Thijs Porck

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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


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.


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)


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)

How Cnut became Canute

This blog discusses the development of the spelling for the name of Cnut the Great, Viking king of England from 1016 to 1035, from <Cnut> to <Canute>.

A pope’s speech impediment, simplification of /kn/ or taboo deflection?


Pope Paschal II (1099-1118) (source)

While it is a well-known fact that Cnut the Great is “known in English as Canute” (Hanks, Hardcastle & Hodges 2006: s.v. ‘Knut’), the origin of the disyllabic spelling <Canute> is uncertain. According to Edward Freeman, the Latin form <Canutus> was introduced by the early twelfth-century Pope Paschal II, because he could not pronounce <Cnut> (Freeman 1867-1876: 442, n. 1). Later scholars have argued that <Canute> is typically English, possibly introduced to retain the proper pronunciation of the name after the consonant cluster /kn/ was simplified to /n/ in English – naturally, we would want to avoid calling him ‘King Nut the Great’! A third hypothesis is based on the principle of taboo deflection: Allan & Burridge (2006: 45) suggest that the spelling variant <Canute> originated to avoid confusion with vulgar <cunt>.

However, the three hypotheses mentioned above are all unsatisfactory as disyllabic spellings for the Viking king’s name are found well before the proposed triggers. The first recorded disyllabic spelling, <Chanut>, is contemporary to the Viking king and is found in two of his own charters (Sawyer 1968: nos. 949, 982). As such, it is recorded some seventy years before Paschal II was inaugurated, and occurs at least six centuries before the simplification of /kn/ to /n/ in English, a process which probably took place over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Kökeritz 1945: 77-86). The disyllabic form also pre-dates the first recorded instance of the word cunt, which, according to the OED, is found in 1230, in the street name “Gropecuntelane” (a name for London’s red light district – a place where you could literally grope cunts…). On its own, the word cunt occurs first in 1325, i.e. three centuries after we find a disyllabic spelling for Cnut’s name. Neither Paschal II’s speech impediment, nor the simplification of /kn/ to /n/, nor the confusion with <cunt>, therefore, can account for the change from <Cnut> to <Canute>.

French or Norman origins of <Canute>

In an article I published with Jodie Mann in the journal NOWELE: North-Western Language Evolution 67 (2014), we surveyed all historical texts from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries which mentioned Cnut the Great (d. 1035). We noted that the earliest texts to  feature a disyllabic spelling of the king’s name were in Latin and of French/Norman origin: e.g., Adémar of Chabannes, Historia Francorum (1025–1029; “Canotus”);  Rodulf Glaber, Historiarum Libri Quinque (1030–1046; “Canoc”); and William of Jumièges, Gesta Normannorum Ducum (1050–1067; “Chunutus”). The two charters that read “Chanut” (Sawyer 1968: nos. 949, 982) were also written in Latin, at Fécamp Abbey, Normandy. By contrast, English chroniclers writing in Latin, such as Herman the Archdeacon, De miraculis sancti Edmundi (c. 1095), Symeon of Durham, Historia Dunelmensis ecclesie (1104–1109) and William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum (1125–1140), spelled the name as “Cnutus”.  Similarly, documents in English, such as  the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cnut’s law codes and letters, simply give monosyllabic forms:”Cnut”.


French taunter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Evidently, the origin for the “Canute” spelling lies in Latin writings from France or Normandy.  A French or Norman origin for the disyllabic spelling may be related to difficulties in pronunciation and makes phonological sense: Speakers of Romance languages, such as (Anglo-) Norman, Old French and Latin, cannot pronounce the sequence /kn/ and one way to remedy this is to insert an epenthetic vowel between the velar and the nasal consonants (Lincoln Canfield & Cary Davies 1975; Minkova 2003: 337); rather like the French taunter in Monty Python and the Holy Grail saying ‘kuhnnigits” rather than “knights”!

<Canute> in English

The evidence presented in our article makes clear that the disyllabic forms ultimately derive from French or Norman authors writing in Latin. Eventually, English chroniclers writing in Latin adopted this practice  (e.g., Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia regum Brittaniae (1135–1139); “Canutus”) and when these Latin chronicles were finally translated into English, <Cnut> became <Canute> in English. The latter development is illustrated by the first occurrence of a disyllabic form in a text in English. In his translation of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon (1387), John of Trevisa wrote “Afterward, aboute Lenten, þe kyng comynge hastely drof Canut out of Lyndeseie” and probably based the spelling <Canut> on Higden’s Latin original: “Postmodum rex circa quadrages imam festine adveniens, Canutum de Lindeseya profugavit” (Lumby 1865–1886: VII, 98–99).


King Nut the Great; King Cunt the Great (source); and King Cnut the Great (source)

In conclusion, while the traditional hypotheses may explain why <Canute> remains the preferred spelling of Cnut’s name – negating as it does the possibility of him being called King Nut the Great or King Cunt the Great – they cannot be seen as explanations for the origin of this spelling variety. Rather than an anglicisation or taboo deflection, the spelling <Canute> should be regarded as a romanisation of <Cnut>; in other words, it is one more thing for which we can blame the French!

This is a shortened and reworked version of the following article: Thijs Porck & Jodie E. V. Mann ‘How Cnut became Canute (and how Harthacnut became Airdeconut)’, NOWELE: North-Western European Language Evolution 67 (2014), 237–243 , which you can read in full here (behind a paywall) or here (Open Access post-print PDF).  

Works referred to:

  • Allan, K. & K. Burridge. 2006. Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Freeman, E.A. 1867–1876. The History of the Norman Conquest of England: Its Causes and its Results. Oxford: Clarendon Press.  
  • Hanks, P., K. Hardcastle & F. Hodges. 2006. A Dictionary of First Names. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Kokeritz, H. 1945. ‘The Reduction of Initial /kn/ and /gn/ in English’. Language 21.77–86.
  • Lincoln Canfield, D. & J. Cary Davies. 1975. An Introduction to Romance Linguistics. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Lumby, J.R. (ed.). 1865-1886. Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden. London: Longman.
  • Minkova, D. 2003. Alliteration and Sound Change in Early English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sawyer, P.H. 1968. Anglo-Saxon Charters: An Annotated List and Bibliography. London: Royal Historical Society.