Meet the Texts III.1: Ottokar aus der Gaal and his Book of Acre

Ok, it’s time to stop beating around the bush and talk about why we are all here. It is time for you to get to know the text that launched it all, the reason why I got interested in Acre to begin with and why in particular in the fall of Acre: Ottokar aus der Gaal’s Buch von Akkon / Book of Acre (BoA).

I came across this peculiar text in mid-2013, when it became increasingly clear that it really was time to stop dicking around and to start working on my MA thesis. I had had a wonderful idea about monsters and heroes in Middle High German and in Persian heroic poetry and manuscript illumination (which I might still revisit someday), but that fell through. That’s when a certain late 13th/early 14th-century gentleman from Styria by the name of Ottokar entered my life and brought with him his monumental 100.000 line long opus known as the Styrian Rhyming Chronicle.

The edition by Josef Seemüller as part of the MGH’s German vernacular series is until today the relevant edition of Ottokar’s monumental chronicle.

I was enthralled.

Within days I read the whole thing: a remarkable account, both rough and fanciful, of (mainly) Austrian and Styrian history from 1246/1250 to 1309/10, when it sadly breaks off, probably due to the – very much not deconstructionist but rather definite – death of the author before 1322. The chronicle has been subdivided into four books by scholarship. Three of those books (I, III and IV) were populated by an unwieldy but entertaining throng of stalwart Styrian nobles, scheming Austrian abbots, noble Bohemian dukes, and greedy Hungarian kings, shrewd Viennese burghers, and bloodthirsty German usurpers. It all made for a lengthy and at times repetitive romp through what certainly was one of the more turbulent periods of the southeastern reaches of the German-speaking lands: the quarrel for supremacy, which followed the end of the ducal Babenberg line in 1246, from which ultimately the „Swabian“ house of Habsburg would emerge victorious.

Tomb of Duke Frederick II „the Quarrelsome“ last of the Babenberg line in the chapter hall of the Heiligenkreuz Abbey, burial church of the Babenberger in modern-day Lower Austria

But what really caught my attention was the second book of the chronicle: with just a little under 10.000 lines it is the shortest of the four books and it basically reads as a big digression, a massive excursus, away from the dynastic troubles, which had engulfed Austria and the neighbouring lands. Instead it provided a detailed and gripping account of the events leading up to and the actual conquest of Acre in 1291. Because of this, Book II of the Styrian Rhyming Chronicle had become known to scholarship as the Book of Acre.

I would end up writing my MA thesis on this second book, mainly on its depiction of the „heathens“, or „Saracens“, terms referring to the literary analogon of real-world Muslims (I published a condensed version of this thesis later in Germanistik in der Schweiz, parts of the article can be accessed here via google books). After this, I moved on to write my PhD thesis on the Kaiserchronik (book has just come out, watch this space!), but the Book of Acre never really let go of me: it was too intriguing a text, too peculiar, too unique in every possible context you might situate it in. And, to my delight and surprise, so very little had been done with it! I always knew I wanted to come back to it one day to do more with it.

Fast forward a short nine years and here we are. It took a couple of years after finishing my PhD in 2017/18 – and many, many rejected research proposals – for the other ingredients of CITYFALL to come to together (Riccoldo’s letters, the Templar of Tyre, lament[ing] as a discourse form etc.), but Ottokar and his Book of Acre was were it all started. So I can say without exaggeration that this is a text very close to my heart and the heart of this project.

For this reason I would like to give this one a bit more space than I have with the others, breaking this „Meet the Texts“ up in three parts: the first (this one) focussing on the author Ottokar aus der Gaal. The second one focussing on the Styrian Rhyming Chronicle and the Book of Acre in its context, with special consideration of the manuscript transmission and the Styrian audience, and finally, the third part, in which I will be contextualising the Book of Acre with the rest of German vernacular writing and other sources on the fall of Acre in 1291.

The Life and Times of Ottokar aus der Gaal

So, time to meet the author: Ottokar aus der Gaal! For me, used to working with 12th-century texts, it was amazing how much we actually know about Ottokar. We have numerous sources providing deep insights into the man’s life in Styria at the turn of the 13th to the 14th century.

Ottokar was born as the second son of Dietmar and Alheidis aus der Gaal probably around 1265. Dietmar was the lord of Schloss Wasserberg, a castle at the confluence of the rivers Ingering and Gaal in Upper Styria. The aus der Gaal family was a hereditary knightly offshoot of the Strettweg family, which situates them as vassals between the prince-bishop of Seckau, the liege of Schloss Wasserberg, and the Liechtensteiners, a powerful Styrian Ministerialis dynasty, which had itself produced one of the greats of Middle High German literature: Ulrich von Liechtenstein.

No, not that one.
Yes, that one.

Little is known about the early years and – of special interest to us – the education of young Ottokar. But there are several possible scenarios suggested by circumstances, context, and comparison. It is entirely possible that he enjoyed a courtly education at the Liechtensteiner court in Judenburg. The fact that Ulrich lived to the ripe old age of (at least) 75 years (he passed in 1275, but the date of his birth is not quite clear; it must have been 1200 or earlier) has tempted some scholars to speculate about a student-teacher relationship between the ageing author of Middle High German classics like the pseudo-autobiographical Frauendienst (the first German vernacular text written in the 1st person) and the young chronicler. It conjures the romantic image of a 6-to-8-year-old Ottokar sitting starry-eyed at the feet of the grizzled but still sharp knight and poet, while being introduced to Middle High German poetry and song.

It should be added that in none of the charters and deeds, which bear witness to his life, Ottokar is ever addressed as a her or dominus, which would usually indicate a knightly status. This address is reserved for his father and his older brother. While this does not exclude a courtly education, befitting the scion of a hereditary knightly family, it does indicate a non-knightly way of life, maybe more one of a scholar or a clerk. It is likely that his older brother Dietmar was the only one to inherit the knightly title of the family.

Next to or building on these considerations, an ecclesiastical education at e.g. the cathedral school of Seckau also has to be considered. The Augustinian abbey, which did double duty as the cathedral see for the bishopric of Seckau (a suffragan of the archbishop of Salzburg) was in its prime during the later decades of the 13th century and a regional centre of ecclesiastical learning and teaching. In the prologue of his chronicle, Ottokar claims to know Latin and the wide range of sources, he seems to have accessed to compose it, makes it likely that this was more than just an empty boast. However, if he had been educated at an ecclesiastical institution, he later decided against taking the cloth, and lived the life of a layman.

Finally there is an intriguing entry into the matricles of the University of Bologna placing a „d(ominus) Odakar de Stiria“ there in 1291 (!). Some scholars have found knowledge of and interest in legal matters written into Ottokar’s chronicle, which might indicate that the author at some point studied law. Bologna at the time would have been an obvious choice for someone from Styria to do so. And, tantalisingly, being in Bologna would place Ottokar much „closer to the action“ at a critical point in time for the reception of news from the conquest of Acre by the Egyptian Mamluks, i.e. when survivors and thus witnesses of the last days of Acre would arrive in the harbours of Genoa, Pisa and Venice on Italian merchant ships.

However, there is nothing to rule out the possibility that the Odakar matriculated in Bologna in 1291 was simply some random other dude from Styria, who happens to have had the same name as our chronicler.

The places in Upper Styria, where Ottokar was active or which are connected to him by property or by legal obligations

The later part of Ottokar’s life is well-attested. Maja Loehr, Karl Galler, and Bettina Hatheyer have compiled no fewer than forty-six deeds and charters from between 1287 and 1322 in which Ottokar pops up. There is a curious gap of nine years between the earliest charter of 1287 and the next one from 1296. Scholars are very fond of speculating that Ottokar spent this time away from Styria. Intriguingly the entry into the Bolognese univserity matricles falls squarely into his time. He might well have been off to university for some of those years. Another theory, which rests entirely on some vague remarks Ottokar’s narrator makes in the chronicle, is that Ottokar was living the life of a perpatetic singer and performer for a couple of years.

The documents in which Ottokar is named are mostly focussed on legal transactions or obligations concerning properties in or around the locales marked on the map above. Most important among them are Schloss Wasserberg, the home of the aus der Gaal family, Seckau, where their liege the prince-bishop was based, the town of Judenburg, where the Liechtensteiner had their main residence, and the two venerable Benedictine abbies of Admont and St Lamprecht, both of which had feudal connections to Ottokar and his family. Throughout these deeds, Ottokar figures in various roles (often together with his older brother Dietmar), mostly as witness, but also as adjudicator, or as warrantor. In one of the earlier deeds, Ottokar’s possessions are confirmed by Otto II of Liechtenstein, son and successor of Ulrich and at the time camerarius Styriae. Later deeds too suggest a fief-and-vassal relationship between Ottokar and Otto, e.g. in 1309 and 1311 Ottokar and some of his brothers bear witness to donations made by Otto II and in 1312 he is among those corroborating the partition of the Liechtensteiner lands, after the death of Otto II, between his sons Otto and Rudolf.

From the timing of the most recent of the surviving charters, we can conclude that Ottokar must have died some time after October 1319, when he was still sealing a charter in person, and some time before the latest of the charters, dated to January 15 1322, in which Ottokar’s wife Elisabeth is already referred to as a widow.

Next to the testimony of the documentary sources, some scholars have attempted to reconstruct some of Ottokar’s movements from his writings. The suggestion that he might have been a travelling performer for a while comes from this vein. Moreover, the rich and colourful description of the coronation of King Wenceslaus II of Bohemia (who also has some minnelieder transmitted in his name) in 1297 gave rise to the assumption that Ottokar might have attended the festivities there in person. However, the event is also described at great detail in the Königsaal Chronicle, one of Ottokar’s main sources. Later, in the context of the 1304 Habsburg expedition against Wenceslaus, Ottokar’s narrator states that he himself had been in Bohemia at that time. So, if we accept the 1st person voice of the chronicle as speaking for Ottokar, he might have joined his duke Rudolf III of Habsburg, at the time Duke of Austria, and the latter’s father Albrecht I of Habsburg, at the time Roman-German King, for the ill-fated siege of Kutná Horá later that year. The timing and the content of the 1304 charter in which Ottokar’s possessions are confirmed by Otto II of Liechtenstein, for the benefit of Ottokar’s wife and his family, has been interpreted as a possible insurance policy, should anything happen to Ottokar on this endeavour.

Epitaphs of Ottokar and his wife Elisabeth in the cloisters of Seckau Abbey, Styria, Austria.

Ottokar was buried in the abby of Seckau, where his wife Elisabeth later joined him. Two sandstone epitaphs surviving in the cloisters are associated by local tradition with the couple .

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