14.09.04, Frakes, Vernacular and Latin Literary Discourses of the Muslim Other in Medieval Germany

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Astrid Lembke

The Medieval Review 14.09.04

Frakes, Jerold C.. Vernacular and Latin Literary Discourses of the Muslim Other in Medieval Germany. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp. 233. ISBN: 978-0-230-11087-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Astrid Lembke
Ruprecht-Karls-Universit├Ąt Heidelberg

Many of the questions and issues addressed by scholars engaging in postcolonial studies have in recent years been adapted to and put to use in various fields of research on the European Middle Ages, including Old English and Romance Philology. In Medieval German Philology, however, the set of postcolonial theories has up to now been widely disregarded, thereby neglecting an analytical tool for opening up new perspectives on old German texts as well as on contemporary scholarship and its traditions. Jerold C. Frakes deserves credit for being one of the first scholars of Medieval German literature to catch up on this default. By bringing together medieval discourses and postcolonial perceptions, his study on literary discourses of the Muslim Other effectively produces new insights into medieval social practices of Othering and discrimination on the one hand and into the unique features and functioning of specific German texts on the other.

To this end, Frakes examines varying ways of constructing representations of Muslims and their religion, culture and race in a number of influential texts from different genres. He bases his study on Hrotsvit von Gandersheim's version of the Pelagius legend, the anonymous "Ludus de Antichristo," Wolfram von Eschenbach's epics "Parzival" and "Willehalm" as well as on several lyrical texts by Walther von der Vogelweide. All of these texts discuss what to make of the Muslim Other, often using similar tropes but applying them differently according to the respective text's context of production and reception. The author justifies his focus on literary representations of Muslims and Islam by pointing to their prominent position as the radically distinguished Other in many literary sources, which in turn is due to the potential danger and threat ascribed to Muslims and their religion in Medieval European imagination.

In order to counter the popular notion that literary discourses should be judged according to their correctness, i.e. the extent to which they conform to a given reality, Frakes stresses time and again that in his study of literary and political discourse he is much more interested in Medieval images of the Muslim Other than in what Christians actually knew or could know about their Muslim neighbours. Rather, it is Frakes' intention to find out how fictional literature served to create certain patterns of thought and to modify and consolidate them so that the image they shaped developed a life of its own and foreclosed rather than enabled any simple changes or readjustments. In order to describe these literary mechanisms of representation, Frakes draws on the methods of postcolonial theory as developed by Edward Said for research on modern Imperialism, Eurocentrism and Orientalism and modified by his successors in order to apply them to premodern conditions. As the author convincingly demonstrates, the benefits yielded by transferring a method intended for the analysis of modern phenomena to premodern texts extend beyond the field of literary criticism: postcolonial theory must necessarily gain from a historization of its objects of interpretation just as well (28-9). Thus, on the one hand an investigation of medieval colonial practices may uncover the relative stability of discourses on the Other that continue to be relevant far beyond the Middle Ages. To consider the varying historical contexts in which these discourses are articulated, on the other hand, will help to realize how differently certain fragments of those discourses could be employed and combined.

Frakes' first example, Hrotsvit von Gandersheim's tenth century "Pelagius," stages the hero's martyrdom in a way that lets the person responsible for the saint's death, the caliph of Cordoba, appear not only as a despotic ruler but as a monstrous, murderous and treacherous sodomite. This depiction may have been meant to lend a moral component to the Christian claim to power in Muslim Spain. In the "Ludus de Antichristo" from the twelfth century, in contrast, the confrontation between Christians and Muslims is not limited to a number of individuals but encompasses the whole world and its struggle between evil and salvation: in the end, all "nonbelievers" are either killed or converted to the Christian faith.

This dramatic text is therefore based on a phenomenon that Frakes calls "mandatory Muslim metamorphosis" (59). According to the author, Muslims per se ("that is, Muslims simply living their lives as independent subjects without becoming the objects of Christian authority, whether missionizing or otherwise" [63]) do not exist in Middle High German literature. He identifies four types of metamorphosis that Muslims have to undergo as a rule: 1) a character's Muslim identity has already been exchanged for a Christian identity before the narration begins; 2) a character's identity is changed during the course of the narration, in the majority of cases by conversion; 3) a Muslim character resisting any other kind of transformation is killed or 4) a character's Muslim identity is simply forgotten, denied or physically "removed" during the course of the narration. Frakes summarizes: "The majority of the Muslims are transformed by death, some few by conversion, and fewer still (mostly women) by conversion and marriage, and only a bare handful by physical transformations. In any case and under whatever conditions they make contact with Christian Europeans, they are presumed to be ripe for metamorphosis, whether by the sword, the cross, or, it seems, the pen itself" (93). Even Wolfram von Eschenbach, whose works are renowned for their complex characters and the intricate relationships between them, an author who has often been said to propagate medieval ideas of tolerance and humanity, did not, according to Frakes, create even a single Muslim character that is acknowledged and respected as such in the long term.

This point is important to the author: the refusal to join in the still widespread scholarly auratization of Wolfram as a proto-modern author. Using the example of Wolfram's "Willehalm," Frakes shows how strongly research on Gyburc's famous so-called "speech of tolerance" has been and is still influenced by the assumption that the medieval author champions an attitude of tolerance towards the Muslim Other that distinguishes him from his contemporaries. Frakes categorically rejects such a reading. In his opinion, the significance of Gyburc's speech (and her calling the Muslims God's creatures or even God's children) should be greatly reduced. Whoever takes the speech's context into consideration must needs realize, Frakes argues, that this text articulates an utterly condescending and contemptuous attitude towards the Muslims, just like any other piece of medieval courtly literature.

The same is true for literary representations of Muslims in a non-epic medieval genre, the crusader lyric. In these texts, the geo-politic dimensions of a discourse of Muslims as debased and hostile carries even more weight. Even when a poem criticizes the Christian crusade project, the text thereby voices pragmatic or personal concerns rather than the acceptance of Muslim claims to rule in the Holy Land. To be sure, Frakes cites two stanzas from Walther von der Vogelweide's "Wiener Hofton" that articulate the idea that Muslims and Jews venerate the same God as the Christians and can therefore hardly be defined as radically different (Im dienent kristen, juden unde heiden / der elliu lebenden wunder nert). All in all, however, even these two stanzas cannot convince the author that the High Middle Ages witness a paradigm shift that leads to increased contact with and increased interest in Muslims as well as to an increased acceptance of the Other as an Other, as has often been argued in recent scholarship. Whenever Muslims appear in literary discourses, they are depicted as inferior and in need of a metamorphosis that makes them acceptable for a Christian environment.

There are a few aspects of Frakes' study that deserve some criticism. Concerning the analysis of Wolfram's "Willehalm," for example, one might argue that this text and its discourse of the Muslim Other is eventually more complex and polyphonous than Frakes concedes: even if Gyburc's speech cannot be termed a "speech of tolerance" and even if its significance for the ensuing plot as well as for the text's concept of the Muslim Other should be reduced strongly in scholarly interpretation, it is hard to deny that it at least hints at a conciliatory attitude towards the Muslim characters. Furthermore, it seems to me problematic that the author focuses almost exclusively on the Othering of the Muslims for political purposes. This constricted perspective almost conceals the fact that a discourse of the Other is in many ways always a discourse of the Self, too. When medieval German authors speak about Muslims, it might well be the case that they speak about themselves, i.e. about what a Christian, European or courtly identity is like, is not like or should be like. From this point of view, Frakes' "Muslims" would not even be orientalized images of Muslims but simply an accumulation of everything simultaneously fascinating and rejectable, thus creating a negative image of the community which uses this figure of thought to make a statement about itself, and only on a second level about anybody else.

One of the merits of this book lies in the de-auratization of prized medieval authors like Wolfram von Eschenbach and Walther von der Vogelweide. Frakes' often polemical turning against the mainstream of scholarly research opens the view for the "Zeitgebundenheit" and comparability even of works produced by the masters of medieval fictional literature. He reveals apologetic tendencies in literary criticism and shows the way to new modes of approaching topics that cannot be treated without reflecting the researcher's own involvement into the objects of his or her research. By using a methodological set of tools that has so far been but rarely employed in Old German Philology in order to analyze canonical texts, Frakes offers new insights into those texts and the applicability and limits of postcolonial theory. The directness and clarity of the author's assumptions and arguments moreover opens the floor for discussions that will stimulate scholarly debate inspiringly.

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Astrid Lembke

Ruprecht-Karls-Universit├Ąt Heidelberg