Albrecht Classen

title.none: Dying: Men, Nature, and Representation (Classen)

identifier.other: baj9928.0003.002 00.03.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: du guoter tot,. Sterben im Mittelalter: Ideal und Realitaet. Akten der Akademie Friesach "Stadt und Kultur im Mittelalter" Friesach (Kaernten), September 19-23 1994. Schriftenreihe der Akademie Friesach, 3. Klagenfurt: Wieser Verlag, 1998. Pp. vii, 379. DM 54.50. ISBN: 3-851-29269-3. Spindler, Konrad, ed. Mensch und Natur im mittelalterlichen Europa. Archaeologische, historische und naturwissenschaftliche Befunde. Akten der Akademie Friesach "Stadt und Kultur im Mittelalter" Friesach (Kaernten), September 1-5, 1997. Schriftenreihe der Akademie Friesach, 4. Klagenfurt: Wieser Verlag, 1998. Pp. vi, 363. DM 54.50. ISBN: 3-851-29268-5. Vavra, Elisabeth, ed. Bild und Abbild vom Menschen im Mittelalter. Akten der Akademie Friesach "Stadt und Kultur im Mittelalter" Friesach (Kaernten). September 9-13, 1998. Schriftenreihe der Akademie Friesach, 6. Klagenfurt: Wieser Verlag, 1999. Pp. vi, 345. DM 54. ISBN: 3-851-29305-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.03.02

du guoter tot,. Sterben im Mittelalter: Ideal und Realitaet. Akten der Akademie Friesach "Stadt und Kultur im Mittelalter" Friesach (Kaernten), September 19-23 1994. Schriftenreihe der Akademie Friesach, 3. Klagenfurt: Wieser Verlag, 1998. Pp. vii, 379. DM 54.50. ISBN: 3-851-29269-3.

Spindler, Konrad, ed. Mensch und Natur im mittelalterlichen Europa. Archaeologische, historische und naturwissenschaftliche Befunde. Akten der Akademie Friesach "Stadt und Kultur im Mittelalter" Friesach (Kaernten), September 1-5, 1997. Schriftenreihe der Akademie Friesach, 4. Klagenfurt: Wieser Verlag, 1998. Pp. vi, 363. DM 54.50. ISBN: 3-851-29268-5.

Vavra, Elisabeth, ed. Bild und Abbild vom Menschen im Mittelalter. Akten der Akademie Friesach "Stadt und Kultur im Mittelalter" Friesach (Kaernten). September 9-13, 1998. Schriftenreihe der Akademie Friesach, 6. Klagenfurt: Wieser Verlag, 1999. Pp. vi, 345. DM 54. ISBN: 3-851-29305-3.

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

Friesach is the oldest medieval town in Carinthia, Austria, with a marvelously preserved center, city wall, and castle hovering above the city. Since 1990 the Institut fuer Geschichte (Department of History) at the University of Klagenfurt together with the city of Friesach has organized annual week-long conferences on various topics related to the Middle Ages. The contributing scholars mostly come from German-speaking countries, but occasionally colleagues from other countries have also been invited. Sponsored by the city of Friesach, the University of Klagenfurt, the University of Innsbruck, the State of Carinthia, the Kaerntner Sparkasse, and the Federal Austrian Ministry for Science and Transportation, the Akademie Friesach has been able to produce first-rate conference proceedings, some of which will be reviewed here. All three volumes address broad topics and rely on an interdisciplinary approach, hence prove to be of great interest for all medievalists.


The topic of death and dying has attracted much scholarly interest in the last years, and the contributors to the volume du guoter tot. Sterben im Mittelalter--Ideal und Realitaet illustrate well with the choice of their materials and themes why the historical approach to death and dying can be so fascinating. On the one hand the process of dying has no historical limits, it takes place every day everywhere all over the world. All life is bound to pass away one day. Nevertheless, the perception of death and the ritual involved in dying have definitely undergone dramatic cultural-historical, religious, philosophical, and aesthetic changes throughout the centuries. In a slight modification of the well-known phrase one might say: show me how you handle death in all its ramifications, and I'll tell you who you are. In this vein, the contributors to the volume demonstrate that the history of death and dying provides much valuable information about medieval mentality. Hence, in the first section the authors examine the tension between the ideal and reality of the "ars moriendi." The second section is focused on "Totentanz" or the "Dance of death," followed by a section dealing with attitudes toward impending death, and finally a section on popular piety and its cultural realization.

As is well known, the medieval church strongly advocated the "ars moriendi" and convinced the laity to aspire for this ideal as well. Gerhard B. Winkler introduces the volume with a survey of the "ars moriendi" insofar as he presents several examples of popular piety, discusses the history of the church dogma from 1311 to 1512 regarding the soul, purgatory, and indulgence, then turns to the liturgy of dying, and concludes with a few references to sermons and other practices by the church to help those dying and the suffering survivors. Ute Monika Schwob uses a number of heretofore hardly ever consulted liturgical and literary examples from the diocese of Brixen, South Tyrol, to illustrate how the fear of the sudden and unexpected death influenced people's minds in the late Middle Ages. On the basis of valuable eye-witness source material Gerold Hayer examines the death of Duke Albrecht VI of Austria as described by his servant and porter Hans Hirschmann. Although the latter presented a very subjective report, this document offers a first-hand account and thus is of great authentic value. Frank Rexroth discusses the emerging criminal code in London pertaining to violent crimes, such as murder, between 1276 and 1340, which eventually led to a remarkable distinction between manslaughter and murder.

In the second section, Renate Hausner contributed two articles, the first dealing with the very popular but little studied Metnitzer Totentanzspiel from Metnitz near Friesach, a modern version of the medieval genre of the dance of death, the second concerned with the Fuessener Totentanz by Richard Bletschacher from 1992. Although Hausner relates both texts to their medieval predecessors and explores the characteristics of the medieval genre, she is primarily concerned with the modern texts. Janez Hoefler, on the other hand, surveys pictorial representations of the dance of death in the eastern region of the Alps and the Adriatic Sea. Hans Gerold Kugler offers various thoughts on the relationship between death and food, or rather the cook, but his article misses a specific thesis and only represents a compilation of various observations of historical, cultural, and literary relevance related to death and food. Bettina Spoerri traces the historical function of the mirror in dances of death from 1400 to the middle of the eighteenth century and accompanies her article with a number of pertinent illustrations.

In the following section Brigitte Pohl-Resl discusses various examples of how people in the late Middle Ages who approached death cared for the survivors through their wills. Women especially faced many problems because they could lose the control of the family inheritance. But the vast number of wills still available today does not allow Pohl-Resl to draw very specific conclusions, instead she only presents a confusing array of stipulations and statements by the dying persons. She expresses astonishment that these wills hardly indicate any of the love and emotional bonds between the dead person and the survivors, but this type of text has never lent itself for this area of human relations. Reiner Soerries investigates how dying people in the late Middle Ages tried to protect their good name after their death by means of epitaphs on the tombstones, whereas Helga Rist makes a similar effort by focusing on liturgical aspects such as church masses paid for by the dying persons, their donations to the church, and pilgrimages to be carried out on their behalf before their death.

The most interesting aspect dealt with in this volume proves to be the question how usurers were treated by the church and what was expected from them in the afterlife. Markus J. Wenninger presents a fascinating overview of the ever-increasing need for usury as a means to gain financial credits and hence the steady increase in tolerance toward and acceptance of usury even within the context of the church. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries many usurers, in the face of impending death, still made a serious attempt to pay back the interest which they had gained throughout their lives to their former debtors or, if these could not be found, to the church. But in the following centuries the money business lost much of its previous negative character, was not even considered a sin any more, and hence allowed bankers and other traffickers in money to face death without many compunctions.

Even though the medieval peasant class has remained mostly mute, Peter Dinzelbacher demonstrates that there are, after all, a number of visionary sources which inform us quite well how medieval peasants thought about death and the afterlife. Here he discusses the visions by Gottschalk, Agnes Blannbekin, and Heinrich Buschmann, but there were probably more, and Dinzelbacher's suggestion deserves to be pursued further (see also Aaron Gurevich, Medieval Popular Culture 1988). Perceptions of the afterlife through visionary accounts were also reported by medieval chroniclers, clerics, and priests, as Johannes Grabmayer argues. However, this phenomenon has been studied many times before, and this article does not present any new information.

Norbert Stefenelli examines how people in the Middle Ages dealt with corpses both in concrete, medical terms and in the visual arts and literature. This aspect is studied further by Martin Illi who discusses funeral rites and religious attitudes regarding sinners and those who had committed suicides. Brigitte Spreitzer studies the intricate relationship between death, woman, and the devil, based on deep-seated, preconceived notions, misogynistic stereotypes, and tropes. Finally J. Friedrich Battenberg investigates cases of murder in late-medieval Germany and the political-religious reactions avoiding criminal persecution in order to safeguard the well-being of the political system and make possible the repentance of the perpetrators. Whereas increasingly the fire and the sword were used to put to death alleged heretics and witches, noble criminals were allowed a penance and were, after a number of years, reintegrated into their society. Only with the arrival of the early-modern state with its rigid laws and penal codes, did this practice disappear and made room for the universal criminal system.


The contributors to Mensch und Natur im mittelalterlichen Europa make a serious attempt to combine historical with archeological and scientific research. After an introductory survey article regarding the level of technical, scientific, and philosophical knowledge around the year 1000 by Johannes Grabmeyer, the first section deals with the use of medieval technology in man's struggle against the violent forces of nature. The subsequent chapter focuses on the emergence of cultivated landscapes carved out of the wilderness, followed by a chapter on the interaction between nature and man on a daily basis.

In detail, Guenther Hoedl introduces the first chapter with a brief overview of the enormous accomplishments by Charlemagne. This is followed by a fascinating, very detailed and solidly researched study by Konrad Spindler on the alleged construction of a channel, the "Fossatum magnum," on behalf of Charlemagne. This channel, only marginally discussed in the contemporary sources and mostly discarded as a historical myth today, was supposed to have connected the Danube with the Main, hence allowed the continuous shipping from the Rhine down to the Black Sea. John Haywood, in his Dark Age Naval Power (1991) had examined the same project, but believed, on the basis of some of the written sources, that the endeavor was quickly abandoned because of technical difficulties. Reexamining both the entire body of chronicle writings and the archeological research carried out in that region, also including an investigation of local names and present geographical features, Spindler presents an impressive amount of convincing arguments which support the claim that the channel was already begun in 792 and then completed one year later. Eilhart's comment in his chronicle that the project failed needs to be carefully interpreted. Spindler points out that this chronicle was composed only after Charlemagne's death and reflected Louis the Pious' negative attitude toward his father. Moreover, the channel was probably in use only for a few years, and once its military purpose (war against the Avars) had come to an end, the maintenance soon declined, leaving the impression that the original construction had failed. Most other chronicles composed in later years dealing with this period stress, however, that Charlemagne had succeeded in his endeavor. Spindler also incorporates recent results of soil drillings and presents sufficient evidence of surface studies in that region as to reject Eilhart's claim and give the Emperor full credit for his work.

Detlev Ellmers traces the historical development of medieval shipbuilding, an area in the history of technology where the Europeans quickly achieved the most sophisticated results worldwide. He discusses specific building technologies and outlines the historical process of how the changes came about. His claim that the many individual steps in improving shipbuilding throughout the centuries made it impossible for the Europeans eventually to achieve world dominance can be fully supported, particularly if we consider the development far into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Closely related to Ellmer's topic, Dirk Meier provides a brief history of dam building at the coast of modern-day Schleswig-Holstein, which was a constant battle against the sea, sometimes leading to great successes, sometimes resulting in grave defeats. Both Ellmers and Meier attempt to cover a huge stretch of medieval history in the short space of an article. This causes a number of problems which they only manage to control by concentrating on exemplary cases and by offering an extensive bibliography on their topics.

Uta Lindgren treats the history of technological inventions in the Middle Ages and observes three major types possible at that time: 1. imitation of nature; 2. application of observations drawn from scientific research of nature and their improvement; 3. changes based on developments throughout time, changes, which Ellmers also points out in his survey of shipbuilding in medieval Europe. Hans-Juergen Nitz discusses the colonization of swampy areas and moors in north west Germany. Werner Meyer surveys the colonization and agricultural use of the alpine regions of medieval Switzerland which were the result of economic pressures. Subsequently, Katarina Predovnik (Ljubljana, Slovenia) examines the historical and economic development of the region controlled by the Carthusian monastery in the region of Seitz in Slovak Styria, highlighting the many difficulties which the monks faced in the mountainous area to establish agriculture. Carlos Barros (Santiago de Compostela) describes the changes in man's attitude to and interaction with nature from the early to the late Middle Ages. Whereas the many areas touched upon here do not receive all the required attention, Barros' concept of the "Vermenschlichung" or "humanization" of nature, leading to a gradual but steady disappearance of pristine and untouched landscapes proves to be quite useful. Hansjoerg Kuester investigates how medieval cities coped with very mundane and pragmatic aspects such as water and food supplies, use of wood, treatment of feces and waste waters. Finally, Karl Brunner offers some theoretical concepts regarding man's relationship with nature throughout the Middle Ages, focusing on mental history, the evidence provided by literary sources, and interdisciplinary research. At the end Renate Jernej provides a detailed summary of the results from an archeological dig in Friesach, the location of the conference.


In Bild und Abbild vom Menschen im Mittelalter the focus rests on the question of how people in the Middle Ages were depicted, what media were available to represent human life and individual personalities, and how people viewed their world. The volume is divided into four sections. The first deals with the medieval debate about the appropriateness of pictorial visualization of the divine within the church (Vavra) and the development of visual concepts in the medieval arts here studied in light of "radical constructivism" (S. Mattl). Vavra offers an excellent overview of the various voices within the medieval church arguing for pictures both pro and con as representations of the divine teachings expressed in the Bible. Mattl, on the other hand, attempts to combine concepts derived from modern physiological research of sensory perception with the emergence of realistic painting at the end of the Middle Ages.

In the second section Peter Dinzelbacher examines the violent treatment (self-torture) of the human body by mystics and clerics who considered their flesh as a prison of their soul. Markus Mueller turns to the topic of the "Minneburg" (castle of courtly love) and its depiction in carvings, drawings, and miniatures. The following section offers intriguing insights in medieval anthropology, as the authors examine how medieval people viewed foreigners and the foreign world. Goetz Pochat traces the treatment of the foreign in medieval art from antiquity to the late Middle Ages, but also includes many references to the relevant travel literature and cartography.

Dione Fluehler-Kreis concentrates on the depiction of Blacks in the Middle Ages, beginning with the martyrdom of Bishop Eucher of Lyons (450 C.E.) and taking us to the early sixteenth century when the first truly objective depictions of black people were created by Albrecht Duerer. Michael Toch makes an attempt to come to terms with how medieval Jews portrayed themselves and created forms of self-representation. The most important example is a living room, discovered in 1996 in a house "Zum Brunnenhof" in Zurich owned by the Jewish family headed by Minna, widow of Menachem, and run by her two sons Moses and Mordechai. In this room a large number of frescoes were painted, among them many with courtly scenes, some of which were in the tradition of the Neidhart songs (not "Neidhart von Reuental"!) and then a long row of coats of arms. Toch suggests that this room with its extensive visual program served as a representational space where the family received its noble debtors and provided them with the appropriate artistic atmosphere. At the same time this room indicates the extent to which medieval Jews might have adapted their own life style to that of their Christian environment. This can also be observed with regard to contemporary literature (see my article "Juedisch-deutsche Literatur des Mittelalters und der Fruehneuzeit..." Amsterdamer Beitraege zur aelteren Germanistik 50 [1998]: 185-207), although Toch's naive assumption that the courtly love poet Suesskind von Trimberg can be identified as a Jew (183) now has to be rejected as untenable.

Wolfgang Schild examines the way how late-medieval people viewed and treated witches, but although some of the cases discussed here offer interesting insights, this article does not go beyond a traditional survey of the entire topic and reiterates that the witch hunters had no proof in their hands and only used torture and their own fantasy to convict their poor victims. To Schild's credit, however, the article offers an excellent scholarly apparatus. Elmar Locher explores the meaning of the early-modern debate about monstrous creatures and their cultural significance. Angelika Gross reflects upon the depiction of fools and insane people in the Middle Ages, followed by Wolfgang Schild's brief treatment of medieval law books and their illustration program. Guenther Hoedl surveys visual portraits of medieval German rulers from the time of Louis the Pious to Henry IV. Finally, Andreas Besold traces the emergence of artists' portraits in the region of the eastern Alps and the Adriatic Sea. Among them the portrait of Thomas of Villach in St. Paul im Lavanttal, Stiftskirche, from 1493 represents an extraordinarily realistic portrait and might be considered a harbinger of the Renaissance in that region.

All of these conference proceedings impress through their interdisciplinary approaches and their rich illustrations. A critical reader will notice, however, that at times the articles are either largely based on previous publications by the individual contributors, or represent more of a survey than original research. Nevertheless, all three volumes provide a wealth of information on broad and yet very relevant topics. I have not reviewed volume five of this series (Ich--Ulrich von Liechtenstein. Literatur und Politik im Mittelalter, ed. Franz Viktor Spechtler and Barbara Meier, eds., 1999) because of my own contribution to it. I would hope, however, that the readers of this volume will have a similarly positive impression in comparison with those volumes reviewed here.