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Heliand Fragment

This oldest document of the old-saxon language was written in the 9th century. In the 17th century, the parchment leaf was used for bookbinding. It was discovered only in 2006 among the holdings of Leipzig's St. Thomas' church, kept in Leipzig University Library since 1930.

The parchment leaf (Slider, Fig. 1) is 9.4 inches long and 6.5 inches wide. Noticeably, its corners are cut, because around 1610 it was used as binding for a collective volume. The leaf belonged to a book manuscript und has text on both sides. The writing indicates the middle of the 9th century. Other than the common in this period of the European Middle Ages, there is no Latin text here on parchment relayed in Carolingian minuscule (a lower case script established by Charlemagne). The text is in Old Saxon, the medieval predecessor of today’s Low German.Here on display is the back of the leaf with very well preserved text, because it was on the inner side of what the bookbinder glued to the cover. The manuscript is written in continuous lines, although it is a verse composition. The verses are separated from each other by periods. When a new line starts a new verse, the writer highlights this by putting the first letter slightly to the left. The Heliand verses are divided into two parts, which are connected via alliterative rhyme, i.e. stressed words inside the long line begin with the same sound. The long line in the seventh to last line above the initial is an example: gangat gahlico endi giduat it them is giungarom kuđ (Go in a hurry and tell the disciples of the news).The red-gold furnished initials indicate a new 'Fitte', which the Heliand poet calls his chapters dividing his poem. 
The text on the manuscript page describes the Easter Morning scene of the New Testament. At the open and empty grave of Christ the three Maries encounter angels, who proclaim to them the resurrection and charge them with declaring the good news to the other disciples. The text in translation (maintaining the original lines, slashes separating the verses):

[To them the brilliance was too] strong, / too luminous to see. Instantly
there spoke to them / the messengers of the Lord, and to the women they ask-
ed, / why they sought Christ there, the living by the de-
ad, / the son of God they came to find, / who was full of
life. 'Now you will not find him here/ in his stone gra-
ve, because he is already arisen/ with his body. You
should believe that / and remember the wor-
ds, which he often truly / said himself, when he
was in your midst/in the land of Galilee; how he
must be sacrificed/sold himself for the sins
of man/into the hands of the hateful, the holy Lord, / that
they martyred him and nailed him to the cross, /
killed him, and that he should through God's
power/ on the third day to the salvation of all peoples /
living arise. Now he has done everything, /                    
accomplished among men. Hasten now from here, /
go in a hurry and tell the disciples of the news /
He is gone before you / into the Land of Galilee. There his disc-
iples should / see him, his companions.' Therefore instantaneously
became / the women full of joy, because they he-
ard such words spoken, / tidings of the power of God.
But still they were frightened / in dread ...

The Heliand is one of the most important works of Germanic poetry in its infancy. It was probably written before the middle of the 9th century and tells the life of Jesus in roughly 6,000 lines. The work's wording and style is tightly connected to the German poetic tradition; only a few written works from the Carolingian Empire have survived. As an extension of this oral epic tradition the work is of special value. The audience of Heliand was probably first and foremost the monks in the recently Christianized Saxon region. Possible points of origin for Heliand could be the Imperial Abbey of Fulda or a center of Old Saxon situated further west, perhaps Werden near Essen.The title Heliand goes back to the librarian and professor Johann Andreas Schmeller, who shortly before 1830 discovered one of the first Heliand manuscripts in Munich, from which the first edition of the text is sourced. The word heliand, which in this epos is commonly used to refer to Jesus, is the Old Saxon equivalent of modern High German 'Heiland' (in English 'redeemer').

The Heliand has survived in two manuscripts, though in both not complete on account of missing leaves. Therefore, the end of the poem is lost today. Furthermore, fragments from three separate texts have survived. The fragment discovered in Leipzig (L) comes from a former Heliand manuscript, from which a further leaf had already been found in Prague in 1880. This fragment (P) is kept today in the German Historical Museum in Berlin.The Berlin leaf belonged to the beginning of the destroyed Heliand manuscript and contains the story of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. The Leipzig fragment belongs to the latter part of the Codex und conveys the Easter scene after the Resurrection.

The Leipzig volume bound with the Heliand fragment (Slider, Fig. 2) contained two Wittenberg printed texts from the years 1608 and 1609. The format and the content of the works (and also the cheap method of binding) let us hypothesize that it is common literature for the use in an early modern university. But in which university city did the bookbinder work, who in 1600 used the old Heliand manuscript as binding material?After the discovery of the Leipzig fragment in 2006 everything pointed to Wittenberg, because the printed texts of the Leipzig volume were certainly intended for use at Wittenberg University and exclusively published in Wittenberg. Pointing to Wittenberg also fits because of other binding material which was turned out to be leather stamped binding; its ornamental decoration corresponds to the Wittenberg binding style of the second half of the 16th century.

Indicating Wittenberg as the last storage place of the Heliand manuscript before its destruction has a special significance, because some information has been preserved from the middle of the 16th century hinting towards the existence of a Codex of the Old Saxon epic in the circle of Wittenberg reformers. This Codex could have contained a Latin preface to Heliand, which the Protestant theologian Flacius Illyricus (1520-1575) reproduced in the second print run of his 'Catalogue of Witnesses of the Truth' (Catalogus testium veritatis) documenting early German versions of the Bible. This Heliand preface gives an account of where Biblical poetry came from and names the 'most pious emperor Louis' (Ludouicus piissimus Augustus, probably Louis the German) as the one having commissioned it. The manuscript with the important preface is today lost. Maybe it came from the somewhere close to the author.The Heliand manuscript, which was probably also used by Luther, had supposedly belonged to the private library of the Leipzig professor and many times rector Caspar Borner (1492-1547), who was also the founder of the Leipzig University Library. Borner could have lent Luther the manuscript, where it then may have remained in Wittenberg.In any case there is a high possibility that the two pages – in both Leipzig and Berlin – are the remains of a precious manuscript, which could time wise and content wise bring us closer to the (wholly unknown) author.

The other side of the displayed leaf (Slider, Fig. 3) is the original front side, with verses 5823-5846 of Heliand. In these verses the story is told of how the women on Easter morning first learned about the Resurrection from the angels at the grave of Christ and then on their return encountered the two angels whose message follows on the back side.The front side served as the outside of the binding and is therefore rather darkened and worn down.There are two interesting edits to the text in the last line, which were probably made very soon after the production of the manuscript: two words written over the line change the alliteration. This is evidence of the poetical writing process itself. One of the two changes is also found in the London Heliand manuscript. This also supports the suggestion that the manuscript from where we have the Leipzig and Berlin leaves belong to somewhere close to the author.

The manuscript can be seen online via Project TITUS of Frankfurt University. There is more information on the scope and the quality of the manuscript here
The fragment in of the German Historical Museum is presented on this website.

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