By Ann Marie Rasmussen
Medieval Feminist Forum, 28, no. 1 (1999)
Introduction: In the course of doing research for a book one usually turns up more interesting material than can be used in the project at hand. This was certainly the case when I was working on my book, Mothers and Daughters in Medieval German Literature (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1997). Once I had decided that my book would not survey the primary material but rather provide what I hoped would be focused studies of a few, significant texts, lots of notes and photocopies went back to their manila folders and were refiled for possible future use.
One such text is the anonymous 121-line conduct poem, “Eyne gude lere van einer junchvrowen” [Good Counsel for a Young Lady], in which a mother instructs her daughter in good behavior. This poem did not make it into my book largely because it raised a great many interesting questions that were, alas, marginal to the way in which I had decided to frame the book. First, there was the unusualness of its language, Middle Low German, the language of northern Germany and the Hanseatic league. In the late Middle Ages Low German had achieved the status of a literary language, only to be slowly but surely replaced in that capacity by High German during the early modern period. Today Low German survives as a spoken dialect in northern Germany, and the geographical region in which it is spoken has shrunk considerably over the past five hundred years.
But that was far from the only puzzle the text posed. The sole surviving copy is written in a faulty Middle Low German that is replete with “scandinavianisms.” No wonder it is so hard to read! An inquiry into the manuscript containing “Eyne gude lere,” Stockholm, Kungliga Bibliotheket, Vu 82 (the so-called [utische Sammlung), opened up more questions than it answered. The manuscript was copied in the northern Danish monastery of Borglum; it contains low German and Danish texts and an unusual mix of genres, from Low German Minnereden (discourses on love) to a Danish prose novel about Charlemagne. Finally, the section of the manuscript in which “Eyne gude lere” appears is dated to 1541,though the editor Seelman argues that it was written much earlier (and there is nothing in the text that speaks against this assertion)