The Medieval Review 17.07.04

Arlinghaus, Franz-Joseph, ed. Forms of Individuality and Literacy in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods. Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, 31. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. 317. ISBN: 978-2-503-55220-0. (hardback).

Reviewed by:

David F. Appleby
Thomas Aquinas College

Based on a collection of papers originally presented at a conference held in Bielefeld in 2009, this volume is a welcome and unusual addition to the Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy series. It focuses on the relationship between various forms of individuality and literacy in medieval and early modern Europe and is unusual not only because it extends beyond the Middle Ages, but because of the thematic presence in most of its chapters of the theory of individuality developed by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-98) and his followers.

F.-J. Arlinghaus offers a lucid account of Luhmann's theory in "Conceptualizing Pre-Modern and Modern Individuality: Some Theoretical Considerations." In the last generation, thinking about pre-modern individuality has moved well beyond the progressive account of nineteenth-century scholars, especially Jacob Burckhardt, who maintained that the modern western awareness of individuality had its origins in quattrocento Italy. In order to reduce the tendency to legitimize our own way of life, Arlinghaus urges that we clarify what we mean by "individuality" and consciously employ a theoretical framework. The concept of "the modern individual as being autonomous, rational and almost independent of a society he--it is mostly 'he'--lives in" (14), is itself ideologically heavily freighted. The modern autobiographies that purport to discover and represent this unified inner self now impress us more as a way of creating and staging such a self than as a means of documenting something that already existed. The autobiographical categories of "authenticity" and "truth" now appear as topoi of an older form of self-narrative, ego-document, or autofiction. Arlinghaus and the other contributors to this volume treat individualism of whatever sort and complexion as something time-bound and culture-specific, a changing code of practices, thought, and sentiment that affects a subject, that is, "a socially-culturally modelled entity" (19).

As for theoretical framework, Arlinghaus discusses Georg Simmel's distinction between a premodern society comprising various concentric circles, or circles not touching one another, and a more complex modern society in which there are many circles--professional, religious, ethnic, family, political, etc.--which often intersect but seldom overlap. The premodern person's identity as an individual is a function of his/her membership in one circle or another, but usually not several. The modern person, by contrast, is often forced to determine his/her identity through some sort of synthesis of two or more of the social circles he/she occupies. Luhmann's model of inclusion individuality and exclusion individuality depends upon a similar view of how the person's consciousness is a function of the social relations in which he/she lives. But Luhmann sees modern society as comprised not of circles but systems, which are spheres of shared meaning and communication. "In a functionally highly differentiated society, the individual participates in each of the different systems only in the form of (limited) roles" (22). Such a society does not present persons with individual identities. There is not a societal space for the self; one must reflect upon one's various functional roles in order to arrive at an individual identity. This is exclusion individuality. It is exclusive not because one's participation in politics, work, family, religion, clubs, etc., does not shape individuality, but because each person's effort to synthesize their various functional roles into a single identity results in the creation of a conceptual space outside of society.

In premodern societies, the limited number of systems and roles made it fairly easy for a person to belong to a single societal sub-system and to experience his or her individuality as included within that sub-system and society as a whole. Because purely functional roles were uncommon, the theory considers premodern societies as segmentary-strataficational. The groups that formed segments of society, such as household, guild, religious order, worked as agents of inclusion and often had rites of initiation that make it clear that a member's participation in that group was not merely functional and limited but involved the whole person. The social status of persons depended upon the vertical position of that person's group within an explicitly understood social hierarchy. Admission to a group was not primarily emotional or psychological but involved a "change in what might be called the total legal situation (the universal position) and the social status of the persons involved" (29). Inclusion individuality was inclusive because society provided the individual a place in which he or she might exist as a social being. The claim here is that in premodern societies persons interacted in a given situation according to expectations based predominantly on each one's rank and status as a member of a group or community.

Any general model by its nature cannot perfectly fit each historical case. As a medieval historian, Arlinghaus is aware that Luhmann's picture of medieval society is somewhat simplified and inaccurate. The very purpose of the collection is to allow historians to assess the explanatory value of the model in their fields. Arlinghaus takes a closer look at inclusion individuality in the cases of Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg (d. 1018) and the Augsburg merchant Lucas Rem (d. 1541), and identifies two among many possible "strategies" by which people realized individuality in medieval societies. One way was to outdo others in fulfilling or overfulfilling the norms of one's group, and thereby attaining a premodern form of individuality not by rejecting group standards but by surpassing others in observing them. A second strategy involved assigning oneself a place within a group of people whose virtues and achievements distinguish them as impressive representatives of their group.

Mareike Böth's "Bodily Practices as an Expression of 'Individuality' in the Letters of Liselotte von der Pfalz (1652-1722)" reviews the more than 6000 surviving letters of Elisabeth Charlotte, Princess of the Palatinate, who was sent from Germany at age nineteen to marry Philippe d'Orléans, brother of Louis XIV, and reside at the royal court in Versailles. Böth examines the letters as ego-documents and says that the "function of writing as an everyday practice of self-reassurance becomes particularly clear in Elisabeth Charlotte's writing about her body, her everyday practice and her perceptions of health and illness" (54). Through these bodily practices Liselotte positioned herself in relation to courtly society and performed an individual identity that conformed to the virtues and norms of her family reference group.

In "Loci of Medieval Individuality: A Methodological Inquiry," Brigitte M. Bedos-Rezak arrives at a less positive conclusion about the applicability of Luhmann's model to medieval history. She reminds us that systems theory is itself a historical product, and that its dependence upon the evolutionary biology, cybernetics, and information theory of a certain historical moment tends to mitigate its claim to universality. Bedos-Rezak then turns to what the medieval sources themselves say about the individual, especially in the fields of philosophy and theology, and finishes with a discussion of seals, a subject upon which she has published extensively. The use of seals as "an objectified extension of the self meant that physical identity could produce a novel type of transactional personhood, which in turn enabled the distribution of that particular personality. In fact, an individual could and did, via the sealing mechanism of imprinting, offer his personality as a sort of labelled commodity" (104-105). This raises the intriguing question of whether "the individual himself became himself the principle of his own de-individualisation" (106).

Eva Kormann considers German language autobiographical writings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in "Hetero-Reference and Heterology: Autobiographical Writing, Individuality, and Gender on the Threshold of the Modern Period." She has written extensively on this general theme before, and has found that many texts are not narrowly focused on the presentation of a unique, autonomous, rationally consistent self, but instead "create[d] differently collaged, fragmented and hybrid images" (110) not closed off from other persons and groups. She coined the term "heterologous subjectivity" to describe the "human self-awareness of the early modern," or in other words "a self-perception that describes one's own person with reference to family, social groups and social contexts and does not--like the modern--contain it in forced solipsisms" (110). The autonomous female subject cannot be found (110) on either side of 1800, the Sattelzeit between the early modern and modern periods. Women's autobiographical writings, often in the form of letter collections, remained heterologous and exhibited an individuality that would qualify as inclusive rather than exclusive.

In "Expressing Your Self in Later Medieval England: Individuality and Social Differentiation," David Gary Shaw takes a careful look at the social self as presented in writing by William Worcestre and Thomas Hoccleve. These men lived in a world in which sumptuary legislation appears to have aimed at limiting the diversification of personal social identities. "People were not slotting themselves into new categories; they were making them"(132). But the new categories were personal rather than functional. Hoccleve's poetry explores interiority not so much in emulation of Augstine's Confessions but as a performance of "a self understood and constituted as a social self in crisis" (139). Worcestre, by contrast, includes highly personal comments about his relation to particular buildings and trees in his travel writings. Both cases Shaw sees as instances of a new "expressive individuality, possibly even that atomistic individuality that reveals people pulling away from group identities" (122). Recognizing this development depends upon taking individuals seriously as conscious agents and initiators, not merely as micro-systems sketchily related to the larger social system.

In "'Individuality', Relationships, Words about Oneself: Autobiographical Writing as a Resource," Gabriele Jancke turns to the autobiography of Konrad Pellikan (d. 1556), a professor of Old Testament studies in Zurich, in order to make some observations about the ways that fifteenth- and sixteenth-century German language authors of autobiographical texts described themselves. Writers tended to represent themselves in terms of "relationships, activities, and resources, thus shifting attention to those concepts of person and society which are focused on 'doing person' and on agency, on belonging and exercising power over common matters" (172). Jancke considers "individualism" in most of its current usages to be an unhelpful concept here, and systems theory too seems to rely on an understanding of "person" that is "so close to the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century notions of the autonomous individual as to be of questionable analytical use" (173).

Matthias Meyer employs literary analysis in "Individuality and Narration: The Cases of Ulrich von Leichtenstein, Helene Kottanerin, and Johannes Tichtel." He treats three autobiographical writings as representations, not of the individualism of actual persons, but as indications "of how individuality was conceived of at the time of writing" (181). Meyer considers the Frauendienst of Ulrich von Liechtenstein the most individual piece of thirteenth-century literature even though it does not present a unified narrative individual. The fifteenth-century memoir of Helene Kottanerin affords glimpses of the writer "that somehow create a picture of an individual...Whether they are at all mimetic of the real-life individual Helene Kottanerin, we cannot know" (191). The third text, notes that the fifteenth-century Viennese physician Johannes Tichtel made in the margins of a volume of Avicenna, "is the most personal document of my three examples, and whereas it does not offer a narrated individual, it gives, according to its genre, a kind of inventory of a self, for not much is really missing" (195). In other words, it is the non-narrative text that gives us the most reliable inventory of a historical self, the elements from which one could construct the picture of a possible individual.

Second only to that of Arlinghaus, Gregor Rohmann's chapter, "Kinship as Catalyst of Individuation in Sixteenth-Century German House Books: A Reconsideration of Niklas Luhmann's Approach to Pre-Modern Individuality," presents the most extensive and helpful account of systems theory along with a specific critique of that theory in its application to medieval and early modern history. One helpful feature of this discussion is Rohmann's presentation of the distinction between the social structures (generalized expectations within society) of a given period and the semantics (the way people speak about an issue) of that period. Rohmann warns against "correlating 'hetero-referentiality' with pre-modern and 'self-referentiality' with modern individuality," because this "tends to reproduce classical stereotypes concerning the history of subjectivity" by failing to distinguish carefully enough between structure and semantics (214). Finally, his consideration of early modern house books leads Rohmann to conclude that it was the father's heterologous recognition of his role within the (now patrilineal) family that emboldened him to speak about himself as "I." In other words, changing patterns of kinship were not an obstacle to individuation but its medium in the early modern period.

In "Me, Myself, and My Name: Naming and Identity in the Late Middle Ages," Christof Rolker treats given names and surnames as two among many signs used to represent individuals and groups. Other signs include "seals, coats of arms, notary signs, signatures, trade marks, clothing, hair cuts, scars, pilgrim badges, jewellery," all of which "help to single out the individual and to locate him or her within a certain social context" (234). He tests Luhmann's idea of premodern inclusion individuality (according to which membership in groups usually involved the whole person, not merely playing a certain limited role) by examining some late medieval "naming practices that can be linked to the assumption of specific roles and/or multiple allegiances" (238). While the emergence of family names and married names in the late Middle Ages "seems to provide straightforward evidence for the definition of individuality by belonging to this or that family, a closer look at the use or non-use of surnames reveals evidence for role-playing normally associated with 'modern' individuality" (255-256).

Heike Schlie considers the costume book of Matthäus Schwarz, a bookkeeper of the Fugger merchants in Augsburg in the sixteenth century, in "Body and Time: The Representation of the Naked and Clothed Self in Religious, Social, and Cosmological Orders (Matthäus Schwarz, 1497-1574)." She argues that the costume book reveals Schwarz staging his individual self on two levels, that of christoformitas and that of secular time and culture. Assimilation to Christ occurs especially in the images of his pregnant mother and of his naked body. "For Schwarz, fashion is not only a means to 'manage and structure his biographical time' but to link his personal lifetime to the general chronometric time; as such he is a witness of time. The clothed body and the naked body are different clocks important for Schwarz: the naked body is his salvation clock. In the costume of the flesh he is a Christological witness" (290).

In "Dialogue Situations: Considerations of Self-Identification in the Middle Ages," Sabine Schmolinsky considers first-person dialogues, both pretend and real, represented as taking place among present interlocutors, in medieval sources. In the correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, for example, we find clear traces of an effort to construct a suitable public persona "for the honorable memory of a living saint and Spirit-filled person" (311). Again, Schmolinsky notes that the first of two late antique epitomes of the Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis included a dialogue involving the martyrs and the Roman proconsul that had not been included in the original version. It also omitted several prose narratives that provided more information about the circumstances and identity of these martyrs. In this case, "'dialogisation' made invisible what can be regarded as a self-testimony of the early third century" (316). Here first-person dialogue is clearly hetero-referential, but not a move toward individuality. Dialogic self-identification, which Schmolinsky pictures "as a specific blend of self-referential as well as hetero-referential modes" (316) is a promising field for approaching the individual.

Copyright (c) 2017 David F. Appleby

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