The Anglo-Saxons and the Germans – the view from Rome

During a recent stay in Rome, I was browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Trastevere and came across an Italian book about the Anglo-Saxons and their role in the early development of written German. I realised that the book had probably been sitting there for years waiting for me to find it, so I lashed out 15 Euros and took it home.

The title of the book is ‘Gli Anglosassoni e il Continente’ (‘The Anglo-Saxons and the Continent’), by Francesco Delbono, published in 1975 by Editrice Elia. Delbono held the position of Professor of Germanic Philology and German Literature in the Facolta di Magistero di Roma, part of La Sapienza University, and published a significant body of work between the 1950’s and 1990’s. He appears to have passed away some years ago, as his library was donated to the Biblioteca dell’Istituto Italiano di Studi Germanici.

In this book, Delbono argued that the role of Charlemagne in stimulating the earliest writing in German had been wildly overblown by German academics. Instead, he emphasised the role of Anglo-Saxon missionaries in encouraging the use of German as a tool of evangelism. In an effort to land a killer blow, he made the case that the word ‘deutsch’, a Leitmotiv of nationalist German scholarship, is of Anglo-Saxon origin.

The word first appears in the Latin form theodiscus in a report to the Pope from a certain George of Ostia, an Italian papal emissary in 786 a.d.. While in Rome I visited the archeological park of Ostia Antica, a remarkably well-preserved Roman town at the mouth of the Tiber which remained inhabited until the 9th century. Evidently by George, inter alia.


Who knows, perhaps George lived in one of these houses in Ostia

Now this George actually used theodiscus to refer to speeches in Anglo-Saxon, as his report dealt with synods which he had attended in England. However, for the word to be used internationally in Latin, it would have to have gained currency in the Carolingian Empire, where George had been active. In this form, it evidently had the meaning “in a German tongue”.

Delbono tells us that the standard explanation for the origin of the word is that it was of West-Frankish origin and was latinised in the French-speaking part of the empire. According to this theory, the word theodiscus goes back to a spoken Frankish word *theudisk which meant “(in the language) of the people”.

The original proponent of this theory was a chap named Leo Weisgerber in 1949. Delbono informs us that the theory had the advantage of being politically correct (i.e. pro-European, as the name for the German people came from France) and was at the time of his writing (c. 1970) the received wisdom. Wolf’s ‘Geschichte der deutschen Sprache’ (1981) shows that the same theory continued to hold sway at that date.

Delbono pooh-poohs the idea that the Latin- and French-speaking Carolingians at the time of Charlemagne would still have had a germanic word which could have been converted into a Latin term. His studies of the linguistic politics of the Carolingian period show that the purported nostalgia for the speech of their ancestors and promotion of writing in German have no basis in fact.


Charlemagne, who didn’t really do much for German literature but has a nice bust in Aachen.

Source: By Beckstet – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The fact that Otfrid of Weissenburg (you might like to read my post about him here) used the word theodiscus in his Latin preface, but invariably frenkisg in the body of the work in Old High German casts doubt on the existence of a current Frankish word. What is more, Weisgerber’s thesis that theodiscus and its purported Frankish original referred to the German tongues within the Empire is inconsistent with its use by George of Ostia to refer to Anglo-Saxon. I will explain later why I am not entirely convinced by these arguments.

An alternative argument, proposed by Werner Betz in 1959, was that the German word behind theodiscus was a learned coinage, translating Latin vulgaris, and referring to any non-Latin vulgar tongue. I must say that, until reading Delbono’s work, I had always assumed this to be the case. But Delbono makes short work of this, pointing out that vulgaris means “of the multitude, common” and not “of the nation(s)”, which is the apparent meaning of theodiscus. The Latin word corresponding to this latter meaning is not vulgaris but gentilis, deriving from gens, “clan”, and gentes “nations”. So if theodiscus is a learned calque on a Latin word, it must be ‘gentilis’.

According to Delbono, this leaves us with the “Anglo-Saxon thesis”, which was in vogue during the 19th century, supported by Alfred Dove and Wilhelm Braune and later by Ernest Tonnelat. This theory proposes that the term was used by Anglo-Saxon missionaries to refer to the non-Christian Germans who were the object of their proselytising. Their word theodisc did not quite mean “pagan” as did the counterpart in Gothic, but rather referred to the ‘gentiles’, the ‘nations’ who the Apostles set out to convert to christianity. This meaning of the Anglo-Saxon plural theoda carried over to the corresponding adjective theodisc.

The Anglo-Saxons were formative in establishing the Church in the German-speaking areas of the Carolingian Empire and were influential enough for their word for the people whom they evangelised to have been taken over into Church and Imperial Latin. The present-day German word deutsch descends from this word.

Tempting as the argument is, I have my doubts. Delbono himself discusses the use of the word theodiscus in the records of a number of imperial diets, commencing with the Diet of Ingelheim, held by Charlemagne in 788. There it is recorded that:

… quomodo Pippinum regem in exercitu derelinquens et ibi quod Theodisca lingua herisliz dicitur, visi sunt iudicasse eundem Tassilonem ad mortem.

([The representatives of the Empire, remembering] how he deserted King Pepin during a battle and there [became] what in the german tongue is called “herisliz”, felt justified in condemning Tassilo to death.)

Delbono demonstrates that the word Theodisca refers merely to the German linguistic origin of the legal term herisliz (desertion) and in no way implies a consciousness of germanic linguistic identity among the Carolingian nobility. This may be granted, but is certainly evidence that the word theodiscus was in use at an early date to linguistically identify germanic terms of law which remained in use in the Carolingian empire, even the French-speaking part. This fact itself surely bolsters the Weisgerber argument for a West-Frankish origin of the word which Delbono has been attempting to demolish. The word could well have retained currency even after the Western Franks stopped speaking German, with a specialised meaning of “traditional Frankish” and applied to legal terms which remained in their German form.


So there you have it. According to a leading Italian expert, the word deutsch was not in fact coined by nostalgic French-speakers, as previously thought, but by English-speaking monks. But on the other hand it may indeed have been West-Frankish, kept alive by French lawyers along with traditional germanic legal terms.

Quite possibly it was both, in that the word made it into court Latin via the West-Franks, but got a major boost in East-Francia through the efforts of the Anglo-Saxon missionaries. I venture to suggest that Francesco Delbono probably wouldn’t have been too unhappy with this conclusion.


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