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As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this blog, I will regularly shed some light on the medieval in Middle-Earth, starting with the map of Thror.
Found in the front matter of The Hobbit, Thror’s map is for many readers the first glimpse at Tolkien’s fictional universe. A closer look soon reveals that this is no ordinary map. For one, its orientation seems off: the East is on top, North is on the left, West is on the bottom. Moreover, the map contains little drawings, such as a mountain, a dragon and a spider in a web, accompanied by such little texts as “there are spiders”. More obviously, perhaps, is the strange alphabet (discovered and identified by Elrond as ‘moon letters’) and the little hand on the left, pointing at more moon-ish letters. A strange map, indeed. Though not so strange, perhaps, for someone who is familiar with the Middle Ages.
A medieval map: The Cotton World Map
This Anglo-Saxon map of the world, made in Canterbury around 1025-1050, shows a number of similarities to Tolkien’s map of Thror. First and foremost, the two maps share the same orientation: East is on the top, North is on the left and the West is on the bottom (you can clearly see this by looking at Britain in the bottom left corner!) – a standard feature of medieval maps (before the introduction of the compass, the East (where the sun rises) was the easiest direction to locate). Moreover, the Cotton World Map, like Tolkien’s, features several drawings, such as two little men fighting in the south of Britain, little drawings of cities like Rome and Jerusalem, and mountains (including Mount Ararat in Armenia with a little Ark of Noah!). Finally, the Anglo-Saxon map accompanies some of these drawings with descriptions; e.g., the drawing of a lion in China, where it says “hic abundant leones” [here are many lions] – not unlike Tolkien’s drawing of a spider, near the text ‘There are spiders’.
It is not inconceivable that Tolkien, in fact, drew inspiration from the Cotton World Map – its manuscript, Cotton Tibius B v, contains a version of the Marvels of the East (a catalogue of monsters), of which another version is found in the Beowulf manuscript that was so vigorously studied by Tolkien.
Strange script: Moon letters are Anglo-Saxon runes
The fact that only Elrond is able to decipher the moon letters might make them seem strange and ancient; they turn out to be a lot closer to home. Tolkien based his moon letters on the Anglo-Saxon ‘futhorc’, the runic alphabet used for short inscriptions on stone, wood and metal. Using the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, one can clear decipher the message on Thror’s map as “Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the keyhole”. The English reading of the runes is retained even in some foreign-language versions of The Hobbit, including the Dutch one.
Manicula: Little hands in the margins of medieval manuscripts
The little hand pointing at another set of letters (which, again, can be deciphered using the Anglo-Saxon futhorc) is reminiscent of similar little hands found in medieval manuscripts. These so-called maniculae were often added in the margins by readers to point out important pieces of text (see a highly informative blog here)- the little hand on Thror’s map serves a similar purpose.
To conclude, the map that serves as every reader’s introduction to Middle-Earth immediately gives away the medieval character of the fictional world it depicts. Welcome to Middle-Earth? More like welcome to middangeard!
The information in this post is slightly adapted from an article I published in the Tolkien journal Lembas (available here). In 2016, I will be teaching a course on Tolkien and the Anglo-Saxon World (more info here) and I am also involved in the organisation of an international conference on the theme ‘Tolkien among Scholars’, in association with the Dutch Tolkien Society Unquendor (more info here).
© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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!
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:
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:
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).
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!
If you liked this post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or read other posts on The Last Kingdom:
- Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb
- Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
Works refered to:
- Bately, Janet. 1982. Lexical evidence for the authorship of the prose Psalms in the Paris Psalter. Anglo-Saxon England 10: 69-95.
- O’Neill, Patrick. 2001. King Alfred’s Old English Prose Translation of the First Fifty Psalms (Medieval Academy of America, 2001)
- Treschow, Michael, Paramjit Gill and Tim B. Schwartz. 2009. King Alfred’s Scholarly Writings and the Authorship of the First Fifty Prose Psalms. Heroic Age 12.
- William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, trans. J.A. Giles (London, 1848)
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
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 Great (849-899): An unlikely king, a sickly sovereign
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!
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)
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:
- The Illustrated Psalms of Alfred the Great: The Old English Paris Psalter
- Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and Alfred the Great
- Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?
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.
Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb
Vikings, Alfred the Great and ninth-century England –
The Last Kingdom (BBC; based on the Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell) will undoubtedly spark an interest into the Anglo-Saxons. On this blog, I will regularly discuss some of the historical and/or cultural background of The Last Kingdom, without major plot spoilers.
In the first episode of The Last Kingdom (UK airdate: Thursday, 22 October, 9 pm, BBC 2), the priest Beocca tells the young Uhtred that he should have the boy ‘swear by Cuthbert’s comb’. This post deals with the real Anglo-Saxon object that served as the inspiration for this remark: the comb of Saint Cuthbert.
St Cuthbert (d. 687)
Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne is one of the most famous Anglo-Saxon saints. He spent most of his life on the islands of Lindisfarne and Inner Farne, where he combined the roles of hermit and bishop. He is fascinating for many reasons, but what stands out most for me is his relationship with animals: otters licked his feet, he shared a fish with an eagle, his horse found him some food and crows gave him hog’s lard (which he used to polish his shoes with). He died in the year 687 and he was buried in Lindisfarne. When his coffin was opened 11 years after his death, his body was found to be fully intact: proof that he was indeed a saint. He was put in a new coffin, which was placed inside the church, above ground, near the altar.
Cuthbert’s coffin has a long and exciting history (that we will skip for now) and, after an eventful sojourn through England, ended up in Durham Cathedral. In 1827, the grave in which Cuthbert was thought to have been reburied was opened and they found his bones (no longer intact, this time), along with various relics, such as a travelling altar, a gospel book (now in the British Library), a pectoral cross and an ivory comb.
The comb in Cuthbert’s coffin
Cuthbert’s comb is about 16 cms long and 12 cms wide, with coarse teeth on the one end and fine teeth at the other. This seventh-century comb is an example of a ‘liturgical comb’, which priests would use to fashion their hair prior to celebrating mass. Scholars have noted certain similarities to Mediterranean combs of the same period; this, along with the fact that the comb was made of elephant ivory, demonstrates the big Mediterranean influence on Anglo-Saxon monasticism (on Cuthbert’s comb, see MacGregor 1985: 79).
Keeping Cuthbert from becoming Chewbacca
The ivory comb is described for the first time by the twelfth-century Benedictine monk and hagiographer Reginald of Durham (d. c. 1190), who wrote a book about miracles attributed to Cuthbert. He records an interesting story about how the comb was used to tame the deceased saint’s ever-growing hair. A tenth-century monk named Elfred, Reginald reports, would occasionally open Cuthbert’s coffin in order “to cut the overgrowing hair of his venerable head, to adjust it by dividing it and smoothing it with an ivory comb and to cut the nails of his fingers, tastefully reducing them to roundness”. Reginald also tells us that Elfred would now and again show some of his cuttings to his friends and hold the saint’s hair in flames. Exposed to the fire, Cuthbert’s hair would glisten like gold; cooled down, it returned to its former hairiness. Reginald further tells us that “the ivory comb, perforated in its centre” was placed in Cuthbert’s coffin (source of story: here) – where, apparently, it still was in 1827.
So there you have it: Cuthbert’s comb is well worth swearing by, if only because it allowed a tenth-century monk from keeping St Cuthbert from becoming St Chewbacca.
Works refered to:
MacGregor, Arthur. 2015. Bone, Antler, Ivory & Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials Since the Roman Period. Abingdon: Routledge.
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 Anglo-Saxon saint Adalbert of Egmond (Feast day: 25 June) and the site where he had once been buried: Adelbertusakker, Egmond.
Adalbert of Egmond (d. c.740)
According to our earliest source about Adalbert of Egmond, the tenth-century Vita Sancti Adelberti, Adalbert was born in Northumbria and came to Frisia as one of the companions of the missionary St. Willibrord (d. 739). Adalbert concentrated his efforts in preaching the Gospel to the area around present-day Egmond, North-Holland. He was beloved by the locals, who erected a little wooden chapel in his honour at the site of his grave. Soon after his death in c.740, miracles started to take place: a widow who had prayed to the saint received her daily bread with the incoming tide; marauding Vikings who had their eyes set on Egmond were deceived by miraculously appearing mists; and a man who stole some cheese offered to Adalbert ate both the cheese and his fingers. (You can read the Vita Sancti Adalberti here)
In the tenth century, Adalbert visited the nun Wilfsit three times in a dream and told her that his bones should be exhumed and translated to her nunnery in Hallem (present-day Egmond-Binnen). Wilfsit contacted Count Dirk I of Holland (d. 939), who had the church demolished and Adalbert’s bones dug up. As they did so, water welled up along with the saintly bones and a well was established on the site. Ever since, this well has been a holy place and has been visited by various pilgrims, among whom the blind Anglo-Saxon Folmar, whose sight was restored by drinking water from the well of Adalbertus. A thousand years later, water can still be drunk from the well…
Upon entering the Adelbertusakker (Google Maps location here), you are greeted by three life-size wooden carvings: Dirk Schuit (a man who lived there in the 19th century), Count Dirk II of Holland and St Adalbert. Walking a little further up field, you’ll find trees, benches to sit on, a shrine devoted to St Adalbert and, on the ground, the outlines of where from 1152 to 1573 a stone church had stood. The centrepiece of the field, however, is Adalbert’s well, which is still fully functional.
Pug and Beer: The latest miracle of Adalbert
Water from the well can still be drunk and, according to some, it has retained its medieval miraculous powers. In the 18th century, in particular, water from the well was used to heal cows and other livestock. Needless to say, my pug Breca had her fill as well (and she is still in good health today!).
Interestingly, a nearby abbey (named after Saint Adalbert; I will devote another blog to this in the future) uses water from the well to brew its own beer. The beer is entitled ‘Sancti Adalberti Miraculum Novum’: the latest miracle of Saint Adalbert.
If you liked this post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or read the following blogs about other Anglo-Saxons in the low countries?
- Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Boniface in Dorestad
- Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Ælfthryth of Wessex in Ghent
- ‘The last king of medieval Frisia’: Redbad and the Anglo-Saxon missionaries
According to an early medieval ‘book of monsters’, the bones of the sixth-century, gigantic king Hygelac were shown to travelers on an island in the Rhine, where this river flowed into the sea. Recent excavations in Oegstgeest (South Holland) and the finding of the unique silver Oegstgeest bowl have brought to light international activities in the Rhine estuary in the early medieval period. Could these excavations hold a clue to the location of the bones of Hygelac, who is also mentioned in the Old English poem Beowulf?
A Book of Monsters
Hermaphrodites, dragons, centaurs, pygmies, elephants and a whole lot more. Around the year 700, an anonymous Englishman wrote the Liber monstorum de diversis generibus [The book of monsters of all sorts] and provided an overview of the ‘freaks of nature’ that he had heard and read about. A ninth-century manuscript of the text is currently held in the University Library in Leiden (VLO 60). In this overview of monsters, the author describes Hygelac, a gigantic king of the Geats (a people that lived in southern Sweden):
There are also monsters of an incredible size, such as King Hygelac, who ruled the Geats and was murdered by the Franks; from the age of twelve, no horse could carry him. His bones are preserved on an island in the river Rhine, where it flows into the sea, and they are shown to travelers from afar as a marvel.
Apparently, an Englishman around the year 700 had heard a of an island in the Rhine estuary, where travelers would come from faraway and where they would be shown the gigantic bones of Hygelac. Could this be Oegstgeest? And who was this King Hygelac?
Oegstgeest: An island in the Rhine?
Present-day Oegstgeest certainly does not look like an island, but the medieval situation was wholly different. The name Oegstgeest derives from the personal name Osger and the Middle Dutch word ‘geest’, a term denoting a raised area of sandy soil. In the Middle Ages, Oegstgeest would have been more elevated than the surrounding landscape, which consisted mainly of water (the Rhine and various waterways) and marshland. As such, medieval Oegstgeest may very well be considered an island in the Rhine, which then still had its main estuary in nearby Katwijk (on the medieval history of Oegstgeest, see Lugt 2009).
Recent excavations in Oegstgeest uncovered not only the unique silver bowl, but also imported pottery and wine barrels. Together with a previous find of an Anglo-Saxon belt buckle in nearby Rijnsburg, these finds are indications of international activity in the Rhine estuary in the early medieval period. These archaeological discoveries might now be linked to the text of the Liber monstrorum and the island in the Rhine estuary where, according to the English author, “travelers from afar” were shown the bones of Hygelac.
Who was Hygelac?
Although the Liber monstrorum is the only text to comment on Hygelac’s size, his death around the year 525 AD is described in three early medieval texts. The historian Gregory of Tours (ca. 538-594) wrote that Hygelac died in a naval battle, as he returned from a raid to the north of Gaul. The anonymous Liber Historiae Francorum, written two hundred years later, gives a similar story, but places Hygelac’s raid in the area inhabited by the “Att-oarii”, a people that possibly lived near Nijmegen (Storms 1970).
Hygelac is also mentioned in Beowulf, a long poem in Old English (the language spoken in early medieval England). The poet reports that Hygelac took on the combined forces of Franks, Frisians and “Hetware” (the “Att-oarii” of the Liber Historiae Francorum) and that he died in Frisia:
faran flotherge on Fresna land,
þær hyne Hetware hilde gehnægdon,
elne geeodon mid ofermægene,
þæt se byrnwiga bugan sceolde,
feoll on feðan; nalles frætwe geaf
ealdor dugoðe. (Beowulf, ll. 2914b-2920a)
[Hygelac came sailing with a naval army to Frisia, where the “Hetware” assailed him in battle. They acted with courage and superior force, so that the byrnie-warrior had to bow down, he fell in the battle; this leader did not at all give treasures to his warriors.]
In the early Middle Ages, ‘Frisia’ was larger than present-day Friesland and it extended along the North Sea coast, from North-Western Germany south to well beyond the Rhine estuary.
Where did Hygelac die?
Concerning the location of Hygelac’s death, the early medieval sources are not in agreement: to the north of Gaul, near Nijmegen or in Frisia? Gregory of Tours’ naval battle, the mentioning of the Frisians in Beowulf and the text of the Liber monstrorum all seem to indicate a location at least close to the North Sea.
Hygelac’s bones have never been found. In the fifties, a scholar suggested that the bones may have been kept on the island Goeree Overflakkee (Magoun 1953). Given the recent archeological excavations in Oegstgeest and the evidence outlined above, Oegstgeest within the Rhine estuary appears a more likely option. Due to the scarcity of sources for the early Middle Ages, the best we can do is speculate, but I would not be surprised if the archeologists in Oegstgeest should stumble upon some gigantic bones in the ground!
This is a slightly edited version of a blog previously posted on the Leiden University website. If you liked this blog post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or continue reading the following posts on Beowulf:
- “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880
- Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition
- The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode
Works referred to:
- Lugt, F. (2009), Het Goed van Oegstgeest: De Middeleeuwen in Oegstgeest, Poelgeest, Kerkwerve, Rijnsburg en Nieuw-Rhijngeest. Leiden: Ginkgo.
- Magoun, F., Jr. (1953), ‘The Geography of Hygelac’s Raid on the Lands of the West Frisians and the Hætt-ware, ca. 530 AD’, English Studies 34.
- Storms, G. (1970), ‘The Significance of Hygelac’s Raid’, Nottingham Mediaeval Studies 14,3-26.