Translating Between Vernaculars in the (Long) Tenth Century

Dudo of Saint-Quentin has an interesting story in Book III of his Historia Normannorum. William Longsword is at an (entirely fictional) peace conference with the East Frankish king Henry the Fowler, alongside one Duke Cono (supposed to be Conrad the Red?). During the course of the conference, William is mocked by the East Frankish nobles. William’s command of Old Norse allows him to understand the gist of what they’re saying – he gets angry. Later in the conference, Hermann Billung of Saxony starts talking to William in Old Norse, claiming to have learned it whilst a captive of the Vikings. These stories have always struck me as odd. Dudo is particularly concerned with who can and cannot speak Old Norse, and is especially keen that all of his dukes can, as a marker of their Norman (and not Frankish) identity. He is an anomaly, though, because other tenth-century historians are basically uninterested in the question of comprehension between vernacular languages. This slightly surprises me, because there are at over half-a-dozen vernaculars in the tenth-century West Frankish kingdom (Breton, northern and southern varieties of Romance, Old Norse, Old English, probably at least three flavours of old German dialects; also Arabic, although I doubt that one matters so much to most of the people I write about) but no-one amongst the lay or clerical elites ever seems to have trouble talking to one another. Now, perhaps I’m unusually sensitive to this, having spent several years abroad in countries where my grasp of the language wasn’t fantastic; but it is interesting that, say, Louis IV (whose first language was probably Old English) and Raymond Pons of Toulouse (Old Occitan?) don’t have to deal with any language barriers.

The obvious inference one can draw is that, at the elite level, multilingualism was so widespread as to be ubiquitous. This raises the question, how did it get that way? From the sources I know – and this is largely something I’ve picked up in passing rather than something I’ve actively researched – I can see three answers.

First, mutual comprehension. Speakers of some dialects seem simply to have been able to automatically comprehend others without having to actively learn another language. Lots of work has been done on this in the context of Old Norse and Old English, but the upshot is that the two languages would have been mutually comprehensible – a speaker of one would have been able to get by with someone speaking the other, like the Scandinavian languages today. Such mutual comprehension would expand outwards: Old English and Old Saxon are basically the same language (Flodoard, in describing the 948 Council of Ingelheim, says that the Latin was translated into ‘the Teutonic tongue’ for the convenience of Louis IV and Otto the Great – he clearly saw no difference between Louis’ English and Otto’s Saxon). This is shown neatly in Dudo’s example, where William’s Old Norse lets him understand Saxon nobles, at least to an extent. We can imagine further overlaps with version of Old Dutch and Old Frisian, if these were spoken by the counts of Flanders and/or Holland.

Less work that I know of has been done on the mutual comprehensibility of Romance dialects. There’s been quite a lot on whether Carolingian-era Romance speakers could have understood oral Latin on that basis (answer: maybe? Widukind’s description of the languages spoken by Otto the Great seems to imply that this was not true at least of people who knew Romance as a second language…). To an extent, evidence from silence implies that different Romance dialects were mutually comprehensible – someone like Bernard of Angers, author of the Book of St Foy, doesn’t complain about any language troubles between Anjou and the Rouergue, although he might well have had Latin to fall back on. Nonetheless, it seems likely that speakers of different Germanic dialects on one hand and Romance dialects on the other could understand each other within their own language groups. But what about between Romance and Germanic speakers?

This brings us to the question of language learning. There is surprisingly little evidence for this, although we know it was done. Some of the evidence comes from manuscripts. Two in particular, the ‘Kassel Glosses’ and the ‘Pariser Gespräche’, are phrasebooks from our period, the latter apparently aimed at lay aristocrats and giving translations of Latin phrases into German. These include such useful phrases as the words for ‘give me my spear’, ‘brave vassal’, and ‘a dog’s arse in your nose’.

So, when I describe the Pariser Gespräche as a ‘phrasebook’, I might be giving it rather too much credit for useability… (source)

The evidence from narrative and epistolary sources, though – which is again pretty limited – suggests that learning from instructors was skewed in a particular direction. In Dudo’s work, Richard the Fearless was sent to Bayeux to learn Old Norse from Botho (which may or may not actually be true), and Hermann Billung learned it in captivity. In the mid-ninth century, Abbot Lupus of Ferrières addressed a couple of letters to the abbot of Prüm dealing with a few of his (Lupus’) monks who he sent there to learn German (which he was very clear on the importance of learning). Lupus’ letters may well be the tip of an iceberg; but either way, what this suggests is that language learning more often happened as the outgrowth of movement of people, whether as guests, foster-children, hostages or captives, rather than at home from tutors. The main exception I can think of for this is Empress Theophanu, who seems to have been taught Latin (but not German?) before she arrived in the West.

The other option would be translation. As we saw with Flodoard, there is some evidence for this, but virtually all of it is into or out of Latin. The most prominent example I know of is found in the Historiae of Richer of Rheims, who describes an audience between Otto II, Hugh Capet, and Bishop Arnulf of Orléans at Rome in 981. Arnulf entered with Hugh ‘in order that, since the king was speaking Latiariter, the bishop, interpreting the Latinitas, could indicate to the duke whatever was said’. (This is usually interpreted to mean that Hugh couldn’t speak Latin at all; personally, I think it means that Otto was speaking in really high-flying purple language – according to Ekkehard of St Gallen, Otto was apparently fluent enough to act as a translator himself on occasion.) It is interesting that they are speaking Latin rather than either Old Saxon or Romance here. This passage has in fact been used to argue that Hugh Capet didn’t know any Germanic dialects and that Otto didn’t speak Romance, neither of which seems terribly plausible to me: what, all the times Hugh Capet met his uncle Bruno of Cologne alongside his mother Hedwig he couldn’t speak to either of them in their native tongue? Otto II just stood by grinning vacantly (despite knowing Latin) whilst Otto the Great was talking to people in Romance next to him, as he does in Ekkehard’s Casus Sancti Galli? We’ll revisit this episode in a few weeks for an entirely different reason; for now, let’s just say that whilst in terms of its historical accuracy this is another case of Richer not letting his complete lack of knowledge of events getting in the way of a good story what it indicates for our purposes is that real-time translation was an option for tenth-century people, even if evidence for translation between different vernaculars is limited.

There is one final option: counts, dukes, margraves, bishops and the like did have serious language difficulties. Let’s take another episode in Richer, his account of the Synod of Mouzon. Richer says that at this synod, Bishop Haimo of Verdun did the talking because (unlike the other East Frankish attendees) he could speak Romance. As it happens, Richer is wrong again and this time we can get a decent idea of why, because the synodal acts survive: these say simply that Haimo did speak in Romance, not that he was the only one who could. Given the high-level participation of laymen, notably Count Godfrey the Prisoner of Verdun, in the synod, the distinction being drawn by the acts is probably not between different vernaculars spoken by the different bishops, but between the Romance spoken by the laymen and the high-flying Latin that the bishops would have used between themselves on their own. Nonetheless, even though Richer is wrong his account gives an important insight into the mentalities surrounding tenth-century language use: where difficulties might arise, at elite level they could be planned for in advance.

This, then, is the inversion of the positive side of language learning. Tenth-century people could take advantage of continuums between Romance and Germanic vernaculars, they could seize opportunities (whether desirable or not) to learn languages, they could get hold of phrasebooks, or they could just get a translator. However, they could also just send in the guy who spoke Romance into the right situation. These factors together probably explain why there are no examples of vernacular misunderstanding at elite level to compare with the most famous example further down the scale, upon which I will leave you. Ekkehard of St Gallen describes how, one day, a Romance-speaker who was fraudulently pretending to be lame to get alms showed up at the monastery. He was assigned a Germanic-speaking servant to bathe him. The Romance-speaker complained that the water was too hot: cald, cald est (modern French: c’est chaud, c’est chaud)! The German-speaker thought (to give the modern German form): “es ist kalt? (It’s cold?)” OK, sure: he poured in a kettle of boiling water, causing the Romance-speaker to bound shrieking out of the bath and expose him as a fraud.

5 thoughts on “Translating Between Vernaculars in the (Long) Tenth Century

  1. This is a really fascinating and informative post. The bit about mutual intelligibility r.e. William Lonsgword and the Saxon magnates, Louis IV and Otto the Great (and I suppose the mutual intelligibility must have come in handy when Louis IV got with Gerberga, the silver lining for him after Andernach) and the counts of Anjou and Rouergue – was particularly interesting. I can think of one interesting instance of language learning that you missed out – at the battle of Birten, Widukind of Corvey claims that some of Otto’s Saxon/ East Frankish troops started shouting in “the Gallic language” to confuse the Lotharingian rebels, which suggests that some Romance language learning was going on east of the Rhine (in what circumstances we can’t say). R.e. Louis IV knowing Old English, which is something Richer as well as Flodoard gets right – Richer seems to have had some accurate information about Anglo-Saxon England as he calls York the urbe quae dicitur Eurvich rather than Eboracum (Richer’s tendency for classicising has been exaggerated – makes me wonder how much Louis’ childhood and adolescence in England might have influenced his kingship, which is something I might get round to doing some work on some day. As someone who lives near and currently works in Kingston-upon-Thames, I’ve always wondered whether that was a stomping ground for the juvenile Louis IV when he was living with his uncle, Athelstan, or whether Hugh the Great’s envoys passed through there in 936.

    I guess the one big omission here was queens, noblewomen and marriages. I presume mutual intelligibility would have been easy for Otto the Great and Eadgyth or Louis IV and Gerberga (the similarities between Old Saxon/ Low German and Old English), but what about Charles the Simple and Eadgifu (would they have spoken in Latin, or was Charles the Simple educated as a boy in Old High German as Janet Nelson argues his grandfather, Charles the Bald, was) or Eadhild/ Hedwig and Hugh the Great? I suppose Adelheid, being from the fulcrum between Germanic and Romance Europe, and her daughter Emma of Italy would have had a range of different languages to choose from in speaking to their husbands, Otto the Great and Lothar of West Francia respectively. And with the Romance mutual intelligibility, I suppose Hugh of Arles would have had no problem talking to Marozia, Conrad I of Burgundy would have had no problem speaking to Matilda of West Francia and Robert the Pious (who, unlike his father, definitely knew Latin as well as French) with Rozala of Ivrea (what Rozala spoke to Arnulf II of Flanders is a different matter, but presumably he knew French).


    1. The question of Louis’ upbringing in England is something I’ve really wanted to find evidence of for more or less as long as I’ve been doing this, but haven’t really been able to. These old blog posts on assembly politics were the closest I ever came, and I ended up concluding that whilst Louis’ practices were affected by his upbringing, it wasn’t in terms of English norms… It’d be cool to find, but there’s nothing obvious (although I have a colleague who thinks there’s some influence going the other way, but I don’t want to pre-empt her article on this.)

      As for marriages, Theophanu is one of the few cases we know of preparatory language learning. In a West Frankish context, though, we lack information – I rather get the feeling Flodoard specifically doesn’t care that much about wives, given his stubborn refusal to name them most of the time, and in the absence of much else it’s hard to say what, say, Hugh the Great would have done about communication with Hedwig. In Hugh’s case, given his father probably grew up in the Rhineland he might have learned a Germanic dialect as well as Romance, but this is all speculation.


      1. Thank you so much for linking me to your piece on Louis IV and his assemblies. Its absolutely first rate, and I think I buy the explanation. I think there definitely are changes to Anglo-Saxon assembly politics in the reign of Athelstan (I suppose John Maddicott was right to begin his “The Origins of the English Parliament” in 924), which n doubt stems from Ottonian influence (what happened at Kingston-upon-Thames in 925 couldn’t have been more Ottonian) combined with Athelstan’s apparent admiration for classic Carolingian kingship. Whether or not Richer was right to imagine Hugh the Great’s envoys meeting Athelstan and Louis at a royal assembly, I can’t imagine that Louis never attended one either. But I guess, as you suggest convincingly, that the experience of his father’s kingship combined with his maternal grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s would have been enough to convince him that these were unnecessary to successful kingship or actively dangerous to it, in spite of his uncle’s experiences showing the contrary – assemblies with Welsh, Scots and Strathclyde British rulers attending as client kings in Old Roman forts really does demonstrate masterful political showmanship.

        I also really like how you pay attention to the language that Flodoard uses to describe assemblies. I did something very similar in my masters’ dissertation on Richer of Rheims – the language he uses to describe Louis’ meetings with his magnates, like Flodoard’s, uses verbs more often than nouns, but the verbs he uses tend to imply formalised meetings and discussions on matters of state, not private negotiations. What explains this divergence between the two, we can’t entirely be sure, given that it brings us back to the authorial intention question, which has vexed scholars on Richer since forever (or rather since his rediscovery in Bamberg-Staatsbibliothek in the 1830s) – I can’t say I’ve found the answer yet, or that I’ll ever will (for the meantime, Adhemar of Chabannes and his writings on a more distant past concern me). Political historians working with Flodoard, however, have often happily ignored it, instead seeing him as just telling it as it was, but as Edward Roberts has shown, Flodoard was much more self-conscious and creative than that, and that he did have a distinctive outlook on the world and where his own time fitted in the broader scheme of history.


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