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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 befits 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
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.
A family bond that has left very little traces in the Anglo-Saxon record is the relationship between grandmothers and their grandchildren. In this blog post, I discuss the evidence from Anglo-Saxon wills in order to shed some light on the role of grannies in early medieval England.
Grandmother-less in Anglo-Saxon England
The Old English gloss ealdemodor for Latin aua in the margins of British Library, Add. 32246 is only one of three occurrences of this Old English word with the sense ‘grandmother’ (see Dictionary of Old English A to H Online, s.v. ealdemodor). The word grandmother itself did not exist in Anglo-Saxon England: according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online (s.v. grandmother), the word is first attested in a will from 1424, in the phrase “Þan shall he be left..grauntmoderles” [then he shall be left grandmother-less]. This first occurrence in the OED, in a way, encapsulates the presence of grandmothers in (early) medieval England. Indeed, while most of the literary and documentary record of the Anglo-Saxons is almost ‘grandmother-less’, early medieval wills are the best place to find them (as well as many other interesting things).
Athelstan Ætheling, raised by his grandmother
The will of Athelstan Ætheling (full text here), drawn up on his deathbed on 25 June 1014, reveals that grandmothers could play a role in the upbringing of their grandchildren. Athelstan, eldest son of Æthelred II (d. 1016), declared that everything that he had granted to God and the Church was to benefit not only the souls of himself and his father, but also that of “Ælfþryðe minre ealdemodor þe me afedde” [Ælfthryth (d. 1000/1001), my grandmother, who raised me]. Remarkably, Athelstan does not mention his mother Ælfgifu of York, (d. 1002) who had died only two years before. This Ælfgifu probably bore Æthelred more than ten (!) children and it may, therefore, not be too far-fetched to hypothesise that she handed over some (or most) of the parenting responsibilities to her mother-in-law Ælfthryth.
Since his grandmother had long died before Athelstan drew up his will, she was obviously not among his beneficiaries. Most of his most precious belongings seem to have gone to his brother Edmund (Ironside). The following bequest stands out: “ic geann Eadmunde minon breðer þæs swurdes þe Offa cyng ahte” [I give to Edmund my brother the sword which King Offa owned]. Apparently, Athelstan had a sword that had once belonged to King Offa of Mercia (d. 796): by that time , the sword would have been over two hundred years old!
Grandmother’s family jewels in the will of Wulfric Spott
The third (and last) occurrence of the Old English word ealdemodor is found in the will of the Anglo-Saxon nobleman Wulfric Spott (d. 1004; full text here). The word features in his bequest to his god-daughter (also his niece) of some land at Stretton and “ðone bule þe wæs hire ealdermoder” [the brooch which was her grandmother’s]. While his god-daughter was probably touched by the receipt of this family jewel, she may have felt that this gift paled in comparison to what Wulfric’s next beneficiary received: the monastery of Burton was gifted with “an hund wildra horsa . 7 sextena tame hencgestas” [one hundred wild horses and sixteen tame stallions].
Another interesting feature of this will is its closing formula that threatens excommunication to whomever would alter Wulfric’s dying wishes:
God ælmihtig hine awende of eallum godes dreame 7 of ealra cristenra gemanan se ðe þis awende butan hit minan cynehlaford sy 7 ic hopyge to him swa godan 7 swa mildheortan þæt he hit nylle sylf don ne eac nanum oþrum menn geþafian.
[And may God turn away from all God’s joy and from the communion of all Christians whomever changes this, unless it is my own king and I hope that he will be so good and so mild-hearted that he will not want to do it himself nor allow any other man to do it.]
By the way, the ‘Spott’ in Wulfric Spott is a nickname, which probably means something like ‘spotty’. For more Old English nicknames, see Anglo-Saxon bynames: Old English nicknames from the Domesday Book.
Spoiled by granny: Wynflæd’s bequests to her grandchildren
Not only do grandmothers get an occasional mention in Anglo-Saxon wills, at least one grandmother wrote her own will: Wynflæd, an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who died around 950 (full text here). This will provides further evidence of grandmothers taking an interest in the well-being of their children’s children.
Like your typical grandmother, Wynflaed spoiled her grandkids rotten: not by stuffing them with food, but by showering them with lands, slaves, and other gifts. Her grandchildren, Eadwold and “hyre syna dehter” [her son’s daughter] Eadgifu, also got to share “hyre taman hors” [her tame horses]. A gift especially intended for her grandson shows Wynflæd’s consideration for his stature and ornamental display: “goldfagan teowenan cuppan þæt he ice his beah mid þam golde” [a gold-adorned wooden cup so that he [Eadwold] may enlarge his armring with the gold]. Likewise, her granddaughter Eadgifu may have had a special place in Wynflæd’s heart, as she bequeathed the girl with the very best of her linen:
“hyre betsþe bedwahrift 7 linnenne ruwan 7 eal þæt bedref þe þærto gebyreð 7 … hyre betstan dunnan tunecan 7 hyre beteran mentel 7 hyre twa treowenan gesplottude cuppan 7 hyre ealdan gewiredan preon is an VI mancussum.”
[her best bed-curtain and a linen covering and all the bed-clothes which go with it and … her best dun tunic, and her better cloak, and her two wooden spotted cups , and her old wired brooch which is worth six mancuses.]
It is interesting to note here that, like the goddaughter of Wulfric Spott, Wynflæd’s granddaughter gets her grandmother’s brooch – was this perhaps an Anglo-Saxon grandmother-to-granddaughter tradition?
Like the Old English gloss ealdemodor mentioned at the start of this post, references to grandmothers are hard to find. These Anglo-Saxon wills , however, show clearly that early medieval grandmothers had a role to play in the lives of their grandchildren, if only by bestowing them with gifts.
If you liked this post, you may also like:
- Growing Old among the Anglo-Saxons (information about my PhD thesis on old age in Anglo-Saxon England)
- How to cook your dragon and a medieval cure for old age (anti-aging, the medieval way)
- Wealthy Wynflæd’s wonderful will (an interesting blog about Wynflæd’s will by Kate Thomas
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)