Friday, 10 June 2022, 5pm, in St Edmund Hall, Old Library
We often talk about Europe, but our traditional ideas about European culture are questionable. This is because we carry views from the colonial and romantic periods that distort our image of history and geography and may prove a burden for future coexistence on the continent. I would like to encourage us to think more openly about Europe, about its broad cultural roots and its intensive relations with its continental neighbours. This includes reflecting on medieval clichés: medieval Europe was not a “Christian land” as the Romantics Novalis and Chateaubriand dreamed it. It was much more than that.
If you would like to participate remotely, please contact Henrike Lähnemann to be added to a teams call.
On Saturday the 9th of March, thirty-one pilgrims (and one canine pilgrim companion) met at St Helen’s Church in Abingdon, ready to walk the twelve miles to Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. Much like the Canterbury Tales, our party was diverse; there were students from across the UK and across disciplines and stages, porters, academics from far and wide and members of the public (one of which who had run a half marathon the very same morning). As a BYOB (Bring Your Own Beliefs) pilgrimage, there were also a range of reasons for pilgrimaging present among our group. This was the start of the Oxford Medieval Studies Pilgrimage Day 2019, a day that would engage with the practice, literature, history and revitalisation of medieval pilgrimage.
At St Helen’s we handed out pilgrim badge replicas, kindly funded by the Oxford Pilgrimage Studies Network, to each of our pilgrims. Beautifully recreated in pewter by Lionheart Replicas, the original badge dated from the fifteenth century and depicted two pilgrims, one male and one female, ready to set out on their walk. After some quick ground rules, some advice for how to make the most of a pilgrimage and a rousing reading of the opening lines to the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from Rebecca, we set off on our journey.
Although the preceding week had been plagued with rain and wind, the day was miraculously sunny with only the occasional gusty spell, the perfect walking weather. Our next stopping point was only five minutes away: the Abingdon Abbey buildings. The curator of the buildings, Tim Miller, led us around the surviving buildings of the Benedictine Abbey, including Unicorn Theatre, the Long Gallery and the Chequer. Tim was an excellent guide for us, bringing the stories of the abbey and its uses to life and showing us the most impressive parts of the building, such as the beautifully painted remains of a Tudor room partition decorated with roses and pomegranates.
After leaving Tim, we then had a long walk ahead of us. We walked through the grounds of Radley College and across the countryside until we reached the picture-perfect village of Sunningwell and its church, St Leonard’s, at just past midday. This was our lunch stop, many of the pilgrims pausing to eat their packed lunch in the sunny grounds of the church or enjoying some hot chips and a pint at the local pub. This church is now mostly fifteenth century, but the village and its association with Abingdon abbey traces back far further. It also features a stunning seven-sided porch at its entrance, the victorian stained glass of which was designed by J.P. Seddon.
We then moved off again, quickly looking at the well after which the village took its name. The landscape was a little steeper as we climbed Boar’s Hill, but the view on the descent of Oxford’s ‘dreaming spires’ was worth it, and we then arrived at St Lawrence’s Church in South Hinksey. Father Ben Drury kindly gave us an history of the church and pointed out the distinctive minstrel’s gallery and the little private window for viewing mass.
We then set off on the last part of our walk, trekking over the train lines and the river, then through the outskirts of the city to Christ Church Cathedral – our pilgrims had made it home! We rounded off the walk with Rebecca reading from the Book of Margery Kempe, a moving passage describing how she reaches the English shore after a stormy passage, before our pilgrims dispersed for a well-earned rest.
The last order of the day was a talk from Dr Guy Hayward, co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust, at St John’s College. Guy talked about his experience of pilgrimage, its history and how he is working to revive the practice in the UK – the perfect reflective end to the day with the lasting message that we should all work to bring pilgrimage back. If you would like to walk a pilgrimage to Oxford, we encourage you to check out the BPT website http://britishpilgrimage.org/portfolio/five-ways-to-oxford/ and let us know how you get on!
Some feedback from our pilgrims:
‘Talking with people about their different life experiences was enlightening’
‘I think it was great. The highlight for me was doing a journey together with people from different walks of life.’
‘Well co-ordinated, well supported, very friendly. Had a lovely day. One to remember.’
‘Really enjoyed it, would love to do more’
We would like to say thank you to the OMS Small Grant at TORCH for their support, and that of the Oxford Studies Pilgrimage Network. We would also like to say a special thank you to Guy Hayward, Tim Miller, Fr Ben Drury and Robert Culshaw for helping the smooth running of the day, and, of course, our brilliant pilgrims.
Moriaen is black, and so is his suit of armour. Like the Green Knight in the English tradition or Ither in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, Moriaen’s most noticeable trait is the colour of his equipment, which matches his body. The Christian son of an Arthurian knight and a Moorish princess, Moriaen comes to Arthur’s court and surprises its members by demonstrating that he has all the qualities of an Arthurian knight, despite his unusual appearance.
But is this black knight necessarily Black? Should we understand the fearful reactions and the rejection he initially experiences as racist?
In the 13th century Middle Dutch text, Walewein, the Dutch equivalent of Gawain, encounters the eponymous hero Moriaen in full armour. Walewein’s first thought is that the fierce foreigner must be the Devil:
Figure 1 Historiated Initial representing the black knight Walewein by Astrid Anquetin, especially commissioned for this blog post – not to be reused without permission
‘Nochtan waende Walewein bet / Dat ware die duvel dan een man / Daer si waren comen an, / Maer dat hine horde nomen Gode / Men had hem niet mogen ontstriden ode / Hine ware die duvel oft sijn geselle / Ende ware comen uter hellen, / Omdat sijn ors was so groet, / Ende hi was merre dan Lanceloet, / Ende daertoe sward, alsict seide.’ (l.480-489)
‘Nevertheless [Walewein] deemed that this was a devil rather than a man whom they had come upon! Had they not heard him call upon God no man had dared face him, deeming that he was the devil or one of his fellows out of hell, for that his steed was so great, and he was taller even than Sir Lancelot, and black withal, as I said afore.’ (translation J. Weston)
Because of the focus on Moriaen’s looks in this and other descriptions, it is hard to tell whether his black skin is perceived as one part of his identity or whether it is racialised. Walewein’s association of a physical trait with a moral judgement seems to fit the common definition of race, and being so negatively charged, his reaction might be interpreted as racist – meaning that the racial type of the large black Moor is classified and compared to others. Of course, by using the image of the Devil, black could not be ranked lower, both symbolically and morally.
Yet Moriaen, regardless of the wordplay which links him to his country, does not represent the people of Moriane overall. On the contrary, both his story of disinheritance and isolation, and the absence of other black characters in the plot single him out as a lone wolf. While his skin colour certainly stands out in Arthur’s country, it doesn’t identify him as a representative of Moorish high society. Since the inhabitants and customs of Moriane are barely sketched, there is no opportunity for a collective stereotype to form on the basis of the black knight’s portrayal, either among the white characters or the tale’s readers.
On the other hand, Moriaen’s skills and his great physical strength, suggested by his tall figure in the above quotation, help him gain the other knights’ respect and the king’s praise. These chivalric qualities, inherited from his father, are more than enough to convince Walewein of Moriaen’s worth and to balance out the initial doubt provoked by the hero’s blackness. On several occasions, Moriaen is even favourably compared to Lanceloet, who is traditionally Arthur’s best knight.
Although dark skin is interpreted as hellish, the narrator insists on dissociating appearance and internal being: Moriaen’s skin colour and his more personal traits are dealt with separately, making him a supposedly ugly but no less powerful hero. Blackness is not essentialised, nor is it therefore racialised.
Where at first there seems to be a wide gap between ideal knighthood, as outlined in Arthurian romance, and Moriaen’s dark appearance, the narrator’s focus on action and courtly values fully restores the Black Knight’s potential to be accepted in Camelot. This is the tale of a knight who ultimately succeeds in his quest and receives great honour, just like any other.
Sophie Jordan completed the Master of Studies in German this summer, and she is now studying the anthropological aspects of the question of skin colour as difference at the University of Manchester.
Devisse, Jean, trans. William Granger Ryan. ‘Christians and Black.’ The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II, Part 1, ed. David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates Jr.. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. pp.31-72. A&AePortal, https://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:3362/?id=-17117
By Caroline Batten Mary Boyle and Alexandra Vukovich
Looking to apply for a PhD in a medieval research area? We’ve got your back! This month, OMS held a workshop for students on Oxford’s MSt programme in Medieval Studies, and now we’re making those insights available more widely. We’ll give you our three top tips first, and then answer some Frequently Asked Questions underneath.
The advice below is specifically for applying to PhDs in the UK. You’ll find that American and European PhD programs are often very different from UK ones. Whereas in the UK your degree is research only, in American PhD programs you spend two years doing coursework before you begin your dissertation, and the whole process takes longer (5-7 years, as opposed to 3-4 years in the UK). Different countries in Europe offer different PhD structures: some are research-only, some are project-specific, others involve significant coursework and training. Be sure to research the different PhD programs available to you in different places, to help you decide what kind of program might be best for you.
With your research proposal, you’re selling both yourself and your project, so you want both to be as eye-catching as possible. You need to tell your readers why your project is exciting; what gap in the discipline it’s filling; and why you’re the right person to do it. But being bold is also about approaching the people you think can help you – ask as many people as possible to read over and comment on your application, because that will make it much stronger. This point also stands for approaching potential supervisors.
One straightforward way to sell yourself and your project is to make it clear that you know what you’re doing – even if you don’t actually feel like you do. So make sure that you’re telling your reader exactly what you’re planning to study (define your corpus); how you’re going to structure your project; and what you’re hoping to find out, even including some potential conclusions.
Develop the topic in dialogue!
At an early stage, approach people whose research you find interesting and talk about your topic with them. Your choice of supervisor is probably the most important decision that you’re making at this point. Your supervisor, or supervisors, don’t necessarily need to work on exactly what you’re working on, but they do need to be a person or people with whom you can imagine having a long-term working relationship. They need to be someone with whom you can have an honest conversation, and from whom you can accept constructive criticism.
If only early career offices looked like this. London, British Library, Add MS 11850.
Should I do a PhD/DPhil?
A doctorate is a hugely rewarding experience, giving you the time to fully devote yourself to research and learn how to be a scholar. It is, of course, a necessity for a career in academia, but can also prepare you for work in museums, libraries, archives, the rare books trade, publishing, a variety of cultural institutions, the foreign service, translation and interpreting, (and the list goes on!) as the skills you will gain are important for all kinds of work. But the unvarnished truth is that PhDs are intensive and demanding. You must be, or become, comfortable working independently, planning your own time and meeting the deadlines you set. You must spend many hours a week working on one singular project, requiring intense focus and commitment. For some people this sounds like heaven; for others it would make them miserable. You should do a PhD if you’re certain that you want to spend the next several years working very hard on one research project.
What if I’m sure I want to do a doctorate, but I don’t have a project?
A doctorate is 3+ years of intensive work, so you need to be sure you’re working on something you find compelling. If nothing has suggested itself to you yet, you could brainstorm about topics you’ve studied so far, and see if anything suggests itself. Ask yourself if any of your secondary reading has left you with unanswered questions. But it might also be that you need to finish your Master’s before the idea will suggest itself, and taking time out of academia might actually help focus your creativity.
Equally, you are not bound to your project once you begin, and you can make changes. If you feel you definitely want to do a doctorate and want to get started, talk with people who know your work, and they may be able to help you to work up a project. For some people, it is better to wait and apply when you are sure. For others, it is better to get the application in, and make your final decision later.
How do I identify the right institution?
The right institution for you will have several key features:
The institution will offer specific resources, support, and mentoring to its postgraduate students. Your chosen department will also have resources particular to its needs and yours (seminars, specific research clusters or groups, access to manuscripts, digital resources, strong libraries, etc).
The institution will have a strong and supportive community (large or small!) in your chosen field, so that you have colleagues with whom to collaborate, commiserate, and share ideas.
Most importantly, the right institution for you is the institution at which your chosen supervisor works. As noted above, your supervisor will make a huge contribution to your PhD experience. Any institution can be the right institution if you’re working with a person or people who offer you support, aid, encouragement, and thoughtful, critical feedback.
Which department/faculty should I approach?
This may be a question you are asking yourself if you’re doing an interdisciplinary Master’s. Ask yourself where you feel more at home: where does your methodology or topic fit best? Look at statistics for places and funding. Most importantly, talk to people who know your work, and especially your potential supervisor. Finally, remember that many institutions will allow you to have two supervisors in different disciplines. Being in one department/faculty doesn’t bind you to that department/faculty in the long-term and your research may well lead you to a different field later.
Do I need to approach supervisors before sending in an application?
Ideally, yes! It is not required for a PhD application that you have a supervisor in mind, and many applications are successful without a future supervisor listed. But your proposal will be stronger with feedback from a potential supervisor, and their support within the institution will be useful. It is always a good idea to talk to potential supervisors, to exchange ideas about your project and to learn about the different forms of support that their department/faculty might be able to offer. Another good reason to approach supervisors before applying is that, based on your proposal, they may be able to direct it to targeted funding (e.g., part of an ongoing project or a large grant) for your doctoral studies.
How do I approach potential supervisors?
Shoot them an email! It can feel hard at the moment to get in touch with someone you don’t know well, as you don’t just bump into people at seminars. But academics understand that you have to look around for potential supervisors at a variety of institutions, and they welcome enquiries from talented young researchers with interesting projects. They’ll be excited to hear from you! They may even be able to direct you to relevant projects with funded doctoral places attached. You may want to talk to your current course convenor and/or your tutors who may be able to guide you about whom to contact based on your interests.
When should I start work on my application?
Now! Get your initial thoughts down on paper, and you can start editing and discussing from there. An application is very much a work in progress, so jot down your ideas, along with any source material and bibliography that looks promising. It will be easier to put together a project once you have all of the component parts in place.
How long should my first draft be?
Aim for a few hundred words shorter than the word limit at this stage, to leave plenty of room for revisions.
How many drafts should I do?
As many as you need, but be realistic about when it’s time to stop! Remember: this is only a proposal and no one expects you to have all the answers. Your research questions and how you plan to explore them (source material, approaches, auxiliary tools) are much more important than speculative conclusions, at such an early stage.
Where can I find out about funding?
You should join subject-specific mailing lists (such as those you’ll find on Jiscmail or H-Net). There is also a PhD-specific section on jobs.ac.uk. Have a chat with your potential supervisor or with current doctoral students, who might be able to tell you about lesser-known scholarships or funded places on existing projects, like this project, which funded fifteen doctoral places over three years (all students have now started). Use this tool to find funding opportunities at Oxford specifically.
Looking for an exciting new retelling of the stories of the dashing and anarchic medieval folk hero Reynard the Fox? Look no further. OMS is honored to share with you the opening chapters of Anne Louise Avery’s new rendition of Caxton’s 1481 English translation of these Middle Dutch tales, now available from The Bodleian Library press.
Over the course of its 1500-year history, the late Roman building known as the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) has served as the setting for many ceremonies, religious, political, and more often than not, a combination of the two. On July 24, 2020 Hagia Sophia served as a political theatre for a symbolic re-conquest of the building via its reversion to a functioning mosque. For those who saw this ceremony as a form of erasure of the Byzantine past, it was quite the opposite. The polyvalence of the Roman building, synthesizing a Roman basilica, Byzantine church, Latin cathedral, Ottoman mosque, and museum, is evident in the fact that it has served as a template for religious architecture that the Ottomans and, more recently, Turkey have exported internationally. Furthermore, Hagia Sophia’s Byzantine past was key in the (re)-staging of the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans, which combined the narrative of the city’s capture with the Turkish government’s current political project.
There have been many excellent articles written on the politics of the reversion, including this useful series in the Berkeley Forum, and the post-reversion months saw a number of international discussions of the issue. I have written elsewhere against essentializing Hagia Sophia’s reversion to a mosque, which can be viewed in terms of global conservative tendencies, but must also be viewed in terms of Turkey’s national and regional politics. After all, the foundation of the Ayasofya müzesi/Hagia Sophia Museum in 1934 has been re-framed, by the Turkish government, as an act of self-colonization, a nod to secular western sensibilities of that time. That the reversion of Hagia Sophia was designed to boost Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s programme of de-secularization, a stridently anti-secularist and anti-Kemalist political programme, should now be clear. However, following a series of interlinked crises, the fanfare around the recent reversion of several Byzantine monuments has failed to resuscitate the regime’s initial popularity, and has further contributed to the growing political and economic power of the country’s religious authority, the Diyanet.
Although the reversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque drew the world’s attention this past June, it is neither the first nor most recent Byzantine-era building to have been reverted by the Turkish government. Already in 2011, the decision was taken to revert the Iznik Hagia Sophia—the site of the 787 CE Church council, convened to address the first Iconoclast Controversy—to a mosque. This move was followed by the reversion of the Trabzon Hagia Sophia in 2013. Following the opening of the Hagia Sophia Mosque in June, there was speculation as to whether the decision taken to revert the Chora Museum would be acted on. It came as a surprise when it was decided that the building, which had recently undergone a full restoration of its late Byzantine mosaics, would again become a functioning mosque. The impetus for expressions of concern about what might happen to the middle and late Byzantine mosaics and frescoes housed in these buildings, revolved around whether and how these would be covered during prayer times and beyond. For example, for the July 24 prayer, the apse mosaic depicting the Mother of God with the Christ child was loosely covered with white cloths held in place with ropes and pulleys, which still remain in place. Various solutions have been trialled for the Trabzon Hagia Sophia, including an opaque screen and a large light fixture that brightens or obscures the Byzantine frescoes located in the main prayer space. As for the Chora, it appears that a system of automatic, retractable screens has been installed to cover the mosaics.
The main controversy surrounding the mosaics was centred around the orientalist trope of ‘Islamic iconoclasm’—in reality, aniconism, with moments of iconoclasm mirroring those that shook the Byzantine Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries. However, the line of argument positing these reversions as a ‘return to’ a previous, aniconic state, elides the long and varied history of these monuments as Ottoman mosques. Over the course of the 600-year history of the Ottoman Empire, during which the abovementioned buildings functioned as mosques, their Byzantine iconographic programmes remained on (at least) partial display. After the Chora was converted to a mosque in the early 16th century, many of its mosaics remained visible for at least a century following the conversion. Some mosaics, including the cycle of the Holy Virgin, remained visible throughout the Ottoman period. This is why the building was informally known as the ‘Mosaic Mosque’. Historians, including Cyril Mango, Nevra Necipoğlu, Çiğdem Kafescioğlu, have pointed to the fact that travel accounts (those of Guillaume-Joseph Grelot in the 17th century and Cornelius Loos in the early 18th century) from the Ottoman period describe, quite accurately, Byzantine mosaics and frescoes in Hagia Sophia. Therefore, some figural art, including the (now-covered) apse mosaic of the Mother of God, was on display for much of the Ottoman period and only covered later in the 18th or early 19th century. Following the 1847 restoration of Hagia Sophia—during which many mosaics were uncovered then re-covered—the official re-opening ceremony, held on July 13, 1849 in the presence of Sultan Abdülmecid, was accompanied by the publication of two books: by Gaspare Fossati (1852) and Wilhelm Salzenberg (1854). Both books depicted the building in its Ottoman context with the re-covered mosaics displayed. Following the foundation of the Hagia Sophia Museum in 1934, the plaster from the 1847 restoration was removed, and the restoration work undertaken (between 1934 and 1953) revealed that the mosaics were still intact.
Recent events call attention to the reality that now, as in 1847, heritage management is a top-down matter. For now, the partial or full obscuring of figural art in these buildings aside, their integrity has not been seriously compromised, unlike the total destruction of sites like that of Sur in Diyarbakir or the flooding of Hasankeyf, actions which dispossessed and displaced numerous people. I have argued elsewhere that heritage management is best undertaken democratically. Employing a top-down institutional rationale to heritage only reinforces the gap, in terms of time, expert knowledge, and value, that exists between the administrators (whether the local ministry of culture and tourism or UNESCO) of cultural heritage and the wider population. Furthermore, the criteria for conservation often privilege a valuation based on the metrics of age, state of conservation, and monumentality to ascribe meaning to designate cultural heritage sites. Oftentimes, this sort of valuation overlooks the varying sites of memory, unofficial and overlapping, that make a site valuable to a given community. At times, this layering, later stripped away by modern archaeology, is what conserved ancient structures; for example, the Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Tripoli or Old Palmyra. The stripping away of layers often occurs because monuments are political instruments, a sort of museum-ified regalia of the state (and nation), functioning as proof of its legitimacy. However, layered monuments like Hagia Sophia resist linear narratives. When viewed diachronically, such monuments can be a powerful didactic tool for a complex social and political history, one that can easily counterbalance the tunnel vision of modern cultural politics.
By Arezou Azad, Principal Investigator and the Invisible East Team
Today, in the popular imagination, the vast and pivotal region that stretches from eastern Iran to Tibet, known as the Islamicate East, is notorious as the cradle of terrorism, violence and war. And yet, during the half millennium that followed the coming of Islam (8th to 12th centuries CE), this same region witnessed a mixing of cultures and religions that was both unique in itself and extraordinarily influential upon neighbouring societies (a pluralism and dynamism that is captured in the term “Islamicate” and in the image of lapis lazuli as the prized gem traded from Badakhshan, Afghanistan). One cause of this apparent contradiction is the lack of any single, coherent research programme dedicated to the study of the Islamicate East. Moreover, the field appeared to lack the sources for such a study — until now.
Local texts from Afghanistan’s Bamiyan and Ghur regions in this time period have recently become publicly available. They include documents, letters and literary fragments that were written by local Jewish and Muslim traders, business people, clerics, mothers and fathers, poets and rebels. They attest to an array of relationships, of coexistence, cooperation, and conflict between people of different religions in the 11th to 13th centuries CE. Several hundred more local texts from the medieval Islamicate East found in parts of the modern states of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the wider Central Asian region (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Khotan in China) have also not yet been analysed for their historical content.
The new Invisible East programme at the University of Oxford’s Oriental Institute brings the medieval Islamicate East to the forefront of historical research by studying these local texts. The programme is funded for the next five years (2019-25) with a core staff of seven researchers funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and European Research Council (under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme Grant agreement No. 851607). The research projects are part of the Invisible East programme directed by Senior Research Fellow at the Oriental Institute, Arezou Azad.
Specifically, Invisible East involves the transcription, translation and analysis of these texts, most of which reflect everyday, local use – such as, receipts, personal letters and legal opinions – while others are literary in nature. The initiative incorporates a range of languages, including Early New Persian, Judeo-Persian, Arabic, Bactrian, Khotanese and Pahlavi, and sheds new light on the political, financial and legal infrastructures at the granular level, historical writing, linguistics, and cultural and religious diversity in the medieval Islamicate East.
The core goals of Invisible East are:
• To understand the roles played by different stakeholders (political, religious, legal, financial) in the construction of multicultural communities and societies across the Islamicate East;
• To ascertain how texts and material culture help us understand relations between Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Christians, and other faiths in the Islamicate East; and
• To establish how the Persian language developed and interacted with other languages (Arabic, Hebrew and others) in the multicultural Islamicate East.
Invisible East will also result in valuable new resources designed to support further study at a variety of levels, including a digital corpus.
The Invisible East team currently includes researchers Tommy Benfey, Pejman Firoozbakhsh, Zhan Zhang, and AHRC co-investigator Hugh Kennedy. Another post-doctoral researcher is currently being recruited. The Programme Coordinator is Neil McCartney.
Medieval anchoresses and nuns in enclosure also provide a good example of how to maintain relationships without meeting in person. Despite digital communication tools we all have experienced that it can be quite difficult to feel a real sense of community without in-person encounters. So which strategies for coping with social distancing can nuns who only had pen and paper at hand teach us?
Medieval nuns who chose enclosure to approach the divine through contemplation, developed ways to ensure that families and friends would not forget them – and to show that their prayers benefited society. One of the most effective ways was to develop letter writing to an art form, and overcome distance by imbuing the words with transcendent symbolic meaning. This involved a balancing act: Theologians frequently warned that letters could be disruptive and let the loud, mundane world into the convent. After all, letters were always associated with secrecy, individuality, physical presence, and material goods. St Jerome, for example, carried letters with him and talked to them like to his friend, and St Augustine considered letters to enable greater intimacy than would be possible when the person was physically present but silent.
Many sources reveal how nuns crafted letters in conformity with their rules. Important evidence can be found in the letter books from the Benedictine nuns of Lüne, the largest cache of female writing from late medieval northern Germany.
First Strategy: Virtual Encounters
The nuns drew on the imaginative potential of letters to overcome distance and to build a sense of community with their families, friends, and other convents, for example, by sending saints as envoys: “Since we are related, it would be appropriate to come to your wedding feast. […] Yet God has chosen me to my own wedding, and he planted me in this earthly garden of paradise. […] So, I wandered around the heavenly fortress of Jerusalem and asked all the dear saints to come out for you.”(Lüne Hs 15, quire 28, fol. 2v). Depending on the recipient, these can be different saints: Mother Mary shall be the merciful host; St Michael shall ensure that only the best things happen to bride, groom, and their guests; St Matthew shall help them to keep their worldly wealth without striving for it too much; St John shall bring their offspring blessing; and St Anne, St Catherine and St Ursula with her 11.000 handmaidens shall always be companions in time of need (Lüne Hs 15, quire 27, fol. 6r-8r). These imaginary envoys could also carry elaborately described symbolic gifts: e.g. pearls and gemstones of a golden necklace, described and interpreted as the virtues and blessings that shall adorn the recipient’s soul (Lüne Hs 15, quire 28, fol. 14r-quire 29, fol. 1v). The nuns argue that, because of their vow of poverty, they cannot afford those expensive gifts, but send a letter instead: “We wish to ask from you that you receive it with the same love as that with which we have written it. If we could have written it in gold and silver, we would certainly have done so. Therefore accept our goodwill as a token” (Lüne Hs 15, quire 27,fol. 8r).
Second Strategy: Sending Gifts (and Unicorns!)
A little unicorn depicted on the so-called Christmas Tapestry, one of the impressive tapestries the nuns of Lüne embroidered in the 15th century (Restaurierungswerkstatt, Klosterkammer Hannover).
In other letters, real gifts became metaphors as the nuns interpreted and explained the details. Such gifts ranged from books and devotional pictures to little jugs, dresses, or even two young unicorns. The sender advices the recipient to build a fence around the pasture and to heighten it soon, because “the unicorns jump around so merrily” (Lüne Hs 31, fol. 82r). While it remains unclear what the real gift might have been, the unicorn was a symbol of purity, virtue, and of chaste love, which could only be tamed by a virgin. Thus it became an allegory of the incarnation, in which the virgin was equated with Mary and the unicorn with Christ. The gift for the nun could have been toys, an animal shaped gingerbread, a pastry model, or an embroidery of the creatures.
Third Strategy: Showing Empathy
The empathy palpable in those exchanges is also expressed directly whenever the nuns ask about the wellbeing of a friend in another convent: “I would like you to tell me that you are feeling better. Otherwise I cannot find peace”(Lüne Hs 15, quire 9, fol. 5v). This is also manifest in their deep sympathy for a mourning mother: “I understand that you are in pain and distress, because love is always deep between mother and Child.” The recipient shall soothe her heart to prevent “falling ill with excessive melancholy and tears”, and think of Mother Mary, who had to witness the cruel death of her son. To her she may confide her suffering, for Mary “knows from experience how a grieving mother feels” and will comfort her (Lüne Hs 30, fol. 39v). The nuns also do not hide yearning for their fellow sisters in neighbouring convents: “Give my greetings to the crows and ravens. When I sit here in my cell and hear the crows sing and see the ravens hopping in the snow, I think of my beloved sisters in Lüne” (Lüne Hs 31, fol. 158r). By verbalizing their empathy, the nuns connected emotionally to their social network, and this connectedness enabled them to resist in times of crisis. The nuns survived the Black Death as a community – and the Reformation, for them an even deadlier threat, alive and kicking now in the 21st century.
Fourth Strategy: Crafting words
A nun (sister Elspeth Stagel) writing at a lectern. Illumination in the sisterbook of Töss, Germany, 15th century. Stadtbibliothek Nuremberg, Cod. cent. V, 10a, 3ra (Wikipedia commons).
The nuns in Lüne valued their letters to such a degree that they copied and kept them in their convent’s archive. In this way, they served for continuous edification, to encourage remembering the social network, and to provide examples for teaching the novices how to write. The skill of conveying not only information but also emotion is one that can only be acquired by continuous practice; it was, and still is, an art to write letters that are clear and do not allow for misunderstanding. When communicating through written words alone, appropriate wording is of vital importance. Not surprisingly, the twelfth century saw the invention of letter writing manuals, when societal structures were becoming increasingly complex and demanded expert networking skills. These manuals offer examples of wording for all sorts of situations, so that the message is understood as expected and a close relationship can be established, even if you do not see or hear each other.
Therefore, when we feel lonely in the enclosure of our homes, a carefully written letter can comfort us. The search for the right words can bring order to one’s thoughts. It sends the mind on a journey to another person in a different place, and also provides the recipient with an individual, physical sign of company. So, why not make the effort for a friend and go on a journey of the mind yourself?
Dr Lena Vosding is a postdoctoral researcher working at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford. In her book, she examined the Lüne letter books in terms of form and function. To learn more about the project, the letters, the nuns and their current counterparts in the convent, see the six L.I.S.A. episodes about Lüne Abbey:
Episode 1: Lüne Abbey (the history of the convent and its current inhabitants), 08/19/2020
Founded in 1172, Lüne Abbey developed into a prosperous religious centre for the Lüneburg region. The Benedictine nuns formed a strong network with other convents in Northern Germany and joined an influential reform movement in 1481. In the 16th century, they transformed into a Protestant community after a prolonged struggle with the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg. The project ‘The Nuns’ Network’ explores this phase of change and reform in the 15th and 16th centuries, examining the significance of the Abbey and the communication strategies of the nuns based on letter books. These contain almost 1800 letters providing information about pastoral care, debating devotion and theology, and giving insight into daily life in the convent. The letters also highlight the role of rhetoric and learning for women living in strict enclosure.
Episode 2: The Letter Books (the materiality and content of the manuscripts), 08/26/2020
Among the numerous treasures of Lüne Abbey, the three letter-books are one of the most significant holdings. Into the three hefty tomes, the nuns copied nearly 1,800 letters and accounts from their correspondence during the 15th and 16th centuries. They offer an insight into the nuns’ lives from their own perspective. Particularly revealing are the arguments surrounding the Lutheran Reformation; the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg finally succeeded in nominally turning the convent into a Protestant community – but the women documented their arguments and preserved the record of it to this day in their Abbey.
Episode 3: The Role of Women (on the high esteem in which nuns were held), 09/02/2020
The Lüne letters give in-depth insight into the special role of women in religious orders. In medieval society, women were subordinate to men, being in the munt (under the guardianship) of their fathers and then of their husbands, only as widows gaining full control over their legal affairs. This was different in female religious houses. The prioress and other office holders took on a variety of significant roles for the community, and it was a high responsibility to lead the monastic community consisting of several hundred people. The esteem for religious women was based particularly on their status as brides of Christ (sponsae Christi), at the side of the highest king, leading to a elevated rank in the medieval hierarchy. This position was an obligation but also a source of pride for the women as many of the letters show.
Episode 4: The Editing (on the complex process of making the letters accessible), 09/09/2020
Editing the letter books from Lüne Abbey is a complex process which relies on the regular exchange between the team members in Düsseldorf, Oxford and Wolfenbüttel: the letters need to be deciphered, structured, commented upon and encoded to make the networks of the nuns accessible again. The edition allows full and fascinating insights into the knowledge structure, the communication and the rhetoric of the nuns. But the letters reach beyond that: private and personal aspects of the life of the women in the convent become visible and relatable, 500 years after they were first written down.
Episode 5: A Key Finding (on the learning of the nuns), 09/16/2020
An important part of the editing process is the commentary contextualising the style and content of the letters. A key finding is how scholarly learning and oral culture meet and mix in the letters, showing how the nuns operated on an equal footing with the learned male clergy. In a letter accompanying a gift of wine for the Provost, the young nuns for example show off their Latin learning – with more than a bit of self-deprecating humour. Such a letter could be read out aloud e.g. at a convent feast and thus re-enter the oral sphere of the monastic setting.
Episode 6: The General Interview (on the international collaboration), 09/23/2020
The last part of the series the two Principal Investigators, Eva Schlotheuber (Düsseldorf, History) und Henrike Lähnemann (Oxford, German Literature), in form of an interview talk about the genesis, challenges and perspectives of the Lüne letters project. What is the knowledge basis required to work with medieval letters and what challenges does the interdisciplinary collaboration between history and German Studies face; how is the project charting new territory? The exchange between the two investigators also focuses on new methodological approaches, the fascination of the letter books and the important question whether the letters could be considered private. And above all – what is the message of the letters for us today?
(Or Why Yersinia pestis is a Good ‘Model Organism’ in These Pandemic Times)
By Monica H. Green
This short essay is a companion to, and summary of, a lecture of the same title given by Moniwca H. Green at Oxford on 16 March 2020. You can now watch the video of the lecture on the Oxford Medieval Studies YouTube Channel.
Planning for the following presentation was done in early January 2020, before almost anyone had a clue that the world was about to be immersed in a new pandemic event. Originally meant as a presentation to Byzantinists, the talk was reframed to capture the essence of the larger work I have been doing the past 24 years to reframe the history of infectious diseases in a global framework of analysis. Although still focused on the history of plague (the main disease I’m working on at the moment), my central argument is that an evolutionary approach to the history of infectious diseases gives a powerful new way to understand pandemics past and present, and hopefully a way to avert similar events in the future.
The linchpin of all this work are new ways the biological sciences are contributing to the investigation of disease history. These contributions are of several kinds, but the most important have come from genetics. These function at two levels. First is phylogeny, the work of constructing “family trees” showing the evolutionary development—the “familial” relations—of microorganisms. Everyone will likely have noticed the phylogenetic trees published almost daily for the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Here’s the one from 9 February, showing genomes just sequenced in England:
SARS-CoV-2 has only been around since about November 2019, so far as we know right now. But prior to its arrival, there have been major diseases circulating around the globe for centuries. Tuberculosis, for example, although almost certainly originating in the eastern hemisphere, was present in the western hemisphere (the Americas) for at least the past 1000 years.
The present talk focuses on the story of plague, the disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. The talk focuses on summarizing the ways in which genetics—by reconstructing the evolutionary history of the pathogen—has told us things about plague’s history that we never previously had an inkling of. It has told us how deep plague’s history with human populations has been (back to the Late Neolithic). It has suggested how broadly plague may have spread in the past (across the Eurasian steppe in the Bronze Age; throughout east, central, and western Eurasia and even into Africa in Antiquity and the Middle Ages). Here’s the latest phylogenetic tree of Yersinia pestis, with the major pandemic events marked:
Source: Zhemin Zhou, Nabil-Fareed Alikhan, Khaled Mohamed, Yulei Fan, the Agama Study Group, and Mark Achtman, “The EnteroBase use’s guide, with case studies on Salmonella transmissions, Yersinia pestis phylogeny, and Escherichia core genomic diversity, Genome Research 30 (2020), 138-152, fig. 5. Labeling: M. H. Green, 2020.
Note the shaded areas: the Neolithic transition; the Justinianic Plague; and the Black Death. Historians have known for generations of the latter two events, of course, because we have eye-witness testimony of both events, as well as many other kinds of evidence. What is stunning, however, is that we also now also have aDNA for those events. “aDNA”—the other new kind of evidence genetics has put on the table—is short for “ancient DNA,” molecular fragments that have been retrieved from people who died of the plague. This has been pieced together fragment-by-fragment, allowing us to understand how those strains of Y. pestis compare to modern strains (all the non-shaded circles on the tree). That comparison, in turns, allows us to make inferences about where the different historical strains circulated, and begin to investigate what animal species hosted them.
But telling the story of a one-celled bacterium is only part of the history we need to reconstruct. How was the disease transmitted over such long distances? Why at particular times, but not others? Getting the “human” part of these stories connected to the history of the pathogen is the work that historians now need to do. The present talk, therefore, gives a sketch of what we know about plague’s history and what questions are currently being investigated. In the question-and-answer session at the end, we covered a variety of topics, some having to do with the specifics of plague’s history (especially the many questions we still have about the Justinianic Plague of Antiquity) but also the urgent questions we face in the present day, faced with a pandemic event that gives every sign of being as cataclysmic for its implications on world history as the Black Death of the later Middle Ages.
Humankind has faced pandemics before. We don’t know nearly as much as we should about them, however. There is much to do in making better sense of pandemic events of the past and in better understanding what they might teach us to better face an uncertain future.
Sources for more information:
I’ve written up a teaching guide about the “new genetics paradigm” which explains in more detail what has happened in genetics in the past couple of decades and why it has been so transformational for our “pandemic thinking.” This and information on my other publications on plague can be found at the following link: https://independentscholar.academia.edu/MonicaHGreen/Plague-Studies.
Monica H. Green is a historian of medicine and health. Follow her on Twitter @monicaMedHist and get in touch at email@example.com.