Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona

title.none: Fuhrmann, Ueberall ist Mittelalter

identifier.other: baj9928.9605.002 96.05.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Fuhrmann, Horst. Ueberall ist Mittelalter. Von der Gegenwart einer vergangenen Zeit. Munich: Beck, 1996. 328 pp.; Illustrations. $39.95. ISBN: ISBN 3406-40518 5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.05.02

Fuhrmann, Horst. Ueberall ist Mittelalter. Von der Gegenwart einer vergangenen Zeit. Munich: Beck, 1996. 328 pp.; Illustrations. $39.95. ISBN: ISBN 3406-40518 5.

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona

Although addressing primarily German readers, this book intends to approach a topic of general interest for all medievalists who are concerned with the status of our discipline and its chances for survival into the next century. It is well known that presently the Middle Ages attract a wide range of people, both within academia and outside. Many exhibitions in Europe and popular movies such as The Name of the Rose have awakened a long forgotten fascination with that past age. In a way we experience a Neoromantic revival, perhaps because we are approaching the next Millennium. What relevance, however, do the Middle Ages have for us in epistemological, scientific, pedagogical terms, if its study is not to be limited to toying with images of the past? How do we justify that we teach the Middle Ages to our students as we are in the midst of the third (fourth?) industrial revolution and seem to live in a world entirely dominated by modernity and technology?

Fuhrmann, who is currently the president of the "Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften," here argues that the Middle Ages are basically still alive in many different forms and shapes and make their presence felt in rituals, ideals, behavioral patterns, ideological conflicts and problems, mentality, and objects. He implies that our modern culture can only be understood in light of the medieval world, both by way of contrasting and comparing the two worlds with each other.

Recently, in a book publication, Heribert Illig (Hat Karl der Grosse je gelebt?, 1994 - Did Charlemagne ever live?) argues that the Middle Ages as we know it today never existed, and that large sections of medieval history were simple fabrications by falsifiers from the eighth century who wanted their ruler--Otto III--to be a new savior at the turn of the Millenium. No serious historian has felt the need to respond to such ridiculous statements, but Fuhrmann offers, in one of his chapters, an interesting discussion of previous attempts of a similar kind. Efforts to discredit our disciplines by outsiders are, at best, curiosities, and yet they force us to reconsider the basis of our own observations and research. In Fuhrmann's study the focus rests not only on individual persons who have tried to "falsify" history or to accuse historians of falsifications, but in particular on the tradition of falsifiers from the Middle Ages until today who might have learned from each other (normally they do not admit their repetition of previous opinions because their objective is to be innovative, revolutionary, and provocative). In other words, he demonstrates that current problems and events can be very similar as those faced in earlier times, or, that life in the late twentieth century requires from us to deal with the same questions as earlier centuries.

A good example for this are the various forms of greeting used today in Germany, both in its ritualistic display and in linguistic terms. Fuhrmann demonstrates that greeting was both similar and dissimilar in the Middle Ages, but that modern forms of greetings have their roots in the past and need to be explained with these origins in mind.

Using a newspaper report about a document falsification which was done for the well-being of a community in Bavaria in the 1970s, Fuhrmann discusses the various examples of falsifications in the Middle Ages. He explores the areas of lies and manipulations carried out both within and outside of the Church and discusses the many examples of made-up documents such as the Donation of Constantine. Here the link to the modern age is rather thin, or too general to prove the point that the Middle Ages still are with us today.

The book is divided into the chapters "Gegenwaertigkeiten" (impact on the present), "Rueckerinnerungen" (reflections backwards), "Abwendungen" (turning back), and "Verwertungen und Verwerfungen" (utilizations and rejections). Whereas the articles discussed above belong to the first section, Fuhrmann subsequently offers a wide range of various historical investigations which have more or less (the emphasis rests on the "less") some bearing on our world of today.

He explores the question what people thought about the German Empire during the Middle Ages, linking it with a fear still present today of a Fourth Reich, particularly a burning issue since the reunification of both Germanies. The bridge which he is trying to build here seems to make some sense, but it is entirely lacking in his article on Emperor Frederick II and his impact on his contemporaries. The same applies to his chapter on the Benedictine women's convent in Quedlinburg in the Northeast of the Harz and its inhabitants. The final section on archeological excavations in the church is interesting, but does not demonstrate to what extent the Middle Ages are a subject matter of great significance for us today.

In the third group of articles we come across investigations of medieval practices, rules, and ideas. First Fuhrmann deals with the ban of usury and the process of its progressive undermining by Christian bankers. Next he examines celibacy and the many problems resulting from it for the clerics; subsequently he presents a study on medals and other insignia as they were used both in Antiquity and then again from the early modern age onwards. During the Middle Ages these worldly signs of honor were hardly ever used because of the feudal and theocratic structure dominating society. Nevertheless, even the knighting of squires and rewards for bravery in chivalric combat served a very similar purpose. Only here do we find an extensive section on the modern developments, specifically on modern medals and their importance, but then these medals would not be considered leftovers from the Middle Ages, instead they should be regarded as symbolic objects newly invented or reinvented after the model of antique medals and the like.

The last article in this section treats medieval attitudes towards death and the fear of dying without the help of a priest's sacraments. In particular, Fuhrmann focuses on the function of saints and other helpers in the case of death, such as Saint Christophorus. The author quickly moves from a study of the saint's role in the Middle Ages to an examination of the purpose of visual representation of saints as vehicles to appeal for their help. We know that the Catholic Church has continued with this cult of the saints until today, but in this context Fuhrmann does not really tell us anything new, instead summarizes the basic information available on this topic, and also illustrates it nicely with many historical examples and photographs.

The best studies are published in the last section. Here the author deals with Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose, analyzing it as regards its historical authenticity and the non-medieval, i.e., non-historical elements included in it. Fuhrmann praises Eco's book as a delightful historical novel, but also ventilates his anger and frustration because of its historical "mistakes" and modern features. The criticism is valuable as such, but entirely misses the literary aspects of this text, especially ignores the positive impact which Eco's text has had on the general audience and its new interest in the Middle Ages. The greatest asset of Eco's novel might well be that it attracted many readers to this period and thus raised the public status of medieval studies at large.

The article on Wilhelm Kammeier (1889-1959) and his highly speculative thesis that the Middle Ages did not exist has paradigmatic significance as similar attempts are made even today (see above). Unfortunately Fuhrmann does not make any efforts to correct these entirely unfounded views, instead writes a biographical sketch and contextualizes Kammeier as a representative of many misled non-academic writers who assume a false scholarly posture.

Ernst H. Kantorowicz was an important historian, but exerted much more influence on North American and French scholars than on his colleagues in Germany--although this is changing currently. Fuhrmann here presents a biographical outline and discusses Kantorowicz' work and its impact on medieval scholarship.

Many of the articles assembled here have appeared in print elsewhere or were originally conference presentations. Fuhrmann proceeds mostly in the vein of an essayist and is not fully concerned with a systematic investigation of his topics. Instead he tries to build connections and to demonstrate the relevance of medieval models of behavior and thinking for our understanding of modern phenomena. At times this effort bears fruit, at times the connections are either too lose or nonexistent. This is not to argue that Fuhrmann's approach is wrong or that his interpretations are false. In fact, the question of what the Middle Ages mean for us today is a burning one.

Some of Fuhrmann's insights will be useful, but in many cases he gets lost in a positivistic assembly of material, either self-evident in its meaning, or too disjointed to support the guiding principle expressed in his title: "Ueberall ist Mittelalter" (The Middle Ages are everywhere). One example for many: In his essay on the concept of the house' and its relationship to the study of modern economy ("Nationaloekonomie") he argues that there are not only etymological, but also conceptual links to the Greek "oikos," the medieval "domus" and to the medieval and early modern university collegium. With such an approach Fuhrmann does not prove much, or simply reiterates what can easily be found in general reference works.

In his introduction the author admits the absence of theory supporting his studies, but refers the reader to Theodor Mommsen and Jacob Burckhardt as his authorities who pointed out that history deals with people, how they acted, thought, and suffered. Next Fuhrmann emphasizes that people behave typical for their time, that is, different from people of other periods. If this is the basic premise of this volume, then why would it be important to trace the survival of the Middle Ages in our modern lives?

There is a considerable scholarly apparatus at the end, but neither quotations nor sources of information are identified specifically. If Fuhrmann were not such a well-versed historian and excellent writer, we could get easily disappointed. The index at the end allows for a quick identification of individual topics, names, and aspects, but overall the reader will not profit enough from this pleasantly prepared publication as the title insinuates.