The verse contains only eight words: "Fui eo, madre, in civitate, vidi onesti iovene." The next letters are illegible because the page is cropped. For more than a thousand years, this line has lain dormant in a manuscript by Origen from the eighth century, which is kept in the University Library of Würzburg. A cleric of the monastery of St. Kilian noted it in the late ninth or early tenth century at the bottom, where it is upside down. And it has been more than a hundred years since the classical philologist Wilhelm Baehrens identified it in 1916 as a "pen sample of an Italian monk in chancellery script".

Andreas Rossmann

Freelance writer in the feuilleton.

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The linguist and philologist Vittorio Formentin (University of Udine) and the paleographer Antonio Ciaralli (University of Perugia) have only discovered what the early medieval verse is all about. As they demonstrate in the essay "Un frammento di canzone di donna in volgare dell'alto medioevo" in the magazine "Lingua e Stile" (Volume 67, Issue 1, June 2022 / il Mulino), the fragment from a "Chanson de femme" in the Italo-Romance vernacular (volgare) is the oldest verse in Italian poetry, which differs clearly in tone and in addressing the audience from the courtly lyricism of the later troubadours, Trouvères and minstrels. Translated into today's Italian, the line reads: "Sono andata, madre, in città (dove) ho visto dei giovani di buoni costumi." (I went, Mother, to the city, where I saw handsome, well-bred young men.)

Many Christian sources from the early Middle Ages refer to popular poems with love themes, intended for dance and song, which at the same time disapprove of these texts because of their "immoral" content: Caesarius of Arles, for example, condemned "songs of the devil, love and shame" in the early sixth century. But not a single text has survived. The loss is all the more serious because this is where the beginnings of Romance poetry lie, whose motifs and forms live on in modern folk poetry. In the late nineteenth century, philologists began to determine the physiognomy of this lost archaic folk tradition and to reconstruct its residuals in the poetry of the late Middle Ages.

In his study "Les origines de la poésie lyrique en France au moyen âge" (1889), Alfred Jeanroy put forward the thesis that common themes and forms in Italian, German and Galician-Portuguese poetry had been derived from a French model. In the meantime, it is considered more likely that the congruences come from an old pan-Romanesque fund and that the "chanson de femme", which is sung by a girl in love, is of central importance. Jeanroy's hypotheses are supported by Samuel Miklos Stern's discovery of the "Kharjas" (Arabic: exits) in 1948: small groups of verses in the Andalusian-Romance vernacular, the oldest examples of which date back to the first half of the eleventh century. They are thus older than the poetry of the first troubadour, William IX of Poitiers, Duke of Aquitaine, and strike a popular tone. (See also F.A.Z. of 13 October 2022.)

Three branches of women's voices

The Spanish Romance scholar Ramón Menéndez Pidal saw the "Kharjas" as confirmation of the view that the oldest Romance poetry was aimed at an illiterate audience. For this reason, she renounced writing and developed and renewed herself anonymously in oral tradition: the Andalusian "Charjas", the Galician-Portuguese "Cantigas de amigo" and the Castilian "Villancicos de doncella" – these lyrical genres, in which women's voices are articulated, he described as "three branches of the same ancient tribe", as the offspring of a specifically Iberian poetry. In the case of differences in detail, both philologists agree that the "Chanson de femme" represents the early medieval prototype of Romanesque poetry.

The Würzburg find, according to Formentin and Ciaralli, confirms Jeanroy's thesis, according to which archaic Romanesque folk poetry was not written by the people, but for the people. The meter, which is clearly of classical origin (trochaean septenary), assigns the composition to a learned milieu that was familiar with writing. In fact, the beginning of the verse corresponds to some "Cantigas de amigo" such as this one by Johan de Requeixo: "Fui eu, madr', en romaria a Faro con meu amigo." The lexical, thematic and metrical correspondence is obvious: in this song, too, a young woman turns to her mother to confess to her the first turbulence of love. The "asigmatic" plural of the direct object is decisive for the attribution to Italy: it is called "onesti iovene" and not "onestos iovenes".

The verse is three centuries older than the "Canzone ravennate", which is considered the earliest poem in Italian literature. This song, consisting of five stanzas and imitating models of Provençal (courtly) love, has also been handed down only by chance, as a "trace": around 1200, according to the palaeographic dating, it was transcribed on the back of a parchment from Ravenna, which contains the notarial deed of sale of a house from 1127. The Würzburg fragment reveals another poetic world: the poem was intended to please the people and not the feudal court. Recognizably written in passing and without any further intention, it is the rare testimony of a literature that has not found its way into writing and has remained invisible. The pen test of Würzburg makes it possible to shorten the "Latencia" (Ramón Menéndez Pidal), to which popular poetry of the early Middle Ages seemed condemned, by at least two hundred years.