Ruth von Bernuth
Before completing my studies in special education and German literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin in 1999, I studied at the universities of Rostock and Dortmund. After receiving my Ph.D. in medieval and early modern German literature at the Humboldt University in 2005, I worked as an assistant language teacher in France and held a postdoc at Humboldt University. In 2008 I joined the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill. Since 2013, I serve as the director of the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies . My research interests are in literature and culture of the late medieval-early modern period, or the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries, with a special interest in the sixteenth century.
My first book Wunder, Spott und Prophetie: Natürliche Narrheit in denHistorien von Claus Narren, focuses on ideas of natural folly in early modern German literature. Natural folly is the precursor of the 19th-century constructs of mental illness and mental disability. Drawing on references in the religious, scientific, and, above all, literary writings of 16th-century Germany, I argue that natural fools were not yet a source of worry but of wonder. Seen as “miracle men,” they represented a divine intervention and exercised a prodigious range of functions. My book concentrates on the flowering of this way of thinking in Wolfgang Büttner’s Historien von Claus Narren of 1572, a compendium of 626 stories, each with a moral ostensibly about Claus Narr, the court fool of the electors of Saxony. In my study, I explore the connections between the natural fool of the early modern period and different theological and philosophical traditions, relating the fool as described in Büttner’s didactic text to other liminal figures, such as Diogenes the cynic and the “fools for Christ’s sake” of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
Fools are again the focus of my current project. My interest this time is in Ashkenazic Jewish writing about a whole society that is foolish. The tales of the “wise men” of Chelm represent the motif of the foolish town per excellence in Jewish folk tradition. In spite of the great many primary sources in multiple languages that I have been able to locate over the last couple of years at the YIVO Institute in New York, the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, and other institutions, surprisingly there exists almost no secondary literature and certainly no book-length analysis of the Chelm stories. This is all the more surprising as Chelm remains a major archetype of eastern European Jewish identity to the present day. In my book project, How the Wise Men Got to Chelm: The Life and Times of a Yiddish Folk Tradition, I am especially interested in unpacking the connection between German and Yiddish literary traditions and in complicating the assumption that the tales were simply transferred from the German via on Old Yiddish translation into modern Yiddish.
I have taught a variety of courses including a First Year Seminars on “German Heroes?,” undergraduate courses such as “Introduction into German literature,” as well as courses on special topics: “Folly Literature,” “Adaptations of Early Modern Literature in East Germany,” and “Popular and Pious: Old Yiddish Literatur in Translation.” On the graduate level I have taught courses in “Middle High German,” “History of the German Language” and topics courses such as “Travel Literature” and “Birth of the Novel.” One particularly valuable aspect of the Joint Program has been the enhanced access it provides to the special collections at Duke University Libraries; since a major aspect of Duke’s Jantz Collection is in early modern German literature, I have been able to use original editions of almost all of the texts that I teach, a truly unusual opportunity when teaching a course on medieval and early modern German literature.