Medieval Heritage in the Convents of Northern Germany: Rediscovery, Preservation and Presentation
Submitting InstitutionNewcastle University
Unit of AssessmentModern Languages and Linguistics
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Philosophy and Religious Studies: Religion and Religious Studies
Summary of the impact
Newcastle's extensive and authoritative study of the medieval manuscripts
that originated in the Lüneburg convents has led the Protestant successors
of these female religious communities to a more informed and in some cases
considerably revised interpretation of their medieval heritage. As the
convents prepare for the quincentenary of the Lutheran Reformation, they
have drawn on the underpinning research to run interactive workshops for
the general public on liturgical singing and calligraphy and mount new
exhibitions in their museums for the thousands of visitors visiting the
The continuity in the history of the convents in Northern Germany from
the Middle Ages to the present day is exceptional, with the medieval
communities of religious females surviving the Reformation and the
secularisation of subsequent centuries intact. Thus the members of the
present day Protestant communities are the direct successors to the nuns
of the Middle Ages. The Lüneburg convents, in particular Medingen, have
been the focus of Newcastle research. Within Northern Europe these
convents constitute a unique repository not only of late medieval
devotional texts but also of material culture.
Henrike Lähnemann (Professor of German Studies, 2006-current) has
systematically developed her research from an initial analysis of
individual prayer books (1) right through to the mapping of the
religious landscape of Northern Germany in the late Middle Ages (6).
The bilingual (Latin/Low German) devotional manuscripts of Medingen are
the most complex and rich sub-set from this remarkable material and form
the core of Lähnemann's research. After the Reformation these texts were
scattered across Europe and now even as far as America, to the university
libraries of Harvard and Michigan. Lähnemann has tracked down over fifty
of these manuscripts and has systematically catalogued, edited, analysed
and contextualised them. Furthermore, she has brought the manuscripts
together as a digital collection thereby making them accessible to the
wider public. Through the application of perspectives informed by
codicology, regional history, art history, music history, literary and
linguistic analysis, it is possible to explore the collective devotional
identity of a particular female religious house (Medingen) in both its
social and its cultural context. .
The Latin and Low German devotional manuscripts, both mono- and
bilingual, produced in the Northern German convents around 1500 have
proved a rich source for the nuanced interpretation of one of the most
formative periods in the shaping of modern Europe. The starting point for
the underpinning research was an investigation of the materiality of the
prayer-books as cultural indicators (2), for example, parchment
strips taken from discarded manuscripts that were then sewn into the
garments made by the nuns for the wooden figures of Christ and the saints
(4). This led to a linguistic analysis of the bilingual writing (3),
which in turn led to a re-evaluation of the education the nuns received (1).
The conclusions drawn challenge the prevailing view of nuns' limited
agency in pre-Reformation times (5), demonstrating how these women
decisively influenced the religious, cultural and intellectual development
of a regional network that incorporated not only the convents but, via the
prosperous salt town of Lüneburg, the entire Hanseatic League. The new
insights and knowledge yielded by this research were instrumental in the
formation of a research network focused on `Northern German Mysticism and
Devotion' (6) which broke new ground by studying convents as
intellectual, cultural and religious hubs which shaped Northern Germany as
a key European region in the late Middle Ages.
References to the research
1. Lähnemann, H. (2009) Per organa. Musikalische Unterweisung in
Handschriften der Lüneburger Klöster, in: Dichtung und Didaxe, ed. by H.
Lähnemann & S. Linden, 397-412. REF2 Output: 162482.
2. Lähnemann, H. (2010) Schnipsel, Schleier, Textkombinatorik. Die
Materialität der Medinger Orationalien, in: Materialität in der
Editionswissenschaft, ed. by M. Schubert, 135-146.
3. Lähnemann, H. (2012) Also do du ok. Andachtsanweisungen in den
Medinger Handschriften, in: Text und Normativität, ed. by F-J Holznagel /
E. Brüggen, 437-453.
4. Lähnemann, H. (2013) Text und Textil. Die beschriebenen Pergamente in
den Figurenornaten, in: Heilige Röcke. Kleider für Skulpturen in Kloster
Wienhausen, ed. by C. Klack-Eitzen, W. Haase, T. Weißgraf, 71-78 (&
catalogue on 79-173)
5. Lähnemann, H. (2013) & Hascher-Burger, U., Liturgie und Reform in
Kloster Medingen. Edition und Untersuchung des Propst-Handbuchs Oxford
Bodleian MS. Lat. liturg. e. 18
6. Lähnemann, H. (2013) Bilingual Devotion. The Relationship of Latin and
Low German in Prayer Books from the Lüneburg Convents, in: Companion to
Mysticism and Devotion in Northern Germany in the Late Middle Ages, ed. by
E. Andersen & H. Lähnemann, 317-341.
All references can be supplied by the HEI on request.
Details of the impact
The underpinning research has made a direct contribution to preserving
and presenting the medieval cultural heritage of the Northern German
convents. The Protestant female communities who now inhabit these convents
are keenly interested in learning more about their spiritual and cultural
heritage, which is present in their everyday life as they are the
custodians of its medieval buildings, tapestries, archives, libraries and
art works. The Abbess of Medingen comments on the significance of the
collaboration with Lähnemann: "It [the link to academic research] is
very important for us today and I see it as an obligation, as Medingen
has always been concerned with both learning and religion, not to lose
sight of either of these. And with Professor Lähnemann — it just all
comes together beautifully; I think this kind of collaboration is a
highly sustainable model for the future" (IMP1). The
research brought significant new insight and knowledge about the period
and as a result led to a more informed and in some cases considerably
revised interpretation of their medieval heritage by these communities. As
a direct result, new knowledge is being used to inform new displays,
exhibitions and the information shared with the thousands of visitors who
visit the convents annually (IMP2).
Lähnemann's engagement with the convents has led to a fruitful chain of
instruction and knowledge-sharing, as the Abbess of Lüne highlights: "We
are of course very curious about our medieval heritage and want to know
more about the inscriptions and manuscripts. We cannot interpret them
fully by ourselves and Prof Lähnemann can say much more about them,
information which we are delighted to make use of, as we will do this
afternoon when 25 of our voluntary tourist guides meet .... We convent
residents cannot manage to show the several thousands of visitors per
year around by ourselves and thus it is important that the guides too
benefit from Prof Lähnemann's knowledge" (IMP3).
This productive collaboration has resulted in an overhaul of convent
museum exhibitions, websites and brochures for tourist visitors. A tour
guide at Mariensee describes the benefits of the annual training led by
Lähnemann as an "absolute highlight", expressing the infectious
enthusiasm with which Lähnemann re-created the environment of a medieval
scriptorium and the performance of the liturgy in all its materiality: "...the
detailed knowledge she shares with us enhances our own general knowledge
about the history and art treasures of the convent ... In a similar
manner, we can now pass on our knowledge, something from which school
classes in particular benefit" (IMP4).
Another example where the underpinning research had direct influence is
in the setting up of a new convent museum at Mariensee in 2007, intended
to convey basic knowledge of Protestant convents to a broad audience. The
Abbess of Mariensee confirms that the convent museum "evolved from a
suggestion by Prof. Lähnemann" and added "...the question of how
to present the only medieval manuscript [of a prayer book]
still existing in the convent developed into an intense dialogue. We
were able to profit from both Prof Lähnemann's research and practical
knowledge" (IMP5). Evidence of the transfer of knowledge is
captured in the production of a bookmark [see image] which has on it the
translation and contextualisation of a particular passage from this prayer
book. This emblematic bookmark is distributed not only locally at
Mariensee but also nationally through the hundreds of visitors who attend
the Kirchentage [nation-wide Protestant gatherings]. Here
workshops take place that use the sample prayer on the bookmark to teach
participants how a medieval nun would have written.
Lähnemann's research is extending its impact further as evidenced by her
appointment as a consultant for a new project to turn a side chapel in St
John's, the main church of Lüneburg, into an exhibition space to document
its spiritual heritage. The Lutheran Superintendent of Lüneburg describes
Lähnemann's comments on the fragments of a liturgical manuscript as an "eye-opener"
which "allow us to re-enact parts of it with our guests and
those preparing for confirmation and to show them the differences
between modern and medieval reading" — thereby informing their own,
contemporary, spirituality (IMP6).
As a direct result of the research being conducted, several of the
medieval manuscripts from Medingen have now been fully digitised. Through
a link on the convent website (IMP7) these manuscripts have, as it
were, been returned to the convent. This "home coming" of the manuscripts
received widespread coverage in the local press. For example, the article
`Von Medingen nach Michigan. Eine Detektivgeschichte' [`From Medingen to
Michigan. A Detective Story'] recounts the journey of one medieval
manuscript from the convents to the United States, and appears in a 4-page
colour weekend supplement to the Allgemeine Uelzener Zeitung
(circulation: 16,499) (IMP8).
Through Lähnemann's collaboration with practitioners, the underpinning
research has also changed aspects of professional practice. For example,
the transcription and contextualisation of text fragments enabled two
textile restorers from the Klosterkammer Hannover [the Board responsible
for the convents] to gain valuable insights about some small garments. As
a result, they continue to adopt a more holistic approach in their
analysis and cataloguing, now working with a range of scholars from other
disciplines. This collaboration also resulted in a shared publication (4)
and provoked lively interest at a public presentation in the convent of
Lüne (IMP10) and when it was featured in the 'Heimatkalender
Uelzen 2012', the calendar distributed by all local firms to their
customers as a Christmas gift (IMP9). The collaboration also made
the national news when subsequently one of the garments was chosen for the
exhibition 'Rosenkränze und Seelengärten' to make devotional life in the
convents tangible to the wider public. This integration of
state-of-the-art research into a popular exhibition was very positively
reviewed in the German newspapers, not least the leading broadsheet FAZ
[Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung]. (IMP10)
Sources to corroborate the impact
(IMP1) Video interview with Abbess of Medingen (27 March 2013). Available
. In German with English subtitles.
(IMP2) Visitor Statistics for the convents of Medingen, Lüne, Mariensee,
and Ebstorf, showing the attraction of the Lüneburg Heath and its medieval
convents to international tourists. Emails from individual convents are
available on request.
(IMP3) Video interview with Abbess of Lüne (28 March 2013). Available at:
German with English subtitles.
(IMP4) Statement by Barbara Werhahn, a local volunteer from the village,
who acts as Tour Guide for school children in the convent of Mariensee (20
May 2013). Available on request, in German with English translation.
(IMP5) Video interview with Abbess of Mariensee (28 March 2013).
Available at: http://youtu.be/hCs9LSSR5tU.
In German with English subtitles.
(IMP6) Video interview with Superintendent of the Lutheran Region of
Lüneburg (27 March 2013, St John's Church in Lüneburg). Available at: http://youtu.be/s29U-SxwbWQ. In
German with English subtitles.
(IMP7) Newly developed website for the convent of Medingen featuring
links to Lähnemann's publications (e.g. the exhibition
catalogue and the database of the manuscripts hosted at
Newcastle) and the digitised manuscripts from around the world (www.kloster-medingen.de
→ Historisches → Medinger Handschriften).
(IMP8) Von Medingen nach Michigan. Eine Detektivgeschichte", 4-page
colour weekend supplement 'Heidewanderer' to the Allgemeine Uelzener
Zeitung published 6 July 2013 (circulation of 16,499 copies), which
traces the journey of a medieval manuscript from the convents to the
States in the form of a detective story. Original German version and
English translation available on request.
(IMP9) "Handschriften im Hasenpelz" (Manuscripts under rabbit fur),
popular account of what new manuscript findings tell us about the
devotional activities of medieval nuns, distributed through the local
calendar for Uelzen 2012. Available at:http://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/henrike.laehnemann/
(IMP10) "Bücher, Bildung, Blütenkranz" (Books, Learning, Garlands), full
page FAZ article (4 April 2013, p. N4). Available at: https://www.dropbox.com/s/kylubxbw4hhevcs/IMP10-FAZ03042013.pdf.