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 … … theotgodes, 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 theotgodes—‘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 theogodes is devotional. In the Gospel the submissive ancilla Dei signifies the end of the story, but In Hêliand the devotional formula thiu theogodes 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.

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