The Medieval Review 08.02.05

Vavra, Elisabeth, ed. Virtuelle Räume: Raumwahrnehmung und Raumvorstellung im Mittelalter: Akten des 10. Symposiums des Mediavistenverbandes, Krems, 24.-26. Marz 2003. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2005. Pp. x, 386. $72.00 3-05-004129-3.

Reviewed by:

Johanna Kramer
University of Missouri-Columbia

Virtuelle Räume is the first of two volumes presenting essays that originated as papers delivered at the Tenth Symposium of the Mediävistenverband (association of medievalists from German-speaking lands) in Krems (Austria), March 24-26, 2003. [1] The conference, as reflected by the book title, focused on "virtual spaces," defined in this case as spaces that emerge when real topographical coordinates and elements of spatial formation are reshaped through constituents of other categories (ix). Edited by Elisabeth Vavra, director of the conference host, the Institut für Realienkunde des Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit, Virtuelle Räume collects twenty-one essays in German from four of the five conference sections: 1) the overlaying of real space with alternative patterns of perception, 2) the production of imaginary spaces and their incorporation into experienced space, 3) the perception of space, and 4) the transcendence of space. Which essays belong to which section has to be deduced from the conference program (available online) rather than the table of contents, which indicates no organizational principle of any kind.

The collection begins in medias res. Legal historian Gernot Kocher (1-11) defines the virtual concept of Herrschaft (rulership, extent of power). He determines the source and limits of power both in the territorial as well as the legal-political sense, supported by eight visual representations of instances of Herrschaft (boundary marker, ruler portraits, Fortuna). In the first part of his excellent discussion of the formation and later interpretation of the Swiss Eidgenossenschaft (confederation), Michael Jucker (13-34) convincingly shows that a retroactive and idealistic interpretation of medieval history, unfolding in imaginary alpine spaces, contributed to the formation of national identity in nineteenth-and twentieth-century Switzerland. Then, Jucker confidently intervenes in a highly charged chapter of Swiss history: by identifying the networks of communication in the late medieval confederation ("communicative spaces"), he argues that the confederation did not emerge from the rural Urschweiz, but was--quite logically--determined by urban settlements and customs. Alfons Zettler (35-46) examines the famous monastery plan of St. Gall for its concepts and shaping of space and places it in its historical context. Zettler rejects the still current view that the plan has a coherent conceptual design, arguing instead that the plan's central parts (church and cloister) are shown as real space that corresponds to monastic reality, whereas the outlying parts (e.g., the cemetery) are depicted as schematic and virtual spaces. Art historian Michael Viktor Schwarz (47-68) presents a rich study of the late medieval St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague to demonstrate that gothic cathedral architecture is not simply a beautifully decorated container but that it is an "aesthetic system," an ensemble of media, which reacts to its uses. Thus, specific architectural elements (the Wenceslas statue, the royal crypt, the pillars' design) represent a response to liturgical needs and communicate the political power and the involvement of the cathedral's patron Charles IV.

Ralf Schlechtweg-Jahn's essay (69-85) might usefully have opened the volume (which strictly adheres to the original order of the conference program), for he wrestles most extensively with the concept of "virtual space" on a theoretical level. By discussing the origins of virtual space in computer technology, he is able to explicate, albeit in somewhat dense prose, the complexity of "virtuality" and its appeal to users as an alternative existence in a doubled body, in which they can communicate and interact with other such doubled bodies. Schlechtweg-Jahn asserts through a reading of Gottfried's Tristan that the court of around 1200 was such a virtual space, constituted and defined by communication through coded performances such as the tournament, music, and literature. Annette Kern-Stähler (87-107) asks, "Did privacy exist in the Middle Ages?" and answers, as one might expect, in the affirmative. She detects two different models of withdrawing into private spaces in late medieval English writings. In secular texts like Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, interior, architectural spaces (a curtained bed, the garden) are used to examine a character's interior life. In contrast, devotional literature encourages withdrawal into private mental spaces through meditative practices. In a learned piece, Ursula Kundert (109-34) applies "blending theory," which explains the dynamics of creating meaning while reading literary texts, to Minnesang and medieval encyclopedias. Informed by theories of perception and recognition by Augustine and Richard of St. Victor, both minnesänger and encyclopedists draw on a similar "repertoire of imagination." Through spatial representation, they cast perception, emotion, and imagination as contiguous areas that communicate with one another, enabling an emotionally guided ascent towards recognition.

Leading the second section, art historian Götz Pochat (135-48) discusses the virtual depiction of space in early medieval iconography by characterizing attempts at creating perspective in book illustrations and ivory carvings. He notes that the efforts to create spatial illusion noticeable in Carolingian art diminish in Ottonian book art, which places greater emphasis on flat surfaces and spatially undefined backgrounds. In her engaging contribution, Katja Kwastek (149-72) details the diverse uses of space in early Renaissance Italian painting: depiction of real space, spatially organized narration, blending of different levels of reality in dream depictions, and overlapping of depicted space with the viewer's real space. She successfully demonstrates that virtual space--both as illusionist depiction of real space and as construction of abstract relations in real space--is a complexly structured blend of layered forms and contents. To Christina Lechtermann (173-88), space is constructed by positioning bodies in relationship with each other, creating virtual literary constructions that she terms "body spaces." For example, the imposing figure of Karl in the Middle High German Rolandslied is the fixed center towards which all other bodies and actions are directed. Body spaces can also be constituted through other means, such as visual exchanges and tactility. In an intelligent discussion of Tristan, Sebastian Baier (189-202) harnesses virtuality in service of defining the necessary spatial conditions for intimacy and how intimate communication helps constitute space. The "locus intimus," that is, space created through intimate interaction, through patterns of inclusion and exclusion, is a virtual space that allows for intimacy to emerge and be concealed, but also to be revealed (as in Tristan eventually). Claudia Brinker-van der Heyde (203-14) focuses her attention on Zwischenräume (literally, "interspaces"), that is, the episodes in Arthurian narratives between âventiuren. These often seemingly unadventurous and directionless passages, she argues, fulfill an essential role: Zwischenräume are needed to define more sharply the âventiure itself, and thus the two are mutually constitutive.

Deploying the tools of cultural anthropology, Gerrit Jasper Schenk (215-37) splendidly demonstrates how real space and imagined space combine to form virtual space. Virtual space exists temporarily in real space under specific circumstances and takes on a particular significance, but it remains unexplained unless we also recognize the imagined space associated with it, that is, the social collective's perception of the real space. In his reading of the late medieval ruler's adventus in the city, Schenk offers an interesting interpretation of the ritualized relic veneration and spoliation of the processional baldachin, both of which are "virtual spaces" that serve the balancing of power between the ruler and the city. According to Sonja Dünnebeil (239-57), the Order of the Fleece developed complex ways of using real spaces through public performances and of turning these real spaces into virtual spaces by associating the visible with the invisible. Fifteenth-century chronicles and meeting protocols reveal that the order maintained its exclusivity and social status through strict control of public access to its assemblies, through self-representation as exemplary and morally superior, and through visualization of each member's ranking.

Opening the third section, Hanns Peter Neuheuser (259-79) probes the liturgy of church dedications for perceptions and interpretations of space. His most interesting observations revolve around the spatial rituals performed during this liturgy (church circumambulations, marking boundaries outside and inside the church). These rituals are a symbolic "grasping" of the new church while also mirroring the Christian appropriation of the world at large of which the building is representative. Antje Fehrmann (281-304) harvests the descriptions of ceremonial architecture in late medieval English chronicles for their perception of virtual space, whereby "virtual space" applies to three-dimensional, architectural space. In her informative case study, the entry of Henry V into London in 1415, ceremonial architecture, scaffolded, imitated facades of towered gates and wine-spouting fountains--and eventually also his grave chapel--serves, not surprisingly, the self-representation and praise of the ruler and the staging of royal piety. [2] In a nuanced and heavily footnoted piece on the role of claustration in the Benedictine monastery of Admont (Austria), Christina Lutter (305-23) reveals the tensions between the reality of the twelfth-century reform movement and the demands of spiritual practices and thus between real and imagined realms. Well-educated nuns with writing skills and powerful positions within social networks were needed to work actively for the reform, opening room for action by women. At the same time, they had to remain enclosed, a spatial immobility that was reinterpreted to align with desirable spiritual concept. Karina Kellermann (325-41) follows the female gaze out of the window, arguing that the direction of the gaze and its associated spaces are gendered in Middle High German courtly epic. While women leave their enclosed space, the Ikemenâte, only by gazing into outside male space, men are allowed to experience adventures physically. She concludes by suggesting, "Is the gaze from the window the female mode of the âventiure journey?" (341). Kellermann successfully shows the transgressive power of the female gaze, but it seems somewhat artificial to dismiss the court as the male opposite of the kemenâte and choose the âventiure instead, only to reintroduce the court as a third space in which the âventiure is recounted, making it a male space after all.

Editor of the initia of almost 15,500 Byzantine letters, [3] Michael Grünbart (343-55) mines his epistolographic knowledge in his essay on the letters' three-fold relationship to space: the letters in space (traces of their history and travels), rhetorical use of space in the letter (spatial metaphors), and the reception of real space in the letters (negative reports on the writers' environments). Grünbart does not clearly address any "virtual spaces." Marcello Garzaniti (357-71) reconstructs the image of the world in the medieval Rus' with particular focus on the search for the earthly paradise. He argues that two parallel views and, accordingly, two scriptural exegeses developed, one proponing only a spiritual paradise and one believing in an earthly paradise. While this conclusion might not come as a surprise, Garzaniti's informative catalog of relevant religious and secular sources is useful, especially for those unfamiliar with this literary corpus.

The lone representative of the section on the transcendence of space, Christoph Kann (373-86) discusses medieval definitions of dialectic topoi (or loci). Philosophers carefully established parallels and differences between the natural topos (locus naturalis) and the dialectic topos (locus dialecticus). One of the definitions relevant to the current context, for example, consists of the locus dialecticus storing its contents "virtualiter": arguments are not stored as quantitatively graspable objects but are nevertheless available for actual retrieval.

As these summaries show, the collection's contributions represent a broad range of disciplines and approaches, and they tackle the professed topic with varying degrees of intensity and success. This diversity, while offering often stimulating ideas and dazzling readers with the rich opportunities that "virtual space" affords, has a disjointing effect. There are almost too many definitions and views offered, too many different bodies of evidence introduced without exploring any one in detail. At the same time, some virtual spaces are surprisingly absent; I expected, for instance, that otherworlds--whether sacred or secular--would make more appearances. In light of the diffused content, connections among pieces must be sought on a conceptual level. In this regard, diversity is a strength. Thematic connections emerge in the cumulative reading of the essays, and one happily discovers that seemingly disparate pieces communicate across disciplines, geographical interest areas, and source materials. For example, Baier's exploration of intimacy in Tristan reverberates with Kern-Stähler's private spaces in Troilus and Criseyde and Kellermann's spaces defined by gendered exclusion. Or Fehrmann's discussion of ceremonial architecture usefully complements Schenk's on the rituals of the ruler's adventus. But the essays are, in the end, specialized pieces about fairly narrow scholarly niches, and these connections are not enough to create any overarching cohesion. Most readers will want to peruse selectively. While the volume probably has most to offer for literary critics and art historians, those with other interests will find informative and provocative nuggets alike. The book also usefully provides access to bibliography perhaps less well absorbed in non-European scholarship. Besides sources one would expect to find in the footnotes (Bourdieu, Bachelard, Bakhtin), readers can discover a plethora of less familiar, recent (mostly German) references. The volume thus also successfully showcases the intellectual liveliness of current continental European scholarship.

The book's solid production is enhanced by a generous total of seventy-two black-and-white images of excellent quality. Unfortunately, the somewhat poor editing, which failed to eradicate a number of typographical errors, detracts from the otherwise handsome volume. Its usability is also hampered through the sparse presentation. There is no author information, and, more importantly, no index or collated bibliography that could help process the vast amount of information presented. In her one-page prologue, Vavra makes no attempt at synthesizing common themes or reporting on the results of the conference. [4] One could simply point out, for example, that the essays collectively prove virtual space to be a complicated issue with rich potential for future research. The varied, complex, and often unexpected virtual spaces discovered by the authors indicate that a myriad of further virtual spaces remains to be examined. It seems that we have really just begun to map out the virtual landscapes of the Middle Ages, a project also with implications for our own times. Virtual space allows for exploration, most often disembodied, of alternative realities or narratives, whether for one's own life, for a fictional character, or within cultural master narratives. In all this, the virtuality of virtual spaces makes them no less real or significant for those imagining, creating, entering, or otherwise using them. In light of contemporary phenomena like the online digital world Second Life, then, a history of virtuality, as exemplified by the contributions to Virtuelle Räume, can help us understand why the desire for virtual experiences is by no means a recent one and attests perhaps to a fundamental human drive to want to perceive one's world as a multi-layered reality.


[1] The companion volume, Imaginäre Räume presents, as the title states, essays on imaginary spaces, the theme of one of the five conference sections; see Elisabeth Vavra, ed. Imaginäre Räume. Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Realienkunde des Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit 19. Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, phil.-hist. Kl., Sitzungsberichte, Bd. 758. (Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2007).

[2] Fehrmann also details her findings on Henry V's grave chapel in a book-length study: Grab und Krone: Königsgrabmäler im mittelalterlichen England und die posthume Selbstdarstellung der Lancaster. Kunstwissenschaftliche Studien 140. (Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2007).

[3] Michael Grünbart, Epistularum Byzantinarum Initia. (Hildesheim: Olms-Weidmann, 2001). Reviewed by Niels Gaul, in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.17.

[4] The second conference volume includes an Introduction, in which Vavra briefly sketches out the history of "space research" and the contents of the essays of that volume, but she does not comment on the contents of the first volume; see Imaginäre Räume, pp. 7-16.