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Fiefdom in a Desk

Updated: Aug 16, 2023

Part 3 of 3

Our previous blogs of May 25 (1497 German Medieval Letter) and June 22 (German Feudal, Fief and Enfeoffment) chronicled the curious history of our client’s 1497 vellum manuscript- what are challenges of reading an older document, and what can its language tell us?

First of all, what is the who, when and where?


The year is clearly written out on the cover side: 1497, and spelled out in Latin on the main side. It does not name a month but just the day: the main text specifies the Sunday of ‘Pinnst’, which appears to be a dialect spelling for Pfingst, Pentecost, thus the scribe didn’t need to write the specific day or the month.


The where is one of the most important things to know; archives are generally organized by location, and the rest follows.

Emerich was the vassal of the Count of Leiningen, and should be found within that count’s land. We know exactly where Leinigen is, it is in the region within the Rhineland called the Pfalz or Palatinate, and the other place names listed fit there as well. Unfortunately, when the cover page names the exact village, it spells it almost neatly. The second letter is an o... or maybe an a. It certainly ends in -ckenheim. But the first letter could be B, or R, and there are four Bockenheims nearby. There are no Backenheims nor Rackenheims nor Rockenheims, but that still would leave Emerich with four possible homes- that still narrows it down to a tiny fraction of central Europe. And then we came across another document referring to the von Randeck noble house- and it was referring to the von Randecks of Swabia, who have no particular connection to the Palatinate. But there was a second, small noble von Randeck line, with the ruins of their castle still there, some 30 miles south of Leiningen.

This is another case of how a shorter piece can be much harder than a long piece to decipher: the capital letters were, as so often, idiosyncratic, and there was only one word that started with this letter that was a P or R, with no other capital P or R to confirm which was which. This second document steered me to the proper reading, proper castle, and proper noble house.


The nobleman Emerich von Randeck (it’s not a sure thing that Emerich had knightly status, but likely) wrote or had this written as a receipt confirming and affirming that his lord Count Emich IX had enfeoffed him and that Emerich owed the count loyal service.

A scribe of 1497 could certainly write in very polished German; such was not the case here. Emerich or his scribe did at least write neatly, but as with most any handwriting, every handwriter has their own idiosyncrasies, with a very relaxed notion of capitalization and a near absence of punctuation. The spelling also differs from standard German significantly. You might think of it as carelessly written pre-Shakespearean German, it differs from modern German even more than Shakespeare does from today’s English.

Some of what makes the writing challenging is superficial; he wasn’t marking umlaut over the u: uber instead of über [über3.ogg], which wasn’t uncommon at the time (and yes, the ride-share company takes its name from über in the sense of ‘super’, and dropped the umlaut going into English).

He also used v and u interchangeably, but then, everyone did, from Roman times up into the 1600’s (see our last blog).

Even worse, he did not dot his i’s (but did mark u’s on the cover side)... and did dot some of the e’s! This makes the old handwriting particularly hard to read, as we’ve seen before in Why... do we dot our i's? Minims!

English and German have changed greatly in the intervening half millennium to date, but English hasn’t updated its spelling much, which papers over the shift; if you read Shakespeare aloud, you’ll find many of his rhymes have stopped rhyming since then, so bread and head rhyme with bed, but no longer with bead. There’s nothing papering over Emerich’s rural Palatine German, and bits of the Middle Ages shimmer through in his writing, such as how he writes older i and u.

Medieval English and German originally pronounced long i and u like ee and oo (the old pronunciation is still there in ski and snafu). English wrote mine house (“meen hooce”) and German wrote min hus, with the same pronunciation.

By 1497, most of Germany had changed the pronunciation, the same as English today, to rhyme with mine and house, but unlike English, Germans also changed the spelling to mein Haus. But not this scribe. Townsfolk nearby might have made the change, but he was in and of the countryside, and he was still spelling, and I’m sure pronouncing, long i and u the old way.

He and his region had not yet adopted the shift of long oo to ao: you may have noticed that English ou and ow can’t make its mind up whether it’s oo or ao? Courtesy and bow or shoot a bow, show vs. shower, tow vs. tower? your hour? This ao pronunciation came from an older oo sound (in English and German), so when you hear the Scots say “oot the hoose”, they’re using the older pronunciation. English, unfortunately, uses the old spellings no matter how little or much the sounds have shifted. Emerich was still using the old spelling, since his corner of Germany hadn’t shifted the pronunciation yet, and wrote myn and for modern mein and aus (‘mine’ and ‘out’). That spelling fits right into how people were spelling in his region at his time.

One question arose for us- might our client have gotten a forgery? I could not examine the original parchment: we do not take the originals, only scans- one, I do not have to worry about anything happening to irreplaceable heirlooms, and two, it guarantees that the people who turn to us now have a good facsimile of their irreplaceable document. Nonetheless, we were able to assure our client that the piece was unlikely to be a fake. The document matches the writing norms of that particular place and time; it would take an unusual specialist to match up the German language and spelling of the time for that specific region.

Secondly, anyone going to the expense of vellum and the trouble of crafting a credible forgery generally wants it to sell for a lot of money, and a small, prosaic deed for an unfamous person doing nothing notable is not worth much. Quite aside from why would someone go to all this effort- and hide it in a drawer? Perhaps some American GI picked up the parchment in 1918 or 1945 and didn’t realize it had fallen behind the drawer.

And lastly- Emerich uses a verb ending several times that is specific to the Rhineland, a detail even fewer specialists would know. You know the English I am; the German equivalent is ich bin, anciently ich bim (and Old English ic beom ) the Latin equivalent is (ego) sum. That -m (later -n) is a verbal ending for the I-form of the verb, going back thousands of years- and absent from German for centuries, except in a small stretch of Germany in few basic verbs (Ich tun, ich han ‘I do, I have’).

Even though this little slip of vellum did not come to our client’s ancestors and had only the chance connection to his family business, it’s still fun and intriguing to help figure out what this little voice from the past was saying.


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