Dating medieval manuscripts is a cumbersome business. If manuscripts do not contain a completion date, a researcher has to rely on (more or less) datable manuscript characteristics. The book cover, the writing material, the script type or the decoration programme – to name but a few examples; the list could be easily extended – point to the time in which the manuscript was probably produced. Dating medieval manuscripts is somewhat of detective work which requires a keen eye: In each case one has to gather, collect, combine and interpret a wide range of dating information to limit the manuscript’s completion date – and there is always the danger of error. The Oxford prayerbook MS. Lat. Liturg. f. 4 – in the following cited as O1 – is an excellent example of how research can miss some layers of complexity.
Walther Lipphardt first attributed the prayerbook O1 to the convent of BMV Mary and St Maurice, Medingen, one of the convents linked with the North German Hanseatic city of Lüneburg; it was bought for £8 at Sotheby’s, 27 July 1887 (no. 24741, lot. 535). So far, more than 50 manuscripts in 17 collections on two continents have been traced back to the former Cistercian convent of Medingen. The Bodleian Libraries currently hold three examples covering a broad spectrum of various manuscript types. Besides the prayerbook MS. Lat. liturg. f. 4, the collection also includes the Manual for the Provost, MS. Lat. liturg. e. 18, and the psalter MS. Don. e. 248, recently made accessible by the Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands project. Keble College has another manuscript from the Medingen convent, the saints’ prayerbook Ms. Nr. 18, written by Mechthild Elebeke.
Glancing at the prayerbook O1, one understands the fascination which the Medingen devotional books exert, most of them richly illuminated – what makes them a demanded collector’s item commanding high prices on the international auction market. As illustration, the prayerbook O1 displays numerous text initials and marginal miniatures, executed in ink and gold, some of them protected by a sewed-in veil; it also includes two cuttings, probably from contemporary, but so far unidentified woodcuts (cf. Palmer 2005). One shows a maiden (fol. 141v, fig. 1), the other a lion (fol. 217r, fig. 2) – a pure feast for the eye, but more than an expensive medieval gimmick.
As a personalised embodiment of private devotion, the manuscript’s text and image are to be understood as self-created instruments of transcendental communication and interaction, executed in the style of the convent’s well-recognisable corporate design. Fig. 3 illustrates the active interplay of text and image: The farewell-prayer to the Easter Feast (fol. 174v, “Nobilissimo ac aurifluo Paschah Die ad vesperam declinante dic”) is accompanied by a coloured marginal illustration, which serves as visual devotional instruction. The illumination shows the Medingen nuns (on the left) and the Lüneburg patricians (on the right) celebrating the end of Easter Sunday at sunset; echoing the main text, the two bilingual speech scrolls (left: Vale O dies sine vespera, right: O sote dach woltestu by uns bli) hover as visualisation of their jointly chanted prayers over their heads.
The complex text-image-(music-)compilations give unique insights into the convent’s piety profile – and, concerning the entire Medingen corpus, its changing during the Late-Middle Ages. In this period, two significant reform movements affected the Medingen convent: the monastic Reform (1479) and Lutheran Reformation (1544), both echoed in the convent’s manuscript production. As a mirror of these two movements, the Medingen manuscripts offer the unique opportunity to assess the impact of the Monastery Reform and Lutheran Reformation based on one single manuscript corpus. Hence, the opening up of the Medingen manuscripts promises to contribute to a broader understanding of late-medieval religious culture – and should, therefore, be pushed with every possible effort.
But how to tackle this enterprise? To start with, one has to differentiate the different production layers of the Medingen corpus to match individual manuscripts with specific events. But due to the manuscripts’ ‘retro-style’, which copies older models, their dating is a challenging task. The results can be distorted by research assumptions, and for this, the research history of the prayerbook O1 – one of the principal manuscripts for understanding Medingen religious culture – is a revealing example. In the following, I will sketch the intertwining of dating issues, research paradigms and manuscript accessibility with particular regard to the prayerbook O1.
When Sotheby’s offered the small codex (125 × 93 mm), which contains private prayers and devotions for the liturgy of Eastertide, in 1877, research was not able to locate its exact origin besides a vague connection to the “Civitatem Luneborch” (fol. 28v) mentioned in a prayer. Soon after its purchase, different possibilities for locating the Latin/Low-German manuscript’s origin were taken into consideration. The 1905 published Summary Catalogue suggested that the parchment-and-paper-manuscript was written for an “inmate of the monastery of St. Michael at Lüneburg near Hamburg” in “the second of the 15th century” (Summary Catalogue, vol. V, 683). Interestingly, the short catalogue description also points to the fact that the prayerbook O1 was written by two hands – “A coarser but contemporary hand appears on foll. 9-18v, 33-42v, 90-95v, 97” – which will become important later in my article.
Walther Lipphardt was the first to succeed in attributing the prayerbook to a group of manuscripts put together by Robert Priebsch (1866-1935), Conrad Borchling (1872-1946) and Axel Mante (1896-1970). In a series of essays published after 1970, Walther Lipphardt was able to locate the manuscript corpus to the Medingen convent. He suggested that all Medingen manuscripts were produced between 1290 and 1524, proclaiming a tradition of manuscript production in the Medingen monastery lasting over 200 years. Within this time, he considered the prayerbook O1 to be a product of the final production stage which fell together with the reign of abbess Elisabeth von Elvern (1513-1524). According to Walther Lipphardt, the dominance of Latin over Low-German in the text and the Renaissance binding of the manuscript (fig. 4) have to be ascribed to the abbess’s orientation towards humanism (Lipphardt 1972, S. 164).
In the aftermath of Lipphardt’s discovery, research gradually limited the production period he had suggested. An important turning point was Gerard Achten’s analysis of watermarks found on the paper-manuscripts; his conclusive results restricted the production period to the years between 1470 and 1520 (cf. Achten 1987) – these 50 years became the standard dating period for the entire corpus. Later, Regina Cermann equated its beginning with the aegis of provost Tilemann von Bavenstedt (1467-1494), who introduced the monastic Reform to the Medingen convent (Cermann 2003).
More and more, research considered the entire corpus to be a product of the 1479 monastic Reform – comparable to the Lüne letters and tapestries, the Ebstorf school texts or the Wienhausen sculpture dresses. Against the background of a new research paradigm arising in the 1990s, research stressed the impact of the monastic Reform (1479) on Medingen religious culture as even more significant than the adoption of the Lutheran Reformation (1524-1544). Consequently, the Hildesheim manuscripts Ms. J 29 (HI1) and Ms. J 27 (HI2), both completed in 1478, could be seen as role models for the following generations of Medingen scribes. For example, the illustration in the prayerbook HI1 (fol. 126v, fig. 5) illustrating the farewell to the Easter Feast possibly served as a model for the already discussed depiction in the prayerbook O1 (cf. fig. 3). The production of private prayerbooks was considered to be a consequence of the shift from vita activa to vita contemplativa in the course of the monastic Reform serving as a personal devotional exercise.
The prayerbook O1 perfectly fits in the narrative. Three reasons suggest its completion between 1500 and 1520: Firstly, in the prayerbook, the Medingen nuns wear a sharped veil (fig. 3, enlargement below). The veil’s cut was introduced to the Medingen convent only after the monastic Reform. Therefore – since there is no evidence, that the illuminations were executed with considerable delay – the manuscript must have been produced after 1479. (In comparison, in the prayerbook HI1 the Medingen nuns wear a round veil, fig. 5, enlargement below). Secondly, one of the manuscript’s prayers (fol. 28v) mentions the convent’s abbess (“Abbatissam nostram”). Medingen became an abbey in 1494. Hence, the prayerbook must have been completed afterwards. Thirdly, the manuscript’s binding, brown tanned calf over oak boards with images of Prudentia, Lucretia and Venus, is similar to the binding of the Medingen prayerbook Ms. germ. 8o 48 (BE2), held in Berlin, whose watermarks restrict its production to the years between 1515 and 1520. The prayerbook O1 was likely produced at the same time. Up to this point, the issue seems clear.
But the question is not as simple as it appears at first glance. As recent research has shown, we have to rethink the past research on Medingen manuscripts. There are at least two big reasons why research produced a slightly distorted picture of Medingen manuscript production: research dating assumptions and limited manuscript accessibility. To start with, as I mentioned above, the Medingen manuscripts are stored in several collections on different continents. For many Medingen manuscripts, there are no digital reproductions available. This stresses why the Polonsky project is so crucial: It provides free access to high-resolution manuscript reproductions which expand beyond research boundaries.
Limited to the accessible manuscripts, past research very much focused on particular examples which were examined in highly specialised case-studies, which concluded that the examined Medingen manuscripts were produced between 1470 and 1520. Against the background of the dominant research paradigm (see above), which questioned Protestant narratives that declared the Lutheran Reformation as epochal game-changer, the conclusion was extended to the entire Medingen corpus: Considered to be produced in the aftermath of the monastic Reform (1479), the Medingen manuscripts became an excellent example for the significance of the monastic Reform, probably overstressing its impact on Medingen devotional culture.
But reform is always very much a return to one’s own tradition. It is highly doubtful that there existed no manuscript tradition in the Medingen convent before the monastic Reform. But this production tradition is difficult to catch due to the restricted manuscript accessibility. My DPhil supervisor, Henrike Lähnemann, pointed me to an Easter prayerbook held in Copenhagen (Ms GKS 3452-8°), in the following cited as K4. The scribe of the Latin/Low-German manuscript K4, Cecilia de Monte, names the year 1408 as its completion date: “Anno domini M CCCC viiij. completus est liber iste […]. scriptus per manum cecilie de monte humilis ancille cristi” (fol. 139v) – only an error? (Adding another “C” to the given date would turn it into 1508, which would perfectly fit with research assumptions.)
But it is probably not a mistake (nor is it likely, concerning the Medingen manuscripts, that the colophon had been copied from an older model). We do not know much about Cecilia de Monte, but we have a record of her on a few documents of the Medingen convent. She must have entered the convent in the 14th century; the first charter, which names her, is from 1393 (cf. Homeyer 2006, no. 402, 342). The charter suggests that she must have already lived there for a while when it was issued. This fits in with the completion date of the prayerbook K4, whose production required an experienced scribe. Later, Cecilia de Monte became prioress (1435-1445).
Interestingly, the prayerbook K4 differs from the reform design of the so far discussed examples. We do not have to go much into detail. The differences are quite obvious once pointed to: In comparison, the writing is large or rather bold, but well legible. Certain abbreviations have a different appearance (cf. single stroked et-ligature). The amount of gold is reduced to a minimum, only initials introducing an important text part are highlighted, but no veils are sewed in to protect them. More frequently, initials are decorated with blue or red pen work with characteristic motifs. The prayerbook K4 also contains a few marginal illustrations which often display animals, especially birds as shown on fol. 50v (fig. 6).
Now, remember that the prayerbook O1 was written by two hands (see above)? Both hands had been considered to be contemporary, one of them had roughly been described as “coarser” (Summary Catalogue, V, 683) – In the following, I will call the finer hand “first hand” and the coarser hand “second hand”. The main paper-part of the prayerbook O1 is written by the first hand; only a few parchment leaves are written by the second hand. During my studies, I recognised that the parchment leaves, on which the second hand appears, share the same characteristics with the prayerbook K4 (fig. 7): Comparing fig. 6 and fig. 7, the similarities are quite visible.
What does that mean? Unlike suggested, the two hands may not be contemporary. The prayerbook O1 appears to be a compilation of different parts, one part written before the monastic Reform (second hand), the other part written after (first hand).
This is where the detective work begins. Zooming in on the leaves on which both hands collide – and this is well possible with high-resolution reproductions as provided by the Polonsky project – gives revealing insights on the genesis of the prayerbook O1. I will provide a few examples to illustrate my hypothesis: Some prayers written by the later hand are palimpsests. Faint traces of red on fol. 41v (fig. 8) underneath the text of the Marian prayer Salue sanctissima dei genitrix flebilium indicate that the text was written over a former rubric (there is no rubric on the other side, which could have caused the effect), although one can barely see the rest of the scraped off red colour in the digital reproduction.
The end of the Easter prayer Ik grote dy keyerlike pasche dach on fol. 90r (fig. 9), whose decrescendo motive points to the later scribe’s difficulties in smoothing the transition of both manuscript parts, is also likely written on scraped-off parchment.
Quite unusual in manuscript production, both hands also switch within one single prayer text, sometimes in the middle of the sentence, for example on fol. 18v and fol. 19r (fig. 10), indicating that the recycled leaves had been chosen for a specific purpose which still has to be worked out in further research on the prayerbook O1.
Concerning the Medingen corpus, Reform literally appears to be ‘re-form’: As Henrike Lähnemann has shown, the Manual for the Provost, MS. Lat. liturg. e. 18, which was produced probably a few years before the monastic Reform, was heavily reworked after 1479. Extending her research, the Medingen prayerbooks appear to be multi-layered products of active reform efforts which continued for centuries. Interpreting the manuscript’s different production layers will substantially contribute to a boarder understanding of Medingen devotional culture.
The prayerbook O1 is a promising basis for further research on the Medingen corpus. It is not only a rare witness for the early Medingen manuscript tradition but also a valuable example for its reception in later Medingen reform production. Between its book covers, a devotional continuum spanning more than 100 years materialises in word and image. Revealing the basis of the reform process in piety tradition, the prayerbook O1 offers the opportunity to re-evaluate the impact of the monastic Reform on Medingen devotion.
- Achten, Gerard, De Gebedenboeken van de Cistercienserinnenkloosters Medingen en Wienhausen, in: Miscellanea Neerlandica 3., edited by Elly Cocks-Indestege and Frans Hendricks, Leuven 1987, 173–188.
- Cermann, Regina, Berlin, Ms. germ. oct. 48, in: Aderlaß und Seelentrost. Die Überlieferung deutscher Texte im Spiegel Berliner Handschriften und Inkunabeln. Eine Ausstellung der Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, edited by Peter Jörg Becker and Anne-Beate Riecke, Mainz 2003 (Ausstellungskataloge der Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz ; N.F. 48) 272—275, Kat. Nr. 138.
- Hascher-Burger, Ulrike and Henrike Lähnemann, Liturgie und Reform im Kloster Medingen. Edition und Untersuchung des Propst-Handbuchs Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Lat. liturg. e. 18 (Spätmittelalter, Humanismus, Reformation 76), Tübingen 2013.
- Lähnemann, Henrike, ‘Der Medinger Nonnenkrieg aus der Perspektive der Klosterreform. Geistliche Selbstbehauptung 1479-1554″, in: Ons Gesteliijk Erf 87 (2016), 91-116.
- Palmer, Nigel F., Blockbooks, Woodcut and Metalcut Single Sheets, in: A Catalogue of Books Printed in the Fifteenth Century now in the Bodleian Library, vol. 1, edited by Alan Coates u.a., Oxford 2005, 1–49.
- Summary Catalogue of Western Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, edited by Falconer Madan, Oxford 1904.
- Urkundenbuch des Klosters Medingen (Lüneburger Urkundenbuch, 10. Abteilung), edited by Joachim Homeyer (†), prepared for press by Karin Gieschen, Hannover 2006 (Veröffentlichungen der Historischen Kommission für Niedersachsen und Bremen 233).
Carolin Gluchowski is currently working in the research project ‘Deutschsprachige Gebetbuchliteratur des Mittelalters. Untersuchungen zu ihrer Überlieferung, Form und Funktion’ (German prayerbook literature in the Late-Middle Ages). Her field of research is late-medieval religious culture. Her Master thesis on the Medingen manuscripts is the starting point for her DPhil in Medieval and Modern Languages, which will start at the University of Oxford in October 2020.