Workshop "Seeing Germany, 1450-1750"

Research project
Early Modern History

Co-PIs: Dr William O’Reilly, Fredrich Crofts

Funded by the Cambridge-DAAD Research Hub


In 1799, the German patriot Friedrich Hölderlin, in his poem An die Deutschen, wrote:


How narrowly bounded is our lifetime,

We see and count the number of our years.

But have the years of Nations

Been seen by mortal eye?


Hölderlin partially answers his own question,


If your soul throbs in longing

Over its own time, mourning, then

You linger on the cold shore

Among your own and never know them


Implied in Hölderlin’s poem, concomitant with the romantic spirit of German eighteenth and nineteenth-century nationalism, is a mystical understanding of entangled Being and Time, informing an ontology of German nationhood.

The romantic experience of ‘being German’, the belief that one ‘was German’, was flavoured with a certain historization endemic to the modern era’s intellectual conceptions of a German ‘national consciousness’. Emanating from Hölderlin and his patriotic contemporaries (in contrast to Goethe’s, “Germany? I know no such place”), was a profound belief that in the history of the ‘German people’ and their ‘land’, lay the spirit (Volksgeist) and essence of an ancient ‘nation’. The German Soul (Volksseele) was animated by the sight of its mythic past, and this could only be seen through a quasi-religious, historically and spatially minded mode of scholarly contemplation. The will to knowGermania’ was the will to see it ‘by mortal eye’, and ‘Germania’ was the history of its people (das Volk) and where they had ‘dwelt’ (Bauern).

The emergence of this Romantic German nationalism, in the end inextricable with the horrors of National Socialism, and – to the disquiet of many – resurging amongst certain political factions today (‘Wir sind Das Volk’), did not arrive without precedence. In recent times, discussion of early modern conceptions of ‘Germanness’ have, for the most part, alluded scholarship interested in long-term genealogies. Accordingly, with the Sonderweg no longer offering historians of Germany a plausible apparatus for the roots of its ‘national consciousness’, new methods are urgently required to adequately track the political, artistic, geographical, natural philosophical and literary matrices that came to give form the idea of Germany. This conference proposes to bring together a broad range of research on early modern Germany, with the aim of recovering the ways in which early modern actors may have seen Germany prior to the self-termed, and self-aware, Nationalism emerging at the turn of the 19thcentury.

From the turn of the 16th century, Conrad Celtis and Heinrich Bebel both re-appropriated Tacitus’ Germania – formerly an embarrassing reminder of Germany’s ‘barbarian’ past – as a source of patriotic conceit. The German Wildman, intimately connected to the nature within which he dwelt, became ‘civilized’, yet maintained the atavistic virtues of his moral, simple, and pugnacious character. By 1512, Maximillian II was unabashed enough to rename his empire Heiliges römisches Reich deutscher Nation. Sebastian Brandt and Martin Luther helped universalize and popularize the German vernacular, whilst Albrecht Dürer painted watercolors of diverse German landscapes, at once praising the beauty of the land and inventing a painterly genre. Later in the 16th century, natural philosophers began to investigate ‘indigenous’ wildlife, and proto-ethnographers began to depict and describe the different German peoples as essentially distinct from their neighbors, disseminating their ‘observations’ through media such as costume books and travelogues.

But what was it to see Germany before a German nation state was even conceivable? There is no simple answer to this question, but by encouraging scholars to weave together different threads of historical research on early modern (1500-1750) natural philosophy, proto-ethnography, court and university cultures, travel, and statecraft, this project will work towards new insights. ‘Seeing Germany’ is not resigned to research on German perspectives. We also encourage research on how non-Germans saw Germany in relation to the frameworks outlined above, and also, how Germans themselves saw foreign lands.


A planned first conference will focus on ‘seeing’ the state and land in sixteenth-century Germany, in a turn towards visualising territory, understanding ethnic identity and territoriality in early-modern German-speaking Central Europe. The conference plans to locate the writings, illustrations, costume books and more in this context; how German writers ‘saw’ land, ‘viewed’ territory, and ‘described’ the state, in the period 1450-1750.