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Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and Alfred the Great

The TARDIS occasionally found its way to early medieval England and these visits of the nation’s most beloved ‘Time Lord’ can also teach us something about Anglo-Saxon history and the Old English language. This post focuses on Alfred the Great and is the second of a series of three blogs that deal with the visits of BBC’s Doctor Who to Anglo-Saxon England.

The man who wouldn’t give up: The Doctor meets the King

In a volume of short stories entitled Doctor Who. Short trips: Past tense. A short-story anthology (ed. Ian Farrington, 2004), the contribution ‘The man who wouldn’t give up’, written by Nev Fountain, touches upon the most well-known king of the Anglo-Saxons: Alfred the Great (849-899). The story is an interesting mix of early medieval fact, Anglo-Saxon myth and Whovian silliness.

Alfred the Great and the Sixth Doctor

Alfred the Great and the Sixth Doctor

The year is 878 and the sixth Doctor lands in Somerset, where he enters the hut of a swineherd. Here, he chances upon Alfred, disguised as a Danish minstrel (a well-known but ahistorical myth); in a funny little twist, the Doctor introduces himself as a spying harpist who is investigating the Vikings: “Oh sorry, what am I saying? That’s not my story at all, it’s yours isn’t it? Your Majesty.” (p. 192) Alfred, rather surprised that this man has seen through his disguise, decides the Doctor must be a wizard. They then discuss the dire situation England is in (the Vikings have overrun almost all Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, only Wessex under Alfred remains, but even he has been forced to retreat to the Somerset marshes).

After their conversation is interrupted by  Alfred’s severe stomach pain (a historical fact! I wrote a blog about this: Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?), Alfred sighs that he was never meant to be king:

“‘My father Ethelwulf died of his worries…’ the King continued in a flat emotionless drawl. ‘Ethelred…Ethelbald…All my older brothers… All have died fighting the Danish invaders before I became king. Five good men have had to lose their lives for me to stand here before you.’  (p. 194)

Indeed, Alfred had four older brothers, who all died before him: Æthelstan (d. c.852), Æthelbald (d. 860), Æthelberht (d. 865) and Æthelred (d. 871) (Note: it seems his father Æthelwulf (d. 858) had run out of Æthel- names once he got to Alfred – Alfred’s sister got lucky and was called Æthelswith). Naturally, the Sixth Doctor can relate to Alfred’s sentiment: “Really? Perhaps we’re not so different, after all.”

Apparently taking pity on Alfred, the Doctor convinces the king that, despite the setbacks he has suffered, the Vikings will eventually be defeated. Subsequently, the Doctor leaves, taking with him the swineherd’s cakes that Alfred was supposed to have been watching. Hilarity ensues. The wife of the swineherd returns and finds her precious cakes gone:

 ‘The cakes, you idiot. The cakes I expressly asked you to watch over.’

He looked. The cakes had gone.

‘The wizard! He took the bloody cakes!’

‘What wizard?’ (p. 196)

Unable to find the Doctor, Alfred pretends that he has burned the cakes. So that’s where that story came from!

They think it’s all over: Doctor Who at Wemba’s lea

Alfred also gets a mention in the comic book story ‘They think it’s all over’, published in Doctor Who #5 (2011). This time, the eleventh Doctor and his companions Rory and Amy want to visit Wembley Stadium in 1996, to watch England play Germany in a football match. The TARDIS lands in the right place, but at the wrong time: the ninth century, when Wembley was not called Wembley, but Wemba’s lea. They are taken prisoner by Saxon warriors who mistake them for Danish trespassers:

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The Doctor at Wemba’s Lea © Doctor Who #5

As the Doctor explains, the name Wembley actually comes from the Old English word lēah ‘clearing in a forest’, combined with the personal name Wemba; it is the clearing that belongs to Wemba. Wembley, by no means, is the only modern place name to derive from the word lēah, as the following list illustrates:

  • Wembley < ‘clearing of Wemba’
  • Dudley < ‘clearing of Dudda’
  • Oakley < ‘clearing with oaks’
  • Stanley < ‘clearing with stones’
  • Gatley < ‘clearing with goats’
  • Beeley < ‘clearing with bees’
  • Batley < clearing with bats’
  • Crawley < ‘clearing with crows’
  • Shipley < ‘clearing with sheep’

Note how these place names can tell us a lot about the surrounding flora and fauna in the early Middle Ages!

Anyway, the Doctor and his companions are brought before Wemba himself, who relates that he has heard of a strange man in a blue police box before, from Alfred the Great himself:

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Wemba and the Doctor © Doctor Who #5

(The Doctor’s remark about Alfred’s culinary skill is a little below the belt, seeing as it was the Doctor himself who stole the cakes, as we saw before)

After the Doctor and his companions have been released and partake in an Anglo-Saxon feast, the meeting is disturbed by a group of Vikings, who end up taking Amy hostage. In order to win her back, the Doctor and Rory then challenge the Vikings to a penalty shoot out, which they win. With the Vikings defeated, Wemba is overjoyed, noting: “King Alfred was right about you! You truly are a wizard!” (indeed, Alfred regarded the Doctor as a wizard, see above). Finally, the Doctor and his companions go to the year 1996 and attend the game, shouting “Wemba’s Lea, Wemba’s Lea!” (and you now know why).

This was the second of a series of blogs on Doctor Who in Anglo-Saxon England, you can read the first part here: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who in Anglo-Saxon England. The third and final part is available here: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and the Norman Conquest.

Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who in Anglo-Saxon England

The TARDIS occasionally found its way to early medieval England and these visits of the nation’s most beloved ‘Time Lord’ can also teach us something about Anglo-Saxon history and the Old English language. This post is the first of a series of three blogs that deal with the visits of BBC’s Doctor Who to Anglo-Saxon England.

Doctor Who in Anglo-Saxon England

Doctor Who is a science-fiction television programme, running from 1963 to 1989 and from 2005 to the present day. The programme revolves around the adventures of a mysterious ‘Time Lord’ who is known only as ‘The Doctor’, travelling through time and space in his TARDIS (which looks like a police box). In addition to his time travelling skills, the Doctor is also able to regenerate his body when near death, which explains why twelve different actors have been able to play this role in the TV series so far. Aside from time and space travel, the series is best known for its range of aliens and its horrible special effects. Incredibly popular, Doctor Who has become a significant part of British culture and has produced various spin-offs, in the form of magzines, novels, comic books and action figures.

Originally, Doctor Who was meant as a children’s TV show that would teach British history in a fun and entertaining way by bringing in aliens. What I am planning to do in the next few blogs is to use the series as it was intended: as a flashy guide to history; in my case, Anglo-Saxon history and culture. In order to do so, I have tried to locate TV episodes, comics and short fiction stories that feature the Doctor travelling to Anglo-Saxon England (my overview is unlikely to be complete, given the ever-growing Doctor Who franchise; recommendations are welcome, so please leave comments). We will see that the Doctor was present at many pivotal moments in Anglo-Saxon history; met various historical individuals; and, on occasion, prevented history from being changed forever. The current post deals with the Doctor’s encounters with Vikings and Anglo-Saxon celebrities; the second post will deal with King Alfred the Great and the third and last post will focus on the Doctor’s involvement in the Norman Conquest.

Doctor Conkerer: The Doctor in fifth-century Britain

The story of Anglo-Saxon England usually begins in the fifth century, when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes migrated to Britain. Naturally, some of these fifth-century invaders had a run-in with a blue police box, as is revealed in the comic strip ‘Doctor Conkerer’ in Dr. Who Magazine, no. 162 (July 1990):

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Doctor Conkerer © Dr. Who Magazine, no. 162 (July 1990)

In this comic, the seventh Doctor is playing a game of conkers (for which you need the seed of a horse-chestnut tree on a string – a conker). After he has run out of conkers, the Doctor decides to make a short stop to gather some more. The TARDIS lands in fifth-century Britain and the Doctor chances upon some ruffians shouting “YAARR!” and “RAAHH!”. Rather than meeting the Angles, Saxons or Jutes, as we might expect, he meets another group of Germanic invaders: the Vikings, some three hundred years before they actually set foot in Britain! Be that as it may, the Doctor witnesses these anachronistic Vikings capture a British boy and decides to come to the rescue. He burns the longships of the Vikings and knocks out Viking leader Olaf with a well-aimed strike of a conker:

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Doctor Conkerer © Dr. Who Magazine, no. 162 (July 1990)

The Doctor frees the British boy and brings him back to his village. Upon leaving the scene, the Doctor says to himself “Brilliant game, conkers. Wonder who first came up with it!”. This turns out to be the boy rescued by the Doctor, who is seen explaining the game to his mates. This first visit of the Doctor to early medieval Britain is slightly disappointing in terms of its educational value, if only because of the anachronisms (aside from the anachronistic Vikings, the game of conkers dates back to the 19th century).The next visit of the Doctor to early medieval Britain brings us into the territory of legend:

Shock reveal: The Doctor is Merlin!

According to the early medieval chroniclers Gildas (c. 500-570) and Bede (672/673-735), the Angles, Saxons and Jutes had been invited to Britain by the British King Vortigern, who required mercenaries to fight the invading Picts. A reference to this Vortigern is found in the TV episode ‘Battlefield’ (S26E01; 1989) of Doctor Who, in which a spaceship (containing the body of King Arthur and his sword Excalibur) is found on the bottom of Lake Vortigern…

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TARDIS materializes 4 kilometers away from Lake Vortigern © BBC

Like Vortigern, the legendary King Arthur is also associated with the invading Anglo-Saxons. Later medieval writers, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, have assumed that it was King Arthur who led the Britons in the fight against the invaders from the Continent. This British resistance is one of the reasons why it took the Anglo-Saxons at least 150 years  to conquer the area that is now known as England.

As legend would have it, King Arthur was aided by  a mysterious man who could predict the future: Merlin. ‘Battlefield’ reveals that this Merlin is none other than a reincarnation of the Doctor, as becomes clear when the knight Ancelyn flies through the roof of a hotel and recognises the seventh Doctor:

ANCELYN: Merlin. Against all hope.
….
ACE: You’ve got it wrong, mate. This is the Doctor.
ANCELYN: Oh, he has many faces, but in my reckoning, he is Merlin.
DOCTOR: You recognise my face, then?
ANCELYN: No, not your aspect, but your manner that betrays you. Do you not ride the ship of time? Does it not deceive the senses being larger within than out? Merlin, cease these games

There you have it, the British resistance against the Anglo-Saxons may have had some extraterrestrial help!

Woden’s Warriors: The Doctor meets some real Vikings

After the Anglo-Saxons have migrated and conquered most of what is now known as England, they are converted to Christianity. These events, however, seem to have gone by unaffected by the Doctor. His next visit (aside from a picnic with Bede, see below), takes place when the Anglo-Saxons themselves are faced with an invasion: the Vikings (for real, this time).

In ‘Woden’s warriors’, published in TV Comic Annual 1976, the fourth Doctor and his companion Sarah Jane accidentally land in Viking Age Britain. As they wander about,  they suddenly hear the sounds of a horn: the Vikings have found the TARDIS and they think it is a gift from Woden. In order to find out whether that is truly the case, the Viking leader Heekon sets fire to the police box and, noting that it does not burn, he is convinced that this ‘magic box’ will aid them in their battle against the (Anglo-)Saxons:

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Woden’s warriors © TV Comic Annual 1976

The tide is not turned in the Vikings’ favour, however. The Saxons are prepared, since they have been forewarned by the Doctor and Sarah-Jane. The Vikings are put to flight and their boats are set aflame! Next, the Saxons celebrate their victory in ‘traditional style’, which means that Sarah-Jane is not allowed to eat before the men have finished. The Doctor chuckles: “Yes, there is a lot to be said for the Saxon view of a woman’s role”:

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Woden’s warriors © TV Comic Annual 1976

I, for one, am not aware of any such rule having been in place in Anglo-Saxon England; likely, this little scene is an attempt to show that rules that undermine a woman’s rights are ‘medieval’ and old-fashioned – Sarah-Jane’s repulsion seems in line with the second-wave feminism of the Seventies…

Who’s who in Anglo-Saxon England: The Doctor and Anglo-Saxon celebrities

Throughout the Doctor Who franchise, there are frequent references to historical figures that the Doctor had supposedly met. Some of these figures belong to Anglo-Saxon history. A prime example is the Venerable Bede (672/673-735), who once shared a salmon with the Doctor, as the fourth Doctor relates in the TV episode “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (S14E06; 1977):

I caught a salmon there [the River Fleet] once. Would have hung over the sides of this table. Shared it with the venerable Bede, he adored fish.

One wonders what Bede, a Northumbrian monk who probably never went far beyond the confines of the monasteries in Monkwearmouth and Jarrow (now: Bede’s World), was doing in London at the time! Anyway, Bede’s predilection for fish may explain why the monk felt it necessary to point out that Britain “is remarkable also for rivers abounding in fish, and plentiful springs. It has the greatest plenty of salmon and eels” (Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, bk. 1, ch. 1).

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The tenth doctor holding the ‘Cup of Athelstan’ © BBC

Another Anglo-Saxon celebrity known to the Doctor was King Athelstan  (c.894–939), whose coronation in 924 is referred to in the 2009 TV-special “The Planet of the Dead”. Here, the tenth Doctor finds out that Lady Christina de Souza has stolen the precious ‘Cup of Athelstan’. This cup, we are told, was a gift from Hywel (c.880-950), King of the Welsh, to Athelstan upon the latter’s coronation in 924 as “the first king of Britain”. Even though Athelstan wasn’t really the first King of Britain, he was indeed crowned King of the Anglo-Saxons in 924. He became the first King of the English in 927, after he conquered the last remaining Viking kingdom of York. The Welsh kings did indeed submit to him, but he never really had the title of ‘first king of Britain’. Ah well, I suppose one can forgive a reincarnating, time and space travelling humanoid alien for not always having his facts straight!

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Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects

In order to make their film sets conform to the historical periods they are supposed to depict, designers often draw inspiration from actual, historical objects. One of the little joys of being an Anglo-Saxonist is recognising some of the objects you study in the background of your favourite TV series and movies. Here are three examples.

Alfred’s sceptre in The Last Kingdom (BBC; 2015-)

The creators of BBC’s The Last Kingdom, set in ninth-century Wessex, have tried to create a set that is as historically accurate as possible (as they will tell you here; though, judging by this clip, where they say they spent a lot of time to find out “what kind of paper” they used in early medieval England, we may need to take this with a grain of salt!). One prop that is particularly interesting is Alfred’s sceptre with the bejeweled cross (see image below), which shows some similarities to the seventh-century whetstone/sceptre found at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk.

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Left: Alfred’s sceptre in The Last Kingdom © BBC. Right: Sutton Hoo whetstone/sceptre © Trustees of the British Museum (source)

Like the original Anglo-Saxon object, Alfred’s sceptre has a base with four bearded faces, each facing in a different direction. These four faces on the Sutton Hoo whetstone/sceptre have been associated with a four-faced Slavic deity called ‘Svantovit’, not the sort of thing a pious Christian like Alfred would be comfortable wielding, one might say.

The Sutton Hoo helmet and Byrhtferth’s diagram in Merlin (BBC; 2008-2012)

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Left: Helmet in the back of Arthur’s room in Merlin © BBC. Right: Replica of Sutton Hoo helmet © Trustees of British Museum (source)

Another Anglo-Saxon object found at the famous ship burial of Sutton Hoo made its way onto the set of BBC’s Merlin: The Sutton Hoo helmet. This particular headgear is a ‘historicon’ par excellence and can be found on virtually every book cover of anything related to Anglo-Saxon England. In BBC’s Merlin, the helmet can be spotted in the bed chamber of young Prince Arthur (see image above). While this is a nice touch, this seventh-century Anglo-Saxon helmet seems oddly out of place in the bed chamber of a legendary British leader that supposedly lived in the 5th or 6th century. Not as ahistorical, however, as the thing hanging on another character’s wall…

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Left: Gaius and a diagram on his wall in Merlin © BBC. Right: Byrhtferth’s diagram © Oxford, St John’s College, MS 17 (source)

The court’s physician Gaius appears to have received some of his medical training from a document from even further ahead in time. On his wall, we can see a diagram that is commonly ascribed to Byrhferth (c. 970-c.1020), an Anglo-Saxon monk of Ramsey Abbey. The diagram reveals how various groups of four (the four elements, the four ages of man, the four wind directions, etc.) all correspond to each other – a visualisation of the harmonious nature of the universe (find out more here). The diagram in Gaius’s room, then, is a nice attempt at bringing in an actual medieval object, albeit about five centuries too soon!

The Franks Casket tapestry in Ivanhoe (MGM; 1952)

When I watched the movie Ivanhoe (1952), I was most impressed by the wall-hanging behind the big table in the house of Cedric the Saxon. This tapestry shows a colouful scene, surrounded by what appear to be runes. On closer inspection it turns out to be one of the scenes depicted on the eighth-century, Anglo-Saxon Franks Casket. This whale bone box, currently in the British Museum, can truly be called multicultural, since it depicts scenes from diverse traditions, including Weland the Smith, the Adoration of the Magi and Romulus and Remus. .

The scene so colourfully depicted on the tapestry in Cedric’s house is the Taking of Jerusalem by Titus in the year 70 AD (depicted on the rear panel of the Franks Casket). While the use of colour may strike one as odd, it is assumed that the Anglo-Saxon casket was originally full-colour as well. I wonder whether this particular prop is still lying around somewhere, in some long-forgotten MGM storeroom; if so, I will gladly reserve a place for it on my wall!

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Top: Franks Casket © Trustees of the British Museum (source). Bottom: Tapestry in Ivanhoe © MGM

If you are interested in the use of medieval stuff in TV series and movies, you may also want to have a look at my blog about the use of Old English in film: Old English is alive! Five TV series and movies that use Old English

© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2015. 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.

Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?

Throughout the fourth episode of the first series of The Last Kingdom, the Anglo-Saxon warrior Leofric jokingly insults Uhtred by calling him ‘arseling’. This blog post discusses the origins and use of the word ‘arseling’ in Old English, where it occurs as ‘earsling’. There may be a surprising connection to none other than King Alfred the Great himself!

Leofric (left) and Lord ‘Arseling’ Uhtred – The Last Kingdom, BBC (Source)

The origins of arseling“Earsling” in the Paris Psalter

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines arseling as meaning “backwards” and having been derived from the noun arse and the suffix –ling. Being a dictionary on historical principles, the OED also provides information about the past usage of the word. The first recorded instance of arseling was around the year 1050: “Syn hi gecyrde on earsling” [Let them be turned backwards], where the word occurs in its Old English form earsling. The text cited by the OED is one of the prose Psalm translations in the mid-eleventh-century manuscript with the shelfmark Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Fonds latin 8824, also known as the ‘Paris Psalter’. This manuscript features the Latin text of the Psalms with an Old English translation (the first 50 Psalms are translated to prose; the last 100 are translated to verse, by another translator). The quotation provided by the OED is part of the Old English prose translation of Psalm 34:

Paris Psalter, fol 37v. © Paris, BnF,

Paris Psalter, fol 37v. © Paris, BnF, MS Fonds latin 8824

Latin (left): Confundantur et revereantur inimici mei qui querunt animam meam aucstantur retrorsum…

Old English (right): Geleahtrode syn mine fynd 7 sceamien heora þa þa secað mine sawle to fordonne. Syn hi gecyrde on earsling…

Translation: Let them be confounded and ashamed that seek after my soul. Let them be turned backwards

Earsling makes one further appearance in the Paris Psalter, as part of the translation of Psalm 6:

Paris Psalter, fol 5r. © Paris, BnF,

Paris Psalter, fol 5r. © Paris, BnF, MS Fonds latin 8824

Latin (left): Erubescant et conturbentur omnes inimici mei avestantur retrorsum et cerubescant ualde uelociter.

Old English (right): Sceamian heora for ði 7 syn gedrefede ealle mine fynd 7 gan hy on earsling 7 sceamien heora swiðe hrædlice.

Translation: Let them be ashamed for this and let all my enemies be driven away and let them go backwards and let them be ashamed very quickly.

A search in the Dictionary of Old English Corpus (a digital corpus that contains one copy of every extant Old English text) reveals that “earsling” only occurs in these Old English prose Psalm translations; earsling is a so-called hapax legomenon, a word that is restricted to this one text. But who was responsible for this Old English prose translation of the first fifty psalms?

The author of earsling: Alfred the Great!?!

The Paris Psalter does not mention the author of the Old English Psalm translations. What is clear, however, is that the language of the prose translation of the first fifty psalms can be identified as Early West Saxon (referring to the dialect of ninth-century Wessex), on the basis of its spelling and phonology (see O’Neill 2001, pp. 55-63). An Old English translation of a Latin text dating to ninth-century Wessex recalls the revival of learning instigated by Alfred the Great (d. 899), which involved, among other things, the translation of various books from Latin to Old English. Interestingly, the twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury attributes a translation of the Psalms to Alfred himself:

He translated into English the greater part of the Roman authors, bringing of the noblest spoil of foreign intercourse for the use of his subjects; of which the chief books were Orosius, Gregory’s Pastoral, Bede’s History of the Angles, Boethius Of the Consolation of Philosophy, his own book, which he called in his vernacular tongue “Hand-boc,” that is, a manual. Moreover he infused a great regard for literature into his countrymen, stimulating them both with rewards and punishments, allowing no ignorant person to aspire to any dignity in the court. He died just as he had begun a translation of the Psalms. (William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum)

According to William, Alfred was unable to finish his translation before he died, possibly succumbing to his mysterious disease at the age of fifty (see this blog post). This seems to fit well with the fact that the Early West Saxon prose translations in the Paris Psalter only cover the first fifty Psalms, followed by another (verse) translation of the remaining Psalms. It is no surprise, then, that scholars such as Bately 1982 and O’Neill 2001 attribute the prose Psalm translations of the Paris Psalter to Alfred himself on the basis of a comparison with other translations attributed to the famous king (although their views have not gone unchallenged, see e.g. Treschow, Gill and Schwartz 2009).

Definitely coined by Alfred: The Alfred the Great Penny now in the Royal Mint Museum (source)

If Alfred was responsible for the prose Psalm translations that survive in the Paris Psalter, does this mean he also coined the word earsling? Probably not, but, for as far as we know, he was the first (and the only) Anglo-Saxon to use the word in writing. The use of arseling in BBC’s The Last Kingdom, then, fits perfectly within the Alfredian period it attempts to portray – perhaps the historical Alfred himself had been inspired to use the word in his Psalm translation because he overheard the jocular insults such as those made by Leofric among his own warriors!

The future of arseling

As noted above, Old English earsling was not used in any other Old English text. According to the OED entry for arseling, the word resurfaced in the Scottish poem The Fortunate Shepherdess by Alexander Ross, published in 1768: “Then Lindy to stand up began to try; But—he fell arselins back.” No further use has been recorded by the OED, which, therefore, declares the word “obsolete” – dead. I have no doubt, however, that an updated version of the entry for arseling (the present one dates back to 1885), will report of its revival following the popularity of Bernard Cornwell’s novels and their BBC adaptation. Thus, the series cannot only be credited for reinvigorating an interest in the historical period of Alfred the Great, but may also be responsible for reintroducing some of Alfred’s own vocabulary!

If you liked this post, you may also be interested in other posts on The Last Kingdom:

Works refered to:

© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2015. 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.

Old English is alive! Five TV series and movies that use Old English

Even though the last native speaker of Old English died over 900 years ago, the language of the Anglo-Saxons is making a comeback in modern cinema. This blog post calls attention to five TV series and movies that use Old English.

1. The Rohirrim speak Old English: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of Old English at the University of Oxford and his fictional work is infused with his academic interests: the languages and literatures of the peoples of the medieval North-West. The Rohirrim, in particular, were modeled on the Anglo-Saxons. The riders of the Mark (itself based on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom Mercia) even speak Old English in the books, as when Éomer greets Théoden with “Westu Théoden hal!” (cf. “Wæs þu Hrothgar hal!” Beowulf, l. 407). The names of the Rohirrim also derive from Old English: Théoden means ‘king’ (< Old English þeoden) and Éomer  means ‘famous horse’ (< Old English eoh ‘horse’ + mær ‘famous’). (If you are interested, I wrote an article on the influence of Old English language and literature on Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which you can find among my publications)

In the successful movie adaptations, the use of Old English (regrettably) is scarce and limited to the extended edition of the Two Towers. In a scene called ‘the funeral of Théodred’, Éowyn (‘horse-joy’) sings a funeral dirge, in Old English (singing starts at 0:48):

Bealocwealm hafað

freone frecan.     forþ onsended
giedd sculon singan.     gleomenn sorgiende
on Meduselde.       þæt he ma no wære
his dryhtne dyrest.      and maga deorost.

[Baleful death has sent forth the noble warrior, sorrowing singers will sing a song in Meduseld that he is no more, dearest to his lord and dearest to his kinsmen.]

The actress Miranda Otto actually does a great job when it comes to pronouncing the Old English (would she have followed a course?). The song also features a line which is similar to Beowulf, ll. 2265b-2266: “bealocwealm hafað / fela feorhcynna forð onsended” [baleful death has sent forth many warriors].

2. It speaks? IT SPEAKS! In Old English! Beowulf (2007)

Robert Zemeckis’s adapatation of Beowulf did not only give us a 3D animation of Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother (naked, clad in gold, with a tail), he also had the monsters attempt to speak in Old English. An intriguing example can be seen here, in the scene where Grendel loses his arm:

Beowulf: Your bloodletting days are over, demon!

Grendel: Arr – Ic nat daemon eam [I am not a demon]

Beowulf: It speaks? IT SPEAKS!

Grendel: Hwæt eart þu? [What are you?]

Arguably, the Old English is not very well done and the pronunciation is awful (there is some more in Grendel’s death scene, where you can hear ‘min sunu’ and ‘sin nama wæs Beowulf’). The decision to have the monsters (attempt to) speak Old English, though, is an interesting one: is it a way of stressing their antiquity? To separate them from the human world? To emphasise their monstrosity (I would hope not!)?

3. The magic of Old English: BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012)

The BBC series TV series focusing on the adventures of the young Merlin at Arthur´s court used Old English as the language for the various magical spells. A rather odd decision, seeing as Merlin should probably be associated more with the Celtic speaking peoples, rather than with the Old English speaking Anglo-Saxons that were fought by the pseudo-historical Arthur. Here are all the spells from the first series:

“Berbay odothay arisan quicken” <Old English Bebiede þe arisan cwican [I command you to arise alive]

(You can find more transcriptions of spells here)

The pronunciation, again, leaves something to be desired. However, often the Old English spells make sense, as in the example quoted above: Merlin wants to make a statue of a dog come alive; he tells it to come alive in Old English; presto! The dog is alive (it also affects the snakes painted on a shield in the next scene). If only that worked in real life!

4. The Shadow of Boniface: De Schaduw van Bonifatius (2010)

De Schaduw van Bonifatius [The Shadow of Boniface] is an ambitious short film, directed by Thijs Schreuder as a graduation project for the Film Academy in Amsterdam. It focuses on the missionary activity of the Anglo-Saxon Boniface (d. 754) in Frisia. While the film was praised for its use of special effects (similar to the LOTR-movies), its use of languages is also of interest: all dialogues are in Latin, Old English and Old Frisian.

I particularly like the scene that starts at 08:00, in which Boniface confronts a group of pagan Frisians at their sacred tree. Boniface speaks in Old English, the Frisian leader replies in Old Frisian. Seeing as these two medieval languages are closely related, it is highly probable that the Anglo-Saxon missionaries in Frisia could indeed converse with the people in their native tongue:

Boniface: Ondfo Godes lufu! Ondfo His miltse! [Receive God’s love! Receive his mercy!]

Frisian chief: Bonifatius! Thi mon ther thera Fronkena leinlika gode menniska bibiāt. ther tserika timbriath mith ūre hāligum bāmum. [Boniface! The man who sacrifices to the false gods of the Frankish people. Who builds churches with our holy trees.]

Boniface: For iūre hreddunge. Hæfth iūre goda thunor smiten mē? Habbath hīe me thone wei thweorod? Se ondswaru is ‘nā’, ond for thǣm the iċ ēom hēr swā thæt ġē ġebīdath thæs cræftes thæs ǣnigan, sōthan Godes![For your protection. Has the thunder of your gods smitten me? Have they barred my path? The answer is ‘No’ and therefore I am here, so that you will experience the power of the only, true God!]

The actors do a fine job and the Old Frisian and Old English sounds rather authentic. No surprise there, since the actors were taught by a leading expert on both Old Frisian and Old English: prof.dr. Rolf H. Bremmer Jr. (You can read about his involvement here, in Dutch).

5. Hwæt sægest þu? Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-)

In De Schaudw van Bonifatius, Old English was used to create at least the impression of historical accuracy . Much the same can be said for the use of Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-). While the show’s authenticity is fiercely debated (see, e.g., this blog post), the makers of the show must certainly have thought that the use of early medieval languages, such as Old English and Old Norse in the first two seasons and Old French in the third season, would contribute to a sense of realism. The first scene to feature Old English is the prelude to the Viking raid of Lindisfarne in 793:

Monk: Gesawe þu þæt, brodor Æþelstan? Gesawe þu hit? Saga me þæt þu hit gesawe.

Athelstan: Gea, brodor. Ic hit gesawe.

Monk: Hit is awriten and swa hit hæfþ alimpen. God us helpan, god us helpan.

The monks looking at the thunder and seeing a viking ship in the sky is an obvious reference to the famous entry for the year 793 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 793. © British Library, Cotton Tiberius B. iv (Source)

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 793. © British Library, Cotton Tiberius B. iv (Source)

Her wæron reðe forebecna cumene ofer Norðhymbra land, 7 þæt folc earmlic bregdon, þæt wæron ormete þodenas 7 ligrescas, 7 fyrenne dracan wæron gesewene on þam lifte fleogende. [In this year, terrible omens came about over the land of the Northumbrians, and miserably frightened the people: these were immense thunders and lightenings, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air.]

The second scene in the YouTube clip above shows Athelstan speaking Old English to some hostages. The Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, apparently, is able to understand their conversation. This is not too surprising, since Old Norse and Old English would have been mutually intelligble at the time. In terms of its language use, then, History Channel’s Vikings makes a good effort at historical accuracy.

Hwæt’s next? BBC’s The Last Kingdom (2015-) and ITV’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (2016-)

Over the last 15 years, Old English has been embraced by movie makers; first as a language of fantasy, monsters and magic, later as an instrument for historical accuracy. With upcoming TV series such as BBC’s The Last Kingdom, set in ninth-century England, and ITV’s Beowulf: The Return to the Shield Lands, based on the Old English poem Beowulf, we will undoubtedly hear more Old English from our TV sets in the future. The Last Kingdom, for instance, uses Old English place names, such as Bebbanburg (Bamburgh), Oxanfyrde (Oxford) and Wintanceastre (Winchester). Perhaps, it is time to pitch our courses in Old English to acting hopefuls and up-and-coming film makers. The native speakers of Old English may be long dead, in Hulferes wudu (Hollywood) their language is still alive! 

With special thanks to Rolf Bremmer (Leiden University) for sending me the script he translated for De Schaduw van Bonifatius.

© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2015. 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.

Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?

The second episode of The Last Kingdom (UK airdate: Thursday, 29 October, 9 pm, BBC 2) introduces Prince Alfred, who would later become King Alfred the Great (d. 899). In his first scene, Alfred is portrayed as a man tormented both physically (because of his health) and morally (because of his lustful feelings towards the flustered maidservant that had just left his room). This blog post highlights some sources related to the historical Alfred and explores what they reveal about his passions…and his piles.

Alfred (The Last Kingdom, BBC) (SOURCE)

Alfred the Great (849-899): An unlikely king, a sickly sovereign

Genealogical tree of Æthelwulf of Wessex (reign 839-858) © The British Library, Royal 14 B V

Genealogical tree of Æthelwulf of Wessex (reign 839-858) © The British Library, Royal 14 B V (Source)

Known as one of the greatest monarchs of Anglo-Saxon history, defeater of the Danes and instigator of an important educational reform, Alfred was, in fact, an unlikely candidate for the throne of Wessex. For one, he was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex (reign 839-858), which means he had four older brothers: Æthelstan (d. 852), Æthelred (King of Wessex, 858-860), Æthelbald (King of Wessex, 860-865) and Æthelberht (King of Wessex, 865-871). Only after all his brothers had died, Alfred (apparently, Æthelwulf had run out of Æthel-names…) became eligible to rule. Given that he was the youngest of five, Alfred was probably groomed for an ecclesiastical career (his father took him to see the pope, twice), which may explain his interests in learning in his later life. Another reason why Alfred may have been considered an unlikely king at the time was because he suffered from a terrible illness, as is revealed by a biography written during his life by Bishop Asser in the year 893.

Be careful what you wish for!

Asser_facsimile

1722 facsimile of manuscript containing Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’ (source)

Asser’s Life of King Alfred is a unique source on Alfred’s life and character, written by one of his own courtiers. Asser not only records Alfred’s battles with the Vikings and his dealings at court, he also reports some of Alfred’s medical details, mentioning that, from his youth, Alfred had suffered from “ficus” [piles, haemeroids].

Interestingly, Asser also tells us how Alfred acquired his piles in his early days:

when he [Alfred] realized that he was unable to abstain from carnal desire, fearing he would incur god’s disfavour if he did anything contrary to His will … [he would pray] that Almighty God through His mercy would more staunchly strengthen his resolve in the love of His service by means of some illness which he would be able to tolerate … when he had done this frequently with great mental devotion, after some time he contracted the disease of piles through God’s gift. (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 74)

In other words, young Alfred, afraid of his own dirty thoughts, asked God to grant him a distraction and God gave him haemeroids!

Out of the frying pan, into the fire: “A sudden severe pain that was quite unknown to all physicians”

Asser’s biography also records that Alfred was miraculously cured from his piles when , prior to his wedding, Alfred had asked God to “substitute for the pangs of the present and agonizing infirmity some less severe illness” (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 74). The young prince was miraculously cured: hurray! His regained health would be short-lived, however, since he suddenly fell ill on his wedding night: he had been struck by an illness that proved incurable. This new disease would torment him the rest of his life, as Asser noted:

he has been plagued continually with the savage attacks of some unknown disease, such that he does not have even a single hour of peace in which he does not either suffer from the disease itself or else, gloomily dreading it, is not driven almost to despair. (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 91)

Bald's Leechbook © The British Library, Royal 12 D XVII

Bald’s Leechbook © The British Library, Royal 12 D XVII (Source)

While the disease may have been unknown to the Anglo-Saxon physicians, modern-day scholars have used Asser’s description to diagnose Alfred with Crohn’s disease (Craig 1991). This diagnosis is corroborated by another document made during Alfred’s lifetime: Bald’s Leechbook.

Bald’s Leechbook is a compilation of various medical texts, which was possibly made at Alfred’s own request. Within this compilation, there is a section that is concluded by “þis eal het þus secgan ælfrede cyninge domine helias patriarcha on gerusalem” [Elias, the patriarch of Jerusalem (c. 879-907), ordered all of this to be told to King Alfred]. Included in this section are remedies for the alleviation of constipation, diarrhoea, pain in the spleen and internal tenderness, which all fit well with the pathology of Crohn’s disease(Craig 1991, p. 304). The Old English text also records that Elias sent him a “hwita stan” [a white stone], which could be used against all sorts of illnesses; as an added bonus, the white stone would also protect the owner from lightning and thunders (the text is edited by Cockayne 1864, Vol. II, pp. 288-291).

To make a long story short: Alfred was a passionate boy, God gave him piles and the patriarch of Jerusalem gave him a pebble. Poor Alfred.

Works refered to:

  • Asser, Life of King Alfred, trans. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge (Harmondsworth, 1983)
  • Cockayne, T. O. (ed.), Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England (London, 1846; available here)
  • Craig, G., ‘Alfred the Great: A Diagnosis’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 84 (1991), 303-305.

© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2015. 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.

Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb

Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb

Vikings, Alfred the Great and ninth-century England – The Last Kingdom (BBC; based on the Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell) will undoubtedly spark an interest into the Anglo-Saxons. On this blog, I will regularly discuss some of the historical and/or cultural background of The Last Kingdom, without major plot spoilers.

Priest Beocca (The Last Kingdom; BBC) (Source)

In the first episode of The Last Kingdom (UK airdate: Thursday, 22 October, 9 pm, BBC 2), the priest Beocca tells the young Uhtred that he should have the boy ‘swear by Cuthbert’s comb’. This post deals with the real Anglo-Saxon object that served as the inspiration for this remark: the comb of Saint Cuthbert.

St Cuthbert (d. 687)

Scenes from Bede's Life of St Cuthber: Otters lick Cuthbert's feet; Crows bring Cuthbert lard; Cuthbert in his coffin. © The British Library, Yates Thompson 26 (Source)

Scenes from Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert: Otters lick Cuthbert’s feet; Crows bring Cuthbert lard; Cuthbert in his coffin. © The British Library, Yates Thompson 26 (Source)

Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne is one of the most famous Anglo-Saxon saints. He spent most of his life on the islands of Lindisfarne and Inner Farne, where he combined the roles of hermit and bishop. He is fascinating for many reasons, but what stands out most for me is his relationship with animals: otters licked his feet, he shared a fish with an eagle, his horse found him some food and crows gave him hog’s lard (which he used to polish his shoes with). He died in the year 687 and he was buried in Lindisfarne. When his coffin was opened 11 years after his death, his body was found to be fully intact: proof that he was indeed a saint. He was put in a new coffin, which was placed inside the church, above ground, near the altar.

Cuthbert’s coffin has a long and exciting history (that we will skip for now) and, after an eventful sojourn through England, ended up in Durham Cathedral. In 1827, the grave in which Cuthbert was thought to have been reburied was opened and they found his bones (no longer intact, this time), along with various relics, such as a travelling altar, a gospel book (now in the British Library), a pectoral cross and an ivory comb.

The comb in Cuthbert’s coffin

Cuthbert’s Comb  (Source)

Cuthbert’s comb is about 16 cms long and 12 cms wide, with coarse teeth on the one end and fine teeth at the other. This seventh-century comb is an example of a ‘liturgical comb’, which priests would use to fashion their hair prior to celebrating mass. Scholars have noted certain similarities to Mediterranean combs of the same period; this, along with the fact that the comb was made of elephant ivory, demonstrates the big Mediterranean influence on Anglo-Saxon monasticism (on Cuthbert’s comb, see MacGregor 1985: 79).

Keeping Cuthbert from becoming Chewbacca

The ivory comb is described for the first time by the twelfth-century Benedictine monk and hagiographer Reginald of Durham (d. c. 1190), who wrote a book about miracles attributed to Cuthbert. He records an interesting story about how the comb was used to tame the deceased saint’s ever-growing hair. A tenth-century monk named Elfred, Reginald reports, would occasionally open Cuthbert’s coffin in order “to cut the overgrowing hair of his venerable head, to adjust it by dividing it and smoothing it with an ivory comb and to cut the nails of his fingers, tastefully reducing them to roundness”. Reginald also tells us that Elfred would now and again show some of his cuttings to his friends and hold the saint’s hair in flames. Exposed to the fire, Cuthbert’s hair would glisten like gold; cooled down, it returned to its former hairiness. Reginald further tells us that “the ivory comb, perforated in its centre” was placed in Cuthbert’s coffin (source of story: here) – where, apparently, it still was in 1827.

So there you have it: Cuthbert’s comb is well worth swearing by, if only because it allowed a tenth-century monk from keeping St Cuthbert from becoming St Chewbacca.

St Cuthbert (Source) and St Chewbacca (Source)

St Cuthbert (Source) and St Chewbacca (Source)

Works refered to:

MacGregor, Arthur. 2015. Bone, Antler, Ivory & Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials Since the Roman Period. Abingdon: Routledge.