Author Archive

Degrees of uncertainty – extracting information from difficult calendar fragments, part 2

Friday, September 17th, 2021

Steffen Hope, Linnaeus University and Oslo University

In my previous blogpost, I was mainly concerned with the details of how one might go about when preparing for the inputting of a fragment into the database, and how one must be careful when encountering uncertain information. In this blogpost, I will focus on one particular fragment, namely Fr 25608, and provide a few examples of various degrees of uncertainty that I have had to navigate when inputting the information from this particularly complicated fragment.

Introducing the fragment

The fragment in question is kept at the Swedish National Archives Database of Medieval Parchment Covers (Riksarkivets databas över medeltida pergamentomslag, MPO). In the MPO database, this fragment is listed as Fr 25608, while in the older catalogue – CCM, or Catalogus Codicum Mutilorum – it is listed as Kal 16. Details about the fragment can be found here.

Fr 25608, verso

Fr 25608 is a fragment from a twelfth-century calendar, probably produced in England. It contains the months of May and June. Depending on the state of the fragment, the researcher can extract a lot of information from these two months. We can learn what feasts are celebrated, but also which feasts are not included. In the case of Fr 25608, however, the researcher faces a particularly difficult challenge, as the fragment has been cut vertically. Little more than half of the folio is now lost, and the information is only partially extant. This requires some educated guesswork when analysing the fragment. In some cases, the feasts included in the fragment can be ascertained fairly safely, while others are more complicated. In the following, I will provide examples of three degrees of uncertainty that we encounter when working on Fr 25608.

First degree: Very certain identification

Some feasts are easy to identify with a high degree of certainty, for instance because they are universally celebrated with a high liturgical grade. One such example is the Nativity of John the Baptist, celebrated on June 24 in every calendar of the Latin Church. In the entry for June 24 in Fr 25608, we see the letters “Nat” extant in red ink, and this clearly signifies “Nativitate”. We can therefore be completely certain what feast this is.

Fr 25608, verso (detail)

Other feasts are less certain, but still well within the spectrum of very certain identification. This might be because the feasts in question are universal, and/or because just enough of the text remains for us to identify which saints were celebrated on those days. In Fr 25608, we see this in the days preceding the Nativity of John the Baptist. On June 23, we see the abbreviation “Sce” for “sancte”, followed by the letters “et”. We then know that this is a singular female saint. Given the surviving letters in the name, as well as the calendar’s English origin, it is reasonable to suggest that this is Saint Etheldreda. This feast is not universal throughout the Latin Church, but it was celebrated in all English calendars. The identification therefore has a high degree of certainty.

Second degree: Quite certain identification

In other cases, the remaining information opens up for several possible interpretations. The identification, then, cannot be more than quite certain, or, as seen below, uncertain. When we look at Fr 25608, there are several feasts about which we can be quite certain, but where we are lacking the necessary piece of information that allows us to draw firm conclusions. One such example can be found in the entry for June 2. The abbreviation “Scor” for “Sanctorum” points to two or more saints to be celebrated on that day. Following this abbreviation we see the letter “m”, and this narrows down our options significantly, as June 2 is the universally celebrated feast of SS Marcellinus and Peter. Due to the universal nature of their feast, and because there are no other saints beginning with M commonly celebrated on this day, the identification seems certain.

Fr 25608, verso (detail)

Universal feasts are in many ways fairly secure points of orientation, but they are by no means completely fool proof. The plural “Sanctorum” might not point to two saints commonly celebrated together, but rather two independent saints who are celebrated on the same day by chance. There are several examples of this among the universal feasts. Moreover, there might be one or more saints venerated locally or regionally in the parish or diocese where the calendar was produced. These saints might be venerated on different days in other parts of Latin Christendom. While the most straightforward hypothesis in this case would be to interpret the “Sanctorum m” as meaning SS Marcellinus and Peter, there is just enough uncertainty at play to prevent us from excluding other options, no matter how less likely those options are.

Third degree: Uncertain information

In the aforementioned cases, there have been enough details to allow for some degree of speculation beyond the date of the feast itself. Whether one saint or more are celebrated, and whether it is a male or a female saint are elements that help us in arriving at a more secure identification. However, some of the entries in Fr 25608 are even more challenging for the researcher, because the only information provided is the date of the feast and the fact that there are two or more saints to be celebrated. We see examples of this in the entry for June 19.

Fr 25608, verso (detail)

Despite the fact that nothing of the names of the saints celebrated in this entry has survived, we are not completely in the dark. June 19 has a universal feast, namely that of SS Gervase and Protase. Given the universal nature of this feast, it is very likely that this is the one celebrated in Fr 25608. However, since we cannot exclude other possibilities, and since we cannot draw a definite conclusion based on the available information, this identification must remain uncertain and tentative.

Digitising uncertainty

When inputting information into the database, we often operate with uncertainties, and we have ways of factoring that into how we present the sources and their content. In cases such as Fr 25608, the once-available information is now reduced to a few details that can be more or less ascertained, as well as several details that we cannot be sure about. Cases such as this particular calendar serve to remind us about the limits of certainty, and how we need to navigate the balance between our own convictions – drawn in large part from our previous experiences and our frame of reference – and the available evidence. Even in the cases where our hypotheses are the simplest and the most likely options, we cannot allow ourselves to disregard alternative interpretations even though such a possibility is only hinted at in the plural “saints” at the beginning of an entry. Fragments such as Fr 25608 also remind us that very often we need to accept that we do not know, and that we must be careful not to add more to a source than can be found in it.

Degrees of uncertainty – extracting information from difficult calendar fragments, part 1

Friday, August 20th, 2021

Steffen Hope, Linnaeus University and Oslo University

The present blogpost and the next aim to provide a brief introduction to some of the difficulties that we might encounter in the process of extracting information from fragments of medieval calendar manuscripts. In many cases, a fragment’s condition means that we must be very careful about drawing conclusions based on its contents. There are degrees of uncertainty that must be navigated carefully. There are conclusions about which we might be completely convinced, but for which we lack the final detail that allows us to be completely sure. This first blogpost will provide a detailed overview of how I have been working with the fragments, while the next post will discuss this work in more detail using examples from one particular fragment.

This spring I have been working as a research assistant in the Mapping Lived Religion project. My job has entailed transcribing a number of fragments of medieval calendars that have been either produced in Sweden or brought to Sweden from abroad, usually from England or Denmark. These calendars are immensely valuable as sources of which saints were celebrated in medieval Sweden, and how they were celebrated.

Calendar fragment Fr 25612 (Kal 20, 1r) contains the month of March. The fragment was produced in Finland in the fifteenth century. It has sustained significant wear and water damage, and this damage has rendered some of the entries more difficult to read. In such cases, careful detective work is needed to identify the feasts. Photo courtesy of Riksarkivet Sverige.


Working with calendars surviving in fragments can be a time-consuming task. This is especially the case because a calendar often contains a lot of information. Moreover, some of that information might be difficult to properly identify, which can cause a lot of detective work that might or might not yield results. Such difficulties might stem from material damage to the fragment, such as the way in which the manuscript has been cut for later recycling, as is the case with the fragment chosen for the examples included in the next blogpost.

When I work on calendar fragments for the project database, I process each fragment in three steps. The first step consists of transcription. The second step consists of double checking the transcription. The third step consists of putting the extracted information into the database.

In the first step, I transcribe the available text, at least as far as it is legible. When necessary, I put some suggested interpretations in brackets, as is standard practice when transcribing medieval manuscripts. Because the medieval scribes used a wide range of abbreviations and contractions for saving space in their writing, several words are not written in full. This means that in the transcription process, I have to navigate two issues: First, I need to give an accurate presentation of the text as it appears in the fragment. Second, I also need to make sure that the text is legible for non-experts. Consequently, when dealing with abbreviations I need to put the omitted letters in brackets, which also is standard transcription practice. For instance, the title “sancti” (of a saint), denoting a singular male saint in the genitive case (i.e., the possessive), is often abbreviated, and I might have to transcribe this as “s[an]c[t]i”. Similarly, the title “sancte”, denoting a singular female saint in the genitive case, must often be transcribed as “s[an]c[t]e”. Not all words are abbreviated in the same way, however. It is therefore crucial to double check that I have transcribed correctly and not confused the abbreviation practice with that of a different calendar.

For step two, I double-check my transcription with the fragment. I do this to see whether there are typos, or whether there are details that I have missed at step one. Additionally, this second step also serves as an opportunity to revisit my interpretation of elements of the fragment that require some speculation. Some deduction is often necessary when the name in the calendar entry is illegible, but it helps when the date of the feast day means that there is a limited number of likely options. It should, however, be noted that in many cases we cannot discard the possibility of very unlikely options, for instance due to a scribal error or a hitherto unrecorded local practice.

It is often necessary to revisit earlier interpretations. As I am transcribing the fragment for the first time, i.e., step one, I can sometimes draw conclusions with which I will disagree when I come to step two. This change might be because I have had time to reflect on my first conclusions. It might also simply be that in my re-reading of the fragment I see that I have made mistakes that invalidate my initial conclusions. In the latter cases, it is difficult not to feel sympathy with the scribes of these calendars, and it is easy to forgive them for the kinds of errors that can result in added hours of detective work for the modern scholar.

Step three consists of putting the information that I have extracted from the fragment into the database. This is a process whose details are explained in the previous blogpost by Sara Ellis Nilsson. This process is not necessarily as time-consuming as the previous two steps, but it can be derailed by the discovery of errors that managed to escape my attention. At the third step, it is especially important to be cautious about the information that is being inputted. Any uncertainties must be noted, yet in such a way that it is clear what exactly is uncertain, and in what way. This can be solved in different ways, depending on the degree of uncertainty. It is here that I need to critique my previous conclusions even more severely. I need to do so to ensure that the information which will be included in the database is reliable and can be used by others.

The main point to take away here is about the need for careful consideration in the work process. In the paragraphs above, I have provided a thorough overview of how I have organised this process. However, the key issue is not how I have structured this process, as there are many ways to organise how this kind of work is done. Rather, the post’s take-home message is that a sense of how attention to detail lies at the core of this type of work, and how this attention might require that we who do this work have to operate with various degrees of uncertainty.

In the next blogpost, I will focus on one particularly challenging fragment, whose details are fraught with several degrees of uncertainty. By presenting examples from this fragment, I hope it will become clearer that there will often be information that is unavailable to us. Moreover, even if that information can be deduced with some degree of certainty, we often have to hold back on our conclusions. If we do not, we run the risk of overconfidence. Such overconfidence, in turn, leads to a potential risk of distorting the way we understand the medieval source material. However, despite the uncertainty, it is possible to extract a lot of information from even tiny manuscript fragments, especially through collaboration with colleagues who might lend their eyes to the task as well.

Helgon i Viborg

Monday, October 28th, 2019

Anders Fröjmark, Linnéuniversitetet


Viborgs slott med Sankt Olofs torn. Foto: Anders Fröjmark 2019


De geografiska gränserna för vårt projekt är den gamla svenska kyrkoprovinsens gränser. Längst i öster gränsade den till det ryska området. Här, på en strategisk plats där kommunikationsvägarna drar fram över Karelska näset, reser sig sedan 1293 borgen Viborg. Dess mäktiga torn gavs namnet Sankt Olofs torn. Sankt Olof är alltså det första helgon vi möter i Viborg. Sankt Olof var gärna anlitad som beskyddare när det svenska riket och den svenska kyrkoprovinsen befäste sina positioner i gränsområdena. Också den 1475 anlagda Sankt Olofsborg i Savolax, vid dagens Nyslott/Savonlinna, är ett vittnesbörd om detta.

I skydd av det kraftfulla tornet, och i mer eller mindre symbiotisk samexistens med borgen, växte staden Viborg fram. Här anlades en stadskyrka med betydande dimensioner, och här – vid den katolska världens gräns – grundade också de båda ledande tiggarordnarna, franciskanerna och dominikanerna, konvent. Naturligtvis vördades ordnarnas helgonförklarade grundare, Sankt Franciskus och Sankt Dominicus, av sina respektive ordnar. Vid stadskyrkan, som hade Jungfru Maria och Sankt Olof som sina skyddspatroner, grundades flera prebendor under medeltidens lopp, inte minst av hövitsmän på borgen. En prebenda var en altarstiftelse med en anställd präst, som skulle läsa mässor för grundaren och hans eller hennes familj, och för alla kristnas själar, som det heter i en av stiftelseurkunderna. Tack vare olika urkunder vet vi att stadskyrkan i Viborg hade prebendor och altaren till bland andra följande helgons ära: Erik den helige och hans följeslagare Sankt Henrik, Anna, Erasmus, Johannes Evangelisten, Johannes Döparen, Maria Magdalena och Katarina av Alexandria.

Sankt Olof sågs som en mäktig beskyddare av borgen och staden, men kunde inte förhindra att Viborg, efter att i över fyrahundra år framgångsrikt ha motstått alla anfall, intogs av ryssarna under det Stora Nordiska kriget 1710. Nu började en ny tid i Viborgs historia, och helgonkulten fick en ny skjuts när rysk-ortodoxa trosbekännare blev ett mer dominerande inslag. De nya kraftfulla befästningsverk som anlades på borgens västra sida, med udden riktad mot svenskarna, fick namnet Kron Sankt Anne. Skyddshelgonet är valt med tanke på att Anna var namnet på den då regerande kejsarinnan i Ryssland.

Redan tidigare hade Viborg varit en kosmopolitisk stad. Det förblev den under tsarväldet, och särskilt efter att den 1811 hade förts till Storfurstendömet Finland. Ett känt talesätt är, att i denna stad talade man fem språk: svenska, tyska, ryska, finska och jiddisch. De svensk- och tyskspråkiga Viborgborgarna var vanligen lutheraner och delade församlingskyrka. Även denna kyrka, grundad 1793 och invigd 1799, är känd under helgonnamn: Petri-Paulikyrkan. Ursprungligen hade man tänkt sig att den skulle heta Sankta Katarina efter kejsarinnans namnhelgon, men kejsarinnan avled under byggnadstiden, så i stället valde man den nye kejsaren Pauls namnhelgon.

Staden hade även en katolsk församling. Dess kyrka var från 1802 inrymd i det medeltida före detta Riddarhuset på den vackra Vattenportsgatan, och församlingens skyddshelgon var Sankt Hyacinthus. Hyacinthus, på polska Jacek, var en berest och lärd polack som gick in i dominikanorden 1220, efter att ha mött ordensgrundaren själv i Rom. Han var därefter verksam i Polen och Ukraina, samt enligt en obestyrkt tradition också i Norden. Han kanoniserades 1594.

Viborgs 1900-tal bjöd på svåra öden, och detta har också gått ut över de här nämnda kyrkorna. Dominikankyrkan och den gamla stadskyrkan är i ett sorgligt tillstånd. Peter-Paulskyrkan var lager- och klubblokal under sovjettiden, men fungerar nu åter som luthersk kyrka. Sankt Hyacinthus upphörde som kyrka 1939 och har därefter använts för olika ändamål, bland annat som utställningslokal.


Viborgs dominkankyrka blev efter reformationen den finska landsförsamlingens kyrka. Kyrkan omdanades i klassisk stil under ledning av den kände arkitekten Carl Ludvig Engel. I dag är den en ruin. Foto: Anders Fröjmark 2019

Jag avslutar dock där jag började, i den mäktiga borgen. I dag är där inrymt ett välskött och sevärt museum. Jag fick en rundvisning av den unge museichefen Alexej Melnov, som också pekade på en Sankt Olofsikon i rysk stil i trapphuset. Sankt Olof är ju, påpekade han, inte bara ett katolskt utan också ett ortodoxt helgon.


Fotnot: Projektet Kartläggning av religion i vardagen – medeltida helgonkulter i Sverige och Finland inkluderar även de socknar – inklusive Viborg – på Karelska näset som i dag tillhör Ryssland. Även de kommer att ha en plats i vår databas.