John M. Clifton-Everest

title.none: Warner, Ottonian Germany (John M. Clifton-Everest)

identifier.other: baj9928.0401.026 04.01.26

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John M. Clifton-Everest, University of Sydney,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Thietmar of Merseburg. Warner, David A., ed. Ottonian Germany: The Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg. Medieval Sources. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2001. Pp. xi, 410. $74.95. ISBN: $32.000-7190-4925-3 0-7190-4926-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.01.26

Thietmar of Merseburg. Warner, David A., ed. Ottonian Germany: The Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg. Medieval Sources. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2001. Pp. xi, 410. $74.95. ISBN: $32.000-7190-4925-3 0-7190-4926-1.

Reviewed by:

John M. Clifton-Everest
University of Sydney

Warner's workmanlike translation of Thietmar's chronicle, the first complete one in English, will be welcomed with enthusiasm by all interested in the Ottonian period of German history. It well deserves their enthusiasm. Thietmar's large work, composed in the early years of the eleventh century, is probably the most valuable single source for German history of the preceding century, due largely to its well-positioned and well-informed author. A scion of the comital houses of Walbeck and Stade, Thietmar was connected on his mother's side in particular to the leading Saxon nobility of the time; as Warner neatly puts it in his Introduction: "No more than a few degrees of separation stood between Thietmar and virtually anybody who mattered in his world." And though not one of the "movers and shakers" of that world, as bishop of Merseburg from 1009 to 1018 Thietmar stood close to and doubtless rendered counsel for many of the decisions that governed it. The Chronicon, intended in good part to promote the interests of his bishopric which was still suffering the consequences of abolition under Otto II and subsequent restoration under Heinrich II, methodically covers the Royal and Imperial rule of five Liudolfinger, from Heinrich I, through the three Otto's to Heinrich II, in whose time Thietmar died. It was from this illustrious family that the author could seek patronage and support to restore the fortunes of his see. More important perhaps than the written sources on which he drew for his narration was the personal testimony to which he had easy access. Many of those who had witnessed or participated in the major events of this whole era were still alive and accessible to him; it should be remembered that the death of Otto I occurred only two years before Thietmar's birth. With this first-hand or at the worst second-hand knowledge of all the major events involved, he provided a chronicle of unusual dependability for its time. Where he views matters with a jaundiced or partisan eye, it is only too apparent: he is obsequious in his praise, ferocious in his condemnation, and barefaced about his prejudices. His account of Otto III's journey to Duke Boleslav Chrobry of Poland and the establishment of an archiepiscopacy at Gniezno may serve as a case in point. What historians have seen as a signal event in the Ottonian policy of Renovatio was for Thietmar a wholly atrocious error of the Emperor's judgment; yet his account gives precious detail of the event, otherwise unknown.

To have all this material now readily available in English, with the kind of detailed index of names and places, genealogical trees, and maps that are essential to make a working tool of it, constitutes a real benefit to a historian struggling with the many unsolved puzzles of a pivotal era. Warner's well-written Introduction to Thietmar's work does it as much justice as is possible without exceeding all reasonable constraints of size. The translator readily admits that a reader bringing different interests to bear on Thietmar's richly varied work might want to see different emphases. Nonetheless, he covers not merely the background to the author himself and to the imperial political structures and problems of the time, but also the important topic of the role of women in the events Thietmar chronicles. Personages such as Adelheid, wife of Otto the Great, and her daughter-in-law Theophanu, mother of and regent for Otto III, are to be numbered after all among the most powerful influences of the time.

And there is yet another side to Thietmar's chronicle opened to scrutiny by this translation, one meriting the attention of historians of another sort and relatively unexplored. For Thietmar, his primary intentions notwithstanding, seems to have been deeply bitten by the writer's bug, and he records in consequence a host of trivial incidents and personal thoughts that have scant use for a student of imperial politics or the ecclesiastical reform-movement of the time. In a manner that seems sometimes almost Pepysian, he wears his heart on his sleeve, providing us with a unique perspective on the mind of secular churchman from a thousand years ago. No other German source from that time portrays the personality of its author as clearly as this. If his vehement prejudices and gullibility with regard to divine wonders and spiritual manifestations are typical of his time, then they are perhaps all the more of interest. One might wish that a less pedestrian mind, even a more likeable character, had opened this window on his mind; the historian of politics or ecclesiology might earnestly desire a similar insight into one of the deeper intellects involved--into the pious sensitivity of Adalbert of Prague perhaps, or even the youthful idealism of Otto III. But Thietmar, though he seems a mediocrity by comparison, is at least characteristic of the pragmatic clerics of his age. The reader may squirm in embarrassment at his extreme self-deprecation: "In me, however, you will see a tiny little man whose jaw and left side of the face are deformed by an ulcer which erupted there and continues to swell. The nose, broken in childhood, gives me a laughable appearance. Of all that I would regret nothing, if only my inner character were bright. Now, I am a wretch, too prone to anger and resistant to virtue, envious, derisive towards others though myself worthy of derision, granting forgiveness to none though obligated to do so. I am a glutton and a hypocrite, greedy and disparaging."(IV,75) Contemporary religious conventions of self-persiflage apart, there is an honesty here which would make Thietmar's personality and self-portrayal a worthwhile human study in itself. His very averageness is leavened further by the ardent loyalty he displays not only towards the rulers who were his patrons and his protection, but no less to the members of his chapter and those of his fellow-bishops he admired. Mutual loyalty was not merely the bond that held this society together, but the only means it had in the absence of clear laws of confronting a universal tendency of the powerful to oppress,. Thietmar's frank narrative demonstrates this and his own keen sense of justice all too clearly.

David Warner is to be complimented on making all this and so much more in Thietmar's rich text so readily accessible to us.