In my last blog I set a red herring about Anglo-Saxon swear words. How many times has a writer referred to a character coming out with a few crisp Anglo-Saxon expletives if, say, they have hit their thumb with a hammer? Or rain has drowned out the barbecue – again? You may be surprised to know, however, that, whilst the anguish such events cause do warrant a curse or several, they are unlikely to be Anglo-Saxon in origin. Such ripe language has entered into common English usage via many other language routes.
The fact is very little was written during that era (approximately 500 – 1066AD), and it is the written word that tends to last. What writing that has survived, was done by monks and was largely on religious, legal, or medical matters. Overt cursing and profanity would be frowned upon under any circumstances in such ecclesiastical or scholarly settings – and certainly not tolerated in written form.
A few words have come to us via the oral tradition (‘turd’ is a possible example), but, from what records we have, the Anglo-Saxons were surprisingly clinical and straightforward about, say, bodily excretions. They used such words as we might use them in an article in a medical magazine for example, rather than as a term to embellish colloquial speech. (Unlike Old Norse and other Germanic languages, whose written records show the real source of quite a few of our ‘naughty’ words.)
So, were our Anglo-Saxon ancestors exceptionally pure in thought word and deed? Unlikely – we just don’t have the written records to prove otherwise.
The nearest we get is through the monastic love of riddles. As is evident from the Book of Riddles associated with Exeter Cathedral, many a monk, when not working on biblical or other scholarly tracts, passed the time composing riddles. Most aren’t great works of literature, but several are notable for their double meanings. I can picture groups of the more free-spirited monks giggling over the – usually sexual – innuendos, as they wrote or read the following riddles:
I am a wonderful creature, I bring joy to women
And am useful to those nearby; I harm
No one except my destroyer.
My position is high; I stand up in bed;
Beneath, in my hidden place, I am hairy. Sometimes
The beautiful daughter of a poor man,
A courageous girl, will get a grip on me.
She assaults my redness, takes my head,
And holds me tight. She will soon feel
The effect of meeting me, of being near me
This curly-haired woman. Her eye will become wet.
I know of something growing in a corner,
Swelling and standing up, lifting its covering;
On that boneless thing, a young woman
Proudly gripped with her hands; with her apron
A lord’sdaughter covered the swollen thing.
Of course, just like you, their purer minded brothers found nothing at all smutty about these ditties. After all, what is rude about a description of an onion, or dough for making bread?
(Note: Both riddles were translated into modern English by Kate Wiles and taken from an article in the TLS)
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