Building on the success of Gregorian chant workshops with manuscripts from the Bodleian Library, a group of Oxford medievalists are offering insights into working with manuscripts during lockdown. Meet some of the manuscripts from the Abbey of Medingen, recently digitized through the Polonsky German project, and sing along to chants from the Easter period. A special focus was on the ‘Exsultet’ which attracted some of the most colourful illumination of the manuscripts as well as detailed devotional instructions in Latin and Low German on how to sing it both out aloud and “on the harp strings of the soul”. Read more on Savouring the Exultet at Medingen in this blog post by Innocent Smith OP for the Polonsky German manuscript digitisation project.
Andrew Dunning, R.W. Hunt Curator of Medieval Manuscripts, showed the Medingen manuscripts at the Bodleian Library live via visualiser from the Weston Library; Zachary Guiliano, Chaplain of St Edmund Hall, Henrike Lähnemann, Professor of Medieval German Literature and Linguistics, and Nick Swarbrick, Gregorian chant instructor, and Connor Wood, Organ Scholar at St Edmund Hall, formed a Schola in the Crypt of St-Peter-in-the-East, the library of St Edmund Hall, and commented on the manuscripts, the music, and their theological significance. Two graduate students working on the Easter prayer books, Carolin Gluchowski and Marlene Schilling, pointed out some of the special nuntastic features of the manuscripts.
This was part of the IMC Leeds Fringe Events but open to all manuscript and music enthusiasts! Music downloads for the event: Nunc dimittis (audience sings the ‘repetitio’ Lumen ad revelacionem gencium as congregational responses); Exultet (audience sings the congregational responses); Victime paschali laudes (audience sings the ‘Christ ist erstanden’ as congregational response and the question of the disciples Dic nobis Maria…)
When it comes to pilgrimage, the journey is most definitely the destination. This becomes very clear when looking at literary descriptions of religious travel: in the report of his three-year-long journey, Arnold von Harff describes his travels around Europe, Palestine and the Ottoman Empire between 1496 and 1499. The book features detailed descriptions of the culture, the people and the places he has visited, glossaries and alphabets of several different languages, drawings, and even an overview of the distance between each destination. In the end, Arnold gives a most crucial piece of advice to anyone who might want to follow in his footsteps: to take care of one’s belongings so they don’t get stolen on the way.
Arnold’s report reads like an adventure, suggesting that he strove for acclaim from his readership. Yet, the religious motivation for his travels can seem to fade into the background. So why not take a look at a different pilgrim whose journey was all about connecting with God, like Dorothea von Montau (1347-1394)? As a modest and pious woman, she did not have much in common with the self-consciously masculine aristocratic Arnold – except for the fact that her pilgrimages, too, have been written about: her life as a mystic and recluse is described in her biography, which includes several accounts of religious travel. In terms of perspective, aim and context, the writings about her life differ from Arnold’s travel report in every possible way.
The differences actually begin with the texts’ purposes: while Arnold describes the things he has – allegedly – seen with his own eyes during his travels, the vernacular biography, written by Dorothea’s confessor Johannes Marienwerder was intended to enhance her popularity among the local Teutonic Order community during her canonisation process, which was initiated shortly after her death in 1394. Although it claims to be based on Dorothea’s own accounts about her life which she shared with her confessor during her last years, one has to keep in mind that the text presents a literary construct of Dorothea’s life and of Dorothea herself, in the way a male theologian imagined an ideal pious woman.
Still, we can have something of a look at the female perspective on pilgrimage – as we’ve mentioned already, Dorothea was on the road quite a lot. Amongst other destinations, she travelled to Aachen, Rome and the Swiss Einsiedeln. A pilgrimage does not simply end at its main site though, and the way back might be just as difficult and testing. The distant third-person narrator describes Dorothea’s way back home from her pilgrimage to Einsiedeln as a very straining journey. She travels with both her senile husband and their young daughter. And just like a modern-day mum on vacation, she is the one holding it all together.
While her journey is surely an adventure, it is very different from Arnold’s. Besides the challenging conditions of the journey (which are best described by the words God himself uses in the text: wassir, kot und sne [water, faeces and snow]), Dorothea’s biggest struggle is looking after her family. She is the one who carries her husband’s luggage throughout their journey and who washes her family’s clothing at night, while also protecting their belongings from theft, since her husband is too frail to do that. Her hardships are underlined by the narrator’s frequent usage of the word field ‘suffering’ and the strong emphasis on Dorothea’s loneliness and tiredness throughout this episode:
des nachtis […] slief der man herte von mudikeit, und dy muste wachen, das sy icht vorlorn das ire und beschediget worden libes und gutes, alleyne sy ouch wol hette ru und slofes bedorft
at night her husband slept deeply because of his fatigue and she had to keep watch for them to not lose their possessions and to not be physically harmed, but she would have needed rest and sleep as well
Only God helps and protects her and raises her up when needed. This very strong connection between Dorothea and God is another difference from Arnold’s reports: while Arnold only asks God for his help during his travels, we actually see God’s help in action in Dorothea’s case. She considers him a spiritual groom, which draws a sharp contrast to her real-life husband, who is only adding to her distress. Ultimately, the way she bears her misery with the help of her steadfast trust in God is what actually makes her worthy to be a saint – the main point the biography intends to prove to the reader.
Dorothea’s central role as a strong woman among incapable men promotes an interesting gender dynamic. Transgressing the stereotypes of female passivity, she takes on the role of family protector – even saving her family’s life single-handedly. At one point during the journey, they have to cross a frozen lake and manage to travel with a horse-drawn sleigh. All of a sudden, a slight cracking noise indicates a catastrophe: the ice starts to break under the weight and the carriage falls through. Whilst the sleigh driver, his companion and her husband are startled and remain passive, Dorothea acts like a true hero. The narrator describes how she quickly grabs their luggage with one hand and her daughter with the other and jumps off the sleigh. Because her husband is – once again – unable to act in this situation of great danger, Dorothea has to come to his rescue. She grabs him by his feet and pulls him out of the water. This time, it is her daughter who points out divine intervention behind these events: she insists that it was in fact the Blessed Virgin Mary who saved her (because how else would you explain a woman so strong and resilient?).
Having heard about Dorothea’s journey, the travels of Arnold von Harff sound more like an adventurous holiday and what is more, he was clever enough to travel without dependents. Apart from the topic of pilgrimage, they do not seem to have much in common. However, the accounts share one major similarity: they are written to inspire. Dorothea’s endurance and faith are exemplary for anyone who wants to lead a godlier life. As for Arnold, his report can serve as a guidance for those who want to undertake a similar journey – or as an inspiration for those who want to imagine one – or even, maybe, for those who just want to pretend they did. After all, travelling, just like writing, is just a matter of perspective.
Toeppen, Max (Ed.): Das Leben der heiligen Dorothea von Johannes Marienwerder. Scriptores rerum Prussicarum. (Die Geschichtsquellen der preußischen Vorzeit). Vol. 2. Leipzig 1863, pp. 179–374.
Translation into English: Stargardt, Ute. The Life of Dorothea Von Montau, a Fourteenth-Century Recluse. Mellen, 1997.
Josephine Bewerunge and Marlene Schilling are both reading for the MSt in Modern Languages (German) at the University of Oxford in the academic year 2020/21. This blogpost is based on their joint presentation for the Medieval German Graduate Seminar in Hilary Term 2021.
This post serves as a dual introduction, both to Arnold von Harff and to late-medieval pilgrimage writing more broadly. The latter goal in particular is, admittedly, rather brave.
Who was Arnold von Harff?
This is a question which Harff wants his audience to answer in a particular way. As he never tires of reminding us, he was a knight from an aristocratic family. To be more specific, he was the middle son of a nobleman, Adam von Harff. He was born around 1471 at the family seat of Schloss Harff in Bedburg, a castle which was demolished in 1972 for the sake of opencast brown coal mining, along with the whole associated settlement (to see full-size versions of any images, click through twice).
As you can see, pretty much nothing survived, but the Crucifixion group which had been in the churchyard since 1531 was moved to the new settlement and affixed to the modern church wall. It bears some striking similarities to the Crucifixion image transmitted with Harff’s Reisebericht, the earliest version of which is roughly thirty years older than the group (though note that this version of the image, as transmitted in MS Bodl. 972, post-dates the statues by about twenty years).
Harff set out from Cologne at the age of twenty-five on a rather ambitious programme of pilgrimage: he apparently planned as highlights Rome, Sinai, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, St Patrick’s Purgatory on Lough Derg, and Wilsnack. He did reach the first four of these destinations. He also, apparently, made it to many further-flung locations, some of them evidently only by travelling on the page. As previous generations of scholars have observed, a fair amount is clearly carried over from other sources including, but not limited to, Marco Polo, Odoric of Pordenone, Ptolemy’s Geography, and – perhaps most significantly – John Mandeville’s Book, also known as Mandeville’s Travels. In any case, Harff didn’t make it to Wilsnack or Ireland. He returned home in 1499. In 1504, he married Margarethe von dem Bongart and followed his uncle in the post of hereditary chamberlain at the court of Guelders. His story has a rather sad ending: he died only a year later, in 1505, leaving his wife pregnant. Their daughter died too, in early childhood, and was buried with him. But his writing has survived, and was fairly popular amongst members of his own social class in the Rhineland and Westphalia. It continued to be circulated in manuscript into the seventeenth century, though it was not printed until 1860. It was then edited by Eberhard von Groote, using three manuscripts in the Harff family archives, including one that, while unlikely to be an autograph, dates from shortly after Harff’s journey.
What is late-medieval pilgrimage writing?
So let’s now turn to the Reisebericht’s literary context. The first thing to do here is to separate the practice of actually going on a journey from the accounts of travel that we find on the page, even if they are written by people who really have travelled. It’s a constant refrain today that the lives people recount on social media are not identical with the lives they’re actually living: social media offers us the curated version, often carefully groomed to leave certain details out or to foreground others. It’s – usually – a version of reality, based, at least to an extent, in what has actually happened, but it doesn’t quite overlap. I don’t simply mean this in the sense that recounting exactly what happened at every moment of every day would be both tedious and impossible, or even particularly that people’s memories are flawed and subjective, though of course that’s true. It’s the gap between the picture of a historic landmark apparently on its own, while in reality, locals waited impatiently behind the photographer, who was carefully adjusting the angle to avoid the crane behind it and the modern building in front of it. A fifteenth-century pilgrimage on the page and a fifteenth-century pilgrimage as it really happened are deliberately and consciously different, and when we read pilgrimage writing, we’re looking at journeys on the page. Despite the huge range of texts which come under the heading of ‘pilgrimage writing’, and the scope for variation beyond descriptions of the pilgrimage site themselves, there are conventions which, certainly by the time Arnold von Harff was travelling and writing, are quite rigid when it comes to recounting visits to the Holy Places in Jerusalem.
So let’s focus in on Jerusalem. One of the key factors behind this conformity was the Franciscan Order, who had been granted the Custody of the Holy Land in 1342 by Pope Clement VI. The pilgrimage programme the Franciscans developed endured with little variation for two centuries. The sites to be visited, the liturgy at each, the order in which they were seen, the route between them, and the terms in which they were described, were shared by late-medieval western pilgrims making the Jerusalem pilgrimage (though parts of the route could be taken in reverse). But the Franciscans weren’t content for their programme to remain in Jerusalem. Pilgrims brought it back with them in their accounts, and the pilgrimage was so formalised that pilgrim authors frequently copied one another’s words, and the advent of print in the second half of the fifteenth century really speeded up this process.
Although Harff’s account wasn’t itself printed, he made use of printed accounts in his writing process, including the Peregrinatio in terram sanctam of one of the Big Names of German pilgrimage writing: Bernhard von Breydenbach. We can see traces of this rather mammoth work in text and image in Harff’s account. His section on Greek Christians is a key example, and several alphabets are also lifted from Breydenbach. Nonetheless, most of the images transmitted with Harff’s Reisebericht cannot be traced to Breydenbach.
Another crucial source for Harff (and for many others), and almost certainly another printed one, is John Mandeville’s Book. This is purportedly the first-person description of an English knight’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land and his further travels in the East. It appeared in French in the second half of the fourteenth century, was transmitted widely in manuscript, and rapidly translated into various vernaculars including, by 1415, two separate German translations, those of Otto von Diemeringen and Michael Velser. Both were printed in 1480. Mandeville’s depiction of the Holy Land was enormously influential – despite the fact that it was also long out of date by the time of its first appearance, being largely dependent on crusader-era sources, and without reference to the Franciscan pilgrimage.
The point was not – usually – to use Mandeville as a source for information about the reality of fifteenth-century Jerusalem, since, as we’ve seen, this wasn’t the point of pilgrimage writing in general. Mandeville’s version of Jerusalem was already multi-era and multi-source, so mingling it with later pilgrim experiences means that the late-medieval Jerusalem-on-the-page becomes what Anthony Bale calls ‘the perfect simulacrum, a copy whose original had long since vanished, if it had ever existed’. So while there’s of course a certain overlap between Jerusalem-on-the-page and Jerusalem-in-the-world, the former was what pilgrims were aiming to describe when they copied from or drew on Mandeville’s description of Jerusalem, whether they did it with Mandeville as their direct source or whether they were copying other pilgrims who had themselves drawn on Mandeville. Bale coins the term ‘meme Jerusalem’ to describe this phenomenon.
But outside the ‘meme Jerusalem’ and beyond the Holy Land? Well, I started out by saying that it was rather brave to attempt an introduction to late-medieval pilgrimage writing, and that’s because it’s quite … elastic as a category. As Harff’s Reisebericht shows us, there was scope for pretty much whatever you wanted to include when you sat down to write about your pilgrimage. And while Harff might start his account by describing himself as ‘ritter geboren’ [knight by birth], he finishes it by asking his audience to pray for the pylgrym, weech wijser, ind dichter [pilgrim, guide, and author]. Just as he can be many things at once, so can his Reisebericht – and so can anyone else’s.
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?
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.
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 (email@example.com) or Matthew Holford (firstname.lastname@example.org). 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.
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.