Introduced last year, the online catalogue Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries provides descriptions of the 10,000-odd Western medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, as well as those of a few Oxford colleges, and saves one entering the somewhat bewildering world of the Bodleian’s print catalogues.
The first duty of a historian is to produce works of art. By this I do not primarily mean works that are finely written, but works that are emotionally and intellectually satisfying, that combine a clear unity of conception with a vivacity of detail, and portray people whose actions are intelligible within the framework of their circumstances and character. It is thus that one might describe as the aims of a Balzac or a Tolstoy: I say therefore that a historian should aim at satisfying the same emotional and intellectual needs as a novelist or poet. How he is to do this within the limits of the available data is the great question.
R.W. Southern, ‘Aspects of the European Tradition of History Writing’
Lest I paint too grim a picture of the doctoral student’s life and efforts, I should clarify that while there are days when researching with medieval manuscripts feels like a very slow attempt to squeeze meaning from a stone, there are at least, in compensation, the days when you actually find something, even the something, that makes the previous weeks of fruitless research almost worthwhile.
I have to confess, prior to about a month and a half ago, I hadn’t ever read much Aristotle. Not only that, but while I would confidently nod my head in agreement when someone else mentioned ‘the significant impact of the translation of Aristotle’s works in the thirteenth century’, I only had a somewhat vague idea of what this impact actually was (unaided by the fact that many medieval historians writing on the topic seem to assume you already know and therefore spare themselves the effort of going into any detail).
This gap in my knowledge became readily apparent when I attempted to summarize medieval virtue ethics in an essay for my supervisor and more-or-less concluded with the formal essay equivalent of ‘…. and then Aristotle happened, and … things?’
Needless to say, I was sent away to acquaint myself with the Philosopher, more particularly with his Nicomachean Ethics.
I’ve only just stumbled across this website, run by Oxford University Press. It provides annotated bibliographies on a whole host of medieval topics, from ‘Anglo-Saxon Art’ to ‘Women’s Life Cycles’ – particularly useful if you are making a foray into a new topic or genre, such as medieval liturgy, and need a brief guide to the state of the primary sources as well as recommendations on the best entry secondary sources.
Another good set of bibliographical lists for various aspects of medieval studies.
Two invaluable online resources that have been lifesavers for me as I’ve started to work with unedited manuscripts:
A. Cappelli’s Dizionario de Abbreviature – The indispensable and definitive guide to Latin abbreviations, this online version of the Italian edition is much more comprehensive than the later English edition.
Enigma – In what I can only imagine was the result of an inspired friendship between a medievalist and a computer programmer, this brilliant tool allows you to enter as much of the word as you can make out, together with a host of wildcard options, and then provides you with a list of every possible option, courtesy of Whitaker’s Words. Particularly cleverly, it allows each minim (the identical vertical strokes found in ‘i’, ‘u’, ‘m’, and ‘n’) to be entered as a ‘!’, so for example, ‘!!!!!!!ere’ spits out only three possible options (innuere, munere, numere) which you can then narrow down based on context.
One of the inevitable frustrations of working with primary sources is that they don’t always say what you would like them to say. Worse, they don’t take what seem like golden opportunities to say what you’re pretty sure they were thinking, but never seem to actually articulate. It’s almost like they weren’t writing with you, a graduate student roughly 800 years in the future, explicitly in mind!
I found approaching canon law for the first time for historical research more than a little tricky, so I thought I would distill some of the most helpful ‘starter’ information I found on the way for anyone else embarking on it. (For more detail on what I was actually looking for, see my earlier post.)
In a (not so) recent post, I was
complaining about remarking on the difficulties I’ve encountered deciphering the early modern printed editions of the canon law texts I’m working with. Today I thought I’d focus on what canon law is and why I’m hoping these texts will be worth the effort.
I’ll start by giving some general background on canon law and then dive into a more detailed discussion of an example from my own research.
Humbert de Romans is surprisingly overlooked as a historical figure, given his influence in the early shaping of the Dominican Order in the mid-thirteenth century.
Elected as the fifth Master-General of the Dominican Order in 1254, only a few decades after the Order had been established, Humbert reorganized and thereby standardized the Dominican liturgy, had a new edition of the Order’s Constitutions prepared, drew up new Constitutions for the nuns associated with the Order, and wrote a number of influential and—for modern historians—informative works concerning the operations of the Order.
Some of his key works include:
- De eruditione praedicatorum (On the Instruction of Preachers) – Reflecting contemporary changes in the makeup of society, Humbert writes of sermons preached ad omne genus hominum (to every type of person), taking into consideration the dominant circumstances of the audience and varying the sermon accordingly. He also discusses the value of private conversation for edification.
- De officiis ordinis (On the Offices of the Order) – A very informative treatise on each of the various types of officials within Dominican convents, from the master-general down.
- De dono timoris (On the Gift of Fear), a.k.a. Tractatus de habundantia exemplorum (Treatise on a Wealth of Examples) – A highly popular collection of hundreds of exempla, or illustrations, for use in sermons, around the topic of one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Everyone knows that Oxford is a stunningly beautiful place, especially when the sun is shining, but in addition to its picture-postcard medieval and Neoclassical buildings, it also has some wonderful green spaces perfect for a contemplative stroll of a warm afternoon. Below are some of my favourites!
Take a foreign language, write it in an unfamiliar script, abbreviating every third word, and you have the compound puzzle that is the medieval Latin manuscript.
Preface to English translation of A. Cappelli’s The Elements of
Abbreviation in Medieval Latin Paleography (1982)
I have spent a concerning number of hours over the past month or two puzzling over pages that look like this:
Le nez de Cléopâtre, s’il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
[As a child] I assumed that medieval people all believed what popes told them to believe, or got burned as heretics. Some historical misconceptions are 100 per cent fantasy. Other have an infinitesimal grain of truth and blow it out of proportion. My own view of the Middle Ages hovered between these categories.
Then doubts began. Putting the medieval church in a black bin bag to throw it away could do it no harm. The people concerned were long dead and out of harm’s way. But we might do harm to ourselves, I reflected, if misconceptions about the past were to distort our views of own places in the world, and where it was going.
So I encouraged the doubts.
– Alexander Murray, introduction to Conscience & Authority in the Medieval Church