Venerable Notker Labeo

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Continuing the series on monastic saints, compiled by Jason John Edwards, Obl.S.B.

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Monk in St. Gall and author, b. about 950; d. 1022. He was descended from a noble family and nephew of Ekkehard I, the poet of Waltharius. “Labeo” means “the thick lipped.”  Later he was named “the German” ( Teutonicus ) in recognition of his services to the language. He came to St. Gall when only a boy, and there acquired a vast and varied knowledge by omnivorous reading. His contemporaries admired him as a theologian, philologist, mathematician, astronomer, connoisseur of music, and poet. He tells of his studies and his literary work in a letter to Bishop Hugo of Sitten (998-1017) but was obliged to give up the study of the liberal arts in order to devote himself to teaching. For the benefit of his pupils he had undertaken something unheard of before, namely translations from Latin into German. He mentions eleven of these translations, but unfortunately only five are preserved: (1) Boethius, “De consolatione philosophiae”; (2) Marcianus Capella, “De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii”; (3) Aristotle, “De categoriis”; (4) Aristotle, “De interpretatione”; (5) “The Psalter.” Among those lost are: “The Book of Job”, at which he worked for more than five years; “Disticha Catonis”; Vergil’s “Bucolica”; and the “Andria” of Terenz. Of his own writings he mentions in the above letter a “New Rhetoric” and a “New Computus” and a few other smaller works in Latin. We still possess the Rhetoric, the Computus (a manual for calculating the dates of ecclesiastical celebrations, especially of Easter), the essay “De partibus logicae”, and the German essay on Music.

In Kögel’s opinion Notker Labeo was one of the greatest stylists in German literature. “His achievements in this respect seem almost marvelous.” His style, where it becomes most brilliant, is essentially poetical; he observes with surprising exactitude the laws of the language. Latin and German he commanded with equal fluency; and while he did not understand Greek, he was weak enough to pretend that he did. He put an enormous amount of learning and erudition into his commentaries on his translations. There everything may be found that was of interest in his time: philosophy, universal and literary history, natural science, astronomy. He frequently quotes the classics and the Fathers of the Church. It is characteristic of Notker that at his dying request the poor were fed, and that he asked to be buried in the clothes which he was wearing in order that none might see the heavy chain with which he had been in the habit of mortifying his body.

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