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The Medieval in Middle-earth: The Anglo-Saxon Habits of Hobbits

 As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this post, I focus on the hobbits and their early medieval antecedents.

At first glance, there appears to be no resemblance of any kind between Tolkien’s peacable hobbits and the warlike early medieval Anglo-Saxons that conquered parts of Britain in the early Middle Ages; yet, there is more to these hobbits than meets the eye…

Old English roots: Holbytlan, scir, þegn, miclan delfing…

Pippin and Merry: Hobbits in helmets (source)

‘Are not these the Halflings, that some among us call the Holbytlan?’, Théoden asks, when he first sets eyes on Pippin and Merry on the outskirts of Isengard. Théoden’s word holbytla ‘hole-dweller’ is Tolkien’s own invented Old English etymology for the word Hobbit and means ‘hole-dweller’.  Other Hobbitish terms have more clear Old English roots: the Shire itself stems from the Old English word scir ‘district’ as does the name of its principal  administrator: the Thain, from Old English þegn ‘servant’. Hobbitish place names, too, derive from the language of the Anglo-Saxons: Michel Delving, for instance, is clearly Old English miclan delfing ‘great excavation’. Old Hobbitish, it seems, is nothing other than Old English!

What’s in a name? Hengist, Horsa, Marcho and Blanco

Hengest and Horsa…or Marcho and Blanco?

The story of how Hobbits came to settle in the Shire, as outline in the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, bears a keen resemblance to the foundation myth of the Anglo-Saxons. About the first Shire-Hobbits, Tolkien notes that the “Fallohide brothers, Marcho and Blanco” first crossed the river Baranduin, with a great following of Hobbits – the year of the crossing was to become the first year of Shire-reckoning. The names Marcho and Blanco both mean ‘horse’ and, thus, resemble the names of the two brothers who supposedly had led the Germanic tribes to Britain: Hengest and Horsa, whose names mean ‘stallion’ and ‘horse’.

Of mathoms and silver spoons

The hobbits’ fondness for mathoms also aligns them with the Anglo-Saxons:

The Mathom-house it was called; anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom. Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort. (The Fellowship of the Ring, prologue)

The word mathom is derived from the  Old English maðm ‘treasure’. The word appears in such poems as Beowulf, where it describes the gifts bestowed upon warriors by kings:

‘Me þone wælræs     wine Scildunga
fættan golde     fela leanode,
manegum maðmum‘ (Beowulf, ll. 2101-2103a)

[The friend of the Scildings gave me a lot of plated gold, many treasures, in exchange for the battle]

From Beowulf, we learn that mathoms could include decorated and bejewelled swords and armour, such as those found at Sutton Hoo (on display at the British Museum, here).  Hobbitish mathoms turn out to be of a similar sort: the Mathom-house in Michel Devling is filled with weapons of such long-forgotten battles as the Battle of the Greenfields, “in which Bandobras Took routed an invasion of Orcs.” Bilbo’s presents at his eleventy-first birthday may be mathoms of a different kind, but at least one of them  can also be linked to the Anglo-Saxon treasures found at Sutton Hoo. Bilbo’s gift of a pair of silver spoons to Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is reminiscent of the two silver baptismal spoons found in the royal Anglo-Saxon grave:

Silver baptismal spoons, found at Sutton Hoo (source)

Family matters: The importance of genealogies

Another habit shared by Anglo-Saxon and Hobbit alike is an interest in filling books with genealogical information. In his prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien explains that Hobbits were keen to draw up long and elaborate family-trees and loved to set out such trees and lists in books. The Anglo-Saxons were little different in this respect: the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains up to eighteen genealogies of various royal houses, scattered throughout its annalistic narrative. Such royal genealogies also appeared in collections without any intervening text. A case in point is the so-called Anglian Collection, a collection of Anglo-Saxon regnal lists and genealogies (this Wikipedia page is highly informative):


The Anglian Collection © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B. v., fol. 22r

These endless lists of names do not make for exciting reading. Tolkien remarked the same of the genealogical information contained at the end of the Red Book of Westmarch: “all but Hobbits would find them exceedingly dull”; Hobbits…and Anglo-Saxons, it would seem!

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Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition

For a bonus question on one of my Old English literature exams, my students used their artistic talents to draw scenes from the concluding fight in the Old English poem Beowulf. Together, these doodles cover almost the third part of the poem and document how well (or how badly) my students remembered the poem.


Student rendition of Beowulf’s fight against the dragon. Note the hash tags and the Viking horns on the dragon!

Drawings have long since been used for the purpose of teaching (for an example from the Anglo-Saxon period see Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels). On occasion, I use my own drawings to spice up my lectures (such as my Anglo-Saxon Anecdotes) or explain complicated bits of Anglo-Saxon literature (e.g., The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode). In recent years, I have decided to turn the tables on my students and, for a bonus point (worth 1% of the exam grade), I have them draw scenes from Old English poems, discussed in class.

While the exercise was intended as a bit of a gag, their doodles actually allowed me to see which events from the poem had captured their interest; how they (mis)remembered certain passages and which scenes, apparently, made no impact on them at all.  In a previous blog post, I shared their renditions of The Battle of Maldon (The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition) . Below follows a selection of my students’ drawings that deal with the fight between Beowulf and the dragon, along with some commentary.

i) A stolen cup


The theft of a cup – student with “non-existent drawing skills”

In the third and final part of Beowulf, the dragon is roused from his lair by the theft of a cup, as this student well remembered. Upon discovering the theft, the dragon became “gebolgen” [enraged; Beowulf, l. 2220) or, as this student put its, he was like: “I’m mad! Gimme that cup back! Imma go kill some people now!”

Another student recalled that the thief was a slave -and- that there were some striking resemblances with a scene in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Hence, the slave was given a “Bilbo nose” in this rendition:


“Slave stealing golden cup from dragon. I tried to give him a Bilbo nose”. Also note the rather tiny dragon sleeping with “a diamond teddy bear, lying on a bed of rupees because I can’t draw coins” [or spell ‘rubies’]

ii) A special shield

In lines 2522-2524, Beowulf announces that he will not fight the dragon unarmed (as he had done with the monster Gendel), since he expects “heaðufyres hates” [the heat of hateful fire]. Thus, he uses a special shield, as illustrated by this student:


Beowulf and the musicians’ shield


Naturally, Beowulf’s shield did not have any musicians attached to it (for as far as we know). The student explains that these are “the annoying musicians who are inflicting horrible violence on their instruments in the adjoining class room, keeping me from concentration”.

iii) Beowulf as an old man

When the dragon harassed Beowulf’s people, the king had been on the throne for fifty years. Thankfully, some students recalled this and, therefore, depicted the hero as an elderly man. One of them, apparently, came prepared for the bonus question and even used several colours:


Beowulf and the multi-colour dragon


iv) The breaking of Beowulf’s sword and his company’s morale


“Bad luck Beowulf”


The dramatic scene of Beowulf’s sword breaking in the heat of the battle, causing his companions to flee to the woods, appears to have left an impression on several students; even though they seem to have a hard time remembering the name of the retainer who left behind:


Nope, not Walder!



Unferth? Wháááá!


 v) The dragon bites Beowulf in the neck


“Oh no! The dragon bit my neck!”


Another dramatic scene is when the dragon clamps down on Beowulf’s neck, inflicting a mortal wound.


Good attention for detail: “useless sword”; “old king Beowulf (beard for oldness, wrinkles also)”; “angry dragon” says “grrr”


vi) Beowulf and Wiglaf stab the dragon in the gut

The following student remembered that it was Wiglaf (not Walder or Unferth!) who stayed behind to aid his king. They also remembered how the dragon was stabbed in the gut, though I doubt the dragon would have complained about its abdominal muscles as this one does, shouting “Oh no! My beautiful stomach! I had just started working out for the summer. Noooo!”


“Dragon blood is green, obviously…”


vii) Rebuking the oath-breakers

Following the defeat of the dragon, Wiglaf condemns the retainers who fled. They broke their oath of loyalty to their rightful lord: “Shame on you”, indeed!


“You cowards! Shame on you!”  – Team Beowulf


viii) The dragon’s treasure and Beowulf’s barrow

“fremmað gena leoda þearfe” [Beowulf, ll. 2800-2801: Tend to the need of my people], Beowulf tells Wiglaf with his dying breath, while he glances upon the dragon’s treasure that he has just secured for his nation. Wiglaf, however, decides to bury the riches along with Beowulf’s body. The dragon’s treasure, the poet tells us, remains “eldum swa unnyt swa hit æror wæs” [Beowulf, l. 3168: as useless to people as it was before]. At least one student appears to have caught on to Wiglaf’s denying his lord’s last request:


“Even though my master said I should take the gold back to our city, I’m going to bury it with him”

ix) An encore: Browulf and Swaglaf fight the dragon

After having been confronted by so much artistic talent and inspiration by my students, I could not lag behind. So, I used the whiteboard in my office to produce my own doodle: here are Browulf and Swaglaf fighting the dragon.


Office art: Browulf and Swaglaf fight the dragon

If you want more student doodles, check out The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition

Anglo-Saxon apps: Old English on your smartphone

In this blog post, I review five apps that bring the early medieval magic of Old English to your 21st-century smartphone. I am not in any way connected to the developers of these apps. Let’s get early medieval on your smartphone!

#5 English Old English Dictionary


English Old English Dictionary app[screenshots from my LG3s]

What are the Old English words for ‘Chief Justice of the United States’, ‘coffee’ and ‘taekwondo’? If we are to believe this ad-supported dictionary app, the early medieval inhabitants of England would have said: hēahdēmere þāra Geānlǣhtra Rīca, caffiȝ and tæȝcƿondo. Naturally, this is nonsense.

This app is rather clumsily put together – its definition are brief and its list of entries seems rather haphazardly collected (it does have entries for both ‘take a crap’ and ‘take a shit’). No source is indicated for these words and their basic definition, but some of them seem to be derived from Old English Wikipedia pages (such as the one for the Chief Justice of the United States). Despite its potentially interesting functionality of switching between Old English – English and English – Old English, this silly app should be avoided.

Costs: FREE
Android app store link: here
I have not been able to find an iTunes link

#4 Readings in Early English


Readings in Early English app [screenshots from my LG3s]

If you want to practice your Old English pronunciation or you just love the idea of having someone read to you from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or the works of Ælfric of Eynsham, this is the app for you!

Readings in Early English was developed by Brian Aitken of the University of Glasgow and was originally intended as a companion piece to the book Essentials of Early English (1999) by Professor Jeremy J. Smith. This app provides access to various Old English, Middle English and Early Modern English texts with translations, minimal explanatory notes and, more importantly, sound files of Professor Smith reading these texts out to you. This means you can read along and listen to what the text may have sounded like. Highly recommended!

Costs: FREE
Link to Google App store: here
Linke to iTunes app store: here

#3 Liberation Philology: Old English


Liberation Philology: Old English app [screenshots from my LG3s]

Flappy Bird, Bejeweled, Sewer Run, 2048, Candy Crush… one of the things people use their smartphones for is to play games. Why not spend that time more wisely and train your knowledge of Old English in this quiz app by a company called ‘Liberation Philology’?

This app allows you to spend hours and hours answering multiple-choice questions concerning the parsing of Old English verbs, nouns or pronouns or the translation of words from Old English to Modern English or vice versa. What better way to keep your brains in good shape, improve your grammar skills and master the basic vocabulary of Old English?

The only slight disadvantage to this app I can find is that there is no reward system, other than its keeping track of your average score. Where is my ‘You have answered “–um indicates dative plural five times in a row”-badge!? Also, you have to ‘level up’ manually, rather than advancing to the next level after answering a certain number of questions correctly. For vocabulary, you can go up to level 170; for verbs and nouns you can select specific verbs or noun declensions, or simply select ‘All Verbs: All Forms’ or ‘All Declensions’.

For the polyglots, Liberation Philology also has apps for Gothic, Old Norse and a range of other languages.

Costs: 3,99 EUR/3,99 USD/2,99 GBP
Link to Android app store: here
Link to iTunes app store: here

#2 Old English Dictionary


Old English Dictionary app [screenshots from my LG3s]

Who wouldn’t want a nifty, portable Old English dictionary that you can use in the train, while walking your dog or being too lazy to pick up a hard copy dictionary (which would cost you at least ten times as much)?

The Old English Dictionary app, developed by Walter M. Shandruk, is essentially a digital version of the 1889 edition of Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller’s An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, combined with Toller’s Supplement, published in 1921. The entries do not only contain definitions, but also quotations and references to texts where the word is used. Although there is a freely available online version of this dictionary at http://www.bosworthtoller.com, I rather prefer the app version: you can use it offline; the app has a custom Old English keyboard that includes the runic character æ and þ; and it is much easier to do a full text search to look up words mentioned in definitions (by using the grey search bar on the top).

Although I am quite happy with this app, there are two minor downsides. One: The dictionary is slightly outdated. For the most accurate lexical information for Old English, you had better turn to the Dictionary of Old English (currently developed by University of Toronto; A-G are available behind a paywall) or Clark-Hall’s Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (4th edn., 1960). Two: If your text does not feature the word as spelled in this dictionary, you are not going to find it. This is rather annoying, when you consider that a word with the vowel ‘y’ can typically be found in texts spelled as ‘i’, ‘ie’, ‘e’, ‘u’ and ‘y’.

Overall though, if you are looking for a cheap Old English Dictionary, this app should make you very ‘appy indeed. Thankfully, it does not contain entries for taekwondo or coffee.

Costs: 3,21 EUR/2,99 USD
Link to Android app store: here
I have not been able to find an iTunes link.

#1 Essentials of Old English


Essentials of Old English app [screenshots from my LG3s]

Of course, the best way to learn Old English is to enlist in a University course and be taught and motivated by an enthusiastic tutor. But for those who want to embark on this quest alone, and on their smartphone, Essentials of Old English offers a full Old English manual and workbook!

This app, like Readings of Early English, was developed by Brian Aitken of the University of Glasgow and features basic and advanced explanations of Old English grammar and, most importantly, challenging exercises that will help you master the material. The app is intended to supplement a University-taught course, but it can also be used on its own: tucked away in its ‘About’ section, there is a ‘study guide’ for autodidact students. That study guide refers to ‘texts’ which you will not be able to find in this app, but they happen to be the Old English texts in the Readings of Early English app – so those two apps are very compatible.


Essentials of Old English app [screenshots from my LG3s]

The majority of the exercises in this app have you substitute a Modern English word or phrase for the properly conjugated or inflected Old English form. This is a sound way to practise and might even help you to compose some Old English of your own. Some of the assignments can be annoying though, since as a reader you do not always know the Old English equivalent of a Modern English word; let alone its grammatical features (e.g., gender, type of noun, etc.). The app’s built-in glossary, regrettably, only works from Old English to Modern English.

Using this app will give you the bare basics of ‘baby Old English’: like many other text books, the Old English has been normalized to reflect a standardized version of the Early West Saxon dialect- once you explore actual Old English texts, you will find that some of those scribes did not follow the ‘rules’. Be that as it may, a very good app and free to boot!

Costs: FREE
Android app store: here
iTunes app store: here

Sitting down in early medieval England: A catalogue of Anglo-Saxon chairs

After fighting their battles, tending to their fields, playing their harps, herding their cows and singing their Psalms, many an Anglo-Saxon would feel the need to put their feet up and their bottoms down. But what exactly would they sit down on? This blog provides a (by no means exhaustive) overview of seating types used in Anglo-Saxon England.

1) fyld-stōl ‘folding stool’


Left: Reconstruction of folding stool found in Prittlewell burial chamber (source); Right: Decorated folding stools in the Old English Hexateuch © British Library, Cotton Claudius B IV, 43v, 68v.

Simple, compact and, most importantly, portable: the folding stool has been the seating accommodation of choice for a very long time. Foldable chairs have been around since c.1500 BC and were not uncommon in early medieval England. Anglo-Saxon monasteries, for instance, certainly had folding stools. This much becomes clear from the Monasteriales Indicia (‘Monastic Signs’), an Old English text which lists 127 signs used by monks during times when the Benedictine Rule forbade them to speak. One of those signs allowed a monk to gesture for a folding stool:

Gyf þu meterædere fyldstol habban wille oþþe oþrum men, þonne clæm þu þine handa togædere and gege hi þam gemete þe þu dest þonne þu hine fyalden wylt
[If you want a folding stool for the mealtime reader or anyone else, then clasp your hands together and move them in the way that you do when you want to fold it.] (ed. and trans. Banham 1996, 30-31)

Foldable throne of Dagobert I (source)

Today, folding stools are usually equated with cheap, plastic things we use on camping trips. By contrast, a folding chair could be a sign of high social rank among the Anglo-Saxons. The richly furnished burial chamber of the so-called Prittlewell Prince (an Anglo-Saxon nobleman who lived in the 7th century), for example, contained several high-status objects, such as luxurious metal objects, laced with gold and silver, a sword, a lyre and a hanging bowl, but also a seemingly humble folding stool.

Indeed, in the early Middle Ages, curule chairs (a deluxe type of folding stool) could bear the bums of kings: Dagobert I (circa 603–39), king of the Franks 629–34, had a foldable throne, made of bronze that was later reused by other monarchs of France (more info here). Such high-status folding stools would often be beautifully ornamented – the arms of the throne of Dagobert resemble panthers, while the legs are shaped like paws. In the Old English Hexateuch, an early eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon comic strip adaptation of the first six books of the Bible (see this blog here), several high-ranking men recline on similar curule chairs with legs terminating in zoomorphic claws.

2) luxury add-ons: fōt-setl ond set-hrægl ‘footrest and seatcover’


Portrait of prophet Ezra in the Codex Amiatinus ©Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatinus 1, fol. 5r (source)

Another type of seat one would find in Anglo-Saxon monasteries is depicted in the portrait of Ezra in the Codex Amiatinus (an 8th-century, Northumbrian copy of the Bible, intended as a gift for the pope). Ezra is shown writing a book, sitting on a small bench. While Ezra’s seating accommodation probably wouldn’t pass a present-day occupational health and safety examination, it is worth pointing out that his seat has at least two optional add-ons. For one, his feet are resting comfortably on a fōt-setl ‘foot-rest’ (literally: foot-chair or foot-seat). In addition, his bench is furbished with a comfy blue cushion. The Monasteriales Idicia once more prove that such pillows were a common sight in an early medieval English monastery:

Ðonne þu setrægel habban wille, þonne plice þu ðine agene geweda mid twam fingrum, tospred þine twa handa and gewe hi, swylce þu setl gesydian wille.

[When you want a seat cover, then pinch your own clothes with two fingers, spread out your two hands, and move them in the way that you do when you want to fold it.] (ed. and trans. Banham 1996, 30-31)

3) friþ-stōl ‘sanctuary chair’


Frith-stools of Beverley Minster (source) and Hexham Abbey (source)

These uncomfortable looking stone chairs are known as frith-stools (lit. peace-chairs). A frith-stool was placed near the altar of a church and criminals could claim sanctuary by sitting in them. The frith-stool appears in various Latin charters from the twelfth century but some (like the ones in Beverley and Hexham) are said to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries (see Simpson 1953-1957). The word “grythstole”, indicating a similar sanctuary chair, appears in a Middle English text that claims to be a charter by King Athelstan (d. 939) for St. Wilfrid’s church in Ripon. Intriguingly, the text is in rhyme:

*Wyttyn al that is and is gan                               testify
That ik Kyng Attelstane
Has gyven as frelich as ich may
To kyrk and chaptel of seint Wylfray
Of my free *deuocon                                             devotion
Thar *pees at Rypon                                              peace, sanctuary
On *ylke syde the kirke a myle                          every
For al ille deedes and ilke *gyle                         guile
And wythinne thay kyrk *yate                           gate
At the stane that grythstole hatte
Withinne the kyrke dore and the *quere       choir
Thay have thayre pees for less and mare.

(Simpson 1953-57; I have added Modern English glosses for the words marked with an asterisk)

4) gif-stōl ‘gift-chair, throne’


William the Conqueror and Edward the Confessor on the Bayeux Tapestry

One of the Old English words for throne is gif-stōl: literally, the seat whence the lord would bestow gifts on his loyal followers. The thrones occupied by Edward the Confessor (d. 1066) and William the Conqueror (d. 1087) on the Bayeux Tapestry both show a zoomorphic design: fashionable animal paws and heads decorate the extremities of their seats.

5) medu-benc ‘mead-bench, drinking-bench’


Drinking-bench © British Library, Cotton Tiberius B V, 4v

In Beowulf, we occasionally read about mead-benches and beer-seats. In this world of hardened warriors, we should probably imagine simple, wooden benches: certainly no monkish cushions! A more luxurious (and comfortable) piece of furniture is illustrated in a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon calendar page for the month of April. The illustration depicts ‘feasting’ (this is the ‘Labour of the Month’ for April!)  and shows three men enjoying a drink on an elongated seat. The seating part of this drinking-bench is covered with a sheet of some sort and on either end of the seat is the front half of a beast – a lion on the left and a boar(?) with impressive tusks on the right. When it came to fashionable furniture, it seems, animals were all the rage!

Works referred to:

  • Banham, D., ed. and trans., Monasteriales Indicia: The Anglo-Saxon Monastic Sign Language, exp. edn. Hockwold-cum-Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1996.
  • Simpson, J., ‘A Note on the Word Friðstóll‘, Saga-Book of the Viking Society 14 (1953-1957), 200-210.


The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex

Pikachus, Togepis, Flareons, Charmanders and Bulbasaurs. These days, the World seems obsessed with Pokémon GO. However, this fancy for exotic monsters with special powers is nothing new: in the early Middle Ages, people also showed a keen interest in remarkable creatures from faraway. The author of ‘The Marvels of the East’ collected various monsters that could rival Pokémon’s finest, as this blog post reveals…

The Marvels of the East

The Marvels of the East (also known as The Wonders of the East) is something of a liber monstrorum, ‘abook of monsters’. The text, which survives in Old English and Latin, list various beings and places located in the East (Babylonia, Egypt, India, etc.). These oriental things are particularly extraordinary: dogs with boar-tusks breathing fire, bearded women hunting with tigers and pearls growing from vines! Each creature and place is described with what appears to be factual information (length, height, colour for most of the fauna; geographical distance from known places for the flora). Since races of half-human-half-donkeys,  polyglot cannibals and giant gold-stealing ants probably  never roamed the Earth, we can be sure that most of the beings listed in The Marvels of the East stem from fantastical traditions (although the text also lists Ethiopeans among its remarkable humanoids). Nevertheless, the text had some popularity and can be found in three medieval manuscripts: Cotton Vitellius A.xv (c. 1000-1015; a.k.a. the Beowulf Manuscript); Cotton Tiberius B.v (c. 1050) and MS Bodley 614 (1100-1200). In these manuscripts, the descriptions are accompanied by illustrations.

The combination of information about wonderful beings, along with illustrations, may remind some of a Pokédex. For the non-enlightened, a Pokédex is a digital, illustrated encyclopaedia, which lists all sort of information about the various Pokémon that you can catch and train in games of the Pokémon franchise (more info here). Indeed, some of the marvellous creatures mentioned in The Marvels of the East show  (faint) parallels to specific Pokémon. I provide seven examples below. Information about most of the Pokémon is from Bulbapedia; the Old English text and translation are taken from Orchard 1995. 

Seven Pokémon and their early medieval doppelgangers

1) Torchic and the fiery hens of Lentibeisinea


Left: Fiery hen in Cotton Vitellius A.xv, 99r © The British Library; Middle: Torchic (source); Right: Fiery hen in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 79r © The British Library

Your local Pokémon centre will tell you that Torchic is an orange Fire Pokémon that resembles a chick (its first evolution, Combusken, resembles a chicken – this makes perfect sense). As a Fire Pokémon, Torchic is warm to the touch, as Bulbapedia explains: “Somewhere in its belly, this Pokémon has a place where it keeps a flame. This internal flame causes Torchic to feel warm if hugged.” The Marvels of the East makes mention of a similarly fiery fowl, though hugging it may not be the best idea:

Sum stow is ðonne mon færð to ðare Readan Sæ, seo is gehaten Lentibelsinea. On ðan beoð henna akende gelice ðam þe mid us beoð reades hiwes. 7 gyf hi hwylc mon niman wile oððe hyra æthrineð ðonne forbærnað hi sona eall his lic. Þæt syndon ungefregelicu lyblac.

[As you go towards the Red Sea there is a place called Lentibeisinea, where there are hens born like ours, red in colour. If any one tries to take or touch them, they immediately burn up all his body. That is extraordinary magic.]

2) Terlard and the two-headed snakes of Hascellentia


Left: Terlard (source) ; Right: Two-headed snake in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 79v © The British Library

A Terlard is a Dragon/Ground Pokémon with a serpentine body and two heads. Since each head has its own brain, Terlard’s two heads often get into a fight with each other, making this Pokémon particularly aggressive and hard to train (according to its entry in the Pokémon Uranium Wikia). Two-headed snakes also make an appearance in The Marvels of the East:

Þæt land is eallum godum gefylled. Ðeos steow næddran hafað. Þa næddran habbað twa heafda, ðæra eagan scinað nihtes swa leohte swa blacern.

[That land is filled with all good things. This place contains serpents. The serpents have two heads, whose eyes shine at night as brightly as lanterns.]

Judging by the manuscript image in Cotton Tiberius B.v, the heads of these snakes, like those of Terlard, do not always see eye to eye.

3) Kricketune and the camel-eating ant-grasshopper-hybrids


Left: Ant-grasshopper hybrids in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 80v © The British Library; Middle: Kricketune (source); Right: Ant-grasshopper hybrids attacking  camel in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 80v © The British Library

The red-and-black insectoid with the fancy moustache is Kricketune, a Bug-type Pokémon. As its name suggests, Kricketune is based, in part, on the cricket or grasshopper. The Marvels of the East features another red-and-black, cricket-ish insectoid: dog-sized grasshopper-ants with an appetite for camels!

Þær beoð akende æmættan swa micle swa hundas. Hi habbað fet swylce græshoppan, hi syndon reades hiwes 7 blaces. Þa æmettan delfað gold up of eorðan fram forannihte oð ða fiftan tid dæges. Ða menn ðe to ðam dyrstige beoð þæt hi þæt gold nimen, þonne lædað hi mid him olfenda myran mid hyra folan 7 stedan. Þa folan hi getigað ær hi ofer þa ea faran. Þæt gold hi gefætað on ða myran 7 hi sylfe onsittað 7 þa stedan þær forlætað. Ðonne ða æmettan hi onfindað, 7 þa hwile ðe þa æmettan ymbe ða stedan abiscode beoð, þonne ða men mid þam myran 7 þam golde ofer ða ea farað. Hi beoð to þam swifte þæt ða men wenað þæt hi fleogende syn.

[Ants are born there as big as dogs, which have feet like grasshoppers, and are of red and black colour. The ants dig up gold from the ground from before night to the fifth hour of the day. People who are bold enough to take the gold bring with them male camels, and females with their young. They tie up the young before they cross the river. They load the gold onto the females, and mount them themselves, and leave the males there. Then the ants detect the males, and while the ants are occupied with the males, the men cross over the river with the females and the gold. They are so swift that one would think that they were flying.]

4) Ho-Oh and the Phoenix


Left: Ho-Oh (source) Right: The Phoenix in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 86v © The British Library

The Ho-Oh is a Legendary Pokémon that can resurrect the dead and create rainbows by flapping its wings. In terms of its appearance, the Ho-Oh combines features of the peacock and the Phoenix. A peacockesque Phoenix is also found in The Marvels of the East:

On þære ylcan stowe byð oðer fugelcynn Fenix hatte. Þa habbað cambas on heafde swa pawan, 7 hyra nest þætte hi wyrcaþ of ðam deorweorðestan wyrtgemangum þe man cinnamomum hateð. 7 of his æðme æfter þusend gearum he fyr onæleð 7 þonne geong upp of þam yselum eft ariseþ.

[In the same place is another kind of bird called Phoenix. They have crests on their heads like peacocks, and they build their nests from the most precious spices, which are called cinnamon; and from its breath, after a thousand years, it kindles a flame, and then rises up young again from the ashes.]

As a Legendary Pokémon, the Ho-Oh is naturally hard to find. Judging by the entry for the rather similar Phoenix in The Marvels of the East, ambitious Poké-trainers could try and follow the scent of cinnamon!

5) Lopunny and the people with long ears


Left: Lopunny (source) ; Right: Long-eared person in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 83v © The British Library

Lopunny is a Normal-type Pokémon that looks like a bipedal, oversized bunny with overly long ears. Lopunny is proud of its ears and rightly so, since they come in handy when danger rears its ugly head: Bulbapedia notes “Lopunny is a timid Pokémon that will cloak its body with its ears or spring away when it senses danger.” Interestingly, Lopunny’s timidity and tendency to covering its body with its ears parallel the behaviour of a long-eared race of doubtful humans in The Marvels of the East:

Hi habbað micle heafda 7 earan swa fann. Oþer eare hi him on niht underbredað, 7 mid oðran hy wreoð him. Beoð þa earan swiðe leohte 7 hi beoð an lichoman swa hwite swa meolc. 7 gif hi hwylcne mann on ðam landum geseoð oðþe ongytað, þonne nimað hi heora earan on hand 7 feorriað hi 7 fleoð, swa hrædlice swa is wen þætte hi fleogen

[They have large heads and ears like fans. They spread one ear beneath them at night, and they wrap themselves with the other. Their ears are very light and their bodies are as white as milk. And if they see or perceive anyone in those lands, they take their ears in their hands and go far and flee, so swiftly one might think that they flew.]

6) Onix and the pepper-hoarding snakes


Left: Onix (source); Right: Pepper-hoarding and burrowing snakes in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 79v © The British Library

Onix is a snake-like, Rock/Ground Pokémon with a rocky spine on its head. One of Onix’s special moves, tunnelling through the ground, links it to the Corsiae: the pepper-hoarding, horned snakes of The Marvels of the East, which also go underground:  

… ðæra næddrena mænigeo … þa hattan Corsias. Ða habbað swa micle hornas swa weðeras. Gyf hi hwylcne monn sleað oððe æthrinað þonne swylt he sona. On ðam londum byð piperes genihtsumnys. Þone pipor þa næddran healdað on hyra geornfulnysse. Ðone pipor mon swa nimeð þæt mon þa stowe mid fyre onæleð 7 þonne ða næddran of dune on eorðan þæt hi fleoð; forðan se pipor byð sweart.

[… the multitude of snakes called Corsiae … . They have horns as big as rams. If they strike or touch anyone, he immediately dies. In those lands there is an abundance of pepper. The snakes keep the pepper in their eagerness. In order to take the pepper, people set fire to the place and then the snakes flee from the high ground into the earth; because of this the pepper is black.]

7) Jigglypuff and the headless people


Left: Headless person in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 82r © The British Library; Middle: Jigglypuff (source); Right: Headless person in Cotton Vitellius A.xv, 102v © The British Library

Jigglypuff may be the cutest Pokémon out there, with its round balloon-like body and blue, puppy-dog eyes. Jigglypuff is particularly known for singing sleep-inducing lullabies (the lyrics are, if I am not mistaken,  “Jigglypuff, Jigglypuff, Jigglypuff!”). The fact that Jigglypuff does not seem to have a head that separates it from its body reminded me of the headless people we find in The Marvels of the East:

Ðonne is oðer ealand suð fram Brixonte on þam beoð menn akende butan heafdum, þa habbaþ on heora breostum heora eagan 7 muð. Hi syndan eahta fota lange 7 eahta fota brade.

[Then there is another island, south of the Brixontes, on which there are born men without heads who have their eyes and mouth in their chests. They are eight feet tall and eight feet wide.]

On the basis of the text we could imagine a tribe of gigantic Jigglypuffs south of the Brixontes – the Anglo-Saxon artists that illustrated Cotton Tiberius B.v and Cotton Vitellius A.xv, however, appear to have preferred more humanoid beings, showing off their genitalia. Given the choice, I’d choose you,  Jigglypuff!

*UPDATE* One of my students rightly pointed out that the Pokémon Hitmonlee is a much better parallel for the headless people south of the Brixontes – he has a point!


Left: Headless person in Cotton Tiberius B.v, 82r ©The British Library; Right: Hitmonlee (source)

Naturally, there is absolutely no one-on-one relation between the ‘monsters’ described in The Marvels of the East and Pokémon. However, both cultural products seem to derive from a similar interest in marvellous beings – beings which resemble our own  fauna to some extent but are made special through the attribution of extraordinary traits. Information about these creatures is well worth collecting, the early medieval compiler of The Marvels of the East thought. So, the next time someone complains when you are going out to play Pokémon GO in order to expand your Pokédex, you can tell them you are following a long-standing tradition that stretches back at least a thousand years!

Works referred to:

  • Orchard, Andy. 1995. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-manuscript (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer)

Flashed after the Flood: Seeing naked fathers in Anglo-Saxon England

In honour of Father’s Day (19-06-2016), this blog post calls attention to three Anglo-Saxon responses to the story of Ham seeing his father Noah’s nakedness (Genesis 9:21-25). This intriguing biblical tale inspired one Anglo-Saxon artist to draw what may be one of the most x-rated illuminations of the early Middle Ages.

Seeing his father’s nakedness in The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch

The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch (The British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv) contains an Old English translation of the first six books of the Bible and is lavishly illustrated with over 400 illuminations (you can find out more about this fascinating manuscript here: The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book). Since the Old English translation (written in part by Ælfric of Eynsham) follows the Latin Vulgate closely, the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch is a good place to start exploring how the story of Ham witnessing his father’s nakedness circulated in Anglo-Saxon England.

We find the story in Genesis 9:21-25. After relating how Noah survived the Flood in his ark, the biblical account continues with Noah’s building of a vineyard and tasting the fruits of his efforts:

7 ða ða he dranc of ðam wine, ða wearð he druncen 7 læg on his getelde unbehelod. His sunu ða, Cham, geseah his gesceapu unbeheled, 7 cydde hit his twam gebroðrum ut on felda.

[And  when he drank of the wine, then he became drunk and he lay naked in his tent. Ham, his son, then saw his naked genitals and made it known to this two brothers out in the field.]

The artist of the Old English Hexateuch captured these three actions in the following marvellous illustration (note how Ham sneaks around the frame to peek at Noah in his multi-coloured tent) :


Noah getting drunk with wine (top left); Ham seeing his father’s nakedness (right) and Ham telling his brother Sem and Japhet (bottom left) © The British Library, Cotton Claudius B. IV, fol. 17v

The biblical account continues with Sem and Japhet showing more restraint than their voyeurish brother:

Hwæt, ða Sem 7 Iapheth dydon anne hwitel on heora sculdrum, 7 eodon underbæc 7 beheledon heora fæderes gecynd, swa ðæt hi ne gesawon his næcednysse.

[Lo! Then Sem and Japhet took a mantle over their shoulder and went backwards and covered their father’s genitals, so that they did not see his nakedness.]

The artist once again captures this biblical verse perfectly (one of the brothers is slightly overdoing it: not only walking backwards but shielding his eyes with his cloak at the same time!):


Sem and Japhet covering up Noah © The British Library, Cotton Claudius B. IV, fol. 17v

Noah then awakes from his sleep:

Noe soðlice ða ða he awoc of ðam slæpe, 7 he ofaxode hwæt his suna him dydon. Ða cwæð he: Awyrged is Chanaan, 7 he byð ðeowena ðeowa his gebroðrum.

[Truly, Noah, when he awoke from sleep,  asked what his sons had done to him. Then he said: ‘Cursed is Canaan [Ham’s son] and he will be the slave of slaves for his brothers.’]

The artist now shows an awake Noah (still in a floating cocoon!) addressing Sem and Japhet (who are about to blessed).This time, Ham, whose offspring has just been cursed, has his face turned from his father (too little, too late!):


Noah cursing Ham’s son Canaan  © The British Library, Cotton Claudius B. IV, fol. 18r

The Venerable Bede and the various  explanations of Ham’s punishment

As you can tell, the biblical account is rather brief and leaves much to the imagination, especially since cursing the son of your son to a life of servitude seems a rather harsh punishment for an act of voyeurism. Due to the obscurity of many of the details of the story, interpretations of Ham’s seeing Noah’s nakedness have run wild. The phrase “seeing your father’s nakedness”, in particular, has led some interpretators to refer to Leviticus 18:6-19, where the phrase “uncovering someone’s nakedness” implies sexual activity: Ham may have masturbated his drunk father or, perhaps worse, sent in his youngest son Canaan to perform this act (since it is Canaan that is cursed!) (see: UK Apologetics). Others have suggested that Ham did not have any sexual dealings with Noah himself, but with Noah’s wife (cf. Leviticus 18:8: “Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy father’s wife: for it is the nakedness of thy father”; see: New World Encyclopedia ). Did Ham sleep with his own mother while his father was drunk ? Scandalous!

The Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Bede (d. 735) did not imagine anything other than Ham simply seeing the nakedness of his father. What made Ham’s actions so repulsive, Bede wrote in his commentary On Genesis, was not just the act of seeing, but the act of making it public knowledge. What’s more, Bede added that Ham had laughed at his father’s nakedness and he linked Ham’s actions to how the Jews had derided Christ:

Ham, who laughed when he saw that his father’s private parts were uncovered, signifies the insulting and incredulous Jewish people, who rejoiced rather to hold in contempt the passion of our Lord and Saviour to their own destruction than, for the sake of being saved, to be glorified by it. (trans.  Kendall, p. 210)

Bede also weighed in on why Ham’s son Canaan was punished, rather than his father:

And according to the literal sense it should be noted also that, although Ham sinned, there is a reason why not he but his son Canaan is cursed, especially since the latter was not the first-born of Ham, but his last son. … For at the same time it was foreseen on the spiritual level that the offspring of Canaan were going to sin much more than the other offspring of the sons of Ham, and therefore that they would deserve either to perish by the curse or to groan under the slavery to which they were subjected. (trans. Kendall, p. 213)

Bede goes on to explain that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24-30) descended from Canaan. Thus, since God had foreseen the transgressions of the Canaanites, the curse on Canaan and his descendants was anticipatory punishment! (for the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and its depiction in the Old English Hexateuch click here)

Laughing at his father’s genitals in the Old English Genesis

Bede was not the first to add to the biblical narrative the idea of Ham laughing at his father’s exposed state; the idea goes back as far at least as the theologian Origen (c. 185-c. 254; quoted here). Nor was Bede the last. The poet responsible for the Old English verse adaptation of Genesis (full text available here) made the same addition to the story:

ða þæt geeode,      þæt se eadega wer
on his wicum wearð      wine druncen,
swæf symbelwerig,      and him selfa sceaf
reaf of lice.      Swa gerysne ne wæs,
læg þa limnacod. …

þa com ærest      Cam in siðian,
eafora Noes,      þær his aldor læg,
ferhðe forstolen.      þær he freondlice
on his agenum fæder      are ne wolde
gesceawian,      ne þa sceonde huru
hleomagum helan,      ac he hlihende
broðrum sægde,      hu se beorn hine
reste on recede. (Genesis, ll. 1562-6, 1577-85)

[And then it happened that the blessed man became drunk of wine in his dwellings, he slept weary of feasts, and he himself cast the cloth from his body. Then he lay naked of limb, as it was not fitting.  …  Then Ham, the son of Noah, first went in, where his elder lay, deprived of mind. There he did not want to look upon his father with reverence, nor conceal his shame from their kinsmen. But, laughing, he told his brothers how the man rested in his dwelling.]

Interestingly, the Anglo-Saxon poet has Noah then curse Ham, rather than his youngest son Canaan – thus avoiding any confusion.

This Old English poetic version of Genesis is found in the early-eleventh-century manuscript Oxford Bodleian Library, Junius 11. Like the Old English Hexateuch, this manuscript is beautifully illustrated and the artist responsible also captured the various scenes that make up the story of Ham uncovering his father’s nakedness:


Ham seeing his father’s nakedness (top); Ham telling his brothers (middle); his brothers covering Noah (bottom). (c) Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 11, p. 78 (source)

One of the striking features of this illustration is the explicit depiction of Noah’s genitals. Whereas the artist of the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch obscured our view by having Noah conveniently raising up his legs, the artist of Junius 11 gives us the whole stick and balls:


Top: Noah lifting up the covers to expose his genitals in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, p. 78 (source); bottom: Noah’s genitals obscured by his legs in The British Library, Cotton Claudius B.IV, fol. 17v.

Perhaps, the artist of Junius 11 wanted to test his audience with this particular illustration: he gives us the choice to look upon Noah’s genitals (like Ham) or avert our eyes (like Sem and Japhet). If so, I failed the test!

Works referred to:

  • Bede, On Genesis, trans. C. B. Kendall (Liverpool, 2008)

The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition

For a bonus question on one of my Old English literature exams, my students used their artistic talents to draw scenes from The Battle of Maldon. Together, these doodles cover almost the entire poem and document how well (or how badly) my students remembered the poem.

Drawings have long since been used for the purpose of teaching (for an example from the Anglo-Saxon period see Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels). On occasion, I use my own drawings to spice up my lectures (such as my Anglo-Saxon Anecdotes) or explain complicated bits of Anglo-Saxon literature (e.g., The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode). For last year’s third-year Old English literature exam, I decided to turn the tables on my students. I had them each draw a scene from the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon for a bonus point (worth 1% of the final grade) and the results were both hilarious and insightful. While the exercise was intended as a bit of a gag, their doodles actually allowed me to see which events from the poem had captured their interest; how they (mis)remembered certain passages; how few of them could spell the name of the English leader Byrhtnoth correctly; and which scenes, apparently, made no impact on them at all (e.g., no one pictured the loyal retainers fighting on to die alongside their lord!).  Here follows a selection of my students’ drawings, along with some commentary.

i) Release the hawk!


In the opening lines of the extant version of The Battle of Maldon, the kinsman of Offa releases his “leofne…hafoc” [beloved hawk] (ll. 4-5); a scene, which apparently, struck a chord with these two students. As the second student points out, Offa’s release of the hawk, as well as the decision of the English to drive away their horses, was  intended to strengthen the morale of the English troops – they had burned their bridges (or: released their beloved hawks) and there would be no turning back!

ii) ‘Give us dollah!’


The next two students have drawn how the Vikings demand tribute or, as the second drawing suggests, “dollah”, which (apparently) is slang for money or danegeld [the term used for the tribute paid by the Anglo-Saxons to the Dane – bonus point!]. The English respond reluctant: “not a chance!” according to the first student; the second student is closer to the mark: “kill them with spears!”, “poisoned spears!”, some of the English shout – reflecting the English leader Byrhtnoth’s original response to offer the vikings “garas …ættrynne ord and ealde swurd” [spears, poisoned spears and old swords] (ll. 46-47) .The second drawing also shows what happens next: the Vikings ask to be allowed to pass and “Byrthroth” lets them – an important scene that inspired many other students as well…

iii) Let them pass!


This student has drawn the strategic advantage of the English army, led by “Byrhnoth”: the Vikings had to cross a narrow tidal causeway to get to the other side. (Ooo! Horned helmet alert!)


This student has the Vikings threaten to “hurt you and your mum”; stick figure “Byrhnoth” is unimpressed and says “You may cross over so we can fight like real men. I want glory!”.


This student depicts “Brythnots army standing by while Vikings get on British lands”. With a keen eye for detail, the student has the English play games of football, chess and whiff-whaff (and one English warrior even sleeps in a hammock!), while the Vikings cross to the main land.


Another bridge-crossing scene – one English warrior shouts “Yay! Fair battle!” and another shouts “Swilce ofermod!”. The latter, of course, refers to the original poet’s remark that the English leader Byrhtnoth acted out “his ofermode” (l. 89) [his excessive pride].

iv) The beasts of battle await…

BomDoodle12This student has remembered one of the recurring typescenes of Old English heroic poetry: the beasts of battle that show up at the end of a battle to devour the dead bodies. They also make an appearance in The Battle of Maldon: hremmas wundon / earn æses georn” [ravens wound about, eager eagles of carrion] (ll. 106-107).

v) The death of Byrhtnoth


I always tell my students that this scene is pure Hollywood: the old leader “Byrnthoth”  – a “har hilderinc” [grey-haired warrior] (l. 168) – goes down, the young warrior Wulfmær – “hyse unweaxen” [a young man, not fully grown] (l. 152) –  takes revenge! I am glad that at least one of them took note. Not sure where the broken sword comes from though…


Another student also remembered the scene (and the correct spelling of the leader’s name!), and then went all Harold Godwinson on the offending Viking spear-thrower!

vi) How not to be a hero


Of course, not all English warriors were as courageous as young Wulfmaer. This student remembers how the sons of Odda fleed the scene, taking with them the horse of their stricken leader “Byrtnoth”. In the poem, all three sons of Odda flee the scene and, in the mind of the next student, they all did so on the same horse:


I find it intriguing to see how none of the students seem to have been inspired to draw the near-suicidal loyalty of the English warriors after their lord has been cut down. Even the poem’s most famous lines “Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre / mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað” [Mind must be tougher, heart must be bolder, courage must be greater, as our strength becomes less]  did not get a mention – odd, given that it is the perfect mindset for an exam!

vii) Wow, very ofermod, much Anglo-Saxon, wow


Wow, indeed.

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:


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:


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.

The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode

One of the most intriguing stories referred to in Old English heroic poetry is whatever happend at Finnsburg, between Hnæf , Finn and Hengest. The story is referred to in Beowulf, the so-called Finnsburg Fragment, and Widsith, but the events are rather difficult to piece together. For all who have ever struggled making sense of Finnsburg, here is an attempt at a comic strip reconstruction.

“gid oft wrecen” (Beowulf, l. 1065b): A Tale Often Recited

After Beowulf has defeated Grendel, there is much rejoicing in the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar. During the festivities, a minstrel performs a well-known tale, a “gid oft wrecen” (l. 1065b): a tale often recited. The Beowulf poet certainly assumed his audience to be familiar with the contents of this tale, since what follows is a rather enigmatic summary of events of something that took place in Frisia, concerning Finn, Hnæf and Hengest (ll. 1063-1159).  The basic premise of the story is somewhat clear: a feud between Danes and Frisians had been solved by a political marriage between the Frisian prince Finn and the Danish princess Hildeburh; a visit by Hildeburh’s brother Hnæf to Finnsburg renewed the hostilities and resulted in the death of Hnæf and Hildeburh’s son among others; although a new truce was made, Finn is killed the following year and Hildeburh is brought back to Denmark. The exact particulars of the story, however, are only alluded to and many scholars have tried to figure out what exactly happened (chief among them, a man named J.R.R. Tolkien in the posthumous work Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, ed. A. Bliss (1982)).

That the story of Finnsburg was indeed well known and often recited, becomes clear from the Finnsburg Fragment. The Finnsburg Fragment was found on a loose manuscript folio, once kept at Lambeth Palace and edited by the George Hickes in 1705 (the manuscript folio has since been lost). The Fragment consists of 48 lines of Old English poetry, which outline how a band of warriors led by Hnæf are attacked by Frisians, near Finnsburg. the text breaks off when a certain “folces hyrde” [leader of people, possibly Hnæf]  is mortally wounded. As such, the Finnsburg Fragment fills in some of the details that are lacking in the summary of the minstrel’s tale in Beowulf, which in turn provides information about the cause and outcome of the fight which are not mentioned in the extant text of the Finnsburg Fragment.

Yet a third text to testify to the circulation of this story in Anglo-Saxon England is the poem Widsith. This poem which is something of a catalogue of people, kings and heroes that the traveling poet Widsith [wide-jouney] had supposedly met over the years. Among the heroes mentioned in Widsith are the Frisian “Finn Folcwalding” [Finn, son of Folcwald] (l. 27), “Hnæf” who ruled the Hocings (l. 29) and “Sæferð” (l. 31) who ruled the Sycgs. These heroes can all be identified with people mentioned in the Finnsburg Fragment and/or the Finnsburg episode in Beowulf. The story of Finnsburg, then, was well known indeed, even if the particulars still elude scholars today (matters are made worse by apparent errors in the extant texts of the Finnsburg Fragment and the lines in Beowulf, which cause even more confusion and uncertainty).

The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode

The comic strip below, extending over 28 panels, represents one way of reading the Finnsburg Fragment and the Finnsburg episode in Beowulf. In places, I have simplified things (glossing over, for instance, the matter of the Jutes who appear to be fighting on both sides of the conflict or may actually not be Jutes, but giants – the words “eotan” [Jutes] and “eoten” [giant]  are easily confused!), elsewhere I have opted for one interpretation and ignored others. Some ‘scholarly’ justification follows after the comic strip…






Here is how the panels relate to the texts of Beowulf and the Finnsburg Fragment – I recommend you read the comic strip along with the actual texts!

  1. “The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswæl”. The term “freoðuwebbe” (Beowulf, l. 1942) is used to refer to women who were married off to solve a political feud. The Beowulf poet seems to be rather opposed to this idea, given the dramatic outcome of Hildeburh’s marriage. For the term “Freswæl” [Frisian massacre], see Beowulf, l. 1070. “Or: How Hildeburh became a sad woman”. See Beowulf, l. 1075 “þæt wæs geomuru ides”[that was a sad woman].
  2. I assumed that the feud dated back to the parents of Hildeburh and Finn; this is not neccessarily the case.
  3. For clarity, I gave all the Danes (and Jutes, and Sycgs) mustaches; the Frisians have beards.
  4. The marriage between Hildeburh and Finn must have lasted long enough to produce a son that could die during the fighting at Finnsburg.
  5. Hnæf visits and this leads to hostilities. It is still unknown why these hostilities took place; here, I blame Finn, since it would appear as if the Frisians were the ones to start the fight.
  6. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 3-4.
  7. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 5-12. What Hnæf and his men see is the sudden approach of the Frisians, carrying torches.
  8. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 13-15. Sigeferth can be identified as “Sæferð” in Widsith, l. 31.
  9. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 16-17. The fact that the Fragment says “Hengest sylf” (l. 17) suggests that Hengest is a figure of importance; this also becomes clear from his role in the episode in Beowulf.
  10. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 18-21. It is not entirely clear whether Garulf tells Guthere to stay back or the other way around. Nor is it clear whether the warning is heeded and so it is unclear who approaches the door first. Since we are told Garulf is the first to die (Finnsburg Fragment, l. 31), I suggest Garulf was the first to approach the door and that Guthere indeed listened to his warning. In this way, Garulf is the senior warrior who leads the charge.
  11. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 22-27.
  12. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 31-34a.
  13. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 34b-35a.
  14. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 37-45. It is unclear whether the mortally wounded “hæleð” [hero] (l. 43) is indeed Hnæf. The Finnsburg Fragment breaks off with this wounded hero asking how the young warriors are doing.
  15. See Beowulf, ll. 1067-1069.
  16. See Beowulf, ll. 1071-1081
  17. See Beowulf, ll. 1080-1085.
  18. See Beowulf, ll. 1086-1100.
  19. See Beowulf, ll. 1101-1106.
  20. See Beowulf, ll. 1107-1112.
  21. See Beowulf, ll. 1113-1116. It is uncertain on whose side Hildeburh’s son had been fighting. If he had been fighting on the Frisian side (which seems likely), his body being burned with Hnæf’s  is highly symbolic.
  22. See Beowulf, ll. 1117-1124.
  23. See Beowulf, ll. 1125-1136a.
  24. See Beowulf, ll. 1136b-1150a. The “Guthlaf and Oslaf” mentioned in Beowulf (l. 1148) can probably be identified with the “Ordlaf and Guthlaf” of the Finnsburg Fragment (l. 16).
  25. See Beowulf, ll. 1143-1144. It is unclear whether it is the son of Hunlaf (who may be Guthlaf) who gave Hengest a sword or whether “Hunlafing” (Beowulf, l. 1143) is the name of the sword. Whatever the case, Hengest gets a sword which reminds him of the things that happened the year before – in my reconstruction this is the sword of Hnæf.
  26. See Beowulf, ll. 1150b-1152a.
  27. See Beowulf, ll. 1146-1152a.
  28. See Beowulf, ll. 1152a-1159a.

What if Shakespeare HAD written Old English?

Whenever I tell people I study and teach Old English, they react by feeding me their favourite lines of Shakespeare, noting that it is very difficult indeed: “Is this a dagger I see before me? Alas, poor Yorick! Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”.  Indeed, as a little search on Twitter (see the image at the bottom of this post) indicates, the association between William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Old English (ca 45o-1100) is a widespread myth that deserves to be busted. What better way to do so, than to imagine what it would look like if William Shakespeare HAD written Old English? This blog features my own very first translation of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets into Old English.

Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 18’ in Old English

Sceal ic þē gelīcian tō sumeres dæge?
Þū eart luflīcra ond staþolfæstra.
Rūge windas sceacað þrīmilces dȳrlinge blōstman
Ond sumeres lǣn hæfð eall tō lȳtelne termen.
Hwīlum heofones eage tō hāte scīnð,
Ond oft his gylden hīw is dimmod;
Ond ælc þāra fægernese hwīlum unwlitegað,
Of belimpe oþþe gesceaftes wendendum pæðe ne geglenged;
Ac þīn ēce sumor ne sceall forweornian
Ne forleosan þā fægernese þe þū hæfð;
Ne Dēaþ hrēman ne þorfte þæt þū wandrast in his sceadwe,
Þonne þū in ēce linan tō tīde grēwst
Swā lange swā man mæg orþian oþþe eagan magon sēon,
Swā lange swā þes lifaþ, ond þes þē līf giefþ.

You can find the original text of the sonnet and an analysis of its contents here.

William Shakespeare did not write Old English

As the above translation of sonnet 18 makes clear, Old English is rather different from the English used by Shakespeare. We might note, first of all, a number of different letters: the ‘æ’ to represent the sound in Modern English cat and the ‘þ’ and ‘ð’ that are used interchangeably to represent the first sound in thorn. The use of the macrons above the vowels are a modern convention to indicate long vowels. Another difference includes the spelling of words: with some imagination we can recognize the phrases ‘a summer’s day’ and ‘rough winds’ in ‘sumeres dæge’ and ‘rūge windas’. Furthermore, in his original sonnet Shakespeare used words that were not available in Old English, such as ‘compare’ and ‘complexion’ which were introduced in the later Middle Ages, out of French – the Anglo-Saxons would have used ‘gelīcian’ and ‘hīw’ instead. I particularly like the word ‘þrīmilc’ for ‘May’; the Old English word, which translates to ‘three-milk’, reflects the fact that, in May, you can milk your cows three times a day! Other differences include the more extensive use of inflectional endings in Old English (which still had forms for the genitive, accusative and dative) and word order. In short, the English that Shakespeare used for his ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ is NOT Old English.

William Shakespeare did not write Present-Day English

While it is obviously silly to claim that Shakespeare wrote Old English, it is equally ridiculous to assume that he used the same English that we do today. Two examples will suffice to illustrate this idea. The ‘weird sisters’ in Shakespeare’s MacBeth are often portrayed as odd and strange little women, wobbling about awkwardly and screaming and snorting like lunatics. The nature of their portrayal might be derived from the fact that the word weird today means ‘strange, unusual’. However, it is worth noting that this sense of the word is only attested from the 19th century onwards (see the entry for weird in the OED)In Shakespeare’s time, weird meant ‘Having the power to control the fate or destiny of human beings, etc.’. In other words, Shakespeare used the word in a sense that is more closely connected to Old English wyrd ‘fate’, than it is to Modern English weird ‘strange, unusual’. A second example that illustrates that we must not confuse Shakespeare’s English with our own is championed by the linguist David Crystal and his son Ben, an actor. They argue that if we pronounce Shakespeare’s work as we would Present-day English, we miss out on a lot of puns. For instance,  the words ‘hour’ and ‘whore’ sounded alike in Shakespeare’s time, giving the line ‘From hour to hour we ripe and ripe’ (As you like it, act 2, scene 7) a slightly humourous air – especially since ‘ripe’ and ‘rape’ would also have been homonyms. You can view the Crystals’ plea here.

To conclude, when it comes to reading English texts from the past, it seems as if Shakespeare’s adage ‘to thine own self be true’ should be taken into account: read Shakespeare as if he wrote Early Modern English and, please, do not confuse this with its more beautiful ancestor, Old English.



Ignorance on twitter and an Old English meme! (more of my memes can be found here)