Studies in Hymns

The Young Person's Guide to the Hymnbook

Latin Hymns of the Medieval Church

by Wayne S. Walker

About a week later, Andrew and Seth's mom had to go out and run some errands, so Dad was home with them while they did their studies. Seth was working on translating some Latin words. He asked his father a couple of questions. "Last week, you said that the earliest hymns that we have any historical record of were written in Greek because that was the universal language of the civilized world in the first century and for about three more centuries after that. Why then do we study Latin, and were there any hymns written in Latin?"

Dad replied, "Around A.D. 500, Latin, which had been the official language of the old Roman Empire, replaced Greek as the universal language, especially for use in the church. While the first century world was characterized by Greek culture, it was ruled by Rome. The government of the Roman Empire replaced the Roman Republic and actually had its beginnings in the time of Julius Caesar, who lived from around 102 to 44 B.C. Caesar and his contemporaries, Pompey, Marc Antony, and others extended the rule of Rome from Italy to include most of the former empire of Alexander the Great. The work of the Roman Empire also helped in the rapid spread of the gospel by providing a fairly uniform system of law that brought about a 200-year time of peace and also establishing a system of transportation to move its armies from place to place that made travel much easier. Latin became the basis for many other modern languages, such as French, Spanish, and Italian. And when the Norman French conquered England in 1066, they brought a lot of French words with Latin roots into the English language, so that is why it is still important for us to study Latin today."

"But," Andrew piped in, "Were there any hymns written in Latin?"

"Yes," Dad answered. "Although Greek was the universal language in the majority of the first century world, including the church, Latin was the primary language of Italy and especially the Western churches, so several early hymns from Italy during the years 100 to 500 were written in Latin. One of the earliest known hymns in the Latin language is the 'Te Deum' which dates to the fourth century. Legend attributes it to Ambrose of Milan but modern scholarship favors Niceta of Remesiana who lived from around 335 to 414. He was a missionary bishop to Dacia or modern Serbia. The hymn is believed to have been written around 380. A German version was made around 1771 by Ignaz Franz, and from that it was translated into English around 1853 by Clarence Augustus Walworth as, 'Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.'

Dad went to the bookshelf, picked up one of the hymnbooks there, turned to a page, and said, "Look at these words."

1. Holy God, we praise Thy Name; Lord of all, we bow before Thee!
All on earth Thy scepter claim, All in Heaven above adore Thee;
Infinite Thy vast domain, Everlasting is Thy reign.

2. Hark! the loud celestial hymn Angel choirs above are raising,
Cherubim and seraphim, In unceasing chorus praising;
Fill the heavens with sweet accord: Holy, holy, holy, Lord.

3. Lo! the apostolic train Join the sacred Name to hallow;
Prophets swell the loud refrain, And the white robed martyrs follow;
And from morn to set of sun, Through the Church the song goes on.

4. Thou art King of glory, Christ: Son of God, yet born of Mary;
For us sinners sacrificed, And to death a tributary:
First to break the bars of death, Thou has opened Heaven to faith.

5. From Thy high celestial home, Judge of all, again returning,
We believe that Thou shalt come In the dreaded doomsday morning;
When Thy voice shall shake the earth, And the startled dead come forth.

6. Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit, Three we name Thee;
While in essence only One, Undivided God we claim Thee;
And adoring bend the knee, While we own the mystery.

"The tune usually used appeared with the song with Franz's translation, but the original chant upon which it is based also seems to date back to the fourth century."

He went on, "Other hymns are ascribed to Ambrose of Milan who lived from around 338 or 340 to 397). Born at Treves, Gaul, modern France, he became the bishop of Milan who defended orthodoxy against the Arian heresy. One of his hymns is 'Splendor Paternae Gloriae.' The earliest manuscript containing the hymn is from c. 890, but it is much older and is usually dated c. 374. It was translated into English in 1899 by Robert Bridges as 'O Splendor of God's Glory Bright.'

"Still another hymn from about this period is 'Corde Natus ex Parentis' written by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius who lived from 348 to 413. He was born in Saragossa, Iberia, modern Spain, and came to Rome to help Theodosius destroy the last remnants of paganism. This hymn is a cento of eight stanzas bearing the title 'Da Puer Plectrum in the section 'Hymnus Omnis Horae' of his major work 'Cathemerinon' dating to around 405. It was translated into English in 1854 by John Mason Neale as 'Of the Father's Love Begotten.'

"As we move into the 'Dark Ages,' 500 to 1000, following the fall of Rome to the barbarians in 476, one of the first Latin hymnwriters was Venatius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus who lived from around 530 to 609. He wrote a 110-line poem 'Ad Felicem Episcopum de Pascha' beginning 'Tempora florigero rutilant distincta sereno' addressed to Felix of Nantes on the subject of the resurrection of Christ that is usually dated around 582. A cento, 'Salve, Festa Dies' was translated, or more accurately paraphrased, into English in 1869 by John Ellerton as 'Welcome, Happy Morning.'

"One of the great figures of church music during this period was Gregory the Great who lived from 540 to 609. Early hymns were divided into Ambrosian chants of Italy, Gallician chants of France, and Mozarabic chants of Spain. Gregory standardized all these into a form known as Gregorian chant or plainsong. These form the basis for the evolution of church music in the middle ages, leading to the sequence, antiphon, organum, motet, and ultimately the mass. For the most part this Catholic liturgy has not affected the development of 'Protestant hymnody,' but a few hymns from this tradition have become well known. The medieval office hymn 'Nocte Surgente Virgilemus Omnes' is usually dated around 580 and attributed to Gregory, although no real evidence of his authorship exists. Some have suggested that it was the work of Alcuin of York who lived from 730 to 804. Others say simply that it is an anonymous hymn of the tenth century. It was translated into English in 1906 by Percy Dearmer as 'Father, We Praise Thee.'"

He turned to another page in the hymnbook and said, "Look at this."

1. Father, we praise Thee, now the night is over;
Active and watchful, stand we all before Thee;
Singing, we offer, prayer and meditation; Thus we adore Thee.

2. Monarch of all things, fit us for Thy mansions;
Banish our weakness, health and wholeness sending;
Bring us to Heaven, where Thy saints united Joy without ending.

3. All holy Father, Son and equal Spirit,
Trinity blessèd, send us Thy salvation;
Thine is the glory, gleaming and resounding Through all creation.

"The to which it sung is an ancient plainsong melody that first appeared in 1681 and was adapted for congregational use in 1808."

Dad continued, "A later hymnwriter who came toward the end of the Dark Ages is Theodulph of Orleans who lived from around 760 to 821. His text, titled in Latin 'Glori, Laus et Honor' originally in 78 lines, is believed to have been produced when he was a prisoner at Angers around 820 or 821. This kind of hymn is referred to by hymnologists as a 'carol' because it was sung by the common people rather than the trained church choir. There is a tradition that when King Louis the Pious passed the prison he heard Theodulph singing it and afterwards set him free. It was translated into English around 1851 by John Mason Neale as 'All Glory, Laud, and Honor.'"

Dad turned again in the hymnbook and called his sons' attention to these words.

1. All glory, laud and honor, To Thee, Redeemer, King,
To Whom the lips of children Made sweet hosannas ring.
Thou art the King of Israel, Thou David’s royal Son,
Who in the Lord’s Name comest, The King and Blessèd One.

2. The company of angels Are praising Thee on High,
And mortal men and all things Created make reply.
The people of the Hebrews With palms before Thee went;
Our prayer and praise and anthems Before Thee we present.

3. To Thee, before Thy passion, They sang their hymns of praise;
To Thee, now high exalted, Our melody we raise.
Thou didst accept their praises; Accept the prayers we bring,
Who in all good delightest, Thou good and gracious King.

"The tune generally used with it was composed in 1613 by a German musician named Melchior Teschner."

The boys could see that Dad was really on a roll. "Coming into what is usually called the Middle Ages, 1000 to 1400, we see a change in the nature of the hymns that have survived. Rather than being songs of praise, they are songs that are either more introspective or focused on heaven. This is probably the fact that the majority of hymns during this period were written by monks. One of the earliest hymnwriters of this
time was Pierre Abelard who lived from 1079 to 1142. A free-thinking French theologian who was constantly in trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities, he was forced into a monastery after secretly marrying the niece of the Canon of Notre Dame Cathedral; the marriage was annulled and she was sent to a convent. In spite of his problems, he penned several good hymns, one of which was titled in Latin 'O Quanta Qualia Sunt Ilil Sabbata.' It was produced about 1129 for a complete hymnal which Abelard prepared for the Abbey of the Paraclete headed by his former wife Heloise and translated into English around 1851 by John Mason Neale as 'O What the Joy and the Glory Must Be.'

"More typical of the monasticism of the medieval church was Bernard of Clairvaux who lived from 1090 to 1153. Founder of the great monastery of Clairvaux in France, he was an opponent of Abelard and the motivation behind the second crusade. There's doubt whether Bernard wrote the hymns that for many centuries have been attributed to him, but those hymns certainly reflect the kind of monastic religion that characterized Bernard. Around 1150 there appeared a poem of 192 lines, 'Jubilus Rhythmicus De Nomine Jesu,' usually called the Jubilee Rhythm or the Rosy Hymn. It was ascribed to Bernard in the thirteenth century, but the authorship is in dispute. A section "Jesu, Dulcis Memoria," was translated into English in 1849 by Edward Caswall as 'Jesus, The Very Thought Of Thee.' Here, look at this."

1. Jesus, the very thought of Thee With sweetness fills my breast;
But sweeter far Thy face to see, And in Thy presence rest.

2. Nor voice can sing, nor heart can frame, Nor can the memory find
A sweeter sound than Thy blest Name, O Savior of mankind!

3. O hope of every contrite heart, O joy of all the meek,
To those who fall, how kind Thou art! How good to those who seek!

4. But what to those who find? Ah, this Nor tongue nor pen can show;
The love of Jesus, what it is, None but His loved ones know.

5. Jesus, our only joy be Thou, As Thou our prize will be;
Jesus be Thou our glory now, And through eternity.

"A tune was specifically composed for these words in 1866 by John Bacchus Dykes. Other sections of Bernard's poem have been made into the hymns 'Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts' and "O Jesus, King, Most Wonderful.'

"Another representative of medieval monasticism was Bernard of Cluny, also called Bernard of Morlaix, who lived in the 12th century. Cluny was an older monastery in France. It's not known if this Bernard was an Englishman, a Breton, or a Basque, but he came to Cluny and around 1140 to 1145 wrote a 2,966 line poem entitled 'De Contemptu Mundi. A section entitled 'Urbs Syon Aurea' was translated into English around 1849 by John Mason Neale as 'Jerusalem, the Golden.' Here it is in this book."

1. Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest,
Beneath thy contemplation sink heart and voice oppressed.
I know not, O I know not, what joys await us there,
What radiancy of glory, what bliss beyond compare.

2. They stand, those halls of Zion, all jubilant with song,
And bright with many an angel, and all the martyr throng;
The Prince is ever in them, the daylight is serene.
The pastures of the blessèd are decked in glorious sheen.

3. There is the throne of David, and there, from care released,
The shout of them that triumph, the song of them that feast;
And they, who with their Leader, have conquered in the fight,
Forever and forever are clad in robes of white.

4. O sweet and blessèd country, the home of God’s elect!
O sweet and blessèd country, that eager hearts expect!
Jesus, in mercy bring us to that dear land of rest,
Who art, with God the Father, and Spirit, ever blessed.

"The song has been set to several tunes, but some of our books use one composed by Anthony J. Showalter, the composer of 'Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.' Another section of Bernard's poem has also been used as a hymn, 'Brief Life Is Here Our Portion.'

"As the Middle Ages began to draw to a close, we see that other national languages began appearing in the hymns that were being written. The first known hymn in the Italian language was written by another monk, Francis of Assisi who lived from 1182 to 1226. One section of his poem, 'Canticum Solis' or 'The Canticle Of The Sun,' beginning, 'Altissium, Monipotente, Bon Signore,' which he wrote during his final illness and completed in 1226 or 1226 shortly before his death, was translated into English around 1911 by William Henry Draper as 'All Creatures of Our God and King.' You may remember singing this every now and then."

1. All creatures of our God and King, Lift up your voice and with us sing, Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beam, Thou silver moon with softer gleam!
O praise Him! O praise Him! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

2. Thou rushing wind that art so strong, Ye clouds that sail in Heaven along, O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou rising moon, in praise rejoice, Ye lights of evening, find a voice!
O praise Him! O praise Him! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

3. Thou flowing water, pure and clear, Make music for thy Lord to hear, O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou fire so masterful and bright, That givest man both warmth and light.
O praise Him! O praise Him! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

4. Dear mother earth, who day by day Unfoldest blessings on our way, O praise Him! Alleluia!
The flowers and fruits that in thee grow, Let them His glory also show.
O praise Him! O praise Him! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

5. And all ye men of tender heart, Forgiving others, take your part, O sing ye! Alleluia!
Ye who long pain and sorrow bear, Praise God and on Him cast your care!
O praise Him! O praise Him! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

6. Let all things their Creator bless, And worship Him in humbleness, O praise Him! Alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son, And praise the Spirit, Three in One!
O praise Him! O praise Him! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

"The tune is believed to be a seventeenth century folk melody that first appeared in a German hymnbook around 1623.

"Another well-known text, 'Salve Mundi Salutare,' has been attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, but many editors suggest that it may have been the work of Arnulf of Louvain who lived from 1200 to 1251. It's possible that Bernard may have begun it, and it was finished and edited by Arnulf. The oldest manuscript of it is dated in the fourteenth century, around 1350. One section, 'Salve Caput Cruentatum,' was translated into German in 1656 by Paul Gerhardt. This German version was then translated into English around 1830 by James Waddell Alexander as 'O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.' It is also in our book."

1. O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
O sacred Head, what glory, What bliss till now was Thine!
Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call Thee mine.

2. O noblest brow and dearest, In other days the world
All feared when Thou appearest; What shame on Thee is hurled?
How art Thou pale with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How doth Thy visage languish that once was bright as morn!

3. What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

4. What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.

5. My Savior, be Thou near me when death is at my door;
Then let Thy presence cheer me, forsake me nevermore!
When soul and body languish, oh, leave me not alone,
But take away mine anguish by virtue of Thine own!

6. Be near when I am dying, O show Thy cross to me;
And for my succor flying, Come, Lord, to set me free.
These eyes, new faith receiving, From Jesus shall not move;
For he who dies believing, Dies safely, through Thy love.

"The tune is a melody that was composed in 1601 by Hans Leo Hasler and arranged by the famous German Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach in 1729."

"Another well-known hymn or carol, 'In Dulce Jubilo,' dates from the next century. It's been attributed to Heinrich Suso who lived from 1300 to 1366. Known as a "macaronic" song, it's in a mixture of Latin and German dating from the late 14th century. The earliest existing form is the 'Ms. No. 1305' at Leipzig University dated around 1400. The translation into English, actually more of a paraphrase, was made in 1863 by John Mason Neale as 'Good Christian Men, Rejoice.'" At this point, Dad had to go and get another book to show the boys the words of this song.

1. Good Christian men, rejoice with heart and soul, and voice;
Give ye heed to what we say: Jesus Christ is born today;
Ox and ass before Him bow; and He is in the manger now.
Christ is born today! Christ is born today!

2. Good Christian men, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice;
Now ye hear of endless bliss: Jesus Christ was born for this!
He has opened the heavenly door, and man is blest forevermore.
Christ was born for this! Christ was born for this!

3. Good Christian men, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice;
Now ye need not fear the grave: Jesus Christ was born to save!
Calls you one and calls you all, to gain His everlasting hall.
Christ was born to save! Christ was born to save!

"The tune, which has been inseparably united with the text since its first appearance, is a fourteenth century German melody.

"During the Renaissance and Reformation period, 1400 to 1600, though we see the rise of national languages and the hold of the Roman Catholic Church on many areas of Europe broken, the Catholic Church does fight back with the Counter-Reformation.

While fewer Catholic hymns of this period are remembered, Catholic writers were not entirely idle and they continued to use Latin. An anonymous hymn, 'Surrexit Christus Hodie,' is identified as a fourteenth century Latin hymn in the 1708 'Lyra Davidica.' It was translated into English, most likely by Nahum Tate in 1696, as 'Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.' It's in this book too, with a fourth stanza added by Charles Wesley."

1. Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia! Our triumphant holy day, Alleluia!
Who did once, upon the cross, Alleluia! Suffer to redeem our loss, Alleluia!

2. Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia! Unto Christ, our heavenly King, Alleluia!
Who endured the cross and grave, Alleluia! Sinners to redeem and save, Alleluia!

3. But the pains which He endured, Alleluia! Our salvation hath procured, Alleluia!
Now above the sky He’s king, Alleluia! Where the angels ever sing, Alleluia!

4. Sing we to our God above, Alleluia! Praise eternal as His love, Alleluia!
Praise Him, all you heavenly host, Alleluia! Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Alleluia!

"It first appeared with the tune to which we now sing Charles Wesley's great resurrection hymn, 'Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,' so most books now use a Welsh tune composed in 1817 by Robert Williams.

"Coming into the fifteenth century, one writer's work stands out, Jean Tisserand. No information about this author is available except that he was French and died in 1494. His text, known as 'L'aleluya du jour de Pasques' and beginning 'O Filii et Filiae,' is usually dated c. 1490, although it was not published until after his death. It was first discovered in a small untitled book printed sometime between 1518 and 1536, and was translated into English in 1851 by John Mason Neale as, 'O Sons and Daughters, Let Us Sing.'

"On into the sixteenth century, the most noteworthy Catholic hymn is 'Mater Hierusalem, civitas sancta Dei.' It is supposedly based on the writings of Aurelius Augstine of Hippo who lived from 353 to 430. A 400-word prose description of heaven drawn from Revelation was found in a book of 'Meditations' ascribed to Augustine, although some believe that this was a forgery. A versified form of some of these meditations entitled 'Ad Perennis Vitae Fontem' was made by Peter Damian who lived from around 988 to 1072. An Old English translation of 25 stanzas appears in a British Museum manuscript dating to about 1600, perhaps as early as 1580 or 1585, and titled 'A Song made by F. B. P.,' which some think stands for 'Francis Baker, Priest.' It can't be dated with any certainty much before c. 1480, but at least a couple of well-known hymns have come from this work, one entitled 'O Mother, Dear, Jerusalem,' and another in an arrangement from around 1795 by Joseph Bromhead as 'Jerusalem, My Happy Home.' I believe that it's in this book as well."

1. Jerusalem, my happy home! Name ever dear to me;
When shall my labors have an end, In joy, and peace, and thee?

2. When shall these eyes thy heaven built walls And pearly gates behold?
Thy bulwarks, with salvation strong, And streets of shining gold?

3. There happier bowers than Eden’s bloom, Nor sin nor sorrow know:
Blest seats, through rude and stormy scenes, I onward press to you.

4. O happy harbor of the saints! O sweet and pleasant soil!
In thee no sorrow may be found, No grief, no care, no toil.

5. Thy saints are crowned with glory great; They see God face to face;
They triumph still, they still rejoice. Most happy is their case.

6. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, God grant that I may see
Thine endless joy, and of the same Partaker aye may be!

"Again, several tunes have been found with this song, but most of our books use a melody composed by Augustus Damon Fillmore.

"As we move on into the Post-Reformation period, from 1600 on, not many Latin hymns are used outside the Catholic Church. One that dates from the seventeenth century is 'Finita iam sunt proelia.' It can be traced back to the 'Symphonia Sirenum Selectarum' of Cologne in 1695, and was translated into English in 1861 by Francis Pott as, 'The Strife Is O'er.' You can see it in this book also."

1. The strife is o’er, the battle done; The victory of life is won;
The song of triumph has begun: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

2. The powers of death have done their worst; But Christ their legions hath dispersed;
Let shouts of holy joy outburst: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

3. The three sad days are quickly sped; He rises glorious from the dead;
All glory to our risen Head! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

4. He closed the yawning gates of hell; The bars from heaven’s high portals fell;
Let hymns of praise His triumphs tell! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

5. Lord, by the stripes which wounded Thee, From death’s dread sting Thy servants free,
That we may live, and sing to Thee: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

"The tune most often used is an arrangement of a melody by the Renaissance Italian church composer Giovanni Perluigi di Palestrina. However, some of our books use another tune, attributed to Melchior Vulipus and first published around 1609.

"One final well-known hymn that was originally written in Latin comes from the eighteenth century. It was once thought that the carol 'Adeste Fidelis' was an anonymous Latin hymn from the middle ages that was taken from a 'Graduale' of the Cistercians, the original of which is sometimes ascribed to Giovanni Fidanza Bonaventura who lived from 1221 to 1274. However, it is now believed to have been written about 1740 or 1744 by John Francis Wade who lived from 1710 to 1786. It first appears with four stanzas in seven known manuscript copybooks dating to the mid-eighteenth century, about 1743, known as 'Cantus Diversi' published by Wade, and was translated into English in 1841 by Frederick Oakley as 'O Come, All Ye Faithful.' You've certainly heard these words. One stanza, number four, was added by someone else and translated by William T. Brooke."

1. O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him, born the King of angels; (Refrain)

2. True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal, Lo, He shuns not the Virgin’s womb;
Son of the Father, begotten, not created; (Refrain)

3. Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation; O sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God, all glory in the highest; (Refrain)

4. See how the shepherds, summoned to His cradle, Leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze;
We too will thither bend our joyful footsteps; (Refrain)

5. Child, for us sinners poor and in the manger, We would embrace Thee, with love and awe;
Who would not love Thee, loving us so dearly? (Refrain)

6. Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning; Jesus, to Thee be glory given;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. (Refrain).

"Each stanza ends with the refrain: 'O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.' The tune, once thought to be a Portugese song, is now believed to have been composed or adapted by Wade.

"There are many other well-known Catholic hymns that were written in Latin during the Middle Ages and are very representative of the Catholic Church theology of that time, but these are some of the main ones that have found their way into the hymnbooks of other religious organizations."

Just then, they heard the car pull in the garage. Dad said, "Mom must be back from her shopping trip."

Seth asked, "Dad, how do you know so much about all these old hymns, since we really don't sing too many of them any more?"

As Mom was coming in and he was going out to the office, he responded, "Well, I've always enjoyed singing, so I've been interested in reading and studying about the history of our hymns."

Just before the door closed, Andrew called out, "Well, we like to sing hymns too, so from now on in church services we'll be looking to see if any of the songs we're singing come from the Latin."

Prior in Series: The Young Person's Guide to the Hymnbook: Greek Hymns of the Early Church
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