Lectures & Conferences

5th Annual Lawrence J. Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age

Taxonomies of Knowledge

November 16-17, 2012

Symposium Abstracts

(in program order)


Katharine Breen, Northwestern University

Making One’s Way through the Book: Reading and Reorientation in the Speculum theologiae and Piers Plowman

The journey is one of the fundamental textual taxonomies, furnishing a basic organizational structure to texts ranging from the Odyssey to contemporary genre fiction. Part of the appeal of the journey is that it supplies a built-in interface between the body of the traveler, organized by left and right, back and front, and the world through which he or she travels, organized by north, south, east, and west. By keeping track of – indeed, toggling back and forth between – these different types of coordinates, the traveler develops an increasingly acute sense of his or her position in the world: a sense of orientation. Usually this process has an implicit or explicit moral dimension, with the traveler asked to direct a positively valued aspect of the body towards a positively valued site in the external world: for the medieval Christians who bequeathed us the term, to “orient” one’s self was to turn physically or spiritually towards the east, the rising sun, the earthly Jerusalem, and the Second Coming of Christ. My talk accordingly turns to medieval Christianity – and chiefly to textual itineraries in two popular late medieval works, the Speculum theologiae and Piers Plowman – that I hope will shed light on the broader taxonomy of the journey. Where most textual journeys are purely intellectual, bracketing their readers’ physical bodies as they ask them to project virtual selves into a moralized landscape, the tropes and diagrams I will be discussing engage with an embodied reader situated at the foot of the manuscript page. In these cases, the reader’s body becomes a tool for creating a virtuous soul, while the organization of the manuscript page or the manuscript codex becomes, potentially at least, a new organization of the self.


Alfred Hiatt, Queen Mary, University of London

Worlds in Books

The idea that the world might be contained within a book remains a powerful, seductive notion. What were its medieval permutations?

To explore this question, I want to consider the use of books to store knowledge during the Middle Ages from a couple of angles. The first is the use of alphabetization as an increasingly popular means of organising knowledge in the later Middle Ages, and one with significant implications for the tradition of "universal" texts – reference works such as Isidore’s Etymologiae, encyclopedias, and universal chronicles. As an example, I will briefly discuss John Whetehamstead’s Granarium, an unpublished fifteenth-century compilation of classical, historical, and philosophical learning, organised alphabetically. The manuscript contexts of works such as the Granarium suggest that alphabetization brings important changes to the writing of the world, not least in the move away from chronology as a structuring principle.

A second angle is that of geography, the verbal and visual representation of the world. Always connected to historiography and the encyclopedia (Orosius, Isidore, Honorius Augustodunensis), medieval images of the world were never able to represent the level of detail of which verbal descriptions were capable. The emergence of alphabetic listings of place names and topographical details (such as in Boccaccio’s De montibus) allowed the possibility for a different way of reading maps, organising space . . . the fifteenth-century translation of Ptolemy’s Geography into Latin fits into this pattern by providing toponyms and enhancing recourse to co-ordinates. Ptolemy also provides a paradigm of subdivision into regions, which provides possibilities for compartmentalisation and infinite expansion: the atlas is here or at least on its way.


Mary Franklin-Brown, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Poetry’s Place in Scholastic Taxonomies of Knowledge: From Dominicus Gundissalinus to Vincent of Beauvais

It is by now a well-worn observation that “literature” as a category or academic discipline did not exist in the Middle Ages and that the study of the texts that we consider literary was variously subsumed under the disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, or ethics.  Paradoxically, the absence of literature as a category permitted, even facilitated the omnipresence of literary texts and practices in fields from which they have since been banished, as copious scholarship over the last few decades has shown.

Nonetheless, scholastic thinkers who attempted to establish schemas of the disciplines—whether in philosophical writing (the genre of the didascalicon or the commentary), in encyclopedic compilation, or in the organization of a library—encountered the problem of how to account for poetry.  While some remained silent on the issue or continued to subsume poetry under other disciplines, several individuals (Dominicus Gundissalinus and Raoul of Longchamps in the first category, Vincent of Beauvais in the second, and Richard of Fournival in the third) dealt with it in ways that suggest an inchoate awareness that it could resist the paradigms imposed by another discipline, possess its own substance apart, perhaps even escape classification entirely.

In this paper, I would like to consider how these four individuals coped with the problems that poetry posed for taxonomies of knowledge.  Those engaged in the activity of arranging pre-existing material were most flummoxed by the way in which poetry seemed simultaneously to belong everywhere and nowhere, and so I will focus particularly on Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum maius, on the disciplinary schemas he deploys in the Speculum doctrinale and the practical difficulties that poetic texts raise for his compilation of the Speculum naturale and Speculum historiale.  As the essential texts of the other disciplines take their places in a logically ordered array, poetry runs amuck.

Yossef Schwartz,
Tel Aviv University & The Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies

Medieval Translation Movements and the Invention of Hebrew Science, 1100-1300

Late medieval and early modern Hebrew written scholarship occupies an eminent place in any description of Jewish intellectual history and is situated in a variety of dialogues and dynamics with other premodern cultures of learning. Contrary to the intuitive feeling a contemporary reader might have, the Hebrew language was not a "natural choice" for a medieval Jew speculating about the nature of the universe, or about any other "secular" issues. In fact, before the great modernist national projects of eastern European Haskalah and the Zionist movement, Hebrew was scarcely in use for such purposes. Hellenistic Jews who assimilated into their intellectual environment conducted their affairs and enquiries in Greek, after which Arabic became the main apparatus for communication both on the daily level and for more developed literary purposes around the Mediterranean and eastwards. Later on, during the early modern period, European Jews slowly adopted the same assimilatory mechanism, adjusting themselves to the different European vernaculars. It was therefore mostly during a relatively short period of time that Hebrew was taken up as the lingua franca of Jewish intellectuals living in different regions, and within a well-defined geographic area. In my lecture I will relate to basic mechanisms of migration/circulation of knowledge as universal phenomenon under the unique perspective of the medieval Jewish community of learning. Offering some critical remarks on medieval Hebrew linguistic territories I will concentrate on the following topics: "Classicism and "vernacularization" as parallel inclinations in medieval Hebrew literature: Medieval Hebrew as sacred language and as profane expression of lay knowledge; paraphrase versus commentary traditions in the transmission of Greco-Arabic intellectual heritage into Hebrew and Latin; and basic mechanisms of appropriation, including compilations, encyclopedias and the making of Hebrew libraries.

Sergei Tourkin, Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, Montreal

Persian Nativity Horoscopes

Nativity horoscopes (or personal horoscopes) had been very popular in the Middle East until relatively recently, and many people of various social ranks would have had one such horoscope prepared either right after the birth, or later, on some other occasion. Yet, not many nativity horoscopes have survived, as they were important for their owners only.

No serious study of Persian nativity horoscopes has been done to date, even though they can contain important information. First, they fix the exact date and place of birth of the native. Often, the sources record dates of death and/or reign only, while the dates of birth often remain unknown. Second, astronomical observations and mathematical calculations preserved in nativity horoscopes are good evidence for the level of astronomical knowledge and achievements of their times. All nativity horoscopes contain various and numerous tables, diagrams, and sometimes also paintings in which positions of celestial bodies are established or calculated for a certain moment. Third, being an integral part of medieval Muslim astrology, nativity horoscopes can shed more light on the status and implications of this integral component of mediaeval Islamic culture and world-viewing. Every nativity horoscope incorporates astrological predictions for the native, which are based upon the interpretation of the astronomical findings.

Several dozens of Persian nativity horoscopes, dated from as early as the 12th century to as late as the early 20th century, have come down to us. The paper will mainly focus on the structure and contents of Persian nativity horoscopes made in Timurid Iran (15th century).


Eric Ramirez-Weaver, University of Virginia

Reading the Heavens: Revelation and Reification in the Astronomical Anthology for Wenceslas IV

In the Astronomical Anthology for Wenceslas IV (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm. 826, created shortly after 1400) the court astronomer and astrologer, Terzysko, worked in tandem with a late medieval painter from Prague on a series of diagrams at the outset of the anthology, compiled for the King of Bohemia, Wenceslas IV (d. 1419).  As a regulated series of apertures opening up representative scientific vistas of the heavens for personal and period examination, the diagrams constituted mnemotechnic tools requiring organizational patterns, permitting multiple interpretative pathways through the presented information, and yet prescribing nevertheless normative statements of scientific and superstitious beliefs.  A manuscript like the Astronomical Anthology for Wenceslas IV permits an investigation into techniques of reading and the complementary propaedeutic roles of the diagram as a tool simultaneously recording longstanding tradition and participating in the creation of novel technologies of knowledge, while reifying established prescriptions and regulations for use within late medieval courtly contexts.  As artistic creations, diagrams also benefit greatly from an equal consideration of their meaningful presentation, understanding that the visual importance of the scientific model exceeds its mere storage capacity.  Tracking the ways that medieval conceits were stored in diagrams and reconsidered creatively by individual artists, scribes, and book binders for specific commissions reinserts the meaningful discussion of a diagram’s significance within larger problems assessing the role of  artistry in pathways to the revelation or obfuscation of knowledge.  In this way, Terzysko’s royal anthology unveils period patterns of belief connecting knowledge, education, communication, and power in late medieval Prague.

Sara S. Poor, Princeton University

"Life" Lessons in Anna Eybin's Book of Saints (ca. 1465-1482)

Anna Ebin or Eybin, a fifteenth-century Augustinian nun, and provost of her convent in Pillenreuth (near Nuremberg) from 1461-1476, was a prolific scribe and compiler of devotional books. Although only four books have survived in which her hand has been identified, in one of these books she is said to have written "countless" books for the convent ["gar und vil puecher dem convent die ungezelt sind" (very many books for the convent that are countless)].  The most coherent of these surviving compilations is a legendary that includes an unusual combination of the lives of both ancient and local saints (Nürnberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Hs. 2261). It seems quite clear that Eybin put this compilation together with some thought and also that she envisioned others reading it for edification. The manuscript has an eleven-page long table of contents, for example, that includes instructions on how to use the table of contents to read the book. Yet the wide range of texts included leads one to wonder what lessons this book would teach, what knowledge it hoped to convey. This paper makes a preliminary attempt to answer these questions. The lives included range from the classic and popular -- like Saint Barbara and Bartholomew -- to the local and obscure -- Achahildis of Wendelstein and Hildegund von Schönau -- with the added peculiarity of the exotic -- St. Anastasia of Spain. In addition, the legendary also contains several texts that are not legends in the traditional sense -- the Eckhartian dialogue known as the Sister Catherine Treatise and the biblical story of the Maccabees brothers. As will become clear, however, it is precisely the apparent illogic or incongruity of the collection that leads us to insights into how devotional knowledge was perceived, categorized, and transmitted in late fifteenth-century German convents.

Vincent Gillespie, University of Oxford

"Disce quod doceas": The Libraries of Syon Abbey and the Changing Landscape of Later-Medieval Learning

This paper will be an exploration of the ways that Syon responded to, engaged with, and sought to shape the changing landscape of learning in later-medieval England, from its foundation in 1415 to its suppression in 1539. As a dynamic, spiritually and pastorally ambitious house, founded as a bastion of orthodoxy to establish a new model of monastic living and teaching, Syon's libraries grew to reflect, cherish, and develop the best scholarship that was available. How they weathered the transition from script to print and from Latin to the vernacular, and how they prepared and nourished the brothers and sisters to face the challenges of protestantism and the tyranny of the King reveals much about Syon's internal taxonomies of knowledge and how they changed over its life.


Return to 5th Annual Schoenberg Symposium overview.