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An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Cnut the Great and the walking dead

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 how Cnut the Great (d. 1035) was scared by the reanimated corpse of St. Edith of Wilton.

The walking dead in Anglo-Saxon England

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In episode 5 of the second series of The Last Kingdom, Uhtred of Bebbanburg meets Bjorn the dead man who rises from his grave. © BBC (source)

A recent article in the Guardian reported on the mutilation of dead bodies by medieval inhabitants of Yorkshire. The archaeologists suggested that the villagers had been so afraid of the dead rising from their graves that they made reassurances by smashing some of the skeletons to pieces. Similar practices have been reported for Anglo-Saxon England. The archaeologist David Wilson, for instance, has described how some Anglo-Saxon skeletons were found buried upside down (prone burials), covered under stones, or had their heads cut off. These practices, he notes, have been interpreted as being “intended to prevent the ghost from walking and returning to haunt the living” (Wilson 1992: 92). A fear for a zombie apocalypse, it seems, is nothing new!

The Three Living and the Three Dead

A famous medieval tale revolves around the chance meeting of three living young men with three animated corpses. The corpses remind the young men that they too will die (memento mori, remember to die) and that it is not too late to change their ways.

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The Three Living and the Three Dead © The British Library, Arundel MS 83, f. 127v

Versions of the tale of the Three Living and the Three Dead have come down to us from the 13th century onwards (see this blog), but the transformative power of a meeting with a dead person has a longer history; a history that includes Cnut the Great and the corpse of St Edith of Wilton.

Cnut the Great and the reanimated corpse of St Edith of Wilton

Cnut the Great (d. 1035) has a reputation as a god-fearing, Christian king. However, an anecdote in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (1125) suggests Cnut started out as an unbelieving irreligious rebel, until he saw a zombie:

Cnut was a Dane, a man of action but one who had no affection for English saints because of the enmity between the two races. The cast of mind made him wilful, and when at Wilton one Whitsun he poured out his customary jeers at Eadgyth herself [St Edith of Wilton, an Anglo-Saxon saint]: he would never credit the sanctity of the daughter of King Edgar, a vicious man, an especial slave to lust, and more tyrant than king. He belched out taunts like this with the uncouthness characteristic of a barbarian, just to indulge his ill temper; but Archbishop Æthelnoth, who was present, spoke up against him. Cnut became even more excited, and ordered the opening of the grave to see what the dead girl could provide in the way of holiness.

The tomb was opened and, like a jack-in-the-box, St Edith of Wilton rose from her grave:

When the tomb was broken into, Eadgyth was seen to emerge as far as the waist, though her face was veiled, and to launch herself at the contumacious king. In his fright, he drew his head right back; his knees gave way, and he collapsed to the ground. The fall so shattered him that for some time his breathing was impeded, and he was judged dead. But gradually strength returned and he felt both shame an joy that despite his stern punishment he had lived to repent. (Trans. Preest 2002: 127)

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If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

Stay tuned (and follow this blog) for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!

Works referred to:

  • David Preest (trans.), William of Malmesbury: The Deeds of the Bishops of England (Woodbridge, 2002)
  • David Wilson, Anglo-Saxon Paganism (London and New York, 1992)

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Battle of the Birds, 671

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 self-made cartoon. In this post, I deal with the remarkable story  of a battle of birds in the year 671.

A battle of birds in England, 671

In the thirteenth-century historiographical work Flores historiarum [Flowers of History], Roger of Wendover (d. 1236) collected all sorts of events that caught his interest whilst reading the chronicles of other historians. Interestingly, he notes that he collected these stories for entertainment, as well as (intellectual) ‘profit’:

…that which follows has been taken from the books of catholic writers worthy of credit, just as flowers of various colours are gathered from various fields, to the end that the very variety, noted in the diversity of the colours, may be grateful to the various minds of the readers, and by presenting some which each may relish, may suffice for the profit and entertainment of all (trans. Giles, p. 2)

Among his bouquet of historical anecdotes is a peculiar fight among fowls in the year 671:

“In the year of grace 671, there was an extraordinary battle in England among the birds, insomuch that many thousands were found killed, and it seemed that the foreign birds were put to flight.” (trans. Giles, p. 100)

Xenophobic, English birds ousting foreign fowl…imagine if they had made a tapestry out of that battle!

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Birds Tapestry – inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry (see and compare for yourself)

Chinese whispers from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to Roger of Wendover’s Flores Historiarum

The first reference to bird-activity in the year 671 is found in various manuscripts of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (initiated during the reign of Alfred the Great [d. 899]):

671: Her wæs þæt micle fugla wæl. (Manuscripts A, B, C and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available here)

[671: In this year was a great mortality of birds]

While the Old English word wæl is often used to denote dead bodies after a battle, it is more likely that the word here refers to the death of birds following a natural disaster. This interpretation seems supported by the Latin chronicle of Æthelweard (d. c.988), who reported a foul smell caused by the dead birds:

Itaque post decursu anni unius facta est auium magna ruina, ita ut et in mare et in arida spurcissimus foetor uideretur tam de minutis auibus quam de maioribus.

[After the lapse of one year (i.e. in 671) a great mortality of birds occurred, so that on sea and on land a very foul stench was noticeable from the <carrion of> small birds and larger ones.] (Ed. and trans. Campbell)

Since Æthelweard was writing in the tenth century, he is unlikely to have remembered the smell himself: he probably used a now-lost Old English manuscript of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that contained this extra information about the event of 671. The chronicler John of Worcester (d. 1140) also seems to have interpreted the event of 671 as stemming from natural causes and spoke of an “[a]uium strages” [destruction of birds]: the same phrase he used for the deaths of birds caused by a harsh winter in 1111:

Hox anno hyemps asperrima, fames ualida, mortalitas hominum, pestis animalium, agrestium simul et domesticorum, stragesque auium extitit permaxima.

This year there was a very harsh winter, a serious famine, mortality of men, disease among animals, both wild and domestic, and a very great destruction of birds. (ed. Darlington & McGurk; trans. McGurk and Bray)

So far, the most likely interpretation of what went on in 671 is a mass mortality of birds, caused by some disease or harsh weather conditions. So what about Roger of Wendover’s battle?

         Matters appear to have gone astray when Henry of Huntingdon (c. 1088–c. 1157), in his Historia Anglorum, tried to make sense of annal 671 in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He erroneously translated Old English wæl with Latin pugna ‘battle, combat’:

Precedenti autem anno fuit maxima pugna uolucrum in Anglia.

[In the preceding year (671) there was a very great battle of birds in England.] (ed. and trans. Greenway)

Henry, realizing that a battle of birds does not sound very likely, then defended himself by relating that a similar fight had broken out in his own days, one with a symbolic meaning:

This seems more credibly because it also happened in Normandy in our own time, in the reign of King Henry. He was the first king of England of this name. This is specified because in the future there may perhaps be another so named. The birds fought openly at Rouen, and thousands of dead birds were discovered and the foreign birds were observed being driven off. This was a sign of the battle that was fought between Henry, lord of England and Normandy, and Louis, king of France, son of Philip. In this battle the strong King Henry emerged the victor and the defeated Louis fled away. (trans. Greenway)

Now it becomes clear what has happened with regard to the Flores Historiarum of Roger of Wendover: Roger had read Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum but shortened the text in such a way that the details of the battle of birds in 12h-century Rouen were  transposed to the English event of 671. Regrettably, then, we must conclude that in the year 671, in all likelihood, no battle of birds took place in England and that no foreign birds were put to flight that year; some of the flowery anecdotes of the Anglo-Saxon past, it appears, are merely the result of an intriguing game of Chinese whispers!

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

Stay tuned for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!

Works referred to:

  • Campbell, A., ed. and trans. The Chronicle of Æthelweard (London, 1961)
  • Darlington, R. R. and P. McGurk, eds., P. McGurk and J. Bray, trans., The Chronicle of John of Worcester: The Annals from 450-1066 (Oxford, 1995)
  • Giles, J.A., trans. Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of History (London, 1849)
  • Greenway, D. E., ed. and trans., Henry Archdeacon of Huntingdon. Historia Anglorum. The History of the English People (Oxford, 1996)