Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dr. Jana K. Schulman

Second Advisor

Dr. Eve Salisbury

Third Advisor

Dr. Larry Hunt

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Paul E. Szarmach


Oath, Swearing, Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Law, Literature


The legal and literary texts of early medieval England and Iceland share a common emphasis on truth and demonstrate its importance through the sheer volume of textual references. One of the most common applications of truth-seeking in these sources occurs in the swearing of oaths. Instances of oath-taking and oath-breaking, therefore, are critical textual loci wherein the language of swearing unites an individual’s socially constructed reputation and his personal guarantees under the careful supervision of the community. Traditionally, scholars looking at truth and attestation from the later medieval period tend to view early cases of swearing as procedural, artless, or largely instinctive. In “Bound by Words,” I examine the complexity and decisiveness of early swearing through a critical study of speech-act theory and by looking at law as a specific type of literature. Overall, this study of Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic texts brings together the major legal and literary sources to explore those moments when words attempt to guarantee action or when narratives focus on the contravention of that system. Such motifs invest language with the power to provide justice, yet these texts also demonstrate the potential for words to cause harm and thus treat them with appropriate caution. Ultimately, the project confronts this dependence on and apprehension toward swearing to demonstrate the critical ways that these legal and literary texts attempt to negotiate the power in and peril of trusting others.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access