Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Unexpected Journies

When I set out to write about travel this month, there are certain things I didn’t think I’d have to cover. The two-week delay of my luggage, which went on an entirely separate journey to mine, was one of them; I’ll get to that next week, maybe. fredToday is a sadder journey: saying good-bye to a friend who has left this world.

Fred Grimm was never at loss for words for any sort of occasion, but I find myself lacking them now – so I’ve picked a few I think he’d especially appreciate: small, and far away.

This Fred is small!

This Fred is small!

One Anglo-Saxon word for small or little is hwón-líc. Hwón on its own also means little, but is generally used in the neuter accusative, as an adjective to indicate quantity or size: ie, ‘use a little honey’, rather than ‘this is a little town’. The -líc ending forms the last part of lots of adjectives, rather like the modern -ly.So if you were discussing the smallness of, oh, say, tiny plastic cows, they’d be hwón-líc. And if this conversation left you a little exasperated, you’d use hwón. Nothing at all about Fred was small (well, except maybe his bearish counterpart) – he had a personality and a heart that matched his physical size. There will be nothing small, either, about the hole left in so many lives by his absence.

...and this Fred is far away!

…and this Fred is far away!

Feor was the Anglo-Saxon word for far away or, literally, at a great distance. The Proto-Indo-European root for this word meant to pass over or beyond. Fred is, I suppose, far away now, gone beyond where we’re able to go with him, but he’ll never be very far away from the minds of everyone who loved him. Fred was a storyteller, and that’s how we’ve been remembering him – by sharing Fred stories of our own.

There are so many other words I could share – scortness, for the brevity of time Fred was on this earth, or æglæc, for our grief, but perhaps the most appropriate is cynn, which meant of a sort, kind, or genus, but was also used in compounds to describe types of family. When you find your people in this wide world, hang on to ’em for as long as you can.

Anglo-Saxon Word Of the Week: wíd-síþ

IMG_0346.JPG Bore da, darllenwyr annwyl; I write this a few hours before dawn, on a train, tapping away on my phone’s touchscreen. It’s too dark outside to see the landscape; so far, the only view out the window, aside from my own reflection, has been a brightly lit Tesco car park in Welshpool, and Shrewsbury station. My theme of travel carries onward.

This week’s offering is both a word and a name: wíd-síþ. The word is a compound noun (too early in the morning for verbs!): wíd meaning wide, and síþ, meaning travel or journey. A far journey. Wide travel.

is also the name of another poem from the Exeter book, and the fictional narrator of the poem. The poem itself is a 144-line catalogue of kings both ancient and contemporary, peoples alive and long since gone, and heroes who lived only in legend. The narrating poet recounts the rulers he has known, the tribes he has seen and sung for, and the heroes he has encountered in his time as a traveling scop. Many of the events and people mentioned are attested to historically, but are spread out across far too great a span of time for one person to have witnessed them all, and the places listed cover too great an area for even a lifetime of travel. Wid-síþ, then, is not intended as a collections of facts, but as an act of historical creation – the poet weaves a long and storied past for himself and his people, and in so doing, claims for himself the voice of poetic authority. The poem closes with Wid-síþ reminding the audience that earthly fame, when remembered in song by a talented scop, brings lasting fame.

You can read the poem in Anglo-Saxon alongside an English translation here.

Deor, a shorter poem also found in the Exeter book, draws on similar material; I suggest seeking out Seamus Heaney’s wonderful translation.

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Wadan

sea-ice-off-arctic-refuge-coastal-plain_w725_h477Happy December, all! The season of many holidays is upon us, and I’m preparing to do something that I haven’t done for nearly two years now: I’m going home. I haven’t seen my family since April of 2013, and while I do love it here, it will be nice to not have an ocean between me and all the people I left behind, just for a little while.

So! In honour of the trains-planes-and-automobiles trek I’m about to take, this month’s entries will be centred around travel, and each will feature a different poem.

To start us of this week, something else I haven’t done in a while – a strong verb! Words of the Week entries have been pretty noun-heavy for a while, as I’ve been sitting around writing away for most hours of most days,and I thought the sudden flurry of activity was a good enough reason to shake things up a bit.

This week’s word is wadan, a strong verb – which means it undergoes a stem change when conjugated. This is still easily observable in English verbs today. For example, ‘sing’ is a strong verb (I sing, I sang, I have sung, etc.), but ‘walk’ is a weak one (I walk, I walked, I have walked, etc) because it has an added ending instead of a stem change. Wadan conjugates thusly:

Present indicative:                                                                              Past indicative:

ic i wædee                                                                                         ic i wód

þu you wædeest                                                                               þu you wóde

he/hit/heo he/it/she wædeeþ                                                            he/hit/heo he/it/she wód

we/ge/hie we/ye/they wædeaþ                                                         we/ge/hie we/ye/they wódon

Present participle: (….ing) – wædeende                                        Past participle: (…ed) – gewaden

Wadan means to go, to advance, to travel, and is the verb from whence the contemporary English words invade, pervade, evade, and wade come from. Tolkien also borrowed the word to name Entwade, the guarded ford in the river Entwash joining east and west Rohan. (Entincidentally, is a word for giant in Old English, and is related to the Old Norse jǫtunn.)

There are many verbs that mean some version of go, wander, travel, or journey in Anglo-Saxon, but I chose this one specifically because it is used in one of my favourite Old English poems, The Wanderer. The poem, found in the 10th century Exeter book (though the poem itself may have been composed earlier), is the lament of a solitary exile who wander the cold seas far from the comrades in arms, loyal lord, and warm mead hall he has left behind. The narrator speaks vividly of his loneliness and yearning for days past, though he knows that his prior happiness is a place to which he can no longer return.

The poem also contains the lines that inspired Tolkien’s Lament for the Rohirrim, sung by Aragorn in The Two Towers, but adapted for the film version as a speech delivered by Théoden on the eve of battle:

You can read a side-by-side translation of the poem here, but I also encourage you to see out Greg Delanty’s and Jane Holland’s updated translations as well.

And if you’d like a little more light holiday reading, try Coleridge next – this poem never fails to put me in mind of his Ancient Mariner.

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Láf

Wes þu hál!

Between dissertation deadlines and the illness that just won’t end, this month has rather gotten away from me. But still we must carry on, and next month’s theme won’t wait, so here’s one final female word for November: láf. 

To introduce this word, I’d also like to introduce Elaine, a fellow research student here at Aberystwyth. She’s been working with Old English again recently, and her latest blog uses the word láf to muse on the nature of translation, and how one can use language as a means to flesh out one’s understanding of a society.

widowFor example, Elaine explains that láf is one of the Anglo-Saxon words for widow, but that the word can also mean remnant or remainder. Láf is cognate with the Gothic laiba, the Old Frisian lávathe Old Saxon léƀa, and the Old High German leiba, and does mean that which is left behind, but was regularly applied to widows – that which is left behind after the death of a husband. The woman was referred to as X’s láf, and therefore defined by her relation to her husband. There was no separate word for male widow, such as ‘widower’ in modern English. Head over to Elaine’s blog entry to discuss what the multiple meanings of the word might indicate about the cultural context of widows in the Anglo-Saxon world. For context, you might wish to check out Rolf Bremmer’s Between Poverty and the Pyre: Widows in Anglo-Saxon England, or this site explaining early English laws.

The word was used in several other descriptive ways besides simply indicating that something was left over or left behind. The weapons’ or battle’s leavings were survivors of a conflict. In poetry, weaponry was sometimes described as láf fýres and feóle – the leaving of fire and of file.

Láf is an interesting word etymologically. The stem leibh or leip (from which láf comes), traced backwards through Indo-European and Proto-Indo-European, was a verb meaning to smear fat, or stick. We’ve already seen a few of the Germanic cognates of láf, which carried similar meanings, but the Greek lipos retained the meaning of fat, and the Homeric Greek verb from the same root meant to smear or anoint. Somewhere during the development away from Indo-European, the Germanic words underwent a change of meaning that the Greek word did not. Unpacking what happened in that shift of meaning could also be an investigation of the different cultural contexts acting upon each language.

Another common word for widow in Anglo-Saxon was widuwe, which comes from the Indo-European root ueidh, meaning to divide or separate. Also, recall our discussion of wif, meaning woman who is not a virgin? Sometimes wif was also used to indicate a widow.

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Ides & Wíf

Apologies for missing last week’s entry,and for the brevity of this week’s – last week I was moving house, and this week I have been taken down by flu! But I bravely blog on in the face of endless cups of Lemsip, and hope to also bring you a recap of my storytelling adventures with Jo in Cambridge. Spoiler alert – they were delightful!


Anglo-Saxon woman from the Dover Museum.

But onward to this week’s word! And, indeed, this month’s theme – which is women. I’ll be touching on various words used to denote the female gender in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and a few specific adjectives, as an eventual precursor to a more in-depth discussion of the complexities of the portrayal of gender in general.

I’m starting with ides and wíf because they are the most commonly used, and the simplest to discuss. Wíf is the Anglo-Saxon word for woman or female person. Contextually, it could also mean wife or widow, and is related to the Old Saxon and Old Frisian wif, the Old Hugh German wip, and possibly to the Icelandic poetic vif. You might see the word wíf-mann, which is related – its counterpart wǽpen-mann was an Anglo-Saxon word for male personMann could indicate a human being of either gender.

Ides is another word for woman, found primarily in poetry. It is related to the Old Saxon idis and the Old High German itis, and possibly to the Icelandic dis. The idis, (pl. idisi) was, in Germanic mythology, was a figure something like the Scandinavian valkyrie. They are seen being invoked in the Old High German Merseberg Charms, the only examples of a pre-Christian paganism to exist in that language. Jacob Grimm, who was a linguistic scholar in addition to a collector of folk tales, proposed a connection between idisi and the Norse goddess Iðunn. In Anglo-Saxon, the word does not denote any sort of supernatural or goddess-like qualities; instead, in is generally used for well-respected or especially dignified women. One can see the potential for correlation, though, between the use of the term as a word for goddesses, and the use of the term as a poetic device to denote a woman who is especially worthy of note or praise. Both Judith and Grendel’s mother were called ides.

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Scop

beowulf_doc1Hello again! It’s week two in our month o’ story, and since we looked at stories and storytelling in Anglo-Saxon culture last week, I’m moving on now to poems and poeming. (I think I’m supposed to call it ‘composing poetry’ or something, but really, it is a process deserving of its own present participle.) So our question for today is: What should we call poets? Incidentally, this is also the name of my favouite tumblr.

The most common Anglo-Saxon word for poet is scop. A quick pronunciation guide: sc is a sh sound in Old English, and the o here is like the in option or pot, so the words sounds very much like the Contemporary English word shop. A cognate (meaning a word having the same linguistic derivation as another) exists in Old High German: scoph or scof. Remember when we talked about Proto-Germanic and Indo-European in this entry? Well, scop and scof may both be related to the Proto-Germanic verb *skapiz, meaning form or order. Both these words are also related to the modern English word scoff. Another similar word you might be more familiar with, especially if you’re a fan of German fanasty metal bands, is skald, which is the Old Norse word for the concept of poet. This word, etymologically, is linked to the modern English scold. Never get on the bad side of a poet, friends.

But what was a poet in Anglo-Saxon culture? How did you become one? It was quite easy, really – you had to die.

…no, no, wait, come back! Don’t hang up your iambic pentameter just yet. Let me explain: there is no written record of any real, historical person identifying himself, or herself, as a scop. Emily Thornbury, in her book Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England, likens it to calling oneself a ‘statesman’:

The term [statesman] is not really a professional category, but rather a word for those who have excelled in politics and diplomacy. ‘Statesman’ is so commonly reserved for those retiring from public life – or, preferably, safely dead –  because of the force it carries, and while one can aspire to be a statesman, declaring oneself actually to be one would smack of hubris…it was something one could hope to be called after death.

Scop, therefore, could be seen as a sort of title; if your work is strong enough, if it’s heard and repeated enough, if you excel a enough in the craft of composing verse, then you might be honoured with the title of poet after death. It’s a pretty idea – and a pretty motivating one. But it still doesn’t explain where this wide-spread idea of scop as record keeper, as entertainer, as prolific verse composer comes from. For that, we have to turn to the poems themselves.

I mentioned that there are no historical figures in Anglo-Saxon written record who refer to themselves as poets; this does not hold true for the fictional world. There are two poets who refer to themselves by that title in poems: Deor, and the speaker in Riddle 22 from the Exeter book, who uses the metaphor of himself as a scop to describe a nightingale. Widsith, from the poem of the same title, almost falls into this category; the poem opens with another speaker introducing Widsith as a poet, and then relating Widisth’s words about himself to the audience. The first two poems are poets speaking as a persona; the last one is a poet speaking as a persona about another persona. Oh, dear. Why all the obfuscation?

I’ll tell you a secret: the romantic idea we sometimes have of Anglo-Saxon scops functioning like the Germanic bards of old, relating stories of great deeds and important tribal histories around by the fire of a mead hall and being honoured by the ruling war lord, was also a romantic idea they had about themselves. Most of our written Old English record comes from a time when the old Germanic tribes had been long settled on their new island, and conversion to Christianity was happening rapidly, or had already happened. The idea of the travelling bard singing for his supper and containing within his songs the identity and culture of his people was a vital part of the Anglo-Saxon ideal of their own ancestral past – as can be so easily seen in poems like Widsith and DeorBeowulf also epitomises this concept, and can be looked at as the story of a people struggling to preserve an identity, but unsure of what identity they are preserving: Germanic, or English? Pagan, or Christian? Tribal, or feudal? The desire to grasp onto something solid is palpable – and so is the tragedy of Bewoulf’s end. He dies childless, alone but for a single squire, leaving his leaderless people with a useless treasure – ancient gold will not help them against the Franks or the Frisians. It’s a grim view – what good are old stories against the onslaught of change? I suppose the answer to that question lies in the fact that we are still telling them.

And if you’re anywhere near Cambridge on the 25th of October, you’re cordially invited to come along to their Festival of Ideas and hear some of these stories told by participants in the Medieval Storytelling Project. You can find information about our event, and links to the programme for the whole festival, here.

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Animal Companions

This week, September’s theme continues with a discussion of domestic animals. Ever wonder if Anglo-Saxons kept pets? The answer, as you might have expected, is ‘not really’ – animals largely fell into the two categories of ‘functional’ and ‘food’. The Anglo-Saxons weren’t entirely without animal companions, however, and this week’s words offer a little exploration into two of the most commonly domesticated animals: dogs and cats.

Anglo-Saxon dogs probably resembled modern deer hounds.

Anglo-Saxon dogs probably resembled modern deer hounds.

Dogs in Anglo-Saxon England were kept primarily for the functions they performed. There were no specific breeds – a fact reflected in the word mongrel, which, though it came into usage in the early Middle English period, can trace its origins to the Old English gemong, meaning a mixture, crowd, or assembly. The largest dogs would have been about the size of modern Labradors or Alsatians, and would’ve resembled modern deer hounds. These would have been used for hunting and guarding. Smaller dogs, similar in size to collies, would have functioned as herding dogs. Occasionally, even smaller dogs were utilised to control the rat population, or as lap dogs for noble ladies.

Dogs were valued work animals, but there is some evidence that they could also be cherished companions. Pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon burials were noted for their not uncommon inclusion of dog bones; this became much less common after widespread conversion, when animals bones were largely consigned to the midden heap, but even then it was not unheard of that a man might be buried with a favourite hunting dog. Textual evidence tells us that dogs were valuable gifts – Ælfred the Great, known for his great love of hunting, is recorded as having given a fine pair of hunting hounds to the bishop of Rheims.

As to the general value of dogs, there is some evidence to be found in 9th century Mercian and West Saxon law codes. A king’s hunting dog, untrained, was worth 60 pence, and a trained dog worth twice that much. Best estimates place that at a modern-day equivalent of something like £1200 for the trained dog, and £600 for the untrained. By contrast, a common house dog or working dog would’ve been worth something like £80. These figures functioned something like a sort of canine wergild, or man-price – a concept we’ll revisit in the future (my master word list tells me it’s on the books for March – stay tuned!).

The most common word for dog in Anglo-Saxon was hund, which we can easily recognise as an etymological forerunner for hound. Interestingly, there did exist in late Anglo-Saxon a word for dog – docga – but it was rarely used, and only came into fashion much later in the Middle English period (usually spelled dogue, dogge, or doge, which alas bears no linguistic relation to internet doge-speak. So spelling, much orthography. Wow.) It’s suspected that docga was considered an informal or un-literary word, and thus we don’t see it often in the remaining texts. ( A note about pronunciation: the cg combination in Anglo-Saxon is pronounced like the dge combination in the word edge.)

Hwelp, the word for puppy, is easily recognised as whelp, and a female dog was a bicce  or bicge, from whence comes the word bitch.


There is no linguistic linkage between Anglo-Saxon and Lolcat.

There is no linguistic linkage between Anglo-Saxon and Lolcat.


Cats in Anglo-Saxon England were less likely to be pets than dogs – aside from being kept as control for the rodent population, cats were used primarily for their fur! There is no evidence, however, that they were ever seen as a common food source, and some cats likely did enjoy a companion-like status. An archaeological dig in Bishopstone, East Sussex revealed the presence of three cats – one of whom had been fed a regular diet of fish, and two who had not. It appears that this cat was fed deliberately by humans, and therefore perhaps kept as a pet, whereas the other two cats were not.

 Domestic cats were likely brought to England during the Iron Age; there is archaeological evidence that lynx and wildcats were also present. Like dogs, there were no specific cat breeds accounted for during the Anglo-Saxon period.

 Old English distinguishes between male and female cats linguistically, using the words catt and catte respectively.

 For more information on the long history of cats in England, Ireland and Wales from the 5th century until the Norman invasion, University of Nottingham researcher Kristopher Poole’s article “The Contextual Cat: Human–Animal Relations and Social Meaning in Anglo-Saxon England” is open access, and available here.

This week’s animals were seen mostly in terms of their function; next week’s discussion delves into that other category I mentioned at the beginning – food! What sort of creatures made up a common Anglo-Saxon diet?

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Byrnwiggende

We're uncertain what a byrnie looked like, but it could have been a mail shirt, or mail-covered leather jacket.

We’re uncertain what a byrnie looked like, but it could have been a mail shirt, or mail-covered leather jacket.

Wes þu hal!

Finally getting back to some text translation today, after time away for travel, conferences, and end-of-term marking frenzies – and I discovered a neat thing I wanted to share. I came across the word byrnwiggende today. A wiggend is a warrior or soldier, and the word is commonly seen in descriptive compounds – rondwiggende, for example. Rond or rand is technically the margin or the edge of something, but it was usually used to denote the edge of a shield – so rondwiggende might get translated as sheild-warrior or shield-bearer.

All of that I knew – but what on earth was a byrn? The Clark Hall dictionary gave me corselet, and that’s a familiar enough armour term, but I didn’t really like the word. I tried the online Englisc Onstigende Wordbōc, to see if it would give me anything different – and it gave me the Modern English word byrnie – at least, they said it was Modern English. I’d certainly never heard of it, so I threw it into google, and out popped the image on the left – something I would indeed have termed a corselet. Or maybe even just a maille shirt. According to Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World (Bennet, M., et al): 

There is some dispute among historians as to what exactly constituted the Carolingian byrnie. Relying… only on artistic and some literary sources because of the lack of archaeological examples, some believe that it was a heavy leather jacket with metal scales sewn onto it. It was also quite long, reaching below the hips and covering most of the arms. Other historians claim instead that the Carolingian byrnie was nothing more than a coat of mail, but longer and perhaps heavier than traditional early medieval mail. Without more certain evidence, this dispute will continue.

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry - could those soldiers have been wearing byrnies?

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry – could those soldiers have been wearing byrnies?

There you are, then; a new word for me in both languages. Call them shield-bearers, mail-wearers, or men-at-arms – a good leader was lost without good soldiers.