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The German Texts of Ioannes Dantiscus – Introduction

Ioannes Dantiscus wrote in Latin, German, and occasionally probably also in Polish. The Corpus of Ioannes Dantiscus’ Texts and Correspondence registers 957 letters and 42 official records written by Dantiscus in German. These numbers slightly exceed the number of letters (777) and records (36) written by him in Latin.

Dantiscus’ oldest letter in German dates from 1500 and it is his first known text. It refers to family matters and is addressed to the Gdańsk town council. In the course of Dantiscus’ long years in the diplomatic service that ended in August 1532, his correspondence was dominated by Latin – 198 Latin letters written by Dantiscus and 641 sent to him survive from this period, compared to just 7 German letters by Dantiscus and 163 sent to him. The number of extant German texts by Dantiscus increases significantly when he returns to Poland and when he is appointed to bishoprics in Royal Prussia, first Kulm (1532) and then Ermland (1537).

Next to family members and friends, Dantiscus’ German-language correspondents include the political elite of Royal Prussia (certain members of Prussian nobility, the patricians and institutions of Gdańsk, Thorn, Elbing, Graudenz, Braunsberg, Marienburg, Rössel, Wartenburg, Wormditt, Kulm, Löbau), a number of German and Netherlands dukes (it is particularly worth noting the intensive exchange of correspondence with Duke Albrecht Hohenzollern and his circle, and also with institutions of the Duchy of Prussia) as well as bankers and merchants. Dantiscus as a bishop and chairman of the Prussian Council was also addressed in German by private individuals asking him to intercede on their behalf or resolve local legal disputes.

The source material documenting Dantiscus’ German letters is very diverse. From the early years (up to 1533), survive almost exclusively fair copies. Among the primary sources from 1534 to 1547, dominate personally handwritten rough drafts, though fair copies and office copies are also found. During Dantiscus’ declining years, as his health deteriorated, the number of rough drafts written in a secretary’s hand went up. In his German correspondence Dantiscus used secretaries in similar circumstances to those of his Latin letters. More information on how Dantiscus’ office worked can be found in the introduction to the inventory of his Latin letters, CEID 4/2. p. 7-23, and in the papers of Katarzyna Jasińska-Zdun and Anna Skolimowska in the volume Respublica Litteraria in Action, Politics and Religion, CEID 5/2, p. 21-104. The most solidly identified of Dantiscus’ secretaries writing in German is his nephew Johann Lehmann, who was the chancellor of Warmia’s bishop in 1545-1548; pursuing his career after his uncle’s death he reached the position of custodian of the Warmia cathedral chapter.

Alongside a chancellor, the bishop’s office (chancery) usually employed at least several scribes. Their education varied considerably and they endowed the texts they wrote with their own orthographic habits and in the case of German texts the scribes used some features of the dialects spoken in their native regions. Added to the lack of orthographic standards, which was typical of vernacular languages in those times, this diversity resulted in huge inconsistencies in the way the German texts were recorded. Often the same words are written in different ways by the same person in a single text.

One widespread standard in writing that differs from present-day rules of orthography is the notation of the letters u, v and w as well as i, ii, y, which were not recorded according to their phonetic value but depending on their position in a word. The letter v appears at the beginning of a word or after a prefix. Inside a word, the notation is u, while the clusters uv, vu are written as either uu or w.

The inconsistency of notation manifests itself as follows:

  1. Diversity of vowel color and height: in the same word, a vowel could take the form a, ä, e, ö or o depending on the scribe’s habits; similarly the vowels u, ü, i.
  2. Duplication or triplication of the consonants z, c, s, k to cz, zc, tz, s, ss, sz, zs, ck, gk
  3. Addition of extra letters b and p to consonant clusters
  4. Alternation of the letters b and v
  5. Duplication or triplication of the letters m and n and a tendency to write them in abbreviated form
  6. Writing of voiced consonants alternately with their voiceless equivalents in weak positions, for example b as p, d as t etc.
  7. Diverse function of the voiceless h: it might serve to record a short vowel or to lengthen a vowel
  8. The letter u after a prefix, contrary to the rule mentioned earlier, might be written randomly as u or v

The frequency of these occurrences and the use of a greater or smaller number of abbreviated forms depend on the type of source text. Inconsistency of notation is greater in rough drafts but less frequent in fair copies and office copies.

It is also worth noting the dialectal diversity in Dantiscus’ German letters. The dominant variety of language used in the German correspondence is Early New High German (Frühneuhochdeutsch), some letters are written in Middle Low German (Mittelniederdeutsch). In his youth Dantiscus himself used Middle Low German in his correspondence. Information is unavailable on his outgoing correspondence from the 1520s, but as of his return to Poland (1532) he wrote exclusively in Early New High German, even when his addressees used Middle Low German. One such example is his correspondence with Johann von Werden. It is also curious that Werden, who was a long-time member of the Gdańsk town council and the city’s mayor (1526-1554), used Middle Low German in his private letters, whereas letters sent by the Gdańsk town council were always written in Early New High German. In the same way, letters from the Toruń town council were written in Early New High German, though the town’s residents wrote in Middle Low German. There is no question that in Baltic coastal areas Early New High German was considered more formal and indicated a higher status of the writer than the locally used Middle Low German. Dantiscus most likely acquired his Early New High German language skills as a mature man, during his diplomatic travels. This language completely supplanted in his texts the language habits of his youth.

Due to the discussed orthographic inconsistencies in the primary sources for Dantiscus’ German texts, a partial standardization has been applied in the Corpus together with some elements of transliteration. Detailed rules of transcription are provided in the tab About the Corpus.

Anna Skolimowska

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