Thursday, 20 November 2014

A hitherto unknown manuscript of Rimbert’s Vita Anskarii in Kiel

by Dr Paul Gazzoli, British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellow 

When modern people read a medieval text, they do so through a modern edition, which has been put together through consultation of the manuscripts. When there is more than one manuscript of a text, they will inevitably be different in some way, and it is the task of an editor to sort out which readings from which manuscripts to use in an edition – and even if a manuscript is in general good, we may find places where other, generally ‘worse’ manuscripts may offer better readings. When a text has been edited before, naturally editors want to have access to manuscripts their predecessors didn’t know about, so finding a ‘new’ manuscript is a bit of a dream come true.

For the past two years I have been working on a new edition of the ninth-century text the Life of Anskar, an account of one of the first Christian missionaries to Denmark and Sweden which provides us with our earliest descriptions of life in Viking-Age Scandinavia. It was last edited in 1884 by Georg Waitz for the Monumenta Germaniae historica (the Trillmich text that is often cited is a reprint of Waitz with an abbreviated critical apparatus). When I started, I was aware of two manuscripts of the text Waitz had not known about, one in the monastery of St Agatha near Cuijk in the Netherlands (which I refer to as F in my edition, from its provenance from Frenswegen in Germany) and one in Heiligenkreuz in Austria (which I refer to as N, from its previous location in Neukloster and origins in Bordesholm, the successor to the earlier monastic settlement of Neumünster – see discussion below and also the table of manuscripts at the bottom of this post). Both of these were discovered in the nineteenth century. I’m now pleased to report that I’ve come across another version of the text unknown to previous scholars.

When I sat down to write the section of my introduction that dealt with N, I wanted to learn as much about its history as possible: where and when it was written, where its copyist found the version of the Life of Anskar he copied. The first two questions were both fairly straightforward, as at the top of the contents-page, the scribe wrote: Liber sanctae Mariae uirginis in Bardesholm ordinis canonicorum regularium sancti Augustini Bremensis diocesis. Quem ego frater Johannes cum naso scripsi in diuersis annis. Oretis dominum pro me unum aue Maria. (This book belongs to St. Mary’s in Bordesholm, of the order of regular canons of St Augustine, in the diocese of Bremen. I, Brother John with the Nose, wrote it over several years. Say one Hail Mary for me.) And although he only tells us that he wrote the book in diuersis annis, he does write the year after some of the texts in it: he doesn’t do this for the Life of Anskar, but for the Life of Rimbert, which follows, he gives the year 1512. This Johann Ness or Johannes cum Naso copied numerous other volumes at Bordesholm and won the praise of nineteenth- and twentieth-century textual critics (such as Bernhard Schmeidler) not only for his prodigious output but also for his diligence as a copyist: for some later works, his text is clearly the best.

Thus it was clear that N was copied at Bordesholm. I set about to see if there was anything I could learn about its library, and found that there was, fortunately, rather a lot: not only had relatively many of the volumes survived (though only a fraction of what there was once), most of them now in the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen and the Universitätsbibliothek in Kiel – no mean feat as the Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War and other conflicts could completely destroy libraries – but among them was a medieval catalogue of the library, completed in 1488 (which you can see online here; a later catalogue is bound in front of it, the medieval portion begins on page 26). This allowed me not only to establish that Bordesholm had an earlier copy of the Life of Anskar, in a volume which bore the shelf-mark L ix, but also the other contents of that volume, among which were a life of Thomas Becket and Provost Sido of Neumünster’s Letter on the Church of Bremen, written in 1195 or 1196. This means that (if this volume was written as a whole, and did not have parts written at different dates stitched together) L ix could probably not be older than c. 1200, but was written sometime before 1488 when the catalogue was made.

With this established, I tried to find out just what had happened to L ix, or if (just possibly) it might still be out there somewhere. I found several works from the nineteenth century that dealt with the fate of the Bordesholm library between the secularisation of the monastery in 1566 and the foundation of the University of Kiel in 1665, when the remaining books were transferred to new library there. The single largest other destination for the books was Gottorf Castle in Schleswig, the ducal seat, from which they were later transferred to the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen. Copenhagen’s manuscripts have been thoroughly catalogued, but the Bordesholm manuscripts at Kiel, I found, had last been catalogued in 1863, in two pamphlets published to celebrate the birthday of the King of Denmark – the last time that date would be marked with any public festivities in Kiel, as in the following year the Duchy of Schleswig was incorporated into the Kingdom of Prussia.

The last person to write on the subject I could find was Steffenhagen (Die Klosterbibliothek zu Bordesholm und die Gottorfer Bibliothek. Kiel, 1884), who identified L ix with N – but I knew this could not be so, as not only had N not yet been written when the catalogue was made, but the two did not have the same contents. But the first person to print the medieval library catalogue of Bordesholm, Merzdorf (Bibliothekarische Unterhaltungen, Neue Folge. Oldenburg, 1850) tentatively identified L ix with no. 297 of a later catalogue of the Bordesholm library (made sometime in the mid-seventeenth century before the collection was transferred to Kiel). This meant that if Merzdorf was right, there was a possibility that L ix had made it to Kiel after all: indeed, Steffenhagen identified no. 297 with a manuscript at Kiel with the designation Cod. ms. Bord. 95.

What further ignited my curiosity was Steffenhagen’s description in which he denies the manuscript could be L ix: ‘Von Ratjen als Sermones bezeichnet und nicht identificiert. Mit L ix des alten Katalogs nicht identisch, welcher Codex jetzt in Wiener-Neustadt liegt.’ (Called Sermones by Ratjen [author of the 1863 catalogue] and not identified. Not identical with L ix of the old catalogue, which is now in Wiener Neustadt.)

It was the words nicht identisch in particular that set me off – this suggested that the volume had not identical, but similar content – in other words, it could be L ix, which shared some content with N, but not all (and as I mentioned above, I knew Steffenhagen was wrong about L ix being N). I became even more curious when I turned to Ratjen’s 1863 catalogue and only found the description: ‘Sermones. 187 Bll. 4. Die Handschrift hat von Feuchtigkeit sehr gelitten.’ (Sermones. 187 pages, quarto. The manuscript has suffered badly from damp.) Evidently, it was in a bad condition and neither Ratjen nor Steffenhagen could be troubled to report its contents.

The only thing to do then was to see if someone at Kiel could give me further information. To my good fortune, an internet search revealed that only last year a project had begun to produce a modern catalogue of the Bordesholm manuscripts. I got in touch with Kerstin Schnabel of the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, who is working on the project and who has written a dissertation on the Bordesholm library.

She was able to tell me that, in fact, L ix is still lost, and it did not live on as Cod. ms. Bord. 95. But the latter did, among other things, contain a copy of The Life of Anskar! Although the manuscript (from the fifteenth century) is severely damaged by water and mildew (it seems Ratjen was understating things badly when he merely referred to Feuchtigkeit), she told me that the contents-page is at least still somewhat legible, and lists the Life of Anskar at folia 170 to 178. This indicates it must be a condensed version, notably shorter than the abbreviated version to be found in the manuscript I designate F in my edition (from Frenswegen in Germany, now just across the border in the Netherlands at Sint Agatha, Erfgoedcentrum Nederlands Kloosterleven, St Agatha C 13), but not to be confused with the short legend which only takes up a couple of pages (of which Kiel also has a copy in Cod. ms. Bord. 3).

Thus, this manuscript provides us with evidence of a hitherto unknown shortened version of the Life of Anskar, which although it may not be of the greatest value as a witness to the original text, will be able to tell us more about how the Life was known in later medieval northern Europe. I would suspect that the text may be related to F, which also shares some significant variants with a seventeenth-century copy of the text in Amiens (which I call m). But in any event I will have to wait to find out, as the manuscript needs to be restored first. Ms Schnabel told me that the pages are all badly mildewed (and moreover, are fragmentarily preserved and have come out of their proper place in the manuscript) and cleaning them and putting them in order again will be a time-consuming process, which will begin next year as part of the ongoing project to catalogue the Bordesholm collection – which, no doubt, will turn up other things of great value to medievalists interested in northern Germany and Scandinavia.

Table of manuscripts mentioned

F Sint Agatha (Netherlands), Erfgoedcentrum Nederlands Kloosterleven, St Agatha C 13. Fifteenth century, originally from Frenswegen in Germany. Contains a version of the Life of Anskar, abbreviated by the omission of several chapters. Discovered in 1894, ten years after the publication of Waitz’ edition.

N Heiligenkreuz (Austria), Stiftsbibliothek, Fonds Neukloster D 21. Late fifteenth/early sixteenth century, originally from Bordesholm, written by Johannes cum Naso. Discovered in 1853 but unknown to Waitz.

m Some seventeenth-century pages added to Amiens, Bibliothèque Louis Aragon, 461 (a Corbie manuscript from around 1300; the first few chapters of the Life of Anskar was removed at some point. The writer of these pages supplied the missing text from a manuscript which shares many variant readings with F, and added the note telling us the name of the cleric he thought had taken the missing leaves).

L ix the lost exemplar of N, from Bordesholm, probably written sometime between c. 1200 and 1488.

Kiel, Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. ms. Bord. 95. Fifteenth century, collection of saints’ lives, including Anskar. The full contents are still unpublished.


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