Throughout the fourth episode of the first series of The Last Kingdom, the Anglo-Saxon warrior Leofric jokingly insults Uhtred by calling him ‘arseling’. This blog post discusses the origins and use of the word ‘arseling’ in Old English, where it occurs as ‘earsling’. There may be a surprising connection to none other than King Alfred the Great himself!
The origins of arseling: “Earsling” in the Paris Psalter
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines arseling as meaning “backwards” and having been derived from the noun arse and the suffix –ling. Being a dictionary on historical principles, the OED also provides information about the past usage of the word. The first recorded instance of arseling was around the year 1050: “Syn hi gecyrde on earsling” [Let them be turned backwards], where the word occurs in its Old English form earsling. The text cited by the OED is one of the prose Psalm translations in the mid-eleventh-century manuscript with the shelfmark Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Fonds latin 8824, also known as the ‘Paris Psalter’. This manuscript features the Latin text of the Psalms with an Old English translation (the first 50 Psalms are translated to prose; the last 100 are translated to verse, by another translator). The quotation provided by the OED is part of the Old English prose translation of Psalm 34:
Latin (left): Confundantur et revereantur inimici mei qui querunt animam meam aucstantur retrorsum…
Old English (right): Geleahtrode syn mine fynd 7 sceamien heora þa þa secað mine sawle to fordonne. Syn hi gecyrde on earsling…
Translation: Let them be confounded and ashamed that seek after my soul. Let them be turned backwards
Earsling makes one further appearance in the Paris Psalter, as part of the translation of Psalm 6:
Latin (left): Erubescant et conturbentur omnes inimici mei avestantur retrorsum et cerubescant ualde uelociter.
Old English (right): Sceamian heora for ði 7 syn gedrefede ealle mine fynd 7 gan hy on earsling 7 sceamien heora swiðe hrædlice.
Translation: Let them be ashamed for this and let all my enemies be driven away and let them go backwards and let them be ashamed very quickly.
A search in the Dictionary of Old English Corpus (a digital corpus that contains one copy of every extant Old English text) reveals that “earsling” only occurs in these Old English prose Psalm translations; earsling is a so-called hapax legomenon, a word that is restricted to this one text. But who was responsible for this Old English prose translation of the first fifty psalms?
The author of earsling: Alfred the Great!?!
The Paris Psalter does not mention the author of the Old English Psalm translations. What is clear, however, is that the language of the prose translation of the first fifty psalms can be identified as Early West Saxon (referring to the dialect of ninth-century Wessex), on the basis of its spelling and phonology (see O’Neill 2001, pp. 55-63). An Old English translation of a Latin text dating to ninth-century Wessex recalls the revival of learning instigated by Alfred the Great (d. 899), which involved, among other things, the translation of various books from Latin to Old English. Interestingly, the twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury attributes a translation of the Psalms to Alfred himself:
He translated into English the greater part of the Roman authors, bringing of the noblest spoil of foreign intercourse for the use of his subjects; of which the chief books were Orosius, Gregory’s Pastoral, Bede’s History of the Angles, Boethius Of the Consolation of Philosophy, his own book, which he called in his vernacular tongue “Hand-boc,” that is, a manual. Moreover he infused a great regard for literature into his countrymen, stimulating them both with rewards and punishments, allowing no ignorant person to aspire to any dignity in the court. He died just as he had begun a translation of the Psalms. (William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum)
According to William, Alfred was unable to finish his translation before he died, possibly succumbing to his mysterious disease at the age of fifty (see this blog post). This seems to fit well with the fact that the Early West Saxon prose translations in the Paris Psalter only cover the first fifty Psalms, followed by another (verse) translation of the remaining Psalms. It is no surprise, then, that scholars such as Bately 1982 and O’Neill 2001 attribute the prose Psalm translations of the Paris Psalter to Alfred himself on the basis of a comparison with other translations attributed to the famous king (although their views have not gone unchallenged, see e.g. Treschow, Gill and Schwartz 2009).
If Alfred was responsible for the prose Psalm translations that survive in the Paris Psalter, does this mean he also coined the word earsling? Probably not, but, for as far as we know, he was the first (and the only) Anglo-Saxon to use the word in writing. The use of arseling in BBC’s The Last Kingdom, then, fits perfectly within the Alfredian period it attempts to portray – perhaps the historical Alfred himself had been inspired to use the word in his Psalm translation because he overheard the jocular insults such as those made by Leofric among his own warriors!
The future of arseling
As noted above, Old English earsling was not used in any other Old English text. According to the OED entry for arseling, the word resurfaced in the Scottish poem The Fortunate Shepherdess by Alexander Ross, published in 1768: “Then Lindy to stand up began to try; But—he fell arselins back.” No further use has been recorded by the OED, which, therefore, declares the word “obsolete” – dead. I have no doubt, however, that an updated version of the entry for arseling (the present one dates back to 1885), will report of its revival following the popularity of Bernard Cornwell’s novels and their BBC adaptation. Thus, the series cannot only be credited for reinvigorating an interest in the historical period of Alfred the Great, but may also be responsible for reintroducing some of Alfred’s own vocabulary!
If you liked this post, you may also be interested in other posts on The Last Kingdom:
- Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb
- Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
Works refered to:
- Bately, Janet. 1982. Lexical evidence for the authorship of the prose Psalms in the Paris Psalter. Anglo-Saxon England 10: 69-95.
- O’Neill, Patrick. 2001. King Alfred’s Old English Prose Translation of the First Fifty Psalms (Medieval Academy of America, 2001)
- Treschow, Michael, Paramjit Gill and Tim B. Schwartz. 2009. King Alfred’s Scholarly Writings and the Authorship of the First Fifty Prose Psalms. Heroic Age 12.
- William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, trans. J.A. Giles (London, 1848)
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