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The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Anglo-Saxon Elves

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:

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Old English elf glosses in Leiden, University Library, VLQ 106, fol. 10r

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’:

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London, British Library, Add. 32246, fol. 21r

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.

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The Psalmist harassed by elves (though more likely demons) in the Eadwine Psalter. Cambridge, University Library, MS R.17.1, fol. 66r.

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’, ælfsiden ‘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:

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Inscription in London, British Library, Cotton Titus D.xxvi, fol. 13v

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:

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“Ælfwine” depicted in a roundel. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, p. 2.

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: GenesisDaniel, 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.

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You can find my academic publications on Tolkien here; in the first semester of 2019/2020 I teach an MA course on Tolkien’s medieval sources (see Teaching). ASElvesBanner

‘The last king of medieval Frisia’: Redbad and the Anglo-Saxon missionaries

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):

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A tenth-century copy of Bugga’s letter to Boniface. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 8112, fol. 105v.

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.

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Redbad and the area under his rule (Source: Wiki Commons)

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

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Redbad refusing to be baptised by Saint Wulfram (Source: J. Wagenaar, Vaderlandsche Historie (Amsterdam, 1749), 370)

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):

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Redbad retracted his foot from the baptismal font. On the right: Anglo-Saxon missionary Willibrord (Source: https://www.catharijneconvent.nl/adlib/41334/)

“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).

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Old Frisian (8th-16th centuries) is closely related to Old English. This image shows a copy of the Brokmerbrief or Law of Brokmerland (Wiki Commons)

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!

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Poster for Redbad (2018) and stills from the film: showing Anglo-Saxon missionaries Willibrord (Jack Wouterse) and Boniface (Egbert-Jan Weber)

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© 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.

The history of Beowulf’s sandwich: A sketch about ‘fake news’ from 1909

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

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Announcements of performances by A.W. Kamp featuring ‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ in Leeuwarder courant (05-10-1909), Sumatra post (26-03-1910) and Goudsche Courant (04-01-1917)

‘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?

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Sketch of Mr. A. W. Kamp by R. van der Hem on the cover of A. W. Kamp’s Eigen liedjes, vertalingen en bewerkingen [Own songs, translations and adaptations] (The Hague, 1927)

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

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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!

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© 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.

Kings and Candlesticks in Anglo-Saxon England

Among all of his responsibilities, Alfred the Great found the time to invent the candle clock. As this blog post will demonstrate, Alfred, by no means, was the only Anglo-Saxon king to have a thing for candles.

Alfred the Great: Inventor of time management and the candle clock

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Eight Hour Day Banner, Melbourne, 1856

The slogan “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” is supposed to have been coined by the social reformer Robert Owen (d. 1858); but the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred the Great (d. 899) seems to have divided his time in a similar way. According to the twelfth-century chronicler William of Malmesbury:

he [Alfred] so divided the twenty-four hours of the day and night as to employ eight of them in writing, in reading, and in prayer, eight in the refreshment of his body, and eight in dispatching the business of the realm. There was in his chapel a candle consisting of twenty-four divisions, and an attendant, whose peculiar province it was to admonish the king of his several duties by its consumption. (source)

Assuming that Alfred regarded writing, reading and praying as recreation – Alfred’s daily routine, as described by William, is quite similar to Robert Owen’s slogan.

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Alfred (played by David Dawson) and his candles make a surprise appearance in The Last Kingdon, series 2, episode 3. © BBC, The Last Kingdom

William’s reference to “a candle consisting of twenty-four divisions” refers to a famous story related in Asser’s Life of Alfred (893), which recounts how Alfred invented a “candle clock” consisting of six candles (not one), which each burned for four hours:

By this plan, therefore, those six candles burned for twenty-four hours, a night and day, without fail…  but sometimes when they would not continue burning a whole day and night, till the same hour that they were lighted the preceding evening, from the violence of the wind, which blew day and night without intermission through the doors and windows of the churches … the king therefore considered by what means he might shut out the wind, and so by a useful and cunning invention, he ordered a lantern to be beautifully constructed of wood and white ox-horn, which, when skilfully planed till it is thin, is no less transparent than a vessel of glass. … By this contrivance, then, six candles, lighted in succession, lasted four and twenty hours, neither more nor less, and, when these were extinguished, others were lighted. (source)

There you have it, in addition to defeating the Vikings (see: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and Alfred the Great), suffering from painful diseases (see: Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?), translating the Psalms (see: The Illustrated Psalms of Alfred the Great: The Old English Paris Psalter), and coining the word ‘arseling’ (see: Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?), Alfred also invented a candle clock! He truly was a king among kings.

Æthelwulf of Wessex: Coins and candle holders for the pope

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Anglo-Saxon coin inscribed with “EĐELVVLF REX” (source)

Alfred may have gotten his interest in lights and candles from his father Æthelwulf of Wessex (d. 858). Upon his death, Asser reports in his Life of Alfred, Æthelwulf ordered an annual sum of money to be sent to Rome of which a major part was to be spent on lighting lamps at Easter:

He commanded also a large sum of money, namely, three hundred mancuses, to be carried to Rome for the good of his soul, to be distributed in the following manner: namely, a hundred mancuses in honour of St. Peter, specially to buy oil for the lights of the church of that apostle on Easter eve, and also at the cock-crow: a hundred mancuses in honour of St. Paul, for the same purpose of buying oil for the church of St. Paul the apostle, to light the lamps on Easter eve and at the cock-crow; and a hundred mancuses for the universal apostolic pontiff. (source)

Æthelwulf’s charity did not stop there. The ninth-century Liber Pontificalis (the book of Popes) relates how, upon visiting Rome with his son Alfred, gifted the Church of St Peter with many precious objects, including a silver candle holder:

a crown of pure gold weighing four pounds, an ornamental sword with gold inlay, a gilded silver candle holder in the Saxon style, a purple dyed tunic embossed with golden keys, a golden goblet, and numerous valuable robes. (R. Abels, King Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 53)

Upon his trip to Rome, Alfred may have learned a valuable lesson from his father: candles are candy for the pope!

Æthelred the Unready: Castigated by candles

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Æthelred ‘the Unready’ © British Library, Royal MS 14 B VI

While Alfred and his father Æthelwulf had positive experiences with candles, one of their kinsmen fared differently. As legend would have it, Æthelred ‘the Unready’ (d. 1016), Alfred’s great-great-grand-son, was traumatized by candles in his youth. William of Malmesbury relates the following incident in his Gesta regum Anglorum:

I have read, that when he was ten years of age, hearing it noised abroad that his brother [Edward ‘the Martyr’ (d. 978)] was killed, he so irritated his furious mother by his weeping, that not having a whip at hand, she beat the little innocent with some candles she had snatched up: nor did she desist, till herself bedewed him, nearly lifeless, with her tears. On this account he dreaded candles during the rest of his life, to such a degree that he would never suffer the light of them to be brought into his presence. (source)

As Æthelred grew up, he gained a reputation as being one of the worst kings in English history. He certainly was never able to fill his great-great-grandfather Alfred’s shoes, and we now know why: without the help of candles (or a candle clock), how could he ever have managed his time!?!

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Alfred: What do you think of my candles? Uhtred: I find them to be more effective at night. Alfred: I have missed your childish insolence. I’m trying to measure the passing of time. I’m hoping to find a candle that burns from midday to midday. © BBC, The Last Kingdom

 

 

 

The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Horses!

As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this blog, I will regularly shed some light on the medieval in Middle-Earth. This post reviews the horses of Middle-Earth.

The Rohirrim: Anglo-Saxons on horseback

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Left: Rohirrim on horseback in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King © WingNut Films; Right: Anglo-Saxons on horseback on the Aberlemno stone (c. 700-800) (source)

It is no secret that Tolkien based the Riders of Rohan on the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Mercia. Indeed, the Rohirrim have even been called ‘Anglo-Saxons on horseback’ (see Honneger 2011). It is not difficult to see why the Riders of the Mark are connected to the early medieval English inhabitants of Mercia: the Rohirrim occasionally speak Old English and have Old English names. For instance, when Éomer tells Théoden “Westu Théoden hal!” in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, he echoes Beowulf’s address to Hrothgar in the Old English poem Beowulf: “Wæs þu, Hroðgar, hal” (Beowulf, l. 407) [May you be healthy, Hrothgar].  The name Théoden itself is Old English, being derived from Old English ðeoden ‘ruler, king’, as are so many other names of the Rohirrim.

The Rohirric fondness for horses is reflected in their name Éotheod, which stems from Old English eoh ‘war-horse’ + ðeod ‘people’. Among these ‘horse-people’, Éomer, Éowyn and their father Éomund stand out for also having names of an equine nature:

Éowyn < OE eoh ‘war-horse’, wynn ‘joy’
Éomer < OE eoh ‘war-horse’, mǣre ‘famous, great’
Éomund < OE eoh ‘war-horse’, mund ‘protector, guardian’

Unlike the Rohirrim, the Anglo-Saxons do not have a reputation for employing cavalry. Honegger (2011) points out that the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Maldon (991) and the Battle of Hastings (1066) fight on foot rather than on horseback. Be that as it may, earlier sources on Anglo-Saxon warfare do show Anglo-Saxons using cavalry, such as the Aberlemno Stone (c. 700-800) depicting (as some would argue) the Battle of Dun Nechtain (685) between the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith and the Picts (see image above).

The connection between the Rohirrim and the Anglo-Saxons (and their horses) is further borne out by the banner of Rohan, the names of the Rohirric horses and the treatment of Theoden’s horse Snowmane after its death.

The Banner of Rohan: “White horse upon a field of green”

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Left: The Uffington White Horse; Right: The Westbury White Horse

The banner of Rohan is described as bearing a “white horse upon a field of green” (LOTR, bk. V, ch. 10). Tolkien probably found his inspiration for this banner in Wiltshire, near his hometown Oxford. The hills of Wiltshire are littered with white chalk horses, one of which (the Uffington White Horse) dates back over three thousand years (more info here). Folklore connects some of these white horses to the Anglo-Saxon period: The Westbury White Horse, for instance, may commemorate the victory of King Alfred the Great over the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandun in 878. Alfred the Great himself may be the partial inspiration behind Aragorn (see: The Medieval in Middle-earth: Aragorn and Exiled Anglo-Saxon Kings).

From Arod to Windfola: The Old English names of the Rohirric steeds

The horses of the king of Rohan are of a special breed called the Mearas, a name that means ‘horses’ in Old English (it is the plural of mearh ‘horse’). Indeed, upon closer inspection all names of the Rohirric horses turn out to be Old English:

Arod < Old English arod ‘fast’
Brego < Old English brega ‘ruler, prince’
Felarof < Old English fela ‘very’ + rof ‘strong, brave’
Hasufel < Old English hasu ‘grey’ + fell ‘hide’
Shadowfax < Old English sceadu ‘shadow, grey’ + fæx ‘hair’
Windfola < Old English wind ‘wind’ + fola ‘foal

Perhaps my favourite Old English name for one of the horses of Rohan is Stybba, the pony given to Merry Brandybuck. The name derives from Old English stybb ‘stump’.

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Hasufel, Arod and Shadowfax [note: Hasufel and Shaowfax should have been grey, judging by their Old English names!] (source)

A mound for a horse: Snowmane’s Howe and Sutton Hoo

The royal burial mounds of Rohan were inspired by the seventh-century royal burial mounds of Sutton Hoo, as I have argued elsewhere (Porck 2017). One such Rohirric mound is particularly relevant in connecting the Anglo-Saxons to the Rohirrim: Snowmane’s Howe. Snowmane, the horse of King Theoden, meets its demise in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and is buried on the spot. The Rohirrim call the mound ‘Snowmane’s Howe’ – the second element of the grave’s name, ‘Howe’, reflects the element Hoo in Sutton Hoo (both potentially derive from the Old Norse word haugr ‘mound’). While this ceremonial burial of a horse may appear particular to the horse-loving Rohirrim, there is at least one Anglo-Saxon analogue. The Sutton Hoo burial mounds also include one mound with the skeleton of a horse, buried alongside its rider.

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To sum up, the Rohirrim share a fondness for horses with the Anglo-Saxons, who, after all, traced back their origins to Hengest and Horsa [‘horse, stallion’ and ‘horse’].

If you liked this post, you may also be interested in:

Works referred to:

  • Honegger, Thomas. (2011). The Rohirrim: ‘Anglo-Saxons on horseback’? An inquiry into Tolkien’s use of sources. In Tolkien and the study of his sources: Critical essays, ed. J. Fisher (2011), 116–132.
  • Porck, Thijs (2017). New roads and secret gates, waiting around the corner: Investigating Tolkien’s other Anglo-Saxon sources. In Tolkien Among Scholars, ed. N. Kuijpers, R. Vink and C. van Zon (s.l.: Tolkien Genootschap Unquendor, 2017), 49-64 [Book for sale here for €16,50]

 

 

Spoiling the Mystery: Grendel in Beowulf Movies

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” (H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature). The secret to any, successful scary monster story is to keep your monsters clouded in mystery; a secret that was known to the Beowulf poet, but sadly lost on modern movie makers.

Grendel goes to Heorot

Grendel is one of the three monsters that feature in the Old English poem Beowulf. We are introduced to Grendel as an “ellengæst” [bold spirit] (l. 86a) who has spent the last twelve years harassing the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, devouring anyone who spent the night there. A Geatish hero, Beowulf, arrives to save the day. After a long battle, Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm and the monster, mortally wounded, returns to his home in the swamp and dies.

A troll, a giant, a monstrous man or a bipedal dragon; what exactly is Grendel? The nature of Grendel is a matter of scholarly debate and the various solutions offered depend, mostly, on circumstantial evidence. The poem itself reveals very little about the monster; at one point, Beowulf himself confesses that Grendel is “sceaðona ic nat hwylc” [an enemy, I do not know what kind] (l. 274b). Throughout the poem, Grendel is described by generic terms, such as “grimma gæst” [grim spirit] (l. 102), “feond mancynnes” [enemy of mankind] (l. 164b) and “manscaða” [vile ravager] (l. 712a), and his physical description leaves much to be desired. At first, we only learn that “him of eagum stod ligge gelicost leoht unfæger” [from his eyes issued a distorted light, most like a flame] (l. 727b), that he drinks human blood and eats their bodies whole. It is only after Grendel is defeated that we learn a little more about him. The Danes report that he was wretchedly shaped like a man and very large:

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We saw two monsters… © The British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.XV, fol. 162v-163r

hie gesawon     swylce twegen
micle mearcstapan     moras healdan,
ellorgæstas.     ðæra oðer wæs,
þæs þe hie gewislicost     gewitan meahton,
idese onlicnæs;     oðer earmsceapen
on weres wæstmum     wræclastas træd,
næfne he wæs mara     þonne ænig man oðer;
þone on geardagum     Grendel nemdon
foldbuende.     No hie fæder cunnon (ll. 1347-1355)

[they had seen two such big boundary-steppers holding the moors, bold spirits. One f them was, as they were most certainly able to discern, in the likeness of a lady; the other was wretchedly shaped in the forms of a man, he trod in the exile’s tracks, but he was bigger than any other man; people called him grendel in the days of yore. They did not know his father.

Whatever kind of monster Grendel may be, what becomes clear from the poem is that Grendel is the ultimate ‘Other’. While the Danes enjoy life in a lighted hall, revelling in songs and enjoying each other’s company, Grendel dwells in a dark swamp, he does not speak and he lives the life of an exile, alone with his mother. Even Grendel’s parentage is obscured: whereas the Beowulf poet, rather annoyingly, mentions the father of every other Tom, Dick and Harry in the poem, we never find out who Grendel’s father is. We do learn that Grendel and his mother are descendants of Cain, just like “eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, swylce gigantas” [ogres, elves, orcs and also giants] (ll. 112-113a).

In short, Grendel is a mystery monster, unknown and different. The Beowulf poet must have realised that the omission of descriptive details was an effective narrative method which would stimulate his audience to participate actively with his story. The vague description of his monster allowed his audience to imagine its own nightmare being.

Grendel goes to Hollywood

Beowulf has been brought to the big screen on six occasions (Not counting the Beowulf-inspired TV episodes of Animated Epics, Star Trek and Xena: Warrior Princess; and happily ignoring the rather licentious adaptations in the Sci-Fi-Channel television film Grendel (2007) and the ITV Series Beowulf: Return to the Shield Lands). Each movie has solved the Grendel mystery in its own, unique way.

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Three movie ‘Grendels’

In Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (1981), an animated musical, Grendel is depicted as a slightly depressed green crocodile or, possibly, a dragon without wings. The film Beowulf (1999) features Christopher Lambert as Beowulf who battles Grendel, a muddy ogre of sorts, in a ‘post-apocalyptic techno-feudal future’.  In The 13th Warrior (1999), the Viking hero Buliwyf takes on the Wendol, a group of bearskin wearing wildlings. Beowulf & Grendel (2005) depicts Grendel as an oversized, hairy human, who hits himself with rocks until his forehead bleeds. In the 3D animation Beowulf (2007), Grendel is “a hideously disfigured troll-like creature with superhuman strength”. Finally, in the movie Outlander (2008), Kainan (a man from another planet) crashes his spaceship in an eighth-century Norwegian lake and, accidentally brings along an alien, known as the Moorwen. The Moorwen takes on the role of Grendel and is best described as a fluorescent, reptile-like tiger with various tentacles at the end of its tail.

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Three more movie Grendels

Sympathy for the devil: Feeling sorry for Grendel

Aside from making the monster’s appearance explicit, some movies also try to make their audience sympathize for the creature by adding motives for his vicious attacks on the Danes. In Grendel, Grendel, Grendel, the monster is a misunderstood intellectual that wants to be friends with the buffoonish Danes, who shun him for his monstrous appearance. Beowulf & Grendel opens with a scene where the young Grendel (a bearded baby!) witnesses the murder of his father by the Danish king. In Outlander, we learn that the Moorwen is only trying to avenge Kainan for having tried to colonize its home planet.

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Poor, polite Grendel and nasty Danes in Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (1981)

Who’s your daddy? Solving Grendel’s parentage

The films Beowulf (1999) and Beowulf (2007) go one step further and even solve the problem of Grendel’s parentage: Grendel turns out to be the monstrous offspring of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes. His vicious attacks on Hrothgar’s hall thus become payback for a fatherless childhood. Far removed from the original poem, the only advantage of this approach appears to be the casting of a physically attractive actress for the role of Grendel’s mother. While the poem describes her as a “brimwylf” [sea-wolf] (l. 1506a) and an “aglaecwif” [opponent-woman] (l.1259a), the 1999 film featured Layla Roberts, a former playmate (who, in one scene, erotically licks Hrothgar’s nose!), and a 3D animation of Angelina Jolie (naked, covered in gold, with a tail!) was one of the ‘unique selling points’ of the 2007 film.

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Grendel’s mother licking Hrothgar’s nose in Beowulf (1999)

To conclude, none of these movies can be seen as a faithful adaptation of Beowulf and some have argued that film is an unsuited medium for the early medieval epic poem. As long as modern movie makers feel that they need to produce stunning visual effects, to create a sense of sympathy for the ‘bad guy’ and to include steamy bedroom scenes to please their modern audience, this certainly seems to be the case. Unlike the Old English poem, none of these movies can be called a huge success in terms of cultural impact and popularity. When it comes to effective storytelling, there is still a lot we can learn from the literature produced over a thousand years ago.

If you liked this blog, you may also enjoy:

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All movie Grendels combined

 

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Cnut the Great and the walking dead

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This post discusses how Cnut the Great (d. 1035) was scared by the reanimated corpse of St. Edith of Wilton.

The walking dead in Anglo-Saxon England

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In episode 5 of the second series of The Last Kingdom, Uhtred of Bebbanburg meets Bjorn the dead man who rises from his grave. © BBC (source)

A recent article in the Guardian reported on the mutilation of dead bodies by medieval inhabitants of Yorkshire. The archaeologists suggested that the villagers had been so afraid of the dead rising from their graves that they made reassurances by smashing some of the skeletons to pieces. Similar practices have been reported for Anglo-Saxon England. The archaeologist David Wilson, for instance, has described how some Anglo-Saxon skeletons were found buried upside down (prone burials), covered under stones, or had their heads cut off. These practices, he notes, have been interpreted as being “intended to prevent the ghost from walking and returning to haunt the living” (Wilson 1992: 92). A fear for a zombie apocalypse, it seems, is nothing new!

The Three Living and the Three Dead

A famous medieval tale revolves around the chance meeting of three living young men with three animated corpses. The corpses remind the young men that they too will die (memento mori, remember to die) and that it is not too late to change their ways.

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The Three Living and the Three Dead © The British Library, Arundel MS 83, f. 127v

Versions of the tale of the Three Living and the Three Dead have come down to us from the 13th century onwards (see this blog), but the transformative power of a meeting with a dead person has a longer history; a history that includes Cnut the Great and the corpse of St Edith of Wilton.

Cnut the Great and the reanimated corpse of St Edith of Wilton

Cnut the Great (d. 1035) has a reputation as a god-fearing, Christian king. However, an anecdote in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (1125) suggests Cnut started out as an unbelieving irreligious rebel, until he saw a zombie:

Cnut was a Dane, a man of action but one who had no affection for English saints because of the enmity between the two races. The cast of mind made him wilful, and when at Wilton one Whitsun he poured out his customary jeers at Eadgyth herself [St Edith of Wilton, an Anglo-Saxon saint]: he would never credit the sanctity of the daughter of King Edgar, a vicious man, an especial slave to lust, and more tyrant than king. He belched out taunts like this with the uncouthness characteristic of a barbarian, just to indulge his ill temper; but Archbishop Æthelnoth, who was present, spoke up against him. Cnut became even more excited, and ordered the opening of the grave to see what the dead girl could provide in the way of holiness.

The tomb was opened and, like a jack-in-the-box, St Edith of Wilton rose from her grave:

When the tomb was broken into, Eadgyth was seen to emerge as far as the waist, though her face was veiled, and to launch herself at the contumacious king. In his fright, he drew his head right back; his knees gave way, and he collapsed to the ground. The fall so shattered him that for some time his breathing was impeded, and he was judged dead. But gradually strength returned and he felt both shame an joy that despite his stern punishment he had lived to repent. (Trans. Preest 2002: 127)

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If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

Stay tuned (and follow this blog) for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!

Works referred to:

  • David Preest (trans.), William of Malmesbury: The Deeds of the Bishops of England (Woodbridge, 2002)
  • David Wilson, Anglo-Saxon Paganism (London and New York, 1992)

Heads on sticks: Decapitation and impalement in early medieval England

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.

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Impaled heads in The Last Kingdom © BBC

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).

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Left: Illustrated initial showing the martyrdom of Saint Oswald © Darmstadt, Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, HS 2766, 44r. Right: Head Reliquary of St. Oswald © Hildesheim Cathedral

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.

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Heads on old London Bridge (source)

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.

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Beowulf, ll. 1637-1639 © The British Library, Cotton Vitelius A.xv, ff. 168v-169r

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!

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Raven pecking at an impaled head on Noah’s ark. © The British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, fol. 15r

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other blog posts on The Last Kingdom or Anglo-Saxon decapitations:

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.

 

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Decapitation and impalement scene in the margin of an early-fourteenth-century manuscript of the Decretals of Gregory IX. © The British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, 208r

The Medieval in Middle-earth: The Anglo-Saxon Habits of Hobbits

 As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this post, I focus on the hobbits and their early medieval antecedents.

At first glance, there appears to be no resemblance of any kind between Tolkien’s peacable hobbits and the warlike early medieval Anglo-Saxons that conquered parts of Britain in the early Middle Ages; yet, there is more to these hobbits than meets the eye…

Old English roots: Holbytlan, scir, þegn, miclan delfing…

Pippin and Merry: Hobbits in helmets (source)

‘Are not these the Halflings, that some among us call the Holbytlan?’, Théoden asks, when he first sets eyes on Pippin and Merry on the outskirts of Isengard. Théoden’s word holbytla ‘hole-dweller’ is Tolkien’s own invented Old English etymology for the word Hobbit and means ‘hole-dweller’.  Other Hobbitish terms have more clear Old English roots: the Shire itself stems from the Old English word scir ‘district’ as does the name of its principal  administrator: the Thain, from Old English þegn ‘servant’. Hobbitish place names, too, derive from the language of the Anglo-Saxons: Michel Delving, for instance, is clearly Old English miclan delfing ‘great excavation’. Old Hobbitish, it seems, is nothing other than Old English!

What’s in a name? Hengist, Horsa, Marcho and Blanco

Hengest and Horsa…or Marcho and Blanco?

The story of how Hobbits came to settle in the Shire, as outline in the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, bears a keen resemblance to the foundation myth of the Anglo-Saxons. About the first Shire-Hobbits, Tolkien notes that the “Fallohide brothers, Marcho and Blanco” first crossed the river Baranduin, with a great following of Hobbits – the year of the crossing was to become the first year of Shire-reckoning. The names Marcho and Blanco both mean ‘horse’ and, thus, resemble the names of the two brothers who supposedly had led the Germanic tribes to Britain: Hengest and Horsa, whose names mean ‘stallion’ and ‘horse’.

Of mathoms and silver spoons

The hobbits’ fondness for mathoms also aligns them with the Anglo-Saxons:

The Mathom-house it was called; anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom. Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort. (The Fellowship of the Ring, prologue)

The word mathom is derived from the  Old English maðm ‘treasure’. The word appears in such poems as Beowulf, where it describes the gifts bestowed upon warriors by kings:

‘Me þone wælræs     wine Scildunga
fættan golde     fela leanode,
manegum maðmum‘ (Beowulf, ll. 2101-2103a)

[The friend of the Scildings gave me a lot of plated gold, many treasures, in exchange for the battle]

From Beowulf, we learn that mathoms could include decorated and bejewelled swords and armour, such as those found at Sutton Hoo (on display at the British Museum, here).  Hobbitish mathoms turn out to be of a similar sort: the Mathom-house in Michel Devling is filled with weapons of such long-forgotten battles as the Battle of the Greenfields, “in which Bandobras Took routed an invasion of Orcs.” Bilbo’s presents at his eleventy-first birthday may be mathoms of a different kind, but at least one of them  can also be linked to the Anglo-Saxon treasures found at Sutton Hoo. Bilbo’s gift of a pair of silver spoons to Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is reminiscent of the two silver baptismal spoons found in the royal Anglo-Saxon grave:

Silver baptismal spoons, found at Sutton Hoo (source)

Family matters: The importance of genealogies

Another habit shared by Anglo-Saxon and Hobbit alike is an interest in filling books with genealogical information. In his prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien explains that Hobbits were keen to draw up long and elaborate family-trees and loved to set out such trees and lists in books. The Anglo-Saxons were little different in this respect: the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains up to eighteen genealogies of various royal houses, scattered throughout its annalistic narrative. Such royal genealogies also appeared in collections without any intervening text. A case in point is the so-called Anglian Collection, a collection of Anglo-Saxon regnal lists and genealogies (this Wikipedia page is highly informative):

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The Anglian Collection © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B. v., fol. 22r

These endless lists of names do not make for exciting reading. Tolkien remarked the same of the genealogical information contained at the end of the Red Book of Westmarch: “all but Hobbits would find them exceedingly dull”; Hobbits…and Anglo-Saxons, it would seem!

If you liked this post, you may also be interested in:

Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Boniface in Dorestad

During the early Middle Ages, several Anglo-Saxons made their way to what is now the Low Countries, as missionaries, pilgrims, mercenaries and refugees. On this blog, I will regularly shed light on places in The Netherlands and Belgium associated with these visitors from early medieval England. This post focuses on the early medieval town Dorestad (present-day Wijk bij Duurstede, The Netherlands), which was visited as well as shunned by various Anglo-Saxons. In particular, this post reports on the exhibition ‘Boniface in Dorestad 716-2016’ in Museum Dorestad (18 June-7 December, 2016).

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“Boniface arrives in Dorestad A.D. 716” – Memorial plaque celebrating 1300-year anniversary of Boniface’s landing in Dorestad, installed May 2016, in the wall of the Grote Kerk, Wijk bij Duurstede

Dorestad: Flourishing Frisian trade centre that fell prey to Vikings?

Modern-day Wijk bij Duurstede is a relatively small Dutch town south of Utrecht and little recalls the grandeur of this place some thousands years ago, when it was known as ‘Dorestad’. During the early Middle Ages, the docks would have been crawling with international traders, shipping wine, stones and slaves along the important rivers Rhine and Lek. Its inhabitants, first the Frisians and later the Franks, used Dorestad as a trading hub that connected the Rhineland and the North Sea.

Dorestad’s status as a successful merchant town came to an end in the ninth century. Generations of Dutch school children have been told how the Vikings ransacked Dorestad, inspired by a famous educational plate by J.H. Isings (1927; see below). The local museum, Museum Dorestad, notes that this is only part of the story: apart from Viking incursions, Dorestad also had to deal with a declining economy, as well as Frankish rulers who began to favour other trading towns (Tiel and Deventer) for geo-political reasons. You can find a lot more information about medieval Dorestad on this website, which is affiliated with the museum. In the remainder of this post, I will focus on the Anglo-Saxon visitors to Dorestad.

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“Vikings sack Dorestad” – Famous educational plate made by J. H. Isings in 1927

Anglo-Saxons in Dorestad: Scholars, traders and missionaries

  • Nam tibi Hadda prior nocte non amplius una
  • In Traiect mel compultimque buturque ministrat :
  • Utpute non oleum nec vinum Fresia fundit.
  • Hinc tua vela leva, fugiens Dorstada relinque:
  • Non tibi forte niger Hrotberct parat hospita tecta (Alcuin, Cartula, perge cito, ll. 8-12)

 

[Because prior Hadda will provide for you no more than one night, in Utrecht, he serves honey, porridge and butter, since Frisia does not produce oil or wine. Hoist your sails away from here, leaving and ignore Dorestad, for the black Hrotberct really will not prepare hospitable houses for you]

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Gold tremissis minted in Dorestad, c. 600-675. Inscriptions: DORESTATE; RIMOALDUS M. Found in Cawood, North Yorkshire, in 2007 (source: PAS Unique ID SWYOR-B502C5. Image used on a CC BY 2.0 licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme.)

In his poem Cartula, perge cito [Little map, move quickly], the Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin of York (d. 804) recounts a journey he had made along the river Rhine. The poem is full of interesting, local details, such as his report that, in Utrecht, honey, porridge and butter were served in lieu of oil and wine. Notably, Alcuin told his readers to shun Dorestad, since a particularly nasty and greedy trader Hrotberct lived there.

Despite Alcuin’s advice, Anglo-Saxons regularly visited Dorestad, primarily for trade. This much becomes clear from numismatic evidence. Coins minted in Dorestad, for instance, have been found in England. In 2007, a gold tremissis bearing the inscriptions DORESTATE and RIMOALDUS M was found in North Yorkshire – a seventh-century coin apparently made in Dorestad by a man named Rimwald(us). Similar golden coins from Dorestad, made by one Madelinus, have also been unearthed in England, as well as in Norway and Belgium – attesting to Dorestad’s status as an international trade hub (see overview here). Vice versa, a silver sceat from Kent was found in Dorestad and is now on display in Museum Dorestad. Browsing the Portable Antiquities Scheme website (a great resource, documenting small finds by amateur archaeologists in England and Wales), I was able to identify a version of the exact same coin: found in 2013, in Barnham, Kent (see below). The two coins are so similar they may well have been struck with the same coin die!

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Top left: Kentish sceat found in Dorestad (source); Bottom left: Kentish sceat found in Barnham, Kent, in 2013 (source: PAS Unique ID KENT-EAF0C8. Image used on a CC BY 2.0 licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme. I mirrored one side of the coin to match the Dorestad coin); Right: Poster for “Boniface in Dorestad 716-2016” exhibition at Museum Dorestad

Aside from Anglo-Saxon traders, Anglo-Saxon missionaries also visited Dorestad. The greatest of these may have been St. Boniface (d. 754), who first set foot in Dorestad 1300 years ago, in 716. His visit is commemorated this year (2016), with an exhibition in the local museum, Museum Dorestad.

Boniface in Dorestad 716-2016: From bishop-martyr to USB stick

The exhibition, on the top floor of the small museum, consists of one, well-packed room. Along its walls, informative posters relate Boniface’s life story: Born as Wynfreth in the south-west of England (possibly Crediton), he became a monk and would lead various missions to Frisia and Germany. The first of these missions, in 716, brought Wynfreth to Dorestad, but his efforts to convert the pagan Frisians had little success. He returned a few years later and, with great zeal, preached the Gospel, cut down holy oaks and founded various monasteries and churches among the German peoples. His efforts earned him the title of ‘Apostle of the Germans’, as well as his new Roman name ‘Bonifatius’, or Boniface. When Boniface was well in his seventies, he still travelled to Frisia to continue his missionary activities, until, in 754, he was murdered, possibly near Dokkum. The story of his death is well known: ambushed by Frisian robberts, the elderly Boniface iconically shielded his head from the blows with his Gospel-book. Alas! The book was to no avail and Boniface died by the hands of the pagans. A martyr was born and Boniface was soon venerated as a saint. The exhibition in Museum Dorestad is illustrated nicely with altar pieces and plates showing scenes from the life of the Anglo-Saxon saint. A particular highlight of this part of the exhibition was a little star-shaped reliquary with a tiny piece of Boniface-bone inside. I have never been this close to an Anglo-Saxon!

I may have enjoyed the second part of the exhibition even more than the first. This part dealt with the Nachleben of Boniface – his afterlife. After the Middle Ages, people generally seem to have forgotten about Boniface (apart from some local cults), even though he was the patron saint of brewers, tailors, bookshop keepers, traders and vile makers! However, the Anglo-Saxon saint made a comeback at the end of the nineteenth century. Specifically, German nationalism adopted Boniface as the ‘Apostle of the Germans’; monuments and events in honour of Boniface also celebrated German nationhood. More recently, the Anglo-Saxon saint was adopted for more commercial means. The exhibition showed a Boniface cigar box, Boniface delftware plates, Boniface mints and even a Boniface USB stick! Naturally, the patron saint of brewers also has his own brand of beers: Boniface beer! (Note: Boniface wasn’t the only Anglo-Saxon missionary to be celebrated in beer, see this blog)

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Some highlights of the exhibition. Top left: miniscule relic of Boniface; Top middle: Boniface on a delftware plate; Right: Flyer for Boniface beer; Bottom left: Boniface USB stick

The attention for this commercial side to Boniface in the Dorestad Museum exhibition need not surprise us: apparently, the inhabitants of Wijk bij Duurstede have inherited some of the mercantile interests of their early medieval predecessors!

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