Barbara Burns speaks to Doriane Zerka, whose book Imagining Iberia in Medieval German Literature is published this month in Legenda’s Transcript series.
BB. The focus of your new Legenda volume is on the depiction in medieval German literature of Iberia as a space of alterity, a ‘heterotopia’. How would you describe to a non-specialist what this means?
DZ. The term ‘heterotopia’ comes from the philosophy of Michel Foucault, who defines it a bit confusingly as a situated utopia or a counter-space. In a radio programme from 1966, he explains that children know this kind of space: it can be the garden, or the attic, or the parents’ bed that becomes an ocean as a child ‘swims’ between the sheets, or the sky as the child jumps on it, or a forest in which they hide. This might sound far removed from what I discuss in my book, but the principle is similar: Iberia is an existing place, but it is ‘imagined’ and turned into a variety of possible things in texts, similarly to a bed being imagined by children as a hiding place, a forest, or an ocean.
What I do in the book is to analyse how and why Iberia is imagined in different texts. For a large part of the Middle Ages, the Iberian Peninsula was home to a multicultural population, where Christians, Jews and Muslims contributed to culture and society, under Muslim rule. In literature from German-speaking, mostly Christian Europe, the multifaceted nature of medieval Iberia means that the Peninsula could be used as a kind of different or other space, a space of alterity, imagined in different ways depending on the text (like a heterotopia).
BB. You state in your book that the Iberia depicted in medieval German literature reveals more about the text which describes it than the location itself. Can you give an example of how that works?
DZ. Because Iberia is ‘imagined’ in the texts I look at, the description of the Peninsula is always influenced by the perspective and purpose of each text. For example, my first chapter looks at the Rolandslied, a German-language version of a famous story about the Frankish emperor Charlemagne going to war against the king of Zaragoza in what is now northern Spain. The Rolandslied describes Iberia as a strictly Muslim space and Charlemagne, king of the Franks, as the holy ruler who must ‘destroy heathendom’ (heathendom often being the term used to describe Islam or religions other than Christianity in medieval German texts). The people of Zaragoza first agree to convert to Christianity, but this is a trap: Charlemagne is betrayed by one of his men. As he orders his army to return home, his rear-guard is attacked and after a long and bloody battle, the Franks win. Throughout the text, the Iberian army calls on support from powerful Muslim armies from Africa and Persia, who are also defeated by Charlemagne.
BB. So this text reveals a lot about German politics and religion at the time?
DZ. Yes, it was written when the emperor Friedrich Barbarossa, who governed German-speaking Europe, was trying to grow the reputation of his empire, using Charlemagne as an example of a successful ruler. The epilogue also suggests it was commissioned by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, who was trying to assert political legitimacy. So clearly, this is not a text that tells you much about life and rule in Muslim Iberia, but it can tell you a lot about the dynamics of exclusion and inclusion that are at play in the literary construction of a Frankish, Christian community that, in turn, forms a legitimising text for contemporary rulers.
BB. Not all of your texts have such an aggressive focus, do they?
DZ. The Rolandslied is perhaps the most violent text in the book, but there are other examples, like Oswald von Wolkenstein, who is keen to show his importance as a courtier and his poetic talent. He describes a trip to Aragon, which he turns into a place of exoticism, where he takes part in strange, exciting customs. And again, you will not actually learn about the rituals of Aragonese royalty here, but you will be shown how important Oswald is and how exciting his life at court can be. It’s all about him in the end!
The idea of Iberia functioning as a kind of mirror for the texts that describe it recalls strands of scholarship that are more often used in modern literary studies, like Orientalism and postcolonialism, an element of which is the idea of ‘othering’, which very broadly put means defining something or someone as ‘other’, measuring them against the arbitrary standard of the ‘self’.
BB. There aren’t many Medieval Germanists who engage with postcolonial studies. What prompted you to move in this direction?
DZ. There aren’t many but I’m not an exception either! I started looking into it on the advice of my PhD supervisors and it quickly became evident that it was very relevant to my work. Medieval literature comes from a pre-national era, but has been central in constructing so-called national cultures, so medievalists have a role to play in current debates on identity, nationalism, and colonialist legacies. I think Germanists were a little bit late to the game compared to colleagues in English or even French studies, but we are slowly catching up.
BB. Your study focuses on German-language texts ranging from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. Can you give us a flavour of the different genres and topics that you include?
DZ. I start with the epic, first an older crusading epic, then a late medieval prose epic, before going into lyric with the songs of Oswald von Wolkenstein and into travel writing with a late medieval travelogue. The idea is to show how Iberia is imagined in a range of different ways. The first text, the twelfth-century Rolandslied which I’ve already mentioned, uses Iberia as part of a story of war and conquest in which the Peninsula must be shown ultimately as inferior to the Frankish empire.
I then look at a fifteenth-century prose epic, Herzog Herpin, in which the city of Toledo becomes a place of refuge for a noblewoman who hides there, dressed as a Muslim boy. The third chapter is dedicated to the courtier-poet Oswald von Wolkenstein, who sees Iberia as a fanciful, exotic place which he can use to make himself interesting, almost like a backpacker who tells everyone at a party about the places they’ve visited and how exciting their travels have been. Finally, I look at a late fifteenth-century travelogue by Georg von Ehingen, where Iberia is a place for Georg to prove his knighthood. In turn, the story of his deeds in Iberia functions as a sort of founding myth for his family that can be traced back in the manuscripts and early prints of the text.
BB. Do you teach medieval texts, in particular any of the ones covered in your book? What are the challenges in teaching medieval literature?
DZ. Yes, I currently teach on the Middle High German epic and postcolonialism, and I taught some of Oswald von Wolkenstein’s songs in a previous job. Students can be a bit wary of medieval literature because they fear it’s so far removed from the modern context that they might not be able to understand it, but medieval literature can be studied in the same way modern literature is. Yes, you need to keep in mind that it was produced in a very different socio-cultural context, but that does not make it inaccessible. If anything, it makes analysing it even more productive, because it forces you to think about the interaction of literature with culture, society, etc. that in turn can illuminate very modern problems. Like Iberia, the Middle Ages have long been imagined and re-imagined, and it’s fascinating to get students to think about that aspect too – how do our representations of the Middle Ages reflect on perceptions of our own modernity?
BB. To what extent might the reader identify resonances in your study with attitudes to otherness and cultural identity in Europe today?
DZ. What I would like a reader to take away from the book is that identities are always contingent. Words like ‘German’, ‘Spanish’ or ‘European’ cannot be defined in a fixed, immutable way and are dependent on who is defining them and to what purpose. The way we define ourselves as individuals or communities is based on socially constructed criteria. It’s important to acknowledge this, especially when these criteria become a basis for exclusion in real terms, as we’ve seen in the rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe in recent years.