My internship at Oxford in Medieval German Studies
by Anja Peters
Travelling to Oxford to work as an intern with Professor Henrike Lähnemann for Trinity Term of 2023, I didn’t fully know what to expect. Of course I knew why I was going: To gain insights into the work and research at one of the most famous universities in the world, to gather experience in Digital Humanities, to assist in some of Henrike Lähnemann’s projects and, of course, to see as many medieval manuscripts as I could. But what would Oxford be like?
My first task, totally unexpected, turned out to be the perfect introduction to the medievalist cosmos at Oxford: Helping with the 2023 Medieval Mystery Plays at St Edmund Hall. At this fantastic event on 22 April, six plays from the 12th to the 16th century were staged in the grounds of St Edmund Hall, in the tradition of biblical cycles that were a popular form of entertainment during the Middle Ages. The plays were performed in various medieval and modern languages, including Middle English, Latin, 16th-century French and, in our case, Middle High German. I was part of the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ performance by the Medieval Germanists, where I had a lot of fun playing the lost soul of a dishonest cobbler after helping to build the gates of hell at the entrance to the crypt of St Peter-in-the-East. The Mystery Plays were a great success, we had perfect weather and a big audience, and I met many amazing people. And when I was enjoying the view over Oxford from the tower of the church-turned-library in the evening, I really felt I had arrived.
During my first couple of weeks in Oxford, I was introduced to some of the projects I would be helping with during my internship, such as the Medingen Manuscripts Blog started by Henrike Lähnemann. This project gathers together digitised versions of the manuscripts that were produced in the Cistercian convent Medingen (Lower Saxony), and that are today scattered in the collections of many different libraries in Germany, England, Denmark and the USA. I had already worked with some of the manuscripts from Medingen in the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg, where I am a research assistant in the special collections. During the past year I had been transcribing Cod. in scrin. 149, a 13th-century psalter originally made in the Thuringian-Saxon region and then altered and reworked in Medingen end of the 15th century. Now in Oxford it was decided that I would turn my transcription into a digital edition – although I would not be able to complete this during my stay, because the manuscript is rather long and there was so much else to do!
In April I got to assist with the launch of Prof. em. Charles Webster’s book ‘In Times of Strife’ and the corresponding exhibition, which I helped to set up in the Taylor Institution Library’s Voltaire Room. The book explores the pursuit of humanitarian objectives in the face of perilous conditions of war, exile and extreme social dislocation by focusing on four pairs of European intellectuals and artists and reconstructing their journeys during times of strife. The first two chapters are about the group of 17th-century innovators Samuel Hartlib and Jan Amos Komenský (Comenius), John Hall and William Rand. The later two chapters focus on the World Wars of the 20th century, with the artists Ernst Barlach and Jakob Steinhardt and the brothers Salo and Robert Pratzer. The exhibition showed several incredible original artworks from Barlach and Steinhardt and Käthe Kollwitz and I really enjoyed learning about them and the context they were produced in. As my studies normally focus on the middle ages and early modern period, I found the parallels between German Expressionist art and the woodcut aesthetics of 16th-century anti-papal Reformation pamphlets especially interesting.
Now that I had got a first glimpse into the work that goes into organising an exhibition, I promptly got the opportunity to co-curate one myself. I worked together with Elena Trowsdale, an intern from the MSc in Digital Scholarship with Emma Huber at the Taylorian, to compose an exhibition about Early Modern Monsters, marking the launch of the digital editions of three pamphlets in the Taylor Institution Library’s Reformation Pamphlets series. The edited pamphlets were the German, French and English versions of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon’s treatises about the so-called “Monk Calf” and “Pope Donkey”, two monstrous animal misbirths that were interpreted by the reformers to make polemic arguments against the Catholic Church, the papacy and the monastic orders. In the exhibition, we displayed the original pamphlets as well as many other objects from the Taylorian and other collections that related to our overall theme of monsters. We explored the meaning of the word “mooncalf” in relation to Luther’s Monk Calf, how monsters were seen as omens of the end times, how the monstrous and grotesque were used in propaganda by reformers as well as Catholics, and lastly apotropaic monsters such as gargoyles that populate many roof ledges and archways in Oxford. It was a great opportunity to learn step by step how to arrange an exhibition: We brainstormed possible objects, viewed the eligible items and selected them; we came up with themes and layouts for each display case; we wrote the labels and texts for the cases and the blogpost and finally set everything up in the Voltaire Room of the Taylor Institution Library. Some of my favourite objects that we displayed were an original 12th-century stone ‘beakhead’ from St-Peter-in-the-East that was kindly lend to us by James Howarth from the St Edmund Hall library, and the huge ‘Mappe-Monde Nouvelle Papistique‘ (1566/67). This map that shows the popish world inside a monstrous hellmouth, attacked by Protestants from all directions, was only recently discovered in an inadequately labelled box in the Ashmolean Museum. It was absolutely delightful to learn about the Mappe Monde from Ashmolean Curator Jim Harris, who showed it to us and let us photograph the 28 separate sheets at the Museum, so that we could assemble a facsimile for the exhibition. Overall, curating the monsters exhibition was a big project and a great experience. I am very proud of our result!
Between those larger projects, my everyday life in Oxford was very varied. I was able to go to many events, such as the Oxford Medieval Graduate Conference or the Nigel Palmer memorial symposium, and take part in some of the university courses. On Wednesdays I was attending the weekly Medieval German Seminar in the Old Library at St Edmund Hall, where we looked at Heinrich von Neustadt’s ‘Von Gottes Zukunft’, a 14th-century religious poem in rhymed couplets. For week 5, I held a presentation about depictions in medieval art of the Fifteen Signs before Doomsday, a list of fifteen catastrophic events said to take place before Judgement Day that were also mentioned in Heinrich von Neustadt’s text.
As a student in medieval art history, my only window into Oxford as of yet had been the Digital Bodleian Homepage, so I was especially excited to be able to visit the library and see some of the amazing objects from its collection in person. Among my favourite events during my stay were the Medievalists Coffee Mornings at the Weston Library. Every Friday from 10:30 to 11:30 am there would be coffee, tea and biscuits offered on one end of the Visiting Scholars Centre; and old books, manuscripts, maps or other fascinating special collections items on the other end. With presentations by experts on different topics every week, the Coffee Mornings were a great opportunity to learn about interesting subjects and research projects, meet new people and have a friendly chat in a relaxed atmosphere. One of my personal favourite presentations was about medieval Persian medical encyclopedias by Dr Marc Iravani MD from the University of California at Los Angeles, who provided some fascinating insights into ancient treatment methods against melancholy and other ailments (that you should definitely not try at home). Another very enjoyable demonstration was given by Dr Henry Parkes (University of Nottingham, Albi Rosenthal Visiting Fellow in Music at the Bodleian) about several medieval liturgical manuscripts that were used during the night office and include musical pieces relating to Saint Thomas Becket; afterwards he even sang one of the songs with us together.
On the weekends and during my free time, I loved to explore the city and its surroundings. If the weather was bad, I went into one of the museums, and if the weather was good, I went on bike tours to Port Meadow, Iffley or Abingdon, or I walked through the streets and browsed the bookshops. I could now see how Oxford inspired so many artists and authors – the wonderful atmosphere of the city with its spires, gargoyles and gardens fueled my creativity greatly. Within my second week I had bought myself a small watercolour pocket set and a sketchbook to take with me on my outings, and I am very happy that I managed to fill most of it. These drawings of the places I visited are among my most cherished things that I got to take home from Oxford; they remind me of the amazing time I had during my internship and that I absolutely need to come here again!