Geoffrey Chaucer drew on various medieval traditions surrounding pigs to characterise one of his most memorable characters in the Canterbury Tales: Robin the Miller.
A boarish fellow
In his Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), Geoffrey Chaucer brings to life a great variety of characters who set out on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. To pass the time, the pilgrims tell each other stories and, along the way, the audience learns about the pilgrims’ appearance, their behaviour and how they react to each other’s tales. Perhaps one of Chaucer’s most memorable characters is Robin the Miller, depicted here in the early-fifteenth-century Ellesmere manuscript:
Chaucer’s Miller behaves like a pig and his demeanour towards his fellow pilgrims is nothing short of boarish: he drunkenly interrupts the Knight and the Host and angers the Reeve by telling a bawdy tale about how a carpenter was tricked by a student (the Reeve used to be a carpenter). The Miller’s interests are also ungentlemanlike: Chaucer reveals in his General Prologue that Robin the Miller is “a janglere and a goliardeys, And that was moost of synne and harlotries” [a buffoon and teller of dirty stories, mostly about sin and deeds of harlotry] (General Prologue, ll. 560-561). Indeed, the Miller’s Tale is all about sex and obscenities. One of the Tale’s highlights is the moment a parish clerk accidentally kisses a woman’s arse (incidentally, the woman’s response, “Tehee!”, is the first recorded instance of the interjection “Teehee!” in the English language). The clerk, disgusted and out for revenge, pretends to return for another kiss and, after being farted in the face, shoves a redhot poker up the offending orifice. Robin the Miller certainly has a wicked sense of humour and a mind like a sow: full of dirty thoughts.
A sow in body and mind
‘A mind like a sow’? Let me explain by first pointing out that the Miller, in his appearance, also resembles a female pig. The Miller is a stout fellow, full of brawn, who likes wrestling and has a big mouth; more importantly, the Miller’s red hair is explicitly linked to the sow:
His berd as any sowe or fox was reed,
And therto brood, as though it were a spade.
Upon the cop right of his nose he hade
A werte, and theron stood a toft of herys,
Reed as the brustles of a sowes erys (General Prologue, ll. 552-556)
[His beard was as red as any sow or fox, and also broad, as if it were a spade. On the top of his nose he had a wart, and thereupon stood a tuft of hairs, as red as the bristles of a sow’s ears.]
These two references to the sow are no coincidence. In the Canterbury Tales, animal imagery is often used to highlight certain aspects a character shares with these animals. The female pig is a good ‘spirit animal’ for the Miller since, according to medieval bestiaries, the sow represents dirty-minded, unclean people. The entry for ‘sow’ in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 764, for instance, explains:
The pig (porcus) is a filthy beast (spurcus): it sucks up filth, wallows in mud, and smears itself with slime. …Sows signify sinners, the unclean and heretics … Sows are unclean and gluttonous men … The pig is also the man who is unclean of spirit. … The sow thinks on carnal things; from her thoughts wicked or wasteful deeds result … (trans. Barber 1992, pp. 85-87)
Clearly, Chaucer’s red-haired Miller, rejoicing in sin and telling dirty stories, is like a sow in both body and mind.
A porky piper
One more intriguing detail links Chaucer’s Miller to a sow: “A baggepipe wel koude he blowe and sowne, / And therwithal he broghte us out of towne” [he well knew how to blow and play the bagpipes and with that he brought us out of the town] (General Prologue, ll. 565-566). Chaucer’s Miller shares his ability to play the bagpipes with various pigs that make their appearance in late medieval art. Porky pipers may be found on wooden misericords…
… hanging from the roof of Melrose Abbey …
… pilgrim badges …
… and in medieval manuscripts:
Exactly what connects the bagpipes to the sow is uncertain: the form of the instrument (a bag with a pipe) might be interpreted as phallic in nature and the bagpipe, like the sow, was associated with sexual sin in the Middle Ages; it was an “impious instrument with sexual connotations” (see Planer 1988, 343). Alternatively, there may be a link between the sound of a screaming pig and the bagpipes (both unpleasant sounds?). Whatever the connection between pigs and bagpipes, we may assume that Chaucer and his audience were familiar with this artistic tradition since most depictions of these porky pipers stem from fourteenth- and fifteen-century England. What better instrument for the boarish Miller, with the body and mind of a sow, than the bagpipes?
Chaucer’s Miller truly is a pig, in more ways than one.
- Planer, John H. 1988. “Damned Music: The Symbolism of the Bagpipes in the Art of Hieronymus Bosch and His Followers.” In Music from the Middle Ages Through the Twentieth Century: Essays in Honor of Gwynn S. McPeek, ed. C.P. Comberiati & M.C. Steel (New York), 335-356.
- Barber, Richard. 1992. Bestiary: Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Bodley 764 (Woodbridge)
*This is a slightly adapted version of a blog post that was published earlier on the Leiden Medievalists Blog*
Various medieval English kings sought to identify themselves with the boar, including Henry II, Edward III and Richard III of York. This blog post calls attention to the role of the boar in medieval English royal prophecies.
King Arthur as the Boar of Cornwall
The frequent use of the boar in royal prophecies in medieval England can be traced back to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s famous Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136). Book 7 of this foundational work of the Arthurian legend describes the prophecies of Merlin. These prophecies include a list of various animals who represent future rulers of Britain, including the White Dragon, the Lion of Justice and the Hedgehog (who will rebuild a town and lure many birds with the apples on its spines). Greatest among these animals is the ‘boar of Cornwall’:
For a boar of Cornwall shall give his assistance, and trample their necks under his feet. The islands of the ocean shall be subject to his power, and he shall possess the forests of Gaul. The house of Romulus shall dread his courage, and his end shall be doubtful.
This boar of Cornwall turns out to be none other than King Arthur, who comes to the aid of the Britons, conquers France and also attempts to conquer Rome. The “doubtful end” may anticipate Arthur’s departure for Avalon, mortally wounded but not quite dead.
Since Arthur came to be regarded as the epitome of the ideal king, various English monarchs have tried to link themselves to the Arthurian legend. As a result, the boar also became a popular royal symbol, found in various texts that are based on the tradition of Merlin’s prophecies.
Boar-pretenders: Henry II and Edward III
A 14th-century, Latin copy of a list of Merlin’s prophecies now in Cambridge, Parker LIbrary, MS 404, spelled out the symbolic interpretation of Merlin’s prohetic animal-rulers by adding the names of prior English monarchs in the margin. The “Lion of Justice”, for instance, was identified as Henry I (r. 1100-1135); the Crab whose reign brings war and suffering was associated with the unfortunate Stephen (r. 1135-1154); and their succesor was the heroically tusked boar Henry II (r. 1154-1189).
The tradition of Merlin’s prophecies was not only used retrospectively, to make sense of the succession of prior rulers, but it could also be applied for propaganda purposes. This appears to have been the case for Edward III (r. 1327-1377), who sought to associate himself with the “Boar of Windsor”. According to a version of Merlin’s prophecies that circulated with the Middle English Brut Chronicle, this boar of Windsor would succeed the malfunctiong Goat:
Aftre þis goote, shal come out of Wyndesore a Boor, þat shal haue an heuede of witte, a lyons hert, a pitouse lokyng; his vesage shal be reste to sike men; his breþ shal bene stanchyn of þerst to ham þat bene aþrest þerof shal; his worde shal bene gospelle; his beryng shal bene meke as a Lambe… and he shal whet his teiþ vppon þe gates of Parys. (source)
This image of a heroic, holy boar that would ‘whet his teeth on the gates of Paris’ was appealed to by the poet Laurence Minot (1300-1352), when he celebrated the victories of Edward III against the French in Normandy during the 1340s:
Merlin said thus with his mowth:
Out of the north into the sowth
suld cum a bare over the se
that suld make many man to fle.
And in the se, he said ful right,
suld he schew ful mekill might,
and in Franse he suld bigin
To mak tham wrath that er tharein. (source)
Thus, the boar from Merlin’s prophecies became a powerful symbol that could be used by kings to raise their status (see, e.g. Coote).
The last royal boar: Richard III
The English royal most famous for his use of the boar as a sigil was King Richard III (r. 1483-1485), whose followers wore livery badges with the image of a white boar. Belonging to the House of York, the use of the boar has been associated with the English etymology of York (eofor-wic ‘boar-town’), but it is possible that Richard, too, was inspired by the (predominantly positive) portrayals of the boar in the tradition of Merlin’s prophecies. Be that as it may, Richard’s reign would not last long, nor was it as positive as the boar-ish reigns once prophesized by Merlin. In 1485, Richard III died in the Battle of Bosworth, which was won by Henry Tudor. The Welsh poet Guto’r Glyn, in a poem priasing one of Henry’s Welsh knights, referred ironically to Richard as a boar:
King Henry won the day
through the strength of our master
He killed Englishmen, capable hand
He killed the boar, he chopped off his head (source)
Perhaps it is Richard III’s eventual loss and his strong association with the boar that has led to the fact that no other English royal would ever appeal to the royal boar prophecy again. However, it is possible that the printed edition of Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte Darthur also played a role.
How a bear became a boar: Mouvance in William Caxton’s Le Morte Darthur (1485)
The most widely read version of the Arthurian legend is Le Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, composed some time before 1470. The text of this work survives in a printed edition by William Caxton, dated to 1485, and the so-called ‘Winchester Manuscript’ (London, British Library, Add. 59678). This Winchester Manuscript is dated to a decade after Thomas Mallory’s death in 1471 and was probably used by Caxton in his print shop, along with another manuscript now lost. Comparing the Winchester Manuscript to Caxton’s later printed edition allows a glimpse at how Caxton made subtle alterations in Mallory’s text. Crucially, for the purpose of this blog, Caxton changed the text of a prophetic dream that King Arthur has while he is on his way to conquer Rome in book V, chapter 4. According to the Winchester manuscript, Arthur dreams of how a dragon defeats a “gresly Beare”; after Arthur wakes up a philosopher explains that Arthur need not worry: he is the dragon that will defeat the bear, who, in turn, symbolises a cruel and powerful tyrant that torments its people.
In Caxton’s version, printed in 1485, the bear has been changed into a boar: “the bore”! This appears to be a conscious change, inspired by the political situation of the day, as P. J. C. Field has noted:
“In C, the bear is (six times) turned into a boar. The change must have been deliberate, and it created a bold political allusion: the boar was the badge of King Richard III and the dragon that of Henry Tudor. The allusion would only have made sense in or just before 1485, and it is difficult to see who could have been responsible for it but Caxton himself …” (cited in Crofts)
By exchanging the bear for the boar, Caxton has altered Mallory’s prophetic dream to be a comment on the political situation of 1485. Notably, the dream, as altered by Caxton, came true! Caxton had published his Le Morte Darthur on the last day of July 1485 and, less than a month later, Henry Tudor, flying a dragon banner, defeated Richard III, flying a boar banner, at the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485.
Following Richard III, no other English monarch seems to have appealed to a royal boar prophecy. Perhaps this was, in part, due to Caxton’s introduction of an alternative, negative royal boar prophecy that featured prominently in one of the most popular works of the Arthurian Legend.
- Lesley Coote, Prophecy and Public Affairs in Later Medieval England (Woodbridge, 2000)
- P. J. C. Field, “Caxton’s Roman War,” Arthuriana 5 (1995): 31-73.
- Thomas Crofts, Malory’s contemporary audience the social reading of romance in late medieval England (Woodbridge, 2006)
*This is a slightly adapted version of a blog post that was published earlier on the Leiden Medievalists Blog*
In light of recent discussions about the term ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ and the debate around the name of the International Society for Anglo-Saxonists, I have decided to change the name of my blog to Boaring Medievalist. Some thoughts on the matter follow below.
On the terms ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxonist’
One of the few contemporary uses of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’: a twelfth-century copy of a tenth-century charter of Athelstan “ongolsaxna cyning” [king of the Anglo-Saxons]
For me, the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has always referred to those people who spoke a Germanic language (Old English) and hailed from the British Isles, roughly between 450 and 1100. This is how the term is generally used in the United Kingdom: in schools (e.g., this BBC-website aimed at 7 to 11-year-olds), museums (e.g., the recent ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms‘ exhibition in the British Library) and heritage locations (e.g., the awesome West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village). In scholarship on the period, the term is commonly used with reference to archaeology, art, sculpture, manuscripts, numismatics and so on – i.e. to refer to the non-linguistic cultural artefacts made by the speakers of Old English. To my knowledge, this is also the way the Dutch cognate ‘Angelsaksisch’ and the German ‘angelsächsisch’ are generally used. In my own scholarship and on this blog, I have also used the term in this way. For me, an Anglo-Saxonist is a scholar of the language, literature and culture of the inhabitants of pre-Conquest England.
The usage of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon/Angelsaksisch/angelsächsisch’ described above stands out compared to English usage elsewhere, as has been expertly pointed out by an article by Dave Wilton (available here) as well as various Medievalists of Colour (see the Twitter account @Isasaxonists for relevant updates and links). The term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has been appropriated and used by various white supremacist groups (including the KKK) to further their misguided ideological agenda and, given that context, the use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in medievalist scholarship is problematic for those for whom ‘white supremacy’ is one of the first and foremost connotations. These negative connotations of the term are also found in the secondary sense of the word ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ in the Oxford English Dictionary: “A person who believes in the importance or superiority of Anglo-Saxon language, people, or culture (past or present)” (the primary sense being “An expert in or student of Old English language, literature, and culture”).
As a result, various scholars have been (for years) proposing that the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists change its name to avoid these associations and become a more inclusive society by opening it up to those whose first associations with the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ are not necessarily early medieval.
For the Society, the aims and purposes of which are international and which should not want to ostracize a major part of the academic community, I support this name change, if only to avoid the association with the secondary sense of the OED entry. In order to avoid any misconception about my own moniker ‘Dutch Anglo-Saxonist’ and given the divisiveness of the term within my professional field (for an impression, see this blog by Howard Williams), I have decided to change this as well: my website will henceforth continue under the name ‘Boaring Medievalist’, reflecting my general interest in the boar in medieval culture (among other things).
Should we ban the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ altogether?
Clearly, the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has negative connotations in some contexts. Does this mean we should do away with the term entirely? In the current debate about the name of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, good arguments have been brought forward for both shunning and holding on to the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to refer to the Germanic speaking people who lived in Britain in the early Middle Ages. I am leaning towards the latter.
One particular problem is the absence of an unproblematic alternative. Some of the alternatives offered thus far are either imprecise (‘Medieval North Atlantic’ and ‘Medieval Insular’ cover more than ‘Anglo-Saxon’) or have similarly been misappropriated by racists groups and/or seem more apt for literary and linguistic purposes (variants with ‘English/England/Englisc’). Introducing a wholly new term (e.g., ‘Anglo-Germanic’) may have some advantages, but also disadvantages – it may render the field unrecognisable to the outside world (which damages possibilites for successful outreach and means fewer chances at research funding) and, eventually, if the new term does gain traction it is likely to be misused as well.
In addition, there is a rich tradition of scholarship that uses the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’: The Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, the Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Microfiche Facsimile series, Gneuss and Lapidge’s Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, Gale Owen-Crocker’s Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, Elisabeth Okasha’s Hand-list of Anglo-Saxon Non-Runic Inscriptions, etc., etc., etc. The term is so ingrained in the study of this field that it is hard to do without it: if we want our students to build on prior scholarship, they will have to be taught that the meaning of the word ‘Anglo-Saxon’ depends on the context in which it is and has been used.
When I discussed the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with my MA students on Friday (we were discussing words that change meaning depending on context), one of them said ‘we should put up a fight and claim back the term!’. A valuable opinion and I think this is also where I stand. It would indeed be a shame to ‘surrender’ the terminology because it has been appropriated by hate groups. In fact, I think this fight is indeed taking place and I am encouraged by the successes of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library, the ‘Anglo-Saxon History and Language‘ Facebook group (14k members) and TV series such as Michael Wood’s King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons and various documentaries on the Anglo-Saxons by Janina Ramirez, which all encourage a wider audience to associate the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with the amazing art, language, literature and culture of the early medieval speakers of Old English. I can only hope that my own use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ on this blog thus far has had the same effect and will do so, moving forward.
At any rate, this blog will continue under the name ‘Boaring Medievalist’ and, to celebrate that fact, I will be posting some of my blogposts on medieval boars in the upcoming weeks (these were published elsewhere but can now find an appropriate home). Aside from medieval boars, I intend to continue blogging about the languages, cultures and histories of Anglo-Saxon England in the early Middle Ages.
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 parallels between Tolkien’s elves and their counterparts from early medieval England.
Old English elf glosses
Grey elves, green elves, wood-elves, sea-elves; in his fiction, Tolkien distinguished between various types of elves. A similar variety of elf types can be found in early medieval England. A case in point is the following, curious list of Old English elf names that appears in a ninth-century manuscript:
Nimphae aelfinni eadem & muse ‘elves’
Oreades duun-aelfinni ‘mountain elves’
Driades uudu-aelfinne ‘wood elves’
Amadriades uaeter-aelfinne ‘water elves’
Maides feld-aelfinne ‘field elves’
Naides sae-aelfinne ‘sea elves’
This list of elf glosses was added to the manuscript by the scribe who copied the table of contents to a series of Latin riddles, but found he had some space left over (and, apparently, he did not want to waste this blank spot on the parchment). Helpfully, the scribe provided Old English names of elves as translations for Latin words for types of nymphs: Latin driades ‘wood nymphs’ equals Old English uudu-aelfinne ‘wood elves’, etc. A similar list of elf names was added to the lower margin of an early eleventh-century manuscript; here the Amadriades are wylde elfen ‘wild elves’ rather than uaeter aelfinne ‘water elves’:
It is not unlikely that Tolkien, as a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford and particularly interested in elves, was aware of these lists of elf names. The variety of elves in this Anglo-Saxon manuscripts certainly seems reflected in the various sub-types of elves of Tolkien’s fiction: Sea-Elves (the Teleri), Wood-elves (the Silvan, like Legolas) and so on.
The ambivalent nature of elves: dark and shiny.
While Tolkien’s portrayal of elves is generally very positive, the Wood-elves of Mirkwood are described in a more ambivalent manner. On the one hand, they are characterised as distrusting strangers, and “more dangerous and less wise” than the High elves of the West. On the other hand, Tolkien remarks “[s]till elves they were and remain, and that is Good People”. In Anglo-Saxon England, we find a similar dual attitude towards elves. Their dark and dangerous side is attested by Old English words for nightmare and physical ailments, such ælf-adl ‘elf disease, nightmare’, ælf–siden ‘elf’s influence, nightmare’, ælf-sogoða ‘hiccough’ and wæterælf-adl ‘water elf disease’. These last two words suggest that elves might cause diseases and this idea also turns up in Old English medical texts. The ‘Charm against a sudden stitch’, for example, attributes a shooting pain or cramp to ‘ylfa scot’ [elves’ shot] and another text provides instruction on what to do if your horse was shot by an elf (for some of these remedies, see this online edition by Karen Jolly). That elves could be considered malevolent creatures is also found in Beowulf, ll. 111-113a, which describes the elves as monstrous descendants of Cain, akin to giants and orcs: “þanon untydras ealle onwocon: / eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas / swylce gigantas” [thence (from Cain) all monsters awoke: giants and elves and orcs/monsters, as well as giants].
While some sources thus attest to a rather negative connotation of elves, there is also some evidence that the Anglo-Saxons considered the elves to be a positive presence. An example of this is the word ælf-scyne ‘bright as an elf, beautiful, radiant’ which is used three times in the extant corpus of Old English poetry to describe two Biblical women: Judith and Sarah. The element ælf- was also used in personal names, which equally suggests that early medieval English parents considered elves a force for good or atleast suitable for their babies: Ælf-red ‘elf-counsel’; Ælf-noth ‘elf-brave’; Ælf-thryth ‘Ælf-powerful’; Ælf-here ‘elf army’; and Ælf-ric ‘elf-powerful’. Like Tolkien’s Wood-elves of Mirkwood, then, the Anglo-Saxon elves were both feared and respected.
Elf-Friends in Anglo-Saxon England
Various characters in Tolkien’s fiction, including Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, are given the honorary title of ‘Elf-friend’. The title commemorates those who have proven themselves as valuable allies to the Elves in times of need. This much becomes clear from Elrond’s words in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo volunteers to take the Ring to Mordor:
But it is a heavy burden. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right; and though all the mighty elf-friends of old, Hador, and Húrin, and Túrin, and Beren himself were assembled together your seat should be among them.
The Old English equivalent of ‘elf-friend’, Ælfwine, was not uncommon in Anglo-Saxon England: various abbots and bishops bore this name. One of these Ælfwines is closely connected to an 11th-century manuscript, known as ‘Ælfwine’s prayerbook’. The book was likely composed for Abbot Ælfwine of New Minster, whose name appears, in code, in one of the manuscript’s inscriptions:
Here, some of the vowels have been substituted for the consonant following them in the alphabet: AFlfwknp mpnbchp > Aelfwino monacho ‘for Ælfwine the monk’ (if you want to learn more about this type of encoding, read Anglo-Saxon Cryptography: Secret Writing in Early Medieval England).
An equally mysterious Ælfwine is depicted in the Junius Manuscript, one of the four main codices of Old English poetry:
It is unclear who this young man named “Ælfwine” is – it has been suggested that he may have been the patron or the scribe of the manuscript. Perhaps it was even the poet of some of the Old English poems in the Junius Manuscript: Genesis, Daniel, Christ and Satan and Exodus. Tolkien himself was keenly familiar with the last of these Old English poems: an edition and translation of the Old English Exodus, on the basis of Tolkien’s notes, appeared in 1982 (you can watch me lecture about this here: Tolkien keynote lecture: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Old Englsh Exodus).
Given that Tolkien worked on the Old English Exodus, he must have spotted the Ælfwine roundel in the Junius manuscript (which uniquely contains the Old English poem). Perhaps this mysterious Ælfwine inspired Tolkien in developing the conceit, found in the earliest drafts of The Silmarillion, of an Anglo-Saxon man called Ælfwine who travelled west and ended up in the lands of the Elves. As some versions of Tolkien’s mythology would have it, this Ælfwine later returned to Anglo-Saxon England and wrote down the stories of Middle-Earth in Old English (resulting in, e,g, the Old English annals of Valinor).
Clearly, from various elf types to ambivalent Wood-Elves and elf-friends, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth has close connections to early medieval England.
If you liked this post, you may also be interested in:
- The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Horses!
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: The Anglo-Saxon Habits of Hobbits
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Aragorn and Exiled Anglo-Saxon Kings
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Rings of Power
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Thror’s Map
What was it like to grow old in the Middle Ages? Were white hairs a guarantee for respect or were they a pitiable token of endured hardship? Did the medieval people long to grow old or did they fear their ever-growing tally of years? This blog looks at some of the downsides of growing old in early medieval England and identifies some cases of what may be termed ‘gerontophobia’, the fear for old age.
Some misconceptions about medieval old age
In February 2019, my book Old Age in Early Medieval England: A Cultural History was published. In its introduction, I tackle a number of misconceptions concerning old age in the Middle Ages:
- “People did not grow old back then” (They did. Theodore of Tarsus (602-690) became archbishop of Canterbury at the age of 67 and remained in office for 21 more years)
- “In the Middle Ages, people were considered old at the age of 40” (No. Texts of the period set the onset of old age around the age of 50)
- “Because there were fewer elderly back then, the senior members of a community were highly respected and revered.”
This last misconception has found some scholarly support: John Burrow, for instance, maintained that the Anglo-Saxons (the inhabitants of early medieval England) privileged old age above all other age categories. The later Anglo-Saxon period has even been termed “the golden age for the elderly”. This image of early medieval England as an El Dorado for the elderly, however, is one-sided and incomplete. My the book covers a broad range of sources, ranging from encyclopaedic notes to homilies, heroic poems, wisdom literature and hagiography, which suggest a much more complicated and ambivalent attitude towards old age and the elderly among the Anglo-Saxons. In this blog post, I will highlight some early medieval English texts that deal with the darker sides to old age, if only to redress the rather optimistic image of the early Middle Ages as a ‘golden age for old age’.
Priestly concerns: Ungodliness and an unabashed sexual appetite
While generally they associated old age with wisdom and piety, early medieval preachers were well aware that senectitude was no guarantee for godly behaviour. In fact, they regularly warned their flock for the senex sine religione, ‘the old man without religion’, along with the rich man without alms and the young man without obedience.  Another cautionary figure in Anglo-Saxon homiletic texts is the puer centum annorum, ‘child of a hundred years’. Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010), for instance, noted:
Eft cwæð sum witega, Puer centum annorum maledictus erit: Hundteontigwintre cild byð awyrged. Ðæt is on andgite, Se mann ðe hæfð ylde on gearum, and hæfð cildes þeawas on dysige, þæt se byð awyrged. Ælc treow blewð ær þan þe hit wæstmas bere, and ælc corn bið ærest gærs. Swa eac ælc godes cinnes mann sceal hine sylfne to godnysse awendan, and wisdom lufian, and forlætan idelnysse. 
[Again, a certain prophet said: Puer centum annorum maledictus erit (cf. Isa. 65:20): a hundred-year-old child is cursed. That is in the sense: the man who has old age in years, and has the customs of a child in foolishness, let him be cursed. Every tree blooms before it bears fruit, and every grain is first grass. Likewise every man of good pedigree must turn himself to goodness and love wisdom and forsake frivolity.]
Ælfric’s admonition to show behaviour appropriate to one’s age reflects his awareness that some old men persevere in the follies of youth.
A more specific concern of Ælfric’s appears to have been the unabashed sexual appetite of elderly people. In a letter, he classified the sexual needs of an elderly woman as shameful, since intercourse was only meant for procreation:
Hit byð swyþe sceandlic, þæt eald wif sceole
ceorles brucan, þonne heo forwerod byð
and teames ætealdod, ungehealtsumlice,
forðan ðe gesceafta ne beoð for nanum oðran þinge astealde
butan for bearnteame anum, swa swa us secgað halige bec.
[It is very shameful that an old woman should have sex with a man, when she is worn out with age and too old for childbearing, unchastely, because sexual relations are not meant for any other thing but procreation only, just as holy books tell us.]
Anglo-Saxon England, it seems, was no cougar country.
While virtuous behaviour was expected of old men, this was by no means a foregone state of affairs. In the end, what mattered was not the age of a man, but his religious devotion, as St. Brendan reassured the young St. Machutus after the latter had expressed doubts as to whether he was worthy of priesthood, given his youth: “Nelle þu þe tweogean forþon þe seo geonglicu eld nænigum ne deraþ gif he fulfremed biþ on his mode. Ne seo ealdlicu eld nænigum ne frameþ gif he biþ on his mode gewemmed” [‘Do not doubt since a young age harms no one if he is virtuous in his heart. Nor does old age benefit anyone if he is corrupt in his heart’].
Memento senescere: The terrors of old age
In the Old English heroic poem Beowulf, the old king Hrothgar warns the young hero Beowulf about all the dangers that await him: fire, floods, swords, spears and, finally, “atol yldo” [terrible old age]. Warnings about growing old are also found in Anglo-Saxon homilies, accompanied with vivid descriptions of the physical decay that comes with the years. An anonymous Anglo-Saxon homilist wrote:
Him amolsniað and adimmiað þa eagan, þe ær wæron beorhte and gleawe on gesihðe. And seo tunge awistlað, þe ær hæfde getinge spræce and gerade. And ða earan aslawiað, þa þe ær wæron ful swifte and hræde to gehyrenne fægere dreamas and sangas. And þa handa awindað, þa ðe ær hæfdon ful hwæte fingras. And þæt feax afealleð, þe ær wæs fæger on hiwe and on fulre wæstme. And þa teð ageolwiað, þa ðe wæron ær hwite on hiwe. And þæt oreð stincð and afulað, þe ær wæs swete on stence.
[His eyes weaken and become dim, that had been bright and keen of sight. And his tongue hisses, which had possessed fluent and skilful speech. And his ears become sluggish, which had been very swift and quick to hear beautiful stories and songs. And his hands bend, that had possessed fully active fingers. And his hair falls out, that had been fair in colour and in full abundance. And his teeth turn yellow, that had been white in appearance. And his breath, which had been sweet of smell, stinks and turns foul.]
Descriptions like these functioned to remind the audience of the impermanence of worldly pleasures. Just as wealth, joy, friends and status do not last forever, so, too, a man’s youth is not eternal and old age will get him in the end; a memento senescere – remember that you must grow old. The decrepit, aging body was a welcome device that Anglo-Saxon homilists could use to turn their audience’s hopes and minds towards the afterlife; an afterlife, as we shall see below, where old age was either absent or present, depending on whether you would end up in Heaven or Hell.
Heaven is a place without old age: Age in the afterlife
The Venerable Bede (673-735) wrote in his eschatological poem De die iudicii [Concerning Judgement Day] that in Heaven one would enjoy the greatest of joys and no longer suffer “fessa senectus” [wearied old age]. Literary representations of the Afterlife often enumerated the celestial joys in combination with the absence of certain horrors that typically included old age. The notion that old age is absent from Heaven regularly occur in Old English sermons; for my book, I have identified at least eleven homilies which list “geogoþ butan ylde” [youth without old age] as one of the assets of Heaven, along with light (without darkness), happiness (without sorrow) and health (without sickness). Being generally absent from Heaven, old age was naturally associated with Hell. At least one Anglo-Saxon homilist presented growing old to his flock as one of the “prefiguration” of Hellish torment, along with pain, death, the grave and torture. Want to know what Hell is like? Grow old!
Appreciation or apprehension?
Gehwær is on urum life. ateorung 7 werignys 7 brosnung þæs lichaman: 7 þeahhwæþere wilnað gehwa þæt he lange lybbe. Hwæt is lange lybban buton lange swincan? 
[Everywhere in our life is faintness and weariness, and decay of the body, and yet every one desires that he might live long. What is to live long but to suffer long?]
Why do people want to grow old, Ælfric asks, if all they will get in return is toil and pain? Ælfric’s remark is hard to reconcile with Burrow’s claim that the Anglo-Saxons preferred old age above all other age categories and the notion that the Anglo-Saxon period was ‘a golden age for the elderly’. Not only were the Anglo-Saxons well aware that old age was no guarantee for godly living, they also observed that there were serious downsides to growing old. Anglo-Saxon homilists referred to physical decrepitude in order to remind their audience of the transience of worldly things or to strike the fear of Hell into their hearts. Indeed, one of the alluring aspects of Heaven for an Anglo-Saxon was the absence of old age. Arguably, then, it is more apt to ascribe to the Anglo-Saxons an apprehension for old age, rather than an unequivocal appreciation.
If you are interested in old age in early medieval England, I am absolutely thrilled that I can now highly recommend my own book!
- Thijs Porck, Old Age in Early Medieval England: A Cultural History, Anglo-Saxon Studies 33 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2019)
 J. A. Burrow, The Ages of Man: A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought (Oxford, 1986), p. 109.
 S. Crawford, ‘Gomol is snoterost: Growing Old in Anglo-Saxon England’, in Collectanea Antiqua: Essays in Memory of Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, ed. M. Henig and T. J. Smith (Oxford, 2007), p. 59.
 The senex sine religione often features in a list of the ‘Twelve Abuses’, see Two Ælfric Texts: The Twelve Abuses and The Vices and Virtues, ed. and trans. M. Clayton (Cambridge, 2013), pp. 34–48.
 Homilies of Ælfric: A Supplementary Collection, ed. J, C. Pope, EETS os 259–60 (Oxford, 1967–8), hom. 19, ll. 19–25.
 Angelsächsische Homilien und Heiligenleben, ed. B. Assmann (Kassel, 1889), hom. 2, ll. 157–61.
 The Old English Life of Machutus, ed. D. Yerkes (Toronto, 1984), p. 13, ll. 8–12.
 Klaeber’s Beowulf, ed. R. D. Fulk, R. E. Bjork and J. D. Niles, 4th ed. (Toronto, 2008), ll. 1758–68.
 Wulfstan; Sammlung der ihm zugeschriebenen Homilien nebst Untersuchungen über ihre Echtheit, ed. A. S. Napier (Berlin, 1883), hom. 30, p. 147, ll. 23–31, p. 148, ll. 1–7.
 Bede, De die iudicii, ed. and trans. G. D. Caie, The Old English Poem Judgement Day II (Cambridge, 2000), l. 129
 The Vercelli Homilies and Related Texts, ed. D. G. Scragg, EETS os 300 (London, 1992), hom. 9, ll. 84–5.
 Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies: The First Series, ed. P. Clemoes, EETS ss 17 (Oxford, 1997), hom. 32, ll. 213–9.
Do you ever wonder what gifts to buy for your loved ones? For the Anglo-Saxons, matters appear to have been rather simple: when in doubt, give them a horse! This blog post considers some notable examples of equine gift giving in early medieval England.
Horses for heroes: Rewards in Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon
What better way to reward a hero who has rid your people of a rampaging monster than giving him a royal steed? Try eight. In the Old English poem Beowulf, King Hrothgar celebrates Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel by lavishing the hero with gifts, including “wicga ond wæpna” [horses and weapons] (l. 1045a):
Heht ða eorla hleo eahta mearas
fæted-hleore on flet teon,
in under eoderas; þara anum stod
sadol searwum fah, since gewurþad;
þæt wæs hilde-setl heah-cyninges
ðonne sweorda gelac sunu Healfdenes
efnan wolde (ll. 1035-1041a)
[Then the lord of warriors commanded eight horses, golden-cheeked, to be led to the floor, inside within the precincts; On one of them stood a sadle decorated with artistries, made worthy with treasure; that had been the battle-seat of the high king when the son of Healfdene (i.e. Hrothgar) would engage in the play of swords.]
As it befit a loyal retainer, Beowulf shares his spoils with his own lord when he returns home. He gave four of the horses to his uncle, King Hygelac (ll. 2163b-5a: “feower mearas … æppel-fealuwe” [four apple-yellow horses]), and three to Queen Hygd (ll. 2174b-5a: “þrio wicg … swancor ons sadol-breoht” [three horses, slender and brigh-saddled]. As it turns out, Beowulf only kept one horse for himself – possibly the one with Hrothgar’s fancy saddle.
Hrothgar’s horsy gift is not unique within the Old English poetic corpus. The Battle of Maldon, a poem celebrating a lost battle against the Vikings (see: The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition), also features an intriguing reference to equine gift giving. In the heat of battle, a man named Godric flees the field on his leader’s horse – a treacherous deed, made all the worse since Godric himself had been given various horses in the past:
Godric fram guþe, and þone godan forlet
þe him mænigne oft mear gesealde.
He gehleop þone eoh þe ahte his hlaford,
on þam gerædum, þe hit right ne wæs. (The Battle of Maldon, ll. 187-190)
[Godric went from the battle, and abandoned the good one, who had often given many a horse. He leaped upon the horse that his lord owned, into the trappings, although it was not just.]
The irony of the situation is clear: the lord had given his retainers horses in return for future loyalty in battle, but Godric, instead, stole away on his lord’s horse. As we shall see below, the gifting of horses was no mere poetic fancy: there are various examples of recorded equine gifts in Anglo-Saxon history.
Regifting a horse: How St Aidan looked King Oswine’s gift horse in the mouth
Perhaps the most famous example of an Anglo-Saxon gift horse was the horse given to St Aidan by King Oswine of Deira (d. 651). Aidan, impressed though he was with the gift, decided to regift the horse to a beggar. These events are recorded by Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731) as follows:
He [King Oswine] had given an extraordinarily fine horse to Bishop Aidan, which he might either use in crossing rivers, or in performing a journey upon any urgent necessity, though he was wont to travel ordinarily on foot. Some short time after, a poor man meeting him, and asking alms, he immediately dismounted, and ordered the horse, with all his royal furniture, to be given to the beggar; for he was very compassionate, a great friend to the poor, and, as is were, the father of the wretched.
When the king got wind of the matter, he lashed out against the bishop:
This being told to the king, when they were going in to dinner, he said to the bishop, “Why would you, my lord bishop, give the poor man that royal horse, which was necessary for your use? Had not we many other horses of less value, and of other sorts, which would have been good enough to give to the poor, and not to give that horse, which I had particularly chosen for yourself?” To whom the bishop instantly answered, “What is it you say, O king? Is that foal of a mare more dear to you than the Son of God?”
Clearly, the king was upset about Aidan regifting the royal horse to a beggar. Soon, however, the king realized his reaction was uncalled for – since the bishop had been given the horse, he was free to do with it whatever he liked:
Upon this they went in to dinner, and the bishop sat in his place; but the king, who was come from hunting, stood warming himself, with his attendants, at the fire. Then, on a sudden, whilst he was warming himself, calling to mind what the bishop had said to him, he ungirt his sword, and gave it to a servant, and in a hasty manner fell down at the bishop’s feet, beseeching him to forgive him; “For from this time forward,” said he, “I will never speak any more of this, nor will I judge of what, or how much of our money you shall give to the sons of God.” (source)
The king’s initial reaction to Aidan’s decision to pass on the royal horse to a beggar is understandable and is related to the anthropological concept of the “inalienability” of the gift. Marcel Mauss, in his famous essay on gift giving, describes this concept as follows: “[e]ven when it [the gift] has been abandoned by the giver, it still possesses something of him. Through it the giver has a hold over the beneficiary” (source). In other words, the horse in some way still belonged to the king and the fact that a beggar now used the royal horse was an affront to Oswine himself.
Horses for heirs: The evidence from Anglo-Saxon wills
Various wills and testaments feature bequests of horses. The Anglo-Saxon noblewoman Wynflæd, for instance, showered her grandchildren with gifts; these included not only her finest bedlinnen (!?) but also her tame horses (her will is discussed here: Digging for early medieval grandmothers in Anglo-Saxon wills). Another will that abounds in equine bequests belonged to Æthelstan Ætheling (d. 1014), who left a variety of horses (some of which had been given to him by others) to members of his family and household:
Ic geann minon fæder Æþelræde cynge […] þæs horses þe Þurbrand me geaf. 7 þæs hwitan horses þe Leofwine me geaf. […] Ic geann Ælfsige. bisceope. […] anne blacne stedan. […] Ic gean Ælfwine minon mæssepreoste […] mines horses mid minon gerædon. […] 7 Ic geann Ælmære minon discþene […] anes fagan stedan. […] Ic geann Siferðe þæs landes æt Hocganclife. 7 anes swurdes. 7 anes horses. 7 mines bohscyldes. […] 7 Ic geann […] minon heardeorhunton þæs stodes. þe is on Colungahrycge. (source)
[And I grant my father, King Æthelred … the horse which Thurbrand gave me, and the white horse which Leofwine gave me. … I grant Bishop Ælfsige … a black steed. To my mass-priest Ælfwine I grant … my horse with my trappings. … I grant to Ælmær, my ‘dish-thegn’ a fallow steed. …. I grant to Sigeferth the land at Hockliffe and a sword, and a horse and my ‘bow-shield’. … And I grant … to my stag-hunter the stud farm which is in Coldridge.]
Æthelstan’s stud farm, which he gives to his huntsman, suggests that some horses were bred locally. However, not all horses in Anglo-Saxon England were homegrown, as the last section of this blog post will demonstrate.
Shipping horses overseas in the days of King Athelstan
In 926, a Frankish embassy came to the court of King Athelstan(d. 939) to ask the king for the hand of the king’s half-sister Eadhild. The embassy, sent by Duke Hugh the Great, brought a variety of gifts to woo the Anglo-Saxon king, including (of course) horses:
The chief of this embassy was Adulph, son of Baldwin earl of Flanders by Ethelswitha daughter of king Edward. When he had declared the request of the suitor in an assembly of the nobility at Abingdon, he produced such liberal presents as might gratify the most boundless avarice: perfumes such as never had been seen in England before: jewels, but more especially emeralds, the greenness of which, reflected by the sun, illumined the countenances of the bystanders with agreeable light; many fleet horses with their trappings, and, as Virgil says, “Champing their golden bits”. (William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum anglorum – source)
Needless to say, the horses (and various other gifts, including the sword of Emperor Constantine and the spear of Charles the Great) convinced Æthelstan to give the proposed marriage his blessing.
Notably, Athelstan himself was not a fan of the international horse trade. He forbid the sending of English horses overseas. However, he made an exception for those who were shipped off as a gift, recording the following in one of his lawcodes:
Seofoðe þ[æt] nan man ne sylle nan hors ofer sæ butan he hit gifan wille.
[Seventh: that no man should send a horse over sea except if he wants to gift it.
Equine gifts, it seems, were sanctioned by law!
Whether as a royal present, a reward for heroism, a treasured heirloom or an impressive bride price, a horse was the perfect gift in early medieval England!
If you liked this blog post, follow this blog and/or check out the following posts:
- The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Horses!
- Half-assed humanoids: Centaurs in early medieval England
- Sitting down in early medieval England: A catalogue of Anglo-Saxon chairs
While the last native speaker of Old English may have died in the eleventh century, later generations of poets, scholars and students have continued to use the language of early medieval England for their own compositions. This blog post calls attention to a love poem, composed in Old English by a Dutch student of Old Germanic languages in the year 1879: “Se glēo-mann” [The minstrel].
“Glowing with the glow of love”: Gerard Bolland and Klazina Bakker
Glōwende lufan glēde, glædlīcum mægð-frēode,
birnende æfter blǣde, beorhtnisse hlīsan
sceaft-rōf gydda scop, scearp hrēðe mecg,
hatigende sorhfulle hēafas on hearme nealles
eode under ēag-þyrl ærnes lēofre. (ll. 1-10)
Glowing with the glow of love of delightful love for his bride, yearning for fame, for the brightness of glory, the spear-brave singer of songs, the sharp, brave warrior, hating sorrowful lamentations, not at all aware of danger, he went under the window of the house of his beloved.
These are the opening lines of an Old English love poem that G. J. P. J. (Gerard) Bolland (1852-1922) composed for his fiancée Klazina Bakker (1859-1913). The love poem describes how a minstrel serenades his beloved underneath her window on the morning before a battle.
Gamen-wudu grētte gearu luf-songe;
swǣslīce nehstan siðe song morgen-grētinge: (ll. 11-14)
He greeted his play-wood ready for a love-song; graciously, for the last time, he sang his morning-greeting:
The poem was composed in 1879 and, two years later, G.J.P.J. Bolland married his Klazina. That same year, the couple moved to the Dutch East Indies, where Bolland became a teacher of German and English at the Willem III Gymnasium.
In the East Indies, the couple lived happily together and got a son called Alfred. The family returned to the Netherlands in 1896, when Bolland became Leiden University’s most notorious Professor of Philsophy (see this Wikipedia entry).
The two staid together until Klazina died after a long and arduous sickbed in 1913, at the age of 53. In her death notice, Bolland remembered her as “his beloved wife”.
Clearly, Klazina and Gerard loved each other very much and the Old English love poem represented Bolland’s heartfelt feelings. But why did he write the poem in Old English?
Bolland as an aspiring Old Germanicist
Bolland’s Old English poem survives in the Leiden University Library today because he did not only send it to his sweetheart, but he also included it as an appendix to a letter he wrote to his friend and mentor Pieter Jacob Cosijn (1840-1899), Professor of Old Germanic Philology and Anglo-Saxon at the University of Leiden. Under Cosijn’s guidance and with his financial assistance, Bolland gave up his job as a schoolmaster in order to study Old English and other Germanic languages in in London (England) and Jena (Germany) from 1879 to 1881.
During his stays abroad, Bolland devoted himself to his studies and kept in touch with Cosijn. In his letters to the Leiden professor, Bolland criticized the works of famous philologists like Benjamin Thorpe (see this blog post), complained that the famous linguist Henry Sweet did not want to grant him an audience (see this blog post), and shared personal details about Cosijn’s foreign colleagues, including Richard Morris (see this blog post) and Eduard Sievers (see this blog post). While Bolland relished in acquiring books and knowledge on Old Germanic languages, he sorely missed his fiancee (“and not just sexually”, he wrote to Cosijn). This longing for his wife-to-be is also reflected in his Old English poem “se glēo-mann” [The Minstrel] that he wrote during his stay in London in 1879 (and sent to Cosijn):
‘Hūru mīnum hām-stede hēah-byrig lēofre
ēstum ic fultum an earma mīnra!
heorte and hyge-þanc hyldo gemynda
on būr-getelde bēoþ beorhtre lēofan mægðe.’ (ll. 15-22)
Indeed! To my homestead to the lofty town of my beloved I gladly grant the help of my arms! The heart and thoughts the grace of my remembrance are in the dwelling of the bright dear maiden.
Eventually, it was the prospect of reuniting with his wife and being able to provide her with a pension that drove Bolland away from the study of Old English – he accepted a lucrative job as a teacher in the Dutch East Indies, never to return to Old Germanic Studies.
“Se glēo-mann” as an Old English poem
Bolland likely sent his Old English composition to Professor Cosijn to show his benefactor that his studies were paying off. The poem certainly bears witness to Bolland’s extensive knowledge of the technicalities of Old English poetry. Each pair of half lines are connected through the alliteration of three stressed syllables – an impressive regularity that is often lacking from most surviving Old English poems, including parts of Beowulf.
Glædlīce glōwan glēde wæl-gīfrum
Lufan and blǣde lēane lǣcan sprēote,
Feohtan for fæder-ēðle and fægere idese
Dǣd-cēnum gydda dihtere gedēfe is! (ll. 23-30)
To glow gladly with battle-eager glow for the reward of love and fame, to throw with the spear, to fight for the father-land and the fair lady, to the deed-brave poet of songs that is fitting!
Bolland was also able to coin various poetic compounds that are not found in the Old English poetic corpus, including “sceaft-rōf” [spear-brave], “heoru-stapa” [sword-stepper] , “dēaþ-sēoce” [death-sick] and “ord-mecg” [sword-warrior]. Other poetic compounds he used are so-called hapax legomena from Beowulf, showing Bolland’s great familiarity with the Old English epic (for which, see “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880). These include “wael-hlem” [noise of battle], “frēo-burg” [noble town] and “benc-þele” [bench-plank].
The poem totals 120 half lines and is divided into four sections of thirty half lines each. In the opening section, the ‘spear-brave’ minstrel sings his love song in the morning prior to his last battle; subsequent sections deal with the minstrel’s fate in battle, during which he continues to sing of his beloved. In the last section, the minstrel is mortally wounded and the last lines of the poem feature a striking variation to the refrain:
For lufan and lof-herunge on lāce sīgan,
sweltan for swæsre swētre lofestran
anunga orettan ǣðelan cynnes
dǣd-hwatum songa dihtere gedēfe is! (ll. 113-120)
For love and praise to die in battle, to die for one’s dear sweet most beloved, certainly for the champion of noble stock, to the deed-brave poet of songs that is fitting!
If you want to read the whole poem and learn more about Bolland’s endeavours in London and Jena, please read my full article:
Thijs Porck, “An Old English Love Poem, a Beowulf Summary and a Reference Letter by Eduard Sievers: G. J. P. J. Bolland as an Aspiring Old Germanicist,” in Scholarly Correspondence on Medieval Germanic Language and Literature, ed. Thijs Porck, Amos van Baalen and Jodie Mann (Brill: Special issue of Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 78:2-3): 262-291
The stomach of a hare, the excrements of a goat and the urine of a child – these are but a few of the awkward ingredients prescribed by the medical manuscript fragment known as the Leiden Leechbook. This ninth-century fragment, now in the Leiden University Library, is a unique witness to medical practice in the early Middle Ages and the multilingual nature of the documents from this period. This blog post outlines some of its remedies, its languages and its connection to Anglo-Saxon England.
How to cure a headache?
The first folio of the fragment contains a list of Latin remedies. As with other medical texts from the medieval period, this compilation starts with cures dealing with the head and then works its way down (in this case to the hair and eyes, then the text breaks off). To the modern reader, early medieval medicine presents a curious combination of herbal remedies and what might be called ‘magic’. The Leiden Leechbook’s remedies for headaches can serve as an illustration of this bewildering mix. The first three full remedies read as follows:
Item herbæ quæ in flumine super nascuntur subtilitær trita folia frontique illita mire purgationi capitis proficiunt.
Item lapilli in uentriculus pullorum hirundinum inuendi quamuis deuternos inueteratosque dolores remediant, habidi maximi albi, qui ne terram tangant erit cauendum.
Similiter noctuæ caput recens coctum et comestum deuternos labores sedare dicitur.
[Again: herbs which grow upon a river, (their) leaves chopped small and applied to the brow have a marvellous effect for clearing the head.
Again: stones found in the stomach of young swallows heal the pains, however old and persistent, chiefly white ones – care should be taken that they do not touch the earth.
Likewise: the head of an owl recently cooked, and eaten, alleviates so it is said persistent pains (in the head)] (ed. and trans. Falileyev & Owen, 2005)
While the first remedy is a sensible prescription to apply a herb to one’s forehead to alleviate a headache, the second one clearly features more ‘occult’ instructions. The third one is a clear example of so-called ‘sympathetic magic’ (“use like to treat like”): are you suffering from a head ache? Eat a head! (for similar examples of ‘sympathetic magic’ from the Middle Ages, see How to cook your dragon and a medieval cure for old age).
Other remedies for aching heads mentioned in the Leiden Leechbook include:
- The columbine plant
- Eating a coot
- Placing a small stone found on the side of a citygate on your head
- The root of plantain, picked before sunrise, bound around the head
- Smearing on the crushed seed of the elder tree
- Eating the brains of a cooked crow
- The nests of swallows, soaked in mud, applied to the forehead
- A drink of standing water out of which an ass or cow has drunk
Once more, we find the striking combination of purely botanical ingredients (plantain, columbine, seed of the elder tree) and more occult substances (the nest of swallows, a stone found on the side of a citygate). The instruction to eat the brains of a cooked crow to soothe aching brains is another case of sympathetic magic, as may be the advice to eat a coot (coots have a frontal shield on their foreheads).
One last cure for headache seems rather unhygienic:
Caprinus fimus aceto resolutus et front illitus mire succurrit.
[The excrement of goats, dissolved in vinegar and applied to the forehead, is of amazing benefit.] (ed. and trans. Falileyev & Owen, 2005)
One wonders how many long-sufferers of headaches walked around with acetic goat droppings on their foreheads in the early Middle Ages…
The Leiden Leechbook and the multilingual Middle Ages
The bifolium that is now known as the Leiden Leechbook was once used as a pastedown in another manuscript (i.e. it was pasted onto the board of another manuscript so as to hide its binding mechanisms). That manuscript, Leiden University Library, VLF 96, came from the famous abbey in Fleury, France, and, therefore, the Leiden Leechbook is generally assigned to the same abbey (see Bremmer & Dekker 2006; Falileyev & Owen, 2005) . Intriguingly, the Leiden Leechbook was certainly not written by a French monk: four hands are responisble for its texts and they all used an insular script (the kind used in the British Isles).
The languages in the Leiden Leechbook, too, suggest a multiregional background for the manuscript. Aside from Latin, there is one Old Irish gloss in the manuscript and some of its further remedies are written in a Brittonic language (possibly Breton or Cornish). The Old Irish gloss was added by the first scribe who copied the remedy for a headache that prescribed the use of crushed seeds of an elder tree. The Latin word sambuci ‘elder tree’ was glossed with the Old Irish word tromm ‘elder tree’:
The second folio of the Leiden Leechbook contains a different set of remedies, written in a mixture of Latin and a Brittonic language. A case in point is the following remedy for “guædgou” [parasitic complexion]:
Cæs scau; cæs spern; cæs guærn; cæs dar; cæs cornucærui; cæs colænn; cæs aball per cæruisam. Anroæ æniap æhol pær mæl.
[Take elder / fox-glove; take thorn; take alder; take oak; take staghorn; take holly; take apple-tree with beer. Poultice all the face with honey.] (ed. and trans. Falileyev & Owen, 2005)
In this remedy, all words, except Latin per/pær ‘with’, cornucærui ‘staghorn’ and cæruissam ‘beer’, are in a Brittonic language, which may be either Cornish or Breton (see Falileyev & Owen, 2005).
The manuscript’s provenance, scripts and languages thus are indicative of the pluriform origin story of the Leiden Leechbook which must include references to Fleury, France, Ireland, as well as Cornwall or Britanny. But there is more to the Leiden Leechbook: there may be a connection to Anglo-Saxon England as well!
Is that an Old English gloss or should I put a child’s urine in my eyes?
According to the German scholar O. B. Schlutter (1910), the Leiden Leechbook also contains three words in Old English. The first word, he suggested, was accidentally copied into one of the Latin remedies for a headache. The Latin remedy suggesting you eat cooked crow’s brains to cure your own aching brain reads: “cornicis … exrebellum coctum” [cooked brains of a crow]. The word exrebellum does not exist in Latin and this should have read cerebellum ‘brains’. According to Schlutter, the scribe made a mistake when he copied a Latin exemplar that read ‘cerebellum’ with an Old English gloss ex – the scribe accidentally copied the gloss into the main text and forgot to write down “ce”, producing the nonce word exrebellum. Falileyev & Owen (2005, p. 28) reject this hypothesis by Schlutter, claiming “[i]t is difficult to see how an AS word meaning ‘axe’ should be used to gloss cerebellum“. It should be noted, however, that the Old English word ex was, in fact, used for ‘brains’ in various Old English medical texts and the Dictionary of Old English (s.v. ex 2, exe) confirms Schlutter’s suggestion.
Schlutter identified another Old English word as an interlinear gloss in the following remedy for hairloss:
Ad capillos fluentes, leporis uentriculum coctum in sartagine et mixto oleo inpone capidi et capillos fluentes continet et cogit concrescere.
[For loose hair: put the stomach of a hare, cooked in a frying pan and mixed with oil, to the head, and that holds together loose hair and causes it to grow strong.] (ed. and trans. Falileyes & Owen, 2005)
According to Schlutter, an Old English gloss hara ‘hare’ had been added above the Latin leporis ‘of a hare’ – only the “h” is clearly visible, he writes, the rest has faded away. The most recent editors of the manuscript (Falileyev & Owen, 2005) reject Schlutter’s reading and claim that what Schlutter had seen is nothing other than a damage mark or scrape. You be the judge:
The third Old English word spotted by Schlutter is again rejected by Falileyev & Owen as an ink offset. This time, the Old English gloss is supposedly found in the headache remedy prescribing the crushed seeds of the elder tree. Here, Schlutter saw the Old English word ellærn ‘elder tree’ as a gloss for Latin sambuci (which was also glossed with Old Irish tromm). Despite Falileyev & Owen’s rejection, Schlutter’s reading is supported by the Dictionary of Old English (s.v. ellen noun 2, ellern) and, indeed, it is possible to make out some of the letters:
Are there three Old English words in the Leiden Leechbook, as Schlutter suggested, or none, as Falileyev & Owen argue?
There is one more reason to assume an Anglo-Saxon influence on the Leiden Leechbook: some of its remedies turn out to have (near) analogues in Old English medical texts. One such remedy is a cure for blurry eyesight, which is also found in the Old English Leechbook III:
Leiden Leechbook: Ad caliginem: lotium infantis si cum melle optima misces et iunges patientem.
[For clouded/blurred vision: if you mix the urine of a suckling child with honey of superior quality you will then heal the patient.] (ed. and trans. Falileyev & Owen, 2005)
Leechbook III: Gif mist sie fore eagum nim cildes hlond 7 huniges tear meng tosomne begea emfela smire mid þa eagan innan.
[If a mist be before the eyes, take a child’s urine and a drop of honey, mix together the same amount of both, rub the inside of the eyes with it.]
The existence of Old English analogues for some of the Leiden Leechbook’s remedies is an argument in favour of connecting the manuscript to Anglo-Saxon England. This connection, in turn, would strengthen the case for the existence of the Old English words spotted by Schlutter.
Are the Old English glosses hara and ellærn really in the Leiden Leechbook? I have looked long and hard at the manuscript and I cannot be sure whether the marks are letters, as Schlutter suggested, or damages to the parchment, as Falileyev & Owen argue; perhaps I should have another look after I have rinsed my eyes with child’s urine and honey…
If you liked this post, why not follow the blog (see button in the right-hand menu) and/or continue reading the following blogs on medieval medicine:
- Early Medieval Magical Medicine: An Anglo-Saxon Trivia Quiz
- Creepy Crawlies in Early Medieval England: Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Minibeasts
- How to cook your dragon and a medieval cure for old age
- Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?
Works referred to (and recommended reading on the Leiden Leechbook):
- Bremmer, Rolf H., Jr & Dekker, K., Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Microfiche Facsimile. Vol 13: Manuscripts in the Low Countries (Tempe, AZ, 2006)
- Falileyev, A. & Owen, M. E., The Leiden Leechbook: A Study of the Earliest Neo-Brittonic Medical Compilation (Innsbruck, 2005)
- Schlutter, O. B., ‘Anglo-Saxonica: Altenglisches aus Leidener Handschriften’, Anglia 33 (1910): 239-245.
In the upcoming blockbuster movie Redbad (2018), the Frisian king Redbad (d. 719) is depicted as an early medieval Frisian freedom fighter, defending his people against Frankish warriors and Anglo-Saxon missionaries (for a link to the trailer, see below). Late medieval Frisian sources, however, paint a wholly different image of Redbad: a Danish tyrant and “unfrethmonne” [lit. ‘un-peace-man’] who suppressed the Frisian people. This blog post discusses the dealings of the ‘historical Redbad’ with Anglo-Saxon missionaries, as well as two later medieval legend surrounding this ‘last king of the Frisians’.
“Enemy of the Catholic Church”: Redbad and the Anglo-Saxon missionaries
Around the year 720, the Anglo-Saxon abbess Bugga wrote to the Anglo-Saxon missionary Boniface, congratulating the latter with the death of the Frisian ruler Redbad (d. 719):
Postea inimicum catholicae ecclesiae Rathbodum coram te consternuit. Deinde, per somnium temet ipso revelavit, quod debuisti manifeste messem Dei metere et congregare sanctarum animarum manipulos in horream regni caelestis.
Next he laid low before you Redbad, that enemy of the Catholic Church. Then he revealed to you in a dream that it was your duty to reap the harvest of God, gathering in sheaves of holy souls into the storehouse of the heavenly kingdom.
Bugga’s classification of Redbad as “inimicum catholicae ecclesiae” [enemy of the Catholic Church] was probably based on the fierce resistance Redbad had come to show to Christian missionaries.
Redbad had not always been this hostile. The Anglo-Saxon chronicler Bede (d. 735), for instance, described how the Anglo-Saxon preacher Wictbert had been allowed to preach for two years in Redbad’s realm, albeit without any result (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, bk. V, ch. 9 – source). Another Anglo-Saxon missionary, Willibrord (d. 739), did not succeed in converting Redbad either, as the Life of Willibrord (c. 796) by Alcuin relates:
He [Willibrord] had the boldness to present himself at the court of Radbod, at that time King of the Frisians and like his subjects, a pagan. Wherever he travelled he proclaimed the Word of God without fear; but though the Frisian king received the man of God in a kind and humble spirit, his heart was hardened against the Word of Life. (ch. 9 – source)
Redbad’s reluctance towards the Christian faith probably had everything to do with the fact that these missionaries cooperated with the Franks led by Pepin of Herstal (d. 714), who sought to expand his territory into Frisia. After Pepin’s death in 714, Redbad made use of the polical chaos in Francia to reconquer bits and pieces of Frisia where the Franks had extended their rule, destroying various Christian places of worship in the process.
Having succeeded his father Aldgisl in c. 680, Redbad’s reign lasted for a considerable time, close to forty years. While he initially had to admit defeat to the expanding Frankish forces, he eventually overcame his southern enemies and remained a feared and powerful military ruler until his death in 719. Movie material, indeed!
In and out of bath with Redbad
The most famous legend surrounding Redbad concerns his baptism. First recorded in a saint’s life of the Frankish missionary Wulfram (d. 703), the legend relates how Redbad had been persuaded to accept baptism and had already put one foot in the baptismal font. Before completing the ceremony, Redbad asked Wulfram: “Will I see my ancestors in the hereafter?” To which Wulfram, rather bluntly, replied: “Of course not, they are in Hell; you will join the ranks of the blessed in Heaven!”. Redbad next retracted his foot and exclaimed that he would rather be with his ancestors in the torments of Hell than spend eternity with saintly strangers in Paradise. As such, Redbad earned a reputation as a stone-hearted, reluctant pagan. Occasionally, the legend of Redbad’s baptism is ascribed to the Anglo-Saxon missionary Willibrord, as on this early-16th-century orphrey, now in Museum Catharijneconvent (Utrecht):
“Unfrethmonne”: Redbad in late medieval Frisian texts
As might be expected, Redbad’s reputation as a fierce enemy of the Church did not make him into a beloved historical figure in the later Middle Ages, even in Frisia. In fact, various Old Frisian texts depict him as a foreign tyrant, who surpressed the Frisian people. The heroes in these later Frisian stories are Willibrord and the great-grandson of Pepin of Herstal, Charlemagne (d. 814). The latter, in particular, is described as the person responsible for giving the Frisians their freedom. That freedom was much needed, since according to one of the oldest Old Frisian texts, The Seventeen Statutes and the Twenty-Four Land Laws, surviving in the First Riustringer Codex:
Hwande alle Frisa er north herdon Redbate, tha unfrethmonne, al thet frisona was. (W. J. Buma, De eerste Riustringer codex [The Hague, 1961], iii 76-77).
[Because all Frisians first belonged to the North, to Redbad, the un-peace-man, all that was Frisian]
In a later manuscript, Redbad ‘the un-peace-man’ was even called a Danish king: “tha Deniska kininge” (W. J. Buma, Het tweede Rüstringer handschrift [The Hague, 1954], ii 32).
Perhaps the most intriguing representation of Redbad is found in the fifteenth-century Gesta Fresonum, a translation of the Latin Historiae Frisiae. Here, Redbad, the king of Norway and Denmark, is linked to the biblical Pharaoh:
Als dy bose coninck Pharo anxte hiede fan dae kynden fan Israhel, dier om dede hy hy arm grete aermoed ende ayndom. Aldus dede dy quade tyran Radbodus … Disse mackede grate ayndom wr dae Friesen… (W. J. Buma, P. Gerbenzon & M. Tragter-Schubert, Codex Aysma [Assen 1993], v. 7)
[Like the evil king Pharaoh feared the children of Israel, for which he inflicted on them great poverty and slavery. So did this cruel tyrant Redbad who brought the Frisians to great slavery…]
The same text heralds Willibrord as the new Moses (leading the Frisians from captivity) and Charlemagne as the new David, defeating Goliath (=Redbad). The way Charlemagne defeats Redbad is peculiar, to say the least. Instead of a fight to the death, they agree that whoever manages to stand still for the longest time, without bending his knees or bowing down, would rule over the Frisians. After some time, Charlemagne thinks of a cunning plan: he drops his handkerchief. Redbad, foolishly, picks it up and, the moment he bends down, Charlemagne exclaims: “ha, ha ha! Dit is worden myn knecht, dier om is dit land myn!” [hahaha! He has become my servant, therefore this land is mine!] (Ibid., v. 17). Redbad admits his defeat and Charlemagne frees the Frisians from their tyranical un-peace-man. Naturally, the whole event is a myth, if only because Redbad died in 719, years before Charlemagne was even born.
The historical Redbad, it seems, has become something of a victim of imaginative hagiographers and chroniclers. That each period creates its own Redbad is demonstrated by the trailer to the upcoming movie Redbad (2018), which depicts him as an early medieval Frisian freedom fighter, heroically shielding his people from ambitious Frankish warlords and overzealous Anglo-Saxon missionaries:
Clearly, Redbad’s rejection of Christianity is no longer seen as problematic in this film, which may not bode well for the representation of the Anglo-Saxon missionaries!
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy:
- The Latest Miracle of Anglo-Saxon Missionary Saint Adalbert of Egmond (d. c.740)
- Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Boniface in Dorestad
- A pug’s guide to medieval Holland
© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2018. 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.
This post is the first in a series on the reception of the Old English poem Beowulf in the Netherlands. The post centres on a popular sketch about ‘fake news’, first performed in 1909, with the title ‘De geschiedenis van het broodje van Beowulf’ [The history of Beowulf’s sandwich]. Regrettably, the text of this sketch has been lost, but an attempt is made here to reconstruct it on the basis of scattered newspaper reviews.
Mr. A. W. Kamp (1847-1945): A performance artist at the start of the twentieth century
‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ is first mentioned in 1909 as part of a playlist of a Dutch performance artist A. W. Kamp. Kamp performed the piece in various towns across The Netherlands between 1909 and 1917. In 1910, he even took his performance to the Dutch East Indies, where he performed at various ‘white societies’. The apparent author of the sketch was one ‘Max Speyer’, whom I have not been able to identify further. To date, it appears as if A. W. Kamp has been the only person to have performed the piece. Who was this perfomance artist?
Anthonij Willem Kamp was born on 2 februari 1879 and received a law degree from the University of Leiden. He later worked as a lawyer and journalist. He had a love for poetry and, in addition to translating various works from English, French and German (including pieces by Shakespeare, Goethe and Voltaire) into Dutch, he wrote his own songs and sketches. Kamp appears to have enjoyed some popularity in his own days, even though he is no longer well-known today. The following words of wisdom attributed to Kamp by a Dutch quotation website suggest he was primarily a humorist: “Humour desires to temper the tragedy of life.”
Indeed, newspaper reports on ‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ praise Kamp as a comic performer. One advert for Kamp’s performance guarantees “a great laughter-success” (Haagsche courant, 30-12-1916), while many reviewers praise his command of voice, mimicry and funny accents:
In the field of performance, he is like a caricature-artist in the world of painting. He performs with his voice, his posture, his flexible face, almost like a mad man. But at all times that which he provides remains recognisably the silliness that he has found in the everyday doings of human beings, which he so goofily exaggerates that the audience blurts with laughter. (Middelburgsche courant, 11-02-1909)
‘Beowulf’s sandwich’, in particular, was reviewed favourably as “a most entertaining piece” (Amersfoortsch Dagblad, 12-03-1913).
The history of Beowulf’s sandwich: A reconstruction
The text of ‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ has not survived, but, on the basis of five relatively detailed newspaper reviews (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), it is possible to give a rough reconstruction of the contents of the sketch.
Act I: How it really happened
The young prince Beowulf is brought to school by his father’s master of arms. Along the way, he loses his sandwich, which ends up in the mud. A hungry girl brushes off the dirt with her skirt and eats it. This is the only fact in the sandwich’s whole history, the rest is fantasy, made up by various individuals who recount the story in different ways and contexts.
Act II: The history of the sandwich in the Provincial Newspaper of Krussa, the favourite magazine of Berengarius XIX
A sensationalist reporter for this court magazine paints a grand image of the scene: the generous prince Beowulf gracefully feeds the poor with his goose liver pie.
Act III: The history of the sandwich in the social-democratic magazine ‘The Scorpion’
A labourer, speaking with a thick rural accent, retells the story as an example of the unjustifiable gap between the elite and the lower classes, who are forced to eat the elite’s mud-covered scraps.
Act IV: How cardinal Vaporetto recounts the history of the sandwich in the acts of the canonization of Beowulf
Taking on the guise of a whiny old cardinal, Kamp relates the ‘Miracle of the Holy Beowulf!’. No doubt, the sandwich here acted as a miraculous relic. During one performance, the audience reacted so enthusiastically to this bit, that Kamp himself burst out laughing himself.
Act V: The history of the sandwich in the catalogue (no. 480) of the National Beowulf Museum
The crust of Beowulf’s sandwich ultimately ends up as a curiosity in the National Beowulf Museum. The curator praises the crust as a most important piece of evidence for the history of nutrition.
Act VI: A historical-critical research into no. 480 of the catalogue
A historian painstakingly questions the authenticity of the crust of Beowulf’s sandwich on the basis of thorough research of the ways flour was processed in the early Middle Ages.
As one contemporary reviewer put it, ‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ is “a wonderful satire on the unreliability of tradition and the exaggeration of reports and the pedantry of scholars” (Nieuwsblad van Friesland, 06-10-1909). Today, we might associate the various partisan and biased reports of Beowulf’s sandwich as examples of ‘fake news’.
“Beowulf’s sandwich” as an idiomatic expression for ‘fake news’
For as far as we can trace, the phrase “Beowulf’s sandwich” was used only once without an explicit mention of Kamp’s performance. On 14 April 1910, it was used in a letter to the editor of Het nieuws van den dag voor Nederlandsch-Indie [The News of the Day for the Dutch East Indies] in order to complain about an exaggerated news report on the active volcano Tangkuban Perahu (Java):
Mister Phyto writes to us:
The description of the activity of the Tangkuban Perahu has by some newspaper correspondents been made into a repetition of ‘Beowulf’s sandwich’. They have looked for an effect in foolish exaggeration.
According to the letter writer, reports on the volcano’s being covered in one and a half meters of ash due to a destructive eruption that destroyed all nearby flowers were nothing but a pack of lies: the ash didn’t even come up to 15 centimeters and there had never been flowers in the first place. The use of the phrase “Beowulf’s sandwich” to classify this exaggerated report is intriguing and may be attributed to Kamp’s performances in the Dutch East Indies earlier that year – apparently the sketch had made quite an impression and the letter writer assumed his readers to be familiar with the phrase. Regrettably, this idiomatic expression for ‘false or exaggerated reporting’ did not stick – but it is never too late for a comeback: Make fake news Beowulf’s sandwich again!
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy:
- Spoiling the Mystery: Grendel in Beowulf Movies
- “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880
- Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition
© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2018. 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.