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As of today, my YouTube channel has reached over 100,000 views. The material posted thus far (currently only 7 videos) mostly aim at making Old English grammar digestible. This blog post provides some behind-the-scenes information on the rationale and process behind the videos and also announces a new video, posted last week.
Why Old English grammar bytes?
While some students acquire the basics of Old English grammar after one round of explanation, others need to be reminded of the basics over and over again. This varying pace of acquisition cannot always be catered to in a traditional classroom setting. If I were to repeat the basic grammatical information too often, valuable in-class time is lost and the students who got it the first time may lose interest, creating a potentially hostile atmosphere for students who need the extra explanation.
So, what I really wanted to do was find a way for students to learn Old English grammar at their own pace and avoid having to repeat the same basic information over and over again. An added advantage of that would be that I would have more time in class to deal with specifics of literature or the weekly translations and so on. The idea for Old English Grammar Bytes was born: grammar videos that can be watched whenever, at one’s own pace, as often as one might want.
How were they made?
The videos were created using a green screen and fairly simple animations. I was very lucky to have the support of Leiden University’s Expertise Centre for Online Learning, which has a devoted support team for ‘knowledge clips’ (esp. Thomas J. Vorisek, who has done wonders with the camerawork and editing). For each clip, I made a storyboard with, on the left, an impression of what I wanted the image on the screen to look like and, on the right, the text I wanted to say. As you can see below, Peter Baker’s magic sheet of Old English was used as a point of departure for each of the videos, since his Introduction to Old English (3rd ed., 2010) was used for our first-year Old English course (attended by c. 100 students each year).
I quickly found that one of the advantages of using videos to explain grammar is that it allows for a better and more dynamic visualization of information than a traditional class room setting. For instance, we could zoom in on particular parts of the ‘Magic Sheet’ and indicate specific forms within paradigms. In addition, the ‘dry’ grammatical information could be presented in a light and attractive way by using visual material, including my own drawings (this video features my drawings of a dwarf throwing rocks at a dog to explain grammtical functions) and Old English memes (e.g., “swiga ond nim min mynet” perfectly illustrates the imperative mood and is a play on the popular ‘shut up and take my money’ meme – this meme was in vogue at the time of making the video – it is now a classic). Moreover, special effects, such as a booming voice shouting “Repeat after me: Whether adjectives are strong or weak is independent from the nouns they modify!”, help to hammer the message home – enjoy that here – the effect did not prove useful to everyone, given one of the YouTube comments “Please remove the deep voice at 2:49, I was showing this video to my young grandson and he ran out of the room in tears” – apologies! This combination of words, pictures, animation and narration allows students to learn better than from words alone.
So, in making the videos, I carefully thought about the visuals and special effects, but, being a non-native speaker of English, I also had to carefully consider my words: long strings of text with many complex words are likely to trip me up, so I had to adapt my language somewhat. Also, you will notice that I do not appear too often in the videos, except mostly for the introductions, transitions and conclusions; there is a good reason for this: it is much easier to string together various pieces of audio, than it is to smoothly transition from one video of a person speaking to another in order to get rid of garbled speech.
Finally, a new video!
The Old English Grammar Bytes were written and filmed in the Spring of 2016 and were posted on YouTube in 2017. I had and have plans to make many more videos, but simply have not found the time yet. However, I did get a chance to particpate in making an ‘Online Experience’ for prospective students of the BA-programme English Language and Literature at Leiden University a couple of months ago (you can read about this initiative here, in Dutch). This meant that I was able to make three additional videos (one on Old English; one on the differences between Old and Middle English; and one on early medieval English place names) and I was allowed to share one of these on my own YouTube channel. I will embed this video, which is a basic and brief introduction to Old English as not being Shakespeare’s English, below:
As you can see, we had some fun with new animations and special effects. Also: there was an autocue and that helped tremendously!
Hopefully, I will be able to make the other two Online Experience videos available as well, at some point, and/or find some time to make more grammar videos. I may even decide to make some vlogs out of my most popular blogs, but this too will take time. So until then, watch this space!
In the early Middle Ages, dwarfs appear to have been associated with a medical condition. That is, the Old English word for dwarf, dweorg, could also denote “fever, perhaps high fever with delirium and convulsions” [Dictionary of Old English, s.v. dweorg]. As a result, the term dweorg pops up in various remedies that are intended to rid the patient of their dwarf and/or fever; here are five sure ways to get rid of those short-statured, bearded individuals!
1. Write some symbols! Old English charms
The Anglo-Saxon medico-magical collection known as the Lacnunga (surviving in a 10th/11th-century manuscript) features a number of remedies against a dwarf. Two of these involve writing a series of symbols (crosses and Greek letters) along one’s arms, followed by the mixing of great celandine with ale and calling upon two saints (Macutus and Victoricus):
Writ ðis ondlang da earmas wiþ dweorh, … 7 gnid cyleðenigean on ealað, sanctus macutus sancte uictorici.
Writ þis ondlang ða earmas wið dweorh, … 7 gnid cyleþenigean on ealað, sanctus macutus, sancte uictorici.
[Write this along the arms against a dwarf … and mix celandine in ale, saint Macuturs, Saint Victoricus.
Write this along the arms against a dwarf … and mix celandine in ale, saint Macuturs, Saint Victoricus.]
The notion that writing symbols may alleviate one from a dwarf is also found in one other Old English charm. On the flyleaf of an eleventh-century manuscript, an Anglo-Saxon scribe wrote a string of Christian gobbledegook (“thebal guttatim aurum et thus de. + albra Iesus + alabra Iesus + Galabra Iesus +”), followed by this Old English instruction:
Wið þone dworh on .iii. oflætan writ.
[Against the dwarf, write on three wafers:
THEBAL GUTTA seems to be pure mumbo-jumbo (akin to abracadabra); the use of wafers is interesting, since these are also used in the most famous Old English charm which is simply entitled “Wid dweorh” [against a dwarf].
2. Summon its sister! An Old English charm against a dwarf
This charm, found among the Lacnunga, instructs one to take seven “lytle oflætan swylce man mid ofrað” [little wafers like the ones people use to worship; i.e. the Host] and write down the names of seven saints (Maximianus, Malcus, Johannes, Martinianus, Dionysius, Constantinus and Serafion – the names of the Christian saints collectively known as the Seven Sleepers). The charm further instructs that a virgin must hang these wafers around the neck of the patient and that you are to sing a particular song, “ærest on þæt wynstre eare, þænne on þæt swiðre eare, þænne bufan þæs mannes moldan” [first into the left ear, then into the right ear, then on top of the patient’s head]. This ritual is to be repeated for three days in a row: “Do man swa þry dagas him bið sona sel.” [Do this for three days and then he will immediately be well].
The charm also provides the text of the song you are supposed to sing. This song is rather enigmatic, but the usual interpretation is as follows: the first four lines describe the cause of the patient’s complaints: a small being [the dwarf] has put reins over the patient and has started to ride them as if they were a horse; the next lines describe the cure: the sister of the dwarf is summoned and she puts an end to the patient’s ordeal and swears oaths that it shall never happen again.
Her com in gangan, in spiderwiht,
hæfde him his haman on handa, cwæð þæt þu his hæncgest wære,
legde þe his teage an sweoran. Ongunnan him of þæm lande liþan;
sona swa hy of þæm lande coman, þa ongunnan him ða liþu colian.
þa com in gangan dweores sweostar;
þa geændade heo and aðas swor
ðæt næfre þis ðæm adlegan derian ne moste,
ne þæm þe þis galdor begytan mihte,
oððe þe þis galdor ongalan cuþe.
[Here came a spider-creature crawling in;
His web was a harness held in his hand.
Stalking, he said that you were his steed.
Then he threw his net around your neck,
Reining you in. Then they both began
To rise from the land, spring fromthe earth.
As they leapt up, their limbs grew cool.
Then the spider-dwarf’s sister jumped in,
Ending it all by swearing these oaths:
No hurt should come to harm the sick,
No pain to the patient who receives the cure,
No harm to the one who sings this charm.
Amen. Let it be done. ] (Trans. Williamson 2017, p. 1075)
This charm’s effectiveness seems to rely on the combination of pagan Germanic, magical elements (the dwarf as a cause for the disease; its sister swearing oaths; a complex singing ritual involving a virgin) and Christian elements (the Host; names of Christian saints; the use of “Amen”) – this is a phenomenon often referred to as syncretism (the blending of two cultures).
3. Carve some runes! The Dunton plaque and Odin’s skull
Discovered as recently as 2015, a lead plaque dated to the 8th to 11th centuries features a very interesting runic inscription in Old English: “DEAD IS DWERG”. The inscription on this ‘Dunton plaque’ is easily translated to “The dwarf is dead” and may have worked in a similar manner to the Old English charms above. The act of writing the runes was part of a healing procedure; rather than a combination of Greek letters and Christian crosses or gobbledegook (THEBAL GUTTA!), the runic inscription is straightforward: the dwarf/fever is dead and gone. The hole in the plaque may indicae that it could be worn as a talisman (like the seven wafers used in the charm “Wið dweorh”).
John Hines (2019) has pointed out that this runic inscription has an interesting Scandinavian analogue in the Ribe skull fragment, dating to the early 8th century. Like the plaque, this skull fragment has a runic inscription and a hole suggesting it could potentially have been worn as a talisman:
ᚢᛚᚠᚢᛦᚼᚢᚴᚢᚦᛁᚾᚼᚢᚴᚺᚢᛏᛁᚢᛦ ᚺᛁᚼᛚᛒᛒᚢᚱᛁᛁᛋᚢᛁᚦᛦ ᚦᚼᛁᛗᚼᚢᛁᚼᚱᚴᛁᚼᚢᚴᛏᚢᛁᚱᚴᚢᚾᛁᚾ ᛒᚢᚢᚱ
Ulfr auk Ōðinn auk Hō-tiur. Hjalp buri es viðr þæima værki. Auk dverg unninn. Bōurr.
[Ulfr and Odin and High-tiur. Buri is help against this pain. And the dwarf (is) overcome. Bóurr.] (edition and translation from Schulte 2006, see also this Wikipedia article)
The interpretation of this skull fragment usually runs as follows: Buri/Bóurr is suffering from a fever/dwarf and this talisman is intended to alleviate Buri – it not only puts into writing the desired outcome (“the dwarf is overcome”), it also calls upon the aid of the Germanic god Odin, a wolf (Ulfr; perhaps Fenrir) and “High-tiur” (who may be the Germanic god Tyr). With this appeal to supernatural forces, this skull fragment resembles the invocations to Christian saints found in the Old English charms mentioned above.
4. Eat dog sh*t! A remedy from the Medicina de quadripedibus
The next dwarf expellant comes from the Old English translation of Medicina de quadripedibus, an early medieval medical compendium that outlines how various parts of four-legged animals may be used in remedies. Intriguingly, the text prescribes the use of a rather distasteful ingredient to get rid of a dwarf:
Dweorg onweg to donne, hwites hundes þost gecnucadne to duste 7 <gemengen> wið meolowe 7 to cicle abacen syle etan þam untruman men ær þær tide hys tocymes, <swa> on dæge swa on nihte swæþer hyt sy, his togan bið ðearle strang. 7 æfter þam he lytlað 7 onweg gewiteþ. (ed. De Vriend 1984, p. 266)
[To remove a dwarf, knead the excrement of a white dog to dust and mix it with milk and bake it into a small cake, give it the sick man to eat before the time of his [the dwarf’s?] coming, by day or by night whichever it is, his coming will be very strong and after that he grows small and will go away.]
It is not uncommon for Anglo-Saxon medical texts to prescribe waste products (excrement, urine, spit) to get rid of something – an example of sympathetic magic (for more examples, see: Early Medieval Magical Medicine: An Anglo-Saxon Trivia Quiz).
5. Kick it into the fire! Litr the dwarf’s fifteen seconds of fame in Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning
Perhaps the most effective way of getting rid of a dwarf is demonstrated by the Germanic god Thor in Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning (part of the Old Norse Prose Edda, c. 1220). After the beloved god Baldr died as a result of some trickery by Loki, the gods gather at Baldr’s funeral pyre, shedding tears of sadness. Snorri Sturluson paints a dramatic scene, with Baldr’s grief-stricken wife dying of sorrow, but then he follows this with a remarkable anecdote about Litr the dwarf:
Then was the body of Baldr borne out on shipboard; and when his wife, Nanna the daughter of Nep, saw that, straightway her heart burst with grief, and she died; she was borne to the pyre, and fire was kindled. Then Thor stood by and hallowed the pyre with Mjöllnir; and before his feet ran a certain dwarf which was named Litr; Thor kicked at him with his foot and thrust him into the fire, and he burned. (source)
This is, for as far as I know, the only appearance of Litr the dwarf in Scandinavian mythology. His fifteen seconds of fame demonstrate that the surest way of getting rid of a dwarf is to kick it into the fire; it is also a valuable lesson never to trip up a Germanic god!If you liked this blog post, you can follow this blog for regular updates and/or check out the following related posts:
- Cooked crow’s brains and other early medieval remedies for headaches from the Leiden Leechbook
- Early Medieval Magical Medicine: An Anglo-Saxon Trivia Quiz
- Creepy Crawlies in Early Medieval England: Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Minibeasts
- Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?–
- Hines, John. 2019. “Practical Runic Literacy in the Late Anglo-Saxon Period: Inscriptions on Lead Sheet.” In: Anglo-Saxon Micro-Texts, ed. Ursula Lenker & Lucia Kornexl, pp. 29-60. De Gruyter.
- Schulte, Michael. 2006. “The Transformation of the Older Fuþark: Number Magic, Runographic or Linguistic Principles?” Arkiv för nordisk filologi 121, pp. 41–74.
- de Vriend, Hubert Jan (Ed.). The Old English Herbarium and Medicina de Quadrupedibus. Oxford University Press.
- Williamson, C. (Trans.). 2017. The Complete Old English Poems. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Composing your own Old English is a lot of fun. Recently, it has been used to great effect, resulting in songs, dialogues for films and TV series and A Medieval English Translatathon [Old and Middle English greeting cards for charity!]. Personally, I have made some Old English memes and translated one of William Shakespeare’s sonnets into Old English, just to demonstrate that he, in fact, did not write Old English (see: What if Shakespeare HAD written Old English?). The last few years, I have also tasked my students to compose some Old English of their own. This blog post is an adaptation of the instructions they receive in order to do so and you might use it as a DIY-guide to composing basic Old English. You will need some basic knowledge of Old English grammar (here are some apps that may help you achieve this and you may also profit from my Old English Grammar Videos; although I do recommend you follow a course).
The four steps below will guide you through how to convert a basic Modern English sentence into Old English, using the example “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard” [a reference to this Kellis song].
1) Finding the right words
In order to find theOld English words you want to use, you can turn to the Thesaurus of Old English: http://oldenglishthesaurus.arts.gla.ac.uk/ . Clicking on ‘Search’ in the menu above and then on the ‘Advanced Search’ tab will get you to the advanced search screen:
Searching for ‘Present-day English words in Category Heading’ will allow you to find category headings that feature Old English words for the concept you are after. For example, the result for ‘milk’ looks like this:
You can now select the word that you think is most suitable. Since there is no Old English word for milkshake (hardly surprising), you can go for ‘foamy cowmilk’ instead: fāmig cū meolc.
Other words we’ll need for our sample sentence include brengan ‘to bring’, cnapa ‘boy’ and ġeard ‘yard’.
2) Find out more about these Old English words
Before you can start using these words in a sentence, you are going to need more information, such as the gender of the nouns (masculine, feminine, neuter) and the type of the verb (strong or weak; which class?). Most of this information can be found in J. R. Clark Hall’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary or the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. If you are a university student, you may have access to the Dictionary of Old English Online: A to I, which is useful if your word does not start with the letters J to Z.
I can now find out this about my words:
- meolc = feminine (and a strong noun, since it does not end in -e)
- cnapa = masculine (and a weak noun, since it ends in –a)
- ġeard = masculine (and a strong noun, since it does not end in –a)
- brengan = weak verb (class 1) (note that verbs can be tricky: Clark Hall indicates that verbs are strong by adding a little number in superscript, e.g. stelan4; he does not indicate the class of weak verbs (there are 3 classes of weak verbs and 7 classes of strong verbs – you will find information about this in various Old English primers, e.g., in chapter 7 of Peter Baker’s Introduction to Old English). The Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary does not tell you the class or type of verb at all, but for the strong verbs they give the principal forms, e.g. “stelan: p. stæl, pl. stǽlon; pp. stolen;” on occasion, they give you the entire paradigm of the verb, as for “brengan: ic brenge, ðú brengest, brengst, he brengeþ, brengþ, brencþ, pl. brengaþ; p. ic, he brohte, ðú brohtest, pl. brohton; pp. broht; v. a.“. Note that the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary also helpfully provides links to relevant sections of Joseph Wright’s Old English Grammar.)
3) Apply grammatical rules to sentence elements!
For this step, you need to be familiar with how Old English grammar works (nominative for the subject, accusative for the object, etc.; see this video on Old English cases).
It is easiest to tackle this per sentence element (e.g., subject, verb, direct object, prepositional phrase, etc.). Here we go:
The subject: My milkshake (or: my foamy cowmilk)
The words: mīn fāmig cū-meolc
The grammar: This phrase is the subject, so we must use the nominative case. The word mīn is a first-person possessive adjective that takes strong adjective endings, fāmig will take a weak adjective ending in this context (since it is modified by a possessive adjective) and cū meolc is feminine (since meolc is feminine). If the terms ‘weak adjective’ and ‘strong adjective’ make no sense to you, watch this video on Old English adjectives.
Establish correct forms (e.g., using Peter Baker’s Old English Magic Sheet):
- Strong feminine nominative adjective form of mīn = mīn
- Weak feminine nominative adjective form of fāmiġ = fāmiġe
- (Strong) feminine nominative noun form of cū meolc = cū meolc
The correct form of the subject is: mīn fāmiġe cū meolc
The verb: brings
The word: brengan
The grammar: We need the 3rd person present tense indicative form of brengan, which is a weak verb class 1. No idea what strong verbs or weak verbs are? See this video.
Establish correct forms (e.g., using Peter Baker’s Old English Magic Sheet):
- 3rd person present tense indicative form of brengan = brengeþ (the form also occurs as brengþ and brencþ according to the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary)
Direct object: all the boys
The words: eall cnapa
The grammar: A direct object must be accusative. Eall is a strong adjective here, cnapa is a weak masculine noun (since its dictionary/nominative form ends in –a!). In our sample sentence, the direct object is plural ‘boys’.
Establish correct forms (e.g., using Peter Baker’s Old English Magic Sheet):
- Strong masculine accusative plural adjective form of eall = ealle
- Weak masculine accusative plural noun form of cnapa = cnapan
The correct form of the direct object is: ealle cnapan
Prepositional phrase: to the yard
The words: tō se geard
The grammar: Within a prepositional phrase, certain prepositions trigger their ‘objects’ to have a particular case (for a helpful overview, see here). The preposition tō with the sense ‘towards’ triggers the dative case. So, while we do not need to change the form of tō, we do need to make se ġeard dative (ġeard is a masculine strong noun).
Establish correct forms (e.g., using Peter Baker’s Old English Magic Sheet):
- masculine dative singular form of demonstrative pronoun se = þām
- Strong masculine dative singular form of noun ġeard = ġearde
The correct form of the prepositional phrase is: tō þām ġearde
4) Put all the sentence elements together!
Mīn fāmige cū meolc brengeþ ealle cnapan tō þām ġearde (and hīe sindon swylce ‘hit is sēlra þonne þīne!’)
Good luck with composing your own Old English!
While the last native speaker of Old English may have died in the eleventh century, later generations of poets, scholars and students have continued to use the language of early medieval England for their own compositions. This blog post calls attention to a love poem, composed in Old English by a Dutch student of Old Germanic languages in the year 1879: “Se glēo-mann” [The minstrel].
“Glowing with the glow of love”: Gerard Bolland and Klazina Bakker
Glōwende lufan glēde, glædlīcum mægð-frēode,
birnende æfter blǣde, beorhtnisse hlīsan
sceaft-rōf gydda scop, scearp hrēðe mecg,
hatigende sorhfulle hēafas on hearme nealles
eode under ēag-þyrl ærnes lēofre. (ll. 1-10)
Glowing with the glow of love of delightful love for his bride, yearning for fame, for the brightness of glory, the spear-brave singer of songs, the sharp, brave warrior, hating sorrowful lamentations, not at all aware of danger, he went under the window of the house of his beloved.
These are the opening lines of an Old English love poem that G. J. P. J. (Gerard) Bolland (1852-1922) composed for his fiancée Klazina Bakker (1859-1913). The love poem describes how a minstrel serenades his beloved underneath her window on the morning before a battle.
Gamen-wudu grētte gearu luf-songe;
swǣslīce nehstan siðe song morgen-grētinge: (ll. 11-14)
He greeted his play-wood ready for a love-song; graciously, for the last time, he sang his morning-greeting:
The poem was composed in 1879 and, two years later, G.J.P.J. Bolland married his Klazina. That same year, the couple moved to the Dutch East Indies, where Bolland became a teacher of German and English at the Willem III Gymnasium.
In the East Indies, the couple lived happily together and got a son called Alfred. The family returned to the Netherlands in 1896, when Bolland became Leiden University’s most notorious Professor of Philsophy (see this Wikipedia entry).
The two staid together until Klazina died after a long and arduous sickbed in 1913, at the age of 53. In her death notice, Bolland remembered her as “his beloved wife”.
Clearly, Klazina and Gerard loved each other very much and the Old English love poem represented Bolland’s heartfelt feelings. But why did he write the poem in Old English?
Bolland as an aspiring Old Germanicist
Bolland’s Old English poem survives in the Leiden University Library today because he did not only send it to his sweetheart, but he also included it as an appendix to a letter he wrote to his friend and mentor Pieter Jacob Cosijn (1840-1899), Professor of Old Germanic Philology and Anglo-Saxon at the University of Leiden. Under Cosijn’s guidance and with his financial assistance, Bolland gave up his job as a schoolmaster in order to study Old English and other Germanic languages in in London (England) and Jena (Germany) from 1879 to 1881.
During his stays abroad, Bolland devoted himself to his studies and kept in touch with Cosijn. In his letters to the Leiden professor, Bolland criticized the works of famous philologists like Benjamin Thorpe (see this blog post), complained that the famous linguist Henry Sweet did not want to grant him an audience (see this blog post), and shared personal details about Cosijn’s foreign colleagues, including Richard Morris (see this blog post) and Eduard Sievers (see this blog post). While Bolland relished in acquiring books and knowledge on Old Germanic languages, he sorely missed his fiancee (“and not just sexually”, he wrote to Cosijn). This longing for his wife-to-be is also reflected in his Old English poem “se glēo-mann” [The Minstrel] that he wrote during his stay in London in 1879 (and sent to Cosijn):
‘Hūru mīnum hām-stede hēah-byrig lēofre
ēstum ic fultum an earma mīnra!
heorte and hyge-þanc hyldo gemynda
on būr-getelde bēoþ beorhtre lēofan mægðe.’ (ll. 15-22)
Indeed! To my homestead to the lofty town of my beloved I gladly grant the help of my arms! The heart and thoughts the grace of my remembrance are in the dwelling of the bright dear maiden.
Eventually, it was the prospect of reuniting with his wife and being able to provide her with a pension that drove Bolland away from the study of Old English – he accepted a lucrative job as a teacher in the Dutch East Indies, never to return to Old Germanic Studies.
“Se glēo-mann” as an Old English poem
Bolland likely sent his Old English composition to Professor Cosijn to show his benefactor that his studies were paying off. The poem certainly bears witness to Bolland’s extensive knowledge of the technicalities of Old English poetry. Each pair of half lines are connected through the alliteration of three stressed syllables – an impressive regularity that is often lacking from most surviving Old English poems, including parts of Beowulf.
Glædlīce glōwan glēde wæl-gīfrum
Lufan and blǣde lēane lǣcan sprēote,
Feohtan for fæder-ēðle and fægere idese
Dǣd-cēnum gydda dihtere gedēfe is! (ll. 23-30)
To glow gladly with battle-eager glow for the reward of love and fame, to throw with the spear, to fight for the father-land and the fair lady, to the deed-brave poet of songs that is fitting!
Bolland was also able to coin various poetic compounds that are not found in the Old English poetic corpus, including “sceaft-rōf” [spear-brave], “heoru-stapa” [sword-stepper] , “dēaþ-sēoce” [death-sick] and “ord-mecg” [sword-warrior]. Other poetic compounds he used are so-called hapax legomena from Beowulf, showing Bolland’s great familiarity with the Old English epic (for which, see “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880). These include “wael-hlem” [noise of battle], “frēo-burg” [noble town] and “benc-þele” [bench-plank].
The poem totals 120 half lines and is divided into four sections of thirty half lines each. In the opening section, the ‘spear-brave’ minstrel sings his love song in the morning prior to his last battle; subsequent sections deal with the minstrel’s fate in battle, during which he continues to sing of his beloved. In the last section, the minstrel is mortally wounded and the last lines of the poem feature a striking variation to the refrain:
For lufan and lof-herunge on lāce sīgan,
sweltan for swæsre swētre lofestran
anunga orettan ǣðelan cynnes
dǣd-hwatum songa dihtere gedēfe is! (ll. 113-120)
For love and praise to die in battle, to die for one’s dear sweet most beloved, certainly for the champion of noble stock, to the deed-brave poet of songs that is fitting!
If you want to read the whole poem and learn more about Bolland’s endeavours in London and Jena, please read my full article:
Thijs Porck, “An Old English Love Poem, a Beowulf Summary and a Reference Letter by Eduard Sievers: G. J. P. J. Bolland as an Aspiring Old Germanicist,” in Scholarly Correspondence on Medieval Germanic Language and Literature, ed. Thijs Porck, Amos van Baalen and Jodie Mann (Brill: Special issue of Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 78:2-3): 262-291
One of the most recognisable scenes of the Nativity of Jesus (celebrated at Christmas) is the ‘Adoration of the Magi’: the wise men from the East bringing gifts to Christ. This blog post provides a translation of the relevant passages from the Old English translation of the Gospel of Matthew, as well as a discussion of the Magi in Anglo-Saxon art.
Matthew 2:1-12 in the West-Saxon Gospels and the Missal of Robert of Jumièges
The only mention of the Adoration of the Magi in the Bible is in the Gospel of Matthew. The Old English text below is taken from the West-Saxon Gospels, the fist stand-alone English translation of the four Gospels (c. 990). The images are taken from the Missal of Robert of Jumièges, a beautiful manuscript made in Anglo-Saxon England for Robert of Jumièges, the first Norman archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1052/1055). This missal features the most complete cycle of Magi illustrations to come from Anglo-Saxon England.
Eornustlice, þa se Hælend acenned wæs on Iudeiscre Bethleem on þæs cyninges dagum Herodes, þa comon þa tungolwitegan fram eastdæle to Hierusalem 7 cwædon “hwær ys se Iudea cyning þe acenned ys? Soðlice we gesawon hys steorran on eastdæle 7 we comon us him to geeadmedenne.”
[Truly, when the Saviour was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, then the astronomers came from the East to Jerusalem and said “Where is the king of the Jews that is born? Truly, we saw his star in the East and we came to pay worship to him.”] (Matthew 2:1-2)
It is noteworthy that in the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi are not classified as kings (this is an apocryphal tradition, for which see below); instead, they are mentioned here as “tungolwitegan” [‘lit. planet-knowers, i.e. astronomers’].
Whereas the Gospel of Matthew does not specify the number of the Magi, the Missal of Robert of Jumièges follows the popular aprocryphal tradition that there were three Magi (a number derived no doubt, from the number of gifts that these wise men from the East bring to Christ). The Missal also provides a typical depiction of the Magi as wearing Persian clothing, recognisable by the so-called ‘Phrygian caps’.
Ða Herodes þæt gehyrde ða wearð he gedrefed 7 eal Hierosolimwaru mid him. 7 þa gegaderode Herodes ealle ealdras þæra sacerda 7 folces writeras 7 axode hwær Crist acenned wære. Ða sædon hi him “on Iudeiscere Bethlem. Witodlice þus ys awriten þurh þone witegan: ‘And þu Bethleem Iudealand, witodlice ne eart þu læst on Iuda ealdrum. Of ðe forð gæð se heretoga se þe recð min folc Israhel.'”.
[When Herod heard that, he became afraid and all of the Jerusalem-dwellers with him. And then Herod gathered all the elders of the priests and the writers of the people and asked where Christ had been born. Then they said to him: “In Bethlehem of Judea. Truly thus it is written by the prophet: ‘And you Bethlehem, in the land of Judea, are truly not the least among the elders of Judah. From you the leader goes forth, he who rules my people Israel.'”.] (Matthew 2:3-6)
The prophecy referred to and cited by one of these “Hierosolimwaru” is Micah 5:2.
The Missal of Robert of Jumièges shows Herod on his throne, surrounded by his advisors; one of them, on the outer right, points up to the Star of Bethlehem. The two advisors closest to Herod lift up five and two fingers, respectively – a reference to Micah 5:2? Maybe. The fact that King Herod wears a Phrygian cap similar to the ones worn by the Magi might indicate that the artist of the Missal already associated the Magi with kings (for which, see below).
Herodes þa clypode on sunderspræce ða tungelwitegan 7 befran hi georne hwænne se steorra him æteowde. And he asende hi to Bethlem 7 ðus cwæð: “Farað 7 axiað geornlice be þam cilde 7 þonne ge hyt gemetað cyþað eft me þæt ic cume 7 me to him gebidde”. Ða hi þæt gebod gehyrdon þa ferdon hi, 7 soþlice se steorra þe hi on eastdæle gesawon him beforan ferde oð he stod ofer þær þæt cild wæs. Soþlice þa ða tungelwitegan þone steorran gesawon fægenodon swyðe myclum gefean. 7 gangende into þam huse hi gemetton þæt cild mid Marian hys meder 7 hi aðenedon hi 7 hi to him gebædon. And hi untyndon hyra goldhordas 7 him lac brohton þæt wæs gold 7 recels 7 myrre.
[Herod then spoke in private to the astronomers and asked them eagerly when the star had shown itself to them. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said thus: “Go and ask eagerly about the child and when you meet it tell me afterwards so that I might come and worship him.” When they heard that command then they travelled, and truly the story, which they saw in the East, went before them until it stood over the place where the child was. Truly, when the astronomers saw the star, they rejoiced with much faith, and, going into the house, they met the child with Mary his mother and they paid worship to them and they worshipped them. And they unclosed their gold-hoards and brought them a gift, that was gold, frankincense and myrrh.] (Matthew 2:7-11)
It is notable here that the Gospel indicates that the Magi only met Christ and his mother – there is no reference to Joseph, who, consequently, is often absent from depictions of the Adoration of the Magi, as in the Missal of Robert of Jumièges:
The Missal’s depiction of the Magi in the Adoration scene shows some notable differences to the Magi on horseback in the same manuscript. They are still wearing their Phrygian caps, but appear to have lost their pants and shoes (a sign of humility?); one of them had a beard while on his horse, but now all of them are clean-shaven (on the importance of bearded Magi, see below).
And hi afengon andsware on swefnum þæt hi eft to Herode ne hwyrfdon ac hi on oðerne weg on hyra rice ferdon.
[And they received a warning in their dreams so that they did not turn to Herod afterwards but travelled to their realm via another road.] (Matthew 2:12)
And that is the last we heard of the wise men from the East in the Gospel of Matthew. The Missal of Robert of Jumièges shows how the three Magi received their warning while they slept under one blanket. Notably, they had kept their clothes (and Phrygian caps!) on:
Psalm 71:10-11 and the Magi as kings
The Magi in the tenth-century Benedictional of St Æthelwold are depicted without Phrygian caps but with crowns, instead. The notion that the Magi were kings is not derived from the Gospel of Matthew, but stems from the interpretation of Psalm 71:10-11 (according to Vulgate reckoning). Here is the relevant Latin passage from the twelfth-century Eadwine Psalter, along with its Old English gloss:
Reges Tharsis & insulae munera offerent. reges Arabum & Saba dona adducent. Et adorabunt eum omnes reges terrae. Omnes gentes seruient ei.
Kininges 7 iglonde of tarsis læc brohton. Kininges of Arabe 7 Feredæ giefa to geledæþ. 7 gebiddaþ hine eællæ kininges of eorðæn. Eællæ diodæ þeowigæþ him.
[The kings and the island of Tharsis brought treasure. Kings of Arabia and Saba bring gifts and all kings of earth worship him. All nations serve him.]
The Eadwine Psalter itself is beautifully illustrated with literal interpretations of the Psalms – the illustration of Psalm 71 features an image of three kings offering gifts to Christ:
Whereas the Eadwine Psalter depicts three kings offering their gifts to an adult Christ, the eleventh-century Bury St Edmunds Psalter illustrates the same passage of Psalm 71 with a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi, giving gifts to the baby Jesus:
If you look closely (you can zoom in on the image here), you can see that one of the Magi is wearing a Phrygian cap and the other two are wearing crowns. The Magi are further differentiated: the Phrygian cap Magus is clean shaven, the standing Magus has a beard, while the kneeling Magus has an even longer beard. This differentiation between the Magi (in this case in terms of age: young, middle-aged, elderly) became a common topos in depictions of the Adoration of the Magi – representing different age classes, the Magi symbolize mankind in its entirety (similarly, in later traditions, the Magi are differentiated for race).
The importance of beards: The Franks Casket and Bishop Cuthwine’s Carmen Paschale
The earliest known depiction of the Adoration of the Magi from Anglo-Saxon England is found on the front panel of the Franks Casket, an early 8th-century whalebone box now kept in the British Museum. the Magi, here led by a duck (or dove), are clearly differentiated in terms of age: beardless, semi-beard, full beard.
There is one more depiction of the Magi with Anglo-Saxon origins that differentiates between the Magi through their beards. It is found in a ninth-century Carolingian manuscript of Sedulius’s Carmen Paschale (an epic re-write of the Gospels) :
As I have discussed in another blog post (An Anglo-Saxon comic book collector: Cuthwine and the Carmen Paschale), this manuscript was copied from a book once owned by the Anglo-Saxon Bishop Cuthwine (fl. 716-731) and its miniatures show the influence of an eighth-century English exemplar. As such, Cuthwine’s original copy may have had a similar image of the Magi; it would certainly have featured Sedulius’s poetic paraphrase of Matthew 2:1-12:
So, watching the light fixed high in the sky before them,
The wise men made haste to follow the star with its royal twinkling.
They kept close to the hoped for road which under a subsequent
Dispensation has led adoring gentiles to the holy cradle.
And when together they had opened their treasures in reverence,
So that the precious objects themselves could point to Christ,
They poured out gold as a present fit for a new born king;
They gave him frankincense, a gift for a god; they offered him myrrh for his grave.
But why three gifts? Because the greatest hope we have in life
Is the faith which testifies to this number and the most high God
Who distinguishes all times, past, present, and future,
Always is, always was, and always will be possessed
Of his triple power. Then the Magi, warned from on high
By a dream to despise the commands of the threatening tyrant,
Changed their itinerary, and, proceeding by alternative routes,
Returned to their homeland. Thus we also,
If we wish to reach our holy homeland at last,
After we have come to Christ, should no longer return to the evil one. (bk. II, ll. 89-106, trans. Springer 2013)
By exhibiting this valuable lesson, the Magi themselves, it seems, were deemed worthy of adoration in early medieval England.
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other posts about illuminated manuscripts:
- A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus
- Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels
- The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book
Works referred to:
- Sedulius, The Paschal Song and Hymns, trans. C. P. E. Springer (Atlanta, 2013)
A great portion of the extant Old English corpus survives between the lines of Latin manuscripts, as interlinear glosses. Generally, these glosses provide a simple word-for-word Old English translation of the Latin text in order to aid the reader, but various alternative glossing methods existed. This blog post takes a look at what could be read between the lines in early medieval English manuscripts.
Save me, Lord: A simple word-for-word gloss in The Vespasian Psalter
This beautiful page from the eighth-century Vespasian Psalter shows the opening lines of Psalm 68. A careful look at the words SALVUM ME reveals a great number of animals hiding out among these letters (animals often feature in such illustrated capitals; for another example see my blog on A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus ). More interesting, linguistically speaking, are the little words written above the Latin: Old English glosses, that provide a word for word translation of these lines:
Halne mec doa god forðon ineodun weter oð sawle mine; gefestnad ic eam in lam grundes 7 nis spoed.
Salvvm me fac deus quoniam introierunt aqvę usque ad animam meam; infixus sum in limum profundi et non est substantia.
Save me, God: because the waters have come in unto my soul; I am fastened in the ground’s mud and there is no substance.
Here, the Old English glosses clearly follow the word order of the Latin and, thus, “animam meam” is glossed with “sawle mine” [soul mine], whereas “mine sawle” [my soul] would be a more natural word order in Old English. This type of gloss is the most typical kind of gloss found in early medieval English manuscripts.
When one word is not enough: Multiple glosses in The Lindisfarne Gospels
Created around the year 700, the Lindisfarne Gospels is possibly the most famous Anglo-Saxon manuscript. While it is known for its beautiful illumination, the Lindisfarne Gospels also contains a word-for-word gloss, added some 250 years after the original manuscript had been produced. The maker of this tenth-century gloss, a monk named Aldred, was not always satisfied with offering just one Old English translation for each Latin word. His work features several ‘multiple glosses’; that is, several Old English alternatives are offered for one Latin word. The example above shows Aldred’s four glosses for Latin desponsata ‘married’: biwoedded, beboden, befeastnad and betaht. As such, Aldred’s gloss may function as something of a thesaurus of Old English.
b, c, e, d, a: Paving letters in British Library, Cotton Tiberius A.iii
Some glossators also included some syntactical guidance, since Latin word order was markedly different from Old English word order. A good example of such syntactical guidance are the so-called ‘paving letters’ in the Old English gloss to this eleventh-century copy of the Benedictine Rule. Here, the word-for-word Old English translations above the Latin are preceded by a letter – these letters show the Old English word order. Rather than “deað dæghwamlice ætforan eagan gewenedne habban” [death daily before eyes with expectation to have], this should be read as “habban deað dæghwamlice gewenedne ætforan eagan” [to have death daily, with expectation, before your eyes] which, incidentally, is one of the forty-five “tools of good works” that Benedictine monks had to abide by.
. .. …. …: Dot glosses in the Lambeth Psalter
The scribe responsible for the glosses to the tenth-/eleventh-century Lambeth Psalter had a different system for indicating word order and syntactical relationships. A system of dots and commas underneath the Latin words provide the reader with extra information. The commas under “qui” and “tribuit”, for instance, show that the relative pronoun “qui” is the subject of the verb “tribuit”: ‘who gives’. The dots underneath the Latin words show the Old English word order: rather than “ic singe drihtne þam þe goda sealde me 7 ic singe naman drihtnes þæs heahstan”, we should read “ic singe drihtne þam þe sealde goda me 7 ic singe naman þæs heahstan drihtnes” [I sing for the Lord who gave goods to me and I sing the name of the highest Lord], if we put the dotted words in numerical order.
Now you see me, now you don’t: Scratched glosses in British Library, Royal 5 E XI
This eleventh-century manuscript of Aldhelm’s prose De virginitate shows yet another type of gloss: the so-called “scratched gloss”. These glosses were made without ink and, thus, were scratched into the parchment. As a result, these glosses are only visible from a particular angle (or, thanks to digital image editing, if you play around with contrast and brightness). In early medieval England, a user of this manuscript may have tilted the manuscript over in order to reveal the gloss. If he had done so for this manuscript, he would have seen that the Old English translation for Latin scribendi is “writende” [writing].
If you liked this blog post about manuscripts, you may also enjoy the following posts:
- Word processing in early medieval England: Browsing British Library, Royal MS 8 C III
- The Illustrated Psalms of Alfred the Great: The Old English Paris Psalter
- A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus
- The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book
Some time ago, I created a number of grammar videos to help my students come to terms with Old English cases, gender, adjectives, nouns and verbs at their own pace. The videos have now been uploaded to YouTube and I have embedded them here below. In the videos, I make use of the first edition of Peter Baker’s Old English Magic Sheet (available here); an updated, third edition of the Magic Sheet is available here: http://www.oldenglishaerobics.net/resources/magic_letter.pdf . Camera and animation by Thomas Vorisek (Leiden University)
Old English Grammar Byte 1: Cases and gender
Old English Grammar Byte 2: Weak and Strong Nouns
Old English Grammar Byte 3: Weak and Strong Adjectives
Old English Grammar Byte 4: Weak and Strong Verbs
I hope you enjoy the videos!
Memes have become a popular form of communication and, when put into Old English, can be an effective teaching tool. I made the memes featured in this blog some five years ago, but they remain effective in a class room setting today.
#1 Keep calm and carry on
Perhaps the most widespread meme in the history of the Internet is the ‘Keep calm and carry on’-kind. Based on a motivational poster issued by the British government for boosting the moral in preparation of the second world war, this poster has sparked various spoofs. The Old English motivational quote may have profited some Anglo-Saxons during the time of the Viking raids.
#2 You Only Live Once (YOLO)
Beowulf’s decision to fight the monster Grendel without weapons may well be described as the ‘YOLO-moment’ of Anglo-Saxon literature.
#3 You’re doing it wrong
The phrase ‘You’re doing it wrong’ typically accompanies an image of someone ‘failing’ at doing something correctly. What better phrase to accompany this scene from the Bayeux Tapestry than ‘Riding on horses; you are doing it wrong’?
#4 When you see it, you will shit bricks
The phrase ‘When you see it, you will shit bricks’ is associated with images that, upon expectation, feature a surprising element. This certainly came to mind, when I spotted the Sutton Hoo helmet in King Arthur’s bed room in the BBC series Merlin (for which, see: Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects).
#5 Shut up and take my money
This phrase is used in combination with a picture of something that is so desirable that people just really want to have it. Surely, the Old English variant must have been uttered whenever an Anglo-Saxon looked upon the dazzling Lindisfarne Gospels!
#6 I don’t want to live on this planet anymore
Out of disappointment with the stupidity of others, one can express the desire to no longer live on this planet. This sentiment certainly comes to mind when faced with the idiotic notion that Shakespeare spoke Old English (for which, see: What if Shakespeare HAD written Old English?)
#7 Ain’t nobody got time for that
What better way to introduce the Old English magic sheet (an overview of Old English declension made by Peter Baker – link) than by pointing out that it will save your students some time? “Learning Old English Declensions? Ain’t nobody got time for that!”
#8 Lie down / Try not to cry / Cry a lot
This meme provides instructions on how to act in situations of great sadness. Surely, no meme is better to suited to refer to the Ashburnham House Fire of 23 october 1731, which damaged many Anglo-Saxon manuscripts that belonged to the Cotton collection. For more damaged manuscripts, see: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/02/crisp-as-a-poppadom.html
#9 I should buy a boat
A picture of a cat reading a newspaper has become associated with the phrase ‘I should buy a boat’. This phrase certainly seems to have gone through Alfred the Great’s mind when he saw the Vikings (according to legend, Alfred founded the English navy).
#10 Boy, that escalated quickly
This meme phrase is used when something quickly gets out of hand. Rather suitable for the main plot of the last part of Beowulf (and Tolkien’s The Hobbit; for the former, see: Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition).
#11 It is something
This meme comments on the slightly disappointing number of books on Old English Literature in the open stacks of the English reading room of Leiden University Library. Ah well, it is something.
#12 Scumbag Byrhtnoth
This meme is a take on the ‘Scumbag Steve meme’. It comments on Byrhtnoth’s decision in the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon to allow the Vikings to cross the bridge the English had been defending, thus causing the English to lose the battle. It translates to: “Should defend the bridge; lets the Vikings use the bridge.” For The Battle of Maldon, see: The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition.
#13 Come at me, bro!
‘Come at me, bro!’ was obviously what Wiglaf and Beowulf said against the dragon; well…if they had been called Swaglaf and Browulf, that is.
#14 Heavy breathing
This meme requires some explanation. A couple of years ago, I attended the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies Easter Conference and one of the speakers, Duncan Sayer of the University of Central Lancashire, spoke about the infamous ‘cow burial’: an Anglo-Saxon woman, found buried alongside a cow (news item). Sayer suggested that the cow, which had been skinned before being laid in the grave, was meant as a ‘feast for the dead’. A good opportunity to make a spoof of the ‘heavy breathing cat-meme’, which is used in combination with extravagant food.
#15 Anglo-Saxon hipster, before it was cool
Hipsters tend to like things before it was cool. The Anglo-Saxon hipster, of course, would have pronounced the word differently: cole (k-Oh-l), rather than cool (c-Oo-l).
#16: Excuse me, what the…
I imagine the Old English version of this meme may prove very handy for those encountering Old English for the first time.
#17: Surprised Pika-theow
This meme accurately represents Queen Wealhtheow’s response to King Hrothgar’s plan to adopt Beowulf as a son (and thus threatening the succession by her own sons).
#18: This is my voice…
An Anglo-Saxonist’s response to this popular video format.
#19: The History of English, the Meme
A historical linguistic variant of this meme.
Some of these memes were once posted on http://oememes.wordpress.com. To date, that website has catered to seven thousand unique viewers. All memes there have now been moved to this blog post; some new ones have been added.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” (H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature). The secret to any, successful scary monster story is to keep your monsters clouded in mystery; a secret that was known to the Beowulf poet, but sadly lost on modern movie makers.
Grendel goes to Heorot
Grendel is one of the three monsters that feature in the Old English poem Beowulf. We are introduced to Grendel as an “ellengæst” [bold spirit] (l. 86a) who has spent the last twelve years harassing the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, devouring anyone who spent the night there. A Geatish hero, Beowulf, arrives to save the day. After a long battle, Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm and the monster, mortally wounded, returns to his home in the swamp and dies.
A troll, a giant, a monstrous man or a bipedal dragon; what exactly is Grendel? The nature of Grendel is a matter of scholarly debate and the various solutions offered depend, mostly, on circumstantial evidence. The poem itself reveals very little about the monster; at one point, Beowulf himself confesses that Grendel is “sceaðona ic nat hwylc” [an enemy, I do not know what kind] (l. 274b). Throughout the poem, Grendel is described by generic terms, such as “grimma gæst” [grim spirit] (l. 102), “feond mancynnes” [enemy of mankind] (l. 164b) and “manscaða” [vile ravager] (l. 712a), and his physical description leaves much to be desired. At first, we only learn that “him of eagum stod ligge gelicost leoht unfæger” [from his eyes issued a distorted light, most like a flame] (l. 727b), that he drinks human blood and eats their bodies whole. It is only after Grendel is defeated that we learn a little more about him. The Danes report that he was wretchedly shaped like a man and very large:
hie gesawon swylce twegen
micle mearcstapan moras healdan,
ellorgæstas. ðæra oðer wæs,
þæs þe hie gewislicost gewitan meahton,
idese onlicnæs; oðer earmsceapen
on weres wæstmum wræclastas træd,
næfne he wæs mara þonne ænig man oðer;
þone on geardagum Grendel nemdon
foldbuende. No hie fæder cunnon (ll. 1347-1355)
[they had seen two such big boundary-steppers holding the moors, bold spirits. One f them was, as they were most certainly able to discern, in the likeness of a lady; the other was wretchedly shaped in the forms of a man, he trod in the exile’s tracks, but he was bigger than any other man; people called him grendel in the days of yore. They did not know his father.
Whatever kind of monster Grendel may be, what becomes clear from the poem is that Grendel is the ultimate ‘Other’. While the Danes enjoy life in a lighted hall, revelling in songs and enjoying each other’s company, Grendel dwells in a dark swamp, he does not speak and he lives the life of an exile, alone with his mother. Even Grendel’s parentage is obscured: whereas the Beowulf poet, rather annoyingly, mentions the father of every other Tom, Dick and Harry in the poem, we never find out who Grendel’s father is. We do learn that Grendel and his mother are descendants of Cain, just like “eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, swylce gigantas” [ogres, elves, orcs and also giants] (ll. 112-113a).
In short, Grendel is a mystery monster, unknown and different. The Beowulf poet must have realised that the omission of descriptive details was an effective narrative method which would stimulate his audience to participate actively with his story. The vague description of his monster allowed his audience to imagine its own nightmare being.
Grendel goes to Hollywood
Beowulf has been brought to the big screen on six occasions (Not counting the Beowulf-inspired TV episodes of Animated Epics, Star Trek and Xena: Warrior Princess; and happily ignoring the rather licentious adaptations in the Sci-Fi-Channel television film Grendel (2007) and the ITV Series Beowulf: Return to the Shield Lands). Each movie has solved the Grendel mystery in its own, unique way.
In Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (1981), an animated musical, Grendel is depicted as a slightly depressed green crocodile or, possibly, a dragon without wings. The film Beowulf (1999) features Christopher Lambert as Beowulf who battles Grendel, a muddy ogre of sorts, in a ‘post-apocalyptic techno-feudal future’. In The 13th Warrior (1999), the Viking hero Buliwyf takes on the Wendol, a group of bearskin wearing wildlings. Beowulf & Grendel (2005) depicts Grendel as an oversized, hairy human, who hits himself with rocks until his forehead bleeds. In the 3D animation Beowulf (2007), Grendel is “a hideously disfigured troll-like creature with superhuman strength”. Finally, in the movie Outlander (2008), Kainan (a man from another planet) crashes his spaceship in an eighth-century Norwegian lake and, accidentally brings along an alien, known as the Moorwen. The Moorwen takes on the role of Grendel and is best described as a fluorescent, reptile-like tiger with various tentacles at the end of its tail.
Sympathy for the devil: Feeling sorry for Grendel
Aside from making the monster’s appearance explicit, some movies also try to make their audience sympathize for the creature by adding motives for his vicious attacks on the Danes. In Grendel, Grendel, Grendel, the monster is a misunderstood intellectual that wants to be friends with the buffoonish Danes, who shun him for his monstrous appearance. Beowulf & Grendel opens with a scene where the young Grendel (a bearded baby!) witnesses the murder of his father by the Danish king. In Outlander, we learn that the Moorwen is only trying to avenge Kainan for having tried to colonize its home planet.
Who’s your daddy? Solving Grendel’s parentage
The films Beowulf (1999) and Beowulf (2007) go one step further and even solve the problem of Grendel’s parentage: Grendel turns out to be the monstrous offspring of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes. His vicious attacks on Hrothgar’s hall thus become payback for a fatherless childhood. Far removed from the original poem, the only advantage of this approach appears to be the casting of a physically attractive actress for the role of Grendel’s mother. While the poem describes her as a “brimwylf” [sea-wolf] (l. 1506a) and an “aglaecwif” [opponent-woman] (l.1259a), the 1999 film featured Layla Roberts, a former playmate (who, in one scene, erotically licks Hrothgar’s nose!), and a 3D animation of Angelina Jolie (naked, covered in gold, with a tail!) was one of the ‘unique selling points’ of the 2007 film.
To conclude, none of these movies can be seen as a faithful adaptation of Beowulf and some have argued that film is an unsuited medium for the early medieval epic poem. As long as modern movie makers feel that they need to produce stunning visual effects, to create a sense of sympathy for the ‘bad guy’ and to include steamy bedroom scenes to please their modern audience, this certainly seems to be the case. Unlike the Old English poem, none of these movies can be called a huge success in terms of cultural impact and popularity. When it comes to effective storytelling, there is still a lot we can learn from the literature produced over a thousand years ago.
If you liked this blog, you may also enjoy:
- Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition
- “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880
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Language can be a window to culture: by studying Old English words, we can get an insight into how the Anglo-Saxons saw the world around them. This blog post considers Old English words for fingers, pigs, old age and anger. All word clouds were made with www.tagul.com. Information about Old English words is taken from the Thesaurus of Old English.
Old English words and Anglo-Saxon worldviews
In order to study the culture of the Anglo-Saxons, scholars first tend to turn to archaeology, history, literature and art. However, language can also be a valuable source for cultural analysis, as the famous linguist Edward Sapir has noted:
Vocabulary is a very sensitive index of the culture of a people and changes of the meaning, loss of old words, the creation and borrowing of new ones are all dependent on the history of culture itself. Languages differ widely in the nature of their vocabularies. Distinctions which seem inevitable to us may be utterly ignored in languages which reflect an entirely different type of culture, while these in turn insist on distinctions which are all but unintelligible to us. (Sapir 1951)
In other words, vocabulary reflects culture. Indeed, Old English words such as gafol-fisc ‘tribute fish’, cēapcniht ‘bought servant’, þri-milce-mōnaþ ‘May; lit. three-milk-month’, demonstrate that the Anglo-Saxons could pay tribute in fish, buy servants and milked their cows three times a day in May. Similarly, the etymology of Old English words for lord, lady, retainer and slave reveal traditional (perhaps pre-Anglo-Saxon) role patterns, in a household based on bread:
hlāford ‘lord’ (< *hlāf-weard ‘guardian of the bread’)
hlǣfdige ‘lady, woman’ (< *hlāf-dige ‘kneader of the bread’)
hlāfǣta ‘dependant, retainer’ (< *hlāf-ǣta ‘eater of the bread’)
hlāfbrytta ‘slave’ (< *hlāf-brytta ‘dispenser of the bread’)
In this blog post, I will take a cursory glance at four ‘semantic fields’ (fingers, anger, old age and pigs) in order to find out what some Old English words may tell us about Anglo-Saxon culture.
Philological finger food
The names we give to our fingers clearly reveal what we do with these fingers: on our ring-finger we wear our rings and with our index-finger we ‘indicate’ things (or: go through an index). Old English finger names are no different. Consider these words for the index-finger and ring-finger:
bīcn(ig)end ‘forefinger; lit. indicator’
scyte(l)finger ‘forefinger; lit. shot-finger’
tǣcnend ‘forefinger; lit. signer’
lēawfinger ‘forefinger; lit. betray-finger’
goldfinger ‘ring-finger; lit. gold-finger’
lǣcefinger ‘ring-finger; lit. physician-finger’
These finger names yield few surprises: with their forefingers, the Anglo-Saxons pointed at things, shot arrows and made signs; they wore rings and gold on their ring-fingers. Two finger names warrant some explanation. The first element in lēawfinger, first of all, is related to the Old English word lǣwan ‘to betray’ – the forefinger is “the pointer out, the betrayer” (Merrit 1954, p. 175-with thanks to deorreader in the comments below). Secondly, the name lǣcefinger ‘physician finger’ for ring-finger may be somewhat confusing; according to some, there was a vein from this finger that went all the way to the heart and, so, this finger could have medicinal properties.
Apart from the obvious middelfinger, the Thesaurus of Old English lists two contradictory words for the middle finger: ǣwiscberend ‘offender’ and hālettend ‘greeter’ – talk about sending mixed signals! [The Dictionary of Old English, s.v. hālettend suggests that the sense ‘middle finger’ for hālettend is caused by a scribal error and that the word really means ‘forefinger’] The pinky was not only the last and smallest finger (se lȳtla finger; se lǣsta finger), it was also the Anglo-Saxon implement of choice when it came to cleaning out their ears: ēarclǣnsend ‘ear-cleaner’, ēarfinger ‘ear-finger’ and ēarscripel ‘ear-scraper’.
‘Talk to the hand’? If we look at the Old English words for fingers, it seems as if the hand is the one doing the talking, telling us what the Anglo-Saxons did with their fingers.
Of Pork and Pigs in Old English
With over sixty words related to ‘pig’, swine are among the best-represented animals in the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. Indeed, an Anglo-Saxon could distinguish between fōr, pecg, swīn (all ‘pig’), sū/sugu (‘sow’), bār, gealt (both’ boar’), hogg/hocg (‘hogg’), fearh and picga (both ‘young pig’); next, he could pick from a host of ‘special pigs’, including gilte (‘barren sow’), bearg ‘castrated boar’, mæstelberg ‘fattened hog’ and fēdelsswīn (swine fattened for killing). There were no fewer than seven words for ‘swine pasture’ (denbǣre, denberende, denn, mæsten, mæstland, swīnland and wealdbǣr) and various words for swineherd (e.g., swān and swīnhyrde), pigsty (hlōse, sulig, swīnhaga) and even a word for pig-fence (swīnhege). Then there was the non-domesticated variety, the wild boar (bār, eofor, eoforswīn, wildeswīn) that had to be hunted with a boar-spear (eofor-spere, eofor-sprēot) and made an appearance on helmets and battle-standards (see: Boars of battle: The wild boar in the early Middle Ages). The Anglo-Saxons even saw boars when they looked up at the sky (their name for the constellation Orion is eofor-þring ‘boar-crowd’) or down at the plants near their feet (eofor-fearn ‘Polypody fern; lit. boar-fern’; eofor-þrote ‘Carline thistle; lit. boar-throat’).
Swine were appreciated, of course, for their meat, which is also well represented in the Old English lexicon: swīn, swīnflǣsc, swīnnes, flicce, spic, scencel/scencen. This meat would undoubtedly be stored in the pantry, which they called the spic-hūs: ‘the bacon-house’. Not all bacon would be in the bacon-house, however: some of it was offered to the gods. This much is at least suggested by the word offrung-spic ‘bacon offered to idols’ – there is no better tribute than sacrificial bacon!
Old in Old English
I wrote my PhD thesis on old age in Anglo-Saxon England (more info here) and one of the things I did was look at the fifty-two Old English words that denote old age in order to show what Anglo-Saxons associated with growing old. The word hār, for instance, means both ‘grey’ and ‘old’ – a clear connotation that is also found in a word like hārwenge ‘old; lit. grey-cheeked’. The word frōd means both ‘old’ and wise’, showing that the Anglo-Saxons associated old age with wisdom. The word geomor-frōd ‘grief-wise; old, sad and wise’ shows that wisdom came at a cost and was related to grief – gēomor-frōd is a lexical precursor of the modern English idiom ‘sadder and wiser’!
‘Angry words’ in Old English
The Old English vocabulary of anger is fairly well studied (see Gevaert 2002; Izdebska 2015) and scholars have been able to pinpoint, on the basis of these words and their usages, a number of ‘metaphorical links’. One such link is between ANGER and HEAT. Today, we can have a heated argument, we can be boiling with rage, until steam comes out of our ears. The Anglo-Saxons conceptualised ANGER in a similar way, as is revealed by such Old English words as hāt-heort-nes ‘anger; lit. hot-hearted-ness’ and hāt-hige ‘anger; lit. hot-mind’. At the same time, the Anglo-Saxons were aware that anger can be the result of despair or grief: the Old English word wēa-mōd-nes means ‘anger’ but can be analysed as ‘grief-minded-ness’ (cf. Dutch weemoed ‘grief’). Anger is also relatable to ‘swelling’. Just like we can be ‘puffed up with anger’, the Anglo-Saxons would speak of gebolgen, ǣbylga, belgan and gebelg (cf. Dutch verbolgen ‘angry’), which are all related to ābelgan ‘to swell up’. On the basis of these and other words, scholars have been able to demonstrate that Anglo-Saxons connected anger to PRIDE, WRONG EMOTION, UNKINDNESS, DARKNESS, HEAVINESS and so on (see Izdebska 2015; Gevaert 2002).
It is also interesting to note that the Anglo-Saxons had a specific word for the anger of a woman: wīf-gemædla ‘a woman’s fury’ – Apparently, Hell hath no fury like wīf-gemædla!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:
- Anglo-Saxon bynames: Old English nicknames from the Domesday Book
- What if Shakespeare HAD written Old English?
- Old English is alive! Five TV series and movies that use Old English
Works refered to:
- Gevaert, C. (2002). ‘The Evolution of the Lexical and Conceptual Field of ANGER in Old and Middle English’, in A Changing World of Words: Studies in English Historical Lexicography, Lexicology and Semantics, ed. J. E. Díaz Vera (Amsterdam), 275–300.
- Izdebska, D. W. (2015). Semantic field of ANGER in Old English. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow
- Meritt, H. D. (1954). Fact and Lore About Old English Words (Stanford)
- Sapir, E. (1951). ‘Language’, in Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture and Personality, ed. David G. Mandelbaum (Berkeley, 1951), 7–32.