More Than just Valentine’s Day – The Story of the Oaths of Strasbourg

Yesterday, by the way, wasn’t just Saint Valentine’s Day.

It was also a special day for the history of Strasbourg, and that of France and the French language in general, as it was on this day many, many years ago, in 842, that the Oaths of Strasbourg were delivered, and then signed, in what was to – eventually – become modern French, and modern German (both were significantly less ‘modern’ at the time).

That was when two of Charlemagne’s grandsons, Charles the Bald and Louis the German, decided to team up against their older brother Lothair I. To seal their pact, they met in Strasbourg and swore what was to become known as the Oaths of Strasbourg, – Les Serments de Strasbourg.

The two brothers took the oath, Louis the German reciting his in Romance so that the soldiers of Charles the Bald could understand him, Charles following suit in (Old) Germanic, so that Louis’ soldiers could understand him, their soldiers repeating the oath in their own languages.

And that was the first time that Latin had ceded its place to more ‘vulgar’ languages.

It’s important for the history of the French language, as it is the oldest extant document that was delivered – and then put in writing – deliberately and consistently in a form of Romance.

It is also an important moment in history with regards to our profession, as the choice of languages is significant. Not only did both Louis and Charles realise that Latin just wouldn’t do, they also recognised the importance of ensuring their message was understood – not merely delivered.

The historian Nithard (795-844), another one of Charlemagne’s grandsons, who later wrote down the text of the Oaths, in his work titled « On the Quarrels of Louis the Pious’ Sons » also remarked on the importance of clarity, and, yes, choice of language:

« Le besoin de clarté était tel que […] le serment de Louis était dans la lingua Romana, Charles […] prêta son serment dans la lingua Teudisca ».

A big moment for multilingualism. And the future of the interpreting profession.

As for the place of their historic meeting, the two brothers met in what is now known as la Plaine des Bouchers (the present-day name has nothing to do with the Oaths and came much later, in 1321, and had more to do with cattle grazing than fighting for Carolingian inheritance), and if you take the tram in the direction of the Meinau Stadium, and get off Lycée Couffignal, you can still find a commemorative plaque telling you this interesting part of local history.

At least, it was still there a few weeks ago.

And the Charles Darrigan print comes from a 1934 book on the history of France.

The Internet can, after all, be a wonderful place.

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