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Response to Review no. 252

I truly appreciate Professor Arnold’s positive review of my book and, even more so, his assessment of the importance and depth of Thietmar’s text. In response, I would merely like to highlight one point that I find particularly interesting and which, in my opinion, might be further exploited. I should add that my comments reflect ongoing work towards a monograph focusing on Thietmar as historian and man-of-affairs.

The point in question centres on an issue of methodology pertaining to the character of the source itself and the intentions of its author. In general, one can say that medieval writers of history were not, and probably never intended to be dispassionate reporters of past events. Rather, they almost always wrote with the interests of a specific audience in mind, even if that audience consisted only of themselves (Schmale 1985: 20-22). If nothing else, those interests might reflect a desire to document the effect of God’s hand in human events and affirm that Christian salvation constituted the latter’s ultimate aim. They might also include support for property claims and other more material agendas (Althoff 1988: passim). Overall, one will search in vain for a medieval work of history “written completely without anger or zeal that focuses exclusively on the recollection of the past (Althoff 1988: 133).” Although I emphasise it here, the fact that historians in the Middle Ages were no more inclined toward objectivity than their modern counterparts should not astonish us. Indeed, one might argue that, in each case, it is the historian’s passion that makes his or her work worth reading (Collingwood 1999: 212). The less than dispassionate viewpoint of medieval works of history does, however, present a dilemma for anyone seeking to reconstruct and understand the world in which their authors lived and worked. In reconstructing Thietmar’s world, we must assume from the start that all our testimony is tainted. The only question is how much and to what effect. It is a question with particular relevance for Thietmar himself.

Thietmar’s Chronicon provides some of our most detailed testimony regarding the history of the Empire in the long tenth century, which encompasses not only the tenth century itself but also the early years of the eleventh century. Often, it represents our only testimony. This dearth of evidence should not surprise anyone familiar with an era recently characterised as “more lacking in sources and reliable and precise information on ‘what actually happened’ than any other period of post-Roman European history (Reuter 1999: 1).” But simply to note the absence of competing testimony does not do justice to Thietmar’s importance. To read modern narratives of key events, such as the succession of Emperor Henry II (1002), is to encounter incident after incident known to us only through Thietmar (e.g. Weinfurter 1999: 36-58). In effect, we read sections of his Chronicon at second hand. In the absence of Thietmar’s testimony we would know nothing, for example, of a conspiracy directed against Emperor Otto III, just prior to the latter’s death (4.49). Thietmar made a point of mentioning that the conspirators had solicited Henry II’s aid (he was then Duke of Bavaria), but he had refused to join, having been loyal up to that point and having recalled his father’s admonition never to oppose his king and lord (4.20). We also would have no knowledge of the dramatic moment when one of Thietmar’s relatives dismissed the claims of another candidate for the throne, Ekkehard of Meißen, by remarking that his wagon lacked its fourth wheel (4.52). Each of these incidents has attracted the attention of modern scholars, who have expended a great deal of ingenuity in attempting to decipher, respectively, the personalities and motives behind the conspiracy and the precise significance of wagon wheels in common tenth-century parlance (Görich 1993: 146-76, Hlawitschka 1978).

Insufficient attention has been paid, in my opinion, to the function of these and similar incidents within the structure of Thietmar’s narrative. To understand that structure we need to more fully take into account the fact that Thietmar was deeply involved (or at least interested) in the events he described, and empathised with many of the individuals who figured in them. As Professor Arnold rightly notes, Thietmar was an acute observer of imperial politics, of Saxon society, and of the spiritual and political life of the Reichskirche. Clearly, he also had personal opinions, antipathies and agendas. Thus, like his ninth-century counterpart, Nithard, Thietmar embedded a private history within his narrative (cf. Nelson 1985: 226). As a result, we learn much of his personal career and also of the trials and tribulations of his extended lineage. Very much in the forefront of his attention were the interests of his long-suffering diocese of Merseburg and of Magdeburg, where he long resided. All of this was in addition to his more general concern to document the salvific goal of history and to record the deeds of the Saxon (i.e. Ottonian) kings.

One of the chief tasks facing the modern reader of Thietmar’s Chronicon is to assess the degree to which those opinions, antipathies, and agendas influenced his interpretation of events, and especially his criteria of inclusion or exclusion. The prominence in modern narratives of the marcher counts Henry of Schweinfurt and Werner of Wolmirstedt largely rests, for example, on the interest that Thietmar expressed in them. But Thietmar’s interest may chiefly have rested, in turn, on the fact that both men were his relatives. To what extent, then, has our master narrative of late Ottonian politics merged, in effect, with Thietmar’s “private history” of his family? What of his other motives? Thietmar owed much to Emperor Henry II who had, among other things, collaborated in his elevation to the episcopacy and restored his diocese of Merseburg. He hoped to gain even more. One might well question the extent to which this material agenda affected Thietmar’s more general portrait of Henry II’s reign. I have suggested elsewhere, for example, that Thietmar’s account of the emperor’s succession to the throne in 1002 manipulates events so as to emphasise Henry’s claim to legitimacy while undermining the claims of other candidates (Warner 1995: 69-73). Is this also why he noted the conspiracy against Otto III mentioned above, clearly, because it documented Henry II’s loyalty to his predecessor? Were Ekkehard of Meißen’s chances for obtaining the throne better than his apparent “three-wheeled” status would suggest? Would Thietmar’s contemporaries have viewed the process of succession as such a foregone conclusion?

Professor Arnold rightly notes Thietmar’s professional interest in condemning the pagan superstitions of his Slav neighbours. Behind Thietmar’s comments, however, there looms the ongoing conflict between Emperor Henry II and the Duke of Poland and the seemingly related scandal of Henry’s alliance with a pagan Slav confederation. Were Thietmar’s opinions generally held? Recent research has suggested that Henry’s alliance with the Liutizi was based on a relationship already well-established during his period as duke of Bavaria (Görich 1997) . In other words, from Henry’s perspective and presumably that of some portion of his supporters, the alliance was not an aberration and a scandal, but rather business as usual. Such questions should not suggest that Thietmar’s testimony must be rejected, but merely, in my opinion, that the relationship between that testimony and our modern historical narratives may bear closer and more subtle examination.


Althoff, G. 1988. “Causa scribendi und Darstellungsabsicht: Die Lebensbeschreibungen der Königin Mathilde und andere Beispielen,” in Borgolte, M. and Spilling, H. (eds.) 1988, pp.117-33.

Borgolte, M. and Spilling, H. (eds.). 1988. Litterae Medii Aevi. Festchrift für Johanne Autenrieth zu ihrem 65. Geburtstag Sigmaringen.

Collingwood, R. G. 1999. The Principles of History and other Writings in Philosophy of History W. H. Dray and W. J. van der Dussen (eds.). Oxford.

Görich, K. 1997. “Eine Wende im Osten: Heinrich II und Boleslaw Chrobry,” in Schneidmüller, B. and Weinfurter, S. (eds.) 1998. pp.95-167.

Görich, K. 1993. Otto III. Romanus Saxonicus et Italicus Sigmaringen.

Hauck, K and Mordek, H. (eds.), 1978. Geschichtsschreibung und geistiges Leben IM Mittelalter. FS. für Heinz Löwe zum 65. Geburtstag Cologne and Vienna.

Hlawitschka, E. 1978. “Merkst du nicht, dass dir das vierte Rad am Wagen fehlt ? Zur Thronkandidatur Ekkehards von Meißen (1002) nach Thietmar, Chronicon iv. c.52,” in Hauck and Mordek (eds.) 1978: pp.281-311.

Nelson, J. L. 1985. “Public Histories and Private History in the Work of Nithard,” in idem, 1986: pp.195-237.

Nelson, J. L. 1986. Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe. London.

Schmale, F. J. 1985. Funktion und Formen mittelalterlicher Geschichtsschreibung. Eine Einführung Darmstadt.

Schneidmüller, B. and Weinfurter, S. (eds.) 1997. Otto III.–Heinrich II. Eine Wende? Mittelalter- Forschungen, vol.1. Sigmaringen.

Warner, D. A. 1995. “Thietmar of Merseburg on Rituals of Kingship,” Viator 26. pp.53-76. Weinfurter, S. 1999. Heinrich II. Herrscher am Ende der Zeiten Regensburg.