Cornelia Niekus Moore. Patterned Lives: The Lutheran Funeral Biography in Early Modern Germany.
To those unfamiliar with the Lutheran funeral work, a book devoted to the biographies that were an important part of these publications might seem rather morbid. That is certainly not the case with Cornelia Moore's study. Instead, her book is a lively overview of a major genre of early modern German literature. It is all the more welcome because it is the first major study of German funeral biographies in English.
The significance of the funeral work is revealed by the numbers: there are over 220,000 surviving funeral publications dating from the mid-sixteenth into the eighteenth century. These publications generally contained one or more funeral sermons as well as biographical information about the deceased's life and death. They might also include commemorative poems or songs, illustrations, and acknowledgement speeches given by a family member or friend of the deceased. Professor Moore concentrates on the biography, whether incorporated in a sermon or included as a separate section of the larger funeral work. Her goal is not to mine the biographies for information about early modern Germany, but rather to discuss the genre as a whole, describing its origin, development and demise over the course of two centuries.
The book is clearly structured around this goal. After an opening chapter that introduces the Lutheran funeral biography, Moore devotes two chapters to placing the genre within its religious and rhetorical setting and describing its emergence in the mid-sixteenth century. Although funeral sermons and orations were delivered within other confessions and in other countries, the funeral biography as it developed in Lutheran Germany differed from these other types of addresses in several ways. Its original purpose was to testify to the deceased's faith that brought eternal salvation; it was thus meant both to console mourners and to encourage them to exercise such faith in life and on their own deathbeds. The topics covered in the biography were shaped by the demonstrative genus of classical rhetoric, but they were also chosen to reflect or illustrate the lessons taught in the Scripture text on which the sermon was based. Individuals were portrayed as representatives of their social class, profession or gender, but the preacher also personalized his presentation with anecdotes from the deceased's life and deathbed.
Funeral biographies were thus a blend of the secular and the religious, the stereotyped and the individual. They differed according to the status of the deceased and they changed over time. To illustrate these differences, Moore devotes the next three chapters to case studies of the funeral biographies of three groups: the noble canons of Magdeburg cathedral, the burghers of the city of Brunswick (Braunschweig), and the Saxon electors and their wives in Dresden. One problem faced by all preachers who included biographical information in their sermons was how to avoid hypocrisy or hyperbole in describing the deceased's life. To some extent they were spared this temptation because the genre itself did not demand a complete presentation of the deceased's life, "warts and all," but only those portions that would edify the audience. Sometimes pastors had to resolve such difficulties more creatively, as Moore shows through the case of Elector Christian II, who drank himself to death at an early age. Preachers spoke of the health that the Elector had been blessed with at birth and then extolled the virtues of a healthy lifestyle, without connecting those virtues to the late Elector or, if they were far enough away from the court, they claimed that they did not know enough details to give a lengthy biography.
Although the funeral biographies developed along a common trajectory, those from each city also had their own distinctive characteristics. The earliest published funeral works were for members of the nobility; only after the establishment of a printing press in Brunswick in the early seventeenth century did funeral works for the urban patriciate and professional classes become more common. Over time the emphasis of the biography shifted from concern with the deceased's salvation to the exemplary nature of his or her life and the grief felt by mourners at their loss. By the later seventeenth century the representational aspect of the funeral work became more prominent. Accordingly, publication format changed from quarto to folio, the biography was clearly separated from the sermon, and the contents were expanded to include portraits, epitaphs, and other material.
In her final chapter Moore describes the reasons for the gradual decline of the funeral work over the first half of the eighteenth century. Most important was the growing popularity of the silent funeral, in which the deceased was laid to rest without a sermon; this in turn led to a growing secularization of burial practices. She closes with a discussion of the impact of funeral biographies on other types of literature in the eighteenth century, especially the lives of "spiritual heroes" presented in religious-moralistic literature.
Because its subjects spans two centuries, Patterned Lives gives a fascinating insight into the cultural changes of the early modern period. Funeral biographies illustrate in a particularly revealing way the shift from the initial post-Reformation concern with salvation by faith to the Enlightenment emphasis on morally exemplary lives, the growing preoccupation of the aristocracy with representation, and the increased attention paid to description of character and explanation of internal motivation. For this reason Moore's study will be appreciated by literary scholars and historians alike. It will be required reading for anyone wanting to study this extraordinary source of information about the lives and deaths of men and women in early modern Germany.
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|Author:||Burnett, Amy Nelson|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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