the emperor maximilian -- 5/15/23

Today's selection -- from The Habsburgs by Martyn Rady. How the new Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian aggrandized himself:
"Frederick III's son, Maximilian I, was elected king in 1486 and moved smoothly into power upon his father's death seven years later. The itinerary of his travels marks him out as quite different from Frederick III, for he was always on the move, scarcely staying more than a few weeks in any one place. Yet, like all his predecessor kings and emperors, his route stuck to the region that was traditionally close to the ruler -- Swabia, Franconia, and the Rhineland, to which were now added the newly acquired provinces in the Low Countries. He never visited Saxony, Brunswick, Brandenburg, and the principalities along the southern Baltic shore. German historians ponder why their country did not develop into a unified national state like France or Spain. Any number of reasons may be proposed, but one is surely that large chunks of the Holy Roman Empire were never integrated into the sovereign's journeys. It was only in 1712 that an emperor visited Pomerania in the German north-east, and he was the emperor of Russia.

"Maximilian's style of rule depended on personality and presence, in the absence of which his image had to suffice. Several thousand surviving por­traits attest to Maximilian's determination to make his face the best known in Europe. Artists were enlisted to communicate his image and achievements in yet more dramatic ways. Albrecht Dürer, Albrecht Altdorfer, and a team of less well-known engravers designed for him the two massive woodcut series, The Triumphal Procession and The Triumphal Arch, which advertised Maximilian's ancestry and deeds. Made up of interlocking printed sheets, they were intended to be pasted up as wallpaper in the palaces and council chambers of the several hundred lords and cities to which they were sent.

"Maximilian also spread his renown by commissioning poems in his honour. He won over the Renaissance scholar Conrad Celtis by crowning him a poet laureate and installing him as master of a new College of Po­ets and Mathematicians in Vienna's university. Celtis returned the honour by penning panegyrics that extolled Maximilian as a great huntsman and warrior, comparing him to heroes of classical antiquity and German his­tory. Besides Celtis, Maximilian crowned almost forty poets with laurels, all of whom churned out verse celebrating his reign. Maximilian not only instructed that the verses be printed but also protected them with some of the earliest privileges, giving copyright. Even so, Celtis's edition of Taci­tus's first-century Germania, to which he added digressions on Maximilian's achievements, was widely reproduced by others, thus further broadcasting the ruler's reputation.

Colored impression of blocks 132 (left),133-4 (right), showing the baggage-train, by Albrecht Altdorfer

"Maximilian was also active in his own fashioning. He oversaw the com­position of three allegorical autobiographies in which he depicted himself as the most chivalric and accomplished of knights. In the Theuerdank, Maxi­milian related an entirely fictional account of how the eponymous hero, lit­erally Noble Thought, ventured abroad to marry the Lady Ehrenreich ('Rich in Honour'), who represents Maximilian's wife, Mary of Burgundy. On the way to her, Theuerdank undergoes all sorts of tribulations brought about by his adversaries-broken staircases, avalanches, poisoned food, and so on. Having won the lady's hand, Theuerdank departs to go on crusade. In real­ity, Maximilian's journey from Vienna to his marriage in Ghent took three months on account of the grand receptions and feasting to which he was treated, but he was indeed wed in a suit of silver armour. 

"The Theuerdank was lavishly illustrated with 118 woodcuts, and the text used the black-letter typeface that later became the basis of German Gothic script or Fraktur. Maximilian published the Theuerdank for private distribu­tion in 1517, and two years later it went on general sale. The accompanying volume, Freydal ('Fair and Courteous'), did not, however, make it to the printer but remains, except for five illustrations, only in manuscript form. The Freydal recorded Maximilian's accomplishments in jousting and combat with more than two hundred alleged adversaries, often in front of admiring audiences and celebrated with masked balls.

"The best known of Maximilian's autobiographical romances is the Weisskunig ('White King'). Published posthumously, it described Maximil­ian's upbringing and many of his military campaigns under the allegorical name of the White King. The story rehearses the White King's education­ his immediate grasp as a child of the seven liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) and progression to the study of genealogy, the science of mining, minstrelsy, painting, and, indeed, almost everything else, including the comprehension of birdsong. In truth, Maximilian was a poor student and until the age of nine an 'elective mute.' Even so, Maximilian's alter ego, the White King, effortlessly acquires new languages, speaking seven fluently. He even delves into the black arts, but never so deeply as to imperil his soul.

"As a ruler, the White King desires only peace, but he is constantly be­set by the traitorous cunning of others. They are duly listed by colour or device -- the Green King (of Hungary), the Blue King (of France), the Red and White King (England), the King of Fish (Doge of Venice), the King of Crowns (the pope), the Black King (Aragon), the King of Molten Iron (Burgundy), and so on. In his enthusiasm, Maximilian sometimes muddled the colours, with several kings confusingly changing hue. When not fight­ing the Coloured Kings, the White King engages in war with armies raised by the cities of the Low Countries, where his rule was long contested -- the Brown, Grey, and Apple-Grey Companies, against which he musters the White Company, whose members comprised in reality thuggish mercenar­ies. In a few places, Maximilian forgets colour and device, so the Swiss are simply 'peasant boors', the White King's son (and Maximilian's too), Philip, is 'the Beautiful King', and the French dauphin who vies in vain for Mary of Burgundy's hand is 'Pugface.'

"A selection of chapter headings for the year 1509 indicates the rather monochrome character of the text:

How the White King made an alliance against the King of Fish.
         How the King of Crowns and the Blue King made war on the King of Fish. 
         How the Blue King attacked the King of Fish and prevailed upon him in battle.
         How the White King campaigned against the King of Fish and cap­tured many cities and much land.

"There is nothing original in the colour-coding of champions and adversaries. The contemporary Le Morte d'Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory has an ample selection of Blue, Red, Green, Black, and Yellow Knights, while the most accomplished chivalric romance of the late fifteenth century, the Valencian Tirant to Blanc, is also named after a white knight. But the Weisskunig lacks the moral ambiguities, tainted enchantments, and bleak destinies of Morte d'Arthur, and it has none of Tirant lo Blanc's narrative complexity and élan. It is an uncomplicated piece of vanity publishing, redeemed only by the 250 woodcuts that adorn the text.

"Maximilian intended the three autobiographical allegories to be the starting point of a vast publishing enterprise, which would distil separate branches of knowledge into what amounted to a multivolume encyclopae­dia. Each part would contain a summation of all that pertained to cook­ing, horsemanship, falconry, horticulture, artillery, fencing, morality, castles and cities, magic (including black), the art of love, and so on. Of the list of more than 130 titles planned, only two were ever completed. Their contents, which enumerate the best places for hunting and fishing in the Tyrol and Gorizia, depict Maximilian casting nets, inspecting river banks, and con­versing with huntsmen, and they suggest the motif that drew together the vast project: Maximilian himself All aspects of the encyclopaedic enterprise were intended as celebrations of his rule, accomplishments, and virtuosity, which united in his person all human experience."



Martyn Rady


The Habsburgs


Basic Books


Copyright 2020 by Martyn Rady


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