Analysing glosses is like a treasure hunt, particularly when exploring vernacular languages. Glosses are words translating or explaining a main text, typically written in between lines or in the margins. By writing glosses in their own language, the scribes transfer a Latin text into their own reality, allowing us a glimpse into their perspective on life.
How might a speaker of Old High German in tenth-century Würzburg have thought about exotic animals? We have a manuscript to tell us.
This is a ninth-century copy of the book of Deuteronomy from Fulda Abbey (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Laud Lat. 92). Readers at Würzburg added glosses within a century, attempting to interpret the animals the text lists as clean to eat.
Take this example of Deuteronomy 14.4–7 and 11–16, from MS. Laud Lat. 92, fols. 20v and 21r (with the original Latin words in italics and Old High German glosses in bold):
These are the animals that you may eat: […] the roe deer [bubalum uro], the wild goat [tragelaphum scelo], the ibex, the gazelle, the giraffe [camelopardalum luhs]. […] All birds that are clean you may eat. The unclean eat not: […] the ostrich, and the owl [noctuam uuuila], and the sea gull [larum gouh], and any kind of hawk, the heron [herodium suualeuua], and the swan, and the stork.
Three of the Old High German translations that the manuscript provides for these animals come across as particularly odd if not downright incorrect. Scholars of another age might have attributed this to medieval ignorance, but can we interpret them more charitably?
A matter of style
One gloss which seems semantically wrong is the translation of herodius – normally a heron, crane, or falcon – as suualeuua, ‘swallow’. Does this make any sense in its original context?
The scribe might have mixed up herodium and hirundo ‘swallow’. Notwithstanding this blunder, it is noticeable that the Old High German falco was already used on fol. 20v to gloss ixon. Both glosses were written by different hands and therefore were created at different times, although it is not to say if there were two scribes involved. The existence of one gloss may certainly have had an influence on the choice of words for the second one. The scribe might have been stylistically demanding and therefore wanted to avoid repetition in the glosses. His decision to go with the alternative translation suualeuua created a varied and useful glossary for further readers.
A matter of creativity
A second bird name is gouh – the Old High German name for cuckoo. It seems to be incorrect, but is it?
The meaning of the associated Latin word larus is often interpreted as a general name for a seabird. The writer of the gloss might have known the unspecified meaning of larus and decided to expand it even more to a bird from the animal world they knew.
Other Old High German translations of larus, such as meisa (‘tit’) or gruonspeht (‘green woodpecker’), indicate the same creative process. The glossing with gouh is not wrong – it merely reflects the scribe’s local environment.
A matter of focus
Finally, there is the rather absurd glossing of camelopardalus ‘giraffe’ with luhs ‘lynx’. It is hard to imagine how these animals could be confused. But then a giraffe, unlike a lynx, was not a well-known animal in medieval Würzburg. One can see a picture of how one scribe imagined the creature in St. Gallen, Stiftsarchiv, Cod. Fab. XVI, fol. 95v.
It seems as if the scribes tried to make sense of the Latin word on their own. The word camelopardalus is written with a space, and the gloss stands above the second part of the word, pardalus. This could be understood as the diminutive of pardus, ‘panther’. From this perspective, the translation lynx does make sense, simply focussing on the word part known to the scribe.
Glossing for translation
The glossing of this text exclusively with nouns suggests that the intention behind the glossing process was translation, transferring the animal names in a commonly understandable form. Readers wanted to know: Which animals am I allowed to eat?
The book of Deuteronomy might not have been the most up-to-date food guide in the tenth century. But the unusual choice of translations with local animal names shows the manuscript’s users attempting to bring these foreign words into their lived experience. This allows readers to imagine the animals, whether this goes with an interest in eating them or not. The glosses of MS. Laud Lat. 92 are powerful examples of how intention and environment influence one’s choice of vocabulary.
About the author
Luise Morawetz is a contributor to the Old High German Dictionary. She is beginning DPhil on Old High German Syntax in Michaelmas 2020 in the Oxford Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, funded by a Clarendon Scholarship at Hertford College. See previously her ‘First-hand encounter with MS. Don. e. 248’.
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