St Cuthman, the wheelbarrow saint – Life now online in English

I have today completed my translation of the medieval “Life” of St Cuthman.  Unlike most anglosaxon saints, Cuthman was a peasant.  He founded the church of Steyning in Sussex.  He is noted for carrying his mother about with him in a wheelbarrow!

Here is the translation, together with the text that I translated and some introductory material:

The files may also be found at Archive.org here.

As usual, these files are public domain.  Do whatever you like with them, whether personal, educational or commercial.

A 14th century manuscript, the Luttrell Psalter, preserves a depiction of a cart almost identical to St Cuthman’s wheelbarrow:

Luttrell psalter (BL add ms 42130), f.186r – medieval invalid carriage like St Cuthman’s wheelbarrow

It does not look very comfortable to me!

It has taken almost a year to complete the translation of this short piece, with a six month break for work in the middle.  I have worked on it fairly carefully, as a vehicle to add syntactical information to my Latin tool, QuickLatin.  No doubt it still contains errors, but it is the first complete English translation known to me.

From my diary

Back in March I was working on making an English translation of the hagiographical Life of St Cuthman.  At the same time I was working on adding syntactical help to my QuickLatin tool.

But then by the mercy of God I was able to get a contract and earn a living, at a time when most people were unable to do so.  I was and am profoundly grateful.  All the same I was also glad to stop after six months of daily Zoom meetings, as the pressure at work began to increase.  The dynamics of a team that work from home, where most people have never met, can be peculiar.

This week I have started to work again on the Cuthman.  Thankfully I left it obvious where I was.  In fact the task is much more advanced than I had remembered.  I’ve now resolved all the issues in all 12 chapters of this little work.  But there is another task to do.

My translation is/was made from the 17th century Acta Sanctorum text.  After I had made the first draft, I learned that a critical edition does exist, made by John Blair and published in a local journal in 1997.[1]  So I have tonight started to go through the files and compare the text that I have with Blair’s edition.  The differences are not great, so far.

The old Bollandists worked from two now lost manuscripts, labelled A and B by Dr. Blair.  The modern Bollandist database tells us that two manuscripts exist today.  I had assumed that these were the same as those used for the Acta Sanctorum; but it turns out that this is not so.  The new manuscripts are labelled G and R by Blair.

I’m not entirely convinced by all of the choices in Blair’s edition, although it is a marvellous work of collation.  For instance at one point he conjectures that the author drops into the second-person singular – “you…”, without any manuscript evidence, and when the rest of the text is entirely third-person.  I have followed the Bollandists here.

But I daresay Dr B. knows much more Latin than I do.  So I have decided that I will follow his choices, except when I really feel that the Bollandist editors were right.  I will footnote where I deviate.  I’d like to hope that my work will be useful to others, and the best way to ensure that is to follow the edition that they will have to follow.

Of course I need some kind of excuse to myself, at least, for ignoring Blair at points.  Currently I am muttering to myself that, “of course the Bollandist editors of the 17th century knew far more Latin than any modern editor, especially ecclesiastical Latin.”  Let’s hope that I am right!

But I will include the text that I translate as an appendix.

On the other hand I’ve not yet got back to working on QuickLatin and reading grammars.  I’m very grateful for what I did in this area earlier in the year.  The syntax facilities are really helpful, even as far as I have gone.  But I will need more time to get back up to speed with this.  I have also changed PC, so not everything is ready to hand as yet.

It’s good to have a project to take me into the winter months.

  1. [1]John Blair, “Saint Cuthman, Steyning and Bosham”, in: Sussex Archaeological Collections 135 (1997), 173-92.

Further thoughts on translating St Cuthman’s “Life”

While translating the Latin text of the Life of the anglo-saxon Saint Cuthman, I have taken to googling for fragments of the Latin, or even whole sentences.  The results are often interesting, and not infrequently important.

One reason that I do this is to identify biblical references.  Often a tortured phrase turns out to be an allusion.  Indeed I came across a reference to Tobit 10:4 half an hour ago.

Strangely Google does not prioritise the Latin bible in a search for Latin text, although it is hard to see why not.  What you DO get back is endless 16th and 17th century texts, most of which I have never heard of.  I don’t know why this should be so.  Occasionally these are useful; usually they are not.

One such search produced a snippet result in a journal called Sussex Archaeological Collections.  Looking at the handful of words, I gained the impression that whatever paper this was might be a modern edition of the Latin text.  So far I have been working with the Bollandist text of 1658.  I have, indeed, found some suspect text in the Latin text.  At one point there is reference to trabale unicum where I wonder whether it should be trabale iugum.  There is, otherwise, no noun in the sentence.  The reference would be to a ridge-beam.

Of course I was unable to see what the paper was, but it proved to  be John Blair, “Saint Cuthman, Steyning and Bosham” in SAC 135 (1997), 173-92.  I was unable to access this; but an offprint was for sale on Amazon, at a high price, but rather less than the cost of the petrol to get a copy; and this arrived today.

The Blair paper does indeed contain an edition of the text – indeed a critical edition, with apparatus of the two extant manuscripts, plus the Bollandist edition.  It also contains what the author describes as a “paraphrase” translation.  This is nearly full length, and, had I known that it existed, I might not have troubled to make a translation myself.

Why paraphrase?  Well, it’s considerably easier to get the sense of the text than it is to identify each and every Latin construction and pin down precisely what that last word means.  It also avoids the risk of some snooty person critiquing your translation!   Since the precise wording is generally less important than the idea, these kinds of things are quite serviceable and they seem very common in modern versions of hagiographical literature.  But all the same, they are an abomination.  The reader should be given a proper translation.

I’ve been learning a great deal about Latin syntax from struggling with Cuthman.  I’ve been processing much of it into context-sensitive help-materials in QuickLatin 2, which is a double benefit: I learn the stuff, and there are reminders for the future.

I’ve worked harder on Cuthman than any Latin text that I have ever translated.  I’ve been proceeding as follows:

  1. Create an electronic text.
  2. Split it into chapters, each in a separate file.
  3. Split each chapter into sentences, translate this in Google Translate and interleave the two in the document.  The Google translation is generally useless, but it can sometimes highlight that the words are a set phrase of some sort, which you can therefore search for.  This is most obvious when the Google output drops into Jacobean English!
  4. Now skim-read the text in PDF, to get a sense of what the chapter says.  Ignore any difficult bits.  Speed is all.  At the head of the chapter, write down this skim-read synopsis.  This acts as a kind of guide when doing the detailed translation.
  5. First pass.  Now translate each sentence in the chapter, one by one, looking out for correlatives like vel… vel, etc.  Leave difficult bits.  Highlight in bold and red stuff of which you are uncertain.  Add a note of any Latin constructions that you recognise, and say why you chose those words.  Wherever the text feels “stiff”, then you need to document what you did.  Pay lots of attention to the verb tenses, etc.
  6. Go through the whole text until you have done the first pass.  Then copy this to a folder for later.
  7. Second pass.  Now go through the chapters again, making sure that you understand the Latin construction in every single case.  Google for them!  There’s a huge amount of information out there on syntax.  Fix whatever you can.  By the end of this, you should have satisfactory translations of the lot, with a huge amount of notes, quotes, links to external websites, and changes of mind marked with strike-out.  At this stage I tend to make most the notes grey, if I have finished with them, but want to be able to refer to them.  Then copy all these files to a new folder.

This is where I am at the moment.  The next stage will be:

  1. Third pass.  Go through the files again, removing the grey stuff, writing real footnotes; but also rechecking.  Harmonise common words.  Then save copies of this lot.
  2. Fourth pass.  Combine the sentences into groups, then into paragraphs.  Read the lot and see if it makes sense.  Sometimes you will realise that two sentences together each mean something rather different to what you thought.
  3. Create a single file with the whole translation in it.

It’s a lot of work; but it’s like solving a jigsaw puzzle.  It’s quite rewarding really!

St Cuthman, the Vulgate, the sacramentary, and so forth

Translating the Latin text of the Life of St Cuthman, printed by the Bollandists, is an interesting exercise.  I find that the text quite often uses the approach of the Latin Vulgate bible, where quia means “that” rather than “because”.  This means that you can often get something from simply googling a passage – it may well bring up a translation, or at least highlight that the wording is very close to that of a biblical passage in Latin.

I’m not quite sure about the text that I am working with.  Today while googling I accidently came across signs that someone has produced a modern edition of all or part of it; in an article to which I have no access, unfortunately.  It is J. Blair, “Saint Cuthman, Steyning and Bosham”, in: Sussex Archaeological Collections, Relating to the History & Antiquities of the County (= SAC), 135, p.173-192.  If anybody has access to this, do drop me a line.

One example of the text is where St Cuthman is pushing his handcart, the rear end supported by a rope hanging from his shoulders.  Suddenly the rope breaks!  But he spies a “sambucus” lying by the way, takes a length from it, twists it, and remakes his rope.

Now “Sambucus” is an exotic form of harp.  Just the thing you’d find at random in Anglo-saxon England?  Well… maybe not.  The Oxford Latin Dictionary kindly directs me to “sabucus”, which is an elder tree.  That makes more sense.  It looks like Cuthman grabbed a branch from an elder tree and used that.

It’s not just the vulgate bible that gets used either.  I’ve reached chapter seven.  Most of this consists of a long and boring prayer.  But I came across this phrase:

hic tibi gratiarum referat actiones.

This, I confess, baffled me.  What on earth does “referat” mean here, and “actiones gratiarum”.  But some serious time on Google led me to

Ut reddita sibi sanitate, gratiarum Tibi in Ecclesia Tua referant actiones, per DNJC.

It turned out that this was a chunk of the prayer for the sick from the Roman missal or sacramentary.  I then undertook a search for an English translation, but in fact Google Translate gave me the clue.  It turned out that “actiones gratiarum” are “thanks”, and “refero” in this context is “give”.  The idea is “let them give thanks to You in Your church, through our Lord Jesus Christ”.  There was no way that you could work that out from a dictionary.

It does make sense, tho.  The medieval author of the Life of St Cuthman knew two Latin texts intimately, and used them every day – the vulgate bible, and the missal.  Both would inevitably enter his composition.

For those working with Latin Saints’ Lives, then, a knowledge of both texts is clearly essential.

I have found that Bible Gateway will allow me to display the Latin with parallel Douai English translation, such as this example from Psalms 15This 1815 edition of the missal has a lot of English versions in it.  Both are useful tools.

Translating Cuthman, I have found it useful to skim-read each chapter, on my mobile phone, while lying on the sofa, and just get some idea of what it is about.  Once done, I write down some sort of summary, ignoring hard bits, at the top of each Word document – I do one per chapter – as a guide to what ought to be coming out.  This does seem to ease the process of translation, curiously.

Onward!