Significant “snippets” of Meister Eckhart’s work

Finds from the Leipzig University Library show the oldest known textual evidence by Meister Eckhart. © Olaf Mokansky/Leipzig University Library

They were once recycled as bookbinding material for a newer volume: researchers have identified two strips of parchment as the remains of a book with a text by the famous master Eckhart. These are now the oldest known testimonies of the provocative medieval theologian and philosopher. The fragments can be assigned to the period around 1300 and the Thuringia region based on linguistic clues. In doing so, they shed light on the original version of the work in question and point back to Eckhart's lifetime and environment, say the experts.

He thought about God and the world in a way that was unusual for his time: the work of Meister Eckhart continues to generate interest and there is even a Meister Eckhart Society dedicated to the late Middle Ages thinker. He was born around 1260 in Hochheim in Thuringia and joined the Dominican order as a teenager. Thanks to his talent, he achieved high positions there and eventually made it to the University of Paris. He later returned home: from 1294 to 1310, Eckhart worked in the Dominican monastery in Erfurt, first as prior and later as the person responsible for the Dominican order province of Saxonia. His special theological, mystical and philosophical views and works made him famous during this time. However, some provocative aspects also brought him into conflict with the church. He died around 1328 before the conclusion of an inquisition process.

Recycled material of a spectacular kind

A find from the Leipzig University Library now sheds light on the work of this unusual thinker. The two strips of parchment have actually been known since 2014: They were discovered as part of a project dedicated to searching for hidden textual treasures in the binding material of books from the collection. In the early modern period, recycled parchment material from older works was often used to produce new books. For example, labeled strips from earlier manuscripts ended up in the spines of books. The two special pieces were discovered in the binding material of a volume with a print from the 15th century, reports the University of Leipzig. Initially, the inscription could only be roughly classified as a theological-mystical text in German.

However, research by Christoph Mackert's team from the University Library's Manuscript Center has now revealed that the parchment fragments contain excerpts from a text that, according to the latest findings, goes back to Eckhart and is known under the title “On Two Ways”. On the back of the strips you can also see lines from a text that has not yet been identified, which refers to “knowledge and ignorance”. However, it remains unclear whether this is a possibly unknown Eckhart text.

Close to the master

But what is so special about the fragmentary traces of the well-known work? The age and region of origin are spectacular, say the experts: based on the writing characteristics, they were able to date the manuscript remains to the period around 1290 to 1310. In addition, the text was written in a dialect-colored German that clearly refers to Thuringia. This means: The Leipzig fragments are now the oldest known text finds on Master Eckhart and they were also created in his area of ​​influence, explains the team. From 1294 to 1310, Eckhart worked in the Erfurt Dominican monastery and what was then the province of Saxonia.

As emerged from the discoverers' collaboration with the Eckhart experts from the University of Erfurt and the Meister Eckhart Society, the find is also interesting for another aspect: “The experts can now find a particularly widespread and intellectually provocative Eckhart text probably by the author himself and later changed many times, at a very early stage of transmission,” writes the University of Leipzig. Markus Vinzent from the Eckhart Research Center at the University of Erfurt explains: “The fragments contain central parts from the Eckhart sermon that were deleted in the later tradition and which are now proven by the new fragments to be old and belong to the early Eckhart.” Freimut Löser from the Meister Eckhart Society and the University of Augsburg adds: “A simultaneous testimony to Eckhart’s sermons in Thuringia as prior in Erfurt or as provincial of Saxonia is a brilliant result that allows us deep insights into his activities in Erfurt.”

Finally, the director of the Leipzig University Library also expressed her enthusiasm about the find: “Such discoveries are the pipe dream of researchers at libraries. “These are the successes of in-depth development and scientific research of already known stocks,” says the scientist.

Source: University of Leipzig

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