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An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Cnut the Great and the walking dead

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 how Cnut the Great (d. 1035) was scared by the reanimated corpse of St. Edith of Wilton.

The walking dead in Anglo-Saxon England

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In episode 5 of the second series of The Last Kingdom, Uhtred of Bebbanburg meets Bjorn the dead man who rises from his grave. © BBC (source)

A recent article in the Guardian reported on the mutilation of dead bodies by medieval inhabitants of Yorkshire. The archaeologists suggested that the villagers had been so afraid of the dead rising from their graves that they made reassurances by smashing some of the skeletons to pieces. Similar practices have been reported for Anglo-Saxon England. The archaeologist David Wilson, for instance, has described how some Anglo-Saxon skeletons were found buried upside down (prone burials), covered under stones, or had their heads cut off. These practices, he notes, have been interpreted as being “intended to prevent the ghost from walking and returning to haunt the living” (Wilson 1992: 92). A fear for a zombie apocalypse, it seems, is nothing new!

The Three Living and the Three Dead

A famous medieval tale revolves around the chance meeting of three living young men with three animated corpses. The corpses remind the young men that they too will die (memento mori, remember to die) and that it is not too late to change their ways.

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The Three Living and the Three Dead © The British Library, Arundel MS 83, f. 127v

Versions of the tale of the Three Living and the Three Dead have come down to us from the 13th century onwards (see this blog), but the transformative power of a meeting with a dead person has a longer history; a history that includes Cnut the Great and the corpse of St Edith of Wilton.

Cnut the Great and the reanimated corpse of St Edith of Wilton

Cnut the Great (d. 1035) has a reputation as a god-fearing, Christian king. However, an anecdote in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (1125) suggests Cnut started out as an unbelieving irreligious rebel, until he saw a zombie:

Cnut was a Dane, a man of action but one who had no affection for English saints because of the enmity between the two races. The cast of mind made him wilful, and when at Wilton one Whitsun he poured out his customary jeers at Eadgyth herself [St Edith of Wilton, an Anglo-Saxon saint]: he would never credit the sanctity of the daughter of King Edgar, a vicious man, an especial slave to lust, and more tyrant than king. He belched out taunts like this with the uncouthness characteristic of a barbarian, just to indulge his ill temper; but Archbishop Æthelnoth, who was present, spoke up against him. Cnut became even more excited, and ordered the opening of the grave to see what the dead girl could provide in the way of holiness.

The tomb was opened and, like a jack-in-the-box, St Edith of Wilton rose from her grave:

When the tomb was broken into, Eadgyth was seen to emerge as far as the waist, though her face was veiled, and to launch herself at the contumacious king. In his fright, he drew his head right back; his knees gave way, and he collapsed to the ground. The fall so shattered him that for some time his breathing was impeded, and he was judged dead. But gradually strength returned and he felt both shame an joy that despite his stern punishment he had lived to repent. (Trans. Preest 2002: 127)

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If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

Stay tuned (and follow this blog) for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!

Works referred to:

  • David Preest (trans.), William of Malmesbury: The Deeds of the Bishops of England (Woodbridge, 2002)
  • David Wilson, Anglo-Saxon Paganism (London and New York, 1992)
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Anglo-Saxons putting on Viking (h)airs

Aside from their stereotypical burning, pillaging and raping, Vikings also seem to have introduced a new hairstyle to early medieval England. This blog post discusses how some Anglo-Saxon priests were concerned over Anglo-Saxons mimicking the hair of the Viking invaders.

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The choirs of angels, prophets and the Apostles showing a range of hairstyles in the 9th-century Athelstan Psalter. © The British Library, Cotton Galba A.xviii, fol. 2v.

In the aftermath of the Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793, the Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Alcuin wrote an admonishing letter to King Æthelred of Northumbria (d. 796). Alcuin had noted how the king and his nobles had not been at their best behaviour, not-so-subtly implying that if the Northumbrians would only live modestly and humbly that such horrible events as the raid of Lindisfarne would never happen again. Interestingly, Alcuin reminded Æthelred of the fact that he and his nobles had copied the hairstyle and dress of the Scandinavians that were now causing so much havoc:

Consider the dress, the way of wearing the hair, the luxurious habits of the princes and people. Look at your trimming of beard and hair, in which you have wished to resemble the pagans. Are you not menaced by terror of them whose fashion you wished to follow? (trans. Whitelock, source)

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Excerpt from Alcuin’s letter to Æthelred of Northumbria. The Annotation may be by the hand of Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023) who owned this particular manuscript. © The British Library, Cotton Vespasian A.xiv, fol. 117r

Whereas Alcuin did not go into any detail as to what the Viking hairstyle may have looked like, these details are provided two centuries later by another Anglo-Saxon religious writer, Ælfric of Eynsham (d. c. 1010). In a letter addressed to a ‘brother Edward’, Ælfric complained of various malpractices he had heard of. These malpractices included the eating of blood and consuming of drink and food on the toilet (something Ælfric attributed to ‘uplandish women’). Ælfric also complained about Anglo-Saxon monks dressing up ‘in Danish fashion’:

Ic secge eac ðe, broðor Eadweard, … þæt ge doð unrihtlive þæt ge ða Engliscan þeawas forlætað þe eowre fæderas heoldon, and hæðenra manna þeawas lufiað … mid ðam ġeswuteliað þæt ge forseoð eower cynn and eowre yldran … þonne ge … tysliað eow on Denisc, ableredum hneccan and ablendum eagum. (ed. Clayton, source)

[I also tell you, brother Edward, that you act wrongly when you abandon the English customs which your fathers observed and love the customs of heathens, wit them you show that you despise you kin and your elders, when you adorn yourself in Danish fashion, with bared neck and blinded eyes.]

While no depictions of Vikings (or Anglo-Saxons) with bared necks and blinded eyes have survived, it has been suggested that the Normans on the Bayeux Tapestry are typically depicted without hair in their necks:

 

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Normans rocking a bare-neck-haircut on the Bayeux Tapestry (source)

 

Now why would Anglo-Saxon men want to mimic the hairstyle of the Vikings? The answer: for the ladies. A thirteenth-century chronicle ascribed to John of Wallingford (d. 1258) describes how Danes living in England were able to seduce various Anglo-Saxon women, due to their fashionable hair and beards:

They were wont, after the fashion of their country, to comb their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their garments often, and set off their persons by many such frivolous devices. In this manner they laid siege to the virtue of the married women, and persuaded the daughters even of the nobles to be their concubines. (trans. Stevenson, source)

The best way to win an Anglo-Saxon woman’s heart? Viking haircuts and weekly baths!

If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy:

 

 

Heads on sticks: Decapitation and impalement in early medieval England

In the second episode of series two of The Last Kingdom, a row of decapitated heads has been placed outside the main gate of Dunholm/Durham. As this blog post will illustrate, this practice, barbaric though it seems, is well attested for Anglo-Saxon England.

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Impaled heads in The Last Kingdom © BBC

Historical examples: Saint Oswald and the real Uhtred

Perhaps the best-known example of decapitation and impalement was that of Saint Oswald of Northumbria (d. 642). After Oswald had been defeated by the pagan King Penda of Mercia, Penda had Oswald’s head and arms cut off. Penda then had these body parts put on stakes, until Oswald’s brother Oswy retrieved them, a year after the battle. Later, Oswald’s head was likely buried in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert (about whom, see: Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb) which ended up in Durham, where it still remains today. Intriguingly, aside from Durham Cathedral, four other institutions today claim to have the skull of Saint Oswald (Bailey 1995), including Hildesheim Cathedral  which houses a beautiful twelfth-century head reliquary depicting the head of Oswald (see image below).

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Left: Illustrated initial showing the martyrdom of Saint Oswald © Darmstadt, Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, HS 2766, 44r. Right: Head Reliquary of St. Oswald © Hildesheim Cathedral

The display of decapitated heads did not die out with the arrival of Christianity. In the De Obsessione Dunelmi, a Latin historical work from around 1100, we are told of a siege of Durham by the Scots in the early eleventh century. Luckily for Durham, their bishop Ealdun’s daughter had been married to Uhtred (d. 1016), son of the earl of Northumbria and the inspiration for Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series upon which BBC’s The Last Kingdom is based. This Uhtred came to Durham’s aid and massacred the Scottish host and had the Scots decapitated. Uhtred then sent for the most attractive heads to be brought to Durham:

The heads of the slain, made more presentable with their hair combed, as was the custom in those days, he had transported to Durham, and they were washed by four women and fixed on stakes around the circuit of the walls. The women who had previously washed them were each rewarded with a single cow. (cited in Thompson 2004: 193)

Aside from the intriguing reward of a cow for washing a dead man’s head, this episode in the De Obsessione Dunelmi reveals that the display of decapitated heads remained common (customary even) until the eleventh century, at least.

Heafod stoccan in Anglo-Saxon charters

Anglo-Saxon charters often contained vernacular boundary clauses which described the areas under discussion. Within these boundary clauses, the term heafod stocc ‘head stake’ is frequently attested,  suggesting that it was common practice to mark the limits of estate properties with impaled heads. Various charters locate such head stakes in the vicinity of a road: e.g., “æfter foss to þam heafod stoccan” [after the way to the head stakes] (S 115); “of heafod stocca andlang stræt” [from the head stakes along the street] (S 309); and “7lang stret to þam heafod stoccan” [along the street to the head stakes] (S 695).  These examples suggest that these head stakes would have been visible for people travelling from and towards locations, possibly along main access roads. Given their use as boundary markers in surviving Anglo-Saxon charters, these head stakes must have been a permanent as well as salient feature in the landscape. The existence of head stakes is supported by archaeological evidence, which also locates execution sites at the boundaries of estates (see Reynolds 2009: 169). Just like the heads of criminals spiked on the walls of old London Bridge, the purpose of these head stakes must have been to not only mark the boundaries of an estate, but also to warn potential transgressors against the consequences of wrongdoings.

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Heads on old London Bridge (source)

An inspiration for Anglo-Saxon authors and artists

The spectacle of decapitating an enemy’s head and putting it on display proved inspirational for various Anglo-Saxon authors and at least one artist. The Beowulf poet, for instance, has Beowulf and his men parade Grendel’s head on a stake towards Heorot: “feower scoldon / on þæm wælstenge weorcum geferian / to þæm goldsele Grendles heafod / oþ ðæt semninga to sele comon” [four had to carry Grendel’s head with hardships to the gold-hall on a battle-pole, until they came to the hall] (Beowulf, ll. 1637b-1639). Here, Grendel’s head functions as a trophy, a sign of Beowulf’s heroic triumph.

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Beowulf, ll. 1637-1639 © The British Library, Cotton Vitelius A.xv, ff. 168v-169r

A rare visual depiction of a decapitated and impaled head is found in the Old English Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv) an eleventh-century, illustrated translation from the Latin Vulgate of the first six books of the Old Testament (see: The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book). In his depiction of Genesis 8:7 (‘And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.’), the artist of the Hexateuch deviated from the biblical text and depicted a raven pecking at a head, impaled on Noah’s ark (see below). It has been suggested that the artist was drawing on his own creativity here, given the fact that there is no iconological tradition that depicts Noah’s raven in this way (Gatch 1975: 11). Perhaps, the Anglo-Saxon artist was so familiar with the practices of decapitation and impalement that he could think of no better way to depict God’s wrath!

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Raven pecking at an impaled head on Noah’s ark. © The British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, fol. 15r

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other blog posts on The Last Kingdom or Anglo-Saxon decapitations:

Works refered to:

  • Bailey, Richard N., “St Oswald’s Heads,” in Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint, ed. C. Stancliffe and E. Cambridge. 195-209. Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1995.
  • Gatch, Milton McC., “Noah’s Raven in Genesis A and the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch”, Gesta 14:2 (1975), pp. 3-15
  • Reynolds, Andrew, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Thompson, Victoria. Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004.

 

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Decapitation and impalement scene in the margin of an early-fourteenth-century manuscript of the Decretals of Gregory IX. © The British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, 208r

Old English Words & Anglo-Saxon Worldviews

Language can be a window to culture: by studying Old English words, we can get an insight into how the Anglo-Saxons saw the world around them. This blog post considers Old English words for fingers, pigs, old age and anger. All word clouds were made with www.tagul.com. Information about Old English words is taken from the Thesaurus of Old English.

Old English words and Anglo-Saxon worldviews

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A Sutton Hoo helmet made of Old English words. Created with tagul.com

In order to study the culture of the Anglo-Saxons, scholars first tend to turn to archaeology, history, literature and art. However, language can also be a valuable source for cultural analysis, as the famous linguist Edward Sapir has noted:

Vocabulary is a very sensitive index of the culture of a people and changes of the meaning, loss of old words, the creation and borrowing of new ones are all dependent on the history of culture itself. Languages differ widely in the nature of their vocabularies. Distinctions which seem inevitable to us may be utterly ignored in languages which reflect an entirely different type of culture, while these in turn insist on distinctions which are all but unintelligible to us. (Sapir 1951)

In other words, vocabulary reflects culture. Indeed, Old English words such as gafol-fisc ‘tribute fish’, cēapcniht ‘bought servant’, þri-milce-mōnaþ ‘May; lit. three-milk-month’, demonstrate that the Anglo-Saxons could pay tribute in fish, buy servants and milked their cows three times a day in May. Similarly, the etymology of Old English words for lord, lady, retainer and slave reveal traditional (perhaps pre-Anglo-Saxon) role patterns, in a household based on bread:

hlāford ‘lord’ (< *hlāf-weard ‘guardian of the bread’)
hlǣfdige ‘lady, woman’ (< *hlāf-dige ‘kneader of the bread’)
hlāfǣta ‘dependant, retainer’ (< *hlāf-ǣta ‘eater of the bread’)
hlāfbrytta ‘slave’ (< *hlāf-brytta ‘dispenser of the bread’)

In this blog post, I will take a cursory glance at four ‘semantic fields’ (fingers, anger, old age and pigs) in order to find out what some Old English words may tell us about Anglo-Saxon culture.

Philological finger food

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Old English finger-hand. Created with tagul.com

The names we give to our fingers clearly reveal what we do with these fingers: on our ring-finger we wear our rings and with our index-finger we ‘indicate’ things (or: go through an index). Old English finger names are no different. Consider these words for the index-finger and ring-finger:

bīcn(ig)end ‘forefinger; lit. indicator’
scyte(l)finger ‘forefinger; lit. shot-finger’
tǣcnend ‘forefinger; lit. signer’
lēawfinger ‘forefinger; lit. betray-finger’
hringfinger ‘ring-finger’
goldfinger ‘ring-finger; lit. gold-finger’
lǣcefinger ‘ring-finger; lit. physician-finger’

These finger names yield few surprises: with their forefingers, the Anglo-Saxons pointed at things, shot arrows and made signs; they wore rings and gold on their ring-fingers.  Two finger names warrant some explanation. The first element in lēawfinger, first of all, is related to the Old English word lǣwan ‘to betray’ – the forefinger is “the pointer out, the betrayer” (Merrit 1954, p. 175-with thanks to deorreader in the comments below). Secondly, the name lǣcefinger ‘physician finger’ for ring-finger may be somewhat confusing; according to some, there was a vein from this finger that went all the way to the heart and, so, this finger could have medicinal properties.

Apart from the obvious middelfinger, the Thesaurus of Old English lists two contradictory words for the middle finger: ǣwiscberend ‘offender’ and hālettend ‘greeter’ – talk about sending mixed signals! [The Dictionary of Old English, s.v. hālettend suggests that the sense ‘middle finger’ for hālettend is caused by a scribal error and that the word really means ‘forefinger’] The pinky was not only the last and smallest finger (se lȳtla finger; se lǣsta finger), it was also the Anglo-Saxon implement of choice when it came to cleaning out their ears: ēarclǣnsend ‘ear-cleaner’, ēarfinger ‘ear-finger’ and ēarscripel ‘ear-scraper’.

‘Talk to the hand’? If we look at the Old English words for fingers, it seems as if the hand is the one doing the talking, telling us what the Anglo-Saxons did with their fingers.

Of Pork and Pigs in Old English

Word Cloud pig no repeat

A PIGGY MADE OF PORK WORDS IN OLD ENGLISH. CREATED WITH TAGUL.COM

With over sixty words related to ‘pig’, swine are among the best-represented animals in the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. Indeed, an Anglo-Saxon could distinguish between fōr, pecg, swīn (all ‘pig’), sū/sugu (‘sow’), bār, gealt (both’ boar’), hogg/hocg (‘hogg’), fearh and picga (both ‘young pig’); next, he could pick from a host of ‘special pigs’, including gilte (‘barren sow’), bearg ‘castrated boar’, mæstelberg ‘fattened hog’ and fēdelsswīn (swine fattened for killing). There were no fewer than seven words for ‘swine pasture’ (denbǣre, denberende, denn, mæsten, mæstland, swīnland and wealdbǣr) and various words for swineherd (e.g., swān and swīnhyrde), pigsty (hlōse, sulig, swīnhaga) and even a word for pig-fence (swīnhege). Then there was the non-domesticated variety, the wild boar (bār, eofor, eoforswīn, wildeswīn) that had to be hunted with a boar-spear (eofor-spere, eofor-sprēot) and made an appearance on helmets and battle-standards (see: Boars of battle: The wild boar in the early Middle Ages). The Anglo-Saxons even saw boars when they looked up at the sky (their name for the constellation Orion is eofor-þring ‘boar-crowd’) or down at the plants near their feet (eofor-fearn ‘Polypody fern; lit. boar-fern’; eofor-þrote ‘Carline thistle; lit. boar-throat’).

Swine were appreciated, of course, for their meat, which is also well represented in the Old English lexicon: swīn, swīnflǣsc, swīnnes, flicce, spic, scencel/scencen. This meat would undoubtedly be stored in the pantry, which they called the spic-hūs: ‘the bacon-house’. Not all bacon would be in the bacon-house, however: some of it was offered to the gods. This much is at least suggested by the word offrung-spic ‘bacon offered to idols’ – there is no better tribute than sacrificial bacon!

Old in Old English

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Beard made out of Old English words for ‘old’. Created with tagul.com

I wrote my PhD thesis on old age in Anglo-Saxon England (more info here) and one of the things I did was look at the fifty-two Old English words that denote old age in order to show what Anglo-Saxons associated with growing old. The word hār, for instance, means both ‘grey’ and ‘old’ – a clear connotation that is also found in a word like hārwenge ‘old; lit. grey-cheeked’. The word frōd means both ‘old’ and wise’, showing that the Anglo-Saxons associated old age with wisdom. The word geomor-frōd ‘grief-wise; old, sad and wise’ shows that wisdom came at a cost and was related to grief – gēomor-frōd is a lexical precursor of the modern English idiom ‘sadder and wiser’!

‘Angry words’ in Old English

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Angry words in Old English. Created with tagul.com

The Old English vocabulary of anger is fairly well studied (see Gevaert 2002; Izdebska 2015) and scholars have been able to pinpoint, on the basis of these words and their usages, a number of ‘metaphorical links’. One such link is between ANGER and HEAT. Today, we can have a heated argument, we can be boiling with rage, until steam comes out of our ears.  The Anglo-Saxons conceptualised ANGER in a similar way, as is revealed by such Old English words as hāt-heort-nes ‘anger; lit. hot-hearted-ness’ and hāt-hige ‘anger; lit. hot-mind’. At the same time, the Anglo-Saxons were aware that anger can be the result of despair or grief: the Old English word wēa-mōd-nes means ‘anger’ but can be analysed as ‘grief-minded-ness’ (cf. Dutch weemoed ‘grief’). Anger is also relatable to ‘swelling’. Just like we can be ‘puffed up with anger’, the Anglo-Saxons would speak of  gebolgen, ǣbylga, belgan and gebelg (cf. Dutch verbolgen ‘angry’), which are all related to ābelgan ‘to swell up’. On the basis of these and other words, scholars have been able to demonstrate that Anglo-Saxons connected anger to PRIDE, WRONG EMOTION, UNKINDNESS, DARKNESS, HEAVINESS and so on (see Izdebska 2015; Gevaert 2002).

It is also interesting to note that the Anglo-Saxons had a specific word for the anger of a woman: wīf-gemædla ‘a woman’s fury’ – Apparently, Hell hath no fury like wīf-gemædla!

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

Works refered to:

  • Gevaert, C. (2002). ‘The Evolution of the Lexical and Conceptual Field of ANGER in Old and Middle English’, in A Changing World of Words: Studies in English Historical Lexicography, Lexicology and Semantics, ed. J. E. Díaz Vera (Amsterdam), 275–300.
  • Izdebska, D. W. (2015). Semantic field of ANGER in Old English. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow
  • Meritt, H. D. (1954). Fact and Lore About Old English Words (Stanford)
  • Sapir, E. (1951). ‘Language’, in Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture and Personality, ed. David G. Mandelbaum (Berkeley, 1951), 7–32.