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Imagine having to copy a lengthy medieval manuscript by hand – day in day out, crouched over your writing desk, dabbling away with your quill, for weeks, nay, months on end. No wonder some medieval scribes were relieved when the job was done. This blog post features a number of evocative colophons from early medieval English manuscripts which shed some light on the state of mind of these weary scribes.
‘Pray for me’ – Colophons in medieval manuscripts
Qui istum librum legat precat pro anima Sistan me scripsit. Amen
Whoever may read this book, pray for the soul of Sigestan who wrote me. Amen
This Sigestan’s plea to ‘say a little prayer for him’, added at the end of a tenth-century manuscript of Paschasius Radbertus’s De corpore et sanguine Domini is a typical early medieval colophon. Colophons were added at the end of a text or manuscript and usually ask the reader to pray for the scribe’s soul or give thanks to God. In addition, the colophon may identify the scribe responsible for the manuscript and reveal something of the scribe’s circumstances. The examples provided below suggest that those circumstances may not always have been very pleasant.
‘Three fingers write, but the whole body labours’
Writing with a quill was a full-body workout, if we are to trust the testimony of the following three medieval English scribes. The first wrote the following at the end of an eighth-century copy of Gregory’s Pastoral Care:
Qui nescit scribere laborem esse non putat. Tribus digitis scribitur totum corpus laborat. Orate pro me qui istum librum legerit.
[He who does not know how to write does not think that it is a labour. Three fingers write, the whole body labours. Whoever has read this book, pray for me.]
The scribe responsible for a tenth-century copy of Aldhelm’s De Virginitate wrote eerily similar lines:
Tres digiti scribunt totum corpusque laborat. Scribere qui nescit nullum putat esse laborem.
[Three fingers write and the whole body labours. He who does not know how to write thinks it is no work.]
A third attestation of similar lines in a scribal colophon of a twelfth-century manuscript (another manuscript of Aldhelm’s De virginitate) reveals that we are dealing with a popular maxim among scribes:
Tres digiti scribunt totum corpusque laborat
Scribere qui nescit nullum putet esse laborem.
Dum digiti scribunt uix cetera membra quiescunt.
[Three fingers write and the whole body labours. He who does not know how to write thinks it is no work. While the fingers write, the other members hardly rest.]
Anyone with a desk-job today can relate to this medieval sentiment!
The last chapter as a long-awaited harbour: Scribes getting metaphorical
Though his whole body may have quivered from the labour of his three fingers, the eighth-century scribe Æthelberht still had enough inspiration to come up with a beautiful metaphor. In his colophon to a copy of a commentary on the Psalm he likens the copying of a manuscript to an arduous sea journey:
Finit liber psalmorum. In Christo Iesu domino nostro … lege in pace — Sicut portus oportunus nauigantibus ita uorsus [for uersus?] nouissimus scribentibus. Edilberict filius berictfridi scripsit hanc glosam quicumque hoc legat oret pro scriptore. Et ipse similiter omnibus populis et tribubus et linguis et universo genem humano aeternam salutem optat —— in Christo, Amen, Amen, Amen ——
The Psalter is finished. In Christ our lord, read in peace. Like a timely harbour to sailors is the last line to scribes. Æthelberht, son of Berhtfrith, wrote this gloss. Whoever may read it, may he pray for the scribe. And he himself similarly desires eternal health for all people, tribes and tongue and for the entire human race. In Christ, Amen, Amen, Amen.
Interestingly, Æthelberht was not the only Anglo-Saxon scribe to compare a scribe finishing his copy to a sailor reaching port. In a tenth- or eleventh-century Aldhelm manuscript (now Cambridge,Corpus Christ College, MS 326), a scribe added the following lines in Latin:
Nauta rudis pelagi ut seuis ereptus ab undis
In portum veniens pectora leta tenet
Sic scriptor fessus calamum sub colle laboris
Deponens habeat pectore laeta quidem (source)
[A sailor, rescued from savage waves of the rough sea, coming into the harbour, holds a happy heart; So may a scribe, tired under the mountain of labour, laying down the quill, have a happy heart, indeed.
‘God help my hands’
The last example is a colophon in Old English that follows an eleventh-century version of Ælfric’s Old English De temporibus anni. This scribe shows some signs of fatigue. He duly notes his job is done, but seems to have had no spirit or energy left to come up with a proper maxim or a nice metaphor:
Sy þeos gesetnys þus her geendod. God helpe minum handum.
[Thus, let this composition be ended here. God help my hands]
This scribe was so tired, he did not even ask the reader to pray for his soul!
With that, this ship has reached its port. Though I have typed this with ten fingers, my body aches and so do my hands. Say a prayer for me.
If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:
- Scribal abuse in the Middle Ages
- Anglo-Saxon Cryptography: Secret Writing in Early Medieval England
- “Do not give your books to children!” and other medieval tips for taking care of books
As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this blog, I will regularly shed some light on the medieval in Middle-Earth. This post reviews the horses of Middle-Earth.
The Rohirrim: Anglo-Saxons on horseback
It is no secret that Tolkien based the Riders of Rohan on the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Mercia. Indeed, the Rohirrim have even been called ‘Anglo-Saxons on horseback’ (see Honneger 2011). It is not difficult to see why the Riders of the Mark are connected to the early medieval English inhabitants of Mercia: the Rohirrim occasionally speak Old English and have Old English names. For instance, when Éomer tells Théoden “Westu Théoden hal!” in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, he echoes Beowulf’s address to Hrothgar in the Old English poem Beowulf: “Wæs þu, Hroðgar, hal” (Beowulf, l. 407) [May you be healthy, Hrothgar]. The name Théoden itself is Old English, being derived from Old English ðeoden ‘ruler, king’, as are so many other names of the Rohirrim.
The Rohirric fondness for horses is reflected in their name Éotheod, which stems from Old English eoh ‘war-horse’ + ðeod ‘people’. Among these ‘horse-people’, Éomer, Éowyn and their father Éomund stand out for also having names of an equine nature:
Éowyn < OE eoh ‘war-horse’, wynn ‘joy’
Éomer < OE eoh ‘war-horse’, mǣre ‘famous, great’
Éomund < OE eoh ‘war-horse’, mund ‘protector, guardian’
Unlike the Rohirrim, the Anglo-Saxons do not have a reputation for employing cavalry. Honegger (2011) points out that the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Maldon (991) and the Battle of Hastings (1066) fight on foot rather than on horseback. Be that as it may, earlier sources on Anglo-Saxon warfare do show Anglo-Saxons using cavalry, such as the Aberlemno Stone (c. 700-800) depicting (as some would argue) the Battle of Dun Nechtain (685) between the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith and the Picts (see image above).
The connection between the Rohirrim and the Anglo-Saxons (and their horses) is further borne out by the banner of Rohan, the names of the Rohirric horses and the treatment of Theoden’s horse Snowmane after its death.
The Banner of Rohan: “White horse upon a field of green”
The banner of Rohan is described as bearing a “white horse upon a field of green” (LOTR, bk. V, ch. 10). Tolkien probably found his inspiration for this banner in Wiltshire, near his hometown Oxford. The hills of Wiltshire are littered with white chalk horses, one of which (the Uffington White Horse) dates back over three thousand years (more info here). Folklore connects some of these white horses to the Anglo-Saxon period: The Westbury White Horse, for instance, may commemorate the victory of King Alfred the Great over the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandun in 878. Alfred the Great himself may be the partial inspiration behind Aragorn (see: The Medieval in Middle-earth: Aragorn and Exiled Anglo-Saxon Kings).
From Arod to Windfola: The Old English names of the Rohirric steeds
The horses of the king of Rohan are of a special breed called the Mearas, a name that means ‘horses’ in Old English (it is the plural of mearh ‘horse’). Indeed, upon closer inspection all names of the Rohirric horses turn out to be Old English:
Arod < Old English arod ‘fast’
Brego < Old English brega ‘ruler, prince’
Felarof < Old English fela ‘very’ + rof ‘strong, brave’
Hasufel < Old English hasu ‘grey’ + fell ‘hide’
Shadowfax < Old English sceadu ‘shadow, grey’ + fæx ‘hair’
Windfola < Old English wind ‘wind’ + fola ‘foal
Perhaps my favourite Old English name for one of the horses of Rohan is Stybba, the pony given to Merry Brandybuck. The name derives from Old English stybb ‘stump’.
A mound for a horse: Snowmane’s Howe and Sutton Hoo
The royal burial mounds of Rohan were inspired by the seventh-century royal burial mounds of Sutton Hoo, as I have argued elsewhere (Porck 2017). One such Rohirric mound is particularly relevant in connecting the Anglo-Saxons to the Rohirrim: Snowmane’s Howe. Snowmane, the horse of King Theoden, meets its demise in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and is buried on the spot. The Rohirrim call the mound ‘Snowmane’s Howe’ – the second element of the grave’s name, ‘Howe’, reflects the element Hoo in Sutton Hoo (both potentially derive from the Old Norse word haugr ‘mound’). While this ceremonial burial of a horse may appear particular to the horse-loving Rohirrim, there is at least one Anglo-Saxon analogue. The Sutton Hoo burial mounds also include one mound with the skeleton of a horse, buried alongside its rider.
To sum up, the Rohirrim share a fondness for horses with the Anglo-Saxons, who, after all, traced back their origins to Hengest and Horsa [‘horse, stallion’ and ‘horse’].
If you liked this post, you may also be interested in:
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: The Anglo-Saxon Habits of Hobbits
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Aragorn and Exiled Anglo-Saxon Kings
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Rings of Power
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Thror’s Map
Works referred to:
- Honegger, Thomas. (2011). The Rohirrim: ‘Anglo-Saxons on horseback’? An inquiry into Tolkien’s use of sources. In Tolkien and the study of his sources: Critical essays, ed. J. Fisher (2011), 116–132.
- Porck, Thijs (2017). New roads and secret gates, waiting around the corner: Investigating Tolkien’s other Anglo-Saxon sources. In Tolkien Among Scholars, ed. N. Kuijpers, R. Vink and C. van Zon (s.l.: Tolkien Genootschap Unquendor, 2017), 49-64 [Book for sale here for €16,50]
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.
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)
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:
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!
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy:
- Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?
- A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How beer and bees beat the Viking siege of Chester in c. 907
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:
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
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
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
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
5) A dead count of Holland and a lively Abbey: Adelbertusabdij, 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
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
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
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
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
The 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:
The Psalter was perhaps the best-known text among the Anglo-Saxons. As a result, many Psalters have survived from early medieval England. This blog post focuses on the Paris Psalter, which has been associated with Alfred the Great and features some beautiful illustrations.
The prose Psalm translations of Alfred the Great in the Paris Psalter
Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 8824 (the ‘Paris Psalter’) is a unique manuscript dating to around 1050. The main texts of the manuscript are the 150 Latin Psalms with facing Old English translations: the first fifty Psalms are translated into Old English prose and another translator rendered the last hundred Psalms in Old English verse. Although the Paris Psalter does not mention the author of the Old English Psalm translations, the translator of the first fifty Psalms has been identified as none other than Alfred the Great (d. 899). The arguments for the attribution to Alfred concern the language of the prose translations (a ninth-century West Saxon dialect) as well as a twelfth-century chronicler recording that Alfred was working on a translation of the Book of Psalms but had not been able to finish it before he died. I have outlined these arguments in an earlier blog post on the Old English word earsling (the ancestor word of the popular insult ‘arseling’), which occurs only in the Paris Psalter (see: Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great? ).
Like the other translations associated with Alfred’s ‘educational revival’ (such as the Old English Boethius), the prose translations of the first fifty Psalms in the Paris Psalter are not entirely literal and often feature additional interpretations. A clear case in point is the rendition of Psalm 44:2 (My heart hath uttered a good word: I speak my works to the king: My tongue is the pen of a scrivener that writeth swiftly), which was expanded to:
As this passage illustrates, Alfred added allegorical interpretations of some of the phrases in the Psalm. These additions resulted in the Old English text being a lot longer than the Latin original. As we shall see, this difference in length caused some problems for the scribe of the Paris Psalter.
Scribe of the Paris Psalter: Wulfwine ‘the Lumpy’
The scribe of the Paris Psalter identifies himself in a colophon at the end of the manuscript:
Hoc psalterii carmen inclyti regis dauid. Sacer d[e]i Wulfwinus (i[d est] cognom[en]to Cada) manu sua conscripsit. Quicumq[ue] legerit scriptu[m]. Anime sue expetiat uotum.
[This song of the psaltery by the famous King David the priest of God Wulfwine (who is nicknamed Cada) wrote with his own hand. Whoever reads what is written, seek out a prayer for his soul.]
Wulfwine’s nickname ‘Cada’ means something like ‘stout, lumpy person’ (he is, by no means, the only Anglo-Saxon with a silly nickname, see: Anglo-Saxon bynames: Old English nicknames from the Domesday Book).
Richard Emms (1999) has suggested that Wulfwine ‘the Lumpy’ may have come from Canterbury. He noted, for instance, that the Paris Psalter shares two rare features with another manuscript from Canterbury: its awkwardly long shape (the Paris Psalter is 52,6 cm long and only 18,6 cm wide) and a strange “open-topped a, looking rather like a u” at the end of some lines. Emms identified the same features in a late 10th-century manuscript of the Benedictine Rule from Canterbury (London, British Library, Harley 5431) and suggested this manuscript may have inspired Wulfwine:
The proposed localisation of Wulfwine in Canterbury is strengthened by the fact that some of the illustrations in the Paris Psalter resemble those of the Harley Psalter made in Canterbury (the Harley Psalter, in turn, was inspired by the ninth-century Utrecht Psalter, then in Canterbury). The illustrations of Psalm 4:6 (Offer up the sacrifice of justice) in both manuscripts are, indeed, similar:
Emms (1999) was even able to locate a monk named Wulfwine in a late 11th-century necrology of the monastic community of St. Augustine’s, Canterbury:
Could this Wulfwine ‘the scribe’ whose death was recorded in the late 11th-century Canterbury necrology really be the same person as scribe Wulfwine ‘the Lumpy’ who made the Paris Psalter and was inspired by at least two Canterbury manuscripts? As with the identification of Alfred the Great as the author of the prose translations, the evidence concerning the identity of the scribe Wulfwine is solely circumstantial, but the details do add up!
Filling the gaps: Some illustrations from the Paris Psalter
In producing the pages of the Paris Psalter, Wulfwine ‘the Lumpy’ had one particular problem: the Old English prose translation in the right hand column was often longer than the Latin original in the left-hand column. Consequently, the left-hand column often featured some gaps. Initially, Wulfwine tried to fill these gaps with illustrations; later, he tried to fix the problem by wrapping the Latin text in an awkward way; until he finally gave up on the idea of filling the left-hand column and simply let the gaps stand.
That Wulfwine eventually abandoned the idea of filling the gaps with illustrations is to be regretted. While some of his illustrations match the well-known Harley Psalter, others are unique to the Paris Psalter and shed an interesting light on how an Anglo-Saxon interpreted these Psalm texts. Below, I provide my personal top five of the fabulous illustrations of the Paris Psalter.
5) “Coochee coochee coo”
Here, the artist has literally illustrated the Old English translation of Psalm 3:4: “þu ahefst upp min heafod” [you raise up my head]. I like how God gently seems to tickle the Psalmist under his beard.
4) That moment when God thinks your beard needs trimming
This illustration shows a rather less cute interaction between God and a human being. The bearded figure, in this case, must be one of the “yfelwillenda” [those who want evil] or the “unrihtwisan” [the unjust], and God is intending to use his mega-scissors to remove this person from his sight.
3) Lion got your soul?
Another literal rendition: the lion trampling this young man is the enemy getting hold of a soul. Wulfwine here took inspiration from the Harley Psalter (or the Utrecht Psalter itself):
2) Struck by Cupid’s..err Satan’s arrows!
A depiction of Ps. 7:14 (he hath made ready his arrows for them that burn) shows Satan shooting an arrow into the heart of the female part of a lovers’ couple. Apparently, the couple had wild plans in their little love nest; note how the lovers are reaching between each other’s legs with their hands.
1) What will happen to the evil-doers
Psalm 5:7 (Thou hatest all the workers of iniquity: thou wilt destroy all that speak a lie. The bloody and the deceitful man the Lord will abhor) makes clear that God does not like those who commit evil acts and will seek to destroy them. The artist has depicted the first part of Psalm 5:7 as follows:
These evil-doers and liars are not, as I first thought, taking a trip in a boat; they are, in fact, in the mouth of Hell (see its little eye-ball on the left).
The illustration of the second part of Psalm 5:7 (…The bloody and the deceitful man the Lord will abhor) is more spectacular:
‘If you pull my hair, I will stab your groin!’: Ouch!!!
If you liked the blog post, you may also enjoy:
- A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus
- An Anglo-Saxon comic book collector: Cuthwine and the Carmen Paschale
- The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex
- The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book
Works refered to:
- Emms, Richard. 1999. The scribe of the Paris Psalter. Anglo-Saxon England 28 (1999): 179-183.
- O’Neill, Patrick. 2001. King Alfred’s Old English Prose Translation of the First Fifty Psalms (Medieval Academy of America, 2001)
During the Middle Ages, the wild boar was admired and feared for its courage and ferocity. This blogpost calls attention to this warrior among beasts and, in particular, to its presence on various helmets from Anglo-Saxon England.
The boar as a warrior
As a symbol of courage, the boar enjoyed great popularity throughout the Middle Ages. In his biography of Alfred the Great (d. 899), for instance, the monk Asser described how Alfred led his people against the Vikings as ‘a wild boar’:
… the king [Æthelred, Alfred’s brother] still continued a long time in prayer, and the heathen, prepared for battle, had hastened to the field. Then Alfred, though only second in command, could no longer support the advance of the enemy, unless he either retreated or charged upon them without waiting for his brother. At length, with the rush of a wild boar, he courageously led the Christian troops against the hostile army. (source)
The early medieval inhabitants of England would also name their children after the courageous boar, as is revealed by such Anglo-Saxon names as Eoforheard (‘boar-hard’), Eoformund (‘boar-protector’) and Eoforwulf (‘boar-wulf’) . In the later Middle Ages and beyond, the boar remained populair and was frequently used as a heraldic symbol, most famously by Richard III of England (d. 1485):
In his encyclopaedic Proprietatibus rerum, the thirteenth-century scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus described the boar as a courageous and ferocious warrior. The boar, he noted, “useth the tusks instead of a sword. And hath a hard shield, broad and thick in the right side, and putteth that always against his weapon that pursueth him, and useth that brawn instead of a shield to defend himself.” (source) With its tusks for a sword and its thick skin for a shield, the boar does not run away from its enemies, but rather chooses to attack. He does not fear for his life, even if he is mortally wounded:
The boar is so fierce a beast, and also so cruel, that for his fierceness and his cruelness, he despiseth and setteth nought by death, and he reseth full piteously against the point of a spear of the hunter. And though it be so that he be smitten or sticked with a spear through the body, yet for the greater ire and cruelness in heart that he hath, he reseth on his enemy, and taketh comfort and heart and strength for to wreak himself on his adversary with his tusks, and putteth himself in peril of death with a wonder fierceness against the weapon of his enemy. (source)
Interestingly, the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail wears an emblem of a boar’s head. A fitting image, indeed: his persistence, despite his wounds, ties in well with what Bartholomaeus Anglicus tells us about the boar!Bearing a boar into battle
In the early Middle Ages, a true warrior would carry an image of a boar with him into battle. This practice among Germanic tribes was already described by the Roman historian Tacitus in chapter 45 of his Germania (98 AD.). Some Germanic tribesmen, Tacitus wrotes, would carry with them “formae aprorum” (images of boars) as a kind of talisman for protection in battle:
They worship the mother of the gods, and wear as a religious symbol the device of a wild boar. This serves as armour, and as a universal defence, rendering the votary of the goddess safe even amidst enemies. (source)
In Old English literature, we find various examples of this practice. The Old English poem Elene, for example, makes mention of an eoforcumbol ‘boar-standard’. In Beowulf, too, there is a reference to an eoforheafodsegn ‘lit. boar-head-sign’, usually interpreted as a banner with a boar’s head. In addition, various warriors in Beowulf adorn themselves with “eofor-lic […] fah ond fyr-heard” (ll. 303b-305: A boar image, coloured and fire-hardened), “swyn eal-gylden (l. 1112b: a boar entirely of gold), “eofer iren-heard” (l. 1113a: an iron-hard boar) and “swin ofer helme (l. 1286a: a swine on top of the helmet). As the last phrase, “swin ofer helme”, suggests, these boar images were typically found on helmets. The hero Beowulf himself also seems to have possessed such a boar helmet, “besette swin-licum, þæt hine syðþan ne / brond ne beadomecas bitan ne meahton” (ll. 1450-1451: Studded with boar images, so that no sword or war-knife could bite him). Like Tacitus, the Beowulf poet here ascribes an ‘apotropaic’ function to the swine images: they are a form of defensive magic.
Boars on the helmet
The boar helmet is not a figment of literary imagination. Several archaeological finds from the early Middle Ages confirm the existence of this kind of headgear. One of the seventh-century helmet plates from Torslunda (Sweden), for example, shows two heavily armed warriors, each an effigy of a wild boar on their helmet. These swine are easily recognizable by their tusks, bristles and curly tails . Actual helmets dating from much the same time and complete with boar-crowns have been found in various places in England, such as Benty Grange and Wollaston.
Even the famous seventh-century Sutton Hoo helmet features an image of a boar, although it may not be visible at first sight. Considered carefully, the facemask of the Sutton Hoo helmet, with its moustache, nose and eyebrows, is actually the body of an eagle. But if we zoom in on the eyebrows, we can see that these are not only the wings of the eagle but that they are, in fact, boars, terminating as they do in swine-ish heads with tusks.
The carriers of these helmets no doubt imagined themselves protected or inspired by the martial valour of the boar.
Cruel and deadly: The dangers of boar baiting
Aside from their courage, boars were famed for their cruelty. Bartholomaeus Anglicus writes that boars would sharpen their tusks as soon as they heard hunters approach, so as to deal more damage:
And when he spieth peril that should befall, he whetteth his tusks and frotteth them, and assayeth in that while fretting against trees, if the points of his tusks be all blunt. And if he feel that they be blunt, he seeketh a herb which is called Origanum, and gnaweth it and cheweth it, and cleanseth and comforteth the roots of his teeth therewith by vertue thereof. (source)
Its reputation for cruelty was well-deserved: the boar hunt cost the lives of many a prince and nobleman, including the West Frankish king Carloman II (d. 884), the Hungarian prince Imre (d. 1031) and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (d. 1392). These unfortunate people had probably forgotten to bear an image of a boar with them!
This blog is a revised version of small Dutch article that will appear in a book on thirty medieval animals, to be published here.
P.S. On a not entirely unrelated note: given the boar’s reputation for courage and cruelty, Dáin Ironfoot’s choice of transportation in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies suddenly makes some sense.
The newly elected president of the United States has triggered over half a million women to march in a political protest against the new leader of their country. While this Women’s March was record-breaking, a report in an eleventh-century manuscript of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that it may not have been unprecedented. This is the story of Gytha and the Anglo-Saxon rebellion against William the Conqueror. #NotMyConqueror
A Women’s March to Flat Holm in 1068
The entry for the year 1067 in manuscript D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes a number of events that took place in the two years following the Norman Conquest in 1066. Most of the executive orders by the new king William are described in a rather negative manner, such as his imposing a heavy tax on the “earm folc” [poor people] and his siege of Exeter in 1068 (“he heom wel behet, 7 yfele gelæste” [he promised them well and he performed evil]). The annalist is more positive about a curious journey by Gytha, mother of the deceased King Harold Godwinson (d. 1066), who was joined by other women of good standing:
7 her ferde Gyða ut, Haroldes modor, 7 manegra godra manna wif mid hyre, into Bradan Reolice, 7 þær wunode sume hwile, 7 swa for þanon ofer sæ to Sancte Audomare.
[and in this year Gytha, Harold’s mother, went out and many wives of good men with her, to Flat Holme, and remained there for a while and thus from there over sea to St Omer (France)]
Gytha’s ‘Women’s March’ is part of the English rebellion against William the Conqueror and probably followed the Siege of Exeter in 1068, in which Gytha played an important role.
Gytha and her sons: Breaking their mother’s heart three times over.
Much of what we know about Gytha (fl. 1022-1068) derives from sources post-dating the Norman Conquest. According to the Domesday Book, she was one of the greatest women landowners in the year 1066 (Stafford 1989), She owed much of her wealth and status to her marriage to the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex (d. 1053), whom she bore many sons and daughters. Most of her sons became powerful earls and one of them even became king in 1066 (Harold Godwinson). While their careers may have made Gytha proud, some of her sons’ actions may have broken her heart.
Sweyn Godwinson, earl of Herefordshire (d. 1058), for instance, shocked his mother by insisting that Godwin was not his real father. Instead, he claimed to be the son of Cnut the Great (d. 1035). Sweyn’s claim was recorded in the late eleventh-century Cartulary of Hemming (a collection of charters and lawsuits regarding lands in Worcester). Hemming also included Gytha’s reaction:
Quam nimie arrogantie vanitatem mater illius, conjunx videlicet prefati ducis Godwini, exhorrescens, multis ex occidentalium Saxonum parte adductis nobilibus feminis, se matrem illius, et Godwinum patrem ejus esse, magnis juramentis et illarum probavit testmoniis.
[His mother, the wife of the aforesaid Earl Godwin, horrified by his excessive arrogance and vanity, brought together many noble ladies from the West Saxons, and proved by great oaths and their testimony that she was his mother and Godwine was his father.]
Sweyn disagreed and Hemming reports that while Cnut and Sweyn may not have shared blood and genes, they did share certain shortcomings, such as pride and excessive lusts of the flesh. To illustrate the latter, Hemming narrates how Sweyn had once abducted the abbess of Leominster and had kept her as a wife for a year. He had returned the abbess after threats of excommunication by the bishop of Worcester but had then retaliated by stealing some estates from the diocese of Worcester. Clearly the black sheep of the family, Sweyn was exiled on various occasions and died in 1052 after returning from a penitential pilgrimage to the Holy Land – Sweyn certainly did not make his mommy proud!
Her two more famous sons, Tostig (d. 1066) and Harold, did little better. In the year of the Norman Conquest, Tostig had rebelled against the English throne and had sided with the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada (d. 1066). In the Battle at Stamford Bridge, brother fought brother and Tostig was killed. Following the battle and his brother’s death, Harold hears the news that the Norman fleet of William has landed and Harold wants to rush south. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis (d. c. 1142) writes how Gytha, having just lost Tostig, feared for Harold’s life and tried to dissuade her son. Harold not only refused to listen to his elderly mother, he gave her a kick to boot: “[Harold] even forgot himself so far as to kick his mother when she hung about him in her too great anxiety to detain him with her” (trans. Forester, Vol. I, p. 482). Ouch!
Gytha’s fear became a reality and Harold did die at the Battle of Hastings. Orderic Vitalis reports how the grieving mother had asked William the Conqueror for the body of her son:
The sorrowing mother now offered to Duke William, for the body of Harold, its weight in gold; but the great conqueror refused such a barter, thinking it was not right that a mother should pay the last honours to one by whose insatiable ambition vast numbers lay unburied (trans. Forester, Vol. I, p. 488)
Another twelfth-century chronicler, William of Malmesbury (d. c. 1143) supplies an ‘alternative fact’: “He sent the body of Harold to his mother, who begged it, unransomed; though she proffered large sums by her messengers” (trans. Giles, pp. 280-281).
Whatever may have happened to Harold’s body, Gytha had every reason to detest William and she, a well-connected and wealthy noblewoman, became the focal point of resistance against the new Norman overlord.
Gytha and the Siege of Exeter in 1068
It is generally assumed that Gytha was involved in the resistance offered by the city of Exeter in 1068. Orderic Vitalis records how Exeter was the first city to fight for its freedom. The townsfolk barricaded the city walls and claimed “We will neither swear allegiance to the king, nor admit him within our walls; but will pay him tribute, according to ancient custom” (trans. Forester, Vol. II, p. 15). #NotMyConqueror. William gathered 500 horsemen and marched on Exeter. He besieged the town for eighteen days and committed various acts of cruelty, including the blinding of one the hostages. William of Malmesbury related William’s ferocity to an intriguing action by one of the Exeter townsfolk:
Indeed he had attacked it with more ferocity, asserting that those irreverent men would be deserted by God’s favour, because one of them, standing upon the wall, had bared his posteriors, and had broken wind, in contempt of the Normans. (trans. Giles, p. 282)
That’s right, it seems as if someone farted in the king’s general direction! After eighteen days, Exeter capitulated, but Gytha had escaped and began making her way to Flat Holm.
A Women’s March or a Women’s Flight?
The Siege of Exeter was a definite blow to Gytha and her rebellion. However, her march might still be regarded as an act of defiance against William, if only because a group of travelling noblewomen was sure to draw the people’s attention. It certainly made an impression on the annalist of annal 1067 in MS D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Whereas he had denounced William’s actions following the Norman Conquest (see above), the annalist writes approvingly of Gytha’s going out, noting how the women who joined her are the “wives of good men”. Orderic Vitalis, generally more appreciative of William the Conqueror, is more negative about Gytha’s retreat to France. After going over how various English uprisings were justly put to rest, Orderic describes how Gytha “secretly collected vast wealth, and from her fear of King William crossed over to France, never to return” (trans. Forester, Vol. II, pp. 23-24).
So, was it a women’s march or a women’s flight? Much depends, it would seem, on the political stance of the person bringing the news – a notion that still very much applies to this day and age.
If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested in:
- Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and the Norman Conquest
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Dreaming of witch-wives, fiery pitchforks and the Battle of Fulford
- Anglo-Saxon bynames: Old English nicknames from the Domesday Book
Works referred to:
- Stafford, Pauline, ‘Women in Domesday’, Reading Medieval Studies 15 (1989), 75-94
- Forester, T. A. (Trans.), The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Orderic Vitalis (London, 1853-1854)
- Giles, J.A. (Trans.), William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the English Kings (London, 1847)
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
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
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
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.
If you liked this post, you may also like:
- Growing Old among the Anglo-Saxons (information about my PhD thesis on old age in Anglo-Saxon England)
- How to cook your dragon and a medieval cure for old age (anti-aging, the medieval way)
- Wealthy Wynflæd’s wonderful will (an interesting blog about Wynflæd’s will by Kate Thomas
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!
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”:
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
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
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)
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):
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:
- Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels
- The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book
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)
After fighting their battles, tending to their fields, playing their harps, herding their cows and singing their Psalms, many an Anglo-Saxon would feel the need to put their feet up and their bottoms down. But what exactly would they sit down on? This blog provides a (by no means exhaustive) overview of seating types used in Anglo-Saxon England.
Simple, compact and, most importantly, portable: the folding stool has been the seating accommodation of choice for a very long time. Foldable chairs have been around since c.1500 BC and were not uncommon in early medieval England. Anglo-Saxon monasteries, for instance, certainly had folding stools. This much becomes clear from the Monasteriales Indicia (‘Monastic Signs’), an Old English text which lists 127 signs used by monks during times when the Benedictine Rule forbade them to speak. One of those signs allowed a monk to gesture for a folding stool:
Gyf þu meterædere fyldstol habban wille oþþe oþrum men, þonne clæm þu þine handa togædere and gege hi þam gemete þe þu dest þonne þu hine fyalden wylt[If you want a folding stool for the mealtime reader or anyone else, then clasp your hands together and move them in the way that you do when you want to fold it.] (ed. and trans. Banham 1996, 30-31)
Today, folding stools are usually equated with cheap, plastic things we use on camping trips. By contrast, a folding chair could be a sign of high social rank among the Anglo-Saxons. The richly furnished burial chamber of the so-called Prittlewell Prince (an Anglo-Saxon nobleman who lived in the 7th century), for example, contained several high-status objects, such as luxurious metal objects, laced with gold and silver, a sword, a lyre and a hanging bowl, but also a seemingly humble folding stool.
Indeed, in the early Middle Ages, curule chairs (a deluxe type of folding stool) could bear the bums of kings: Dagobert I (circa 603–39), king of the Franks 629–34, had a foldable throne, made of bronze that was later reused by other monarchs of France (more info here). Such high-status folding stools would often be beautifully ornamented – the arms of the throne of Dagobert resemble panthers, while the legs are shaped like paws. In the Old English Hexateuch, an early eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon comic strip adaptation of the first six books of the Bible (see this blog here), several high-ranking men recline on similar curule chairs with legs terminating in zoomorphic claws.
2) luxury add-ons: fōt-setl ond set-hrægl ‘footrest and seatcover’
Another type of seat one would find in Anglo-Saxon monasteries is depicted in the portrait of Ezra in the Codex Amiatinus (an 8th-century, Northumbrian copy of the Bible, intended as a gift for the pope). Ezra is shown writing a book, sitting on a small bench. While Ezra’s seating accommodation probably wouldn’t pass a present-day occupational health and safety examination, it is worth pointing out that his seat has at least two optional add-ons. For one, his feet are resting comfortably on a fōt-setl ‘foot-rest’ (literally: foot-chair or foot-seat). In addition, his bench is furbished with a comfy blue cushion. The Monasteriales Idicia once more prove that such pillows were a common sight in an early medieval English monastery:
Ðonne þu setrægel habban wille, þonne plice þu ðine agene geweda mid twam fingrum, tospred þine twa handa and gewe hi, swylce þu setl gesydian wille.
[When you want a seat cover, then pinch your own clothes with two fingers, spread out your two hands, and move them in the way that you do when you want to fold it.] (ed. and trans. Banham 1996, 30-31)
These uncomfortable looking stone chairs are known as frith-stools (lit. peace-chairs). A frith-stool was placed near the altar of a church and criminals could claim sanctuary by sitting in them. The frith-stool appears in various Latin charters from the twelfth century but some (like the ones in Beverley and Hexham) are said to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries (see Simpson 1953-1957). The word “grythstole”, indicating a similar sanctuary chair, appears in a Middle English text that claims to be a charter by King Athelstan (d. 939) for St. Wilfrid’s church in Ripon. Intriguingly, the text is in rhyme:
*Wyttyn al that is and is gan testify
That ik Kyng Attelstane
Has gyven as frelich as ich may
To kyrk and chaptel of seint Wylfray
Of my free *deuocon devotion
Thar *pees at Rypon peace, sanctuary
On *ylke syde the kirke a myle every
For al ille deedes and ilke *gyle guile
And wythinne thay kyrk *yate gate
At the stane that grythstole hatte
Withinne the kyrke dore and the *quere choir
Thay have thayre pees for less and mare.
(Simpson 1953-57; I have added Modern English glosses for the words marked with an asterisk)
4) gif-stōl ‘gift-chair, throne’
One of the Old English words for throne is gif-stōl: literally, the seat whence the lord would bestow gifts on his loyal followers. The thrones occupied by Edward the Confessor (d. 1066) and William the Conqueror (d. 1087) on the Bayeux Tapestry both show a zoomorphic design: fashionable animal paws and heads decorate the extremities of their seats.
5) medu-benc ‘mead-bench, drinking-bench’
In Beowulf, we occasionally read about mead-benches and beer-seats. In this world of hardened warriors, we should probably imagine simple, wooden benches: certainly no monkish cushions! A more luxurious (and comfortable) piece of furniture is illustrated in a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon calendar page for the month of April. The illustration depicts ‘feasting’ (this is the ‘Labour of the Month’ for April!) and shows three men enjoying a drink on an elongated seat. The seating part of this drinking-bench is covered with a sheet of some sort and on either end of the seat is the front half of a beast – a lion on the left and a boar(?) with impressive tusks on the right. When it came to fashionable furniture, it seems, animals were all the rage!
Works referred to:
- Banham, D., ed. and trans., Monasteriales Indicia: The Anglo-Saxon Monastic Sign Language, exp. edn. Hockwold-cum-Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1996.
- Simpson, J., ‘A Note on the Word Friðstóll‘, Saga-Book of the Viking Society 14 (1953-1957), 200-210.