What Happens When We Expand the Chronology and Geography of Plague’s History?

(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:

Oxford 2020 slide - Naming and Numbering Pandemics.png

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 mhgreen@asu.edu.

Exploring Oxford’s nature through medieval eyes

By Andrew Dunning

You won’t see them in a typical tourist guide, but Oxford is home to several fabulous nature spots within walking distance of the city centre. Among my favourite discoveries during this year’s lockdown were a circuit through Wytham Woods, Godstow Abbey, and Port Meadow and a cross-country route along the Thames River to the Harcourt Arboretum (the fields can be mucky, but perseverance gives a prize of peacocks and piglets). When it was announced that the Oxford Open Doors festival would be online this year, I set out to present Oxford’s nature with a medieval twist.

Fans of Fantastic Beasts may know about bestiaries: collections describing both local and exotic animals, given a moral or allegorical interpretation and sometimes sumptuously illustrated. The Bodleian Library’s MS. Bodley 764 is one example, made in thirteenth-century England. Such writings reflect a desire to harmonize research on the natural world from classical and biblical texts with lived experience.

These excerpts feature geese, bees, sheep, and peacocks at Port Meadow, the Botanic Garden, Wytham Woods, and University Parks. If David Attenborough had lived in the Middle Ages, Planet Earth might have sounded something like this.

The goose calls its night watch to witness by its persevering noise. No animal senses a human’s smell like a goose. The Gauls’ assault on the Capitol was detected by its noise. Thus Rabanus says: ‘This bird can symbolize foreseeing people, keeping a good watch over their guard.’ [Rabanus Maurus, De uniuerso 8.6.46]

Now there are two kinds of geese: domestic and wild. Wild geese fly high and in a row, and they symbolize those who live far removed from earthly status by living well. But domestic geese live together in villages, often calling out; they wound one another with their beaks. They symbolize those who, although they love a gathering, spend their time on gossip and back-biting.

All wild geese are ash-grey in colour, and I have never seen one that was multicoloured or white. But in domestic geese, there is not only the ash-grey colour but also multicoloured and white. Wild geese have the ash-grey colour because those who are far from the world take a low garb of repentance. But those who dwell in cities or in villages wear clothing of a more beautiful colour.

A goose senses the smell of a person arriving before the rest of the animals; it does not cease to call out at night, because a prudent person recognizes others, however far away, through their evil or good reputation. Therefore, when a goose senses the smell of one arriving by night, it does not cease to call out, because when a prudent brother sees thoughtless offences of ignorance in others, he should call out. The noise of geese was once of use to the Romans on the Capitol, and in the chapter every day the noise of a prudent brother is useful when he sees thoughtless offences. The noise of a goose drove back the enemy Gauls from the Capitol; but the noise of a prudent brother drives the ancient enemy from the chapter. The noise of a goose saved the city of Rome unharmed from enemy attack; the noise of a prudent brother guards his attention from being disturbed by wicked people.

Perhaps divine providence would not have displayed the natures of birds to us – unless, it may be, he wished to make them useful to us in some way.

Bees (Botanic Garden)

Bees [apes] are so named either because they cling to one another with their feet [a (by) + pes], or because they are born without feet [a (without) + pes], for they develop both feet and wings afterwards. These are diligent in the task of creating honey. They live in assigned dwellings; they build their homes with indescribable skill; they compose their honeycombs from different flowers; and they fill up their beehives with innumerable offspring in wax cells. They have armies and kings, and they wage battles. They flee from smoke and are provoked by a disturbance.

Many people know from observation that bees are born from the corpses of cattle. For to create these bees, the flesh of slaughtered calves is beaten; worms are created from the rotten gore. Afterwards, the worms become bees. Strictly speaking, however, the ones called ‘bees’ come from oxen, just as hornets are from horses, drones from mules, and wasps from asses.

The Greeks call the larger bees created in the honeycomb’s outer cells ‘castros’. Some people think they are called kings, because they lead their beehives [castra].

Among all the kinds of animals, only bees have shared offspring. They all live in one house; they enclose the borders of a single country; all their work is shared; their food is shared; their tasks are shared; their custom and produce is shared; their flight is shared.

They ordain a king for themselves, they appoint people, and though placed under a king they are free. For they also maintain his privilege of judgement, and have affection for him by the fidelity of their devotion, since they choose him as king in the same way as a deputy for themselves, and they honour him with the entire swarm. But the king is not selected by lot, because a lot involves chance rather than judgement, and often the worse candidate is preferred to the better one by the irrational falling of the lot.

None of the bees dare to leave their homes, nor go out into any pastures, unless the king has gone out first and has claimed authority for himself with his flight. They go forth through fragrant fields where they inhale the odours of the flowers of the garden, where streams flow among fragrant grasses, where the banks are pleasant. There, lively youth play their games, there men take their athletic persuits, there they find release of cares. The first foundations of the hives are laid as a delightful labour among the flowers and sweet herbs.

Sheep (South Hinksey)

The sheep is a soft wooly domestic animal, with a vulnerable body, a gentle spirit. Its Latin name, ‘ovis’, is derived from ‘oblations’, because when the ancients first began sacrificing, they did not kill cattle but sheep. Some people call them two-toothed, because some have two upper teeth along with eight others. The gentiles used to offer these especially in sacrifice.

When winter comes, the sheep grazes insatiably and tears at the grass voraciously, because it senses the coming sharpness of winter. It first stuffs itself with grass for food, since all the grass is destroyed by the freezing cold.

Sheep, as we said, represent innocent and simple people among Christians. Furthermore, at times the sheep also allegorically displays the mildness and patience of the Lord himself. A passage of Isaiah on the innocent Saviour’s death says, ‘as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.’ [Isaiah 53.7] In the Gospel, sheep are the faithful people: ‘The sheep hear his voice’. [John 10.3] And in a psalm: ‘Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet: sheep and oxen’. [Psalm 8.6–7] Two sheep represent the peoples of the nations that a man nourishes, that is Christ, on which it is read in the prophet, ‘in those days a man shall nourish a young cow and two sheep; and because of the abundance of milk he shall eat butter’. [Isaiah 7.21–22]

Peacocks (Harcourt Arboretum)

The peacock’s name comes from the sound of its call; its flesh is so tough that it hardly suffers decay, and it is not easy to cook. Concerning it, someone once said: ‘Do you admire him whenever he spreads out his jewelled wings, and can you hand him over, hard-hearted man, to the cruel cook?’ [Martial 13.70]

Because Solomon carried a peacock from distant lands, and it has different colours in its feathers, it is a sign of the gentile people, coming to Christ from remote parts of the earth, who also shine brightly, adorned with the grace of many virtues.

Andrew Dunning is the R.W. Hunt Curator of Medieval Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library and Supernumerary Fellow in Book History at Jesus College.

Exemplary difference: examples in historic music theory

By Adam Whittaker

Reblogged from The Conveyor.

‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture’, or so the famous phrase goes. And yet, we have been writing about music for centuries. We are fortunate to have such a range of medieval and Renaissance writings on music that survive, from luxurious presentation volumes to scrappy single sheets pasted into miscellaneous collection. Although we often see quite stable transmission of texts across multiple sources (sometimes across centuries), we see much greater variation in the examples and diagrams. These, it seems, were fair game for change, revision, and emendation for specific readerships and local contexts, or simply at the whim of the scribe. My research explores why these differences matter.

In the autumn of 2019 I was in Oxford as the Albi Rosenthal Visiting Fellow in Music at the Bodleian Libraries. During my fellowship, I consulted a number of music theory manuscripts, including MS. Bodley 515 and MS. Digby 90. These manuscripts contain the famous Quatuor principalia musice [Four Fundamentals of Music], most likely authored and/or compiled by the English friar John of Tewkesbury in the late fourteenth century.

First, let’s look at one similarity. Early in the text, the theorist uses a monochord (a theoretical instrument of a single string) to explain the interval of a tone; a musical step in layman’s terms, as though moving from G to A on a piano. Both sources have a functionally similar diagram, even if there are some subtle visual differences.

Trumpet-like diagram of scales of one stringed instrument

Bodleian MS. Bodl. 515, fol. 10r (detail)

cone like diagram showing scales of one stringed instrument

Bodleian MS. Digby 90, fol. 11v (detail)

We can see that both manuscripts show a monochord (horizontal line representing a string); both indicate the interval of a tone between G (low G) and A with an arc labelled ‘tonus’; and both have the indication ‘monochordu[m]’ at the left-hand edge of the diagram. Bodl. 515 shows a more artistic approach to this diagram, with its coloured labels and decorative circles, whilst MS. Digby 90 favours equal tonal spacing with notches. Despite these differences, which might be attributed to scribal taste more than anything else, the reading experience across the two sources is near identical.

However, such similarity isn’t always present. If we look at the depiction of the Guidonian hand – a kind of conceptual map for musical space that is commonplace in music theory texts – we see both similarities and differences. The Guidonian Hand mapped the six-note intervallic pattern (ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la) onto physical locations on the body which a singer could use as a memory aid while they sang. To think about how the Hand works in practice, The Sound of Music’s ‘Do-Re-Mi’ is especially helpful. Let’s consider the diagrams presented in the two sources.

Diagram of a hand, each section of fingers labelled in latin

Bodleian MS. Digby 90, fol. 21r (detail)

Diagram of a hand in red, squiggly lines to the right.

Bodleian MS. Bodl. 515, fol. 23r (detail)

There are some important differences here. You’ll notice that MS. Bodl. 515 is missing labels on joints, whilst these are clearly visible in MS. Digby 90. These are crucial! Without the syllabic markings on the joints of the thumb and fingers, this diagram serves little demonstrative function, beautiful as it is. Such a scenario poses some interesting questions and might have left fifteenth-century readers scratching their heads. Is this just a scribal error? Was this aspect of the diagram to be entered in a different layer? Did the scribe not understand the diagram they copied? Was there an error in the exemplar copy that a scribe couldn’t resolve? What use is the diagram when it is missing such key information?

This last question is of particular importance for the final comparison I want to make here. The relationship between musical durational values is a fundamental building block of music notation. Early musical notations were more context-dependent, with the same note shape being worth two or three counts depending upon the context. Theorists found many intriguing ways to discuss this phenomenon, but the most interesting for the present discussion is the idea of a note value tree.

Some contemporaneous musical treatises refer to the ‘arbor’ of Johannes de Burgundia, a figure about whom we know nothing except for a passing reference to his ‘arbor’ in a musical treatise by Petrus de Picardia (fl. 1250). Both our sources include a diagram of this type, though we see some divergence in approach. In MS. Digby 90, we see the relationships made clear in a quasi-tabular format (largest values at the bottom), with lines connecting the related mensural levels. Working from the bottom up we see that the largest note value divides into three parts, which itself is divided into three smaller parts etc.:

Diagram of upside down family tree like structure

Bodleian MS. Digby 90, fol. 45r (detail)

By comparison, we see something which takes the tree much more to heart in MS. Bodl. 515:

Red family tree in a tree-lile shape

Bodleian MS. Bodl. 515, fol. 49v

The visual appeal of this is important. MS. Bodl. 515 offers hatched details on the trunk of the diagram, with additional coloured detailing which has faded over time. In this way, the longest note becomes the ‘root’ of the tree, and its subdivisions into smaller notes become represented as branches, themselves with sub-branches. Although both sources adequately demonstrate the theoretical point, the subtly different diagrams change the nature of the text–image relationship. The tree-like construction of MS. Bodl. 515 creates a sharp mental picture for a reader to recall. MS. Digby 90, though equally clear, establishes a different mensural picture. These diagrams demand different reading practices and present theoretical material in divergent ways.

My point here is not to assign greater value to either source, but to demonstrate that what might be dismissed as ‘minor scribal variants’ really matter when we consider how a reader might engage with a text in a specific manuscript source. If a diagram containing such foundational information that was common knowledge to expert readers, then why did a scribe go such significant effort to present this in a visually appealing manner? The reader’s experience of the same text in these two sources would have been quite different. Through this lens we begin to see the way that the materiality of music theory texts is at least as important as the contents of the texts themselves, and that the diagrams and examples give us an unparalleled insight into this. These theoretical ideas are alive in the manuscripts that preserve them.

Adam Whittaker is Head of Pedagogy and Lecturer in Music at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

Glopes, Pransawtes and Twyfyls: The Edge of Language in Middle English Drama

By Jenni Nuttall

Five dragonflies and four mayflies. Coloured engraving by J. Newton, ca. 1780, after J. Barbut. Wellcome Trust Collection

Like mayflies which live only for a day, some words have a single attestation in the surviving written records of English (at least as far as current searches can ascertain). The Middle English Dictionary is careful to record these one-off words in medieval English. It gives entries, albeit very brief ones, to the rarest words, allocating them the same status (at least in one way) as the most common words which have very full entries. So why are we so fastidious about, and why should we be interested in, this most ephemeral of language?

Sometimes these one-off words come about by chance – a word might have been widely used in day-to-day speech but only got snagged in writing once. Sometimes the opposite happens: a word is deliberately invented by someone at a particular moment for a particular purpose. This latter kind are called nonce words, named by the Victorian lexicographer James Murray after the phrase ‘for the nonce’ (i.e. for a specific, one-off purpose).

Some of the most deliciously odd nonce words in the Middle English Dictionary — words like ‘glope’, ‘pransawte’ or ‘twyfyls’ — are preserved in the late medieval Towneley Plays, named not for their place of performance but for the owners of the manuscript in which they are collected. Once thought to be a cycle of pageants performed in Wakefield in West Yorkshire, it’s now recognised as ‘a disparate collection of plays, of varied origin and production requirements’.

A quilt by B J Elvgren depicting the Chester Mystery Plays

Wherever the plays came from, their authors had to meet the demands of writing verse drama in long stanzas requiring lots of rhymes. While many poets nowadays veer away from full rhymes as a matter of style, medieval verse-dramatists bend words or invent words to arrive at rhyme no matter what. So in ‘Herod the Great’, the invented adjective ‘myghtyus’ (i.e. mighty-ous), rather than the usual ‘mighty’, is formed to rhyme with ‘gracious’. Or in the ‘Judgement’ play, the compound adjective ‘ill-dedy’ (i.e. ‘ill-deed-y’), describing those who are sinful, is coined to rhyme with ‘greedy’ and ‘needy’.

What would an audience think about these coinages? Would they notice them as new or unusual? These plays were written before the first dictionaries, so perhaps anything goes. Yet the playwrights seem to bend language for oddity and amusement’s sake. Can one be ‘deed-y’ in the same way that you are ‘greed-y’ and ‘need-y’? ‘Mightious’ isn’t exactly like ‘gracious’ because we have ‘mighty’ already. Like a grotesque on a misericord or a weird scene in a manuscript margin, we might think of nonce words as ornamental deformations at the edges of verse and vocabulary, not accidental ‘error’ but wilfully ‘wrong’ invention.

My hunch is that medieval dramatists and audiences appreciated the very peculiar qualities of one-off words. When Herod is presented with the plan to slaughter the Innocents, he narrates his reaction with a one-off word rhyming with ‘hope’ and ‘pope’: ‘my hart is rysand / Now in a glope’ (meaning that his heart is aflutter). Middle English already has the verbs ‘glopnen’ and (much rarer) ‘glopen’, both meaning ‘to be afraid’. A number of Towneley’s one-off words are, like these verbs, derived from Old Norse, being Northern dialect words which don’t get recorded elsewhere in Middle English. But even allowing for that, I think this word is strange. Did you hear what he said? A glope! But what’s a glope? Is he emboldened or afraid? Herod becomes a rambling double-talker in a play that sits uneasily between humour and horror.
Folios 5v and 6r from Huntington Library MS HM 1, the manuscript of the Towneley Plays’

In the Doomsday play, the devil Titivillus (famous for collecting up mumbled prayers and chatter in church, and for making scribes make mistakes) helps other devils conduct an appraisal of the bad souls come for judgement. One devil mocks a sinner’s ‘pransawte’, a blend of ‘prance’ and ‘saut’ (meaning a leap or tumble) which describes quite perfectly those twirls of delight we make in a fancy new outfit. Tutivillus calls out a woman who wears ‘twyfyls’, which might be a lispingly pronounced ‘trifles’ or a mix of ‘twice’ and ‘trifle’, some adornment that comes in a pair. Nonce words like this represent the devilish abuse of language, and also the fashion and artifice which distracts us from what really matters and the ease of error. Yet, at the same time, they are highly evocative.

Towneley’s nonce words don’t get picked up and used elsewhere. Are they thus ultimately failures? My research on poetic neologisms suggests uniqueness was consciously preserved: poets often invent neologisms modelled on earlier examples but don’t so often repeat an earlier poet’s own nonce words. Remaining a mayfly is thus a mark of success. And maybe nonce words can have meaning in their near-meaninglessness, as revealed centuries later in Seamus Heaney’s lovely poem ‘Nonce Words’ (which you can read at the foot of this page).

Heaney’s speaker takes a wrong turn on a drive which leads to a snatched moment of contemplation parked up on a freezing day. In the cold, he seems to apprehend his own mortality. Shivering, he blesses himself in the name of ‘the nonce / and happenstance’, the chance that has brought him here. The title nudges us to spot Heaney’s own nonce creations. He, like the Towneley dramatists, exercises his right to personalise language, to invent words which live as briefly as mayflies or, as the poem tempts us to think, as briefly as humans and their creations, unique and ephemeral.  Yet thanks to the careful custody of lexicographers, nonce words can outlast their brief moment — how, Heaney asks, might we do the same?

Jenni Nuttall is a Lecturer in English at Exeter College, University of Oxford. She tweets and blogs about medieval literature at @Stylisticienne and stylisticienne.com, and has recently written about the history of gibberish for Aeon.co and History Today.

15th Century Booktrade and Learning in the time of Lockdown

By Aoife Ní Chroidheáin

Reblogged from The Conveyor 

How have our reading practices changed during Lockdown? As somebody working with 20th century samizdat material for my doctoral thesis, I was surprised to find some of the most revealing answers to this question at an event centred round the 15th century booktrade project which took place in the Italian Embassy, London. In this blogpost I will reflect on the links between the printing and reading practices associated with 15th century booktrade and those of the later years of the GDR.

Over the last three months, we have seen the spirit of resilience and comradery fostered in communities across the world, supporting people through the adversity of the coronavirus pandemic. It would seem that the life advice Boccaccio imparted to us in the wake of the Black Death in his Decameron (1354), is still as apt as it ever was: “in our communities we can find solace”.

Written between 1348 and 1353, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron contains stories told by a gathering of ten young people who had escaped to a villa outside Florence in order to flee the Black Death. Boccaccio’s frame story comprises a miscellany of tales: romantic, tragic and comedic, and ultimately offers a literary retreat from the pain and hardship of life in a time of plague. However, what emerges specifically from Boccaccio’s work is not just the importance of community, but also the curative power of literature.

For the characters in the Decameron, storytelling offered a moment of welcome reprieve from the difficulty of their life circumstances:

It behoveth us live merrily, nor hath any other occasion caused us flee from yonder miseries […] we shall pass away this sultry part of the day, not in gaming,–wherein the mind of one of the players must of necessity be troubled, without any great pleasure of the other or of those who look on, but in telling stories, which, one telling, may afford diversion to all the company who hearken. (Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio, trans. by John Payne (New York: Walter. J Black, 1886), pp 13-15)

Just as the characters in the Decameron came to each other and began storytelling in order to keep up morale, many members of the public today have turned to the creative arts once more to seek solace in this time of crisis. In the academic community, open-access online events have widened the scholastic community and created inclusive, virtual learning groups open to the public. Speaking at a recent webinar, Professor Cristina Dondi (Oakeshott Senior Research Fellow in the Humanities, Lincoln College, Oxford) noted that this movement towards wider educative inclusivity harkens back to key moments in the 15th century with the democratisation of learning through the era’s burgeoning international book. However, Dondi also reminded webinar attendees of how much further we must go in order to facilitate wider access to scholarly materials in archives.

As the Principal Investigator for the ‘15cBOOKTRADE Project’ at Oxford, Dondi was in the unique position of being able to offer insight into importance of the digitisation of historical texts. The aim of the project was to use the material evidence from thousands of surviving books from the 15th century to address five fundamental questions relating to the introduction of printing in the West. These questions included investigation of reading practices, the evaluation of the books’ contemporary market, the dissemination and visualisation of these texts, and finally, the use of illustrations.

For Dondi, and indeed many other academics, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the absolute necessity of digitisation of historical texts in order to create open-access learning communities befitting the social and academic developments of the 21st century.

‘The Dawn of Printing to Digital Access’

Circumnavigating current lockdown restrictions, the Italian embassy in London recently facilitated a webinar on ‘The Dawn of Printing to Digital Access: the benefits of making books available to everybody’. The event, hosted by Ambassador Trombetta and moderated by Jon Snow of Channel 4 News, brought together international experts engaged in promoting wider accessibility to books of historical and cultural significance (to read more about this project, follow the hashtag #ItalyRestArt).

Image of #ItalyRestArt showing manuscripts

The webinar was focused on highlighting the progress of the digitisation of Italian incunables, while also looking to the future of digital access to historical books more generally. Organised into four main parts, the webinar opened with words of welcome from Jon Snow and His Excellency Ambassador Trombetta. This was followed by the introduction of previously recorded video statements from major players in the recent cultural preservation movement in Italy, featuring recorded messages from Anna Laura Orrico, Italian Minister of State for Culture and Tourism, and Andrea De Pasquale of the National Central Library of Rome. The third part of the webinar consisted of brief individual lectures from the panel in regard to their engagement with and promotion of digital access in their own fields. Among these panellists were Don Fabrizio Cicchetti, Antonio Padoa Schioppa and Prof. Cristina Dondi, who each offered insight into various aspects of digital preservation and access.

Representing the private foundation supporting this vital digitization of these texts, Marc Polonsky, of The Polonsky Foundation, shed light on the Foundation’s commitment to cultural preservation and wide dissemination. Polonsky credited the collaborative nature of the digitization project for fostering unique partnerships between project stakeholders from both the public and private sectors. According to Polonsky, this collaboration facilitated the establishment of high standards of best practice (both academically and technologically) which could be adopted as a developmental framework for future projects.

While each of these leaders related fascinating thoughts, it was Dondi’s lecture, however, that resonated with me the most. This was due to her inspiring engagement with the study of Material Culture, bringing the riches of cultural treasures not just to those in academia but also to the wider public.

Dondi began her talk by referencing the importance of developing resources that facilitate online access to research materials for precisely the moments in time when researchers cannot travel to archives and research libraries. Indeed, the current climate of the global pandemic is evidence for the necessity of accessible, transnational online learning resources.

In the last two years, the digitisation project of the Incunables of the Benedictine monastery of Santa Scolastica at Subiaco, the first printing place in Italy, a collaboration between the National Central Library in Rome and the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) of which Dondi is the Secretary, however, made these Italian cultural treasures available online anywhere in the world at the push of a button. In doing as much, Dondi noted in her talk that for scholars of the incunables, the restrictions placed on archival research due to Lockdown have in this way been surmounted. For many undoubtedly grateful scholars, the online access to these materials will allow them to continue their research projects unhampered by the social and political upheaval around them. If this outcome were not applaudable enough, then the popularity of Dondi’s recent exhibition ‘Printing R-evolution and Society, 1450-1500. Fifty Years that changed Europe’ at the Museo Correr, Venice (September 2018-April 2019) has demonstrated just how vital  digitisation work is for the wider public as for academia. This exhibition documented the impact of the printing revolution on the economic and social development of early modern Europe using hundreds of freely available digitizations from many European and American libraries.

‘Printing R-evolution’

A journey of discovery which used digital tools and innovative methods of communication, the exhibition presented data gathered by the 15c Booktrade project (University of Oxford) about the History of the Book. The exhibition highlighted how, already by the year 1500, millions of books circulated in Europe, not only for the elite, as often claimed, but for everyone, including a large production of schoolbooks. In those, first, decades, printing coincided with experimentation and enterprise. Printed books were the product of a new collaboration between various sectors of society: knowledge, technology, and commerce, with ideas spreading widely and quickly as never before.

Dondi’s close engagement with the study of material culture was of particular interest to me, as my doctoral project investigates the ‘unofficial’ literary scene of the GDR in the 1980s, specifically through in-depth case studies of magazines printed in a samizdat capacity.

By researching each of the magazines’ diverse literary content, the different ways in which these magazines were produced, and the readership practices that surrounded them, my thesis will offer insights into the creative self-expression of the East Berlin literary scene and examine whether this phenomenon can be understood as part of the wider samizdat movement seen in many Eastern bloc countries. My thesis explores what these magazines tell us about the function, possibilities and limitations associated with publication beyond print in a totalitarian regime. Although my topic of research differs greatly from Dondi’s work in terms of historical era and social circumstances, in essence both areas of research are fundamentally preoccupied with the same investigative question: what can the physical form of the book reveal about the people behind its printing?

In the scholarly community, as in many other sectors in society, academics have had to adjust their ordinary methods of research in order to continue with their projects. Working From Home and using online learning tools have helped educators create an academic space (albeit, a virtual one) in this time of crisis. Attending webinars such as Dondi’s ‘The Dawn of Printing to Digital Access’, where international experts shared their knowledge and supported each other and the wider scholastic community allowed myself, and doubtless many other academics, to use our time in isolation fruitfully and thoughtfully. It would seem, therefore, that despite all changes and disruptions, many of us, like in the time of Boccaccio, have taken refuge in our communities, the stories and studies that we hold dear, as we continue to go on learning in the time of Lockdown.


Aoife Ní Chroidheáin BA (Hons) MSt (Oxon) is DPhil Candidate in Medieval and Modern Languages at the University of Oxford and holds a scholarship in the Leverhulme Doctoral Centre Publication Beyond Print. Aoife’s doctoral research entitled Dangerous Creations: Power and Autonomy in East Berlin’s Samizdat examines the unofficial literary scene in East Berlin from 1980-1990.

Reaching out with medieval manuscripts

By Tuija Ainonen

What do you get when you put together an excited group of medieval manuscript specialists and ask them to discuss blogging and teaching with digitized manuscripts? The answer: trumpets, drapes, marginal animal appearances, fake back-drops, cries of agony, laughter and lots of good advice.

A worldwide audience (from California to New Zealand!) gathered in three online sessions that were organized as additional evening events for the International Medieval Congress (IMC) at Leeds, 6–9 July 2020. The organisers were very pleased to see that each session had well over 100 participants. Our speakers shared their experiences on using digitized medieval manuscripts for teaching, and for reaching out to various audiences via social media, mainly through blogging and tweeting. 

Blogging manuscripts with #PolonskyGerman

Tuija Ainonen, Andrew Dunning and Henrike Lähnemann (all of University of Oxford) opened the sessions by discussing their experiences on blogging for Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands – A Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project. The project is in the middle of a three-year collaboration between the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford and the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. Funded by The Polonsky Foundation, the project seeks to open up the medieval German manuscript collections of two world-class libraries for research and reuse. The two libraries will digitize c. 600 medieval manuscripts of Germanic origin between 2019 and 2021.

Watch to hear some thoughts on writing project based blogs on a variety of topics.

In the first session each presenter highlighted a blog post they had written. By opening up their writing processes they provided some useful tips for what to do, and what they would do differently. Even with specialized projects the aim is to write to non-specialists, so using approachable language and sentence structures is essential. As illustrative images are taken from digitized copies, it is crucial to provide readers with the manuscript shelfmark, folio reference and a link to the digital copy. It is important to follow the libraries’ attribution and guidance for terms of use that are provided in the meta-data of the images. However, the best place of the shelfmark is perhaps not on the title of the blog post. 

Teaching the digital codex 

In our second session Mary Boyle (University of Oxford), Julia Walworth (Merton College, Oxford) and Leonor Zozoya-Montes (University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria) continued the theme of manuscript outreach. Discussions considered teachable features and pedagogical approaches to teaching with digital codices. Teaching the Codex was launched at Merton College, Oxford with a colloquium in February 2016, and it has since published formidable blogs on teachable features and links to paleographical and codicological training resources.

Listen to great insights into how to approach teaching the digital codex.

Their individual and collective insights provided the listeners with lots of new ideas and thoughts. Perhaps the not-so-pretty manuscripts also deserve more time in the limelight provided by blogs. Various teachable features and manuscripts that cover multiple texts provide fertile ground for highlighting medieval manuscripts from various different viewpoints.

Blogging manuscripts for the general public

In our final session Alison Hudson (University of Central Florida) and Alison Ray (Canterbury Cathedral Archives) took us through a whirlwind of images and advice on good social media practices as they showed us examples of their twitter and blog behaviour.  

An excellent brief introduction to successful tweeting and blogging practices with medieval manuscripts

With a handy and useful group of guidelines for continuing our journey on blogging and tweeting with medieval manuscripts, one particular thought is worth repeating here. We as manuscript researchers and readers are in the best position to showcase and promote the work we do. Blogs provide us a handy way of showing ways in which medieval books are still relevant today, and how the old authors, compilers, scribes and readers of old continue to speak to current audiences.  

Blog writing challenge

In preparing for these three sessions we encouraged our readers to submit blog proposals for potential future blog posts in the participating platforms. A good initial crop of intriguing proposals were discussed during the sessions, and we anticipate to publish several of them in the coming months. While the initial deadline of proposals was to ensure inclusion in our sessions, it is still not too late! 

Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands – A Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project continues to accept proposals showcasing to a general readership manuscripts digitized within the project. From 257 manuscripts (and counting!) to choose from, which one would you highlight and why? Proposals for blogs should be sent in the first instance to Andrew Dunning (andrew.dunning@bodleian.ox.ac.uk) or Matthew Holford (matthew.holford@bodleian.ox.ac.uk). Blogs of 500-750 words submitted by 22 August will be eligible for the Polonsky German blogging challenge. A panel will select the most successful blogs and will award prizes at the Dark Archives Conference 8-10 September 2020.

The Blogging with Manuscripts sessions were organised in collaboration with Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands – A Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project, Oxford Medieval Studies, Teaching the Codex, and Dark Archives

Updating a Medieval Mystery Play: The St Edmund Hall Apocalypse

Reblogged from the Judgement Page of the Oxford Medieval Mystery Cycle site hosted by St Edmund Hall.

In the beginning, there was Drama Cuppers. Not one member of the final cast of Teddy Hall’s 2018 entry in the freshers-only drama competition expected to be part of it, and the cast was only settled, and rehearsals only began, about a week before the first performance. To universal amazement, we not only pulled off our abridged and chaotic production of The Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon, but made it through to the finals, after which we were nominated for several awards. Having been warned that Teddy Hall was not well known for its pursuit of the dramatic arts, we were giddy with our own success. Yet even with these strange beginnings, we could never have predicted what it would get us into.

Later that Michaelmas, Professor Lähnemann, having heard about our Drama Cuppers exploits, approached director Emma Hawkins (2018, Fine Art) about her plan to host a Medieval Mystery Play Cycle, asking if she would be interested in organising a group from Teddy Hall. Based on the popular form of entertainment across Europe in the Middle Ages, the plays were to narrate the greatest hits of the Bible, from the Creation to the Last Judgement, and to be staged at various locations around the college. Emma took the news back to us — and we laughed at her. Us, whose only theatrical experience in Oxford had been an absurd fairy-tale play in which a feminist Snow White rejects her housewife role and retells her own story (having one of the dwarves play her part in drag) — us perform a serious play? About the Bible?

Well, naturally, we accepted the offer. We’d been told we could adapt the script we had been given, which was a modernised version of the Last Judgement from the Towneley Plays. That, we decided — or, rather, hoped — gave us the freedom we would need to pull off something like this. And yet, of course, while we wanted to have fun with it, we were also very conscious that the last thing we wanted to do was to offend anyone in our audience, which was to have an unusually high concentration of vicars. We chose the Last Judgement on the grounds that Revelation — as commentators have noted for more than a millennium — already has some… interesting material. However, we did not think about the other implication of performing the Apocalypse, which is, of course, that nothing comes afterwards. We’d agreed to do the Big Finale, the Last Word on the Matter, the One to End it All, Literally: so it was going to have to be good.

Fortunately, we were gifted with a fascination for theology (both having survived A Levels in Religious Studies with Christianity), a love for Monty Python, and, at least in Alex’s case, a well-oiled understanding of poetic metre (and in Amy’s, a willingness to learn, but some confusion about why it mattered or even what it was). The first round of edits on the original script were made by Emma’s friend, Benedict Mulcare; then we took over, spending eighth week of Hilary repeatedly staying up until the ungodly hours composing and versifying, intoning Miltonic speeches and satirising Brexit — despite Amy’s Law Mods being the following week. As we moved towards the Easter vac, we dragged in as many of our friends as we could cajole, bribe, or blackmail, kicking and screaming, into our cast. We managed to do most of our casting before the vacation, and thought things were well settled. Except for the fact that we hadn’t actually finished the script yet.

We kept on working, though, including making some further revisions to the script whilst on holiday in Germany (never let it be said that we don’t take our Bible seriously) and, although this might not have been entirely conducive to our cast’s learning their lines, things seemed to be going well. Then, in the week before the production, we lost our Jesus (the sort of sentence that by then felt quite normal). Fortunately we found a new one just in time (Joe Rattue, Somerville), who managed to learn his lines within seventy-two hours: which can only be described as a Godsend. This last-minute change was not as difficult as it might otherwise have been, largely because we had done perhaps one rehearsal up until this point — our original readthrough for the purpose of casting — and so Joe really hadn’t missed much.

Suddenly, it was Saturday of noughth week, Trinity Term 2019, and we were outside the Norman church that is the St Edmund Hall library, hearing someone in a cassock preface our play in Middle English: a bit of a contrast to what came next. Yet, to our amazement (a feeling we were beginning to grow accustomed to), there was laughter — rather a lot of laughter. And then there was clapping — rather a lot of clapping. Amongst it all there was some puzzlement, but, well, the Word of God has long been subject to that. We had turned the Last Judgement into a satirical comedy, we were the finale to some very poignant and very learned plays, and we seemed to have managed it without offending anyone. One might even have called the resulting applause rapturous. (Sorry.)

Jump forward now past Prelims and the Long Vac: it is Michaelmas Term 2019, the wine has been flowing in true Oxford fashion, and directing, producing, casting, budgeting, marketing, costuming, and starring in (in various combinations) a full-length production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in a single term feels like a splendid and utterly foolproof idea. Several weeks deep into the all-consuming chaos that followed, Professor Lähnemann approached us again, bringing news of a Second Coming of the Medieval Mystery Cycle, and asking if, after the success of the previous year, we would like to revive the Last Judgement in an expanded version. Again, as though we didn’t already have enough on our plates, we jumped at the chance (this time laughing not with derision but with glee), and, as soon as Earnest was over (with reviews and everything!), set to work on a heavy rewrite of our old script.

Now we had the time, there was a lot we wanted to do. For all our comic intentions, we had some serious messages we wanted to get across. Our first task was to thoroughly expunge, or at least address in a constructive manner, some of the (quite literally) Medieval attitudes that still lingered from the original script. We were alarmed to discover, for example, that Tutivillus, our suave arch-villain, was historically a precursor of racist blackface figures.[1] Secondly, we had tried in our first adaptation to satirise the misogyny of the original: by having the demons treat feminists as comparable to murderers and violent criminals, we hoped to demonstrate the absurdity of the antiquated attitudes found throughout the piece. However, having already had the same demons condemn Donald Trump and co., we realised that then having them criticise feminists made our satire confusingly inconsistent: we wanted sympathy for the devils as they tore apart the Republicans, but not when they did the same to the feminists, so one of them would have to go. This feminist point also hinged perilously on an explanation from Jesus at the end of the play, which, with such limited rehearsals, was in grave danger of being accidentally missed out in performance — as, indeed, it ultimately was.

So, how to resolve these issues? Well, Tutivillus was going to be replaced by Satan, who, to take a leaf out of the seventeenth century’s book, was to be a satire on the Brexiteers. (Alex, writing Satan’s soliloquy, spent far too long finding parallels between Leave Campaign slogans and the fall of Lucifer.) Deeming our feminist efforts sadly unsalvageable, we scrapped the misogyny altogether.

The other thing we fancied was a frame narrative: partly because we thought it would give us a chance to look at Revelation as a text with a complex history, written in uncertain circumstances by an uncertain ‘John’, its canonical status fought over for millennia, its eschatological implications long scrutinised. But mostly because we thought it would be funny.

After going through many possibilities (an early Church synod debating which books were suitable for inclusion in the canon, like they were reviewing X Factor auditions, was a front-runner), we settled on St John himself in the act of writing his Apocalypse. The play, then, was to open with the Angel imparting the Revelation to John, who would bumblingly commentate on the proceedings, interrupting at crucial moments to get an explanation of, say, how the simple breaking of seals could produce such catastrophic events, and how Christ could also be his own Father (except not really). Two years in sixth form of learning all the possible Trinitarian heresies were about to come in handy as we made John utterly fail, over and over again, to toe the line of orthodoxy.

That background theological knowledge could also be troublesome, however. As we read the original play, it occurred to us that the Jesus of the Book of Revelation is, to put it mildly, somewhat different to the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels (at least the gentler ones). The Jesus of the future seemed to place far more emphasis on vengeance and retribution than the great exponent of forgiveness described elsewhere in the Bible. In writing our version, we wanted to explore this problem. We were intrigued by the idea that the story of Jesus has, in large part, been shaped by centuries of translation, reinterpretation, and political and social change, and that his true character may have been lost somewhere along the way. In the 2019 version, we wrote a closing speech in which our Jesus explained that although his role in Revelation would be a deviation from his previous character, his hands were tied by the story set down by John: he was the product of thousands of conflicting beliefs.

In our second version, however, we took an alternative approach. Our frame narrative would allow us to address the reasons for Jesus’ drastically different presentation in Revelation. That said, we thought it might seem a little presumptuous to suggest that a short comedic play written by two students could so easily succeed where aeons of scholarship have failed, and so we opted for farce over realism. Rather than trying to answer the unanswerable question of how exactly millennia of reinterpretation and (mis)translation shaped the Book of Revelation we know today, we simply wanted to ask the question of others, who had Theology degrees and might do the legwork for us.

Once again, we worked through several variations of this story. Initially, we were quite fond of the idea that John was simply illiterate, and didn’t have a very good memory either, but eventually we decided on him not just having any ink. Ultimately, though, our point remained the same — although we had already reworked Jesus’s closing speech from last year’s, we were still keen to further challenge literalist notions of Revelation in a more direct, or at least more slapstick fashion, facetiously suggesting that the whole thing is the half-remembered notes of a man without a pen.

The second script, in all its twenty-five-page glory, was finally finished by the third week of Hilary term. We found a wonderful cast, including our third Jesus; we ordered the most ludicrous array of props, including four rubber horse masks (white, red, black, and pale), which are now decorating our houses; we rehearsed until the end of term, and all in all, we were ready to put on quite the show.

And then the real Apocalypse decided to upstage us.

We still hope that the second version of our play will one day get to be performed, perhaps at next year’s Mystery Cycle. But there’s no need to wait until then. ThE 2020 Judgement play script is available to read in all its sparkling glory on the Judgement page of the Medieval Mystery Cycle website hosted by St Edmund Hall. For the complete experience, you can also read the 2019 Judgement play script, see photographs of the performance – and watch the complete 2019 Judgement drama unfolding!


Alex Gunn and Amy Hemsworth are second-year students at St Edmund Hall, Alex reading English and Amy Law and German Law)

Opening Medieval Manuscripts

By Henrike Lähnemann

This article first appeared on KnowItWall.

Opening a book unfolds a new world. In the case of the pocket-sized prayer-book Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Lat. liturg. f. 4, it is one of magic and surprises: gold dragons, an orchestra of angelsnuns and biblical figures (see figure 1 below) populate the margins of 584 packed pages. The black ink is laced with black, red, blue, and gold letters but even more colourful is the text itself, an idiosyncratic mix of flowery medieval Latin and vernacular poetry.

To find the significance of this visual and linguistic firework, it is necessary to trace the manuscript back to its origin and decipher or rather decode its text and decoration, as well as the link between the two. The Low German dialect is that spoken in Lüneburg, one of the centres of the Hanseatic League, the most important trade area in Europe before the EU. Lüneburg’s salt production financed Medingen, the convent in which this prayer-book was written around 1500. Every nun wrote several manuscripts as part of her personal devotion, each of them a jigsaw piece of a different shape and colour, constructing a bigger picture of female piety and agency.

We are extremely lucky that we can reconstruct their physical world in greater detail than perhaps any other medieval community. This is because the convents on the Lüneburg Heath survived as religious institutions through both the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and the Napoleonic Secularisation of the 19th century. The women had a remarkable staying power — and fortunately, they never disposed of any of their possessions: the world’s oldest spectacles, for example, were found under the choir stalls of the neighbouring convent Wienhausen. The convents’ sewing and writing tools, as well as their breathtaking architecture all provide a window into the rich spiritual life of the late Middle Ages, into a time when the nuns wrote letters, played the organ, educated girls, and looked after a large and prosperous community.

These books reveal to us not only the physical world in which the nuns lived, wrote and read manuscripts, but also the spiritual realm that they aspired toward. It is a world that cannot be seen with the physical eye. Rather, it has to be grasped with the ‘visio spiritualis’ (spiritual vision) and ‘visio intellectualis’ (sense of intellectual understanding). Their monastic training enabled the nuns to look beyond: when the priest raised the bread above the altar, the nuns could truly see the Christ-child being lifted from its cradle, taste the heavenly meal, hear the angels sing and feel the divine vibrations of a whole world dancing with joy.

This macrocosm of late medieval devotion is mirrored within the microcosm of the Oxford prayer-book. The book is meant to be carried around: at a size comparable to about six smartphones (stacked two wide, three high), its sturdy leather-covered boards just about fit into a hand. It had small clasps since it was mainly made up of parchment — an unruly, springy material which reminds us of the shape of the animal it was once part of. It could be read while dressing, walking along the cloisters to the nuns’ choir for the Office of the Hours or attending mass. Red lettered instructions served as stage directions for the spectacle of convent life, as a reminder to perform their prayers and meditations with heart, hand and voice. This was particularly important during the parts of the service in which the nuns could not actively participate.

On Easter Sunday, a whole parallel choreography unfolded. While laypeople physically worshipped the cross that the officiating priests carried through church, the nuns up on their choir made a spiritual offering “on the harpstrings of their soul”. After the clergy sang Victimae paschali laudes, the congregation answered with the German hymn Christ is upstande which promised that God will be the comforter (God de wel unse trost syn, 70v). The scene is imagined in the margin of a later page, where a boy with a flower wreath holds a song bubble containing the opening line of the hymn. Then, the voice of the writing nun calls out in jubilation, commenting on the song in mixed Latin and Low German: O dulce carmen, o mellifluum verbum “God wel vnse trost syn”! Wen wy den hebben, so enbeghere wy nicht mer, wy behouen ock nicht mer; ergo consolamini in hijs verbis. (O sweet song, o mellifluous word “God will be our comfort”! If this is the case, we neither want nor need anything else; let us take comfort in these words!)

In the next rubric, the nun is encouraged to embrace Christ in the “arms of her soul” and to greet him as her bridegroom coming to rescue her. Easter became an existential moment when engaging with the true meaning of the liturgy enabled the nun to be part of salvation history. All of this happened through the power of this pocket prayer-book, which came to the Bodleian through a series of sales after antiquarians came to view these devotional manuscripts as objects. However, the tactile quality of this book appealed differently to these collectors than it did to the nuns who wrote it and engaged with it on a daily basis.

And yet, the appeal of the book endures. Sensual experience (no white gloves allowed!) is the clue to recover a lost world, the real “Sound of Music” of nuns and laypeople singing together, the nuns in their white habits, the Lüneburg crowd in their Sunday best. Their songs of praise happen in a world full of gold, images and moveable parts (201v shows a paper veil covering a gold initial; 131v has a paper clipping of a flower girl pasted over a cut in the parchment (see figure 3 above)). Its enduring appeal lives on in the successors of the medieval nuns, namely in the Protestant women of today (see YouTube video below) who continue to share their passion for their historic buildings and spiritual heritage with the community around them, just as their predecessors did. They even wrote a cookbook with regional recipes Das Feuer hüten (in English: Tending the Hearth) and continue to welcome visitors into a world full of heavenly experience.

Click here to see a video of the Abbess of Lüne presenting her concept for the convent.

Conference Report: Found in Translation

By Diana Denissen

Professor Henrike Lähnemann’s interactive keynote lecture (picture by Henrike Lähnemann)

On Saturday 19 October, I attended the morning of the first conference of the Greene’s Institute, ‘Found in Translation’ (full programme). As the call for papers stated, scholars working in any field of the humanities are often very aware of ‘translation loss’: the precise meaning of important ideas and concepts shifts when translating them from one language into another and the literary language of the original cannot be fully grasped when reading a translation of a text. ‘I am frustrated that my students are not able read important texts in the original language any more’, said one of the conference participants. However, only thinking about translation in negative terms, using words as ‘loss’ or ‘compromise’ is too limiting. The aim of the ‘Found in Translation’ conference was, therefore, to take another, more positive angle and ask what is actually found in translation. In the remainder of this blog, I will briefly describe some recurring themes discussed during the morning of the conference.

A number of participants discussed the orality of medieval narratives and what happens when elements from this oral tradition are transmitted, or rather ‘translated’, to a written tradition. ‘The enclosing of the saga within codicological boundaries’, Brian McMahon named it in his paper. Julie Dresvina pointed to the fact that some stories from an oral culture ‘slip through the cracks’ such as in The Book of Margery Kempe, a text in which Margery Kempe is a ‘compulsive storyteller’. Godelinde Perk’s discussion of Modern Devout Sister Books from the Low Countries, which contain biographies of exemplary members of religious communities, revealed similar elements of orality. In addition to this, Godelinde stressed that her paper, which focussed on Middle Dutch texts for an English-speaking audience was, of course, already an act of translation – and therefore interpretation – in itself. Ilya Sverdlov also pointed to this in his paper on the complex practice of translating Icelandic compound (place) names into English.

Another interesting aspect discussed during the conference was how the present can inform an understanding of the (medieval) past. Julie Dresvina explained how modern day memes helped her to grasp both the centrality and the marginality of medieval misericords (small wooden images on the underside of a folding seat in a church). Sander Vloebergs used modern dance to establish a connection between modern and medieval bodies, transmitting the female saint’s life of Lutgardis of Aywières to contemporary dance: https://artistictheologylab.com/portfolio/videos/.

The morning ended with professor Henrike Lähnemann’s interactive keynote lecture on the impact of Luther’s Bible translation (watch the first part of the keynote on youtube and follow the exercises on the handout). When we were asked to write our ideas about Bible translation on post-it notes, they varied widely, ranging from ‘translating the Bible is impossible’ to ‘we should translate the Bible in as many ways as possible’. According to Luther, translation was a process of ‘letting go of the letters’ (the title quote of the keynote lecture, taken from the Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, fol. b2r) and focussing on a translation that would make sense to a contemporary audience. During her final reflections, Professor Lähnemann stressed that ‘translation is political’. What is found in translation is a world that is more open and more connected. Translations allow for more dialogue and understanding across language boundaries, across space and time, and even across different media.

Thank you to the Greene’s Institute for organizing this wonderful conference.


Diana Denissen is a Swiss National Science Foundation post-doc mobility fellow. She works on late medieval religious literature and women’s writing from England and the Low Countries. Her monograph Middle English Devotional Compilations will be out in November of this year. You can follow Diana on twitter under @folioscribbles or on her website.found in translation

Lively discussion during the conference (picture by the Greene’s Institute)

Introducing the MSCA-IF project “Women Making Memories: Liturgy and the Remembering Female Body in Medieval Holy Women’s Texts”.

19 September 2019 Godelinde Perk

“Weren’t intelligent women in the Middle Ages seen as witches?” one of my theology undergrads once asked “Could they even read and write?”. These questions illustrate how many still think of the Middle Ages as “the Dark Ages” (an epithet long rejected by scholars), a time in which women lacked opportunities for education, reflection, and agency. Numerous texts by medieval women writers testify to reality being far more complex. What is more, many of these texts are religious in character: often, the earliest known text by a woman writer in the vernacular is a mystical, visionary or devotional text. These works suggest that life as a nun, devout laywoman, a “semi-religious”, or lay-sister (a kind of free-lance nun), allowed women to find “a room of one’s own”, to Virginia Woolf’s phrase. My name is Godelinde Gertrude Perk, and I am a Marie Skłdowska Curie Fellow at the faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages (supervised by Professor Henrike Lhnemann) and am delighted to introduce my two-year project “Women Making Memories: Liturgy and the Remembering Female Body in Medieval Holy Women’s Texts”, which started on the first of September 2019. (This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 842443.)

initial of nun
“Historiated initial of a nun”. Detail from London, British Library, Sloane 2468, fol. 227v. England, c. 1420.

Medieval women writers responded to and transformed the religious ideas of their times; my project investigates how they did so. Considering both well-known figures (Julian of Norwich), and lesser-known ones (the Sisters of the Modern Devout), it situates their texts in a particularly omnipresent but often understudied context, the liturgy of the Mass and the Divine Office. It should be kept in mind that devout women from medieval Europe frequently took part in the Divine Office (the monastic hours), nuns and lay-sisters, even several times a day, and strove to attend Mass as frequently as possible. They therefore knew the words, sounds, sights, and movements of the liturgy by heart: we find numerous references to these sensations and words in their texts.

senior sister
Bronze sculpture by Samuel Crommelin on the site of the Diepenveen convent, depicting a senior sister encouraging a novice. Photo: JanB46 (Wikimedia)

Using thick description and close reading, I will investigate the role of memories of the liturgy in their works, analysing these texts through the prism of memoria, the medieval art of remembering. Medieval culture saw memoria as essential for moral behaviour and literary invention; medieval devout women deployed memory arts daily when meditating. The liturgy indirectly taught an art of memory as well. Because of the many sensations and movements the liturgy entailed, this art of memory involved both body and mind. Exploring the function of memoria therefore illuminates the role of the body in these women’s writings. The project, then, will unveil what and how medieval women’s texts want us to remember.

The Middle Dutch Sister-Book under discussion, compiled by Griet Essinghes. Deventer, Deventer Library, MS 101 E 26 KL, fol. 111v-112r. The Low Countries, 1524.

The project is uniquely international and multilingual; it is the first to juxtapose female-authored texts in different north-western European vernaculars, reflecting how medieval women’s devotion was not bound by national borders. I will compare six vernacular (auto)biographies and visionary texts in Middle Dutch, Middle English, and Middle High and Low German. They date from 1300 to 1500 and originate from the European regions now known as the Netherlands (the Diepenveen Sister-book, in Middle Dutch), Belgium (Mechtild van Rieviren’s visions), Germany (the Medingen prayerbook), Switzerland (the Katarinentaler Sister-book), and The United Kingdom (Julian of Norwich’ A Revelation of Love, and The Book of Margery Kempe). At the end of the project, I will have revealed European parallels and interactions between texts and writers. Ultimately, I endeavour to amplify medieval women’s voices and illuminate their significance to Europe’s cultural and spiritual heritage. This European quality is my reason for applying to the MSCA-IF, and for it being based at the Faculty for Medieval and Modern Languages and the University of Oxford, which hosts many academics considering medieval European religious and literary culture.

st matt
“The symbol of the Evangelist St. Matthew: the angel, writing.” Detail from a thirteenth-century French Book of Hours.  The Hague, Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum & Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS KB 132 F 21, fol. 484v.  

I will inform the general public and academic audiences of the project findings in a variety of ways, including several TORCH outputs. I am particularly passionate about appealing to non-academic audiences and helping them discover the wisdom, humour, and the fascinating lives of medieval women: in addition to publishing several academic articles, I will write a number of popular articles (available online), give popular lectures in museums and churches, possibly direct or contribute to a play, and tweet regularly from the project twitter account (@WMM_Oxford). Open Access is central to MSCA-IF projects, and I will make all outputs as freely accessible as possible.

You may be curious to know a little more about the post-doctoral researcher performing this project. I’m originally from the Netherlands, and have a background in English Literature. While doing my PhD in northern Sweden working on a dissertation tracing the evolution of Julian of Norwich’ narrative and theological thought, I developed an interest in the parallels between Middle English and Middle Dutch texts by women; my research has since shifted to a more comparative, European focus. (The texts that particularly caught my interest were the Middle Dutch Sister-books (collections of short biographies by nuns or laysisters of the sisters in the community). Some of you may be familiar with The Book of Margery Kempe; the Sister-books are similar in how they brim with with dramatic vignettes, vivid detail, pithy sayings and local colour). I also lived in Oxford during my PhD: in 2015, I spent four months here, immersing myself in its vibrant seminar culture and unique knowledge base. It was then that I met Professor Lähnnemann, whom I have since envisaged as the ideal supervisor for this project. After my PhD, I was employed as an associate professor at another Swedish university, that of Sundsvall, and looked for postdoc opportunities in order to broaden my knowledge of medieval women’s literature from north-western Europe and become one of the leading scholars in the nascent field of pan-European literary and devotional culture. (One of the academic endeavors from that time is a play produced together with two friends, which was based on the Middle Dutch Sister-Books; I hope to organize something similar in Oxford.). This year, I was awarded the Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellowship, as well as a Fulford Junior Research Fellowship at Somerville College, home to a dynamic medievalist community.

The project and the Fellowships contribute significantly to my academic and professional development, and I could not be more grateful for this wonderful opportunity and for being given the chance to return to Oxford. However, I am equally grateful to be working with many highly knowledgeable and generous scholars and to shed light upon medieval women’s minds, ultimately making their voices better heard. 


Dr Godelinde Gertrude Perk, PhD
Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow
Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages
University of Oxford

Front page image credit: “Statue of Julian of Norwich, Norwich Cathedral, by David Holgate FSDC. Photo: Rocketjohn (Wikimedia).