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Anonymous knowledge

Anonymous Knowledge is a research project that investigates the composition, reception, dissemination and status of anonymous texts from late antiquity up to the high middle ages, roughly between 300 and 1200. The geographical focus is the Latin West, but the texts and their transmission history are studied from a global perspective. The project, which has received funding from Aspasia (NWO) and the foundation Art, Books and Collections, is led by Irene van Renswoude and Carine van Rhijn.

Medieval manuscripts are full of anonymous texts. Just take any miscellaneous manuscript and count – the odds are that non-attributed texts make up the majority of the book’s contents. Meanwhile, research mostly favours the writings of well-known, named authors over anonymous ones. The result is that many anonymous texts in diverse fields of knowledge such as medicine, astronomy, prognostics, liturgy and theology have remained unedited and unknown. How would our understanding of the history of knowledge change if we were to take on board all this relatively unknown and understudied anonymous material?

One of the main questions this project addresses is how anonymous texts were considered credible, trustworthy, and authoritative. How was knowledge validated if ‘authorization’ was not an option? What other means and forms of creating and testing reliability and trustworthiness were available? Now that increasing numbers of manuscripts are becoming available online in high-quality digital form, we can investigate these questions with direct access to anonymous material in manuscripts. These new opportunities of research, however, also bring new challenges, such as how to incorporate anonymous texts and manuscripts in databases in which the field ‘author’ is one of the prevailing search terms and a fundamental principle of organization.


Carine van Rhijn (Utrecht University, Medieval history), ‘Prognostic thinking (750-1000): texts, manuscripts, global connections’ studies the uncharted corpus of prognostic texts in Continental manuscripts, and their implications for our understanding of early and high medieval culture.

Irene van Renswoude (Huygens ING, History of knowledge/ University of Amsterdam, Book and manuscript studies), ‘Authority, authors and anonymity (300-1200)’ studies editorial strategies in manuscripts lending trustworthiness and reliability to texts that circulated without the name of a trusted author, and investigates alternative forms of authority.

Bram van den Berg (Huygens ING, History of knowledge/ University of Amsterdam, Book and manuscript studies), PhD project, ‘Prognostic texts in the early medieval Latin West. A cultural history of prognostics and prognostication in the writing centres of Fleury, Reims and the Bodensee monasteries’

Sebastiaan van Daalen (Huygens ING, History of knowledge/ eCodicesNL), investigates the concepts of author and authority in late antiquity and the early middle ages with digital corpus tools and methods, in preparation of a PhD thesis.

Medieval manuscript with text in Latin

Laon, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 265, 9th c., f. 2r (detail), opening of the anonymous Gesta salvatoris in capital letters. A note of warning is added on the top of the page, saying that this text is ‘in no way acceptable’ and lacks authority. No author, no authority. Yet this text was widely read.

Anonymous Knowledge Network

In connection with the Anonymous Knowledge Project, the Anonymous Knowledge Network has seen the light. Here, researchers working on anonymous texts and the questions that arise from them collaborate. Thus far, two projects have joined the Network:

Page of medieval manuscript with two tables and text in latin.

Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, cod. 321, 9th-13th c., p. 26 (10th c.): Two computus tables, a charm and an anonymous prognostic text, known as The Revelation of Esdras