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Medieval manuscripts in modern media: Anglo-Saxon manuscripts spotted in Vikings, The Last Kingdom and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.

TV series and video games set in early medieval England often include little historical details in the background to add to a sense of realism and historical accuracy. In a previous blog post, I discussed the use of such ‘Anglo-Saxon props’ in the The Last Kingdom (BBC/Netflix; 2015-) , Merlin (BBC/Netflix; 2008-2012) and Ivanhoe (MGM; 1952) (see: Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects). In this blog post, I discuss the appearance of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in Vikings (History Channel/Netflix; 2013-), The Last Kingdom and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (Ubisoft; 2020). This blog post may contain minor spoilers…

Vikings (History Channel/Netflix; 2013-): Eighth-century manuscripts in a ninth-century scriptorium

With its focus on legendary Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons, History Channel’s Vikings spends a good amount of screentime on early medieval England. In particular, much of the first five series of the show centre on the kingdom of Wessex, ruled by King Ecgberht (r. 825-839) and his son Æthelwulf. In the fourth series, Princess Judith (married to Æthelwulf) learns the art of manuscript illumination and is seen in two episodes practising her newly acquired art.

In episode, 2 of series 4, Judith is seen making the mid-eighth-century Vespasian Psalter  in King Ecgberht’s mid-ninth-century scriptorium:

Vikings S04e02 Manuscript Vespasian Psalter

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):

Vikings S04e03 Manuscript Barberini Gospels

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):

Vikings Barberini Gospels

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:

Last Kingom S03E03 Alfreds chronicle

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:

Last Kingom S03E03 Source image pharaoh remastered

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.

ASManuscript Spotted Noahs ARK

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:

Bayeux Tapestry in The Last Kingdom

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:

Last Kingdom S03e09 Chronicle pahges

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:

Last Kingom S03E09 Alfreds scribble - remastered

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
NOBISCUM
ælfred rex

[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. 

King Alfred]

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,:

Anglo-Saxon Manumission - Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 579 fol 1r

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.

Assassins creed manuscript Alfred

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!

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Anglo-Saxon obscenities: Explicit art from early medieval England

The phrase ‘medieval obscenities’ typically bring to mind such curious late medieval depictions as the penis tree and obscene pilgrim badges featuring crowned vulvae being carried around by penises. This blog post deals with explicit art from an earlier period: the time of the Anglo-Saxons (c. 500-1100). As we shall see, the depiction of exposed genitalia served multiple purposes: from political commentary to markers of the monstrous, the diabolical and the sinful.

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Ye Old Medieval Obscenities: Nuns picking the fruit from the penis tree © Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 25526, fol. 160r; Obscene pilgrim badge (1375-1450) with crowned vulva being carried by three walking penises (source)

1) The Bayeux Tapestry erection

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Perhaps the most famous depictions of nude figures in a work of early medieval art are found in the lower margins of the Bayeux Tapestry (made in the late 11th-century, by Anglo-Saxon nuns for a Norman patron). Whereas the main panels of the Tapestry depict the events leading up to and including the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the margins are home to an array of animals and human figures. It has been suggested that some of these marginal figures were meant as political commentary on the events depicted in the main panels. The scene of Harold Godwinson brought before William the soon-to-be-Conqueror, for instance, is accompanied by a virile and naked man reaching for an exposed woman whose hand gestures suggest discomfort. Is it possible that the Anglo-Saxon nuns were not-so-subtly comparing the interaction between William and Harold to non-consensual intercourse?

The Bayeux Tapestry  features several other naked men with exposed appendages. The obscenity of these marginal scenes proved to be something of an obstacle for 19th-century, Victorian embroiderers who were intent on making a full-size replica of the tapestry. When I visited Reading Museum last year (where you can see the replica in a special gallery on the first floor), I noticed that at least one of the nude figures was given a pair of underpants:

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Left: Original Bayeux Tapestry erection; Right: Victorian reproduction now in Reading Museum

(For more on censored nudity and the Bayeux Tapestry, see this blog by Christopher Monk)

2) Marvels of the East au naturel

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Obscene monstrosities © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.v, fols. 80r, 82r, 83v.

The Marvels of the East is a catalogue of monsters that survives in two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. The text, accompanied by illustrations, features descriptions of marvellous beasts (including exploding chickens!) and semi-humans (on this text, see The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex). Some of these humanoid monsters are depicted in their birthday suits. As Kim (2003) has noted, their full-frontal nudity acts as a marker of monstrosity: it sets these weird and wonderful creatures apart from mankind. This difference is particularly clear in the depiction of the Donestre (half-human, half-lion, who speak to travellers in their own languages, then eat them and cry over their victim’s heads): whereas the monsters are naked, their human victims are clothed.

3) Woden, a well-endowed god

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Left: Naked Woden on Finglesham buckle (source); Right: Well-endowed Woden figurine © British Museum (source)

Prior to their conversion to Christianity, the Anglo-Saxons practised Germanic paganism. Evidence for their pagan beliefs includes various grave goods, which imply that they believed in an afterlife where such material goods would come in handy. Archaeological finds in early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries include objects that feature depictions of what are believed to be pagan gods. Two such objects, both dating to the seventh century, feature depictions of the god Woden as a semi-naked warrior. By the looks of it, the pagan Anglo-Saxons assumed Woden was well endowed, indeed.

4) Phallic…er…Fallen angels in the Junius Manuscript

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Fall of angels © Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, p. 16

The so-called Junius Manuscript (a 10th-century manuscript containing Old English religious verse) features an interesting set of illustrations. In the depictions of the Fall of Angels, the fallen angels are depicted as losing their clothes and, in some cases, gaining visible, male genitalia (as opposed to their angelic, genderless and concealed counterparts). Possibly, the Anglo-Saxon artist masculinized the fallen angels because male nudity was associated with sin in Anglo-Saxon writings and art (see Karkov 2003, and examples below).

By the by, the Junius Manuscript also contains an intriguing depiction of Noah flashing his son Ham, which I have discussed in another blog post: Flashed after the Flood: Seeing naked fathers in Anglo-Saxon England.

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Fall of angels © Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, p. 17

5) Disrobed demons and strap-naked sinners in the Harley Psalter

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© The British Library, Harley 603, fol. 3v

The association of male nudity and exposed genitalia with sinfulness is further revealed by this depiction of Psalm 6:6 (“and who shall confess to thee in Hell”) in the Anglo-Saxon Harley Psalter (an 11th-century manuscript of the Psalms, featuring illustrations of literal interpretations of the Psalm texts). The sinners, wrapped in snakes, are all fully naked and the second one from the left is quite clearly a man. The two demons on the right, too, show distinctively masculine features (even if  the rightmost demon seems something of a hermaphrodite). The addition of these diabolic reproductive organs is remarkable, since these obscene features are not clearly present in the exemplar of the Harley Psalter, the ninth-century Utrecht Psalter (see here).

6) Pulling your beard in a canon table

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Sinner pulling his beard…and something else in late 8th-century Anglo-Saxon Gospels © Rome, Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica, Barberini Lat. 570, fol. 1r

The 8th-century Barberini Gospels is a beautifully illuminated Anglo-Saxon manuscript that resembles the famous Lindisfarne Gospels. Tucked away in a canon table (a list of corresponding passages in the four Gospels), we find a naked, male figure surrounded by snakes. The presence of the serpents suggests that this is another depiction of a sinner in Hell. The man is tugging his beard with one hand, while the other reaches for his male appendage. While stroking one’s beard may seem like an innocent action today, medieval depictions of ‘beard-pulling’ had a strong connotation with masturbation (see here). The depiction in the canon table, then, seems to depict what punishment awaits those who indulge in onanism: snakes biting your snake!

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Works referred to:

  • C. Karkov, “Exiles from the Kingdom: The Naked and the Damned in Anglo-Saxon Art”, in Naked before God: uncovering the body in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. B. C. Withers and J. Wilcox (West Virginia University Press, 2003), 181-220
  • S. M. Kim, “The Donestre and the Person of Both Sexes”, in: Naked before God: uncovering the body in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. B. C. Withers and J. Wilcox (West Virginia University Press, 2003), 162-180