Whenever I tell people I study and teach Old English, they react by feeding me their favourite lines of Shakespeare, noting that it is very difficult indeed: “Is this a dagger I see before me? Alas, poor Yorick! Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”. Indeed, as a little search on Twitter (see the image at the bottom of this post) indicates, the association between William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Old English (ca 45o-1100) is a widespread myth that deserves to be busted. What better way to do so, than to imagine what it would look like if William Shakespeare HAD written Old English? This blog features my own very first translation of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets into Old English.
Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 18’ in Old English
Sceal ic þē gelīcian tō sumeres dæge?
Þū eart luflīcra ond staþolfæstra.
Rūge windas sceacað þrīmilces dȳrlinge blōstman
Ond sumeres lǣn hæfð eall tō lȳtelne termen.
Hwīlum heofones eage tō hāte scīnð,
Ond oft his gylden hīw is dimmod;
Ond ælc þāra fægernese hwīlum unwlitegað,
Of belimpe oþþe gesceaftes wendendum pæðe ne geglenged;
Ac þīn ēce sumor ne sceall forweornian
Ne forleosan þā fægernese þe þū hæfð;
Ne Dēaþ hrēman ne þorfte þæt þū wandrast in his sceadwe,
Þonne þū in ēce linan tō tīde grēwst
Swā lange swā man mæg orþian oþþe eagan magon sēon,
Swā lange swā þes lifaþ, ond þes þē līf giefþ.
You can find the original text of the sonnet and an analysis of its contents here.
William Shakespeare did not write Old English
As the above translation of sonnet 18 makes clear, Old English is rather different from the English used by Shakespeare. We might note, first of all, a number of different letters: the ‘æ’ to represent the sound in Modern English cat and the ‘þ’ and ‘ð’ that are used interchangeably to represent the first sound in thorn. The use of the macrons above the vowels are a modern convention to indicate long vowels. Another difference includes the spelling of words: with some imagination we can recognize the phrases ‘a summer’s day’ and ‘rough winds’ in ‘sumeres dæge’ and ‘rūge windas’. Furthermore, in his original sonnet Shakespeare used words that were not available in Old English, such as ‘compare’ and ‘complexion’ which were introduced in the later Middle Ages, out of French – the Anglo-Saxons would have used ‘gelīcian’ and ‘hīw’ instead. I particularly like the word ‘þrīmilc’ for ‘May’; the Old English word, which translates to ‘three-milk’, reflects the fact that, in May, you can milk your cows three times a day! Other differences include the more extensive use of inflectional endings in Old English (which still had forms for the genitive, accusative and dative) and word order. In short, the English that Shakespeare used for his ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ is NOT Old English.
William Shakespeare did not write Present-Day English
While it is obviously silly to claim that Shakespeare wrote Old English, it is equally ridiculous to assume that he used the same English that we do today. Two examples will suffice to illustrate this idea. The ‘weird sisters’ in Shakespeare’s MacBeth are often portrayed as odd and strange little women, wobbling about awkwardly and screaming and snorting like lunatics. The nature of their portrayal might be derived from the fact that the word weird today means ‘strange, unusual’. However, it is worth noting that this sense of the word is only attested from the 19th century onwards (see the entry for weird in the OED). In Shakespeare’s time, weird meant ‘Having the power to control the fate or destiny of human beings, etc.’. In other words, Shakespeare used the word in a sense that is more closely connected to Old English wyrd ‘fate’, than it is to Modern English weird ‘strange, unusual’. A second example that illustrates that we must not confuse Shakespeare’s English with our own is championed by the linguist David Crystal and his son Ben, an actor. They argue that if we pronounce Shakespeare’s work as we would Present-day English, we miss out on a lot of puns. For instance, the words ‘hour’ and ‘whore’ sounded alike in Shakespeare’s time, giving the line ‘From hour to hour we ripe and ripe’ (As you like it, act 2, scene 7) a slightly humourous air – especially since ‘ripe’ and ‘rape’ would also have been homonyms. You can view the Crystals’ plea here.
To conclude, when it comes to reading English texts from the past, it seems as if Shakespeare’s adage ‘to thine own self be true’ should be taken into account: read Shakespeare as if he wrote Early Modern English and, please, do not confuse this with its more beautiful ancestor, Old English.
As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this blog, I will regularly shed some light on the medieval in Middle-Earth, starting with the map of Thror.
Found in the front matter of The Hobbit, Thror’s map is for many readers the first glimpse at Tolkien’s fictional universe. A closer look soon reveals that this is no ordinary map. For one, its orientation seems off: the East is on top, North is on the left, West is on the bottom. Moreover, the map contains little drawings, such as a mountain, a dragon and a spider in a web, accompanied by such little texts as “there are spiders”. More obviously, perhaps, is the strange alphabet (discovered and identified by Elrond as ‘moon letters’) and the little hand on the left, pointing at more moon-ish letters. A strange map, indeed. Though not so strange, perhaps, for someone who is familiar with the Middle Ages.
A medieval map: The Cotton World Map
This Anglo-Saxon map of the world, made in Canterbury around 1025-1050, shows a number of similarities to Tolkien’s map of Thror. First and foremost, the two maps share the same orientation: East is on the top, North is on the left and the West is on the bottom (you can clearly see this by looking at Britain in the bottom left corner!) – a standard feature of medieval maps (before the introduction of the compass, the East (where the sun rises) was the easiest direction to locate). Moreover, the Cotton World Map, like Tolkien’s, features several drawings, such as two little men fighting in the south of Britain, little drawings of cities like Rome and Jerusalem, and mountains (including Mount Ararat in Armenia with a little Ark of Noah!). Finally, the Anglo-Saxon map accompanies some of these drawings with descriptions; e.g., the drawing of a lion in China, where it says “hic abundant leones” [here are many lions] – not unlike Tolkien’s drawing of a spider, near the text ‘There are spiders’.
It is not inconceivable that Tolkien, in fact, drew inspiration from the Cotton World Map – its manuscript, Cotton Tibius B v, contains a version of the Marvels of the East (a catalogue of monsters), of which another version is found in the Beowulf manuscript that was so vigorously studied by Tolkien.
Strange script: Moon letters are Anglo-Saxon runes
The fact that only Elrond is able to decipher the moon letters might make them seem strange and ancient; they turn out to be a lot closer to home. Tolkien based his moon letters on the Anglo-Saxon ‘futhorc’, the runic alphabet used for short inscriptions on stone, wood and metal. Using the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, one can clear decipher the message on Thror’s map as “Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the keyhole”. The English reading of the runes is retained even in some foreign-language versions of The Hobbit, including the Dutch one.
Manicula: Little hands in the margins of medieval manuscripts
The little hand pointing at another set of letters (which, again, can be deciphered using the Anglo-Saxon futhorc) is reminiscent of similar little hands found in medieval manuscripts. These so-called maniculae were often added in the margins by readers to point out important pieces of text (see a highly informative blog here)- the little hand on Thror’s map serves a similar purpose.
To conclude, the map that serves as every reader’s introduction to Middle-Earth immediately gives away the medieval character of the fictional world it depicts. Welcome to Middle-Earth? More like welcome to middangeard!
The information in this post is slightly adapted from an article I published in the Tolkien journal Lembas (available here). In 2016, I will be teaching a course on Tolkien and the Anglo-Saxon World (more info here) and I am also involved in the organisation of an international conference on the theme ‘Tolkien among Scholars’, in association with the Dutch Tolkien Society Unquendor (more info here).
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)
Even though the last native speaker of Old English died over 900 years ago, the language of the Anglo-Saxons is making a comeback in modern cinema. This blog post calls attention to five TV series and movies that use Old English.
1. The Rohirrim speak Old English: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of Old English at the University of Oxford and his fictional work is infused with his academic interests: the languages and literatures of the peoples of the medieval North-West. The Rohirrim, in particular, were modeled on the Anglo-Saxons. The riders of the Mark (itself based on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom Mercia) even speak Old English in the books, as when Éomer greets Théoden with “Westu Théoden hal!” (cf. “Wæs þu Hrothgar hal!” Beowulf, l. 407). The names of the Rohirrim also derive from Old English: Théoden means ‘king’ (< Old English þeoden) and Éomer means ‘famous horse’ (< Old English eoh ‘horse’ + mær ‘famous’). (If you are interested, I wrote an article on the influence of Old English language and literature on Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which you can find among my publications)
In the successful movie adaptations, the use of Old English (regrettably) is scarce and limited to the extended edition of the Two Towers. In a scene called ‘the funeral of Théodred’, Éowyn (‘horse-joy’) sings a funeral dirge, in Old English (singing starts at 0:48):
freone frecan. forþ onsended
giedd sculon singan. gleomenn sorgiende
on Meduselde. þæt he ma no wære
his dryhtne dyrest. and maga deorost.
[Baleful death has sent forth the noble warrior, sorrowing singers will sing a song in Meduseld that he is no more, dearest to his lord and dearest to his kinsmen.]
The actress Miranda Otto actually does a great job when it comes to pronouncing the Old English (would she have followed a course?). The song also features a line which is similar to Beowulf, ll. 2265b-2266: “bealocwealm hafað / fela feorhcynna forð onsended” [baleful death has sent forth many warriors].
2. It speaks? IT SPEAKS! In Old English! Beowulf (2007)
Robert Zemeckis’s adapatation of Beowulf did not only give us a 3D animation of Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother (naked, clad in gold, with a tail), he also had the monsters attempt to speak in Old English. An intriguing example can be seen here, in the scene where Grendel loses his arm:
Beowulf: Your bloodletting days are over, demon!
Grendel: Arr – Ic nat daemon eam [I am not a demon]
Beowulf: It speaks? IT SPEAKS!
Grendel: Hwæt eart þu? [What are you?]
Arguably, the Old English is not very well done and the pronunciation is awful (there is some more in Grendel’s death scene, where you can hear ‘min sunu’ and ‘sin nama wæs Beowulf’). The decision to have the monsters (attempt to) speak Old English, though, is an interesting one: is it a way of stressing their antiquity? To separate them from the human world? To emphasise their monstrosity (I would hope not!)?
3. The magic of Old English: BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012)
The BBC series TV series focusing on the adventures of the young Merlin at Arthur´s court used Old English as the language for the various magical spells. A rather odd decision, seeing as Merlin should probably be associated more with the Celtic speaking peoples, rather than with the Old English speaking Anglo-Saxons that were fought by the pseudo-historical Arthur. Here are all the spells from the first series:
“Berbay odothay arisan quicken” <Old English Bebiede þe arisan cwican [I command you to arise alive]
(You can find more transcriptions of spells here)
The pronunciation, again, leaves something to be desired. However, often the Old English spells make sense, as in the example quoted above: Merlin wants to make a statue of a dog come alive; he tells it to come alive in Old English; presto! The dog is alive (it also affects the snakes painted on a shield in the next scene). If only that worked in real life!
4. The Shadow of Boniface: De Schaduw van Bonifatius (2010)
De Schaduw van Bonifatius [The Shadow of Boniface] is an ambitious short film, directed by Thijs Schreuder as a graduation project for the Film Academy in Amsterdam. It focuses on the missionary activity of the Anglo-Saxon Boniface (d. 754) in Frisia. While the film was praised for its use of special effects (similar to the LOTR-movies), its use of languages is also of interest: all dialogues are in Latin, Old English and Old Frisian.
I particularly like the scene that starts at 08:00, in which Boniface confronts a group of pagan Frisians at their sacred tree. Boniface speaks in Old English, the Frisian leader replies in Old Frisian. Seeing as these two medieval languages are closely related, it is highly probable that the Anglo-Saxon missionaries in Frisia could indeed converse with the people in their native tongue:
Boniface: Ondfo Godes lufu! Ondfo His miltse! [Receive God’s love! Receive his mercy!]
Frisian chief: Bonifatius! Thi mon ther thera Fronkena leinlika gode menniska bibiāt. ther tserika timbriath mith ūre hāligum bāmum. [Boniface! The man who sacrifices to the false gods of the Frankish people. Who builds churches with our holy trees.]
Boniface: For iūre hreddunge. Hæfth iūre goda thunor smiten mē? Habbath hīe me thone wei thweorod? Se ondswaru is ‘nā’, ond for thǣm the iċ ēom hēr swā thæt ġē ġebīdath thæs cræftes thæs ǣnigan, sōthan Godes![For your protection. Has the thunder of your gods smitten me? Have they barred my path? The answer is ‘No’ and therefore I am here, so that you will experience the power of the only, true God!]
The actors do a fine job and the Old Frisian and Old English sounds rather authentic. No surprise there, since the actors were taught by a leading expert on both Old Frisian and Old English: prof.dr. Rolf H. Bremmer Jr. (You can read about his involvement here, in Dutch).
5. Hwæt sægest þu? Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-)
In De Schaudw van Bonifatius, Old English was used to create at least the impression of historical accuracy . Much the same can be said for the use of Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-). While the show’s authenticity is fiercely debated (see, e.g., this blog post), the makers of the show must certainly have thought that the use of early medieval languages, such as Old English and Old Norse in the first two seasons and Old French in the third season, would contribute to a sense of realism. The first scene to feature Old English is the prelude to the Viking raid of Lindisfarne in 793:
Monk: Gesawe þu þæt, brodor Æþelstan? Gesawe þu hit? Saga me þæt þu hit gesawe.
Athelstan: Gea, brodor. Ic hit gesawe.
Monk: Hit is awriten and swa hit hæfþ alimpen. God us helpan, god us helpan.
The monks looking at the thunder and seeing a viking ship in the sky is an obvious reference to the famous entry for the year 793 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
Her wæron reðe forebecna cumene ofer Norðhymbra land, 7 þæt folc earmlic bregdon, þæt wæron ormete þodenas 7 ligrescas, 7 fyrenne dracan wæron gesewene on þam lifte fleogende. [In this year, terrible omens came about over the land of the Northumbrians, and miserably frightened the people: these were immense thunders and lightenings, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air.]
The second scene in the YouTube clip above shows Athelstan speaking Old English to some hostages. The Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, apparently, is able to understand their conversation. This is not too surprising, since Old Norse and Old English would have been mutually intelligble at the time. In terms of its language use, then, History Channel’s Vikings makes a good effort at historical accuracy.
Hwæt’s next? BBC’s The Last Kingdom (2015-) and ITV’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (2016-)
Over the last 15 years, Old English has been embraced by movie makers; first as a language of fantasy, monsters and magic, later as an instrument for historical accuracy. With upcoming TV series such as BBC’s The Last Kingdom, set in ninth-century England, and ITV’s Beowulf: The Return to the Shield Lands, based on the Old English poem Beowulf, we will undoubtedly hear more Old English from our TV sets in the future. The Last Kingdom, for instance, uses Old English place names, such as Bebbanburg (Bamburgh), Oxanfyrde (Oxford) and Wintanceastre (Winchester). Perhaps, it is time to pitch our courses in Old English to acting hopefuls and up-and-coming film makers. The native speakers of Old English may be long dead, in Hulferes wudu (Hollywood) their language is still alive!
With special thanks to Rolf Bremmer (Leiden University) for sending me the script he translated for De Schaduw van Bonifatius.