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Anglo-Saxon gift horses: Equine gifts in early medieval England

Do you ever wonder what gifts to buy for your loved ones? For the Anglo-Saxons, matters appear to have been rather simple: when in doubt, give them a horse! This blog post considers some notable examples of equine gift giving in early medieval England.

Horses for heroes: Rewards in Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon

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Warrior on horseback from the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo Helmet (source)

What better way to reward a hero who has rid your people of a rampaging monster than giving him a royal steed? Try eight. In the Old English poem Beowulf, King Hrothgar celebrates Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel by lavishing the hero with gifts, including “wicga ond wæpna” [horses and weapons] (l. 1045a):

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London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv, fol. 155v

Heht ða eorla hleo eahta mearas
fæted-hleore on flet teon,
in under eoderas; þara anum stod
sadol searwum fah, since gewurþad;
þæt wæs hilde-setl heah-cyninges
ðonne sweorda gelac sunu Healfdenes
efnan wolde (ll. 1035-1041a)

[Then the lord of warriors commanded eight horses, golden-cheeked, to be led to the floor, inside within the precincts; On one of them stood a sadle decorated with artistries, made worthy with treasure; that had been the battle-seat of the high king when the son of Healfdene (i.e. Hrothgar) would engage in the play of swords.]

As it befit a loyal retainer, Beowulf shares his spoils with his own lord when he returns home. He gave four of the horses to his uncle, King Hygelac (ll. 2163b-5a: “feower mearas … æppel-fealuwe” [four apple-yellow horses]), and three to Queen Hygd (ll. 2174b-5a: “þrio wicg … swancor ons sadol-breoht” [three horses, slender and brigh-saddled]. As it turns out, Beowulf only kept one horse for himself – possibly the one with Hrothgar’s fancy saddle.

Hrothgar’s horsy gift is not unique within the Old English poetic corpus. The Battle of Maldon, a poem celebrating a lost battle against the Vikings (see: The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition), also features an intriguing reference to equine gift giving. In the heat of battle, a man named Godric flees the field on his leader’s horse – a treacherous deed, made all the worse since Godric himself had been given various horses in the past:

Godric fram guþe, and þone godan forlet
þe him mænigne oft mear gesealde.
He gehleop þone eoh þe ahte his hlaford,
on þam gerædum, þe hit right ne wæs. (The Battle of Maldon, ll. 187-190)

[Godric went from the battle, and abandoned the good one, who had often given many a horse. He leaped upon the horse that his lord owned, into the trappings, although it was not just.]

The irony of the situation is clear: the lord had given his retainers horses in return for future loyalty in battle, but Godric, instead, stole away on his lord’s horse. As we shall see below, the gifting of horses was no mere poetic fancy: there are various examples of recorded equine gifts in Anglo-Saxon history.

Regifting a horse: How St Aidan looked King Oswine’s gift horse in the mouth

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Two men on horseback in the Old English Hexateuch. London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, fol. 141v.

Perhaps the most famous example of an Anglo-Saxon gift horse was the horse given to St Aidan by King Oswine of Deira (d. 651). Aidan, impressed though he was with the gift, decided to regift the horse to a beggar. These events are recorded by Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731) as follows:

He [King Oswine] had given an extraordinarily fine horse to Bishop Aidan, which he might either use in crossing rivers, or in performing a journey upon any urgent necessity, though he was wont to travel ordinarily on foot. Some short time after, a poor man meeting him, and asking alms, he immediately dismounted, and ordered the horse, with all his royal furniture, to be given to the beggar; for he was very compassionate, a great friend to the poor, and, as is were, the father of the wretched.

When the king got wind of the matter, he lashed out against the bishop:

This being told to the king, when they were going in to dinner, he said to the bishop, “Why would you, my lord bishop, give the poor man that royal horse, which was necessary for your use? Had not we many other horses of less value, and of other sorts, which would have been good enough to give to the poor, and not to give that horse, which I had particularly chosen for yourself?” To whom the bishop instantly answered, “What is it you say, O king? Is that foal of a mare more dear to you than the Son of God?”

Clearly, the king was upset about Aidan regifting the royal horse to a beggar. Soon, however, the king realized his reaction was uncalled for – since the bishop had been given the horse, he was free to do with it whatever he liked:

Upon this they went in to dinner, and the bishop sat in his place; but the king, who was come from hunting, stood warming himself, with his attendants, at the fire. Then, on a sudden, whilst he was warming himself, calling to mind what the bishop had said to him, he ungirt his sword, and gave it to a servant, and in a hasty manner fell down at the bishop’s feet, beseeching him to forgive him; “For from this time forward,” said he, “I will never speak any more of this, nor will I judge of what, or how much of our money you shall give to the sons of God.” (source)

The king’s initial reaction to Aidan’s decision to pass on the royal horse to a beggar is understandable and is related to the anthropological concept of the “inalienability” of the gift. Marcel Mauss, in his famous essay on gift giving, describes this concept as follows: “[e]ven when it [the gift] has been abandoned by the giver, it still possesses something of him. Through it the giver has a hold over the beneficiary” (source). In other words, the horse in some way still belonged to the king and the fact that a beggar now used the royal horse was an affront to Oswine himself.

Horses for heirs: The evidence from Anglo-Saxon wills

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A reference to “the white horse that Leofwine gave me” in the will of Æthelstan Ætheling (d. 1014). London, British Library, Stowe Ch 37.

Various wills and testaments feature bequests of horses. The Anglo-Saxon noblewoman Wynflæd, for instance, showered her grandchildren with gifts; these included not only her finest bedlinnen (!?) but also her tame horses (her will is discussed here: Digging for early medieval grandmothers in Anglo-Saxon wills). Another will that abounds in equine bequests belonged to Æthelstan Ætheling (d. 1014), who left a variety of horses (some of which had been given to him by others) to members of his family and household:

Ic geann minon fæder Æþelræde cynge […] þæs horses þe Þurbrand me geaf. 7 þæs hwitan horses þe Leofwine me geaf. […] Ic geann Ælfsige. bisceope. […] anne blacne stedan. […] Ic gean Ælfwine minon mæssepreoste […] mines horses mid minon gerædon. […] 7 Ic geann Ælmære minon discþene […] anes fagan stedan. […] Ic geann Siferðe þæs landes æt Hocganclife. 7 anes swurdes. 7 anes horses. 7 mines bohscyldes. […] 7 Ic geann […] minon heardeorhunton þæs stodes. þe is on Colungahrycge. (source)

[And I grant my father, King Æthelred … the horse which Thurbrand gave me, and the white horse which Leofwine gave me. … I grant Bishop Ælfsige … a black steed. To my mass-priest Ælfwine I grant … my horse with my trappings. … I grant to Ælmær, my ‘dish-thegn’ a fallow steed. …. I grant to Sigeferth the land at Hockliffe and a sword, and a horse and my ‘bow-shield’. … And I grant … to my stag-hunter the stud farm which is in Coldridge.]

Æthelstan’s stud farm, which he gives to his huntsman, suggests that some horses were bred locally. However, not all horses in Anglo-Saxon England were homegrown, as the last section of this blog post will demonstrate.

Shipping horses overseas in the days of King Athelstan

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A boat full of Norman horses on the Bayeux Tapestry.

In 926, a Frankish embassy came to the court of King Athelstan(d. 939) to ask the king for the hand of the king’s half-sister Eadhild. The embassy, sent by Duke Hugh the Great, brought a variety of gifts to woo the Anglo-Saxon king, including (of course) horses:

The chief of this embassy was Adulph, son of Baldwin earl of Flanders by Ethelswitha daughter of king Edward. When he had declared the request of the suitor in an assembly of the nobility at Abingdon, he produced such liberal presents as might gratify the most boundless avarice: perfumes such as never had been seen in England before: jewels, but more especially emeralds, the greenness of which, reflected by the sun, illumined the countenances of the bystanders with agreeable light; many fleet horses with their trappings, and, as Virgil says, “Champing their golden bits”. (William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum anglorum source)

Needless to say, the horses (and various other gifts, including the sword of Emperor Constantine and the spear of Charles the Great) convinced Æthelstan to give the proposed marriage his blessing.

Notably, Athelstan himself was not a fan of the international horse trade. He forbid the sending of English horses overseas. However, he made an exception for those who were shipped off as a gift, recording the following in one of his lawcodes:

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Textus Roffensis, fol. 35v

Seofoðe þ[æt] nan man ne sylle nan hors ofer sæ butan he hit gifan wille.

[Seventh: that no man should send a horse over sea except if he wants to gift it.

Equine gifts, it seems, were sanctioned by law!

Whether as a royal present, a reward for heroism, a treasured heirloom or an impressive bride price, a horse was the perfect gift in early medieval England!

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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.

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!

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

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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

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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

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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

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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].

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Word processing in early medieval England: Browsing British Library, Royal MS 8 C III

Many manuscripts were produced in early medieval England and quite a few have gained great renown for their beautiful illumination (such as the Lindisfarne Gospels), their famous texts (e.g., the Beowulf manuscript) or their interesting history (like the Codex Aureus, once kidnapped by Vikings). By comparison, British Library, Royal MS 8 C III, a late tenth-century manuscript, is relatively obscure. With hardly any illumination, some fairly standard texts in Latin and no exciting ‘back-story’, this Anglo-Saxon manuscript does not seem to have invited much scholarly (let alone popular) interest. This lack of attention is undeserved. As this blog post will demonstrate, this manuscript is full of interesting examples of ‘word processing’ in early medieval England.

Initials: Planned, faced and bitten

In most manuscript containing multiple texts, like Royal MS 8 C III, the start of each text is signalled by an initial letter that is larger than the rest of the text. These letters could be executed fairly simple or lavishly decorated. In case of the latter, the initials could be made by a different individual from the scribe responsible for the text; the scribe would then leave space on the page for the initials to be added at a later stage.

The first two texts in British Library, Royal MS 8 C III demonstrate this practice. For instance, the first word of the text starting on fol. 6v, a Latin exposition on the Mass, reads “rimum” but should probably have read “primum” [first]. The very first text in the manuscript, pseudo-Jerome’s De diversis generibus musicorum, even misses the first few words. In other manuscripts, this text starts with “Cogor a te ut tibi dardane de aliis generibus musicorum”, but here, on fol. 2r, the words “Cogor a te ut” are left out. They had probably been intended to be added as a full line of decorated letters, since a lot of space was left open at the top of the page:

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Initials planned, but not executed © British Library, Royal MS 8 C III, fols. 2r, 6v

These two instances of unexecuted initials notwithstanding, Royal MS 8 C III does feature several, simple initials. In two of them, the scribe (or a later reader) added a face; a third was rather beautifully decorated with a dragon biting an O so as to form a Q:

Tweet.RoyalMS8CIIIJustification: Space out your words or stretch out your N’s

If we want our text to be spread out evenly across the page, with straight left- and righthand margins, all we need to do is tell our word processor to “justify” the text. The word processor will then increase or decreates the letter- and word-spacing, creating our desired layout of the text. The Anglo-Saxon scribe of Royal MS 8 C III also appears to have liked justification; on fol. 81r, for instance, he ends his text with a heavily spaced line that reads “deo gratias” or rather “deo      gra      ti      as”:

Blog.Royal8ciii - justifycation with spaces gra ti as

© British Library, Royal MS 8 C III, fol. 81r

Elsewhere, our scribe experiments with justification of his lines through the extension of the letters N and V, seen here in the words “domino” and “unitur” (last line) and “invisibli” (penultimate line).

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© British Library, Royal MS 8 C III, fol. 41v

Dangling word-ends

What if you can’t fit the end of the last word on the last line of the page? Do you hyphenate and force your reader to turn the page in order to finish the word, or do you add a lovely flourish and add your word’s end in the bottom margin? The Anglo-Saxon scribe of Royal MS 8 C III opted for the latter:

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Consummatis, habitation, formidine with end words hanging in the lower margins. @ British Library, Royal MS 8 C III, fols. 45r, 46r, 48r

Avoid the hole!

Parchment (made of animal skin) was expensive and, so, it would generally be used, even if the parchment was slightly damaged. Upon finding a little hole in one of his pages, the scribe of Royal MS 8 CIII decided not to rip out the page (and risk jeopardizing the construction of the book!), but simply wrote around it:

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© British Library, Royal MS 8 C III, fol. 53r

Here we can clearly see the scribe increased the space between “in” and “baptismo” so as to avoid the hole.

Triangular text!

In addition to experimenting with justification, juggling the ends of his words, and writing around holes in the parchment, the scribe of Royal MS 8 C III has one more spectacular word processing trick up his sleeve. Halfway through a rather standard theological text about the Mass, and for no apparent reason, he starts laying out the text of six consecutive folio sides (fols. 70v-72v) in a triangular form:

 Tweet.TriangleText

Given the value of parchment, why waste so much of it to form textual triangles? It is rather a mystery. Triangular-shaped texts are extremely rare in medieval manuscripts and I may devote a separate blog to their appearance in the future.

For now, I hope to have shown you that British Royal MS 8 C III is worth our attention. If you’re convinced, why not browse the manuscript yourself? It has been digitized and is available here.

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Parchment and Parliament: Vellum making headlines

Over the last two years, parchment has proven to be a contentious issue in the UK Parliament. This blog post reconstructs a debate about parchment in the UK House of Commons in April 2016.

June 2017: The Queen and the Goatskin

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Last week (June 12-18, 2017), various newspapers ran the story about a possible delay of the Queen’s Speech for the State Opening of Parliament (marking the formal start of the parliamentary year). The delay, it was said, would be caused by the fact that the speech had to be printed on goatskin and that the ink would take days to dry. While goatskin may remind some of medieval parchment (often made of the skin of goats), reporters were quick to point out that, while the monarch’s speech was indeed traditionally printed on parchment, no goats are harmed to produce present-day goatskin paper. Instead, it is high-quality paper that lasts for 500 years, bearing a watermark in the form of a goat. Be that as it may, the whole affair reminded me of April 2016, when parliamentary dealings with actual parchment were making headlines.

April 2016: Veni, vidi, vellum

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On 20 April, 2016, the UK House of Commons held a debate to repeal a decision to stop printing the Acts of Parliament on parchment – a suggestion made made by the House of Lords in February of that year. The rationale behind the initial decision was to cut down the annual printing costs (£103,000 per year) by replacing the pricy parchment for high quality paper. James Gray, MP for North Wiltshire and instigator of the debate on 20 April 2016, pointed out that, despite the fact that Parliament could save perhaps £10,000 or £20,000 a year, parchment has some advantages over paper. His two main arguments for not abandoning vellum were 1) the longstanding tradition of using vellum for important documents and 2) the fact that parchment is more durable than paper.

The records of the proceedings are published here in the House of Commons Hansard and make an intriguing read – especially for a medievalist: the various MPs refer to precious medieval documents to praise the value of parchment. Sharon Hodgson, MP for Washington and Sunderland West, for instance, makes the point that, without parchment, we would not have had copies of Magna Carta, the Domesday Book and the Lindisfarne Gospels:

“Our most important documents have been printed or written on vellum, from the Magna Carta to the Domesday Book and a piece of important north-east English history, the Lindisfarne gospels. All these historical manuscripts have been preserved for posterity because they were printed on vellum. They have lasted through the ages due to vellum’s durable qualities, which have ensured that future generations can appreciate and respect our shared history. Surely the legislation that we make here is worthy of this small additional cost.”

Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP for the City of Durham, also raises the importance of the Lindisfarne Gospels (luckily without noting that it had been printed on vellum!):

“The issue is close to my heart because of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Everyone here will know their relevance to the north-east and to my Durham constituency. Produced in around 700, the gospels were written and painted on vellum, without which the gospels simply would not be with us today. Not just old relics, they are important living texts for our understanding of the culture and heritage of the north-east and elsewhere.”

Reading how present-day politicians refer to medieval documents as being relevant cultural products is, of course, a joy for any medievalist. And who could deny the stunning cultural impact the beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels still have today? (check them out digitally here)

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The art of the Lindisfarne Gospels: Dogs, birds and a self-portrait(?) on the opening page of the Gospel of St John © London, British Library, Cotton Nero D.iv, fol, 211r

Not everyone agreed with upholding this medieval tradition of using parchment, even if one MP in favour of abandoning parchment (Paul Flynn for Newport West) still cited the medieval Welsh poem Y Goddodin:

I cherish the history of this country; I cherish the Book of Aneirin, Y Gododdin, presumably written on vellum:
“Gwyr a aeth i Gatreath
Godidog oedd eu gwedd”.
That goes back to the early centuries, before English existed as a language. Of course we treasure the past, and our heritage, but it has nothing to do with this century. We have other ways of maintaining a record.

The 13th-century Book or Aneirin was indeed written on vellum and, while the poem Y Gododdin is older than its manuscript (composed between c. 700 and 1100), it should be pointed out that English was already around back then!

Nevertheless, while the long-standing tradition of reporting important matters on parchment may not have swayed everyone, there was another argument, one that strikes surprisingly close to home for myself.

Porck and parchment in Parliament

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Porck gets a mention in Parliament. Tweet by parliamentary journalist Richard Wheeler

In order to make the point about the durability of parchment over the durability of paper, Tory MP Chris Skidmore (for Kingswood) cited one Henk Porck (the tweet by parliamentary journalist Richard Wheeler above suggests that the name caused Sidmore some difficulties!):

Europe’s leading expert on the subject, Dr Henk Porck of the Netherlands national library, has gone on record as saying that current ageing tests for paper

“cannot be reliably predicted by means of the present artificial ageing tests.”

When it comes to printing our country’s laws, arguably our most important documents, we need to ensure that we have a clear assurance that the materials they are printed on will last the test of centuries, as vellum has. Paper-printed Acts of Parliament may last a long time—I do agree that they last a significant amount of time—but it is not long enough, and we need all the details of what is being proposed.

This Henk Porck is, in fact, my dad, a bio-chemist who worked at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands) as conservation scientist and curator of the Paper History Collection. His full quote on current, artificial ageing tests for paper reads “The rate of paper deterioration and other quantitative aspects of the natural ageing of paper, such as durability and permanence, cannot be reliably predicted by means of the present artificial ageing tests” and his report ‘Rate of paper degradation: The predictive value of artificial aging tests’ (2000) can be found here. In short, Henk Porck’s statement that the ageing of paper cannot be reliably tested was interpreted as a strong recommendation to use vellum instead of paper.

The statement (even though it did not advocate vellum per sé) proved convincing enough for Matthew Hancock, Minister for the Cabinet Office, who concluded the debate by noting that he was now in favour of retaining the tradition of printing the Acts of parchment:

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) brought his great and deep expertise to the debate, and told us why Dr Porck thinks we should print on goatskin. For that insight, I thank him. … On the basis of symbolism, cost and practicality, therefore, we should continue this great and long tradition.

So did my dad play a vital role in Parliament’s decision to hold on to using parchment? Unfortunately, that is not the full story.

Parchment wrapped around paper

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Even though the House of Commons voted on 20 April, 2016, to keep using parchment ( 117 Ayes vs. 28 Noes), the House of Lords still decided to switch to using high-quality paper. In the end, a compromise was reached, which means that the Acts will now be printed on high-quality paper, but will have parchments covers, with the name of the legislation in caligraphy. Parchment wrappers! Understandably, some MPs responded with disgust, including MP Ian Liddell-Grainger who was cited in the Daily Mail as follows:

We never learn. You try to save pennies and you lose pounds. The history of parliament is the history of our nation. Remember history because you will need to learn those lessons.

[About the Article 50 Act (triggering Brexit)] It should be written on vellum. Because in a thousand years’ time people will ask, ‘what did they do in March 2017?

They will not read it on paper. Ancient man had it right.

Now that the UK Parliament has switched to paper (with parchment wrappers), it is to be hoped that they treat and store the paper with care. Should they be interested, ‘Europe’s leading expert on the subject’ and myself co-wrote an article about a late medieval text from 1527 on book preservation, which appeared with an English translation of the medieval text as T. Porck & H.J. Porck, ‘Eight Guidelines on Book Preservation from 1527: How One Should Preserve All Books to Last Eternally’, in: Journal of PaperConservation 13(2) (2012), 17-25. The article is available on Academia.edu. A summary was featured on this blog as “Do not give your books to children!” and other medieval tips for taking care of books

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Medieval monkeys making parchment (source; Erik Kwakkel’s Tumblr-page)