A cobbler poet in Nuremberg, Hans Sachs was a major representative of Protestant humanist literature rooted in the popular culture of southern Germany. Sachs's life and literary activities were closely linked to the Free City of Nu­remberg, an economic and cultural center and a key player in the political and religious conflicts of the Reformation period. Although Sachs was of humble origins (his father was a tailor), he was able to attend a grammar school until he was fifteen. He was then apprenticed to a local shoemaker and learned the art of Meistersang, a highly prescriptive literary and musical genre that allowed the writing of new lyrics to established tunes and the invention of new melodies if one had become a master.
From 1511 to 1516 he traveled as a journeyman throughout Germany, wrote his first poems, tales, and Meisterlieder, and taught at several singing schools. After returning to Nuremberg, he married in 1519, inherited his parental home, and subsequently became a master shoemaker and was admitted to the guild of Meistersinger, societies of amateur singers who preserved strict codes for the composition and delivery of their religious and narrative songs. Around 1520 Sachs became a follower of the teachings of Martin Luther.* He propagated them through his poems and dialogues—often printed on illustrated broadsheets and as pamphlets—and was actively engaged in the religious debates of his age. His anti-Catholic propaganda brought him into conflict with the authorities, who forced him to tone down his polemics. In the following years he became a prosperous and respected citizen in his hometown and in 1542 was able to purchase a second house. During his leisure hours he produced a voluminous body of poetry and for nearly fifty years was a leading representative of the Nuremberg Meistersang tradition. From 1551 to 1560 he functioned as director of a Meistersinger stage, and from 1555 to 1561 as juror of a singing school. When his wife died in 1560, he began to withdraw from public life. He remarried in 1561, at the age of sixty-seven, and continued his creative writing until he was seventy-eight.
Sachs was a prolific author in a wide variety of genres. His Summa all meiner gedicht of 1567 records over 6,000 works, including 16 books of Meisterlieder (2,575 in all), over 1,500 Spruche (tales, chronicles, fables, satires, and epi­grams, all in rhymed verse), 213 plays (58 tragedies, 70 comedies, and 85 Shrovetide plays), and a large number of hymns, songs, prose pieces, and dia­logues. His education was much inferior to that of the great humanist scholar-poets of his age, and his social status as a shoemaker prevented him from playing a major role in the international republic of letters. However, Nuremberg en­joyed an artistic and intellectual life of the highest order, and Sachs profited greatly from the active cultural scene around him. His knowledge of classical and Italian Renaissance literature was extensive and influenced much of his writing. But all of his works were written in the vernacular, betray a homespun simplicity, and appeal through their humorous depiction of human foibles.
Although Sachs wrote some influential Reformation dialogues and was an undisputed leader in the Meistersang tradition, he is best remembered as an author of farces (Schwanke) and Shrovetide plays (Fastnachtsspiele). Modern editions of these can still be enjoyed by a nonspecialist reader, and amateur performances have delighted many theater audiences throughout the twentieth century. Sachs was a pioneer of the Schwank as a literary genre, and his Fast­nachtsspiele can be seen as Schwanke in dialogue form. The medieval tradition of Shrovetide plays was revived in Nuremberg in 1533 and offered Sachs an opportunity to shift from the political and religious concerns of his early works to a more humorous treatment of the human condition. His plays are devoid of any clear dramatic structure and present character types in everyday situations and conflicts. Blending caricature with shrewd observation and coarse humor with witty turns of phrase, they have a freshness and directness that works well even in translation. In contrast, his comedies and tragedies are only of historical interest. Based mainly on biblical, classical, and Germanic mythology, they fo­cus on telling a long and complicated story in dialogue form and are epic rather than dramatic in structure. They were important attempts at translating humanist school drama into vernacular forms and used the Meistersinger stage to popu­larize popular culture; however, due to their untheatrical character and the sub­sequent development of a baroque and neoclassical aesthetics of drama, these plays were soon forgotten.
R. Aylett and P. Skrine, eds., Hans Sachs and Folk Theatre in the Late Middle Ages, 1995.
M. Beare, ed., Hans Sachs: Selections, 1983.
Gunter Berghaus

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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