15 April 2024

Danish scribes and German Bibles

Manuscript of the Month

Biblical paraphrases in the local language were popular in the late Middle Ages. In 1482 a Danish scribe completed a Low German paraphrase of Old Testament books.

Opening of a manuscript
Copenhagen, Arnamagnæan Collection, AM 372 fol. (Photo: Suzanne Reitz)

A commonly held misunderstanding about the Middle Ages is that the Bible was only available in Latin. However, translations of the Bible into the vernacular were not unknown in the Middle Ages. King Alfred the Great of England had the Pentateuch (first five books of Moses) translated into Old English as early as ca. AD 900, while the Old Norse-Icelandic Bible translation Stjórn dates from the fourteenth century.

Paraphrases of biblical material were a popular text genre in the Middle Ages as well. In the century before King Alfred’s translation of the Pentateuch, the life of Christ was paraphrased in the Old Saxon poem Hêliand, one of the few surviving texts in the language.

The Arnamagnæan manuscript AM 372 fol. contains a biblical paraphrase in the language that descended from Old Saxon, Middle Low German. Although the language originated in northern Germany, Middle Low German was also commonly used in Denmark as a trade language. Many Danish-born scribes studied in northern Germany and copied manuscripts in Middle Low German either in Germany or in Denmark. AM 372 fol. is an example of this, having been written by a Danish scribe by the name of Jens Nielsen.


In his catalogue of the Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection, Kålund (1889: 294) describes the contents of AM 372 fol. as the Pentateuch — that is, the first five books of the Bible, also referred to as the Five Books of Moses. Although the manuscript lacks a title or rubric, the opening of the text is clear: In deme anbeginne alder dijnghe schop got den hemmel vnde erden (‘In the beginning of all things God created the heavens and the earth’), the well-known first verse of the Book of Genesis. The following four books all open with a rubric, for example Hir geyt nu dat drudde moisi tho dat dar hete vppe dusche Lleuititus (‘Here begins the third book of Moses which in German is called Leviticus’). 

Manuscript page
The beginning of the manuscript reads In deme anbeginne alder dijnghe schop got den hemmel vnde erden. (AM 372 fol., 2r. Photo: Suzanne Reitz)

Kålund’s initial description of the text was later refined by Vollmer (1916: 60–63), who identified the manuscript as a Historienbibel or paraphrase of the historical books of the Old Testament.

In his text critical edition of the Historienbibel, Vollmer places AM 372 fol. together with three other Middle Low German manuscripts into what he labels Group VIII. All four manuscripts contain the Pentateuch followed by selections from the books of Joshua and Judges. AM 372 fol. contains more text than the other manuscripts, as it aslo includes selections from the books of 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings and Esther as well as from the deuterocanonical (apocryphal) books Judith and Maccabees.

The opening section of the manuscript, ff. 2r-7r, is only found in one of the other manuscripts from Group VIII — Rostock, Universitätsbibl., Ms. theol. 33, which was written in Lübeck in 1466. This portion of text properly belongs to the so-called Sächsische Weltchronik (‘Saxon World Chronicle’), a universal history in Middle Low German which traces the history of the world from the creation until the thirteenth century.

Vna gutta extracta ab occulo hominis pro peccatis suis ex intimo corde distinguit totum ignem infermii

Jen thoor vd drage(n) aff me(n)iske(n)s øgæ for sin synd aff eth gudelicht hyærtthæ hu(n) vd slucker all helwedes Jld

“A single tear drawn from a man’s eye for his sin separates his innermost heart from all the fires of infermity.” (Quote attributed to St. Augustine in AM 782 4to f. 137r)

Added text at end

At the end of the manuscript, the scribe has added two quotations from influential Christian figures. The first is attributed to the church father St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), while the second is attributed to the twelfth-century reformer of the Cistercian monastic order, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153).

Both quotations are given in Latin followed by a translation into Danish with clear dialect features from Jutland due to the origin of the scribe.

Jens Nielsen of Aalborg

Borchling (1900) considers AM 372 fol. to have been written by three hands, the final of which begins on f. 48r in the second column, thus in the middle of the book of Exodus. This final scribe identifies himself in a colophon at the end of the text (f. 137v). 

Two manuscript pages
A colophon at the end of the text identifies the scribe. On the following recto, two quotations are found. (AM 372 fol., 137v-138r. Photo: Suzanne Reitz)
Hir hefft dit bok ene(n) ende got mote vns sine(n) vrede senden Amen
Benedicamus d(o)m(in)o Deo g(ra)cias
Anno d(o)m(ini) M CD LXXX II° sexta feria p(ost) festu(m) Sancti Mathei Ap(osto)li
Hic explicit liber iste sub manu Joha(n)nis Nicolai filius Alburge(n)sis.
Orate pro eo ad do(mi)n(u)m Ihesu(m) Chr(istu)m cu(m) vno Pater Noster & Ave Maria.
(AM 372 fol., 137vb)

According to the colophon, the manuscript was completed on Friday, 27 September 1482 by Johannes Nicolai filius Alburgensis or Jens Nielsen of Aalborg, a scribe known in other manuscripts from the end of the fifteenth century. Lauritz Nielsen (1937: 128-129) refers to Jens Nielsen as a “flittig Skriver” (‘diligent scribe’) with a focus on lawbooks. Five copies of the Provincial Law of Jutland (Jyske lov) are known in his hand, two of which are found in the Arnamagnæan Collection (AM 9 8vo and AM 10 8vo), both dated to 1490. Three parchment manuscripts with the Provincial Law of Scania (Skånske Lov) in Jens Nielsen’s hand are also known.

It is possible Jens Nielsen was able to write in Middle Low German because he had studied in northern Germany, as many Danes had done in the late Middle Ages. Wolf (1997: 90) points to a certain Johannes Nicolai Bardagelensis, who immatriculated in Greifswald in 1473, as a possible candidate for our Jens Nielsen. The place-name Bardagelensis likely refers to Børglum Diocese, the northernmost Danish diocese in the Middle Ages, which also included Aalborg. Wolf’s theory (pp 174-5) is that this manuscript is one of the first produced by Jens Nielsen, while he was still studying in Greifswald, where he would have had access to an exemplar in Low German.

Four manuscripts
The Arnamagnæan Collection contains a total of four manuscripts written by Jens Nielsen from Aalborg. (Photo: Suzanne Reitz)