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23.03.12 Green (trans.), Theuerdank

23.03.12 Green (trans.), Theuerdank

Theuerdank is an illustrated German epic poem, printed in 1517, narrating the adventures and travails of the eponymous knight on his journey to meet his intended, Princess Ehrenreich. Dedicated to Charles V, the poem details the struggles that the knight faces, many of which are deliberately staged by the princess’s disloyal retainers.

Full of action, the poem is justifiably famous for more than its narrative. The print of 1517 is illustrated with more than 100 detailed, naturalistic woodcuts, commissioned from the Augsburg artist Leonhard Beck with Hans Leonhard Schäufelein and Hans Burgkmair. Most notable of all, Theuerdank is the fictional autobiography of Maximilian I, HRE (1508-1519), Charles V’s grandfather and a man highly interested in crafting his own memorial. Indeed, the poem includes a key to the identity of the characters and the meaning of the episodes; the translated key follows the main text at the end of the present volume (297-306).

The combination of action-packed story, high-quality woodcuts, and historical context means that this work offers a rich interdisciplinary entry point into the central European Renaissance, yet, until now, Theuerdank has not been available in its entirety in English. Jonathan Green’s excellent translation, coupled with Howard Louthan’s highly informative introduction, brings this work to an Anglophone audience and thus to the attention of many more undergraduate students. Green and Louthan’s edition also includes various teaching and comprehension aids, making the book easily accessible even for those not specialists in sixteenth-century German literary culture.

The volume offers a chronological overview of Habsburg politics, two maps (one of the Burgundian Lands in 1467-1477, the second of the Habsburg possessions circa 1519), and a genealogy of Maximilian I and his wife, Mary of Burgundy. These additions show that Green and Louthan are well aware of the needs of English-speaking undergraduates. Louthan’s introduction is also written in this vein: recognizing that Maximilian I is for many in the shadow of his Renaissance contemporaries--e.g., Lorenzo the Magnificent, Francis I, and Henry VIII--Louthan begins his introduction with an engaging overview of this historical but simultaneously legendary figure, providing a succinct history of the Habsburg family and its rise to imperial status. The second Habsburg to be crowned emperor, Maximilian I was highly attuned to the power of media--both textual and visual--and has long been known for his concerted efforts to create an exalted past and an enduring memorial for himself and his family. Perhaps the most famous of his many efforts is the plan for his (unfinished) funeral monument, which was to include both Christian saints and Classical emperors. Maximilian’s commissioning of Theuerdank likewise served to establish the emperor’s lasting reputation as a brave and clever knight, whose marriage to the most desirable woman is second only to his promise to go on crusade to win back the Holy Land. Marital love, imperial politics, and religious devotion are all core themes of Theuerdank opening an easy path into the historical reality of the Holy Roman Empire in the early and mid-sixteenth century.

Louthan’s introduction does not stop with the historical aspect of Theuerdank, however. Louthan also explores the literary nature of the work, classified by the Nuremberg humanist, and Theuerdank’s chief editor, Melchior Pfinzing as a “hero-book” (11), but also sharing characteristics with the Mirrors for Princes(17). The focus on genre in turn allows Louthan to place Theuerdank amid contemporary Renaissance texts, so that, as in his discussion of Maximilian I, he neatly foregrounds Theuerdank’s significance. Theuerdank, unlike two earlier texts whose protagonist was also a (veiled) Maximilian I (Freydal and Weisskunig), was published while Maximilian was still alive--and reprinted more than once after his death--which further attests to its status at the time. Of no less importance than the literary nature of Theuerdank is its visual aspect, both the typeface (specifically commissioned by Maximilian for this work) and the illustrations: each chapter is accompanied by a woodcut, which, as Louthan notes, “function[s] as a key rhetorical feature of the poem. They are meant to convince us of the story’s veracity” (14). By realistically depicting the world of the intended reader, the woodcuts help to close the gap between Maximilian the emperor andTheuerdank the hero, thereby creating the fiction of Maximilian I as a great knight and protagonist of the adventures.

Historical context, literary form, pictorial aspects, and specific themes (e.g., the role and depiction of nature or of war) all offer entry points into reading (and teaching) Theuerdank and, more broadly, the Renaissance in Central Europe. These entry points depend necessarily on a text’s accessibility, and in translating Theuerdank, Jonathan Green has performed the fundamental work that enables the use of this text in the classroom and unlocks it for non-specialist readership.

As anyone who has overcome the hurdles of preparing a translation for publication knows, the translator must make and justify a series of decisions. In his “Translator’s Note” (26-30), Green explains, for example, his choice of prose in order to be more accessible for a contemporary audience, his prioritization of context over absolute consistency when translating certain words, and his decision to render the word Ehrenhold as a job title rather than personal name--a decision that, to this reviewer, makes perfect sense. Green also provides an overview of earlier translations and editions, even reprinting the one chapter to have appeared in English in the nineteenth-century facsimile published by the Holbein Society (26-28). Close attention to the “Note” also reveals Green’s critical approach to earlier scholars’ editions; he subjects earlier emendations to rigorous scrutiny (an example is found on 28-29). The name Theuerdank¸ like the other names in the work, is a “speaking name” (29) intended to add another level to an understanding of the text. Green explains these names--Theuerdank reflects not “expensive thanks” but rather “thought of noble virtue”--in a manner that those unfamiliar with the history of the German language will easily follow (29). As is the case in Louthan’s introduction, this “Note” offers the reader insight into yet another aspect of the text and another avenue into study of the Renaissance, namely the institution of translation.

Green’s translation of Theuerdank easily achieves the translator’s goal of a “readable text...[for an] intended student audience” (29). For the scholar, a minor caveat is that the University of Vienna website Green refers to providing comparative analysis seems to no longer offer access to individual chapters. But this does not detract from the commendable work of both Howard Louthan and Jonathan Green in making the tale of Theuerdank, a Renaissance superhero, accessible to all. The interdisciplinary nature of Theuerdank: The Illustrated Epic of a Renaissance Knight makes it an ideal work around which to build a course on the Renaissance. This readable and student-friendly edition will lead any reader into the world of sixteenth-century Central Europe, its history and its legends.