Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Story

storytelling1October’s Word of the Week theme is stories and storytelling! I chose this theme because, at the end of the month, I’ll be telling stories myself at Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas, along with a few other friends from the Medieval Storytelling Project.

Storytelling was a key form of entertainment in Anglo-Saxon England. This might have happened at feasts or celebrations in the mead hall with professional storytellers, but plenty of evidence exists for quiet evenings spent round the fireplace where everyone was expected to contribute a tale. Venerable Bede, a 7th century monk, records such a story about the poet Cædmon in his work  Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede says that Cædmon, the earliest English poet known by name, was a lay brother at a monastery who cared for the abbey’s animals. Every evening, when the monks gathered to tell stories, Cædmon would leave the fireplace and creep out to the stables, ashamed because he knew no songs and had no skill at composing them. One night, while sleeping in the stable, Cædmon dreamed that he was approached by someone who asked him to sing principium creaturarum, “the beginning of created things.” At first he refused, but then Cædmon composed a short poem praising the creator of heaven and earth. When he awoke the next morning, he remembered everything, and sang his poem for the abbess. She gave him a test – he was to return to her the next morning with a new poem composed around some bit of sacred history or doctrine. When he produced a second poem the next morning, his new ability was declared a gift from God, and Cædmon was ordered to take monastic orders. Bede tells us that Cædmon wrote beautiful alliterative verse in the vernacular speech of the day, but unfortunately, the only example of his poetry remaining to us is Cædmon’s Hymn, his poem to the creator of the universe. A video of the reading of the poem in Old English, with Old English and Modern English text on screen, is embedded below.

American poet Denise Levertov has written a beautiful poem based on Bede’s account of Cædmon, which you can read here.

A few common words for ‘story’ in Anglo-Saxon were talu (pl. tala), meaning tale, or account, and spell, meaning story or speech. There were many compound words that describe types of spellesA few examples:

bíspell –  Literally big-spell, it meant parable or allegory. A modern equivalent might be tall tale.

ealdspell – old-story. an old, familiar tale or saying

frumspellung –  first-storying; an original story, or the first telling of a story

sárspell – sad-story; a sad or lamentful tale

sóþspell – true-story, or history. ‘This one really happened, I swear!’

láðspell – a painful, hateful, or grievous story

leásspell an untrue story, or a lie

leásungspell also a false story, but with a frivolous element; a foolish story or fable

As you can see, with so many words for so many different types of story, the relating of tales was important to the Anglo-Saxons, and served a variety of different purposes from entertainment to praise to the preservation of culture and history. Over the next few weeks, we’ll looks at more words related to stories and storytelling, and to the storytellers themselves. There may even be a few Halloween treats thrown in too.

Ok. It’s late, the night is dark and cold, and we’re gathered around our metaphorical fire. It’s your turn. What story do you tell?