There's a phrase in "Alms-Giving" that I'm confused about. First, here's the original, untranslated text:

Wel bið þam eorle      þe him on innan hafað,
reþehygdig wer,      rume heortan;
þæt him biþ for worulde      weorðmynda mæst,
ond for ussum dryhtne      doma selast.

Here is the first translation, by Dr. Aaron K. Hostetter, I found. The title is "Almsgiving" here:

It will be well for that earl who keeps inside himself,
the right-thinking man, a roomy heart
so that the most of honorable intentions
will be the greatest glory for the world

(As far as I can tell, the quoted sections and bolded sections roughly correspond)

What is a "roomy heart" supposed to be? I suspect it is figurative, but what is the figurative meaning? Is it connected to the idea of "room in one's heart for someone"? (I'm not sure how old that expression is.)

While doing some background research I found another translation, this one by Jacob Riyeff, which just confuses me more:

That disciple is blest whose spirit burns
with generosity, renovating the inner room
of her heart
. The world rejoices at her worthiness
and the Lord glories in the welcome glow of her light.

What is a good translation of this phrase about rooms and hearts? What does it mean? What does this tell us about the earl?

1 Answer 1


A difficulty faced by translators of Old English is that for each word there is usually a cognate in modern English, for example in this passage OE “rume” is the ancestor of “roomy” and OE “heorte” is the ancestor of “heart”. So it is tempting to translate the Old English words to their modern descendants, approximating the sound, rhythm, and imagery of the original. But the modern descendant often has different connotations or associations, so that it is not always the most accurate translation.

So to the modern English speaker, the primary (figurative) sense of “heart” is “the seat of the emotions, especially love”, and the primary sense of “roomy” is “spacious”. But to an Old English speaker, “heorte” meant (figuratively)

5.a. the mind

6.a. the soul, the spirit

7. intent, will, purpose; inclination, desire.

Oxford English Dictionary.

and “rume” meant

III. of mental qualities, ample, great, liberal

VIII. great, noble, august

Joseph Bosworth & T. Northcote Toller (1898). An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, p. 803. Oxford University Press (1964).

So that “rume heorte” was something like “noble spirit”, “liberal mind”, “generous intent”, which fits the theme of alms-giving:

Wel biþ ðam eorle ðe him oninnan hæfþ rúme heortan (liberal in giving alms)

Bosworth & Toller, p. 803.

The two translators quoted in the post have tried to bring out these meanings. Hostetter has “honorable intentions” (combining “weorð-mynd” meaning “honour” with “heorte” meaning “intent”) and Riyeff has “spirit burns with generosity”. But they have both kept “roomy heart” in addition, because it is such a striking image.

  • 2
    would big heart be a good fit? merriam-webster.com/dictionary/a%20big%20heart
    – Zombo
    Jun 5, 2021 at 13:27
  • 2
    I would consider roomy heart to be a fair approximation of generous intent for a poetical description.
    – jmoreno
    Jun 5, 2021 at 13:27
  • @jmoreno Yes, once you see what the phrase needs to mean, then you can make out the figure of speech, even in modern English. But it is hard to spot this, since we no longer have the sense "roomy" = "liberal, generous". Jun 5, 2021 at 18:03

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