Deciphering the oldest concordance

Research 29 June and 7 July, text


The Concordance made by Hugh of Saint-Cher and his team (in Latin he was called: Hugo de Sancto Charo, and in French: Hugues de Saint-Cher) is kept in the municipal library of Saint-Omer in what is now the North of France. Long, long ago it was still a Flemish town, called Sint-Omaars. The pages of the Concordance have been photographed, though not OCR’ed, and can be consulted online via the site of the CNRS, the French Centre national de la recherche scientifique, the National Center of Scientific Research.

I do not like the standard interface much, and found a much simpler way to access or download a page, and see it in full screen mode, for example for page 239. That results in the default reso­lution niveauZoom=petit, which is fine for reference, but not detailed enough to actually read the text. There is also a medium zoom level – moyen, about 500 kbyte a page – and a high resolution for full detail – niveauZoom=grand, resulting in almost 3 megabyte for each page of the book. I added rel=nofollow tags to my links, to avoid that search engine robots would cause excessive load on the French server, by downloading every page I ever link to.

For the document in question, the VUE_ID runs from 1185438 to 1185812, 375 pages in total. Outside that range, you get different books. A strange way to store data, if you ask me, but it’s not up to me. See also the Liste des vues.


Although Hugh of Saint-Cher’s Vulgate Bible Concordance was written in the all-too-familiar Latin alphabet – not surprising because the language is also Latin – I find it quite difficult to read. And I am probably not the only one. The text is in a type of blackletter. Letter forms are sometimes unexpected for modern readers, there are ligatures (e.g. an r after an o looks somewhat like a digit 2, quite different from r’s in other contexts), many letter sequences cause long series of similar looking strokes, without clear gaps between the letters, and there are lots of abbreviation devices, e.g. the tilde ~ above for nasals, to save space in a time when parchment was expensive. (See also this, in Dutch.) However, after quite some staring, retrying, and comparing with other data, I can now decipher quite a bit, with relative ease.

One piscis, more pisces

I used page 239 as an example, because that’s where I noted the word “pisces”, in the rightmost column, at about a third of the page height. There is something in front of it, perhaps “os”, which I don’t understand. Much later I also found that what I thought was ‘picas’ or ‘pisas’, one column to the left, almost at the bottom, is in fact “piscis”, the singular Latin word for ‘fish’. I mistook the letters c and i, written close together, for an a. But if you look closely elsewhere, actual a’s are quite different in form, much like those in a modern serif font.

So now we can check some of the references to the Vulgate Bible, given to each word by the Concordance. Under “piscis” we see “Ge·1·c·”, followed by the context quote “faciamus hominem ad imaginem et similitudinem nostram et praesit piscibus maris”. That’s not literally what it says there, due to the heavy use of shorthand, but it is what I found in a downloadable Vulgate Genesis. See also the site of the Vatican.

This Concordance used chapters, but not verses. Instead each chapter was divided in seven parts of about equal size, which were indicated by the letters a through g. Here “Ge·I·c·” corresponds to Genesis 1:26, and the subsequent “I·d·” is Genesis 1:28, with the context “dominamini piscibus maris”. In both cases there is not ‘piscis’ or ‘pisces’, but “piscibus”, a dative or ablative plural. Probably an ablative, I guess, but my Latin is very weak. “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea”, is what it means.

Then there’s “IX·a·” or Genesis 9:2, “omnes pisces maris manui vestrae traditi sunt”. And in the rightmost column, under “Pisces” it continues with something I can’t read, then:

Enough. Next.