Bill Long 8/5/05
On Thrills and Thralls
I ran across a word from a nineteenth century legal text that was too good to lose. It talked about the end of the Civil War and the "disenthralment" of the Negro race. I knew that the word suggested the act of freeing or fact of being free, but I don't think I have ever followed the "thrall thread" as far as I could. This and the next essay attempt to do that.
Starting with a Story
I'll never forget the thrill I felt when I met thrall for the first time. I had become an Evangelical Christian late in my high school days, and one way of demonstrating my piety was to memorize, and sing, all sorts of hymns. I remember committing the following one to memory:
"I bind my heart, this tide, to the Galilean's side,
To the wounds of Calvary, to the Christ who died for me.
I bind my soul this day to the brother far away
And the brother near at hand, in this town and in this land.
I bind my heart in thrall to God, the Lord of all.
To God, the poor man's friend, and the Christ whom He did send.
I bind myself to peace, to make strife and envy cease.
God, knit Thou sure the cord of my thralldom to my Lord.
The hymn's author, as you see, was really into thrall, into subjection of the will and heart to God. It is easy to find New Testament references that give theological support to the concept--Paul, for example, repeatedly refers to himself as the "bond servant" of Christ--but I was caught up by the spirit of full self-dedication to God which rings through the hymn. Let's start with thrall.
I was surprised to see how old the word thrall is. Its Middle English equivalent appears as early as a tenth century translation of Mk. 10:44 in the Lindisfarne Gospels ["and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all"--in the NRSV]. It means "one who is in bondage to a lord or master; a villein, serf, bondman, slave." It can also mean "captive" or "prisoner of war." Let's go to the big names. A 1571 translation of Calvin's Commentary on the Psalms has: "They willingly yeelde themselves thralls to wickednes." Shakespeare, who used the term many times, says in Macbeth: "Slaves of drink, and thralles of sleep."
The condition of servitude thus resulting is thraldom (the word is spelled thralldom in the hymn, even though the OED only attests thraldom). "The Israelites were delivered out of the thraldom of Egypt." As early as John Wycliffe, late in the 14th century, the word could be used figuratively: "To chastise the body, to bring it in thraldom." Victorian authors loved the term. Jowett, translating Plato, would write: "She may deliver herself up again to the thraldom of pleasures and pains." But Yeats brought the term away from the moralistic meaning and back to its economic significance when he said, in 1872: "Shoemakers were among the first to rescue themselves from the thraldom of the lords of the soil."
Thralled means "made a thrall, enslaved, held in bondage. In a blush of patriotic self-aggrandizement, an English writer said in 1665: "The English spirit, that prefers an honorable death to a thralled life." Of course in the Victorian era this was a great word used by many English people to describe the way the lower appetites were indulged. "Italy is the thralled place she is, owing to her indulgence in that luscious enfeebling vein of literature." Hm. I wonder which books he was referring to and whether my library has a copy. Thrall/thraldom/thralled is a great word family to use to attack your foes. They can easily be characterized as being enslaved to something, either an opinion, a school of thought, a person or their (despicable) pleasures.
I was delighted to discover that Wycliffe also used the word thralless to describe a female thrall, with the male equivalent being thrallis. His translation of Deut. 28:68 is as follows: "There thow shalt be sold to thin enemyes, into thrallis and thrallessis. His 1382 translation of Isaiah 14:2 also reflects this usage: "And shal welden hem the hous of Israel..in to thralles and to thrallesses." By 1388, however, the latter passage had been changed to servantis and hand maidis. Perhaps the terminology of thrallis (thralles) and thrallessis (thrallesses) dropped out of the language quickly because thralless could also mean "having no thrall; without bondmen." However, the word thralful, attested once, doesn't mean to have lots of slaves but to be "full of misery." From 1615: "Also the Lord accepted Job, and staid His Thrall-full State."
I think thrall and related words have real potential in 2005. Why not speak about someone who is utterly subservient or obsequious as "Your Thral(l)ship"? Why not talk about someone unable to extricate him/herself from mental bondage as a thral(l)head? But then we don't have to stretch that far; thraldom, especially, is a great word today to characterize the mental processes of those with whom we disagree. "If only the Democrats (or Republicans) could surmount their thraldom to the ideas of XXX, the country would be a lot better off..."
Let's now move on to thrill and related words.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long