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“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” (H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature). The secret to any, successful scary monster story is to keep your monsters clouded in mystery; a secret that was known to the Beowulf poet, but sadly lost on modern movie makers.
Grendel goes to Heorot
Grendel is one of the three monsters that feature in the Old English poem Beowulf. We are introduced to Grendel as an “ellengæst” [bold spirit] (l. 86a) who has spent the last twelve years harassing the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, devouring anyone who spent the night there. A Geatish hero, Beowulf, arrives to save the day. After a long battle, Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm and the monster, mortally wounded, returns to his home in the swamp and dies.
A troll, a giant, a monstrous man or a bipedal dragon; what exactly is Grendel? The nature of Grendel is a matter of scholarly debate and the various solutions offered depend, mostly, on circumstantial evidence. The poem itself reveals very little about the monster; at one point, Beowulf himself confesses that Grendel is “sceaðona ic nat hwylc” [an enemy, I do not know what kind] (l. 274b). Throughout the poem, Grendel is described by generic terms, such as “grimma gæst” [grim spirit] (l. 102), “feond mancynnes” [enemy of mankind] (l. 164b) and “manscaða” [vile ravager] (l. 712a), and his physical description leaves much to be desired. At first, we only learn that “him of eagum stod ligge gelicost leoht unfæger” [from his eyes issued a distorted light, most like a flame] (l. 727b), that he drinks human blood and eats their bodies whole. It is only after Grendel is defeated that we learn a little more about him. The Danes report that he was wretchedly shaped like a man and very large:
hie gesawon swylce twegen
micle mearcstapan moras healdan,
ellorgæstas. ðæra oðer wæs,
þæs þe hie gewislicost gewitan meahton,
idese onlicnæs; oðer earmsceapen
on weres wæstmum wræclastas træd,
næfne he wæs mara þonne ænig man oðer;
þone on geardagum Grendel nemdon
foldbuende. No hie fæder cunnon (ll. 1347-1355)
[they had seen two such big boundary-steppers holding the moors, bold spirits. One f them was, as they were most certainly able to discern, in the likeness of a lady; the other was wretchedly shaped in the forms of a man, he trod in the exile’s tracks, but he was bigger than any other man; people called him grendel in the days of yore. They did not know his father.
Whatever kind of monster Grendel may be, what becomes clear from the poem is that Grendel is the ultimate ‘Other’. While the Danes enjoy life in a lighted hall, revelling in songs and enjoying each other’s company, Grendel dwells in a dark swamp, he does not speak and he lives the life of an exile, alone with his mother. Even Grendel’s parentage is obscured: whereas the Beowulf poet, rather annoyingly, mentions the father of every other Tom, Dick and Harry in the poem, we never find out who Grendel’s father is. We do learn that Grendel and his mother are descendants of Cain, just like “eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, swylce gigantas” [ogres, elves, orcs and also giants] (ll. 112-113a).
In short, Grendel is a mystery monster, unknown and different. The Beowulf poet must have realised that the omission of descriptive details was an effective narrative method which would stimulate his audience to participate actively with his story. The vague description of his monster allowed his audience to imagine its own nightmare being.
Grendel goes to Hollywood
Beowulf has been brought to the big screen on six occasions (Not counting the Beowulf-inspired TV episodes of Animated Epics, Star Trek and Xena: Warrior Princess; and happily ignoring the rather licentious adaptations in the Sci-Fi-Channel television film Grendel (2007) and the ITV Series Beowulf: Return to the Shield Lands). Each movie has solved the Grendel mystery in its own, unique way.
In Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (1981), an animated musical, Grendel is depicted as a slightly depressed green crocodile or, possibly, a dragon without wings. The film Beowulf (1999) features Christopher Lambert as Beowulf who battles Grendel, a muddy ogre of sorts, in a ‘post-apocalyptic techno-feudal future’. In The 13th Warrior (1999), the Viking hero Buliwyf takes on the Wendol, a group of bearskin wearing wildlings. Beowulf & Grendel (2005) depicts Grendel as an oversized, hairy human, who hits himself with rocks until his forehead bleeds. In the 3D animation Beowulf (2007), Grendel is “a hideously disfigured troll-like creature with superhuman strength”. Finally, in the movie Outlander (2008), Kainan (a man from another planet) crashes his spaceship in an eighth-century Norwegian lake and, accidentally brings along an alien, known as the Moorwen. The Moorwen takes on the role of Grendel and is best described as a fluorescent, reptile-like tiger with various tentacles at the end of its tail.
Sympathy for the devil: Feeling sorry for Grendel
Aside from making the monster’s appearance explicit, some movies also try to make their audience sympathize for the creature by adding motives for his vicious attacks on the Danes. In Grendel, Grendel, Grendel, the monster is a misunderstood intellectual that wants to be friends with the buffoonish Danes, who shun him for his monstrous appearance. Beowulf & Grendel opens with a scene where the young Grendel (a bearded baby!) witnesses the murder of his father by the Danish king. In Outlander, we learn that the Moorwen is only trying to avenge Kainan for having tried to colonize its home planet.
Who’s your daddy? Solving Grendel’s parentage
The films Beowulf (1999) and Beowulf (2007) go one step further and even solve the problem of Grendel’s parentage: Grendel turns out to be the monstrous offspring of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes. His vicious attacks on Hrothgar’s hall thus become payback for a fatherless childhood. Far removed from the original poem, the only advantage of this approach appears to be the casting of a physically attractive actress for the role of Grendel’s mother. While the poem describes her as a “brimwylf” [sea-wolf] (l. 1506a) and an “aglaecwif” [opponent-woman] (l.1259a), the 1999 film featured Layla Roberts, a former playmate (who, in one scene, erotically licks Hrothgar’s nose!), and a 3D animation of Angelina Jolie (naked, covered in gold, with a tail!) was one of the ‘unique selling points’ of the 2007 film.
To conclude, none of these movies can be seen as a faithful adaptation of Beowulf and some have argued that film is an unsuited medium for the early medieval epic poem. As long as modern movie makers feel that they need to produce stunning visual effects, to create a sense of sympathy for the ‘bad guy’ and to include steamy bedroom scenes to please their modern audience, this certainly seems to be the case. Unlike the Old English poem, none of these movies can be called a huge success in terms of cultural impact and popularity. When it comes to effective storytelling, there is still a lot we can learn from the literature produced over a thousand years ago.
If you liked this blog, you may also enjoy:
- Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition
- “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880
- Big-Boned Hero Mentioned in Beowulf on Display in Dutch Town Oegstgeest?
- The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode
In the second episode of series two of The Last Kingdom, a row of decapitated heads has been placed outside the main gate of Dunholm/Durham. As this blog post will illustrate, this practice, barbaric though it seems, is well attested for Anglo-Saxon England.
Historical examples: Saint Oswald and the real Uhtred
Perhaps the best-known example of decapitation and impalement was that of Saint Oswald of Northumbria (d. 642). After Oswald had been defeated by the pagan King Penda of Mercia, Penda had Oswald’s head and arms cut off. Penda then had these body parts put on stakes, until Oswald’s brother Oswy retrieved them, a year after the battle. Later, Oswald’s head was likely buried in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert (about whom, see: Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb) which ended up in Durham, where it still remains today. Intriguingly, aside from Durham Cathedral, four other institutions today claim to have the skull of Saint Oswald (Bailey 1995), including Hildesheim Cathedral which houses a beautiful twelfth-century head reliquary depicting the head of Oswald (see image below).
The display of decapitated heads did not die out with the arrival of Christianity. In the De Obsessione Dunelmi, a Latin historical work from around 1100, we are told of a siege of Durham by the Scots in the early eleventh century. Luckily for Durham, their bishop Ealdun’s daughter had been married to Uhtred (d. 1016), son of the earl of Northumbria and the inspiration for Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series upon which BBC’s The Last Kingdom is based. This Uhtred came to Durham’s aid and massacred the Scottish host and had the Scots decapitated. Uhtred then sent for the most attractive heads to be brought to Durham:
The heads of the slain, made more presentable with their hair combed, as was the custom in those days, he had transported to Durham, and they were washed by four women and fixed on stakes around the circuit of the walls. The women who had previously washed them were each rewarded with a single cow. (cited in Thompson 2004: 193)
Aside from the intriguing reward of a cow for washing a dead man’s head, this episode in the De Obsessione Dunelmi reveals that the display of decapitated heads remained common (customary even) until the eleventh century, at least.
Heafod stoccan in Anglo-Saxon charters
Anglo-Saxon charters often contained vernacular boundary clauses which described the areas under discussion. Within these boundary clauses, the term heafod stocc ‘head stake’ is frequently attested, suggesting that it was common practice to mark the limits of estate properties with impaled heads. Various charters locate such head stakes in the vicinity of a road: e.g., “æfter foss to þam heafod stoccan” [after the way to the head stakes] (S 115); “of heafod stocca andlang stræt” [from the head stakes along the street] (S 309); and “7lang stret to þam heafod stoccan” [along the street to the head stakes] (S 695). These examples suggest that these head stakes would have been visible for people travelling from and towards locations, possibly along main access roads. Given their use as boundary markers in surviving Anglo-Saxon charters, these head stakes must have been a permanent as well as salient feature in the landscape. The existence of head stakes is supported by archaeological evidence, which also locates execution sites at the boundaries of estates (see Reynolds 2009: 169). Just like the heads of criminals spiked on the walls of old London Bridge, the purpose of these head stakes must have been to not only mark the boundaries of an estate, but also to warn potential transgressors against the consequences of wrongdoings.
An inspiration for Anglo-Saxon authors and artists
The spectacle of decapitating an enemy’s head and putting it on display proved inspirational for various Anglo-Saxon authors and at least one artist. The Beowulf poet, for instance, has Beowulf and his men parade Grendel’s head on a stake towards Heorot: “feower scoldon / on þæm wælstenge weorcum geferian / to þæm goldsele Grendles heafod / oþ ðæt semninga to sele comon” [four had to carry Grendel’s head with hardships to the gold-hall on a battle-pole, until they came to the hall] (Beowulf, ll. 1637b-1639). Here, Grendel’s head functions as a trophy, a sign of Beowulf’s heroic triumph.
A rare visual depiction of a decapitated and impaled head is found in the Old English Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv) an eleventh-century, illustrated translation from the Latin Vulgate of the first six books of the Old Testament (see: The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book). In his depiction of Genesis 8:7 (‘And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.’), the artist of the Hexateuch deviated from the biblical text and depicted a raven pecking at a head, impaled on Noah’s ark (see below). It has been suggested that the artist was drawing on his own creativity here, given the fact that there is no iconological tradition that depicts Noah’s raven in this way (Gatch 1975: 11). Perhaps, the Anglo-Saxon artist was so familiar with the practices of decapitation and impalement that he could think of no better way to depict God’s wrath!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other blog posts on The Last Kingdom or Anglo-Saxon decapitations:
- Chop chop! Three bizarre beheadings in Anglo-Saxon England
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How a peasant beheaded himself
- Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
Works refered to:
- Bailey, Richard N., “St Oswald’s Heads,” in Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint, ed. C. Stancliffe and E. Cambridge. 195-209. Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1995.
- Gatch, Milton McC., “Noah’s Raven in Genesis A and the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch”, Gesta 14:2 (1975), pp. 3-15
- Reynolds, Andrew, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Thompson, Victoria. Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004.
Language can be a window to culture: by studying Old English words, we can get an insight into how the Anglo-Saxons saw the world around them. This blog post considers Old English words for fingers, pigs, old age and anger. All word clouds were made with www.tagul.com. Information about Old English words is taken from the Thesaurus of Old English.
Old English words and Anglo-Saxon worldviews
In order to study the culture of the Anglo-Saxons, scholars first tend to turn to archaeology, history, literature and art. However, language can also be a valuable source for cultural analysis, as the famous linguist Edward Sapir has noted:
Vocabulary is a very sensitive index of the culture of a people and changes of the meaning, loss of old words, the creation and borrowing of new ones are all dependent on the history of culture itself. Languages differ widely in the nature of their vocabularies. Distinctions which seem inevitable to us may be utterly ignored in languages which reflect an entirely different type of culture, while these in turn insist on distinctions which are all but unintelligible to us. (Sapir 1951)
In other words, vocabulary reflects culture. Indeed, Old English words such as gafol-fisc ‘tribute fish’, cēapcniht ‘bought servant’, þri-milce-mōnaþ ‘May; lit. three-milk-month’, demonstrate that the Anglo-Saxons could pay tribute in fish, buy servants and milked their cows three times a day in May. Similarly, the etymology of Old English words for lord, lady, retainer and slave reveal traditional (perhaps pre-Anglo-Saxon) role patterns, in a household based on bread:
hlāford ‘lord’ (< *hlāf-weard ‘guardian of the bread’)
hlǣfdige ‘lady, woman’ (< *hlāf-dige ‘kneader of the bread’)
hlāfǣta ‘dependant, retainer’ (< *hlāf-ǣta ‘eater of the bread’)
hlāfbrytta ‘slave’ (< *hlāf-brytta ‘dispenser of the bread’)
In this blog post, I will take a cursory glance at four ‘semantic fields’ (fingers, anger, old age and pigs) in order to find out what some Old English words may tell us about Anglo-Saxon culture.
Philological finger food
The names we give to our fingers clearly reveal what we do with these fingers: on our ring-finger we wear our rings and with our index-finger we ‘indicate’ things (or: go through an index). Old English finger names are no different. Consider these words for the index-finger and ring-finger:
bīcn(ig)end ‘forefinger; lit. indicator’
scyte(l)finger ‘forefinger; lit. shot-finger’
tǣcnend ‘forefinger; lit. signer’
lēawfinger ‘forefinger; lit. betray-finger’
goldfinger ‘ring-finger; lit. gold-finger’
lǣcefinger ‘ring-finger; lit. physician-finger’
These finger names yield few surprises: with their forefingers, the Anglo-Saxons pointed at things, shot arrows and made signs; they wore rings and gold on their ring-fingers. Two finger names warrant some explanation. The first element in lēawfinger, first of all, is related to the Old English word lǣwan ‘to betray’ – the forefinger is “the pointer out, the betrayer” (Merrit 1954, p. 175-with thanks to deorreader in the comments below). Secondly, the name lǣcefinger ‘physician finger’ for ring-finger may be somewhat confusing; according to some, there was a vein from this finger that went all the way to the heart and, so, this finger could have medicinal properties.
Apart from the obvious middelfinger, the Thesaurus of Old English lists two contradictory words for the middle finger: ǣwiscberend ‘offender’ and hālettend ‘greeter’ – talk about sending mixed signals! [The Dictionary of Old English, s.v. hālettend suggests that the sense ‘middle finger’ for hālettend is caused by a scribal error and that the word really means ‘forefinger’] The pinky was not only the last and smallest finger (se lȳtla finger; se lǣsta finger), it was also the Anglo-Saxon implement of choice when it came to cleaning out their ears: ēarclǣnsend ‘ear-cleaner’, ēarfinger ‘ear-finger’ and ēarscripel ‘ear-scraper’.
‘Talk to the hand’? If we look at the Old English words for fingers, it seems as if the hand is the one doing the talking, telling us what the Anglo-Saxons did with their fingers.
Of Pork and Pigs in Old English
With over sixty words related to ‘pig’, swine are among the best-represented animals in the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. Indeed, an Anglo-Saxon could distinguish between fōr, pecg, swīn (all ‘pig’), sū/sugu (‘sow’), bār, gealt (both’ boar’), hogg/hocg (‘hogg’), fearh and picga (both ‘young pig’); next, he could pick from a host of ‘special pigs’, including gilte (‘barren sow’), bearg ‘castrated boar’, mæstelberg ‘fattened hog’ and fēdelsswīn (swine fattened for killing). There were no fewer than seven words for ‘swine pasture’ (denbǣre, denberende, denn, mæsten, mæstland, swīnland and wealdbǣr) and various words for swineherd (e.g., swān and swīnhyrde), pigsty (hlōse, sulig, swīnhaga) and even a word for pig-fence (swīnhege). Then there was the non-domesticated variety, the wild boar (bār, eofor, eoforswīn, wildeswīn) that had to be hunted with a boar-spear (eofor-spere, eofor-sprēot) and made an appearance on helmets and battle-standards (see: Boars of battle: The wild boar in the early Middle Ages). The Anglo-Saxons even saw boars when they looked up at the sky (their name for the constellation Orion is eofor-þring ‘boar-crowd’) or down at the plants near their feet (eofor-fearn ‘Polypody fern; lit. boar-fern’; eofor-þrote ‘Carline thistle; lit. boar-throat’).
Swine were appreciated, of course, for their meat, which is also well represented in the Old English lexicon: swīn, swīnflǣsc, swīnnes, flicce, spic, scencel/scencen. This meat would undoubtedly be stored in the pantry, which they called the spic-hūs: ‘the bacon-house’. Not all bacon would be in the bacon-house, however: some of it was offered to the gods. This much is at least suggested by the word offrung-spic ‘bacon offered to idols’ – there is no better tribute than sacrificial bacon!
Old in Old English
I wrote my PhD thesis on old age in Anglo-Saxon England (more info here) and one of the things I did was look at the fifty-two Old English words that denote old age in order to show what Anglo-Saxons associated with growing old. The word hār, for instance, means both ‘grey’ and ‘old’ – a clear connotation that is also found in a word like hārwenge ‘old; lit. grey-cheeked’. The word frōd means both ‘old’ and wise’, showing that the Anglo-Saxons associated old age with wisdom. The word geomor-frōd ‘grief-wise; old, sad and wise’ shows that wisdom came at a cost and was related to grief – gēomor-frōd is a lexical precursor of the modern English idiom ‘sadder and wiser’!
‘Angry words’ in Old English
The Old English vocabulary of anger is fairly well studied (see Gevaert 2002; Izdebska 2015) and scholars have been able to pinpoint, on the basis of these words and their usages, a number of ‘metaphorical links’. One such link is between ANGER and HEAT. Today, we can have a heated argument, we can be boiling with rage, until steam comes out of our ears. The Anglo-Saxons conceptualised ANGER in a similar way, as is revealed by such Old English words as hāt-heort-nes ‘anger; lit. hot-hearted-ness’ and hāt-hige ‘anger; lit. hot-mind’. At the same time, the Anglo-Saxons were aware that anger can be the result of despair or grief: the Old English word wēa-mōd-nes means ‘anger’ but can be analysed as ‘grief-minded-ness’ (cf. Dutch weemoed ‘grief’). Anger is also relatable to ‘swelling’. Just like we can be ‘puffed up with anger’, the Anglo-Saxons would speak of gebolgen, ǣbylga, belgan and gebelg (cf. Dutch verbolgen ‘angry’), which are all related to ābelgan ‘to swell up’. On the basis of these and other words, scholars have been able to demonstrate that Anglo-Saxons connected anger to PRIDE, WRONG EMOTION, UNKINDNESS, DARKNESS, HEAVINESS and so on (see Izdebska 2015; Gevaert 2002).
It is also interesting to note that the Anglo-Saxons had a specific word for the anger of a woman: wīf-gemædla ‘a woman’s fury’ – Apparently, Hell hath no fury like wīf-gemædla!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:
- Anglo-Saxon bynames: Old English nicknames from the Domesday Book
- What if Shakespeare HAD written Old English?
- Old English is alive! Five TV series and movies that use Old English
Works refered to:
- Gevaert, C. (2002). ‘The Evolution of the Lexical and Conceptual Field of ANGER in Old and Middle English’, in A Changing World of Words: Studies in English Historical Lexicography, Lexicology and Semantics, ed. J. E. Díaz Vera (Amsterdam), 275–300.
- Izdebska, D. W. (2015). Semantic field of ANGER in Old English. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow
- Meritt, H. D. (1954). Fact and Lore About Old English Words (Stanford)
- Sapir, E. (1951). ‘Language’, in Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture and Personality, ed. David G. Mandelbaum (Berkeley, 1951), 7–32.
Richard Morris (1833-1894) was a remarkable scholar who laid some of the foundations for the academic study of Old and Middle English. This blog provides an overview of Morris’s publications with respect to Old English and Middle English texts. It also relates how Morris’s edition of some Old English homilies became the object of mockery in the correspondence of a nineteenth-century student of Old English and his professor.
Richard Morris (1833-1898): One of the founding fathers of Early English and Pali philology
Rev. Richard Morris, born in 1833 in Wales, was a self-taught schoolmaster and priest with a great interest in both Early English texts of the Middle Ages and the sacred language of Buddhism, Pali. An eclectic scholar? Not quite.
Richard Morris was one of the greatest nineteenth-century scholars in the field of Comparative Philology (a branch of historical linguistics that compares languages in order to establish their historical relatedness). He was member of various scholarly societies that promoted the study of Old English and Middle English, including the Chaucer Society, the Early English Text Society and the Philological Society. For the last society, he served as President and vice-president for several years. Richard Morris is best remembered as an editor of medieval texts: his editions of texts in Old English and Middle English amount to a staggering number of thirty-one volumes! Below, I provide links to all his books, now freely available on the internet.
First and foremost, Morris was a teacher and some of his most popular publications were of a didactic nature. His interest in teaching already underlied his first publication: at the age of only 24, Morris published an overview of the etymological origins of English place names, hoping “to supply teachers with the chief root or key-words which are necessary for the explanation of local names in England” (The Etymology of Local Names, p. 13). He also produced an English grammar (the first to approach teaching English grammar from a historical perspective) and various student editions of medieval English texts.
Morris’s career took a radical turn when he exchanged Early English for Pali, the sacred language of Buddhism. From the 1880s onwards, he produced four text editions for the Pali Text Society, including the The Puggala-paññatti. His interest in Pali was due to its historical relationship to Sanskrit. More and more philologists were finding their way to Pali, as Morris had himself noted in his in the fourth presidential address to the Philological Society:
Of late years Sanskrit scholars have been turning their attention to Pali, Prakrit, and the modern dialects of India; and their value to general philology cannot be over-rated. Pali bears very much the same relation to later Sanskrit that Early English does to Old English.
With his text editions, Richard Morris paved the way for the professional study of both Early English and Pali – a combination which, judging by his own words, may not be so strange after all.
Edition, edition, edition: From a cookery poem to the Cursor Mundi
Thanks to the Internet Archive, most of Morris’s publications with regard to Early English are now freely available. Below follows a chronological overview of his works (I have limited my selection to works touching on Early English; Morris also published an edition of the collected works of Edmund Spencer and editions of four texts in Pali):
- The Etymology of Local Names (1857). An overview of words found in English place names.
- Liber cure cocorum (1862). An edition of a fifteenth-century Middle English poem on cookery.
- The Pricke of Conscience (Stimulus conscientiae) (1863). An edition of a Middle English poem about penitence by Richard Rolle de Hampole (d. 1349). An interesting text since it is an early attestation of a text in the Northumbrian dialect.
- Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight (1864). EETS 3. An edition of a long alliterative Middle English poem.
- The Story of Genesis and Exodus (1865). EETS 7. An edition of a Middle English versification of Genesis and Exodus from ca. 1250.
- The Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1866). An ambitious six-volume edition of all the poetry ascribed to Geoffrey Chaucer, including the full Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Criseyde and the House of Fame. Various editions and reprints are available via archive.org: Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4, Vol. 5, Vol. 6.
- Dan Michel’s Ayenbite of Inwyt, or, Remorse of Conscience (1866). EETS 23. An edition of a Middle English poem about the ‘Back-bite’ of conscience. A new edition of the text, based on Morris’s transcription and edited by Pamela Gradon appeared in 1965.
- Specimens of Early English: Selected from the Chief English Authors A.D. 1250 – A.D. 1400 (1867). Student editions of various Middle English texts, including The Proverbs of Hendyng, Cursor Mundi and Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight. Later editions were made in collaboration with Walter W. Skeat (1835-1912) and appeared as two volumes: Part I: From ‘Old English Homilies’ to King Horn A.D. 1100 – A.D. 1300 and Part II: From Robert of Gloucester to Gower A.D. 1298 – A.D. 1393.
- Old English Homilies and Homiletic Treatises of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (1867-1873). EETS 29, 34, 53. Two series of homilies in Early Middle English, numbering about sixty in total.
- Early English Alliterative Poems (1869). EETS 1. An edition of a set of fourteenth-century Middle English poem.
- Legends of the Holy Rood; Symbols of the Passion and Cross-Poems (1871). EETS 45. An edition of fifteen texts, prose and verse, in Old English and Middle English. The eleventh-century, Old English text is provided with a Modern English translation. Features illustrations from manuscripts by Professor Philip Henry Delamotte (1821-1889).
- An Old English Miscellany (1872). EETS 49. Despite its tile, this collections of religious and didactic texts contains no text in actual Old English. The texts included mostly date from the thirteenth century and include a bestiary, The Proverbs of Alfred, The Kentish Sermons and various religious poems.
- Historical Outlines of English Accidence (1872). An attempt at producing a description of English, using the insights of Comparative Philology. Interestingly, the book contains an appendix of up to twenty pages listing French loan words in texts before 1300. Various editions are available.
- Elementary Lessons in Historical English Grammar (1874). An abbreviated and simplified version of his Historical Outlines of English Accidence, meant as short historical grammar and an introduction to the “larger book”. Various editions are available.
- English Grammar (1874). A primer of English grammar, with specific focus on historical grammar. A version with exercises by H. Courthope Bowen appeared in 1881. Various reprints and editions are available.
- The Blickling Homilies of the Tenth Century (1874-1880). EETS 58, 63, 73. A three-part edition of a set of unique Old English homilies from a manuscript dated to 971. This remains the standard edition of this text (see below).
- Cursor mundi [The cursor of the World] (1879-1893). EETS 57, 59, 62, 66, 68, 99, 101. A seven-volume(!) edition of an early fourteenth-century, Middle-English historical and religious poem of nearly 30,000 (!) lines. Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4, Vol. 5, Vol. 6, Vol. 7 (not in archive.org).
Pieter Jacob Cosijn (1840-1899) on Richard Morris: A good person, perhaps, but a bad musician
In a letter to one of his students (dated 9 August, 1880), the Dutchman Pieter Jacob Cosijn (Professor of Germanic Philology and Anglo-Saxon at the University of Leiden) wrote a damning review of Morris’s edition of the Blickling homilies:
In the meantime, I have worked through the B[lickling] Homilies and discovered that the rev. R. Morris might be a good person but he certainly is a “bad musician”. His edition is diplomatically faithful, but that is about all there is to say. His translation, however, is regrettably free and he does not know Anglo-Saxon.
Cosijn then provided some specific examples, such as Morris’s translation of “risende wulf” as “rising wolf” [Cosijn, correctly, notes it must mean “devouring wolf”]. The second volume of Morris’s edition was the worst, according to Cosijn, who complained that he occasionally spent an hour trying to make sense of the errors:
The second volume gets só bad near the middle, that I would occasionally spend an hour on just one page. I will see whether I can clean these Augean stables, but that remains to be seen. One single manuscript is always rather difficult.
Cosijn’s comparison of the editing of the Blickling Homilies to the Herculean task of cleaning out the Augean stables is an interesting one. A more recent attempt at re-editing the manuscript by Richard Kelly (2003-2009) was not received well (see the reviews listed on this Wikipedia site) and Morris’s edition still remains the standard edition. Editing the text of this manuscript, it seems, is indeed a daunting task. A glance at the manuscript itself may explain why: it is filled with distractingly brilliant sketches in the margins:
Eventually, Cosijn seems to have changed his opinion about Morris. On 24 August 1880,Cosijn wrote another letter, in a much milder tone, to his student G.J.P.J. Bolland, who had gotten acquainted with Morris: “I was very pleased to learn that you have met mister Morris. He is an intelligent man, who has edited and translated the Blickling Homilies very well”. Quite a turn-around!
Cosijn also regretted the fact that Morris, like many other English scholars, did not fully devote himself to Old English, unlike the Germans and, perhaps, the Dutch:
It is regrettable that he does not completely devote himself to Anglo-Saxon. The English appear to leave that to the Germans. But we Dutchmen shall show that we are there too, won’t we, young iron-eater?
Indeed, Cosijn’s student (G. J. P. J. Bolland) was on his way to become a decent Anglo-Saxonist, until fate decided otherwise, as you can read here: “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880
This is the fourth in a series of blogs related to my research project “My former Germanicist me”: G. J. P. J. Bolland (1854-1922) as an Amateur Old Germanicist , which explores how a Dutch student at the end of the nineteenth century tried to master Old English. Other blog posts include:
- Henry Sweet: The Man Who Taught the World Old English
- Benjamin Thorpe: The Man Who Translated Almost All Old English Texts
- “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880
The Psalter was perhaps the best-known text among the Anglo-Saxons. As a result, many Psalters have survived from early medieval England. This blog post focuses on the Paris Psalter, which has been associated with Alfred the Great and features some beautiful illustrations.
The prose Psalm translations of Alfred the Great in the Paris Psalter
Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 8824 (the ‘Paris Psalter’) is a unique manuscript dating to around 1050. The main texts of the manuscript are the 150 Latin Psalms with facing Old English translations: the first fifty Psalms are translated into Old English prose and another translator rendered the last hundred Psalms in Old English verse. Although the Paris Psalter does not mention the author of the Old English Psalm translations, the translator of the first fifty Psalms has been identified as none other than Alfred the Great (d. 899). The arguments for the attribution to Alfred concern the language of the prose translations (a ninth-century West Saxon dialect) as well as a twelfth-century chronicler recording that Alfred was working on a translation of the Book of Psalms but had not been able to finish it before he died. I have outlined these arguments in an earlier blog post on the Old English word earsling (the ancestor word of the popular insult ‘arseling’), which occurs only in the Paris Psalter (see: Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great? ).
Like the other translations associated with Alfred’s ‘educational revival’ (such as the Old English Boethius), the prose translations of the first fifty Psalms in the Paris Psalter are not entirely literal and often feature additional interpretations. A clear case in point is the rendition of Psalm 44:2 (My heart hath uttered a good word: I speak my works to the king: My tongue is the pen of a scrivener that writeth swiftly), which was expanded to:
As this passage illustrates, Alfred added allegorical interpretations of some of the phrases in the Psalm. These additions resulted in the Old English text being a lot longer than the Latin original. As we shall see, this difference in length caused some problems for the scribe of the Paris Psalter.
Scribe of the Paris Psalter: Wulfwine ‘the Lumpy’
The scribe of the Paris Psalter identifies himself in a colophon at the end of the manuscript:
Hoc psalterii carmen inclyti regis dauid. Sacer d[e]i Wulfwinus (i[d est] cognom[en]to Cada) manu sua conscripsit. Quicumq[ue] legerit scriptu[m]. Anime sue expetiat uotum.
[This song of the psaltery by the famous King David the priest of God Wulfwine (who is nicknamed Cada) wrote with his own hand. Whoever reads what is written, seek out a prayer for his soul.]
Wulfwine’s nickname ‘Cada’ means something like ‘stout, lumpy person’ (he is, by no means, the only Anglo-Saxon with a silly nickname, see: Anglo-Saxon bynames: Old English nicknames from the Domesday Book).
Richard Emms (1999) has suggested that Wulfwine ‘the Lumpy’ may have come from Canterbury. He noted, for instance, that the Paris Psalter shares two rare features with another manuscript from Canterbury: its awkwardly long shape (the Paris Psalter is 52,6 cm long and only 18,6 cm wide) and a strange “open-topped a, looking rather like a u” at the end of some lines. Emms identified the same features in a late 10th-century manuscript of the Benedictine Rule from Canterbury (London, British Library, Harley 5431) and suggested this manuscript may have inspired Wulfwine:
The proposed localisation of Wulfwine in Canterbury is strengthened by the fact that some of the illustrations in the Paris Psalter resemble those of the Harley Psalter made in Canterbury (the Harley Psalter, in turn, was inspired by the ninth-century Utrecht Psalter, then in Canterbury). The illustrations of Psalm 4:6 (Offer up the sacrifice of justice) in both manuscripts are, indeed, similar:
Emms (1999) was even able to locate a monk named Wulfwine in a late 11th-century necrology of the monastic community of St. Augustine’s, Canterbury:
Could this Wulfwine ‘the scribe’ whose death was recorded in the late 11th-century Canterbury necrology really be the same person as scribe Wulfwine ‘the Lumpy’ who made the Paris Psalter and was inspired by at least two Canterbury manuscripts? As with the identification of Alfred the Great as the author of the prose translations, the evidence concerning the identity of the scribe Wulfwine is solely circumstantial, but the details do add up!
Filling the gaps: Some illustrations from the Paris Psalter
In producing the pages of the Paris Psalter, Wulfwine ‘the Lumpy’ had one particular problem: the Old English prose translation in the right hand column was often longer than the Latin original in the left-hand column. Consequently, the left-hand column often featured some gaps. Initially, Wulfwine tried to fill these gaps with illustrations; later, he tried to fix the problem by wrapping the Latin text in an awkward way; until he finally gave up on the idea of filling the left-hand column and simply let the gaps stand.
That Wulfwine eventually abandoned the idea of filling the gaps with illustrations is to be regretted. While some of his illustrations match the well-known Harley Psalter, others are unique to the Paris Psalter and shed an interesting light on how an Anglo-Saxon interpreted these Psalm texts. Below, I provide my personal top five of the fabulous illustrations of the Paris Psalter.
5) “Coochee coochee coo”
Here, the artist has literally illustrated the Old English translation of Psalm 3:4: “þu ahefst upp min heafod” [you raise up my head]. I like how God gently seems to tickle the Psalmist under his beard.
4) That moment when God thinks your beard needs trimming
This illustration shows a rather less cute interaction between God and a human being. The bearded figure, in this case, must be one of the “yfelwillenda” [those who want evil] or the “unrihtwisan” [the unjust], and God is intending to use his mega-scissors to remove this person from his sight.
3) Lion got your soul?
Another literal rendition: the lion trampling this young man is the enemy getting hold of a soul. Wulfwine here took inspiration from the Harley Psalter (or the Utrecht Psalter itself):
2) Struck by Cupid’s..err Satan’s arrows!
A depiction of Ps. 7:14 (he hath made ready his arrows for them that burn) shows Satan shooting an arrow into the heart of the female part of a lovers’ couple. Apparently, the couple had wild plans in their little love nest; note how the lovers are reaching between each other’s legs with their hands.
1) What will happen to the evil-doers
Psalm 5:7 (Thou hatest all the workers of iniquity: thou wilt destroy all that speak a lie. The bloody and the deceitful man the Lord will abhor) makes clear that God does not like those who commit evil acts and will seek to destroy them. The artist has depicted the first part of Psalm 5:7 as follows:
These evil-doers and liars are not, as I first thought, taking a trip in a boat; they are, in fact, in the mouth of Hell (see its little eye-ball on the left).
The illustration of the second part of Psalm 5:7 (…The bloody and the deceitful man the Lord will abhor) is more spectacular:
‘If you pull my hair, I will stab your groin!’: Ouch!!!
If you liked the blog post, you may also enjoy:
- A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus
- An Anglo-Saxon comic book collector: Cuthwine and the Carmen Paschale
- The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex
- The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book
Works refered to:
- Emms, Richard. 1999. The scribe of the Paris Psalter. Anglo-Saxon England 28 (1999): 179-183.
- O’Neill, Patrick. 2001. King Alfred’s Old English Prose Translation of the First Fifty Psalms (Medieval Academy of America, 2001)
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)
For a bonus question on one of my Old English literature exams, my students used their artistic talents to draw scenes from the Old English poem Judith. Together, these doodles cover almost the entire poem and document how well (or how badly) my students remembered the poem.
Drawings have long since been used for the purpose of teaching (for an example from the Anglo-Saxon period see Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels). On occasion, I use my own drawings to spice up my lectures (such as my Anglo-Saxon Anecdotes) or to explain complicated bits of Anglo-Saxon literature (e.g., The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode). In recent years, I have decided to turn the tables on my students and, for a bonus point (worth 1% of the exam grade), I have them draw scenes from Old English poems, discussed in class.
While the exercise was intended as a bit of a gag, their doodles actually allowed me to see which events from the poem had captured their interest; how they (mis)remembered certain passages and which scenes, apparently, made no impact on them at all. In previous blog posts, I shared their renditions of The Battle of Maldon (The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition) and the fight between Beowulf and the dragon (Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition) . Below follows a selection of my students’ drawings that deal with the Old English poem Judith, along with some commentary.
i) It all started with a party…
The Old English Judith is an Anglo-Saxon verse adaptation of the Old Testament book of Judith 12:10-16:1, narrating how the Hebrew city of Bethulia is besieged by the Assyrian warlord Holofernes. The Hebrew widow Judith plans to go to the Assyrian camp where Holofernes and his men are getting drunk. “This party is going to lose me my head if I drink anymore of this ale”, Holofornes says in one of my student’s renditions: a nice way to foreshadow what will eventually happen to the Assyrian overlord.
Judith is summoned to Holofernes and arrives looking as beautiful as an elf: “ides ælfscinu” [l. 14a: a woman as shining as an elf]. What do elves look like? Well, according to the next student, elven-beauty involves “lucious lips and a little neckline that is a little too low” and “batting eyelashes”:
ii) Off with his head!
When Holofernes and Judith end up in his tent, the intoxicated Holofernes quickly falls asleep. Judith picks up the Assyrian’s sword and cuts off his head in two strokes, not one:
The following student also drew a picture of Judith and Holofernes’s decapitated head. She could not remember his name and, naturally, she compensated with a nice Old English-ish poem which features structural alliteration of “h”:
He had a huge hairy head
That she now held in her hand
How horrible he was
So headless he is now
What a happy history.
iii) A handmaiden holds the door!
Some students remembered that Judith was not the only woman in the room: her handmaiden was on the look-out and we can see her smiling mischiveously in this colourful doodle, while Judith wickedly holds the blade she used to cut off Holofernes’s head:
iv) Bag it up!
While Holofernes, as the Anglo-Saxon poet assures us, is suffering the torments in Hell, Judith and her handmaiden still need to get out of the Assyrian camp. Since they want to bring Holofernes’s head with them, they put the head in a bag.
The next student doodle illustrates that God (who is looking on from a cloud above) agrees with these proceedings:
v) Putting the head on display
Judith emerges from Holofernes’s tent (or “meet hall” as this student would have it) and goes back to her city, where she shows the bloodied head to her people.
She delivers an incredible victory speech in the poem and her warriors respond as you would excpect: “Yay!”
vi) The case of the golden flynet
Throughout the Old English poem, references are made to an “eallgylden fleohnet” [ll. 46b-47a: an all-golden flynet], which separate Holofernes’s tent from the outside world. It is a special flynet, because Holofernes could use it to look through it from the inside, but no one was able to look into the tent from the outside. The flynet plays an important role in the poem, because it allows Judith and her handmaiden to kill Holofernes without anyone outside noticing it.
My students also caught on to the rather amusing role that the flynet plays after Holofernes has been killed. Roused by Judith’s victory speech, the Hebrews attack the Assyrians. The Assyrians, in turn, desperately try to wake up Holofernes. Because no one dares to enter the tent and because the flynet prevents them from looking in, they start to cough, gnash their teeth and so on. A rather humorous scene, which is captured nicely by the following doodles:
On the whole, my students appear to have remembered many details of the poem, ranging from the intoxicating drinking feast, to the helpful handmaiden and the fabulous flynet. The name of Holofernes a.k.a. “H.”, “Heofermus” and “Hreofernoþ” does not appear to have stuck well. In the end, what pleased me most was that none of the renditions of Holofernes resembles me in any way, shape or form.
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From Humphrey ‘Golden-bollocks’ to Alwy ‘Beetle-beard’ – this blog post deals with the remarkable bynames found for individuals mentioned in the Domesday Book.
Domesday Book as a cultural treasure trove
The Domesday Book is perhaps the most famous administrative record from the Middle Ages. The Domesday Book was made in 1086 by order of William the Conqueror in 1086, who wanted to know whom he could tax and how much. The result is a long and detailed work, listing the various duties and payments that had to be made to the crown as well as the names and holding of landowners living in 1086. The Domesday Book also includes an overview of the situation during the reign of William’s predecessor Edward the Confessor in 1066. William’s scribes were thorough, indeed, as the Peterborough Chronicle remarks:
Swa swyðe nearwelice he hit lett utaspyrian. þæt næs an ælpig hide. ne an gyrde landes. ne furðon, hit is sceame to tellanne. ac hit ne þuhte him nan sceame to donne. an oxe. ne an cu. ne an swin. næs belyfon. þæt næs gesæt on his gewrite.
[So very narrowly did he command them to record it, that there was not one single hide, not one yard of land, moreover (it is a shame to say it, but it did not seem to him a shame to do it) not one ox, not one cow, not one swine was left, that was not set down in his book.]
While the Domesday Book is mostly used as a source for the social and economic history of eleventh-century England, it is also a treasure trove for those interested in more cultural phenomena, such as bynames and nicknames.
Anglo-Norman and Latin bynames from the Domesday Book
A byname is an additional name to a person’s main name, which often allows for a clearer identification of the individual. Often, such bynames take a locational form, allowing us to distinguish between such a Wulfstan of York and a Wulfstan of Worchester. More interesting are those bynames that describe physical, mental or moral characteristics. The last category is known as nicknames and can often be jocular. Some intriguing Anglo-Norman and Latin nicknames found in the Domesday Book are listed below:
Bernardus panceuolt – Bernard ‘Paunch-face’
Hunfridus uis de leuu – Humphrey ‘Face of a wolf’
Hunfridus aurei testiculi – Humphrey ‘Golden-bollocks’
Rogerus Deus saluaet dominas – Roger ‘God save the ladies’
Slideshow with Anglo-Norman and Latin nicknames. Source images: opendomesday.org
Top 10 Old English nicknames from the Domesday Book
Fascinating though the Anglo-Norman and Latin nicknames are, I was mainly interested to find some Old English nicknames and have listed my personal top 10 (in no particular order) below:
10) Aluui Ceuresbert – Alwy ‘Beetle-beard’
Alwy was a landowner in Thatcham, Berkshire, with, as it would seem, a remarkable beard. His nickname ‘ceuresbert’ is a compound of Old English ceafor ‘chafer, beetle’ and beard ‘beard’, suggesting that he may have had a two-pronged beard resembling the antennae of a beetle.
9) Alwinus Bollochessege – Alwine ‘Bullock’s eye’
Alwinus Bollochessege lived in Winchester in 1066. Since Winchester was not included in the survey for the original Domesday Book, his name is found in what is known as the Liber Winton or Winchester Domesday Book: a twelfth-century document, based on an earlier, now-lost document. The nickname of Alwine is made up of the Old English words bulluc ‘bullock’ and eage ‘eye’ (see Tengvik 1938, 295).
8) Ernuin Catenase – Ernwine ‘Cat’s nose’
Ernuin Catenase (catt ‘cat’ + nasu ‘nose’) was a landowner in Yorkshire, owning lands and manor in Scacherthorpe and Upper and Lower Poppleton. The Domesday Book records that his lands were granted to an Ernwine with a less unfortunate byname: Ernwine the priest.
7) Alricus Wintremelc – Alric ‘Winter-milk’
Alricus Wintremelc was the tenant-in-chief of Goldington, Bedfordshire. His pretty straightforward nickname is, nevertheless, more intriguing than that of Ailmar Melc who lived in Tolleshunt, Essex.
6) Goduuinus Wachefet – Godwine ‘Weak-feet’
Godwine ‘Weak-feet’ was one of the tenants of Gloucester in 1066. In this list we can clearly see that Godwine’s nickname was added to separate him from another “Goduuinus” and a “Goduinus”.
5) Goduuinus Softebread – Godwine ‘Soft-bread’
Another inhabitant of Winchester, mentioned in the Liber Winton (see Tengvik 1938, 380).
4) Godwinus Penifeder – Godwine ‘Penny-father’
Godwin Penny-father lived in Winchester and his nickname suggests that he was something of an Anglo-Saxon Scrooge. He apparently lived in the same street as Aluricus Penipurs – Alfric ‘Penny-purse’ (see Tengvik 1938, 353).
3) Aluuardus Belrap – Alward ‘Bell-rope’
In 1066, Alward ‘Bell-rope’ was the lord of Holcot, Bedfordshire. Interestingly, his lordship had passed over in 1086 to one “Radulfus Passaqua”: Ralph ‘Pass-water’.
2) Aluuinus Deule – Alwine ‘The devil’
Alwine ‘the devil’ was a Bedfordshire landowner not to be meddled with!
1) Aluredus Caddebelloc – Alfred ‘Testicle-testicle’
Another landowner in Winchester in 1066 – name mentioned in Liber Winton. According to Tengvik (1938) this is a tautological compound of OE/ME cade ‘testicle’ and balluc ‘testicle’: Alfred ‘Testicle-testicle’, lest we confuse him with Alfred ‘the Great’…
If you liked this blogpost, you may also be interested in the following post:
- Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great? (on the nickname ‘Arseling’, popularised by BBC’s The Last Kingdom)
- How Cnut became Canute (on the name of Viking king Cnut the Great)
- Naming names in Ælfwine’s Prayerbook (a great blogpost by For the Wynn)
Works referred to:
- G. Tengvik, Old English Bynames (Uppsala, 1938)
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 post, I focus on the hobbits and their early medieval antecedents.
At first glance, there appears to be no resemblance of any kind between Tolkien’s peacable hobbits and the warlike early medieval Anglo-Saxons that conquered parts of Britain in the early Middle Ages; yet, there is more to these hobbits than meets the eye…
Old English roots: Holbytlan, scir, þegn, miclan delfing…
‘Are not these the Halflings, that some among us call the Holbytlan?’, Théoden asks, when he first sets eyes on Pippin and Merry on the outskirts of Isengard. Théoden’s word holbytla ‘hole-dweller’ is Tolkien’s own invented Old English etymology for the word Hobbit and means ‘hole-dweller’. Other Hobbitish terms have more clear Old English roots: the Shire itself stems from the Old English word scir ‘district’ as does the name of its principal administrator: the Thain, from Old English þegn ‘servant’. Hobbitish place names, too, derive from the language of the Anglo-Saxons: Michel Delving, for instance, is clearly Old English miclan delfing ‘great excavation’. Old Hobbitish, it seems, is nothing other than Old English!
What’s in a name? Hengist, Horsa, Marcho and Blanco
The story of how Hobbits came to settle in the Shire, as outline in the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, bears a keen resemblance to the foundation myth of the Anglo-Saxons. About the first Shire-Hobbits, Tolkien notes that the “Fallohide brothers, Marcho and Blanco” first crossed the river Baranduin, with a great following of Hobbits – the year of the crossing was to become the first year of Shire-reckoning. The names Marcho and Blanco both mean ‘horse’ and, thus, resemble the names of the two brothers who supposedly had led the Germanic tribes to Britain: Hengest and Horsa, whose names mean ‘stallion’ and ‘horse’.
Of mathoms and silver spoons
The hobbits’ fondness for mathoms also aligns them with the Anglo-Saxons:
The Mathom-house it was called; anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom. Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort. (The Fellowship of the Ring, prologue)
The word mathom is derived from the Old English maðm ‘treasure’. The word appears in such poems as Beowulf, where it describes the gifts bestowed upon warriors by kings:
‘Me þone wælræs wine Scildunga
fættan golde fela leanode,
manegum maðmum‘ (Beowulf, ll. 2101-2103a)
[The friend of the Scildings gave me a lot of plated gold, many treasures, in exchange for the battle]
From Beowulf, we learn that mathoms could include decorated and bejewelled swords and armour, such as those found at Sutton Hoo (on display at the British Museum, here). Hobbitish mathoms turn out to be of a similar sort: the Mathom-house in Michel Devling is filled with weapons of such long-forgotten battles as the Battle of the Greenfields, “in which Bandobras Took routed an invasion of Orcs.” Bilbo’s presents at his eleventy-first birthday may be mathoms of a different kind, but at least one of them can also be linked to the Anglo-Saxon treasures found at Sutton Hoo. Bilbo’s gift of a pair of silver spoons to Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is reminiscent of the two silver baptismal spoons found in the royal Anglo-Saxon grave:
Family matters: The importance of genealogies
Another habit shared by Anglo-Saxon and Hobbit alike is an interest in filling books with genealogical information. In his prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien explains that Hobbits were keen to draw up long and elaborate family-trees and loved to set out such trees and lists in books. The Anglo-Saxons were little different in this respect: the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains up to eighteen genealogies of various royal houses, scattered throughout its annalistic narrative. Such royal genealogies also appeared in collections without any intervening text. A case in point is the so-called Anglian Collection, a collection of Anglo-Saxon regnal lists and genealogies (this Wikipedia page is highly informative):
These endless lists of names do not make for exciting reading. Tolkien remarked the same of the genealogical information contained at the end of the Red Book of Westmarch: “all but Hobbits would find them exceedingly dull”; Hobbits…and Anglo-Saxons, it would seem!
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