The Medieval Review 11.02.09

Gibbs, Marion and Winder McConnell, trans. Thomasin von Zirclaria: Der Welsche Gast (The Italian Guest). Medieval German Texts in Bilingual Editions, v. 4. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2009. Pp. 248. . $15 ISBN 978-1-58044-145-2.

Reviewed by:

David F. Johnson
Florida State University

This volume comprises the first complete translation into English of the thirteenth-century didactic treatise in rhyming verse known as Der Welsche Gast. The translation itself is preceded by a very thorough and informative introduction to the poem, which, in some thirty pages, covers a wide range of subjects related to this author and his one known work. The translators also include a select bibliography and over twenty pages of explanatory notes at the end of the volume.

Written ca. 1216 by an Italian cleric by the name of Thomasin von Zirclaria, Der Welsche Gast is a long, earnest treatise on etiquette and ethics aimed ostensibly at members of the court, both young and old, for whom it seeks to provide advice on how to adhere to a more proper way of life, "notably more in accordance with the overall purpose of God" (29). As the translators note, citing Nigel Harris, the work is a "monumental moral compendium" (3). An erudite man, well versed in the Bible and theology, among other subjects, Thomasin sets his sights on what he believes to to be the deplorable state of both lay and religious nobility in Germany of his day. In this poem (as far as we know, his only surviving work), Thomasin ignores the more usual aim of much medieval courtly literature to both teach and entertain, instead "dispens[ing] with any narrative framework which could possibly divert his audience's attention from the moral lesson at hand" (3). Thomasin divides his treatise into ten books, which he precedes with an extensive introduction that includes a prose synopsis of each book. The translators follow suit to some extent in their introduction, as pp. 7-13 comprise a summary of the contents and themes of each of the books in Thomasin's work.

Characterised in all frankness by the translators as a work that falls short of brilliance ("It is not a work of great literary merit, nor does it set out to be" [28]; "Thomasin is no master of style, and no one knows it better than he" [29]), Der Welsche Gast was nevertheless a popular work in its day, if the number of manuscripts in which it survives is any indication. Furthermore, most of these manuscripts were "prolifically illustrated," and these illustrations served to underscore the didactic functionality of the text. While only two illustrations of the many extant in the manuscripts are included in this edition, a URL to a digitized version of the Heidelberg manuscript is provided in "A Note from the Editor," who quite rightly points out that readers will want to avail themselves of the opportunity to view them online. The Editor remarks further "to be aware of this limitation is extremely important" (viii), and when the present reviewer tested the URL (http://digi.ub.uni-, it worked at the time of writing as promised. The inclusion of this extended series of illustrations, together with the prose summary of the contents of this long poem, render Der Welsche Gast unique among other medieval German literary artifacts of its day.

Again, the poem is a compedious work, consisting of 14,742 verses, but in their section dealing with editorial policy the translators explain that they have based their text on Heinrich Rückert's edition of 1852, which counts 14,752 lines of verse. Because they have not provided their own edition of the text, they have opted to retain the incorrect numbering (as did the most recent editor of the work, Disanto 2002) to accommodate readers who may wish to compare their translation to the original. Further information about the extant manuscripts and their relative merits is provided in this portion of the Introduction, as well.

Particularly elucidating is the translators' discussion of their choices in rendering certain key abstract terms encountered in Thomasin's text. Many of these are nearly impossible to translate into English using one word (êre, list, sin, bescheidenheit, erge, zuht, muot, reht, tugent, saelde, mâze and staete are only some of the examples listed and discussed in this part of the Introduction, which runs to some 14 pages), and this section prepares the reader well for a reading of Thomasin's text, but would also prove extremely useful in conjunction with a comparison of the translation with the original. In fact, I would single out this part of the Introduction for particular praise, as it would not be going too far to claim that it could and should serve as a model for other similar translation projects. Gibbs and McConnell lay out their translation policy clearly: their aim was to provide a readable English text in prose, but without such extensive "improvements upon" the original that the reader is not aware of some of the original's stylistic qualities (repetition, formulaic language, etc). True "augmentations" (editorial corrections and other additions) are clearly indicated in the text by means of square brackets. I can attest to the fact that Gibbs and McConnell have succeeded admiraly in their stated aims, as the translation is extremely readable and smooth, while at the same time it does nothing to obsure Thomasin's own voice and style.

And this leads me to my only quibble with the book. I do not wish to be mistaken for the 'malevolent man' whom Thomasin identifies in the preface to his work ("A malevolent man is more inclined to look at a good piece of writing closely so that he can reject it than on account of its message" [57]). I would hasten to observe that in the larger scheme of things it is only a quibble, and in fact it is not aimed at the authors of this volume, but rather the General Editor or Editorial board of the series. In the "Note from the Editor" we are told that this volume departs from all others in the series by failing to print the original text on facing pages. The reasons given are two: (1) the editorial board did not wish to abridge the text in order to include an edition of the original, which they claim would have necessitated breaking it up into two volumes, in their eyes an "impractical and cumbersome solution," and (2), revising the already far-advanced translation to reconcile it with the line count and subdivisions of the original would have taken too long and prevented the timely publication of an excellent translation in an accessible format, making this important and unjustly neglected work available to an interdisciplinary audience for the first time" (vii). That the work would necessarily have had to be abridged or published in two volumes strikes this reviewer as a questionable assertion. This volume weighs in at a little over 250 pages; including a facing-page edition might double that, and even if it amounted to significantly more, other volumes produced by Medieval Institute Publications and sponsored by TEAMS go well beyond the five hundred or so pages this might have required. [1] And what could be more cumbersome and impractical for the reader whose (research) library does not possess the 1852 edition of the text or its 1965 reprint, than to have to purchase it separately or order it via ILL? It is precisely because this poem is important, unjustly neglected and presented here for the first time in English translation that this reviewer regards this editorial decision not to include a facing-page edition as a lamentably missed opportunity.

But I don't wish to end this review on a negative note. The translators have done an exemplary job, both in introducing their text and its author and in providing us with a lucid, intelligent and accessible translation of a lesser-known work from 13th-century Germany. It will be of interest to both specialists and non- specialists, for it provides us with a fascinating window into the mind and morals of a man who was clearly familiar with the courtly life of his age, and who, despite taking little pleasure in writing the poem (29), felt compelled to share his views on the social and moral shortcomings of his own society for the benefit of young nobility and, ultimately, a larger audience. Marion Gibbs and Winder McConnell have done the field a great service by helping to expand that audience still further with this English translation on Thomasin von Zirclaria's work.


[1] Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren's Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (TEAMS Middle English Series, Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997) counts some 723 pages, whereas A.V.C. Schmidt's recently published second volume of his parallel edition of Piers Plowman (William Langland Piers Plowman: A Parallel-Text Edition of the A, B, C and Z Versions, Volume II: Introduction, Textual Notes, Commentary, Bibliography and Indexical Glossary, Kalamazoo, Medieval Institute Publications, 2008) weighs in at 948 pages, to name just two examples.