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ASU scholars save priceless manuscripts from obscurity

ASU profs' monumental find to inform virtual reconstruction of medieval church.
The Brigittine order of nuns gave women autonomy as far back as the Middle Ages.
Artifacts in monastery would be "El Dorado" for 18th-, 19th-century scholars.
April 23, 2018

Art historian, musicologist felt it was their duty to preserve centuries-old manuscripts detailing lives of unconventional nuns

In 1799, soldiers of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign were knocking down walls to build a fort near the city of Rosetta when they found a large basalt slab inscribed with strange symbols. In 1820, a peasant searching for marble building blocks on the Greek island of Melos uncovered the statue of an armless woman. In 1974, Chinese farmers digging a well near the city of Xian unearthed 8,000 life-size terra-cotta soldiers, horses and chariots.

The Rosetta Stone; the Venus de Milo; the Xian Terra-cotta Army — priceless relics of the past, each imbued with a unique historical significance.

More recently, in October 2015, an international group of scholars visiting a monastery in Altomuenster, Germany, were unexpectedly granted entrée to its usually off-limits library. Inside was a treasure trove of texts and artifacts belonging to the unconventional Brigittine Order of Catholic nuns, dating from the 15th century to present day.

“You never think you’re going to discover an unknown library ever in your career,” said Corine Schleif, Arizona State University professor of art history. She and Volker Schier, a musicologist and visiting faculty at the Institute for Humanities Research, were leading the fortuitous scholars on a tour of European women’s monasteries.

The Altomuenster monastery, just northwest of Munich, was their last stop.

Left undisturbed for 500 years, the library contained over a thousand previously unknown manuscripts, as well as works of art and devotional objects. If it had belonged to another order, such as the Benedictines or Franciscans, about whom a great deal is already known, it probably wouldn’t have been as monumental a find.

“For the Brigittines,” Schier said, “it more than doubles the number of known manuscripts.”

Immediately recognizing the magnitude of the discovery but with impending flights back to their countries of origin, the group vowed to return at a later date and properly delve into the bounty. A month later, a proclamation came from the Vatican that the monastery was to be permanently shuttered.

“We assumed we could go back any time, that there was no immediate rush,” Schleif said. “Then when they closed the monastery we became very concerned.”

The location of the monastery, in the suburbs of Munich at the end of a commuter rail line, means real estate there is at a premium. Many older buildings have been converted into luxury housing to capitalize on the area’s popularity. Once it was announced that the monastery would be closed, Schleif and Schier feared it would succumb to the same fate, and the precious artifacts inside cast heedlessly asunder.

“You can only turn a monastery into condos if it’s empty,” Schier said.

Alarmed at the sheer volume of historical knowledge that stood to be lost if the ancient texts were split up and sold off to private buyers, or worse, thrown in a landfill, he and Schleif sprang into action. At first, they appealed to the papal commissar in Munich, offering to write a grant and secure funds to catalogue and digitize the collection.

Their offer was denied.

“They kept saying that they didn’t have any valuable books there,” Schleif said. “We had seen enough of them that we knew they were very valuable. They had more Brigittine texts than the whole rest of the world.”

So they went higher up the chain of command, writing a letter to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the Archbishop of Munich and Freising, and had it signed by all the scholars in their tour group — including the late Tore Nyberg, a well-known Swedish professor and influential historian, whose clout they hoped might sway the church.

But still, nothing.

Once again, Schleif and Schier upped the ante. They drafted an online petition that garnered roughly 2,500 signatures from experts in fields as diverse as anthropology, literature and religious studies, who all agreed the Altomuenster library was a rare and invaluable find.

Adding to the pressure, several news outlets had gotten wind of the story and began sniffing around the monastery, where they were met with a less-than-warm reception. According to Schleif, one representative of the church told an Associated Press reporter something along the lines of: “We don’t need Americans telling us what to do with our cultural heritage; we have been at it much longer than they have.”

“So somehow our whole group — through me — became American,” Schleif said. Aside from her, the group of scholars included Schier, who is German, as well as citizens from such countries as Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands.

“That was kind of hard to take,” Schleif said. “This notion of ownership. That historical and cultural artifacts don’t belong to all of us.

“I feel really strongly that [for example] my African-American PhD student should not have to work [only] on African-American art. … Or a Native American student at ASU shouldn’t have to work [only] on Native American art. If we want to talk about global history and global culture and ‘worlding,’ as the new term is, then we have to find ways of practicing that.”

“What we are interested in as scholars is world cultural heritage,” Schier added, “and this is clearly world cultural heritage. Anybody on this planet should have the possibility to enjoy it, to see it, to study it, to work on it.”

The Altomuenster texts provide an excellent opportunity to study women’s history, in particular. The Brigittines were founded in 1344 by Saint Bridget of Sweden, who had a distinct vision for the order — one that gave women the upper hand. Whereas other orders were still presided over by men, Brigittine monasteries were entirely under the rule of an abbess.

“Women ran this institution for hundreds of years,” Schleif said. During the Middle Ages, that was no small feat. At the time, one of the only acceptable alternatives to marriage was to become a nun, and the Brigittines gave the women in their order the autonomy to make their own decisions, especially in financial matters.

One Brigittine Schleif and Schier learned of through letters recovered from the monastery was a widow who had entered into the order (one of the only ones to allow widows) upon her husband’s death in order to maintain control of her self-made fortune. As a Brigittine, she was able to use her wealth and influence to improve the lives of other women in the order.

“They were responsible for their own destiny, until right now,” Schleif said, alluding to the state of affairs the order finds itself in today; the reason behind the Vatican’s decision to close the Altomuenster monastery for good — presently, the Brigitine order counts just a handful of members. Both Schleif and Schier agree it’s on its last legs and that its impending demise only underscores the urgency to preserve the library and related artifacts.

“As an institution in the Middle Ages and beyond, where women had the option [to be autonomous] … we certainly want to keep documentation of that,” Schleif said.

The petition had been the tipping point. Soon after it went viral, Schleif and Schier received an email inviting them to come view the manuscripts at the diocesan archives in Munich, where they had been moved following the announcement of the monastery’s closing.

Over three days during the summer of 2017, Schleif, Schier and a third colleague sorted through towering stacks of dusty, weathered tomes, flipping the embrittled pages with diligence and alacrity. It wasn’t long before the treasures began to surface: a meticulous, hand-written card catalogue of the entire library, which proved exceptionally accurate and immensely helpful; processionals whose margins had been curiously torn away; and page after page of brilliantly colored illustrations.

Eventually, Schleif, Schier and their interdisciplinary group of scholars — including musicologists, historians and computer scientists — hope to use the texts to create a virtual reconstruction of a medieval church, where one can become immersed in the experience whilst listening to the songs that were sung, reading the prayer books and looking around at the architectural elements and fellow congregants, nuns and priests in period-appropriate dress.

They’ve titled the project Extraordinary Sensescapes. Their hope is that the combined effect of visual details and acoustics will transport users to another point in time.

“It’s important that we are able to empathize with each other and that we’re able to think ourselves into situations that are so vastly different from our own,” Schleif said. “And if we go back into history, maybe we can do it in a way that’s nonthreatening because we have analytical distance, and apply it to our own situations today.”

They’ll need to digitize whatever manuscripts from the Altomuenster library they intend to use for the project, and ideally they would like to digitize the entire library to make it accessible to scholars everywhere. However, both Schleif and Schier agree the need to protect the physical texts themselves is just as crucial because of what we can learn from the material elements.

“It wouldn’t be enough to digitize them,” Schier said. “A photo can never show you the real colors. It jumps at you. But it’s not only the colors that you can’t digitize, it’s also the utmost detail, down to every little brushstroke.”

And every little torn margin. He and Schleif presume that the margins torn out of the processionals may have been used to stiffen the fabric of the Brigittines’ distinctive crowns, which are composed of several white strips fastened with five red dots depicting the wounds of Christ.

“That gives you an idea of how important the material is,” Schleif said. “These things tell stories. It’s not just about the text. You really do want to touch it and look at it carefully. These books were put in oxcarts and traveled through Europe. Each book has its own history, if it could only talk.”

Thanks to the efforts of Schleif, Schier and their colleagues, those histories will continue to be shared, now that the library is safely housed at the diocesan archives.

“I see it as one of the major successes of my career, and [a major success for] ASU, actually,” Schleif said. “We’ve preserved world cultural heritage, even though we’re so far away. I think our interests should go beyond the desert, to the rest of the world, too.”

Another win for the scholars is the fact that the Altomuenster manuscripts are being kept as an ensemble. Often, through accidents of preservation, collections of texts become irrevocably separated as books are lost, sold or thrown out, leaving scholars with the task of piecing together and trying to make sense of what remains.

“Here, we have this intact library,” Schleif said. One that serves as an uninterrupted historical account of the life and culture of the Brigittines from 1496, when the Altomuenster monastery was built, to present day.

The future of the nonliterary items that filled the monastery remains uncertain. Schleif and Schier witnessed their removal from the monastery vicariously, through photos taken and sent to them by one of the last nuns still residing there. They described the manner in which centuries-old habits, altars, crucifixes and statues were handled and transported as “appalling”: roughly packed into ordinary moving trucks without protection. And they’re still unsure as to where the items ended up.

That, however, is a mantle they hope a more suited champion will assume.

“If one fights, one has to try to succeed. And we were happy that we could succeed [where the library was concerned],” Schier said. “But we thought that perhaps another scholar might take up the fight for the other objects. And they’re worthwhile to fight for. Somebody working in the 18th or 19th century … for them, this is El Dorado.”

Looking back on the ordeal, it’s no question Schleif and Schier would do it all over again if they had to.

“We are scholars. We have to pipe up if we see important cultural heritage endangered,” Schier said. “This is our responsibility, and we have to make it known and take on necessary actions.”

 

Top photo: Liturgical manuscript dated 1486, probably written in Nuremberg and brought to Altomuenster by the founding sisters from the monastery of Maihingen. Photo by Volker Schier

 
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Putting the steel in steely-eyed missile men and women

Come see the next payload drop 5:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday at ISTB4 in Tempe.
April 23, 2018

ASU class prepares next generation of space explorers with hands-on payload drop project

One by one during the class, strange crafts fall from the sky. They look like badminton shuttlecocks, restaurant roll baskets, or aluminum Jiffy Pop domes. They land softly or hard, sometimes spraying parts, sometimes missing the target.

None of them are missing the point, however, which is learning how space scientists and engineers work in the real world to explore the solar system.

This is SpaceWorks 1, being taught in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“I’m trying to get them to think like engineers,” said class instructor Phil Christensen, no stranger to things that fall from the sky and then have to work perfectly. Christensen, a Regents' Professor and NASA veteran, has instruments peering into various corners of the solar system.

The students are budding astrobiologists, systems designers and aerospace engineers. Their challenge? Drop a payload, have it safely land in one piece on a foam pad, and then deploy something. There’s a weight restriction: 500 grams for the whole package. It can’t have any power. And all this has to be done on a strict schedule.

Today is the first test. After this class, each team has to go before a Failure Review Board and explain what went wrong and how they’re going to fix it.

Christensen stands at the railing on the fifth floor of the atrium inside Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV on the Tempe campus. “There’s a reason people still die jumping out of planes with parachutes,” he said. “They rip, they tear, they don’t deploy.”

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

It took years — years — to perfect the parachutes that dropped the rovers to the Martian surface. They ripped. They tore. They didn’t deploy.

“Cameras are ready,” Christensen said. “Lights are ready. We just need some action.”

It’s go time for Team 12. Their craft looks like a big blue badminton shuttlecock. It lands top-up with some tethered orange balls flying out to the side.

The next craft is much larger, made of clear plastic panels and orange plastic parts. It misses the target, but a black parachute deploys quickly and it lands softly.

Team 10 has taken the classic approach. Their machine looks like the Apollo lunar module, with legs jutting from the sides. In NASA parlance, it has heritage; it’s a design or system that has flown before successfully. NASA likes heritage. They don’t like reinventing the wheel.

But the parachute doesn’t deploy too well from Team 10's module. It inflates as much as a tube sock would. Landing is rough. A leg breaks off.

Next up: This one looks like a restaurant roll basket with a maroon napkin hiding something unpleasant in it. Landing is accurate, but not up to commercial aviation comfort standards.

Finally, there’s an aluminum ball that looks like a fully inflated Jiffy Pop dome.

Rachel Roland breathes a sigh of relief. Roland, earning a second degree in astrobiology, signed up for the class to get some experience cross-training in engineering. Should she ever take part in a mission to Europa or Enceladus as she hopes, it could come in handy.

“I think it’s really important as a scientist to understand what the engineers do,” she said. “If I ever want to be a part of a project that will go into space, I need to know how this works. I think it’s really cool and I’m actually having fun learning about engineering. … Getting to see my project work was actually a bonus.”

The students didn’t get any hints or ideas from instructors. “Go be creative” was the extent of direction.

“It’s been really fun to watch,” Christensen said. “They’ve had to work in groups, which students hate, but we told them that’s the real world. They had to learn how to machine things. They had to go through reviews. They had to turn in a schedule. They actually had to live under a budget. We were trying to teach them real-world professional engineering skills, but let them have some fun at the same time.”

Whether they become scientists or engineers, they’ll need to know how to work like this to be successful at places like SpaceX or Orbital ATK. Working engineers from the space field talk to the class about their jobs. The students learn about what programs engineers use, and they get clean-room and machine-shop training.

“All of these skills will be very important when we actually go into the industry,” said David Madden, a freshman majoring in aerospace engineering (astronautics). He plans to go to grad school after earning his bachelor’s degree.

They won’t panic when they hear the words “critical design review,” Christensen said.

“(Co-instructor) Sheri Boonstra and I are trying to professionalize these students, so when they go out into the world and work for NASA or SpaceX or whatever, they’ve done this kind of thing before,” he said. “They can say, ‘Yeah, I can work in a team, and I know what a milestone is and I know what it means to have a schedule I have to stick to.’ The stuff they learn in classes is fantastic, but applying that in a real-world kind of way is what we’re trying to do here.”

Boonstra said that’s what NASA and the industry has told her directly.

“They’ll be able to take their degree and work directly in the space industry,” she said. “We’re mapping our activities in this class to what industry and NASA has been telling us, ‘These are the top things we need them to be good at.’ Those are the things that are embedded in this course.”

The space industry wants engineers and scientists who can hit the ground running. Part of the class is learning the business’s specialized vocabulary.

“What’s a critical design review?” Christensen said. “What’s an end item data package? I want the students that come out of here to show up at JPLNASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and say, ‘Yeah, I know what that is. I’ve done that. I know exactly what goes into one of these reviews. I know what it means to be the program manager. I know what it means to be the manufacturing engineer.’ … How do real engineers go about their daily jobs?”

So how did they do at the end of the day?

“I came in here today fully expecting all of these projects to fail,” Christensen said. “I was stunned and amazed when things went as well as they did today. I’d say about half of them pretty much did what they were intended to do, and the others came close. That’s a sign these students have taken this seriously, they’re enjoying it, they’re really putting their energy into it. They did their homework when they showed up today.”

Visitors are invited to attend the second round of the class' payload drops to see how the 12 teams do. It’s in the atrium (third through seventh floors) of ISTB4 at 781 S. Terrace Road in Tempe. The class runs from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 25. No admission fee.

 

Top photo: Twelve teams created modules that would fall 30 feet, deploy a controlled landing device, land on a mat on the impact crater carpet, and then follow that up with a NASA-like failure design review. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4502