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.

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