Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Abstract: "Prophets, Profits, and Paratexts" (or Chapter Two: Prophets in Print)

Following one of the sessions on German literature before 1700 at MLA in Philadelphia last year, Elio Brancaforte asked me if I might have something that would fit the topic of a session he was organizing for 2011 on "Inventing Lives."

As it turned out, the topic perfectly matched a section of of Printing and Prophecy that I had just revised. For a long time, chapter two was a long, disordered amalgamation of interesting material that didn't really add up to anything. But after several false starts and partial revisions, I finally recognized that the chapter was at its core the story of Johannes Lichtenberger's Prognosticatio transformed the author from a high-flying astrological consultant into a prophetic forest hermit.

So when Elio asked, I had something nearly ready to go, over a year in advance. I worked up an abstract, which has since been accepted, and I'll be giving the paper at MLA in Los Angeles in January.

Abstract: “Prophets, Profits, and Paratexts”

The fifteenth-century German astrologer Johannes Lichtenberger’s primary work, the Prognosticatio first published in 1488, soon became the most popular and influential prophetic compilation of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the vehicle by which medieval prophecies were transmitted to the seventeenth and later centuries. But where Lichtenberger had been the fifteenth century’s equivalent of a high-society astrological consultant, later centuries remembered him as a prophetic forest hermit. The transformation of the author from an expert astrologer into a hermit crying in the wilderness began already in the first Latin and German editions. The woodcut images and title page, as well as the image captions, colophon and other paratexts (to use Gérard Genette’s term) helped invent an authorial biography substantially different from that found in the text. All of these extra-textual elements were determined not by the author but by the printer, and they served the printer’s interests. Primary among these interests was forestalling censorship by allaying the concerns of ruling authorities, while also meeting popular demand for prophetic insight. While research over the last 50 years has helped restore Lichtenberger’s biography, the current scholarly view of the author is still distorted by regarding the printed Prognosticatio as the expression of a single author’s thoughts. But to understand literature as preserved in the medium of print, we have to understand books as products of a rational division of labor in which multiple authorial biographies compete and conflict with each other.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Frankenstein's article

The "Wilhelm de Friess" article has reached that stage where the meat of the argument is completely covered in scar tissue. When I was a couple pages away from wrapping up the first draft, I started adding notes in square brackets in various places, reminding myself to add something important. Then I added a few more notes. Then a few more. Now I have successfully reduced a budding article to a pile of notes and references.

This was not unexpected, actually. It's more or less what happened when I wrote my Copernicus article. It's a useful part of the writing process, because it helps me identify those areas where I no longer support the article's original narrative, and it shows me what open questions still remain at this point. I find that I need to send a couple inquiries to a few libraries and archives to tie up loose ends.

The coolest thing that you can do every day as a professor is to request books from anywhere in the world through interlibrary loan - and get them. The coolest thing that you can do occasionally, though, is to write to librarians and archivists anywhere in the world with questions about obscure topics - and get answers.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Research links you need to know about VI: my other favorite digitalization projects

While I was working on Printing and Prophecy, I found several additional useful collections of digitized manuscripts and early printed books. Some are large and growing (the HAB Wolfenbüttel and and have a place on my list of RSS feeds, while others are smaller but well-indexed collections that reward an exhaustive search. My favorites include:

  • The Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel. Their focus is on the 17th century, and lately they've focused on funeral orations and academic disputations, but their online catalog turned up many important sources.
  • The history of science and astronomy, as well as Swiss printers, are both points of emphasis of this newer project, which resulted in a relatively high number of interesting sources so far.
  • Lutherhalle Wittenberg. It's currently offline for unknown reasons. Hopefully they're reworking the awkward interface and will be back online soon.
  • Utrecht pamphlets. The digital offerings of Utrecht University are actually much broader, but the pamphlet collection turned up a few unique sources for me.
  • Klassik Stiftung Weimar/HAAB. A small but easily searchable collection.
  • Johannes a Lasco Biblithek Emden. I think I only found one relevant source here, but a different project would find many more.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Research links you need to know about V:

I really wish I had the entire Verfasserlexikon as an electronic database. The only problem is that it doesn't yet exist (except as a shadowy scanned version rumored to exist among doctoral students of Germanistik in Germany).

Barring that, I really wish I had the entire Verfasserlexikon sitting on my bookshelf, or at least in the library. The only problem is that all the volumes and indices together cost thousands of dollars. (I do recommend the reasonably priced one-volume Studienauswahl, however. The paperback 11-volume Studienausgabe is attractively priced, but still a significant investment.)

So for tracking down manuscripts, secondary literature, and links to archival descriptions and digitized images, the first place I check is, which combines the Marburger Reportorium (for 13th-14th century manuscripts) and the Paderborner Reportorium (8th-12th centuries).

My own, indirect contributions are here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I can finally log on to the interlibrary loan system, and the first requests have been submitted. I feel much better now.

* * *

Also, the first draft of the "Wilhelm de Friess" article is up to 5,000 words, and it's not bad. I may hit 7-8,000 by the time it's polished, which is just about right for the journal I'm targeting.

* * *

And my "Wilhelm de Friess" paper has been accepted for presentation in the 15th Century Studies session on German literature at Kalamazoo. I missed Kalamazoo this last spring, so I'm looking forward to returning in May.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Another blogging American German medievalist

I don't know if Alexander Sager is still updating sagemaere, but his podcasts of a selection of medieval German literary works are great. I used his recording of the "Hildebrandslied" in class with my students. I have maybe 20 minutes during the whole semester to talk about OHG literature, and it was great to let my students get a taste for the sound of Old High German.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Research links you need to know about IV: GW and ISTC

For editions printed in 16th- or 17th-century Germany, VD16 is the first place to look. But for the 15th century, there are two indispensable indices: The Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke and the Incunabula Short Title Catalog. Both are searchable online databases for long-running projects to index all books printed between the invention of printing around 1452/53 and the end of the century. Both databases will provide the same basic information (printer, place and date of publication, format, some additional bibliography and location of known copies), but each offers somewhat different additional information, and sometimes they disagree even about the basics, so it's a good idea to check both.

I find ISTC numbers a bit opaque and unwieldy, but for the time being they offer the most easily citable and searchable index for 15th-century printing. I prefer the system in Goff, as it's easy to remember that "S-308" refers to the 1493 Latin edition of Hartmann Schedel's Liber cronicarum printed by Anton Koberger in Nuremberg, while the ISTC number "is0030800" is much less memorable. The ISTC, however, is not limited to American libraries and is being constantly updated. The GW numbers are also widely used, but the regular numbers end somewhere in the middle of the database. Recently the GW has made its entire record set searchable, but the mixture of regular GW identifers and provisional "m" numbers makes the ISTC my preferred citation for now.

It's good to be familiar with the history and limitations of both projects, about which a number of articles have been written. (A good place to start is "Counting Incunables: The IISTC CD-ROM," Huntington Library Quarterly 61 [1999]: 457-529.) But even upon first use both databases will quickly point the user towards key elements of a work's edition history.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Research links you need to know about III: Handschriftenkataloge Online

For medievalists, manuscript catalogs are like neutron stars. The useful information is so densely packed that you can barely comprehend it all. If you're on the trail of an obscure text, you can spend hours looking at incipits and provenances or just browsing individual entries. If you're lucky, your library has shelved all the manuscript catalogs together, so you can wander over and browse when you have a moment. If you're not lucky, your library doesn't have any manuscript catalogs at all.

Hopefully this is sufficient context to explain the miracle that is Handschriftenkataloge-Online. It has high-quality scans of published manuscript catalogs for just about every major German research library. Rather than sending away for volumes one at a time through interlibrary loan, or waiting for your next opportunity to drive 1200 miles to a major research library with a focus on medieval German studies, you just point, and click. And click. And click. And click. And click...

Now if they only had something like that for incunable catalogs. That would rule.