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21.02.12 Hintz/Pincikowski (eds.), The End-Times in Medieval German Literature

The Medieval Review

21.02.12 Hintz/Pincikowski (eds.), The End-Times in Medieval German Literature


At first sight, the contents of this volume seem somewhat at odds with the expectations raised by the terms of the title. There is in fact very little discussion of medieval German texts specifically about the end of the world, such as Muspilli in the Old High German period, or the "Weltgerichtspiele," Heinrich von Neustadt's Gottes Zukunft, Heinrich von Hesler's Apocalypse, or Tilo von Kulm's Von siben Ingesigeln, to name just a few possibilities. Of the twelve articles in the volume, only two concern themselves with explicitly eschatological material (Alexander Sager on the Old Saxon Cain poem and Tina Boyer on the miracles of the Antichrist). By contrast, the volume includes three articles focussing wholly or partly on Hartmann von Aue who is not normally regarded as the most apocalyptic of writers. However, as is explained in the Introduction, the primary interest of the editors is in notions of a metaphorical apocalypse and/or in the sense of living in a form of "end-times" in which standards have slipped, morals are in terminal decline, and the natural ordo is on the point of catastrophic implosion.

The attraction of this approach is that it provides a potentially fresh perspective on canonical texts, and a way of linking triggers for cultural unease across a range of texts that might not otherwise be read against each other. For example, Marian E. Polhill's elegant and imaginative article links Mauritius von Craûn with the Nibelungenlied, arguing that both texts thematise anxieties about masculinity to such an extent that love-sickness and the inversion of gender hierarchies within courtly love become signifiers of the "end-times." Her "apocalyptic" reading of Mauritius is underpinned both by the pseudo-historical survey of chivalry in the prologue (including Nero's gender perversions) and by the Countess's possibly jocular reference to the Antichrist in a conversation with Mauritius. Given its cataclysmic ending, the Nibelungenlied is a work that may readily be linked to the idea of a notional apocalypse, and three other articles approach it from various angles. Winder McConnell argues that the decimation of the Burgundians is only part of the issue; the text is in fact more fundamentally apocalyptic in the sense that turns the prevalence of leit into a universal principle. He links this to the absence of Christian values, suggesting that the text "embrace(s) a view of the world that is beyond judgment, in which suffering is ultimately humanity's destiny and with no prospect of redemption" (116). Scott E. Pincikowski construes Etzel's hall as a memory space and examines modern responses to the quintessentially "apocalyptic" destruction of that space. Albrecht Classen examines the response to the tragedy of war in theNibelungenlied and in a range of other epics (from the Hildebrandslied to Wittenwiler's Ring).

The downside of the editors' very broad thematic approach is a potential loss of cohesion. In particular, the inclusion of the terms "sin" and "evil" in the subtitle means that any text engaging in any way with human inadequacy or fallibility would constitute an acceptable area of investigation, even if there is minimal connection to any perceived or actual experience of the "end-times." For example, in the case of Hartmann's Gregorius, the (admittedly central) themes of sin and penance are not framed in apocalyptic terms. Even though Will Hasty's commendable article on the interplay between secular and clerical values also looks at the way in which this story is structured in terms of beginning(s) and ending(s), narratological ending is clearly not the same as the "end-times."

Similarly, moral ambiguity is not in itself an apocalyptic or eschatological theme. Evelyn Meyer's essay on the concept of evil in Hartmann's Erec and Iwein is essentially a conventional study in the nuances of knightly imperfection. Meyer proceeds from a concern with intentionality, with a slightly odd distinction between acts of violence that are "purely evil" versus those that are "merely cruel" (191). She argues that figures such as Iwein and Mabonagrin are redeemable because they have not yet "fully formed their knightly identity" at the point when their behaviour falls short of expectations (212). Other figures, by contrast, are construed as irredeemably evil and monstrous (e.g. the giants). The same quibble in respect of relevance applies to Joseph M. Sullivan's article on morally ambivalent figures in Wigamur. This is, however, an excellent article in itself, clearly demonstrating the complex construction of three figures who on the face of it behave very badly indeed: these are the Wild Woman Lespia who abducts Wigamur, the robber knight Pontrafort, and Lipdondrigun who abducts the maiden Dulciflur. For all three, there is an unexpected range of mitigating circumstances and positive character traits that partly offset their undisputed crimes.

Of the articles dealing with courtly literature, only Alexandra Sterling-Hellenbrand's sophisticated contribution engages specifically with the idea of the "end-times"--only to conclude that Arthurian romance is fundamentally anti-apocalyptic. Focussing partly on the handling of past and present ("past-presencing" [145]) in the prologue to Iwein, and partly on late-medieval visual responses to courtly writing (e.g. the murals at Rodenegg and the Naumburg sculpture portraits), she demonstrates clearly and compellingly that Arthurian romance provides the impetus for the imaginative construction of a world that not only "refuses to end" as the title puts it, but actually "subverts the apocalypse, offering solace and even hope for continued existence" (159).

The eight articles discussed so far are book-ended by two articles on Old Saxon biblical literature and two relating to developments in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Alexander Sager focuses on the Old Saxon Cain fragment preserved in the Old English Genesis B, arguing that this text clearly links original sin with the end of the world, the identification of Abel with Enoch adding "a potent layer of cosmic evil to the physical violence behind Cain's crime" (20). By contrast, Ernst Ralf Hintz's article on "spiritual transgendering" in the Heliand is less concerned with the "end-times: than with new beginnings: it concentrates on the ways in which the warrior ethos of the recipients might have been challenged by accounts of Christ's dealing with his enemies. However, the actual gender argument is not as convincing as it might have been: whilst the author explains the concept of spiritual transgendering in the context of Christian spirituality more generally, the relevance of this for the Heliand and for the Saxon warrior ethos is not entirely clear.

Moving into the fifteenth century, Tina Boyer's article addresses on the miracles attributed to Antichrist in the blockbook DasPuch von dem Entkrist. She focuses particularly on the significance of three miracles that do not belong to the established eschatological tradition: Antichrist conjures a giant from an egg, suspends a castle in the air, and draws a stag from a stone. After careful consideration of the various textual strands of the Antichrist tradition, she explains these particular miracles by reference to a fifteenth-century cultural unease focussing particularly on the problem of lies and deceit. These miracles that turn ordo into inordinatio constitute a particular form of deception, with the Antichrist himself being cast as a seductive magician rather than as a violent and monstrous conqueror.

The final article, by Winfried Frey, examines the polemical images (both visual and verbal) deployed during the pamphlet wars of the Reformation, when both sides habitually presented their opponents as monsters or demons. He also draws attention to the role of antisemitism in this polarized conflict, with the figure of the Jew often invoked as the tertium comparationis. Some of the cultural links seem rather tangential; for example, the benevolent Wild Man in Iwein is described at unnecessary length in relation the depiction of the Pope as a Wild Man in Hell. Whilst much of the polemical material is familiar (e.g. the images of the "papal ass" and of the "monk calf"), the author uses it as part of a broader agenda of challenging the supposed harmlessness of caricature, drawing connections between "the poison of mutual demonization" and the millions of victims of the Thirty Years War.

Overall, this is an attractive and well-produced volume with some extremely good articles. Thematic cohesion could have been stronger, though the preponderance of articles dealing with canonical texts means that the volume may be attractive to a wider group of readers than would have been the case if the editors had opted for a more tightly defined theme.