Posted by: kljolly | August 22, 2022

975 Comet: Old English Medievalism

Paying attention to historic languages while writing fiction takes time and experimentation, a slow process as James Paz noted in his translation of The Order of the World. I take courage from his confessional:

“One poem in particular – The Order of the World – has led me to contemplate what it means to convey an ancient poem slowly, across a long stretch of my own lifetime but also across a long stretch of historical time.  What can be gained and what gets lost through the act of ‘slow’ translation?  What happens when my own time – however you want to understand that ambiguous phrase – is expanded?”

James Paz, “Slow Words: Translating The Order of the World in My Own Time,” in Slow Scholarship, ed. Catherine E. Karkov (Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer, 2019), pp. 31-51, at p. 34.

In the same volume as his essay, I reflected on an early stage of my historical fiction project, based on a paper delivered in 2012, when this blog began, and then published in the Slow Scholarship volume in 2019, and here we are in 2022. . . .

Like Paz, my own time spent on this project over ten years, which itself is a culmination of earlier studies as well as continuing research, changes what I write and how I write about Aldred.  It is not just a problem of discontinuities developing in the novel’s timeline, or weaving back new characters into earlier, or earlier written, chapters—although that is a big deal, too, meaning that about once a year I have to read through all of the chapters to see what is going on. 

The most recent chapter is set in the year 975 with a comet, but serendipitously its writing intersected with my transcription of Aldred’s glosses on St. Michael and his angel thegns (see previous blog post), so I connected St. Michael’s feast day to the comet and other events in Aldred’s life.  Along the way, a new character named Owun emerged as Aldred’s spiritual brother, so the story of that relationship needs to be told earlier.  Meanwhile, another character developed early on who disappeared from my narrative shows up—Culfre, the little girl silent and bookish now becomes a spiritual leader at Easington when Bega, Aldred’s sister and Culfre’s mentor, dies.

In this same chapter, I have also experimented with language use, refining my method for creating “authentic” dialogue between characters.  Here is where I return to Paz’s inspiration, to play with words and see what works, how it sounds.  Or as Paul Kingsnorth says about The Wake,<a href=”http:// “I couldn’t make the words fit, and I gradually began to see why: the language that we speak is so utterly specific to our time and place.” Unlike Kingsnorth, who invented his own anglisc to make it work, I am highly self-consciously trying to use modern English words rooted in the languages spoken by the historical figures whom I am fictionalizing.  This experiment is also an outgrowth of another Leeds paper-turned-essay, about which I blogged earlier (Reimagining Early Medieval Britain I, II: Emerging Insights, and Re-imagining Re-imagining).  The essay, “Reimagining Early Medieval Britian: The Language of Spirituality,” is soon to appear as a chapter in Old English Medievalism: Reception and Recreation in the 20th and 21st Centuries, ed. Rachel A Fletcher, Thijs Porck, and Oliver M. Traxel, pp. 135-53.

Back to the recent chapter, “975 Comet,” written primarily this last summer:  recently I have gone through all of the dialogue to evaluate the word choice and phrasing for that elusive “authenticity.”  I developed a premise and procedure, with some caveats, that resulted not just in selective word changes but rethinking what the characters say as well as how they say it.  Granted, much of the novel is in the voice of an omniscient narrator, so I feel less obliged to choose only early medieval vocabulary there, hence my focus on the spurts of real-time dialogue.

The starting premise for checking all conversations:  We will assume all characters are speaking to each other in English but with some of them sprinkling in Latin words, which I put in italics as “not English.” All the rest of the dialogue words not italicized have to be modern English derived from or with roots in early medieval Englishes (including Scandinavian or other loan words).  This meant excluding modern English vocabulary that came from post-Conquest French, later Latin, or other post-medieval language importations.  In cases where Aldred or others threw in a Latin word or phrase, I debated whether to decline/conjugate it appropriately or just use the English equivalent in italics to show their clerical habit of macaronic speech interweaving Latin and English.

The procedure:  Online Bosworth-Toller (BT) is my friend. The advanced search allows us to enter a modern English definition lacking an early medieval root and reverse engineer it to find an equivalent that still had a modern form.  I also made liberal use of the Thesaurus in Word for alternatives, as well as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for historic linguistics.  Admittedly, our knowledge of Old English speech is limited to the written texts of elites and churchmen, as well as Latin-English glossaries that may not reflect actual use.  Heck, even Aldred’s glosses are suspect as a source for Northumbrian Old English because he makes up the preponderence of known Northumbrian vocabulary and isn’t even writing syntactical Old English in sentences, just putting English words above Latin ones.

Why go to all this trouble?  Hitherto I have used my gut-level instincts as to words that “sound” right.  But I am no Tolkien—my knowledge of early medieval languages is much more limited and not as philologically aware.  So I have to make it a conscious process, rather than rely on intuition.

The bonus is that I have had to rethink what some of the characters are saying because there was in fact no equivalent.  This is a level of incommensurability that I have to take seriously in order to achieve some kind of authenticity that is both readable (unlike The Wake, which is too much work for some readers) and yet also challenges the reader to hear different ways of thinking and speaking about the world.

Zentangle Spinner: When you don’t know what tangle to do next.

Some examples:

1.  A conversation on the road:

            “Have you ever seen Satan or his thegns?” Aldred asked Owun abruptly. …

            Owun rode thoughtfully for a bit before answering Aldred.  “I have seen men slaughter innocents.  That looked like the devil’s thegns to me.”  Owun used the Norse word for slaying, slahtr, that had become common in the north after the coming of the vikings, and not just in reference to their taking of cattle, but also the way they slew people like animals.  His use of innocents also brought to mind cilda mæsse-dæg, the slaughter of the children by King Herod after the birth of the Savior, the Hælend or Healer.

            Owun uses the Latin for innocents because I did not really find an Old English equivalent, but also because he is invoking Childermas, or the festum innocentium on Dec. 28.  Note also that the narrator uses italics for Latin and Old English words, unlike the dialogue rule I just established, but gets a bit pedantic with Savior/Hælend/Healer.

            The omniscient narrator also expands on the word choice I was forced to make in the use of “slaughter” instead of massacre, which allowed me to bring in the comparison with butchering.   The OED locates the origins of slaughter in Old Norse slahtr, a likely enough Scandinavian loan word in Northumbria, although similar words exist in OE for smite, slay, strike, etc.[1]  I am not a linguist and have not done a secondary search for insights, other than Sara Pons-Sanz discussion of the infinitive “slaa” (slay, strike) as a possible Scandinavian loanword in the LG glosses, which she doubts.[2] So is the OED right that slaughter is a Scandinavian loan word?

            If you look at the footnotes, you will see that this was quite a labyrinthian research rabbit hole with inconclusive results.

2.  About Aldred’s sister Bega’s death:

            Gytha murmered to him. “She did not thole much or long. After taking the corpore et sanguine of our Hlaford at the Mass, she sank down on her knees and bowed forward.  We thought she was overcome by the Spirit [Spiritus sanctus, or Holy Ghost, halga gast?].  Perhaps she was.” 

            She paused and then went on, “but when we saw her shaking, we lifted her up and brought her here to her bed, where she lay with a crooked smile on her face, her eyes fast on the angel of the Lord.”

            For “suffer,” I stole  “thole” (OE geþolian) from Seamus Heaney.  This insider readerly joke may or may not work well for those unfamiliar with Heaney’s Beowulf and his discussion of this word choice bridging his Ulster upbringing and his “right of way” to translate an Old English epic.[4] 

            This passage also shows how a religious laywoman might incorporate familiar liturgical Latin (corpore et sanguine) along with OE Halford, understandable as Lord and used frequently enough in the novel to be understood.

            But I am debating what she might say about being “overcome by the Spirit” (which resonates with contemporary Pentecostal and African-American religious experiences).  Gytha probably would know the Latin, spiritus sanctus, and the Modern English Spirit in italics shows its Latin origin. But maybe to express such an intimate spiritual experience, she might use the English halga gast, Modern English Holy Ghost.  I am inclined toward the latter.

3.a.  A later passage wrestles with how to describe the crooked smile and dimple on Bega’s face.

            They [Aldred and Owun at her coffin] gazed at her face, peaceful but with that crooked smile. 

            Aldred reached out with his other hand, touching the small dimple on one side of her face, and smiled.

            He said softly, “she always had an uneven smile,with this one little hole-pit on the right cheek,” his finger resting in her dimple. “As a small child, I loved to touch it when she smiled down at me.”

            Smile is not attested in Old English but has roots in Middle High German, Scandinavian languages, and North Frisian according to the OED. BT “smile” definitions lead to smearcian, which has a pejorative meaning in Modern English smirk.  So I left “smile” in their conversation.

            I could find no word for dimple, so I invented hole-pit combined with cheek, which comes from OE ceace. If anyone has an alternative for dimple in Old English, let me know!

3.b.  The conversation continues, with Owun and Aldred mixing Latin with English.

            Removing his finger from her cold face, he [Aldred] went on more soberly,  “Who will call to mind such things, or anything, about her?”

            “Look around at Easington,” Owun said.  “These women and children, safe and beloved.  They know. Not only that, but she has geared and girded them up to carry on loving one another amidst their sorrow.  Even today, they shoulder the undertakings she gave them to do, in imitation of her love for each other, welcoming anyone who comes to the gate, as one poor family did this morning.  That is Bega’s memorial.”  He said this while staring at the dead woman’s face.

            Aldred nodded, “and not just the offspring of her life, but that of our mother Tilwif and our godmother Bega, who together founded this refuge.”

            He sighed.  “Unless I write their story, I fear no one will know.  Not even the bishop of Chester-le-Street, much less the archbishop of York, name Bega an abbess, which she surely was.  Even I called her mother at times!”

            Owun smiled.  He thought of Bega as a spiritual mother himself, even though they were about the same age.

            “Maybe,” he said, “but I believe she intercedes even now on our behalf and that of every woman and child here.”

            “You think,” said Aldred, “that she is a saint already purged and seated in Paradise?” Eagerly Aldred leaned forward toward his sister’s face.  “Would she bring miracles in our midst if we ask?”

            “I think,” Owun replied slowly, “that we should keep speaking to her as we did while she was alive in this world, and she will keep bidding God for us as she did when she walked with us here.  Surely she will provide answers in our hearts.”

            Straightening, Aldred waited a moment, and then said, “Gytha told me something that Bega said lately, that she might miss when she takes her last breath because she will just keep seeing the eyes of Jesus looking into her as she fares forth from earth to heaven.”

            Owun nodded. “Look at her face.  Is that not true?”

            He added, “whether she answers our bidding for miracles or not, the true signal of her holiness is all around us.  What greater wonder-sign is there than these folk whose lives she gladdened, even or most of all our own?”

            Aldred agreed, “we should imitate her imitating Christ and teach others. That will be her memoria, whether her gravestone, this church, and this tun-land last many generations or not.”

            Initially in this passage, I used the Latin word in italics (imitatio, refugium, miracula, etc) but then I had to figure out whether to decline the nouns in the English sentence and decided that putting the Latin rooted Modern English word in italics to indicate its relation to the Old English worked well enough.

            The other word that gave me difficulty was Bega’s “legacy”: what “successors” would remember and continue her work?  I had a modern English word there that I cannot remember now, because I rewrote the sentence to say the “offspring” (OE ofspring) of her life.

4. As in other places, Aldred and Culfre engage in Latin-English wordplay:

Diva Dance Rock n’ Roll
Via Divina Franciscan Way Walk 3 Clare Contemplation and Community

            Aldred took her left hand and held it in his open right hand, looking at the creases and ink stains on her fingers.  “Your scribal hand.  You were always wiðerweard.”

            Culfre smiled, despite her sorrow. “It is my wyrdto be contrary,” she played on the words.

            Then she sighed. “I know what you have come to ask.”

            “You could keep silentio…” Aldred said softly.

            “Such was my oath,” Culfre replied, “then and now.”

            Culfre is a left-handed female scribe, as revealed in an earlier chapter where she is a small child rescued by Aldred.  Here Aldred uses wiðerweard in a humorous way to refer to her character, and she plays it back with Latin-rooted contrary.  Both wyrd and wiðerweard are OE words I have used elsewhere in the novel.  I hope they have enough archaic resonance in Modern English for readers to feel the word play.

5.  Aldred encounters Owain, a younger son of King Dyfnwal whom Aldred had met many years ago when on pilgrimage with Cathroe.

            Here Owain turned to Aldred.  “Do you not know me?”

            Aldred answered, “I recall your father well on that peregrinatio with Cathroe. He was a good king who tried to do well by all, slaves and freemen, even an outsider like myself.”

            Owain looked down, “I am ashamed to say I was one of those over-mod wæpnedmen who besmeared nidlings.  One you took with you was a young theow with a shriveled arm.  My father’s chiding stayed with me, and I bettered my deeds.  What became of the cniht?”

            “Frith.” Aldred said, and his eyes grew misty.  “Cathroe freed him and gave him to me as a son.  He was baptized here soon after, and then became a thane of Earl Thored of Brandsby, where he died shielding the Crayke folk during a viking onslaught, leaving behind his wife Beonna and unborn child, a son.”  Aldred thought about his godson Aldfrith, a young man with a family of his own at Crayke, caring for his mother in the same house where as a new priest he had blessed the young couple so many years ago.

            “So,” Owain said, “he died a bolder wæpnedman than most of those who held him in thrall and besmeared him.”

Via Divina Franciscan Way Walk 5 Rebuild, Repair, Restore

            I had several difficulties in this passage. 

            One was how Aldred might identify himself as feeling like a foreigner or stranger, so I used newcomer, but then thought about “outsider,” both components rooted in OE but not attested, although “outlaw” is. Most of the OE words for stranger have the prefix el- (ell-þeodig, æl-fremd), but I don’t see a Modern English descendant unless we cheat and use “alien” from Latin and/or Norman French. “Wanderer” is tempting just because of the OE poem so named in Modern English, but its use of anhaga for solitary person doesn’t have an easy modern equivalent (nor do an-stapa or eard-stapa, and wrecca implies an exiled person) .  For outsider, BT offers ut-wæpnedmann, which I could use, since here and elsewhere I have introduced wæpnedman, but it seems a bit repetitive.

            A second difficulty was something to indicate how the warriors mocked or taunted slaves like Frith.  The one OE rooted Modern English word I could find was besmeared (besmearian). Owun’s speech gets overloaded with archaic words (over-mod, wæpnedmen, nidlings, theow, chiding, cniht), but that is in some ways appropriate because his first language is Gaelic (Cumbric), and English a second language.

            A third occurred with having Owun “repent” of his earlier behavior.  The OE verb is dæd-betan, so I rendered that more clumsily as Modern English “bettered his deeds.”  Initially I had “turned” toward better deeds to get my own sense of “repent” as an about-face change of direction, but even “turn” is not OE and the OE words remain distant.

6. And more Latin-English wordplay, reflecting a recent article I read with great interest:

            After the Mass, sitting in the cloister walk, Aldred asked Owun.  “What did you see when the cup was lifted up?”

            Owun smiled.  “You will think it outlandish, but I saw angels over the altar as you consecrated the bread and wine. Circumvolant, hwearfiað.”  Spinning his fingers in the air, he used the Latin and the English to indicate that the angels were dancing. 

            “Perhaps,” Owun added, “I saw only motes of dust playing in the sunlight.”

            Aldred nodded. “I had in mind the vision of the archangel Michael slaying the dragon.  But I like your hwearfian angels better.”

            Owun said, “I was calling to mind what I heard as a child, a priest who said that the angels are present at the consecration,circlingover the altar.”

            Aldred added, “rightly so—it is their angelic hands, not ours, that sanctify and transform the bread and wine into body and blood.”

            After a pause, Aldred touched Owun’s hand, “so let’s call your dust motes angels, since we know they are all around us even when we have no light to see them by.”

I did create “outlandish” from two OE-rooted words, instead of “odd” or “strange” (which circles back to the problem of stranger, see above).  It took me a while to settle on “dust motes.” 

However, there is a famous painting “Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams” by Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi Ordrupgaard (1900, “Støvkornenes dans i solstrålerne”).

The idea that OE “hwearfiað” suggests circling in dance-like fashion over the consecration comes from Thomas D. Hill,  “The Eucharistic Dance of the Angels: 1 Cnut, IV, 1-2.” [5] Thanks, Tom!

So this is how what I am transcribing from Aldred and reading in contemporary scholarship ends up intersecting in what I am writing, and how I am more self-consciously wrestling with language.  Suggestions more than welcome!

[1]  BT defines slihtan as “to smite or slay,” and cites as origin O. H. German slahton; however, the only example is Matt. 4:9 in the Lindisfarne Gospels where Aldred offers it as an alternative gloss of Lat cadens (falling down): ðu fallas ¬ slæhtas. This is odd for a verse in which Satan tempts Jesus by saying he will give all the kingdoms of the world if he will “fall down and adore me.”  Aldred reads cadens as second person you, and equates sliht with falling down (feallan is the verb used in the other Gospel translations, including the MacRegol gloss).  The OE noun sliht is more common especially in compounds across the corpus of Old English, most commonly mansliht and wælsliht, murderer. The use of -slæht- with an æ is less frequent, and half are from the Gospel glosses of Aldred or MacRegol. Slihtan may be related to OE slitan, to slit, tear, rend, cleave, etc.  Aldred uses -slitan in Durham AIV. 19 to gloss Lat discordare (slitendum, fol. 81rb13);Lat. rumpere (geslita, fol. 86ra14); andLat. disrumpere (toslito, fol. 1r10) or Lat. lacerare (tosliteno, fol. 17v10).See also BT slaga

[2] Sara María Pons Sanz, Analysis of the Scandinavian Loanwords in the Aldredian Glosses to the Lindisfarne Gospels (Valencia: Lengua Inglesa, Universitat de Valencia, 2000),, pp. 111-12, citing Björkman and Ross about the disyllabic <a> where <æ> is expected before “h” and the absence of a final “n” in the infinitive. See LG Matt 1:6 marginal note (David ofslaa Uriah), Mark 14:1 (the religious leaders looking to kill, occiderent glossed of-slogon ¬ hia mæhton of-slaa, Jesus) and 14:65 (Jesus beaten by the soldiers, caedere glossed with geslaa ¬ geðearsca); Luke 12:45 (parable of bad servant strking others, percutere glossed miððy slaa) and 22:49 (disciples asking at Jesus’ arrest if they should strike with a sword, percutimus glossed woe gealas ¬ huoeðer moto we geslaa); the latter three are also in MacRegol.  Later in life, in his gloss to DAIV19, Aldred uses -slæð glossing occidere (fall, die, kill, slay, knock down) and percutere (strike down, kill).

[4] Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition, trans. Seamus Heaney (New York: Norton, 2008), pp. xx-xxi.

[5] In Lindy Brady, ed., Old English Tradition: Essays in Honor of J. R. Hall (Tempe: ACMRS, 2021), pp. 135-41, at p. 137.

Posted by: kljolly | April 28, 2022

Angels (good and bad) as thegns

While transcribing Aldred’s gloss to the Durham Ritual on folio 34r, I came across a curiosity, one of many that I highlight to savor now or later.  As often happens, this one took me down a research rabbit hole.

Durham Cathedral Library A.IV.19, fol. 34r

On lines 1 and 2, Aldred has twice glossed Latin “angels” with Old English “thegns,” where ordinarily he and others would use the anglicized form englas or engelas (variously spelled).

The passage is a capitula or chapter reading from Revelation 12:7-8 as part of a celebration of St. Michael the Archangel’s festival on 29 September.  Maddeningly, the first part of the series begins on the page missing between folio 33 and folio 34, so it picks up mid-sentence.  I add the missing bit first [Corrêa, item 437] and then the transcription of the Latin (Lat.) with Old English (OE) above, followed by a Modern English (ModE) translation:

III Kal. Oct. (29 Sept.) Capitvla in festivitate sancti Michaelis Archangeli

Factum est proelium in caelo; Michael…

OE7ðegnashisgifvhtonmið vel við ðæmdræcce 7se dræcca 
OEgifæht vel7ðegnashis7nemæhton vel ne æcstove 

ModE: And there was a great battle in heaven, Michael and his angels fought with the dragon, and the dragon fought and his angels:  And they prevailed not, neither was their place found any more in heaven. [Rev. 12:7-8 Douay-Rheims]

In this passage from the Apocalypse (Revelation), Archangel Michael with his angels is facing off against the dragon and his angels (traditionally understood as the fallen Satan and his demons).

The Old English word þegen has a high frequency across a range of meanings rooted in the idea of service, the most obvious one being a member of the military social class in service to a lord, surviving in modern English as thane. 

As with other religious authors, Aldred in the Durham Ritual uses ðegnas for famulos (as servants of God), and in his gloss to the Lindisfarne Gospels, he uses it for discipuli, servos, apostoli (Luke), ministri (John 7:46, 18:36) and milites (John 19:2, in reference to the soldiers placing the crown of thorns on Jesus’ head). [In John 1:51 the angels ascending and descending on the son of man is glossed angla.]

However in his gloss to Matthew 25:41, Aldred uses thegn as an alternative for the devil’s angels in the division between those sheep bound for God’s kingdom on the right of Christ and those goats disposed of on the left [ Lindisfarne Gospels fol. 80rb5-10 ].

London, British Library MS Cotton Nero D.iv, fol. 80rb (Lindisfarne Gospels)
  • Lat:  tunc dicet et his qui ad sinistris erunt discendite a me maledicti in ignem ęternum qui praeparatus est diabolo et angelis eius
  • OE: ða coeðes & ðæm ða ðe to winstrum[1] biðon ofstiges gie from me awoergedo in fyr ecce seðe fore-ge-gearuuad is diwle & englum vel ðegnum his.
  • ModE: Then he shall say to them also that shall be on his left hand: Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. [Douay-Rheims]

Here Aldred hedges with a “vel” alternative to englum by adding ðegnum, perhaps to emphasize that these are the devil’s servants, demons in thrall to Satan.

Thus in the context of the passage in Revelation describing a battle of angelic hosts under two archangelic foes, it makes sense for Aldred to use the militaristic sense of “thegns” for both those angels serving under Michael and those under the satanic dragon. 

But I wondered…

if thegn occurred elsewhere as a way of describing angelic warbands, good or evil.

Not really very much, which surprised me.  Most of the instances are of less militaristic uses of angelic thegns as ministering servants.  To give two examples:

            1.  The Old English version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History uses the related noun ðegnung (service) to translate the ministering spirits who escort Cuthbert and his friend Herbert to heaven:

  • Lat. atque angelico ministerio pariter ad regnum caelieste translati [Colgrave & Minor, p. 440]
  • OE: midd þa engellican ðegnunge ætgædere to ðæm heofenlican rice gelædde
  • ModE: “by the ministry of angels were together led to the heavenly kingdom” [Miller, EETS 95, pp. 372-73].

            2.  The Junius Old English poem Genesis uses it poetically to describe first the angel who ministered to Hagar and then the angel who stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac:

  • Hagar (lines 2268-69)
    • OE: þær hie wuldres þegn, engel drihtnes [ASPR 1, p. 68]
    • ModE: “There a thane of glory, an angel of the Lord” [trans. Hostetter]
  • Abraham and Isaac (lines 2908-10)
    • OE: Þa metodes ðegn, ufan engla sum, Abraham hlude stefne cygde. [ASPR 1, p. 86]
    • ModE: “Then a thane of the Measurer, a certain angel from above, called Abraham with a loud voice.” [trans. Hostetter]. 

Metod (fate, death), as in most Old English poetry where this word occurs, is understood to refer to the Creator God, so the angel is one of God’s messenger-servants coming from heaven to deliver this directive.

Similarly, the use of thegn-words for ministri (pl) occurs in two Psalter glosses and in a hagiography of St. Michael (discussed further below).  All three are passages where ministri refers to angelic messengers (a redundancy since aggelos means messenger in Greek, similar to the Hebrew mal’akh).

  • Psalm 102:21 (103:21), a series of blessings that culminates with the angels:
    • Lat.:  Benedicite Domino, omnes virtutes ejus; ministri ejus, qui facitis voluntatem ejus.
    • OE: Bletsiað dryhten ealle mægenu his ðegnas his ge ðe doð willan his [Junius Psalter, also Vespasian Psalter gloss[2]]
    • ModE: Bless the Lord, all ye his hosts: you ministers of his that do his will. [Douay-Rheims]
  • Psalm 103:4 (104:4), the Paris Psalter and the Vespasian Psalter translate ministros with ðegnas:[3]
    • Lat: Qui facit angelos suos spiritus et ministros suos ignem urentem.
    • OE: Se doeð englas his gastas & ðegnas his fyr bern[en]de [Junius, Vespasian, and Paris Psalter].
    • ModE: Who makest thy angels spirits: and thy ministers a burning fire. [Douay-Rheims]

In several of these examples, ðegen is used to translate minister in an angelic context where the word angel is already in use, glossed engel.  In all, the operative aspects of thegn is more service as messengers rather than as warriors.  When the characterization of angels as a warband does occur, we find the OE word weorod (see Bosworth and Toller and the DOE corpus for examples from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, poetry, and various homilies).

To return to the Archangel Michael…

we find that his attributes and accomplishments are quite extensive beyond just military command of angelic thegns.

An Anonymous Old English Life of St. Michael found in the margins of the manuscript CCCC41 lists the archangel’s accomplishments, both Biblical and extra-Biblical.[4] [Anon OE Lives, pp. 442-51]. The fight against the dragon in Revelation is summarized:

  • OE: þis is se halga heahengel, Sanctus Michael, se ðe ær þisse worulde ende ofslihð þone ealdan feond þæt is se micla draca se ðe æt frymðe middangardes gesceapen wæs to ðam beorhtestan engle.
  • ModE: “This is the holy archangel Saint Michael, who before the end of this world will slay the ancient enemy, that is, the great dragon who at the beginning of the earth was created as the brightes angel.” [Anon. OE Lives, pp. 448-51].

            In addition, Michael is credited with protecting the three youths in the fiery furnace from the Book of Daniel.  It is Michael who gave them the words of the famous Benedicite, a prayer/hymn deployed for many protective purposes, which also echoes Psalm 102 (Benedicite Domino, omnia opera ejus). [Anon OE Lives pp. 444-45]

In Blickling Homily XVI To Sancte Michaheles Mæssan, the homilist quotes Paul on angels as ministering spirits, translating ministrum as ðegnunge gæstum:

  • OE: Ond ðæs engles mægen on his mægen ond his wundor þær þonne weorðod bið, ond oftost æteowed on þæm dæge, swa cwæð Sanctus Paulus, ‘Qui ad ministrum summis…’ ‘Englas beoð to ðegnunge gæstum fram Gode hider on world sended, to ðæm ðe þone ecean eðel mid móde ond mid mægene to Gode geearniað, þæt him sýn on fultume ða þe wið þæm awergdum gastum syngallice feohtan sceolan.’
  • ModE: “The archangel’s power and miracles are venerated there, and are most frequently shown on that day (St Michael’s Day), as St Paul said, ‘Qui ad ministrum summis… ‘ ‘Angels are as ministering spirits sent into the world by God to those, who with desire and virtue, merit from God the eternal kingdom, so that they (the angels) may be a help to those who constantly contend against the accursed spirits.’ “ [Kelly, p. 144 lines 189-94]

The quote from Paul is probably a paraphrase of Heb. 1:14:

  • Lat:  Nonne omnes sunt administratorii spiritus, in ministerium missi propter eos, qui haereditatem capient salutis? [Vulgate]
  • ModE: Are they not all ministering spirits, sent to minister for them, who shall receive the inheritance of salvation? [Douay-Rheims]

However, the next section concluding the homily on St. Michael is derived from the Visio S. Pauli, the apocryphal Apocalypse of Paul [see Kelly, pp. 190-92; also  Johnson, pp. 54-55, and Sowerby, pp. 176-83].

Notably, the demonic crew in the homily are described with many epithets, but not with ðegnas

So what about demonic angels as thegns of Satan…

as in the dragon of Aldred’s gloss of Revelation 12:7-8? 

This does seem even more rare, the only other instance being the Matthew 25:41 passage cited above. Again, Aldred’s handiwork. Otherwise, I did not encounter any correlation in the OE corpus between deofol and thegn.[5] 

But there is an interesting representation of Satan as ealdordeofol in apocryphal homilies, including another CCCC41 marginal homily from the Gospel of Nicodemus [Hulme, pp. 610-14].  DOE cites them:

  • Nic (D) 2: ure drihten, hælend Crist … astahg niðer to helwarum to þan, þæt he wolde … þæt ealdordeoful oferswiðan.
  • Nic (D) 6: þæt dioful is geciged and nemned Satanas, þæt is, ealdordeoful in wite.
  • Nic (D) 48: ða se stranga wið þæne stranga geræsde, þa ure Drihten acom and þæt ealdordioful geband.  Nic (E, different MS) 5: se deofol is geciged & genæmned sathanas þæt is ealdordeofol on wite, & he rixað & wunað on helle nyoðeweardre.
  • HomU 12.2 60: se ytemesta draca, þæt is þæt ealdordeoful, se <lihð> gebunden onbecling mid raceteage reades fyres … in hellegrunde. [Apocalypse of Thomas in Willard].
  • HomS 5 31: þonne cweð sum deofol, mare þe is toweard þonne þu gesyxt þone ealdordeofol þe lið onbæc gebunden on þære neowelnesse hellegrundes.
  • HomS  5 56: and syþþan heo bið gelæd to þam ealdordeofle Satanas.
  • HomS 31 47: mare þe is toward, þonne we ðe gebringað mid urum ealdredeofle, se is gebunden in þam nyðemestan hellegrunde. [3rd Sunday after Epiphany in Willard]

Apocryphal literature of this type does not mean these evocative vernacular representations are unorthodox (unless you are the homilist Ælfric, who was quite the purist).  Personally, I think ealdordeofol for Satan makes a good opposite to hehangel (archangel) Michael.  I almost wish Aldred had used it in Rev. 12 for the dragon with his thegns. 

I also note reference to the devil as witherweard (contrary, perverse, oppositional, like the archaic widdershins).  Three examples:

1.  The wiðer wearðan engel sátán in the the Egbert penitential [Confessionale pseudo-Egberti 1.4 28  (London, British Library, MS. Cotton Tiberius A.III, fol. 53v15); Logeman, pp. 515-516]. 

London, British Library MS Cotton Tiberius A.iii, fol. 53v
  • OE: …drihtne gescilde þe wið ealle deofles costnunga 7 wið þæne wiðer weardan engel satan….
  • ModE:  ….the Lord shield you against all devil’s tempations and against the adversary angel satan…

2.  The Old English translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care commissioned by King Alfred uses the term in a passage about how the ruler (ealdormon) should be humble [Section XVII starting p. 106 in Sweet]:

  • OE: Buton tweon ðonne se mon oferhygð ðæt he bio gelic oðrum monnum, ðonne bið he gelic ðæm wiðerweardan & ðæm aworpnan deofle. [Sweet, p. 112]
  • ModE:  “Without doubt when a man is impatient of being like other men he resembles the perverse and bansihed devil.” [Sweet, p. 112]

3.  The Blickling Homilies also favor its use for Satan or the devil:

  • Blickling Homily III
    • Gá ðú onbæcling, wiþerwearda in Jesus’ temptation where he says “get behind me, Satan” [Kelly, BH III Dominica Prima in Quadragesima, p. 18 lines 14-15].
  • Blickling Homily IV
    •  OE:  ‘Eala,’ cwæþ Sanctus Paulus, ‘þæt biþ deofles goldhord, þaet mon his synna dyrne his scrifte.’ Forþon þæm wiþerweardan beoþ þæs mannes synna gecwemran þonne eal eorþlic goldhord. [Kelly, BH IV Dominica Tertia in Quadragesima, p. 28, lines 63-65] 
    • ModE:  “’Oh,’ said St Paul, ‘for a man to hide his sins from his confessor is deemed as the devil’s treasure.’ Our adversary (the devil) considers a man’s sins more acceptable than all other kinds of earthly treasure.” [Kelly, p. 29.]

In the Lindisfarne Gospels, Aldred uses witherweard as a gloss for Satan (Mark 1:13, 3:26), for adversary (Matt 5:25/Luke 12:58, Luke 18:3, Luke 21:15), and for the anti-Christ (Matt 24:24/Mark 13:22).  He also uses the adjective in the Preface to Matthew to describe the false seeds sown by heretics (wiðerworda larwas) and their apocryphal lies (wiðer-weardra gedwola glossing apocriforum nenias) [Skeat, Matthew, p. 6, line 16 and p. 8, line 9].

In the Durham Ritual, he uses adjectival forms of witherweard for:

  • Lat. aduersus to indicate adverse health (fol. 61r18 Lat. aduerse salutis, OE wiðirwærdo hæles) in the prayer of St. John against poison (reptilian and demonic), for which see Scribe B chapter.
  • Lat. hereticus, false teachers glossed wiðirwordvm larwvm, in the alphabet of words on fol. 88vb8
  • Asmodeus demon as the wiðirwearda god divl (fol. 67r5, 18), in the field prayers that first got me into studying Aldred and Durham A.IV.19.

Consequently, I think Aldred…

might have enjoyed Fenwick Lawson’s 1956 wood sculpture of the archangel and his nemesis, if it had appeared through some temporal wormhole in Bede’s church of St. Paul at Jarrow when Aldred was there:

Fenwick Lawson, St. Michael and the Devil (1956), St. Paul’s, Jarrow

The imagery, verbal and physical, presents us with a choice:  do we focus our attention on the demonic evil or the overpowering good? 

This rabbit hole exploration of angels as thegns of the archangel Michael and of his adversary the dragon reminds us that ubiquitous as evil may be, good triumphs.  Or, as Mr. Rogers instructs us, in any dire situation, look for the helpers–and I might add, be the helpers, the allies who step forward and speak up for the vulnerable. 

We can call them angel thegns.


  • Anonymous Old English Lives of Saints. Ed. and trans. Johanna Kramer, Hugh Magennis, and Robin Norris. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2020.
  • Arundel Psalter (London, British Library, MS Arundel 60):  Oess, Guido, ed. Der altenglische Arundel-Psalter, eine Interlinearversion in der Handschrift Arundel 60 des Britischen Museums.  Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1910. [Hathi Trust]
  • ASPR 1: Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records Vol. 1: The Junius Manuscript, ed. George Philip Krapp. New York: Columbia University Press, 1931.
  • Bede, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the Enlglish People [Latin]. Ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.
  • Bede, The Old English Version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Ed. and trans. Thomas Miller.EETS 95.  London: Early English Text Society, 1890-98.
  • Bosworth Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online or see the print replica of An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (useful for looking up the explanation of references)
  • Corrêa, Alicia, ed. The Durham Collectar.  HBS CVII. London: Boydell for Henry Bradshaw Society, 1992.
  • DOE:  Dictionary of Old English and Corpus (University of Toronto)
  • Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition of the Bible at BibleGateway .
  • Hostetter, Aaron K.  Old English Poetry Project, translation of Junius Genesis.
  • Hulme, W.H. “The Old English Gospel of Nicodemus.” Modern Philology 1: 579-614.
  • Johnson, Richard F. Saint Michael the Archangel in Medieval English Legend.  Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005.
  • Junius Psalter (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Junius 27): Brenner, E. Der altenglische Junius-Psalter: die Interlinear-Glosse der Handschrift Junius 27 der Bodleiana zu Oxford. Anglistische Forschungen 23. Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1908.  [Hathi Trust]
  • Kelly, Richard J., ed. and trans. The Blickling Homilies Edition and Translation : (with General Introduction, Textual Notes, Tables and Appendices, and Select Bibliography. London: Continuum, 2003.
  • Logeman, H., “Anglo-Saxonica Minora.” Anglia 12: 497-518. Confessionale pseudo-Egberti (London, British Library, MS. Cotton Tiberius A.III).
  • Skeat, Walter W.  The Gospel According to Saint Matthew in Anglo-Saxon, Northumbrian, and Old Mercian Vesions.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1887.
  • Sowerby, Richard. Angels in Early Medieval England. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016.
  • Sweet, Henry, ed. and trans. King Alfred’s West-Saxon Version of Gregory’s Pastoral Care : with an English Translation.  EETS 50-53. London:  N. Trübner & Co. for the Early English Text Society, 1909.
  • Vespasian Psalter (London, British Library, MS. Cotton Vespasian A.I): Kuhn, Sherman M., ed. The Vespasian Psalter. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965.
  • Willard, Rudolph, ed. Two Apocrypha in Old English Homilies. Beiträge zur englischen Philologie 30. Leipzig: B. Tauchnitz, 1935; New York: Johnson Reprint, 1967. [not seen, no online access]

[1] Corrected from wynstrum with a “y” (dot under, “i” above).

[2] The Vespasian Psalter glosses the angeli of v. 20 with englas but the ministri of v. 21 with ðegnas

[3] This particular verse is quoted in Hebrews 1:7, showing the superiority of Christ to the angels.

[4] Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 41 is a manuscript containing a copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History in Old English, but it has margins full of all kinds of interesting things that I have dabbled in, as well as a selection of homilies with themes related to protection.

[5]  Occurrences of demon in Old English are limited to Aldred’s use in one of the field prayers of the Durham Ritual additions and in a Psalter gloss, Arundel Ps. 95:5 (demonia glossing Lat demonia), arguably transliterations rather than translations.

Posted by: kljolly | April 5, 2022

Reflections on Global Perspectives

Cross-post from Proofed: A Boydell & Brewer Blog, advertising the publication of the volume of essays edited by Karen Louise Jolly and Britton Elliott Brooks, Global Perspectives on Early Medieval England.

In the summer of 2007, I visited the Holy Island of Lindisfarne for the first time. I had the privilege of being driven there from Durham by the foremost archaeologist of the region, Dame Rosemary Cramp. She may not remember much of that journey—I am sure she has given innumerable tours to visiting scholars—but I have vivid memories of her regaling me with off-the-cuff but deeply insightful remarks about her changing views of the Chester-le-Street Anker house stone monuments, gesturing out the car window to Roman ruins along the road, giving insights on new discoveries at Bamburgh, and finally, showing me the artifacts of Lindisfarne, where she is the authority on much that is on display in the museum.

But I have one particular visual memory of the landscape as we drove north toward Lindisfarne. That was of the immensity of the horizon and the sky like a bowl over this huge open space of land. When I recounted this vision later to some colleagues, one pointed out, rightly so, that the landscape in that region is not flat but hilly. How can I account for my feeling of immensity?

One explanation is that my perspective is relative to where I come from. I live on an island in an archipelago at some distance from the nearest continental landmass. Britain is also an island, but a much bigger one than where I live on Oahu, a volcanic mountain sticking up from the sea. Although I was raised on the west coast of the North American continent, whenever I visit there after having lived here on this island, I am struck by how spread out everything is and how far I can see over land. I am used to gazing out over the immensity of the seascape, our sea of islands.

On Lindisfarne itself, after I arrived that first time and on subsequent visits, I had this sense of being at home on an island connected to the sea, and also a feeling of reverence for the sacredness of the past. I even blogged about having to wade back through the rising tide from St. Cuthbert’s Isle, feeling like the kind of silly tourist we complain about here in Hawai‘i.

St. Cuthbert’s Isle, Lindisfarne (author photo, 2007)

These personal anecdotes illustrate several of the themes in the volume Global Perspectives on Early Medieval England.

One perspective is from Oceania, which seems counter-intuitive in a volume of essays reflecting on artifacts and texts from a place half way around the globe and disconnected from each other in the early medieval era. Both editors, though, are from Hawai‘i, and many of the essays originated in a 2017 conference held on Oahu exploring this idea of bringing a global perspective to bear on our field of study.

Some essays explicitly address comparisons, connections, and orientations from the Pacific in relation to early medieval England. Jane Hawkes, for example, draws on her own encounters in Oceania to query how “art” is classified in certain modern western ways, considering together both Melanesian and early medieval insular arts. Similarly, Michael W. Scott shows how 19th century Anglican missionaries to Melanesia drew on early medieval Hiberno-Saxon mission stories–and then how Melanesian Christians appropriated and developed those traditions within their own culture.

While Scott’s essay traced how early medieval Britian came to Pacific Islands, my essay in the volume talks about taking students from the Pacific to early medieval Britain. In the fall of 2018, I escorted eighteen undergraduate students from the University of Hawai‘i for a semester study abroad in London. One course I taught centered on the British Museum, exploring in particular representations of Pacific and Asian cultures familiar to my students. The other course, on early medieval Europe, focused on the stunning Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibit at the British Library, with side visits to the British Museum room 41, Sutton Hoo, and Winchester.

However, the big excursion was to Northumberland, dropping down from Scotland into Lindisfarne, Jarrow, Durham, and York. At Lindisfarne, my Hawai‘i students intuitively felt the sacredness of the place, even though it was not “their island.” In part this response was due to Lindisfarne’s seclusion and relatively protected status, compared to colonized Oahu with its heavy tourism and militarism. But also these students experienced what it meant to be an early medieval pilgrim, that the journey itself made the destination meaningful. As one student of Hawaiian culture said: “the seclusion of the Holy Island made it that much more significant as a holy place, as you really had to journey to get there”. My feeling exactly.

Posted by: kljolly | August 21, 2021

Re-imagining Re-imagining Early Medieval Britain

Several followers of this blog are family members who, bless their hearts, read my dense academic prose with forbearance.  In response to my previous post, some asked could I not write without all of the jargon and say the same thing?  My immediate and admittedly defensive response was, well that would be a different essay for a different audience. 

But as I thought about it, I realized I was not practicing what I was preaching.  One of my points was about how western, often Latin-rooted, words and conceptual categories sound objective and scientific, but they actually inhibit our ability to view our world differently, to think outside those boxes.  Indeed, two Indigenous thinkers I quoted were objecting to “ontologies” and here I was going on about them using those same boxes.  In addition, a second purpose of my blog post was to explore ways to “reverbiage” the narratives we tell, with an eye to how I can write a historical fiction novel about Aldred in tenth-century Northumbria with contemporary English words that would convey a different spiritual landscape than our own.

So with thanks to those family members for their graciousness, I humbly offer here a reworking of that blog post without the jargon, which has resulted in a very different essay.  In the process I hope to sound less like the kind of objective expert the post condemns, and more like a human being struggling to listen to the wisdom of others and understand different ways of being in the world.  Perhaps this is a first step in altering my “omniscient narrator” voice in Aldred’s story.

[Post-colonial and Post-secular] Insights from African-American and Indigenous Studies

            Everything seems to be post- something these days:  post-modern, post-colonial, post-secular. But we won’t truly be free of whatever “it” is until we no longer have to talk about how to get over it or after it, that thing that is bothering us–whether the “it” is modernity, colonialism, or secularism, or all three, because they are all tied together.

            “Post” movements engage in what is called “deconstruction,” taking apart or dismantling a system or way of thinking that is thought to be damaging or limiting us.  Usually it is something so ubiquitous that we have accepted it without naming it, and once someone names it, debate begins.  It is, in an analogy popularized by David Foster Wallace, a “fish in water” problem.  In his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, “This is Water,” Wallace tells a joke where a grandfather fish sees a pair of younger fish swimming by and asks, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The young fish ask each other, “what is water?”

Brendan’s Coracle

  It is a dangerous question: like pointing out the emperor’s new clothes, people get uncomfortable at their nakedness.

          However, the goal of naming and taking apart certain beliefs is not to shame or harm, but to heal. Although the process of overturning embedded systems is necessarily messy, the purpose is to produce new ways of thinking and being.  This principle of deconstructing to rebuilt and repair applies to many current debates about such topics as racism, policing, immigration, economic inequality, or Indigenous sovereignty.  To take one example that will surely get me in trouble, recent theories identifying the racist waters in which we swim are being contested by those who deny the existence of systemic racism, in a “what is water” kind of way.[1]  These waters are polluted by certain assumptions rooted in American culture and white evangelicalism that need to be called out, but when called out provoke a defensive response.  

            The “post” being taken apart in this blog post is “secularism.” Secularism is one pillar in these modern assumptions that needs challenging.  The whole notion that there are two separate things called “secular” and “religious,” is a western invention dating back to the Enlightenment era, and also embedded in our American notion of “separation of church and state.”  Many mistakenly assume that separating the institutions of church and state means that we also can separate secular and religious, physical and spiritual in our daily lives, bodies from souls.  These pairs are examples of “binarisms” in western thought: categories that are mutually exclusive (you can’t be secular and religious at the same time) and often hierarchical (visible physical things are more real or important than invisible spiritual things, which are private and relative).  Sometimes this mutual exclusivity harms both sides, as in the false notion that science is opposed to religion and vice versa in the American culture wars over evolution, climate change, and the sacredness of Indigenous lands.  The binary terms of debate have to be overcome first if we are to address these issues.

We need to tell a new story.

            To get outside of these boxes separating bodies from souls, we can turn to cultures that have a different way of seeing the world.  I have found sustenance in more holistic visions from Native American, Hawaiian, and African American thinkers, among others.  One of the divisions in my own experience is between my personal faith life and my scholarly work—a necessary separation of domains of activity at an institutional level (separation of church and state is vital). But ultimately if I am to remain a “whole” person, everything that I see and do, read and hear, say and write are intertwined and influencing each other. 

            This blog is an example of that uncomfortable space of the personal and the professional:  I am a professor of history writing historical fiction (fair enough, others have done so), but I am also infusing matters of heart and faith, as well as activism on social justice issues.  I cannot isolate the process of telling Aldred’s story based on academic research into early medieval Britain from contemporary issues that consume my attention and are changing my thinking and my faith experience as a Jesus-follower, especially this last 18 months at the conjunction of a pandemic, Black Lives Matter, and the protection in Hawai‘i of Mauna Kea as sacred.[2]

What is sacred? 

That is a question well within both my academic expertise and personal experience as I am listening and learning from those who swim in different cultural waters than my own. Consequently, I have an obligation to speak and act within my circles of influence, whether on campus, in the community, or in scholarly conversations.  Nor am I alone in this endeavor, despite some resistance to the notion of including contemporary and personal beliefs in “objective” scholarly discourse.

            Tarren Andrews, the Bitterroot Salish scholar whom I cited in the previous blog post, defines what it means to have a “good heart” for medieval scholars entering into conversation with Indigenous studies:

            The idea of xẹ st spúʔus is the foundation of Indigenous relationality. Unlike the bēaga bryttan (ring giver) of Beowulf’s world, who gives gifts in exchange for martial loyalty, Indigenous kinship and all other forms of Indigenous relationality are predicated on doing, being, and giving without the expectation of reciprocation. Acting in xẹ st spúʔus cultivates an ethic of relationality and kinship that is contingent not on a regular assessment of exchange or a balancing of scales but on continual proof of intent, motivation, and communal goals. Beginning with something like xẹ st spúʔus destabilizes the Euro-Western epistemologies of capital, property, and the gift economy, creating space for Indigenous ways of knowing and being to have a sincere and material impact on medieval studies.[3]

This potent critique and invitation speaks back into our understanding of early medieval Britain.[4] The elevation of Beowulf as a quintessential representation of the values and beliefs of the people who lived in that time and place, is also a distortion:  whoever composed, modified, and transmitted the story and then the poem between the seventh and the eleventh centuries, the single manuscript artifact we have recording this poem represents only one elite perspective and set of values. Moreover, the selection of Beowulf by early modern English scholars to represent their ancestral culture speaks as much or more to their values as it does those of the early medieval poet and their audience.

            You might detect here that I do not like Beowulf, and frankly I do get a bit tired of its prominence.  I have accustomed myself to teach it by deconstructing its history as a tool for exploring the ways we look at the past.  But my reading of other texts and artifacts from early medieval Britain suggests that Beowulf—and other seminal texts like Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, or King Alfred’s translations—are not all that representative of the lived experience of people inhabiting those cultural landscapes.  Many of my colleagues have and are making the same point while studying less well-known materials or by reading between the lines of the famous texts. 

            To give one example related to Tarren Andrew’s point about the nature of gift giving in Beowulf:  Stephanie Clark in Compelling God demonstrates how we misunderstand early medieval gift exchange in prayer because we read it through a lens of capitalism where everything is a commodity for individual possession, rather than seeing prayer as a relational gift between and among people with their divinity, involving reciprocity without a price tag, as it were. [5] Both Andrews and Clark point out to us, “this is the water we are swimming in” and also “here is a different type of water others swim in.”  From these and other thought-provoking essays and books, I realize how the material commodity economy in which I live affects the way I understand both the early medieval people I study and my own understanding of prayer and reciprocity in community.

              Thus, the idea of kinship and community has been on my mind lately in relation to the sacred:  how kinship manifested in early medieval Britain, how we might cultivate it among scholars of early medieval Britain, but also how I live in community locally. These three are inextricably intertwined in this body-soul person.

And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and I perceived that it was as round as any ball.  I looked at it and thought:  What can this be?  And I was given this general answer:  It is everything which is made. I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that it was so little that it could suddenly fall into nothing.  And I was answered in my understanding:  It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. 
Julian of Norwich, Showings (Short Text Chapter iv).

In the last year and a half, I have participated in a number of virtual pilgrimages, webinars, and discussion groups at various intersections of social justice and spirituality.   Most were quite intense and personal, as we journey together toward healing of broken relationships and repair of unjust systems. I ask myself:

  •             How should I choose my words more carefully and thoughtfully?
  •             How should I act locally and globally?

As is evident from citations and quotes in previous posts, what I hear and see from African-American, Indigenous, and Native Hawaiian Christians de-colonizing the Gospel and resisting systemic racism looks and feels more like Jesus and the Bible than what is coming out of most contemporary US white evangelical churches.  Moreover, “reading the Bible through non-western eyes” in this way resonates with my own efforts to study early medieval Christianities free of certain modern blinders. I hope to infuse these new understandings of prayer and kinship into my portrayal of Aldred in tenth-century Northumbria.

Aldred at the Battle of Brunanburh, hallowing water:

“why don’t you hold the sieve, while I pour the water.”  He thought the boy’s hands too unsteady to pour, so he took the jug from him and let the boy hold the sieve lined with finely woven flaxen cloth over the basin set on a small table beside them.

            As he poured, Aldred began to chant, “Exorcizo te, aque, in nomine Dei patris omnipotentis….”

            When he was done with the exorcism prayer, timed with the pouring of the water, he set the jug down and motioned the seive away.  Then he began the benediction of water, “Deus qui ad salutem humani generis maxima…,” asking God to purify the water with his divine grace so that wherever it be used, it would bring cleansing and healing, freedom and protection.

            The boy watched him with awe.  The water was now still and clear, the sieve having removed the debris and any remaining impurities sunk to the bottom of the basin.

            Through the whole procedure, it seemed that Aldred and the boy had stepped for a few minutes into another world.  The sound of Aldred’s voice cancelled that of moaning men, the water running and pooling seemed peaceful and comforting.  The two of them remained motionless for several minutes, staring at the water. 

           It seemed silly, in some ways, to take such slow care over this procedure, while men were dying all around them.  And yet, God was there in the water.  It had the power to cool the heat of battle and quench men’s spiritual thirst.

[1]  For some excellent guidelines on having these conversations, see Smithsonian Talking About Race  especially Being Antiracist.

[2] See blog posts Silence is not an option, “I Can’t Breathe,” and Reimagining Early Medieval Britain.

[3] Tarren Andrews, “Indigenous Futures and Medieval Pasts: An Introduction,” English Language Notes 58.2 (2020), pp. 1-17 at pp. 2-3.

[4]  See also Catherine Karkov’s “eutopia” in the previous post.

[5] Stephanie Clark, Compelling God: Theories of Prayer in Anglo-Saxon England (Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 2018).

Posted by: kljolly | August 12, 2021

Re-imagining Early Medieval Britain II: Emerging Insights

The following is a continuation of the blog post from virtual Leeds 2020 on Re-Imagining Early Medieval Britain, both posts serving as background for a forthcoming essay on this topic.  These reflections are more autobiographical than is appropriate for a scholarly publication, and also still in progress as I seek to apply them to my historical fiction novel on Aldred chronicled on this blog.  I have inserted some zentangle wood tile images to break up the text. Apologies for special characters in Indigenous words not represented correctly in the WordPress font.

Post-colonial and Post-secular Insights from African-American and Indigenous Studies

            In focusing on magical realism in contemporary fiction, the earlier blog post delved into the effects of western binaries by citing primarily Kathleen Davis, N. T. Wright, and Martin Luther King.  In this post I would like to extend that exploration of ontologies into post-colonial and post-secular studies from African-American and Indigenous studies.[1]  These approaches not only deconstruct modern western ontologies that have constricted our thinking, but they also offer a means of escape for all of us, including scholars of early medieval Britain. 

            As noted in my earlier post, I am a white non-Indigenous person learning to listen to the voices of contemporary Indigenous and African-American spiritualities decolonizing minds, bodies, and souls.  I am grateful for the generosity of spirit found among cultural practitioners here in Hawai‘i and other Indigenous scholars, particularly the thoughtful invitation to medievalists from Tarren Andrews (Bitterroot Salish) to go beyond just “engaging with” Indigenous studies and enter into kinship relationships with a good heart (x.est spúʔus).[2]  In this ongoing process of listening and learning, I am endeavoring to apply these insights to a study of early medieval Britain, mindful of my own cultural limits and the risks of mis-appropriation. I begin with some deconstruction of the western binarisms and ontologies that have limited me.


            Ontologies, ways of categorizing human experience or perception of the world, easily fall into hierarchical chains.  Even the word ontology and associated categorical terms betray power differentials. Among Indigenous thinkers, Zoe Todd notes that “ontology is just another word for colonialism,” while Edgar Garcia points out that “What some people call myth, or some people call magical thinking — we might just call it ‘theory.’ Or ‘conceptuality.’”[3] The semantic shifts between terms such as ‘myth’ and ‘theory’ are rooted in western philosophical ontologies contrasting magic with religion or science, in ways applied by colonizers to subjugated cultures whose systems of belief and reason were denigrated or dismissed as irrational. 

            Similarly, scholars of medieval “magic” wrestle to escape the modern progress model of magic-religion-science.[4]  Naming as a means of othering, while categorizing along a system of hierarchical values, is rooted in language itself, particularly the power of Latin-based words with their scientific-sounding objectivity. Post-colonial push back on these linguistic ontologies highlights for those in the field of medieval European studies the need to recognize how deeply embedded this language is in our professional academic narratives, in turn revealing how our supposed scientific objectivity is riddled with inherent materialist biases against various forms of spirituality.[5]

            In response to this materialist bias in modernity, Arturo Escobar notes how “we are facing modern problems for which there are no longer modern solutions” and adds:

Given that we cannot be intimate with the Earth within a mechanistic paradigm, we are in dire need of a New Story that might enable us to reunite the sacred and the universe, the human and the non-human. The wisdom traditions, including those of [I]ndigenous peoples, are a partial guide towards this goal of re-embedding ourselves within the Earth.[6]

This call for a New Story should be heard by both historians and fiction authors, but particularly those at the intersection of the two:  those of us writing historical fiction need to break free of the modern western narratives of progress with its ontological hierarchies mapped onto the pre-modern.

            Resistance to these modern storylines comes also from within global Christian communities “decolonizing the Gospel” by reframing or decentering the dominant and hegemonic western Christianity that came to their shores with colonialist missionaries.[7] Liberation theology emerging from Latin American and African American thinkers restores an incarnational Gospel message. For example, Barbara Holmes in Joy Unspeakable, outlines the contemplative practices of the Black Church in the African diaspora.[8] She describes an embodied spirituality that both resists the gnostic-like dualism of modern white evangelicalism in the U.S. but also points us to a larger more diverse set of Christian practices of spirituality globally and historically.[9]

            Likewise, post-colonial Native American, Hawaiian, and other Pacific Islander “Jesus-followers,” to use one circumlocution avoiding the pejorative meaning attached to “Christian,” are working to restore a more holistic understanding of Indigenous Christianities free of western blinders.[10] Contextual theology suggests a dialogue between culture and an imported faith.  Imagine, anthropologist Matt Tomlinson suggests, Jesus as the Pig of God rather than Lamb of God, or consider Tongan theologian Sione ‘Amanaki Havea’s Coconut Theology, embodying Jesus as the Coconut of Life, which provides the bread and the wine for the Eucharist, as does kalo (taro) with fresh water for Hawaiian Jesus-followers.[11]

            Such acculturation of a proselytizing religion like Christianity is clearly evident in early medieval Britain, despite a Rome-centered narrative of universalizing and homogenizing.  Consequently, the emergence of distinctive British, Irish, or English Christianities should be considered normative not aberrant.[12]  For example, the hybridity of liturgical practice in the tenth-century Durham Cathedral Library A.IV.19 manuscript (the “Durham Ritual” or “Collectar”) that Aldred glossed and the community of St. Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street modified, should not be seen only in terms of its adherence to or deviation from the monastic reform movement emanating from Wessex, as if on the periphery, but viewed at the center of its own assertion of Northumbrian spirituality.[13]

3 Sisters Garden

            Two further aspects of Indigenous ways of thinking are currently influencing my effort to write new stories about early medieval Northumbria.  One is the role of language in terms of word choice among modern Englishes, the subject of a forthcoming scholarly essay, and the second has to do with holistic views of the natural world.  Here I outline my current reflections on these two issues.

            The words we choose have stories embedded in them, connecting current generations to the ancestors.  As a consequence, reviving cultural memories through language education is central to contemporary post-colonial Indigenous movements, particularly the ways in which language is tied to a sense of place:

I ka ʻōlelo ke ola, i ka ʻōlelo ka make (in language there is life, in language there is death). This ʻōlelo noʻeau (wise saying) inextricably links our survival as a people to the survival of our language. Languages convey nuances unique to our own worldviews, cultures, and traditions.[14]

Imperialist assertions of English dominance suppressing Indigenous languages has done and continues to do irreparable harm to linguistic diversity and cultural identities.  Similarly, pidgin and creole languages developed by people of color under colonialism were and are often dismissed by language purists as “broken” English in favor of “standard” English. For example, Hawaiian Creole (HCE), locally called Pidgin, developed among settler colonialist workers whom plantation owners brought in from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and elsewhere in competition with one another, but who allied as laborers, but this form of Pidgin English also has roots in an earlier Pidgin Hawaiian (‘Ölelo Pa‘i‘ai). [15] Pidgins, along with the Indigenous language ‘Ölelo Hawai‘i, were disfavored or banned even before, but especially after the American overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, in favor of competence in standard English.[16] 

            In opposition to racist monlingualism (it is usually people of color whose bi- or tri-lingualism is disparaged), we need to move toward a narrative of multiple Englishes and the empowering creativeness of translingual environments.[17]  Despite colonialist English-only prejudices, creole languages are neither ‘primitive’ nor simplistic; rather, they are the opposite of a ‘pure’ or ‘original’ language. They were created and developed in multilingual environments to facilitate communication between groups, as more than likely occurred in early medieval Northumbria between the dominant English speakers in relation to Irish, Welsh, Cumbric, and Scots Gaelic, as well as Old Norse. Such language mixing does not imply equality.  The main lexifer for Hawaiian Creole is English, undoubtedly true also for the dominance of English speakers in early medieval Britain.[18]  Moreover, language hierarchies established by those in power exist within and between various Englishes and Creoles; conversely, for the underclasses, speaking “local” can be a source of pride and resistance. 

            The concept of purity in languages is also applied to culture and religion, notably an invisible standard of what is ‘Christian’ on a sliding scale with ‘pagan’, with either one rated at the top:  either valuing some mythical pure Christianity unsullied by local culture’s retention of pagan practices, or seeking some pure ‘original’ paganism stripped of its foreign Christian accretions.[19]  Whichever way you tip it, this scale is another instance of a linguistic ontology that inhibits our understanding of the past as well as the present.

            A second thread in contemporary Indigenous reactions to modern binaries is an emphasis on a holistic view of the human condition in relation to the Creator and the creation, sometimes linked to the Hebrew construct of shalom and its rich meanings for wholeness beyond just abstract “peace.”[20] So, for example, Keetoowah Cherokee descendant Randy Woodley connects the Biblical concept of shalom to what he and many contemporary Native American tribes in North America summarize from their common stock of stories and values as the “Harmony Way.”[21]  Similarly, contextual theology in Samoa draws on the concept of fa‘asamoa, the Samoan Way as a God-given culture.[22] Robin Wall Kimmerer, a professor of botany and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, combines the scientific lens of studying nature with a potent sense of connection to the natural world from a variety of Native American tribal storehouses of knowledge.[23]  

Mauna Paradox

            In the same vein, Native Hawaiians (Kānaka Maoli) are exploring the power of aloha for local and global transformations in how humans relate to the environment and one another, embodied in the Lökahi triangle integrating spiritual, natural, and communal dimensions.[24] In Ölelo Hawai‘i, aloha is a rich word that means far more than its usual English translation, commercial misappropriations, and pop culture (ab)uses.[25] The development of kapu aloha (protected or sacred way of loving the ‘aina or land) on Mauna Kea in opposition to the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) embodies that worldview.[26] As one colleague summarized in response to the kia‘i, or protectors, of Mauna Kea: ‘Language is a repository of the political ontology of a people. If that is taken, much else can be easily taken as well. Yet, revitalized language can be a weapon of protection’.[27] Aloha and the Lökahi triangle speak to a deep rooted sense of connection between sacred landscapes and humans in ways that bypass the binary of pagan versus Christian imposed on Indigenous and other convert communities who not only absorbed but also transmuted the Christian mission to create their own Christianities. 

            That these same acculturation processes happened in the conversion of European people groups in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages seems to have been forgotten as that particular cultural formation of “Christianity” claimed both exclusivity and universality in global dominance.  One way to restore and contextualize that history is to “reverbiage” our narratives recounting the emergence of various forms of Christianity in early medieval Britain.[28]

            This sensitivity to language in relation to a sense of place also raises questions about what to call the historic place-times we study and write about.  Recently I have taken to using the geographic insular term Britain instead of England.  The Northumbria in which Aldred lived in the tenth century was a place of shifting political boundaries within and around the island of Britain.  Even the island of Britain as a contiguous landmass defined by ocean boundaries somewhat deceptively implies a land-based territorial unity, when in fact connections across water often formed more easily than across diverse terrains within Britain.  Thus regions of Britain north of the Humber from the Iron Age to the eleventh century interacted in a North Atlantic world stretching from Scandinavia to Ireland as much or more than they connected with southwest Britain with its cross-channel continental connections. English-speaking communities in tenth-century Northumbria existed in a historic web of cultural identities and influences from Irish, Scots, Cumbrian, and Scandinavian languages and practices, different from and even resistant to West Saxon hegemony.  In the tenth century, the notion of a singular bordered “England” and a normative or homogenized “English” Christianity emanating from Wessex was not yet inevitable.[29]  Rather than tracing the emergence and triumph of what becomes hegemonic, we should seek to understand the plurality of experiences and the contested nature of the cultural landscape.

            To end on a positive note:  Deconstruction may seem like a negative enterprise, not to mention messy, but it is necessary in order to move into the stage of writing new narratives. Post-colonial and post-secular theorists and Indigenous scholars are not advocating a wholesale rejection of modernity via a return to some imagined pristine Indigenous or pre-modern culture, but are exposing the unstated philosophical assumptions undergirding western modernity and its globalization. In resisting the body-soul, secular-spiritual binaries, these holistic visions emphasize new ways of living and being that may sound impossibly utopian. But the human desire for a better world than the ones we have made drives most cosmologies and theologies across cultures, so should not be dismissed out of hand in favor of a modern western utilitarianism or pseudo-scientist materialism in our search for understanding the human condition through the study of the past.

            While drawing our attention to many of the dystopian fractures in early medieval Britain, Catherine Karkov offers an updated “eutopia” for our contemplation:

a happy place that can be realised—that would be a place in which diversity, compassion, and inclusion are vital operating methods. Eutopia, like utopia, is in opposition to the world as it is and holds out the possibility of real change. [30]

This happy place, for scholars and other post-modern humans, is an invitation to enter into a new set of scholarly and personal relationships.  It may be at times uncomfortable or disconcerting, especially when we recognize the power differentials between those of us with certain privileges and those who are in vulnerable positions. Developing kinships requires compassion and forgiveness, and will take time and patience to reach fruition.

Bridget’s Cross

[1] On post-secular theory, see Charly Coleman, “Review Article Resacralizing the World: The Fate of Secularization in Enlightenment Historiography,” The Journal of Modern History 82 (June 2010): 368–95; David Hanlon, “Losing Oceania to the Pacific and the World,” The Contemporary Pacific 29 (2017): 286–318 on Indigenous historiographies and “Deep Time”; and Karen Louise Jolly, ‘Anglo-Saxons on Exhibit: Displaying the Sacred’, in Jolly and Brooks (eds), Global Perspectives, forthcoming.

[2] Tarren Andrews and Tiffany Beechy, eds, Indigenous Futures and Medieval Pasts, English Language Notes 58.2 (2020), Introduction (pp. 1-17).  See also The Value of Hawaiʻi 3: Hulihia, ed. Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘öpua, Craig Howes, Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwo‘ole Osorio, and Aiko Yamashiro (Honolulu, 2020), which contains diverse reflections on the intersections between Hawaiian activism, Black Lives Matter, COVID-19 and other global-local issues.

[3] Zoe Todd, ‘An Indigenous Feminist’s take on the Ontological Turn: “ontology” is just another word for colonialism’, Urbane Adventurer: Amiskwacî blog post October 24, 2014 < > [accessed 5 April 2021]; Len Gutkin, “’Who Gets to Speak in Our Traditions?’: Edgar Garcia on the canon, Indigenous studies and talking with the dead,” Chronicle of Higher Education Opinion (interview), June 29, 2020 < > [accessed 5 April 2021]. See also Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London, 2012).

[4] See Karen Louise Jolly, “Magic and Science,” in The Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures, edited Helaine Selin (Dordrecht, 1997), reprinted in The Encyclopaedia of Classical Indian Sciences, edited Helaine Selin and Roddam Narasimha (Hyderabad, India, 2007); Jolly, “Medieval Magic: Definitions, Beliefs, Practices,” in The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages (London, 2002), pp. 1-72; and Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1990; 2nd ed 2014; revised and expanded 3rd edition, forthcoming).

[5] Indeed, some peer reviewers’ discomfort with the use of the first person in scholarly essays reflects this desire for objectivity in academic discourse, the need to be impersonal and distant.

[6] Arturo Escobar, ‘Thinking-Feeling with the Earth: Territorial Struggles and the Ontological Dimension of the Epistemologies of the South’, Revista de Antropologia Iberoamericana 11.1 (2016): 11–32, at 15, 27 <> [accessed 5 April 2021]. Escobar in writing about Epistemologies of the South contrasts a western dualistic political One-World World ontology with relational, holistic ontologies among Indigenous communities.

[7] See Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: Rise of Global Christianity, 3rd edn (New York, 2011; orig. 2002); and Randy S. Woodley and Bo C. Sanders, Decolonizing Evangelicalism: An 11:59 p.m. Conversation (Eugene, 2020). On the missonary legacy in Hawai‘i, see Ronald C. Williams, Jr., “Claiming Christianity: The Struggle over God and Nation in Hawai‘i, 1880-1900” (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Hawai‘i Mānoa, 2013).

[8] Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd edn (Minneapolis, 2017). For black liberation theology, see James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, rev. edn (Maryknoll, 1997, orig. 1975); and Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston, 1996, orig. 1949).

[9] On white evangelicalism in the U.S. and the Black church, see Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America (Grand Rapids, 2016); Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion (Downers Grove, 2018); Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids, 2019); and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Black Church: This is our Story, This is Our Song (PBS, 2021) <> [accessed 5 April 2021].

[10] See Richard Twiss, Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys (Downers Grove, 2015).

[11] Matt Tomlinson, God Is Samoan: Dialogues Between Culture and Theology in the Pacific (Honolulu, 2020), pp. pp. 3-6; David Baumgart Turner, “Reconnecting Spiritual Roots in Our Faith Communities,” in The Value of Hawai‘i 3, pp. 178-81, at p. 179 for kalo and fresh water as Eucharist.  See also Michael W. Scott, “Boniface and Bede in the Pacific: Exploring Anamorphic Comparisons between the Hiberno-Saxon Missions and the Anglican Melanesian Mission,” in Global Perspectives, ed. Jolly and Brooks, forthcoming.

[12] Tiffany Beechy has pointed to a similar embodiment in early medieval insular aesthetics that resists the Augustinian neoPlatonism separating material and spiritual: “Consumption, Purgation, Poetry, Divinity: Incarnational Poetics and the Indo-European Tradition,” Modern Philology 114.2 (2016): 149–169.

[13] Karen Louise Jolly, The Community of St. Cuthbert in the Late Tenth Century: The Chester-le-Street Additions to Durham Cathedral Library A.IV.19 (Columbus, 2012).

[14] Katrina-Ann R. Kapā‘anaokalāokeola Nākoa Oliveira, “Aloha ‘Āina-Placed Ho‘omoana ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i: A Path to Language Revitalization,” in Handbook of Indigenous Education, ed. Elizabeth Ann McKinley and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Singapore, 2019), pp. 339–356, at p. 339.  See also Paige Miki Kaläokananiki‘eki‘e Okamura, “He Make‘e ‘Ölelo Hawai‘i, He Make‘e Lāhui: To Lose Our Language Is to Forget Who We Are,” in The Value of Hawai‘i 3, pp. 131-34; and Patricia Espiritu Halagao and Cheryl Ka‘uhane Lupenui, “Hawai‘i Breathes Multilingualism,” in The Value of Hawai‘i 3, pp. 186-93.

[15] See the Charlene Junko Sato Center for Pidgin, Creole, and Dialect Studies at the University of Hawai‘i,  <; [accessed 19 July 2021]; Katie Drager, “Pidgin and Hawaiʻi English: An Overview,” International Journal of Language, Translation and Intercultural Communication 1 (2012): 61-73; Christina Higgins, “Earning Capital in Hawaiʻi’s Linguistic Landscape,” in Unequal Englishes across Multilingual Spaces, ed. Ruanni Tupas (New York, 2015), pp. 145-162; and Halagao and Lupenui, “Hawai‘i Breathes Multilingualism,” p. 187.

[16] See Oliviera, “Aloha ‘Āina-Placed Ho‘omoana ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i,” pp. 340-41, and Nālani Wilson-Hokowhitu and Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘öpua, “Colonization, Education, and Kanaka ‘Ōiwi Survivance,” in Handbook of Indigenous Education, pp. 49-62.

[17] See A. Suresh Canagarajah, Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations (London, 2013), pp. 6-8 and 20-24; and Lydia Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity—China, 1900-1937 (Stanford, 1995).

[18] Although note above in Halagao and Lupenui, “Hawai‘i Breathes Multilingualism,” the influence of pre-plantation era Hawaiian and Polynesian Pidgins in which the main lexifer was not necessarily English.

[19] Jolly, Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context (Chapel Hill, NC, 1996), pp. 18-34; Eric G. Stanley, The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism in Imagining the Anglo-Saxon Past (Cambridge, 2000).

[20] See Makoto Fujimura, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making (New Haven, 2020), p. 20.

[21] Randy Woodley, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision (Grand Rapids, 2012), Preface, where he gives a brief synopsis of his dissertation research on the variations and commonalities among North American tribes. To summarize a worldview and set of values drawn over a long history of spiritual practices shared among various linguistic communities is no different than the kinds of credal statements found in other world religions, like Christianity, and in no way denies the existence of variations and branches within that religious tradition. 

[22] Tomlinson, God is Samoan, pp. 7-8. See also Lisa Sharon Harper, The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right (New York, 2016); and Escobar, ‘Thinking-Feeling’, 11-32.

[23] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (Minneapolis, MN, 2013).  See her critique of the scientific lens (pp. 341-47) and also her discussion of the Thanksgiving Address of gratitude to Creation shared by the Haudenosaunee across tribes and around the world (pp. 107-118).

[24] For Lökahi as balance and aloha as compassion in a medical context, see “Traditional Health Beliefs: Native Hawaiian Values,” Stanford School of Medicine Ethnogeriatrics (2021) <> [accessed 5 April 2021]; in a social work context, see Thao N. Le and Pono Shim, “Mindfulness and the Aloha Response,” Journal of Indigenous Social Development 3.2 (August 2014): 1-11 (available at; and for one commercialized variation on the triangle, see Lani Kamauu Yamasaki, Live Lökahi™ (2021) <> [accessed 5 April 2021].  Emerging theological variations are not yet public.

[25] The decision to use italics for Hawaiian words is a fraught one because ‘olelo Hawai‘i is considered a primary, not a “second,” language in Hawai‘i. In this essay, I have chosen to use italics in order to emphasize the Indigenous meanings of words like aloha that have been Anglicised or misappropriated.

[26] For more information on kapu aloha on Mauna a Wākea, see Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu (2021) <> [accessed 5 April 2021]; and Presley Ke‘alaanuhea Ah Mook Sang, “Pu‘uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu University: He Kïpuka Aloha ‘Äina no ka ‘Imi Na‘auao,” in The Value of Hawai‘i 3, pp. 265-67.  See also the holistic global vision and insights from Höküle‘a, the Hawaiian voyaging canoe, through the Polynesian Voyaging Society at <>  [accessed 5 July 2021].

[27] Rachel Kuhn, personal correspondence.

[28] On “reverbiaging,” see Woodley and Sanders, Decolonizing Evangelicalism, pp. 18-20.

[29] See Karen Louise Jolly and Britton Elliott Brooks, “Introduction,” in Global Perspectives on Early Medieval England, ed. Jolly and Brooks (Boydell and Brewer, forthcoming); Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins (Oxford, 2012); and Martin Carver, Formative Britain: An Archaeology of Britain, Fifth to Eleventh Century AD (London, 2019).

[30] Catherine E. Karkov, Imagining Anglo-Saxon England: Utopia, Heterotopia, Dystopia (Woodbridge, 2020), p. 239.

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.

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