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22.05.15 Zapke/Gruber (eds.), A Companion to Medieval Vienna

22.05.15 Zapke/Gruber (eds.), A Companion to Medieval Vienna

To a contemporary observer, Austria’s capital evokes above all events, people, and institutions later than the Middle Ages: Vienna’s sieges by the Turks in 1529 and 1683, the First Viennese School (Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven),art nouveau (also known as the Jugendstil), the philosophical Vienna Circle, the famous Burgtheater, and the great actors and writers of the twentieth century. However, because the beginnings of the splendor of Austria’s capital extend back to the Middle Ages, it is worthwhile to learn about the first centuries of the history of the city on the Danube.

An opportunity for that arises thanks to the just published A Companion to Medieval Vienna, under the editorship of Susana Zapke and Elisabeth Gruber. This collective work of 600 pages consists of articles by eighteen authors. Their aim is a many-sided, multidimensional perspective on Vienna’s history. Thus, the structure of the book is thematic. The book opens with an introduction--an essay by Zapke and Gruber (1-21) that splendidly takes us into the history of the city. Here, in addition, the editors explain the general outline of the book (14-18). It is divided into four parts, which, in their entirety, comprise eighteen chapters, numbered separately: five chapters in Part 1 (chapters 2-6), only three in Part 2 (chapters 7-9), five in Part 3 (chapters 10-14), and again five in Part 4 (chapters 15-19). Each chapter is further divided into sections with individual titles--a feature that greatly facilitates the reader’s orientation in the rich content of the book.

Part 1, “Vienna: The City and Urban Design,” is richer in content than its title suggests. Here we find, in addition to articles concerning the city’s space, layout, most important buildings (above all, the church of Saint Stephen, the city hall, and the walls) and their symbolic significance (Barbara Schedl, 79-114), a detailed analysis of the real estate market, coupled with a description of a burgher’s house (Thomas Ertl and Thomas Haffner, 115-134), and, in a separate article, the image of the city conveyed by maps and iconographic evidence (Ferdinand Opll, 135-159). The editors have chosen to place in this part a description and a characterization of the source base for the history of Vienna (Opll, 25-47). Also included in Part 1 is the outline of the city’s political history--from its beginnings in Antiquity, when the Romans established a camp here named Vindobona, through the city’s second emergence at the end of the ninth century, until the beginnings of modernity (Peter Csendes, 48-78).

Consistently with its title, Part 2, “Politics, Economy, and Sovereignty,” is rather eclectic thematically, though it consists of only three chapters. Placed here is, first, a chapter describing the privileges issued to Vienna by Austria’s rulers, and the resulting development of the city’s legal and political framework (Csendes, 163-186). The next chapter concerns economic history, embedded in the much broader subject of economic life generally (Gruber, 187-263). The author emphasizes the subject of the urban power élite, and describes Vienna’s role in the long-distance trade of Austria and of Europe. He also assesses the productive potential of Austria’s capital, by inquiry into the activities of more than a hundred branches of the city’s craft sector. Part 3 concludes with a third article (no. 9), concerning Vienna’s water landscape (Heike Krause, Paul Mitchell, and Christoph Sonnlechner, 222-264). Here, the authors describe the genesis of Austria’s capital, its location in relation to the Danube and other watercourses, the modes of economic exploitation of these riparian resources, as well as a failed attempt at a transformative intrusion into the natural environment, around the year 1455.

Part 3, “Social Groups and Communities,” is much more uniform thematically than are the preceding two, because it concerns, almost in its entirety, social history. The chapter by Christina Lutter (267-311) treats the emergence of urban society, with emphasis on the mendicant communities and on the links between Vienna’s lay population and clergy. An important addition to the comprehensive picture of Vienna’s inhabitants is Martha Keil’s article about the Jewish community, which was destroyed in 1420-1421 (312-359). The subsequent two chapters are devoted to the history of the University of Vienna: the story of its creation in 1365, and of its didactic and disciplinary profile (Kurt Mühlberger, 360-391); and the story of the university’s community (Ulrike Denk, 392-419). On the other hand, the closing chapter of Part 3 (Opll, 420-442) is thematically distinct from the other chapters comprising the part. Its subjects are the mentalities and customs of Vienna’s inhabitants, including (among other subjects) the structuring and valuation of time; the individual life cycle; a sketch of Vienna’s material space; and selected elements of its economic life.

The fourth and final part of the book, “Spaces of Knowledge, Arts, and Performance,” includes chapters about medieval scientific inquiry, the arts, and--to sum it up in general terms--the city’s semiotic landscape. The opening chapter by Christian Gastgeber (445-468) concerns scholarly research into Greek-language writings conducted at the University of Vienna as early as in the fifteenth century. The next chapter is devoted to the élite of the craft world--creators of artwork of daily use--the goldsmiths (Franz Kirchweger, 469-496). The author of the third chapter (no. 17) analyzes works of painting, in order to reconstruct the imagery of Vienna’s sacral space (Zoë Opačić, 497-523). Separate sections of this chapter treat the significance of the square that surrounds Saint Stephen’s church, and the remnants of frescoes now present in one of the burgher houses. The fourth chapter (no. 18) describes, and characterizes, the semiotics of urban space (Zapke, 524-559). In this chapter, the largest amount of text is dedicated to Vienna’s soundscape, created above all by bells, which are enumerated in detail. Their sound was one mode of social communication, and it contributed to the consolidation of the Viennese community. This section, too, describes Saint Stephen’s Square, with emphasis on the religious procession, and with specific reference to the ordo processionis. The book’s final chapter concerns music in medieval Vienna (Peter Wright, 560-591). The author treats the locations where music arose--the court, the urban school, the parish church of Saint Michael’s, monasteries, and the university--and the social circles related to these locations. Distinct sub-chapters concern the composer Hermann Edlerwer, and handwritten musical scores produced in the late Middle Ages.

In several places, the book also presents evidence of important subjects that nevertheless do not elicit from the authors further attention in the form of separate sub-chapters. Such subjects include natural disasters (67, 104, 173, 272, 433) and social revolts (64, 434).

A Companion to Medieval Vienna also presents us with much valuable knowledge about Vienna extending beyond the Middle Ages. Quite frequently, the authors reach into the sixteenth century, up to 1529 and the successful defense against the Ottoman Turks that year. This expansion of the book’s chronological scope is fully justified, because the years 1500-1501 work as a merely notional turn from the Middle Ages to early modernity. They are not years of any particular breakthrough in the history of Vienna. Moreover, the influence of the Renaissance--which achieved its peak development in Europe north of the Alps during the sixteenth century--was marked in the Viennese science and learning as early as the fifteenth century (449-58).

Even though the resulting panorama of Vienna’s history is comprehensive and multidimensional, we note a clear disproportion in the degree of attention to particular research questions. Three major questions are especially important to the authors of this book: urban space; society; and culture, broadly understood (including the world of learning). This choice may reflect the influence of sociology, whose inspiration the editors note in the introduction (15-16). In contrast, quite unsatisfactory is the inadequate and superficial treatment of the economy, a trait that appears to correspond to that same undesirable trend across medieval scholarship in Europe today. This impression is not eased by the full chapter on the real estate market in Vienna, and a sub-chapter elsewhere (430-33). Apart from those two places, no chapter--even of a synthetic, general nature--is devoted to the economic life. Observations on this subject are appended--tersely, and a bit artificially in thematic terms--into the part of the text dedicated to the power élite: for example, on pp. 58, 60, 67, 69, 242-44, 430, 475. The superficial treatment of matters comprising the economy regrettably impoverishes the panorama of the history of medieval and early-modern Vienna.

In addition, the overall structure of the work is rather questionable because of the inconsistencies and thematic eclecticism of Parts 1, 2, and 3--reflected, right up front, in their titles. Doubtless, the authors had aimed for an innovative, not a traditional, general outline of the book--that is to say, avoidance of its division into parts on politics, the political framework and the law, social history, the economy, and, at the very end (as is frequent in other works of synthesis), culture and learning. Unfortunately, the placement of some chapters in Parts 1, 2, and 4 next to one another does not convince. Surprising, for example, is the absence of the chapter on Vienna’s water landscape from Part 1, dedicated to Vienna’s space and origins of the city; and its placement, instead, in Part 2. The chapter on goldsmiths (and their clientele), in Part 4, would fit better into Part 3, with its emphasis on various groups, social circles, or communities. Even in the thematically most consistent Part 3, the article about everyday life and mentalities is a completely separate text--one that would correspond better to Part 4, with its emphasis on the sacral space and the religiosity of the Viennese. This is because all these articles add up to a picture of the mentalities of the inhabitants of Vienna.

A Companion to Medieval Vienna offers us a great deal of information and analysis, elementary as well as more detailed. Each chapter is supplemented by a list of fundamental relevant sources, and a bibliography. In addition, a short and basic bibliography appears at the end of the book. Thanks to those features--in addition to a familiarization with the history of research about the city (sketched out in preliminary fashion early in the book, 4-6), and its currentstatus quaestionis--the reader is guided toward the option of further independent quest for knowledge about the history of Vienna. The very end of the book includes genealogical tables of the Babenbergs and the Habsburgs (593-594).

In their treatment of Vienna’s history, the authors did not limit themselves to places, institutions, normative writings, artifacts, and communities, but devoted much attention to individual actors. Here, I do not simply mean exceptional rulers, such as Duke Henry Jasomirgott from the Babenberg kindred, who, in 1156, received from Frederick I Barbarossa the privilege granting Austria autonomy from the Empire, and transferred his residence from Regensburg to Vienna; or Rudolph IV the Founder from the Habsburg kindred, who established the University in Vienna, and supported the development of cities and commerce in his kingdom. In addition, the authors devoted much space to members of the burgher power élite (189-197), and to individual merchants (59), members of the social circle surrounding the goldsmiths (479-483), Italian scholars who conducted research at the University of Vienna, the famous erudite “globetrotter,” the German, Conrad Celtis (452-453), and the composer noted above, Hermann Edlerwer (577-578).

Worth emphasizing is the great clarity of narration, despite the wealth of the cited material. An enormous asset of the book is its outstanding, beautiful visual aspect. Placed here are over seventy figures (maps, and photographs: of paintings, manuscript illustrations, artistic craftworks, documents, seals, and handwritten musical scores). Most figures are in color. The photographs of documents are so sharp that the texts can be read. Especially notable is a photograph of the regulations issued by King Maximilian I in 1506, concerning a fishery on the Danube. On this document, someone drew, with great precision and in color, the different kinds of fish sought in the Danube and its tributaries.

Thus, in sum, apart from a few moments of criticism, we have before us a most valuable book, which, in its entirely explains from multiple angles the beginnings of the Viennese genius loci. A Companion to Medieval Viennacomprises indispensable reading material for future researchers into Vienna’s history, and, as a rich compendium of comparative data, for all historians of cities, society, and culture in medieval and early modern Europe.