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circa 1100 Tijd van steden en staten

Hebban olla vogala

The Dutch language in writing

Hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan hinase hic anda thu, wat unbidan we nu?
The above is a Dutch sentence, although at first sight it’s barely recognisable as such. This is because it is about the earliest piece of written Dutch we have, some one thousand years old. It literally says: Have all birds nests started except me and you; what wait we for, or: All birds have started making nests, except you and me, what are we waiting for? These lines are probably from a love song, the oldest Dutch love song you could say.

These lines were written to test a quill pen in about 1100 by a Flemish monk who was staying in an English monastery. His daily life was largely filled with copying Latin and Old English texts. Now and then he had to sharpen the goose quill he used for writing. On the last page of the book he was copying he would try out his newly sharpened pen before continuing his copying. In such instances he wrote the first thing that came into his head. For this monk, it was a love poem that he remembered from his youth in Flanders: Hebban olla vogala

This was simply an incident that only with the wisdom of many centuries could be regarded as the beginning of a new phenomenon: the use of the Dutch language as a medium for written literature. That the first fruits of the pen in Dutch were written in a monastery and were preserved in a sacred monastic book is, of course, no coincident. Writing had long been the domain of monks and the written word was mainly used for the sacred, Latin texts of the church.

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