Aþum Swerian: Swearers of Oaths?

Beowulf is a story about a doomed people who are destined for annihilation as a result of depredation, feuding, and cyclical inter-tribal violence. Yet, the violence described in the poem is not always outward but often occurs from within, as acts of intra-tribal violence frame much of the narrative. Even seemingly positive events are thus generally short-lived. Accordingly, in the eminence of King Hrothgar’s glorious construction of Heort, the narrator reveals the hall’s imminent doom:  

Sele hlifade  
heah ond horn-geap.   Heaðo-wylma bad
laðan liges.                Ne wæs hit lenge þa gen  
þæt se ecg-hete aþum swerian 
æfter wæl-niðe wæcnan scolde. (81-5)

The hall sheared upward, high and horn-vaulted. For the battle-surge it waited, loathsome fire. Nor was it long before the edge hate of aþum swerian must awaken for slaughter-spite.

Beowulf Manuscript, excerpt with aþum swerian.” BL, Cotton Vitellius a.vx. MS 130v, BL 133v.

This dire prediction identifies the causal agents of disaster as aþum-swerian. But given that this term is unattested and grammatically invalid, we are bound to ask: Who are these aþum-swerian? The conventional approach solves this conundrum by creating a new term in imitation of such copulatives as suhtergefaedaran (“nephew and uncle” from Beowulf), gisunfader (“son and father” from Heliand), and sunufatarungo (“son and father” from Hildebrandslied). Following these models, the editors of Klaeber 4 (120, 350, 437) emend the term to aþum-sweoran, thereby conjoining aþum (sons-in-law) and sweoran (fathers-in-law). Because this solution apparently predicts the sundering of vows between Ingeld and Hrothgar (2022-66), this emendation has become the dominant convention. 

Nevertheless, there are problems. First, the emended term, glossed as “sons-in-law and fathers-in-law,” differs markedly from the models, which are glossed as “nephew and uncle” and “son and father.” And though the term is indeed attested with the gloss “son-in-law,” the rendering aþum-sweoran is a hapax legomenon attested nowhere in the extant corpus of Old English literature. Making the invention yet more suspect is the well-attested phrase, sweor ond aþum (father-in-law and son-in-law), which would seem to preclude a need for the copulative. 

The proposed term also falls short in its narratological salience. There are no “sons-in-law” implicated in the violence that erupts at Ingeld’s wedding, only one “son-in-law.” Yet more problematic, this single crisis cannot account for the apocalyptic imagery that frames Heorot’s catastrophe. Prior to the prediction of calamity, the hall’s construction is marked by an array of tropes that suggest the Tower of Babel. As Tristan Major observes, “Hrothgar’s rise to power [64-79] and the building of his hall, Heorot, echoes Nimrod and the Tower of Babel” (242).” Likewise, as Daniel Anlezark observes, the hall’s destruction is marked by retributive images of Flood and Hellfire (336-7). In sum, the proposed solution leaves important problems unresolved. It inaccurately predicts “sons-in-law” in respect to Ingeld. And it does not account for the apocalyptic imagery of idolatry, flame, and fire that marks Heorot’s doom.

The Tower of Babel. London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.IV, fol 19r. 

In this review, we promote an alternative initially proposed by Michael Alexander. This alternative interprets aþum as the plural dative “oaths” and emends swerian to the plural dative -swaran (swearers). The rendering “swearers of oaths,” acknowledged by Klaeber 4 as possible, has the advantage of relying on attested terms. The plural dative form aþum (oaths) occurs not only in the corpus but also in Beowulf, and the second term (-swara) occurs in a similar compound, man-swaran (criminal swearers). Yet more support for this construct can be found in the oath-swearing between Hengest and Finn. Here the term aðum also occurs as a plural dative, framing a parallel scenario in which oaths will be broken and a hall destroyed:

Fin Hengeste
elne, unflitme aðum benemde
þæt he þa wealafe weotena dome 
arum heolde, þæt ðær ænig mon 
wordum ne worcum wære ne bræce . . . .  (1097-100)

“Fin with Hengest without quarrel declared his oath that he would by his council’s judgment hold [the truce] with honor that any man there by word or deeds should not break the covenant . . . .”

The emendation to aþum-swaran also offers much stronger alignment with the narrative arc. Notably, this alignment begins with the paired disclosures that define Fitt I: Whereas the history of Grendel’s origin locates Cain’s act of murder as a calamity in the past, the prediction of murderous oath-swearers locates Heorot’s destruction as a calamity in the future. This parallel design is highly significant: In effect, it forges a link between Cain’s crime of kinship murder and the internecine violence that spells Heorot’s doom. This linkage, moreover, not only intimates the Danes’ ongoing state of iniquity but also explains the apocalyptic tropes that frame the hall’s calamity. Accordingly, Heorot’s doom emerges not as a circumstantial event caused by brawling Danes and Heathobards but as an in-kind retributive event that aligns perfidious Nordic warriors with the curse of exile from human joys, entailed in Cain’s crime and punishment.

Cain killing Abel with a scythe. Bible Historiale. British Library, MS Harley 4381, f.10r, 1403-1404.

Notably, also, the intimation of Danish perfidy is borne out across the narrative arc. Beowulf and the narrator declare Unferth’s fratricidal treachery; the narrator insinuates Hrothulf’s possible resentment against his uncle, Hrothgar; the lay of Finn and Hildeburh recounts the Danes’ violation of peace oaths in favor of murderous revenge; Hrothgar’s adoption of Beowulf sparks Wealhtheow’s resistance and her appeals to warriors in the hall; and Hrothgar violates his promise of protection to the Geats, potentially inciting Beowulf’s revenge. This surfeit of Danish treachery, in other words, aligns perfectly with the narrator’s revelation that “swearers of oaths” will soon incite violence.

For this reason, also, the reference to oath-swearers functions as a formula for suspense—a design that impels the audience to consider, in a fictive world replete with perfidy and oath-making, which of the oath-swearers will incite a conflagration? Will Unferth the fratricide murder again? Will Hrothulf avenge his displacement from the throne? Will one of the Danes retaliate against Hrothgar’s covenant with Beowulf, the foreigner? Will Wealhtheow incite the same kind of intertribal violence that erupts in the Frisians’ hall? Will Beowulf retaliate against Hrothgar for deserting his men?

The emendation to aþum-swaran presents a solution that is better attested and more meaningful than the conventional emendation to aþum-sweoran. As noted above, the gloss of “sons-in-law” does not possess predictive value regarding Ingeld, and the sundering of vows between Ingeld and Hrothgar cannot explain the apocalyptic imagery surrounding the disclosure of Heorot’s doom. Conversely, that same apocalyptic imagery aligns perfectly with a depiction of Danish society as inherently unstable, doomed to self-destruction, as the unchecked impulses of egoistic aggrandizement overcome the covenants that bind social order. Likewise, the depiction of Danish perfidy permeates the narrative arc. Accordingly, the disclosure of violent oath-swearers functions within an ingenious narrative design. It affords the schadenfreude of dramatic irony, as the audience anticipates a disaster the characters know not of. And it thus generates a game of blind corners, in which the audience’s knowledge of impending violence from oath-swearers charges subsequent events with anticipation and suspense. 

Chris Vinsonhaler & Richard Fahey
Medieval Institute
CUNY University & University of Notre Dame

Selected Bibliography & Further Reading

Alexander, Michael. Beowulf: A Glossed Text. Penguin Classics, 1995.

Anlezark, Daniel. Water and Fire: The Myth of the Flood in Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester U Press, 2006. 

Major, Tristan. Undoing Babel: The Tower of Babel in Anglo-Saxon Literature. U Toronto Press, 2018. 

From Bobbio to South Bend via Milan: The Modern Fate of an Early Medieval Library

Many readers of this blog will know that Notre Dame’s Rare Books and Special Collections Department in Hesburgh Library boasts a large—and growing!—collection of medieval manuscripts. Perhaps less known is a manuscript collection of a different sort, housed in the Medieval Institute on the seventh floor of Hesburgh. I am referring to Notre Dame’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana Collection, which contains over 10,000 microfilms of manuscripts held in one of the world’s great libraries, the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, Italy. In partnership with Notre Dame, the Ambrosiana recently launched an initiative to digitize its manuscripts and make them freely available to all on the web. The first fruits of this effort can already be enjoyed: at the time of writing 382 manuscripts are viewable online. For now, though, the Medieval Institute remains the only place to access many of the Ambrosiana’s treasures outside of Milan. In celebration of the Ambrosiana, its new digital library, and the unique microfilm collection at Notre Dame, this post will briefly trace the history of the library of the northern Italian monastery of Bobbio, whose early medieval manuscripts make up one of the most important components of the Ambrosiana’s holdings.

The monastery of Bobbio was founded c. 613 by the Irish monk Columbanus with the support of the Lombard king Agilulf, who richly endowed it. In the centuries that followed its foundation, the monastery amassed one of early medieval Europe’s largest libraries, both by acquiring manuscripts from elsewhere and by producing them in its own scriptorium. Among Bobbio’s oldest and most well-known codices are its palimpsests—manuscripts in which the original text has been scraped away and then written over—including four in which the lower (i.e., erased) text is in the Gothic language.

The Monastery of Bobbio
The Monastery of Bobbio. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Beyond the surviving books themselves, a valuable indicator of the scale and scope of Bobbio’s early medieval library comes down to us in the form of an inventory, made probably in the late ninth or in the tenth century. The original document has been lost, but the great Italian historian Ludovico Muratori obtained and published a fragmentary transcription of it in the eighteenth century. Even in its incomplete state, this inventory lists 666 items in the monastery’s library. (It was also in a Bobbio manuscript that Muratori discovered the so-called “Muratorian fragment,” the earliest known list of the books of the New Testament.)

The monastery suffered a decline in the Later Middle Ages; at one point, in 1346, only four monks and the abbot remained. The fate of its great library reflected this decline. When another inventory of the library was made in the mid-fifteenth century, it found only 243 manuscripts. An annotation in one surviving codex suggests that the monastery may have resorted to pawning some of its books. In 1493, a scholar working for Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan, noticed the library’s still ample collection of classical texts. After this discovery, many books left the monastery in the hands of humanist scholars. While some of these manuscripts have since been identified in libraries elsewhere, many others have been lost.

Two large transfers of books out of Bobbio in the early seventeenth century have, fortunately, survived nearly intact. In 1606, Cardinal Federico Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan, requested and obtained 77 manuscripts from the monastery, in exchange for which he seems to have offered the monastery printed books. These manuscripts entered the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, founded by Borromeo in 1607 and formally opened in 1609, where they remain today. In 1618, at the request of Pope Paul V the monastery donated a further 29 of its manuscripts to the Vatican Library (one of these codices went missing in the eighteenth century). At some point in the early seventeenth century at least five of Bobbio’s manuscripts also found their way into the court library of the dukes of Savoy in Turin; the total number is unknown since some others may have been destroyed by a fire there in 1667. The great French scholar Jean Mabillon visited Bobbio in 1686 and had two of its manuscripts (including the famous “Bobbio Missal” of Merovingian origin) transferred to Saint-Germain-des-Prés; both are now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

The so-called Bobbio Orosius, seventh century, in insular (Irish) script. Likely written at Bobbio. Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, D. 23. sup.
The so-called Bobbio Orosius, seventh century, in insular (Irish) script. Likely written
at Bobbio. Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, D. 23. sup.
Note the Bobbio “ex libris” annotation (“Liber sancti columbani de bobio”) at the top of the page, added in the fifteenth century. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By 1720, when another inventory of Bobbio’s library was made, only 122 codices remained there. Following the suppression of the monastery by Napoleon, Bobbio’s remaining books were sold at auction in 1803. As it happened, this last cache of books from Columbanus’s monastery was bought by an Irish-born doctor residing in Italy, Odoardo Raymond Buthler. After Buthler’s death the codices entered the Biblioteca nazionale universitaria in Turin. In 1904 a fire destroyed a large portion of this library’s holdings, including some of its Bobbiese manuscripts.

As a result of this tortuous history, many of Bobbio’s manuscripts have disappeared entirely, and those that remain are scattered in libraries across Europe, from Naples to Cambridge and from Vienna to El Escorial. The vast majority, however, can now be found in three repositories: the Biblioteca nazionale universitaria in Turin, the Vatican Library, and the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.

In a future post, we’ll look in a bit more detail a few of Bobbio’s early medieval manuscripts, and at the process that brought many of them—in microform—to the United States and to Notre Dame.

Michael W. Heil
2020–21 A.W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Medieval Studies at the Medieval Institute
Ph.D. in History (2013)
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Further Reading:

On Bobbio and its library, with references to further literature, see Alessandro Zironi, Il monastero longobardo di Bobbio: crocevia di uomini, manoscritti e culture (Spoleto, 2004); Leandra Scappaticci, Codici e liturgia a Bobbio: testi, musica e scrittura (secoli X ex.-XII) (Vatican City, 2008). In English see Michael Richter, Bobbio in the Early Middle Ages (Dublin, 2008).

Finding Hoccleve: Part 2

If you haven't already done so, don't forget to read "Part 1" here first.

My previous post discusses the identification of Thomas Hoccleve’s handwriting in Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea and a glossary in London, British Library, Harley MS 219. This is only the second manuscript identified to date in which Hoccleve copies literary works by other authors.[i] The find is more striking when we consider the other contents of the manuscript and their implications for Hoccleve’s original compositions.

Hoccleve's Gesta
A page from Hoccleve’s Gesta Romanorum. London, British Library, Harley MS 219, fol. 47v. Image courtesy of the British Library.

The major contents of Harley MS 219 are as follows:

  • Odo of Cheriton’s Fables in Latin, fols. 1r–37r.
  • Selections from the Gesta Romanorum [Deeds of the Romans], in Latin, fols. 37r–79v.
  • An incomplete French translation of the Secretum Secretorum [Secret of Secrets, an advice text supposedly authored by Aristotle for Alexander the Great], fols. 80r–105v.
  • Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea [Letter of Othea], French, in Hoccleve’s handwriting, fols. 106r–147r.
  • A glossary of French terms translated into Latin and/or Middle English, in Hoccleve’s handwriting, fols. 147v–151v.

These are followed by items in later handwriting: A list in French of offices managed by the English Treasurer in later fifteenth-century handwriting (fols. 152v–153r); two English prayers, added in a sixteenth-century hand (fol. 153v); and a Latin recipe for the preservation of eyesight, added in a late fifteenth-century hand (fol. 154r).

Those familiar with Hoccleve’s poetry will recognize the Gesta as a source for two tales in Hoccleve’s SeriesTheTale of Jereslaus’s Wife and The Tale of Jonathas– and the Secretum as a major source for the Regiment of Princes, an advice text Hoccleve dedicates to the future Henry V. For Hoccleve studies, one major question for both the Gesta and the Secretum has always been what form of the text Hoccleve used. In the case of the Gesta, there are a large number of manuscripts and almost innumerable variants among them that could have influenced Hoccleve.[ii] For the Secretum, the issue becomes one of language and then variable versions: did Hoccleve use a Latin version or a vernacular translation, and in either case, which one of many possible versions?

For me (and the reviewers of my original article manuscript), a crucial question was whether Harley MS 219 could resolve these uncertainties. The answer I found was yes, though not without much questioning of my eyesight and sanity, and some consultation with other scholars of Hoccleve’s handwriting. There are multiple scribes throughout Harley MS 219, and their handwriting is often excruciatingly similar. After all, when multiple professional scribes copied portions of a literary text that would be combined, they attempted to regularize their handwriting. The same aim of a more or less consistent handwriting across scribes would be valuable likewise in the Royal Office of the Privy Seal, where Hoccleve and – I think it likely – the other scribes in Harley MS 219 were employed.

As it turns out, Hoccleve does not copy the entire text of the Fables, Gesta, or Secretum. Instead, he copies at least one quire (bundle of pages) of the Fables and Gesta, he copies intermittent folios (pages) in the Gesta, and he provides corrections and annotations to the Gesta and the Secretum. The other scribes that copy the Fables and Gesta have very similar handwriting and demonstrate features common to Privy Seal scribes. The scribe who copied the Secretum displays stylized features – decorative strokes and flourishes – typically found in later handwriting, which would certainly seem to mark him as younger than Hoccleve. This scribe also leaves a blank when the French text indicts England for problematic politics, leaving it to his superior Hoccleve to decide whether to follow the French source and write England’s name in the space left (he does).

Copy of the Secretum
A page from Harley MS 219’s copy of the Secretum. London, British Library, Harley MS 219, fol. 83. Image courtesy of the British Library.

This unusual mode of copying and the corrections across the many sections of the volume suggest that Harley MS 219 may have been a collaborative volume produced by Hoccleve and his Privy Seal colleagues, perhaps even a training exercise for junior clerks under his supervision.[iii] Such an exercise might explain why Hoccleve often copies intermittent folios in the Gesta– to provide an exemplar for certain handwriting traits, not to share the copying of a lengthy text.

Now that we know Hoccleve copied, supervised, and/or corrected these texts, we have evidence of new and specific sources he knew. My preliminary work with the Gesta shows that the Harley MS 219 Latin tales do correspond to features of Hoccleve’s English compositions.[iv] We now also know that – although Hoccleve certainly could have read the Secretum in Latin – he had access to this French version, which he knew well enough to correct when the main scribe hesitated or went astray. This opens up new avenues for determining how these versions correspond (or do not) to Hoccleve’s English renderings, and we can also start to explore more seriously how the Fables and Othea may have influenced Hoccleve’s work. In other words, this manuscript allows us to compare Hoccleve’s works with these texts as sources and influences to see more specifically how he translated, adapted, and innovated within his English compositions.

The process of completing this research was not long by most standards (from discussion in summer 2018 to advanced publication in summer 2019), but it was intensely involved, as I put most other projects on the back burner and moved from focusing on Christine’s Othea to the glossary, to evaluating the scribal handwriting against known samples of Hoccleve’s, to evaluating all the convoluted and similar scribal handwriting in the other texts, and to investigating the broader implications for Hoccleve’s work and career.[v] There is still much work to be done to fully realize the importance of this manuscript, but I have, I hope, made a valiant start.

If lessons are to be learned here, I would suggest they are these: keep looking at “weirdo” manuscripts; follow the even odder threads within them that interest you; be open to working on something that isn’t your “main” project (with the caveat that if you do, it may take over your life); and, of course, when there is something about a manuscript bothering you, share ideas and images with friends. The generosity of our colleagues in the field of medieval studies – trusted friends, editors, anonymous readers, and colleagues with shared interests – is one of our greatest resources.

Misty Schieberle, PhD
University of Kansas

About the Author: Misty Schieberle is Associate Professor of English at the University of Kansas, currently completing an edition of the Middle English translations of Christine de Pizan's Epistre Othea and continuing her work on Harley MS 219, including an edition of the glossary.

[i]The first is the so-called ‘Trinity Gower’ in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.3.2 (fols. 82r–84r), in which Hoccleve copies a few folios of Gower’s Confessio Amantis. There may be another, according to Linne Mooney, whose work is forthcoming.

[ii]On which, see Philippa Bright, The Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum(Oxford, 2019).

[iii]On Hoccleve’s supervisory role from c. 1399-1425, see Linne R. Mooney, ‘Some New Light on Thomas Hoccleve’, Studies in the Age of Chaucer29 (2007), 293-340, at 297-99.

[iv]See Roger Ellis, ed., Thomas Hoccleve: ‘My Compleinte’ and Other Poems(Exeter, 2001), 263-68, who reconstructs from Hoccleve’s English and various Latin manuscripts (not including Harley MS 219) readings likely to have been in Hoccleve’s source for the Tale of Jereslaus’ Wife.

[v]See Schieberle, “A New Hoccleve Literary Manuscript: The Trilingual Miscellany in London, British Library, MS Harley 219,” Review of English Studies(forthcoming November 2019), currently available online for advanced access subscribers: https://academic.oup.com/res/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/res/hgz042/5510111