This Thursday, Doriane Zerka from the German Department at King’s presented some of her research on Oswald von Wolkenstein (c.1376-1445). This eccentric polymath was a diplomat for the court of Sigismund I, a knight, and prolific writer. In his poems, Doriane explained, he retells his travels across Europe. Doriane’s focus is on his poetry about medieval Spain, or Iberia.
Doriane began by explaining how even introducing her research topic is a tricky task: with ‘Spain’ and ‘Europe’ as we understand them not yet established in the medieval period, there are a whole host of other place-names that describe the area. The different names for ‘Spain’ as a whole, or parts of Spain – Iberia, Galicia, Grenada – didn’t just have different connotations of the space they refer to. In her reading of Oswald’s poetry, these different names also carried various political or cultural meanings too.
Oswald’s poetry can be read as autobiographical. He tells his travels in particularly fantastical ways, casting himself alternately as a brave traveller, a charming courtier, and a proto cultural-tourist. He is equally happy to show off being adorned with rings in his ears and beard by the fairy-like ‘white hands’ of an Iberian queen as he is describing donning a ‘Moorish’ outfit to dance and parade in Grenada.
Doriane explained how many scholars have read his poetry and then tried to prove it ‘true’ or ‘false’, searching for other records and letters which show that Oswald was where he said he was, when he said he was. But Doriane’s interest is to look at Oswald’s images and language closely, to read his motives for casting himself in so many various roles, which on the surface might contradict the sort of behaviour one might expect of a knight of a Western court. She explained how throughout his poems Oswald performs the role of the well heeled yet enigmatic diplomat. European courts in the Middle Ages were all about performances and personas. Writing the poetry was therefore an act of performance about performances. Oswald was shaping his identity through and within his writing.
Doriane suggested how we might also read a sort of ‘proto-orientalism’ to Oswald’s depictions of Iberia. I was really interested in Doriane’s discussion of this – especially, as Doriane mentioned, it can be difficult to apply modern theories to medieval texts. For me, however, through his poetry we can certainly see the recognisable actions of colonial powers that still cause problems today. Whilst he seems to have a genuine affection for the people and places he describes, Oswald was able to put on and take off the garb of a ‘Moor’ without any apparent impact on his political standing. Was Oswald truly celebrating other cultures in his poetry? Or was he just showing off his own social and political powers by playing dress-up with other cultures that he found exciting and exotic, before he ultimately returned to courtly life with Sigemund I? Did he admire the different cultures he found in Spain, or was he part of a colonial project laying foundations of treating different cultures as ‘Other’?
Thanks so much to Doriane for providing so many provocaitons and food for thought. Thanks also for reading aloud in Middle German, as an Anglo-Saxonist I love getting the chance to hear other medieval poetry!
– Fran Allfrey, co-organiser of the MRG
Doriane Zerka is a PhD candidate in the German Department at King’s College London. Her work considers depictions of Spain in medieval German literature, from the epic, lyric and travel writing genres. @dorianezerka