15.01.2012 – Forschung

How Boxers and Bishops "Educated" Themselves

  • He fights in the ring, too: Nils Baratella is writing his doctoral thesis on boxing as a staging of conflict and violence.

Nils Baratella came up with the topic for his doctoral thesis when he was thinking about his hobby, boxing, one day. For ten years now he has been climbing into the ring on a more or less regular basis. I asked myself: "Why is it that I meet up with my friends each evening to punch them on the nose? Baratella recounts. The former student of philosophy at Berlin's Freie Universität found his own personal answer to the question pretty quickly: "I also enjoy intellectual confrontations with people who lay themselves open to attack." According to Nils, boxing provides the same kind of open confrontation: "It's not just about knocking the opponent to the floor. Boxing fights are also a form of physical confrontation in which you learn more about a person than you do through language alone."

Fighting as a narrative of the modern age

What does boxing say about modern societies' understanding of violence and the body – and how has this understanding developed? These are the questions that Baratella has been focusing on since he joined the "Self-Education" graduate programme/research group as a Ph.D. student last year. So how does his thesis project fit in with the main research topic of subjectivisations? There is a modern philosophical approach according to which the subject and his existence are understood as a fight," Baratella explains, pointing to the theories put forward by Hegel, Nietzsche and Foucault. "To a certain extent one can view the fight as a narrative of the modern age." This includes the battle of the subject against himself – represented in the ring as the subjugation of one's own half-naked body on display after taking decisive punches.

According to Baratella, the boxing ring is a place of social immunity; the fight a display that deals with the subject of violence in a way that is prototypical for the society in question. "With its ethos of fair play and masculinity, boxing provides a social ideal for how conflicts should be fought out in the modern age," he says. This was not always the case. In the first modern boxing fights there were no limits on the number of rounds – the opponents simply punched each other in the face until one of them was knocked down. Right up to the 1920s boxers who had been knocked down could be hit again as soon as they stood up. "The increasing regulations endowed the sport with its own particular aesthetic and at the same time changed the way people perceived boxing," Baratella explains. "People no longer went to any lengths to defeat the opponent."

In the 1920s and right up to the 1970s, boxing was one of the most prominent arenas for society's confrontation with violence and fighting. Legendary fights like that between Muhammad Ali and the late Joe Frazier are still alive in the collective memory decades after they took place. "Today, however, unlike in places like Mexico or South America boxing no longer plays such a central role in European or North American culture," Baratella notes. In Europe other sports are gaining importance. But even when boxing was at the height of its popularity, combative sports were regarded as a peripheral social phenomenon – wrongly, as Baratella points out quoting Foucault: "You learn more about a society if you observe from the periphery than if you're at its centre."

The Oldenburg philosopher Prof. Dr. Johann Kreuzer and Prof. Dr. Gunter Gebauer of the Freie Universität Berlin are supervising Nils Baratella's work. When he visits Berlin the Ph.D. student still takes time to train at a boxing club on Potsdamer Straße. Having fun is the main thing, Baratella says, and he also does some sparring when someone from the club is preparing for a competition. Baratella doesn't model his boxing style on any one boxer but there are certain boxers whom he particularly admires: "One impressive character was the Sinti boxer Johann Trollmann." After winning the Germany's light-heavyweight title in 1933 he was subjected to racist mockery by the Nazi-controlled media and finally murdered at Neuengamme concentration camp in 1944. Another boxer Baratella admires is the legendary Rocky Marciano: "I like the classic story of the son of Italian immigrants who boxes his way to the top."

"No sports" – at least not for Bishops


 Sport also plays a role in Ines Weber's thesis on subjectivisation – albeit a rather secondary one. "He was sometimes the winner and sometimes the loser," recounts a medieval chronicle of the life of Baldwin of Luxembourg, Archbishop of Trier from 1307 to 1354. He was purportedly "the best jumper, a nimble sprinter, could throw a stone further than anyone else and was also stronger than the rest". Is the talk here of a sprightly old man taking part in a sports tournament? Not at all. The passage, quoted from Gestis Baldewini (the deeds of Baldwin), provides an insight into how Baldwin was at the beginning of his term in office, when he was elected Archbishop at just 21 years of age. Baldwin's passion for "sport" apparently was not compatible with his religious office, which according to the chronicler prompted the Archbishop to remark "Let's just forget about episcopal dignity for now!" 

Ines Weber found the quote from Gestis Baldewini so interesting that it inspired her to develop a doctorate project with historian Prof. Dr. Rudolf Holbach. "A Comparison of the (Self) Education of Medieval Bishops in the Holy Roman Empire" is the working title of her thesis. "In addition to Baldwin I plan to examine a number of other bishops from the period between around 1250 and 1550," explains Weber, who joined the graduate programme this year. "How did each of these people "educate themselves" to perform and represent their office? This is the question the 26-year-old, who completed her Master's degree in European Studies at Oldenburg, focuses on in her the research. According to Weber several very different aspects formed part of the "self education" of bishops of the late Middle Ages: education and religious background, social connections, their style of dress and lifestyle, interests and activities. What qualities did the bishops already possess? What was compatible with the dignity of their high office, and what not? With whom are they compared in the chronicles? Weber's paper will seek to answer these and other questions. 

Religious leader and secular ruler


 A particularly stimulating aspect of her research topic, says Weber, is establishing structural differences between the dioceses of the Holy Roman Empire: "There were dioceses where the local nobility had a strong position, but also those where the Free Cities played the decisive role." This meant that expectations regarding a bishop's role varied widely – and he had to react accordingly. Moreover the bishops were active within a very singular "field of tension" because they were both the religious heads of the diocese and secular rulers at the same time. Not always did the expectations of "society" tally with those of the bishop regarding his office: for instance Hinrich Biscop (1315-1381), the son of a tradesman, strove doggedly and ruthlessly to become a bishop until he finally achieved his goal in 1370. Cheating and corruption were as much a part of the way he perceived the office as was a sumptuous lifestyle at the expense of the diocese – much to the displeasure of those around him.

Weber had already specialised in medieval history in her undergraduate studies; the subject of her Master's thesis was religious establishments in medieval Friesland. Dr. Antje Sander, director of the Schlossmuseum Jever, found the paper so well researched that she commissioned Weber to plan a permanent exhibition about the medieval Johanniterkapelle Bokelesch (in the municipality of Saterland in Lower Saxony). A three-year postgraduate scholarship has brought Weber, who comes from Wiesmoor in East Frisian, back from the world of planning exhibitions to the world of academia. "The graduate programme is very attractive: you attend seminars in specific subjects but are not left to your own devices when it comes to interdisciplinary questions," Weber enthuses, looking forward to discussions with fellow Ph.D. students and academic supervisors.