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The semantic field of slavery in Old English: Wealh, Esne, Þræl

Miller, Katherine Leah (2014) The semantic field of slavery in Old English: Wealh, Esne, Þræl. PhD thesis, University of Leeds.

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This thesis considers three synonyms in the Old English semantic field of slavery: wealh, esne, þræl. It situates esne, often neglected, as a major word denoting slave and a rival to þeow in all dialects except Late West Saxon. This reveals the bias of the authors of the Anglo-Saxon Dictionary who defined this word incorrectly, seeking to downplay the role of slavery in Anglo-Saxon England and to establish (non-existent) minimal differences between lexemes in this semantic field. This study demonstrates the ways in which these biases, rooted in an idealised view of the ‘free’ Anglo-Saxon past, have continued to inform the work of modern scholars. The quantitative case study of words denoting slave in four Old English versions of the Gospels shows that Mercian and Northumbrian authors usually chose words other than þeow for slave. The chapters on wealh and þræl explore synonymy in this semantic field further, demonstrating that the three terms on which this study concentrates could all be used in both positive and negative contexts. Lexemes in the semantic field of slavery were differentiated from one another geographically and chronologically, but not semantically. Thus, I argue that the semantic field of slavery was continually reshaped under the influence of linguistic and extra-linguistic forces. The dialectal aspects of this shaping are critical to our understanding both of the use of words for slave in Old English, and of the way in which this semantic field developed in the transition to Middle English. Finally, this study demonstrates that the servus Dei trope was a major metaphor used to structure Anglo-Saxon ideas of society and spirituality: the slave was as much an ideal of obedience and a warning against the perils of disobedience as he was an unfree worker encountered in everyday life.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: slavery, old english, anglo-saxon, linguistics, semantic field, medieval
Academic Units: The University of Leeds > Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures (Leeds) > School of English (Leeds)
Identification Number/EthosID: uk.bl.ethos.638920
Depositing User: Dr Katherine Leah Miller
Date Deposited: 26 Feb 2015 14:51
Last Modified: 25 Nov 2015 13:48
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/8031

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