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An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Alleluia, the Anglo-Saxon Boo!

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a self-made cartoon. This blog discusses how the Britons scared the Anglo-Saxons by shouting ‘Alleluia!’…

The settlement of the diverse Germanic tribes in what is now known as England did not happen overnight. It took the Angles, Saxons and Jutes more than 150 years to fully conquer the bits of land that are now known as England. In great part, this was due to British resistance, possibly led by the legendary King Arthur. But King Arthur was by no means the only ‘secret weapon’ for the Britons.

In his Greater Chronicle, the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede(672/3-735) makes mention of the following British victory over the combined forces of Saxons and Picts:

Having gathered some men they checked the campaign of the Saxons […] the enemy was forced to flee panic-stricken, not by the noise of the tuba but by the crying of Alleluia by the voice of the whole army raised to the stars. (Bede, Greater Chronicle, s.a. 4410, trans. McClure and Collins, 2008).

This is the story, told more elaborately in his Ecclesiastical History (book I, ch. 20), of a small British force who were greatly outnumbered by the armies of the Saxons and the Picts. Among the Britons there were three priests who proposed to the British army to loudly shout ‘Alleluia’. As the whole army shouted the word simultaneously (and the word resounded through the entire valley), the pagans became afraid the heavens might fall down on their heads and so they ran away.


Want to scare an Anglo-Saxon? Don’t shout ‘boo’ if ‘Alleluia’ will do!

Works referred to:

  • Bede, The Greater Chronicle, trans. J. McClure and R. Collins. In Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Greater Chronicle, Bede’s Letter to Egbert (Oxford, 2008)

If you liked this post, you may also like An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Real Night of the Long Knives and An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How Hengest was led by the nose.


Scribal abuse in the Middle Ages

Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle
Boece or Troilus to wryten newe,
Under thy lokkes thou most have the scalle,
But after my making thou wryte trewe.
So ofte a daye I mot thy werk renewe,
Hit to correcte and eek to rubbe and scrape;
And al is through thy negligence and rape.

[Adam scribe, if it should ever happen to you that you write Boethius or Troilus anew, may you have scabs under your locks, unless you copy in true fashion in accord with my lines. So often in a day I must renew your work, and correct and rub and scrape it; and all is through your negligence and haste.]

In this famous little poem, Geoffrey Chaucer cursed the sloppiness of his scribe Adam. Some evidence of the medieval punishments inflicted on other scribes in the Middle Ages suggests Adam got off lightly.

Write like this or else: Poor Ælfric and Willimott

A number of inscriptions, added in the margins of English manuscripts, suggests that negligent scribes could face physical repercussions. In London, British Library, Harley 55, a twelfth-century miscellany containing medical texts and Anglo-Saxon law codes, an added note reads “Writ þus oððe bet ride aweg Ælfmær pattafox þu wilt swingan Ælfric cild”. Depending on whether we interpret the word “bet” as a form of Old English betan ‘to make amends, pay’ or bett ‘better’, this note translates as either ‘Write like this or pay (and) ride away, Ælfmær Pattafox will hit you Ælfric, child’ or ‘Write like this or better ride way, Ælfmær Pattafox will hit you Ælfric, child’.


“Writ þus oððe bet ride aweg Ælfmær pattafox þu wilt swingan Ælfric cild” © British Library, Harley 55, fol. 4v


Similar threats of violence against a scribe failing to reproduce the script of his exemplar are found in two twelfth-century notes, added in the margins of Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 20 (a ninth-century copy of Alfred’s Old English translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care). These notes are directed at scribe Willimot and read “willimot writ þus oððe bet” [Willimot, write like this or pay/better] and “writ þus oððe bet oððe þine hyde forlet” [write like this or pay/better or lose your skin]. Similar admonitions to ‘write like this’, albeit without explicit threats of physical punishment, can be found in other Anglo-Saxon manuscripts (Whitbread 1983).


“willimot writ þus oððe bet” ; “writ þus oððe bet oððe þine hyde forlet” © Bodleian Library, Hatton 20, fol. 53v and 55r (bottom)

‘He who does not want to learn freely must be taught with blows’


Ouch! © Durham Cathedral Library, Hunter 100, fol.44r

The scribal notes in Harley 55 and Hatton 20 are painful reminders of the fact that a strict regime of physical discipline was an integral part of monastic education.  A twelfth-century manuscript now in Durham Cathedral Library shows a pupil being beaten by his teacher, next to the rubric “Afficitur plagis qui non vult discere gratis”  [He who does not want to learn freely must be taught with blows] (Cleaver 2009).

Monastic rules abound in corporal punishment for misbehaving monks and these sometimes included negligent scribes. The 9th-century typikon of the monastery of Stoudios in Constantinople, for example, lists the following punishments:

A diet of bread and water was the penalty set for the scribe who became so much interested in the subject matter of what he was copying that he neglected his task of copying. Monks had to keep their parchment leaves neat and clean, on penalty of 130 penances. If anyone should take without permission another’s quaternion (that is, the ruled and folded sheets of parchment), 50 penances were prescribed. If anyone should make more glue than he could use at one time and it should harden, he would have to do 50 penances. If a scribe broke his pen in a fit of temper (perhaps after having made some accidental blunder near the close of an otherwise perfectly copied sheet), he would have to do 30 penances (Wegner 2004, p. 210).

A scribe condemned to a mouse’s death

One particularly painful corporal punishment of a scribe, though not for erroneous copying, is found in the 9th-century Book of Pontiffs of the Church of Ravenna by Andreas Agnellus. After Ravenna rebelled against the Byzantine Empire at the end of the seventh century, one of its local rebels, the scribe Johannicis, is arrested and brought before Byzantine Emperor Justinian II, ‘the slit-nosed’ (669-711):

Justinian, having become enraged, ordered Johannicis to be brought into his presence; as if ignorant, he asked him ironically, “is this indeed Johannicis the scribe?” and when he answered that it was he, the imperial rage rose yet higher. He ordered a reed to be brought and he ordered that it be forced under all the nails of his fingers up to the second joint. He then ordered parchment and pen to be given, that [Johannicis] might write. When he received it, he forced the pen between two fingers. He did not write with ink, but with the blood which flowed from his fingers (Mauskopf Deliyannis 2004, pp. 265-6).

In true heroic fashion, Johannicis writes a prayer to God in his own blood on the parchment and throws this in the Emperor’s face. The enraged Justinian then orders Johannicis to die a ‘mouse’s death’; that is: he is crushed between two stones and dies.

In view of the above, Chaucer could have done a lot worse to Adam scriveyn than a mere conditional curse of scabs. So, the next time you are frustrated with barely legible scripts or missing pieces of text in medieval manuscripts and feel like wringing the scribe’s neck, rest assured that his contemporaries probably got there first…

Works referred to:

  • Cleaver, L., ‘Grammar and Her Children: Learning to Read in the Art of the Twelfth Century’, Marginalia 9 (2009), http://www.marginalia.co.uk/journal/09education/cleaver.php
  • Mauskopf Deliyannis, D. (Trans.), The Book of Pontiffs of the Church of Ravenna (The Catholic University of America Press 2004)
  • Wegner, P.D., The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI 2004).
  • Whitbread, L.G., ‘A Scribal Jotting from Medieval English’, Notes and Queries 228 (1983), pp. 198-199.  

This is a slightly edited version of a blog previously posted on the medievalfragments blog.

Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?

Last year, scholars from the University of Nottingham managed to defeat the superbug MRSA, using the recipe for an eye salve in an Anglo-Saxon medical manuscript. This blog post calls attention to some other early medieval recipes that may be worth trying out: four Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs. 

Bald’s Leechbook: Warm milk is more effective than alcohol

Bald’s Leechbook is a compilation of various medical texts that survives in a tenth-century manuscript (recently digitized). A large part of the compilation dates to the ninth century and is associated with King Alfred the Great. One segment that may have interested Alfred in particular is chapter 70 of the first leechbook, which deals with ways to temper or arouse  one’s lust (on Alfred’s problems with lust, see this blog post). The text is given below:


Anglo-Saxon Aphrodisiacs in Bald’s Leechbook. © The British Library, Royal MS 12 D XVI, fol. 54v (source)

Gif mon sie to wræne wyl hindheoloþan on wiliscum ealað, drince on neaht nestig. Gif mon sie to unwræne wyl on meolce þa ilcan wyrt, þonne awrænst þu. Wyl on eowe meolce, eft, hindhioloþan, alexandrian, fornetes folm hatte wyrt. Þonne biþ hit swa him leofost bið. (Cockayne 1864-6, Vol. 2, p. 144)

[If one is too lustful, boil water agrimony in foreign ale, drink it [or let him/her drink] at night, fasting. If one is unlustful, boil the same plant in milk, then you make that person lustful. Boil in ewe’s milk, again, water agrimony, horse parsley and the plant that is called Fornet’s hand (a kind of orchid). Then it will be as if it is dearest to him.] (the translation of the Old English medical materials is derived from Pollington 2000)

Interestingly, the lust-arousing properties of the same plant, ‘Hindhealth’ or water agrimony, depends on the type of drink in which it is used. Should you ever want to seduce an early medieval person, it seems, warm milk is more effective than alcohol!

Medicina de Quadrupedibus: Sympathetic magic

Whereas the herbs required for the aphrodisiacs in Bald’s Leechbook may not be hard to get by, another Anglo-Saxon text uses some more exotic (and less appealing) ingredients. The text in question is the eleventh- or twelfth-century Old English translation of the Medicina de Quadrupedibus, a text which outlines how you can use the various parts of four-legged animals as medicine. The materials used include deer testies and the gall of a buck goat. The texts and translations of three lust-arousing draughts and ointments follow below:

Wif gemanan to aweccanne, nim heortes sceallan, dryg, wyrc to duste, do hys dæl on wines drinc. Þæt awecceþ wif gemanan lust. (Cockayne, Vol. 1, p. 337)

[To arouse a woman for sexual intercourse, take the testicles of a deer, dry them, grind them to dust, do a part of this in a drink of wine. That will arouse a woman with the lust for intercourse.]

To wifes willan, þæs buccan geallan meng wið recels 7 wið netelan sæd; smyre þone teors mid ær foran to þæs restgemanan. Þæt wif onfehð þæs willan on ðam hæmede. (Cockayne 1864-6, Vol. 1, p. 350)

[To arouse the desire of a woman, mix the gall of a buck goat with incense and with the seed of nettles; rub the penis with this before going to ‘rest’. The woman receives the desire for sexual intercourse.]

Weres wylla to gefremmanne, nime bares geallan 7 smyre mid þone teors 7 þa hærþan. Þonne hafað he mycelne lust. (Cockayne 1864-6, Vol. 1, p. 358)

[To carry out the desire of a man, take the gall of a boar and rub the penis with this and the testicles, then he will have great lust.]

One remarkable aspect of Anglo-Saxon medical texts is that they often rely on what might be termed ‘sympathetic magic’, a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence. For instance, Bald’s Leechbook advices someone to sleep on the ashes of a burnt dog’s head in order to cure a head ache; if you have trouble retaining your urine, you should eat the bladder of a goat or a ram; and if you suffer from swollen eyes, just catch a live crab, put out its eyes and place its eyes on your neck. The cure, in other words, matches the disease. Could the recommendation to slip some deer testicles into a woman’s drink be a product of the same line of reasoning, and would the buck goat and boar be used because they were known as particularly wanton animals?

Remarkably, the first editor of the libido-increasing substances discussed in this blog, the Reverend Thomas Oswald Cockayne, refused to translate them entirely into English and, instead, provided Latin translations. Perhaps he hoped to dissuade his readers from trying them out. Be that as it may, perhaps these ‘leechdoms’ will prove as useful as the Anglo-Saxon eye salve that defeated MRSA (for more info on this, click here). It may be rather hard, however, to find some voluntary testers for the last three…

Works referred to:

  • Cockayne, T. O., Leechdoms Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England (London, 1864–6).
  • Pollington, S., Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing (Little Downham, 2000)