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.”
(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.
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.
My novel The Northern Queen uses quite a few of these words!
Copyright K Evans 2022
13 thoughts on “Swear Like a Viking – A (Very) Short History of Early Medieval Swearing”
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.
earsling … a very anglo saxon swear word. it means something that comes from your arse
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…
I already know some Norse. I’m teaching myself.
We often say”by God” or “by thunder” etc or “”dammit!” in conversation. Did the Norse use phrases like that?
Good question! Sadly we’ve only got written texts to judge how the Norse lived, archaeological evidence doesn’t shed any light on how they spoke/expressions used. There aren’t a lot of phrases like that. There is, however, a literary technique used called ‘kenning’, like a metaphor that skalds used and were common enough so that any casual listener would understand what was being described. It’s possible a few of these kennings were used for swearing or oaths but I’d have to take a MUCH closer look!
Well, raiders would shout “odin!” so that the angels would take their souls to Valhalla.
Similar to Joe’s question: would they use Norse gods’ names as profanity the way the modern Western world does with “Oh my god” or “Jesus Christ!” For example, you have a scare and accidentally let out a “Tor Odinsson!”?
Hi! I’ve not seen it written anywhere but that doesn’t mean anything as we’ve lost so much! But it makes sense, doesn’t it, using a god’s name in much the same way we do today. My guess would be they probably did, because humans don’t really change.
This is super helpful for the book I’m writing! Thanks Kelly!
You’re very welcome, good luck with your book!
bloody hell! crikey, another one I heard was Christ’s blood.
Yes, for the later medieval period, at least after the vikings were converted as they had no idea who Christ was!