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'Spiritualis fornicatio': Heinrich Wittenwiler, seine Welt und sein 'Ring.'

Eckart Conrad Lutz, Konstanzer Geschichts- und Rechtsquellen, Neue Folge der Konstanzer Stadtrechtsquellen, 32. (Sigmaringen: Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 1990). 505 pp.; I colour plate; 63 black-and-white plates. ISBN 3-7995-6832-8. DM 94.

This book, a Habilitation thesis from Freiburg i. Br., employs a remarkable command of historical, sociological, literary-critical and philological interpretative techniques within the best possible kind of mediaevalist detective work to produce the definitive study of Wittenwiler's Ring which will surely become one of the great classics of secondary literature in our field. It has been a great pleasure to read this book, not least of all because it is written, despite all its complex sections, in a style of exemplary clarity.

The first five sections (pp. 29-213) deal with the historical context in which Wittenwiler should be seen, and show why he wrote the book. They introduce us to the struggle for power within the Konstanz city council amongst patricians and guild masters and the delicate balance of relations with the bishop of Konstanz and the abbots of the monasteries of Reichenau and St. Gallen; and all this is set against the demands of Austrian ducal hegemony and die struggle within the wider context of papal schism and the unfest caused over thirty years or so in the south-west of the German-speaking world by the rising of the Appenzeller peasants in the late fourteenth century. In a series of fascinating vignettes we are introduced to the biographies of contemporaries of Wittenwiler who appear in the same diplomas and legal documents as he does. In this way we learn of the influences and strains in Wittenwiler's life and the whole network of reciprocal obligations and petitioning which governed the daily struggles for power and position. This part of the German-speaking world was, if anything, more conservative, conscious of class differences, because the nobility felt under pressure here (p. 121). Wittenwiler, as a diocesan administrator in Konstanz, a trusted official of Bishop Albrecht Blarer, tends to support the status quo, the Austrian leanings of his master, and to be hostile to the (upstart) farmers and their workers. Professor Lutz pieces all this jigsaw together from a wealth of historical documents, He is able with plausible hypotheses to show us historical figures that are the butt of Wittenwiler's satire in his work within a clearly locatable local geography. Sections 6-11 (pp. 2. 15-414) are devoted to revealing the structure of the text itself. It is convincingly shown how this vernacular work is consciously written within the tradition of mediaeval Latin allegorical epic -- via Bernardus Silvestris, Alain de Lille, Johannes de Hauvilla and others -- casting its figures within the framework of the crucial contrast between the spirit directed towards God and the flesh as the source of evil, the blessed bride and the wretched whore, Mary and Venus, which gives rise also to the tide of this study. The tradition in text and iconography is fully established and illustrated. The religious ethical background of the vernacular text is illuminated to show how Matzli and Bertschi slot into this tradition. The peasant figures are presented with many evil, indeed heretical, characteristics, scorned down to the very sounds they are made to speak (pp. 419-2.6). The seriousness of this travesty used for deliberate political ends is revealed convincingly. The shortness of this review does not permit greater detail of discussion here, but this study gives us very many insights into the text on many levels of understanding.

Wittenwiler was an erudite author who was able to put his knowledge to lively use to build on the setting of the earlier text |Metzen hochzit' to produce an innovatory work of epic proportions. The final section (pp. 427-41) discusses the unique manuscript tradition and tries to explain why the effect of the Ring nevertheless remained modest. The climate changed to the political advantage of the conservative forces in Konstanz and the book became more or less unfashionable and obsolete.

This study has been beautifully, indeed lavishly, produced with great care and a wealth of photographic material. An extensive bibliography (pp. 443-82) and indexes for Bible and Ring quotations, indexes of places, historical names, primary sources and concepts (Pp. 483-505) round off this excellent book.
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Author:Margetts, John
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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