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Maundy, pun in translation

April 5, 2012

Maundy Thursday to everyone!

The common understanding of our sanctified English word maundy is that it is derived from Latin, either mendicantem or mandatum, for “beggar” or “command.”  Below are respective, related, entries from

  • late 14c., from L. mendicantem (nom. mendicans) “beggar,” prp. of mendicare “to beg,” from mendicus “beggar,” originally “cripple” (connection via cripples who beg), from menda “fault, physical defect” (see mendacious).
  • mid-15c., from M.E. maunde “the Last Supper,” also “ceremony of washing the feet,” from O.Fr. mandé, from L. mandatum “commandment” (see mandate); so called in reference to the opening words of the church service for this day, Mandatum novum do vobis “A new commandment I give unto you” (John xiii.34), words supposedly spoken by Jesus to the Apostles after washing their feet at the Last Supper.

French wikipedians make me like the second possibility best, although they manage to combine it with the first possibility.  They say:

Il y avait un jeu de mot entre « mandét » et «  commandét » comme entre«  mandatum novum » et « commandantum ».

«  Le lavement des pieds, le mandatum peuperum, ainsi appelé parce que l’antienne du Jeudi-Saint commence par : Mandatum novum do vobis, se traduisit en Mandé ; on disait le mandé, pour désigner cette cérémonie qui se liait à une quête faite au profit des pauvres. La mande, manda, employée pour recueillir l’aumône, rattache probablement son étymologie à cette fête et à son nom. »

In other words:

There’s punning between the Old French phrases “mandét” and “commandét” just as there is a pun between the Latin “mandatum novum” and “commandantum.”  An engraving in the Louvre in Paris has this note:

“The washing of feet is called the ‘mandatum peuperum’ because the antiphon, the liturgy of Holy Thursday, begins with ‘Mandatum novum do Vobis’ from which our French ‘Mandé’ (for ‘Commandment’) is derived.  This describes the binding commandment to make a search for the poor.  The commandment, ‘manda’, used for collecting alms, is probably related to this etymology for the festival name.”

All of you French speakers will know that I’ve not gotten that quotation quite right.  Not at all.  But then this is what happens with translations, and transliterations, of translations.

I guess what I really wanted to say is that the Latin and Old French translations of John 13:34 find something not in the original.  The Latin puns as does the later French.  The original Greek does not pun.  It goes, instead, like this:

ντολὴν καινὴν

δίδωμι ὑμῖν,

ἵνα ἀγαπᾶτε ἀλλήλους·

Then again, we can’t presume that Jesus was speaking Greek, can we?  And we can see that the odd gospel Greek probably adds a literary something, some alliteration and some rhyme that was not in the real “spoken” original.  Seems that, as old as all of this literary and sanctified language is, much of it, if just in wordplay, can be original and “new.”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2012 5:25 pm

    Hm, I’m having trouble seeing the pun here, because in my (American-English speaking, Roman Catholic) tradition, the Mandatum Novum is “Love one another as I have loved you”, with the footwashing held up as a concrete example of the kind of humble loving service that means. We don’t call the footwashing anything that has either a mand- or a mend- morpheme.

    And I don’t see commandatum in the Vulgate in John 13 anywhere. (I’m looking here.)

  2. April 5, 2012 5:48 pm

    Thanks Victoria. The bold font above is my first quick look at morpho-phonomic relationships in the French (and the Latin) quotation. It certainly stresses a difference between what you observe in your more informed tradition. Is the Vulgate the only Latin translation of John to look at? I’m not at a PC or in a library now to check. Just on a slow iPhone. I do have further thoughts about the Greek here, with respect to footwashing in much earlier literature, Homer and Aristophanes and Aristotle as I may recall.

  3. April 5, 2012 11:15 pm

    Hi Kurk- I would expect the Vulgate to be “the” Latin translation; I’m not aware of any others. My impression is that it served in the medieval church as “the authorized version”. I’ll be interested to hear your further thoughts about the Greek with respect to footwashing.

  4. April 6, 2012 10:57 am

    Hi Victoria,
    Suzanne, one of my BLT co-bloggers, has posted a good bit at her own blog about “Pagnini’s translation [into Latin] commissioned by Pope Leo X,” so I wonder if “commandatum” is used by it? At any rate, I think the French quotation above, as I look at it more carefully, is not a claim that this particular word is one used in the Latin Bible in John xiii. The claim of the pun seems to go beyond the text of the translated gospel. To complicate things for me a bit, I did a bit more Internet research — yes, dangerous stuff potentially — and found perhaps an encyclopedia entry as an unacknowledged source for the French wikipedians; notice that it’s en espanol (or perhaps this Spanish is a translation, yet, of the French) and very curious:

    Había un juego de palabra entre « mandét » y « commandét » como entre« mandatum novum » y « commandantum ».

    « El lavement de los pies, el mandatum peuperum, así llamado porque el antienne del JuevesSanto comienza por : Mandatum novum do vobis, se traduisit Mandé ; se decía el mandé, para designar esta ceremonia que se ligaba en una búsqueda hecha al provecho de los pobres. La mande, manda, empleada para recoger la limosna, ata probablemente su étymologie a esta fiesta y a su nombre. »

    On the etymology of Maundy, I also found this helpful post written in English by a blogger named Brandon:

    My thoughts on the footwashing as the odd gospel Greek of John are as follows:

    I’m just struck by the hierarchies made so explicit in the exchange between Jesus and his disciples, particularly Peter. This in a very strange way echoes (not only some perhaps Jewish ritual, however practical) a Greek literary and Greek ethical culture. I’ll skip over the fragments of Aristophanes for the moment but will not just a couple of passages of others’: Homer and Aristotle. In the Odyssey, 19.343 and following, our hero says this:

    “Neither is water for foot washing at all pleasing
    to my heart nor will any woman touch our foot,
    of those who are female servants in your home,
    unless there is some old woman, an ancient one, expertly devoted,
    one who’s suffered in her mind as much as I have.
    I wouldn’t begrudge her touching my feet.”

    This particular excerpt (here translated by James Huddleston) shows Odysseus protesting nearly the way Peter does. There’s this explicit allusion to servanthood by both Homer and in John the gospel writer.

    Later in 19.505:

    So said he, and the old woman went through and out the hall,
    to get water for foot washing, for all the earlier had spilled.
    Then after she washed him and anointed him richly with olive oil,
    Odysseus drew his chair back closer to the fire,
    to get warm, and he hid his scar down in his rags.

    Here there’s this idea of foot washing and annointing and of scars, and that sounds a little like the Christ of the gospel as well.

    Skipping Homer’s Iliad where there’s something similar, I’ll jump forward now to Aristotle, and to his gendered, classed, hierarchical Politics. By Henry Rackham’s translation, Aristotle writes:

    [1259b] [1] for the male is by nature better fitted to command than the female (except in some cases where their union has been formed contrary to nature) and the older and fully developed person than the younger and immature. It is true that in most cases of republican government the ruler and the ruled interchange in turn (for they tend to be on in equal level in their nature and to have no difference at all), although nevertheless during the period when one is ruler and the other ruled they seek to have a distinction by means of insignia and titles and honors, just as Amasis made his speech about the foot-bath; but the male stands in this relationship to the female continuously. The rule of the father over the children on the other hand is that of a king; for the male parent is the ruler in virtue both of affection and of seniority, which is characteristic of royal government (and therefore Homer finely designated Zeus by the words “ father of men and gods,” as the king of them all). For though in nature the king must be superior, in race he should be the same as his subjects, and this is the position of the elder in relation to the younger and of the father in relation to the child. It is clear then that household management takes more interest in the human members of the household than in its inanimate property, and [20] in the excellence of these than in that of its property, which we style riches, and more in that of its free members than in that of slaves.

    Notice here the foot-bath rhetoric by Amasis in the context of a discussion of male/ female and older/ younger and father / children and king / subjects and freemen / slaves. At the very least, John’s Greek gospel readers may take advantage of a hierarchy spelled out in Greek literature with relationship to footwashings.

  5. April 6, 2012 1:44 pm

    I’ll just toss in here that there are many different Latin translations of the Bible, including Vetus Latina, Jerome’s Vulgate, Pagnini’s translation, the pre-Clement Vulgate used by Martin at Rheims, the Sixto-Clementine Vulgate, Quentin’s reconstructed Vulgate, Weber’s reconstructed Vulgate, Nova Vulgata, Swift’s reconstructed Vulgate.

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