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In the 9th century, an anonymous scribe copied a poem attributed to the Irish missionary Columbanus (540-615) and made a crucial mistake. He accidentally omitted one line from the poem. Since this 9th-century manuscript is the only extant copy of the 120-line poem, modern editors of the poem have been forced to leave this line in the poem blank. This blog post reports on the fact that this missing line has been found(!), as I reveal in a new Open Access publication (see the link available at the end of this blog post).
A missing line in Columbanus’s De mundi transitu
The Irish missionary Columbanus (540-615) founded monasteries in France and Italy and was also known to have written pieces in verse. His De mundi transitu is a short but highly wrought poem, written in a style that is typical for Hiberno-Latin poets of the early Middle Ages. It consists of 120 heptasyllabic lines, divided into thirty stanzas of four lines each. In addition to rhyme, which occasionally extends to three syllables, the poem also features alliteration. The topic of the poem is the fleeting nature of earthly delights; everything that is joyful in this life (beauty; wealth; youth) passes:
Vita praesens quam amant;
Sibi poena quam parant.
[The present life that they love declines daily; the penalty they prepare for themselves remains unfailingly.]Columbanus, “De mundi transitu”, ll. 21-24.
Therefore, Columbanus (540-615) holds, a true Christian should focus on the permanence found in Heaven.
This beautiful and powerful poem survives in only one manuscript, which was copied in the 9th century in the Abbey of Saint Gall, Switzerland. When the 9th-century scribe copied the poem, he made a crucial error. Rather than copying line 106 of the poem, his eyes skipped across the page of his exemplar and he accidentally copied out the last part of the wrong line: line 102, which now occurs twice in the manuscript, but does not make any sense in the second instance (a description of Heaven):
Ubi cibo superno
Plebs caelestis pascitur,
Ubi nemo moritur
Quia nemo nascitur,
Ubi aula regia
In qua male resonans
Nulla vox audita est
[Where on celestial food the heavenly folk are fed; where no one dies because no one is born; where the royal hall the heavenly … are fed, in which no voice is heard resounding evil]Columbanus, “De mundi transitu”, ll. 101-108.
The erroneous repetition of part of line 102 on the place of 106 may have been triggered by the fact that both lines 101 and 105 start with the same word: ‘Ubi’. The scribe did not notice their mistake, but later editors of the poem, who could only rely on this faulty manuscript, have been forced to leave open line 106 or come up with their own lines. However, during my research, I chanced upon a partial copy of Columbanus’s poem in another manuscript, which contains the missing line 106! But before I can talk about that part of the story, I need to talk about the fact that old people do not groan in Heaven.
Heaven is a place where the old man does not groan
When I read the poem De mundi transitu for the first time, I was struck by one of its descriptions of Heaven. According to Columbanus, Heaven is a place “Ubi senex non gemat, / Neque infans vagiat” [where the old man does not groan and the infant does not cry]. In my research into early medieval ideas about old age, I found that Heaven was typically described as a place where old age was absent (see Heaven is a place without old age: Age and the afterlife in early medieval England) and I knew of only one other text that described Heaven in the same terms as Columbanus had done: an anonymous Old English homily, found in a twelfth-century manuscript. This Old English text described Heaven as a place “þær eald ne graneð, ne child ne scræmeð” [where the old one does not groan and the child does not scream]. The phrasing was eerily similar to Columbanus’s De mundi transitu and, upon closer investigation, I found that the Old English homily featured a near-translation of some fifty lines of the poem – something that no one else had noticed!
Finding a Latin source for an Old English text is rare and such a substantial one offers all sorts of opportunities for research (how did the Old English homilist adapt his source; what did he leave out; what did he add, etc.) – I was able to write a 23-page chapter about this find (see the link to the full article below). Unfortunately, the Old English homilist did not include a literal translation of the last lines of Columbanus’s poem (including line 106). He did give a near-literal translation of lines 103 and 104 (“Ubi nemo moritur / Quia nemo nascitur”) as “ne þær nan ne swæltæð, for þam ðe þær ne byð nan acenned” [where no one dies, because no one is born there], but what follows seems more of a paraphrase. However, whilst researching this homily and the poem, I found additional and crucial traces of the missing line 106 of Columbanus’s De mundi transitu.
Since I wanted to make sure that the Old English homilist had not used another Latin text as its source, I did some detective work to see if any other texts mentioned old people not groaning in Heaven (and various other phrases found in both Columbanus’s poem and the Old English homily). When I searched for variants of the line “ubi senex non gemat” [where the old man does not groan] in an online database with medieval Latin texts (Brepols’s Library of Latin Texts), I found a text that contained a version of that line, along with some fourteen other lines of Columbanus’s De mundi transitu, including (YES!) line 106 – it turned out to be the work of another person from Ireland: Sedulius Scottus.
An Irish teacher’s notebook: Sedulius Scottus’s Collectaneum Miscellaneum
Sedulius Scottus (fl. 840-860) was a 9th-century Irish teacher, scribe and poet, who fled Ireland after the Viking raids and ended up in continental Europe, where he certainly stayed in Liège (present-day Belgium) and later possibly moved to Milan (Italy). Scottus wrote various works, including poems and biblical commentaries. One of his works, commonly referred to as the Collectaneum Miscellaneum, is a collection of quotes from mostly biblical and patristic sources (a florilegium). For some passages, names of source authors have been added in the margins of the manuscript, but the origin of some strings of text in Scottus’s notebook are still unknown. On one of the pages of his notebook, Sedulius included some lines of Columbanus’ poem De mundi transitu. The passage from Columbanus’s poem was included between two quotes from Church Father Augustine (354-430) and the entire passage is attributed to ‘AVGVSTINVS’ in the manuscript of the Collectaneum:
The misattribution to Augustine of the entire passage (the lines from Columbanus are located in between two Augustinian quotes) has probably resulted in this passage having gone unnoticed in the scholarship on Columbanus’s De mundi transitu. This is unfortunate, since Sedulius Scottus seems to have had access to a copy of the poem that was complete, or, at the very least, did contain line 106 that is missing from the only extant 9th-century manuscript of the full poem!
Here are the lines from the poem in the 9th-century manuscript (without line 106) and the equivalent lines in Sedulius Scottus’ notebook (with line 106!):
It looks as if Sedulius Scottus decided to copy out the lines from Columbanus’s poem that describe Heaven and, crucially, Sedulius’s version of the poem does not appear to have had the scribal error of the 9th-century manuscript from Saint Gall. His version of lines 105-108 read “Ubi aula regia / regis summi sita est, / in qua male resonans / nulla uox audita est”, the meaning of which makes perfect sense: “Where the royal hall of
the highest king is located, in which no voice is heard resounding ill”. The line “regis summi sita est” is also a perfect fit with the rest of Columbanus’s poem – it has seven syllables (like all the other lines), there is alliteration with the last word of line 105 (“regia / regis”) as well as alliteration within the line it self (“summi sita”); and it rhymes with line 108 (“sita est […] audita est”). In other words, it is very likely that the line “regis summi sita est” indeed belonged to the original poem by Columbanus! Thus, by sheer chance and some detective work, the line that was lost by the carelessness of a 9th-century scribe in Saint Gall can now be restored and Columbanus’s poem is once more complete!
For a more thorough, sourced and nuanced discussion of this find, as well as the relationship between Columbanus’ poem De mundi transitu and the anonymous Old English homily you can now read my Open Access (i.e. freely available) publication “Columbanus’s De mundi transitu in Early Medieval England: A New Source for an Old English Homily (Irvine VII) in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 343” (click the link). This chapter is part of the book The Anonymous Old English Homily: Sources, Composition, and Variation, ed. Winfried Rudolf and Susan Irvine (Brill, 2020). I am currently working on a new critical edition and translation of Columbanus’s De mundi transitu, which will have the missing line filled in!
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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“Men þa leofestan!” “Men ða leofestan!” “Men þa leofestan!” This blog post deals with the ways in which a very common Old English phrase was differentiated by early medieval English scribes.
Men þa leofestan! An opening formula of many Old English homilies
If you were to go to church in early medieval England, it is very likely that you would hear the words “Men þa leofestan!” [Dearest people!]. The phrase is found more than 200 times in Old English homilies. In fact, it was the most common way for priests to start their sermons. This is reflected in various medieval manuscripts which feature embellished versions of the phrase to indicate where a new homily began. But if several homilies in the same manuscript started with the same phrase, how would you be able to tell these homilies apart?
Intriguingly, scribes appear to have been aware of this potential difficulty and, as a result, they show a striking variability when it comes to decorating this initial Old English formula. A case in point are the six homilies that start with this phrase in the following 12th-century manuscript:
Each phrase is uniquely handled. The initial M’s, for instance, are all clearly different: some are fully green, others are red with green foliage-like decorations, while the last M is fully red and has a quirky little face. Aside from the different initials, the capitalisation of the rest of the phrase also differs: some capitalise the full first word (MEN), while others capitalize the second word as well (MEN ÐA).
More dramatic variation is found in the various Old English homilies of the late tenth-century Vercelli Book that start with the phrase “Men þa leofestan”:
Here too the scribe differentiates in what parts of the phrase are written in capitals: MEN ÐA LEOFESTAN; MEN ÐA; MEN ÐA LEO; MEN; MEN; MENN Ð(A). The two homilies that start with the lavishly decorated initial M (complete with monstrous head in the middle and little hand? on the left) are strikingly differentiated from the others, while the last of the six homilies (bottom right) uniquely appears to feature two capital M’s and an E that were erased (possibly to leave room for a larger decoration that was never added) – the scribe also seems to have miscalulated how much space was left on the page as he had to add the A inside the Ð to form the word ÐA.
In these ways, the scribes of Cotton Faustina A.ix and the Vercelli Book clearly differentiated between homilies that started in exactly the same way: “Men þa leofestan”.
“Men þa leofestan” in the margins of the Old English Bede
Even when homilies were added to the margins of a manuscript, attempts appear to have been made to differentiate between those homilies that had the same opening formula. This much becomes clear from a manuscript of the Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
This particular manuscript of the Old English Bede is well-known for its marginalia, which include remedies against sore ears, sore eyes and stomach sickness and a magical SATOR square. No fewer than six homilies were added to the margins and four of them start with the well-known phrase “Men þa leofestan”:
Each homily starts with the same phrase, but they clearly have different capitals. Note how the second homily (bottom left) simply writes “Men ð. l.” – the scribe clearly assumed that his reader was familiar with the phrase!
One “M” too many: “Men þa leofestan” in the Blickling Homilies
Another manuscript with many instances of the initial formula “Men þa leofestan” is the tenth/eleventh-century ‘Blickling Homilies’. Whoever was responsible for the illustrated initials in this manuscript appears to have made a great effort to make different kinds of M’s:
Every capital M here is unique! Unfortunately, our Anglo-Saxon M-artist appears to have been a little overzealous in this manuscript, as he accidentally introduced an M where it should not have been:
“M heraþ nu men þa leofestan!” [M hear now, dearest people]. This homily appears to have deviated from the standard pattern of the ‘Blickling Homilies’ by first introducing the verb “heraþ” (or possibly “geheraþ” – you can see a trace of the e in the M), but the scribe was so used to writing variations of the capital M that he added one there by default. Oops!
Men þa leofestan! I hope you have enjoyed this blog post; if you did, please consider subscribing for regular blog updates and/or read the following blog posts:
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a fascinating collection of Old English annals that survives in multiple manuscripts and manuscript fragments. This blog post demonstrates that the manuscripts show a fascinating variety even in those annals for which there was little to nothing to report.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: From Julius Caesar to William the Conqueror and beyond
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle starts its history of England in the year 60 BC, with the failed invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar. Annals that follow report on the arrival of the Germanic tribes, led by Hengest and Horsa, genealogies of various Anglo-Saxon kings and the battles between the Vikings and Alfred the Great. It was probably at the behest of Alfred that the first stretch of annals (from 60 BC to 892 AD) was composed and this ‘Common Stock’ is found in all extant (complete) manuscripts of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However, each manuscript version of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells a unique story, having been copied in different places and at different times, leading to scribes adding, altering and omitting information in the transmission of the text. One manuscript (the Peterborough Chronicle) continues the annals up until the year 1154. The relationship between the manuscripts and related (Latin) chronicles is highly complex as the following diagram from a great article by Simon Keynes demonstrates:
The contents of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is fascinatingly varied, ranging from relatively dry information (this king died; that king died) to exciting heroic narrative (the story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard), impressive genealogies (often including the names of people from Germanic Legend) and actual Old English poetry (e.g., The Battle of Brunanburh). In previous blog posts, I have dealt with two remarkable events recorded in these Old English annals: #NotMyConqueror: Gytha and the Anglo-Saxon Women’s March against William the Conqueror and An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Battle of the Birds, 671. In this blog post, I want to call attention to the years 190 to 381, during which, according to one manuscript of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, literally nothing happened.
Manuscript B: Nothing to see here!
AN. CXC, AN. CXCI, AN. CXCII, AN. CXCIII, AN. CXCIIII, AN. CXCV, AN. CXCVI, etc. We have to admire the diligence of the scribe of MS B of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle who wrote these ‘entries’ for the years 190 to 381. Apparently, there was nothing to report for these years, but the scribe did feel that it was necessary to write out the full numbers and the abbreviations “AN.” for “anno” 191 times. This must have been a tiring task and we can see that the scribe actually noticed a mistake along the way: he had copied the year 356 twice and found out when he had reached 360. At this point, he went back to correct the second 356 to 357 by adding a little I above the last Roman numeral CCCLUI; he did the same for 358 and 359 and erased whatever stood between 359 and 360. That is dedication! Regardless, one mistake was left unnoticed: for the year 379 he accidentally left out a C [AN. CCCLXXUIII, AN. CCLXXIX, AN. CCCLXXXI], but can we really blame him?
Manuscript A: Room for ‘exciting’ additions!
The same range of annals (190 to 381) looks a lot more impressive in the Parker Chronicle (manuscript A):
Admittedly, the way that the scribe of manuscript B handled this series of annals is more economical, but manuscript A at least allows for some room for potential additions. The additions that were made within the range 190 to 381, however, are not the most informative ones: for the year 200, someone added “twa hund gæra” [two hundred years] and for the year 300, the same person added “þreo hund gæra” [three hundred years] – great facts, guys! For the year 283, the death of St Alban is reported: “her þrowade sanctus Albanus martyr” [in this year, the martyr saint Alban suffered].
Manuscript C: Colour patterns!
Manuscript C follows Manuscript B in not reporting anything of note in the range 190 to 381 and, instead, just lists all the years + AN. To make the page still somewhat exciting, the scribe uses a different colour ink for every line:
But even the neat colour patterning did not withhold this scribe from making an error: the pattern breaks when he accidentally copies out two lines in red, which he then follows up by two lines in black, before returning to one line of red:
Manuscript D: Parchment to spare
Whoever was responsible for the layout of manuscript D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had parchment to spare: rather than writing out all the years consecutively, like MSS B and C, or writing out the years in two columns like manuscrpt A, Manuscript D gives the years in one column. As a result, the range 190 to 260 alone already spans three pages. The next folios have been lost and they are replaced with 16th-century ‘supply-leaves’ (giving the text of folios that are now missing):
The sixteenth-century hand, belonging to John Jocelyn (1529-1603), seems to have taken some effort to reproduce all the year numbers, although he gives up at the year 286, for which he now gives the death of St. Alban “Her ðrowade santus Albanus martyr”.
Note also the original scribes colour patterning, using blue and red ink.
Manuscript E: A creepy little hand
Manuscript E brings us back to the two-column layout of manuscript A. This is combined with different colour ink for the year numbers and the textual entries. It seems as if this copy of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had some more things to say for the years 190 to 381, but they still look like two boring centuries:
Clearly, the death of St Alban (here in the year 286, as in Manuscript D, but unlike Manuscript A which had it down in 283) was considered the most important event, since it is called attention to by a little hand (manicula) with a creepily long and wavy index finger:
Manuscript F: The years are fading away!
There is not much to say about manuscript F of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle other than that its bilingual nature (it gives the text of the entries in Old English and Latin) did not affect the way that the year numbers are presented on the page – manuscript F follows B and C in writing the year numbers consecutively, even if this scribe did not bother to copy out the abbreviation “AN.” 191 times! Unfortunately, red ink was used for the year numbers and this has all but faded away. For the ‘textual entries’, the scribe used black ink, which means we can still read the entry for the death of St Alban, which, in this manuscript, appears to have taken place in the year 287, unless the scribe copied the year 286 twice.
Looking back at this blog post, we can draw two conclusions:
1) Even for stretches of time in which almost nothing happened, the manuscripts of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicleshow a fascinating diversity.
2) Nobody knew exactly when St Alban died. Manuscript A has 283; D and E opt for 286 and F seems to put it at 287. Wikipedia (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of the modern age) suggests the death of St Alban either happened in c. 251 or 304 – so I guess we still don’t know.
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- Half-assed humanoids: Centaurs in early medieval England
- Sitting down in early medieval England: A catalogue of Anglo-Saxon chairs
This blog post looks at how Bede’s famous parable of the sparrow was reused in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
Bede’s famous parable of the sparrow is a common text in many introductory courses of Old English. It is found in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731), when he discusses how King Edwin of Northumbria was converted to Christianity in the year 627. In Bede’s story, one of Edwin’s counsellors compares the life of a pagan to the flight of a sparrow through the king’s warm hall. Here is the Old English version of the counsellor’s speech, from an 11th-century manuscript:
It seems to me thus, dearest king, that this present life of men on earth, in comparison to the time that is unknown to us, [is] as if you were sitting at your dinner tables with your noblemen, warmed in the hall, and it rained and it snowed and it hailed and one sparrow came from outside and quickly flew through the hall and it came in through one door and went out through the other. Lo! During the time that he was inside, he was not touched by the storm of the winter. But that is the blink of an eye and the least amount of time, but he immediately comes from winter into winter again. So then this life of men appears for a short amount of time; what came before or what follows after, we do not know. Therefore, if this new lore brings anything more certain and more wise, it is worthy of that that we follow it.’
Bede’s image is simple but effective: paganism, according to Bede, does not account for Creation or the Afterlife – the life of a pagan, therefore, resembles the flight of a sparrow through the king’s hall: it comes from the cold and dark winter, spends some brief time in the warm and pleasant hall and then it returns to the cold and dark winter. Since Christianity does give clarity about what came before and what came after, it must be better. Arguably, Bede is misrepresenting whatever pre-Christian faith Edwin of Northumbria and his counsellors adhered to, but that does not make the image less effective. Indeed, while Bede notes that the sparrow’s flight is over in the blink of an eye, Bede’s story reverberates until this present day.
William Wordsworth’s “Persuasion” (1822)
Bede’s parable of the sparrow was reiterated in sonnet-form by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) in his Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822), a series of 132 poems narrating the history of Christianity, from its arrival in Britain to Wordsworth’s own days. In Wordsworth’s sixteenth sonnet “Persuasion”, Bede’s sparrow represents the human soul:
Man’s life is like a Sparrow, mighty King!William Wordsworth, “Persuasion” (1822) – source
That—while at banquet with your Chiefs you sit
Housed near a blazing fire—is seen to flit
Safe from the wintry tempest. Fluttering,
Here did it enter; there, on hasty wing,
Flies out, and passes on from cold to cold;
But whence it came we know not, nor behold
Whither it goes. Even such, that transient Thing,
The human Soul; not utterly unknown
While in the Body lodged, her warm abode;
But from what world She came, what woe or weal
On her departure waits, no tongue hath shown;
This mystery if the Stranger can reveal,
His be a welcome cordially bestowed!
In Wordsworth’s version, the king’s warm hall represents the human body, while the sparrow is the human soul. This interpretation of the sparrow may well have been what Bede intended and, at any rate, has an analogue in Psalm 123:7 (“Our soul hath been delivered as a sparrow out of the snare of the fowlers”).
Edwin Morgan’s “Grendel” (1976-1981)
Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) put the image of Bede’s sparrow on its head in his monologue poem “Grendel”. In this poem, we get the monster Grendel’s pespective on the hall Heorot (the Old English poem Beowulf tells us that Grendel decided to attack the hall, because he was distraught by the noise of merry-making Danes in the hall). In contrast to the warmth and pleasantness that both Bede and Wordsworth ascribed to the hall, Morgan’s Grendel describes the hall as a horrible place that the sparrow is glad to leave:
Who would be a man? Who would be the winter sparrowA passage from Edwin Morgan’s “Grendel”
that flies at night by mistake into a lighted hall
and flutters the length of it in zigzag panic,
dazed and terrified by the heat and noise and smoke,
the drink-fumes and the oaths, the guttering flames,
feast-bones thrown to a snarl of wolfhounds,
flash of swords in sodden sorry quarrels,
till at last he sees the other door
and skims out in relief and joy
into the stormy dark?
Bede’s warm and cosy hall are nowehere to be seen in this version of the sparrow’s flight! In this passage, as elsewhere in Morgan’s poem, Grendel’s disgust over human society shines through. This bleak view of humanity may also explain the two opening lines of the poem: “It is being nearly human / gives me this spectacular darkness”.
Morgan was well acquainted with Old English poetry; he made a translation of the original Beowulf and also a number of poem collected under the heading “From the Anglo-Saxon” in his Dies Irae (1952).
Jeff Smith’s BONE (1991-2004)
I am a fan of Jeff Smith’s epic comic book saga BONE (1991-2004). The series has received multiple awards and was named one of the ten greatest graphic novels of all time by TIME magazine, which described it as: “As sweeping as the Lord of the Rings cycle, but much funnier”.
Here is an image taken from the prequel volume Rose (2000-2002) and shows the ‘headmaster of the Venu’ (the hooded figure) explaining how ‘the dreaming’ (a sort of spirit world where everyone comes from and to which everyone must one day return) works.
In the BONE Companion (2016), Stephen Weiner explains that the dreaming is based on the Aboriginal concept of the ‘Dreamtime’. From the way the headmaster explains the concept, however, we can also see some influence from Bede! In the headmaster’s simile, the hall stands once more for human life and the cold outside of winter encompasses everything beyond this present life.
To conclude, while the sparrow in Bede’s imagination only spent a brief moment in the hall, Bede’s image has certainly stood the test of time!
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- Medieval manuscripts in modern media: Anglo-Saxon manuscripts spotted in Vikings, The Last Kingdom and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
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
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)
Medieval manuscripts in modern media: Anglo-Saxon manuscripts spotted in Vikings, The Last Kingdom and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
TV series and video games set in early medieval England often include little historical details in the background to add to a sense of realism and historical accuracy. In a previous blog post, I discussed the use of such ‘Anglo-Saxon props’ in the The Last Kingdom (BBC/Netflix; 2015-) , Merlin (BBC/Netflix; 2008-2012) and Ivanhoe (MGM; 1952) (see: Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects). In this blog post, I discuss the appearance of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in Vikings (History Channel/Netflix; 2013-), The Last Kingdom and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (Ubisoft; 2020). This blog post may contain minor spoilers…
Vikings (History Channel/Netflix; 2013-): Eighth-century manuscripts in a ninth-century scriptorium
With its focus on legendary Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons, History Channel’s Vikings spends a good amount of screentime on early medieval England. In particular, much of the first five series of the show centre on the kingdom of Wessex, ruled by King Ecgberht (r. 825-839) and his son Æthelwulf. In the fourth series, Princess Judith (married to Æthelwulf) learns the art of manuscript illumination and is seen in two episodes practising her newly acquired art.
In episode, 2 of series 4, Judith is seen making the mid-eighth-century Vespasian Psalter in King Ecgberht’s mid-ninth-century scriptorium:
The Vespasian Psalter is a beautiful, glossed manuscript that I have discussed earlier here: Reading between the lines in early medieval England: Old English interlinear glosses.
In the next episode, Judith is seen at work on the portrait of Matthew the Evangelist in the Barberini Gospels (in actuality made in 8th-century England):
The portrait of Matthew is a prudent choice for the not-so-prudent Judith, since the Barberini Gospels also feature a rather obscene image of a naked man ‘pulling his beard’ (I discuss this image and other obscene art from the period here: Anglo-Saxon obscenities: Explicit art from early medieval England):
The Last Kingdom (BBC/Netflix, 2015-): A ninth-century chronicle and pardon with eleventh-century features
The first three series of The Last Kingdom are set during the reign of Alfred the Great (d. 899). In the third series, Alfred is nearing the end of his life and is concerned for his legacy; in various episodes, references are made to a chronicle that Alfred has ordered to be made for the purpose of securing how he will be remembered. As Alfred explains it, this chronicle would record his deeds and make sure that hundred years later people will still remember him and his idea for England. The Last Kingdom‘s ‘Alfred chronicle’ seems to be a reference to the so-called Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the first compilation of which was indeed begun during Alfred’s reign and shows a rather partisan view of Alfred’s Wessex.
In episode three, the chronicle is first introduced and we are given a glimpse at one of the manuscript pages:
The text of the manuscript is in Latin, suggesting that we are not dealing with the Old English Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; instead this entire page (with the exception of the first two words “Ælfred rex”) appears to have been drawn from Asser’s Life of Alfred (available here, the manuscript text “Studebat quoque in iudiciis…” is from chapter 106, the very last part of Asser’s text). This is a good choice, since this biography of Alfred the Great was indeed written during Alfred’s lifetime by the Welsh bishop Asser (who made an appearance in the last three episodes of the first series of The Last Kingdom, but he has since disappeared).
The illustration, however, strikes as odd: it is from an eleventh-century manuscript known as the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch:
The Old English Illustrated Hexateuch is a fascinating manuscript: it has an Old English translation and paraphrase of the first six books of the Bible and the text is interspersed with illustrations (see: The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book). The image used in The Last Kingdom’s ‘Alfred chronicle’ is based on the Hexateuch’s depiction of Genesis 40:22, showing the Pharoah, surrounded by his advisors. hanging his chief baker. The hanged baker appears to have been cropped out of the picture in The Last Kingdom – perhaps Alfred didn’t want to be reminded of his own baking skills!
Alfred spends much of the third series brooding over his chronicle in his scriptorium and, in episode seven, we are given a look at another page. This page shows a boat, filled with Vikings and horses, as well as a bird pecking at an impaled head.
The Latin text on the pages is, once again, drawn from Asser’s Life of Alfred (chapter 67 this time, describing how Alfred defeated Vikings in Kent, so again a good textual fit!). The image is a mash-up of Noah’s ark from the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch and a Norman boat on the Bayeux Tapestry:
The boat in the Alfred chronicle seemes to be inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry for its inclusion of both men and horses (as well as its sail). With the Hexateuch’s Ark of Noah, the Viking boat in the Alfred chronicle shares not only the animal-like boat-ends, but also the intriguing feature of an impaled head on a stick (if you are interested in why there is an impaled head on Noah’s ark, read Heads on sticks: Decapitation and impalement in early medieval England).
In episode 9 of the third series, Uhtred and Alfred meet up in the scriptorium and a number of pages from the Alfred Chronicle are shown lying side by side. The Latin text is again from Asser and the drawings are, again, based on the eleventh-century Illustrated Old English Hexateuch:
In the same episode, Alfred writes a pardon for Uhtred, forgiving him his trespasses. The pardon is written in Old English and I have been able to decipher almost all of it; I provide my tentative transcription and translation below:
HER SWUTELAÞ on þis
gewrit þæt ÆLFRED cyn
ing westseaxna …. …
þone fleman UCTREDE …
his sawle VII nihtlang ær þæra
haligra mæssan. Þis wæs ge
don in þam cynelican byrig
on þære stowe ðe is genæm
ned Wintanceaster on Ælfred
es cyninges gewitnesse 7 Uc
tredes ealdormannes 7 hæbbe
he godes curs þe þis æfre
undo a on ecnysse. PAX CHR[IST]I
[Here it is revealed in this writing that Ælfred, king of the Westsaxons … the fugitive Uhtred … his soul seven night’s long before the holy mass. This was done in the royal fortification in the place that is named Winchester by witness of Alfred the king and of Uhtred the nobleman and may he have God’s curse always in eternity who should ever undo this. Peace of Christ with us.
The first part of this text, which mentions the TV series’s character Uhtred (with its Anglo-Saxon spelling Uctred), seems to have been tailor-made for the show, but the last part of the text “hæbbe he godes curs þe þis æfre undo a on ecnysse” [may he have God’s curse always in eternity who should ever undo this] is a common curse-type, found in many legally binding documents from early medieval England. These curses prevent anyone from altering the document and undoing what it has stated.
Intriguingly, the curse that Alfred uses has an exact parallel in a so-called manumission: a statement for the release of a slave. This manumission was added to the Leofric Missal (digitized here) at the end of the eleventh century,:
Her kyð on þisse bec þæt æilgyuu gode alysde hig 7 dunna 7 heora ofspring, æt mangode to XIII mancson 7 æignulf portgerefa 7 Godric gupa namon þæt toll on manlefes gewittnisse, 7 on leowerdes healta, 7 on leowines his broþor, 7 on ælfrices maphappes, 7 on sweignis scyldwirhta. And hæbbe he godes curs, þe þis æfre undo a on ecnysse, Amen.
[Here is made known in this book that Æilgyvu ‘the Good’ released Hig and Dunna and their offspring from Manegot for 13 mancuses and Æignulf the portreeve and Godric Gupa took the payment by witness of Manlef and Leowerd Healta and his brother Leowine and Ælfric Maphapp, and Sweign the shieldmaker. And may he have God’s curse always in eternity who should ever undo this. Amen]
Given that curses of this type are mostly found in manumissions, it seems like a suitable way for Alfred to end his pardon by which he ‘releases’ his noble and loyal follower and henchman.
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (2020): A pastoral manuscript turned into declaration of war
On the 30th of April of 2020, the cinematic trailer for the video game Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla came out. I was alerted to its presence by a student who noted that Alfred the Great made an appearance in the trailer. I watched the trailer and immediately noticed some interesting historical details, which I promptly shared on Twitter on the same day:
The last detail deserves an extended treatment here: Alfred signs a declaration of war, using the decidedly un-Old English word “WAR”; the rest of the text is Old English and I soon recognized the text and the manuscript it was taken from as a work that is indeed attributed to Alfred the Great himself.
It turns out to be a manuscript (digitized here) that is contemporary to Alfred (dated c. 890-897) and contains a translation of Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis [Pastoral Care] into Old English. The translation is preceded by a preface by Alfred the Great himself, in which he writes that he himself was in fact responsible for this translation (with the aid of some teachers); the text on the Assassin’s Creed declaration is from that preface.
The Cura Pastoralis is a work on the pastoral responsibilities of the clergy (i.e. how churchmen should take care of their flock) so it seems odd that Assassin’s Creed‘s Alfred would use part of this text to declare war on the Vikings, but at least the manuscript -and- the text are both a chronological fit, which, as we have seen, is only rarely the case!
If you liked this blog post, consider following this blog (button in the menu on the right) and/or enjoy the following posts as well:
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
- Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?
- Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb
In the early Middle Ages, dwarfs appear to have been associated with a medical condition. That is, the Old English word for dwarf, dweorg, could also denote “fever, perhaps high fever with delirium and convulsions” [Dictionary of Old English, s.v. dweorg]. As a result, the term dweorg pops up in various remedies that are intended to rid the patient of their dwarf and/or fever; here are five sure ways to get rid of those short-statured, bearded individuals!
1. Write some symbols! Old English charms
The Anglo-Saxon medico-magical collection known as the Lacnunga (surviving in a 10th/11th-century manuscript) features a number of remedies against a dwarf. Two of these involve writing a series of symbols (crosses and Greek letters) along one’s arms, followed by the mixing of great celandine with ale and calling upon two saints (Macutus and Victoricus):
Writ ðis ondlang da earmas wiþ dweorh, … 7 gnid cyleðenigean on ealað, sanctus macutus sancte uictorici.
Writ þis ondlang ða earmas wið dweorh, … 7 gnid cyleþenigean on ealað, sanctus macutus, sancte uictorici.
[Write this along the arms against a dwarf … and mix celandine in ale, saint Macuturs, Saint Victoricus.
Write this along the arms against a dwarf … and mix celandine in ale, saint Macuturs, Saint Victoricus.]
The notion that writing symbols may alleviate one from a dwarf is also found in one other Old English charm. On the flyleaf of an eleventh-century manuscript, an Anglo-Saxon scribe wrote a string of Christian gobbledegook (“thebal guttatim aurum et thus de. + albra Iesus + alabra Iesus + Galabra Iesus +”), followed by this Old English instruction:
Wið þone dworh on .iii. oflætan writ.
[Against the dwarf, write on three wafers:
THEBAL GUTTA seems to be pure mumbo-jumbo (akin to abracadabra); the use of wafers is interesting, since these are also used in the most famous Old English charm which is simply entitled “Wid dweorh” [against a dwarf].
2. Summon its sister! An Old English charm against a dwarf
This charm, found among the Lacnunga, instructs one to take seven “lytle oflætan swylce man mid ofrað” [little wafers like the ones people use to worship; i.e. the Host] and write down the names of seven saints (Maximianus, Malcus, Johannes, Martinianus, Dionysius, Constantinus and Serafion – the names of the Christian saints collectively known as the Seven Sleepers). The charm further instructs that a virgin must hang these wafers around the neck of the patient and that you are to sing a particular song, “ærest on þæt wynstre eare, þænne on þæt swiðre eare, þænne bufan þæs mannes moldan” [first into the left ear, then into the right ear, then on top of the patient’s head]. This ritual is to be repeated for three days in a row: “Do man swa þry dagas him bið sona sel.” [Do this for three days and then he will immediately be well].
The charm also provides the text of the song you are supposed to sing. This song is rather enigmatic, but the usual interpretation is as follows: the first four lines describe the cause of the patient’s complaints: a small being [the dwarf] has put reins over the patient and has started to ride them as if they were a horse; the next lines describe the cure: the sister of the dwarf is summoned and she puts an end to the patient’s ordeal and swears oaths that it shall never happen again.
Her com in gangan, in spiderwiht,
hæfde him his haman on handa, cwæð þæt þu his hæncgest wære,
legde þe his teage an sweoran. Ongunnan him of þæm lande liþan;
sona swa hy of þæm lande coman, þa ongunnan him ða liþu colian.
þa com in gangan dweores sweostar;
þa geændade heo and aðas swor
ðæt næfre þis ðæm adlegan derian ne moste,
ne þæm þe þis galdor begytan mihte,
oððe þe þis galdor ongalan cuþe.
[Here came a spider-creature crawling in;
His web was a harness held in his hand.
Stalking, he said that you were his steed.
Then he threw his net around your neck,
Reining you in. Then they both began
To rise from the land, spring fromthe earth.
As they leapt up, their limbs grew cool.
Then the spider-dwarf’s sister jumped in,
Ending it all by swearing these oaths:
No hurt should come to harm the sick,
No pain to the patient who receives the cure,
No harm to the one who sings this charm.
Amen. Let it be done. ] (Trans. Williamson 2017, p. 1075)
This charm’s effectiveness seems to rely on the combination of pagan Germanic, magical elements (the dwarf as a cause for the disease; its sister swearing oaths; a complex singing ritual involving a virgin) and Christian elements (the Host; names of Christian saints; the use of “Amen”) – this is a phenomenon often referred to as syncretism (the blending of two cultures).
3. Carve some runes! The Dunton plaque and Odin’s skull
Discovered as recently as 2015, a lead plaque dated to the 8th to 11th centuries features a very interesting runic inscription in Old English: “DEAD IS DWERG”. The inscription on this ‘Dunton plaque’ is easily translated to “The dwarf is dead” and may have worked in a similar manner to the Old English charms above. The act of writing the runes was part of a healing procedure; rather than a combination of Greek letters and Christian crosses or gobbledegook (THEBAL GUTTA!), the runic inscription is straightforward: the dwarf/fever is dead and gone. The hole in the plaque may indicae that it could be worn as a talisman (like the seven wafers used in the charm “Wið dweorh”).
John Hines (2019) has pointed out that this runic inscription has an interesting Scandinavian analogue in the Ribe skull fragment, dating to the early 8th century. Like the plaque, this skull fragment has a runic inscription and a hole suggesting it could potentially have been worn as a talisman:
ᚢᛚᚠᚢᛦᚼᚢᚴᚢᚦᛁᚾᚼᚢᚴᚺᚢᛏᛁᚢᛦ ᚺᛁᚼᛚᛒᛒᚢᚱᛁᛁᛋᚢᛁᚦᛦ ᚦᚼᛁᛗᚼᚢᛁᚼᚱᚴᛁᚼᚢᚴᛏᚢᛁᚱᚴᚢᚾᛁᚾ ᛒᚢᚢᚱ
Ulfr auk Ōðinn auk Hō-tiur. Hjalp buri es viðr þæima værki. Auk dverg unninn. Bōurr.
[Ulfr and Odin and High-tiur. Buri is help against this pain. And the dwarf (is) overcome. Bóurr.] (edition and translation from Schulte 2006, see also this Wikipedia article)
The interpretation of this skull fragment usually runs as follows: Buri/Bóurr is suffering from a fever/dwarf and this talisman is intended to alleviate Buri – it not only puts into writing the desired outcome (“the dwarf is overcome”), it also calls upon the aid of the Germanic god Odin, a wolf (Ulfr; perhaps Fenrir) and “High-tiur” (who may be the Germanic god Tyr). With this appeal to supernatural forces, this skull fragment resembles the invocations to Christian saints found in the Old English charms mentioned above.
4. Eat dog sh*t! A remedy from the Medicina de quadripedibus
The next dwarf expellant comes from the Old English translation of Medicina de quadripedibus, an early medieval medical compendium that outlines how various parts of four-legged animals may be used in remedies. Intriguingly, the text prescribes the use of a rather distasteful ingredient to get rid of a dwarf:
Dweorg onweg to donne, hwites hundes þost gecnucadne to duste 7 <gemengen> wið meolowe 7 to cicle abacen syle etan þam untruman men ær þær tide hys tocymes, <swa> on dæge swa on nihte swæþer hyt sy, his togan bið ðearle strang. 7 æfter þam he lytlað 7 onweg gewiteþ. (ed. De Vriend 1984, p. 266)
[To remove a dwarf, knead the excrement of a white dog to dust and mix it with milk and bake it into a small cake, give it the sick man to eat before the time of his [the dwarf’s?] coming, by day or by night whichever it is, his coming will be very strong and after that he grows small and will go away.]
It is not uncommon for Anglo-Saxon medical texts to prescribe waste products (excrement, urine, spit) to get rid of something – an example of sympathetic magic (for more examples, see: Early Medieval Magical Medicine: An Anglo-Saxon Trivia Quiz).
5. Kick it into the fire! Litr the dwarf’s fifteen seconds of fame in Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning
Perhaps the most effective way of getting rid of a dwarf is demonstrated by the Germanic god Thor in Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning (part of the Old Norse Prose Edda, c. 1220). After the beloved god Baldr died as a result of some trickery by Loki, the gods gather at Baldr’s funeral pyre, shedding tears of sadness. Snorri Sturluson paints a dramatic scene, with Baldr’s grief-stricken wife dying of sorrow, but then he follows this with a remarkable anecdote about Litr the dwarf:
Then was the body of Baldr borne out on shipboard; and when his wife, Nanna the daughter of Nep, saw that, straightway her heart burst with grief, and she died; she was borne to the pyre, and fire was kindled. Then Thor stood by and hallowed the pyre with Mjöllnir; and before his feet ran a certain dwarf which was named Litr; Thor kicked at him with his foot and thrust him into the fire, and he burned. (source)
This is, for as far as I know, the only appearance of Litr the dwarf in Scandinavian mythology. His fifteen seconds of fame demonstrate that the surest way of getting rid of a dwarf is to kick it into the fire; it is also a valuable lesson never to trip up a Germanic god!If you liked this blog post, you can follow this blog for regular updates and/or check out the following related posts:
- Cooked crow’s brains and other early medieval remedies for headaches from the Leiden Leechbook
- Early Medieval Magical Medicine: An Anglo-Saxon Trivia Quiz
- Creepy Crawlies in Early Medieval England: Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Minibeasts
- Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?–
- Hines, John. 2019. “Practical Runic Literacy in the Late Anglo-Saxon Period: Inscriptions on Lead Sheet.” In: Anglo-Saxon Micro-Texts, ed. Ursula Lenker & Lucia Kornexl, pp. 29-60. De Gruyter.
- Schulte, Michael. 2006. “The Transformation of the Older Fuþark: Number Magic, Runographic or Linguistic Principles?” Arkiv för nordisk filologi 121, pp. 41–74.
- de Vriend, Hubert Jan (Ed.). The Old English Herbarium and Medicina de Quadrupedibus. Oxford University Press.
- Williamson, C. (Trans.). 2017. The Complete Old English Poems. University of Pennsylvania Press.
As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this post, I focus on the parallels between Tolkien’s oliphaunts and their counterparts from early medieval England.
Of oliphaunts and elephants
As the hobbits Sam and Frodo, guided by the creature Gollum, make their way to Mordor in The Two Towers, they chance upon a number of Southron forces marching to the Black Gate of Mordor. Sam wonders whether they might have brought oliphaunts. When Gollum expresses his ignorance concerning these animals, Sam stands up and recites a little poem:
Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South,
Flapping big ears.
Beyond count of years
I stump round and round,
Never lie on the ground,
Not even to die.
Oliphaunt am I,
Biggest of all,
Huge, old, and tall.
If ever you’d met me
You wouldn’t forget me.
If you never do,
You won’t think I’m true;
But old Oliphaunt am I,
And I never lie. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, bk. 4, ch. 3)
Sam’s poem (which is also reproduced as part of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil) has an interesting analogue in a homily written by Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010). Ælfric wrote about the Maccabees, a group of Jewish warriors (revered as saints in the early Christian church), who had several interactions with elephants. He described this exotic animal as follows:
Sumum menn wile þincan sellic þis to gehyrenne, forðan þe ylpas ne comon næfre on Engla lande. Ylp is ormæte nyten mare þonne sum hus, eall mid banum befangen binnan þam felle butan æt þam nafelan, 7 he næfre ne lið. Feower 7 twentig monða gæð seo modor mid folan, 7 þreo hund geara hi libbað, gif hi alefede ne beoð. 7 hi man mæg wenian wundorlice to gefeohte. Hwæl is ealra fixa mæst, 7 ylp is ealra nytena mæst, ac swa þeah mannes gescead hi mæg gewyldan.
Some men will think this is strange to hear, because elephants never came to England. An elephant is an immense creature, bigger than a house, completely surrounded with bones within the skin except at the navel, and he never lies. The mother is with foal for twenty-four months and they live for three hundred years if they are not crippled. And one can wonderfully train them for a battle. The whale is the largest of all fishes, and the elephant is the largest of all animals, but a man’s power of reason can nevertheless tame them.
Note how both Ælfric and Sam’s poem compare the size of these beasts to a house; they both mention their remarkable old age and the fact they never lie down. According to Ælfric, most people in early medieval England were as unfamiliar with elephants as Gollum was with oliphaunts – something that is confirmed by the following artistic impressions of elephants in two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts:
The ‘elephant’ on the left illustrates the passage “On þyssum stowum beoð akende þa miclan menigeo ylpenda” [In these places, the great multitudes of elephants are born] in the Old English Marvels of the East (for which, see The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex); the ‘elephant’ on the right accompanies a medical recipe that prescribes “ylpenban” [elephant bone]. Judging by the texture of the skin, lack of tusks and floppy ears, these Anglo-Saxon artists had clearly never seen an elephant.
How to kill an elephant or an oliphaunt
In his Hexameron (a work on the six days of Creation), Ælfric again wrote about the elephant, this time giving more context to how one might use it in battle:
Ða ylpas beoð swa micele swylce oðre muntas 7 hi magon libban ðreo hund geara 7 man mæg hi wenian to wige mid cræfte swa ðæt men wyrcað wighus him uppan 7 of ðam feohtað on heora fyrdinge. Þonne flyheð ælc hors afæred þurh þa ylpas, 7 gif hwa him wiðstent he bið sona oftreden.
[The elephants are as big as mountains and they can live for three hundred years and one can train them for war with skill in such a way that men build a battle-house upon them and from that they fight in their army. Then every horse will flee, afraid because of the elephants, and if anyone withstands them he will immediately be trampled.]
The notion that men will build houses on the backs of elephants is another aspect that Ælfric’s elephants share with what Sam tells Gollum about oliphaunts:
But I’ve heard tales of the big folk down away in the Sunlands. Swertings we call ’em in our tales; and they ride on oliphaunts, ’tis said, when they fight. They put houses and towers on the oliphauntses backs and all, and the oliphaunts throw rocks and trees at one another. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, bk. 4, ch. 3)
When Oliphaunts (who are named Mûmakil in the language of Harad) show up at the Battle of Pellennor Fields in The Return of the King, they indeed have war-towers on their backs and, like Ælfric’s elephants, they scare away horses:
… from the southward fields came footmen of Harad with horsemen before them, and behind them rose the huge backs of the mûmakil with war-towers upon them. … Horns were blown and trumpets were braying, and the mûmakil were bellowing as they were goaded to war. … But wherever the mûmakil came there the horses would not go, but blenched and swerved away; and the great monsters were unfought, and stood like towers of defence, and the Haradrim rallied about them. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, bk. 5, ch. 6)
In Tolkien’s chapter, we also learn about Derufin and Duilin of Morthond who “were trampled to death when they assailed the mûmakil, leading their bowmen close to shoot at the eyes of the monsters”. The risk of getting trampled by elephants is also touched upon by Ælfric in his homily on the Maccabees, when he narrates the heroic death of Eleazar, who struck at the navel of the elephant (its weak spot) and then found himself underneath the beast.
And an his geferena, Eleazarus hatte, arn to anum ylpe þe ðær enlicost wæs, wende þæt se cyning wære on ðam wighuse ðe he bær. He arn mid atogenum swurde betwux þam eorode middan, and sloh æfre on twa healfa þæt hi sweltende feollon oð þæt he to þam ylpe com, and eode him on under, stang ða hine æt ðam nauelan þæt hi lagon ðær begen, heora egðer oðres slaga.]
[And one of his companions, called Eleazar, ran to the one elephant who was the most noble; he thought that the king would be in the tower that it bore. He ran with drawn sword through the middle of the mounted troop, and hacked continuously on both sides, so that they fell dying and he came to the elephant, and he went under it, struck it then at the navel so that they both lay there, each the slayer of the other.]
Perhaps Eleazar should have taken his cue from Legolas the elf, who, in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, manages to kill an oliphaunt and walk away unscathed:
Note: An elephant is not a camel!
In the Stapledon Magazine of June 1927, Tolkien published an earlier version of the Oliphaunt poem recited by the hobbit Sam in The Lord of the Rings, entitled “Iumbo, or ye Kinde of ye Oliphaunt”. This significantly larger piece is part of Tolkien’s attempt to make a parody of the medieval bestiary genre [I am writing an article about this , which will hopefully be out later this year]. The poem about the Oliphaunt starts as follows:
The Indic oliphaunt’s a burly lump,
A moving mountain, a majestic mammal
(But those that fancy that he wears a hump
Confuse him incorrectly with the camel). (J.R. R. Tolkien, “”Iumbo, or ye Kinde of ye Oliphaunt”, ll. 1-4)
The confusion between an elephant and a camel relies on a linguistic joke: the Old English word for ‘camel’ is olfend and bears a great similarity to present-day elephant. In his “Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings“, Tolkien explains:
Elephant in English is derived from Old French olifant, but the o is probably derived from old forms of English or German: Old English olfend, Old High German olbenta ‘camel’. The names of foreign animals, seldom or never seen, are often misapplied in the borrowing language. (J. R. R. Tolkien, “Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings“)
An interesting example of the names of foreign animals being misapplied is found in the early medieval manuscript of Beowulf, which also contains an illustrated copy of The Marvels of the East. In the passage of this text where the Latin source (and at least one other Old English translation, see above) mention elephants, the scribe of this version accidentally replaced the Old English word “ylpenda” [of elephants] with “olfenda” [of camels] and the illuminator followed suit:Was Tolkien thinking of the scribe and artist of the Beowulf manuscript when he wrote his little elephant-camel joke in “Iumbo, or ye Kinde of ye Oliphaunt”? Who knows? What is clear is that Tolkien’s oliphaunts clearly fit an early medieval mindset!
If you liked this post, you may also be interested in:
- The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Anglo-Saxon Elves
- The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Horses!
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: The Anglo-Saxon Habits of Hobbits
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Aragorn and Exiled Anglo-Saxon Kings
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Rings of Power
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Thror’s Map
You can find my academic publications (some of which are Open Access) on Tolkien here.
For more information on medieval elephants, see:
- The British Library Blog: Anglo-Saxon Elephants
- E. J. Christie, “The Idea of an Elephant: Ælfric of Eynsham, Epistemology, and the Absent Animals of Anglo-Saxon England,” Neophilologus 98 (2014), 465-479
- List of medieval elephant images at larsdatter.com.