“Off With Their Heads!” How to Murder in Old English

“Off With Their Heads!”
How to Murder in Old English

goyaNo history of the Anglo-Saxons — or any other part of the human race, for that matter — is complete without gory death and gruesome murder. Why, it’s to die for, if you’re keen on the sensational. And so if you have a weakness for the latter, as I do, you may well have asked yourself at one point or another, how did one bump a body off in Old English?

The basic term was cwellan (extant ca. 90x), with its prefixed fellow ācwellan (ca. 500x), ‘to kill,’ > ModE to quell (used only figuratively now, of course), < late Proto-Germanic *(uz)kwaljana ‘to make suffer,’ causative to *-kwelana ‘to suffer.’ Cwellan was preferred especially when the action was viewed as habitual (þa cempan þa hine gelæddon to þære cwealmstowe þær mann cwealde sceaðan ‘the soldiers then took him to the place of execution where criminals were put to death’) or as imperfective (wolde his sunu cwellan folmum sinum ‘wanted to kill his son with his own hands’), while ācwellan was preferred when the result was to be stressed (Caim wæs his sunu, þe acwealde his broðor Abel gehaten ‘Cain was his son, who killed his own brother named Abel’).

No Pain, No Gain


The martyrdom of Ælfheah

For more sensational deaths, those involving torment and suffering — think Texas Chainsaw Massacre — there was (ā)cwielm(i)an (ca. 120x), a derivative of the noun cwealm ‘death (by violence or contagion, i.e., one involving suffering)’ < PG *kwalmaz. One might use this verb, as one Anglo-Saxon chronicler did, to describe, for example, the death of stingy Archbishop Ælfheah of Canterbury in 1012, who was “stoned,” as it were, with bones and skulls before receiving his coup de grâce from an axe ([hie] hine þær þa bismorlice acwielmdon ‘then there [they] ignominiously killed him’). Incidentally, public peltings of wrongdoers were still fashionable in Western Europe as late as the nineteenth century.

More Dead-Pan

Less sensational and less common was (ā)dīedan (ca. 50x), causative to (ā)dēadian ‘to die, be dead’ (cf. Gothic (ga)dauþjan / afdauþjan, ModG töten), extant mainly in Ælfric and thus spelled -dyd-: ælc mann bið eac fordemed þe hine selfne adiett (‘anyone who kills him- or her-self will also be damned’). One might also use gedōn tō cwale / dēaðe lit. ‘to put to death,’ or gedōn dēad- lit. ‘to make dead.’

Murder Will Out

babyIf feeling a little morally outraged, one could also speak of murder, thus (ge)fremman morðor lit. ‘to frame murder,’ (ā)cwellan þurh morðor lit. ‘to kill through murder,’ formyrðr(i)an (4x) ‘to murder (off), or āmyrðr(i)an (2x) / ofmyrðrian (1x) ‘to murder’ (perfective), the latter three verbs implying a *myrðr(i)an: gif wif hire cild formyrðrie—innan hire oððe siððan hit forð cume—mid drencum oððe mid mistlicum þingum, fæste X gear (‘if a woman should murder her child—while within her or after it should come out—with potions or sundry things, she is to fast for ten years’). A whopping penance that! According to Wulfstan’s canon laws, a monk-killer got only seven years of exile (and could presumably eat all he wanted while away).

Let Me Count the Ways

The hyperbolic might demand a verb with the sense of ‘destroy’ or ‘annihilate,’ thus fordōn, (for)spillan / gespillan, forwyrcan, fordīlgian, forfaran, āhӯðan, āīeðan, forpǣran, gedōn tō forlore. If bloodshed on a grander scale was envisaged, one might need forslēan ‘to massacre, slaughter’ (used esp. of the war-fallen).

More fanciful flights might be better served by figurative applications: ādwǣscan ‘to extinguish,’ forsendan ‘to dispatch,’ forniman ‘to take away,’ (ā)ceorfan / forceorfan ‘to cut down / off’ (cf. ModE to carve), āhēawanforhēawan ‘to hew down,’ gefiellan (tō dēaðe) / (ā)fiellan / offiellan / āhrīeran ‘to fell,’ gesǣgan ‘to make sink,’ forbrecan / forgnīdan ‘to crush,’ (ā)mierran / āmǣr(i)an lit. ‘to mar, ruin,’ forgrindan ‘grind down,’ āgēotan / (ā)gīetan blōd ‘to shed (someone’s) blood,’ (ā)lecgan (on dēaðe) ‘to lay (to rest) (in death),’ forhīenan ‘to bring low,’ rēodan ‘to redden (i.e., with blood),’ oþþringan līf / feorh / ealdor ‘to thrust from life,’ ātēon of līchaman / þissum līfe / þissum lēohte ‘to remove (someone) from the body / this life / this light,’  forcuman ‘to overcome,’ forglendrian ‘to swallow up,’ (ge)endian ‘to end.’

shakespeare-with-skullThe poetically inclined might wish to avail themselves of such (bardic) rarities as (ā)bredwian (2x) lit. ‘to prostrate’ (cf. OHG bretōn ‘to strike down’), (ā)brēotan (20x) lit. ‘to break, crush,’ (ā)swebban (9x) lit. ‘to send to sleep,’ forwegan (1x) lit. ‘to shift away.’ Apparently recherché were āstierfan (2x, causative of āsteorfan > ModE to starve), belibban / belifian (4x) lit. ‘to bereave of life,’ forferian (1x) lit. ‘to make pass away,’ forstregdan (1x) ‘to destroy,’ and nǣcan (1x).

To Off or Not To Off

And there were still other verbs, which described the manner of death. And these involved the use of a handy little prefix, to wit, of- (> ModE off-, as in to offset). The basic spatial sense of this prefix was ‘off, away,’ but of- could also be used figuratively to mean ‘to kill’ by whatever means were indicated by the verbal root. The sense development was evidently something like the following: ‘to make s.th. go away’ (cf. to herd off) > ‘to get rid of’ (cf. to shake off) > ‘to kill’ (cf. to (bump) off). Thus we have:

ofbēatan ‘to kill by beating’
offeallan ‘to kill by falling on’
ofhnītan ‘to kill by goring’
ofscēotan / ofscotian ‘to kill by shooting’
ofslēan ‘to kill by striking’
ofsmorian ‘to kill by strangling’
ofsnīðan ‘to kill by cutting’
ofstǣnan / oftorfian / oftyrfan / ofweorpan / ofworpian ‘to kill by hurling s.th. at’
ofstician / ofstingan ‘to kill by piercing’
ofswingan ‘to kill by flogging’
oftred(d)an ‘to kill by treading on’
ofþecgan ‘to kill by consuming’
ofþryccan ‘to kill by squeezing’
ofþrysm(i)an ‘to kill by choking.’

Done to Death

If the verb already sported a (different) prefix, one dispensed with of- and instead could use the prepositional phrase tō dēaðe ‘to (one’s) death’ (variants / on dēað lit. ‘until / into death’): e.g., geættrian tō dēaðe ‘to kill by poison,’ forbærnan tō dēaðe ‘to burn to death,’ beswīcan tō dēaðe ‘to betray to one’s death,’ fordēman tō dēaðe ‘to condemn to death,’ gewundian oð dēað ‘to wound mortally.’  It should be noted that tō dēaðe seems to have been neutral with regard to Aktionsart, i.e., seems to have lacked any sense of reiterated or continued action that the modern counterpart has with less abstract verbs; to shoot to death, for example, now necessarily implies multiple hits, while a semelfactive reading is now the norm with such abstract verbs as to condemn, to betray, etc.

The prefix of-, moreover, could even be used together with tō dēaðe, presumably for emphasis (a bit of overkill, really), and this applies as well to at least a few other resultative verbs with a different prefix, such as ācwellan:

he wæs ofswungen on deað ‘he was flogged to death’ (lit. ‘off-flogged to death,’ i.e., ‘flogged until he was indeed dead’)
oftorfie eall seo burgwaru hine mid stanum to deaðe
‘all the townsfolk are to stone him to death’ (lit. ‘off-turf to death with stones,’ i.e., ‘they are to stone him until he is most certainly dead’)
gif hwa his cild ofsliehð to deaðe ungewealdes, fæste III gear ‘if anyone in striking his child unintentionally kills it, he is to fast for three years’ (lit. ‘off-strikes to death’)
we geliefað þæt hine mann on rode ahenge and hine to deaðe acwealde ‘we believe that he was crucified and put to death’ (lit. ‘killed to death,’ i.e., ‘was indeed killed,’ otherwise there would be no such thing as a resurrection from the dead)
cf. Early ModE a vengeful canker eat him up to death (Shakes. Sonn. xcix, i.e., ‘eat him up until he is indeed no more,’ with the particle up now in place of a verbal prefix, ‘to eat up to death’ = OE ofþecgan tō dēaðe).

Both prefix and phrase could be dispensed with especially when the action was seen as imperfective or habitual: [he] wolde slean eaforan sinne (‘[he] wanted to kill his own son’), with slean rather than ofslean; and þonne feddon hie þa mægdencild and slogon þa hysecild (‘then they would rear up the girls and kill off the boys’), with slogon rather than ofslogon.

Last Words

The prefix ā- functioned in the same way as “offing” of- with a few verbs, e.g., ādrencan lit. ‘to kill by making s.o. drink,’ i.e., ‘to drown s.o.,’ āhangian ‘to kill by hanging (in crucifixion),’ āwyrgan ‘to kill by strangulation,’ ābītan ‘to kill by biting or rending.’ In a few cases, one and the same verb allowed either prefix: of-, ā-þrysm(i)an ‘to kill by choking’ (beside forþrysm(i)an), of-, ā-smorian ‘to kill by choking’ (beside forsmorian). Like the of-verbs, these ācounterparts also allowed the pleonastic use of tō dēaðe, e.g., ācēocian tō dēaðe ‘to choke to death.’ And again like of-, the prefix could be dispensed with to stress habitual or imperfective action, leastwise with some verbs: hu Bonifatius mid his gebede adiedde þone fox þe bat his modor henna (‘how through prayer Boniface killed the fox that was killing his mother’s chickens’), with bat instead of abat here (ābāt = 3p. sg. pret. of ābītan).

All this should leave you now with wælstōwe geweald (lit. ‘wieldership of the slaughter-place,’ i.e., ‘in possession of the field’).