The German poet Hans Sachs (1494-1576) made Nuremberg famous in his time as a center of Meistergesang.

Born in Nuremberg, the son of a tailor of the upper middle class, Hans Sachs was apprenticed to a shoemaker in 1508. As a journeyman, he traveled from one German town to another between 1511 and 1516 learning his trade. Simultaneously, he studied Meistergesang in the Singschulen, his principal teacher being Leonhard Nunnenbeck. Meistergesang is the German art of singing original poems to usually original tunes, according to the rules of the pedestrian craft of burgher poets; it was revived in the 19th century in parody form (as sung by Beckmesser in Richard Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger).

In Nuremberg in 1517 Sachs attained the rank of master in the shoemakers' guild and in Meistergesang. He declared himself in favor of Martin Luther in the poem Die wittenbergische Nachtigall ("The Nightingale of Wittenberg") in 1523 and also in prose dialogues.

Sachs produced works in profusion: more than 4,000 Meisterlieder; 208 dramas, according to his own count; 85 Shrovetide plays; and many rhymed orations and other verses. During his lifetime three volumes of his verse appeared, and two more were issued posthumously. Other works remain unpublished in a collection in Zwickau, Saxony. His themes, derived from his reading in anecdotal and farcical literature of the time and from popularized and trivialized hero lore, cover a wide range from classical (Lucretia), biblical (Cain and Abel), and medieval (Siegfried) times to later periods. No matter what the subject or era, the time and locale are always those of Sachs's own Nuremberg; his characters talk like upright burghers of his age.

Sachs's so-called meistersinger dramas, a genre originating with his predecessor Rosenplüth, are merely dramatized dialogues, weak and heavy in the tragic mood, sprightly in the comic. Sachs excelled in the didactic-satiric manner. His best works are his later, exuberant Shrovetide plays, such as Der fahrende suchüler im Paradies (1550; The Itinerant Scholar in Paradise) and Das heisse Eisen (1551; The Hot Iron), and such narrative skits as St. Peter mit der Geis (St. Peter with the Goat), all in rhymed doggerels.

Sachs's satire is good-natured, his humor never unduly coarse. He had a healthy moral instinct and a realistic bent, best employed on familiar ground. His comedies, performed in taverns and halls, though lacking dramatic quality, have influenced folk drama. Eclipsed after his death, Sachs's work was revived and popularized by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in a poem of 1776; and in the opening scene of Faust, Goethe resuscitated Sachs's free doggerels. Sachs is the only German writer of his time whose short, witty, unsophisticated narrative poems and humble, jolly, dramatic Shrovetide skits can hold an audience today.

Further Reading on Hans Sachs

Some of Sachs's writings are in Selections from Hans Sachs, chosen by William M. Calder (1948). His work is discussed in Walter French, Medieval Civilization as Illustrated by the Fastnachtsspiele of Hans Sachs (1925).