Review: Codex im Diskurs. Eds. Thomas Haye and Johannes Helmrath. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2014 (Wolfenbütteler Mittelalter-Studien. 25).

Guest post by Charlotte Kempf, Universität Heidelberg

Link to publication and link to table of contents

indexThree conferences on codices held at the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel by the “Mediävistischer Arbeitskreis” from 2006 to 2010 have fundamentally altered the perception of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. On the one hand, the conferences are closely linked to recent research on the material and the medial character of the medieval codex. On the other hand, their aim was to point out other approaches towards research on codices as well. The terms “Kodikalität” and “Kodifizierung” were discussed as umbrella concepts in all three conferences. The proceedings of the first conference were published in 2009 in the volume “Codex im Raum”. The second conference “Codex im Diskurs” (“codex in discourse”), organized by Johannes Helmrath and Thomas Haye in 2008, has resulted in the recently published volume which will be discussed in this review. The contributions of the third conference (“Codex und Geltung”) will be published soon.

In their introduction of the volume “Codex im Diskurs”, Helmrath and Haye represent a relatively vague idea of “discourse”: They use “Codex im Diskurs” as a synonym for “Sprechen über den Codex im Mittelalter” (9) (“Talking about the codex in the middle ages”). Furthermore, as Helmrath and Haye note, discourse about codices was first established by the humanists. Due to this fact, the editors see the research presented in the volume as a possible means of focusing on implicit medieval discourses.

The articles deal mainly with late medieval literary and mystic texts and with sources from administrative and university contexts. Overall, they highlight the variety of functions a codex could assume in different discursive contexts, e.g. in the university, in the administration or in the monastery. They also exemplify the interdependence between functions, discursive contexts, literary contents and the materialities of codices.

Bernd Michael’s and Barbara Frank-Job’s articles provide a general introduction to  the topic. Michael focuses on discourses in three socio-cultural fields, namely the court, the university and the field of individual intellectual collectors. He emphasizes that the medieval codex represents several discourses, explicit as well as implicit, which makes it impossible to speak of an uniform discourse about codices. Frank-Job considers the  “Textkonzeptualisierung” (“conceptualization of texts”) in the French-speaking part of Europe. Within this process, oral vernacular traditions were put into writing from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries.

Christian Kiening and Christel Meier deal with mystic texts. Using the example of Hildegard of Bingen, Meier highlights the importance of the writing process. There are no sources regarding the orders Hildegard gave orally to the respective scribes – other than the codices themselves. As the results of these orders, the codices make it possible to assess just how much Hildegard wanted to control not only the text, but also its dissemination.

Kiening considers the discourse within mystic texts, focusing on the Book of Revelation, Mechthild of Magdeburg’s The Flowing Light and the Liber specialis gratiae by Mechthild of Hackeborn. Kiening emphasizes how the mode of presentation and perception of these texts constantly changed between listening and watching, prestige and uncertainty, authority and paradox.

Paradox and changes are not only attributes of mystic texts, they also play an important role in one of the most famous Minnesang manuscripts, the Codex Manesse, as Hartmut Bleumer indicates. A combination of the spoken word and writing are characteristic of Minnesang in general. Its texts are the results of a markedly oral tradition. Bleumer focuses on lyrical as well as medial transgressions and argues that over time, the written versions facilitated discourse, instead of the performances.

Analyzing discourses on the basis of individual codices is not only Bleumer’s approach, but also that of Ulrich Eigler and Zsuzsanna Kiséry. Both Eigler and Kiséry examine the role of codices in humanist communication. Eigler outlines an ensemble of practices employed by the late medieval scholars Beatus Rhenanus (1485–1547), Johannes Murmellius (1480–1517) or Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374), in connection with or within codices. They saw codices as partners in a dialogue, as an expression of humanist identity or as companions. This can be illustrated through the materiality of the codices. Bookplates were used to affirm ownership and confer individual traits on the volumes. In the case of Petrarca, the codex was part not only of biographical, but of bibliographical discourses as well. In his codex of Vergil, he took notes about incidents in his own life. In his codex of Cassiodor’s De orthographia, he listed his favorite books, thus exemplifying humanist discourse concerning the codex.

Whereas Eigler opts for a broader survey of the topic, Kiséry only concentrates on one particular text, Benedetto de Piglio’s autobiographical Libellus penarum. After eight months in captivity, Benedetto wrote this text during his stay at the Council in Constance. Similar to the example of Petrarca’s biographical note-taking, Benedetto’s codex contained a text about his life, thus serving as a means of humanist self-presentation as well.

The recently deceased Dieter Mertens contemplated the topic of “Codex im Diskurs der Universität” (“Codices in university discourse”). He studied codices which were produced at the University of Freiburg in the second half of the fifteenth century. The extant manuscripts reflect the teaching efforts of the university staff as well as their interest in humanism, thus showing how developments in Italy affected the southern part of the Holy Roman Empire.

In his article, Ingo H. Kropač analyzes codices in their administrative context. He concentrates on the “Stadtbücher” (“town’s books”) of Regensburg from the beginning of the fourteenth to the beginning of the sixteenth century. Concerning administrative discourses, it is quite important to note that these books were first introduced at the time of the development of the “Ratsverfassung” (“constitution of the town”), coinciding with increasing literacy rates amongst the town’s population.

One might ask if the term “Diskurs” was a wise choice for the title of this volume. Helmrath and Haye have decided to abstain from a detailed discussion of the concept. Hence, readers may miss articles that take theories in this field of research into account. Also, some of the contributors to this volume seem to avoid the term. But in spite of a missing theoretical framework, the volume is recommendable due to the great number of disciplinary approaches on the one hand and thematic aspects on the other. Not only medieval history, but also Romance philology, Medieval Latin and German philology are represented here. Besides, the volume combines studies of mystic texts, Minnesang, administrative sources and other forms of contemporary evidence. This spectrum makes the reader aware of new perspectives and angles of research on codices that have yet to be explored by others. Hence, the volume is of interest for interdisciplinary, medievalist work. We can look forward to the upcoming volume “Codex und Geltung”.

Note: The author would like to thank Dr Benjamin Müsegades, University of Heidelberg, for his comments on the review.

First published: 23 February 2015


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