Last updated
Unferth. Unferth.jpg

A thyle (OE þyle, ON þulr) was a member of the court associated with Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon royalty and chieftains in the Early Middle Ages, whose precise role is uncertain but probably had to do with the preservation of knowledge of the past and the judging of present statements against it.

Most literary references are found in Icelandic and Old English literature like the Hávamál , where the term Fimbulþulr, "the great thyle", presumably refers to Odin himself, [1] and Beowulf . In Gautreks saga , Starkad is referred to as a þulr after he sacrifices a king. [2] The word also appears on the runic inscription of the Snoldelev Stone. [3] Frederiksberg's original name was Tulehøj ("Thyle Hill").

The Old English term is glossed as Latin histrio "orator" and curra "jester"; þylcræft means "elocution". Zoëga's Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic defines þulr as "wise-man, sage," cognate to Old Norse þula (verb) "to speak" and þula (noun) "list in poetic form". The Rundata project translates þulr as "reciter". From this it appears that the office of thyle was connected to the keeping and reproducing of orally transmitted lore like the Rígsþula , "Lay of Rígr".

Unferð holds the role of thyle in the poem Beowulf; it has been suggested that he was also the scop who is mentioned reciting poetry at the feast. [4] It might be seen as a legitimate function of a guardian of the knowledge of the past to challenge boasts, judging them against the heroic past. [5] This may have played a role in preserving the luck of the group. Alternatively the thyle's role, including Unferth's, has also been envisaged as part of the comitatus (war-band), channeling rage into concerted action. [2]

Some modern scholars view the role of the thyle as being usurped by monks after Christianization, and being reduced to the modern caricature of the jester (hence the Latin gloss of curra).

See also

Related Research Articles

<i>Beowulf</i> Old English epic poem

Beowulf is an Old English epic poem consisting of 3,182 alliterative lines. It is one of the most important works of Old English literature. The date of composition is a matter of contention among scholars; the only certain dating pertains to the manuscript, which was produced between 975 and 1025. The author was an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, referred to by scholars as the "Beowulf poet".

Old English literature or Anglo-Saxon literature, encompasses literature written in Old English, in Anglo-Saxon England from the 7th century to the decades after the Norman Conquest of 1066. "Cædmon's Hymn", composed in the 7th century, according to Bede, is often considered as the oldest surviving poem in English. Poetry written in the mid-12th century represents some of the latest post-Norman examples of Old English; for example, The Soul's Address to the Body found in Worcester Cathedral Library MS F. 174 contains only one word of possible Latinate origin, while also maintaining a corrupt alliterative meter and Old English grammar and syntax, albeit in a degenerative state. The Peterborough Chronicle can also be considered a late-period text, continuing into the 12th century. The strict adherence to the grammatical rules of Old English is largely inconsistent in 12th century work – as is evident in the works cited above – and by the 13th century the grammar and syntax of Old English had almost completely deteriorated, giving way to the much larger Middle English corpus of literature.

Saxo Grammaticus 12th/13th-century Danish historian

Saxo Grammaticus, also known as Saxo cognomine Longus, was a Danish historian, theologian and author. He is thought to have been a clerk or secretary to Absalon, Archbishop of Lund, the main advisor to Valdemar I of Denmark. He is the author of the Gesta Danorum, the first full history of Denmark, from which the legend of Amleth would come to inspire the story of Hamlet by Shakespeare.


Symbel (OE) and sumbl (ON) are Germanic terms for "feast, banquet".

A scop was a poet as represented in Old English poetry. The scop is the Old English counterpart of the Old Norse skald, with the important difference that "skald" was applied to historical persons, and scop is used, for the most part, to designate oral poets within Old English literature. Very little is known about the mythical scop, and its historical existence is questioned by some scholars.

The orthography of the Old Norse language was diverse, being written in both Runic and Latin alphabets, with many spelling conventions, variant letterforms, and unique letters and signs. In modern times, scholars established a standardized spelling for the language. When Old Norse names are used in texts in other languages, modifications to this spelling are often made. In particular, the names of Old Norse mythological figures often have several different spellings.

Sagas are stories mostly about ancient Nordic and Germanic history, early Viking voyages, the battles that took place during the voyages, and migration to Iceland and of feuds between Icelandic families. They were written in the Old Norse language, mainly in Iceland.

A hörgr or hearg was a type of altar or cult site, possibly consisting of a heap of stones, used in Norse religion, as opposed to a roofed hall used as a hof (temple).

Ongentheow Semi-legendary Swedish king

Ongentheow was the name of a semi-legendary Swedish king of the house of Scylfings, who appears in Old English sources.

"Widsith", also known as The Traveler's Song, is an Old English poem of 143 lines. The poem survives only in the Exeter Book, a manuscript of Old English poetry compiled in the late 10th century containing approximately one-sixth of all surviving Old English poetry. Widsith is located between the poems Vainglory and The Fortunes of Men. Since the donation of the Exeter Book in 1076, it has been housed in Exeter Cathedral in southwestern England. The poem is for the most part a survey of the people, kings, and heroes of Europe in the Heroic Age of Northern Europe.

The Viking revival was a movement reflecting new interest in, and appreciation for Viking medieval history and culture. Interest was reawakened in the late 18th and 19th centuries, often with added heroic overtones typical of that Romantic era.


In the Old English epic poem Beowulf, Unferth or Hunferth is a thegn of the Danish lord Hrothgar. His name appears four times in the poem, at lines 499, 530, 1165, and 1488, as well as in line 980 by the appellation "the son of Eclafes". The name Unferth does not appear in any Old English manuscript outside of the Nowell Codex, which contains Beowulf, and the meaning of the name is disputed. Several scholarly theories about Unferth have been proposed. Unferth is also the name of a character in the modern novel Grendel by John Gardner, based upon the Beowulf epic.

<i>Grendel</i> (novel) novel by John Gardner (American writer)

Grendel is a 1971 novel by American author John Gardner. It is a retelling of part of the Old English poem Beowulf from the perspective of the antagonist, Grendel. In the novel, Grendel is portrayed as an antihero. The novel deals with finding meaning in the world, the power of literature and myth, and the nature of good and evil.

Snoldelev Stone 9th-century Danish runestone

The Snoldelev Stone, listed as DR 248 in the Rundata catalog, is a 9th-century runestone that was originally located at Snoldelev, Ramsø, Denmark.

Frederiksberg Place in Capital

Frederiksberg is a part of the Capital Region of Denmark. It is formally an independent municipality, Frederiksberg Municipality, separate from Copenhagen Municipality, but both are a part of the City of Copenhagen. It occupies an area of less than 9 km2 and had a population of 103,192 in 2015.

Thula, is the name of an ancient poetic genre in the Germanic literatures. Thulas are metrical name-lists or lists of poetic synonyms compiled, mainly, for oral recitation. The main function of thulas is thought to be mnemonic. The Old Norse term was first applied to an English poem, the Old English Widsith, by Andreas Heusler and Wilhelm Ranisch in 1903. Thulas occur as parts of longer poems, too; Old Norse examples are found in various passages of the poetic and the prose Edda, the Rígsþula as well as in the Völuspá. Thulas can be considered as sources of once canonic knowledge, rooted in prehistoric beliefs and rituals. They generally preserve mythological and cosmogonical knowledge, often proper names and toponyms, but also the names of semi-legendary or historical persons. Their language is usually highly formalized, and they make extensive use of mnemonic devices such as alliteration. For a number of archaic words and formulas some thulas are the only available source. The term and the genre may go back to the function of the Thyle, who held the function of an orator and was responsible for the cultus.

Eric Stanley British historian and linguist

Eric Gerald Stanley FBA was a British scholar of Medieval literature, with a particular focus on Old English literature; he was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, from 1977 to 1991 and was emeritus professor until his death. A Festschrift was published in his honour in 1996.

The "Battle of Brunanburh" is an Old English poem. It is preserved in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a historical record of events in Anglo-Saxon England which was kept from the late ninth to the mid-twelfth century. The poem records the Battle of Brunanburh, a battle fought in 937 between an English army and a combined army of Scots, Vikings, and Britons. The battle resulted in an English victory, celebrated by the poem in style and language like that of traditional Old English battle poetry. The poem is notable because of those traditional elements and has been praised for its authentic tone, but it is also remarkable for its fiercely nationalistic tone, which documents the development of a unified England ruled by the House of Wessex.

John D. Niles is an American scholar of medieval English literature best known for his work on Beowulf and the theory of oral literature.

Marijane Osborn is an American academic. Her research spans literary disciplines, she is a specialist in Old English and Norse literature, and she has published on runes, Middle English, Victorian and contemporary poets and writers, film, and is a translator and fiction writer. She is Professor Emerita at UC Davis.


  1. Hávamál, ed. David A. H. Evans, Viking Society for Northern Research Text Series, London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1986, ISBN   0-903521-19-9, verse 80 and note, p. 114.
  2. 1 2 Michael J. Enright, "The Warband Context of the Unferth Episode", Speculum 73.2 (1998) 297–337, doi : 10.2307/2887155, JSTOR   2887155.
  3. "Snoldelev-sten" at Danske Runeindskrifter, National Museum of Denmark, retrieved September 21, 2017 (in Danish).
  4. Norman E. Eliason, "The Þyle and Scop in Beowulf", Speculum 38.2 (1963) 267–84, doi : 10.2307/2852453, JSTOR   2852453.
  5. Paul C. Bauschatz, The Well and the Tree: World and Times in Early Germanic Culture, Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1982, ISBN   0-87023-352-1, note 22, pp. 215–16.