Almost fainting with terror she glanced back, as she was carried away, at the shore left behind. As she gripped one horn in her right hand while clutching the back of the beast with the other.
From ‘The Rape of Europa’ in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Like the English, the French have only the haziest conception of their own history, even the history of their own language. After learning a few myths about Louis the Fourteenth and Napoleon, French schoolchildren might, if they are lucky, hear something of Charlemagne. He’ll most likely be presented as an early Frenchman who was the first king to rule over much of Western Europe. Even the European Union likes to join in with such myth-making from time to time, calling him ‘the father of Europe’ or some such tosh. This makes about as much sense as believing Europe sprang from the loins of a Phœnician girl who was abducted and raped by a bull. Charlemagne, let’s call him Karl for that was his name, was about as much a Frenchman as I am. Karl was a German, or, if you want to be more precise, Germanic. His court was in Aachen.
The Franks, both Salian and Ripuarian, who gave their name to France were a group of Germanic tribes who first came into Gaul (modern France) in the early fifth century. The Frankish kings spoke a form of Old Germanic and continued to do so for centuries to come. Charlemagne, who we might do better to call by his German name Karl der Grosse (‘the Great’), lived in the second half of the eighth century and into the ninth century, and thus almost four hundred years after the Franks arrived in Gaul, never had more than a superficial grasp of Latin, nor any real understanding of the developing Romance language of his ‘French’ subjects. He remained a German, speaking one variant of Old High German until his death in 814. But tell that to a French history teacher at your peril!
After Emperor Karl’s death his empire started to fall apart as his children and grandchildren fought each other. In 842, only twenty-eight years after Charlemagne’s death, three of his grandsons were still fighting each other. After many complicated plots and switching of sides, two of them, Ludwig ‘the German’ and Karl ‘the Bald’ decided to combine to defeat their brother Lothar. In February 842 Karl and Ludwig (or Charles and Louis if you prefer) each came with his own army to the German (now French) town of Strasbourg. And here they agreed to swear allegiance to each other and to support each other against their brother Lothar.
It was a stage-managed affair. We are lucky to still have an early record of the meeting and the oaths sworn, written by the contemporary Frankish ‘historian’ Nithard, himself another of Charlemagne’s grandchildren, and included in his De dissensionibus filiorum Ludovici pii (On the Dissensions of the Sons of Louis the Pious). Nithard first gives a little background in Latin:
So, Ludwig and Karl met on the 16th day before the calends of March (i.e. 14 February) in the town that used to be called Argentaria but which is now commonly known as Strasbourg, and they swore the oaths given below, Ludwig in Romance and Karl in German. But before swearing the oaths, they made speeches in German and Romance.
Notice that the ‘German’ Ludwig was to make his speeches and oaths in Romance, i.e. in Proto-French, whilst the ‘Frenchman’ Karl was to do so in German. Unfortunately we don’t have these speeches as they were spoken, but Nithard gives them in Latin.
‘Ludwig, being the elder, began as follows’:
Let it be known how many times Lothar has — since our father died — attempted to destroy me and this brother of mine, committing massacres in his pursuit of us. But since neither brotherhood nor Christianity nor any natural inclination, save justice, has been able to bring peace between us, we have been forced to take the matter to the judgement of almighty God, so that we may accept whatever His will is.
The result was, as you all know, that by the Grace of God we came out as victors, and that he, defeated, went back to his people where he was stronger. But then, motivated by brotherly love and compassion for Christendom, we decided not to pursue and destroy them; instead, until now, we have asked him at least to submit to justice as in the past.
But he, despite this, not content with God’s judgement, does not cease to come after me and this brother of mine with his armies. Moreover, he is devastating our people by burning, pillaging and murdering. That is why we now, driven by necessity, are having this meeting, and, since we believe that you doubt our firm faith and brotherhood, we shall swear this oath between us before all of you.
This act is not in bad faith, but simply so that, if God gives us peace thanks to your help, we may be certain that a common benefit will come of it. Should I — God forbid — break the oath which I am about to swear to my brother, I release you from my sovereignty over you and from the oath that you have all sworn to me.
Nithard added that ‘once Karl had finished off the speech with the same words in Romance, Ludwig, since he was the elder, then swore allegiance first’.
Maintaining the elaborate stage-management of speaking in each other’s language, Ludwig the German then took his oath in Romance. Luckily his Romance words were recorded by Nithard. This oath is generally accepted to be the earliest written example of ‘Old French’. Indeed it is also the earliest written example of any post-Roman Romance language.
Pro Deo amur et pro christian poblo et nostro commun saluament, d’ist di in auant, in quant Deus sauir et podir me dunat, si saluarai eo cist meon fradre Karlo, et in adiudha et in cadhuna cosa si cum om per dreit son fradra saluar dist, in o quid il mi altresi fazet. Et ab Ludher nul plaid nunquam prindrai qui meon uol cist meon fradre Karle in damno sit.
I will give a translation in a minute. But notice two things. First, even in Romance we find the German name Karl. Second, even though one can, with a bit of close reading, see the first signs of the nascent French language here (for example sauir = savoir), it still seems more vulgar or ‘vulgate’ Latin than anything else, at least to me.
The ‘French’ king Karl/Charles the Bald then gives the same oath in German, actually in Rhenish Franconian, a form of Old High German.
In godes minna ind in thes christiānes folches ind unsēr bēdhero gehaltnissī, fon thesemo dage frammordes, sō fram sō mir got gewizci indi mahd furgibit, sō haldih thesan mīnan bruodher, sōso man mit rehtu sīnan bruodher scal, in thiu thaz er mig sō sama duo, indi mit Ludheren in nohheiniu thing ne gegango, the mīnan willon imo ce scadhen werdhēn.
Now even though this might be difficult for a present-day German to understand, with a bit of effort they could. Indeed even an English speaker could get a fair amount if he/she looked at it hard enough. I commend you to try it, both before and after looking at the following English version of these ‘Oaths of Strasbourg’:
For the love of God and for Christendom and our common salvation, from this day onwards, as God will give me the wisdom and power, I shall protect this brother of mine Karl (or Ludwig), with aid or anything else, as one ought to protect one’s brother, so that he may do the same for me, and I shall never knowingly make any covenant with Lothar that would harm this brother of mine Karl (or Ludwig).
After Ludwig and Karl had made their oaths in the other’s language, it was the turn of their armies to mumble a few words. Of course it couldn’t be expected that these simple warriors would use another language; that would be like asking French soldiers today to take an oath in German! So the armies made a short oath in their own languages. First Romance:
Si Lodhuuigs sagrament quæ son fradre Karlo iurat, conseruat, et Carlus meos sendra, de suo part, non lostanit, si io returnar non l’int pois, ne io, ne neuls cui eo returnar int pois, in nulla aiudha contra Lodhuuuig nun li iu er.
Then the Germans:
Oba Karl then eid, then er sīnemo bruodher Ludhuwīge gesuor, geleistit, indi Ludhuwīg mīn hērro then er imo gesuor forbrihchit, ob ih inan es irwenden ne mag: noh ih noh thero nohhein, then ih es irwenden mag, widhar Karlo imo ce follusti ne wirdhit.
In English :
If Ludwig (Karl) keeps the oath that he has sworn to his brother Karl (Ludwig), and Karl (Ludwig), my lord, on the other hand breaks it, and if I cannot dissuade him from it — neither I nor anyone that I can dissuade from it — then I shall not help him in any way against Ludwig (Karl).
The text finishes with the information that, ‘with this completed, Ludwig left for Worms along the Rhine via Speyer; and Karl, along the Vosges via Wissembourg’.
From a linguistic point of view the ‘Oaths of Strasbourg’ is a remarkable document. As I have said, it is the first example of early French as well as the first written text in any Romance language, although it is not by any means anywhere near the first text in the various forms of Old Germanic (including Old English).
What’s in a language? Make of this what you may.