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The Heliand Code

 The discovery of a so far unknown Heliand fragment at the university library of Leipzig in April 20061 was regarded as an exceptional event by the persons involved.2 Thomas Döring, a staff member of the manuscript department, had discovered a print from the 17th century which was bound with an old manuscript.3 Prof. Schmid, a reputable professor of German historical linguistics soon identified the manuscript as dating from the 9th century (which is not hard to guess when you have Carolingian minuscule), and discovered yet another sensation: In the text, there was the word idise,4 an Old Saxon word for a socially high standing woman or half-goddess of Germanic origin. This word has only been recorded twice in Prudentius- glosses.5 The text transcribed by Prof. Schmid told about the women at the sepulchre. He already suspected this fragment to be part of the Heliand epos. Schmid was told that the 17th century book had once belonged to the library of St. Thomas in Leipzig, but had been transferred into the property of the City of Leipzig, after the secularisation following the reformation in 1543. All books formerly belonging to the library of St. Thomas were later sourced out and by this got into possession of the university library. Further investigeations with the help of Sievers’ edition6 proved that the fragment indeed contained a part of the Heliand, an epic poem written around 825 which tells about the life of Jesus in the style of a Germanic saga. When the cover had been separated from the book, verso was even better to read. The text on verso showed an initial of the letter h, first-glance evidence that the text continued on verso.  The sensation was made complete when the professor claimed the Leipzig fragment to originate from the author’s time.7 His evidence (as a non-palaeographist8) was corrections in the text made by the same hand which wrote the entire text. Schmid underlines the similarities between the Leipzig fragment L and the Prague fragment P9 (now in Berlin) and presumes that both fragments have once belonged to the same codex or at least to be written in the same scriptorium.10
It will be shown later that there are other possibilities for those striking resemblances between both fragments. Although and maybe just because this discovery is quite a sensation for the university library of Leipzig as it would be for any library, one should be careful with the case. There are just too many coincidences in this discovery: Firstly, verso is even better to read than recto. This obviously is due to verso having been the inner side of the cover and not having been exposed centuries of usage. Fortunately, the glue did not demolish the ink used. Apparently, there is a fifty-fifty chance of one side being on the inner or the outer side. Therefore, this actually is no evidence for a forgery. Nevertheless, if it is a forge, it shows the humour11 of the forger to having the discovering person experience yet another success by finding the “sequel” when separating the cover from the book. Secondly, the manuscript was used as binding of a book which could be lent until two weeks before the discovery to be used in the reading room – not the manuscript reading room, but the main reading room just like any journal or 19th century print.12 By providing the book to public access, the conjectural forger made sure that the manuscript would be found one day, even if he had to wait for the chance that somebody would lend this book. However, how would it be possible for the presumed forger to place his piece of imitation in the archives of the library? It must have been a person with few restrictions in access, which leads to two possibilities: It either was someone of the library staff or someone else in a time when security regulations had not been as strict as they nowadays are. In the 19th century and even until the 1970s, it was not at all an exception that scholars were allowed to take precious prints and even manuscripts home. As library staff usually does not have the linguistic knowledge to imitate Old Saxon combined with the skills to forge a Carolingian minuscule, only two options are left: Either a staff member of the manuscript department cooperating with a scholar of German historical linguistics or merely the scholar on his own to be the suspect. Furthermore, less effort is needed and the result is more impressive, when a text is forged which already is part of a tradition than to invent a new text and with it a new text tradition. One only has to copy an existing text adding some graphemic deviances to create some background story further reaching than that this passage was merely copied not long after the original had been produced. By doing this, one would create a new branch in a stemma, the missing link between two text evidences or even the archetype. The question now is who would be able to do this. It could have been only someone who has access to originals or editions, like a staff member of the manuscript department or a specialist and trustworthy user of the library.
Such presumed forges have been carried out in the past. One need only to remind the reader of the Old High German Lullaby, “discovered” in September 1852 by Georg Zappert, a private scholar in Vienna.13 Zappert even deceived Jacob Grimm up to his death in 1863,14 which was made easier by the fact that Grimm had been looking for text evidence for the Goddess Eástre mentioned only by Beda Venerabilis15 and Zappert provided him with this evidence in the 7th verse.
The third almost unbelievable discovery is that the Leipzig fragment is believed to be written in the time of the author because of two corrections in interlinear glosses originating from the same time the text does. This offers two explanations (except the one the fragment being the original): It is harder to imitate two different hand-writings than one and the forger at this point was simply too lazy to imitate two. The other explanation is that it was part of the master-plan to give the impression of presenting the original. One has to think of motivations for this behaviour, which will be done later for this matter.
The question of motivation also is to be asked for the entire “project”. If it is not for the money one would gain by selling such a rarity, why should any reasonable person do this? There are two answers to this very much legitimate question: Firstly, if the assumed scholar is the main suspect, he could have acted because of him wanting to prove his knowledge and skills. This motivation depends either on the manuscript being found during his life-time and him telling the (academic) public the truth after some time of excitement16 or laying traces in the forged fragment or in his publications with the result that some bright scholar later would discover his cantrip. The second possibility is that the suspected scholar had developed a theory that found little acceptance and needed to be substantiated. His substance would then be his fragment showing the best possible hints to proving his theory. Taking a look into the research history of Heliand offers a person matching that profile: Eduard Sievers (1850-1932), a German philologist, who had studied in Leipzig from 1867 to 1870, was professor in Leipzig from 1892 to 1922 and was rector of the University of Leipzig in 1901/02. There could hardly have been a person knowing more about Old Saxon in his time in Leipzig and being more respected. He knew the old Germanic languages as well as the modern ones.17 Furthermore, he was the first to suggest the writing dialect of Heliand to be Old Saxon (or Old Low German) instead of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) as everybody else was and was sometimes regarded as stubborn in his views by his colleagues.18 As Frings says, Sievers was “keines Mannes Schüler”19 to express that Sievers went straight on his path, convinced of his own ideas. This can not always have been easy for the young scholar. His theory could only been verified when other fragments were found. One piece of evidence for his theory was the discovery of the Vatican fragment in 1894 by Zangemeister. His colleague Braune already confirmed Siever’s theory in 1894.20 It is conspicuous that the Leipzig fragment contains verses which can only be found in the London manuscript. For an overview, see the following table:

Content (vv.)21Date of creationLanguageDate of discovery
C (London)
Cott. Cal. A VII
1-5,968 2nd half of 10th century Anglo-Saxon before 1830
M (Munich)
Cgm 25
85-2,198a, 2,256-2,514a,
2,576-3,414a, 3,491-
3,950, 4,017a-4,574, 4,740b-5,275a22
around 850 Old Saxon 179423
P (Berlin)
R 56/2537
958-1,006 oldest ms.24
around 850
Old Saxon 1880
S (Straubing) 351-360, 368-384, 393-400, 492-582, 675 -683, 693-706, 715-722 around 850 Old Saxon 1977
V (Rome)
Pal. Lat. 1447
1,279-1,358 3rd quarter of 9th century Old Saxon 189425
L (Leipzig) 5,823-5,869 early 9th century Old Saxon 2006


Table 1: Heliand manuscripts and fragments

If the Leipzig fragment actually is a forgery and Sievers is the forger, it would have been most cunning of him to copy a part of the London manuscript which is not to be found in any other manuscript, so that a comparison of two texts as evidences would not be possible. Sievers worked with the London manuscript in January26 instead of using Heyne’s edition27 , which uses the Munich manuscript as the main source, because Heyne never set eye on the London manuscript.28 One might argue that the London manuscript has been identified as Anglo-Saxon (see table) and that, in contrast, all the other manuscripts have been identified as Old Saxon. Well, if Sievers was the first to suggest Heliand to be Old Saxon in original, what would be better than to spectacularly find evidence to prove his theory?29 However, the Prague fragment was discovered during his life-time. (By the way, the Prague fragment was used as binding for a book, just like the Leipzig fragment was.) The Prague fragment has been transcribed as extremely near to the archetype regarding language and graphemics.30 The archetype, on the other hand, is as well very good represented in the Leipzig fragment, as it has been identified by Schmid as being the oldest of all text evidences. Schmid even assumes L and P having once been parts of the same codex.31 He justifies his theory by the equality of page size, number of lines, the denting of the beginnings of verses in P as well as in L and other stylistic characteristics.32 He also recognizes differences in graphemics like the different representation of <g> and <a>33 . Schmid explains this with the spatial and temporal distance of the verses in L and P (almost 4,000 verses in between) (see table 1 ), meaning that at least one change of scribes took place between those two points in the text. The similarity between the two fragments could also be explained with the possibility that one fragment is the copy of the other and that the scribe of the second took over specific stylistic characteristics of the original.
736  +   +   -   -   -   - 
3966  +   -   -   -   -   - 
5740  +   -   -   -   -   - 
5748  +   -   -   -   -   - 
5782  +   -   -   -   -   - 
5828  +   -   -   -   -   + 
Table 2: Occurrences of idisi/ idise in all known Heliand manuscripts
However, another explanation could be that Sievers copied verses 5,823-5,869 from C in the style of P. Furthermore, it is quite a sensation that the Leipzig fragment contains verses which record the word idise (v. 5,828). As already mentioned above, Old Saxon idise has only been recorded in two text traditions so far (Prudentius- glosses and Heliand). For Heliand, only the London and the Munich manuscript have been serving as text evidences for idise –until now. Sievers might have predicted that those scholars who would find the Leipzig fragment one day, would be so grateful for one more idise-source that they would not dare to verify the originality of the fragment, in case they would loose this text record. So far, the authenticity of the Leipzig fragment has not been verified, as the manuscript department seems to take Prof. Schmid’s word for evidence. Schmid furthermore found another first recorded in L in the word uulitan for the C-variant scouwen.34 Uulitan has only been found in its Old English form wlitan, Old Nordic líta and Gothic weak verb wlaiton.35 As already mentioned above, Sievers knew all sister languages of Old Saxon and could therefore easily form the Old Saxon equivalent of Old English or Gothic forms. Another peculiarity is the L use of uuaname for C variant scone in verse 5848. Here, the scribe of C or C’s archetype replaced a trisyllabic word by a bisyllabic one and by this destroying the metre of the verse. Sievers was very interested in rhythm and metre of the works of this time and published several essays on the matter.36 He tried to prove the origin of a manuscript in regard to the scribe by using metrical formulae and other devices.37 Perhaps a trisyllabic word served his theory better than a bisyllabic word and he therefore replaced the bisyllabic word of C. This theory would need further investigation.

  them idison an egison:
  nimahtun an thia engilos godas
  bi them uulite uulitan39 :
  uuas im thiu uuaname40 te strang,
  te41 suikle42 tesehanna.
  then idison an egison:
  ne mahtun an thia engilos godes /
  bi themo uulite scauuon:
  uuas im thiu uuânami te strang,
  te suîði te sehanne.43

Another astonishing coincidence is the fact that as well as in the London manuscript, the Leipzig fragment shows a decoration of majuscles (and important words) in the colors red and yellow - compare plate A44 with plate B45.

Plate APlate B
Zum Vergrößern klicken Zum Vergrößern klicken
A rubrication alone would be nothing special, but to find the combination of the same colors is quite suspicious. This would lead to the conclusion that Sievers took the words of fragment C, added some lexical deviations and wrote in the style of P in regard to page size, number of lines and the other characteristics described by Schmid46 , and on the other hand using the colorful decoration of C. The only deviation between P and L are the graphemic differences in <g> and <a>. This presumption would lead to the possibility of gaining a terminus post quem, namely that Sievers could only have written “his” Heliand after 1880, when the Prague fragment had been found.
Concluding from Schmid’s essay, it is to see that in the two cases where there is no parallel text evidence for words in L, there is always text evidence in other Old Saxon texts or in other Germanic languages. In combination with the theory of Siever’s forge, this would mean that he never invented an Old Saxon word, but fell back on other Germanic languages or other Old Saxon texts which contained the word.
In conclusion, it is not to tell whether the Leipzig fragment is a piece of forgery or not. Such questions are never to be answered to everybody's satisfaction when it comes to manuscripts of that age. However, if it is one, it would be the work of a genius. On the other hand, if it is not, the sensation and the hype around it would be justified. The accusations towards Sievers are not brought up to damage his reputation, rather than to prove his knowledge and to honour one of the fathers of the Old High German Dictionary.

[1] H. U. Schmid: Ein neues ‚Heliand’-Fragment aus der Universitätbibliothek Leipzig, in: ZfdA 135, Heft 3, p. 309.
[2] Press release at (August 30th 2006).
[3] H. U. Schmid (2006): p. 309.
[4] According to Schmid’s presentation at the press conference held on May 18, 2006.
[5] According to Schützeichel, Glossenwortschatz, vol. Ka St. Peter perg. 87, f. 83rb, 26 and f. 91va, 36.
[6] H. U. Schmid (2006): p. 309.
[7] Press release at (August 30th 2006).
[8] H. U. Schmid (2006): p. 311.
[9] H. U. Schmid (2006): p. 310f.
[10] H. U. Schmid (2006): p. 311.
[11] It would have been even more sensational to find the sequel of the Hildebrantslied, but a forge should never been exaggerated, as it would then become untrustworthy. One has also to take into consideration the main research area of a presumed forger, meaning that a forger would work with a text tradition he knew most about.
[12] Press conference held on May 18, 2006.
[13] Cyril Edwards: The Beginnings of German Literature, Rochester 2002, p. 149.
[14] C. Edwards (2002): p. 150.
[15] C. Edwards (2002):  p. 154.
[16] and either losing his good reputation or being awarded for this master-piece.
[17] Theodor Frings: Eduard Sievers, in: Portraits of Linguists: A Biographical Source Book for the History of Western Linguistics, 1746-1963, Bristol 2002, p. 2.
[18] Th. Frings (2002): p. 4.
[19] TH. Frings (2002): p. 25.
[20] Zangemeister/Braune: Bruchstücke der altsächsischen Bibeldichtung aus der Bibliotteca Palatina, Neue Heidelberger Jahrbücher 4, 1894, p. 210.
[21] Except for the Leipzig and Munich fragment, the data in this column is taken from (May 1st 2006).
[22] Erich Petzet: Die deutschen Pergamenthandschriften Nr. 1-200 der Staatsbibliothek in München. München 1920, p. 43.
[23] E. Petzet (1920): p. 42.
[24] Verfasserlexikon, 1st edition, vol. II, col. 377.
[25] Zangemeister/Braune (1894): p. 205.
[26] Eduard Sievers: 'Zum Heliand', in: ZfdA 19 (1876), p. 40.
[27] Moritz Heyne (ed.): Hêliand nebst den Bruchstücken der altsächsischen Genesis / mit ausführlichem Glossar, Paderborn 1905.
[28] E. Sievers (1876): p. 39.
[29] Bad luck for him that the Leipzig fragment was found more than 70 years after his death.
[30] Verfasserlexikon, 2nd edition, vol. III, col. 961.
[31] Das in der UB Leipzig neu aufgefundene „Heliand“-Fragment aus dem 9. Jahrhundert, press release by the university library Leipzig, May 18th 2006.
[32] H. U. Schmid (2006): pp. 310-311.
[33] H. U. Schmid (2006): p. 311.
[34] H. U. Schmid: Presentation on the discovery of the Leipzig Heliand fragment held on May 18th 2006 in the Bibliotheca Albertina of Leipzig.
[35] H. U. Schmid (2006): p. 319.
[36] Compare: Eduard Sievers: Metrische Studien, Leipzig 1901 or Sievers: Zum Heliand, in: ZfdA 19, p. 46 about the metre in the Heliand.
[37] So he tried to prove whether the Süßkind von Trimberg actually was a Jew by using Schallanalyse a method invented by him which used disc recordings of texts read by him or colleagues.
[38] Transcription taken from: H. U. Schmid (2006): p. 314.
[39] Interlinear glosse: scauuon.
[40] Interlinear glosse: scone.
[41] Interlinear glosse: t.
[42] Interlinear glosse: skir.
[43] Taken from:; text on the basis of the edition by Burkhard Taeger, Tübingen 1984.
[44] Taken from: (23rd May 2006)
[45] Picture taken in the lobby of the University Library Leipzig.
[46] H. U. Schmid (2006): pp. 310-311.


  • Otto Behaghel: Heliand und Genesis, Halle 1948.
  • Theodor Frings: Eduard Sievers, in: Portraits of Linguists: A Biographical Source Book for the History of Western Linguistics, 1746-1963, Bristol 2002.
  • Cyril Edwards: The Beginnings of German Literature, Rochester 2002, pp. 143-165.
  • Elisabeth Karg- Gasterstädt/ Theodor Frings: Althochdeutsches Wörterbuch, vols. I and IV, Leipzig, 1952ff.
  • Erich Petzet: Die deutschen Pergamenthandschriften Nr. 1-200 der Staatsbibliothek in München. München 1920.
  • Kurt Ruh: Die deutsche Literatur des Mittelalters: Verfasserlexikon. Berlin 1978-2004.
  • Hans Ulrich Schmid: Ein neues ‚Heliand’-Fragment aus der Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig, in: ZfdA 135, Heft 3, pp. 309-323.
  • Ludwig Schuba: Die Quadriviums-Handschriften der Codices Palatini Latini in der Vatikanischen Bibliothek, Wiesbaden 1992 (Kataloge der Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Bd. 2).
  • Rudolf Schützeichel: Althochdeutscher und Altsächsischer Glossenwortschatz, vol. V, Tübingen 2004.
  • Eduard Sievers: Zum Heliand, in: ZfdA 19 (1876), pp. 1-76.
  • Karl Zangemeister/ Wilhelm Braune: Bruchstücke der altsächsischen Bibeldichtung aus der Bibliotheca Palatina, in: Neue Heidelberger Jahrbücher IV, Heft 2, Heidelberg 1894.
  • (May 1st, 2006)
  • Das in der UB Leipzig neu aufgefundene „Heliand“-Fragment aus dem 9. Jahrhundert, press release by the university library Leipzig, May 18th 2006.
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