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
Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle
Boece or Troilus to wryten newe,
Under thy lokkes thou most have the scalle,
But after my making thou wryte trewe.
So ofte a daye I mot thy werk renewe,
Hit to correcte and eek to rubbe and scrape;
And al is through thy negligence and rape.
[Adam scribe, if it should ever happen to you that you write Boethius or Troilus anew, may you have scabs under your locks, unless you copy in true fashion in accord with my lines. So often in a day I must renew your work, and correct and rub and scrape it; and all is through your negligence and haste.]
In this famous little poem, Geoffrey Chaucer cursed the sloppiness of his scribe Adam. Some evidence of the medieval punishments inflicted on other scribes in the Middle Ages suggests Adam got off lightly.
Write like this or else: Poor Ælfric and Willimott
A number of inscriptions, added in the margins of English manuscripts, suggests that negligent scribes could face physical repercussions. In London, British Library, Harley 55, a twelfth-century miscellany containing medical texts and Anglo-Saxon law codes, an added note reads “Writ þus oððe bet ride aweg Ælfmær pattafox þu wilt swingan Ælfric cild”. Depending on whether we interpret the word “bet” as a form of Old English betan ‘to make amends, pay’ or bett ‘better’, this note translates as either ‘Write like this or pay (and) ride away, Ælfmær Pattafox will hit you Ælfric, child’ or ‘Write like this or better ride way, Ælfmær Pattafox will hit you Ælfric, child’.
Similar threats of violence against a scribe failing to reproduce the script of his exemplar are found in two twelfth-century notes, added in the margins of Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 20 (a ninth-century copy of Alfred’s Old English translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care). These notes are directed at scribe Willimot and read “willimot writ þus oððe bet” [Willimot, write like this or pay/better] and “writ þus oððe bet oððe þine hyde forlet” [write like this or pay/better or lose your skin]. Similar admonitions to ‘write like this’, albeit without explicit threats of physical punishment, can be found in other Anglo-Saxon manuscripts (Whitbread 1983).
‘He who does not want to learn freely must be taught with blows’
The scribal notes in Harley 55 and Hatton 20 are painful reminders of the fact that a strict regime of physical discipline was an integral part of monastic education. A twelfth-century manuscript now in Durham Cathedral Library shows a pupil being beaten by his teacher, next to the rubric “Afficitur plagis qui non vult discere gratis” [He who does not want to learn freely must be taught with blows] (Cleaver 2009).
Monastic rules abound in corporal punishment for misbehaving monks and these sometimes included negligent scribes. The 9th-century typikon of the monastery of Stoudios in Constantinople, for example, lists the following punishments:
A diet of bread and water was the penalty set for the scribe who became so much interested in the subject matter of what he was copying that he neglected his task of copying. Monks had to keep their parchment leaves neat and clean, on penalty of 130 penances. If anyone should take without permission another’s quaternion (that is, the ruled and folded sheets of parchment), 50 penances were prescribed. If anyone should make more glue than he could use at one time and it should harden, he would have to do 50 penances. If a scribe broke his pen in a fit of temper (perhaps after having made some accidental blunder near the close of an otherwise perfectly copied sheet), he would have to do 30 penances (Wegner 2004, p. 210).
A scribe condemned to a mouse’s death
One particularly painful corporal punishment of a scribe, though not for erroneous copying, is found in the 9th-century Book of Pontiffs of the Church of Ravenna by Andreas Agnellus. After Ravenna rebelled against the Byzantine Empire at the end of the seventh century, one of its local rebels, the scribe Johannicis, is arrested and brought before Byzantine Emperor Justinian II, ‘the slit-nosed’ (669-711):
Justinian, having become enraged, ordered Johannicis to be brought into his presence; as if ignorant, he asked him ironically, “is this indeed Johannicis the scribe?” and when he answered that it was he, the imperial rage rose yet higher. He ordered a reed to be brought and he ordered that it be forced under all the nails of his fingers up to the second joint. He then ordered parchment and pen to be given, that [Johannicis] might write. When he received it, he forced the pen between two fingers. He did not write with ink, but with the blood which flowed from his fingers (Mauskopf Deliyannis 2004, pp. 265-6).
In true heroic fashion, Johannicis writes a prayer to God in his own blood on the parchment and throws this in the Emperor’s face. The enraged Justinian then orders Johannicis to die a ‘mouse’s death’; that is: he is crushed between two stones and dies.
In view of the above, Chaucer could have done a lot worse to Adam scriveyn than a mere conditional curse of scabs. So, the next time you are frustrated with barely legible scripts or missing pieces of text in medieval manuscripts and feel like wringing the scribe’s neck, rest assured that his contemporaries probably got there first…
Works referred to:
- Cleaver, L., ‘Grammar and Her Children: Learning to Read in the Art of the Twelfth Century’, Marginalia 9 (2009), http://www.marginalia.co.uk/journal/09education/cleaver.php
- Mauskopf Deliyannis, D. (Trans.), The Book of Pontiffs of the Church of Ravenna (The Catholic University of America Press 2004)
- Wegner, P.D., The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI 2004).
- Whitbread, L.G., ‘A Scribal Jotting from Medieval English’, Notes and Queries 228 (1983), pp. 198-199.
This is a slightly edited version of a blog previously posted on the medievalfragments blog.