The Literature Blog of Weimar Classicism

Musen-Almanach für das Jahr 1796 [Muses’ Almanac for the year 1796], published by Friedrich Schiller.

Printed by Salomo Michaelis, bookseller to the court in Neustrelitz.

 

Blogs can be a great way to share your creative products, whether it’s haiku imitations, photos of your last trip to Mallorca or the latest vegan baking recipes for allergy sufferers. The internet is full of them. Some blogs are short-lived, others go “viral” and win prizes like in Germany the Grimme Online Award. The precursor to these blogs in the 18th century was the almanac. One of the most famous and influential of these journal-like prints was the “Musen-Almanach” [Muses’ Almanac], founded by Friedrich Schiller in 1796.

Since many of us rather read blogs than almanacs today, let’s start with a clarification of the term.

 

There were many almanacs, for example the “Frauenzimmer-Almanach zum Nutzen und Vergnügen für das Jahr 1817” [Women’s almanac for use and pleasure for the year 1817].

What Is an “Almanac”?

The origin of the word almanac is unclear, however, it’s always connected to the Arabic culture and meanings such as “New Year’s gift” or “calendar of the firmament”. In fact, almanacs were originally astrological tables, or charts – plain columns of numbers, in which scientists could look up certain positions of celestial bodies. As such, they were of immense importance during early modern times and the “Almanac for the year 1448” was one of the first printed works ever.

Over time, publishers cleverly expanded their target audience away from a (rather limited) circle of specialist scholars to a broad clientele. They managed to do this by means of a simple trick: they gradually complemented the dry tables with real-life secular events that were of interest to ordinary people, too, such as festivals, important marketplaces and the like. In the 17th century, anecdotes and short stories provided entertainment and almanacs became specialised: there were agricultural and nautical almanacs, diplomatic and literary almanacs just like our Muses’ Almanac.

We can absolutely think of today’s (booming!) art calendars, whose themes range from Miró and Klimt to Henri Cartier-Bresson to cats and bonsai gardens. And regarding whom hardly anyone is interested in the delicately set days of the month. You check them on your mobile anyway, while these “calendars” are a feast for the eyes and changed every twelve months.

There were many almanacs, for example the “Frauenzimmer-Almanach zum Nutzen und Vergnügen für das Jahr 1817” [Women’s almanac for use and pleasure for the year 1817].

Schiller in the Year 1796

By 1796, the publisher of our Muses’ Almanac, Friedrich Schiller, had established for himself a somewhat secure position. Although he had been one of the most important German authors for years already, he had always been low on funds. In 1789, a professorship in history in Jena secured him finally a regular income at the age of thirty.

In addition, Schiller had been a thorn in the side of his colleague Johann Wolfgang Goethe until then. The two couldn’t stand each other: Schiller, who was ten years younger, reminded the well-established Goethe of his own and long-gone time of “Sturm und Drang”; for his part, Schiller envied the older author’s financial success. But that changed in 1794 and the two literature giants established their brotherly friendship, which is the reason why they are standing on numerous pedestals in intimate togetherness today.

The resulting creative explosion led, among other things, to two publications: Die Horen, a literature journal founded in 1795, and the Muses’ Almanac, published by Schiller in the following year.

 

Pirating Is Not Illegal

Unlike today, there was no enforceable intellectual property right at the time of Weimar Classicism. Therefore, literary almanacs were also a means for publishing one’s works as quickly as possible to prevent someone else from making profit from them. Waiting a long time until one had written enough poems to fill an entire book might result in a financial ruin back then. This was even true for almanacs! A sad example was the “Göttinger Musenalmanach”. It was published for the first time in 1770, full to bursting with brilliant poetry – and yet it was already outdated. Engelhard Benjamin Schickert had heard about the project and without further ado he had brought forth a “Leipziger Almanach der deutschen Musen” containing numerous contributions of the Göttingen first edition. And Schickert had even managed to launch his – well, rival product as early as in 1769, one year before the original work was published! Competition was tough.

 

Schiller’s Muses’ Almanac

In 1796, Schiller threw his hat in the ring with his first “Musen-Almanach”. He had it printed by Salomo Michaelis, bookseller to the court in Neustrelitz. When looking at the table of contents, you immediately notice two things: Firstly, Schiller obviously also published many of his own poems in this work. Secondly, despite the pressure of competition he was able to convince renowned colleagues to contribute to his almanac, first and foremost Goethe.

These almanacs were also something like lists of friends, comparable to Facebook or LinkedIn friends today: one could immediately see how well connected someone was within his field. Besides Schiller and Goethe, we can see names like August Wilhelm Schlegel and Johann Gottfried Herder in this red book (some of them additionally wrote under pseudonyms).

Sophie Friederike Mereau (1770-1806) was an extremely successful writer of the Romantic era, also thanks to Schiller’s support. The high price she had to pay for it was a tragic private life.

Among all these male literary heroes, the name of one woman stands out: Sophie Mereau, who later became Mrs Clemens Bretano. Schiller had been supporting the young author for a long time and offered her a new platform by means of his almanac, which contributed to her success as an author.

Oh, and besides the literary content, of course there was an astrological fig leaf as well, which justified the fact that this publication was called an almanac: calendar tables containing the lengths of days, moon phases and feasts of saints.

 

Short and Intense

The Muses’ Almanac was extremely successful and regarded by entire generations as a model for literary almanacs. However, we shouldn’t mistake these almanacs for “literary journals”. At first glance they might seem to be such works. However, journals are usually long-term projects that often outlive their publishers.

In the case of the literary almanacs of Schiller’s time, we should rather think of the already mentioned blogs. Their editors took great joy in putting the content together, they competed with each other about who had the hottest guest authors and what artistic coup they were able to score. By the way, Schiller’s second volume of 1797 was such a coup: in this edition he published “Die Xenien”, caustic satirical poems about the contemporary literary scene which he had written together with Goethe. An absolute beststeller – loved by readers, hated by colleagues!

But as it happens usually to such projects of the heart, whether it be a blog or an almanac – at some point the passion goes away, one moves on to greener pastures. In 1799, Schiller moved back to Weimar where he completed several major works over the course of the following years: “Mary Stuart”, “The Bride of Messina” and “William Tell”. The year 1800 of this extremely productive phase marked the end of the short-term project Muses’ Almanac.

However, just as it’s true for the Beatles, this is also true for Schiller’s almanac: in the short time of its existence, this literary blog avant la lettre inspired a large audience, transported artistic ideas and set new standards. Even in the late 19th century, when Muses’ Almanacs experienced a revival, Schiller’s “Musen-Almanach” remained the prime example.

 

You can find the “Musen-Almanach für das Jahr 1796” on Wikisource.

Even though there was no legally enforceable intellectual property right at the time of Weimar Classicism, an acquaintance of Schiller from Weimar, Friedrich Justin Bertuch, would have certainly liked having such a right. Here you can read why.

Our idea of a typical Swiss person is still strongly influenced by what Friedrich Schiller said about William Tell. But how did the Swabian know that noble people lived in the Swiss mountains?