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The Wittenberg Nightingale: trigger of Hans Sachs’ success as voice of the Reformation in Nuremberg

Copper engraving (detail) by Gustav Eilers after Wilhelm Kaulbach 'Die Reformation' Source: Wilhelm Kaulbach's mural painting in the staircase of the New Museum Berlin, Wikimedia Commons.

Charlotte Hartmann (MPhil Student, Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford) examines the representation of Luther in Hans Sachs' poem. Please visit her blog for more articles on Hans Sachs.

“Hier steh ich nun. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir. Amen!“ (Here I stand. I have no other choice. God help me. Amen!). Luther’s famous words at the Diet of Worms in 1521 ultimately sealed his breach with the Catholic Church. In Nuremberg his ideas were quickly absorbed and the Sodalitas Martiniana, an association of influential citizens (including, amongst others, the famous painter Albrecht Dürer) successfully spread Luther’s body of thought. Furthermore, the City Council appointed pro-Lutheran preachers to vacant clerical positions – one of whom was Andreas Osiander.

But following the decrees of the Diet of Worms in May 1521, Nuremberg was forced to perform a dangerous balancing act between demands for reforms and its own political status as a free imperial city, depending on the protection and benevolence of emperor and pope. In 1525 the Reformation was officially established and Nuremberg ‘Protestantized’. Although both government and town population equally acclaimed this shift, the years before 1525 were extremely unpredictable and the production and distribution of reformatory writings and ideas went hand in hand with risks and danger.

In this time especially one citizen of Nuremberg raised his voice: After a literary silence of three years the shoemaker Hans Sachs became the poetic voice of Luther’s reformatory case. His poem ‘The Wittenberg Nightingale’ (1523) immediately became an enormous success and earned Luther an everlasting sobriquet.

Hans Sachs‘ silent years and the enormous success of the “Wittenberg Nightingale”

Scholarship often reacts with perplexity to the fact that Hans Sachs (an exceptionally productive writer) evidently composed nothing between the summers of 1520 and 1523. But we do know that Sachs bound together forty tractates and sermons by Luther in 1522. Therefore, he must undoubtedly have been familiar with Luther’s basic works. Moreover, it can be assumed that he followed public discussions, listened to Osiander’s sermons and read reformatory pamphlets, which flooded the market, especially in the early years of the Reformation. Apparently, Sachs had need of this period of intense involvement with the ideas of the Reformation, before he finally decided upon supporting Luther’s case.

He made this decision known by publishing the “Wittenberg Nightingale” (WN) on the 8th of July in 1523. In this poem he proceeded against the Catholic Church by strongly polemicizing against it. In 1523 alone, the WN was published in seven editions and Sachs achieved nationwide fame as the poet and writer of the Reformation.

Wacht auf, es nahet gen den Tag! (Wake up, the day is nigh!)

Richard Wagner adopted Sachs’ famous opening lines to the WN in his opera ”The Mastersingers of Nuremberg” (article on Hans Sachs in Wagner’s opera) (1868) (Act 3 Scene 5):

Wacht auf, es nahet gen den Tag,
ich hör’ singen im grünen Hag
ein’ wonnigliche Nachtigal,
ihr’ Stimm’ durchdringet Berg und Tal;
die Nacht neigt sich zum Okzident,
der Tag geht auf von Orient,
die rotbrünstige Morgenröt’
her durch die trüben Wolken geht.

(Watch this scene on youtube)

These verses evocatively introduce the antithesis of day and night, to which Sachs repeatedly returns during the course of the poem in order to illustrate the contrast between Lutheran and Catholic doctrine.

1. Elaboration of the allegory
Blinded by treacherous moonlight, the sheep left their shepherd and pasture to follow the lion into wilderness. But he sets traps for them, killing the ones he caught. Furthermore, they are tormented by wolves and snakes. As the nightingale starts to sing the sheep awake from their blindness and enrage the lion. However, even with the help of his many allies (waltesel (donkey), schwein (pig), pöck (goat), katz (cat), schnecken (snail), frösch (frog) and wiltgens (wild geese)) he does not succeed in silencing the songbird. The nightingale continues to pronounce the daybreak and finally the remaining sheep return auß dyser wilde / Zuo irer weyd und hirten milde (from this wilderness / to the mildness of their pasture and shepherd).

2. Resolution of the allegory
In the second part of the WN Sachs deciphers the allegory, starting with the following verses:

Nun das ir klerer mugt verstan So that you may understand clearly
Wer die lieplich nachtigall sey Who the sweet nightingale is
Die uns den hellen tag auß schrey Pronouncing us the new bright day
Ist doctor Martinus Lutther It is Doctor Martin Luther
Zuo Wittenberg Augustiner Augustinian from Wittenberg
Der uns auffweckt von der nacht Who awakens us from the night
Darein der monschein uns hat bracht In which moonlight has led us

Sachs then continues to solve every element of the allegory further. The monschein (moonlight) is the menschen lere der Sophisten (doctrine of the sophists [no link to the philosophers of ancient Greece, but a term of abuse meaning ‘equivocator’]), the lion is Pope Leo X, the mortstrick (traps) are des Babstes netz (the Pope’s webs), the wolves are the Pope’s supporters (bishops, provosts, priests, prelates and all chaplains). Sachs’ anger quickly inflames when reflecting on existing abuses in the Church. He lists them in the form of short catchphrases, pointing at the falsehood of Catholic practices.

The nightingale is Luther and the lion is the Pope – and the lion’s allies also resemble existing actors of religious dispute.

Das wilde schwein (pig):          Johannes Eck
Der bock (goat):                         Hieronymus Emser
Die katz (cat):                             Thomas Murner
Der waltesel (donkey):             Augustin von Alveldt
Der schneck (snail):                 Johann Cochlaeus

Masking ones enemies as animals not only dehumanises them, but also assigns them their animal’s associated negative character traits. This was hardly new, but Sachs was the first to connect Luther with the nightingale, using popular conceptions of the bird as a superior singer and a mediator of wisdom.

3. Luther’s doctrine, including the appeal to the reformatted Christian to remain steadfast and faithful at the face of hazard
In opposition to his negative remarks on Catholic doctrine, Sachs gives ein kurtzer anzeig der leere doctor Martini Luthers (a short description of Doctor Martin Luther’s teaching).

Luther states that es sey keyn sundt / Dann was uns hab verboten got (nothing is sin / except what God alone has forbidden). By referring to this quotation, Sachs puts special emphasis on stilling the fear of eternal agony in hell. He seeks to reveal the Church’s deceptions in the sale of indulgence letters. Following Luther’s accusations, Pope Leo X ordered his persecution, fearing loss of power and revenues. But Luther blyb bestendig in sein sachen / Unnd gar keyn wort nit wyderryfft (remained steadfast in his convictions / And did not revoke a single word). The poem closes with Sachs’ plea to the reader to remain steadfast at the threat of expulsion, hatred, captivity and violence.














The Bodleian’s Wittenberg Nightingale. Images left to right: Preface 1 Tr.Luth. 31 (195) Pre-1701 Weston Photo: Charlotte Hartmann; Preface 2 Tr.Luth. 31 (195) Pre-1701 Weston Photo: Charlotte Hartmann; Preface 3 Tr.Luth. 31 (195) Pre-1701 Weston Photo: Charlotte Hartmann

The Bodleian Library has one edition of the WN – a well-preserved print from about 1525. It does not feature the distinct woodcut on the title page, which can be found in various other editions. The print is transmitted in a miscellany, which is part of the rare book collection Tractatus Lutherani. Hence, its signature is Tr. Luth. 31 (195). Other works in this volume include pamphlets by Heinrich von Kettenbach, Martin Luther and Andreas Osiander.

The WN’s preface claims that for a long time the true faith in God had been overshadowed by laws, regulations and commandments, which were solely imposed by the Church. Sachs states that Martin Luther alone freed the Gospel from these bonds to proclaim it in its true meaning once again and he, Hans Sachs, would seek to relay it in this spirit. In the WN, Sachs demonstrates his distinct style, which unfolds in the combination of Christian doctrine and anti-Roman critique of the pope and enables the gemeinen man (ordinary man) to engage in the theological discourse of the time. This style also becomes apparent in later works of his early Reformation literature.

Based on the strong polemic of the text, it can be assumed that proselyting Christians from Catholic to Lutheran faith was not the primary function of the text, but that its main intention was to encourage already reformed Protestants in their belief and to make it possible for them to get involved in controversial contemporary debates over the Reformation.