What did the Carolingians have against the Jews?

The OHG Isidore translation
and it’s background

A friend of mine is doing her PhD on early medieval glossaries, which brings her often to Leiden University to work with facsimiles and original early medieval manuscripts, some of them containing glossaries that are highly valuable to the linguist, although linguists rarely turn to the manuscripts themselves. We had an interesting discussion on why glossaries were collected in the first place and, more importantly, the early medieval origins of vernacular translations on the continent. Somewhere in the discussion I mentioned the Old High German translation of Isidore’s De fide catholica ex veteri et novo testamento contra Iudaeos, remembering that linguistically it was highly archaic which suggested that it must have been written before the ninth century. We both wondered why in heavens name a sixth century tractate agains the Jews was translated in the vernacular in the first place, a wondering which demanded further inquiry.

As far as we both knew the Jews were a quite insignificant minority in Carolingian society (especially in the Germanic speaking parts of the empire) who mostly worked in trade enterprises and held some small but controversial privileges, although being generally discriminated against in legal matters. In this blogpost I want to discuss the main manuscript in which the text is preserved, lay out why the tractate was translated and give you a small fragment of the text, i.e. the latin original, the OHG translation and a modern English translation of the Latin and the Old High German.

                The text that we will discuss is known as De fide catholica ex veteri et novo testamento contra Iudaeos, written by bishop Isidoris Hispalensis, Isidore of Sevilla, around 614-615 as a theological motivation to a royal decree of the Visigothic king Sisebut, ordering all Jews to convert to christianity. The Old High German translation is preserved in a late eighth century manuscript, kept in the Bibliothèque National de Paris (BN lat. 2326), and a fragment of the text is to be found in another manucript, this one preserved in Vienna (ÖNB cod. 3093). Palaeograpically the text in the Paris manuscript, evidently a copy of the original, uses an orthograpical system commonly used in Murbach. The Isidor-fragment is preceded in the Paris manuscript by an OHG translation of  the Matthew gospel, another text which the editors of the manuscript called de vocatione gentium, the final part of an eigth century sermon and sermon LXXVI of Augustine. The Latin and vernacular are given in two seperate columns. Linguistically it seems preferable to place the author of the translation in Lorraine, since the language used is Old South Rhine Franconian. Metz, St. Avold and Hornbach have been suggested as possible places. Kowalski-Fahrun convincingly argued for an early Carolingian date to the translation, since linguistically the Old High German preserved in the texts is quite archaic.

                This can be illustrated by the fact that the common OHG syncope in the past participles and the preterite of the weak verbs has not yet taken place, certain unique OHG forms are used that only have a corresponding form in Gothic (OHG lyuzilla cf. Goth luttila, OHG chillaubin cf. Goth. gilaubi, OHG mittingart cf. Goth midjungarda, OHG geizzsi cf. Goth. gaitin) and certain archaic morphological traits, such as the preservation of the u-declination, the m-ending in the first singular of the present tense, as seen in bim and sculim, and the dative plural ending in –m.

With an early dating of the text corroborated by linguistic arguments, placing the translation in the beginning of the reign of Charlemagne (770’s AD) seems reasonable, although most vernacular writings are connected to late Carolingian scholarship in the closing years of the eighth and beginning of the ninth century.  Even with a late dating of the translation, the OHG Isidore, together with the Monsee-Wiener-Fragmente, would be the oldest witness to Carolingian theological writings in the vernacular.

It is believed that the reasons for the translation of the Latin text in the vernacular were purely practical. For Isidor had collected in his tractate exhaustively all the passages of the Old Testament that had any connection to Christ and he gave an excerpt of all material from the Old Testament, with the exception of the psalms, that was necessary for the support and understanding of the christian faith. It was, as it were, a survey of messianistic prophesies along with the necessary explanations historically ordered. It would have functioned as a practical teaching manual while the original intentions of the sixth century author were pushed into the background. This is corroborated by the fact that Latin iudaeos is translated by unchilaubun, i.e. “infidels” or “unbelievers”, showing that the identification of the antagonists as Jews against whom the tractate was originally meant, was secondary.  The sixth century work contra iudaeos presented to the early Carolingian clergy the quintessence of Old Testamentic writings relevant for a proper understanding of the true faith and it is probably there where we have to look for the reasons behind the OHG translation. Remarkable is the fact that the Latin is translated in what looks like mostly genuine OHG syntax. Also, in a lot of places the OHG is a very loose translation of the Latin, aiming to convey the meaning of the text, not so much the form. The Tatian translation with its word-for-word glossing style is in many ways a step back from the high-level translating skills shown in the OHG Isidore.

                To give you an idea of what the text looks like here a fragment of the OHG Isidore translation, the Latin and the OHG, to which I added an English translation of the Latin and an English translation of the OHG. Personally, I find the late antique and early medieval logic in theological matters that this text conveys highly amusing and risible.

Latin version

4. Si Christus deus non est, dicant Iudaei nobis, quem sit affatus deus in Genesi cum diceret: ‘Faciamus hominem ad imaginem et similitudinem nostram.’ Sic enim subiungitur : ‘Et creavit deus hominem ad imaginem et similitudinem dei creavit illum’. Quaerant ergo quis deus creavit , aut ad cuius dei imaginem condidit hominem quem creavit.

5. Quod si respondeant : ‘ad angelum,’, num angelus aequalem cum deo
habet imaginem, dum multum distet imago creaturae ab eo qui creavit. Aut numquid
angelus cum deo potuit facere hominem ? Quod ita existimare magnae
dementiae est. Cui ergo dicitur, aut ad cuius imaginem conditus homo creditur,
nisi ad eius, cuius una imago cum deo est et unicum nomen divinitatis est.

English translation
of the Latin

4. If Christ isn’t god, as the Jews may say to us, to whom would God have spoken in Genesis when he says: ‘Let us make man in our image and our likeness.’ Because it is joined with the following : ‘And god created man,  in the image and likeness of god he created him’. Thus they may ask which god created or in the image of which god he composed the man that he created.

5. But if they may answer: ‘in the image of the angel,’ does the angel not have an image similar to god, while the image of that being is very different to him who created.  Or surely the angel couldnt make man together with god? To believe this is a sign of great folly. To whom is it said thusly or in the image of whom is man believed to be composed, unless in the image of him, whose one image is with god and is the sole name of divinity?

Eighth century Old Rhine
Franconian rendering of the Latin

4. Ibu Christ got nist, sagheen nu dhea unchilaubun uns, zi huuemu got uuari sprehhendi
in Genesi, dhar ir quhad : ‘duoemes mannan uns anachiliihhan endi in unseru chiliihnissu’. So dhar auh after ist chiquhedan : ‘endi got chiscuof mannan anachiliihhan endi chiliihhan gote chifrumida dhen’. Suohhen dhea nu auur, huuelih got chiscuofi, odho in huuelihhes gotnissu anachiliihhan
mannan chifrumidi, dhen ir chiscuof.

5. Ibu sie antuurdant endi quhedant : ‘in angilo’: Inu ni angil nist anebanchiliih gote? Dhanne so dhrate mihhil undarscheit ist undar dhera chiscafti chiliihnissu endi dhes izs al chiscuof. Odho mahti angil so sama so got mannan chifrumman ? Dhazs so zi chilaubanne mihhil uuootnissa ist. Huuema ist dhiz nu zi quhedanne odho zi huues chiliihnissu uuardh man chiscaffan, nibu zi dhes dher anaebanliih ist gote endi chinamno ist mit godu ?

English translation
of the Old High German

                4. if Christ isn’t god, the unbelievers may say to us, to whom is god speaking in Genesis, where he says: “Let us make man similar to us and in our likeness.’ And where also is said after that:
‘and god created man, similar and liking to god he created him. However they may ask, which god would have created or in the likeness of which god he would have made man, when he created him.

                5. If they may answer and may say: “in the image of the angel’: is the angel not similar to god? Because there is a very big difference in the likeness of that creature and of him who created all. Or would the angel and god have created man together? To believe this is great folly. To whom should this be said or in the likeness of whom is man created, if not of him who is similar to god and who is the namesake of God.


Wilhelm Braune, Althochdeutsche Grammatik (12th edition 1967: Tübingen 1868).

Braune, Wilhelm, Althochdeutsches Lesebuch (17th edition 1994 Tübbingen; 1875).

Eckhardt Meinecke et Judith Schwerdt, Einführung in das Althochdeutsche (Paderborn 2001).

Herta Kowalski-Fahrun, “Alkuin und der Ahd. Isidor”, Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 47 (1923) 312–324.

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