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  • Triumph des Dichters: Gekrönte Intellektuelle im 16. Jahrhundert
  • Eckhard Bernstein
Albert Schirrmeister . Triumph des Dichters: Gekrönte Intellektuelle im 16. Jahrhundert. Frühzeitstudien. Neue Folge 3. Cologne and Weimar: Böhlau Verlag, 2003. vii + 318 pp. + 19 b/w plates. index. illus. bibl. €34.90. ISBN: 3–412–09703–9.

In the last thirty years scholars of German Renaissance humanism have increasingly focused on the humanists as a social group and on their position within early modern society. It is in this tradition that Schirrmeister's study has to be viewed. By concentrating on the time between 1487, the year Conrad Celtis was crowned poet laureate by Emperor Frederick III, and 1555, when Charles V bestowed the poet's crown on a certain Nikolaus Mameranus, Schirrmeister focuses on a period when the humanists tried to redefine their social position and their cultural identity. [End Page 213]

As a theoretical framework Schirrmeister uses the concepts of the "literary field" and the "field of power" developed by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whereby humanists clearly belong to the literary field, while their princely, royal and imperial patrons belong to the field of power. According to Schirrmeister, the humanists used their "social capital," meaning the network of relations within the group — as well as their "cultural capital" — referring to their specific competence in Latin and rhetoric (both concepts also borrowed from Bourdieu) — to increase their influence. After establishing this theoretical framework Schirrmeister analyzes, on the basis of numerous humanist texts and paratexts such as dedications, prefaces, and introductory poems, the fascinating interplay between the fields of literature and that of power. How did the humanists position themselves and represent themselves as humanists? Using previous studies Schirrmeister also demonstrates how the humanists, through the founding of sodalities, through their correspondences, and through dedicatory letters, tried to create a sense of identity, cohesion, and unity. At the same time, it was clear that they could only be successful within the literary field if they had support from representatives of the field of power — for instance, through powerful and wealthy patrons.

What role did the crowned poets, the poetae laureati, play in this development? After all, the title of the book promises to deal with that practice of German emperors to bestow laurel crowns and a number of privileges on distinguished or, more often than not, mediocre poetae, the contemporary name for humanists. While in England the much later established poet laureate was always a single person who held this position for life, the German emperors were much more generous in awarding this honor. Emperor Maximilian, for instance, crowned thirty-one poets during his reign, with the result that at one time there were twenty poetae laureati vying for his attention. His successors Charles V and Ferdinand, on the other hand, were far less magnanimous. Together they accorded the poet's crown to only thirteen poets. Still, an amazing forty-four literati were accorded the imperial laurel during the reign of the three Habsburg emperors. Given these numbers, Schirrmeister views the crowning as a key practice for an understanding of humanist literary identity in the first half of the sixteenth century, since it most clearly demonstrates the humanists' position between the field of power and literature in that the practice benefits both the poets and the emperor: the poet increased his "cultural capital," while the ruler had his need for representation satisfied through panegyrics that were expected from the poet. The practice clearly shows that the position of the humanists was not an autonomous one: they were dependent on patrons from the field of politics.

Clearly written and carefully documented, Schirrmeister's study offers numerous new insights into the complex interplay of cultural, social, economic, and political forces that shaped early modern society as well as new insights into the emergence of the group we now call humanists. But while it may be justified to view the crowning ceremony symbolically as a key practice because it so obviously demonstrates the interdependence between the fields of culture and politics, it is in fact doubtful whether it ever had the importance claimed by Schirrmeister. [End Page 214] Through his inflationary practice of bestowing the poet...


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