Devotional Formula

19 August, 2013

In a new era of growing neo-fascist European nationalism, i.e. today, Ernst Robert Curtius and his historical research stands out as model. From the early 1930s and onwards he redirected his skills to a project that was feasible in his day and age, as well as possibly rewarding after an inner German excile. His research is a historical analysis, triggered by a threathening horrid future and designed to help society to understand itself, if it survives. The different ways his life and research is sketched in today’s German, French and English wikipedia articles is a paragon too. The German article treating him as a national phenomenon, finds it essential to criticize his frankness towards other Germans and comes through as irrelevant, rhetorical and commonplace

Bresslau et CurtiusIn 1948, 16 years after his latest book (Deutscher Geist in Gefahr—German spirit in danger, ), Curtius published Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter or La Littérature européenne et le Moyen Âge latin or European literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Rather than several national phenomena, he saw this literature up and until Goethe as a European experience heavily dependant on Latin writers. A similar attitude acknowleding a Latin legacy was evident also in Frederick Klaebers third edition of Beowulf and the fight at Finnsburg (1950) another fruit of a German scholar in inner excile. And they were right: a varying, but large number of European intellectuals have always been critical of European politics. Some of these intellectuals were nationalists others such as Curtius were Europeans. Until the 1950s nevertheless, they were all taught a much earlier Latin in school. This meant that even if you aspire so become a glowing nationalist you could know that the roots of your rhetoric were Latin. This heritage may not have bothered you, but being aware of it, one must at least take the conscious decision not to be bothered.

Since I am interested in South Scandianvia c. 400 to 750 ce – that is, interested in the 19th-century paragon of Germanic, i.e. non-Latin, barbarian myth and darkness – I balance my interest reading Curtius: the main text when I have forgotten something and the excursions, which make up one third of the book on European literature, when I need some frankness. I have forgotten the definition of topos. I am almost sure where to find it, so I look it up in the index – it’s on page 70:

Now, there is a whole series of such arguments, which can be used on the most diverse occasions. They are intellectual themes, suitable for development and modification at the orator’s pleasure. In Greek they are called, κοινοὶ τόποι [commmon sites]; in Latin loci communes; in early German, Gemeinörter. Lessing and Kant still use the word. About 1770, Gemeinplatz was formed after the English “commonplace”. We cannot use the word since it has lost its original application. We shall therefore retain the Greek topos. To elucidate its meaning—a topos of the most general sort is “emphasis on inability to do justice to the subject”; a topos of panegyric: “praise of forbears and their deeds”. In Antiquity collections of such topoi were made. The science of topoi—called “topics”—was set forth in separate treatises.

Originally, then, topoi are helps towards composing orations. They are as Quintilians (V 10, 20,) says, “storehouses of trains of thought” (“argumentorum sedes “), and thus can serve practical purposes.

This came to an end when topoi invaded poetry and prose from the end of the Republic and onwards with less and less practical purpose.

One of the most widespread and long-lived topoi was Affected Modesty, which includes devotional formula as well as expressions of humility and submission. These concepts are discussed in Curtius’ second excurse: Devotional Formula and Humility. Curtius starts by pointing out that Bresslau in his Handbuch der Urkundenlehre made a distinction between devotion and humility and Curtius defends this distinction against scholars, who despite the their references to Bresslau insist on blurring the it – this is where Curtius becomes frank. And he is right. There is a distinction. Devotional and submissive formulae are different topoi in the vast field of thousands of similar and different topoi. ‘Thousands’ by the way is the topos of large, perhaps exaggerated, even numbers. Picking two different topoi believing them to be similar is a serious mistake, because topoi have a direct meaning, which is often of minor importance (dozens, scores, hundreds or thousands – who cares?) as well as hidden and important albeit somewhat obscure meanings (e.g. ‘thousands’, which also means “more topoi than you would think”). Consequently, the choice of one topos above another is sometimes important. And frankly, scholarship grounding its arguments and interpretations on misconstrued and overlooked topoi must be criticized. Curtius does just that.

To Bresslau’s mind, Devotional Formula is a technical term which verbalizes the opinion that God has granted us our earthly position from which we act. In written Medieval instruments and often in the beginning, expressions such as Gratia Dei (by the grace of God) or servus servorum Dei (the servant of the servants of God) are in other words examples of Devotional Formula. The fact that this devotion is not passive, although it may seem to be, is essential. Take e.g. the ostensibly modest position in life of someone who calls himself servus servorum Dei. Its appearance is deceptive, since the formula – first used by Gregory the Great (590-604 CE) – was invented to designate the Pope when he introduces himself in a papal bull, i.e. when he is about to take firm action rather than profess his modest humility. Curtius demonstrates that whatever scholars such as Schmitz or Schwietering may think, the devotional formula has little to do with humility because those who profess to this devotion allow themselves to act autonomously on behalf of the superior power to whom they refer their devotion, i.e., they act on the power extended to them by their devotion. They have been appointed a mission by their superior, who’s ours too, and in that sense their actions are lawful. That’s why ‘devoted’ teachers in loco parentes (in a position where they substitute parents) have beaten up children for centuries.

Nevertheless, the idea behind the devotional formula is its reference to an accepted hierarchic social order (e.g. headed by Deus) to which belongs the person who speaks (the servus servorum) as well as the listeners (the servi Dei and the rest of us)—servus servorum Dei, in short, demonstrates the right of the devoted.

In Bresslau’s sense devotional formula belongs in a room of its own walled by institutions and separated from formula that express belittlement and personal feeling, be it modesty or humility or submission or incapacity. Thus if someone calls himself servus, servant, thrall etc., then the humbleness implied must not be taken at face value. The word alone it not enough to designate the formula in which it occurs – its context must be taken into account. This as it happens is Curtius’ critical method in the excurse. Frankly, sloppy contextual analyses have let some scholars astray.

As readers of On the Reading Rest will perhaps remember there are some difficulties understanding early runic names ending in – þewaz, A-S theow, i. e. servus, servant, thrall. Similarly, we may wonder why Mary in Hêliand (the Saxon Gospel harmony written c- 830 CE) when talking to Gabriel designates herself thus: thiu … … theodgodes, i. e. ‘maid servant … … of the folk god’. Perhaps analyzing this passage from the perspective of devotional formula will bring some clarity.

In Luke, we (i. e. God, the Archangel Gabriel and the rest of us) as well as Mary herself see her as a virgin and an instrument or ‘a vessel of selfless service’, to quote the 1587 Lithany of the blessed Virgin Mary. We take her statement to the angel as proof of this: ‘And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord: Be it done to me according to your words’—dixit autem Maria ecce ancilla Domini fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum (Luke 1:38). She is not supposed to act, since: ‘the Holy Ghost shall come upon you and the power of the Highest shall overshadow you. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God’. The angel has delivered his message and she has understood that she has received it. Her behaviour is significant because it differs from Zachary’s in verse 18. He doubts that his 80 year old wife will become pregnant and starts to discuss reproduction with Gabriel and he was duly punished because he expressed doubts. Mary doesn’t doubt the angel, she just wonders what is going to happen and informs him that she is a virgin. When she calls herself ancilla—maid servant/handmaid, this is not a devotional formula, but a fact, because Mary’s humility is a fact, which makes ancilla Domini a submissive formula.

In Hêliand things are different because Mary Hêliand is a different person than Mary Gospel, ‘virgin’ and ‘handmaid’. Mary Hêliand, even before the angel addresses her, is described to us as a woman that God knows, a lovable maid, a forward young woman, a daughter of King David, a dear and a devoted woman.

A member of the upper and cultivated classes, she is a bit astonished when the angel, whom she perceives as a man, comes up in front of her and addresses her by her name and starts flattering her calling her ‘loved by her master, worthy of the Lord, because she has wits, in short a most pleasant woman. The angel understands that his brusque manners need to be balance by a more polite behaviour and starts to explain himself pointing out that he is not delusion and that he means no evil. Then he sketches a series of happy events (1) she will become our Lord’s (2) become a mother, (3) give birth to a son (4) who is the son of the Lord. (5) This new king will become the ‘splendid king of (all) people’—mâri theodan.

In the Gospel, Mary was told that ‘the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father: and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever’, but in Hêliand Joseph is already sitting on David’s throne (albeit quietly) and the ruling of the house of Jacob (i.e. the Jewish nation) is a petty ruler ship compared to many others. Mary Hêliand expects more, because reasonably her future son by Joseph will sit on David’s throne and why not rule Israel too.

In the Gospel Mary humbly asks: how will this to be done?— quomodo fiet istud?. Far from being humble and submissive Mary Hêliand asks the angel: huô mag that giuuerðen sô that ic magu fôdie?—how may that become so that I may give birth? That is: How is it possible? Not: How will it be done?

The answer to Mary Hêliand’s question is simple enough: By the strength of God the Holy Spirit will come to her from the meadow of Heaven and see to that the she will get pregnant. an thi scal hêlag gêst fon heƀanuuange cuman thurh craft godes. Thanan scal thi kind ôdan uuerðan an thesaro uueroldi—to you the Holy Spirit shall come from Heaven Meadow through God’s strength (as of body or externals) and thereof you shall have a child in this world. The angel indicates that the strength of the Heaven King will be on top of her and ends by pointing out that this procedure and its result is the very best.

Mary Hêliand is pleased with the answer and feels that her ‘mind is thrown to God’s will´’ i.e. she is devoted. Consequently she uses the word servathiu – maid, when she says: Than ic hêr garu standu,’ quað siu, `te sulicun ambahtskepi, sô he mi êgan uuili. Thiu bium ic theodgodes—‘Then, here I stand prepared, she said, to whatever servant’s task he wants to use me. I am the Folk-god’s maid servant’. As the not-so-orthodox Hêliand context shows, this formula, which in Latin would be serva Dei, is devotional. Having asked the angel to clarify himself on an essential point, Mary Hêliand has accepted her devotion and a mission. There is agreement and a form of contract – ‘here I stand prepared’. Mary Hêliand is far from submissive.

In their respective contexts Ancilla Dei is submissive and thiu theodgodes is devotional. In the Gospel the submissive ancilla Dei signifies the end of the story, but In Hêliand the devotional formula thiu theodgodes signifies the beginning of Mary’s mission. In Hêliand John is already born and Mary, instead of visiting Elisabeth, whom she doesn’t know, starts telling people, those she wants to talk to, that she has become pregnant through God’s holy strength from Heaven. Doing so creates some problems of legal and moral character. Mary isn’t bothered Joseph is, but Gabriel talks some sense into him helping Mary in her mission.


Because Mary, the mother of God’s son, had to be construed as a woman of royal decent, I think it was impossible for a Saxon poet, such as the Hêliand author, still close to pagan ideals, simply to look at Mary as in reality an ancilla Dei. To avoid this, he had to fall back on Roman/Pagan social contracts of mission and devotion in a socially stratified earthly society in which the upper classes and royalty had affinities with deities. He had to give Mary an active social position, similar to that of other upper-class women. Moreover, I think that Scandinavian Iron Age names ending in –þewaz—servant, which contrary to the Continental ones never became conventional, are reminiscent of pagan devotional formula referring to missions and social contracts with superior deities and members of society. A þewaz does the job because he or she is devoted to the social order.

This, and needless to say my incapacity to treat any relevant topic in a satisfactory way, I humbly confess.


The Reading Rest is collapsing under the weight of books, articles and manuscripts that must be read, but not written about. Owing to lack of time references will for a while be hinted only and subjects changed a bit – LIA. in Scandinavian being a focus.

Production sites are emblematic of the PCIA and most often they reveal very few links to the upper classes. Sometimes they are socially stratified villages such as Bejsebakken, but only seldom do aristocracy and lordship tie-in with production. In even fewer cases are halls or manors located at a landing site in a context involving production.


From the point of view of production and trade these sites resemble towns or market places, but as communities they are production manors dominated by an owner, whose presence is marked by a hall. This hall-and-landing-place structure goes back into the PCIA and continues into the MA e.g. at Borgund near Ålesund in Norway where the production is based on cod fishing in the spring. Here the hall is a small building probably representing the Godøya-based owner of the site. Sites developed in the CIA and Gokstad in Vestfold may have had a strong emphasis on a manor-and-market structure. It is, nevertheless, characteristic of these sites that they are not autonomous urban communities.

Since the original relation between a manor and a landing or trading place is a certain geographical distance, emblematically expressed by the relation Gudme–Lundeborg, we may expect that manorial presence at a landing site belongs to an advanced part of the PCIA and to the best of our knowledge they do. Non-manorial production sites on the other hand are epcia inventions. In part the aristocratic presence patronizes the site for economic reasons, but aristocracy is also prone to bring with it a political dimension. We sense that in Aggersborg where the manor is leveled to the ground to give room for the CIA ring fort, but at Füsing we are coming much closer to this dimension because excavations and discussions by the archaeologist Andres Dobat have made it most likely that Füsing is indeed Sliesthorp.

Sliesthorp is related to King Gudfred, who is mentioned in the Royal Frankish Annals and in the Life of Charlemagne. These two sources, the factual annals and the opinionated narrative about Charles’ life, cross reference each other. In terms of methodology, the latter is the outcome of the former and a typical way of writing history: having created a source material, a series of facts governed by the pace of time, consequences in the form of a Life may be drawn – biography being a prime form of history. Because in reality there is no clear line to be drawn between facts and interpretation, the lines none the less established become blurred and disappearing with deconstruction.

The story about Gudfred, who is introduced 804 and active 808-810 ce when he dies, is a case in point. In Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni, Gudfred’s performance on the historical stage is summarized, but instead of ending with a negative judgement of his character, now that he is dead, it ends with a piece of precise but significant information – ‘since he was murdered by his own bodygard’ (nam a proprio satellite). In the Royal Frankish Annals he is murdered by ‘someone in his surrounding’ (a quodam suo satellite), which is correct but less significant. In the Annals, Gudfred is aggressive and in the Vita his is the end of a boastful king, who might just have put his inflated plans into action. In the Life, therefore, the significant fact rings a bell inasmuch as it is a perfect illustration of Proverbs 16:18: ‘arrogance precedes destruction and the spirit is exalted before fall’.

In the annals, before we are given the details of 808, we are told that the king is ‘insane’ or ‘mad’ – versanus – as if the annalist would like in advance to make sure that we understand the facts presented to us. As if we were reading the patient’s case book we may go back to the short notice from 804 where an undecided King Gudfred, having been advised by his people, will not keep his promise to meet with the Emperor. This is nothing very important, on the contrary it’s a small matter and the Emperor just sends a delegation to Sliesthorp where Gudfred sits with his fleet and army. The outcome is not mentioned. In 804 this is just a fact, but in 808 when Gudfred’s irrationality becomes apparent, 804 is an early, perhaps paranoid, sign of weakness. In 808 when he attacks the Obodrites commencing a series of irrational and stupid actions. In 809, on the pretext of hearsay he demands diplomatic negotiations with the Emperor. He agrees, but while much is discussed and nothing accomplished in extensive and fruitless talks, the Obodrites beat Gudfred’s allies, and his antagonist Drasco, defeated in 808, is raised to power again. In 810 the Emperor is informed that the Danes are attacking Friesland with 200 ships and considerable success, but also that Gudfred takes no part in this. And to the astonishment of the annalist this turns out to be true. Gudfred is sits at home – … vero Godofridum domi esse. Et revera ita erat. The Emperor, who sees this situation as threatening takes his elephant, crosses the Rhine by means of his fleet, awaits more troops and makes his camp where the Aller falls into the Weser, i.e. a little south southeast of Bremen and c. 60 km south of Hamburg. He awaits what will come of the threats expressed by the boasting Gudfred, who – taking out his victory in advance – wants to meet the Emperor on the battlefield. The Emperor waits, and then among a series of different intelligence he is told – almost by the way – that Gudfred has been killed.

From indecision in 804 to irrationalities in 808 and 809 to full-blown insanity and death in 810, so runs the entries in Mad King Gudfred’s case book. Gudfred, being at the receiving end of almost 40 years of Carolingian aggression trying to defend a border zone rather that attacking the Carolingians, probably saw things differently.

Be this as it may, annals are not fabricated and facts are facts. How then can we explain this particular 808 Gudfredian antic and paragon of irrationality:

‘Indeed, Gudfred, before he returned [from the Obodrites] destroyed a trading place – in the Danish tongue called Reric, which – set at the coast of the [Baltic] sea  – gives his kingdom great benefits from payment of taxes. Transferring all the merchants from that place, he came, with the whole army on board his fleet, to the port called Sliesthorp’—Godofridus vero priusquam reverteretur, distructo emporio, quad in oceani litore constitutum lingua Danorum Reric decebatur et magnam regno illius commoditatem vectigalium persolutione praestabat, translatisque inde negotiatoribus, soluta classe ad portum, qui Sliesthorp dicitur, cum universo exercitu venit.

Reric – today a landing place and ancient monument at Gross Strömkendorf  near Wismar – was an independent emporium on Obodrite territory. The place was favoured by the Carolingians when they wanted to trade with Scandinavian and Baltic countries bypassing Hedeby. A victim, we gather, of his troubled mind, Gudfred destroys the place. The itrrationality of this fact has been too much for many archaeologists and Medieval historians, who have suggested that Sliesthorp was indeed Hedeby. However, there is little reason to suggest that Hedeby should have changed its name in the 9th century and less reason to believe that an annalist, to whom Reric is a trading place (emporium), should believe that Hedeby was a harbour and a place (belonging to a king)  – portus and locus – rather than emporium, given that  it was already a well-established trading place. Moreover, it is odd to believe that Hedeby is in Denmark bordering the Saxons, rather than vice versa.

In addition, one must recognize that in the 8th c. the difference between old settlements called by and young ones called thorp was probably obvious and that the settlement next to present-day Füsing, in Denmark bordering on the Saxons, seems a reasonable thorp with a landing place. Likewise in Sliesthorp in Denmark bordering the Saxons there was a thorp-settlement and a harbour named after the settlement. The odd thing from the annalist’s point of view is the fact that Gudfred moves merchants from an urban trading place to a manor albeit with a harbour. Most archaeologists tend to share his opinion, but refuse to believe him and thus they come up with the equation Sliesthorp = Hedeby. This rational idea is wishful thinking given that the annalist knows that Gudfred is insane.

Instead we should look at Gudfred as a king rooted in the pcia. He doesn’t like independent towns, but he likes trade and doesn’t mind organizing it from his manors or any semi-rural site controlled by him. Taxation the Carolingian way is not his cup of tea – as it were he is busy defending his nation against it. He is nor raiding the Friesians either. In short he is old-fashioned and a relict. Trying to defend his country he uses his manor at Sliesthorp more or less the Charlemagne would use a one of his palaces as a strategic foothold in his mostly maritime warfare. He expects the merchants to thrive in Sliesthorp, probably he is mistaken and similar to the pcia lord at Aggersborg and his manor he and Sliesthorp will be wiped out. Be this as it may, strategic footholds seem to be the reason behind manor-controlled lia landing sites.