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With the upper body of a human and the lower body of a horse, centaurs are one of the most recognisable creatures of Greek mythology. However, these horse-human-hybrids also make their appearance in the cultural record of early medieval England, as this blog post demonstrates.
Half-horsed or half-assed half-humans
Depicted as they are in manuscript versions of The Marvels of the East, on the Bayeux Tapestry and on various early medieval English coins, centaurs were certainly no strangers to the Anglo-Saxons. The inhabitants of early medieval England were probably aware of the centaur’s origins in Greek mythology, which describes the centaurs as a legendary tribe of half-horses living in Thessaly and often at blows with the Lapiths (both peoples were said to descend from the twin brothers Centaurus and Lapithes, sons of Apollo; Centaurus mated with horses, Lapithes did not). A mention of the centaurs and Lapiths is found in the Old English translation of Orosius’s Historia adversus paganos:
On ðæm dagum wæs þætte Lapithe 7 Thesali wæron winnende him betweonum. Þonne þa Lapithe gesawon Thesali þæt folc of hiora horsum beon feohtende wið hie, þonne heton hi hie Centauri, þæt sindon healf hors, healf men, for þon hie on horse hie feohtan ne gesawen ær þa. (Bately 1980, p. 28)
[In these days it was that the Lapiths and Thessalians were fighting among themselves. When the Lapiths saw that the Thessalian people were fighting against them from their horses, then they called them ‘Centaurs’, that is half horse, half man, because they never before then saw them fight on horseback.]
A centaur-like being also gets a mention in The Marvels of the East: “Hi beoþ oð ðene nafelan on menniscum gescape 7 syððan on eoseles gescape” [they are in a man’s shape down to the navel and afterwards in the shape of an ass] (London, British Library, Cotton Vitelius A.xv, fol. 103v; see the image of this centaur above. For more on this fascinating text, see The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex). The idea that centaurs were half-assed, rather than half-horsed is also evident from the Old English gloss “healf man healf assa” [half man, half ass] for the Latin words centaurus, ippocentaurus and onocentaurus in an eleventh-century glossary:
On viking ships and in monastic rules: Centaurs in unexpected places
While centaurs might not seem amiss in texts about wonderful creatures, ancient histories and lists of obscure Latin words, references to these horse-human hybrids also pop up in more unexpected places. According to the anonymous author of the Encomium Emmae Regina (1041-1042), for instance, centaurs could be seen on the Viking longboats used by Swein Forkbeard when he invaded England in the year 1013:
On one side lions moulded in gold were to be seen on the ships, on the other birds on the tops of the masts indicated by their movements the winds as they blew, or dragons of various kinds poured fire from their nostrils. Here there were glittering men of solid gold or silver nearly comparable to live ones, there bulls with necks raised high and legs outstretched were fashioned leaping and roaring like live ones. One might see dolphins moulded in electrum, and centaurs in the same metal, recalling the ancient fable. (trans. Campbell 1949)
Who knew those Vikings were so keen to decorate their boats with such exotic and mythological animals?
Another surprising place to stumble on a mention of centaurs is in the late eleventh-century Old English translation of the Enlarged Rule of Chrodegang, a monastic rule that originated in the eighth century. In a chapter dealing with the difference between clerics under episcopal rule and clerics that were not ruled by bishops (‘acephalous’ or headless clerics), the latter are described as “gewitlease nytenu” [witless animals]. While they may pretend to be clerics, they lead base lives. They are neither clerical nor lay and, thus, the rule explicitly states, they resemble centaurs:
Hi sind gelice ypocentauris, þa ne synt naðer ne hors \ne/ men, ac synt gemenged, swa se bisceop cwæð, Ægðer ge cynren ge tudor is twybleoh. Þæra sceanda and þæra swæma mænigeo wæs æfre ure westdæl afylled.
[They are like centaurs which are neither horse nor men but are mixed as the bishop said, ‘Their kindred as well as their offspring is dual’ (a reference to Virgil’s Aeneid). Our western world was forever filled by a host of these imposters and idlers.] (trans. Langefeld 2003, p. 382)
Given their appearance on boats of Viking invaders and their link to unruly clerics, it seems centaurs did not have a good reputation in early medieval England. Matters change, however, when we take into account an important medical text.
Chiron, a centaur-doctor in the Old English Herbal
London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius c.iii opens with a full-page miniature of a man and a centaur offering a book to a blue-veiled individual. The texts that follow this miniature are the Old English Herbal and an Old English translation of Medicina de quadrupedibus [Remedies of four-footed animals]. The presence of this centaur is not an artistic flourish, as the entry in the Old English Herbal for the herb centaury demonstrates: “Eac ys sæd þæt Chyron centaurus findan sceolde þas wyrta þe we ær centauriam maiorem 7 nu centauriam minorem nemdon, ðanun hy eac þone naman healdað centaurias” (de Vriend 1984, p. 82) [It is also said that Chiron the centaur had to find the herb that we earlier called centauriam maiorem and now called centauriam minorem, thence they also have the name centaury]. The centaur offering the book at the start of this manuscript, then, is none other than Chiron, the wisest centaur of all Greek mythology and inventor of, among other things, botany and pharmacy!
This same Chiron is associated with the zodiac sign Sagittarius, which of course was also known to the Anglo-Saxons:
To sum up: Whether half-assed or half-horsed, on Viking boats or in monastic rules, as a mythological medicine man-horse or a zodiac sign, centaurs clearly left their mark (or: hoofprints) in the cultural record of early medieval England!
If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested in:
- Anglo-Saxon obscenities: Explicit art from early medieval England
- Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?
- Sitting down in early medieval England: A catalogue of Anglo-Saxon chairs
Works referred to:
- Bately, J. (1985). The Old English Orosius. EETS, s.s. 6 (London)
- Campbell, A. (1949). Encomium Emmae Reginae (London)
- Langefeld, B.T (2003). The Old English Version of the Enlarged Rule of Chrodegang: Edited together with the Latin Text and an English Translation. Münchener Universitätsschriften, Texte und Untersuchungen zur Englischen Philologie, Band 26 (Frankfurt am Main)
- de Vriend, H.J. (1984). The Old English Herbarium and Medicina de quadrupedibus. EETS 286 (London)
One of the most recognisable scenes of the Nativity of Jesus (celebrated at Christmas) is the ‘Adoration of the Magi’: the wise men from the East bringing gifts to Christ. This blog post provides a translation of the relevant passages from the Old English translation of the Gospel of Matthew, as well as a discussion of the Magi in Anglo-Saxon art.
Matthew 2:1-12 in the West-Saxon Gospels and the Missal of Robert of Jumièges
The only mention of the Adoration of the Magi in the Bible is in the Gospel of Matthew. The Old English text below is taken from the West-Saxon Gospels, the fist stand-alone English translation of the four Gospels (c. 990). The images are taken from the Missal of Robert of Jumièges, a beautiful manuscript made in Anglo-Saxon England for Robert of Jumièges, the first Norman archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1052/1055). This missal features the most complete cycle of Magi illustrations to come from Anglo-Saxon England.
Eornustlice, þa se Hælend acenned wæs on Iudeiscre Bethleem on þæs cyninges dagum Herodes, þa comon þa tungolwitegan fram eastdæle to Hierusalem 7 cwædon “hwær ys se Iudea cyning þe acenned ys? Soðlice we gesawon hys steorran on eastdæle 7 we comon us him to geeadmedenne.”
[Truly, when the Saviour was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, then the astronomers came from the East to Jerusalem and said “Where is the king of the Jews that is born? Truly, we saw his star in the East and we came to pay worship to him.”] (Matthew 2:1-2)
It is noteworthy that in the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi are not classified as kings (this is an apocryphal tradition, for which see below); instead, they are mentioned here as “tungolwitegan” [‘lit. planet-knowers, i.e. astronomers’].
Whereas the Gospel of Matthew does not specify the number of the Magi, the Missal of Robert of Jumièges follows the popular aprocryphal tradition that there were three Magi (a number derived no doubt, from the number of gifts that these wise men from the East bring to Christ). The Missal also provides a typical depiction of the Magi as wearing Persian clothing, recognisable by the so-called ‘Phrygian caps’.
Ða Herodes þæt gehyrde ða wearð he gedrefed 7 eal Hierosolimwaru mid him. 7 þa gegaderode Herodes ealle ealdras þæra sacerda 7 folces writeras 7 axode hwær Crist acenned wære. Ða sædon hi him “on Iudeiscere Bethlem. Witodlice þus ys awriten þurh þone witegan: ‘And þu Bethleem Iudealand, witodlice ne eart þu læst on Iuda ealdrum. Of ðe forð gæð se heretoga se þe recð min folc Israhel.'”.
[When Herod heard that, he became afraid and all of the Jerusalem-dwellers with him. And then Herod gathered all the elders of the priests and the writers of the people and asked where Christ had been born. Then they said to him: “In Bethlehem of Judea. Truly thus it is written by the prophet: ‘And you Bethlehem, in the land of Judea, are truly not the least among the elders of Judah. From you the leader goes forth, he who rules my people Israel.'”.] (Matthew 2:3-6)
The prophecy referred to and cited by one of these “Hierosolimwaru” is Micah 5:2.
The Missal of Robert of Jumièges shows Herod on his throne, surrounded by his advisors; one of them, on the outer right, points up to the Star of Bethlehem. The two advisors closest to Herod lift up five and two fingers, respectively – a reference to Micah 5:2? Maybe. The fact that King Herod wears a Phrygian cap similar to the ones worn by the Magi might indicate that the artist of the Missal already associated the Magi with kings (for which, see below).
Herodes þa clypode on sunderspræce ða tungelwitegan 7 befran hi georne hwænne se steorra him æteowde. And he asende hi to Bethlem 7 ðus cwæð: “Farað 7 axiað geornlice be þam cilde 7 þonne ge hyt gemetað cyþað eft me þæt ic cume 7 me to him gebidde”. Ða hi þæt gebod gehyrdon þa ferdon hi, 7 soþlice se steorra þe hi on eastdæle gesawon him beforan ferde oð he stod ofer þær þæt cild wæs. Soþlice þa ða tungelwitegan þone steorran gesawon fægenodon swyðe myclum gefean. 7 gangende into þam huse hi gemetton þæt cild mid Marian hys meder 7 hi aðenedon hi 7 hi to him gebædon. And hi untyndon hyra goldhordas 7 him lac brohton þæt wæs gold 7 recels 7 myrre.
[Herod then spoke in private to the astronomers and asked them eagerly when the star had shown itself to them. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said thus: “Go and ask eagerly about the child and when you meet it tell me afterwards so that I might come and worship him.” When they heard that command then they travelled, and truly the story, which they saw in the East, went before them until it stood over the place where the child was. Truly, when the astronomers saw the star, they rejoiced with much faith, and, going into the house, they met the child with Mary his mother and they paid worship to them and they worshipped them. And they unclosed their gold-hoards and brought them a gift, that was gold, frankincense and myrrh.] (Matthew 2:7-11)
It is notable here that the Gospel indicates that the Magi only met Christ and his mother – there is no reference to Joseph, who, consequently, is often absent from depictions of the Adoration of the Magi, as in the Missal of Robert of Jumièges:
The Missal’s depiction of the Magi in the Adoration scene shows some notable differences to the Magi on horseback in the same manuscript. They are still wearing their Phrygian caps, but appear to have lost their pants and shoes (a sign of humility?); one of them had a beard while on his horse, but now all of them are clean-shaven (on the importance of bearded Magi, see below).
And hi afengon andsware on swefnum þæt hi eft to Herode ne hwyrfdon ac hi on oðerne weg on hyra rice ferdon.
[And they received a warning in their dreams so that they did not turn to Herod afterwards but travelled to their realm via another road.] (Matthew 2:12)
And that is the last we heard of the wise men from the East in the Gospel of Matthew. The Missal of Robert of Jumièges shows how the three Magi received their warning while they slept under one blanket. Notably, they had kept their clothes (and Phrygian caps!) on:
Psalm 71:10-11 and the Magi as kings
The Magi in the tenth-century Benedictional of St Æthelwold are depicted without Phrygian caps but with crowns, instead. The notion that the Magi were kings is not derived from the Gospel of Matthew, but stems from the interpretation of Psalm 71:10-11 (according to Vulgate reckoning). Here is the relevant Latin passage from the twelfth-century Eadwine Psalter, along with its Old English gloss:
Reges Tharsis & insulae munera offerent. reges Arabum & Saba dona adducent. Et adorabunt eum omnes reges terrae. Omnes gentes seruient ei.
Kininges 7 iglonde of tarsis læc brohton. Kininges of Arabe 7 Feredæ giefa to geledæþ. 7 gebiddaþ hine eællæ kininges of eorðæn. Eællæ diodæ þeowigæþ him.
[The kings and the island of Tharsis brought treasure. Kings of Arabia and Saba bring gifts and all kings of earth worship him. All nations serve him.]
The Eadwine Psalter itself is beautifully illustrated with literal interpretations of the Psalms – the illustration of Psalm 71 features an image of three kings offering gifts to Christ:
Whereas the Eadwine Psalter depicts three kings offering their gifts to an adult Christ, the eleventh-century Bury St Edmunds Psalter illustrates the same passage of Psalm 71 with a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi, giving gifts to the baby Jesus:
If you look closely (you can zoom in on the image here), you can see that one of the Magi is wearing a Phrygian cap and the other two are wearing crowns. The Magi are further differentiated: the Phrygian cap Magus is clean shaven, the standing Magus has a beard, while the kneeling Magus has an even longer beard. This differentiation between the Magi (in this case in terms of age: young, middle-aged, elderly) became a common topos in depictions of the Adoration of the Magi – representing different age classes, the Magi symbolize mankind in its entirety (similarly, in later traditions, the Magi are differentiated for race).
The importance of beards: The Franks Casket and Bishop Cuthwine’s Carmen Paschale
The earliest known depiction of the Adoration of the Magi from Anglo-Saxon England is found on the front panel of the Franks Casket, an early 8th-century whalebone box now kept in the British Museum. the Magi, here led by a duck (or dove), are clearly differentiated in terms of age: beardless, semi-beard, full beard.
There is one more depiction of the Magi with Anglo-Saxon origins that differentiates between the Magi through their beards. It is found in a ninth-century Carolingian manuscript of Sedulius’s Carmen Paschale (an epic re-write of the Gospels) :
As I have discussed in another blog post (An Anglo-Saxon comic book collector: Cuthwine and the Carmen Paschale), this manuscript was copied from a book once owned by the Anglo-Saxon Bishop Cuthwine (fl. 716-731) and its miniatures show the influence of an eighth-century English exemplar. As such, Cuthwine’s original copy may have had a similar image of the Magi; it would certainly have featured Sedulius’s poetic paraphrase of Matthew 2:1-12:
So, watching the light fixed high in the sky before them,
The wise men made haste to follow the star with its royal twinkling.
They kept close to the hoped for road which under a subsequent
Dispensation has led adoring gentiles to the holy cradle.
And when together they had opened their treasures in reverence,
So that the precious objects themselves could point to Christ,
They poured out gold as a present fit for a new born king;
They gave him frankincense, a gift for a god; they offered him myrrh for his grave.
But why three gifts? Because the greatest hope we have in life
Is the faith which testifies to this number and the most high God
Who distinguishes all times, past, present, and future,
Always is, always was, and always will be possessed
Of his triple power. Then the Magi, warned from on high
By a dream to despise the commands of the threatening tyrant,
Changed their itinerary, and, proceeding by alternative routes,
Returned to their homeland. Thus we also,
If we wish to reach our holy homeland at last,
After we have come to Christ, should no longer return to the evil one. (bk. II, ll. 89-106, trans. Springer 2013)
By exhibiting this valuable lesson, the Magi themselves, it seems, were deemed worthy of adoration in early medieval England.
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other posts about illuminated manuscripts:
- A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus
- Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels
- The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book
Works referred to:
- Sedulius, The Paschal Song and Hymns, trans. C. P. E. Springer (Atlanta, 2013)
In order to make their film sets conform to the historical periods they are supposed to depict, designers often draw inspiration from actual, historical objects. One of the little joys of being an Anglo-Saxonist is recognising some of the objects you study in the background of your favourite TV series and movies. Here are three examples.
Alfred’s sceptre in The Last Kingdom (BBC; 2015-)
The creators of BBC’s The Last Kingdom, set in ninth-century Wessex, have tried to create a set that is as historically accurate as possible (as they will tell you here; though, judging by this clip, where they say they spent a lot of time to find out “what kind of paper” they used in early medieval England, we may need to take this with a grain of salt!). One prop that is particularly interesting is Alfred’s sceptre with the bejeweled cross (see image below), which shows some similarities to the seventh-century whetstone/sceptre found at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk.
Like the original Anglo-Saxon object, Alfred’s sceptre has a base with four bearded faces, each facing in a different direction. These four faces on the Sutton Hoo whetstone/sceptre have been associated with a four-faced Slavic deity called ‘Svantovit’, not the sort of thing a pious Christian like Alfred would be comfortable wielding, one might say.
The Sutton Hoo helmet and Byrhtferth’s diagram in Merlin (BBC; 2008-2012)
Another Anglo-Saxon object found at the famous ship burial of Sutton Hoo made its way onto the set of BBC’s Merlin: The Sutton Hoo helmet. This particular headgear is a ‘historicon’ par excellence and can be found on virtually every book cover of anything related to Anglo-Saxon England. In BBC’s Merlin, the helmet can be spotted in the bed chamber of young Prince Arthur (see image above). While this is a nice touch, this seventh-century Anglo-Saxon helmet seems oddly out of place in the bed chamber of a legendary British leader that supposedly lived in the 5th or 6th century. Not as ahistorical, however, as the thing hanging on another character’s wall…
The court’s physician Gaius appears to have received some of his medical training from a document from even further ahead in time. On his wall, we can see a diagram that is commonly ascribed to Byrhferth (c. 970-c.1020), an Anglo-Saxon monk of Ramsey Abbey. The diagram reveals how various groups of four (the four elements, the four ages of man, the four wind directions, etc.) all correspond to each other – a visualisation of the harmonious nature of the universe (find out more here). The diagram in Gaius’s room, then, is a nice attempt at bringing in an actual medieval object, albeit about five centuries too soon!
The Franks Casket tapestry in Ivanhoe (MGM; 1952)
When I watched the movie Ivanhoe (1952), I was most impressed by the wall-hanging behind the big table in the house of Cedric the Saxon. This tapestry shows a colouful scene, surrounded by what appear to be runes. On closer inspection it turns out to be one of the scenes depicted on the eighth-century, Anglo-Saxon Franks Casket. This whale bone box, currently in the British Museum, can truly be called multicultural, since it depicts scenes from diverse traditions, including Weland the Smith, the Adoration of the Magi and Romulus and Remus. .
The scene so colourfully depicted on the tapestry in Cedric’s house is the Taking of Jerusalem by Titus in the year 70 AD (depicted on the rear panel of the Franks Casket). While the use of colour may strike one as odd, it is assumed that the Anglo-Saxon casket was originally full-colour as well. I wonder whether this particular prop is still lying around somewhere, in some long-forgotten MGM storeroom; if so, I will gladly reserve a place for it on my wall!
If you are interested in the use of medieval stuff in TV series and movies, you may also want to have a look at my blog about the use of Old English in film: Old English is alive! Five TV series and movies that use Old English
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