Arno Borst

1996 Balzan Prize for History: Medieval Cultures

Through his diversified studies of great originality and depth, Arno Borst has given an enormous stimulus to research on medieval culture. His extraordinary ability to interpret the source material has enabled specialists as well as a wider range of readers to broaden their knowledge of a great period in the history of Europe.

The biography of Arno Borst (1925 – 2007) is not particularly rich in great worldly events. He began his studies in Göttingen immediately after the Second World War, attending the lessons of the Medieval scholar Percy Ernst Schramm and the Oriental scholar Hans Heinrich Schaeder. He completed his studies in 1951 with a dissertation entitled Die Katharer, a work of fundamental importance which immediately made him famous. He then passed the next ten years at Münster in Westphalia, under the guidance of Herbert Grundmann. In that period, he passed his university teaching degree with Turmbau von Babel, a work which represented The History of the Opinions on the Origins and the Multiplicity of Languages and Peoples. It has been calculated that for the actual writing of the six volumes which make up this work, approximately 10,000 books and research papers were consulted. Borst’s first assignment brought him to Erlangen, dose to his Franconian homeland. Six years later, he moved on to Constance, where a new university had just been founded, and there, in that land laying on the borders of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, he has remained until today, notwithstanding many enticing offers.

Borst has always carried out an active role in the administration of scientific research. He is a member of the central direction of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, for example. Yet, his tendency is to remain isolated, dedicating himself to the life of a scholar, a researcher in a totally anomalous manner. This in itself explains the three principal characteristics of his work: its enormous bulk, the extraordinary meticulosity with which he returns to the original sources, and his brilliant style.

Borst is a first-rate historian of civilization, and his writings have taken into equal account all the European countries. He has repeatedly dedicated himself to those regions which were related to his academic whereabouts. Thus, his book on the legend of Sebaldo, patron of Nuremberg, was the product of his stay in Erlangen. In the same way, his first years of activity in Constance gave birth to Mönche am Bodensee, a collection of biographies which represents the respective protagonists in their religious and social-cultural context. Just before this, Borst had published his most famous book, Lebensformen un Mittelalter, an enormous survey which, on the base of chosen sources, examines all the fields of human existence, all the social diversifications, and the works of Medieval Europe. The series of his reference works are concentrated on a neglected aspect of medieval education: quadrivium mathematics. The first of these volumes is dedicated to the rediscovery of the Rithmimachia, a widely-diffused game of the Late Middle Ages. The series continues with studies on the astrolabe, an astronomical instrument, and on computus, the calculation of Time.

Borst has never drawn up a historiography. For him, all methods and theories are deeply tied to that which, one by one, became the object of his study. The singular individual, the singular case are at the central point of his interest. From every singular aspect, he seeks to penetrate the universal. He follows all phenomenon with careful reflection, while never over-stepping the bounds. He sees himself as an observer, capable of looking at things both dose up and with the necessary detachment. He has never failed to point out the distance between our times and the Medieval. At the same time, however, he has never lost interest in what the man of yesterday and the man of today have in common: the condicio humana.

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