Brace yourselves for a shock! Today’s word HENGST will guide us back to the beginning of the Middle Ages and the earliest records of the Dutch and English languages.
All three words are mentioned in the Lex Salica, the oldest European law code. The Salic law or Salian Law, was the major body of Frankish law for centuries. It governed areas which are now covered by many European countries such as Germany France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the northern parts of Italy, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and the Balkans.
The Salic law code was written in Latin but it contains glosses with the oldest Dutch words. It also has the first complete Dutch sentence. And here is the shock. The first sentence reads: ‘Ik verklaar dat ik deze horige vrij maak’ (I declare that I free this serf). In Old Dutch:
‘maltho thi afrio lito’.
‘maltho’ = ‘ik meld’ (I declare); ‘thi’ = jij (thou/thy); ‘afrio’ = bevrijd ik (I free); ‘lito’ = laat/horige (serf/slave).
By the way, did you know that this Salic Law ordained that there were only three crimes that could be punished by the death sentence: (1) premeditated murder, (2) rape and (3) marriage to your father’s wife.
Anyway, let’s return to the family Horse in these early medieval days.
‘Horse’ is clearly related to Dutch ROS (which means ‘war horse’ or ‘mount’) and German Roß. Old English ‘hors’ goes back to the Indo-European word ‘kurs’, which evolved into words like ‘hurry’, ‘carry’, ‘harry’, ‘hurrah’ and ‘current’ In Latin ‘currere’ means to run. In those days of kings, lords, slavery and serfdom the horse was a valued companion.
In the fifth century the British Isles were populated by hawkish tribes who spoke Celtic, a language that is very alien to English, German or Dutch. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of the eighth century tells us that the year 449 was a crucial year for these bellicose tribes. In the year 449 the British cultural map was changed for ever. And the persons who were responsible for this dramatic change were called after the noblest and strongest and nimblest of animals: Hengest and Horsa.
Who were the brothers Hengest and Horsa? Most probably they were Germanic twins who were born and bred somewhere along the marshy mainland coast. They did not speak Celtic but early Dutch or Saxon and they fell in love with the fertile and dry British island. In the fifth century they led the Angle, Saxon, and Jutish armies and conquered the south-eastern territories of Britain. Hengest was the founder of the Kingdom of Kent. And Horsa? He died in the year 455 in the battle of Aylesford.
It is a wonderful story that makes you think of Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Beowulf and the Arthurian legends. The king of the Britons, Vortigern, invited Hengest and Horsa to fight against the Picts and other Celtic tribes which were his enemies. Vortigern thought he was clever when he liaised with these two brave warriors, but eventually it meant the downfall of his realm.
Hengest and Horsa asked the Angles to help them fight the Britons. They lured them by saying that the Britons were worthless and the land rich. Not much later the Saxons and the Jutes followed. They populated the areas of Essex, Sussex and Wessex, Kent and the Isle of Wight. The name England derives from the Germanic tribe of the Angles who used to live in the peninsula in Schleswig, Northern Germany.
Here is the original Old English text that describes the conquest of the country that was to be called England. It is a passage from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Afer the Old English text is a translation that will show you how many Anglosaxon words can still be recognized.
Anno 449. On hiera dagum Hengest and Horsa, fram Wyrtgeorne gelaþode, Bretta cyninge, gesohton Bretene on þæm stede þe is genemned Ypwines-fleot, ærest Brettum to fultume, ac hie eft on hie fuhton. Se cyning het hie feohtan ongean Peohtas; and hie swa dydon, and sige hæfdon swa hwær swa hie comon. Hie þa sendon to Angle, and heton him sendan maran fultum. Þa sendon hie him maran fultum. þa comon þa menn of þrim mægþum Germanie: of Ealdseaxum, of Englum, of Iotum.
Anno 455. Her Hengest and Horsa fuhton wiþ Wyrtgeorne þæm cyninge in þære stowe þe is genemned Æglesþrep; and his broþor Horsan man ofslog. And æfter þæm Hengest feng to rice, and Æsc his sunu.
Anno 449. In these days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, king of the Britons, came to Britain at the place called Ebbsfleet, first to assist the Britons, but later they fought against them. The king told them to fight against the Picts; and so they did, and they were victorious wherever they went. Then they sent word to Anglia, and told them to send more help. They then sent to them more help. Then the men came from three tribes in Germany: from [the] Old Saxons, from the Angles, from the Jutes.
Anno 455. Here in this year Hengest and Horsa fought against Vortigern the king in the place called Aylesford; and someone killed his brother Horsa. And then Hengest became king and later Æsc his son.