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a medieval horizon darkening, photograph by my wife

One of the challenges of my profession involves explaining why medieval literature is relevant to research trends that might otherwise be considered inseparable from the present. Visual culture, I realized while reading one of the texts on which I’m working for a talk in Oxford next week, can be one of them. One would think that recognizing the importance of the visual would not be terribly difficult when it comes to the traces that times past have left in the material world: the stained-glass windows, the carvings, the caskets, the cityscapes with cathedrals, and so on. But texts are different. They need imagination.

So pause, reader, for a moment, and try to visualize the scene. A knight called Firganant is supposed to be on his way to help his friend Demantin, who is besieged by an ill-disposed father-in-law. But he has interrupted his journey to enjoy the hospitality of the dwarf king Comandion. After they have finished eating…

dô sach he ûf den sal.
di was gemâlet obir al
von lasûre und von golde,
als iz di koninc wolde
mit rîcher cost zimêren.

… he (that’s Firganant) observed the hall. It was covered from top to bottom with gold and glaze, just as the king (that’s Comandion) had wished it should be decorated.

As the passage continues, it becomes clear that the walls of this dazzling interior space are also covered in depictions of numerous figures. Firganant is curious, and asks what it all means. The hall, Comandion explains, has been painted with noble worthy men standing upright and their wicked counterparts inverted with their feet in the air.

(Unpause.)

Depictions like this grabbed me when I first started reading medieval German texts – there was a fascination in the opulence, the visual richness of the world they evoke. Such responses, of course, change as one reads more. One learns that the richness is often stereotypical, part of an obsession with appearances (the poet we are looking at here is particularly guilty in this regard!), and that exemplars of good and bad behaviour are similarly widespread in writing from this time. This proliferation of topoi, indeed, might make the medieval period seem dull from some perspectives – particularly if one were foolish enough to believe that modern ideas of the innovative are the only valid ones. It is, therefore, all the more interesting when scenes such as this one do things we might not expect. This is because Comandion goes on to draw Firganant’s attention to two particular good men among those depicted, and it turns out that his visitor is well acquainted with them…

One is his friend Demantin, whose predicament Comandion explains before adding des wert noch alles an om rât, ‘he will be fine in the end’ – a fact of which Comandion has apparently been assured by his god Ophantus. And the second? As Comandion concludes to Firganant, sô mûzit ir der andere sîn, ‘well, you must be the other man’.

I think this is great. The splendour of the shining hall decorated with meaningful paintings is on the one hand an exciting image to visualize – but it is also much more than that. It becomes a form of insight into the future of a story that has yet to unfold, and of knowledge. What Firganant is seeing, without knowing it until it is explained to him, is a confirmation of his own worth alongside the story’s protagonist, Demantin. Quite imaginative, I would suggest – and not just for a thirteenth-century textual evocation of visual culture.


To find out more: the quotations are from Berthold von Holle’s Demantin:  7119–7124, 7186, and 7224. Bartsch’s edition, still the standard one for quotation, is freely available on Google Books here. My talk in Oxford (well, as I plan it now!) is going to look at the implications of this passage for the construction of narrative form alongside Old Swedish material; I’ll try to update with a link once the resultant article is finished and published.