image of Hrabanus Maurus

Week 7: Hrabanus Maurus: De rerum naturis.

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Hrabanus and the Rule of Charlemagne

Hrabanus (Rhabanus, Rabanus) Maurus, also known as the "Praeceptor Germaniae," was born in 780 (or 776?) in Mainz, Germany. The name "Hrabanus" is probably from the Old High German word "hraban", which means "raven."

At the time of Hrabanus's birth, Charlemagne was ruling from his capital in Aachen, after having been crowned King of Franks in 768 (you may have read the Song of Roland in another class; this Old French poem commemorates a battle fought by Charlemagne's forces in 778). The rule of Charlemagne was a period of great cultural activity throughout what is now France and Germany; the term "Carolingian Renaissance" refers to this great outburst of learning in the late eighth century. You can read a brief biography of Charlemagne and see an excerpt from the Life of Charlemagne by Einhard (Einhard is famous for imitating the style of the Roman biographer Suetonius, who wrote the lives of the Caesars).

So, around 790, when Hrabanus was still just a boy, around 10 years old, he entered a monastery in Fulda, which was a great center of learning in Germany at the time. On Christmas Day in 800, Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. In 801 Hrabanus moved to France, where he studied under Alcuin, a leading figure of the "Carolingian Renaissance" (Alcuin was from York, in England).

Hrabanus Maurus later returned to Fulda, where he was abbot from 822 to 842. He was later appointed Bishop of Mainz. Hrabanus died in Mainz on February 4, 856. His feast day is celebrated in Mainz on February 4 and he is often referred to as the "blessed" although he was never beatified or canonized. He is known as the author of encyclopedic and scholarly works, along with sermons and poems. This week we will be reading from the De universo, or De rerum naturis, Hrabanus's encyclopedia of worldly knowledge; you can also look at some examples of his picture-poems, the De laudibus sanctae crucis.

The Carolingian World

Although Hrabanus Maurus's encyclopedia De rerum naturis often covers the same ground as Saint Augustine, there is a gulf that divides them.  Augustine died in 430, during the invasions that eventually brought a violent end to the Roman empire and its civilization (the fall of Rome is usually dated to 476). Augustine thus stands at the end of that Roman learned tradition. Hrabanus stands at the first "rebirth" of that learned tradition in northern Europe, several hundred years later.

Many important academic reforms were initiated with Charlemagne's support, including efforts to standardize Latin writing with the use of a new script. This alphabet, called the Carolingian alphabet, introduced lower case letters into the writing system.  Hrabanus Maurus was one of the great educators of the Carolingian age and his De rerum naturis is one of the most notable productions of the period. It relies heavily on earlier works, such as the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville (560-636), while paving the way for later medieval encyclopedias, such as the works of Thomas of Cantimpré, Vincent of Beauvais, and others.

Hrabanus and the Latin Bible

Although Hrabanus provides his readers with some "secular" or "worldly" learning, you will see that in these paragraphs about the world itself -- about terra and about the orbis terrarum -- Hrabanus is always revolving within the boundaries of learning determined by the Biblical text and, perhaps even more important, the ritual language of the Catholic Church itself, which was Latin. By the eighth century, Jerome's Vulgate translation of the Bible had become universally adopted throughout western Europe.

Yet when it comes to the Psalms, you will find that the citations of the Psalms in Hrabanus' work often do match the "Vulgate" version that you will find in online and printed editions of the Vulgate. This is a complicated story and it is worth knowing something about the Latin translations (!) of the Psalms, if you want to be able to follow Hrabanus's quotations.

Jerome actually prepared 3 different translations of the Psalms. The first was the so-called "Roman psalter" which was essentially the old Latin translation of the Psalms and which continued to be used in the Roman Catholic liturgy until the 16th century (you can view this Roman Psalter online). The next version was the so-called "Gallican Psalter" in which Jerome revised the Roman Psalter by re-examining the Greek Septuagint translation and also making some comparisons with the Hebrew text. Why is it called the "Gallican" psalter? This is because Gregory of Tours introduced this text into the liturgy of the French churches in the 6th century, and it eventually replaced the Roman psalter throughout almost all the Catholic world -- except the Vatican (at St. Peter's in Rome the Roman Psalter is still used)! If you are looking at a Vulgate translation of the Bible, it will probably contain this Gallican psalter. The final translation which Jerome did of the Psalter was done anew, based solely on the Hebrew text -- but this version of Psalms"from the Hebrew" has never been used in Catholic ritual.

In addition, there is a difference in numeration between the Hebrew texts of the Psalms (which is adopted by Protestant Bible translations) and the texts in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible; Jerome's Vulgate follows the numeration of the Vulgate. Thus:

Modern Languages 4970 / MRS 4903: Medieval Latin. Spring 2003 Online Course at the University of Oklahoma. Visit for more info.
Laura Gibbs, University of Oklahoma - Information Technology © 2003. Last updated: December 29, 2002 7:12 PM