Old Occitan at the British Library
Old Occitan or langue d’Oc was a language widely spoken and written in southern France and parts of Italy up to the French Revolution. The name is based on the word for "yes": ‘òc’ as opposed to the ‘oïl’ (modern ‘oui’) of Paris and northern France. The earliest literary manuscripts date from the 11th century, though there was an earlier oral tradition, and written fragments found in official documents in Latin and responses in litanies date back to the 9th and 10th centuries.
The Lord in a mandorla surrounded by the four symbols of the Evangelists, from a Psalter, Breviary and other theological texts, 1075–1225, France, S. W., Harley MS 2928, f. 14v
Clovis Brunel’s Bibliographie des manuscrits littéraires en ancien provençal lists 376 literary manuscripts in Old Occitan (excluding legal and administrative documents), of which only 8 are from the 11th and 12th centuries, though many of the key texts were composed in this period.
Text page of a passage from John’s gospel in Old Occitan, Harley MS 2928, f. 190r
One of the oldest surviving texts in Old Occitan prose is a translation of four chapters of John’s Gospel from a manuscript in the British Library's collections that has recently been digitised, along with many of our pre-1200 manuscripts, as part of the Polonsky digitisation project: Harley MS 2928.
Historiated initial ‘D’(ixit dominus), at the beginning of Psalm 110, of the Lord enthroned with a human figure lying prostrate at his feet, Harley MS 2928, f. 74v
This late 11th- or early 12th-century manuscript from southern France (perhaps the town of Solignac in the Limousin) contains chapters 13 to 17 of John’s Gospel in Old Occitan (ff. 187v–191v). It is the only vernacular text in a collection of Latin liturgical texts including a psalter, litanies, prayers, and a book of Hymns (Expositio hymnorum).
There are 11 historiated initials illustrating the most important Psalms.
Historiated initial ‘B’(eati) of a ?pilgrim with a staff, at the beginning of Psalm 119, Harley MS 2928, f. 77r
The section of John’s Gospel in Occitan, pictured below, relates the events of the Last Supper, the washing of the feet and Christ’s sermon to the assembled Disciples. The rubric preceding the text is in Latin:
Incipit sermo domini nostri Ihesu Christi quem fecit in cena sua quando pedes lavit discipulis suis
(Here begins the sermon of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave at his supper when he washed the feet of his disciples).
Text page with rubric at the beginning of John, Chapter 13 in Occitan, Harley MS 2928, f. 187v
The Old Occitan text begins:
Avan lo dia festal de la Pasca sabia lo Salvadre que la soa ora ve que traspasse da quest mun au Paer
(Before the feast of Passover when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart from this world to the Father)
This short extract contains several examples of key variations between Old Occitan and standard French:
- final consonants in clusters like –nt and -nd fall away completely (in standard French they are nasalised) to produce ‘avan’ instead of ‘avant’ (before) and ‘mun’ instead of ‘monde’ (world)
- some words are closer to modern Spanish than to French: ‘dia’ instead of ‘jour’ (day) and ‘sabia’ instead of ‘savait’ (knew)
- vowel sounds differ in many common words: ‘lo’ for ‘le’ (masculine article), ‘Paer’ for ‘Père’ (father) and again ‘mun’ for ‘monde’
According to Wunderli , whose 1969 edition of the Occitan text is included in the bibliography, the dialect is from the Limousin or Périgord regions.
The Old Occitan section are not the only interesting parts of this manuscript. The Expositio Hymnorum (Hymnal or Book of Hymns) is arranged according to the liturgical day and year and includes collects from the Gospels and homilies of St Ambrose and St Gregory. It contains 12th-century musical notation, or neumes, from southern France on ff. 127r–187v.
Folio from the Expositio Hymnorum with 12th-century neumes, Harley MS 2928, f. 134r
4 full-page miniatures in colours, sadly rather worn (ff. 13v, 14v, 17r, 18r), precede the Psalms, which begin with the Prologue by Pseudo Augustin on f. 19r, 'Laus Psalmorum. Canticum psalmorum animas decorat'. In one image, what appears to be of a kneeling saint, perhaps Saint Stephen, is being stoned by two figures in tunics, while gazing at the sun, or perhaps watching a comet.
A kneeling saint is stoned, Harley MS 2928, f. 13v
4 more full-page miniatures of scenes from the New Testament (ff. 15r, 15v, 16r, 16v), were added in Bologna in the 13th century and have been attributed to the ‘Master of 1285’ (see Conti, La Miniature Bolognese (1981)).
Added miniature of the Raising of Lazarus, last quarter of the 13th century, Italy, N. (Bologna), Harley MS 2928, f. 15r
Harley MS 2928 contient un des plus anciens exemples écrits de la langue d’oc ou de l'occitan : il s'agit d'une traduction de quatre chapitres de l’Evangile de saint Jean. Désormais disponible en ligne, entièrement numérisé, sur notre site internet Digitised Manuscripts, ce manuscrit comprend aussi un psautier, une ‘Expositio hymnorum’, avec neumes du XIIe siècle et une collection liturgique en Latin. Selon Winderli, il fut copié dans le Limousin ou le Périgord à la fin du XIe ou début du XIIe siècle. Quatre grandes enluminures occupent les feuillets ff. 13v, 14v, 17r et 18r et onze lettrines historiées illustrent le Psautier. L’usure a parfois rendu ces illustrations peu lisibles, mais le style est distinctif. Quatre enluminures furent ajoutées à Bologne à la fin du XIIIe siècle. L’extrait de l’évangile (Jean, chapitres 13 à 17) raconte les évènements du Jeudi saint et le discours de Jésus à ses disciples lors de la cène.
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Clovis Brunel, Bibliographie des manuscrits littéraires en ancien provençal, Société de publications Romanes et Françaises, 13 (Paris: Librairie E. Droz, 1935).
William Burgwinkle, ‘The troubadours : the Occitan model’, in The Cambridge History of French Literature, ed. by William Burgwinkle, Nicholas Hammond and Emma Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 20-27.
Alessandro Conti, La Miniature Bolognese: Scuole e botteghe 1270-1340 (Bologna: ALFA, 1981), pp. 25–26.
Peter Wunderli, La plus ancienne traduction provençale (XIIe siecle) des chapitres XII à XVII del’évangile de saint Jean (BM Harley 2928), Bibliotheque Francaise et Romane, D.4 (Paris: Klincksieck, 1969).
Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project