In the introduction to her book The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English, medievalist Hana Videen suggests that many people might think Old English looks like the “Ye Olde” attached to the names of shops, pubs, or products to give them an air of antiquity. In fact, as she points out, ’ye olde’ is a pseudo-archaic term; “no one ever said [it] except in imitation of an imagined speech of the distant past”.
Old English was the most common language in Anglo-Saxon Britain for approximately five centuries until the Norman Conquest in 1066. The challenge for a modern author delving into Old English is that it was the language of a society based on oral communication. Most ordinary people could not read or write; creating and keeping written manuscripts was largely the responsibility of monasteries. Monks and other members of religious orders were usually the only literate individuals in most towns or communities. Additionally, relatively few written Old English texts have survived to the present day, with many of them damaged or incomplete.
Videen’s approach to exploring Old English is to focus on individual words. Thus, The Wordhord is a fitting title for her work in two ways. A ‘horde’ in the sense of a group suggests the large number of words, and variations on words, that occur in Old English. A ‘hoard’ in the sense of a collection also suggests the importance in daily Anglo-Saxon life of having a large vocabulary. Words were essential in sustaining communities and relationships and communicating stories that informed, entertained, and educated.
Each chapter of The Word Hord is structured around a specific part of daily existence – such as eating, working, health, the natural world, and the spiritual world – and explores the etymology and usage of words relevant to that theme. Even within this structure, the limited number of written records still poses a challenge. If a word only appears once in a single surviving manuscript, it’s difficult to know whether it was a commonly used word or a creation of that particular text’s author or transcriber.
Nevertheless, Videen’s enthusiasm for the beauty of Old English does a great deal to overcome these inherent limitations. The distinctive features of the language, such as kennings (compound words), allow for far more nuance and vibrancy than many modern English words. In Old English, a bat is an “adorned mouse”, a greedy person is “money-eager”, and the ocean can be a “fish’s bath”. Even common words can be differentiated depending on the user’s intent: a “praise-word” conveys reverence, while a “comfort-word” brings empathy to someone who is suffering.
Videen’s discussions are extremely well-researched and knowledgeable and written in a convivial, accessible tone. She also brings in the voices of other researchers and writers to illuminate relevant points. This variety of perspectives is especially important since some surviving Old English texts, such as Bible chapters, are translations of texts that were previously translations themselves. A chronological progression of a text through multiple interpreters means that assigning a single definitive meaning to a word or phrase is not always possible. Videen appropriately acknowledges that complexity by providing different opinions on what the original “speech-bearer” may or may not have intended.
The one downfall to focusing on the individual word, and perhaps the place where The Wordhord falls somewhat short, is that analyzing single words does not always convey the beauty and impact of a full piece of writing in Old English. For example, looking at the many words used in the epic poem Beowulf to describe how the monster Grendel kills soldiers in the hall of Hrothgar, the king gives insights into how Anglo-Saxon Britons conceptualized bodies, death and non-human worlds. Looking at the words individually fails to convey the grand sweep of the text and the carnage of Grendel’s horrifying massacre. That overall impression would have been a significant part of the story’s lasting impact on an audience that had listened to a performer telling the story as entertainment or as a morality tale.
However, even with the limitations of the source material and the structure of Videen’s analysis, The Wordhord is still a captivating piece of work. Its detailed explanations, including a thorough glossary at the end of each chapter that includes definitions and pronunciations, make it an invaluable resource for scholars and aficionados of Old English. The Wordhord will also appeal to any reader wanting an accessible introduction to this fascinating language, which, despite being extinct, is the source of words that still exist in modern-day English, “word” itself being one of them. Videen’s work also provides an excellent illustration of how a language simultaneously shapes society and reflects it.