The Medieval Review 10.11.10

Dinzelbacher, Peter. Lebenswelten des Mittelalters, 1000-1500. Bachmanns Basiswissen, 1. Badenweiler: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Bachmann, 2010. Pp. 562. $60 ISBN 978-3-940523-07-5. .

Reviewed by:

David Nicholas
Clemson University (Emeritus)
dmnicholas@nctv.com

The author is a distinguished Austrian historian, founder and editor emeritus of the journal Mediaevistik, whose previous publications have emphasized the history of medieval mentalities, theology, gender, and religion.

Dinzelbacher's stated intention (9-10) is to write a survey that will correct the erroneous impressions that most beginning students and general readers have of the medieval period. He does not say explicitly what he means by Lebenswelten, but he seems to use "fundamental elements of medieval forms of life" (10) as a synonym. This is less an intellectual history than a demonstration of how human behavior, not only concerning religious practice but also in relations with other persons and with communities, was conditioned by traditional and new ideas.

The book has seven numbered chapters with endnotes and a short bibliography. Each except Chapters 5 and 6 have subheadings, which are useful for Chapters 1-4 but become a distraction in Chapter 7. Each chapter has quotations from original sources, some of which are separated from the main text by shading, translated by the author into modern German. Of the 68 shaded documents, 11 were written in France, 19 in Germany and the Low Countries, 19 in Britain, fourteen in Italy, four in Iberia, and one in Scandinavia. A clear secondary theme is thus to show German readers how their medieval history fits broader patterns derived from the west.

Chapter 1 (Anthropology) concerns interpersonal relations at the most basic levels as reflected in literature, both normative and that written for entertainment, and political behavior. Dinzelbacher begins with a section on "man and woman," which is divided into "the medieval patriarchate," "sexuality," and "love." These lead to a section on the family, which is followed by "stages of life." He realizes that particularly regarding women we cannot trust normative literature as a guide to actual "life worlds" before 1300. This changed in the late Middle Ages, when some literature by laypeople exalted marital love. He then turns to standards of sexual behavior, a section that could have been deepened with consideration of how court cases reflect sexual standards and attitudes. From sex he moves to love, specifically a "culture of love" (37) that developed after 1050 in literature and art. Although there is some evidence of romantic love among the aristocracy, he attributes the idea that love should be part of marriage to the "bourgeois" (40) late Middle Ages. His next section, on family, is too brief and concerns chiefly the aristocracy. Finally, in "Stages of Life" he concentrates on children and the elderly. There are organizational problems in this section: after discussing children entering the "work world of their parents" (60) at about age 7, he jumps back to the swaddling of infants and toys for children.

Chapter 2 (Work and Daily Life) contains some of the strongest passages of the book. "Work" is divided into "In the Countryside" and "In the Town," followed by "Attitudes toward work." "Daily Life" is discussed as "space" and "time," with "festival times" as a subheading of the latter. Reflecting his orientation toward literature and norms, Dinzelbacher devotes only two paragraphs to the clearance movements of the central Middle Ages and the reforestation after 1348. He is less cursory and often quite perceptive on freedom and serfdom, the use of money, and the evolution from oral to written custom. Work in the towns involves a discussion of the growth of older Roman settlements and the foundation of new towns. To facilitate security of life and property and to document commercial transactions, the use of writing and bureaucracy came early to towns. Noting the abundance of literature on the subjects, he discusses briefly tolls, which became more frequent in the late Middle Ages, coinage, banking, credit, and usury. While he mentions the religious life of the Jews in Chapter 7, he has a section on them in his passages on medieval credit. From commerce he moves to artisanry, "the second economic pillar on which the blooming of urbanization rested (100)", guilds as trade and craft organizations, "guildless" occupations, the political involvements of guilds after c. 1275, and industrial technology. "Daily Life" begins with the observation that while most people today are educated similarly, their medieval ancestors learned more by experience than from books. Thus some attitudes were imposed by one's situation of life. He argues further that "the spatial experiences for 'medieval people' were more important than experiences of time (117)." Rich and poor, high and low status persons, and men and women were segregated in some social situations. Medieval spatial ideas were also expressed in religious and secular architecture, and concern with rank-order precedence was visualized in art. While modern notions of space are comparable to those of the Middle Ages, we have a much more precise sense of time than medieval people had before the coming of the mechanical clock on the fourteenth century. Most towns quickly got clocks, but the countryside latter remained bound to natural rhythm of night and day. The liturgical year was an important marker of the seasons, and in the late Middle Ages some secular festivals developed.

Chapter 3 has sections on rule, ideology, and law. The first describes the practicalities of administration at both the territorial and local levels. "Legitimation" came through ancestry, historical myths, and behavior. Dinzelbacher describes how "the daily life of most rulers was fixed by participation in ritual acts to a higher degree than with other laypeople" (175). He follows lay lordship with a section on "spiritual rule," which concerns control within the church, finishing the section with "spiritual and worldly lordship," in which the two are considered in combination and against each other, a topic that takes him into the realm of ideology of rule. All great people, particularly monarchs, claimed that their power was justified by the Christian religion, but many late medieval rulers emphasized that their power came directly from God, not through the pope. The rulers' positions were buttressed by visual and written propaganda. Finally, law as distinct from rule or administration is discussed in the last section. Dinzelbacher's theme here is that while there was little difference in the early Middle Ages between law, custom, and usage (Recht, Sitte, Brauch) (204), some commentators after 1200 were challenging this in favor of a hierarchy of distinctions between different forms and applications of law, based chiefly on Roman jurisprudence.

Chapter 4 (War and Peace) starts with the premise that the most commonly pursued goal of armed conflict was "the destruction of the foundation of life of the enemy" (240). Second came sieges of castles and towns, with the armed conflict a distant third and only if it could not be avoided. Chroniclers used descriptions of the horrors and sadism of warfare against not only combatants but also civilian populations as part of their praise of the ruler (246-247). Some late medieval writers promoted peace as an ideal.

Chapters follow on "The Courtly World" and "The Learned World." In the former Dinzelbacher discusses the social composition of courts as they became centers for cultural patronage in the late Middle Ages. Love poetry and adventure stories spread to the burghers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, first as audiences only, then as producers of literature. Historical writing also developed in the vernacular languages at courts. He gives attention to ceremonies of reconciliation, tourneys, hunts, and the ideology of the Christian warrior. This chapter, perhaps because its content is not split into subtopics, is coherent, despite the immense literature. Chapter 6 (The Learned World) is also effective, although its conclusions are less original than those of the previous chapters. In theory all learning was God's word and being. Innovations had to be concealed within this framework. Latin remained the language of learning, despite translations from it into the vernacular from the twelfth century.

Chapter 7 (Forms of Piety) is by far the longest, but its 174 pages are divided into twelve major topics and thirty-five subtopics. Although these subjects are Dinzelbacher's field of particular expertise, they are thus treated very cursorily, and the result is a less satisfactory impression than the reader retains from the first six chapters. Given limitations of space he can do little more than define the topics and give a few examples of the kind of human behavior or attitude that qualified. For example, he devotes one page each to brotherhoods and sects (whose number includes the Cathars, Waldensians, Lollards, and Hussites) and slightly more to the Jews). Some interesting points emerge, for example that while in the early Middle Ages believers were told that witches had no power, in the late Middle Ages they were told that not to believe in witchcraft was a heresy. There was little atheism; heresies were based on religious belief. While early medieval ideas saw Jesus as a warrior, the martyr dominated in High Middle Ages. Jesus as a love object comes forward more in vernaculars of late Middle Ages, especially those written by women. Angels were never honored to the extent of once-living saints. Demons were thought to assume animal shapes, especially those with unpleasant associations, and were thus represented in art. People believed in spirits who wandered the earth. "Fear of hell occupied the believers much more intensely than the hope of heaven or paradise. Preachers, visionaries, and art work were much more detailed about the lower worlds than about the higher" (433). Although festivals going back to prehistoric antiquity were incorporated into the liturgical year, their number and length multiplied in the late Middle Ages, especially in the cities, where they were often accompanied by spectacles. Dreams and hallucinations were interpreted as messages from another world, either from God or the devil. With the crises of the late Middle Ages and the suffering from plagues and wars, people thought more of an avenging than a loving God. This involved a growing preoccupation with the devil and heretics and witches, who did his work.

As with all surveys, specialists will wish that Dinzelbacher had devoted more space to their own interests, but he has accomplished his stated purpose for writing. His chapter introductions are very perceptive and are buttressed by his frequent reference to the illustrations and quoted original sources. His discussions are up to date, and he succeeds in establishing norms that transcend political and language boundaries. The question naturally arises of whether persons in the English-speaking world, specifically most readers of The Medieval Review, will be likely to read this book. I know of no single volume in English that adopts Dinzelbacher's comprehensive approach, but most of what he says about regions outside the Germanic parts of the Empire can be found in English publications. Most of his secondary literature is German, with some French and English works. Most of his quotations from western sources will be familiar to English-speakers, but many of those from German sources will not. While his aim is to show Germans that their history should be integrated with that of the west, he provides enough German examples to make it worth the effort for English-speakers, for many of whom knowledge of medieval history largely stops at the Rhine.