12.11.18, Hartmann, Studien zu den Briefen Abt Wibalds von Stablo und Corvey sowie zur Briefliteratur in der frühen Stauferzeit

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John D. Cotts

The Medieval Review 12.11.18

Hartmann, Martina. Studien zu den Briefen Abt Wibalds von Stablo und Corvey sowie zur Briefliteratur in der frühen Stauferzeit. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Studien und Texte, 52. Hannover:Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 2011. Pp. xvi, 142. ISBN: 978-3-7752-5712-1.

Reviewed by:

John D. Cotts
Whitman College

Twelfth-century letters and letter collections have provided scholars with a wealth of information about the literate culture of the period, but they also presented serious problems relating to source criticism. Few pieces that purport to be letters survive in their original form, and most survive attached to other works or in collections and they probably bear little resemblance to the original documents sent from the writer to the recipient. Moreover, the terms "letter" and "epistle" can be applied to an incredible variety of medieval documents. As a literary genre and historical source, then, the twelfth-century letter has been defined very vaguely. Martina Hartmann's somewhat idiosyncratic but extremely useful volume demonstrates the value of these sources for German administrative and political history, and also suggests ways to approach their inherent problems most effectively.

Wibald of Stavelot and Corvey (1098-1158), who figured prominently in the court circle of the German kings Lothar III, Conrad III and (to a lesser extent) Frederick I Barbarossa, left behind one of the most intriguing of all medieval epistolary monuments: a sprawling, autograph copy of a "letter-book" comprising some 450 letters written to and from him, along with letters to and from other parties relevant to Wibald's career as an abbot and royal advisor. The letter-book served him as a kind of "portable archive" that allowed him to keep track of politics and business while following the royal court. Wibald wrote some of his letters, however, before he assembled the book, and he left others out of it entirely. Hartmann has here introduced and edited thirteen of those letters, and provided a register of 100 litterae deperditae, lost letters that can be identified and (sometimes) partially reconstructed from references in the main collection. Her final two chapters discuss the importance of the letter-book for our understanding of letter-writing in the twelfth century and for letters as sources for the decades on either side of 1150. The present volume, then, is essentially a supplement to the edition of the letter-book that Hartmann will soon publish with commentary in the MGH's series Briefe der deutschen Kaiserzeit. By removing these letters from the main letter-book, Hartmann emphasizes that Wibald consciously created the letter-book as a distinct document and challenges readers to think about the role of letters and letter collections in twelfth-century literate culture.

After a succinct but clear introductory chapter that discusses the background to the letters as wells as the provenance of the relevant manuscripts, Hartmann divides the edition into three parts: seven letters from Wibald's early career (ca. 1120-1137), designated A-G; six epistolae vagantes from 1146-1159 numbered I-VI; and the register of lost letters (deperditae), most of which date from the 1140s and 1150s.

The early letters printed here nicely represent the possibilities of the genre. Hartmann's edition begins with a query from Wibald to his former teacher Rupert of Deutz about whether masturbation constitutes a loss of virginity and whether non-virgins can be true nuns, followed by Rupert's reply, which in the manuscripts is accompanied by his treatise De laesione virginitatis--his extended answer to Wibald's questions about sexual morality. In this case the letters serve both as a vehicle of instruction, a networking tool between a monk and his mentor, and an introduction to a theological work. Similarly, in Letter C the monk Robert of Waulsort presents Wibald with a copy of a Life of Waulsort's patron, St. Forannan, while Letter D is Wibald's reply to Robert's abbot. The last three letters of the first part (E, F, and G) concern Wibald's very short stint as abbot of Monte Cassino, to which he had been elected thanks to the machinations of Lothar III on his Italian campaign of 1137. Wibald discusses none of the political forces that conditioned his resignation (upon which King Roger II of Sicily had insisted), and instead expresses goodwill to the brethren and the dean while returning the seal and ring of the abbatial office (this last detail perhaps explaining the letters' preservation at Monte Cassino itself).

The epistolae vagantes that comprise the second part of the edition are readily identifiable as "business letters" relating to Wibald's move from the abbacy of Stavelot, which he had ruled since 1130, to the important imperial abbey of Corvey in 1137. Preserved at Corvey itself and now resident in Münster, they include letters to and from Conrad III, a gracious exchange between the monks of Stavelot and Corvey about Wibald's move, and a letter from Wibald to the prior, provost, chapter and ministeriales of his new monastery announcing that Conrad has forgiven them a debt (55-56). These letters are brief and unadorned, most likely kept at Corvey to document the circumstances of its abbot's election. Throughout the edition, Hartmann's scholarship is impeccable and highly illuminating, as she carefully lays out the provenance of the manuscripts, the editorial history of the letters, and variant readings when multiple manuscript witnesses are extant.

Perhaps surprisingly, the most intriguing portion of the book is the register of litterae deperditae, which brilliantly reveals the political uses of the twelfth-century letter. Here Hartmann lists all the letters whose writing and sending can be gleaned from Wibald's letter-book (and occasionally corroborated elsewhere), but which are not themselves extant. Perhaps the easiest letters to reconstruct are those to which replies are extant. Wibald and his correspondents also frequently referred to the use of letters in general discussions of business. Hartmann provides the textual evidence from the letter-book in each entry, as in the representative example of no. 49 from Wibald to Archbishop Hartwig of Hamburg-Bremen, which he mentioned in a later letter to the same recipient: "Recordamini quod, postquam ad archiepiscopatus culmen ascendistis, litteras prudentiae vestrae transmisimus, in quibus vos intimo affectu de quibusdam premonere ac praemunire studuimus..." (77). The addressees and recipients include some of the most important figures of the day, including Conrad III and Frederick Barbarossa, Roger II of Sicily, Popes Eugenius III and Hadrian IV, Anselm of Havelberg, and Duke Henry of Saxony. That letters broached politically sensitive subjects is clear from three lost letters (nos. 50-53) from Roger II asking great German princes to revolt against Conrad (77-78). In addition, we can glean some of the details of epistolary practice from these references, such as the use of messengers (e.g., 79).

In the last two chapters, Hartmann offers little in the way of analysis or commentary on the edited letters, but instead turns her attention to the implications of Wibald's letter-book for our understanding of twelfth-century correspondence. For scholars outside of Germany, these chapters will provide a marvelously concise overview of the tradition of German scholarship on eleventh- and twelfth-century letters, including the foundational work of Carl Erdmann from the 1930s. In contrast to the more literary and spiritual letter collections on which most Anglophone and Francophone scholarship has focused, Wibald's letter-book consists primarily of writings about administration and political struggles, issues that were important to the personnel in the imperial chancery. Thus, as Hartmann points out, "the question of the character of Wibald's letter-book is at the same time the question of how the imperial chancery worked" (98). It seems likely that the chancery did keep letters in its possession, which Wibald could consult and copy, and this is corroborated by the many imperial letters and charters inserted in the Otto of Freising's Chronicle (99). In addition, the anonymous chronicler of Corvey included similar letters in the Chronographus Corbeiensis; this together with the evidence of certain epistolae vagantes suggests that that monastery possessed material from the imperial chancery that could be used both for the chronicle and Wibald's letter-book. Hartmann discusses other technical aspects of writing, namely the relatively scant use of dating in the correspondence and the use of drafts, occasionally on wax tablets in the preparation and transmission of messages. That the letters operated in a predominantly oral culture is made clear through a discussion of the use of messengers and the likelihood that some details would have been entrusted to them verbally.

Hartmann concludes by placing Wibald's letter-book in the context of epistolary practice in the German Empire between 1146-1158, and compares it with the letter collections such as those of the monasteries of Tegernsee, Admont, and Reinhardsbrunn. These collections can be complemented by attention to the letters preserve in Otto's Chronicle. Wibald's work stands out not only for its size but because Wibald himself was so important in imperial politics and administration. Hartmann carefully reconstructs the epistolary tradition around Conrad III and Frederick I, drawing together letters from the various collections but placing great emphasis on the importance of the imperial chancery's storage of letters. All of this suggests a growing role for the chancery in the production of documents. Ecclesiastical prelates, however, also used letters to conduct business and to comment on political controversies, and Wibald's letter-book fits into this trend perfectly. Wibald's correspondents included Archbishop Arnold II of Colgone, Bishop Anselm of Havelberg, and Abbot Adam of Ebrach. Although many of his correspondents can be found as senders and recipients of letters in other collections, Wibald's letter-book provides a unique window on the concerns of prelates in and around Saxony (125).

The edited letters themselves do not provide a significant amount of new information about Wibald and his world, but the volume as a whole sheds a great deal of light on an often frustrating source genre. Hartmann engages almost entirely with technical, German-language scholarship, which might frustrate some readers hoping to drawn connections with the letter collections more commonly studied in other scholarly traditions. What is here, however, will provide excellent material for furthering our understanding of twelfth-century letters and of the uses of literacy more generally.

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John D. Cotts

Whitman College