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Anglo-Saxons putting on Viking (h)airs

Aside from their stereotypical burning, pillaging and raping, Vikings also seem to have introduced a new hairstyle to early medieval England. This blog post discusses how some Anglo-Saxon priests were concerned over Anglo-Saxons mimicking the hair of the Viking invaders.

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The choirs of angels, prophets and the Apostles showing a range of hairstyles in the 9th-century Athelstan Psalter. © The British Library, Cotton Galba A.xviii, fol. 2v.

In the aftermath of the Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793, the Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Alcuin wrote an admonishing letter to King Æthelred of Northumbria (d. 796). Alcuin had noted how the king and his nobles had not been at their best behaviour, not-so-subtly implying that if the Northumbrians would only live modestly and humbly that such horrible events as the raid of Lindisfarne would never happen again. Interestingly, Alcuin reminded Æthelred of the fact that he and his nobles had copied the hairstyle and dress of the Scandinavians that were now causing so much havoc:

Consider the dress, the way of wearing the hair, the luxurious habits of the princes and people. Look at your trimming of beard and hair, in which you have wished to resemble the pagans. Are you not menaced by terror of them whose fashion you wished to follow? (trans. Whitelock, source)

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Excerpt from Alcuin’s letter to Æthelred of Northumbria. The Annotation may be by the hand of Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023) who owned this particular manuscript. © The British Library, Cotton Vespasian A.xiv, fol. 117r

Whereas Alcuin did not go into any detail as to what the Viking hairstyle may have looked like, these details are provided two centuries later by another Anglo-Saxon religious writer, Ælfric of Eynsham (d. c. 1010). In a letter addressed to a ‘brother Edward’, Ælfric complained of various malpractices he had heard of. These malpractices included the eating of blood and consuming of drink and food on the toilet (something Ælfric attributed to ‘uplandish women’). Ælfric also complained about Anglo-Saxon monks dressing up ‘in Danish fashion’:

Ic secge eac ðe, broðor Eadweard, … þæt ge doð unrihtlive þæt ge ða Engliscan þeawas forlætað þe eowre fæderas heoldon, and hæðenra manna þeawas lufiað … mid ðam ġeswuteliað þæt ge forseoð eower cynn and eowre yldran … þonne ge … tysliað eow on Denisc, ableredum hneccan and ablendum eagum. (ed. Clayton, source)

[I also tell you, brother Edward, that you act wrongly when you abandon the English customs which your fathers observed and love the customs of heathens, wit them you show that you despise you kin and your elders, when you adorn yourself in Danish fashion, with bared neck and blinded eyes.]

While no depictions of Vikings (or Anglo-Saxons) with bared necks and blinded eyes have survived, it has been suggested that the Normans on the Bayeux Tapestry are typically depicted without hair in their necks:

 

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Normans rocking a bare-neck-haircut on the Bayeux Tapestry (source)

 

Now why would Anglo-Saxon men want to mimic the hairstyle of the Vikings? The answer: for the ladies. A thirteenth-century chronicle ascribed to John of Wallingford (d. 1258) describes how Danes living in England were able to seduce various Anglo-Saxon women, due to their fashionable hair and beards:

They were wont, after the fashion of their country, to comb their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their garments often, and set off their persons by many such frivolous devices. In this manner they laid siege to the virtue of the married women, and persuaded the daughters even of the nobles to be their concubines. (trans. Stevenson, source)

The best way to win an Anglo-Saxon woman’s heart? Viking haircuts and weekly baths!

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A pug’s guide to medieval Holland

There are many places of medieval interest in The Netherlands, ranging from wells dug by Anglo-Saxon missionaries to landmarks commemorating medieval murders. Breca, my pug, has visited many of these places and here you will find a selection of ten medieval hotspots that she has graced with her presence. These places are well worth a visit and will also introduce you to some aspects of the Middle Ages in Holland. 

Introducing Breca the pug

Breca is a female black pug, born in 2011. She was named after a character in the Old English poem Beowulf: Breca of the Brondings, who reportedly once defeated the hero Beowulf in a swimming (or rowing) match. Like many a pug owner, I initially tried to dress up my pug; naturally, I made a pug-size Sutton Hoo helmet:

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Breca the pug and the pug-size Sutton Hoo helmet

The paper helmet survived for about a second or three. I then decided there was another way for me to share my passion for the Middle Ages with my dog: bring her to medieval places! So far, we have gone to quite a few sites and have learned more about Holland in the Middle Ages. In this blog post, we present ten places worth visiting.

1) The castle founded by the Anglo-Saxon Hengest c. 449, or not: De Burcht, Leiden

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Left: Manuscript image of Hengest as founder of the Leiden Burcht. © Den Haag, Nationaal Archief, Familiearchief Van Wasenaar-Duivenvoorde, inv.nr. 3, f. 10r; Right: Breca the Pug at the Leiden Burcht

Leiden’s number one medieval hotspot is the small keep on an elevated hill known as ‘the Burcht’, which, ever since the fifteenth century, has been connected to the Anglo-Saxons. As legend would have it, the keep was built by none other than Hengest, who along with his brother Horsa, invaded Britain in c. 449. A sixteenth-century manuscript from the family archive of Van Wassenaar-Duivenvoorde (Den Haag, Nationaal Archief, Familiearchief Van Wasenaar-Duivenvoorde, inv.nr. 3) depicts Hengest as the founder of the Burcht. The Latin text next to this image relates how the small keep was built in Leiden as a back-up plan, in case the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England should fail. A retreat for an early medieval Brexit, if you will.

Regrettably, modern historical and archaeological research has shown that this Hengest connection to the Burcht is false- the keep is no older than the tenth century and, so, postdates Hengest by about five hundred years. Nevertheless, this idea of an Anglo-Saxon connection to Leiden remained popular well into the seventeenth century; we find a mention of it, for instance, in the diary of the Englishman John Evelyn (1620-1706), who visited Leyden and its keep; noting that it had been “cast up (as reported) by Hengist the Saxon, on his return out of England, as a place to retire to, in case of any sudden inundations” (19th August, 1641 – full text).

2) Holy waters: Two wells in Heiloo 

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Left: Breca the pug at the Willibrordwell in Heiloo; Right: Breca the pug at the Runxput in Heiloo

The Dutch town of Heiloo is home to two wells with a (supposed) medieval connection. The first is  a water well that has been linked to the Anglo-Saxon missionary Willibrord (d. 739). One of the first mentions of this well is in the ‘Chronographia’ of Johannes de Beke (written in Latin in 1346, translated into Middle Dutch around 1393). De Beke describes how Willibrord had someone dig a little hole inside a tent; Willibrord then entered the tent alone and prayed God for water. A miracle happened and the little hole became a fountain: “Ende dieselve fonteyne is in enen dorpe hiet Hello bi Alcmaer, ende is gheheten noch huden daghes sunte Willibrords put” [and this same fountain is in a village that is called Heiloo near Alkmaar, and it is still called Saint Willibrord’s well]. The well is still there today, near the ‘Witte Kerk’ [White Church].

The second Heiloo well is known as the ‘Runxput’, which has become something a pilgrimage-site devoted to the Virgin Mary. On account of its name, some have connected the well to the Anglo-Saxon missionaries, others to the ninth-century Viking ruler named Rorik. Those who link the Runxput to the Anglo-Saxons point out that the name of the well might be derived from Old English rún ‘mystery, secret’ – could this once have been a mysterious pagan well that was given its name by Anglo-Saxon immigrants or a missionary like Willibrord? Others have said that the name of the well may have been ‘Rorikesput’ [Rorik’s well] and that it was named after the ninth-century Viking Rorik (who ruled over West-Frisia). Unfortunately, both these theories turn out to be false, since the well was first dug in 1713, at a time when the area was struck by a bovine plague. Miraculously, the water of the well, which was near a chapel devoted to Mary, cured the cows of their disease. The name Runxput was probably derived from runder-put [cattle-well] > runsput > runxput.

3) The latest miracle of Saint Adelbertus: Adelbertusakker, Egmond

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Shrine of St Adelbertus, and Breca the pug on a holy well

The Northumbrian saint Adelbertus (d. c. 740) was one of Willibrord’s companions and actively converted the pagan Frisians around Egmond. In the early tenth century, Adelbertus’s bones were dug up and water welled up along with the saintly bones. A well was then established, as well as a church – the place, now known as the Adelbertusakker, was a site for many miracles (see this blog for more information: Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Adelbertusakker, Egmond). At the Adelbertusakker, you will find a shrine devoted to St Adalbert and, on the ground, the outlines of a stone church that stood there from 1152 to 1573. The centrepiece of the field is Adalbertus’s well, which is still fully functional. Water from the well can still be drunk and, according to some, it has retained its medieval miraculous powers. In the eighteenth century, in particular, water from the well was used to heal cows and other livestock. Needless to say, Breca the pug had her fill as well (and she is still in good health today!). Interestingly, water from the well is also used to brew a local beer called ‘Sancti Adalberti Miraculum Novum’: the latest miracle of Saint Adalbert.

4) A church devoted to the Anglo-Saxon saint that never existed: Engelmunduskerk, Velsen

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Left: Breca the pug at the Engelmunduskerk. Right: Saint Engelmundus

The Engelmunduskerk [Engelmundus-church] is one of Holland’s oldest churches. It was reportedly founded by the Anglo-Saxon missionary Willibrord in the eighth century; the current building dates to twelfth century, with a thirteenth-century tower. The name ‘Engelmunduskerk’ is derived from St. Engelmundus. Legend has it that this Engelmundus was a Frisian who had been educated in Anglo-Saxon England and had joined Willibrord as one of his twelve companions. Engelmundus was charged with spreading the faith to the people living in the vicinity of the Velsen church that was entrusted to him by Willibrord. Unfortunately, the earliest mention of Engelmundus dates to the fifteenth century and, as such, he is probably a figment of late medieval imagination.

5) A dead count of Holland and a lively Abbey: Adelbertusabdij, Egmond

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Breca the pug at the memorial grave of Floris I of Holland, in the Abbey church of Egmond

Egmond is home to the Adelbertusabdij, the abbey devoted to the Anglo-Saxon saint Adelbertus (see #3 above). This abbey is the oldest abbey of Holland, having been founded by Count Dirk I of Holland (d. 939). Throughout the MIddle Ages, the abbey in Egmond was one of the most important religious and cultural centres in Holland. As a result, various counts of Holland were buried here, including Floris I of Holland (d. 1061) whose memorial grave is found inside the Abbey church. The original abbey was destroyed in sixteenth century and the present abbey was rebuilt in the 1930s. It is now open to the public on a daily basis, has a nice Abbey museum  and a shop where they sell candles and cheese. A great day out, for pugs and Anglo-Saxonists alike!

6) The house of the boar: Huys Dever, Lisse

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The town of Lisse is home to a fourteenth-century ‘donjon’ called Huys Dever. We visited Huys Dever on  ‘national castle day’ and were treated to some authentic medieval music (Breca the pug was not pleased). The current house was built around 1375 by the nobleman Reynier Dever and carries his family name. Intriguingly, the name ‘Dever’ refers to the wild boar: Ever  (related to Old English eofor ‘boar’) means ‘boar’ and the name Dever is a contraction of the article ‘Den’ (the) and ‘Ever’ (boar). Throughout the Middle Ages, the wild boar was known and feared for his ferocity, see Boars of battle: The wild boar in the early Middle Ages.

7) Elburga’s mysterious inscription on a church portal: Willibrordkerk, Nederhorst den Berg

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Breca the pug at Willibrordkerk, Nederhorst den Berg

Nederhost den Berg features a beautiful twelfth-century church dedicated to the Anglo-Saxon saint Willibrord. It was probably built on the location of an earlier church founded by the Frisian missionary Liudger (d. 809). During its history, the church was occasionally enlarged and, as a result, an inscribed sandstone was relocated to form an archway around a door on the north side of the church. The sandstone has a mysterious, incomplete inscription that reads OVI PETIT HAC AVLA PETAT ELBVRGA FORE SALVA ET .P.EA.NVLLVS INTRET N… . Ever since its discovery, this inscription has given rise to various interpretations, one of which is “Whoever approaches this hall (i.e. the church), pray for the blessedness of Elburga and nobody is to enter the door, unless…”. Who this Elburga was is unclear, but it has been suggested that she may have been Liudger’s grandmother (see here).

8) The murder of Floris V and a stone: Florissteen, Muiderberg

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Left: The murder of Count Floris V of Holland. Right: Breca the pug at Muiderberg

Count Floris V of Holland (d. 1296) was extremely popular among his people, earning him the nickname ‘der keerlen god’ (the god of churls; the god of the common people). In 1296, Floris fell victim to a murder plot, possibly engineered by the king of England and the count of Flanders. During a hunt, some disgruntled noblemen captured Floris and took him to Muiderslot castle. Once the common people had heard of Floris’s capture, they decided to launch a rescue mission: they would free their count once the noblemen would lead him from the castle. But when they tried to do so, one of the noblemen (Gerard van Velsen) turned on the helpless count (who was bound and had a hand shoe stuffed in his mouth), cut off Floris’s hands and then stabbed him to death, twenty-two times. This horrible murder took place in Muiderberg, where a boulder (the ‘Floris-stone’) has been placed to commemorate this event. Near the rock is the fourteenth-century Kerk aan Zee [Church at Sea] that was built on the foundations of a chapel erected to honour Floris’s memory. We visited Muiderberg on a dreary and misty day – suitable weather for this most cruel murder.

9) A thirteenth-century Big not-so-Friendly Giant: Stompe Toren, Spaarnwoude

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Breca the pug at Stompe Toren, Spaarnwoude.

In the aftermath of the murder of Floris V in 1296 (see #8 above), some Dutch noblemen travelled to England  to pick up Floris’s son and heir Jan I van Holland (d. 1299).  They were accompanied by a man named Klaas van Kieten. This Klaas  was probably brought along as a ‘curiosity’ to show off to the English court, since he was an incredibly  tall man who gained something of a reputation as a Big not-so-Friendly Giant. A seventeenth-century play about the murder on Floris V (Gijsbrecht van Aemstel by Joost van den Voondel), described him as follows:

den groote Reus, die liet zich vreeslijck hooren,
En stack met hals en hoofd, gelijck een steile toren
En spitze, boven ‘t volck en alle hoofden uit,
En scheen een olyfant, die omsnoft met zijn’ snuit.
Zijn spietze was een mast in zijne grove vingeren.
Ick zagh hem man op man gelijck konijnen slingeren
Wel driemael om zijn hoofd, gevat by ‘t eene been,
En kneuzen dan den kop op stoepen of op steen. (full text)

[The big giant, who let himself be heard and who towered over al the people and their heads with his neck and head , like a tower and spire, and seemed like an elephant, sniffling about with its trunk. His spear was a mast in his brutish fingers. I saw him fling about man upon man like rabbits, three times around his head, holding on to their one leg, and smash their heads on the stones]

Klaas van Kieten and his incredible length are commemorated at the Stompe Toren in the small village of Spaarnwoude. Inside the church, a massive necklace is kept that supposedly belonged to Klaas, as well as a massive wooden shoe. On the outer wall of this church, two stones are found with the inscription “‘T VAAM VAN | KLAAS V. KIETEN” [the span of Klaas van Kieten]. The distance between the middle points of these stones represents the distance between the tips of Klaas’s middle fingers. In an ideally proportioned body this span is equal to a man’s height. If so, Klaas van Kieten measured 2.69m: that is about 8 ft and 9 inches or about 9.5 pugs!

10)  A self-sacrificial act during the Hook and Cod Wars: Oude Kerk, Barneveld

OEE.PugInMedievalPlaces1The Dutch town Barneveld (not in Holland but in Gelderland) was the scene for one of the most famous events of the Dutch Middle Ages. In 1482, during the so-called Hook and Cod Wars, Jan van Schaffelaar and his men were besieged in the tower of the Old Church in Barneveld. After negotiations, their opponents stated that they would accept their surrender only if the defenders would throw their commander from the tower. The men were unwilling to do so, but Van Schaffelaar stated “Lieve gesellen, ic moet ummer sterven, ic en wil u in geenen last brenghen” [dear companions, I must die one day, I do not want to be a burden to you]. Having said this, he put his hands to his sides and jumped off the tower. He did not die from the fall, but was finished off by his enemies while he was still on the ground. Today, a statue of van Schaffelaar in front of the Old Church and an outline of his body on the ground still commemorate this self-sacrificial act. Needless to say, Breca the pug was mightily impressed!

I hope you have enjoyed this rather lengthy blog about medieval places to visit in The Netherlands; the list is not complete (especially since many places do not allow dogs). There may be more posts like these in the future: Breca the pug has certainly gained an appreciation and an interest in the Middle Ages:

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Breca the pug reading Karhleen Walker-Meikle’s Medieval dogs

 

 

 

 

Chop chop! Three bizarre beheadings in Anglo-Saxon England

Beheading is a spectacular way of punishing one’s enemies and often triggers the literary imagination, ranging from Beowulf cutting off Grendel’s head to the Queen of Hearts’s famous phrase “Off with her head!”. This blog post calls attention to the beheadings of three Anglo-Saxons, whose decapitation stories may have been embellished by later generations.

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Illustration of Ps. 128:4 (“The Lord who is just will cut the necks of sinners”) in the Harley Psalter. © The British Library, Harley 603, fol. 67r

1) The beheading of Æthelberht of East Anglia: The head that tripped up a blind man 

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Annal 792 (for the year 794) in MS D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.iv, fol. 26v

“Her Offa Myrcna cyning het Æþelbryhte þæt heafod ofaslean”

[In this year, King Offa of the Mercians commanded Æthelberht’s head to be cut off.]

The annal for the year 794 in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is straightforward but leaves much to the imagination. What exactly were the circumstances of this decapitation of Æthelberht of East Anglia? In 2014, the finding of a coin bearing Æthelberht’s name and the title “rex” appeared to hold the answer: Æthelberht had claimed independence, to the annoyance of the much more powerful ruler Offa, who had him decapitated (see news article here). Medieval authors came up with more inventive motives for the murder of Æthelberht…

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Offa of Mercia by thirteenth-century artist Matthew Paris, Æthelberht’s head bottom-left (source)

The anonymous author of the twelfth-century Latin Vitae Offarum Duorum (The Lives of Two Offas), for instance, attributed the beheading not to Offa, but to Offa’s scheming wife Cwenthryth. Æthelberht, according to this story, was to marry Offa’s daughter, but Cwenthyrth did not agree and plotted to have Æthelberht murdered. Her plan involved an elaborate boobytrap:

And next to the royal couch she also had a seat prepared, fashioned in the most elegant style and surrounded with curtains on every side. Under which a deep trench was prepared for the heinous plan to be carried through. […] And when he [Æthelberht] settled on the aforesaid seat, he collapsed together with the chair into the bottom of the trench. (trans. Swanton, p. 94-96)

Inside the trench, Cwenthryth’s henchmen were waiting: they suffocated Æthelberht with pillows and stabbed him to death. Since the dead body was still throbbing, they also cut off his head. Thus, Æthelberht, according to the author, died like John the Baptist, “entangled in a woman’s snares”.

Like John the Baptist, Æthelberht became a saint. The anonymous author of the Vitae Offarum Duorum notes how, when Æthelberht’s bodily remains were hurriedly hidden during the night, the head was accidentally dropped onto the ground and left there. By divine providence, a blind man stumbled upon the head:

Finding the aforesaid head a stumbling block to the feet however, he wondered what it was, because his foot was tangled up in the head’s long golden curls. And touching it more carefully, he realised that it was the head of a decapitated man. And intuitively he realised that this was the head of someone holy, and a young man. And when his hands had been steeped in blood, and sometimes in the place where his eyes had been, he put the blood on his face. And immediately his sight was restored. (trans. Swanton, pp. 96, 98)

And that’s how Æthelberht was proven to be a saint: his head tripped up a blind man; the blind man used his blood for face-paint and had his sight restored. Amen!

2) The beheading of St Edmund: The head that kept on shouting

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Annal 870 in MS D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.iv, fol. 33v

7 þy wintra Eadmund cyning him wið feaht, 7 þa Daniscan sige namon, 7 þone cyning ofslogon

[and that winter King Edmund fought against them and the Danes took the victory and killed the king]

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s report of the death of Edmund of East Anglia is once more devoid of detail. The story of Edmund’s death was later greatly expanded. The Anglo-Saxon abbot and homilist Ælfric (d. c. 1010), for instance, composed an Old English saint’s life (based on a Latin original by the monk Abbo of Fleury), in which he described how the Vikings brutally martyred Edmund. In Ælfric’s version of the events, Edmund does not fight the Danes but lays down his weapons and lets the Vikings have their way with him. The pagans began by using Edmund for target practice, shooting him so full of arrows that Edmund resembled a hedgehog (“swilce igles brysta” [like the bristles of a hedgehog]). Next, they struck off the king’s head and hid it in the bramble bushes:

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Viking behead Edmund and hide his head in the brambles. © New York, Morgan Library, M. 736, fol. 14v

The Vikings then returned to their ships and departed. Some time later, Edmund’s people return and find their king’s headless body. They start to search for the head and that is when a miracle happens:

Hi eodon þa secende and symle clypigende, swa swa hit gewunelic is þam ðe on wuda gað oft: “Hwær eart þu nu gefera?” And him andwyrde þæt heafod, “Her, her, her!” and swa gelome clypode andswarigende him eallum, swa oft swa heora ænig clypode, oþþæt hi ealle becomen þurh ða clypunga him to.

[Then they went looking and continually calling, as is customary with those who often go into the woods, “Where are you now, friend?” and the head answered them, “Here! Here! Here!” and so frequently called out, answering them all as often as any of them shouted, so that they all came to it because of the shouting”] (ed. and trans. Treharne, pp. 149-151)

They find the head, guarded by a wolf, and bury the head alongside Edmund’s body.

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Edmund’s head shouting ‘heer, heer, heer’ from John Lydgate’s Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund. © The British Library, Yates Thompson 47, fol. 54 r

Edmund’s capital miracles do not end there. Ælfric relates how, when they dig up Edmund’s body and head some years later, they find that the head has been reattached: God works in mysterious ways, indeed!

3) The beheading of Earl Byrhtnoth: The head that was stolen by Vikings

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Annal 991 in MS D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.iv, fol. 33v

Her wæs Gypeswic gehergod, 7 æfter þæm swyðe raþe wæs Byrihtnoð ealdorman ofslagan æt Meldune.

[In this year, Ipswich was ravished, and very soon after that Ealdorman Byrhtnoth was killed at Maldon].

Annal 991 of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains another bare report on the death of Anglo-Saxon. For more details about the death of Byrhtnoth  we need to look elsewhere. The anonymous author of one of the greatest poems in Old English, The Battle of Maldon, elaborated on how Byrhtnoth and his men heroically (or: foolishly) fought the Vikings on the beach of Maldon, after yielding them free passage over a narrow causeway (see The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition). In the poem, Byrhtnoth is struck fatally by a spear in the chest and dies uttering some final words of inspiration to his retainers.

The twelfth-century Liber Eliensis tells a different story, indicating that Byrhtnoth was, in fact, beheaded by the Vikings:

On the last day, and with few of his men left, Brithnoth knew he was going to die, but this did not lessen his efforts against the enemy. Having inflicted an enormous slaughter on the Danes, he almost put them to flight. But eventually the enemy took comfort from the small number of Brithnoth’s men, and, forming themselves into a wedge, rushed against him in one body. After an enormous effort the Danes barely managed to cut off Brithnoth’s head as he fought. They carried the head away with them and fled to their own land. (trans. Calder & Allan, p. 190)

The Liber Eliensis also reports that the abbot of Ely went to the battlefield to collect the remains of Byrhtnoth and buried the headless body in Ely Abbey, replacing the head with a lump of wax: “But in place of the head he put a round ball of wax, by which sign the body was recognized long afterwards in our own times and placed with honor among the others” (trans Calder & Allan, p. 192). The Liber Eliensis‘s reference to the placement of Byrhtnoth’s remains “among the others” is to a twelfth-century shrine of the seven benefactors of Ely Abbey, which is now found in Ely Cathedral:

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Shrine of Byrhtnoth and six other benefactors of Ely Cathedral (source)

Did the Vikings indeed steal Byrhnoth’s head or is this another case of literary embellishment? Judging by a report of how the bones of the seven Ely benefactors were uncovered in May 1769, it seems that this legend has a ring of truth to it:

Whether their relics were still to be found was uncertain … The bones were found inclosed, in seven distinct cells or cavities, each twenty-two inches in length, seven broad, and eighteen deep, made within the wall under their painted effigies; but in that under Duke Brithnoth there were no remains of the head, though we search diligently …It was observed that the collar bone had been nearly cut through, as by a battle axe or two-handed sword. (James Bentham to the Dean of Exeter; cit. in Stubbs, pp. 92-93)

If the Vikings did indeed behead Byrhtnoth, this raises the question of why the anonymous poet of The Battle of Maldon did not include this detail in his poem; perhaps he considered it ‘fake news’.

If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested in:

Works referred to:

  • Calder, D. G., & M. J. B. Allen, Sources and Analogues of Old English Poetry (London, 1976)
  • Stubbs, C. W., Historical Memorials of Ely Cathedral (New York, 1897)
  • Swanton, M. (Trans.), The Lives of Two Offas (Crediton, 2010)
  • Treharne, E., Old and Middle English c. 890-c.1450: An Anthology, 3rd edn. (Malden, 2010)

Bonus bunny

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An even more bizarre beheading: the original killer bunny in the fourteenth-century Gorleston Psalter. © British Library, Add 49622, fol. 13v

 

 

A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus

Manuscripts are among the most fascinating artefacts from the Middle Ages. This post focuses on a manuscript that was kidnapped by Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus.

‘The Golden Book’

The Stockholm Codex Aureus (Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135) is an eighth-century Gospel book. This beautiful manuscript was probably made in Canterbury and would also have had a bejewelled bookbinding. The presence of a precious binding can be inferred from a note on the opening page that commemorates Wulfhelm, the goldsmith, Ceolheard, the jeweller, and someone named Ealhhun. These could be the monks who were involved in the making of the book or they may have been responsible for rebinding it at a later point in time (see Gameson 2001):

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Opening page of St Jerome’s preface, inscription for Ceolheard, Ealhhun and Wulfhelm in top margin © Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135, fol. 1r

Orate p<ro> Ceolheard p<res>b<itero>, inclas [for inclusor?] 7 Ealhhun 7 Wulfhelm, aurifex

[Pray for priest Ceolheard, the jeweller(?), and Ealhhun and Wulfhelm, the goldsmith]

The Stockholm Codex Aureus (or: Canterbury Codex Aureus)  owes its nickname ‘Golden Codex’ to the lavish use of gold-leaf for some of its initials. Its golden glory is best illustrated by the opening page of the Gospel of Matthew:

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The Stockholm Codex Aureus © Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135, fol. 10r

Kidnapped by Vikings!

The opening page of the Gospel of Matthew has more to offer than just its gold and decorated letters: a ninth-century note added in the upper and lower margin of the page relates the exciting history of this book. As it turns out, the Codex Aureus had once been stolen by Vikings and, as the note states, an Anglo-Saxon ealdorman and his wife had ransomed it from the heathen army:

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Inscription in the names of Alfred and Werburg © Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135, fol. 10r

In nomine Domini nostri Ihesu Christi Ic Aelfred aldormon ond Werburg min gefera begetan ðas bec æt haeðnum herge mid uncre claene feo, ðæt ðonne wæs mid clæne golde, ond ðæt wit deodan for Godes lufan ond for uncre saule ðearfe.

Ond for ðon ðe wit noldan ðæt ðas halgan beoc lencg in ðære haeðenesse wunaden, ond nu willað heo gesellan inn to Cristes circan Gode to lofe ond to wuldre ond to weorðunga, ond his ðrowunga to ðoncunga, ond ðæm godcundan geferscipe to brucenne ðe in Cristes circan dæghwæmlice Godes lof rærað, to ðæm gerade ðæt heo mon arede eghwelce monaðe for Aelfred ond for Werburge ond for Alhðryðe, heora saulum to ecum lecedome, ða hwile ðe God gesegen haebbe ðæt fulwiht æt ðeosse stowe beon mote.

Ec swelce ic Aelfred dux ond Werburg biddað ond halsiað on Godes almaehtiges noman ond on allra his haligra ðæt nænig mon seo to ðon gedyrstig ðætte ðas halgan beoc aselle oððe aðeode from Cristes circan ða hwile ðe fulwiht <stondan><mote>.

In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I, ealdorman Alfred, and Werburg, my wife, obtained these books from the heathen arme with our pure money, that was with pure gold, and we did that for God’s love and for the sake of our souls.

And because we did not wish that these holy books would remain long among the heathens, and now we want to give it to Christ’s church for God’s praise, honour and glory, and in gratitude of his passion and for the use of the religious community, who daily raises up God’s praise in Christ’s church, on the condition that they are read every month for Alfred and for Werburg and for Alhthryth, for the eternal salvation of their souls, for as long as God should grant that the faith is allowed to be in this place.

Also likewise, I, ealdorman Alfred, and Werburg pray and ask in the God’s almighty name and those of all his saints that no man will be so bold as to deliver or separate these books from Christ’s church for as long as the faith is allowed to stand.

Having ransomed the book from the Viking army, Alfred and Werburg donated the book to the monastic community at Christ Church, Canterbury. In return, they expected the monks to pray for their souls and the soul of Alhthryth, who may have been their daughter. To make sure the monks would not forget them, the donators also had their names written in the right-hand margin of the same page: Alfred, Werburg, Alhthryth.

The beauty of the Chi-Rho page: Animals galore

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“XPI AUTEM” © Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135, fol. 10r

The first page of the Gospel of Matthew in medieval Gospel books was often highly decorated. The so-called Chi-Rho page (named after the two first capital letters of Christ’s name) of the Stockholm Codex Aureus is no exception. What is striking about the first line of this page is its inclusion of no fewer than twenty animals. While some (like the lamb of God above the PI of ‘XPI’-abbreviation for Christ) are easy to find, other are hidden among the many decorations. I personally like how even the initial capital X terminates in two animal heads (cows?) and how one animal is trying to balance himself between the two arches of the M. The image below lists the twenty animals and their location in the words “XPI AUTEM”:

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20 animals in “XPI AUTEM” © Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135, fol. 10r

Bipolar pages

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White pages with black ink alternated with purple pages with gold and silver ink. © Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135, fols. 17v-19r

Another interesting feature of the Stockholm Codex Aureus is its consistent alternation of normal parchment pages with pages that were dyed purple. Whereas the white pages are written with black ink, the purple pages have lettering in gold and silver. The use of purple pages and gold ink is well attested for the seventh and eighth centuries: since gold and silver were durable metals, they were deemed the proper colours for the equally incorruptible word of God. Ironically, it was probably this use of gold in the Stockholm Codex Aureus (and its bejewelled cover) that made it catch the attention of the marauding Vikings in the ninth century.

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Portrait of Matthew the Evangelist and the opening page of the Gospel of Matthew © Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135, fols. 9v-10r

While the Codex Aureus was temporarily returned to England, it did eventually end up in Scandinavia. The manuscript had remained in Canterbury until the end of the Middle Ages, then spent some time in Spain, but was finally acquired by the Royal Library of Sweden in 1690. I wonder how much “pure gold” it would take to ransom the book once more from these Vikings!

If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested in the following posts about medieval manuscripts:

Works referred to:

  • Gameson, R. (ed.), The Codex Aureus: An Eighth-Century Gospel Book (Copenhagen, 2001)

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Dreaming of witch-wives, fiery pitchforks and the Battle of Fulford

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 post discusses the remarkable events leading up to and including the Battle of Fulford in 1066…

As one of the three major battles of the year 1066, the Battle of Fulford is often ignored in favour of the English victory over the Vikings at Stamford Bridge and the English loss against the Normans at Hastings. Yet, this battle that took place on 20 September 1066 deserves our attention as well, if only because a 13th-century, Icelandic source connects this event to several interesting Anglo-Saxon anecdotes. All these anecdotes are found in the Heimskringla, a series of sagas concerning the lives of Norwegian Kings, written by the great Icelandic poet-scholar Snorri Sturluson around the year 1230.

Prophetic dreams of witch-wives

Like William the Conqueror, the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada claimed the throne of England in the year 1066. Snorri reports that, before Harald’s fleet sets off for England, some Vikings had troublesome dreams. One of them was called Gyrd, who dreamed that he was:

standing in the king’s ship and saw a great witch-wife standing on the island, with a fork in one hand and a trough in the other. He thought also that he saw over all the fleet, and that a fowl was sitting upon every ship’s stern. (trans. Laing 1844)

Gyrd’s fork-bearing witch-wife also appeared in the nocturnal vision of another Viking, called Thord:

He dreamt that King Harald’s fleet came to England and he saw a big battle, and before the English army, a huge witch-wife was riding upon a wolf and the wolf had a man’s carcass in his mouth, and the blood was dropping from his jaws; and when he had eaten up one body she threw another into his mouth, and so one after another, and he swallowed them all. And she sang thus:

     ‘Skade’s eagle eyes
The king’s ill luck espies:
Though glancing shields
Hide the green fields,
The king’s ill luck she spies.
To bode the doom of this great king,
The flesh of bleeding men I fling
To hairy jaw and hungry maw!
To hairy jaw and hungry maw!’ (trans. Laing 1844)

In case you didn’t get that, the witch-wife predicts an ill fate for King Harald Hardrada (who, indeed, died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, on the 25th of September, 1066).

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Dreaming of witch-wives

Pelt them with pitchforks! How the Vikings burned Scarborough

Harald and his Viking army land in England in September, 1066, with some 300 ships and some 9,000 men. The first thing they did was sack Scarborough. Naturally, the town was protected by a town wall of some sorts, but Harald found a way around this, or, rather, over this. His brilliant tactic involved hurling fiery pitchforks:

[Harald] climbed up on to the rock that stands there, and had a huge pyre built on top of it and set alight; when the pyre was ablaze they used long pitchforks to hurl the burning faggots down into the town.

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Harald Hardrada and the fiery pitchforks

The Battle at Fulford and a bridge made of people

Later, on the 20th of September, 1066, Harald gloriously defeated an English army at Fulford led by the English earls Morcar and Edwin. The English army was put to flight and Harald Hardrada won the day. To make matters worse, some of the unfortunate English  stumbled into a swamp, as Snorri reports:

The English army quickly broke into flight, some fleeing up the river, and others down the river; but most of them fled into the swamp, where the dead piled up so thickly that the Norwegians could cross the swamp dry-shod. (trans. Laing 1844)

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Vikings crossing the swamp dry-shod

Snorri’s Heimskringla, naturally, is not the most trustworthy of sources when it comes to the events of the year 1066; nevertheless, I hope that some of the re-enactments in celebration of this year’s 950-year-memorial will feature flying, fiery pitchforks, Vikings crossings swamps over bridges made of people and, who knows, fork-bearing witch-wives riding wolves!

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

Stay tuned for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!

Works referred to:

Laing, Samuel, trans. The Heimskringla. Or, Chronicles of the Kings of Norway (Vol. 3). London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1844.

Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Boniface in Dorestad

During the early Middle Ages, several Anglo-Saxons made their way to what is now the Low Countries, as missionaries, pilgrims, mercenaries and refugees. On this blog, I will regularly shed light on places in The Netherlands and Belgium associated with these visitors from early medieval England. This post focuses on the early medieval town Dorestad (present-day Wijk bij Duurstede, The Netherlands), which was visited as well as shunned by various Anglo-Saxons. In particular, this post reports on the exhibition ‘Boniface in Dorestad 716-2016’ in Museum Dorestad (18 June-7 December, 2016).

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“Boniface arrives in Dorestad A.D. 716” – Memorial plaque celebrating 1300-year anniversary of Boniface’s landing in Dorestad, installed May 2016, in the wall of the Grote Kerk, Wijk bij Duurstede

Dorestad: Flourishing Frisian trade centre that fell prey to Vikings?

Modern-day Wijk bij Duurstede is a relatively small Dutch town south of Utrecht and little recalls the grandeur of this place some thousands years ago, when it was known as ‘Dorestad’. During the early Middle Ages, the docks would have been crawling with international traders, shipping wine, stones and slaves along the important rivers Rhine and Lek. Its inhabitants, first the Frisians and later the Franks, used Dorestad as a trading hub that connected the Rhineland and the North Sea.

Dorestad’s status as a successful merchant town came to an end in the ninth century. Generations of Dutch school children have been told how the Vikings ransacked Dorestad, inspired by a famous educational plate by J.H. Isings (1927; see below). The local museum, Museum Dorestad, notes that this is only part of the story: apart from Viking incursions, Dorestad also had to deal with a declining economy, as well as Frankish rulers who began to favour other trading towns (Tiel and Deventer) for geo-political reasons. You can find a lot more information about medieval Dorestad on this website, which is affiliated with the museum. In the remainder of this post, I will focus on the Anglo-Saxon visitors to Dorestad.

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“Vikings sack Dorestad” – Famous educational plate made by J. H. Isings in 1927

Anglo-Saxons in Dorestad: Scholars, traders and missionaries

  • Nam tibi Hadda prior nocte non amplius una
  • In Traiect mel compultimque buturque ministrat :
  • Utpute non oleum nec vinum Fresia fundit.
  • Hinc tua vela leva, fugiens Dorstada relinque:
  • Non tibi forte niger Hrotberct parat hospita tecta (Alcuin, Cartula, perge cito, ll. 8-12)

 

[Because prior Hadda will provide for you no more than one night, in Utrecht, he serves honey, porridge and butter, since Frisia does not produce oil or wine. Hoist your sails away from here, leaving and ignore Dorestad, for the black Hrotberct really will not prepare hospitable houses for you]

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Gold tremissis minted in Dorestad, c. 600-675. Inscriptions: DORESTATE; RIMOALDUS M. Found in Cawood, North Yorkshire, in 2007 (source: PAS Unique ID SWYOR-B502C5. Image used on a CC BY 2.0 licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme.)

In his poem Cartula, perge cito [Little map, move quickly], the Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin of York (d. 804) recounts a journey he had made along the river Rhine. The poem is full of interesting, local details, such as his report that, in Utrecht, honey, porridge and butter were served in lieu of oil and wine. Notably, Alcuin told his readers to shun Dorestad, since a particularly nasty and greedy trader Hrotberct lived there.

Despite Alcuin’s advice, Anglo-Saxons regularly visited Dorestad, primarily for trade. This much becomes clear from numismatic evidence. Coins minted in Dorestad, for instance, have been found in England. In 2007, a gold tremissis bearing the inscriptions DORESTATE and RIMOALDUS M was found in North Yorkshire – a seventh-century coin apparently made in Dorestad by a man named Rimwald(us). Similar golden coins from Dorestad, made by one Madelinus, have also been unearthed in England, as well as in Norway and Belgium – attesting to Dorestad’s status as an international trade hub (see overview here). Vice versa, a silver sceat from Kent was found in Dorestad and is now on display in Museum Dorestad. Browsing the Portable Antiquities Scheme website (a great resource, documenting small finds by amateur archaeologists in England and Wales), I was able to identify a version of the exact same coin: found in 2013, in Barnham, Kent (see below). The two coins are so similar they may well have been struck with the same coin die!

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Top left: Kentish sceat found in Dorestad (source); Bottom left: Kentish sceat found in Barnham, Kent, in 2013 (source: PAS Unique ID KENT-EAF0C8. Image used on a CC BY 2.0 licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme. I mirrored one side of the coin to match the Dorestad coin); Right: Poster for “Boniface in Dorestad 716-2016” exhibition at Museum Dorestad

Aside from Anglo-Saxon traders, Anglo-Saxon missionaries also visited Dorestad. The greatest of these may have been St. Boniface (d. 754), who first set foot in Dorestad 1300 years ago, in 716. His visit is commemorated this year (2016), with an exhibition in the local museum, Museum Dorestad.

Boniface in Dorestad 716-2016: From bishop-martyr to USB stick

The exhibition, on the top floor of the small museum, consists of one, well-packed room. Along its walls, informative posters relate Boniface’s life story: Born as Wynfreth in the south-west of England (possibly Crediton), he became a monk and would lead various missions to Frisia and Germany. The first of these missions, in 716, brought Wynfreth to Dorestad, but his efforts to convert the pagan Frisians had little success. He returned a few years later and, with great zeal, preached the Gospel, cut down holy oaks and founded various monasteries and churches among the German peoples. His efforts earned him the title of ‘Apostle of the Germans’, as well as his new Roman name ‘Bonifatius’, or Boniface. When Boniface was well in his seventies, he still travelled to Frisia to continue his missionary activities, until, in 754, he was murdered, possibly near Dokkum. The story of his death is well known: ambushed by Frisian robberts, the elderly Boniface iconically shielded his head from the blows with his Gospel-book. Alas! The book was to no avail and Boniface died by the hands of the pagans. A martyr was born and Boniface was soon venerated as a saint. The exhibition in Museum Dorestad is illustrated nicely with altar pieces and plates showing scenes from the life of the Anglo-Saxon saint. A particular highlight of this part of the exhibition was a little star-shaped reliquary with a tiny piece of Boniface-bone inside. I have never been this close to an Anglo-Saxon!

I may have enjoyed the second part of the exhibition even more than the first. This part dealt with the Nachleben of Boniface – his afterlife. After the Middle Ages, people generally seem to have forgotten about Boniface (apart from some local cults), even though he was the patron saint of brewers, tailors, bookshop keepers, traders and vile makers! However, the Anglo-Saxon saint made a comeback at the end of the nineteenth century. Specifically, German nationalism adopted Boniface as the ‘Apostle of the Germans’; monuments and events in honour of Boniface also celebrated German nationhood. More recently, the Anglo-Saxon saint was adopted for more commercial means. The exhibition showed a Boniface cigar box, Boniface delftware plates, Boniface mints and even a Boniface USB stick! Naturally, the patron saint of brewers also has his own brand of beers: Boniface beer! (Note: Boniface wasn’t the only Anglo-Saxon missionary to be celebrated in beer, see this blog)

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Some highlights of the exhibition. Top left: miniscule relic of Boniface; Top middle: Boniface on a delftware plate; Right: Flyer for Boniface beer; Bottom left: Boniface USB stick

The attention for this commercial side to Boniface in the Dorestad Museum exhibition need not surprise us: apparently, the inhabitants of Wijk bij Duurstede have inherited some of the mercantile interests of their early medieval predecessors!

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How beer and bees beat the Viking siege of Chester in c. 907

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 post discusses the remarkable ways the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Chester managed to defeat a Viking siege in c. 907..

The eleventh-century Fragmentary Annals of Ireland records an intriguing tale of how the Vikings from Denmark and Norway laid siege to Chester around the year 907 and how the Anglo-Saxons, advised by their lord Æthelred (d. 911) and lady Æthelflaed (d. 918), defeated them. The original text is in Middle Irish, but I will quote from the Modern English translation by Radner (1978).

Feigning a retreat and a treaty

When the Danes and Norwegians first laid siege to Chester, the inhabitants sent word to their king and queen, who advise them to use a “feigned retreat”:

When the troops who were in the city saw, from the city wall, the many hosts of the Danes and Norwegians coming to attack them, they sent messengers to the King of the Saxons, who was sick and on the verge of death at that time, to ask his advice and the advice of the Queen. What he advised was that they do battle outside, near the city, with the gate of the city open, and that they choose a troop of horsemen to be concealed on the inside; and those of the people of the city who would be strongest in battle should flee back into the city as if defeated, and when most of the army of the Norwegians had come in through the gate of the city, the troop that was in hiding beyond should close the gate after that horde, and without pretending any more they should attack the throng that had come into the city and kill them all. (trans. Randler, p. 171)

Although this tactic proved very effective, the Viking attacks prolonged. Luckily, the king and queen had another trick up their sleeves. They sent word to the Irish and asked them to pretend to want to make a treaty with the Danish part of the Viking army. Explaining:

If they will make terms for that, bring them to swear an oath in a place where it would be convenient to kill them, and when they are taking the oath on their swords and their shields, as is their custom, they will put aside all their good shooting weapons. (trans. Randler, p. 173)

All went according to plan: when the Danes laid down their weapons and shields to take their oaths, the inhabitants of Chester killed them by hurling huge rocks and beams onto their heads!

Burn them in beer and send in the bees!

Defeating the Norwegian part of the Viking army would take a bit more effort, since these savages had come up with a new game plan: “The Norwegians did not abandon the city, for they were hard and savage; but they all said that they would make many hurdles, and place props under them, and that they would make a hole in the wall underneath them” (trans. Randler, p. 171). The inhabitants of Chester had to turn to extreme measures to ward ff these attacks:

However, the other army, the Norwegians, was under the hurdles, making a hole in the wall. What the Saxons and the Irish who were among them did was to hurl down huge boulders, so that they crushed the hurdles on their heads. What they did to prevent that was to put great columns under the hurdles. What the Saxons did was to put the ale and water they found in the town into the towns cauldrons, and to boil it and throw it over the people who were under the hurdles, so that their skin peeled off them. The Norwegians response to that was to spread hides on top of the hurdles. The Saxons then scattered all the beehives there were in the town on top of the besiegers, which prevented them from moving their feet and hands because of the number of bees stinging them. After that they gave up the city, and left it. (trans. Randler, p. 173)

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And that’s how you defeat a Viking siege: when all else fails,  burn them in beer and send in the bees!

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

Stay tuned for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!

Works referred to:

  • J. N. Randler, Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (Dublin, 1978)

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

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

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

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

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

Bealocwealm hafað

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

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

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

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

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

Beowulf: Your bloodletting days are over, demon!

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

Beowulf: It speaks? IT SPEAKS!

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

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

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

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

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

(You can find more transcriptions of spells here)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Athelstan: Gea, brodor. Ic hit gesawe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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