The Medieval Review 12.06.40

Knaeble, Susanne, Silvan Wagner and Viola Wittmann. Gott und Tod: Tod und Sterben in der höfischen Kultur des Mittelalters. Bayreuther forum Transit, Kulturwissenschaftliche Religionsstudien, 10. Münster: LIT Verlag, 2011. Pp. 346, 25 b/w photos. 49.90 EUR. ISBN: 978-3-643-10868-5.

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
The University of Arizona

The papers contained in this volume dedicated to the topic of "God and Death: Death and Dying in the Courtly Medieval Culture" were first presented at a symposium at the University of Bayreuth (northern Bavaria/Germany) in October 2009. The editors have all recently completed their doctoral programs and are teaching at the Institute of Medieval German Philology in Bayreuth. In the introduction they outline the fundamental issue with death as dealt with by poets and artists in the Middle Ages and also review what some of the leading scholarly authorities have said about this issue. Considering their own research orientation toward medieval German literature, it does not come as a surprise that non-German scholarship hardly figures here, but unfortunately that is the case throughout the entire volume.

The articles are grouped together into three larger categories, first, images and models of perception of death; then the death of the hero and staging or performance of death in the Christian/Pagan context. The third group deals with the perception of and interaction with death in secular and theological texts. The volume does not conclude with an index or biographies of the individual contributors. I seriously doubt that the authors reflected upon each others' works, since there are no cross-references. In fact, there are some duplications and overlapping, which the editors might not have noticed. The book wants to focus on the Middle Ages, but several contributors focus on the early modern time, such as Gerhard Wolf with his study on the chronicles of the Count of Zimmern, and to some extent on antiquity, such as Ulrich Berner (concepts of immortality and the rise from the dead) and Joachim Kügler (masculinity in the New Testament). It remains a bit unclear what the overarching topic really might have implied, since most articles do not really explore the meaning of death and instead investigate examples of protagonists in their death throes. Overall, however, the papers are well written, considering that many contributors seem to be early in their careers. This also means, unfortunately, that despite fairly extensive footnotes in most cases, only a small range of the relevant research literature has been consulted or engaged with. This volume is simply not up-to-date in terms of the relevant recent scholarship.

Gerhard Wolf begins with an analysis of how the famous chronicler Froben von Zimmern (early 16th century) approached death and probed for himself the meaning of the afterlife, that is, how he searched for transcendence in the immanence of human existence--an issue which would be absolutely fundamental in any human quest about the nature of death both then and today. Ariane Bauer discusses the interaction between confessors and their famous penitents, Ekbert von Schönau vs. Elisabeth von Schönau, Konrad von Marburg vs. Elisabeth von Thüringen, and Johannes Marienwerder vs. Dorothea von Montau. Ingrid Bennewitz outlines the presentation of old women in medieval German literature (see now the contributions to Old Ages in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ed. A. Classen, 2007), while Norbert H. Ott surveys medieval book illustrations representing death, including scenes of the death of dance. Insofar as he also turns to the Zimmern chronicle, it would have been helpful if he had engaged with Wolf's arguments and vice versa.

In Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (ca. 1205) and in his fragementary Titurel (ca. 1218) we encounter the dying or moribund female figure Sigûne, who is virtually, as Susanne Knaeble suggests, presented as a saint already before her death. Esther P. Wipfler (the table of contents ignores her middle initial) traces the changes in the depiction of death in devotional images during the late Middle Ages, when it gained in dramatic intensity. Hubertus Fischer discusses the way Wolfram described the death of Vivianz in Wolfram's Willehalm (ca. 1220) in contrast to the death of Gahmuret in Parzival, who dies in the distant east, while Vivianz undergoes a glorious death as a martyr on the battlefield.

Claudia Lauer emphasizes once more the negative characterization of Alphart's death in the eponymous late-medieval heroic poem, which the poet regarded as illogical or as the result of violence and wrath. Viola Wittmann explores the way how the anonymous poet of the Nibelungenlied discusses death, especially since here the entire Burgundian army, including Kriemhild, and most of the people under King Etzel's rule, succumb to death. She focuses, above all, on Rüdiger's tragic death, but her attempt to correlate this with a reference to God and the devil does not work well (see now my contribution on this figure to Friendship in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Ages, ed. A. Classen, 2010; here not consulted).

One of the few really interesting articles proves to be the one by Ralf Schlechtweg-Jahn on the element of fear as expressed by the Saracens in face of death in Priest Konrad's Rolandslied (ca. 1170), which he identifies, following Homi Bhabba, as 'third space,' somewhere between transcendence and immanence (see above the study by Wolf). While the Christians die with full confidence in God's mercy and grace, the heathens despair because they can no longer trust their own gods. Nadine Hufnagel revisits Wernher der Gardenære's Helmbrecht in light of the larger question pursued in this volume, that is, the way how his ultimate death at the hand of the irrate peasants is presented, arguing that with his death the old order is reestablished--of course. Sonja Feldmann compares the depiction of the death or rather burial and lamentation of Pallas and Camilla in Heinrich von Veldeke's Eneit, observing that only in the case of Pallas the question regarding the dead ruler's succession is raised, because he is male, while Camilla ruled over the Amazons. Nothing else could be expected in the patriarchal world of the Middle Ages.

Matthias Johannes Bauer reflects on the strategy to present the death of rulers in the Prosakaiserchronik, which is, as the name already indicates, the prose version of the famous twelfth-century Kaiserchronik. Most of the rulers die of a violent death, Nero commits suicide, and some others die from a disease. Ulrich Berner traces the development of the concept regarding the Christian belief in the afterlife and immortality of the soul throughout the Middle Ages, but considering this huge topic, he can only give a snapshot, and then refers to his own doctoral dissertation on this topic (Berlin 2007). Wolfgang Schoberth investigates various aspects of Christian approaches to death, afterlife, sainthood, and the faith in Christ, but this is so broad and so inclusive that we do not gain much from his efforts. Silvan Wagner, again relying mostly on her dissertation (published 2009), presents examples of how death punctuated the lives of individuals in late-medieval verse narratives, injecting a sudden sense of repentance and need to reform one's life. Joachim Kügler concludes this volume with an article on Saint Paul's perception of death and its spiritual meaning within the framework of gender, insofar as men always assumed a higher position than women even in the afterlife.

No doubt, this is a solid volume, and one is confronted with a wide range of topics and materials (literary and art-historical), but the editors have not put the contributions in a good thematic order, have not urged their authors to revise their papers more extensively, and have not given a clear theoretical foundation for what this volume was supposed to achieve. There are hardly any new insights, and the level of critical engagement with the data is rather low. The obvious absence of peer reviewing meant that most papers reiterate standard and well-researched issues and ideas, without really offering new insights, exceptions being those contributions by Bennewitz, Ott, and Schlechtweg-Jahn.

Copyright (c) 2012 Albrecht Classen

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