Dutch Anglo-Saxonist

Home » 2015 » October

Monthly Archives: October 2015

Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?

The second episode of The Last Kingdom (UK airdate: Thursday, 29 October, 9 pm, BBC 2) introduces Prince Alfred, who would later become King Alfred the Great (d. 899). In his first scene, Alfred is portrayed as a man tormented both physically (because of his health) and morally (because of his lustful feelings towards the flustered maidservant that had just left his room). This blog post highlights some sources related to the historical Alfred and explores what they reveal about his passions…and his piles.

Alfred (The Last Kingdom, BBC) (SOURCE)

Alfred the Great (849-899): An unlikely king, a sickly sovereign

Genealogical tree of Æthelwulf of Wessex (reign 839-858) © The British Library, Royal 14 B V

Genealogical tree of Æthelwulf of Wessex (reign 839-858) © The British Library, Royal 14 B V (Source)

Known as one of the greatest monarchs of Anglo-Saxon history, defeater of the Danes and instigator of an important educational reform, Alfred was, in fact, an unlikely candidate for the throne of Wessex. For one, he was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex (reign 839-858), which means he had four older brothers: Æthelstan (d. 852), Æthelred (King of Wessex, 858-860), Æthelbald (King of Wessex, 860-865) and Æthelberht (King of Wessex, 865-871). Only after all his brothers had died, Alfred (apparently, Æthelwulf had run out of Æthel-names…) became eligible to rule. Given that he was the youngest of five, Alfred was probably groomed for an ecclesiastical career (his father took him to see the pope, twice), which may explain his interests in learning in his later life. Another reason why Alfred may have been considered an unlikely king at the time was because he suffered from a terrible illness, as is revealed by a biography written during his life by Bishop Asser in the year 893.

Be careful what you wish for!

1722 facsimile of manuscript containing Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’ (Source)

Asser’s Life of King Alfred is a unique source on Alfred’s life and character, written by one of his own courtiers. Asser not only records Alfred’s battles with the Vikings and his dealings at court, he also reports some of Alfred’s medical details, mentioning that, from his youth, Alfred had suffered from “ficus” [piles, haemeroids].

Interestingly, Asser also tells us how Alfred acquired his piles in his early days:

when he [Alfred] realized that he was unable to abstain from carnal desire, fearing he would incur god’s disfavour if he did anything contrary to His will … [he would pray] that Almighty God through His mercy would more staunchly strengthen his resolve in the love of His service by means of some illness which he would be able to tolerate … when he had done this frequently with great mental devotion, after some time he contracted the disease of piles through God’s gift. (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 74)

In other words, young Alfred, afraid of his own dirty thoughts, asked God to grant him a distraction and God gave him haemeroids!

Out of the frying pan, into the fire: “A sudden severe pain that was quite unknown to all physicians”

Asser’s biography also records that Alfred was miraculously cured from his piles when , prior to his wedding, Alfred had asked God to “substitute for the pangs of the present and agonizing infirmity some less severe illness” (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 74). The young prince was miraculously cured: hurray! His regained health would be short-lived, however, since he suddenly fell ill on his wedding night: he had been struck by an illness that proved incurable. This new disease would torment him the rest of his life, as Asser noted:

he has been plagued continually with the savage attacks of some unknown disease, such that he does not have even a single hour of peace in which he does not either suffer from the disease itself or else, gloomily dreading it, is not driven almost to despair. (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 91)

Bald's Leechbook © The British Library, Royal 12 D XVII

Bald’s Leechbook © The British Library, Royal 12 D XVII (Source)

While the disease may have been unknown to the Anglo-Saxon physicians, modern-day scholars have used Asser’s description to diagnose Alfred with Crohn’s disease (Craig 1991). This diagnosis is corroborated by another document made during Alfred’s lifetime: Bald’s Leechbook.

Bald’s Leechbook is a compilation of various medical texts, which was possibly made at Alfred’s own request. Within this compilation, there is a section that is concluded by “þis eal het þus secgan ælfrede cyninge domine helias patriarcha on gerusalem” [Elias, the patriarch of Jerusalem (c. 879-907), ordered all of this to be told to King Alfred]. Included in this section are remedies for the alleviation of constipation, diarrhoea, pain in the spleen and internal tenderness, which all fit well with the pathology of Crohn’s disease(Craig 1991, p. 304). The Old English text also records that Elias sent him a “hwita stan” [a white stone], which could be used against all sorts of illnesses; as an added bonus, the white stone would also protect the owner from lightning and thunders (the text is edited by Cockayne 1864, Vol. II, pp. 288-291).

To make a long story short: Alfred was a passionate boy, God gave him piles and the patriarch of Jerusalem gave him a pebble. Poor Alfred.

Works refered to:

  • Asser, Life of King Alfred, trans. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge (Harmondsworth, 1983)
  • Cockayne, T. O. (ed.), Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England (London, 1846; available here)
  • Craig, G., ‘Alfred the Great: A Diagnosis’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 84 (1991), 303-305.
Advertisements

Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb

Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb

Vikings, Alfred the Great and ninth-century England – The Last Kingdom (BBC; based on the Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell) will undoubtedly spark an interest into the Anglo-Saxons. On this blog, I will regularly discuss some of the historical and/or cultural background of The Last Kingdom, without major plot spoilers.

Priest Beocca (The Last Kingdom; BBC) (Source)

In the first episode of The Last Kingdom (UK airdate: Thursday, 22 October, 9 pm, BBC 2), the priest Beocca tells the young Uhtred that he should have the boy ‘swear by Cuthbert’s comb’. This post deals with the real Anglo-Saxon object that served as the inspiration for this remark: the comb of Saint Cuthbert.

St Cuthbert (d. 687)

Scenes from Bede's Life of St Cuthber: Otters lick Cuthbert's feet; Crows bring Cuthbert lard; Cuthbert in his coffin. © The British Library, Yates Thompson 26 (Source)

Scenes from Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert: Otters lick Cuthbert’s feet; Crows bring Cuthbert lard; Cuthbert in his coffin. © The British Library, Yates Thompson 26 (Source)

Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne is one of the most famous Anglo-Saxon saints. He spent most of his life on the islands of Lindisfarne and Inner Farne, where he combined the roles of hermit and bishop. He is fascinating for many reasons, but what stands out most for me is his relationship with animals: otters licked his feet, he shared a fish with an eagle, his horse found him some food and crows gave him hog’s lard (which he used to polish his shoes with). He died in the year 687 and he was buried in Lindisfarne. When his coffin was opened 11 years after his death, his body was found to be fully intact: proof that he was indeed a saint. He was put in a new coffin, which was placed inside the church, above ground, near the altar.

Cuthbert’s coffin has a long and exciting history (that we will skip for now) and, after an eventful sojourn through England, ended up in Durham Cathedral. In 1827, the grave in which Cuthbert was thought to have been reburied was opened and they found his bones (no longer intact, this time), along with various relics, such as a travelling altar, a gospel book (now in the British Library), a pectoral cross and an ivory comb.

The comb in Cuthbert’s coffin

Cuthbert’s Comb  (Source)

Cuthbert’s comb is about 16 cms long and 12 cms wide, with coarse teeth on the one end and fine teeth at the other. This seventh-century comb is an example of a ‘liturgical comb’, which priests would use to fashion their hair prior to celebrating mass. Scholars have noted certain similarities to Mediterranean combs of the same period; this, along with the fact that the comb was made of elephant ivory, demonstrates the big Mediterranean influence on Anglo-Saxon monasticism (on Cuthbert’s comb, see MacGregor 1985: 79).

Keeping Cuthbert from becoming Chewbacca

The ivory comb is described for the first time by the twelfth-century Benedictine monk and hagiographer Reginald of Durham (d. c. 1190), who wrote a book about miracles attributed to Cuthbert. He records an interesting story about how the comb was used to tame the deceased saint’s ever-growing hair. A tenth-century monk named Elfred, Reginald reports, would occasionally open Cuthbert’s coffin in order “to cut the overgrowing hair of his venerable head, to adjust it by dividing it and smoothing it with an ivory comb and to cut the nails of his fingers, tastefully reducing them to roundness”. Reginald also tells us that Elfred would now and again show some of his cuttings to his friends and hold the saint’s hair in flames. Exposed to the fire, Cuthbert’s hair would glisten like gold; cooled down, it returned to its former hairiness. Reginald further tells us that “the ivory comb, perforated in its centre” was placed in Cuthbert’s coffin (source of story: here) – where, apparently, it still was in 1827.

So there you have it: Cuthbert’s comb is well worth swearing by, if only because it allowed a tenth-century monk from keeping St Cuthbert from becoming St Chewbacca.

St Cuthbert (Source) and St Chewbacca (Source)

St Cuthbert (Source) and St Chewbacca (Source)

Works refered to:

MacGregor, Arthur. 2015. Bone, Antler, Ivory & Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials Since the Roman Period. Abingdon: Routledge.

The Latest Miracle of Anglo-Saxon Missionary Saint Adalbert of Egmond (d. c.740)

During the early Middle Ages, several Anglo-Saxons made their way to what is now the Low Countries, as missionaries, pilgrims, mercenaries and refugees. On this blog, I will regularly shed light on places in The Netherlands and Belgium associated with these visitors from early medieval England. This post focuses on the Anglo-Saxon saint Adalbert of Egmond (Feast day: 25 June) and the site where he had once been buried: Adelbertusakker, Egmond.

Adalbert of Egmond (d. c.740)

Shrine devoted to Adalbert of Egmond. Adelbertusakker, Egmond

Shrine devoted to Adalbert of Egmond. Adelbertusakker, Egmond

According to our earliest source about Adalbert of Egmond, the tenth-century Vita Sancti Adelberti, Adalbert was born in Northumbria and came to Frisia as one of the companions of the missionary St. Willibrord (d. 739). Adalbert concentrated his efforts in preaching the Gospel to the area around present-day Egmond, North-Holland. He was beloved by the locals, who erected a little wooden chapel in his honour at the site of his grave. Soon after his death in c.740, miracles started to take place: a widow who had prayed to the saint received her daily bread with the incoming tide; marauding Vikings who had their eyes set on Egmond were deceived by miraculously appearing mists; and a man who stole some cheese offered to Adalbert ate both the cheese and his fingers. (You can read the Vita Sancti Adalberti here)

In the tenth century, Adalbert visited the nun Wilfsit three times in a dream and told her that his bones should be exhumed and translated to her nunnery in Hallem (present-day Egmond-Binnen). Wilfsit contacted Count Dirk I of Holland (d. 939), who had the church demolished and Adalbert’s bones dug up. As they did so, water welled up along with the saintly bones and a well was established on the site. Ever since, this well has been a holy place and has been visited by various pilgrims, among whom the blind Anglo-Saxon Folmar, whose sight was restored by drinking water from the well of Adalbertus. A thousand years later, water can still be drunk from the well…

Adelbertusakker, Egmond

Blog.Adalbertus2jpg

Wooden carvings of Dirk Schuit, Count Dirk II and St Adalbert. Adelbertusakker, Egmond

Upon entering the Adelbertusakker (Google Maps location here), you are greeted by three life-size wooden carvings: Dirk Schuit (a man who lived there in the 19th century), Count Dirk II of Holland and St Adalbert. Walking a little further up field, you’ll find trees, benches to sit on, a shrine devoted to St Adalbert and, on the ground, the outlines of where from 1152 to 1573 a stone church had stood. The centrepiece of the field, however, is Adalbert’s well, which is still fully functional.

Adelbertusakker, Egmond. Left: Outlines of late medieval stone church; Right: Well of Adalbert.

Adelbertusakker, Egmond. Left: Outlines of late medieval stone church; Right: Well of Adalbert.

Pug and Beer: The latest miracle of Adalbert

Breca the Pug and the well of Adalbert.

Breca the Pug and the well of Adalbert.

Water from the well can still be drunk and, according to some, it has retained its medieval miraculous powers. In the 18th century, in particular, water from the well was used to heal cows and other livestock. Needless to say, my pug Breca had her fill as well (and she is still in good health today!).

Adalbert's latest miracle: Beer.

Adalbert’s latest miracle: Beer.

Interestingly, a nearby abbey (named after Saint Adalbert; I will devote another blog to this in the future) uses water from the well to brew its own beer. The beer is entitled ‘Sancti Adalberti Miraculum Novum’: the latest miracle of Saint Adalbert.

 

 

© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A medieval giant on display: Last resting place of Beowulf’s Hygelac discovered?

According to an early medieval ‘book of monsters’, the bones of the sixth-century, gigantic king Hygelac were shown to travelers on an island in the Rhine, where this river flowed into the sea. Recent excavations in Oegstgeest (South Holland) and the finding of the unique silver Oegstgeest bowl have brought to light international activities in the Rhine estuary in the early medieval period. Could these excavations hold a clue to the location of the bones of Hygelac, who is also mentioned in the Old English poem Beowulf?

A Book of Monsters

Hermaphrodites, dragons, centaurs, pygmies, elephants and a whole lot more. Around the year 700, an anonymous Englishman wrote the Liber monstorum de diversis generibus [The book of monsters of all sorts] and provided an overview of the ‘freaks of nature’ that he had heard and read about. A ninth-century manuscript of the text is currently held in the University Library in Leiden (VLO 60). In this overview of monsters, the author describes Hygelac, a gigantic king of the Geats (a people that lived in southern Sweden):

Blog.Hygelac1

Et fiunt mire magnitudinis ut rex Higlacus qui imperauit Getas… Leiden, UB, VLO 60, fol. 3r.

There are also monsters of an incredible size, such as King Hygelac, who ruled the Geats and was murdered by the Franks; from the age of twelve, no horse could carry him. His bones are preserved on an island in the river Rhine, where it flows into the sea, and they are shown to travelers from afar as a marvel.

Apparently, an Englishman around the year 700 had heard a of an island in the Rhine estuary, where travelers would come from faraway and where they would be shown the gigantic bones of Hygelac. Could this be Oegstgeest? And who was this King Hygelac?

Oegstgeest: An island in the Rhine?

Present-day Oegstgeest certainly does not look like an island, but the medieval situation was wholly different.  The name Oegstgeest derives from the personal name Osger and the Middle Dutch word ‘geest’, a term denoting a raised area of sandy soil. In the Middle Ages, Oegstgeest would have been more elevated than the surrounding landscape, which consisted mainly of water (the Rhine and various waterways) and marshland. As such, medieval Oegstgeest may very well be considered an island in the Rhine, which then still had its main estuary in nearby Katwijk (on the medieval history of Oegstgeest, see Lugt 2009).

Recent excavations in Oegstgeest uncovered not only the unique silver bowl, but also imported pottery and wine barrels. Together with a previous find of an Anglo-Saxon belt buckle in nearby Rijnsburg, these finds are indications of international activity in the Rhine estuary in the early medieval period. These archaeological discoveries might now be linked to the text of the Liber monstrorum and the island in the Rhine estuary where, according to the English author, “travelers from afar” were shown the bones of Hygelac.

Blog.Hygelac2

The Rijnsburg belt buckle and the Oegstgeest bowl. Both are part of the collection of the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden.

Who was Hygelac?

Although the Liber monstrorum is the only text to comment on Hygelac’s size, his death around the year 525 AD is described in three early medieval texts. The historian Gregory of Tours (ca. 538-594) wrote that Hygelac died in a naval battle, as he returned from a raid to the north of Gaul. The anonymous Liber Historiae Francorum, written two hundred years later, gives a similar story, but places Hygelac’s raid in the area inhabited by the “Att-oarii”, a people that possibly lived near Nijmegen (Storms 1970).

Hygelac is also mentioned in Beowulf, a long poem in Old English (the language spoken in early medieval England). The poet reports that Hygelac took on the combined forces of Franks, Frisians and “Hetware” (the “Att-oarii” of the Liber Historiae Francorum) and that he died in Frisia:

BlogHygelac3

Higelac cwom faran flotherge on Fresna land… London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv, fol. 197r.

                              Higelac cwom
faran flotherge        on Fresna land,
þær hyne Hetware        hilde gehnægdon,
elne geeodon       mid ofermægene,
þæt se byrnwiga       bugan sceolde,
feoll on feðan;       nalles frætwe geaf
ealdor dugoðe. (Beowulf, ll. 2914b-2920a)

[Hygelac came sailing with a naval army to Frisia, where the “Hetware” assailed him in battle. They acted with courage and superior force, so that the byrnie-warrior had to bow down, he fell in the battle; this leader did not at all give treasures to his warriors.]

In the early Middle Ages, ‘Frisia’ was larger than present-day Friesland and it extended along the North Sea coast, from North-Western Germany south to well beyond the Rhine estuary.

Where did Hygelac die?

Concerning the location of Hygelac’s death, the early medieval sources are not in agreement: to the north of Gaul, near Nijmegen or in Frisia? Gregory of Tours’ naval battle, the mentioning of the Frisians in Beowulf and the text of the Liber monstrorum all seem to indicate a location at least close to the North Sea.

Hygelac’s bones have never been found. In the fifties, a scholar suggested that the bones may have been kept on the island Goeree Overflakkee (Magoun 1953). Given the recent archeological excavations in Oegstgeest and the evidence outlined above, Oegstgeest within the Rhine estuary appears a more likely option. Due to the scarcity of sources for the early Middle Ages, the best we can do is speculate, but I would not be surprised if the archeologists in Oegstgeest should stumble upon some gigantic bones in the ground!

This is a slightly edited version of a blog previously posted on the Leiden University website. If you liked this blog, why not follow the blog (see button in the right-hand menu) and/or continue reading the following blogs on Beowulf:

Works referred to:

  • Lugt, F. (2009), Het Goed van Oegstgeest: De Middeleeuwen in Oegstgeest, Poelgeest, Kerkwerve, Rijnsburg en Nieuw-Rhijngeest. Leiden: Ginkgo.
  • Magoun, F., Jr. (1953), ‘The Geography of Hygelac’s Raid on the Lands of the West Frisians and the Hætt-ware, ca. 530 AD’, English Studies 34.
  • Storms, G. (1970), ‘The Significance of Hygelac’s Raid’, Nottingham Mediaeval Studies 14,3-26.

© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.