Teaching (in) the Middle Ages: Arts – Rituals – Education: Recap of the first international NetMAR Summer School

By Michaela Pölzl (UNI BA)

From the 25th to the 31st of July 2022, the Network for Medieval Arts and Rituals (NetMAR) organised an international summer school at the UNESCO world heritage city of Bamberg. The summer school was dedicated to the investigation of medieval arts and rituals through the prism of education. Forty students applied, but only twenty-two candidates could be invited to participate. All participants were offered a rich and varied programme involving world-renowned scholars from different branches of medieval scholarship.

As worship and initiation rites or rites of passage, rituals have been fundamental in intergenerational knowledge transfer, as well as in formal and informal education. In Western European medieval cultures in particular where religious rituals did not mainly serve the ‘need to maintain the functioning of the world’ but they were used to ‘establish a common identity that tie[d] the individual into the learning and remembering community of the people’, the transmission and acquisition of ritual knowledge lay at the centre of different communities (Assmann 2006: 141, 20). At the same time, rituals captured and pointed to different ways in which knowledge was transformed, lost its original meaning, was reinterpreted and adapted to new contexts.

In thinking about these and many other overlaps between arts, rituals, and education, the NetMAR Summer School pursued a decidedly interdisciplinary approach. Through lectures, workshops, and excursions, participants encountered a wealth of historical sources and delved into the fascinating ways in which ritualised knowledge transfer was depicted in medieval arts and texts. The programme was opened with a keynote address by the renowned scholar Christoph Wulf (Freie Universität Berlin) with the title ‘Natural and Cultural Heritage in the Anthropocene’. As both a professor of anthropology and philosophy of education and a member of the Board of Directors of the German UNESCO Commission, Wulf provided an excellent, fitting, and appropriate introduction to the summer school’s thematic. Especially his remarks on the concept of intangible cultural heritage, which includes rituals, oral tradition, performing arts and traditional craftsmanship, were strongly discussed by the participants. Different questions arose about the ways in which intangible heritage can be protected and preserved and whether UNESCO Commissions have the right to intervene in the way various traditional practices are enacted (e.g. by ensuring gender inclusion in male-dominated practices).

The question of gender-coded education also arose in the lectures of Ingrid Bennewitz (University of Bamberg) and Stavroula Constantinou (University of Cyprus). While Bennewitz looked at behavioural manuals of the German Middle Ages to talk about the long tradition of gender-specific education and how ritualised behaviour is inscribed in the adolescent body, the lecture of Constantinou focused on the female saint’s role as a religious teacher. Based on the Lives of Saints Macrina and Synkletike, she showed that teaching is both an integral part in these heroines’ religious lives and a constituent of female monastic holiness.

Fig. 1.: Stavroula Constantinou on ‘Women’s Teaching in Ritual Contexts’. Cr: Michaela Pölzl

The lecture of Detlef Goller (Univeristy of Bamberg) entitled ‘The Accolade as Rite de Passage’ focused on a coming-of-age ritual exclusively reserved for medieval (noble) men, marking the transition from male youth to full manhood. By comparing various passages from Middle High German literature, the participants were able to work out the patterns and effects of the ritual and identify variations on the scheme.

As already evident in the recapitulation of lectures based on literary studies, intensive source work was central also in the other lectures of the summer school. A highlight in this regard was the workshop on ‘Glosses in the Medieval Classroom’ that was offered by the Swiss researcher Andreas Nievergelt in cooperation with the medieval manuscript department of the Bamberg State Library. Many thanks go to the head of the State Library, Bettina Wagner, who made it possible to view treasures such as the Lorsch Pharmacopoeia (‘Lorscher Arzneibuch’, ca. 800AD), which is listed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme since 2013. In his workshop, Nievergelt introduced the participants to the importance of glosses for the study of old vernacular languages and then illustrated, with the aid of original manuscripts, how various traces of inscriptions can be linked to the use of codices.

Fig. 2: Manuscript workshop at the Bamberg State Library. Cr: Michaela Pölzl

With the medieval classroom dealt also Aglae Pizzone from the University of Southern Denmark (‘Props, Contests and Humour in the Middle Byzantine Classroom’). Exploring different types of schools (law school, patriarchal school, and orphanage school), she first introduced institutionalised Byzantine education in the 11th and 12th centuries and then showed the role of ceremonies, riddles, contests and antagonistic education in middle Byzantine teaching. Marian Füssel’s (University of Göttingen) lecture, which also dealt with the role of rituals and ceremonies in the context of institutionalised education, provided an interesting supplement to Pizzone’s remarks. Unlike Pizzone, however, Füssel focused on rituals of institution in medieval universities, like beanism or deposition (lat. depositio cornuum, ‘putting down the horns’), a violent initiation ritual that new students had to undergo in university enrolment. Füssel showed how the ritual was toned down over the centuries, the aspect of violence steadily diminishing, until the 18th century when the freshman was only shown the former instruments of torture. What remained of the original ritual was its financial aspect: each so-called ‘yellow beak’ had to pay an obulus upon admission to university.

Fig. 3: Marian Füssel on rituals in medieval universities. Cr: Michaela Pölzl

The programme on ritual and medieval education was concluded by two lectures from the field of Islamic Studies, which also dealt with institutionalized learning. Lorenz Korn, an archaeologist and art historian at the University of Bamberg, spoke on ‘Teaching and Worship in the Islamic Middle East’ from the 11th to the 16th century, using the example of the madrasa – a religious school for the study of Islam. Korn discussed with the participants whether such a thing as an architectural type exists and whether the building form of the madrasa should be understood as such. Paula Manstetten (University of Bamberg) introduced the audience to the concept of hadith – the words and actions of the prophet Muhammad – and spoke about their peculiar form of transmission between teaching and ritual. As Manstetten pointed out, the text of the hadith includes the content of the report of something the Prophet Muhammad said or did and a chain of its transmission spanning from the most recent transmitter back to the Prophet. In the post-canonical period, after the codification of the most important hadith, it became more important to preserve the transmission chain rather than the hadith’s report. As result, a popularisation and ritualisation of hadith transmission from this time onwards can be witnessed.

In the context of different education traditions (Western, Byzantine or Islamic education), the summer school participants had the opportunity to attest to the proliferation and important function of education rituals and knowledge transfer both in the Middle Ages and beyond. At the same time, the summer school provided participants with the opportunity to reflect on their own teaching activities. As the teaching of the Middle Ages plays a role in almost every career of doctoral students – in schools or universities, museums, tourism industry or via different social media formats (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) – participants were exposed to best practices inspiring them with new and creative approaches to teaching. Goller presented an illustrated children’s city guide for the medieval city centre of Bamberg, which was developed and designed by the Master students of a teacher training programme. In a walk lasting around four hours, the book leads its readers to a total of ten medieval sights and prompts them to solve quizzes and riddles at each stop.

Fig. 4: City guide for children. Cr: Michaela Pölzl

In the course of a city walk on the following day, the participants had the opportunity to try out the city guide for themselves, which turned out to be highly recommendable for ‘grown-up children’, too! The city walk was combined with a visit to the World Heritage Visitor Centre Bamberg. The city of Bamberg is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1993. The World Heritage Visitor Centre is a place of learning that understands the transmission of the World Heritage to future generations as one of the main tasks of a World Heritage site. For this purpose, the World Heritage Office has developed several educational resources that introduce visitors of all ages to the city’s medieval heritage in an interactive way. The summer school participants were invited to engage with the centre’s innovative educational concept and to try out its many exhibitions for themselves, such as the ‘Barock-o-mat’ (‘Baroque your house!’) or the ‘Onion Planter’.

Fig. 5: Summer school participants at the World Heritage Visitor Centre Bamberg. Cr: Michaela Pölzl

In his lecture entitled ‘Teaching the Middle Ages in German Secondary Schools’, Ulrich Steckelberg introduced the participants to an equally practical approach to education. Steckelberg, who has been a history teacher at a Bavarian secondary school for decades, presented first the structure of the German school system and then showed, based on the Bavarian school curriculum, how he works within the very limited time allotted to teaching the Middle Ages in Germany.

From teaching in the middle ages to teaching the middle ages was also the topic of the excursion to the impressive History Park Bärnau-Tachov that is close to the German-Czech border. In this open-air museum, experimental archaeology and historic craftsmanship have been combined to construct more than thirty recreated buildings.

Fig. 6: Summer school participants in front of the motte-and-bailey-type castle.
Cr: Michaela Pölzl

The museum prioritizes immersion as the central feature of its teaching concept. Bärnau-Tachov History Park offers visitors the chance to see various historical artefacts and to step inside fully recreated medieval structures. During special events, the park is brought to life with performers dressed in period costumes. Visitors can thus enjoy the opportunity of looking over the shoulders of craftsmen building a house, or a housekeeper cooking a meal. Thus, the summer school participants could observe a stonemason splitting a boulder by using medieval methods.

Fig. 7: Stonemason at the History Park Bärnau-Tachov.
Cr: Michaela Pölzl

Bridging the gap between the (medieval) past and the present also revealed the longue durée of the importance of rituals in education and teaching. This became particularly evident in the joint reading of the book ‘Todays Medieval University’ (2017) by the Canadian medievalist M. J. Toswell. In her book, Toswell asks how medieval is, in fact, modern university – a genuine invention of the Middle Ages – that is a successful model of higher education until today. For this purpose, she takes a look not only at structures and curricula, but also at the liturgy and rituals of the university in the past and the present. Based on their own experiences with the university systems of their home countries, the participants had the opportunity to test Toswell’s hypothesis that (medieval and medievalist) rituals gain more and more importance at universities today.

We thank everyone who made the NetMAR Summer School such an inspiring and rewarding event. Many thanks go also to the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme for its substantial financial support, the University of Bamberg for its generous support, all the lecturers who contributed to the summer school’s exciting programme and to the Bamberg Centre for Medieval Studies, without which the organisation of the summer school would not have been possible.

Fig. 8: Ingrid Bennewitz of ZeMas with her team.
Cr: Michaela Pölzl

Last but not least, our heartfelt thanks go to the interested and eager summer school participants who came to Bamberg from such distant places as Iowa and Georgia to make the summer school such a successful and wonderful experience.


Assmann, Jan, ‘Religion and Cultural Memory: Ten Studies’, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006).

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