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Heinrich von Fichtenau (December 10, 1912 – June 15, 2000) was an Austrian medievalist best known for his studies of medieval diplomatics, social, and intellectual history. He spent his academic career at the University of Vienna and from 1962 to 1983 served as director of the Institut für österreichische Geschichtsforschung (Institute for Austrian Historical Research). He remains one of the few Austrian medieval scholars whose work has been translated into English and enjoyed a broad reception in Anglophone academia.
As a young scholar after World War II, Fichtenau published a short treatment of the Carolingian Empire which drew sharp criticism from German academics, but found more favorable reception in the U.S. and Great Britain (The Carolingian Empire: The Age of Charlemagne, trans. Peter Munz, 1957). Fichtenau attempted to demythologize Charlemagne's achievements and draw out many of the contradictions of his reign and the fundamental instabilities within the empire he created. Written in post-war Vienna, the book was a frank, if understandably cynical, take on historical narratives of the early Middle Ages which celebrated power, conquest, and the idealized image of a pan-European political entity.
Fichtenau's landmark monographic study, Lebensordnungen des 10. Jahrhunderts, appeared in 1984 and was later translated into English by the American medievalist Patrick J. Geary as Living in the Tenth Century: Mentalities and Social Orders (Chicago & London, 1991). In it, Fichtenau explored the political, religious and social value systems with which people ordered their lives in a time that many (including historians) still characterize as primitive, violent and mostly unknown -- the so-called "Dark Ages." In focusing on issues such as perceptions of order and social mentalities, Fichtenau's work resonated more with the interdisciplinary Anglo-French approaches to medieval social history than the traditions of legal and institutional history promoted in the German schools.
Fichtenau taught primarily in the field of ancillary historical sciences (Historische Hilfswissenschaften), a set of disciplines that encompasses the technical study of medieval historical sources, such as paleography, diplomatics, epigraphy, sigilography, heraldry, and so on. Much of his published work in German relates to understanding how the forms of documentation and writing in the Middle Ages reflect social and cultural change. In a series of studies entitled Arenga: Spätantike und Mittelalter im Spiegel von Urkundenformeln (Cologne & Vienna, 1957), for example, Fichtenau traced shifts in the self-representation of medieval rulers based on the rhetoric of the introductory clauses of their diplomas. In 1971, he published Das Urkundenwesen in Österreich vom 8. bis zum frühen 13. Jahrhundert (Cologne & Vienna), a still unsurpassed analysis of the various forms, and -- more importantly -- social and cultural significance, of medieval charters from institutions and collections in southern Germany and Austria. He also edited, with fellow-historian Erich Zöllner, a three-volume edition of the charters of the Babenberger dukes of Austria in the Middle Ages -- Urkundenbuch zur Geschichte der Babenberger (Vienna, 1950, 1958, 1968)
In 1983, Fichtenau retired and passed the directorship of the Viennese Institute on to his pupil and protégé, Herwig Wolfram. In retirement throughout the 80's and 90's, he remained an active scholar. In 1991, he produced a wide-ranging intellectual/religious study of the concomitant emergence of heretical movements and scholasticism in medieval Europe after the eleventh century, translated into English as Heretics and Scholars in the High Middle Ages, 1000-1200 (Philadelphia, 1998). He fell suddenly ill in the spring of 2000 and died several days later at the age of 88. Fichtenau is buried at his family's crypt in the town of Baden, near Vienna.
Decorations and awards
- 1965: Grand Decoration of Honour in Gold for Services to the Republic of Austria
- 1979: Wilhelm Hartel Prize
- 1986: Cultural Prize of the Province of Upper Austria
- 1989: Austrian Decoration for Science and Art
- Eulogy for Heinrich Fichtenau by Herwig Wolfram