Posted by: kljolly | August 8, 2014

Background to Aldred’s Cat

The first hurricane seems to have broken up after running into the volcano on the Big Island of Hawai`i and is passing south of us, so no loss of power.  The second storm is on its heels but we have a couple of days before it passes north of us.   So I have a space of calm to give some background on my short interlude on Aldred’s Cat, Panchiel.

British short hair (wikipedia)

British short hair (wikipedia)

First, the cat’s name, shortened to Pan, which I blogged about earlier (see also more cats on coloring).  It comes from the archangel name Panchiel used in the field prayers Aldred copied and glossed in the additions to Durham Cathedral A.IV.19.  These five prayers for clearing vermin and other evils from the fields are written in a red majuscule (that deteriorates into minuscule over the next pages) and glossed in black, the opposite of Aldred’s usual style of red gloss on black, so they must have meant something to him.  These prayers caught my eye early on, starting my adventures with Durham A.IV.19 and Aldred (in addition to my book, I wrote an earlier article chronicling my search to source these prayers, but see also addenda and corrigenda 1).

Anyway, Panchiel is an Irish spelling of Paniel, a slightly unorthodox archangelic name meaning face of God (see Peniel, the place where Jacob wrestled with God in Genesis 32:30).  In a fiction chapter on the field prayers set earlier at Crayke but not posted here, young priest Aldred finds a kitten with a dead mouse it has caught in a field devastated by the Vikings.  He prays some of the field prayers there and names the cat Panchiel, taking her with him to Chester-le-Street.  She and her progeny are excellent mousers for the scriptorium and elsewhere.

As for the prayer over a vat fouled by rodents, that is found in the original collectar of Durham A.IV.19 (fol. 56v4-14).  Scribe O copied it somewhat badly and gave it a title in Old English.  It looks as follows:

4     scal reda ofer ða feta de ful infalleð

driht’ hælga faeder alm’ ece god ðv ðe worhtest
5 Domine sancte pater omnipotens aeterne deus qui fecisti cae

heofon 7 earðe sae 7 alle ða ðe in ðæm sindon
6 lum et terram mare et omnia que in eis sunt. ro

ic bidde ðec 7 ic giwiga on nome hæl’ crist’ ancend’ bearnes ðin’
7 go te et peto in nomine Ihesu Christi uni[geni]ti filii tui

þ’te gihælgia gimeadoma ðv 7 bloetsiga gihriord
8 ut sanctificare digneris et benedicere epulam

ðas’ svæ gibloedsadest þ’ gihriord hab
9 istam sicut benedixisti epulationem habra

is’ ia’ 7 svæ gibloetsadest sex stænen fato væt’s
10 he isaac iacob et sicut benedi[xi]sti sex hydrias in

in can’ galili’ wætres on wine godv’ ymbvoendedo
11 chanan galileae aqu[ae] in uinum bonum conuerse

aron of vætre svæ giwoende gimeodvma ðv æfne
12 sunt de aqua ita conuertere digneris mate

ðiss alðes on svoetnisse 7 bliðnisse
13 riam istam ceruise in suauitatem et hilaritatem

esnv’ ðinv’ ðæm ða ðe in lvfv rehtlefend [vel…] gilefdon
14 seruis tuis his qui in fide catholica crediderunt.;

Of the errors made by Scribe O, he corrects two himself and Aldred corrects two (sort of), as well as glosses it all.  The corrections and gloss are explored in another part of my fictional narrative not posted here, a modern scholar studying the text and Aldred.  In some ways, Aldred is paying closer attention to this prayer than the original scribe.

What I will note here is the curious title and previous comments about this prayer.  Although Scribe O has labeled it as something to be “read over a vat that [something] foul fell in,” the language of the prayer suggests it was written for blessing beer at a feast, with “just as” clauses invoking the way God blessed feasts of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the six water jars turned into wine by Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana.  Of course, one can always turn a blessing into an exorcism.

Christopher Hohler, in a witty and sardonic reference to this prayer, says the following:

And among the few apparently indisputable contributions of England to the Latin liturgy is the formula, to be read over the cask by the priest, to improve the quality of beer in which mice or weasels have got drowned. It was not that the English were alone in wishing, for gastronomic or economical reasons, to drink such beer; the penitential embedded in the Romano-Germanic pontifical expects the priest specifically to ask at confession whether his German penitent has drunk beer flavoured in this way. Admission of the offence involved forty days penance. But in England the view was different; and, by calling in the priest first, it was possible to indulge in this recondite vice with impunity. [Christopher Hohler, “Some Service Books of the Later Saxon Church,” in Tenth Century Studies, ed. David Parsons (London: Phillimore, 1975), 71–72.]

Now Scribe O’s Old English title just says something “foul” and does not mention rodents, although it clearly could include such a thing if you know about the penitential rule as Hohler does.

In addition to adding a reference to this penitential practice as the men argued in my story, I also included two hagiographic tales.  In the Life of Liutbirga, the devil accuses the saintly woman of a girlhood sin, finishing her drink after laughingly pulling a dead mouse out of her cup by its tail [Frederick S. Paxton, trans., Anchoress and Abbess in Ninth-Century Saxony: The Lives of Liutbirga of Wendhausen and Hathumoda of Gandersheim (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 104].

The devil doesn’t win this argument against her, but it is a different outcome for the wretched nun in Gregory the Great’s Dialogues who eats a lettuce from the garden without blessing it with the sign of the cross.  A little demon on the leaf “innocently” swallowed complains that it is not his fault she got sick and needed to be exorcised.

All this goes to show that

  1. food and drink are precious and not to be wasted;
  2. alcohol is safer than water;
  3. some illness-causing vermin are visible and others invisible;
  4. for the visible ones, keep a cat; but
  5. for the invisible ones, blessings and exorcisms add some protection in an already dangerous world.





  1. Re: alcohol is safer than water
    Whisky ł whiskey is from the Gaelic ‘uisge beatha’ meaning ‘water of life’, definitely better for you than plain water!

  2. […] and the prayers to cleanse casks into which something foul has fallen (see Panchiel short story and background).  Did rodents nibble holes in wooden casks and other containers?  Would some monks take a kindly […]

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