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The Middle Ages Are Not So Far Away After All - Martina Giese wants to tap new historical sources

Prof. Dr. Martina Giese. Photo: Karla Fritze

Prof. Dr. Martina Giese. Photo: Karla Fritze

Who has not admired artful masterpieces in museums or sacral buildings of times long past? Such treasures continually inspire writers’ and filmmakers’ imagination for action-packed stories. Imagination can certainly also inspire academic scholarship. More important to historians, though, are verifiable sources and facts. The research project “Innovation and Traditions – Objects and Elites in Hildesheim 1130-1250” examines to what extent medieval culture and art allow us to understand life, thinking, and work of people from that period. Martina Giese, Professor for the History of the Middle Ages at the University of Potsdam for four semesters now, has been instrumental in two of the nine subprojects funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

“Why Hildesheim?”, you might ask. The cathedral and the monastery church of St. Michael in Hildesheim with their prestigious and richly furnished interiors boasting historical objects and written testimonies and UNESCO World Cultural Heritages sites since 1985 are prominent centers of medieval culture and history. Asking “Why Hildesheim?” also leads to the main subject of the research project. “Why did Hildesheim – a town of modest size in late Christianized Saxony – become a hotbed for art and the commissioning of treasures? The small and somewhat “backward” town of Hildesheim was able to achieve artistic excellence. But why? What were the specific conditions for its success and outstanding artistic production? Nobody had posed these questions yet,” Giese says.

The director of the Hildesheim Cathedral Museum, art historian Prof. Michael Brandt, provided the impetus for the research project, bringing together colleagues who had already researched Hildesheim. Among them was Martina Giese.

One researcher's lifetime would not suffice to exhaust this topic

It was actually coincidence that brought Giese into contact with the Hildesheim treasures. In 1993, as a young student at the University of Cologne, she visited an exhibition on Bernward von Hildesheim, who had been a bishop there from 993 to 1022. "This exhibition captivated me. I was fascinated but hadn’t yet even considered doing research in this field. After my doctorate, while researching handwritten documents on completely different subjects, I came across some unknown books, including a biography of Bishop Bernward. I wondered why no one had discovered and published them yet. I continued my research and then published a book based on it. The topic was like pulling a thread from a ball of yarn – it kept getting longer and longer. During my research, I realized that much of the material in the Hildesheim Cathedral Library had not been academically exhausted; it soon became clear that one researcher's lifetime would not suffice to do so. This inspired me to paint the white spots in history a bit more colorful and to advance research in this field.”

It is, therefore, no coincidence that Giese is participating in the Hildesheim research project. The special charm of this task lies in the fact that “there are still many ecclesiastical treasures from the Middle Ages, be they in Hildesheim or in big museums elsewhere in the world, which inspire and appeal to the general public due to their materiality, workmanship, and liturgical use.”

Interdisciplinarity is a special feature of the project 

A special feature of the project is its interdisciplinary approach between the humanities and natural sciences. Art historians are investigating the objects alongside historians and materials researchers. The conservator of the Cathedral Museum also serves as a consultant, and the Swiss Abegg Foundation – with its textile museum – helps in the determination of textile objects. In analyzing the show-pieces in the collections are analyzed in detail but also the craftwork that often goes unnoticed. “In addition to Romanesque enamel works, we focus on bronze ones, such as cans – so-called aquamaniles, which were used in a liturgical context for ritual handwashing but also as eating utensils in private households. We want to examine all objects from that time from art-historical and material perspectives. We also have to clarify whether they are from Hildesheim or Lower Saxony,” she adds. The intensive exchange with colleagues from museums around the world made it possible to include several previously unknown objects from private collections and archaeological excavations in the analysis. The bronze objects in particular illustrate the extensive trade in medieval economic history, especially with east-central Europe. They show that Hildesheim was well networked throughout Europe.

Prof. Giese heads two subprojects within the collaborative research project based at the University of Potsdam. One of them deals with the Hildesheim Cathedral School as a model educational institution through the year 1250 and is being handled by Giese’s research assistant Claudia Hefter.

Together with Michael Brandt from Hildesheim, Giese is working on another subproject analyzing the church treasures of the Hildesheim Cathedral St. Michael’s from historical and art-historical perspectives. The goal is to critically edit all treasure lists from these two churches that had been passed down until the 17th century and were often unpublished. The researchers also want to record all mentions of the treasure objects in other sources through the year 1250 so that they can make informed statements about their intended material and liturgical uses as well as relate them to their ascribed immaterial meaning. In addition to learning about these objects’ artistic mastery, their material and ideational value, and their uses, viewers today can get a more accurate glimpse into life at that time.

The historian is in her element when doing these investigations, because her passion – apart from investigating the Hildesheim church treasures – is finding manuscripts and deciphering printed historical sources for today’s readers. “This methodology is highly warranted,” she says, “because only a fraction of the medieval sources have been researched; this is certainly the case in modern history and to some extent in ancient history. I think locating and academically evaluating new texts is particularly important and exciting because it is methodically very demanding. Moreover, as historians we should not only be asking new questions about known material; we also have to broaden the basis of our knowledge by locating and analyzing new texts. Here you can still do pioneering work.”

The Researcher

Prof. Martina Giese studied biology, history, auxiliary sciences of history, and Medieval Latin philology in Essen, Cologne, Bonn, and Munich. She completed her Ph.D. in history in 1999 and habilitated in 2012. She was visiting professor at the universities in Tübingen and Düsseldorf. Since 2015, she has been Professor for the History of the Middle Ages at the University of Potsdam.

Universität Potsdam
Historisches Institut
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam
Email: margiese@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

The Project

Innovation und Tradition – Objects and Elites in Hildesheim from 1130 – 1250. Within the model projects, multiple disciplines are examining and combining various material and written sources to illustrate how medieval art and culture have influenced the present.
Participants: Cathedral Museum Hildesheim, University of Potsdam, Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Rheinische-Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn, University of Osnabrück
Subproject: The Medieval Secular Treasures of the Cathedral and St. Michael’s Church in Hildesheim: Objects – Imagination – Practices
Lead and administration: Prof.  Michael Brandt (Hildesheim), Prof. Martina Giese (University of Potsdam)
Subproject: Cathedral chapter and school in early and high medieval Hildesheim
Lead: Prof. Martina Giese
Research assistant: Claudia Hefter, M. A. (Ph.D. student)
Duration: 2015–2018
Funding: Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF)

Text: Ingrid Kirschey-Feix
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published online by: Agnetha Lang
Contact for the online editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Read this and other articles on research at the University of Potsdam in our research magazine Portal Wissen