The first mention of Yule: the Gothic liturgical calendar in the Codex Argenteus

The first mention of “Yule” is to be found in a palimpsest manuscript, perhaps of the the 6th century AD.  A number of Gothic bibles were reused for their parchment at the northern Italian monastery of Bobbio, and one of these contains a fragment of a Gothic calendar of saints’ days as the last but one leaf.  Curiously the literature seems to refer to this as the Codex Ambrosianus A, without ever specifying the shelf-mark at the Ambrosian Library in Milan more precisely.[1]

The calendar was first printed, with Latin translation, by the inevitable Angelo Mai, then prefect of the Ambrosian Library.[2]

An old edition of the calendar may be found at Archive.org here, [3]

Fragment of an ancient Gothic calendar from Codex Ambrosianus A

The actual meaning of these ancient words in a little known language is much debated even today, but for our purposes a quick-and-dirty version of Angelo Mai’s Latin will help us get an idea of what we are looking at.

23.  The sufferings of the martyrs and Fritharic among the Gothic people.

29.  The commemoration of the martyrs who, with Werekan the presbyter and Batwin the minister of the Catholic church were burned among the Gothic people.

… beginning of July .30.

3.  Of King Constantine.

6.  Of Bishop Dorotheus.

15.  Of Philip the Apostle of Hierapolis.

19.  Of the venerable nuns of Beroea, 40 in all.

But Ebbinghaus rendered the second entry as perhaps, “The memory of the martyrs who were with Wereka the priest and Batwins—all that is left of a church full of people—burnt in Gothia”[4].

Likewise “July” is not what subsequent readers have understood.  The “Naubaimbar” or “November” above wasn’t even visible to Mai.  Recently David Laudau has restudied images of the palimpsest and has shown that the word is not there.

I’ve been trying to find out more details, but it is remarkably hard to find your way into the literature.  I can’t find the shelfmarks for the manuscripts.  The key article on the calendar appears to be E. A. Ebbinghaus, “The Gothic Calendar”, General Linguistics 15 (1975); but I can find no evidence of the journal.

David Landau seems to have done a lot of work on this, and especially on the word “jiuleis”.  His home page is here, and includes many PDFs of his articles.  In “The Source of the Gothic Month Name jiuleis and its Cognates”,   Namenkundliche Informationen 95-6 (2009), pp. 239-248, he argues that it cannot mean “Jul” or “Yule”, because no such pre-Christian feast existed.  His source for this is given as Gustav Bilfinger, Untersuchungen iiber die Zeitrechnung der alten Germanen. Vol.2: Das Germanische Julfest, Stuttgart 1901.  The value of this statement is not known to me.  Instead he argues that it derives from “jubilee”.

It would be interesting to know more about this obscure text in an obscure language.

  1. [1]D. Gary Miller, The Oxford Gothic Grammar, Oxford (2019), p.9.  Preview here.
  2. [2]Vlphilae partium ineditarum in Ambrosianis palimpsestis ab Angelo Maio, 1819.  Online here, p.26 f.
  3. [3]W. Streitberg, Die gotische Bibel, 1908.  The calendar is on p.472-4.
  4. [4]Ernst A. Ebbinghaus, “The Second Entry of the Gothic Calendar”, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 77 (1978), 183-7. JSTOR

8 thoughts on “The first mention of Yule: the Gothic liturgical calendar in the Codex Argenteus

  1. General Linguistics is a real journal, IIRC, and a pretty important than ne. But linguists, and linguists who call themselves linguists instead of philologists, were a weird little club in the Seventies. So maybe availability is not what it should be?

    I know it was always a nightmare to go down to the library and read all the journal issues on reserve that we had to read for various linguistics classes. And we had a fair amount of journals because my university had two whole linguistics professors who had been there for quite a while.

    Ah. Found the problem. The journal General Linguistics was edited also by Ebbinghaus (who was a Big Name scholar in Gothic stuff). I wonder who took it over? I imagine that it might not have been sold to Brepols et al,which may be why it is harder to find. Will look.

  2. Okay. Ebbinghaus had his run published by U of Pennsylvania, coming out at intervals from 1955 until his death in 1995. Then it moved to his buddy at Binghamton doing the editing, and it moved to his university’s press.

    General Linguistics is not digitized on JSTOR, either. Now I am feeling quite worried. It is an awfully important source, and it should be digitized somewhere. Especially since Ebbinghaus, Liberman, etc. did a lot of work on Gothic and Germanic stuff in that journal.

    Ugh! Linguistics is pulling me back in!

  3. I looked on Worldcat. They do have a checkbox for searching for journal names. No schools close to here have that journal, which is not surprising because there is no close linguistics department. Bah.

    JSTOR does have Ebbinghaus on the Gothic Calendar, from two separate articles in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology.

    Binghamton-SUNY is what I meant.

  4. Hathi Trust has Bilfinger, if you have a way of obscuring your origins.

    It’s all in German, though, and I’m having a hard time following it much. There is something about the Egyptian calendar, for instance.

    But yeah, he puts Yule as an Epiphany thing.

  5. Thank you so much for looking into this! I thought Bilfinger sounded interesting, but also a bit off-the-wall. German isn’t my best language either.

    Thank you also about “General Linguistics”. Heaven knows I’ve criticised the publishers like Brill enough, but it’s interesting to see what happens when they are not involved. I wonder if Cambridge University Library will have JISC Journal Archives. I bet they do!

  6. Well, this is peculiar. Philip on the 15th and Andrew on the 30th (so in Mai’s edition, not as here) seem to identify this month firmly as November. (The other commemorations are either people I’ve never heard of, or if they are people I’ve heard of, not on days when I’d expect them.) Now, Bede, De temporum ratione, cap. xv, says that the Anglo-Saxons had two months called “Giuli”, corresponding to December and January, and also two months called “Lida”, corresponding to June and July. In that case “Fruma Jiuleis” would be “the former Jiuleis”, except that this is definitely not December. However, this is not Anglo-Saxon either, and some slippage between languages is not unusual where months are concerned: listopad means October in Croatian and November in Czech, while kwiecień means April in Polish and květen means May in Czech. So if Gothic is a month earlier than Anglo-Saxon, “Fruma Jiuleis” can quite happily be November. In which case, one wonders, what happened to Martin, Cecilia, Clement, Catherine….? And what are Constantine and Dorotheus doing here?

  7. Rats – another comment trapped by the spam filter. Sorry!

    This is very useful – I wondered myself. The suggestion that I saw is that this is an *eastern* calendar, compiled by Goths in the east, and so unaware of western saints. Would that work?

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