A Voice for Medieval and Modern German

Interview with Henrike Lähnemann, Chair of German Studies

28.1.2014 | Henrike Lähnemann researches medieval German through her study of devotional manuscripts written by 15th century nuns, and she promotes modern German studies through her role as president of Women in German Studies.
AcademiaNet: Your research at Newcastle University focuses on devotional manuscripts written in northern German convents by the last two generations of nuns before the Reformation. What is important about this particular point in history?

Prof. Henrike Lähnemann: This period has been very much in the shadow of what is seen, mainly by protestant historians, as the divide between the dark Middle Ages and the light of the Lutheran Reformation. What I want to bring out of the shadows is how much lively discussion was taking place in the generation before Luther. It was an exciting time, with lots of opportunities for vernacular writing, for experimental literature, for the cities to have their say.
Prof. Henrike Lähnemann
Bild vergrößern
(© Oliver Seitz)

Prof. Henrike Lähnemann | presents her research at the Mariensee convent, on Easter Monday of 2012.

A lot of your work has been with the Medingen convent of Lüneburg, in the German state of Lower Saxony, and the illuminated manuscripts produced by the nuns who lived there in the 15th century. What is particularly interesting about these manuscripts?

In these manuscripts you can see the personalisation of devotion and, at the same time, the urge of the nuns to communicate what they had discovered for themselves to a wider lay audience, especially lay women. Each of the manuscripts was crafted by a nun for her personal use, and they're like a devotional profile of the person who produced it. Each nun drew lots for an apostle as a personal saint and then each wrote up a personal prayer book for their particular apostle. So each of the prayer books has similar elements, because they all address their personal apostle, but each of them addresses him in a different way and they all subtly compete a little bit with each other over who had the 'best' apostle.

In addition, although the nuns would write meditations for themselves in Latin, they translated their work into the vernacular for their sisters, nieces, aunts and so on in the city, who were not able to tap into theological writing because it was still mainly done in Latin. The nuns made the convent into a hub for passing on their theological insights to a lay audience.

Your work with the Medingen manuscripts involves cataloguing, digitalising, editing and analysing these prayer books. What is the importance of cataloguing and studying medieval manuscripts?

Over the past six years, I've tracked down 12 of these personal apostle books scattered all over the world. Although each of the books had small catalogue entries in their own library, nobody had looked at these books as a corpus produced by this one specific generation of nuns. By bringing these manuscripts together we can cross compare them and find patterns that tell us new things about the 15th century.

For example, I was able to combine the indulgences list from the Medingen convent with abbreviations in the prayer books to identify the individual scribes. Once I had found the pattern across the whole set of manuscripts, I could match a book up with the other archival records and discover the name of the nun who wrote it. That's something you don't normally have even for male scribes, and we were able to discover it in these prayer books only because the nuns pitched themselves as personal devotees to their named apostle.

Studying these manuscripts is also important for today's women living in these convents, because they now have a completely different picture of their ancestors. They see them not as a 19th century romantic stereotype of the demure woman sitting behind walls in cloisters, silently taking in what the priests were telling them. Instead the modern nuns can appreciate their predecessors as very much alive, intelligent, intellectually engaged, argumentative, real women.

Another area you have been working on is the Biblical parable of Judith and how it has inspired scholars and artists over centuries. Who is Judith and what is her significance in literature?

Judith is a fascinating figure because she turned from a model of piety into a femme fatale over the course of the centuries. The book of Judith is fairly singular in the Bible in that it was conceived not as history but as a motivational story that showcases what God can do. Judith, a widow and the weakest imaginable heroine, defeated Nebuchadnezzar's general Holofernes by beheading him. The story is told as a racy novel to appeal to readers and to convince them that something completely out of the ordinary could happen if they just trusted in God.

During antiquity and the middle ages, the story was perceived as a parable about the power of prayer and the help of God to overcome the enemy. But in the 16th century Judith went from being the pious instrument of God to the actor herself. In the 15th and 16th century both concepts existed side by side, so Judith pops up in examples of piety and at the same time as a potentially dangerous, cunning woman. And then in more modern times this pious strand was more or less lost, making her a fairly one dimensional femme fatale.

We had a really exciting big multidisciplinary conference on the topic in the New York Public Library in 2008. As a result I want to pursue further the intersection between Yiddish and German late medieval literature and thought. This link has not been studied in much depth because of the political perception that the Yiddish language and literature is completely in its own category and the only other literature it's linked to is Hebrew. But in fact the majority of Yiddish speakers in the 15th and 16th century were well integrated in German society and they were exchanging their ideas with German speakers.

As well as studying the work of German women, albeit medieval women, you also help to promote the work of modern German women through your position as president of Women in German Studies. What are the goals of this organisation?

It started out to promote greater inclusiveness in academia. Twenty-five years ago the Conference of University Teachers of German only allowed full time lecturers at universities to join, which excluded anyone working at a polytechnic, anybody part time, anybody freelance, and any postgraduates. These constituencies are mainly occupied by women and they didn't have a voice. The conference, which is now known as the Association of German Studies, is these days really inclusive, but it wouldn't have been inclusive if Women in German Studies hadn't started a trend to make these marginalised constituencies visible.

Another thing I really like about the group is that it gives German studies an extra lobbying voice. We now lobby together with the Association of German Studies on behalf of modern languages in the UK. The way I see my job at the moment is on the one hand working with our members, but on the other hand, and as importantly, being a voice for modern languages.

Dear Prof. Lähnemann, thank you very much for this interesting interview!

Interview: Helen Jaques.   (© AcademiaNet)

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