Dutch Anglo-Saxonist

Blog

The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Horses!

As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this blog, I will regularly shed some light on the medieval in Middle-Earth. This post reviews the horses of Middle-Earth.

The Rohirrim: Anglo-Saxons on horseback

Blog.MiMEHorse0

Left: Rohirrim on horseback in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King © WingNut Films; Right: Anglo-Saxons on horseback on the Aberlemno stone (c. 700-800) (source)

It is no secret that Tolkien based the Riders of Rohan on the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Mercia. Indeed, the Rohirrim have even been called ‘Anglo-Saxons on horseback’ (see Honneger 2011). It is not difficult to see why the Riders of the Mark are connected to the early medieval English inhabitants of Mercia: the Rohirrim occasionally speak Old English and have Old English names. For instance, when Éomer tells Théoden “Westu Théoden hal!” in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, he echoes Beowulf’s address to Hrothgar in the Old English poem Beowulf: “Wæs þu, Hroðgar, hal” (Beowulf, l. 407) [May you be healthy, Hrothgar].  The name Théoden itself is Old English, being derived from Old English ðeoden ‘ruler, king’, as are so many other names of the Rohirrim.

The Rohirric fondness for horses is reflected in their name Éotheod, which stems from Old English eoh ‘war-horse’ + ðeod ‘people’. Among these ‘horse-people’, Éomer, Éowyn and their father Éomund stand out for also having names of an equine nature:

Éowyn < OE eoh ‘war-horse’, wynn ‘joy’
Éomer < OE eoh ‘war-horse’, mǣre ‘famous, great’
Éomund < OE eoh ‘war-horse’, mund ‘protector, guardian’

Unlike the Rohirrim, the Anglo-Saxons do not have a reputation for employing cavalry. Honegger (2011) points out that the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Maldon (991) and the Battle of Hastings (1066) fight on foot rather than on horseback. Be that as it may, earlier sources on Anglo-Saxon warfare do show Anglo-Saxons using cavalry, such as the Aberlemno Stone (c. 700-800) depicting (as some would argue) the Battle of Dun Nechtain (685) between the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith and the Picts (see image above).

The connection between the Rohirrim and the Anglo-Saxons (and their horses) is further borne out by the banner of Rohan, the names of the Rohirric horses and the treatment of Theoden’s horse Snowmane after its death.

The Banner of Rohan: “White horse upon a field of green”

Blog.MiMEHorse1

Left: The Uffington White Horse; Right: The Westbury White Horse

The banner of Rohan is described as bearing a “white horse upon a field of green” (LOTR, bk. V, ch. 10). Tolkien probably found his inspiration for this banner in Wiltshire, near his hometown Oxford. The hills of Wiltshire are littered with white chalk horses, one of which (the Uffington White Horse) dates back over three thousand years (more info here). Folklore connects some of these white horses to the Anglo-Saxon period: The Westbury White Horse, for instance, may commemorate the victory of King Alfred the Great over the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandun in 878. Alfred the Great himself may be the partial inspiration behind Aragorn (see: The Medieval in Middle-earth: Aragorn and Exiled Anglo-Saxon Kings).

From Arod to Windfola: The Old English names of the Rohirric steeds

The horses of the king of Rohan are of a special breed called the Mearas, a name that means ‘horses’ in Old English (it is the plural of mearh ‘horse’). Indeed, upon closer inspection all names of the Rohirric horses turn out to be Old English:

Arod < Old English arod ‘fast’
Brego < Old English brega ‘ruler, prince’
Felarof < Old English fela ‘very’ + rof ‘strong, brave’
Hasufel < Old English hasu ‘grey’ + fell ‘hide’
Shadowfax < Old English sceadu ‘shadow, grey’ + fæx ‘hair’
Windfola < Old English wind ‘wind’ + fola ‘foal

Perhaps my favourite Old English name for one of the horses of Rohan is Stybba, the pony given to Merry Brandybuck. The name derives from Old English stybb ‘stump’.

Blog.MiMEHorse2

Hasufel, Arod and Shadowfax [note: Hasufel and Shaowfax should have been grey, judging by their Old English names!] (source)

A mound for a horse: Snowmane’s Howe and Sutton Hoo

The royal burial mounds of Rohan were inspired by the seventh-century royal burial mounds of Sutton Hoo, as I have argued elsewhere (Porck 2017). One such Rohirric mound is particularly relevant in connecting the Anglo-Saxons to the Rohirrim: Snowmane’s Howe. Snowmane, the horse of King Theoden, meets its demise in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and is buried on the spot. The Rohirrim call the mound ‘Snowmane’s Howe’ – the second element of the grave’s name, ‘Howe’, reflects the element Hoo in Sutton Hoo (both potentially derive from the Old Norse word haugr ‘mound’). While this ceremonial burial of a horse may appear particular to the horse-loving Rohirrim, there is at least one Anglo-Saxon analogue. The Sutton Hoo burial mounds also include one mound with the skeleton of a horse, buried alongside its rider.

Blog.MiMEHorse4

To sum up, the Rohirrim share a fondness for horses with the Anglo-Saxons, who, after all, traced back their origins to Hengest and Horsa [‘horse, stallion’ and ‘horse’].

If you liked this post, you may also be interested in:

Works referred to:

  • Honegger, Thomas. (2011). The Rohirrim: ‘Anglo-Saxons on horseback’? An inquiry into Tolkien’s use of sources. In Tolkien and the study of his sources: Critical essays, ed. J. Fisher (2011), 116–132.
  • Porck, Thijs (2017). New roads and secret gates, waiting around the corner: Investigating Tolkien’s other Anglo-Saxon sources. In Tolkien Among Scholars, ed. N. Kuijpers, R. Vink and C. van Zon (s.l.: Tolkien Genootschap Unquendor, 2017), 49-64 [Book for sale here for €16,50]

 

 

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

Blog.DunstansClassbook

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:

Blog.AelfricFalsisDiis

© 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

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

 

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

Blog.OEMeme1

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)

Blog.OEMeme2

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

Blog.OEMeme3

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

Blog.OEMeme4

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

Blog.OEMeme5

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

Blog.OEMeme6

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

Blog.OEMeme7

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

Blog.OEMeme8

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

Blog.OEMeme9bb

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

Blog.OEMeme11

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

Blog.OEMeme12

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

Blog.OEMeme9

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!

Blog.OEMeme13

‘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

Blog.OEMeme100

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).

#16: Excuse me, what the…

OEMeme.HwatÞætHæmed

I imagine the Old English version of this meme may prove very handy for those encountering Old English for the first time.

#17: Surprised Pika-theow

memewealhtheow surprised

This meme accurately represents Queen Wealhtheow’s response to King Hrothgar’s plan to adopt Beowulf as a son (and thus threatening the succession by her own sons).

#18: This is my voice…

thisismyvoicememe

An Anglo-Saxonist’s response to this popular video format.

#19: The History of English, the Meme

histoy of english as meme

A historical linguistic variant of this meme.

Some of 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; some new ones have been added.

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:

SecretWriting.AElfwine

© 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:

SecretWritingHugeburc1

© 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

SecretWritingCambridgeCorpusChristi

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:

BeowulfBlog1

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.

BeowulfBlog2

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.

BeowulfBlog4

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.

BeowulfBlog5

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.

BeowulfBlog6

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.

If you liked this blog, you may also enjoy:

BeowulfBlog7

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.

Blog.AsObscenities1

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

Blog.ASObscenities9

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:

 

Blog.ASObscenities5

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

Blog.ASObscenities4

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

Blog.ASObscenities3

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

Blog.ASObscenities6

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.

Blog.ASObscenities7

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

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

Blog.ASObscenities8

© 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

Blog.AsObscenities2

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!

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

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

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

Blog.AS.Eadgyth2

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.

Blog.AS.Eadgyth1

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)

Blog.AS.Eadgyth

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)

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.

Blog.Hairstyles1

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)

Blog.Hairstyles2

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:

 

Blog.Hairstyles3

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.

ImpalementBlog1

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).

ImpalementBlog2

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.

ImpalementBlog3.jpg

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.

ImpalementBlog4a

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!

ImpalementBlog4

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.

 

ImpalementBlog5

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

Blog.WaW1

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

Blog.WaW2

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

Blog.WaW4

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

Blog.WaW3

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.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 268 other followers

Follow Dutch Anglo-Saxonist on WordPress.com

Categories

Dutch Anglo-Saxonist on Twitter