The beginning of an end

In winding up the Marie Curie project, I am returning to an Old Swedish romance that was among the first things I read when I started here at SDU …  one of those roundabout wanders of reading and thinking and rethinking that research, even if we don’t collectively talk about it that much, has a habit of taking.

Partly in an effort to change that, I’m going to use this post to document one particular path that I’m probably not going to retrace fully in the article that I’ve finally begun to write.


By way of background, the Old Swedish text I’m looking at is Hertig Fredrik av Normandie. It has attracted a certain amount of attention because it is – this can be said with reasonable certainty these days – a translation of a German source. What that source was, we do not know because it has not survived. This has not, however, stopped scholars trying to work back from the Swedish version in efforts to find out more about it.

One of the big questions is what the dialect of the lost German version was. The problem in this respect is that we know, on the basis of the German loanwords, that the source had some Low German elements, but not what the balance between them and High German features was.

This matters because pinning down the dialect would be a big step toward clarifying several troublesome questions about the German version. It would provide a clue as to where it originated, and this would have knock-on implications for the development of a consensus about its dating and genre. Unravelling these interrelated problems would lead off on a very long tangent, so I’ll just foreground the particular aspect at stake here – the theory, which has been advanced and disputed on and off over the years, that the lost German text was known to Berthold von Holle.

Berthold is an enigmatic northern German poet of the thirteenth century, who has a somewhat isolated position in literary history because we have very little first-hand information about the context in which he was working. Scholars – you can probably guess where this is going – have often been tempted to see in Hertig Fredrik a much-needed, albeit indirect insight into that context. Indeed, parallels in motifs between Berthold’s works and the Swedish Hertig Fredrik make it tempting to suggest that they had a common source in the form of our lost German text. The trouble is that these parallels are just a bit too general in nature to be convincing on their own – which is why the question of dialect becomes so important. Can the case be made that the lost German text was linguistically similar to Berthold? Or is it more likely to have originated some distance away from him, say along the lower Rhine?


One of the main pieces of research on this matter is William Layher’s thesis of 1999. It includes a list of German loanwords in Hertig Fredrik, and uses them to justify the conclusion that the German source must have had ‘a pronounced MLG form’ and ‘was not composed in the MHG (with light admixture of MLG) literary dialect used by Berthold von Holle’ (pp. 237–38, 241). [MLG/MHG = Middle Low and Middle High German]

This sounds all well and good … but for some reason, when I was first working on this material, I decided to go through the word-list myself, checking just how closely it supports this conclusion. I was particularly interested in the assertion that the linguistic evidence makes proximity to Berthold von Holle unlikely. What I found was quite interesting, and remains so some twelve months later.

There are, indeed, some words in Layher’s list that appear in a Low German form in Hertig Fredrik but a High German form in Berthold’s works – e.g. høgtiidh from MLG hochtît (vs Berthold’s hôgzît with characteristically High German -z-). But …

– There are also a number of words in Hertig Fredrik of unambiguously Low German origin that Berthold likewise uses in their Low German form – e.g. liif from MLG lîf (= Berthold’s lîf, both with unshifted f).

– There are words in Hertig Fredrik that could be of either High or Low German origin that also appear in Berthold – e.g. aker: Layher says this could come from MHG or Middle Dutch acker; however, MLG acker is also documented. Berthold also uses acker (and moreover in the very same phrasal collocations meaning ‘the extent of a field’ in which the word appears in both its occurrences in the Old Swedish text).

– And there are also, finally, words in Hertig Fredrik which Layher believes were borrowed from Low German and which are not all that distant from the kind of language Berthold was using – e.g. svanz: this could well have been derived from MLG swans rather than directly from MHG swanz, but that misses the point in this context: because s could be used in MLG to represent the ts sound in loandwords from MHG, the form of the word is essentially the same (and the same, moreover, as that used by Berthold: swanz).

Now: as I indicated above, I never followed these investigations through to the end, so they have something of a preliminary quality. Unravelling what is going on leads into some quite specialized corners of linguistic history, particularly (for me, at any rate) where orthography is concerned.

But the point should be clear enough. The word-list is presented as evidence that our lost German text was linguistically distant from Berthold von Holle. As such, it becomes a building block in a particular theory about the lost German text that further dissociates it in time, space, and genre from Berthold. If one looks more closely, however, and asks one’s own questions, things begin to seem rather less conclusive. The lost text, it seems, may not have been all that distant from the language of Berthold after all.

Resources used

Berthold von Holle, ed. by Karl Bartsch (Nuremberg: Bauer & Raspe, 1858), for Crane and Darifant; Berthold von Holle, Demantin, ed. by Karl Bartsch, Bibliothek des litterarischen Vereins in Stuttgart, 123 (Tübingen: Gedruckt auf Kosten des litterarischen Vereins, 1875)

Hertig Fredrik av Normandie, ed. by Erik Noreen, Samlingar utgifna af Svenska Fornskrift-sällskapet, 49 (Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1927)

Agathe Lasch, Mittelniederdeutsche Grammatik, Sammlung kurzer Grammatiken germanischer Dialekte, A9 (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1974 [repr. of 1914 edition])

William Layher, ‘Queen Eufemia’s Legacy: Middle Low German Literary Culture, Royal Patronage, and the First Old Swedish Epic (1301)’, thesis, Doctor of Philosophy, Harvard University, 1999

Adolf Noreen, Altschwedische Grammatik: Mit Einschluss des Altgutnischen, Sammlung kurzer Grammatiken germanischer Dialekte, 8 (Halle: Niemeyer, 1904)

Karl Schiller and August Lübben, Mittelniederdeutsches Wörterbuch, 6 vols (Bremen, 1875–81)