Dr. Patricia Danz Stirnemann Earns Alumnae and Alumni Award

June 14, 2017
The art historian has spent decades advancing the understanding of medieval illuminated manuscripts.
patricia danz stirnemann giving acceptance speech in phipps auditorium

The Wells College Association of Alumnae and Alumni (WCA) has granted the 2017 Alumnae and Alumni Award to Dr. Patricia Danz Stirnemann ’67 for her contributions to the field of art history, specifically in the area of medieval French and English illuminated manuscripts. The award was given during a special ceremony as part of Wells’ Reunion weekend on Saturday, June 3, in Phipps Auditorium of Macmillan Hall.

Dr. Stirnemann has spent decades as a scholar, researcher, collaborator and supportive influence on the work of countless art historian colleagues and students. Her work centers around the history of illuminated manuscripts and covers the entire Middle Ages from 700 to 1600 A.D., with specific expertise on the 12th and 13th centuries in England and France. By exploring and identifying aspects such as penwork, style, layout and original owner of these documents—which predate the printed book and contain much of our ancient and medieval literature and records—we can better understand world history and the way that knowledge was prepared and preserved.

Dr. Stirnemann’s professional life has been dedicated to exploring, identifying and localizing these documents. She has worked with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, earned a lifetime appointment at the Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes in Paris, documented and catalogued manuscript collections including those of the Academy of Science in Saint Petersburg and the Château de Chantilly, discovered and reconstructed many medieval monastic libraries, designed and prepared numerous public exhibitions and more.

During her acceptance speech, Dr. Stirnemann shared, “In a field like that of 12th and 13th century manuscript studies, when there are so few names and at least 50% of the manuscripts no longer exist, true research is figuring out what is not known but knowable, what are the right questions to ask and what new ways can we devise for dating and placing manuscripts, for identifying their original owner, for reconstructing history... During my 40 years of cataloguing several thousand books and creating close chronological and geographical histories for script and ornament in French and English manuscripts, I have found that I can reconstruct places of production, recognize private and monastic libraries, and identify the makers and owners of books, which allow me to enter their minds and listen to their thoughts.” Read the full text of her speech below.

After receiving her degree in art history from Wells, Dr. Stirnemann earned a master’s and doctorate from Columbia University. She has lived in Paris since 1975.


Patricia Danz Stirnemann ’67 Acceptance Speech

In Phipps Auditorium, surrounded by members of the Wells community and an overwhelming turn out from her classmates, Patricia delivered her speech with anecdotes of her path since Wells, her love of lifelong learning and academic exploration and a sprinkle of her wit:

In thanking the committee members who chose me and the organizers who have been so generous with their time, I want you all to know how much it is like returning home, and far more wonderful than I ever imagined. It is all a bit unreal. The book of memories compiled by Martha Severens is more than a monumental group biography spanning five decades; it is a profound tribute to the creative value of quality education. You have all led wonderful and often exceptional lives, and I feel like I run the audience, watching you from the bleachers. Why it is the reverse, I can hardly fathom. I thought I had managed to live a life of quiet isolation, always the immigrant, living in Paris, writing almost only in French, and on subjects that really interest only six other people in the world... But no one can escape Virginia Munkelwitz.

Were it not for Virginia, who is chairman of the selection committee, and one of my two life-long friends from Wells along with Whitney Scofield Bagnall, I and my uncertain life would surely have passed under the radar.

I applied to Wells early decision, because a close and beloved friend of the family, Alice Osterander Wright, class of 1936, had gone to Wells and loved it, as had her eldest daughter, Susan Wright Reed, class of 1963. I knew that I wanted a small college that wouldn't overwhelm me and I wanted to come to the east coast. I was also afraid of being turned down everywhere, and applying early decision was one way of trying to put worry behind me. I was accepted at Wells and emigrated from Seattle; on arrival, my classmates assured me that I had got in on "distribution." The college came alive to me when I began taking courses with Sheila Edmunds (1929-2013) and Hannelore Glasser (1929-1987). Long before coming to Wells, I had fallen in love with art, but I lacked talent, so I immersed myself in learning about art. Sheila sent me on to Columbia University, where it seemed that heaven opened its doors in the classroom and in the museums in New York. And everyone is an immigrant in New York. Both Sheila and Hannelore had gone to Columbia, their professors were my professors: the German refugee immigrants from the great schools of Vienna and Hamburg, men and women of towering intellect. In retrospect, I can see that the education that we received at Wells was a direct reflection of German erudition and connoisseurship, something that no longer exists in America. Among the many things I remember about their instruction, as well as that of Professors Bellinzoni and Litzenburg, was the need to build knowledge slowly, comparatively, from the ground up, to question, to search for new ways of proving, and to understand the limits of knowledge. They taught us to reason out many philosophical catch-phrases that are still with me, such as 'you can only know in the ways in which you can know,' or when we define and use words out of context 'language takes a holiday' (Ludwig Wittgenstein) or again, 'history is geography set in motion' (Johann Gottfried von Herder).

Sheila was indeed more than simply influential in my life. She was key. While at Wells I admired her for her research on illuminated manuscripts, which combined my two loves: books and art, but I had no idea "how" nor "what" you researched in manuscripts. This I began to learn at Columbia. All of us deal constantly with uncertainty in our lives. When we think of our uncertainties, they usually feel uncertain about the future, the "what ifs" and "what nows?!" of careers, health, personal relations, and so on. When researching history, especially before the coming of the printed book, uncertainty also applies to the past, because virtually all we know about the past before 1450 is transmitted by hand-written documents, fragile, fragmentary, difficult to verify. It is not only the sources that are full of uncertainty, but also the way our minds work with received knowledge and generalizations about the past. A probing comment on this uncertainty is given by a great 19th-century French philologist, philosopher and theologian named Ernest Renan, who wrote a history of Christianity and a biographical life of Jesus. He argued that the Bible and the life of Jesus should be studied and understood critically, like all other writings and people in man's history. He was asked one day, "Do you think God exists?" and he quipped "He doesn't exist, but perhaps he will exist someday," an extremely thought-provoking comment about man's relationship to the supernatural and uncertainty.

The field of manuscript studies is so uncertain and rarefied, that it seems arcane and exotic to outsiders. I remember a family friend saying "You're doing research in medieval illumination? Well, I bet you're going to find out that they used candles. “Another friend, less tongue-in-cheek, asked "How do you do research?" The question is a good one, because there is no one way. Some think that research consists of reading and citing printed works on a subject. But in a field like that of 12th and 13th century manuscript studies, when there are so few names and at least 50% of the manuscripts no longer exist, true research is figuring out what is not known but knowable, what are the right questions to ask, and what new ways can we devise for dating and placing manuscripts, for identifying their original owner, for reconstructing history. Indeed it's like working on a giant puzzle with no picture on the cover of the box to guide you, and a number of pieces are missing. I don't think Sheila ever dreamed that one of her many devoted students would follow in her path, and when she came to visit in Paris with Joy Hume, just after the birth of our children, she brought me her own silver baby cup from the 1930s, with the iconography of Hey diddle diddle etched around it. Her gift leaves a lump in my throat to this day.

Now I'll give you an idea of the dematerialized world in which I have lived.

I worked on my doctoral thesis, The Copenhagen Psalter, for five years, but never published the dissertation because I hadn't found the answer to the central questions posed by the book: exactly when and for whom this very beautiful twelfth-century illuminated book of Psalms had been made. It was only after 25 years of research that at last I was able to gather together the threads and place the book in its historical context and shake hands with the people who had made and owned it, who had walked the earth nine hundred years ago.

The book was made in England in the last third of the twelfth century. All scholars had deduced that the original owner was English and that the artists were English. As it turned out, the book was made by an international group of artists, Flemish, English, and perhaps Danish, gathered together in the North of England, under the aegis of the archbishop of Lund, primate of Denmark, who had the book made for the coronation in 1170 of Canute VI, the seven-year old son of the Danish King. That very short resume of the story is sufficient to show how much more complicated things are than we had ever dreamed, how wrong our first impressions can be, and how long it takes to work out the true answers. As my great English mentor Christopher Hohler said to me in 1971 when I began my work on the book, ''We want to get it right." When I wrote to him 25 years later with the answer, one month before his death, he wrote back immediately, and the letter opened, "Dear Patricia, I congratulate you." These are memories that still moisten my eyes and move my heart. In other words, it's important not to have any fixed plans, any preconceived ideas about how your life or work are going to proceed. When intellectually immersed in the uncertainties of the past, those of the future seem to take care of themselves. And that pretty much fits my character. According to our daughter Emily, I am the least ambitious person she knows.    

Changing countries and language has been, extraordinarily enriching, but not easy. As an immigrant in France, as a woman, and an American, married to someone outside academia, especially someone with an un-French name, I have frequently been asked for forty years, ''When are you going home?" For ten years I worked at the National Library in Paris, paid for 15 hours a week, six months a year, but in actual hours I worked almost full time all year long cataloguing manuscripts. I continued working free for the National Library until 2003. In 1987, however, at the age of 42, I was given a paid job with the CNRS as a researcher at the Institut de recherche et d'histoire de textes, where I still work every day, because the kind of research I do is cumulative, and the discoveries have become virtually weekly with computerization and the digitization of whole libraries, now at our fingertips. The key to the novelty of my work is that I use all aspects, and especially ornament and script, to date and place manuscripts. I work on all types of manuscripts, not just those with pretty pictures. When I started out 50 years ago, most manuscripts were dated at best to a century or half century. I have learned to date them to a decade or less. Yes, I live my life in the Middle Ages, and as our son Julien says, "It's no wonder mother gets lost in Paris, she's using a 14th-century map." During my 40 years of cataloguing several thousand books and creating close chronological and geographical histories for script and ornament in French and English manuscripts, I have found that I can reconstruct places of production, recognize private and monastic libraries, and identify the makers and owners of books, which allow me to enter their minds and listen to their thoughts. I have learned that if you don't know exactly where and when a book was made, you cannot know for whom nor why it was made. In short, if you don't know how to date accurately, you might end up marrying the wrong man.

I will end with a poetic reflection that expresses, better than I can, my passionate love of manuscripts.

A precious -mouldering pleasure -'tis –
To meet an Antique Book -
In just the Dress his Century wore –
A privilege -I think -

His venerable hand to take –
And  warming in our own -
A passage back - or two - to make –
To Times when he -was young -

His quaint opinions - to inspect –
His thought to ascertain
On Themes concern our mutual     mind –
The Literature of Man -

What interested Scholars -most –
What Competitions ran -
When Plato -was a Certainty –
And Sophocles - a Man -

When Sappho - was a living Girl –
And Beatrice wore
The Gown that Dante - deified -
Facts Centuries before

He traverses - familiar -
As One should come to Town -
And tell you all your Dreams -were true –
He lived -where Dreams were born -

His presence is Enchantment –
You beg him not to go -
Old Volumes shake their Vellum  Heads
And tantalize - just so -

Emily Dickinson

There I am in a nutshell. To the family in Seattle I'm a bit peculiar, to the family in Franche Comte I'm un tout petit peu étrange. But at Wells, I feel quite at home, because all the members of our class of 1967 are Odd.

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