Notker Balbulus, a brief introduction

These are the notes for a brief presentation I recently did for the medieval Latin course. The topic was medieval poetry and we looked at Notker’s sequence ‘Laus tibi, Christe’.

Notker Balbulus (the Stammerer)

– born 840 of distinguished parents, died 912

– monk of St Gall, monastery in present-day Switzerland, founded in 613 by St Gallus, companion of the Irish missionary St. Columbanus.

– mentioned as librarian of St Gall in 890 and as master of guests (hospitarius) in 892.

Notker was a favourite of the Emperor Charles the Fat, who paid him special attention during his visit to St. Gall in December 883.

The leading sources for his life are the Casus Sancti Galli (collection of vignettes about prominent monks) written by Ekkehard IV (d. 1056) monk of St. Gall – and the Vita Sancti Notkeri of Ekkehard V, another monk there (died 1220).

In the Casus Sancti Galli, Ekkhard IV famously noted:

“Notker was frail in body, though not in mind, a stammerer in voice but not in spirit; lofty in divine thoughts, patient in adversity, gentle in everything, strict in enforcing the discipline of our convent, yet somewhat timid in sudden and unexpected alarms, except in the assaults of demons, whom he always withstood manfully. He was most assiduous in illuminating, reading, and composing.”

Though it may be difficult to assess Notker’s illuminating and reading skills, his compositional abilities emerge from the many poems and chants which came to be attributed to him. Among these, it’s worth mentioning the sequence, a new type of liturgical hymn. The ninth-century western liturgy (or Mass) began with a series of fixed chants (Introit, Kyrie, Gloria and the Collect), then continued with readings from Scripture. A first sung reading from the Epistles was followed by two chants, the Gradual and the Alleluia, before another sung reading from the Gospel continued the order of service.  It had been the custom to prolong the Alleluia in the Mass before the Gospel reading, modulating through a skillfully harmonized series of tones. Notker learned how to fit the separate syllables of a Latin text to the tones of this jubilation; this poem was called the sequence, for it followed the Alleluia. It is important to note, therefore, that Notker’s poems were all meant to be sung. He seems to have begun writing sequences about 862, and in 885 collected them into a volume (the Liber Sequentiarum Notkeri), which he dedicated to Liutward, bishop of Vercelli, and Chancellor to emperor Charles the Fat (pages 2-3 of handout). There are some 50 sequences attributed to Notker.

No autograph copy of the Liber Sequentiarum has survived, and although there are at least eight MSS written not later than the 11th century, it is found that no two manuscripts exactly agree in the list of sequences, thus making it very difficult to determine which are the genuine sequences of Notker and which spurious interpolations.

Notker’s sequences are remarkable for their majesty and noble elevation of tone, their earnestness and their devoutness. They display a profound knowledge of Holy Scripture in its plainer and its more arcane interpretations, and a firm grasp and definite exposition of the eternal truths of the Christian Faith. The style is clear, and the language easily comprehensible, so that whether he is paraphrasing the Gospel for the day, or setting forth the leading ideas of the Church’s festivals, or engaged in vivid and sympathetic word-painting; he is at once pleasing and accurate.

He has also been credited with authoring the Gesta Caroli Magni (written for Charles the Fat’s visit to the abbey in 883).  The work, written by a self-titled Monachus Sangallensis, is a collection in two books of anecdotes about Charlemagne of strained credibility. Though encyclopedias and dictionaries generally profess an acceptance of Notker’s authorship, Lewis Thorpe, in the most recent study of the Gesta (1969), rejected the allegation:

“The monk of Saint Gall, it seems, must remain anonymous, for the attempt to identify him with Notker rests on no better foundation than the fact, or supposition, that both stammered.”

Notker is also known to have written some lives of saints, poems, and letters.

Website: http://www.e-sequence.eu (Digital edition of the Saint Gall corpus of Sequences, 5 reconstructed sequences with facsimile and audio recording)

The early music ensemble Gilles Binchois recorded an album in 1998 titled ‘Music and Poetry in St. Gallen: Sequences and Tropes’, featuring Notker’s sequence Laus tibi, Christe. 

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3 thoughts on “Notker Balbulus, a brief introduction

  1. The Irish missionary was St Columbanus. St Columba was his contemporary in Ireland and Iona. It’s true though that they were already confused in the Middle Ages.

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