The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

12 (May 2009)  |   Issue Editors: Larry Swain

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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Michel Aaij
Auburn University Montgomery

© 2009 by Michel Aaij. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2009 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Discussed in this review:

Franz J. Felten and Barbara Nichtweiß, eds. (2006), Hrabanus Maurus: Gelehrter, Abt von Fulda und Erzbischof von Mainz. Mainz: Publikationen Bistum Mainz. ISBN 978–3–934450–26–4. E 15. 194 pp., 4 color ills.

Hans-Jürgen Kotzur (2006), Rabanus Maurus: Auf den Spuren eines karolingischen Gelehrten. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern. ISBN 978–3–8053–3613–0. 120 pp., 77 color ills., 8 b/w ills. E 25.

Stephanie Haarländer (2006), Rabanus Maurus zum Kennenlernen: Ein Lesebuch mit einer Einführung in sein Leben und Werk. Mainz: Publikationen Bistum Mainz. ISBN 978–3–934450–24–0. 184 pp., 30 b/w ills. E 13.

Rabanus Maurus, the Preaceptor Germaniae, on the 1150th Anniversary of his Death

§1.  Rabanus Maurus (ca. 780–856) is one of many saints mostly lost to the public eye. A successor of Boniface as archbishop of Mainz (847–856), one of the most noted scholars of his time, and a tremendously prolific author, he is remembered as the author of the hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus" and of the magnificent De laudibus sanctae crucis, a collection of figure poems dedicated to the Cross. Veneration proper of Rabanus is really only to be found in Mainz and perhaps in the small town of Winkel, Germany (where he is said to have died), where for weeks he fed over 300 people during the famine of 850. The 1150th anniversary of his death, much like the 1200th anniversary of his birth, while it gave rise to exhibitions in Mainz, Fulda, and Limburg (Germany), at least three conferences (in Mainz, in Fulda, and in Lille), and a sermon or two, occasioned relatively little popular piety, as far as I have been able to tell. The publications in that year suggest that his memory is mostly a matter for historians, though one of the three publications discussed below, a reader by Stephanie Haarländer, hopes to change that.

§2.  The most academic of the three titles is a collection of papers presented at a Rabanus conference in 2006 and published by the Mainz diocese.1 Mainly dealing with the historical circumstances of Rabanus's life and works and their subsequent history, the collection is scholarly and probably valuable only to the initiated. Rather than discuss each individual article, I will summarize the ones I found particularly useful or strong.

§3.  The introduction to Rabanus and to the collection by editor Felten is one of those. Rather than give just a biography, Felten provides a comprehensive overview of Rabanus's life, work, and importance, with excellent bibliographical information. A contribution by Karl Lehmann, cardinal of Mainz, follows, giving biographical and additional information more specifically related to Mainz. Both essays, setting the tone for many of the other essays, also attempt to rescue Rabanus from the judgment of the nineteenth-century Romantics, who found him tedious and unoriginal, an attempt found in all three books discussed in this review.

§4.  One of the most interesting and lively contributions, "Hrabanus Maurus und die Bibliotheca Fuldensia," is by Marc-Aeilko Aris, an outstanding scholar of books, book lists, and book lovers.2 He traces the development of Fulda's famous library from its founding by Sturmius (educated to become a scholar by St. Boniface) and its beginnings as a monastic library, through the difficult period of Abbot Ratgar, whose desire to expand and build the monastery often collided with the scholarship and reading of the monks, to the actual program started by Rabanus, whose goal was not merely to enlarge the library's holdings, but to expand its scope by including, for instance, works on the liberal arts, in line with the Carolingian reforms.

§5.  Aris loves books, and he loves reading them closely: a substantial part of the essay is taken up with citation and discussion of a little poem Rabanus wrote to Ratgar, asking that he please be returned the books but especially the glosae parvique libelli he needs for his work. Presumably Ratgar (abbot of Fulda from 802 to 817) had taken away the personal books and other papers of the monks in Fulda, to make them work on the construction of the new basilica. The 18-line poem, which seems like such a personal and heartfelt cry, cleverly incorporates a fair number of quotes from Alcuin, Rabanus's master at Tours and of course one of the architects of the very Carolingian Renaissance Rabanus himself was contributing to. The rest of the essay concerns itself with the actual development of the library—Aris refers to Rabanus's "library politics" as a "library theology" and sketches, sometimes in great detail, how that theology led to Fulda becoming Western Europe's most important library of its time.

§6.  Michele Ferrari argues in "Dichtung und Prophetie bei Hrabanus Maurus," a detailed discussion of De laudibus sanctae crucis and the history of its reception, that Rabanus should be placed alongside Plato and Dante. His virtuosity should guarantee his place in any poetic pantheon (and Ferrari cites Paradiso, XII.127–41, in which Dante puts Rabanus in the company of Bonaventura, Augustin, Anselm, and Hugo of St. Victor), but also his idea of the role of the poet. Rabanus, says Ferrari, conceives of the poet as a vates, as a prophetic maker of truth in the service of the larger (theological) truth—the cross poems are simultaneously exegetic and poetic, but it is precisely their search for truth, obscured for modern readers by its spectacular forms, that are their true value (91). Ferrari may well be right, both historically and exegetically, but I fear that this argument won't do much for the popularity of Rabanus's poetry among non-specialists.

§7.  Ernst-Dieter Hehl investigates the relationship between church life and church law in Rabanus, and also addresses the charge that he might have been a plagiarizer, a charge he—of course—denies. An English contribution comes courtesy of David Luscombe, who provides a useful overview of the ninth-century dispute over predestination.

§8.  The last two contributions are by Stephanie Haarländer, a lengthy overview of the debate over the status of the puer oblatus, and Theodor Schieffer, a detailed article on the legacy of Rabanus's writing. Haarländer sketches the backgrond of the dispute, which started when Gottschalk, who was given (together with his patrimony) to the monastery at Fulda as a child, wanted to leave—with his possessions, of course. Rabanus was dead-set against this, not just because the patrimony was valuable, but also because as a monk and as a puer oblatus himself he could not conceive of anyone wanting to leave that blessed community. Haarländer analyzes his arguments, does not always find them convincing, and remarks that in the end history and church law would not side with him. It is worthwhile noting, perhaps, that Gottschalk, already a thorn in Rabanus's side given his opinions on predestination (discussed by Luscombe in his essay), has recently developed quite a following—he now has a personal website, at

§9.  In all, Hrabanus Maurus is a title worthwhile for academic researchers. Not all the essays are equally interesting (to me), and one or two of them do not even focus that much on Rabanus, but some of the essays function quite well as a scholarly apology for the study of this most scholarly of German saints.

§10.  Hans-Jürgen Kotzur's Rabanus Maurus: Auf den Spuren eines karolingischen Gelehrten is the most handsome of the three German titles published in 2006. The cardinal event in the Rabanus celebrations was an exhibition in Mainz that, besides other relevant objects, included MS Codex Vaticanus Reginensis latinus 124, the most beautiful and important manuscript that contains De laudibus sanctae crucis. Kotzur's book is a description and partial facsimile of the codex, as well as the catalog to accompany the exhibition, and it is a wonderful book that I should hope to find in many academic libraries.

§11.  The introductory material is clear and useful. The opening chapter gives a brief biography of Rabanus, but especially interesting is the second chapter, which locates De laudibus in its historical context, the debate on iconoclasm in the latter part of the 8th century. Kotzur describes the measures taken by Byzantine emperor Leo III, the response thereto laid down in the Second Council of Nicea, held in 787, which allowed the use of images for the purpose of veneration, and the iconoclastic response by Charlemagne laid down in the Libri Carolini, which may have been written with the collaboration of Alcuin, Rabanus's teacher.

§12.  Kotzur argues that Rabanus might have agreed with the condemnation of the worship of images in the Libri Carolini, but at the same time he had no qualms whatsoever about portraying Christ (but only once) or the Cross in his figure poems—with the understanding that any such image is to be seen as signum more than imago. As imago, a depiction such as that found in the first poem of De laudibus (Kotzur 27, 48–49) has its role in reminding us of the human nature of Christ; but of equal or greater importance is the function of text and image as a signum that points the reader/viewer toward the divine (and thus unintelligible) nature of God. What this means for De laudibus, for instance, Kotzur explains in a brief discussion of the opening poem, with its image of a Christ standing as if crucified, but without the actual cross and without the wounds on his hands and feet. The wide-eyed Christ, looking directly at the viewer, is two-dimensional (Kotzur correctly points out that contemporary artists were perfectly capable of creating more realistic images, and even in De laudibus such three-dimensionality occurs), and equally noteworthy is the background of the image, a simple yellow, where one might have felt gold would have been more appropriate (and gold is used in other poems). Kotzur suggests that, on the one hand, an all-too beautiful rendering distracts from the actual meaning of text and image (and in that sense Rabanus is something of an iconoclast), and on the other, a fairly simple illustration adds meaning to the text, or invites the reader to search for meaning, if only by its being abstracted from any kind of realism, an abstraction that promotes the essential mystery of Christianity. I found this a very interesting section; like all the other sections, it is followed by a useful overview of relevant literature.

§13.  But to the actual manuscript. Reg. lat. 124's history is fairly well-known, and Kotzur gives a clear and even entertaining account. Manufactured ca. 825/826, it was dedicated to Otgar, the Archbishop of Mainz from 826–847. When Rabanus himself became archbishop in Mainz in 847, he found the codex and made various corrections (see ill. 16, Kotzur 35)—scholars posit that Rabanus owned what they call an "Urfulda," something similar to a working version of De laudibus from which subsequent copies were made. Certainly before 1479 the codex is moved to Fulda, and from Fulda it travels to Prague, where it arrives, on the special request of Emperor Rudolf II, on 4 August 1598. Rudolf had asked to borrow the manuscript, and while he promised to return it, he obviously never did: when monks in Fulda need to make another copy of De laudibus in 1617, they have to borrow one from Hersfeld. In the Thirty Years War, the manuscript is taken by Swedish troops who give it to Queen Christina (1626–1689), who in turn bequeaths it to the Vatican (her royal ownership giving rise to the name Reginensis).

§14.  Most of Kotzur's book is dedicated to the reproduction and explication of fifteen of the most important and beautiful figure poems in De laudibus. A brief introduction discusses Rabanus's historical literary predecessors (including St. Boniface, also author of a cross poem) , and demonstrates how figure poems work. Starting on p. 46, each of the fifteen selected poems is shown in full-color, and then (usually) in a black-and-white diagram, accompanied by interpretative text. While these interpretative texts are fairly short, they show quite admirably many of the different aspects of Rabanus's mastery and artistry; in fact, after reading through all of them, I wanted to read them all again, I was so impressed.

§15.  The final section of the book gives pictures of and describes some other objects shown at the exhibition; most interesting here was the occurrence of the full name and title of Cardinal Lehmann of Mainz in a modern word puzzle, executed in plastic and LEDs, that is supposed to remind us of Rabanus's brilliant exercises—but really, despite the glowing catalog description, the puzzle is incredibly simple, almost infantile. The one review of the book on the German Amazon website mentions that the book looks like a work of praise for Cardinal Lehmann; that critique is exaggerated, no doubt, but the inclusion of such praise for such a simple puzzle, the mere comparison with Rabanus's work, trivializes matters. If Lehmann stands to Rabanus the way the modern puzzle stands to De laudibus, then Lehmann has no reason to feel flattered. It almost seems as if the organizers of the exhibiton were exercising all means possible to appeal to a modern audience—sometimes at the expense of the subject of the exhibition itself.

§16.  In all, Kotzur's book is well-written, quite beautiful with its many full-color photographs, and very useful even in an American classroom, if only for the purpose of demonstration.

§17.  Stephanie Haarländer, a well-known German scholar of medieval history, has produced a very readable and sympathetic reader of Rabanus, Rabanus Maurus zum Kennenlernen. Divided into ten sections that feature texts on such topics as Rabanus's life and scholarship, his status as a German scholar, his methods of exegesis, and his poetry, the book provides a good overview of his prolific work. In a fairly long introduction (pp. 14–60) Haarländer introduces the man and his time; the second part of the book is a treasure trove of writings about and by the saint, including a number of interesting letters to various European dignitaries.

§18.  Especially enlightening are the selections from De laudibus sanctae crucis. Haarländer provides text and translation for five of the figure poems (nos. 1, 4, 15, 16, 28), including text and translation of the lines inscribed in the figures inside the poem, and a sketch of the poems allow the reader to follow that text. The sketches are not beautiful like the originals, but they would function very well to show students what medieval poetry could do, and how incredibly elaborate these poems in praise of the cross were. I intend to use (with Haarländer's permission) some of these transcriptions together with the full-color images from Kotzur's catalog in my classroom.

§19.  A red thread throughout the introduction and especially in foot- and headnotes to the selected texts is the rebuttal of the charge that Rabanus was nothing but a plagiarizing compiler of others' wisdom. Haarländer cites Ernst Curtius on a few occasions, as does Cardinal Lehmann in his preface to the book: the English translation of his European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages calls Rabanus a "dreary compiler."3 However, given this recurrent charge and its rebuttal (for Haarländer is firmly supportive of Rabanus), I find it a little surprising that the author did not choose to include a section in the introduction on the nature of scholasticism and its methods. Countering the accusations made by Curtius and others (from the 19th century onward) is not very difficult, and Haarländer provides the means necessary. For instance, in text 16, a passage from the dedication to the commentary on the gospel of Matthew, Rabanus explains that he notes in the margin, in abbreviated fashion, what the source is for specific passages or remarks, and warns that copyists should take care to include those notes when they copy his works. In text 15, citing John 7:18, Rabanus comments that originality is not his objective; rather, leaning on authority is the best way to get to the truth—a perfectly conventional and acceptable position in his time. (And Haarländer occasionally betrays herself as a scholar with a sense of humor: for this selection, the heading is "But I don't want to be original!") In other words, the diligent reader can collect the evidence by reading through the book, but since the assumed audience is an average, non-academic readership, and since a selection of texts is always a meadow from which different readers will pick different flowers, I would have liked the author to explicitly address these charges and rebut them, with a brief description of the medieval scientific method, in the introduction.

§20.  But this is really my only complaint about the book, which I think is an excellent selection and translation of some important texts that will give the reader a good idea of what Rabanus was about; this would look very nice on the specialist's bookshelf and in the academic library.

§21.  Rabanus lovers should be pleased. Much has been published and edited in the last two decades, and two of the three books published in 2006 might even increase Rabanus's popularity in Germany. I fear that little of such popularity will ever make it outside of that country, despite the role Rabanus played in the Carolingian Renaissance, which no doubt occasioned the convention in Lille and Amiens, Raban Maur et son temps. But as far as I know France also did not see any kind of popular celebration in 2006. As praeceptor Germaniae Rabanus will probably remain a scholar's scholar, but at the very least the 2006 remembrance has produced some titles that might attract a few more scholars to this extraordinary man, responsible for one of the most remarkable books ever produced in the West.


1.   This collection, as well as a CD with hymns and poems by Rabanus, is available online from the Mainz diocese, at The CD is the only artifact that I have been able to find that suggests a celebration of Rabanus in the liturgy or any other public setting—I have found no evidence of postcards, no Rabanus-themed walking trails, no prayer cards, and no feast-plays.  [Back]

2.   His essay on St. Boniface and his books, "'Der Trost der Bücher': Bonifatius und seine Bibliothek" (in Michael Imhof and Gregor K. Stasch, eds. (2004), Bonifatius—Vom Angelsäschsischen Missionar zum Apostel der Deutschen [Petersberg: Michael Imhof], 95–110, is erudite and sometimes even moving.  [Back]

3.   E.R. Curtius (1953), European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton UP. 85.  [Back]