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

Postat den 20th August, 2021, 10:09 av Anders Fröjmark

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.

Det här inlägget postades den August 20th, 2021, 10:09 och fylls under Calendars fragmentology liturgy

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