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

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

Initials: Planned, faced and bitten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dangling word-ends

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

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

Avoid the hole!

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

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

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

Triangular text!

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Old English Grammar Videos

Some time ago, I created a number of grammar videos to help my students come to terms with Old English cases, gender, adjectives, nouns and verbs at their own pace. The videos have now been uploaded to YouTube and I have embedded them here below. In the videos, I make use of the first edition of Peter Baker’s Old English Magic Sheet (available here); an updated, third edition of the Magic Sheet is available here: http://www.oldenglishaerobics.net/resources/magic_letter.pdf . Camera and animation by Thomas Vorisek (Leiden University)

Old English Grammar Byte 1: Cases and gender

Old English Grammar Byte 2: Weak and Strong Nouns

Old English Grammar Byte 3: Weak and Strong Adjectives

Old English Grammar Byte 4: Weak and Strong Verbs

I hope you enjoy the videos!

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Parchment and Parliament: Vellum making headlines

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

June 2017: The Queen and the Goatskin

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

April 2016: Veni, vidi, vellum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Porck and parchment in Parliament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parchment wrapped around paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anglo-Saxon obscenities: Explicit art from early medieval England

The phrase ‘medieval obscenities’ typically bring to mind such curious late medieval depictions as the penis tree and obscene pilgrim badges featuring crowned vulvae being carried around by penises. This blog post deals with explicit art from an earlier period: the time of the Anglo-Saxons (c. 500-1100). As we shall see, the depiction of exposed genitalia served multiple purposes: from political commentary to markers of the monstrous, the diabolical and the sinful.

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Ye Old Medieval Obscenities: Nuns picking the fruit from the penis tree © Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 25526, fol. 160r; Obscene pilgrim badge (1375-1450) with crowned vulva being carried by three walking penises (source)

1) The Bayeux Tapestry erection

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Perhaps the most famous depictions of nude figures in a work of early medieval art are found in the lower margins of the Bayeux Tapestry (made in the late 11th-century, by Anglo-Saxon nuns for a Norman patron). Whereas the main panels of the Tapestry depict the events leading up to and including the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the margins are home to an array of animals and human figures. It has been suggested that some of these marginal figures were meant as political commentary on the events depicted in the main panels. The scene of Harold Godwinson brought before William the soon-to-be-Conqueror, for instance, is accompanied by a virile and naked man reaching for an exposed woman whose hand gestures suggest discomfort. Is it possible that the Anglo-Saxon nuns were not-so-subtly comparing the interaction between William and Harold to non-consensual intercourse?

The Bayeux Tapestry  features several other naked men with exposed appendages. The obscenity of these marginal scenes proved to be something of an obstacle for 19th-century, Victorian embroiderers who were intent on making a full-size replica of the tapestry. When I visited Reading Museum last year (where you can see the replica in a special gallery on the first floor), I noticed that at least one of the nude figures was given a pair of underpants:

 

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Left: Original Bayeux Tapestry erection; Right: Victorian reproduction now in Reading Museum

(For more on censored nudity and the Bayeux Tapestry, see this blog by Christopher Monk)

2) Marvels of the East au naturel

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Obscene monstrosities © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.v, fols. 80r, 82r, 83v.

The Marvels of the East is a catalogue of monsters that survives in two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. The text, accompanied by illustrations, features descriptions of marvellous beasts (including exploding chickens!) and semi-humans (on this text, see The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex). Some of these humanoid monsters are depicted in their birthday suits. As Kim (2003) has noted, their full-frontal nudity acts as a marker of monstrosity: it sets these weird and wonderful creatures apart from mankind. This difference is particularly clear in the depiction of the Donestre (half-human, half-lion, who speak to travellers in their own languages, then eat them and cry over their victim’s heads): whereas the monsters are naked, their human victims are clothed.

3) Woden, a well-endowed god

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Left: Naked Woden on Finglesham buckle (source); Right: Well-endowed Woden figurine © British Museum (source)

Prior to their conversion to Christianity, the Anglo-Saxons practised Germanic paganism. Evidence for their pagan beliefs includes various grave goods, which imply that they believed in an afterlife where such material goods would come in handy. Archaeological finds in early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries include objects that feature depictions of what are believed to be pagan gods. Two such objects, both dating to the seventh century, feature depictions of the god Woden as a semi-naked warrior. By the looks of it, the pagan Anglo-Saxons assumed Woden was well endowed, indeed.

4) Phallic…er…Fallen angels in the Junius Manuscript

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Fall of angels © Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, p. 16

The so-called Junius Manuscript (a 10th-century manuscript containing Old English religious verse) features an interesting set of illustrations. In the depictions of the Fall of Angels, the fallen angels are depicted as losing their clothes and, in some cases, gaining visible, male genitalia (as opposed to their angelic, genderless and concealed counterparts). Possibly, the Anglo-Saxon artist masculinized the fallen angels because male nudity was associated with sin in Anglo-Saxon writings and art (see Karkov 2003, and examples below).

By the by, the Junius Manuscript also contains an intriguing depiction of Noah flashing his son Ham, which I have discussed in another blog post: Flashed after the Flood: Seeing naked fathers in Anglo-Saxon England.

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Fall of angels © Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, p. 17

5) Disrobed demons and strap-naked sinners in the Harley Psalter

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© The British Library, Harley 603, fol. 3v

The association of male nudity and exposed genitalia with sinfulness is further revealed by this depiction of Psalm 6:6 (“and who shall confess to thee in Hell”) in the Anglo-Saxon Harley Psalter (an 11th-century manuscript of the Psalms, featuring illustrations of literal interpretations of the Psalm texts). The sinners, wrapped in snakes, are all fully naked and the second one from the left is quite clearly a man. The two demons on the right, too, show distinctively masculine features (even if  the rightmost demon seems something of a hermaphrodite). The addition of these diabolic reproductive organs is remarkable, since these obscene features are not clearly present in the exemplar of the Harley Psalter, the ninth-century Utrecht Psalter (see here).

6) Pulling your beard in a canon table

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Sinner pulling his beard…and something else in late 8th-century Anglo-Saxon Gospels © Rome, Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica, Barberini Lat. 570, fol. 1r

The 8th-century Barberini Gospels is a beautifully illuminated Anglo-Saxon manuscript that resembles the famous Lindisfarne Gospels. Tucked away in a canon table (a list of corresponding passages in the four Gospels), we find a naked, male figure surrounded by snakes. The presence of the serpents suggests that this is another depiction of a sinner in Hell. The man is tugging his beard with one hand, while the other reaches for his male appendage. While stroking one’s beard may seem like an innocent action today, medieval depictions of ‘beard-pulling’ had a strong connotation with masturbation (see here). The depiction in the canon table, then, seems to depict what punishment awaits those who indulge in onanism: snakes biting your snake!

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

Works referred to:

  • C. Karkov, “Exiles from the Kingdom: The Naked and the Damned in Anglo-Saxon Art”, in Naked before God: uncovering the body in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. B. C. Withers and J. Wilcox (West Virginia University Press, 2003), 181-220
  • S. M. Kim, “The Donestre and the Person of Both Sexes”, in: Naked before God: uncovering the body in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. B. C. Withers and J. Wilcox (West Virginia University Press, 2003), 162-180

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: A singing ox, some dead pigeons and Saint Edith of Wilton

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This blog discusses how a singing ox and some dead pigeons heralded the death of St. Edith of Wilton.

St. Edith of Wilton

Edith (961- 984) was daughter to King Edgar the Peacable (d. 975) and sister to Edward the Martyr (979). At a young age, she entered the nunnery at Wilton, where her mother (St. Wulfthryth) was an abbess. While she only lived to the age of 23, Edith seems to have made an impression on the community at Wilton. When, some hundred years later, the monk Goscelin of St Bertin travelled around England to write saint’s lives, he found that Edith was remembered as the patron saint of Wilton Abbey. Goscelin then wrote a biography of Edith, basing himself on “those things which they [the nuns of Wilton] heard from the venerable senior nuns, who both saw the holy virgin herself and devotedly obeyed her [Edith]” (trans. Wright & Loncar, p. 24).

Goscelin’s narrative includes various miracles, including Edith’s prophetic dreams. When her brother Edward was crowned King of England, for instance, “Edith, in contemplation, dreamed that her right eye fell out”. She interpreted this dream as follows: “It seems to me that this vision foretells some disaster to my brother Edward” (trans. Wright & Loncar, pp. 50-51). Four years later, Edith was proven correct: Edward was murdered at Corfe Castle (possibly due to the treachery of his stepmother Ælfthryth).

A singing ox and some dead pigeons

Goscelin reported another of Edith’s visions, which took place seven days before her own death. In a dream, she had a most disturbing vision: she dreamt that she was in a bathtub, surrounded by an ox who repeatedly sang John 3:8:

An ox went around the cauldron in which her bath used to be heated, and sang three times: “The Spirit breathes where he will, and you hear his voice, but you do not know whence he comes and whither he goes.” (trans. Wright & Loncar, p. 56).

As soon as she awoke, she contracted a fever. Next, she saw her pet pigeons lying dead near her bedside:

The doves, which she had fed as living beings like her in their purity and innocence, and had cherished with the regard of the Creator of all things, were suddenly found dead when their mistress fell into her fever, foretelling the sleep of their mistress, so that they seemed to anticipate her funeral rites. (trans. Wright & Loncar, p. 57).

When Edith died seven days later, she was carried out of her room in the cauldron that she usually took her bath in. As such, the singing ox walking around this ‘bathtub’ makes some sense, after all!

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If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

Stay tuned (and follow this blog) for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!

Works referred to:

  • Goscelin, The Vita of Edith, trans. M. Wright & K. Loncar, in Writing the Wilton Women: Goscelin’s Legend of Edith and Liber confortatorius, ed. S. Hollis (Turnhout, 2004), pp. 23-67.

Digging for early medieval grandmothers in Anglo-Saxon wills

A family bond that has left very little traces in the Anglo-Saxon record is the relationship between grandmothers and their grandchildren. In this blog post, I discuss the evidence from Anglo-Saxon wills in order to shed some light on the role of grannies in early medieval England.

Grandmother-less in Anglo-Saxon England

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On the right: List of Old English glosses for kinship terms, starting with “Pater: fæder”, featuring “Aua: ealdemoder” (underlined). © The British Library, Add. 32246, fol. 18v.

The Old English gloss ealdemodor for Latin aua in the margins of British Library, Add. 32246 is only one of three occurrences of this Old English word with the sense ‘grandmother’ (see Dictionary of Old English A to H Online, s.v. ealdemodor). The word grandmother itself did not exist in Anglo-Saxon England: according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online (s.v. grandmother), the word  is first attested in a will from 1424, in the phrase “Þan shall he be left..grauntmoderles” [then he shall be left grandmother-less]. This first occurrence in the OED, in a way,  encapsulates the presence of grandmothers in (early) medieval England. Indeed, while most of the literary and documentary record of the Anglo-Saxons is almost ‘grandmother-less’, early medieval wills are the best place to find them (as well as many other interesting things).

Athelstan Ætheling, raised by his grandmother

The will of Athelstan Ætheling (full text here), drawn up on his deathbed on 25 June 1014, reveals that grandmothers could play a role in the upbringing of their grandchildren. Athelstan, eldest son of Æthelred II (d. 1016), declared that everything that he had granted to God and the Church was to benefit not only the souls of himself and his father, but also that of “Ælfþryðe minre ealdemodor þe me afedde” [Ælfthryth (d. 1000/1001), my grandmother, who raised me]. Remarkably, Athelstan does not mention his mother Ælfgifu of York,  (d. 1002) who had died only two years before. This Ælfgifu probably bore Æthelred more than ten (!) children and it may, therefore, not be too far-fetched to hypothesise that she handed over some (or most) of the parenting responsibilities to her mother-in-law Ælfthryth.

Since his grandmother had long died before Athelstan drew up his will, she was obviously not among his beneficiaries. Most of his most precious belongings seem to have gone to his brother Edmund (Ironside). The following bequest stands out: “ic geann Eadmunde minon breðer þæs swurdes þe Offa cyng ahte” [I give to Edmund my brother the sword which King Offa owned]. Apparently, Athelstan had a sword that had once belonged to King Offa of Mercia (d. 796): by that time , the sword would have been over two hundred years old!

Grandmother’s family jewels in the will of Wulfric Spott

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Charter of King Æthelred to Burton Abbey, confirmation of the will of Wulfric Spot, AD 1004 – text of will at the bottom (source)

The third (and last) occurrence of the Old English word ealdemodor is found in the will of the Anglo-Saxon nobleman Wulfric Spott (d. 1004; full text here). The word features in his bequest to his god-daughter  (also his niece) of some land at Stretton and “ðone bule þe wæs hire ealdermoder” [the brooch which was her grandmother’s]. While his god-daughter was probably touched by the receipt of this family jewel, she may have felt that this gift paled in comparison to what Wulfric’s next beneficiary received: the monastery of Burton was gifted with “an hund wildra horsa . 7 sextena tame hencgestas” [one hundred wild horses and sixteen tame stallions].

Another interesting feature of this will is its closing formula that threatens excommunication to whomever would alter Wulfric’s dying wishes:

God ælmihtig hine awende of eallum godes dreame 7 of ealra cristenra gemanan se ðe þis awende butan hit minan cynehlaford sy  7 ic hopyge to him swa godan 7 swa mildheortan þæt he hit nylle sylf don ne eac nanum oþrum menn geþafian.

[And may God turn away from all God’s joy and from the communion of all Christians whomever changes this, unless it is my own king and I hope that he will be so good and so mild-hearted that he will not want to do it himself nor allow any other man to do it.]

By the way, the ‘Spott’ in Wulfric Spott is a nickname, which probably means something like ‘spotty’. For more Old English nicknames, see Anglo-Saxon bynames: Old English nicknames from the Domesday Book.

Spoiled by granny: Wynflæd’s bequests to her grandchildren

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Will of Wynflæd, circa AD 950 (11th-century copy, British Library Cotton Charters viii. 38) (source)

Not only do grandmothers get an occasional mention in Anglo-Saxon wills, at least one grandmother wrote her own will: Wynflæd, an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who died around 950 (full text here). This will provides further evidence of grandmothers taking an interest in the well-being of their children’s children.

Like your typical grandmother, Wynflaed spoiled her grandkids rotten: not by stuffing them with food, but by showering them with lands, slaves, and other gifts. Her grandchildren, Eadwold and “hyre syna dehter” [her son’s daughter] Eadgifu, also got to share “hyre taman hors” [her tame horses]. A gift especially intended for her grandson shows Wynflæd’s consideration for his stature and ornamental display: “goldfagan teowenan cuppan þæt he ice his beah mid þam golde” [a gold-adorned wooden cup so that he [Eadwold] may enlarge his armring with the gold].  Likewise, her granddaughter Eadgifu may have had a special place in Wynflæd’s heart, as she bequeathed the girl with the very best of her linen:

“hyre betsþe bedwahrift 7 linnenne ruwan 7 eal þæt bedref þe þærto gebyreð 7 … hyre betstan dunnan tunecan 7 hyre beteran mentel 7 hyre twa treowenan gesplottude cuppan 7 hyre ealdan gewiredan preon is an VI mancussum.”

[her best bed-curtain and a linen covering and all the bed-clothes which go with it and … her best dun tunic, and her better cloak, and her two wooden  spotted cups , and her old wired brooch which is worth six mancuses.]

It is interesting to note here that, like the goddaughter of Wulfric Spott, Wynflæd’s granddaughter gets her grandmother’s brooch – was this perhaps an Anglo-Saxon  grandmother-to-granddaughter tradition?

Like the Old English gloss ealdemodor mentioned at the start of this post, references to grandmothers are hard to find. These Anglo-Saxon wills , however, show clearly that early  medieval grandmothers had a role to play in the lives of their grandchildren, if only by bestowing them with gifts.

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Anglo-Saxon bynames: Old English nicknames from the Domesday Book

From Humphrey ‘Golden-bollocks’ to Alwy ‘Beetle-beard’ – this blog post deals with the remarkable bynames found for individuals mentioned in the Domesday Book.

Domesday Book as a cultural treasure trove

The Domesday Book is perhaps the most famous administrative record from the Middle Ages. The Domesday Book was made in 1086 by order of William the Conqueror in 1086, who wanted to know whom he could tax and how much. The result is a long and detailed work, listing the various duties and payments that had to be made to the crown as well as the names  and holding of landowners living in 1086. The Domesday Book also includes an overview of the situation during the reign of William’s predecessor Edward the Confessor in 1066. William’s scribes were thorough, indeed, as the Peterborough Chronicle remarks:

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Peterborough Chronicle s.a. 1085 © Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 636, fol. 62v

Swa swyðe nearwelice he hit lett utaspyrian. þæt næs an ælpig hide. ne an gyrde landes. ne furðon, hit is sceame to tellanne. ac hit ne þuhte him nan sceame to donne. an oxe. ne an cu. ne an swin. næs belyfon. þæt næs gesæt on his gewrite.

[So very narrowly did he command them to record it, that there was not one single hide, not one yard of land, moreover (it is a shame to say it, but it did not seem to him a shame to do it) not one ox, not one cow, not one swine was left, that was not set down in his book.]

While the Domesday Book is mostly used as a source for the social and economic history of eleventh-century England, it is also a treasure trove for those interested in more cultural phenomena, such as bynames and nicknames.

Anglo-Norman and Latin bynames from the Domesday Book

A byname is an additional name to a person’s main name, which often allows for a clearer identification of the individual. Often, such bynames take a locational form, allowing us to distinguish between such a Wulfstan of York and a Wulfstan of Worchester. More interesting are those bynames that describe physical, mental or moral characteristics.  The last category is known as nicknames and can often be jocular. Some intriguing Anglo-Norman and Latin nicknames found in the Domesday Book are listed below:

Bernardus panceuolt – Bernard ‘Paunch-face’
Hunfridus uis de leuu – Humphrey ‘Face of a wolf’
Hunfridus aurei testiculi – Humphrey ‘Golden-bollocks’
Rogerus Deus saluaet dominas – Roger ‘God save the ladies’

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Slideshow with Anglo-Norman and Latin nicknames. Source images: opendomesday.org

Top 10 Old English nicknames from the Domesday Book

Fascinating though the Anglo-Norman and Latin nicknames are, I was mainly interested to find some Old English nicknames and have listed my personal top 10 (in no particular order) below:

10) Aluui Ceuresbert – Alwy ‘Beetle-beard’

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Aluui Ceuresbert – Alwy ‘Beetle-beard’. Image soucre: opendomesday.org

Alwy was a landowner in Thatcham, Berkshire, with, as it would seem, a remarkable beard. His nickname ‘ceuresbert’ is a compound of Old English ceafor ‘chafer, beetle’ and beard ‘beard’, suggesting that he may have had a two-pronged beard resembling the antennae of a beetle.

9) Alwinus Bollochessege – Alwine ‘Bullock’s eye’

Alwinus Bollochessege lived in Winchester in 1066. Since Winchester was not included in the survey for the original Domesday Book,  his name is found in what is known as the Liber Winton or Winchester Domesday Book: a twelfth-century document, based on an earlier, now-lost document. The nickname of Alwine is made up of the Old English words bulluc ‘bullock’ and eage ‘eye’ (see Tengvik 1938, 295).

8) Ernuin Catenase – Ernwine ‘Cat’s nose’

Ernuin Catenase (catt ‘cat’ + nasu ‘nose’) was a landowner in Yorkshire, owning lands and manor in Scacherthorpe and Upper and Lower Poppleton. The Domesday Book records that his lands were granted to an Ernwine with a less unfortunate byname: Ernwine the priest.

7) Alricus Wintremelc – Alric ‘Winter-milk’

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Alricus Wintremelc – Alric ‘Winter-milk’. Image source: opendomesday.org

Alricus Wintremelc was the tenant-in-chief of Goldington, Bedfordshire. His pretty straightforward nickname is, nevertheless, more intriguing than that of Ailmar Melc who lived in Tolleshunt, Essex.

6) Goduuinus Wachefet – Godwine ‘Weak-feet’

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Goduuinus uuachefet – Godwin ‘Weak-feet’. Image source: opendomesday.org

Godwine ‘Weak-feet’ was one of the tenants of Gloucester in 1066. In this list we can clearly see that Godwine’s nickname was added to separate him from another “Goduuinus” and a “Goduinus”.

5) Goduuinus Softebread – Godwine ‘Soft-bread’

Another inhabitant of Winchester, mentioned in the Liber Winton (see Tengvik 1938, 380).

4) Godwinus Penifeder – Godwine ‘Penny-father’

Godwin Penny-father lived in Winchester and his nickname suggests that he was something of an Anglo-Saxon Scrooge. He apparently lived in the same street as Aluricus Penipurs – Alfric ‘Penny-purse’ (see Tengvik 1938, 353).

3) Aluuardus Belrap – Alward ‘Bell-rope’

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Aluuardus belrap – Alward ‘Bell-rope’. Image source: opendomesday.org

In 1066, Alward ‘Bell-rope’ was the lord of Holcot, Bedfordshire. Interestingly, his lordship had passed over in 1086 to one “Radulfus Passaqua”: Ralph ‘Pass-water’.

2) Aluuinus Deule – Alwine ‘The devil’

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Aluuinus Deule – Alwine ‘The devil’. Image source: opendomesday.org

Alwine ‘the devil’ was a Bedfordshire landowner not to be meddled with!

1) Aluredus Caddebelloc – Alfred ‘Testicle-testicle’

Another landowner in Winchester in 1066 –  name mentioned in Liber Winton. According to Tengvik (1938) this is a tautological compound of OE/ME cade ‘testicle’ and balluc ‘testicle’: Alfred ‘Testicle-testicle’, lest we confuse him with Alfred ‘the Great’…

If you liked this blogpost, you may also be interested in the following post:

Works referred to:

  • G. Tengvik, Old English Bynames (Uppsala, 1938)

An Anglo-Saxon comic book collector: Cuthwine and the Carmen Paschale

In this blog, I have occasionally noted how illustrated manuscripts resemble the comic books and graphic novels of this day and age (see here and here). In this post, I focus on the eighth-century Cuthwine, bishop of Dunwich, who appears to have had a taste for illustrated manuscripts: an Anglo-Saxon comic book collector! 

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Christ enthroned in 9th-c. copy of a manuscript once owned by Cuthwine of Dunwich (c) Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp, M 17.4, fol. 1r

Bishop Cuthwine of Dunwich and his illuminated manuscripts 

Cuthwine was bishop of Dunwich somewhere between 716 and 731. Little is known about Cuthwine, apart from his interest in illuminated manuscripts. This interest is revealed by the Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Bede (d. 735) in a work entitled The Eight Questions; Bede suggests that he had seen an illuminated manuscript that Cuthwine had brought back from Rome. Bede brings up Cuthwine’s manuscript in reply to a question by the London priest Nothelm about what the Apostle Paul meant when he said “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty minus one” (2. Cor. 11:24):

What the Apostle says … signifies that he had been whipped by them five times, in such a way, however, that he was never beaten with forty lashes, but always with one less, or thirty-nine. … That it is to be understood in this way and was understood in this way by the ancients is also attested by the picture of the Apostle in the book which the most reverend and most learned Cuthwine, bishop of the East Angles, brought with him when he came from Rome to Britain, for that book all of his sufferings and labours were fully depicted in relation to the appropriate passages. (trans. Trent Foley & Holder 1999, p.151)

The book described by Bede has been identified as the De actibus apostolorum, a verse history of the Apostles by the sixth-century poet Arator. While this particular copy of Cuthwine’s has not survived, the name of this Anglo-Saxon bishop has been connected to another manuscript.

Cuthwine’s copy of the Carmen Paschale by Sedulius

Antwerp, Plantin-Moretus Museum, M 17.4 contains an illustrated versification of the life of Christ, known as the Carmen Paschale by the early fifth-century Roman poet Sedulius. According to art historian Alexander (1978, p. 83), the Antwerp manuscript represents a ninth-century Carolingian copy of an earlier Anglo-Saxon exemplar. It is possible that this Anglo-Saxon exemplar once belonged to Cuthwine, since the copiist of the Antwerp manuscript copied a colophon of another text in the manuscript, which mentions the name “CUĐUUINI”:

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FINIT FINES FINES CUĐUUINI (c) Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp, M 17.4, fol. 68v

The fact that  the Antwerp manuscript is based on an Anglo-Saxon exemplar coupled with Bede’s report on Cuthwine’s interest in illuminated manuscripts has led scholars to suggest that the exemplar of this manuscript once belonged to this Anglo-Saxon bishop (e.g. Lapidge 2006, pp. 26-27).

As I will reveal at the end of the blog post, the Antwerp manuscript may have something peculiar in common with the manuscript described by Bede as having belonged to Cuthwine, aside from just being illustrated. But let’s look at some of the illustrations of the Carmen Paschale first.

The Carmen Paschale: The Bible as an epic poem

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Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (c) Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp, M 17.4, fol. 8r

Sedulius’s Carmen Paschale attempts to rewrite the Gospels in the style of classical epics, such as Vergil’s Eneid. Apart from the story of Christ, the poem also contains various references to Old Testament stories. To give you an idea of the nature of the poem, here is the text that accompanies an image of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Antwerp manuscript:

The enfeebled uterus of old Sarah was already withering,
Worn out by long inactivity, and the chilly blood,
Moribund in her ancient body, was denying her a child.
Her husband was even older than she, when the insides of her cold belly
Began to swell to give new birth, and the trembling mother,
Grown heavy in her freezing womb, produced hope for a fertile race
And held a late-born son up to her breasts.
His father brought him to God to sacrifice, but instead, a sacred ram
Was slaughtered, and the boy’s throat was spared right at the altar.  (bk. I, ll. 107-115, trans. Springer 2013)

Sedulius’s style has been described as bombastic, and rightly so, judging by his description of Sarah’s withered uterus!

Jonah and the whale

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Jonah falls off a ship (c) Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp, M 17.4, fol. 9v

The illustrations in the Antwerp manuscript generally illustrate the text of the poem well, as the two illustrations of the story of Jonah and the whale illustrate:

Jonah fell off a ship and was swallowed up by a voracious whale.
Even in the sea he did not get wet, for he was in a living tomb,
So that he would not perish. Safe in the wild beast’s belly,
He was its charge, not its prey, and over the great expanse of the sea,
Rowed by an unfriendly oarsman, he arrived in unfamiliar lands. (bk. I, ll. 192-196, trans. Springer 2013)

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Jonah being swallowed by a whale (looking like an eel!). (c) Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp, M 17.4, fol. 10r

Whipped saints and martyred babies: Cuthwine’s taste for gore

If the illustrations in the Antwerp manuscript resemble those of the Anglo-Saxon exemplar (and Alexander 1978 seems to think so), we might attribute to Cuthwine a certain taste for blood and gore. Both the Antwerp manuscript and Cuthwine’s manuscript described by Bede contained illustrations with a lot of graphic detail. Bede describes the scene of St. Paul’s flogging in Cuthwine’s manuscript as follows:

This passage was there depicted in such a way that it was as if the Apostle were lying naked, lacerated by whips and drenched with tears. Now above him there was standing a torturer having in his hand a whip divided into four parts, but one of the strings is retained in his hand, and only the remaining three are left loose for beating. Wherein the intention of the painter is easily apparent, that the reason he was prepared to scourge him with three strings was so that he might complete the number of thirty-nine lashes.(trans. Trent Foley & Holder, p. 151)

Apparently, the artist of Cuthwine’s book had not left much to the imagination. Much the same can be said for the image in the Antwerp manuscript, depicting the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents (the young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, massacred by Herod):

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The martyrdom of the Holy Innocents (c) Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp, M 17.4, fol. 16r

Indeed, the image of warriors cutting babies in half, a baby impaled on a spear and the attempts of their mothers to embrace the dead babies is gruesome by any account and well accompanies Sedulius’s outrage over the massacre:

And he kept on dashing to the ground and slaying masses of infants,
Fierce in his unwarranted murder. For what crime did this innocent
Multitude have to perish? Why did those who had barely begun to live
Already deserve to die? There was rage in the bloodthirsty king,
Not reason. Killing them at their first cries and daring to
Perpetrate wickednesses beyond number, he slaughtered boys
By the thousands and gave a single lament to many mothers.
This one tore out her mangled hair from her bare scalp.
That one scored her cheeks. Another beat her bared breast with fists.
One unhappy mother (now a mother no longer!)
Bereft, pressed her breasts to her son’s cold mouth-in vain.
You butcher! What did you feel then as you watched such a sight? (bk. II, ll. 116-127, trans. Springer 2013)

When one compares Sedulius’s text to the illustration, it is interesting to note that much of the brutality in the Antwerp manuscript illustration was added by the artist. Sedulius focuses on the reaction of the mothers and nowhere mentions babies being cut in half or impaled on spears. Speculatively, we might imagine the artist of the original, Anglo-Saxon exemplar of the Antwerp manuscript adding these gory details, since he knew Bishop Cuthwine’s taste for such scenes. I wonder what Cuthwine felt when he “watched such a sight”….

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other posts about illuminated manuscripts:

Works referred to:

  • J.J.G. Alexander, Insular Manuscripts: 6th to the 9th Century (London, 1978)
  • Bede, A Biblical Miscellany, trans. W. Trent Foley & A. G. Holder (Liverpool, 1999)
  • Lapidge, M. The Anglo-Saxon Library (Oxford, 2006)
  • Sedulius, The Paschal Song and Hymns, trans. C. P. E. Springer (Atlanta, 2013)

“Do not give your books to children!” and other medieval tips for taking care of books

Gashed gatherings, bodged bindings and faltering flyleaves. The current state of medieval manuscripts, either good or bad, reflects the manner in which manuscripts have been retained and used over the centuries. Nowadays, the concern over the preservation of books leads to ever stricter regulations on access, handling and storage. But what about the Middle Ages? Did contemporary makers or users of books set any rules on how to treat these objects? This blog post calls attention to a late medieval Middle Dutch text which provides guidelines as to how to preserve books ‘to last forever’ -some of these rules remain topical today!

Caring for books in the Middle Ages

Medieval, written sources on the care of books are relatively scarce. An interesting case is the  Philobiblon, written by Richard de Bury (1287-1345). In this work of passionate bibliophilia, Richard expresses his profound love for books. He also shows an awareness of the dangers that threaten a book’s well-being. Not least of all, Richard laments the maltreatment of manuscripts by snotty youths, who, rather than wipe their noses, stain their books:

You may happen to see some headstrong youth lazily lounging over his studies, and when the winter’s frost is sharp, his nose running from the nipping cold drips down, nor does he think of wiping it with his pocket-handkerchief until he has bedewed the book before him with the ugly moisture. Would that he had before him no book, but a cobbler’s apron! (De Bury, ch. 17)

In monastic libraries, some measures were taken to prevent damage to books. Most monasteries appointed a so-called armarius, a librarian avant la lettre, who was responsible for managing and preservation of the manuscripts (Clark 1902: 57).  According to the fifteenth-century monastic rules of the St. Paul’s house for the Brethren of the Common Life in Gouda, the armarius was also supposed to take into account the dangers posed by bookworms and dust (Lem 1991). Other monasteries add dirt, and damage caused by humidity and/or fire to these instructions (Clark 1902: 61). None of these monastic rules provide any practical advice, however, as to how these risks could be minimised.

‘How one shall preserve all books to last eternally’

Specific rules and practical advice on book conservation is provided by the author of the text entitled ‘Hoemen alle boucken bewaren sal om eewelic te duerene’ [How one shall preserve all books to last eternally]. This unique text, in the Dutch vernacular, outlines eight rules on access, handling and storage. The text is found in The Hague, KB 133 F 2: a miscellany on 180 folia of 120x79cm, written entirely by one hand. Various ownership inscriptions, in the hand of the main text, suggest this book was made in 1527 and that it belonged to ‘Margrieten van der Spurt’ from Ghent, in present-day Belgium. The contents of this manuscript suggest that this book was used as an educational treatise for children. Most texts have a didactic nature, such as a text entitled “eenen gheestelicken A.B.C.” [a spiritual A.B.C.], while others focus on the ways in which children should treat their parents, bearing running headers such as “in quade kinderen sal niement verblijden” [evil children will not make anyone happy] and “vader ende moeder moet men in alder noot bijstaen” [one must help one’s father and mother in every need].

The text ‘hoemen boucken bewaren sal om eewelic te duerene’ immediately follows the first ownership inscription and is the first stand-alone text of the manuscript. The prominent place of this text within the manuscript may attest to the educational import of conveying rules of book preservation to a child of the first half of the sixteenth century.

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The Hague, KB 133 F 2, ff. 1v-2r. © The Hague, Royal Library

 

So what does the text actually tell us to do? In the introduction, the author remarks that, if the reader followed his guidelines, books would last “menich jaer[…], ja te minsten twee hondert jaer” [many years…, yes, at least two hundred years]. In short, his eight rules run as follows:

  1. Store your books in a dry and dustless place.
  2. Do not handle your books with dirty fingers.
  3. Do not let your books lie near the fire or leave them open for too long.
  4. Never pull the pastedowns off the boards.
  5. Preserve books from mold and decay, by, for example, not drying it in the winter or touching it with wet fingers.
  6. Do not tear out a page or quire.
  7. Do not doodle or add texts in the margins.
  8. Do not give your books to children.

For each of these rules, the author outlines what would happen if the reader did not follow the rule. For the third rule, for example, the author notes: “want aldus soude den rugghe metten banden crempen ende naermaels ter stont breken” [because this would make the spine shrink with the cords and would make it break immediately].

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Like their users, manuscripts can suffer from back problems. In this case: a broken spine.

 

Do not give your books to children!

Interestingly, the eighth rule (in violation of the seventh rule) was added in the margin only after the text was finished: “Ten 8sten, men sal huut gheenen boucken diemen ter heeren hauwen wilt, de kinderen laten leeren. Want wat in haerlieder handen comt, soe wij sien het blijfter oft het bedeerft.” [Eighth, one should not let children learn from any books that one wants to preserve. Because whatever comes into their hands, as we see, it either stays there or it is ruined]. The rule was added by the same scribe who wrote down the first seven rules. Given that this manuscript was probably used as an educational treatise for children, the addition of the eighth rule may have been due to ‘progressive insight’ on account of the author.

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The Hague, KB 133 F 2, ff. 4v-5r: Eighth rule, written in the margin. © The Hague, Royal Library

Nevertheless, the fact that, with the exception of  the original binding, the book that contains these eight rules is still available in the Royal Library in The Hague in the twenty-first century, proves that the manuscript has far exceeded its expected 200-year life span. We can only conclude, then, that the contemporary and later users of this manuscript abided by the rules outlined above and that they took to heart the moral which was added at the end of the text:

“Men pleegt te segghene an de plume sietmen wat vueghel dat es ende an eens cleercs boucken sietmen wel wat cleerc dat es. Ende alsoe weetmen gheware an de boucken van de lieden of se reijn van ijet te beseghen, goddelic ofte duechdelic van  levene sijn.”

[They say that one can recognise a bird by its plumage, and one can recognise a clerk by his books. And so it will be revealed by the books of people, whether they are clean, god-fearing or good of living.]

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One of the risks of giving books to children: doodles! Here are some examples discovered by book historian Erik Kwakkel (source)

 For those interested in the text ‘Hoemen alle boucken bewaren sal om eewelic te duerene’, an edition and introduction have been published (in Dutch) as: T. Porck & H.J. Porck,‘Hoemen alle boucken bewaren sal om eewelic te duerene. Acht regels uit 1527 over het conserveren van boeken’in: Jaarboek voor Nederlandse Boekgeschiedenis 15 (2008), 7-21. A thoroughly revised, English version of the article, featuring an English translation of the text, is published as: T. Porck & H.J. Porck, ‘Eight Guidelines on Book Preservation from 1527: How One Should Preserve All Books to Last Eternally’, in: Journal of PaperConservation 13(2) (2012), 17-25. The English article is available on Academia.edu.

Works referred to:

  • Clark, John (1902). The Care of Books. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • De Bury, Richard. Philobiblon. Ed. and trans. by E.C. Thomas (1888).
  • Lem, Constant, (1991). ‘De Consuetudines van het Collatiehuis in Gouda.’ Ons Geestelijk Erf 65, 125-143.

This is an edited version of a blog previously posted on the medievalfragments blog.

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Earl Siward and the Proper Ways to Die

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This blog discusses  one of the most remarkable figures of Anglo-Saxon history: Earl Siward of Northumbria (d. 1055); a man who knew the proper ways to die.

Siward, earl of Northumbria, first appears in a charter by King Cnut in 1033. He held the position of earl, first of southern Northumbria and later of all Northumbria and, possibly, Huntingdon, until his death twenty-two years later. He made a name for himself as a warrior and, after his death in 1055, his reputation grew. A Latin narrative in a thirteenth-century manuscript from Crowland Abbey even claims that Siward slew a dragon and that he descended from a polar bear! (Parker 2014, 488)

Two other anecdotes, both demonstrating Siward’s ferociousness as a warrior, survive in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum (1129-1135). The first relates how Siward, during a series of battles against Scotland in 1054,  hears of the death of his own son Osbeorn in battle. Upon hearing the news, Siward inquired whether his son had been stabbed in the back or in the front. When he was told his son had incurred a fatal breast wound, Siward said: “Gaudio plane, non enim alio me uel filium meum digner funere” [I am completely happy, for I consider no other death worthy for me or my son] (Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, VI.22). Talk about tough parenthood! Parker (2014, 484-485) has noted that Siward’s enquiry about the location of his son’s wounds has a close parallel in a similar scene in the Icelandic Egils saga. Anyway, Siward, Huntingdon reports, decides to retaliate and leads an army into Scotland himself. There, he defeats the Scottish ruler Mac Bethad mac Findlaich (a.k.a. Shakespeare’s Macbeth!).

The next year, Siward is struck by dysentery and feels death’s approach. He laments:

‘How shameful it is that I, who could not die in so many battles, should have been saved for the ignominious death of a cow! At least clothe me in my impenetrable breastplate, gird me with my sword, place my helmet on my head, my shield in my left hand, my gilded battle-axe in my right, that I, the bravest of soldiers, may die like a soldier.’ (Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, VI.24)

His attendants obey Siward’s last request and he dies in an non-bovine manner. While Siward’s explicit refusal to die like a cow is unparalleled, other elderly warriors are known to have expressed similar wishes to die in battle rather than anywhere else (e.g., Starkad, in Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum, and Egil Ulserk, in the Heimskringla). Given these analogues from Scandinavian literature, the stories of Siward’s reaction to the death of his son and Siward’s speech on his deathbed, both reported by Henry of Huntingdon close to a century after Siward’s death, may not be historically accurate. Rather, they may have originated in Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Scandinavian oral traditions surrounding Siward, or, as C.E. Wright put it, they are “the disject membra of a Siwards saga which must have been still current in Northumbria during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries” (Wright 1939, 128; cf. Parker 2014). These episodes, then, may belong to the same realm of fictionality as Siward’s supposed descent from a polar bear and his slaying of a dragon. Be that as it may, they make nifty anecdotes and may reveal something about the manner of death an early medieval warrior would deem acceptable.

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If you liked this post, you may also enjoy: An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Real Night of the Long Knives , An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How Hengest was led by the nose and An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Alleluia, the Anglo-Saxon Boo! Stay tuned for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!

Works referred to:

  • C. E. Wright, The Cultivation of Saga in Anglo-Saxon England (Edinburgh, 1939)
  • E. Parker, ‘Siward the Dragon-Slayer: Mythmaking in Anglo-Scandinavian England’, Neophilologus 98 (2014), 481-493.
  • Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. D. E. Greenway (Oxford, 1996)