Fæhða Gemyndig: Hostile Acts vs. Enmity

This article of mine was published in the journal Neophilologus in March 2015 (online; print publication date is TBA). It’s behind a paywall, but the copyright conditions allow me to make an earlier draft available, which can be downloaded here.

The topic is pretty esoteric and will probably not be of interest to most of you, but if you’re so inclined to read it, knock yourselves out.


This article systematically examines all sixty-seven instances of the word fǣhþ in the Old English corpus and proposes that instead of the traditional definition of “feud, hostility, enmity,” the word more usually means (1) a specific hostile act or offense, especially homicide, (2) the punishment inflicted for such an offense, or (3) general violence or mayhem. It also examines the lexicographic history of the word and why the traditional definition has lingered despite being problematic. The analysis begins with the word’s use in Anglo-Saxon law codes, where it has a more concrete and precise definition than in poetry and because in poetic works fǣhþ is often used with verbs commonly found in legal usage, such as stǣlan (to accuse, charge with a crime). From the legal codes the analysis moves on to other prose and poetic works, where the word is often used more figuratively, encompassing concepts such as sin—offenses against God—and other unsavory acts. This re-examination of fǣhþ’s meaning usefully checks the impulse to translate it as “feud” in contexts that do not support the idea of perpetual or ongoing hostility, while still allowing translators to deliberately choose to use “feud” or “enmity” where the context justifies it. Recognition that fǣhþ usually means “hostile act” also opens new interpretations of its poetic uses, such as how a connotation of crime affects the view of characters who commit it, the emphasis on injury it introduces, and the legal associations the word brings into the poems.

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