Anyone brave enough to embark on a research trip into medieval times is sure to encounter mind-boggling diversity. Even just the spans of time involved are vast: the Middle Ages run roughly from 500 CE to 1500 CE and thus span some one thousand years of European history.
Politics, religion, culture and languages: researchers in Bamberg have been exploring all of these and more for over 20 years now in a dedicated research centre. Historical studies, heritage sciences, linguistics and literary studies in various languages, Oriental studies, archaeology, theology and also philosophy join forces here to forge new paths into the Middle Ages.
“Essentially, two diametrically opposed perspectives exist: the medieval period is either perceived as ‘dark’ or as ‘romantic’”, English Studies scholar Professor Christoph Houswitschka († 2022) comments. “Popular takes continue to stress these facets as stubbornly as modern scholarship has shown them to be baseless.” And philologist Professor Ingrid Bennewitz adds: “We medievalists see ourselves not only as experts on the Middle Ages, but also and equally as specialists for the influence of this period on our own times.” Why does the medieval period still evoke so much fascination today? And how is it portrayed in modern media?
How did people actually live in medieval times? What did they believe in? How did they talk? These are questions Bamberg researchers seek to answer. The 80 members of ZEMAS, the Centre for Medieval Studies, are connected by a shared fascination with this period. The centre brings together an enormously diverse range of disciplines – from such mainstream disciplines as German language, literature and culture and history to smaller niche disciplines like Jewish studies and heritage conservation – and enjoys international recognition. Disciplines with roots in the natural sciences contribute expertise that complements the perspectives of the humanities disciplines in exchanges and facilitates more comprehensive approaches to research questions.
“What makes ZEMAS special is that we look at research topics from multiple angles,” explains Ingrid Bennewitz, the Executive Director of ZEMAS. “There is a concentration in Bamberg of all the laboratories, instruments and scholarly disciplines needed for medievalism research.”
These different perspectives complement one another perfectly. A recent joint project on Richard the Lionheart highlights their fertile collaboration. An edited volume shedding light on the famous twelfth-century king from the vantage points of history, literary studies and theology has been produced by six Bamberg scholars and four additional German scholars.
- The battle for the throne
- Richard, the hero
- The crusader
- Jihad in medieval times
- A film star
The battle for the throne
As the second son of King Henry II of England, Richard was not actually his father’s designated heir. His efforts to succeed his father brought him into conflict with his father and his brothers and he allied himself with King Philip II of France for this struggle. They appeared as close friends in public. Shortly before his death, Henry acknowledged his son Richard as his sole heir, and in 1189, Richard became king of England. His alliance with the French king Philip collapsed. Had their friendship merely been a staged performance all along? Historian Professor Klaus van Eickels has grappled with just that question.
Richard, the hero
Richard the Lionheart is a hero. That is, at least, how he has been portrayed in art and culture – in the twelfth century as in the twenty-first. Medievalist Ingrid Bennewitz has researched the myth of the hero king. Richard composed political songs and songs of courtly love in the troubadour tradition and surrounded himself with the most famous singers of his time. Medieval literature in England and Germany began to depict him as a hero soon after his death. The history of how the myth surrounding him was passed down into modern times is not entirely clear, but the role played by German authors and composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was certainly significant.
When Richard the Lionheart took part in the Third Crusade, how did Eastern Christians perceive him? Church historian Professor Peter Bruns has delved into this question against the background of Richard’s conquest of Cyprus and its ending of Greek rule there. The Syrian patriarch Michael was able to give an unemotional account of Richard’s conquest of the island, as English occupation had no appreciable consequences for him. A poet from Syria showed rather more enthusiasm and praised Richard the Lionheart as a “young lion, the proud king of England, who fought unceasingly through the day and the entire night.”
Jihad in medieval times
Islamic Studies scholar Professor Patrick Franke has examined the concept of jihad during the time of Richard the Lionheart. The expression jihad stands for the struggle against infidels with military means, but also for inner struggles against lust. At the time of the Crusades – in the twelfth century – Muslim scholars appealed for participation in military jihad or counter-crusades. And Muslims did indeed fight the Crusaders, but not in great numbers. The caliphate in Baghdad, the most important political institution in the Islamic world, refrained from joining the conflict.
A film star
Richard the Lionheart is a popular figure in films and English Studies scholar Professor Christoph Houswitschka has analysed his cinematic depiction in many guises – as a war hero, a war criminal, or a loving son. Richard the public figure was regarded as a hero in medieval times. Twentieth-century films, however, portrayed him as a war criminal, especially following the Vietnam War. Depictions of Richard’s private life show him as homosexual, a view that is at least partly supported by research. In the Robin Hood films especially, Richard is mainly depicted in the roles of king and feudal lord.
The more deeply researchers probe the historical medieval period, the better they understand how this age has shaped the present – both in obvious ways and in ways so subtle as to be barely perceptible. Medieval politics, the medieval legal order and medieval philosophy have exerted influence on the identity of modern Europeans. In relation to marriage and partnership, historians Professor Klaus van Eickels and Professor Christof Rolker see parallels between then and now.
Franconia is a region with a particular draw for medievalists thanks to the wealth of research topics it is able to offer them. Archaeologists unearth rich medieval finds here, for example. Heritage Conservation experts draw on an array of different technologies to document buildings and architectural and ground monuments.
- Burgstall Eltmann
- Bamberg Rider
- Summer school
- Neideck Castle
- Geomagnetic surveying
The world as a system
Researchers in Bamberg are also interested in examining how Franconia was seen from the outside. The Ebstorf mappa mundi, a fourteenth-century world map from the Lüneburg Heath area featuring Bamberg, is a case in point. Historical geographer Professor Andreas Dix has studied this map and describes it as “not a geographical map, but a cosmology. This is an attempt to explain the world as a holistic system.” The map was most likely produced as an altarpiece for use on special ecclesiastical feast days.
Like a metro plan
Andreas Dix compares the map with a public transport plan. The Ebstorf map shows the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe connected by rivers and seas – at that time the main means of transportation. The map interprets the world from a fundamentally Christian stance. As geographer Andreas Dix explains, “Jesus Christ holds everything together, and the hands and feet drawn on the map show that beautifully. At the centre of the map, Jerusalem is shown, the city where Christ was crucified and resurrected.”
Franconian cities charted
At the bottom left of the map, Franconian cities including Bamberg (“Pavenborch”) and Nuremberg (“Nurenberch”) are depicted. Andreas Dix considers that these cities were probably known to the inhabitants of Ebstorf via trade relations. “A house on a bridge over the river Regnitz is used to depict Bamberg on the map – perhaps an early reference to the bridge town hall.” With a diameter of 3.57 metres, the Ebstorf mappa mundi is among only a handful of large-format medieval maps that have survived into the present.
In medieval times, maps of the world were created with the intention of ordering and arranging knowledge about the world in a manner consistent with biblical knowledge.
Curiosity and thirst for knowledge repeatedly generate new insights into a time long gone. But how do the researchers go about discovering answers to their questions? They hunt for clues in their “readings” of castles, earthenware vessels, and manuscripts. Disciplines such as archaeology, history and German language, literature and culture investigate historical sources and artefacts. Sometimes even tiny clues suffice to solve a puzzle, for example words in Old High German in medieval manuscripts. The researchers follow up on these clues meticulously and piece together knowledge concealed within them to fit the jigsaw together and reveal a complete picture.
“If we want to study German from its beginnings, we have to rely on what has come down to us in writing,” German Language, Literature and Culture scholar Professor Stefanie Stricker explains. Entries in manuscripts written in Old High German shed light on what caught the interest of people in the Middle Ages. Researchers are now tapping into modern resources such as digitised manuscripts to chart the sources situation and the culture of this period. Stefanie Stricker has particularly high praise for the extensive and detailed digitised material held at Bamberg State Library.
Experts can glean a wealth of information about the past from textiles, metal, wood and stone. Such materials can, for instance, indicate the period when an object was created. “At the University of Bamberg,” remarks art historian Professor Stephan Albrecht, “we combine the humanities with the natural sciences in a unique fashion.” He cites the research project he led on the imperial robes as an example.
These six splendid robes from the early eleventh century are believed to have belonged to Emperor Henry II and his consort Kunigunde: “The mantles are a sensation. They are the only precious textiles dating back so far that have survived in such an amazing state of preservation.”
Art history researcher Dr. Tanja Kohwagner-Nikolai has analysed the medieval mantles from the perspectives of history and art history. Technological examinations of the garments were performed by textiles conservator Sibylle Ruß together with Anne Dauer. And analyses of the material were performed by biologist Ursula Drewello.
For art historian Tanja Kohwagner-Nikolai, the discovery of preliminary design marks on several garments was the most important finding from the research project: “The preliminary marks give us very good insights into the work process. We now know that there was a plan for the embroidery and that nothing was left to chance.” These findings enabled the researchers to refute earlier hypotheses and establish beyond doubt that errors in the embroidery process could be ruled out.
- light magnifier
- The blue cope of Kunigunde
- research team
- UV light
Researchers in Bamberg take different paths on their expeditions into medieval times. Some of them look into the history of European languages and others at architectural monuments or works of literature. A few selected projects detailed here give an impression of the paths that Bamberg researchers have been taking. As they journey onwards, they constantly arrive at new forks in the road. Why? As Bavarian historian Professor Horst Fuhrmann once neatly put it, “The Middle Ages are everywhere.”
English – a European mixture
“English”, as English Studies scholar Professor Gabriele Knappe remarks, “was once very similar to German.” Germanic tribes including the Angles and the Saxons moved into Britain in the fifth century, allied themselves with British tribes that were fighting against fellow Celts, and settled there. Their language and culture came to largely prevail in England, named for the Angles, and was greatly influenced by several more languages and cultures over the centuries that followed. Gabriele Knappe points out that “taking an historical view in the teaching of English helps young people to order their knowledge within a facts-based framework and to interpret the present day intelligently.”
How did mosques get their cupolas?
A cupola is a typical feature of mosques today, but it has not always been thus: “About one thousand years ago, a radical shift in mosque architecture took place,” explains Lorenz Korn, Professor of Islamic Art and Archaeology. “Instead of pillared halls with flat roofs, domed halls were built in central and western Iran, and later on this type of building became widespread in the Middle East.” The reasons for this evolution are disputed. In a volume summarising his research, Lorenz Korn approaches the question of why this shift occurred from an external perspective.
An encyclopaedia or a proof of God’s existence?
At first glance, the work analysed by Arabic Studies Professor Lale Behzadi appears to be an encyclopaedia of animals. “Kitāb al-Ḥayawān, the ‘Book of Animals’ by the scholar al-Jāḥiẓ, stands out among a rich wealth of Arabic-Islamic writings that assembled and categorised knowledge in the ninth century.” But the book is more than an encyclopaedia: it reflects the view of the world taken by al-Jāḥiẓ, one in which all things are connected. The author finds that God creates order in his own way and supplies food for thought. In a sense, the author supplies proof for the existence of God with the Book of Animals.
Interdisciplinary explorations of cathedrals
How does faith with no material form become materially visible? An interdisciplinary research team led by art historian Professor Stephan Albrecht has looked into this question and examined five portals in well-known European cathedrals including Notre-Dame in Paris, St. Stephen’s in Vienna and Bamberg Cathedral. The interdisciplinary team with expertise in construction research, preservation science and art history has discovered much about the history of the churches and about religiosity in the Middle Ages. “Looking at cathedrals with this particular constellation of expertise was”, as Stephan Albrecht comments, “globally unique.”
This multimedia feature presents the University of Bamberg’s “Medieval Culture and Society” research focus area.
Writing and editing: Patricia Achter
Video on the fascination of the Middle Ages: Christian Beyer; Music: Eberhard Kummer
Video on European identity: Johannes Titze, Benjamin Herges
Video on sources analysis: Benjamin Herges
Translation: Sarah Swift
Has your curiosity been piqued? You may wish to check out our multimedia features on other Bamberg research focus areas!