Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Draca

Please don't slay me!

Please don’t slay me!

This week’s word is draca – or, dragon. Draca comes from the West Germanic *drako, which ultimately originated from the Latin. The first recorded use of this word we have is from Beowulf:

draca rícsian sé þe on heaum hofe…

In the fiftieth year of Beowulf’s reign, long after Grendel and his mother had been defeated, someone managed to wake a sleeping dragon by stealing a goblet from its hoard. The story of the hoard itself is a sad one. It was buried in the earth by the last survivor of a long-forgotten race whose kin had all died in war, leaving him alone with a useless treasure.

Beowulf narrowly defeats the dragon – if you want to find out how, go read it! – and secures the treasure for his people, but he pays for it with his life. One of Beowulf’s last requests is to see some item from the gold-hoard he was dying for; his young thane Wiglaf obliges him. Beowulf is glad that his people will be provided for, but it is up to Wiglaf – the only man who stood with him against the dragon – to look after them. Beowulf’s final words, spoken to Wiglaf, are eerily familiar; they are reproduced here in Anglo-Saxon, and in English from Seamus Heaney’s transltion:

þú eart ende-láf         ússes cynes
Wægmundinga         ealla wyrd forspéon
míne mágas       tó meodscafte
eorlas  on elne        ic to him æfter sceal.

You are the last of us, the only one left
of the Waegmundings. Fate swept us away,
sent my whole brave high-born clan 

to their final doom. Now I must follow them.

Now Beowulf is the lonely, kin-less wanderer, and the gold, as we learned before, won’t save his people from destruction. In truth, the gold-hoard Beowulf died for is a cavernful of story-less objects, things divorced from their history. One hopes, as the poem’s final lines close on a lament for a lost king, the the goblets and feast gear, hauberks and helms will be imbued with new tales to tell.

Do you have a particular ‘storied’ item? A favourite bear from childhood, a blanket your grandmother made? Or even a new item, something for which the story will start with you? What tales might people tell about your object in another 2,000 years, if it could hang around that long?

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: 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?