Medieval manuscripts blog

14 July 2017

The Heliand

The British Library is currently engaged in a joint project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France to digitise 800 manuscripts made in and around the regions of England and France before 1200. Some people have asked if that means the project will only cover manuscripts in Old English, Old French or Anglo-Norman French. On the contrary! The project covers a variety of different languages, because many different languages were written, spoken and studied in those regions before 1200. The first 100 manuscripts digitised include many texts in Latin, as well as more obscure languages, such as Old Occitan, spoken around the area that is now southern France (Harley MS 2928). Another recently digitised manuscript includes one of the few major works in Old Saxon: the Heliand poem, copied perhaps in England or decorated by someone who was influenced by English styles in the second half of the 10th century.

Opening page of the Heliand, Cotton MS Caligula A VII, f. 11r

Old Saxon was a language spoken in the north of the region which is now Germany. Very few texts or copies of texts written in Old Saxon survive today: at just under 6000 verses, the Heliand is the longest Old Saxon text now known. It is preserved, with some lacunae, in two manuscripts (one at the British Library, one in Munich,  Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 25) and in several other small fragments, such as the folio held in the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.

Beginning of the second fitt, Cotton MS Caligula A VII, f. 13r

The Heliand is a retelling of the life of Jesus. It was translated both into the Old Saxon language and into the attitudes and social structure found in warrior epics. John the Baptist is characterised as Christ’s ‘warrior companion’ (gesið), while the disciples become ‘earls’ (erlos). This poem may originally have been sung or recited out loud: the text is divided into fitts, or songs. Like modern day TV episodes, these would have provided reasonably sized chunks of a longer saga.

The Heliand may have been composed in the early 9th century, presumably in the eastern regions of the Carolingian empire. A preface from a now lost manuscript that was copied in 1562 claims that a ruler called 'Louis' — perhaps Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious (d. 840) or Louis the German (d. 876) — ordered scriptures to be translated into Germanic languages (Germanic lingua). However, most scholars think the British Library’s copy of the Heliand was made more than a century later, by an English scribe or by someone who was influenced by English manuscripts because the marginal Latin notes and the style of decoration resemble styles found in English manuscripts. Compare the biting beasties in initials in the Heliand with those in the Tollemache Orosius (Add MS 47967) and a copy of the Rule of St Benedict (Harley MS 5431).

Initial Comparisons
Details of zoomorphic initials from the Heliand,
England?, c. 950-1000, Cotton MS Caligula A VII, ff. 132r, 46r; the Tollemache Orosius, England (Winchester?), c. 900-925, Add MS 47967, f. 48v; the Rule of St Benedict, England, c. 975–1000, Harley MS 5431, f. 73v, 74r

Whether or not the manuscript was made by an English scribe or in England, marginal notes in the Anglo-Saxon script known as square minuscule suggest it was owned in England shortly after it was made. It is not known why an Anglo-Saxon, or someone who could produce English styles of script and book production, possessed a copy of the Heliand. However, there were many links between Anglo-Saxons and Old Saxon-speaking regions. As the ‘Saxon’ part of the names Anglo-Saxon, East Saxon (Essex) and West Saxon (Wessex) suggest, some Anglo-Saxons believed they were descended from Saxon or Saxon-speaking immigrants to the British Isles. Anglo-Saxon groups continued to have ties to Saxon-speaking areas through missionary and ecclesiastical activities, marriage alliances and travellers, among others. The Heliand manuscript provides an important reminder of all those ties and of all the languages that were spoken, studied and copied in England over 1000 years ago.


La British Library s’est associée à la Bibliothèque nationale de France dans le cadre d’un projet de numérisation de 800 manuscrits élaborés en France et en Angleterre avant 1200. La grande variété des oeuvres sélectionnées s’entend également par la diversité des langues représentées. Les 100 premiers manuscrits numérisés comprennent des textes latins, mais également des œuvres écrites dans des langues moins communes, telles que l’ancien occitan, un dialecte parlé dans le sud de la France (Harley MS 2928), ou le vieux saxon, une forme ancienne du bas-allemand.

Un manuscrit récemment numérisé contient l’un des rares écrits composés en vieux saxon : l’Heliand.  Ce volume de la seconde moitié du Xe siècle fut peut-être copié en en Angleterre. Avec ses 6000 vers, l’Heliand constitue l’œuvre en vieux saxon la plus importante qui nous soit parvenue. Elle est transmise avec plus ou moins de lacunes dans deux manuscrits, l’un à la British Library, l’autre à Munich (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 25), ainsi qu’à l’état de fragments.

L’Heliand est une réécriture de la vie du Christ, probablement composée au début du IXe siècle, dans l’Est de l’empire carolingien. Dans ce poème épique, le Christ prend les traits d’un prince germanique, Saint Jean devient un guerrier, tandis que les disciples endossent le rôle de comtes. Cette œuvre était sans doute chantée ou contée oralement.

Les chercheurs s’accordent à dire que l’exemplaire de la British Library fut élaboré plus d’un siècle après la composition du poème, et qu’il fut copié par un scribe anglais, ou du moins, un copiste influencé par des manuscrits insulaires. Les annotations marginales en latin ainsi que le style de la décoration sont similaires à des volumes d’origine anglaise de la même période. Que ce manuscrit ait été copié ou non par un scribe anglais, les annotations en minuscule anglo-saxonne laissent penser que le manuscrit franchit très tôt la Manche. Il faut dire qu’il existait des liens étroits tant entre le vieil anglais et le vieux saxon, qu’entre les populations qui usaient de ces dialectes. Les anglo-saxons considéraient d’ailleurs descendre des saxons. Le manuscrit de l’Heliand constitue un précieux témoignage de ces échanges culturels et linguistiques. Il permet également de rappeler que les manuscrits copiés et lus en Angleterre, ne se limitaient pas aux textes en vieil anglais et en latin, mais englobaient une plus large aire culturelle.

Alison Hudson and Laure Miolo

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I hope you can forgive me for asking almost an opposite question - does the team have an idea how many MSS containing French (in any form) will be digitised? Forgive a somewhat boring question from this French medievalist ...

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