And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

torsdag 25. januar 2018

Working with liturgical fragments, part 5 - Dead ends

As every academic will know, in any given research project, no matter how big or small, there's always a risk of seeing signs in the material that point enticingly somewhere, which in the end turn out not to go anywhere at all. Excursions or leads such as these are very rarely written about because they do not yield any positive information. After following these leads we are only able to say that this is not going anywhere. And since it is not going anywhere, the time, the energy, the mental ingenuity spent following the lead to its uttermost possible dead end rarely get accounted for. In the humanities, at least, it is only natural that these dead ends are not made part of a research report, an article or a presentation. These are only dead ends, they do not contribute to our understanding of the material we have been researching.

Most of the time I follow this practice myself: Dead ends go unrecorded, failures are not written down. Recently, however, I ended up in a dead end myself, and the realisation that the lead I had been preparing to follow would not go anywhere was a significant blow to the enthusiasm and excitement that had been building up in the past days. The realisation itself came in the wake of a very basic check of the source that I was researching, and had I had the wherewithal do so so earlier in the process I would not even have started to prepare for the journey down the dead end.

In this case, however, I had already managed to build a great deal of castles in the air from a very insubstantial amount of material, and I have decided to write this blogpost to present those thougths and explain why it was so easy to go down this road. I write this perhaps in part to vent about what amazing results could have been if reality had been different. But I also write because I think there is something of an important methodological consideration to be found in cases like these, namely that it sometimes is possible to build reasonable hypotheses on very scant material, and that this is sometimes what we as researchers have to do. In this particular case, however, I had source material that demonstrated conclusively that my ideas were wrong, but if I had not been in possession of this material I could easily have written extensively about something that would have been incorrect.

Fragment from Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, MS. 58.2
Photo by Jakob Povl Holck

The material in question was a fragment from a book cover that belongs to the collection of old books at the university library of University of Southern Denmark, Odense. This collection was purchased in 1968 from Herlufsholm School in Næstved, Sjælland, a school that was founded in 1565 by admiral Herluf Trolle (1515-65) and his wife, the noblewoman Birgitte Gøye (1511-74). After the admiral's death in the year of the school's founding, Birgitte Gøye was the overseer of the school until 1567. This school accrued an impressive library from the very beginning, a library that was amplified by donations from book collectors at different periods, and these books are now being researched by the university library in Odense. My part in this job is to examine the fragments that have been found so far.

The fragment that led med down this dead end is MS 58.2. This fragment is unforunately mostly hidden behind the cover of the fragment carrier, and all that remains visible of the manuscript fragment at this stage are the folds on either side of the front and back covers, as shown in the picture above. As these folds are not very thick, it has so far only been possible to identify three of the texts of the original manuscript.

What we know so far, however, that the fragment comes from a breviary and contains chants for the feast of Saint Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), the founder of the Poor Clares and the sister of Saint Francis (1181/82-1226). I was very excited when it became apparent that these chants belonged to the feast of Saint Clare (August 11). In the material from the book collection that I have so far investigated, there have been very few cases where the liturgy does not belong to an old saint either from the Bible, the apocrypha, or the first Christian centuries. The reason why I was so excited about a newer saint was that a newer saint might make it possible to say something about the manuscript's provenance. The old saints were venerated throughout Christendom and could not provide any indication as to where the manuscript came from. In the case of Saint Clare, however, it became possible to make some more accurate suggestions.

It should be stated, however, that Saint Clare was also venerated widely as her cult spread quickly with the Franciscan Order and the Poor Clares, reaching Denmark in the 1230s and in 1257 respectively. Nonetheless, an office for the feast of Saint Clare would most likely have been commissioned or produced by the mendicants and it was this that opened up for the great, exciting possibility.

Fragment from Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, MS. 58.2
Photo by Jakob Povl Holck

As stated, Herlufsholm School was situated in Næstved. In this town there was also a Franciscan friary, which had been established sometime in the mid-thirteenth century and was eventually dissolved in 1532 during the Reformation, a dissolution that was chronicled in the anonymous De expulsione fratrum minorum, the thirteenth chapter of which details the dismantling of Næstved friary. In the process of the dissolution of the monasteries in Scandinavia, an immense amount of manuscript were confiscated and recycled as, for instance, book bindings. This was also the case in England and in the German counties were the Reformation was carried through, and this is, as we see, what happened with the breviary in MS. 58.2.

Since MS 58.2 was most likely a document from a Franciscan house, and since there had been a Franciscan house in the same town as the school, I quickly fell for the tantalising possibility that this fragment might originate from the Næstved friary. After all, this was a very real possibility, as discarded manuscripts were often gathered locally in Denmark, and if the fragment carrier had been printed near Næstved it would at least merit an article outlining the possibility that we were here in possession of a manuscript fragment that could reasonably be linked to Denmark. This is rarely the case for the manuscript fragments that we have investigated so far in the book collection, and if MS 58.2 could be linked to Næstved it would be possible to connect it to the wider history of medieval Denmark. I fantasised about the article I could write based on this, and I went on an ordering spree at the university library, borrowing books on the Franciscan order, the liturgy, on Denmark in the Middle Ages.

I let this fantasy stir in my head for a few days, building all kinds of wonderful imaginary roads down which my hypothesis could be pursued. It was only a few days later, however, that I realised that the manuscript fragments belonged to a book, and that the provenance of this book could easily be checked by looking at the frontispice. This I did, and it was then that all my imaginary roads and castles fell abruptly to ground, because it turned out that the book was printed in Frankfurt, and so the manuscript must have come from a nearby Franciscan friary, a long way away from the Danish context I had been hoping for.

It was a frustrating discovery, but not an unusual one in my experience with researching the Middle Ages, and it is an inevitable part of this kind of engagement with a past that comes down to us in fragments and which we often meet in lacunae and in silences. It shows how easily we can misinterpret the facts we do have, and it shows that many of our ideas of aspects of the Middle Ages are precarious and in need of constant revision, reinterpretation and rethinking.   

Ingen kommentarer:

Legg inn en kommentar