Research Stream


Tahlia Birnbaum
The University of Sydney

Shame in Anglo-Saxon England

The emotion of shame in Anglo-Saxon England is usually considered in relation to honour and heroic conduct. This project examines evidence from the literary record of Anglo-Saxon England, including glossed psalters, law codes, homilies, religious treatises and poetry to examine what this emotion came to mean in a Christian context.

Shame in Anglo-Saxon England

Illustration to Psalm 6 ‘let all my enemies be ashamed’, The Harley Psalter, British Library Harley 603, f.  3v. England, 1st half of the eleventh century. Courtesy of The British Library.

The first part of this project argues that Christianity introduced a new kind of shame to the Anglo-Saxons, associated with internalising God’s judgment. This sense of shame had to be learnt by the Anglo-Saxons; it was taught through preaching, and internalised through processes of confession and repentance. An examination of vernacular glosses to the Psalms looks at how Latin words for shame were translated into Old English, enabling these concepts to be expressed verbally.

The second part of the project uses this perspective to reinterpret literature tied more closely to historical events. This part looks at how shame is used as a rhetorical device to make audiences feel ashamed, modify their behaviour, and return to God in order to ensure their salvation. This includes a study of texts from the early eleventh century written during the period of Viking invasions. These accounts show how the poor conduct of kings, warriors and Christian subjects was interpreted as shameful and therefore deserving of God’s punishment. The authors of these texts direct their audiences towards re-internalising God’s authority and re-learning a sense of shame. Part two reinforces the argument established in part one: that shame was a crucial aspect of repentance for sin, and was a useful emotion in modifying behaviour and ensuring salvation at Judgment Day.


‘Naming Shame: Translating Emotion in the Old English Psalter Glosses’, in Alice Jorgensen, Jonathan Wilcox and Frances McCormack, eds, Anglo-Saxon Emotions: Reading the Heart in Old English Literature, Language and Culture (Farnham: Ashgate, forthcoming).

Conference Papers

Feb 2014: ‘Humiliation, Vikings and the Construction of Shame in Late Anglo-Saxon England‘, The tenth conference of the Australian Early Medieval Association, Macquarie University, Sydney

July 2013: ‘Naming Shame: Translating Emotion in the Royal Psalter’, Psalm Culture and the Politics of Translation, Queen Mary, University of London, UK

July 2013: ‘Pleasure, Shame and Chastity in Aldhelm’s De Virginitate’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, UK

Feb 2013: ‘The Meaning of Shame in the Old English Psalter Glosses’, ANZAMEMS Ninth Biennial International Conference, Monash University, Melbourne

July 2012: ‘Shame as a Social Sanction in Anglo-Saxon England’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, UK

June 2011: ‘The Vocabulary of Shame in Old English’, Emotions in the Medieval and Early Modern World, UWA, Perth