David A. Warner

title.none: Althoff, Otto III (David A. Warner)

identifier.other: baj9928.0501.007 05.01.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David A. Warner, Rhode Island School of Design,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Althoff, Gerd. Phylis G. Jestice, trans. Otto III. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. Pp. xii, 215. $45.00 0-271-02232-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.01.07

Althoff, Gerd. Phylis G. Jestice, trans. Otto III. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. Pp. xii, 215. $45.00 0-271-02232-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

David A. Warner
Rhode Island School of Design

An accurate translation of a scholarly text requires that the translator possess not only the requisite linguistic skills, but also a thorough knowledge of the relevant subject matter. A translator possessing the former but not the latter, one might argue, would be more likely to misunderstand subject-specific terminology or fail to appreciate the nuances inherent in a particular discourse or argument. Anglo-lexic readers are fortunate that the translator of the text reviewed here possesses both linguistic skill and subject expertise in good measure. Not only is Phyllis Jestice suitably conversant in what Samuel Clemens famously characterized as the "Awful German language," she is also a published scholar whose work focuses on the history of Germany in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the era of Otto III. The original, German-language edition of Althoff's book was first published in 1996. At the time of publication, it was much reviewed and commented upon in the major scholarly journals. For medievalists who read German and work in the field of medieval German history its appearance in an English language translation is certainly welcome, but will not offer any surprises, especially as Althoff's list of publications has burgeoned in subsequent years. Still, an exclusively anglo-lexic audience is less likely to be familiar either with this particular study or, more generally, with Althoff's substantial contribution to the field. One should quickly add that more and more of Althoff's work is being made available in English or in English-language translations. The present review will assume that readers are chiefly anglo-lexic and are less than fully familiar with Althoff's work.

As Althoff notes in a preface written specifically for this translation, this book was originally written for a German-speaking audience broadly familiar with Otto III's place in the history of Germany and of the German Middle Ages. Indeed, readers of German can avail themselves of an astonishingly wide and diverse variety of treatments devoted to this "most flamboyant and controversial of the German emperors." (vii [Jestice]) For such an audience, yet another, more or less traditional biography focusing on Otto's personal life, deeds, and thoughts might well have seemed redundant. In Althoff's view, however, such a study would also have been methodologically suspect, given the tendency of medieval sources to all but eliminate a person's individuality in favor of "the topos representing his or her office or position." (ix) In an introductory survey of the relevant historiography, Althoff emphasizes the degree to which modern interpretations of Otto's reign have been influenced by the far from dispassionate agendas of the scholarly community. One should scarcely be surprised to discover, for example, that national traditions of historical interpretation have adopted differing approaches to an emperor generally acknowledged to have had a substantial impact on Germany's relationship with Italy and the emerging kingdoms of Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary. As a continuing theme in this book, moreover, Althoff emphasizes that even current views of Otto's reign commonly derive from inferences based on quite sparse or even non-existent evidence. It would be better, so he concludes, to simply acknowledge that the sources transmitted to us present profound, even insurmountable obstacles to our understanding, rather than "erect entire systems of explanation upon uncertain ground." (23)

That the state of the evidence relative to virtually any period of the Middle Ages is likely to be problematical at best, impenetrable or non-existant at worst, will not strike the informed reader as a startling revelation. The period of the tenth and early eleventh centuries, in particular, is notoriously limited in terms of the amount of evidence it provides for modern researchers. An informed reader would also be aware that scholars in all historically-oriented disciplines have not always resisted the temptation to draw unwarranted inferences from an inadequate pool of evidence. The real question is how we should respond to this dilemma. In Althoff's case, the first step appears to have been the recognition that finding Otto the person behind Otto the king and emperor may well represent a hopeless task. In particular, though royal deeds and policies figure throughout the book, discussion of the ruler's motivation in performing or formulating them, respectively, is scrupulously avoided. Rather than focusing specifically on the course of Otto's life, Althoff has attempted to "consider the social, political, and mental framework within which Otto III's action were conducted or from which they diverged." (ix) Athough one would scarcely agree with the unnamed German critic, cited by Althoff, who characterized this book as a biography without a subject, it could be argued that the author's reluctance to read too much into the sources has resulted in a biography in which Otto III, ostensibly the subject of the work, tends to recede into the background. This is not to say that Althoff has produced a biography lacking in methodology or a point of view. Rather, this treatment of Otto III's reign rests on the same assumptions regarding the character of medieval political culture upon which most if if not all of Althoff's many publications have been founded. For Althoff, to quote Julia Barrow, "the constitutional framework of the medieval German 'state' between the early tenth and the thirteenth centuries [essentially depended] on the correct understanding, by rulers and their magnates, of a range of elaborate gestures and behavioural patterns, at once traditional and at the same time capable of being adapted and even inverted to suit particular circumstances." [[1]] This is kingship heavily inflected with ritual, but not of the sort familiar to readers from the work of Karl Leyser or Ernst H. Kantorowicz. Althoff's kings do not ascend into the realm of royal sacrality or manifest their character through the liturgy of the church; instead ritual provides a vehicle for demonstrating a variety of social and political processes, in particular the resolution of conflict. For Althoff, the rules of play for political and social interaction, manifested in ritual behaviors, "should be the starting point of any assessment [of Otto III]." (132) Whether or not readers concur with Althoff's judgement, they will have no doubt that the rules to which he refers have provided the foundation for this particular assessment of Otto's reign.

One might argue that Althoff's book says as much about his own views regarding medieval political culture as it does about the life and career of Otto III. Nevertheless, the basic elements of a biography are not altogether absent. The text is structured around a more or less standard selection of events and milestones from Otto's career. A chapter devoted to the emperor's minority focuses on the rebellion of Otto's uncle, Duke Henry the Quarrelsome, and the regency of his mother, grandmother, and aunt. After a close reading of the evidence, Althoff suggests that Theophanu's "presumed talent for sophisticated political thought" may have been greatly exaggerated. (41) In his treatment of Duke Henry's rebellion, Althoff highlights the ritual acts of submission that brought this early political crisis to an end. A chapter concerned with Otto's coming of age includes discussions of the monarch's first expedition to Italy and his initial encounters with Gerbert of Rheims (the future Pope Sylvester II) and Adalbert of Prague. Scholarly tradition has commonly assigned Gerbert and Adalbert a prominent role in forming Otto's personal viewpoint, a point that Althoff does not contest, but here the warm tones of personal friendship are modified into a more pragmatic relationship. Shorn of their inherently suspect rhetorical and hagiographical aspects, as Althoff says of Otto's relationship with Gerbert, "there is nothing [in the sources] to suggest a special relationship of personal trust and friendship." (68) In the remaining chapters of the book, Althoff tends to focus on specific acts of state. The Roman rebellion of Crescentius and his anti-pope, John Philagathos, provides the more specific subject matter for a chapter focusing generally on Otto's first sojourn in Italy. As in the case of Henry the Quarrelsome's rebellion, Alhoff's interpretation of the events in Rome appears to hinge on a ritual act of submission, offered by Crescentius to Otto III, but rejected. Here, as well, Althoff touches on Otto's apparent desire to revive the Roman Empire, the Renovatio imperii that readers familiar with modern German historiography will immediately associate with Percy Ernst Schramm. Althoff's views on this topic have been heavily influenced by the radical critique of Knut Goerich. As this reviewer has remarked elsewhere, "after revisiting much of the evidence, Goerich [has concluded] not only that it is mostly too ambiguous to support the kind of theoretical structure presented by Schramm, but also that it may be insufficient to support the existence of any kind of Rompolitik at all." [[2]] Goerich held out the possibility that Otto III's renovatio may have referred to a more limited program of ecclesiastical reform, with a specifically Roman and papal aspect. Althoff does not even allow this, arguing that the "actions of Otto and Gregory [V] were simply too traditional and too heterogenious to fit comfortably into this theory." (88)

No biographical treatment of Otto III would be complete without a discussion of the emperor's meeting, at Gniezno, with the Polish duke, Boleslav Chrobry. Althoff devotes a chapter to the emperor's progress to and from the meeting that includes commentary on Otto's innovative use of imperial titles and his discovery and opening of the tomb of Emperor Charlemagne, at Aachen. With regard to the controversy regarding the events at Gniezno, Althoff argues that the highly ambiguous testimony of the sources does not support the conclusion that this meeting involved the recognition of Boleslav as king of Poland. At most, in Althoff's view, it suggests that Otto and Boleslav entered into a more conventional alliance of friendship. The discussion of the meeting at Gniezno is followed by a chapter concerned with Otto's last expedition to Rome and his death. This chapter includes a discussion of the so-called "Gandersheim conflict," a legal dispute centering on that community's ambiguous legal status. Although the evidence chiefly reflects the viewpoint of one of the parties to the conflict, the bishopric of Hildesheim, Althoff argues that it can still be used, in particular, to illuminate contemporary legal practice. In Althoff's view, "the course of the squabbling and the ways and means used to resolve it exemplify the way tenth-century society understood law." (113) By this point, readers of this review should not be at all suprised to learn that, in Althoff's view, the tenth-century's understanding of law had a lot to do with ritual. Indeed, in this reviewer's opinion, the phrase, "having a lot to do with ritual," might serve to characterize the entire book. This should not be intepreted as a criticism, however. Within the larger scope of medieval studies, ritual has recently been the focus of intense debate. Althoff's contribution to this debate has been substantial though still largely confined to German language publications. Although this study of Otto III's life cannot, and apparently was not intended to, replace the large number of more traditional biographies of that ruler, it does provide an accessible introduction to Althoff's views on medieval political culture, historical methodology and, of course, ritual.


[[1]] Julia Barrow, "Playing by the Rules: Conflict Management in tenth- and eleventh-century Germany," Early Medieval Europe 11 (2002) 389-96, at 390.

[[2]] David A. Warner, "Ideals and Action in the Reign of Otto III," Journal of Medieval History 25 (1999) 1-18, at 7.