Friday, October 19, 2012

Paul Grebner

As I've been working on "Wilhelm Friess," I've come across several references to the prophecies of Paul Grebner, who would appear to be something of a contemporary of the Friess prophecies and also ideologically compatible with them, at least to a degree. But Friess and Grebner seem to follow much different paths. Friess, for one, is a pseudonym attached to two or more texts; Grebner is real enough to merit a biography in ADB. Almost all editions of the (supposedly Dutch) Friess prophecies were printed in Germany in the sixteenth century, while almost all of the prophecies attributed to the German Grebner are published posthumously in the seventeenth century, and outside Germany, first in the Netherlands and then very broadly in Britain. Friess eventually faded into obscurity, while excerpts of Grebner were still being printed at least as late as 1793.

Grebner remains a bibliographic and historical puzzle. Apart from the ADB biography, one finds many brief references to Grebner, but few treatments of any extent. The one exception appears to be:

Åkerman, Susanna. “The Myth of the Lion of the North and its Origins in Paul Grebner’s Visions.” In Cultura Baltica: Literary Culture around the Baltic 1600-1700, edited by Bo Andersson and Richard Erich Schade, 23–43. Uppsala: Uppsala University, 1996.

Even tracking down Grebner's works is tricky, as his name is recorded in numerous forms, including Grebner, Gribner, or simply "Paulus Secundus" or "Paulus Iunior" (not to mention "Ezekiel Grebner, Son of Obadiah Grebner, Son of Paul Grebner"). There's a need for more work connecting Grebner's earliest published works in the 1560s to the manuscripts of the 1580s to the earliest pamphlets of the 1590s and early 1600s to their diffusion across Europe during the rest of the seventeenth century.

But it won't happen today. I still need to finish work on my SCSC conference paper, and posting may be sporadic for the next several weeks.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Sibyls in print

The Sibyllenweissagung was just one of several different siblline texts that were significant for early printing. Since the 1480s, there were also compilations of prophecies from the twelve sibyls, mostly consisting of devotional considerations of the life of Christ from the imagined perspective of pre-Christian sibyls. The earliest in print was Philippus de Barberiis's Sibyllarum et prophetarum de Christo vaticinia, first printed in 1481 (ISTC ib00118000). German printers produced editions beginning in 1516 and 1517, eventually replacing the text with a German adaptation, but the original image cycle was remarkably stable.

The stability of the images is underscored by a work recently digitalized by the SLUB Dresden: Ernst Freymund, Der Klugen Sibyllen verbessert astrologischer Weissagungs-Calender auf das Jahr 1741 (Nürnberg, 1741; VD18 90148967). The title page depicts four sibyls; below is the Tiburtine Sibyl.

Among the many printed depictions of the Tiburtine Sibyl from preceding centuries, here is one from one of the sibylline compilations printed by Christian Egenolff in the 1530s.

Finally, here is the Tiburtine Sibyl as she appears in the collection of Philippus de Barbareriis, printed in the early 1480s.

That's 260 years of iconographic stability, which could very likely be extended even earlier by looking at manuscript material. To judge by a quick scan of the pages, Freymund's calendar for 1741 doesn't appear to contain any of the sibylline texts, but the final section does consist of an astrological prognostication whose format wouldn't have been at all unusual for 1581.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Opening the IISTC

“Opening the IISTC: An End-User’s Approach to an Essential Database.” Digital Medievalist 1 (2005),

(Continuing an occasional series, this would be "The Third Article I Ever Published," in case anyone ever wonders where it came from.)

A decade ago, in early 2002, as I was working on my dissertation on the Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel, a very helpful librarian at the University of Illinois pointed me towards the ISTC, at that time available as the Illustrated Incunable Short Title Catalog on CD-ROM. It was fantastic - I could look up every known fifteenth-century printed book, and have all its bibliographic information instantly available. Even more important, it offered a list of all known locations where a copy could be found. I had the impression that there were a lot of copies of the Nuremberg Chronicle around, but the IISTC confirmed it, although there wasn't an easy way to compare the number of copies with other incunables.

The same librarian who had pointed me towards the IISTC also referred me to Paul Needham's extensive review article: "Counting Incunables: The IISTC CD-ROM," Huntington Library Quarterly 61 (1999): 457-529. The article not only compared the IISTC to its predecessors since Hain, but also pointed out a number of serious problems with the IISTC and limitations due to its implementation.

I had an idea. I knew that the IISTC made it possible to export records. What if you exported all the records as plain text? For my dissertation research, I had created an Access database to keep track of all the annotations in various copies of the Nuremberg Chronicle that I had examined. Shouldn't there be a way to turn the IISTC into an Access database and get around the limitations of its interface?

There was, but it involved some heavy data manipulation. I learned some rudimentary Perl so I could write scripts to turn the ISTC records into tab-delimited text files for easy import into Access. I also wrote scripts to add up the number of copies, as the ISTC didn't provide copy counts. It took a few months, but I've been making use of the results ever since.

I wrote to Paul Needham to let him know what I had done. He was interested. We exchanged e-mails. We discussed article ideas. And then - it turned out we weren't ready to put anything together yet. I had a method for turning the ISTC into a data source, but I didn't know what to do with it. Eventually I saw a CFP from a new journal, Digital Medievalist. I didn't know of anywhere else that would be interested in Perl scripts written by medievalists, so I submitted the paper in order to establish the method and suggest some ways it might have some significant uses, and it was accepted for publication. It's the one article I have in an open-access online journal, and the only one that lists source code in the appendix.

I imagined that would be the end of my foray into digital methods until 2008, when Paul Needham pointed out some recent work on early book survival rates. The methods of that one-off article I had published in 2005 turned out to be one of the three essential elements, along with understanding of fifteenth-century printing and statistical acumen, in what would become the article I published with Paul Needham and Frank McIntyre in 2010 on incunable survival rates. You never know when research dead ends will lead in new directions.