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The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex

Pikachus, Togepis, Flareons, Charmanders and Bulbasaurs. These days, the World seems obsessed with Pokémon GO. However, this fancy for exotic monsters with special powers is nothing new: in the early Middle Ages, people also showed a keen interest in remarkable creatures from faraway. The author of ‘The Marvels of the East’ collected various monsters that could rival Pokémon’s finest, as this blog post reveals…

The Marvels of the East

The Marvels of the East (also known as The Wonders of the East) is something of a liber monstrorum, ‘abook of monsters’. The text, which survives in Old English and Latin, list various beings and places located in the East (Babylonia, Egypt, India, etc.). These oriental things are particularly extraordinary: dogs with boar-tusks breathing fire, bearded women hunting with tigers and pearls growing from vines! Each creature and place is described with what appears to be factual information (length, height, colour for most of the fauna; geographical distance from known places for the flora). Since races of half-human-half-donkeys,  polyglot cannibals and giant gold-stealing ants probably  never roamed the Earth, we can be sure that most of the beings listed in The Marvels of the East stem from fantastical traditions (although the text also lists Ethiopeans among its remarkable humanoids). Nevertheless, the text had some popularity and can be found in three medieval manuscripts: Cotton Vitellius A.xv (c. 1000-1015; a.k.a. the Beowulf Manuscript); Cotton Tiberius B.v (c. 1050) and MS Bodley 614 (1100-1200). In these manuscripts, the descriptions are accompanied by illustrations.

The combination of information about wonderful beings, along with illustrations, may remind some of a Pokédex. For the non-enlightened, a Pokédex is a digital, illustrated encyclopaedia, which lists all sort of information about the various Pokémon that you can catch and train in games of the Pokémon franchise (more info here). Indeed, some of the marvellous creatures mentioned in The Marvels of the East show  (faint) parallels to specific Pokémon. I provide seven examples below. Information about most of the Pokémon is from Bulbapedia; the Old English text and translation are taken from Orchard 1995. 

Seven Pokémon and their early medieval doppelgangers

1) Torchic and the fiery hens of Lentibeisinea

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Left: Fiery hen in Cotton Vitellius A.xv, 99r © The British Library; Middle: Torchic (source); Right: Fiery hen in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 79r © The British Library

Your local Pokémon centre will tell you that Torchic is an orange Fire Pokémon that resembles a chick (its first evolution, Combusken, resembles a chicken – this makes perfect sense). As a Fire Pokémon, Torchic is warm to the touch, as Bulbapedia explains: “Somewhere in its belly, this Pokémon has a place where it keeps a flame. This internal flame causes Torchic to feel warm if hugged.” The Marvels of the East makes mention of a similarly fiery fowl, though hugging it may not be the best idea:

Sum stow is ðonne mon færð to ðare Readan Sæ, seo is gehaten Lentibelsinea. On ðan beoð henna akende gelice ðam þe mid us beoð reades hiwes. 7 gyf hi hwylc mon niman wile oððe hyra æthrineð ðonne forbærnað hi sona eall his lic. Þæt syndon ungefregelicu lyblac.

[As you go towards the Red Sea there is a place called Lentibeisinea, where there are hens born like ours, red in colour. If any one tries to take or touch them, they immediately burn up all his body. That is extraordinary magic.]

2) Terlard and the two-headed snakes of Hascellentia

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Left: Terlard (source) ; Right: Two-headed snake in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 79v © The British Library

A Terlard is a Dragon/Ground Pokémon with a serpentine body and two heads. Since each head has its own brain, Terlard’s two heads often get into a fight with each other, making this Pokémon particularly aggressive and hard to train (according to its entry in the Pokémon Uranium Wikia). Two-headed snakes also make an appearance in The Marvels of the East:

Þæt land is eallum godum gefylled. Ðeos steow næddran hafað. Þa næddran habbað twa heafda, ðæra eagan scinað nihtes swa leohte swa blacern.

[That land is filled with all good things. This place contains serpents. The serpents have two heads, whose eyes shine at night as brightly as lanterns.]

Judging by the manuscript image in Cotton Tiberius B.v, the heads of these snakes, like those of Terlard, do not always see eye to eye.

3) Kricketune and the camel-eating ant-grasshopper-hybrids

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Left: Ant-grasshopper hybrids in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 80v © The British Library; Middle: Kricketune (source); Right: Ant-grasshopper hybrids attacking  camel in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 80v © The British Library

The red-and-black insectoid with the fancy moustache is Kricketune, a Bug-type Pokémon. As its name suggests, Kricketune is based, in part, on the cricket or grasshopper. The Marvels of the East features another red-and-black, cricket-ish insectoid: dog-sized grasshopper-ants with an appetite for camels!

Þær beoð akende æmættan swa micle swa hundas. Hi habbað fet swylce græshoppan, hi syndon reades hiwes 7 blaces. Þa æmettan delfað gold up of eorðan fram forannihte oð ða fiftan tid dæges. Ða menn ðe to ðam dyrstige beoð þæt hi þæt gold nimen, þonne lædað hi mid him olfenda myran mid hyra folan 7 stedan. Þa folan hi getigað ær hi ofer þa ea faran. Þæt gold hi gefætað on ða myran 7 hi sylfe onsittað 7 þa stedan þær forlætað. Ðonne ða æmettan hi onfindað, 7 þa hwile ðe þa æmettan ymbe ða stedan abiscode beoð, þonne ða men mid þam myran 7 þam golde ofer ða ea farað. Hi beoð to þam swifte þæt ða men wenað þæt hi fleogende syn.

[Ants are born there as big as dogs, which have feet like grasshoppers, and are of red and black colour. The ants dig up gold from the ground from before night to the fifth hour of the day. People who are bold enough to take the gold bring with them male camels, and females with their young. They tie up the young before they cross the river. They load the gold onto the females, and mount them themselves, and leave the males there. Then the ants detect the males, and while the ants are occupied with the males, the men cross over the river with the females and the gold. They are so swift that one would think that they were flying.]

4) Ho-Oh and the Phoenix

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Left: Ho-Oh (source) Right: The Phoenix in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 86v © The British Library

The Ho-Oh is a Legendary Pokémon that can resurrect the dead and create rainbows by flapping its wings. In terms of its appearance, the Ho-Oh combines features of the peacock and the Phoenix. A peacockesque Phoenix is also found in The Marvels of the East:

On þære ylcan stowe byð oðer fugelcynn Fenix hatte. Þa habbað cambas on heafde swa pawan, 7 hyra nest þætte hi wyrcaþ of ðam deorweorðestan wyrtgemangum þe man cinnamomum hateð. 7 of his æðme æfter þusend gearum he fyr onæleð 7 þonne geong upp of þam yselum eft ariseþ.

[In the same place is another kind of bird called Phoenix. They have crests on their heads like peacocks, and they build their nests from the most precious spices, which are called cinnamon; and from its breath, after a thousand years, it kindles a flame, and then rises up young again from the ashes.]

As a Legendary Pokémon, the Ho-Oh is naturally hard to find. Judging by the entry for the rather similar Phoenix in The Marvels of the East, ambitious Poké-trainers could try and follow the scent of cinnamon!

5) Lopunny and the people with long ears

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Left: Lopunny (source) ; Right: Long-eared person in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 83v © The British Library

Lopunny is a Normal-type Pokémon that looks like a bipedal, oversized bunny with overly long ears. Lopunny is proud of its ears and rightly so, since they come in handy when danger rears its ugly head: Bulbapedia notes “Lopunny is a timid Pokémon that will cloak its body with its ears or spring away when it senses danger.” Interestingly, Lopunny’s timidity and tendency to covering its body with its ears parallel the behaviour of a long-eared race of doubtful humans in The Marvels of the East:

Hi habbað micle heafda 7 earan swa fann. Oþer eare hi him on niht underbredað, 7 mid oðran hy wreoð him. Beoð þa earan swiðe leohte 7 hi beoð an lichoman swa hwite swa meolc. 7 gif hi hwylcne mann on ðam landum geseoð oðþe ongytað, þonne nimað hi heora earan on hand 7 feorriað hi 7 fleoð, swa hrædlice swa is wen þætte hi fleogen

[They have large heads and ears like fans. They spread one ear beneath them at night, and they wrap themselves with the other. Their ears are very light and their bodies are as white as milk. And if they see or perceive anyone in those lands, they take their ears in their hands and go far and flee, so swiftly one might think that they flew.]

6) Onix and the pepper-hoarding snakes

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Left: Onix (source); Right: Pepper-hoarding and burrowing snakes in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 79v © The British Library

Onix is a snake-like, Rock/Ground Pokémon with a rocky spine on its head. One of Onix’s special moves, tunnelling through the ground, links it to the Corsiae: the pepper-hoarding, horned snakes of The Marvels of the East, which also go underground:  

… ðæra næddrena mænigeo … þa hattan Corsias. Ða habbað swa micle hornas swa weðeras. Gyf hi hwylcne monn sleað oððe æthrinað þonne swylt he sona. On ðam londum byð piperes genihtsumnys. Þone pipor þa næddran healdað on hyra geornfulnysse. Ðone pipor mon swa nimeð þæt mon þa stowe mid fyre onæleð 7 þonne ða næddran of dune on eorðan þæt hi fleoð; forðan se pipor byð sweart.

[… the multitude of snakes called Corsiae … . They have horns as big as rams. If they strike or touch anyone, he immediately dies. In those lands there is an abundance of pepper. The snakes keep the pepper in their eagerness. In order to take the pepper, people set fire to the place and then the snakes flee from the high ground into the earth; because of this the pepper is black.]

7) Jigglypuff and the headless people

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Left: Headless person in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 82r © The British Library; Middle: Jigglypuff (source); Right: Headless person in Cotton Vitellius A.xv, 102v © The British Library

Jigglypuff may be the cutest Pokémon out there, with its round balloon-like body and blue, puppy-dog eyes. Jigglypuff is particularly known for singing sleep-inducing lullabies (the lyrics are, if I am not mistaken,  “Jigglypuff, Jigglypuff, Jigglypuff!”). The fact that Jigglypuff does not seem to have a head that separates it from its body reminded me of the headless people we find in The Marvels of the East:

Ðonne is oðer ealand suð fram Brixonte on þam beoð menn akende butan heafdum, þa habbaþ on heora breostum heora eagan 7 muð. Hi syndan eahta fota lange 7 eahta fota brade.

[Then there is another island, south of the Brixontes, on which there are born men without heads who have their eyes and mouth in their chests. They are eight feet tall and eight feet wide.]

On the basis of the text we could imagine a tribe of gigantic Jigglypuffs south of the Brixontes – the Anglo-Saxon artists that illustrated Cotton Tiberius B.v and Cotton Vitellius A.xv, however, appear to have preferred more humanoid beings, showing off their genitalia. Given the choice, I’d choose you,  Jigglypuff!

*UPDATE* One of my students rightly pointed out that the Pokémon Hitmonlee is a much better parallel for the headless people south of the Brixontes – he has a point!

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Left: Headless person in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 82r ©The British Library; Right: Hitmonlee (source)

Naturally, there is absolutely no one-on-one relation between the ‘monsters’ described in The Marvels of the East and Pokémon. However, both cultural products seem to derive from a similar interest in marvellous beings – beings which resemble our own  fauna to some extent but are made special through the attribution of extraordinary traits. Information about these creatures is well worth collecting, the early medieval compiler of The Marvels of the East thought. So, the next time someone complains when you are going out to play Pokémon GO in order to expand your Pokédex, you can tell them you are following a long-standing tradition that stretches back at least a thousand years!

Works referred to:

  • Orchard, Andy. 1995. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-manuscript (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer)
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Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Boniface in Dorestad

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 early medieval town Dorestad (present-day Wijk bij Duurstede, The Netherlands), which was visited as well as shunned by various Anglo-Saxons. In particular, this post reports on the exhibition ‘Boniface in Dorestad 716-2016’ in Museum Dorestad (18 June-7 December, 2016).

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“Boniface arrives in Dorestad A.D. 716” – Memorial plaque celebrating 1300-year anniversary of Boniface’s landing in Dorestad, installed May 2016, in the wall of the Grote Kerk, Wijk bij Duurstede

Dorestad: Flourishing Frisian trade centre that fell prey to Vikings?

Modern-day Wijk bij Duurstede is a relatively small Dutch town south of Utrecht and little recalls the grandeur of this place some thousands years ago, when it was known as ‘Dorestad’. During the early Middle Ages, the docks would have been crawling with international traders, shipping wine, stones and slaves along the important rivers Rhine and Lek. Its inhabitants, first the Frisians and later the Franks, used Dorestad as a trading hub that connected the Rhineland and the North Sea.

Dorestad’s status as a successful merchant town came to an end in the ninth century. Generations of Dutch school children have been told how the Vikings ransacked Dorestad, inspired by a famous educational plate by J.H. Isings (1927; see below). The local museum, Museum Dorestad, notes that this is only part of the story: apart from Viking incursions, Dorestad also had to deal with a declining economy, as well as Frankish rulers who began to favour other trading towns (Tiel and Deventer) for geo-political reasons. You can find a lot more information about medieval Dorestad on this website, which is affiliated with the museum. In the remainder of this post, I will focus on the Anglo-Saxon visitors to Dorestad.

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“Vikings sack Dorestad” – Famous educational plate made by J. H. Isings in 1927

Anglo-Saxons in Dorestad: Scholars, traders and missionaries

  • Nam tibi Hadda prior nocte non amplius una
  • In Traiect mel compultimque buturque ministrat :
  • Utpute non oleum nec vinum Fresia fundit.
  • Hinc tua vela leva, fugiens Dorstada relinque:
  • Non tibi forte niger Hrotberct parat hospita tecta (Alcuin, Cartula, perge cito, ll. 8-12)

 

[Because prior Hadda will provide for you no more than one night, in Utrecht, he serves honey, porridge and butter, since Frisia does not produce oil or wine. Hoist your sails away from here, leaving and ignore Dorestad, for the black Hrotberct really will not prepare hospitable houses for you]

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Gold tremissis minted in Dorestad, c. 600-675. Inscriptions: DORESTATE; RIMOALDUS M. Found in Cawood, North Yorkshire, in 2007 (source: PAS Unique ID SWYOR-B502C5. Image used on a CC BY 2.0 licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme.)

In his poem Cartula, perge cito [Little map, move quickly], the Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin of York (d. 804) recounts a journey he had made along the river Rhine. The poem is full of interesting, local details, such as his report that, in Utrecht, honey, porridge and butter were served in lieu of oil and wine. Notably, Alcuin told his readers to shun Dorestad, since a particularly nasty and greedy trader Hrotberct lived there.

Despite Alcuin’s advice, Anglo-Saxons regularly visited Dorestad, primarily for trade. This much becomes clear from numismatic evidence. Coins minted in Dorestad, for instance, have been found in England. In 2007, a gold tremissis bearing the inscriptions DORESTATE and RIMOALDUS M was found in North Yorkshire – a seventh-century coin apparently made in Dorestad by a man named Rimwald(us). Similar golden coins from Dorestad, made by one Madelinus, have also been unearthed in England, as well as in Norway and Belgium – attesting to Dorestad’s status as an international trade hub (see overview here). Vice versa, a silver sceat from Kent was found in Dorestad and is now on display in Museum Dorestad. Browsing the Portable Antiquities Scheme website (a great resource, documenting small finds by amateur archaeologists in England and Wales), I was able to identify a version of the exact same coin: found in 2013, in Barnham, Kent (see below). The two coins are so similar they may well have been struck with the same coin die!

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Top left: Kentish sceat found in Dorestad (source); Bottom left: Kentish sceat found in Barnham, Kent, in 2013 (source: PAS Unique ID KENT-EAF0C8. Image used on a CC BY 2.0 licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme. I mirrored one side of the coin to match the Dorestad coin); Right: Poster for “Boniface in Dorestad 716-2016” exhibition at Museum Dorestad

Aside from Anglo-Saxon traders, Anglo-Saxon missionaries also visited Dorestad. The greatest of these may have been St. Boniface (d. 754), who first set foot in Dorestad 1300 years ago, in 716. His visit is commemorated this year (2016), with an exhibition in the local museum, Museum Dorestad.

Boniface in Dorestad 716-2016: From bishop-martyr to USB stick

The exhibition, on the top floor of the small museum, consists of one, well-packed room. Along its walls, informative posters relate Boniface’s life story: Born as Wynfreth in the south-west of England (possibly Crediton), he became a monk and would lead various missions to Frisia and Germany. The first of these missions, in 716, brought Wynfreth to Dorestad, but his efforts to convert the pagan Frisians had little success. He returned a few years later and, with great zeal, preached the Gospel, cut down holy oaks and founded various monasteries and churches among the German peoples. His efforts earned him the title of ‘Apostle of the Germans’, as well as his new Roman name ‘Bonifatius’, or Boniface. When Boniface was well in his seventies, he still travelled to Frisia to continue his missionary activities, until, in 754, he was murdered, possibly near Dokkum. The story of his death is well known: ambushed by Frisian robberts, the elderly Boniface iconically shielded his head from the blows with his Gospel-book. Alas! The book was to no avail and Boniface died by the hands of the pagans. A martyr was born and Boniface was soon venerated as a saint. The exhibition in Museum Dorestad is illustrated nicely with altar pieces and plates showing scenes from the life of the Anglo-Saxon saint. A particular highlight of this part of the exhibition was a little star-shaped reliquary with a tiny piece of Boniface-bone inside. I have never been this close to an Anglo-Saxon!

I may have enjoyed the second part of the exhibition even more than the first. This part dealt with the Nachleben of Boniface – his afterlife. After the Middle Ages, people generally seem to have forgotten about Boniface (apart from some local cults), even though he was the patron saint of brewers, tailors, bookshop keepers, traders and vile makers! However, the Anglo-Saxon saint made a comeback at the end of the nineteenth century. Specifically, German nationalism adopted Boniface as the ‘Apostle of the Germans’; monuments and events in honour of Boniface also celebrated German nationhood. More recently, the Anglo-Saxon saint was adopted for more commercial means. The exhibition showed a Boniface cigar box, Boniface delftware plates, Boniface mints and even a Boniface USB stick! Naturally, the patron saint of brewers also has his own brand of beers: Boniface beer! (Note: Boniface wasn’t the only Anglo-Saxon missionary to be celebrated in beer, see this blog)

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Some highlights of the exhibition. Top left: miniscule relic of Boniface; Top middle: Boniface on a delftware plate; Right: Flyer for Boniface beer; Bottom left: Boniface USB stick

The attention for this commercial side to Boniface in the Dorestad Museum exhibition need not surprise us: apparently, the inhabitants of Wijk bij Duurstede have inherited some of the mercantile interests of their early medieval predecessors!

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How Cnut became Canute

This blog discusses the development of the spelling for the name of Cnut the Great, Viking king of England from 1016 to 1035, from <Cnut> to <Canute>.

A pope’s speech impediment, simplification of /kn/ or taboo deflection?

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Pope Paschal II (1099-1118) (source)

While it is a well-known fact that Cnut the Great is “known in English as Canute” (Hanks, Hardcastle & Hodges 2006: s.v. ‘Knut’), the origin of the disyllabic spelling <Canute> is uncertain. According to Edward Freeman, the Latin form <Canutus> was introduced by the early twelfth-century Pope Paschal II, because he could not pronounce <Cnut> (Freeman 1867-1876: 442, n. 1). Later scholars have argued that <Canute> is typically English, possibly introduced to retain the proper pronunciation of the name after the consonant cluster /kn/ was simplified to /n/ in English – naturally, we would want to avoid calling him ‘King Nut the Great’! A third hypothesis is based on the principle of taboo deflection: Allan & Burridge (2006: 45) suggest that the spelling variant <Canute> originated to avoid confusion with vulgar <cunt>.

However, the three hypotheses mentioned above are all unsatisfactory as disyllabic spellings for the Viking king’s name are found well before the proposed triggers. The first recorded disyllabic spelling, <Chanut>, is contemporary to the Viking king and is found in two of his own charters (Sawyer 1968: nos. 949, 982). As such, it is recorded some seventy years before Paschal II was inaugurated, and occurs at least six centuries before the simplification of /kn/ to /n/ in English, a process which probably took place over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Kökeritz 1945: 77-86). The disyllabic form also pre-dates the first recorded instance of the word cunt, which, according to the OED, is found in 1230, in the street name “Gropecuntelane” (a name for London’s red light district – a place where you could literally grope cunts…). On its own, the word cunt occurs first in 1325, i.e. three centuries after we find a disyllabic spelling for Cnut’s name. Neither Paschal II’s speech impediment, nor the simplification of /kn/ to /n/, nor the confusion with <cunt>, therefore, can account for the change from <Cnut> to <Canute>.

French or Norman origins of <Canute>

In an article I published with Jodie Mann in the journal NOWELE: North-Western Language Evolution 67 (2014), we surveyed all historical texts from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries which mentioned Cnut the Great (d. 1035). We noted that the earliest texts to  feature a disyllabic spelling of the king’s name were in Latin and of French/Norman origin: e.g., Adémar of Chabannes, Historia Francorum (1025–1029; “Canotus”);  Rodulf Glaber, Historiarum Libri Quinque (1030–1046; “Canoc”); and William of Jumièges, Gesta Normannorum Ducum (1050–1067; “Chunutus”). The two charters that read “Chanut” (Sawyer 1968: nos. 949, 982) were also written in Latin, at Fécamp Abbey, Normandy. By contrast, English chroniclers writing in Latin, such as Herman the Archdeacon, De miraculis sancti Edmundi (c. 1095), Symeon of Durham, Historia Dunelmensis ecclesie (1104–1109) and William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum (1125–1140), spelled the name as “Cnutus”.  Similarly, documents in English, such as  the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cnut’s law codes and letters, simply give monosyllabic forms:”Cnut”.

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French taunter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Evidently, the origin for the “Canute” spelling lies in Latin writings from France or Normandy.  A French or Norman origin for the disyllabic spelling may be related to difficulties in pronunciation and makes phonological sense: Speakers of Romance languages, such as (Anglo-) Norman, Old French and Latin, cannot pronounce the sequence /kn/ and one way to remedy this is to insert an epenthetic vowel between the velar and the nasal consonants (Lincoln Canfield & Cary Davies 1975; Minkova 2003: 337); rather like the French taunter in Monty Python and the Holy Grail saying ‘kuhnnigits” rather than “knights”!

<Canute> in English

The evidence presented in our article makes clear that the disyllabic forms ultimately derive from French or Norman authors writing in Latin. Eventually, English chroniclers writing in Latin adopted this practice  (e.g., Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia regum Brittaniae (1135–1139); “Canutus”) and when these Latin chronicles were finally translated into English, <Cnut> became <Canute> in English. The latter development is illustrated by the first occurrence of a disyllabic form in a text in English. In his translation of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon (1387), John of Trevisa wrote “Afterward, aboute Lenten, þe kyng comynge hastely drof Canut out of Lyndeseie” and probably based the spelling <Canut> on Higden’s Latin original: “Postmodum rex circa quadrages imam festine adveniens, Canutum de Lindeseya profugavit” (Lumby 1865–1886: VII, 98–99).

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King Nut the Great; King Cunt the Great (source); and King Cnut the Great (source)

In conclusion, while the traditional hypotheses may explain why <Canute> remains the preferred spelling of Cnut’s name – negating as it does the possibility of him being called King Nut the Great or King Cunt the Great – they cannot be seen as explanations for the origin of this spelling variety. Rather than an anglicisation or taboo deflection, the spelling <Canute> should be regarded as a romanisation of <Cnut>; in other words, it is one more thing for which we can blame the French!

This is a shortened and reworked version of the following article: Thijs Porck & Jodie E. V. Mann ‘How Cnut became Canute (and how Harthacnut became Airdeconut)’, NOWELE: North-Western European Language Evolution 67 (2014), 237–243 , which you can read in full here (behind a paywall).  

Works referred to:

  • Allan, K. & K. Burridge. 2006. Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Freeman, E.A. 1867–1876. The History of the Norman Conquest of England: Its Causes and its Results. Oxford: Clarendon Press.  
  • Hanks, P., K. Hardcastle & F. Hodges. 2006. A Dictionary of First Names. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Kokeritz, H. 1945. ‘The Reduction of Initial /kn/ and /gn/ in English’. Language 21.77–86.
  • Lincoln Canfield, D. & J. Cary Davies. 1975. An Introduction to Romance Linguistics. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Lumby, J.R. (ed.). 1865-1886. Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden. London: Longman.
  • Minkova, D. 2003. Alliteration and Sound Change in Early English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sawyer, P.H. 1968. Anglo-Saxon Charters: An Annotated List and Bibliography. London: Royal Historical Society.

 

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How beer and bees beat the Viking siege of Chester in c. 907

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 post discusses the remarkable ways the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Chester managed to defeat a Viking siege in c. 907..

The eleventh-century Fragmentary Annals of Ireland records an intriguing tale of how the Vikings from Denmark and Norway laid siege to Chester around the year 907 and how the Anglo-Saxons, advised by their lord Æthelred (d. 911) and lady Æthelflaed (d. 918), defeated them. The original text is in Middle Irish, but I will quote from the Modern English translation by Radner (1978).

Feigning a retreat and a treaty

When the Danes and Norwegians first laid siege to Chester, the inhabitants sent word to their king and queen, who advise them to use a “feigned retreat”:

When the troops who were in the city saw, from the city wall, the many hosts of the Danes and Norwegians coming to attack them, they sent messengers to the King of the Saxons, who was sick and on the verge of death at that time, to ask his advice and the advice of the Queen. What he advised was that they do battle outside, near the city, with the gate of the city open, and that they choose a troop of horsemen to be concealed on the inside; and those of the people of the city who would be strongest in battle should flee back into the city as if defeated, and when most of the army of the Norwegians had come in through the gate of the city, the troop that was in hiding beyond should close the gate after that horde, and without pretending any more they should attack the throng that had come into the city and kill them all. (trans. Randler, p. 171)

Although this tactic proved very effective, the Viking attacks prolonged. Luckily, the king and queen had another trick up their sleeves. They sent word to the Irish and asked them to pretend to want to make a treaty with the Danish part of the Viking army. Explaining:

If they will make terms for that, bring them to swear an oath in a place where it would be convenient to kill them, and when they are taking the oath on their swords and their shields, as is their custom, they will put aside all their good shooting weapons. (trans. Randler, p. 173)

All went according to plan: when the Danes laid down their weapons and shields to take their oaths, the inhabitants of Chester killed them by hurling huge rocks and beams onto their heads!

Burn them in beer and send in the bees!

Defeating the Norwegian part of the Viking army would take a bit more effort, since these savages had come up with a new game plan: “The Norwegians did not abandon the city, for they were hard and savage; but they all said that they would make many hurdles, and place props under them, and that they would make a hole in the wall underneath them” (trans. Randler, p. 171). The inhabitants of Chester had to turn to extreme measures to ward ff these attacks:

However, the other army, the Norwegians, was under the hurdles, making a hole in the wall. What the Saxons and the Irish who were among them did was to hurl down huge boulders, so that they crushed the hurdles on their heads. What they did to prevent that was to put great columns under the hurdles. What the Saxons did was to put the ale and water they found in the town into the towns cauldrons, and to boil it and throw it over the people who were under the hurdles, so that their skin peeled off them. The Norwegians response to that was to spread hides on top of the hurdles. The Saxons then scattered all the beehives there were in the town on top of the besiegers, which prevented them from moving their feet and hands because of the number of bees stinging them. After that they gave up the city, and left it. (trans. Randler, p. 173)

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And that’s how you defeat a Viking siege: when all else fails,  burn them in beer and send in the bees!

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Stay tuned for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!

Works referred to:

  • J. N. Randler, Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (Dublin, 1978)