Weapons For Wordsmiths

Smiths were an important part of medieval society. Wayland the Smith was a significant legendary character, although most of the stories about him have been lost.

In the list of skills and occupations in the poem The Gifts of Men we find a smith at ll. 61-66:

Sum mæg wæpenþræce,      wige to nytte,
modcræftig smið      monige gefremman,
þonne he gewyrceð      to wera hilde
helm oþþe hupseax      oððe heaþubyrnan,
scirne mece      oððe scyldes rond,
fæste gefeged      wið flyge gares.

The meaning of the word wæpenþræce in line 61 has been unclear from the start. Thorpe read wæpenþræge, but this was an error and the correct reading of wæpenþræce has been followed by most editors. I have checked the MS on the Muir DVD and there is no doubt about the reading. Bosworth-Toller has an entry for the spurious reading, translating wæpenþræge as ‘arms?’ while suggesting that it could be wæpenþræce. Clarke Hall also lists the spurious wæpenþræge and gives a meaning of ‘weapon, equipment?’. While their spelling is wrong, it is possible they are right about the meaning, which seems to be deduced from the context.

The grammatical context is not completely clear. Wæpenþræce could be the object of gefremman and modified by monige. This would make it acc. pl., but gefremman means ‘advance, aid’ (with direct object) not ‘produce’.

In any case, this reading is vigorously disputed by Krapp and Dobbie, followed by Muir, who take wæpenþræce as dative. But their cited translation: “one, in weaponed combat, for use in warfare, a skillful smith, is able to prepare many, when he makes…” will not do. While wæpenþræce can certainly mean ‘in weaponed combat’, monige cannot without any antecedant bear the reference to weapons from that position. Monige gefremman means ‘be of assistance to many (people)’, not ‘prepare many (weapons)’. If wæpenþræce means ‘in weaponed combat’, what is the antecedant of ‘for use in warfare’? If wæpenþræce is indeed dative, as seems to be the case, then it represents the means by which ‘many are advantaged’. We should read “one, with [wæpenþræce], for use in war, a skillful smith, can help many, when he makes…”. One set of possible meanings from the context are the ‘arms, weapon, equipment’ ventured in B-T and Clarke Hall.

þracu/þræcu means (1) pressure and (2) violence, and is probably related to þryccan , press, oppress, trample (c.f G. drücken). It is from this meaning of ‘violence’ that Krapp and Dobbie derive the reading ‘in weaponed combat’. So wæpenþræce would usually be read as meaning ‘weapon-violence’ or ‘weaponed combat’, but this meaning doesn’t fit here. If it doesn’t mean that, then perhaps its meaning in this context is derived from an extension of the alternative meaning of ‘pressure’.

We also find geþræc, geþrec. B-T, in addition to geþræc n. press, crowd, crush, tumult has geþræc: apparatus, adjutorium (= equipment; help, support). The first meaning is roughly synonymous with the known meanings of þracu. Toller in his Supplement elaborates on the second meaning: geþræc:– a collection of objects pressed together, a throng. I don’t see how this correctly represents the glossed meanings of equipment, help, support. Perhaps ‘supplies’ might be the connection. B-T also has: searugeþræc; n. A store of things in which art is displayed (= a dragon’s hoard).

Intriguingly, B-T has wæpengeþræc; n. A weapon :– Ofsend uoepengiðræcc (uoepen, giðræcc?) [glossing] effunde frameam. This last comes from a Northumbrian gloss. Frameam in correct Latin means spear. B-T here express doubts as to whether this uoepengiðræcc is one or two words glossing frameam. The reason the gloss was not simply gar becomes clear if we look at other glosses. Framea is glossed as both sweord (sword) and ætgære (short spear). So here uoepengiðræcc expresses this ambiguity and may perhaps be translated ‘weapon(s)’.

We also find an adjective geþracen which only appears once in an obscure gloss, geþracen hors, which has been variously explained as prepared, decked, or else strong, hardy, enduring (based on an Icelandic word). It looks like a past participle. In the OED, we find thrack (v): pack full, cram, load, first appearing in 1655. (OED Thrack) Perhaps geþracen means ‘packed’ in the sense of ‘loaded with baggage’.

Although geþræc certainly means a collection, it is not established that þræce means this. Geþræc is a neuter collective noun, while þræce is most likely the dative of the feminine abstract noun þracu/þræcu. We do find þræc- in compounds meaning the same as þracu (‘battle-‘), but þræc on its own is not attested unless present here. Clark Hall says it is usually found with the ge- prefix and it is quite likely that our word is his only possible example without.

þracu means ‘pressure’ as well as ‘violence’ and might encompass mechanical pressure. It is an abstract noun and could easily also be used to represent a process. Perhaps wæpenþræce actually refers to the production of weapons, as the metal was beaten on the forge, a process involving the application of mechanical pressure. It could be a word applied to forge- and pattern-welding. Contemporary Germans call the process of metal spinning Drücken, without any reference to turning. Note the more general term wyrcan, used at l. 63, is still used today of working with iron, c.f. the phrase ‘wrought iron’. We could translate wæpenþræce as ‘with weapon-shaping’, which suits the context.

Otherwise, we must take wæpenþræce as coming from þræc (n.), a bye-form of geþræc, collection and read it as ‘with weapon-supplies’.

On the subject of smiths in general, the following passage from Ælfric’s Colloquy is rather amusing:

[Teacher:] Hwilc þe geþuht betwux woruldcræftas heoldan ealdordom?

[Pupil:] Eorþtilþ, forþam se yrþling us ealle fett.

Se smiþ secgð: Hwanon sylan scear oþþe culter, þe na gade hæfþ buton of cræfte minon? Hwanon fiscere ancgel, oþþe sceowyrhton æl, oþþe seamere nædl? Nis hit of minon geweorce?

Se geþeahtend ondsweraþ: Soþ witodlice sægst, ac eallum us leofre ys wikian mid þe yrþlincge, þonne mid þe, forþam se yrþling sylð us hlaf ond drenc; þu, hwæt sylst us on smiþþan þinre buton isenne fyrspearcan ond swegincga beatendra slecgea ond blawendra byliga?

(“What can you offer us in your smithy apart from iron fire-sparks and the din of beating sledges and blowing bellows”)

What better example of white collar professionals looking down on the grubby workers! Seems farm-stay was already popular with the urban intellectuals too. You can find the whole Colloquy beautifully laid out here:
Aelfric Colloquy Translation

If you liked my link to the OED, check out the links on my Resources page to all volumes of the whole OED in the Internet Archive.

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