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

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.