The Universe of Discourse

Sat, 29 Apr 2006

Abbreviations in medieval manuscripts
In an earlier article I discussed my surprise at finding "examples" and "alteration" abbreviated to "exãples" and "alteratiõ" in Robert Recorde's 1557 book The Whetstone of Witte. Then later I quoted Jonathan Hoefler, an expert in typographical matters:

Diacritical marks have been used to abbreviate printed words ever since Gutenberg, and early English printers adopted the same conventions that Gutenberg used for Latin (a trick he picked up from medieval scribes.)

Shortly afterward I realized that I have some reproductions of illuminated manuscripts — they're hanging in the bathroom, so I see them every day — and could actually see this for myself. This one is my favorite:

I had never been able to decipher the Latin text, but I had never tried very hard before. So I stared at it for a few minutes. Here is the inscription itself, in case you'd like to play along at home:

After quite a lot of staring, I came to two conclusions:

  1. I can't make head or tail of most of it, but
  2. the fourth line begins mella locustis.
Mella locustis is very suggestive. Mella is honey, and locustis is locusts. So I immediately concluded that this was an extract of the Latin bible, either from Mark 1 or Matthew 3, which discuss John the Baptist living in the wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey. (Once I had made that connection, the word camelus on the second line jumped out at me: John wore a garment made of camel's hair.) I then wasted twenty or thirty minutes digging through the Vulgate looking for the mella locustis. It is not there.

Eventually I did what I should have done in the first place and plugged mella locustis into Google. The result was quite conclusive. The words here are from a very famous hymn about John the Baptist, attributed to Paulus Diaconus (c. 720 -799). The hymn is in three parts, and this is the beginning of the second part. The words here are:

Antra deserti teneris sub annis
civium turmas fugiens, pet
n levi saltim maculare vitam
famine posses.

Praebuit hirtum tegimen camelus,
artubus sacris
strofium bidentis,
cui latex haustum, sociata pastum

mella locustis.

Caeteri tantum cecinere vatum
corde praesago iu
bar adfuturum;
I've colored the text here to match the text in the manuscript. Stuff in gray in the first verse is omitted from the manuscript; I do not know why. A copying error, perhaps? Or a change in the words?

The amount of abbreviation here is just amazing. In the first line, deserti is abbreviated deseti, and the s and the e are all squashed together, sub is abbreviated sb, annus is abbreviated ãnis, civium is abbreviated civiû and is illegible anyway, because the letters all look alike, as in Russian cursive. (I have a similar problem with cui on the third line.)

On the second line, artubus is written artub3; Hoefler had already pointed out to me that the 3 was a common notation in 16th-century printing. On the third line, pastum is written pa'tû, where the wiggly mark between the a and the t denotes an elided s. Or perhaps the scribe left it out by mistake and then went back to squeeze it in later.

Probably the most amazing abbreviations in the whole thing are in the fourth line. (I wonder if perhaps the scribe realized he was running out of room and wanted to squeeze in as much as possible.) The word caeteri is abbreviated to ceti, tantum to tm, and praesago to p'sago. (Also note uatû, which is an abbreviation for vatum; I had been wondering for some time what Uatu had to do with it.)

There are a number of other typographical features of interest. The third word in the second line is apparently hirtum. The hi in the manuscript is written as a sort of a V-shape. The r in corde on the fourth line (and elsewhere) is a form that was once common, but is now obsolete.

This hymn, by the way, is the one that gives us the names do, re, mi, fa, so, la, si for the notes of the major scale. The first part of the hymn begins:

Ut queant laxis resonare fibris
mira gestorum famuli tuorum,
solve polluti labii reatum,
sancte Iohannes!

"Ut" was later changed to "do" because "do" is open while "ut" is closed. Scholars speculate that the name "si" was chosen because it is the initials of the words in the final line.

The thing about the locusts and wild honey reminds me of something else. I was once on a business trip to Ottawa and found that there was a French Bible in my hotel room. And I discovered that, although I cannot read French, I could read the Bible in French, because I already knew what it was going to say. So I lay in bed and read the French Bible and enjoyed the rather strange sensation of being able to pretend to myself to be able to read French.

Two points struck me at the time. One was that when I read "Dieu dit: Que la lumière soit!" ("God said, 'Let there be light'") my instant reaction was to laugh at how absurd it was to suggest that God had spoken French when He created the universe. It's like that Reader's Digest joke about the guy who thinks the Spanish-speaking folks are silly for talking to the squirrels in the park in Spanish, because squirrels don't speak Spanish. I didn't know I had that in me, but there I was, laughing at the silly idea of God saying "Que la lumière soit!" You know, I still find it silly.

The other memorable occurrence was a little less embarrassing. The part in Matthew (excuse me; "Matthieu") about John the Baptist eating locusts and wild honey was "Il se nourrissait de sauterelles et de miel sauvage." I was impressed at how tasty it sounded, in French. It is not hard to imagine going into an expensive restaurant and ordering sauterelles et de miel sauvage off the menu. I concluded that food always sounds better in French, at least to an anglophone like me.

[ Addendum 20200706: Many years later, I learned where this illustration was from: it is Duc de Berry's Book of Hours, created between 1412 and 1416. I found this out in a happy way: the Metropolitan Museum of Art's was in the habit of tweeting pictures of objects from their collection, and one day they tweeted either the page above or one sufficiently similar to it that I was able to recognize it. ]

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