The psalms have been central to spiritual life for thousands of years. They entered Western liturgical use largely through the Roman rites, translated from Hebrew into Latin and other tongues. Early translation into Old English was from the Latin by learned monks or scribes, usually writing between the lines in the vernacular.
Here, for example, is the incipit (‘it begins’) to this week’s Psalm 68 in the Vespasian Psalter. Over a thousand years old, this document according to the British Library (BL) “is the earliest surviving example of St Jerome’s first translation of the Psalms (the Roman version), first written c. 384. It was copied during the second quarter of the 8th century.”
At first glance it’s just a quaint design with some indecipherable characters. What can we decode?
- In the top line in dark red-brown letters is LXVII, Roman for 67 which is the psalm number in the Vulgate.
- To the right, the next word ‘INF.. ‘ is the beginning of In finem. Psalmus cantici ipsi David. This is the introductory heading, ‘To the end, a psalm of David himself.’ Some modern translations say: ‘To the leader. Of David. A psalm. A song.
- An illuminated capital introduces Exsurgat, arise. Later Latin usage omits the s: Exurgat
- The next word looks like OS with a line over it. It is actually ‘DS’. The superscript line indicates contraction or omission. So the word is DS and it means Deus, God. Scribes routinely used a wide range of abbreviations thus annotated to save space. Readers knew the rules and sang on without hesitation.
That wasn’t too painful was it? But wait, what about the smaller squiggles between lines 1 and 2 in lighter coloured ink? Referring again to the BL description of this manuscript:
An Old English gloss was added around the second quarter of the 9th century by the Royal Bible Master Scribe, whose hand appears in other manuscripts owned by or made at St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. This gloss is the oldest extant translation into English of any biblical text.
On close inspection the words can almost be identified as ‘Arise God’.
There is no music in this original Psalm 68 script; musical notation was not settled at the time of writing around 750 CE. However, BL further notes that sometime later:
Cadences were added to selected verses of Psalms 148-150: Anglo-Saxon neumes have been placed to the right of the final word of a verse or half-verse, with accents also inserted by the same scribe.