Saturday, 13 February 2016

The Language of Anglo-Saxon Love

A long, long time ago, back in the early days of this blog (2011) I wrote two not-entirely-serious posts compiling some lists of Medieval Compliments and Medieval Terms of Endearment. To my surprise and amusement these have since proved to be far and away the most popular posts on this blog, with page-views in the tens of thousands. They always get a big spike around Valentine's Day, and I like to think that people are still using them (along with my Resources for a Medieval Valentine's Day) to add a little medieval flavour to the day.

Most of the words and phrases in those posts came from Middle English texts, so today I thought I'd offer up some Old English terms in which you might wish to express your admiration or love. Now, some people will tell you that Anglo-Saxon literature is devoid of romance, and it is true that the Anglo-Saxons did not write much love poetry, nor did they celebrate St Valentine's feast as a romantic holiday (surely proof, if any more were needed, that English literature has been going downhill since 1066). But while romance may have come to us (etymologically and historically speaking) from the French, it was the Anglo-Saxons who gave us the word love - and there's plenty of love in Old English literature, if you're looking for some inspiration today.

Lovers in the Old English Hexateuch (illustrating Genesis 6)

So, let's imagine you want to send what Beowulf calls a luftacen - a token of your affection - to express what lies on heortscræfe 'in the cavern of the heart'. The obvious place to start for Valentine's card inspiration is the poem known as The Husband's Message, in which a man forcibly separated from his lover sends her a message urging her to join him:

þec þonne biddan het se þisne beam agrof
þæt þu sinchroden sylf gemunde
on gewitlocan wordbeotunga,
þe git on ærdagum oft gespræcon...
Heht nu sylfa þe
lustum læran, þæt þu lagu drefde,
siþþan þu gehyrde on hliþes oran
galan geomorne geac on bearwe.
Ne læt þu þec siþþan siþes getwæfan,
lade gelettan lifgendne monn...

Nis him wilna gad,
ne meara ne maðma ne meododreama,
ænges ofer eorþan eorlgestreona,
þeodnes dohtor, gif he þin beneah.

He who carved this wood [did I mention your Valentine's message should be carved in runes?]
instructed me to bid you, treasure-adorned one,
to recall to mind the vows
which you two often spoke in days gone by...
Now he himself has commanded me
to joyfully instruct you to take to the sea,
after you have heard by the cliff's edge
the mourning cuckoo sing in the woods.
Do not then let any man living prevent your coming
or hinder your journey...
He has no lack of joy,
nor of horses, nor treasures, nor the pleasures of mead,
any of the noblest riches upon earth,
if he has you, prince's daughter.

You too should promise, of course, that your lover will find in you tirfæste treowe, 'fidelity of steadfast glory'; or such vows as appear in The Wife's Lament, where the speaker says of her husband:

Ful oft wit beotedan
þæt unc ne gedælde nemne deað ana,
owiht elles.

Very often we two vowed
that we would not be parted except by death alone,
nothing else.

You're going to need the dual pronoun wit 'we two' if you want to compose a properly intimate Old English love-message.

As compliments go, sinchroden ('treasure-adorned') may not get you very far these days. You might have better luck with the veritable flurry of compliments provided by the poem Juliana, in which the heroine is variously called seo dyreste ond seo sweteste in sefan minum, 'the dearest and the sweetest in my soul', minra eagna leoht 'light of my eyes', min se swetesta sunnan scima 'my sweetest sunbeam', and so on. Unfortunately, the speakers of these words are very unpleasant characters - Juliana's bullying father and nasty would-be husband - and they're trying to butter her up with these endearments to force her into an unwanted marriage. So that's a bit of a downer. (Maybe it suggests something about what one Anglo-Saxon poet thought of such flowery endearments and the people who use them.)

Let's try again. The heroine of Judith is described (by the narrator this time) as gleaw on geðonce, ides ælfscinu 'clever in thought, a woman beautiful as an elf' - both excellent terms of praise. I don't really think you can beat 'elf-shining' as a compliment, but there's also fæger ('fair', obviously) and wlitig 'beautiful', which works for both men and women: St Guthlac, for instance, is described as wlitig on ansyne 'beautiful of face' and Eve (in the poem Genesis) as wifa wlitegost 'most beautiful of women' and wlitesciene wif 'woman of radiant beauty'.

'gleaw on geðonce, ides ælfscinu' (BL Cotton Vitellius A XV, f.202)

Juliana's flatterers aside, lovers in Old English poetry tend to be on the restrained side with their terms of endearment. Even in The Wife's Lament, the speaker mostly calls her husband min freond and min wine, which both mean 'my friend'; min wine is also the heroine's choice of address in the fragmentary Waldere, in the middle of an impassioned speech, so it must have had more intimate overtones than simply 'friend'. But my favourite endearment was one I mentioned in this post, from a sermon in which God, speaking to the Virgin Mary, calls her min meregrot... min eorclanstan 'my pearl, my precious jewel'. You're not going to get a better endearment than 'my arkenstone', now, are you?

In Old English someone you love is leof 'dear, beloved' and therefore lufsum 'lovesome, lovable' and dyre 'dear, precious', perhaps even your deorling 'darling' (although that doesn't always have positive overtones). Leof can also be used as an address - one might, for instance, address someone as leofa Beowulf 'beloved Beowulf' (assuming their name was Beowulf). As the advertisers are so keen to convince us around Valentine's Day, everyone wants someone to love: Æfter leofan menn langað swiðost 'People long most for a loved one', says one of the Durham Proverbs. (Which is very sweet, but the compiler of the proverb-collection rather wickedly juxtaposes it with another proverb about unsatisfied desire: Hwilum æfter medo menn mæst geþyrsteð 'Sometimes men are thirstiest after drinking mead'. I see what you did there, you cynical monk.)

Leof and longung go together, alliteratively speaking, in Old English poetry. The speaker of The Wife's Lament, separated from her husband, describes herself as oflangod, 'seized with longing', and concludes by saying:

Wa bið þam þe sceal
of langoþe leofes abidan.

Grief it is for the one who must
wait in longing for the beloved.

Beowulf movingly describes the overwhelming love felt by Hrothgar for Beowulf as the latter prepares to leave Heorot (Beowulf 1876-9):

Wæs him se man to þon leof
þæt he þone breostwylm forberan ne mehte,
ac him on hreþre hygebendum fæst
æfter deorum men dyrne langað
beorn wið blode.

To him that man was so beloved
that he could not restrain the surging of his breast;
in his heart, fast in the mind's bonds,
a hidden longing for the dear man
burned in the blood.

Love is often described as surging, burning and 'hot' - like the treowlufu, hat æt heortan, 'true love, hot in the heart' of Christ II (539). With hot hearts and love-longing we should mention a third alliterative pair, the verbs clyppen and cyssan 'to embrace and to kiss', which frequently appear together. (Hug came later, probably from Old Norse - those cuddly Vikings!).

Symptoms of love-longing also include 'sickness', like the woman in Wulf and Eadwacer, who cries:

Wulf, min Wulf! wena me þine
seoce gedydon, þine seldcymas,
murnende mod, nales meteliste.

Wulf, my Wulf! My hopes of you
have made me sick - your rare visits,
a mourning heart, not lack of food.

Wulf is generally taken to be the man's name, rather than a term of endearment, but I suppose you could use it that way if you chose...

To return to what you might write (or carve) in a Valentine's card: when the princess Arcestrate in the prose romance Apollonius of Tyre falls in love with Apollonius, she writes a letter confessing her love in which she says:

Gif ðu wundrige þæt swa scamfæst fæmne swa unforwandigendlice ðas word awrat, þonne wite þu þæt ic hæbbe þurh weax aboden ðe nane scame ne can þæt ic silf ðe for scame secgan ne mihte.

If you wonder that so modest a girl should so boldly write these words, then know that I have declared to you through wax, which does not know shame, what I myself could not say to you for shame.

When Apollonius reads her letter, he turns red as a rose (mid rosan rude... eal oferbræded). She has fallen in love (gefeol hire mod on his lufe) with him in part because he's such a good harpist, and it gives her a sleepless night:

þæt mæden hæfde unstille niht, mid þare lufe onæled þara worda and sanga þe heo gehyrde æt Apollonige.

The maiden had a restless night, kindled to love by the words and songs which she had heard from Apollonius.

In general, however, songs are a good remedy for those suffering 'longing': longað þonne þy læs þe him con leoþa worn, says Maxims I ('he is less troubled by longing who knows many songs'). The same poem famously sketches a little pen-portrait of a sailor's wife waiting for her leof:

Leof wilcuma
Frysan wife, þonne flota stondeð;
biþ his ceol cumen ond hyre ceorl to ham,
agen ætgeofa, ond heo hine in laðaþ,
wæsceð his warig hrægl ond him syleþ wæde niwe,
liþ him on londe þæs his lufu bædeð.
Wif sceal wiþ wer wære gehealdan, oft hi mon wommum belihð...
Lida biþ longe on siþe; a mon sceal seþeah leofes wenan,
gebidan þæs he gebædan ne mæg.

The loved one is welcome
to the Frisian's wife, when the ship docks.
His boat has come and her husband is home,
her own provider; and she calls him in,
washes his sea-stained clothes and gives him fresh garments,
grants him on land what his love asks for.
A woman should keep faith with a man; often they are accused of sins...
A sailor is long away; but still one should hope for the beloved,
wait for what cannot be hastened.

How's that for Anglo-Saxon romance?

Anglo-Saxon calendar for February, including St Valentine's feast, but no hearts and flowers


David Wilson said...

That's wonderful. LEOF

sensibilia said...

The Frisian wife shows true love - washing the sea-stained garments, and waiting for him faithfully.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely gorgeous, fascinating post. Thank you so much. The tenderness is so moving coming down to us through the centuries.