Ottonian Germany: The Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg
David A. Warner
Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2001, ISBN: 9780719049255; 432pp.; Price: £19.99
University of Reading
Date accessed: 29 May, 2023
Thanks to the survival of four high quality narratives from the tenth and eleventh centuries, Widukind of Corvey's Rerum gestarum Saxonicarum, Thietmar of Merseberg's Chronicon, Lampert of Hersfeld's Annales, and Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, we know today much more about the Saxon gens, the newcomer to the Frankish realm, than of the other component peoples of the east Frankish kingdom which became Germany: the Bavarians, Franconians, Lotharingians, and Swabians. The works of Thietmar and Adam are also rich in information about Scandinavia and about the western Slavs, that is, the Poles, the Abodrites, the Liutizi, the Milzeni, and other Slavic socio-economic groups who were beginning to adjust to Saxon political pressure, or to resist it, and to the Christian missionary faith in the tenth and eleventh centuries.
It has long been recognised that in his Chronicon, Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg (1009-1018) was one of the more acute observers of imperial politics in their relation to Italy, the papacy, France, and the East; and of the internal state of Germany under the contemporary emperors, Otto II (976-983), Otto III (983-1002), and Henry II (1002-1024), the last of whom was a personal friend. Thietmar was also a keen commentator on Saxon society, especially in its rather violent confrontation with Slav neighbouring tribes, a process in which he was personally involved as a Saxon aristocrat and as a bishop of Merseburg. Much of his text is involved with the spiritual and political life of the Reichskirke, the imperial church. Thietmar himself exemplified the model of a young nobleman trained for those ecclesiastical careers which were so powerful in local and imperial politics; in many ways the bishops and richer abbots were the mainstay of imperial rule in Germany at this time. His percipience breaks through again and again in the text, to reveal the personal inner and outer conflicts he suffered as an inadequately spiritual pastor; as a servant of the crown which had in fact done damage to his own see, suppressed for obscure reasons in 981 and then restored in 1004; and as a proud member of a rich Saxon dynasty with connexions into the highest society of Franconia and Swabia as well.
Thietmar's concern for everything around him that he could usefully observe and record renders him one of the most interesting of all medieval chroniclers to read today. Not only is he informative and instructive on what he ought to know about, that is, imperial business, ecclesiastical politics, the Saxon scene, and the view beyond, into the Slav, Scandinavian, and Italian spheres, but he is also sensitive to manifestations that make medieval life real to modern people: the piety of his contemporaries, gossip about the women and men of his time, the shockingly violent feuds amongst the members of the magnate class, judicial duels and offhand homicides, extraordinary phenomena of a medical nature, and so on. Once he was put in charge of the diocese of Merseburg in 1009, there is a good deal of material about the running of his priests and his episcopal lands, most of the time proving a great trial to him. There is, for example, even a rising by the peasants when a miscreant 'dared to attack and destroy one of my estates with a servile mob' (p. 374).
Before delving further into the text, we should consider what Professor Warner offers us in this successful and well-produced translation. It matches other good volumes in the Manchester Medieval Sources Series such as Timothy Reuter's The Annals of Fulda (1992). Warner's introduction is quite long, sixty-four pages, and helpfully expounds themes so prominent in Thietmar's text: Ottonian government and society; the office of the emperor and the imperial church; kingship, politics, and the sometimes disruptive effects of royal power; and Thietmar's life and career. Warner also writes about Thietmar's awareness of social distinctions and of the political role of women in his time.
Taken with Karl Leyser's Rule and Conflict in an early Medieval Society. Ottonian Saxony (1979), Timothy Reuter's Germany in the Early Middle Ages c. 800-1056 (1991) parts 2 and 3, and Boyd Hill Jr's Medieval Monarchy in Action. The German Empire from Henry I to Henry IV (1972) pp. 17-59, Professor Warner's 'Introduction: Thietmar, Bishop and Chronicler' provides a thoroughly useful survey of the Ottonian era (919-1024) in German history. In the translation, the frequent footnotes are extremely helpful. For example, long passages of the Annals of Quedlinburg are quoted where they run parallel to and flesh out Thietmar's own text. We also get Gallus Anonymous' twelfth-century version (pp. 184-85, note 131) of what was supposed to have happened in Poland during the visit of Emperor Otto III in the year 1000. And there are other examples such as citations from the letters of Brun of Querfort. The genealogical tables, maps, bibliography, and index provide what one would expect from a translated text done to high standards.
One benefit of such translations is that they assist in opening our ear to the thought-world of medieval times. For instance, Thietmar reports (p. 170) a monstrous birth that was supposed to have occurred in southern Germany in 994 or 995. The infant had the appearance of a goose from the waist down, and was deformed in various ways in the upper part of its body. The creature was baptised, and died four days later. We are told that 'because of our misdeeds, this monster brought a great pestilence'. In this manifestation and in other events, Thietmar shared a common belief in celestial signs portending misfortune. Many times in his text he reports dreams, visions, and daylight apparitions experienced by important persons, secular and ecclesiastical, which indicated to them the proper courses of action to be taken forthwith, or were in other ways minatory. He also believed that animals might be sent by divine direction to punish humans for their misdeeds. So we need to ask whether educated churchmen such as Thietmar were superstitious, or merely reflected the usual mental modes of the tenth and eleventh centuries.
As a writer, Thietmar exhibited a flair, probably unconscious, for set pieces, dramatic interludes which function more or less as fine stories detached from the main flow of the text. For example, he introduces Ch. 23 of Book II (pp. 108-09) with 'Although I may rightly be blamed for disturbing the order of events, it will be useful to add here an account of how .' and then the author goes on to tell an extraordinary tale of how Archbishop Brun of Cologne, Otto the Great's brother, was misled into a plot to hand back Lotharingia to the French, a foolish plan scotched in the nick of time by the archbishop's sagacious secretary. The explanation for this story remains lost. Another good example is the account of the battle in 982 against the Arabs in Calabria, a disaster from which Otto II barely escaped by the sea (pp. 143-46). This thrilling episode has already been translated by Boyd Hill Jr. in his Medieval Monarchy in Action (pp. 169-72). Another is the story of how Archbishop Adalbert of Magdeburg and Duke Hermann Billung of Saxony temporarily fell out of favour with the emperor because the archbishop had received the duke with royal honours at Magdeburg (pp. 112-13). It was Thietmar's maternal grandfather, Count Henry of Stade, who was so shocked that he travelled to Rome to report the pair to Otto the Great. Then there was the trial by combat in 979 when, according to Thietmar, Count Gero of Alsleben was wrongfully done to death after failing to be able to fight the combat to the finish (pp. 133-34). Emperor Otto II was legally in the right to have him executed, but was upbraided for it by his counsellors, Duke Otto of Bavaria and Count Berthold of Schweinfurth.
Not surprisingly, Thietmar took a professional interest in condemning the pagan superstitions of his Slav neighbours. One of the best pieces concerns the Redarii and the Liutizi (pp. 252-54): 'Although I shudder to say anything about them, nevertheless, in order that you, dear reader, may better understand the vain superstitions and meaningless worship of this people, I will briefly explain who they are and from whence they have come'. So we hear about their holy forest, their castle-temple of Riedegost with its decorations and idols, the habits of their priesthood, the nature of the sacrifices and the casting of lots, and so on. Such ethnographic information is very valuable because Slavic religious custom of this nature was to die out by the twelfth century.
Thietmar took good care to defend the status of bishop throughout his text. He thought it right that the emperors 'who, after the model of the Lord, exceed all other mortals through the glory of the benediction and crown' (p. 87) should govern the bishops in the pre-Gregorian mode and protect their interests from exploitation by counts, margraves and dukes, so many of whom come up as a bad lot throughout the Chronicon. Probably this is why Thietmar interpolated the vita of a favourite holy bishop, Ansfrid of Utrecht (pp. 174-78) who reigned from 995-1010. He put up bird-tables in the winter. But then our author, ever quirky, almost left out his own kinsman, Brun of Querfort. Brun, a good friend of Otto III and Henry II, was a missionary bishop martyred in Prussia, his story nearly 'omitted owing to my forgetfulness' (p. 299). We then get a short account of Brun's education, his consecration as bishop, and execution in 1009. The significance of Brun's life and work is now highlighted by Ian Wood in his new The Missionary Life. Saints and the Evangelisation of Europe 400-1050 (2001) pp. 226-44.
Although Thietmar was only a bit over forty when he died, his humble sense of personal failure recurs more often as the text progresses; 'In regard to my misdeeds, I am a wretch. In terms of my abilities, I am a pauper. In either case, however, I am far worse than all men of my order' (p. 377). He claimed to be 'Impeded by that pest, lethargy' (p. 378) but we can only perceive this in comparison with the shining Reichsbischöfe of the previous generations, Ulrich of Augsburg and Brun of Cologne, Wolfgang of Regensburg and Egbert of Trier, and so on. Thietmar was perceptive about the growing religious sensibilities of his time, which would culminate in the Age of Reform (1046-1216) and in the new religious orders. In his generosity he was always looking to his own people. In the last year of his life, he recorded that 'In those days, seven serfs of my diocese ate poisoned mushrooms and quickly died from a burning fever' (p. 381), a grim reminder to all countryfolk.
Since Professor Warner's translation of the Chronicon, and the attendant apparatus, are so successful in bringing out the richness of Thietmar's talent, it would be a great service if he could be persuaded to turn Widukind of Corvey and Lampert of Hersfeld into English as well.
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.
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Görich, K. 1993. Otto III. Romanus Saxonicus et Italicus Sigmaringen.
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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.