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This blog post features an Anglo-Saxon trivia quiz that will test (and/or increase) your knowledge about magical medicine in early medieval England.
A bad reputation for early medieval medicine
Whereas the bulk of early medieval English medicine consists of herbal and botanical remedies, some of the more fanciful ways to alleviate various ailments border on witchcraft. These remedies involve incantations, love potions, occult rituals and references to supernatural beings including dwarfs and elves. According to some early scholars, there was a fine line between magic and medicine and, as a result, much of early medieval English medicine should be regarded as little more than nonsense:
Surveying the mass of folly and credulity that makes up Anglo-Saxon leechdoms, it may be asked “Is there any rational element here? Is the material based on anything that we may describe as experience?” The answer must be “Very little”
(J. H. G. Grattan and C. J. Singer, Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine (Oxford, 1952), p. 92)
Indeed, it is not hard to find examples of seemingly irrational, magical medicine in Anglo-Saxon sources, as the following trivia quiz will illustrate.
Have you got the folly and credulity to be an Anglo-Saxon doctor?
The following 10-question-quiz introduces some characteristics and intriguing examples of ‘magical medicine’ from Anglo-Saxon England. Each multiple-choice question has at least one right answer and clicking this will reveal an explanation with further information. Good luck! N.B. Unfortunately the quiz does not work in all mobile browsers (such as the Twitter browser), if you see all the explanations expanded, better use another browser!
Does early medieval English medicine deserve its bad reputation?
While the quiz above may suggest that Grattan and Singer were justified in rejecting Anglo-Saxon medicine as folly and credulity, more recent scholarship has suggested this harsh criticism is undeserved. Treatments with magical and irrational elements only make up about fifteen percent of all early medieval English remedies. The majority can be categorised as herbal medicine, an alternaive form of medicine still practised today. M. L. Cameron tested out some of the ingredients in Anglo-Saxon remedies and concluded:
Did ancient and medieval physicians use ingredients and methods which were likely to have had beneficial effects on the patients whose ailments they treated?… I think the answer is “Yes, and their prescriptions were about as good as anything prescribed before the mid-twentieth century”. (M. L. Cameron, Anglo-Saxon Medicine (Cambridge, 1993), p. 117)
In other words, Anglo-Saxon medicine may not have been as ineffectual as it might seem. In fact, a few years ago, an Anglo-Saxon remedy for eye stye shocked the world by being able to succeed where modern antibiotics had failed:
Perhaps, then, Anglo-Saxon medicine deserves more than a silly trivia quiz, but that’s something for future blog posts!
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy:
- How to cook your dragon and a medieval cure for old age
- Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?
- Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?
© 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, queens, warriors and monks often take centre stage in writings about Anglo-Saxon England; by contrast, this post calls attention to the beings that generally shunned the limelight: worms, earwigs, scorpions, spiders and dungbeetles. As it turns out, these minibeasts played an important role in early medieval medicine.
Lice for the learned: Crawling among the glosses
While Anglo-Saxon England must have been crawling with all sorts of little critters, ‘minibeasts’ (a general term denoting insects, spiders, scorpions and such) only rarely receive mention in Old English texts. In fact, most Old English words for various bugs only survive because they were listed as glosses (translations) of Latin words. The so-called ‘Leiden Glossary’ (c. 800), for instance, features the Old English words “hnitu” (‘nit’ for Latin lendina); “ęruigga” (‘earwig’ for Latin auricula) and “snægl” (‘snail’ for Latin maruca):
Other minibeasts whose names only survive as glosses include:
- ticia ‘tick’
- beaw ‘gad-fly’
- sidwyrm ‘silk worm’
- seolcwyrm ‘silk worm’
- rensnægl ‘rain snail’
- sæsnægl ‘sea snail’
- buterfleoge ‘butterfly’
- eorþ-maþa ‘earth worm’
Some of these buggy Old English glosses are wonderfully descriptive, such as flǣsc-maþu ‘maggot, lit. flesh-worm’ and niht-butorflēoge ‘moth, lit. night-butterfly’.
Invasive insects: Purging pests with Anglo-Saxon medicine
Other than glossaries, Anglo-Saxon medical texts are the best place to find creepy crawlies. Anglo-Saxon medical practicioners were well aware of the dangers posed by parasites for the well-being of their patients. As such, Anglo-Saxon medicine features various recipes to purge the body of bugs. Bald’s Leechbook (compiled in the ninth century) provides ample examples of such remedies against invading worms and earwigs:
Wiþ wyrmum on eagum genim beolonan sæd, scead on gleda, do twa bleda fulle wæteres to, sete on twa healfe 7 site þær ofer, bræd þonne þæt heafod hider 7 geond ofer þæt fyr 7 þa bleda eac, þonne sceadaþ þa wyrmas on þæt wæter.
Wiþ earwicgan genim þæt micle greate windelstreaw twyecge þæt on worþium wixð, ceow on þæt eare. He bið of sona.
[For worms in eyes, take seed of henbane, shed it onto glowing embers, add two saucers full of water, set them on two sides of the man, and let him sit there over them, jerk the head hither and thither over the fire and the saucers also, then worms shed themselves into the water.
Against earwigs, take the big great windlestraw with two edges, which grows on highways, chew it into the ear; he (the insect) will soon be off.] (ed. and trans. Cockayne 1864, 38-39; 44-45 – I have slightly modernized the translation)
As these two remedies demonstrate, Anglo-Saxon medical practice could involve a mixture of bodily maneuvers (some practical, other less so) and the application of herbs.
Aggresive arthropods: Curing scorpion and spider bites in early medieval England
The beautiful Old English Herbarium (an eleventh-century Old English translation of a fifth-century Latin text) is a testimony to the importance of herbs in Anglo-Saxon medicine. The Herbarium gives illustrations for each herb, followed by various remedies that can be made with them. The common plantain (or: waybread), for instance, was said to help against the bites of scorpions, as well as intestinal worms:
Wiþ scorpiones slite genim wegbrædan wyrtwalan, bind on þone man. Þonne ys to gelyfenne þæt hyt cume him to godre are.
Gif men innan wyrmas eglen genim wægbredan seaw, cnuca 7 wring 7 syle him supan 7 nim ða sylfan wyrte, gecnuca, lege on þone naflan 7 wrið þærto swyðe fæste. (London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C. iii, fol. 22r)
[Against the bite of a scorpion, take the roots of the plantain, bind them onto the man. Then it is believed that it will come to good use for him.
If intestinal worms harm a man, take the juice of the waybread, pound and wring, give it to him to drink and take the same plant, pound it to dust, put it on the navel (or: anus) and fasten it tightly thereto.]
The Old English Herbarium has various recipes against the bites of scorpions, despite the fact that, for as far as I know, these critters were not native to Anglo-Saxon England.
Another biting bug to be featured in the Old English Herbarium is the spider, whose bites may be alleviated with the help of the herbs vervain, ivy and stonecrop. Yet another medical text, known as Leechbook III, features a more obscure remedy for a spider bite:
Uiþ gongewifran bite nim henne æg, gnid on ealu hreaw 7 sceapes tord niwe, swa he nyte, sele him drincan godne scenc fulne.
[Against the bite of a spider, take a hen’s egg, mix it raw in ale with a fresh sheep’s turd, so that he does not know, give him a good cup full to drink.]
This cure seems hardly effective! Although it would, I suppose, prevent people from ever complaining about spider bites again. This cure also demonstrate another aspect of Anglo-Saxon medicine: some of its remedies make absolutely no sense or even come across as magical. (also worthy of note: the Old English word gongewifran literally means ‘a weaver as it goes, a walking weaver’!)
Medicinal minibeast magic: Creepy crawlies as part of the cure
The ‘magical’ side of Anglo-Saxon medicine truly comes to the fore in those remedies that feature insects not as causes of diseases, but as parts of the cure. Some of these cures rely on what might be termed ‘sympathetic magic’, a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence – i.e. the cure often resembles the ailment. Leechbook III seems to be appealing to this kind of magic when it proposes to use earthworms and ants in the case of severed or shrunken sinews:
Gif sinwe syn forcorfene nim renwyrmas, gecnuwa wel, lege on oþ þæt hi hale synd. Gif sinwe sien gescruncene nime æmettan mid hiora bedgeride, wyl on wætre & beþe mid & rece þa sinwe geornlice.
[If the sinews are cut, take earthworms (lit. rain-worms), pound them wel, lay them on until they are whole. If the sinews are shrunk, take ants and their nest, boil in water and bath therwith the sinews and expose them earnestly to the smoke]
The rationale behind these cures is simple: since earthworms can regenerate after having been cut, they must surely be able to help severed sinews; the best thing to use against small sinews is small insects like ants.
Leechbook III also features another peculiar cure, which involves a dung beetle. The occult procedure outlined below promises to give the practitioner the ability to cure stomach aches for a whole year:
Þær þu geseo tordwifel on eorþan up weorpan, ymbfo hine mid twam handum mid his geweorpe. Wafa mid þinum handum swiþe and cweð þriwa: Remedium facio ad ventris dolorem. Weorp þonne ofer bæc þone wifel on wege. Beheald þæt þu ne locige æfter. Þonne monnes wambe wærce oððe rysle, ymbfoh mid þinum handum þa wambe. Him biþ sona sel. XII monaþ þu meaht swa don after þam wifel. (London, British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 115r)
[Where you see a dungbeetle throw up on the earth, grab it with two hands along with its dung-ball. Wave greatly with your hands and say three times: Remedium facio ad ventris dolorem (I make a a cure for the pain in the stomach). Throw then the beetle over your shoulder onto the way. See to it that you do not look back. In case of a person’s stomach or abdomen pain, grab with your hands the stomach. It will soon be whole for them. You are able to do this for twelve months after the beetle.]
I wonder how many Anglo-Saxon dungbeetles fell prey to aspiring doctors in search of ways to alleviate rumbling tummies.
The Anglo-Saxon remedies described above would certainly be classified as ‘alternative’ by modern standards and it is to be hoped that today’s medical professionals have found more effective ways to remedy diseases caused by worms, earwigs, spiders, scorpions and other parasites.
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy:
Works referred to:
- T.O. Cockayne (1864). Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England. Vol. 2 (London)
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
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.
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
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
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!?!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:
- Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?
- Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?
- The Medieval in Middle-earth: Aragorn and Exiled Anglo-Saxon Kings
- Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and Alfred the Great
- The Illustrated Psalms of Alfred the Great: The Old English Paris Psalter
Imagine having to copy a lengthy medieval manuscript by hand – day in day out, crouched over your writing desk, dabbling away with your quill, for weeks, nay, months on end. No wonder some medieval scribes were relieved when the job was done. This blog post features a number of evocative colophons from early medieval English manuscripts which shed some light on the state of mind of these weary scribes.
‘Pray for me’ – Colophons in medieval manuscripts
Qui istum librum legat precat pro anima Sistan me scripsit. Amen
Whoever may read this book, pray for the soul of Sigestan who wrote me. Amen
This Sigestan’s plea to ‘say a little prayer for him’, added at the end of a tenth-century manuscript of Paschasius Radbertus’s De corpore et sanguine Domini is a typical early medieval colophon. Colophons were added at the end of a text or manuscript and usually ask the reader to pray for the scribe’s soul or give thanks to God. In addition, the colophon may identify the scribe responsible for the manuscript and reveal something of the scribe’s circumstances. The examples provided below suggest that those circumstances may not always have been very pleasant.
‘Three fingers write, but the whole body labours’
Writing with a quill was a full-body workout, if we are to trust the testimony of the following three medieval English scribes. The first wrote the following at the end of an eighth-century copy of Gregory’s Pastoral Care:
Qui nescit scribere laborem esse non putat. Tribus digitis scribitur totum corpus laborat. Orate pro me qui istum librum legerit.
[He who does not know how to write does not think that it is a labour. Three fingers write, the whole body labours. Whoever has read this book, pray for me.]
The scribe responsible for a tenth-century copy of Aldhelm’s De Virginitate wrote eerily similar lines:
Tres digiti scribunt totum corpusque laborat. Scribere qui nescit nullum putat esse laborem.
[Three fingers write and the whole body labours. He who does not know how to write thinks it is no work.]
A third attestation of similar lines in a scribal colophon of a twelfth-century manuscript (another manuscript of Aldhelm’s De virginitate) reveals that we are dealing with a popular maxim among scribes:
Tres digiti scribunt totum corpusque laborat
Scribere qui nescit nullum putet esse laborem.
Dum digiti scribunt uix cetera membra quiescunt.
[Three fingers write and the whole body labours. He who does not know how to write thinks it is no work. While the fingers write, the other members hardly rest.]
Anyone with a desk-job today can relate to this medieval sentiment!
The last chapter as a long-awaited harbour: Scribes getting metaphorical
Though his whole body may have quivered from the labour of his three fingers, the eighth-century scribe Æthelberht still had enough inspiration to come up with a beautiful metaphor. In his colophon to a copy of a commentary on the Psalm he likens the copying of a manuscript to an arduous sea journey:
Finit liber psalmorum. In Christo Iesu domino nostro … lege in pace — Sicut portus oportunus nauigantibus ita uorsus [for uersus?] nouissimus scribentibus. Edilberict filius berictfridi scripsit hanc glosam quicumque hoc legat oret pro scriptore. Et ipse similiter omnibus populis et tribubus et linguis et universo genem humano aeternam salutem optat —— in Christo, Amen, Amen, Amen ——
The Psalter is finished. In Christ our lord, read in peace. Like a timely harbour to sailors is the last line to scribes. Æthelberht, son of Berhtfrith, wrote this gloss. Whoever may read it, may he pray for the scribe. And he himself similarly desires eternal health for all people, tribes and tongue and for the entire human race. In Christ, Amen, Amen, Amen.
Interestingly, Æthelberht was not the only Anglo-Saxon scribe to compare a scribe finishing his copy to a sailor reaching port. In a tenth- or eleventh-century Aldhelm manuscript (now Cambridge,Corpus Christ College, MS 326), a scribe added the following lines in Latin:
Nauta rudis pelagi ut seuis ereptus ab undis
In portum veniens pectora leta tenet
Sic scriptor fessus calamum sub colle laboris
Deponens habeat pectore laeta quidem (source)
[A sailor, rescued from savage waves of the rough sea, coming into the harbour, holds a happy heart; So may a scribe, tired under the mountain of labour, laying down the quill, have a happy heart, indeed.
‘God help my hands’
The last example is a colophon in Old English that follows an eleventh-century version of Ælfric’s Old English De temporibus anni. This scribe shows some signs of fatigue. He duly notes his job is done, but seems to have had no spirit or energy left to come up with a proper maxim or a nice metaphor:
Sy þeos gesetnys þus her geendod. God helpe minum handum.
[Thus, let this composition be ended here. God help my hands]
This scribe was so tired, he did not even ask the reader to pray for his soul!
With that, this ship has reached its port. Though I have typed this with ten fingers, my body aches and so do my hands. Say a prayer for me.
If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:
- Scribal abuse in the Middle Ages
- Anglo-Saxon Cryptography: Secret Writing in Early Medieval England
- “Do not give your books to children!” and other medieval tips for taking care of books
In this day and age of cyber espionage, encryption of information is becoming increasingly more important. But even in the early Middle Ages, scribes developed techniques to encode their messages, as this blog post reveals.
At the very end of an eleventh-century manuscript copy of St Augustine’s Confessions, an Anglo-Saxon scribe wrote “Fknktp Lkbrp χρp prfcpnkB rfddp”. Rather than garbled gobbledegook, these words were written in a simple but popular code: the vowels have been replaced by their neighbouring consonants in the alphabet: a=b; e=f; i=k; o=p; x=u. The scribe’s words actually read: “Finito libero Christo [the Greek letters χρ is a well-known abbreviation for Christ] preconio reddo”, which is Latin for something along the lines of: “The book is finished, I give a laudation to Christ in return”. Apparently, this scribe was happy that his job was done and rendered thanks to Christ in an encoded message.
The same motivation seems to underlie another encrypted colophon at the end of an eleventh-century Gospel-book made in England: “DFPGRBTKBS AMΗN”:
The first two words of this colophon read “DEO GRATIAS” [thanks be to God]; the last word is “AMEN”, with a Greek capital Eta instead of the E (and a weird M and N, which I haven’t been able to identify).
One of the most ambitious encoded messages of this kind is found in Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, made in the 1020s in Winchester. The encoded message reads as follows:
Frbtfr hxmkllimus ft mpnbchxs afslknxs mf sckpskt skt kllk lpngb sblxs. B m .. n ;
[ve]l us [ve]l us [ve]l us
AFlfwknp mpnbchp aeqxf dfcbnp cpmpptxm kstxm ppsskdfp [ve]l mf ppsskdft. Bmfn.
The first line is easy to decipher: “Frater humillimus et monachus Ælsinus me scripsit, sit illi longa salus” [Ælsige, the most humble brother and monk, wrote me, may a long health be to him]. The code “B m .. n” means “Amen”, the “e” is replaced by two dots (for which, see below).
The next two lines take some more effort. The first part of the third lines reads: “Ælfwino monacho aeque decano compotum istum possideo” [I posses the computus for Ælfwine, the monk and dean]. The second line (vel us, vel us, vel us), makes clear that the words “Ælfwino monacho aeque decano” can also be read as “Ælfwinus monachus aeque decanus”, thus changing the dative forms into the nominative forms. Combined with the last part of the third line which starts with “vel”, this reads: “vel Ælfwinus monachus aeque decanus me possidet. Bfmn.” [or Ælfwine, the monk and dean, possesses me. Amen].
The rather intricate code is simply an inscription to indicate the maker of the manuscript (Ælfsige) and its owner (Ælfwine). Given the rather complicated encoding, one might wonder whether Ælfsige’s modesty (he calls himself humillimus ‘most humble’) is feigned modesty.
Hygeburg, a cryptographic Anglo-Saxon nun
Another case of feigned modesty is found in the prologue of the Anglo-Saxon nun Hygeburg (fl. 780). As part of the Anglo-Saxon mission, she ended up in Heidenheim, Germany. She was an abbess and wrote a work called the Hodoeporicon, a saint’s life of the Anglo-Saxon missionary saint Willebald. In her introudction, Hygeburg confesses that she considered her womanhood a hindrance for writing hagiography, noting in her preface:
And yet I especially, corruptible through the womanly frail foolishness of my sex, not supported by any prerogative of wisdom or exalted by the energy of great strength, but impelled spontaneously by the ardour of my will, as a little ignorant creature culling a few thoughts from the sagacity of the heart, from the many leafy, fruit-bearing trees laden with a variety of flowers, it pleases me to pluck, assemble and display some few, gathered – with whatever feeble art, at least from the lowest branches-for you to hold in memory. (trans. Dronke 1984)
Hygeburg’s declaration of ignorance is undermined by the flowery rhetoric of her Latin prose, which suggests a high level of education. The encoded message with which she closes her message has a similar, subversive effect:
In this message, Hygeburg has replaced all the vowels with abbreviations for ordinal numbers, e.g., “Secd” for “secundum” [second] meaning the vowel e. The code can cracked as follows:
With her encoded message, Hygeburg not only shows off her encryption skills, she also claims the text (and possibly the manuscript?) to be her own: “Ego una Saxonica nomine Hugeburc ordinando hec scribebam” [I, a Saxon nun named Hygeburg, have written this].
Dot codes in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts
Another encryption method, similar to Hygeburg’s, is the replacement of vowels by dots. One dot equals the first vowel (a), two dots equal the second vowel (e), three dots mean the third vowel (i), and so on. A line in a tenth-century manuscript of Aldhelm’s De Virginitate, probably made in Canterbury, is reproduced above and reads: “V⋮V:V·L:F:L⋮C⁞MCR⋮ST:: ·M:N” (four dots in a line representing U; four dots in a square representing O). In other words: “Vive vale feli cum Cristo. Amen” – here, the word “feli” [with/for the cat] is usually emended to “felix” [happy], so that it translates to “Live, be well, happy with Christ. Amen.” (Live, be well, for the cat, with Christ would make little sense, especially given the rather haphazard relationships between cats and medieval manuscripts, for which see: Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts).
My last example is found in a tenth- or eleventh-century manuscript of Bede’s Vita Sancti Cuthberti, made in southern England. Here, the scribe has once more replaced the vowels with dots: ·=a – :=e – ⋮=i – ::=o – :·:=u.
Q:·:|⋮ SCR⋮PS⋮T :·:|⋮|:·:|·T :T Q:·: L:G·T L:T:T:·:R
QUI SCRIPSIT UIUAT ET QU LEGAT LETETUR
Which, rather charmingly, translates to “May he who wrote live and may he who may read be happy”. This encrypted message suggests that encoding messages was an enjoyable pastime for scribes and that decoding these messages was considered a fun mental exercise for readers.
K HPPF YPX H·V: :NJ::Y:D R2nd1stD3rdNG TH⋮S BL::G PPST!
If you have enjoyed this blog post, why not follow this blog (see button on the right-hand side) and/or read the following posts:
- A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus
- The Illustrated Psalms of Alfred the Great: The Old English Paris Psalter
- Alcuinundrums: Seven brain teasers from the early Middle Ages
Works referred to:
- Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1984)
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
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.
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)
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: A singing ox, some dead pigeons and Saint Edith of Wilton
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How a peasant beheaded himself
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Dreaming of witch-wives, fiery pitchforks and the Battle of Fulford
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Battle of the Birds, 671
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How beer and bees beat the Viking siege of Chester in c. 907
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Earl Siward and the Proper Ways to Die
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Real Night of the Long Knives
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How Hengest was led by the nose
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Alleluia, the Anglo-Saxon Boo!
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)
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.
The newly elected president of the United States has triggered over half a million women to march in a political protest against the new leader of their country. While this Women’s March was record-breaking, a report in an eleventh-century manuscript of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that it may not have been unprecedented. This is the story of Gytha and the Anglo-Saxon rebellion against William the Conqueror. #NotMyConqueror
A Women’s March to Flat Holm in 1068
The entry for the year 1067 in manuscript D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes a number of events that took place in the two years following the Norman Conquest in 1066. Most of the executive orders by the new king William are described in a rather negative manner, such as his imposing a heavy tax on the “earm folc” [poor people] and his siege of Exeter in 1068 (“he heom wel behet, 7 yfele gelæste” [he promised them well and he performed evil]). The annalist is more positive about a curious journey by Gytha, mother of the deceased King Harold Godwinson (d. 1066), who was joined by other women of good standing:
7 her ferde Gyða ut, Haroldes modor, 7 manegra godra manna wif mid hyre, into Bradan Reolice, 7 þær wunode sume hwile, 7 swa for þanon ofer sæ to Sancte Audomare.
[and in this year Gytha, Harold’s mother, went out and many wives of good men with her, to Flat Holme, and remained there for a while and thus from there over sea to St Omer (France)]
Gytha’s ‘Women’s March’ is part of the English rebellion against William the Conqueror and probably followed the Siege of Exeter in 1068, in which Gytha played an important role.
Gytha and her sons: Breaking their mother’s heart three times over.
Much of what we know about Gytha (fl. 1022-1068) derives from sources post-dating the Norman Conquest. According to the Domesday Book, she was one of the greatest women landowners in the year 1066 (Stafford 1989), She owed much of her wealth and status to her marriage to the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex (d. 1053), whom she bore many sons and daughters. Most of her sons became powerful earls and one of them even became king in 1066 (Harold Godwinson). While their careers may have made Gytha proud, some of her sons’ actions may have broken her heart.
Sweyn Godwinson, earl of Herefordshire (d. 1058), for instance, shocked his mother by insisting that Godwin was not his real father. Instead, he claimed to be the son of Cnut the Great (d. 1035). Sweyn’s claim was recorded in the late eleventh-century Cartulary of Hemming (a collection of charters and lawsuits regarding lands in Worcester). Hemming also included Gytha’s reaction:
Quam nimie arrogantie vanitatem mater illius, conjunx videlicet prefati ducis Godwini, exhorrescens, multis ex occidentalium Saxonum parte adductis nobilibus feminis, se matrem illius, et Godwinum patrem ejus esse, magnis juramentis et illarum probavit testmoniis.
[His mother, the wife of the aforesaid Earl Godwin, horrified by his excessive arrogance and vanity, brought together many noble ladies from the West Saxons, and proved by great oaths and their testimony that she was his mother and Godwine was his father.]
Sweyn disagreed and Hemming reports that while Cnut and Sweyn may not have shared blood and genes, they did share certain shortcomings, such as pride and excessive lusts of the flesh. To illustrate the latter, Hemming narrates how Sweyn had once abducted the abbess of Leominster and had kept her as a wife for a year. He had returned the abbess after threats of excommunication by the bishop of Worcester but had then retaliated by stealing some estates from the diocese of Worcester. Clearly the black sheep of the family, Sweyn was exiled on various occasions and died in 1052 after returning from a penitential pilgrimage to the Holy Land – Sweyn certainly did not make his mommy proud!
Her two more famous sons, Tostig (d. 1066) and Harold, did little better. In the year of the Norman Conquest, Tostig had rebelled against the English throne and had sided with the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada (d. 1066). In the Battle at Stamford Bridge, brother fought brother and Tostig was killed. Following the battle and his brother’s death, Harold hears the news that the Norman fleet of William has landed and Harold wants to rush south. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis (d. c. 1142) writes how Gytha, having just lost Tostig, feared for Harold’s life and tried to dissuade her son. Harold not only refused to listen to his elderly mother, he gave her a kick to boot: “[Harold] even forgot himself so far as to kick his mother when she hung about him in her too great anxiety to detain him with her” (trans. Forester, Vol. I, p. 482). Ouch!
Gytha’s fear became a reality and Harold did die at the Battle of Hastings. Orderic Vitalis reports how the grieving mother had asked William the Conqueror for the body of her son:
The sorrowing mother now offered to Duke William, for the body of Harold, its weight in gold; but the great conqueror refused such a barter, thinking it was not right that a mother should pay the last honours to one by whose insatiable ambition vast numbers lay unburied (trans. Forester, Vol. I, p. 488)
Another twelfth-century chronicler, William of Malmesbury (d. c. 1143) supplies an ‘alternative fact’: “He sent the body of Harold to his mother, who begged it, unransomed; though she proffered large sums by her messengers” (trans. Giles, pp. 280-281).
Whatever may have happened to Harold’s body, Gytha had every reason to detest William and she, a well-connected and wealthy noblewoman, became the focal point of resistance against the new Norman overlord.
Gytha and the Siege of Exeter in 1068
It is generally assumed that Gytha was involved in the resistance offered by the city of Exeter in 1068. Orderic Vitalis records how Exeter was the first city to fight for its freedom. The townsfolk barricaded the city walls and claimed “We will neither swear allegiance to the king, nor admit him within our walls; but will pay him tribute, according to ancient custom” (trans. Forester, Vol. II, p. 15). #NotMyConqueror. William gathered 500 horsemen and marched on Exeter. He besieged the town for eighteen days and committed various acts of cruelty, including the blinding of one the hostages. William of Malmesbury related William’s ferocity to an intriguing action by one of the Exeter townsfolk:
Indeed he had attacked it with more ferocity, asserting that those irreverent men would be deserted by God’s favour, because one of them, standing upon the wall, had bared his posteriors, and had broken wind, in contempt of the Normans. (trans. Giles, p. 282)
That’s right, it seems as if someone farted in the king’s general direction! After eighteen days, Exeter capitulated, but Gytha had escaped and began making her way to Flat Holm.
A Women’s March or a Women’s Flight?
The Siege of Exeter was a definite blow to Gytha and her rebellion. However, her march might still be regarded as an act of defiance against William, if only because a group of travelling noblewomen was sure to draw the people’s attention. It certainly made an impression on the annalist of annal 1067 in MS D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Whereas he had denounced William’s actions following the Norman Conquest (see above), the annalist writes approvingly of Gytha’s going out, noting how the women who joined her are the “wives of good men”. Orderic Vitalis, generally more appreciative of William the Conqueror, is more negative about Gytha’s retreat to France. After going over how various English uprisings were justly put to rest, Orderic describes how Gytha “secretly collected vast wealth, and from her fear of King William crossed over to France, never to return” (trans. Forester, Vol. II, pp. 23-24).
So, was it a women’s march or a women’s flight? Much depends, it would seem, on the political stance of the person bringing the news – a notion that still very much applies to this day and age.
If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested in:
- Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and the Norman Conquest
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Dreaming of witch-wives, fiery pitchforks and the Battle of Fulford
- Anglo-Saxon bynames: Old English nicknames from the Domesday Book
Works referred to:
- Stafford, Pauline, ‘Women in Domesday’, Reading Medieval Studies 15 (1989), 75-94
- Forester, T. A. (Trans.), The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Orderic Vitalis (London, 1853-1854)
- Giles, J.A. (Trans.), William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the English Kings (London, 1847)
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).
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.
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]
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!
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)
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!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:
A wolf, a goat and a cabbage. You have one boat and need to get all three across safely. Many will be familiar with this river crossing puzzle or one of its variants. The earliest known instance of this puzzle dates back to the early Middle Ages and is found in a peculiar work attributed to Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Alcuin of York. This blog post calls attention to Alcuin’s mathematical puzzles and invites you to a game of medieval brain training!
Alcuin of York (c. 735-804) and the Propositiones ad acuendos iuvenes
Possibly the most knowledgeable scholar of his age, the Anglo-Saxon Alcuin of York (c.735–804) made a career at the Carolingian court of Charlemagne (d. 814). He was an advisor to Charlemagne himself and taught the royal children at the Palace School. This Northumbrian monk quickly became recognised as one of the court’s foremost scholars and he wrote many poems, letters and books on various topics, including grammar, orthography, theology and hagiography.
Deep in his heart, Alcuin always remained a teacher, as he made clear in a letter to Charlemagne:
I shall not be slow to sow the seeds of wisdom among your servants in these parts, as far as my poor talent allows. … In the morning, at the height of my powers, I sowed the seed in Britain, now in the evening, when my blood is growing cold, I still am sowing in France, hoping both will grow, by the grace of God. (trans. Allott 1974, let. 8)
As a result, many of his works were of a didactic nature and perhaps the most peculiar of these bears the title Propositiones ad acuendos iuvenes [Propositions to Sharpen the Young]. This text is a collection fifty-three mathematical puzzles, which were intended to make mathematics palatable for students (a noble cause!). The collection includes, as noted above, the earliest attestation of the famous wolf-goat-cabbage-river cross problem (which is so famous that the Internet features several games that allow you to solve this problem, such as this one featuring ‘Sailor Cat’). Aside from various river crossing problems, the collection includes puzzles that involve mathematical and geometric calculations. To make the puzles relatable for his students, Alcuin wrote them in the form of little stories, involving men sharing oxen, pigeons sitting on staircases, families crossing rivers and dogs chasing hares (Yes, teaching mathematics through story has a long history, indeed!). Alcuin even included some trick questions, such as “An ox ploughs a field all day. How many footprints does he leave in the last furrow?”. The answer to that last question, of course, is ‘none’, since the ox precedes the plough and, therefore, all of its footprints are erased!
Below follow seven of Alcuin’s brain teasers. Some may test your wits, while others may require a piece of paper. If you want the real medieval experience, do not use a calculator! The solutions are provided at the end of this blog post. The translation of the Propositiones ad acuendos iuvenes is that of John Hadley (Hadley & Singmaster 1992):
i) Don’t sink the boat!
A man and woman, each the weight of a cartload, with two children who together weigh as much as a cartload, have to cross a river. They find a boat which can only take one cartload. Make the transfer if you can, without sinking the boat.
ii) A dog chasing a hare
There is a field 150 feet long. At one end is a dog, and at the other a hare. The dog chases when the hare runs. The dog leaps 9 feet at a time, while the hare travels 7 feet. How many feet will be travelled by the pursuing dog and the fleeing hare before the hare is seized ? [i.e., how long will it take the dog to overtake the hare which has a 150 feet head start?]
iii) Buying camels, sheep and asses
A man in the east wanted to buy 100 assorted animals for 100 shillings. He ordered his servant to pay 5 shillings for a camel, one shilling for an ass and one shilling for 20 sheep. How many camels, asses, and sheep did he buy ?
iv) A stair case of pigeons
A staircase has 100 steps. On the first step stands a pigeon; on the second two; on the third three; on the fourth 4; on the fifth 5. And so on, on every step to the hundredth. How many pigeons are there altogether?
v) A flock of storks
Two walkers saw some storks and wondered how many there were. Conferring, they decided: if there were the same number again, and again, and then half of a third of the sum that would make, plus two more, that would be 100. How many storks were seen ?
vi) Evening out the oxen
Two men were leading oxen along a road, and one said to the other: “Give me two oxen and I’ll have as many as you have”. Then the other said: “Now you give me two oxen and I’ll have double the number you have.” How many oxen were there, and how many did each have?
vii) Slaughtering pigs
A certain man had 300 pigs. He ordered all of them slaughtered in three days, but with an uneven number being killed each day. He wished the same thing to be done with 30 pigs. Let him say, he who can, What odd number of pigs out of 300 or 30 were to be killed in three days?
- i) The kids do most of the rowing! First: the two kids go to the other side, one rows back. Next, one of the parents rows to the other side. Then, the kid who had stayed on the other side goes back alone and picks up the other child and goes to the other side again. Now, the two children and one of the parents are on the other side, while one parent has stayed behind. One child rows to the missing parent, the missing parent rows to the other side – the child who is now with two parents rows back to pick up his sibling and -hurray- the family is reunited again!
- ii) The hare has a head start of 150 feet, but the dog goes 2 feet per leap faster. In other words, it will take the dog 150/2=75 leaps to catch up to the hare. The dog will have travelled 75*9 = 675 feet, while the hare would have travelled 75*7 = 525 feet.
- iii) For 5 shillings you have 100 sheep and 95 shillings to spare! But that would be cheating, of course. The trick is to buy 80 sheep for 4 shillings, 1 ass for 1 shilling and then spend the other 95 shillings on 19 camels.
- iv) The answer is 5050. Alcuin outlines an easy way of calculating this total:
We count them as follows. Take the single one on the first step and add it to the 99 on the ninety-ninth step, making 100. Taking the second with the ninety-eighth likewise gives 100. So for each step, one of the higher steps combined with one of the lower steps, in this manner, will always give 100 for the two steps. However the fiftieth step is alone, not having a pair. Similarly the hundredth remains alone. Join all together and get 5050 pigeons.
- v) 100-2 = 98. 98 is three and a half times the original number; 98 divided by 3.5 = 28. So they originally saw 28 storks!
- vi) There were 12 oxen. The first man had 4 oxen and the other 8 – if the first man received 2 oxen from the other, they would both have 6. If the other would get his 2 oxen back, we would be back to the initial situation: 4 against 8.
- vii) Aha! Alcuin is trying to trick us here. His own solution runs as follows “This is a fable. No-one can solve how to kill 300 or 30 pigs in three days, an odd number each day.” He then notes that this trick question is to be given to (misbehaving) children. That would teach them! (I am not sure whether Alcuin’s reasoning is didactically sound here!)
Works referred to:
- S. Allott (trans.), Alcuin of York: His Life and Letters (York, 1974)
- John Hadley (trans.) & David Singmaster, ‘Problems to Sharpen the Young’, The Mathematical Gazette 76 (1992), pp. 102–126.
Post Scriptum: As @AlcuinsLibrary has rightly pointed out to me, most of the puzzles in the Propositiones stem from a long tradition and were certainly not made up by Alcuin (although some occur here for the first time). In fact, Alcuin’s authorship itself is a matter of conjecture rather than fact (some manuscripts attribute the puzzles to Bede). Alcuin’s authorship is suggested (but not proven) by a letter that he wrote to Charlemagne in which he talks of having sent “certain subtle figures of arithmetic, for pleasure” (Hadley & Singmaster 1992). These pleasurable figures of arithmetic may or may not have been the Propositiones…