Hebban olla vogala.

Michael Lysander Angerer’s “Hebban olla vogala: An Eleventh-Century Link Between Dutch and English Literary History” (Neophilologus, 22 May 2024; Open access) describes an interesting translingual situation:


The short eleventh-century lyric Hebban olla vogala is considered the earliest literary text in Dutch. Yet it only survives as a badly faded pen trial, written in England by a monk from the Low Countries. As a result, the exact reading of the text and even the language it was written in remain uncertain. Now, multispectral imaging of the manuscript has made it possible to provide an improved reconstruction of the text. An analysis of this new reading suggests that the scribe deliberately used the similarity between dialects of late Old English and Old Dutch to produce a rhyming verse text that was intelligible in both languages. As a multilingual and translingual poem, Hebban olla vogala must therefore be situated in English as well as Dutch literary history. The scribe’s other pen trials in the same manuscript demonstrate an interest in different Latin verse forms, indicating that Hebban olla vogala may also be a literary experiment. In exploiting the mutual intelligibility of Old Dutch and Old English, the poem points to an easily overlooked current of influence on late Old English and early Middle English literature. While this is hard to trace due to the similarities between the two languages, Dutch emerges as another potential influence, alongside Anglo-Norman French, on the development of rhyming verse in English after the Norman Conquest. In this way, Hebban olla vogala can be seen not only as a monument of Dutch literary history, but also as a testament to its interaction with English literature.

I got this from a Facebook post where a commenter took issue with the conclusions of the article, but I can’t find it now. At any rate, if you’re wondering about the title, “Hebban olla uogala nestas hagunnan” means ‘all the birds have begun nests.’


  1. Awaiting more relevant learned comments, why is this considerable text repeatedly and dogmatically called a “pen trial”?

  2. Jen in Edinburgh says

    It and others are written into odd blank spaces in these manuscripts, apparently.

    I don’t think whether it’s a pen trial has anything to do with the literary merit of the content.

  3. It may not take that long to know your pen.

  4. Jen in Edinburgh says

    13 words? (OK, 25 including the Latin)

  5. This is not what pen testing looks like in Dead Sea Scrolls.
    But more like opistographs, (There are two definitions of that word.)
    Reusing available space.
    Maybe not, ok, but why ruled out?
    Knowing intention?

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    ‘The two pages in the back of BPL 111-I are also in line with broader European traditions regarding the kind of tests they contain. We encounter single letters and words, as well as nonsensical phrases (“e,” “egi de e,” “ego panne,” “autem”).’ So pens were tested in a fashion akin to modern cliches about testing microphones? (“Check one. Check one. Sibilance … sibilance.”)

  7. Not nonsensical phrases, though.

  8. Opistograph.
    Apparently there are two definitions current. William A. Johnson,
    Books and Scribes in Oxyrhynchus (2004, p. 342): “Opistograph.
    A bookroll where the text is written on both front (recto) and back (verso).
    This term does not apply when both sides are written upon because the papyrus has been reused.”
    The Oxford English Dictionary entry, spelled opisthograph, does not include the limitation
    in the second sentence; nor does it limit to writing on papyrus. Examples of the
    broader use, including papyrus and skin, and in cases of Qumran mss where the second writing
    is from a second, later scribe are found in, e.g., Michael O. Wise, Thunder in Gemini (1994)
    and Emanuel Tov, Scribal practices and approaches reflected in the texts found in the
    Judean desert (2004).

  9. It does not look to me like a pen trial.
    Copied for some other reason.

  10. Owlmirror says

    Calligraphers, and presumably scribes before them, want to make sure that the pen produces proper-looking lines on upstrokes, downstrokes, curves, and various transitions in pen direction.

  11. Abstracts are sometimes written by editors. But the following sentence, in one interpretation, if valid, may suggest that the scribe was composing, rather than copying (?), which, if so, may be, in my opinion, atypical of a pen trial:
    “An analysis of this new reading suggests that the scribe deliberately used the similarity between dialects of late Old English and Old Dutch to produce a rhyming verse text that was intelligible in both languages.”

    (Who practices new-pen ductus effect in composition?)

  12. Stephen Goranson: Abstracts are sometimes written by editors….

    What? No.

  13. Owlmirror says

    I don’t think there’s any contradiction in using a page that has been used for pen trials to compose a few lines of something or other that may have been rattling around in the author’s head.

    If you look at the actual page image, it certainly looks like other pen trial pages, like the ones Hat linked to in the 2nd comment — the rest of the page has text all over the place, a big blot on the middle left, and another blot on the middle far right. The text in question is not started neatly on the top left, as one would think for a deliberately composed text, but is squeezed down on the middle right.

    What else could it be called, if not a pen trial?

  14. Some marks there were pen trials.
    Others may have been written to be read.

  15. Some pens need more trying than others. “Scratch paper” is a very modern term. Working out a composition, some vague drafts? Stream-of-consciousness? Trials on skin – is the pen compatible with the skin? How’s the ink working? Trying to write with some red pigment? The phrase “pen trial” is paleographers’ shorthand (& calligraphers’ shorthand) for writing that is not part of the final job. Sometimes it may be textual composition. (& both the words: “composition” and “drafts” above can apply to the arrangement of physical elements on a page or to the arrangement of words in a text. It’s on a page of pen trials. I don’t think that’s controversial.
    I type here as a calligrapher. One does not always just write minimum, or “mimi numinum niuium minimi munium nimium uini muniminum imminui uiui minimum uolunt,” or alphabets or prayers, when not “at work”.

  16. Stu Clayton says

    Hey missuz ! Followed your link, ran up against a typo: “a gilidng trial”. Interesting thing to learn about, in these keyboard days of it-works-or-it-don’t-and-there’s-nothing-you-can-fix.

  17. Thanks, Stu. Fixed now, if I haven’t let any others creep in.
    I know, I left an unclosed paren in the previous post. I am not, like our learnèd host, a copyeditor. Sigh.
    I’ve been typing about gilding to some students lately, & I do it quite consistently. The typo, not the gilding.

  18. Stu Clayton says

    I thought you meant “gliding” !? The pen has to glide, or not ?

  19. Are “pen trials” often translated–later?–by the same scribe?–who had imitated Latin?–into Latin?
    Was it “a linguistic experiment” or a “carefully copied, corrected, and translated pen trial” or both or…?
    (I previously attempted, partially, to contrast the abstract and the article.)

  20. Traditionally, Stu, the pen dances.

  21. David Marjanović says

    Abstracts are sometimes written by editors.

    …Blurbs are sometimes written by publishers, but only books have those. “Editor’s summaries” are written by editors, but very few journals have those, and they use “Editor’s summary” as the actual headline. Abstracts are always written by the authors to the best of my knowledge.

  22. “Abstracts are always written by the authors,,,.”
    Not true.

  23. Stu Clayton says

    @Amanda: didn’t know that !

    To many of us, calligraphy is merely fancy handwriting used to record information, but to a Turk calligraphy is much more. It is an art – a grand form of art – with its origins dating back many centuries. The Turks refer to calligraphy as Hat (pronounced like “hut”). In its literal sense, Hat means beautiful writing practiced and perfected throughout time as a way to combine spiritual and functional writing with the medium of art.

    I devoted too much of my life to the study of callipygia.

  24. Abstracts are always written by the authors

    I can’t speak for other journals, but when I was an editor at Nature and Science I would heavily edit abstracts and the first paragraphs of letters (the equivalent of abstracts, more or less) to the point that they were mostly written by me. This was especially true for authors whose first language was not English and for mathematically inclined physicists (whose first language might technically have been English, but it wasn’t always apparent).

    The authors always saw what I had written and were able to correct/adjust as necessary.

  25. Nature and Science are always special cases (sometimes joined by Cell).

  26. Stu – I thought I was waylaying the thread, so I answered you on FB message…

  27. Stu Clayton says

    @Amanda: OK, I’ve gotten back to you.

  28. On the main argument of the piece, I’m sympathetic to the overall conclusion that:

    “Hebban olla vogala emerges not only as part of Dutch literary history, but also as early evidence of the interactions between Dutch and English literature.”

    Though the “early” part is a bit off, since we’ve got evidence of linguistic and literary connections with various parts of the Low Countries going back a long ways before this.

    The bit on the manuscript reading, which seems to be drawing the most attention, is nice — it’s always good to have a more secure text, even if it doesn’t really change much compared to what we already thought we knew in this case.

    There’s a good deal more, however, and I’m not convinced by this conclusion:

    “Instead, the Dutch-speaking scribe of Hebban olla vogala appears to capitalise on the similarity between Old English and Old Dutch to produce a carefully formed text in a Dutch-English Mischsprache which is intelligible in both.”

    There might perhaps be a bit of slight English influence (in the prefix of hagunnan, most particularly; the plural of nestas is a problem, but not one so easily solved by reference to English), but I see nothing obviously programmatic or intentional about it. In any case our knowledge of Dutch dialects at this time is so miserable that I’m wary of being dogmatic about what can’t be Dutch. Angerer is extremely flexible on the English side, taking non-southern English plural verbal endings in -en as evidence that hebban “would have been perfectly intelligible in England”. It might well have been intelligible — lots of things are intelligible to a reasonably non-judgemental reader/listener, and the two languages were pretty similar at that date — but Angerer relies on the scribe drawing on strikingly non-Kentish plural ending being somewhat randomly imported here. He then reaches all the way to Northumbria to find an early enough English analogue for plural nestas. The supposed Englishness of unbidan rests entirely on a comparison to an isolated, later East Anglian form (that could itself just be a scribal mistake). No such laxness or latitude is allowed on the Dutch side, meaning that the “Englishness” ends up being exaggerated, while the “Dutchness” is downplayed (and, again, no recognition of the different histories of attestations is allowed for — the comparisons are basically textual rather than reconstructive).

    The kicker is that I don’t think this “Mischsprache” idea is really all that essential to Angerer’s real points. It’s a Dutch text appearing in England that really matters most for Angerer’s literary-historical argument (which is what the title and the bulk of the word count are spent on). The “accommodation” argument is mostly superfluous to all that.

    As a side note, the idea that vogala and hagunnan “half rhyme” seems unlikely to me. I’d hesitate to accept this as a rhyme or assonance in Laȝamon, who’s notoriously loose in this respect.

    (This is adapted from comments I made about the article on Facebook.)

  29. Thanks, it must be your comments I’m remembering, and that’s exactly the kind of thing I was wondering about! I agree about the “half rhyme” — very unconvincing.

  30. Michael Angerer says

    I appreciate that on the linguistic side, this can be quite contentious – but a lot of this is a reaction against what can sometimes border on an obsession with linguistic ‘purity’. In the case of Hebban olla vogala, this has recently been more of a problem with Old English, which had a literary standard form, and hence I spend more time on that side of the issue.

    But I’d like to clarify that I certainly don’t mean to argue that some forms ‘can’t be Dutch’. With the possible exception of hagunnan (and I do address the problem of nestas), the poem can read fairly unproblematically as Dutch. What I’m arguing against is that the poem is only Dutch, as if it existed in a vaccuum in England. I also attempt to nuance Kenny Louwen’s categorisation of some forms as Dutch and others as English, which is quite reconstructive, by showing that Dutch forms are also attested in English (and, indeed, vice versa). That means the poem would have been made intelligible to anyone near Rochester who was familiar with neighbouring East Anglian dialects – and that, I think, is rather important for the wider argument about Dutch interactions with English literature.

    On the issue of half-rhyme, I have to admit that I see vogala/hagunnan as not much more problematic than ealle/folgian in The Death of William the Conqueror, or indeed some of the examples of early Middle High German rhyme listed by Werner Hoffmann.

  31. Thanks, that makes it clearer where you’re coming from. I confess my knowledge is too limited to even pretend to have an opinion one way or the other.

  32. David Marjanović says

    some of the examples of early Middle High German rhyme listed by Werner Hoffmann

    Could you give us some of those?

  33. I don’t imagine that anyone would perceive ealle and folgian as rhyming, for that matter! The only thing the words share is a single l. Rather than calling that rhyme, we’d be better off saying that that poem didn’t always insist on rhyme (or, as is very possible, that we’ve got some transmission problems going on).

    “That means the poem would have been made intelligible to anyone near Rochester who was familiar with neighbouring East Anglian dialects”

    I certainly agree that the lines wouldn’t have been hard for an English speaker — probably of any dialect, if they had a little patience and experience with linguistic variation — to understand. It’s the “made intelligible” part, and the idea that this was carefully intentional, that I’m still pretty sceptical about. Even if we think the ha- prefix is a sign of linguistic convergence (still something I see more as a possibility than a certainty), there are a lot of different types of convergence possible, with various conscious and unconscious factors potentially at work.

    In case my comments come across as nit-picky, I would add that I enjoyed the sections on Dutch in the history of English a lot. I’ve complained myself that the various Dutch, Flemish, and Low German connections of English in the later Middle Ages in particular are kind of oddly sidelined a lot of the time. You’ll find them mentioned in the standard histories of English, of course, but they’re on the whole a bit understudied (at least relative to other topics in English historical linguistics), and seem to not be very prominent in the “standard narrative”.

  34. Michael Angerer says

    I agree that the rhyme is not unequivocal – although I think ealle/folgian may also share a final schwa vowel, like vogala/hagunnan, masked by conventional spelling. Of course, I could be lending too much importance to such formal features, but I confess that I am not entirely sold on the more morphological approaches to metre.

    On Hoffmann, incidentally, my memory failed me: he actually refers to the Old High German Ludwigslied and Christ and the Woman From Samaria. To me, these seem intended as rhyme, though again you may disagree. They also pair lines ending on various combinations of consonance and assonance, including hinavarth/giuualt, uz/imoz, uuissis/gift ist, finfe/volliste.

    And I concede that there is no way of definitely proving intentionality for the language of Hebban olla vogala. It doesn’t seem unlikely for it to be the result of some degree of language contact; as to whether this is fully deliberate, that is my own impression due to the amount of care taken to write and translate the lines. But I’m very glad you enjoyed the broader argument (not that this should in any way stop you from nitpicking if necessary) – it seemed like an important addition to make.

  35. Thanks, Michael Angerer, for your comments here, including on “the amount of care taken to write and translate the lines.”
    Writing can appear in all sorts of places, even in the back of printed books, so urged Morton Smith in “Monasteries and Their Manuscripts,” Archaeology 13/3, Sept. 1960, 172-7. That was after he claimed to find in 1958 a letter of Clement of Alexandria penned in the back of a 1646 book at Mar Saba–except in that case, he probably forged it himself.

  36. David Marjanović says

    Oh! I had overlooked that the paper is in open access! :-] I’ve read it now. What I find most striking is that almost every h is spurious, and conversely the one of Latin habent is missing. West Flemish and southern English are h-dropping today – were they already back then?

    Also, I didn’t know about wat and wonene in Laȝamon – evidence for h-dropping not much later.

  37. “although I think ealle/folgian may also share a final schwa vowel, like vogala/hagunnan”

    This is possible, depending on the dialect. But I do think historians of English are on the whole inclined to try and push the full reduction of schwa too early — Kitson’s article on “When did Middle English begin?” is a nice corrective in this regard, and his evidence suggests that OE a and u collapsed together before their combined merger product merged with OE e. A lot would hinge on just what dialect the composer of the Rhyme was using. (Not that I’d be terribly inclined to accept this as a rhyme, even with, say, [ałłə] and [fɔłɣən].)

    The Ludwigslied certainly uses plenty of assonance, but we usually actually have a pretty good real assonance, with the vowels exactly matching. If they don’t match, then we usually have more consonantal reinforcement. But the same is true of Laȝamon, as far as we can tell given the atrocious state of transmission for that text.

    All of which is making me wonder if the conventional lineation for the Rhyme might be wrong. Perhaps the relevant lines should rather be:

    Ac hi moston mid ealle
    þes cynges wille
    folgian gif hi woldon libban,
    oððe land habban…

    This introduces a bit more of a mismatch between syntax and lineation than is normal, though “þes cynges wille” is still a nicely self-contained noun phrase. I don’t think anyone would say that ealle~wille is a particularly problematic rhyme in this context — we’ve got something fairly similar in the very next couplet, after all.

    DM, Laȝamon is indeed a poet showing hw > w regularly, as confirmed by alliteration. But this is a somewhat special case, since it concerns the development of [ʍ] rather than prevocalic [h]. This is of course a point of dialect variation down to the present day, and my own speech has [w] while still retaining initial [h]. This is apparently what Laȝamon already had:

    & þā ṭscolde bēon i·hāten Hǣlend / & helpen his frēondes (9144-9145)
    & Hængest swīðe fæire / herede þane king (14061-14062)
    þe helm an his hæuede / and his here-burne (23966-23967)

    (Line numbers from Madden, since that’s what I had within easiest reach. For the newer lineation of Brook & Leslie, basically divide by two.)

  38. PlasticPaddy says

    Looking at early MHG texts, apart from the various conventions for end rhymes, it seems there are very occasional non-rhyming verse couplets or quatrains:

    Ther keiser alle svîte.
    tho rethete aver ther alte:
    „owole thu keiser ethele,
    thir enbiutet ther kuninc Marsilie


  39. David Marjanović says


    …That’s a weird text for reasons completely different from its poetics. ~:-| de.wp:

    Für die Entstehung des Rolandsliedes wird die Zeit um 1170/72[14] oder um 1185 bzw. das Ende der 1180er Jahre[15] angenommen. Eine Frühdatierung in die Mitte des 12. Jahrhunderts wurde in der jüngeren Forschung hingegen nicht mehr vertreten. Verfasst wurde es wohl in Regensburg oder Braunschweig. Für beide Orte spricht der angenommene Auftraggeber Heinrich der Löwe. Für Braunschweig spricht, dass der Knauf von Rolands Wunderschwert Durendart in der französischen Vorlage die Reliquien von St. Peter, St. Dionysius, St. Basilius und der Gottesmutter enthält, während das deutsche Rolandslied den Heiligen Basilius durch den Heiligen Blasius ersetzt (V. 6875), der vor allem in Braunschweig verehrt wurde. Für Regensburg sprechen hingegen die wahrscheinlich bairische Sprache des Originals, die Rezeption der Kaiserchronik, die Hervorhebung des bayerischen Herzogs Naimes sowie ein Katalog bayerischer Namen.

    …so maybe it was first translated from Old French into Early Middle Bavarian (and the locals emphasized), then from that into Early Middle Low German (and a local saint edited in), and the latter still had unshifted /θ/… but the translator didn’t adapt the epilog at all…

  40. Michael Angerer says

    On The Death of William the Conqueror, I have to say that the suggested relineation of the poem seems to me syntactically highly unlikely. I’d be much more inclined to stick with an intended ealle/folgian rhyme – especially so since we know that the exemplar of the surviving manuscript was at Canterbury in the late eleventh century, and even Kitson notes that Kentish levelled quite early.

    I do think it’s possible that this was not immediately obvious to the manuscript’s East Midland scribe, who avoids metrical pointing in this section of the poem – he may have been confused by the more obvious rhyme between ealle and wille.

    As far as the Middle High German examples from the Rolandslied are concerned, none of these actually seem problematic to me. They all at least fulfil Hoffmann’s criteria for ‘primitive’ rhyme, which is a bit of a catch-all category to designate the many cases in which only the final sound matches. (As a side note, if this kind of verse did not require rhyme, I would expect to find examples in which no sound matches.)

    And yes, h-dropping is attested in both West Flemish and English at the time (see notably D. G. Scragg’s study of initial h in Old English).

  41. PlasticPaddy says

    Thanks. I agree that a line ending in schwa (or schwa+n/m) rhymes with another line with this ending, according to the conventions of this poetry. This is of course almost a “get out of gaol free” card for the poet.
    Maybe I am reading these poems the wrong way; somehow in the 4 lines I quoted, I hear

    Ther keiser al • le svîte.
    tho rethete a • ver ther alte:
    „(o)wole thu • keiser ethele,
    thir enbiutet the(r) • kuninc Marsilie

    so a caesural verse with patterns of internal rhyme and alliteration. Whereas I hear more “typical” end-rhymed lines with long vowel or accented syllable as more Chaucerian:
    ze gote was er gewäre.
    er was reht rihtäre,
    er lerte uns thie phahte:
    ther engel sie imo vore tihte.
    er erkunde elliu reht,
    zuo theme sverte was er guot kneht.

  42. Of course, folgian wouldn’t reduce to [fɔłɣən], but to [fɔłɣi(n)], Kentish [vɔłɣi] — my mistake. But the only agreement is still a single consonant, which is a poor match compared to the normal rhymes in the Rhyme. If that counted as a rhyme, you’d expect a lot more latitude than we actually see. (To find a single sound somewhere in the final couple of syllables would not be surprising to happen by chance. By that standard, the first twelve lines of Beowulf are in rhyming couplets!)

    There’s always naturally the possibility that something has gone wrong in transmission. That’s harder to judge in this text than in many, because the line-internal rhythms are so unregulated.

  43. Michael Angerer says

    Well, to my ear, the ealle/folgian rhyme (off-rhyme?) works, although my ear is hardly an objective standard. Mind you, the other rhymes in The Death of William the Conqueror also include hinde/blendian. I’d be inclined to agree with Eric Stanley that ‘rhyme is sometimes so inexact that it is difficult to tell if rhyme or assonance describes it properly’ – he ultimately wants a broader concept like the German Anklang. (I do think the comparison with Beowulf is rather disingenuous: to start with the first line, the only properly matching sound in dena/dagum would be an alliteration.)

    All this does make me wish for a more systematic study of early end-rhyme, but I’m not aware of much recent(ish) work in that area besides Stanley’s overview and some comments by Thomas Bredehoft. I wonder, Nelson, if you happen to have any personal recommendations, or if you’ve come across anything on that topic recently?

    Regarding the Rolandslied: I would be very hesitant to identify a caesura within a word – to me, at least, the two quoted sections read quite similarly.

  44. With Beowulf, I was referring to full lines, not half-lines: dagum : frugnun; fręmidun, þrēatum, tēah, wearð; bād, þāh; -endra, scolde; cyning, cenned. If you’re strict about vowel length, then lines 5 and 6 won’t “rhyme”, but the rest all definitely share at least one sound in the codas between the last stressed syllable and the line end. Again, this isn’t to say that that poem actually rhymes, just that it’s pretty easy to find these kinds of matches. Probably you could more usefully calculate the actual probability of this happening by chance, for any given language.

    On hinde and blendian, we have a full match in the consonant cluster — what we’d call skothending if this were Norse (and the vowels in question are rather close as well). That sort of thing definitely is paralleled in the Brut, where we find rhymes like tellen and stille. (Despite the spelling, blendian is surely a disyllable: all other evidence is that it’s a class I weak verb. So there’s probably no syllabic discrepancy between these rhymes.)

    As for rhyme in general, Bredehoft would have been the main one I’d have added off the top of my head. But my interests focus on rhythm and stress more than on linking devices, so it isn’t something I’ve looked into much. A really systematic survey would certainly be very useful, though! If I get a bit of free time at work this week, I’ll take a look through my notes and see if there are any promising references there.

Speak Your Mind