Deciphering Dragon Prayer Book’s medieval prayers and chants recited by German nuns

Dragon Prayer Book, Northeastern’s medieval manuscript. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Erika Boeckeler was going to need three years—with help from a lot of students—to fully comprehend what she was holding in her hands. And yet she knew, the moment she was greeted by the brightly-drawn dragon roaring on its opening page, that she had found a book of historical significance.

The Dragon Prayer Book, as Boeckeler’s students would refer to it, is a medieval manuscript that had been neglected for years on a back shelf of Snell Library. Northeastern has been unable to determine when it obtained the book or how much was paid for it. All that exists in the files is a black-and-white photograph that shows someone reading the book in 1976.

“It was really exciting to discover a medieval manuscript that we didn’t even know existed in the archives,” says Boeckeler, who had recently joined Northeastern as a professor of English when she asked the archivist for all of the ancient books in the university’s collection. “I just wanted to see what Northeastern had because I was a new hire. It turns out nobody had ever asked for that material.”

“The archivist said, ‘I don’t know what this is,’” recalls Boeckeler. “She said, ‘It’s not catalogued. We have no records of it.’”

Northeastern’s lone medieval manuscript is a squat, boxy book, smaller than the length of Boeckeler’s hand, and yet thick as an encyclopedia volume. The brown leathery binding was in a state of decomposition when she found it. There were signs of a clasp that had fallen off long ago. Tiny bookmark nubs of animal skin, still retaining traces of their original color, were glued to some of the crucial passages.

Its 604 colorful pages, scripted by hand predominantly in medieval Latin, bore a trove of mysteries that Boeckeler and her students set out to resolve.

They have confirmed that it is the university’s oldest book because of a discovery by Laura Packard, who asked to join the project after overhearing Boeckeler discuss it with other students. Packard, who has led the research efforts, discovered a reference in the book to Saint Catherine of Siena, who had been sainted in 1461. That, in combination with a variety of findings from the project team members, in consultation with experts, led to the conclusion that the book had been used by nuns of the Dominican Order in what is now southern Germany after 1461.

“A reader from the past had inked in, in a marginal note, ‘St. Catherine of Siena,’” Boeckeler says. “It was like a collaboration with someone you will never know.”

The initial puzzle was to decipher the text itself. Penned in beautiful calligraphy with a variety of inks, including one fabricated from the parasite of an oak tree, the words were initially unfathomable to Boeckeler and Packard. They spent almost two months trying to crack the code.

“It is very heavily abbreviated,” Packard says. “Medieval scribes wanted to save money, which you can understand: It’s very expensive to care for animals and then make books out of their skin.”

The pages of the book were made of vellum, by which cow skins are cleaned, bleached, stretched across a frame, and then repeatedly scraped with a knife in between rounds of wetting and drying the skins.

“They try to cram as much as they possibly can into a single page,” Boeckeler says. “They really use the page maximally with standard abbreviations that are hundreds—maybe thousands—of years old. And this book uses the full range of them. It’s really, really intense.

“It’s hard to even decipher the letters themselves. They are written in Gothic-book hand, and many of the letters look like each other. It’s really hard to distinguish them. And then you might figure out all the letters and still have no clue what the word is, because you haven’t realized that there are several abbreviations in the word.”

Late one night, while texting each other, Boeckeler and Packard achieved their biggest breakthrough, by deciphering the truncations. They understood what the medieval scribes were saying and how they were saying it, which opened a revelatory window to explore the way of life for German nuns so many centuries ago.

They would pray every three hours. The most revealing passage was read just before they drifted off to sleep, when they believed they were vulnerable to the preyings of the devil:

Sisters! Be sober and watch, for your adversary the devil goes about like a roaring lion, seeking someone he may devour!

“Another thing that makes it so special is that it was created for women,” Boeckeler says. “These were highly educated, literate women who could use this book, and they had not only Latin literacy and German literacy, but also musical literacy. They would pray about every three hours. So this book was part of the rhythm of their lives.”

To help her uncover the mysteries of the manuscript, Packard enlisted the help of a dozen students from four different colleges at Northeastern, including the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, the College of Arts, Media, and Design, the College of Science, and the College of Engineering. Northeastern students Zak Ganhadeiro and Connor Hamill led efforts to analyze the book’s animal skin and decipher the lyrics to its chants. 

Several students have asked Packard whether the book may be haunted.

“It kind of freaks them out, how old it is,” Packard says.

“And it looks like it could hold a lot of secrets,” adds Boeckeler. “That’s the aura that it has around it.” 

Before it was restored and digitized by Northeastern, Packard and other students would take photos of the book with their phones in order to study the images in detail on their own time.

“We realized this was going to take a community of readers to understand the book,” says Packard, who is studying English literature at Northeastern. “We needed all these members from different colleges to get a more accurate reading of the book.”

Dirt smudges in the corners mark the most used pages. The book is missing two pages that were thought to contain liturgical calendars. The pages’ margins were trimmed in order to fit its binding, which was made of sheepskin—a finding learned by way of peptide mass fingerprinting.

“It’s a biology technique that isolates the protein, and it can tell you which animal skin contains that protein,” Boeckeler says. “So we can read the skins of animals who walked the earth over 500 years ago.”

The project has influenced Packard in all kinds of unforeseen ways. During a recent chat with Boeckeler, Packard noted that her exploration of the book had led her down a variety of academic paths, including studies of bioarchaeology, medieval language and music, and project management—which have altogether deepened her appreciation for books.

“It may not be directly applicable to whatever your future career is, but look at all these skills that are transferable,” Boeckeler said to Packard during an interview. “The flexibility of mind that comes with grappling with a very foreign way of reading and singing—that experience can serve you in so many different ways.”

There are more questions still to be studied and answered. But one promises to remain a mystery.

Why does the opening page feature a dragon? It is the book’s lone illustration.

“I don’t have a theory,” Packard says of the defining image. “We have no idea.”

The Dragon Prayer Book is presently showcased in a Snell Library exhibit called Decoding the Dragon in the library lobby. It is the first student-created library exhibit at Northeastern. It features the text and how to read it, the history behind it, as well as an analysis of the ink and materials used to make the book.

A related series of events throughout the semester invite the Northeastern community to interact with the book. The book’s music will be performed on Oct. 27 from 8 to 10 p.m. at Raytheon Amphitheater, in “Chant the Dragon,” an event in which the NU Madrigal Singers, a student choral group, will sing music from the book that has lain dormant for five hundred years. “Discuss the Dragon,” on Nov. 7 from 3 to 4:30 p.m. (location to be determined), will pair the student researchers in conversation with local experts. 

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