Hebben alle vogels nesten begonnen
behalve ik en jij;
wat wachten wij nu?
Vertaling: Gerrit Komrij
Iedereen doet het met iedereen,
behalve ik en jij,
komt er nog wat van?
Vertaling: K. Schippers
Listen to this poem in Dutch.
Voiced by: Leo van Zanen.
This poem in 60 seconds
Hebban olla vogala (Have all the birds) is one of the most famous lines in Dutch literature. And rightfully so, as it is viewed as its very start. The text is nearly a millennium old, and was effectively a pen test, or probatio pennae, on a piece of scrap paper. Who the writer was and what he meant to say is thus uncertain, but there are several theories about this. Discover why a Flemish monk in an English monastery is presumed to have penned down these lines, and where he potentially drew inspiration from.
Want to know more? On this website you can listen to the poem, discover its origins and its author and find out what the poem means to the people of Leiden.
About the author
Despite being unable to trace this text back to the original author, there are indications of what sort of person they could have been.
A monk’s job
It is no coincidence that the first Dutch verse was written down on the back page of holy scripture. In the Middle Ages, the only people who could read or write were scholars, and they were almost always clergymen. They wrote by daylight, and in the evening they made the parchment on which they would continue their work the next day.
Author of this poem
The monk presumed to have written this verse probably came from West-Flanders. This can be derived from the way the h-sound is spelled. For instance, in the text uses hic for ic. These sounds are still present in the dialect of West-Flanders. However, the spelling is not the only piece of evidence on which scholars base their assumption of the West-Flemish monk. Around 1100, when these lines were written, there were warm ties between England and Flanders.
What is this poem about?
This poem is about longing. The translation reads: “Have all the birds started nesting, / Except for me and you. / What are we waiting for?” The speaker states, a little impatiently, that everywhere around couples have started ‘nesting,’ and then appeals to their lover. Why wait any longer?
Words of longing
What exactly is the speaker of this poem longing for? Dutch poet and translator Gerrit Komrij listed some possible scenarios: “Some think the Flemish monk was longing for his Flemish home. Others believe it was a longing for the warm nest of the monastery that tried to find its way into this world through this little line.” Komrij himself adds that the longing might well be a longing for God. Or is the poem about romance, after all?
Exercising the mind
The monk who wrote this text was probably not just sharpening his quill; translating the text into Latin was a test for the mind as well as his pen. His choice of words reveals that the writer followed the Dutch text word-for-word, while also taking into consideration meter and rhythm. For the translation of the word ‘birds,’ for instance, he used ‘volcures’ rather than the more common ‘aves,’ in order to preserve the flow of the sentence.
These lines were probably written around 1100 by a Flemish monk in a Benedictine monastery in England. His daily tasks involved the copying of Latin texts. For this, he used a goose feather quill, which had to be sharpened every so often in order to produce legible writing. The monk tested the pen point by writing short texts on the last page of the book he was copying. Often, these little bits of text were in Latin, but this monk used the back page to write the very first literary text in the Dutch language. For those who did not speak Dutch, he also included the Latin translation.
Share your story
Does this poem hold a special place in your heart? For example, do you remember when you first read the poem? Or did you come across it someplace unexpected? Let us know! We would love to add your story to our website.
Hebban olla vogala in Leiden
Photo Anoesjka Minnaard
The Old University Library at Rapenburg 70 was transformed into the office for the Executive Board and several other central administrative bodies of the university. The TEGEN-BEELD Foundation was commissioned to apply two poems: Stoa was painted onto an outer wall, and is therefore publicly accessible, but Hebban olla vogala can be found in the building’s stairwell. The poem adorns the wall in both Dutch and Latin: just like the monk wrote it down on the piece of scrap paper he used for a pen test. The font is also modeled after his handwriting.
Note: This poem is not publicly accessible
Hebban olla vogala and the Dutch language
Hebban olla vogala (Have all the birds) is often thought to be the oldest Dutch text in history. This is not true. The Lex salica, a sixth-century law book, contains the sentence “maltho thi afrio lito” (I declare, I free you, half-free), which is nowadays considered the oldest piece of Dutch writing. The language may not bear much resemblance to modern Dutch anymore, but it bears sufficient characteristics of Dutch to be considered its early predecessor. Hebban olla vogala may not be the oldest, but it is very special nonetheless.
Beginnings of literature
This poem is considered the very beginning of the Dutch literary tradition. This is because the author did not write down a translation of a religious text or book of law - those already existed - but a little verse (seemingly) about romance. Actually, the authorship is of a questionable nature, too: perhaps this monk simply penned down something he had picked up someplace, sometime.
We sort of got lucky, with that first sentence of Dutch literature. It could have been something else, some random scribble - ‘Miller, two bags of flour please.'
Poet and translator Gerrit Komrij on Hebban olla vogala
- This is one of the few Leiden wall poems for which you have to enter a building to see it.
- Scholars are still undecided on whether this text is a song or a poem. The writer did not employ end-rhyme, but a lot of sounds are repeated, making it rather catchy. It also remains unclear whether this one sentence is the full text.
- Because the text was written by a monk, it has long been assumed that the speaker of the poem was male. However, professor of Medieval Studies Frits van Oostrom found striking similarities between this poem and contemporaneous romantic poetry from Spain, of which the speaker is almost always female. Spanish minnesang has many similarities with this poem, both in terms of form and content. In addition to the questioning text, it frequently takes the shape of a monologue, in which the speaker longingly appeals to their beloved.
Lees het gedicht in het Oud-Nederlands
Hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan,
hinase hic enda thu.
Wat unbidan we nu?
Peter Alexander Kerkhof, researcher at the University of Ghent, tells you more about Hebban olla vogola.
Read this poem in English
Have all the birds started nesting,
Except for me and you.
What are we waiting for?
Translation: Anne Oosthuizen
This entry was written by Het Taalmuseum in collaboration with Sophie van Aardenne. The translation into English is by Anne Oosthuizen. The following publications were consulted:
- Horst, J.M. van der, en A. Quak, Inleiding Oudnederlands. Leuven: Universitaire Pers, 2002 (Ancoraereeks 16).
- Komrij, Gerrit, In Liefde Bloeyende: De Nederlandse poëzie van de twaalfde tot en met de twintigste eeuw in 100 en enige gedichten (Amsterdam 1998).
- Oostrom, Frits, Stemmen op schrift: Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse literatuur vanaf het begin tot 1300 (Amsterdam 2006).
- Oostrom, Frits van, ‘Omstreeks 1100: Twee monniken voeren in het Oudnederlands de pen over de liefde. De volkstaal komt op schrift’. In: M.A. Schenkeveld-van der Dussen (e.a.), Nederlandse Literatuur, een geschiedenis , p. 1-6.
- Michael Pye, The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are (2014).
- Vries, Jan W. de, Roland Willemyns en Peter Burger, Het verhaal van een taal: negen eeuwen Nederlands (Amsterdam 1999).
- Voorgelezen door Frank Willaert.