Skip to content

Response to Review of The Shaping of German Identity: Authority and Crisis, 1245–1414

I am most grateful to Dr Ghosh for such a close and careful reading and generous evaluation of my book. I am glad that, like me, he finds the story of German identity-formation ‘uncomfortable but fascinating’, and would like to thank him for the lucidity with which he articulates some of its twists and turns. By way of response, I will concentrate on perhaps the most substantive and problematic question which he raises: that of language and its role as a stimulus to common identity. It is a subject over which German Romanticism, with its preoccupation with speech and letters as windows into the national soul, has cast a long shadow. That shadow seems, however, to linger particularly in Anglophone scholarship on medieval Europe. There, the Germans continue to feature as a language-driven Kulturnation, unfavourably contrasted (with many a portentous forward-glance to their much later history) with the solidly-made political communities to their west, the kingdoms of France and England.(1) This widespread, lazy and source-blind assumption was one that I wished to challenge. While I would not deny that language was a significant element in late-medieval German identity (though its significance is easily exaggerated), my concern was to call into question the persistent view that it functioned as an alternative to (supposedly non-existent) political affinities. Instead, my book argues that the very idea of a single German language was itself a thoroughly political one.

Dr Ghosh makes a number of important observations, with which I will seek to engage in turn. First there is the matter of geography. His claim that ‘the German lands were the lands inhabited by those who spoke the German tongue’, although substantially true, requires some qualification. The extent of ‘the German lands’ in the late Middle Ages, as Dr Ghosh himself recognizes, was debatable, and debate drew upon a variety of criteria – not on language alone. The legacy of ancient geographical lore played a part. So too, however, did contemporary political frontiers: Germans, for many literate observers at least, were speakers of a ‘German’ tongue who lived within the bounds of the Empire. That explains, for example, why Holland and Brabant were recurrently ascribed to Alemannia whereas Silesia, despite its mainly German-speaking towns and heavily Germanised countryside, continued into the late Middle Ages to be located within Poland.

Late-medieval Germans, Dr Ghosh suggests, ‘could … only know they were German because of their language’. However, I see little reason to suppose, and know of no evidence indicating, that most Germans had any real linguistic awareness at all on this broad level. The learned and semi-learned, when they came to think about peoples and nations, were accustomed to apply language as one criterion among others. But only at the frontier was language a source of daily-experienced difference from the ‘not-German’; and it was above all at the eastern margins, where barriers of social privilege were in part constructed linguistically, that difference of speech was also made to bear a burden of significance.

But how, in any case, did Germans come to believe that they in some sense spoke one single common language, and not several? Inter-regional communications within the German lands were not invariably simple, and well-informed contemporaries were not blind to the paradoxes of identity which linguistic diversity posed. (A 14th-century Bohemian abbot, for example, mused on the strangeness of the fact that the Saxon and the Bavarian, neither of whom, as he believed, could understand the other’s speech, was each properly called German (2)). Awareness of overarching Germanic linguistic affinity may indeed be traceable back to the early Middle Ages, as Dr Ghosh indicates; but in order to function as a component of shared identity, such affinity needed to be not merely registered but, once again, invested with significance. That significance had political roots. It was their neighbours in the south, faced with the incursions of imperial armies during the Ottonian period, who seem first to have perceived ‘German’-speakers as one single and significant community. The emperors’ Italian subjects, though oblivious to the varieties of northern speech, were acutely alert to the sound of foreign soldiers in their midst, and named them accordingly. In language as in other things, medieval Germans were in their turn educated in their Germanness by their Romance-speaking neighbours.

Finally there is the question of a common vernacular literature, to which Dr Ghosh ascribes much importance as a source of identity. For a number of reasons, I would take a more cautious view here. First of all, as Dr Ghosh himself hints, the only thing that was ‘German’ about most of the heroic literature consumed at princely courts of the Blütezeit was its language. Antique, French-Carolingian and Celtic settings and heroes dominated: the all-consuming aristocratic passion for Arthur and his knights was a recurrent theme of denunciation by clerical moralists.(3) It is true that Dietrich von Bern, Siegfried and the rest also featured in courtly entertainments; but their presence is more elusive to us, as they survived into the late Middle Ages primarily within an oral repertoire, in contrast to the written epic tradition with Romance and Latin roots.(4) Perhaps for that reason, late-medieval writers found them difficult to historicize – or, it seems, Germanize.(5) So while Dr Ghosh’s assertion, that the heritage of (‘Germanic’) epic was appreciated ‘as something uniquely German’, strikes me as inherently plausible, it is actually remarkably difficult to verify with hard evidence.

While the flourishing of vernacular literature at court during the Blütezeit is certainly significant, I would regard its significance as being of a broader sociological kind, not directly identity-forming, as does Dr Ghosh. It is an early harbinger of the spread of vernacular literacy among other, less elevated groups – the middling and lesser nobility, and elites within the towns – which was to gather pace over the course of the 13th century. All this in turn made for a more communicative, interconnected late-medieval world: an important basis for identity-formation.(6) However, the political context of this broad process was one of entrenched regionalism and political multiplicity – qualities reflected in the consolidation of regional forms of written German during the late Middle Ages. The trans-regional high aristocratic literary German of the Staufer court and its imitators was an artificial, hothouse bloom, not destined for long life: the late-medieval future lay with a plurality of written modes.(7) I would be the first to agree with Dr Ghosh that the spread of the vernacular was no part ‘of any sort of imperial political programme’. Indeed, I would go further: the late-medieval imperial chancery was just one player, and by no means the most important, in an expanding, regionalised, multi-vocal sphere of ‘German’ writing. Unifying factors were hard to discern here. Perhaps that is why those who went in search of criteria of unity so often chose to look elsewhere.

  1. For the idea of a Kulturnation, see Friedrich Meinecke, Cosmopolitanism and the National State, trans. R. B. Kimber (Princeton, NJ, 1970), p. 234.Back to (1)
  2. Die Königsaaler Geschichts-Quellen mit den Zusätzen und der Fortsetzung des Domherrn Franz von Prag, ed. J. Loserth (Vienna, 1875), p. 52.Back to (2)
  3. Joachim Bumke, Höfische Kultur: Literatur und Gesellschaft im hohen Mittelalter (Munich, 1994), p. 710.Back to (3)
  4. Ibid., pp. 614–15.Back to (4)
  5. An exception of which I am aware is the 15th-century Thuringian chronicler Johannes Rothe, for whom the intermarriage in ancient times of Trojan settlers with native giant women produced ‘the mighty Siegfried, Hagen and Kriemhild, of whom men still sing’. See Hannes Kästner, ‘“Der großmächtige Riese und Recke Theuton”: etymologische Spurensuche nach dem Urvater der Deutschen am Ende des Mittelalters’, Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie, 110 (1991), 68–97 (here 93).Back to (5)
  6. This growing late-medieval interconnectedness is a major theme of the fundamental general study by Peter Moraw, Von offener Verfassung zu gestalteter Verdichtung: das Reich im späten Mittelalter 1250 bis 1490 (Berlin, 1985).Back to (6)
  7. Peter von Polenz, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache (10th ed., Berlin, 2009), ch. 3.Back to (7)