Epoch (literature)

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A literary epoch is a stage in literary history . The name comes from the Greek word epoché , which means "cut". The idea of ​​literary epochs is based on the assumption that it can make sense heuristically for works that fall in a common period of time to be formatted by certain “separating events” or “epoch thresholds” ( Hans Blumenberg ) (for example, Goethe's work “after Schiller's death “) And have similar stylistic and formal characteristics to give an underlying common ordering principle.

Questions about the designation, assignment of works and timing

One difficulty is a chicken and egg problem that arises in the selection of the material: Do you assign authors to an epoch because they are representative of the “spirit of the time” and not exactly original, or do you already have a concept of an epoch in Head, and then has appropriately selected authors represent them? What can be “representative” if minority literature is always excluded through the formation of canons?

The theoretical origin of the epoch terms is very different: from the history of religion ( Reformation , Counter-Reformation ), from political history ( Restoration , Vormärz , Wilhelminian style ), from art history ( Baroque , Biedermeier , Expressionism , Art Nouveau , New Objectivity ); Derivations of people (especially in the Anglophone world: Elizabethan , Victorian literature; but also: Goethe time ; "Post-Hegel's death"), contain an implicit value judgment ( aestheticism , mannerism , Biedermeier, decadence ), or arise through relativization of already existing epoch terms ( Postmodern ).

Several of these terms can compete for a single period (for example Art Nouveau and Impressionism ); conversely, a term can encompass several periods of time (for example Mannerism can be seen as the final form of the baroque or as the end of the realistic narrative tradition at the beginning of the 20th century). Different cultures can designate different periods of time with apparently epochs of the same name (the restauration age in Great Britain lasts until the 18th century, while in the German-speaking area the restoration period ends in 1688). The term Renaissance also describes a cultural development that encompasses all of Europe (and America) actually includes all artistic, social and economic areas. The situation is different with the term baroque, which originally meant a style designation in architecture and the visual arts, but was eventually transferred to other arts as well. Enlightenment refers to a development based on the history of ideas, especially a philosophical one.

Epoch terms can represent timeless criteria and at the same time denote a fixed historical section (this is how Hesse's prose is called (new) romantic; however, romanticism in the narrower sense only refers to literature from 1790 to 1830). A distinction must be made between epochs that are characterized by the self-designation of contemporaries (programmatic epochs such as Expressionism) or that arose through subsequent reflections on the history of literature (such as the Baroque); here one has to distinguish between epoch and "epoch consciousness" ( Reinhart Koselleck ).

A difficult problem for research is the time limit of an epoch, its duration. What criteria can be used to determine when, for example, the Baroque era ends and the Enlightenment begins? It is important to find out whether established norms or literary conventions are losing their influence at a certain point in time or whether they are clearly broken with and thus something new arises from this break that also becomes the norm again. These changes do not necessarily have to be of an aesthetic nature, but can be associated with a changed worldview or with political and economic developments.

Positions according to which there is a certain naturally necessary development process of the epochs (e.g. the scheme Baroque - Enlightenment - Classical - Romantic ; or Ernst Robert Curtius ' thesis that epochs of Classical and Mannerism replaced each other again and again) are no longer represented .

Deterministic history steleologies

Deterministic historical steleologies, which were also applied to literature, had an impact that should not be underestimated, especially in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

Sketch of German cultural history from 1929 from a literary history that was published until the 1950s for high school education.

According to the statement, cultural developments are becoming more short-lived; The national, the social and the religious give them strength above all in Germany. Counter-movements follow each epoch climax - a very tangible example of how the history of the epoch makes political statements. Out: Dr. E. Brenner, Deutsche Literaturgeschichte , 13th edition, 122–131. Thousand. With a colored supplement (Wunsiedel / Wels / Zurich, 1952).

Features of the epochs of German literary history

Expressionismus (Literatur) Realismus (Literatur) Romantik Aufklärung (Literatur) Barock (Literatur) Spätmittelalter Hochmittelalter Literatur in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus Innere Emigration Naturalismus Junges Deutschland (Literatur) Junges Deutschland (Literatur) Empfindsamkeit Renaissance-Humanismus Renaissance Postmoderne Impressionismus (Literatur) Weimarer Klassik Literatur der Weimarer Republik Literatur der Weimarer Republik Heimatkunst Heimatkunst Vormärz Biedermeier Sturm und Drang Sturm und Drang Trümmerliteratur Symbolismus (Literatur) DDR-Literatur

Fin de siècle

Up to modern times



Motives of the artist

Stylistic features of the epoch


Early middle ages


High Middle Ages


  • Consolidation of chivalry
  • Worldview strongly influenced by religions
  • the court as the center of social life

Late Middle Ages


  • Worldview strongly influenced by religion
  • The power of kings declined while that of electors rose
  • Cities as new educational centers next to the courtyards
  • Plague epidemics across Europe around 1350
  • spiritual reorientation after the plague epidemics

Humanism and renaissance


  • 1492: discovery of America
  • Astronomical Findings
  • New inventions
  • New worldview
  • Reformation time
  • Translation of the Bible
  • Gutenberg's Bible print
  • humanity
  • Thoughts from ancient times



  • Return to the religiously affiliated church



  • Absolutism (class society)
  • Thirty Years' War
  • (Conflict between Catholics and Protestants)
  • Enjoyment of the moment, beauty in nature ... → God as creator
  • Constancy, self-discipline in faith
  • Transience of suffering, unhappiness ...
  • Turning away from the worldly to God
  • Leitmotifs: Vanitas , Memento mori , Carpe diem



  • Germany consists of over 300 individual states
  • Luxurious court life of the princes at the expense of the people
  • Criticism of the church and religion
  • Criticism of state and social order
  • Unconditional belief in progress
  • Tolerance in society, politics and religion
  • individualism
  • The good and the reasonable are equated
  • Human mind is supposed to dominate perception
  • Spiritual emancipation



  • Does not represent a counter-movement to the Enlightenment, but complements thinking with the level of sensations (hist. Like Enlightenment)
  • Pietism (dutiful piety)
  • Emotionality
  • Introspection
  • Friendship
  • Closeness to nature

storm and stress


  • Youth protest movement (historical as well as enlightenment)
  • Emotion becomes more important than the rationality of enlightenment
  • The personality ideal of genius with an empathetic relationship with nature
  • Breaking rules
  • Against traditions, authority and outdated morals (generation of fathers)
  • Important topics were human existence as well as imagination
  • pantheism
  • Pathos of freedom
  • emotional patriotism


  • songfully simple
  • free rhythm

Weimar Classic


  • French Revolution (1789–1799)
  • Reign of Napoleon
  • Reforms in Prussia:
    • Peasants Liberation
    • Self-government of the cities
    • Freedom of trade
    • Emancipation of Jews
    • Educational reform
    • Army reform
  • Defeat of Napoleon
  • Works of (Greek, Roman) antiquity as a model
  • For the values ​​of the Enlightenment, in particular the French declaration of human rights: freedom, equality, fraternity
  • Against the revolutionary, imperialist or generally violent implementation of the principles of liberalism, nationalism and democracy.
  • Humanity / humanism
  • tolerance
  • Conformity between man and nature
  • Freedom from violence
  • aesthetic education
  • Nature as a place for human refinement
  • Orientation towards antiquity
    • regularly bound, artful promise
  • Thought poetry



  • For historical information, see Classic and Biedermeier
  • Longing → wanderlust / homesickness
  • Psyche (of the characters)
  • irony
  • Hiking and travel motif → other worlds
  • Frequent use of mythical creatures
  • Night / twilight have a special meaning (transfiguration)
  • Glorification of the Middle Ages
  • Reality / dream
  • Escape from reality
  • criticism of
    • Philistineism / new virtues (punctuality, diligence, accuracy, thrift, etc.)
    • Man stands under machine
  • Poetization



  • 1815: Congress of Vienna
  • 1815: Foundation of the German Confederation
  • Karlovy Vary resolutions (1819) bring:
    • Bans on fraternities (just founded)
    • Book and press censorship
    • Spies are allowed
  • Restoration policy from 1815 to 1848 (because of the wars against Napoleon)
  • 1848 March Revolution
  • Industrialization period
  • Simply written (language, form)
  • Everyday action with a precise description
  • Melancholic (resignation, melancholy, silence, despair)
  • Homeland attachment
  • religion
  • order
  • Submission to fate
  • Simple frugality (satisfied with what you have, such as inner peace / small moments of happiness)

Young Germany and Vormärz


For historical information, see Biedermeier

  • Democratic Freedom Rights
  • Against romance and classic
  • For clarification
  • Society should not recognize authority without questioning it
  • March (from 1840)
  • More radical than Young Germany (target of overthrow / revolution)
  • Against absolutism



  • Industrialization period
  • March Revolution 1848
  • Wars of Unification (especially Franco-German War 1870/1871)
  • Empire founded in 1871 (Wilhelm I. Kaiser, Bismarck Chancellor)
  • Social laws (to combat social inequality)
  • Politics against Liberals and Social Democrats
  • 1888: Emperor and policy change
  • positivism
  • Representation of reality (not dreams)
  • Charles Darwin's theories
  • Importance of the bourgeoisie
  • Combination of a precise description of reality and subjective narrative action
  • Simple (form, content, substance)

From the modern age



Motives of the artist

Stylistic features of the epoch




  • Industrialization period
  • Great advances in science (e.g. steam turbine 1884, record 1887, diesel engine 1893)
  • Political power through Bismarck
  • Stability in Europe (up to Bismarck's departure in 1890)
  • Beginning of the modern age
  • Differentiation from the poeticized world view of romanticism
  • Socially critical (topics such as city life, hunger, children, poverty, prostitution, alcohol addiction)
  • Reality through nature
  • Charles Darwin's theories
  • Natural sciences as a basis
  • humanity
  • tolerance
  • Humans are dependent on milieu and race (determination)

Heimatkunst / Impressionism


  • Mechanization
  • Ecology movement
  • away from the big city, in the direction of the countryside and folklore
  • Criticism of the homeland
  • against capitalism
  • Cult for great personalities like Rembrandt



  • Worldwide imperialism
  • Bismarck resigns in 1890
  • Time of armament and foreign policy tensions
  • First World War (1914-1918)
  • individuality
  • subjectivity
  • self-critical
  • Literature is only committed to itself
  • Frequent use of metaphors, symbols, images, alliterations, assonances, synesthesia



  • First World War (1914-1918)
  • Versailles Treaty (1919)
  • Weimar Republic (1919–1933)
  • Growing suffering of the population
  • urbanization
  • Anonymity of the individual (> ego decay)
  • Counter-movement to naturalism
  • exaggeration
  • World is without morality
  • Negative extremes as themes (war, death, decay, destruction, execution, downfall, insanity, overstimulation) → Depiction of the ugly (aesthetics of the ugly)
  • Clutter and chaos
  • I decay (individual becomes unimportant)
  • Confrontation with the father generation

Avant-garde / Dadaism


Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism (according to Peter Bürger ) understood themselves as avant-garde movements .

  • Direction of protest against all known literary currents
  • Use of chance
  • Breaks in the logic of the text (statements are revoked: e.g. a Dadaist leaflet from 1918 ends with "To be against this manifesto means to be a Dadaist!")
  • Phonetic and letter poems (Phonetic poems: words are broken up until only sounds remain. Letter poem: words are arranged as graphic characters)

Literature of the Weimar Republic


  • the Versailles Treaty
  • Weimar Republic
    • Crisis Years (1919–1923)
    • The Roaring Twenties (1924–1928)
    • Great Depression and Downfall (1929–1933)
  • Reaction to expressionism
  • Show bad conditions through literature
  • No subjectivity, no political opinions
  • Topics: big city, industry, unemployment, depictions of war
  • simple language
  • soberly written
  • should represent life as it is

Literature in the time of National Socialism , exile literature and internal emigration


  • Hitler Seizes Power (January 30, 1933)
  • Book burning (first May 10, 1933)
  • Nuremberg Laws (September 15, 1935)
  • Second World War (1939–1945)
  • Racism + extermination of the Jews
  • Isolation in exile
  • Fight against National Socialism
  • Enlighten the world about Nazis + stir up resistance in Nazi Germany
  • Epic theater (hard break from known theater: distance from the audience to events, grievances are shown, which the audience should interpret) *

Post-war literature / rubble literature

1945–1960 / 1990

  • Establishment of the GDR and FRG (both 1949) → Germany separated
  • Return of exiled authors
  • Coming up with the Nazi era vs. Desire for repression
  • Division of Germany
  • different ways of dealing with the past:
    • in the east, returning authors in exile met with great public interest
    • in the west was ousted

Literature of the FRG


  • Division into
    • Time-critical literature (1950s)
      • Criticism of time often through satire
      • very critical and self-critical
      • current topics:
      • nuclear threat, rapid technological advancement, very rarely about the recent past
    • Politicization of Literature (1960s)

Advanced literature (only in the GDR)


  • Division of Germany, state socialism
  • Building a new state
  • Victory over fascism

Arrival literature (only in the GDR)


  • Liberalization of cultural policy
  • Arrangement of the intellectuals with the dictatorship
  • Christa Wolf
  • Brigitte Reimann

New subjectivity

since 1970

  • 68 movement
  • personal dreams
  • Problems of private life
  • Environmental movement
  • National Socialism
  • 70s movement
  • oppression of women

Postmodern / contemporary literature

since 1980

  • Fall of the Wall (1989)
  • Collapse of the Eastern Bloc
  • End of the cold war
  • artistic and cultural freedom
  • Loss of identity
  • Focus on media and technology
  • Reusing previous ideas and goals to develop new ideas


Web links

Wiktionary: Epoch  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations