Otto the Great died in 973, which makes 2023 the 1050th anniversary of his death, and it is unsurprising that there is now an increased interest in the person of the great king and emperor. Among others, this interest is indicated by a new biography of Otto written by Stephen Freund and Matthias Puhle, two scholars based at Magdeburg, the place where Otto was buried. As every such new biography begs the question, do we need another one? In recent decades, there have been biographies of Otto written by Johannes Laudage and Matthias Becher.1 Does the book by Freund and Puhle bring anything new to the table? For clarity, while the authors divided the work between themselves, I will refer to them as collective authors without dividing who wrote which chapter.
The book is described by the authors as aimed both at academics and the general public. Nevertheless, they decided against including notes to the text. There is also no general bibliography; instead, after each chapter, there is a short list of the literature used. However, the authors acknowledge that they did not include everything they employed.
The book is divided into a prologue and 15 chapters that do not cover the life of Otto in chronological order. Instead, each chapter discusses one particular subject connected to his life. The chapters cover a short presentation of Otto’s father, Henry the Fowler, followed by a discussion of Otto’s first years. Then there are chapters on the historiography of the tenth century, on the system of rule, after which is a group of chapters oriented towards the history of events on the stabilisation of Otto’s rule after the end of internal conflicts, the conflicts with Otto’s son Liudolf and the war with Magyars. Next is a chapter on the Italian policies of Otto, his Herrschaftsrepräsentation, the establishment of the Archbishopric in Magdeburg, the contacts with Byzantium, the women of Ottonian times, and Otto’s last visit north of the Alpes. The last chapter is on the later memorialising of Otto both in the Middle Ages and up to the present day.
What can be said, then, about this new biography? Non-specialists might easily get lost because of the authors’ decision not to organize the text along a clearly defined chronological line, which leads to many cross-references to other chapters, or sometimes virtually repeating the matter discussed. Furthermore, while there are Medieval subjects where the scholarship is only in one language, the Ottonians are not one of them, and there are many essential publications in English, Italian, or Polish. I do not expect the German medievalist to read Polish, but it is strange that there is only one secondary source referenced that is not in German.2
To give one example, the authors might agree or disagree with David Steward Bachrach's sometimes-controversial ideas about the Ottonians’ rule but they should at least mention that there is alterative viewpoint than the one traditionally expressed in German scholarship.3 While it is easy to disagree with many of his arguments, he nevertheless is an important voice on how Otto governed his realm. It might also be useful to mention, when referencing the nineteenth-century afterlife of Otto, that it was not limited to Germany, as e.g. John Keats wrote his only tragedy about Otto and Liudolf. While it seems it is rightfully disregarded as a play, together with various operas that were composed about Otto and Adelheid, it shows that Otto was a fitting hero for many authors of later times. Furthermore, when writing about Otto’s afterlife, the authors state that Otto had a place in Polish political discussions (p. 233). It is quite an overstatement, as Otto had very little presence at all. Tellingly, it was only recently that a Polish biography of Otto was published.4
In many ways, the character of the book might be exemplified by its beginning. The first chapter opens with a discussion of the genealogical table from the manuscript of the Chronica Regia Coloniensis (Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 74.3 Aug 2o). The text and its traditions were already extensively discussed by Nora Gädeke, who is not mentioned by the authors.5 This is a very interesting table with important implications when discussing the remembrance of the Ottonians, as there is a claim there that the whole nobility of Europe (i.e., in alphabetical order, Bavaria, Gaul, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Normandy, Poland, Rus’, Saxony, and Swabia) were descendants of Henry the Fowler. This intriguing note, that has far-reaching consequences when looking at the medieval idea of Europe, does not concern the authors, as they do not mention it at all. Instead, they state that Otto is called imperator and magnus in the table. However, as a photograph of the table is included and placed on the facing page, one can see that it does not say magnus, but primus. It is highly unfortunate that the book has such a beginning.
Overall, even if there were no mistakes, the book would be a mixed bag partially because it is difficult to find a new proposal in it. Quite telling is the chapter on the narrative sources. There, the authors, in description of various chroniclers, create an impression of the great importance of Widukind of Corvey and of a much lesser role of Liudprand of Cremona. Leaving aside personal preferences, quite telling is that they note that Thietmar, Annalista Saxo, Sigebert of Gembloux, Frutolf of Michelsberg, and Ekkehard of Aura used Widukind. While this might indicate an important role of Widukind’s work for later interpretations of Otto’s reign, it ignores the fact that Sigebert and Frutolf also used Liudprand, and it could be argued that they preferred the prose of the Italian over the monk of Corvey’s text. Moreover, it might be argued that placing such a chapter explaining sources on Otto far into the book is not the best. Instead, it would fit better closer to the beginning.
One thing that also emerges is that the book was apparently written in a rush. This is indicated, for instance, by the lack of a chapter number in the reference on p. 58 to double use of the same map of Otto’s Empire (credited to “Zentrum für Mittelalterausstellungen” on p. 136, but then to the author of the map Gyula Pápay on p. 98 – the latter seems to have a wrong scale given), or the manuscript illumination from the Sächsische Weltchronik (Gotha, Forschungsbibliothek der Universität Erfurt, Memb. I 90) which first appears as a full page spread and then as a half page (p. 120, 134). The strongest example is the fact that some chapters do use Harvard citation style for references – name and page number placed between brackets in the main text – while others have no references.
Concluding, the new biography of Otto the Great is a book which seems undecided about its appropriate audience. Specialists will lament lack of footnotes while the wider audience will be lost in complicated structures of the book. On the other hand, it is a good looking publication. It has many high-quality illustrations and images making it visually pleasing. Nevertheless, it would have benefitted from cleaning up the text to eliminate mistakes and a different sequence of the chapters that would make it easier to follow and maybe bring forward what the authors see as a new insight. In the present form whatever new they propose is lost in the book's structure and is hampered by not including the scholarship written in languages other than German.
1 Johannes Laudage, Otto der Grosse (912–973). Eine Biographie, Regensburg 2001; Matthias Becher, Otto der Grosse. Kaiser und Reich. Eine Biographie, Munich 2012.
2 Janet L. Nelson, Early Medieval Rites of Queen-Making and the Shaping of Medieval Queenship, in: Anne Duggan (eds.), Queens and Queenship in Medieval Europe. Proceedings of a Conference Held at King’s College London, April 1995, Woodbridge 1997, pp. 301–315.
3 E.g. David Steward Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Warfare in History), Woodbridge 2012.
4 Jerzy Strzelczyk, Otton I Wielki, Poznań 2018. There is also Polish translation of Matthias Becher’s book (n. 1), published in 2020.
5 Nora Gädeke, Zeugnisse bildlicher Darstellung der Nachkommenschaft Heinrichs I. (Arbeiten zur Frühmittelalterforschung 22), Berlin 1992.