A layman's transcription from an ancient manuscript
Journey into a Waldensian Bible
- 6 minutes read - 1112 words
Did you know the Waldensians had their own translation of the Bible? It was probably translated from an Old Latin version (often called the Vetus Latina, not to be confused with Jerome’s Latin Vulgate) into Old Occitan (also called Romaunt or Provençal over 1,000 years ago.
In Heretics of Piedmont and its sequel (whose name is yet to be revealed), I wanted to add a couple places where the Waldensians quoted or read from the Bible in their native tongue. I mentioned the book, The Romaunt Version of the Gospel according to St John, in the Selected Bibliography section of Heretics of Piedmont, which ended up being an incredible resource for understanding the Occitan Bible. The author, William Gilly, transcribed the entirety of John’s Gospel from the original parchment manuscript into easily consumed text.
But what made it hard to consume? The original was written with Gothic blackletter characters, and in a language with few extant resources. Though Occitan is still spoken today (including in the Waldensian valleys in Piedmont, Italy), it differs greatly from the language from a millennium ago. Thankfully, it is a Romance language (related to French, Spanish, Italian, etc.), which offers a decent amount of cognates, even to modern English, (e.g. eglorifiron means glorify).
In Heretics of Piedmont, I played it safe by only quoting a few verses from John that Mr. Gilly already transcribed. For the sequel, however, I wanted to use Luke 10:37. This post illustrates the journey of transcribing a scanned picture of an ancient Bible into text that readers will see in the book.
Finding the Verse
The first challenge, which doesn’t seem hard, is finding the verse. I used the Dublin manuscript of the Waldensian Bible, digitized by The Library of Trinity College Dublin. Finding the book was easiest: I know Luke is about a quarter of the way through the New Testament, so I scrolled to that point, and looked at the top of the right hand pages for the book, and when I found Luc, I figured I was in the right place.
After that, the chapter wasn’t hard to find; they’re all in Roman numerals, and I just had to click the pages until I saw X.
The verse was far more challenging because there are no verse numbers in this Bible. Being unfamiliar with Old Occitan and the font the manuscript is written in, the best place to start is simply knowing there are 42 verses in Luke 10, thus I could deduce verse 37 would be somewhere near the end. That gets me close, but what about the exact verse?
First, I looked for familiar words. The verse after the one I was looking for references Martha (spelled the same in Occitan), so I traced backwards until I found what I guessed was verse 37. To verify, I looked for the word Jesus, which proved to be its own issue. In short, the people who long ago copied this Bible used a lot of abbreviations and shorthand, including one for Jesus: it looks like a y with an accent mark (ý). Once I discovered the word for Jesus, I had the probable location
I only wanted the part of Luke 10:37 that says: “He that shewed mercy on him.” Once I had the verse, I did my best guess of transcribing those blackletter Gothic into US keyboard characters.
The easiest place to start is by referencing Mr. Gilly’s book mentioned above. Many patterns in the New Testament are repeated, and by cross-referencing his professional transcription, you can build a stable base. “He said,” is very common, and Mr. Gilly has that as el dis. So that gave me the beginning of the verse.
Next is the word that looks like aql. In English, we definitely don’t have a Q without it being followed by a U. I searched in Gilly’s work, and didn’t find that word either. Odd. Instead, I searched for that word in the book of John just by scanning the Occitan manuscript with my eyes. I found it, in the first chapter of John, and Gilly transcribed it as aqual. It means, “who, whom.” Looking at other words with a Q, it appears that the U and a succeeded vowel is implied. Interesting.
The following word was quite the journey, and I had no idea what it meant because it looks a little bit like a Q with embellishments. Again, I referred back to the book of John and then Gilly. It’s another common word: “que.” So, the character used there is basically like shorthand.
Next came fey, which means “did.”
For the last word, I again searched John’s Gospel and Gilly, but came up with no results. After figuring out the last word, èluy, means “him,” I moved on to mĩa. If it were like other Romance languages, it might have meant “my,” and that ended up being a good guess. The word mia without a tilde is used that way in Occitan, but with the tilde, I was unsure. I assumed it was the word for “mercy,” so I again referred to John, but guess what? The word “mercy” isn’t in that Gospel. So, I looked at an Occitan dictionary, but its word for mercy was closer to the French pitié or miséricorde. My last hope was finding other places in the gospels with the word “mercy,” and Matthew had it. Once I found it in the Occitan manuscript, I saw that it was the same word: mĩa. It must be an archaic Occitan way of saying “mercy.”
So, roughly, I came up with: Aqual que fey mĩa èluy. He that shewed mercy on him.
To verify, I referenced a Catalan Bible (which is one of the closest languages to Occitan) and a French Bible. With some cognates and word order similarities, I was about 95% sure, but after posting my translation on an Old Occitan forum, a few verified for me that it looked right.
Though it may seem like a time-consuming journey, I had fun uncovering little details from a very old Bible that I would have never learned otherwise. It also made me appreciate men from the past who took old Bible manuscripts, transcribed them, and then translated them into languages people like me can read. I will never claim my work was scholarly or educated, or that I followed all the correct methods, but to see the end product was very fulfilling. I’ll be thrilled to see some of this in the next book in the Witnesses of the Light series.