Classics, Italian Literature, Latin language and Literature, Manuscript Studies

Frank Coulson Lectures on a Fragment of an Ovid Translation by Giovanni de Virgilio in the Walsh Library

This past 27 April, Dr. Frank Coulson of Ohio State University gave a lecture on a manuscript he discovered in the Walsh Library.  Coulson believes that Walsh Library MS Item 14, a 15th century manuscript fragment listed by Digital Scriptorium as a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with marginal commentary, is actually a 14th century copy of the Metamorphoses with a marginal translation written by Giovanni de Virgilio.  Giovanni de Virgilio was a 14th century Paduan scholar who was educated in Bologna and who was commissioned by the Studium of Bologna to lecture on Lucan, Statius, Ovid, and Virgil (for whom he had a particular love, as one can surmise from his chosen name.)  Only his Ovid lectures survive, along with a few of his other translations and commentaries.  We’ve some insight into Giovanni’s personal life, including his friendship and extended correspondence with Dante Alighieri.  Indeed, Giovanni even wrote an epitaph for Dante’s tomb.

The Walsh Ovid fragment, Coulson believes, is part of a lager Oivid commentary and translation Giovanni produced.  Coulson has been hunting down these fragments for the last few years, and has expanded our awareness of them exponentially.  Of the total number of fragments we are aware of, this is the 12th.  Prior to Coulson’s project, we were only aware of a single fragment of this commentary and translation.

What is so interesting about this particular fragment is how it breaks from the standard translation/commentarial methods of the time.  While most translations and commentaries in the 14th and 15th centuries were incorporated into the main text as one continuous block, with alternating segments of text and translation/commentary, this fragment has the translation and comments wrapping around the Latin text.  What’s more, this marginal translation does not even correspond to the text it wraps around: the marginal Italian text and the Latin text are from two different books of the Metamorphoses.  Also, the script of this fragment of this translation is in a textualis hand, meant to be easily read and understood for its formal, proper style.  This would be opposed to a cursive hand, which was more common for documents and university notes and textbook copies.  Coulson believes this is indicative of the intended patron of the translation, being someone who likely did not understand Latin well, if at all, and just wanted to be able to engage with Ovid through the vernacular.

The Center would like to thank Dr. Coulson for his sharing his invaluable expertise and insights with students and faculty alike.

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Alumni, Events, Uncategorized

2017 Compatible Careers Talk and Workshop

This past 11 April, the Center for Medieval Studies hosted its annual “Compatible Careers” event.  Each year, the Center asks alumni to share their experiences of finding jobs after their graduations that go beyond the traditional academic/tenure-tracked path.  The perennial question for graduate students nearing their graduations is: “what next?”  To study what you love is a joy, but the fact of the matter is that, eventually, one needs to realize what one wants to do for a living.  This question haunts many a student at night, especially those who would elect a non-academic path.  The purpose of this annual workshop is to show students that taking alternate paths is not only possible, but it may even result in finding a better fit for them.  This year’s speakers represent a wide array of careers that show promise and reward the creative medievalist willing to look beyond the usual choices presented to them.

Gilbert Stack, who works now as Fordham’s Director of Assessment and Accreditation and fiction writer, relayed that, if you have the opportunity, getting a PhD in a field you love is never, under any circumstances, a bad idea.  Stack called the PhD a “green card” for work in academic institutions, including work in administration.  One can pursue the terminal degree without setting down the path to university teaching, if one does not want to.  He also suggested students consider careers in academic administration, noting that such positions will be expanding to accommodate new regulations and student needs.

The next speaker was Joanne Overty, the owner of DeMontfort Books.  She related that she graduated with a BA in Economics and, after entering into the world of investment banking, realized how much she hated working as a banker.  A medieval art history class she took as an undergraduate changed her perspective, and awoke in her a desire to study manuscripts.  She and her husband (a curator) inherited the extensive manuscript collection of her employer.  After selling much of the collection to collectors and institutions and sending the rest to the Morgan Library and Museum, she went through Fordham for an MA in Medieval Studies and PhD focusing on manuscript studies.  She and her husband now own their own book selling business, combining their love of manuscripts with her economics training and business experience.  Overty’s main point of advice was for students to be flexible if they intend to enter into book selling or archival work.

The next speaker was David Smith, the Director of Marketing and Publishing for the Library of America.  Saying that publishing has always been a good career choice for people with humanities degrees, Smith related that publishing now has a greater need than ever for experienced writers and researchers.  Smith runs the Library of America’s social media presence, monitoring and maintaining relations between the company and its consumer base and spreading the word about upcoming book releases.  He also runs his own blog, where he posts researched stores, biographies, and histories using upcoming publications from the Library of America.  As of this past April, he has surpassed 10 million views.  Smith related that publishers need younger people who know how social media works in order to publicize their latest releases in an intelligent and well-mannered way.

Allison Alberts, the final speaker, presented her experiences as an upper school English teacher at Sacred Heart in Greenwich.  Having taught at both the college and primary school levels, Alberts provided a valuable reflection upon her experiences teaching students at a myriad of ages and levels.  After her PhD, Alberts looked for a position for around three years before she heard of the position at Sacred Heart.  She related that she did not even think of being a high school teacher as a career option, having just left the university environment and having taught undergraduate classes as per the requirements of the doctoral program.  She said that she is happier now than when she was teaching undergraduate students.  Being able to teach a single class of students over the course of a full academic year allows her to see the students grow, mature, and develop intellectually and emotionally in ways that the twice-a-week encounters with undergrads lasting only a few months does not.  High school teaching also allows Alberts to engage in teaching strategies that take advantage of the greater period of time she has to introduce and discuss themes in medieval history and literature.  Teaching younger students also provides her with opportunities to present themes and ideas in more creative ways than a college classroom environment usually allows: such as teaching The Wife’s Lament as a break-up story to ninth-graders, and joyfully seeing how easily they follow along with the deceptively complicated discussion that follows.

The Center would like to thank these alumni for their contributions and for sharing their invaluable advice and anecdotes to students eager to explore their options in the coming years.

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Digital Humanities, Events, Medieval Studies, Vernacular Languages

37th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies: Part 2

The second half of the conference began with the second panel session focusing on Jews and Christians. Sarit Kattan Gribetz (Fordham) began the panel with her paper, “Jewish-Christian Polemics and the Challenges of Studying Them.” Gribetz presented that in Origen, John Chrysostom, and other Christian sources polemic against Jews was tied to specific times of the year and their concurrent festivals and celebrations.  During times beyond these festivals and seasons of celebration, specific polemic targeting certain practices would lose its impact, or would be devoid of its context. The same is true for Jewish polemic. Gribetz presented that, in the Toledot Yeshu, the defeat and execution of Yeshu is intentionally paralleled with the festival of Purim, a time of the year celebrating the defeat and execution of Haman. Gribetz noted the numerous parallels between the narrative of Yeshu’s defeat and that of Haman’s, one of which is the refusal of the trees to be used to hang the offenders. Purim, a time of remembering God granting victory to His people against their enemies who sought their total destruction, was a time of particular anti-Christian sentiment, and, by its association with the Toledot Yeshu, a time meant to look forward to the day when this newest enemy would be defeated in like kind. Just as Christian polemics were bound to certain times of the year to maximize their effectiveness, so too were Jewish polemics timed according to the festivals of the year to capitalize on seasonal sentiments. This allows us to come closer to understanding how Jews and Christians could be friendly neighbors and business partners one day and hostile the next.

The second speaker was Samantha Zacher (Cornell), who presented her paper, “Anglo-Saxon Maccabees: Political Theology in Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints.”  While Ælfric seems to have been generally averse to armed conflict, leading many to cast him as a pacifist now, he saw the Viking incursions as necessitating an armed response. Presenting the Anglo-Saxons as the new Maccabees in a struggle against the Viking’s new Antiochus, Ælfric described the Maccabees as the only figures from the Old Testament who exemplified the spirit of faith ushered into the world by Christ. The Maccabees broke the letter of the Law in order to act in accordance with the spirit of the Law, so Ælfric believed, making their faith of a purer kind for its not relying upon strictures and decrees. Accordingly, Zacher believes, Ælfric saw an armed resistance against the Vikings as keeping with the spirit of Christ’s peace, even if it did require bloodying swords.

The final roundtable of the conference focused on the broad and often misunderstood concept of popular religion. Popular religion is often not considered a part of the history of religious institutions or of famous movements. Indeed, popular religion, both in academia and beyond, is often presented as preserving some of the pagan beliefs of pre-Christian Europe, causing us to isolate it as a distinct, if amorphous, entity from orthodox or institutionalized practices. Louisa Burnham (Middlebury College) began the roundtable with a description of the place popular religion holds in modern scholarship and beyond. Burnham put forward that, looking at inquisitorial records, one can see a difference in practices between communities and individuals that were recognized at the time, but noted that these differences should not be taken as creating a definite distinction between “popular” and “educated” practices. Rather, these differences present us with varying “flavours” of Christian devotion. Merrill Kaplan (Ohio State) presented popular religion in an Old Norse context as essentially being the comparison of folk tales and stores. Saying that “people have always been clever,” Kaplan related that people hear stores and recognize them as stories for their having heard the same tale in a different place or in a different form. Popular religion, then, in Old Norse accounts is more a comparison of stories and a debate over their truth value. This can be done by the educated, or by the uneducated but reasonably well-traveled lay person.

Richard Kieckhefer (Northwestern) then spoke of popular religion in broader terms, seeking, as he put it, to “problematize the problemitization” of religion begun with Peter Brown and John Van Engen. Kieckhefer presented the difference between popular and elite culture to generally be not one of religion, but of expectation. Popular religion was cluttered with local traditions and stories, which often ran contrary to the reforming intentions of the clergy who usually came from outside the local community. This difference in expectation is defined by the local Christians’ tolerance for their own clutter and the reforming clergy’s intolerance for that same clutter to which they had no personal attachment. The last speaker of the conference, Ittai Weinryb (Bard Graduate Center), presented an art historical approach to questions of popular religion. Weinryb discussed votive offerings, and, in particular, iron oxen that were offered to St. Leonard, the devotional focus of the so-called “Iron Cult.” St. Leonard, a saint associated with prisoners, did not have terribly many relics that could be displayed, prompting the giving of votive offerings that could be used to physically denote Leonard’s presence in a particular church or place. Broken chains and shackles could be found hung on the walls of the church dedicated to him, given by those who had been miraculously freed of their bonds. Iron oxen would be donated to petition the saint for his continuing protection over the animals so many relied upon for their survival. These oxen were not given in gratitude for saved animals, but out of devotion and thanks for the protection assumed to already be granted to them. They reflected enduring faith, not a specific prayer answered.

The Center would like to thank the speakers for their excellent contributions in this celebration of Traditio and the effects of tradition on daily life. We would also like to thank the organizers and all those whose donations made this conference possible.

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Digital Humanities, Events, Medieval Studies, Vernacular Languages

37th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies: Part 1

This past 25 March, the Center held its 37th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies. This year’s conference, “The Generative Power of Tradition: A Celebration of Traditio, 75 Years,” explored both the power of tradition in producing new ideas and movements and the role and history of Traditio in the humanities.

This year’s conference was divided into two panel sessions and two roundtables, with Father Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J., beginning the conference with a brief history of Traditio’s origin, its current role in facilitating discourse in numerous disciplines in the humanities, and its future under both Fordham and Cambridge University Press.

The first session was dedicated to mysticism, with the current state of the discourse surrounding mystics and their written experiences forming the central focus of the presenters. Barbara Newman (Northwestern) began the panel with her paper, “New Seeds, New Harvest: Thirty Years of Tilling the Mystic Field.” Discussions of medieval mysticism were, prior to the Second Vatican Council, dominated by authors with some kind of tie to religious institutions or orders. These men and, very occasionally, women approached medieval mystic experiences with a particular eye toward their agreement with established orthodoxy. While these earlier discussions thoroughly traced genealogies of influence and, when the reader’s Latin comprehension was not assumed, provided exceptional translations of the source material, the discourse, dominated as it was by the same communities of scholars, fell into certain assumptions that prevented the discussion from expanding. Women mystics, for example, were only discussed if they were considered saints. After Vatican II and the explosion of interest in mystical experiences in the 1960s, the discourse began opening up to a wider body of scholars of more diverse disciplinary backgrounds. Mystics came to be understood through less a spiritualist lens and more through a material, bodily, and terrestrial one. In conclusion, Newman challenged medievalists to now explore mystics in relation to political roles. Saying that mystics strove for an otherworldly ideal while still remaining grounded in this world, Newman expressed her desire for medievalists now to look to mystic vernacular writings not as inferior to the well-worded Latin copies, but as attempts by mystics to reach out to a wider audience in more tangible ways.

Concluding the first session was Sara Poor (Princeton). Her paper, “From Author to Textual Construct: Changing Approaches to Female Mystics in the European Tradition,” explored how female mystics have been discussed in relation to the often contentious notion of authorship for the past few decades. Looking to Mechthild von Magdeburg as her prime example, Poor discussed how the role of author can be, and is often, denied medieval women. By denying the notion of an author, as we often do when considering medieval texts, we allow for reinterpretations of the persona of the author that eliminate the possibility of a female origin of a text. Some interpretations of Mechthild’s The Flowing Light of the Godhead relate that Mechthild was herself a textual construct: an invented author figure meant to facilitate a description of a mystic experience that would have been unwelcome if openly coming from a man. Poor related that, while we willingly contemplate such possibilities concerning the existence of female authors, we rarely seem to apply such critical reinterpretations to supposed male authors, revealing an incongruity that medievalists and scholars of mystic texts need to be made aware of.

After the first panel came a roundtable concerning editing medieval manuscripts in the digital age. The first speaker, William Noel (University of Pennsylvania), addressed rampant problems with the current methods of production and use of digitized manuscripts and source material. Such problems he brought up were the tendency for libraries and museums to make their digitized manuscripts look as nice as they can aesthetically, covering up valuable information in the process. Likewise, while Noel by no means intimated that individuals or institutions engaged in this kind of activity, there is a very real possibility that one could digitally alter an image to provide information it actually does not. Ultimately, Noel presented a general need for institutions to digitize their manuscripts, provide the digitized versions free of charge, and provide with them the metadata that proves their legitimacy and gives scholars the information needed to know what to do with them.

William Stoneman (Harvard) presented the uses and applications of the programs Jeffrey Witt (Loyola Maryland) is developing to make use of the versatile nature of digitized manuscripts and texts. Witt’s programs will allow for the digitizing of a manuscript’s text and the embedding of links within the text which will allow a user to click on a certain word and bring up a list of translations and explanations which could be provided by the user base itself. In effect, this program would allow for the creation of a potentially unlimited number of editions of digitized texts to be produced online while hybridizing the digitized text and edition into a single entity. Stoneman commented on Witt’s project, bringing up questions of sustainability, where the data behind these hundreds of crowd-sourced editions would be kept, and for how long.

The final speaker of the first roundtable was Raymond Clemens (Yale), who presented a program he had been employing for some time that seeks to lower the barrier for entry into paleography and text editing. His program, the Digital Platform of Textual Editing Projects, has graduate students working together in workshops on editing and digitizing manuscripts while being taught by other graduate students who are familiar with the software and methods needed to do so. This provides the teaching students with valuable experience in pedagogy while introducing the students participating in the workshops to digital editing and paleography in a minimal-stress environment.

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English Department, Events, Italian Literature, Medieval England, Medieval Studies, Vernacular Languages

Valentine’s Day Vernacular Poetry Reading

This past 14 February, the Medieval Studies Department hosted their first Valentine’s Day poetry reading. In the spirit of the day, all selections discussed, in some capacity, the nature of love and its effect on the human beings fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to find themselves in its throes. From the pure love of God to the often controversial love felt between human beings, the poems and songs performed provided a wide range of perspectives of a state of being infamous for its eluding a clear definition in any known language.
It is perhaps this very elusiveness that makes the performance of Mohammad Alsidi so apt as the first given of the evening. A masterful player of the Oud, a stringed instrument originating from Ur, Alsidi performed old Aleppan music often played during the day in Sufi circles while conversations and discussion of the scripture and current events were echoing through the courtyards. While the melodies Alsidi played could be accompanied by lyric or chant, he played the pieces as they were taught to him: without vocal accompaniment. Each pluck of a string composed a wordless prayer in praise to God, proclaiming love for Him. Having roots in the region around Aleppo that stretch back nearly two millennia, these melodies, in a myriad of different forms, can be heard wherever Aleppans have strode, from India to Venezuela. Alsidi, himself a native of the region around Aleppo, played these beautiful pieces with a bittersweet tone. These melodies, like so much of Aleppo and, indeed, much of Syria, are being lost in the civil war. These songs, and the hands that can play them and the voices that can sing them, are dying. Alsidi said that he plays in order to have these pieces still heard in the world, so that we might not deafen ourselves to what is being lost while it is still here to be recorded, preserved, and enjoyed.
The next poem was Guido Cavalcanti’s “Voi che per gli occhi mi passaste il core,” delivered by Dr. Susana Barsella. A friend of Dante, Guido presented love as beautiful and uplifting, but ultimately ending in a “language of sighs.” Dr. Emanuel Fiano recited St. Ephrem’s “Hymn III: On Paradise.” Dating to the fourth century, this Syriac piece discussed the choice given to Adam and Eve over whether or not to eat of the forbidden fruit. Needless to say, their story does not end on a happy note: a reasonably consistent theme of this Valentine’s Day celebration. Next was Father Martin Chase’s recitation of lausavisur from the Old Norse Kormáks Saga. Kormák’s Saga, a prose tale with occasional segments of Skaldic song, also presents us with a narrative filled with less Cupid floating through a tranquil grove and more facing the difficulties that come with loving another over a prolonged period of time, albeit under less then mundane circumstances. However, the segment Father Chase read was one toward the beginning of the tale, when the lovers meet for the first time: a happy affair in which Kormákr fell in love at the first sight of Steingerðr’s ankles and feet.
The final three poetic readings were given by Drs. Jocelyn Wogan-Brown, Susanne Hafner, and Andrew Albin. Saying that God might deserve a Valentine’s Day gift too, Dr. Wogan-Brown presented the Old French “Rossignos” of John of Howden. Dating to the 1270s, Dr. Wogan-Brown related that this piece was written in such a way that the audience was meant to participate in its recitation, and the poetic sophistication of the piece itself shows just how intricate and elegant the Old French of England is. Dr. Hafner read “Unter der linden,” by Walther von der Vogelveide. This poem was originally set to music, though the music has been lost. Of the “dawn song” genre, “Unter der linden” presents a woman, rather than a man, reflecting upon a night of shameless sensual indulgence with her lover after he had to flee the next morning. Utilizing a number of overt euphemisms, the poem intentionally walks the line between descent and indecent evocation of a night spent in ecstasy. On that note, Dr. Albin finished the evening with a spirited reading of Chaucer’s “The Parliament of Fowls,” carrying on the theme of love being suspended between fulfillment and denial. This parliament, consisting of numerous and diverse types of birds, eagerly awaiting their dismissal from the assembly so they could fly off with their lovers, undoubtedly reminded all present of the agony of having to fulfill an obligation while one’s true desire lay just within reach. Love may be fulfilling, but no one ever said it would be easy to endure.
The Centre would like to graciously thank all who participated in this inaugural Valentine’s Day poetry reading and those who attended and experienced examples of nearly every kind of human reaction to this eternally problematic notion of love. Here’s hoping we, as humans, never actually manage to figure it out.

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Events, Fellows

Fall 2016 Lecture Series: John McCaskey Delivers “Inductio: The Medieval Transmission and Humanist Solution to the Scandal of Philosophy”

This past 6 December, 2016-2017 Medieval Fellow Dr. John McCaskey delivered his lecture “Inductio: The Medieval Transmission and Humanist Solution to the Scandal of Philosophy,” concluding this semester’s Medieval Studies lecture series.  Addressing the textual transmission of the concept of inductive reasoning from Aristotle and Socrates through Scholastic thinkers and into the Renaissance, McCaskey presented medieval thinkers as reinterpreting the Aristotelian definition of inductive reasoning so as to create a new form of philosophical analysis, which, though perhaps contrary to the original intention of Aristotle, stood as a unique form unto itself.

While Aristotle and, later, the Italian humanists who reexamined his work and thought, understood induction to be a process of enumeration, scholastics and Neo-Platonists, McCaskey believes, understood induction to be a process equating to deduction.  According to McCaskey, medieval thinkers approached inductive reasoning as a process of narrowing down the nature of what something is by what traits it shares in common with something else.  Classical and Renaissance thinkers, conversely, approached induction as defining what something is by understanding what it does in relation to what other similar things do.  Using the example of magnets attaching or not attaching themselves to an iron rod, McCaskey described this difference by showing that we can define a magnet according to its appearance being similar to other magnets or according to whether a magnet actually is attracted to the iron rod.  The difference is in how we define a magnet: is it a thing that does what all magnets are supposed to do, or is a magnet that which appears to be a magnet, regardless of actual function?  This difference in interpretation between Classical and Humanist and Medieval thinkers McCaskey largely attributes to alterations and items lost in the 500 years of translation of Aristotelian and Socratic texts as they made their way from Greek to Syriac, to Arabic, then Hebrew, and finally Latin.

The Centre would like to thank Dr. McCaskey for his lecture and for ending the semester’s lecture series on such an engaging note.

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Events, Manuscript Studies, Workshops

Parchment Making Workshop at Pergamena, 5 November

This past 5th of November, Dr. Hafner brought both her Manuscript Culture class and a collection of brave volunteers to Pergamena, one of the few tanneries left in the United States and one of the precious fewer tanneries in the world that also produces parchment. Officially listed as Richard E. Meyer and Sons, its current name derives from the Latin term for Pergamum, which first produced parchment in large quantities for writing purposes after Alexandria imposed a ban on papyrus exports to the city in response to Pergamum’s own attempt to build a great library to rival Alexandria’s. Down an unassuming rural road in Montgomery leading out into the woods, a van filled with semi-comatose students and faculty who knew exactly what was in store for them pulled up to a gray barn. When the van emptied and all had disembarked, the large front door of the barn opened. The crowd of eager and nervous medievalists approached, caught their first whiff of the scent of dead and dissolving flesh through the cool morning air, and came to understand exactly what the next seven hours entailed. Some practically ran into the barn, ready to see what Jesse Meyer, the owner, had in store for them. Some entered hesitantly, not sure how long it may take for them to acclimatize to this very new and different environment, or, perhaps, not sure if they wanted to acclimatize to it. Still others entered with grim determination, accepting the onslaught on their noses as the price they would have to pay to see just how the parchment we look at and read from actually was made, driven by the need for enlightenment. Dr. Hafner, who has been to Pergamena on multiple occasions and who brought another Fordham group there just last April, looked amused at the reactions of her students.

Once inside the barn, covered with cobwebs that looked as if they had been established there since the tannery’s opening in 1865, the crowd gathered around Jesse Meyer, who delivered an introduction to not only how Pergamena itself was established, but also why they do what they do and to what end. While leather production makes up a good deal of their income, Meyer related that parchment production also retains its demand. Book conservators look to Pergamena for parchment produced in an archival-friendly and historically accurate way, while artists who like to work with parchment also come to Meyer for their own materials. It is toward this latter end that Meyer himself got into parchment production. Before the tannery was made into what we know of as Pergamena, Meyer, a sculptor by training and nature, saw hides and parchment as great materials to work with as mediums for three-dimensional art as they can be shaped in practically any way one wants, as long as the hides are prepared properly.

Adding parchment to the products already produced by the family workshop, Meyer learned of the medievalist academic community and their desire to learn all they can of parchment production and how the physicality of the book impacted readers’ understanding of its contents. Meyer reached out to them, being one of the few in America who could give them exactly what they were looking for. Seeking to come closer to the medieval process, Meyer attempted to learn as much as he could from medieval handbooks on parchment production, but ran into the issue of descriptions of the process being less than clear. In a business such as tanning or parchment making, one is only as valuable as one’s process is secret, thus written details are few and far between, either in medieval sources or modern. Trial and error were Meyer’s tutors, and he’s learned well. Meyer, now actively engaged with medievalists across the country and attending the odd conference, often takes his show on the road, showing students and professors alike the rare sight of parchment actually being made.

Beginning his description of the process with a note of warning that parchment making and tanning can be bad for the skin, hair, nails, and relationships, Meyer presented the students first with a vat in which hides are left to sit in a lime solution, the acidity of which must be constant and monitored. Meant to dissolve remaining fat, flesh, and loosen hair or fur, these vats of lime are generally referred to as “pits” for the fact that they used to be always kept in pits in the ground. In some places in the world, such a Morocco, this is still done in such pits, with the oldest operating pit tannery in the world in Marrakesh. In upstate New York, barrels serve to contain the mixture of lime and liquefying beast.

Meyer brought the crowd deeper into the barn, cluttered with vats, soaking hides, and machinery spanning the last century. It was time for the hands-on portion of the presentation. Meyer reached deep into a nearby vat and drew from it a goat hide and flung it across a round beam, sending a stream of liquid flying across the room. In an admirable display of spontaneous coordination, the group of students parted instantly to avoid every airborne droplet. These skins were meant to be worn around an animal’s body, thus laying them flat in this untreated state would make them difficult to clean. Laying them across a beam gives some semblance of their natural shape. He demonstrated first how to scrape the hair off the skin. With a single movement, Meyer scrapped-off around one-third of the goat hair, showing just how effectively the lime solution works. Then, other students tried their hands at it, donning Meyer’s apron and gloves. Then, after the hair was removed, Meyer demonstrated how to remove the remaining flesh and fat from the underside of the skin. Brandishing now a crescent-shaped metal knife coloured by use and age to an appropriate hue of reddish-brown, Meyer showed how to remove the flesh without actually damaging the hide itself. The skins of deer, sheep, goats, and cows (the most common types he works with), while certainly durable, still can be damaged during this process, with cuts made by the scrapping knife an ever-present concern. For this portion a few volunteers went forth to try their hand at wielding this time-tested blade. With a mound of flesh steadily building up around the beam’s stand and the occasional, oddly satisfying, “plop” echoing through the workshop, Meyer related that it is at this point that one can really see the quality of the hide one is working with. The end product, be it either leather or parchment, is only as high a quality as the source material, and if the animal was butchered improperly or carelessly or killed in an inefficient or amateurish way, then it will result in an inferior hide, requiring that much more work to make serviceable.

From scraping and soaking, the crowd moved on to drying and stretching. After the skins were cleaned and soaked to remove the residual lime, they were air dried. Attached to frames with clasps holding the hide flat from every possible angle, the skin would dry under tension so as to prevent it from reverting to its natural shape. Parchment, as Meyer related and demonstrated, is flat because it is dried in such a tense position, thus, when it gets wet again, that tension is released, and it curls. Attached to these frames, the skin, once dry enough, needs to be shaved down to make the surface sooth enough to write on, but coarse enough to retain ink. Using another crescent-shaped scrapping knife, he showed how he would scrape strips of skin off the hide till it met the desired smoothness. Here, too, students tried their hands at the process, meeting varying levels of success, but everyone contributing a bit to the future usability of that skin for the preservation of a message, either in writing or as art.

By the end of the day, every student was fully engrossed in the details of watching an animal skin turn into a vehicle for the preservation and transmission of human knowledge and experience. Reservations had been replaced with genuine fascination and a newfound appreciation for what it took to produce the books of hours and bibles medievalists admire and, all too often, take for granted.

The Centre would like to thank Jesse Meyer for opening his shop up to us again on an early Saturday morning and giving us the chance to experience a part of human history that we have come all too close to losing.

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Events, Latin language and Literature, Manuscript Studies

Katherine Briant Curates Book Viewing at the Mertz Library, NYBG

Briant exhibitOn September 30th, Katherine Briant of Fordham’s Center for Medieval Studies curated a viewing of medieval manuscripts and early printed books in the Mertz Library’s Rare Book and Folio Room as part of the first day of this year’s Biduum Latinum, which was hosted by the New York Botanical Garden.  Consisting of thirteen books of botany and medicine that span the late 12th to mid-16th centuries, Katherine’s exhibit presented examples of some of the most influential scientific texts of the Middle Ages in forms and copies ranging from the startlingly beautiful to the equally startlingly practical.

circa-instans-1190

NYBG MS QK 99 .P575 1190

Two Circa Instans copies were displayed, one from the late 12th century (QK 99 .P575 1190) and the other from the last quarter of the 13th century (QK 99 .P575 1275).  The former, much more practical in its appearance and having been well-used, contrasted with the latter copy, which was obviously meant to be admired beyond the contents of its leaves.

circa-instans-1275

NYBG MS QK 99 .P575 1275

The contrast gave the exhibit’s audience a more complete understanding of the space these texts inhabited in medieval intellectual culture and manuscript culture.  While of a more practical nature than many other kinds of texts, medical and botanical books were still decorated, showing the simultaneous importance of both the knowledge that the book was meant to transmit and the presentation of that knowledge on the manuscript page.

r-128

NYBG MS R128 .C65

Also of note were two other works Katherine presented and described.  The first, a medical compilation from 13th-century France (R128 .C65), shows the ways in which recorded medical knowledge was expanded and commented upon by readers who added ample notes and marginalia over time to the text.  Another text, a 1565 Venice edition of Mattioli’s Commentarii, was paired with an original woodblock used to create the illustration of Eruca Sativa (Rocket) for that plant’s entry in the book.  The audience had the chance to compare the image produced in the text with the mirror image carved into the woodblock, imagining the action of pressing the inked block into the page and visualizing the physicality that early modern book production entailed.

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Mattioli woodblock

This book viewing was a wonderful way to end the first day of the Biduum Latinum, and it provided participants with the opportunity to see the material objects that transmitted the botanical knowledge featured in the bootcamp’s second day.  The Center would like to congratulate Katherine on her successful exhibition and would like to extend a grateful thanks to the New York Botanical Gardens for their warm welcome.

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Events, Latin language and Literature

Dr. Robin Fleming Opens This Year’s Biduum Latinum at the New York Botanical Gardens

This past 30th of September, Dr. Robin Fleming gave a lecture in the New York Botanical Gardens’ Mertz Library as part of the first day of this year’s Biduum Latinum on the Roman importation of plants and animals to Britain during its brief time as a part of the Empire and the impact this practice had on Britain’s material history.  Fleming began her “Vanishing plants, animals, and places: Britain’s transformation from Roman to Medieval” with a lament that the people she most often wants to learn more of in historical accounts and existing records are not actually mentioned by or visible in those very records.  To find out more about those who are silent in the written record, she went to look to the physical, archaeological evidence of their actions and, specifically, what they did with Roman imports.  We know from the written record that certain spices, fruits, vegetables, and even livestock were imported, but it is from the archaeological evidence that Fleming observed what these things were used for and by whom.

Looking to the period of Roman withdrawal from Britain in the 4th-5th centuries CE, Fleming put forward that the over-all impact this withdrawal had was a material one.  Noting a trend in the study of the de-Romanization of Britain, which presents the Roman withdrawal as having only a political and social effect on the urban elite, Fleming presented ample archaeological evidence that the immediately felt impact of the lack of a Roman presence in Britain was tied specifically to the loss of consistent Roman imports, which had penetrated every level of British society.  From the rural villager to the proud owner of a country villa and the urban elite, Roman imports formed a substantial, or, at least, noticeable portion of one’s diet.  From chicken to coriander, Roman imports can be seen in the diets of peoples spanning every level of the social spectrum.  Fleming bases this on evidence collected from excavated cesspits found across Romanized Britain.  Fleming believes even some native plants such as strawberries, thought to be inedible by British Celts, were, via Roman influence and interest in this exotic new taste sensation, introduced to consuming these berries on a daily basis.
The Roman influence did not end with the expansion of the British diet.  The Romans brought also such practices as grafting to the Isles, and Roman land-owning elite had constructed massive granaries to hold, in as conspicuous as way as possible, their vast wealth of food, harvested from ever-expanding fields of what were previously grasslands or floodplains.  Showing that influence was not unidirectional, the Roman villa of Britain was itself constructed in a similar manner as a rural villager’s home, albeit at a much grander scale with some distinctly Roman decoration.  The archaeological record shows thatched roofs, straw-covered pounded dirt floors, and sparse tiling display what it was the Roman landed elite called home, in a far cry from what their fellow citizens of a similar social standing would have known on the continent.  We even see, in Kent, a small port attached to a brewery obviously meant to export British beer to the continent.

What, then, came of these Roman introductions after the withdrawal?  From the archaeological evidence, Fleming believes most of the plants and animals imported died off without continuous Roman cultivation and husbandry and constant replacements being brought in by ship.  Most of these alien flora and fauna were not kept in large enough quantities to spread naturally from the abandoned gardens or breed beyond the confines of Roman hunting grounds.  In fact, we see a sharp spike in the consumption of foraged food after the period of Roman rule comes to an end in Britain.  The plants and animals currently thought of as British staples were reintroduced in the Middle Ages with the reemergence of trade with the continent and the import of materials and people coinciding with the rise of monasticism (and monastic gardens) in the Isles.  However, this should not be taken as indicative of a decline in the health of the average Britain, as, in lieu of landlords demanding the majority of what one produced, families were able to grow food entirely for themselves, adding what was foraged to that and resulting in a, generally, healthier individual, as shown by the larger, more robust skeletons we see dating to after the Roman withdrawal.

Noting the anthropological theory that, while people make things, things also make people, Fleming presented the Roman rule and withdrawal from Britain as signifying two major shifts in British material history.  As the needs of cultivated plants and livestock require humans to alter their own schedules to provide the time to meet those needs, and humans often base their own social standing on their acquisition and holding of such things, shifts in material history inevitably denote shifts in political and social history.  Fleming’s intertwining of textual sources and archaeological evidence provides a window into how exactly material changes alter every facet of human society and interrelations.

The Center would like to graciously thank Dr. Fleming for beginning the Biduum on an excellent note, and the New York Botanical Gardens for hosting the event and providing the perfect environment for our study of Roman and Medieval botany.

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History Department, Judaic Studies

Magda Teter Begins This Year’s Lecture Series

This past 14 September, Professor Magda Teter, of Fordham’s History Department, delivered the first lecture of the new academic year on the liminal nature of the city of Trent after Simon of Trent’s supposed martyrdom.  Trent, a city on the border between Germanic and Italian cultures, was itself a liminal space in which concepts and societies interacted with each other and came into conflict.  The 1475 martyrdom of Simon of Trent, believed to have been an instance of blood libel, was not counted by the Italians as a parallel instance as that of William of Norwich.  They believed it to be instead a unique event, with no precedent.  Italian artists, in perpetuating Simon’s burgeoning cult, presented him as a triumphant saint, without sign of pain or anguish on his face.  North of the Alps, however, Northern European presentations of Simon had him more in line with other purported cases of blood libel, with Simon being tortured and mutilated.  These images emphasized the act of his martyrdom, while imagery produced in Italy presented the end result and his sanctification.

This difference in presentation was, Teter argues, symptomatic of a wider division between those who wanted Simon to be considered a saint and those who held the account of his death as suspect or merely wanted to see his as a victimization without greater spiritual value.  Mere weeks after Simon’s disappearance, Bishop Hinderbach of Trent distributed printed pamphlets in Latin and German relating the death of Simon and containing the earliest representations of contemporary Jews in printed media.  Weeks after that, Hinderbach released a second version of the story on newly printed pamphlets, with yet a third version of the story being spread via pamphlet after the papal order to cease the forced conversion of Jews in Trent, begun in response to Simon’s death.  It was this use of easily mass produced printed pamphlets that allowed Hinderbach to spread and establish Simon’s cult in Trent and beyond as quickly as he did and, largely, in spite of papal resistance.  Pope Sixtus IV, having forbade Hinderbach from allowing Jews to be forcibly converted or killed, resisted the notion that Simon was a saint by virtue of his supposed martyrdom on the grounds that only the papacy could render such judgments.  While Hinderbach, as Teter shows, was acting within the established medieval custom of allowing popular sentiment to drive the recognition of a martyr as a saint, the papacy at this time was establishing a more formal division between the concepts of saint and beatus/a, with the saint being the formally canonized figure and the beatus/a an approved figure to whom individuals can appeal without accusation of idolatry.  This conflict, ebbing for a time after Hinderbach’s death and the subsequent downturn in popularity of Simon’s cult beyond Trent, came to a temporary conclusion during the Council of Trent.  Teter believes that during this time, the attendees of the Council would have been inundated with the imagery of Simon’s martyrdom, resulting in a revival of his cult and his later inclusion in the liturgical calendar.  Simon’s inclusion in the liturgical calendar made it difficult for the papacy to assuage popular concerns over blood libel, as to deny its existence or instances in which it was purported to have occurred would be to call into question the legitimacy of officially recognized and celebrated saints.

Within this series of events, Teter sees the struggle between old and new understandings of how saints and beati/ae are or should be recognized.  Hinderbach, though the driving force behind the formation of Simon’s cult, was abiding by practices employed throughout the Middle Ages, while the papacy was attempting to exert greater influence over who could be officially recognized as a saint or even who could be seen as beati/ae.  Teter presents this struggle over recognition of Simon of Trent as exemplifying the liminality of the city of Trent at the time.  It was culturally liminal, chronologically liminal, and technologically liminal, and serves as a microcosm of the social, religious, and legal shifts taking place at that time.

The Center would like to thank Professor Teter for her lecture and for getting this academic year off to an excellent start!

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