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Cooked crow’s brains and other early medieval remedies for headaches from the Leiden Leechbook

The stomach of a hare, the excrements of a goat and the urine of a child – these are but a few of the awkward ingredients prescribed by the medical manuscript fragment known as the Leiden Leechbook. This ninth-century fragment, now in the Leiden University Library, is a unique witness to medical practice in the early Middle Ages and the multilingual nature of the documents from this period. This blog post outlines some of its remedies, its languages and its connection to Anglo-Saxon England.

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The Leiden Leechbook. Leiden University Library, VLF 96A, ff. 1v-2r

How to cure a headache?

The first folio of the fragment contains a list of Latin remedies. As with other medical texts from the medieval period, this compilation starts with cures dealing with the head and then works its way down (in this case to the hair and eyes, then the text breaks off). To the modern reader, early medieval medicine presents a curious combination of herbal remedies and what might be called ‘magic’. The Leiden Leechbook’s remedies for headaches can serve as an illustration of this bewildering mix. The first three full remedies read as follows:

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First three full remedies from the Leiden Leechbook. Leiden University Library, VLF 96a, fol. 1r

Item herbæ quæ in flumine super nascuntur subtilitær trita folia frontique illita mire purgationi capitis proficiunt.

Item lapilli in uentriculus pullorum hirundinum inuendi quamuis deuternos inueteratosque dolores remediant, habidi maximi albi, qui ne terram tangant erit cauendum.

Similiter noctuæ caput recens coctum et comestum deuternos labores sedare dicitur.

[Again: herbs which grow upon a river, (their) leaves chopped small and applied to the brow have a marvellous effect for clearing the head.

Again: stones found in the stomach of young swallows heal the pains, however old and persistent, chiefly white ones – care should be taken that they do not touch the earth.

Likewise: the head of an owl recently cooked, and eaten, alleviates so it is said persistent pains (in the head)] (ed. and trans. Falileyev & Owen, 2005)

While the first remedy is a sensible prescription to apply a  herb to one’s forehead to alleviate a headache, the second one clearly features more ‘occult’ instructions. The third one is a clear example of so-called ‘sympathetic magic’ (“use like to treat like”): are you suffering from a head ache? Eat a head! (for similar examples of ‘sympathetic magic’ from the Middle Ages, see How to cook your dragon and a medieval cure for old age).

Other remedies for aching heads mentioned in the Leiden Leechbook include:

  • The columbine plant
  • Eating a coot
  • Placing a small stone found on the side of a citygate on your head
  • The root of plantain, picked before sunrise, bound around the head
  • Smearing on the crushed seed of the elder tree
  • Eating the brains of a cooked crow
  • The nests of swallows, soaked in mud, applied to the forehead
  • A drink of standing water out of which an ass or cow has drunk

Once more, we find the striking combination of purely botanical ingredients (plantain, columbine, seed of the elder tree) and more occult substances (the nest of swallows, a stone found on the side of a citygate). The instruction to eat the brains of a cooked crow to soothe aching brains is another case of sympathetic magic, as may be the advice to eat a coot (coots have a frontal shield on their foreheads).

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Ingredients mentioned in the Leiden Leechbook’s remedies against headaches: A crow’s brains, a coot, a swallow’s nest, a columbine plant, the plantain and the elder tree.

One last cure for headache seems rather unhygienic:

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Leiden Leechbook. Leiden University Library, VLF 96a, fol. 1v

Caprinus fimus aceto resolutus et front illitus mire succurrit.

[The excrement of goats, dissolved in vinegar and applied to the forehead, is of amazing benefit.] (ed. and trans. Falileyev & Owen, 2005)

One wonders how many long-sufferers of headaches walked around with acetic goat droppings on their foreheads in the early Middle Ages…

The Leiden Leechbook and the multilingual Middle Ages

The bifolium that is now known as the Leiden Leechbook was once used as a pastedown in another manuscript (i.e. it was pasted onto the board of another manuscript so as to hide its binding mechanisms). That manuscript, Leiden University Library, VLF 96, came from the famous abbey in Fleury, France, and, therefore, the Leiden Leechbook is generally assigned to the same abbey (see Bremmer & Dekker 2006; Falileyev & Owen, 2005) . Intriguingly, the Leiden Leechbook was certainly not written by a French monk: four hands are responisble for its texts and they all used an insular script (the kind used in the British Isles).

The languages in the Leiden Leechbook, too, suggest a multiregional background for the manuscript. Aside from Latin, there is one Old Irish gloss in the manuscript and some of its further remedies are written in a Brittonic language (possibly Breton or Cornish). The Old Irish gloss was added by the first scribe who copied the remedy for a headache that prescribed the use of crushed seeds of an elder tree. The Latin word sambuci ‘elder tree’ was glossed with the Old Irish word tromm ‘elder tree’:

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Old Irish tromm glossing Latin sambuci. Leiden University Library, VLF 96a, fol. 1v.

The second folio of the Leiden Leechbook contains a different set of remedies, written in a mixture of Latin and a Brittonic language. A case in point is the following remedy for “guædgou” [parasitic complexion]:

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A Latin-Brttonic remedy for a parasitic complexion. Leiden University Library, VLF 96a, fol. 2r

Cæs scau; cæs spern; cæs guærn; cæs dar; cæs cornucærui; cæs colænn; cæs aball per cæruisam. Anroæ æniap æhol pær mæl.

[Take elder / fox-glove; take thorn; take alder; take oak; take staghorn; take holly; take apple-tree with beer. Poultice all the face with honey.] (ed. and trans. Falileyev & Owen, 2005)

In this remedy, all words, except Latin per/pær ‘with’, cornucærui ‘staghorn’ and cæruissam ‘beer’, are in a Brittonic language, which may be either Cornish or Breton (see Falileyev & Owen, 2005).

The manuscript’s provenance, scripts and languages thus are indicative of the pluriform origin story of the Leiden Leechbook which must include references to Fleury, France, Ireland, as well as Cornwall or Britanny. But there is more to the Leiden Leechbook: there may be a connection to Anglo-Saxon England as well!

Is that an Old English gloss or should I put a child’s urine in my eyes?

According to the German scholar O. B. Schlutter (1910), the Leiden Leechbook also contains three words in Old English. The first word, he suggested, was accidentally copied into one of the Latin remedies for a headache. The Latin remedy suggesting you eat cooked crow’s brains to cure your own aching brain reads: “cornicis … exrebellum coctum” [cooked brains of a crow]. The word exrebellum does not exist in Latin and this should have read cerebellum ‘brains’. According to Schlutter, the scribe made a mistake when he copied a Latin exemplar that read ‘cerebellum’ with an Old English gloss ex  –  the scribe accidentally copied the gloss into the main text and forgot to write down “ce”, producing the nonce word exrebellum. Falileyev & Owen (2005, p. 28) reject this hypothesis by Schlutter, claiming “[i]t is difficult to see how an AS word meaning ‘axe’ should be used to gloss cerebellum“. It should be noted, however, that the Old English word ex was, in fact, used for ‘brains’  in various Old English medical texts and the Dictionary of Old English (s.v. ex 2, exe) confirms Schlutter’s suggestion.

Schlutter identified another Old English word as an interlinear gloss in the following remedy for hairloss:

Ad capillos fluentes, leporis uentriculum coctum in sartagine et mixto oleo inpone capidi et capillos fluentes continet et cogit concrescere.

[For loose hair: put the stomach of a hare, cooked in a frying pan and mixed with oil, to the head, and that holds together loose hair and causes it to grow strong.] (ed. and trans. Falileyes & Owen, 2005)

According to Schlutter, an Old English gloss hara ‘hare’ had been added above the Latin leporis ‘of a hare’ – only the “h” is clearly visible, he writes, the rest has faded away. The most recent editors of the manuscript (Falileyev & Owen, 2005) reject Schlutter’s reading and claim that what Schlutter had seen is nothing other than a damage mark or scrape. You be the judge:

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An Old English gloss or a scrape? Leiden University Library, VLF 96a, fol. 1r.

The third Old English word spotted by Schlutter is again rejected by Falileyev & Owen as an ink offset. This time, the Old English gloss is supposedly found in the headache remedy prescribing the crushed seeds of the elder tree. Here, Schlutter saw the Old English word ellærn ‘elder tree’ as a gloss for Latin sambuci (which was also glossed with Old Irish tromm). Despite Falileyev & Owen’s rejection, Schlutter’s reading is supported by the Dictionary of Old English (s.v. ellen noun 2, ellern) and, indeed, it is possible to make out some of the letters:

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Ink offset or Old English gloss ellærn ‘elder tree’? Leiden University Library, VLF 96a, fol. 1v.

Are there three Old English words in the Leiden Leechbook, as Schlutter suggested, or none, as Falileyev & Owen argue?

There is one more reason to assume an Anglo-Saxon influence on the Leiden Leechbook: some of its remedies turn out to have (near) analogues in Old English medical texts. One such remedy is a cure for blurry eyesight, which is also found in the Old English Leechbook III:

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Remedies for poor eyesight in the Leiden Leechbook (Leiden University Library, VLF 96a, fol. 1v) and Leechbook III (London, British Library, Royal MS 12 D.xvii, fol. 112r).

Leiden Leechbook: Ad caliginem: lotium infantis si cum melle optima misces et iunges patientem.

[For clouded/blurred vision: if you mix the urine of a suckling child with honey of superior quality you will then heal the patient.] (ed. and trans. Falileyev & Owen, 2005)

Leechbook III: Gif mist sie fore eagum nim cildes hlond 7 huniges tear meng tosomne begea emfela smire mid þa eagan innan.

[If a mist be before the eyes, take a child’s urine and a drop of honey, mix together the same amount of both, rub the inside of the eyes with it.]

The existence of Old English analogues for some of the Leiden Leechbook’s remedies is an argument in favour of connecting the manuscript to Anglo-Saxon England. This connection, in turn, would strengthen the case for the existence of the Old English words spotted by Schlutter.

Are the Old English glosses hara and ellærn really in the Leiden Leechbook? I have looked long and hard at the manuscript and I cannot be sure whether the marks are letters, as Schlutter suggested, or damages to the parchment, as Falileyev & Owen argue; perhaps I should have another look after I have rinsed my eyes with child’s urine and honey…

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Old English glosses or damages to the manuscript? Leiden University Library, VLF 96a, ff. 1r-1v.

If you liked this post, why not follow the blog (see button in the right-hand menu) and/or continue reading the following blogs on medieval medicine:

Works referred to (and recommended reading on the Leiden Leechbook):

  • Bremmer, Rolf H., Jr & Dekker, K., Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Microfiche Facsimile. Vol 13: Manuscripts in the Low Countries (Tempe, AZ, 2006)
  • Falileyev, A. & Owen, M. E., The Leiden Leechbook: A Study of the Earliest Neo-Brittonic Medical Compilation (Innsbruck, 2005)
  • Schlutter, O. B., ‘Anglo-Saxonica: Altenglisches aus Leidener Handschriften’, Anglia 33 (1910): 239-245.
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Early Medieval Magical Medicine: An Anglo-Saxon Trivia Quiz

This blog post features an Anglo-Saxon trivia quiz that will test (and/or increase) your knowledge about magical medicine in early medieval England.

A bad reputation for early medieval medicine

Whereas the bulk of early medieval English medicine consists of herbal and botanical remedies, some of the more fanciful ways to alleviate various ailments border on witchcraft. These remedies involve incantations, love potions, occult rituals and references to supernatural beings including dwarfs and elves. According to some early scholars, there was a fine line between magic and medicine and, as a result, much of early medieval English medicine should be regarded as little more than nonsense:

Surveying the mass of folly and credulity that makes up Anglo-Saxon leechdoms, it may be asked “Is there any rational element here? Is the material based on anything that we may describe as experience?” The answer must be “Very little”

(J. H. G. Grattan and C. J. Singer, Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine (Oxford, 1952), p. 92)

Indeed, it is not hard to find examples of seemingly irrational, magical medicine in Anglo-Saxon sources, as the following trivia quiz will illustrate.

Have you got the folly and credulity to be an Anglo-Saxon doctor?

Anglo-SaxonLeechQuiz

The following 10-question-quiz introduces some characteristics and intriguing examples of ‘magical medicine’ from Anglo-Saxon England.  Each multiple-choice question has at least one right answer and clicking this will reveal an explanation with further information. Good luck! N.B. Unfortunately the quiz does not work in all mobile browsers (such as the Twitter browser), if you see all the explanations expanded, better use another browser!

1. The best cure against a head ache is:
Lying on a dog’s head, burned to ashes.
Correct! A common principle in early medieval medicine is ‘sympathetic magic’: the cure often resembles the disease. In the case of a head ache, you use a dog’s head. No actual puppies were harmed during this remedy, however, since Old English hundes heafod ‘dog’s head’ was the name for the plant now known as the small snapdragon [Antirrhinum orontium]. Here is a drawing of the hundes heafod in the eleventh-century Old English Herbal:
“Hundes Heafod” (Small snapdragon) in London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C.iii, fol. 45v.
Drinking a hen’s egg, mixed in warm ale.
Singing nine Pater Nosters.
Leeches.
2. In an Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiac, you would likely use:
Oysters.
A carrot and two plums.
Leeches
Deer testicles.
Correct! The principle of sympathetic magic may be at work here as well. This ‘love potion’ is found in the Old English translation of Medicina de quadrupedibus: Wif gemanan to aweccanne, nim heortes sceallan, dryg, wyrc to duste, do hys dæl on wines drinc. Þæt awecceþ wif gemanan lust. (London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C.iii, fol. 76v.) [To arouse a woman for sexual intercourse, take the testicles of a deer, dry them, grind them to dust, do a part of this in a drink of wine. That will arouse a woman with the lust for intercourse.] Read more about Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs here: Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?
3. A hiccough is most likely caused by:
Accidentally swalllowing an elf.
Correct! The Old English word for hiccough was ælfsogoða ‘elf-sucking’, suggesting a hiccough was caused by sucking in an elf. Elves, dwarves and worms were often assumed to be the cause of diseases in Anglo-Saxon magico-medicine.
 An imbalance of the humours.
Drinking too quickly.
 Leeches.
4. Which is the best cure against warts?
A mixture of dog’s urine and mouse blood.
Correct! Waste products were often used in Anglo-Saxon medicine. “Wiþ weartum. Genim hundes micgean 7 muse blod, meng to somne, smire mid þa weartan, hig witaþ sona aweg.” (British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 116r) [Against warts. Take the urine of a dog and mouse blood, mix together, rub the warts with it, they will immediately go away.]
Applying some leeches.
Cutting them off with a heated knife.
5. In case of severed sinews, I apply:
The bark of a young and healthy tree.
Earthworms.
Another case of sympathetic magic: Earthworms resemble sinews and, as an added bonus, they regenerate after being cut in half. What better to use for severed sinews? Gif sinwe syn forcorfene nim renwyrmas, gecnuwa wel, lege on oþ þæt hi hale synd.” (British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 118r) [If the sinews are cut, take earthworms (lit. rain-worms), pound them wel, lay them on until they are whole.
Leeches.
6. Throwing a dungbeetle over your shoulder and saying “Remedium facio ad ventris dolorem” three times will:
Give you the power to cure stomach aches for a full year.
Get rid off an annoying itch between your shoulder blades.
Get rid off the dungbeetle.
Technically correct, but try again!
Alleviate diarrhea in the entire village.
7. A child has a fever, you:
Put it on a rooftop in the sun.
Correct! This way of curing a child was considered rather sinful and is mentioned in various Anglo-Saxon penitentials, including this one: “Gyf hwylc wif seteð hire bearn ofer rof oððe on ofen for hwilcere untrymðe hælo .vii. gear fæste” (Brussels, Bibliothéque royale, 8558-63, fol. 152v) [If any woman sets her child on a roof or in an oven for the cure of any illness, fast for seven years].
Put it in an oven.
Correct! This way of curing a child was considered rather sinful and is mentioned in various Anglo-Saxon penitentials, including this one: “Gyf hwylc wif seteð hire bearn ofer rof oððe on ofen for hwilcere untrymðe hælo .vii. gear fæste” (Brussels, Bibliothéque royale, 8558-63, fol. 152v) [If any woman sets her child on a roof or in an oven for the cure of any illness, fast for seven years].
Apply leeches on its forehead.
8. Against heart ache:
Ribwort, boiled in milk, drink it for nine mornings.
Correct! Nine is a magic number that is often used in Anglo-Saxon magico-medicine.
Ribwort, boiled in milk, drink it for seven mornings.
Ribwort, boiled in milk, drink it for six mornings.
Ribwort, boiled in milk, drink it for three mornings.
9. Which one of these remedies is NOT an actual Anglo-Saxon remedy?
Against a stomach ache, sleep next to a fat child.
Nope, this one is real: “Him hylpð eac þæt him fæt cild æt slape 7 þæt he þæt gedo neah his wambe simle”(British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 83r) [It also helps him that a fat child should sleep by him, and that he should put it always near his (stomach).]
Against madness, hit the patient with a whip made of dolphin skin.
Nope. This one is real: “nim mereswines fel, wyrc to swipan, swing mid þone man sona bið sel. Amen.” (British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 120r) [take the skin of a dolphin, make into a whip, hit the man with it. He is immediately healthy. Amen.] Note that the ‘Amen’ was added by a later hand!
Against misty eyes, rub the eyes with child’s urine and honey.
Nope. This one is real: “Gif mist sie fore eagum nim cildes hlond 7 huniges tear meng tosomne begea emfela smire mid þa eagan innan” (British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 112r) [If a mist is before the eyes take a child’s urine and a drop of honey, mix them both together equally, smear it into the eyes].
None; They are all real.
Correct! Click on all individual answers to see the actual early medieval English remedies.
10. Your patient has a sore throat, you prescribe:
Drink heated honey with some herbs.
Correct! Not all Anglo-Saxon medicine is magical or silly!
Gurggle with the spittle of a horse.
No! Don’t be silly.
Take the neck of a goose and wrap it around the patient’s neck.
No! Don’t be silly.
Nine leeches.
No! Don’t be silly.
Put the patient in an oven.
No! Don’t be silly.

Does early medieval English medicine deserve its bad reputation?

While the quiz above may suggest that Grattan and Singer were justified in rejecting Anglo-Saxon medicine as folly and credulity, more recent scholarship has suggested this harsh criticism is undeserved. Treatments with magical and irrational elements only make up about fifteen percent of all early medieval English remedies. The majority can be categorised as herbal medicine, an alternaive form of medicine still practised today. M. L. Cameron tested out some of the ingredients in Anglo-Saxon remedies and concluded:

Did ancient and medieval physicians use ingredients and methods which were likely to have had beneficial effects on the patients whose ailments they treated?… I think the answer is “Yes, and their prescriptions were about as good as anything prescribed before the mid-twentieth century”. (M. L. Cameron, Anglo-Saxon Medicine (Cambridge, 1993), p. 117)

In other words, Anglo-Saxon medicine may not have been as ineffectual as it might seem. In fact, a few years ago, an Anglo-Saxon remedy for eye stye shocked the world by being able to succeed where modern antibiotics had failed:

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CNN news report on Anglo-Saxon potion (more on this remedy here)

Perhaps, then, Anglo-Saxon medicine deserves more than a silly trivia quiz, but that’s something for future blog posts!

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Creepy Crawlies in Early Medieval England: Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Minibeasts

Kings, queens, warriors and monks often take centre stage in writings about Anglo-Saxon England; by contrast, this post calls attention to the beings that generally shunned the limelight: worms, earwigs, scorpions, spiders and dungbeetles. As it turns out, these minibeasts played an important role in early medieval medicine.

Lice for the learned: Crawling among the glosses

While Anglo-Saxon England must have been crawling with all sorts of little critters, ‘minibeasts’ (a general term denoting insects, spiders, scorpions and such) only rarely receive mention in Old English texts. In fact, most Old English words for various bugs only survive because they were listed as glosses (translations) of Latin words. The so-called ‘Leiden Glossary’ (c. 800), for instance, features the Old English words “hnitu” (‘nit’ for Latin lendina); “ęruigga” (‘earwig’ for Latin auricula) and “snægl” (‘snail’ for Latin maruca):

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Insects in the Leiden Glossary. Leiden University Library, Special Collections, VLQ 69, fol. 35v.

Other minibeasts whose names only survive as glosses include:

  • ticia ‘tick’
  • beaw ‘gad-fly’
  • sidwyrm ‘silk worm’
  • seolcwyrm ‘silk worm’
  • rensnægl ‘rain snail’
  • sæsnægl ‘sea snail’
  • buterfleoge ‘butterfly’
  • eorþ-maþa ‘earth worm’

Some of these buggy Old English glosses are wonderfully descriptive, such as flǣsc-maþu ‘maggot, lit. flesh-worm’ and niht-butorflēoge ‘moth, lit. night-butterfly’.

Invasive insects: Purging pests with Anglo-Saxon medicine

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Some creepy crawlies and the common ivy in the Old English Herbarium. London British Library, Cotton Vitellius C.iii, fol. 50r

Other than glossaries, Anglo-Saxon medical texts are the best place to find creepy crawlies. Anglo-Saxon medical practicioners were well aware of the dangers posed by parasites for the well-being of their patients. As such, Anglo-Saxon medicine features various recipes to purge the body of bugs. Bald’s Leechbook (compiled in the ninth century) provides ample examples of such remedies against invading worms and earwigs:

Wiþ wyrmum on eagum genim beolonan sæd, scead on gleda, do twa bleda fulle wæteres to, sete on twa healfe 7 site þær ofer, bræd þonne þæt heafod hider 7 geond ofer þæt fyr 7 þa bleda eac, þonne sceadaþ þa wyrmas on þæt wæter.

Wiþ earwicgan genim þæt micle greate windelstreaw twyecge þæt on worþium wixð, ceow on þæt eare. He bið of sona.

[For worms in eyes, take seed of henbane, shed it onto glowing embers, add two saucers full of water, set them on two sides of the man, and let him sit there over them, jerk the head hither and thither over the fire and the saucers also, then worms shed themselves into the water.

Against earwigs, take the big great windlestraw with two edges, which grows on highways, chew it into the ear; he (the insect) will soon be off.] (ed. and trans. Cockayne 1864, 38-39; 44-45 – I have slightly modernized the translation)

As these two remedies demonstrate, Anglo-Saxon medical practice could involve a mixture of bodily maneuvers (some practical, other less so) and the application of herbs.

Aggresive arthropods: Curing scorpion and spider bites in early medieval England

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A snake and a scorpion in the entry for common plantain in the Old English Herbarium. London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C. iii, fol. 21v

The beautiful Old English Herbarium (an eleventh-century Old English translation of a fifth-century Latin text) is a testimony to the importance of herbs in Anglo-Saxon medicine. The Herbarium gives illustrations for each herb, followed by various remedies that can be made with them. The common plantain (or: waybread), for instance, was said to help against the bites of scorpions, as well as intestinal worms:

Wiþ scorpiones slite genim wegbrædan wyrtwalan, bind on þone man. Þonne ys to gelyfenne þæt hyt cume him to godre are.

Gif men innan wyrmas eglen genim wægbredan seaw, cnuca 7 wring 7 syle him supan 7 nim ða sylfan wyrte, gecnuca, lege on þone naflan 7 wrið þærto swyðe fæste. (London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C. iii, fol. 22r)

[Against the bite of a scorpion, take the roots of the plantain, bind them onto the man. Then it is believed that it will come to good use for him.

If intestinal worms harm a man, take the juice of the waybread, pound and wring, give it to him to drink and take the same plant, pound it to dust, put it on the navel (or: anus) and fasten it tightly thereto.]

The Old English Herbarium has various recipes against the bites of scorpions, despite the fact that, for as far as I know, these critters were not native to Anglo-Saxon England.

Another biting bug to be featured in the Old English Herbarium is the spider, whose bites may be alleviated with the help of the herbs vervain, ivy and stonecrop. Yet another medical text, known as Leechbook III, features a more obscure remedy for a spider bite:

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Cure against spider bite in Leechbook III. London, British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 118r

Uiþ gongewifran bite nim henne æg, gnid on ealu hreaw 7 sceapes tord niwe, swa he nyte, sele him drincan godne scenc fulne.

[Against the bite of a spider, take a hen’s egg, mix it raw in ale with a fresh sheep’s turd, so that he does not know, give him a good cup full to drink.]

This cure seems hardly effective! Although it would, I suppose, prevent people from ever complaining about spider bites again. This cure also demonstrate another aspect of Anglo-Saxon medicine: some of its remedies make absolutely no sense or even come across as magical. (also worthy of note: the Old English word gongewifran literally means ‘a weaver as it goes, a walking weaver’!)

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Another scorpion from the Old English Herbarium. London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C.iii, fol. 78r

Medicinal minibeast magic: Creepy crawlies as part of the cure

The ‘magical’ side of Anglo-Saxon medicine truly comes to the fore in those remedies that feature insects not as causes of diseases, but as parts of the cure. Some of these cures rely on what might be termed ‘sympathetic magic’, a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence – i.e. the cure often resembles the ailment. Leechbook III seems to be appealing to this kind of magic when it proposes to use earthworms and ants in the case of severed or shrunken sinews:

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Cures against severed and shrunken sinews in Leechbook III. London, British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 118r

Gif sinwe syn forcorfene nim renwyrmas, gecnuwa wel, lege on oþ þæt hi hale synd. Gif sinwe sien gescruncene nime æmettan mid hiora bedgeride, wyl on wætre & beþe mid & rece þa sinwe geornlice.

[If the sinews are cut, take earthworms (lit. rain-worms), pound them wel, lay them on until they are whole. If the sinews are shrunk, take ants and their nest, boil in water and bath therwith the sinews and expose them earnestly to the smoke]

The rationale behind these cures is simple: since earthworms can regenerate after having been cut, they must surely be able to help severed sinews; the best thing to use against small sinews is small insects like ants.

Leechbook III also features another peculiar cure, which involves a dung beetle. The occult procedure outlined below promises to give the practitioner the ability to cure stomach aches for a whole year:

Þær þu geseo tordwifel on eorþan up weorpan, ymbfo hine mid twam handum mid his geweorpe. Wafa mid þinum handum swiþe and cweð þriwa: Remedium facio ad ventris dolorem. Weorp þonne ofer bæc þone wifel on wege. Beheald þæt þu ne locige æfter. Þonne monnes wambe wærce oððe rysle, ymbfoh mid þinum handum þa wambe. Him biþ sona sel. XII monaþ þu meaht swa don after þam wifel. (London, British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 115r)

[Where you see a dungbeetle throw up on the earth, grab it with two hands along with its dung-ball. Wave greatly with your hands and say three times: Remedium facio ad ventris dolorem (I make a a cure for the pain in the stomach). Throw then the beetle over your shoulder onto the way. See to it that you do not look back. In case of a person’s stomach or abdomen pain, grab with your hands the stomach. It will soon be whole for them. You are able to do this for twelve months after the beetle.]

I wonder how many Anglo-Saxon dungbeetles fell prey to aspiring doctors in search of ways to alleviate rumbling tummies.

The Anglo-Saxon remedies described above would certainly be classified as ‘alternative’ by modern standards and it is to be hoped that today’s medical professionals have found more effective ways to remedy diseases caused by worms, earwigs, spiders, scorpions and other parasites.

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

Blog.Insects.CottonVitelliusCiii - 59r

Creepy crawlies in the Old English Herbarium. London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C.iii, fol. 59r

Works referred to:

  • T.O. Cockayne (1864). Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England. Vol. 2 (London)

Half-assed humanoids: Centaurs in early medieval England

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

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Centaurs in London, British Library, Cotton Vitelius A.xv, fol. 103r; on the Bayeux Tapestry (source); and on an Anglo-Saxon coin (source)

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:

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Part of a marginal glossary in London, British Library, Additional 32246, fol. 3r.

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:

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The Old English Version of the Enlarged Rule of Chrodegang. Cambridge, Parker Library, CCCC MS 191, p. 128

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

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London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C.iii, fol. 19r

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:

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Sagittarius in London, British Library, Cotton Julius A.vi, fol. 8v

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:

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)

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A Burgundian king in an Old English poem: The Germanic past in Widsith

Many legends referred to in medieval Germanic literature, ranging from the Old High German Hildebrandslied to Icelandic sagas, are set in the age of the Germanic Migration Period (4th to 6th centuries). The same goes for several Old English heroic poems, including Beowulf (set in early 6th-century Scandinavia), Waldere (about a legendary 5th-century Visigothic king) and The Finnsburg Fragment (set in Migration Age Frisia). The Old English poem Widsith too refers to this crucial period in the early medieval history of Europe. This blog post focuses on one reference in Widsith in particular: to the Burgundian King Gundahari (d. 437), who also appears in the much later Volsunga Saga (as Gunnar) and the Nibelungenlied (as Gunther).

Widsith, the widely travelled

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Opening lines of Widsith in the Exeter Book (source)

Ic wæs mid Hunum      ond mid Hreðgotum,
mid Sweom ond mid Geatum      ond mid Suþdenum.
Mid Wenlum ic wæs ond mid Wærnum      ond mid wicingum.  (Widsith, ll. 57-59)

[I was with the Huns and with Goths,
with Swedes and with Geats and with the South-Danes.
With the Vandals I was and with Varni and with the Vikings.]

Widsith is the name given to a 143-line poem in Old English that survives in the 10th-century Exeter Book (but was probably composed centuries earlier). In this curious poem, the speaker identifies himself as Widsith [‘broad journey’]; an apt name, since he claims to have travelled among no fewer than fifty different tribes, ranging from Fins, to Huns, through to Saracens, Egyptians, Indians and Frisians. He also claims to have interacted with various historical figures, including Julius Caesar (d. 44 BC), Ermanaric, king of the Goths (d. 376) and Alboin, king of the Lombards (d. 572). Clearly, we are dealing here with a fictional travelogue, unless we assume Widsith truly spanned the known globe and lived to at least 650 years of age.

The Anglo-Saxon poet of Widsith shows a familiarity with stories surrounding pseudo-legendary historical figures from the Germanic Migration Period, who are also mentioned in other Old English poems. These include the Danes Hrothgar and Hrothwulf (mentioned in Beowulf), as well as the Frisian Finn and Half-Dane Hnæf (mentioned in Beowulf and The Finsburg Fragment; see: The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode). In this intriguing catalogue, Widsith also mentions a magnanimous Burgundian king:

ond mid Burgendum,      þær ic beag geþah;
me þær Guðhere forgeaf      glædlicne maþþum
songes to leane.      Næs þæt sæne cyning! (Widsith, ll. 65-67)

and among the Burgundians, there I received a ring;
there Guðhere gave me a shiny treasure,
as a reward for a song. That was not a thrifty king!

This Guðhere is a historical king of the Burgundians who plays an intriguing role in various Germanic literary traditions.

Gundahari: A Burgundian king, defeated by Huns

Even though the names may seem wholly different, etymologists will tell you that the name “Guðhere” in Widsith is the Old English reflex of the Burgundian name Gundahari. Old English gūþ ‘war’ and gunda both derive from Proto-Germanic *gunþī-/*gunþjō– ‘fight’ (just like Present-Day English mouth and German Mund both derive from Proto-Germanic *munþa- ‘mouth’); Old English here ‘war’ and hari come from Proto-Germanic *harja- (the Burgundians spoke an East Germanic language which, like Gothic, did not undergo i-mutation [a change in vowels followed by an or in the next syllable]). (For Proto-Germanic etymologies, see Kroonen 2013)

Gundahari was a historical fifth-century king of an East Germanic tribe known as the  Burgdundians. He ruled a kingdom at Worms (Germany) which was overrun by Huns in the year 437. Gundahari was killed and, defeated by the Huns, the remaining  Burgundians started to migrate and ended up in the area of Savoy (France).

Some of these Burgundians settled on the estate of the Roman diplomat and poet Sidonius Apollinaris (c. 430-489). In a letter to his friend Catullinus, Sidonius gives a fabulous description of these Germanic barbarians:

Why — even supposing I had the skill — do you bid me compose a song … , placed as I am among long-haired hordes, having to endure German speech, praising oft with wry face the song of the gluttonous Burgundian who spreads rancid butter on his hair? Do you want me to tell you what wrecks all poetry ? Driven away by barbarian thrumming the Muse has spurned the six-footed exercise ever since she beheld these patrons seven feet high. I am fain to call your eyes and ears happy, happy too your nose, for you don’t have a reek of garlic and foul onions discharged upon you at early morn from ten breakfasts, and you are not invaded even before dawn … by a crowd of giants so many and so big that not even the kitchen of Alcinous could support them.  (trans. Anderson 1936)

Sidonius’s gives the Burgundians a harsh review: they eat him out of house and home, they smell of garlic and onions, spread butter in their hair and sing horrible songs. It is most unfortunate that Sidonius did not record any of these Burgundian songs; who knows? They may have been singing of their king Gundahari and the crashing defeat by the Huns.

It is certain that the name Gundahari was well remembered among the Burgundians. One of Gundahari’s successors, King Gundobad (c. 452 – 516 AD)  issued a law code known as the Lex Burgundionum [The Law of the Burgundians], which includes Gundahari in a list of memorable kings, along with Gibica, Godomar and Gislahari:

Gundaharius in Lex Burngionum

Gebega (Gibica), Godomare (Godomar), Gischaharius (Gislahari) and Gundaharius (Gundahari) in a tenth-century manuscript of the Lex Burgundionum

That songs were indeed sung about Gundahari is further suggested by his appearance in other Germanic literary traditions.

Sneaky Huns and sleepy snakes in the Völsunga Saga

The thirteenth-century, Icelandic Völsunga Saga synthesizes various older (oral) stories about the history of Sigurd the dragon slayer and the destruction of the Burgundians. In the Völsunga Saga, Gundahari appears as Gunnar, son of Gjuki (that is: Gibica!), King of the Burgundians.  After a series of tragic events, Gunnar acquires the great treasure of Sigurd. This treasure rouses the interest of King Atli (that is: Atilla the Hun!). Through trickery, Atli lures Gunnar to his court and demands the treasure be handed over. Gunnar refuses and says that he has deposited the gold into the river Rhine. A battle between the Burgundians and Huns ensues and Gunnar is bound and thrown into a snake pit. Gudrun, Gunnar’s sister and Atli’s wife, helpfully hands Gunnar a harp and, in a desperate attempt to save his own life, the bound Gunnar begins to play the instrument with his toes. Almost all of the snakes fall asleep, but one stays awake and bites Gunnar to death.

Gunnar’s marvellous death scene was rather popular in medieval art and perhaps the most famous depiction of Gunnar in the snake pit is on the doorway of a 12th/13th-century stave church in Hylestad, Norway:

Gunnar SnakePit

Gunnar, playing his harp with his toes, in a snake pit. Hylestad stave church (source).

Variations of the story of Gundahari/Gunnar appear, among others, in the Old Norse Edda and the Middle High German Nibelungenlied (in this version, Gundahari is named Gunther and is beheaded by his sister – no sleepy snakes involved). The Burgundian king that was struck down by Huns in 437, it seems, had truly become a legend.

HagenThrowingTreasure In Rhine

According to the Nibelungenlied, Gunther had ordered Hagen to throw the treasure in the Rhine. This statue in Worms commemorates this legend. (source)

The reference to Gundahari in Widsith attests to the fact that this fifth-century Burgundian king was also known in early medieval England.  In this Old English poem, Gundahari is not linked to Atilla the Hun, there are no snakes, nor helpful (or vindictive) sisters; but the poem does associate the Burgundian king, explicitly, with treasure and song: this was not a thrifty king and he rewarded his poets well! These rewards, judging by Gundahari’s place in various literary traditions, certainly paid off!

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also like the following blog posts:

Works referred to:

  • Anderson, W.B., trans. (1936). Sidonius: Poems and Letters (Cambridge, MA)
  • Kroonen, G. (2013). Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic (Leiden & Boston)

N.B. Gundahari also gets a reference in the Old English Waldere, but that is something for another blog post!

© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

 

 

Adoring the Magi in early medieval England

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’].

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Three magi on horseback in the Missal of Robert of Jumièges. Rouen, BM, ms. 274, f. 036v

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.

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King Herod in the Missal of Robert of Jumièges. Rouen, BM, ms. 274, f. 036v

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:

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The Adoration of the Magi in the Missal of Robert of Jumièges. Rouen, BM, ms. 274, f. 037r

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:

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The dream of the Magi in the Missal of Robert of Jumièges. Rouen, BM, ms. 274, f. 037r

Psalm 71:10-11 and the Magi as kings

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The Adoration of the Magi in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold. British Library, Add. MS 49598, f. 24v

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:

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Psalm 71:10-11 (illustration and text) in the Eadwine Psalter. Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1, ff. 124r-124v

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:

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Adoration of the Magi in the margin of Psalm 71:10-11 in the Bury St Edmunds Psalter. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Reg.lat 12, fol. 78v

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.

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The Adoration of the Magi on the Franks Casket. British Museum (source)

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) :

Blog.Magi Antwerp Sedulius 15v

The Adoration of the Magi © Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp, M 17.4, fol. 15v

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:

Works referred to:

  • Sedulius, The Paschal Song and Hymns, trans. C. P. E. Springer (Atlanta, 2013)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading between the lines in early medieval England: Old English interlinear glosses

A great portion of the extant Old English corpus survives between the lines of Latin manuscripts, as interlinear glosses. Generally, these glosses provide a simple word-for-word Old English translation of the Latin text in order to aid the reader, but various alternative glossing methods existed.  This blog post takes a look at what could be read between the lines in early medieval English manuscripts. 

Save me, Lord: A simple word-for-word gloss in The Vespasian Psalter

Glosses.WordForWord

This beautiful page from the eighth-century Vespasian Psalter shows the opening lines of Psalm 68. A careful look at the words SALVUM ME reveals a great number of animals hiding out among these letters (animals often feature in such illustrated capitals; for another example see my blog on A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus ). More interesting, linguistically speaking, are the little words written above the Latin: Old English glosses, that provide a word for word translation of these lines:

Halne mec doa god forðon ineodun weter oð sawle mine; gefestnad ic eam in lam grundes 7 nis spoed.

Salvvm me fac deus quoniam introierunt aqvę usque ad animam meam; infixus sum in limum profundi et non est substantia.

Save me, God: because the waters have come in unto my soul; I am fastened in the ground’s mud and there is no substance.

Here, the Old English glosses clearly follow the word order of the Latin and, thus, “animam meam” is glossed with “sawle mine” [soul mine], whereas “mine sawle” [my soul] would be a more natural word order in Old English. This type of gloss is the most typical kind of gloss found in early medieval English manuscripts.

When one word is not enough: Multiple glosses in The Lindisfarne Gospels

Glosses.MultipleGloss

Created around the year 700, the Lindisfarne Gospels is possibly the most famous Anglo-Saxon manuscript. While it is known for its beautiful illumination, the Lindisfarne Gospels also contains a word-for-word gloss, added some 250 years after the original manuscript had been produced. The maker of this tenth-century gloss, a monk named Aldred, was not always satisfied with offering just one Old English translation for each Latin word. His work features several ‘multiple glosses’; that is, several Old English alternatives are offered for one Latin word. The example above shows Aldred’s four glosses for Latin desponsata ‘married’: biwoedded, beboden, befeastnad and betaht. As such, Aldred’s gloss may function as something of a thesaurus of Old English.

b, c, e, d, a: Paving letters in British Library, Cotton Tiberius A.iii

PavingLettersGlosses

Some glossators also included some syntactical guidance, since Latin word order was markedly different from Old English word order. A good example of such syntactical guidance are the so-called ‘paving letters’ in the Old English gloss to this eleventh-century copy of the Benedictine Rule. Here, the word-for-word Old English translations above the Latin are preceded by a letter – these letters show the Old English word order. Rather than “deað dæghwamlice ætforan eagan gewenedne habban” [death daily before eyes with expectation to have], this should be read as “habban deað dæghwamlice gewenedne ætforan eagan” [to have death daily, with expectation, before your eyes] which, incidentally, is one of the forty-five “tools of good works” that Benedictine monks had to abide by.

. .. …. …: Dot glosses in the Lambeth Psalter

DotGlosses

The scribe responsible for the glosses to the tenth-/eleventh-century Lambeth Psalter had a different system for indicating word order and syntactical relationships. A system of dots and commas underneath the Latin words provide the reader with extra information. The commas under “qui” and “tribuit”, for instance, show that the relative pronoun “qui” is the subject of the verb “tribuit”: ‘who gives’. The dots underneath the Latin words show the Old English word order: rather than “ic singe drihtne þam þe goda sealde me 7 ic singe naman drihtnes þæs heahstan”, we should read “ic singe drihtne þam þe sealde goda me 7 ic singe naman þæs heahstan drihtnes” [I sing for the Lord who gave goods to me and I sing the name of the highest Lord], if we put the dotted words in numerical order.

Now you see me, now you don’t: Scratched glosses in British Library, Royal 5 E XI

Glosses.ScratchedGloss

This eleventh-century manuscript of Aldhelm’s prose De virginitate shows yet another type of gloss: the so-called “scratched gloss”. These glosses were made without ink and, thus, were scratched into the parchment. As a result, these glosses are only visible from a particular angle (or, thanks to digital image editing, if you play around with contrast and brightness). In early medieval England, a user of this manuscript may have tilted the manuscript over in order to reveal the gloss. If he had done so for this manuscript, he would have seen that the Old English translation for Latin scribendi is “writende” [writing].

If you liked this blog post about manuscripts, you may also enjoy the following posts:

 

 

Scribal complaints: Early medieval English copyists and their colophons

Imagine having to copy a lengthy medieval manuscript by hand – day in day out, crouched over your writing desk, dabbling away with your quill, for weeks, nay, months on end. No wonder some medieval scribes were relieved when the job was done. This blog post  features a number of  evocative colophons from early medieval English manuscripts which shed some light on the state of mind of these weary scribes.

‘Pray for me’ – Colophons in medieval manuscripts

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© London, British Library, Royal 8 B.xi, fol. 145r

Qui istum librum legat precat pro anima Sistan me scripsit. Amen

Whoever may read this book, pray for the soul of Sigestan who wrote me. Amen

This Sigestan’s plea to ‘say a little prayer for him’, added at the end of a tenth-century manuscript of Paschasius Radbertus’s De corpore et sanguine Domini is a typical early medieval colophon. Colophons were added at the end of a text or manuscript and usually ask the reader to pray for the scribe’s soul or give thanks to God. In addition, the colophon may identify the scribe responsible for the manuscript and reveal something of the scribe’s circumstances. The examples provided below suggest that those circumstances may not always have been very pleasant.

‘Three fingers write, but the whole body labours’

Writing with a quill was a full-body workout, if we are to trust the testimony of the following three medieval English scribes. The first wrote the following at the end of an eighth-century copy of Gregory’s Pastoral Care:

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© Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 9561, fol. 81v.

Qui nescit scribere laborem esse non putat. Tribus digitis scribitur totum corpus laborat. Orate pro me qui istum librum legerit.

[He who does not know how to write does not think that it is a labour. Three fingers write, the whole body labours. Whoever has read this book, pray for me.]

The scribe responsible for a tenth-century copy of Aldhelm’s De Virginitate wrote eerily similar lines:

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© London, British Library, Royal 6 A.vi, fol. 109r

Tres digiti scribunt totum corpusque laborat. Scribere qui nescit nullum putat esse laborem.

[Three fingers write and the whole body labours. He who does not know how to write thinks it is no work.]

A third attestation of similar lines in a scribal colophon of a twelfth-century manuscript (another manuscript of Aldhelm’s De virginitate) reveals that we are dealing with a popular maxim among scribes:

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© London, British Library, Harley 3013, fol. 96r

Tres digiti scribunt totum corpusque laborat
Scribere qui nescit nullum putet esse laborem.
Dum digiti scribunt uix cetera membra quiescunt.

[Three fingers write and the whole body labours. He who does not know how to write thinks it is no work. While the fingers write, the other members hardly rest.]

Anyone with a desk-job today can relate to this medieval sentiment!

The last chapter as a long-awaited harbour: Scribes getting metaphorical

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© Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 68, fol. 46r.

Though his whole body may have quivered from the labour of his three fingers, the eighth-century scribe Æthelberht still had enough inspiration to come up with a beautiful metaphor. In his colophon to a copy of a commentary on the Psalm he likens the copying of a manuscript to an arduous sea journey:

Finit liber psalmorum. In Christo Iesu domino nostro … lege in pace — Sicut portus oportunus nauigantibus ita uorsus [for uersus?] nouissimus scribentibus. Edilberict filius berictfridi scripsit hanc glosam quicumque hoc legat oret pro scriptore. Et ipse similiter omnibus populis et tribubus et linguis et universo genem humano aeternam salutem optat —— in Christo, Amen, Amen, Amen ——

The Psalter is finished. In Christ our lord, read in peace. Like a timely harbour to sailors is the last line to scribes.  Æthelberht, son of Berhtfrith, wrote this gloss. Whoever may read it, may he pray for the scribe. And he himself similarly desires eternal health for all people, tribes and tongue and for the entire human race. In Christ, Amen, Amen, Amen.

Interestingly, Æthelberht was not the only Anglo-Saxon scribe to compare a scribe finishing his copy to a sailor reaching port. In a tenth- or eleventh-century Aldhelm manuscript (now Cambridge,Corpus Christ College,  MS 326), a scribe added the following lines in Latin:

Nauta rudis pelagi ut seuis ereptus ab undis
In portum veniens pectora leta tenet
Sic scriptor fessus calamum sub colle laboris
Deponens habeat pectore laeta quidem (source)

[A sailor,  rescued from savage waves of the rough sea, coming  into the harbour, holds a happy heart; So may a scribe, tired under the mountain of labour, laying down the quill, have a happy heart, indeed.

‘God help my hands’

The last example is a colophon in Old English that follows an eleventh-century version of Ælfric’s Old English De temporibus anni. This scribe shows some signs of fatigue. He duly notes his job is done, but seems to have had no spirit or energy left to come up with a proper maxim or a nice metaphor:

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© London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.v, fol. 28v

Sy þeos gesetnys þus her geendod. God helpe minum handum.

[Thus, let this composition be ended here. God help my hands]

This scribe was so tired, he did not even ask the reader to pray for his soul!

With that, this ship has reached its port. Though I have typed this with ten fingers, my body aches and so do my hands. Say a prayer for me.

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“God helpe minum handum” © London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.v, fol. 28v

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)

 

Heads on sticks: Decapitation and impalement in early medieval England

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

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Impaled heads in The Last Kingdom © BBC

Historical examples: Saint Oswald and the real Uhtred

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

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

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

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

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

Heafod stoccan in Anglo-Saxon charters

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

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Heads on old London Bridge (source)

An inspiration for Anglo-Saxon authors and artists

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

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

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

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

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

Works refered to:

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

 

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