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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
Among all of his responsibilities, Alfred the Great found the time to invent the candle clock. As this blog post will demonstrate, Alfred, by no means, was the only Anglo-Saxon king to have a thing for candles.
Alfred the Great: Inventor of time management and the candle clock
The slogan “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” is supposed to have been coined by the social reformer Robert Owen (d. 1858); but the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred the Great (d. 899) seems to have divided his time in a similar way. According to the twelfth-century chronicler William of Malmesbury:
he [Alfred] so divided the twenty-four hours of the day and night as to employ eight of them in writing, in reading, and in prayer, eight in the refreshment of his body, and eight in dispatching the business of the realm. There was in his chapel a candle consisting of twenty-four divisions, and an attendant, whose peculiar province it was to admonish the king of his several duties by its consumption. (source)
Assuming that Alfred regarded writing, reading and praying as recreation – Alfred’s daily routine, as described by William, is quite similar to Robert Owen’s slogan.
William’s reference to “a candle consisting of twenty-four divisions” refers to a famous story related in Asser’s Life of Alfred (893), which recounts how Alfred invented a “candle clock” consisting of six candles (not one), which each burned for four hours:
By this plan, therefore, those six candles burned for twenty-four hours, a night and day, without fail… but sometimes when they would not continue burning a whole day and night, till the same hour that they were lighted the preceding evening, from the violence of the wind, which blew day and night without intermission through the doors and windows of the churches … the king therefore considered by what means he might shut out the wind, and so by a useful and cunning invention, he ordered a lantern to be beautifully constructed of wood and white ox-horn, which, when skilfully planed till it is thin, is no less transparent than a vessel of glass. … By this contrivance, then, six candles, lighted in succession, lasted four and twenty hours, neither more nor less, and, when these were extinguished, others were lighted. (source)
There you have it, in addition to defeating the Vikings (see: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and Alfred the Great), suffering from painful diseases (see: Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?), translating the Psalms (see: The Illustrated Psalms of Alfred the Great: The Old English Paris Psalter), and coining the word ‘arseling’ (see: Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?), Alfred also invented a candle clock! He truly was a king among kings.
Æthelwulf of Wessex: Coins and candle holders for the pope
Alfred may have gotten his interest in lights and candles from his father Æthelwulf of Wessex (d. 858). Upon his death, Asser reports in his Life of Alfred, Æthelwulf ordered an annual sum of money to be sent to Rome of which a major part was to be spent on lighting lamps at Easter:
He commanded also a large sum of money, namely, three hundred mancuses, to be carried to Rome for the good of his soul, to be distributed in the following manner: namely, a hundred mancuses in honour of St. Peter, specially to buy oil for the lights of the church of that apostle on Easter eve, and also at the cock-crow: a hundred mancuses in honour of St. Paul, for the same purpose of buying oil for the church of St. Paul the apostle, to light the lamps on Easter eve and at the cock-crow; and a hundred mancuses for the universal apostolic pontiff. (source)
Æthelwulf’s charity did not stop there. The ninth-century Liber Pontificalis (the book of Popes) relates how, upon visiting Rome with his son Alfred, gifted the Church of St Peter with many precious objects, including a silver candle holder:
a crown of pure gold weighing four pounds, an ornamental sword with gold inlay, a gilded silver candle holder in the Saxon style, a purple dyed tunic embossed with golden keys, a golden goblet, and numerous valuable robes. (R. Abels, King Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 53)
Upon his trip to Rome, Alfred may have learned a valuable lesson from his father: candles are candy for the pope!
Æthelred the Unready: Castigated by candles
While Alfred and his father Æthelwulf had positive experiences with candles, one of their kinsmen fared differently. As legend would have it, Æthelred ‘the Unready’ (d. 1016), Alfred’s great-great-grand-son, was traumatized by candles in his youth. William of Malmesbury relates the following incident in his Gesta regum Anglorum:
I have read, that when he was ten years of age, hearing it noised abroad that his brother [Edward ‘the Martyr’ (d. 978)] was killed, he so irritated his furious mother by his weeping, that not having a whip at hand, she beat the little innocent with some candles she had snatched up: nor did she desist, till herself bedewed him, nearly lifeless, with her tears. On this account he dreaded candles during the rest of his life, to such a degree that he would never suffer the light of them to be brought into his presence. (source)
As Æthelred grew up, he gained a reputation as being one of the worst kings in English history. He certainly was never able to fill his great-great-grandfather Alfred’s shoes, and we now know why: without the help of candles (or a candle clock), how could he ever have managed his time!?!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:
- Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?
- Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Aragorn and Exiled Anglo-Saxon Kings
- Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and Alfred the Great
- The Illustrated Psalms of Alfred the Great: The Old English Paris Psalter
The Psalter was perhaps the best-known text among the Anglo-Saxons. As a result, many Psalters have survived from early medieval England. This blog post focuses on the Paris Psalter, which has been associated with Alfred the Great and features some beautiful illustrations.
The prose Psalm translations of Alfred the Great in the Paris Psalter
Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 8824 (the ‘Paris Psalter’) is a unique manuscript dating to around 1050. The main texts of the manuscript are the 150 Latin Psalms with facing Old English translations: the first fifty Psalms are translated into Old English prose and another translator rendered the last hundred Psalms in Old English verse. Although the Paris Psalter does not mention the author of the Old English Psalm translations, the translator of the first fifty Psalms has been identified as none other than Alfred the Great (d. 899). The arguments for the attribution to Alfred concern the language of the prose translations (a ninth-century West Saxon dialect) as well as a twelfth-century chronicler recording that Alfred was working on a translation of the Book of Psalms but had not been able to finish it before he died. I have outlined these arguments in an earlier blog post on the Old English word earsling (the ancestor word of the popular insult ‘arseling’), which occurs only in the Paris Psalter (see: Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great? ).
Like the other translations associated with Alfred’s ‘educational revival’ (such as the Old English Boethius), the prose translations of the first fifty Psalms in the Paris Psalter are not entirely literal and often feature additional interpretations. A clear case in point is the rendition of Psalm 44:2 (My heart hath uttered a good word: I speak my works to the king: My tongue is the pen of a scrivener that writeth swiftly), which was expanded to:
As this passage illustrates, Alfred added allegorical interpretations of some of the phrases in the Psalm. These additions resulted in the Old English text being a lot longer than the Latin original. As we shall see, this difference in length caused some problems for the scribe of the Paris Psalter.
Scribe of the Paris Psalter: Wulfwine ‘the Lumpy’
The scribe of the Paris Psalter identifies himself in a colophon at the end of the manuscript:
Hoc psalterii carmen inclyti regis dauid. Sacer d[e]i Wulfwinus (i[d est] cognom[en]to Cada) manu sua conscripsit. Quicumq[ue] legerit scriptu[m]. Anime sue expetiat uotum.
[This song of the psaltery by the famous King David the priest of God Wulfwine (who is nicknamed Cada) wrote with his own hand. Whoever reads what is written, seek out a prayer for his soul.]
Wulfwine’s nickname ‘Cada’ means something like ‘stout, lumpy person’ (he is, by no means, the only Anglo-Saxon with a silly nickname, see: Anglo-Saxon bynames: Old English nicknames from the Domesday Book).
Richard Emms (1999) has suggested that Wulfwine ‘the Lumpy’ may have come from Canterbury. He noted, for instance, that the Paris Psalter shares two rare features with another manuscript from Canterbury: its awkwardly long shape (the Paris Psalter is 52,6 cm long and only 18,6 cm wide) and a strange “open-topped a, looking rather like a u” at the end of some lines. Emms identified the same features in a late 10th-century manuscript of the Benedictine Rule from Canterbury (London, British Library, Harley 5431) and suggested this manuscript may have inspired Wulfwine:
The proposed localisation of Wulfwine in Canterbury is strengthened by the fact that some of the illustrations in the Paris Psalter resemble those of the Harley Psalter made in Canterbury (the Harley Psalter, in turn, was inspired by the ninth-century Utrecht Psalter, then in Canterbury). The illustrations of Psalm 4:6 (Offer up the sacrifice of justice) in both manuscripts are, indeed, similar:
Emms (1999) was even able to locate a monk named Wulfwine in a late 11th-century necrology of the monastic community of St. Augustine’s, Canterbury:
Could this Wulfwine ‘the scribe’ whose death was recorded in the late 11th-century Canterbury necrology really be the same person as scribe Wulfwine ‘the Lumpy’ who made the Paris Psalter and was inspired by at least two Canterbury manuscripts? As with the identification of Alfred the Great as the author of the prose translations, the evidence concerning the identity of the scribe Wulfwine is solely circumstantial, but the details do add up!
Filling the gaps: Some illustrations from the Paris Psalter
In producing the pages of the Paris Psalter, Wulfwine ‘the Lumpy’ had one particular problem: the Old English prose translation in the right hand column was often longer than the Latin original in the left-hand column. Consequently, the left-hand column often featured some gaps. Initially, Wulfwine tried to fill these gaps with illustrations; later, he tried to fix the problem by wrapping the Latin text in an awkward way; until he finally gave up on the idea of filling the left-hand column and simply let the gaps stand.
That Wulfwine eventually abandoned the idea of filling the gaps with illustrations is to be regretted. While some of his illustrations match the well-known Harley Psalter, others are unique to the Paris Psalter and shed an interesting light on how an Anglo-Saxon interpreted these Psalm texts. Below, I provide my personal top five of the fabulous illustrations of the Paris Psalter.
5) “Coochee coochee coo”
Here, the artist has literally illustrated the Old English translation of Psalm 3:4: “þu ahefst upp min heafod” [you raise up my head]. I like how God gently seems to tickle the Psalmist under his beard.
4) That moment when God thinks your beard needs trimming
This illustration shows a rather less cute interaction between God and a human being. The bearded figure, in this case, must be one of the “yfelwillenda” [those who want evil] or the “unrihtwisan” [the unjust], and God is intending to use his mega-scissors to remove this person from his sight.
3) Lion got your soul?
Another literal rendition: the lion trampling this young man is the enemy getting hold of a soul. Wulfwine here took inspiration from the Harley Psalter (or the Utrecht Psalter itself):
2) Struck by Cupid’s..err Satan’s arrows!
A depiction of Ps. 7:14 (he hath made ready his arrows for them that burn) shows Satan shooting an arrow into the heart of the female part of a lovers’ couple. Apparently, the couple had wild plans in their little love nest; note how the lovers are reaching between each other’s legs with their hands.
1) What will happen to the evil-doers
Psalm 5:7 (Thou hatest all the workers of iniquity: thou wilt destroy all that speak a lie. The bloody and the deceitful man the Lord will abhor) makes clear that God does not like those who commit evil acts and will seek to destroy them. The artist has depicted the first part of Psalm 5:7 as follows:
These evil-doers and liars are not, as I first thought, taking a trip in a boat; they are, in fact, in the mouth of Hell (see its little eye-ball on the left).
The illustration of the second part of Psalm 5:7 (…The bloody and the deceitful man the Lord will abhor) is more spectacular:
‘If you pull my hair, I will stab your groin!’: Ouch!!!
If you liked the blog post, you may also enjoy:
- A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus
- An Anglo-Saxon comic book collector: Cuthwine and the Carmen Paschale
- The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex
- The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book
Works refered to:
- Emms, Richard. 1999. The scribe of the Paris Psalter. Anglo-Saxon England 28 (1999): 179-183.
- O’Neill, Patrick. 2001. King Alfred’s Old English Prose Translation of the First Fifty Psalms (Medieval Academy of America, 2001)
During the Middle Ages, the wild boar was admired and feared for its courage and ferocity. This blogpost calls attention to this warrior among beasts and, in particular, to its presence on various helmets from Anglo-Saxon England.
The boar as a warrior
As a symbol of courage, the boar enjoyed great popularity throughout the Middle Ages. In his biography of Alfred the Great (d. 899), for instance, the monk Asser described how Alfred led his people against the Vikings as ‘a wild boar’:
… the king [Æthelred, Alfred’s brother] still continued a long time in prayer, and the heathen, prepared for battle, had hastened to the field. Then Alfred, though only second in command, could no longer support the advance of the enemy, unless he either retreated or charged upon them without waiting for his brother. At length, with the rush of a wild boar, he courageously led the Christian troops against the hostile army. (source)
The early medieval inhabitants of England would also name their children after the courageous boar, as is revealed by such Anglo-Saxon names as Eoforheard (‘boar-hard’), Eoformund (‘boar-protector’) and Eoforwulf (‘boar-wulf’) . In the later Middle Ages and beyond, the boar remained populair and was frequently used as a heraldic symbol, most famously by Richard III of England (d. 1485):
In his encyclopaedic Proprietatibus rerum, the thirteenth-century scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus described the boar as a courageous and ferocious warrior. The boar, he noted, “useth the tusks instead of a sword. And hath a hard shield, broad and thick in the right side, and putteth that always against his weapon that pursueth him, and useth that brawn instead of a shield to defend himself.” (source) With its tusks for a sword and its thick skin for a shield, the boar does not run away from its enemies, but rather chooses to attack. He does not fear for his life, even if he is mortally wounded:
The boar is so fierce a beast, and also so cruel, that for his fierceness and his cruelness, he despiseth and setteth nought by death, and he reseth full piteously against the point of a spear of the hunter. And though it be so that he be smitten or sticked with a spear through the body, yet for the greater ire and cruelness in heart that he hath, he reseth on his enemy, and taketh comfort and heart and strength for to wreak himself on his adversary with his tusks, and putteth himself in peril of death with a wonder fierceness against the weapon of his enemy. (source)
Interestingly, the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail wears an emblem of a boar’s head. A fitting image, indeed: his persistence, despite his wounds, ties in well with what Bartholomaeus Anglicus tells us about the boar!Bearing a boar into battle
In the early Middle Ages, a true warrior would carry an image of a boar with him into battle. This practice among Germanic tribes was already described by the Roman historian Tacitus in chapter 45 of his Germania (98 AD.). Some Germanic tribesmen, Tacitus wrotes, would carry with them “formae aprorum” (images of boars) as a kind of talisman for protection in battle:
They worship the mother of the gods, and wear as a religious symbol the device of a wild boar. This serves as armour, and as a universal defence, rendering the votary of the goddess safe even amidst enemies. (source)
In Old English literature, we find various examples of this practice. The Old English poem Elene, for example, makes mention of an eoforcumbol ‘boar-standard’. In Beowulf, too, there is a reference to an eoforheafodsegn ‘lit. boar-head-sign’, usually interpreted as a banner with a boar’s head. In addition, various warriors in Beowulf adorn themselves with “eofor-lic […] fah ond fyr-heard” (ll. 303b-305: A boar image, coloured and fire-hardened), “swyn eal-gylden (l. 1112b: a boar entirely of gold), “eofer iren-heard” (l. 1113a: an iron-hard boar) and “swin ofer helme (l. 1286a: a swine on top of the helmet). As the last phrase, “swin ofer helme”, suggests, these boar images were typically found on helmets. The hero Beowulf himself also seems to have possessed such a boar helmet, “besette swin-licum, þæt hine syðþan ne / brond ne beadomecas bitan ne meahton” (ll. 1450-1451: Studded with boar images, so that no sword or war-knife could bite him). Like Tacitus, the Beowulf poet here ascribes an ‘apotropaic’ function to the swine images: they are a form of defensive magic.
Boars on the helmet
The boar helmet is not a figment of literary imagination. Several archaeological finds from the early Middle Ages confirm the existence of this kind of headgear. One of the seventh-century helmet plates from Torslunda (Sweden), for example, shows two heavily armed warriors, each an effigy of a wild boar on their helmet. These swine are easily recognizable by their tusks, bristles and curly tails . Actual helmets dating from much the same time and complete with boar-crowns have been found in various places in England, such as Benty Grange and Wollaston.
Even the famous seventh-century Sutton Hoo helmet features an image of a boar, although it may not be visible at first sight. Considered carefully, the facemask of the Sutton Hoo helmet, with its moustache, nose and eyebrows, is actually the body of an eagle. But if we zoom in on the eyebrows, we can see that these are not only the wings of the eagle but that they are, in fact, boars, terminating as they do in swine-ish heads with tusks.
The carriers of these helmets no doubt imagined themselves protected or inspired by the martial valour of the boar.
Cruel and deadly: The dangers of boar baiting
Aside from their courage, boars were famed for their cruelty. Bartholomaeus Anglicus writes that boars would sharpen their tusks as soon as they heard hunters approach, so as to deal more damage:
And when he spieth peril that should befall, he whetteth his tusks and frotteth them, and assayeth in that while fretting against trees, if the points of his tusks be all blunt. And if he feel that they be blunt, he seeketh a herb which is called Origanum, and gnaweth it and cheweth it, and cleanseth and comforteth the roots of his teeth therewith by vertue thereof. (source)
Its reputation for cruelty was well-deserved: the boar hunt cost the lives of many a prince and nobleman, including the West Frankish king Carloman II (d. 884), the Hungarian prince Imre (d. 1031) and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (d. 1392). These unfortunate people had probably forgotten to bear an image of a boar with them!
This blog is a revised version of small Dutch article that will appear in a book on thirty medieval animals, to be published here.
P.S. On a not entirely unrelated note: given the boar’s reputation for courage and cruelty, Dáin Ironfoot’s choice of transportation in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies suddenly makes some sense.
The TARDIS occasionally found its way to early medieval England and these visits of the nation’s most beloved ‘Time Lord’ can also teach us something about Anglo-Saxon history and the Old English language. This post focuses on Alfred the Great and is the second of a series of three blogs that deal with the visits of BBC’s Doctor Who to Anglo-Saxon England.
The man who wouldn’t give up: The Doctor meets the King
In a volume of short stories entitled Doctor Who. Short trips: Past tense. A short-story anthology (ed. Ian Farrington, 2004), the contribution ‘The man who wouldn’t give up’, written by Nev Fountain, touches upon the most well-known king of the Anglo-Saxons: Alfred the Great (849-899). The story is an interesting mix of early medieval fact, Anglo-Saxon myth and Whovian silliness.
The year is 878 and the sixth Doctor lands in Somerset, where he enters the hut of a swineherd. Here, he chances upon Alfred, disguised as a Danish minstrel (a well-known but ahistorical myth); in a funny little twist, the Doctor introduces himself as a spying harpist who is investigating the Vikings: “Oh sorry, what am I saying? That’s not my story at all, it’s yours isn’t it? Your Majesty.” (p. 192) Alfred, rather surprised that this man has seen through his disguise, decides the Doctor must be a wizard. They then discuss the dire situation England is in (the Vikings have overrun almost all Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, only Wessex under Alfred remains, but even he has been forced to retreat to the Somerset marshes).
After their conversation is interrupted by Alfred’s severe stomach pain (a historical fact! I wrote a blog about this: Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?), Alfred sighs that he was never meant to be king:
“‘My father Ethelwulf died of his worries…’ the King continued in a flat emotionless drawl. ‘Ethelred…Ethelbald…All my older brothers… All have died fighting the Danish invaders before I became king. Five good men have had to lose their lives for me to stand here before you.’ (p. 194)
Indeed, Alfred had four older brothers, who all died before him: Æthelstan (d. c.852), Æthelbald (d. 860), Æthelberht (d. 865) and Æthelred (d. 871) (Note: it seems his father Æthelwulf (d. 858) had run out of Æthel- names once he got to Alfred – Alfred’s sister got lucky and was called Æthelswith). Naturally, the Sixth Doctor can relate to Alfred’s sentiment: “Really? Perhaps we’re not so different, after all.”
Apparently taking pity on Alfred, the Doctor convinces the king that, despite the setbacks he has suffered, the Vikings will eventually be defeated. Subsequently, the Doctor leaves, taking with him the swineherd’s cakes that Alfred was supposed to have been watching. Hilarity ensues. The wife of the swineherd returns and finds her precious cakes gone:
‘The cakes, you idiot. The cakes I expressly asked you to watch over.’
He looked. The cakes had gone.
‘The wizard! He took the bloody cakes!’
‘What wizard?’ (p. 196)
Unable to find the Doctor, Alfred pretends that he has burned the cakes. So that’s where that story came from!
They think it’s all over: Doctor Who at Wemba’s lea
Alfred also gets a mention in the comic book story ‘They think it’s all over’, published in Doctor Who #5 (2011). This time, the eleventh Doctor and his companions Rory and Amy want to visit Wembley Stadium in 1996, to watch England play Germany in a football match. The TARDIS lands in the right place, but at the wrong time: the ninth century, when Wembley was not called Wembley, but Wemba’s lea. They are taken prisoner by Saxon warriors who mistake them for Danish trespassers:
As the Doctor explains, the name Wembley actually comes from the Old English word lēah ‘clearing in a forest’, combined with the personal name Wemba; it is the clearing that belongs to Wemba. Wembley, by no means, is the only modern place name to derive from the word lēah, as the following list illustrates:
- Wembley < ‘clearing of Wemba’
- Dudley < ‘clearing of Dudda’
- Oakley < ‘clearing with oaks’
- Stanley < ‘clearing with stones’
- Gatley < ‘clearing with goats’
- Beeley < ‘clearing with bees’
- Batley < clearing with bats’
- Crawley < ‘clearing with crows’
- Shipley < ‘clearing with sheep’
Note how these place names can tell us a lot about the surrounding flora and fauna in the early Middle Ages!
Anyway, the Doctor and his companions are brought before Wemba himself, who relates that he has heard of a strange man in a blue police box before, from Alfred the Great himself:
(The Doctor’s remark about Alfred’s culinary skill is a little below the belt, seeing as it was the Doctor himself who stole the cakes, as we saw before)
After the Doctor and his companions have been released and partake in an Anglo-Saxon feast, the meeting is disturbed by a group of Vikings, who end up taking Amy hostage. In order to win her back, the Doctor and Rory then challenge the Vikings to a penalty shoot out, which they win. With the Vikings defeated, Wemba is overjoyed, noting: “King Alfred was right about you! You truly are a wizard!” (indeed, Alfred regarded the Doctor as a wizard, see above). Finally, the Doctor and his companions go to the year 1996 and attend the game, shouting “Wemba’s Lea, Wemba’s Lea!” (and you now know why).
This was the second of a series of blogs on Doctor Who in Anglo-Saxon England, you can read the first part here: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who in Anglo-Saxon England. The third and final part is available here: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and the Norman Conquest.
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 Aragorn, who shows some parallels with the Anglo-Saxon kings Oswald of Northumbria, Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor…
Aragorn and Oswald of Northumbria (604-642): Exiles reclaiming their throne
Two years ago, the Daily Mail ran an article with the following headline: “Amazing story of the Anglo-Saxon warrior saint whose struggle to claim his rightful place as king inspired Tolkien’s Aragorn”. That Anglo-Saxon warrior saint was Oswald of Northumbria and, indeed, there is at least one striking parallel between Aragorn and Oswald: they were both kings in exile.
Long story short: Aragorn belonged to the line of Isildur, High King of Gondor and Arnor; Isildur’s brother Anarion inherited Gondor, while the line of Isildur continued to rule the Northern kingdom of Arnor; Arnor eventually falls into ruin and the descendants of Isildur become kings in exile; the line of Anarion dies out and the stewards (like Denethor) take over Gondor. In The Return of the King, Aragorn returns to Gondor to take up the crown, defeating the evil forces of Sauron in the process.
Oswald of Northumbria’s story is equally heroic. He had spent most of his youth in exile in Scotland, where he lived from the age of twelve. His exile began when his father Æthelfrith, King of Northumbria (or: Bernicia and Deira) had been killed and his uncle Edwin had taken to the throne of Northumbria. Only after his uncle Edwin and his brother Eanfrith were both killed by the pagan Cadwallon, did Oswald return to Northumbria in 634 to claim his birthright: the crown of Northumbria. He erected a wooden cross in a field near Hexham (now Heavenfield) and vanquished Cadwallon and his pagan army. Oswald is remembered as a saint because he was instrumental for the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons in the North (granting the isle of Lindisfarne to the Irish missionary Aidan). He would die eight years later, by the hand of the pagan Penda in the year 642.
So is there any truth to the title of the Daily Mail’s headline? Yes: both Aragorn and Oswald were exiles reclaiming their thrones, but Oswald was by no means the only Anglo-Saxon king in exile. In fact, Aragorn shows more parallels with two other ostracized early medieval English kings: Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor.
Aragorn and Alfred the Great (849-899): Meeting up at a stone
As user Giaconda commented on my blog The Medieval in Middle-earth: Rings of Power, there is an interesting parallel between Alfred the Great (849-899) and Aragorn, which concerns meeting up at a stone.
In 878, Alfred, king of Wessex, was forced to flee into the Somerset marshes, after having been ambushed in Chippenham by the Vikings. A few months later, Alfred rallied a great force of Anglo-Saxon warriors, whom he met at Ecgbryhtesstan (Egbert’s Stone), somewhere near Edington. The battle of Edington was gloriously won by Alfred, forcing the Danesto accept a peace treaty. Egbert’s stone bears the name of Alfred’s grandfather Egbert, king of Wessex (802-839).
Aragorn, prior to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields (where Théoden gets killed by the lord of the Nazgul), ventures onto the ‘Paths of the Dead’ to recruit the Oathbreakers (a.k.a. the King of the Dead and the men of Dunharrow). These men had been cursed by Aragorn’s forefather Isildur, because they had broken their vow to aid Isildur in battle against Sauron. That particular vow had been made on..dum-dum-dum…the ‘Stone of Erech’, which had been brought to Gondor by Isildur himself. It is at this very ‘Stone of Erech’ that Aragorn meets the Oathbreakers, who then help Isildur’s heir to destroy the ships of Sauron’s allies from the south. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Aragorn and Edward the Confessor (1003-1066): The hands of a king are the hands of a healer
Another exiled Anglo-Saxon king to whom Aragorn bears some similarity is Edward the Confessor.
Edward had spent much of his life as an exile at the court of Normandy, since a Viking king named Cnut had killed his half-brother Edmund Ironside and had occupied the throne of England between 1016 and 1035 (to add insult to injury, Cnut also married Edward’s mother!). Still, Edward was able to reclaim the throne of England,even though the manner in which he did so was not particularly heroic: he was invited back to England by Cnut’s son Harthacnut in 1041 and, when Harthacnut died a year later (he reportedly drank himself to death at a wedding!), Edward became king of England in 1042. Soon after his death in 1066, Edward the Confessor was revered as a saint and it was claimed that he had ‘the royal touch’: the ability to cure people by touching them with his hand (e.g., the eleventh-century Vita Ædwardi Regis relates how the water with which Edward had rinsed his hands restores a blind man’s sight).
Guess who also had ‘the king’s touch’? That’s right: Aragorn. When Aragorn enters Gondor after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, he visits the Houses of Healing. One of its nurses remembers an old saying “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known”. Aragorn arrives just in time to tend to FaramirFaramir and Éowynn, both suffering from the Black Shadow. He heals them both with the help of his hands and some crushed and boiled Athelas or Kingsfoil, revealing that he is the rightful king.
Aragorn may be the rightful king of Gondor, he certainly wouldn’t seem out of place in Anglo-Saxon England!
[in retrospect: the Daily Mail article dealt with a new biography of Oswald of Northumbria, entitled “The King in the North” and, no doubt, the title’s reference to Game of Thrones and the article’s link between Oswald and Aragorn were intended to boost sales!].
In order to make their film sets conform to the historical periods they are supposed to depict, designers often draw inspiration from actual, historical objects. One of the little joys of being an Anglo-Saxonist is recognising some of the objects you study in the background of your favourite TV series and movies. Here are three examples.
Alfred’s sceptre in The Last Kingdom (BBC; 2015-)
The creators of BBC’s The Last Kingdom, set in ninth-century Wessex, have tried to create a set that is as historically accurate as possible (as they will tell you here; though, judging by this clip, where they say they spent a lot of time to find out “what kind of paper” they used in early medieval England, we may need to take this with a grain of salt!). One prop that is particularly interesting is Alfred’s sceptre with the bejeweled cross (see image below), which shows some similarities to the seventh-century whetstone/sceptre found at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk.
Like the original Anglo-Saxon object, Alfred’s sceptre has a base with four bearded faces, each facing in a different direction. These four faces on the Sutton Hoo whetstone/sceptre have been associated with a four-faced Slavic deity called ‘Svantovit’, not the sort of thing a pious Christian like Alfred would be comfortable wielding, one might say.
The Sutton Hoo helmet and Byrhtferth’s diagram in Merlin (BBC; 2008-2012)
Another Anglo-Saxon object found at the famous ship burial of Sutton Hoo made its way onto the set of BBC’s Merlin: The Sutton Hoo helmet. This particular headgear is a ‘historicon’ par excellence and can be found on virtually every book cover of anything related to Anglo-Saxon England. In BBC’s Merlin, the helmet can be spotted in the bed chamber of young Prince Arthur (see image above). While this is a nice touch, this seventh-century Anglo-Saxon helmet seems oddly out of place in the bed chamber of a legendary British leader that supposedly lived in the 5th or 6th century. Not as ahistorical, however, as the thing hanging on another character’s wall…
The court’s physician Gaius appears to have received some of his medical training from a document from even further ahead in time. On his wall, we can see a diagram that is commonly ascribed to Byrhferth (c. 970-c.1020), an Anglo-Saxon monk of Ramsey Abbey. The diagram reveals how various groups of four (the four elements, the four ages of man, the four wind directions, etc.) all correspond to each other – a visualisation of the harmonious nature of the universe (find out more here). The diagram in Gaius’s room, then, is a nice attempt at bringing in an actual medieval object, albeit about five centuries too soon!
The Franks Casket tapestry in Ivanhoe (MGM; 1952)
When I watched the movie Ivanhoe (1952), I was most impressed by the wall-hanging behind the big table in the house of Cedric the Saxon. This tapestry shows a colouful scene, surrounded by what appear to be runes. On closer inspection it turns out to be one of the scenes depicted on the eighth-century, Anglo-Saxon Franks Casket. This whale bone box, currently in the British Museum, can truly be called multicultural, since it depicts scenes from diverse traditions, including Weland the Smith, the Adoration of the Magi and Romulus and Remus. .
The scene so colourfully depicted on the tapestry in Cedric’s house is the Taking of Jerusalem by Titus in the year 70 AD (depicted on the rear panel of the Franks Casket). While the use of colour may strike one as odd, it is assumed that the Anglo-Saxon casket was originally full-colour as well. I wonder whether this particular prop is still lying around somewhere, in some long-forgotten MGM storeroom; if so, I will gladly reserve a place for it on my wall!
If you are interested in the use of medieval stuff in TV series and movies, you may also want to have a look at my blog about the use of Old English in film: Old English is alive! Five TV series and movies that use Old English
© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Throughout the fourth episode of the first series of The Last Kingdom, the Anglo-Saxon warrior Leofric jokingly insults Uhtred by calling him ‘arseling’. This blog post discusses the origins and use of the word ‘arseling’ in Old English, where it occurs as ‘earsling’. There may be a surprising connection to none other than King Alfred the Great himself!
The origins of arseling: “Earsling” in the Paris Psalter
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines arseling as meaning “backwards” and having been derived from the noun arse and the suffix –ling. Being a dictionary on historical principles, the OED also provides information about the past usage of the word. The first recorded instance of arseling was around the year 1050: “Syn hi gecyrde on earsling” [Let them be turned backwards], where the word occurs in its Old English form earsling. The text cited by the OED is one of the prose Psalm translations in the mid-eleventh-century manuscript with the shelfmark Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Fonds latin 8824, also known as the ‘Paris Psalter’. This manuscript features the Latin text of the Psalms with an Old English translation (the first 50 Psalms are translated to prose; the last 100 are translated to verse, by another translator). The quotation provided by the OED is part of the Old English prose translation of Psalm 34:
Latin (left): Confundantur et revereantur inimici mei qui querunt animam meam aucstantur retrorsum…
Old English (right): Geleahtrode syn mine fynd 7 sceamien heora þa þa secað mine sawle to fordonne. Syn hi gecyrde on earsling…
Translation: Let them be confounded and ashamed that seek after my soul. Let them be turned backwards
Earsling makes one further appearance in the Paris Psalter, as part of the translation of Psalm 6:
Latin (left): Erubescant et conturbentur omnes inimici mei avestantur retrorsum et cerubescant ualde uelociter.
Old English (right): Sceamian heora for ði 7 syn gedrefede ealle mine fynd 7 gan hy on earsling 7 sceamien heora swiðe hrædlice.
Translation: Let them be ashamed for this and let all my enemies be driven away and let them go backwards and let them be ashamed very quickly.
A search in the Dictionary of Old English Corpus (a digital corpus that contains one copy of every extant Old English text) reveals that “earsling” only occurs in these Old English prose Psalm translations; earsling is a so-called hapax legomenon, a word that is restricted to this one text. But who was responsible for this Old English prose translation of the first fifty psalms?
The author of earsling: Alfred the Great!?!
The Paris Psalter does not mention the author of the Old English Psalm translations. What is clear, however, is that the language of the prose translation of the first fifty psalms can be identified as Early West Saxon (referring to the dialect of ninth-century Wessex), on the basis of its spelling and phonology (see O’Neill 2001, pp. 55-63). An Old English translation of a Latin text dating to ninth-century Wessex recalls the revival of learning instigated by Alfred the Great (d. 899), which involved, among other things, the translation of various books from Latin to Old English. Interestingly, the twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury attributes a translation of the Psalms to Alfred himself:
He translated into English the greater part of the Roman authors, bringing of the noblest spoil of foreign intercourse for the use of his subjects; of which the chief books were Orosius, Gregory’s Pastoral, Bede’s History of the Angles, Boethius Of the Consolation of Philosophy, his own book, which he called in his vernacular tongue “Hand-boc,” that is, a manual. Moreover he infused a great regard for literature into his countrymen, stimulating them both with rewards and punishments, allowing no ignorant person to aspire to any dignity in the court. He died just as he had begun a translation of the Psalms. (William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum)
According to William, Alfred was unable to finish his translation before he died, possibly succumbing to his mysterious disease at the age of fifty (see this blog post). This seems to fit well with the fact that the Early West Saxon prose translations in the Paris Psalter only cover the first fifty Psalms, followed by another (verse) translation of the remaining Psalms. It is no surprise, then, that scholars such as Bately 1982 and O’Neill 2001 attribute the prose Psalm translations of the Paris Psalter to Alfred himself on the basis of a comparison with other translations attributed to the famous king (although their views have not gone unchallenged, see e.g. Treschow, Gill and Schwartz 2009).
If Alfred was responsible for the prose Psalm translations that survive in the Paris Psalter, does this mean he also coined the word earsling? Probably not, but, for as far as we know, he was the first (and the only) Anglo-Saxon to use the word in writing. The use of arseling in BBC’s The Last Kingdom, then, fits perfectly within the Alfredian period it attempts to portray – perhaps the historical Alfred himself had been inspired to use the word in his Psalm translation because he overheard the jocular insults such as those made by Leofric among his own warriors!
The future of arseling
As noted above, Old English earsling was not used in any other Old English text. According to the OED entry for arseling, the word resurfaced in the Scottish poem The Fortunate Shepherdess by Alexander Ross, published in 1768: “Then Lindy to stand up began to try; But—he fell arselins back.” No further use has been recorded by the OED, which, therefore, declares the word “obsolete” – dead. I have no doubt, however, that an updated version of the entry for arseling (the present one dates back to 1885), will report of its revival following the popularity of Bernard Cornwell’s novels and their BBC adaptation. Thus, the series cannot only be credited for reinvigorating an interest in the historical period of Alfred the Great, but may also be responsible for reintroducing some of Alfred’s own vocabulary!
If you liked this post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or read other posts on The Last Kingdom:
- Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb
- Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
Works refered to:
- Bately, Janet. 1982. Lexical evidence for the authorship of the prose Psalms in the Paris Psalter. Anglo-Saxon England 10: 69-95.
- O’Neill, Patrick. 2001. King Alfred’s Old English Prose Translation of the First Fifty Psalms (Medieval Academy of America, 2001)
- Treschow, Michael, Paramjit Gill and Tim B. Schwartz. 2009. King Alfred’s Scholarly Writings and the Authorship of the First Fifty Prose Psalms. Heroic Age 12.
- William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, trans. J.A. Giles (London, 1848)
The second episode of The Last Kingdom (UK airdate: Thursday, 29 October, 9 pm, BBC 2) introduces Prince Alfred, who would later become King Alfred the Great (d. 899). In his first scene, Alfred is portrayed as a man tormented both physically (because of his health) and morally (because of his lustful feelings towards the flustered maidservant that had just left his room). This blog post highlights some sources related to the historical Alfred and explores what they reveal about his passions…and his piles.
Alfred the Great (849-899): An unlikely king, a sickly sovereign
Known as one of the greatest monarchs of Anglo-Saxon history, defeater of the Danes and instigator of an important educational reform, Alfred was, in fact, an unlikely candidate for the throne of Wessex. For one, he was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex (reign 839-858), which means he had four older brothers: Æthelstan (d. 852), Æthelred (King of Wessex, 858-860), Æthelbald (King of Wessex, 860-865) and Æthelberht (King of Wessex, 865-871). Only after all his brothers had died, Alfred (apparently, Æthelwulf had run out of Æthel-names…) became eligible to rule. Given that he was the youngest of five, Alfred was probably groomed for an ecclesiastical career (his father took him to see the pope, twice), which may explain his interests in learning in his later life. Another reason why Alfred may have been considered an unlikely king at the time was because he suffered from a terrible illness, as is revealed by a biography written during his life by Bishop Asser in the year 893.
Be careful what you wish for!
Asser’s Life of King Alfred is a unique source on Alfred’s life and character, written by one of his own courtiers. Asser not only records Alfred’s battles with the Vikings and his dealings at court, he also reports some of Alfred’s medical details, mentioning that, from his youth, Alfred had suffered from “ficus” [piles, haemeroids].
Interestingly, Asser also tells us how Alfred acquired his piles in his early days:
when he [Alfred] realized that he was unable to abstain from carnal desire, fearing he would incur god’s disfavour if he did anything contrary to His will … [he would pray] that Almighty God through His mercy would more staunchly strengthen his resolve in the love of His service by means of some illness which he would be able to tolerate … when he had done this frequently with great mental devotion, after some time he contracted the disease of piles through God’s gift. (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 74)
In other words, young Alfred, afraid of his own dirty thoughts, asked God to grant him a distraction and God gave him haemeroids!
Out of the frying pan, into the fire: “A sudden severe pain that was quite unknown to all physicians”
Asser’s biography also records that Alfred was miraculously cured from his piles when , prior to his wedding, Alfred had asked God to “substitute for the pangs of the present and agonizing infirmity some less severe illness” (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 74). The young prince was miraculously cured: hurray! His regained health would be short-lived, however, since he suddenly fell ill on his wedding night: he had been struck by an illness that proved incurable. This new disease would torment him the rest of his life, as Asser noted:
he has been plagued continually with the savage attacks of some unknown disease, such that he does not have even a single hour of peace in which he does not either suffer from the disease itself or else, gloomily dreading it, is not driven almost to despair. (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 91)
While the disease may have been unknown to the Anglo-Saxon physicians, modern-day scholars have used Asser’s description to diagnose Alfred with Crohn’s disease (Craig 1991). This diagnosis is corroborated by another document made during Alfred’s lifetime: Bald’s Leechbook.
Bald’s Leechbook is a compilation of various medical texts, which was possibly made at Alfred’s own request. Within this compilation, there is a section that is concluded by “þis eal het þus secgan ælfrede cyninge domine helias patriarcha on gerusalem” [Elias, the patriarch of Jerusalem (c. 879-907), ordered all of this to be told to King Alfred]. Included in this section are remedies for the alleviation of constipation, diarrhoea, pain in the spleen and internal tenderness, which all fit well with the pathology of Crohn’s disease(Craig 1991, p. 304). The Old English text also records that Elias sent him a “hwita stan” [a white stone], which could be used against all sorts of illnesses; as an added bonus, the white stone would also protect the owner from lightning and thunders (the text is edited by Cockayne 1864, Vol. II, pp. 288-291).
To make a long story short: Alfred was a passionate boy, God gave him piles and the patriarch of Jerusalem gave him a pebble. Poor Alfred.
If you liked this post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or read the following blog posts about Alfred the Great:
- The Illustrated Psalms of Alfred the Great: The Old English Paris Psalter
- Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and Alfred the Great
- Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?
Works refered to:
- Asser, Life of King Alfred, trans. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge (Harmondsworth, 1983)
- Cockayne, T. O. (ed.), Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England (London, 1846; available here)
- Craig, G., ‘Alfred the Great: A Diagnosis’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 84 (1991), 303-305.