Evolving terminology for Germanic fealty & service

by C Ryan Moniz

original research· winter 2020
updated & published· spring 2022


As social structures change across time, we often see new words or coinages appear to reflect these new social conditions. However, we also find the same words undergo semantic shifts to accommodate changing social trends, an example of which can be observed in the surprising origins of the English word drudge.

The term drudge, along with its Scottish English dialectal cognate dree ‘suffer, bear, endure,’ reveals a connotation between the word and laboring in lowly, servile positions. However, both of these terms derive from the Old English verb dréogan ‘bear, serve, perform a duty,’ which had a noun counterpart dryht ‘retinue, host of retainers or thanes’ — servants deeply loyal to their lord who was denoted by a derived noun dryhten ‘lord (with a retinue).’ Tacitus gave this relationship the name which historians of Germanic culture still use today, comitatus. This relationship reflects an evolution from an earlier tribal relationship between a chief and his warriors, but as military and political structures changed in the Germanic world, the significance of these terms shifted in kind.

In contrast to that of other West Germanic languages, the Old English corpus in particular retains the gamut of the early Germanic comitatus vocabulary. Its verb dréogan still bears the sense of service to a chiftain, and the word dryht continued to be used in heroic poetry to refer to a host of retainers. The adjective indryhten seems to have meant “noble, lordly‚” or, as Bosworth and Toller translate it, “befitting one who belongs to a king’s bodyguard.” A reflex which highlights the emotional significance of the comitatus relationship is mandryhten, which appears notably in the poem The Wanderer, where the eponymous wanderer wistfully dreams of how

hé his mondryhten / clyppe ond cysse ⠀ond on cnéo lecge / honda ond héafod

“he would embrace and kiss his mondryhten, and on his knees lay his hands and head” (41b-43a)

This intimate relationship is also reflected in other texts using this word. The occurences in Béowulf appear in contexts which emphasize a loving relationship between one speaker and their lord¹, the general comitatus relationship², or the pain felt by thanes at the loss of their lord.³ In Gúþlác, it is used of the reaction of Gúþlác’s thane to the illness and eventual death of his lord.⁴ In the Old English poem Daniel line 157, it is used of the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar, when an angel of God shows to Daniel the same dream that the king (mandrihten) had seen, which prefaces Daniel’s rise to honor in the eyes of the king.⁵ In the Old English poem Genesis, the term is used of Abraham when Sarah

cýðan / hire mandrihtne ⠀módes sorge

“made known to her mandrihten [her husband, Abraham] the sorrow of her mind” (2244b-2245b)

What all these uses have in common is an intimate emotional connection between the speaker and the one to whom they have sworn loyalty, either in a comitatus bond, or the bond of marriage. This retentiveness of the Old English vocabulary may reflect the archaic nature of many of the subjects of Old English poetry, in spite of cultural shifts otherwise mirrored in the use of Dryhten in reference to the Christian God, a shift also found in other West Germanic languages.

Béowulf 436, 2604
" 1229, 1249, 1978, 2280, 2657, 2849
" 2865, 3149
Gúþlác 1007, 1051, 1151, 1337
Daniel 158-167

Outside of Old English, direct cognates to dryht and dréogan are not found in West Germanic, though Old Saxon and Old High German sources attest to drohtin and truhtin as respective cognates to Old English dryhten. North Germanic, in contrast, retains terms for both sides of the comitatus relationship, but which also reflect changes in their respective social structures. In poetry, the Old Icelandic drótt can still refer to a troop of guards to a chieftain, but in the context of the growing feudal structure in Scandinavian cultures, could also refer more generally to the king’s household or people. Likewise, the term dróttin ‘lord’ came to be a poetic way to refer to a king, and, just as in the West Germanic sources after the introduction of Christianity, the Christian God. A term inndrótt remained to specifically refer to a house-retainer, but the unmodified drótt became increasingly associated with the court, as evidenced in the word for skaldic “courtly meter,” dróttkvætt. In the modern Scandinavian languages, the suffix -inn on dróttinn was reanalyzed as the definite article suffix, and thus reflexes in the form of Norwegian drott, Danish drot, and Swedish drott remain as archaic words for ‘lord’ or ‘king,’ also reflecting a political shift towards more centralized monarchies.

In earlier East Germanic cognates, we see a semantic shift of the primarily comitatus-centered meanings of these terms to a more generalized military sense. The Gothic verb driugan appears to have shifted away from the specific lord-retainer relationship to denote the military service itself, and ‘to wage war’ in general. The noun form gadraúhts has shifted to simply denote a ‘soldier,’ and derived nouns such as draúhtinassus mean ‘warefare.’ These genericized uses of the Gothic cognates are likely an artefact of the limitation of the Gothic corpus to biblical translation and interpretation, leaving us no instances of these words in their native Germanic context.

While we cannot be entirely certain of the exact dynamics of early Germanic tribal structure, later Germanic literature and the vocabulary therein point to a long-lasting significance to the relationship between a tribal chief and his retainers. The reconstructed Proto-Germanic forms *dreuganą ‘to serve (as a retainer),’ *druhtiz ‘a troop of retainers,’ and *druhtinaz ‘chieftain’ are thought to continue a Proto-Indo-European root *dʰreugʰ- which connoted concepts of loyalty and friendship.⁶ Adjective reflexes attested in Old Icelandic drjúgr ‘great, strong, excessive,’ West Frisian drege ‘extensive, long-lasting,’ and Middle English dreȝ ‘long, extended, great’ (surviving as dree in some English dialects) point to a Proto-Germanic form *dreugaz ‘enduring, lasting,’ attesting to the strength and endurance of bonds described with reflexes of this Indo-European root. Cognates in Slavic languages as Russian друг and Old Church Slavonic дроугь, as well as Baltic cognates in Lithuanian draũgas and Latvian draùgs, all meaning ‘friend,’ also point to the deep emotional significance of relationships that this root was employed to denote.⁷·⁸

Kroonen 2013 p 102-104
Derksen 2008 p 121-122
" 2015 p 137

In stark contrast to the very negative social significance placed on the concept of devoted service reflected in modern English drudge, the ultimate roots of this word point to a much more positive and even exalted relationship between a lord and his loyal friends and servants, particularly his companions in battle. By tracking words such as drudge through time and text, we can sometimes be surprised by the shifts in attitude and culture that their stories reflect.