Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.06.13 Vavra (ed.), Die Welt und Gott--Gott und die Welt?

The Medieval Review

21.06.13 Vavra (ed.), Die Welt und Gott--Gott und die Welt?


Translating words from one language to another can be a tricky enterprise. In modern American English, when we use the word "profanity," we normally mean coarse, vulgar, sexually explicit language. In modern German, Profanitätimplies something very different, that is, "secularism," the opposite to "religiosity." The contributors to the present volume responded to a call for papers which were delivered at a symposium held at the Institut für Realienkunde des Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit in Krems on the Danube from October 10 to 12, 2011. Unfortunately, it took eight years for the proceedings to appear in print. I myself received this review copy in March 2021--ten years later.

The critical question determining this volume pertains to the phenomenon of a medieval world which appears to have been entirely dominated by the Christian religion. Indeed, countless chapels, churches, cathedrals, and monasteries dotted the medieval landscape. The authority of the Christian Church was nearly absolute, and it would be difficult to identify, for instance, public art from that time period which was not religious in nature. However, secular perspectives also existed, and actually considerably more than we might generally assume. Famously, the Paris Bishop Etienne Tempier in 1277 banned 219 theses which the professors at the university had allegedly formulated, and many of those sounded actually radically heretical, atheist, and secular. If we pay closer attention to much of medieval literature, we easily notice that religion often did not matter as much as one might expect, or was entirely absent. So, the topic of the secular dimension in the medieval world proves to be highly interesting and relevant if we want to understand the Middle Ages better. In fact, much of vernacular medieval literature is characterized by worldly interests, and a few articles in the present volume address this phenomenon as well. Medieval medical and scientific literature, not to mention philosophy, concerned itself quite often with secular issues, so we would have welcomed some theoretical reflections about the inherent tensions characterizing that world, or the conflicts between the Church and non-religious groups, texts, artwork, and ideas. Unfortunately, Vavra's introduction of five and a half pages mostly summarizes the individual contributions and does not engage with the larger framework which surely must have supported the symposium.

There are sixteen contributions, all written in German, and oddly none of them actually concerns itself with this critical issue at stake here. Instead, they address a variety of questions concerning the medieval worldview (Hans-Werner Goetz), the concept of time (Linka Panušková), the notion of the human body within its spatial confines (Stefanie Kollmann-Obwegeser, dealing with Thomasin von Zerclaere's Welsche Gast and Caesarius of Heisterbach's Dialogus Miraculorum), spaces as depicted in courtly romances such as Flamenca, where the imprisonment in a tower matters centrally (Imre Gábor Majorossy), the role of ancient gods in Heinrich von Veldeke's Eneas (Ralf Schlechtweg-Jahn), the function of Roman gods in the Carmina Burana (Kurt Smolak), etc.

Secular aspects rarely appear as relevant topics, whereas there is a common tendency throughout the volume to identify religious themes in secular texts such as in the anonymous Herzog Ernst (Susanne Knaeble) and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (Dominik Streit, highlighting the spatial markers of the hermit's cell or that of Sigune). Silke Winst points out the great trouble for Christian knights or members of the court when one of their own converts, for whatever reason, to Islam, such as in Loher und Maller by Elisabeth von Nassau-Saarbrücke or a team of writers at her court. Lydia Wegener discusses Sebastian Brant's famous Narrenschiff as a humanistic effort to outline strategies in human life for how to achieve happiness and goodness. Again, none of these articles really engage with the actual topic which the symposium had intended to deal with, and most of them do not break new ground. Moreover, since 2011 much new research has appeared which has already considerably superseded the findings presented here.

Hans-Werner Goetz, in his plenary talk, reviews what we know about the medieval concept of the world, including the cosmology, the four elements, heaven, paradise, hell, but it remains unclear to me what he might mean when he concludes that a secular notion of the universe was already in place long before the modern age (71), when all the data provided here confirms the deeply religious reading dominating all worldviews. Nevertheless, his massive paper offers a true wealth of references and quotes, and is beautifully illustrated.

Elisabeth Mégier examines Hugo of St. Victor's Didascalicon as an example of how much medieval philosophers and other writers were actually interested in treating secular topics, but all encyclopedist writings, beginning with Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae, engaged with this world, and then of course also tried to spiritualize it. The same applies to the three texts examined by Michael Neecke, Henry Suso's Vita, Elsbeth Stagel's Tösser Schwesternbuch, and Fritsche Closen's Straßburger Chronik, all from around 1350, where the secular aspect is visible in the foreground or the margin, but the spiritual dominates, after all.

One of the most interesting contributions deals with the cultural paradigm shift in handling burials during the late Middle Ages. Hauke Kenzler observes that both the role of the Protestant Church and the urgent need to find more space for burial grounds deeply influenced decisions to move cemeteries out of the cities, a topic which has since 2014 been thoroughly covered by Romedio Schmitz-Esser's seminal and major tome Der Leichnam im Mittelalter, now translated into English by Albrecht Classen and Carolin Radtke (2020). Kenzler's article contains much valuable data, but it is, alas, by now a little outdated, though it is still interesting to read because of its specialized focus on the history of funerary objects. Again, the issue of secularism does not become really noticeable.

Schmitz-Esser offers a fascinating study of late medieval and early modern graffiti in Tyrol, which might indicate a common blending of the religious with the secular because the majority of authors left their marks while on travel (often pilgrimage) and had no hesitation at all about inscribing their graffiti even on major paintings and sculptures in churches, not having any notion of vandalism. Finally, Christopher Retsch reintroduces those now-famous almost "pornographic" pilgrim badges showing human genitalia, and combines those with a brief study of similarly "pornographic" late medieval verse narratives, such as "Das Nonnenturnier," where a penis wonders off by itself and finds its way to a women's convent (see my "Sexual Desire and Pornography: Literary Imagination in a Satirical Context: Gender Conflict, Sexual Identity, and Misogyny in 'Das Nonnenturnier,'" Sexuality in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times: New Approaches to a Fundamental Cultural-Historical and Literary-Anthropological Theme, ed. Albrecht Classen, 2008, 649-90; here not consulted). He opts for an interpretation of both art works and texts as primarily secular in intention, which ignores much recent research, and since non-German studies are mostly ignored throughout this volume, this does not surprise us at all.

Overall, the individual articles prove to be well formulated and are certainly based on much (German) research. The contributions by Goetz, Schlechtweg-Jahn, Simolka, and Schmitz-Esser are of particular value, whereas the others do not seem to serve the general purpose particularly well, or do not offer truly innovative perspectives. There is no index, no list of brief biographies of the authors, and no separate bibliography. But we can credit the editor for her effort to streamline all papers and to ensure a conformity in form and approach.