How two women pulled off a medieval manuscript heist in post-war Germany



Two manuscripts of the visionary, writer and composer St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) survived the Dresden bombings after a librarian stashed them in a bank vault.
(Avraham Pisarek/Deutsche Fotothek/Wikimedia), CC BY-SA

Jennifer Bain, Dalhousie University

Seventy-five years ago, in February 1945, during the Second World War, Allied forces bombed the magnificent baroque city of Dresden, Germany, destroying most of it and killing thousands of civilians.

In central Dresden, however, a bank vault holding two precious medieval manuscripts survived the resulting inferno unscathed. The manuscripts were the works of the prolific 12th-century composer, writer and visionary, St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), who had established a convent on the Rhine River, near Wiesbaden and 500 kilometres west of Dresden.

Hildegard Abbey, near Wiesbaden, Germany.
(Kate Helsen), Author provided

Hildegard, whose writings documented her religious visions, including a theology of the feminine and an ecological consciousness, and who practised medicinal herbology, was venerated locally as a saint for centuries. The Catholic Church only recently recognized her as one, and also designated her a Doctor of the Church.

After the Dresden bombings, the Soviet Army seized and inspected the surviving vault. The first bank official to enter the vault afterwards found it pillaged, with only one manuscript remaining. The bank could never confirm if the vault was emptied in an official capacity or if it was plundered.

The missing manuscript has not been seen in the West since. The other made its way back to its original home of Wiesbaden, on the other side of Germany, through the extraordinary efforts of two women.

This is the story of how those women conspired to return the manuscript home.

The librarian

In 1942, Gustav Struck, the director of the state library in Wiesbaden, became worried about local air raids. Following many European institutions, he decided that his library’s manuscripts needed to be sent elsewhere for safe keeping.

Hildegard receiving visions, a reproduction of an image from the ‘Scivias’ manuscript.
(Wikimedia/Miniatur aus dem Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias)

Two of the library’s most valuable possessions were manuscripts of Hildegard’s works. One was a beautifully illuminated copy of Scivias, a collection of 26 religious visions. The other manuscript, known as the Riesencodex, is the most complete compilation of her works, including the visionary writings, letters and the largest known collection of her music.

Why Struck chose to store the manuscripts in a bank vault in Dresden is still a mystery, but their journey there by train and streetcar mid-war is thoroughly documented.

The manuscripts sat in the bank vault for three years until the attack on Dresden.

After the war

Immediately after the war, the Americans sacked Struck in their denazification efforts. Librarian Franz Götting took over his job.

Götting inquired about the manuscripts as soon as mail service to Dresden resumed, and learned that the Scivias manuscript was missing, either seized or plundered, but that the bank still had the Riesencodex.

Götting asked repeatedly for the Riesencodex to be returned from Dresden to Wiesbaden. The difficulty was that Dresden was in the newly formed Soviet zone, while Wiesbaden was in the American zone. (The Allies had divided Germany into four occupation zones, and similarly divided Germany’s capital city, Berlin, into four sectors.) The Soviets had issued a decree stating that all property found in German territory occupied by the Red Army now belonged to them.

Hildegard’s composition ‘O Most Noble Greenness.’

The plan

A scholar and medievalist in Berlin, however, came up with a scheme to retrieve the manuscript. Margarethe Kühn, a devout Catholic who expressed a great love for Hildegard, held a position as a researcher and editor with the Monumenta Germaniae Historica project. After the war she found herself living in the American sector of Berlin and working in the Soviet sector.

Photograph of the 12th-century ‘Risencodex’ manuscript.
(Wikimedia/Landesbibliothek Wiesbaden), CC BY

Kühn had stayed at the Hildegard Abbey for several days in March 1947 and had even explored joining the Abbey as a nun herself. She must have heard while she was there that the Riesencodex was being held in Dresden without any promise of return. She devised a plan to help.

Kühn asked Götting for permission to borrow the manuscript for study purposes. Götting asked the Soviet-run Ministry for Education, University and Science in Dresden on Kühn’s behalf. Much to the librarian’s surprise, ministry officials agreed to send the manuscript for Kühn to examine at the German Academy, a national research institute established in 1946 in Berlin by the Soviet administration.

Kühn was convinced that the bureaucrats in Dresden would not recognize the Riesencodex. She decided that when returning the manuscript, with help from the Wiesbaden librarian, Götting, she would send a substitute manuscript to Dresden, and the original to Wiesbaden.

The crossing

Kühn enacted the plan with the help of an American woman, Caroline Walsh.

How exactly Kühn and Walsh met is not known, but Caroline’s husband Robert Walsh was in the American air force and was stationed in Berlin as the director of intelligence for the European command from 1947-48.

In an interview in 1984, Robert explained that when he and Caroline were in Berlin she had “worked a great deal with the Germans and with the religious outfits over there, too.” Since the Walshes were also Catholic, it is likely that they and Kühn met through Catholic circles in the city.

Caroline’s position as the wife of a high-ranking military officer may have made it easier for her to travel across military occupation zones and sectors.

In any case, we know that Caroline travelled by train and car and delivered the manuscript in person to the Hildegard Abbey in Eibingen on March 11, 1948. The nuns notified Götting at the Wiesbaden library and returned the manuscript.

The swap

A Scivias illumination on an edition of Hildegard’s medical works.
Beuroner Kunstverlag

Götting, meanwhile, had not found a suitably sized manuscript to stand in for the large Riesencodex to trick the Soviets. He instead selected a 15th-century printed book of a similar size and had sent this to Kühn in Berlin.

It took some time for Kühn to deliver it to the Ministry for Education, University and Science in Dresden, and two further months before anyone there opened the package in January 1950. By that time, Hildegard’s manuscript was safely in Wiesbaden. But officials spotted the deception and Kühn was in trouble.

An official in Dresden wrote to the German Academy in Berlin demanding to know why they had been sent a printed book rather than the Riesencodex manuscript.

Kühn’s boss, Fritz Rörig, who received the letter was furious with her. Rörig and Götting smoothed things over with Dresden by offering another manuscript in exchange. But Rörig told Kühn that the East German police were inquiring about her, the implication being that he had reported her.

One still missing

Although she remained deeply worried for some time afterwards, Kühn never lost her job at the Monumenta nor was she arrested, despite Rörig’s threats. For the rest of her life she maintained a rare cross-border existence, living on Soviet wages in the American sector while continuing at the same job until her death in 1986, at the age of 92.

As one of many scholars who regularly consults the Riesencodex, now available online, I am enormously grateful to Caroline Walsh, and particularly to Kühn who risked her livelihood for the sake of a book.

I am not alone, however, in hoping that during my lifetime someone, somewhere will find the pilfered Scivias manuscript and return it as well.The Conversation

Jennifer Bain, Professor of Musicology and Music Theory, Dalhousie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A Sixfold dos-a-dos Book


The link below is to an article that takes a look at a Medieval book that opens 6 ways in order to read 6 different texts.

For more visit:
https://boingboing.net/2019/01/09/dos-a-dos-x6.html

Science fiction was around in medieval times – here’s what it looked like


File 20180912 133901 1qhqhnf.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Comet in the sky, 1340. Wellcome Collection, CC BY-SA

Carl Kears, King’s College London and James Paz, University of Manchester

Science fiction may seem resolutely modern, but the genre could actually be considered hundreds of years old. There are the alien green “children of Woolpit”, who appeared in 12th-century Suffolk and were reported to have spoken a language no one could understand. There’s also the story of Eilmer the 11th-century monk, who constructed a pair of wings and flew from the top of Malmesbury Abbey. And there’s the Voynich Manuscript, a 15th-century book written in an unknowable script, full of illustrations of otherworldly plants and surreal landscapes.

These are just some of the science fictions to be discovered within the literatures and cultures of the Middle Ages. There are also tales to be found of robots entertaining royal courts, communities speculating about utopian or dystopian futures, and literary maps measuring and exploring the outer reaches of time and space.

The influence of the genre we call “fantasy”, which often looks back to the medieval past in order to escape a techno-scientific future, means that the Middle Ages have rarely been associated with science fiction. But, as we have found, peering into the complex history of the genre, while also examining the scientific achievements of the medieval period, reveals that things are not quite what they seem.

Origins

Amazing Stories, April 1926, Volume 1 Number 1.
Wikimedia Commons

Science fiction is particularly troublesome when it comes to matters of classification and origin. Indeed, there remains no agreed-upon definition of the genre. A variety of commentators have located the beginnings of SF in the early-20th-century explosion of pulp magazines, and in the work of Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967), who proposed the term “scientifiction” when editing and publishing the first issue of Amazing Stories, in 1926.

“By ‘scientifiction’,” Gernsback wrote, “I mean the Jules Verne, H G Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision … Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading – they are always instructive.”

But here Gernsback was already looking backwards in time to earlier writers to define SF. His “definition”, too, was one that could also be applied to literary creations from much further into the past.

Science and fiction

Another longstanding idea is that the “science” in science fiction is key: SF can only begin, many historians of the genre proclaim, following the birth of modern science.

Alongside histories of SF, histories of science have long avoided the medieval period (over a thousand years in which, presumably, nothing happened). Yet the Middle Ages was no dark, static, ignorant time of magic and superstition, nor was it an aberration in the neat progression from enlightened ancients to our modern age. It was actually a time of enormous advances in science and technology.

The compass and gunpowder were developed and improved upon, and spectacles, the mechanical clock and blast furnace were invented. The period also laid the foundations for modern science through founding universities, advanced the scientific learning of the classical world, and helped focus natural philosophy on the physics of creation. The medieval science of “computus”, for instance, was a complex measuring of time and space.

Use of medieval abacus and counting board.
Wellcome Collection, CC BY-SA

Scholars have started to reveal the convergence of science, technology and the imagination in medieval literary culture, demonstrating that this era could be characterised by inventiveness and a preoccupation with novelty and discovery. Take the medieval romances that feature Alexander the Great soaring heavenwards in a flying machine and exploring the depths of the ocean in his proto-submarine. Or that of the famous medieval traveller, Sir John Mandeville, who tells of marvellous, automated golden birds that beat their wings at the table of the Great Chan.

Like those of more modern science fictions, medieval writers tempered this sense of wonder with scepticism and rational inquiry. Geoffrey Chaucer describes the procedures and instruments of alchemy (an early form of chemistry) in such precise terms that it is tempting to think that the author must have had some experience of the practice. Yet his Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale also displays a lively distrust of fraudulent alchemists, sending up their pseudo-science while imagining and dramatising its harmful effects in the world.

Alexander in his ‘submarine’.
British Library, Royal MS 15 E. vi f. 20v, Author provided

The medieval future

Modern science fiction has dreamt up many worlds based on the Middle Ages, using it as a place to be revisited, as a space beyond earth, or as an alternate or future history. The representation of the medieval past is not always simplistic, nor always confined to “back then”.

William M Miller’s immensely detailed medieval future in A Canticle of Leibowitz (1959), for instance, dwells on the way the past consistently reemerges in the fragments, materials and conflicts of a distant future. Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book (1992), meanwhile, follows a time-travelling researcher of the near-future back to a medieval Oxford in the grip of the Black Death.

Although “medieval science fiction” may sound like an impossible fantasy, it’s a concept that can encourage us to ask new questions about an often-overlooked period of literary and scientific history. Who knows? The many wonders, cosmologies and technologies of the Middle Ages may have an important part to play in a future yet to come.The Conversation

Carl Kears, Lecturer in Old and Middle English before 1400, King’s College London and James Paz, Lecturer in Early Medieval Literature, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Millennial bashing in medieval times


File 20170626 29085 1kzq3gv
In Sir Thomas Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur,’ a character complains that young people are too sexually promiscuous.
The British Library

Eric Weiskott, Boston College

As a millennial and a teacher of millennials, I’m growing weary of think pieces blaming my generation for messing everything up.

The list of ideas, things and industries that millennials have ruined or are presently ruining is very long: cereal, department stores, the dinner date, gambling, gender equality, golf, lunch, marriage, movies, napkins, soap, the suit and weddings. In true millennial fashion, compiling lists like this has already become a meme.

A common thread in these hit pieces is the idea that millennials are lazy, shallow and disruptive. When I think of my friends, many of whom were born in the 1980s, and my undergraduate students, most of whom were born in the 1990s, I see something different. The millennials I know are driven and politically engaged. We came of age after the Iraq War, the Great Recession and the bank bailout – three bipartisan political disasters. These events were formative, to an extent that those who remember the Vietnam War might not realize.

The idea that young people are ruining society is nothing new. I teach medieval English literature, which gives ample opportunity to observe how far back the urge to blame younger generations goes.

The most famous medieval English author, Geoffrey Chaucer, lived and worked in London in the 1380s. His poetry could be deeply critical of the changing times. In the dream vision poem “The House of Fame,” he depicts a massive failure to communicate, a kind of 14th-century Twitter in which truths and falsehoods circulate indiscriminately in a whirling wicker house. The house is – among other things – a representation of medieval London, which was growing in size and political complexity at a then-astounding rate.

Geoffrey Chaucer.
Wikimedia Commons

In a different poem, “Troilus and Criseyde,” Chaucer worries that future generations will “miscopy” and “mismeter” his poetry because of language change. Millennials might be bankrupting the napkin industry, but Chaucer was concerned that younger readers would ruin language itself.

Winner and Waster,” an English alliterative poem probably composed in the 1350s, expresses similar anxieties. The poet complains that beardless young minstrels who never “put three words together” get praised. No one appreciates old-fashioned storytelling any more. Gone are the days when “there were lords in the land who in their hearts loved / To hear poets of mirth who could invent stories.”

William Langland, the elusive author of “Piers Plowman,” also believed that younger poets weren’t up to snuff. “Piers Plowman” is a psychedelic religious and political poem of the 1370s. At one point, Langland has a personification named Free Will describe the sorry state of contemporary education. Nowadays, says Free Will, the study of grammar confuses children, and there is no one left “who can make fine metered poetry” or “readily interpret what poets made.” Masters of divinity who should know the seven liberal arts inside and out “fail in philosophy,” and Free Will worries that hasty priests will “overleap” the text of the mass.

On a larger scale, people in 14th-century England began worrying that a new bureaucratic class was destroying the idea of truth itself. In his book “A Crisis of Truth,” literary scholar Richard Firth Green argues that the centralization of the English government changed truth from a person-to-person transaction to an objective reality located in documents.

Today we might see this shift as a natural evolution. But literary and legal records from the time reveal the loss of social cohesion felt by everyday people. They could no longer rely on verbal promises. These had to be checked against authoritative written documents. (Chaucer himself was part of the new bureaucracy in his roles as clerk of the king’s works and forester of North Petherton.)

In medieval England, young people were also ruining sex. Late in the 15th century, Thomas Malory compiled the “Morte d’Arthur,” an amalgam of stories about King Arthur and the Round Table. In one tale, Malory complains that young lovers are too quick to jump into bed.

“But the old love was not so,” he writes wistfully.

If these late medieval anxieties seem ridiculous now, it’s only because so much human accomplishment (we flatter ourselves) lies between us and them. Can you imagine the author of “Winner and Waster” wagging a finger at Chaucer, who was born into the next generation? The Middle Ages are misremembered as a dark age of torture and religious fanaticism. But for Chaucer, Langland and their contemporaries, it was the modern future that represented catastrophe.

These 14th- and 15th-century texts hold a lesson for the 21st century. Anxieties about “kids these days” are misguided, not because nothing changes, but because historical change cannot be predicted. Chaucer envisioned a linear decay of language and poetry stretching into the future, and Malory yearned to restore a (make-believe) past of courtly love.

But that’s not how history works. The status quo, for better or worse, is a moving target. What’s unthinkable to one era becomes so ubiquitous it’s invisible in the next.

Millennial bashers are responding to real tectonic shifts in culture. But their response is just a symptom of the changes they claim to diagnose. As millennials achieve more representation in the workforce, in politics and in media, the world will change in ways we can’t anticipate.

The ConversationBy then, there will be new problems and a new generation to take the blame for them.

Eric Weiskott, Assistant Professor of English, Boston College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.