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.

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