Henry Sweet (1845-1912) was a remarkable scholar who laid some of the foundations for the academic study of Old English. This blog provides an overview of Sweet’s publications with respect to Old English and Anglo-Saxon texts. It also relates how a nineteenth-century Dutch student of Old English felt utterly insulted by Sweet, who had ignored him despite his pointing out several mistakes in Sweet’s published work.
Henry Sweet (1845-1912): A formidable scholar with an abrasive personality
Henry Sweet is known as one of the founding fathers of the scholarly study of Old English: a reputation he owes to his highly popular textbooks of Old English: The Anglo-Saxon Reader and The Anglo-Saxon Primer. Even today, many students of Old English will own one or more of Sweet’s works (his Primer and Reader remained classroom texts for at least a century after their publication and can be bought for a penny in most second-hand book stores). Sweet himself probably got his first grounding in Old English from T. O. Cockayne (1809-1873), a teacher at King’s College School, London, which Sweet attended from 1861 to 1863. Sweet later studied comparative and Germanic philology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and read classics in Baliol College Oxford, where he got a fourth-class BA degree in 1873. This rather mediocre degree was likely due to his energetic study of the Germanic languages, which he favoured over the study of Latin and Greek. Indeed, by the time he graduated, he had already published an edition of the Old English translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care (1871-1872) and had begun work on a dictionary of Old English (which would eventually be published in 1896). Sweet had also read several papers to the Philological Society, which he would serve as its president from 1876-1878. Thus, while Sweet failed to impress as a classicist, he became a remarkable specialist in the field of comparative linguistics, phonetics and the study of Old English (MacMahon 2004).
Henry Sweet was more respected abroad than he was in England. Despite his impressive list of publications, he had to wait until 1901, when, aged fifty-five, he was offered a position at a university: the readership of phonetics at the University of Oxford. By contrast, as MacMahon (2004) outlines, institutions outside of Britain were more appreciative of Sweet: he was awarded an honorary PhD degree in 1875 by the University of Heidelberg and he was made a member of various academic societies abroad, including the Munich Academy of Sciences, the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences, the Royal Danish Academy and the International Phonetic Association (which he served as its president from 1887 to his death). He had also been offered various university chairs on the Continent, where the study of Old English and comparative philology was much more advanced than in Britain. Sweet had declined those offers, because he felt he had a mission back home.
Sweet’s mission was the promotion and establishment of the scientific study of linguistics, particularly Old English, in England. In this field of inquiry, continental scholars outshone the English; a fact Sweet himself often lamented. He voiced his concerns in the prefaces to his publications and in personal correspondence. An example of the latter is the following excerpt of a letter by Sweet to P. J. Cosijn (1841-1899), Professor of Germanic Philology at the University of Leiden, The Netherlands:
Sweet’s crusade to turn the academic tide was partially fuelled by his patriotism. As Frantzen (1990) has observed, Sweet “saw language study as a matter of national pride” (p 72). Sweet’s endeavours resulted in various didactic works, suitable for a whole range of students of Old English – from dummies to experts, Sweet’s works catered to all (see below).
With the quality of his scholarship beyond any doubt, one of the reasons why Sweet never managed to land a university teaching job may have been his abrasive character. As Niles (2015) puts it, “Sweet was a man with a sharp tongue who was not known for living up to the promise of his name” (p. 249). MacMahon (2004) also notes how “Sweet’s personality was partly to blame for his lack of success in Britain”. Interestingly, some of his nasty traits were immortalised by the playwright George Bernard Shaw who based the character Professor Higgins in Pygmalion (1912; better known, perhaps, as its musical adaptation My fair lady) on Henry Sweet. At the end of this blog post, we will see that Sweet also wasn’t very kind to a Dutch student who desperately wanted to get acquainted with the “gentleman from Baliol College Oxford”.
Publications relating to Old English
Thanks to the Internet Archive, most of Sweet’s publications with regard to Anglo-Saxon texts and the Old English language are now freely available. Below follows a chronological overview of his works (I have limited my selection to works touching on Old English; Sweet also published works on Middle English, Icelandic and general linguistics):
- King Alfred’s West-Saxon Version of Gregory’s Pastoral Care: With an English Translation, the Latin Text, Notes, and an Introduction (1871-1872): An edition and translation of the Old English translation of the Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis. Still the standard edition of this text.
- An Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse: With Grammatical Introduction, Notes, and Glossary (1876). A second, revised and enlarged edition (1879); a third, revised and enlarged edition (1881); a fourth, revised and enlarged edition (1884). The text of the fourth edition was retained without further alterations through to the sixth edition (1888). The seventh edition (1894) was partially re-written and enlarged. This seventh edition remained the definitive text, until, in 1967, Dorothy Whitelock revised the fifteenth edition of Sweet’s Reader.
- An Anglo-Saxon Primer, with Grammar, Notes, and Glossary (1882). A second edition, with minor corrections, was published in the same year. A third edition with many improvements appeared in 1886. The text remained the same for the fourth edition (1887), through to the sixth edition (1890), seventh edition (1893) and eighth edition (1905). In 1953, Norman Davis revised the ninth edition of Sweet’s Primer.
- The Épinal Glossary, Latin and Old-English (1883). An edition of the late seventh-century glossary, along with a photo-lithograph facsimile of the manuscript. Unfortunately, this edition has not been digitized by the Internet Archive. Those interested in the Épinal glossary are in luck, since the manuscript itself has been made available and can be accessed here, along with a transcription.
- King Alfred’s Orosius. Part 1: Old-English Text and Latin Original (1883): An edition of the Old English translation of Orosius’s Historiae adversus paganos, along with the Latin source text. No modern English translation or glossary is provided.
- Extracts from Alfred’s Orosius (1885): Extracts from the 1883 edition of the same work, with limited glossary. Published as a supplement to his Anglo-Saxon Reader. A second edition appeared in 1893.
- Selected Homilies of Ælfric (1885). Extracts from Benjamin Thorpe’s edition of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies, with limited glossary. Published as a supplement to his Anglo-Saxon Reader. A second edition, with some additions to the glossary, appeared in 1922.
- The Oldest English Texts (1885). According to the preface, this edition was “intended to include all the extant Old-English texts up to about 900 that are preserved in contemporary mss., with the exception of the Chronicle and the works of Alfred”. Edition includes glossaries, genealogies, charters and glosses. No translation is provided, but there is a full glossary.
- A Second Anglo-Saxon Reader: Archaic and Dialectical (1887). Another supplement to Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader, featuring a selection of non-West Saxon texts and older material (e.g. glossaries and charters). In part, this is an abridged version of his Oldest English Texts.
- The Student’s Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon (1896). An abridgement of the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (which has now been digitized here: http://www.bosworthtoller.com/ ) .
- First Steps in Anglo-Saxon (1897): A short, simplified beginner’s guide to Old English with texts and glossary. Texts include Ælfric’s Colloquy and a prose paraphrase of Beowulf in Old English, by Sweet himself.
- Collected Papers of Henry Sweet (1913). A posthumous collection of Sweet’s shorter writings, arranged by Henry C. Wyld. The collection includes various notes on Old English sounds and etymologies. An interesting piece is Sweet’s earliest paper: ‘The History of TH in English’ (1869), with an amusing afterword by Sweet’s former teacher T. O. Cockayne (1809-1873), which is interspersed with þ’s and ð’s – the Old English symbols for TH.
A glance at Sweet’s publications reveals that a good portion of his publications were intended for students of Old English. A remarkable feat, given that Sweet never really held a teaching job. Indeed, the fact that he had no students to teach actually made it hard for Sweet to improve his didactic works, as he himself lamented in the preface to third edition of the Anglo-Saxon Primer:
If I had any opportunity of teaching the language, I should no doubt have been able to introduce many other improvements; as it is I have had to rely mainly on the suggestions and corrections kindly sent to me by various teachers and students who have used this book, among whom my special thanks are due to the Rev. W. F. Moulton, of Cambridge, and Mr. C. Stoffel, of Amsterdam.
Here, Sweet sounds appreciative of the corrections he had received. Not every reader’s suggestion was greeted with such grace, however, as the case of Dutch schoolmaster and autodidact student of Old English G.J.P.J. Bolland (1852-1922) reveals…
“A schoolmaster need not expect deference from a gentleman of Baliol College Oxford”: How Henry Sweet ignored and insulted a helpful, nineteenth-century Dutch student
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Dutch schoolmaster G. J. P. J. Bolland (1852-1922) had decided to devote himself to the study of Germanic languages, focusing on Old English in particular. Thanks to a grant of sorts, Bolland had been able to spend a few months in London, where he trained himself in the academic study of Old English. Naturally, he had read some of Sweet’s publications and even had some suggestions for improvement. As it turns out, Sweet did not want to meet with Bolland, who, being utterly insulted, turned to his mentor, Professor of Germanic Philology in Leiden, P. J. Cosijn. Bolland wrote to Cosijn on October 10, 1879:
..our [Dutch] linguists seem less condescending than the English half-thinkers appear to me. It is with emphasis and without flattery, that I wouldn’t dare to compare you as a Germanicist to H. Sweet; even if that gentleman were the editor of the Pastoral Care [the Old English translation of Gregory’s Cura Pastoralis] a thousand times over! And still, you refer me to his work on phonetics as being authoritative?
Bolland then lists a number of errors he had found in Henry Sweet’s A History of English Sounds from the Earliest Period (1874), a ground-breaking work in historical English phonology. Bolland’s errors include Sweet’s suggestion that Modern English mate came from Old English gemaca ‘companion’ (while Sweet’s suggestion makes sense semantically, the change from /t/ to /k/ is unlikely; indeed, the OED notes that English mate is a borrowing from Middle Low German mát, while gemaca still survives today in Scottish and regional English usage as make ‘partner, spouse’. In other words, Bolland was right: mate and gemaca are not related). Another one of Bolland’s faults with Sweet was the latter’s assumption that the Anglo-Saxon name Offa was a Germanicized form of the name Aba (there is no evidence for this, whatsoever). Bolland’s other remarks concern the phonological status of the sound eaa in Old English (which Bolland considered doubtful) and Sweet’s apparent ignorance that Old English dǽl ‘part’ was an i-stem (which Bolland thought was deplorable). A harsh review, indeed!
Bolland explains to Cosijn that he had asked for a meeting with Sweet, but that the latter had never returned his calls:
Having expressed my desire to get acquainted with him some time before, but having received no answer, I have, thinking no evil of this, written to him again, pointing to one thing and another which I have written about above…but that Sir did not deign to give me an answer. I am awfully sorry, but it seems a schoolmaster [Bolland had worked as a school master in Katwijk, The Netherlands, the year before] need not expect deference from a gentleman of Baliol College Oxford.
His grievance concerning the fact that Sweet had not taken the time to meet with him appears to have lingered with Bolland. This much becomes clear from a letter written by Cosijn to Bolland, a year later (24 August, 1880). It seems Bolland had managed to get acquainted with Richard Morris (1833-1894), another English philologist; the two had compared notes on Sweet’s behaviour and Bolland had shared this again with Cosijn. Cosijn wrote:
Morris’s judgement concerning Sweet appears to me to be sound. I have not heard from Sweet for a long time, even though I urged for a speedy reply. But Sweet appears to be ‘this’ today and ‘that’ again, tomorrow.
In the end, Henry Sweet never met with G. J. P. J. Bolland, much to the latter’s chagrin. Perhaps Bolland eventually found some solace in the fact that Sweet’s revised second edition of A History of English Sounds, published in 1888, no longer featured any of the errors pointed out by Bolland:
Perhaps, Sweet had read Bolland’s letter after all?
This is the second in a series of blogs related to my research project “My former Germanicist me”: G. J. P. J. Bolland (1854-1922) as an Amateur Old Germanicist , which explores how a Dutch student at the end of the nineteenth century tried to master Old English. The first one can be found here: Benjamin Thorpe: The Man Who Translated Almost All Old English Texts
Texts referred to:
- Frantzen, Allen J. The Desire for Origins. New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition, New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
- Niles, John D. The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England 1066-1901: Remembering, Forgetting, Deciphering, and Renewing the Past, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
- MacMahon, M. K. C. ‘Sweet, Henry (1845–1912)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36385, accessed 29 May 2016]
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 selfmade cartoon. This blog discusses one of the most remarkable figures of Anglo-Saxon history: Earl Siward of Northumbria (d. 1055); a man who knew the proper ways to die.
Siward, earl of Northumbria, first appears in a charter by King Cnut in 1033. He held the position of earl, first of southern Northumbria and later of all Northumbria and, possibly, Huntingdon, until his death twenty-two years later. He made a name for himself as a warrior and, after his death in 1055, his reputation grew. A Latin narrative in a thirteenth-century manuscript from Crowland Abbey even claims that Siward slew a dragon and that he descended from a polar bear! (Parker 2014, 488)
Two other anecdotes, both demonstrating Siward’s ferociousness as a warrior, survive in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum (1129-1135). The first relates how Siward, during a series of battles against Scotland in 1054, hears of the death of his own son Osbeorn in battle. Upon hearing the news, Siward inquired whether his son had been stabbed in the back or in the front. When he was told his son had incurred a fatal breast wound, Siward said: “Gaudio plane, non enim alio me uel filium meum digner funere” [I am completely happy, for I consider no other death worthy for me or my son] (Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, VI.22). Talk about tough parenthood! Parker (2014, 484-485) has noted that Siward’s enquiry about the location of his son’s wounds has a close parallel in a similar scene in the Icelandic Egils saga. Anyway, Siward, Huntingdon reports, decides to retaliate and leads an army into Scotland himself. There, he defeats the Scottish ruler Mac Bethad mac Findlaich (a.k.a. Shakespeare’s Macbeth!).
The next year, Siward is struck by dysentery and feels death’s approach. He laments:
‘How shameful it is that I, who could not die in so many battles, should have been saved for the ignominious death of a cow! At least clothe me in my impenetrable breastplate, gird me with my sword, place my helmet on my head, my shield in my left hand, my gilded battle-axe in my right, that I, the bravest of soldiers, may die like a soldier.’ (Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, VI.24)
His attendants obey Siward’s last request and he dies in an non-bovine manner. While Siward’s explicit refusal to die like a cow is unparalleled, other elderly warriors are known to have expressed similar wishes to die in battle rather than anywhere else (e.g., Starkad, in Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum, and Egil Ulserk, in the Heimskringla). Given these analogues from Scandinavian literature, the stories of Siward’s reaction to the death of his son and Siward’s speech on his deathbed, both reported by Henry of Huntingdon close to a century after Siward’s death, may not be historically accurate. Rather, they may have originated in Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Scandinavian oral traditions surrounding Siward, or, as C.E. Wright put it, they are “the disject membra of a Siwards saga which must have been still current in Northumbria during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries” (Wright 1939, 128; cf. Parker 2014). These episodes, then, may belong to the same realm of fictionality as Siward’s supposed descent from a polar bear and his slaying of a dragon. Be that as it may, they make nifty anecdotes and may reveal something about the manner of death an early medieval warrior would deem acceptable.
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy: An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Real Night of the Long Knives , An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How Hengest was led by the nose and An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Alleluia, the Anglo-Saxon Boo! Stay tuned for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!
Works referred to:
- C. E. Wright, The Cultivation of Saga in Anglo-Saxon England (Edinburgh, 1939)
- E. Parker, ‘Siward the Dragon-Slayer: Mythmaking in Anglo-Scandinavian England’, Neophilologus 98 (2014), 481-493.
- Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. D. E. Greenway (Oxford, 1996)
The TARDIS occasionally found its way to early medieval England and these visits of the nation’s most beloved ‘Time Lord’ can also teach us something about Anglo-Saxon history. This post focuses on the Norman Conquest and is the last of a series of three blogs that deal with the visits of BBC’s Doctor Who to Anglo-Saxon England.
The Time Meddler (1965): A space helmet for a cow and a meddling monk with a cannon
The Time Meddler, a Doctor Who classic of the second series, features the first Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions Vicki and Steven Taylor. The four episodes are set in pre-Conquest England and provide an interesting introduction to some of the events that took place in the year 1066; the episode also reveals that the Doctor could have prevented the Anglo-Saxon loss at the Battle of Hastings!
The story starts with the TARDIS, stranded on a beach. Vicki chances upon a horned helmet, which the Doctor establishes as having belongedd to a Viking, rather than a bovine from outer space:
Soon after, the Doctor enters a Saxon village and, disguised as an old, forgetful pilgrim, he finds out that they have landed in the year 1066. A little later, the Doctor makes his way to a monastery, where monkish singing can be heard. To his surprise, the place is empty, except for a gramophone playing Gregorian chant. Suddenly, bars come down and the Doctor is trapped – a monk laughs hysterically.
That monk turns out to be ‘the Monk’: another Time Lord, who is up to no good. Eventually, the Doctor escapes the monastery and, reunited with his companions, he finds out what the Monk is doing in 1066. Helpfully, the latter had written down an 8-step plan:
- Arrival in Northumbria
- Position atomic cannon
- Sight Vikings
- Light beacon fires
- Destroy Viking fleet
- Norman landing
- Battle of Hastings
- Meet King Harold.
The Monk, as it turns out, wants to alter history by stopping the Vikings from invading. Should he succeed, the Battle of Stamford Bridge (25 September, 1066) would never take place; Harold Godwinson and the English troops would not have to march all the way to Northumbria; they would not have to suffer any losses; and they would not have to rush all the way south again to fight of the Normans (who would land at Pevensey only three days after the battle against the Vikings). In other words, the Monk wants to make sure the Anglo-Saxons would win the Battle of Hastings!
As an Anglo-Saxonist, I rather fancy the Monk’s idea, but, alas, the Doctor will not stand for any time meddling: history must “be allowed to take its natural course!”. Regrettably, then, the Doctor thwarts the plans of his fellow Time Lord and disables the Monk’s TARDIS, effectively stranding him in the year 1066:
Marooned in 1066…things could be worse!
“The real Hereward the Wake” (1984): True identity of proto-Robin Hood revealed!
Some years after the Battle of Hastings (which, apparently, the Doctor had swayed in William the Conqueror’s favour!), the TARDIS once again materializes in England. This visit is recounted in the Doctor Who Annual (1984), a collection of illustrated short stories featuring the colourfully dressed sixth Doctor.
In a cottage in the Fens (North Cambridgeshire), the Doctor and his companion Peri meet up with a group of Saxon rebels, lead by the legendary Hereward the Wake…
“Hereward the who?”
“The Wake. I forgot, you’re American. Hereward the Wake was the foremost of the Saxon outlaws who led a guerilla campagin against the Normans after the battle of Hastings. He tended to concentrate on the fen country, where we are now.”
“Did he win?”asked Peri.
“Don’t be silly,” the Doctor said acidly. “How could he have won with the Normans safely on the throne for the next dozen or so generations? No, after a while he just vanished into the mist, never to be seen again.”
The Doctor overhears the Saxon rebels contemplate joining with the Danes and marching on London, to take back the English throne. When the Doctor advises against this plan (since the Danes would never allow the Saxons to rule, he says – or is the Doctor still siding with William the Conqueror?), one of the Saxons retorts that ‘King Harold’ can claim Danish allegiance, since his mother was the sister of King Cnut (d. 1035; king of Denmark and England).
After an awkward moment of silence, the Doctor realises that Hereward the Wake is, in fact, Harold Godwinson, who reportedly died during the Battle of Hastings:
Then the Doctor spoke. “But Harold was killed at Hastings,” he said slowly. “At least, that was the word the Normans sent round. The body was identified.”
The tall Saxon turned back to the Doctor. “Identifed by the Countess Gytha [Gytha Thorkelsdóttir (c. 997 – c. 1069); Harold’s mother],”he said, and smiled. “And the Lady Edith, known as the Swan-Neck [Edith the Fair (c. 1025 – c. 1086; Harold’s wife or mistress]. Both of whom knew the king very well, one his mother, the other the mother of his children. Who better to identify him? But do you think for one moment that they would fail to do as he asked?”
“You mean – they knew that you were alive? Even while they looked at the body of some unknown Saxon soldier and wept over it as yours?”
Hereward/Harold here refers to the famous stoy of how the English king’s body had been mutilated in such a way that only his wife had been able to identify it. The notion that Edith and Gytha may have faked the identification is an intriguing one and not wholly unimaginable. In fact, the myth that Harold survived the Battle of Hastings has a long history, stretching back as far as the twelfth-century chronicler Gerald of Wales); if you are ever in Chester, you can still see ‘The Hermitage’, where Harold is supposed to have lived out his days as a hermit (more info here).
The story continues with a near run-in with Norman troops. Luckily, the Doctor manages to scare them off with a little toy robot! Having escaped the Normans, the Doctor convinces Hereward/Harold to forego the march on London and remain Hereward the Wake, in order to give the Saxons the strength to persevere during the Norman yoke: “Let the country think that Harold is dead – but let it believe in Hereward”. The King decides that this is indeed the best course of action and bids the Doctor and his companion farewell: “Farewell, Doctor. You too, Peri. May you meet no more Normans.”
Reflections: Doctor Who as an ‘Anglo-Saxonism’
Over the past three blogs, I have looked at the depiction of Anglo-Saxon history in BBC’s Doctor Who (see: Part 1: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who in Anglo-Saxon England and Part 2: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and Alfred the Great). To conclude this Whovian trilology, I want to reflect on Doctor Who as an ‘Anglo-Saxonism’, that is to say:
The perception of the history and culture of Anglo-Saxon England at different times from the sixteenth century to the present day, developing in response to contemporary purposes or fashions, and the representation of these perceptions in word and image. (Keynes)
The concept of Anglo-Saxonism allows us to study representations of Anglo-Saxon history or culture not just by focusing on their historical accuracy, but also by taking into account how the representation of Anglo-Saxon England was shaped by the interests and concerns of the makers and/or audience of the cultural products under scrutiny.
With regard to Doctor Who, two general observations can be made:
1) The aspect of Anglo-Saxon history which most appealed to the makers of Doctor Who was the Vikings; even to the point that the Vikings were presented as invading as early as the fifth century (see part 1). Tom Shippey (2000) has rightly observed that Vikings are regarded as more interesting and accesible than the Anglo-Saxons and, as such, they make far better historical icons for the early Middle Ages (pp. 217-219). In the case of Doctor Who, an additional factor for the interest in Vikings may be the show’s interest in ‘alien invasions’. The Viking invasions of the early Middle Ages may be said to resemble the extra-terrestrial threats depicted in the TV series; the Vikings as historical alien invaders!
2) A second general tenor in the representation of Anglo-Saxon history in the Doctor Who universe is the absence of the religious history of early medieval England. Monks rarely feature in these Doctor Who stories, neither do bishops, nor do we learn anything about the conversion. This religious void may be explained by the fact that Doctor Who is, in a way, an ‘atheist'(or: humanist) television series, in which religions tend to be portrayed as backward and primitive, whereas science represents the only truth. This areligious aspect of Doctor Who, then, may explain why the Christian history of Anglo-Saxon England is either ignored or shown to be corrupted (like the meddling monk in The Time Meddler). In much the same way, the Viking religion is not taken seriously either (see, e.g., the silly Vikings who believe the TARDIS to be a magic box sent by Woden in part 1).
Thus, while the Doctor Who franchise is an interesting introduction to some aspects of Anglo-Saxon England (its myths, its kings and some of its celebrities), its focus on Vikings and its downplay of religion creates a sense of the early Middle Ages that is warped by the interests and fashions of another time. Whodathunkit?
This completes my Whovian trylogy, which celebrates the fact that, on the 26th of April 2016, I became ‘Doctor Porck’; you can read more about my, now finished, PhD-project here: Growing Old among the Anglo-Saxons
Works referred to:
- T.A. Shippey, ‘The undeveloped image: Anglo-Saxons in popular consciousness from Turner to Tolkien’, in Literary Appropriations of the Anglo-Saxons from the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Century, ed. D. Scragg and C. Weinberg (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000), pp. 215-236.
- S. Keynes, ‘Anglo-Saxonism’, in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England (2014)
The TARDIS occasionally found its way to early medieval England and these visits of the nation’s most beloved ‘Time Lord’ can also teach us something about Anglo-Saxon history and the Old English language. This post focuses on Alfred the Great and is the second of a series of three blogs that deal with the visits of BBC’s Doctor Who to Anglo-Saxon England.
The man who wouldn’t give up: The Doctor meets the King
In a volume of short stories entitled Doctor Who. Short trips: Past tense. A short-story anthology (ed. Ian Farrington, 2004), the contribution ‘The man who wouldn’t give up’, written by Nev Fountain, touches upon the most well-known king of the Anglo-Saxons: Alfred the Great (849-899). The story is an interesting mix of early medieval fact, Anglo-Saxon myth and Whovian silliness.
The year is 878 and the sixth Doctor lands in Somerset, where he enters the hut of a swineherd. Here, he chances upon Alfred, disguised as a Danish minstrel (a well-known but ahistorical myth); in a funny little twist, the Doctor introduces himself as a spying harpist who is investigating the Vikings: “Oh sorry, what am I saying? That’s not my story at all, it’s yours isn’t it? Your Majesty.” (p. 192) Alfred, rather surprised that this man has seen through his disguise, decides the Doctor must be a wizard. They then discuss the dire situation England is in (the Vikings have overrun almost all Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, only Wessex under Alfred remains, but even he has been forced to retreat to the Somerset marshes).
After their conversation is interrupted by Alfred’s severe stomach pain (a historical fact! I wrote a blog about this: Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?), Alfred sighs that he was never meant to be king:
“‘My father Ethelwulf died of his worries…’ the King continued in a flat emotionless drawl. ‘Ethelred…Ethelbald…All my older brothers… All have died fighting the Danish invaders before I became king. Five good men have had to lose their lives for me to stand here before you.’ (p. 194)
Indeed, Alfred had four older brothers, who all died before him: Æthelstan (d. c.852), Æthelbald (d. 860), Æthelberht (d. 865) and Æthelred (d. 871) (Note: it seems his father Æthelwulf (d. 858) had run out of Æthel- names once he got to Alfred – Alfred’s sister got lucky and was called Æthelswith). Naturally, the Sixth Doctor can relate to Alfred’s sentiment: “Really? Perhaps we’re not so different, after all.”
Apparently taking pity on Alfred, the Doctor convinces the king that, despite the setbacks he has suffered, the Vikings will eventually be defeated. Subsequently, the Doctor leaves, taking with him the swineherd’s cakes that Alfred was supposed to have been watching. Hilarity ensues. The wife of the swineherd returns and finds her precious cakes gone:
‘The cakes, you idiot. The cakes I expressly asked you to watch over.’
He looked. The cakes had gone.
‘The wizard! He took the bloody cakes!’
‘What wizard?’ (p. 196)
Unable to find the Doctor, Alfred pretends that he has burned the cakes. So that’s where that story came from!
They think it’s all over: Doctor Who at Wemba’s lea
Alfred also gets a mention in the comic book story ‘They think it’s all over’, published in Doctor Who #5 (2011). This time, the eleventh Doctor and his companions Rory and Amy want to visit Wembley Stadium in 1996, to watch England play Germany in a football match. The TARDIS lands in the right place, but at the wrong time: the ninth century, when Wembley was not called Wembley, but Wemba’s lea. They are taken prisoner by Saxon warriors who mistake them for Danish trespassers:
As the Doctor explains, the name Wembley actually comes from the Old English word lēah ‘clearing in a forest’, combined with the personal name Wemba; it is the clearing that belongs to Wemba. Wembley, by no means, is the only modern place name to derive from the word lēah, as the following list illustrates:
- Wembley < ‘clearing of Wemba’
- Dudley < ‘clearing of Dudda’
- Oakley < ‘clearing with oaks’
- Stanley < ‘clearing with stones’
- Gatley < ‘clearing with goats’
- Beeley < ‘clearing with bees’
- Batley < clearing with bats’
- Crawley < ‘clearing with crows’
- Shipley < ‘clearing with sheep’
Note how these place names can tell us a lot about the surrounding flora and fauna in the early Middle Ages!
Anyway, the Doctor and his companions are brought before Wemba himself, who relates that he has heard of a strange man in a blue police box before, from Alfred the Great himself:
(The Doctor’s remark about Alfred’s culinary skill is a little below the belt, seeing as it was the Doctor himself who stole the cakes, as we saw before)
After the Doctor and his companions have been released and partake in an Anglo-Saxon feast, the meeting is disturbed by a group of Vikings, who end up taking Amy hostage. In order to win her back, the Doctor and Rory then challenge the Vikings to a penalty shoot out, which they win. With the Vikings defeated, Wemba is overjoyed, noting: “King Alfred was right about you! You truly are a wizard!” (indeed, Alfred regarded the Doctor as a wizard, see above). Finally, the Doctor and his companions go to the year 1996 and attend the game, shouting “Wemba’s Lea, Wemba’s Lea!” (and you now know why).
This was the second of a series of blogs on Doctor Who in Anglo-Saxon England, you can read the first part here: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who in Anglo-Saxon England. The third and final part is available here: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and the Norman Conquest.