In the early Middle Ages, Scandinavian influence on British life, language and culture was profound. The Vikings had a major and lasting impact, and their legacy still resonates strongly in modern constructions of British identity and heritage. Scandinavian settlement began in earnest in the late ninth century, especially in the North and East of England, and probably its most enduring and significant effect was on the English language.

The Gersum Project, funded by the AHRC, aims to understand Scandinavian influence on English vocabulary by examining the origins of up to 1,600 words in a corpus of Middle English poems from the North of England. The project is named after the ME word gersum, borrowed from ON gersemi ‘treasure’. English words with Old Norse origins certainly enriched the language and include such basic items as sky, egg, law, leg, call, take, window, knife, die and skin, and the pronouns they, their and them, as well as others as diverse and intriguing as hernez ‘brains’, muged ‘drizzled’, stange ‘pole’ and wothe ‘danger’. These are cultural artefacts which link us directly to the Vikings, and many of which English-speakers still use on a daily basis; and there are hundreds of other similar borrowings in standard and regional English usage, especially Northern dialects. The Gersum Project is investigating their early history to address questions about how we can identify Old Norse loans, and how and by whom these words were used in the first few centuries after their adoption into English, especially in the crucial Middle English period.

The corpus will include the following texts, associated with the so-called Alliterative Revival:

  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • Pearl
  • Cleanness
  • Patience
  • St Erkenwald
  • The Wars of Alexander
  • The Alliterative Morte Arthure
  • The Siege of Jerusalem
  • The Destruction of Troy

The project will also incorporate a number of events, including an inter-disciplinary conference in Cambridge in 2018 and a series of talks open to the general public.