Medieval Swearing to now – Or why Medieval People didn’t give a sh*t

Are you a fan of the 10 words or so (plus variants) in English that constitute swear words?

Could you come up with six before breakfast?

Could you hold your own against any leathern jerkin, crystal-button, not-pated, agate-ring, puke-stocking, caddis-garter, smooth-tongue, Spanish-pouch?

There are fashions in swearing, just like everything else. Up to the end of the 15th century in Europe, swearing by God’s body parts, excrement or secretions was popular.

This was replaced by passion and element oaths – swearing by God’s suffering, wounds, or by air, earth, thunder and lightening up to about 1575.

Over the next century, element and sacrament oaths (swearing by baptism, for example) are dominant.

After 1675, the oaths are more secular and familiar to us – sh*it, f*** etc.

Medieval swearing – Why Medieval people didn’t give a Sh*t


Some Medieval words which would raise modern eyebrows were regarded as quite acceptable.

London and Oxford both boasted a “Gropecuntelane”, which is where the prostitutes hung out.

If you visited a quiet country pond, according to Melissa Mohr :

“there would’ve been a shiterow in there fishing, a windfucker flying above, arse-smart and cuntehoare hugging the edges of the pond, and pissabed amongst the grass”.

Going into a city you might walk up ‘Shitwell Way’ or ‘Pissing Alley’.

Open a school textbook for teaching children how to read and you might find the words arse, shit or fart.

If you saw ants crawling around you would most likely call them ‘pisse-mires’.

Names, like Rogerus Prikeproud or Thomas Turd, flowed off the Medieval tongue.

We are presented with Gunoka Cuntles [1219] and Bele Wydecunthe [1328], suitable partners for Godwin Clawcuncte [1066] and Robert Clevecunt [1302].

If the Millers’ ancestors ground grain, and the Taylors’ sewed cloth, what did Godwin’s and Robert’s do?

Melissa Mohr, in her fascinating book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing explains it:

“generally, people of medieval England did not share our modern concept of obscenity, in which words for taboo functions possess a power in excess of their literal meaning and must be fenced off from polite conversation…Medieval people were, to us, strikingly unconcerned with the Shit.”

Medieval swearing – Don’t sard another man’s wife

Sard and swive were the medieval equivalents of the f-word – direct, non-euphemistic words for copulation.

Far from being a despised and censored word, “sard” crops up in the bible.

The 10th-century monk Aldred translates Matthew 5:27, which says that one should not commit adultery :

“You have heard that it was said to them of old, don’t sin, and don’t sard another man’s wife.”

Medieval swearing – By God’s Nails


The real medieval “swear words” were religious oaths.

If you really want to get “all Medieval”, try a phrase such as “by God’s nails”.

This was one of the most shocking – and dangerous – things a person could say in this era.

Oaths by God’s body parts, such as “by God’s arms” or “by the blood of Christ,” were believed to actually injure Christ’s physical body as he sat at the right hand of God in heaven.

So powerful were these words that they could tear Christ’s body apart.

God’s body parts used as bad words included God’s bones, nails, wounds, precious heart, passion and death.

Slipping out of the Medieval era, but “God’s Death!” or “God’s Wounds!” was supposedly Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite oath.

The need to avoid such transgressions produced various euphemisms, many of them familiar today, such as “by Jove,” “by George,” “gosh,” “golly” and “Odsbodikins,” which started as “God’s body.”

“Zounds!” was a shortening of “By his wounds”.

Medieval swearing – Naughty Norse

There was no shortage of creative and explicit profanity in wider Germanic culture.

The Landnámabók, or The Book of Settlements features an array of nicknames, bestowed on individuals that identify them in some way, such as Ragnar Loðbrok, “Ragnar Hairy-Trousers”.

Alongside mundane examples focusing on trade or general characteristics appear the more surprising beytill, “Banger, Horse Penis”; hnappraz, “button arse”; knarrarbringa, “merchantship-bosom, or big-tits”; kortr, “short penis”; and meinfretr, “stink-fart, or harmful-fart”.

Find more detail on medieval nicknames here .

A personal favourite insult – possibly a bit wordy – is from the incredible Njal’s Saga, and translates as

‘you are, as I have heard, the mistress of the Svinafell Troll, who uses you as a woman every ninth night’.

Renaissance swearing


Profanity began to swing more toward sh*it and away from holy in Renaissance times.

Authors of the English Renaissance, such as Ben Johnson, were quick to take advantage of new dirty words.

In his plays you get :

“turd i’ your teeth..And turd i’ your little wife’s teeth too” [Bartholomew Fair]

“Marry, shit o’ your hood”[Bartholomew Fair]

“Kiss the whore o’ the arse”[Bartholomew Fair]

Shakespeare never used a primary obscenity – but pretty much anything that might be bawdy in Shakespeare is bawdy.

Can you guess at the meaning of : “to fill a bottle with a tun-dish” (a funnel), “to hide his bauble in a hole” and “to change the cod’s head for the salmon’s tail”?

Here’s are some of Shakespeare’s fantastic insults :

thou cream-faced loon [Macbeth]

Thou art a boil, a plague-sore or embossèd carbuncle in my corrupted blood [King Lear]

Your virginity breeds mites, much like a cheese [All’s Well That Ends Well]

thou leathern jerkin, crystal-button, not-pated, agate-ring, puke-stocking, caddis-garter, smooth-tongue, Spanish-pouch [Henry IV, Part One]

Away, you three inch fool [The Taming Of The Shrew]

After Medieval swearing – The most shocking word

Think Medieval concepts of swearing are just too bizarre for modern history?

One word was regarded in the late-18th and 19th centuries as so shocking that it spawned many euphemisms :

unmentionables, inexpressibles, ineffables, inexplicables, indescribables, etceteras, indispensables, unimaginables, innominables, unwhisperables, unutterables, unprintables and never-mention-’ems

That word? “Trousers.”

Medieval swearing – Sign of Intelligence

A study contradicts centuries of scolding by suggesting that swearing helps with pain and is actually a sign of intelligence.

Apparently, those with a healthy repertoire of curse words at their disposal are more likely to have a richer vocabulary than those who don’t.

As Stephen Fry once said, “The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or a lack of verbal interest is just f*cking lunatic.”

After Medieval swearing – Not God, not genitals, but minorities

We are hardly beyond taboos; we just observe different ones.

Today, what we regard as truly profane isn’t religion or sex.

It’s becoming increasingly taboo to sum up people, whether by size (fat), disability (cripple), or mental acuity (retard).

In the modern West, the last truly shocking words are those that refer to disadvantaged groups : women, gays, members of racial minorities and those with disabilities.

Western taboos now respect neither god nor sex, but they do seem to respect individuals.

Perhaps as t shouldst beest?

Images : Source


If you enjoyed this, you might like Medieval Irish swearing, when even the saints were famous for it!

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