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What do the English place names Everton, Oxford, Winchester and Whitby have in common? They have all been around for more than a thousand years and their origins and original meanings can shed a unique light on the fascinating early history of England!
Traces of Celts and Romans
If we were to go back some 2500 years in time, Britain was inhabited by people who spoke Celtic languages (present-day Welsh and Cornish are among the linguistic descendants of these languages). These Celtic speakers have left their traces in the toponyms (place names, river names) of present-day England. The place name Dover, for instance, derives from a Celtic word for ‘waters’ and the first part of Carlisle stems from a Celtic word for ‘fort’ (cf. Welsh caer and Cornish ker). In addition, about two-thirds of English rivers today have English names, these include the rivers Avon, Trent, Tyne and the Thames – most of these river names excitingly mean ‘river’.
In the first century AD, Britain was conquered by the Romans and their influence too can be found in English place names. Place names with an element like –chester, for instance, ultimately derive from Roman army camps, denoted by the Latin word castra (though via Old English ceaster). In other words, Winchester, Lancaster, Leicester and Chester all show traces of Roman occupation of what is now England. The Latin word vicus for ‘settlement’ is found at the end of the places Norwich and Sandwich (though via Old English wic). The Latin word for ‘harbour’, portus, can be seen in Portsmouth – mouth of the harbour. Intriguingly, the ninth-century compilers of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle appear to have assumed that the name derived from a man called Port, who landed there in 501 with his sons Bieda and Mægla:
In this year, Port came to Britain along with his two sons Bieda and Mægla in two ships to the place that is called Portsmouth and they killed a young British man, a very noble man.The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 501
Anglo-Saxons and their place names
After the Romans left Britain in 410 AD, the remaining Celts eventually had to give way to Germanic invaders from the European Continent: the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who come over from Northern Germany and Southern Denmark. These Anglo-Saxons, as they are generally referred to, bring Old English to England and its is to them that we owe place names that contain such elements as
- ham (meaning ‘home’, as in Fulham, Westham and Birmingham)
- tun (meaning ‘town’, as Skipton)
- ford (meaning ‘crossing in a river’, as in Oxford)
- burna (meaning ‘stream’ as in Bournemouth and Blackburn)
- burh (meaning ‘fortification’, as in Canterbury; Bury St Edmunds and, simply, Bury)
Sometimes, these Anglo-Saxon settlers named places and regions after themselves. We can find the Angles in East Anglia and, ultimately, in England. The Saxons gave their name to Sussex, Essex, Wessex and Middlesex; that is the Saxons in the South, in the East, in the West and in the middle. Apparently, there we no Saxons in the North – a common pun is that the Northern Saxons only lasted for one generation since they had Nosex. The Jutes do not seem to have lend their names to a place, but other ‘Anglo-Saxon’ people did. The Old English place name element -ingas means something like “the descendants, followers or people of” and, so, Reading used to be the place where the people of Ræda lived; in Hastings lived the descendants of a man called Hæsta.
In come the Vikings!
Another group to make a major contribution to English place names were the Vikings, who not only raided and plundered, but also settled in England and founded villages and towns which they gave Scandinavian names.
Place names ending in -by, for instance, like Whitby and Derby derive from the Old Norse word by ‘settlement’. Another typical Scandinavian place name in England ends in thorpe ‘village’, as in Scunthorpe and the seven places in England simply called Thorpe. The word toft, as in Lowestoft, refers to ‘site of a house’ and is another sign that you are dealing with a Viking place name.
Viking place names are concentrated in the North East of England, as you can tell by the heat map I made above (the map on the right shows a rough representation of the concentration of Viking place names, on the basis of data by Key to English Place Names ). There are good reasons for this geographical distribution: the area in which we typically find Viking place names was known as the Danelaw area, which had been assigned to Scandinavian settlers as part of a peace treaty with King Alfred the Great, following a decisive battle in the year 878. It is for this reason that place names ending in – by or -thorpe tend to be in the North East of England. As we shall see below, Viking place names are not the only ones to show a certain geographical concentration.
Place names and migratory patterns?
Using the data of Key to English Place Names along with the Halogen geospatial search facility it is relatively easy to get an idea of where certain place names occur. The maps above are (very) rough representations that I made on the basis of looking for place names of a Celtic origin and two sets of Old English place names. The results are interesting. Place names of Celtic origin tend to be in the South and in the West; that is near Wales and Cornwall – this has been interpreted as representing the gradual displacement of Celtic speaking people towards these areas due to the gradual influx of the Anglo-Saxons.
The two sets of Old English place names also show an interesting distribution: the place names ending in -ingas and -ham tend to be found in the South East, whereas Old English place names ending in -tun tend to be found further West and North. Scholars have argued that this is because the first set of place names were typically used by the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers, who arrived in Kent and spread their influence West and North from there. The place names based on Old English tun ‘town’ could reflect later settlement patterns, though this is a matter of scholarly debate (see Clark 1992).
Flora and fauna of early medieval England
Of course, place names did not only depend on who inhabited the place at some time, often places were named after the surroundings in which the early settlers found themselves. As such, place names allow us to identify some of the flora and fauna that was around in Anglo-Saxon England.
One of the Old English place name elements that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes brough to England was the word leah, meaning field or clearing in a forest. Today, this element survives at the end of place names like: Ashley,
Stanley, Crawley, Shipley and Sugley. These then must all have been fields or clearings in a forest. The first element in these place names gives us another defining feature of that field. Ashley was probably surrounded by ash-trees (from Old English æsc); there were stones at Stanley (from Old English stan), crows near Crawley (from Old English craw), sheep near Shipley (from Old English sceap) and in Sugley you can see the Old English word for sow, sugu.
We can recognize the Old English words for animals in various other place names as well. In Everton, you can see the Old English eofor ‘boar’; Brock-holes is named after the holes made by a broc, the Old English word for “Badger’; you can see the Old English word bucca ‘goat’ in Buckingham and Swinburn must have been a stream with some pigs (Old English swin) nearby.
In conclusion: place names are fascinating, they reflect the rich cultural and linguistic history of what we now call England. England’s history, as well as the place names on its map, was formed and shaped by various migrations and interactions with different peoples and cultures. These people looked around them and named what they saw: trees, clearings, river-crossings and animals. And if we study their language and history, we can see those things too.
If you liked this post, consider subscribing to this blog for regular updates and/or read the following posts about early medieval English history:
- Kings and Candlesticks in Anglo-Saxon England
- Heads on sticks: Decapitation and impalement in early medieval England
- Reading between the lines in early medieval England: Old English interlinear glosses
Links of interest
Key to English Place-Names (University of Nottingham)
HALOGEN geospatial search facility (University of Leicester)
Aside from their stereotypical burning, pillaging and raping, Vikings also seem to have introduced a new hairstyle to early medieval England. This blog post discusses how some Anglo-Saxon priests were concerned over Anglo-Saxons mimicking the hair of the Viking invaders.
In the aftermath of the Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793, the Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Alcuin wrote an admonishing letter to King Æthelred of Northumbria (d. 796). Alcuin had noted how the king and his nobles had not been at their best behaviour, not-so-subtly implying that if the Northumbrians would only live modestly and humbly that such horrible events as the raid of Lindisfarne would never happen again. Interestingly, Alcuin reminded Æthelred of the fact that he and his nobles had copied the hairstyle and dress of the Scandinavians that were now causing so much havoc:
Consider the dress, the way of wearing the hair, the luxurious habits of the princes and people. Look at your trimming of beard and hair, in which you have wished to resemble the pagans. Are you not menaced by terror of them whose fashion you wished to follow? (trans. Whitelock, source)
Whereas Alcuin did not go into any detail as to what the Viking hairstyle may have looked like, these details are provided two centuries later by another Anglo-Saxon religious writer, Ælfric of Eynsham (d. c. 1010). In a letter addressed to a ‘brother Edward’, Ælfric complained of various malpractices he had heard of. These malpractices included the eating of blood and consuming of drink and food on the toilet (something Ælfric attributed to ‘uplandish women’). Ælfric also complained about Anglo-Saxon monks dressing up ‘in Danish fashion’:
Ic secge eac ðe, broðor Eadweard, … þæt ge doð unrihtlive þæt ge ða Engliscan þeawas forlætað þe eowre fæderas heoldon, and hæðenra manna þeawas lufiað … mid ðam ġeswuteliað þæt ge forseoð eower cynn and eowre yldran … þonne ge … tysliað eow on Denisc, ableredum hneccan and ablendum eagum. (ed. Clayton, source)
[I also tell you, brother Edward, that you act wrongly when you abandon the English customs which your fathers observed and love the customs of heathens, wit them you show that you despise you kin and your elders, when you adorn yourself in Danish fashion, with bared neck and blinded eyes.]
While no depictions of Vikings (or Anglo-Saxons) with bared necks and blinded eyes have survived, it has been suggested that the Normans on the Bayeux Tapestry are typically depicted without hair in their necks:
Now why would Anglo-Saxon men want to mimic the hairstyle of the Vikings? The answer: for the ladies. A thirteenth-century chronicle ascribed to John of Wallingford (d. 1258) describes how Danes living in England were able to seduce various Anglo-Saxon women, due to their fashionable hair and beards:
They were wont, after the fashion of their country, to comb their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their garments often, and set off their persons by many such frivolous devices. In this manner they laid siege to the virtue of the married women, and persuaded the daughters even of the nobles to be their concubines. (trans. Stevenson, source)
The best way to win an Anglo-Saxon woman’s heart? Viking haircuts and weekly baths!
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy:
- Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?
- A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How beer and bees beat the Viking siege of Chester in c. 907
There are many places of medieval interest in The Netherlands, ranging from wells dug by Anglo-Saxon missionaries to landmarks commemorating medieval murders. Breca, my pug, has visited many of these places and here you will find a selection of ten medieval hotspots that she has graced with her presence. These places are well worth a visit and will also introduce you to some aspects of the Middle Ages in Holland.
Introducing Breca the pug
Breca is a female black pug, born in 2011. She was named after a character in the Old English poem Beowulf: Breca of the Brondings, who reportedly once defeated the hero Beowulf in a swimming (or rowing) match. Like many a pug owner, I initially tried to dress up my pug; naturally, I made a pug-size Sutton Hoo helmet:
The paper helmet survived for about a second or three. I then decided there was another way for me to share my passion for the Middle Ages with my dog: bring her to medieval places! So far, we have gone to quite a few sites and have learned more about Holland in the Middle Ages. In this blog post, we present ten places worth visiting.
1) The castle founded by the Anglo-Saxon Hengest c. 449, or not: De Burcht, Leiden
Leiden’s number one medieval hotspot is the small keep on an elevated hill known as ‘the Burcht’, which, ever since the fifteenth century, has been connected to the Anglo-Saxons. As legend would have it, the keep was built by none other than Hengest, who along with his brother Horsa, invaded Britain in c. 449. A sixteenth-century manuscript from the family archive of Van Wassenaar-Duivenvoorde (Den Haag, Nationaal Archief, Familiearchief Van Wasenaar-Duivenvoorde, inv.nr. 3) depicts Hengest as the founder of the Burcht. The Latin text next to this image relates how the small keep was built in Leiden as a back-up plan, in case the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England should fail. A retreat for an early medieval Brexit, if you will.
Regrettably, modern historical and archaeological research has shown that this Hengest connection to the Burcht is false- the keep is no older than the tenth century and, so, postdates Hengest by about five hundred years. Nevertheless, this idea of an Anglo-Saxon connection to Leiden remained popular well into the seventeenth century; we find a mention of it, for instance, in the diary of the Englishman John Evelyn (1620-1706), who visited Leyden and its keep; noting that it had been “cast up (as reported) by Hengist the Saxon, on his return out of England, as a place to retire to, in case of any sudden inundations” (19th August, 1641 – full text).
2) Holy waters: Two wells in Heiloo
The Dutch town of Heiloo is home to two wells with a (supposed) medieval connection. The first is a water well that has been linked to the Anglo-Saxon missionary Willibrord (d. 739). One of the first mentions of this well is in the ‘Chronographia’ of Johannes de Beke (written in Latin in 1346, translated into Middle Dutch around 1393). De Beke describes how Willibrord had someone dig a little hole inside a tent; Willibrord then entered the tent alone and prayed God for water. A miracle happened and the little hole became a fountain: “Ende dieselve fonteyne is in enen dorpe hiet Hello bi Alcmaer, ende is gheheten noch huden daghes sunte Willibrords put” [and this same fountain is in a village that is called Heiloo near Alkmaar, and it is still called Saint Willibrord’s well]. The well is still there today, near the ‘Witte Kerk’ [White Church].
The second Heiloo well is known as the ‘Runxput’, which has become something a pilgrimage-site devoted to the Virgin Mary. On account of its name, some have connected the well to the Anglo-Saxon missionaries, others to the ninth-century Viking ruler named Rorik. Those who link the Runxput to the Anglo-Saxons point out that the name of the well might be derived from Old English rún ‘mystery, secret’ – could this once have been a mysterious pagan well that was given its name by Anglo-Saxon immigrants or a missionary like Willibrord? Others have said that the name of the well may have been ‘Rorikesput’ [Rorik’s well] and that it was named after the ninth-century Viking Rorik (who ruled over West-Frisia). Unfortunately, both these theories turn out to be false, since the well was first dug in 1713, at a time when the area was struck by a bovine plague. Miraculously, the water of the well, which was near a chapel devoted to Mary, cured the cows of their disease. The name Runxput was probably derived from runder-put [cattle-well] > runsput > runxput.
3) The latest miracle of Saint Adelbertus: Adelbertusakker, Egmond
The Northumbrian saint Adelbertus (d. c. 740) was one of Willibrord’s companions and actively converted the pagan Frisians around Egmond. In the early tenth century, Adelbertus’s bones were dug up and water welled up along with the saintly bones. A well was then established, as well as a church – the place, now known as the Adelbertusakker, was a site for many miracles (see this blog for more information: Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Adelbertusakker, Egmond). At the Adelbertusakker, you will find a shrine devoted to St Adalbert and, on the ground, the outlines of a stone church that stood there from 1152 to 1573. The centrepiece of the field is Adalbertus’s well, which is still fully functional. Water from the well can still be drunk and, according to some, it has retained its medieval miraculous powers. In the eighteenth century, in particular, water from the well was used to heal cows and other livestock. Needless to say, Breca the pug had her fill as well (and she is still in good health today!). Interestingly, water from the well is also used to brew a local beer called ‘Sancti Adalberti Miraculum Novum’: the latest miracle of Saint Adalbert.
4) A church devoted to the Anglo-Saxon saint that never existed: Engelmunduskerk, Velsen
5) A dead count of Holland and a lively Abbey: Adelbertusabdij, Egmond
Egmond is home to the Adelbertusabdij, the abbey devoted to the Anglo-Saxon saint Adelbertus (see #3 above). This abbey is the oldest abbey of Holland, having been founded by Count Dirk I of Holland (d. 939). Throughout the MIddle Ages, the abbey in Egmond was one of the most important religious and cultural centres in Holland. As a result, various counts of Holland were buried here, including Floris I of Holland (d. 1061) whose memorial grave is found inside the Abbey church. The original abbey was destroyed in sixteenth century and the present abbey was rebuilt in the 1930s. It is now open to the public on a daily basis, has a nice Abbey museum and a shop where they sell candles and cheese. A great day out, for pugs and Anglo-Saxonists alike!
6) The house of the boar: Huys Dever, Lisse
The town of Lisse is home to a fourteenth-century ‘donjon’ called Huys Dever. We visited Huys Dever on ‘national castle day’ and were treated to some authentic medieval music (Breca the pug was not pleased). The current house was built around 1375 by the nobleman Reynier Dever and carries his family name. Intriguingly, the name ‘Dever’ refers to the wild boar: Ever (related to Old English eofor ‘boar’) means ‘boar’ and the name Dever is a contraction of the article ‘Den’ (the) and ‘Ever’ (boar). Throughout the Middle Ages, the wild boar was known and feared for his ferocity, see Boars of battle: The wild boar in the early Middle Ages.
7) Elburga’s mysterious inscription on a church portal: Willibrordkerk, Nederhorst den Berg
Nederhost den Berg features a beautiful twelfth-century church dedicated to the Anglo-Saxon saint Willibrord. It was probably built on the location of an earlier church founded by the Frisian missionary Liudger (d. 809). During its history, the church was occasionally enlarged and, as a result, an inscribed sandstone was relocated to form an archway around a door on the north side of the church. The sandstone has a mysterious, incomplete inscription that reads OVI PETIT HAC AVLA PETAT ELBVRGA FORE SALVA ET .P.EA.NVLLVS INTRET N… . Ever since its discovery, this inscription has given rise to various interpretations, one of which is “Whoever approaches this hall (i.e. the church), pray for the blessedness of Elburga and nobody is to enter the door, unless…”. Who this Elburga was is unclear, but it has been suggested that she may have been Liudger’s grandmother (see here).
8) The murder of Floris V and a stone: Florissteen, Muiderberg
Count Floris V of Holland (d. 1296) was extremely popular among his people, earning him the nickname ‘der keerlen god’ (the god of churls; the god of the common people). In 1296, Floris fell victim to a murder plot, possibly engineered by the king of England and the count of Flanders. During a hunt, some disgruntled noblemen captured Floris and took him to Muiderslot castle. Once the common people had heard of Floris’s capture, they decided to launch a rescue mission: they would free their count once the noblemen would lead him from the castle. But when they tried to do so, one of the noblemen (Gerard van Velsen) turned on the helpless count (who was bound and had a hand shoe stuffed in his mouth), cut off Floris’s hands and then stabbed him to death, twenty-two times. This horrible murder took place in Muiderberg, where a boulder (the ‘Floris-stone’) has been placed to commemorate this event. Near the rock is the fourteenth-century Kerk aan Zee [Church at Sea] that was built on the foundations of a chapel erected to honour Floris’s memory. We visited Muiderberg on a dreary and misty day – suitable weather for this most cruel murder.
9) A thirteenth-century Big not-so-Friendly Giant: Stompe Toren, Spaarnwoude
In the aftermath of the murder of Floris V in 1296 (see #8 above), some Dutch noblemen travelled to England to pick up Floris’s son and heir Jan I van Holland (d. 1299). They were accompanied by a man named Klaas van Kieten. This Klaas was probably brought along as a ‘curiosity’ to show off to the English court, since he was an incredibly tall man who gained something of a reputation as a Big not-so-Friendly Giant. A seventeenth-century play about the murder on Floris V (Gijsbrecht van Aemstel by Joost van den Voondel), described him as follows:
den groote Reus, die liet zich vreeslijck hooren,
En stack met hals en hoofd, gelijck een steile toren
En spitze, boven ‘t volck en alle hoofden uit,
En scheen een olyfant, die omsnoft met zijn’ snuit.
Zijn spietze was een mast in zijne grove vingeren.
Ick zagh hem man op man gelijck konijnen slingeren
Wel driemael om zijn hoofd, gevat by ‘t eene been,
En kneuzen dan den kop op stoepen of op steen. (full text)
[The big giant, who let himself be heard and who towered over al the people and their heads with his neck and head , like a tower and spire, and seemed like an elephant, sniffling about with its trunk. His spear was a mast in his brutish fingers. I saw him fling about man upon man like rabbits, three times around his head, holding on to their one leg, and smash their heads on the stones]
Klaas van Kieten and his incredible length are commemorated at the Stompe Toren in the small village of Spaarnwoude. Inside the church, a massive necklace is kept that supposedly belonged to Klaas, as well as a massive wooden shoe. On the outer wall of this church, two stones are found with the inscription “‘T VAAM VAN | KLAAS V. KIETEN” [the span of Klaas van Kieten]. The distance between the middle points of these stones represents the distance between the tips of Klaas’s middle fingers. In an ideally proportioned body this span is equal to a man’s height. If so, Klaas van Kieten measured 2.69m: that is about 8 ft and 9 inches or about 9.5 pugs!
10) A self-sacrificial act during the Hook and Cod Wars: Oude Kerk, Barneveld
The Dutch town Barneveld (not in Holland but in Gelderland) was the scene for one of the most famous events of the Dutch Middle Ages. In 1482, during the so-called Hook and Cod Wars, Jan van Schaffelaar and his men were besieged in the tower of the Old Church in Barneveld. After negotiations, their opponents stated that they would accept their surrender only if the defenders would throw their commander from the tower. The men were unwilling to do so, but Van Schaffelaar stated “Lieve gesellen, ic moet ummer sterven, ic en wil u in geenen last brenghen” [dear companions, I must die one day, I do not want to be a burden to you]. Having said this, he put his hands to his sides and jumped off the tower. He did not die from the fall, but was finished off by his enemies while he was still on the ground. Today, a statue of van Schaffelaar in front of the Old Church and an outline of his body on the ground still commemorate this self-sacrificial act. Needless to say, Breca the pug was mightily impressed!
I hope you have enjoyed this rather lengthy blog about medieval places to visit in The Netherlands; the list is not complete (especially since many places do not allow dogs). There may be more posts like these in the future: Breca the pug has certainly gained an appreciation and an interest in the Middle Ages:
Beheading is a spectacular way of punishing one’s enemies and often triggers the literary imagination, ranging from Beowulf cutting off Grendel’s head to the Queen of Hearts’s famous phrase “Off with her head!”. This blog post calls attention to the beheadings of three Anglo-Saxons, whose decapitation stories may have been embellished by later generations.
1) The beheading of Æthelberht of East Anglia: The head that tripped up a blind man
“Her Offa Myrcna cyning het Æþelbryhte þæt heafod ofaslean”
[In this year, King Offa of the Mercians commanded Æthelberht’s head to be cut off.]
The annal for the year 794 in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is straightforward but leaves much to the imagination. What exactly were the circumstances of this decapitation of Æthelberht of East Anglia? In 2014, the finding of a coin bearing Æthelberht’s name and the title “rex” appeared to hold the answer: Æthelberht had claimed independence, to the annoyance of the much more powerful ruler Offa, who had him decapitated (see news article here). Medieval authors came up with more inventive motives for the murder of Æthelberht…
The anonymous author of the twelfth-century Latin Vitae Offarum Duorum (The Lives of Two Offas), for instance, attributed the beheading not to Offa, but to Offa’s scheming wife Cwenthryth. Æthelberht, according to this story, was to marry Offa’s daughter, but Cwenthyrth did not agree and plotted to have Æthelberht murdered. Her plan involved an elaborate boobytrap:
And next to the royal couch she also had a seat prepared, fashioned in the most elegant style and surrounded with curtains on every side. Under which a deep trench was prepared for the heinous plan to be carried through. […] And when he [Æthelberht] settled on the aforesaid seat, he collapsed together with the chair into the bottom of the trench. (trans. Swanton, p. 94-96)
Inside the trench, Cwenthryth’s henchmen were waiting: they suffocated Æthelberht with pillows and stabbed him to death. Since the dead body was still throbbing, they also cut off his head. Thus, Æthelberht, according to the author, died like John the Baptist, “entangled in a woman’s snares”.
Like John the Baptist, Æthelberht became a saint. The anonymous author of the Vitae Offarum Duorum notes how, when Æthelberht’s bodily remains were hurriedly hidden during the night, the head was accidentally dropped onto the ground and left there. By divine providence, a blind man stumbled upon the head:
Finding the aforesaid head a stumbling block to the feet however, he wondered what it was, because his foot was tangled up in the head’s long golden curls. And touching it more carefully, he realised that it was the head of a decapitated man. And intuitively he realised that this was the head of someone holy, and a young man. And when his hands had been steeped in blood, and sometimes in the place where his eyes had been, he put the blood on his face. And immediately his sight was restored. (trans. Swanton, pp. 96, 98)
And that’s how Æthelberht was proven to be a saint: his head tripped up a blind man; the blind man used his blood for face-paint and had his sight restored. Amen!
2) The beheading of St Edmund: The head that kept on shouting
7 þy wintra Eadmund cyning him wið feaht, 7 þa Daniscan sige namon, 7 þone cyning ofslogon
[and that winter King Edmund fought against them and the Danes took the victory and killed the king]
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s report of the death of Edmund of East Anglia is once more devoid of detail. The story of Edmund’s death was later greatly expanded. The Anglo-Saxon abbot and homilist Ælfric (d. c. 1010), for instance, composed an Old English saint’s life (based on a Latin original by the monk Abbo of Fleury), in which he described how the Vikings brutally martyred Edmund. In Ælfric’s version of the events, Edmund does not fight the Danes but lays down his weapons and lets the Vikings have their way with him. The pagans began by using Edmund for target practice, shooting him so full of arrows that Edmund resembled a hedgehog (“swilce igles brysta” [like the bristles of a hedgehog]). Next, they struck off the king’s head and hid it in the bramble bushes:
The Vikings then returned to their ships and departed. Some time later, Edmund’s people return and find their king’s headless body. They start to search for the head and that is when a miracle happens:
Hi eodon þa secende and symle clypigende, swa swa hit gewunelic is þam ðe on wuda gað oft: “Hwær eart þu nu gefera?” And him andwyrde þæt heafod, “Her, her, her!” and swa gelome clypode andswarigende him eallum, swa oft swa heora ænig clypode, oþþæt hi ealle becomen þurh ða clypunga him to.
[Then they went looking and continually calling, as is customary with those who often go into the woods, “Where are you now, friend?” and the head answered them, “Here! Here! Here!” and so frequently called out, answering them all as often as any of them shouted, so that they all came to it because of the shouting”] (ed. and trans. Treharne, pp. 149-151)
They find the head, guarded by a wolf, and bury the head alongside Edmund’s body.
Edmund’s capital miracles do not end there. Ælfric relates how, when they dig up Edmund’s body and head some years later, they find that the head has been reattached: God works in mysterious ways, indeed!
3) The beheading of Earl Byrhtnoth: The head that was stolen by Vikings
Her wæs Gypeswic gehergod, 7 æfter þæm swyðe raþe wæs Byrihtnoð ealdorman ofslagan æt Meldune.
[In this year, Ipswich was ravished, and very soon after that Ealdorman Byrhtnoth was killed at Maldon].
Annal 991 of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains another bare report on the death of Anglo-Saxon. For more details about the death of Byrhtnoth we need to look elsewhere. The anonymous author of one of the greatest poems in Old English, The Battle of Maldon, elaborated on how Byrhtnoth and his men heroically (or: foolishly) fought the Vikings on the beach of Maldon, after yielding them free passage over a narrow causeway (see The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition). In the poem, Byrhtnoth is struck fatally by a spear in the chest and dies uttering some final words of inspiration to his retainers.
The twelfth-century Liber Eliensis tells a different story, indicating that Byrhtnoth was, in fact, beheaded by the Vikings:
On the last day, and with few of his men left, Brithnoth knew he was going to die, but this did not lessen his efforts against the enemy. Having inflicted an enormous slaughter on the Danes, he almost put them to flight. But eventually the enemy took comfort from the small number of Brithnoth’s men, and, forming themselves into a wedge, rushed against him in one body. After an enormous effort the Danes barely managed to cut off Brithnoth’s head as he fought. They carried the head away with them and fled to their own land. (trans. Calder & Allan, p. 190)
The Liber Eliensis also reports that the abbot of Ely went to the battlefield to collect the remains of Byrhtnoth and buried the headless body in Ely Abbey, replacing the head with a lump of wax: “But in place of the head he put a round ball of wax, by which sign the body was recognized long afterwards in our own times and placed with honor among the others” (trans Calder & Allan, p. 192). The Liber Eliensis‘s reference to the placement of Byrhtnoth’s remains “among the others” is to a twelfth-century shrine of the seven benefactors of Ely Abbey, which is now found in Ely Cathedral:
Did the Vikings indeed steal Byrhnoth’s head or is this another case of literary embellishment? Judging by a report of how the bones of the seven Ely benefactors were uncovered in May 1769, it seems that this legend has a ring of truth to it:
Whether their relics were still to be found was uncertain … The bones were found inclosed, in seven distinct cells or cavities, each twenty-two inches in length, seven broad, and eighteen deep, made within the wall under their painted effigies; but in that under Duke Brithnoth there were no remains of the head, though we search diligently …It was observed that the collar bone had been nearly cut through, as by a battle axe or two-handed sword. (James Bentham to the Dean of Exeter; cit. in Stubbs, pp. 92-93)
If the Vikings did indeed behead Byrhtnoth, this raises the question of why the anonymous poet of The Battle of Maldon did not include this detail in his poem; perhaps he considered it ‘fake news’.
If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested in:
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How a peasant beheaded himself
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Earl Siward and the Proper Ways to Die
Works referred to:
- Calder, D. G., & M. J. B. Allen, Sources and Analogues of Old English Poetry (London, 1976)
- Stubbs, C. W., Historical Memorials of Ely Cathedral (New York, 1897)
- Swanton, M. (Trans.), The Lives of Two Offas (Crediton, 2010)
- Treharne, E., Old and Middle English c. 890-c.1450: An Anthology, 3rd edn. (Malden, 2010)
Manuscripts are among the most fascinating artefacts from the Middle Ages. This post focuses on a manuscript that was kidnapped by Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus.
‘The Golden Book’
The Stockholm Codex Aureus (Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135) is an eighth-century Gospel book. This beautiful manuscript was probably made in Canterbury and would also have had a bejewelled bookbinding. The presence of a precious binding can be inferred from a note on the opening page that commemorates Wulfhelm, the goldsmith, Ceolheard, the jeweller, and someone named Ealhhun. These could be the monks who were involved in the making of the book or they may have been responsible for rebinding it at a later point in time (see Gameson 2001):
Orate p<ro> Ceolheard p<res>b<itero>, inclas [for inclusor?] 7 Ealhhun 7 Wulfhelm, aurifex
[Pray for priest Ceolheard, the jeweller(?), and Ealhhun and Wulfhelm, the goldsmith]
The Stockholm Codex Aureus (or: Canterbury Codex Aureus) owes its nickname ‘Golden Codex’ to the lavish use of gold-leaf for some of its initials. Its golden glory is best illustrated by the opening page of the Gospel of Matthew:
Kidnapped by Vikings!
The opening page of the Gospel of Matthew has more to offer than just its gold and decorated letters: a ninth-century note added in the upper and lower margin of the page relates the exciting history of this book. As it turns out, the Codex Aureus had once been stolen by Vikings and, as the note states, an Anglo-Saxon ealdorman and his wife had ransomed it from the heathen army:
In nomine Domini nostri Ihesu Christi Ic Aelfred aldormon ond Werburg min gefera begetan ðas bec æt haeðnum herge mid uncre claene feo, ðæt ðonne wæs mid clæne golde, ond ðæt wit deodan for Godes lufan ond for uncre saule ðearfe.
Ond for ðon ðe wit noldan ðæt ðas halgan beoc lencg in ðære haeðenesse wunaden, ond nu willað heo gesellan inn to Cristes circan Gode to lofe ond to wuldre ond to weorðunga, ond his ðrowunga to ðoncunga, ond ðæm godcundan geferscipe to brucenne ðe in Cristes circan dæghwæmlice Godes lof rærað, to ðæm gerade ðæt heo mon arede eghwelce monaðe for Aelfred ond for Werburge ond for Alhðryðe, heora saulum to ecum lecedome, ða hwile ðe God gesegen haebbe ðæt fulwiht æt ðeosse stowe beon mote.
Ec swelce ic Aelfred dux ond Werburg biddað ond halsiað on Godes almaehtiges noman ond on allra his haligra ðæt nænig mon seo to ðon gedyrstig ðætte ðas halgan beoc aselle oððe aðeode from Cristes circan ða hwile ðe fulwiht <stondan><mote>.
In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I, ealdorman Alfred, and Werburg, my wife, obtained these books from the heathen arme with our pure money, that was with pure gold, and we did that for God’s love and for the sake of our souls.
And because we did not wish that these holy books would remain long among the heathens, and now we want to give it to Christ’s church for God’s praise, honour and glory, and in gratitude of his passion and for the use of the religious community, who daily raises up God’s praise in Christ’s church, on the condition that they are read every month for Alfred and for Werburg and for Alhthryth, for the eternal salvation of their souls, for as long as God should grant that the faith is allowed to be in this place.
Also likewise, I, ealdorman Alfred, and Werburg pray and ask in the God’s almighty name and those of all his saints that no man will be so bold as to deliver or separate these books from Christ’s church for as long as the faith is allowed to stand.
Having ransomed the book from the Viking army, Alfred and Werburg donated the book to the monastic community at Christ Church, Canterbury. In return, they expected the monks to pray for their souls and the soul of Alhthryth, who may have been their daughter. To make sure the monks would not forget them, the donators also had their names written in the right-hand margin of the same page: Alfred, Werburg, Alhthryth.
The beauty of the Chi-Rho page: Animals galore
The first page of the Gospel of Matthew in medieval Gospel books was often highly decorated. The so-called Chi-Rho page (named after the two first capital letters of Christ’s name) of the Stockholm Codex Aureus is no exception. What is striking about the first line of this page is its inclusion of no fewer than twenty animals. While some (like the lamb of God above the PI of ‘XPI’-abbreviation for Christ) are easy to find, other are hidden among the many decorations. I personally like how even the initial capital X terminates in two animal heads (cows?) and how one animal is trying to balance himself between the two arches of the M. The image below lists the twenty animals and their location in the words “XPI AUTEM”:
Another interesting feature of the Stockholm Codex Aureus is its consistent alternation of normal parchment pages with pages that were dyed purple. Whereas the white pages are written with black ink, the purple pages have lettering in gold and silver. The use of purple pages and gold ink is well attested for the seventh and eighth centuries: since gold and silver were durable metals, they were deemed the proper colours for the equally incorruptible word of God. Ironically, it was probably this use of gold in the Stockholm Codex Aureus (and its bejewelled cover) that made it catch the attention of the marauding Vikings in the ninth century.
While the Codex Aureus was temporarily returned to England, it did eventually end up in Scandinavia. The manuscript had remained in Canterbury until the end of the Middle Ages, then spent some time in Spain, but was finally acquired by the Royal Library of Sweden in 1690. I wonder how much “pure gold” it would take to ransom the book once more from these Vikings!
If you liked this blog post, you can sign up for regular updates and/or read the following posts about medieval manuscripts:
- An Anglo-Saxon comic book collector: Cuthwine and the Carmen Paschale
- Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts
- The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book
- Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels
Works referred to:
- Gameson, R. (ed.), The Codex Aureus: An Eighth-Century Gospel Book (Copenhagen, 2001)
Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This post discusses the remarkable events leading up to and including the Battle of Fulford in 1066…
As one of the three major battles of the year 1066, the Battle of Fulford is often ignored in favour of the English victory over the Vikings at Stamford Bridge and the English loss against the Normans at Hastings. Yet, this battle that took place on 20 September 1066 deserves our attention as well, if only because a 13th-century, Icelandic source connects this event to several interesting Anglo-Saxon anecdotes. All these anecdotes are found in the Heimskringla, a series of sagas concerning the lives of Norwegian Kings, written by the great Icelandic poet-scholar Snorri Sturluson around the year 1230.
Prophetic dreams of witch-wives
Like William the Conqueror, the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada claimed the throne of England in the year 1066. Snorri reports that, before Harald’s fleet sets off for England, some Vikings had troublesome dreams. One of them was called Gyrd, who dreamed that he was:
standing in the king’s ship and saw a great witch-wife standing on the island, with a fork in one hand and a trough in the other. He thought also that he saw over all the fleet, and that a fowl was sitting upon every ship’s stern. (trans. Laing 1844)
Gyrd’s fork-bearing witch-wife also appeared in the nocturnal vision of another Viking, called Thord:
He dreamt that King Harald’s fleet came to England and he saw a big battle, and before the English army, a huge witch-wife was riding upon a wolf and the wolf had a man’s carcass in his mouth, and the blood was dropping from his jaws; and when he had eaten up one body she threw another into his mouth, and so one after another, and he swallowed them all. And she sang thus:
‘Skade’s eagle eyes
The king’s ill luck espies:
Though glancing shields
Hide the green fields,
The king’s ill luck she spies.
To bode the doom of this great king,
The flesh of bleeding men I fling
To hairy jaw and hungry maw!
To hairy jaw and hungry maw!’ (trans. Laing 1844)
In case you didn’t get that, the witch-wife predicts an ill fate for King Harald Hardrada (who, indeed, died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, on the 25th of September, 1066).
Pelt them with pitchforks! How the Vikings burned Scarborough
Harald and his Viking army land in England in September, 1066, with some 300 ships and some 9,000 men. The first thing they did was sack Scarborough. Naturally, the town was protected by a town wall of some sorts, but Harald found a way around this, or, rather, over this. His brilliant tactic involved hurling fiery pitchforks:
[Harald] climbed up on to the rock that stands there, and had a huge pyre built on top of it and set alight; when the pyre was ablaze they used long pitchforks to hurl the burning faggots down into the town.
The Battle at Fulford and a bridge made of people
Later, on the 20th of September, 1066, Harald gloriously defeated an English army at Fulford led by the English earls Morcar and Edwin. The English army was put to flight and Harald Hardrada won the day. To make matters worse, some of the unfortunate English stumbled into a swamp, as Snorri reports:
The English army quickly broke into flight, some fleeing up the river, and others down the river; but most of them fled into the swamp, where the dead piled up so thickly that the Norwegians could cross the swamp dry-shod. (trans. Laing 1844)
Snorri’s Heimskringla, naturally, is not the most trustworthy of sources when it comes to the events of the year 1066; nevertheless, I hope that some of the re-enactments in celebration of this year’s 950-year-memorial will feature flying, fiery pitchforks, Vikings crossings swamps over bridges made of people and, who knows, fork-bearing witch-wives riding wolves!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Battle of the Birds, 671
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How beer and bees beat the Viking siege of Chester in c. 907
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Earl Siward and the Proper Ways to Die
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Real Night of the Long Knives
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How Hengest was led by the nose
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Alleluia, the Anglo-Saxon Boo!
Stay tuned for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!
Works referred to:
Laing, Samuel, trans. The Heimskringla. Or, Chronicles of the Kings of Norway (Vol. 3). London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1844.
During the early Middle Ages, several Anglo-Saxons made their way to what is now the Low Countries, as missionaries, pilgrims, mercenaries and refugees. On this blog, I will regularly shed light on places in The Netherlands and Belgium associated with these visitors from early medieval England. This post focuses on the early medieval town Dorestad (present-day Wijk bij Duurstede, The Netherlands), which was visited as well as shunned by various Anglo-Saxons. In particular, this post reports on the exhibition ‘Boniface in Dorestad 716-2016’ in Museum Dorestad (18 June-7 December, 2016).
Dorestad: Flourishing Frisian trade centre that fell prey to Vikings?
Modern-day Wijk bij Duurstede is a relatively small Dutch town south of Utrecht and little recalls the grandeur of this place some thousands years ago, when it was known as ‘Dorestad’. During the early Middle Ages, the docks would have been crawling with international traders, shipping wine, stones and slaves along the important rivers Rhine and Lek. Its inhabitants, first the Frisians and later the Franks, used Dorestad as a trading hub that connected the Rhineland and the North Sea.
Dorestad’s status as a successful merchant town came to an end in the ninth century. Generations of Dutch school children have been told how the Vikings ransacked Dorestad, inspired by a famous educational plate by J.H. Isings (1927; see below). The local museum, Museum Dorestad, notes that this is only part of the story: apart from Viking incursions, Dorestad also had to deal with a declining economy, as well as Frankish rulers who began to favour other trading towns (Tiel and Deventer) for geo-political reasons. You can find a lot more information about medieval Dorestad on this website, which is affiliated with the museum. In the remainder of this post, I will focus on the Anglo-Saxon visitors to Dorestad.
Anglo-Saxons in Dorestad: Scholars, traders and missionaries
- Nam tibi Hadda prior nocte non amplius una
- In Traiect mel compultimque buturque ministrat :
- Utpute non oleum nec vinum Fresia fundit.
- Hinc tua vela leva, fugiens Dorstada relinque:
- Non tibi forte niger Hrotberct parat hospita tecta (Alcuin, Cartula, perge cito, ll. 8-12)
[Because prior Hadda will provide for you no more than one night, in Utrecht, he serves honey, porridge and butter, since Frisia does not produce oil or wine. Hoist your sails away from here, leaving and ignore Dorestad, for the black Hrotberct really will not prepare hospitable houses for you]
In his poem Cartula, perge cito [Little map, move quickly], the Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin of York (d. 804) recounts a journey he had made along the river Rhine. The poem is full of interesting, local details, such as his report that, in Utrecht, honey, porridge and butter were served in lieu of oil and wine. Notably, Alcuin told his readers to shun Dorestad, since a particularly nasty and greedy trader Hrotberct lived there.
Despite Alcuin’s advice, Anglo-Saxons regularly visited Dorestad, primarily for trade. This much becomes clear from numismatic evidence. Coins minted in Dorestad, for instance, have been found in England. In 2007, a gold tremissis bearing the inscriptions DORESTATE and RIMOALDUS M was found in North Yorkshire – a seventh-century coin apparently made in Dorestad by a man named Rimwald(us). Similar golden coins from Dorestad, made by one Madelinus, have also been unearthed in England, as well as in Norway and Belgium – attesting to Dorestad’s status as an international trade hub (see overview here). Vice versa, a silver sceat from Kent was found in Dorestad and is now on display in Museum Dorestad. Browsing the Portable Antiquities Scheme website (a great resource, documenting small finds by amateur archaeologists in England and Wales), I was able to identify a version of the exact same coin: found in 2013, in Barnham, Kent (see below). The two coins are so similar they may well have been struck with the same coin die!
Aside from Anglo-Saxon traders, Anglo-Saxon missionaries also visited Dorestad. The greatest of these may have been St. Boniface (d. 754), who first set foot in Dorestad 1300 years ago, in 716. His visit is commemorated this year (2016), with an exhibition in the local museum, Museum Dorestad.
Boniface in Dorestad 716-2016: From bishop-martyr to USB stick
The exhibition, on the top floor of the small museum, consists of one, well-packed room. Along its walls, informative posters relate Boniface’s life story: Born as Wynfreth in the south-west of England (possibly Crediton), he became a monk and would lead various missions to Frisia and Germany. The first of these missions, in 716, brought Wynfreth to Dorestad, but his efforts to convert the pagan Frisians had little success. He returned a few years later and, with great zeal, preached the Gospel, cut down holy oaks and founded various monasteries and churches among the German peoples. His efforts earned him the title of ‘Apostle of the Germans’, as well as his new Roman name ‘Bonifatius’, or Boniface. When Boniface was well in his seventies, he still travelled to Frisia to continue his missionary activities, until, in 754, he was murdered, possibly near Dokkum. The story of his death is well known: ambushed by Frisian robberts, the elderly Boniface iconically shielded his head from the blows with his Gospel-book. Alas! The book was to no avail and Boniface died by the hands of the pagans. A martyr was born and Boniface was soon venerated as a saint. The exhibition in Museum Dorestad is illustrated nicely with altar pieces and plates showing scenes from the life of the Anglo-Saxon saint. A particular highlight of this part of the exhibition was a little star-shaped reliquary with a tiny piece of Boniface-bone inside. I have never been this close to an Anglo-Saxon!
I may have enjoyed the second part of the exhibition even more than the first. This part dealt with the Nachleben of Boniface – his afterlife. After the Middle Ages, people generally seem to have forgotten about Boniface (apart from some local cults), even though he was the patron saint of brewers, tailors, bookshop keepers, traders and vile makers! However, the Anglo-Saxon saint made a comeback at the end of the nineteenth century. Specifically, German nationalism adopted Boniface as the ‘Apostle of the Germans’; monuments and events in honour of Boniface also celebrated German nationhood. More recently, the Anglo-Saxon saint was adopted for more commercial means. The exhibition showed a Boniface cigar box, Boniface delftware plates, Boniface mints and even a Boniface USB stick! Naturally, the patron saint of brewers also has his own brand of beers: Boniface beer! (Note: Boniface wasn’t the only Anglo-Saxon missionary to be celebrated in beer, see this blog)
The attention for this commercial side to Boniface in the Dorestad Museum exhibition need not surprise us: apparently, the inhabitants of Wijk bij Duurstede have inherited some of the mercantile interests of their early medieval predecessors!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:
Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This post discusses the remarkable ways the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Chester managed to defeat a Viking siege in c. 907..
The eleventh-century Fragmentary Annals of Ireland records an intriguing tale of how the Vikings from Denmark and Norway laid siege to Chester around the year 907 and how the Anglo-Saxons, advised by their lord Æthelred (d. 911) and lady Æthelflaed (d. 918), defeated them. The original text is in Middle Irish, but I will quote from the Modern English translation by Radner (1978).
Feigning a retreat and a treaty
When the Danes and Norwegians first laid siege to Chester, the inhabitants sent word to their king and queen, who advise them to use a “feigned retreat”:
When the troops who were in the city saw, from the city wall, the many hosts of the Danes and Norwegians coming to attack them, they sent messengers to the King of the Saxons, who was sick and on the verge of death at that time, to ask his advice and the advice of the Queen. What he advised was that they do battle outside, near the city, with the gate of the city open, and that they choose a troop of horsemen to be concealed on the inside; and those of the people of the city who would be strongest in battle should flee back into the city as if defeated, and when most of the army of the Norwegians had come in through the gate of the city, the troop that was in hiding beyond should close the gate after that horde, and without pretending any more they should attack the throng that had come into the city and kill them all. (trans. Randler, p. 171)
Although this tactic proved very effective, the Viking attacks prolonged. Luckily, the king and queen had another trick up their sleeves. They sent word to the Irish and asked them to pretend to want to make a treaty with the Danish part of the Viking army. Explaining:
If they will make terms for that, bring them to swear an oath in a place where it would be convenient to kill them, and when they are taking the oath on their swords and their shields, as is their custom, they will put aside all their good shooting weapons. (trans. Randler, p. 173)
All went according to plan: when the Danes laid down their weapons and shields to take their oaths, the inhabitants of Chester killed them by hurling huge rocks and beams onto their heads!
Burn them in beer and send in the bees!
Defeating the Norwegian part of the Viking army would take a bit more effort, since these savages had come up with a new game plan: “The Norwegians did not abandon the city, for they were hard and savage; but they all said that they would make many hurdles, and place props under them, and that they would make a hole in the wall underneath them” (trans. Randler, p. 171). The inhabitants of Chester had to turn to extreme measures to ward ff these attacks:
However, the other army, the Norwegians, was under the hurdles, making a hole in the wall. What the Saxons and the Irish who were among them did was to hurl down huge boulders, so that they crushed the hurdles on their heads. What they did to prevent that was to put great columns under the hurdles. What the Saxons did was to put the ale and water they found in the town into the towns cauldrons, and to boil it and throw it over the people who were under the hurdles, so that their skin peeled off them. The Norwegians response to that was to spread hides on top of the hurdles. The Saxons then scattered all the beehives there were in the town on top of the besiegers, which prevented them from moving their feet and hands because of the number of bees stinging them. After that they gave up the city, and left it. (trans. Randler, p. 173)
And that’s how you defeat a Viking siege: when all else fails, burn them in beer and send in the bees!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Earl Siward and the Proper Ways to Die
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Real Night of the Long Knives
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How Hengest was led by the nose
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Alleluia, the Anglo-Saxon Boo!
Stay tuned for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!
Works referred to:
- J. N. Randler, Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (Dublin, 1978)
The TARDIS occasionally found its way to early medieval England and these visits of the nation’s most beloved ‘Time Lord’ can also teach us something about Anglo-Saxon history and the Old English language. This post is the first of a series of three blogs that deal with the visits of BBC’s Doctor Who to Anglo-Saxon England.
Doctor Who in Anglo-Saxon England
Doctor Who is a science-fiction television programme, running from 1963 to 1989 and from 2005 to the present day. The programme revolves around the adventures of a mysterious ‘Time Lord’ who is known only as ‘The Doctor’, travelling through time and space in his TARDIS (which looks like a police box). In addition to his time travelling skills, the Doctor is also able to regenerate his body when near death, which explains why twelve different actors have been able to play this role in the TV series so far. Aside from time and space travel, the series is best known for its range of aliens and its horrible special effects. Incredibly popular, Doctor Who has become a significant part of British culture and has produced various spin-offs, in the form of magzines, novels, comic books and action figures.
Originally, Doctor Who was meant as a children’s TV show that would teach British history in a fun and entertaining way by bringing in aliens. What I am planning to do in the next few blogs is to use the series as it was intended: as a flashy guide to history; in my case, Anglo-Saxon history and culture. In order to do so, I have tried to locate TV episodes, comics and short fiction stories that feature the Doctor travelling to Anglo-Saxon England (my overview is unlikely to be complete, given the ever-growing Doctor Who franchise; recommendations are welcome, so please leave comments). We will see that the Doctor was present at many pivotal moments in Anglo-Saxon history; met various historical individuals; and, on occasion, prevented history from being changed forever. The current post deals with the Doctor’s encounters with Vikings and Anglo-Saxon celebrities; the second post will deal with King Alfred the Great and the third and last post will focus on the Doctor’s involvement in the Norman Conquest.
Doctor Conkerer: The Doctor in fifth-century Britain
The story of Anglo-Saxon England usually begins in the fifth century, when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes migrated to Britain. Naturally, some of these fifth-century invaders had a run-in with a blue police box, as is revealed in the comic strip ‘Doctor Conkerer’ in Dr. Who Magazine, no. 162 (July 1990):
In this comic, the seventh Doctor is playing a game of conkers (for which you need the seed of a horse-chestnut tree on a string – a conker). After he has run out of conkers, the Doctor decides to make a short stop to gather some more. The TARDIS lands in fifth-century Britain and the Doctor chances upon some ruffians shouting “YAARR!” and “RAAHH!”. Rather than meeting the Angles, Saxons or Jutes, as we might expect, he meets another group of Germanic invaders: the Vikings, some three hundred years before they actually set foot in Britain! Be that as it may, the Doctor witnesses these anachronistic Vikings capture a British boy and decides to come to the rescue. He burns the longships of the Vikings and knocks out Viking leader Olaf with a well-aimed strike of a conker:
The Doctor frees the British boy and brings him back to his village. Upon leaving the scene, the Doctor says to himself “Brilliant game, conkers. Wonder who first came up with it!”. This turns out to be the boy rescued by the Doctor, who is seen explaining the game to his mates. This first visit of the Doctor to early medieval Britain is slightly disappointing in terms of its educational value, if only because of the anachronisms (aside from the anachronistic Vikings, the game of conkers dates back to the 19th century).The next visit of the Doctor to early medieval Britain brings us into the territory of legend:
Shock reveal: The Doctor is Merlin!
According to the early medieval chroniclers Gildas (c. 500-570) and Bede (672/673-735), the Angles, Saxons and Jutes had been invited to Britain by the British King Vortigern, who required mercenaries to fight the invading Picts. A reference to this Vortigern is found in the TV episode ‘Battlefield’ (S26E01; 1989) of Doctor Who, in which a spaceship (containing the body of King Arthur and his sword Excalibur) is found on the bottom of Lake Vortigern…
Like Vortigern, the legendary King Arthur is also associated with the invading Anglo-Saxons. Later medieval writers, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, have assumed that it was King Arthur who led the Britons in the fight against the invaders from the Continent. This British resistance is one of the reasons why it took the Anglo-Saxons at least 150 years to conquer the area that is now known as England.
As legend would have it, King Arthur was aided by a mysterious man who could predict the future: Merlin. ‘Battlefield’ reveals that this Merlin is none other than a reincarnation of the Doctor, as becomes clear when the knight Ancelyn flies through the roof of a hotel and recognises the seventh Doctor:
ANCELYN: Merlin. Against all hope.
ACE: You’ve got it wrong, mate. This is the Doctor.
ANCELYN: Oh, he has many faces, but in my reckoning, he is Merlin.
DOCTOR: You recognise my face, then?
ANCELYN: No, not your aspect, but your manner that betrays you. Do you not ride the ship of time? Does it not deceive the senses being larger within than out? Merlin, cease these games
There you have it, the British resistance against the Anglo-Saxons may have had some extraterrestrial help!
Woden’s Warriors: The Doctor meets some real Vikings
After the Anglo-Saxons have migrated and conquered most of what is now known as England, they are converted to Christianity. These events, however, seem to have gone by unaffected by the Doctor. His next visit (aside from a picnic with Bede, see below), takes place when the Anglo-Saxons themselves are faced with an invasion: the Vikings (for real, this time).
In ‘Woden’s warriors’, published in TV Comic Annual 1976, the fourth Doctor and his companion Sarah Jane accidentally land in Viking Age Britain. As they wander about, they suddenly hear the sounds of a horn: the Vikings have found the TARDIS and they think it is a gift from Woden. In order to find out whether that is truly the case, the Viking leader Heekon sets fire to the police box and, noting that it does not burn, he is convinced that this ‘magic box’ will aid them in their battle against the (Anglo-)Saxons:
The tide is not turned in the Vikings’ favour, however. The Saxons are prepared, since they have been forewarned by the Doctor and Sarah-Jane. The Vikings are put to flight and their boats are set aflame! Next, the Saxons celebrate their victory in ‘traditional style’, which means that Sarah-Jane is not allowed to eat before the men have finished. The Doctor chuckles: “Yes, there is a lot to be said for the Saxon view of a woman’s role”:
I, for one, am not aware of any such rule having been in place in Anglo-Saxon England; likely, this little scene is an attempt to show that rules that undermine a woman’s rights are ‘medieval’ and old-fashioned – Sarah-Jane’s repulsion seems in line with the second-wave feminism of the Seventies…
Who’s who in Anglo-Saxon England: The Doctor and Anglo-Saxon celebrities
Throughout the Doctor Who franchise, there are frequent references to historical figures that the Doctor had supposedly met. Some of these figures belong to Anglo-Saxon history. A prime example is the Venerable Bede (672/673-735), who once shared a salmon with the Doctor, as the fourth Doctor relates in the TV episode “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (S14E06; 1977):
I caught a salmon there [the River Fleet] once. Would have hung over the sides of this table. Shared it with the venerable Bede, he adored fish.
One wonders what Bede, a Northumbrian monk who probably never went far beyond the confines of the monasteries in Monkwearmouth and Jarrow (now: Bede’s World), was doing in London at the time! Anyway, Bede’s predilection for fish may explain why the monk felt it necessary to point out that Britain “is remarkable also for rivers abounding in fish, and plentiful springs. It has the greatest plenty of salmon and eels” (Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, bk. 1, ch. 1).
Another Anglo-Saxon celebrity known to the Doctor was King Athelstan (c.894–939), whose coronation in 924 is referred to in the 2009 TV-special “The Planet of the Dead”. Here, the tenth Doctor finds out that Lady Christina de Souza has stolen the precious ‘Cup of Athelstan’. This cup, we are told, was a gift from Hywel (c.880-950), King of the Welsh, to Athelstan upon the latter’s coronation in 924 as “the first king of Britain”. Even though Athelstan wasn’t really the first King of Britain, he was indeed crowned King of the Anglo-Saxons in 924. He became the first King of the English in 927, after he conquered the last remaining Viking kingdom of York. The Welsh kings did indeed submit to him, but he never really had the title of ‘first king of Britain’. Ah well, I suppose one can forgive a reincarnating, time and space travelling humanoid alien for not always having his facts straight!
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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