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The American Morris Newsletter

December, 2007 -- Volume 27, Number 3


European Sword Dances: Descriptions and Sources

Stephen D. Corrsin

2. Kurt Meschke, Schwerttanz und Schwerttanzspiel im germanischen Kulturkreis = Sword Dance and Sword Dance Plays in the Germanic Cultural World (1931).

In the decades between the two World Wars, quite a bit was published in German or in English on sword dancing as well as other "ritual" dances such as English Morris. The writers and scholars approached the topic from several different fields, especially history, folklore, and anthropology. (Ethnomusicology had not yet been invented.) The German and Austrian writers were typically university-trained, often with academic positions, and they followed more academic and scholarly methodology than the English.


Kurt Meschke

The single most important piece of historical scholarship in this period, in any country, was Kurt Meschke's, Schwerttanz und Schwerttanzspiel im germanischen Kulturkreis = Sword Dancing and Sword Dance Plays in the German Cultural World (1931). Meschke (1901-70) wrote this originally as a graduate thesis at the University of Greifswald in the 1920s. In this brief article, I will introduce the readers of the Newsletter to Meschke, one of the positive models in the field of sword dance scholarship in this time and place.

Let me explain why I use the phrase, "positive models." Over the years, I have done a lot of work on the history and historiography of sword dancing in Europe and North America. The countries on the Continent with the richest documented histories are Germany and Austria. Since I am most interested in the first half of the twentieth century, up to and including the Second World War, this means I encounter a lot of terribly depressing, bizarre, and racist publications. Moreover, the blinders which the authors wore were often so extreme as to prevent anything like serious historical scholarship from appearing. For example, far and away the best known scholar of the time was Richard Wolfram (1901-95), of the University of Vienna. In the 1930s and during the War, Wolfram was a long-time member of the Nazi party, an active figure in the Nazification of Austrian universities after that country's inclusion (Anschluss) in the German Reich in 1938, and an officer in the dreaded SS, in particular its intellectual and academic wing, Das Ahnenerbe (roughly, "Ancestral Inheritance"). He was the leading proponent of the idea that sword dancing represented an "ancient ritual survival" in the form of an initiation ritual for Germanic secret men's groups - a complete fabrication, which he also tried to apply to English Morris dancing in the 1930s. Wolfram was, in addition, a relentless self-promoter, to an unseemly degree. After the war, he was allowed to return to the University after a few years in academic exile, and again became a prominent figure in Austrian and indeed European folk dance and music studies and activities.

Enough of Wolfram, whom I'll discuss in more depth and detail at another time. Fortunately, the picture of interwar German-language scholarship has some bright points, including Meschke's book. While due to circumstances Meschke's influence was much less than Wolfram's, I would argue that his book was and remains the best historical study of the phenomenon of sword dancing in the German language, far better, as a work of serious scholarship, than anything the prolific and influential Wolfram wrote.


Title page and frontispiece from Meschke's book. The frontispiece is from the
archives of the city of Zurich, Switzerland.


What Meschke does is to collect and analyze the published records of sword dancing, including documents, descriptions, and poems, to discover the historical settings of the performances, the performers, and the dances and specific figures, in so far as this is possible; and for the German-speaking lands especially in the fifteenth-seventeenth centuries, there is quite a bit of information indeed. The first part of the book (about 160 pages) served as his graduate thesis, and focuses on the history of the dances; the second part (another 40 pages) was added later, on the related topic of the plays associated with the dances, and is rather weaker. Meschke concludes with a detailed bibliography keyed to a tabular analysis of the historical documentation, a very valuable contribution in its own right. In my 1997 book, Sword Dancing in Europe: A History (talk about self-promotion!), I wrote this: Its strongest aspect is the amount of detail given when it treats of the urban sword dances of the late Middle Ages, emphasizing the ties of the style to urban guilds and festivals. But Meschke's study loses its documentary credibility when the author attempts to pinpoint the origins of sword dancing in Germanic antiquity? Meschke falls prey to ethnocentrism in scholarly guise when he claims not only that the style was widespread in German-speaking regions - a fair statement - but that it was also Germanic in essence and spirit.

I have found only two original reviews of Meschke's book, though it was published by a significant firm: B.G. Teubner. The first was Wolfram's, and it is interesting to read his response to the only potentially serious rival to his claims to sword dancing as a research topic. In his six-page review of Meschke's book, Wolfram says far more about his own plans and ideas than about his ostensible subject. The review is practically a programmatic statement of plans by Wolfram. This is the sort of review which says little about its subject but a lot about the reviewer. It is only in the middle of the second page that Wolfram refers to Meschke's book at last, calling it "a great step forwards" in the field. But he gives it just two sentences, and then veers off to discuss his own works and those of his intellectual influences, and concludes his review by promoting his own research.

The other review, and the only one in English, was published by Dutch specialist Elise van der Ven-ten Bensel in the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Van der Ven-ten Bensel, with her husband D.J. van der Ven, were the leading figures in the interwar "folk dance revival" in the Netherlands, and were closely tied to the EFDS/ EFDSS. She is sharply critical of Meschke's work, partly on what may be termed political grounds; she dismisses his comments that sword dances represent something peculiar to the German spirit, and criticizes him as well for failing to touch on the wealth of historical evidence from the Low Countries. But there is an ironic aftertaste to these criticisms. The van der Vens, in the late 1930s, became increasingly involved with Nazi German official outreach efforts in the area of "Germanic" folklore, and essentially collaborated with the occupiers during the German occupation in 1940-45. (As a side note, some of the fighting of the "bridge too far" campaign, in and around the city of Arnhem in late 1944, was essentially in their backyard.) After the War, they were investigated and kept under house arrest by Dutch authorities. They were released in 1947, though it is not clear how far their exoneration extended.

Meschke's is also an interesting story of personal survival in Nazi Germany. He was educated as a Lutheran pastor. His wife, Eva-Juliane Meschke, however, was from a family which converted from Judaism to Christianity. Under the notorious Nuremberg Laws, which purported to be based on racial biology and not cultural or religious identity, this meant she was subject to Nazi legal persecution as a full Jew. In 1939, the family moved to Sweden, where they remained. Among their close friends in Germany were Jochen Klepper and his family; Klepper's wife was in the same position as Meschke's. In 1942, Klepper, his wife, and their daughter committed suicide together. Klepper has come to be recognized as a major figure in religious (Lutheran) and literary resistance to Nazi rule, and martyr. The Meschkes contributed to publications in Klepper's honor and memory.

Meschke's book is now something of a rarity. The international bibliographic database, OCLC, reports 20 copies in North American or European libraries. I first found it in the collections of the Dance Division of the New York Public Library, though I was later able to buy a copy at a reasonable price through AbeBooks. (As of this writing, one copy is available from a bookstore in the Netherlands, at a much higher price than I paid.) While among German-language researchers in the field Wolfram is typically the only twentieth-century writer who is cited, Meschke deserves much more serious treatment.

I would like to conclude by thanking Dr Michael (Mikael) Meschke, of Sweden, Kurt Meschke's son (and an internationally renowned puppeteer, founder of the Marionette Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden); Ann-Marie Ulfvarson, a teacher and scholar of Renaissance and Baroque dance, who put me in touch with Dr Meschke; and Trevor Stone, at whose house I met Ann-Marie during the 2000 international sword dance festival in England. I would also like to thank my fellow librarians in whose institutions I did my research: New York Public Library, Columbia University, and Wayne State University.