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From Bede (731) to BONE (1991-2004): A sparrow’s flight through the ages

This blog post looks at how Bede’s famous parable of the sparrow was reused in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

Bede’s sparrow

Bede’s famous parable of the sparrow is a common text in many introductory courses of Old English. It is found in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731), when he discusses how King Edwin of Northumbria was converted to Christianity in the year 627. In Bede’s story, one of Edwin’s counsellors compares the life of a pagan to the flight of a sparrow through the king’s warm hall. Here is the Old English version of the counsellor’s speech, from an 11th-century manuscript:

Bede’s parable of the sparrow in an 11th-century manuscript; the scribe accidentally copied a line twice (‘heall gewyrmed 7 hit rine 7 sniwe’) and underlined the second instance.

It seems to me thus, dearest king, that this present life of men on earth, in comparison to the time that is unknown to us, [is] as if you were sitting at your dinner tables with your noblemen, warmed in the hall, and it rained and it snowed and it hailed and one sparrow came from outside and quickly flew through the hall and it came in through one door and went out through the other. Lo! During the time that he was inside, he was not touched by the storm of the winter. But that is the blink of an eye and the least amount of time, but he immediately comes from winter into winter again. So then this life of men appears for a short amount of time; what came before or what follows after, we do not know. Therefore, if this new lore brings anything more certain and more wise, it is worthy of that that we follow it.’

Bede’s image is simple but effective: paganism, according to Bede, does not account for Creation or the Afterlife – the life of a pagan, therefore, resembles the flight of a sparrow through the king’s hall: it comes from the cold and dark winter, spends some brief time in the warm and pleasant hall and then it returns to the cold and dark winter. Since Christianity does give clarity about what came before and what came after, it must be better. Arguably, Bede is misrepresenting whatever pre-Christian faith Edwin of Northumbria and his counsellors adhered to, but that does not make the image less effective. Indeed, while Bede notes that the sparrow’s flight is over in the blink of an eye, Bede’s story reverberates until this present day.

William Wordsworth’s “Persuasion” (1822)

Bede’s parable of the sparrow was reiterated in sonnet-form by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) in his Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822), a series of 132 poems narrating the history of Christianity, from its arrival in Britain to Wordsworth’s own days. In Wordsworth’s sixteenth sonnet “Persuasion”, Bede’s sparrow represents the human soul:

Man’s life is like a Sparrow, mighty King!
That—while at banquet with your Chiefs you sit
Housed near a blazing fire—is seen to flit
Safe from the wintry tempest. Fluttering,
Here did it enter; there, on hasty wing,
Flies out, and passes on from cold to cold;
But whence it came we know not, nor behold
Whither it goes. Even such, that transient Thing,
The human Soul; not utterly unknown
While in the Body lodged, her warm abode;
But from what world She came, what woe or weal
On her departure waits, no tongue hath shown;
This mystery if the Stranger can reveal,
His be a welcome cordially bestowed!

William Wordsworth, “Persuasion” (1822) – source

In Wordsworth’s version, the king’s warm hall represents the human body, while the sparrow is the human soul. This interpretation of the sparrow may well have been what Bede intended and, at any rate, has an analogue in Psalm 123:7 (“Our soul hath been delivered as a sparrow out of the snare of the fowlers”).

Edwin Morgan’s “Grendel” (1976-1981)

Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) put the image of Bede’s sparrow on its head in his monologue poem “Grendel”. In this poem, we get the monster Grendel’s pespective on the hall Heorot (the Old English poem Beowulf tells us that Grendel decided to attack the hall, because he was distraught by the noise of merry-making Danes in the hall). In contrast to the warmth and pleasantness that both Bede and Wordsworth ascribed to the hall, Morgan’s Grendel describes the hall as a horrible place that the sparrow is glad to leave:

Who would be a man? Who would be the winter sparrow
that flies at night by mistake into a lighted hall
and flutters the length of it in zigzag panic,
dazed and terrified by the heat and noise and smoke,
the drink-fumes and the oaths, the guttering flames,
feast-bones thrown to a snarl of wolfhounds,
flash of swords in sodden sorry quarrels,
till at last he sees the other door
and skims out in relief and joy
into the stormy dark?

A passage from Edwin Morgan’s “Grendel”

Bede’s warm and cosy hall are nowehere to be seen in this version of the sparrow’s flight! In this passage, as elsewhere in Morgan’s poem, Grendel’s disgust over human society shines through. This bleak view of humanity may also explain the two opening lines of the poem: “It is being nearly human / gives me this spectacular darkness”.

Morgan was well acquainted with Old English poetry; he made a translation of the original Beowulf and also a number of poem collected under the heading “From the Anglo-Saxon” in his Dies Irae (1952).

Jeff Smith’s BONE (1991-2004)

I am a fan of Jeff Smith’s epic comic book saga BONE (1991-2004). The series has received multiple awards and was named one of the ten greatest graphic novels of all time by TIME magazine, which described it as: “As sweeping as the Lord of the Rings cycle, but much funnier”.

Here is an image taken from the prequel volume Rose (2000-2002) and shows the ‘headmaster of the Venu’ (the hooded figure) explaining how ‘the dreaming’ (a sort of spirit world where everyone comes from and to which everyone must one day return) works.

In the BONE Companion (2016), Stephen Weiner explains that the dreaming is based on the Aboriginal concept of the ‘Dreamtime’. From the way the headmaster explains the concept, however, we can also see some influence from Bede! In the headmaster’s simile, the hall stands once more for human life and the cold outside of winter encompasses everything beyond this present life.

To conclude, while the sparrow in Bede’s imagination only spent a brief moment in the hall, Bede’s image has certainly stood the test of time!

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Triangular texts in three manuscripts from early medieval England

When I visited the amazing exhibition ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War‘ at the British Library (19 October 2018 – 19 February 2019), I was struck by the wealth of manuscripts on display. Among this treasure hoard of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, my eye fell on a manuscript that was annotated by none other than the missionary Boniface (d. 754).

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 140, fol 4r. The interlinear glosses are attributed to Archbishop Dunstan (d. 988); the triangular note in the top margin is attributed to Boniface. The manuscript has been fully digitized and is available here.

In the Netherlands (where I am from), Boniface is one of the few early medieval figures of note to feature in our national history curriculum and he is, therefore, a common reference point for me when I talk about Old English and Anglo-Saxon England to a Dutch lay audience (e.g., Old English as the language of Boniface and Willibrord). Boniface has come up elsewhere on this blog, see, e.g., Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Boniface in Dorestad and ‘The last king of medieval Frisia’: Redbad and the Anglo-Saxon missionaries.

Looking at the display, I was not only struck by the fact that I was looking at Boniface’s own handwriting, but also by the form of Boniface’s annotation, which was shaped like a triangle. Similar triangular notes are found throughout the manuscript:

It seems as if Boniface took particular effort to make his notes triangular. The note on fol. 27r, for instance, reads “De septem faculis et quattuor animalibus oculatis” [about the seven torches and four animals with eyes], but was formatted as follows, without any respect for word boundaries:

K. De septem facu
lis et quat
tuor ani
us o

Triangular note by Boniface

The K is an insertion mark and is matched by another K in the text, to indicate which part of the text that this is a comment on. Apparently, this note was added to indicate where chapter VII of the first book of Primasius’s Commentary on the Apocalypse started (the seven torches and four animals are mentioned in the Book of Revelations 4:5-6). Note how Boniface also added two triangles above and under the number VII he added in the left-hand margin:

The triangular form, no doubt, is somehow related to the Trinity that is so important in Christianity – I have not come across many instances of this type of text formatting, but there are at least two other manuscripts from early medieval England that feature something similar.

Triangular text in London, British Library, Royal MS 8 C.iii

While Boniface’s triangular notations were added after the main text had been finished and, as such, represent the marks of a user or owner of the text, the original late tenth-century scribe of London, British Library, Royal MS 8 C.iii made part of his main text into the shape of a triangle:

The text that has this triangular form is an exposition on the Mass and deals, e.g., with the Eucharistic prayer. The contents of the text does not appear to call for a triangular form of the text (other than, of course, dealing with the Trinity), but perhaps the scribe was nearing the end of his quire (gathering of folded pages) and wanted to drag out his text, so as to finish on the last page. It would not be the only weird instance of text formatting in this manuscript; I wrote about the manuscript and its inventive scribe here: Word processing in early medieval England: Browsing British Library, Royal MS 8 C III

Thureth: A speaking book, a triangular poem

The third example of a triangular text is the interesting Old English poem Thureth. This text is found at the beginning of an early eleventh-century benedictional (a collection of blessings used in the Church). The poem is in the first person and the speaker, intriguingly, is the book itself. The book asks God to take care of Thureth, the man responsible for having the book lavishly decorated:

Ic eom halgungboc; healde hine dryhten
þe me fægere þus frætewum belegde.
þureð to þance þus het me wyrcean,
to loue and to wurðe, þam þe leoht gesceop.
Gemyndi is he mihta gehwylcre
þæs þe he on foldan gefremian mæg,
and him geþancie þeoda waldend
þæs þe he on gemynde madma manega
wyle gemearcian metode to lace;
and he sceal ece lean ealle findan
þæs þe he on foldan fremaþ to ryhte. (source)

[I am a blessing-book; may the Lord protect him
who covered me thus fairly with treasures.
Thus Thureth gratefully commanded me to be made,
with glory and honour for him who created light.
Mindful is he of each craft
that he is allowed to perform on earth,
and may the ruler of peoples reward him
that he, mindful of many treasures,
wants to mark (me) as an offering to the Lord
and he must find eternal reward for everything
that he justfully does on Earth.] (Translation mine)

Judging by drawn lines at the bottom of the poem, and the attempt to wrap the last part of the text into it, the scribe made an unsuccesful attempt to make his text triangular:

Sources of inspiration: Arabic? Mediterranean?

The practice of writing triangularly is not unique to early medieval England. When I tweeted the triangular pages from Royal MS 8 C.iii back in 2017, historian of medieval islam @afzaque pointed out that triangle-shaped texts were standard practice for colophons (i.e. a brief statement about how the book came into being) in medieval Arabic manuscripts. Indeed, it is quite easy to find triangle-shaped colophons in medieval Arabic manuscripts; here are two late medieval examples:

Triangular colophons in al-Tuḥfah al-shāhīyah fī al-hayʾah التحفة الشاهية في الهيئة Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī, Maḥmūd ibn Masʿūd قطب الدين الشيرازي، محمود بن مسعود ‎2r, British Library: Oriental Manuscripts, Add MS 23393, in Qatar Digital Library; Kitab Jālīnūs fī ‘amal al-tashrīḥ كتاب جالينوس في عمل التشريح ‎17v, British Library: Oriental Manuscripts, Add MS 23406, in Qatar Digital Library

The Arabic colophon tradition has been traced back to the ninth century or so (see this article), so it may well have influenced the shape of Thureth, which is also a colophon-like text. It certainly would not be the only instance of Arabic influence in Anglo-Saxon England – see this interesting blog post on multicultural Anglo-Saxon England from the British Library. Of course, the idea of a triangular text does not need to have been borrowed from somewhere else and for Boniface’s triangles at least, the Arabic tradition seems too late.

A quick Twitter search reveals a broader early medieval tradition of tiangular texts. The book historian @ParvaVox here suggests that triangular colophons are typical of books from the Italian monastery Vivarium, founded in the 6th century. Another book historian on Twitter, @jkeskiah here highlights a 6th-century Italian manuscript with triangular annotations by Donatus similar to those added by Boniface. Intriguingly, in the 8th century, another hand added a (non-triangular) note to the manuscript, using an Anglo-Saxon script.

Now, this 8th-century note was probably not added by Boniface himself – the script does not quite match his handwriting, which is hard to identify anyway (see this article by Malcolm Parkes), but perhaps this was someone from Boniface’s circle, one of his companions who travelled with him to Rome, where the manuscript appears to have been? Did a fellow Anglo-Saxon show him the manuscript with Donatus’s triangular notes and, in doing so, inspire Boniface? Who knows? To be continued!

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Addendum: Twitter user @IneptiGraeculi notes that similar triangular texts can be found in Greek manuscripts

Teaching Old English on YouTube

As of today, my YouTube channel has reached over 100,000 views. The material posted thus far (currently only 7 videos) mostly aim at making Old English grammar digestible. This blog post provides some behind-the-scenes information on the rationale and process behind the videos and also announces a new video, posted last week.

Why Old English grammar bytes?

While some students acquire the basics of Old English grammar after one round of explanation, others need to be reminded of the basics over and over again. This varying pace of acquisition cannot always be catered to in a traditional classroom setting. If I were to repeat the basic grammatical information too often, valuable in-class time is lost and the students who got it the first time may lose interest, creating a potentially hostile atmosphere for students who need the extra explanation.

So, what I really wanted to do was find a way for students to learn Old English grammar at their own pace and avoid having to repeat the same basic information over and over again. An added advantage of that would be that I would have more time in class to deal with specifics of literature or the weekly translations and so on. The idea for Old English Grammar Bytes was born: grammar videos that can be watched whenever, at one’s own pace, as often as one might want.

How were they made?

The videos were created using a green screen and fairly simple animations. I was very lucky to have the support of Leiden University’s Expertise Centre for Online Learning, which has a devoted support team for ‘knowledge clips’ (esp. Thomas J. Vorisek, who has done wonders with the camerawork and editing). For each clip, I made a storyboard with, on the left, an impression of what I wanted the image on the screen to look like and, on the right, the text I wanted to say. As you can see below, Peter Baker’s magic sheet of Old English was used as a point of departure for each of the videos, since his Introduction to Old English (3rd ed., 2010) was used for our first-year Old English course (attended by c. 100 students each year).

From storyboard (above) to YouTube clip (below)

I quickly found that one of the advantages of using videos to explain grammar is that it allows for a better and more dynamic visualization of information than a traditional class room setting. For instance, we could zoom in on particular parts of the ‘Magic Sheet’ and indicate specific forms within paradigms. In addition, the ‘dry’ grammatical information could be presented in a light and attractive way by using visual material, including my own drawings (this video features my drawings of a dwarf throwing rocks at a dog to explain grammtical functions) and Old English memes (e.g., “swiga ond nim min mynet” perfectly illustrates the imperative mood and is a play on the popular ‘shut up and take my money’ meme – this meme was in vogue at the time of making the video – it is now a classic). Moreover, special effects, such as a booming voice shouting “Repeat after me: Whether adjectives are strong or weak is independent from the nouns they modify!”, help to hammer the message home – enjoy that here – the effect did not prove useful to everyone, given one of the YouTube comments “Please remove the deep voice at 2:49, I was showing this video to my young grandson and he ran out of the room in tears” – apologies! This combination of words, pictures, animation and narration allows students to learn better than from words alone.

From storyboard (above) to YouTube clip (below)

So, in making the videos, I carefully thought about the visuals and special effects, but, being a non-native speaker of English, I also had to carefully consider my words: long strings of text with many complex words are likely to trip me up, so I had to adapt my language somewhat. Also, you will notice that I do not appear too often in the videos, except mostly for the introductions, transitions and conclusions; there is a good reason for this: it is much easier to string together various pieces of audio, than it is to smoothly transition from one video of a person speaking to another in order to get rid of garbled speech.

Finally, a new video!

The Old English Grammar Bytes were written and filmed in the Spring of 2016 and were posted on YouTube in 2017. I had and have plans to make many more videos, but simply have not found the time yet. However, I did get a chance to particpate in making an ‘Online Experience’ for prospective students of the BA-programme English Language and Literature at Leiden University a couple of months ago (you can read about this initiative here, in Dutch). This meant that I was able to make three additional videos (one on Old English; one on the differences between Old and Middle English; and one on early medieval English place names) and I was allowed to share one of these on my own YouTube channel. I will embed this video, which is a basic and brief introduction to Old English as not being Shakespeare’s English, below:

New video

As you can see, we had some fun with new animations and special effects. Also: there was an autocue and that helped tremendously!

Hopefully, I will be able to make the other two Online Experience videos available as well, at some point, and/or find some time to make more grammar videos. I may even decide to make some vlogs out of my most popular blogs, but this too will take time. So until then, watch this space!

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What’s in a place name? The toponymy of early medieval England

What do the English place names Everton, Oxford, Winchester and Whitby have in common? They have all been around for more than a thousand years and their origins and original meanings can shed a unique light on the fascinating early history of England!

Traces of Celts and Romans

Map with some Celtic and Roman place names. The Celtic helmet is based on the Waterloo Helmet *map altered slightly on 9/7/2020 due to misplacement of Carlisle*

If we were to go back some 2500 years in time, Britain was inhabited by people who spoke Celtic languages (present-day Welsh and Cornish are among the linguistic descendants of these languages). These Celtic speakers have left their traces in the toponyms (place names, river names) of present-day England. The place name Dover, for instance, derives from a Celtic word for ‘waters’ and the first part of Carlisle stems from a Celtic word for ‘fort’ (cf. Welsh caer and Cornish ker). In addition, about two-thirds of English rivers today have English names, these include the rivers Avon, Trent, Tyne and the Thames – most of these river names excitingly mean ‘river’.

In the first century AD, Britain was conquered by the Romans and their influence too can be found in English place names. Place names with an element like –chester, for instance, ultimately derive from Roman army camps, denoted by the Latin word castra (though via Old English ceaster). In other words, Winchester, Lancaster, Leicester and Chester all show traces of Roman occupation of what is now England. The Latin word vicus for ‘settlement’ is found at the end of the places Norwich and Sandwich (though via Old English wic). The Latin word for ‘harbour’, portus, can be seen in Portsmouth – mouth of the harbour. Intriguingly, the ninth-century compilers of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle appear to have assumed that the name derived from a man called Port, who landed there in 501 with his sons Bieda and Mægla:

In this year, Port came to Britain along with his two sons Bieda and Mægla in two ships to the place that is called Portsmouth and they killed a young British man, a very noble man.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 501

Anglo-Saxons and their place names

After the Romans left Britain in 410 AD, the remaining Celts eventually had to give way to Germanic invaders from the European Continent: the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who come over from Northern Germany and Southern Denmark. These Anglo-Saxons, as they are generally referred to, bring Old English to England and its is to them that we owe place names that contain such elements as

  • ham (meaning ‘home’, as in Fulham, Westham and Birmingham)
  • tun (meaning ‘town’, as Skipton)
  • ford (meaning ‘crossing in a river’, as in Oxford)
  • burna (meaning ‘stream’ as in Bournemouth and Blackburn)
  • burh (meaning ‘fortification’, as in Canterbury; Bury St Edmunds and, simply, Bury)

Sometimes, these Anglo-Saxon settlers named places and regions after themselves. We can find the Angles in East Anglia and, ultimately, in England. The Saxons gave their name to Sussex, Essex, Wessex and Middlesex; that is the Saxons in the South, in the East, in the West and in the middle. Apparently, there we no Saxons in the North – a common pun is that the Northern Saxons only lasted for one generation since they had Nosex. The Jutes do not seem to have lend their names to a place, but other ‘Anglo-Saxon’ people did. The Old English place name element -ingas means something like “the descendants, followers or people of” and, so, Reading used to be the place where the people of Ræda lived; in Hastings lived the descendants of a man called Hæsta.

In come the Vikings!

Viking place names in England. The heat map on the right shows a rough representation of the concentration of Viking place names, on the basis of data by Key to English Place Names

Another group to make a major contribution to English place names were the Vikings, who not only raided and plundered, but also settled in England and founded villages and towns which they gave Scandinavian names.
Place names ending in -by, for instance, like Whitby and Derby derive from the Old Norse word by ‘settlement’. Another typical Scandinavian place name in England ends in thorpe ‘village’, as in Scunthorpe and the seven places in England simply called Thorpe. The word toft, as in Lowestoft, refers to ‘site of a house’ and is another sign that you are dealing with a Viking place name.

Viking place names are concentrated in the North East of England, as you can tell by the heat map I made above (the map on the right shows a rough representation of the concentration of Viking place names, on the basis of data by Key to English Place Names ). There are good reasons for this geographical distribution: the area in which we typically find Viking place names was known as the Danelaw area, which had been assigned to Scandinavian settlers as part of a peace treaty with King Alfred the Great, following a decisive battle in the year 878.  It is for this reason that place names ending in – by or -thorpe tend to be in the North East of England. As we shall see below, Viking place names are not the only ones to show a certain geographical concentration.

Place names and migratory patterns?

Rough heat maps showing concentrations of Celtic place names and Old English place names (-ingas/-ham and -tun)

Using the data of Key to English Place Names along with the Halogen geospatial search facility it is relatively easy to get an idea of where certain place names occur. The maps above are (very) rough representations that I made on the basis of looking for place names of a Celtic origin and two sets of Old English place names. The results are interesting. Place names of Celtic origin tend to be in the South and in the West; that is near Wales and Cornwall – this has been interpreted as representing the gradual displacement of Celtic speaking people towards these areas due to the gradual influx of the Anglo-Saxons.

The two sets of Old English place names also show an interesting distribution: the place names ending in -ingas and -ham tend to be found in the South East, whereas Old English place names ending in -tun tend to be found further West and North. Scholars have argued that this is because the first set of place names were typically used by the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers, who arrived in Kent and spread their influence West and North from there. The place names based on Old English tun ‘town’ could reflect later settlement patterns, though this is a matter of scholarly debate (see Clark 1992).

Flora and fauna of early medieval England

Of course, place names did not only depend on who inhabited the place at some time, often places were named after the surroundings in which the early settlers found themselves. As such, place names allow us to identify some of the flora and fauna that was around in Anglo-Saxon England.

One of the Old English place name elements that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes brough to England was the word leah, meaning field or clearing in a forest. Today, this element survives at the end of place names like: Ashley,
Stanley, Crawley, Shipley and Sugley. These then must all have been fields or clearings in a forest. The first element in these place names gives us another defining feature of that field. Ashley was probably surrounded by ash-trees (from Old English æsc); there were stones at Stanley (from Old English stan), crows near Crawley (from Old English craw), sheep near Shipley (from Old English sceap) and in Sugley you can see the Old English word for sow, sugu.

We can recognize the Old English words for animals in various other place names as well. In Everton, you can see the Old English eofor ‘boar’; Brock-holes is named after the holes made by a broc, the Old English word for “Badger’; you can see the Old English word bucca ‘goat’ in Buckingham and Swinburn must have been a stream with some pigs (Old English swin) nearby.

In conclusion: place names are fascinating, they reflect the rich cultural and linguistic history of what we now call England. England’s history, as well as the place names on its map, was formed and shaped by various migrations and interactions with different peoples and cultures. These people looked around them and named what they saw: trees, clearings, river-crossings and animals. And if we study their language and history, we can see those things too.

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Links of interest

Key to English Place-Names (University of Nottingham)

HALOGEN geospatial search facility (University of Leicester)

English Place-Name Society

Clark, Cecily. 1992. “Onomastics”. Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. 1: The Beginnings to 1066, ed. Richard M. Hogg, 452-489. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Familiar and the Foreign in Old Germanic Studies

Every now and then, I will devote a post on this blog to an academic publication (usually ones that are available in Open Access), so as to give you an idea of what I am working on. This post turns the spotlight on an edited volume, edited by myself, that appeared as a special issue of the peer-reviewed journal Amsterdammer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik . The entire volume has now become available in Open Access and this blog post will guide you through its contents.

Cover of The Familiar and the Foreign in Old Germanic Studies

As the subtitle of this special issue suggest, this volume commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of the Dutch-Flemish Society of Old Germanicists, a society for scholars of the language, history and culture of Old Germanic peoples in the Middle Ages. The collection brings together contributions by both veteran and early career members of the society and centres on the theme of the encounter between the familiar and the foreign, as I explain in the volume’s introduction (available here). This theme is intentionally vague and the contributions represent the broad scope of Old Germanic studies, ranging from philology to historical linguistics, through to history, text editions and manuscript studies, and spanning the geographical area from Iceland to the Mediterranean. The topics covered include cultural contact, literary representations of the ‘Other’, loan words, contact-induced sound changes, distinctive linguonyms and obscure riddles. A brief summary of all the articles follows below; you can click on every header to open the Open Access articles in a new tab.

Redbad Veenbaas, “Caedmon on the Continent: The Heliand Prefaces and Bernlef”

The first article of the volume focuses on the influence of the story of the Anglo-Saxon singer Caedmon, found in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, on two texts about religious poets on the continent: the Bernlef episodes in the Lives of Liudger and the Latin prefaces to the Old Saxon poem the Heliand. In this article, Veenbaas makes a revolutionary claim: he suggests that Bernlef might well be the poet of the Heliand.

St Liudger heals blind poet Bernlef. Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Ms. Theol.Lat.Fol.323, fol. 12r.

Thijs Porck & Sander Stolk, “Marking Boundaries in Beowulf: Æschere’s Head, Grendel’s Arm and the Dragon’s Corpse”

In this article, we explore the displaying of body parts (notably the arm of Grendel and the head of the Danish advisor Æschere) in the Old English poem Beowulf. We argue that the display of Æschere’s head on top of the cliff towering over Grendel’s mere resembles the Anglo-Saxon heafod stoccan, ‘head stakes’, which acted as boundary markers (see Heads on sticks: Decapitation and impalement in early medieval England). Next, we argue for reinterpreting other potential boundary markers in the poem, including Grendel’s arm and the dragon’s corpse. Along the way, we also try to solve two textual cruces (= difficult passages) in Beowulf’s speech prior to his fight with Grendel. If that was not enough of a teaser, we also discuss the presence of an impaled decapitated head on Noah’s ark!

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

Christine Rauer, “Early Mercian Text Production: Authors, Dialects, and Reputations”

Christine Rauer’s article discusses how literary productions in Mercia may have rivalled those literary efforts associated with King Alfred the Great of Wessex. In fact, Alfred’s famed ‘educational reform’ may well have been inspired by what was going on in the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia!

Sofie Vanherpen, “In Search of a Founding Mother: The Case of Auðr djúpauðga in Sturlubók

The next article moves beyond early medieval England and focuses, instead, on one of the early settlers of Iceland: Auðr djúpauðga ‘Aud the Deep-minded’. It draws on the fascinating Old icelandic Sturlubók and reconstructs Auðr’s life story. Fans of History Channel/Netflix’s Vikings may have spotted Auðr/Aud accompanying Floki to Iceland in series 5!

Floki and Auðr (Aud) in History Channel/Netflix’s Vikings s05e16

Arend Quak, “Sprachmischung in den ‘Malbergischen Glossen’”

This German-language article deals with various fascinating Old Dutch glosses found in the Lex Salica, compiled around the year 500 AD by Clovis, king of the Franks. Quak also discusses glosses that are made up of elements from different languages; my favourite one he discusses, for obvious reasons, is the word hof-porcus, which features the Old Dutch hof ‘court’ and Latin porcus ‘pig’!

Rolf H. Bremmer Jr, “Old English būtan / Old Frisian būta: From Adverb to Conjunction. Another Anglo-Frisian Parallel?”

It is a well-known fact that the closest language to Old English is Old Frisian – the two languages share many features and they likely derive from a common linguistic ancestor (Anglo-Frisian). But not all similarities can be ascribed to a common ancestor, as we find out in this article that discusses the similar but independent developments of Old English būtan ‘but’ and Old Frisian būta ‘but’.

Kariem Philippa, with the assistance of Marlies Philippa and Annelies Roeleveld, “Monophthongization of ay/ai and aw/au: A Comparison between Arabic and Germanic Dialects”

Continuing the line of questioning the origins of similar linguistic developments is this article by Kariem Philippa – he looks at the monophtongization of a set of diphthongs, found in a number of Germanic and Arabic dialects, and wonders whether these changes may have been caused by language contact between speakers of Arabic and Germanic. The answer: very unlikely, but the article does highlight some interesting instances of contact – including how the Arab Aḥmad ibn Faḍlān met some Nordic merchants (ibn Faḍlān is the inspiration for Antonio Banderas’ character in the 1999-film The Thirteenth Warrior).

Ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas) and one of his Viking friends (from The Thirteenth Warrior [1999])

Luc de Grauwe, ““In Overlandsche ende in Duytsche sprake” und “Die alghemene Duytsche tael””

Where does the term Dutch come from? And how does it differ from the Dutch word Duits, meaning ‘German’? These and other questions are answered by this lengthy German-language article; highly recommended for those people who are confused over why the Dutch national anthem has the phrase “ben ik van Duitsen bloed” and think it mean “I am of German blood”.

Erika Langbroek and Annelies Roeleveld, “Vier Rätsel aus dem sechzehnten Jahrhundert”

In this last German-languaqge contribution, the authors edit and solve four 16th-century riddles. As they demonstrate, solving these riddles requires a knowledge of multiple languages, musical annotation and cryptography!

Four 16th-century riddles in Brussel, KBR, ii 144, fol 55v

I hope that some of these articles were of interest to you and that you have taken the opportunity to use the fact that they are now Open Access! If you are interested in more Open Access publications, you can check out my Research and Publications tab for more and/or you can follow this blog and wait for a future update!

Thijs Porck (ed.), The Familiar and the Foreign in Old Germanic Studies, special issue of Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 77:3-4 (2017, Brill)

Medieval manuscripts in modern media: Anglo-Saxon manuscripts spotted in Vikings, The Last Kingdom and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.

TV series and video games set in early medieval England often include little historical details in the background to add to a sense of realism and historical accuracy. In a previous blog post, I discussed the use of such ‘Anglo-Saxon props’ in the The Last Kingdom (BBC/Netflix; 2015-) , Merlin (BBC/Netflix; 2008-2012) and Ivanhoe (MGM; 1952) (see: Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects). In this blog post, I discuss the appearance of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in Vikings (History Channel/Netflix; 2013-), The Last Kingdom and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (Ubisoft; 2020). This blog post may contain minor spoilers…

Vikings (History Channel/Netflix; 2013-): Eighth-century manuscripts in a ninth-century scriptorium

With its focus on legendary Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons, History Channel’s Vikings spends a good amount of screentime on early medieval England. In particular, much of the first five series of the show centre on the kingdom of Wessex, ruled by King Ecgberht (r. 825-839) and his son Æthelwulf. In the fourth series, Princess Judith (married to Æthelwulf) learns the art of manuscript illumination and is seen in two episodes practising her newly acquired art.

In episode, 2 of series 4, Judith is seen making the mid-eighth-century Vespasian Psalter  in King Ecgberht’s mid-ninth-century scriptorium:

Vikings S04e02 Manuscript Vespasian Psalter

The Vespasian Psalter is a beautiful, glossed manuscript that I have discussed earlier here: Reading between the lines in early medieval England: Old English interlinear glosses.

In the next episode, Judith is seen at work on the portrait of Matthew the Evangelist in the Barberini Gospels (in actuality made in 8th-century England):

Vikings S04e03 Manuscript Barberini Gospels

The portrait of Matthew is a prudent choice for the not-so-prudent Judith, since the Barberini Gospels also feature a rather obscene image of a naked man ‘pulling his beard’ (I discuss this image and other obscene art from the period here: Anglo-Saxon obscenities: Explicit art from early medieval England):

Vikings Barberini Gospels

The Last Kingdom (BBC/Netflix, 2015-): A ninth-century chronicle and pardon with eleventh-century features

The first three series of The Last Kingdom are set during the reign of Alfred the Great (d. 899). In the third series, Alfred is nearing the end of his life and is concerned for his legacy; in various episodes, references are made to a chronicle that Alfred has ordered to be made for the purpose of securing how he will be remembered. As Alfred explains it,  this chronicle would record his deeds and make sure that hundred years later people will still remember him and his idea for England. The Last Kingdom‘s ‘Alfred chronicle’ seems to be a reference to the so-called Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the first compilation of which was indeed begun during Alfred’s reign and shows a rather partisan view of Alfred’s Wessex.

In episode three, the chronicle is first introduced and we are given a glimpse at one of the manuscript pages:

Last Kingom S03E03 Alfreds chronicle

The text of the manuscript is in Latin, suggesting that we are not dealing with the Old English Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; instead this entire page (with the exception of the first two words “Ælfred rex”) appears to have been drawn from Asser’s Life of Alfred (available here, the manuscript text “Studebat quoque in iudiciis…” is from chapter 106, the very last part of Asser’s text). This is a good choice, since this biography of Alfred the Great was indeed written during Alfred’s lifetime by the Welsh bishop Asser (who made an appearance in the last three episodes of the first series of The Last Kingdom, but he has since disappeared).

The illustration, however, strikes as odd: it is from an eleventh-century manuscript known as the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch:

Last Kingom S03E03 Source image pharaoh remastered

The Old English Illustrated Hexateuch is a fascinating manuscript: it has an Old English translation and paraphrase of the first six books of the Bible and the text is interspersed with illustrations (see: The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book). The image used in The Last Kingdom’s ‘Alfred chronicle’ is based on the Hexateuch’s  depiction of Genesis 40:22, showing the Pharoah, surrounded by his advisors.  hanging his chief baker. The hanged baker appears to have been cropped out of the picture in The Last Kingdom – perhaps Alfred didn’t want to be reminded of his own baking skills!

Alfred spends much of the third series brooding over his chronicle in his scriptorium and, in episode seven, we are given a look at another page. This page shows a boat, filled with Vikings and horses, as well as a bird pecking at an impaled head.

ASManuscript Spotted Noahs ARK

The Latin text on the pages is, once again, drawn from Asser’s Life of Alfred (chapter 67 this time, describing how Alfred defeated Vikings in Kent, so again a good textual fit!). The image is a mash-up of Noah’s ark from the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch and a Norman boat on the Bayeux Tapestry:

Bayeux Tapestry in The Last Kingdom

The boat in the Alfred chronicle seemes to be inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry for its inclusion of both men and horses (as well as its sail). With the Hexateuch’s Ark of Noah, the Viking boat in the Alfred chronicle shares not only the animal-like boat-ends, but also the intriguing feature of an impaled head on a stick (if you are interested in why there is an impaled head on Noah’s ark, read Heads on sticks: Decapitation and impalement in early medieval England).

In episode 9 of the third series, Uhtred and Alfred meet up in the scriptorium and a number of pages from the Alfred Chronicle are shown lying side by side. The Latin text is again from Asser and the drawings are, again, based on the eleventh-century Illustrated Old English Hexateuch:

Last Kingdom S03e09 Chronicle pahges

In the same episode, Alfred writes a pardon for Uhtred, forgiving him his trespasses. The pardon is written in Old English and I have been able to decipher almost all of it; I provide my tentative transcription and translation below:

Last Kingom S03E09 Alfreds scribble - remastered

gewrit þæt ÆLFRED cyn
ing westseaxna …. …
þone fleman UCTREDE …
his sawle VII nihtlang ær þæra
haligra mæssan. Þis wæs ge
don in þam cynelican byrig
on þære stowe ðe is genæm
ned Wintanceaster on Ælfred
es cyninges gewitnesse 7 Uc
tredes ealdormannes 7 hæbbe
he godes curs þe þis æfre
undo a on ecnysse. PAX CHR[IST]I
ælfred rex

[Here it is revealed in this writing that Ælfred, king of the Westsaxons …  the fugitive Uhtred … his soul seven night’s long before the holy mass. This was done in the royal fortification in the place that is named Winchester by witness of Alfred the king and of Uhtred the nobleman and may he have God’s curse always in eternity who should ever undo this. Peace of Christ with us. 

King Alfred]

The first part of this text, which mentions the TV series’s character Uhtred (with its Anglo-Saxon spelling Uctred),  seems to have been tailor-made for the show, but the last part of the text “hæbbe he godes curs þe þis æfre undo a on ecnysse” [may he have God’s curse always in eternity who should ever undo this] is a common curse-type, found in many legally binding documents from early medieval England. These curses prevent anyone from altering the document and undoing what it has stated.

Intriguingly, the curse that Alfred uses has an exact parallel in a so-called manumission: a statement for the release of a slave. This manumission was added to the Leofric Missal (digitized here) at the end of the eleventh century,:

Anglo-Saxon Manumission - Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 579 fol 1r

Her kyð on þisse bec þæt æilgyuu gode alysde hig 7 dunna 7 heora ofspring, æt mangode to XIII mancson 7 æignulf portgerefa 7 Godric gupa namon þæt toll on manlefes gewittnisse, 7 on leowerdes healta, 7 on leowines his broþor, 7 on ælfrices maphappes, 7 on sweignis scyldwirhta. And hæbbe he godes curs, þe þis æfre undo a on ecnysse, Amen.

[Here is made known in this book that Æilgyvu ‘the Good’ released Hig and Dunna and their offspring from Manegot for 13 mancuses and Æignulf the portreeve and Godric Gupa took the payment by witness of Manlef and Leowerd Healta and his brother Leowine and Ælfric Maphapp, and Sweign the shieldmaker. And may he have God’s curse always in eternity who should ever undo this. Amen]

Given that curses of this type are mostly found in manumissions, it seems like a suitable way for Alfred to end his pardon by which he ‘releases’ his noble and loyal follower and henchman.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (2020): A pastoral manuscript turned into declaration of war

On the 30th of April of 2020, the cinematic trailer for the video game Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla came out. I was alerted to its presence by a student who noted that Alfred the Great made an appearance in the trailer. I watched the trailer and immediately noticed some interesting historical details, which I promptly shared on Twitter on the same day:

The last detail deserves an extended treatment here: Alfred signs a declaration of war, using the decidedly un-Old English word “WAR”; the rest of the text is Old English and I soon recognized the text and the manuscript it was taken from as a work that is indeed attributed to Alfred the Great himself.

It turns out to be a manuscript (digitized here) that is contemporary to Alfred (dated c. 890-897) and contains a translation of Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis [Pastoral Care] into Old English. The translation is preceded by a preface by Alfred the Great himself, in which he writes that he himself was in fact responsible for this translation (with the aid of some teachers); the text on the Assassin’s Creed declaration is from that preface.

Assassins creed manuscript Alfred

The Cura Pastoralis is a work on the pastoral responsibilities of the clergy (i.e. how churchmen should take care of their flock) so it seems odd that Assassin’s Creed‘s Alfred would use part of this text to declare war on the Vikings, but at least the manuscript -and- the text are both a chronological fit, which, as we have seen, is only rarely the case!

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Dwarf begone! Five early medieval ways to rid yourself of dwarfs

In the early Middle Ages, dwarfs appear to have been associated with a medical condition. That is, the Old English word for dwarf, dweorg, could also denote “fever, perhaps high fever with delirium and convulsions” [Dictionary of Old English, s.v. dweorg]. As a result, the term dweorg pops up in various remedies that are intended to rid the patient of their dwarf and/or fever; here are five sure ways to get rid of those short-statured, bearded individuals!

1. Write some symbols! Old English charms

The Anglo-Saxon medico-magical collection known as the Lacnunga (surviving in a 10th/11th-century manuscript) features a number of remedies against a dwarf. Two of these involve writing a series of symbols (crosses and Greek letters) along one’s arms, followed by the mixing of great celandine with ale and calling upon two saints (Macutus and Victoricus):

WiD Dweorh3

Two treatments against “dweorh”. London, British Library, Harley MS 585, fol. 165r

Writ ðis ondlang da earmas wiþ dweorh, … 7 gnid cyleðenigean on ealað, sanctus macutus sancte uictorici.

Writ þis ondlang ða earmas wið dweorh, … 7 gnid cyleþenigean on ealað, sanctus macutus, sancte uictorici.

[Write this along the arms against a dwarf … and mix celandine in ale, saint Macuturs, Saint Victoricus.

Write this along the arms against a dwarf … and mix celandine in ale, saint Macuturs, Saint Victoricus.]

The notion that writing symbols may alleviate one from a dwarf is also found in one other Old English charm. On the flyleaf of an eleventh-century manuscript, an Anglo-Saxon scribe wrote a string of Christian gobbledegook (“thebal guttatim aurum et thus de. + albra Iesus + alabra Iesus + Galabra Iesus +”), followed by this Old English instruction:

Wið þone dworh on .iii. oflætan writ.


[Against the dwarf, write on three wafers:


WiD Dweorh4

Charm against a dwarf on a flyleaf. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. F. 3. 6, fol. 1r

THEBAL GUTTA seems to be pure mumbo-jumbo (akin to abracadabra); the use of wafers is interesting, since these are also used in the most famous Old English charm which is simply entitled “Wid dweorh” [against a dwarf].

2. Summon its sister! An Old English charm against a dwarf

WiD Dweorh

Wið dweorh. London, British Library, Harley MS 585, fol. 167r

This charm, found among the Lacnunga, instructs one to take seven “lytle oflætan swylce man mid ofrað” [little wafers like the ones people use to worship; i.e. the Host] and write down the names of seven saints (Maximianus, Malcus, Johannes, Martinianus, Dionysius, Constantinus and Serafion – the names of the Christian saints collectively known as the Seven Sleepers). The charm further instructs that a virgin must hang these wafers around the neck of the patient and that you are to sing a particular song, “ærest on þæt wynstre eare, þænne on þæt swiðre eare, þænne bufan þæs mannes moldan” [first into the left ear, then into the right ear, then on top of the patient’s head]. This ritual is to be repeated for three days in a row: “Do man swa þry dagas him bið sona sel.” [Do this for three days and then he will immediately be well].

The charm also provides the text of the song you are supposed to sing. This song is rather enigmatic, but the usual interpretation is as follows: the first four lines describe the cause of the patient’s complaints: a small being [the dwarf] has put reins over the patient and has started to ride them as if they were a horse; the next lines describe the cure: the sister of the dwarf is summoned and she puts an end to the patient’s ordeal and swears oaths that it shall never happen again.

WiD Dweorh2

Metrical Charm against a dwarf. London, British Library, Harley MS 585, fol. 167v

Her com in gangan,       in spiderwiht,
hæfde him his haman on handa,       cwæð þæt þu his hæncgest wære,
legde þe his teage an sweoran.        Ongunnan him of þæm lande liþan;
sona swa hy of þæm lande coman,       þa ongunnan him ða liþu colian.
þa com in gangan       dweores sweostar;
þa geændade heo       and aðas swor
ðæt næfre þis ðæm adlegan       derian ne moste,
ne þæm þe þis galdor       begytan mihte,
oððe þe þis galdor      ongalan cuþe.

Amen. Fiað.

[Here came a spider-creature crawling in;
His web was a harness held in his hand.
Stalking, he said that you were his steed.
Then he threw his net around your neck,
Reining you in. Then they both began
To rise from the land, spring fromthe earth.
As they leapt up, their limbs grew cool.
Then the spider-dwarf’s sister jumped in,
Ending it all by swearing these oaths:
No hurt should come to harm the sick,
No pain to the patient who receives the cure,
No harm to the one who sings this charm.

Amen. Let it be done. ] (Trans. Williamson 2017, p. 1075)

This charm’s effectiveness seems to rely on the combination of pagan Germanic, magical elements (the dwarf as a cause for the disease; its sister swearing oaths; a complex singing ritual involving a virgin) and Christian elements (the Host; names of Christian saints; the use of “Amen”) – this is a phenomenon often referred to as syncretism (the blending of two cultures).

3. Carve some runes! The Dunton plaque and Odin’s skull

Discovered as recently as 2015, a lead plaque dated to the 8th to 11th centuries features a very interesting runic inscription in Old English: “DEAD IS DWERG”. The inscription on this ‘Dunton plaque’ is easily translated to “The dwarf is dead” and may have worked in a similar manner to the Old English charms above. The act of writing the runes was part of a healing procedure; rather than a combination of Greek letters and Christian crosses or gobbledegook (THEBAL GUTTA!), the runic inscription is straightforward: the dwarf/fever is dead and gone. The hole in the plaque may indicae that it could be worn as a talisman (like the seven wafers used in the charm “Wið dweorh”).


Dunton plaque. Image adapted to highlight the runes (Image: Norfolk County Council, CC BY-SA, source)

John Hines (2019) has pointed out that this runic inscription has an interesting Scandinavian analogue in the Ribe skull fragment, dating to the early 8th century. Like the plaque, this skull fragment has a runic inscription and a hole suggesting it could potentially have been worn as a talisman:

Ribe Skull

Ribe skull fragment. (source)

ᚢᛚᚠᚢᛦᚼᚢᚴᚢᚦᛁᚾᚼᚢᚴᚺᚢᛏᛁᚢᛦ ᚺᛁᚼᛚᛒᛒᚢᚱᛁᛁᛋᚢᛁᚦᛦ ᚦᚼᛁᛗᚼᚢᛁᚼᚱᚴᛁᚼᚢᚴᛏᚢᛁᚱᚴᚢᚾᛁᚾ ᛒᚢᚢᚱ

Ulfr auk Ōðinn auk Hō-tiur. Hjalp buri es viðr þæima værki. Auk dverg unninn. Bōurr.

[Ulfr and Odin and High-tiur. Buri is help against this pain. And the dwarf (is) overcome. Bóurr.] (edition and translation from Schulte 2006, see also this Wikipedia article)

The interpretation of this skull fragment usually runs as follows: Buri/Bóurr is suffering from a fever/dwarf and this talisman is intended to alleviate Buri – it not only puts into writing the desired outcome (“the dwarf is overcome”), it also calls upon the aid of the Germanic god Odin, a wolf (Ulfr; perhaps Fenrir) and “High-tiur” (who may be the Germanic god Tyr). With this appeal to supernatural forces, this skull fragment resembles the invocations to Christian saints found in the Old English charms mentioned above.

4. Eat dog sh*t! A remedy from the Medicina de quadripedibus

The next dwarf expellant comes from the Old English translation of  Medicina de quadripedibus, an early medieval medical compendium that outlines how various parts of four-legged animals may be used in remedies. Intriguingly, the text prescribes the use of a rather distasteful ingredient to get rid of a dwarf:

WiD Dweorh6

A dog and a remedy against a dwarf. London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C.iii, fols. 80v-81v

Dweorg onweg to donne, hwites hundes þost gecnucadne to duste 7 <gemengen> wið meolowe 7 to cicle abacen syle etan þam untruman men ær þær tide hys tocymes, <swa> on dæge swa on nihte swæþer hyt sy, his togan bið ðearle strang. 7 æfter þam he lytlað 7 onweg gewiteþ. (ed. De Vriend 1984, p. 266)

[To remove a dwarf, knead the excrement of a white dog to dust and mix it with milk and bake it into a small cake, give it the sick man to eat before the time of his [the dwarf’s?] coming,  by day or by night whichever it is, his coming will be very strong and after that he grows small and will go away.]

It is not uncommon for Anglo-Saxon medical texts to prescribe waste products (excrement, urine, spit) to get rid of something – an example of sympathetic magic (for more examples, see: Early Medieval Magical Medicine: An Anglo-Saxon Trivia Quiz).

5. Kick it into the fire! Litr the dwarf’s fifteen seconds of fame in Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning

Perhaps the most effective way of getting rid of a dwarf is demonstrated by the Germanic god Thor in Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning (part of the Old Norse Prose Edda, c. 1220). After the beloved god Baldr died as a result of some trickery by Loki, the gods gather at Baldr’s funeral pyre, shedding tears of sadness. Snorri Sturluson paints a dramatic scene, with Baldr’s grief-stricken wife dying of sorrow, but then he follows this with a remarkable anecdote about Litr the dwarf:

Then was the body of Baldr borne out on shipboard; and when his wife, Nanna the daughter of Nep, saw that, straightway her heart burst with grief, and she died; she was borne to the pyre, and fire was kindled. Then Thor stood by and hallowed the pyre with Mjöllnir; and before his feet ran a certain dwarf which was named Litr; Thor kicked at him with his foot and thrust him into the fire, and he burned. (source)

This is, for as far as I know, the only appearance of Litr the dwarf in Scandinavian mythology. His fifteen seconds of fame demonstrate that the surest way of getting rid of a dwarf is to kick it into the fire; it is also a valuable lesson never to trip up a Germanic god!


Thor kicks the dwarf Lit[r] into Baldr’s funeral pyre (image from: Emil Doepler, Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen (Berlin, c. 1905), 53).

If you liked this blog post, you can follow this blog for regular updates and/or check out the following related posts:


  • Hines, John. 2019. “Practical Runic Literacy in the Late Anglo-Saxon Period: Inscriptions on Lead Sheet.” In: Anglo-Saxon Micro-Texts, ed. Ursula Lenker & Lucia Kornexl, pp. 29-60. De Gruyter.
  • Schulte, Michael. 2006. “The Transformation of the Older Fuþark: Number Magic, Runographic or Linguistic Principles?” Arkiv för nordisk filologi 121, pp. 41–74.
  • de Vriend, Hubert Jan (Ed.). The Old English Herbarium and Medicina de Quadrupedibus. Oxford University Press.
  • Williamson, C. (Trans.). 2017. The Complete Old English Poems. University of Pennsylvania Press.


The Medieval in Middle-earth: Anglo-Saxon Elephants and Tolkien’s Oliphaunts

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 post, I focus on the parallels between Tolkien’s oliphaunts and their counterparts from early medieval England.

Of oliphaunts and elephants

As the hobbits Sam and Frodo, guided by the creature Gollum, make their way to Mordor in The Two Towers, they chance upon a number of Southron forces marching to the Black Gate of Mordor. Sam wonders whether they might have brought oliphaunts. When Gollum expresses his ignorance concerning these animals, Sam stands up and recites a little poem:

Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South,
Flapping big ears.
Beyond count of years
I stump round and round,
Never lie on the ground,
Not even to die.
Oliphaunt am I,
Biggest of all,
Huge, old, and tall.
If ever you’d met me
You wouldn’t forget me.
If you never do,
You won’t think I’m true;
But old Oliphaunt am I,
And I never lie. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, bk. 4, ch. 3)

Sam’s poem (which is also reproduced as part of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil) has an interesting analogue in a homily written by Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010). Ælfric wrote about the Maccabees, a group of Jewish warriors (revered as saints in the early Christian church), who had several interactions with elephants. He described this exotic animal as follows:


Cambridge, University Library, MS Ii.1.33, fol. 189r.

Sumum menn wile þincan sellic þis to gehyrenne, forðan þe ylpas ne comon næfre on Engla lande. Ylp is ormæte nyten mare þonne sum hus, eall mid banum befangen binnan þam felle butan æt þam nafelan, 7 he næfre ne lið. Feower 7 twentig monða gæð seo modor mid folan, 7 þreo hund geara hi libbað, gif hi alefede ne beoð. 7 hi man mæg wenian wundorlice to gefeohte. Hwæl is ealra fixa mæst, 7 ylp is ealra nytena mæst, ac swa þeah mannes gescead hi mæg gewyldan.

Some men will think this is strange to hear, because elephants never came to England. An elephant is an immense creature, bigger than a house, completely surrounded with bones within the skin except at the navel, and he never lies. The mother is with foal for twenty-four months and they live for three hundred years if they are not crippled. And one can wonderfully train them for a battle. The whale is the largest of all fishes, and the elephant is the largest of all animals, but a man’s power of reason can nevertheless tame them.

Note how both Ælfric and Sam’s poem compare the size of these beasts to a house; they both mention their remarkable old age and the fact they never lie down. According to Ælfric, most people in early medieval England were as unfamiliar with elephants as Gollum was with oliphaunts – something that is confirmed by the following artistic impressions of elephants in two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts:


‘Elephants’ in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.v, fol. 81r; London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C.iii, fol. 82r

The ‘elephant’ on the left illustrates the passage “On þyssum stowum beoð akende þa miclan menigeo ylpenda” [In these places, the great multitudes of elephants are born] in the Old English Marvels of the East (for which, see The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex); the ‘elephant’ on the right accompanies a medical recipe that prescribes “ylpenban” [elephant bone]. Judging by the texture of the skin, lack of tusks and floppy ears, these Anglo-Saxon artists had clearly never seen an elephant.

How to kill an elephant or an oliphaunt

In his Hexameron (a work on the six days of Creation), Ælfric again wrote about the elephant, this time giving more context to how one might use it in battle:


Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 302, pp. 16-17

Ða ylpas beoð swa micele swylce oðre muntas 7 hi magon libban ðreo hund geara 7 man mæg hi wenian to wige mid cræfte swa ðæt men wyrcað wighus him uppan 7 of ðam feohtað on heora fyrdinge. Þonne flyheð ælc hors afæred þurh þa ylpas, 7 gif hwa him wiðstent he bið sona oftreden.

[The elephants are as big as mountains and they can live for three hundred years and one can train them for war with skill in such a way that men build a battle-house upon them and from that they fight in their army. Then every horse will flee, afraid because of the elephants, and if anyone withstands them he will immediately be trampled.]

The notion that men will build houses on the backs of elephants is another aspect that Ælfric’s elephants share with what Sam tells Gollum about oliphaunts:

But I’ve heard tales of the big folk down away in the Sunlands. Swertings we call ’em in our tales; and they ride on oliphaunts, ’tis said, when they fight. They put houses and towers on the oliphauntses backs and all, and the oliphaunts throw rocks and trees at one another. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, bk. 4, ch. 3)

When Oliphaunts (who are named Mûmakil in the language of Harad) show up at the Battle of Pellennor Fields in The Return of the King, they indeed have war-towers on their backs and, like Ælfric’s elephants, they scare away horses:


Oliphaunts with war-towers on their backs in The Lord of the Rings films

… from the southward fields came footmen of Harad with horsemen before them, and behind them rose the huge backs of the mûmakil with war-towers upon them. … Horns were blown and trumpets were braying, and the mûmakil were bellowing as they were goaded to war. … But wherever the mûmakil came there the horses would not go, but blenched and swerved away; and the great monsters were unfought, and stood like towers of defence, and the Haradrim rallied about them. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, bk. 5, ch. 6)

In Tolkien’s chapter, we also learn about Derufin and Duilin of Morthond who “were trampled to death when they assailed the mûmakil, leading their bowmen close to shoot at the eyes of the monsters”. The risk of getting trampled by elephants is also touched upon by Ælfric in his homily on the Maccabees, when he narrates the heroic death of Eleazar, who struck at the navel of the elephant (its weak spot) and then found himself underneath the beast.


Two late medieval depictions of Eleazar’s death. London, British Library, Harley 4996, fol. 25v; London, British Library, Sloane 361, fol. 27r

And an his geferena, Eleazarus hatte, arn to anum ylpe þe ðær enlicost wæs, wende þæt se cyning wære on ðam wighuse ðe he bær. He arn mid atogenum swurde betwux þam eorode middan, and sloh æfre on twa healfa þæt hi sweltende feollon oð þæt he to þam ylpe com, and eode him on under, stang ða hine æt ðam nauelan þæt hi lagon ðær begen, heora egðer oðres slaga.]

[And one of his companions, called Eleazar, ran to the one elephant who was the most noble; he thought that the king would be in the tower that it bore. He ran with drawn sword through the middle of the mounted troop, and hacked continuously on both sides, so that they fell dying and he came to the elephant, and he went under it, struck it then at the navel so that they both lay there, each the slayer of the other.]

Perhaps Eleazar should have taken his cue from Legolas the elf, who, in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, manages to kill an oliphaunt and walk away unscathed:

Note: An elephant is not a camel!

In the Stapledon Magazine of June 1927, Tolkien published an earlier version of the Oliphaunt poem recited by the hobbit Sam in The Lord of the Rings, entitled “Iumbo, or ye Kinde of ye Oliphaunt”. This significantly larger piece is part of Tolkien’s attempt to make a parody of the medieval bestiary genre [I am writing an article about this , which will hopefully be out later this year]. The poem about the Oliphaunt starts as follows:

The Indic oliphaunt’s a burly lump,
A moving mountain, a majestic mammal
(But those that fancy that he wears a hump
Confuse him incorrectly with the camel). (J.R. R. Tolkien, “”Iumbo, or ye Kinde of ye Oliphaunt”, ll. 1-4)

The confusion between an elephant and a camel relies on a linguistic joke: the Old English word for ‘camel’ is olfend and bears a great similarity to present-day elephant. In his “Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings“, Tolkien explains:

Elephant in English is derived from Old French olifant, but the o is probably derived from old forms of English or German: Old English olfend, Old High German olbenta ‘camel’. The names of foreign animals, seldom or never seen, are often misapplied in the borrowing language. (J. R. R. Tolkien, “Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings“)

An interesting example of the names of foreign animals being misapplied is found in the early medieval manuscript of Beowulf, which also contains an illustrated copy of The Marvels of the East. In the passage of this text where the Latin source (and at least one other Old English translation, see above) mention elephants, the scribe of this version accidentally replaced the Old English word “ylpenda” [of elephants] with “olfenda” [of camels] and the illuminator followed suit:


“On þyssum beoð acende þa miclan mænego olfenda” [in these (places) the great multitudes of camels are born]. London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv, fol. 101v.

Was Tolkien thinking of the scribe and artist of the Beowulf manuscript when he wrote his little elephant-camel joke in “Iumbo, or ye Kinde of ye Oliphaunt”? Who knows? What is clear is that Tolkien’s oliphaunts clearly fit an early medieval mindset!

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

You can find my academic publications (some of which are Open Access) on Tolkien here.

For more information on medieval elephants, see:


Beowulf: A Paper Doll Pirate History (1934)

This blog post makes available, for the first time, a new Modern English translation of a Dutch serial adaptation of Beowulf that was accompanied by a set of fifteen paper dolls, originally published anonymously in 1934.

Beowulf: A Paper Doll Pirate History (1934)


This set of paper dolls, based on the Old English poem Beowulf, appeared as fifteen weekly installments in at least three Dutch newspapers in the year 1934 under the heading “Beowulf: Een Zeerooversgeschiedenis” [Beowulf: A Pirate’s History]. The fifteen cut-out paper dolls represent the figures of Hrothgar, Grendel, Beowulf, Grendel’s mother, Hygelac and the dragon, as well as costumes that could be hung over the paper figurines. The cut-out images were accompanied by the text of a serial children adaptation of Beowulf, narrating its eponymous hero’s fight against the three monsters.

Beowulf: A Paper Doll Pirate History (1934) is just one of many examples of Dutch adaptations of the Old English poem (for another one, see: The history of Beowulf’s sandwich: A sketch about ‘fake news’ from 1909). In the Low Countries, Beowulf became one of those stories (along with Sigurd, the dragon slayer) that was deemed suitable for children to read. As is to be expected, this adaptation alters its early medieval English source to accommodate its youthful readers. For example, while mentions of death and horror are not necessarily shunned, the gloomy end of the original poem (with its repeated reproaches of the cowardice of Beowulf’s men and the impending doom of the Geats) is drastically changed: Beowulf forgives his followers for fleeing on this occasion.

The full set of Beowulf paper dolls, along with a new modern English translation of the fifteen installments of the text, is available on this website (I recommend you print out the text, using the ‘Booklet’ option in Acrobat Reader; alternatively, make a double-sided print of the document on A4 for larger cut-our paper dolls!):

Beowulf: A Paper Doll Pirate History (1934), ed. and trans. Thijs Porck (2019),

The text in this booklet was drawn from Dutch newspapers from the 1930s. The Dutch text was published anonymously and is now out of copyright. It has been newly translated into English and accompanying images were copied and digitally modified from the scanned newspaper pages. The translation is faithful to the original text, barring some very minor changes for continuation’s sake. Each image is accompanied by its original colouring instructions (provided in italics); it is recommended to paste the figures of installments 1, 3, 5, 10, 12 and 14 on cardboard, so as to make sure they can stand upright, even with the additional weight of the various costumes.


I hope you enjoy playing with your Beowulf paper dolls and do let me know how your colouring efforts worked out!

If you liked this blog post, why not follow this blog and/or read the following posts about Beowulf?

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Composing Old English: A Do-It-Yourself Guide

Composing your own Old English is a lot of fun. Recently, it has been used to great effect, resulting in songs, dialogues for films and TV series and A Medieval English Translatathon [Old and Middle English greeting cards for charity!]. Personally, I have made some Old English memes and translated one of William Shakespeare’s sonnets into Old English, just to demonstrate that he, in fact, did not write Old English (see: What if Shakespeare HAD written Old English?).  The last few years, I have also tasked my students to compose some Old English of their own. This blog post is an adaptation of the instructions they receive in order to do so and you might use it as a DIY-guide to composing basic Old English. You will need some basic knowledge of Old English grammar (here are some apps that may help you achieve this and you may also profit from my Old English Grammar Videos; although I do recommend you follow a course).

The four steps below will guide you through how to convert a basic Modern English sentence into Old English, using the example “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard” [a reference to this Kellis song].

1) Finding the right words

In order to find theOld English words you want to use, you can turn to the Thesaurus of Old English: . Clicking on ‘Search’ in the menu above and then on the ‘Advanced Search’ tab will get you to the advanced search screen:


Searching for ‘Present-day English words in Category Heading’ will allow you to find category headings that feature Old English words for the concept you are after. For example, the result for ‘milk’ looks like this:


You can now select the word that you think is most suitable. Since there is no Old English word for milkshake (hardly surprising), you can go for ‘foamy cowmilk’ instead: fāmig cū meolc.

Other words we’ll need for our sample sentence include brengan ‘to bring’, cnapa ‘boy’ and ġeard ‘yard’.

2) Find out more about these Old English words

Before you can start using these words in a sentence, you are going to need more information, such as the gender of the nouns (masculine, feminine, neuter) and the type of the verb (strong or weak; which class?). Most of this information can be found in J. R. Clark Hall’s  A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary or the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. If you are a university student, you may have access to the Dictionary of Old English Online: A to I, which is useful if your word does not start with the letters J to Z.


I can now find out this about my words:

  • meolc = feminine (and a strong noun, since it does not end in -e)
  • cnapa = masculine (and a weak noun, since it ends in –a)
  • ġeard = masculine (and a strong noun, since it does not end in –a)
  • brengan = weak verb (class 1) (note that verbs can be tricky: Clark Hall indicates that verbs are strong by adding a little number in superscript, e.g. stelan4; he does not indicate the class of weak verbs (there are 3 classes of weak verbs and 7 classes of strong verbs – you will find information about this in various Old English primers, e.g., in chapter 7 of Peter Baker’s Introduction to Old English). The Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary does not tell you the class or type of verb at all, but for the strong verbs they give the principal forms, e.g. “stelan: p. stæl, pl. stǽlon; pp. stolen;” on occasion, they give you the entire paradigm of the verb, as for “brengan: ic brenge, ðú brengest, brengst, he brengeþ, brengþ, brencþ, pl. brengaþ; p. ic, he brohte, ðú brohtest, pl. brohton; pp. broht; v. a.“. Note that the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary also helpfully provides links to relevant sections of Joseph Wright’s Old English Grammar.)

3) Apply grammatical rules to sentence elements!

For this step, you need to be familiar with how Old English grammar works (nominative for the subject, accusative for the object, etc.; see this video on Old English cases).

It is easiest to tackle this per sentence element (e.g., subject, verb, direct object, prepositional phrase, etc.). Here we go:

The subject: My milkshake (or: my foamy cowmilk)

The words: mīn fāmig cū-meolc

The grammar: This phrase is the subject, so we must use the nominative case. The word mīn  is a first-person possessive adjective that takes strong adjective endings, fāmig will take a weak adjective ending in this context (since it is modified by a possessive adjective) and cū meolc is feminine (since meolc is feminine). If the terms ‘weak adjective’ and ‘strong adjective’ make no sense to you, watch this video on Old English adjectives.

Establish correct forms (e.g., using Peter Baker’s Old English Magic Sheet):

  • Strong feminine nominative adjective form of mīn = mīn
  • Weak feminine nominative adjective form of  fāmiġ = fāmiġe
  • (Strong) feminine nominative noun form of cū meolc = cū meolc

The correct form of the subject is: mīn fāmiġe cū meolc

The verb: brings

The word: brengan

The grammar: We need the 3rd person present tense indicative form of brengan, which is a weak verb class 1. No idea what strong verbs or weak verbs are? See this video.

Establish correct forms (e.g., using Peter Baker’s Old English Magic Sheet):

  • 3rd person present tense indicative form of brengan = brengeþ (the form also occurs as brengþ and brencþ according to the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary)

Direct object: all the boys

The words: eall cnapa

The grammar: A direct object must be accusative. Eall is a strong adjective here, cnapa is a weak masculine noun (since its dictionary/nominative form ends in –a!). In our sample sentence, the direct object is plural ‘boys’.

Establish correct forms (e.g., using Peter Baker’s Old English Magic Sheet):

  • Strong masculine accusative plural adjective form of eall = ealle
  • Weak masculine accusative plural noun form of cnapa = cnapan

The correct form of the direct object is: ealle cnapan

Prepositional phrase: to the yard

The words: tō se geard

The grammar: Within a prepositional phrase, certain prepositions trigger their ‘objects’ to have a particular case (for a helpful overview, see here). The preposition with the sense ‘towards’ triggers the dative case. So, while we do not need to change the form of , we do need to make se ġeard dative (ġeard is a masculine strong noun).

Establish correct forms (e.g., using Peter Baker’s Old English Magic Sheet):

  • masculine dative singular form of demonstrative pronoun se =  þām
  • Strong masculine dative singular form of noun ġeard = ġearde

The correct form of the prepositional phrase is: tō þām ġearde

4) Put all the sentence elements together!

Mīn fāmige cū meolc brengeþ ealle cnapan tō þām ġearde (and hīe sindon swylce ‘hit is sēlra þonne þīne!’)


Good luck with composing your own Old English!