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Teaching Hans Sachs in an Online Course: Sixteenth-Century German Literature in a Digital Context as a Consequence of the COVID-19 Crisis

Albrecht Classen
The University of Arizona

There are many debates about the literary quality of the famous cobbler-poet Hans Sachs (1494–1576), one of the most prolific authors in the sixteenth century. Moreover, with his writing, Sachs represented one of the most industrious, economically vibrant cities in early modern Germany. Although he virtually never left his home town of Nuremberg after the return from his years as a journeyman in 1516, Sachs had a literary worldview that seems to have been almost limitless. Considering the situation we all find ourselves in today, in lockdown, social isolation, or social distancing (or in a combination) to combat the COVID-19 crisis, there are interesting parallels between Sachs as a poet and us when we examine his works and role in sixteenth-century German literature in an academic setting with all libraries closed or not accessible. How do we overcome the suddenly imposed limitations in teaching this major poet, and what consequences might those insights have for the future in a much more digital world?

Ancient and medieval texts, motifs, themes, and materials were easily accessible for Sachs, and he freely drew from countless sources to create his Meisterlieder (mastersongs), Shrovetide plays, prose dialogues, fables, tragedies, comedies, religious tracts, and the like, although we do not know of any particular library available to him. Until today, there is no critical and comprehensive edition of all of his works,1 and the number of scholarly studies on Sachs remains rather sparse.2 Nevertheless, there are many reasons for not ignoring him in any academic course on early modern literature (in German) at large, on sixteenth-century drama, on the relationship between the Protestant Reformation and poetry, on sixteenth-century gender discourse, and on public media in the early modern age.3 Moreover, Sachs represented with his writing one of the most industrious, economically vibrant cities in early modern Germany.

The COVID-19 crisis hit exactly at a time when Hans Sachs was the topic in one of my seminars for graduating seniors with a major in German Studies at the University of Arizona (spring 2020). This forced us all to switch to complete online teaching, for which there are available many different technological venues. The following comments are reflections on how the rapid transformation of a face-to-face class into an online class impacted the academic study of Hans Sachs, considering challenges, opportunities, advantages, and disadvantages, and a radical re-orientation in teaching. Meeting students only in a Zoom meeting or in a chatroom forces us to resort to different instructional material and teaching styles, meaning that we contextualize this poet much more in his urban setting, combining the examination of the literary texts much more intensively than before with the religious situation in sixteenth-century Nuremberg, but then also with the local architecture, history, art history, music, and military aspects. Fortunately, the city today boasts of the world-famous Germanisches Nationalmuseum, which offers a wealth of data online as well as the possibility of fascinating forms of collaboration in the near future as a consequence of the COVID-19 crisis and the pressing need for more work on a digital basis.4 In addition, Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) was a near contemporary of Hans Sachs, and having access to his museum also in Nuremberg, art history (German Renaissance) and Reformation literature can be studied hand in hand, which invites us to approach our pedagogical purposes from a much more interdisciplinary perspective.5

For most of our students today (including in German-speaking lands) the issue is no longer whether a twelfth-century poet such as Hartmann von Aue is further removed from post-modern readers than a sixteenth-century poet, such as Hans Sachs. I dare say that anything written prior to 1945 represents, at least for most of the current generation, “ancient” literary history, meaning that nineteenth-century literature (Fontane), eighteenth-century ballads (Schiller) and plays (Lessing), or mysterious and enigmatic Baroque poetry (Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg) are very hard to understand and completely out of date for many. This common student perspective and the attendant cultural distance make both Hans Sachs and medieval literature an even greater challenge.

Hans Sachs continues to deserve study for many different reasons, both because he profoundly influenced sixteenth-century German literature and strongly promoted the Protestant cause in Nuremberg and elsewhere. He also enjoys a high reputation for his enormous literary output (quantity) and for his deep influence (ideology) especially on nineteenth-century opera (Richard Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, premiered in 1868).6

There are, however, additional arguments why we should bring Hans Sachs back to our students’ attention. In light of his play Der fahrendt Schüler in Paradeiß (1550, The Traveling Student in the Paradise), for instance, we face the powerful opportunity to discuss global human issues that continue to irritate and bother us until today, such as gullibility, ignorance, stupidity, marital love and strife, arrogance, foolishness, and the battle of wits. Despite the slightly archaic language, Sachs’s Shrovetide play addresses in an entertaining yet meaningful way universal human problems, especially in marriage, such as lack of communication, different handling of money, and emotional bonds. By way of laughing about the foolish characters on stage, we suddenly realize that we ourselves are the target of criticism, the butt of the joke, as the farmer husband in the play has to learn at the end when he realizes that the student has fooled him even more so than his wife.

Teaching online effectively as a consequence of the COVID-19 crisis has been possible because of the amazing availability of necessary technology. Like most other colleagues in North America, I used Zoom meetings to connect with students and to provide a common platform to speak, to listen, and to give presentations. However, I also systematically resorted to the chat room option on D2L, a commonly employed learning management system (LMS). Chat room participation proved to be a unique mode of communication with the entire class, that was based on writing exclusively and thus was beneficial for a German language/literature class. In the chat room, which I ran as the lead discussant, all participants posted their responses, comments, questions, observations, and criticism by typing, and the entire conversation was recorded and archived, which allowed the students to revisit the class discussion again later. The discussion was structured by a set of questions that I had posted on D2L a day before class. The zoom meetings were reserved mostly for times when students had to practice their German speaking skills and wanted to share their screens with the rest of the class for presentations. In short, there are many technical means available to transform the face-to-face teaching situation into an entirely online setting. There are interesting new avenues in approaching Sachs that way, but there are also disadvantages, such as the inability to work closely with students in deciphering a sixteenth-century print, for instance, or working with them through a difficult text passage as a group. In light of the COVID-19 crisis, however, there was no other option but to go online.

How do students majoring in German Studies go about finding material about or from Sachs? As is standard all over the world today, they turn, I assume, to Wikipedia.de (or the American version), instead of consulting standard literary histories or scholarly studies. So let us consider how good their webpage on Hans Sachs is as we are now more reliant on online resources and must be aware of the webpages regularly consulted by our students in order to alert them to pitfalls, shortcomings, or even erroneous information. Following the universal template for all biographical entries on this website, here we find the following information: (1) biography, (2) historical significance, (3) works, (4) comments about Sachs in later literary or musical compositions, (5) modern monuments or sculptures dedicated to Sachs, (6) research, (7) fictional narratives about Sachs, (8) weblinks, and (9) references. Some historical prints containing such famous songs as “Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall” (The Wittemberg Nightingale) or Von einem Schumacher und Chorheren ein vast kurtzweilig Christliche disputation (The Entertaining Christian Disputation between a Cobbler and a Canon) are directly available through links to digitized versions. The download time might occasionally be fairly slow, but it is manageable. Of course, to read those sixteenth-century prints requires a bit of practice, which is possible through a Zoom meeting, but rather difficult, especially if connectivity is not at the highest level on either side. The navigation itself proves to be a challenge at times, and it is not always easy to return to the original page, which then requires a restart of the same webpage. For teaching purposes, then, the Wikipedia.de page is rather reasonable and pragmatic, accompanied by good visual material and a solid bibliography, and free of charge. Insofar as the new teaching mode is online, or at least hybrid, as often predicted for the near future, we should consider such webpages not as our “enemies” for serious scholarship, but as useful teaching tools we can consult together as a group, which then empowers our students to view the data contained in such sites much more critically.

Some texts such as the Shrovetide play Der fahrendt Schuler in Paradeiß have been available online both in the original and in English translation already for some time, but the various websites tend to offer only incomplete selections and do not always convey a clear sense of what this dramatic text might be all about.7 Some of the key issues are: the farmer’s wife longs for her deceased first husband; the new husband is too miserly and abuses her; she is completely ignorant about the world and confuses the word “Paris” with “Paradise”; she believes that her first husband is suffering economic hardship in the afterlife so she entrusts money and clothing to the student, who then rushes off, allegedly returning to Paradise. The new husband realizes quickly the truth of the matter, rides after the young man, but is fooled by him as well when he asks him to hold his horse for safe-keeping, never to see it again. In the meantime, his wife has spread the word about the event and how good her new husband had been, to her own surprise, helping her to support the deceased man in the afterlife. The play is filled with mockery about the simple-minded, the infantile belief in the afterworld, and then also with ridicule of husbands who assume that they are so much smarter than their wives. While we are invited to laugh about the couple, we are actually supposed to realize that we as people normally tend to be simplistic in our thinking and can be easily cheated because of our naiveté, most likely an indirect reference to Jesus’s parable in Matthew 7:1–5 about the mote and the beam.

Sadly, most of our students are not readily qualified to work with the sixteenth-century language, or able to handle dialect components typically of Nuremberg, where East-Franconian continues to be the standard linguistic feature until today. An almost-necessary alternative thus proves to be a modern-German translation, now available online, which also provides a brief introduction to the poet, a reproduction of one of his portraits, and a number of “Leitfragen” pertaining to this Shrovetide play and the Meisterlied “Das Walt Got.”8 A large number of Sachs’s poems in English translation prepared by William Leighton (1910) can now be found online as well, along with three Shrovetide plays, The Travelling Scholar (Der fahrendt Schuler in Paradeiß), The Horse Thief, and The Hot Iron.9 While all these texts have been available online already for some time, the new online teaching can now draw on them much more intensively and utilize them in an interactive fashion, such as when we copy them and place them in a google docs drive for shared editing or commenting.

Most famous among musical enthusiasts and scholars would be, of course, Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868), with the libretto in the original and the English translation available also on the web.10 Students inclined to explore this direction tracing the impact of Hans Sachs as an iconic figure of early modern urban culture during the nineteenth century would thus have much of the necessary material at their fingertips digitally. Of course, Wagner did not simply develop a musical biography, but created, instead, an innovative opera based on Sachs and his contemporaries. The comparison between Sachs as a sixteenth-century poet and Wagner’s nineteenth-century projection of him facilitates a highly valuable interdisciplinary approach to our subject matter, ideally combining music history with the history of German Reformation literature. The various online meeting options makes this pedagogical goal perhaps more possible than in the past because each student needs to do very specific homework on both Wagner and Sachs and bring the information to the table in the chatroom, for instance.

If we want to contextualize Sachs within Nuremberg, there are now available numerous YouTube and other videos presenting the city and sometimes also the poet himself, though there is no guarantee regarding their durability and permanence.11 However, for online teaching under the current conditions, many of the digitally available materials are of extreme importance since the students can be assigned readings or can be asked to watch relevant videos at home on their computers, which then can be discussed in the digital meeting. Overall, then, some of Hans Sachs’s works prove to be fairly easily accessible through weblinks, which makes teaching him in a German literature class online (in German or English translation) readily possible without too many difficulties. There is no question that face-to-face teaching is always preferable to the online version because of the intensive interaction between students and instructor, and among the students themselves. But much modern teaching material, such as videos about the history of the city of Nuremberg, should be watched by students at home anyway,12 and during the online meeting the major information provided by the speaker can then be reviewed and digested.

In fact, the current crisis carries positive consequences; being forced to teach online at the moment, we actually realize the considerable potency of the online material, and in the future, may commonly transition into hybrid teaching as a result of the experiences during spring 2020. Yes, disadvantages arise from lack of face-to-face interaction in the classroom, but both online Zoom and chatroom meetings are reasonable substitutions and represent useful alternatives even under ordinary circumstances.

With respect to Hans Sachs, there are many opportunities today to study his original texts in digitized versions, in modern German or English translations, and in combination with online videos about the city of Nuremberg in past and present, as well as the online presence of Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nürnberg.13 There are, of course, huge differences between this opera and the historical figure of Sachs, and these contrasts particularly invite critical readings that can be carried out at home or in the online class discussion. Sachs as a sixteenth-century poet can thus be brought back to our attention in a more lively, diverse, interactive, and engaging manner that ultimately helps us convey his unquestionable relevance to the twenty-first century generation. But we need all of his original texts made available in good critical editions and translations so that we will not be limited to the short selections commonly put together on the various websites,14 a necessity whether we teach Sachs face to face or in an online environment.

Dr. Albrecht Classen is University Distinguished Professor of German Studies at the University of Arizona. He has published numerous scholarly books and articles dealing with medieval and early modern literature and culture. He is the editor of Mediaevistik and Humanities Open Access. He has received many awards for teaching, research, and service. In 2017, he was granted the rank of Grand Knight Commander of the Most Noble Order of the Three Lions (GKCL).

1 See, for instance, Hans Sachs, Meisterlieder, Spruchgedichte, Fastnachtspiele: Auswahl, ed. Hartmut Kugler (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun., 2003).

2 Horst Brunner, Hans Sachs, Auf den Spuren der Dichter und Denker durch Franken 10 (Gunzenhausen: Schrenk-Verlag, 2009); cf. also the contributions to Hans Sachs im Schnittpunkt von Antike und Neuzeit: Akten des interdisziplinären Symposions vom 23./24. September 1994 in Nürnberg, ed. Stephan Füssel, Pirckheimer-Jahrbuch 10 (Nuremberg: Carl, 1995); and Barbara Könneker, Hans Sachs, Sammlung Metzler 94 (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1971).

3 Albrecht Classen, “Women, Wives, and Marriage in the World of Hans Sachs,” Daphnis 32.3–4 (2003): 491–521; Classen, “Der verkannte Meister? Eine Schlüsselfigur des 16. Jahrhunderts im Kreuzfeuer der Kritik. Die Darstellung von Frauen im Werk von Hans Sachs,” Etudes Germaniques 59 (2004): 5–39.

4 Germanisches Nationalmuseum and for their online holdings, see “Cross-Collection Holdings.”

5 Albrecht Dürer’s House and for his complete works accessible online, see Albrecht Dürer: The Complete Works.

6 Arne Stollberg and Christian Schaper, eds., Schwerpunkt: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wagnerspectrum 15.2 (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2019).

7 German Literature, “Hans Sachs,” and a reliable text edition is offered at Bibliotheca Augustana.

8 Albrecht Classen, Das deutsche Mittelalter in seinen Dichtungen (1994, 1997, 2000, 2009).

9 Hans Sachs, Merry Tales and Three Shrovetide Plays, trans. William Leighton (London: David Nutt, 1910).

10 It was written in 1867, and premiered in 1868. Wagner drew heavily from Georg Gervinus’s Geschichte der deutschen Dichtung in five volumes, in its 4th edition from 1853. He was also heavily influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer. For an excellent overview, with a synopsis of the opera and discussion of the reception of this work all over Germany, sparking a strong nationalist tendency in favor of “German” art, see “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.” For the libretto, see “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.” For the English translation, see “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.”

11Clip 05: Hans Sachs” and “Nuremberg—City of History” (rather questionable for teaching purposes); Nürnberg—Stadt der Reformation.

12Nürnberg—Streifzug durch eine historische Altstadt,” 7 June 2017. This is one of the best online videos about Nuremberg because the speaker, who reveals a slight Franconian accent, speaks slowly enough to be clearly understandable by foreign-language students. The history and art history of Nuremberg are vividly presented, and famous personalities such as Albrecht Dürer and Hans Sachs are well presented.

13 See, for instance, the performance of the overture to Wagner’s “Meistersinger,” online at “Wagner: Die Meistersinger Overture—Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra”; see also “Wagner—Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Act 1/3 (1995),” 3 June 3 2017.

14 See, for instance, Wolfgang Pohl, “Hans Sach,” Renaissance.

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