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From the Viking mead drinking in Valhalla to the unending punishments of the Greek underworld, the afterlife has always been an imaginative place. In this blog post, I survey how the afterlife was conceptualised in early medieval England, in particular with reference to ‘old age’.
Heaven is a place without old age
The prime place to look for descriptions of Heaven are Old English homilies. As I have pointed out in another blog post (“Men þa leofestan!” Manuscript variations of an Old English formula), these homilies are highly formulaic and, indeed, various descriptions of Paradise look very much alike. In fact, similar descriptions of ‘The Seven Joys of Heaven’ are found in no fewer than eleven Old English homilies. They are easy to spot, since they use the recurring formula ‘þær is x butan y’, where both x and y are antonyms, to describe what is present and what is absent from Paradise. A typical example is found in one of the homilies of the Vercelli Book:
Þær is ece med, 7 þær is lif butan deaðe 7 geogoð butan ylde 7 leoht butan þystrum 7 gefea butan unrotnesse 7 sybb butan ungeþwærnesse 7 orsorhnes butan deaþes ege to lybbenne, 7 þær is ece gesælignesse mid fæder 7 mid þam suna 7 mid þam haligan gaste a butan ende, amen.
[There is the eternal reward and there is life without death and youth without old age and light without darkness and joy without sadness and peace without violence and carelesness without living in fear of death, and there is the eternal happiness with the Father and with the Son and with the Holy Ghost, always, without end, Amen.](Vercelli Homily XIX)
A more poetic version of this topos is found in the Old English poem Christ III, which describes Heaven as follows:
Đær is leofra lufu,____ lif butan endedeaðe,
glæd gumena weorud,____gioguð butan ylde,
heofonduguða þrym,____hælu butan sare,
ryhtfremmendum ræst ____butan gewinne,
domeadigra____ dæg butan þeostrum,
beorht blædes full,____blis butan sorgum,
frið freondum bitweon____forð butan æfestum,
gesælgum on swegle, ____sib butan niþe
halgum on gemonge.
[There is the love of beloved ones, life without death, a joyous troop of men, youth without old age, glory of heavenly hosts, health without pain, rest without toil for the well-doers, day without darkness for the renowned ones, bright full of glory, bliss without sorrows, peace between friends without envy, happy in harmony, peace without envy, among the saints](Christ III, ll. 1652-1660)
In these iterations of Heaven, old age is again and again notably absent. Apparently, spending eternity in an aged body was regarded as the antithesis of a joyful afterlife. Indeed, similar descriptions of Hell include old age among its horrors.
The road to Hell is paved with grey hairs
The description of Hell in the Old English homily “Be heofonwarum 7 be helwarum” [about the Heaven-dwellers and the Hell-dwellers] is almost a complete reversal of the stock description of Heaven:
Þær byð hunger 7 þurst. Þær bið ungemet cyles, and hætan IX siðan hatre þonne domesdæges fyr. Ðar syndan þa ytemestan þystro butan leohte, þar byð yld butan geoguðe.
[There is hunger and thirst. There is unmeasurable cold and heat nine times hotter than the fire of Doomsday, there is the utmost darkness without light, there is old age without youth.](“Be heofonwarum 7 be helwarum”)
Here, old age is clearly presented as one of the ‘horrors of Hell’, one that does not even need a qualifier like ‘unmeasurable’, ‘utmost’ or ‘nine times hotter than the fire of Doomsday’.
Rather more expressively, another Old English homilist lists ‘old age’ as one of the five ‘prefigurations of Hell’, along with pain, torture, death and the grave:
Þonne is þære æfteran helle onlicnes genemned oferyldo, for þan him amolsniaþ þa eagan for þære oferyldo þa þe wæron gleawe on gesyhþe, 7 þa earan adimmiaþ þa þe ær meahton gehyran fægere sangas, and sio tunge awlispaþ þe ær hæfde gerade spræce, 7 þa fet aslapaþ þe ær wæron ful swifte 7 hræde to gange, 7 þa handa aþindaþ þe ær hæfdon ful hwate fingras, 7 þæt feax afealleþ þe ær wæs on fullere wæstme, 7 þa teþ ageolewiaþ þa þe ær wæron hwite on hywe, 7 þæt oroþ afulaþ þe wæs ær swete on stence.
[Then is the second prefiguration of Hell named ‘old age’, because for him the eyes weaken because of old age, those that had been keen of sight, and the ears become dim, those that had been able to hear beautiful songs, and the tongue stammers, that had had skilful speech, and the feet sleep, those that had been very swift and quick in movement, and the hands become swollen, that had had fully active fingers, and the hair falls out, that had been full of abundance, and the teeth become yellow, those that had been white in appearance, and that breath, which had been sweet of smell, becomes foul.](Vercelli Homily IX)
Want to know what Hell is like? Grow old!
The magical number is 33
So if one was not old in Heaven, how ‘young’ would one be? The answer is 33. The homilist Ælfric of Eynsham noted that, according to the Apostle Paul, everyone would be resurrected on Doomsday at the same age at which Christ was crucified:
Se apostol paulus cwæð þæt we sceolon arisan of deaðe on þære ylde þe crist wæs þa ða he þrowade þæt is ymbe þreo and þrittig geara. Đeah cyld forðfare oððe forwerod mann þeahhwæðre hi cumað to ðære ylde þe we ær cwædon hæfð þeah gehwa his agenne westm þe he on þisum life hæfde.oððe habban sceolde gif he his gebide.
[The Apostle Paul said that we shall arise from death at the age that Christ was when he suffered, that is around thirty-three years. Eventhough a child or a worn-out old man departs, nevertheless they will arise at the age we said before; nevertheless everyone will have his own growth which he had in this life or should have had if he had experienced it.](Ælfric of Eynsham, Catholic Homilies I, 16)
Coincidentally, a 20212 study showed that the age of 33 is still the age at which people are at their happiest (source). Judging by the descriptions of Heaven and Hell above, however, this restoration of human bodies to their prime on Doomsday only lasted for those who would go to Heaven; for the souls assigned to the Abyss, their regained physical prime would turn out to be short-lived – they would spend the rest of eternity in the withered, hairless, yellow-teethed and foul-breathed body of an old person.
Want to know more about old age in early medieval England? You are in luck: Boydell and Brewer are offering a 40% discount on my book Old Age in Early Medieval England: A Cultural History (2019) – see the code in the Tweet below (valid until 31 December, 2020!):
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What do the English place names Everton, Oxford, Winchester and Whitby have in common? They have all been around for more than a thousand years and their origins and original meanings can shed a unique light on the fascinating early history of England!
Traces of Celts and Romans
If we were to go back some 2500 years in time, Britain was inhabited by people who spoke Celtic languages (present-day Welsh and Cornish are among the linguistic descendants of these languages). These Celtic speakers have left their traces in the toponyms (place names, river names) of present-day England. The place name Dover, for instance, derives from a Celtic word for ‘waters’ and the first part of Carlisle stems from a Celtic word for ‘fort’ (cf. Welsh caer and Cornish ker). In addition, about two-thirds of English rivers today have English names, these include the rivers Avon, Trent, Tyne and the Thames – most of these river names excitingly mean ‘river’.
In the first century AD, Britain was conquered by the Romans and their influence too can be found in English place names. Place names with an element like –chester, for instance, ultimately derive from Roman army camps, denoted by the Latin word castra (though via Old English ceaster). In other words, Winchester, Lancaster, Leicester and Chester all show traces of Roman occupation of what is now England. The Latin word vicus for ‘settlement’ is found at the end of the places Norwich and Sandwich (though via Old English wic). The Latin word for ‘harbour’, portus, can be seen in Portsmouth – mouth of the harbour. Intriguingly, the ninth-century compilers of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle appear to have assumed that the name derived from a man called Port, who landed there in 501 with his sons Bieda and Mægla:
In this year, Port came to Britain along with his two sons Bieda and Mægla in two ships to the place that is called Portsmouth and they killed a young British man, a very noble man.The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 501
Anglo-Saxons and their place names
After the Romans left Britain in 410 AD, the remaining Celts eventually had to give way to Germanic invaders from the European Continent: the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who come over from Northern Germany and Southern Denmark. These Anglo-Saxons, as they are generally referred to, bring Old English to England and its is to them that we owe place names that contain such elements as
- ham (meaning ‘home’, as in Fulham, Westham and Birmingham)
- tun (meaning ‘town’, as Skipton)
- ford (meaning ‘crossing in a river’, as in Oxford)
- burna (meaning ‘stream’ as in Bournemouth and Blackburn)
- burh (meaning ‘fortification’, as in Canterbury; Bury St Edmunds and, simply, Bury)
Sometimes, these Anglo-Saxon settlers named places and regions after themselves. We can find the Angles in East Anglia and, ultimately, in England. The Saxons gave their name to Sussex, Essex, Wessex and Middlesex; that is the Saxons in the South, in the East, in the West and in the middle. Apparently, there we no Saxons in the North – a common pun is that the Northern Saxons only lasted for one generation since they had Nosex. The Jutes do not seem to have lend their names to a place, but other ‘Anglo-Saxon’ people did. The Old English place name element -ingas means something like “the descendants, followers or people of” and, so, Reading used to be the place where the people of Ræda lived; in Hastings lived the descendants of a man called Hæsta.
In come the Vikings!
Another group to make a major contribution to English place names were the Vikings, who not only raided and plundered, but also settled in England and founded villages and towns which they gave Scandinavian names.
Place names ending in -by, for instance, like Whitby and Derby derive from the Old Norse word by ‘settlement’. Another typical Scandinavian place name in England ends in thorpe ‘village’, as in Scunthorpe and the seven places in England simply called Thorpe. The word toft, as in Lowestoft, refers to ‘site of a house’ and is another sign that you are dealing with a Viking place name.
Viking place names are concentrated in the North East of England, as you can tell by the heat map I made above (the map on the right shows a rough representation of the concentration of Viking place names, on the basis of data by Key to English Place Names ). There are good reasons for this geographical distribution: the area in which we typically find Viking place names was known as the Danelaw area, which had been assigned to Scandinavian settlers as part of a peace treaty with King Alfred the Great, following a decisive battle in the year 878. It is for this reason that place names ending in – by or -thorpe tend to be in the North East of England. As we shall see below, Viking place names are not the only ones to show a certain geographical concentration.
Place names and migratory patterns?
Using the data of Key to English Place Names along with the Halogen geospatial search facility it is relatively easy to get an idea of where certain place names occur. The maps above are (very) rough representations that I made on the basis of looking for place names of a Celtic origin and two sets of Old English place names. The results are interesting. Place names of Celtic origin tend to be in the South and in the West; that is near Wales and Cornwall – this has been interpreted as representing the gradual displacement of Celtic speaking people towards these areas due to the gradual influx of the Anglo-Saxons.
The two sets of Old English place names also show an interesting distribution: the place names ending in -ingas and -ham tend to be found in the South East, whereas Old English place names ending in -tun tend to be found further West and North. Scholars have argued that this is because the first set of place names were typically used by the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers, who arrived in Kent and spread their influence West and North from there. The place names based on Old English tun ‘town’ could reflect later settlement patterns, though this is a matter of scholarly debate (see Clark 1992).
Flora and fauna of early medieval England
Of course, place names did not only depend on who inhabited the place at some time, often places were named after the surroundings in which the early settlers found themselves. As such, place names allow us to identify some of the flora and fauna that was around in Anglo-Saxon England.
One of the Old English place name elements that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes brough to England was the word leah, meaning field or clearing in a forest. Today, this element survives at the end of place names like: Ashley,
Stanley, Crawley, Shipley and Sugley. These then must all have been fields or clearings in a forest. The first element in these place names gives us another defining feature of that field. Ashley was probably surrounded by ash-trees (from Old English æsc); there were stones at Stanley (from Old English stan), crows near Crawley (from Old English craw), sheep near Shipley (from Old English sceap) and in Sugley you can see the Old English word for sow, sugu.
We can recognize the Old English words for animals in various other place names as well. In Everton, you can see the Old English eofor ‘boar’; Brock-holes is named after the holes made by a broc, the Old English word for “Badger’; you can see the Old English word bucca ‘goat’ in Buckingham and Swinburn must have been a stream with some pigs (Old English swin) nearby.
In conclusion: place names are fascinating, they reflect the rich cultural and linguistic history of what we now call England. England’s history, as well as the place names on its map, was formed and shaped by various migrations and interactions with different peoples and cultures. These people looked around them and named what they saw: trees, clearings, river-crossings and animals. And if we study their language and history, we can see those things too.
If you liked this post, consider subscribing to this blog for regular updates and/or read the following posts about early medieval English history:
- Kings and Candlesticks in Anglo-Saxon England
- Heads on sticks: Decapitation and impalement in early medieval England
- Reading between the lines in early medieval England: Old English interlinear glosses
Links of interest
Key to English Place-Names (University of Nottingham)
HALOGEN geospatial search facility (University of Leicester)
What was it like to grow old in the Middle Ages? Were white hairs a guarantee for respect or were they a pitiable token of endured hardship? Did the medieval people long to grow old or did they fear their ever-growing tally of years? This blog looks at some of the downsides of growing old in early medieval England and identifies some cases of what may be termed ‘gerontophobia’, the fear for old age.
Some misconceptions about medieval old age
In February 2019, my book Old Age in Early Medieval England: A Cultural History was published. In its introduction, I tackle a number of misconceptions concerning old age in the Middle Ages:
- “People did not grow old back then” (They did. Theodore of Tarsus (602-690) became archbishop of Canterbury at the age of 67 and remained in office for 21 more years)
- “In the Middle Ages, people were considered old at the age of 40” (No. Texts of the period set the onset of old age around the age of 50)
- “Because there were fewer elderly back then, the senior members of a community were highly respected and revered.”
This last misconception has found some scholarly support: John Burrow, for instance, maintained that the Anglo-Saxons (the inhabitants of early medieval England) privileged old age above all other age categories. The later Anglo-Saxon period has even been termed “the golden age for the elderly”. This image of early medieval England as an El Dorado for the elderly, however, is one-sided and incomplete. My the book covers a broad range of sources, ranging from encyclopaedic notes to homilies, heroic poems, wisdom literature and hagiography, which suggest a much more complicated and ambivalent attitude towards old age and the elderly among the Anglo-Saxons. In this blog post, I will highlight some early medieval English texts that deal with the darker sides to old age, if only to redress the rather optimistic image of the early Middle Ages as a ‘golden age for old age’.
Priestly concerns: Ungodliness and an unabashed sexual appetite
While generally they associated old age with wisdom and piety, early medieval preachers were well aware that senectitude was no guarantee for godly behaviour. In fact, they regularly warned their flock for the senex sine religione, ‘the old man without religion’, along with the rich man without alms and the young man without obedience.  Another cautionary figure in Anglo-Saxon homiletic texts is the puer centum annorum, ‘child of a hundred years’. Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010), for instance, noted:
Eft cwæð sum witega, Puer centum annorum maledictus erit: Hundteontigwintre cild byð awyrged. Ðæt is on andgite, Se mann ðe hæfð ylde on gearum, and hæfð cildes þeawas on dysige, þæt se byð awyrged. Ælc treow blewð ær þan þe hit wæstmas bere, and ælc corn bið ærest gærs. Swa eac ælc godes cinnes mann sceal hine sylfne to godnysse awendan, and wisdom lufian, and forlætan idelnysse. 
[Again, a certain prophet said: Puer centum annorum maledictus erit (cf. Isa. 65:20): a hundred-year-old child is cursed. That is in the sense: the man who has old age in years, and has the customs of a child in foolishness, let him be cursed. Every tree blooms before it bears fruit, and every grain is first grass. Likewise every man of good pedigree must turn himself to goodness and love wisdom and forsake frivolity.]
Ælfric’s admonition to show behaviour appropriate to one’s age reflects his awareness that some old men persevere in the follies of youth.
A more specific concern of Ælfric’s appears to have been the unabashed sexual appetite of elderly people. In a letter, he classified the sexual needs of an elderly woman as shameful, since intercourse was only meant for procreation:
Hit byð swyþe sceandlic, þæt eald wif sceole
ceorles brucan, þonne heo forwerod byð
and teames ætealdod, ungehealtsumlice,
forðan ðe gesceafta ne beoð for nanum oðran þinge astealde
butan for bearnteame anum, swa swa us secgað halige bec.
[It is very shameful that an old woman should have sex with a man, when she is worn out with age and too old for childbearing, unchastely, because sexual relations are not meant for any other thing but procreation only, just as holy books tell us.]
Anglo-Saxon England, it seems, was no cougar country.
While virtuous behaviour was expected of old men, this was by no means a foregone state of affairs. In the end, what mattered was not the age of a man, but his religious devotion, as St. Brendan reassured the young St. Machutus after the latter had expressed doubts as to whether he was worthy of priesthood, given his youth: “Nelle þu þe tweogean forþon þe seo geonglicu eld nænigum ne deraþ gif he fulfremed biþ on his mode. Ne seo ealdlicu eld nænigum ne frameþ gif he biþ on his mode gewemmed” [‘Do not doubt since a young age harms no one if he is virtuous in his heart. Nor does old age benefit anyone if he is corrupt in his heart’].
Memento senescere: The terrors of old age
In the Old English heroic poem Beowulf, the old king Hrothgar warns the young hero Beowulf about all the dangers that await him: fire, floods, swords, spears and, finally, “atol yldo” [terrible old age]. Warnings about growing old are also found in Anglo-Saxon homilies, accompanied with vivid descriptions of the physical decay that comes with the years. An anonymous Anglo-Saxon homilist wrote:
Him amolsniað and adimmiað þa eagan, þe ær wæron beorhte and gleawe on gesihðe. And seo tunge awistlað, þe ær hæfde getinge spræce and gerade. And ða earan aslawiað, þa þe ær wæron ful swifte and hræde to gehyrenne fægere dreamas and sangas. And þa handa awindað, þa ðe ær hæfdon ful hwæte fingras. And þæt feax afealleð, þe ær wæs fæger on hiwe and on fulre wæstme. And þa teð ageolwiað, þa ðe wæron ær hwite on hiwe. And þæt oreð stincð and afulað, þe ær wæs swete on stence.
[His eyes weaken and become dim, that had been bright and keen of sight. And his tongue hisses, which had possessed fluent and skilful speech. And his ears become sluggish, which had been very swift and quick to hear beautiful stories and songs. And his hands bend, that had possessed fully active fingers. And his hair falls out, that had been fair in colour and in full abundance. And his teeth turn yellow, that had been white in appearance. And his breath, which had been sweet of smell, stinks and turns foul.]
Descriptions like these functioned to remind the audience of the impermanence of worldly pleasures. Just as wealth, joy, friends and status do not last forever, so, too, a man’s youth is not eternal and old age will get him in the end; a memento senescere – remember that you must grow old. The decrepit, aging body was a welcome device that Anglo-Saxon homilists could use to turn their audience’s hopes and minds towards the afterlife; an afterlife, as we shall see below, where old age was either absent or present, depending on whether you would end up in Heaven or Hell.
Heaven is a place without old age: Age in the afterlife
The Venerable Bede (673-735) wrote in his eschatological poem De die iudicii [Concerning Judgement Day] that in Heaven one would enjoy the greatest of joys and no longer suffer “fessa senectus” [wearied old age]. Literary representations of the Afterlife often enumerated the celestial joys in combination with the absence of certain horrors that typically included old age. The notion that old age is absent from Heaven regularly occur in Old English sermons; for my book, I have identified at least eleven homilies which list “geogoþ butan ylde” [youth without old age] as one of the assets of Heaven, along with light (without darkness), happiness (without sorrow) and health (without sickness). Being generally absent from Heaven, old age was naturally associated with Hell. At least one Anglo-Saxon homilist presented growing old to his flock as one of the “prefiguration” of Hellish torment, along with pain, death, the grave and torture. Want to know what Hell is like? Grow old!
Appreciation or apprehension?
Gehwær is on urum life. ateorung 7 werignys 7 brosnung þæs lichaman: 7 þeahhwæþere wilnað gehwa þæt he lange lybbe. Hwæt is lange lybban buton lange swincan? 
[Everywhere in our life is faintness and weariness, and decay of the body, and yet every one desires that he might live long. What is to live long but to suffer long?]
Why do people want to grow old, Ælfric asks, if all they will get in return is toil and pain? Ælfric’s remark is hard to reconcile with Burrow’s claim that the Anglo-Saxons preferred old age above all other age categories and the notion that the Anglo-Saxon period was ‘a golden age for the elderly’. Not only were the Anglo-Saxons well aware that old age was no guarantee for godly living, they also observed that there were serious downsides to growing old. Anglo-Saxon homilists referred to physical decrepitude in order to remind their audience of the transience of worldly things or to strike the fear of Hell into their hearts. Indeed, one of the alluring aspects of Heaven for an Anglo-Saxon was the absence of old age. Arguably, then, it is more apt to ascribe to the Anglo-Saxons an apprehension for old age, rather than an unequivocal appreciation.
If you are interested in old age in early medieval England, I am absolutely thrilled that I can now highly recommend my own book!
- Thijs Porck, Old Age in Early Medieval England: A Cultural History, Anglo-Saxon Studies 33 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2019)
 J. A. Burrow, The Ages of Man: A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought (Oxford, 1986), p. 109.
 S. Crawford, ‘Gomol is snoterost: Growing Old in Anglo-Saxon England’, in Collectanea Antiqua: Essays in Memory of Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, ed. M. Henig and T. J. Smith (Oxford, 2007), p. 59.
 The senex sine religione often features in a list of the ‘Twelve Abuses’, see Two Ælfric Texts: The Twelve Abuses and The Vices and Virtues, ed. and trans. M. Clayton (Cambridge, 2013), pp. 34–48.
 Homilies of Ælfric: A Supplementary Collection, ed. J, C. Pope, EETS os 259–60 (Oxford, 1967–8), hom. 19, ll. 19–25.
 Angelsächsische Homilien und Heiligenleben, ed. B. Assmann (Kassel, 1889), hom. 2, ll. 157–61.
 The Old English Life of Machutus, ed. D. Yerkes (Toronto, 1984), p. 13, ll. 8–12.
 Klaeber’s Beowulf, ed. R. D. Fulk, R. E. Bjork and J. D. Niles, 4th ed. (Toronto, 2008), ll. 1758–68.
 Wulfstan; Sammlung der ihm zugeschriebenen Homilien nebst Untersuchungen über ihre Echtheit, ed. A. S. Napier (Berlin, 1883), hom. 30, p. 147, ll. 23–31, p. 148, ll. 1–7.
 Bede, De die iudicii, ed. and trans. G. D. Caie, The Old English Poem Judgement Day II (Cambridge, 2000), l. 129
 The Vercelli Homilies and Related Texts, ed. D. G. Scragg, EETS os 300 (London, 1992), hom. 9, ll. 84–5.
 Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies: The First Series, ed. P. Clemoes, EETS ss 17 (Oxford, 1997), hom. 32, ll. 213–9.
Do you ever wonder what gifts to buy for your loved ones? For the Anglo-Saxons, matters appear to have been rather simple: when in doubt, give them a horse! This blog post considers some notable examples of equine gift giving in early medieval England.
Horses for heroes: Rewards in Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon
What better way to reward a hero who has rid your people of a rampaging monster than giving him a royal steed? Try eight. In the Old English poem Beowulf, King Hrothgar celebrates Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel by lavishing the hero with gifts, including “wicga ond wæpna” [horses and weapons] (l. 1045a):
Heht ða eorla hleo eahta mearas
fæted-hleore on flet teon,
in under eoderas; þara anum stod
sadol searwum fah, since gewurþad;
þæt wæs hilde-setl heah-cyninges
ðonne sweorda gelac sunu Healfdenes
efnan wolde (ll. 1035-1041a)
[Then the lord of warriors commanded eight horses, golden-cheeked, to be led to the floor, inside within the precincts; On one of them stood a sadle decorated with artistries, made worthy with treasure; that had been the battle-seat of the high king when the son of Healfdene (i.e. Hrothgar) would engage in the play of swords.]
As it befits a loyal retainer, Beowulf shares his spoils with his own lord when he returns home. He gave four of the horses to his uncle, King Hygelac (ll. 2163b-5a: “feower mearas … æppel-fealuwe” [four apple-yellow horses]), and three to Queen Hygd (ll. 2174b-5a: “þrio wicg … swancor ons sadol-breoht” [three horses, slender and brigh-saddled]. As it turns out, Beowulf only kept one horse for himself – possibly the one with Hrothgar’s fancy saddle.
Hrothgar’s horsy gift is not unique within the Old English poetic corpus. The Battle of Maldon, a poem celebrating a lost battle against the Vikings (see: The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition), also features an intriguing reference to equine gift giving. In the heat of battle, a man named Godric flees the field on his leader’s horse – a treacherous deed, made all the worse since Godric himself had been given various horses in the past:
Godric fram guþe, and þone godan forlet
þe him mænigne oft mear gesealde.
He gehleop þone eoh þe ahte his hlaford,
on þam gerædum, þe hit right ne wæs. (The Battle of Maldon, ll. 187-190)
[Godric went from the battle, and abandoned the good one, who had often given many a horse. He leaped upon the horse that his lord owned, into the trappings, although it was not just.]
The irony of the situation is clear: the lord had given his retainers horses in return for future loyalty in battle, but Godric, instead, stole away on his lord’s horse. As we shall see below, the gifting of horses was no mere poetic fancy: there are various examples of recorded equine gifts in Anglo-Saxon history.
Regifting a horse: How St Aidan looked King Oswine’s gift horse in the mouth
Perhaps the most famous example of an Anglo-Saxon gift horse was the horse given to St Aidan by King Oswine of Deira (d. 651). Aidan, impressed though he was with the gift, decided to regift the horse to a beggar. These events are recorded by Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731) as follows:
He [King Oswine] had given an extraordinarily fine horse to Bishop Aidan, which he might either use in crossing rivers, or in performing a journey upon any urgent necessity, though he was wont to travel ordinarily on foot. Some short time after, a poor man meeting him, and asking alms, he immediately dismounted, and ordered the horse, with all his royal furniture, to be given to the beggar; for he was very compassionate, a great friend to the poor, and, as is were, the father of the wretched.
When the king got wind of the matter, he lashed out against the bishop:
This being told to the king, when they were going in to dinner, he said to the bishop, “Why would you, my lord bishop, give the poor man that royal horse, which was necessary for your use? Had not we many other horses of less value, and of other sorts, which would have been good enough to give to the poor, and not to give that horse, which I had particularly chosen for yourself?” To whom the bishop instantly answered, “What is it you say, O king? Is that foal of a mare more dear to you than the Son of God?”
Clearly, the king was upset about Aidan regifting the royal horse to a beggar. Soon, however, the king realized his reaction was uncalled for – since the bishop had been given the horse, he was free to do with it whatever he liked:
Upon this they went in to dinner, and the bishop sat in his place; but the king, who was come from hunting, stood warming himself, with his attendants, at the fire. Then, on a sudden, whilst he was warming himself, calling to mind what the bishop had said to him, he ungirt his sword, and gave it to a servant, and in a hasty manner fell down at the bishop’s feet, beseeching him to forgive him; “For from this time forward,” said he, “I will never speak any more of this, nor will I judge of what, or how much of our money you shall give to the sons of God.” (source)
The king’s initial reaction to Aidan’s decision to pass on the royal horse to a beggar is understandable and is related to the anthropological concept of the “inalienability” of the gift. Marcel Mauss, in his famous essay on gift giving, describes this concept as follows: “[e]ven when it [the gift] has been abandoned by the giver, it still possesses something of him. Through it the giver has a hold over the beneficiary” (source). In other words, the horse in some way still belonged to the king and the fact that a beggar now used the royal horse was an affront to Oswine himself.
Horses for heirs: The evidence from Anglo-Saxon wills
Various wills and testaments feature bequests of horses. The Anglo-Saxon noblewoman Wynflæd, for instance, showered her grandchildren with gifts; these included not only her finest bedlinnen (!?) but also her tame horses (her will is discussed here: Digging for early medieval grandmothers in Anglo-Saxon wills). Another will that abounds in equine bequests belonged to Æthelstan Ætheling (d. 1014), who left a variety of horses (some of which had been given to him by others) to members of his family and household:
Ic geann minon fæder Æþelræde cynge […] þæs horses þe Þurbrand me geaf. 7 þæs hwitan horses þe Leofwine me geaf. […] Ic geann Ælfsige. bisceope. […] anne blacne stedan. […] Ic gean Ælfwine minon mæssepreoste […] mines horses mid minon gerædon. […] 7 Ic geann Ælmære minon discþene […] anes fagan stedan. […] Ic geann Siferðe þæs landes æt Hocganclife. 7 anes swurdes. 7 anes horses. 7 mines bohscyldes. […] 7 Ic geann […] minon heardeorhunton þæs stodes. þe is on Colungahrycge. (source)
[And I grant my father, King Æthelred … the horse which Thurbrand gave me, and the white horse which Leofwine gave me. … I grant Bishop Ælfsige … a black steed. To my mass-priest Ælfwine I grant … my horse with my trappings. … I grant to Ælmær, my ‘dish-thegn’ a fallow steed. …. I grant to Sigeferth the land at Hockliffe and a sword, and a horse and my ‘bow-shield’. … And I grant … to my stag-hunter the stud farm which is in Coldridge.]
Æthelstan’s stud farm, which he gives to his huntsman, suggests that some horses were bred locally. However, not all horses in Anglo-Saxon England were homegrown, as the last section of this blog post will demonstrate.
Shipping horses overseas in the days of King Athelstan
In 926, a Frankish embassy came to the court of King Athelstan(d. 939) to ask the king for the hand of the king’s half-sister Eadhild. The embassy, sent by Duke Hugh the Great, brought a variety of gifts to woo the Anglo-Saxon king, including (of course) horses:
The chief of this embassy was Adulph, son of Baldwin earl of Flanders by Ethelswitha daughter of king Edward. When he had declared the request of the suitor in an assembly of the nobility at Abingdon, he produced such liberal presents as might gratify the most boundless avarice: perfumes such as never had been seen in England before: jewels, but more especially emeralds, the greenness of which, reflected by the sun, illumined the countenances of the bystanders with agreeable light; many fleet horses with their trappings, and, as Virgil says, “Champing their golden bits”. (William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum anglorum – source)
Needless to say, the horses (and various other gifts, including the sword of Emperor Constantine and the spear of Charles the Great) convinced Æthelstan to give the proposed marriage his blessing.
Notably, Athelstan himself was not a fan of the international horse trade. He forbid the sending of English horses overseas. However, he made an exception for those who were shipped off as a gift, recording the following in one of his lawcodes:
Seofoðe þ[æt] nan man ne sylle nan hors ofer sæ butan he hit gifan wille.
[Seventh: that no man should send a horse over sea except if he wants to gift it.
Equine gifts, it seems, were sanctioned by law!
Whether as a royal present, a reward for heroism, a treasured heirloom or an impressive bride price, a horse was the perfect gift in early medieval England!
If you liked this blog post, follow this blog and/or check out the following posts:
- The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Horses!
- Half-assed humanoids: Centaurs in early medieval England
- Sitting down in early medieval England: A catalogue of Anglo-Saxon chairs
In the second episode of series two of The Last Kingdom, a row of decapitated heads has been placed outside the main gate of Dunholm/Durham. As this blog post will illustrate, this practice, barbaric though it seems, is well attested for Anglo-Saxon England.
Historical examples: Saint Oswald and the real Uhtred
Perhaps the best-known example of decapitation and impalement was that of Saint Oswald of Northumbria (d. 642). After Oswald had been defeated by the pagan King Penda of Mercia, Penda had Oswald’s head and arms cut off. Penda then had these body parts put on stakes, until Oswald’s brother Oswy retrieved them, a year after the battle. Later, Oswald’s head was likely buried in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert (about whom, see: Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb) which ended up in Durham, where it still remains today. Intriguingly, aside from Durham Cathedral, four other institutions today claim to have the skull of Saint Oswald (Bailey 1995), including Hildesheim Cathedral which houses a beautiful twelfth-century head reliquary depicting the head of Oswald (see image below).
The display of decapitated heads did not die out with the arrival of Christianity. In the De Obsessione Dunelmi, a Latin historical work from around 1100, we are told of a siege of Durham by the Scots in the early eleventh century. Luckily for Durham, their bishop Ealdun’s daughter had been married to Uhtred (d. 1016), son of the earl of Northumbria and the inspiration for Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series upon which BBC’s The Last Kingdom is based. This Uhtred came to Durham’s aid and massacred the Scottish host and had the Scots decapitated. Uhtred then sent for the most attractive heads to be brought to Durham:
The heads of the slain, made more presentable with their hair combed, as was the custom in those days, he had transported to Durham, and they were washed by four women and fixed on stakes around the circuit of the walls. The women who had previously washed them were each rewarded with a single cow. (cited in Thompson 2004: 193)
Aside from the intriguing reward of a cow for washing a dead man’s head, this episode in the De Obsessione Dunelmi reveals that the display of decapitated heads remained common (customary even) until the eleventh century, at least.
Heafod stoccan in Anglo-Saxon charters
Anglo-Saxon charters often contained vernacular boundary clauses which described the areas under discussion. Within these boundary clauses, the term heafod stocc ‘head stake’ is frequently attested, suggesting that it was common practice to mark the limits of estate properties with impaled heads. Various charters locate such head stakes in the vicinity of a road: e.g., “æfter foss to þam heafod stoccan” [after the way to the head stakes] (S 115); “of heafod stocca andlang stræt” [from the head stakes along the street] (S 309); and “7lang stret to þam heafod stoccan” [along the street to the head stakes] (S 695). These examples suggest that these head stakes would have been visible for people travelling from and towards locations, possibly along main access roads. Given their use as boundary markers in surviving Anglo-Saxon charters, these head stakes must have been a permanent as well as salient feature in the landscape. The existence of head stakes is supported by archaeological evidence, which also locates execution sites at the boundaries of estates (see Reynolds 2009: 169). Just like the heads of criminals spiked on the walls of old London Bridge, the purpose of these head stakes must have been to not only mark the boundaries of an estate, but also to warn potential transgressors against the consequences of wrongdoings.
An inspiration for Anglo-Saxon authors and artists
The spectacle of decapitating an enemy’s head and putting it on display proved inspirational for various Anglo-Saxon authors and at least one artist. The Beowulf poet, for instance, has Beowulf and his men parade Grendel’s head on a stake towards Heorot: “feower scoldon / on þæm wælstenge weorcum geferian / to þæm goldsele Grendles heafod / oþ ðæt semninga to sele comon” [four had to carry Grendel’s head with hardships to the gold-hall on a battle-pole, until they came to the hall] (Beowulf, ll. 1637b-1639). Here, Grendel’s head functions as a trophy, a sign of Beowulf’s heroic triumph.
A rare visual depiction of a decapitated and impaled head is found in the Old English Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv) an eleventh-century, illustrated translation from the Latin Vulgate of the first six books of the Old Testament (see: The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book). In his depiction of Genesis 8:7 (‘And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.’), the artist of the Hexateuch deviated from the biblical text and depicted a raven pecking at a head, impaled on Noah’s ark (see below). It has been suggested that the artist was drawing on his own creativity here, given the fact that there is no iconological tradition that depicts Noah’s raven in this way (Gatch 1975: 11). Perhaps, the Anglo-Saxon artist was so familiar with the practices of decapitation and impalement that he could think of no better way to depict God’s wrath!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other blog posts on The Last Kingdom or Anglo-Saxon decapitations:
- Chop chop! Three bizarre beheadings in Anglo-Saxon England
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How a peasant beheaded himself
- Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
Works refered to:
- Bailey, Richard N., “St Oswald’s Heads,” in Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint, ed. C. Stancliffe and E. Cambridge. 195-209. Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1995.
- Gatch, Milton McC., “Noah’s Raven in Genesis A and the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch”, Gesta 14:2 (1975), pp. 3-15
- Reynolds, Andrew, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Thompson, Victoria. Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004.
A family bond that has left very little traces in the Anglo-Saxon record is the relationship between grandmothers and their grandchildren. In this blog post, I discuss the evidence from Anglo-Saxon wills in order to shed some light on the role of grannies in early medieval England.
Grandmother-less in Anglo-Saxon England
The Old English gloss ealdemodor for Latin aua in the margins of British Library, Add. 32246 is only one of three occurrences of this Old English word with the sense ‘grandmother’ (see Dictionary of Old English A to H Online, s.v. ealdemodor). The word grandmother itself did not exist in Anglo-Saxon England: according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online (s.v. grandmother), the word is first attested in a will from 1424, in the phrase “Þan shall he be left..grauntmoderles” [then he shall be left grandmother-less]. This first occurrence in the OED, in a way, encapsulates the presence of grandmothers in (early) medieval England. Indeed, while most of the literary and documentary record of the Anglo-Saxons is almost ‘grandmother-less’, early medieval wills are the best place to find them (as well as many other interesting things).
Athelstan Ætheling, raised by his grandmother
The will of Athelstan Ætheling (full text here), drawn up on his deathbed on 25 June 1014, reveals that grandmothers could play a role in the upbringing of their grandchildren. Athelstan, eldest son of Æthelred II (d. 1016), declared that everything that he had granted to God and the Church was to benefit not only the souls of himself and his father, but also that of “Ælfþryðe minre ealdemodor þe me afedde” [Ælfthryth (d. 1000/1001), my grandmother, who raised me]. Remarkably, Athelstan does not mention his mother Ælfgifu of York, (d. 1002) who had died only two years before. This Ælfgifu probably bore Æthelred more than ten (!) children and it may, therefore, not be too far-fetched to hypothesise that she handed over some (or most) of the parenting responsibilities to her mother-in-law Ælfthryth.
Since his grandmother had long died before Athelstan drew up his will, she was obviously not among his beneficiaries. Most of his most precious belongings seem to have gone to his brother Edmund (Ironside). The following bequest stands out: “ic geann Eadmunde minon breðer þæs swurdes þe Offa cyng ahte” [I give to Edmund my brother the sword which King Offa owned]. Apparently, Athelstan had a sword that had once belonged to King Offa of Mercia (d. 796): by that time , the sword would have been over two hundred years old!
Grandmother’s family jewels in the will of Wulfric Spott
The third (and last) occurrence of the Old English word ealdemodor is found in the will of the Anglo-Saxon nobleman Wulfric Spott (d. 1004; full text here). The word features in his bequest to his god-daughter (also his niece) of some land at Stretton and “ðone bule þe wæs hire ealdermoder” [the brooch which was her grandmother’s]. While his god-daughter was probably touched by the receipt of this family jewel, she may have felt that this gift paled in comparison to what Wulfric’s next beneficiary received: the monastery of Burton was gifted with “an hund wildra horsa . 7 sextena tame hencgestas” [one hundred wild horses and sixteen tame stallions].
Another interesting feature of this will is its closing formula that threatens excommunication to whomever would alter Wulfric’s dying wishes:
God ælmihtig hine awende of eallum godes dreame 7 of ealra cristenra gemanan se ðe þis awende butan hit minan cynehlaford sy 7 ic hopyge to him swa godan 7 swa mildheortan þæt he hit nylle sylf don ne eac nanum oþrum menn geþafian.
[And may God turn away from all God’s joy and from the communion of all Christians whomever changes this, unless it is my own king and I hope that he will be so good and so mild-hearted that he will not want to do it himself nor allow any other man to do it.]
By the way, the ‘Spott’ in Wulfric Spott is a nickname, which probably means something like ‘spotty’. For more Old English nicknames, see Anglo-Saxon bynames: Old English nicknames from the Domesday Book.
Spoiled by granny: Wynflæd’s bequests to her grandchildren
Not only do grandmothers get an occasional mention in Anglo-Saxon wills, at least one grandmother wrote her own will: Wynflæd, an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who died around 950 (full text here). This will provides further evidence of grandmothers taking an interest in the well-being of their children’s children.
Like your typical grandmother, Wynflaed spoiled her grandkids rotten: not by stuffing them with food, but by showering them with lands, slaves, and other gifts. Her grandchildren, Eadwold and “hyre syna dehter” [her son’s daughter] Eadgifu, also got to share “hyre taman hors” [her tame horses]. A gift especially intended for her grandson shows Wynflæd’s consideration for his stature and ornamental display: “goldfagan teowenan cuppan þæt he ice his beah mid þam golde” [a gold-adorned wooden cup so that he [Eadwold] may enlarge his armring with the gold]. Likewise, her granddaughter Eadgifu may have had a special place in Wynflæd’s heart, as she bequeathed the girl with the very best of her linen:
“hyre betsþe bedwahrift 7 linnenne ruwan 7 eal þæt bedref þe þærto gebyreð 7 … hyre betstan dunnan tunecan 7 hyre beteran mentel 7 hyre twa treowenan gesplottude cuppan 7 hyre ealdan gewiredan preon is an VI mancussum.”
[her best bed-curtain and a linen covering and all the bed-clothes which go with it and … her best dun tunic, and her better cloak, and her two wooden spotted cups , and her old wired brooch which is worth six mancuses.]
It is interesting to note here that, like the goddaughter of Wulfric Spott, Wynflæd’s granddaughter gets her grandmother’s brooch – was this perhaps an Anglo-Saxon grandmother-to-granddaughter tradition?
Like the Old English gloss ealdemodor mentioned at the start of this post, references to grandmothers are hard to find. These Anglo-Saxon wills , however, show clearly that early medieval grandmothers had a role to play in the lives of their grandchildren, if only by bestowing them with gifts.
If you liked this post, you may also like:
- Growing Old among the Anglo-Saxons (information about my PhD thesis on old age in Anglo-Saxon England)
- How to cook your dragon and a medieval cure for old age (anti-aging, the medieval way)
- Wealthy Wynflæd’s wonderful will (an interesting blog about Wynflæd’s will by Kate Thomas
From Humphrey ‘Golden-bollocks’ to Alwy ‘Beetle-beard’ – this blog post deals with the remarkable bynames found for individuals mentioned in the Domesday Book.
Domesday Book as a cultural treasure trove
The Domesday Book is perhaps the most famous administrative record from the Middle Ages. The Domesday Book was made in 1086 by order of William the Conqueror in 1086, who wanted to know whom he could tax and how much. The result is a long and detailed work, listing the various duties and payments that had to be made to the crown as well as the names and holding of landowners living in 1086. The Domesday Book also includes an overview of the situation during the reign of William’s predecessor Edward the Confessor in 1066. William’s scribes were thorough, indeed, as the Peterborough Chronicle remarks:
Swa swyðe nearwelice he hit lett utaspyrian. þæt næs an ælpig hide. ne an gyrde landes. ne furðon, hit is sceame to tellanne. ac hit ne þuhte him nan sceame to donne. an oxe. ne an cu. ne an swin. næs belyfon. þæt næs gesæt on his gewrite.
[So very narrowly did he command them to record it, that there was not one single hide, not one yard of land, moreover (it is a shame to say it, but it did not seem to him a shame to do it) not one ox, not one cow, not one swine was left, that was not set down in his book.]
While the Domesday Book is mostly used as a source for the social and economic history of eleventh-century England, it is also a treasure trove for those interested in more cultural phenomena, such as bynames and nicknames.
Anglo-Norman and Latin bynames from the Domesday Book
A byname is an additional name to a person’s main name, which often allows for a clearer identification of the individual. Often, such bynames take a locational form, allowing us to distinguish between such a Wulfstan of York and a Wulfstan of Worchester. More interesting are those bynames that describe physical, mental or moral characteristics. The last category is known as nicknames and can often be jocular. Some intriguing Anglo-Norman and Latin nicknames found in the Domesday Book are listed below:
Bernardus panceuolt – Bernard ‘Paunch-face’
Hunfridus uis de leuu – Humphrey ‘Face of a wolf’
Hunfridus aurei testiculi – Humphrey ‘Golden-bollocks’
Rogerus Deus saluaet dominas – Roger ‘God save the ladies’
Slideshow with Anglo-Norman and Latin nicknames. Source images: opendomesday.org
Top 10 Old English nicknames from the Domesday Book
Fascinating though the Anglo-Norman and Latin nicknames are, I was mainly interested to find some Old English nicknames and have listed my personal top 10 (in no particular order) below:
10) Aluui Ceuresbert – Alwy ‘Beetle-beard’
Alwy was a landowner in Thatcham, Berkshire, with, as it would seem, a remarkable beard. His nickname ‘ceuresbert’ is a compound of Old English ceafor ‘chafer, beetle’ and beard ‘beard’, suggesting that he may have had a two-pronged beard resembling the antennae of a beetle.
9) Alwinus Bollochessege – Alwine ‘Bullock’s eye’
Alwinus Bollochessege lived in Winchester in 1066. Since Winchester was not included in the survey for the original Domesday Book, his name is found in what is known as the Liber Winton or Winchester Domesday Book: a twelfth-century document, based on an earlier, now-lost document. The nickname of Alwine is made up of the Old English words bulluc ‘bullock’ and eage ‘eye’ (see Tengvik 1938, 295).
8) Ernuin Catenase – Ernwine ‘Cat’s nose’
Ernuin Catenase (catt ‘cat’ + nasu ‘nose’) was a landowner in Yorkshire, owning lands and manor in Scacherthorpe and Upper and Lower Poppleton. The Domesday Book records that his lands were granted to an Ernwine with a less unfortunate byname: Ernwine the priest.
7) Alricus Wintremelc – Alric ‘Winter-milk’
Alricus Wintremelc was the tenant-in-chief of Goldington, Bedfordshire. His pretty straightforward nickname is, nevertheless, more intriguing than that of Ailmar Melc who lived in Tolleshunt, Essex.
6) Goduuinus Wachefet – Godwine ‘Weak-feet’
Godwine ‘Weak-feet’ was one of the tenants of Gloucester in 1066. In this list we can clearly see that Godwine’s nickname was added to separate him from another “Goduuinus” and a “Goduinus”.
5) Goduuinus Softebread – Godwine ‘Soft-bread’
Another inhabitant of Winchester, mentioned in the Liber Winton (see Tengvik 1938, 380).
4) Godwinus Penifeder – Godwine ‘Penny-father’
Godwin Penny-father lived in Winchester and his nickname suggests that he was something of an Anglo-Saxon Scrooge. He apparently lived in the same street as Aluricus Penipurs – Alfric ‘Penny-purse’ (see Tengvik 1938, 353).
3) Aluuardus Belrap – Alward ‘Bell-rope’
In 1066, Alward ‘Bell-rope’ was the lord of Holcot, Bedfordshire. Interestingly, his lordship had passed over in 1086 to one “Radulfus Passaqua”: Ralph ‘Pass-water’.
2) Aluuinus Deule – Alwine ‘The devil’
Alwine ‘the devil’ was a Bedfordshire landowner not to be meddled with!
1) Aluredus Caddebelloc – Alfred ‘Testicle-testicle’
Another landowner in Winchester in 1066 – name mentioned in Liber Winton. According to Tengvik (1938) this is a tautological compound of OE/ME cade ‘testicle’ and balluc ‘testicle’: Alfred ‘Testicle-testicle’, lest we confuse him with Alfred ‘the Great’…
If you liked this blogpost, you may also be interested in the following post:
- Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great? (on the nickname ‘Arseling’, popularised by BBC’s The Last Kingdom)
- How Cnut became Canute (on the name of Viking king Cnut the Great)
- Naming names in Ælfwine’s Prayerbook (a great blogpost by For the Wynn)
Works referred to:
- G. Tengvik, Old English Bynames (Uppsala, 1938)