Old English

The Angles and Saxons of England were united by Alfred, who achieved a major victory against the Danes at Edington in 878. West Saxon then became the official language of England and oral histories and writing in other dialects were than translated into it so that 90% of the surviving Old English is in West Saxon. The venerable Bede wrote Ecclesiastica Historia Gentis Anglorum in Latin. Alfred himself back-translated Bede’s “history” from Latin into ‘englisc’ – West Saxon. As it is a geography lesson, it is one of the easiest pieces of Old English with which to start. Use the Czech online version of Bosworth Toller to look up the verbs.

Northumbrian was Bede’s dialect, but very little of it has survived. The Lord’s Prayer is an exception.

Faeder ure, thu the eart on heofenum. Si thin nama gehalgod. To becume thin rice. Geworthe thin willa. On erthon swa swa on heofenum. Urne gedaeghlican half syle us to daeg. And forgyf us ure gyltas. Swa swa we forgyfth urum gyltendum. And ne gelaed thu us on costnunge. Ac alys us of yfele.

Aelfric’s colloquy.

The Modern English translation is from the original Latin. The Old English is taken from interlinear glosses and is shorter.

Master I ask you what you are to talk about? What work have you?

Scholar            I am preparing to be a monk, and every day I sing seven times with the brethren, and I am busy with reading and singing ; yet in the meantime I wish to learn to converse in the Latin language.

Master What do these companions of yours know?

Scholar            Some are ploughboys, some shepherds, some oxherds, some also are huntsmen, some fishermen, some fowlers, some chapmen, some tailors, some salters, some bakers in the place.

Master What do you say, Ploughboy, how do you carry on your work?

Ploughboy    Master, I have to work far too much; I go out at dawn, driving the oxen to the field, and I yoke them to the plough ; I dare not in the severest weather lie hid at home, for fear of my lord ; and when I have yoked the oxen together, and fastened the ploughshare to the plough, I have to plough a whole acre every day, or more.

Master Have you any companion?

Ploughboy       I have a boy who threatens the oxen with a goad, and he is also hoarse with the cold and his shouting.

Master What more do you perform in the day?

Ploughboy       Certainly I do more besides that. I have to supply the mangers of the oxen with hay, and give them water, and carry their dung outside.

Master O indeed ! This is a great labour.

Ploughboy       Yes, it is a great labour that I have to fulfil, for I am not free.


What do you say, Shepherd, have you any work?

Shepherd         Indeed, I have. In early morning I drive my sheep to the pastures, and I stand by them, in heat and cold, with dogs, lest the wolves should devour them, and I bring them back to their folds, and milk them twice a day, and I move their folds besides. I also make butter and cheese, and I am faithful to my lord.

Master Oxherd, what do you work at?

Oxherd            Master, I labour much. When the ploughman unyokes the oxen, I lead them to the pastures, and all night I stand by them watching against thieves, and then, early in the morning, I give them over to the ploughman, well fed and watered.

Master Is that boy one of your companions?

Oxherd            He is.

Master Can you do anything?

Huntsman        One craft I know.

Master Which is that?

Huntsman        I am a huntsman.

Master Whose?

Huntsman        The King’s.

Master In what way do you practise your art?

Huntsman        I make myself nets, and set them in a fitting spot, and I urge on my dogs, to chase the wild animals, till unawares they get into the nets, and so they are entangled, and I cut their throats when in the nets.

Master Don’t you know how to hunt without nets?

Huntsman        Yes, I am able to hunt without nets.

Master How do you manage that?

Huntsman        I hunt the wild animals with swift dogs. I take stags, and boars, and fallow deer, and goats, and sometimes hares.

Master Were you hunting to-day?

Huntsman        I was not, because it is the Lord’s Day, but yesterday I was hunting.

Master What did you catch?

Huntsman        I took the stags in nets, and I cut the throat of the boar.

Master How was it that you were daring enough to cut the throat of the boar?

Huntsman        The dogs drove him towards me, and I, standing towards him, suddenly cut his throat.

Master You were very daring then.

Huntsman        A huntsman must not be fearful, for a number of various beasts haunt the woods.

Master How do you dispose of what you have caught?

Huntsman        I give whatever I catch to the King, as I am his huntsman.

Master And what does he give you?

Huntsman        He clothes and feeds me well, and sometimes he gives me a horse, or a bracelet, that I may the more willingly practise my art. (Anglo-Saxon men were fond of wearing bracelets.)

Master What craft do you know?

Fisherman        I am a fisherman.

Master And what do you gain by your craft?

Fisherman        Food, and clothing, and money.

Master How do you catch the fish?

Fisherman        I get into a boat, and place my nets in the river, and I throw in a hook, and baskets, and whatever they catch I take.

Master What if your fishes are not clean?

Fisherman        I throw the unclean away, and take the clean ones for food.

Master Where do you sell your fish?

Fisherman        In the city.

Master Who are your purchasers?

Fisherman        The citizens. I cannot catch as many as I could sell.

Master What kinds of fish do you catch?

Fisherman        Eels and pike, minnows and joltheads, trout and lampreys, and any fish that swim in the river.

Master Why don’t you fish in the sea?

Fisherman        I do sometimes, but it is a long way to the sea, so I seldom go thither.

Master What do you catch in the sea?

Fisherman        Herrings and salmon, dolphins and sturgeons, oysters and crabs, mussels and winkles, cockles, plaice, soles and lobsters, and the like.

Master Are you desirous of catching a whale?

Fisherman        I am not.

Master Why is that?

Fisherman        Because catching a whale is a dangerous business. I prefer to go on the river in my own boat rather than to accompany a number of boats for hunting a whale.

Master How is that?

Fisherman        Because I like better to catch a fish that I can kill, than a fish that by one blow can drown or put to death both myself and my companions.

Master Yet there are many, who catch whales, and escape the dangers and make great gain thereby.

Fisherman        You speak the truth, but I dare not, for my mind is slothful.

Master Fowler, what have you to say? How do you deceive the birds?

Fowler I have many ways of deceiving the birds; sometimes by nets, sometimes by snares, sometimes by lime, sometimes by whistling, sometimes by a hawk, sometimes by a trap.

Master Have you a hawk?

Fowler I have one.

Master Do you know how to tame them?

Fowler Yes, I know how. What use would they be to me, unless I knew how to tame them?

Master Pray give me a hawk.

Fowler Willingly, if you will give me in return a swift dog. What sort of hawk do you want, a large one, or of the smaller kind?

Master Give me a large one. How do you feed your hawks?

Fowler They feed themselves, and me in the winter, and in the spring I let them fly away to the wood, and I catch young ones in the autumn and tame them.

Master And why do you allow those whom you have tamed to fly away from you?

Foider  Because I do not like feeding them in the summer, for they eat too much.

Master Yet many persons keep the hawks which they have tamed through the summer, that they may have them ready again.

Fowler Yes, they do, but I am not inclined to bestow so much labour on them, as I know how to catch others, and many of them.


What have you to say, Merchant?

Merchant         I maintain that I am useful to the King, and to the nobles, and to the wealthy, and to the whole people.

Master How so?

Merchant         I go on board ship, with my merchandise. I sail to regions beyond the sea, and sell my goods, and buy valuable produce that is not made in this country, and I bring it you here. I face great dangers in crossing the ocean and sometimes I suffer shipwreck, with the loss of all my goods, hardly escaping with my life.

Master What kinds of things do you bring us?

Merchant         Purple and silk, precious stones and gold, various sorts of clothing, pigments, wine and oil, ivory, copper, brass and tin, sulphur and glass, and the like.

Master Are you willing to sell your things just as you bought them there?

Merchant         By no means. If I did so, what good would my labour be to me? I wish to sell dearer here, than I bought there, that I may gain some profit, to keep myself, and my wife and son.


You, Shoemaker, what do you produce ?

Shoemaker      My craft is indeed very useful and necessary for you.

Master How is that?

Shoemaker      I buy skins and hides, and prepare them, and make various kinds of sandals, slippers, shoes, and high boots, besides bridles, harness, and other horse trappings, halters and spurs; and also leather bottles, flasks, purses, and bags. (The order of some of these names has been transposed in the translation so as to bring together those that appear to have the same meaning. It is by no means easy to identify the signification of these names.)


Oh, Salter, of what value is your craft to us?

Salter   My craft is of great value to all of you; none of you would enjoy his dinner or supper unless my craft were his entertainer.

Master How is that?

Salter   What man would enjoy pleasant meats, without the savour of salt? Who could fill his pantry, or his storeroom without my craft? Behold, all your butter and cheese would perish, unless I were near to be their keeper, and you could not use your herbs without me.

Master What have you to say, Baker? What is the use of your craft, or can we live our life without you?

Baker   You might indeed, for a while, live your life without me, but not for long, nor well; for without my craft, every table would seem empty, and without bread all food would be distasteful. I stablish the heart of man, I am the strength of men, and even the little ones cannot pass me by.

Master What shall we say of the Cook? Do we in any way need his craft?

Cook   If you drive me out of your society, you will have to eat your vegetables and your meat raw, and anyhow you cannot have good gravy without my craft.

Master We do not care about your craft, nor is it necessary for us, for we can ourselves cook the things that need to be cooked, and roast what has to be roasted.

Cook   If therefore you drive me out, to do as you say, then you will all be servants, and none of you will be master, and yet without my craft you will not be able to bite your food.