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News and Media

Claire Jenson '12 wins Forum on Education Abroad award

Nov. 03, 2011

EJ Dickson

Claire W Missal Leaf
Claire Jenson '12 with the AMAM's leaf from the Beauvais missal (c. 1290).
Hanna Exel '12

As far as pages from medieval manuscripts go, the leaf from the Beauvais missal in the Allen Memorial Art Museum (AMAM) archives is fairly ordinary. To most viewers, the richly decorated page from the thirteenth-century missal, or liturgical book for the Mass ceremony, would resemble nothing more than an artifact from the distant past, bearing no interest to anyone but the most avid medieval scholar.


Claire Jenson ‘12, however, is an avid medieval scholar; to her, the Oberlin leaf teems with relevant historical information, detailing the way people lived and worshiped in the West nine centuries ago. “Books were so important in the Middle Ages,” she says, pointing to the illustrations on the page. “It was a status symbol, luxury object, devotional tool. I’m really interested in how religious feeling was put into words and images, and how this leaf inspired these feelings as an object of ritual self-representation.”


Although most medieval art enthusiasts study on a post-graduate level, Jenson, a Lexington, Massachusetts native, is a fourth-year art history major in the college. Last year, she studied with the Center for University Programs Abroad (CUPA) in Paris, where she analyzed, contextualized and restructured the missal of Robert of Hangest, the cleric who commissioned the manuscript. While in France, Jenson took masters-level art courses, consulted with French medievalists, and combed through the national archives, eventually flying back to Oberlin with a 25-page research paper on the missal.


Two weeks ago, Jenson discovered that her hard work paid off when her project — entitled “Robert of Hangest’s missal: Reconstructing a Medieval Illuminated Manuscript” —won a national research award from the Forum on Education Abroad, an organization for study abroad professionals and international educators. As one of only two winners of the award, Jenson will present her research in March at a national conference in Denver, in front of an estimated crowd of 1,500 people.


Although Jenson admits that she was “stunned” to hear that she had received the award, the news didn’t surprise faculty members and program advisors who helped Jenson with her research, including CUPA director Mary Ann Letellier, who nominated her for the award. “As an undergraduate, it’s impressive that she did this level of research,” Letellier says of Jenson, citing her enthusiasm and her exceptional work ethic as the primary reasons behind the nomination.


Art history professor and medieval studies expert Erik Inglis, who advised Jenson on the project, agrees. “It’s unusual for an undergraduate honors student to work on something with this kind of significance, and do something groundbreaking on it,” he says. “By restructuring the Beauvais missal, what Claire has done will lead to the most important understanding of the book we have.”


The seeds of the project were initially planted in Inglis’s office two years ago, when Jenson was a sophomore. Although she already planned to study abroad during her junior year, Jenson approached Inglis wanting to know if she could use her time away to start work on her honors project. Inglis advised her to use her time abroad to begin her project, and suggested that she study the leaf from Robert of Hangest’s missal, which is widely-known within the field of Gothic French manuscript studies.


Although there were 309 original folios in the Beauvais missal, when Jenson started work on the project she had only one: the Oberlin leaf, which was acquired by the Allen Memorial Art Museum in 1993. Since Cleveland art historian and book collector Otto Ege tore apart the pages of the manuscript, selling them to libraries and museums in the Northeast and Midwest, the leaves have been studied by various art historians and medieval specialists.


So far, Jenson has been able to find approximately 40 of the pages from the Beauvais missal, directly consulting 32 of them for her research project. Aside from Jenson, however, few researchers have attempted to restructure the manuscript by searching for the pages and putting them back in their original order. “When the manuscript was broken up, it lost its presence, but it didn’t lose its significance,” Inglis says. “By restructuring the manuscript, Claire is giving it back its presence.”


As a student with CUPA in Paris, Jenson was able to take courses at the masters level in Parisian universities, with some of the most renowned experts on medieval studies. “They had no responsibility to help a foreign, half-enrolled student, but they were so generous and excited to have someone else interested in what they do,” she says of scholars like Jean-Baptiste Lebigue, an expert on liturgical manuscripts at L’Institut de Recherche et d’histoire des textes (IRHT).


With the help of Inglis and other French faculty members, Jenson was granted full access to archived resources at the French national library, or BnF, which proved invaluable to her research. She was also assisted by an electronic database on the Denison University website, which catalogued the known extant leaves of the Beauvais missal throughout the United States.


Because none of the original leaves was in France, she worked exclusively with reproductions, trying to figure out how the pages looked in the original order of the manuscript. Although many scholars had collected the leaves, “having the incomplete picture, rather than the complete manuscript in the original order, was frustrating,” she says. “I was trying to figure out the bigger picture: Where do these leaves go in the missal, and what does the missal mean for 13th century religion?” She also pored over other manuscripts from the same time frame, a process she compares to “looking at a puzzle to figure out how to solve another puzzle.”


As Jenson continued her research, the puzzle of the Beauvais missal gradually revealed itself to be more complex, particularly after the discovery of a liturgical singularity on the Oberlin leaf. In the leaf, one prayer during the Eucharistic part of the Mass is replaced with another prayer that normally happens at the beginning of the Mass, a deviation from the liturgical standard that Jenson says is “totally nuts.” So far, she’s been unable to find a viable explanation for the liturgical singularity, and neither has LeBigue, whom she consulted with after its discovery.


For the next year or so, Jenson will have ample opportunity to continue searching for the answer to this puzzle, as well as the other extant leaves in the Beauvais missal. She’ll continue to study the missal as part of her honors project, and she’s currently applying to art history graduate programs, where she hopes to continue her work with medieval illuminated manuscripts and liturgical art.


Although Jenson has so far been unable to figure out the reason behind the liturgical singularity in the Oberlin leaf, Inglis, who had never noticed it prior to Jenson’s discovery, is sure that it won’t remain a mystery for long. “It’s an indication of how good Claire is, because this is a riddle that even I didn’t recognize before,” he says. “I can’t solve it, but I’m confident that Claire will be able to.”  


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