Alastair Matthews’s The Kaiserchronik: A Medieval Narrative offers an engaging and interesting approach to the anonymous twelfth-century Middle High German Kaiserchronik (“Chronicle of the Emperors”), a text that—judged on its manuscript transmission—enjoyed considerable popularity in the Middle Ages. It is less well known to non-Germanist medievalists today—until this spring, only selections were available in English translation (Schultz, Sovereignty and Salvation in the Vernacular, 1050–1150, Medieval German Texts in Bilingual Editions 1)—but with the recent publication of Henry A. Myers’s complete translation (The Book of Emperors, 2013), this work is on the way to regaining its former prominence. Matthews’s book, informed by a variety of modern narrative theorists’ work, should appeal to a range of scholars—including non-Germanists—and so should benefit from Myers’s timely translation.
Framed by an introduction (chap. 1) and conclusion (chap. 6), each of the four main chapters (chaps. 2–5) in Matthews’s study explores a different narrative aspect as exemplified in the text’s account of one emperor’s reign. In a deliberate attempt to redress earlier scholarship’s disproportionate emphasis on the accounts of Roman emperors (p. 24), Matthews adduces as his examples two German and two Roman emperors (the Kaiserchronik as a whole treats of thirty-six Romans and nineteen Germans, along with hagiographic accounts, legends, and other narrative material). Thus, Chapter 2 analyzes time and space in the account of Constantine the Great; Chapter 3 focuses on motivation in the narrative of Charlemagne; Chapter 4 explores perspective in the story of Otto the Great; and Chapter 5 studies the embedding of material in the account of Henry IV.
Common to all of the chapters is a theoretical framework drawn from various twentieth-century scholars; importantly, Matthews also discusses works roughly contemporary with the Kaiserchronik that bear witness to contemporary medieval awareness of the issues and concerns at the core of these theories. Indeed, one of Matthews’s overarching goals is to situate the Kaiserchronik in “a wider literary scene in which the possibilities for telling stories in the German language were being explored” (p. 157); the author is less interested in sources, echoes, or the poet’s own development in the Kaiserchronik and more interested in how the chronicle participates in the growing field of vernacular literature in the twelfth century. Put succinctly, the key question here asks what it meant to write a story in the vernacular in the twelfth century (p. v).
Underlying Matthews’s work is an attempt to move away from limiting categorizations and classifications as well as universal applications, an attempt justified by [End Page 370] the manuscript transmission of the Kaiserchronik. For though the Kaiserchronik by its very title aligns itself with historiography, its breadth of narrative content and its transmission alongside nonhistoriographic texts (e.g., Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Codex 2779 also includes Arthurian romance, heroic epic, and religious material, see p. 5) suggest that at least some medieval consumers were more flexible toward—or perhaps uninterested in—strict literary classifications. While many reasons, including simple economy, can underlie what seems to us a strikingly odd Mitüberlieferung, the fact remains that such generic mixtures appear not to have offended medieval readers.
In a sense, Matthews can be said to emulate that flexibility in the approach he adopts in his book. For Matthews does not attempt to embrace and apply any one modern literary theory to a medieval work; rather, he moves among various theorists, drawing from each whatever he considers most useful. Refreshingly free of theoretical jargon, Matthews’s work also brings to the fore some German theorists less well known than their English or French contemporaries. For example, in his chapter on narratives within narratives (Chapter 5), Matthews usefully draws on Eberhard Lämmert’s concept of Handlungsstränge, or narrative strands “‘distinct… in at least one of the following three criteria: different plot time—different scene—different characters’” (Lämmert, quoted here p. 126).
In reading the story of Agnes...