Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Getting to grips with the DNB project: 2

I did not in fact add a new field Sources to the table because of the difficulty of reading the text it would contain, either when displayed in Table mode or in Form mode, and because at this stage I had found that only 14 of my monks were listed as hagiographers. Therefore I created a wordprocessed file for each of these and stored them in a subfolder, Hagiographers, in the folder DNB Project.

The great thing about database programs like Access is that they are relational. This means that, when you want to add each title with date and notes to the table, you can create another one which, with the use of a query, you can extract just the data you want from two tables to create a third one.

I then created a new table, Vitae, in which to store details of hagiographies, with these fields:

  1. ID
  2. Writer: as indexed, e.g. Osbern
  3. Title: e.g. Passio Aelphegi
  4. Full title: e.g. Vita et passio S. Aelphegi archiep. Cantuar. et martyris; per Osbernum monachum Cantuariensem
  5. Written: date, normally followed by c (about) or > (after)
  6. Saint: e.g. Ælfheah
  7. Latin form
  8. Death
  9. Notes

This yielded a disappointingly small tally of titles, which showed no clear pattern. At this moment I began to think of doing a rewrite of the entry for Robert of Shrewsbury, mentioned in my post of 20 April as Prior Robert Pennant. Before abandoning the present database-underpinned approach, however, I did another search replacing Benedictine by hagiographer and extending the search to a couple of hundred years either side of Hastings. This did of course add a number of claustral hagiographers from other orders: Augustinian (2), Cistercian (3) and Dominican (1), compared to a final total of 17 Benedictines.

The titles of their works did not, however, shine much light upon the second question I posed yesterday, ""How if at all did the subject matter of Benedictine biographies change after the Conquest?" or give much support to my hypothesis that there would be a swing away from vitae on Anglo-Saxon saints towards more universal ones. The only indicator of this is in the entry for Dominic of Evesham, which says "[His] most widely read collection … was of fourteen miracles of the Virgin Mary, Evesham's patron. … In that form [with additions by Anselm of Bury and William of Malmesbury] they laid the foundations of a new genre, devoted to the Virgin herself rather than to places or saints that she had honoured, which was to permeate the culture of western Europe." Even this support was weakened by the statement that Dominic "was perhaps born of English parents, as some slight linguistic evidence suggests": nothing here to support my guess about the Norman juggernaut crushing Anglo-Saxon sensibilities!

As to the first question I posed on Monday, “How rapidly and completely did Normans replace English in the senior ranks of the Benedictine order?”, I would have wasted my time trying to answer it in the way I did. The answer can be found on pages 111-113 of David Knowles’ The Monastic Order in England which I only read this morning. Moreover, there is some doubt whether Benedictines living up to two hundred years apart could actually be deemed to belong to the same Group as the editor of the ODNB would understand it.

As to the time I have wasted on this wild goose chase, I hope that the way I have detailed what I did may help other people to research the ODNB more effectively and to use the power of the electronic database to tease interesting insights out of their research material.

So, I now need to look closely at the entry for Robert of Shrewsbury to see whether his present entry of 297 words can be boosted without padding to something over the minimum of one thousand.

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