Tag Archives: monastic education

A dummie at the court of King Access


Dummies cover

I have blogged before on the joy of ninth century library catalogues, and in particular on the joy of reading ninth century librarians’ comments. Now for the hard stuff. In between chasing missing books, these guys did a fantastic job of listing what they had. For St Gall, there is a lot of fun to be had in matching the lists to the extant stock, but for Reichenau, just a boat ride away, not only do we not have the manuscript versions of the catalogues, we also don’t have any Reichenau manuscripts at Reichenau. Happily, and thanks to a diligent German scholar in 1918, called Paul Lehmann, we do have a printed copy of several ninth century catalogues, based on copies made of contemporary manuscripts in the eighteenth century. And Lehmann did track quite a few of the manuscripts mentioned in it amongst the stock transferred to Karlsruhe after the dissolution of the abbey so they can’t all be imaginary. But for the time being, it’s the catalogues that are exercising my mind. And what to do with them that might contribute to an understanding of the textual culture that the monks were living and working in.

My mind drifted to the idea of visualisations, thence to digitisation and – and this is a long leap – to the idea of a database of texts. I used to use databases for my work, but they came ready-made. Not only had someone else done the key to disc bit, but someone else had dreamt up the structure required. And the database programs available to me now are not the ones we created in 1999.

And so I became a dummie. And bought a book that showed me how.  In its own way.


And I have to admit I’m still a dummie, but I am a wiser dummie because I have a better idea of why it’s hard.

I thought it was hard because of the technology, but it wasn’t. I thought it was hard because of the circularity of the process of deciding which fields to include before you have entered all 700 records because it is only after you have entered those 700 records that you know which fields are needed and by then changing the fields is problematic. But it wasn’t really that either.

I did the right things. I started with apparently uncontroversial stuff like ‘Author’, ‘Title’, ‘approximate date’ and ‘Title of catalogue’. I spent rather more time and experimentation on the fields which were to categorise the type and content of the text concerned: ‘Letters’, ‘Sermons’, ‘Biography’ for example, as well as ‘Patristic’, ‘Grammar’ and ‘Astronomy’. I did quite a bit of sampling and refining. I came up with some sort of system to ensure consistency and found the kind of fixes that are required when ninth century monastic librarians meet 21st century technology. I learned quite quickly, for example, that ‘Author?’ is not a simple question if the title is ‘the Book of Genesis’ – I presume people have spent whole PhDs on less. Given that that is not an option, the choice is between leaving the field blank or simply entering ‘BIBLE’. For a couple more days I wrestled with this kind of thing, finding out along the way how to add new fields and build in a checking system at the end so that entries were consistent. And then I took a day or so off. And then I tried to enter 700 records.


And when it came to using the fields, I realised that I had the thing upside down. Being a dummie at setting up a database is easily cured by buying a yellow book. Being a dummie at describing ninth century texts will take a lot longer to fix. It took the plan of setting up a database to bring it home to me that I need to know much more about these texts and about the authors before I analyse them. I need to decide for example, which authors are ‘patristic’ because the database requires me to say something more definite than ‘This catalogue includes several patristic authors’. I need to find field labels that fit the historical context. Trying to split ‘Theology’ from ‘Philosophy’ is not going to work so I will put them together but can I lump Augustine’s biographical texts in with hagiography? Is Rhetoric part of Grammar? What is the difference between a commentary and an exposition if you only have the catalogue title? Is it possible to make sensible use of a record that just says ‘Alexandri libri’? If you have a title such as ‘de libero arbitrio’ does that mean it’s the one by Augustine that you already have or might someone else have used the same title?

I once heard someone who works a lot on digitising historical records say that the people creating the digital resource ended up learning more than the users of the resource ever could. That seems to be true here.  I’m learning a lot about what these monks read. But I still hope to have some visualisations by September.

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The tale of the frustrated librarian



I think I have always had a thing about library catalogues. It is true that library catalogues are not what they were. The electronic ones of today are much more efficient than the card indexes in the Bradford City Library in Darley Street were, but they do lack a certain serendipity. Time was when one might search for something on Russia and get easily distracted on to Bertrand Russell, but that as they say is another story. But suddenly, serendipity is back and it’s a lot of fun.

I have been spending a lot of time in the company of half a dozen library catalogues dating from the ninth century. The monastery of St Gall in Switzerland is world renowned for having had the good fortune to retain a large proportion of its medieval stock amongst these manuscripts can be found some of the earliest library catalogues in Europe. And they make you think.

At this stage, they are making me think about librarians. The oldest and most comprehensive list has been heavily annotated. In some cases, this just means that space was left for additions to be made in the appropriate category, which was usually, but not always, defined by author. But mostly the annotations are the laconic remarks of a long suffering librarian who, like long suffering librarians all over the world, was either trying to keep track of his books despite the attempts of library users to secrete them away or simply needed to disassociate himself from the purchasing decisions of his predecessor. The set of comments gives a very modern impression of a bloke trying desperately to bring order to something that has been allowed to get away and do its own thing.

Thus we find that several books were dismissed as ‘inutile’ – (useless), ‘pusillum’ (very little or paltry) or ‘antiquissimo’ (very ancient) and in one case, Isidore’s book on differences, that the volume in question was ‘totum mendacium et inutile’ (a complete lie and useless). Sometimes the previous librarian had not catalogued the book in question by the standards expected by the annotator.   A book catalogued under Pope Gregory is annotated: ‘et in uno ex eis vita pauli et antonii’ (and in one of them there is a life of Paul and Anthony) and another is found to be concealing some of Jerome’s letters. In other cases, books had outlived their usefulness. Isidore’s synonyms are annotated ‘hoc legi non potest’ (this cannot be read) – clearly a plea for more funding. Some books were clearly simply not present at the time the catalogue was updated. A volume on the books of Tobias, Judith and Esther had been sent to the school, as had a volume of letters from the popes of Rome. One on Ezekiel was lent to the lady Rickart : ‘habet domna rickart’. Of two volumes of the lives of the Holy Fathers, ‘unum habet liutart’ (Luitart has one of them).  One of my favourites is ‘hoc auditum est non visum’ (this is heard but not seen). It was clearly important that the writer had sight of the book, or at least of the chap who had it: ‘Ruodinum vidi habere qui dixit suum esse hoc non vidi’ (I saw Ruodinus who said it was his. I have not seen it) And it was important to count. Of four volumes of the gospels listed ‘ex his duo non inveni’ (of these I cannot find two).

This opens up a whole world. Can we track down these individuals? Was St Gallen running a kind of lending library? How did the books marked ‘ad scolam’ fit into the educational programme? Several scholars have tried to cross reference these catalogues with the extant collection but it is extremely precarious research. For me, there are two important things to establish. What did scholars of St Gall had access to at home when they compiled their multi text manuscripts and what must have been borrowed? And did any of the multi text manuscripts in these catalogues act as a model for the ones I am working on?


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The very model of a modern organisation?

Fulda, the Making of a Community, c.744 – c.900 (Cambridge, 2012), by Janneke Raaijmakers is far more than its title suggests. Yes, it tells the story of this Carolingian monastery, but it does so by drawing together a huge (by early medieval standards) range of sources and by anchoring the account within a changing context of social and political factors, personal crusades and local pressures. What we have here is reminiscent of many modern organisational studies, without ever straying into the anachronisms that may imply.
The story begins with Boniface’s letter to the pope in 751 asking him to grant a papal exemption for a small group of monks building a monastery in an isolated place, where they could live according to the Rule of Benedict. The exemption would protect the purity of the place from interference by bishops and others who might value its land. The exemption was duly granted and Raaijmakers’ task is then to explain how and why this eremitic community grew to become the Royal Abbey and its huge estates which existed in 900. The book’s achievement is to link the growth with the rise and fall of the Carolingian dynasty and to reflect the interplay between modernisers and traditionalists which accompanied it. 100 years after its foundation, Rudolf’s Miracula Sanctorum (842-847), in Raaijmakers’ view, presents what was once ‘a wooded place in a vast wilderness’ as ‘a spider in a web of churches and cellae, once donated by the Frankish elite or built by the brethren themselves on acquired property or newly cultivated lands.’
In tracing this progression, Raaijmakers makes clever use of the cumulative evidence of architecture and archaeology as vitae, letters and other traditional textual sources. She uses archaeological, hagiographical and liturgical records for example, to demonstrate how Abbot Ratger, who insisted on building a huge church, large and grand enough to make Fulda rank ‘among the major royal abbeys in the Frankish Empire’ deliberately modelled the church on prestigious churches elsewhere in the Carolingian Empire. He built a western transept with an apse, in the fashion of churches in Rome and Paris which enabled the community to adopt Roman liturgy as well as strengthening the cult of St Boniface. When we consider that Ratger became abbot in 802, just after Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor, we see clearly the tensions between a ‘moderniser’ and those who felt this was self-aggrandisement and a misuse of resources. Tellingly, Ratger was exiled when the complaints became impossible to ignore.
Textual sources on their own are fully exploited in context. The Life of Abbot Eigil, Ratger’s successor, was written by Candidus during the abbacy of Hrabanus Maurus as a dual text or ‘opus geminatum’, with one version in prose, the other in verse, rather than simply in a prose version which had hitherto been usual. Raaijmakers shows how this choice was related to the development of scholarship during the ninth century by elucidating the relationship between the events of Eigil’s abbacy which form the content and the scholarly and pastoral expectations of the community at the time of writing. The prose version ‘was written for moral instruction.’ It could be read aloud not just to monks but to church congregations and the hearers might be expected to absorb the lessons therein. Its content overlaps with that of the prose version, but the latter includes ‘expositions’ and was meant to be read by those already skilled in xxxxx and able to read ‘with the eyes of the mind’. In other words, this literary edifice bears the same relationship to the ninth century abbey as did the construction of Ratger’s church to the earlier community. This was an abbey to be reckoned with, taking seriously its task of guiding and educating the common people but also capable of interpreting the word of God and thus truly representing the interests of those for whom it prayed.
One question remains after reading this book. What role did the famous school play in establishing the identity of the community? It may be that records are scarce but this is a strange omission in the description of the development from the small, eremitical site where monks were carrying out practical work to sustain themselves, to the Royal Abbey of 847, where the monks could not only appreciate a poetic vita but could also be expected to write such a work. And there is evidence in the book that the ‘new’ monks who joined the monastery as it grew, were in need of education. Many of them, by the late eighth century, trained to become priests. Many by then were coming from the newly Christianised lands in for example, Saxony. There was, we are told, a ‘general cultural bustle in the monastery’ at the end of the eighth century and an impressive number of texts had already been assembled. Education must have played a crucial role.
That said, a book I very much enjoyed and to which I shall return.

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