If I lived in medieval times, I’d want to be a scribe. That way I could become intimately acquainted with Western literary heritage, while also living more comfortably than usually possible in the plague-ridden, miserable “Dark Ages.”
Working at the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML), I’m closer to this medieval vision of myself than ever before. I and my fellow scholars-in-training are working tirelessly night and day (actually, weekdays from nine to five) reviewing translations of medieval Latin texts soon to be published by Harvard University Press. These translations, crafted by experts in their fields, are a blast to read, but sometimes, it’s the Latin text itself that catches my eye.
This happened last week while I was making my way through some miscellaneous poems by Venantius Fortunatus, a sixth-century hymnodist, bishop and saint. While one might consider most parts of the medieval Latin corpus obscure, some poems of Fortunatus may be familiar to churchgoers, notably Pange, lingua, gloriosi proelium certaminis (“Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle”) and Vexilla regis prodeunt (“The royal banners forward go”). The former of these contains a stanza – Crux fidelis – that enjoys a life of its own, reincarnated and glorified as a widely-performed Good Friday motet, ostensibly written by King John IV of Portugal (1604-1656). (Unfortunately for John, more recent scholarship suggests that this is a false attribution, and the piece wasn’t written until much later.)
If you watch the above video (and I highly recommend you do), you’ll notice the words are as follows:
Crux fidelis, inter omnes arbor una nobilis;
Nulla silva talem profert fronde, flore, germine.
Dulce lignum, dulces clavos, dulce pondus sustinet.
(Faithful Cross! Above all other, one and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thy peers may be;
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron! Sweetest Weight is hung on thee!)
— tr. Fr. Edward Caswall (1814-1878)
Incidentally, the most recent and authoritative version of the Liber Usualis, a compendium of “plainsong” chants used by the Church for hundreds of years, contains the same text:
So, I was naturally curious when I came across Crux fidelis in the edition I’m helping to edit, and noticed some strange departures from the text I’ve come to know and love. These are underlined below:
Crux fidelis, inter omnes arbor una nobilis;
Nulla talem silva profert flore, fronde, germine;
Dulce lignum, dulce clavo dulce pondus sustinens.
That amounts to two word-switches (in the second line), and three changed endings (in the third line). To be perfectly honest, this doesn’t have much effect on the translation (especially given Fr. Caswall’s highly stylized one provided above), and yet upon seeing this, I felt betrayed! One of the most famous and well-loved hymns of the Christian tradition is marred by a shoddy transmission history! Of course, the details of exactly how this happened are outside the scope of this rant, but perhaps they can be attributed to a distracted scribe, or several distracted scribes, who created the errors that were passed down to us, enshrined in liturgical tradition, and immortalized in the most famous musical setting of Crux fidelis. I’d like to think that if I were a medieval scribe, as is my fantasy, I wouldn’t make such mistakes… but this is easier said than done.
Crux (in)fidelis. A somewhat perverse – maybe offensive? – title for this short meditation. I don’t mean to imply that the Cross is somehow “unfaithful” or “treacherous,” which, granted, are two possible meanings of the Latin adjective infidelis. Nor do I mean to evoke the idea of “the infidel” – what purpose would that serve? I rather make this gesture with another, more obscure meaning of infidelis in mind. If you look up this word in the Blaise Medieval Dictionary, a constant resource for myself and my compatriots in DOML, you’ll find some other definitions like:
… 2. of little faith … 5. not worthy of faith [i.e., unreliable]
I’m happy to have learned French in high school for the express purpose of reading the Blaise Medieval Dictionary.
Indeed, how much faith can we have in the reliability of these ancient texts as they are transmitted to us? For those of us who spend lots of time with them, we’re familiar with the messiness of the manuscript tradition. In our DOML editions, alternate readings of the text are taken into account, and are often listed in the back matter. Other publishers might even list them at the bottom of each page in a critical apparatus. All this points to an inescapable truth – it is our job as aspiring scholars to make sense of the discrepancies, to correct the inaccuracies, and to remember how much might be wrong, or simply missing, in the survivng corpus. That way, if we’re constantly working to improve the accuracy of our texts through rigorous scholarship, we don’t always have to be “of little faith” when it comes to the accuracy of the ancient texts we enjoy.
In our day-to-day work at DOML, we’re doing our best to produce volumes guided by just this kind of scholarship. With any luck, there will also be scholars in the far future – perhaps here at Dumbarton Oaks – who will continue to build on the work we have already done.
About me: My name is Zachary Fletcher, and I’m a rising senior at Harvard concentrating in Classical Languages and Literatures, with a secondary field in Linguistics. I’ll be attempting a thesis next year on how the early Church influenced and changed notions of sexual difference inherited from the classical world. (I just finished reading a book which examines the Hebrew God through the lens of torture, dissection and bodybuilding – what a joy it would be to include it in my thesis somehow.)