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:
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):
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):
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
HER SWUTELAÞ on þis
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
[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.
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,:
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.
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!
If you liked this blog post, consider following this blog (button in the menu on the right) and/or enjoy the following posts as well:
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
- Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?
- Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb
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):
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:
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
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.
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.
[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”).
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:
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:
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!If you liked this blog post, you can follow this blog for regular updates and/or check out the following related posts:
- Cooked crow’s brains and other early medieval remedies for headaches from the Leiden Leechbook
- Early Medieval Magical Medicine: An Anglo-Saxon Trivia Quiz
- Creepy Crawlies in Early Medieval England: Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Minibeasts
- Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?–
- 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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
… 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.
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: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:
- The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Anglo-Saxon Elves
- The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Horses!
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: The Anglo-Saxon Habits of Hobbits
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Aragorn and Exiled Anglo-Saxon Kings
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Rings of Power
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Thror’s Map
You can find my academic publications (some of which are Open Access) on Tolkien here.
For more information on medieval elephants, see:
- The British Library Blog: Anglo-Saxon Elephants
- E. J. Christie, “The Idea of an Elephant: Ælfric of Eynsham, Epistemology, and the Absent Animals of Anglo-Saxon England,” Neophilologus 98 (2014), 465-479
- List of medieval elephant images at larsdatter.com.
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!):
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!
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: http://oldenglishthesaurus.arts.gla.ac.uk/ . 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 tō with the sense ‘towards’ triggers the dative case. So, while we do not need to change the form of tō, 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!
Geoffrey Chaucer drew on various medieval traditions surrounding pigs to characterise one of his most memorable characters in the Canterbury Tales: Robin the Miller.
A boarish fellow
In his Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), Geoffrey Chaucer brings to life a great variety of characters who set out on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. To pass the time, the pilgrims tell each other stories and, along the way, the audience learns about the pilgrims’ appearance, their behaviour and how they react to each other’s tales. Perhaps one of Chaucer’s most memorable characters is Robin the Miller, depicted here in the early-fifteenth-century Ellesmere manuscript:
Chaucer’s Miller behaves like a pig and his demeanour towards his fellow pilgrims is nothing short of boarish: he drunkenly interrupts the Knight and the Host and angers the Reeve by telling a bawdy tale about how a carpenter was tricked by a student (the Reeve used to be a carpenter). The Miller’s interests are also ungentlemanlike: Chaucer reveals in his General Prologue that Robin the Miller is “a janglere and a goliardeys, And that was moost of synne and harlotries” [a buffoon and teller of dirty stories, mostly about sin and deeds of harlotry] (General Prologue, ll. 560-561). Indeed, the Miller’s Tale is all about sex and obscenities. One of the Tale’s highlights is the moment a parish clerk accidentally kisses a woman’s arse (incidentally, the woman’s response, “Tehee!”, is the first recorded instance of the interjection “Teehee!” in the English language). The clerk, disgusted and out for revenge, pretends to return for another kiss and, after being farted in the face, shoves a redhot poker up the offending orifice. Robin the Miller certainly has a wicked sense of humour and a mind like a sow: full of dirty thoughts.
A sow in body and mind
‘A mind like a sow’? Let me explain by first pointing out that the Miller, in his appearance, also resembles a female pig. The Miller is a stout fellow, full of brawn, who likes wrestling and has a big mouth; more importantly, the Miller’s red hair is explicitly linked to the sow:
His berd as any sowe or fox was reed,
And therto brood, as though it were a spade.
Upon the cop right of his nose he hade
A werte, and theron stood a toft of herys,
Reed as the brustles of a sowes erys (General Prologue, ll. 552-556)
[His beard was as red as any sow or fox, and also broad, as if it were a spade. On the top of his nose he had a wart, and thereupon stood a tuft of hairs, as red as the bristles of a sow’s ears.]
These two references to the sow are no coincidence. In the Canterbury Tales, animal imagery is often used to highlight certain aspects a character shares with these animals. The female pig is a good ‘spirit animal’ for the Miller since, according to medieval bestiaries, the sow represents dirty-minded, unclean people. The entry for ‘sow’ in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 764, for instance, explains:
The pig (porcus) is a filthy beast (spurcus): it sucks up filth, wallows in mud, and smears itself with slime. …Sows signify sinners, the unclean and heretics … Sows are unclean and gluttonous men … The pig is also the man who is unclean of spirit. … The sow thinks on carnal things; from her thoughts wicked or wasteful deeds result … (trans. Barber 1992, pp. 85-87)
Clearly, Chaucer’s red-haired Miller, rejoicing in sin and telling dirty stories, is like a sow in both body and mind.
A porky piper
One more intriguing detail links Chaucer’s Miller to a sow: “A baggepipe wel koude he blowe and sowne, / And therwithal he broghte us out of towne” [he well knew how to blow and play the bagpipes and with that he brought us out of the town] (General Prologue, ll. 565-566). Chaucer’s Miller shares his ability to play the bagpipes with various pigs that make their appearance in late medieval art. Porky pipers may be found on wooden misericords…
… hanging from the roof of Melrose Abbey …
… pilgrim badges …
… and in medieval manuscripts:
Exactly what connects the bagpipes to the sow is uncertain: the form of the instrument (a bag with a pipe) might be interpreted as phallic in nature and the bagpipe, like the sow, was associated with sexual sin in the Middle Ages; it was an “impious instrument with sexual connotations” (see Planer 1988, 343). Alternatively, there may be a link between the sound of a screaming pig and the bagpipes (both unpleasant sounds?). Whatever the connection between pigs and bagpipes, we may assume that Chaucer and his audience were familiar with this artistic tradition since most depictions of these porky pipers stem from fourteenth- and fifteen-century England. What better instrument for the boarish Miller, with the body and mind of a sow, than the bagpipes?
Chaucer’s Miller truly is a pig, in more ways than one.
- Planer, John H. 1988. “Damned Music: The Symbolism of the Bagpipes in the Art of Hieronymus Bosch and His Followers.” In Music from the Middle Ages Through the Twentieth Century: Essays in Honor of Gwynn S. McPeek, ed. C.P. Comberiati & M.C. Steel (New York), 335-356.
- Barber, Richard. 1992. Bestiary: Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Bodley 764 (Woodbridge)
*This is a slightly adapted version of a blog post that was published earlier on the Leiden Medievalists Blog*
Various medieval English kings sought to identify themselves with the boar, including Henry II, Edward III and Richard III of York. This blog post calls attention to the role of the boar in medieval English royal prophecies.
King Arthur as the Boar of Cornwall
The frequent use of the boar in royal prophecies in medieval England can be traced back to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s famous Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136). Book 7 of this foundational work of the Arthurian legend describes the prophecies of Merlin. These prophecies include a list of various animals who represent future rulers of Britain, including the White Dragon, the Lion of Justice and the Hedgehog (who will rebuild a town and lure many birds with the apples on its spines). Greatest among these animals is the ‘boar of Cornwall’:
For a boar of Cornwall shall give his assistance, and trample their necks under his feet. The islands of the ocean shall be subject to his power, and he shall possess the forests of Gaul. The house of Romulus shall dread his courage, and his end shall be doubtful.
This boar of Cornwall turns out to be none other than King Arthur, who comes to the aid of the Britons, conquers France and also attempts to conquer Rome. The “doubtful end” may anticipate Arthur’s departure for Avalon, mortally wounded but not quite dead.
Since Arthur came to be regarded as the epitome of the ideal king, various English monarchs have tried to link themselves to the Arthurian legend. As a result, the boar also became a popular royal symbol, found in various texts that are based on the tradition of Merlin’s prophecies.
Boar-pretenders: Henry II and Edward III
A 14th-century, Latin copy of a list of Merlin’s prophecies now in Cambridge, Parker LIbrary, MS 404, spelled out the symbolic interpretation of Merlin’s prohetic animal-rulers by adding the names of prior English monarchs in the margin. The “Lion of Justice”, for instance, was identified as Henry I (r. 1100-1135); the Crab whose reign brings war and suffering was associated with the unfortunate Stephen (r. 1135-1154); and their succesor was the heroically tusked boar Henry II (r. 1154-1189).
The tradition of Merlin’s prophecies was not only used retrospectively, to make sense of the succession of prior rulers, but it could also be applied for propaganda purposes. This appears to have been the case for Edward III (r. 1327-1377), who sought to associate himself with the “Boar of Windsor”. According to a version of Merlin’s prophecies that circulated with the Middle English Brut Chronicle, this boar of Windsor would succeed the malfunctiong Goat:
Aftre þis goote, shal come out of Wyndesore a Boor, þat shal haue an heuede of witte, a lyons hert, a pitouse lokyng; his vesage shal be reste to sike men; his breþ shal bene stanchyn of þerst to ham þat bene aþrest þerof shal; his worde shal bene gospelle; his beryng shal bene meke as a Lambe… and he shal whet his teiþ vppon þe gates of Parys. (source)
This image of a heroic, holy boar that would ‘whet his teeth on the gates of Paris’ was appealed to by the poet Laurence Minot (1300-1352), when he celebrated the victories of Edward III against the French in Normandy during the 1340s:
Merlin said thus with his mowth:
Out of the north into the sowth
suld cum a bare over the se
that suld make many man to fle.
And in the se, he said ful right,
suld he schew ful mekill might,
and in Franse he suld bigin
To mak tham wrath that er tharein. (source)
Thus, the boar from Merlin’s prophecies became a powerful symbol that could be used by kings to raise their status (see, e.g. Coote).
The last royal boar: Richard III
The English royal most famous for his use of the boar as a sigil was King Richard III (r. 1483-1485), whose followers wore livery badges with the image of a white boar. Belonging to the House of York, the use of the boar has been associated with the English etymology of York (eofor-wic ‘boar-town’), but it is possible that Richard, too, was inspired by the (predominantly positive) portrayals of the boar in the tradition of Merlin’s prophecies. Be that as it may, Richard’s reign would not last long, nor was it as positive as the boar-ish reigns once prophesized by Merlin. In 1485, Richard III died in the Battle of Bosworth, which was won by Henry Tudor. The Welsh poet Guto’r Glyn, in a poem priasing one of Henry’s Welsh knights, referred ironically to Richard as a boar:
King Henry won the day
through the strength of our master
He killed Englishmen, capable hand
He killed the boar, he chopped off his head (source)
Perhaps it is Richard III’s eventual loss and his strong association with the boar that has led to the fact that no other English royal would ever appeal to the royal boar prophecy again. However, it is possible that the printed edition of Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte Darthur also played a role.
How a bear became a boar: Mouvance in William Caxton’s Le Morte Darthur (1485)
The most widely read version of the Arthurian legend is Le Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, composed some time before 1470. The text of this work survives in a printed edition by William Caxton, dated to 1485, and the so-called ‘Winchester Manuscript’ (London, British Library, Add. 59678). This Winchester Manuscript is dated to a decade after Thomas Mallory’s death in 1471 and was probably used by Caxton in his print shop, along with another manuscript now lost. Comparing the Winchester Manuscript to Caxton’s later printed edition allows a glimpse at how Caxton made subtle alterations in Mallory’s text. Crucially, for the purpose of this blog, Caxton changed the text of a prophetic dream that King Arthur has while he is on his way to conquer Rome in book V, chapter 4. According to the Winchester manuscript, Arthur dreams of how a dragon defeats a “gresly Beare”; after Arthur wakes up a philosopher explains that Arthur need not worry: he is the dragon that will defeat the bear, who, in turn, symbolises a cruel and powerful tyrant that torments its people.
In Caxton’s version, printed in 1485, the bear has been changed into a boar: “the bore”! This appears to be a conscious change, inspired by the political situation of the day, as P. J. C. Field has noted:
“In C, the bear is (six times) turned into a boar. The change must have been deliberate, and it created a bold political allusion: the boar was the badge of King Richard III and the dragon that of Henry Tudor. The allusion would only have made sense in or just before 1485, and it is difficult to see who could have been responsible for it but Caxton himself …” (cited in Crofts)
By exchanging the bear for the boar, Caxton has altered Mallory’s prophetic dream to be a comment on the political situation of 1485. Notably, the dream, as altered by Caxton, came true! Caxton had published his Le Morte Darthur on the last day of July 1485 and, less than a month later, Henry Tudor, flying a dragon banner, defeated Richard III, flying a boar banner, at the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485.
Following Richard III, no other English monarch seems to have appealed to a royal boar prophecy. Perhaps this was, in part, due to Caxton’s introduction of an alternative, negative royal boar prophecy that featured prominently in one of the most popular works of the Arthurian Legend.
- Lesley Coote, Prophecy and Public Affairs in Later Medieval England (Woodbridge, 2000)
- P. J. C. Field, “Caxton’s Roman War,” Arthuriana 5 (1995): 31-73.
- Thomas Crofts, Malory’s contemporary audience the social reading of romance in late medieval England (Woodbridge, 2006)
*This is a slightly adapted version of a blog post that was published earlier on the Leiden Medievalists Blog*
In light of recent discussions about the term ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ and the debate around the name of the International Society for Anglo-Saxonists, I have decided to change the name of my blog. Some thoughts on the matter follow below.
On the terms ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxonist’
One of the few contemporary uses of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’: a twelfth-century copy of a tenth-century charter of Athelstan “ongolsaxna cyning” [king of the Anglo-Saxons]
For me, the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has always referred to those people who spoke a Germanic language (Old English) and hailed from the British Isles, roughly between 450 and 1100. This is how the term is generally used in the United Kingdom: in schools (e.g., this BBC-website aimed at 7 to 11-year-olds), museums (e.g., the recent ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms‘ exhibition in the British Library) and heritage locations (e.g., the awesome West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village). In scholarship on the period, the term is commonly used with reference to archaeology, art, sculpture, manuscripts, numismatics and so on – i.e. to refer to the non-linguistic cultural artefacts made by the speakers of Old English. To my knowledge, this is also the way the Dutch cognate ‘Angelsaksisch’ and the German ‘angelsächsisch’ are generally used. In my own scholarship and on this blog, I have also used the term in this way. For me, an Anglo-Saxonist is a scholar of the language, literature and culture of the inhabitants of pre-Conquest England.
The usage of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon/Angelsaksisch/angelsächsisch’ described above stands out compared to English usage elsewhere, as has been expertly pointed out by an article by Dave Wilton (available here) as well as various Medievalists of Colour (see the Twitter account @Isasaxonists for relevant updates and links). The term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has been appropriated and used by various white supremacist groups (including the KKK) to further their misguided ideological agenda and, given that context, the use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in medievalist scholarship is problematic for those for whom ‘white supremacy’ is one of the first and foremost connotations. These negative connotations of the term are also found in the secondary sense of the word ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ in the Oxford English Dictionary: “A person who believes in the importance or superiority of Anglo-Saxon language, people, or culture (past or present)” (the primary sense being “An expert in or student of Old English language, literature, and culture”).
As a result, various scholars have been (for years) proposing that the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists change its name to avoid these associations and become a more inclusive society by opening it up to those whose first associations with the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ are not necessarily early medieval.
For the Society, the aims and purposes of which are international and which should not want to ostracize a major part of the academic community, I support this name change, if only to avoid the association with the secondary sense of the OED entry. In order to avoid any misconception about my own moniker ‘Dutch Anglo-Saxonist’ and given the divisiveness of the term within my professional field (for an impression, see this blog by Howard Williams), I have decided to change this as well: my website will henceforth continue under my own name [update: for a short while, I considered the moniker ‘boaring medievalist’ but that did not feel right].
Should we stop using the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ altogether?
Clearly, the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has negative connotations in some contexts. Does this mean we should do away with the term entirely? In the current debate about the name of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, good arguments have been brought forward for both shunning and holding on to the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to refer to the Germanic speaking people who lived in Britain in the early Middle Ages. I am leaning towards the latter.
One particular problem is the absence of an unproblematic alternative. Some of the alternatives offered thus far are either imprecise (‘Medieval North Atlantic’ and ‘Medieval Insular’ cover more than ‘Anglo-Saxon’) or have similarly been misappropriated by racists groups and/or seem more apt for literary and linguistic purposes (variants with ‘English/England/Englisc’). Introducing a wholly new term (e.g., ‘Anglo-Germanic’) may have some advantages, but also disadvantages – it may render the field unrecognisable to the outside world (which damages possibilites for successful outreach and means fewer chances at research funding) and, eventually, if the new term does gain traction it is likely to be misused as well.
In addition, there is a rich tradition of scholarship that uses the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’: The Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, the Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Microfiche Facsimile series, Gneuss and Lapidge’s Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, Gale Owen-Crocker’s Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, Elisabeth Okasha’s Hand-list of Anglo-Saxon Non-Runic Inscriptions, etc., etc., etc. The term is so ingrained in the study of this field that it is hard to do without it: if we want our students to build on prior scholarship, they will have to be taught that the meaning of the word ‘Anglo-Saxon’ depends on the context in which it is and has been used.
When I discussed the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with my MA students on Friday (we were discussing words that change meaning depending on context), one of them said ‘we should put up a fight and claim back the term!’. A valuable opinion and I think this is also where I stand. It would indeed be a shame to ‘surrender’ the terminology because it has been appropriated by hate groups. In fact, I think this fight is indeed taking place and I am encouraged by the successes of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library, the ‘Anglo-Saxon History and Language‘ Facebook group (14k members) and TV series such as Michael Wood’s King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons and various documentaries on the Anglo-Saxons by Janina Ramirez, which all encourage a wider audience to associate the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with the amazing art, language, literature and culture of the early medieval speakers of Old English. I can only hope that my own use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ on this blog thus far has had the same effect and will do so, moving forward.
At any rate, this blog will continue under my personal name. I intend to continue blogging about the languages, cultures and histories of Anglo-Saxon England in the early Middle Ages.
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 elves and their counterparts from early medieval England.
Old English elf glosses
Grey elves, green elves, wood-elves, sea-elves; in his fiction, Tolkien distinguished between various types of elves. A similar variety of elf types can be found in early medieval England. A case in point is the following, curious list of Old English elf names that appears in a ninth-century manuscript:
Nimphae aelfinni eadem & muse ‘elves’
Oreades duun-aelfinni ‘mountain elves’
Driades uudu-aelfinne ‘wood elves’
Amadriades uaeter-aelfinne ‘water elves’
Maides feld-aelfinne ‘field elves’
Naides sae-aelfinne ‘sea elves’
This list of elf glosses was added to the manuscript by the scribe who copied the table of contents to a series of Latin riddles, but found he had some space left over (and, apparently, he did not want to waste this blank spot on the parchment). Helpfully, the scribe provided Old English names of elves as translations for Latin words for types of nymphs: Latin driades ‘wood nymphs’ equals Old English uudu-aelfinne ‘wood elves’, etc. A similar list of elf names was added to the lower margin of an early eleventh-century manuscript; here the Amadriades are wylde elfen ‘wild elves’ rather than uaeter aelfinne ‘water elves’:
It is not unlikely that Tolkien, as a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford and particularly interested in elves, was aware of these lists of elf names. The variety of elves in this Anglo-Saxon manuscripts certainly seems reflected in the various sub-types of elves of Tolkien’s fiction: Sea-Elves (the Teleri), Wood-elves (the Silvan, like Legolas) and so on.
The ambivalent nature of elves: dark and shiny.
While Tolkien’s portrayal of elves is generally very positive, the Wood-elves of Mirkwood are described in a more ambivalent manner. On the one hand, they are characterised as distrusting strangers, and “more dangerous and less wise” than the High elves of the West. On the other hand, Tolkien remarks “[s]till elves they were and remain, and that is Good People”. In Anglo-Saxon England, we find a similar dual attitude towards elves. Their dark and dangerous side is attested by Old English words for nightmare and physical ailments, such ælf-adl ‘elf disease, nightmare’, ælf–siden ‘elf’s influence, nightmare’, ælf-sogoða ‘hiccough’ and wæterælf-adl ‘water elf disease’. These last two words suggest that elves might cause diseases and this idea also turns up in Old English medical texts. The ‘Charm against a sudden stitch’, for example, attributes a shooting pain or cramp to ‘ylfa scot’ [elves’ shot] and another text provides instruction on what to do if your horse was shot by an elf (for some of these remedies, see this online edition by Karen Jolly). That elves could be considered malevolent creatures is also found in Beowulf, ll. 111-113a, which describes the elves as monstrous descendants of Cain, akin to giants and orcs: “þanon untydras ealle onwocon: / eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas / swylce gigantas” [thence (from Cain) all monsters awoke: giants and elves and orcs/monsters, as well as giants].
While some sources thus attest to a rather negative connotation of elves, there is also some evidence that the Anglo-Saxons considered the elves to be a positive presence. An example of this is the word ælf-scyne ‘bright as an elf, beautiful, radiant’ which is used three times in the extant corpus of Old English poetry to describe two Biblical women: Judith and Sarah. The element ælf- was also used in personal names, which equally suggests that early medieval English parents considered elves a force for good or atleast suitable for their babies: Ælf-red ‘elf-counsel’; Ælf-noth ‘elf-brave’; Ælf-thryth ‘Ælf-powerful’; Ælf-here ‘elf army’; and Ælf-ric ‘elf-powerful’. Like Tolkien’s Wood-elves of Mirkwood, then, the Anglo-Saxon elves were both feared and respected.
Elf-Friends in Anglo-Saxon England
Various characters in Tolkien’s fiction, including Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, are given the honorary title of ‘Elf-friend’. The title commemorates those who have proven themselves as valuable allies to the Elves in times of need. This much becomes clear from Elrond’s words in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo volunteers to take the Ring to Mordor:
But it is a heavy burden. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right; and though all the mighty elf-friends of old, Hador, and Húrin, and Túrin, and Beren himself were assembled together your seat should be among them.
The Old English equivalent of ‘elf-friend’, Ælfwine, was not uncommon in Anglo-Saxon England: various abbots and bishops bore this name. One of these Ælfwines is closely connected to an 11th-century manuscript, known as ‘Ælfwine’s prayerbook’. The book was likely composed for Abbot Ælfwine of New Minster, whose name appears, in code, in one of the manuscript’s inscriptions:
Here, some of the vowels have been substituted for the consonant following them in the alphabet: AFlfwknp mpnbchp > Aelfwino monacho ‘for Ælfwine the monk’ (if you want to learn more about this type of encoding, read Anglo-Saxon Cryptography: Secret Writing in Early Medieval England).
An equally mysterious Ælfwine is depicted in the Junius Manuscript, one of the four main codices of Old English poetry:
It is unclear who this young man named “Ælfwine” is – it has been suggested that he may have been the patron or the scribe of the manuscript. Perhaps it was even the poet of some of the Old English poems in the Junius Manuscript: Genesis, Daniel, Christ and Satan and Exodus. Tolkien himself was keenly familiar with the last of these Old English poems: an edition and translation of the Old English Exodus, on the basis of Tolkien’s notes, appeared in 1982 (you can watch me lecture about this here: Tolkien keynote lecture: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Old Englsh Exodus).
Given that Tolkien worked on the Old English Exodus, he must have spotted the Ælfwine roundel in the Junius manuscript (which uniquely contains the Old English poem). Perhaps this mysterious Ælfwine inspired Tolkien in developing the conceit, found in the earliest drafts of The Silmarillion, of an Anglo-Saxon man called Ælfwine who travelled west and ended up in the lands of the Elves. As some versions of Tolkien’s mythology would have it, this Ælfwine later returned to Anglo-Saxon England and wrote down the stories of Middle-Earth in Old English (resulting in, e,g, the Old English annals of Valinor).
Clearly, from various elf types to ambivalent Wood-Elves and elf-friends, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth has close connections to early medieval England.
If you liked this post, you may also be interested in:
- The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Horses!
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: The Anglo-Saxon Habits of Hobbits
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Aragorn and Exiled Anglo-Saxon Kings
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Rings of Power
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Thror’s Map
What was it like to grow old in the Middle Ages? Were white hairs a guarantee for respect or were they a pitiable token of endured hardship? Did the medieval people long to grow old or did they fear their ever-growing tally of years? This blog looks at some of the downsides of growing old in early medieval England and identifies some cases of what may be termed ‘gerontophobia’, the fear for old age.
Some misconceptions about medieval old age
In February 2019, my book Old Age in Early Medieval England: A Cultural History was published. In its introduction, I tackle a number of misconceptions concerning old age in the Middle Ages:
- “People did not grow old back then” (They did. Theodore of Tarsus (602-690) became archbishop of Canterbury at the age of 67 and remained in office for 21 more years)
- “In the Middle Ages, people were considered old at the age of 40” (No. Texts of the period set the onset of old age around the age of 50)
- “Because there were fewer elderly back then, the senior members of a community were highly respected and revered.”
This last misconception has found some scholarly support: John Burrow, for instance, maintained that the Anglo-Saxons (the inhabitants of early medieval England) privileged old age above all other age categories. The later Anglo-Saxon period has even been termed “the golden age for the elderly”. This image of early medieval England as an El Dorado for the elderly, however, is one-sided and incomplete. My the book covers a broad range of sources, ranging from encyclopaedic notes to homilies, heroic poems, wisdom literature and hagiography, which suggest a much more complicated and ambivalent attitude towards old age and the elderly among the Anglo-Saxons. In this blog post, I will highlight some early medieval English texts that deal with the darker sides to old age, if only to redress the rather optimistic image of the early Middle Ages as a ‘golden age for old age’.
Priestly concerns: Ungodliness and an unabashed sexual appetite
While generally they associated old age with wisdom and piety, early medieval preachers were well aware that senectitude was no guarantee for godly behaviour. In fact, they regularly warned their flock for the senex sine religione, ‘the old man without religion’, along with the rich man without alms and the young man without obedience.  Another cautionary figure in Anglo-Saxon homiletic texts is the puer centum annorum, ‘child of a hundred years’. Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010), for instance, noted:
Eft cwæð sum witega, Puer centum annorum maledictus erit: Hundteontigwintre cild byð awyrged. Ðæt is on andgite, Se mann ðe hæfð ylde on gearum, and hæfð cildes þeawas on dysige, þæt se byð awyrged. Ælc treow blewð ær þan þe hit wæstmas bere, and ælc corn bið ærest gærs. Swa eac ælc godes cinnes mann sceal hine sylfne to godnysse awendan, and wisdom lufian, and forlætan idelnysse. 
[Again, a certain prophet said: Puer centum annorum maledictus erit (cf. Isa. 65:20): a hundred-year-old child is cursed. That is in the sense: the man who has old age in years, and has the customs of a child in foolishness, let him be cursed. Every tree blooms before it bears fruit, and every grain is first grass. Likewise every man of good pedigree must turn himself to goodness and love wisdom and forsake frivolity.]
Ælfric’s admonition to show behaviour appropriate to one’s age reflects his awareness that some old men persevere in the follies of youth.
A more specific concern of Ælfric’s appears to have been the unabashed sexual appetite of elderly people. In a letter, he classified the sexual needs of an elderly woman as shameful, since intercourse was only meant for procreation:
Hit byð swyþe sceandlic, þæt eald wif sceole
ceorles brucan, þonne heo forwerod byð
and teames ætealdod, ungehealtsumlice,
forðan ðe gesceafta ne beoð for nanum oðran þinge astealde
butan for bearnteame anum, swa swa us secgað halige bec.
[It is very shameful that an old woman should have sex with a man, when she is worn out with age and too old for childbearing, unchastely, because sexual relations are not meant for any other thing but procreation only, just as holy books tell us.]
Anglo-Saxon England, it seems, was no cougar country.
While virtuous behaviour was expected of old men, this was by no means a foregone state of affairs. In the end, what mattered was not the age of a man, but his religious devotion, as St. Brendan reassured the young St. Machutus after the latter had expressed doubts as to whether he was worthy of priesthood, given his youth: “Nelle þu þe tweogean forþon þe seo geonglicu eld nænigum ne deraþ gif he fulfremed biþ on his mode. Ne seo ealdlicu eld nænigum ne frameþ gif he biþ on his mode gewemmed” [‘Do not doubt since a young age harms no one if he is virtuous in his heart. Nor does old age benefit anyone if he is corrupt in his heart’].
Memento senescere: The terrors of old age
In the Old English heroic poem Beowulf, the old king Hrothgar warns the young hero Beowulf about all the dangers that await him: fire, floods, swords, spears and, finally, “atol yldo” [terrible old age]. Warnings about growing old are also found in Anglo-Saxon homilies, accompanied with vivid descriptions of the physical decay that comes with the years. An anonymous Anglo-Saxon homilist wrote:
Him amolsniað and adimmiað þa eagan, þe ær wæron beorhte and gleawe on gesihðe. And seo tunge awistlað, þe ær hæfde getinge spræce and gerade. And ða earan aslawiað, þa þe ær wæron ful swifte and hræde to gehyrenne fægere dreamas and sangas. And þa handa awindað, þa ðe ær hæfdon ful hwæte fingras. And þæt feax afealleð, þe ær wæs fæger on hiwe and on fulre wæstme. And þa teð ageolwiað, þa ðe wæron ær hwite on hiwe. And þæt oreð stincð and afulað, þe ær wæs swete on stence.
[His eyes weaken and become dim, that had been bright and keen of sight. And his tongue hisses, which had possessed fluent and skilful speech. And his ears become sluggish, which had been very swift and quick to hear beautiful stories and songs. And his hands bend, that had possessed fully active fingers. And his hair falls out, that had been fair in colour and in full abundance. And his teeth turn yellow, that had been white in appearance. And his breath, which had been sweet of smell, stinks and turns foul.]
Descriptions like these functioned to remind the audience of the impermanence of worldly pleasures. Just as wealth, joy, friends and status do not last forever, so, too, a man’s youth is not eternal and old age will get him in the end; a memento senescere – remember that you must grow old. The decrepit, aging body was a welcome device that Anglo-Saxon homilists could use to turn their audience’s hopes and minds towards the afterlife; an afterlife, as we shall see below, where old age was either absent or present, depending on whether you would end up in Heaven or Hell.
Heaven is a place without old age: Age in the afterlife
The Venerable Bede (673-735) wrote in his eschatological poem De die iudicii [Concerning Judgement Day] that in Heaven one would enjoy the greatest of joys and no longer suffer “fessa senectus” [wearied old age]. Literary representations of the Afterlife often enumerated the celestial joys in combination with the absence of certain horrors that typically included old age. The notion that old age is absent from Heaven regularly occur in Old English sermons; for my book, I have identified at least eleven homilies which list “geogoþ butan ylde” [youth without old age] as one of the assets of Heaven, along with light (without darkness), happiness (without sorrow) and health (without sickness). Being generally absent from Heaven, old age was naturally associated with Hell. At least one Anglo-Saxon homilist presented growing old to his flock as one of the “prefiguration” of Hellish torment, along with pain, death, the grave and torture. Want to know what Hell is like? Grow old!
Appreciation or apprehension?
Gehwær is on urum life. ateorung 7 werignys 7 brosnung þæs lichaman: 7 þeahhwæþere wilnað gehwa þæt he lange lybbe. Hwæt is lange lybban buton lange swincan? 
[Everywhere in our life is faintness and weariness, and decay of the body, and yet every one desires that he might live long. What is to live long but to suffer long?]
Why do people want to grow old, Ælfric asks, if all they will get in return is toil and pain? Ælfric’s remark is hard to reconcile with Burrow’s claim that the Anglo-Saxons preferred old age above all other age categories and the notion that the Anglo-Saxon period was ‘a golden age for the elderly’. Not only were the Anglo-Saxons well aware that old age was no guarantee for godly living, they also observed that there were serious downsides to growing old. Anglo-Saxon homilists referred to physical decrepitude in order to remind their audience of the transience of worldly things or to strike the fear of Hell into their hearts. Indeed, one of the alluring aspects of Heaven for an Anglo-Saxon was the absence of old age. Arguably, then, it is more apt to ascribe to the Anglo-Saxons an apprehension for old age, rather than an unequivocal appreciation.
If you are interested in old age in early medieval England, I am absolutely thrilled that I can now highly recommend my own book!
- Thijs Porck, Old Age in Early Medieval England: A Cultural History, Anglo-Saxon Studies 33 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2019)
 J. A. Burrow, The Ages of Man: A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought (Oxford, 1986), p. 109.
 S. Crawford, ‘Gomol is snoterost: Growing Old in Anglo-Saxon England’, in Collectanea Antiqua: Essays in Memory of Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, ed. M. Henig and T. J. Smith (Oxford, 2007), p. 59.
 The senex sine religione often features in a list of the ‘Twelve Abuses’, see Two Ælfric Texts: The Twelve Abuses and The Vices and Virtues, ed. and trans. M. Clayton (Cambridge, 2013), pp. 34–48.
 Homilies of Ælfric: A Supplementary Collection, ed. J, C. Pope, EETS os 259–60 (Oxford, 1967–8), hom. 19, ll. 19–25.
 Angelsächsische Homilien und Heiligenleben, ed. B. Assmann (Kassel, 1889), hom. 2, ll. 157–61.
 The Old English Life of Machutus, ed. D. Yerkes (Toronto, 1984), p. 13, ll. 8–12.
 Klaeber’s Beowulf, ed. R. D. Fulk, R. E. Bjork and J. D. Niles, 4th ed. (Toronto, 2008), ll. 1758–68.
 Wulfstan; Sammlung der ihm zugeschriebenen Homilien nebst Untersuchungen über ihre Echtheit, ed. A. S. Napier (Berlin, 1883), hom. 30, p. 147, ll. 23–31, p. 148, ll. 1–7.
 Bede, De die iudicii, ed. and trans. G. D. Caie, The Old English Poem Judgement Day II (Cambridge, 2000), l. 129
 The Vercelli Homilies and Related Texts, ed. D. G. Scragg, EETS os 300 (London, 1992), hom. 9, ll. 84–5.
 Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies: The First Series, ed. P. Clemoes, EETS ss 17 (Oxford, 1997), hom. 32, ll. 213–9.