Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fordham Professor Decodes Hidden Messages in Medieval Text

A Monk and His Manuscript: Fordham Professor Decodes Hidden Messages in Medieval Text
By Patrick Verel
Fordham University
October 14, 2008

Fordham students and faculty took a jaunt through 11th century Germany on Thursday, Sept. 11, in the Center for Medieval Studies’ first lecture of the fall semester.

The presentation, “Abbot Ellinger of Tegernsee: In Exile, in Pain and in German,” given by Susanne Hafner, Ph.D., focused on details about the abbot that he himself included in one of his manuscripts. Hafner, an assistant professor of German, said she learned much about Ellinger through the medieval text, known to scholars as HRC 29.

Speaking from the O’Hare Special Collections Room in the William D. Walsh Family Library, she explained that the abbot had at one point been banished to Niederaltaich, a Benedictine monastery on the East Bavarian frontier where there was little to do but mill about the library. The reasons for his banishment are unclear, but are said to be linked to his irascible nature.

A possible explanation for his irritability may appear the margins of the Latin-penned HRC 29, Hafner said. It was there that Ellinger wrote, in his native language of Old High German, prescriptions for ailments such as stomachaches, headaches, dropsy and no less than seven different treatments for dolor testiculorum.

It is not known whether he followed all of them, as they often included hazardous substances, she said. But the fact that he used a translation that was unlikely to be mistaken showed how serious he was about the remedies.

“Ellinger, a highly educated man and abbot of one of the cultural centers of Carolingian Europe, was well versed in Latin and Greek, both of which he used in HRC 29,” she said. “But when the issue was personal rather than academic, he felt the need to verify his vocabulary.”

Although HRC 29 mostly included copies of books that had been destroyed when Tegernsee was sacked by Hungarians in 907, Hafner noted that, like Ellinger’s fellow scribes, he made a sport of adding notes—often written in code—using runes, Greek letters, acrostics, or glosses scratched into the parchment.

“Claiming authorship of his codex seemed to have been particularly important to him. In addition to the colophon, he left his name in the margins, twice, in code,” Hafner said.

Analyzing writings such as these help scholars better understand Europe in its pre-Christian, pagan heritage.

“Talking about this manuscript is a homecoming in more ways that one for me, because it was written in the monastery of Niederaltaich, which happens to be right next to the little town in the Bavarian Forest where I grew up,” she said.

Hafner found the medieval document in the archives of the University of Texas at Austin, where she worked before joining the Fordham faculty last year.

“I am still humbled by this act of divine providence, which had the codex written—for me, as I would like to think—a thousand years ago, then safely tucked away: first in a Benedictine library; then in a private collection; and then deep in the heart of Texas.”