Latin assistance

While Google Translate showed otherwise, does anyone know if it is easy to confuse (in Latin) the sentences meaning:
"The wizard Erkanwald served the Bishop of London "
and the similar sentence:
"The wizard Erkanwald served as the Bishop of London"

This is for a Seeker examining a poorly preserved document.


I would assume that the first is an accusative so episcopum, but I am not sure what would be the best case for the second.

I fear, that in Latin being a bishop is not said as "serving as a bishop".

So you would need to rephrase before getting enough ambiguity into the phrase in another way.

Something like "The wizard Erkanwald was a bishop of London" and "The bishop Erkanwald was with the bishop of London" then requires more tampering with the document.
It would be: "Erkanwaldus magus erat epicopus Londinii" and "Erkanwaldus magus erat cum episcopo Londinii". So you would have to make both the 'cum' and the 'o' unreadable, before misreading the latter phrase gets possible.

Does that help?

EDIT: Typical misunderstandings - intentional and unintentional - of older documents in the middle ages may happen by confusing names. So, if the mage was called 'Arkanbaldus' and the bishop 'Erkanwaldus', you can have a long document about the bishop. which an eager seeker can interpret as referring to the magus and wondering about his deeds.

EDIT: Servus servorum Dei is a papal title, which wouldn't be used by any other catholic bishop.


@OneShot is right that the sentence needs to be restructured to make a mistake in Latin possible, and the name confusion suggestion is a good one.

I've tried to think of how you could word it ambiguously with the minimum extra stuff (like transcription errors or unreadable letters) and the best I could think of is (I picked a year at random, replace or remove it if you want):

"In Londinio Erkenwaldus Magus officia de episcopo ministravit. A.D. MCLXXXVII"

Officium can mean an office, or the duties of the office. But it can also mean a favour, or an act of courtesy. And at a bit of a stretch it can euphemistically mean an obligatory service (in the sense of your boss asking "can you do me a favour and do X" when it's really not optional at all).

De can mean from, or concerning a thing. But also in late and medieval Latin quite often prepositions were used instead of case endings and de was used instead of the genitive sometimes. This honestly is quite poor Latin, but it's a plausible usage. Maybe the record was written by a junior scribe with slightly shaky Latin skills.

So officia de episcopo could be read as "the duties of the bishop" or "certain obligations from/concerning the bishop".

Ministravit just means to have carried out/executed/attended to the thing.

So the whole sentence can be read as "In London Erkenwald the Magus carried out the duties of the Bishop. In the year of our Lord 1187." or "In London Erkenwald the Magus executed obligations which came from the Bishop. In the year of our Lord 1187". Depending on how you take it Erkenwald either was the Bishop, or he carried out the orders of the Bishop.

It's worth noting that this is poorly worded and grammatically dubious even in medieval Latin, and the seeker reading it (assuming they are fully fluent in Latin) will probably be able to recognise that.


Thank you, I like this.
I will just say this is an inscription carved in stone, and broken during the Schism War. Very little hand-waving required.
"In Londinio Erkenwaldus Magus officia de episcopo ministravit. A.D. DCLXXV"

Investigating a patron saint of London could prove interesting.

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In that case, I would use rather: "Londinio Erkenwaldus Magus officia episcopati ministravit. A.D. DCLXXV":

"In Londinio" as an indicator of a place has a redundant "in".

"de episcopo" is bad and should be replaced by a simple genitive case noun, where it remains open, whether this noun stands as a genitivus objectivus or subjectivus. Then "episcopati" - "the bishopric's" is better than "episcopi" - "the bishop's", as it goes with "officia" - "duties".

"Londinio Erkenwaldus Magus officia episcopati ministravit. A.D. DCLXXV" hence can be read both as: "In London at 675, Erkenwald the magus fulfilled some duties for the bishopric" and "In London at 675, Erkenwald the magus fulfilled the duties of the bishopric".
In the second case (genitivus subjectivus), he might have been a bishop or at least bishop's vicar, in the first case (genitivus objectivus) just a vassal or servant of the bishop.


Other sources of confusion which can be introduced:

  1. the orriginal author's Latin was poor- perhaps they had a score of 4 in Latin- fine for reading the mass, but whe it comes to writing the author did not understand the grammar well enough.
  2. transcription- especially if done quickly, perhaps a student scribe copied the document and the original was lost in a fire, or the wrong copy was made pampilset
  3. fading- it was written long ago, and the ink quality was not as good as it could have been, and a word or three is less than completely legible.

Obviously 3 can be overcome with magic if it is too blatant, but the general point that a poorly written document will be more likely to be misunderstood remains.

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That gets the ambiguous meaning through nicely.
This is the sort of inscription that would be put on a stone tablet, no? One that minimised the amount of stone carving. Mind you, it is probably even more abbreviated than that, if the Sator Square implies.

If someone wished it to be remembered for some time coming: yes! Like: "Never forget, that I, Erkenwaldus the magus, burned down this quarter of London at the behest of the bishop!"

I wouldn't do any arcane shorthands here in a lapidary inscription.

That's sort of the point, it's very much bad Latin but the use of prepositions instead of cases was not uncommon in medieval Latin. It's an easy mistake to then use "de" as a substitute for the genitive in general, leading to very ambiguous meaning through bad grammar. Although maybe a mistake less likely to be seen in the 7th century, I was thinking this was meant to be written closer to the 13th.

That said I much prefer your solution as it's still ambiguous and grammatically correct. A junior scribe writing in bad Latin makes less sense for an inscription, I was imagining some annal in a monastery or something.

As an aside wouldn't the genitive for episcopatus just be episcopatus as well? I think if you add -atus to something that's already a noun it becomes fourth declension. Don't hold me to that though.


Bishopric can be both episcopatum, i and episcopatus, us in Latin. I picked the first form, you picked the second. Both are possible: @lvgreen may pick.

EDIT: I checked again: we definitely better use your pick!

So it is: "Londinio Erkenwaldus Magus officia episcopatus ministravit. A.D. DCLXXV"


Then it gets even more interesting because, if episcopatus can be both a nominative and a genitive, and because in Latin the order of the words is somewhat free (though the genetics usually comes before the name to which it relates), you could have

"Londinio Erkenwaldus Magus episcopatus officia ministravit"

meaning both

In London the Mage Erkenwaldus performed duties/services of the Bishop


In London the Mage Bishop Erkenwaldus performed [his] duties

Episcopatus, us means bishopric, not bishop.

Right. So what about an abridged inscription, which is quite common on stone ? Such as:

"Lond. Erkenwaldus Magus Episc. officia ministravit"

Because the ending of "episc." is abridged, it is impossible to determine whether it is episcopus (the Mage-Bishop performed duties) or episcopi (the Mages performed duties of the bishop)


That is exactly, why such an abbreviation would not have been used in real medieval texts. Abbreviations used for real are a topic of Diplomatics, and can be used to ascertain period and authenticity of documents and inscriptions.

E. g. in inscriptions in Venice and its possessions, and only there, "P. S. M." meant "Procurator Sancti Marci" and nothing else. But this is, because everybody knew this abbreviation of a highly respected office.
It was like POTUS, FLOTUS and SCOTUS today in the US. It does not imply, that radical shorthands could be used arbitrarily.

The may not be used arbitrarily, but as an inscription it could well have an Ozymandius situation- where the original inscriber might have assumed his subject was famous enough that anyone looking at it would simply know which was meant, and the desire to save space or reduce lettering was considered to be worth the abbreviation- especially if this was an engraved inscription.

This means, that at the time the inscription was made the subject was famous enough, so that educated readers were supposed to fill in any shorthands used. The inscriber was just a guy taking a commission.