Posted by: kljolly | March 8, 2021

Pilgrimage 941

Last year I finished a draft chapter on Aldred’s pilgrimage with St. Cathroe in the year 941, which I have now posted as a page (warts and all, some typos yet uncorrected): 941 Pilgrimage. Earlier posts explored different aspects of this journey from Govan to Penrith:

Mainly I posted this still-rough draft now because I need to reference it in an essay I am writing, rather than quoting from it at length. The essay is a continuation of a paper I presented last year at the virtual Leeds Congress (transcript posted as Re-imagining Early Medieval Britain) and has the same title but continues into a discussion of language in historical fiction.

The 941 Pilgrimage chapter is very long, perhaps too long as I got carried away with saints’ lives recounted amidst the material conditions of a journey by sea and overland. If anyone has the patience to read through it and comment, feel free to put your advice or corrections in the comments section of this post.

Meanwhile, in a COVID bubble in California, I have been learning Zentangle from my artist sister (Ann, who made the Lindisfarne Gospel Luke quilt). I am her un-artistic guinea pig for preparing class lessons. These images, above and below, show one of my recent feeble efforts.

Zentangling not only echoes early medieval arts, it is also very meditative: I highly recommend it.

Posted by: kljolly | July 6, 2020

Re-imagining Early Medieval Britain

For those who were at the Virtual Leeds International Medieval Congress session on Fantasies of the Medieval and wanted to see a copy of my paper, and for those who missed the session, here is my script, “as is” with no notes or elaborations.  This is part of a larger work in progress.


For those who asked:  quilt behind me as I spoke.  Artist my sister, Ann Baum.

The focus of this study is on representations of spirituality in popular fictional medievalisms:  I am curious how and why some authors fail and others succeed in representing early medieval worldviews that contain beliefs and practices alien to western secularism.  The key problem impeding modern authors is in fact this western binary of medieval versus modern separating natural and supernatural, science and religion, secular and sacred, body and soul, heaven and earth.  I am arguing for a post-secular approach to primary source evidence, one that listens to decolonizing voices from Indigenous studies and from African-American spirituality. I am advocating for medieval historical fiction that rejects fantasizing and instead injects some “magical realism,” for lack of a better term.

Historical fiction set in the pre-modern past often discounts or explains away miraculous events or sacred encounters. Some authors do so by providing omniscient narrators with materialist, often reductionist, explanations for the events.  Others channeling a medieval person make these beliefs in divine agency personal and relativistic, non-verifiable events.  But the contemporary popularity of medieval fantasy suggests that such modernist historical fiction fails to capture something transcendent that many find missing in a post-modern world.  Medieval fantasy, and futuristic science fiction, both create alternative universes where the supernatural is natural. Similarly, the emergent genre of magical realism “suspends disbelief” according to the rules of modern fiction by naturalizing the supernatural in the experience of the subjective narrator.  While these genres may destabilize the gap, ultimately they often fail to escape the western binaries inherent in secular rationalism and its reactionary counterpart, Victorian-era romanticism. In short, heaven and earth as integrated in holistic early medieval worldviews survives today in fictional history as fantasized by those inhabiting a disenchanted world.

Before unpacking these observations, let me explain where I am coming from.  This presentation, half of my original abstract and session, focuses on fantasy and magical realism in historical fiction, while the other half in a virtual session on August 21 looks more closely at language.  In both, I am illustrating these issues via my own efforts to write historical fiction set in tenth century Northumbria.  On and off for a number of years, I have been writing a fictional biography of Aldred, glossator of the Lindisfarne Gospels and provost of St. Cuthbert’s community at Chester-le-Street.

So, the long and short of my intellectual journey in Braudelian terms. The longue durée of my career as a medievalist, and the formation of my mental landscape, is relevant for positioning myself here and now as a historian of early medieval Britain.  From my early college years, I was attracted to the writings of the Inklings and those who influenced them:  J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, G.K. Chesteron, and George MacDonald.  As an undergraduate, I majored in English literature with vague intentions of becoming a writer like them, and was subsequently drawn into medieval literature, particularly Old English.  So much so, that when I was in the master’s program, I switched from English into a self-designed Interdisciplinary program combining English, Religious Studies, and History.  My M.A. is actually in “Anglo-Saxon England” (more on that term later). I then migrated into the History Ph.D. program where I pursued popular religion in elf charms, which later led me into deconstructing magic, religion, and science.  The notable thread in this biography is religion:  that I am a practicing Christian plays a role in my emerging consciousness of this tension in the modern study of the medieval past.  The disciplinary hybridity also explains my belated return to writing fiction via history.

In addition to this long back story are the conjunctures of my life as a scholar in Hawai‘i: here I began engaging with world historical approaches that challenged western narratives, teaching in a diverse environment to students geographically, temporally, and culturally distant from medieval Europe, and most of all, listening to and learning from kanaka ‘öiwi about native Hawaiian worldviews that resist western binaries.  [should be a macron over the “o” but this font fails to have one]

The three recent événements bearing on this paper are first and foremost the native Hawaiian kia‘i , protectors of Mauna Kea blocking the TMT observatory on the “Big Island” of Hawai‘i.  The kia‘i have developed kapu aloha, strict protocols of care and love as part of a resistance movement that relies on Indigenous holistic ways of thinking about the sacred in the landscape—a view of the sacred much misunderstood by those operating in a binary worldview, such as my university’s administration with its divisions between STEM and “non-STEM” fields.  Second, the pandemic has laid bare the problems of modernity in colonialism, globalism, and tourism that force us to seek other ways of thinking about the human condition.  And third, the Black Lives Matter movement has consumed much of my attention in the last month since the police murdered George Floyd, Ahmaud Aubrey, and Breonna Taylor, among so many others we should name. I firmly believe we are at a transformational moment, a reckoning with the past, and that historians and medievalists need to be actively involved in challenging western-dominated narratives, while toppling monuments to those narratives.

Looking ahead, I am teaching a class this fall on popular “medievalisms” with an ethics focus on issues such as racism.  I aim to challenge myself and my students to be social influencers and agents of change in popular culture.  I am not trying to turn them off to medieval literature or their favorite fantasy games, movies, or books:  they can still enjoy Beowulf, Arthur, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and the Vikings, but in raising their consciousness of embedded images and narratives, I want them to create new visions and write new stories.  As I am doing as well, writing historical fiction that incorporates sacred encounters and imagines embodied souls.

Perhaps my whole career, then, from my master’s thesis on elf charms and popular religion to the present moment teaching about medievalisms and writing Aldred’s story in tenth-century Northumbria has been about me trying to inhabit a worldview in which supernatural and natural, heaven and earth are not mutually exclusive.  In this task, I have been profoundly moved by native Hawaiian and other Indigenous worldviews on the sacred, as well as African-American spirituality.  However, I am saying this as a white non-Indigenous person who wants to listen and speak without appropriating someone else’s culture.  I am neither a scholar of Hawai‘i history or fluent in the language, ‘olelo Hawai‘i, but I am absorbing new ways of thinking, and that has an effect on what I write and say.  Insofar as decolonization and antiracism are local and global movements, they help us undo the colonization of the European past and deracinate our scholarly thinking of its western binarisms.

The question I am confronting in this present moment is this:  What does it mean for me, a western trained, white scholar who studies pre-modern European history, to attempt to write historical fiction about early medieval Britain while living in Hawai‘i and pondering how to be an antiracist?  Certainly my sense of place and displacement helps me be a better historian and writer.  But what am I giving back through my novel? How do I represent the beliefs, values, and behaviors, the good, the bad, and the ugly, of early medieval characters that is historically accurate and empathetic?  How can my novel rewrite the false narratives of the medieval European past in ways that help with decolonizing our minds today?

I offer two avenues for exploring these questions:  first, how historians might overcome western binaries by resacralizing the landscapes of the past using an epistemology of love; and second, how literary authors might sidestep fantasized medievalisms using historical fiction tinged with magical realism.

First, modern western binaries form conceptual boxes we struggle to think outside of. Kathleen Davis and others have highlighted the divide between the medieval as religious and feudal versus the modern as secular, capitalist and democratic, while others have pointed to the western invention of religion.  Theologian Tom Wright describes the Enlightenment’s split level epistemology as a recycled Epicurean philosophy, reflected in Gottfried Ephaim Lessing’s “broad, ugly ditch between the eternal truths of reason and the contingent truths of history,” wherein heaven and earth remain mutually opaque. Lessing’s ditch between the natural and the supernatural, between the present and the past, exists in our minds, a ditch between the medieval and the modern that seems impassable except by resorting to romanticism, relativism, or a gnostic-like dualism, a revived neoPlatonism in which the spiritual exists only on a universal plane separate from our bodies and our lives here and now.

Moreover, as Davis, Wright, and others point out, this Enlightenment ditch is inextricably tied to colonialism, imperialism, and racism.  Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” called out white Christian theologians on this binary:

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro… I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

King was not the first or the last to note that American racism is rooted in a white slaveholder Christian theology that is dualist, separating black bodies from souls.

Because these binaries are so deeply entrenched in our thinking, we need help to get us out of this divisive and destructive ditch that separates us from understanding the medieval past and ourselves, help that comes not only from re-examining pre-modern histories but from outside the modern western tradition.  In particular, decolonization forces us to re-examine the long nineteenth century of ethnic nation-state formation and its implications for studying early medieval Britain.  Those in the field of “Anglo-Saxon” or early medieval English studies are of necessity becoming experts on the Victorian era in which this field was founded and defined.

And here I should say a word about the displacement of “Anglo-Saxon England” as a deeply problematic term with a long history of racialized notions in the UK and the US, and around the globe via colonialism.  The recent, and long overdue, removal of monuments signals that this message is finally getting through.  The problem for historical fiction set in early medieval Britain is compounded by this racist nationalism, which is tied to the problem I am addressing here, how to escape the Enlightenment ditch between the sacred and secular.

Victorians responded to the Enlightenment rationalist project in part by romanticizing the early medieval past as the basis for Anglo-Saxon superiority, a colonizing of their own histories that cannot be separated from the legacy of imperialist Britain.  Nonetheless, some of my favorite authors, the Inklings, are products of this Victorian spirit of romanticizing as well as racializing the medieval past.  However, the Inklings are also good at resisting the western binaries, probably because of their medievalist Christian faith.  Williams and Lewis lean heavily toward Christian neoPlatonism.  Tolkien, though, is different in regards to divine immanence:  There is no presence of “God” in Middle Earth unless you examine his cosmology in the Silmarillion.  LOTR has an imagined pre-Industrial “beloved community” in the Shire hobbits, who are seemingly those romanticized British shopkeepers. Tolkien offloads the violent and imperialist ventures of that Anglo-Saxon heritage to the Riders of Rohan and the Roman/Byzantine Kings of Numenor and Gondor.  Nonetheless, I love LOTR, the books not the movies, and will continue rereading the Inklings because I think they invite us back to a pre-modern, pre-disenchanted world.

Former bishop of Durham N. T. Wright, whom I cited earlier, stands in that Inkling tradition when he argues against Enlightenment natural theology with what he calls an epistemology of love.  As a New Testament scholar, Wright challenges Lessing’s ditch by examining first century Christian views of the kingdom and parousia in the context of Second Temple Judaism’s understanding of the “world to come” as here but not yet.  This worldview in which heaven and earth were not two separate things is arguably present in early medieval Britain, as Helen Foxhall-Forbes has explored.  Wright asks historians to move away from the cold-hearted objectivity of western scientific history toward an active love of one’s neighbor, dead or alive. This epistemology of love is still living and present among many Indigenous cultures decolonizing their own histories. For example, in Hawaiian aloha is a rich word which, like the Hebrew “shalom” for peace, means far more than “hello” or “love.”  Aloha in Hawai‘i speaks to a deep rooted sense of connection between sacred landscapes and humans.  Hawaiian traditions teach continuity with the ancestors present in land, sea, and space, and concentrated in ritual spaces.  These ways of being can recall for us early medieval views of angels, saints, and other invisible presences made tangible in relics, the Eucharist, and consecrated liturgical spaces.

How do I apply this epistemology of love to writing historical fiction?  In loving Aldred, warts and all, I can begin to see how visible and invisible presences interacted in his every day life, rather than through the lens of prayer versus charm. As a member of a religious community, Aldred has a strong sense of place and of the power of ritual performance to connect heaven and earth.  For example, in a scene where the young cleric Aldred is sanctifying holy water for a priest at the brutal battle of Brunanburh, he and a young boy experience a brief eternal moment of purity as the water is transformed by the exorcism.

This brings me to the second avenue: how magical realism can enliven historical fiction without falling into medievalesque fantasy spirituality.  Both science fiction and medieval fantasy attempt to circumvent the natural-supernatural binary, either by giving a materialist explanation of superpowers located in alien intelligences and evolved post-humans, or by positing fictional histories in alternate worlds in the multiverse. Imagining other worlds can be an instructive exercise for creating better communities here and now, but for many, these fantasies are escapist and not transformative.  Whether utopian or dystopian, these zones let you play out your violent or erotic visions in a virtual reality, cathartic perhaps.  But binary thinking won’t let players cross back over from their magical virtual worlds into the crabbed and cold realities of materialism and scientism. Such fantasies of supernatural powers and presences provide at best faux spiritualities, ungrounded in any worthy epistemology and therefore unsustainable.

Magical realism applied to historical fiction has greater potential for filling in the ditch, despite its unfortunate binarist label of magic versus science.  Even before the emergence of the label, authors like Naomi Mitchisen and Sigrid Undset endeavored to re-enchant classical and medieval legends with a nostalgic paganism, romanticized Celtic spiritualities, and empowering female divinities.  Often such novels present Christianity as the disenchanting force, but I would argue that late antique and early medieval Christianities participated in a similar worldview regarding the immanence of the divine in an incarnate and suffering God.

Recently I have drawn inspiration from African American and Indigenous authors such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Ta Nahesi Coates’ The Water Dancer, Liberian author Wayétu Moore’s She Would Be King, and Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors.  These stories show body and soul integrated in African and Indigenous experiences of visionary spiritual power, power to overcome, but tied to a strong sense of place, amid the gritty realities of suffering bodies.  For early medieval England, Frederick Buechner in the story of Godric achieves a similar integration of bodily life with an authentic Christian spirituality, demonstrating a deep empathy with the beliefs and practices of his protaganist’s world.  That is what I am aiming for in my novel on Aldred.

I get inside Aldred’s head, and avoid putting a modern mind into a medieval body, by doing what Aldred does:  transcribing texts bilingually, reading books he might have read, praying the Daily Office, visiting places he would have seen, and meditating on crosses and manuscript illuminations. For Aldred, translating Latin prayers with an Old English gloss is an act of listening to the voice of God, while chanting the psalms involves both listening and speaking to God.  As a bibliophile, Aldred reads a lot of the same books I do, so he can wrestle with the problem of evil at the battle of Brunanburh while reading Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.  Aldred’s belief in invisible spiritual agencies is tangible, in the liturgical prayers he performs to clear birds and demons from the fields. Like the Dream of the Rood narrator, Aldred has visions that he must figure out how to interpret within a Christian semiotic.  Even with an omniscient narrator, I don’t actually make God a historical actor in these scenes. Rather, God speaks through creation  to the inner person—not the modern Freudian “self” but the medieval concept of a soul inextricably tied to its body.

If it takes magical realism to re-embody souls and recover an epistemology of love, then that is my plan.  My study of early medieval Britain while living in Hawai‘i has led me to this point of departure. To answer my opening question:  I cannot just stop being a modern white woman in a dominant culture that has drawn sustenance from this early medieval English past.  But I can keep re-reading and re-writing it.

Posted by: kljolly | June 23, 2020

“I Can’t Breathe”

Langston Hughes, “Christ in Alabama”


Posted by: kljolly | June 15, 2020

Silence is not an option


HCHBLMimage credit:  Hawai’i Council for the Humanities


The Pōpolo Project




Posted by: kljolly | May 29, 2020


In the previous post I alluded to Easington as an “estate” transformed into a women’s religious community under Aldred’s mother Tilwif and sister Bega, and also that it had turned to growing flax for linen production.

My efforts to describe the household and its dependent vills led into an excursus on terminology, coincident with reading Rosamond Faith and John Blair’s recent works (see bibliography at end). “Estate” and “manor” are anachronistic terms I would prefer to avoid, but vill and tun have specialized meanings in early medieval texts that may be opaque to modern readers.

Easington and its dependent vills are described in the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto (HSC) 22 as granted to one Alfred, whom I fictitiously identified as Aldred’s father.  They are listed and identified by Ted Johnson South as:

  1. Easington Esingtun NZ4143 primary vill of composite estate.
  2. Monk Hesleden: Seletun earlier a primary vill of a composite estate. OE sele+tun = tun with a hall.
  3. Little Thorp: Thorep NZ4242.
  4. Horden Hall: Horedene/Hortun NZ4242, dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington.
  5. Yoden: Iodene (now Peterlee) NZ4341. HSC 19 Geodene,dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington. Others identify with Little Eden; some call Yoden Eden Hall.
  6. Shotton: Scotun/Sceottun I NZ4139.
  7. Shotton [Colliery?]: Scotun/Sceottun II NZ3940 tentative.
  8. Castle Eden: Iodene Australem also Geodene. dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington.
  9. Hulam: Holum NZ4336, dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington.
  10. Hutton Henry: Hotun/Hotoun NZ4236, dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington.
  11. Twilingatun: Twinlingtun uncertain identity; guesses south of Hutton Henry; dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington.
  12. Sheraton: Scurufatun/Scrufatun NZ4435.

Easington vill crop

As you can see on the map, all are south of Easington, clustered along the coast.

In this section of the chapter on Aldred becoming a deacon at Easington in 941, I describe the household and vill management.  Probably some of these details will be spread out in the chapter, but for now I wrote it all in one place:

            For the women of Tilwif’s community, the mornings were devoted to the collective work on the looms.  Younger women and the children, fatherless orphans, shared labor customarily done by slaves, the unfree, but here freely or freed by Tilwif and Bega and dependent on the hall for their daily bread while apprenticed in a craft in the household, on the farm, or in the grain fields. Under the supervision of the beekeeper, dairywoman, shepherd, and cowman, some of these household dependents learned to care for the farm animals, bees, pigs, laying hens, cows, and sheep.  Less for meat, the dairy animals provided excellent cheeses that were the main source of protein through the winter months, along with bread. They were self-sufficient at a subsistence level, if it came to that.

            But Easington, a tun with a lord’s hall, also oversaw eleven other vills within six miles to the south that paid feorm, each with about a dozen households.  The composite vill at Easington was granted by St. Cuthbert and the bishopric of Lindisfarne to Aldred’s father Alfred 27 years ago.  This rich resource area along the coast of Northumbria included a mix of ploughlands, meadows, woodland for pigs, grazing pasture, fisheries, mills, and dairies. Collectively, they had 45 ploughteams of four oxen each tilling and cultivating land to produce grain for bread and fodder for the traction oxen and other beasts essential for survival and the basis of thegnly landed wealth. Beyond sustaining the farm households of each vill, the surplus was uplifted to support Alfred’s noble warrior household at Easington and its ecclesiastical patron, St. Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street.    

            No wonder that at Alfred’s death at Corbridge in 918, these fertile Northumbrian vills were a prime target for viking invaders turned settlers, the infamous Onlaf and Scula.  Only through the divine intervention of St. Cuthbert, was most of the land, the twelve vills of Easington without Billingham, restored to Alfred’s family.

            With his only son Aldred in the church, Tilwif and her daughter Bega turned the Easington “tun” into a religious community, supported by its dependent vills.  Unusually, Tilwif had appointed as reeve a woman, her friend Ælfwaru widow of reeve Rædwulf; their son Nothwulf, acolyte at Aldred’s baptism, had gone a-viking and been killed, so she only had her daughter Wulflæd who was in charge of the dairying.  Ælfwaru supervised Easington and kept the accounts for the production and distribution of goods across the eleven other vills with their respective reeves.

            However, the main enterprise at Easington itself was no longer grain but the production of flax for the making of linen cloth.  The free farmers (geneat, boarders, cottagers) and tenants (geburas) who lived in the nearest vills of Thorp and Horton tended the tall flax in the fields, harvested it in the spring while it was still tender, soon now.  Then they would be retting the stalks in water to loosen the fibers, a smelly business going into early summer, and then scutching the rotting mess to separate the soft fibers from the woody stems and seeds (for linseed oil?).  The women and children did the heckling, combing the long fibers out to be spun by the young women, and finally woven into fabric by the senior women of the household on large looms.

            Most of this linen, like the wool they spun from from the sheep on their vill and surrounding vills, was left undyed, a creamy color sometimes whitened for chrismals and shrouds, rituals for birth and death.  However, one of the women formerly enslaved in a Scandinavian workshop in York was expert in dyes, so she was helping them develop a small industry in brightly colored linen.  Mostly his mother preferred to supply linen to churches for vestments, altar cloths, and wall hangings, but they subsidized this charitable but not very profitable work by selling some rich linens to traders for export.

I have tried to use pre-Conquest terminology without the post-Norman feudal tenurial connotations, following Faith’s Moral Economy argument.  An Old English “tun” (sorry, no long mark) is basically an enclosed household “estate,” not a “town.”  A Latin “vill” is an agricultural resource unit, not to be confused with modern “village” as a residential zone

Blair in Building Anglo-Saxon England tends to use “tun”  almost always with the qualifier “functional” preceding it, to indicate documented place names in the landscape.  He uses “vill” exclusively to refer to a “royal vill,” although vill is the operative Latin term in the HSC, and in Domesday Book’s post-Conquest assessments (not Northumbria, though, since DB only goes through Yorkshire).

I am avoiding “hide” and using “ploughlands” as a unit of measure in terms of the number of plough teams available for grain field production, the monetary unit of measuring land productivity and wealth in terms of cattle.  My guesstimate of 45 plough teams  in the 12 vills may be wildly inaccurate.  Ted Johnson South estimates, based in part on the 12th century Boldon Book, that each vill had 12-24 households, with an average of 4 carucates.  A carucate in Domesday Book is based on what a team of 8 oxen could plough in one season, but plough teams varied in size and probably had less oxen in this era.

The latter part of the section above also gets into the making of flax, relying on the work of Banham and Faith with some recourse to Wikipedia.  A later section attempts to describe spinning, right before the section on Tilwif’s sewing of the garments in the previous post and using Gale Owen-Crocker’s work:

            Bega knew [the proverb of 3 strands] well from the craft of twisting already spun flax or wool to make a three-ply thread for a stronger weave.  Even as they sat with Chad, she had her long distaff and spindle, spinning flax into thread as she listened.  Like most women, she carried distaff and spindle, sometimes tucked in her belt, to be brought out whenever they had time and hands free, since making thread was the longest task, and once made, quickly used up in the weaving into fabric.

            Frith [a catechumen for baptism] found the rotating spindle calming, taking him back to childhood with his mother.  Watching Bega’s thread form helped him learn the words Chad recited, since as an illiteratus he must learn by ear. Bega spinning the words taught him the Creed, since he already knew the Pater noster in English from Aldred.  He was also quite adept at catching her spindle whorl, the weight that caused the thread to spin faster, when it dropped to the ground.

Thoughts, comments, corrections, and suggestions more than welcome, especially from the experts cited or misused here!

FYI:  Rosamond Faith’s book is excellent for both pre- and post-Conquest rural life and for its application of the concept of “moral economy.”  I highly recommend it.


Banham, Debby and Rosamond Faith.  Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Blair, John. Building Anglo-Saxon England.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Faith, Rosamond.  The Moral Economy of the Countryside:  Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Historia de Sancto Cuthberto: A History of Saint Cuthbert and a Record of His Patrimony. Ed. and trans. Ted Johnson South. Anglo-Saxon Texts 2 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002).

Owen-Crocker, Gale R. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Revised Edition. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004.

Posted by: kljolly | May 26, 2020

Fabric Art

Embroidered tapestry is a misnomer, as is often pointed out regarding the Bayeux Tapestry, which is actually an embroidered wall hanging. Many people use “tapestry” generically to mean any cloth hanging on a wall. Technically, tapestries are woven fabric art, while embroidery is the art of stitching on or in already woven cloth. Another perhaps anachronistic term may be “quilt,” patchwork cloth pieces sewn together and over-stitched with a backing and sometimes filler; and appliqué, pieces of cloth sewn onto fabric.

But all of these techniques–weaving, embroidering, quilting, appliqué, and many more variations on fabric art–were undoubtedly in use in early medieval Northumbria. It is just that the evidence for this artwork rarely survives, except under extraordinary conditions, such as St. Cuthbert’s vestments from the early tenth century (unfortunately, Durham Cathedral’s online collection does not offer images).

In the year 941 of my novel, Aldred finishes his pilgrimage with Cathroe and finally arrives home at his family’s Easington estate. Along the way, he encounters wall hangings in the church at Keswick, and again at his home church as done by his sister Bega. In addition, his mother Tilwif is making vestments for Aldred’s ordination as deacon (and for his sister Bega as deaconess, but that is another story).

However, fabric art is not my metier: like Aldred, I am a wordsmith. So I am reliant for inspiration and information on my artist sister Ann, art historian Carol Neuman de Vegvar who made an early intervention in Ohio where this all began, and the expertise of embroidery scholar Elizabeth Coatsworth as well as that doyenne of early medieval textiles, Gale Owen-Crocker (see bibliography at end). Any errors in this post are my own and subject to their very welcome corrections and additions.

First, the inspiration from my sister Ann, whose artwork hangs right where I can contemplate it at leisure. Umpteen years ago, she rashly promised to make me a quilt based on the Luke carpet page in the Lindisfarne Gosples (British Library, Cotton Nero D.IV):

She thereby embarked on a multi-year inter-state odyssey involving a team of artisans worthy of Eadfrith and his colleagues Æthilwald and Billfrith in the Lindisfarne Gospels. I will not recount the saga here, but the result is stunning:

This is, first of all, a quilt: fabric squares pieced together in blocks matching the background in the manuscript illumination. But it also uses appliqué to place the Greek cross and the other squares “on top” of the quilt as well as at the corners. Third, it is in some sense “embroidered” with machine quilt stitching in various patterns replicating the serpentine and vine scroll work of the original. Last and the most modern, yet recalling the work of the manuscript illuminators, is the fabric pen work highlighting the vine scroll stitching: gold on the cross, blue, red, and green on the bird and beast bodies.

Clearly not all of these techniques could be used in tenth-century Northumbria, but similar effects could be had using different tools. Hence, my recourse to the historians of textiles and embroideries.

In the Keswick church, Aldred encounters a series of wall hangings telling the story of St. Kentigern, although most of them follow the story of his mother St. Thaney. Here is the description of the first wall hanging through Aldred’s eyes:

Once he looked more closely, he realized that the wall hanging was not of simple construction, woven cloth embroidered with thread.  It was more like a manuscript illumination.  As tall as a man and as wide as his arms outstretched, the base fabric was a fine white wool tightly woven, framed by tablet-woven bands with intertwined endless patterns, such as those his mother and sister made. Over the white wool was a central panel of pale yellow linen squares forming a heavenly background for the story.  But the whole center of the hanging was taken up with brightly colored figures—people and objects cut out of linen cloth—overlaid in a technique he recognized from his mother’s handiwork, appliqué.  Then over these, someone had stitched outlines, faces, and designs in various patterns his sister would be able to name—some stitches like feathers, others crosses or chains, some thick, others flat to produce the appearance of depth. This embroidery reminded Aldred of a bishop’s stole, such as Cuthbert wore even now in his wooden coffin at Chester-le-Street.  The bright silk threadwork, silver, gold, blue, red, caught the flickering light of the lamps at different angles, bringing the people to life.

I thought about adding:

Later he noticed several small gaps, as if something had been cut away.  When he asked about them, he was told that bright gems and flat gold crosses had been removed to pay off the Vikings and prevent them from ripping the tapestries from the walls.

Or maybe they originally used gold and silver wire, since these wire techniques are found in Scandinavia, so I could have the artisan learn the craft from local Scandinavian women?

For the Easington church, I have his sister Bega designing and creating with other women the Luke carpet page. Here is Aldred’s first encounter with it:

     Aldred traced his finger over the interlaced beasts and birds on the wall hanging, flora and fauna in shades of blue, red, and green outlined in yellow.  His sister Bega had created a wonder greater than those embroidered cloths he had seen at Keswick church.  Not that the materials Bega used were superior—she had sewn it with rags from old clothes and leftover scraps of textiles from the loom, embroidered over with dyed threads, no fine gold thread here.

            No, what was amazing to Aldred was that she had recreated with precision one of the cross pages from the Lindisfarne Gospel book at Chester-le-Street, down to the last detail of colored squares and bird heads.  He recognized it as soon as he had entered the side door of the Easington church and saw it hanging opposite on the north wall.  The Gospel of Luke.  Not the size of a book page, but the size of a man.


            Standing back now from the embroidered cloth, Aldred’s eyes blurred and refocused.  What had stood out to him when he first walked in to the church was the golden equilateral cross dominating the center.  When he had come closer, he had realized that Bega had made this Greek style cross out of bright yellow silk with dense red interlace embroidery, to give the appearance of shimmering gold.  But after he had stepped up to the tapestry, his eyes were drawn to the birds and beasts in the rectangular boxes surrounding the cross, tracing his finger over the interlace just as he had done as a boy with Bega, examining the endless knotwork on the family horn, and on the many stone crosses he had encountered since then. 

            Now that he stood a few feet away from the textile, it was the ground of white and blue diamond squares alternating on red that rose to the surface, while the squared cross and boxes sewn on top faded into the background.

            He tried to recall the manuscript image in his mind’s eye.  He had not really noticed the colored squares before when contemplating the cross on a parchment page, but in textile they seemed to come alive.  The blue squares suddenly swam before his eyes, and then the white, as if he were looking at a mosaic pavement, like the Romans made, but under water.

            Focusing on one set, he realized that each of the larger squares not only combined with each other to form a bigger pattern of multicolored diamonds, but each colored block was made up of smaller squares of fabric sewn together, including the red squares fitted between them.  Moreover, the blue, red, and white fabrics varied in color and texture, probably because they were made out of scraps of cloth, a mix of wool and finer linen.  He reached out and touched one of the faded blue squares.  It reminded him of an old woolen tunic of his father’s that had been made into a robe for him as a boy of 7 when he was sent to Chester-le-Street for his education.  In fact he vividly remembered wearing that faded and too-short blue robe three years later, the day he was running to his dying Uncle Tilred.

            He stepped further back.  A shaft of sunlight from the south windows suddenly appeared, probably a break in the clouds outside.  Now it was the outer red border and the four corners of the tapestry that lit up.  He moved back in, and then squatted down to look at the bottom left of the four corner emblems, the two upper ones high above his head.  On a dark background, Bega had embroidered two marvelous birds with multicolored feathers and fierce beaked heads, trailing interlaced red and blue tails.

            Leaning to the right he looked at the emblem in the bottom center, mirrored above and on both sides.  Here again interlace, but with two mammal heads facing out.  To make the interlace stand out like gold in the manuscript, she had cleverly appliqued the bright yellow fabric against a black background.

            He stood back up and examined the central boss of the cross.  The square had four circles in it, each filled with endless swirls that made him sway, almost losing his balance.

For Tilwif constructing the deacon garments for Aldred and Bega, I am reliant on the work of Julia Barrow and Maureen Miller cited in the bibliography below.

     Meanwhile, their mother Tilwif was sewing their vestments for Easter, a chrismal robe for Frith, alb, dalmatic, maniple, and stole for Bega and Aldred.

            The long sleeved alb undergarment, like the chrismal robe, was simple white linen they had in abundant supply.  Bega already had such a garment, but Aldred’s from Govan as subdeacon was worn and stained from his travels, so she made him a new one. 

            The dalmatic over the linen alb was more colorful, a calf-length natural colored tunic with red stripes from shoulder to hem and along the sleeve edge.  These dalmatics Tilwif made from their fine wool for warmth in the cool church.  For the stripes, she used tablet-woven braids with variegated red threads and texture created with alternating warp (z)- and weft (s)-spun threads.  Some of the women spun their spindles sunwise to produce warp thread, some the opposite direction making weft. Combined in a chevron tablet weave of two different shades of red, these braided borders stood out from the plain white garment, a reminder of the blood of Christ that washed them spotless as the wool of the dalmatic onto which it was sewn.

            The maniple was a white linen hand-cloth for the deacons to carry over their arm, ostensibly to cover or wipe any utensils during the performance of the mass.  Their house had stacks of these folded rectangular cloths on hand, made from the fabric left after making other garments and altar cloths, and hemmed with simple stem stitches done by the girls learning to use their needles.

            The maniple, alb, and dalmatic were quickly made from materials on hand.  The stole, however, was a long embroidered scarf worn over the alb and peeking out below the dalmatic.  Tilwif had already finished Bega’s stole before Aldred’s return, so now she worked on his.  Both scarves were made of finely woven undyed linen, about 3 inches wide, but almost entirely covered in intricate designs similar to those on the Luke Gospel cross wall hanging in the church. 

            Bega’s scarf imitated the pale blues, reds, and greens of the interwoven beasts in the four rectangualr patterns surrounding the central cross, but at the bottom of both ends that would be visible below the dalmatic, she replicated the equilateral gold cross with the last of Gytha’s yellow silk and red thread used in the wall-hanging.

            Aldred’s scarf looked more like the four corner emblems, green and blue interlace all along it, terminating at both ends with the bird’s winged bodies and heads.  As his mother worked on it, Aldred admired how the embroidered interlace looked like feathers, but looking closely he saw that where the interlace emerged at the bottom, each had a sharpened point, like a pen quill, his favorite tool.  The bird heads themselves were white and appeared more dove like, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, the comforter.

I will save for a later post the description of Easington’s flax production for linen, their spinning and weaving operations, and the twelve vills.

Thoughts and suggestions welcome.



Barrow, Julia .The Clergy in the Medieval World: Secular Clerics, Their Families and Careers in North-Western Europe, c. 800–c. 1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Coatsworth, Elizabeth. “Stitches in Time: Establishing a History Anglo-Saxon Embroidery.” In Medieval Clothing and Textiles I, ed. Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen-Crocker (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005), 1-28.

Coatsworth, Elizabeth. “Opus What?  The Textual History of Medieval Embroidery Terms and Their Relationship to the Surviving Embroideries c. 800-1400.” In Textiles, Text, Intertext: Essays in Honour of Gale R. Owen-Crocker, ed. Maren Clegg Hyer and Jill Frederick, (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2016), 43-66. 

Miller, Maureen C. Clothing the Clergy, Virtue and Power in Medieval Europe, c. 800-1200. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2014.

Owen-Crocker, Gale R. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Revised Edition. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004.


Posted by: kljolly | April 14, 2020

Govan Sarcophagus

Although I have not posted recently, now in this time of pandemic, here is what I have been working on since my last post. I have actually finished a long chapter set in 941 with Aldred trailing along with Cathroe’s pilgrimage from Govan to Penrith.

Along the way, I have taken a number of liberties with the historical record, including having them travel by ship and visit a number of holy sites such that the chapter has turned into a hagiographic marathon.  If anyone wants to binge-read saints’ lives, this chapter does it.  It also ponders a lot of stone monuments.

One of the liberties early on in the chapter tries to explain the “Constantine” sarcophagus at Govan that I blogged about when I visited in 2015.   Tim Clarkson recommended a visit to Govan, and his blogs Heart of the Kingdom and Senchus, as well as his books Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age and The Making of Scotland, have been essential reading for me.  So apologies to Tim for what follows!


This ninth century sarcophagus  is not only rare but also puzzling as to who was in it.  Although attributed to a “Constantine,” that connection as patron of the Govan church is tenuous at best.  And, even if a Constantine was encased in it, which one?

  • Possibly Pictish/Scots King Constantine I, Constantín mac Cináeda (d. 877), son of Cináed mac Ailpín (d. 862).  But why would he be buried in the church at Govan?
  • The hazy St. Constantine of the early seventh century, reputedly the son of Rhydderch Hael and a pupil of St. Columba, is only known from a twelfth-century account (Jocelin’s Life of Kentigern), with a Greek Orthodox feastday of March 11.  So how would his body be in a viking style sarcophagus of ninth century, and decidedly secular, manufacture?

So I invented a scenario for Aldred’s contemplation of the sarcophagus in the Govan church, comparing it to his fond memories of Cuthbert’s wooden casket:

           Today [March 11] was the feastday of St. Constantine, the patron of this church—not the great Roman emperor famous for his conversion, but son of a Strathclyde ancestor.  According to the brothers here, St. Constantine was the son of Rhydderch Hael (the Generous), king of Alt Clut.  He was purportedly tutored by the great Columba, founder of the Iona monastery, itself the mother of the Lindisfarne community to which Aldred belonged.  Aldred had never heard of this saint before coming to Govan, but certainly anyone connected to Columba was bound to have pursued a holy life.

            The bones of this saint rested in the east end of the church in a stone sarcophagus intricately carved, a much more solid edifice, if less angelic, than the carved wooden coffin of St. Cuthbert back at Chester-le-Street.  Alded had examined the sarcophagus soon after his arrival, discovering that it was of recent construction—its motifs reminiscent of the viking hogback stones dotting the landscape, rather than the older style of Iona two centuries before.

            To be sure, the sarcophagus had interlaced vines similar to many an Irish cross or Northumbrian gravestone.  But between the blocks of entangled vines were carvings not of saints or angels, but of animals, mostly powerful horses.  In the center of the side facing the nave, a decidedly warlike horseman rode after a stag, while a frame near the head on that side depicted a horse trampling a beast underfoot, which, Aldred supposed if you stretched it, might be Christ trampling the devil. 

            To Aldred’s mind, it would be a very fine coffin for a king named Constantine, a common  enough royal name, rather than a saint.  The Govan brothers had given only sketchy answers to his polite queries about what the carvings represented in the life of their patron. 

            Aldred guessed that the saint’s bones had been moved into this glorious stone coffin as the result of some kind of dispute between the churchmen and the rulers across the river [Partick], perhaps over their alliances with the Gall-Gáidhil, “foreigner-Gaels.”  Whether the Gaelgal were viking foreigners become Gaels, or Gaels become vikings was unclear, but their warrior ethos was abundantly clear.  Aldred had seen similar bands—and alliances—in Northumbria and in Ireland. 

            Was this magnificent stone sarcophagus a peace offering from the Gaelgal, a gesture toward being more Christian?  If so, their ideas about sanctity and warfare differed from his own community’s.  Aldred pitied St. Constantine his new stone home and thought longingly of St. Cuthbert.

Is this plausible?

Posted by: kljolly | November 15, 2019

Pilgrimage, sailing, and saint’s lives

Aldred’s journey homeward as a twenty-something includes a stint at Govan (Scotland), where he joins the pilgrimage of Cathroe.  I ambitiously outlined the ten-year period from Aldred at the Battle of Brunanburh to his return to Northumbria in an earlier post, Ubi Sunt, that set out my spring sabbatical writing agenda.  That was followed by an account of Aldred’s stay at Glendalough (Ransom) detailed in letters between Aldred and his family.  I then began a chapter that starts with Aldred meeting Cathroe in Govan, embarking on a pilgrimage journey that turned into an odyssey, at least for me.  I made great progress, learned a lot, and intended to post a series of queries on the blog, but then Life happened, I was back in the classroom…and this post delayed.

What started out as a road trip story based on the life of St. Cathroe’s pilgrimage turned into a sea journey and then into a series of saint’s lives recounted at each pilgrimage stop.  I had fun writing the chapter (which is not quite done) but also annotated it with a lot of questions about some of my choices and their historical viability.

1.  Languages. Aldred is living and traveling with people of different linguistic abilities:  Latin, English, Norse, Irish, Gaelic (Scots and/or Cumbric), Welsh.  Everyone in this northern region is probably at least bilingual, but in different combinations.  Some languages are related enough to have some mutual intelligibility (English and Norse, potentially).  Clerics raised in a religious community would find Latin a common language across unintelligible boundaries.  In the course of the chapter and Aldred’s encounters with different people, I have to explain how they communicated, in some cases with someone translating for someone else.  For Aldred himself, I am drawing on my own weak experiences with hearing/speaking other languages.  This is the background note I wrote to myself for the chapter:

Aldred may have spent two years in Ireland, and now finds himself in a Cumbric speaking kingdom, but he has no ear for learning languages orally or speaking them.  He grew up bilingual in his native vernacular Northumbrian English and Latin, but has trouble with Celtic languages, never really learns to speak them well, and has trouble sometimes following a story told aloud.  As a budding scholar, he feels stupid, but as a scribe he has discovered he is a visual learner: he sees words spelled.  He speaks Latin primarily with other clerics.  Lay nobles, household servants, ship’s crews are mostly bilingual or trilingual in English, Norse, Irish, or some form of Gaelic (Cumbric is lost to us, but similar to Welsh).

Throughout the chapter, I indicate when Aldred is having difficulty following something, or occasions when someone translates for someone else:  when the Norse serving boy, who can understand English and some Gaelic, doesn’t understand Latin, or stumbles over an unfamiliar English or Gaelic word; or when Irish clerics mix Latin and Irish in macaronic speech, Aldred has to ask questions.

Does this approach make sense? 



2.  Seafaring Pilgrimage.  The Life of Cathroe (Vita Kaddroe) indicates that Cathroe of Alba was escorted by Scots King Constantine to Govan, where he was received by Strathclyde (Cumbrian) King Dyfnwal, who escorted the pilgrim saint to his borders at Loida (Lowther).  The obvious way to proceed from Govan to Lowther would be overland, with the king itinerating through his territories and relying on the resources of his holdings there.   While traveling overland would make sense both for pilgrims on foot and for an itinerating king, it presents a transportation problem of horse-riding warriors versus on-foot pilgrims.  Going by ship is faster and easier, even though having to go the long way around Galloway.  And it allows me to have them make pilgrimage stops at Arran (St. Molaise’s island) and Whithorn (St. Ninian), which would not be on the itinerary overland.  This choice also forced me to learn a lot about tides, ships, and aquatic life.

Is this choice of traveling by ship too far-fetched?

More questions to come, but for now these are the two big ones.

Posted by: kljolly | April 24, 2019


After the traumatic battle of Brunanburh in 937, Aldred is taken to Ireland, as I described in my previous post, Ubi Sunt.  This interlude chapter of the novel consists of letters he exchanges with his godfather and namesake Aldred, and his mother Tilwif and sister Bega. In these letters, he is struggling with doubt and depression, and debt.


The Tune Ship, built c. 910.  Aldred might have sailed on something like this.

I have altered the end of the previous Brunanburh chapter (much earlier draft here) to indicate that he is taken aboard one of the last departing viking ships of Anlaf by two Glendalough monks who befriended him.  Unfortunately, through some linguistic miscommunication and the usual rapacity of such viking captains, Aldred is held for ransom (or at least payment of his passage) when they arrive at Wicklow.  The Glendalough monks pay for him, and now Aldred owes them a debt.

Most of the accounts of ransom that give the amount are for very high status persons involving huge sums of money in gold and silver, plus herds of cattle and the like:  in 858 the abbot of St. Denis and his brother were redeemed for 686 pounds gold and 3250 pounds silver (Annals of St. Bertin, 858); an eleventh-century princeling was worth 60 ounces gold, 60 ounces white silver, 1200 cows, a sword, 120 horses, and exchange of hostages (Hudson, 111).  On the other hand, a slave might be manumitted for 10 mancuses (Pelteret, 152-54), about 300 silver pennies (Sawyer, 102-04).

For Aldred, if he is simply being redeemed for the cost of his passage and potential value if held as a slave, I devised this possible ransom scenario, as recounted in his letter to his godfather:

Our Irish brothers redeemed me as hostage from the viking sea captain, who sought payment for carrying me with them to Wicklow.  It seems the value of a weaponless but sturdy young man is one pig, five chickens, and twelve ores of silver.  I am repaying the pig, chickens, and my own food and shelter here with the labor of a scribe, but I am unable to repay the ¾ lb bag of silver, 212 pennies stamped by King Athelstan with a cross.

In what I hope is a good foreshadowing element, I am having Aldred’s debt include the mysterious twelve ores of silver that he later mentions in his colophon to the Lindisfarne Gospels:  eight ores of silver plus glossing the first three gospels, apparently for his entrance to the community of St. Cuthbert, and four ores of silver for the Gospel of John, for God and St. Cuthbert (although see a different interpretation of the silver ores here, as silver borders).

And [I] Aldred, unworthy and most miserable priest over-glossed it in English with the help of God and St. Cuthbert. And, by means of the three parts, he made a home for himself. The Matthew part for God and St. Cuthbert, the Mark part for the bishop/s, and the Luke part for the community, and eight ores of silver for his induction.

And the St John part for himself (it is for his soul), and four ores of silver for God and St Cuthbert: so that he may gain acceptance through God’s mercy into heaven, happiness and peace, on earth, progress and increase, wisdom and prudence through the merits of St Cuthbert.

If Aldred’s ora are Old Norse eyrir (gen. eyris, plural aurar), then each is equivalent to one ounce of silver (A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic; see also Bosworth-Toller).  Twelve ounces of silver would be 3/4 of a pound–often such payments are measured in weight. If translated into English silver pennies, whose weight was set from the time of King Alfred at 1.6 grams (= 0.05643834 ounces), then 12 ounces/ores of silver would be approximately 212+ silver pennies.  Someone please check my math, since numismatics and calculations are not my strong suit!

The common coinage in the viking-dominated Dublin arc, including hoards found at Glenadalough, is ironically the English silver penny (Etchingham, 219-20), such as this one minted by King Athelstan and found at Glendalough:


Athelstan circumscription cross type silver penny.  British Museum 1839,1214.111


As for the repayment, I have Aldred’s godfather send this reply:

The delay in sending this letter is caused by the need to find an honest messenger traveling with a trustworthy armed warband. He brings the payment of your redemption, coin for coin but with the viking mark of St. Peter at York, a gift to the brothers of Glendalough, servants of St. Kevin, from the brothers of Chester-le-Street, servants of St. Cuthbert.

I am not sure, however, what his godfather would call this coin (not “viking”).  Perhaps I am trying to be too clever here, in having Aldred’s Irish friends pay the viking ship captain in English coin of King Athelstan, only to have Aldred’s English godfather repay in local Northumbrian viking coin.

Circa 900, Northumbrian coinage (previously much debased) was being minted by the viking rulers of York, many found in the Cuerdale hoard (Williams, 198-99; and Blackburn, tba).  The dating for the Scandinavian rulers of York are tricky for the years surrounding Brunanburh, and the coins are not always much help since only some have ruler names on them.  It is too early for Anlaf Guthfrithson’s  York pennies with  Old Norse on them  (939)–he hasn’t gotten back to York yet.  But 937 is also a bit late for some of the other coins coming out of viking York before the submission to Athelstan in 927, some with Scandinavian symbols such as hammers and swords appearing with Christian symbols like the cross:


Silver York penny with cross, hammer, sword.  British Museum 1915,0507.772

It may be safer to stick with the more neutral of these York coins, those with the plain reference to St. Peter and a cross:


York silver penny, St. Peter two-line phase 2.  British Museum 1959,1210.9.

Such coins may still have been in circulation, given to or hoarded at places like Chester-le-Street, rather than re-minted at York in Wessex King Athelstan’s name.  Maybe the community of St. Cuthbert held onto these York St. Peter coins for use on just such an occasion as this, redeeming a Northumbrian cleric from viking pirates in Ireland, with a pinch of irony attached.


  • Annals of St. Bertin, MGH edition, p. 49.
  • Blackburn, Mark A. S. Viking Coinage and Currency in the British Isles.  London:  Spink, 2011.
  • Etchingham, Colmán. “The Viking Impact on Glendalough.”  In Charles Doherty, Linda Doran, and Mary Kelly, eds., Glendalough:  City of God.  Dublin:  Four Courts Press for the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 2011,  pp. 211-22.
  • Hudson, Benjamin. Viking Pirates and Christian Princes:  Dynasty, Religion, and Empire in the North Atlantic. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Pelteret, David A. E. Slavery in Early Medieval England:  From the Reign of Alfred until the Twelfth Century.  Woodbridge:  Boydell Press, 1995.
  • Sawyer, Peter. The Wealth of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Williams, Gareth. “Kingship, Christianity and Coinage:  Monetary and Political Perspectives on Silver Economy in the Viking Age.” In James Graham-Campbell, James and Gareth Williams, eds., Silver Economy in the Viking Age.  Walnut Creek: Routledge, 2007,  pp. 177-214.
Posted by: kljolly | March 20, 2019

Ubi sunt

I am trying to fill in a ten year gap in Aldred’s story, from the battle of Brunanburh in 937, when Aldred is 19, to the ill-fated bishopric of Sexhelm in 947, after which Aldred becomes a priest.  Since the inspiration for this fictional biography came from Aldred’s scribal activities later in life as priest and provost, I began with stories built around those texts of circa 950-970, and then began filling in his earlier life experiences.  These ten years, Aldred in his twenties, are crucial for his spiritual formation and later vocation.  Here are my current ideas:

937-39 Glendalough, Ireland


Glendalough tower, author photo 2013

I may make the ending of the previous chapter at Brunanburh a bit more ambiguous in terms of his vocation, and also have him scooped up by Anlaf’s retreating group and taken on the ship to Dublin, sort of but not quite as a hostage.  Traumatized by these events, Aldred enters a period of doubt and depression, but is befriended or redeemed by monks at Glendalough, where he studies for two years.  My plan is to make this an “interlude” chapter of letters he exchanges with his mother, sister, and godfather Aldred at Chester-le-Street.  Models for such letters include those of Boniface and Alcuin, but I intend to make Aldred’s letters macaronic in the best Irish style, a mix of Latin and English, drawing on his own colophon marginalia.  Those to his godfather Aldred include ubi sunt reflections from Isidore of Seville’s Synonyma, a popular lament akin to the psalms and a common teaching text.


Whithorn cross, author photo 2015


939-41 Strathclyde and Scotland

Aldred returns to the north on a viking ship from Dublin, ends up primarily in Strathclyde under King Dyfnwal, but also travels in the Scottish realm of King Constantine, who beat a hasty retreat from Brunanburh.  Aldred might travel in the entourage of Anlaf Guthfrithsson, who returned from Dublin after the death of King Athelstan of Wessex in 939 and became king of Northumbria, followed by the other Anlaf, Sihtricsson.  While in Strathclyde and Scotland, Aldred connects with long-lost family, visits Whithorn and Govan, experiences he may relate looking back in a later chapter.  To find my way through the tangle of politics in this region, not to mention the chaos in Northumbria and York in relation to Wessex, I will be relying heavily on the books and posts of Tim Clarkson (Senchus), especially Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age.

941-42 Back to Northumbria

Stainmore Pass 045

Stainmore Pass, author photo 2013

Too good to pass up, I am going to attach Aldred to the pilgrimage of St. Cathroe of Alba to get him back in his Northumbrian homelands.   According to the Vita Kaddroe, Cathroe was given an escort by Scots king Constantine to “Cumbria,” where he was welcomed by Strathclyde king Dyfnwal, who gave him safe conduct to his border at “Loida” (which Clarkson identifies as Lowther, just south of Penrith, possibly a religious institution).  The nobleman of Loida, Gunderic, then leads Cathroe over the Pennines to York, presumably via Stainmore Pass, a road familiar to Aldred, so I can add him to the entourage.  Cathroe befriends Aldred, who is still puzzling over his vocation, and they discuss Aldhelm’s De virginitate.  At some point before this, Aldred becomes a subdeacon, marking the formal end of his education, but is hesitating on pursuing the diaconate, generally but not absolutely marked by celibacy, and then the priesthood, which would tie him to an altar, ending his travels.  From York, Aldred is finally able to return “home” to Easington to see his mother and sister, and Chester-le-Street, the heart of the Cuthbertine community.

942-44 Easington

For two years, Aldred serves as subdeacon in his own family’s church at their Easington estate, which his mother Tilwif and sister Bega, under the influence of abbess Bega, have turned into virtually a women’s religious enclosure for refugees.  Aldred is tempted to marry the young woman he briefly had an encounter with when he was 16, but I do not think I will have him marry.  This is a period of quiet restlessness for Aldred, who misses the travel and the books.  These years may also be recounted in the next chapter, looking back.

944-47 Exile or Pilgrimage

Northumbria 006 Jarrow Lawson Bede

Jarrow,  Bede by Fenwick Lawson (author photo, 2013)

The accession of Bishop Uchtred at Chester-le-Street (944-47) brings some trouble for Aldred.  Uchtred is firmly pro-Wessex, especially with the gifts that King Edmund drops off at Chester-le-Street in 944 after he expels Anlaf Sihtricsson and Ragnall from York, and then moves against Strathclyde.  Aldred’s long sojourn and family ties to Strathclyde bring him under suspicion, undermined by Seaxhelm the Wessex spy and Aldred’s nemesis from the battle of Brunanburh.  Aldred warns his godfather Aldred at Chester-le-Street about Sexhelm’s duplicity, and his godfather speaks up for Aldred with the bishop against Seaxhelm’s insinuations.  But the bishop remains doubtful, so his godfather sends Aldred away (elevating him to deacon first).  Where he goes, I am not sure yet, perhaps the continent, but eventually Cuthbertine communities in Norham (where he was educated earlier), or Hexham.  Or he could be assigned to Crayke as a remote poor site, deacon to the priest there.

947-48 Chester-le-Street

Northumbria 002 Chester-le-Street2

Seaxhelm becomes bishop in 947, a disastrous two or six month episcopacy marked by avarice and tyranny, not to mention Northumbria switching allegiances between Wessex King Eadred and Erik Bloodaxe under the machinations of Archbishop Wulfstan of York (I do wonder if these two episcopal upheavals, at Chester-le-Street and York, are connected).  Godfather Aldred replaces Seaxhelm as bishop and attempts to restore the community of St. Cuthbert, entering into a period of repentance from Lent 947, which I plan to explore with Rogation Days.  With the accession of his godfather as bishop, my Aldred returns to Chester-le-Street, bringing some relics of bishop Acca he “borrowed” from Hexham in a bit of furta sacra (a story told about a later Aldred at Hexham transposed here, see PASE Aldred1 and Symeon of Durham, Historia Regnum).  His episcopal godfather rebukes Aldred as being no better than Seaxhelm, and makes him return the relics to Hexham.   After Aldred’s year-long penance for relic theft, he is ordained priest on Ember Saturday after Pentecost, 948, and assigned to Crayke. That King Eadred, retaliating for the Northumbrian and York betrayal, comes north in 948 and sacks Ripon may figure in Aldred’s story at nearby Crayke.

From there, I have chapters written on his experiences in Crayke (viking attack, field prayers) and return to Chester-le-Street.  The above scenarios for Aldred in his twenties helps explain not only his vocation but also why he needs to “buy” his way into a home at Chester-le-Street in 950 by glossing the Lindisfarne Gospels.


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