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Finding wisdom in Old English

Anglo-Saxon literature is full of advice on how to live a good life. Many Anglo-Saxon poems and proverbs describe the characteristics a wise person should strive to possess, offering counsel on how to treat others and how to obtain and use wisdom in life. Here are some words in Old English (the name we give to the Germanic language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons) that describe what a wise person should aspire to be—and some qualities it’s better to avoid.


Old English had many words for ‘wise’: wis, gleaw, snotor, and more. Frod seems to describe someone who’s grown wise from experience, while someone who is learned in books can be called boccræftig. There are plenty of words to describe the opposite quality, too: a person who is not very wise may be unwis or samwis (like Tolkien’s simple, though very loyal, Samwise Gamgee), dollic (‘foolish’), or dysig (‘stupid,’ related to our dizzy).


The right and wrong way to use speech is a recurring concern in Old English poetry. A wise person should be wærwyrde ‘careful with speech’ (as if ‘wary with words’), and there are many faults to be avoided in speaking. One should not be hrædwyrde ‘hasty with words’, or oferspræce ‘too talkative’ (like a person who ‘over-speaks’), or twispræce‘double in speech,’ deceitful or overly flattering (the verbal equivalent of being ‘two-faced’). Anglo-Saxon poems often point out that it’s easy to talk big, but not always so easy to match actions to words. As a character in Beowulf says, every warrior needs to be able to recognize the difference between worda and worca, ‘words’ and ‘works.’


We’re told that a wise person should be geþyldig, ‘patient, forebearing’ and not hatheort ‘hot-hearted, impulsive’; as an Old English proverb says ‘Geþyld byþ middes eades’, ‘patience is half of happiness.’ The wise should act moderately (gemetlice) to both friends and foes, and ought to avoid anger (irre) and drunkenness (druncen). Young people should be taught self-control; ‘stieran mon sceal strongum mode,’ one poem advises, ‘a strong mind needs to be steered.’


Generosity was an important quality for Anglo-Saxon lords, who were expected to retain the loyalty of their followers by distributing rich gifts (gifa). One proverb points out, a little cynically, that ‘Swa cystigran hiwan, swa cynnigran gystas’—‘the more generous the household, the more noble the guests.’ But not all the language of generosity is so pragmatic, and Old English poetry has one especially evocative compound meaning ‘generous’: rumheort, literally ‘roomy-hearted.’ It suggests someone who is great in spirit, generous with more than just possessions—much as we might say someone has a ‘big heart.’


A poem known as Precepts advises that the best way to be happy is to be georn wisdomes ‘eager for wisdom’ and leoht on gehygdum ‘light in your thoughts’—to be cheerful and friendly rather than resentful and critical. Another poem says that a woman should be leohtmod, ‘light in spirit,’ as well as rumheort with her gifts. She should keep secrets (rune healdan) and give her husband advice (ræd). As you’ll have gathered, many Anglo-Saxon poets agreed with the maxim ræd biþ nyttost—‘advice is the most useful thing.’

A version of this blog post first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Image Credit: “The first folio of the heroic epic poem Beowulf, written primarily in the West Saxon dialect of Old English” by the British Library. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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