Henrike Lähnemann on networking nuns and medieval and modern knowledge exchange

22.2.2021 | Professor Henrike Lähnemann of the University of Oxford is working on medieval nuns, their textual communities and networks. We talked about what academic exchange can learn from them.
Prof Dr Henrike Lähnemann
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(© Patrick Seeger)

Prof Dr Henrike Lähnemann

Professor Lähnemann, we already talked to you twice when you held the Chair of German Studies at Newcastle University. What has changed for you when you became Professor of medieval German Literature and Linguistics at the University of Oxford in 2015?

Many thanks for having me again. I would say that the last ten years have seen a real change in the academic landscape. When I started in Oxford in 2015, I was the first woman on a Statutory Chair in Modern Languages at the Faculty. Immediately after that the Chair in French literature was taken up by a woman. There is a real generational change with women taking on more visible roles at least in British academia but more importantly a shift in scholarly topics and issues being addressed. Many of the new lines of enquiry have been if not actively influenced at least anticipated and promoted by initiatives such as AcademiaNet or Women in German Studies, such as initiatives such as decolonising and expanding the curriculum.

This links to what has changed for me coming from Newcastle to Oxford. I enjoyed in Newcastle having the width of German studies, discussing Kurt Schwitters and hosting writers in residence, but my own medieval research was more or less separate from it. Now in Oxford, I have the opportunity to integrate my interest in agency of women in late medieval Germany and their material legacy directly into my curriculum. Even during the pandemic we managed to keep working on early printed books in the Taylorian, the Faculty library, and on manuscripts in the Bodleian, Oxford’s University Library. Their important collection of medieval German manuscripts is currently being digitised together with the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel in the “Polonsky German” initiative

So, it has been more interactive since 2015 for you and your students as well.

Yes, because we have these books and other resources, also the museums with fantastic collections. I always do hands-on sessions and start each of my courses with a “stroke a book” session, where students learn to read books also as cultural objects. And this turn to the material legacy has been combined with a more active approach in promoting them; blogging has become a really good way for students to showcase their learning and research, cf. the History of the book blog we set up together.

You have contacted AcademiaNet to specifically introduce the Project The Nun’s Network, which is directed by you and Professor Eva Schlotheuber. Can you tell us, what exactly is it about?

It is a rather exciting corpus of writing: three huge books into which the Benedictine nuns of the northern German convent of Lüne copied over 1,800 letters written between the mid-fifteenth and mid-sixteenth centuries. They form the largest group of writing by women from the Middle Ages that we know of, not just in Germany, but worldwide. They hadn’t been edited and have been barely noticed in research. The wealth of knowledge is enormous, we learn about living in the Middle Ages, communicating the agency of women but also linguistic insights. The nuns are skilled communicators, writing in highly elaborate Latin, sometimes even in verse, to the bishop and other male clerics and in Low German business style to trade partners, because the convent was financed by the salt production in Lüneburg, part of the Hanseatic Trade.

For me, the most exciting part are the third group of letters, the mixed Latin and German exchange between the nuns in different convents. This is a form intranet within the monastic landscape of female religious houses around Lüneburg. They worked together as a pressure group: if there was a new priest to be installed in Lüneburg, or if they wanted to get a good price by having bookbinding done in bulk, they would negotiate this over letters. Communication is conducted in a “language of intimacy”, a much more colloquial style than any of the official letters we knew so far from the Middle Ages, more like WhatsApp communication or casual e-mails. The nuns mix Latin and Low German in the way in which they probably would have spoken, a form of medieval “Denglisch”, as close to medieval orality as we can get. The only parallel example I know are Luther’s Tischreden, which were taken down by his students, trying to catch his colloquial style. On a material and linguistic level, this is very exciting.

There are many parallels and insights you can learn from the 15th century network for the 21st century network

On a much more existential level, I find it fascinating to see how parallel this network of convent works to Oxford communication between colleges. Both the convents and the colleges being institutions going back to the Middle Ages and shape shifting through the periods but preserving a kind of core mission to educate, to communicate for spiritual enrichment, regardless of whether you define that as a Christian message or more as a secular education. I have learned a lot from the nuns about how to navigate the politics of the University life, how to work together. We appointed a new College Principal two years ago and I was just at a point editing the part where the nuns are choosing a new provost for their convent—there are so many parallels and insights you can learn from the 15th century network for the 21st century network!

You already mentioned parallels, what do you think modern women’s networks can learn from the nuns of the Middle Ages?

Definitely networking, how to use the power of language, and how to communicate needs—but also a form of responsibility. I was thinking of the nuns when asked, just recently, to help with a mentoring scheme for early career people; how to take responsibility for the next generation of novices, whether in convent life or in academia. The nuns take their education as a mission to communicate: they would write letters whenever in their family at home there was a significant event. They would advise on a wedding or how to lead a good Christian life; if the nephew was about to go to university, what to be aware of in university life; if there was a bereavement in the family, how to find comfort in religion. In quoting their knowledge of scripture, of religious literature, they were taking their role as models for society seriously.

There’s also a film series on the project, which was published by the Gerda Henkel Foundation. To what extend where you personally involved in bringing your research closer to the public in this way?

I was really impressed by how well the Henkel foundation developed this concept; they have been running the L.I.S.A. programme for a long time. They have a very good film team which closely discussed with Eva Schlotheuber and me the whole narrative that we wanted, the storyboard, what message we wanted to communicate. The reach that this has is astonishing, and I was also quite interested in the professional side of how to communicate research, how to link it with a visual side. It came at just the right moment before lockdown would have made it impossible; but also at a time when the interest in online available content has soared.

The University of Oxford is involved in a newly setup journal called Conversation, which aims to counter fake news by making high quality research accessible in blog format and articles. I think it is enormously important to invest in good, high quality scholarly communication to get out into the public in a form that doesn’t dumb down research but makes tangible what the significance of it is. Whether it is Covid-19 or environment or Brexit, it is the responsibility for academia to take on this role.

Let’s stay there for one last question concerning science communication as well. You’re very active on Twitter (@HLaehnemann). What role does the news and networking service play in your everyday academic life?

I started doing this when I was still at Newcastle and was responsible as webmaster to build up the social media platforms. I experimented with different forms of media communication and found Twitter as a good way of showcasing research, but also opening access to ways of how to conduct research. I will put out real questions to the community, A, to get an answer, obviously, but B, also, to show how new knowledge is generated, as a didactic method. When I arrived in Oxford, I took over a long running course for Masters students, which consisted of Palaeography and History of the Book, and I added Digital Humanities as a third element. This has worked really well to get students engaged, taking the resources that are here in Oxford and sharing them with the world.

Last year, for example, I had a Masters student who was curious to find out whether one edition of a Comenius textbook Janua linguarum for teaching Latin was indeed the only copy in existence as the catalogue claimed in the Faculty, so she started a media campaign, #ShowUsYourJanua … She got a huge number of librarians to engage and send back title pages of their copies, and finding out that indeed, it is the only copy known so far, all the other title-pages were from different editions. Highlighting the holdings in Oxford, but also building up a network across the Twitter universe. We have a blog running to which I encourage the students to submit regularly their results, but also their questions. And I think that’s the most important part: not to present research as something that is a closed business, but something that is engaging and open.

Many thanks, Professor Lähnemann, for talking to us, very inspiring!

  (© Lisa Schulz / AcademiaNet /
Questions were asked by Lisa Schulz for AcademiaNet and

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