An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

August 3, 2015

Oexle: Die Gegenwart des Mittelalters

Otto Gerhard Oexle, Die Gegenwart des Mittelalters. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2015.

Reviewed by Richard Utz (

This delightful cahier of 45 pages, published under the auspices of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, offers a revised version of a paper Otto Gerhard Oexle originally presented at the Academy's Mittelalterzentrum in 2012. To speak about the "Presence" or "Contemporaneity" of the Middle Ages, Oexle addresses three general areas:

1) An immediate presence visible in remains and monuments: Oexle quickly summarizes what we know about the fascination we moderns have with historical objects and buildings, and he likens the immediacy ("Unmittelbarkeit") of the pleasure experienced by lay visitors with that experienced by professional historians. He also underlines how his own early paleographic and codicological contact with material medievalia served as prime incentive for seeking future pleasurable moments through historic discovery.

2) The concept of a "Middle Age" as invented by late medieval (he does not use "Renaissance") humanists: This second section, which demonstrates the wealth of knowledge Oexle has gathered during a lifetime of study, advances two main observations: That the humanists' conceptualization of the medium aevum or media aetas is an invention, and that, epistemologically speaking, this invention is itself an attribution of meaning ("Sinnzuweisung" or "Bedeutungszuweisung") anchored in its own historical and cultural contexts. As a way of structuring historical time, this attribution of meaning rendered history comprehensible, imaginable, and teachable, but its semantic longevity has made it impossible for historians to advance perhaps different, more appropriate periodizations and ways of imagining historical development. For example, the strict semantic separation between the Middle Ages and Modernity allows historians of modernity to disregard pre-modern/postmedieval completely. Thus, important early modern transitional changes are obliterated from consideration. The invention of the Middle Ages as a distinct historical period is only fully achieved when Enlightenment thinkers conceive of a "new time" ("Neuzeit"/modern age) that needs both a dark age against which an enlightened age can shine all the more brightly, and a pre-industrial world during which humans were safely rooted in allegedly natural orders (family, relatives, village, parish, etc.). "The Middle Ages," Oexle writes, "is the only era in western history that is perceived to exist within such a dichotomy. We are dealing with two conflicting forms of perception, which are mutually antagonistic and complementary, constituting both the interest in and the emphatically declaimed rejection of the Middle Ages" (17; my translation).         

3) The concept of the "Middle Ages" as invented by modernity: Oexle first rejects simplistic categorizations of entire periods as exclusively friendly (Romanticism) or inimical (Enlightenment) to medieval culture. He then declares that the term “reception” (Mittelalter-Rezeption) does not appropriately describe the process by which modernity simply (passively) receives, but (actively) visits its own desire for identity upon the predecessor period in an act of cultural memorialization. Even if Oexle claims otherwise, this distinction is a clear disciplinary slight towards colleagues in Germanistik, whom he denies the methodological preparation to dealing with modern medievalisms. It seems that only historians can appropriately deal with the various modernist attributions of meaning to the Middle Ages. Finally, Oexle dedicates not even two pages to the nineteenth-century’s active remembering of medieval culture (Victor Hugo; the Pre-Raphaelites) to move on to twentieth-century medievalism in music and architecture. This rhetorical move inverts David Matthews’ recent focus on a canonical nineteenth-century medievalism on the one hand and a “residual” medievalism in the twentieth century on the other (Medievalism. A Critical History, 2015, 140-65). Oexle, perhaps because he focuses almost exclusively on developments in Germany (and France), does not confirm Matthews’ claim of a medieval revival central to nineteenth-century (British) culture and a consequent abating of medievalism as a dominant cultural force. Instead, he follows the findings of Annette Kreutziger-Herr (Im Schatzhaus der Erinnerung: Die Musik des Mittelalters in der Neuzeit, 2008; Ein Traum vom Mittelalter: Die Wiederentdeckung mittelalterlicher Musik in der Neuzeit, 2003), mentions the “explosion” (27) of an imaginary Middle Ages in the works of Stefan George, Hermann Hesse, and Thomas Mann, and describes the medievalism of the Bauhaus (Walter Gropius, Bruno Taut, Peter Behrens). It is only when he discusses examples of twentieth-century architecture (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Memorial Church, Berlin; Wertheim department store, Berlin; Hoechst administration building, Frankfurt) that he acknowledges (and seems to agree with Matthews) that most of these buildings are only residually, and barely recognizably, ‘medieval’.

Oexle’s essay ends rather abruptly, just when I was hoping for some thoughts about examples of medievalism in the more recent “Gegenwart,” anything after the early twentieth century. However, all we are left with is the assertion that the quantity of medievalist “remnants” and “monuments” we can discern has increased, an observation David Matthews attributes to medievalism’s move away from cultural centrality to marginality since the nineteenth century. While this question remains unresolved in this essay, Oexle does present ample evidence that medievalist historians can make valuable contributions to understanding modernity (“Moderne”), a term he appears to equate with contemporaneity (“Gegenwart”). Postmodernity, computer and video games, and even movies never enter Oexle’s consideration, perhaps simply a generational issue.

Richard Utz
Georgia Institute of Technology