Otfrid’s Preface
to his
Gospel Harmony
A.D. 870

[Provided courtesy of James Marchand, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1992 December 24 (Formatted and revised by Theedrich, 1999 Jan 9, 2013 Oct 17)]

Note by James Marchand:  “Otfrid’s preface to his Gospel Harmony, the first long rhyming poem in any language, was written about 870.  A point to note is the technical grammar of the 9th century.  Every line of this cries out for commentary.  The Latin follows Dümmler, but is also found in Magoun’s or at Erdmann’s edition.  A small example of the technical terms:  Otfrid explains that “z” sounds like “stridor dentium.”  Since this collocation is found so frequently in the Bible (“gnashing of teeth” in the KJV), it is not likely that Otfrid missed this.  Martianus says (Dick, p. 96):  “Z” vero idcirco Appius Claudius detestatur, quod dentes mortui, dum exprimitur, imitatur.  (“[The author] Appius Claudius avoids ‘Z’ like the plague, because it sounds like the teeth of a dead man when it is uttered.”)  Otfrid writes in a centonic [or patchwork] kind of manner, weaving together strands he has gotten from others, as one was supposed to do:  culling the ancients.  Note the mention of Hebrew.”


I have revised, HTML-formatted and somewhat updated the following translation — Þeedrich.

Etymology of the name “Otfrid”:  “Ot-” comes from the Proto-Germanic *auð- meaning “fortunate, blessed.”  It is related to Gothic audags “fortunate, blessed, blest,” and is the first component in the Germanic (Rugian) king Odoacer (Gothic Auða-Wakrs "Blessedly Alert"), who in 476 deposed the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus.  (Odoacer was in turn defeated and killed by Þiuda-reiks “Ruler of the Folk,” modern English Þeedrich.)  The name’s second component, “-frid,” derives from Proto-Germanic friþ “peace,” found in many other words, for instance, in the Gothic proper name Friþa-reiks “Prince of Peace,” “Peaceful Ruler,” modern English Fredrick.

Otfridi Ad Liudbertum Epistula OHTFRID'S LETTER TO LIUDBERT
Dignitatis culmine, gratia divina, præcelso Liutberto Mogontiacensis urbis archiepiscopo Otfridus quamvis indignus tamen devotione monachus presbyterque exiguus æternæ vitæ gaudium optat semper in Christo. To Liutbert, through the eminence of His Dignity and by divine grace the lofty Archbishop of Mainz, Ohtfrid, though unworthy, nevertheless by consecration a monk and lowly priest, wishes the joy of eternal life evermore in Christ.
Vestræ excellentissimæ prudentiæ præsentis libri stilum comprobare transmittens in capite causam qua illum dictare præsumpsi, primitus vobis enarrare curavi, ne ullorum fidelium mentes, si vilesceret, vilitatis meæ præsumptioni deputare procurent. Handing the present book over to your most excellent good sense, so that you may judge its style, at the outset I have taken care to tell you the reason why I presumed to write it, so that, if it is worthless, the minds of any of the faithful might not try to attribute it to the presumption of my worthlessness.
Dum rerum quondam sonus inutilium pulsaret aures quorundam probatissimorum virorum, eorumque sanctitatem laicorum cantus inquietaret obscenus, a quibusdam memoriæ dignis fratribus rogatus — maximeque cujusdam venerandæ matronæ verbis nimium flagitantis, nomine Judith —, partem evangeliorum eis Theotisce conscriberem, ut aliquantulum hujus cantus lectionis ludum sæcularium vocum deleret ; Wherefore, since at times the sound of useless things have beat on the ears of some men of highest quality, and the obscene song of laymen disturbed their sanctity, I was asked by certain brothers worthy of memory — and especially through the words of a certain reverend lady named Judith who strongly urged me on — to write for them in German part of the Gospels, so that a small amount of the reading of this song might cancel out the play of worldly voices;
et in evangeliorum propria lingua occupati dulcedine, sonum inutilium rerum noverint declinare, and, occupied with the sweetness of the Gospels in their own language, they would be able to forego the sound of useless things;
petitioni quoque jungentes queremoniam, quod gentilium vates, ut Virgilius, Lucanus, Ovidius ceterique quam plurimi suorum facta decorarent lingua nativa — quorum jam voluminum dictis fluctuare cognoscimus mundum —, nostræ etiam sectæ probatissimorum virorum facta laudabant — Juvenci, Aratoris, Prudentii ceterorumque multorum, qui sua lingua dicta et miracula Christi decenter ornabant ; adding also to their petition the complaint that the poets of the pagans, such as Virgil, Lucan, Ovid and many others, embellished their deeds in their native language — with the sayings of whose works (pun) we know the world to be now awash (shipwreck metaphor, “naufragium”) — and that they even praised the deeds of the most-tried men of our religion — of Juvencus, Arator, Prudentius and many others, who embellished the sayings and miracles of Christ properly in their own tongue;
Nos vero, quamvis eadem fide eademque gratia instructi, divinorum verborum splendorem clarissimum proferre propria lingua, dicebant pigrescere. whereas we, although instructed by grace in that same faith, were, they said, lazy in putting forth the most brilliant splendor of the divine words in our own language.
Hoc dum eorum caritati, importune mihi instanti, negare nequivi, feci — non quasi peritus, sed fraterna petitione coactus. Now therefore, since through love of those who were spurring me on, I could not refuse, I did it — not as a skilled person, but as one forced by brotherly petition.
Scripsi namque eorum precum suffultus juvamine evangeliorum partem Francisce compositam, interdum spiritalia moraliaque verba permiscens. I wrote, that is, supported by the demand of their prayers, a portion of the Gospels set down in Frankish, mixing in now and then spiritual and moral words.
Ut qui in illis alienæ linguæ difficultatem horrescit, hic propria lingua cognoscat sanctissima verba, Deique legem sua lingua intelligens, inde se vel parum quid deviare mente propria pertimescat. So that whoever is put off by the difficulty of a foreign language in their regard, might comprehend the most holy words here in his own language, and understanding the law of God in his own language, might shrink from deviating from it even a little through his own thinking.
Scripsi itaque in primis et in ultimis hujus libri partibus inter quattuor evangelistas incedens medius, ut modo quid iste quidqve alius ceterique scriberent, inter illos ordinatim, prout potui, penitus pæne dictavi. I wrote therefore in the first and the last parts of this book as a mediator between the four evangelists, so that between them I set down in order whatever now this one, then whatever that one might write, as far as I was able.
In medio vero, ne graviter forte pro superfluitate verborum ferrent legentes, multa et parabularum Christi et miraculorum ejusque doctrinæ, quamvis jam fessus (hoc enim novissime edidi), ob necessitatem, tamen prædictam prætermisi invitus; In the middle, however, so that the readers might perhaps not suffer greatly because of verbosity, I omitted many things, both of the parables of Christ and His miracles and His teaching, though quite weary already (for I put this out last), due to need, as mentioned above;
et non jam ordinatim, ut ceperam, procuravi dictare, sed qualiter meæ parvæ occurrerunt memoriæ. and I no longer undertook, as I had started out, to set them down in order, but just as they occurred to my poor memory.
Volumen namque istud in quinque libros distinxi, quorum primus nativitatem Christi memorat, finem facit baptismo doctrinaque Johannis. I have, then, divided this book into five books.  Of them, the first commemorates the birth of Christ and ends with the baptism and the teaching of John.
Secundus, jam accersitis ejus discipulis, refert quomodo se et quibusdam signis et doctrina sua præclara mundo innotuit. The second, His disciples already having been called together, tells how He revealed Himself to the world both by by certain signs and by His most brilliant teaching.
Tertius signorum claritudinem et doctrinam ad Judæos aliquantulum narrat. The third tells a little about the brilliance of the signs and the teaching to the Jews.
Quartus jam qualiter, suæ passioni propinquans, pro nobis mortem sponte pertulerit dicit. The fourth tells then how, approaching His passion, He willingly suffered death for us.
Quintus ejus resurrectionem, cum discipulis suam postea collocutionem, ascensionem et diem judicii memorat. The fifth calls to memory His resurrection, His conversation afterwards with His disciples, His ascension and the Day of Judgment.
Hos, ut dixi, in quinque, quamvis evangeliorum libri quattuor sunt, ideo distinxi, quia eorum quadrata æqualitas sancta nostrorum quinque sensuum inæqualitatem ornat, I have divided these into five, as I said, although there are four books of the Gospels, because their holy fourfold evenness glorifies the oddness of our five senses,
et superflua in nobis quæque non solum actuum, verum etiam cogitationum vertunt in elevationem cælestium. and they turn all the superfluous things in us, not only of actions but also of thoughts, towards the exaltation of heavenly things.
Quicquid visu, olfactu, tactu, gustu, audituque delinquimus, in eorum lectionis memoria pravitatem ipsam purgamus : Whatever sins we commit by sight, by smell, by touch, by taste or by hearing, we purge that depravity by the memory of that reading:
Visus obscuretur inutilis, illuminatus evangelicis verbis ; let useless sight be obscured, illuminated by the gospel words;
Auditus pravus non sit cordi nostro obnoxius ; let evil hearing not be harmful to our hearts;
Olfactus et gustus sese pravitate constringant Christique dulcedine jungant ; let smell and taste restrict themselves from depravity and join in the sweetness of Christ,
Cordisque præcordia lectiones has Theotisce conscriptas semper memoria teneant. and let the innermost parts of the heart hold ever in memory these readings written in German.
Hujus enim linguæ barbaries, ut est inculta et indisciplinabilis atque insueta capi regulari freno grammaticæ artis, sic etiam in multis dictis scriptio est propter litterarum aut congeriem aut incognitam sonoritatem difficilis. For just as the chaotic wording (“barbarism”: a technical term) of this language is uncultivated and undisciplined and unaccustomed to being held in by the curbing rein of the art of grammar, so also, in many expressions, spelling is difficult because of the piling up of letters [e.g. v v v] or their unfamiliar sound.
Nam interdum tria u u u, ut puto, quærit in sono :  priores duo consonantes, ut mihi videtur, tertium vocali sono manente. For sometimes, it requires three U U U, in my opinion, in its phonetics, the first two being consonants, so it seems to me, the third remaining a vowel sound [i.e., /wu/].
Interdum vero nec a, nec e, nec i, nec u vocalium sonos præcavere potui : Sometimes again I have been unable to avoid the sounds of the vowels A, E, I or U;
ibi y Græcum mihi videbatur ascribi. Although in such cases [i.e., umlauts /ö/, /ü/] the Greek Y seemed to me to be appropriate.
Et etiam hoc elementum lingua hæc horrescit interdum, nulli se characteri aliquotiens in quodam sono, nisi difficile, jungens. And even this element this language sometimes spurns, joining itself to no character at all in any sound except with difficulty.
k et z sæpius hæc lingua extra usum Latinitatis utitur, quæ grammatici inter litteras dicunt esse superfluas. This language quite frequently uses K and Z to an extent exceeding their usage in good Latin;  the grammarians say that they are among the superfluous letters.
Ob « stridorem » autem interdum « dentium », ut puto, in hac lingua z utuntur, k autem ob faucium sonoritatem. They use Z in this language because, in my opinion, it sounds now and then like the “gnashing of teeth” (cf. Vulgate Mt 8:12, etc.;  Martianus), and K because of its throaty sound.
Patitur quoque metaplasmi figuram nimium (non tamen assidue), quam doctores grammaticæ artis vocant « synalipham » (et hoc nisi legentes prævideant, rationis dicta deformius sonant), litteras interdum scriptione servantes, interdum vero Hebraicæ linguæ more vitantes, quibus ipsas litteras ratione synaliphæ « in lineis », ut quidam dicunt, penitus amittere et transilire moris habetur. Quite often (though not always) it permits excessive use of that figure of metaplasm [cf. Donatus] which those learned in the grammatical arts call “synaloephe” [he means ellipsis, but we, too, are careless with such terms] (and unless the readers [listeners] pay attention to this, the words of a sentence sound wrong) in spelling, now preserving the letters in writing, now avoiding them in the manner of the Hebrew language, among whom there is the custom of completely omitting or skipping over the [vowel] letters themselves by synaloephe “within lines” [= in written text], as some say.
— Non quo series scriptionis hujus metrica sit subtilitate constricta, sed schema homœoteleuton assidue quærit. — Not that the flow of this writing is condensed by metrical subtlety;  rather, it always calls for the device of end-rhyme [“homeoteleuton”].
Aptam enim in hac lectione et priori decentem et consimilem quærunt verba in fine sonoritatem. For in this reading material, the words at the end require an appropriate sonority proper for and similar to the beginning,
Et non tantum per hanc inter duas vocales, sed etiam inter alias litteras sæpissime patitur collisionem synaliphæ ; And because of this it quite often permits the collision of synaloephe not only between two vowels, but also between other letters;
et hoc nisi fiat, extensio sæpius litterarum inepte sonat dicta verborum. and if this is not done, drawing out the phonemes often makes the uttering of the words sound stilted.
Quod in communi quoque nostra locutione, si sollerter intendimus, nos agere nimium invenimus. We will find that we too do this excessively in our ordinary speech, if we but listen carefully.
Quærit enim linguæ hujus ornatus et a legentibus synaliphæ lenem et collisionem lubricam præcavere, et a dictantibus homœoteleuton (id est consimilem verborum terminationem) observare. For the poetics of this language requires from the readers both that they avoid a soft and slippery collision of synaloephe, and that authors observe end-rhyme [“homoeoteleuton”] (that is, the like ending of words).
Sensus enim hic interdum ultra duo vel tres versus vel etiam quattuor in lectione debet esse suspensus, ut legentibus (quod lectio signat) apertior fiat. The sense, then, must occasionally be suspended here for more than two or three verses or even four in reading, so that is made clearer to the readers what the reading means.
Hic sæpius i et o ceteræque similiter cum illo vocales simul inveniuntur inscriptæ, interdum in sono divisæ vocales manentes, interdum conjunctæ (priore transeunte in consonantium potestatem). Here often “I” and “O” and other vowels like them are found written together, in sound sometimes remaining as distinct vowels, sometimes united (with the first going over into the force of consonants [i.e., as the semi-vowel /j/]).
Duo etiam negativi, dum in Latinitate rationis dicta confirmant, in hujus linguæ usu pæne assidue negant ; Also, while in proper Latin two negatives make the words of a clause affirmative, in the usage of this language they almost always negate.
et quamvis hos interdum præcavere valerem, ob usum tamen cotidianum, ut morum se locutio præbuit, dictare curavi. And though now and again I might have avoided this, yet because of daily usage, I took care to write as the rule of custom has it.
Hujus enim linguæ proprietas nec numerum nec genera me conservare sinebat. For the character of this language permitted me to preserve neither number nor gender.
Interdum enim masculinum Latinæ linguæ in hac feminino protuli, et cetera genera necessarie simili modo permiscui ; For in it I have sometimes rendered a masculine of the Latin language by a feminine, and mixed the other genders as needed in a similar way.
numerum pluralem singulari, singularem plurali variavi, I have interchanged the plural number with the singular, the singular with the plural,
et, tali modo, in barbarismum et solœcismum sæpius coactus incidi. and in this way I have perforce often fallen into strange wording [“barbarism”] and bad syntax [“solecism”;  see Donatus, Barbarismus].
Horum supra scriptorum omnium vitiorum exempla de hoc libro Theotisce ponerem, nisi irrisionem legentium devitarem ; I could set down from this book examples in German of all the above written vices, if I did not want to avoid the laughter of the readers;
nam dum agrestis linguæ inculta verba inseruntur Latinitatis planities, cachinnum legentibus præbent. for when the uncultivated words of a rustic language are placed in the smoothness of Latin, they give rise to laughter among the readers.
Lingua enim hæc velut agrestis habetur, dum a propriis nec scriptura nec arte aliqua ullis est temporibus expolita ; This language, you see, is considered to be rustic, because by its own speakers it has never been polished in writing or by any art at any time.
quippe qui nec historias suorum antecessorum, ut multæ gentes ceteræ, commendant memoriæ, nec eorum gesta vel vitam ornant dignitatis amore. Indeed, they do not commit to memory the stories of their forbears, as many other peoples do, nor do they embellish their deeds or life out of love of their worth.
Quod si raro contigit, aliarum gentium lingua, id est Latinorum vel Græcorum, potius explanant. On the other hand, if, though rarely, this does happen, they expound rather in the language of other peoples, that is, Latin or Greek.
Cavent aliarum et deformitatem non verecundant suarum. They guard against errors in the others, but are not ashamed of them in their own.
Stupent in aliis vel litterula parva artem transgredi, et pæne propria lingua vitium generant per singula verba. They are taken aback to transgress grammatical rule in the others even by a little letter, and in their own language they make errors almost in every word.
Res mira, tam magnos viros, prudentiæ deditos, cautela præcipuos, agilitate suffultos, sapientia latos, sanctitate præclaros cuncta hæc in alienæ linguæ gloriam transferre et usum scripturæ in propria lingua non habere. A remarkable thing:  that such great men, given to good judgment, outstanding in carefulness, supported by quick wit, known for wisdom, famous for sanctity, should translate all these things into the glory of a foreign language and not have the custom of writing in their own tongue.
Est tamen conveniens, ut qualicumque modo, sive corrupta seu lingua integræ artis, humanum genus auctorem omnium laudet, qui plectrum eis dederat linguæ, verbum in eis suæ laudis sonare ;  qui non verborum adulationem politorum, sed quærit in nobis pium cogitationis affectum operumque pio labore congeriem, non labrorum inanem servitiem. It is fitting, however, that in whatever way, be it in corrupt or in language of perfect grammar, that mankind praise the author of all things, Who gave them the instrument of the tongue (Alcuin & Pippin) to sound the word of His praise among themselves, Who seeks in us not the worship of polished words but the pious mood of thought, the piling up of works in pious labor, not useless lip-service.
Hunc igitur librum vestræ sagaci prudentiæ probandum curavi transmittere — et quia a Rhabano venerandæ memoriæ, digno vestræ sedis quondam præsule, educata parum mea parvitas est —, præsulatus vestræ dignitati sapientiæque in vobis pari commendare curavi. This book, therefore, I have taken care to transmit to your wise judgment for approval — because my humble self was educated by Raven [the Moor] of blessed memory, formerly worthy Bishop of your see — I have taken care to commend it to the dignity of your Bishopness and to the equal wisdom in you.
Qui si Sanctitatis Vestrae placet obtutibus, et non dejiciendum judicaverit, uti licenter fidelibus vestra auctoritas concedat ; If it pleases the vision of Your Holiness and should it not judge it to be to be rejected, may your authority grant that it be used freely by the faithful;
sin vero minus aptus parque meæ neglegentiæ paret, eadem veneranda sanctaque contemnet auctoritas. but, if indeed it appears less fitting and is commensurate with my carelessness, may that same venerable and holy authority spurn it.
Utriusque enim facti causam arbitrio vestro decernendam mea parva commendat humilitas. My humble little person, indeed, recommends that the judgment of either action be left up to your will.
Trinitas Summa Unitasque Perfecta cunctorum vos utilitati multa tempora incolumem rectaque vita manentem conservare dignetur.  Amen. May the Supreme Trinity and the Perfect Unity of all things deign to keep you for a long time in an office of value, remaining in upright life.  Amen.

 

Appendix

Otfrids Evangelienbuch,
ed. Oskar Erdman, 6th ed., by Ludwig Wolff. Altdeutsche Textbibliothek 49 (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1973).

For bibliography:
Johanna Belkin and Jürgen Meier, Bibliographie zu Otfrid von Weißenburg und zur altsächsischen Bibeldichtung (Heliand und Genesis). Bibliographien zur deutschen Literatur des Mittelalters, Heft 7 (Berlin: Schmidt, 1975).

Ðis translation is presented by Þeedrich (theedrich@harbornet.com).  First modified 1999 Jan 9, updated 2013 Oct 17.

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