The interview was conducted in May 2021 and therefore reflects the state of affairs at that time. Please bear in mind that not all of the restrictions described here still apply.
HAB: What was the original plan for your project and the stay in Wolfenbüttel? What worked well, what had to be adapted to the situation?
Tomás: My original plan was to start with a quick survey of the correspondence manuscripts of Johannes Caselius (1533–1613). Caselius was perhaps the most prominent Lutheran humanist in the last third of the sixteenth century and was a tremendously influential professor of philosophy, initially at Rostock and later at Helmstedt Universities. There are 28 volumes of his manuscript correspondence at the HAB, so it's a massive amount of source material—and for the most part unused by scholars—but I thought I would try to get a sense of what's there in the first month or so before deciding how I would divide my attention and where I would dive in. The manuscript reading room was closed when I arrived, though, and is still closed. Thankfully, the staff of the manuscripts department (especially Dr. Christian Heitzmann) have been incredibly helpful and have gone to significant lengths in determining which manuscripts could be safely sent to the Zeughaus Lesesaal for me to read, and they have even been doing restorative work on the more fragile manuscripts so that they could be sent over eventually as well.
HAB: Have you made good progress with your project? Are you satisfied with the results so far?
Tomás: I think I've made fairly good progress so far. Since my access to the manuscripts was more restricted—and since it's in some ways an even thornier source-base than I realized—I've dropped my plan to survey Caselius's manuscript correspondence, if only for the present. Instead, I've been working through his libri annotati (annotated books, see the next question) and reading more deeply in his publications, so that I can then approach his manuscripts with better and more precise questions. I've also been reading the correspondence of his that is printed (in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century editions) to get a sense of his epistolary style and to map his network, again all with the goal of illuminating the letters that are still in manuscript, which I hope to focus on again soon.
HAB: Did the unusual conditions also have advantages for you?
Tomás: Actually, yes! I knew that Caselius's personal library had been given to the Helmstedt University library back in the early seventeenth century, so I figured that some of his books, perhaps with marginalia, might exist at the HAB. But I had been so focused on the manuscripts that I didn't give his printed books much thought. Once I got here and thought I might not be able to look at a manuscript for months, I asked the head of the manuscripts department, Dr. Heitzmann, if the HAB possessed any libri annotati from Caselius. He not only told me that they did, but he very kindly showed me how to search the HAB's online catalogue by provenience, which allowed me to find more than ninety books that were previously in Caselius's library. The list continues to grow, since now I have started finding books that are not catalogued as having belonged to him, which is exciting detective work. Many of these books have substantial marginalia and are excellent sources for understanding how this Lutheran humanist read and interpreted texts. Without the initial obstacle of the manuscript reading room being closed, it might have been a long time before I discovered this treasure trove.
HAB: How do you experience the library in the pandemic?
Tomás: Aside from going to the reading room and requesting books, I don't experience the library itself terribly much. We're still not able to browse the Freihandbestand, so I mostly just order books online from my office and then stop by the main desk every few days to pick them up.
HAB: What do your contacts with the staff of the library and the fellows look like?
Tomás: This has been probably one of the saddest parts of the "Wolfenbüttel during COVID" experience for me. I had heard marvelous tales about the collegial culture of the HAB, with its coffee hours and constant conversation between researchers and staff. Almost none of that is happening now, of course. I've really enjoyed the virtual events and colloquia that the library has put on, but you can't actually get to know people in that kind of setting. I've become friends with a couple of other researchers (who are also here for longer stays), and we get coffee outdoors occasionally. Two researchers with a two-year-old girl moved into our apartment building in April, and that's been a significant blessing, particularly giving our son someone his age to play with! Most of my substantial contact with the staff is via email. I've had some very friendly conversations, as well, but the current atmosphere is very isolating—it feels almost impossible to strike up a conversation with someone (already a challenge in a foreign culture and a foreign language!) unless you have an important and explicit reason for doing so, since everyone is trying to minimize contact.
HAB: What does a typical day for you and your family look like here in Wolfenbüttel during the Corona period?
Tomás: Most days do not look terribly exciting. I get up before my wife and son and leave the apartment shortly before or shortly after they wake, usually around 7:30. I go to my office in the Anna-Vorwerk-Haus to work. Some days I go into the archive (the Zeughaus Lesesaal) for most or all of the time it's open (10am to 4 pm), but some days I just stay in my office until five, when I go home for dinner. Two or so nights a week—at least during the American semester, when there were more virtual events going on at my home university—I have meetings via Zoom in the evenings, so I stay in the office late and have lunch instead of dinner at home. My wife, Eleanor, is a "stay-at-home mom" (which is almost literally true during COVID!) and so spends her day reading and playing with our son, Marvin (2), at home, as well as experimenting with German recipes and a German kitchen. They go on a long walk or two every day, though, as long as it's not too nasty out, and sometimes stop by my office to say hello. Our main time together is in the evenings and on weekends.
HAB: Is there a particular experience that is characteristic of your stay here?
Tomás: What springs to mind is my son's awareness of masks. Marvin's vocabulary has been booming since we arrived, so it's not surprising that "mask" is part of it, but it's telling that he considers masks an essential part of leaving the apartment, shouting "Shoes! Mask! Keys!" whenever we are getting ready to go anywhere. He has also taken to pointing out when we walk by someone who isn't wearing a mask—which can be a bit embarrassing! I don't think this would have been the case, or at least not in the same way, back in the US. Since we have our own house and drive everywhere, putting on a mask wouldn't be a part of the routine for going somewhere, only when we were, for example, actually entering a grocery store. Similarly, just walking around in our residential neighborhood back in the States typically wouldn't require a mask. So, Marvin's experience of masks would be not so much what we wear when we leave the house as what we wear inside certain other buildings, which I think must have an effect on how he sees the relationship between the outside world and the home. So, not something that has to do with the HAB particularly, but perhaps a snapshot of an American family transplanted into a small German city during COVID.
Tomás Valle’s research addresses the Lutheran intellectual culture around 1600 with a special focus on a network of professors based at Helmstedt and Rostock Universities. His work in Wolfenbüttel is funded by the German-American Fulbright Commission. Please see our HABlog contribution on the restoration of Johannes Caselius’ manuscripts here.
We would like to thank Tomás and his family very much for letting us in on their experiences here at the HAB.