What did attract me to German women poets years back – at a time when I didn’t even have any idea of the language or history of the land? Like every Indian reader, I too read world literature via English or local language or Hindi. I found couple of translated poems in one of the book fairs in Calcutta. And the January evening with the Sarah Kirsch poems left me awestruck. Not that I didn’t read powerful poems before. But the style of expression, rather the difference between Indian and very German way of perceiving the universe, made me inquisitive. What made women poets express their opinion in such a strong voice, what led women writers to find a radical route to express own views – I was eager to find out. Much later, I found opportunity to learn more about the language, the land and its people which helped me follow the trail of poetic expressions left by German women poets since last few hundred years. Finding their voices as revealed in their poems in last five hundred years is the purpose of this series. We might have forgotten many of them – but the collective voice which found Poesy as the language of a paradigm shift in terms of establishing women’s role in literary arena cannot go into oblivion.
Where do the first German women poets remain hidden? How many of their names do we know? As it happens with literary history of any civilization – the identity of composers of non-classical rhetoric, folklore and folk song where women do contribute the most, remains under the veil of anonymity. German literary history is no different. In case of German speaking European geography, both men and women poets, whose names are known to us were associated to the world of monasteries. Reason is understandable. In the middle age Europe, people could learn reading and writing only in monasteries and these were only places where they were allowed to continue practicing their adopted skill.
The first educational institutions for nuns came up in eight century. The first well-known German poetess appeared in tenth century. Roswitha von Gandersheim wrote plays in Latin. She worked on legends, wrote drama following the stringent rules of Christianity, and also tried to introduce comedy within the grim realm of nunnery; obviously could not write anything that could be considered ‘revolutionary’. After her, Lady Ava or Ava of Göttweig was the first poetess known to us who wrote in German. She probably lived in the estate of Göttweig Abbey in Lower Austria after her husband’s death with her two sons, who were also clerics. Her four large ballads are on the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, as expected from clergy in eleventh century. Hildegard of Bingen or Saint Hildegard was born in same century. She was a Benedictine abbess, composer of musical poems, philosopher, doctor and author of mystic as well as medical and natural history books. To be acceptable to knowledge-seekers in medieval Europe, a women medical writer and healer needed to be empowered by divine support; hence her story of having ‘visions’ since her childhood came up – who else but a visionary could write own observations of Christianity, papacy and religious corruptions? She was followed by many women ‘visionary poets’ in next centuries, who wrote own religious and mystical experiences with ample clarity. We get the names of Elisabeth von Schönen, Gertrude von Helfta, Mechthild von Hackeborn, Mechthild von Magdeburg among them.
All the above mentioned poetesses came from nobility, mainly because formal education was not accessible to all. Especially for women other than those belonged to nobility, reading and writing was not considered an essential skill for which they could spend time. But from fourteenth century onwards, women from bourgeois origin began joining the league of mystic poetesses. One of them, Elsbeth Stagel, the Dominican nun born in a Zurich bourgeois family, compiled Das Leben der Schwestern zu Töß, biographies of 39 nuns providing a comprehensive picture of mysticism in the Töss Convent which becomes handbook to understand mysticism and monastic life in medieval German-speaking kingdoms. For the same reason, the name of another Dominican nun Margarethe Ebner’s shouldn’t be left out, of course! Directed by Jesus Christ during her prolonged illness in the convent, she devoted her life into deeper spiritual exploration. She compiled her “Offenbarungen” (Revelations), encouraged by her spiritual advisers in German as well as in Swabian dialect. Mysticism turned way of life for educated women, who probably were inclined to view the world thought their own eyes.
In fact, monasteries in medieval Europe were made for nobility; only ladies born in wealthy families were permitted to purchase goods from convents. Convents also gave the opportunity to these self-aware ladies to spend a life different than the common housewives who had to be busy in taking care of household affairs and children. Women found time and environment to refine their talents and expand knowledge here, which was not possible for women staying with families.
(to be continued…)