The Quedlinburg Annals: writing the Ottonian past in the 11th century

Shortly after the turn of the first millennium CE, a new history of the Ottonian empire was written. The Quedlinburg Annals, a chronicle of world history created at the imperial Saxon convent of Quedlinburg, is one of the most important contemporary historiographical works we have for Ottonian Empire. The Annals track the history of the world from creation, recording the spread and triumph of the Christian faith. In particular, the Annals trace in detail the rise of the Liudolfing family to power in Saxony and their transition into the Ottonian dynasty of kings and emperors. The history of the convent of Quedlinburg itself, founded by the Ottonian family in 936, was also woven through this royal and imperial history.

Dating

Much of the earlier content of the Annals is compiled from other sources. From 852 onwards, the Annals begin to add new information, providing us with an increasingly detailed record of the political history of the Ottonian Empire. Though there’s been some disagreement over the date that the Annals were started, Martina Giese, argued in her edition of the text that the increasingly contemporary tone and volume of information provided in the entries between 1008-1015 and 1021 onwards suggests the Annals were composed in these two periods, with a break between 1016 and 1020. This dating puts the composition within the rule of Abbess Adelheid of Quedlinburg, the daughter of Emperor Otto II and Empress Theophanu, and the sister of Emperor Otto III.

Manuscript tradition

We don’t have a contemporary copy of the manuscript of the Annals – it only survives in copies from the sixteenth-century onwards. These are incomplete, breaking off in the middle of a sentence in the entry for 1025. Entries within the Annals had already been lost by the time our first extant copy was made, with gaps between the years 874-910 and 962-983. Fortunately, as the Quedlinburg Annals were used as a source for a number of other later chronicles (including Thietmar of Merseburg’s Chronicon, the Chronicon Wirziburgense, the Gesta episcoporum Halberstadensium, the Annalista Saxo, and the Magdeburg Schöppenchronik), we can compare their entries for these missing years to gain a rough idea of what the missing parts of the Quedlinburg Annals may have contained.

The convent of Quedlinburg. Image credit Sarah Greer 2015.

Author

The question of who the author was remains open. The Annals were anonymous, and their composition over the course of two decades raises the possibility of multiple authors. However, both Giese and an earlier editor of the Annals, Robert Holtzmann, supported the idea of a single author due to the unified style and agenda that runs through the Annals as a whole. The possibility that the author was a canoness from Quedlinburg itself is a strong one: Quedlinburg had an excellent library and scriptorium and we know that Hazecha, the treasurer of Quedlinburg under Abbess Mathilda, had studied with Bishop Balderich of Speyer and had written a vita of St Christopher for him. There was a considerable amount of scholastic activity at Quedlinburg, making it entirely possible that one of the canonesses had the resources, education and ability to write the Annals herself.

Motivations and Context

Why did the community of Quedlinburg, under Abbess Adelheid’s rule, decide to create a new history of the Ottonian Empire? The Annals have been seen as a form of Ottonian Hausüberlieferung or ‘house tradition’, fulfilling the duty of Ottonian women to preserve their family’s memory by commemorating their ancestors’ deeds and remembering their names in order to pray for them. However, we should be wary of regarding the Annals as an official Ottonian court history. Instead the way that the present and the past was represented in the Annals was heavily shaped by the concerns of Quedlinburg and its abbess in the early reign of Henry II (1002-1024).

After the sudden death of Otto III, Adelheid’s brother, in 1001, the accession of a new king from a different, Bavarian, branch of the Ottonian family led to a rearrangement of monastic patronage in the German kingdom. Whereas the three Ottos focused on their family’s Saxon heartlands around the Harz mountain range, Henry had a much looser connection to this region and turned his attention to new religious institutions. In particular, he converted his favourite church, Bamberg, into a bishopric in 1007, which involved a significant reshuffle of church lands. It is in this context that the new history of the Ottonian empire was written at Quedlinburg, emphasising the role that the convent had played as a central royal site for the Ottonian family. The Annals were not so much a reflection of the Ottonian dynasty’s official view of the past as much as they were a way for the women of Quedlinburg to send messages to the new king, reminding him of the importance of their monastery as an Ottonian memorial centre.

Case Study: the foundation of Quedlinburg

We can see an example of this reshaping of the past in the entry that describes the foundation story of Quedlinburg:

937: King Henry died on the 6th Nones of July [2 July 936 – the entry combines events from both 936 and 937]. His son, Otto the peacemaker, glory of the Saxons, was elected to succeed to his father’s kingdoms through his right of inheritance. The famous Queen Mathilda, obedient to her husband, the above-mentioned King Henry, began with holy devotion to construct the monastery on the mountain of Quedlinburg, as Henry himself had earlier resolved. Because she wished this to be a ‘regnum’ to all people, she supported it with all her power. As she had learned that a well-born woman becomes degenerate only rarely and with great difficulty, she brought together there not base women, but those at the heights of good birth, young beginners solemnly devoted to canonical religion. All the way up to the end of her fleeting life, the queen never ceased to nourish these women like a mother with an abundance of privileges, both spiritual and earthly.

Heinricus rex obiit VI. Non. Iulii, cuius filius Otto pacificus, Saxoniae decus, iure haereditario paternis eligitur succedere regnis. Mechtild, inclita regina, obeunte coniuge suo, praefato scilicet rege Heinrico, coenobium in monte Quedelingensi, ut ipse prius decreverat, sancta devotione construere coepit. Hoc regnum gentibus esse voluit, hoc totius viribus fovet. Ibi, quia bene nata raro ac difficilime degenerare noverat, non vilis personae, sed summae ingenuitatis tirunculas canonicae religioni rite deservituras collegit easque usque ad extrema vitae istius caducae materno more spiritalium nec non carnalium copiis commodorum enutrire non destitit.

This is a very different version of Quedlinburg’s origin story that we see presented in the two Lives of Queen Mathilda, the second version of which (the Vita Mathildis Posterior) had been composed around 1002, possibly by a member of King Henry’s entourage. In the Lives, Mathilda had agreed with the Abbess of Wendhausen to transfer the canonesses of Wendhausen, who had fallen into difficulties, to the new convent at Quedlinburg. The abbess had initially agreed, but then went back on her word and was only reluctantly forced to submit to the queen’s will. The Annals erases this story of disloyalty and instead emphasises the women of Quedlinburg’s nobility, their solemn dedication to canonical life and their constant financial support from the queen – a much more appealing version than that in the Life of Mathilda. Given the context of the recent rewrite of Mathilda’s Life, and the emphasis in its prologue that the queen was a royal model for Henry II to follow, the Annals’ origin story helpfully included the idea that Mathilda constantly supported Quedlinburg, perhaps hoping to inspire Henry and his wife Cunigund to follow in her footsteps. As we see here, the Annalist’s presentation of Quedlinburg’s origin story was heavily shaped by the cares of the community in the present; the representation of the past in the Quedlinburg Annals as a whole should be read with this concern for the present in mind.

Editions/Translations

For Latin edition and introduction: Martina Giese (ed.), Die Annales Quedlinburgenses, MGH SRG In Usum Scholarum Separatim Editi 72 (Hanover, 2004).

There are reviews of Giese’s edition by Felice Lifshitz; Caspar Ehlers; Ludger Körntgen.

There is a complete German translation by Eduard Winkelmann, Die Jahrbücher von Quedlinburg (Die Geschichtschreiber der deutschen Vorzeit 36), 3rd edition, Leipzig 1941.

Entries from 999 to 1010 have been translated into German with commentary by Hans K. Schulze, published in Quedlinburger Annalen 1-13 (1998-2010).

There is currently no English translation of the Annals.

 

Share

2 Comments

  1. Reply

    Many thanks for the nice overview and the reminder to contextualize the Quedlinburg annals in the years of their composition. To give a small addition to the translations, there is also a complete (though rather old, 19th century) German translation by Eduard Winkelmann, Die Jahrbücher von Quedlinburg (Die Geschichtschreiber der deutschen Vorz.eit 36), 3rd edition, Leipzig 1941, which is also available online via https://archive.org/details/DieJahrbcherVonQuedlinburg

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *