Sao ko kelle terre... . At the origins of Italian: the Placito of Capua


The State Library of Montecassino National Monument preserves the earliest official document in the Italian vernacular known to us: it is the Placito di Capua, a document resolving a dispute over the ownership of two lands pertaining to the abbey of Montecassino.

“Sao ko kelle terre per kelle fini que ki contene trenta anni le possette parte Sancti Benedicti”: many people know or have read this vernacular phrase at least once, a simple formula for settling a property issue. The importance of these words derives from the fact that they are contained in the first official document in Italian vernacular known to us, the Placito di Capua of March 960. Less well known, however, is the history of this fundamental document for learning about the origins of our language, now preserved at the State Library of the National Monument at Montecassino.

The beginning of the story can be traced back a few years earlier, to 949, the year Aligerno became abbot of Montecassino and Capua, the latter location where the Benedictine monastic community was in exile after the abbey of Montecassino was destroyed during a Saracen raid in the year 883. Aligerno succeeded in leading his community back to Monte Cassino, but in the meantime the territory pertaining to the monastery of St. Benedict had been occupied illicitly by a certain Rodelgrimo di Lupo, a native of Aquino, against whom, in 960, Aligerno tried to assert his rights. Rodelgrimo, for his part, disputed the Cassinese ownership of the two lands that Aligerno claimed: this was a very large area (20,000 hectares), representing an important portion of the Terra Sancti Benedicti, whose total extension reached about 80,000 hectares. Aquinas, in order to assert his alleged rights (to support them, however, he lacked any proof), claimed that the two lands had been inherited by his father and other relatives of his.

The dispute ended in victory for Aligerno: the iudex cibitatis Capuane (“Judge of the city of Capua”), Arechisi, ruled in favor of the abbey, after hearing the testimonies of Theodemond (deacon and monk), Mari (cleric and monk) and Gariperto (cleric and notary), whom Aligerno had produced as witnesses. The famous vernacular phrase, reported within the Latin text of the Placito, is equally repeated by the three witnesses, who thus depose in favor of legitimate Cassinese ownership, claiming to know that “kelle terre” (“those lands”) had been owned for thirty years by the Abbey of St. Benedict, hence the formula: “Sao ko kelle terre per kelle fini que ki contene trenta anni le possette parte Sancti Benedicti” (“I know that those lands, within those boundaries described herein, thirty years have been owned by the patrimonial complex of St. Benedict”).

Il Placito di Capua
The Placito of Capua
Evidenziata in rosso la frase Sao ko kelle terre per kelle fini que ki contene trenta anni le possette parte Sancti Benedicti
Highlighted in red is the sentence “Sao ko kelle terre per kelle fini que ki contene trenta anni le possette parte Sancti Benedicti”
La frase Sao ko kelle terre per kelle fini que ki contene trenta anni le possette parte Sancti Benedicti
The phrase “Sao ko kelle terre per kelle fini que ki contene trenta anni le possette parte Sancti Benedicti”

The Capuan Placito of 960 represents, as mentioned, the first official document in the Italian vernacular, and would shortly be followed by other legal documents concerning disputes over property that the abbey of Monte Cassino owned in Sessa Aurunca and Teano, referred to collectively as “Cassinese placiti.” one in particular relates to Sessa and is dated March 963 (“Sao cco kelle terre, per kelle fini que tebe monstrai, Pergoaldi foro, que ki contene, et trenta anni le possette”), while the others relate to Teano and are dated July 963 (“Kella terra, per kelle fini que bobe mostrai, sancte Marie è, et trenta anni la posset parte sancte Marie”) and October 963 (“Sao cco kelle terre, per kelle fini que tebe mostrai, trenta anni le possette parte sancte Marie”). However, primacy in the Neo-Latin vernacular belongs to the Strasbourg Oaths, dated Feb. 14, 842, although the different context of the one compared to the Capua Placitum allows the linguistic value of the document preserved at the State Library of Montecassino to be grasped even more fully. The Strasbourg Oaths, which concern a pact of mutual assistance exchanged between Charles the Bald and Ludwig the Germanic (King of the West Franks and King of the East Franks, respectively) against his brother Lothair, were pronounced in the Romance language (i.e. Old French) by Ludwig so that his oath would be understood by Charles’ soldiers who spoke the language of the West Franks, and the latter in turn for the same reasons swore in the Teudisca (Old High German) language. The formula has been handed down from the History of the Sons of Ludwig the Pious, narrated by Nitard in 844, and known thanks to a 10th-century manuscript, Lat. 9768, preserved today at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, and coming from the Abbey of St. Medard in Soissons. “While the vernacular of the Strasbourg Oaths is defined vis--vis a grammatically unimpeachable and stylistically classical Latin, that of the History of Nitardo,” explains Don Mariano Dell’Olmo, director of the State Library of the National Monument at Monte Cassino, “the vernacular of the testimonial formulas of the Capuan Placitus is defined vis--vis a Latin - the one in which the Placito is written - unregulated and vulgar, indeed already characterized by local dialectisms. Thus the vernacular of our judicature has a local characterization and within the context of a use of living Latin and therefore subject to transformations that must be taken into account, unlike the French document that emerges from the context of a Latin that is now crystallized.”

In the Montecassino document we find features typical of different geo-linguistic areas: if it is typical of areas from Tuscany on down the steadfastness of the final vowels (“sao,” “contene,” “trenta,” “anni”), it is instead typically Campanian the “contene” instead of the Tuscan “contiene,” or the loss of the labial element: “ko” from quod, “kelle” from eccu + illae (those), “ki” from eccu + hic (“here”). The fact that there are more than one linguistic character in the vernacular formula of the Placito di Capua does not allow us to speak of a vernacular as a language spoken by the people in its genuine spontaneity, but rather, the Library director explains, "as a language comprehensible by the people, although the result of an elaboration with popular materials filtered, disciplined and integrated in the cultured. Suffice it to think of the marked technicality of a word like ’part’ (Sancti Benedicti): in late and medieval Latinity the term pars followed by a genitive designated a subject as the holder of property and rights, a patrimonial entity making up a body with the subject itself, so that its use in reference to churches, bishoprics, monasteries became typical. Another manifestation of legal technicality is given by the use of the verb sao, chosen instead of the still more bluntly popular formula of ’saccio’ or ’sazzo,’ in perfect continuity with Latin sapio. The preference instead given to ’sao’ shows that, in the 10th century, this word with an archaic flavor was given a sense of special prestige, using it for technical-legal purposes. In that sao (’ko kelle terre... ’) not so much any knowledge is asserted as the precise knowledge of the witness, and as such the linguistic formula must have long since entered judicial usage."

In conclusion, why do these first secure written manifestations of the affirmation of a linguistic consciousness that would later become national consciousness arise precisely in Campania? As the scholar Aniello Gentile has written, in this region “that Carolingian reform which, by returning Latin to classical forms for the exclusive use of the learned, interrupts the natural evolution of late medieval Latin, does not find application. In other words, the reform restores Latin to its grammatical norms and determines a clearer boundary between this language and oral expression, but at the same time slows down the natural linguistic evolution of the latter. It does not make its effects felt in southern Italy, because investing especially the world of Anglo-Saxon and Irish culture, it does not spread from us south of Rome. Therefore, southern medieval documents increasingly teem with vulgarisms and Latin is less and less distant from the spoken vernacular.” And this is also the reason why a text that chronologically precedes the Placito di Capua, namely the so-called Indovinello veronese of the 8th century, does not have, says Don Mariano Dell’Olmo, ’the same pregnant and explicitly official linguistic value and meaning of ’vulgar’ that the Capuan Placito of 960 does. The text of the riddle, handwritten in paper 3r of codex LXXXIX in the Biblioteca Capitolare in Verona (“se pareba boues alba pratalia araba & albo uersorio teneba & negro semen / seminaba,” or “he kept oxen in front, white meadows he plowed, a white plow he kept, and a black seed he sowed.” it is an analogy between the activity of the plowman and that of the writer), can in fact be considered, as some linguists (Angelo Monteverdi, Carlo Tagliavini, Giacomo Devoto, Bruno Migliorini) have noted, not a vernacular but rather a kind of semivolgar Latin, born in a learned or at any rate student environment, of clerics who in this way communicated among fellow students who were not too sure of Latin grammar and vocabulary.

The State Library of Montecassino National Monument.

The library was incorporated as a public institution in 1866, but its collections trace their origins back to the first half of the 6th century, to the time when St. Benedict of Norcia gathered the first community of monks at Monte Cassino: most of the library’s manuscripts were in fact produced in the abbey’s scriptorium and represent a rare example of the organic development of a book collection in Italy (later expanded, between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the printed books that today make up the ancient printed books collection). A vast modern collection was later added and continues to be enriched.

The ancient book collection of the Library of the National Monument of Montecassino consists mainly of theological works, religious sciences, and ecclesiastical and monastic history. The total endowment for the printed part related to the ancient fund counts over 25,000 volumes and loose pamphlets, over 200 incunabula, 2,063 cinquecentine, 1,100 manuscripts. The oldest codex, cod. 150, Ambrosiaster (a commentary on the letters of St. Paul), in semioncial script, can be dated to the 6th century (569/570) and comes from the astrum Lucullanum (Naples). Also worth mentioning is cod. 753 from the 8th century, which contains the Sententiae of Isidore of Seville and is the oldest known in Benevento script, or codex 175, which in addition to the text of the Rule of St. Benedict and the Commentary to it by Pseudo-Paul Deaconus, contains other important historical, spiritual and customary records of the Cassinese monastic community. By contrast, the codex that conveys the earliest certain image of St. Benedict can be dated with certainty to the years of Abbot John’s rule (914-934). The golden century of the Cassinese scriptorium and library, however, is the 11th, dominated by the figure of Abbot Desiderius (1058-1087), author of the spiritual rebirth of Montecassino and promoter of the arts and culture, as well as a cardinal so influential that he succeeded Pope Gregory VII as Victor III. To these years date manuscripts that are often unique in terms of content and value of text and images, such as cod. 181, the only manuscript in Beneventana that transmits the text of the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum by Bede the Venerable, or cod. 275, the only complete family A manuscript of theHistoria Francorum of Gregory of Tours copied at Monte Cassino under Desiderius around 1086.

Other rarities include the Ritmo cassinese, the oldest verse transcription in peninsular Italy, an allegorical composition on the superiority of spiritual life over earthly life, written in a thirteenth-century beneventana on a folio (p. 206) of cod. 552, which dates instead from the 11th century; the last writing known to us by St. Thomas Aquinas Doctor of the Church, a letter he addressed to the Cassinese abbot Bernard Aiglerio, who had asked him for theological charimenti on a passage from Gregory the Great’s Moralia. As for the archival and documentary heritage, about 14,000 parchments are preserved at Monte Cassino, the oldest of which in original dates back to the year 809, while the most famous of them remains the Placitum of Capua of March 960. It can also be mentioned that the music archive has 8,857 manuscript pieces, of which 177 are autographs, including the very famous Stabat Mater by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.

La Biblioteca Statale del Monumento Nazionale di Montecassino
The State Library of the National Monument of Montecassino