Materiality and Virtuality. Entanglements of Material and Virtual Worlds in Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture

Materiality and Virtuality. Entanglements of Material and Virtual Worlds in Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture

Christina Antenhofer, Fachbereich Geschichte, Paris Lodron Universität Salzburg / IZMF; Elisabeth Gruber, Institut für Realienkunde des Mittelalters und der Frühen Neuzeit / IZMF; Alexander Zerfaß, Fachbereich Praktische Theologie, Paris Lodron Universität Salzburg, IZMF
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
19.09.2023 - 21.09.2023
Elisabeth Anna Tangerner, Fachbereich Geschichte, Paris Lodron Universität Salzburg

The central topic of the interdisciplinary conference was the relationship between materiality and virtuality in the pre-modern era. Starting point was the premise that materiality and virtuality do not represent an irreconcilable binary opposition, but rather interact productively, and that this interaction produces culture in ever new processes of negotiation. The contributors were interested in the extent to which people generate virtuality and the extent to which they require sensory points of reference and connection in and with the material world. They also reflected on the potential of virtualising research data and different levels of modelling and analysis, with a particular focus on the challenges associated with the digital transformation of material objects.

CHRISTIAN PIETSCH (Münster) opened the first section on the materiality and virtuality of knowledge and discussed concepts of materiality and virtuality from a classic scholarship perspective of late antiquity. He emphasised that the contemporary meaning of the terms materiality and virtuality is diametrically opposed to the ancient definitions. Virtuality is not to be understood as a mental concept and materiality or materialisation not as its realisation. According to the Platonic view, material is merely a malleable mass and thus something real can only come into being through the reception of form, which is virtually conceived by a designer. In conclusion, he highlighted the further impact of this understanding of a subordinate materiality in Christianity in the concept of the Deus Artifex.

SEBASTIAN HAUMANN (Salzburg) dealt with virtual materialities in the history of substances. He assumed that substances are dynamic and that this changeability results from interaction in the construction of knowledge about them as well as the change of their material properties. He illustrated these dynamics on the example of the emergence of modern raw materials in the 18th and 19th centuries in relation to changes in the understanding of nature, the rise of the natural sciences and various processes of commodification. He argued that the accompanying innovations, such as classification systems in the form of chemical models, led to material standardisation and ever further differentiation of modern raw materials. Haumann classified the process of model building as a form of virtualisation, which was in turn materialised in the context of mining practice, processing, and trade.

The second panel discussed questions of visualising materiality and virtuality. EDITH KAPELLER (Vienna) and JULIA ANNA SCHÖN (Vienna) talked about the social practice of commemorating the dead in the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods. They focused on tombstones as material artefacts that form the centre of institutionalised and non-institutionalised commemoration. Based on these objects, they reflected strategies of virtual visualisation of the deceased at specific memorial sites, using the example of Klosterneuburg Abbey. Kapeller and Schön emphasised that the design of the funerary monuments was less about expressing the individuality of the deceased and more about representing the family. Their analysis concentrated on the Wehingen Chapel in the cloister, which was commissioned by the brothers Berthold, bishop of Freising, and Reinhard, ministerial in the service of the Habsburgs.

CHIARA ZUANNI (Graz) took a critical look at the way museums deal with virtual objects and digital material. First, she gave an overview of the history and status quo of digitisation in museums from early developments in the 1990s to current innovations in the field of augmented reality and the metaverse. Zuanni then went on to discuss the current challenges and pointed out liminal spaces between materialities and virtualities using a range of examples, such as the question of preserving digital objects or the new possibilities offered by AI. In particular, she emphasised that digital objects are not solely reproductions but present their own complex materialities. Therefore, she stressed the need for a solution for the musealisation of created digital objects.

In the keynote lecture, LIV NILSSON STUTZ (Växjö) dealt with the complexity of the category of human remains, which are characterised by their dual nature between subject and object, and the entanglements between materiality and virtuality from the perspective of bioarchaeology. She indicated that this liminality can be found in the scientific study of human remains because personal information about a past life is revealed in the research process. Nilsson Stutz referred in particular to the ethical problem that there is a risk of structural violence by the dehumanisation and objectification of dead bodies, and that the publication of research data on open source platforms can lead to misuse.

In response, KARIN HARASSER (Linz) took up the issue of ethical concerns, referring to the project The Milieu of the Dead. She also pointed out that the question of when and where virtuality takes place must also be asked.

The second day started with two panels on sensory aspects of materiality and virtuality. MATTHIAS DÄUMER (Krems) presented an attempt of a systematic concept of virtuality, taking medieval accounts of afterlife journeys as a starting point. After discussing the virtuality definition along several examples, he turned specifically to the virtual aspects of this text genre. Focusing on the sensory experience of immersion, he drew an analogy between VR games in the present and visions of the afterlife in the Middle Ages. He emphasised, for example, that the virtual "worlds" depicted, the purgatory or the open game world, are not material, but nevertheless seem real. He went on to make it clear that his comparison of the virtuality of medieval textual sources with recent VR technology was not an anachronistic metaphorisation, but rather proof that the need for an immersive experience with a reference to reality is timeless.

The contribution of SABINE MIESGANG (Krems) and THOMAS KÜHTREIBER (Krems) focused on a specific group of objects: the so-called Fraisensteine, which were found in the pilgrimage church of Sonntagberg in Lower Austria. First, they embedded the finds in a theoretical framework, contextualised them on the basis of the founding legend around a "sign stone" and went into their production and design. They then turned their attention to the question of virtuality in relation to the use of the stones: In the hope of their healing effect, the ceramic objects containing particles of the drawing stone were either placed on the body or scraped off and taken orally. Miesgang and Kühtreiber emphasised that these objects functioned as a medium between materiality and virtuality through the practice of physical contact and the imprinted images of the Trinity.

HEIDY GRECO-KAUFMANN (Bern) talked about the Lucerne Wine Market Plays, starting from the premise that materiality and virtuality are essential parts of theatre insofar as this entanglement results from the interaction of actors and settings for the purpose of depicting an as-if situation. First, she outlined the emergence of this form of processional theatre in public places under the influence of monastic Easter traditions, popular practices of piety, and professional theatre. Using a variety of sources, including play scripts, directorial materials, and stage plans, in conjunction with the topographical or socio-political realities of the setting, she then highlighted the connection between the virtual world of the play and the material world of the architecture of the square, which was particularly present in the Weinmarkt plays.

KATJA WEIDNER (Vienna) dealt with the question of whether a text can generate sensory impressions and enable immersion in the sense of virtual reality. She focused on the fragrant apple in medieval Latin texts. Using the material apple with metaphorical meaning in the poems of Venantius Fortunatus, she outlined a case of the representation of the (im-)material. She showed that apples in Boniface's Aenigmata functioned as a way of virtual reenactment. Thirdly, she drew on a group of texts, afterlife journeys and The Book of the Apple (pseudo-Aristotle), to provide examples of the material effect of this fruit. Weidner concluded that the fragrant apple often stands metaphorically for the potential of the materially conceived paradise and summarised this in three categories: virtual presence, virtual reenactment, and (im-)material effect.

The following section was dedicated to questions of materiality and virtuality in space. CHRISTINA ANTENHOFER (Salzburg), WALTER BRANDSTÄTTER (Salzburg), and STEFAN ZEDLACHER (Salzburg) presented the Digital Humanities project dedicated to the virtual representation of Hohensalzburg Castle.1 They start from inventories dating of the 16th to the 18th centuries, which are currently being analysed with digital humanities methods, to reconstruct the dynamics of the rooms and their furnishings over time. These will help to create a three-dimensional virtual model in conjunction with archaeological and art historical data. In their presentation they stressed the creative potential of virtuality and the tension between the built, material castle and the written, textual one.

THOMAS PICKLES (Chester) took up a question of legal history, the invention of liberty by the monks of Whitby Abbey and the inhabitants of the north-eastern coast of Yorkshire in the late 12th century. This territorial area was immune from the influence of many aspects of royal or episcopal administration. Pickles emphasised that this liberty was a cognitive construct, as it turned a physical space into a coherent cultural landscape through certain actions, such as perambulation, recitation, and recording of the boundaries. He investigated the aspect of materiality and virtuality by means of interactions between people and objects on the one hand, and between local and universal beliefs, on the other.

MICHAEL BRAUER (Salzburg) focused on the issue of the presence and absence of political actors. Using the example of Charles V of France and the Louvre, as his newly built residence, Brauer looked at how spaces could suggest the king's presence in the event of his absence and which material objects could function as placeholders for him. Using several examples, including the table de marbre, which was used for royal banquets, the publication of royal acts or as a seat of jurisdiction, he showed that administration is materially bound to objects and that attempts were made to evoke the virtual presence of an absent person.

In the second keynote of the conference, KATHERINE WILSON (Chester) presented an object-centred approach in the field of museum education in the project Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries .2 First, she questioned the way virtualisation is inscribed in everyday objects and how different meanings can be gained through haptic and sensory appraisal by academics, the public and students. In the second part, she discussed the possibilities, advantages and challenges of unlocking the virtualities of medieval objects for scientific research, the public, and for educational use in schools, for example through the visualisation of research data in VR format or haptic reconstructions.

The morning panel on the third day dealt with the topic of manuscripts between materiality and virtuality. CLAUDIA KRAML (Augsburg) and DOMINIK NIEßL (Augsburg) presented the project Codex Manesse. Structure of the Collection and Contextualisation of the Author Corpora, in which this extensive collection of Middle-High-German poetry from around 1300 is being processed using digital humanities methods.3 This project aims to examine the manuscript following codicological, philological-textual and iconographic approaches and to make it accessible also in terms of its materiality and virtualities.

SEAN WINSLOW (Graz) discussed technological possibilities for visualising material aspects of manuscripts through non-traditional imaging technologies, such as Multispectral Imaging (MSI), Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) and Computer Vision (CV). He pointed out that the great potential of these technologies is to visualise material aspects that are not visible to the human eye. These manifestations of materiality could - according to Winslow - only be captured and explored through a kind of virtualisation. He also raised the question of the meaningful use of these complex data formats.

FLORIAN KRAGL (Erlangen) dealt with the problem of focusing on manuscripts that are as close to the author as possible and have been preserved in the original as the only legitimate expression of medieval textuality and the resulting neglect of later versions of the text. Using several examples, he showed that literary studies and literary history are hardly aware of this problem of edition philology. At the same time, prioritising texts close to the tradition, often only in virtual form, creates a gap between the objects (the edition texts) and the objective of study. Kragl concluded with reflections on theoretical-methodological possibilities for overcoming this problem.

A wide range of aspects and perspectives were presented at the conference, which exemplified the topicality of the conference theme. The theoretical debates and the examples of practical application demonstrated that materiality is not a fixed constant and that virtuality likewise is a multifaceted concept. Looking at all the contributions, one could conclude that the interdisciplinary study of the entanglement between materiality and virtuality offers great opportunities and challenges for the disciplines of Medieval and Early Modern studies.

Conference overview:

Christina Antenhofer (University of Salzburg / IZMF)
Elisabeth Gruber (IMAREAL / IZMF)
Alexander Zerfaß (University of Salzburg / IZMF)

Chair: Alexander Zerfaß (Salzburg)

Christian Pietsch (Münster): Die Materialität als Potenzialität zur Aufnahme von Form. Die Rolle der Materie im Platonismus der Spätantike

Sebastian Haumann (Salzburg): Virtual Materialities in the History of Substances: Understanding the Emergence of “Modern” Raw Materials between the 18th and 19th Centuries

Chair: Barbara Denicolò (Salzburg)

Edith Kapeller (Vienna) / Julia Anna Schön (Vienna): Virtuality through Materiality. Grave Monuments as a Medieval Strategy of Visualizing the Dead on the Example of Klosterneuburg Abbey

Chiara Zuanni (Graz): Museum Materialities in-between Virtual Objects and Digital Materials

Chair: Christina Antenhofer (Salzburg)

Liv Nilsson Stutz (Växjö): Cadavers, Dead Bodies, and Human Biomaterials – The Sliding Scale of Human Remains in Mortuary Ritual, Cultural Heritage, and Research Ethics

Karin Harrasser (Linz): Response

Chair: Matthias Däumer (Krems)

Matthias Däumer (Krems): Virtual Insanity Is What We Are Living in. Attempt at a Systematic Concept of Virtuality (on the Basis of Medieval Afterlife Journeys)

Thomas Kühtreiber (Krems) / Sabine Miesgang (Krems): Durch auflegung des wunter detigen gnaten stein ist mir geholften worten. Physical Contact as a Practice of Mediating Salvation Using the Example of the so-called “Fraisensteine” from the Pilgrimage Destination Sonntagberg (Lower Austria)

Chair: Matthias Däumer (Krems)

Heidy Greco-Kaufmann (Bern): Insights into the Mechanisms of Materiality and Virtuality. Using the Example of the Lucerne Weinmarkt Plays

Katja Weidner (Vienna): Apple Variation. Case Studies from the Latin Middle Ages

Chair: Thomas Kühtreiber (Krems)

Christina Antenhofer (Salzburg) / Walter Brandstätter (Salzburg) / Stefan Zedlacher (Salzburg): Built Space and Virtual Space: Remodeling the Historical Rooms of Hohensalzburg from Material and Written Sources

Thomas Pickles (Chester): Inventing a Medieval Liberty in the Landscape: Materiality, Virtuality, and the Liberty of Whitby Strand

Michael Brauer (Salzburg): Representing the Absent King? Material Dimensions of Royal Presence in Late Medieval France

Chair: Elisabeth Gruber (Krems)

KATHERINE WILSON (Chester): Materiality and Virtuality, Reconstructing and Exploring the Past Through Objects: Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries 1000–1700.

Chair: Manfred Kern (Salzburg)

Claudia Maria Kraml (Augsburg) / Dominik Nießl (Augsburg): The Codex Manesse in TEI format. Towards a Transcription Database for Manuscript C (Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, cpg 848)

Sean Winslow (Graz): New Imaging Technologies and the Invisible Materiality of the Book.

Florian Kragl (Erlangen): The Fascination for the Materiality and the Hiatus between Editorial Practice and Literary Criticism. Some Remarks on the Omnipresence of Virtual Manuscripts

Christina Antenhofer (University of Salzburg / IZMF)
Elisabeth Gruber (IMAREAL / IZMF)
Alexander Zerfaß (University of Salzburg / IZMF)

1 Hohensalzburg Digital, URL: (30.11.2023).
2 Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries, URL: (30.11.2023).
3 Der Codex Manesse. Sammlungsaufbau und Kontextualisierung der Autorcorpora, URL: (30.11.2023).

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