Historian Samu Niskanen has received a starting grant from the European Research Council (ERC). This highly competitive grant represents a recognition worth more than its cash value. Niskanen’s project studies the nature of mediaeval publishing and its reflection on changes in society.

– I have never seen more stressed and anxious people, reminisces historian Samu Niskanen.

He remembers how the researchers sat waiting inside an imposing administrative building in Brussels. They had made the second round of the funding applications. Each researcher was invited individually to be interviewed by the 16-person committee. After a successful grilling, the euphoric researchers gave their colleagues pep talks. Niskanen joined them, feeling like the gruelling experience had been the positive inverse of a nightmare.

– The interview very quickly started to go my way. I got the mediaeval experts on my side, and the conversation became very interesting. I was nervous but it helped me outdo myself. It felt good to encourage my colleagues, but after the whole thing, I was completely drained.

The long journey to the project

Applying for ERC funding is like a journey in itself, requiring preparation and flawless performance. The process involves two rounds: first, approximately 80% of applications are cut. The remaining researchers are invited to be interviewed by representatives of the EU’s scientific administration. Typically just over 10% of the applications make the second round. ERC funding is a merit considered in international university rankings, which is why universities encourage their researchers to apply. Applications are invited from all fields of science, and researchers from everywhere in Europe compete for the funding.

 Samu Niskanen received help from the University’s research funding specialists as well as his researcher colleagues. They were an invaluable help in setting the schedule, drafting the budget and preparing for the interview. Niskanen's previous experience with international applications was also a significant asset.

Now the funding is set and Niskanen is just waiting for the wheels of the organisation to turn.

 – As soon as the project launches, we can add a couple of postdoctoral researchers and a doctoral student to it. I also intend to expand the scope of the project more towards the digital humanities and apply for more funding from Finland, Niskanen speculates.

Backing from the archbishop

– It’s common to see statements in research articles claiming that there were no publication activities to speak of before the invention of the printing press. This is wrong, states Samu Niskanen.

– Publication strategies have existed for as long as writers have tried to find an audience for their work.

Niskanen's research focus is the journey a text has to make to reach its reader. The new project is entitled Medieval publishing from c. 1000 to 1500. Books were being produced throughout this time period, first as hand-copied manuscripts and, in the late 15th century, as printed copies. This is to say that books were being published long before the advent of the printed book.

"Publication strategies have existed for as long as writers have tried to find an audience for their work."

For example, Anselm of Canterbury, the 11th-century philosopher, theologian and archbishop is known to have pondered his audience and the reception of his works. His works examined sacred doctrines with rational methods, but he had seen such an approach destroy careers. Receiving a commission to write a book from the pope, the highest authority in Christendom, was an influential recommendation as the book made its way to its readers. Consequently, Anselm slightly exaggerated the role the pope had in the inspiration of his first philosophical work.

– This is clear from many sources – the dedication letter, early copies of the book, Anselm's correspondence and a prologue to another work, Samu Niskanen explains.

Who dedicates and to whom

The dedication is a key feature in the mediaeval book distribution system. Just like a commission from the pope, a well-addressed dedication could ensure a favourable start to the book on its way to its audience, and even provide a shield against eventual criticism.

Anselm of Canterbury was a monk when he embarked on his literary career. According to Niskanen, book distribution and literary culture were largely controlled by monasteries in the early 11th century. Gradually schools, universities, parish priests and ultimately laymen entered the publication industry. The secularisation of book publishing partially reflects the changes in European society between the 11th and 16th centuries. Literary dedications also offer perspectives on issues such as women’s role in society.

Literary dedications also offer perspectives on issues such as women’s role in society.

 – It seems to me that the number of women featuring as the recipients of dedications and the issuers of literary commissions increases during the period studied by my project. It is interesting to see who dedicated their books to women, and to what extent such authors were monks or priests. What was the social status of these women? And what kind of social variation is apparent in the dedications to women in different time periods and geographical contexts?

With the invention of the printing press, a new dominant player entered the publication industry: the owner of the printing press, a businessman. He could decide what warranted the use of the press. Unlike mediaeval scribes, the printers had considerable authority in deciding what would be published. This is reflected in the many books dedicated to printers.

Trends in the margins

Reading and studying original mediaeval manuscripts requires the scholar to travel all around Europe. One of the most important centres of excellent mediaeval bibliography studies is at the University of Oxford. Samu Niskanen continues to hold the position of research fellow at Oxford’s Jesus College, which means that he already has a cooperation network there.

– It is usually impossible to determine the book’s structure from its microfilm. It is possible that the structure has been altered, parts separated and sewn together into completely new books, Niskanen describes.

The original parchment manuscripts are in surprisingly good condition. They reflect the history of books and their uses both as works of literature and as physical objects. Manuscripts written by the author are known as autograph manuscripts. The margins of autograph manuscripts often feature corrections and addendums, which can shed additional light on the publication process. Then there are decorative books intended as gifts reflecting the status of the recipient. The most important sources are the early copies, the nondescript, utilitarian books. They are physical evidence of the text’s successful journey to its readers.

A digital treasure trove

– The biggest problem with mediaeval and classic history is the lack of statistical data. This means that phenomena from those times can mainly be discussed through isolated cases, and comprehensive conclusions are difficult to reach, Samu Niskanen says.

Niskanen intends to collect a group to compile a digital database of authors' networks. They will use the University of Helsinki’s digital expertise, and the resulting resources will be freely available to all researchers.

– We will draft a database of dedications and commissions. This database can help us map out the structure of the authors' networks across different social, geographical and institutional environments, at different times and in different literary genres.

The result will be a statistically valid database which can be used to efficiently study a number of different research questions. It will be a digital treasure trove offering a completely new perspective on our distant history.

– We don’t even know which questions can be asked yet, Niskanen points out.