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Pete Scully, MA English

Germanic Philology

May 2005


Essay: In what ways did the Gothic and Anglo-Saxon missions influence the Christian vocabulary adopted in Germany?


The transition of early medieval Germans from a pagan culture to Christianity appears to have been a fairly protracted affair, which has left its mark on their language to this day. Variances in some fairly fundamental words betray the influence of the linguistic groups that took part in their conversion at different periods. The word for ‘Saturday’, for example, has two equivalents in modern German (three in the wider Germanic context, if you include cognates of ‘Saturday’ itself, such as the Dutch zaterdag). D.H. Green discusses the co-existance of Samstag and Sonnabend, noting that the latter originally meant only “the last part (following vespers) of the day before Sunday,” literally ‘Sunday’s eve’, before it eventually came to mean the whole day itself.[1] To this, Green attributes the influence of the English, whose efforts to promote Christianity among the Saxons and Germans proved ultimately successful. Samstag on the other hand, which in Old High German was sambaztag, appears to be from the Latin sambatum ‘Sabbath’, similar to French samedi, but may bear testament to the influence of Greek via Gothic sabbato.[2] This may also explain the preferred use of Samstag in the south, where the early influence of Gothic was strongest.   

German was influenced by many cultures, missionary or otherwise, including the Romans, the Merovingian Franks and (to a much smaller degree linguistically) the Irish. I wish to look at some differences in Christian terminologies adopted by the Goths and the Anglo-Saxons, the historical reasons for their use, and what effect their choice of vocabulary had upon Old High German and Old Saxon.

Let us first look at the Goths, and how they selected their Christian vocabulary. There is some dispute about the geographic origins of the Goths. Many accept that the Gothic tribes originated in southern Scandinavia, before migrating across the Baltic and down towards the Black Sea, where they came into contact with Greek; this was the view of the sixth century historian Jordanes.[3] There are those who postulate however that Jordanes was wrong, and that the Goths came from “the southernmost part of the Germanic territories”.[4] The major piece of linguistic evidence we have for the Gothic language comes to us in the form of a translation of the Bible from Greek by bishop Wulfila. This work dates from around the fourth century, and, being the earliest extant work in a Germanic language, provides invaluable assistance in determining the shape of early Germanic. However, it is largely unclear whether its vocabulary represents the common speech used by most Goths, for Wulfila may have specifically chosen to avoid certain terms and words in favour of Christian Greek loanwords. These abandoned words had strong pagan overtones that the religious authorities deemed to have no place in a Christian society. Comparing Wulfila’s Gothic gospels with later Old English translations (as was done in the nineteenth century by Joseph Bosworth), these differences become apparent. One telling (and well documented) omission comes in the word used for ‘Lord’, when referring to God or Christ. Wulfila consistently uses frauja, while the OE version uses dryhten. The OS cognate drohtin is used throughout the Hêliand; its significance as a term for Jesus is bound up with the notion of “permanent loyalty” to one’s drohtin.[5] In OHG texts we see extensive use of druhtin (as in the Isidor), truhtin (in the Hildebrandslied) and in the Tatian: “uuanta sus teta mir trohtīn,” ‘this has the Lord done to me’.[6] Green addresses this issue in The Carolingian Lord, arguing that while we do not have evidence of the actual word *drauhtins being used in any Gothic text, scholars are pretty sure that it existed. This is not only from the widespread use of its cognates in other Germanic tongues, but also because of related words used by Wulfila: “his employment of such words as drauhtinassus, drauhtinon, drauhtiwitoþ and gadrauhts renders it amply clear that the linguistic possibility did exist.”[7] Yet the reasons for using frauja over *drauhtins may not have been because of any religious connotations the word may have had. The equivalents of both terms were used throughout Germania when describing pagan deities, but the latter word appears to have been intrinsically tied up with the idea of the military leader, the warlord. Green suggests that Wulfila omitted *drauhtins not only because of his belief in Christian pacifism, but also because he felt such connotations would “enflame the warlike spirit of the Goths”.[8] Moreover, rather than attempt messy conversion of vocabulary, Wulfila also displays substantial use of Greek loanwords. Where the Anglo-Saxons translated the Latin evangelium (which came from the Greek Εὐαγγελιον, “good news”) as gōdspell, the Goths simply borrowed from the original Greek word: aiwaggelyo.[9]

John Waterman states that “since the Goths were Arians, we assume that they brought the vocabulary of the Eastern church to the Germans.”[10] The apparent Greek origin of a number of Bavarian and southern German words provides us with evidence of the Gothic mission, through which their transmission would have been likely. While the Gothic origin of Samstag is debatable, other weekdays attested in Bavarian certainly show signs, such as ertag or ergetag (Tuesday) and phinztag (Thursday)[11], from Greek pémpte via Gothic *pintēdags.[12] According to Green the southern form Pfaffe, meaning ‘priest’, also bears this influence: OHG phaffo points to the Greek papãs, which although not found in Wulfila (who preferred gudja) did make its way into the Gothic Calendar as papa.[13]

            The arrival of an Anglo-Saxon Christian presence among the Continental Germans finally sealed their conversion. Continuing work begun in Frisia by Willibrord, Wynfrith of Wessex – known to history as St Boniface - established the monastery at Fulda in 743, which according to Cathey was “key to the ongoing effort to missionize the entire north of the continent.”[14] The Anglo-Saxons were the last of the Christian missions into Germany, and though Boniface was charged by Rome with converting the pagans, a good deal of the English terminologies bore the influence of the Celtic church (particularly those from Northumbria). While Celtic loanwords into Old English were limited, such as ancor ‘hermit’ and clugge ‘bell’[15] (which also arrived in Old High German via the Irish mission: OHG glocka[16]), the habit of converting pagan concepts to a Christian agenda was continued, as attested in the opening stanzas of the late medieval English poem St Erkenwald, in which ‘Saint Austyn’ cleansed pagan temples, “horlyd owt hor ydols and hade hym in sayntes”.[17] This appears to be a feature of Boniface’s mission, for he himself symbolically cut down an Irminsûl, a great tree worshipped by the Saxons and Frisians, to prove that the Christian God was all-powerful over the pagan.[18] For this he was martyred; G. Ronald Murphy says that Boniface left behind him “a tradition of non-accommodating missionary methods.”[19] The question of semantics, according to Cathey, was overcome by literally converting the native words in the same way.[20] This was something, as we have seen, that Wulfila was largely unable, or unprepared, to do.

            The evidence for this transitional phase in the use of pagan terms can be seen in the OS Hêliand. In many ways, reading the Hêliand can be quite jarring. For the most part it appears like Beowulf, with its oral-formulaic phrases and heroic setting, but references to ‘Crist’ and ‘Galileo land’ serve to remind us that this is a Christian story, not pagan. There is one Christianized pagan term that survives in some (but not all) Germanic languages to this day. What is known to the French as pâques, Pasen to the Dutch, and påsk to the Swedes, the English call Easter, and Germans call Ostern. Green notes that this ultimately springs from an older Indo-European *ausrō meaning ‘dawn’, from whence Latin aurora came also, as well as Lithuanian auszrà[21], also attested in the name of a Slavic dawn-goddess Auska.[22] The interesting thing is that while this word (OE ēaster) flourished in OHG as ôstarun, it made no inroads into OS, who used pâscha. Its cognate appears in Gothic as paska, and ultimately derives from the Hebrew, but its appearance in OS ultimately betrays the influence of the Franks.[23] That is not to say that the English did not use both forms; in the 1012 entry of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle both Æsterdæg and Paschę appear.[24]

            An important example of religious vocabulary that entered both OHG and OS via OE influence is heilag or hêlag, meaning ‘holy’. The common OE term was hālig, as seen in the West Saxon “hālig scyppend” (‘holy shaper’) from Cædmon’s Dream[25]. In the Hêliand we see the phrase “hêlag thiorne”, meaning ‘holy virgin’.[26] In the OHG Isidor we find the phrase “heilac, heilac, heilac druhtin”.[27] Green notes that the proto-Germanic *hailagaz “denoted a gift of the gods conferred on their tribal worshippers,” and was invoked to protect them in warfare.[28] This military edge could explain why Wulfila shies away from it. In the Gothic bible he prefers weihs, as in Luke 2:23 “weihs fraujins”. The Proto-Germanic form of weihs was *wîhaz, which was “commonly applied to objects or places regarded as sacrosanct or taboo.”[29] While this terminology did make its way into German at an early stage, in the phrase “der wîho âtum” (‘the holy ghost’, the holy breath’;[30] note the Gothic ahma weihs) it was ultimately ousted by that promoted by the Anglo-Saxons, as in the Tatian: “thie heilago geist” (‘holy ghost’).[31]

There is one possible explanation for the acceptance of militaristic terms within Christian vocabulary during Boniface’s time, against the avoidance of such language by Wulfila. With the rapid expansion of Islam into southern Europe in the eighth century, the Roman Church may have felt threatened, and impressed upon their missionaries to forcefully convert the pagan north if they must. Even Pope Gregory the Great, centuries previously, conceded that “it might be necessary to prepare the way for preaching the gospel to pagans outside the Empire by first subjugating them militarily and thus providing a protective framework for peaceful preaching.”[32] Charlemagne for one carried this out to the letter, continuing Boniface’s conversion of the Saxons with startling brutality.[33] In Wulfila’s time, Christianity was still in its infancy, and the Church may not have desired to be associated with aggression. It could be argued that by the Anglo-Saxon missionary period titles such as drohtin did not have the same potency as in the fourth century, but from what I have seen that appears not to be the case. Exploiting such warlike features of society served to promote the idea of Christianity as being a strong and powerful religion, that could stand up to the Moslem threat. This is why the Anglo-Saxon influenced words discussed here had a much larger spread within medieval German than those from the Gothic missions.



[1] Green, D.H.: Language and History in the Early Germanic World, p253

[2] Green: Language and History, p252

[3] Green: Language and History, p164

[4] Kortlandt, Frederik: The Origin of the Goths, p1; Kortlandt bases this on the work of Witold Mańczak: Kamen die Goten aus Skandinavien? (IF87: 1982), and Peter Heather: Goths and Romans (Oxford: 1991)

[5] Murphy, G. Ronald: The Saxon Saviour, p17

[6] Tatian: 3/64, in Braune and Ebbinghaus, Althochdeutsches Lesebuch, p48

[7] Green, D.H.: The Carolingian Lord, p265

[8] Green: The Carolingian Lord, p279

[9] Bosworth, Joseph: Gothic and Anglo-Saxon Gospels in Parallel Columns, p162 (the Gospel of Mark)

[10] Waterman, John T.: A History of the German Language, p69

[11] Noble, C.A.M.: Modern German Dialects, p79

[12] Green: Language and History, p310

[13] Green: Language and History, p309

[14] Cathey, James E.: Hêliand: Text and Translation, p8

[15] Baugh, Albert C. and Cable, Thomas: A History of the English Language, p74

[16] Green: Language and History, p327

[17] St Erkenwald, lines17-18, in Burrow & Turville-Petre, A Book of Middle English, p203

[18] Cathey, p8

[19] Murphy, p14

[20] Cathey, p14

[21] Green: Language and History,p352

[22] Liber Paganum:

[23] Green: Language and History, p351

[24] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, MS E, p69

[25] Cædmon’s Hymn, line 6b, in Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader, p47

[26] Hêliand line2029: Cathey, p72

[27] Aus Isidor: 10/77, in Braune and Ebbinghaus, Althochdeutsches Lesebuch, p22

[28] Green: Language and History, p361

[29] Green: Language and History, p361

[30] Waterman, p70

[31] Tatian: 4/25, in Braune and Ebbinghaus, p48

[32] Green: Language and History, p277

[33] Murphy, p11