18.03.04, Lyon, Noble Society

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Johanna Dale

The Medieval Review 18.03.04

Lyon, Jonathan R., ed. Noble Society Five Lives from Twelfth-Century Germany. Medieval Sources. Manchester UK:Manchester University Press, 2017. pp. . ISBN: (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Johanna Dale
University College London

Timothy Reuter used to joke about the Anglolexia of English-speaking medieval historians, amongst whom more than a basic proficiency in the German language is seldom found. This has long been reflected in undergraduate teaching in the Anglophone world (and particularly in England where this reviewer was educated). The high-medieval Empire tends to receive cursory attention in survey modules and only to attract more sustained interest as the major secular protagonist in the mid-eleventh century clash between church and state that has come to be known as the Investiture Controversy. If twelfth-century Germany features in syllabi at all, then the figure of Frederick Barbarossa dominates, a testament to the continued influence of Otto of Freising, whose Gesta Frederici has been available in English translation since the 1950s. [1] More recent translations intended for use in undergraduate teaching have also focussed on this Hohenstaufen emperor. [2] How refreshing then, that this new volume in the Manchester Medieval Sources series makes available in translation for the first time five texts that demonstrate that twelfth-century Germany was not merely the stage for the exploits of one great man. These five biographical texts feature noble men and women, lay and religious, whose lives were lived mainly at a distance from the imperial court. Read together they provide a rich picture of aristocratic society in the German kingdom. The individual texts also lend themselves to being used in the teaching of other thematic topics, allowing the German experience to be integrated into modules on, for example, gender history or the religious life. This is a rich collection and, like other volumes in the Manchester stable, destined to become a staple of many undergraduate courses.

The volume begins with a general introduction, in which Lyon, with admirable clarity and precision, explains his choice of texts and provides a sketch of German noble society in the central middle ages. While inevitably many readers of the volume will hone in on individual texts, Lyon argues that the five texts form a coherent collection that can be read together fruitfully and the volume certainly rewards the reader who follows this advice. The texts, taken together, clearly demonstrate the interconnected nature of aristocratic society and the interweaving of secular and religious careers. Reading them together also challenges the reader to think more broadly about genre, the motivations of the monastic writers of these texts, and why they chose to record the lives and deeds of these men and women: a margrave, a bishop, a magistra, an abbess and a count. Following the general introduction, the five texts are presented in chronological order (according to the date of the subject's death) with each text provided with its own short introduction focusing on the protagonist of the text and what is known of its author and manuscript tradition. Where appropriate maps and genealogies are also supplied.

The first text in the volume, The deeds of Margrave Wiprecht of Groitzsch, is a collaborative translation and annotation between Lyon and Lisa Wolverton and it compliments her translation of Cosmas of Prague. [3] This is the longest text in the volume and the most difficult. It is the work of multiple authors and compilers working at Wiprecht's foundation at Pegau. Although the preface situates the text firmly in the tradition of gesta, it is a hybrid text that in places has the character of annals. The lack of an overarching style or structure means that the text is at times hard to follow. Lyon and Wolverton were aware of this issue, but chose to present the text with minimal editorial intervention in the belief that this offers an important insight into "the sometimes messy craft of monastic history writing in the twelfth century" (28). While one would not dispute this from a scholarly point of view, the sometimes confusing nature of the text does slightly diminish its teaching potential. However, perseverance with this text pays dividends. Wiprecht has become emblematic of the potential for upward social mobility in the late Salian period and the deeds provide a vivid account of a life lived on local, regional and imperial stages. Whether expanding his power in the area around Groitzsch, making an advantageous marriage to the daughter of the Premyslid ruler of Bohemia, or fighting for the emperor's army in Italy, Wiprecht's life is depicted as full of drama, cunning and violence.

The life of Bishop Otto of Bamberg written by a monk of Prüfening is the second text in the collection. Although Otto was very active at the imperial court, the text predominantly focuses on his foundation of monastic houses (of which Prüfening was one) and his missionary activities in Pomerania in the 1120s. Two of the three books of the vita are concerned with these activities and they combine predictable hagiographical topoi (Otto was canonised in 1189, several decades after the writing of this text) with fascinating details about Otto's interactions with the pagan inhabitants of the region. This is one of three related mid-twelfth-century vitae of Otto, the other two of which are already available in English translation. [4]

The third and fourth texts in the volume are biographies of leaders of female religious communities. These lives, that of an unnamed magistra of Admont and of Mechthild of Diessen, are, unlike the male biographies in the collection, firmly anchored inside the walls of the religious houses in which they were active. The Admont life is a very short text describing the magistra in old age. It presents a very human portrait of the female leader of this important Benedictine double community and provides details of the daily life of the women in her care. By contrast, one can discern little of the personality of Mechthild of Diessen, a member of the prominent Andechs family, in Engelhard of Langheim's life. The author admits to knowing little of his subject and he appears to have made up for his lack of knowledge by utilising his biblical and classical learning to construct an idealised image of her. Lyon describes the text as an "exegetical tour de force in some places" (164) but argues that careful reading does still offer glimpses into Mechthild's life and into the lives of the women in the communities at Diessen and Edelstetten. These two lives compliment the others in this volume but could also be read fruitfully with existing translations concerning Hildegard of Bingen to form the nucleus of a course on female religious life in the twelfth century. [5]

The final text, The deeds of Count Ludwig of Arnstein, recounts the story of a lesser lord who, unable to have children with his wife Guda, decided to turn his castle into a Premonstratensian house. Nowhere in this volume is the intertwining of the secular and religious spheres more apparent than in this account and it is clear that the monastic writer(s) of this text struggled with the complicated status of their community's founder. The deeds of Count Ludwig provide an interesting counterpoint to the deeds of Margrave Wiprecht at the start of the volume. Ludwig's gesta can also be read with the life of Godfrey of Cappenburg who, along with his brother Otto, had turned their castle over to the Premonstratensians a few years before Ludwig. [6]

These five texts are written in very different styles and Lyon has attempted to reflect this in his translations. The approach is broadly successful, although it means that in places the texts can be slightly tricky to follow. This minor criticism aside, the reader is left with a vivid impression of the differences between the texts, both in content and style, and the variety of monastic historical writing in the twelfth-century Empire. Lyon provides helpful annotations aimed at students and has also identified numerous biblical and classical allusions in these texts for the first time, so that the collection also merits the attention of scholars. In addition he uses notes to highlight the way in which the same biblical allusions are utilised in the different texts, sometimes to quite different ends, an indication of the potential offered by reading these texts together. In choosing to translate five sources outwith the traditional canon of Reichsgeschichte Lyon has opened up teaching possibilities for twelfth-century Germany, for which the Germanophiles amongst us can only be grateful. However, the fact that he has chosen five texts that can also be read alongside existing translations and thus used in diverse teaching contexts, means that it is not only Germanophiles who are in his debt.

-------- Notes:

1. Otto of Freising and Rahewin, The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa, trans. C. Mierow (New York, 1953).

2. Barbarossa in Italy, trans. T. Carson (New York, 1994); The Crusade of Frederick Barbarossa: The History of the Expedition of the Emperor Frederick and Related Texts, ed. G. A. Loud (Farnham, 2010).

3. Cosmas of Prague, The Chronicle of the Czechs, trans. L. Wolverton (Washington DC, 2009).

4. The Life of Otto, Apostle of Pomerania (1060-1139), by Ebo and Herbordus, trans. C. H. Robinson (London and New York, 1920).

5. E.g. The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, trans. J. L. Baird and R. K. Ehrmann, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1994-2004); Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. C. Hart and J. Bishop (New York, 1990); Jutta and Hildegard: the Biographical Sources, trans. A. Silvas (University Park PA, 1999).

6. The Life of Godfrey of Cappenberg, in Norbert and Early Norbertine Spirituality, trans. T. J. Antry and C. Neal (New York, 2007), pp. 85-119.

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