Random Musing on Writing: Something Completely Different

From one of Maximilian’s childhood textbooks. Author photo.

Celebrity books are not new. Nor are people angling for endorsements from celebrities in order to sell more books. It’s just that the quantity has increased since the mid-1400s.

I was intrigued and amused to discover that Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I Habsburg (1459-1519) wrote and published epic poems and novels. One of the poems, Theuerdank, is a fictionalized account of Maximilian’s trip to meet and marry his first wife, Mary of Burgundy. It falls somewhere between the literary allegory pattern of things like the drama “Everyman” (Jederman) and adventure stories. Theuerdank was originally released in a collectors’ edition in 1517 and given only to nobles. Then a revised popular edition came out for the general market two years later. Both had lavish illustrations via woodcuts. It is one of the early books printed in German, and in fact a special type-face had to be designed for the work.

An illustration from the novel _Weisskunig_. Author photo.


Maximilian and his personal secretary worked on the novel The White King for a decade or so before other things intervened. The book was never finished, although it was illustrated during Maximilian’s life, and only saw publication in the 1700s. It is another fictionalized account of the life of Maximilian, and this time of his father. The story borrows from legendary royal traditions like those of King Arthur and Fredrick Barbarossa. It also includes accounts, thinly disguised, of the Habsburg family’s dealings with other kings and princes.

These works served several functions. Maximilian straddled the late Medieval and early Renaissance worlds, and was expected to be good in a lot of different fields. Writing epic poems and novels showed his mastery of language and tradition. They also served as public relations, and helped shape how other people thought of Maximilian as a person as well as how they viewed the persona of the Holy Roman Emperor and his policies.

That PR rubbed off on others, or so they hoped. Scientists, philosophers, and others dedicated their works to him, sending him copies in hopes of getting what we would call an endorsement and cash reward, or at least a nice compliment that could be used to boost sales. Maximilian, like pretty much everyone in his family, had financial problems, so he didn’t pay writers the gratuities they hoped for. Instead he bestowed noble titles and thanked them profusely for their efforts and labor. [That sounds familiar…]

I find it interesting that he wrote in German, not Latin. I wonder if it was a way for him to relax a little, and gave him more control over the writing. He would have been comfortable, if not easily fluent, in Latin, and Latin was the international language. But he published only in German. The political aspect of using the vernacular might have played a role as well, emphasizing that he ruled the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, as well as being King of Rome and a few other things. He spoke the language of the Germans—literally—as well as Latin, probably French and Italian too.

He had ghost writers, as did pretty much all monarchs and nobles in that time. A proper noble was literate and had a good understanding of literature secular and sacred, but being bookish was frowned upon.

The Austrian National Library has a special exhibit about Maximilian, his books, and his world, from which the illustrations above are a sample. He began the collection that forms the core of the library. Plus he was an interesting person in the middle of fascinating times.


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