Inscriptions are historical sources of the first order. This is true not only for a period poor in other sources such as Greek and Roman antiquity, whose inscriptions have been edited in extensive corpus works since the 19th century, but also for the Middle Ages and the early modern period. For this period, the inscriptions affixed to durable material such as stone, wood, metal, textiles, leather and glass offer an essential supplement to the handwritten and printed tradition. What distinguishes the majority of inscriptions from these sources is the higher degree of publicity that determined the conception and execution of the texts. This applies, for example, to inscriptions on grave monuments, building inscriptions on public buildings, inscriptions on burghers' houses, endowment inscriptions on objects of church furnishings as well as to accompanying inscriptions to pictorial representations.
More than 60 years ago, the scientific academies in Germany and Austria began collecting and editing the Latin and German inscriptions of the Middle Ages and the early modern period up to the year 1650. The results of this research are published in the series "Die Deutschen Inschriften" (DI) published by the academies. Some of these inscription catalogues can be viewed at www.inschriften.net.
The focus of this scholarly edition is the exact reproduction of the texts, some of which are difficult to decipher, with resolution of the abbreviations. Associated with this is the documentation of the inscription carriers, which are often significant in terms of art history. Concise descriptions of the objects, which also include the coats of arms attached to them, supplement the pure text edition and convey the connection between text, inscription carrier and location that is necessary for understanding. Not only the inscriptions that have survived in the original are published, but also those that are only known from copies, tracings or photographs. Latin and other foreign language texts as well as individual German texts of older language levels are translated. In the commentary that follows, various questions concerning the inscription or the inscription bearer are discussed where appropriate.
The introduction to each volume opens up the inscriptions to the user from different perspectives: it integrates the epigraphic monuments into the history of the area concerned, characterises the inventory and gives a summarising evaluation of the observations on inscription palaeography. Selected illustrations complement the edition and commentary. Numerous indexes, arranged according to various aspects, make the edited material available for historical, art-historical, philological, theological and folkloristic research.
The edition of the inscriptions provides rich source material for various historical questions. The individual texts, especially the funerary inscriptions, provide a large number of data on personal history and are valuable for regional and national history. Overall, the inscriptional sources reflect diverse processes of piety and spiritual history. These include, for example, the changing ideas of death, the afterlife and resurrection in the grave inscriptions over the centuries, the development of the vernacular language as a suitable means of expression for representative purposes alongside Latin, and the replacement of dialect by written language.
Numerous inscriptions allow the dating of the objects on which they are affixed due to their content. Another important task of this series is to provide material for an inscription palaeography and epigraphy of the Middle Ages and the early modern period, with the help of which dating can be carried out on the basis of the letter forms. In many cases, this makes it possible to classify otherwise indeterminable pieces and to corroborate or supplement the stylistic dating of objects carried out by art historians.
At the present time, the recording of inscriptions has become particularly urgent for another reason: The monuments made of stone, metal and wood, which are often located outdoors, are exposed to damaging environmental influences to a far greater extent than is generally assumed. For example, acid rain chemically attacks the stones so that the surface crumbles away, damaging or even completely destroying the inscriptions. Paradoxically, the ephemeral writing material paper must now preserve what was once inscribed on supposedly permanent materials for eternity.