Racha Kirakosian: A Manuscript’s Never Ending Story

In this episode of Houghton75, we speak with Racha Kirakosian, Assistant Professor of German and the Study of Religion at Harvard, about one of the newer acquisitions in our collection. Close study of this colorful medieval manuscript, and other such manuscripts, can reveal where they were made, who they were written by, where they were used, who they were made for, and much more.

Find out more about the exhibition and Houghton Library’s 75th anniversary celebrations at http://houghton75.org/hist-75h


Lorelei Ensemble

Podcast Transcript and Music Notes

[Title sequence background music: Fireworks, Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra]

Alex Csiszar: Houghton is just this amazing place.
Deidre Lynch: It’s fascinating.
Stephen Greenblatt: It’s yours for the asking, and that is incredible!
Stephanie Sandler: Plus it’s cool.

James Capobianco (JC): Welcome to Houghton75. I’m James Capobianco.

Hannah Ferello (HF): And I’m Hannah Ferello.

[end music]

JC: Houghton Library opened its doors at Harvard in 1942. Throughout 2017, we’re celebrating the library’s world-class collections, and support of research and teaching over the last 75 years.

HF: This podcast is only one of the ways to participate in our year-long program of events that promises a unique glimpse of some of Houghton’s most treasured holdings and the way they inspire scholars and students. Visit houghton75.org for more information.

[background music: I Lie, by David Lang. Performed by Lorelei Ensemble, Beth Willer, artistic director. Track 10 on their CD Live. Know. Love.]

HF: Medieval manuscripts come to us with centuries of history. Close study can reveal where a manuscript was made, who it was written by, where it was used, who it was made for, and much more. One of our jobs as librarians is to connect these manuscripts with scholars who will study and identify them.

JC: This week, we welcome one such scholar, Racha Kirakosian, Assistant Professor of German and the Study of Religion at Harvard, who joined us to discuss one of the newer acquisitions in our collection. A colorful manuscript from Medieval Saxony, this book was among the first manuscripts Professor Kirakosian studied here at Harvard, and was her selection for a recent exhibition.

HF: We started our conversation with what is possibly the most striking portion of the manuscript, a brightly colored, full-page, illuminated miniature of the biblical resurrection scene.

[end music]

Racha Kirakosian (RK): So the pages that are open show a whole page illustration, a so-called “miniature” as it is in a manuscript, and we see in the center a dominating figure which is representing the resurrected Christ. He’s got his hand gesture out as to bless, he’s wearing a royal gown that just covers his body slightly to reveal four wounds.

Now the wounds are also illuminated with gold. There’s a lot of gold applied on this page. So one reason why this is interesting is because the illuminations fulfill different functions. For the wounds, this is of course to show that this is the resurrected Christ. They really draw the attention to the wounds so he’s recognizable.The other reason is where then the context of the book becomes important. It draws attention to the Passion of Christ as a central topic for the contemplative practices at the time: the adoration of Christ’s wounds.

This full page miniature represents the topic of the book, which is about Easter. So the text contains Easter prayers and Easter hymns, and this is the only full-page miniature in the book. The text facing the miniature speaks of the glorious and victorious Pascal day, so text accompanies the image.

JC: When looking at this image, I noticed that the figures are roughly drawn, almost in a childlike sketch. Also, the proportions are not consistent. Some figures are drawn significantly smaller than others, even though they are all presumably of similar height. Curious, I asked Professor Kirakosian about this style of art. Were these surprising details intentional?

RK: That might seem sketchy to someone who is not too acquainted with the area. It’s definitely not sketchy for what it is. It’s recognizable as a book from the Convent of Medingen. The Convent of Medingen used these faces, these forms, even these colors, and it’s not meant to be sketchy. It’s actually their particular style. The difference in proportion is wanted. It’s a manuscript strategy. It’s not that they didn’t know how to draw. It’s not that they did not know that a Roman soldier will be just as tall as Christ. It’s about representation. It’s about who’s the most important here.

Medieval art is not so much about rendering it naturally. It’s really about signs as presentations and representations. It tells you a story. And what is so fantastic is that the text speaks about the glorious Pascal day and joyful music that is sung on that day. And you see then the angels with instruments that humans produce and would play. And that’s another way to link the celestial realm to the actual monastic practice of celebrating that day, and unifying the humans’ song with the angels’ song.

[background music: I Lie, by David Lang. Performed by Lorelei Ensemble, Beth Willer, artistic director. Track 10 on their CD Live. Know. Love.]

JC: Clearly, there is much more to Medieval art than is revealed at first glance. These images tell a story. New details emerge with each close examination.

HF: The style of art is not the only unique characteristic of the Convent of Medingen. A brief look at the convent’s long, continuing history reveals its transformation.

[end music]

RK: The Medieval convent of Medingen was a Cistercian nunnery founded in the first half of the 13th Century, and it is one of the few monastic communities that has an unceasing history, meaning that until today there are nuns living in Medingen. There was a major change of passing from the Catholic to the Protestant Lutheran faith in the 16th Century, and that is still the church affiliation until this very day. They are Protestant Lutheran nuns.

At the end of the 15th Century there was prolific manuscript production in this convent. The nuns not only produced for themselves, but they also produced manuscripts for their friends, for lay people, for other religious communities that commissioned books, and that was all in the late 1400s when a scriptorium was established.

[background music: I Lie, by David Lang. Performed by Lorelei Ensemble, Beth Willer, artistic director. Track 10 on their CD Live. Know. Love.]

JC: Although most manuscripts produced in the scriptoriums of Medieval convents and monasteries are in Latin, it was not unusual for scribes to produce works in the vernacular common to their region.

HF: Located in Lower Saxony, the Medieval vernacular for the Convent of Medingen was Middle-Low German. This book, however, is not in Latin or Middle-Low German….Instead, it is written in both languages.

[end music]

RK: It’s quite interesting that this is a Latin and Middle-Low German manuscript because Medingen’s manuscript production falls into the period when Middle-Low German was beginning to be codified. Middle-Low German is a dialect that was spoken for a long time. In Medieval terms, it was some kind of lingua franca. It was one of the world languages because it was the official language of the Hanseatic League. Across northern Europe people would speak Middle-Low German to communicate, but it was not written down until the late Middle Ages. Just as Medingen gets a scriptorium and starts prolific manuscript production, Middle-Low German is codified, and so plenty of Middle-Low German is found in those manuscripts. And we’ve got macaronic style, which has nothing to do with pasta, it just means that you have Latin and Middle-Low German being mixed. They are very good at that. So “it has a macaronic style” means really that it does not only have Middle-Low German and Latin, but it might have a sentence that switches between the two.

HF: Studying Middle-Low German can reveal links between the modern German and English languages. As the language developed, sounds and spellings from Middle-High German were carried over into modern German. Many of those sounds and spellings were not present in Middle-Low German, which had many shared characteristics with English.

JC: Professor Kirakosian provided a closer look at this connection through close examination of a Middle-Low German hymn in the text. Listen for familiar sounds and words as she reads.

RK: We see here in the bottom third of the first double page, it skips from Latin into Middle-Low German. The last lines in red say “canta in via” (sing on your way), and then there’s a Middle-Low German song:

Help uns dat heyliger graf.
dar god suluen inne lach.
mit sinen wunden also heer.
vroliken mote we varen to iherusalem.
Kyrie eleison.

So: “The most holy sepulcher may help us, in which God himself laid with his most sacred wounds. We should go to Jerusalem joyfully. Kyrie eleison.”
So, I mean you think for example the word help. That looks very English, doesn’t it? Because the south German would be hilf. So there is a sound shift that the Middle-Low German has not undergone, unlike the south German. And that’s of course closer to English. Help uns dat heyliger graf, and that’s the grave. In south German, it would be grab.

It tells us quite a lot about the monastic practice that they would speak the liturgy in Latin, celebrate it in Latin, but then have vernacular songs. What we can tell is that there was an interest in Middle-Low German, that it actually was a serious way to communicate, and that’s why it was also written down. It’s actually a collective name for a number of distinct regional dialects spoken in the north of Germany. It’s very close to English because certain sound shifts that the south German has undergone, the Middle-Low German has not. The vernacular in certain areas of Germany until today sounds more like English. That’s why I love teaching this to English students. They read these old German texts, and then they sound so familiar. And I encourage them to read them out, and then they hear suddenly affinities to their own language.

HF: Just like the illuminations, with their seemingly endless layers of meaning, Medieval books have many stories to tell.

JC: Each page, even each letter may reveal something about the book’s past ownership, use, or even creation. Every new detail provides a better understanding of the book’s journey to the present.

RK: A book like this is a never ending story. In the last quire some pages appear empty, but they were prepared to be filled in. Here someone has indicated the neumes. And this was to continue writing if someone had another Easter prayer. And indeed that happened in the last quire. You find then more writing in a different style. Not the writing itself, but the illuminations and marginal illustrations are different in this part. So, one could assume that this was added later.

The hand seems different from that of the earlier part of the book. But there are ways to study it in more detail, to actually study each letter and to learn how a scribe would form his letters because they are actually learning to do this just as a pattern. It’s like a stencil. So it’s very hard to actually say that it’s another hand because it might just be another sort of script that the same scribe had learned. But there are different techniques to actually figure out if that’s the case, and that is when individual scribes have individual squiggles. For example, after an “M” they would always go slightly to the right. Scribes have different habits, and in a way, that’s what’s so beautiful about paleography. To learn to read a scribe, you nearly have to become him or her.

[background music: I Lie, by David Lang. Performed by Lorelei Ensemble, Beth Willer, artistic director. Track 10 on their CD Live. Know. Love.]

JC: We would like to thank Professor Racha Kirakosian for coming in and sharing her knowledge of this wonderful Medieval manuscript with us.

HF: The song you’ve heard throughout the podcast is I Lie, by David Lang. It’s performed by the Boston-based Lorelei Ensemble, a professional women’s vocal ensemble founded and directed by Beth Willer. You can find out more at loreleiensemble.com. Thanks so much to them for the recording.

JC: To view this manuscript up close, as well as other fascinating objects from Houghton’s collections, visit HIST75H: A Masterclass on Houghton Library. This online exhibit of faculty selected items is available at houghton75.org.

HF: Podcast transcripts and detailed musical notes are also available online at houghton75.org/podcast.

JC: Thanks for listening, and we hope you will join us next time here at Houghton75.

[music continues to end]