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The end of history? Johannes Renner Bremensis and the Livonian Rhymed
Chronicle
MICHAEL NEECKE
The end of history—that, of course, is the title of a book by Francis Fukuyama.
But my paper is not about medieval or modern visions of a new world—neither about
the apocalyptic dream of a classless egalitarian anarchy, nor about Fukuyama’s vision
of a universal free market. Instead of the belief in a future golden age my paper deals
with the Livonian Histories written by Johann Renner in the second half of the 16th
century. My thesis is that (as far as Livonia is concerned) Renner’s work is the last
example of Deutschordensliteratur, the literature of the Teutonic Order.
First, I have to apologise, my argumentation is often programmatic rather than
definitive, often allusive rather than explicit. Nevertheless, I hope that my arguments
are stimulating for the historiographical discourse.
But let’s return to my thesis. The contention that the Livonian Histories is the
last work of Deutschordensliteratur is inevitably problematic, for the definition of
“literature” itself is problematic. Is Renner’s work really a part of “literature”?
Obviously, the Livonian Histories is not a poem by Shakespeare or Joyce. Often only
the religious texts, that is, the series of works that reproduce individual Bible books,
are referred to as Deutschordensliteratur in the narrower sense. But today, also the
texts that are dealing with the history of the brethren are widely regarded as literature
of the Teutonic Order. So, the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle (composed ca. 1290) has
been described as the “oldest surviving example of Deutschordensliteratur” by Alan
V. Murray. In fact, this text “seems to have been the only non-theological work
produced by the Order before 1324/26.” In this sense, also Renner’s Livonian
Histories could be regarded as “literature”.
Of course, the bigger problem seems to be the gap between the Livonian
Histories and the corpus of Deutschordensliteratur. At first sight, it looks as if there's
no connection at all. So, we have to make a short detour, for there’s certainly a
2
connection between Johann Renner and the Livonian Order, that is, the Livonian
branch of the Teutonic Order.
Renner was a qualified jurist. He spent some years in Livonia, but he was not a
member of the Order. From 1556 to June 1561 he was (I would like to quote him in
his own words) by den hern des ordens, “with the lords of the Order”. He served as
secretary first to the advocate of Jerwen, Bernt van Smerten, then to the castellan of
Pernau, Rutger Wulf, and later as notary in Reval/Talinn. So, in fact, Renner was
quite familiar with the Livonian Order. “He was close to the scene of action, knew
many of the leading personalities well.”
In mid-1561, however, Renner decided to leave Livonia and returned to Bremen
(Germany), where he started a career as a historian. The first edition of the Livonian
Histories was written between ca. July 1561 and July 1562. Renner dedicated this
text to the edlen und wolgebornen hern, the “noble and high-born lords” of East
Frisia. Based on notes he took in Livonia, this first edition only reports events
between 1556 and 1561. After the publication of Balthasar Rüssow’s Chronicle of the
Province of Livonia in 1578, Renner wrote a second edition of the Livonian Histories.
This time, the historical narrative starts in the year 470 BC and ends in the year 1582.
Obviously, the very extensive pre-1556 section couldn’t have been based on notes
Renner had taken in Livonia.
Until his death in late 1583 or 1584 Renner served as notary to the Council of
Bremen. The second edition of the Livonian Histories is signed: Johannes Renner
Bremensis, „Johann Renner of Bremen“. Furthermore, there are a number of pointers
to Bremen in the historical narrative. For example, it is said that it was men from
Bremen who first sailed to Livonia. When the second edition had been completed,
Renner was far away from the Livonian Order—in time and space. On November 28,
1561, the Livonian Knights were secularised. Since that time, the State of the
Teutonic Order in Livonia was no more.
In spite of this distance Renner’s study could be seen as one last work of
Deutschordensliteratur which refers specifically to Livonia. This is the case, quite
simply, because, as far as the end of Deutschordensliteratur is concerned, there is no
fixed boundary.
But, first, let’s take a look at the beginnings of Deutschordensliteratur:
3
It is with the early Biblical epics that the question has been raised whether all
this literature was really written or commissioned by members of the Order, or
merely used by them. Judith, Esther, Job, Heinrich of Hesler’s Apocalypse, the
Maccabees, etc.—these texts have come down to us as a comprehensive corpus
testifying to the literary awareness of the Teutonic Order.
But, with regard to the Apocalypse, it is now widely accepted that this text was
merely used by the brethren. Neither was Hesler a member of the Order, nor was his
work commissioned by the community. And, as far as the Judith is concerned,
something quite similar seems to be the case. The anonymous Judith was written in
the year 1254. If we compare the ideas expressed in this work and the norms of the
Statutes (of the Order), a certain discrepancy becomes apparent. The norms to be
propagated by the Statutes and the project that is outlined in the epic are quite
different.
Apparently, the oldest texts of Deutschordensliteratur were not “rooted” in the
community. If we assume that these works were not written by members of the Order
(nor commissioned by them), then we must suppose that Deutschordensliteratur
started outside the Order. Looking at these beginnings, no rigid limits are to be seen,
no definitive starting point: Deutschordensliteratur is a concept with blurred edges,
an area with vague boundaries. The extension of this concept is not closed by a
frontier. What still counts as part of Deutschordensliteratur and what no longer does,
is no either-or question. This is a historical problem. Deutschordensliteratur is a
process and a development.
It was the American literary critic Stanley Fish who, in regard to the
construction of meaning, gave particular importance to the role of what he calls
“interpretive communities.” According to Fish “meanings are the property neither of
fixed and stable texts nor of free and independent readers but of interpretive
communities that are responsible both for the shape of reader’s activities and for the
texts those activities produce.” In consequence, different readers will have different
readings of the same text. Or, to put it another way: “meanings change because
audiences change.” We must bear this in mind when we propose that
Deutschordensliteratur has started outside the Order.
4
Of course, the end of Deutschordensliteratur is not a spitting image of its
beginnings. There’s no exact likeness. But there are some similarities. Once again,
we’re confronted with some kind of transfer. Once again, there’s no fixed boundary.
From 1556 up to 1561 Renner was a secretary or, as he himself puts it, a
schriver of the Livonian Order. Then, in 1582, he’s a schriver of the Livonian history,
that is, a historian.
For the second edition of the Livonian Histories Renner did also make use of the
Livonian Rhymed Chronicle. Translated in Low German, this vernacular verse
chronicle became part of Renner’s prose. By the way the report of the older chronicle
was shortened.
In the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle (consisting of 12017 lines) events from ca.
1180 to 1290 are reported. Now, the historical narrative starts in the year 470 BC and
ends in the year 1582.
But, also in this abridged version nearly all the stories that were characteristic of
the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle are preserved. The narrative of Renner’s Livonian
Histories is determined by stories, and by these being all the stories.
Certainly, there are also some differences when we attend to Renner’s historical
narrative and the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle. But here I only shall stress the
similarities.
One resemblance between the older verse chronicle and Renner’s Histories is
the (relative) absence of eschatological visions. The bulk of the Rhymed Chronicle
tells of unrelenting struggle and warfare, but there is no “Pursuit of the Millennium”,
no end of history. Renner’s Livonian Histories, on the other hand, ends in 1582, but
there’s no end of history here either.
When the historical report ends, there’s no more State of the Order, but history
will go on. That there is no end of history is, in fact, a prerequisite for understanding
the Livonian Histories. In this sense, Renner claims that his study will be useful for
those who seek clarity, not only about the past, but also about the future, which in his
view will again resemble the past that he has brought to light.
5
In the first edition of his text, Renner had already stated that his report, “how the
Livonian Order fell”, has to be recognised as “a warning to all pious people and
especially the German nation”.

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The end of history? Johannes Renner Bremensis and the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle

  • 1. The end of history? Johannes Renner Bremensis and the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle MICHAEL NEECKE The end of history—that, of course, is the title of a book by Francis Fukuyama. But my paper is not about medieval or modern visions of a new world—neither about the apocalyptic dream of a classless egalitarian anarchy, nor about Fukuyama’s vision of a universal free market. Instead of the belief in a future golden age my paper deals with the Livonian Histories written by Johann Renner in the second half of the 16th century. My thesis is that (as far as Livonia is concerned) Renner’s work is the last example of Deutschordensliteratur, the literature of the Teutonic Order. First, I have to apologise, my argumentation is often programmatic rather than definitive, often allusive rather than explicit. Nevertheless, I hope that my arguments are stimulating for the historiographical discourse. But let’s return to my thesis. The contention that the Livonian Histories is the last work of Deutschordensliteratur is inevitably problematic, for the definition of “literature” itself is problematic. Is Renner’s work really a part of “literature”? Obviously, the Livonian Histories is not a poem by Shakespeare or Joyce. Often only the religious texts, that is, the series of works that reproduce individual Bible books, are referred to as Deutschordensliteratur in the narrower sense. But today, also the texts that are dealing with the history of the brethren are widely regarded as literature of the Teutonic Order. So, the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle (composed ca. 1290) has been described as the “oldest surviving example of Deutschordensliteratur” by Alan V. Murray. In fact, this text “seems to have been the only non-theological work produced by the Order before 1324/26.” In this sense, also Renner’s Livonian Histories could be regarded as “literature”. Of course, the bigger problem seems to be the gap between the Livonian Histories and the corpus of Deutschordensliteratur. At first sight, it looks as if there's no connection at all. So, we have to make a short detour, for there’s certainly a
  • 2. 2 connection between Johann Renner and the Livonian Order, that is, the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order. Renner was a qualified jurist. He spent some years in Livonia, but he was not a member of the Order. From 1556 to June 1561 he was (I would like to quote him in his own words) by den hern des ordens, “with the lords of the Order”. He served as secretary first to the advocate of Jerwen, Bernt van Smerten, then to the castellan of Pernau, Rutger Wulf, and later as notary in Reval/Talinn. So, in fact, Renner was quite familiar with the Livonian Order. “He was close to the scene of action, knew many of the leading personalities well.” In mid-1561, however, Renner decided to leave Livonia and returned to Bremen (Germany), where he started a career as a historian. The first edition of the Livonian Histories was written between ca. July 1561 and July 1562. Renner dedicated this text to the edlen und wolgebornen hern, the “noble and high-born lords” of East Frisia. Based on notes he took in Livonia, this first edition only reports events between 1556 and 1561. After the publication of Balthasar Rüssow’s Chronicle of the Province of Livonia in 1578, Renner wrote a second edition of the Livonian Histories. This time, the historical narrative starts in the year 470 BC and ends in the year 1582. Obviously, the very extensive pre-1556 section couldn’t have been based on notes Renner had taken in Livonia. Until his death in late 1583 or 1584 Renner served as notary to the Council of Bremen. The second edition of the Livonian Histories is signed: Johannes Renner Bremensis, „Johann Renner of Bremen“. Furthermore, there are a number of pointers to Bremen in the historical narrative. For example, it is said that it was men from Bremen who first sailed to Livonia. When the second edition had been completed, Renner was far away from the Livonian Order—in time and space. On November 28, 1561, the Livonian Knights were secularised. Since that time, the State of the Teutonic Order in Livonia was no more. In spite of this distance Renner’s study could be seen as one last work of Deutschordensliteratur which refers specifically to Livonia. This is the case, quite simply, because, as far as the end of Deutschordensliteratur is concerned, there is no fixed boundary. But, first, let’s take a look at the beginnings of Deutschordensliteratur:
  • 3. 3 It is with the early Biblical epics that the question has been raised whether all this literature was really written or commissioned by members of the Order, or merely used by them. Judith, Esther, Job, Heinrich of Hesler’s Apocalypse, the Maccabees, etc.—these texts have come down to us as a comprehensive corpus testifying to the literary awareness of the Teutonic Order. But, with regard to the Apocalypse, it is now widely accepted that this text was merely used by the brethren. Neither was Hesler a member of the Order, nor was his work commissioned by the community. And, as far as the Judith is concerned, something quite similar seems to be the case. The anonymous Judith was written in the year 1254. If we compare the ideas expressed in this work and the norms of the Statutes (of the Order), a certain discrepancy becomes apparent. The norms to be propagated by the Statutes and the project that is outlined in the epic are quite different. Apparently, the oldest texts of Deutschordensliteratur were not “rooted” in the community. If we assume that these works were not written by members of the Order (nor commissioned by them), then we must suppose that Deutschordensliteratur started outside the Order. Looking at these beginnings, no rigid limits are to be seen, no definitive starting point: Deutschordensliteratur is a concept with blurred edges, an area with vague boundaries. The extension of this concept is not closed by a frontier. What still counts as part of Deutschordensliteratur and what no longer does, is no either-or question. This is a historical problem. Deutschordensliteratur is a process and a development. It was the American literary critic Stanley Fish who, in regard to the construction of meaning, gave particular importance to the role of what he calls “interpretive communities.” According to Fish “meanings are the property neither of fixed and stable texts nor of free and independent readers but of interpretive communities that are responsible both for the shape of reader’s activities and for the texts those activities produce.” In consequence, different readers will have different readings of the same text. Or, to put it another way: “meanings change because audiences change.” We must bear this in mind when we propose that Deutschordensliteratur has started outside the Order.
  • 4. 4 Of course, the end of Deutschordensliteratur is not a spitting image of its beginnings. There’s no exact likeness. But there are some similarities. Once again, we’re confronted with some kind of transfer. Once again, there’s no fixed boundary. From 1556 up to 1561 Renner was a secretary or, as he himself puts it, a schriver of the Livonian Order. Then, in 1582, he’s a schriver of the Livonian history, that is, a historian. For the second edition of the Livonian Histories Renner did also make use of the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle. Translated in Low German, this vernacular verse chronicle became part of Renner’s prose. By the way the report of the older chronicle was shortened. In the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle (consisting of 12017 lines) events from ca. 1180 to 1290 are reported. Now, the historical narrative starts in the year 470 BC and ends in the year 1582. But, also in this abridged version nearly all the stories that were characteristic of the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle are preserved. The narrative of Renner’s Livonian Histories is determined by stories, and by these being all the stories. Certainly, there are also some differences when we attend to Renner’s historical narrative and the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle. But here I only shall stress the similarities. One resemblance between the older verse chronicle and Renner’s Histories is the (relative) absence of eschatological visions. The bulk of the Rhymed Chronicle tells of unrelenting struggle and warfare, but there is no “Pursuit of the Millennium”, no end of history. Renner’s Livonian Histories, on the other hand, ends in 1582, but there’s no end of history here either. When the historical report ends, there’s no more State of the Order, but history will go on. That there is no end of history is, in fact, a prerequisite for understanding the Livonian Histories. In this sense, Renner claims that his study will be useful for those who seek clarity, not only about the past, but also about the future, which in his view will again resemble the past that he has brought to light.
  • 5. 5 In the first edition of his text, Renner had already stated that his report, “how the Livonian Order fell”, has to be recognised as “a warning to all pious people and especially the German nation”.