Posted by: kljolly | April 13, 2018

Æcerbot Ritual II: Timing

As noted in my previous post, I am endeavoring to re-create the Æcerbot Ritual from BL Cotton Caligula A.VII as a scripted performance for my Leeds paper this summer.  This post addresses the timing:  the season of the year, the number of days, and the time of day.  The next post will address issues of place:  region, type of estate, layout of the property.  That post, or a subsequent one if it gets too long like this one, will take up the materials and persons needed to carry out the ritual.  Eventually, I will present my script for performing the ritual.

Throughout, I refer to the Æcerbot Ritual as “the field remedy.”  It’s easier to type than pasting in the Æ. And, yes, I am using British plough not American plow, because of the books I read.


Much ink has been spilled trying to locate this field remedy in the agricultural or church calendar.  Two main candidates are Plough Monday in early January and Rogation Days in spring.  Elements in the field remedy resonate with both of these, but other elements mitigate against making a strong identification with either.

First, we need to establish the Anglo-Saxon agricultural cycle as it has been reconstructed from textual, artistic, and archaeological evidence.  For this, I am reliant on the work of Debby Banham, Rosamond Faith, Peter Fowler, and Fergus Kelly, among others.

Seasons for ploughing, sowing, and harvesting vary by crop and region.  But in general, for grain crops in late Anglo-Saxon England, we can posit the following:

  • Although ploughing is associated with January in the illustrated calendar, ploughing to keep the earth turned over might start soon after autumn harvest and continue through the winter as a means of keeping the earth tilled and weeds down (Banham and Faith, pp. 50-59).
  • Ploughing might also be used as part of  manuring, for example, to plough in bean stalks for nitrogen, or to turn up subsoil into the seed bed (Fowler, pp. 209-11). [I am not going to distinguish here between a plough, an ard, or a harrow, but see Banham and Faith, pp. 44-50.]
  • Wheat and rye, with a longer growing season, are winter-sown, while oats and barley are spring-sown.  The field remedy “Erce” prayer specifically names both “broad” barley (bradan berewæstma) and “white” wheat (hwitan hwætewæstma), and then all crops (ealra eorþan wæstma).

Also to be kept in mind is that the field remedy in this one version we possess is prefaced by a statement indicating its use for a field that is problematic in some way:  it has not produced well in the past, and might have been cursed through sorcery or poison.  Other references to witchcraft in the field remedy’s Old English prayers suggest a least those portions were designed specifically for remedial use against evil intentions.

In comparison to similar ritual remedies, the field remedy, existing in only one manuscript, is a bit mysterious.  The much more ubiquitous “John poison prayer” occurs in both prayer books and medical texts, with different prefaces indicating a variety of spiritual as well as physical applications (Jolly, “Cross-Referencing,” 221–28; Pettit, 2: 77–79). The Durham A.IV.19 field prayers against winged threats visible and invisible are quite specific, and probably reference a lunar date (Jolly, “Prayers from the Field” and Addenda and Corrigenda).

On the one hand, then, the field remedy seems very exacting in its prescriptions; but on the other hand, it is surprisingly silent on its calendrical date, unless something is missing from the manuscript.  Given how elaborate the ritual is, requiring a great deal of time and resources, it is tempting to identify it with a known ceremonial occasion.  At the very least, examining the two candidates of Plough Monday and Rogation Days may help us sort out what the field remedy is trying to accomplish.

Plough Monday

This ceremony of blessing the plough is known only from later medieval evidence, and is associated with January 6, Epiphany, with a preceding Plough Sunday celebration (Niles, pp. 47-48).  Although no evidence for a Plough Monday celebration exists in Anglo-Saxon evidence, it lines up nicely with the Anglo-Saxon calendar illustration for January of ploughing, and somewhat oddly, sowing. January does seem a bit early for sowing wheat or rye, so the illustration may be combining two different activities, a first ploughing and a later sowing.

Setting the field remedy in January and associating it with ploughing and sowing simultaneously works in some ways.  Tangentially, Epiphany’s celebration of the Magi bringing their gifts, including incense, resonates with some of the field remedy’s use of gifts and incense.   More importantly, the remedy specifies exchanging seed with beggars and the placement of seed on the plough.  This suggests the kind of ploughing done just prior to sowing–but it is questionable that wheat or rye would be sown in January.

Other elements in the remedy are also problematic for January.  For one, the remedy specifies milk from each animal on the land (presumably cows, sheep, or goats).  Unlike modern dairying, early medieval animals probably stopped producing over the winter (Banham and Faith, p. 113).  Nonetheless, early Irish evidence suggests methods to deliberately keep a cow in milk year-round (Kelly, p 41).  This would be unlikely with sheep or goats, though.

Rogation Days

Rogation Days are three days prior to Ascension dedicated to a penitential supplication for crops that goes back to a tangled set of origins in the sixth century (Bedingfield, 191–209; Jolly, “Prayers from the Field,”109-110).  Easter calculations fix the date:  Rogation Sunday is the fifth Sunday after Easter (which could fall between April 26 and May 30), with Rogation days the subsequent Monday through Wednesday, and Ascension on Thursday.  Rogation Days were practiced in late Anglo-Saxon England, evident for example in calendars, service books, and sermons (Hill, “Litaniae Maiores and Minores).

In favor of associating the field remedy with Rogation:

  • Rogation’s origins include a story of cursed fields for which a penitential procession around the fields is prescribed, matching the purpose described at the beginning of the field remedy;
  • three days set aside for penance might include the full day or two the field remedy performance might take;
  • the Rogation procession includes carrying relics, the cross, and saying litanies; the field remedy prescribes a litany with full ritual prostration, among other liturgical elements.

Elements against:

  • Other than the litany, little in the field remedy resonates with Rogation processions:  no mention of carrying a cross (although there are the quickbeam crosses placed in the sod divots), no relics, no mention of crowds moving around the property barefoot, no reference to three days.
  • April 26-May 30 is fairly late even for barley and oat sowing.  The field remedy seems designed specifically for the ploughing and sowing of seeds, while Rogation days may function to protect the crops after sowing is done, depending on the dates on which it falls relative to the climate and conditions locally.

My conclusion on the season: if Plough Monday seems a bit too early, Rogation Days may be too late.  We are looking for a Goldilocks time.  Tempting as it is to associate the field remedy with either of these dates, the ritual could have been used any time when ploughing and sowing took place:  in winter for wheat and rye, or in spring for barley and oats.  Given the justification offered at the beginning as a remedy for diseased or cursed fields, it may have been that the landowner or workers requested the services of the clergy when a field was problematic. The day for beginning the ritual, which had to be planned at least a day or more in advance, might have been set based on the readiness of the community to begin ploughing and sowing that field, when the temperature was just right.

EdenValley 005 Temple Sowerby

Temple Sowerby, Eden Valley, Cumbria. author photo August 2013



Linked to placing the field remedy into the calendar is the amount of time it would take to plan and carry out the rituals, including preparing the materials.  Several things are noteworthy in the remedy:

  • The remedy would take advance planning and preparation of materials, at least a day.  This includes the gathering of plants, milk from different animals, baking of bread, and the like.
  • It specifically says that the sods from the field need to be cut before sunrise and that they must be replaced in the field before sundown.  Everything in between would need to take place in one day.
  • Possibly that day of sod blessing could end with the litany and Latin prayers, and a new day start with the phrase ðonne þæt eall sie gedon þonne (when all that is done, then…) followed by the plough ceremony itself.  In my previous post, I suggested that þonne functions as a divider between sets of activities; this longer phrase of when…then suggests a longer break separating the sod blessing from the plough ceremonies.

So, this whole field remedy might have taken three days, vaguely reminiscent of Rogation days, but as noted above, not really lining up with the requirements for Rogation penitential processions.  In theory, the blessing of the sods could be a Sunday, with four masses said over them, and the plough ceremony on a Monday, suggestive of Plough Monday.

However, accomplishing all of the activities for the sods between dawn and dusk would be daunting in winter.  Using a 2018 sunrise and sunset calendar for London:   at the beginning of January, we have a daylight window of eight hours from 8:05 a.m. to 4:05 p.m.;  while at the end of April, that window of time would be more than fourteen hours, from 5:40 a.m. to 8:15 p.m.  We can also consider adding an amount of twilight extending 30 minutes either side.

The four Masses performed over the sods are presumably not done back to back, but occur between the Daily Office prayers and other activities (I will take up later why I think this is a church with multiple clergy and at least a secular Office performed daily).  It might look like this (see Hughes, pp. 14-18, and Palazzo, 124-25):

  • Nocturns (the night office, also called Vigils and later Matins) on the eve of the day:  go get sods.
  • Lauds (or Matins) at dawn:  7:30ish in January, 5:30ish in April.
  • Prime at the first hour of the day after sunrise: 8 a.m. in January, 6ish in April.
  • Chapter meeting:  busy with sod blessing?
  • Chapter Mass
  • blessing of salt and water done on Sundays: bless also some sapan, among other ingredients often noted as “hallowed” in remedies.
  • Terce (3rd hour): 10:30ish in January, 8:30ish in April?
  • Sunday Mass, usually after Terce
  • Sext (6th hour), noon
  • Mass, after Sext on ferias
  • None (9th hour): 2 or 3ish in January, 3ish in April.
  • Mass (after None on fasts–admittedly you wouldn’t have a ferial and a fasting mass on the same day, but work with me here to get four  masses into the day!).
  • Between None and Vespers is where it would be much easier in April to finish the sod ceremonies out in the field before sunset than it would be in January.
  • Vespers in the early evening:  4ish in January, 7:30ish in April.
  • Compline at bedtime

Even setting aside the plough ceremony for another day, I am guessing that you wouldn’t want to try and pull off this sod blessing in one day in January or even February.  I would aim for March.

Now you can also see why I am interested in how long it takes to perform the Mass, and whether one can just repeat the Canon of the Mass only.

Conclusions on Timing

Given this analysis of seasons and days, I think it is a mistake to lock the field remedy into either January 6 Plough Monday or to late April Rogation days.  Rather, it seems designed for use whenever the ground was ready and the community was prepared to plough and sow a field that they were worried about.  This might be late winter for wheat and rye or early spring for barley and oats.


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

Bedingfield, M. Bradford.  The Dramatic Liturgy of Anglo-Saxon England.  Woodbridge:  Boydell, 2002.

Fowler, Peter.  Farming in the First Millennium:  British Agriculture Between Julius Caesar and William the Conqueror. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Hill, Joyce. “The Litaniae Maiores and Minores in Rome, Francia and Anglo-Saxon England: Terminology, Texts and Traditions.” Early Medieval Europe 9 (2000): 211–46.

Hooke, Della.  The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England.  London:  Leicester University Press, 1998.

Hughes, Andrew.  Medieval Manuscripts for Mass and Office:  A Guide to their Organization and Terminology.  Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 1982.

Jolly, Karen.  “Cross-Referencing Anglo-Saxon Liturgy and Remedies: The Sign of the Cross as Ritual Protection.” In Liturgy of the Late Anglo-Saxon Church, ed. Helen Gittos and M. Bradford Bedingfield.  HBS Subsidia 5.  Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005, 213-43.

Jolly, Karen. “Prayers from the Field: Practical Protection and Demonic Defense in Anglo-Saxon England.” Traditio 61 (2006): 95-147.

Kelly, Fergus.  Early Irish Farming.  Dublin:  Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1997.

Niles, John D. “The Æcerbot Ritual in Context.” In Old English Literature in Context: Ten Essays, edited by John D. Niles, pp. 44–56, 163–64. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980.

Palazzo, Eric.  A History of Liturgical Books from the Beginning to the Thirteenth Century, trans. Madeleine Beaumont.  Collegeville, MN:  LIturgical Press, 1993.

Pettit, Edward, ed. and trans. Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers from British Library MS Harley 585: The Lacnunga. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.

Posted by: kljolly | April 5, 2018

Æcerbot Ritual I: Paleography and Codicology

For my Leeds Medieval Congress paper this summer, in a session honoring Debby Banham, I am re-examining certain bilingual rituals from a performative perspective, trying to “stage” them.  I am particularly interested in the timing:  how long might it take to recite a text and how does that affect the procedures?  The three I am planning to use are the Æcerbot Ritual, the Durham collectar ordeal (see post on Hehstald), and the Darley baptism ritual (see my use of it for Aldred’s baptism).

Today’s post is on the Æcerbot, and its paleographic and codicological context.  In further posts, I will provide my experimental “script” for the performance.  For reference:

For those not interested in the manuscript minutiae detailed below, here is a question to ponder and answer in future posts:

How long does it take to perform a typical or ordinary Mass service, from introit to post-communion, and how long for just the Canon of the Mass, from te igitur to concluding prayers of the masspriest, before the Pax Domini and Agnus Dei?

The bilingual (Old English and Latin) field remedy commonly called the Æcerbot Ritual exists in a single manuscript:  London, British Library Cotton Caligula A.viii, fols. 176r-178r, is in an early eleventh-century hand following a late tenth-century copy of the Old Saxon Heliand.  This is our sole witness to this agricultural “remedy.”  Although there are remotely similar practices and texts found elsewhere, nothing of this performative complexity:  it includes instructions for actions requiring material props; it records texts to be performed verbally in both Latin and Old English, with some of the Latin texts abbreviated; and it requires multiple people to plan and perform the ritual.


How do we get from this manuscript witness to the ritual performance, whether as performed prior to this written script or after, using this script?  If we were to re-enact it like a group of community players, how would we go about it?

First, some observations about the paleographic and codicological context, if we are going to read this as a “script” for performing the remedy:

  • It is added to an existing manuscript, and not included in a compendium of remedies or liturgical practices, with which it has analogs. In that sense, the remedy stands alone, although scholars have noted some thematic connections to the Heliand, at least in the mind of whoever bound it with the Heliand.
  • Ker says that the parchment is similar to the Heliand, so not “an independent fragment” bound by Cotton with the Heliand. But that does not preclude the possibility that the remedy folios, although produced in the same scriptorium, once stood alone as a booklet.
  • Disagree partly with Ker: the Heliand folios are insular style, with hair and flesh side sanded to uniform appearance, while the parchment of fols. 176-78 has hair side visibly different from flesh side.  176r hair, 176v flesh; 177r hair, 177v flesh; fol. 178r flesh, 178v hair (blank).
  • A vertical cut at the top of fol. 178 around which the scribe wrote suggests a low to medium grade of parchment. Heliand has similar folios with patches (fol. 167).
  • Heliand ends midway down fol. 175v, followed by an unfoliated blank leaf (BL designates as fol. 175*rv). Cut edge visible between fol. 175v and inserted leaf.  Inserted leaf prepped in insular fashion, hard to detect hair and flesh side.  175*r has faint imprint of letters from facing page (175v).  175*v has knife scrape erasure in upper middle.  So basically, two half sheets back to back here, fol. 175* and fol. 176, where the remedy starts.
  • Foliation of freestanding remedy: 176 is a half-sheet, fols. 177-178 a bifolium.  Paste down visible in gutter on 176v doesn’t make sense.  If 176 designed as a half sheet, it should be pasted down after fol. 178, not folded back on itself obscuring some of the letters, so a later binder must have done this.  This raises the possibility that fol. 176 was once a bifolium and its back half, which would be after fol. 178, is missing.
  • The remedy scribe finished with no room to spare on fol. 178r, while leaving the verso (178v) blank: does this suggest more texts were envisioned and never done?
  • BL site says dimensions overall: folios 220 x 140 mm (8.66×5.5 in), with text space 195 x 105 mm (7.67×4.13).  Ker says bifolium (and whole ms?) is 224×138 mm, and says Heliand has written space of 190×95 mm in 24 lines, while fols. 176-78 are 190×90 (7.48×3.54 in) with 22 lines.
  • Remedy folios, like Heliand, have wide outer margins. Narrow gutter margins may be function of the modern binding.  The 190×90 mm text box may have been centered on page when unbound.
  • Heliand has 24 lines per page, remedy 22 lines per page. Dry point lineation visible on remedy folios, not on Heliand (spot checked).  Aspect of remedy slightly more spacious than Heliand in terms of vertical spacing between lines and size of script.
  • Slight differences at least initially between Latin and OE script in the remedy disappears by the bottom of fol. 176r, where insular minuscule “s” is used for Latin (lines 21-22).
  • Some punctuation—capitals in the left margin, punctus in the text,–may indicate sections.
  • The abbreviated Latin forms of standard prayers suggests a clerical user familiar with the liturgy. The OE prayers are written out fully, suggesting these texts were not familiar.
  • Pater noster occurs four times, whether this meant reciting it in Latin or Old English or both is unclear, since “pater noster” had moved into Old English as a term for the prayer. 176v1, pater noster is written without abbreviation and using tall “s” as used thus far for Old English rather than sinuous “s” for Latin texts. But at 176v17, pater is written without abbreviation but noster is abbreviated (nr).  In both of these cases, the Pater noster follows the Crescite prayer.  At fol. 177r18-19, pater is abbreviated (pat) but noster is not and uses OE “s”; the Pater noster here follows Latin litanies, Tersanctus, Benedicite, and Magnificat; but has Roman numeral .iii. after.  The last instance is fol. 178r22, the last line of the remedy, where both are abbreviated (pat nr); it is preceded by the Crescite and In nomine patris sit benedicti, amen; and followed by OE þriwa (whereas Cresicte is preceded by Roman numeral .iii.).
  • Comparing Roman numerals versus OE words is possibly indicative of shifts between Lat. and OE or between texts and instructions. The OE instructions spell out feower, þriwa, and nigon on fols. 176rv, but uses .iii. at fol. 177r14 for turning sunward, and at 177r19 for the pater noster.  At 178r21, .iii. in front of Crescite.
  • A number of errors especially on fol. 177v suggest the scribe was hasty or unfamiliar with OE.
  • The remedy appears to be copied from some other manuscript source, rather than written from oral dictation, memory, observation, or a unique compiliation of the scribe. This otherwise unknown source or sources bears some relation to an oral performative context now lost to us.
  • The text as we have it copied here is framed as a set of instructions to be carried out by performers, whether this particular scribe intended it be acted out or not.
  • The fact that directions for performance as well as oral texts are written out is suggestive. Generally speaking, liturgical texts, except for the most basic sacramentary or the rare baptismal instructions as in Darley, assume the performer needs the written text just for prayers for specific occasions and knows how to carry out the rituals.  On the other hand, medicinal texts are more likely to specify how the practitioner should compound a prescription or perform a remedy, but with frequent gaps in presumably well-known procedures.
  • Although there are some stains, overall the manuscript does not look like it had been used to conduct the ritual—there is little wear on the corners or evidence of heavy usage outdoors, for example (although it would be interesting to test for dust, plant, and insect residues).
  • The small, paperback book size of the manuscript in its current form minus the later hard binding suggests it could be handheld and carried about, perhaps softbound.
  • Given the above codicology, fols. 176-78 could have been a booklet or part of a booklet. A softbound booklet would have been easier to use in performance.
  • The text might have served as a playbook for the group who planned the ritual ahead of time, so everyone knows their role.
  • If the written text were used in the performance, the logical person to hold it is the person reciting the oral texts, who could then give cues to the other performers.
  • Adverbial conjunction þonne (þanne, þænne) in directions may function to separate sets of activities, if not sequence them (some seem to overlap, or refer to procedures done ahead of time). There are a lot of continuity problems when blocking these scenes.

 Next up,

how do we turn this into a script playbook, and what do we need?


British Library, MS Cotton Caligula A.vii, fols. 176r-178r. Gneuss 308,  Ker 137. Critical edition:  Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (ASPR), vol 6: The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, ed. Elliot van Kirk Dobbie (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1942).

Foley, John Miles.  “Epic and charm in Old English and Servo-Croatian oral tradition.”  Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook – British Comparative Literature Association 2 (1980): 71-92.

Hill, David. “The Æcerbot Charm and Its Christian User.” ASE 6 (1977): 213–21. Banham, Debby.  “The staff of life: cross and blessings in Anglo-Saxon cereal production.”  In Cross and Cruciform in the Anglo-Saxon World: Studies to Honor the Memory of Timothy Reuter. Ed. Sarah Larratt Keefer, Karen Louise Jolly and Catherine E. Karkov (Medieval European Studies, 11), pp. 279-318.

Kramer, Johanna Ingrid. “The Poetics of Materiality in Anglo-Saxon England: Religion and Material Reality in the Æcerbot Charm, Ascension Homilies, and Christ I.” Ph.D. Diss., Cornell Univ., 2006. DAI 67A (2006): 181.

Monlinari, Maria Vittoria. Sull’Æcerbot anglosassone. Rituale per la benedizione dei campi (ms. Londra, B.L., Cotton Caligula A. VII.”  Romanobarbarica: Contributi allo studio dei rapporti culturali tra mondo latino e mondo barbarico 10 (1989): 293-308.

Niles, John D. “The Æcerbot Ritual in Context.” In Old English Literature in Context: Ten Essays, edited by John D. Niles, pp. 44–56, 163–64. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980. PR181 .O4 1980

Rosenberg, Bruce A., “The Meaning of Æcerbot,” Journal of American Folklore 79 (1966), 428-436.

Schneider, Karl. “The OE. æcerbot – an Analysis.” Sophia Lectures on ‘Beowulf’. Ed. Shoichi Watanabe and Norio Tsuchiya. Tokyo: Taishukan, for the Japan Science Society, 1986. 276-98.




Posted by: kljolly | February 21, 2018

London Fall 2018 Study Abroad

Come explore the medieval world

with Professor Karen Jolly

on the London Fall 2018 Study Abroad program 

Students from any university are eligible for this University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Study Abroad program for the same price as in-state students.

Students will take classes at the host Roehampton University, courses that are transferable for credit in their major or for general education.

Students will also take one or both of Dr. Jolly’s courses offered just to students in this program:

HIST 335 Early Medieval Europe

We will examine manuscripts and artifacts at a special exhibit in the British Library and at the British Museum. We will also take field trips into the countryside. HIST 335 syllabus.

AngloSaxon1 Cotton MS Tiberius BV

BL Cotton Tiberius B.V Can you find the British Isles on this eleventh-century map?

HIST 433 Medieval Cultures

We will examine pre-modern world history through the eyes of the British Museum.  Students will give oral presentations on artifacts and narrate rooms in the museum.   HIST 433 syllabus.


Why is this Rapa Nui moai in the British Museum and how did it get there?

For more information

  • UHM London program, Roehampton courses, costs (its affordable!), and application (deadline April 1, 2018), go to the Study Abroad website.
  • Courses and program for Fall 2018, contact Prof. Karen Jolly.



While transcribing the ordeal formulas in Durham A.IV.19, I fell down another research rabbit hole—or should I say hare hole, since Anglo-Saxon England had no rabbits.

I was pondering what Aldred would have made of the hot water ordeal (fols. 48r1-49v4) and hot iron ordeal (fols. 54r1-55r22), especially considering that he blithely skipped glossing the first page of the hot iron ordeal, moving directly from the intervening marriage blessings interrupted by Scribe E’s erasure and interpolated text on fol. 54r.  It almost seems as if he carried on mid-word from a marriage bed benediction to a litany of heavenly witnesses in the adjuration for hot iron without skipping a beat.

  • fols. 48r1-49r4  hot water ordeal Scribe O, glossed by Aldred
  • fols. 49v4-51r4 blessing and mass for a nun Scribe O, glossed by Aldred
  • fols. 51r4-53r23 nupital mass and blessings, interrupted by Scribe O, glossed by Aldred
  • fol. 53v hymn over erasure by Scribe e, not glossed
  • folio 54 starts a new quire
  • fols. 54r1-55r22 hot iron ordeal Scribe O, Aldred skips 54r, glosses 54v1-55r

What gave me pause in the hot iron ordeal was noticing Aldred’s gloss of Lat. uirginum with OE hehstaldra (fol. 54v6).  Curious as to the range of meanings in the term, I started checking dictionaries and glossaries about the origins, as well as the literal, social, and figurative uses of hæg-, hago-, heh-steald in its adjective and noun forms and with various suffixes (-had, –lic, –mann, –nes).  In the DOE_ [Haegsteald Combined] and Bosworth-Toller, the sense slips from Germanic roots of hag as enclosure or fence + steald as settlement or dwelling, to suppositions about a dependant young warrior or household retainer, hence unmarried and without his own household, to novice (tiro) and on to the religiously inflected celibate, and virginity.

Complicating our understanding is that at least three distinctions may be at work that are never entirely clear within themselves and in relation to each other:

  • social status: between married and unmarried;
  • gender and sex: cælebs and OE hægsteald as masculine/male and Lat. virgo and OE fæmne (the usual gloss) as feminine/female;
  • sexual activity: virginity as never having had sexual intercourse; celibacy as not having sexual intercourse presently and in the future; and chastity as limiting or foregoing sexual activity in the present and/or within marriage.

Twisting and turning through the warren of scholarly views on hægsteald in relation to celibacy and virginity, I discovered a number of surprising things, the last of which is that those who rely on the dictionary collocations without paying attention to the manuscript context of each use fall into serious errors.

Because when it comes down to actually separating out the uses by source, three things become clear:

  • Only Aldred consistently and unusually uses OE hehstald and its variants to gloss Lat. virgo and virginity, specifically women such as the Virgin Mary as well as virginal males, both in the Lindisfarne Gospels and Durham A.IV.19. OE fæmne is the more common translation of virgo in the Gospels and elsewhere.  I have not found a place where Aldred glosses Lat. cælebs or cælibatus.
  • The non-Aldredian uses of OE hægsteald and its variants for celibate (cælebs and cælibatus) occur only in tenth and eleventh century glosses and glossaries, particularly some associated with Aldhelm’s Prose De Virginitate, but none of them refer directly to virginitas and are in fact primarily, if not exclusively male (see below). In any case, the basic meaning of cælebs in Latin sources is, like OE hægsteald, young unmarried male, and only in particular religious contexts is it extended to celibacy as vowed sexual abstinence.
  • Only Aldred uses the prefix heh-, or in two cases hegh-, rather than the other variants of hæg-, hago-, heg- . Heh- is a possible Northumbrian variant of hæg.  However, Victor Watts in his article on the placename Hexham commented that, given other compounds with heh- in his glosses, perhaps Aldred understood it as derived from heah, “high,” not hæg as in hag (fenced enclosure).

So what we are looking at with Aldred’s hehstald glosses of virgin and virginity is either an innovation or simply a different word entirely.  Either he was thinking of virginal men and women—including the Virgin Mary, her husband Joseph, and John the Evangelist—as like household retainers, unmarried and sexually abstinent, which would be ironic given that the first two were married to each other.  Or, he was unaware of haga meaning enclosure, taking heh- to mean an elevated life as settled in a “high” dwelling place, a view of virginity as at the top of a sexual hierachy above the chaste and the married found in both Aldhelm and Ælfric (see below).

Secular Contexts

In almost all other Old English texts, we should not assume that hægsteald meant anything other than an unmarried young warrior retainer, sexually abstinent or not. These uses in place names, poetic texts, penitentials, and riddles are almost entirely about social status and refer to males.

  • Hexham (Hagustaldensis) is one of three place names derived from the same root, a name surely Aldred knew from Bede and other sources, even if the monastic site granted to Wilfrid by Queen Æthelthryth c. 672 had fallen into disuse by his time in the mid-tenth century (no mention is made of it after c. 821, although it appears to be in the hands of the Durham provosts in the eleventh century). Donald Bullough, responding to Victor Watts on the place name Hexham, argues that the name has a secular meaning that predates Wilfrid’s foundation of the monastery.
  • The poetic texts with hægsteald as a noun or adjective, from Beowulf to the Paris Psalter, overwhelmingly use it as social category to refer to young unmarried males as dependant retainers in a household. Moreover, the Penitential of Pseudo-Egbert (CCCC 190) makes a distinction between a married householder, hæmedceorl, and a hægsteald as part of the priest’s understanding of the social and personal context for penance (whether rich or poor, clergy or laity, married or unmarried), and also separates penance for sexual transgressions of layman depending on marital status (Junius 121).  This penitential context solidifies the notion that the primary distinction is the bond of marriage, and that both states, married (hæmed) and unmarried (hægsteald) are rooted in some sense of what constitutes a “home.”
  • Riddle 20 builds on this contrast between hæmedceorl and hægsteald, but it is very coy and not really about celibacy or virginity in the religious sense. The putative sword of the riddle is forced by his lord to eschew the joys of the married state (hæmed), and remains on hagostealde, enjoying only the treasure of heroes (hæleþa streona).[1]  As Melanie Heyworth notes in her discussion of Riddle 20, hæman is not only rooted in “home,” but has a strong sexual meaning.  It is used pejoratively when refering to sex outside of marriage, so the riddle might be playing with the connection between the unmarried state and sexual abstinence, but in the context of a male warrior, at least at the literal level (see below for monastic uses of warrior metaphors).
  • Hæmed in contrast to hægsteald also leads us to Aldred’s much debated use of the verb gihamadi in his colophon to the Lindisfarne Gospels where he describes himself as “making a home” in the Lindisfarne community of St. Cuthbert (see Newton, et. al. and my blog response). Perhaps it is a play on words, that Aldred’s household is now the religious community, his sex life a spiritual one—unless he was a married priest?

Religious Contexts

In contrast to these primarily secular, social contexts, the religious use of cælebs and hægsteald to refer to sexual abstinence, and Aldred’s use of hehsteald for virgin, potentially signal some evolving views of celibacy in late Anglo-Saxon England.  These religious uses occur only in tenth- and eleventh-century glosses and glossaries, most particularly associated with Aldhelm’s de Virgnitate. [For more on constructs of virginity, see Lees and Overing, Pasternack, and Cubitt, especially in correlating Aldhelm to later Ælfric]. 


In chapter 19 of his prose De Virginitate, Aldhelm (died c. 710) develops an extended set of patristic metaphors for virginity, chastity, and conjugality, starting with gold, silver, and bronze, and working down to imperial and military imagery.  He concludes that virginity “unharmed by any carnal defilement continues pure out of the spontaneous desire for celibacy” (“ab omni spurcitia carnali illibata spontaneo caelibatus affectu pudica perseverat”), while chastity in marriage “has scorned the commerce of matrimony for the sake of the heavenly kingdom,” and conjugality serves the lowest function by producing children (trans. Lapidge and Herren, pp. 75-76).

The Latin and Old English glosses to this passage in Brussels Bibliothèque Royale 1650, fol. 13r18 are a bit unclear in the ASMMF images, so I am relying on Scott Gwara’s edition (vol. 2, pp. 220-21, lines 22-23).  Above the caelibatus that virginity desires, is first a Latin gloss, castitatis (note genitive case), then above that hægstealdhades. To the right in the margin, another scribe has added vel gehealdsumnysse.  The first glossator appears to be defining the spontaneous virginal desire for a celibacy “of chastity” as the unmarried state (hægstealdhades), perhaps in contrast to the chaste married in the next sentence; while the second glossator is offering the far more common OE gloss for celibacy in Aldhelm, gehealdsumnysse (elsewhere in OE this word carries the broader sense of self restraint, a virtue in monastic life as well as in marriage).

Several things are notable in this gloss:

  • This is the only known case of hægsteald with the suffix –hades outside of Aldred’s glosses of virginity with hehstaldhad, using his unique heh- prefix as noted above (it also occurs in the MacRegol Gospels, Luke 2:36 refering to Anna, but that gloss is copied from Aldred’s Lindisfarne Gospels’ gloss).
  • The only other time hægsteald is used in the Brussels glosses to Aldhelm’s prose de Virginitate is clearly refering to a young man described further as beardless (chapter 36; Gwara, vol. 2,   512-13).
  • The glosses to Aldhelm use fæmne, fæmnhad, and faemhadlic for virgin, virginity, and virginal. In one case, it (AldV 1 1225, AldV 12.1 1174) glosses innupta .i. uirgo with ungehæmed fæmne, demonstrating again the conceptual range of hæmed in relation to sexual activity and marriage. For more on the conceptual range of these terms, see Fischer, sections 2.2, and 2.4.

Although Aldhelm addressed the Prose de Virginitate to the nuns of Barking under Abbess Hildelith, it was a double house that included male monastics as well.  The treatise includes examples of both male and female virgins, and was widely used by later audiences of both genders, including the Brussels glossators and other glossaries. For Aldhelm, “virgin” was a genderless term (Pasternack, pp. 104-07).   Nonetheless, while Aldhelm in his prolixity might have equated virginity and celibacy as genderless equivalents, the eleventh-century glossator who used hægsteald in these two cases may have taken cælebs and celibacy in its primarily masculine sense of unmarried.


Other tenth and eleventh century glossaries seem to confirm this dominant masculine view.  Three other instances of hægsteald glossing cælebs occur in two manuscripts containing glossaries, all with the suffix –mann, which of course does not indicate gender.


BL Harley 3376, fol. 22r

  • BL Harley 3376 contains Latin words glossed with Latin and sometimes Old English. At fol. 22r13-14, a Latin-only gloss specifies:  “Celeps .i. uir sine uxore. uel quirum non uel uirgo cælestem uitam ducens.”  Fol. 23r4- has some Old English below [bracketed here]:  “Celibatus [clængeorn] .i. sine uxore uir. vel uiduatur. vel abstinentia uirginitatis.  Celibes [clængeorne.] .i. casti. steriles. cælestem uitam ducentes.”  Both instances seem to draw together a masculine celibate (a man without a wife) and a virginal woman (uirgo) as alike in pursuing a “heavenly” or “clean” life through sexual abstinence.  Then at fol. 39r2, Colibates is defined as hegstealdmen, which admittedly could be male or female, except we do not find this gloss on virgo or virginity as we do with Aldred.
  • BLCottonCleoAiiifol87r

    BL Cotton Cleopatra A.iii, fol. 87r

  • BL Cotton Cleopatra A.iii, fol. 87ra13 has celeps glossed above it with hægstealdman. This entry occurs in a topically arranged glossary, under a section titled “De Domibus” (starting on fol. 86ra3).
  • blcottoncleoaiiifol104v.png

    BL Cotton Cleopatra A.iii, fol. 104v

  • BL Cotton Cleopatra A.iii, fol. 104va5 [image] has celibes hegstealdman under a heading “De agne. xxxvi,” in a glossary to Aldhelm’s De laude virginitatis, both prose and verse. This particular gloss is probably a reference to Aldhelm’s prose de Virginitate chapter 45, which offers Agnes as an exemplar for celibate imitators (“sed et operae pretium videtur, ut gloriosum illustris Agnae exemplar caelibes integritatis aemulatores et carnalis spurcitiae contemptores minime lateat;” see Lapidge and Herren, pp. 111-12; Gwara, vol. 2, pp. 630-31)). Given the context, this could imply a female use of cælebs, but I am not convinced that was understood by this glossator.

In a religious context, both Aldhelm and possibly these later Anglo-Saxon glossators seem to understand celibacy as akin to virginity in terms of sexual abstinence for either gender:  a man or a woman can be described as celibate or as a virgin.  However, excluding Aldred’s use of hehstald exclusively for virgin, OE hægsteald is only used to gloss celibate and not virgin.  Consequently, its meaning even in a religious context remains close to the secular social meaning as a term primarily for the unmarried state of a man, who would be encouraged to adopt sexual abstinence.

Liber Scintillarum

A  monastic appropriation of this essentially masculine social category, hægsteald, would not be surprising, but I would argue that it occured belatedly, and possibly via the military meaning of Lat. tiro as novice, one of the glossed definitions of the noun hægsteald in the DOE that only occurs in one text, the Liber Scintillarum.

Katherine Allen Smith discusses the emergence of military tropes in monastic ideology, rooted in the Benedictine Rule and early medieval hagiography, but reaching full expression in the twelfth century.  She notes the use of Lat. tiro to indicate the kind of soldierly training a monastic novice would undergo (pp. 95, 114-21).

This military comparison is explicit in the seventh-century text known as Defensor’s Liber Scintillarum, and in its eleventh-century Old English interlinear version (BL Royal 7.C.IV; EETS 93, p. 205), here quoting Jerome:  a teacher, magister/lareow, must first be a discipulus/leornincgcniht in the same way that a knight, miles/cniht, must first be a tiro, glossed hægesteald or geongcempa (another military word applied to religious warriors).  This double gloss of tiro reinforces the notion that the monastic metaphor is built on an established meaning of a young warrior in training, thus rooted in masculine social status rather than sexual activity per se.

When it comes to women, the  Liber Scintillarum gloss is one of the sources that heavily uses fæmnhad to gloss virginity, along with the Aldhelm glosses, suggesting the two texts have a lot in common.  Hægesteald remains then, a masculine term for a novice in a monastic context.


The religious association of hægsteald as a metaphor for monastic life seemed to emerge only in the eleventh century in the glosses to Aldhelm and the Liber Scintillarum, undoubtedly an outgrowth of the monastic reform movement begun in the previous century.  The metaphor relies on its primary social meaning of a young unmarried warrior class male in training in a household, in this case a religious community, rather than specificially on celibacy or viriginity exclusively, although of course sexual abstinence is required of the novice.

This conclusion works only insofar as we can isolate Aldred’s uses of hehstald and its compounds glossing virgo and virginity.  Although it may seem circular, this argument works both ways:

  • The experiment of removing Aldred’s glosses brings into focus the non-Aldredian uses of hægsteald words as referencing the masculine social status of an unmarried warrior novice retainer, a cælebs, and secondarily a religious metaphor based on that concept of celibacy as an unmarried sexually abstinent dependant in a religious household.
  • If we take “heh” as “high” in Aldred’s use, then the experiment also reveals his sense of virginity as a spiritual status based on sexual abstinence, regardless of marital status (as in the Virgin Mary), and is used in many cases where another text would use fæmne or mægðhad.
  • Although the meanings of hægsteald and hehstald appear close—as a gloss to celibacy and virginity respectively—the linguistic difference between hæg- and heh– based on Aldred’s very different use of his term suggests that they are two different words.

As a consequence, I would recommend that the DOE disambiguate hehstald from hægsteald.



Bullough, Donald A. “The Place-Name Hexham and Its Interpretation.” N&Q n.s. 46 (1999): 422-27.

Cubitt, Catherine. “Virginity and Misogyny in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England.” Gender & Hist. 12 (2000): 1-32.

Fischer, Andreas Fischer. Engagement, Wedding and Marriage in Old English. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1986.

Gwara, Scott, ed.  Aldhelmi Malmesbiriensis Prosa de virginitate, 2 vols., CCSL 124-124a.

Heyworth, Melanie. “Perceptions of Marriage in Exeter Book Riddles 20 and 61.” Studia Neophilologica 79 (2007): 171–84.

Kellermann, Günter. “Aspects of Etymological Inference: a Case Study of OE hægsteald / ModE bachelor and OE hægtesse / ModE witch.” Diachrony within Synchrony: Language History and Cognition. Ed. Kellermann and Michael D. Morrissey. Bern, Frankfurt am Main, and New York: Peter Lang, 1992, 509-28.

Lapidge, Michael and Michael Herren, trans..  Aldhelm:  The Prose Works.  Cambridge:  D. S. Brewer, 1979.

Lees, Clare A. and Gillian R. Overing.  Double Agents:  Women and Clerical Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Newton, Francis L., Francis L. Newton, Jr., and Christopher R. J. Scheirer. “Domiciling the evangelists in Anglo-Saxon England: a fresh reading of Aldred’s colophon in the ‘Lindisfarne Gospels.’”  Anglo-Saxon England 41 (2012):  101-144.

Pasternack, Carol Braun. “The Sexual Practices of Virginity and Chastity in Aldhelm’s De Virginitate.” Sex and Sexuality in Anglo-Saxon England: Essays in Memory of Daniel Gillmore Calder. Ed. Carol Braun Pasternack and Lisa M. C. Weston. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 277. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2004. 93-120.

Smith, Katherine Allen. War and the Making of Medieval Monastic Culture. Studies in the History of Medieval Religion, 37. Rochester, NY: The Boydell Press, 2011.

Watts, Victor. “The Place-name Hexham: A Mainly Philological Approach.” Nomina 17 (1994): 119-36.


London, BL Cotton Cleopatra A.iii (three glossaries). Gneuss 319.  s. x2/4 or x med, Canterbury St. Augustine’s.

London, BL Cotton Nero D.iv (Lindisfarne Gospels).  Gneuss 343. 687×689, Lindisfarne; OE gloss s. ix ex, Chester-le-Street.

London, BL Harley 3376 (glossary). Gneuss 436.  s. x/xi, W England (Worcester?).  Glossary.

London, BL Royal 7.C.iv (Defensor, Liber Scintillarum). Gneuss 470. s xi1, Canterbury CC?, OE gloss s. xi med.

Brussels, Bibliothèque royale 1650 (1520) (Aldhelm, prose De Uirginitate). Gneuss 806.  s. xi in., Abingdon; Latin and OE glosses s. xi1.  ASMMF 13 (2006), no. 18.

Durham, Cathedral Library A.IV.19 (“Durham Ritual”).  Gneuss 223.  s. ix/x or x in., S England, collectar, liturgical texts; s. x2, Chester-le-Street, additional texts, Old English gloss.   EEMF 16.


[1] Personally, I wonder what the hæleþa streona consists of:  what kinds of treasures does the unmarried warrior retainer enjoy in the household, and why in the next section does he often earn the wrath of a wif  because of his wiry ornament (wirum), presumably the ornamented hilt, while the sword is“fettered” by his lord, presumably sheathed in its scabbard?

Posted by: kljolly | November 7, 2016

Seeing to Write

I fell down another research rabbit hole.  Like Alice in Wonderland, I enjoy the free fall and sights along the way, although it began to feel more like this Arthur Racalice_in_wonderland_by_arthur_rackham_-_15_-_at_this_the_whole_pack_rose_up_into_the_air_and_came_flying_down_upon_herkham illustration from later in the story.

My intention was to use a rare free day (free of grading, meetings, and other tasks) to belatedly reflect on the paper I gave in early October on “Writing Spaces” at the Material World of the Early Middle Ages conference at Pacific University in Portland, OR.  It was one of those wonderful small conferences where everyone is working on fascinating subjects that end up intersecting with each other.  As a consequence, I came away with more questions than I arrived with about my topic, the physical spaces in which scribes worked.

The rabbit in question is indoor lighting for scribal work, with a special focus on tenth-century Northumbria and Chester-le-Street.  As my longtime colleague Robin Fleming pointed out, most indoor spaces were likely dim and smoky, depending on the fuel used to light or heat the space.  So how did they see well enough to do the detailed work we find in manuscripts like Durham A.IV.19?

Durham Cathedral Cloister in winter

Durham Cathedral Cloister in winter

My initial concerns with the architectural space revolved around wood versus stone buildings and the degree to which early medieval English scribes might customarily do their work in a semi-covered cloister area, as is evident in later structures, for example at Durham Cathedral (left).  The advantage of a cloister walk is that the openings into the green provide abundant light during the day, while offering shelter in carrels for the scribe’s workspace, as well as cupboards for storage.

Setting aside whether tenth-century Chester-le-Street even had a cloister, the colder climate in the north and the shorter days in the winter suggest that scribes would need indoor spaces to conduct the amount of scribal stints they seem to have accomplished between church services and other duties.

Whether these indoor spaces were rooms set aside specifically for the task, or ad hoc locations set up in the church or in other buildings, windows cannot have been the only source of illumination for their work.  Windows in many buildings, stone or wood, were likely small:  Old English words include eag-duru, eye-door, and eag-þyrl, eye-hole.  Such windows were unlikely to be covered with something transparent enough for strong light transmission, such as expensive glass, although they might have oiled sheets, shaved horn, or simply curtains or shutters.  Windows are also problematic if open to wind and cold, not to mention useless as a light source when the sun is down.

So I went searching for lamps, lanterns, candles, torches, and other sources of firelight, as well as their accoutrements and fuel sources.  These are my ramblings so far (keep in mind the image above of Alice with the cards flying around her).

I would divide these devices into two generic categories:  things with wicks and things without wicks.  A wick (OE weoce) is a wonderful invention allowing a steady flame for periods of time without having to feed or adjust it while it draws on the fuel source (oil, fat, or wax, but more on that later).

First, things without wicks.  A fireplace or a brazier burning wood or tinder of some kind usually is used for warmth and would be located in such a way as to funnel as much smoke as possible out of the room, so is less likely to be near enough to help a scribe unless he sat or crouched beside it with a lap table (and risk setting his parchment on fire).  Based admittedly on my experiences as a Girl Scout roasting marshmallows over a campfire, by the time you are close enough to see to read by it (or get your marshmallow over the best coals), you are way too hot.

The stereotypical medieval torch (Lat. fax, facula, OE þæcele) is basically a stick with a bundle of something (straw, wood, cloth?) dipped in fuel, a giant wick if you will, that can be carried or placed in a sconce.  We usually imagine them as unpleasantly smoky and hard to see by (cue visuals of Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark wading through a pit of snakes…).  Certainly a candle, lamp, or lantern would be a preferred source of light, easier to handle and set in a convenient place to see by.


Roman oil lamp, probably for the poor (Rita Roberts blog)

A lamp is an ambiguous thing:  OE blāc-ern (“light-place”) and leoht-fæt (“light vessel”) glossing Lat. lucerna or lampas and variations, can be light itself, candle, lamp, or lantern. Enclosed Aladdin-like lamps or open bowl lamps with a wick seem common enough:  a Roman oil lamp, with diagram; Viking Shetland lamps (the discussion posits fish oil as a fuel source); and later medieval cresset lamps that could be placed in a holder.  These devices seem to rely on oil, not solid wax or fat.  However, oil (OE ele), whether olive, fish, or vegetable, occurs mostly in liturgical and medicinal contexts for anointing and may not have been readily available in a cheap enough form to burn in Anglo-Saxon England.

7th century iron lamp, Clobb's Row, British Museum (Woruldhord)

7th century iron lamp, Clobb’s Row, British Museum (Woruldhord)

We do have early Anglo-Saxon evidence of iron tripod stand lamps.  Presumably these were meant to be closer to people with the object of providing illumination.  They have been found primarily in 7th century high status burial sites like Sutton Hoo (scroll through Bartholomew’s World to see it), Clobb’s Row to the right (British Museum, available at Woruldhord), and this same? one from the British Museum.  Did they have wicks?  These examples have the remains of beeswax in them, which suggests yes.  Were such items still in use in the 1oth century?  Send me examples if you have them.

A single candle with wick in a bowl or other holder might do for a lone scribe, or better yet a candelabra with multiple candle flames.  OE candel occurs commonly, mostly in religious contexts, along with a variety of candel-compounds indicating various stands, holders, and snuffers for them, as well as a surprising number of candel-kennings for the sun (for example, dæg-candel).

What is the solid fuel of which the candle is made?  Does Lat. cerea and OE weax refer only to beeswax?  Beeswax would be pleasant-smelling but expensive, while tallow or fat much less pleasant, if more readily available. OE smearu (fat, tallow) occurs primarily in recipes and as a gloss to Lat. unguentum and salve, so it is unclear if animal fat is associated with candles. A scribe in a religious community would have access to beeswax candles, paid as dues to the church.  But would they be reserved for liturgical use and only sparingly for writing?

Moreover, those who have tried reading by a candle when the power is out know that it is not ideal except when held in clear glass to increase luminosity.  Glass bowls certainly existed in Anglo-Saxon England, but is there evidence of candle wax is any of them? The single use of OE glæsfæt and glæsene leohtfatu to describe a glass lamp (in Gregory the Great’s Dialogues Book 1.7 story of the miraculously restored glass lamp that Nonnosus broke while washing) suggests they were precious objects in church use.

You can also put a candle in a lantern.  For us, if not for Anglo-Saxons, a lantern is distinct from a lamp or a candle holder.  We picture a semi-enclosed device designed to hold a candle or oil with wick apparatus and transparent sides directing or increasing luminosity.  Asser famously describes King Aldred’s innovative time-keeping candle-lantern:

104.  When he had thought about these things for some time, he at last hit upon a useful and intelligent solution.  He instructed his chaplains to produce an ample quantity of wax, and, when they had brought it, he told them to weigh it against the weight of pennies on a two-pound balance.  When a sufficient amount of wax, equivalent in weight to seventy-two pennies, had been measured out, he told the chaplains to make six candles out of it, each of equal size, so that each candle would be twelve inches long and would have the inches marked on it.  Accordingly, once this plan had been devised, the six candles were lit so as to burn without interruption through the twenty-four hours of each day and night in the presence of the holy relics of a number of God’s chosen saints which the king always had with him everywhere.  But because of the extreme violence of the wind, which sometimes blew day and night without stopping through the doors of the churches or through the numerous cracks in the windows, walls, wall-panels and partitions, and likewise through the thin material of the tents, the candles on occasion could not continue burning through an entire day and night up to the same hour that they had been lighted the evening before; when this happened it caused the candles to burn up more quickly than they should, so that they had finished their course before the appointed hour.  Alfred considered how he might be able to exclude the draughts of wind; and when he had ingeniously and cleverly devised a plan, he ordered a lantern to be constructed attractively out of wood and ox-horn—for white oxhorn, when shaved down finely with a blade, becomes as translucent as a glass vessel.  Once this lantern had been marvellously constructed from wood and horn in the manner I have described, and a candle had been placed inside it at night so that it shone brightly without as within, it could not be disturbed by any gust of wind, since he had asked for the door of the lantern to be made of horn as well.  When the apparatus had been constructed in this way, the six candles could burn one after the other without interruption through the course of the twenty-four hours—neither more quickly nor more slowly.  And once these candles were consumed, more were lighted. [trans. from Alfred the Great:  Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other Contemporary Sources, ed. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge (Penguin, 1983]


For discussion, see David Pratt, Political Thought of King Alfred, pp. 137, 186-87, 207.  I also found this Time Team Canterbury 2000 reproduction that looks like it is based on this description.

Several things are notable in Asser’s description:

  • The use of wax candles, presumably beeswax, was an expensive item but used in a royal and devotional context.
  • Drafts were a problem even in well-appointed royal buildings, as well as churches, enough to make candles gutter and burn unevenly, but apparently not strong enough to extinguish candles in ordinary holders.
  • This was a portable system, meant to be used on the road (in tents) and whatever church or building the king found himself in.
  • Alfred’s invention is designed to measure time, not serve to give light to read or write.
  • Yet the description does mention how bright the lantern light was, given the translucency of the covering.
  • The concept of a lantern does not seem to be new.  What is innovative in Alfred’s design is the time-keeping accuracy because of covering the lantern, including its door, with translucent white ox-horn (presumably expensive) to prevent drafts from reaching it.  This suggests that most lanterns had an open side to shed light.

Would such a lantern be useful for reading or writing by?

So, having floated past a number of curiosities, I arrive in Wonderland still looking for my rabbit:

  1. How did Anglo-Saxon scribes use candles, lamps, or lanterns on or near their writing surfaces to illuminate their work?  Is that why they are often depicted in images and ditties as hunched over?
  2. Was the fuel source oil, wax, or tallow?  What are the pros and cons of each in terms of availability, cost, burn rate, luminosity, and smokiness? Has anyone tested parchment for smoke residue?

    Arthur Rackham, “off with her head”


What light (ahem) does the linguistic evidence of Aldred’s Old English gloss shed on these questions?  This post is overly long, so I will leave that material for another post and another free day–perhaps the U.S. “holiday” tomorrow, when I will need a distraction from the election news.  Speaking of Wonderland, tea parties, and through the looking glass….

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.

Posted by: kljolly | July 15, 2016

Lindisfarne and Leeds

My back-to-back visits to Holy Island and the University of Leeds Medieval Congress in some ways illustrate well the dual life of Anglo-Saxon clergy like Aldred:  the quiet retreat of monastic routine and the busy schedule of secular affairs.  Saint Cuthbert longed to retreat from the busyness but was drawn in by demands for his service as a leader.  Ironically, what made him an attractive abbot and bishop was his preference for the quiet life over the power and prestige of clerical position, but he knew he needed the self-effacement of retreat in order to not get sucked into the politics of it all.  Perhaps all of our leaders should do the same…but that is a different post.

Lindisfarne Museum Cross

Lindisfarne Museum Cross

Half way through my week on Holy Island, I realized what made my retreat so pleasurable:  I could simply receive what was offered to me.  All food was provided at Marygate House, so I did not need to find a restaurant and choose from a menu, but simply eat the delicious meals lovingly served to us retreatants.  Similarly with the religious services, I went to St. Mary’s Parish Church morning prayers at 7:30, communion at 8, and evening prayers at 5:30, as well as Marygate prayers mid-morning, making no effort to create my own spiritual disciplines but accept what I was fed.  That passivity on my part contributed to receptivity and gratefulness.  It also left my mind free to wander as I wandered around the island between times, and wrote down ideas to incorporate into Aldred’s story.

Lindisfarne Museum cross, backside showing warrior attack

Lindisfarne Museum Cross, backside showing warrior attack

ISASlogoOn the other hand, the Leeds Congress was highly enjoyable, filled as it was with thoughtful paper sessions, stimulating conversations with fellow medievalists, and chance meetings that turned out to be very helpful.  But it was non-stop interactions from breakfast to bedtime.  I gathered a very different set of notes to use in Aldred’s story as well as other research.  I was also able to promote ISAS 2017 in Honolulu:  the call for papers is now up and the website under development.

So what can I say about this contrasting experiences?  I enjoy both and need a bit of both.  I like being alone for periods of time, thinking, reading, and writing.

Clover from St. Cuthbert's Isle

Clover from St. Cuthbert’s Isle

But I also enjoy the intellectual stimulation of conversation with other researchers.  I suspect Aldred was similar, or at least I intend to build that duality into my fictional recreation of his life.  On the one hand, he loved books, both reading and writing in them.  But I don’t think he did so in complete isolation.  The colophons he wrote in both the Lindisfarne Gospels and Durham A.IV.19, and his glosses to both, suggest that he was involved in scholarly dialogue with members of his community in ways that enriched and informed what he wrote.   What is hard to recreate is the dialogue taking place with others while he glossed in his native Old English the Latin texts he and they used for meditation and prayer.



Posted by: kljolly | July 2, 2016

Holy Island

I am just finishing a week’s retreat on Holy Island, at Lindisfarne.  Instead of using my brief time in England to visit as many sites as I can, as I have done in the past, I decided to stay in one spot and soak in the place.

Soak may be an apt word.  As many of you know, Holy Island is accessible only at low tide across a long spit of land, a sandy causeway.  Just south of it is a small islet, St. Cuthbert’s Island where he made his first retreat.  It also is cut off at high tide and accessible only at low tide across a rocky and sandy path strewn with kelp and beds of mussel shells.  I have crossed over to it and tramped around almost every day this week, imagining a 16-year old Aldred on a penitential pilgrimage here in 934.


St. Cuthbert’s Island (2007)

Signs everywhere on Holy Island warn about the tides and give the safe crossing times for the causeway, mostly for the day tourists.  But there are no signs or tide charts for St. Cuthbert’s Island.  Because it is southward and lower, the tide arrives sooner and faster, and retreats later than the causeway. But by how much?

I did not stop to think about that.  On Thursday, I decided to visit St. Cuthbert’s Island during the evening safe crossing period, to get a sense of what Aldred might experience as the day drew to a close.  At this time of year, the sun is still bright and low in the western sky at 9.  It doesn’t get dark until 11 or later, and the light returns a few hours later, according to the birds who wake me.


Looking south (I think!) from St. Cuthbert’s Island.

The safe crossing for the causeway the evening of June 30 would end at 10:15 p.m.  I went out after supper, warned to go quickly by one of my fellow retreat diners who got her feet wet the night before while crossing back.  I got on the island about 8 p.m., figuring I would have about an hour before needing to cross back.  Surely there would be not much more than an hour’s difference between this island’s causeway and the main one.


Looking west from Cuthbert’s Island, setting sun to the right.

I spent my hour contemplating the view facing different directions, as Aldred might have done as he said the Little Hours of prayer during the day.  I went down on the west side rocky shingle where I imagine Aldred might imitate Cuthbert and wade in for prayer.  I took off my boots and socks, rolled up my jeans, and waded up to my calves in the shallow bit, the soft sand nicer than the blocky rocks of the shore, looking at shells.


Looking west from Cuthbert’s Island, the rocky shingle at bottom left.

The tide which would later cover this rocky shingle was still withdrawn.  So I took my time after I got my socks and shoes on, searching in the rocks for a Cuthbert bead (no luck).  Then I circled round the north side of the island, wondering what to make of the spongy uneven hassocks of grass, with their pitfall holes.


Looking northwest from Cuthbert’s Island to the shore of Holy Island.

As I rounded toward the east end I looked up and, you guessed it, I was cut off from Holy Island. The flat sand and rocks over which I had crossed was now submerged by the rising tide.  It was just a few minutes past nine.

I had enjoyed being alone on the island.  Now I knew why.

In that split second as I gazed at the watery crossing, several things passed through my mind.  “What an idiot” being the main one.  I thought about the fact that I had a UK phone on me, but who would I call?  I did not see anyone on shore, and I certainly did not want any locals to see the stupid visitor wading back.  I am from Hawai`i where we have the same problem with silly tourists getting stuck and needing to be rescued.


Looking east from Cuthbert’s Island, taken soon after I arrived.  The exposed path is visible on the left.  The Farnes and Bamburgh are not visible in the distance.

Since the tide had just come in, it wasn’t deep yet. I thought briefly about removing my boots to keep them dry, but didn’t want to waste any time or be slowed down by bare feet searching for a soft footing.

So, umbrella as walking stick in hand, I strode into the tide, picking my way along roughly the same path I usually used to cross.  The water reached above my knees.  At one point I hesitated in my footing and swayed, but steadied by my umbrella I did not fall. I reached the other side feeling humbled.

It was a wet slog back up to the retreat house, where I confessed my idiocy to fellow residents.  Unbenownst to me, the one who had warned me had been sitting on the beach, saw me on the island, and tried to wave. She watched over me as I slogged back through the water.  So I was not alone.  Thanks, Emma!

And, another confession.  After I reached shore I realized my water bottle was missing from my backpack, probably fallen out on the island when I bent over or swung the pack off or on. Earlier I had despised the thoughtless visitor who had left a plastic soda bottle on the shore.  When I went back the next evening (earlier!), I could not find it.  My apologies to the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s in Minnesota, who gave me the water bottle at a writing workshop last fall on Whidbey Island.  Your name is on it.  I pray no one blames you for my carelessness.


Looking northeast toward Lindisfarne Priory and the Heugh (modern watchtower atop).  The way was still clear to cross when I took this at 8:15 p.m.!

Besides being reminded of my own human frailty, I gained some valuable insights to work into Aldred’s story.

Posted by: kljolly | May 28, 2016

Aldred’s Baptism

With the semester over and marking done, I have finally gotten back to finishing the narrative of newborn Aldred’s baptism, occurring with his father’s funeral at the Easington estate manorial church.

Working through the infant baptism ritual has raised innumerable questions about implements, where people stand, and who does what, when, and how.  I decided to use as the base text the Red Book of Darley ritual rubricated in Old English (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 422, edited by R. I. Page), supplemented with reference to the Leofric Missal and the Missal of Robert of Jumièges.

What follows is a work in progress.  This initial draft endeavors to get all of the people, tools, actions, and words in place. Some Latin prayers are left intact, others translated, some summarized for convenience.  Later I will add more character perspectives and interruptions.  For now, I would greatly appreciate suggestions, especially from those knowledgeable in either early medieval or contemporary Catholic liturgy and baptism, as well as anyone else who has a suggestion on the logistics.

Carol N de V, if you are reading this:  I would love to make one of the vessels out of horn, but which one?  The holy water jug?  The oil cruets?

Sarah K., if online:  You more than anyone can probably envision this and tell me where I have gone wrong!


Shaftesbury Abbey glass bowl, late tenth century

Since this is from the middle of a chapter, there may be some confusion of persons.  Here is a list of characters:

  • Bishop Tilred of Chester-le-Street
  • Tilwif, sister of Tilred, widow of Alfred, mother of little Bega and newborn Aldred
  • Deacon Aldred, serves Bishop Tilred, stands as godfather to baby Aldred
  • Abbess Bega, midwife, friend to Tilwif
  • Putta, priest of Easington church (Alfred and Tilwif’s manorial estate)
  • Nothwulf, Putta’s acolyte apprentice
  • Wulfflæd, Nothwulf’s sister assisting with birth and with little Bega
  • little Bega, three-year-old daughter of Tilwif and Alfred, older sister to newborn Aldred
  • baby Aldred, newborn son of Tilwif and recently deceased Alfred


Abbess Bega stepped forward last, carrying the infant.  Wulfflæd took little Bega off to the side, lifting her so she could watch the next ritual, the baptism of her brother.  Tilwif remained seated by the body of her husband, just behind Abbess Bega.

It passed through the bishop’s mind, and no doubt others, that the ceremonies he was performing were disordered, as was the world.  Who ever interrupted a funeral to do a baptism before burial in the church yard? Who did a mass before the baptism instead of after?

Standing now in front of the altar, Bishop Tilred asked, “What is this child’s name?” the formal christening required before the baptism could proceed.

He looked directly at his sister Tilwif, seated on her stool, expecting her to say “Alfred,” naming the infant after his dead father.

Instead she answered loudly and distinctly, “his name is Aldred.” A murmur rippled through the congregation.

Tilred stared at his sister, who nodded her head once in affirmation.  Deacon Aldred, standing beside him in front of the altar shifted uneasily.  Only right before the service had Abbess Bega asked him to stand as godfather, conveying the mother’s request.  Aldred was a childhood friend of the family, and like a son to Bishop Tilred.  Now he was to be godfather to his bishop’s nephew.

Tilred understood that his sister had made a choice for this son of hers, to be a spiritual warrior of the church, not to follow in his father’s footsteps.  Aldred, eald-ræd, old counsel, a good name for a priest.

The silence in the church lasted uncomfortably long, as the manorial folk took in the full meaning of this naming.

Then Deacon Aldred came around the altar and stood beside Bega, facing the bishop.  If Aldred stood as godfather, [local manorial] Priest Putta would assist the bishop in the service, along with the acolyte apprentice Nothwulf.

Tilred leaned forward over the child in Bega’s arms and recited the exorcism that must precede the coming of the Holy Spirit, Exi ab eo spiritus inmunde et da locum spiritui sancto paraclito in nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti. With each of the Trinitarian names he softly blew in the face of the child.

The devil thus expelled and the breath of God’s Spirit filling the empty space, he sealed the child with the cross, making the rood-sign first on the baby’s forehead, saying “signum sanctae crucis in fronte tuo pono,” and then again on the baby’s breast, saying “signum sanctae crucis saluatoris domini nostri ihesu cristi in pectore tuo pono.”

Placing his hand on the child’s head, Tilred said, “The Lord be with you, and with your spirit.”  Looking up at Abbess Bega and Deacon Aldred, he said “let us pray.”  Glancing to his left at the service book held up to him by young Nothwulf, he recited the Latin prayer for baptismal candidates that finished the page [Leofric 2480].

Each hearer understood the words differently and prayed for the baby boy’s future accordingly.  Bega heard the language of protection and evil expelled, while Aldred heard the call for gospel teaching and wisdom.  Tilred thought about the medicine of baptism healing soul and body.

When Tilred had finished the prayer, Priest Putta stepped forward with the purified salt that he had just exorcised and blessed behind them at the altar, rapidly murmuring the familiar words “I exorcize you creature salt,” and sanctifying it with the sign of the cross even as Tilred was signing the child.

The priest held the small glass bowl out to the bishop, who took a pinch of the salt between thumb and forefinger.

“What is the child’s name,” he asked, not for the last time.

“Aldred,” Bega again replied.

Tilred brought the grains of salt to the baby’s mouth.  Bega fluttered her fingers on the baby’s cheek.  Instinctively, the infant turned his mouth toward the sensation and opened his lips to receive a warm nipple.  Instead, a salty finger touched his tongue. He bleated a small cry, interrupting Tilred’s murmured instruction, “Aldredus, Accipe salem sapientiae propitiatus in vitam aeternam.” But then the baby’s greedy mouth closed around his uncle’s finger and began sucking, thereby accepting the salt of wisdom for eternal life.

Leaving his forefinger’s bent knuckle in the baby’s mouth, Tilred recited from the book Nothwulf continued to hold steadily for him, the prayer for this first salty pablum to feed and regenerate the soul.

When the prayer was done, Tilred gently withdrew his knuckle, although the little mouth continued its suckling movement while Tilred made the sign of the cross on the baby’s head, and chanted a collect from the book, after motioning Nothwulf to turn the page again.  It was a small service book, much used.

Tilred called on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who appeared to his servant Moses on Mount Sinai and led his people out of Egypt, an angel watching over them day and night.  That same God, the bishop asked, send the same angel to watch over and lead this little child.  The devil who might try to thwart this prayer was again cursed by the sign of the cross.

“Amen,” replied the people, accustomed to do so whenever they heard the Latin Trinitarian phrase with which Tilred ended the prayer.

Making the sign of the cross over the infant, Tilred read on the facing page the next prayer for the salvation of a manchild. Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you, he instructed the infant.

Tilred flipped the page himself in the book, skipping the alternate prayers for a maidenchild.  Once again he adjured the devil, ending with a strongly worded exorcism, Exorcizo te inmunde spiritus in nomine patries et filii et spiritus sancti, that any unclean spirit would exit and recede from this servant of God, calling on the power of that savior who walked on water and rescued Peter from the waves with his right hand.  Even Nothwulf, who did not know the Latin, felt the force of the words.

Stepping back from the child, Bishop Tilred lifted his voice to speak to the watching but silent congregation the words of gospel truth.  They recited after him the Pater noster, then the Creed, the clergy chanting it in Latin and then leading the faithful in English.

The infant to be baptized had no way to absorb these lessons, but the community that would raise him must ensure that he did as soon as he was able.  Bishop Tilred recited from memory the Gospel of Mark [10:13-16], translating the Latin into English: “They were offering little children to Jesus so that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked those offering them.  When Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them, for of such is the kingdom of God.  Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child, will not enter into it.’  And he embraced them, and putting his hands on them, blessed them.”

In his brief homily explaining the passage in English, the bishop warned the community that children must be brought to the Savior and that the adults should be more like the children themselves in seeking the kingdom of God.

Priest Putta surreptitiously turned the small service book pages in Nothwulf’s hands to the next text the bishop might need.

Returning his attention from the congregation to the infant, Tilred loosened the tightly bound swaddling blanket enough to extract the right hand of little Aldred.  Prying open the balled fist, the bishop made a cross gesture in the palm of the small hand with his right thumb, and read accipe signaculum domini nostri ihesu christi in manu tua dextera ut te signeset de aduersa parte repelles et in fide catholica permaneas et uiuas cum domino semper in secula seculorum.”  May this sign keep him safely in the catholic faith.

The little hand free, baby Aldred began to squirm, and his eyes opened unfocused until they found the midwife’s face.  Taking hold of the blessed palm, Bega gave it a kiss and then turned to hand the baby to the godfather.

“What is the child’s name?”

As Deacon Aldred took the child into his arms, marveling at the lightness of the newborn, he answered, “Aldred,” thereby accepting responsibility for this little life.

Infant Aldred struggled in the unfamiliar arms of his new godfather.  His bishop uncle decided to keep the next prayer short, yet another telling off of the devil [Leofric 2497], and move on to the font ceremonies.

Leading the procession to the back of the church, Bishop Tilred began the litany of saints commemorated at Chester-le-Street.  Deacon Aldred, carrying the infant, followed behind him with Abbess Bega by his side, each taking up the chant.  Behind them walked Priest Putta, the service book tucked under his arm, and Nothhelm, carefully carrying the wide mouthed pitcher of holy water the priest had earlier sanctified.  Wulfflæd, carrying little Bega, trailed behind.

As he passed the coffin, Tilred paused to raise his sister and, taking her by the arm, led her to the font, never breaking the cadence of the chant.

The litany always began with the Greek Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy, each of the triune godhead have mercy.  Starting at the top of the heavenly hierarchy, the litany of saints began with the most blessed Virgin Mary, followed by archangels and ranks of angels, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and evangelists, martyrs and saints, foreign and local, their own Cuthbert in the midst of them receiving a double chant.

Bowing to the bishop and lady, the people parted for them as they passed, then turned their backs to the altar and the coffin.  Some thought to cross themselves before doing so, as if they were leaving, but instead they stayed to watch the ceremony beginning at the doorway.

The procession approached the font slowly while finishing the litany with the deprecations against the devil and the appeals for salvation, the forgiveness of sins carried by the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God on the cross still gleaming on the altar behind them where Nothwulf had placed it.

The carved stone font stood on a wooden pedestal in the center of the square west end of the church.  The south door of the church was open to the manor, the doorway of the room where Tilwif had just risen from her childbed visible across the courtyard.  Tilwif’s legs shook as she clung to her brother’s arm, but she refused to give into bodily weakness and return to her bed.  She must see her son cleansed in the sacred waters.

First the font must be hallowed.

Bishop Tilred faced east toward the altar, the font in front of him, his sleeves folded back to bare his forearms for the work ahead.  To his left stood Priest Putta holding the service book open so that Tilred could refer to it as needed.  Nothwulf stood just behind the priest’s left hand, ready to assist.  On the bishop’s right, stood Deacon Aldred rocking his godson, Tilwif next to him, then Bega.

Oremus,” let us pray, the bishop intoned. Tilwif began to sway, so Bega put her arm around her waist, “lean on me,” she whispered.  Tilwif nodded and rested her head on her friend’s breast, allowing the ceremony’s words to wash over her.

Tilred’s prayer was answered by Deacon Aldred and Priest Putta giving the responses, the Lord be with you, and with your spirit.  The preface began, Uere Dignum, calling on the invisible power to sanctify the water.

Pausing, Tilred turned toward Nothwulf, who handed across the book-holding priest the pitcher of holy water he still held. Tilred poured from it into the font’s steaming water the shape of a cross, the cooler holy water dividing the surface into four invisible quadrants.  Bega had made sure that the serving women filled the font with boiling water before the funeral mass began so that it would be nicely warm by the time the infant was submersed in it.

Three times the bishop divided the font water with the holy water cross pattern, each time reciting a prayer of sanctification from the book, Priest Putta turning the pages upside down to him.  Putta knew the book well, since this was his small worn service book the bishop used.

The first prayer made the mixture of waters fecund for regeneration, engendering a spiritual conception in the water itself.  From “the immaculate womb of the divine font,” a heavenly progeny would emerge.  Bega, also understanding the words, thought of the divine conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary, and the lesser but still equally mysterious conception of this child and his new birth in this font.

And, in case any unclean spirits might invade, the prayer asked that nothing impure might sully the waters, nothing insidious creep in.  Let this holy and innocent water be free from all evil, let this water of life purge, purify, and wash. Putta thought about the need for clean water, brought up from the deep well in the courtyard.

The second prayer blessed the water calling on the name of God, the one who in the beginning divided water from dry land, whose spirit moved over the waters, and who made the water flow from Paradise in four rivers (here Tilred poured the cross shape again). This same God sated the thirst of his people in the desert, producing water from a rock.

The third prayer moved from Genesis into the Gospels. Jesus walked on water, John baptized in the Jordan river water, Jesus turned water into wine in Chana of Galilee, and water and blood came from his side.  So the Savior commanded his disciples to baptize those who believe in His name and to teach them.

Bega loved the Gospel of John story of water turned into wine at the behest of our Savior’s mother, following so closely on the baptism of our Lord, both transforming the water of life into spiritual birth.  Both stories were carved on the sides of the stone font.

Tilred finished the prayer, signing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which they all copied automatically, even Tilwif, who was sagging against Bega.

Just as they finished signing, Bega was distracted by Priest Putta whispering to Nothwulf, who quickly turned toward the small table behind him against the north wall, where Wulfflæd stood holding a now sleeping Bega.  Setting down on the table the jug of holy water the bishop had returned to him, Nothwulf nodded to his sister as he picked up a beeswax taper, already lit.  The symbols of an acolyte’s role in the liturgy were a candle and a vessel for holding liquid, the two items he must hand to the priest or bishop as needed.  He was to do so quietly and swiftly, unnoticed, something he must still work on if he was to be ordained an acolyte soon.

Abbess Bega returned her attention to the bishop as Tilred’s tone changed from chant to reading.

“Omnipotent merciful God, breathe on this water…” and Tilred blew his own breath across the surface of the font water in a cross shape, thrice.

Finishing that purifying prayer, he moved to the next section in the book Priest Putta held.  The candle.  Tilred glanced left and saw Nothwulf returning to Putta’s side with the lit candle in his hands.  The boy reached across the service book the priest held, a small drop of wax landing on one page corner.

Tilred took the candle from the boy and dribbled five drops of wax on the surface of the water in a cross form, three down, two on each side.  Then three times he lowered the candle carefully upright into the font so that its flame reflected off the wavelets of water, calling on the Spirit to bring its regenerating effect to the water.

Nothwulf took the baptized candle from the bishop’s hand and returned it to the wooden holder on the table, scurrying to return as Putta had instructed him with a shallow silver bowl and sprig of fresh rosemary to hand to the bishop.

Taking the two items, Tilred dipped the bowl into the font and removed some of the sanctified water, chanting “I adjure you creature water that you will wash and purify for regeneration your children.”  Dipping the rosemary sprig in the bowl, he turned to his right and sprinkled each in turn the sleeping infant, the deacon holding the infant, his sister Tilwif, whose eyes opened briefly to meet his, and Bega supporting her.  Then turning to his left, the bishop asperged the boy, the priest, and then himself.  He handed the bowl and sprig back to Nothwulf, who turned once again and placed it on the small wooden table.  Wulfflæd standing there knew that folks departing or entering would cross themselves with the holy water.  Some would be taken to anoint the baby’s home as well.

Nothwulf returned with two small cruets of oil he unstoppered and removed from their carved ivory box on the table.  As he handed them across the book Putta still held open for the bishop, a splash from one overfull cruet landed in the top margin and drizzling downward across the first three lines of the page.

Not the first spill, from the looks of it, Tilred thought.  Anointing the page was a sign also of blessing, a book well used and loved.

Taking both cruets from the trembling hands of the boy, with his left hand Tilred tilted the pale green glass cruet, oil of unction, into the font water.  Oil and water do not mix, Deacon Aldred thought irrelevantly, even as his bishop moved to add the chrism oil in the yellow glass cruet with his right hand while pronouncing the words of sanctification.

A loud sharp word startled Tilwif from her semi-conscious state as she leaned on Bega. She had missed the oils but saw the two small cruets perched on the flat broad edge of the font in front of Tilred.

Effeta,” Tilred commanded, the ancient Hebrew word Jesus used to open the ears and free the tongue of the deaf man.  Like the Savior, Tilred had wet his finger with his own spit and was now marking the infant’s nose on each side, and each ear, saying “Open that which is to be opened, in the smell of sweetness” and with a further command drove the devil away into the last judgment of God.

And now the devil must be firmly renounced.

Looking into Deacon Aldred’s eyes as he held his godson, Bishop Tilred asked again “what is the child’s name?”

“His name is Aldred.”  It sounded so odd in his ears to say his own name in the third person rather than the first person.

Abrenuntio satane.”  Renounce Satan, the bishop asked, still looking directly into his deacon’s eyes.

Abrenuntio.”  I renounce, he replied. No need to use English for this godfather, since he was Latin-literate.

“And all his works,” Tilred added.


“And all his pomps.”


Once more asking the infant’s name to be pronounced by the godfather, Aldred answered again while unwrapping the child’s swaddling cloth as he did so to expose the child’s breast.

Tilred took his thumb and dipped it in the curved spout of the unction cruet. With the oily thumb, he made the sign of the cross on the bare chest, saying “I anoint you with the oil of salvation, in Christ Jesus our Lord, in life eternal.”  Tilred thought back to making the same sign with oil on this child’s father’s chest and wounds, just three days before.

A third time he asked for the child’s name and the godfather replied “Aldred.”

Placing his hand on the child’s head, Tilred began the Creed in question format, using Latin even here since he knew the deacon would understand: “Do you believe in the Lord, Father omnipotent, creator of heaven and earth?”

Credo,” Deacon Aldred replied on behalf of his godson.

“Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead, and buried; who descended into hell, on the third day rose from the dead; who ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of God the Father Omnipotent, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead?”

Credo.”  I believe.

And in the third part of the Creed formula, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the catholic church, the communion of saints, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the flesh, and life eternal?”


“Amen” both said together.

A fourth time, Tilred asked, “what is the child’s name?”

After his godfather answered, Tilred addressed the infant, “Aldred, do you wish to be baptized?”

And his godfather answered for him, “Volo.”  I will.

Bega moved Tilwif to her other side where the mother could lean on the font and watch her son’s immersion.  Bega then helped Aldred unwrap the infant, placing the outer swaddling blanket over the godfather’s shoulder and removing the wet, but thankfully not soiled, loin cloth from the small bottom, exposing the infant’s manhood still enlarged from birth.

In the cool air, the baby startled, his arms jerking above his head.

Tilred took his naked nephew from the godfather, his right hand supporting the head, his left under his bottom, the infant facing him.  He paused then, holding the baby over the water, and looked to his sister, whose eyes were wide open as she gripped the font edge to steady herself, Bega now standing behind her.

Tilred dipped the infant feet first down into the deep basin, saying “I baptize you in the name of the Father,” the small head submerged last and only briefly.  Instinctively, the baby closed his mouth and nose to the water. Brought up from the water swiftly, before he could open his mouth, Tilred dipped him a second time, “and the Son.”  A third time, “and the Holy Spirit.”

All said with the bishop, “Amen.”

Released from the thrice dipping, Aldred let loose a howl.  Everyone in the church smiled.  This was the sign of life one strained to hear from the first birthing room, and now the second birth.

But in that moment, Tilwif saw her husband’s face as it might have looked in battle pain, and she drooped forward, closing her eyes.  Would that this child never held a sword or faced one, unlikely in these dangerous times.

At the same time, the sound of her baby’s cry caused her milk to let down.  The creamy white nourishment had only come in last night, replacing the clear fluid for the newborn.  Now the milk was soaking her shift, fortunately not visible through her outer dress.  It had been almost two hours since the baby had nursed and he would be hungry for the life-giving fluid.

Bega supporting her behind, Tilwif straightened up and watched as Deacon Aldred reached into the font and took her baby from her brother.

Holding him with his left hand in the child’s middle, Aldred tipped the infant gently forward, so the unsteady head rested its chin on chest and the howling momentarily ceased.  His toes still kicking in the water, baby Aldred splashed the priest and the boy with a second aspersion of holy water.

Tilred dipped his finger in the yellow cruet and made the sign of the cross on the infant’s exposed neck, saying once more the Trinitarian formula, “In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti.”

These complicated maneuvers accomplished, Aldred brought the baby to his shoulder and began drying him off with the swaddling blanket, rubbing his head so that his darkly wet hair turned once again a pale red, the oil from the font adding a sheen of gold.  Swiftly and with practiced hands, Bega wrapped a clean cloth around the baby’s bottom.  Comforted by the soft hands and cloth, the infant quieted.

Meanwhile Tilred read the collect from the service book Putta still held. “God Almighty, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who regenerates you out of water and the Holy Spirit, by which is given to you the remission of sins, this same anoints you, Aldred,” and here he again made the sign of the cross in chrism oil on the baby’s head, “this oil of salvation anoints you, in Christ Jesus to eternal life.” [Leofric 2504]

All present said “Amen.”

Tilwif then reached into her belt-bag and brought out the chrismale, unfolded the small square of fine white linen, and held it draped on her palm toward her brother.  He made the sign of the cross with oil on it, thereby sanctifying the baptismal garment.  She placed it then on her baby’s head while Tilred intoned: “Accept this white vestment, pure and immaculate, which you will carry before the tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ, in eternal life.”

All present said “Amen.”

Turning to Nothwulf, he whispered “candle?”  The boy looked confused.  They had done the candle already.  Putta nudged him, so he went and fetched it out of the candle holder on the table.  Wulfflæd rolled her eyes at her brother.  As if she knew what was supposed to happen next, he thought, just because she had attended her first birth.  This was his first baptism.

The bishop took the taper from his hand and, to the boy’s amazement, put the lit candle in the right hand of the baby.

Aldred had turned the infant in his arms to cradle him, the right hand of the baby free of swaddling. Infant Aldred’s small fist closed around the base of the candle, but his godfather gripped it above to prevent wax from dripping on the soft pink skin.

Tilred recited: “Take this unblemished lamp guarding your baptism, so that when Christ returns for the wedding you will be able to meet him, one with the saints entering the celestial home, so that you will go into life eternal and you will live in secula seculorum.”

All present said “Amen.”

Priest Putta brought out the small box with the reserve host, which Bishop Tilred had instructed him ahead of time to prepare for this unusual circumstance.  Taking it, the bishop held it aloft over the font, facing the altar.

Corpus et sanguis domini nostri iesu christi custodiat te in uitam aeternam.”

Then he gave the post-communion prayer ending the mass that had been interrupted by the baptism, using not the funeral formula but the one in the baptismal liturgy that Priest Putta pointed to in the service book.  [Jumièges, p. 100]

The prayer of regeneration echoed oddly in a church with at one end a dead body at the altar and at the other end an infant newly raised from the font.  Father and son.

Posted by: kljolly | May 2, 2016

Thirsting and Drought

As part of the research for my Leeds IMC paper on “Hunger and Thirst in Anglo-Saxon England,” I began to consider the conceptual range of the two words, hunger and thirst.  Both have a literal, physical meaning–a biological urge to eat and drink when the body signals a lack of food or liquid–as well as associated metaphorical meanings of spiritual, emotional, or other forms of desire for fulfillment.

It struck me, though, that the dyad hunger and thirst is a Biblical one that may have a different valence in Anglo-Saxon experience.  In Biblical lands and other regions with deserts or susceptible to severe drought, thirst signals a very real danger of dehydration in the same way that hunger left unsated can lead to starvation or death from malnutrition.  You can die of thirst before starvation in some places. Add to this lack of access to clean, safe water and thirst becomes dire.

But the likelihood of death from dehydration due to lack of liquid is much less in northern European climes, where drought is less frequent and less severe, perhaps affecting crops and cattle leading to famine, but not contributing to human mortality due to dehydration.  Most northern Europeans could access water from wells, streams and rivers, although with the risk of contamination and illness.  They could also concoct brewed drinks of various kinds, drink animal milk, or get needed liquid from plants in the diet.

So, under what conditions might someone in Anglo-Saxon England be extremely or dangerously thirsty?

A search of OE þurst, þurstig, þyrstan, þyrstig; ungemet-þurst, sin-þyrstende, ge-þyrst, of-þyrsted shows the common dyad hunger and thirst, as well as an even balance of literal and figurative types of thirst, none seemingly deadly in themselves.

Of the literal types of thirst as symptomatic of a dangerous condition, I thought of the following possibilities:

  • illness (Leechbook II.16 where thirst and lack of thirst are cited as symptoms of hot and cold stomachs respectively)
  • thirst while dying of some other cause, as in battle (Christ on the cross is also an example)
  • asceticism, linked with Biblical overtones (Wilfrid, Cuthbert)
  • seafaring, when the water runs out, although I need to find some examples
  • prisoners left to die without food or drink, haven’t found any cases
  • and natural disasters leading to polluted water or drought

Not wanting to exclude the possibility of natural disaster causing a water shortage, I embarked on a search for drought in Anglo-Saxon England and ran into some familiar source problems.  Many of the textual references to drought (OE drūgoþ, Lat. siccĭtas, arĭdĭtas) were to Biblical, homiletic, or glossary texts and not directly referring to conditions in England.  While Anglo-Saxons may have understood the concept of a desert as very dry land, their own experience of waste lands was probably not visualized or experienced as the waterless deserts of Biblical or other Mediterranean stories.

Still, did Anglo-Saxon England experience droughts?  It was easier to find Irish evidence, both textual and archaeological. The Annals of Ulster record a drought in 773, which F. Ludlow has correlated with tree ring data (Tree Ring Chronology of Meteorological Extremes for Ireland, AD425-1650, Irish Meteorological Society 2013, available at  Later Irish annals mention heat and drought (Annals of Inisfallen, 1129; Annals of Connacht, 1252; see Fergus Kelly, Early Irish Farming, pp. 2, 235).  Would England experience a drought if Ireland did?  I have not yet found a reference to drought in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Not for want of trying, and here I have to share some frustrations with citations that have led to a very different outcome for this post.

One handy resource for Anglo-Saxon foodways is Ann Hagen’s earlier A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food Processing and Consumption (1992) and her later, more comprehensive, Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink : Production, Processing, Distribution and Consumption (2006).  Both were published by Anglo-Saxon Books, a press specializing in readable general audience materials for non-specialists.  For specialists like myself, though, we need to track down the primary sources, and for that the citations in these two books are very misleading.

Hagen’s  Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food Processing and Consumption has a handy Appendix D listing famine years from 439-1099, but alas the primary evidence is poorly documented. In the narrative section earlier–where a number of useful Anglo-Saxon primary sources are quoted and cited–she implied that Appendix D was based on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  (p. 104, with a footnote to Wilfrid Bonser’s 1963 The Medical Background of Anglo-Saxon England, p. 14 which briefly describes the ASC as a source and notes that a pestilence might be recorded in only one local version).  Appendix D has footnotes only on some entries, implying these are from other sources than the ASC.  However, I could not find the unmarked references in ASC but did find a number of them in a book cited for other entries, a compilation by C. Walford, The Famines of the World Past & Present (Statistical Society of London, 1879), who states that the sources he used are too numerous to cite except on occasion (p. 4).  He starts with the Bible and Egypt, 1708 B.C.

So, in searching for drought, the following popped up in Hagen’s list but cannot be adequately traced to Anglo-Saxon primary source evidence:

  • 592 drought 10 January to Sept, traced to Walford, p. 69
  • 605 heat and drought, traced to Walford, p. 47
  • 680 three years drought, traced to Walford, p. 47
  • 737 great drought made land unfruitful, citing Whitelock English Historical Documents I (1955), 259; which I tracked in the 2nd ed. to p. 285, from the “Continuation” of Bede, which relies on 12th century and later manuscripts (see editions by Plummer I: 361-63; Colgrave-Mynor pp. 572-73).
  • not cited by Hagan but also in Walford, p. 47, drought in England 362, 374, 439, 454, Scotland 480, 762, Ireland 772, 775, 988-89.

In Hagen’s  Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink, p. 183, she cites a three year famine in England and Ireland between 695 and 700 leading to cannibalism; a four-year famine in Scotland beginning in 936, also leading to cannibalism; and then cites an account of people eating “horses, dogs, cats, rats and other vermin” after William the Conqueror’s campaigns in 1069.  After only this third sentence does a footnote appear and it is to a 1975 general history of cannibalism by Reay Tannahill, Flesh and Blood:  A History of the Cannibal Complex, which is, I am sorry to say, a good example of very bad comparative religious history, uncritically citing stories of cannibalism from cultures around the world.  Tannahill’s book seems to be the source for some of Hagen’s less reliable citations.

In the next paragraph, she says that “tabooed foods in Anglo-Saxon England included `horses, dogs, cats, rats, and other loathsome and vile vermin,'” with a footnote for the quote to “Harleian Miscellany III, 151.”  I could not find the item in the bibliography under that heading (also cited by Tannahill, who got it from Walford), but I did find it online, The Harleian Miscellany, or, a Collection of Scarce, Curious, and Entertaining Pamphlets and Tracts, as well in Manuscript as in Print, found in the Late Earl of Oxford’s Library, interspersed with Historical, Political, and Critical Notes, Vol. III (London: Robert Dutton, 1809), where p. 151 is a quote from The Life of King William I, presumably in support of the previous paragraph’s example but certainly not a reliable source for Anglo-Saxon views or practices (the Life begins on p. 115 and is written by J. Hayward in 1613). Tannahill (pp. 46-47) uses this example, along with others to survey medieval European famines leading to cannibalism, citing Walford (!).  Tannahill then offers as a reliable story for a late tenth century famine and cannibalism an account from “one of the few authors who was born at a time when it was still possible to hear of it from eyewitnesses,” proceeding to quote Raoul Glaber who, he notes only in the bibliography but rightly “was a gossip rather than a reliable historian” (p. 185). The book is made up of such “evidence.”

Indeed, more recent and scholarly theories about famine and cannibalism in the Middle Ages suggest such references should be used with extreme caution.  See for example:

  • Bonnassie, P. “Consommation d’aliments immondes [et cannibalisme de survie dans l’occident du Haut Moyen Age],” Annales: Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations 44 (1989):1035-56.
  • Christopher Dyer, “Did the Peasants Really Starve in Medieval England?” pp. 54-71 and Julia Marvin, “Cannibalism as an Aspect of Famine in Two English Chronicles,” pp. 73-86 in Food and Eating in Medieval Europe, ed. Martha Carlin and Joel T. Rosenthal (London and Rio Grande, OH: Hambledon Press, 1998).

The views of Walton, Tannahill, and even Hagen reflect a popular view of pre-modern societies as suffering from regular, debilitating famines because they lacked sustainable economies that go beyond subsistence and are therefore subjected to the ravages of nature.  In this view, these early agricultural economies lacked the infrastructure of civilization that the modern world has created to prevent starvation.  But of course we haven’t prevented starvation.  What we have done is create this modern myth of a primitive past of human childhood that we can then impose on the poor today–if only they would grow up and participate in a modern economy, they would not be starving–when it is really modern human systems of economic power that have created the poverty we see around the world today.


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