Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 17, 2003
Herbert Schutz Tools, Weapons and Ornaments: Germanic Material Culture in Pre-Carolingian Central Europe 400–750 Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2000. 464 pp.; 32 color ills.; 166 b/w ills. Cloth $179.00 (9004122982)
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There are some areas of our discipline that can be studied effectively with little reference to archaeology. Early medieval art history is not one of them. Those venturing into this field, particularly into central Europe before the formation of the Carolingian empire in the late eighth century, will probably find themselves studying as many excavation site reports as medieval texts. Therefore, the publication of this volume, promising to bring together written and material evidence in a relatively brief English-language survey, should have been cause for rejoicing. Herbert Schutz does indeed give an overview that is useful in some ways, but unfortunately his book is seriously flawed.

The author’s formal training was in the field of German language and literature (with a dissertation on the twentieth-century writer Hermann Kasack), and it is that discipline that he taught at Brock University in Ontario. But for two decades he has published a series of historical studies: The Prehistory of Germanic Europe; The Romans in Central Europe; The Germanic Realms in Pre-Carolingian Central Europe, 400–750; the present volume; and most recently, The Carolingians in Central Europe, Their History, Arts, and Architecture: Cultural History of Central Europe, 750–900.1 The content of Tools, Weapons and Ornaments: Germanic Material Culture in Pre-Carolingian Central Europe 400–750 overlaps that of The Germanic Realms. One object of particular interest to art historians, for example, the helmet plaque of the Lombard King Agilulf (d. 616) in Florence, is given a three-page discussion in each book (360–62 in the latter, 168–70 in the former), and the two texts are nearly identical. This reviewer has not the stamina to make a fuller comparison between the two volumes, but interested readers should be aware of potential repetition.

“Germanic” is for Schutz “a comprehensive, polyethnic, multilingual and multicultural designation applied to the groups of mixed populations originating in the regions beyond the Roman Empire’s northern frontiers” (3). The geographical range of the book includes the Rhineland, the Alps, and the areas around the North and Baltic Seas, and excludes France. A dramatic decrease in the practice of furnished burial justifies a chronological upper limit of A.D. 750 (7). The author’s major interest is in the contact between “Germanic” peoples and the Roman Empire, and in how that contact influenced northern societies. This focus shapes the master narrative of stylistic development inherent in the scattered discussion of ornamental objects. Schutz first sketches a largely independent development of “Germanic” styles (including Bernhard Salin’s animal style I, as discussed in Günther Haseloff, Die germanische Tierornamentik der Völkerwanderungszeit [Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1981]), then sees that development as arrested and gradually overwhelmed by the classical tradition.

Art historians will find some aspects of this book problematic. The author does not hesitate to make value judgments about artifacts: “Though most gravestones bear awkwardly cut inscriptions and are occasionally worked in unsophisticated relief, some simple examples point to attempts at producing ‘sculpture’ ” (176). He warns against judging such stones by classical standards, “for that would disregard their own robust character. In that sense these gravestones suggest a certain originality, not as pieces of art in the continuity of Art History perhaps, but in their proximity to life” (179). I doubt that I will be the only person to marvel at the distinction between our field and “life.” Schutz sees material culture as conceptually transparent, offering a view of the past untroubled by the ambiguities and polemical interpretation of texts: “The study of objects allows a neutral approach,” making it possible “to modify extreme, propagandistic perceptions of these peoples” (241). This easily allows him to detect a characteristic syncretism. The presence of both crosses and birds of prey on the Wittislingen brooch (ornamenting the book’s cover) and on women’s perforated discs suggests the availability of separate options: “The coexistent representation of pagan and Christian motifs during the period of assimilation will have allowed the participant to select which feature he addressed” (181). While a text might be analyzed to find multivalence, an object can safely be interpreted as presenting a simple choice.

Let me hasten to add that this book does have redeeming qualities. Some motifs escape the binary choice of pagan or Christian. Women’s symbolic keys simultaneously recall female household authority, the hammer of Thor, and the key of Saint Peter (182–84). More broadly, Schutz responds to the serious need for an accessible survey of the material culture of this period. He offers archaeological information of many sorts, discussing among other things the grains and trees raised in different areas, the kinds of goods traded, different types of dwellings and their implications about developing social hierarchies, population densities, and the average heights of people in different places and times. His book provides a useful overview of surviving evidence, letting the reader know what is available to be studied as well as making him or her aware of new visual material. I, for example, had never before encountered a pair of phalerae originally decorated in standard Mediterranean fashion with the seated Mars, to which “Style I” quadrupeds were then added (185–86). When Schutz uses his knowledge of literature to interpret a bow fibula in terms of the mythological World Tree and the Midgard serpent (admittedly attested only later, 216–19), the result is quite stimulating. That passage should be a useful assignment for student reading and may lead to some interesting discussions. Likewise, the discussion of the Agilulf plaque mentioned above (168–70) should be helpful in teaching. It provides a useful summary of previous scholarship, most of which is in Italian (see Giulio Ciampoltrini, “Un contributo per la ‘lamina di Agilulfo’,” Prospettiva 52, 1988: 50–52, with bibliography). Indeed, it is probably students who will most benefit from this book. Those who can read German, but not easily, will find it a helpful guide to some of the major historical surveys of the last thirty years.

Unfortunately, these positive contributions are balanced by numerous infelicities. Some problems are structural. The book is divided into three parts. Part A, “History and the Archeological Evidence,” is subdivided into sections for each major geographical area, then for each group of people (Lombards, Alamans, and others), then for chronological phases of development. This structure leads to a great deal of repetition (e.g., 24–26, 30). Part B, “Archeology and the Socio-Cultural Evidence,” alternates discussion of many of the same population groups with general treatments of objects (armaments, ornaments), cemeteries (burial and the sense of property), and religion (Christianity). This part does indeed give more emphasis to social organization but still repeats information already discussed in Part A. Its internal structural logic escapes this reader, at least. Part C, “Industry and the Portable Arts,” segregates what is meant to be the art-historical material from the rest of the book.

At least equally irritating are failures of revision and editing. Schutz’s prose is stilted. Although some of the color plates are splendid and the maps are cleanly drawn, nearly a third of the black-and-white photographs are of poor quality. Many do not correspond to the text. Discussions of gold and silver working, for example, are illustrated with objects of bronze (109, 128; figs. 63, 91). Photographs are never referred to out of numerical sequence, even when reference forward or back would help the reader understand a point. The index is sometimes inaccurate and omits entries of potential interest, limiting the book’s utility for the browser. (I cite a few missing items, with no guarantee of completeness: Childeric 155–58; eagle fibulae 205–6; horse burials 103, 141–43, 156; Szilagysomlyo amulet chain 183.) Then there are what I can only term silly mistakes, for example, a statement that the Romans practiced inhumation and not cremation (137), or a reference to wax as a fire-resistant substance (178, n. 7). Schutz needs more vigilant editors, and Brill needs less problematic authors.

This book could have acted as a kind of index to the more specialized publications, but unfortunately it does not give direct access to that literature. Schutz’s references are nearly all to publications that are themselves large surveys, such as the frequently cited, grand overview of Herwig Wolfram, History of the Goths, 2nd German ed., trans. Thomas J. Dunlap (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988). Listings of more tightly focused studies are very rare. In some cases no source is given at all, as for the interesting statement that “socially elevated women” constituted at most 2 percent of the population (197). The long discussion of fibulae (194–234) is based almost entirely on the work of Haseloff, mentioned above, and can indeed serve as a partial epitome of that three-volume study, but it should be supplemented by such other publications as Bettina Thieme, “Filigranscheibenfibeln der erowingerzeit aus Deutschland,” Bericht der Römisch-Germanischen Kommission 59 (1978): 381–500 and plates.

Omissions are less troubling than misleading passages. The Niederdollendorf gravestone, for example, is presented as unproblematic (178–79). One of its figures is probably Christ, surprising only because of the spear that he carries, and the other is a warrior holding a comb, possibly to emphasize the hair as a sign of ethnicity or strength. The stone’s iconography is in fact the subject of continuing debate. Though Schutz gives no references, his interpretation appears to rest on the fundamental study by Kurt Böhner, “Der fränkische Grabstein von Niederdollendorf am Rhein,” Germania 28 (1944/50): 63–75. Anyone interested in the problem of the comb and hair will want to consult Peter W. Scheinerl, “Die Kriegerdarstellung auf dem Fränkischen Grabstein von iederdollendorf,” Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt 20 (1990): 345–47, suggesting an apotropaic reading.

Schutz takes unexplained positions on broad historical questions as well as specific iconographical ones. He states, for example, that as the Lombards moved into new territory in the sixth century: “The Roman population can be assumed to have left in large numbers,” and “In the vast territory the Lombards will have represented only a small ruling class controlling their domain from strategic points” (80). Why can we assume that the Romans left? Who stayed behind to be ruled over? How do we know that there were few Lombards present? In this case two contending authorities are cited, Wilfried Menghin and István Bóna. But we are not told why Schutz prefers one interpretation over the other. And the reader should know that questions of migration—whether whole populations moved or only war bands, how newcomers interacted with groups already in residence—are still very much open. A useful entry point into the discussion might be the very readable Guy Halsall, “Movers and Shakers: The Barbarians and the Fall of Rome,” Early Medieval Europe 8 (1999): 131–45.

More basic to the methodology of the entire book is the problem of ethnogenesis. Ethnogenesis, the development of groups such as the Goths or the Franks over time (rather than simple continuity from early beginnings) and focused on (directed by?) a central Traditionskern, has for the past generation been one of the major paradigms used to interpret the early Middle Ages. It was developed in the seminal publication of Reinhard Wenskus, Stammesbildung und Verfassung: Das Werden der frühmittelalterlichen Gentes (Cologne: Böhlau, 1961) and carried forward especially in the work of Herwig Wolfram and Walter Pohl. The validity of that paradigm is now being seriously questioned. Several useful critiques have recently been published in Andrew Gillett, ed., On Barbarian Identity: Critical Approaches to Ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2002). While Schutz is of course unable to respond to objections raised after he wrote his book, readers will now want to be aware of potential problems. Schutz acknowledges the slippery nature of ethnic designations (xxvi–vii, 33), suggesting that different groups developed in different ways, some around a “name-giving core” and some not (43). But he still uses ethnicity as a fundamental organizing principle for both objects and people: “Within limits, [the] stylistic differences of design [of brooches] initially indicate the tribal origin of the population components, which made up the tribal groups during the migrations. Thus the presence of northern square-based Lombardic fibulas in the Bavarian cemeteries indicates that Lombards may have participated in the tribal genesis of the Bavarians” (198). The archaeological Cernjachov culture of the fourth/fifth century is identified with the Goths, and “stylistic features apparent in the ornamentation [of objects found near the Black Sea] allow conclusions about cohesive socio-political and cultural domains” (203). Schutz’s work may perhaps stand as a coda to the ethnogenesis paradigm, one of the last studies that will be able to take its assumptions for granted and use them without extensive justification. It associates ethnic names with groups of people, peoples and names with archaeological cultures, and all of those with objects in museum collections. If read with caution, it may provide a useful overview of early medieval cultures as seen through that prism.

Genevra Kornbluth
University of Maryland, College Park

1 The Prehistory of Germanic Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983); The Romans in Central Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); The Germanic Realms in Pre-Carolingian Central Europe, 400–750 (New York: Peter Lang, 2000); The Carolingians in Central Europe, Their History, Arts, and Architecture: Cultural History of Central Europe, 750–900 (Leiden, Netherland: Brill, 2003).

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.