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When I visited the amazing exhibition ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War‘ at the British Library (19 October 2018 – 19 February 2019), I was struck by the wealth of manuscripts on display. Among this treasure hoard of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, my eye fell on a manuscript that was annotated by none other than the missionary Boniface (d. 754).
In the Netherlands (where I am from), Boniface is one of the few early medieval figures of note to feature in our national history curriculum and he is, therefore, a common reference point for me when I talk about Old English and Anglo-Saxon England to a Dutch lay audience (e.g., Old English as the language of Boniface and Willibrord). Boniface has come up elsewhere on this blog, see, e.g., Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Boniface in Dorestad and ‘The last king of medieval Frisia’: Redbad and the Anglo-Saxon missionaries.
Looking at the display, I was not only struck by the fact that I was looking at Boniface’s own handwriting, but also by the form of Boniface’s annotation, which was shaped like a triangle. Similar triangular notes are found throughout the manuscript:
It seems as if Boniface took particular effort to make his notes triangular. The note on fol. 27r, for instance, reads “De septem faculis et quattuor animalibus oculatis” [about the seven torches and four animals with eyes], but was formatted as follows, without any respect for word boundaries:
K. De septem facuTriangular note by Boniface
lis et quat
The K is an insertion mark and is matched by another K in the text, to indicate which part of the text that this is a comment on. Apparently, this note was added to indicate where chapter VII of the first book of Primasius’s Commentary on the Apocalypse started (the seven torches and four animals are mentioned in the Book of Revelations 4:5-6). Note how Boniface also added two triangles above and under the number VII he added in the left-hand margin:
The triangular form, no doubt, is somehow related to the Trinity that is so important in Christianity – I have not come across many instances of this type of text formatting, but there are at least two other manuscripts from early medieval England that feature something similar.
Triangular text in London, British Library, Royal MS 8 C.iii
While Boniface’s triangular notations were added after the main text had been finished and, as such, represent the marks of a user or owner of the text, the original late tenth-century scribe of London, British Library, Royal MS 8 C.iii made part of his main text into the shape of a triangle:
The text that has this triangular form is an exposition on the Mass and deals, e.g., with the Eucharistic prayer. The contents of the text does not appear to call for a triangular form of the text (other than, of course, dealing with the Trinity), but perhaps the scribe was nearing the end of his quire (gathering of folded pages) and wanted to drag out his text, so as to finish on the last page. It would not be the only weird instance of text formatting in this manuscript; I wrote about the manuscript and its inventive scribe here: Word processing in early medieval England: Browsing British Library, Royal MS 8 C III
Thureth: A speaking book, a triangular poem
The third example of a triangular text is the interesting Old English poem Thureth. This text is found at the beginning of an early eleventh-century benedictional (a collection of blessings used in the Church). The poem is in the first person and the speaker, intriguingly, is the book itself. The book asks God to take care of Thureth, the man responsible for having the book lavishly decorated:
Ic eom halgungboc; healde hine dryhten
þe me fægere þus frætewum belegde.
þureð to þance þus het me wyrcean,
to loue and to wurðe, þam þe leoht gesceop.
Gemyndi is he mihta gehwylcre
þæs þe he on foldan gefremian mæg,
and him geþancie þeoda waldend
þæs þe he on gemynde madma manega
wyle gemearcian metode to lace;
and he sceal ece lean ealle findan
þæs þe he on foldan fremaþ to ryhte. (source)
[I am a blessing-book; may the Lord protect him
who covered me thus fairly with treasures.
Thus Thureth gratefully commanded me to be made,
with glory and honour for him who created light.
Mindful is he of each craft
that he is allowed to perform on earth,
and may the ruler of peoples reward him
that he, mindful of many treasures,
wants to mark (me) as an offering to the Lord
and he must find eternal reward for everything
that he justfully does on Earth.] (Translation mine)
Judging by drawn lines at the bottom of the poem, and the attempt to wrap the last part of the text into it, the scribe made an unsuccesful attempt to make his text triangular:
Sources of inspiration: Arabic? Mediterranean?
The practice of writing triangularly is not unique to early medieval England. When I tweeted the triangular pages from Royal MS 8 C.iii back in 2017, historian of medieval islam @afzaque pointed out that triangle-shaped texts were standard practice for colophons (i.e. a brief statement about how the book came into being) in medieval Arabic manuscripts. Indeed, it is quite easy to find triangle-shaped colophons in medieval Arabic manuscripts; here are two late medieval examples:
The Arabic colophon tradition has been traced back to the ninth century or so (see this article), so it may well have influenced the shape of Thureth, which is also a colophon-like text. It certainly would not be the only instance of Arabic influence in Anglo-Saxon England – see this interesting blog post on multicultural Anglo-Saxon England from the British Library. Of course, the idea of a triangular text does not need to have been borrowed from somewhere else and for Boniface’s triangles at least, the Arabic tradition seems too late.
A quick Twitter search reveals a broader early medieval tradition of tiangular texts. The book historian @ParvaVox here suggests that triangular colophons are typical of books from the Italian monastery Vivarium, founded in the 6th century. Another book historian on Twitter, @jkeskiah here highlights a 6th-century Italian manuscript with triangular annotations by Donatus similar to those added by Boniface. Intriguingly, in the 8th century, another hand added a (non-triangular) note to the manuscript, using an Anglo-Saxon script.
Now, this 8th-century note was probably not added by Boniface himself – the script does not quite match his handwriting, which is hard to identify anyway (see this article by Malcolm Parkes), but perhaps this was someone from Boniface’s circle, one of his companions who travelled with him to Rome, where the manuscript appears to have been? Did a fellow Anglo-Saxon show him the manuscript with Donatus’s triangular notes and, in doing so, inspire Boniface? Who knows? To be continued!
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Addendum: Twitter user @IneptiGraeculi notes that similar triangular texts can be found in Greek manuscripts
In the upcoming blockbuster movie Redbad (2018), the Frisian king Redbad (d. 719) is depicted as an early medieval Frisian freedom fighter, defending his people against Frankish warriors and Anglo-Saxon missionaries (for a link to the trailer, see below). Late medieval Frisian sources, however, paint a wholly different image of Redbad: a Danish tyrant and “unfrethmonne” [lit. ‘un-peace-man’] who suppressed the Frisian people. This blog post discusses the dealings of the ‘historical Redbad’ with Anglo-Saxon missionaries, as well as two later medieval legend surrounding this ‘last king of the Frisians’.
“Enemy of the Catholic Church”: Redbad and the Anglo-Saxon missionaries
Around the year 720, the Anglo-Saxon abbess Bugga wrote to the Anglo-Saxon missionary Boniface, congratulating the latter with the death of the Frisian ruler Redbad (d. 719):
Postea inimicum catholicae ecclesiae Rathbodum coram te consternuit. Deinde, per somnium temet ipso revelavit, quod debuisti manifeste messem Dei metere et congregare sanctarum animarum manipulos in horream regni caelestis.
Next he laid low before you Redbad, that enemy of the Catholic Church. Then he revealed to you in a dream that it was your duty to reap the harvest of God, gathering in sheaves of holy souls into the storehouse of the heavenly kingdom.
Bugga’s classification of Redbad as “inimicum catholicae ecclesiae” [enemy of the Catholic Church] was probably based on the fierce resistance Redbad had come to show to Christian missionaries.
Redbad had not always been this hostile. The Anglo-Saxon chronicler Bede (d. 735), for instance, described how the Anglo-Saxon preacher Wictbert had been allowed to preach for two years in Redbad’s realm, albeit without any result (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, bk. V, ch. 9 – source). Another Anglo-Saxon missionary, Willibrord (d. 739), did not succeed in converting Redbad either, as the Life of Willibrord (c. 796) by Alcuin relates:
He [Willibrord] had the boldness to present himself at the court of Radbod, at that time King of the Frisians and like his subjects, a pagan. Wherever he travelled he proclaimed the Word of God without fear; but though the Frisian king received the man of God in a kind and humble spirit, his heart was hardened against the Word of Life. (ch. 9 – source)
Redbad’s reluctance towards the Christian faith probably had everything to do with the fact that these missionaries cooperated with the Franks led by Pepin of Herstal (d. 714), who sought to expand his territory into Frisia. After Pepin’s death in 714, Redbad made use of the polical chaos in Francia to reconquer bits and pieces of Frisia where the Franks had extended their rule, destroying various Christian places of worship in the process.
Having succeeded his father Aldgisl in c. 680, Redbad’s reign lasted for a considerable time, close to forty years. While he initially had to admit defeat to the expanding Frankish forces, he eventually overcame his southern enemies and remained a feared and powerful military ruler until his death in 719. Movie material, indeed!
In and out of bath with Redbad
The most famous legend surrounding Redbad concerns his baptism. First recorded in a saint’s life of the Frankish missionary Wulfram (d. 703), the legend relates how Redbad had been persuaded to accept baptism and had already put one foot in the baptismal font. Before completing the ceremony, Redbad asked Wulfram: “Will I see my ancestors in the hereafter?” To which Wulfram, rather bluntly, replied: “Of course not, they are in Hell; you will join the ranks of the blessed in Heaven!”. Redbad next retracted his foot and exclaimed that he would rather be with his ancestors in the torments of Hell than spend eternity with saintly strangers in Paradise. As such, Redbad earned a reputation as a stone-hearted, reluctant pagan. Occasionally, the legend of Redbad’s baptism is ascribed to the Anglo-Saxon missionary Willibrord, as on this early-16th-century orphrey, now in Museum Catharijneconvent (Utrecht):
“Unfrethmonne”: Redbad in late medieval Frisian texts
As might be expected, Redbad’s reputation as a fierce enemy of the Church did not make him into a beloved historical figure in the later Middle Ages, even in Frisia. In fact, various Old Frisian texts depict him as a foreign tyrant, who surpressed the Frisian people. The heroes in these later Frisian stories are Willibrord and the great-grandson of Pepin of Herstal, Charlemagne (d. 814). The latter, in particular, is described as the person responsible for giving the Frisians their freedom. That freedom was much needed, since according to one of the oldest Old Frisian texts, The Seventeen Statutes and the Twenty-Four Land Laws, surviving in the First Riustringer Codex:
Hwande alle Frisa er north herdon Redbate, tha unfrethmonne, al thet frisona was. (W. J. Buma, De eerste Riustringer codex [The Hague, 1961], iii 76-77).
[Because all Frisians first belonged to the North, to Redbad, the un-peace-man, all that was Frisian]
In a later manuscript, Redbad ‘the un-peace-man’ was even called a Danish king: “tha Deniska kininge” (W. J. Buma, Het tweede Rüstringer handschrift [The Hague, 1954], ii 32).
Perhaps the most intriguing representation of Redbad is found in the fifteenth-century Gesta Fresonum, a translation of the Latin Historiae Frisiae. Here, Redbad, the king of Norway and Denmark, is linked to the biblical Pharaoh:
Als dy bose coninck Pharo anxte hiede fan dae kynden fan Israhel, dier om dede hy hy arm grete aermoed ende ayndom. Aldus dede dy quade tyran Radbodus … Disse mackede grate ayndom wr dae Friesen… (W. J. Buma, P. Gerbenzon & M. Tragter-Schubert, Codex Aysma [Assen 1993], v. 7)
[Like the evil king Pharaoh feared the children of Israel, for which he inflicted on them great poverty and slavery. So did this cruel tyrant Redbad who brought the Frisians to great slavery…]
The same text heralds Willibrord as the new Moses (leading the Frisians from captivity) and Charlemagne as the new David, defeating Goliath (=Redbad). The way Charlemagne defeats Redbad is peculiar, to say the least. Instead of a fight to the death, they agree that whoever manages to stand still for the longest time, without bending his knees or bowing down, would rule over the Frisians. After some time, Charlemagne thinks of a cunning plan: he drops his handkerchief. Redbad, foolishly, picks it up and, the moment he bends down, Charlemagne exclaims: “ha, ha ha! Dit is worden myn knecht, dier om is dit land myn!” [hahaha! He has become my servant, therefore this land is mine!] (Ibid., v. 17). Redbad admits his defeat and Charlemagne frees the Frisians from their tyranical un-peace-man. Naturally, the whole event is a myth, if only because Redbad died in 719, years before Charlemagne was even born.
The historical Redbad, it seems, has become something of a victim of imaginative hagiographers and chroniclers. That each period creates its own Redbad is demonstrated by the trailer to the upcoming movie Redbad (2018), which depicts him as an early medieval Frisian freedom fighter, heroically shielding his people from ambitious Frankish warlords and overzealous Anglo-Saxon missionaries:
Clearly, Redbad’s rejection of Christianity is no longer seen as problematic in this film, which may not bode well for the representation of the Anglo-Saxon missionaries!
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy:
- The Latest Miracle of Anglo-Saxon Missionary Saint Adalbert of Egmond (d. c.740)
- Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Boniface in Dorestad
- A pug’s guide to medieval Holland
© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2018. 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.
There are many places of medieval interest in The Netherlands, ranging from wells dug by Anglo-Saxon missionaries to landmarks commemorating medieval murders. Breca, my pug, has visited many of these places and here you will find a selection of ten medieval hotspots that she has graced with her presence. These places are well worth a visit and will also introduce you to some aspects of the Middle Ages in Holland.
Introducing Breca the pug
Breca is a female black pug, born in 2011. She was named after a character in the Old English poem Beowulf: Breca of the Brondings, who reportedly once defeated the hero Beowulf in a swimming (or rowing) match. Like many a pug owner, I initially tried to dress up my pug; naturally, I made a pug-size Sutton Hoo helmet:
The paper helmet survived for about a second or three. I then decided there was another way for me to share my passion for the Middle Ages with my dog: bring her to medieval places! So far, we have gone to quite a few sites and have learned more about Holland in the Middle Ages. In this blog post, we present ten places worth visiting.
1) The castle founded by the Anglo-Saxon Hengest c. 449, or not: De Burcht, Leiden
Leiden’s number one medieval hotspot is the small keep on an elevated hill known as ‘the Burcht’, which, ever since the fifteenth century, has been connected to the Anglo-Saxons. As legend would have it, the keep was built by none other than Hengest, who along with his brother Horsa, invaded Britain in c. 449. A sixteenth-century manuscript from the family archive of Van Wassenaar-Duivenvoorde (Den Haag, Nationaal Archief, Familiearchief Van Wasenaar-Duivenvoorde, inv.nr. 3) depicts Hengest as the founder of the Burcht. The Latin text next to this image relates how the small keep was built in Leiden as a back-up plan, in case the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England should fail. A retreat for an early medieval Brexit, if you will.
Regrettably, modern historical and archaeological research has shown that this Hengest connection to the Burcht is false- the keep is no older than the tenth century and, so, postdates Hengest by about five hundred years. Nevertheless, this idea of an Anglo-Saxon connection to Leiden remained popular well into the seventeenth century; we find a mention of it, for instance, in the diary of the Englishman John Evelyn (1620-1706), who visited Leyden and its keep; noting that it had been “cast up (as reported) by Hengist the Saxon, on his return out of England, as a place to retire to, in case of any sudden inundations” (19th August, 1641 – full text).
2) Holy waters: Two wells in Heiloo
The Dutch town of Heiloo is home to two wells with a (supposed) medieval connection. The first is a water well that has been linked to the Anglo-Saxon missionary Willibrord (d. 739). One of the first mentions of this well is in the ‘Chronographia’ of Johannes de Beke (written in Latin in 1346, translated into Middle Dutch around 1393). De Beke describes how Willibrord had someone dig a little hole inside a tent; Willibrord then entered the tent alone and prayed God for water. A miracle happened and the little hole became a fountain: “Ende dieselve fonteyne is in enen dorpe hiet Hello bi Alcmaer, ende is gheheten noch huden daghes sunte Willibrords put” [and this same fountain is in a village that is called Heiloo near Alkmaar, and it is still called Saint Willibrord’s well]. The well is still there today, near the ‘Witte Kerk’ [White Church].
The second Heiloo well is known as the ‘Runxput’, which has become something a pilgrimage-site devoted to the Virgin Mary. On account of its name, some have connected the well to the Anglo-Saxon missionaries, others to the ninth-century Viking ruler named Rorik. Those who link the Runxput to the Anglo-Saxons point out that the name of the well might be derived from Old English rún ‘mystery, secret’ – could this once have been a mysterious pagan well that was given its name by Anglo-Saxon immigrants or a missionary like Willibrord? Others have said that the name of the well may have been ‘Rorikesput’ [Rorik’s well] and that it was named after the ninth-century Viking Rorik (who ruled over West-Frisia). Unfortunately, both these theories turn out to be false, since the well was first dug in 1713, at a time when the area was struck by a bovine plague. Miraculously, the water of the well, which was near a chapel devoted to Mary, cured the cows of their disease. The name Runxput was probably derived from runder-put [cattle-well] > runsput > runxput.
3) The latest miracle of Saint Adelbertus: Adelbertusakker, Egmond
The Northumbrian saint Adelbertus (d. c. 740) was one of Willibrord’s companions and actively converted the pagan Frisians around Egmond. In the early tenth century, Adelbertus’s bones were dug up and water welled up along with the saintly bones. A well was then established, as well as a church – the place, now known as the Adelbertusakker, was a site for many miracles (see this blog for more information: Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Adelbertusakker, Egmond). At the Adelbertusakker, you will find a shrine devoted to St Adalbert and, on the ground, the outlines of a stone church that stood there from 1152 to 1573. The centrepiece of the field is Adalbertus’s well, which is still fully functional. Water from the well can still be drunk and, according to some, it has retained its medieval miraculous powers. In the eighteenth century, in particular, water from the well was used to heal cows and other livestock. Needless to say, Breca the pug had her fill as well (and she is still in good health today!). Interestingly, water from the well is also used to brew a local beer called ‘Sancti Adalberti Miraculum Novum’: the latest miracle of Saint Adalbert.
4) A church devoted to the Anglo-Saxon saint that never existed: Engelmunduskerk, Velsen
5) A dead count of Holland and a lively Abbey: Adelbertusabdij, Egmond
Egmond is home to the Adelbertusabdij, the abbey devoted to the Anglo-Saxon saint Adelbertus (see #3 above). This abbey is the oldest abbey of Holland, having been founded by Count Dirk I of Holland (d. 939). Throughout the MIddle Ages, the abbey in Egmond was one of the most important religious and cultural centres in Holland. As a result, various counts of Holland were buried here, including Floris I of Holland (d. 1061) whose memorial grave is found inside the Abbey church. The original abbey was destroyed in sixteenth century and the present abbey was rebuilt in the 1930s. It is now open to the public on a daily basis, has a nice Abbey museum and a shop where they sell candles and cheese. A great day out, for pugs and Anglo-Saxonists alike!
6) The house of the boar: Huys Dever, Lisse
The town of Lisse is home to a fourteenth-century ‘donjon’ called Huys Dever. We visited Huys Dever on ‘national castle day’ and were treated to some authentic medieval music (Breca the pug was not pleased). The current house was built around 1375 by the nobleman Reynier Dever and carries his family name. Intriguingly, the name ‘Dever’ refers to the wild boar: Ever (related to Old English eofor ‘boar’) means ‘boar’ and the name Dever is a contraction of the article ‘Den’ (the) and ‘Ever’ (boar). Throughout the Middle Ages, the wild boar was known and feared for his ferocity, see Boars of battle: The wild boar in the early Middle Ages.
7) Elburga’s mysterious inscription on a church portal: Willibrordkerk, Nederhorst den Berg
Nederhost den Berg features a beautiful twelfth-century church dedicated to the Anglo-Saxon saint Willibrord. It was probably built on the location of an earlier church founded by the Frisian missionary Liudger (d. 809). During its history, the church was occasionally enlarged and, as a result, an inscribed sandstone was relocated to form an archway around a door on the north side of the church. The sandstone has a mysterious, incomplete inscription that reads OVI PETIT HAC AVLA PETAT ELBVRGA FORE SALVA ET .P.EA.NVLLVS INTRET N… . Ever since its discovery, this inscription has given rise to various interpretations, one of which is “Whoever approaches this hall (i.e. the church), pray for the blessedness of Elburga and nobody is to enter the door, unless…”. Who this Elburga was is unclear, but it has been suggested that she may have been Liudger’s grandmother (see here).
8) The murder of Floris V and a stone: Florissteen, Muiderberg
Count Floris V of Holland (d. 1296) was extremely popular among his people, earning him the nickname ‘der keerlen god’ (the god of churls; the god of the common people). In 1296, Floris fell victim to a murder plot, possibly engineered by the king of England and the count of Flanders. During a hunt, some disgruntled noblemen captured Floris and took him to Muiderslot castle. Once the common people had heard of Floris’s capture, they decided to launch a rescue mission: they would free their count once the noblemen would lead him from the castle. But when they tried to do so, one of the noblemen (Gerard van Velsen) turned on the helpless count (who was bound and had a hand shoe stuffed in his mouth), cut off Floris’s hands and then stabbed him to death, twenty-two times. This horrible murder took place in Muiderberg, where a boulder (the ‘Floris-stone’) has been placed to commemorate this event. Near the rock is the fourteenth-century Kerk aan Zee [Church at Sea] that was built on the foundations of a chapel erected to honour Floris’s memory. We visited Muiderberg on a dreary and misty day – suitable weather for this most cruel murder.
9) A thirteenth-century Big not-so-Friendly Giant: Stompe Toren, Spaarnwoude
In the aftermath of the murder of Floris V in 1296 (see #8 above), some Dutch noblemen travelled to England to pick up Floris’s son and heir Jan I van Holland (d. 1299). They were accompanied by a man named Klaas van Kieten. This Klaas was probably brought along as a ‘curiosity’ to show off to the English court, since he was an incredibly tall man who gained something of a reputation as a Big not-so-Friendly Giant. A seventeenth-century play about the murder on Floris V (Gijsbrecht van Aemstel by Joost van den Voondel), described him as follows:
den groote Reus, die liet zich vreeslijck hooren,
En stack met hals en hoofd, gelijck een steile toren
En spitze, boven ‘t volck en alle hoofden uit,
En scheen een olyfant, die omsnoft met zijn’ snuit.
Zijn spietze was een mast in zijne grove vingeren.
Ick zagh hem man op man gelijck konijnen slingeren
Wel driemael om zijn hoofd, gevat by ‘t eene been,
En kneuzen dan den kop op stoepen of op steen. (full text)
[The big giant, who let himself be heard and who towered over al the people and their heads with his neck and head , like a tower and spire, and seemed like an elephant, sniffling about with its trunk. His spear was a mast in his brutish fingers. I saw him fling about man upon man like rabbits, three times around his head, holding on to their one leg, and smash their heads on the stones]
Klaas van Kieten and his incredible length are commemorated at the Stompe Toren in the small village of Spaarnwoude. Inside the church, a massive necklace is kept that supposedly belonged to Klaas, as well as a massive wooden shoe. On the outer wall of this church, two stones are found with the inscription “‘T VAAM VAN | KLAAS V. KIETEN” [the span of Klaas van Kieten]. The distance between the middle points of these stones represents the distance between the tips of Klaas’s middle fingers. In an ideally proportioned body this span is equal to a man’s height. If so, Klaas van Kieten measured 2.69m: that is about 8 ft and 9 inches or about 9.5 pugs!
10) A self-sacrificial act during the Hook and Cod Wars: Oude Kerk, Barneveld
The Dutch town Barneveld (not in Holland but in Gelderland) was the scene for one of the most famous events of the Dutch Middle Ages. In 1482, during the so-called Hook and Cod Wars, Jan van Schaffelaar and his men were besieged in the tower of the Old Church in Barneveld. After negotiations, their opponents stated that they would accept their surrender only if the defenders would throw their commander from the tower. The men were unwilling to do so, but Van Schaffelaar stated “Lieve gesellen, ic moet ummer sterven, ic en wil u in geenen last brenghen” [dear companions, I must die one day, I do not want to be a burden to you]. Having said this, he put his hands to his sides and jumped off the tower. He did not die from the fall, but was finished off by his enemies while he was still on the ground. Today, a statue of van Schaffelaar in front of the Old Church and an outline of his body on the ground still commemorate this self-sacrificial act. Needless to say, Breca the pug was mightily impressed!
I hope you have enjoyed this rather lengthy blog about medieval places to visit in The Netherlands; the list is not complete (especially since many places do not allow dogs). There may be more posts like these in the future: Breca the pug has certainly gained an appreciation and an interest in the Middle Ages:
During the early Middle Ages, several Anglo-Saxons made their way to what is now the Low Countries, as missionaries, pilgrims, mercenaries and refugees. On this blog, I will regularly shed light on places in The Netherlands and Belgium associated with these visitors from early medieval England. This post focuses on the early medieval town Dorestad (present-day Wijk bij Duurstede, The Netherlands), which was visited as well as shunned by various Anglo-Saxons. In particular, this post reports on the exhibition ‘Boniface in Dorestad 716-2016’ in Museum Dorestad (18 June-7 December, 2016).
Dorestad: Flourishing Frisian trade centre that fell prey to Vikings?
Modern-day Wijk bij Duurstede is a relatively small Dutch town south of Utrecht and little recalls the grandeur of this place some thousands years ago, when it was known as ‘Dorestad’. During the early Middle Ages, the docks would have been crawling with international traders, shipping wine, stones and slaves along the important rivers Rhine and Lek. Its inhabitants, first the Frisians and later the Franks, used Dorestad as a trading hub that connected the Rhineland and the North Sea.
Dorestad’s status as a successful merchant town came to an end in the ninth century. Generations of Dutch school children have been told how the Vikings ransacked Dorestad, inspired by a famous educational plate by J.H. Isings (1927; see below). The local museum, Museum Dorestad, notes that this is only part of the story: apart from Viking incursions, Dorestad also had to deal with a declining economy, as well as Frankish rulers who began to favour other trading towns (Tiel and Deventer) for geo-political reasons. You can find a lot more information about medieval Dorestad on this website, which is affiliated with the museum. In the remainder of this post, I will focus on the Anglo-Saxon visitors to Dorestad.
Anglo-Saxons in Dorestad: Scholars, traders and missionaries
- Nam tibi Hadda prior nocte non amplius una
- In Traiect mel compultimque buturque ministrat :
- Utpute non oleum nec vinum Fresia fundit.
- Hinc tua vela leva, fugiens Dorstada relinque:
- Non tibi forte niger Hrotberct parat hospita tecta (Alcuin, Cartula, perge cito, ll. 8-12)
[Because prior Hadda will provide for you no more than one night, in Utrecht, he serves honey, porridge and butter, since Frisia does not produce oil or wine. Hoist your sails away from here, leaving and ignore Dorestad, for the black Hrotberct really will not prepare hospitable houses for you]
In his poem Cartula, perge cito [Little map, move quickly], the Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin of York (d. 804) recounts a journey he had made along the river Rhine. The poem is full of interesting, local details, such as his report that, in Utrecht, honey, porridge and butter were served in lieu of oil and wine. Notably, Alcuin told his readers to shun Dorestad, since a particularly nasty and greedy trader Hrotberct lived there.
Despite Alcuin’s advice, Anglo-Saxons regularly visited Dorestad, primarily for trade. This much becomes clear from numismatic evidence. Coins minted in Dorestad, for instance, have been found in England. In 2007, a gold tremissis bearing the inscriptions DORESTATE and RIMOALDUS M was found in North Yorkshire – a seventh-century coin apparently made in Dorestad by a man named Rimwald(us). Similar golden coins from Dorestad, made by one Madelinus, have also been unearthed in England, as well as in Norway and Belgium – attesting to Dorestad’s status as an international trade hub (see overview here). Vice versa, a silver sceat from Kent was found in Dorestad and is now on display in Museum Dorestad. Browsing the Portable Antiquities Scheme website (a great resource, documenting small finds by amateur archaeologists in England and Wales), I was able to identify a version of the exact same coin: found in 2013, in Barnham, Kent (see below). The two coins are so similar they may well have been struck with the same coin die!
Aside from Anglo-Saxon traders, Anglo-Saxon missionaries also visited Dorestad. The greatest of these may have been St. Boniface (d. 754), who first set foot in Dorestad 1300 years ago, in 716. His visit is commemorated this year (2016), with an exhibition in the local museum, Museum Dorestad.
Boniface in Dorestad 716-2016: From bishop-martyr to USB stick
The exhibition, on the top floor of the small museum, consists of one, well-packed room. Along its walls, informative posters relate Boniface’s life story: Born as Wynfreth in the south-west of England (possibly Crediton), he became a monk and would lead various missions to Frisia and Germany. The first of these missions, in 716, brought Wynfreth to Dorestad, but his efforts to convert the pagan Frisians had little success. He returned a few years later and, with great zeal, preached the Gospel, cut down holy oaks and founded various monasteries and churches among the German peoples. His efforts earned him the title of ‘Apostle of the Germans’, as well as his new Roman name ‘Bonifatius’, or Boniface. When Boniface was well in his seventies, he still travelled to Frisia to continue his missionary activities, until, in 754, he was murdered, possibly near Dokkum. The story of his death is well known: ambushed by Frisian robberts, the elderly Boniface iconically shielded his head from the blows with his Gospel-book. Alas! The book was to no avail and Boniface died by the hands of the pagans. A martyr was born and Boniface was soon venerated as a saint. The exhibition in Museum Dorestad is illustrated nicely with altar pieces and plates showing scenes from the life of the Anglo-Saxon saint. A particular highlight of this part of the exhibition was a little star-shaped reliquary with a tiny piece of Boniface-bone inside. I have never been this close to an Anglo-Saxon!
I may have enjoyed the second part of the exhibition even more than the first. This part dealt with the Nachleben of Boniface – his afterlife. After the Middle Ages, people generally seem to have forgotten about Boniface (apart from some local cults), even though he was the patron saint of brewers, tailors, bookshop keepers, traders and vile makers! However, the Anglo-Saxon saint made a comeback at the end of the nineteenth century. Specifically, German nationalism adopted Boniface as the ‘Apostle of the Germans’; monuments and events in honour of Boniface also celebrated German nationhood. More recently, the Anglo-Saxon saint was adopted for more commercial means. The exhibition showed a Boniface cigar box, Boniface delftware plates, Boniface mints and even a Boniface USB stick! Naturally, the patron saint of brewers also has his own brand of beers: Boniface beer! (Note: Boniface wasn’t the only Anglo-Saxon missionary to be celebrated in beer, see this blog)
The attention for this commercial side to Boniface in the Dorestad Museum exhibition need not surprise us: apparently, the inhabitants of Wijk bij Duurstede have inherited some of the mercantile interests of their early medieval predecessors!
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During the early Middle Ages, several Anglo-Saxons made their way to what is now the Low Countries, as missionaries, pilgrims, mercenaries and refugees. On this blog, I will regularly shed light on places in The Netherlands and Belgium associated with these visitors from early medieval England. This post focuses on the Belgian town of Ghent, once home to Ælfthryth of Wessex, daughter of Alfred the Great.
Medieval Ghent and the patron saint of beer
Belgium is the beer capital of the World and the patron saint of beer, Saint Amandus (c. 585-675), played an important role in the foundation of what is now the city of Ghent. According to the eighth-century Vita Amandi (the text of which can be found here), Amandus experienced a lot of hardship when he tried to convert the pagan inhabitants of the Ghent area: he was thrown into the river Scheldt several times and needed royal body guards to act out his missionary activities. After reviving a convicted criminal, however, Amandus was accepted by the local populace and he founded two monasteries in the area: Ganda (now St Bavo Cathedral) and Blandinium (now St Peter’s Abbey).
The City of Ghent grew around these two monasteries and became one of the main hubs of medieval Flanders. The abbeys attracted various important people to Ghent, such as the biographer of Charlemagne, Einhard (c. 775-840), who served as a abbot of both monasteries. The Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin of York (c. 735-804) may also have visited Ghent and wrote a little distich about a church devoted to Bavo, a disciple of Amandus and a recluse at Ghent:
Haec loca sanctificet venerandus Bavo sacerdos ,
Discipulus vita patris condignus Amandi (PL 101, col. 755d)
[May Bavo the venerable priest, a disciple of the venerable father Amandus, sanctify this place]
Present-day Ghent still bears witness to its rich medieval past, with its many medieval buildings, which include its ‘three towers’: the belfry, St Nicholas’s Church and St Bavo’s Cathedral. Top of the bill is the Gravensteen, the medieval castle of Ghent that looks like it belongs to the set of Game of Thrones or any other medieval-esque fantasy series. While the present Gravensteen dates back to the twelfth century, its foundations were laid by Arnulf I (c. 890–964), count of Flanders and, interestingly, grandson of Alfred the Great.
Ælfthryth of Wessex (d. 929), countess of Flanders
Arnulf I was the son of Ælfthryth of Wessex, the youngest daughter of King Alfred the Great. Relatively little is known of Ælfthryth, apart from the report in in Asser’s Life of King Alfred that she was educated along with her brother Edward at the royal court and that she had a particular interest in Old English poetry:
…and to the present day they continue to behave with humility, friendliness and gentleness to all compatriots and foreigners, and with great obedience to their father. […] they have attentively learned the Psalms, and books in English, and especially English poems, and they very frequently make use of books. (Asser, Life of King Alfred, c. 75)
Her gentleness to all foreigners would have come in handy, since she was married off to Baldwin ‘the Bald’ (d. 918), the count of Flanders. The couple spent most of their days in Ghent and got four children, one of which was Arnulf I, who first built a fortifaction where the Gravensteen now stands. But Ælfthryth’s legacy stretches beyond Arnulf I: she is also one of the ancestors of William the Conqueror (whose wife Matilda of Flanders would have been Ælfthryth’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter). In fact, that makes even England’s present-day queen, Elizabeth II, a descendant of Ælfthryth’s (Wikipedia evidence here – Ælfthryth would be her 29th Great-Grandmother).
Under a parking lot
Ælfthryth and Baldwin both supported St Peter’s Abbey in Ghent and were buried there, side by side. Unfortunately, their graves have not survived – the area where they would have been buried is now an underground parking lot; a fate not uncommon to members of English royal houses.
This was part two of an ongoing series of blogs on the adventures of the Anglo-Saxons on the other side of the North Sea; you can read the first part here: Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Adelbertusakker, Egmond
Works refered to:
- Asser, Life of King Alfred, trans. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge (Harmondsworth, 1983)
- PL = Patrologiae cursus completus, series Latina, ed. J.-P. Migne, 221 vols. (Paris, 1855–1864)
Even though the last native speaker of Old English died over 900 years ago, the language of the Anglo-Saxons is making a comeback in modern cinema. This blog post calls attention to five TV series and movies that use Old English.
1. The Rohirrim speak Old English: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of Old English at the University of Oxford and his fictional work is infused with his academic interests: the languages and literatures of the peoples of the medieval North-West. The Rohirrim, in particular, were modeled on the Anglo-Saxons. The riders of the Mark (itself based on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom Mercia) even speak Old English in the books, as when Éomer greets Théoden with “Westu Théoden hal!” (cf. “Wæs þu Hrothgar hal!” Beowulf, l. 407). The names of the Rohirrim also derive from Old English: Théoden means ‘king’ (< Old English þeoden) and Éomer means ‘famous horse’ (< Old English eoh ‘horse’ + mær ‘famous’). (If you are interested, I wrote an article on the influence of Old English language and literature on Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which you can find among my publications)
In the successful movie adaptations, the use of Old English (regrettably) is scarce and limited to the extended edition of the Two Towers. In a scene called ‘the funeral of Théodred’, Éowyn (‘horse-joy’) sings a funeral dirge, in Old English (singing starts at 0:48):
freone frecan. forþ onsended
giedd sculon singan. gleomenn sorgiende
on Meduselde. þæt he ma no wære
his dryhtne dyrest. and maga deorost.
[Baleful death has sent forth the noble warrior, sorrowing singers will sing a song in Meduseld that he is no more, dearest to his lord and dearest to his kinsmen.]
The actress Miranda Otto actually does a great job when it comes to pronouncing the Old English (would she have followed a course?). The song also features a line which is similar to Beowulf, ll. 2265b-2266: “bealocwealm hafað / fela feorhcynna forð onsended” [baleful death has sent forth many warriors].
2. It speaks? IT SPEAKS! In Old English! Beowulf (2007)
Robert Zemeckis’s adapatation of Beowulf did not only give us a 3D animation of Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother (naked, clad in gold, with a tail), he also had the monsters attempt to speak in Old English. An intriguing example can be seen here, in the scene where Grendel loses his arm:
Beowulf: Your bloodletting days are over, demon!
Grendel: Arr – Ic nat daemon eam [I am not a demon]
Beowulf: It speaks? IT SPEAKS!
Grendel: Hwæt eart þu? [What are you?]
Arguably, the Old English is not very well done and the pronunciation is awful (there is some more in Grendel’s death scene, where you can hear ‘min sunu’ and ‘sin nama wæs Beowulf’). The decision to have the monsters (attempt to) speak Old English, though, is an interesting one: is it a way of stressing their antiquity? To separate them from the human world? To emphasise their monstrosity (I would hope not!)?
3. The magic of Old English: BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012)
The BBC series TV series focusing on the adventures of the young Merlin at Arthur´s court used Old English as the language for the various magical spells. A rather odd decision, seeing as Merlin should probably be associated more with the Celtic speaking peoples, rather than with the Old English speaking Anglo-Saxons that were fought by the pseudo-historical Arthur. Here are all the spells from the first series:
“Berbay odothay arisan quicken” <Old English Bebiede þe arisan cwican [I command you to arise alive]
(You can find more transcriptions of spells here)
The pronunciation, again, leaves something to be desired. However, often the Old English spells make sense, as in the example quoted above: Merlin wants to make a statue of a dog come alive; he tells it to come alive in Old English; presto! The dog is alive (it also affects the snakes painted on a shield in the next scene). If only that worked in real life!
4. The Shadow of Boniface: De Schaduw van Bonifatius (2010)
De Schaduw van Bonifatius [The Shadow of Boniface] is an ambitious short film, directed by Thijs Schreuder as a graduation project for the Film Academy in Amsterdam. It focuses on the missionary activity of the Anglo-Saxon Boniface (d. 754) in Frisia. While the film was praised for its use of special effects (similar to the LOTR-movies), its use of languages is also of interest: all dialogues are in Latin, Old English and Old Frisian.
I particularly like the scene that starts at 08:00, in which Boniface confronts a group of pagan Frisians at their sacred tree. Boniface speaks in Old English, the Frisian leader replies in Old Frisian. Seeing as these two medieval languages are closely related, it is highly probable that the Anglo-Saxon missionaries in Frisia could indeed converse with the people in their native tongue:
Boniface: Ondfo Godes lufu! Ondfo His miltse! [Receive God’s love! Receive his mercy!]
Frisian chief: Bonifatius! Thi mon ther thera Fronkena leinlika gode menniska bibiāt. ther tserika timbriath mith ūre hāligum bāmum. [Boniface! The man who sacrifices to the false gods of the Frankish people. Who builds churches with our holy trees.]
Boniface: For iūre hreddunge. Hæfth iūre goda thunor smiten mē? Habbath hīe me thone wei thweorod? Se ondswaru is ‘nā’, ond for thǣm the iċ ēom hēr swā thæt ġē ġebīdath thæs cræftes thæs ǣnigan, sōthan Godes![For your protection. Has the thunder of your gods smitten me? Have they barred my path? The answer is ‘No’ and therefore I am here, so that you will experience the power of the only, true God!]
The actors do a fine job and the Old Frisian and Old English sounds rather authentic. No surprise there, since the actors were taught by a leading expert on both Old Frisian and Old English: prof.dr. Rolf H. Bremmer Jr. (You can read about his involvement here, in Dutch).
5. Hwæt sægest þu? Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-)
In De Schaudw van Bonifatius, Old English was used to create at least the impression of historical accuracy . Much the same can be said for the use of Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-). While the show’s authenticity is fiercely debated (see, e.g., this blog post), the makers of the show must certainly have thought that the use of early medieval languages, such as Old English and Old Norse in the first two seasons and Old French in the third season, would contribute to a sense of realism. The first scene to feature Old English is the prelude to the Viking raid of Lindisfarne in 793:
Monk: Gesawe þu þæt, brodor Æþelstan? Gesawe þu hit? Saga me þæt þu hit gesawe.
Athelstan: Gea, brodor. Ic hit gesawe.
Monk: Hit is awriten and swa hit hæfþ alimpen. God us helpan, god us helpan.
The monks looking at the thunder and seeing a viking ship in the sky is an obvious reference to the famous entry for the year 793 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
Her wæron reðe forebecna cumene ofer Norðhymbra land, 7 þæt folc earmlic bregdon, þæt wæron ormete þodenas 7 ligrescas, 7 fyrenne dracan wæron gesewene on þam lifte fleogende. [In this year, terrible omens came about over the land of the Northumbrians, and miserably frightened the people: these were immense thunders and lightenings, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air.]
The second scene in the YouTube clip above shows Athelstan speaking Old English to some hostages. The Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, apparently, is able to understand their conversation. This is not too surprising, since Old Norse and Old English would have been mutually intelligble at the time. In terms of its language use, then, History Channel’s Vikings makes a good effort at historical accuracy.
Hwæt’s next? BBC’s The Last Kingdom (2015-) and ITV’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (2016-)
Over the last 15 years, Old English has been embraced by movie makers; first as a language of fantasy, monsters and magic, later as an instrument for historical accuracy. With upcoming TV series such as BBC’s The Last Kingdom, set in ninth-century England, and ITV’s Beowulf: The Return to the Shield Lands, based on the Old English poem Beowulf, we will undoubtedly hear more Old English from our TV sets in the future. The Last Kingdom, for instance, uses Old English place names, such as Bebbanburg (Bamburgh), Oxanfyrde (Oxford) and Wintanceastre (Winchester). Perhaps, it is time to pitch our courses in Old English to acting hopefuls and up-and-coming film makers. The native speakers of Old English may be long dead, in Hulferes wudu (Hollywood) their language is still alive!
With special thanks to Rolf Bremmer (Leiden University) for sending me the script he translated for De Schaduw van Bonifatius.
If you liked this post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or read the following posts about modern uses of Old English and Anglo-Saxon culture?
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
- Medieval manuscripts in modern media: Anglo-Saxon manuscripts spotted in Vikings, The Last Kingdom and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
- Old English memes
During the early Middle Ages, several Anglo-Saxons made their way to what is now the Low Countries, as missionaries, pilgrims, mercenaries and refugees. On this blog, I will regularly shed light on places in The Netherlands and Belgium associated with these visitors from early medieval England. This post focuses on the Anglo-Saxon saint Adalbert of Egmond (Feast day: 25 June) and the site where he had once been buried: Adelbertusakker, Egmond.
Adalbert of Egmond (d. c.740)
According to our earliest source about Adalbert of Egmond, the tenth-century Vita Sancti Adelberti, Adalbert was born in Northumbria and came to Frisia as one of the companions of the missionary St. Willibrord (d. 739). Adalbert concentrated his efforts in preaching the Gospel to the area around present-day Egmond, North-Holland. He was beloved by the locals, who erected a little wooden chapel in his honour at the site of his grave. Soon after his death in c.740, miracles started to take place: a widow who had prayed to the saint received her daily bread with the incoming tide; marauding Vikings who had their eyes set on Egmond were deceived by miraculously appearing mists; and a man who stole some cheese offered to Adalbert ate both the cheese and his fingers. (You can read the Vita Sancti Adalberti here)
In the tenth century, Adalbert visited the nun Wilfsit three times in a dream and told her that his bones should be exhumed and translated to her nunnery in Hallem (present-day Egmond-Binnen). Wilfsit contacted Count Dirk I of Holland (d. 939), who had the church demolished and Adalbert’s bones dug up. As they did so, water welled up along with the saintly bones and a well was established on the site. Ever since, this well has been a holy place and has been visited by various pilgrims, among whom the blind Anglo-Saxon Folmar, whose sight was restored by drinking water from the well of Adalbertus. A thousand years later, water can still be drunk from the well…
Upon entering the Adelbertusakker (Google Maps location here), you are greeted by three life-size wooden carvings: Dirk Schuit (a man who lived there in the 19th century), Count Dirk II of Holland and St Adalbert. Walking a little further up field, you’ll find trees, benches to sit on, a shrine devoted to St Adalbert and, on the ground, the outlines of where from 1152 to 1573 a stone church had stood. The centrepiece of the field, however, is Adalbert’s well, which is still fully functional.
Pug and Beer: The latest miracle of Adalbert
Water from the well can still be drunk and, according to some, it has retained its medieval miraculous powers. In the 18th century, in particular, water from the well was used to heal cows and other livestock. Needless to say, my pug Breca had her fill as well (and she is still in good health today!).
Interestingly, a nearby abbey (named after Saint Adalbert; I will devote another blog to this in the future) uses water from the well to brew its own beer. The beer is entitled ‘Sancti Adalberti Miraculum Novum’: the latest miracle of Saint Adalbert.
If you liked this post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or read the following blogs about other Anglo-Saxons in the low countries?
- Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Boniface in Dorestad
- Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Ælfthryth of Wessex in Ghent
- ‘The last king of medieval Frisia’: Redbad and the Anglo-Saxon missionaries
According to an early medieval ‘book of monsters’, the bones of the sixth-century, gigantic king Hygelac were shown to travelers on an island in the Rhine, where this river flowed into the sea. Recent excavations in Oegstgeest (South Holland) and the finding of the unique silver Oegstgeest bowl have brought to light international activities in the Rhine estuary in the early medieval period. Could these excavations hold a clue to the location of the bones of Hygelac, who is also mentioned in the Old English poem Beowulf?
A Book of Monsters
Hermaphrodites, dragons, centaurs, pygmies, elephants and a whole lot more. Around the year 700, an anonymous Englishman wrote the Liber monstorum de diversis generibus [The book of monsters of all sorts] and provided an overview of the ‘freaks of nature’ that he had heard and read about. A ninth-century manuscript of the text is currently held in the University Library in Leiden (VLO 60). In this overview of monsters, the author describes Hygelac, a gigantic king of the Geats (a people that lived in southern Sweden):
There are also monsters of an incredible size, such as King Hygelac, who ruled the Geats and was murdered by the Franks; from the age of twelve, no horse could carry him. His bones are preserved on an island in the river Rhine, where it flows into the sea, and they are shown to travelers from afar as a marvel.
Apparently, an Englishman around the year 700 had heard a of an island in the Rhine estuary, where travelers would come from faraway and where they would be shown the gigantic bones of Hygelac. Could this be Oegstgeest? And who was this King Hygelac?
Oegstgeest: An island in the Rhine?
Present-day Oegstgeest certainly does not look like an island, but the medieval situation was wholly different. The name Oegstgeest derives from the personal name Osger and the Middle Dutch word ‘geest’, a term denoting a raised area of sandy soil. In the Middle Ages, Oegstgeest would have been more elevated than the surrounding landscape, which consisted mainly of water (the Rhine and various waterways) and marshland. As such, medieval Oegstgeest may very well be considered an island in the Rhine, which then still had its main estuary in nearby Katwijk (on the medieval history of Oegstgeest, see Lugt 2009).
Recent excavations in Oegstgeest uncovered not only the unique silver bowl, but also imported pottery and wine barrels. Together with a previous find of an Anglo-Saxon belt buckle in nearby Rijnsburg, these finds are indications of international activity in the Rhine estuary in the early medieval period. These archaeological discoveries might now be linked to the text of the Liber monstrorum and the island in the Rhine estuary where, according to the English author, “travelers from afar” were shown the bones of Hygelac.
Who was Hygelac?
Although the Liber monstrorum is the only text to comment on Hygelac’s size, his death around the year 525 AD is described in three early medieval texts. The historian Gregory of Tours (ca. 538-594) wrote that Hygelac died in a naval battle, as he returned from a raid to the north of Gaul. The anonymous Liber Historiae Francorum, written two hundred years later, gives a similar story, but places Hygelac’s raid in the area inhabited by the “Att-oarii”, a people that possibly lived near Nijmegen (Storms 1970).
Hygelac is also mentioned in Beowulf, a long poem in Old English (the language spoken in early medieval England). The poet reports that Hygelac took on the combined forces of Franks, Frisians and “Hetware” (the “Att-oarii” of the Liber Historiae Francorum) and that he died in Frisia:
faran flotherge on Fresna land,
þær hyne Hetware hilde gehnægdon,
elne geeodon mid ofermægene,
þæt se byrnwiga bugan sceolde,
feoll on feðan; nalles frætwe geaf
ealdor dugoðe. (Beowulf, ll. 2914b-2920a)
[Hygelac came sailing with a naval army to Frisia, where the “Hetware” assailed him in battle. They acted with courage and superior force, so that the byrnie-warrior had to bow down, he fell in the battle; this leader did not at all give treasures to his warriors.]
In the early Middle Ages, ‘Frisia’ was larger than present-day Friesland and it extended along the North Sea coast, from North-Western Germany south to well beyond the Rhine estuary.
Where did Hygelac die?
Concerning the location of Hygelac’s death, the early medieval sources are not in agreement: to the north of Gaul, near Nijmegen or in Frisia? Gregory of Tours’ naval battle, the mentioning of the Frisians in Beowulf and the text of the Liber monstrorum all seem to indicate a location at least close to the North Sea.
Hygelac’s bones have never been found. In the fifties, a scholar suggested that the bones may have been kept on the island Goeree Overflakkee (Magoun 1953). Given the recent archeological excavations in Oegstgeest and the evidence outlined above, Oegstgeest within the Rhine estuary appears a more likely option. Due to the scarcity of sources for the early Middle Ages, the best we can do is speculate, but I would not be surprised if the archeologists in Oegstgeest should stumble upon some gigantic bones in the ground!
This is a slightly edited version of a blog previously posted on the Leiden University website. If you liked this blog post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or continue reading the following posts on Beowulf:
- “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880
- Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition
- The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode
Works referred to:
- Lugt, F. (2009), Het Goed van Oegstgeest: De Middeleeuwen in Oegstgeest, Poelgeest, Kerkwerve, Rijnsburg en Nieuw-Rhijngeest. Leiden: Ginkgo.
- Magoun, F., Jr. (1953), ‘The Geography of Hygelac’s Raid on the Lands of the West Frisians and the Hætt-ware, ca. 530 AD’, English Studies 34.
- Storms, G. (1970), ‘The Significance of Hygelac’s Raid’, Nottingham Mediaeval Studies 14,3-26.