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Digging for early medieval grandmothers in Anglo-Saxon wills

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

Grandmother-less in Anglo-Saxon England


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

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

Athelstan Ætheling, raised by his grandmother

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

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

Grandmother’s family jewels in the will of Wulfric Spott


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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoiled by granny: Wynflæd’s bequests to her grandchildren


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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


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.


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 


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).


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


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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