Philological centaurs


The history of Nietzsche’s historiographical development begins in earnest when he enters Schulpforta at the age of fourteen in 1858.[1] The venerable institution, which had already held its 400th anniversary and counted among its alumni Klopstock, Fichte, and the father of German history, Leopold von Ranke, was long considered the model ofhumane education in Germany. After the Napoleonic Wars, it was restructured to minimalize its former role in the formation of clergy and to maximize its potential as the preparatory ground for scholars and teachers. To that end, Nietzsche’s educators were extraordinarly demanding in its featured subject: classical antiquity, the very field in which Nietzsche showed prodigious talent.

Nietzsche’s first sustained effort in the field of comparative philology was an ingeniously bold poem - for a young man of seventeen - on the saga of the fourth-century Ostrogoth King Ermanarich, a project suggested to him by Schulpforta’s renowned historian of German literature, Friedrich August Koberstein.[2] In the fall of 1861, Nietzsche, having happened upon Franz Liszt’s Hungaria symphony, sketched his own composition of a symphonic poem entitled Serbia.[3] By February of 1862, he presented to his friends Wilhelm Pinder and Gustav Krug, together with whom Nietzsche forged the idealistic literary circle ‘Germania two years prior, three additional “Hungarian Sketches” in imitation of Liszt, whose daughter Cosima was to become Richard Wagner’s wife and for a time Nietzsche’s confidante. In November of 1862, Nietzsche outlined the composition of a dramatic production entitled ‘Ermanarich.’[4] And as late as the summer of 1865, he was considering the performance of an Ermanarich, Oper in dreiAkten.[5]

While the musical attempt at an ‘Ermanarich Symphony’ was abandoned, and though no dramatic performance ever saw the stage, it stands evident in this first sustained thematic enterprise that Nietzsche modulated his ideas from a poetic medium, to a musical form, to a drama, to an opera, and again to - what is most important for our efforts here - a sixty-three-page scholarly treatise.[6] “Scholarship, art, and philosophy,” he noticed, were “growing together inside me to such an extent that one day I’m bound to give birth to centaurs.”[7] The maturation from the purely artistic to the historical representation of the Ermanarich saga involves Nietzsche’s recognition not only of an interesting figure within history, but of how the historical representation of this historical figure was itself a sort of puzzle whose pieces didn’t always fit. “Before us is presented the age of Ermanarich, the great and last hero of the Goths before the great migration, whose history really belongs to history, even if we experience the great part of him only through the sources, only in the mythical [sagenhafter] clothing of historical events.”8

Here Nietzsche tried to solve a genuine problem of conflicting historical sources. According to Roman chronicles, Ermanarich had committed suicide in ad 370 out of grief over the impending victory of the Huns over his own Ostrogoths; while Jordanes, a Byzantine monk of Gothic heritage, records a much more sympathetic view, claiming Ermanarich was killed valiantly in battle. In the twelfth century, the chronicler Saxo Grammaticus records the all-too-closely reminiscent tale of an ancient Danish King by the name of ‘Jarmarich.’ The unreliable chronicle is further marred by an improbably gruesome legend in which Ermanarich, before his death, had ordered his wife to be torn apart by horses - something not only not mentioned in the other accounts, but inconsistent with their portrayal of the king’s character. Whoever Ermanarich actually was, and whatever the factual details of his life and death were, are thus likely unrecoverable given the discontinuity of the extant historical evidence.

And this is just the point at which Nietzsche’s historical interest in Ermanarich begins. “That he is a historically meaningful personality seems to me incontrovertible unumstoflich.”[8] Ermanarich seems on the one hand a noble hero, but on the other hand both a coward and wife- murderer. But how could a single authorial source have so badly described his subject so as to have presented an apparently self-contradictory figure? The philologically responsible reflex would be to suppose the apparent contradiction a result of multiple sources, possibly at different times. Such a hypothesis would serve to supply a natural and sufficient condition for the resulting evidence that is presently observable today.

There is originally nothing in the saga that attacks Ermanarich, as I will show; but indeed the saga has grown, bit by bit, out of divergent soils, with ever new additions to the image tacked onto what the old saga had constructed, additions which increasingly corrupt the character of Ermanarich to the point where a clear antipathy emerges in the later versions of the saga.10

Notice, however, that this says nothing about why the original account was changed or why the two were combined, and indeed it cannot say anything in a rigorous historical way since this would amount to ascribing psychological motivations to what is without further evidence nothing more than a regulative hypothesis. This, however, is precisely what Nietzsche does next:

Perhaps it is a repercussion of hate which the conquered people harbor towards Ermanarich, or perhaps it is the hatred of some ‘scourge of the people’ that was levied against Ermanarich - as if through the saga a large part of the qualities of Attila he Hun were transmitted into Ermanarich, while Attila himself sort of shrinks and fades away, to the point that he no longer appears recognizable.11

Nietzsche proceeds to trace the hypothetical genealogy that would explain the gradual and layered construction of the saga, from sources in the Near East, Germany, Denmark, and Britain. With a dizzyingly complex heritage, the saga as it now stands turns out to be a blend of misappropriated names, dates, traditions, peoples, and battles that were haphazardly assimilated into a single story. Ermanarich himself, king of Oium in the early 300s, had been confused with various old tribal kings of Gothic Germany, like Hermenrich and Emelrich,12 and the old Danish tribal leader Jarmarich of whom Saxo Grammaticus spoke. He is named Eormenric in the English epic Beowulf and Jormunrekkr in old Norse songs. His story had been manipulated principally by the choniclers of the Anglo-Saxons, who sought to assimilate the notoriously cruel and rapacious traits of Attila the Hun into their Eastern foes.

To disentangle the story of Ermanarich, Nietzsche first had to straighten out the sources of what the scribe Jordanes writes in his ad 522 book: the Getica. According to Jordanes, at the time of the invasion of the Huns, Ermanarich was betrayed by one of his own tribes, the Rosoman. The name of that tribe, however, derives from a convoluted genealogy within the Getica, which was discoverd to have been based on an original chronicle by Kassiodorus: other names in other tales include Rosomonorum, Roxolanorum, Rasomonorum, and Rosomorum.13 From that tribe, which Nietzsche suspects might have been Jordanes’ construct, Ermanarich had chosen to be his bride Suanahild - otherwise known in Kassiodorus’ source text as Sonilda, Sunihil, Sanielh, and, last but most recognizably, Swanhilde. But upon discovering her infidelity, according to Jordanes, Ermanarich ordered her drawn and quartered by wild horses. Thereafter Sarus and Ammius, leaders of the Rosomans and brothers of Suanahild, sought their revenge against the king. Attacking together, they injured the powerful Ermanarich, but failed to kill him. Knowing meanwhile their enemy’s leader to be wounded and his kingdom in disarray, the Huns seized the opportunity to invade. Unable to bear the emotional wound of Suanahild’s infidelity, the mutiny of his own people, and sensing the impending Hun conquest, Ermanarich committed suicide.14

But Jordanes’ history still burdens Ermanarich with two characteristics that seem unbefitting so worthy a ruler. Why would the otherwise benevolent king have chosen so brutal a death for his wife and why would so adept a military strategist have failed even to attempt a defense against the invaders? Nietzsche’s answer: It is the hatred or jealousy of later historians - like Jordanes - that made Ermanarich look simultaneously pathetic and cruel. Suanahild had not actually been Ermanarich’s wife, Nietzsche claims, but the wife of one of his advisors, who had betrayed his king by defecting to the invading Huns. To avenge his anger, Ermanarich demanded that the traitor’s wife be captured and torn apart by horses - a punishment, Nietzsche remarks, that was traditionally reserved for treason rather than infidelity. Suanahild’s brothers had then avenged their sister’s murder by killing the aged King Ermanarich. This leads Nietzsche to conclude that Ermanarich had in fact not opted for suicide, but was killed in cold blood without the chance to defend his people.

Nietzsche’s solution to the Ermanarich problem has hardly been accepted by any scholarly orthodoxy. It is, as is clear, a creative but speculative attempt to reconstruct the motivations of historical agents who may or may

BAW2, 308. 14 Ibid.

not have been involved in the sort of relationships Nietzsche contends. But we are not here to criticize the work of a seventeen-year-old. Our task is to exposit the first historiographical attempt of someone who maintained a lifelong fascination with history and historians. And what we see here is that, from an early age, before Schopenhauer, before Wagner, and even before his entries to Bonn and Leipzig, where his unique brand of historiography would win him the attention - both positive and negative - of the entire philological community, Nietzsche’s historiography evinces certain methodological tendencies. What Nietzsche had accomplished in his Ermanarich essay was to identify a philological non sequitur where pure source criticism served only to bring about a contradiction in equally credible historical testimonies, rendering them each non-reliable barring confirmation from some outside source - which in this case does not exist. But rather than simply identify the equipollent knot and suspend his judgment - in the manner of a scholarly skeptic - Nietzsche offers an artistically plausible but philologically unverifiable solution. He has in fact constructed a hypothetical Ermanarich character to explain what the recorded ‘facts’ could not prove. His philology utilizes psychological suppositions to fill in the lacunae of what critical philology could demonstrate.

Of note is the considerable impression it made on the typically staunch Karl August Koberstein, rector at Pforta and one of the country’s leading literary critics. Nietzsche’s confidant Karl von Gersdorff would later recall Koberstein’s opinion:

Nietzsche wrote an independent, bold, critical-historical work on the Ermanarich saga and submitted it to Koberstein. He was pleased in the highest and full of praise for the erudition, the perspicacity, the deductive character and stylistic elegance ofhis student. Since Koberstein, who was usually quite taciturn at the dinner table, had expressed himself to me with such joyful excitement, that I found cause to meet Nietzsche’s acquaintance. Even upon entry into the Untersekunda, I had already sensed that he was intellectually far superior to his classmates, and that he would accomplish something great.[9]

Such praise from a revered scholar like Koberstein, a praise that would be echoed by several other philologists as Nietzsche’s student years progressed, shows that Nietzsche was very much, at least at this stage, consistent with the spirit, aims, and methods of conventional classical philology.[10] And the

Ermanarich project reveals two further points that are typically overlooked in the literature about Nietzsche’s development. First, it demonstrates that Nietzsche had a genuine interest in, and talent for, historiography even before his tutelage under Ritschl and Jahn at Bonn. These teachers surely honed Nietzsche’s interest and methods, but were the progenitors of neither. Second, Nietzsche’s earliest sustained historical project had nothing to do with classical antiquity. It was, in keeping with the Romantics and later with the Wagner circle, an attempt to mine the Middle Ages for ‘Germanic’ origin-myths. His focus was, curiously, attuned to the way a vibrant, heroic personality had gradually been buried under a convoluted historical series of misappropriations, misattributions, and forgeries, to the point that what once had been considered heroic was now portrayed as degenerate or weak. In a loose way - and as we will see later, only in a loose way - such an aim might be compared to his nearly-thirty-years-later genealogical project.

  • [1] For a detailed account of Nietzsche’s reading of historical and historiographical books, see Orsucci(1996), 371—381; Campioni et al. (2003); Brobjer (2004), 185—236; and Jensen (2013b). Among thehistoriography-relevant titles we can prove Nietzsche read at Schulpforta are Cicero’s Epistolae,Voltaire’s Historie de Charles XU (1731), Herder’s Der Cid (1803—1804), and Feuerbach’s Das WesenChristenthums (1841).
  • [2] Preserved as presented to the Germania society as eine Literar-historische Skizze at KGW1 /2, 274—284.For the text of the poem, see BAW 2, 32—37. For the complete biographical details surrounding hiswork, see Blunck (1953), 72—74; Janz (1978) 1, 94—96; Cate (2002), 28—33.
  • [3] On Nietzsche’s projected symphony, see Schlechta (1954) 111, 101—105.
  • [4] BAW2,144-514. 5 BAW3,123-124.
  • [5] 6 Preserved as Gestaltungder Sage vom OstgothenkoenigErmanarich bis in das I2te Jahrhundertat BAW2,
  • [6] 281-312.
  • [7] Nietzsche to Rohde, January 15, 1870; KSB 3, 95. 8 BAW2, 282ff.
  • [8] BAW2, 283. 10 Ibid. 11 Ibid. 12 BAW2, 306.
  • [9] Cited in Janz (1978) 1, 96.
  • [10] The titles of Koberstein’s scholarly books exemplify the multi-faceted character of historical studies atSchulpforta: Ueber das Wahrscheinlicher Alter und die Bedeutung des Gedichts vom Wartburgkrieg(1823), Grundriss der Geschichte der deutschen National-literatur (1827), and Vermischte Aufsatze zurLiteraturgeschichte undAesthetik (1858).
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