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Old English Words for Relics of the Saints

Text page with Latin and Old English glosses.

Text page with Latin and Old English glosses.Old English Words for Relics of the Saints

By Christopher A. Jones

Florilegium, Volume 26 (2009)

Introduction: The resources of the Dictionary of Old English (DOE) have proven invaluable to historians of the earlier Middle Ages. The Microfiche Concordance assisted Sarah Foot, for example, as she has traced how shifts in the Old English terms mynster “monastery, minster” and nunne “nun, vowess” expose fault-lines in Anglo-Saxon religious life that hardly show in Latin terminology of the period. Using the more recent, electronic versions of the DOE and its searchable Corpus, I seek in this paper to explain some patterns of vocabulary in another ecclesiastical sphere, the cult of saints. This vocabulary has received little attention, despite the acknowledged importance of relic-cults in the Anglo-Saxon Church and the large quantity of relevant material in Old English. Both Latin and vernacular terms for saints’ relics repay scrutiny. They are often less transparent than modern histories assume, and, like the monastic words studied by Foot, some Old English relic-terms reveal more than their Latin counterparts about prevailing religious customs.

This study begins with a review of some Latin terms and of certain material traits common to early medieval relic-cults, since these profoundly shaped the Old English vocabulary surveyed in the second part of the paper. In modern perspective, the vernacular developments are often surprising and suggest that many Anglo-Saxons thought about relics according to categories rather different from those that recent scholarship has emphasized. The third part of the essay seeks to draw out implications of this vocabulary as it blends elements of Latin hagiographic and Old English secular literature, and a brief conclusion turns back to scan some broader horizons, linguistic and historical.

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