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
Even though the last native speaker of Old English died over 900 years ago, the language of the Anglo-Saxons is making a comeback in modern cinema. This blog post calls attention to five TV series and movies that use Old English.
1. The Rohirrim speak Old English: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of Old English at the University of Oxford and his fictional work is infused with his academic interests: the languages and literatures of the peoples of the medieval North-West. The Rohirrim, in particular, were modeled on the Anglo-Saxons. The riders of the Mark (itself based on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom Mercia) even speak Old English in the books, as when Éomer greets Théoden with “Westu Théoden hal!” (cf. “Wæs þu Hrothgar hal!” Beowulf, l. 407). The names of the Rohirrim also derive from Old English: Théoden means ‘king’ (< Old English þeoden) and Éomer means ‘famous horse’ (< Old English eoh ‘horse’ + mær ‘famous’). (If you are interested, I wrote an article on the influence of Old English language and literature on Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which you can find among my publications)
In the successful movie adaptations, the use of Old English (regrettably) is scarce and limited to the extended edition of the Two Towers. In a scene called ‘the funeral of Théodred’, Éowyn (‘horse-joy’) sings a funeral dirge, in Old English (singing starts at 0:48):
freone frecan. forþ onsended
giedd sculon singan. gleomenn sorgiende
on Meduselde. þæt he ma no wære
his dryhtne dyrest. and maga deorost.
[Baleful death has sent forth the noble warrior, sorrowing singers will sing a song in Meduseld that he is no more, dearest to his lord and dearest to his kinsmen.]
The actress Miranda Otto actually does a great job when it comes to pronouncing the Old English (would she have followed a course?). The song also features a line which is similar to Beowulf, ll. 2265b-2266: “bealocwealm hafað / fela feorhcynna forð onsended” [baleful death has sent forth many warriors].
2. It speaks? IT SPEAKS! In Old English! Beowulf (2007)
Robert Zemeckis’s adapatation of Beowulf did not only give us a 3D animation of Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother (naked, clad in gold, with a tail), he also had the monsters attempt to speak in Old English. An intriguing example can be seen here, in the scene where Grendel loses his arm:
Beowulf: Your bloodletting days are over, demon!
Grendel: Arr – Ic nat daemon eam [I am not a demon]
Beowulf: It speaks? IT SPEAKS!
Grendel: Hwæt eart þu? [What are you?]
Arguably, the Old English is not very well done and the pronunciation is awful (there is some more in Grendel’s death scene, where you can hear ‘min sunu’ and ‘sin nama wæs Beowulf’). The decision to have the monsters (attempt to) speak Old English, though, is an interesting one: is it a way of stressing their antiquity? To separate them from the human world? To emphasise their monstrosity (I would hope not!)?
3. The magic of Old English: BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012)
The BBC series TV series focusing on the adventures of the young Merlin at Arthur´s court used Old English as the language for the various magical spells. A rather odd decision, seeing as Merlin should probably be associated more with the Celtic speaking peoples, rather than with the Old English speaking Anglo-Saxons that were fought by the pseudo-historical Arthur. Here are all the spells from the first series:
“Berbay odothay arisan quicken” <Old English Bebiede þe arisan cwican [I command you to arise alive]
(You can find more transcriptions of spells here)
The pronunciation, again, leaves something to be desired. However, often the Old English spells make sense, as in the example quoted above: Merlin wants to make a statue of a dog come alive; he tells it to come alive in Old English; presto! The dog is alive (it also affects the snakes painted on a shield in the next scene). If only that worked in real life!
4. The Shadow of Boniface: De Schaduw van Bonifatius (2010)
De Schaduw van Bonifatius [The Shadow of Boniface] is an ambitious short film, directed by Thijs Schreuder as a graduation project for the Film Academy in Amsterdam. It focuses on the missionary activity of the Anglo-Saxon Boniface (d. 754) in Frisia. While the film was praised for its use of special effects (similar to the LOTR-movies), its use of languages is also of interest: all dialogues are in Latin, Old English and Old Frisian.
I particularly like the scene that starts at 08:00, in which Boniface confronts a group of pagan Frisians at their sacred tree. Boniface speaks in Old English, the Frisian leader replies in Old Frisian. Seeing as these two medieval languages are closely related, it is highly probable that the Anglo-Saxon missionaries in Frisia could indeed converse with the people in their native tongue:
Boniface: Ondfo Godes lufu! Ondfo His miltse! [Receive God’s love! Receive his mercy!]
Frisian chief: Bonifatius! Thi mon ther thera Fronkena leinlika gode menniska bibiāt. ther tserika timbriath mith ūre hāligum bāmum. [Boniface! The man who sacrifices to the false gods of the Frankish people. Who builds churches with our holy trees.]
Boniface: For iūre hreddunge. Hæfth iūre goda thunor smiten mē? Habbath hīe me thone wei thweorod? Se ondswaru is ‘nā’, ond for thǣm the iċ ēom hēr swā thæt ġē ġebīdath thæs cræftes thæs ǣnigan, sōthan Godes![For your protection. Has the thunder of your gods smitten me? Have they barred my path? The answer is ‘No’ and therefore I am here, so that you will experience the power of the only, true God!]
The actors do a fine job and the Old Frisian and Old English sounds rather authentic. No surprise there, since the actors were taught by a leading expert on both Old Frisian and Old English: prof.dr. Rolf H. Bremmer Jr. (You can read about his involvement here, in Dutch).
5. Hwæt sægest þu? Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-)
In De Schaudw van Bonifatius, Old English was used to create at least the impression of historical accuracy . Much the same can be said for the use of Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-). While the show’s authenticity is fiercely debated (see, e.g., this blog post), the makers of the show must certainly have thought that the use of early medieval languages, such as Old English and Old Norse in the first two seasons and Old French in the third season, would contribute to a sense of realism. The first scene to feature Old English is the prelude to the Viking raid of Lindisfarne in 793:
Monk: Gesawe þu þæt, brodor Æþelstan? Gesawe þu hit? Saga me þæt þu hit gesawe.
Athelstan: Gea, brodor. Ic hit gesawe.
Monk: Hit is awriten and swa hit hæfþ alimpen. God us helpan, god us helpan.
The monks looking at the thunder and seeing a viking ship in the sky is an obvious reference to the famous entry for the year 793 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
Her wæron reðe forebecna cumene ofer Norðhymbra land, 7 þæt folc earmlic bregdon, þæt wæron ormete þodenas 7 ligrescas, 7 fyrenne dracan wæron gesewene on þam lifte fleogende. [In this year, terrible omens came about over the land of the Northumbrians, and miserably frightened the people: these were immense thunders and lightenings, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air.]
The second scene in the YouTube clip above shows Athelstan speaking Old English to some hostages. The Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, apparently, is able to understand their conversation. This is not too surprising, since Old Norse and Old English would have been mutually intelligble at the time. In terms of its language use, then, History Channel’s Vikings makes a good effort at historical accuracy.
Hwæt’s next? BBC’s The Last Kingdom (2015-) and ITV’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (2016-)
Over the last 15 years, Old English has been embraced by movie makers; first as a language of fantasy, monsters and magic, later as an instrument for historical accuracy. With upcoming TV series such as BBC’s The Last Kingdom, set in ninth-century England, and ITV’s Beowulf: The Return to the Shield Lands, based on the Old English poem Beowulf, we will undoubtedly hear more Old English from our TV sets in the future. The Last Kingdom, for instance, uses Old English place names, such as Bebbanburg (Bamburgh), Oxanfyrde (Oxford) and Wintanceastre (Winchester). Perhaps, it is time to pitch our courses in Old English to acting hopefuls and up-and-coming film makers. The native speakers of Old English may be long dead, in Hulferes wudu (Hollywood) their language is still alive!
With special thanks to Rolf Bremmer (Leiden University) for sending me the script he translated for De Schaduw van Bonifatius.
If you liked this post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or read the following posts about modern uses of Old English and Anglo-Saxon culture?
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
- Medieval manuscripts in modern media: Anglo-Saxon manuscripts spotted in Vikings, The Last Kingdom and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
- Old English memes