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Kings and Candlesticks in Anglo-Saxon England

Among all of his responsibilities, Alfred the Great found the time to invent the candle clock. As this blog post will demonstrate, Alfred, by no means, was the only Anglo-Saxon king to have a thing for candles.

Alfred the Great: Inventor of time management and the candle clock

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Eight Hour Day Banner, Melbourne, 1856

The slogan “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” is supposed to have been coined by the social reformer Robert Owen (d. 1858); but the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred the Great (d. 899) seems to have divided his time in a similar way. According to the twelfth-century chronicler William of Malmesbury:

he [Alfred] so divided the twenty-four hours of the day and night as to employ eight of them in writing, in reading, and in prayer, eight in the refreshment of his body, and eight in dispatching the business of the realm. There was in his chapel a candle consisting of twenty-four divisions, and an attendant, whose peculiar province it was to admonish the king of his several duties by its consumption. (source)

Assuming that Alfred regarded writing, reading and praying as recreation – Alfred’s daily routine, as described by William, is quite similar to Robert Owen’s slogan.

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Alfred (played by David Dawson) and his candles make a surprise appearance in The Last Kingdon, series 2, episode 3. © BBC, The Last Kingdom

William’s reference to “a candle consisting of twenty-four divisions” refers to a famous story related in Asser’s Life of Alfred (893), which recounts how Alfred invented a “candle clock” consisting of six candles (not one), which each burned for four hours:

By this plan, therefore, those six candles burned for twenty-four hours, a night and day, without fail…  but sometimes when they would not continue burning a whole day and night, till the same hour that they were lighted the preceding evening, from the violence of the wind, which blew day and night without intermission through the doors and windows of the churches … the king therefore considered by what means he might shut out the wind, and so by a useful and cunning invention, he ordered a lantern to be beautifully constructed of wood and white ox-horn, which, when skilfully planed till it is thin, is no less transparent than a vessel of glass. … By this contrivance, then, six candles, lighted in succession, lasted four and twenty hours, neither more nor less, and, when these were extinguished, others were lighted. (source)

There you have it, in addition to defeating the Vikings (see: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and Alfred the Great), suffering from painful diseases (see: Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?), translating the Psalms (see: The Illustrated Psalms of Alfred the Great: The Old English Paris Psalter), and coining the word ‘arseling’ (see: Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?), Alfred also invented a candle clock! He truly was a king among kings.

Æthelwulf of Wessex: Coins and candle holders for the pope

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Anglo-Saxon coin inscribed with “EĐELVVLF REX” (source)

Alfred may have gotten his interest in lights and candles from his father Æthelwulf of Wessex (d. 858). Upon his death, Asser reports in his Life of Alfred, Æthelwulf ordered an annual sum of money to be sent to Rome of which a major part was to be spent on lighting lamps at Easter:

He commanded also a large sum of money, namely, three hundred mancuses, to be carried to Rome for the good of his soul, to be distributed in the following manner: namely, a hundred mancuses in honour of St. Peter, specially to buy oil for the lights of the church of that apostle on Easter eve, and also at the cock-crow: a hundred mancuses in honour of St. Paul, for the same purpose of buying oil for the church of St. Paul the apostle, to light the lamps on Easter eve and at the cock-crow; and a hundred mancuses for the universal apostolic pontiff. (source)

Æthelwulf’s charity did not stop there. The ninth-century Liber Pontificalis (the book of Popes) relates how, upon visiting Rome with his son Alfred, gifted the Church of St Peter with many precious objects, including a silver candle holder:

a crown of pure gold weighing four pounds, an ornamental sword with gold inlay, a gilded silver candle holder in the Saxon style, a purple dyed tunic embossed with golden keys, a golden goblet, and numerous valuable robes. (R. Abels, King Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 53)

Upon his trip to Rome, Alfred may have learned a valuable lesson from his father: candles are candy for the pope!

Æthelred the Unready: Castigated by candles

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Æthelred ‘the Unready’ © British Library, Royal MS 14 B VI

While Alfred and his father Æthelwulf had positive experiences with candles, one of their kinsmen fared differently. As legend would have it, Æthelred ‘the Unready’ (d. 1016), Alfred’s great-great-grand-son, was traumatized by candles in his youth. William of Malmesbury relates the following incident in his Gesta regum Anglorum:

I have read, that when he was ten years of age, hearing it noised abroad that his brother [Edward ‘the Martyr’ (d. 978)] was killed, he so irritated his furious mother by his weeping, that not having a whip at hand, she beat the little innocent with some candles she had snatched up: nor did she desist, till herself bedewed him, nearly lifeless, with her tears. On this account he dreaded candles during the rest of his life, to such a degree that he would never suffer the light of them to be brought into his presence. (source)

As Æthelred grew up, he gained a reputation as being one of the worst kings in English history. He certainly was never able to fill his great-great-grandfather Alfred’s shoes, and we now know why: without the help of candles (or a candle clock), how could he ever have managed his time!?!

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

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Alfred: What do you think of my candles? Uhtred: I find them to be more effective at night. Alfred: I have missed your childish insolence. I’m trying to measure the passing of time. I’m hoping to find a candle that burns from midday to midday. © BBC, The Last Kingdom

 

 

 

Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and Alfred the Great

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 focuses on Alfred the Great and is the second of a series of three blogs that deal with the visits of BBC’s Doctor Who to Anglo-Saxon England.

The man who wouldn’t give up: The Doctor meets the King

In a volume of short stories entitled Doctor Who. Short trips: Past tense. A short-story anthology (ed. Ian Farrington, 2004), the contribution ‘The man who wouldn’t give up’, written by Nev Fountain, touches upon the most well-known king of the Anglo-Saxons: Alfred the Great (849-899). The story is an interesting mix of early medieval fact, Anglo-Saxon myth and Whovian silliness.

Alfred the Great and the Sixth Doctor

Alfred the Great and the Sixth Doctor

The year is 878 and the sixth Doctor lands in Somerset, where he enters the hut of a swineherd. Here, he chances upon Alfred, disguised as a Danish minstrel (a well-known but ahistorical myth); in a funny little twist, the Doctor introduces himself as a spying harpist who is investigating the Vikings: “Oh sorry, what am I saying? That’s not my story at all, it’s yours isn’t it? Your Majesty.” (p. 192) Alfred, rather surprised that this man has seen through his disguise, decides the Doctor must be a wizard. They then discuss the dire situation England is in (the Vikings have overrun almost all Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, only Wessex under Alfred remains, but even he has been forced to retreat to the Somerset marshes).

After their conversation is interrupted by  Alfred’s severe stomach pain (a historical fact! I wrote a blog about this: Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?), Alfred sighs that he was never meant to be king:

“‘My father Ethelwulf died of his worries…’ the King continued in a flat emotionless drawl. ‘Ethelred…Ethelbald…All my older brothers… All have died fighting the Danish invaders before I became king. Five good men have had to lose their lives for me to stand here before you.’  (p. 194)

Indeed, Alfred had four older brothers, who all died before him: Æthelstan (d. c.852), Æthelbald (d. 860), Æthelberht (d. 865) and Æthelred (d. 871) (Note: it seems his father Æthelwulf (d. 858) had run out of Æthel- names once he got to Alfred – Alfred’s sister got lucky and was called Æthelswith). Naturally, the Sixth Doctor can relate to Alfred’s sentiment: “Really? Perhaps we’re not so different, after all.”

Apparently taking pity on Alfred, the Doctor convinces the king that, despite the setbacks he has suffered, the Vikings will eventually be defeated. Subsequently, the Doctor leaves, taking with him the swineherd’s cakes that Alfred was supposed to have been watching. Hilarity ensues. The wife of the swineherd returns and finds her precious cakes gone:

 ‘The cakes, you idiot. The cakes I expressly asked you to watch over.’

He looked. The cakes had gone.

‘The wizard! He took the bloody cakes!’

‘What wizard?’ (p. 196)

Unable to find the Doctor, Alfred pretends that he has burned the cakes. So that’s where that story came from!

They think it’s all over: Doctor Who at Wemba’s lea

Alfred also gets a mention in the comic book story ‘They think it’s all over’, published in Doctor Who #5 (2011). This time, the eleventh Doctor and his companions Rory and Amy want to visit Wembley Stadium in 1996, to watch England play Germany in a football match. The TARDIS lands in the right place, but at the wrong time: the ninth century, when Wembley was not called Wembley, but Wemba’s lea. They are taken prisoner by Saxon warriors who mistake them for Danish trespassers:

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The Doctor at Wemba’s Lea © Doctor Who #5

As the Doctor explains, the name Wembley actually comes from the Old English word lēah ‘clearing in a forest’, combined with the personal name Wemba; it is the clearing that belongs to Wemba. Wembley, by no means, is the only modern place name to derive from the word lēah, as the following list illustrates:

  • Wembley < ‘clearing of Wemba’
  • Dudley < ‘clearing of Dudda’
  • Oakley < ‘clearing with oaks’
  • Stanley < ‘clearing with stones’
  • Gatley < ‘clearing with goats’
  • Beeley < ‘clearing with bees’
  • Batley < clearing with bats’
  • Crawley < ‘clearing with crows’
  • Shipley < ‘clearing with sheep’

Note how these place names can tell us a lot about the surrounding flora and fauna in the early Middle Ages!

Anyway, the Doctor and his companions are brought before Wemba himself, who relates that he has heard of a strange man in a blue police box before, from Alfred the Great himself:

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Wemba and the Doctor © Doctor Who #5

(The Doctor’s remark about Alfred’s culinary skill is a little below the belt, seeing as it was the Doctor himself who stole the cakes, as we saw before)

After the Doctor and his companions have been released and partake in an Anglo-Saxon feast, the meeting is disturbed by a group of Vikings, who end up taking Amy hostage. In order to win her back, the Doctor and Rory then challenge the Vikings to a penalty shoot out, which they win. With the Vikings defeated, Wemba is overjoyed, noting: “King Alfred was right about you! You truly are a wizard!” (indeed, Alfred regarded the Doctor as a wizard, see above). Finally, the Doctor and his companions go to the year 1996 and attend the game, shouting “Wemba’s Lea, Wemba’s Lea!” (and you now know why).

This was the second of a series of blogs on Doctor Who in Anglo-Saxon England, you can read the first part here: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who in Anglo-Saxon England. The third and final part is available here: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and the Norman Conquest.

Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?

Throughout the fourth episode of the first series of The Last Kingdom, the Anglo-Saxon warrior Leofric jokingly insults Uhtred by calling him ‘arseling’. This blog post discusses the origins and use of the word ‘arseling’ in Old English, where it occurs as ‘earsling’. There may be a surprising connection to none other than King Alfred the Great himself!

Leofric (left) and Lord ‘Arseling’ Uhtred – The Last Kingdom, BBC (Source)

The origins of arseling“Earsling” in the Paris Psalter

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines arseling as meaning “backwards” and having been derived from the noun arse and the suffix –ling. Being a dictionary on historical principles, the OED also provides information about the past usage of the word. The first recorded instance of arseling was around the year 1050: “Syn hi gecyrde on earsling” [Let them be turned backwards], where the word occurs in its Old English form earsling. The text cited by the OED is one of the prose Psalm translations in the mid-eleventh-century manuscript with the shelfmark Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Fonds latin 8824, also known as the ‘Paris Psalter’. This manuscript features the Latin text of the Psalms with an Old English translation (the first 50 Psalms are translated to prose; the last 100 are translated to verse, by another translator). The quotation provided by the OED is part of the Old English prose translation of Psalm 34:

Paris Psalter, fol 37v. © Paris, BnF,
Paris Psalter, fol 37v. © Paris, BnF, MS Fonds latin 8824

Latin (left): Confundantur et revereantur inimici mei qui querunt animam meam aucstantur retrorsum…

Old English (right): Geleahtrode syn mine fynd 7 sceamien heora þa þa secað mine sawle to fordonne. Syn hi gecyrde on earsling…

Translation: Let them be confounded and ashamed that seek after my soul. Let them be turned backwards

Earsling makes one further appearance in the Paris Psalter, as part of the translation of Psalm 6:

Paris Psalter, fol 5r. © Paris, BnF,
Paris Psalter, fol 5r. © Paris, BnF, MS Fonds latin 8824

Latin (left): Erubescant et conturbentur omnes inimici mei avestantur retrorsum et cerubescant ualde uelociter.

Old English (right): Sceamian heora for ði 7 syn gedrefede ealle mine fynd 7 gan hy on earsling 7 sceamien heora swiðe hrædlice.

Translation: Let them be ashamed for this and let all my enemies be driven away and let them go backwards and let them be ashamed very quickly.

A search in the Dictionary of Old English Corpus (a digital corpus that contains one copy of every extant Old English text) reveals that “earsling” only occurs in these Old English prose Psalm translations; earsling is a so-called hapax legomenon, a word that is restricted to this one text. But who was responsible for this Old English prose translation of the first fifty psalms?

The author of earsling: Alfred the Great!?!

The Paris Psalter does not mention the author of the Old English Psalm translations. What is clear, however, is that the language of the prose translation of the first fifty psalms can be identified as Early West Saxon (referring to the dialect of ninth-century Wessex), on the basis of its spelling and phonology (see O’Neill 2001, pp. 55-63). An Old English translation of a Latin text dating to ninth-century Wessex recalls the revival of learning instigated by Alfred the Great (d. 899), which involved, among other things, the translation of various books from Latin to Old English. Interestingly, the twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury attributes a translation of the Psalms to Alfred himself:

He translated into English the greater part of the Roman authors, bringing of the noblest spoil of foreign intercourse for the use of his subjects; of which the chief books were Orosius, Gregory’s Pastoral, Bede’s History of the Angles, Boethius Of the Consolation of Philosophy, his own book, which he called in his vernacular tongue “Hand-boc,” that is, a manual. Moreover he infused a great regard for literature into his countrymen, stimulating them both with rewards and punishments, allowing no ignorant person to aspire to any dignity in the court. He died just as he had begun a translation of the Psalms. (William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum)

According to William, Alfred was unable to finish his translation before he died, possibly succumbing to his mysterious disease at the age of fifty (see this blog post). This seems to fit well with the fact that the Early West Saxon prose translations in the Paris Psalter only cover the first fifty Psalms, followed by another (verse) translation of the remaining Psalms. It is no surprise, then, that scholars such as Bately 1982 and O’Neill 2001 attribute the prose Psalm translations of the Paris Psalter to Alfred himself on the basis of a comparison with other translations attributed to the famous king (although their views have not gone unchallenged, see e.g. Treschow, Gill and Schwartz 2009).

Definitely coined by Alfred: The Alfred the Great Penny now in the Royal Mint Museum (source)

If Alfred was responsible for the prose Psalm translations that survive in the Paris Psalter, does this mean he also coined the word earsling? Probably not, but, for as far as we know, he was the first (and the only) Anglo-Saxon to use the word in writing. The use of arseling in BBC’s The Last Kingdom, then, fits perfectly within the Alfredian period it attempts to portray – perhaps the historical Alfred himself had been inspired to use the word in his Psalm translation because he overheard the jocular insults such as those made by Leofric among his own warriors!

The future of arseling

As noted above, Old English earsling was not used in any other Old English text. According to the OED entry for arseling, the word resurfaced in the Scottish poem The Fortunate Shepherdess by Alexander Ross, published in 1768: “Then Lindy to stand up began to try; But—he fell arselins back.” No further use has been recorded by the OED, which, therefore, declares the word “obsolete” – dead. I have no doubt, however, that an updated version of the entry for arseling (the present one dates back to 1885), will report of its revival following the popularity of Bernard Cornwell’s novels and their BBC adaptation. Thus, the series cannot only be credited for reinvigorating an interest in the historical period of Alfred the Great, but may also be responsible for reintroducing some of Alfred’s own vocabulary!

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Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?

The second episode of The Last Kingdom (UK airdate: Thursday, 29 October, 9 pm, BBC 2) introduces Prince Alfred, who would later become King Alfred the Great (d. 899). In his first scene, Alfred is portrayed as a man tormented both physically (because of his health) and morally (because of his lustful feelings towards the flustered maidservant that had just left his room). This blog post highlights some sources related to the historical Alfred and explores what they reveal about his passions…and his piles.

Alfred (The Last Kingdom, BBC) (SOURCE)

Alfred the Great (849-899): An unlikely king, a sickly sovereign

Genealogical tree of Æthelwulf of Wessex (reign 839-858) © The British Library, Royal 14 B V
Genealogical tree of Æthelwulf of Wessex (reign 839-858) © The British Library, Royal 14 B V (Source)

Known as one of the greatest monarchs of Anglo-Saxon history, defeater of the Danes and instigator of an important educational reform, Alfred was, in fact, an unlikely candidate for the throne of Wessex. For one, he was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex (reign 839-858), which means he had four older brothers: Æthelstan (d. 852), Æthelred (King of Wessex, 858-860), Æthelbald (King of Wessex, 860-865) and Æthelberht (King of Wessex, 865-871). Only after all his brothers had died, Alfred (apparently, Æthelwulf had run out of Æthel-names…) became eligible to rule. Given that he was the youngest of five, Alfred was probably groomed for an ecclesiastical career (his father took him to see the pope, twice), which may explain his interests in learning in his later life. Another reason why Alfred may have been considered an unlikely king at the time was because he suffered from a terrible illness, as is revealed by a biography written during his life by Bishop Asser in the year 893.

Be careful what you wish for!

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1722 facsimile of manuscript containing Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’ (source)

Asser’s Life of King Alfred is a unique source on Alfred’s life and character, written by one of his own courtiers. Asser not only records Alfred’s battles with the Vikings and his dealings at court, he also reports some of Alfred’s medical details, mentioning that, from his youth, Alfred had suffered from “ficus” [piles, haemeroids].

Interestingly, Asser also tells us how Alfred acquired his piles in his early days:

when he [Alfred] realized that he was unable to abstain from carnal desire, fearing he would incur god’s disfavour if he did anything contrary to His will … [he would pray] that Almighty God through His mercy would more staunchly strengthen his resolve in the love of His service by means of some illness which he would be able to tolerate … when he had done this frequently with great mental devotion, after some time he contracted the disease of piles through God’s gift. (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 74)

In other words, young Alfred, afraid of his own dirty thoughts, asked God to grant him a distraction and God gave him haemeroids!

Out of the frying pan, into the fire: “A sudden severe pain that was quite unknown to all physicians”

Asser’s biography also records that Alfred was miraculously cured from his piles when , prior to his wedding, Alfred had asked God to “substitute for the pangs of the present and agonizing infirmity some less severe illness” (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 74). The young prince was miraculously cured: hurray! His regained health would be short-lived, however, since he suddenly fell ill on his wedding night: he had been struck by an illness that proved incurable. This new disease would torment him the rest of his life, as Asser noted:

he has been plagued continually with the savage attacks of some unknown disease, such that he does not have even a single hour of peace in which he does not either suffer from the disease itself or else, gloomily dreading it, is not driven almost to despair. (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 91)

Bald's Leechbook © The British Library, Royal 12 D XVII
Bald’s Leechbook © The British Library, Royal 12 D XVII (Source)

While the disease may have been unknown to the Anglo-Saxon physicians, modern-day scholars have used Asser’s description to diagnose Alfred with Crohn’s disease (Craig 1991). This diagnosis is corroborated by another document made during Alfred’s lifetime: Bald’s Leechbook.

Bald’s Leechbook is a compilation of various medical texts, which was possibly made at Alfred’s own request. Within this compilation, there is a section that is concluded by “þis eal het þus secgan ælfrede cyninge domine helias patriarcha on gerusalem” [Elias, the patriarch of Jerusalem (c. 879-907), ordered all of this to be told to King Alfred]. Included in this section are remedies for the alleviation of constipation, diarrhoea, pain in the spleen and internal tenderness, which all fit well with the pathology of Crohn’s disease(Craig 1991, p. 304). The Old English text also records that Elias sent him a “hwita stan” [a white stone], which could be used against all sorts of illnesses; as an added bonus, the white stone would also protect the owner from lightning and thunders (the text is edited by Cockayne 1864, Vol. II, pp. 288-291).

To make a long story short: Alfred was a passionate boy, God gave him piles and the patriarch of Jerusalem gave him a pebble. Poor Alfred.

If you liked this post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or read the following blog posts about Alfred the Great:

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Works refered to:

  • Asser, Life of King Alfred, trans. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge (Harmondsworth, 1983)
  • Cockayne, T. O. (ed.), Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England (London, 1846; available here)
  • Craig, G., ‘Alfred the Great: A Diagnosis’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 84 (1991), 303-305.