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Kings and Candlesticks in Anglo-Saxon England

Among all of his responsibilities, Alfred the Great found the time to invent the candle clock. As this blog post will demonstrate, Alfred, by no means, was the only Anglo-Saxon king to have a thing for candles.

Alfred the Great: Inventor of time management and the candle clock

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Eight Hour Day Banner, Melbourne, 1856

The slogan “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” is supposed to have been coined by the social reformer Robert Owen (d. 1858); but the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred the Great (d. 899) seems to have divided his time in a similar way. According to the twelfth-century chronicler William of Malmesbury:

he [Alfred] so divided the twenty-four hours of the day and night as to employ eight of them in writing, in reading, and in prayer, eight in the refreshment of his body, and eight in dispatching the business of the realm. There was in his chapel a candle consisting of twenty-four divisions, and an attendant, whose peculiar province it was to admonish the king of his several duties by its consumption. (source)

Assuming that Alfred regarded writing, reading and praying as recreation – Alfred’s daily routine, as described by William, is quite similar to Robert Owen’s slogan.

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Alfred (played by David Dawson) and his candles make a surprise appearance in The Last Kingdon, series 2, episode 3. © BBC, The Last Kingdom

William’s reference to “a candle consisting of twenty-four divisions” refers to a famous story related in Asser’s Life of Alfred (893), which recounts how Alfred invented a “candle clock” consisting of six candles (not one), which each burned for four hours:

By this plan, therefore, those six candles burned for twenty-four hours, a night and day, without fail…  but sometimes when they would not continue burning a whole day and night, till the same hour that they were lighted the preceding evening, from the violence of the wind, which blew day and night without intermission through the doors and windows of the churches … the king therefore considered by what means he might shut out the wind, and so by a useful and cunning invention, he ordered a lantern to be beautifully constructed of wood and white ox-horn, which, when skilfully planed till it is thin, is no less transparent than a vessel of glass. … By this contrivance, then, six candles, lighted in succession, lasted four and twenty hours, neither more nor less, and, when these were extinguished, others were lighted. (source)

There you have it, in addition to defeating the Vikings (see: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and Alfred the Great), suffering from painful diseases (see: Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?), translating the Psalms (see: The Illustrated Psalms of Alfred the Great: The Old English Paris Psalter), and coining the word ‘arseling’ (see: Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?), Alfred also invented a candle clock! He truly was a king among kings.

Æthelwulf of Wessex: Coins and candle holders for the pope

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Anglo-Saxon coin inscribed with “EĐELVVLF REX” (source)

Alfred may have gotten his interest in lights and candles from his father Æthelwulf of Wessex (d. 858). Upon his death, Asser reports in his Life of Alfred, Æthelwulf ordered an annual sum of money to be sent to Rome of which a major part was to be spent on lighting lamps at Easter:

He commanded also a large sum of money, namely, three hundred mancuses, to be carried to Rome for the good of his soul, to be distributed in the following manner: namely, a hundred mancuses in honour of St. Peter, specially to buy oil for the lights of the church of that apostle on Easter eve, and also at the cock-crow: a hundred mancuses in honour of St. Paul, for the same purpose of buying oil for the church of St. Paul the apostle, to light the lamps on Easter eve and at the cock-crow; and a hundred mancuses for the universal apostolic pontiff. (source)

Æthelwulf’s charity did not stop there. The ninth-century Liber Pontificalis (the book of Popes) relates how, upon visiting Rome with his son Alfred, gifted the Church of St Peter with many precious objects, including a silver candle holder:

a crown of pure gold weighing four pounds, an ornamental sword with gold inlay, a gilded silver candle holder in the Saxon style, a purple dyed tunic embossed with golden keys, a golden goblet, and numerous valuable robes. (R. Abels, King Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 53)

Upon his trip to Rome, Alfred may have learned a valuable lesson from his father: candles are candy for the pope!

Æthelred the Unready: Castigated by candles

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Æthelred ‘the Unready’ © British Library, Royal MS 14 B VI

While Alfred and his father Æthelwulf had positive experiences with candles, one of their kinsmen fared differently. As legend would have it, Æthelred ‘the Unready’ (d. 1016), Alfred’s great-great-grand-son, was traumatized by candles in his youth. William of Malmesbury relates the following incident in his Gesta regum Anglorum:

I have read, that when he was ten years of age, hearing it noised abroad that his brother [Edward ‘the Martyr’ (d. 978)] was killed, he so irritated his furious mother by his weeping, that not having a whip at hand, she beat the little innocent with some candles she had snatched up: nor did she desist, till herself bedewed him, nearly lifeless, with her tears. On this account he dreaded candles during the rest of his life, to such a degree that he would never suffer the light of them to be brought into his presence. (source)

As Æthelred grew up, he gained a reputation as being one of the worst kings in English history. He certainly was never able to fill his great-great-grandfather Alfred’s shoes, and we now know why: without the help of candles (or a candle clock), how could he ever have managed his time!?!

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

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Alfred: What do you think of my candles? Uhtred: I find them to be more effective at night. Alfred: I have missed your childish insolence. I’m trying to measure the passing of time. I’m hoping to find a candle that burns from midday to midday. © BBC, The Last Kingdom

 

 

 

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Anglo-Saxon obscenities: Explicit art from early medieval England

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

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

1) The Bayeux Tapestry erection

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

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

 

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

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

2) Marvels of the East au naturel

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

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

3) Woden, a well-endowed god

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6) Pulling your beard in a canon table

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

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

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

Works referred to:

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

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Cnut the Great and the walking dead

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 how Cnut the Great (d. 1035) was scared by the reanimated corpse of St. Edith of Wilton.

The walking dead in Anglo-Saxon England

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In episode 5 of the second series of The Last Kingdom, Uhtred of Bebbanburg meets Bjorn the dead man who rises from his grave. © BBC (source)

A recent article in the Guardian reported on the mutilation of dead bodies by medieval inhabitants of Yorkshire. The archaeologists suggested that the villagers had been so afraid of the dead rising from their graves that they made reassurances by smashing some of the skeletons to pieces. Similar practices have been reported for Anglo-Saxon England. The archaeologist David Wilson, for instance, has described how some Anglo-Saxon skeletons were found buried upside down (prone burials), covered under stones, or had their heads cut off. These practices, he notes, have been interpreted as being “intended to prevent the ghost from walking and returning to haunt the living” (Wilson 1992: 92). A fear for a zombie apocalypse, it seems, is nothing new!

The Three Living and the Three Dead

A famous medieval tale revolves around the chance meeting of three living young men with three animated corpses. The corpses remind the young men that they too will die (memento mori, remember to die) and that it is not too late to change their ways.

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The Three Living and the Three Dead © The British Library, Arundel MS 83, f. 127v

Versions of the tale of the Three Living and the Three Dead have come down to us from the 13th century onwards (see this blog), but the transformative power of a meeting with a dead person has a longer history; a history that includes Cnut the Great and the corpse of St Edith of Wilton.

Cnut the Great and the reanimated corpse of St Edith of Wilton

Cnut the Great (d. 1035) has a reputation as a god-fearing, Christian king. However, an anecdote in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (1125) suggests Cnut started out as an unbelieving irreligious rebel, until he saw a zombie:

Cnut was a Dane, a man of action but one who had no affection for English saints because of the enmity between the two races. The cast of mind made him wilful, and when at Wilton one Whitsun he poured out his customary jeers at Eadgyth herself [St Edith of Wilton, an Anglo-Saxon saint]: he would never credit the sanctity of the daughter of King Edgar, a vicious man, an especial slave to lust, and more tyrant than king. He belched out taunts like this with the uncouthness characteristic of a barbarian, just to indulge his ill temper; but Archbishop Æthelnoth, who was present, spoke up against him. Cnut became even more excited, and ordered the opening of the grave to see what the dead girl could provide in the way of holiness.

The tomb was opened and, like a jack-in-the-box, St Edith of Wilton rose from her grave:

When the tomb was broken into, Eadgyth was seen to emerge as far as the waist, though her face was veiled, and to launch herself at the contumacious king. In his fright, he drew his head right back; his knees gave way, and he collapsed to the ground. The fall so shattered him that for some time his breathing was impeded, and he was judged dead. But gradually strength returned and he felt both shame an joy that despite his stern punishment he had lived to repent. (Trans. Preest 2002: 127)

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If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

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

Works referred to:

  • David Preest (trans.), William of Malmesbury: The Deeds of the Bishops of England (Woodbridge, 2002)
  • David Wilson, Anglo-Saxon Paganism (London and New York, 1992)

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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Heads on sticks: Decapitation and impalement in early medieval England

In the second episode of series two of The Last Kingdom, a row of decapitated heads has been placed outside the main gate of Dunholm/Durham. As this blog post will illustrate, this practice, barbaric though it seems, is well attested for Anglo-Saxon England.

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Impaled heads in The Last Kingdom © BBC

Historical examples: Saint Oswald and the real Uhtred

Perhaps the best-known example of decapitation and impalement was that of Saint Oswald of Northumbria (d. 642). After Oswald had been defeated by the pagan King Penda of Mercia, Penda had Oswald’s head and arms cut off. Penda then had these body parts put on stakes, until Oswald’s brother Oswy retrieved them, a year after the battle. Later, Oswald’s head was likely buried in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert (about whom, see: Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb) which ended up in Durham, where it still remains today. Intriguingly, aside from Durham Cathedral, four other institutions today claim to have the skull of Saint Oswald (Bailey 1995), including Hildesheim Cathedral  which houses a beautiful twelfth-century head reliquary depicting the head of Oswald (see image below).

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Left: Illustrated initial showing the martyrdom of Saint Oswald © Darmstadt, Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, HS 2766, 44r. Right: Head Reliquary of St. Oswald © Hildesheim Cathedral

The display of decapitated heads did not die out with the arrival of Christianity. In the De Obsessione Dunelmi, a Latin historical work from around 1100, we are told of a siege of Durham by the Scots in the early eleventh century. Luckily for Durham, their bishop Ealdun’s daughter had been married to Uhtred (d. 1016), son of the earl of Northumbria and the inspiration for Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series upon which BBC’s The Last Kingdom is based. This Uhtred came to Durham’s aid and massacred the Scottish host and had the Scots decapitated. Uhtred then sent for the most attractive heads to be brought to Durham:

The heads of the slain, made more presentable with their hair combed, as was the custom in those days, he had transported to Durham, and they were washed by four women and fixed on stakes around the circuit of the walls. The women who had previously washed them were each rewarded with a single cow. (cited in Thompson 2004: 193)

Aside from the intriguing reward of a cow for washing a dead man’s head, this episode in the De Obsessione Dunelmi reveals that the display of decapitated heads remained common (customary even) until the eleventh century, at least.

Heafod stoccan in Anglo-Saxon charters

Anglo-Saxon charters often contained vernacular boundary clauses which described the areas under discussion. Within these boundary clauses, the term heafod stocc ‘head stake’ is frequently attested,  suggesting that it was common practice to mark the limits of estate properties with impaled heads. Various charters locate such head stakes in the vicinity of a road: e.g., “æfter foss to þam heafod stoccan” [after the way to the head stakes] (S 115); “of heafod stocca andlang stræt” [from the head stakes along the street] (S 309); and “7lang stret to þam heafod stoccan” [along the street to the head stakes] (S 695).  These examples suggest that these head stakes would have been visible for people travelling from and towards locations, possibly along main access roads. Given their use as boundary markers in surviving Anglo-Saxon charters, these head stakes must have been a permanent as well as salient feature in the landscape. The existence of head stakes is supported by archaeological evidence, which also locates execution sites at the boundaries of estates (see Reynolds 2009: 169). Just like the heads of criminals spiked on the walls of old London Bridge, the purpose of these head stakes must have been to not only mark the boundaries of an estate, but also to warn potential transgressors against the consequences of wrongdoings.

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Heads on old London Bridge (source)

An inspiration for Anglo-Saxon authors and artists

The spectacle of decapitating an enemy’s head and putting it on display proved inspirational for various Anglo-Saxon authors and at least one artist. The Beowulf poet, for instance, has Beowulf and his men parade Grendel’s head on a stake towards Heorot: “feower scoldon / on þæm wælstenge weorcum geferian / to þæm goldsele Grendles heafod / oþ ðæt semninga to sele comon” [four had to carry Grendel’s head with hardships to the gold-hall on a battle-pole, until they came to the hall] (Beowulf, ll. 1637b-1639). Here, Grendel’s head functions as a trophy, a sign of Beowulf’s heroic triumph.

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Beowulf, ll. 1637-1639 © The British Library, Cotton Vitelius A.xv, ff. 168v-169r

A rare visual depiction of a decapitated and impaled head is found in the Old English Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv) an eleventh-century, illustrated translation from the Latin Vulgate of the first six books of the Old Testament (see: The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book). In his depiction of Genesis 8:7 (‘And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.’), the artist of the Hexateuch deviated from the biblical text and depicted a raven pecking at a head, impaled on Noah’s ark (see below). It has been suggested that the artist was drawing on his own creativity here, given the fact that there is no iconological tradition that depicts Noah’s raven in this way (Gatch 1975: 11). Perhaps, the Anglo-Saxon artist was so familiar with the practices of decapitation and impalement that he could think of no better way to depict God’s wrath!

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Raven pecking at an impaled head on Noah’s ark. © The British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, fol. 15r

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other blog posts on The Last Kingdom or Anglo-Saxon decapitations:

Works refered to:

  • Bailey, Richard N., “St Oswald’s Heads,” in Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint, ed. C. Stancliffe and E. Cambridge. 195-209. Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1995.
  • Gatch, Milton McC., “Noah’s Raven in Genesis A and the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch”, Gesta 14:2 (1975), pp. 3-15
  • Reynolds, Andrew, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Thompson, Victoria. Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004.

 

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Decapitation and impalement scene in the margin of an early-fourteenth-century manuscript of the Decretals of Gregory IX. © The British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, 208r

The Illustrated Psalms of Alfred the Great: The Old English Paris Psalter

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

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Left: The Old English Paris Psalter. © Paris, BnF, Lat. 8824. Right: Alfred disguised as a harper in the Viking camp (source)

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:

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Psalm 44 © Paris, BnF, lat. 8824, ff. 54r-54v

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:

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Scribe’s colophon © Paris, BnF, lat. 8824, ff. 186r.

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:

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Left: Paris Psalter © Paris, BnF, lat. 8824; Middle: Long-shaped Benedictine rule manuscript © The British Library, Harley 5431; Top right: “manus mea” in Paris Psalter; Bottom right: “tota anima” in Harley 5431

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:

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Left: Illustration of “Offer up the sacrifice of justice” (Ps. 4:6) © Paris, BnF, lat. 8824, fol. 3r; Right: The same scene in the Harley Psalter ©The British Library, Harley 603, fol. 2v.

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:

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“Ob[it] Wulfwinus (scriptor) fr[ater] n[oste]r 7 Cecilia soror n[ost]ra” © The British Library, Cotton Vitelius C.xii, fol. 143v

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.

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Filling the gaps in the Paris Psalter with an illustration and by wrapping the Latin text © Paris, BnF, lat. 8824, ff. 3r, 12r

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”

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Illustration of Psalm 3:4 © Paris, BnF, lat. 8824, fol. 2v

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

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Illustration of Psalm 5:5-6 © Paris, BnF, lat. 8824, fol. 3v

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.

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3) Lion got your soul?

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Illustration of Psalm 7:3 © Paris, BnF, lat. 8824, fol. 5r

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):

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Left: © Paris, BnF, lat. 8824, fol. 5r; Right: © The British Library, Harley 603, fol. 4r

2) Struck by Cupid’s..err Satan’s arrows!

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Illustration of Psalm 7:14 © Paris, BnF, lat. 8824, fol. 6r

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.

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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:

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Illustration of Psalm 5:7 © Paris, BnF, lat. 8824, fol. 3v

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).

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The illustration of the second part of Psalm 5:7 (…The bloody and the deceitful man the Lord will abhor) is more spectacular:

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Illustration of Psalm 5:7 © Paris, BnF, lat. 8824, ff. 3v-4r

‘If you pull my hair, I will stab your groin!’: Ouch!!!

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If you liked the blog post, you may also enjoy:

Works refered to:

 

Boars of battle: The wild boar in the early Middle Ages

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

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Boars in Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 45v; Morgan Library, MS M.81, Folio 36v; Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 20r (source)

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):

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Richard III (d. 1485) and his son Edward, standing on boars; his wife Anne Neville, standing on a polar bear? © British Library, Add MS 48976

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!

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“It is only a flesh wound” [and a boar’s head on his chest]

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

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Left: Torslunda helmet-plate; Right: Wollaston helmet in Royal Armouries, Leeds

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.

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Boar-ish eyebrow, eagle-like facial features and the Sutton Hoo Helmet © The British Museum (source)

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

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Miniature of man being killed by a wild boar. © The British Library, Harley 4431, f. 124v

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.

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Dain Ironfoot riding a boar in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

 

#NotMyConqueror: Gytha and the Anglo-Saxon Women’s March against William the Conqueror

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:

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Entry for 1067, manuscript D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.iv, fols. 81v-82r

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:

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Hemming’s Cartulary. © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius A.xiii, fol. 129v

 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!

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Battle of Stamford Bridge by Matthew Paris. © Cambridge University Library, Ee.3.59, fol. 32v

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.

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“I fart in your general direction!” Monty Python quote may be based on Siege of Exeter in 1068.

 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.

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Group of women in the Old English Hexateuch – Pussyhats added © The British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, fol. 92r

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

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)

 

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How a peasant beheaded himself

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This blog discusses the time when a peasant beheaded himself.

The Vita S. Ecgwini (VSE) is an account of the life of Ecgwine, bishop of Worcester (?693–717) and founder of Evesham Abbey. The Latin text has been dated to after the year 1016 and is ascribed to the Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Byrhtferth of Ramsey. This saint’s life is full of miraculous tales, including the story of how a long-lost key was found in the innards of a fish, and the story of how a farmer had a vision of Mary in the hiding place of his sow. The tale that struck me most, however, was the tale of the Anglo-Saxon peasant that beheaded himself.

Off with my head!

One day, a certain peasant, “fattened on worldy wealth” (VSE, iv. 10, trans. Lapidge 2009), claimed a substantial part of the land which belonged to the monastery of Evesham. Wigred, the prior of that same monastery, decided that the matter would be settled by having both the peasant and himself claim the land by means of an oath on the relics of Saint Ecgwine. The relics were placed in the middle of the land which both the prior and the peasant claimed to own:

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When the peasant came forward to swear his oath, he felt quite confident, since he “had craftily taken a bit of dirt from his own dwelling and put it – at the devil’s instigation – in his shoe. […] He sought to act fraudulently to this end, that through this soil he might be able to swear that he was standing on his own land” (VSE, iv. 10, trans. Lapidge 2009).  A nice trick!

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Before swearing his oath, the peasant confidently raised up his weapons in the air. That’s when God intervened:

That madman was in utter rage; he even raised up his weapons and his arrogant right hand, with which he intended to fix fiercely in the ground the scythe which he was carrying in his hand; but the just judge did not wish it so: “He directed the suffering on to his head, and the malice on to his skull” [cf. Psalm 7:17]. That rascal fixed the shaft of the scythe so strongly in the ground that with the one blow he cut off his own foul head and neck – not making of himself a martyr for Christ’s love, but dismissing himself from this life, the devil gaining the victory. (VSE, iv.10, trans. Lapidge 2009)

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And that’s how a greedy peasant lost his own head so that the monks of Evesham could hold on to the land that was rightfully theirs.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

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

References:

  • Lapidge, M., ed. and trans., Byrthferth of Ramsey: The Lives of St. Oswald and St. Ecgwine (Oxford, 2009).

 

How to cook your dragon and a medieval cure for old age

In the Middle Ages, old age was recognised as a major cause for physical and mental  impairment. The Franciscan friar Roger Bacon (c. 1214-c.1294) compiled all existing remedies against the ‘accidents of old age’ and thus produced the ultimate medieval guide to prevent and cure old age. Intriguingly, one of his remedies involved cooked dragon flesh.

How to cook your dragon

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Dragon in fifteenth-century Italian herbal. © The British Library, Sloane 4016, f. 38

Roger Bacon was one of the great scientific minds of the thirteenth century. A professor at the universities of Oxford and Paris, Bacon was an expert in various fields, ranging from grammar to logic, astronomy and philosophy. He also had a keen interest in the occult, alchemy and medicine. Prompted by Pope Clement IV (d. 1268), Bacon wrote the encyclopedic Opus Majus, a work that deals with virtually all fields of medieval science. In book VI of this work, on ‘Experimental Science’, Bacon touches briefly on how to cure old age, noting a particularly effective remedy made from the flesh of dragons which are only known to the Ethiopieans:

For it is certain that  wise men of Aethiopia have come to Italy, Spain, France, England and those lands of the Christians in which there are good flying dragons, and by secret art they possess lure the dragons from their caverns. They have saddles and bridles in readiness, and they ride these dragons and drive them in the air at high speed, so that the rigidity of their flesh may be overcome and its hardness tempered. Just as in the case of boars and bears and bulls that are driven about by dogs and beaten in various ways before they are killed for food. After they have domesticated them in this way they have the art of preparing their flesh, similar to the art of preparing the flesh of the Tyrian snake, and they use the flesh against the accidents of old age, and they prolong life and sharpen their intellect beyond all conception. For no instruction that can be given by man can produce such wisdom as the eating of this flesh, as we have learned through men of proved reliability on whose word no doubt can be cast. (Roger Bacon, Opus Majus, trans. Burke, pp. 624-625)

The Ethiopeans, it seems, are the dragon-riders of the Middle Ages and the flesh of their domesticated dragons could cure old age! In his Opus Majus, Bacon does not touch upon the preparation of the dragon flesh, noting only that it is to be prepared in the same manner as that of other snakes.

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Roger Bacon presents is work on old age to a patron. © Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 211, f. 1r.

Fortunately, Bacon also compiled another work, entitled De retardatione accidentium senectutis [Concerning the slowing down of the accidents of old age] which was translated by Richard Browne in 1638 as “The Cure of Old Age and Preservation of Youth”. This compilation of existing medicinal writings on senescence (e.g. by Galen, Avicenna and Aristotle) does reveal how one is to prepare the flesh of serpentine beings so as to cure the “accidents of old age”:

… let four inches be cut off the Head and Tail, let the Guts be taken out, let them be washt very clean with Water and Salt, and let them be boiled again and again in Water and Salt, till the Flesh may easily be pulled and separated from the Bones, then let them be beaten in a Mortar, let the Flesh be anounted with the Oyl of Balm, and dryed in the Shade.

And a Man must take heed, that the Sunbeams do not fall upon the Flesh before it be dried, nor afterwards; For the Sun by his Power doth spoyl the Flesh of its Vertue, so that it expels no Poyson received either by Bite, or in any Drink. (trans. Browne, p. 114)

Bacon further notes that you can spice up your dragon flesh by adding “Cloves, Nutmeg, Mace, Citron-Rind, Zedoary and a little Musk” (trans. Browne, p. 118). You can mix all this with wine and then make rolls and little tablets (p. 145). Mmm.

Bacon’s occult remedies for old age 

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The Four Ages of Man and the Four Humours. With ‘Sanguinus’ (blood-man) as a young man top-right and ‘Flegmaticus’ (phlegm-man) as an old man bottom-right. © The British Library, Egerton 2572, f. 51v

Eating the flesh of Ethiopean dragons (or other serpentine beings) is not the only occult remedy for old age mentioned by Bacon. In all, Bacon includes seven ‘secret’ substances that may prolong life and cure old age:

1. Gold
2. Pearl
3. Rosemary
4. Drinking human blood of young people
5. The bone of a stag’s heart
6. Lign-aloes
7. Flesh of a snake [viper, tyrian snake or dragon]

A number of these occult remedies are examples of what may be termed ‘sympathetic magic’, a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence. The stag, for instance, was rumoured to live for a very long time and, so, the bone of its heart would prolong life as well; snakes seem to renew their youth by changing their skins and, therefore, their flesh has rejuvenating powers; gold was incorruptible and was considered a cure against corruption. Bacon’s advice to drink the blood of young people may be explained by what he, and may other medieval thinkers, considered to be the ultimate cause of old age: the loss of natural heat and natural moisture. Blood, according to ancient humoral theory, was both hot and moist and, therefore, a good supplement for the elderly who were typically cold (the elderly were also associatied with a loss of natural moisture, but an increase of extraneous moisture, i.e. phlegm, etc.).

Accidents, causes and remedial activities

Bacon’s De retardatione accidentium senectutis is not just a work of occult magic. It also outlines the various symptoms of old age, most of which still ring true today:

The Accidents of Age and Old Age are, Grey Hairs, Paleness, Wrinkles of the Skin, Weakness of Faculties and of natural Strength, Diminution of Blood and Spirits, Bleareyedness, abundance of rotten Phlegm, filthy Spitting, Shortness of Breath, Anger, Want of Sleep, an unquiet Mind, Hurt of the instruments, that is, of those, wherein the Animal Vertue does operate. (trans. Browne, pp. 22-23)

For each of these ‘accidents of old age’, Bacon mentions a specific cause: wrinkling of skin, for instance, is caused by heat and often found among those who work over a forge (therefore, ladies are advised to turn away their faces from a fire, if they want to retain their beauty). Other causes of old age include “touching cold things”, “superfluous Drunkenness”, “frequent Washing”, “frequent sports of Venus”, “immoderate Blood-letting” and “frequent and daily drinking of Water” (trans. Browne, pp. 78-79).

Throughout his work, Bacon also provides a number of activities that may undo or prevent the effects of old age, such as:

1. Vomit once or twice a month, especially in the afternoon (p. 82)
2. Anoint oneself with oil every morning, preferable mixed with sheep’s fat (pp. 123-125)
3. Live in warm places, avoiding cold and moist places (p. 139)
4. Bathe once a week, or once every 10 days (p. 141)
5. Avoid violent labour and exercise (p. 142)
6. Experience “Wrath, Joy, Mirth, Anger, and what ever provokes Laughter, as also Instrumental Musick, and Songs, to converse with Company which discourse facetiously, to look on precious Vessels, the Heavens and Stars, to be clothed with Variety of garments, to be delighted with Games, to obtain Victory over ones Enemies, to argue with ones most dear and beloved Friends.” (trans. Browne, p. 128)

Many of these activities, as Bacon relates, will cause your blood to flow and, in the case of vomitting, will get rid of the cold and moist humor that is prevalent in old people (Phlegm).

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Old man avoiding violent exercise in the margins of this glossed manuscript © The British Library, Burney 182, f. 3v

A medieval diet for old men

Bacon notes that remedies such as the ones that he has provided will do an old man no good if he does not also take care of what he eats and drinks: “Diet without Physick dometimes did good, but that Physick without due order of Diet never made a man one jot the better” (trans. Browne, p. 15). Here is a sample of the range of foodstuffs Bacon prescribes for the elderly:

1. Salad with lettuce, esp. against want of sleep (p. 34)
2. Flesh: Calf, kid, lamb, young goose, small birds; avoid: beef and goat. (p. 139)
3. Herbs: Pepper, ginger, cloves, saffron; avoid: mustard, garlick (p. 140)
4. Fruit: Figs, grapes, raisins (p. 140)
5. Nuts: Almonds, pine nuts (p. 140)
5. Avoid mushrooms, mulberries, melons and cucumbers (p. 140)

Note how the elderly are advised to eat the meat of young animals, which may be another example of sympathetic magic.

Wine is like a dragon

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Dragon with the head of an old man. © The British Library, Harley 1340, f. 8

A typical advice for healthy aging today is to drink wine (e.g., see here). Roger Bacon, too, deals with the anti-aging effects of wine and notes that there are five healthy properties to wine: “1. Heats the whole Body; 2. As it were pierceht the Members; 3. Tempers the Humors; 4. Excites Natural Heat; 5. Chears the Heart” (trans. Browne, pp. 103-104). Not all  types of wine are equally beneficial, however. Bacon notes that sour and old wine should be avoided and that white wine should only be drunk with a great deal of water. The best sort of wine is red wine, since it increases blood (the loss of which is the cause for old age) more than white wine does. Listing the beneficial effects of red wine, Bacon notes how “it will preserve the Stomach, strengthen the Natural Heat, help Digestion, defend the Body from Corruption, carry the Food to all the Parts, and concoct the Food till it be turned into very Blood: It also cheers the Heart, tinges the Countenance with Red, makes the Tongue voluble, begets Assurance, and promises much Good and Profit” (trans. Browne, p. 106).

Drinking too much wine, Bacon warns, will have a contrary effect, since it will darken the understanding, affect the brain, bring fortgetfulness, weaken joints, “Weakness of the Genitals” and “Destruction and Ruin of the Seed” (trans. Browne, p. 107). As such, Bacon concludes, wine “imitates the Nature of the Serpent, which taken immoderately, and not as Phsyicians advise, is mortal: of which well prepared, Antidotes are made that cure Diseases” (trans. Browne, p. 108). So, if you ever do catch that Ethiopian dragon, do make sure to cook it according to Bacon’s instructions and do not bite off more than you can chew!

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