Friday, February 25, 2011

The second article I ever published (II)

Dealing with manuscript fragments often leaves you staring intently for hours at little bits of parchment, trying to see the unseeable. That was the case with another fragment I came across, a bit of parchment that was wrapped around the quires of a book printed in 1501 and functioning as the front and back pastedown. And it had been seriously pasted down: there was a corner missing, I presume where someone had once tried and failed to pry up the parchment without damaging it. So there was no chance of seeing what was written on the opposite side, or what was hidden under the spine.

And that is enough to drive you crazy, when what you see looks like this:

The unstressed vowels in words like kihorsame, biliden, and demo are in good enough shape that one is tempted to call this Old High German, and the corpus of OHG is much, much smaller than the Middle High German corpus. But how do you track down the source?

The vocabulary pointed to a religious text (gotis, [g]otis ougin, [k]ihorsame, [k]idulte, [ki]heilit). After staring at this fragment long enough, I noticed the repetitions of staph ‘step’ (or remnants of it), and one of them, -nfte staph, looked like an ordinal: the fifth step? If that was the case, then I was dealing with a religious treatise organized around steps of some kind.

And that’s as far as I would likely have gotten, if this were MHG. But for OHG, there are dictionaries that identify the sources for every word, and this text had some unusual words. Eventually, one such dictionary led me to a likely candidate: the Althochdeutsche Predigtsammlung C, including a fragmentary section on the twelve steps of humility from the Benedictine Rule. The Urbana fragment matched up perfectly with a fragment of an eleventh-century manuscript now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg (HS 42561) that was edited by Julius Zacher in 1880. (This makes it sound easy, but it took months of following up on fruitless leads before I found the source of the fragment.) After I published my article, someone at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek recognized one of their fragments as belonging to the same manuscript, and their contribution was published in ZfdA in 2006. Working with manuscript fragments is like running in a relay race where it might take a century or more before the next runner picks up the baton.

Monday, February 21, 2011

1588 and all that

In the second half of the 16th century, a quatrain pops up all over the place that foresees dramatic events for the year 1588, if the world survives at all. One version reads:
Tausent fünffhundert achtzig acht /
Das ist das Jar das ich betracht.
Geht in dem die Welt nicht vnder /
So gschicht doch sunst groß mercklich wunder.
Now the interesting wrinkle is that the origins of the quatrain are obscure. Robin Barnes states that it was "rarely seen in print before 1570" (Prophecy and Gnosis 163). So I thought it was interesting that it showed up attached to an edition of "Wilhelm Friess" printed in 1558 as an appendix to the prognostication of Nicolaus Caesareus. There Caesareus attributes the quatrain to Cyprian Leowitz.

Just today the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek released a digital edition of Leowitz's De conjunctionibus of 1564 (VD16 L 1257), so I looked through it quickly and discovered (fol. n3v) that Leowitz provides two Latin versions of the quatrain in his 1564 work, in eight and four lines of verse respectively, and he writes there that he had inserted a German version into his ephemerides seven years earlier.

Leowitz's Eclipsium omnium...descriptio of 1556 (VD16 L 1261) doesn't make any particular mention of 1588. His Ephemeridum novum of 1557 (VD16 L 1263) has been digitized by the SLUB Dresden - although it's over 1000 pages long - but if you check carefully, you'll find on fol. ee10v that the quatrain does indeed appear, which may well be its earliest appearance in print, if one assumes that Leowitz is responsible for giving the quatrain its poetic form. Caesareus at least appears to know the quatrain by way of Leowitz rather than from an oral source, and Leowitz was both a poet and an astronomer.

In the Ephemeridum novum, however, Leowitz only indirectly takes credit for the quatrain. He describes there a metahporical prophecy for the year 1588 "de honesta matrona et mercatore celebri," which Leowitz interprets as the Church and and the impious world. This in turn reminds Leowitz of a prophecy of Johannes Regiomontanus that he remembers once hearing from Johannes Schoener. (When you run into a second-hand, half-remembered prophecy attributed to Regiomontanus, you know you're deep within the province of the apocryphal.) "Estque tale," Leowitz writes, and then he gives the quatrain as cited above. Following it, he remarks that he knows of many learned men in his time who expect something remarkable around that time.

This may be the earliest attestation of the quatrain in print (until we find an earlier one), but it still leaves several things unknown. Did Leowitz actually compose the verse based on prophecies for 1588, or did he merely repeat it from another oral or written source? What other expectations for 1588, or at least for the 1580s, existed already in 1557? (Barnes has something to say on that, if I remember correctly.) And what is this prophecy of a "virtuous woman and a renowned merchant" for the year 1588? That one I'm not familiar with.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The second article I ever published (I)

“Medieval German Manuscript Fragments from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: ‘Der Renner,’ ‘Das Buch der Natur,’ and ‘Althochdeutsche Predigtsammlung C.’” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur 133 (2004): 356–63.

The summer spent in the Rare Book Room turned up hundreds of manuscript fragments beyond the lines from Waltharius. As a few more lines of a well-known Latin liturgical text do not usually constitute something worth publishing in academic journals, I didn’t do anything with most of the discoveries besides entering them in an Excel spreadsheet. Medieval German fragments are unusual enough, however, and there are enough people interested in them, that publishing the discoveries was certainly possible.

The hard part is that figuring out just what you’ve found can be fiendishly difficult, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever figure it out. Medieval German authors wrote thousands of works on many subjects, and I knew about very few of them. One of the educational benefits of working with manuscript fragments is that it forces you to broaden your knowledge of the primary texts in your field.

The easiest identification proved to be a bifolium from a fourteenth-century manuscript of Konrad von Megenberg’s Buch der Natur that had been used as a book wrapper. Because I had two complete visible pages, I knew right away that I was dealing with a discussion of plants and trees. I checked some of the standard literary histories, saw who was writing about natural science, and started checking secondary literature and published editions. Once I had found the source, I checked which manuscripts had turned up in fragmentary form, and before long I had microfilmed copies of matching leaves from the same manuscript. This is something like a best case scenario for hunting manuscript fragments, and might only take a few dozen hours before you have everything you need to know.

Unfortunately, you are almost never dealing with a best-case scenario.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The first article I ever published

Green, Jonathan. “‘Waltharius’ Fragments from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur 133 (2004): 61–74.

The first article I published was based on the second research project that I started in grad school. The summer after I finished my master’s thesis on Hildegard of Bingen, my thesis advisor gave me the project of checking the bindings of early printed books in the Rare Book Room of the University of Illinois Library for manuscript fragments. He even convinced the librarians to bring me whole carts full of books at once. It occurred to me one afternoon that I was probably sitting next to a million dollars worth of old books at any given moment.

So I went through all 1,000+ incunable volumes and as many sixteenth-century books as I could manage one at the time, checking the pastedowns and flyleaves and quire reinforcements for the presence of text-bearing parchment or paper fragments. I found a lot of them, actually, because discarded medieval books were a ready source of parchment for early modern bookbinders. Mostly I found Latin religious texts of one kind or another, but I also turned up a few noteworthy bits.

“What would you think of a series of parchment strips with a Latin text that mentions Burgundy, Hildegund, Gunther, and Hagen?” I asked my advisor one day.
“You’re kidding, right?” he said. I suspect he knew immediately what I had found, but he let me finish the detective work.

It turned out to be fragments containing 130 lines of the Waltharius, a ninth-century Latin epic involving the older generation of characters from the Nibelungenlied. Fragments of the same eleventh-century manuscript had turned up at various times over the previous century. The natural place to publish finds like this is in ZfdA, where the article appeared—five years later, in 2004. Once I had finished my Ph.D. and started teaching at the College of Charleston, I discovered that the safety net that grad school provides for research and publication, with a helpful advisor to keep you from saying anything too silly in public, had suddenly disappeared. So for my first article, I turned to Waltharius.

See also Benedikt Vollmann, “Marginalglossen zu den ‘Waltharius’-Fragmenten aus Urbana,” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur 135 (2006): 336-39, who points out that the transcription misplaces a glossed o.