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Legal Cultures and Literary Trials in the Age of Goethe. The Vehmic Court Motif in Interdisciplinary and Comparative Perspective

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - VehmeLit (Legal Cultures and Literary Trials in the Age of Goethe. The Vehmic Court Motif in Interdisciplinary and Comparative Perspective)

Reporting period: 2018-01-01 to 2019-12-31

The VehmeLit project aimed at a first systematic analysis of the development of the Vehmic Court motif in German literature of the Age of Goethe. By complementing the study of canonical works with previously neglected novels and plays by ‘minor’ or anonymous writers, the project examined how literary works functionalised the motif to disseminate historical knowledge, sensitise readers to juridical questions, and reflect on the problematic nature of justice. By situating a corpus of around twenty texts within the broader cultural and historical horizon in which they were produced, VehmeLit placed a particular focus on the links between cultural production and historical understanding as well as on the complex semiotic exchanges between the legal and the literary system, thus enabling a rich interdisciplinary dialogue.

The research developed along three major trajectories:

1) The literary treatment of the historical Vehmic system. Prominent importance was given to the analysis of historiographical sources referenced in the texts and paratexts, as well as to processes of transformation and manipulation of the sources for literary purposes.
2) The interactions between ‘minor’ works and canonical ones. By determining intertextual links within the corpus, processes of model-forming were identified alongside critical and parodistic intentions, proving that the increasing divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture around 1800 still showed fruitful forms of exchange.
3) The reflection on justice. In most plays and novels the historical Vehme was instrumentalised to comment on contemporary legal practices and express criticism towards the institution of law. In particular, late-Enlightenment debates on the abolition of torture and death penalty are echoed in the texts, reflecting the profound changes that were occurring in the legal and penal system around 1800.

The project was carried out in consonance with the priority mission set by the European Commission to promote and safeguard Europe’s cultural heritage. Through the study of largely unexplored texts and the reconstruction of their broad cultural background, VehmeLit contributed to improving the knowledge and dissemination of the culture and history of the European peoples.
Work performed included the following activities:

- Close-reading of primary texts against the backdrop of relevant historiographical sources on the Vehmic court.
- Study and critical assessment of major theoretical works on the Age of Goethe, the field of Law and Literature, and in Theatre and Performance Studies.
- Regular meetings with Professor Matthew Bell to monitor the progress of the project and discuss its further implementation.
- Design, organisation, and scientific coordination of two international research events at KCL, as well as a panel for the 2019 ISECS congress in Edinburgh.
- Organisation and moderation of two research seminars at KCL.
- Attendance and active participation in lectures, conferences, and research seminars in the UK, Germany, Italy, and the US.
- Completion of a teaching shadowing scheme and co-teaching of two BA modules at KCL.
- Mentoring of PhD students at KCL during two Work in Progress seminars.
- External supervision of an MA thesis in German Literature at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.
- Attendance of webinars, workshops and training sessions to hone organisational and scientific skills.
- Service as German Department representative in the Early Career Committee of King's Faculty of Arts & Humanities for the duration of my position.
- Participation in the departmental meetings.
- Project management activities.

The results of the project were exploited and disseminated as follows:

- Administration of a Facebook page and Twitter account to advertise the project and communicate the main results of the action.
- Design and organisation of a two-day international workshop on “Law and Literature: New Perspectives and Methodologies” at KCL on 14–15 September 2018.
- Public lecture “‘Richter, die ihr richtet im Verborgenen’. Literary Representations of the Vehmic Court in the Age of Goethe”, held at the English Goethe Society, Senate House, on 31 January 2019.
- Research seminar “Legal Cultures and Literary Trials in the Age of Goethe”, held at KCL on 13 February 2019.
- Organisation of an interdisciplinary panel on “Representations of Legal Practices and the Law in the Age of Goethe” for the 2019 ISECS congress in Edinburgh (14–19 July 2019). Presentation of a paper entitled “Staging the Law. The Vehmic Court Motif in German Plays of the Late 18th Century”.
- Design and organisation of a two-day international conference “Staging Justice. Trials and the Law on the German Stage (18th-21st Century)”, held at KCL on 26–27 November 2019. Presentation of a paper entitled “Lay Judges and Lay Actors: Emancipating the Spectator in Ferdinand von Schirach’s ‘Terror’ and Rimini Protokoll’s ‘Zeugen!’”.
- Preparation and submission of: one article on the development of the Vehmic Court motif around 1800 for peer-reviewed journal “Publications of the English Goethe Society”; one article on political rhetorics and the question of legitimacy in Schiller’s plays for an edited volume; two entries for the “Cambridge Guide to the Eighteenth-Century Novel 1660-1820”; one article on Falk Richter for peer-reviewed journal “Colloquia Germanica”.
- Preparation of a guest-edited journal issue of “Law and Literature”, which will include selected papers from the Law and Literature workshop and the ISECS panel.
- Preparation of a collective volume gathering a selection of papers from the “Staging Justice” conference.
Three primary conclusions deriving from the project indicate an appreciable advancement of current scholarship:
1) The proliferation of texts including Secret Tribunal scenes, fuelled by the success of Goethe’s “Götz von Berlichingen”, indicate that the Vehmic court trope was a key component in medievalising literature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, enriching both the Sturm und Drang tradition of secret society fiction and the thriving repertoire of horrors operating within the Romantic Gothic.
2) The Vehmic Court should not be dismissed as a ‘trivial’ motif that only served the purpose of lowbrow reader entertainment. Instead, it was productively used as a vehicle for transmitting historical knowledge and for raising urgent political and philosophical questions, such as the defence of individual freedom and human rights.
3) The representation of Vehmic Court trials catalysed a broad reflection on the problematic nature of human justice in general. While Goethe in his early play describes the Secret Tribunal as a venerable institution that was still able to judge fairly, later works question the infallibility of the court, paving the way to very modern forms of legal scepticism.

While offering a fresh contribution to scholarship on the intersections of law and literature in German culture of the Age of Goethe, the project also had the ambition to produce far-reaching impact on the general public by raising the awareness of contemporary readers on the mechanisms of justice and, more broadly, of the society they live in. By examining traces of the law in extra-legal contexts, this project promoted literature’s potential to train citizens to acknowledge the law as part of the fabric of a properly functioning polity.
Law and Literature Workshop, KCL 2018
Staging Justice Conference, KCL 2019