Originals Created by Copying. Letters from Heaven and their Agency in Popular Religious Belief (15th to 20th Century)
The project deals with the manuscript genre Letters from Heaven/Himmelsbriefe and examines the significance of handwriting as a precondition for the historical emergence, further development and societal impact of this popular form of sacred communication. The currently relevant material consists of about fifty manuscripts from the 15th-20th century, which are now scattered in museums, libraries and (private) archives in various regions of Germany, but also in Europe and the USA. The question at stake is what role the ritual handwritten (re-)production played for the status and agency of those manuscripts as ‘originals’ in their differing contexts of origin and use. Copying by hand seemed to be a central part of the material production, circulation and use of this type of manuscripts. Furthermore, copying was also fundamental for the attributed agency of these replicas and their function as ‘originals’ in magical practices over time. The practice of copying negotiates the ontological ground of Himmelsbriefe by turning them on the one hand into copies and on the other hand, by circulation and donation from a scribe to the new owner, into originals again. The project reconstructs the process of handwritten copying in order to understand these performative practices of replication and their material und social consequences, especially in the historical contexts of war and threat since the 15th century. The question will be how to specify and contextualize the parameters of valorization of copy/original – i.e. reliability, authenticity and agency of the artefact not as result of ascription, but of production – by looking at the materiality itself as well as at the production and the usage or consumption of these artefacts. How does a copy become an original? What is the specific aura of an original? At what point of the process and how does a copy change into an original? Since there is some historical evidence of (broadsheet) printed editions of Letters from Heaven, the project will examine the transition process and the relationship between handwritten copies/originals and mass production. Identifying the age and the material and writing surface of the manuscripts demands close cooperation with research field A Artefact Profiling, as well as with research field E Archiving Artefacts regarding problems of recording and sampling of the manuscripts.