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The Myth of the Feud in Anglo-Saxon England

Author(s): John D. Niles

Source: The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 114, No. 2 (April 2015), pp.
Published by: University of Illinois Press
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The Myth of the Feud in Anglo-Saxon England

John D. Niles, University of Wisconsin

“Every student of the Anglo-Saxons accepts the existence of feud as a

feature of society before the Norman Conquest,” writes Paul Hyams in
his 2003 book Rancor and Reconciliation in Medieval England.1 Emphasiz-
ing that “feud was quite central to Anglo-Saxon political culture,” Hyams
identifies the Anglo-Saxons’ means of resolving disputes through private
warfare—that is, through means grounded in the Old Germanic code of
blood vengeance—not just as an essential feature of the society of that
time, but also as a continuing legacy at least into the thirteenth century, be-
fore the ascendancy of a more modern-looking set of legal practices based
on the state’s centripetal power. Such a conceptual framework nuances,
without essentially changing, a deep-rooted historiographical tendency to
distinguish the people of Anglo-Saxon England (often characterized as a
fierce, independent people of Germanic stock) from their later medieval
counterparts (often portrayed in terms of a civilization of powerful kings
and mature feudalism). Though such a dichotomous view of the English
Middle Ages rarely finds direct expression today, it has an undeniable basis
in the shifts of power and perspective that followed the Conquest, and its
influence is still strong. Thus it seemed natural to Richard Fletcher, as well,
in his 2003 book Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England,
to represent northern England at the end of the Anglo-Saxon period as

1. Paul R. Hyams, Rancor and Reconciliation in Medieval England (Ithaca: Cornell Univ.
Press, 2003), p. 71. An earlier version of Chapter 3 of Hyams’s book appeared under the
title “Feud and the State in Late Anglo-Saxon England,” Journal of British Studies, 40 (2001),
1–43. In his more recent study “Was There Really Such a Thing as Feud in the High Middle
Ages?,” in Vengeance in the Middle Ages: Emotion, Religion and Feud, ed. Susanna A. Throop
and Paul R. Hyams (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2010), pp. 151–75, Hyams reaffirms his
views as expressed in Rancor and Reconciliation while acknowledging alternative perspectives.
Recent scholarship on conflict management in Anglo-Saxon England is one aspect of a
surge of interest in violence, vengeance, and peace-making in the early medieval West. Essay
collections in addition to the one just cited include Violence and Society in the Early Medieval
West, ed. Guy Halsall (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 1998); La Vengeance, 400–1200, ed.
Dominique Barthélemy et al. (Rome: École française de Rome, 2006); Feud in Medieval and
Early Modern Europe, ed. Jeppe Büchert Netterstrøm and Bjørn Poulsen (Aarhus: Aarhus
Univ. Press, 2007); and Feud, Violence and Practice: Essays in Medieval Studies in Honor of Stephen
D. White, ed. Belle S. Tuten and Tracey L. Billado (Burlington: Ashgate, 2010). See also
Vengeance in Medieval Europe: A Reader, ed. Daniel Lord Smail and Kelly Gibson (Toronto:
Univ. of Toronto Press, 2009).

Journal of English and Germanic Philology—April

© 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

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locked in a culture of self-perpetuating, revenge-driven cycles of violence:

of having been a feud culture, in short.2
Such views have not gone without questioning. The historians Guy Hal-
sall and John Hudson, in particular, have expressed skepticism about the
existence of a feud culture in England, whether during the period before
the Conquest (Halsall) or either before or after the Conquest (Hudson).3
Still, historiographical debates along such lines have had little impact
as yet among literary scholars, who have traditionally seen Anglo-Saxon
heroic literature as anchored in a culture where feud was a fact of life.
Stanley J. Kahrl, for example, wrote forty years ago of intertribal feuding
as a theme whose dark tones undermined the heroic mood of Beowulf.4
Martin Camargo has read the interlude in Beowulf known as the “Song
of Finn and Hengest,” which tells of two spasms of violence involving an-
cient Frisians and Danes, as a critique of the hopeless cycles of violence
that characterize a feud culture.5 Similarly, David Day has seen the feud
as a source of the tragic irony that permeates Beowulf. “The feud through
its pervasiveness and unending nature,” writes Day, “provides the poet
with a strong literary device for heightening the tragic feel of his poem,
and also creating a range of deeply ironic effects.”6 New studies relating
to the feud culture of the peoples depicted in Beowulf appear with some
frequency in the critical literature.7 The reception of the late tenth- or
early eleventh-century poem The Battle of Maldon, too, is permeated with
references to a feud culture (in a loose sense of that term) where acts of
intertribal violence are presented as a heroic imperative.8 At least one
literary scholar, however, Stefan Jurasinski, has questioned the basis of
long-standing assumptions about the feud culture of Anglo-Saxon England

2. Richard Fletcher, Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford: Oxford
Univ. Press, 2003).
3. Halsall, “Violence and Society in the Early Medieval West: An Introductory Survey,”
in Violence and Society, ed. Halsall, pp. 1–45; Hudson, “Feud, Vengeance and Violence in
England from the Tenth to the Twelfth Centuries,” in Feud, Violence and Practice, ed. Tuten
and Billado, pp. 29–53; French translation available as “Faide, Vengeance et Violence en
Angleterre (ca. 900–1200),” in La Vengeance, ed. Barthélemy, pp. 341–82.
4. Kahrl, “Feuds in Beowulf: A Tragic Necessity?,” Modern Philology, 69 (1972), 189–98.
5. Camargo, “The Finn Episode and the Tragedy of Revenge in Beowulf,” Studies in Philol-
ogy, 78 (1981), 120–34.
6. Day, “Hwanan sio fæhð aras: Defining the Feud in Beowulf,” Philological Quarterly, 78
(1999), 91.
7. See, e.g., the studies by John M. Hill cited in note 16, below; also Frederick M. Biggs,
“The Naming of Beowulf and Ecgtheow’s Feud,” Philological Quarterly, 80 (2001), 95–112,
for discussion of one feud-like back-story in Beowulf, with additional references.
8. For a review of the earlier critical reception of that poem, see Roberta Frank, “The
Battle of Maldon: Its Reception 1726–1906,” in The Battle of Maldon: Fiction and Fact, ed. Janet
Cooper (London: Hambledon Press, 1993), pp. 237–47. Reacting against the glorification
of violence that has sometimes accompanied the criticism of Maldon, one critic writing in
the post–Vietnam War era has approached that poem as an antiheroic critique of the Anglo-

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by showing how such notions as “the sacred duty and right of revenge”
often attributed to the Anglo-Saxons and other early Germanic peoples
are rooted in nationalistic nineteenth-century German legal-historical
scholarship, the legacy of which continues to influence the critical recep-
tion of such works as Beowulf.9
The view that the feud was central to Anglo-Saxon culture may seem
to gain in plausibility when one takes into account the generally violent
tenor of life at that time.10 When the Anglo-Saxons first settled Britain,
they came as conquerors, organized into one or another folc. Significantly,
this is an Old English term that, in the early Germanic period, had the
sense of “army cohort.” In this heavily militarized era, that same word
designated “the people” as a whole, a usage that later came to be standard
(cf. modern German “das Volk”).11 Throughout the early Anglo-Saxon
period, warlords or kings were faced with the balancing act of minimizing
socially destructive violence while at the same time maintaining a retinue
of trained killers, some of whom may have been conjoined in an uneasy
alliance or may have had ambitions for rulership themselves. Moreover, as
Dorothy Whitelock has maintained, the Anglo-Saxons never seriously ques-
tioned the legitimacy of the principle of blood vengeance, undertaken by
members of a victim’s kin-group (or guild, in the later period) in response
to a perceived crime.12 One of the chief functions of the law codes of the
Anglo-Saxons was to distinguish illicit acts of revenge from their lawful
counterparts, thereby sanctioning vengeance as a recourse to injury as long
as certain rules of engagement were observed. If anyone should doubt that
outbreaks of violence did indeed occur from time to time, Anglo-Saxon
funerary archaeology confirms the existence of male skeletons that show

Saxon ethic of the feud: see Heather Stuart, “The Meaning of Maldon,” Neophilologus, 66
(1982), 126–39.
9. Stefan Jurasinski, “The Ecstasy of Vengeance: Nineteenth-Century Germanism and the
Finn Episode,” in Ancient Privileges: Beowulf, Law, and the Making of Germanic Antiquity (Mor-
gantown: West Virginia Univ. Press, 2006), pp. 79–111. An earlier version of this chapter
appeared as “The Ecstasy of Vengeance: Legal History, Old English Scholarship, and the
‘Feud’ of Hengest,” Review of English Studies, n.s. 55 (2004), 641–61.
10. Tellingly, the first chapter of R. I. Page’s Life in Anglo-Saxon England (London: Batsford,
1970) is titled “The Violent Tenor of Life” (pp. 1–12). Any reader of Bede or the Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle will be familiar with the basis for Page’s emphasis.
11. See the Dictionary of Old English, ed. Antonette diPaolo Healey et al. (Toronto: Institute
of Pontifical Studies, 1986–), letters A-G (available on CD-ROM or through on-line subscrip-
tion), s.v. “folc,” sense 12: “army, (body of) troops.” Note also the discussion of that word in
its wider Germanic context by D. H. Green, Language and History in the Early Germanic World
(Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998), pp. 90–95.
12. See Dorothy Whitelock, The Audience of Beowulf (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1951):
“Killing for the sake of vengeance was not felt to be incompatible with Christian ethics
at any period in Anglo-Saxon times” (p. 13); “There is no period in Anglo-Saxon history
when the interest taken in the carrying out of vengeance would be merely antiquarian”
(p. 17).

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injuries resulting from violent assaults involving weapons that included

the sword.13 Still, we should keep in mind that archaeological evidence of
this kind does not necessarily imply a feud culture, for anatomical injuries
can be suffered in the course of many kinds of violent encounter.
To return to Beowulf, the audience of that poem is assumed to have an
active interest in violent deeds, particularly when an act of aggression
provokes retaliation—the scenario that is the essence of the feud. This is
true regardless of whether one visualizes the poem’s audience (or, better,
audiences) as having been chiefly secular or chiefly clerical in background
and allegiances. Moreover, verse that is grounded in the time-honored
oral traditions of a people, as Old English heroic poetry is thought to have
been, is known to serve a broad swathe of society as a kind of school in
itself, affirming models of conduct to either imitate or avoid. The manner
in which the Beowulf poet tells of feud-like incidents can thus have served
an educational function, in the broad sense of that term.14 It is signifi-
cant in that light that, in the “Song of Finn and Hengest” and during the
whole last third of the poem, the poet dwells on lacrimae rerum far more
searchingly than he tells of human triumphs and joys. We are accustomed
by now to appreciating the ironies that darken the last episode of this
poem, when Beowulf undertakes retaliatory violence against the dragon,
determined to save his people from a catastrophic threat—and satisfied,
in the end, that he has done so—in ignorance of what the tragic aftermath
of the fight will be, as his people lament his death and give voice to fears
of annihilation as a result of renewed outbreaks of intertribal warfare.15
While only some critics have argued that the Beowulf poet aims to under-
mine the ideal of heroic vengeance, all readers are likely to agree that
the poem gives a powerful account of the disasters that can accompany
acts of either unprovoked or retaliatory violence.
A strong counterargument can yet be made that the Anglo-Saxons re-
garded the logic of the feud in a less pejorative manner than most West-
ern people do today. As John M. Hill has maintained in a pair of books
informed by comparative study of anthropological fieldwork undertaken
in various feud-prone parts of the world, the people of Anglo-England

13. S. J. Wenham, “Anatomical Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Weapon Injuries,” in Weap-

ons and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Sonia Chadwick Hawkes (Oxford: Oxford Univ.
Committee for Archaeology, 1989), pp. 123–39.
14. For reflections on the educational role of oral tradition in dominantly nonliterate
societies, see, e.g., Eric A. Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press,
1963); and Havelock, The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity
to the Present (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1986). Note also my essay “Reconceiving Beowulf:
Poetry as Social Praxis,” College English, 61 (1998), 143–66, reworked in Homo Narrans: The
Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1999),
pp. 66–88.
15. For discussion, see Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 4th ed., ed. R. D. Fulk,
Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2008), pp. cix–cx.

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may have viewed acts of violence, if made in response to criminal provo-

cations, as a possible means of settling disputes, not just perpetuating
them.16 In Hill’s view (which I find convincing), Old English literature
includes representations, side by side, of both just revenge and malignant
revenge. Arguably, one of the functions of this literature was to model
social conflict in a manner that would encourage the people of this time
to distinguish one from the other.
Hill mounts his revisionist arguments within a discourse that assumes
the existence of bloodfeud in Anglo-Saxon society. In my own view, how-
ever, this discourse in general has only a tenuous footing. To put the
matter more strongly, we run a serious risk of distorting the social history
of Anglo-Saxon England, while also misconstruing the literature of that
era, if we think of the feud as being practiced then in the customary sense
of that term; namely, “a state of perpetual hostility between two families,
tribes, or individuals, marked by murderous assaults in revenge for some
previous insult or injury.” That is the most concrete OED definition of the
word.17 Guy Halsall offers what is perhaps a slightly superior definition
in the Introduction to his 1998 anthology, Violence and Society in the Early
Medieval West: “Feud is a relationship of lasting hostility between groups,
marked by periodic, cyclical, reciprocal violence.”18 Key to both definitions
are the notions that feud consists of long-lasting hostilities that are pursued
on a reciprocal basis through acts and threats of physical violence. As for the
potential size of the groups of which Halsall speaks, it is generally un-
derstood that feuds are played out between groups that are smaller than
kingdoms or nations, normally in situations outside state management or
control. Otherwise we are in the realm of warfare rather than the feud.19

16. John M. Hill, The Cultural World in Beowulf (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1995); Hill,
The Anglo-Saxon Warrior Ethic: Reconstructing Lordship in Early English Literature (Gainesville:
Univ. Press of Florida, 2000). Note also Hill, “The Ethnopsychology of In-Law Feud and
the Remaking of Group Identity in Beowulf: The Cases of Hengest and Ingeld,” Philological
Quarterly, 78 (1999), 97–123.
17. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989), s.v. “feud,
n.2” (sense 3). Other definitions are offered, as is in keeping with the OED’s comprehensive
aims. Cf. the most general definition (sense 1.a): “Active hatred or enmity, hostility, ill-will,”
and also an intermediately broad definition (sense 2): “A state of bitter and lasting mutual
18. Halsall, “Violence and Society,” pp. 19–20.
19. Other definitions of the feud are available. The historian Alan Kennedy, for example,
defines “feuds” (s.v.) in the following period-specific manner in The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of
Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Michael Lapidge et al. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999): “Feuds were condi-
tions of hostility between individuals or groups within the one community caused by wrongs
done by one side to the other. The consequences of this hostility could be acts of private
revenge or settlement through the payment of compensation for the wrongs committed” (p.
182). Kennedy thus uses the term without reference to long-lasting hostilities pursued on a
reciprocal basis, unlike the literary scholar Jesse L. Byock, who in his essay “Defining Feud:
Talking Points and Iceland’s Saga Women,” in Feud in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed.
Netterstrøm and Poulsen, pp. 95–111, defines the feud in terms of “recurrent violent acts”

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Since scholarly discourse does depend on the meanings ascribed to

words, the present essay will engage closely with Old English and modern
English words in the domain of violence and conflict management. That
does not mean that my departure from the point of view represented by
such scholars as Hyams, Fletcher, Kahrl, Camargo, and Day, and to a lesser
degree Hill, boils down to “mere semantics,” however, for the stakes are
higher than that. This is so in part because the language and literature
pertaining to blood vengeance during the Anglo-Saxon period is expres-
sive of a larger fabric of thought and emotion, whether one speaks of
this as a people’s “mentality,” “mentalities” (in the plural), “worldview,”
“structures of feeling,” “folk psychology,” or another term along such
lines.20 The aspect of this large topic that I hope to illuminate here is the
set of bedrock attitudes among the Anglo-Saxons pertaining to inter-group
violence. This is an arena where I tend to perceive the workings of crime
and punishment, knit tightly into systems of deterrence, where others
have seen the more open-ended contours of the feud.

I. Old English FæHþ: Modern English “Feud”?

Any claims about the centrality of the feud in England before the Conquest
must come to grips with the uncomfortable fact that there is no word
in the Old English lexicon corresponding to our modern English word
“feud.” This in itself does not prohibit our ascribing feuding behavior to
the Anglo-Saxons, any more than the lack of Old English words corre-
sponding to Freud’s “ego,” “id,” and “superego” should prevent us from
psychoanalyzing medieval persons in such terms, should one insist on do-
ing so. Still, anachronistic practices of this kind can provoke resistance in
some quarters on the grounds that our account of the past may be skewed
by the spectacles we don to view it. Ever since the revolutionary anthro-
pological work of Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942), scholars hoping to
understand a foreign culture have rightly set about trying to master the
native vocabulary that pertains to indigenous categories of thought. As
E. E. Evans-Pritchard remarks in his 1951 book Social Anthropology, “The
most difficult task in anthropological fieldwork is to determine the mean-

(p. 96) that often extend over generations: “Feud is distinguished by the sense of longevity”
(p. 97). Hyams, Rancor and Reconciliation, pp. 6–11, declines to offer a definition of “feud”
despite the centrality of that term to his book, preferring to state his arguments without the
constraints that definitions can impose.
20. Much scholarship in this area harkens back to Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s influential study
Primitive Mentality (London: Allen & Unwin, 1923), which attempted a systematic account
of prelogical or prescientific thought. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing
of the Word (New York: Methuen, 1986), could be said to offer an extension of such efforts
in a manner inflected by oral theory.

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ings of a few key words, upon an understanding of which the success of

the whole investigation depends.” 21 Anthropological models are worth
emulating when we approach the culture of Anglo-Saxon England, one
of the more accessible of the “foreign countries” of the early Middle Ages
thanks to its advanced textual culture in both Latin and the vernacular.22
The keyword to scrutinize in this connection is the Old English noun
fæhþ (or fæhþu),23 a word that is routinely translated “feud” in the modern
critical literature. This semantic habit is defended by Hyams as follows:24
Old English literature establishes the cultural centrality of feud. First of all,
the language includes the word fæhðe, cognate to German Fehde, which most
scholars seem happy to translate as “feud.” We should of course be chary of
assuming an institution because of the existence of a term. Still the Anglo-
Saxon doubtless thought he understood the reference.

The courage underlying this last sentence is impressive, for with nine
words, Hyams effaces the science of comparative historical linguistics,
preferring instead to argue through a kind of half-joking philological
innuendo: “Still the Anglo-Saxon doubtless thought he understood the
reference.” An implied argument by cognate is added via modern German
Fehde ‘feud’ or ‘quarrel’. But despite the fact that the three words fæhþe,
Fehde, and feud do derive ultimately from a common Germanic source,
the Old English term is distinct in meaning, as we shall see. As for the
relevance of Fehde to the discussion, any lexicographer who tried to define
an Old English word by citing the modern German reflex of a shared
postulated proto-Germanic root would run the risk of ignoring millennia
of semantic shifts running in several different directions.
Hyams is not alone in speaking of OE fæhþ and modE feud in tandem,
as if they were two versions of one and the same word. Other scholars,
too, have done so for centuries. And yet OE fæhþ is not the etymon of
feud. The complex relation of these two words is outlined in Figure 1.
From this diagram it should be clear that the nouns fæhþ, Fehde, and feud
all derive from a proto-Germanic source that is generally reconstructed as
*faihiþō. This noun, in turn, was formed by suffixation of the adjective *fah
(also represented *faih or *faiho in the scholarly literature).25 Of the three

21. Evans-Pritchard, Social Anthropology (London: Cohen and West, 1951), p. 80.
22. The allusion is to David Lowenthal’s book The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge:
Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985). Anthropological approaches to the medieval past are indebted
to Aaron Gurevich’s writings, especially his Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages, ed. Jana
Howlett (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992).
23. The word has either of those two forms, monosyllabic or disyllabic. The disyllabic form
has a variant spelling, fæhþe. For simplicity’s sake I shall usually refer to the monosyllabic
form alone (the stressed vowel is long even if unmarked as such).
24. Hyams, Rancor and Reconciliation, pp. 73–74.
25. See the discussion by E. Meineke in Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde, 2d
ed., 37 vols. (Berlin: DeGruyter, 1973–2008), VIII, s.v. “Fehde,” section 1.c.; and for the

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Figure 1. The etymology of “feud” and “foe”

cognate nouns set in bold font in the diagram, OE fæhþ has disappeared
from use, while Fehde and feud are still current. As for the adjective *fāh,
it persisted into Old English as the adjective fāh ‘hostile’. This word was
substantivized as the OE noun fāh (or gefāh or gefā) ‘enemy’, the etymon
of modern English “foe.”
The point of interest here is that fæhþ has no modern English reflex.
It is one of a large number of native English words that passed out of use
after the Norman Conquest, which brought with it a new French-based
vocabulary in the domain of conflict resolution: words such as “war,”
“peace,” “violence,” “retribution,” “vengeance,” and “justice,” to cite just
a few (cf. modern French guerre, paix, violence, rétribution, vengeance, and
justice, respectively). If a reflex of OE fæ-hþ did exist in modern English,
then that word would be pronouced [fiθ].26 It would be spelled either
feath (like “heath,” from OE hæ-þ) or possibly feeth (like “teeth,” from OE
tēþ, the plural of tōþ “tooth”). But as we know, no such modern English
word as feath exists. This point, of course, does not rule out the use of the
word “feud” as a translation for OE fæhþ should a modern scholar find
that current word expressive of the meaning of the older one, just as the

Indo-European antecedents of this word-group, see The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-
European Roots, 3d ed., rev. and ed. Calvert Watkins (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2011), s.v.
the root peig-2. There are some uncertainties involving the history and semantics of this
family of words that need not concern us here.
26. I use IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols to indicate pronunciation.

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words “judgment” or “guardianship” can be used to translate OE dom or

mund, respectively, regardless of the etymology of any of these words.
Where does modE feud come from, then? This is a question that opens
up some interesting social and lexical history. While our word “feud,”
too, derives ultimately from proto-Germanic *faihiþō, it does so by way
of an intertwined set of Old Frankish, Low German, and medieval Latin
intermediaries, notably the medieval Latin legal term faida (also spelled
faide, with the variant masculine form faidus). For present purposes we
need not be concerned with the exact route or routes by which a version
of the word faida came into English, a process that would be difficult to
disentangle in any event. Although derivatives of faida appear sporadically
in English-language texts dating from before the fifteenth century, the
word comes into fairly frequent use during the fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries, though “only in Scots writers,” according to the OED, “the form
being always fede, feide, or something phonetically equivalent.”27 In the
sixteenth century the word was taken up in England as well as Scotland,
“being often expressly spoken of as a northern word” and spelled variously
food, foode, feood, fuid, and fewd. Not until 1661 is the spelling feud attested,
the one that is in standard use today. As for Scottish fede, it survived in
various spellings until the early nineteenth century.
When the word feud entered mainstream English in the Tudor and
Stuart periods, therefore, it had distinctly Scottish and northern associa-
tions. When people living in and around the metropolis of London started
using what was for them the new word fewd (in its various spellings), they
were using a word that trailed vestiges of the revenge killings that plagued
the Scottish borders. This was a geographical region notorious for its
bloody, kin-based, back-and-forth conflicts. Londoners of this time did
not feud (except intellectually), but Percies, Douglasses, and Armstrongs
did. While the vogue of “the matter of Scotland” in English literature was
stimulated by the 1603 coronation of King James VI of Scotland as King
James I of England, it also preceded that event and had its own momen-
tum. Noteworthy among the narrative poems of this period that told of
violence on the Scottish border are the ballads “The Battle of Otterburn”
and “The Hunting of the Cheviot” (also known as “Chevy Chase”), each
of which tells a heroic tale of battles between the Percies, whose seat was

27. The following discussion is based on the entries for “feud” in the OED and in the
Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, ed. C. T. Onions (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966),
supplemented by the entry for “feid etc.” in The Concise Scots Dictionary, ed. Mairi Robinson
(Aberdeen: Aberdeen Univ. Press, 1985), and the entry for “fede, feid” in William A. Craigie,
A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, 12 vols. (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1937–2002),
II. Both the quotations in the present paragraph are taken from the etymological section
of the OED entry.

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at Bamborough in Northumberland, and the Douglases, the lords of the

Scottish marches.28 The earliest copies of these poems date from about
1550, by which time both songs seem to have been current in popular tra-
dition. The subsequent popularity of a variety of ballads on related themes
prepared the way for the spectacular vogue of Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of
the Scottish Border (1803), which capitalized on the Scots’ reputation as
hardy border reivers engaged in bloody and tragic feuds.
Here it is worth taking note of an instructive coincidence. Thanks chiefly
to the efforts of humanist scholars working with the encouragement of
Matthew Parker (Archbishop of Canterbury 1559–75), it was also during
the Tudor period that the Old English language, together with the written
documents pertaining to that period, began to be brought into the light
again after centuries of near-oblivion. The story of that heroic effort of
scholarly recovery, which continued sporadically into the nineteenth cen-
tury (when Anglo-Saxon studies were established along more professional
lines), has been told by various scholars in recent years with attention to
its ideological dimensions as well as its antiquarian zeal.29
The point to keep in mind is that the word feud came into the English
language with a primitivist aura about it from the start. It was—and it
remains—a word that members of the dominant society use when refer-
ring to fringe areas, borderlands, rustics, rednecks, “backward-looking”
social institutions, and aspects of a more “primitive” past. In the United
States, for example, hillbillies engage in feuding, but the good people of
New York just shoot one another. One recent scholarly study of the famous
dispute between the Hatfields and McCoys, for example, shows how that
dispute was sensationalized in East Coast newspapers, which catered to
a largely urban middle class. The fame of this episode in Appalachian
regional history had to do with the widespread perception that it was a
throwback to a more primitive era. The author of this study, Altina L.
Waller, concludes that certain crimes that were widely styled as a “feud”
became an argument for interventionist policies in Appalachia on the
part of governmental and commercial interests: the use of the term “was a
convenient way of emphasizing the point that mountaineers were savages
in need of modernization, both economic and cultural.”30

28. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ed. Francis James Child, 5 vols. (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1882–98), nos. 161 and 162 (III, 289–315); James Reed, The
Border Ballads (London: Athlone, 1973).
29. Significant essay collections include Anglo-Saxon Scholarship: The First Three Centuries, ed.
Carl T. Berkhout and Milton McC. Gatch (Boston: Hall, 1982); Anglo-Saxonism and the Con-
struction of Social Identity, ed. Allen J. Frantzen and John D. Niles (Gainesville: Univ. Press of
Florida, 1997); and The Recovery of Old English: Anglo-Saxon Studies in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth
Centuries, ed. Timothy Graham (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000).
30. Altina L. Waller, Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860–1900
(Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1988), p. 232.

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The Myth of the Feud  173

In any event, it is easy to see why, when the word feud was adopted by
legal historians of the Tudor and Stuart periods, it was used with reference
not just to the Scottish frontier, but also to pre-Conquest history. This us-
age is consistent with a general tendency among people of the modern
era to conceive of the Anglo-Saxons as a simpler and more primitive
folk, for they sprang from what some have liked to call “the cradle of the
race.” The vogue of Tacitus’s treatise Germania, which was to become a
European classic after its discovery in 1455, contributed to an idealization
of the Germanic-speaking peoples of Europe as pure in blood and man-
ners, passionate in defense of hearth and homeland, and quick to defend
their honor on the field of war. Richard Verstegan’s book A Restitution
of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities concerning the Most Noble and Renowned
English Nation, first published in Antwerp in 1605 and thereafter reprinted
many times on both sides of the Channel, contributed to this revolution
in thought by emphasizing the Germanic origins of the English people
while celebrating that factor as the source of their manly virtues.31
Feuding, then, is what the early Germanic settlers of England did, we
are told, up to the time of the Conquest, when the Normans and Angevins
introduced more civilized practices grounded in Roman law and based in
a strong central authority, thus laying the foundations of modern systems
of justice. More generally, moreover—especially in historical novels and
other popular media—Saxon candor came to be contrasted with Norman
cunning; Saxon simplicity with Norman luxury; Saxon egalitarianism with
Norman privilege; Saxon valor with Norman force; Saxon oral culture
with Norman textuality; and Saxon oxen, swine, and deer with Norman
beef, pork, and venison. These, at any rate, are some of the elements of
a cultural divide that was largely constructed in the eighteenth and nine-
teenth centuries (during the partisan years of the Napoleonic Wars, in
particular) and that remained influential long afterwards.32
It is not my intention to deny the partial validity of any of these distinc-
tions, the last of which was popularized by Walter Scott in his 1820 novel
Ivanoe. Like almost any binaries in the cultural realm, however, they have a
rhetorical force that can exceed their evidential basis, and it is this tendency
that needs resisting.33 The habit of contrasting the virile Anglo-Saxon with

31. See Graham Parry, The Trophies of Time: English Antiquarians of the Seventeenth Century
(Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 49–69; and Richard W. Clement, “Richard Verstegan’s
Reinvention of Anglo-Saxon England: A Contribution from the Continent,” in Reinventing the
Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ed. William F. Gentrup (Turnhout: Brepols, 1998), pp. 19–36.
32. For discussion, see Clare A. Simmons, Reversing the Conquest: History and Myth in Nine-
teenth-Century British Literature (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1990).
33. M. T. Clanchy’s seminal book From Memory to Written Record: England 1066–1307 (Lon-
don: Edward Arnold, 1979), for example, plays in its title upon the idea that while the
Anglo-Saxon period was one of “folk memory,” the proper start-up date for a documentary
history of England is 1066. In the second (1993) and third (2013) editions of his book,

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the cultured Frenchman remains an alluring one despite the strong efforts
of recent literary scholars and social historians to conceive of the years
before and after 1066 in terms of continuities rather than binary opposi-
To sum up my main point in this section: Hyams speaks with false confi-
dence when, thinking of early England, he states that “continued recourse
to the word feud itself is surely justified in view of its etymological origins in
the early medieval Germanic languages.”35 If Old English is to be included
among the early medieval Germanic languages (as it must be), then the
basis for this claim is unclear, for the pathways by which a proto-Germanic
word with the root sense “hostility” became the modern English word “feud”
include medieval Latin (faida) and medieval Scots (the feid) but not Old
English. The claim that Anglo-Saxon England was a “feud culture” therefore
needs to be justified on grounds other than etymology.

II. The semantics of Old English FæHþ

To return to a semantic issue that I have raised without yet resolving, how-
ever: what was the meaning of the Old English word fæhþ (or fæhþu)? This
question cannot be resolved by appeal to what would normally be the chief
authority in such matters, the Toronto-based Dictionary of Old English, for
the entry for that word in this almost-uniformly reliable research tool is, I
think, untenable.
The heart of that entry is quoted below.36
fæhþ, fæhþu
Noun, feminine, class 2
ca. 60 occurences (mainly in poetry, esp. Beowulf)

1. feud, state of feuding, enmity, hostility; hostile act

Clancy has taken progressively greater account of Anglo-Saxon textual production during
the period before 1066.
34. See, e.g., the essays included in Rewriting Old English in the Twelfth Century, ed. Mary
Swan and Elaine M. Treharne (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000), as well as Tre-
harne’s recent book Living Through Conquest: The Politics of Early English, 1020–1220 (Oxford:
Oxford Univ. Press, 2012). On the social-historical side, worth note is the temporal span
encompassed by the recently published book A Social History of England 900–1200, ed. Julia
Crick and Elisabeth Van Houts (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011).
35. Hyams, Rancor and Reconciliation, p. 32.
36. Dictionary of Old English, A-G Online <www.doe.utoronto.ca/>, ed. Antonette diPaolo
Healey et al. (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press), s.v. “fæhþ, fæhþu.” So as to save space in
the following inset quotation, variant spellings and supporting quotations are omitted, as
are minor subdefinitions of the word. Abbreviations are expanded for the sake of clarity,
while leading words are set in boldface font.

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The Myth of the Feud  175
1.a. with specific verbs: fæhþe (ge)wrecan ‘to avenge a feud’; fæhþe gebetan ‘to
settle a feud’; fæhþe feo þingian ‘to settle a feud with money’; fæhþe feo
leanian ‘to reward (someone) for settling a feud’
1.b. fæhþ and firen ‘enmity and violence’; also in plural, ‘feuds and violent
2. in legal texts: feud (requiring reparation determined by law)

The word is thus glossed first of all as “feud,” pure and simple. The two
more detailed definitions that follow refine that sense of the word, fine-
tuning its semantics first in the direction of a general state of hostilities and
then in the direction of crimes calling for reparation.
For me to review each and every one of the twenty-six illustrative quota-
tions cited by the DOE under the first sense of fæhþ—“feud, state of feuding,
enmity, hostility; hostile act”—would require more space than is available;
but should any persons undertake such a review on their own in an un-
prejudiced manner, I believe they will agree that in not one instance does
that word refer to a state of long-lasting hostility between rival individuals
or groups—an essential element in most definitions of “feud.” Rather, the
meaning of each illustrative quotation becomes clear if fæhþ is glossed by
one or another of the modern English terms “enmity,” ‘hostility,” “act of
violence,” or “crime.” Using the modern English word “feud” to gloss these
passages, by contrast, will result in anything from an oddity to outright non-
sense. Later on in this essay, I will defend this claim through analysis of a
number of specific passages or scenes of Old English literature, including a
dozen instances where the word fæhþ is employed; for now I must ask readers
simply to register this assertion on my part. A similar argument applies to
section 1.b of the DOE definition, which concerns the alliterative doublet
fæhþ and firen. When this phrase occurs in the singular, the DOE aptly glosses
it “enmity and violence.” Somewhat later I will argue that, correspondingly,
an apt gloss of the plural phrase fæhþe and firena, which occurs only once
in the corpus of Old English, is “violent deeds and crimes” rather than the
DOE’s “feuds and violent deeds.”
As for sense 2 of the DOE definition—“in legal texts: feud (requiring
reparation determined by law)”—the Dictionary cites four illustrative quota-
tions. The most instructive of these is drawn from section 1 of the second
law code of King Edmund (r. 939–46), the grandson of King Alfred. This
provision reads as follows:37
Gif hwa heonanforð ænigne man ofslea, ðæt he wege sylf ða fæhþe, butan
he hy mid freonda fylste binnan twelf monðum forgylde be fullan were, sy
swa boren swa he sy.

37. Text as quoted in the DOE, s.v. “fæhþ.” For the full text of Edmund II, see F. Lieber-
mann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, 3 vols. in 4 (Halle: Niemeyer, 1903–16), I, 186–90; cf. A.
J. Robertson, The Laws of the Kings of England from Edmund to Henry I (Cambridge: Cambridge
Univ. Press, 1925), pp. 8–11.

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Like most other illustrative quotations included in the DOE, this sentence
is left untranslated. Its meaning, I believe, is as follows:38
If anyone henceforth is guilty of homicide, he shall individually be subject to
sanctioned vengeance [ða fæhþe], unless within one year, with the aid of his
supporters, he pay compensation to the full amount of the man’s wergild,
according to the slain man’s rank.

In other words, this legal provision is meant to restrict the workings of

retaliatory justice to the individual killer himself, rather than having ven-
geance extend to other members of his kin-group. The provision strikes
a radical departure from the principle of collective responsibility that lies
at the heart of early Germanic law. One wonders if it was ever enforced.
Certainly it is a strong step in the direction of establishing the free, re-
sponsible individual as the basis of social order, as opposed to subsuming
criminals into the collective responsibility of a group of freondas (an Old
English term that can equally well denote either “friends” or “kinsmen”).
Punishment of innocent persons through an act of retaliatory violence is
thus criminalized—quite rightly so, by today’s standards of justice—rather
than being subsumed into a system for restoring social equilibrium. What
led to King Edmund’s promulgation of a law of this kind is unlikely to have
just been a desire to restrict violence, for blood vengeance remained sanc-
tioned according to these rules of engagement. Instead, what is registered
here is a sense that each criminal should be held individually responsible
for his wrongs. Since, as Jurasinski has shown,39 this same principle had
been incorporated into earlier Germanic legislation from the Continent,
this provision of II Edward might have been intended to make English law
more fully consonant with Continental models. Any such legal provision,
as well, embodied the spirit infusing medieval canon law whereby indi-
viduals were held responsible for their own transgressions, in contrast to
age-old assumptions whereby a person’s identity as a member of a group
trumped his individual personhood.
In any event, what the term fæhþ denotes in II Edmund 1 is “sanctioned
vengeance.” To gloss this instance of the word as “feud” would be mis-

38. My translation is similar to the one offered by Robertson, Laws of the Kings of England,
p. 9, except that where she translates “bear the vendetta,” using a term with Mediterranean
associations that may seem exotic in this context, I translate “be subject to sanctioned ven-
39. Jurasinski, “Ecstasy of Vengeance,” p. 106, cites the Lex Burgundionum and the Lex
Visigothorum, two sixth- or seventh-century codes (though neither survives in a manuscript of
such an early date). The first of these specifies, “interfecti parentes nullum nisi homicidam
persequendum esse cognoscant . . . ita nihil molestiae sustinere patimur innocentem” (the
kin of the slain are to recognize no one but the killer as an object of vengeance . . . for we
will countenance no harm to the innocent). The Lex Visigothorum, similarly, legislates “Quod
ille solus culpabilis erit, qui culpanda conmiserit” (that he alone will be culpable who com-
mitted the offense; my translation).

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leading, seeing that there is nothing here to imply long-lasting hostilities

marked by tit-for-tat killings. Instead, we are in the familiar realm of crime
and punishment—a dyad that in the Anglo-Saxon context took the form
of “crime and recompense,” seeing that the primary means of restoring
equilibrium after a crime was committed was through the system of mon-
etary compensation paid to the victim’s kin-group.
While constraints of space do not permit much discussion of the other
four instances where fæhþ occurs in the Anglo-Saxon laws, so as not to seem
to neglect them I will offer what I believe to be accurate translations of
these clauses into current English.40 Section 74.2 of the Laws of Ine reads
“ne þearf se frige mid þam þeowan mæg gieldan, buton he him wille fæhðe
of aceapian, ne se þeowa mid þy frigean.” What this typically condensed
provision of the laws means is, “a freeman need not contribute to the com-
pensation owed by a slave, unless he wishes to buy off from him the threat
of blood vengeance, nor need the slave contribute to the compensation
owed by a freeman.” What the clause thus concerns is not open-ended feud-
ing but rather the protocols whereby wergild is raised among members of
the kindred. Section 5.2b of the first set of the Laws of Cnut (the ones that
pertain to the clergy) reads, “and gyf man gehadodne mid fæhþe belecge
& secge, þæt he wære dædbana oððe rædbana, ladige mid his magum, þe
fæhþe moton mid beran oððe forebetan.” The meaning of this provision
is, “and if a member of the clergy is accused of a criminal act requiring
recompense, being charged either with having killed a man or with having
counselled that killing, let him mount his legal defense together with those
of his kindred who must bear the threat of blood vengeance along with him,
or who may pay recompense with him to avert that threat.” This provision
thus specifies what procedures are to be followed in the unusual situation
where a member of the clergy is charged with homicide; nothing is said here
about open-ending feuding. Finally, Chapter 42 of the Laws of King Alfred
is titled be fæhðe. Since the point of Chapter 42 is to establish the rules of
engagement whereby either formal sanctuary or a temporary abeyance of
hostilities is to be made available to a man who is suddenly beset or besieged
by his enemies, a meaningful translation of the title is “concerning blood
vengeance,” though the law probably aims to defuse violent confrontations
of any kind, regardless of their cause or motivations.41 Here too, if the mod-
ern English term “feud” is used to translate fæhð, it misdirects attentions
to matters that this chapter of Alfred’s laws does not address.

40. I cite the passages as listed in the DOE. No translations are offered there apart from
the umbrella definition of fæhþ as “feud (requiring reparation determined by law).”
41. For discussion of sanctuary laws in their relation to attempts made to regulate private
vengeance, see Karl Shoemaker, “Sanctuary, Blood-feud, and the Strength of Anglo-Saxon
Government,” in Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, 400–1500 (New York: Fordham
Univ. Press, 2011), chap. 5.

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Perhaps it is time, though, for me to offer my own descriptive account

of the meaning of the OE word fæhþ.
(1) First, fæhþ is often used in a general sense to refer to “an act of
violence.” In the great majority of instances, what is implied is “an act of
illegitimate or criminal violence”: that is, an act of violence that disturbs
social equilibrium and requires a response, if justice is to be asserted.
(2) Correspondingly, the word is also used, especially in legal texts, to
denote “the threat of vengeance that is kindled by a criminal act.” Thus the
phrase wege . . . ða fæhþe means “to be subject to sanctioned vengeance.”
(3) Third, fæhþ can refer to “a general state of hostility or enmity.”
What this means in practice, it seems, is not just that people are feeling
contentious, but rather that one party has avowed that it is in a state of
fæhþ with another. Someone has thrown down the gauntlet, so to speak.
If you are in a state of fæhþ with me, then (assuming that we abide by II
Edmund 1, as quoted above) I have one year to negotiate a settlement
with you. After that I may expect to encounter more than hostile words
on your part. This was obviously a situation fraught with danger on both
sides, but bloodshed was not the inevitable result. Sundry means of pre-
serving the peace, including both the payment of wergild and rituals of
reconciliation, were available to the people of these times, as has been
emphasized in the recent scholarly literature.42
If this direction of thought is accepted (even if provisionally), then
the question may well be asked: “Why did the persons who wrote the
DOE entry for the word fæhþ take a turn down this path? What led those
learned philologists, to whom our highest gratitude and respect is due,
to veer from the mark in this particular?”
There is an answer to that question, I believe: namely, the power of tradi-
tion. The current DOE definition of fæhþ perpetuates language that was
used by Bosworth and Toller in their monumental Anglo-Saxon Dictionary of
1898, where fǽhþ (spelled several different ways) is glossed as “feud, ven-
geance, enmity, hostility, deadly feud”—a definition that remains current in
Toller’s Supplement of 1921, where “feud” is the short term used.43 The same
practice is followed in several landmark publications of earlier date, notably
in John Mitchell Kemble’s 1849 study The Saxons in England. Kemble too
equates the word fæhðe with our word “feud” while also characterizing the

42. Note the title of Hyams’s book, with its key term “reconciliation.” A recent scholarly
turn toward the study of medieval conflict resolution is signaled by Jenny Benham’s Peace-
making in the Middle Ages: Principles and Practice (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 2011).
Of related interest are the essays included in Peace and Protection in the Middle Ages, ed. T.
B. Lambert and David Rollason (Durham: Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies,
43. Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford
Univ. Press, 1898), with Supplement by Toller (1921) and Enlarged Addenda and Corrigenda
by A. Campbell (1972).

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OE term (somewhat overenthusiastically) as denoting “the right of private

warfare,” a right that “lies at the root of all Teutonic legislation.”44 Kemble,
in turn, would have had recourse to the first dictionaries of Old English,
the ones published by William Somner in 1659 and Edward Lye in 1772.
In the first of these he would have found fæhþ defined as “faction, feud,
enmity, revenge, vengeance.”45 The origin of this lexicographical habit can
be traced back yet farther to the year 1568, when William Lambarde’s Ar-
chaionomia appeared in print, the first modern edition of the Anglo-Saxon
laws.46 In the preface to this edition, Lambarde lists those Old English legal
terms that he thought needed glossing. Among these is fæhþ (misspelled
fæþh), glossed as “deadly fewd.” Lambarde’s edition was based on transcripts
and notes made by his remarkable predecessor and friend, the antiquarian
scholar Lawrence Nowell (1530–ca. 1570). Nowell’s Old English wordlist,
which was not published until the twentieth century, includes the following
bilingual entry for fæhþ: “factio, inimicitia; enmitie, fede or deadly fede.”47 It
seems that when the pioneering humanist scholars of the sixteenth century
searched for an equivalent to OE fæhþ in the English of their own day, what
they did was to draw on the Scottish and northern word feid, fede, or fewd,
which might have had a somewhat exotic appeal at that time. The Anglo-
Saxons were thus implicitly characterized as rednecks of the early Middle
Ages, much as the Scots were thought to observe atavistic customs in the
realm of conflict management.48
A while ago, however, I made a rather sweeping claim to the effect
that no feuds worthy of that name are depicted in either the historical or
the literary records pertaining to Anglo-Saxon England. In the next two
sections, I will offer support for that claim, looking first at an interesting

44. John Mitchell Kemble, The Saxons in England: A History of the English Commonwealth till
the Period of the Norman Conquest, 2 vols. (London: Longman, 1849), I, 267–68. Writing in
the political climate of 1848, a year when many Europeans had hopes of social revolution,
Kemble here speaks more freely of “the right of private warfare” than the medieval evidence
would seem to warrant. His use of the anachronistic term “commonwealth” in this book’s
title, too, alerts one to the political orientation of this brilliant and sometimes partisan
45. William Somner, Dictionarium Saxonico-Latino-Anglicum (Oxford, 1659), s.v. “fæhþ.”
Since Lye’s dictionary is written in the medium of Latin, it has no direct bearing on the
present discussion.
46. Lambarde’s foundational edition of the laws was later reprinted as an appendix to
Abraham Wheelock’s 1644 bilingual edition of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, with supplemen-
tary texts; it was the standard resource for many years.
47. Albert H. Marckwardt, ed., Laurence Nowell’s Vocabularium Saxonicum (Ann Arbor: Univ.
of Michigan Press, 1952), p. 66. On Nowell’s relations with Lambarde, see Rebecca Brack-
mann, The Elizabethan Invention of Anglo-Saxon England: Laurence Nowell, William Lambarde,
and the Study of Old English (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2012).
48. See in this connection Jenny Wormald, “The Blood Feud in Early Modern Scotland,”
in Disputes and Settlements: Law and Human Relations in the West, ed. John Bossey (Cambridge:
Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 101–44.

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chapter in late Anglo-Saxon history and then at a select group of literary

texts, singling out Beowulf especially for attention.49

III. Fletcher’s Bloodfeud

In his book Bloodfeud, the English historian Richard Fletcher has offered
a narrative reconstruction of a series of sensational incidents that took
place in Northumbria during a period extending from the reign of King
Cnut (1016–35) to that of King William I (1066–87), setting those events
into relation to the momentous political changes of those years. The story
starts in the year 1016, when King Cnut, having just landed in England, was
in the process of consolidating his power in the north. A Northumbrian
ealdorman (or earl) named Uhtred, who had been a supporter of King
Æthelred “the Unready,” was ambushed and killed, along with a number
of his men, by a man named Thurbrand the Hold, a supporter of King
Cnut. After a lapse of some years, perhaps in the mid-1020s, Uhtred’s
son Ealdred, earl of Bernicia, killed Thurbrand the Hold. After another
lapse of time, in 1038, Thurbrand’s son Carl killed Ealdred, despite what
may have been a sincere effort on the part of the two men to establish a
lasting peace. To conclude this sequence of events—shifting forward in
time now to the period shortly after the Norman Conquest—Ealdred’s
great-grandson Waltheof, earl of Northumbria, cornered Carl’s sons and
grandsons at an estate not far from York, probably in the winter of 1073–
74, and killed nearly all of them. For reasons that were perhaps unrelated,
Earl Waltheof was executed by King William I two years later.
Fletcher freely grants that our knowledge of these events is frustratingly
spotty. The killings took place over a period of almost sixty years. Momen-
tous things happened in between, some of them related to these events
and some not. Any narrative that a modern historian constructs concern-
ing these rival families therefore involves a process of deduction based on
a radical selection of data. Importantly, as well, political rivalries of some
magnitude, and not just personal or family animosities, were involved in
these disputes. Uhtred’s base of power was Bernicia, the northern half of
Northumbria, while Thurbrand’s was Deira, the southern half. The ques-
tion arises, should any of these killings be ascribed to regional rivalries,
or to the politics of royal succession, rather than to a desire for personal

49. The distinction between the two categories of history and literature has rightly been
problematized of late. The term mythistory, favored by the American historian William H.
McNeill in his book Mythhistory and Other Essays (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1986), has wide
application to the historical writings of the Middle Ages, for it is amenable to the tendency
of various genres to embody popular understandings rather than “objective facts,” often in
a manner that had foundational value for the society in question.

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vengeance in a family feud?50 Moreover, does it matter that the names of

many of the key players are Scandinavian in origin, as is true of Uhtred,
Thurbrand, and Carl (among the major figures), as well as persons with
such names as Gamel, Orm, and Ulf (among the minor ones)?
Then there is the question of sources. Almost the sole basis of Fletcher’s
reconstructed history is a Latin account, De obsessione Dunelmi, written by
an Anglo-Norman chronicler known as the Durham Anonymous.51 Since
this author (who was active around the year 1100) provides little more
than a synopsis of events, Fletcher fills in the blanks with a series of hints
built upon suspicions, some of which relate to his personal knowledge of
the physical terrain extending from York to the Scottish border. Without
additional knowledge about the motives of the persons involved, however,
can the word “bloodfeud” be used with confidence to refer to these events?
Should much weight be put on any one attempt to fathom the human
meaning of these incidents when, at one point, Fletcher concedes that
“customary historiographical disciplines must be suspended for a while”
as he tries to get at the heart of one key incident (p. 188), for the account
by the Durham Anonymous raises “questions, questions, and not a hope
of answering them” (p. 190)? Moreover, how reliable can we take the
Durham Anonymous’s account to be? Is it possible that this chronicler,
writing for French-speaking patrons long after most of these events took
place, was tempted to embellish his account, as when we are told that
after the initial protagonist in these disputes, Ealdorman Uhtred, won
a major battle against the Scots, he collected the heads of his enemies,
then carefully washed the heads, braiding their hair in the fashion that
was then the custom, before impaling them on stakes around the walls of
Durham? “That is what the Anglo-Saxons did,” the Anglo-Norman chroni-
cler implies. Although Fletcher calls this grotesque account of the severed
heads “credible” (p. 54), he does not cite evidence from the Anglo-Saxon
period that would corroborate such a picture—one that, from a narrato-
logical perspective, has the function of preparing the way for the killing
of Uhtred as an act of nemesis. All that one can say with confidence about
this incident is that it makes for a good story: the Durham Anonymous

50. William E. Kapelle, The Norman Conquest of the North: The Region and its Transformation
1000–1135 (London: Helm, 1979), had previously characterized the conflict between the
houses of Uhtred and Thurbrand as “not a straightforward blood feud at all” (p. 19, with
discussion at pp. 27–51) but rather as a regional power struggle. Although Fletcher waves
off this view as resting “in the last resort on questions of definition” (Blood Vengeance, p. 216,
n. 5), Hudson, “Feud, Vengeance and Violence,” agrees with Kapelle that this northern
dispute “may be the product of particular circumstances rather than a rare survival of a
more general English phenomenon” (p. 49).
51. For a translation of this source into modern English, with commentary, see Christo-
pher J. Morris, Marriage and Murder in Eleventh-Century Northumbria: A Study of ‘De Obsessione
Dunelmi’, Borthwick Papers, 82 (York: Borthwick Institute of Univ. of York, 1992).

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was evidently someone who, like our New Historicists, knew the value of
sensational details when writing about the past.
This debatable ground, then, is the turf upon which Richard Fletcher
builds his history. By titling his book Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-
Saxon England, he invites his readers to take a single anonymous Anglo-
Norman cleric’s account of a series of bloody events in Northumbria—even
if these events took place generations earlier, featuring persons of mixed
Anglo-Scandinavian descent on both sides—as broadly representative of
the feud culture of Anglo-Saxon England. While one could scarcely ask
for such a book to have been titled The Challenge of Writing History: A Hy-
pothetical Reconstruction of Some Violent Events in Eleventh-Century Northumbria,
a title along such lines would more accurately express the book’s achieve-

IV. Hyams’s Beowulfian Feuds

In Chapter 3 of Rancor and Reconciliation, Hyams draws on Beowulf as a

primary source of evidence for the feud culture of the Anglo-Saxons.
This is a poem that has long offered its modern readers profitable entry
points for discussion of early English customs or social institutions such
as gift-giving, oaths, marital arrangements, musical entertainments, and
the rituals of drink, among other things. Some risks are involved in lean-
ing on Beowulf for historically motivated research, however. To raise an
analogy that is not as far-fetched as may seem: it would be a bold scholar
who would use Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as the basis for serious
observations about the social history either of Wonderland or of Queen
Victoria’s England. As a heroic story whose setting is both long ago and
far away from Anglo-Saxon England, Beowulf is quite obviously a fantasy
in many regards. While a certain number of historically attested figures
have a role in either the poem’s main story or its by-stories (including King
Hygelac of the Geatas, King Offa of the Angles, and King Eormanric of
the Goths), many of the poem’s dramatis personae are unattested elsewhere
and may have been invented for this occasion (e.g., Unferth, Wealhtheow,
Ecgtheow, Freawaru, Wiglaf). Other figures pertain to a common my-
thology of the originary past of the northern peoples (e.g., King Hroth-
gar of the Danes, King Ongentheow of the Swedes). As for the poem’s
protagonist, Beowulf of the Geatas (whatever exactly that tribal name is
meant to denote), he is unknown in the historical record. Moreover, he
is unlikely ever to be found there, given his close affinities to the hero
of a folktale cycle that is well known in northern Europe, some versions
of which feature a “Strong John” character with ursine traits that derive

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from his having been born of a bear and a mortal woman. The landscape
of Beowulf, as well, is furnished with such special denizens as sea-serpents,
cannibalistic ogres, and a flying, fire-breathing dragon. Any knowledge
about Anglo-Saxon social institutions that one hopes to extract from this
poem therefore has to be taken as provisional, for it pertains more to the
realm of mental modelling than to that of historical report.
Hyams enumerates thirteen Beowulfian feuds. Since they are the pri-
mary evidence he cites in support of his assertion that “Old English lit-
erature establishes the cultural centrality of feud” (p. 73), I will discuss
this evidence systematically, even though he offers it in no more than
an offhand way (in n. 9, p. 74). The common element in these thirteen
episodes, though not present in each one, is the poet’s use of the noun
fæhþ—or, alternatively, the verb wrecan ‘to avenge’—in one place or an-
other. Although a list of thirteen items may seem long, one can cut right
into it, for (as I think will be agreed) a number of its constituent elements
have little to do with the bloodfeud as commonly understood. Because
a large scholarly literature is available on almost all aspects of Beowulf, I
must apologize in advance for not documenting the various interpreta-
tions that critics have made of each of these episodes; instead, I shall only
try to ascertain what is or is not feudlike in each instance.
Here then are Hyams’s “thirteen Beowulfian feuds,” taken up in an or-
der that is meant to correspond very roughly to their increasing plausibility
as evidence for an Anglo-Saxon institution of the feud. Since most of the
Old English passages that I analyze in connection with these “feuds” are
among the illustrative quotations cited by the DOE, s.v.“fæhþ,” much of
the ensuing discussion can be read as a continuation of my earlier treat-
ment of the semantics of that word.52

1. Unferth is said to have killed his brothers (ll. 587–89).53

Upon his first arrival in Denmark, the young hero Beowulf is challenged
by Unferth (MS Hunferth), one of King Hrothgar’s chief thegns, who
impugns both his athletic skills and his good judgment. In a scathing
verbal counterattack, Beowulf alludes to Unferth having killed his broth-
ers, a crime for which, the hero says, he will suffer punishment in hell.
Comment: Unferth’s killing of his brothers remains a blank, for we are
told nothing of the circumstances of this imputed deed; nor are we told of

52. So as to save space while avoiding the distractions of poetic form, I will cite Old English
passages that involve the word “fæhþ” directly from the DOE. Line numbers refer to Klaeber’s
Beowulf, ed. Fulk, Bjork, and Niles. The quotations in items 8 and 9 below are taken from
Klaeber’s Beowulf, disregarding both line breaks and diacritics.
53. Not singular “brother,” as per Hyams, Rancor and Reconciliation, p. 74, n. 9.

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its consequences except for the prediction that Unferth will be damned.
An act of fratricide does not make a feud, nor is any term denoting “feud”
used in this passage. We may move on to the next item.

2. Hæthcynn kills his brother Herebeald

(ll. 2435–43, 2462–71).
This incident pertains to the legendary history of the Danes (though we
know of it only via this Old English passage). It is mentioned in the course
of a long retrospective speech addressed by Beowulf to his companions
before he sets out to kill the dragon. It seems that “a bed of death was
prepared unfittingly” for the older brother, Herebeald, after Hæthcynn
missed the mark with an arrow and shot his kinsman instead. The aged
King Hrethel, the father of the two men, is stricken with grief, not just for
the loss of his son but also because the killing must remain unavenged:
“wihte ne meahte on ðam feorhbonan fæghðe gebetan” (ll. 2464b–65).
Comment: The poet emphasizes that this was an accidental misfortune,
not a killing that took place within the context of a feud. The two brothers
were not in a condition of hostility against one another, as far as we are
told; it is just as likely that they had amicable relations (as would heighten
the pathos of the event). The tragedy, from an Old Germanic perspec-
tive, was that there was no way for the brother’s death to be balanced out
either by monetary compensation (the payment of wergild) or, failing
that, blood vengeance. The Old English verses can be translated: “In no
way was he [King Hrethel] able to gain recompense from the killer for
that act of violence.” The incident has no bearing whatsoever on the
conduct of a feud, in the sense of a continuing exchange of hostilities;
what it concerns, in the context of Danish dynastic succession, is a father’s
inconsolable grief for the senseless death of a son.

3. God banishes Cain for the killing of Abel (ll. 106–14).

This Biblical incident is worked into the narrative of Beowulf when the
monster Grendel is first introduced, when Grendel and his mother are
said to be of the seed of the exiled Cain. The key phrase comes at lines
107b–10: “þone cwealm gewræc ece drihten, þæs þe he Abel slog; ne
gefeah he þære fæhðe, ac he hine feor forwræc, metod for þy mane,
mancynne fram.”
Comment: What this passage concerns is an archetypal instance of crime
and punishment, not a feud, for Cain is banished without being in a posi-
tion to strike back at God. Moreover, this Biblical story can tell us nothing
about Anglo-Saxon social history or mores. The passage in question is best
translated, “The eternal Lord avenged that killing, the one whereby he

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killed Abel; he [Cain] did not rejoice in that act of violence, but on the
contrary, He, the Lord, banished him far from humankind on account of
that crime.” An instructive parallel to this passage occurs at lines 192a–92
of Maxims I (also known as Exeter Maxims): “wearð fæhþo fyra cynne, siþþan
furþum swealg / eorðe Abeles blode.” The sense of these lines is, “a state
of violence came into being for humankind from the moment when the
earth swallowed Abel’s blood.”54 What both these passages speak of is
not feuding, in a tit-for-tat sense, but rather the origins of violence in the
postlapsarian world.

4. Sigemund fought various enemies (ll. 874b–97).

After Beowulf has won his victory over Grendel, a group of warriors ride
back from Grendel’s mere to Heorot, while a skilled singer entertains them
with tales of heroism and wonder. The singer calls to mind the deeds of
Sigemund, the legendary dragon-slayer: “welhwylc gecwæð þæt he fram
Sigemunde[s] secgan hyrde ellendædum, uncuþes fela, Wælsinges gewin,
wide siðas, þara þe gumena bearn gearwe ne wiston, fæhðe ond fyrena”
(ll. 874b–79a).
Comment: All that the poet tells us about Sigemund is that he was in-
volved in sensational adventures, once upon a time. While it is possible
that the poet and his audience knew of legends telling of Sigemund’s
rivalry with Siggeirr, king of Gautland (as is recounted in the thirteenth-
century Volsunga Saga),55 no mention is made here of Siggeir and his
people, nor are we told anything substantive about Sigemund’s father
(Wæls, Volsungr), who in Old Norse tradition was treacherously killed by
Siggeir. The Beowulf poet characterizes Sigemund as a great adventurer
who was equally capable of robbing men and killing a dragon. Although
the grammar of the sentence quoted here is amenable to several different
interpretations, the phrase fæhðe ond fyrene (l. 879a) is perhaps best taken
in grammatical apposition with the accusative expressions uncuþes fela,
gewin, and siðas, as well as with the þæt . . . clause that begins in line 875,
all of which serve as objects of the verb gecwæð. Translate, tentatively: “He
declared just about everything he had heard tell about Sigemund’s deeds
of valor, many events of an unheard-of kind, the son of Wæls’s struggle

54. While S. A. J. Bradley, Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London: Dent, 1982), translates these same
lines as “Feuding has existed among mankind ever since the earth swallowed the blood of
Abel” (p. 350), his choice of the word “feuding” here is little more than a Germanic touch.
As Charles D. Wright has remarked in “The Blood of Abel and the Branches of Sin: Genesis
A, Maxims I, and Aldhelm’s Carmen de uirginitate,” Anglo-Saxon England, 25 (1996), “the
general sense is that violence began to spread after the earth received the blood of Abel”
(pp. 13–14).
55. See Fulk, Bjork, and Niles, eds., Klaeber’s Beowulf, pp. 166–68, note on ll. 875–900.

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and strife, his travels far and wide (about which the sons of men certainly
knew nothing), his violent deeds and crimes.” Sigemund is not said to
been in conflict with any particular human enemies. The passage thus
has no bearing on the bloodfeud, whether in the early Germanic context
or the Anglo-Saxon one.

5. Beowulf fights the enemies of the Geatas (ll. 419–24a).

Soon after the hero arrives in Denmark, he asks a boon of Hrothgar;
namely, that he be allowed to stay overnight in Heorot so as to fight Gren-
del to the death. In order to prove his credentials for such an apparently
foolhardy exploit, he refers to one or more prior adventures when he
had destroyed giants and sea-serpents: “nearoþearfe dreah, wræc Wedera
nið—wean ahsodon—forgrand gramum” (ll. 422b–24a).
Comment: What Beowulf means by the words just quoted is, “I suffered
severe distress; I avenged their hostility against the Geatas—they had asked
for trouble—I utterly crushed those hostile ones.” The preterite form wræc,
from wrecan ‘to avenge, to pay back’, serves to justify Beowulf’s youthful
exploits by establishing that the creatures he destroyed had merited such
treatment: they were savage beasts or monsters that had previously har-
ried his people. While this passage sheds lustre on the hero as someone
capable of fabulous deeds from the word go, and while it confirms the
theme of crime and punishment that comes to the fore in so many of
these incidents, we are scarcely to conclude that the young Beowulf was
involved in some kind of “bloodfeud” between his people and the tribes of
monsters. The point of the passage is that—fighting underwater by night,
as we later learn—the hero had punished savage beasts who deserved it,
and now he is ready to take on Grendel.

6. The Geatas wage a Viking-style campaign

against the Frisians (ll. 1202–14a).
At the feast that ensues after Beowulf’s victory over Grendel, Queen Wealh­
theow presents the hero with a magnificent torque or necklace. He later
presents this same treasure to his own queen, Hygd, and we learn in an
aside that King Hygelac wore it on his last fateful expedition. This was a
Viking-style raid into the mouth of the Rhine, where Hygelac met his death
at the hands of Frisians and Franks. The poet characterizes this expedition
as an arrogant and foolish one: “hyne [= Hygelac] wyrd fornam, syþðan
he for wlenco wean ahsode, fæhðe to Frysum” (ll. 1206b–7a).
Comment: The poet is emphatic in condemning Hygelac’s sea-borne raid
into coastal territories located not far from Britain. The king’s death serves
as proof of his folly. Moreover, his death calls up the idea of nemesis, for

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his attack on these tribes had been unprovoked (as far as we are told).
Hygelac’s failed raid is of outstanding narrative interest because, in the
course of time, it leads to Beowulf’s becoming king of the Geatas. The
excerpt can be translated: “Fate swept him [Hygelac] away, after—in his
arrogance—he asked for trouble, hostility at the hands of the Frisians.”
The phrase wean ahsode (l. 1206b) recalls the corresponding phrase wean
ahsodon in item 5 (v. 423b), where the reference is to giants and sea-
serpents whose unprovoked harassment of the Geatas invites retribution.
Hygelac’s raid into his neighbors’ territory is a hostile act of a similar kind,
one for which he too suffers payback. What the incident undermines is
the ethics of intertribal looting, not the ethics of the feud.

7. King Onela seizes the Swedish throne

and is subsequently killed (ll. 2379b–96).
The gist of this rather complex “story within the story” is that, after the
death of the legendary Swedish king Ongentheow and, thereafter, the
death of his son and heir Ohthere, Ohthere’s brother Onela seizes the
throne. Ohthere’s two sons Eanmund and Eadgils flee the country and
find refuge at the court of the young king Heardred, who has succeeded
to the Geatish throne after the death of Hygelac. Onela’s Swedes attack
the Geatas and manage to kill both Eanmund and Heardred. Beowulf then
succeeds to the Geatish throne. In due time (and, evidently, with King
Beowulf’s support), Eadgils mounts a military expedition into Sweden,
kills his uncle Onela, and gains the throne for himself.
Comment: The substance of this backstory is a dynastic struggle, one that
plays a persistent role in the historical asides that permeate the last third
of the poem. Two branches of the Swedish royal family vie for the throne,
and one branch wins out. What could be more medieval than that? These
events tell us much about the fraught politics of royal succession in the early
medieval world; they also clarify why Beowulf is in such a strong position as
king of the Geatas vis-à-vis his neighbors. They say little or nothing about the
bloodfeud, a term that by common understanding has to do with hostilities
pursued in a situation outside state management or control.

8. Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow, is exiled

for killing a Wylfing (ll. 459–72).
This backstory concerns the trouble into which Beowulf’s father, Ecg­
theow, was thrust after having killed a man named Heatholaf, a character
unknown outside this narrative. For this deed, Ecgtheow was exiled from
the people into whom he had married (the Geatas) and faced the threat
of blood vengeance on the part of Heatholaf’s kinsmen, the Wylfings.

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Hrothgar, King of the Danes, however, generously stepped in to pay com-

pensation on Ecgtheow’s behalf. According to Hrothgar, the killing in
question was a very serious one: “Gesloh þin fæder fæhðe mæste; wearþ
he Heaþolafe to handbonan mid Wilfingum” (ll. 459–61a).
Comment: Translators of these lines sometimes take the phrase fæhþe
mæste to mean “the greatest of feuds.” More precisely, however, what Hroth-
gar is saying at this point is, “Your father committed a most serious act of
violence: he was the killer of Heatholaf, a man of the Wylfings.” The killing
of Heatholaf was evidently a crime for which very high compensation was
required if the threat of blood vengeance was to be annulled, and this
doubtless explains why payment was not forthcoming and Ecgtheow went
into exile. When Hrothgar settled the matter, that was that (as far as we
are told). What this episode illustrates is not an ongoing feud, then, but
rather the successful workings of the Old Germanic institution of wergild.
The story tells us much about Hrothgar’s magnanimity while also hinting
that the men in Beowulf’s family have a predisposition toward violent
deeds that verge on recklessness.

9. Swedes fight against Geatas (ll. 2922–3007a).

After King Beowulf’s death, an unnamed messenger brings that sad news
to the main band of Geatish warriors. He speaks of the warfare that he now
fears on the part of hostile Franks and Frisians, and he likewise recalls a
history of enmity between the Geatas and the Swedes, harkening back to a
legendary combat that ensued long before, when a Geatish force attacked
the Swedish king Ongentheow, taking his queen captive. Ongentheow
succeeded in rescuing his queen and killing Hæthcynn, the son of King
Hrethel, however, while pinning up the main force of the Geatas at a
place called Ravenswood. Utter disaster for the Geatas was averted with
the arrival of Hæthcynn’s brother Hygelac, who forced Ongentheow to
withdraw until two brothers, Wulf and Eofor, engaged him in close com-
bat. Wulf was badly wounded, but Eofor killed Ongentheow and in due
time was rewarded by being given Hygelac’s only daughter in marriage.
The messenger concludes, at lines 2999–3003a: “Þæt is sio fæhðo ond
se feondscipe, wæl-nið wera . . . þe us seceað to Sweona leoda, syððan hie
gefricgeað frean userne ealdorleasne.”
Comment: What the messenger speaks of here, by almost any definition
of these terms, is warfare rather than feuding. We are scarcely being told of
ongoing hostilities undertaken outside normal channels of authority. On
the contrary, the messenger’s speech presents the most graphic depiction to
be found in the poem of warfare, fought by rival kings and their warbands
meeting head to head. What is said at the end of this passage is, “That is
the hostility and the enmity, the deadly hatred . . . that the people of the

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Swedes will seek to visit on us after they learn that our lord is dead.” In
other words, the messenger predicts that the Swedes—like the Frisians and
Franks, though he fears those peoples less—will try to exploit the weakness
of the Geatas now that their incomparable king is dead. The messenger
gives voice to fears that were a well-nigh universal sentiment after the death
of a great leader in the martial world of the early Middle Ages, when the
stability of groups was so dependent on charismatic leadership.

10. Finn and his Frisians fight against Hengest

and his Danes (ll. 1063–1160a).
This item consists of the Danish scop’s song about Finn and Hengest,
an inset piece whose narrative content is paralleled in the fragmentary
Old English poem “The Fight at Finnsburg.” The singer first tells of the
sorrowful aftermath of a deadly attack by a group of Frisian warriors on a
party of “Half-Danes” who are their hall guests. The leading member of the
Danish party, Hnæf—the brother of Hildeburh, the Frisian queen—has
been killed, together with Hildeburh’s son and a number of others. The
poet then relates how, in a second spasm of violence that occurs after an
uneasy winter’s truce, the surviving Danes, now under the leadership of
Hengest, attack and defeat their hosts, killing the Frisian king, Finn, and
taking home Queen Hildeburh and much booty.
Comment: The basic structure here is a binary one: an initial bloody
conflict is answered by a second, even deadlier one. This is indeed a tragic
series of events—and it is tragedy rather than heroism that the Beowulf
poet emphasizes—but it is not a feud. The second outbreak of violence
seems to carry an almost juridical force, for it makes an end of the matter.
The Danes burn their dead, take Frisian lives as well as Frisian treasure
in compensation for their losses, and then sail home, and nothing is said
of further troubles. While this inset song (and the rationale for its inclu-
sion in the poem) is subject to multiple interpretations, what I think it
chiefly demonstrates is just how heinous the Frisians’ initial attack upon
their guests was felt to be. The episode serves as a reminder of the crucial
role played by guest friendship in early Germanic society, and it does so
by dramatizing the terrible losses that can ensue when that foundational
ethic is violated. This message has an obvious relevance to the narrative
context in which the song is sung, with two bands of warriors (the Danes
and their guests the Geatas) feasting together under the roof of Heorot.
Additionally, the leading role of Hengest in securing full compensation
for the “Half-Danes” would have been noticed with satisfaction by an audi-
ence of Anglo-Saxons, given the prominence of a leader named Hengest
(readily taken to be the same man) in their Migration Myth. As regards
the social practice of open-ended feuding, the episode tells us nothing.

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11. The dragon attacks the Geats

and is killed (ll. 2200–709a, etc.).56
On the face of things, there would seem to be little reason to analyze
this grand, fabulous episode of the poem in sociohistorical terms, as if
it were analogous to a bloodfeud waged by rival human factions. From
a narratological perspective, the dragon episode in Beowulf exists so as
to furnish the hero with a suitable death, not to offer models of conflict
management. Nevertheless, Hyams seems to want to argue that the lan-
guage of the feud is present in any passage of Old English literature where
the noun fæhþ and/or the verb wrecan occurs, and both those words are
found at Beowulf ll. 3060b–62a: “weard ær ofsloh feara sumne; þa sio fæhð
gewearð gewrecen wraðlice.”
Comment: The passage just quoted is a retrospective remark made by
the narrator about the deaths of Beowulf and the dragon. The lines are
aptly translated as follows: “The guardian [that is, the guardian of the
hoard, the dragon] had earlier struck down a certain person, one of a
small group of men; then this act of violence was savagely avenged.” The
act of vengeance to which the poet alludes is Wiglaf’s and Beowulf’s joint
killing of the dragon, who has just given Beowulf a mortal wound (chiefly
via the deadly poison in his jaws). Are we in Hatfield country here? I think
not. As happens elsewhere in the poem on a lesser scale, the death of a
great man is balanced by the death of the slayer, and that is the end of
the matter apart from the finale of funerals. One could maintain, all the
same, that the escalating rhythms of a tit-for-tat human feud are mirrored
in the progression whereby a thief steals a cup from the dragon’s hoard;
the dragon, hugely “overcharging” for that initial crime, retaliates by lay-
ing waste the land of the Geatas; Beowulf seeks to balance the books, as
it were, by killing the dragon at his lair and winning his whole hoard; the
dragon, however, mortally wounds Beowulf; but the young Wiglaf and the
dying Beowulf are then able to finish off the dragon, leaving Wiglaf as
last man standing, while the dragon’s hoard serves as a grand surrogate
wergild for the dead king. While this would be a single-minded way of
reading the poem’s final episode, such a reading has the virtue of un-
derscoring the importance, in the Anglo-Saxon worldview, of a society’s
maintaining balance in all its dealings, whether as regards its internal affairs
or its relations with the known or unknown powers of the universe. After
serious disorder is introduced to the Beowulfian cosmos by the robbing
of the hoard, balance is not restored until a kingdom is in smoke, two
larger-than-life figures lie dead, and the dragon’s treasures are heaped

56. Not “Hrothgar and [the] Geats,” as per Hyams, Rancor and Reconciliation, p. 74, n. 9.
Hrothgar is king of the Danes, not the Geatas.

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up at the dead king’s pyre—and even then, new threats to social order
loom on the horizon. To be sure, something of the spirit of the bloodfeud
underlies this whole narrative movement, but to read this episode for its
social-historical value would be to flirt with absurdity while missing out
on a great deal else that contributes to the greatness of the poem.

12. Grendel and his mother ravage the Danes,

and are quelled (ll. 115–1887 passim).
The complicating factor here is that the first two-thirds of Beowulf consists
of two linked episodes. The first of these episodes features the ongoing
ravages of Grendel against the Danes and his eventual punishment for
these crimes, while the second tells of his mother’s sudden attack on the
Danes and the swift retribution that falls on her. There is thus a tit-for-tat
quality about the poem’s main story line. Moreover, at lines 1333b–35, the
poet has King Hrothgar, speaking to Beowulf, link this pair of “crime-and-
punishment” episodes as two parts of a single story, using the keywords
fæhþ and wrecan as he does so: “heo [Grendel’s mother] þa fæhðe wræc þe
þu gystran niht Grendel cwealdest þurh hæstne had heardum clammum.”
Comment: What the last-quoted lines mean is that “she [Grendel’s mother]
avenged the violent deed by which you killed Grendel the other night in
a savage manner, with your fierce grip.” Translating fæhðe by “feud” here
would be misleading, for what Hrothgar is affirming is that from Grendel’s
mother’s point of view, Beowulf’s killing of Grendel was an act of violence
(fæhþ) demanding payback. She has lost a son, who struggled home savagely
mutilated, and so in return (as we soon learn) she has killed and mutilated
one of Hrothgar’s chief thegns. The irony here is that the same act that,
from Grendel’s mother’s perspective, restores a kind of justice causes huge
consternation among the Danes, who fear yet more trouble such as they
have suffered for the past twelve years. This coexistence of incompatible
perspectives is precisely the psychological mechanism by which feuds are
perpetuated. This is also the reason why, in normal human affairs, attempts
are made to annul the threat of an ongoing feud through negotiations
whereby each aggrieved party agrees to swallow some of its grief while sal-
vaging some measure of its pride. Often such negotiations are imposed by
a higher authority, and here we have the kernel of kingship. In the fabulous
world of Beowulf, of course, there is no way by which the monstrous races
can use the power of speech to negotiate their grievances, nor do they care
about honor and its material trappings, nor does any authority exist (save
God Himself) that spans the worlds of monsters and men. Moreover, the
monsters alone are cursed; they are of the seed of Cain, they eat human
flesh. The Danes’ “Grendel troubles” can thus only be resolved through
decisive violence of a juridical kind. The audience of this highly polarized

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narrative is encouraged to savor that violence to the hilt—the hilt of a giant-

wrought sword, that is.
Additional Comment: Worth note in this connection is that the shaping
of the poem’s main plot into two linked episodes is paralleled in the cor-
responding northern European folktale known as the “Bear’s Son” tale,
which no one has ever thought to call a feud narrative. Typically, in that
underlying folktale, an ogre repeatedly attacks a house and, in the end,
is forced to flee, mortally wounded. The hero and his men then track the
ogre to his lair in some desolate place, and there they encounter a second
monstrous adversary, who sometimes has female form. The hero then kills
the second monster and finishes off the first one as well.57 It may well be
doubted if either the “Bear’s Son” folktale or the corresponding episodes
of the Beowulf poem can yield reliable information about Anglo-Saxon
social history, including the mechanisms of peace settlement. Ogres do
not pay compensation for their crimes, as the poet drily remarks at one
point (ll. 154b–58). I suggest that here we are in a realm of savage and
wondrous deeds, but not in feud country.

13. Heathobards and Danes: Froda is killed

and Ingeld seeks revenge (ll. 2014–69a).
This inset story is told by Beowulf to King Hygelac and Queen Hygd of
the Geatas in the “debriefing” scene that ensues once the hero has re-
turned to his homeland. To give a capsule summary of these events: The
Heathobard king Froda has been killed in battle by King Hrothgar’s
Danes (we are not told in what circumstances). In an attempt to heal
the wounds of this event, Hrothgar has betrothed his daughter Freawa-
ru (whom Beowulf has met while she was serving ale in Heorot) to King
Froda’s son Ingeld. The prescient Beowulf, however, predicts that once
Freawaru and her retinue arrive at Ingeld’s court, the marriage settle-
ment will break down in the face of goading speeches on the part of one
or another Heathobard warrior. Evidence drawn from outside the poem
confirms the accuracy of this prediction, for in the Old English poem
known as Widsith (which offers several close parallels to Beowulf), Ingeld’s
Heathobards are said to have made a deadly attack on Heorot—one that
cost them many lives.58

57. See Fulk, Bjork, and Niles, eds., Klaeber’s Beowulf, pp. xxxvii–xxxviii; and J. Michael
Stitt, Beowulf and the Bear’s Son: Epic, Saga, and Fairytale in Northern Germanic Tradition (New
York: Garland, 1992).
58. Widsith, ll. 45–49, in The Exeter Book, ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk
Dobbie (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1936), pp. 149–53. Some critics have supposed
that the Heathobards burned Heorot down, though neither the Beowulf poet nor the author
of Widsith makes that assertion.

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Comment: Here at last we have reached a sequence of events that might

plausibly be thought of as a feud. The Danish/Heathobard conflict allows
the poet to introduce the motif of hostilities extending from one genera-
tion to the next. A connection is established between the two outbreaks
of violence in that (as Beowulf imagines the scene) it will be a veteran of
the first fight who urges the resumption of hostilities. Still, does conflict
between Danes and Heathobards continue into the future beyond this
point? We have no way of knowing. The question remains open, then,
whether this episode is better viewed as an example of ongoing feuding
or as a failed peace involving two separate peoples. It is perhaps signifi-
cant that words for “battle” abound in this passage (sæcce ‘battle’, l. 2029;
lindplega ‘shield-play’, l. 2039; wigbealu ‘warfare’, l. 2046; gefeoht ‘battle’,
l. 2048; cf. wælstow ‘battlefield’, l. 2051), while there occurs only a single
instance of a phrase that might be thought to denote the feud (wælfæhða
dæl, l. 2028, meaning here however not “a number of deadly feuds” but
rather “no few deaths in combat,” since the phrase is in grammatical ap-
position with sæcce ‘battle’). It also matters that Freawaru is a princess,
while Hrothgar, Froda, and Ingeld are all kings. While this inset story is
the best evidence in Beowulf for a feud that spans the generations, what it
chiefly concerns thematically is the precariousness of the institution of ex-
ogamous marriage. The Ingeld story highlights how difficult it was thought
to be to forge a lasting peace through arranged marriages, especially when
the two peoples in question bear a bitter burden of past conflicts. This
is somewhat different from being concerned with the dangers posed to
society by the likes of Hatfields and McCoys.

To sum up, study of these thirteen threads in the complex fabric of

Beowulf confirms that the poet and his audience were connoisseurs of
violence. Violence and bloodshed permeate the poem, whether in the
main story or the so-called digressions. Whatever their differences of type
and detail may be, however, these instances of violence do not occur at
random, nor do they form an unending or cyclical series; rather, they
tend to be presented in binary terms whereby breaches of the peace are
followed acts of restitution, whether in money or, if not that, in blood.
Vengeance—including vengeance as a form of peace-making, as in the
main monster-killing plot—is therefore another of the poem’s chief
themes, while the ethics of “just vengeance” remain unquestioned. No-
where in Beowulf, however, is some kind of tragic necessity to be seen
whereby crime breeds crime breeds crime, in a crescendo of violence that
ends only when none are left standing. In short, with the possible excep-
tion of the Ingeld digression (which may be thought to fall into the domain
of warfare rather than the feud), no feuds worthy of the name are de-
picted in Beowulf. And even the Ingeld episode confirms a point once

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made by Peter Sawyer; namely, that throughout the Middle Ages, “the
bloodfeud flourished best, not in the real world, but in the fictions of
poets, storytellers and lawyers.”59

V. The Feud in other Old English Sources

Beowulf, though, is just one of the sources that have been thought to be
expressive of the feud culture of Anglo-Saxon England. Do other writings
in prose or verse illustrate the Anglo-Saxon feud? If so, then how should
they be evaluated? Here I will touch on just four examples, taking them
as representative. Each will be well known to specialists.
The first of these is the entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sub anno
757 concerning three members of the West Saxon royal family, Cynewulf
and two brothers named Sigeberht and Cyneheard.60 In 757, we are told,
“Cynewulf and the councillors of the West Saxons deprived Sigeberht of
his kingdom because of his unjust acts, except for Hampshire.”61 Cynewulf
subsequently drove Sigeberht into the Weald, where a swineherd stabbed
him to death in revenge for Sigeberht’s killing of an ealdorman named
Cumbra, who had been one of Sigeberht’s own supporters. After a lapse of
thirty-one years, Cynewulf “wished to drive out an atheling who was called
Cyneheard, who was brother of the aforesaid Sigeberht.”62 Cyneheard,
however, ambushed King Cynewulf at a manor called Meretun, where
the king was visiting his mistress, and there he killed both Cynewulf and
a small number of his thegns. The next day, a larger body of the king’s
thegns rode to Meretun, and there they killed Cyneheard and all but one
of his men.
Comment: Leaving aside the ignominious manner of Sigeberht’s death
at the hands of a swineherd, as well as the annalist’s vivid manner of
dramatizing the heroic and bloody events that ensured at Meretun, the
Chronicle story consists of a pair of dyadic episodes involving crimes and
their respective punishments. Sigeberht was guilty of unjust acts of an

59. Peter Sawyer, “The Bloodfeud in Fact and Fiction,” in Tradition og historieskrivning, ed.
Kirsten Hastrup and Preben Meulengracht Sørensen, Acta Jutlandica 63/2 (Aarhus: Aarhus
Univ. Press, 1987), p. 36.
60. Hyams treats this episode as being among “real-life instances of feud” (Rancor and
Reconciliation, p. 75). The only other instance of real-life Anglo-Saxon feud that he identifies
is the story of Uhtred and Thurbrand (but see my previous discussion of Fletcher’s book in
that regard).
61. Quotations in the present paragraph are from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised
Translation, ed. Dorothy Whitelock (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), pp. 30–31. For
recent discussion of the episode of Cynewulf and Cyneheard as a feud narrative, see Hill,
The Anglo-Saxon Warrior Ethic, pp. 74–88.
62. An atheling: that is, a prince of the royal blood, a blood relative of the king (DOE, s.v.
“æþeling,” sense B.1).

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unspecified nature, and for that reason Cynewulf deprived him of the
main part of his kingship. Sigeberht’s brother Cyneheard eventually killed
King Cynewulf, and for this egregious crime (for which no amount of
wergild could compensate), he and all but one of his men were cut down
at Meretun. The fact that these events took place in two linked episodes
separated by an interval of thirty-one years tends to project the story into
the realm of the feud. On the other hand, the annalist makes no mention
of other violent encounters involving these two rival factions; “periodic,
cyclical” violence (to quote from Halsall’s definition of the feud) is absent
from the narrative. Perhaps it is best to call the actions of these competing
claimants to the West Saxon throne “feud-like” within a system of thought
that remained strongly focused on crime and retribution. In any event,
what this episode concerns is an in-house dynastic struggle, not intergroup
feuding in the absence of central authority. In any scholarly context other
than the Anglo-Saxon, the story would doubtless be read as such.
In the literary realm, allusion to what has been thought to be a blood-
feud is made in the poem known as The Husband’s Message, from the Exeter
Book. The substance of this poem is a dramatic monologue spoken by a
mysterious interlocutor addressing a noble woman whose husband (or
lover?) has been driven into exile from their homeland on account of a
fæhþ: “hine fæhþo adraf of sigeþeode.”63
Comment: This statement just quoted is often mistranslated, “A feud
drove him out from his war-honored people.” What the Old English actu-
ally means, I suggest, is that “the threat of retaliatory vengeance drove him
out.” That is to say, some sort of violent deed or crime on the man’s part
led to his “bearing the fæhþ”—a dangerous situation that caused him to
abandon his homeland, in a situation comparable to what we have seen
with Ecgtheow, the hero’s father, in Beowulf. The Exeter Book poem, too,
offers the prospect of a happy resolution to the story, seeing that the man
is said to have accumulated much wealth in his new homeland and asks
the woman to join him there. Since we are told nothing about why the
man went into exile, nor anything about continuing rounds of violence,
the thought that cyclical feuding is involved is no more than a modern
imposition on the story. What the poem concerns is the Old Germanic
social institution of exile, presented in its human and affective dimension.
Nor, despite the opinion of some, is intergroup feuding alluded to in
The Wife’s Lament, a poem from the Exeter Book that is plausibly read as a
kind of companion piece to The Husband’s Message, though the two poems
are separated by seven folios in the manuscript. This poignant dramatic
monologue is set in the voice of a married woman who is convinced
that her husband has forsaken her. While he is living incommunicado

63. Krapp and Dobbie, The Exeter Book, p. 226, ll. 19b–20a, cited from the DOE, s.v. “fæhþ.”

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somewhere abroad, she is forced to dwell alone in the dreariest of places

because of the enmity of her in-laws, for she has no friends or support-
ers in this land. At one point she laments: “sceal ic feor ge neah mines
felaleofan fæhðu dreogan.”64
Comment: The Wife’s words as just quoted are sometimes taken to refer to
“blood feuds between families,” to quote from a recent critical discussion.65
Counting against such an interpretation, however, is that heroic violence
is absent from this poem. What the quoted passage means, quite simply, is
“Whether far or near from my beloved, I must suffer enmity.” Nowhere are
we encouraged to think of the man’s situation in terms of military feuds,
nor of anyone’s situation in terms of acts of heroic violence, although the
man’s perceived abandonment of the woman could indeed be construed
as a hostile act given his prior marriage vows and his presumed role as
the woman’s protector. The poem is not about feuding in any meaningful
sense of that word; rather, it concerns the fraught institution of female
exogamy, here seen from the point of view of a woman who experiences
an acute sense of abandonment and is mistreated and dishonored by her
For a final instructive example drawn from the literary realm, we can
turn to the end of The Battle of Maldon, singling out for attention one of
the speeches uttered after the death of Ealdorman Byrhtnoth at the hands
of a group of Viking marauders. One of the small cadre of loyal English
thegns, Ælfwine by name, strides forth so as to avenge his fallen leader:
“þa he forð eode, fæhðe gemunde, þæt he mid orde anne geræhte flotan
on þam folce, þæt se on foldan læg forwegen mid his wæpne.”66
Comment: What this passage means is, “Then he strode forth, he kept his
mind on (the) fæhþ, until with his spear he struck down one of the Vikings in
that host so that the man lay dead on the field, cut down with his weapon.”
What does the phrase involving fæhþ mean more exactly, though? Given
the lexicography of that word, one might be tempted to read this clause as
follows: “Then he strode forth, mindful of the feud.”67 Such a translation

64. Krapp and Dobbie, The Exeter Book, p. 211, ll. 25b–26, cited from the DOE, s.v. “fæhþ.”
65. Stacy S. Klein, “Gender and the Nature of Exile in Old English Elegies,” in A Place to
Believe In: Locating Medieval Landscapes, ed. Clare A. Lees and Gillian R. Overing (University
Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 2006), pp. 113–31. As Klein writes, “Although fæhþ is
a relatively standard term for ‘feud’ or ‘enmity’, it is unclear whether the phrase felaleofan
fæhðu refers to a military feud that engages the lover (and thus forces the Wife to suffer its
consequences) or to a personal rift between the Wife and her lover that is figured in the
language of heroic warrior culture” (p. 123). For discussion of the “feud” approach to this
passage, with references, see Anne L. Klinck, The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and
Genre Study (Montreal: McGill–Queen’s Univ. Press, 1992), p. 50.
66. Maldon, ll. 225–28a, here cited from the DOE, s.v. “fæhþ.” Cf. The Battle of Maldon AD
991, ed. Donald Scragg (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p. 26.
67. Thus R. K. Gordon, Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London: Dent, 1954), p. 333: “Then he pressed
forward, remembering his feud.” Cf. Scragg, The Battle of Maldon, p. 27.

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is an absurdity in this context, however, for no feud is in progress. The

Vikings are simply being Vikings, something they were adept at doing. An
alternative translation that is more in keeping with the actual situation, now
that Ælfwine’s dear lord and kinsman lies dead, is, “Then he strode forth,
intent on vengeance.”68 One could also say more anemically, “he persisted
in his attitude of hostility.” To speak of this moment in a battle fought in
Essex in the year 991 in terms of some kind of “feud,” however, stretches
the meaning of that term beyond the point of recognition.

VI. The Feud Culture of Medieval Iceland

Still, questions may be posed: But wasn’t Anglo-Saxon England very much
like medieval Iceland in regard to its feuding practices? Weren’t these
people all just different northmen? Hasn’t William Ian Miller, in particular,
analyzed feuding in the Icelandic family sagas in admirable detail, using
anthropological models to account for the method behind the mayhem?69
Perhaps so. And yet, is the world of the Icelandic family sagas, with their
compelling narratives of “tit for tat, my turn your turn” killings, indeed
comparable to the Anglo-Saxon world, as known to us through either his-
torical or literary sources? One must be wary of applying anthropological
models indiscriminately when dealing with two different peoples settled
in geographical areas that are so sharply distinct. Though it is impossible
to come by exact figures relating to the population of Iceland compared
with that of Anglo-Saxon England at about the mid-tenth century, at a
guess we might be talking about from twenty thousand to seventy thousand
individuals in Iceland, scattered for the most part in isolated farmsteads
in a narrow littoral zone, versus two to three million persons in England
inhabiting relatively fertile fields interspersed with woodlands, springs, and
marshes. On the one hand, we have a maritime outpost with outstanding
fishing resources and some land that was amenable to a pastoral economy
of sheep but not cattle, even though 75 percent of it was covered with
either volcanic ash or glaciers;70 on the other hand, we have a countryside

68. Thus Michael Alexander, The Earliest English Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966),
p. 120. For discussion of vengeance (as opposed to suicidal devotion) as a key theme in this
poem, see my essay “Maldon and Mythopoesis,” Mediaevalia, 17 (1994 for 1991), 89–121.
69. William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland
(Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990). See further Miller, “Choosing the Avenger: Some Aspects
of the Bloodfeud in Medieval Iceland and England,” Law and History Review, 1 (1983),
159–204; the essay treats Iceland in far more detail than England. Note also Jesse L. Byock,
Feud in the Icelandic Saga (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1982); and Byock, “Defining
Feud: Talking Points” (n. 19 above).
70. My numbers relating to Iceland are drawn from Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking,
pp. 15–16.

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that had been settled and farmed productively for thousands of years. Par-
ticularly as the first millennium drew near its end, England was no frontier
zone made up of isolated homesteads. It was a well established kingdom
with lords and manors, towns and villages, shires and shire reeves. Its
inhabitants were linked to one another in a village economy based on a
complex, hierarchical system of authority. Any number of overlapping
factors knit those people together, including physical proximity, marriage,
extended kinship, lordship, commerce, an organized religion, and even,
on occasion, friendship.
Even while vying with one another for power and advantage, the people
of Anglo-Saxon England were thus in a favorable position to maintain
what, in the African context, the anthropologist Max Gluckman has called
“the peace in the feud.”71 That is to say, any tendencies toward clannish
violence on their part must have tended rather quickly to be absorbed
into complex social networks.72 After the conversion of the early Anglo-
Saxon kingdoms, the church, too, had a prominent investment in the
settlement of disputes through nonviolent means, while after the unifica-
tion of England under Alfred the Great’s successors, a well-defined state
apparatus was in place from the English Channel to roughly the Firth of
Forth, one whose main function was to keep the peace.73 The reign of
Edgar “the Peaceable” (959–975)—alias Edgar the peace-enforcer—was
in some ways the high point of successful central authority in England
before the advent of King Cnut.
Killings thus happened in Anglo-Saxon England. Disputes did flare
up, as has been documented by the legal historian Patrick Wormald, who
made an inventory of 178 lawsuits mentioned in the surviving documen-
tary records;74 and who knows how many other significant and perhaps
violent disputes left no written trace? Still, the Anglo-Saxons also had a
strong stake in maintaining social equilibrium by settling their disputes

71. Gluckman, “The Peace in the Feud,” Past and Present, 8 (1955), 1–14; Gluckman,
Custom and Conflict in Africa (Oxford: Blackwell, 1955).
72. This point can be misunderstood. In his recent article “What Has Weland to Do
with Christ? The Franks Casket and the Acculturation of Christianity in Early Anglo-Saxon
England,” Speculum, 84 (2009), 549–81, for example, Richard Abels speaks of the threat
of violence itself as a peace-keeper: “The vendetta, paradoxically, was perhaps the most
effective mechanism for the prevention of violence and maintenance of order in England
before the mid-tenth century: the threat of death to oneself or one’s loved ones might well
make a man think twice before giving in to murderous impulses. Anthropologists term
this the ‘peace-in-the-feud’” (p. 576). This last sentence is a misstatement, however. When
Gluckman speaks of “peace in the feud,” what he is referring to are “divisions of purpose
in the vengeance group” that come about because a community is “elaborately divided and
cross-divided by customary allegiances” (“Peace in the Feud,” p. 7 and p. 1, respectively).
73. See in brief Lapidge, Blackwell Encyclopaedia, s.v. “courts,” “ealdorman,” “hundreds,”
“kings and kingship,” “reeve,” and “shire.”
74. Patrick Wormald, “A Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Lawsuits,” Anglo-Saxon England, 17
(1988), 247–81.

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in an efficient manner, in accord with a hierarchical system of authority

that extended, stage by stage, from the lowliest ceorl to the persons of the
archbishop and the king. The situation in medieval Iceland was wholly
different, as is noted by Miller, for Iceland was “a society without any
coercive state apparatus. . . . There was no provision for public enforce-
ment of the law; it was up to the aggrieved party to see that his wrongs
were righted and execute the judgments he obtained on his own behalf.”
As Miller goes on to remark, his themes in Bloodtaking and Peacemaking
are “uncomplicated by kings, counts, and monks.”75 It would be impos-
sible to write a similarly uncomplicated book about disputes and dispute
settlements in Britain. Even if saga Iceland provides a valuable point of
reference for a comparative typology of the feud, Anglo-Saxon England
needs to be approached in its own terms.

VII. Conclusion

There is a long tradition, in both scholarly and popular literature, of rep-

resenting the Germanic peoples of early medieval Europe as gathered into
clan-like tribes constantly nursing their wounds and their anger—until
the French came, with their superior system of law. As was mentioned
before, Jurasinski has shown how this habit of thinking was rooted in
nineteenth-century nationalistic scholarship, when people in an increas-
ingly militarized Europe glamorized such sentiments as “love of the feud”
and were quick to ascribe such sentiments to the Anglo-Saxons, drawing
on Tacitus for authority in that regard.76
Perhaps it is time to move beyond such conceptions. If, here, I have ad-
opted a different view of conflict resolution in Anglo-Saxon England, this is
not so as to evoke an irenic image of happy lords and peasants, but rather
to suggest that the rhythms of violence during that period—together with
the systems of peace-keeping, imperfect as they were—seem to have stopped
short of what we are accustomed to thinking of as the feud, conceived of
as open-ended vendetta. Violence there was. Collective responsibility for
wrongdoing there was, as well as collective responsibility for the redress of
wrongs suffered by members of a kin group or guild (the “all for one, one
for all” principle that II Edward 1 attempted to modify). Crime and punish-
ment there most assuredly was, with the punishment for crimes potentially
taking the form of blood vengeance by members of an offended group
when other means failed. The evidence for open-ended feuding among

75. Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, p. 5.

76. Jurasinski, Ancient Privileges, quoting Francis B. Gummere, Germanic Origins: A Study
in Primitive Culture (New York: Scribner’s, 1892), p. 181.

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200  Niles

rival kin groups, however, is very thin on the ground as far as case studies are
concerned. In the realm of imaginative literature, such evidence is largely
the creation of the modern critical reception of these texts, hence to the
modern, primitivist invention of Anglo-Saxon England as a concept against
which some other period of civilization can be compared or contrasted.
Specifically, I have argued that the key Old English word fæhþ (or fæhðu),
which for over four centuries has been faithfully misconstrued in the
scholarly literature as meaning “feud,” can more accurately be understood
as having a semantic range that extends from “act of violence” to “threat
of sanctioned vengeance” to “state of hostility,” with the understanding
that the people of Anglo-Saxon England had an unquestioning investment
in institutions of justice whereby acts of violence called for recompense
within the parameters of customary law. Acceptance of that philological
point, I believe, will lead to a better understanding of the social and legal
history of that early period (which, somewhat curiously, has often been
interpreted through literary sources). It will also offer an entry point to
the prevalent mentality of that time, which had so much to do with the
maintenance of balance in civil society as in the universe as a whole. As
for the applicability to the Anglo-Saxon period of the modern English
word “feud,” with its primitivist associations, I suggest that the word be
escorted to those linguistic elysian fields where terms that have outlived
their usefulness, in a certain field of reference, can gracefully go to be

77. A preliminary version of this article was presented at the 2010 annual conference of
the Medieval Association of the Midwest. I am grateful to the organizer, Professor Jonathan
Wilcox, for having stimulated my thoughts on the subject of the feud.

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