Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Toswell, M. J.


Christianity substantially altered Germanic life during the early Middle Ages. However, no large-scale studies have attempted to visualize Christianization through macroscopic semantic trends, nor have any studies used Old Saxon as a control group to help illustrate the role of Christianity in less obvious semantic contexts. The core question of this project, then, revolves around semantic corpora and their role in clarifying sociocultural phenomena: how can a cross-section of Old Saxon and Old English semantics help clarify Christianity's role in re-shaping early medieval Germanic identity? This study uses corpus linguistics, post-colonial/historical theory, and Digital Humanities approaches to schematize the processes underlying the semantic shift of eight Old English/Old Saxon lexeme pairs—ambiht/ambaht, facen/fekan, gædeling/gaduling, hosp–hosc/hosk, geneat/ginot, scyldig/skuldig, þegn/thegan, and wlanc/wlank—that illustrate how the Anglo-Saxons and Continental Saxons re-interpreted their social and moral “Self” between ca.600 CE and ca.1100 CE.

This study obtained quantitative and qualitative sample data primarily from the Dictionary of Old English Electronic Corpus (DOEEC) and TITUS Texts. To establish a semantic baseline, data collection began with Latin/vernacular glosses and ended with larger works of early Germanic literature, including the Old English Beowulf and Old Saxon Heliand. To better systematize semantic observations, the sample lexemes were organized into two groups: “Social Roles” and “Personal Qualities.” The Old English and Old Saxon conclusions yielded three key observations: First, in the “Social Roles,” the transition from reciprocal exchange to autocratic kingship correlated to the naturalization of Christian hierarchy; second, in the “Personal Qualities,” new Christian moral concepts like the sin of superbia introduced semantic gaps that necessitated the reassignment of preexisting lexemes, resulting in semantic hybridization, specialization, and the subversion of Germanic pride; third, Christianity's preference for the unseen occasioned a shift from material to spiritual representations of salvation. These findings have significance for future research on Old English/Old Saxon semantic shift, the relative and absolute dating of Old English/Old Saxon literature, and hybrid digital/analog approaches to philology.