Swear Like a Viking – A (Very) Short History of Early Medieval Swearing

We all swear sometimes, it can’t be helped. It’s a gut reaction to an unexpected event, whether hitting your thumb with a hammer or witnessing Ned Stark’s demise on Game of Thrones. Research suggests that swearing helps with pain and is actually a sign of intelligence. (Study done by Psychologists Kristin Jay and Timothy Jay of Marist College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts).

But where did swearing actually come from? And did those living in the early medieval period swear as much as we do?

Our historical sources for the early middle ages were, in the main, written by monks, the least likely group you’ll hear utter profanities. The belief that oaths caused actual physical harm to the ascended body of Christ existed, and no monk worth his salt would dare risk his mortal soul by adding an oath or two to his manuscript.

But swearing is as natural as, well, bodily functions. Ahh, those bodily functions, used for all manner of insulting comparison today. Surely the Anglo Saxons would have used the same, erm, material for their insults? The answer is, probably not. There was much less privacy in the middle ages, as Melissa Mohr, in her book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing explains: “The sexual and excremental words were not charged, basically because people in the Middle Ages had much less privacy than we do… so they had a much less advanced sense of shame.”

monk

(Speaking of sh*t, the word did exist in Anglo-Saxon times but was not used as a profanity. Same goes with the word fart, in case you wondered).

Enter the Vikings. Now here are a rough and ready group of men with large swords and even larger beards. Surely they must have sworn? Of course they did.

One of the most offensive things you could call a Viking was a rassragr. Those who’ve watched the QI episode that mentioned this word know that Steven Fry, the host, refused to share the meaning while on air. The shortest meaning is a man who is demonstrably sodomized. Implying this about a man was so horrendous that the insulted man could kill the insulter without punishment or retribution.

Calling a man a “mare,” or a “woman,” or worse, argr (its polite meaning is “cowardly”; its sexual meaning is “emasculated, unmanned, womanish”) could also call down the weight of fullrettirsorð, (the full weight of the law). In the Lokasenna (“The Insolence of Loki”), the term argr is bandied about openly.

In my novel The Northern Queen my Vikings use a number of Norse swear words, rassragr among them. Some are obvious (can you guess what bikkja means? Or hundr?) but others are not. A few examples make little sense without a bit of background knowledge. Hrafnasueltir, for example, means raven starver. Seemingly inoffensive until you remember how important ravens are to Norse mythology; anyone who starved ravens would be considered a coward and a fool. The dead on the battlefield were fodder for hungry ravens, and anyone who couldn’t provide this feast ie not fight was a coward.

raven

So if you’re having a bad day but rude language is banned in your office, try a few Norse curses. Use lombungr for the morons or idiots in your life. And keep bacraut in your pocket for when someone is really bothering you. It means asshole.

The Northern Queen – Available in USA, Canada and UK

3 comments on “Swear Like a Viking – A (Very) Short History of Early Medieval Swearing

  1. Muffet Jones says:

    Thank you. This is very useful. As a one-time New Yorker my vocabulary is really pretty raw. Now in traffic I can trot out “bacraut” without offending my country passengers.

  2. Anonymous says:

    earsling … a very anglo saxon swear word. it means something that comes from your arse

  3. Muffet Jones says:

    Earsling is one of Bernard Cornwell’s favorite expressions in the Anglo-Saxon tales. I admit I’ve used it myself from time to time…

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