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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)

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

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This post discusses how Cnut the Great (d. 1035) was scared by the reanimated corpse of St. Edith of Wilton.

The walking dead in Anglo-Saxon England

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

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

The Three Living and the Three Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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)

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: A singing ox, some dead pigeons and Saint Edith of Wilton

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This blog discusses how a singing ox and some dead pigeons heralded the death of St. Edith of Wilton.

St. Edith of Wilton

Edith (961- 984) was daughter to King Edgar the Peacable (d. 975) and sister to Edward the Martyr (979). At a young age, she entered the nunnery at Wilton, where her mother (St. Wulfthryth) was an abbess. While she only lived to the age of 23, Edith seems to have made an impression on the community at Wilton. When, some hundred years later, the monk Goscelin of St Bertin travelled around England to write saint’s lives, he found that Edith was remembered as the patron saint of Wilton Abbey. Goscelin then wrote a biography of Edith, basing himself on “those things which they [the nuns of Wilton] heard from the venerable senior nuns, who both saw the holy virgin herself and devotedly obeyed her [Edith]” (trans. Wright & Loncar, p. 24).

Goscelin’s narrative includes various miracles, including Edith’s prophetic dreams. When her brother Edward was crowned King of England, for instance, “Edith, in contemplation, dreamed that her right eye fell out”. She interpreted this dream as follows: “It seems to me that this vision foretells some disaster to my brother Edward” (trans. Wright & Loncar, pp. 50-51). Four years later, Edith was proven correct: Edward was murdered at Corfe Castle (possibly due to the treachery of his stepmother Ælfthryth).

A singing ox and some dead pigeons

Goscelin reported another of Edith’s visions, which took place seven days before her own death. In a dream, she had a most disturbing vision: she dreamt that she was in a bathtub, surrounded by an ox who repeatedly sang John 3:8:

An ox went around the cauldron in which her bath used to be heated, and sang three times: “The Spirit breathes where he will, and you hear his voice, but you do not know whence he comes and whither he goes.” (trans. Wright & Loncar, p. 56).

As soon as she awoke, she contracted a fever. Next, she saw her pet pigeons lying dead near her bedside:

The doves, which she had fed as living beings like her in their purity and innocence, and had cherished with the regard of the Creator of all things, were suddenly found dead when their mistress fell into her fever, foretelling the sleep of their mistress, so that they seemed to anticipate her funeral rites. (trans. Wright & Loncar, p. 57).

When Edith died seven days later, she was carried out of her room in the cauldron that she usually took her bath in. As such, the singing ox walking around this ‘bathtub’ makes some sense, after all!

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If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

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

Works referred to:

  • Goscelin, The Vita of Edith, trans. M. Wright & K. Loncar, in Writing the Wilton Women: Goscelin’s Legend of Edith and Liber confortatorius, ed. S. Hollis (Turnhout, 2004), pp. 23-67.

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How a peasant beheaded himself

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This blog discusses the time when a peasant beheaded himself.

The Vita S. Ecgwini (VSE) is an account of the life of Ecgwine, bishop of Worcester (?693–717) and founder of Evesham Abbey. The Latin text has been dated to after the year 1016 and is ascribed to the Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Byrhtferth of Ramsey. This saint’s life is full of miraculous tales, including the story of how a long-lost key was found in the innards of a fish, and the story of how a farmer had a vision of Mary in the hiding place of his sow. The tale that struck me most, however, was the tale of the Anglo-Saxon peasant that beheaded himself.

Off with my head!

One day, a certain peasant, “fattened on worldy wealth” (VSE, iv. 10, trans. Lapidge 2009), claimed a substantial part of the land which belonged to the monastery of Evesham. Wigred, the prior of that same monastery, decided that the matter would be settled by having both the peasant and himself claim the land by means of an oath on the relics of Saint Ecgwine. The relics were placed in the middle of the land which both the prior and the peasant claimed to own:

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When the peasant came forward to swear his oath, he felt quite confident, since he “had craftily taken a bit of dirt from his own dwelling and put it – at the devil’s instigation – in his shoe. […] He sought to act fraudulently to this end, that through this soil he might be able to swear that he was standing on his own land” (VSE, iv. 10, trans. Lapidge 2009).  A nice trick!

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Before swearing his oath, the peasant confidently raised up his weapons in the air. That’s when God intervened:

That madman was in utter rage; he even raised up his weapons and his arrogant right hand, with which he intended to fix fiercely in the ground the scythe which he was carrying in his hand; but the just judge did not wish it so: “He directed the suffering on to his head, and the malice on to his skull” [cf. Psalm 7:17]. That rascal fixed the shaft of the scythe so strongly in the ground that with the one blow he cut off his own foul head and neck – not making of himself a martyr for Christ’s love, but dismissing himself from this life, the devil gaining the victory. (VSE, iv.10, trans. Lapidge 2009)

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And that’s how a greedy peasant lost his own head so that the monks of Evesham could hold on to the land that was rightfully theirs.

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

References:

  • Lapidge, M., ed. and trans., Byrthferth of Ramsey: The Lives of St. Oswald and St. Ecgwine (Oxford, 2009).

 

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Dreaming of witch-wives, fiery pitchforks and the Battle of Fulford

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This post discusses the remarkable events leading up to and including the Battle of Fulford in 1066…

As one of the three major battles of the year 1066, the Battle of Fulford is often ignored in favour of the English victory over the Vikings at Stamford Bridge and the English loss against the Normans at Hastings. Yet, this battle that took place on 20 September 1066 deserves our attention as well, if only because a 13th-century, Icelandic source connects this event to several interesting Anglo-Saxon anecdotes. All these anecdotes are found in the Heimskringla, a series of sagas concerning the lives of Norwegian Kings, written by the great Icelandic poet-scholar Snorri Sturluson around the year 1230.

Prophetic dreams of witch-wives

Like William the Conqueror, the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada claimed the throne of England in the year 1066. Snorri reports that, before Harald’s fleet sets off for England, some Vikings had troublesome dreams. One of them was called Gyrd, who dreamed that he was:

standing in the king’s ship and saw a great witch-wife standing on the island, with a fork in one hand and a trough in the other. He thought also that he saw over all the fleet, and that a fowl was sitting upon every ship’s stern. (trans. Laing 1844)

Gyrd’s fork-bearing witch-wife also appeared in the nocturnal vision of another Viking, called Thord:

He dreamt that King Harald’s fleet came to England and he saw a big battle, and before the English army, a huge witch-wife was riding upon a wolf and the wolf had a man’s carcass in his mouth, and the blood was dropping from his jaws; and when he had eaten up one body she threw another into his mouth, and so one after another, and he swallowed them all. And she sang thus:

     ‘Skade’s eagle eyes
The king’s ill luck espies:
Though glancing shields
Hide the green fields,
The king’s ill luck she spies.
To bode the doom of this great king,
The flesh of bleeding men I fling
To hairy jaw and hungry maw!
To hairy jaw and hungry maw!’ (trans. Laing 1844)

In case you didn’t get that, the witch-wife predicts an ill fate for King Harald Hardrada (who, indeed, died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, on the 25th of September, 1066).

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Dreaming of witch-wives

Pelt them with pitchforks! How the Vikings burned Scarborough

Harald and his Viking army land in England in September, 1066, with some 300 ships and some 9,000 men. The first thing they did was sack Scarborough. Naturally, the town was protected by a town wall of some sorts, but Harald found a way around this, or, rather, over this. His brilliant tactic involved hurling fiery pitchforks:

[Harald] climbed up on to the rock that stands there, and had a huge pyre built on top of it and set alight; when the pyre was ablaze they used long pitchforks to hurl the burning faggots down into the town.

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Harald Hardrada and the fiery pitchforks

The Battle at Fulford and a bridge made of people

Later, on the 20th of September, 1066, Harald gloriously defeated an English army at Fulford led by the English earls Morcar and Edwin. The English army was put to flight and Harald Hardrada won the day. To make matters worse, some of the unfortunate English  stumbled into a swamp, as Snorri reports:

The English army quickly broke into flight, some fleeing up the river, and others down the river; but most of them fled into the swamp, where the dead piled up so thickly that the Norwegians could cross the swamp dry-shod. (trans. Laing 1844)

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Vikings crossing the swamp dry-shod

Snorri’s Heimskringla, naturally, is not the most trustworthy of sources when it comes to the events of the year 1066; nevertheless, I hope that some of the re-enactments in celebration of this year’s 950-year-memorial will feature flying, fiery pitchforks, Vikings crossings swamps over bridges made of people and, who knows, fork-bearing witch-wives riding wolves!

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

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

Works referred to:

Laing, Samuel, trans. The Heimskringla. Or, Chronicles of the Kings of Norway (Vol. 3). London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1844.

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Battle of the Birds, 671

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 self-made cartoon. In this post, I deal with the remarkable story  of a battle of birds in the year 671.

A battle of birds in England, 671

In the thirteenth-century historiographical work Flores historiarum [Flowers of History], Roger of Wendover (d. 1236) collected all sorts of events that caught his interest whilst reading the chronicles of other historians. Interestingly, he notes that he collected these stories for entertainment, as well as (intellectual) ‘profit’:

…that which follows has been taken from the books of catholic writers worthy of credit, just as flowers of various colours are gathered from various fields, to the end that the very variety, noted in the diversity of the colours, may be grateful to the various minds of the readers, and by presenting some which each may relish, may suffice for the profit and entertainment of all (trans. Giles, p. 2)

Among his bouquet of historical anecdotes is a peculiar fight among fowls in the year 671:

“In the year of grace 671, there was an extraordinary battle in England among the birds, insomuch that many thousands were found killed, and it seemed that the foreign birds were put to flight.” (trans. Giles, p. 100)

Xenophobic, English birds ousting foreign fowl…imagine if they had made a tapestry out of that battle!

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Birds Tapestry – inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry (see and compare for yourself)

Chinese whispers from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to Roger of Wendover’s Flores Historiarum

The first reference to bird-activity in the year 671 is found in various manuscripts of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (initiated during the reign of Alfred the Great [d. 899]):

671: Her wæs þæt micle fugla wæl. (Manuscripts A, B, C and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available here)

[671: In this year was a great mortality of birds]

While the Old English word wæl is often used to denote dead bodies after a battle, it is more likely that the word here refers to the death of birds following a natural disaster. This interpretation seems supported by the Latin chronicle of Æthelweard (d. c.988), who reported a foul smell caused by the dead birds:

Itaque post decursu anni unius facta est auium magna ruina, ita ut et in mare et in arida spurcissimus foetor uideretur tam de minutis auibus quam de maioribus.

[After the lapse of one year (i.e. in 671) a great mortality of birds occurred, so that on sea and on land a very foul stench was noticeable from the <carrion of> small birds and larger ones.] (Ed. and trans. Campbell)

Since Æthelweard was writing in the tenth century, he is unlikely to have remembered the smell himself: he probably used a now-lost Old English manuscript of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that contained this extra information about the event of 671. The chronicler John of Worcester (d. 1140) also seems to have interpreted the event of 671 as stemming from natural causes and spoke of an “[a]uium strages” [destruction of birds]: the same phrase he used for the deaths of birds caused by a harsh winter in 1111:

Hox anno hyemps asperrima, fames ualida, mortalitas hominum, pestis animalium, agrestium simul et domesticorum, stragesque auium extitit permaxima.

This year there was a very harsh winter, a serious famine, mortality of men, disease among animals, both wild and domestic, and a very great destruction of birds. (ed. Darlington & McGurk; trans. McGurk and Bray)

So far, the most likely interpretation of what went on in 671 is a mass mortality of birds, caused by some disease or harsh weather conditions. So what about Roger of Wendover’s battle?

         Matters appear to have gone astray when Henry of Huntingdon (c. 1088–c. 1157), in his Historia Anglorum, tried to make sense of annal 671 in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He erroneously translated Old English wæl with Latin pugna ‘battle, combat’:

Precedenti autem anno fuit maxima pugna uolucrum in Anglia.

[In the preceding year (671) there was a very great battle of birds in England.] (ed. and trans. Greenway)

Henry, realizing that a battle of birds does not sound very likely, then defended himself by relating that a similar fight had broken out in his own days, one with a symbolic meaning:

This seems more credibly because it also happened in Normandy in our own time, in the reign of King Henry. He was the first king of England of this name. This is specified because in the future there may perhaps be another so named. The birds fought openly at Rouen, and thousands of dead birds were discovered and the foreign birds were observed being driven off. This was a sign of the battle that was fought between Henry, lord of England and Normandy, and Louis, king of France, son of Philip. In this battle the strong King Henry emerged the victor and the defeated Louis fled away. (trans. Greenway)

Now it becomes clear what has happened with regard to the Flores Historiarum of Roger of Wendover: Roger had read Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum but shortened the text in such a way that the details of the battle of birds in 12h-century Rouen were  transposed to the English event of 671. Regrettably, then, we must conclude that in the year 671, in all likelihood, no battle of birds took place in England and that no foreign birds were put to flight that year; some of the flowery anecdotes of the Anglo-Saxon past, it appears, are merely the result of an intriguing game of Chinese whispers!

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

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

Works referred to:

  • Campbell, A., ed. and trans. The Chronicle of Æthelweard (London, 1961)
  • Darlington, R. R. and P. McGurk, eds., P. McGurk and J. Bray, trans., The Chronicle of John of Worcester: The Annals from 450-1066 (Oxford, 1995)
  • Giles, J.A., trans. Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of History (London, 1849)
  • Greenway, D. E., ed. and trans., Henry Archdeacon of Huntingdon. Historia Anglorum. The History of the English People (Oxford, 1996)

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

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This post discusses the remarkable ways the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Chester managed to defeat a Viking siege in c. 907..

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

Feigning a retreat and a treaty

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

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

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

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

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

Burn them in beer and send in the bees!

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

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

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

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

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

Works referred to:

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

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Earl Siward and the Proper Ways to Die

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This blog discusses  one of the most remarkable figures of Anglo-Saxon history: Earl Siward of Northumbria (d. 1055); a man who knew the proper ways to die.

Siward, earl of Northumbria, first appears in a charter by King Cnut in 1033. He held the position of earl, first of southern Northumbria and later of all Northumbria and, possibly, Huntingdon, until his death twenty-two years later. He made a name for himself as a warrior and, after his death in 1055, his reputation grew. A Latin narrative in a thirteenth-century manuscript from Crowland Abbey even claims that Siward slew a dragon and that he descended from a polar bear! (Parker 2014, 488)

Two other anecdotes, both demonstrating Siward’s ferociousness as a warrior, survive in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum (1129-1135). The first relates how Siward, during a series of battles against Scotland in 1054,  hears of the death of his own son Osbeorn in battle. Upon hearing the news, Siward inquired whether his son had been stabbed in the back or in the front. When he was told his son had incurred a fatal breast wound, Siward said: “Gaudio plane, non enim alio me uel filium meum digner funere” [I am completely happy, for I consider no other death worthy for me or my son] (Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, VI.22). Talk about tough parenthood! Parker (2014, 484-485) has noted that Siward’s enquiry about the location of his son’s wounds has a close parallel in a similar scene in the Icelandic Egils saga. Anyway, Siward, Huntingdon reports, decides to retaliate and leads an army into Scotland himself. There, he defeats the Scottish ruler Mac Bethad mac Findlaich (a.k.a. Shakespeare’s Macbeth!).

The next year, Siward is struck by dysentery and feels death’s approach. He laments:

‘How shameful it is that I, who could not die in so many battles, should have been saved for the ignominious death of a cow! At least clothe me in my impenetrable breastplate, gird me with my sword, place my helmet on my head, my shield in my left hand, my gilded battle-axe in my right, that I, the bravest of soldiers, may die like a soldier.’ (Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, VI.24)

His attendants obey Siward’s last request and he dies in an non-bovine manner. While Siward’s explicit refusal to die like a cow is unparalleled, other elderly warriors are known to have expressed similar wishes to die in battle rather than anywhere else (e.g., Starkad, in Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum, and Egil Ulserk, in the Heimskringla). Given these analogues from Scandinavian literature, the stories of Siward’s reaction to the death of his son and Siward’s speech on his deathbed, both reported by Henry of Huntingdon close to a century after Siward’s death, may not be historically accurate. Rather, they may have originated in Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Scandinavian oral traditions surrounding Siward, or, as C.E. Wright put it, they are “the disject membra of a Siwards saga which must have been still current in Northumbria during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries” (Wright 1939, 128; cf. Parker 2014). These episodes, then, may belong to the same realm of fictionality as Siward’s supposed descent from a polar bear and his slaying of a dragon. Be that as it may, they make nifty anecdotes and may reveal something about the manner of death an early medieval warrior would deem acceptable.

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If you liked this post, you may also enjoy: An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Real Night of the Long Knives , An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How Hengest was led by the nose and An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Alleluia, the Anglo-Saxon Boo! Stay tuned for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!

Works referred to:

  • C. E. Wright, The Cultivation of Saga in Anglo-Saxon England (Edinburgh, 1939)
  • E. Parker, ‘Siward the Dragon-Slayer: Mythmaking in Anglo-Scandinavian England’, Neophilologus 98 (2014), 481-493.
  • Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. D. E. Greenway (Oxford, 1996)

 

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Alleluia, the Anglo-Saxon Boo!

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 self-made cartoon. This blog discusses how the Britons scared the Anglo-Saxons by shouting ‘Alleluia!’…

The settlement of the diverse Germanic tribes in what is now known as England did not happen overnight. It took the Angles, Saxons and Jutes more than 150 years to fully conquer the bits of land that are now known as England. In great part, this was due to British resistance, possibly led by the legendary King Arthur. But King Arthur was by no means the only ‘secret weapon’ for the Britons.

In his Greater Chronicle, the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede(672/3-735) makes mention of the following British victory over the combined forces of Saxons and Picts:

Having gathered some men they checked the campaign of the Saxons […] the enemy was forced to flee panic-stricken, not by the noise of the tuba but by the crying of Alleluia by the voice of the whole army raised to the stars. (Bede, Greater Chronicle, s.a. 4410, trans. McClure and Collins, 2008).

This is the story, told more elaborately in his Ecclesiastical History (book I, ch. 20), of a small British force who were greatly outnumbered by the armies of the Saxons and the Picts. Among the Britons there were three priests who proposed to the British army to loudly shout ‘Alleluia’. As the whole army shouted the word simultaneously (and the word resounded through the entire valley), the pagans became afraid the heavens might fall down on their heads and so they ran away.

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Want to scare an Anglo-Saxon? Don’t shout ‘boo’ if ‘Alleluia’ will do!

Works referred to:

  • Bede, The Greater Chronicle, trans. J. McClure and R. Collins. In Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Greater Chronicle, Bede’s Letter to Egbert (Oxford, 2008)

If you liked this post, you may also like An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Real Night of the Long Knives and An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How Hengest was led by the nose.

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How Hengest was led by the nose

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 self-made cartoon. This blog discusses  on how Eldol of Gloucester led Hengest by the nose…

Escaping the Night of the Long Knives with a stick

In my previous blog on an Anglo-Saxon anecdote, I discussed the story of the original Night of the Long Knives, when the fifth-century Anglo-Saxon leader Hengest ordered his Saxon followers to kill their British neighbours (You can read up on this here). Not all the Britons were killed that night, however, as  the ever-reliable Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100-1155) tells us in his Historia Regum Brittanniae [The History of the British Kings]. Geoffrey  reports how one Briton escaped (using a stick) and made sure that Hengest would get his comeuppance. This is the story of Eldol of Gloucester.

Eldol escaped the treacherous Anglo-Saxon onslaught by grabbing a wooden stick and “[i]f anyone approached him, he struck him so hard that his limbs would break and he would be dispatched straight to Hell. Eldol smashed heads and arms and shoulders and legs, inspiring the Saxons with great terror.” (Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia, bk. VI, ch. 16). Before he managed to escape, Eldol had killed seventy men with his stick.

Leading Hengest by the nose

At a later date, Hengest and his Saxon troops ambush a British army, led by Aurelius Ambrosius (the uncle of King Arthur). Among the Britons, we find Eldol and he and Hengest come to blows:

O how these men were mighty in battle above all others! As they deal stroke after stroke to each other, sparks flew up from their blades like thunder and lightning. For a long while it was unclear which of the two possessed the greater strength: first Eldol would press forward and Hengest would fall back, then Eldol would lose ground while Hengest prevailed. (Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia, bk. VIII, ch. 6)

Then, Eldol decides to play dirty:

“He seized Hengest by the noseguard of his helmet and, exerting all his strength, dragged him back behind the British lines. With the greatest joy, Eldol then cried aloud: ‘God has granted my wish! Press on, soldiers, press on! […] Victory is now within your grasp! With Hengest defeated, you have won!’” (Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia, bk. VIII, ch. 6)

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Eldol leads Hengest by the nose.

Eldol eventually cuts off Hengest head and rejoices some more.

The English idiom “to lead someone by the nose” means ‘to force someone to go somewhere’. People will tell you this phrase goes back to “the fact that a cow is sometimes led by rope attached to a ring in its nose”. You now know better…

Works referred to:

  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, trans. M. A. Faletra (2008)

If you liked this post, you may also like An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Real Night of the Long Knives