By David Gulliver
New College Professor Thomas McCarthy’s research into a monk’s thousand-year-old chronicle of European history resulted in his election to one of Europe’s most prestigious historical research institutes.
McCarthy, professor of history, was elected as a corresponding member of the Monumenta Germaniae Historia. The MGH – Latin for “Historical Monuments of the Germans” – was founded in 1819 to produce scholarly research and foster national identity in the then-new country.
McCarthy’s election is a rare distinction for an American scholar, and places him in good company. Just 11 of the MGH’s 54 “corresponding members,” akin to being an editor of a journal, are from the United States, and most hail from Ivy League schools, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Cornell. McCarthy was elected in March 2019 and inducted at the Monumenta’s 200th anniversary meeting in June.
The election stemmed from McCarthy’s research into the writings of Frutolf of Michelsberg, a Bavaria monk who died in 1103. Frutolf’s “Chronicle of the World” started with Biblical creation and continued through his time.
It was later revised under the direction of other monks, and that “continued” form “was one of the most important chronicles to have in a monastery or church or cathedral,” McCarthy said. “One of the reasons it was so frequently copied – 30 or 40 copies of its different versions – is because of its great length and compendious nature, it brought together everything in a very useful form.” It forms the basis of much of the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle, a history that is one of the earliest and most important illustrated texts.
One aspect of McCarthy’s research is examining the manuscripts to uncover the changes between Frutolf’s original work and the revised versions produced after his death. Monks would scrape the ink off the parchment with a razor blade and write in the new material. McCarthy detects some of the revisions by changes in tone, emphasis or attitude toward the subject – Frutolf favored the kings, while his successors favored the papacy, he said.
Scholars detect other revisions with multi-spectral analyses of the manuscript, revealing traces of the ink that remains after the razor edits, or distinguishing between newer and older inks. From his research, McCarthy has determined that there must have been an intermediate chronicle, between Frutolf’s own version and the surviving later revisions, and by stylistics analysis has been able to reconstruct some of it.
“I can have a fairly good idea of what originally happened on the page, and what didn’t happen, and about the original end of Frutolf’s chronicle.” He said. “It is like detective work. It’s fun.”
McCarthy’s 2014 book, “Chronicles of the Investiture Contest: Frutolf of Michelsberg and his continuators,” documented much of his research, and drew the attention of the scholars at the Monumenta.
Shortly after the book came out, McCarthy was in Munich. He spoke with a scholar in charge of the Monumenta’s Frutolf editions. The scholar invited him to lunch, then back to the institute for coffee, and introduced him to Professor Martina Hartmann, the Monumenta’s president.
“She said, hello, lovely to meet you,” McCarthy recalled. “And then she said, ‘Yes, I read your book last week, and I think you’re correct in what you say.” And I thought, well, this is a good start.”
They talked about the difficulty of writing about such a complicated topic in a journal article. “And she said, well, why don’t you publish it with us as a book? And I thought, she’s just being polite.”
She wasn’t, and “The Continuations of Frutolf of Michelsberg’s Chronicles” was published last year. It particularly significant, in that it was the Monumenta’s first book published in English.
That’s a point of pride for any medievalist. The Monumenta is recognized as “the gold standard of medieval work in the world,” McCarthy said. Founded by Baron Karl vom Stein, a friend of Goethe, its original purpose was to collect together the sources for German history in the late antique period and the Middle Ages—hence its name, the Monuments of German History.
Despite the reference to Germany in its name, the Monumenta is a repository and publisher of history of northwestern and central Europe from roughly 500 to 1500 AD. Its work encompasses a lot of continental Europe, Italian, French, Bohemian and Scandinavian sources.
In the 19th century, McCarthy said, German historians developed the methodology of modern history and professionalized the field. Central to their approach was the study of primary sources. “So the Monumentists spent a lot of time going around to libraries and finding these sources – chronicles, laws, letters – finding them in manuscripts and editing them. They established the principles for modern scholarly editing of old texts. And they started publishing these editions from the 1830s onwards. The result of that is that today there’s an enormous collection of series.”
McCarthy is now working with Hartmann and other scholars on a new edition, as part of the research project Bamberg World Chronicling of the 11th/12th Century,” the work of Frutolf and his followers. It is a modern version of the Monumenta’s previous work, and McCarthy expects it will have an extensive online presence, allowing for searching and “crowdsourcing” before a final print edition.
The ongoing untangling of the work of Frutolf and his successors – the former favoring kings and empires, the latter the popes – prompts one question: Is there a “right” version?
McCarthy believes both are right, in a way. “They provide different outlooks on what was happening,” he said. “The combination is valuable because what it shows us is that people at the time disagreed about how to interpret what was happening in this conflict, about who was right and who was wrong. Things like that are no surprise to us today, of course.”
— David Gulliver is interim associate director of the Office of Communications and Marketing.