Thijs Porck


A Digital Beowulf Thesaurus! Exploring the Epic in Evoke

This blog post introduces a new online tool to explore the vocabulary of the Old English poem Beowulf. The tool is freely available and can offer unique new insights into the vocabulary of early medieval England’s best-known epic.

When a poet unlocks his word-hoard: The vocabulary of Beowulf

“word hord onleace” [unlocked the word hoard] in the Beowulf manuscript.

When Beowulf arrives in Denmark, he introduces himself and his men to a coast guard. The poet describes this action with the words “word hord onleac” [he unlocked his word hoard], creating the stunning image of an individual’s vocabulary as a treasure chest that can be unlocked. Over the years, many scholars have tried to access the Beowulf-poet’s own ‘word-hoard’ (consisting of over 3000 words) in order to open it up for analysis. Arthur Brodeur, in his classic study The Art of Beowulf (Berkeley, 1959), for instance praised the poet’s diction as “more vigorous, stately, and beautiful than that of any other Old English poem” (p. 38). In particular, scholars have praised the poet’s use of compound words, noting that a substantial number of these (over 600) are not found in any other Old English text (they are so-called hapax legomona). These hapaxes include morþor-bed ‘murder-bed’, sadol-beorht ‘made bright by a saddle’, fore-snotor ‘very intelligent’ and, my personal favourite, hleor-bolster ‘pillow; lit. cheek-bed’. A conventional approach to the vocabulary of Beowulf is to focus on words that belong to one given semantic field, e.g., ‘monster’, ‘sea’, ‘hall’ or ‘warrior’, and discuss how the poet’s treatment of the words denoting that concept differs from other texts in the Old English corpus. Such traditional analyses are highly insightful but they all rely on intensive, manual labour; essentially, one needs to leaf through a paper glossary of the text and mark words by hand. However, there is now a digital solution!

Introducing the Beowulf Thesaurus!

Do you want to know how many and which words the Beowulf poet used for such concepts as the colour black, affection, anger and a bench? The brand-new digital Beowulf Thesaurus can easily help you answer these questions: 3 words denoting black/blackness (blæc, sweart and wann), 5 words with the sense ‘love, affection, care’ (frēod, lufu, mōdlufu, myne and heahlufu), 3 words for ‘anger, wrath, fury’ (ierre, torn and wielm) and another 5 words that mean ‘bench, seat’ (benc, bencþel, sess, setl, ealubenc and medubenc)! These may seem like basic questions and answers, but they can be the starting point for interesting analyses of the poem: which emotion is best represented in the poem’s diction? How about animals, colours and actions? You can find it out for yourselves because the Beowulf Thesaurus is freely available online.

So, how does the Beowulf Thesaurus actually work?

You can go to its landing page , skip some of the technical description and scroll down to ‘ACCESS’ and click on ‘Explore in Evoke (alongside a Thesaurus of Old English)’. Evoke is a web application developed by Sander Stolk that allows you to browse (and analyse and annotate) thesaurus contents (see his non-technical explanation here; if you want more technical information see this Open Access article). You can use the search box in the top-right corner or browse the thesaurus by clicking on the ‘semantic tree’ with yellow blobs. To find words denoting the concept of ‘affection’, you type ‘affection’ in the search box and click on ‘Love, affection, care’ or you can click your way through the semantic tree via ‘Feelings’ > ‘Heart, spirit, mood, disposition’ > ‘Disposition towards others’ to “Love, affection, care”. Once you’ve done that, you will be given an overview of all Old English words denoting that particular concept along with usage information (e.g., whether that word is mostly used in poetry) – all of this data is taken from Glasgow’s Thesaurus of Old English. If you are using tie Beowulf Thesaurus in Evoke, you can also see which words occur in Beowulf, see the screenshot below:

A screenshot from the Beowulf Thesaurus, showing all words that can denote the concept ‘Love, affection, care’ in Old English – the ones that occur in the poem Beowulf have the tag ‘Beowulf’ on the right.

This overview tells you what words were available to denote the concept ‘Love, affection, care’; it tells you which words are considered ‘rare’ (e.g., mæglufu, lufræden and mægensibb), which words are restricted to poetry or glosses and, crucially, which words are found in Beowulf! And you can do the same for any concept imaginable, ranging from weapons to water, from horses to humility, and from actions to armpits (though the two Old English words for ‘armpit’, ōcusta and ōxn, are only found in glosses and not in Beowulf). Go out and explore the Beowulf Thesaurus yourself!

Do more than just explore: Evoke as a research tool

Exploring the vocabulary of Beowulf by looking up words for concepts is only one way of using the application Evoke to learn more about Old English vocabulary. Within the same application, we have also made available digital thesauri of the Old English poem Andreas and the Old English Martyrology and using Evoke’s statistical tools one can also compare the words in these different texts and bring to the surface new and unnoticed patterns of vocabulary use. I wrote an article about this kind of research which is freely available – you can read it by clicking on the image below (but be warned: there will be graphs, tables and numbers!):

Click on the image to get access to Thijs Porck, “Onomasiological Profiles of Old English Texts: Analysing the Vocabulary of Beowulf, Andreas and the Old English Martyrology through Linguistic Linked Data“, in Exploring Early Medieval English Eloquence: A Digital Humanities Approach with A Thesaurus of Old English and Evoke, ed. Thijs Porck and Sander Stolk, special issue of Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 81: 3-4 (2021), 359–383.

This kind of statistical analysis may not be for everyone, but I do hope you will give browsing the digital Beowulf Thesaurus a try! We also hope to make available a series of online lessons to help you explore the vocabulary of Old English (as well as individual Old English texts) via the web application Evoke – so watch this space and, for now, enjoy unlocking the word-hoard and exploring the epic!

Missing line of 1400-year old poem found! Columbanus’s ‘De mundi transitu’ once more complete!

In the 9th century, an anonymous scribe copied a poem attributed to the Irish missionary Columbanus (540-615) and made a crucial mistake. He accidentally omitted one line from the poem. Since this 9th-century manuscript is the only extant copy of the 120-line poem, modern editors of the poem have been forced to leave this line in the poem blank. This blog post reports on the fact that this missing line has been found(!), as I reveal in a new Open Access publication (see the link available at the end of this blog post).

Left: Fresco of Columbanus in the Cathedral of Brugnato (Italy) [source]; Right: Opening lines of De mundi transitu, with marginal attribution to Columbanus (Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. C 78, fol. 159r)

A missing line in Columbanus’s De mundi transitu

The Irish missionary Columbanus (540-615) founded monasteries in France and Italy and was also known to have written pieces in verse. His De mundi transitu is a short but highly wrought poem, written in a style that is typical for Hiberno-Latin poets of the early Middle Ages. It consists of 120 heptasyllabic lines, divided into thirty stanzas of four lines each. In addition to rhyme, which occasionally extends to three syllables, the poem also features alliteration. The topic of the poem is the fleeting nature of earthly delights; everything that is joyful in this life (beauty; wealth; youth) passes:

Cottidie decrescit
Vita praesens quam amant;
Indeficiens manebit
Sibi poena quam parant.

[The present life that they love declines daily; the penalty they prepare for themselves remains unfailingly.]

Columbanus, “De mundi transitu”, ll. 21-24.

Therefore, Columbanus (540-615) holds, a true Christian should focus on the permanence found in Heaven.

This beautiful and powerful poem survives in only one manuscript, which was copied in the 9th century in the Abbey of Saint Gall, Switzerland. When the 9th-century scribe copied the poem, he made a crucial error. Rather than copying line 106 of the poem, his eyes skipped across the page of his exemplar and he accidentally copied out the last part of the wrong line: line 102, which now occurs twice in the manuscript, but does not make any sense in the second instance (a description of Heaven):

Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. C 78, fol. 160r (underlined, in read, the repeated part of line 102)

Ubi cibo superno
Plebs caelestis pascitur,
Ubi nemo moritur
Quia nemo nascitur,
Ubi aula regia
caelestis pascitur
In qua male resonans
Nulla vox audita est

[Where on celestial food the heavenly folk are fed; where no one dies because no one is born; where the royal hall the heavenly … are fed, in which no voice is heard resounding evil]

Columbanus, “De mundi transitu”, ll. 101-108.

The erroneous repetition of part of line 102 on the place of 106 may have been triggered by the fact that both lines 101 and 105 start with the same word: ‘Ubi’. The scribe did not notice their mistake, but later editors of the poem, who could only rely on this faulty manuscript, have been forced to leave open line 106 or come up with their own lines. However, during my research, I chanced upon a partial copy of Columbanus’s poem in another manuscript, which contains the missing line 106! But before I can talk about that part of the story, I need to talk about the fact that old people do not groan in Heaven.

Heaven is a place where the old man does not groan

When I read the poem De mundi transitu for the first time, I was struck by one of its descriptions of Heaven. According to Columbanus, Heaven is a place “Ubi senex non gemat, / Neque infans vagiat” [where the old man does not groan and the infant does not cry]. In my research into early medieval ideas about old age, I found that Heaven was typically described as a place where old age was absent (see Heaven is a place without old age: Age and the afterlife in early medieval England) and I knew of only one other text that described Heaven in the same terms as Columbanus had done: an anonymous Old English homily, found in a twelfth-century manuscript. This Old English text described Heaven as a place “þær eald ne graneð, ne child ne scræmeð” [where the old one does not groan and the child does not scream]. The phrasing was eerily similar to Columbanus’s De mundi transitu and, upon closer investigation, I found that the Old English homily featured a near-translation of some fifty lines of the poem – something that no one else had noticed!

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 343 – a manuscript with Old English homilies

Finding a Latin source for an Old English text is rare and such a substantial one offers all sorts of opportunities for research (how did the Old English homilist adapt his source; what did he leave out; what did he add, etc.) – I was able to write a 23-page chapter about this find (see the link to the full article below). Unfortunately, the Old English homilist did not include a literal translation of the last lines of Columbanus’s poem (including line 106). He did give a near-literal translation of lines 103 and 104 (“Ubi nemo moritur / Quia nemo nascitur”) as “ne þær nan ne swæltæð, for þam ðe þær ne byð nan acenned” [where no one dies, because no one is born there], but what follows seems more of a paraphrase. However, whilst researching this homily and the poem, I found additional and crucial traces of the missing line 106 of Columbanus’s De mundi transitu.

Since I wanted to make sure that the Old English homilist had not used another Latin text as its source, I did some detective work to see if any other texts mentioned old people not groaning in Heaven (and various other phrases found in both Columbanus’s poem and the Old English homily). When I searched for variants of the line “ubi senex non gemat” [where the old man does not groan] in an online database with medieval Latin texts (Brepols’s Library of Latin Texts), I found a text that contained a version of that line, along with some fourteen other lines of Columbanus’s De mundi transitu, including (YES!) line 106 – it turned out to be the work of another person from Ireland: Sedulius Scottus.

An Irish teacher’s notebook: Sedulius Scottus’s Collectaneum Miscellaneum

Left: Fresco of Columbanus in the Cathedral of Brugnato (Italy) [source]; Right: Sedulius Scottus [source]

Sedulius Scottus (fl. 840-860) was a 9th-century Irish teacher, scribe and poet, who fled Ireland after the Viking raids and ended up in continental Europe, where he certainly stayed in Liège (present-day Belgium) and later possibly moved to Milan (Italy). Scottus wrote various works, including poems and biblical commentaries. One of his works, commonly referred to as the Collectaneum Miscellaneum, is a collection of quotes from mostly biblical and patristic sources (a florilegium). For some passages, names of source authors have been added in the margins of the manuscript, but the origin of some strings of text in Scottus’s notebook are still unknown. On one of the pages of his notebook, Sedulius included some lines of Columbanus’ poem De mundi transitu. The passage from Columbanus’s poem was included between two quotes from Church Father Augustine (354-430) and the entire passage is attributed to ‘AVGVSTINVS’ in the manuscript of the Collectaneum:

Passage from Columbanus in Sedulius Scottus’s Collectaneum Miscellaneum (edition by Dean Simpson, 1998), underlined in red ‘ubi senex non gemit’ [where the old man does not groan]

The misattribution to Augustine of the entire passage (the lines from Columbanus are located in between two Augustinian quotes) has probably resulted in this passage having gone unnoticed in the scholarship on Columbanus’s De mundi transitu. This is unfortunate, since Sedulius Scottus seems to have had access to a copy of the poem that was complete, or, at the very least, did contain line 106 that is missing from the only extant 9th-century manuscript of the full poem!

Here are the lines from the poem in the 9th-century manuscript (without line 106) and the equivalent lines in Sedulius Scottus’ notebook (with line 106!):

Columbanus, De mundi transitu, lines 101-112 and the corresponding lines in Sedulius Scottus’s Collectaneum

It looks as if Sedulius Scottus decided to copy out the lines from Columbanus’s poem that describe Heaven and, crucially, Sedulius’s version of the poem does not appear to have had the scribal error of the 9th-century manuscript from Saint Gall. His version of lines 105-108 read “Ubi aula regia / regis summi sita est, / in qua male resonans / nulla uox audita est”, the meaning of which makes perfect sense: “Where the royal hall of
the highest king is located, in which no voice is heard resounding ill”. The line “regis summi sita est” is also a perfect fit with the rest of Columbanus’s poem – it has seven syllables (like all the other lines), there is alliteration with the last word of line 105 (“regia / regis”) as well as alliteration within the line it self (“summi sita”); and it rhymes with line 108 (“sita est […] audita est”). In other words, it is very likely that the line “regis summi sita est” indeed belonged to the original poem by Columbanus! Thus, by sheer chance and some detective work, the line that was lost by the carelessness of a 9th-century scribe in Saint Gall can now be restored and Columbanus’s poem is once more complete!

For a more thorough, sourced and nuanced discussion of this find, as well as the relationship between Columbanus’ poem De mundi transitu and the anonymous Old English homily you can now read my Open Access (i.e. freely available) publication “Columbanus’s De mundi transitu in Early Medieval England: A New Source for an Old English Homily (Irvine VII) in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 343” (click the link). This chapter is part of the book The Anonymous Old English Homily: Sources, Composition, and Variation, ed. Winfried Rudolf and Susan Irvine (Brill, 2020). I am currently working on a new critical edition and translation of Columbanus’s De mundi transitu, which will have the missing line filled in!

Heaven is a place without old age: Age and the afterlife in early medieval England

From the Viking mead drinking in Valhalla to the unending punishments of the Greek underworld, the afterlife has always been an imaginative place. In this blog post, I survey how the afterlife was conceptualised in early medieval England, in particular with reference to ‘old age’.

Heaven is a place without old age

The prime place to look for descriptions of Heaven are Old English homilies. As I have pointed out in another blog post (“Men þa leofestan!” Manuscript variations of an Old English formula), these homilies are highly formulaic and, indeed, various descriptions of Paradise look very much alike. In fact, similar descriptions of ‘The Seven Joys of Heaven’ are found in no fewer than eleven Old English homilies. They are easy to spot, since they use the recurring formula ‘þær is x butan y’, where both x and y are antonyms, to describe what is present and what is absent from Paradise. A typical example is found in one of the homilies of the Vercelli Book:

Þær is ece med, 7 þær is lif butan deaðe 7 geogoð butan ylde 7 leoht butan þystrum 7 gefea butan unrotnesse 7 sybb butan ungeþwærnesse 7 orsorhnes butan deaþes ege to lybbenne, 7 þær is ece gesælignesse mid fæder 7 mid þam suna 7 mid þam haligan gaste a butan ende, amen.

[There is the eternal reward and there is life without death and youth without old age and light without darkness and joy without sadness and peace without violence and carelesness without living in fear of death, and there is the eternal happiness with the Father and with the Son and with the Holy Ghost, always, without end, Amen.]

(Vercelli Homily XIX)

A more poetic version of this topos is found in the Old English poem Christ III, which describes Heaven as follows:

Đær is leofra lufu,____ lif butan endedeaðe,
glæd gumena weorud,____gioguð butan ylde,
heofonduguða þrym,____hælu butan sare,
ryhtfremmendum ræst ____butan gewinne,
domeadigra____ dæg butan þeostrum,
beorht blædes full,____blis butan sorgum,
frið freondum bitweon____forð butan æfestum,
gesælgum on swegle, ____sib butan niþe
halgum on gemonge.

[There is the love of beloved ones, life without death, a joyous troop of men, youth without old age, glory of heavenly hosts, health without pain, rest without toil for the well-doers, day without darkness for the renowned ones, bright full of glory, bliss without sorrows, peace between friends without envy, happy in harmony, peace without envy, among the saints]

(Christ III, ll. 1652-1660)

In these iterations of Heaven, old age is again and again notably absent. Apparently, spending eternity in an aged body was regarded as the antithesis of a joyful afterlife. Indeed, similar descriptions of Hell include old age among its horrors.

The road to Hell is paved with grey hairs

The description of Hell in the Old English homily “Be heofonwarum 7 be helwarum” [about the Heaven-dwellers and the Hell-dwellers] is almost a complete reversal of the stock description of Heaven:

Þær byð hunger 7 þurst. Þær bið ungemet cyles, and hætan IX siðan hatre þonne domesdæges fyr. Ðar syndan þa ytemestan þystro butan leohte, þar byð yld butan geoguðe.

[There is hunger and thirst. There is unmeasurable cold and heat nine times hotter than the fire of Doomsday, there is the utmost darkness without light, there is old age without youth.]

(“Be heofonwarum 7 be helwarum”)

Here, old age is clearly presented as one of the ‘horrors of Hell’, one that does not even need a qualifier like ‘unmeasurable’, ‘utmost’ or ‘nine times hotter than the fire of Doomsday’.

Rather more expressively, another Old English homilist lists ‘old age’ as one of the five ‘prefigurations of Hell’, along with pain, torture, death and the grave:

Þonne is þære æfteran helle onlicnes genemned oferyldo, for þan him amolsniaþ þa eagan for þære oferyldo þa þe wæron gleawe on gesyhþe, 7 þa earan adimmiaþ þa þe ær meahton gehyran fægere sangas, and sio tunge awlispaþ þe ær hæfde gerade spræce, 7 þa fet aslapaþ þe ær wæron ful swifte 7 hræde to gange, 7 þa handa aþindaþ þe ær hæfdon ful hwate fingras, 7 þæt feax afealleþ þe ær wæs on fullere wæstme, 7 þa teþ ageolewiaþ þa þe ær wæron hwite on hywe, 7 þæt oroþ afulaþ þe wæs ær swete on stence.

[Then is the second prefiguration of Hell named ‘old age’, because for him the eyes weaken because of old age, those that had been keen of sight, and the ears become dim, those that had been able to hear beautiful songs, and the tongue stammers, that had had skilful speech, and the feet sleep, those that had been very swift and quick in movement, and the hands become swollen, that had had fully active fingers, and the hair falls out, that had been full of abundance, and the teeth become yellow, those that had been white in appearance, and that breath, which had been sweet of smell, becomes foul.]

(Vercelli Homily IX)

Want to know what Hell is like? Grow old!

Saint Guthlac being draffed to Hell – Note the wrinkles and beards of some of the souls in the Hell Mouth! London, British Library, Harley Roll Y.6

The magical number is 33

So if one was not old in Heaven, how ‘young’ would one be? The answer is 33. The homilist Ælfric of Eynsham noted that, according to the Apostle Paul, everyone would be resurrected on Doomsday at the same age at which Christ was crucified:

Se apostol paulus cwæð þæt we sceolon arisan of deaðe on þære ylde þe crist wæs þa ða he þrowade þæt is ymbe þreo and þrittig geara. Đeah cyld forðfare oððe forwerod mann þeahhwæðre hi cumað to ðære ylde þe we ær cwædon hæfð þeah gehwa his agenne westm þe he on þisum life hæfde.oððe habban sceolde gif he his gebide.

[The Apostle Paul said that we shall arise from death at the age that Christ was when he suffered, that is around thirty-three years. Eventhough a child or a worn-out old man departs, nevertheless they will arise at the age we said before; nevertheless everyone will have his own growth which he had in this life or should have had if he had experienced it.]

(Ælfric of Eynsham, Catholic Homilies I, 16)

Coincidentally, a 20212 study showed that the age of 33 is still the age at which people are at their happiest (source). Judging by the descriptions of Heaven and Hell above, however, this restoration of human bodies to their prime on Doomsday only lasted for those who would go to Heaven; for the souls assigned to the Abyss, their regained physical prime would turn out to be short-lived – they would spend the rest of eternity in the withered, hairless, yellow-teethed and foul-breathed body of an old person.

Want to know more about old age in early medieval England? You are in luck: Boydell and Brewer are offering a 40% discount on my book Old Age in Early Medieval England: A Cultural History (2019) – see the code in the Tweet below (valid until 31 December, 2020!):

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“Men þa leofestan!” Manuscript variations of an Old English formula

“Men þa leofestan!” “Men ða leofestan!” “Men þa leofestan!” This blog post deals with the ways in which a very common Old English phrase was differentiated by early medieval English scribes.

Men þa leofestan! An opening formula of many Old English homilies

If you were to go to church in early medieval England, it is very likely that you would hear the words “Men þa leofestan!” [Dearest people!]. The phrase is found more than 200 times in Old English homilies. In fact, it was the most common way for priests to start their sermons. This is reflected in various medieval manuscripts which feature embellished versions of the phrase to indicate where a new homily began. But if several homilies in the same manuscript started with the same phrase, how would you be able to tell these homilies apart?

Intriguingly, scribes appear to have been aware of this potential difficulty and, as a result, they show a striking variability when it comes to decorating this initial Old English formula. A case in point are the six homilies that start with this phrase in the following 12th-century manuscript:

Six “Men þa leofestan” in London, British Library, Cotton Faustina A.ix

Each phrase is uniquely handled. The initial M’s, for instance, are all clearly different: some are fully green, others are red with green foliage-like decorations, while the last M is fully red and has a quirky little face. Aside from the different initials, the capitalisation of the rest of the phrase also differs: some capitalise the full first word (MEN), while others capitalize the second word as well (MEN ÐA).

More dramatic variation is found in the various Old English homilies of the late tenth-century Vercelli Book that start with the phrase “Men þa leofestan”:

Six “Men þa leofestan” in the Vercelli Book

Here too the scribe differentiates in what parts of the phrase are written in capitals: MEN ÐA LEOFESTAN; MEN ÐA; MEN ÐA LEO; MEN; MEN; MENN Ð(A). The two homilies that start with the lavishly decorated initial M (complete with monstrous head in the middle and little hand? on the left) are strikingly differentiated from the others, while the last of the six homilies (bottom right) uniquely appears to feature two capital M’s and an E that were erased (possibly to leave room for a larger decoration that was never added) – the scribe also seems to have miscalulated how much space was left on the page as he had to add the A inside the Ð to form the word ÐA.

In these ways, the scribes of Cotton Faustina A.ix and the Vercelli Book clearly differentiated between homilies that started in exactly the same way: “Men þa leofestan”.

“Men þa leofestan” in the margins of the Old English Bede

Even when homilies were added to the margins of a manuscript, attempts appear to have been made to differentiate between those homilies that had the same opening formula. This much becomes clear from a manuscript of the Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Old English Bede with text in the margins.

This particular manuscript of the Old English Bede is well-known for its marginalia, which include remedies against sore ears, sore eyes and stomach sickness and a magical SATOR square. No fewer than six homilies were added to the margins and four of them start with the well-known phrase “Men þa leofestan”:

Four “Men þa leofestan” in the Old English Bede

Each homily starts with the same phrase, but they clearly have different capitals. Note how the second homily (bottom left) simply writes “Men ð. l.” – the scribe clearly assumed that his reader was familiar with the phrase!

One “M” too many: “Men þa leofestan” in the Blickling Homilies

Another manuscript with many instances of the initial formula “Men þa leofestan” is the tenth/eleventh-century ‘Blickling Homilies’. Whoever was responsible for the illustrated initials in this manuscript appears to have made a great effort to make different kinds of M’s:

Nine “Men þa leofestan” in the Blickling Homilies

Every capital M here is unique! Unfortunately, our Anglo-Saxon M-artist appears to have been a little overzealous in this manuscript, as he accidentally introduced an M where it should not have been:

“M heraþ nu men þa leofestan!” [M hear now, dearest people]. This homily appears to have deviated from the standard pattern of the ‘Blickling Homilies’ by first introducing the verb “heraþ” (or possibly “geheraþ” – you can see a trace of the e in the M), but the scribe was so used to writing variations of the capital M that he added one there by default. Oops!

Men þa leofestan! I hope you have enjoyed this blog post; if you did, please consider subscribing for regular blog updates and/or read the following blog posts:

When medieval chroniclers have nothing to report: The years 190-381 in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a fascinating collection of Old English annals that survives in multiple manuscripts and manuscript fragments. This blog post demonstrates that the manuscripts show a fascinating variety even in those annals for which there was little to nothing to report.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: From Julius Caesar to William the Conqueror and beyond

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle starts its history of England in the year 60 BC, with the failed invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar. Annals that follow report on the arrival of the Germanic tribes, led by Hengest and Horsa, genealogies of various Anglo-Saxon kings and the battles between the Vikings and Alfred the Great. It was probably at the behest of Alfred that the first stretch of annals (from 60 BC to 892 AD) was composed and this ‘Common Stock’ is found in all extant (complete) manuscripts of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However, each manuscript version of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells a unique story, having been copied in different places and at different times, leading to scribes adding, altering and omitting information in the transmission of the text. One manuscript (the Peterborough Chronicle) continues the annals up until the year 1154. The relationship between the manuscripts and related (Latin) chronicles is highly complex as the following diagram from a great article by Simon Keynes demonstrates:

Overview of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from Simon Keynes, “Manuscripts of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,” in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, I: c. 400–1100, ed, Richard Gameson, 537–52. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

The contents of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is fascinatingly varied, ranging from relatively dry information (this king died; that king died) to exciting heroic narrative (the story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard), impressive genealogies (often including the names of people from Germanic Legend) and actual Old English poetry (e.g., The Battle of Brunanburh). In previous blog posts, I have dealt with two remarkable events recorded in these Old English annals: #NotMyConqueror: Gytha and the Anglo-Saxon Women’s March against William the Conqueror and An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Battle of the Birds, 671. In this blog post, I want to call attention to the years 190 to 381, during which, according to one manuscript of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, literally nothing happened.

Manuscript B: Nothing to see here!

Annals 190 to 381 in manuscript B of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

AN. CXC, AN. CXCI, AN. CXCII, AN. CXCIII, AN. CXCIIII, AN. CXCV, AN. CXCVI, etc. We have to admire the diligence of the scribe of MS B of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle who wrote these ‘entries’ for the years 190 to 381. Apparently, there was nothing to report for these years, but the scribe did feel that it was necessary to write out the full numbers and the abbreviations “AN.” for “anno” 191 times. This must have been a tiring task and we can see that the scribe actually noticed a mistake along the way: he had copied the year 356 twice and found out when he had reached 360. At this point, he went back to correct the second 356 to 357 by adding a little I above the last Roman numeral CCCLUI; he did the same for 358 and 359 and erased whatever stood between 359 and 360. That is dedication! Regardless, one mistake was left unnoticed: for the year 379 he accidentally left out a C [AN. CCCLXXUIII, AN. CCLXXIX, AN. CCCLXXXI], but can we really blame him?

Mistakes in the annals in Manuscript B of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Manuscript A: Room for ‘exciting’ additions!

The same range of annals (190 to 381) looks a lot more impressive in the Parker Chronicle (manuscript A):

Admittedly, the way that the scribe of manuscript B handled this series of annals is more economical, but manuscript A at least allows for some room for potential additions. The additions that were made within the range 190 to 381, however, are not the most informative ones: for the year 200, someone added “twa hund gæra” [two hundred years] and for the year 300, the same person added “þreo hund gæra” [three hundred years] – great facts, guys! For the year 283, the death of St Alban is reported: “her þrowade sanctus Albanus martyr” [in this year, the martyr saint Alban suffered].

Manuscript C: Colour patterns!

Manuscript C follows Manuscript B in not reporting anything of note in the range 190 to 381 and, instead, just lists all the years + AN. To make the page still somewhat exciting, the scribe uses a different colour ink for every line:

But even the neat colour patterning did not withhold this scribe from making an error: the pattern breaks when he accidentally copies out two lines in red, which he then follows up by two lines in black, before returning to one line of red:

Manuscript D: Parchment to spare

Whoever was responsible for the layout of manuscript D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had parchment to spare: rather than writing out all the years consecutively, like MSS B and C, or writing out the years in two columns like manuscrpt A, Manuscript D gives the years in one column. As a result, the range 190 to 260 alone already spans three pages. The next folios have been lost and they are replaced with 16th-century ‘supply-leaves’ (giving the text of folios that are now missing):

The sixteenth-century hand, belonging to John Jocelyn (1529-1603), seems to have taken some effort to reproduce all the year numbers, although he gives up at the year 286, for which he now gives the death of St. Alban “Her ðrowade santus Albanus martyr”.

Note also the original scribes colour patterning, using blue and red ink.

Manuscript E: A creepy little hand

Manuscript E brings us back to the two-column layout of manuscript A. This is combined with different colour ink for the year numbers and the textual entries. It seems as if this copy of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had some more things to say for the years 190 to 381, but they still look like two boring centuries:

Clearly, the death of St Alban (here in the year 286, as in Manuscript D, but unlike Manuscript A which had it down in 283) was considered the most important event, since it is called attention to by a little hand (manicula) with a creepily long and wavy index finger:

Manuscript F: The years are fading away!

There is not much to say about manuscript F of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle other than that its bilingual nature (it gives the text of the entries in Old English and Latin) did not affect the way that the year numbers are presented on the page – manuscript F follows B and C in writing the year numbers consecutively, even if this scribe did not bother to copy out the abbreviation “AN.” 191 times! Unfortunately, red ink was used for the year numbers and this has all but faded away. For the ‘textual entries’, the scribe used black ink, which means we can still read the entry for the death of St Alban, which, in this manuscript, appears to have taken place in the year 287, unless the scribe copied the year 286 twice.

The death of Saint Alban, reported in Old English and Latin. The year number above Latin “hic” is clearly CCLXXXV (285); a year number is started to the right of it (286); and another is found before the black “Her” (287? or 286 again).

Looking back at this blog post, we can draw two conclusions:

1) Even for stretches of time in which almost nothing happened, the manuscripts of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicleshow a fascinating diversity.

2) Nobody knew exactly when St Alban died. Manuscript A has 283; D and E opt for 286 and F seems to put it at 287. Wikipedia (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of the modern age) suggests the death of St Alban either happened in c. 251 or 304 – so I guess we still don’t know.

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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)

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