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Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels

As Easter is drawing near, this blog post deals with a unique early medieval manuscript that reveals how missionaries around the year 600 tried to teach the story of the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons. Notably, they used a rather modern method: teaching through comics.

Saint Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604)

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Earliest known historiated initial, probably depicting Saint Augustine in the Saint Petersburg Bede (source)

In the year 597, a Benedictine monk by the name of Augustine arrived in Kent, having been sent from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great. Augustine’s mission was to convert the Anglo-Saxons, and the Kingdom of Kent seemed to be a good place to start, since its king, Æthelberht, had married a Christian princess from Francia, named Bertha (which, incidentally, is a name which in The Netherlands is mostly associated with cows!). Although the Kentish king was apprehensive at first (he wanted to meet Augustine out in the open, lest the monk would act some kind of sorcery), Augustine was pretty successful. He was able to establish an episcopal see in Canterbury and founded two further bishoprics in London and Rochester.

One of the key factors of Augustine’s success was the papal backing he received from Pope Gregory the Great. The latter would sent Augustine additional personnel to aid his missionary activities, as well as answers to various pressing questions. These answers to Augustine’s questions form the so-called Libellus responsionum [Little Book of Answers], which survives in Bede’s Ecclesiastic History; the questions (and answers) deal with matters such as how to punish sinners, whether a man should wash after intercourse and whether a priest was still allowed to celebrate mass after he had had a wet dream – essential stuff. Lastly, the pope also sent Augustine a number of books; one of which is Cambridge, Corpus Christi College,  MS. 286: The St Augustine Gospels.

The Passion in the St Augustine Gospels

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St Augustine Gospels, 125r (source)

The St Augustine Gospels were made in Italy in the sixth century but soon ended up in Canterbury, where it remained until the 16th century. What makes this manuscript unique is not only its antiquity (it is one of the oldest books in Europe), but also its illustrations, which represent various scenes from the life of Christ. Collected as some of them are on a single page, these illuminations resemble the panels of a present-day comic strip.

I find it fascinating to imagine how Saint Augustine would have to explain the story of the Gospels to mostly illiterate Anglo-Saxons and that he could use this comic strip as a means to make his message clear. Incidentally, the face of one of the people who mock Christ in the St Augustine Gospels appears to have been all but erased – could this be because missionaries would dramatically thump this part of the illumination to indicate that this guy was doing something wrong?

Here follow the various scenes in more detail:

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Entry of Christ (on a donkey, holding a whip?) into Jerusalem (celebrated on Palm Sunday) ; The Last Supper (celebrated on Maundy Thursday); Garden of Getsehmane (above: Christ praying after the Last Supper; below: Christ finds disciples asleep).

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Raising of Lazarus (Lazarus is wrapped in a cloth and comes out of a weird tower shaped coffin?); Christ washes feet; Judas betrays Christ with a kiss.

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Christ is arrested; Trial of Christ before Caiaphas; Mocking of Christ (note how the face of the mocker on the right is almost worn away – the result of early medieval bible thumpers?)

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Pontius Pilate washing his hand (aided by a man pouring water over his hands with a ladle); Christ is led away from Pilate; Simon helps Christ carry the cross

Early medieval comic strips: The St Augustine Gospels and The Bayeux Tapestry

Although speech bubbles and such are absent, we may very well consider the St Augustine Gospels as one of the precursors of the modern-day comic strip. It possibly served as an inspiration of another early medieval ancestor of contemporary comics: The eleventh-century Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the events leading up to and including the Norman Conquest of 1066. This 70+ meter piece of embroidery was probably made in Canterbury and at least one of its scenes seems to show the influence of the St Augustine Gospels: the banquet organised by bishop Odo of Bayeux (the most likely patron of the Tapestry) resembles the Last Supper. Note how bishop Odo blesses the food in a manner similar to Christ!

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Last Supper in the St Augustine Gospels; Odo’s banquet on the Bayeux Tapestry

The fact that Saint Augustine and his fellow missionaries used comic strips, such as the one that survives in the St Augustine Gospels, to educate their flock reveals that teaching through comics has a long history, indeed. For a more modern example, see this blog post, where I try to explain a particularly difficult episode in Beowulf through the same medium!

 

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The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode

One of the most intriguing stories referred to in Old English heroic poetry is whatever happend at Finnsburg, between Hnæf , Finn and Hengest. The story is referred to in Beowulf, the so-called Finnsburg Fragment, and Widsith, but the events are rather difficult to piece together. For all who have ever struggled making sense of Finnsburg, here is an attempt at a comic strip reconstruction.

“gid oft wrecen” (Beowulf, l. 1065b): A Tale Often Recited

After Beowulf has defeated Grendel, there is much rejoicing in the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar. During the festivities, a minstrel performs a well-known tale, a “gid oft wrecen” (l. 1065b): a tale often recited. The Beowulf poet certainly assumed his audience to be familiar with the contents of this tale, since what follows is a rather enigmatic summary of events of something that took place in Frisia, concerning Finn, Hnæf and Hengest (ll. 1063-1159).  The basic premise of the story is somewhat clear: a feud between Danes and Frisians had been solved by a political marriage between the Frisian prince Finn and the Danish princess Hildeburh; a visit by Hildeburh’s brother Hnæf to Finnsburg renewed the hostilities and resulted in the death of Hnæf and Hildeburh’s son among others; although a new truce was made, Finn is killed the following year and Hildeburh is brought back to Denmark. The exact particulars of the story, however, are only alluded to and many scholars have tried to figure out what exactly happened (chief among them, a man named J.R.R. Tolkien in the posthumous work Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, ed. A. Bliss (1982)).

That the story of Finnsburg was indeed well known and often recited, becomes clear from the Finnsburg Fragment. The Finnsburg Fragment was found on a loose manuscript folio, once kept at Lambeth Palace and edited by the George Hickes in 1705 (the manuscript folio has since been lost). The Fragment consists of 48 lines of Old English poetry, which outline how a band of warriors led by Hnæf are attacked by Frisians, near Finnsburg. the text breaks off when a certain “folces hyrde” [leader of people, possibly Hnæf]  is mortally wounded. As such, the Finnsburg Fragment fills in some of the details that are lacking in the summary of the minstrel’s tale in Beowulf, which in turn provides information about the cause and outcome of the fight which are not mentioned in the extant text of the Finnsburg Fragment.

Yet a third text to testify to the circulation of this story in Anglo-Saxon England is the poem Widsith. This poem which is something of a catalogue of people, kings and heroes that the traveling poet Widsith [wide-jouney] had supposedly met over the years. Among the heroes mentioned in Widsith are the Frisian “Finn Folcwalding” [Finn, son of Folcwald] (l. 27), “Hnæf” who ruled the Hocings (l. 29) and “Sæferð” (l. 31) who ruled the Sycgs. These heroes can all be identified with people mentioned in the Finnsburg Fragment and/or the Finnsburg episode in Beowulf. The story of Finnsburg, then, was well known indeed, even if the particulars still elude scholars today (matters are made worse by apparent errors in the extant texts of the Finnsburg Fragment and the lines in Beowulf, which cause even more confusion and uncertainty).

The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode

The comic strip below, extending over 28 panels, represents one way of reading the Finnsburg Fragment and the Finnsburg episode in Beowulf. In places, I have simplified things (glossing over, for instance, the matter of the Jutes who appear to be fighting on both sides of the conflict or may actually not be Jutes, but giants – the words “eotan” [Jutes] and “eoten” [giant]  are easily confused!), elsewhere I have opted for one interpretation and ignored others. Some ‘scholarly’ justification follows after the comic strip…

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Notes 

Here is how the panels relate to the texts of Beowulf and the Finnsburg Fragment – I recommend you read the comic strip along with the actual texts!

  1. “The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswæl”. The term “freoðuwebbe” (Beowulf, l. 1942) is used to refer to women who were married off to solve a political feud. The Beowulf poet seems to be rather opposed to this idea, given the dramatic outcome of Hildeburh’s marriage. For the term “Freswæl” [Frisian massacre], see Beowulf, l. 1070. “Or: How Hildeburh became a sad woman”. See Beowulf, l. 1075 “þæt wæs geomuru ides”[that was a sad woman].
  2. I assumed that the feud dated back to the parents of Hildeburh and Finn; this is not neccessarily the case.
  3. For clarity, I gave all the Danes (and Jutes, and Sycgs) mustaches; the Frisians have beards.
  4. The marriage between Hildeburh and Finn must have lasted long enough to produce a son that could die during the fighting at Finnsburg.
  5. Hnæf visits and this leads to hostilities. It is still unknown why these hostilities took place; here, I blame Finn, since it would appear as if the Frisians were the ones to start the fight.
  6. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 3-4.
  7. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 5-12. What Hnæf and his men see is the sudden approach of the Frisians, carrying torches.
  8. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 13-15. Sigeferth can be identified as “Sæferð” in Widsith, l. 31.
  9. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 16-17. The fact that the Fragment says “Hengest sylf” (l. 17) suggests that Hengest is a figure of importance; this also becomes clear from his role in the episode in Beowulf.
  10. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 18-21. It is not entirely clear whether Garulf tells Guthere to stay back or the other way around. Nor is it clear whether the warning is heeded and so it is unclear who approaches the door first. Since we are told Garulf is the first to die (Finnsburg Fragment, l. 31), I suggest Garulf was the first to approach the door and that Guthere indeed listened to his warning. In this way, Garulf is the senior warrior who leads the charge.
  11. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 22-27.
  12. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 31-34a.
  13. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 34b-35a.
  14. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 37-45. It is unclear whether the mortally wounded “hæleð” [hero] (l. 43) is indeed Hnæf. The Finnsburg Fragment breaks off with this wounded hero asking how the young warriors are doing.
  15. See Beowulf, ll. 1067-1069.
  16. See Beowulf, ll. 1071-1081
  17. See Beowulf, ll. 1080-1085.
  18. See Beowulf, ll. 1086-1100.
  19. See Beowulf, ll. 1101-1106.
  20. See Beowulf, ll. 1107-1112.
  21. See Beowulf, ll. 1113-1116. It is uncertain on whose side Hildeburh’s son had been fighting. If he had been fighting on the Frisian side (which seems likely), his body being burned with Hnæf’s  is highly symbolic.
  22. See Beowulf, ll. 1117-1124.
  23. See Beowulf, ll. 1125-1136a.
  24. See Beowulf, ll. 1136b-1150a. The “Guthlaf and Oslaf” mentioned in Beowulf (l. 1148) can probably be identified with the “Ordlaf and Guthlaf” of the Finnsburg Fragment (l. 16).
  25. See Beowulf, ll. 1143-1144. It is unclear whether it is the son of Hunlaf (who may be Guthlaf) who gave Hengest a sword or whether “Hunlafing” (Beowulf, l. 1143) is the name of the sword. Whatever the case, Hengest gets a sword which reminds him of the things that happened the year before – in my reconstruction this is the sword of Hnæf.
  26. See Beowulf, ll. 1150b-1152a.
  27. See Beowulf, ll. 1146-1152a.
  28. See Beowulf, ll. 1152a-1159a.