Constance Commentaries

A – now completed – blog on Beat Kümin‘s stay at one of Germany’s ‘excellence’ universities, located on Lake Constance on the border with Switzerland, during the summer term of 2015 (following on from the ‘Greifswald Glosses’ written during 2012-13 further down this page).

18 July 2015

Isny Wassertor + Nikolaikirche v ausserhalb Stadtmauer

The last (as indeed any) week of my stay was full of variety – involving some teaching (feedback on student presentations and advice on follow-on projects), a final archival trip (to Isny in the Allgäu region, a former imperial free city whose small size and lack of dependent territory makes for interesting comparison with “my” imperial villages – pictured are the evangelical Nikolai parish church and Wasserturm gate with distinctive eagle-crest), a sociable highlight (in the form of a lakeside leaving party with the people in the department who made this visit so interesting and enjoyable, accompanied by a collective playlist of ‘popular music pearls’ we compiled over the last two months – incidentally, have you ever heard of German indie icons the Lassie Singers?), returning all the library books / office keys and trying to fit lots of new research materials / souvenirs into just one suitcase and piece of hand luggage (all of which during a spell where the temperature hardly dropped below 40 degrees). Passing through Zurich airport on the way back to England even allowed me to stock up on such survival essentials as Elmex toothpaste and Roland salty sticks. Overall, it’s been a great experience to live and work here - a place of ‘excellence’ indeed!

12 July 2015


A weekend dedicated to alcoholic beverages - yes, it included a visit to a Bavarian-style Biergarten in the harbour area, but the main feature was my block module ‘Cheers’ on early modern drinking cultures. 19 Konstanz students from 9 countries (Armenia to New Zealand) and at least 6 different degree programmes (Information Studies to Politics) gathered to discuss the political, socio-economic, religious and cultural aspects of the theme. Following a general introduction to ‘early modernity’ and key works of scholarship (e.g. Peter Clark’s classic survey of the English alehouse; left – click to enlarge), we heard 13 individual / group presentations on topics ranging from the typology of drinking sites via Reformation change to diverging gender roles, interspersed with close readings of seventeenth-century primary sources (esp. paintings from the Dutch Golden Age and the carefully crafted tavern-piece from John Earle’s Micro-Cosmographie). I was impressed by the level of engagement and intellectual curiosity of the participants, most of whom had never studied this period before. Many brought in perspectives from their own disciplines and/or personal experience informed by ‘wet’, ‘dry’ or even abstinent drinking cultures. So lots to take away for me personally as well, not least the casual observation from our Rumanian student that – in her native language – my first name actually translates as ‘drunk’ …

Plakat Kirche vor Ort
7 July 2015

Just back from a trip to the other end of the country. Last Wednesday I returned to Greifswald in Pomerania to lead the ‘Kirche vor Ort’ workshop on parish culture co-hosted by the Alfried Krupp Wissenschaftskolleg, the International Graduate Training School ‘Baltic Borderlands’ and the Warwick Network for Parish Research. Information on the academic content can be found elsewhere on this site, but proceedings greatly benefitted from the excellent conference infrastructure and the informal atmosphere among the participants (who braved a heatwave reaching temperatures of 40 degrees). Senior as well as emerging scholars from six countries met to discuss topics ranging from sacred space via Reformation change to political freedom, complemented by Bridget Heal’s keynote on the repeated ‘re-fashioning’ of Cranach’s Schneeberger altar between the 16th and 18th centuries. A particular highlight was our tour of the Nikolai-Dom and its early modern library (bottom left: tomes acquired by the parish in the late 16thC), guided in turn by experts of medieval inscriptions and incunabula. Rather than on a volume of proceedings, we decided to focus on possible collaborative initiatives and publication projects. Personally, I enjoyed reconnecting with the Kolleg staff and seeing this attractive Hanseatic city with three imposing brick gothic churches in the summer, when locals, students and tourists can mingle on the market square and along the old harbour. The latter also provided the setting for our conference dinner at the very pleasant Tischlerei restaurant.

DSCN2634Turmsockel 13thC

Passing through Berlin afforded the opportunity to see two friends and colleagues (one of whom will join Warwick’s Centre for the Study of the Renaissance as a Marie Curie Fellow next year), sample the delights of Kreuzberg / Prenzlauer Berg sociability and to visit the capital’s oldest parish church. St Nikolai, heavily damaged in WW2, restored just before the Wende by the GDR and now turned into a museum, boasts a 13thC tower base (right),  a 15thC crucifix and tabernacle, a 16thC font, a (fascinating) early 17thC depiction of its interior and a portrait of Pietist reformer Philipp Jacob Spener who served as the church’s provost around 1700. Somehow I managed to miss the display of its tower capsule contents, but made up for it by reading Stefan Dornheim‘s account of the custom (one of the few books I couldn’t access at Konstanz)  in the Humboldt University Library.

29 June 2015

For me personally, one of Konstanz’s many attractions was the prospect of moving ahead with my project on rural autonomy in the Holy Roman Empire. In spite of many distractions (Warwick’s core modules and exam season not being the least), things have moved forward. Early on, members of the audience provided helpful feedback on my seminar paper in the Early Modern / History of Science Colloquium and ever since, I’ve had opportunities to discuss various aspects with colleagues from the Department and associated Centre of Excellence researching the ‘Cultural Foundations of Social Integration’. A fortnight or so ago, the ‘Gersau 2014’ book launch concluded a related ‘impact’ initiative and this week’s workshop at the Alfried Krupp Wissenschaftskolleg in Greifswald (the erstwhile base for my ‘glosses’ recorded at the bottom of this page) offers a chance to examine pre-modern parish culture in comparative perspective. Alongside, there are several tempting archives (not least of the many former Imperial Free Cities in the region) and a well-stocked university library (where materials unavailable in the UK just await a pick up from the shelves). In the latter, I’ve focused on engaging with primary sources (such as communal seals/crests) and theoretical / conceptual approaches like Martha Nussbaum’s argument that a ‘good life’ requires self-determination or Rudolf Schlögl’s reinterpretation of early modernity as a period of – not just new communication technologies but – key transformations in media use (with villages serving as an ‘ideal type’). Looking at the date of this entry, however, makes me realize that the ‘research leave’ clock is ticking ever faster …


22 June 2015

Dominikanerinnen Kloster a d FahrParish scholars can spend a lot of time visiting churches in the region (I try hard, if not entirely successfully, to keep this urge in check). Previous posts have touched on the imposing minster (3 June), the biconfessional champion of Ermatingen across the Swiss border (nearly matched by neighbouring Steckborn, where the two confessions worshipped in the same building from 1531 until 1962) and Zwingli’s village of Wildhaus (7 June). Returning to Konstanz, the burghers’ parish – dating back to the 7thC – is St Stephen’s, once a collegiate foundation (and also meeting-place of the papal rota court during the council 1414-18). In the suburb of Wollmatingen, art historians would be pleased to find fragments of a medieval wall painiting and several early modern sculptures of St Martin.

Dreifaltigkeit Konzilsfresko Kg Sigismund N-Nave CroppedEqually conspicuous are the former religious houses, of which only the Dominican nunnery of Zoffingen has survived all the historical ups and downs, even the 19thC secularisations. Today, it is an oasis of calm welcoming everyone through the small gateway (right) to attend the monastic hours. The erstwhile Jesuit base of St Konrad, a prime example of Baroque/Rococo splendour, now serves the ‘old’ Catholic community of the town; the parish church of Holy Trinity, once the Augustinian place of worship (and home to a unique set of frescos from the council period, including a portrait of King Sigismund who had been instrumental in the calling of the assembly; left), a congregation loyal to the Pope. A rather different fate awaited St Johann, once part of an ambitious episcopal scheme to erect copies of all the principal churches of Rome, but now recycled as a secular building hosting a restaurant, flats and offices (below right). Last but not least, there are many chapels like St Joseph’s at Egg not far from the ‘flower island of Mainau (bottom left).

St Johann RecycledOh, and I did watch something interesting on TV.Egg b Konstanz St Josef Kapelle aussen 2 2015 marks the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Morgarten, where the Forest Cantons defeated (and partly drowned) a Habsburg invasion by pelting the mounted knights with stones from defensive positions far up a hillside. Since the written documentation is late and rather vague, Swiss historians have long assigned it to the status of a romantic myth, but an archaeological search commissioned by national station SRF1 (see the associated web feature) uncovered the first evidence of coins and weapons from the period on the site. A few objects do not (quite) settle the issue one way or the other, but it is certainly an intriguing find likely to further ignite an already lively debate.

17 June 2015

Front Cover Pic Web

My-Parish members will have heard of the “Gersau 2014” project before – a series of activities to commemorate the bicentenary of the decision (taken by the communal assembly on 2 February 1814) to restore this independent micro-republic on Lake Lucerne. Following workshops, exhibitions, excursions and other initiatives, the celebrations came to a fitting close last Monday. Locals and guests assembled at the old village hall to launch the brochure “Political Freedom and Republic Culture in Old Europe” (pictured), effectively – slightly expanded – proceedings of last year’s conference on “Self-Determination”. As the editor, this was my opportunity for a lot of thanks: to the District Council (and esp. the mayor Adrian Nigg-Arnold) for its unwavering support of all ideas, the authors (hailing from Austria, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, the US and the UK, cf. list of contents below), the book production team (Hugo Schärer / Sabine Köhler-Meter / Roger Bürgler / Bucher Druckmedien) and our sponsors (the Historischer Verein des Kantons Schwyz, Lotteriefonds Schwyz and an anonymous donor). In recognition for their expansive work on many aspects of local history, the volume has been dedicated to Marzell Camenzind, honorary district archivist, and Robert Nigg sen., who built up an important collection of old prints, but sadly died during the anniversary. Taken together, the contributions underline the benefits of expanding our horizon beyond the “classic” republics of ancient Greece/Rome, Renaissance Italy, Imperial Free Cities, Cromwellian England and the Dutch/Swiss Confederations to smaller, rural communities on the one hand; and the enormous strength of (and attachment to) “collective freedom”, i.e. the right to self-government with minimal external interference, on the other. As is the custom in these parts, the official event seamlessly turned into informal sociability, where historical issues as well as future plans were vigorously discussed over a few bottles of the official “Gersau 2014” vintage (provided by the Kümin wine company of Freienbach / Schwyz, as it happens very distant relations of mine). Oh, and the work (ISBN 978-3-033-04752-5) can most easily be obtained for CHF 19.50 (from: Bezirkskanzlei, Ausserdorfstrasse 7, CH-6442 Gersau, Switzerland) or by explaining why you deserve a complimentary copy …

Sample Pages: Contents & Introduction

Contents (including two essays in English by Ann Hughes and Marc Lerner)

PART I. Forest Cantons and Swiss Confederation

Varianten kommunaler Freiheit in der Zentralschweiz um 1400  am Beispiel der Seegemeinden Walchwil – Weggis – Gersau
Albert Müller

Autonomiebestrebungen angehöriger Landschaften im Länderort Schwyz im Spätmittelalter und in der Frühen Neuzeit
Oliver Landolt

Wilhelm Tell – On the Material Culture of a Freedom Myth
Marc H. Lerner

Für mehr Demokratie und wider die „Herren“ –  Die Landsgemeindekonflikte des 18. Jahrhunderts
Fabian Brändle

Biels Traum vom eigenen Kanton am Wiener Kongress
Antonia Jordi

Die Erfindung der Republik Gersau im Zeitalter der Revolution
André Holenstein

Sex, Widerstand und Demokratie: Überlegungen zum politischen Wandel im 19. Jahrhundert
Sandro Guzzi-Heeb

PART II. Holy Roman Empire and Europe

Eine Florentiner Bürgerversammlung des Jahres 1343: bürgerlicher Konsens und gesellschaftliche Konflikte
Christoph Dartmann

Töten, um davon zu erzählen. Blutgericht und die Entstehung kommunaler Identität – Umrisse einer Fallstudie
Mathias Moosbrugger

Bäuerliche Rechtskultur in Oberdeutschland am Ende des Mittelalters. Die Grundlegung für ein „gemeines Regiment“
Peter Blickle

Politische Freiheit in Personal- und Territorialverbänden
Catherine De Kegel-Schorer  

Republik, Politische Freiheit und Reformation in Polen
Maciej Ptaszyński

Gender and Republicanism
Ann Hughes

Vom Reichsdorf zur Republic – Grundlagen und Entwicklung der politischen Freiheit in Gersau
Beat Kümin

Ein wahrhaft „popularer und demokratischer Staat“ –
Wie eine vermeintliche historische Republik zum Argument wurde, um das Land Ostfriesland stark zu erhalten
Astrid von Schlachta

10 June 2015

Konstanz lies on the extreme edge of Germany. With the old town located south of the river Rhine, it is arguably in the ‘wrong’ country. Indeed, following the Swiss victory in the Swabian War of 1499, moves to join the Confederation were only thwarted by Emperor Charles V’s clampdown on rebellious imperial free cities on the one hand and the Catholic cantons (who refused to admit another evangelical member) on the other - just one of the episodes congenially brought to life in the city’s Rosgarten Museum, where visitors can also step into a fifteenth-century guild hall.

Grenzstein Kreuzlingen FNZAs in Basel, Geneva or Chiasso, borders are an ubiquitous feature of everyday life here. During the premodern period, the political topography of the Holy Roman Empire was particularly complex, especially in the highly fragmented Upper German region. One relic survives in the form of a ‘great stone’, a rock left by a receding glacier thousands of years ago (pic left). As late as the eighteenth century, it marked the boundary of the Thurgovian court district of Eggen, while also serving as an execution site. Following closer definitions of the border between the then Grand Duchy of Baden and the Canton of Thurgau in 1831 and further adjustments necessitated by the coming of the railway in 1878-9, the region went through its darkest hours during the Nazi regime. Having finalized exact demarcations in a state treaty of 1938, both sides erected fences secured with barbed wire which stifled the previously informal traffic flow, led to the arrest of Georg Elser (on the run after attempting to take Hitler’s life in Munich on 8 November 1939) and – notoriously – prevented German Jews from finding refuge in Switzerland. It took decades of post-war negotiations to remove these obstacles, with progress slowed by fears of uncontrolled immigration. The fences only fell in 1999, but today Kreuzlingen and Konstanz have literally grown together (as evident from the crossing points at Wiesenstrasse – below left – and the pedestrian Hauptzoll) – now it is hard to imagine how difficult it once was to move between the two.

Grenze Wiesenstr v Kreuzlinger SeiteGrenze Hauptzoll Kreuzlinger Str










7 June 2015

Zwingli Geburtshaus v SW

An hour’s train ride away from Konstanz lies the Toggenburg, up to 1798 subject to the Prince Abbot of St Gall (and through its overlord associated with the Confederation). Proceeding far up the valley to the foot of the Churfirsten mountain range, visitors reach the village of Wildhaus. Huldrych Zwingli was born in the wooden house pictured on the right in 1484, the year the local chapel became an independent parish. His father was the mayor and thus part of the rural elite, but it’s still remarkable that a peasant boy embarked on Humanist studies in Bern and Vienna. Huldrych’s clerical career took him away from the Toggenburg, first to Glarus (whose troops he accompanied to the Italian wars), then the pilgrimage centre of Einsiedeln and eventually the Grossmünster in Zurich where he developed a theology based on the Scriptures, justification by faith and a spiritual regeneration of the whole community. Back home, his message fell on fertile ground and Wildhaus adopted the new faith in the late 1520s. Soon, as in the neighbouring Thurgau (cf. Ermatingen), the region became bi-confessional with much religious tension. The Prince Abbot did his best to promote Catholics, e.g. by favouring them in the allocation of tavern licences (see Fabian Brändle’s ‘Public Houses, Clientelism and Faith’ in The World of the Tavern), but the region was shaken by repeated risings and political discontent. Startingly, Zwingli died on the battlefield in the Swiss Civil War of Kappel in 1531, but his legacy remains tangible in his birthplace, with two parish churches standing a mere stone’s throw away from each other. The old, now Reformed place of worship places all the emphasis on the Word (the only decoration being a quote from Zwingli on the wall; bottom left), but the Catholic St Bartholomew – built at St Gall’s expense in 1774 – bristles with altars, wall paintings and reliquaries (in 1676, the congregation obtained the bones of a catacomb saint to show its members – as a sign explains – ‘how true we should remain to our faith’). As for Zwingli’s family home, it offers 15thC architecture, a 16thC bible, an early modern collection box donated by Zurich’s Grossmünster parish … and a reminder that religious change can come from the rural periphery as well as intellectual centres.

Reformierte KircheKath Kirche St Barholomäus 1774 innen









3 June 2015

Hussenstein HusWhat are visitors most likely to be struck by in Konstanz? Apart from the glorious lakeside location, the peculiar Imperia figure guarding the harbour (a Romanesque woman of pleasure reminding us of the corruption of secular / religious power) and an attractive old town, it must be the universal presence of the Council. Between 1414 and 1418, prelates of the Western Church met here for one of their most momentous assemblies. We are thus in the midst of the 600-year anniversary and the traces are everywhere: in the Konzilsgebäude, a 14thC corn and trading hall where the election of Martin V as the new, single pope by the conclave ended the Schism (the building appears a minute or so into the Imperia video); the city’s venerable Münster cathedral, where the regular sessions took place; the Hus house, situated in what was long thought to have been his hostelry when called to recant his views (hosting an exhibition curated in conjunction with Czech partners) and, in a more problematic legacy, the Hussenstein (pictured right), erected on the spot where the reformer was burnt at the stake on 6 July 1415 despite a guarantee of safe conduct (dramatically pictured in Ulrich von Richental’s chronicle of the Council). Yet, even if we move down the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the region has much to offer: a vast range of monasteries / nunneries and many remarkable parish churches. At nearby Ermatingen just across the Swiss border, for example, Catholics and Protestants have shared the same place of worship since 1536 (a story examined in a little more detail elsewhere on this site).

29 May 2015

Family Mainau History Close

A very busy ten days: ‘Cheers’, my block module on drinking cultures in English, kicked off with an orientation meeting attended by a very cosmopolitan and interdisciplinary group of participants. We set the context, assigned presentation topics and will meet again for a ‘surgery’ in a few weeks’ time. On Tuesday, I addressed the departmental early modern seminar with a paper on imperial villages, followed by a helpful discussion on discourses of freedom, conceptual aspects and comparative potential. Over a few beers afterwards, a group of ‘popular music’ historians agreed to exchange ‘pearls’ from their respective archives, producing a rapidly-growing list with artists ranging from Blümchen to Nick Drake. A family visit then allowed a first dose of sight-seeing, including the picturesque town of Meersburg (boasting a medieval ‘Burg’ with several pre-Reformation rood / saints sculptures as well as a Baroque ‘Schloss’ erected by the Bishops of Konstanz after they no longer felt comfortable in their diocesan seat) and the ‘flower island’ of Mainau (clearly supporting some very worthwhile causes; pic left). In other developments, Preston North End clinched promotion to the Championship, Germany’s spy chief claimed ignorance about the NSA snooping on his countrymen and email correspondence on Warwick exam issues is increasing exponentially …

20 May 2015

Uni Haupteingang

Arriving in glorious sunshine and 25º must be a good omen. The Alpine scenery visible from the plane, the Bodensee appearing outside my train window and the cityscape of Konstanz passing by on the last leg of the journey all looked great on Monday. It’s turned grey and rainy since, but I’ve been very well received by the university’s Welcome Centre, the History Department and my landlords (even though I managed to lock myself out the first night already). Apart from getting set up with keys, cards and office space on the hilltop campus (right), which challenges newcomers with its labyrinthine corridors, Tuesday brought a first academic highlight in the form of a seminar paper weaving early modern cosmology, theology, university curricula and Chinese state building into a complex whole. Very agreeably, the participants then adjourned to a (rather upmarket) drinking space in the Altstadt. The library may be undergoing major works, but I still managed to find the first items on my ‘to do’ list easily accessible on open shelves. Catching up with the latest scholarship on the Holy Roman Empire will be a first priority. Beyond the academy, I enjoy living in close proximity to several bakeries and having a cable TV with at least 600 (at times wonderfully obscure) channels.

13 May 2005

Last Friday was a red-letter day in the diaries of everyone working on the Holy Roman Empire in the UK. The Twelfth Workshop on Early Modern German History took place at the GHI London. Speakers from England, Germany, the US and even Shanghai talked about aspects of citizenship, insults, Jesuits, charity, healing, heretics, Ottomans, confessional crises and national rhetoric. Discussions continued well into the ensuing sociability at various Bloomsbury venues. Back at Warwick, final tasks before Monday’s trip to Konstanz include holding revision sessions for my modules – for a few years now, I have scheduled these in our Varsity pub on campus. While a particularly congenial venue for The World of the Tavern, it is generally a good way to create a more relaxed atmosphere. Tomorrow I’m due to participate in ‘Wacky Germans’, a joint History / German Studies showcase for all the different kinds of research going on at this university. Who would you have chosen? My contribution centres on a ‘certain tall, fat … poor man, who ran through the streets of Münster’ and I hope he’ll help us explore some of the fascinating issues surrounding the Anabaptist kingdom in the city during the 1530s. Another highlight will be the Parish Network’s Thirteenth Warwick Symposium on Saturday. Co-organized with the Warwickshire Local History Society, it surveys the religious, social and cultural roles ecclesiastical communities have played in the county’s history. The weekend, I guess, will be spent packing …


5 May 2015 df3860690f

At the invitation of Rudolf Schlögl, Professor of Early Modern History, I can spend two months as a guest of the
History department at the Universität Konstanz. From 18 May 2015, activities will include the teaching of a block module on early modern drinking culture (Cheers !), a research presentation to the Early Modern / History of Science seminar and – hopefully – opportunities to advance my project on rural autonomy in imperial villages. Thanks to the support of the institution’s International Centre, preparations are nearing completion, some students have signed up for the course and accommodation has been organized (not exactly an easy task in a town attracting scores of visitors in the summer). I have attended a couple of conferences there in the past (incuding one of the medievalists’ gatherings on the Reichenau island dedicated to the theme of ‘road transport’ in 2005 and a workshop on ‘texts and power‘ held at the universityin 2007), but now I look forward to spending some more time in this historic town and to connect with the large number of medieval / early modern colleagues in the department.


Greifswald  Glosses

A (now completed) blog on the life of a parish researcher by Beat Kümin.
Click on the thumbnails for higher resolution images

28 March 2013

Meer + Watt b. Büsum 3

After a whirlwind six months, the moment of departure has arrived. Today I had the chance to say goodbye to fellows, college staff and university members at a small leaving do, tomorrow brings the return journey to England across the North Sea. I will miss lots of things about Greifswald: easy access to rare books, the Kolleg infrastructure, an uncluttered office (with a large terrace overlooking the town), the nearby bakeries, St Nikolai church, coffee breaks with a range of newspapers, trips to Baltic sights and all the interesting people I met since I arrived back in October. On the other hand, there’s much to look forward to: more family time, a few extra months of leave, re-connecting with colleagues, closer interaction with my postgraduates, no exam marking and the good old English pub. There’s plenty of new material in my luggage and a stack full of memories, so it’s been a great experience. What about these glosses? Their raison d’être has now disappeared and business as usual returns. But who knows – it’s been fun reflecting on my work and environment. Maybe the blog will return under a different name and with a new agenda at some point in the future. In the meantime, thanks for your interest and keep My-Parish as lively as it is now.


22 March 2013

Marienkirche Ratskapelle + Ratsarchiv above

At the kind invitation of a colleague and friend, I spent last weekend in Lübeck, the eminent port city and former head of the Hanseatic League. As in most of its urban allies I saw before, the ecclesiastical heritage is stunning. The flagship of all ‘brick gothic’ parish churches is St Mary’s, immediately adjacent to the elaborate town hall and at least as impressive as the nearby cathedral. In a telling symbol of the medieval fusion of religious and secular concerns, it included not only a council chapel (with privileged view on the high altar) but, immediately above it, a chamber serving as the town archive. At the lavishly equipped St Annen museum of late medieval ecclesiastical art, located in a former nunnery for the burghers’ offspring, the point was reinforced by an exhibit referred to as the Eidkapelle, a miniature model of a chapel decorated with a bell and a picture of Christ in judgment, which had to be held by all those swearing oaths before the city court .

The final field trip of my Greifswald tenure then took me to Dithmarschen on the North Sea coast, once an effectively independent peasant republic. Its ‘time of freedom’ between 1227 and 1559 remains omnipresent, e.g. in the Landesmuseum, travel guides and the information signs displayed throughout the area. Famously, the local militia defeated a massive invasion army composed of Danish, Holstein and mercenary forces at the battle of Hemmingstedt in 1500 (now a monumental lieu de mémoire).

Yet again, the chapels and Gestühlswangechurches constitute the prime sites of cultural heritage – at Meldorf, the ‘dome’ of St John, not built for a bishop but a simple parish priest, makes a massive statement. In many ways representing the land as a whole, it features an extensive thirteenth-century cycle of ceiling paintings, a fifteenth-century rood (complete with figures of Mary and John), an early sixteenth-century altar piece and numerous post-conquest monuments of pastors and parochial officials. The survival is equally impressive elsewhere, e.g. at Büsum, once an island, but now connected to the mainland after early modern land reclamation. Illustrating the prominence of certain Geschlechter, the richly decorated bench end from 1592 (on the left) was commissioned by parish governor Kruse. Only once he had put his hat on the metal rest could divine service begin. Without visiting the area, it is also difficult to gauge the importance (and threat of) the sea, which prompted the construction of dikes from around 1100 – undoubtedly an important factor in the emergence of collective organization. Last but not least, despite confiscations by the new territorial lords in 1559, the parish archives still hold considerable treasures.

Balancing last week’s musings on popular tunes (to which be added that relative ‘oldies’, Die Toten Hosen, just won Germany’s principal music prize), I can report on two exposures to classical culture. My hosts had organized tickets to see Richard Wagner’s monumental opera Parsifal at Lübeck’s city theatre. The libretto with its fixation on sin, punishment, redemption and sanctity was a little heavy for my liking, yet one could not but admire the overall (five and a half hours!) performance by the singers, orchestra and behind-the-scenes staff. Moving right back into the early modern period, Greifswald’s old university hall then hosted an original concert of ‘occasional music’, i.e. pieces specially composed for weddings, funerals, graduations and the like. Given their quality, it is hard to believe that most had not been heard since the original events. One or two marked political functions such as when the Pomeranian estates paid homage to the Swedish king at Wolgast in 1663. Their ‘congratulatory appeal’ concluded with the somewhat fatalistic lines: ‘So be it / we have sworn / to stand by King Charles / it is better to lose passion and blood / than to break faith and allegiance / King Charles must live / and the enemies tremble for him.’


15 March 2013

Parish scholars will have noticed the election of a new pope – it was hard to avoid: apart from round-the-clock media exposure, his figure also greets visitors to the official homepage of the Holy See. The first-ever accession of a Latin American representative has something revolutionary, even though Francis comes with Italian roots. I thought his first few appearances and gestures looked promising, with the choice of name also making a statement (isn’t it surprising that there has never been a Francis or a Jesuit on the throne of St Peter?). Whatever one may think about the Catholic Church, it certainly knows how to do rituals: the total isolation of the college of cardinals during the conclave, the ring of Latin phrases like ‘extra omnes’ or ‘habemus papam’ and the signal of white smoke emerging from the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Nobody, in contrast, knew quite what to do when Benedict resigned, unsurprisingly perhaps since it hadn’t happened for hundreds of years.  The moist poignant marker for me was the way in which the Swiss guards closed the doors and left Castel Gandolfo at the stroke of 8 pm on 28 February, the very second his pontificate came to an end.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: you know you are getting on a bit, when your idea of ‘popular music’ just draws a blank from those around you. When I came to Greifswald, I imagined that 80s names like Hagen, Lindenberg, Remmler and Westernhagen would still be on people’s radar, but times have clearly moved on. Listening to N-Joy radio over breakfast (which, I am embarrassed to say, targets an audience of 14-29 year olds), the playlist now features German hip-hop, rap, electro and dance acts like Bushido, Cro or Tubbe. Some of it I do like, e.g. young singer-songwriter Tim Bendzko’s Nur noch kurz die Welt retten [‘Only need to save the world’, with the great line ‘just 148 mails need checking’] or the instrumental Sonnentanz [Sundance] by Klangkarussel (apparently a ‘jazz house’ duo hailing from Salzburg in Austria). Sticking with things ‘popular’, the new Hamburg Tatort (a crime series following cops in different cities, which has been running here since the 1970s) divides the TV public. A whopping 12.5m watched it last Sunday night, mainly because of controversial German actor/director Til Schweiger in the lead role. Most thought it was too violent and/or reminiscent of American-style fare on commercial channels, others felt it injected much-needed new life into the programme. My personal favourites are the teams from Cologne, Hannover, Lucerne (of course) and Munich, but I found this one had pace and a nice touch of self-irony.

Cover SmallWork? I have at last started writing up some of the ‘Communal Cultures’ project materials, which is exhausting but also exciting. Every so often, it means popping back to the library to follow a new lead or catch up on something I hadn’t got round to checking the first time round. One such idea produced evidence of a peasant delegation to a session of the Imperial Diet. Another priority was to organize next week’s trip to the Dithmarschen region, where I hope to visit a couple of archives with parish records.

It was also pleasing to see proofs for the cover of The Communal Age. Not sure it’s cleared for circulation yet, but it has just appeared on the publisher’s page.

At the Krupp Kolleg, meanwhile, our director has been awarded the highest order of merit by Germany’s president for services to science (congratulations, Prof. Friedrich!) and the very successful ‘Man-Microbe’ exhibition has closed its doors after attracting thousands of viewers. We’ll miss all the school kids running round the building, while their teachers try to enlighten them on the mechanics of catching a cold.


6 March 2013

Info Abend Nr 3 4 3 13 Pic A Nigg

At times these glosses resemble a travelogue rather than a blog and the latest entry is a case in point. On Saturday I left Greifswald for a couple of trips abroad: the first took me to Switzerland for an orientation evening on ‘Gersau 2014’ (picture by Adrian Nigg). Many initiatives associated with next year’s bicentenary of the restoration of the pre-modern microrepublic are now taking shape. Apart from a communal assembly (Landsgemeinde) on 2 February (where we hope to welcome representatives of other free communes), there will be a special currency, panel discussions, guided walks, an international conference etc. To balance such ‘serious’ elements, however, there was strong demand for an extended autumn party, where the people of Gersau will have the chance to appear in historical costume! The organizing committee thus has its work cut out. In nice side effects of this visit I could take my dad to see YB beat St Gall (with two exquisit goals) and witness the resounding approval of a popular initiative against excessive executive pay.  

Odense 2013 Syddansk Uni Prospect

Davinde Kirke Denmark Pulpit 1599

The second leg led via Berlin and Copenhagen to Odense. Per Seesko, a research student at the University of Southern Denmark (pic left), had kindly invited me to give a guest lecture on late medieval religious life for his undergraduate module on Danish church history and to participate in a workshop on ‘Local Ecclesiastical Structures of the Late Medieval and Early Modern Era’. At the latter, Per presented first insights from his PhD project on the cathedral chapter of Ribe, esp. its relationship with the lay congregation and city authorities, while I welcomed the opportunity to obtain feedback on my work about parish republics. As a few months ago in Sweden, I was again impressed by the facilities and funding resources of Scandinavian universities. In the evening I enjoyed a guided tour of rural parish churches on the island of Funen (located at Fraugde and Davinde, featuring this splendid post-Reformation pulpit from 1599) and the hospitality of my Odense colleague Lars Bisgaard, whom I first met when we were both at Cambridge in the 1990s. I hope that My-Parish will benefit from some Danish contributions in the future.


1 March 2013

Baderstrasse Sybille Schwarz Haus

Considering its size, Greifswald has a notable cultural profile. It’s not just the visual arts (cue Caspar David Friedrich), music (annual Bach week) and cross-border exchange  (‘PolenmARkT’), but also the literary track record. In the twentieth century, the protagonist was Wolfgang Koeppen, a native of the town, who won major awards like the Büchner prize (1962) and gained recognition as one of Germany’s leading post-war writers (to my great shame I hadn’t actually heard of him). Today, he is commemorated in the Koeppenhaus which holds his archive and supports a wide range of events. The foundation behind the centre was set up at the initiative of Günter Grass (of Berlin Alexanderplatz fame), who reputedly used his friendship with former chancellor Schröder to get the project off the ground. Just a few years before Koeppen, Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen (alias Hans Fallada) was born at Greifswald in 1893. Following a difficult youth, involving conflicts with the law and drug addiction, he achieved his greatest success with Kleiner Mann was nun? in 1932. Today, the city library carries his name and a literary society is based at his childhood home. For early modernists, however, the towering figure is Sibylla Schwarz, known as the ‘Pomeranian Sappho’. She lived just round the corner from my flat in one of the few town-centre properties still awaiting renovation. A child prodigy, Sibylla died at the tender age of 17 (at the height of the Thirty Years’ War in 1638), yet her poetry reveals a remarkable standard of education. She may not be a household name, but specialists regard her as a leading figure in German baroque. The graffiti-prone facade in Baderstrasse carries a few snippets from her oeuvre, including ‘Gefällt dir nicht mein schlechtes Schreiben / Und meiner Feder edler Safft / So laß nur balt das Läsen bleiben’, which loosely translates as ‘If you don’t fancy my poor writing / and the noble juices flowing from my pen / you can simply stop the reading’.


24 February 2013

Zakynthos St Dionisios Campanile CROPPED

Olympia Roadside ShrineA work commitment allowed the Kümin family to spend a few days in Greece. What a change of scenery: from a northern winter to temperatures around 20 degrees and spring flowers. While not exactly beach weather, it was great to see the country with hardly any tourists (in fact the locals – who are clearly going through very tough times – were genuinely surprised to see us). My interests in church matters may have emerged from previous glosses and, like many visitors to the Mediterranean, I am always struck by the richness of its sacred landscape. On the island of Zakynthos, controlled by the Serenissima in the early modern centuries, the Byzantine heritage blends with Latin elements. The first landmark ferry passengers notice is a Venetian-style campanile on the harbour front and the only Catholic place of worship is dedicated to San Marco. Alongside, the ruined military fortress incorporates traces of five churches and there is a wealth of chapels, monasteries and wayside shrines. Both in situ and in the excellent museum of ecclesiastical art, one finds fine examples of a distinctive feature of Orthodox churches, the iconostasis, a screen separating the nave from the sanctuary decorated with icons. On the journey back across the Peloponnese, we even spotted a showroom with model churches, some of which bigger than an English summer house.

Athens Pnyx Orator's Podium

From the point of view of my current project, the trip to the Pnyx in Athens was particularly rewarding. On this hill adjacent to the ancient quarter of Agora, the assembly (ekklesia) of all male citizens met between the 6th and 4th century BCE. Around ten times a year, it dealt with civic business, overlooked by the temples of the Acropolis and addressed by orators from a stone platform which still survives. This face-to-face exchange in the Greek polis pioneered practices which reappeared in the autonomous communes of the late medieval and early modern periods. Whether this represented a conscious revival (as possibly in some Renaissance contexts) or whether assemblies are a ‘natural’ form of local government among (politically) equals is one of the many questions which merit further investigation.

Back at Greifswald, I found a fresh layer of snow and a feature on my research in the February issue of the Vorpommern Magazin (pp. 16 and 17).


15 February 2013

The first full-scale conference of the Warwick Drinking Studies Network lived up to the high expectations. With the support of the Institute of Advanced Study and the Economic History Society, the organizers had put together an attractive programme. Papers ranged from Antique pottery inscriptions via taverns in Renaissance Florence to female binge drinking in the present. Two panel debates addressed more general issues: one focused on the ways in which academic researchers can influence public perceptions and policy decisions on alcohol consumption, the other explored future directions for the Drinking Network. Alongside, participants clearly enjoyed the opportunity to exchange views and information across regional, disciplinary and chronological boundaries.


Drinking scholars interacting over a ‘dry’ lunch.

Otherwise, this brief sabbatical from my sabbatical allowed me to enjoy two lively birthday parties (one involving go-karting in the snow), catch up with my research students (whose projects take them to places as diverse as rural Warwickshire, south-western England, France, Germany, the US and even China) and test the two brand-new kettles our department has at last invested in. The latter reflect the ever-expanding size of Warwick History. A number of new colleagues have joined us since I left for Germany last autumn and I look forward to meeting them upon my return.


7 February 2013

Świnoujście Luther Church Tower

Last Saturday, taking the UBB train which connects Greifswald to the island of Usedom, I  made a lightning visit to Poland. In just under two hours, the journey takes you past the old Hanseatic town of Wolgast (at one point also the seat of the Pomeranian dynasty) to the spa resorts on the Baltic coast. The last stop, literally just a stone’s throw from the easternmost German village, is the ‘central station’ of Świnoujście. What used to be a heavily guarded border is now just a strangely empty line cutting across a forest. There are no controls or anything, the train simply stops on the outskirts of the former Swinemünde. This port town was heavily damaged by bomb raids at the end of WW2 and became Polish in 1945. The main evangelical church, Christ the King, has been transformed into a Catholic place of worship, while a tall belltower (now used as a bar) is all that survives from the Luther Kirche (left), preserved as a monument to wartime destruction. A stroll to the long sandy beach provided an impression of what summer holidays might be like here, even though the shoreline was covered in sheets of ice. On the way back, I stopped at Ahlbeck to walk on the pier and watch a handball game. Bottom-of-the league HSV Insel Usedom took on the high-flyers of HSG Tarp/Wanderup. This may have ‘only’ been division 3, but it was a highly entertaining and dramatic encounter. Trailing 16:18 at the break, Usedom went on to win the match 32:15, with new Polish signing Piotr Frelek single-handedly scoring half of their goals.

Ahlbeck Seebrücke PierBack in academia, Greifswald has officially enthroned its new Rektorin (vice-chancellor). On 31 January, Prof. Hannelore Weber became the first woman to serve in the top post since the university’s foundation in the fifteenth century. The traditional investiture ceremonies involved a procession with the insignia of her office, plenty of robes and speeches, before concluding with an ecumenical service in the dome of St Nikolai. Sitting on my computer, meanwhile, I was pleased to see this blog featured by the Many-Headed Monster, a platform hosting lively discussions on early modern particularities, currently the distinctive characteristics of microhistory. The week also brought proofs for The Communal Age c.1100-1800, a monograph attempting to assess the significance of towns, villages and parishes in pre-modern European society. Due to appear in Palgrave’s ‘Studies in European History’ series shortly, it formulates some general conclusions from my long-standing engagement with these units of local organization. The book interprets them as politically empowering forces, while paying close attention to inner divisions and the complex relationships with the wider world. Set within this larger framework, the Greifswald project seeks to explore whether highly autonomous communities open windows into genuinely ‘popular’ religion and government. This coming weekend, however, will be dedicated to something entirely different: a Warwick Drinking Studies Network conference on ‘Biographies of Drink’! After which I can look forward to my children’s birthday parties.


1 February 2013

Pfarrkirche Turmkugel 2 Cropped

This project reinforces the impression that there is almost no limit to the range of parish sources. Churchwardens’ accounts, registers, vestry minutes and wills form the backbone in most communities, but there are so many other records to draw upon. Among the most fruitful are local chronicles. At Gersau, they take the peculiar form of Turmkugeldokumente, i.e. sets of notes on important events compiled on the occasion of major church repairs and then stored in a golden capsule at the top of the church tower (just under the crucifix on the right) for the benefit of future generations. Here we find information on officials, events, prices and natural disasters, usually written down by the parson or village scribe. The first preserved example of 1655 implores posterity to ‘ask God Almighty to forgive the sins and misdeeds of us, the present inhabitants, and the benefactors of our church with a general Christian prayer. May this land also be graciously preserved in the true Catholic faith, in its ancient God-given liberties, obtained by our ancestors from the old Emperors and kings and faithfully handed down to us, and may it always be consensually governed in good peace and prosperity’. This particular genre does not exist (or survive) for Dithmarschen, but there is a wealth of other chronicles produced from the late Middle Ages. One external observer, a pastor from eastern Holstein, published his observations in 1557, just two years before the demise of the rural republic. The women, he thought, ‘behaved like wild animals and wolves against their enemies in times of war, strangling and killing all they can get hold of, just like their men’. Free peasants clearly caused some anxieties among contemporary elites.

Two very disparate news items caught my eye this week. One was the decision by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands to step down and pass the crown on to her son. Now, I am anything but a monarchist, but this seems like an enlightened and gracious move. Wonder how it went down with heirs to the throne in other countries? The other centred on the new front man of the German Liberals, Rainer Brüderle, accused  by a journalist of making lewd advances during a late night interview. This sparked the most heated debate on sexism in everyday life, not least on the boundaries between harmless banter and offensive behaviour. Very different from the storm over the Jimmy Savile affair in England, of course, but perhaps another indication of a growing desire to tackle such issues much more openly than in the past.


26 January 2013

I spent most of the last few days at Greifswald’s old university library, adjacent to the central quadrangle dominated by the assembly hall from the Swedish period. The location is just a few minutes away from the Krupp Kolleg and I enjoy the brisk morning walks past the dome (occasionally calling at the local bakery). It’s the sort of research you couldn’t do in England, as it relies on rare German source editions, early modern constitutional texts and obscure secondary literature. Now and then, however, I stumble upon such titles on Google Books or other digitization sites, so the situation is changing. The reading room staff are extremely helpful, also when it comes to reproductions of early modern materials. I am starting to get a clearer picture of how my Swiss case study of Gersau compares to highly autonomous communities in northern Germany. The land of Dithmarschen is much larger and more complex in its internal structure, which may explain the tendency towards nominations (rather than elections) of officials. Yet sovereignty still rested at the basis of the political pyramid, even below the level of parishes in so-called Eggen (literally ‘corners’), with all local and federal decision ultimately requiring their consent.

Greifswald in a NutshellWieck Uitkieck zum Bodden

Greifswald architecture in a nutshell:
timber frame, brick Gothic and post-
WW2 Platte side-by-side.

The Utkiek near Wieck,
a site associated with
Caspar David Friedrich.


Temperatures are well below freezing at the moment, but the winter landscape holds its attractions. The river Ryck has practically frozen over, prompting some of my fellow-colleagues to look for their skates. For those of a less adventurous disposition, there is a lovely footpath leading from the town harbour to the small fishing village of Wieck, which seems to be living mainly of tourism these days. Back around 1800, however, it provided Caspar David Friedrich with copious inspiration, not least for paintings like Die Lebensstufen (The Stages of Life). Finally, to provide this blog with some continuity for a change, the Lower Saxony elections resulted in a win for the red-green alliance, albeit by the narrowest of margin (a one-seat majority in the assembly). This means that David McAllister, the only regional prime minister of Scottish descent, will have to look for pastures new. The same applies to the German handball team, which played some good games in the world championships, but went out in the quarter finals against host nation Spain.

18 January 2013

It’s been a busy week at the Krupp Kolleg. Apart from re-focusing on project research (where one of the fellows kindly alerted me to the existence of a recent film on Dithmarschen’s famous victory at Hemmingstedt in 1500), we’ve had the opening of ‘MenschMikrobe’, an exhibition on the ambivalent social impact of microbes, co-produced by the German research funding council DFG and the Robert Koch Institute (named after the pioneering micro-biologist). Some 300 guests crammed into the lecture hall to hear addresses by the chancellor of Greifswald University, the town mayor, the chief executive of the DFG, a representative of the Koch Institute and the Director of our college. This was followed by an engaging introductory lecture on the challenges presented by infectious diseases. Prof. Jörg Hacker put the topic into a wider perspective, drawing on literary and historical reflections as well as medical approaches. On Wednesday, writer and literary scholar Hans-Ulrich Treichel talked about the complex relationship between his family history (above all the uncertainties surrounding a brother ‘lost’ at the end of WW2) and its artistic reflection in novels like Der Verlorene (Lost). The discussion focused on issues such as the portrayal of Germans as ‘victims’ and how researching/teaching literature affects an author’s own writing.

Main Entrance

The last couple of days saw the visit of the college’s scientific board, i.e. the committee responsible for selecting the Krupp Fellows. Members include a wide range of German academics from physicists to philosophers alongside representatives of the parent foundation. On Thursday evening, we were also joined by the so-called ‘Young College’ drawn from students holding scholarships at Greifswald University. A buffet dinner provided a chance to meet the board, for me in particular a former Pathology Professor from Zurich who also represents Switzerland at the German National Academy Leopoldina. A prime topic of conversation was the difficult situation facing the ThyssenKrupp firm following some unsuccessful investments in North and South America, which met with much concern at the annual shareholder meeting in Bochum this morning.


12 January 2013

Göttingen Kulturwiss Zentrum

Following two interesting talks at Greifswald early on in the week (a Krupp Fellow lecture on contemporary Israeli politics and a survey of the northern parts of the Holy Roman Empire), I spent some very productive days at the University of Göttingen. The director of the Institut für Historische Landesforschung, which studies regional history in long-term perspective, had kindly invited me to address its research colloquium. This provided a welcome opportunity to formulate some preliminary conclusions from my ongoing work on Gersau and Dithmarschen. The presentation, judging from the helpful discussion (involving very prominent figures in the field!), was well-received and the excellent holdings of the library allowed some further research, facilitated by very effective staff. A particularly rewarding aspect was the chance to talk to a wide range of Institute members and to re-connect with a Göttingen medievalist I had met in London back in the early 90s. The brand new Kulturwissenschaftliches Zentrum, which accommodates the Humanities (pic left), provides an excellent framework for such exchange across departmental and period boundaries.


Göttingen Jacobi late 14 Gargoyle now Collection Box

Göttingen Jacobi Pillars after 1480 fashion

Naturally, I couldn’t resist a trip to the local parish churches. St Jacobi, originally the place of worship for the city’s lord and castle district, offered a range of interesting features: upon entering, visitors are encouraged to place their donation not in the usual collection box, but a fourteenth-century gargoyle which once adorned the roof of the church; the spectacular winged altarpiece from 1502 was apparently commissioned by burghers as a form of collective protest against seigneurial domination of the church; and the pillars in the nave have recently been redecorated with a distinctive colour pattern originally used on the eve of the Reformation. The latter takes some getting used to, but it is meant to represent the dynamic and uplifting character of parish religion (and which local historian could disagree with that?).

Otherwise, it was impossible to ignore the forthcoming election in Lower Saxony. This is expected to provide key pointers for the outcome of the federal Bundestagswahl later this year. Göttingen is packed solid with posters of smiling candidates, usually from the two big parties of the ruling CDU (Christian democrats) and the opposition SPD (social democrats). Liberal coalition partner FDP is in the midst of a deep crisis. Should it fail to clear the 5% hurdle (necessary to make it into parliament), the SPD is likely to take over in partnership with the Green party. The ‘Pirates’ represent a colourful addition to the German political spectrum. Judging from one of their campaign leaflets, they stand for transparency of government and a free internet. Meanwhile, the Linke will struggle to gain any MPs next Sunday, but I was quite surprised when I picked up ‘its’ newspaper Neues Deutschland. This used to be a propaganda vehicle for the GDR state party SED, toying the official line and featuring endless reports of committee meetings, five-year plans and visits by dignitaries from socialist countries. Now it offers a distinctive opposition profile, critical assessments of current German/European policies and stories not covered in other media (such as calls for reparation payments from former German colonies in south-west Africa).

7 January 2013

Allinge Kirke Chapel c1500 Church 1896

The new year started as the old one had ended, with an interesting tour of the region. One advantage of staying at Greifswald is the easy access to all countries around the Baltic sea. This time we went north, taking the ferry from the Rügen port of Sassnitz to Trelleborg in southern Sweden. After a transfer to Ystad, a mega-fast catamaran boat took us to the Danish island of Bornholm, for centuries contested between the Archbishop of Lund, the Danish / Swedish crowns, the Hanseatic city of Lübeck and Russia. These struggles become very tangible at Hammerhus, one of the biggest surviving castle complexes in northern Europe.

For parish historians, of course, Scandinavia is full of treasures, especially with regard to the rich survival of late medieval wall paintings. Many are documented in two excellent online databases, one for the Danish context, the other dedicated to Swedish medieval art more generally.

Østerlars Kirke

On Bornholm, there is a wealth of interesting ecclesiastical architecture, such as Allinge kirke (above left), which started out as a chapel around 1500 and inherited some of the furnishings of the castle church of Hammerhus when the latter fell into disuse. No doubt the most striking features of the island’s heritage are the high medieval round churches, which resemble fortified towers (hence one theory links them to the Templars). Constructed around 1150, they served for military defence as well as the cure of souls. At Østerlars kirke (right), the best preserved example with a freestanding bell tower, visitors encounter a sequence of circular spaces, formed by the nave, chancel and apse. The centre of the nave is taken up by a massive pillar with an interior opening now containing the font (locally known as the ‘oven’). A set of paintings with scenes from the life of Christ runs all around its outside surface, facing the congregation seated along the nave wall. These were re-discovered and restored in the nineteenth century. On the return journey, we found another cycle in a very different setting, namely the Krämare (mercers’) chapel in the city-centre church of St Petri at Malmö. So much more could be discovered!

Østerlars Kirke Wall Painting Christ in Judgement

Malmø St Petri Krämare Mercer Chapel Wallpaintings

Left: Judgement day from the cycle of
wall paintings at Østerlars church
on Bornholm island.



Right:   Medieval wall
decorations in the  Krämare
chapel at St Petri, Malmö.

31 December 2012

Really enjoyed my brief Christmas break back in England. Apart from the festivities, there was an opportunity to take Lukas to a Premier League game. On 23 December, we watched Chelsea beat Aston Villa by the remarkable score of 8:0, with the keeper by far the best player among the visiting side! It was also good to re-connect in person with my postgraduate students, who have been working hard as usual. The family has since returned to Germany with me and we’ve just been on a whistle-stop tour round Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, taking in Wismar, Schwerin, Ludwigslust and Neubrandenburg. From a parish perspective, I was particularly impressed with Wismar, where – due to WW2 damage and an apparently politically motivated decision to blow up the nave in 1960 – just the tower remains of the Marienkirche (left pic), and Ludwigslust. The latter, which briefly served as the residence of the Dukes of Mecklenburg, features a model town designed by the court architect Johann Joachim Busch in the late eighteenth century. Apart from an assembly hall, court house, bakery, inn, servants’ quarters and many other purpose-built edifices, there is a remarkable temple-style church completed in 1770 (right pic). This couldn’t be more different from the Gothic brick constructions which otherwise dominate in this area, further examples of which can be found at St Nikolai, Wismar; St Marien, Neubrandenburg (where the medieval town wall encloses a centre entirely rebuilt in the GDR period); and the cathedral at Schwerin (a city with a Disney-type nineteenth-century castle set in a beautiful lake landscape).

Wismar St Marien Turmrest (WW2 + 1960 nave destruction)Equally conspicuous are the former religious houses, of which only the Dominican nunnery of Zoffingen has survived all the historical ups and downs, even the 19thC secularisations. Today, it is an oasis of calm welcoming everyone through the small gateway (right) to attend the monastic hours. The erstwhile Jesuit base of St Konrad, a prime example of Baroque/Rococo splendour, now serves the ‘old’ Catholic community of the town; Holy Trinity, once the Augustinian place of worship (and home to a unique set of wall paintings dating from the council period; it even features King Sigisn) the ‘regular’ members of the Church of Rome.   Ludwigslust Stadtkirche

I am also pleased to report that the Gersau 2014 project now has its own website, very ably designed and looked after by Hugo Schärer. This is necessarily ‘work in progress’, but already contains information on the planned celebrations, the organizing committee and the history of the former parish state. One element I will be heavily involved in is a conference on pre-modern republics due to take place there in March 2014.

Tonight we are due to attend a concert at nearby St Nikolai church and plan to watch Greifswald’s fireworks from the roof of the Krupp college. Happy New Year!


16 December 2012

The political landscape of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is complex and not free of problems. Despite a ‘grand coalition’ government of the mainstream parties SPD and CDU, there is considerable activity on the (far) left and right of the spectrum. Visiting Anklam a few weeks back, I walked past the ‘democracy shop’ (aiming to foster the values of tolerance and cultural pluralism among the citizenry) which became a target for a right-wing attack in May of this year – indeed, recent surveys suggest that sympathies for the latter views are particularly strong in the north east of Germany; elsewhere in the region, a town mayor is in trouble for allegedly hiding his past as a Stasi informer and the capital city Schwerin (governed by the Linke, a party with roots in the GDR) has just been put under administration. According to the Ostsee-Zeitung, charges include a refusal by the mayoress to reduce debt with public service cuts (and wasting taxpayers’ money on political gestures like the dispatch of an official birthday message to Fidel Castro). Neutral commentators might wonder whether this represents a legitimate move to stop incompetent management or rather a pretext to marginalize any critique of the current austerity drive throughout the European Union.

After the Beverly Hills interlude, I was glad to return to project work, focusing on how external observers perceived my case studies in the early modern period. It is astounding how much more straightforward such research tasks have become with the existence of databases like ‘Early English Books Online‘ and ‘Eighteenth Century Collections Online‘. Our predecessors, restricted to card indexes and personal visits to libraries would find this unbelievable. On Wednesday, furthermore, I was interviewed about my work by a regional monthly magazine – to keep the world in suspense, the article will be held back until the February edition.

The build up to the festive season is now in full swing. Laudably, it all starts rather later than in other countries, really only at the beginning of December. I’m writing this while listening to a trumpet concert of carols performed on the top of St Nikolai’s church tower (with enormous powers of perception, you might just be able to catch a glimpse of them on the viewing platform in the picture on the left).

Ubiquitous features are Christmas markets. These come in various sizes and formats, but always feature Glühwein, sausages and Lebkuchen. At Greifswald, the emphasis seems on the fun fair element, with plenty of dodgems and carousels for the kids. Ironically, however, the biggest such market I’ve seen so far remains the one at …. Birmingham back in the UK. After an extended cold spell, with freezing temperatures and a lot of ice (transforming the view from my window; cf. the 20 October gloss below), the weather has taken another turn and feels rather autumnal again. I hope there will be some snow left when the family visit me over the New Year.

The Krupp Kolleg is preparing to take a break as well, but not before inviting staff and fellows to a Christmas party tomorrow. Visitors to the exhibitions, talks and conferences are invariably impressed with the infrastructure and the smooth way in which operations are managed, although there is some concern over the current crisis in the Thyssen Krupp company (whose dividends support the foundation behind the college). Last week saw the final flurry of lectures in 2012, among which an evaluation of whether environmental policies are a ‘luxury’ for developing countries (the answer being: No) and a very accessible introduction to quantum theory, an approach centring on relations and possibilities rather than facts and absolute laws (as in conventional physics). At the end, we were left contemplating the notion that the differences between mind and matter might be rather less pronounced than we all assumed.


11 December 2012

Just returned from a 5-day round trip to Los Angeles. It’s a long way to go for a conference, but the theme (‘Enlightenment from Below’) was right up my street and the event provided an opportunity to strengthen emerging links between Warwick and UCLA. The organizers put us up in Beverly Hills, made us feel very welcome and ran all sessions in the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, a rare books collection housed in very attractive surroundings. It was also good to meet several colleagues from Warwick’s English department, although it seems odd that we had to travel half way round the globe to do so. There are clearly areas of shared interest between the disciplines and institutions involved – popular political agency and the cultural role of taverns are just two from my particular perspective. I’d forgotten just how big LA is; to fly in at night over a sea of freeways and city lights was particularly impressive (vast distances and dependency on cars being the other side of the coin).

Back at Greifswald, I found the temperature some 25 degrees lower and the town covered in a sparkling white coat of snow. One thing I love about this place is the number of bakeries. There are at least four within easy walking distance and I often take advantage to get fresh rolls for breakfast, something virtually impossible in England these days.
A few weeks from its launch, My-Parish is shaping up very nicely. It’s great to see researchers from so many different fields and areas joining up. In the last few days, furthermore, we gained our first interactive project site: Donald White’s ‘Invisible Saints’, which promises to become a major interdisciplinary resource. I do hope that members will use the site to highlight their own work/initiatives, alert us to source materials and to exchange views on any issues in parish studies.


30 November 2012

Greifswald is rich in monuments, signs and … graffiti. The spectrum of the latter is wide, ranging from political messages (Die Häuser denen, die sie brauchen – houses for those who need them) via witty one-liners (the writing on the picture translates as ‘better to take a bike to the beach than a car to work’) and rather impressive wall paintings (as in a monumental cityscape with characters from Caspar David Friedrich) to football slogans (Alles für Hansa).

Speaking of football, there is no top-level team anywhere near here, not even in the capital Berlin. Greifswald plays host to two major sides: FC Pommern Greifswald currently ranks 7th in the NOFV-Oberliga Nord (roughly the fifth tier of the league system) and the Greifswalder SV 04 sits in 10th position of the Verbandsliga (a little further down the scale). There seems to be considerable rivalry between the two: recently, the local press reported that one had pinched an entire youth team from the other! The regional favourite, judging from public displays of affection, is Hansa Rostock, a former Bundesliga side now competing in Division 3. One thing that always strikes me is the spectrum of imaginative club names, including Anker, Borussia, Dynamo, Eintracht, Empor, Lokomotive, Preussen, Vorwärts and many others. I quite fancy seeing some handball while staying here. It is a very dynamic and attractive sport in which the Germans always do well. The nearest club appears to be the Stralsunder HV.

Work on the project has temporarily moved to the background due to copy-editing tasks (for The Communal Age, due to appear next spring) and the preparation of a paper for an Enlightenment conference (7-8 December) on the other side of the Atlantic. Now I’m looking forward to popping back to England to catch up with the family this weekend. After all, there is only so much you can find out through Skype.

25 November 2012

One of the most striking features of the urban parish churches in this area is their size. These Hallenkirchen are enormous brick constructions, with soaring towers and a very sturdy build. Many are dedicated to St Nicholas, patron saint of merchants, very fittingly for trading centres like the Hanseatic towns of Anklam, Greifswald and Stralsund. At Anklam, where only the outside shell survived WW2 bombing, a citizens’ initiative now plans to turn St Nikolai into an event and exhibition centre. Under the name Ikareum, it would host a museum dedicated to the local aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal and more generally explore the human dream of flying.

But there are impressive rural churches, too. At Neuenkirchen, just a mile or so north of Greifswald, visitors find a late medieval building which reveals traces of repeated expansions and changes of building plans. The vestry attached to the chancel around 1300, for example, clearly interfered with the position of an earlier window in the north wall (left). Originally endowed by the monastery of Eldena, the church came under the patronage of the university (where the current pastor teaches theology) after the Reformation. Attractions inside the immaculately maintained premises include a set of recovered 15thC grotesque figures (remarkably depicting drunkards), several early modern paintings and a colourful stained glass window added to the choir in the time of the GDR. There are also reminders of Sweden, which governed Pomerania from the 17th to 19thC. During its rule, the parish obtained a lavish new parsonage complete with two stables (the minister used to be one of the largest landholders in the area), a house for clergy widows (right) and to this day the village commemorates the Swedish poet, philosopher and Greifswald university librarian Thomas Thorild (d. 1808) as one of its most distinguished inhabitants.


18 November 2012

A month-long break between conferences provides a long-awaited window to move forward with the project. The focus at the moment lies on the parish federation of Dithmarschen on the North Sea coast. Even a superficial survey reveals a very different context compared to the Alpine case study of Gersau. This fertile agricultural region was larger, more differentiated and surrounded by neighbouring powers keen on integrating the peasant republic. Following an unlikely victory over an invasion force in 1500, the military defeat to the Danish king and Holstein dukes in 1559 marked the loss of independence.

Life at the institute continues to be interesting. This week saw the launch of the ‘PolenmARkT’ (a fortnight of cultural events showcasing Polish music, literature and art). The opening reading by author Wojciech Kuczok featured excerpts ranging from marital sexual relations to the symbolic power of football under the military dictatorship. Fellows’ profiles have now appeared on posters and webpages of the Alfried Krupp Kolleg, which makes us feel very welcome. The 2012-13 group includes an interesting mix of disciplines and everybody is very friendly and supportive. Some (although not the present writer) have taken to jogging and the gym facilities on the premises.

An exhibition at the excellent Pommernmuseum (Heimatkunde) highlights the enormous changes in Greifswald over the last thirty years. A local photographer captured the moribund state of many historic buildings in the 1980s, when the GDR authorities had decided to redevelop the town centre by pulling old houses down and replacing them with pre-fabricated Plattenbauten (pictured). Many of the latter survive, often in a renovated state, throughout the eastern and southern suburbs. A pensioner, whom I met on the bus, spent 9 years on a waiting list before he could move into one of them in 1970.


11 November 2012

Just returned from the Symposium ‘Words and Matter: The Virgin Mary in Late Medieval Parish Life’ held at Umeå University in northern Sweden. Apart from delivering a plenary address on Mary’s multiple roles in pre-Reformation parishes (which included a shameless plug for the My-Parish platform), I enjoyed papers ranging from Old Norse representations via Castilian adaptations to Lutheran transformations of the cult of the Virgin. Three members of the Warwick Network for Parish Research gave well-received presentations, with Joanne Anderson talking on Marian wall paintings at Bolzano, Steven Bates on rosary devotions in England and Don White on Marian matter in Cornish rood screens.

The organizers went to great lengths to make the symposium a memorable experience. With the aid of the Riksbanken Jubileumsfond and the Marcus Wallenberg Foundation, they treated participants to delicious dinners (including reindeer), guided tours (esp. the museum tower on the new Arts Campus) and an a-capella performance of Marian music from several centuries. Umeå University, which also boast a state-of-the-art digital lab for the Humanities, represents a shining example of what is possible in a country where higher education constitutes a government priority. Last but not least, visitors from Central and Southern Europe got a good impression of the climatic conditions, with temperatures around freezing and even a bit of snow at one point. The journey back to Greifswald involved 3 flights, 2 bus trips and 1 train journey, but it was certainly worth it.


6 November 2012

A week-long family visit provided some quality time off and a chance to visit surrounding areas. Vorpommern boasts both attractive towns (such as Stralsund, with yet more imposing churches like St Marien and St Nikolai) and beautiful countryside (as in the Jasmund national park on the island of Rügen). Berlin, of course, is a metropolis utterly transformed since the wall came down in 1989. Former no-man’s land now carries monuments, government palaces, ultra-modern business precincts and a massive new railway station. It all looked very impressive from over 200 meters up on the TV tower. The city-centre Marienkirche and the GDR museum were particularly fascinating, with the latter featuring exhibits like the Sandmännchen (protagonist of a cult children’s programme), a fully-furnished flat, state-controlled television, period popular music, interactive zones (such as an interrogation room and even an iconic Trabant car, which visitors can sit in) – small wonder that the premises were packed. The commentary, however, left much to be desired: while informative on a purely factual level, it sounded patronizing and unpleasantly triumphalist.

  A somewhat unusual pillar image and the chapel of a 17thC Swedish court physician in the Stralsund parish church of St Nikolai.

Back at Greifswald, one of the other fellows presented his research project on the complex relationship between evolutionary biology and moral judgement, while today brought the honour of a reception by the mayor in the town hall. Work activity has focused on the preparation of a paper on ‘The Virgin Mary in Late Medieval Parish Life’ to be presented at Umeå in Sweden on Thursday. I look forward to re-connect with a large Warwick delegation and to meet parish scholars from all over Scandinavia.

27 October 2012

Greifswald´s main parish church, St Nikolai, offers a striking range of attractions reflecting the multifaceted history of the town. There are late medieval wall-paintings, early modern church chests, family chapels / mausoleums, a banner of the peace movement in the former GDR (pictured left) as well as a ‘Swedish Gallery’ built for the court officials of the northern power which governed the region after the Thirty Years’ War. The other two churches, St Marien and St Jacobi, are well worth a visit, too. The former contains a late sixteenth-century Reformation pulpit (with portraits of Luther and Melanchthon), the latter – another of the Greifswald sights painted by Caspar David Friedrich – tombstones dating back to the Middle Ages.


Another notable feature of the town is the towering presence of the University. Perhaps a fifth of the population are attached to it in one way or another. The main (Baroque) building dates from the Swedish period, there is a monumental statue of the fifteenth-century founder on the eponymous Rubenow Square, visitors have access to an extensive art collection and the students organize a lively set of events. Last night saw a 24-hour lecture programme headlined by Gregor Gysi, protagonist of the opposition left in the German parliament, who sketched an alternative way out of the current Euro crisis. Ubiquitous, furthermore, are signs alerting onlookers to the fact that a particular scholar once lived or worked at a given address (above right).

Monday’s lecture on the parish republic of Gersau went well, I think. Somewhat to my surprise, several experts on Swiss history were in the audience. We had a lively discussion and I got much interdisciplinary feedback. On Wednesday, a photographer came to take pictures of all fellows (which caused great excitement), on Thursday the Kolleg hosted a talk on the growth of right-wing extremism in rural Germany. Now I’m looking forward to a family visit and a trip to Berlin next week.

20 October 2012

Last Monday I arrived at what will be my new academic home for the next 6 months, the Alfried-Krupp Wissenschaftskolleg at Greifswald in the northeastern German Land of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. This is a research institution located in the heart of the town, playing host to 10 fellows from different disciplinary backgrounds every year. Each has a flat and office on site, facilitating interaction and social contacts (centering on a lavish “fellows lunch” prepared by a celebrity chef every Tuesday!). There are almost daily lectures, seminars and conferences, often co-organized with the Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University of Greifswald (founded way back in 1456), appealing to scholars and a wider public at the same time.

The first week has been taken up with settling in, finding my way round the library, meeting lots of new people and hearing papers on Caspar David Friedrich (the Romantic painter born at Greifswald), church music in the Democratic Republic of Kongo (!) and the question whether there is such a thing as “free will” (which the neurologist speaker emphatically affirmed). I’ve also made a start with my own project which looks at highly autonomous parish communities in the Holy Roman Empire. Congenially, as the picture shows, I can see the imposing church of St Nikolai right from my lounge window. One of the priorities  for the weekend will be to visit the three city-centre parishes of Saints Jakobi, Marien and Nikolai plus – given the gorgeous autumn weather – taking a stroll to the ruins of St Eldena, the nearby abbey immortalized in Friedrich’ paintings. The other main task, alas, is the preparation of my “Fellows Lecture” on Monday evening …

















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