Monday, March 08, 2010



By Kevin Anthony Stoda, Wiesbaden, Germany

NOTE: I was inspired to write this article after recently seeing the film, AVATAR, and after reading a German article in DIE ZEIT on the life and work of Paulus Niavis.

Outside of the borderland areas of Plauen, i.e. Germany and Bohemia (Czech Republic), almost no one knows the name Paulus Niavis, originally born Paul Schneevogel (Snowbird in German) in the town of Eger in 1460 just as the Age of Latin would begin to die as universal language for most of Western European scholars and elite. It was also when the Age of Discovery and Imperialism for Europeans was just getting ready to begin.

Paul Schneevogel grew up in the town of Plauen and went off to college in Ingolstadt. Next, he then received his masters degree in Leipzig. Schneevogel would then serve first as a school master Chemnitz and later as a rector in Halle. Finally, he went to work as City Recorder for Zittau and later for the town of Bautzen. Along his journey he changed his name to Latin, Paulus Niavis.

NOTE: Bautzen and Zittau are two of the six towns where the ancient language of Sorbian, an ancient Slavic language still used within the German, Polish and Czech borders. They are the only remaining native minority in the 3-state region. Most had been forced to assimilate into one of the more dominant cultures centuries ago.

Niavis was a great educator and sought to reform Latin so it would become more interesting to more students. Moreover, Niavis hated rote learning and wanted the language of Latin to become more truly universal. His reforms included the writing and publication of a the Iudicium Iovis in 1495, but earlier he had produced the work Dialogus parvulis scholaribus ad latinum idioma perutilissimus which was his first attempt at trying to write a novel in Latin.

The Iudicium Iovis (The Judgement of the God’s on the Mines) was the landmark piece for Niavis and environmentalist literature reaching into the modern age, which points to the sagas of exploitation to be described in the centuries to come. It does so by describing life in the world of survival of the fittest in the mining towns of the Erzgebirge, a la befitting of Upton Sinclair and Emile Zola centuries later.

The mining towns of the Erzgebirge, which makes up the borders between the various local peoples and nations of Slavic and German descent (and dialects), include a great deal of upward thrusting mountains. [Not the floating kind seen in the AVATAR, though.] The Erzgebirge is where the first major silver rush in central Europe had occurred in the decades before Schneevogel mastered Latin. Like in any modern day gold rush or discovery of oil or of any other mining resource on the planet, the rush to the Erzgebirge brought different language speakers from all over Europe to fight for the natural resources and to become exploited by those who controlled the most strings or had the most luck in finding the secret deposits of valuable metal.

The locals mostly got run over in the process and gaping wounds soon ravaged the slopes and countryside of the once romantic Erzgebirge region that Niavis had grown up in as a child. Such were the tales of the Iudicium Iovis. It was a story in many ways, which lamented the changes that greed had wrought on the local population and on their landscape during the great silver rush of the 15th century in the Erzgebirge. It is the same sort of warning that the AVATAR film brings to the fore early on.

The German-speaking population had “called the range Erzgebirge, which literally means ‘ore mountain range’. The word “dollar” dates from this region of the globe as the wealthy speculator and mine Baron Joachim pressed out the silver coins he called “talers” from his great exploitation of the Erzgebirge. Later, in the 19th century uranium, polonium, and radium were also found there. The Soviet Union exploited this find further and with even greater environmental destruction after WWII. That is why the mining company SDAG Wismut [later called Bismet], functioned in East Germany, and was allowed to continue to poison the earth for decades up through 1989 there in the Erzgebirge.

In short, in order to make nuclear weapons, the Soviets had continued the long tradition of poisoning the earth and exploiting the locals in the Erzgebirge—i.e. even after the Nazis had been run-out-of-Dodge. Likewise, some of the rich ore of the Erzgebirge was used to run deadly or life-threatening nuclear power plants elsewhere around Europe.

Within Niavis’ own lifetime many Renaissance capitalists and investors would approach the natural resources of South America and western Africa in the same fashion, i.e. as first Portugal and Spain divided up the world—and then as the other Western Powers arrived to fight over the same New World and stake their own claims. In short, the “talers” of Germany would join the coins of other investors and joint-stock companies across Europe to change the history of the globe forever in a short decades, i.e. by allowing the West to finance the Great Imperial takeover and the subjugation of 4 other continents, while leaving the locals in the Erzgebirge and elsewhere in Europe backwards, neglected, often un-empowered, and totally exploited.

The book, the Conquest of New Spain, written a few decades after the Iudicium Iovis by Bernal Diaz de Castillo, was about the exploitation of the indigenous peoples of Mexico made-into-slaves by the Spanish conquistadors [and the later Europeans investors to the region]. This book would turn the King of Spain against slavery. However, Niavis’ description of the miners’ plight in the Erzgebirge went mostly ignored by literary specialists outside the region where he lived and die.

In short, Niavis work was seen as simply the first sign of an Erzgebirge Cultural Renaissance that would lead to stories of mountain elves, dwarfs, and Christmas traditions of the mountain folk becoming embedded eventually within the German national traditions and identities. It is quite possible that had Niavis’ work been written in German or a local dialect, it might have become a classic, but Niavis was more interested in unifying and empowering peoples through a universal language and means of communication—but at the very stage in history that his beloved language of Latin was dying out. [Within a century or so French had replaced Latin as the European language of queens, kings, and statesmen.]

If one listens to parts of the AVATAR film’s music, however, you may notice some of the Latin chorals and Western dramatic harmonies wrapped in with the drumming of the native peoples. These tomes harken back to the original intention in Niavis’ writings, however, music was and is still the universal language of communication.

In fact, as historians, we have through the words of Niavis’ gained insight into the social life of a multilingual mountain world folk in the Middle Ages. So, in a way his Latin work and influence on regional studies has certainly had a positive effect on modern interpretations of culture and history in Central Europe (before the age of nationalism and imperialism).

On the other hand, classics from such ethnic studies of other Germanic and French melting pots of the Middle Ages in Europe have also formed the basis of such classic compilations, like the 130+ pieces the collected CARMINA BURANA. This was a compilation in the late Middle Age era music, which marked a long-forgotten social movement calling for a transnational Europeanism from the 11th century onwards.

This collection of Middle Aged music would later be turned into the both haunting and joyful classics of the German composer, Carl Orff, in his musical of the same name, i.e. CARMINA BURANA, written in the era of Hitler’s rising nationalism.

Interestingly, the Nazi censors were a bit nervous about musical’s inherent call to an ancient multicultural celebration of European peoples, but CARMINA BURANA, nevertheless, became the most famous work ever written and produced in the Nazi era. Also of interest, is that many of the works in Orff’s CARMINA BURANA have Latin and French titles rather than Germanic ones.

Like Niavis’, Orff saw himself as primarily an educator. “From 1925 until the end of his life, Orff was the head of a department and co-founder of the Guenther School for gymnastics, music, and dance in Munich, where he worked with musical beginners. This is where he developed his theories in music education, having constant contact with children. In 1930, Orff published a manual titled Schulwerk, where he shares his method of conducting.” [Orff passed away in 1981.]

Next in that same decade he produced Schulwerk, Orff took on the work of writing and producing CARMINA BURANA. “This work exemplifies Orff's search for an idiom that would reveal the elemental power of music, allowing the listener to experience music as an overwhelming, primitive force. Goliard poetry, which not only celebrates love and wine, but also pokes fun at the clergy, perfectly suited Orff's desire to create a musical work appealing to a fundamental musicality that, as he believed, every human being possesses. Eschewing melodic development and harmonic complexity, and articulating his musical ideas through basic sonorities and easily discernible rhythmic patterns, Orff created an idiom which many found irresistible. The perceived ‘primitivism’ of Carmina Burana notwithstanding, Orff believed that the profound appeal of music is not merely physical.”

In short, there is a mind, body, and spiritual dimension to Orff’s work, which we witness in the AVATAR’s music, as well.

In the AVATAR storyline, successful communication also requires a mind, body, spirit unity. Moreover, the so-called primitive nature of certain societies are not belittled but raised up for positive scrutiny---just as Niavis’ wanted to see his students and society do in Latin. Therefore, reaching across culture in time, music and narrative is what I think fully link the AVATAR to the universalizing and yet primitive traditions and movements to which the Europeanizers, Orff and Niavis wanted us to celebrate in.

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