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70 Seiten, Note: 1,3
Abbreviations ... viii
Preface ... ix
1 Introduction ... 1
Rings, Circles and Cultural Exchange ... 1
Material Culture meets Literature I: Precious Stones and their Magic ... 3
Material Culture meets Literature II: Inscribed Rings and Engraved Gems ... 6
2 Circles and Rings in Old English Literature ... 8
Riddles 48 and 59 ... 9
Medical Charms ... 11
Ring-giving as a Social Mechanism ... 13
3 Magical Rings in Middle English Literature ... 16
The Middle English Romance ... 16
King Horn and Horn Childe ... 18
The Ballad of Hind Horn ... 27
4 Magical Rings in Modern English Literature ... 30
J. R. R. Tolkien and Middle-earth ... 31
The Three Rings ... 35
The Seven and the Nine Rings ... 39
The One Ring: Sauron ... 41
Isildur ... 42
Déagol and Sméagol (Gollum) ... 43
Bilbo Baggins ... 44
Frodo Baggins and the Fellowship ... 46
Sam as Ring-bearer ... 49
The Strange Case of Tom Bombadil ... 50
Other Rings in Middle-earth ... 52
Conclusion ... 55
Bibliography ... 57
Appendix ... 63
EML - Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature , ed. Jay Ruud.
JRRTE - J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia , ed. Michael D. C. Drout.
L - Letter (followed by a number); refers only to Letters (see below).
Letters The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien , eds Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien.
LotR - The Lord of the Rings. J. R. R. Tolkien.
MAE - Medieval Archaeology: An Encyclopedia , ed. Pam J. Crabtree.
Treason - The Treason of Isengard. J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien.
TS - The Silmarillion. J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien.
ULetters - The Almost Unpublished Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien . Comp. N. Prokhorova.
UT - Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth. J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien.
Rings for the finger have been accompanying man’s history for several thousands of years and are found in almost every culture with various uses in religion, magic, administration, literature, aesthetics and fashion, carrying their very own meanings and symbolism. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, an increasing fascination by J. R. R. Tolkien’s stories involving Rings of Power seems to have been around after the cinematic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and, recently, The Hobbit. This may be attributed to the fact that in our modern Western tradition, rings are mostly associated either with the religious element, as in marriage, or simply with beauty and fashionable looks of daily life. Whereas admirers of the novel and the film were now introduced to a new, exotic and epic world with powerful rings never featured like that before, and an awe-inspiring story in Middleearth, with races of folklore traditions and dark powers that want to spread terror and destruction. Likewise, such an exoticity and fascination must have been experienced when audiences of the High Middle Ages read or listened to at home or in urban centres the socalled chivalric romances. They presented heroes and princesses, their troubles, deeds, love affairs and many happy-ends framed by Anglo-Saxon traditions, beliefs and the obscure magical powers of various items such as swords, girdles, rings etc., all of which enabled the readership to escape from daily routine.
Rings and their magic in literature attracted my attention due to the diverse powers of the gemstones set on them, to their importance for the plot and to the extent they can determine a character’s fate. I was thus motivated to present relative examples and elaborate on the powers, functions, symbolism and other accompanying features of magical rings in selected works of Old, Middle and Modern English literature.
The present thesis has been submitted for the partial fulfilment of the Bachelor degree’s requirements.
Chapter 1 offers a brief introductory retrospection on the history of the ring and its relation to the circle. It presents the importance of precious stones set on rings as almost inevitable for the function of the magical power and, last, it further distinguishes other types of magical rings, e.g. talismanic ones, which bear written formulas that were believed to confer a magical effect.
Chapter 2 presents examples of ring symbolism in the sense of circular shape in Anglo-Saxon literature as found in (1) medical charms of Bald’s Leechbook, and (2) the socio-political symbolism of the customary ring-giving from lord to vassal as observed mostly in Beowulf, with a few more examples from other poems. In fact, no known magical rings occur in Anglo-Saxon literature. Yet, we will examine a potential talismanic ring described in two Old English Riddles, 48 and 59, which could belong, in a way, to the oldest reference of a magical ring in literary composition.
A famous work that has been chosen to represent Middle English literature in chapter 3 is King Horn, the oldest currently surviving English romance, which exhibits another magical ring with multiple meanings and symbolism. Both romance versions, Southern and Northern (Horn Childe), will be considered as well as the later ballad form of the story, Hind Horn. The chapter offers, too, introductory information on the romance as a literary genre.
For modern literature, as represented in the final chapter 4, we will elaborate on magical rings in J. R. R. Tolkien’s works, focusing on the part of the history relating to the creation of the Rings of Power that is introduced in The Silmarillion. This includes mostly the events of the Third Age that pertain to the rediscovery of the One Ring until its destruction and the banishment of its Dark Lord. Information is drawn not only from The Lord of the Rings books, but also from Tolkien’s invaluable Letters, partially from The Hobbit, and less from other volumes of the posthumous The History of Middle-Earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien. The chapter mentions also some examples of magical rings in various modern English works.
The provided images in the Appendix section seek to offer the reader an overview of the material (archaeological) record regarding ring categories – magical and non-magical – as well as to visualise some discussed themes or proposed ideas on symbolism and functions.
The importance of rings in ancient civilisations lies in their circular shape that was inspired mainly from the sun-disk and the moon. As circles have no beginning or end, they became associated with the universe, the sky and the eternal circulation of time.1 Anything that lies within a circle has its own properties and is considered separated from the rest of the world; in Irish lore, for example, stepping into a ring of stones might render someone invisible and enslave them to the faery world, whereas in other cases, such as the circular alignment of Stonehenge, the stones were believed to cure various ailments.2 Ancient magicians formed circles on the ground to create a protective field in which they cast spells for victory, creation of fire etc., or performed other rituals against enemies, demons and death.3 Bald’s Leechbook provides examples of Anglo-Saxon curative magic where the circle has a protective function against various ailments.4 Rings as ritual objects were believed to ‘bind’ someone with power or energy following certain properties of their metal part, and to preserve it in the body.5 In their reduced form of finger-rings and wedding circlets, rings have been symbolising for a long time the unbreakable union in ceremonial or spiritual marriage, but also a religious office; e.g. the Pope’s ring indicates that he is married to the Church.6
The symbolism of the ring as shape is not absent from notable modern works. In Tolkien’s narratives, for instance, the name of the circle around which the Valar sit to pronounce their judgements is called the Máhanaxar (also Ring of Doom). Another one is a stone wall that encircles the tower of Orthanc, where Saruman’s and the White Council’s chair is; it is called the Ring of Isengard. Tolkien, too, refers to Middle-earth itself as Morgoth’s Ring, since Morgoth suffused his power throughout that realm; yet, most of the ring imagery in Middle-earth refers to rings worn on the finger.7
Practices and beliefs in their various associations with magical items, superstitions, and myths have been ascertained not only in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, but also in the greater European areas where Celtic and Germanic peoples lived. Before one tries to determine to what extent notions and practices of magic, for example in the High Middle Ages, are sourced in a borrowed, mixed or original tradition in the way we observe it in the Middle English romance, we shall consider in brief three views regarding the potential of cultural exchange among ancient cultures.
In an earlier approach, Storms tried to prove the existence of an Anglo-Saxon magic tradition in England starting from the simple fact that no single culture has been recorded that does not make use of magic. Then, he relied much on evidence from charms found in Old High German to show that Germanic tribes mostly ran a culture of their own and that a unity existed between them and the Anglo-Saxons – as observed in the Icelandic sagas, which survived orally and were later written down.8 He talks, though, about the Germanic peoples’ impression by Celtic magic, too, and the Anglo-Saxons’ borrowings of charms from various sources, mostly Latin. But he also addresses a difficulty in determining to what extent magical practices, as represented in Old English manuscripts, were borrowed from classical and Christian sources, due to the fact that in several cases whole passages have actually been translated from Latin. In a second view, it seems that an obscure network existed between classical, Germanic and Celtic cultures, and that notions of magic found their way in mediaeval England rather through Classical and Biblical beliefs and practices, than through the Germanic tradition.9 Kieckhefer, too, talks about diverse borrowings, e.g. from the Mediterranean regions towards the North or from Jewish magic towards Christian sources, and the difficulty to distinguish the exact source of a certain belief. He additionally notes the lack of archaeological material in daily mediaeval life – it was still underground those times – in contrast to the modern record available, particularly when it comes to evidence from amulets made of magical gems or their inscribed formulas. In his view, the preservation of magical practices does not only lie in the standard traditional continuity and direct cultural exchanges, but also in the attractivity of such practices, which was caused due to prohibitions by the Church, as well as to the secrecy, mysticism and exoticism that accompanied them for a long time.10
Apparently, Christianity, the Classical heritage and local traditions of the Germanic past form integral parts of the multilateral cultural exchange that affected the later mediaeval mind. They undoubtedly resulted in enriching English literature with new fictional and supernatural elements by blending religious and magical beliefs in new concepts.
In the current work, gemstones or other valuable stones are not examined alone, but as part of a ring’s adornment. In most of these rings, as it will be shown, magic derives from properties attributed to the stones, and not the ring itself. For, the tradition of wearing an unset ring of plain metal implied primarily the betrothal ring accompanied by the symbolism of eternal faith and unity.11 As such, the Rings of Power in J. R. R. Tolkien’s works, as well as those of the Middle English romances such as Ywain and Gawain, King Horn, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Bevis of Hampton, The Squire’s Tale and others, are all rings set with various precious stones, even if the stone’s name is not always mentioned. Thus, it is not possible to elaborate on functions of magical rings without the accompanying beliefs from the stone lore. Nevertheless, this does not imply that the primal meaning of the betrothal is lost; on the contrary, stones, inscriptions and the metal of the ring itself can all bear their very own meanings behind a manifold literary symbolism.
The origins of magic in precious stones are usually sought in their rarity, admiration of their vivid and shiny colours, their shape and hardness.12 In Hinton’s view, most gemstones were regarded as marvels because they came from the far ends of the earth, or just because they were natural and wonderful phenomena; such were toadstones, believed to grow inside the toad’s head and to be efficacious against poison, since the toad was considered to be venomous.13 Books that explained the magical power of gemstones (called lapidaries) show that knowledge regarding their use and inherent supernatural qualities was well established already by the early mediaeval period in Western Europe, even if their powers were not always linked to their origin.14
In the later Middle Ages, stones played an important part in establishing notions of natural magic and of marvellous effects, due to the fact that they were viewed as containing ‘sidereal powers’. Some of their qualities were medicinal; others physical, intellectual or emotional, protective etc.15 Amongst aristocratic circles, gemstones were believed to have mostly protective powers. For example, a sapphire could cure eye disease or dispel envy; magnets could detect marital unfaithfulness; Saint Edward the Confessor’s ring could cure epilepsy. Of course, gemstone dealers encouraged such legends as a way to sell more of their goods. The bishop of Rennes’ popular lapidary itself claimed that the magic of gemstones was merely the natural magic God had created in some stones!16 In a wider understanding of the concept of magic, it seems that the use of gemstones was firmly embedded in cultural folklore and combined with the religious ideas relating to God and, consequently, the creation of the world.
There is one single work of the first century CE that found its way to the Middle Ages and was regarded an invaluable source of information on matters of daily life: Pliny’s Natural History. Its paradoxography became so popular that it shaped what was conventional in later ethnographic writing and formed the basis of the mediaeval world’s ideas about India and the exotic East.17 The last of its thirty-seven books is a treatise on precious stones. In the seventh century, authors such as Isidore developed the beliefs on gemstone properties into a comprehensible concept which was partially understood by the mediaeval mind as the power of nature and God, as already mentioned.18 For the interpretation of gemstones in romances, one may refer to another famous work, Secreta secretorum, which elaborates on the virtues of stones and it is attributed to Albertus Magnus. The book circulated widely from the late thirteenth to the seventeenth century.19
Until the Late Middle Ages gemstones were not being cut, but only polished and refined in their primary shape, unless possibly imported from other lands. Green, red and blue gemstones, such as emeralds or rubies from India and Egypt, sapphires from Ceylon and Persia etc. were favoured the most. The classic mediaeval gem was opaque, round, coloured, smooth and sometimes engraved (see image (6) in the Appendix).20 In the early mediaeval period it was possible to polish semi-precious stones with sand or ground between two flat stones, whereas the processing of harder gemstones such as emeralds and sapphires developed in the fourteenth century with the use of various abrasives.21 These details may contribute to the identification of the gemstones set on various rings in Middle English works.
In less frequent cases, though, rings bear additionally an engraved inscription either on the gemstone, e.g. carved symbolic letters, a short inscription or an image; or on the inner/outer ring band. The archaeological record offers examples of rings that have been adorned on these two levels. Most likely, their occurrences in literary sources such as King Horn are not a product of pure imagination.22
A different kind of magical power derives from attested carvings on stones and rings. These had two main functions: they were either meant to identify their owner by bearing a name,23 or they were used as protective amulets, the magic of which was believed to lie in the inscription itself. 24 In the conventionality of the Middle English romance, the texts can undoubtedly be amatory, too.25 The beliefs can be traced back to the old Germanic tribes which devised the ‘secret’ runes and regarded written letters magical, able to cure or kill.26 Such rings are referred to as talismanic, runic (when the ancient runic alphabet is used) or just amulet rings, and they bear a brief phrase, isolated words, e.g. relating to religion (saints’ names, symbols etc.),27 or a magical and sometimes incomprehensible formula.28 The power of the One Ring that Tolkien employed in his stories bears an Elvish runic inscription and falls into this category of rings, as we will see later; Rymenhild’s ring in King Horn bears a written formula, too, in addition to its gemstone.
Most of the twenty-six talismanic rings that have survived from the Anglo-Saxon times, mainly dating back to ninth and tenth century, are inscribed in Latin lettering, though, but any magical function lay probably in the religious content and in numeric symbolism.29 It might be that due to cultural changes the inscribing tradition had to be inevitably re-adjusted from the exotic and mysterious, but yet not any more utterable, Germanic runes to the more homely, legible latinised letters, still preserving their religious themes. If we follow the aforementioned Anglo-Saxon rings’ evidence, we shall link and justify the occurrence of inscribed rings in romances, primarily through the flourishing material culture of the previous three or four centuries, rather than understand them as an independent or imported motif.30
In less common cases, there are carvings of letters or images on the gems. According to Evans, the magical power of such rings does not derive from the virtues of any gem, but from the power of the word or the special sacredness of certain symbols and figures.31 Particular attention was paid to astrological signs and their sensitivity to cosmic forces, especially if they were engraved in the East where, according to the beliefs, the planetary rays are more direct.32 Based on an ecclesiastical account of St Alban’s treasury, Evans proposes that beliefs pertaining to magic in engraved gemstones in England are to be attested after the end of the twelfth century.33 The practices themselves seem to have passed to mediaeval culture via Christian sources from the Roman Empire or via Celtic influence, e.g. in the form of medicinal charms.34
The Middle Ages contributed little to the preservation of gemstone engraving after the fall of the Roman Empire. The few engraved stones were crudely or slovenly cut and with designs that lacked subtlety. The craft must have remained forgotten for several centuries until it re-entered daily life in the later Middle Ages and passed to folk culture and consequently to literature.35
Even if the Germanic legends provide examples of magical finger-rings, such as Draupnir and Andvarinaut (the latter also known as The Ring of the Niebelung) in Norse mythology, similar instances either as part of a tradition or as products of literary imagination – omitting works translated from Latin – seem not to be represented or to have survived within the Old English corpus.36 Instead, there is a case where the importance of the ring is expressed symbolically through its circular shape. Some examples from medical charms found in Bald’s Leechbook will be provided below. In a second case, finger-rings in literature do not carry any obvious magical properties. Such rings are part of an important cultural and political concept of the Anglo-Saxon times, namely the customary ring-giving that functioned as a mechanism of establishing and maintaining social relationships between kings and their followers; the bond is referred to as comitatus, ‘companionship’.37
And yet, there might be a rare example of an inscribed ring as the object to be identified (hring) in two riddles of the Exeter Book. Contrary to the believed solutions, Okasha proposes that the hring refers, in fact, to a (talismanic) finger-ring.38 We shall, actually, start with this, because it looks like a rather rare case where real magical rings are part of a literary work of Anglo-Saxon times.
The Exeter Book (ca 970–990) is the largest of the four main sources of Old English literature. It contains many short elegiac poems, some longer ones of religious nature, and a collection of ninety-five riddles. Half of its content deals with Christian topics and the rest with various secular matters.39
Riddles have been characterised by Frye as charms in reverse, because they represent [sic] the revolt of intelligence against the hypnotic power of commanding words.40 The Old English riddles do not mention their solution; that is to say, unlike Anglo-Latin riddles which have their solution as title, they are probably meant to remain obscure, puzzling and playful.41 Of course, this enables multiple interpretations as in Riddles 48 and 59, which due to their religious background are traditionally believed to describe a bell, chalice, chrismal, paten, pyx or sacramental vessel; and a chalice or communion cup, respectively.42 Contrary to this, Okasha believes that the inscribed golden hring (with a religious text or even a personal name) in Riddle 59, which is small enough to pass from hand to hand, is actually a finger-ring.43 She argues that the reason some riddles name their object in the first line, is because the solver may overlook the obvious solution.44 This view is strengthened when we consider the polysemy of hring alone, which would not reveal the answer at once.45 The riddle does not include a complete inscription, though, but it refers in form of indirect speech to ‘the saviour of those doing good deeds’ (lines 6-7) and also ‘the name of his lord’ (8): .
1 Cirlot 2001, pp. 47, 273; Storms 1948, p. 86.
2 Varner 2004, pp. 19, 107.
3 Mitchell 2011, p. 194.
4 See unit 2, Medical Charms.
5 Steffler 2002, p. 74; Cunningham 1996, pp. 56–7.
6 Johnston 2011, p. 406.
7 The name has been misspelt in Vaccaro 2007 in JRRTE, p. 571; cf. TS, Quenta Silmarillion, 1, p. 31. See also LotR, III, 8, p. 724.
8 Storms 1948, pp. 1, 107–29. The chapter presents textual similarities of charms between Anglo-Saxons and Germanic peoples.
9 Saunders 2010, pp. 13–5.
10 Kieckhefer 1990, pp. 2, 21. The argumentation is worth citing: “ The scientific and philosophical literature of antiquity, even when it did not deal expressly with magic, helped to form medieval notions of what was possible and impossible in the physical world and thus contributed to medieval understanding of magic . Fictional literature in classical Greek and Latin provided stories about magic that could be cited, often as fact, in medieval writings. The Bible itself (.) contributed further stories about magic. And Christian writers from the early centuries of the Church's history carried on a continuous diatribe of condemnations, interpretations, and prohibitions directed against magical practice, all of which helped to refine the notions of magic that persisted among churchmen throughout the Middle Ages. Medieval Europeans thus inherited a wealth of writings about magic; the way they used this inheritance depended on how they interpreted this mass of varied and often problematic material. ” For a recent study on mediaeval material culture, see Hinton 2005.
11 The signet rings that were developed later gave the right to any of the spouses to seal up household goods; rings with a button-shaped chaton were introduced to Germanic peoples by the Romans and they usually depicted male and/or female figures of the betrothed. See Kunz 1917, pp. 193, 199–200; also see image (7) in the Appendix.
12 Kunz 1938, pp. 19–22.
13 Hinton 2005, p. 187. Cf. alectorius, another naturally formed ‘stone’, in Hall, p. 130. Pearls belong to this category, too.
14 Scholey 2009, p. 20.
15 Saunders 2010, pp. 102–3.
16 Johnston 2011, p. 465.
17 Murphy 2004, pp. 41, 89.
18 Scholey 2009, p. 19.
19 Saunders 2010, p. 103. See also fn. 169 on the same page.
20 Johnston 2011, p. 401; Hinton 2005, p. 187.
21 Wicker 2001 in MAE, p. 289. In Beowulf we find among the king’s possessions riches from far-off lands (35–7) including gemstones that are shining and well-cut (1154–7); sparkling and cleverly-cut (2749). The account may reflect cultural exchange, if indeed the art of working with such hard stones was not at an advanced level yet.
22 Evans 1922, p. 112.
23 An example is a Merovingian woman’s ring inscribed “Arnegund”. See Owen-Crocker 1999, p. 457.
24 Gray 1983, p. 197.
25 Scholey 2009, pp. 54–5.
26 Johnston 2011, p. 464. Runes had a religious meaning and power for those who used them. For more details, see also Thorsson 1992, pp. 2–3, 78–80.
27 For instance, in the early Christian and mediaeval times, the invocation or inscription of the Three Kings (the Magi), was believed to have a great curative effect, especially against epilepsy; hence, they were often engraved on rings. See Kunz 1917, p. 349.
28 See Okasha 2003, pp. 29–31, and the various inscriptions presented, particularly ring Nos. 20 and 23.
29 McLeod-Mees 2006, pp. 140–1; Kunz 1917, pp. 314–5. There seem to be few examples of engraved rings in romances, though; Scholey 2009, p. 56.
30 If, as Mitchell observes (2011, p. 195), talismanic rings could not generally survive, due to the fact that they were lost, stolen, dismantled and re-used for economic reasons etc., the material culture must have attested enough of them to influence the literary mind and let them pass to various texts.
31 Evans 1922, p. 121; examples are offered in the following pages. See also Kunz 1938, p. 115.
32 Saunders 2010, p. 103.
33 Evans 1922, pp. 119–20.
34 Ibid., pp. 121–2.
35 Gray 1983, p. 197. For examples of jewellery from wealthy burials, which can offer an overview on working with stones and rings in the 7th century, see Williams 2010, pp. 30–3, where he presents the content of the graves from Harford Farm. Many wire rings were found there (see image (8) in the Appendix).
36 Other objects, though, seem to be mentioned in Beowulf, e.g. the Brosings’ necklet worn by Hygelac (referred to also as hring; 1199, 1202) corresponds to Freyja’s necklace Brísingamen.
37 Kisor 2007 in JRRTE, p. 570.
38 See Okasha 2003, p. 36.
39 EML 2006, p. 218.
40 Quoted from Beechy 2010, p. 93. See Frye, Northrop. Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1976, p. 137.
41 Beechy 2010, p. 92. See also Wilcox 2014, p. 405.
42 Okasha 1993; Cf. Wyatt 1912, pp. 105, 108. For the original text, see ibid., pp. 37–8, 43–4. Due to the riddles’ length, I considered it useful to include their translations here: (48): I heard a ring sing before men, bright, without a tongue, rightly with strong words, although it did not yell in a loud voice; The treasure, silent before men, spoke: “Heal me, helper of souls.” May men interpret the mystery of the red gold, the incantation, may they wisely entrust their salvation to God, as the ring said. https://theriddleages.wordpress.com/2015/12/08/riddle-48-or-46/ (2016.01.12). (59): I saw in the hall gazing on a golden hring, prudent in their minds, wise in their hearts. He who turned the band prayed to God the Saviour for abundant peace for his soul; afterwards, in company, the hring spoke words, named the saviour of those doing good deeds. It showed to him in his mind the name of its lord; the dumb one brought it forth into the sight of his eyes if he knew how to understand the sign (made) of noble gold and (understand) die wounds of the Lord, (knew how) to do as the wounds of the ring said. The prayer of any man being unfulfilled, his soul cannot attain the metropolis of God, the city of the heavens. Let him who desires explain how the wounds of the wondrous hring may have spoken to men, when it was twisted and turned by the hands of proud ones in the hall. From Okasha 1993.
43 Okasha 2003, p. 36.
44 Riddles 23 and 47 provide such an example. See Okasha 1993; McFadden 2008, p. 347, fn. 50.
45 Used of an adornment or piece of treasure; of a circular object; of a ring fastened on to another object (for example, on to a shrine); of a circular part of the structure or decoration of a building; of a circular shape marked out on the ground or on one's body; of people standing; of birds flying in a ring; of the circle of the year; of natural phenomena, such as those that occur in the sky; of chains and fetters and, mainly in Beowulf, of a corselet or other armour; finally, hring occurs four times in the poetic phrase wopes hring, referring to lamentation. In this phrase, it may refer to the circular shape of the eye. See Okasha 1993.
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