Raiders of the Lost Archive! A Series…

[This post is part 1 of a summer-long series on archival work. It is intended as a rough guide of sorts for noobs, by a noob. I claim no expertise, and, honestly, not all that much experience yet. So take my views with a grain of salt. I’m just trying to provide one story that might help other first-timers think through how to make their own archival dreams come true. Feel free to add other thoughts/suggestions/insights in the comments section. My goal here is to gather as many resources for budding archivists as possible, so the more the merrier!]

Background: I recently won a generous grant from the American Scandinavian Foundation to do Manuscript work at the University of Copenhagen’s Arnamagnaean Institute! I’ll be there for most of the summer, learning by trial and error (and the kind support of the Arnamagnaean staff, who have already been insanely welcoming). Now, I’ve worked at IU’s Lilly Library for rare books for going on five years, so I’m not exactly a novice when it comes to medieval manuscripts (MS for short). Still, it took me several years of grant writing and rounds of rejection to get this far, and I’d like to take you behind the scenes of a difficult but rewarding process. Tolle lege, friends; it’s about to get archival!

Steve (w) Gutenberg

[If I can hold a Gutenberg Bible, you can too!]

So you wanna do archival work? As an undergrad, I loved reading M.R. James’ chilling ghost stories (if you only know him from his Manuscript catalogues or Apocrypha work, do yourself a favor and go out and read his Ghost Stories of an Antiquary). His tales are usually about an antiquary engaged with field work, whose curiosity drives them to disturb some terrible supernatural secret that had been buried and forgotten in the archives. Steeped in these tales, I had this romantic notion that that’s what medievalists do: spend their holidays traveling the world, delving deep into dusty and forgotten collections. It’s like Indiana Jones, but with air conditioning. I never worried about how to actually make that happen in real life though. I guess since in James’ stories it was Edwardian Oxbridge, funding was just lying around—all you had to do was polish your monocle and look for it. I thought it would be as simple as that for me, too.

Fast forward a half decade and I now realize that there are a lot of reasons why this is not a realistic image. Funding in the humanities is scarce. Planning archival work is a complicated process. Monocles are hard to find. James’ stories do get at an essential truth, though: they are all based on the assumption that working with antiquities in the flesh is one of the main tasks and privileges of the humanist scholar. (Thankfully, real archival work involves fewer haunted curses and succubi.) Archival work is essential for groundbreaking humanistic work—it’s a source from which we can find new things that unsettle or overturn old understandings of the past. It also helps if you find something previously unpublished to write about. But beyond these things, archival work can be the place where a humanities scholar really shines—you’re working with a text that has not been edited, recorded via pre-modern conventions on unfamiliar technology. You must use all your faculties, intuitions, and skills as a scholar to make something of this object that contains human voices from the past. And you should—no one else is equipped for this like you are!

But how do you decide where to work? Like all great answers, my answer is a further question: what texts do you want to work with and why? I entered grad school to write on Anglo-Saxon literature (apocrypha came later), so my first impulse as a new grad student was MUST SEE NOWELL CODEX (where Beowulf and friends live, aka Cotton Vitellius A. xv). But I soon realized that, awe-ing and fun as that would be, it probably wouldn’t merit the cost. First, as iconic as that codex is, the British Museum doesn’t show it to just anyone nowadays. You have to demonstrate to them that you have a good reason to see it. Otherwise, they’ll politely point you to Kiernan’s Electronic Beowulf ( and the door (in that order). Secondly, it’s incredibly fragile (it caught fire in the ironically named… wait for it… ‘Ashburnham house’ fire of 1731, and has flaked away around the edges since). Thirdly, it’s heavily studied and there are many facsimiles. Sure, sometimes you still need to see a codex that’s already been digitized; maybe you want to study mold patterns, or maybe the facsimile isn’t clear enough for your needs, or it doesn’t show the other texts in the codex. But that wasn’t the case for me with old Nowell. So when you’re trying to decide what manuscripts to look at, consider the cost (of getting there, red tape, time, etc) vs. the potential pay off for your scholarly project. I realized that, as a scholar in my 20’s, I don’t have much to say about Beowulf that hasn’t already been said far better by far more wiser scholars. Maybe someday, but not this day.

Where I’m at now, my insights tend to come from understudied and undervalued texts like vernacular apocrypha. So I started with my current favorites—the Gospel of Nicodemus and the Vision of St. Paul— and I began scouring bibliographies (such as Ehrman and Pleše’s 2011 Apocryphal Gospels, which led me to Silverstein and Hilhorst’s 1997 Apocalypse of Paul, which led me to a lot of vernaculars edited and not), first for mentions of Latin manuscripts and then for mentions of vernaculars. When in doubt, mine bibliographies. In my particular case, apocrypha don’t often have standard scholarly editions (even the Latin versions!) because they were so widely copied and varied greatly across the middle ages. When you come across a quirk like this in your work, you can do two things: 1) wallow in despair at the kelvin-cold iron harshness of the universe; or 2) try to figure out why obstacles can be beneficial. For me, after a good round in the emotional spin cycle of #1, this meant realizing that while I do not have the benefit of a beautifully edited scholarly standard or immaculate bibliography, it also means that there is a lot of basic work to be done here. I have room to work with these texts and say insightful things about them because they’re not already heavily studied or edited. What I realized after looking over my sprawling list of “Vernacularizations of Visio Sancti Pauli” was that there were many understudied versions in Old Norse, Middle Welsh, and older Irishes. So that’s where I decided to plant my flag.

As usual, Old English already has oodles of terrific facsimiles available, so I decided not to pursue funding for a trip to England (which, especially for things like the Fulbright, can be hyper-competitive). Instead, I searched for funding opportunities to go to the other vernacular MSS I’m interested in: Old Norse (mostly either of the Arnamagnaeans in Reykjavik or Copenhagen), Middle Welsh (mostly the National Library of Wales), or Old Irish (kinda everywhere). So then I figured out which libraries housed which texts by finding the manuscript catalogues for each country’s major libraries. These volumes are often available for free on the library’s website or on Google Books in .pdf format because they tend to be old. (For example, see the Arnamagnaean’s: or NLW’s at; for Anglo-Saxonists, you really must know either Ker’s or Gneuss and Lapidge’s Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A Bibliographical Handlist) Then I skimmed said catalogues for what felt like years, making a note of every MS that sounded potentially useful. Eventually, as much as I wanted to go to Iceland, I decided that the most important place for me to go (most MSS, least studied, plus my strongest vernacular language) was the University of Copenhagen’s Arnamagnaean Institute, because most of the ON religious texts went there (Reykjavik has the bulk of the sagas).

Awesome: you’ve got a what, a where, and why. What’s next? The next step is to draw up a list of MSS to see there. I now had a destination and at least 16 reasons to go. But how the deuce to pay for it? Tune in next time as we talk about funding and grants! I hope you enjoyed this—if you have other tips and tricks for thinking through designing an archival project, feel free to add them in the comments section.


2 thoughts on “Raiders of the Lost Archive! A Series…

  1. Great read. Thanks for sharing. Question, though: Is Beowulf anything like the new Beowatch movie starring “The Rock” Dwyane Johnson? I think he had to so some archival work for the role, so you should check it out. Two thumbs up.


  2. Pingback: A Song of Grants and Ire | Stephen C.E. Hopkins

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