The ‘Kaiserchronik’, a project of imperial proportions

Perhaps at £950,000 of funding, any humanities project would be deemed imperial. In the case of the Kaiserchronik project, this is actually true. This evening, Mark Chinca and Christopher Young from the University of Cambridge talked about their recently AHRC-funded project at the gathering of the Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies (CLAMS) at King’s College London. With medieval historiography having been lately overshadowed by other, more fashionable discussions of cultural and economic history, this was indeed a refreshing opportunity to reflect on the relevance of talking chronicles, textual criticism and the rise of the vernacular in the 12th and 13th centuries.

The Kaiserchronik (The Chronicle of emperors) was a major historiographical enterprise began in Marburg towards 1150 in vernacular verse. The chronicle covers the reigns of Roman and German kings and emperors, from the earliest times to the twelfth century. The title of Kaiserchronik was not given until the 19th century, it seems, and that only because the author, at some point in the narrative, considered himself to be a chronicler. In any case, the structure, layout or narrative strategies at work in the chronicle would not normally authorise it to be referred to as a chronicle, at least according to Gervase of Canterbury’s notions or indeed those of modern scholarship. Of what I’ve heard, it seems to me that the Kaiserchronik would be better called ‘Kaisergeschichte’. Yet, these notions such as authorship and designation are themselves the product of a later age, so they shouldn’t bother that much.

Written in Middle High German (in use between 1050-1350), the Kaiserchronik represents, as Chris Young pointed out, the earliest verse chronicle anywhere in medieval Europe. It is unique in its focus on the (Western) Roman empire, its extensive use of heterogenous sources and the display of the tension between classical learning and popular culture, which both try to carve out their own discursive space in this insufficiently studied text. There are 11 complete manuscripts and 26 fragmentary witnesses which indicate the existence of three recensions, one around 1150, another c. 1200 and a third c. 1250, each with corresponding continuations, themselves poorly studied. Two editions have been produced in the past but none can rival with the ambitions which Mark and Chris laid out in this evening’s talk. The project intends to produce a full tabular critical edition of the chronicle, followed by a translation, commentary and a host of studies bearing on all aspects of text and context. The editors also intend to digitise the manuscripts in the public domain.

Mark and Chris argued that the traditional view on 12th century German vernacular should be modified to accommodate recent findings, in particular a readjustment of the place of vernacular works on scientific and popular knowledge, largely ignored by modern scholars. There are some 200 MSS of vernacular German in existence from the 12th century and more than 40 in the period before 1100. Certainly, this calls for reflection on the place that Germany occupied on the stage of history writing in the context of the rise of the vernacular, as Gabrielle Spiegel has famously argued, most notably in her book Romancing the Past: The Rise of Vernacular Prose Historiography in Thirteenth-Century France (1993). However, unlike Spiegel’s argument, it is unclear to what extent, if any, aristocratic concerns inspired a reawakening of the German historical consciousness, leading to a fresh exploration of Roman imperial history through German lenses.

Chris’ survey of recent scholarship on the Kaiserchronik revealed both the inadequacy of our current understanding of the text and the importance of preparing a critical edition that considers the complexity of the manuscript tradition, the intricate questions of authorship and readership and the context for the production of this text. In particular, Mark flagged up the difficulty of forcing different typologies upon the text. The two scholars each warned against generalisation, showing how unsatisfactory past attempts at explaining away the tension of notions such as Roman versus German, Christian salvation versus ethnical celebration, finally Church versus State can be.

The question of the chronicle’s relationship to other influential works of contemporaneous date, namely Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, where king Arthur was given discursive life and fame for all historical eternity, and the Roman de Brut, an adaptation of Geoffrey’s work by Wace. Patronage may have played a greater part in all this than previously thought. On the one hand Matilda, daughter of king Henry I of England and wife to emperor Henry V, on the other Eleanor of Aquitaine, the epitome of twelfth century political and cultural networking. Their role, if any, in the production of the Kaiserchronik remains, at least for now, unclear.

As the team leaders themselves conceded, there are far more questions than answers out there, but perhaps five years will vindicate most of these unknowns.

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