Writing your own devotional manuscript is the perfect way to combine working and praying – the two key activities in monastic life. In 1478, a nun called Winheid sat down in the Cistercian Abbey of Medingen and wrote a prayer-book for the time of Easter which combines meditations, songs and prayers in a rich display of colourful writing, gold initials, musical notation and beautiful illustrations. Her example was imitated by a whole generation of nuns; in their manuscripts, these women were writing in Latin and their local dialect, Low German, fashioning their own response to the liturgy from the same elements Winheid had used. Each of these personal devotional documents is thus also an artist’s book and presents a unique manifestation of the shared sense of celebration, of rejoicing at the feasts of the Christian year. Nearly fifty of these devotional manuscripts have so far been identified as coming from Medingen. They are scattered throughout the world, from the Council Library at Lüneburg, just 30km from where they were written, to the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky where a donation by a Danish art dealer brought it back in the monastic context.
The PolonskyGerman project allows for the first time to reunite a number of them in a virtual scriptorium, bringing together manuscripts from Wolfenbüttel and Hildesheim, part of the same North German cultural landscape they come from, with those from Oxford as prominent examples of copies that changed hands as antiquarian objects and went abroad (cf. the list of manuscripts and their locations). Oxford has four manuscripts from Medingen, three of them in the Bodleian: the unique Handbook for the Provost (Bodleian MS. Lat. liturg. e. 18), a liturgical book tailor-made by the nuns for the use in Medingen; a prayer-book for Easter (Bodleian MS. Lat. liturg. f. 4), enhanced with glued-in snippets of print and a musical appendix; and a psalter written by the last Catholic choir-mistress Margaret Hopes (Bodleian MS. Don. e. 248) with a colourful history of use and misuse over the centuries. Watch here a full account of the adventures of the psalter on the occasion of its public presentation after it was purchased by the Bodleian in 2015:
All of the Oxford Medingen manuscripts contain short texts and phrases in Low German but are mainly composed in Latin since that was of more interest to English collectors through whose munificence these treasures came into the library. It is therefore very fortunate that the Medingen prayer-book in Wolfenbüttel complements this with a text collection which is mainly in German with occasional Latin phrases. This shows the outreach interest of the Medingen nuns who made their text collection available to lay-sisters and their secular relatives in Lüneburg. Both the Bodleian and the Wolfenbüttel prayer-books share many features with Winheid’s model prayer-book in Hildesheim mentioned at the beginning: the notation of music with little red dots above the text lines; the highlighting of liturgical occasions; the size and material presentation in hand-sized fat volumes, bound in boards and covered with stamped leather.
Over the last twenty years since I started getting interested in Medingen, I have acquired or taken myself ca. 10,000 photographs from all the manuscripts which I was allowed to access. The sample of the first opening of the three prayer-books demonstrates what a helpful tool for comparison photography can be - but also the limits of my DIY method. Furthest left is the manuscript from the Dombibliothek Hildesheim, Ms. J 29 (Winheid’s model from 1478), taken by an enterprising and kind technician at the library with two nylon threads stretched across each double-spread to hold down the springy parchment, a job which otherwise my left hand had to perform while I took the photographs with my right. The middle manuscript from Wolfenbüttel, Cod. Guelf. Ms. Extrav. 300-1, the Low German prayer-book for Christmas, which I photographed during a short experimental phase when users were allowed to take pictures; the paper was easier to hold in place than the parchment of the manuscript to the far right, Bodleian MS. Lat. liturg. f. 8, a later version of a Medingen Easter prayer-book, ca. 1500, which I photographed when the Reading Room was temporarily in the dungeons under the Science Library - hence the blueish tint of the pages since I did not work out how to get a proper white balance. This difference in the appearance of colours through the different environment where the images were produced, obscures some of the similarities of the three sister-manuscripts.
Still, putting the manuscripts side-by-side brings out the similar shape and decoration of the opening initial situating the prayer-book at a specific liturgical time; the ornamental use of rubrication to produce a striped appearance of the page; the size which allows the book to be carried around in one hand - and the difference in use of representational elements between the two predominantly Latin and the Low German manuscript. With the PolonskyGerman project, this can now be taken much further through IIIF-compliant digitization which preserves the true colours, avoids contortion through different angles and the partial covering of the page through holding hands or strings attached. It allows us to fully understand the collaborative process from which the manuscripts originated when the nuns worked side-by-side bent over the long Refectory table, exchanging models for illustration, snippets of song and bilingual rhetorical. As the photographic studios, curators and encoders from England and Germany come together, the bilingual collaboration of the nuns finds a creative continuation in the twenty-first century.
Professor Henrike Lähnemann is Chair of Medieval German Literature and Linguistics at Oxford University and regularly a Visiting Fellow at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. She works on late medieval devotional culture in North Germany.