Whose Runes are These? I (Don’t) Think I Know

In the mid-twelfth century, a stoneworker in the far northwest of England at Bridekirk, Cumbria cut a lavishly-decorated baptismal font with reliefs of dragons, mysterious figures, and, curiously, a line of runic writing. By the early modern period, the characters on the Bridekirk font were nothing but strange. Early English historian and chronographer William Camden, who included a sketch of the runic inscription in the 1607 edition of his Britannia, declared himself perplexed: “Quid autem illae velint, et cuius gentis characteribus, ego minime video, statuant eruditi.”[1]

The east face of the Bridekirk font, by permission of Lionel Wall. 

First published in 1586, Camden’s massive historico-chronographical Britannia went through six editions in the author’s lifetime, and Camden continually updated and expanded the text, augmenting it with maps and diagrams, such as the rendition of the Bridekirk runes seen below. The last Britannia edition on which Camden collaborated was a 1610 English translation by Philemon Holland, who translates: “But what they signifie, or what nations characters they should be, I know not, let the learned determine thereof.” Camden’s uncertainties cut straight to the heart of the matter: whose runes are these? and what do they mean?

The Bridekirk runes as pictured in the 1607 edition of Britannia. Courtesy of Dana Sutton.

In the more than 400 years that have passed since the publication of Camden’s Britannia and despite the best efforts of the eruditi, no simple answer has been found to either of Camden’s questions, the first of which I’ll consider in today’s post. Whose runes are these?

Danish antiquarian Ole Worm learned of the inscription from the Britannia and included his own version of the runes in a 1634 letter to one Henry Spelman:

But if a well-printed text of the monuments inscribed with our characters that exist [in England] is sent to me, they would make up the much-desired appendix to those from our country. As far as the one Camden shows us in his book Britannia, I hardly know whether it can be read: [RUNES] That is, as I interpret it according to the laws of our language: “Harald made [this] mound and set up stones in the memory of [his] mother and Mabrok.” But I claim nothing as certain until someone can supply us with a more accurate description.[2]
Leaving aside Worm’s wildly inaccurate translation, which he based off of the second-hand evidence of Camden’s printed transcription, I’d like to note that Worm seems to claim the Bridekirk runes among the monumentorum nostris notis consignatorum (monuments signed with our script): he counts these as Scandinavian runes.

At other times the inscription has been claimed as English. The description of the Bridekirk font in Charles Macfarlane’s Comprehensive History of England, first published in 1856, praises the “ingenuity of design and execution” of the font and notes its “Saxon inscription.”[3] 

The font as pictured in Macfarlane’s History. 

Modern scholars agree with Worm that the incised characters are, in the main, Scandinavian. But the inscription is not wholly so: the text employs a few non-runic, decidedly English characters, including ⁊, Ȝ, and a bookhand Ƿ. Moreover, the language is not the Norse one might expect from Scandinavian runes but rather English:

Ricard he me iwrokte to þis merð ʒer ** me brokte.[4]
Richard crafted me and brought me (eagerly?) to this splendor.

So if the runic inscription is neither fully Norse nor fully English, whose runes (cuius gentis) are they? While Charles Macfarlane claimed them as “Saxon” and Worm counted them as Scandinavian, the runes are actually neither but rather the product of a mixed society continuing to encode both English and Norse cultural practices on stone. Most literally the runes represent phonological values and a particular message, but for most of the font’s history the place of these symbols in cultural memory – whose runes they have become – has been just as important as what they originally meant. The cultural equivocality of the Bridekirk inscription is emblematic of larger ambiguities involving Anglo-Scandinavian ethnicity and culture as imagined by the post-Hastings medieval English. These ambiguous cultural signs, later re-imagined in the early modern period, raise the question of what it meant to be Anglo-Norse in an Anglo-Norman world.

Rebecca West, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[1] William Camden, “William Camden, Britannia (1607) with an English Translation by Philemon Holland: A Hypertext Critical Edition,” ed. Dana F. Sutton (The Philological Museum, 2004), Descriptio Angliae et Walliae: Cumberland, 7.

[2] Ole Worm, Olai Wormii et ad eum doctorum virorum epistolæ, vol. 1 (Copenhagen, 1751), Letter 431. This translation is my own.

[3] Charles MacFarlane, The Comprehensive History of England :Civil and Military, Religious, Intellectual, and Social : From the Earliest Period to the Suppression of the Sepoy Revolt, Rev. ed. (London, 1861), 164.

[4] The transliteration above is based on that of Page, who reads “+Ricarþ he me iwrocte / and to þis merð (?) me brocte.” R. I. Page, Runes (University of California Press, 1987), 54.

Poetic form and the matter of the Virgin

This piece accompanies CJ Jones‘ sung recitations and translation of Ave virginalis formaJones contribution to our Medieval Poetry Project marks another exciting expansion as she bring a number of firsts to the project: the first Latin poem, the first Middle-High German poem, and the first song. She does not disappoint. Jones not only translates the song into modern English, she sings Ave virginalis forma in all three languages (Latin, Middle High German and modern English).

“Ave virginalis forma” from Munich, Bavarian State Library, cgm 716

Translator’s preface:

“Ave virginalis forma” (Analecta Hymnica, vol. 54, p. 379ff.) was composed in the first half of the fourteenth century and is attributed to an otherwise unattested Jacob, priest of Mühldorf. It was a highly complex and difficult poetic endeavor, both with regard to its poetic form and its classicizing and Greek vocabulary. Nevertheless, in the latter half of the fourteenth century the prolific songster known as “Der Mönch von Salzburg” (the monk from Salzburg) undertook to translate it into a German verse that maintained the poetic structure of the original Latin and could be sung more or less to the same melody. In attempting the same with modern English, I discovered just how difficult that is.

The chant is a sequence, a liturgical genre that was sung before the Gospel reading at Mass. (As far as I know, there is no evidence that “Ave virginalis forma” was actually sung liturgically, but formally it belongs to this genre.) Early sequences have very loose or no poetic form, but as the genre evolved, composers began to prefer texts with strict metrical forms and rhyme schemes. The first few verses of “Ave virginalis forma” fit the most popular poetic structure of the “new sequence” that was popular by the thirteenth century. The most significant characteristic that differentiates the sequence from the hymn is that sequence verses are paired, but the melody is through-composed. This means that verses 1 and 2 are sung to the same melody, but 3 has a new melody, repeated in verse 4, before yet a new melody is heard in verses 5 and 6, and so on. Within this overarching rule, there is some flexibility to repeat smaller melodic units and phrases. Jacob was sensitive to the relationship between the melody and the poetic form: for example, the closing line of the R and S verses is repeated for the following T and V pair and, accordingly, Jacob used the same end rhyme for all four verses. (Der Mönch von Salzburg did not notice the recycled melodic material and used different end rhymes for the two pairs; I tried my hardest to maintain the same rhyme for all four).

Jacob imposed an extra poetic constraint on himself: Ave virginalis forma is an abecedarium. Each verse begins with a letter of the alphabet (Ave, Botrus, Chere, Dei…). Der Mönch von Salzburg did follow this poetic constraint but for difficult letters simply took over the first word of the Latin verse and then set in with the German translation (Karissima / liebst aller lieb; Quis / wer). I permitted myself the same liberty. I should also note that both Jacob and der Mönch von Salzburg used the chi rho spelling of “Christ” for verse X, and I followed suit. Jacob also accomplished some real feats of poetic structure, which I was not able to imitate. The first and third lines of verses J and K rhyme both the first and second word, which neither the German nor the English manage (see also P and Q). Lines 2 and 4 of the L and K verses all end with internal double rhyme; der Mönch von Salzburg did a better job rendering this than I did. I settled on using rhyming syllables at the beginning and end of those lines. Finally, the paired N and O verses each incorporate an extraordinary sequence of internal rhyme, which neither der Mönch von Salzburg nor I were able to reproduce in German or English, although each of us gave it the old college try.

For the melody, I used two manuscripts of related provenance, Munich, Bavarian State Library, cgm 715 and cgm 716. Both manuscripts were produced in Bavaria toward the end of the fifteenth century and both were owned by the monastery of Tegernsee, although it is unlikely that either was produced there. I had to supplement and extrapolate from another manuscript for the German version because, due to an extraordinary eye-skip (from “vrowe” to “vrowe”), the scribe of cgm 715 left out the entirety of verse Q. The melody of the German differs slightly from the Latin – as do the melodies in other manuscripts containing the Latin sequence. If I were being true to medieval practice, I would have been looser with the melody for my English translation, as well.

I do not think that I have done justice to the beauty and complexity of the Latin sequence, neither in my sung recording nor in my translation. Still, in the process, I learned an enormous amount about stress and melodic shape, poetic flexibility, and Old Testament allegories for Mary. I owe thanks to Richard Fahey for encouraging me to take on this project, to Sean Martin for helping me record it, and to Christopher Miller for helping me edit the audio files.

Claire Taylor Jones
Assistant Professor of German
University of Notre Dame

The Lay of Ludwig

Jacob Coen‘s translation of the Old High German Ludwigslied marks an expansion of the Medieval Institute’s Medieval Poetry Project, formerly the Old English Poetry Project, which now welcomes contributions that translate into modern English any verse composed in a medieval language.

Manuscript illumination of Frankish cavalry taken from the so-called “Stuttgart Psalter” (fol. 3v), a Psalm codex produced c. 820 at the monastery of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (Paris), now Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart, Cod.bibl.fol.23.

Translator’s Preface:

In August 881, the West Frankish King Louis III successfully routed an invading force of Vikings at Saucourt-en-Vimeu. Within a year, a poet tied to the court celebrated this seminal triumph in verse, creating one of the monuments of Old High German literature: the Ludwigslied.

Presented below is a new transcription, translation, and recitation of this early vernacular masterpiece from its sole surviving attestation in Cod. 150, fol. 141v-143r of the Bibliothèque municipale de Valenciennes. Its inclusion in Notre Dame’s ongoing digital collection of Old English translations marks the beginning of a new phase of this project which will now expand beyond the bounds of one language. If Old High German still retains many similarities to Old English, the Ludwigslied already demonstrates a series of changes within the former that led to the birth of a language unique and clearly distinct from its sister tongues. The text, therefore, serves as a fruitful tool for philological comparison and poetic analysis while capturing the reader’s attention with its driving rhythm, its presentation of divine intervention (as well as punishment), and its heroic protagonist.

Transcription Note: In past editions of this text, the words ðugidi and gunðfanon have been transcribed with d instead of ð. I believe, however, that the forms of these letters in the manuscript are different enough—their ascenders are curved and rather short while elsewhere the letter d is marked by a longer, straight, and almost spatulate ascender—to require a different transcription. Furthermore, given that the text is composed in a Rhenish-Franconian dialect (closer to “Middle” German), it is entirely possible that the High German shift /ð/ > /d/ (and further /d/ > /t/ in some positions) was not yet complete or was at least not yet distinguished in writing.

Jacob Coen
PhD Candidate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame