Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands – A Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project

Dr Tristan Franklinos is one of the founders of Teaching the Codex. He is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and Junior Research Fellow in Classics at Trinity College, Oxford. 

A marvellous collaboration between the Bodleian Library, Oxford and the Herzog August Bibliothek (HAB), Wolfenbüttel was launched this week.  Manuscripts from the German-speaking lands held in the collections of both of these libraries are being digitised and published online.  This will not only make these important manuscripts available to a much wider audience—researchers, students, and interested parties—but will preserve them for posterity.  The high quality of the images will make this a vital resource for teaching about, and with, manuscripts.  The bilingual project website may be found here.

A launch symposium was held in the Weston Library, Oxford on 19 March, 2019.  There were a series of talks on the historical development of these collections, on recent researches on them, on the conservation of the manuscripts, on possible areas for future study, and on the methods of digitisation and cataloguing.

Nigel Palmer (Professor Emeritus of Medieval German, Oxford) gave a characteristically insightful overview of the collections of manuscripts from German-speaking lands held in Bodley, many of which were given to the library by Archbishop Laud in the seventeenth century following his agents’ acquisition of them as the collections of libraries of German-speaking lands were displaced and dispersed through the course of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48).  The movement of the collections of Catholic religious houses into the secular hands of the Protestant princes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, notably as a result of the Thirty Years’ War, was an important factor in the development of the Herzog August Bibliothek’s holdings; some of the more significant moments in this process were explored by Christian Heitzmann, the HAB’s Head of Manuscripts and Special Collections.  Henrike Lähnemann (Professor of Medieval German, Oxford) spoke of the manuscripts of Medingen Abbey, a number of which are held in Bodley and in the Herzog August: eight of them will feature in this digitisation project.  The importance of scholarly collaboration between UK, Irish, and German collections was emphasised by Joanna Story (Professor of Early Medieval History, Leicester), who discussed her researches into manuscripts (and fragments) containing insular script of the period AD 650–850.  Of the 500-odd insular manuscripts that survive, 42% are found in German libraries and collections: this is indicative of the significant cultural and intellectual intercourse which was prevalent in this period, and makes clear that any study of insular learning and culture, and of insular manuscript production and use, needs to take into account the extensive holdings of German collections and their histories.  Sabina Pugh gave fascinating account of the conservation and preservation work undertaken on one of the manuscripts included in the digitisation project; written at Fulda, it was acquired by Laud’s agents from Würzburg and is now housed in the Bodleian.  Her work is summarised in a blog-post, a must-read for anyone interested in codicology and the materiality of manuscripts

In his initial remarks, Peter Burschel, the Director of the HAB, spoke of the ways in which manuscripts are not mere repositories of material, but are objects which have had several owners, have—more often than not—travelled widely, have crossed national borders, have endured through extensive periods of time, have been affected by war, have been exiled.  They each have a story to tell—they whisper to one another—, and through their juxtaposition with other codices within the collection in which they find themselves, and with those of other libraries, they are able to create new intellectual and transcultural discourses which can point in unexpected and unexplored directions.

Manuscripts are one of the great markers and records of international and cultural communication and collaboration of the Middle Ages.  Study of them, and teaching about them, involves an engaged awareness of their complex histories, and the necessary construction of networks between scholars from different nations and fields of study, the building of bridges and the removal of barriers.  The collaboration of these two great libraries fosters such interactions: it will doubtless lead to fruitful transnational and transcultural conversation, and to the furthering of our knowledge of these fascinating collections.

Professor Lähnemann’s presentation on the manuscripts of Medingen Abbey is accessible by clicking on the image below.

Henrike Thumbnail

Tristan Franklinos, Trinity College, Oxford

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