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An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Eilmer, the flying monk, and the dangers of classical literature

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Harold Godwinson with an arrow in his eye: 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 Eilmer, the flying monk, fell victim to the dangers of reading classical literature.

Studying the Classics in early medieval England

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Ovid’s Ars amatoria in the ‘Classbook of St Dunstan’ © Oxford, Bodleian Library, Auct. F. 4. 32, fol. 37v

The loss of classical heritage during the Middle Ages is a common misconception. The annotated version of Ovid’s Ars amatoria in the ‘Classbook of St Dunstan’, as well as other annotated Anglo-Saxon manuscripts containing works of such classical authors as Cicero and Cato, demonstrate that classical literature was still being studied in early medieval ‘Dark Age’ England.

Be that as it may, studying the works of Antiquity was not always encouraged. For instance, Bishop Aldhelm of Sherborne (d. 709) once wrote to his student Wihtfrid:

What, think you, does it profit a true believe to inquire busily into the foul love of Proserpina … to desire to learn of Hermione and her various betrothals, to write in epic style the ritual of Priapus and the Luperci? Beware, my son, of evil women and their loves in legend. (Cited in Hunter 1976, p. 41)

Indeed, it is not hard to imagine why Aldhelm doubted the worth of stories about rape (Proserpina), multiple betrothals (Hermione), a fertility god with an oversized, permanently erect penis (Priapus) and a ritual where naked men slap women with goat-skins (the Lupercalia).

Ælfric and the Roman pantheon

The Roman pantheon was also known to the Anglo-Saxons. In his sermon ‘De Falsis Diis’ [On the False Gods], Ælfric of Eynsham (d. c. 1010) describes the Roman gods as strange men and women, obsessed with lust and violence. Venus, in particular, got a damning appraisal:

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© Cambridge, University Library, Ii. 1. 33, fol. 178r

Sum wif hatte Venus, ðe wæs Ioues dohter, swa fraced on galnysse þæt hyre fæder hi hæfde, 7 eac hyre broðor, 7 oðre gehwylce, on myltustrena wisan; ac hi wurðiað þa hæðenan for halige gydenan, swa swa heora godes dohter

[A certain woman was called Venus, she was Jupiter’s daughter, she was so lost in her horniness that her father, and her brother, and many others, had her in the manner of a whore; but the heathens worship her like a holy goddes, as a daughter of their god].

According to Ælfric and his contemporaries, classical mythology was made up by the devil to lure the ignorant souls onto the path of sinfulness.

Eilmer, the flying monk, and the dangers of classical mythology

That studying classical mythology could indeed be risky business is evident from the marvelous tale of Eilmer, the flying monk. Eilmer lived in a monastery in Malmesbury in the 11th century; as a young monk, he became inspired by the story of Daedalus and Icarus. His story is recorded by William of Malmesbury in his Gesta regum Anglorum:

He [Eilmer] was a man learned for those times, of ripe old age, and in his early youth had hazarded a deed of remarkable boldness. He had by some means, I scarcely know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet so that, mistaking fable for truth, he might fly like Daedalus, and, collecting the breeze upon the summit of a tower, flew for more than a furlong [201 metres]. But agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by the awareness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame ever after. He used to relate as the cause of his failure, his forgetting to provide himself a tail. (source quote)

BlogEilmer

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Old English memes

Memes have become a popular form of communication and, when put into Old English, can be an effective teaching tool. I made the memes featured in this blog some five years ago, but they remain effective in a class room setting today.  

#1 Keep calm and carry on

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Perhaps the most widespread meme in the history of the Internet is the ‘Keep calm and carry on’-kind. Based on a motivational poster issued by the British government for boosting the moral in preparation of the second world war, this poster has sparked various spoofs. The Old English motivational quote may have profited some Anglo-Saxons during the time of the Viking raids.

#2 You Only Live Once (YOLO)

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Beowulf’s decision to fight the monster Grendel without weapons may well be described as the ‘YOLO-moment’ of Anglo-Saxon literature.

#3 You’re doing it wrong

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The phrase ‘You’re doing it wrong’ typically accompanies an image of someone ‘failing’ at doing something correctly. What better phrase to accompany this scene from the Bayeux Tapestry than ‘Riding on horses; you are doing it wrong’?

#4 When you see it, you will shit bricks

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The phrase ‘When you see it, you will shit bricks’ is associated with images that, upon expectation, feature a surprising element. This certainly came to mind, when I spotted the Sutton Hoo helmet in King Arthur’s bed room in the BBC series Merlin (for which, see: Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects).

#5 Shut up and take my money

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This phrase is used in combination with a picture of something that is so desirable that people just really want to have it. Surely, the Old English variant must have been uttered whenever an Anglo-Saxon looked upon the dazzling Lindisfarne Gospels!

#6 I don’t want to live on this planet anymore

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Out of disappointment with the stupidity of others, one can express the desire to no longer live on this planet. This sentiment certainly comes to mind when faced with the idiotic notion that Shakespeare spoke Old English (for which, see: What if Shakespeare HAD written Old English?)

#7 Ain’t nobody got time for that

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What better way to introduce the Old English magic sheet (an overview of Old English declension made by Peter Baker – link) than by pointing out that it will save your students some time? “Learning Old English Declensions? Ain’t nobody got time for that!”

#8 Lie down / Try not to cry / Cry a lot

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This meme provides instructions on how to act in situations of great sadness. Surely, no meme is better to suited to refer to the Ashburnham House Fire of 23 october 1731, which damaged many Anglo-Saxon manuscripts that belonged to the Cotton collection. For more damaged manuscripts, see: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/02/crisp-as-a-poppadom.html

#9 I should buy a boat

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A picture of a cat reading a newspaper has become associated with the phrase ‘I should buy a boat’. This phrase certainly seems to have gone through Alfred the Great’s mind when he saw the Vikings (according to legend, Alfred founded the English navy).

#10 Boy, that escalated quickly

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This meme phrase is used when something quickly gets out of hand. Rather suitable for the main plot of the last part of Beowulf (and Tolkien’s The Hobbit; for the former, see: Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition).

#11 It is something

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This meme comments on the slightly disappointing number of books on Old English Literature in the open stacks of the English reading room of Leiden University Library.  Ah well, it is something.

#12 Scumbag Byrhtnoth

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This meme is a take on the ‘Scumbag Steve meme’. It comments on Byrhtnoth’s decision in the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon to allow the Vikings to cross the bridge the English had been defending, thus causing the English to lose the battle. It translates to: “Should defend the bridge; lets the Vikings use the bridge.” For The Battle of Maldon, see: The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition.

#13 Come at me, bro!

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‘Come at me, bro!’ was obviously what Wiglaf and Beowulf said against the dragon; well…if they had been called Swaglaf and Browulf, that is.

#14 Heavy breathing

Blog.OEMeme14This meme requires some explanation. A couple of years ago, I attended the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies Easter Conference and one of the speakers, Duncan Sayer of the University of Central Lancashire, spoke about the infamous ‘cow burial’: an Anglo-Saxon woman, found buried alongside a cow (news item). Sayer suggested that the cow, which had been skinned before being laid in the grave, was meant as a ‘feast for the dead’. A good opportunity to make a spoof of the ‘heavy breathing cat-meme’, which is used in combination with extravagant food.

#15 Anglo-Saxon hipster, before it was cool

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Hipsters tend to like things before it was cool. The Anglo-Saxon hipster, of course, would have pronounced the word differently: cole (k-Oh-l), rather than cool (c-Oo-l).

These memes were once posted on http://oememes.wordpress.com. To date, that website has catered to seven thousand unique viewers. All memes there have now been moved to this blog post.

Anglo-Saxon Cryptography: Secret Writing in Early Medieval England

In this day and age of cyber espionage, encryption of information is becoming increasingly more important. But even in the early Middle Ages, scribes developed techniques to encode their messages, as this blog post reveals.

Codified colophons

SecretWriting.TrinityCollegeB325 fol 99v

© Cambridge, Trinity College, B.3.25, fol. 99v (source)

At the very end of an eleventh-century manuscript copy of St Augustine’s Confessions, an Anglo-Saxon scribe wrote “Fknktp Lkbrp χρp prfcpnkB rfddp”. Rather than garbled gobbledegook, these words were written in a simple but popular code: the vowels have been replaced by their neighbouring consonants in the alphabet: a=b; e=f; i=k; o=p; x=u. The scribe’s words actually read: “Finito libero Christo [the Greek letters χρ is a well-known abbreviation for Christ] preconio reddo”, which is Latin for something along the lines of: “The book is finished, I give a laudation to Christ in return”. Apparently, this scribe was happy that his job was done and rendered thanks to Christ in an encoded message.

The same motivation seems to underlie another encrypted colophon at the end of an eleventh-century Gospel-book made in England: “DFPGRBTKBS AMΗN”:

SecretWriting.ReimsBibliothequeMunicipale9 154r

© Reims, Bibliotheque Municipale 9, fol. 154r (source)

The first two words of this colophon read “DEO GRATIAS” [thanks be to God]; the last word is “AMEN”, with a Greek capital Eta instead of the E (and a weird M and N, which I haven’t been able to identify).

One of the most ambitious encoded messages of this kind is found in Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, made in the 1020s in Winchester. The encoded message reads as follows:

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© British Library, Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 13v

Frbtfr hxmkllimus ft mpnbchxs afslknxs mf sckpskt skt kllk lpngb sblxs. B m .. n ;

[ve]l us     [ve]l us                 [ve]l us

AFlfwknp mpnbchp aeqxf dfcbnp cpmpptxm kstxm ppsskdfp [ve]l mf ppsskdft. Bmfn.

The first line is easy to decipher: “Frater humillimus et monachus Ælsinus me scripsit, sit illi longa salus” [Ælsige, the most humble brother and monk, wrote me, may a long health be to him]. The code “B m .. n” means “Amen”, the “e” is replaced by two dots (for which, see below).

The next two lines take some more effort. The first part of the third lines reads: “Ælfwino monacho aeque decano compotum istum possideo” [I posses the computus for Ælfwine, the monk and dean]. The second line (vel us, vel us, vel us), makes clear that the words “Ælfwino monacho aeque decano” can also be read as “Ælfwinus monachus aeque decanus”, thus changing the dative forms into the nominative forms. Combined with the last part of the third line which starts with “vel”, this reads: “vel Ælfwinus monachus aeque decanus me possidet. Bfmn.” [or Ælfwine, the monk and dean, possesses me. Amen].

The rather intricate code is simply an inscription to indicate the maker of the manuscript (Ælfsige) and its owner (Ælfwine). Given the rather complicated encoding, one might wonder whether Ælfsige’s modesty (he calls himself humillimus ‘most humble’) is feigned modesty.

Hygeburg, a cryptographic Anglo-Saxon nun

Another case of feigned modesty is found in the prologue of the Anglo-Saxon nun Hygeburg (fl. 780). As part of the Anglo-Saxon mission, she ended up in Heidenheim, Germany. She was an abbess and wrote a work called the Hodoeporicon, a saint’s life of the Anglo-Saxon missionary saint Willebald. In her introudction, Hygeburg confesses that she considered her womanhood a hindrance for writing hagiography, noting in her preface:

And yet I especially, corruptible through the womanly frail foolishness of my sex, not supported by any prerogative of wisdom or exalted by the energy of great strength, but impelled spontaneously by the ardour of my will, as a little ignorant creature culling a few thoughts from the sagacity of the heart, from the many leafy, fruit-bearing trees laden with a variety of flowers, it pleases me to pluck, assemble and display some few, gathered – with whatever feeble art, at least from the lowest branches-for you to hold in memory. (trans. Dronke 1984)

Hygeburg’s declaration of ignorance is undermined by the flowery rhetoric of her Latin prose, which suggests a high level of education. The encoded message with which she closes her message has a similar, subversive effect:

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© München. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 1086, fol. 71v (source)

In this message, Hygeburg has replaced all the vowels with abbreviations for ordinal numbers, e.g., “Secd” for “secundum” [second] meaning the vowel e. The code can cracked as follows:

SecretWritingHugeburc

© München. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 1086, fol. 71v

With her encoded message, Hygeburg not only shows off her encryption skills, she also claims the text (and possibly the manuscript?) to be her own: “Ego una Saxonica nomine Hugeburc ordinando hec scribebam” [I, a Saxon nun named Hygeburg, have written this].

Dot codes in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts

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My reproduction of dot-coded writing in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 326, p. 105 (Corpus Christi College does not allow the use of images of their manuscript, you can see a low-res image of this page here)

Another encryption method, similar to Hygeburg’s, is the replacement of vowels by dots. One dot equals the first vowel (a), two dots equal the second vowel (e), three dots mean the third vowel (i), and so on. A line in a tenth-century manuscript of Aldhelm’s De Virginitate, probably made in Canterbury, is reproduced above and reads: “V⋮V:V·L:F:L⋮C⁞MCR⋮ST:: ·M:N” (four dots in a line representing U; four dots in a square representing O). In other words: “Vive vale feli cum Cristo. Amen” – here, the word “feli” [with/for the cat]  is usually emended to “felix” [happy], so that it translates to “Live, be well, happy with Christ. Amen.” (Live, be well, for the cat, with Christ would make little sense, especially given the rather haphazard relationships between cats and medieval manuscripts, for which see: Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts).

My last example is found in a tenth- or eleventh-century manuscript of Bede’s Vita Sancti Cuthberti, made in southern England. Here, the scribe has once more replaced the vowels with dots: ·=a – :=e – ⋮=i – ::=o – :·:=u.

SecretWriting.Copenhagen

© Copenhagen, Royal Library, G.K.S. 2034, fol. 13v (source)

Q:·:|⋮ SCR⋮PS⋮T :·:|⋮|:·:|·T :T Q:·: L:G·T L:T:T:·:R

QUI SCRIPSIT UIUAT ET QU LEGAT LETETUR

Which, rather charmingly, translates to “May he who wrote live and may he who may read be happy”. This encrypted message suggests that encoding messages was an enjoyable pastime for scribes and that decoding these messages was considered a fun mental exercise for readers.

K HPPF YPX H·V: :NJ::Y:D R2nd1stD3rdNG TH⋮S BL::G PPST!

If you have enjoyed this blog post, why not follow this blog (see button on the right-hand side) and/or read the following posts:

Works referred to:

  • Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1984)

 

Spoiling the Mystery: Grendel in Beowulf Movies

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” (H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature). The secret to any, successful scary monster story is to keep your monsters clouded in mystery; a secret that was known to the Beowulf poet, but sadly lost on modern movie makers.

Grendel goes to Heorot

Grendel is one of the three monsters that feature in the Old English poem Beowulf. We are introduced to Grendel as an “ellengæst” [bold spirit] (l. 86a) who has spent the last twelve years harassing the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, devouring anyone who spent the night there. A Geatish hero, Beowulf, arrives to save the day. After a long battle, Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm and the monster, mortally wounded, returns to his home in the swamp and dies.

A troll, a giant, a monstrous man or a bipedal dragon; what exactly is Grendel? The nature of Grendel is a matter of scholarly debate and the various solutions offered depend, mostly, on circumstantial evidence. The poem itself reveals very little about the monster; at one point, Beowulf himself confesses that Grendel is “sceaðona ic nat hwylc” [an enemy, I do not know what kind] (l. 274b). Throughout the poem, Grendel is described by generic terms, such as “grimma gæst” [grim spirit] (l. 102), “feond mancynnes” [enemy of mankind] (l. 164b) and “manscaða” [vile ravager] (l. 712a), and his physical description leaves much to be desired. At first, we only learn that “him of eagum stod ligge gelicost leoht unfæger” [from his eyes issued a distorted light, most like a flame] (l. 727b), that he drinks human blood and eats their bodies whole. It is only after Grendel is defeated that we learn a little more about him. The Danes report that he was wretchedly shaped like a man and very large:

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We saw two monsters… © The British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.XV, fol. 162v-163r

hie gesawon     swylce twegen
micle mearcstapan     moras healdan,
ellorgæstas.     ðæra oðer wæs,
þæs þe hie gewislicost     gewitan meahton,
idese onlicnæs;     oðer earmsceapen
on weres wæstmum     wræclastas træd,
næfne he wæs mara     þonne ænig man oðer;
þone on geardagum     Grendel nemdon
foldbuende.     No hie fæder cunnon (ll. 1347-1355)

[they had seen two such big boundary-steppers holding the moors, bold spirits. One f them was, as they were most certainly able to discern, in the likeness of a lady; the other was wretchedly shaped in the forms of a man, he trod in the exile’s tracks, but he was bigger than any other man; people called him grendel in the days of yore. They did not know his father.

Whatever kind of monster Grendel may be, what becomes clear from the poem is that Grendel is the ultimate ‘Other’. While the Danes enjoy life in a lighted hall, revelling in songs and enjoying each other’s company, Grendel dwells in a dark swamp, he does not speak and he lives the life of an exile, alone with his mother. Even Grendel’s parentage is obscured: whereas the Beowulf poet, rather annoyingly, mentions the father of every other Tom, Dick and Harry in the poem, we never find out who Grendel’s father is. We do learn that Grendel and his mother are descendants of Cain, just like “eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, swylce gigantas” [ogres, elves, orcs and also giants] (ll. 112-113a).

In short, Grendel is a mystery monster, unknown and different. The Beowulf poet must have realised that the omission of descriptive details was an effective narrative method which would stimulate his audience to participate actively with his story. The vague description of his monster allowed his audience to imagine its own nightmare being.

Grendel goes to Hollywood

Beowulf has been brought to the big screen on six occasions (Not counting the Beowulf-inspired TV episodes of Animated Epics, Star Trek and Xena: Warrior Princess; and happily ignoring the rather licentious adaptations in the Sci-Fi-Channel television film Grendel (2007) and the ITV Series Beowulf: Return to the Shield Lands). Each movie has solved the Grendel mystery in its own, unique way.

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Three movie ‘Grendels’

In Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (1981), an animated musical, Grendel is depicted as a slightly depressed green crocodile or, possibly, a dragon without wings. The film Beowulf (1999) features Christopher Lambert as Beowulf who battles Grendel, a muddy ogre of sorts, in a ‘post-apocalyptic techno-feudal future’.  In The 13th Warrior (1999), the Viking hero Buliwyf takes on the Wendol, a group of bearskin wearing wildlings. Beowulf & Grendel (2005) depicts Grendel as an oversized, hairy human, who hits himself with rocks until his forehead bleeds. In the 3D animation Beowulf (2007), Grendel is “a hideously disfigured troll-like creature with superhuman strength”. Finally, in the movie Outlander (2008), Kainan (a man from another planet) crashes his spaceship in an eighth-century Norwegian lake and, accidentally brings along an alien, known as the Moorwen. The Moorwen takes on the role of Grendel and is best described as a fluorescent, reptile-like tiger with various tentacles at the end of its tail.

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Three more movie Grendels

Sympathy for the devil: Feeling sorry for Grendel

Aside from making the monster’s appearance explicit, some movies also try to make their audience sympathize for the creature by adding motives for his vicious attacks on the Danes. In Grendel, Grendel, Grendel, the monster is a misunderstood intellectual that wants to be friends with the buffoonish Danes, who shun him for his monstrous appearance. Beowulf & Grendel opens with a scene where the young Grendel (a bearded baby!) witnesses the murder of his father by the Danish king. In Outlander, we learn that the Moorwen is only trying to avenge Kainan for having tried to colonize its home planet.

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Poor, polite Grendel and nasty Danes in Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (1981)

Who’s your daddy? Solving Grendel’s parentage

The films Beowulf (1999) and Beowulf (2007) go one step further and even solve the problem of Grendel’s parentage: Grendel turns out to be the monstrous offspring of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes. His vicious attacks on Hrothgar’s hall thus become payback for a fatherless childhood. Far removed from the original poem, the only advantage of this approach appears to be the casting of a physically attractive actress for the role of Grendel’s mother. While the poem describes her as a “brimwylf” [sea-wolf] (l. 1506a) and an “aglaecwif” [opponent-woman] (l.1259a), the 1999 film featured Layla Roberts, a former playmate (who, in one scene, erotically licks Hrothgar’s nose!), and a 3D animation of Angelina Jolie (naked, covered in gold, with a tail!) was one of the ‘unique selling points’ of the 2007 film.

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Grendel’s mother licking Hrothgar’s nose in Beowulf (1999)

To conclude, none of these movies can be seen as a faithful adaptation of Beowulf and some have argued that film is an unsuited medium for the early medieval epic poem. As long as modern movie makers feel that they need to produce stunning visual effects, to create a sense of sympathy for the ‘bad guy’ and to include steamy bedroom scenes to please their modern audience, this certainly seems to be the case. Unlike the Old English poem, none of these movies can be called a huge success in terms of cultural impact and popularity. When it comes to effective storytelling, there is still a lot we can learn from the literature produced over a thousand years ago.

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All movie Grendels combined

 

Anglo-Saxon obscenities: Explicit art from early medieval England

The phrase ‘medieval obscenities’ typically bring to mind such curious late medieval depictions as the penis tree and obscene pilgrim badges featuring crowned vulvae being carried around by penises. This blog post deals with explicit art from an earlier period: the time of the Anglo-Saxons (c. 500-1100). As we shall see, the depiction of exposed genitalia served multiple purposes: from political commentary to markers of the monstrous, the diabolical and the sinful.

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Ye Old Medieval Obscenities: Nuns picking the fruit from the penis tree © Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 25526, fol. 160r; Obscene pilgrim badge (1375-1450) with crowned vulva being carried by three walking penises (source)

1) The Bayeux Tapestry erection

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Perhaps the most famous depictions of nude figures in a work of early medieval art are found in the lower margins of the Bayeux Tapestry (made in the late 11th-century, by Anglo-Saxon nuns for a Norman patron). Whereas the main panels of the Tapestry depict the events leading up to and including the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the margins are home to an array of animals and human figures. It has been suggested that some of these marginal figures were meant as political commentary on the events depicted in the main panels. The scene of Harold Godwinson brought before William the soon-to-be-Conqueror, for instance, is accompanied by a virile and naked man reaching for an exposed woman whose hand gestures suggest discomfort. Is it possible that the Anglo-Saxon nuns were not-so-subtly comparing the interaction between William and Harold to non-consensual intercourse?

The Bayeux Tapestry  features several other naked men with exposed appendages. The obscenity of these marginal scenes proved to be something of an obstacle for 19th-century, Victorian embroiderers who were intent on making a full-size replica of the tapestry. When I visited Reading Museum last year (where you can see the replica in a special gallery on the first floor), I noticed that at least one of the nude figures was given a pair of underpants:

 

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Left: Original Bayeux Tapestry erection; Right: Victorian reproduction now in Reading Museum

(For more on censored nudity and the Bayeux Tapestry, see this blog by Christopher Monk)

2) Marvels of the East au naturel

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Obscene monstrosities © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.v, fols. 80r, 82r, 83v.

The Marvels of the East is a catalogue of monsters that survives in two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. The text, accompanied by illustrations, features descriptions of marvellous beasts (including exploding chickens!) and semi-humans (on this text, see The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex). Some of these humanoid monsters are depicted in their birthday suits. As Kim (2003) has noted, their full-frontal nudity acts as a marker of monstrosity: it sets these weird and wonderful creatures apart from mankind. This difference is particularly clear in the depiction of the Donestre (half-human, half-lion, who speak to travellers in their own languages, then eat them and cry over their victim’s heads): whereas the monsters are naked, their human victims are clothed.

3) Woden, a well-endowed god

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Left: Naked Woden on Finglesham buckle (source); Right: Well-endowed Woden figurine © British Museum (source)

Prior to their conversion to Christianity, the Anglo-Saxons practised Germanic paganism. Evidence for their pagan beliefs includes various grave goods, which imply that they believed in an afterlife where such material goods would come in handy. Archaeological finds in early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries include objects that feature depictions of what are believed to be pagan gods. Two such objects, both dating to the seventh century, feature depictions of the god Woden as a semi-naked warrior. By the looks of it, the pagan Anglo-Saxons assumed Woden was well endowed, indeed.

4) Phallic…er…Fallen angels in the Junius Manuscript

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Fall of angels © Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, p. 16

The so-called Junius Manuscript (a 10th-century manuscript containing Old English religious verse) features an interesting set of illustrations. In the depictions of the Fall of Angels, the fallen angels are depicted as losing their clothes and, in some cases, gaining visible, male genitalia (as opposed to their angelic, genderless and concealed counterparts). Possibly, the Anglo-Saxon artist masculinized the fallen angels because male nudity was associated with sin in Anglo-Saxon writings and art (see Karkov 2003, and examples below).

By the by, the Junius Manuscript also contains an intriguing depiction of Noah flashing his son Ham, which I have discussed in another blog post: Flashed after the Flood: Seeing naked fathers in Anglo-Saxon England.

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Fall of angels © Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, p. 17

5) Disrobed demons and strap-naked sinners in the Harley Psalter

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© The British Library, Harley 603, fol. 3v

The association of male nudity and exposed genitalia with sinfulness is further revealed by this depiction of Psalm 6:6 (“and who shall confess to thee in Hell”) in the Anglo-Saxon Harley Psalter (an 11th-century manuscript of the Psalms, featuring illustrations of literal interpretations of the Psalm texts). The sinners, wrapped in snakes, are all fully naked and the second one from the left is quite clearly a man. The two demons on the right, too, show distinctively masculine features (even if  the rightmost demon seems something of a hermaphrodite). The addition of these diabolic reproductive organs is remarkable, since these obscene features are not clearly present in the exemplar of the Harley Psalter, the ninth-century Utrecht Psalter (see here).

6) Pulling your beard in a canon table

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Sinner pulling his beard…and something else in late 8th-century Anglo-Saxon Gospels © Rome, Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica, Barberini Lat. 570, fol. 1r

The 8th-century Barberini Gospels is a beautifully illuminated Anglo-Saxon manuscript that resembles the famous Lindisfarne Gospels. Tucked away in a canon table (a list of corresponding passages in the four Gospels), we find a naked, male figure surrounded by snakes. The presence of the serpents suggests that this is another depiction of a sinner in Hell. The man is tugging his beard with one hand, while the other reaches for his male appendage. While stroking one’s beard may seem like an innocent action today, medieval depictions of ‘beard-pulling’ had a strong connotation with masturbation (see here). The depiction in the canon table, then, seems to depict what punishment awaits those who indulge in onanism: snakes biting your snake!

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Works referred to:

  • C. Karkov, “Exiles from the Kingdom: The Naked and the Damned in Anglo-Saxon Art”, in Naked before God: uncovering the body in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. B. C. Withers and J. Wilcox (West Virginia University Press, 2003), 181-220
  • S. M. Kim, “The Donestre and the Person of Both Sexes”, in: Naked before God: uncovering the body in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. B. C. Withers and J. Wilcox (West Virginia University Press, 2003), 162-180