 1530

Ein vermanung Kayserlicher Mayestat sampt aller Stend des Römischen Reychs Eynes heerzugs wider den blutdurstigen Tücken (poetry) 1532

Clagred der Neün Muse oder künst vber Teütschlandt (poetry) 1535

Ein Gesprech mit dem schnöden Müssiggang vnd seynen acht schendtlichen Eygenschafften (poetry) 1535?

Ein spruch von dem freüden fewer zu Nürnberg verbrent am xiij tag Septembris ob dem Keyserlichen erlangetn syg in Affrica am Königreich Thunis (poetry) 1535

Das Narren schneiden. Ein schön Fanacht Spiel mit dreyen Personen (play) 1536

Anzeigung wider das schnöd laster der Hurerey (poetry) 1540

Das pitter süß Eelich leben (poetry) 1541

Kaiserlicher Mayestat Karoli der 5. einreyten zu Nürnberg in des heyligen Reychs Stat, Den 16. Tag des 1541 jars (poetry) 1541

Ein war Contrafactur oder verzeychnu der Königlichen stat Ofen in Vngern jr belagerung sampt...

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Mary Cacy Burchinal (essay date 1912)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Burchinal, Mary Cacy. “Various Views on the Meter of Hans Sachs.” In Hans Sachs and Goethe: A Study in Meter, pp. 1-22. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1912.

[In the following essay, Burchinal considers a wide range of critics and their commentary on Sachs's meter.]

For the past thirty years, ever since Goedeke1, in his introduction to “Dichtungen von Hans Sachs”, ventured to offer opinions on the subject, has a battle waged in regard to the meter of Hans Sachs. A review of what has already been done may throw light on investigations which are to follow and, at the same time, serve to make the subject more clear as to its present status....

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Walter French (essay date 1925)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: French, Walter. “Nurnberger Types as Revealed by Sachs.” In Mediaeval Civilization as Illustrated by the Fastnachtspiele of Hans Sachs, pp. 15-32. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1925.

[In the following essay, French examines Sachs's characterization of each class in contemporary society.]

In the Fastnachtspiele of Sachs we find represented all the classes of society, from the noble to the vagabond, that may be considered representative of the Nürnberg of the early sixteenth century. While their customs, thoughts, and ideals are revealed in detail, we are given more than a mere photographic sketch of the times; the author is never forgetful of truth,...

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Eli Sobel (essay date 1963)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Sobel, Eli. Introduction to The Tristan Romance in the Meisterlieder of Hans Sachs. University of California Publications in Modern Philology 40, no. 2 (1963): 223-55.

[In the following essay, Sobel considers Sachs's handling of the popular German romance of Tristan and Isolde, arguing that his version was unique among writers who have dealt with the story.]

The romance of Tristan and Isolde was introduced to the German public by the late twelfth-century poet Eilhart von Oberge. Later, about 1210, Gottfried von Strassburg produced his masterful Middle High German rendering, a version based on the Old French poem by Thomas of Brittany. But Gottfried's...

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Eli Sobel (essay date 1972)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Sobel, Eli. “The Earliest Allegories and Imagery of Hans Sachs: An Introductory Essay.” Yale French Studies 47 (1972): 211-17.

[In the following essay, Sobel discusses the strengths of Sachs's early poems, including his use of images and symbols, which Sobel claims place Sachs among the best of Germany's post-medieval creative artists.]

That unique contribution to German literature known as Meistergesang has its beginnings in the late Middle Ages and achieved its heights in the sixteenth century mainly in the person of Hans Sachs of Nürnberg, the best known of the Meistersinger who have been brought to modern fame by Richard Wagner's opera....

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Stephanie Cain Van D'Elden (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Van D'Elden, Stephanie Cain. “Parodies of Coats of Arms by Peter Suchenwirt and Hans Sachs.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 81 (1980): 69-75.

[In the following essay, Van D'Elden examines the differences between Sachs's and Suchenwirt's parodies of coats of arms, which Van D'Elden claims are a product of the expectations of each author's audience.]

Schields decorated with liverwurst and bratwurst! Two parodies of coats of arms—“Von her Sumolf Lappen uon Ernwicht” by Peter Suchenwirt1 and “Das wappen der vollen brüder” by Hans Sachs2—contain such unheraldic emblems. Suchenwirt's poem of 142 lines, written between 1350 and...

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Eli Sobel (essay date spring-fall 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Sobel, Eli. “Martin Luther and Hans Sachs.” Michigan Germanic Studies 10, no. 1-2 (spring-fall 1984): 129-41.

[In the following essay, Sobel analyzes the influence that Martin Luther had on the works of Hans Sachs.]

Hans Sachs was born in Nürnberg on 5 November 1494, the son of a master tailor. In 1501 he began attendance at a Latin school and stayed until 1508. Those seven years equal his total formal education. In 1509 he was apprenticed as a shoemaker and at about the same time he was introduced to the versifying art of Meistergesang by Lienhard Nunnenbeck, a Meister of the Nürnberg Singschule. At age 17, Sachs began his journeyman years during which...

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Richard Erich Schade (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Schade, Richard Erich. “Das Narren schneyden (1557): The Deadly Sins and the Didactics of Hans Sachs.” In Studies in Early German Comedy, 1500-1650, pp. 73-94. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1988.

[In the following essay, Schade analyzes the theme of the mortal sins in many of Sachs's plays and considers various critics' comments on this topic.]

Recent research into the gesamtwerk of Hans Sachs (1494-1576)1 consistently makes reference to the underlying concept informing the Nuremberg2 author's didactic stance. Theiß (1968),3 concentrating his analysis on the epilogues to the dramas, states that Sachs knows of...

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Ralf Erik Remshardt (essay date spring 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Remshardt, Ralf Erik. “The Birth of Reason from the Spirit of Carnival: Hans Sachs and Das Narren-Schneyden.Comparative Drama 23, no. 1 (spring 1989): 70-94.

[In the following essay, Remshardt examines Sachs's rational approach to his material in Das Narren-Schneyden, which, the critic claims, puts him closer in spirit to Erasmus than to Luther.]

A play called Das Narren-schneyden (c.1536, publ. 1557)1 stands out as something of an oddity in the rather large canon of about eighty-five Fastnachtsspiele, Carnival plays of the cobbler and sometime poet Hans Sachs (1494-1576). Known mostly as a purveyor of harmless...

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W. A. Coupe (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Coupe, W. A. “Text and Illustration or Picture and Commentary? Hans Sachs and the Sixteenth-Century Tradition.” Carleton Germanic Papers 22 (1994): 46-58.

[In the following essay, Coupe discusses the relationship between the illustrations and the text in the works of Hans Sachs.]

It is a commonplace of German literary and cultural history that the sixteenth century was the golden age of the illustrated book. It could scarcely be otherwise: the earliest printed books, the Biblia pauperum, the Ars bene moriendi and the like were, after all, essentially picture books whose name, “block books,” bears witness to their origins in the...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Ellis, Frances H. Introduction to The Early Meisterlieder of Hans Sachs, pp. 13-17. Bloomington: Indiana University Studies, 1974.

Provides an overview of Sachs's life and career.


Beare, Mary. “Observations on Some of the Illustrated Broadsheets of Hans Sachs.” German Life and Letters 16 (1963): 174-85.

Explores Sachs's woodcuts, claiming that to truly understand the author's literary works, they must be considered together with their illustrations.

Ellis, Frances H. “Hans Sachs's Meisterlied on the Supposed Origin of the Olympic...

(The entire section is 302 words.)