Albrecht Classen

title.none: Kolmer, ed., Der Tod des Mächtigen (Classen)

identifier.other: baj9928.9707.004 97.07.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Lothar Kolmer, ed. Der Tod des Mächtigen. Kult und Kultur des Todes spätmittelalterlicher Herrscher. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1997. Pp. 373. ISBN: ISBN 3-506-74782-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.07.04

Lothar Kolmer, ed. Der Tod des Mächtigen. Kult und Kultur des Todes spätmittelalterlicher Herrscher. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1997. Pp. 373. ISBN: ISBN 3-506-74782-7.

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

Whereas the general phenomenon of death in the Middle Ages has often been the subject of specialized studies, both in the form of articles and monographs (N. Ohler, 1990, A. Borst, 1993, P. Dinzelbacher, 1993), the particular relevance of funeral rites, public preparations for the death on the part of the political rulers, the visual depiction of the deceased person etc., has heretofore not been adequately studied. The present volume which consists of the papers presented at a symposium held at the University of Salzburg in November 1993, attempts to address this desideratum and offers a wide range of approaches for the examination of how the powerful and mighty in the Middle Ages dealt with death, how they prepared themselves for death, and how they were entombed. In many respects this volume establishes a highly valuable database with an enormous breadth of detailed information, but it is obvious that the time is not yet ripe for comprehensive interpretations and conclusions. This explains to some extent the somewhat positivistic and fragmentary appearance of most of the contributions.

In his introduction Lothar Kolmer outlines the current state of research and formulates the relevant questions which still await their investigations. Among other controversial aspects he points out that donations to the Church were not always intended for the rescue of the soul, but often also served as means to regain physical health--as is the case still today. In other words, many of the objects connected with the death ritual quite regularly functioned as pseudo medical instruments to prevent death. On the other hand, once a powerful aristocrat had died, the funeral rituals easily assumed enormous dimensions for political and spiritual purposes. Those, however, who had not prepared themselves for their death, that is, had no mausoleum or the like, had, for instance, not determined the site for their burial in time, etc., "suffered" a "bad death," whereas the others enjoyed a "good death." Death and "memoria" are closely related and need to be considered in any case concerning the passing away of a powerful ruler.

Peter Dinzelbacher offers an extensive survey of the presence of death in late-medieval mentality, tracing the development of pictorial and sculptural presentation of death from being simply the gateway to the other life (Early Middle Ages) to the dramatic personification in its skeletal form (Late Middle Ages). He argues that since around 1200 the fear of the Otherworld was refocused on the actual hour of death with all its pain and suffering. The testimony of Dante's Divina Commedia, however, seems to stand in contrast to his conclusions. Nevertheless, Dinzelbacher is absolutely correct in his observation that Death assumed, at least since the fourteenth century, the figure of lord over life and death. The author refers to a vast amount of pictorial and literary evidence and thus creates a remarkably insightful outline of medieval mentality with regard to death.

The following articles deal with concrete cases of how high- ranking personalities approached and experienced death and how posterity preserved their memory. Lothar Kolmer examines cases of bishops who either passed away in full preparation of the coming death thus aspiring to enjoy a "good death" or who were taken by surprise and consequently experienced a "bad death" because the angels fighting for the soul were not adequately summoned. In particular, Kolmer studies the ars moriendi and its essential role for the ars vivendi.

Francesco Santi, in his article composed in Italian, sharply profiles the significant role which the court doctor and councillor Arnaldo da Villanova (1284-1311) played for King Frederick III of Aragon in his preparation for his death, primarily documented through his last will which served as a strategic political instrument to reassure the public and the Church of Frederick's strong affiliation with that institution.

Using the historical documents available from the Bohemian area, Marie Blahova describes the mourning ceremonies for the late-medieval Bohemian kings which quickly assumed pompous public dimensions. Aron Petneki looks at the same procedures as they were practiced in the case of the burial of the Hungarian King Matthew Corvinus (1490).

The best form of death which could occur for a ruler was that in which the actual death was announced long time ahead through miraculous signs. This was the case for the German Emperor Frederick III (d. 1493), but Michael Lipburger actually discusses primarily the severe medical problems and the amputation of Frederick's leg preceding his death which occurred a couple of months later. He also recounts the detailed procedures carried out during the burial, but never really addresses the topic of his paper--the portentous events in nature preceding the death. Edgar Hertlein examines Frederick III's tomb, placing its architectural design in its medieval tradition reaching as far back as the eighth century.

The death of Emperor Frederick III's wife, Leonore of Portugal was reported by several scribes whose accounts Albert Müller examines in light of the question whether the death of a woman met with a different response than the death of a man. But Mueller focuses more on Leonore's mistreatment at the hands of her husband than on her death and only returns to his topic when he examines Leonore's tomb sculpture where she is shown as a young virgin with long, wavy hair, perhaps as a symbol of her sanctity and parallel rank to that of the Virgin Mary. No clear conclusions are offered, and the final argument itself is highly diffuse, although the sculpture begs for a very close scrutiny of its ideological message.

Many of the following articles focus on similar aspects in different cases without producing significantly different results, a problem which also pertains somewhat to the articles in the first part. Peter Schmid deals with the burial of Emperor Maximilian I; Franz Tinnefeld examines burial rites for late-medieval Byzantian rulers; Friedrich Edelmayer looks at the funeral ceremonies for Ferdinand the Catholic (1516); Walter Ziegler studies the political impact of the death of the Bavarian rulers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; Sergio Bertelli presents a series of case studies of violence which tended to erupt after a ruler's death as a result of the interregnum both during the European Middle Ages and at other times and cultures as reported from non-European peoples.

Walter Koch presents a useful research report of epigraphic studies in France, England and Germany pertaining to the medieval tomb inscriptions. Ariel Guiance investigates the ideological impact of the death of a royal ruler in medieval Castile; Rudolf J. Meyer continues with an analysis of how the German Emperor Sigismund prepared his own death in 1437 and transformed, thinking of posterity, his burial to a political spectacle. Franz Fuchs returns to the death of Emperor Frederick III, here, however, highlighting the reaction of the city of Nuremberg and its efforts to provide him with an honorable burial.

Beatrix Bastl analyzes the burial formulas for members of the nobility as documents to reconnect themselves with their families and thus--via memoria--with their previous position in this world. Günther Schulz-Bourmer finally discusses, once more, the visual representation of death, the relevance of the hour of death, and the exequiae in honor of the deceased.

Undoubtedly, the contributors have assembled a vast amount of important historical, art historical, and mental-historical evidence pertaining to the passing away of a ruler. The cultural and political significance of the burial ceremonies and the considerable impact of tombs with their depiction of the deceased persons are undeniable. At the same time many articles basically treat the same material and come to parallel conclusions. The research literature is often quoted in a much too abbreviated form, and there is no summary bibliography. An index for names and subjects would have been desirable. Sergio Bertelli's article, composed in a very faulty English instead of his native Italian, indicates that the editor did not pay close enough attention to such details. It proves to be rather irritating that in many cases the authors neglected to systematically and logically follow their own arguments. The inclusion of illustrations, on the other hand, is very welcome, and so the overall effort to examine a certainly important but heretofore somewhat ignored topic, though it needs to be stressed that it is not an altogether completely new subject matter, as the editor and several contributors point out themselves.