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19.12.14 Just et al (eds.), Privilegium maius

19.12.14 Just et al (eds.), Privilegium maius

In 1358/59, the chancery of Duke Rudolf IV of Austria produced a set of five forged privileges designed to strengthen the status and authority of the Habsburgs in the wake of Emperor Charles IV's issuance of the famed 1356 Golden Bull, which had cemented the 7 electors (a group to which the Habsburgs did not belong) as the preeminent princes of the Holy Roman Empire. The most important of these privileges is the so-called Privilegium maius, a document forged in the name of Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa and dated to 1156; it contains a list of special rights and privileges that guaranteed the dukes significant independent authority within the duchy of Austria. The most remarkable of these forgeries, however, is one supposedly issued by King Henry IV of Germany in 1058; it includes copies of a pair of privileges issued by Julius Caesar and Nero (!) limiting the rights of the Roman Emperors in Austria. When these forgeries were presented to Emperor Charles IV in an attempt to have him recognize the claims made in them, they met with very limited success. Charles's friend Petrarch, in particular, was not in the least bit fooled by the language of Caesar and Nero's privileges. Approximately a century later, however, when the Habsburg Frederick III (d. 1493) became German king and Holy Roman Emperor, he confirmed the privileges, using them to help solidify his dynasty's status as the dominant family in the empire. In the process, the origins of the privileges were forgotten, and it was not until the emergence of the modern field of diplomatics in the nineteenth century that they were once again recognized as clever forgeries.

The 15 contributions to the volume under review here all concern this group of forgeries, collectively referred to throughout as the "Privilegium maius-Complex." While it is commonplace in reviews of article collections to complain that the various contributions lack coherence as a group, this is most certainly not the case with this volume. Each and every article focuses on a different aspect of these forgeries. Even more impressively, there is a very clear logic to the order in which the contributions are presented. As the volume's sub-title accurately indicates, a first group of articles examines the documents themselves in minute detail; a second group then explores the political context in which the forgeries were produced; and finally, a third group considers their afterlife from the middle ages to the twentieth century. I cannot remember having ever read another collection of articles by so many different authors that so effectively and convincingly tells a single story.

The first article in the volume, by Thomas Just, discusses the history of the forged privileges as archival objects. In reviewing what is known about the documents both before and after their arrival in the modern Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv in Vienna in 1945, he introduces us to the book's villain: Heinz Grill, a director of the archive, who in the late 1940s and early 1950s stole and sold various archival objects (totaling an estimated 185 kilograms of silver and a kilogram of gold in addition to the charters he carried off). While the five privileges of the "Privilegium maius-Complex" are still in the archive, various late medieval and early modern confirmations are now lost, hindering greatly our ability to examine the context and impact of the forgeries.

The next two articles discuss the results of scientific analysis of the forgeries using a wide range of modern methods, from infrared photography to analytical chemistry. All 5 of the documents, as well as a 1360 Vidimus produced to help legitimate them, have been determined to be calfskin; many of the inks have been identified; and both the seals and seal threads have been analyzed. What becomes clear from all of the various tests is that, while the forgeries and seals are unquestionably medieval, modern materials are present as well, indicating nineteenth- and early twentieth-century restoration efforts. The second of these articles (Aceto et al.) is the only contribution to the volume in English, and while the English is a bit rough in places, it is an excellent introduction for medievalists to the possibilities and limitations of analytical chemistry for the study of documents.

The article by Walter Koch uses more traditional methods in the fields of paleography and diplomatics to analyze the forgeries; he is especially interested in the authentic documents that could have served as models for the forgeries, most importantly Emperor Frederick I's 1156 privilege for the dukes of Austria (the so-called Privilegium minus), no longer extant. Christian Lackner then tackles another key question in diplomatics: namely, who might have dictated the texts to the chancery scribes? This question leads to a broader discussion of who might have been the brains of the operation, i.e. who oversaw the production of the forgeries from start to finish? In the next article, Vreni Dangl focuses on three documents from 1360, which were sealed by the bishop of Passau and other prelates. They contain copies of 18 privileges concerning Austria and the Habsburgs, including the recent forgeries, and their sealing by leading ecclesiastics was meant to help confirm and authenticate the "Privilegium maius-Complex." Dangl is especially interested in understanding how and why the bishop of Passau and the other prelates might have become involved in this elaborate Habsburg forgery operation.

With the seventh contribution in the volume, by Lukas Wolfinger, the focus shifts to the broader context of the political culture in which the forgeries were produced. Wolfinger analyzes Habsburg dynastic politics and the relationships of both Duke Rudolf IV and his father, Albrecht II, with Emperor Charles IV. By carefully reconstructing the political environment of the late 1350s, he adds nuance to the argument that the forgeries were a knee-jerk reaction to the Golden Bull's issuance in 1356. Jörg Peltzer's article, one of the most insightful in the entire volume, addresses the issue of rank, which has long been a focus of the author's research; it smartly shows how important it was for Rudolf IV, since he was not one of the 7 electors, to try to elevate his own status to as close to the rank of the prince-electors as possible in order to maintain standing in the status-conscious political culture of the day. Elisabeth Klecker then discusses one of the best known aspects of the "Privilegium maius-Complex," namely Petrarch's reaction to the privileges forged in the names of Julius Caesar and Nero. As Klecker argues, the goal of Petrarch's critique of the forgeries was not simply to show that they could not have been written in antique Rome; his harsh invective was also designed to belittle the forgers and praise the wisdom of Emperor Charles IV for consulting him about the documents. The last contribution in this set of articles on political culture, by Bernd Schneidmüller, turns to the broader context of forgeries in the fourteenth century. He argues through comparisons with similar documents that this was a period of creative forgeries throughout Europe, a time when many people manipulated history in ways comparable to the creators of the "Privilegium maius-Complex" in order to advance or secure their rights and status.

The final group of five articles in the collection turns to the afterlife of the "Privilegium maius-Complex." In the first, Daniel Luger focuses on the reign of Emperor Frederick III and his formal confirmations of the forgeries. Both Habsburg dynastic politics and Frederick's relationship with the 7 electors played important roles in his efforts to transform the forgeries into a legitimate basis for Habsburg authority. Andreas Zajic then turns to the lavishly illuminated Vidimus of the "Privilegium maius-Complex" produced in 1512 under the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I. This is a detailed art historical study of the images and also seeks to contextualize this copy of the privileges in the political culture of the day. The next two contributions, by Thomas Winkelbauer and Werner Telesko, are shorter than most of the others and extend the story of the forgeries' legacy further into the early modern and modern periods. The final article, by Thomas Stockinger, is a historiographical survey of the ways the "Privilegium maius-Complex" was discussed in scholarly circles in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, after the forgeries had ceased to be of any political significance and had instead become objects of interest only to historians and archivists.

I am well aware that fourteenth-century Austrian political/diplomatic history is not a very "hot" topic among medievalists working outside Austria, especially those in the English-speaking countries most likely to read this review. Readers may well wonder then why they should care about a collection of articles concerning a group of forgeries about which they may know little, if anything. Leaving aside the fact that medieval Central European history deserves more attention than it has received (there are many excellent source collections that would benefit from more work), the value of this particular volume is twofold. First, it is an outstanding example of how successful a volume of collected articles can be when the contributors all focus on one narrow topic, in this case a single set of forged documents. The reader can gain a wonderfully wide range of insights--scientific, paleographic, diplomatic, political, cultural and memorial--about the art of forgery from this one volume. Second, though not a well-known subject in the English-speaking world, the "Privilegium maius-Complex" is an important set of documents for understanding how the Habsburgs emerged as one of the preeminent dynasties in European history. The story of how a set of forgeries came to become one of the pillars on which they based their sovereignty over their Austrian territories is a fascinating one that should be of interest to many scholars.