Medieval Writing
Paleography Exercises
The Strasbourg Oath, 10th century French Chronicle (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale MS latin 9768). (From Lanson 1923)
This Is just a small section of a page from a 10th century copy of a 9th century chronicle of some momentous events of the day. This particular section is chosen because it contains the same text repeated in the earliest known written example of the developing French language, and the equivalent in German. The whole thing needs a little explanation. After the death of Charlemagne in 814, his shaky empire passed into the hands of his son Louis the Pious, but then family relations got nasty when the empire was divided among his grandsons. Look up your history books for all the unpleasant details, and then try and tell me that there has been a decline in family values! In 842 two of his grandsons, Louis or Ludwig the German and Karlus or Charles the Bald swore an oath at Strasbourg, in front of their assembled armies, that they would support each other against the rest of the family claimants. The followers of each king also took oaths that if their own leader did the dirty on his brother, they would not support him. Interesting times indeed.

The followers of Louis were of Germanic origin and speech, while those of Charles were from southern and western France. Louis took his oath in the lingua romana, a kind of watered down Latin overlaid on a background of the original Gallic and other languages of what was to become France, so that the followers of Charles would know what he had said. Likewise, Charles took his oath in the lingua teudisca, a Germanic language which would be understood by the followers of Louis. The kings also gave accompanying addresses in the same vernaculars, and then the armies each took an oath in their own language. The section shown here is that which records the oaths of the kings, first that of Louis in the lingua romana and then that of Charles in the lingua teudisca. The main text of the chronicle is, as would be expected, in Latin.

The events were recorded by a contemporary chronicler, Nithard, but there are numerous questions which must be asked about the recording. The earliest example of the text is not in Nithard's own hand, but in a 10th century copy of the work. One does wonder about the precise accuracy of the copying of a text in what was not essentially a written language, by a copyist versed in Latin literacy. The very peculiar word spacing, particularly in the lingua teudisca text, suggests a scribe simply copying letters in order rather than comprehending the text. And then, how did Nithard get the text? Did he copy it down by ear? Was he given a written cheat sheet? Did they rehearse? If the soldiers were supposed to understand the oaths given by each king, how did they hear them? Did they have designated officers standing at intervals repeating what was supposed to have been said to the assembled men? And how many existing dialects of the lingua romana and the lingua teudisca were there anyway? Perhaps this is actually a form of military lingo. I'm sorry, but I can't help but have a kind of Monty Python image of the whole thing. Nevertheless, history is largely about a series of myths, and this is one of them. The script is a neat little Caroline minuscule with no extraordinary features, and if you pore over the words, you may find some that are reminiscent of French or German.

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