The Medieval Review 10.03.19

Robinson, I. S. (trans.). Eleventh-Century Germany: The Swabian Chronicles. Manchester Medieval Sources Series. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2008. Pp. viii, 373. . $32.00 978 07190 7734 0.

Reviewed by:

David A. Warner
Rhode Island School of Design

There was a time when anglolexic students of medieval German history might have found themselves feeling somewhat like the French dragoon in Caspar David Friedrich's painting, Der Chasseur im Wald (1814)--facing a dark impenetrable forest with a vague sense that all would not be well. A growing body of scholarship devoted to this field, in English, has introduced both light and cause for hope into this once forbidding scene. Translations of the relevant primary sources have had a comparable effect. The availability, in English translation, of key texts such as the tenth-century Chronicle of Regino and its continuation (translated by Simon Macclean) or of the twelfth-century Gesta Alberonis (translated by Brian Pavlac), to name only two very recent publications of this type, have made it possible for students to engage with the history of medieval Germany on a level that would have been inconceivable a few short decades ago. That the more recent translations tend to include scholarly introductions and commentary ensures that even readers with the requisite language-skills find them useful. In terms of its scholarship, timeliness, and usefulness, Ian Robinson's volume represents a valuable contribution to what appears to be a growing list of translations relevant to the study of medieval Germany.

Eleventh-Century Germanycomprises translations of three eleventh-century, Latin chronicles from the German region of Swabia, compiled, respectively, by Herman "the Lame" (1013-1054), Berthold of Reichenau (d. 1088), and Bernold of Constance/St Blasien (d. 1100). The justification for their inclusion in a single volume is compelling. Although Robinson only translates its eleventh-century sections, Herman's "universal" chronicle, extending from the year 1 to 1054, provided a base for continuations by Berthold (to 1080) and Bernold (to 1100). Herman and Berthold were monks at Reichenau during a "second flowering of literary activity" that Robinson compares favorably with that community's first flowering, during the era of the Carolingian Renaissance (1). Bernold, successively cathedral canon at Constance and monk at the reformed communities of St Blasien and Schaffhausen, is characterized by Robinson as a "one of the most important writers of the eleventh century" (42). Such assessments, as many readers of this review will recognize, rest on Robinson's extensive body of scholarly work relating to the eleventh century and especially to the epic struggle between the Salian monarchy and the papacy of Gregory VII. He has also translated contemporary biographies of Pope Leo IX and Gregory VII (Manchester, 2004); and his edition of the chronicles of Berthold and Bernold, for the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Hanover, 2003), is now standard.

The translations flow easily and are supported with ample footnotes that identify or supply information pertinent to the places, events, and people mentioned in the text. Even readers unfamiliar with the material should never feel lost. The introduction discusses the history of the texts and their authors, but also places them in historical context. Herman, Berthold, and Bernold emerge as individuals and literati whose working environment provided opportunities to observe both high and regional politics, but also new trends in lay and monastic piety. The introduction also addresses the controversy surrounding the so-called "Swabian Universal Chronicle," an anonymous work that strongly resembles Herman's chronicle, although it is briefer. After reviewing the evidence, Robinson concludes that the work represents an abridgment of Herman's chronicle and attributes it to Berthold. The work is included in this volume as "the first version" of Berthold's chronicle. For the sake of convenience, this review will refer to three chronicles, rather than four.

The chronicles of Herman, Berthold, and Bernold were chiefly intended as a repository of moral exemplars. As Robinson notes, the compilers "clearly understood the exemplary character of historical events and of the fates of individuals....they provided exempla of righteous conduct, to be imitated, and of wicked conduct, to be avoided" (vii). But they provide modern readers with much more than this. Covering the years from 1000 to 1100, they present a narrative dominated by the rising tide of reform sentiment. Herman's relatively calm complaints regarding royal intervention in abbatial elections give way, in Berthold's and Bernold's texts, to acerbic commentaries on uncanonical elections and simoniacal or unchaste clergy. Herman's underlying assumption of an ecclesia ruled jointly by emperor and pope is replaced by Berthold and Bernold's ardent advocacy of papal primacy. That the two later chroniclers are more likely than Herman to address such issues with reference to canon law suggests the increasing importance of the latter in reform circles and more generally in European intellectual life.

As residents of communities deeply embedded in the Imperial Church, Herman, Berthold, and Bernold were well situated to observe the high politics of church and monarchy. The scope of Herman's work encompasses the full expanse of the Empire and included its major areas of diplomatic activity and influence. As Robinson notes, his interests ranged "from eastern Saxony to Lotharingia, from Bohemia, Hungary, Poland and the territory of the Slav confederation of the Liutizi to Flanders and Champagne, from northern Italy to Rome and the principalities of the south" (13). In his entry for the year 1053, Herman notes that the leading men of the kingdom were beginning to murmur against Emperor Henry III, an indication that all was not well between the ruler and his leading men (95). In the chronicles of Berthold and Bernold, the trials and tribulations of the Salian house come into full view with detailed entries relating to the conflict in Saxony and the epic battle commonly known as the Investiture Struggle. Berhold and Bernold chart the shifting loyalties of aristocratic factions and the fortunes of popes, kings, and anti-kings, doing so from an unrelentingly anti-Salian perspective.

One of the values of the texts translated by Robinson is that they can be read from a variety of viewpoints. Although the struggle between empire and papacy looms large, they also note events and issues of local and regional significance. The elections of bishops and abbots, noteworthy deaths, the activities of unruly knights, and the notorious case of a count who murdered his wife, all find a place on the historical landscape laid out by Herman, Berthold and Bernold. Finally, these chronicles are testimony to the brilliant intellectual and literary culture that flourished in the religious communities of southern Germany. Readers will find particularly poignant evidence of that culture in Berthold's lengthy tribute to his predecessor Herman whose command of "divine and secular literature" was regarded with astonishment and admiration by all and who, despite apparently profound physical disabilities, "proved an eloquent and diligent teacher" (108).

Robinson's volume will appeal to several audiences. First, and most obviously, it is likely to prove attractive as a textbook. The struggle between empire and papacy, the movement for reform in the church, and the political disorder of the German realm, events for which these chronicles provide primary testimony, are key to the standard narratives of the eleventh century, of medieval Germany, and of the Middle Ages, in general. Robinson's text would be appropriate for use in graduate seminars and advanced undergraduate courses dealing with any of these subject areas. These texts are so rich and accessible, however, that they might be useful in other areas, as well. Pedagogy aside, one can assume that a translation of this importance and quality, produced by a leading scholar, will appeal to professionals in the field, especially those whose interests focus on medieval ecclesiastical history, the history of medieval Germany and Italy, and medieval intellectual life.