03.05.06, Borgolte, Das europaische Mittelalter

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Felice Lifshitz

The Medieval Review baj9928.0305.006


Borgolte, Michael, ed.. Das europaische Mittelalter im Spannungsbogen des Vergleichs: Zwanzig internationale Beitrage zu Praxis, Problemen und Perspektiven der historischen Komparatistik. Series: Europa im Mittelalter, Vol. 1. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2002. Pp. 421.
Reviewed by:
Felice Lifshitz
Florida International University

This volume consists primarily of papers presented at a 1999 Berlin conference, which functioned effectively as an inaugural event for the Humboldt University's newly erected Institut fuer vergleichende Geschichte Europas im Mittelalter, under the direction of Michael Borgolte. Three additional contributions were added to the published proceedings, including two by scholars working at Aaron Gurjewitsch's Moscow-based Arbeitskreis zur vergleichenden Geschichte des westlichen und des (ost-)slawischen Europa. All twenty contributors are historians; no practitioners of related disciplines were invited to participate in this exercise in comparison.

The twenty essays published in this volume address the most disparate of topics, and are held together only by the requirement that they somehow compare and contrast something with something else.[[1]] Daniela Rando thus compares and contrasts four late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century German scholars' approaches to the history of Venice,[[2]] while Marina Paramonova compares and contrasts six different late tenth- and early eleventh-century narrative descriptions of the murder of Wenzel of Bohemia (d. 929 or 935/936),[[3]] while Geoffrey W.S. Barrow compares and contrasts English and Scottish processes of implantation of administrative divisions (such as counties) between the fifth and the twelfth century,[[4]] while Tore Nyberg compares and contrasts -- as autonomous, independent epochs, rather than as periods linked through evolutionary "development" -- the earlier and later Middle Ages in Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland,[[5]] while Sverre Bagge compares and contrasts narrative accounts of regime change by a number of prominent medieval historians (from Thietmar of Merseburg through Anna Komnene to Leonardo Bruni) in order to reveal the authors' differing historiographical "modes of perception,"[[6]] while Francois Menant describes certain aspects of rural society in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Lombardy and suggests that the situation would probably differ (or not, as the case may be) elsewhere in Italy, in the Mediterranean, or in Europe as a whole, depending on various factors.[[7]] It is probably safe to say that no one will want or need to read the entire volume, and it is surely safe to say that no one will want to rush out and actually buy it.

Although the volume under discussion is unfortunately a relative failure when judged as a coherent whole, this should not deter readers from consulting it, for one or more of the individual contributions is bound to be of interest. Furthermore, the quality of the contributions is -- I must explicitly emphasize -- uniformly high. Yet some of the contributions, as is normally the case, do stand out above the others as particularly noteworthy and important, largely because of their truly ambitious (albeit, not necessarily novel) efforts to practice comparative history on a broad scale. This is most dramatically the case with the two contributions dealing with canon law (by Johannes Helmrath[[8]] and David L. d'Avray);[[9]] it is only slightly less dramatically the case with the two extremely useful, clear discussions (by Hans-Werner Goetz[[10]] and Sawomir Gawlas[[11]]) of "feudalism" and related concepts, themes whose multiple international historiographies have recently become so convoluted, paradoxical and enigmatic that they make Zen Buddhist kons (such as "What is the sound of one hand clapping?") appear straightforward. Finally, the volume should not be missed by anyone interested in court culture, the subject of two of the most important contributions. One, by Gadi Algazi, glides fluently back and forth between European and Abbasid courts, to suggest how the codification of the courtly game of "Love" functioned in both societies to produce and reproduce political and social power; his discussion reports some results of a collaborative research project on Comparative Court Cultures which Algazi founded and directed, until recently, along with the late Rina Drory, to whom many of the insights are owed.[[12]] The other, by Karl-Heinz Spiess, reveals how misleading the apparent homogeneity of European court festivals can be, as he uncovers (and explains the reasons for) at least two different models of wedding ceremonial used by elite families during the fifteenth century.[[13]]

As should be clear from the topics of the specific essays noted above, there is little that is particularly groundbreaking about the comparative methodologies employed by many of the contributors to the volume, despite the inflated claims to innovation made by Borgolte in his introductory chapter.[[14]] Borgolte's claims to novelty are in many ways undercut by the thought-provoking discussions by Otto Gerhard Oexle,[[15]] János Bak,[[16]] Bernd Schneidmueller,[[16]] Frank Rexroth,[[18]] and above all Patrick Geary,[[19]] all of which recognize the long-standing reality of the practice of comparative history (and sometimes the simultaneous existence of hostility towards and suspicion of comparative approaches). Jan M. Piskorski's contribution,[[20]] which summarizes the findings of his very important 1990 study of colonization, most pointedly demonstrates both the value of comparative history and the fact that creative scholars are already fully engaged in wide-angle methodologies. Piskorski's discussion, which ranges from the ancient Mediterranean to the nineteenth-century North American "Wild West," rejects the heretofore widespread theory of the "Koenigsfreien" as central to medieval colonization, emphasizing instead the variety of legal forms -- along with certain situational commonalities -- which have characterized settlement activities. Both Patrick Geary (UCLA) and Gadi Algazi (Tel Aviv), the only non-European contributors to the volume, make particularly clear how much comparative work is currently underway in their own milieux; however, neither of the two exploits his position -- in both cases, combining extensive insider knowledge with outsider status -- explicitly to compare and contrast his own experience against the institutional and cultural contexts of German scholarship, whose shortcomings and inflexibilities are understandably of crucial concern to Borgolte.

As Borgolte notes (19), in German universities numerous separate departments or disciplines (Faecher) are responsible for medieval Europe: Mediaevistik (concerned with Latin Europe), Byzantinistik, Slavistik, Islamwissenschaft and Judaistik; this disciplinary situation clearly discourages the development of a holistic view of Europe, particularly when combined with the legacy of intense national rivalries. In North American universities, however, a single Department of History houses the entire community of scholars devoted to what in Germany are the above-mentioned five separate Faecher, as well as specialists on more recent and more ancient European history, plus historians of the entire rest of the globe. Furthermore, North American medieval historians, in contrast to the nationally-bounded experience of their European counterparts, are called upon virtually every semester to think and teach the history of medieval Europe [[21]] or even of "Western Civilization" as a whole, and to do so in classrooms which have long included students from multiple ethnic and religious backgrounds. I do not mean to belittle Borgolte's own personal realization that current European circumstances require history to be written and taught on a much broader canvas when I underline that what was a recent and epoch-making turning point in his intellectual life (that is, the presence of a [German-born Turkish] Muslim in his Berlin seminar on Charlemagne during a discussion of the historical affects of Mohammed, described on p. 21), has been a routine matter of course for me (and surely not only for me) in twenty years of teaching early medieval history, which necessarily always includes "the Rise of Islam," in American universities with diverse student bodies. The goal of Borgolte's Berlin institute, namely to establish -- alongside, and benefiting from, the usual national(ist) histories -- a medieval scholarship free from national(ist) constraints which will take a broadly defined "Europe" itself as its subject, is a goal which inevitably must have a very different, and far less revolutionary, resonance for non-European scholars than for European (especially German) ones. Yet, does not this very difference present the international community of medieval historians with an extremely promising opportunity? Were an explicit recognition of the dramatically different research and teaching milieux of North American and other non-European medievalists somehow incorporated into the very project of Borgolte's Institute, the Humboldt University (as befits the legacy of its namesake) could perhaps become a preferred collaborator and sabbatical/leave base of medievalists everywhere from India, through Israel, to Canada, in ways that should deeply enrich both the visitors and the Institute.

[[1]] The sole exception is the contribution of Jerzy Strzelczyk, "Auf der Suche nach der nationalen Identität im Mittelalter. Der Fall Polen" (359-369). Also relatively out of place in the scheme of things is the contribution by Svetlana Luchitskaja, "Les idoles musulmanes. Images et réalités" (p283-298); this essay is, however, an extremely useful survey of the already extensive scholarly literature on European Christian (mis)perceptions and (mis)representations of medieval Islamic practices.

[[2]] Daniela Rando, "Mediaevistische Venedig-Forschung 1850-1950. Ein erster Ueberblick zu Themen und Problemen" (171-184).

[[3]] Marina Paramonova, "Familienkonflikt und Brudermord in der Wenzel-Hagiographie. Zwei Modetelle des Martyriums" (249-282).

[[4]] Geoffrey W.S. Barrow, "Divisions of Territory in the early Middle Ages. England and Scotland compared" (301-314).

[[5]] Tore Nyberg, "Fruehes und spates Mittelalter in Skandinavien -- ein moeglicher Vergleich?" (197 - 208).

[[6]] Sverre Bagge, "Medieval Societies and Historiography" (223-247); Bagge's methodological focus on "modes of perception" is explicitly borrowed from William Brandt's long neglected The Shape of Medieval History (New Haven, 1966).

[[7]] François Menant, "Quelques possibilities de comparaison dans l'histoire rurale des XIIe-XIIIe siècles, à partir d'exemples lombards" (89-96).

[[8]] Johannes Helmrath, "Partikularsynoden und Synodalstatuten des spaeteren Mittelalters im europaeischen Vergleich. Vorueberlegungen zu einem moeglichen Projekt" (135-169).

[[9]] David L. d'Avray, "Comparative History of the Medieval Church's Marriage System" (209-221).

[[10]] Hans-Werner Goetz, "Fruehmittelalterliche Grundherrschaften und ihre Erforschung im europaeischen Vergleich" (65-87).

[[11]] Sawomir Gawlas, "Die Probleme des Lehnswesens und des Feudalismus aus polnischer Sicht" (97-123).

[[12]] Gadi Algazi, "Hofkulturen im Vergleich. 'Liebe' bei den fruehen Abbasiden" (187- 197); a fuller version of the same discussion is also available in Gadi Algazie and Rina Drory, "L'amour à la cour des 'abbasides: Un code de competence sociale" in Annales 55 (2000): 1255-1282.

[[13]]Karl-Heinz Spiess, "Hoefische Feste im Europa des 15. Jahrhunderts" (339-357).

[[14]] "...wir ganz am Beginn unserer Arbeit stehen...So koennte hier und heute etwas Neues versucht werden" (Michael Borgolte, "Perspektiven europaeischer Mittelalterhistorie an der Schwelle zum 21. Jahrhundert" (13-27, citations at 13).

[[15]] Otto Gerhard Oexle, "Staende und Gruppen. Ueber das Europaeische in der europaeischen Geschichte" (39-48).

[[16]] János Bak, "Probleme einer vergleichenden Betrachtung mittelalterlicher Eliten in Ostmitteleuropa" (49-64).

[[117]] Bernd Schneidmueller, "Aussenblicke fuer das eigene Herz. Vergleichende Wahrnehmung politischer Ordnung im hochmittelalterlichen Deutschland und Frankreich" (315-338).

[[18]]Frank Rexroth, "Der Vergleich in der Erforschung des europaeischen Mittelalter. Versuch eines Resuemees" (371-380).

[[19]] Patrick J. Geary, "Vergleichende Geschichte und sozialwissenschaftliche Theorie" (29-38).

[[20]] Jan M. Piskorski, "Die 'Koenigsfreien' und die mittelalterliche Kolonisation" (125- 133); the article conveys some of the specific conclusions of Piskorski's Kolonizacja wiejska Pomorza Zachodniego w XIII I w pocztkach XIV wieku na tle procesow osadniczych w redniowiecznej Europie (Posnan, 1990), and discusses them within the context of more recent scholarship, including the contributions to his own forthcoming edited volume, The So-Called East Colonization in the Historiography.

[[21]] Borgolte's assertion that "eine europaeische Geschichte gibt es offenkundig noch nicht; was es gibt, sind nationale Geschichtswissenschaften" (14) is clearly exaggerated.

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Author Biography

Felice Lifshitz

Florida International University