The Oldest Extant Prose Text in the Polish language. The Phenomenon of the Holy Cross Sermons
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The manuscript of the Holy Cross Sermons consists of 18 parchment strips, which are fragments of 4 folios in octavo format (13 strips make up a dual folio, and 5 form the lower parts of two other folios). These strips are probably rem¬nants of a more extensive manuscript. This monument was discovered in 1890 by Aleksander Brückner in a Latin codex in the Imperial Public Library in St. Petersburg, bearing the number Lat.I.Q.281. It had come to the St. Petersburg manuscript collections from the Library of the University of Warsaw, expropri¬ated by the Russians after the November Uprising in 1831. The Codex (destroyed during the last war) came from the library of the Benedictine monastery of the Holy Cross at Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain). It was made in the 1st half of the 15th century, and during the binding, as individual contributions were sewn together, the manuscript of the Polish sermons was cut into strips and used as supporting pieces. Before coming to Łysa Góra, the Codex in which the sermons were found was lying near the hermitage of St. Mary Magdalene at Leżajsk, where it belonged to the Benedictine monks of the Holy Cross. This monument contains a set of six sermons, one of which survived in its entirety, and five in irregular sections. These are sermons for the following days: St. Michael (only the end of the sermon is pre¬served), St. Catherine (all), St. Nicholas (the beginning), the Nativity (the ending), Epiphany (the beginning and end) and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the beginning). The sermons are clearly intellectual in style. They differ from one another in structure. They are written in exquisite, artistic prose, rhythmic and rhyming. The unknown author wrote them in a style used in Latin literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that stood out through parallelisms of syntax, rhyme and rhythm (ie. Ars dictaminis). So far, no Latin models have been found for the Holy Cross Sermons. The Polish manuscript of the sermons is probably from the early fourteenth century. It is, however, a copy, and perhaps a copy of a copy, the original being likely from the late thirteenth or early fourteenth cen¬tury. The text of Sermons was written in Gothic minuscule with numerous acute abbreviations. Such a strongly developed system of abbreviation has not previ¬ously been seen in any medieval monument of Polish literature (as well as Czech). The system used in the abbreviations is thoughtful and closely modeled on Latin forms. This proves the long practice of writing in Polish and the existence of the scriptorium, where many other manuscripts in the Polish language were probably created for the purposes of other collections, now irretrievably lost. The text of the Sermons contains many very archaic linguistic forms and compound words, in which it definitely differs from all subsequent historical forms of the Polish language. It still uses orthography found in diplomas and documents from before the fourteenth century. The Holy Cross Sermons stand thus at the beginning of the history of Polish literature, as this masterpiece is the first continuous independent Polish text in which the Polish language, previously existing in oral forms, takes the form of writing. They are also proof of the high level of Polish written cul¬ture before the middle of the fourteenth century. The Holy Cross Sermons belong to the oldest, most archaic layers of Polish literature. They indicate that before the middle of the fourteenth century, works in the Polish language were of an elite character. There was then in Poland an intellectual milieu interested in cul¬tivating a literature in the national language and of a high artistic level. From the middle of the fourteenth century, literary works in the Polish language became a much more popular focus of collections.
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