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Deciphering the Past

In the late 13th century, a Cistercian monk named Philip wrote about a young woman named Elisabeth who lived in Spalbeek, a town in what is now northern Belgium. More than 700 years later, the definitive edition of her story is emerging thanks to the work of Dartmouth Professor Walter Simons and Presidential Scholar Alisa Koonce '08. The Presidential Scholar Program, endowed by John "Launny" L. Steffens '63, pairs juniors with faculty to work jointly on a major project.

Walter Simons and Alisa Koonce '08
History Professor Walter Simons and Presidential Scholar Alisa Koonce '08 are working together to translate a 13th-century manuscript. (photo  by Joseph Mehling '69)

Simons, associate professor of history, explains that Philip wrote in Latin, the customary language of culture of the time, and the story survived through copied and circulated manuscripts. These manuscripts must be painstakingly deciphered, translated, and interpreted.

"The text, Vita Elisabeth de Spalbeek, has only been published in printed form once, in 1886, on the basis of two manuscripts," says Simons. "But we've identified 10 more manuscripts, some of which offer better readings than the two previously used, because manuscripts invariably include copying errors and modifications by scribes. Our new edition will correct many errors and omissions and identify scriptural allusions more fully."

Koonce  is putting her knowledge of Latin to good use by helping Simons.

"I've been able to practice reading medieval manuscripts, and I've learned more about how monks copied the texts," says Koonce. "In some manuscripts the Vita was simplified. In others, the scribes were precise, and sometimes their manuscripts contained more accurate parts of the Vita than the 1886 interpretation we have now."

Philip's writings tell Elisabeth's story, the earliest account of a woman bearing the same wounds as Christ, the stigmata, and his writings helped legitimize her condition. The manuscripts, according to Simons, help us understand how others responded to Elisabeth's stigmata; it was doubted that God would grace a woman with such a miracle. Only St. Francis, a man, was widely known to have had these wounds before her. Philip himself was skeptical of her at first, but was eventually convinced.

"The work itself is difficult," says Simons. "It requires a precise process of transcribing each of the 12 manuscripts and comparing the readings word by word, line by line. I am extraordinarily lucky to find in Alisa a student assistant whose Latin is exceptionally strong and who also has quickly learned to read medieval script, which makes it possible for us to work as a team."


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Last Updated: 7/24/18