Grave Language: The Epitaph of Pope Gregory V

There have been great popes in the history of the papacy, men who have influenced countless people, both during and after their lives, with their words, deeds and faith. Gregory V was not one of them.

Born in c. 972 in what is now southern Austria, Bruno of Carinthia was well connected from birth. He was related to the Ottonian dynasty that ruled Germany, holding a privileged position as a great-grandson of Otto I, generally considered to be the first Holy Roman Emperor. It was his cousin-once-removed Otto III who then acquired the papacy for Bruno in 996; Bruno, now Gregory V, quickly returned the favour by crowning Otto as emperor.

A fifteenth-century depiction of Otto’s coronation. Image from here.

Gregory, pope at twenty-four years old, did not enjoy a peaceful pontificate; it included revolts, a rival antipope, revenge by mutilation and the executions of big political players. All of this took only three years, ending with his death in 999.

When Gregory V died, a magnificent tomb was set up for him, which, luckily for us language lovers, included a long inscription for an epitaph. More luckily still, its author(s) accidentally provided us with a fascinating window into both the Latin and the whole linguistic status quo of Gregory’s day. This is a blog post about why that is.

First things first: the text in question, as seen in the top photo (image from here), reads as follows:

+ Hic quem claudit humus oculis vultuque decorum
+ papa fuit quintus nomine Gregorius
+ ante tamen Bruno Francorum regia proles
+ filius Ottonis de genitrice Iudith
+ Linga Teutonicus Vuangia doctus in urbe
+ sed iuvenis cathedram sedit apostolicam
+ ad binos annos et menses circiter octo
+ ter senos Februo connumerante dies
+ Pauperibus dives per singula sabbata vestes
+ divisit numero cautus apostolico
+ Usus Francisca, vulgari et voce Latina
+ instituit populos eloquio triplici
+ Tertius Otto sibi Petri commisit ovile
+ cognatis manibus unctus in imperium
+ Exuit et postquam terrenae vincula carnis
+ aequivoci dextro sustituit lateri

Much of it is dedicated to the facts and big events of his life, including those mentioned already. Translated, it reads:

This man whom the ground has enclosed, handsome in eyes and face, was pope, fifth by the name Gregory, though formerly Bruno, royal offspring of the Franks, son of Otto and of Judith his mother.
By language a German, he was educated in the city of Worms. While yet a young man he held the apostolic seat for two years and around eight months, counting the days up to the eighteenth of February.
Plentiful to the poor, he distributed clothes on every Sabbath, careful to stick to the apostolic number. Speaking Frankish, the common speech and Latin, he instructed the people with threefold eloquence.
Otto III committed the sheepfold of Peter to him, being then anointed by his kinsman’s hands into sovereignty. He then stripped off the bonds of earthly flesh and was placed on the right side of his namesake.

This is not a particularly impressive CV for the young pope – but his lack is our gain, as further achievements could have squeezed out the details for which we linguists must be grateful. I’m referring in particular to the line about his multilingualism: “usus Francisca, vulgari et voce Latina“.

Here’s the thing: this could be our earliest reference to French and Italian, as languages distinct from Latin.

Now, my translation above has ‘Frankish’ for “Francisca” – Frankish being the Germanic language of the Franks, a relative of English and German. This is only reasonable. Yet another translation is possible: French. It’s from the Franks, their kingdom and their language that we get French and France.

Which then is the better translation for Francisca? The idea of ‘the Franks’ was certainly still current at the time, being the people from which Gregory himself emerged, while the idea of ‘France’ was only in its infancy. However, Gregory’s mother tongue is already mentioned in the epitaph by another name: Teutonicus. What would therefore be the purpose of giving two names for Gregory’s Germanic language?

It could be this reflects a perceived difference between two Germanic languages (namely between Frankish and the ancestor of German), although the differences between these would not have been major, if a distinct Frankish language even existed still. An alternative idea therefore is that Francisca refers to French, the Romance language spoken in today’s northern France, placed here beside its sister and parent languages, Italian and Latin.

We’re on surer ground though with the next of the three, “vulgari“, meaning ‘the common speech’. In distinguishing Latina from vulgaris, the text provides evidence for a divide, in both reality and perception, between the language that the people knew from formal contexts (like written texts or ceremonies) and the vernacular that they spoke in everyday circumstances. “Vulgari” is therefore one of the first, if not the first reference to what we today know as Italian – or more specifically Romanesco, the Romance of Rome, where Gregory lived and preached.

This is not to say that everyone at the time now thought of the two as entirely separate languages. For many, Latina and the vulgaris of Italy would have still been two ends of a single scale – like a rope, still linking one to the other in the minds of speakers, but stretched to breaking point by language’s incessant changes. The idea of the vulgaris here is a significant tear in that rope, and thus a big step towards two distinct languages.

In fact, it’s from not too long after this reference that we get our earliest source for that vulgar language: the magnificent frescos of Saint Clement and Sisinnius in the church of San Clemente al Laterano.

The third language in the line should not be overlooked. The use of the word vox for ‘language’ and the reference to his eloquence in teaching the people lead us to presume that Latin was both a written and a spoken language for Gregory V; it could serve as a formal register for his priestly duties and a lingua franca for the visitors he would receive.

It’s interesting that, despite its date of composition, the Latin of the epitaph is really not very ‘medieval’. For example, it lacks typical medievalisms like writing E instead of AE, as in “terrenae“. As Clackson and Horrocks put it, “it is immediately striking how ‘classical’ this Latin is” (2011: 268*); other than its Christian vocabulary (apostolicus, sabbatum, ovile Petri), the language would be easily intelligible for Latin speakers and writers of a millennium earlier. Latin therefore must have enjoyed both a vibrant usage and a long tradition of learning in Gregory’s Rome, with good access to older texts and the classical standard.

This is in brief why the epitaph of Pope Gregory V is a treasure trove for sociolinguistics; in only a few words, it gives us a glimpse into the languages of a pope and his people at the very end of the tenth century. It reveals how at that point in time it was considered reasonable to distinguish between three somewhat separate languages, Latin, Italian and possibly French, where previously such a distinction had yet to emerge. So, thank you, Gregory – a friend to emperors and linguists alike.


* Clackson, J., & Horrocks, G. 2011. The Blackwell History of the Latin Langauge. Wiley-Blackwell.

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