Intern-al Affairs

I must first apologize for the fact that the title of this post has very little to do with any of its contents, and warn that any reader who comes to it expecting some sort of intrigue or salaciousness will be disappointed.  The punning habit dies hard.  You may take some comfort in the fact that I have selected the best of the lot, which included such gems as “Intern-al Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which did not seem relevant to much of anything, and “Intern-Ship of Fools,” which, while perhaps accurate in at least my own case, would have started the post out in a significantly darker tone than I felt to be appropriate.  “Intern-al Affairs,” happily, is vague enough to be relevant to almost anything and bureaucratic-sounding enough to avoid sounding too ominous.  And most importantly, it preserves the pun.

I’m an intern (surprise!) with the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, which is a text series that publishes medieval literature in editions that have the original language text and an English translation side by side.  (For all you active and recovering classicists in the audience, it’s the same idea as the Loeb Classical Library, but for medieval material.)  Essentially, my job (and Jessi and Zak’s job) is to read the texts and translations of our scholars, critique them, and come up with a diplomatic way to frame these critiques.  If sitting around and reading Latin all day sounds like your cup of tea, you can’t beat it with a stick.  If it doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you should reevaluate some of your attitudes and life decisions.

The first weeks of the summer were dominated by examining a forthcoming edition of the miscellaneous poetry of Venantius Fortunatus, an Italian poet of late antiquity who spent much of his time hobnobbing with members of the Merovingian court and the powerful clergy of southern France.  It is going to be a very good edition and you all should be waiting breathlessly for its release.  Until that time, however, you may whet your appetite with this epigram that I wrote in the style of Fortunatus:

Audi me, quivis ades antistes venerandus,

ut de te merito praemia magna metam.

Fortunatus, bless his sainted soul (feast day Dec. 17), had a bit of a sycophantic streak.

Once in awhile our work will demand an expedition beyond the confines of the office, generally to the library.  The library is a place of great awe, the workings of which are mysterious to even those of us who work at Dumbarton Oaks, and as a result a journey thither requires great preparation of soul and body.  It was such preparation that I undertook when a different project, a collection of the medieval Latin biographies of Muhammed, demanded a visit.  You may imagine me thus:

Image(Image in the public domain, via

Due to the library’s somewhat confusing layout, it took me some time to find what I needed, but I eventually found the book in question and got to exercise what is probably the most entertaining privilege library users have: use of the Book Trolley, which safely transports items from the library to the main house.  In my excitement, I made this video:

In the world of philology, Book Trolleys are still something to be marveled at.  With the conclusion of my adventure, I think that this is proper to conclude this post.  Stay tuned for more!

Crux (in)fidelis?

If I lived in medieval times, I’d want to be a scribe. That way I could become intimately acquainted with Western literary heritage, while also living more comfortably than usually possible in the plague-ridden, miserable “Dark Ages.”

Working at the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML), I’m closer to this medieval vision of myself than ever before. I and my fellow scholars-in-training are working tirelessly night and day (actually, weekdays from nine to five) reviewing translations of medieval Latin texts soon to be published by Harvard University Press. These translations, crafted by experts in their fields, are a blast to read, but sometimes, it’s the Latin text itself that catches my eye.

This happened last week while I was making my way through some miscellaneous poems by Venantius Fortunatus, a sixth-century hymnodist, bishop and saint. While one might consider most parts of the medieval Latin corpus obscure, some poems of Fortunatus may be familiar to churchgoers, notably Pange, lingua, gloriosi proelium certaminis (“Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle”) and Vexilla regis prodeunt (“The royal banners forward go”). The former of these contains a stanza – Crux fidelis – that enjoys a life of its own, reincarnated and glorified as a widely-performed Good Friday motet, ostensibly written by King John IV of Portugal (1604-1656). (Unfortunately for John, more recent scholarship suggests that this is a false attribution, and the piece wasn’t written until much later.)

ImageThis is John, King of the Portuguese.



If you watch the above video (and I highly recommend you do), you’ll notice the words are as follows:

Crux fidelis, inter omnes arbor una nobilis;

Nulla silva talem profert fronde, flore, germine.

Dulce lignum, dulces clavos, dulce pondus sustinet.


(Faithful Cross! Above all other, one and only noble Tree!

None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thy peers may be;

Sweetest wood and sweetest iron! Sweetest Weight is hung on thee!)

– tr. Fr. Edward Caswall (1814-1878)


Incidentally, the most recent and authoritative version of the Liber Usualis, a compendium of “plainsong” chants used by the Church for hundreds of years, contains the same text:


So, I was naturally curious when I came across Crux fidelis in the edition I’m helping to edit, and noticed some strange departures from the text I’ve come to know and love. These are underlined below:

Crux fidelis, inter omnes arbor una nobilis;

Nulla talem silva profert flore, fronde, germine;

Dulce lignum, dulce clavo dulce pondus sustinens.


That amounts to two word-switches (in the second line), and three changed endings (in the third line). To be perfectly honest, this doesn’t have much effect on the translation (especially given Fr. Caswall’s highly stylized one provided above), and yet upon seeing this, I felt betrayed! One of the most famous and well-loved hymns of the Christian tradition is marred by a shoddy transmission history! Of course, the details of exactly how this happened are outside the scope of this rant, but perhaps they can be attributed to a distracted scribe, or several distracted scribes, who created the errors that were passed down to us, enshrined in liturgical tradition, and immortalized in the most famous musical setting of Crux fidelis. I’d like to think that if I were a medieval scribe, as is my fantasy, I wouldn’t make such mistakes… but this is easier said than done.

Crux (in)fidelis. A somewhat perverse – maybe offensive? – title for this short meditation. I don’t mean to imply that the Cross is somehow “unfaithful” or “treacherous,” which, granted, are two possible meanings of the Latin adjective infidelis. Nor do I mean to evoke the idea of “the infidel” – what purpose would that serve? I rather make this gesture with another, more obscure meaning of infidelis in mind. If you look up this word in the Blaise Medieval Dictionary, a constant resource for myself and my compatriots in DOML, you’ll find some other definitions like:

… 2. of little faith … 5. not worthy of faith [i.e., unreliable]


I’m happy to have learned French in high school for the express purpose of reading the Blaise Medieval Dictionary.

Indeed, how much faith can we have in the reliability of these ancient texts as they are transmitted to us? For those of us who spend lots of time with them, we’re familiar with the messiness of the manuscript tradition. In our DOML editions, alternate readings of the text are taken into account, and are often listed in the back matter. Other publishers might even list them at the bottom of each page in a critical apparatus. All this points to an inescapable truth – it is our job as aspiring scholars to make sense of the discrepancies, to correct the inaccuracies, and to remember how much might be wrong, or simply missing, in the survivng corpus. That way, if we’re constantly working to improve the accuracy of our texts through rigorous scholarship, we don’t always have to be “of little faith” when it comes to the accuracy of the ancient texts we enjoy.

In our day-to-day work at DOML, we’re doing our best to produce volumes guided by just this kind of scholarship. With any luck, there will also be scholars in the far future – perhaps here at Dumbarton Oaks – who will continue to build on the work we have already done.

About me: My name is Zachary Fletcher, and I’m a rising senior at Harvard concentrating in Classical Languages and Literatures, with a secondary field in Linguistics. I’ll be attempting a thesis next year on how the early Church influenced and changed notions of sexual difference inherited from the classical world. (I just finished reading a book which examines the Hebrew God through the lens of torture, dissection and bodybuilding – what a joy it would be to include it in my thesis somehow.)

Why I’m here

I went back to my high school in June to visit some old teachers, and when I told my calculus teacher I’d be spending almost 10 weeks in DC, his face lit up. “Really? That’s my favorite city!” he said. “What are you doing there?”

“I’m editing translations of medieval Latin texts,” I told him. He laughed and shook his head. “Oh, Jessi,” he said. “What a way to spend a summer.”

His affectionate bewilderment was typical of the reactions I got to my summer job. To be honest, sometimes that’s my reaction, too. Neither a Classics concentrator nor a Christian, I’ve pored over dozens of Latin poems on the beauty of the Cross and the virtues of various medieval churches.  I don’t know French, but I find myself using a Latin-French dictionary almost every day, consulting Google or my polyglot coworkers to clear up the confusion. And there are times–after coming across a particularly biting anti-Semitic poem, for example, or hearing English speakers called barbarians by some snooty Italian author–when I wonder what a Jewish fan of Victorian English literature is doing here.

But then, I’ll come across a charming line in a love poem:

“Differentem omnibus

amo differenter.” -Carmina Burana 56.4.1

(Loosely translated: “I love one different from the rest, and I love her differently.”)

Or I’ll have a brush with the wisdom of the Old English volumes in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series, and thrill at discovering the dawn of the language in which I speak and write:

“ond  þe in ferðe laet

þine lareowas leofe in mode,

þa þec geornast to gode trymmen.”   -Old English Shorter Poems, “Precepts”,  lines 12-14

(“…and in your heart let your teachers be dear in mind, those who most eagerly exhort you to the good.” Translation by Robert E. Bjork)

And, as it turns out, occasionally even snooty Italian authors write about universal human struggles with friendship, love, and loss:

“Omnia conspicio simul—aethera, flumina, terram–

cum te non video, sunt mihi cuncta parum. “–Venantius Fortunatus,   11.2.3-4

(Loosely translated: “I see everything at once–the air, the rivers, the earth–but when I do not see you, everything is too little for me.”)

I come across lines like this, and I realize again that medieval authors are, in fact, authors–not just Christians or Italians or anti-Semites, but authors, real people doing their best to create something that matters, something beautiful that future generations might want to keep around. That’s when I remember why I’m here.

About me: I’m a rising sophomore from Leawood, KS, planning to concentrate in English.



Finding Our Bliss

Since arriving here, I have been learning a great deal about past and present goings-on at Dumbarton Oaks in order to research potential articles for the newsletter. Increasingly, I am discovering how closely the Blisses’ interesting lives and international sojourns are intertwined with the design of this institution.  The intensity of their recreational repertoire prompted the couple to establish their estate in an unconventional manner in order to perpetuate the cultural experiences they enjoyed for forthcoming generations of classical scholars.

Recently, Paige and I have been spending much time poring through the Bliss-Tyler Correspondence Project.  In this endeavor, Archivist James Carder has digitized a collection of letters exchanged between Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss and their close friends Royall and Elisina Tyler during the first half of the twentieth century. While studying the history of science during the academic year, I analyzed networks of correspondence organized by prominent researchers.  My goal was to track the transfer of specimens and ideas across space and time. Similar communication took place between the Blisses and the Tylers, who traded pithy social observations as well as information on potential collection pieces although the two couples were sometimes separated by several continents.

Virgin and Child on the Crescent Moon

“Virgin and Child on the Crescent Moon,” a sixteenth century sculpture by German craftsman Tilman Riemenschneider.

Acquisitions like those detailed in the Bliss-Tyler Correspondence Project have been a focal point for my past week of Communications work.  Features investigating Mildred Bliss’ desk and a Gothic Virgin and Child sculpture bought by the Blisses for their Music Room provided insight into the aesthetic concerns guiding the couple’s collection choices. In the coming weeks I will hopefully investigate the content of the Archives here, which contain letters and newspaper articles related to Dumbarton Oaks’ founders.  Moving forward, Paige and I intend to include in the newsletter and other Dumbarton Oaks outreach materials more features related to the Blisses’ fascinating lives.

One way in which I have connected with the Blisses’ lives this summer has been through my own writings for this Communications and Public Outreach work. The careful writing of blurbs regarding their biographies allows for a sort of self-identification with the historical characters I have come to know so well.  My life also intersects with the Blisses’ experiences in my Washington, D.C. weekend activities.  Being a material culture enthusiast, I am conducting a “Great Museum Tour” of sorts in the city.  In addition to sightseeing, the touring allows me to continue the Blisses’ legacy of entertaining guests by scouting out potential locations for events at which future Fellows and their families can strengthen friendly ties in the Dumbarton Oaks community.  Upon their donation of their house to Harvard University, the Blisses made clear their intention that the estate not become an ordinary research institute because, “it is a home of the humanities, not a mere aggregation of books and art.” True to that adage, as an intern here the warm welcome I have received has caused me to feel at home in the Dumbarton Oaks community.


Dumbarton Oaks, intended to endure as “a home of the humanities,” has indeed become home for interns this summer.

[Fort]Night at the Museum

No, I’m not Ben Stiller. I also don’t work as a security guard for the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, and, honestly, I don’t even get night access to a museum. These differences aside, there are certainly some parallels between my experiences as a museum intern during these last two weeks and those of Ben Stiller/Larry Daley, as chronicled on the big screen.

The Mission:

As the summer intern for The Dumbarton Oaks Museum, I spent my first few days in the galleries to familiarize myself with the museum’s collections and holdings in the Byzantine and Pre-Columbian fields. My primary project for the summer involves creating an online database for the museum’s extensive Byzantine coin collection, which includes over twelve thousand coins. In the field of numismatics, Dumbarton Oaks has become associated with excellent scholarship and is renowned for its coin catalogue, The Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection (commonly abbreviated as DOC). My area of focus for the online database is to catalogue the Byzantine coins acquired after the publication of these DOC volumes.

The post-catalogue coin entries, which fill seven binders, currently reside next to the published DOC volumes.

The post-catalogue coin entries, which fill seven binders and will be entered into an online database, currently reside next to their predecessors: the published DOC volumes.

A Charismatic Cast of Characters:

Although I’m not interacting with Teddy Roosevelt or the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex, I do work with incredible individuals in the museum. As a small and intimate department within Dumbarton Oaks, The Dumbarton Oaks Museum has such a welcoming atmosphere and kind, thoughtful employees.

In addition to my real-life colleagues at The Dumbarton Oaks Museum, I also interact with a whole other host of characters on a daily basis. Dumbarton Oaks’ Byzantine coin collection would not have been possible without the generous donations of various individuals. Thomas Whittemore, the founder and director of the Byzantine Institute, gifted his collection of some three thousand four hundred coins to Harvard University in 1950. At Harvard, Whittemore received the Harry-Potter-esque position of Honorary Keeper of Byzantine Coins and Seals; his collection remains in Cambridge but was included in the DOC volumes. Dumbarton Oaks’ Byzantine coin collection expanded rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s due to donations from the Hayford Peirce Collection, Philip Grierson’s personal collection, an anonymously gifted collection, and the Leo Schlinder Collection. Since the Blisses generously provided for future museum acquisitions, the Byzantine coin collection has continued to grow since the 1960s and is now viewed as one of the most comprehensive Byzantine coin collections in the world.

One of Philip Grierson's handwritten entries for two coins from the reign of Emperor Justinian I.

One of Philip Grierson’s handwritten entries for two coins from the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565).

The Tools:

Every good museum security officer has a trusty tool belt with all the essentials: walkie-talkie, flashlight, etc. For me, it’s no different: I require my own special equipment. Magnifying glass: check. Numismatic reference catalogues: check. Patient and helpful curators to answer my endless list of questions: check. Ability to decipher handwritten notes: work in progress.

In order to compile an online database for the coin collection, I refer to a series of binders with handwritten notes for each and every post-catalogue coin. Grierson himself and Cécile Morrisson, the former and current Advisor in Byzantine Numismatics at Dumbarton Oaks, respectively, compiled seven binders that meticulously detail the post-catalogue accessions, including everything from their inscriptions and iconography to their comparanda in the collection. As the intermediary between these prominent numismatists and the general public, I have the task of transcribing, re-presenting, and disseminating Grierson’s and Morrisson’s excellent scholarship on Dumbarton Oaks’ holdings in Byzantine coinage.

DOC Page

A page from the first volume of the DOC.

Adventures In and Out of the Museum:

Like a security officer, I like to get a lay of the land. Indeed, I have received some exclusive access during my internship. Having ventured through the Main House’s labyrinthine basement, I gained access to the museum’s Coin Room, which includes two vaults that house the majority of the Byzantine coin collection. It was incredible to handle these coins and to see them up close. The experience gave me a better appreciation for the medium and a better understanding of considerations such as weight and diameter.

Just as in Night at the Museum 2, I traveled to (a different part of) Washington, D.C. to recover a beloved work of art. Specifically, I accompanied John Hanson, the Assistant Curator of the Byzantine Collection, to the Hillwood Museum. We were acting as couriers to assess and bring back a Byzantine coin that had been loaned to Hillwood for their recent exhibition, Passion of the Empress: Catherine the Great’s Art Patronage. Since the exhibition had ended the weekend before, I was able to see firsthand the deinstallation process. Cases were completely empty, there were no placards or signage, and I even heard the security alarm blare when one of the museum cases was opened. During my time at Hillwood, I met representatives from other lending institutions, including The Walters Art Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. John and I had to complete a condition report on Dumbarton Oaks’ Byzantine coin and then transport the coin back to the museum. I’m sure our taxi cab driver had no idea that we were transporting a work of art in his backseat!

The coin loaned to the Hillwood Museum for their special exhibition is a gold hyperpyron from the reign of Emperor Isaac II Angelos (1185-1195). The coin's reverse depicts the emperor in imperial regalia on the left and the archangel Michael on the right.

The coin (BZC.1948.17.3531) loaned to the Hillwood Museum for its special exhibition is a gold hyperpyron from the reign of Emperor Isaac II Angelos (1185-1195). The coin’s reverse depicts the emperor in imperial regalia on the left and the archangel Michael on the right.

While it has been just over two weeks since the start of the summer internships, my days have been replete with daily challenges, extraordinary people, and new adventures. I am greatly looking forward to the rest of my internship; it’s sure to be a blockbuster summer at Dumbarton Oaks!

About Me: I am a rising sophomore at Harvard University where I intend to study both the Classics and art history. I have a particular interest in Greek and Roman sculpture as well as in the oeuvre of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.


Everybody Talks

Letter for intro

The Bliss Correspondence Project allows us to see how the Blisses communicated within their social circle.

If the study of history is to be seen as a conversation with the past, walking through Dumbarton Oaks is certainly a talkative task! These first few days at the estate have been filled with fascinating forays into former times through artifacts and archives which I am enthusiastic to share. Fortunately, this sort of sharing makes up an ordinary day of work for my fellow Communications and Public Outreach intern Paige and me.  This particular internship originally piqued my interest because I appreciated each of Dumbarton Oaks’ various departments to such an extent that I could not choose just one.  From the personal exchanges documented in the Bliss Correspondence Project to academic discourses amongst resident scholars, procedures of communication are at the core of all forms of scholarship taking place here.

Romanos I, Christophoros, and Constantine VII (ca. 929201331)

Can a seal tell a story? In the study of history, contextualization allows even objects to speak.

The communication carried out through the Director’s Office, which constitutes the connection between all of the projects being pursued, also acts as the crucial bond between Dumbarton Oaks and the wider academic community.  My work here is all about establishing such connections, primarily between people and information or resources that might interest them. A substantial part of this aim involves creating publicity for the programming and resources offered here. So far, I have researched potential contacts at Harvard as well as the fellowships available at Dumbarton Oaks and elsewhere. It has also been intriguing to learn about all of the amazing research occurring here, with a breadth ranging from the documentation of the Byzantine Empire’s seals to the elegant sculpting of gardens, along the way.

Having gathered this information, I can proceed to develop clever means of communication to effectively share it. One of the most enjoyable components of this internship is coming up with creative ways to spread the word through venues such as our website, the monthly “Oaks News” bulletin, and this blog. Mediums like short narrative blurbs on the Blisses’ social lives and explanations of pieces they acquired for the museum allow Paige and me to reach out to readers in a way that truly engages their perspectives in order to draw them into the experiences of historical characters. Stories are the most suitable format for this task. As Paige discussed in the previous blog entry, it is integral to tell the stories of antique objects in order to establish their context.  Engaging narration is equally crucial when encouraging readers to not only follow but truly enter into the stories of people from the past.

Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss

Through our research we can share in the stories and scholarship of founders Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss.

Such communications are central not only to the daily operations of Dumbarton Oaks but to the very discipline of history. Scholars journey to the past through letters, journals, and other salient accounts. Reading these records allows us to, in a sense, speak with historical characters in a manner similar to their documented communication with each other. Correspondence, whether it consists of Mildred Bliss’ published letters to Royall Tyler or interns’ e-mails this summer, connects us to people past and present by showing that the of importance of talking to others transcends time. In this way, we hope that the stories we share this summer will bring Dumbarton Oaks’ conversation with the past to life in present-day discourse.  After all, everybody talks!

About Me:  My name is Sara Price and I am a rising junior at Harvard College concentrating in History and Science. I enjoy studying material culture and tracing the connections between classical systems of knowledge and modernity.  I also have a particular academic interest in museums and the culture of collecting, so I find it fascinating to discover how the Blisses accumulated all of the artifacts stored here at Dumbarton Oaks.

Stories Uncovered

As a Communications and Public Outreach Intern here at Dumbarton Oaks, I have the unique opportunity to explore virtually any area of Dumbarton Oaks’ history and collection while searching for stories to feature in the monthly newsletter. In the past week, in between writing email blasts to publicize Dumbarton Oaks’ programs and researching fellowships at other institutions to compare to those at Dumbarton Oaks, I have been working on a brand new “Behind the Scenes” feature for the newsletter. We plan to have this be a recurring feature that will highlight interesting objects or projects at Dumbarton Oaks that the public would not normally get to see.

The Bennett desk in the Rare Books Room

The Bennett desk in the Rare Books Room

For the first article in this series, Rare Books librarian Linda Lott suggested that we show off the Bennett desk, which originally belonged to Mildred Bliss and now sits in the Rare Books Room. It houses extraordinary literary works including a first edition of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen and hand-drawn pen and ink sketches on a copy of the Iliad.  In the Bennett Desk, these books sit apart from the larger Rare Books collection, which focuses not on literary masterpieces but on garden and landscape volumes. Ms. Lott also revealed to us that the desk has a beautifully decorated interior which the public never gets to see because the desk is always closed, only showing the books inside through its glass doors.

However, in researching this piece in the many volumes written about Dumbarton Oaks’ history, I also found lots of information on Mildred Bliss’s youth, her early collecting habits, and her friendship with Royall Tyler. I found information about how Mildred, in her early teens, bought a piece of the important “opus Anglicanum” ( at a time when such medieval embroideries were not commonly studied or even known. I also learned about how, at age 19, she acquired a working farm in Sharon, Connecticut and improved upon the existing property by building a double tenant house, a stable, a tennis court, and by cultivating vegetable gardens, orchards, flower gardens, and lawns before she sold it eleven years later. This experience likely set the stage for her great interest in planning the extensive gardens at Dumbarton

Mildred Bliss's farm in Sharon, CT

Mildred Bliss’s farm in Sharon, CT

Oaks with Beatrix Farrand, her friend and landscape designer. I found much of this information from reading the letters in the Bliss-Tyler Correspondence, the letters written between Mildred and Robert Bliss and Royall and Elisina Tyler, many of which are now digitalized on the Dumbarton Oaks website ( In these letters too, I found evidence of Royall Tyler’s love for Mildred before her marriage to Robert Bliss and of his lasting friendship with the Blisses as an art adviser long after both he and Mildred were married.

These fascinating stories of the Blisses’ lives have also inspired me to write another recurring feature for the newsletter which will share such humorous and interesting anecdotes with readers and will reveal on the lasting impact that the Blisses’ very personalities have had on the atmosphere and culture of Dumbarton Oaks.

This domino effect of information discovery, begun by my research on the Bennett Desk, demonstrated to me the significance of even the most everyday objects—those not specifically showcased in exhibits or featured on the website—in telling the stories of their former owners. These, in fact, are the stories that reveal the bases for the larger philosophies and environments of institutions like Dumbarton Oaks today.


About Me: I am a rising sophomore at Harvard College pursuing a concentration in Classics. I am especially fascinated by the interplay between Latin texts and their cultural/political contexts. I am also interested in government and education policy, so I am excited to be spending the summer in Washington, D.C.