Tag Archives: vernacular

Seminar CCXII: scribal dialects explored digitally

Some of the sticky posts are unstuck and the seminar report backlog is back under a year again, this all seems like progress. For lo, we now reach Armistice Day 2014, on which day Birmingham’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages had its Seminar addressed by Birmingham’s own Wendy Scase, with the title “The Simeon Manuscript and its Scribes”.

London, British Library Additional MS 22283, here showing the lower part of fo. 142v

End and beginning of two of the texts in the Simeon Manuscript, otherwise known as London, British Library Additional MS 22283, here showing the lower part of fo. 142v

This was the early part of an enquiry that had begun with a different manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Eng. poet a.1, otherwise known as the Vernon Manuscript, of which you can find details here. This is a huge, 700-page and 22 kilo, compilation of Middle English literature, totalling 370 texts including things familiar from many an English syllabus like The Prik of Conscience, The Ancrene Riwle and Piers Plowman as well as, obviously, quite a lot more, and lavishly decorated to boot. But it is not alone: the Simeon manuscript is, or rather was since apparently many of its illustrations have gone and it’s probably only about fifty per cent present now, another one like it, not quite as lavishly decorated but not far off and sharing one (we thought, till this paper) of the same scribes. (Its details are here.) Both of these manuscripts seem, from what can be said about palæography and provenance as well as about scribal language, to be West Midlands productions and so of what you might call local concern.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Eng. poet. a.1, fo. 265r

A page of the Vernon Manuscript in the Bodleian’s online exhibition about it, to wit fo. 265r

But scribal dialect was where Professor Scase had got interested, because it raises many kinds of question about copying. If a text is not in local dialect, but the scribe speaks it, does he translate, adapt or ignore the pressures of his own normal language? If it is in local dialect, do they usually translate out of it into something more like a standardised written English? How local is local anyway? Do we have several written Englishes with their own local variation? Do individual scribes change their ways of writing over their careers, and if so towards or away from the local vernacular? And most immediately for Professor Scase, what happens when several scribes collaborate: are they distinguishable by dialect even where they might not be by script?

London, British Library, Additional MS 22283, fo. 130v

The start of another text in the Simeon Manuscript, complete with fancy initials, this time at fo. 130v

The answer to this last, at least, would seem to be yes. It is, I learned, now possible to plot these things to an implausible level of precision using two big databases online, the Linguistic Atlas of Early Mediaeval English and the Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English, which among other things did allow Professor Scase to justify her suspicion that the hand known as Scribe A in this manuscript, which is also present in the Vernon one, was in fact two people, only one of whom wrote with dialectical symptoms, which we can sometimes be sure he was introducing because of being able to identify the exemplar from which he and the other scribe were copying. But his dialect is more pronounced in the Vernon Manuscript, some spellings from which he doesn’t repeat in the Simeon (‘w3uch’ for ‘which’, for example), so what’s going on? Either he had driven this habit out between the two, which their apparent closeness of date makes unlikely, or as Professor Scase suggested, he was aiming not so much for an outside standard of language as consistency within the manuscript. And there will probably—may by now already—be other such details that emerge as the study progresses. I, as long-term readers will probably know, really love these little windows into how someone centuries ago went about a complex task that detailed manuscript work can give you. These two are fairly lovely manuscripts, in terms of pure colour and artifice, but it’s great to be able to see through them to the sweat and thought that went into their making.

From the sources VI: a longer more complicated piece of swearing

You know what? There isn’t enough swearing on this blog. I know we just had some the other day (week, month…) but it was short and a bit weird, you know. I think you deserve better. Also, more to the point, I think my future students on that Feudal Transformation course deserve better, so when I was getting that previous one I also transcribed another Catalan feudal oath that is more typical in its length and its content. I’ll give a translation below and put the text in the footnote. Once again, vernacular words and phrases are emboldened, but it’s hard to draw the lines in some cases; we have `vernacular’ words with Latin inflections here… There’s also some weird play with singular and plural here that I think may betray a model text that only covered one person, so I’ve stuck to the text in that respect even where it seems to make no sense (huge singular count-countess Gestalt!) and otherwise tried to make the oddities of the text appear in the translation.

I, Ermemir of Castelltallat, son of the late woman Bellúcia, swear that from this same hour I will in future be faithful to my lord Ramon, Count of Barcelona, and his wife Elisabet, Countess, without fraud or evil intent and without any deception and without trickery. And I the above-written Ermemir from this hour will not do you Ramon or Elisabet already said out of their life nor their members that they have on their body, nor their cities or city, nor of their bishoprics or bishopric, nor of their counties or lands, nor of their fortresses or castles, nor of their rocks or peaks, managed estates or wild lands, nor of their honour that they have in al-Andalus, nor of the selfsame parish of Castelltallat, nor of the lordship that the count ought to have there.

The hilltop, castle, church and observatory of Castelltallat, Manresa, Catalonia

Of course tall hills are good for more than just castles but I think Ermemir would be a bit surprised by what his home is now used for (image from Wikimedia Commons)

And I, the above-written Ermemir, will be faithful over all those same things to Ramon and Elisabet the above-written, and will not do them out of them, nor offer them any harm, and I will be their help against any gathered men or man, women or woman, who might wish to attack them or do so. And of this aid I will not deceive them and I will help them without any trickery except [where it concerns] the viscount of Cardona himself, the sons of the late lord Folc, my lord.

And I, the above-written Ermemir, within the first 30 days that I shall know that the above-written Count Ramon be dead, if I shall have survived him, I will swear a similar oath to and hold it from the selfsame son to whom Ramon the already-said shall have left the selfsame city of Barcelona, like the one I’ve sworn to them, to the already-said Ramon and the already-said Elisabet. Just as has been written above, thus I the afore-said Ermemir hold it and for it serve the aforesaid Count Ramon and the already-said Elisabet without deceiving them, except whatever the above-written Count Ramon and Elisabet, the above-written countess, shall forgive me through the grace of their generous hearts, without compulsion. So help me God and these same relics of the saints.1

You may ask what makes this one more typical than the last one.2 Answers might be, firstly, that there was a castle involved, and that some of the rights protected specifically refer to the counts; later on this would become a formalised clause granting access and indeed reversion on demand. Secondly, there was another lord, the viscount of Cardona (apparently at this time uncertain, which probably dates the oath to 1040, when Folc I (1019-1040) had very briefly been succeeded by his brother Eribau Bishop of Urgell (bishop 1035-1040) who then died on pilgrimage to Jerusalem).3 It may be in the Bible that no man can serve two masters, but two was relatively unambitious for a Catalan castellan where the layers of infeudation could get a lot deeper than this.4 It does also mean that what was going on here is that Ramon Berenguer I, the Elder, (1035-1076) was gazumping another lord by bribing his client, but that is basically how Ramon Berenguer overcame the Feudal Transformation and it’s interesting to see him doing it this early in his reign; if this does date from 1040, he was sixteen or seventeen at this point and hadn’t yet proclaimed his majority. In this case, the viscount retained the ultimate call on Ermemir’s loyalty; when Ramon Berenguer was older and less opposed, he no longer accepted such second-place status, another thing that makes this look early. Thirdly, there’s an arrangement for the succession; that hold over the viscount of Cardona might not have been a good one, but it was meant to endure, although for some reason the count seems to have been more prepared for his own death than that of Ermemir (who may, of course, have been little older). The whole thing looks a bit more as if one could find the institutional basis of a governing class in it than the previous all-female one (though right at this time female government was all too accepted as far as as Ramon Berenguer was concerned, in the shape of his implacable grandmother and regent, Countess Ermessenda of Girona (993-1057), so I don’t mean to imply that the two women’s agreement was less effective than the men’s one here).5

Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I and his third wife Almodis de la Marche buying the county of Cerdanya

Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I and his third wife Almodis de la Marche buying the county of Cerdanya, as shown in the Liber Feudorum Maior (image from Wikimedia Commons)

There are, you see, a great many things that have been called `feudal’ without any good basis or thought or agreement about what the word might actually mean; but as long as we’re able usefully to call anything feudal, I think that agreements like this, involving, you know, a fief, held under conditions of loyalty and service with reversion between generations, are probably one such thing. And this is what that looks like.


1. The text is Barcelona, Arxiu de la Corona d’Aragó, Pergamins sin fecha, Ramón Berenguer I, n.o 69 dupl, as edited by Francesco Miquel Rosell in his (ed.), Liber feudorum maior: cartulario real que se conserva al Archivo de la Corona de Aragón. Reconstitución y edició (Barcelona 1945), vol. I doc. no. 205:

Iuro ego Ermemirus de castro Talatus, filis qui fuit de Belucia, femina, quod de ista hora in antea fidelis ero ad Raimundum, comitem Barchinonensem, seniorem meum, et ad Elisabeth, comitissa, coniugem suam, sine fraude et malo ingenio et sine ulla decepcione et sine engam. Et ego Ermemirus suprascriptus de ista hora in antea no dezebre Raimundus nec Elisabeth iam dictos de illorum vita nec de illorum membris que in corpus illorum se tenent, nec de illorum civitates vel civitatem, nec de illorum episcopatos vel episcopatu, nec de illorum comitatibus vel terris, nec de illorum castris vel castellis, nec de illorum rochas vel puios, condirectos vel eremos, nec de illorum honore quod habent de Ispania, nec de ipsa parrochia de Castel Talad, nec de ipsa domnegadura que comes ibi habere debet. Et ego, Ermemirus suprascriptus, de ista omnia suprascripta fidelis ero ad Raimundum et ad Elisabeth surascriptos, et nu’ls en dedebre, ni mal nu’ls en menare; et adiutor contra cunctos homines aut hominem, feminas aut feminam, qui eis tollere voluerint aut voluerit, tulerit aut tulerint. Et de ipso adiutorio nu’ls engannare et sine engan lur en aiudare, exceptus ipse vicecomite de Carduna, qui fuit de ipsos filios domno Fulchoni, seniori meo. Et ego, Ermemirus suprascriptis, infra ipsos primos XXX dies quod ego sciero quod iam dictus Raimundus comes mortuus fuerit, si ego eum supervixero, ad ipsum filium cui iam dictus Raimundus dimiserit ipsam civitatem de Barchinona tale sacramentum l’en iurare e l’en tenre, qualem ad iam dictum Raimundum et ad iam dicta Elisabeth iurad lur en’e. Sicut superius scriptum est, si o tenre et o atendre ego Ermemirus suprascriptus ad prescriptum Raimundum comitem et ad Elisabeth iam dictam sine illorum engan, exceptus quantum me suprascriptus Raimundus comes et Elisabeth, comitissa suprascripta, me absolvran per illorum gradientes animos per grad, sine forcia. Sic me adiuvet Deus et istarum sanctarum reliquiarum.

It must also be edited in Gaspar Feliu i Montfort & Josep María Salrach (edd.), Els Pergamins de l’Arxiu Comtal de Barcelona de Ramon Borrell a Ramon Berenguer I, Diplomataris 18-20 (Barcelona 1999), but I haven’t had time to check there. Getting Spanish books out of the Bodleian’s fetching system is something of a lottery alas; will it take a day, or a week? Will it happen at all? No-one knows. 75% of cases it turns up on time. That still makes one in four library days a bloody annoyance though. Cambridge spoiled me in this respect.

2. On these texts and their variations and significance, as I said last time, the go-to reference is now Adam J. Kosto, Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: power, order, and the written word, 1000-1200 (Cambridge 2001), plus if you can get it Michel Zimmermann, “Aux origines de Catalogne féodale : les serments non datés du règne de Ramon Berenguer Ier” in J. Portella i Comas (ed.), La Formació i expansió del feudalisme català: actes del col·loqui organitzat pel Col·legi Universitari de Girona (8-11 de gener de 1985). Homenatge a Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Estudi General: revista del Col·legi Universitari de Girona, Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona nos. 5-6 (Girona 1986), pp. 109-151, with English summary p. 557.

3. On this family I would ordinarily reference Manuel Rovira i Solà, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Vic 1981), pp. 249-260, not least because it’s online for free here, but I now own (though have yet to read) Francesc Rodríguez Bernal, Els vescomtes de Cardona al segle XII: una història a travers dels seus testaments (Lleida 2009), which I expect will tell me rather more.

4. The best schematised discussion is, I think, still in Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), vol. II pp. 596-608, with diagrams that make the conventional feudal pyramid look just a touch idealised.

5. I am perpetually drawn two ways on Ermessenda: on the one hand, clearly she was awesome and when her actual husband was alive seems to have been his perfect partner, you really couldn’t say which of the two was dominant or in charge, but on the other hand her refusal to let go of that status once he was dead was a major contributing cause to decades of civil war, death and social collapse. She is studied in Antoni Pladevall, Ermessenda de Carcassona, Girona i Osona. Esbós biogràfic en el mil·lenari del seu naixement (Barcelona 1975), and the period as a whole in any of Kosto, Making Agreements, Bonnassie, Catalogne or Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Els Grans Comtes de Barcelona, Biografies catalans: serie històrica 2 (Barcelona 1961). There must be more up-to-date work on her but I haven’t met it yet.

In delight at reading Andy Orchard for the first time

(Written offline on the bus to Heathrow, 04/04/11 13:29.)

Sankt Gallen MS 904, fo. 112v, upper margin

The Old Irish text of the poem on the Vikings in the St Gall Priscian quoted below

When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge I was friends with a lot of people in the Department of Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic (plus ça change) and this means that some of them were taught by Andy Orchard, now Provost and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College and Professor of English and Medieval Studies in the University of Toronto. I never was, being a historian, and because his interests are more linguistic I have somehow managed to miss out on reading any of his stuff until now. I have been robbing myself. Observe this:

The Sankt Gallen manuscript of Priscian also contains some of the earliest surviving vernacular Irish verse to have survived in a contemporary (or near-contemporary) witness. One such famed marginal poem was evidently composed with the Viking threat in mind:

Bitter is the wind tonight
It ruffles the deep sea’s grizzled locks
I do not fear a crossing of the clear waves
By a band of greedy warriors from Scandinavia

But if, as has been suggested, these lines were written in the manuscript not in Ireland itself but by one of the Irish peregrini on the Continent, they nonetheless reflect the extent to which these peregrini may have carried their learning and literature with them, as likely in their memories as on the written page. In another well-known marginal poem, again preserved in a Continental manuscript, an Irish scholar celebrates his cat, who, significantly, carries a Welsh name (Pangur): Wales would have been on a commonly used route to the Continent for many Irishmen. Bizarrely enough, at least three other marginal Irish jottings in later manuscripts mention cats that have gone astray, so offering an endearing sidelight on the home life of at least some Irish scribes. The Sankt Gallen manuscript also contains a rueful comment on Priscian’s assertion that ‘Virgil was a mighty poet’ (Magnus poeta Virgilius fuit); someone has added in Irish, ‘and he isn’t easy, either’. Elsewhere in the margins of the same manuscript the word latheirt is written twice, once in ogham; since the word in question elsewhere seems to gloss the Latin word crapula (‘drunkenness’, ‘hangover’), one wonders in what state the scribe must have been who wrote the original Irish.1

You see? Note not only the significance he gets out of the name of the cat, meaningful trivia there, but also that he uses the relative pronoun ‘who’ for it, not ‘which’. Elsewhere he suggests that the weird Hiberno-Latin text called the Hisperica famina would, if one wanted to know what sort of text it was, have its title best translated as ‘Latinacious speakifications’, which I am amazed is not a blog already.2 Back in Cambridge I was told that Professor Orchard’s supervisions were often held in the pub, something I don’t think we can do now even in Oxbridge; be that as it may, however, I think it is fairly clear that learning from him must be great fun.


1. Andy Orchard, “Latin and the vernacular languages: the creation of a bilingual textual culture” in Thomas Charles-Edwards (ed.), After Rome (Oxford 2003), pp. 191-219 at pp. 204-205. The St Gall MS is online now, of course, linked through the image, but if you try sourcing the actual poem within the manuscript via websearch it’s so rarely fully referenced that you have to wonder whether everyone isn’t just quoting the MGH text. By means of this exciting site that has done a digital edition of all the glosses in the text, I can tell you that it is Sankt Gallen MS 904, fo. 112v, but I’d have taken a long time to find it otherwise.

2. Orchard, “Latin and the vernacular”, p. 202.