Posted by: kljolly | July 30, 2016

The Horn and the Sword

This last week or so I have been working on a chapter set in 925, when Aldred is seven and is mother is about to send him to Chester-le-Street for schooling.  Two objects that I have woven into the narrative symbolize the two life paths and family lineages that Aldred will later have to choose between, the sword and the horn.

The sword is from his father and represents the thegnly status of his warrior heritage.  The horn was a symbolic gift to his parents from Bishop Cutheard of Chester-le-Street when the community granted the Easington lands to them (Aldred’s Family).

At the Leeds Medieval Congress last month, Mary Blanchard (Ave Maria University, Florida) offered an analysis of high-ranking families in late Saxon England, suggesting two networks, one where ecclesiastical preferment is sought for the sons, and the other a network of secular preferment (Session 1201: Keeping it in the Family?: The Extent of Nepotism among the Late Anglo-Saxon Bishops and Ealdormen).  So I am imagining a tension here between Aldred’s father’s family in the secular network and Tilwif’s family in the ecclesiastical.


Taplow drinking horns, British Museum

As for the two objects, I am relying on the expertise of my colleagues in art history (especially Carol Neuman de Vegvar) and my readers here to help me with their description.  The horn would not be of the highest caliber like those gigantic auroch horns surviving from Sutton Hoo or Taplow (above), but still good metalworking albeit on a smaller cow’s horn.  The sword would need to be a late-ninth century viking implement, similar to these tenth-century ones from Denmark, but I have seen other samples with different inlays and wound silver on the hilt (if you use GoogleImages to search and are not on Pinterest, good luck).


Viking swords, Hedeby Viking Museum, Denmark

In the scene below, Aldred’s godfather Aldred (here called “Aldest” by his godson), has arrived at the Easington manor to take him back to Chester-le-Street.  The seven-year-old Aldred is fascinated by the sword and horn displayed prominently on the mead hall wall, and loves to trace their designs with his finger, but is not allowed to take them down.  Here he recalls the story of the sword as told to him often by his father’s retainer Swithbert, and then his godfather tells him a story about the horn.  Descriptions of each are intertwined.

   Aldest and Aldred stood in front of the bench looking at the horn and sword.

            Aldred knew the story of the sword from the lamed warrior Swithberht, who over the years had filled his ears with tales of Wrecker to match the heroic stories his mother read from the holy books.  The sword’s exploits in the hands of his father and grandfather grew with each telling.

            Wrecker was named by his grandfather Brihtwulf soon after he took it in battle from a pagan viking on the coast of Cumbria. He named it Wracu, wreaker of vengence, because he had taken it from the hand of the viking and used it to slay this pagan who had raped and pillaged coastal villages with his band of thugs.

            After the battle, Brihtwulf had the sword’s pattern-welded blade honed by a smith, so that its distinctive wavy pattern glowed with an elfin sheen.  Swithbert often removed the sword from its scabbard at this point and showed Aldred how it shimmered in the firelight of the hall.  The sheath’s wood was covered supple leather, dyed red and tooled with serpentine designs, as was its baldric for wearing or hanging the sword, made by Brihtwulf’s craftsmen.

            Brihtwulf also had the smith rework the hilt, damaged in the battle when Brihtwulf’s sword had struck the man’s right hand off and cut into it with such force that his own blade was heavily damaged.  The hilt itself was iron wound with silver cord that the smith easily repaired.  The rounded shape of the weighty iron pommel was covered in silver interlace of undulating snakes twining in endless knots, undamaged and not offensive to Christian tastes. But the oval guard between the hilt and the blade had a circle of now-scarred images of pagan warriors—perhaps even Odin on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir and Thor with a battle axe.  Brihtwulf had the smith replace these with twelve small gold insets stamped with circled crosses, each with a small chip of red garnet at its center.  Grandfather was a wealthy thegn.

            That was also the year of his father Alfred’s birth, 890.  When Brihtwulf left Cumbria on his fateful journey north in 914, he gifted the sword to his twenty-four-year old son with strict instructions to use it for divine vengeance against pagans in defense of their household.  Alfred had stayed true to that oath on the long road over the Pennines, and to the bitter end when he fought against Ragnall at Corbridge.  Swithbert usually went off on an extended description of that battle, demonstrating with swift strokes Alfred’s prowess with the sword, but also along the way including his own sad role as loyal retainer left to hold the sword for his lord’s son.

            In Swithbert’s view, the sword would naturally pass into Aldred’s hands.  But his mother’s stories of saints and bishops described a different path for a young nobleman, exemplified in her bishop brother and symbolized by the horn.

            But Aldred knew less about the horn, so he asked his godfather, “Tell me the story of my father’s horn, and I will tell you of his sword.”

            Aldest carefully removed the horn from its place on the wall and sat on the bench below, holding the horn in his lap.  Aldred sat next to him.

            “In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth, the plants and the animals.  One of the animals was the cow.”

            Aldred gave a mock sigh at his godfather’s well-known story mode.  “You don’t have to go that far back to the beginning!”

            Aldest put the horn to the side of Aldred’s head above his ear.  “Ic wæs wæpenwiga,” he chanted, “I was a weaponed warrior, when I was captured and bound with silver.” Then he moved the open end of the horn to Aldred’s mouth, “Men often kissed me, when ladies filled me to the brim, then they left me empty and headless on the table.”  Aldred giggled, though he did not understand the double meaning. 

            Across the hall, his mother shifted uneasily at the casual way Aldest handled the horn, which she never touched, or the sword.

            Aldest went on, “Sometimes I am carried on horseback and do battle,” here the horn trotted away from Aldred, “and other times I hang high on the wall with drunk men below me.”  And Aldest lifted the horn above Aldred, who tilted his head to look at the curved underside. 

            “Frige hwæt ic hatte,” his godfather ended the riddle, “say what I am called.”[1]

            Aldred pouted.  “But I know it is a horn, but I do not know its name or its story!”

            Aldest smiled.  “Some horns might call men to battle, others get them drunk. But this is a cornu-copia.”

            Aldred frowned at the Latin word.  “Cornu… is hornCopia?”  His godfather often strayed into Latin and the study of words when he told stories.

            “Copius, id est, that is, geniht.”

            “A horn of plenty.  A cornucopia,” Aldred said slowly.  “Is that its name?”

            “Indeed,” Aldest went on, “Now Cornucopia,” and here he put the massive horn in Aldred’s lap, “came from a cow at Lindisfarne far in the north.” 

            “Where St. Cuthbert was bishop before he came here,” Aldred said excitedly.  He knew the story of how the saint came to Chester-le-Street after a long pilgrimage through the very lands of his family lineages.

            Bega [Aldred’s 10-year-old sister], who had been listening from across the hall, sidled over and sat down by Aldred to hear this tale, new to her.

            “This Lindisfarne cow, let us call her Copia, gave the community much by the end of her life.  Four calves for parchment to make books.  Her milk for cheese.  Her meat for feasting.  Her hide for leather. And her great horns for storing precious things.”

            Aldred ran his hands over the smooth undecorated part of the horn.  Heavier than he expected, since he had only touched it before as it hung on the wall, the horn was longer than any he had seen on the cows of their manor, which were about a man’s handspan (9 inches).  This one was half again as long. 

            “She must have been a great old thing,” Bega said.  She helped with the milking and had dodged some of those horns.  This one looked like it came from some ancient beast.

            “So,” said Aldest, “since Copia was a good Christian cow, or at least belonged to good Christian people, her horns were hollowed out and bound with silver to hold blessed things—mead for guests, relics of saints, or oil for the sick.” 

            Aldred and Bega examined the metalwork on the horn. Their mother did not let them take it down to play with, so this was the first time they had looked closely at the intricate figures. 

            A narrow coppery band around its lower middle and one at the top each had a ring on the inner curved side.  Attached was the blue and red tablet-woven band used to hold the horn over the shoulder or on the wall. Bega recognized her mother’s design work and guessed she had woven it for the horn when they first came to Easington.

            At its tip, the craftsman had attached a copper-colored terminal ending in a flair.  Bega said, “how much it looks like a young fern leaf before it opens!”  Bega was becoming interested in plants, like her namesake godmother, a renowned herbalist.

            Aldred turned it sideways and said, “No, it is a bird head, see?” and he pointed to what might be an eye. 

            An argument began, but Aldest ended it by saying it was neither and both.  They did not have an answer for that.

            Turning the horn the other way, Aldred and Bega looked at the mouth end.  Copper alloy rim mounts held in place a broad silver collar that extended down the tapering horn in seven pointed triangles.  Each of these seven, they counted them, had a winged figure embossed on it. 

            Aldred exclaimed, “look, birds again!”  But Bega scoffed, “those are angels.”

            “Actually,” Aldest interrupted another argument, “they are archangels.” And he named all seven of them, chanting “Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uriel, Sariel, Rumiel, Panchiel.”  The children gaped at him.

            “One for each day of the week,” Aldest explained.  “When you come to Chester-le-Street,” and he turned to Aldred, “I will show them to you on the coffin of St. Cuthbert.”

            Bega looked down at the horn mouth, touching her finger to the solid upper part of the silver collar near the rim.

            “Here, let me show you,” Aldred said to his sister, pushing her hand away, “it never ends.”  And he began tracing the incised knot work.  Bega put her finger in the spot where he started and followed with her eyes her brother’s small finger as it looped around the rim.

            It took several minutes, with the line going in unexpected directions, doubling back on itself, but eventually they sensed the pattern of the dance and were excited when their fingers met at the starting place.

            Bega said, “Look, they form squares and crosses too.”

            Aldred had never noticed that, but did not admit aloud that she was right.  So many shapes to see, how did the craftsman imagine it all?

            Aldest guessed their thoughts and said, “the metalworkers at Lindisfarne studied the arts for many years—the pattern was all around them in stone, on manuscript pages, in metalwork—but all imitating the Master Crafstman, Scippend, the All-Shaper.”

            The mention of God the creator brought Aldred back to the beginning of his godfather’s tale, the cow.  “What happened to her other horn?”

            “The matching horn to Cornucopia is..,” Aldest thought fast, inventing the name like the other, “…Cornu-oleum.”  It is at Chester-le-Street.  Your uncle Bishop Tilred uses it to hold holy oil to anoint the sick.” 

            Aldest remembered, but did not say, that Tilred used oil from it on their father the night he died and Aldred was born.  Into Bega’s mind came the woody smell of olive oil, a vague memory from that long day in the church seven years ago.

            “But Cornucopia,” and here Aldest touched the copper-tipped end, “was given as a token to your father when he took up these lands from the hand of St. Cuthbert’s bishop, Cutheard.”

            “So it is a horn for feasting and drinking?” Aldred asked.  In his short life he had never seen it used.  There had been no great victory feasts in the mead hall since his father’s death, just saint’s days, Christmas, and Easter.  Aldred wondered silently why the horn was not used for those Christian holidays, if it had such a blessed origin.  Deep within, Bega knew why her mother never touched it, but said nothing.

[1] Riddle 14.


  1. Really looking forward to reading this when you are finished!

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