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

15:09 by Anders Fröjmark

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.


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