The Franks Casket

The Franks Casket, also known as the Auzon Casket, is a singularly fascinating object from early 8th century Anglo-Saxon England, probably Northumbrian in origin.

It is a small chest (the word “casket” is a bit deceiving, it is only 9″ by 4″). It’s unknown exactly what its original purpose was, but possibly it was made to hold a Gospel book or a book of Psalms (a psalter). It is made out of whale bone.

It is amazing that this small chest survived at all through the centuries. It first came to light in medieval France, as a reliquary in St. Julien’s Basilica in Brioude. It next appears on the record as a possession of a family in Auzon, France. Possibly it was looted from the church during the French Revolution, but it’s hard to say. At any rate, the box was used as a sewing box until the silver hinges and fittings were taken off and traded for a silver ring.

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Sir Augustus Wolloston Franks, described by Marjorie Caygill, historian of the British Museum, as “arguably the most important collector in the history of the British Museum, and one of the greatest collectors of his age”. Image from Wikicommons

Without the hinges the box fell apart, and the panels were shown to a professor who sold them to an antique dealer in Paris. Three of the panels were bought by Sir Augustus Wolloston Franks in 1857, and he donated them to the British Museum as he was the Keeper of the British and Medieval collections there,

The missing fourth panel (the right end) was found in a drawer by the family in Auzon and sold to the Bargello Museum in Florence, where it still resides.  It wasn’t until 1890 that the discovery was made that it belonged to the other pieces in the British Museum. The British Museum made a cast of the missing piece and reassembled the casket, and it is now on display there.

What is so interesting about this small chest are the exquisite carvings that adorn the sides and the top. Each panel depicts a different scene, all of them include runic inscriptions of varying lengths, with one Latin word thrown in for good measure. The dating and place of origin of the Franks casket comes mainly from the linguistic evidence of the words and the artistic style of the carvings.

The inscription on the front is a riddle, which also includes the answer. It is a riddle that describes what the box is made out of:

The flood lifted up the fish on to the cliff-bank;
the whale became sad, where he swam on the shingle.

Whale’s bone.

The casket was most certainly made in a monastery for some important figure, likely a king. There have been some attempts to tie it to the monastery at Ripon, founded by Wilfrid, but nothing definitive can be said about that.

There have been reams of scholarship on the decorative carvings, and that is because they are all so very different, and have many possible interpretations. The runes are not exactly straightforward, either, as in one spot the carver has used a simple substitution cipher to encrypt the words, and in other places has even written words backwards. This type of playing with words and letters is familiar – the use of riddles and encryption is seen in other surviving manuscripts from this time period. Anglo-Saxons obviously had a great respect for the power of the written word, don’t you think? I find it so fascinating, Don’t you wish you could sit down with the maker and find out exactly what was in his mind as he made this object?

Originally all the carved panels were thought to be random scenes, placed with no overall thought or design in mind. However, scholars are starting to reject that idea. They are now coming to see the carvings as an extremely clever and intellectually rich commentary, chosen precisely for how they all fit together.

The trouble is that the overarching theme or commentary is still unknown, and likely will never be known. Some postulate that the casket is telling the story of the history of England, from its pagan past to its Christian present (at least at the time of the 8th century, when it was created). Others see it as a commentary of the superiority of Christianity over pagan religions.

Because the obviously Christian element on the panel is only one small part of it, though, the thinking is that the casket was likely meant for a secular ruler. There are certainly  many references to secular/pagan legends and history.

There is so much informed and scholarly thought about what each of the carved panels represent that it would be a longer blog post than you likely want to read to tell you all of the possible interpretations. But, in a nutshell, here are a brief description of the panels and some of the proposed meanings of them.

Front panel – contains the riddle described above, flowing around the top, bottom, and sides of the panel, written in runes. The pictures are broken up into two distinct scenes. One the right, you have the only obviously Christian scene on the casket, that of the Adoration of the Magi after Christ was born in Bethlehem. We know this because the maker has helpfully included the word “mægi” over the three figures who are bowing to the baby held by the woman. Easy-peasy.

On the left, there is something completely different, namely, a depiction of part of the Germanic legend of Weyland the Smith. In this scene Welyand has been captured by the cruel king Niohad.. It also depicts the headless body of Niohad’s son, whom Weyland has killed in revenge for his captivity. Weyland is holding a goblet in his tongs, this could be the missing head, which he has made into a goblet. In the legend he offers a goblet of drugged beer to Niohad’s daughter, whom he then rapes. A female figure is in this scene, probably this is her.

Why on earth would the creator of this casket put these two scenes together? Possibly it is juxtaposing the benign Christ and his rule as opposed to the darkness and death of paganism from which the Saxons have escaped.

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Front panel. Image from John W. Schulze, on Flickr

Left side panel – this is a depiction of the legend of the twins Romulus and Remus, the two founders of Rome. The legend states that they were suckled by a she-wolf. The panel shows the wolf on her back, protecting and suckling the twins, with four men with spears watching. The runic inscription says, Romulus and Remus, two brothers: a she-wolf fed them in Rome city, far from their native land. 

This legend shows up in other Anglo-Saxon artifacts from the 8th century, so it’s not necessarily surprising to see it here. There are some parallels to it and the story of Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon brothers who were the legendary founders of England. Bede tells us that they were invited to Britain by King Vortigern along with a mercenary army of Saxons, Angles, and Jutes, to help him fight against the Picts of the north in the light of the departure of Rome’s legions in the 5th century.  Soon the money ran out and the erstwhile saviours turned against the British and began to claim England for their own.

Therefore, this panel could also be a reference to England’s past.

Alternatively, Rome was the centre of the Christian church at the time, so this could be symbolizing the aid and succour that Mother Church gives to her children.

I hope you are starting to see the difficulty scholars have in interpreting these scenes!

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Left panel. Image from Wikicommons

Back Panel – this depicts the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD by Titus. Again, the runic inscription explains this. Interestingly, some of the words here are carved in Latin script, not with the runic alphabet.

Again, one might wonder why this scene is included here. This conquest of the Jews  by the Gentile Roman, Titus, was seen as a divine punishment by God for the wickedness of the Jews in their rejection of Christ. Similarly, Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of England,  presents the invasion of the Saxons as punishment of the Britons for their moral laxity. This panel, then, could be a subtle, or not-so-subtle, commentary on a painful episode in England’s history that God used to chasten his wayward people. Others speculate it is more general than that, and is a commentary of the triumph of Christianity over Judaism.

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Back panel. Roman soldiers are on the left, beseiging Jerusalem. On the right are the captive prisoners being led away. Note the Latin letters on the top right. Image from Wikicommons

 

Lid – The top is missing the two panels that border the centre panel, which, assuming it was similar to the sides, contained the runic inscription. Perhaps these were made of silver as well, with the runes etched on it? Hard to say.  It also has a round spot in the middle which could have had an embellished silver boss or a knob-like handle attached.

Without the helpful runic inscriptions, it’s a little harder to suss out the meaning of the carvings. Some speculate it depicts an unknown part of the legend of Egill, a Germanic hero who is Weyland’s brother. There is one runic word incorporated in the carving, which says Ægill, hence the above interpretation. Other scholars argue that the word is actually referring to Achilles, and the carving is a depiction of the death of Achilles at Troy.

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Lid. Image from Wikipedia

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Here you can see the centre panel on the lid, with the obvious missing pieces on either side. Image from Wikicommons

Right Side Panel – this is the most enigmatic of all, and the one that generates the most scholarly debate. The inscription reads,

Here the horse stands above the mound of woe,
It suffers tribulation; just as to her Erta appointed anxiety,
A grave of grief, in sorrow and anguish of heart.

Wood. Biter. Rush.

Hmm. Not really helpful. This is the panel that contains the encrypted words, and as well the words run together without separation between them, adding to the difficulty of translation.

The picture is of a horse standing over a mound, which contains a human-like figure (possibly a burial mound, the “mound of woe”). On the left there is a strange figure with the body of a man and the head of a horse sitting on a mound, with a man wearing a helmet and carrying a spear in front of it. On the right there are three figures. This possibly echoes the three magi on the front.

The word “horse” is sometimes translated as Hos, a name. But no one knows who Hos and Erta (or Eratae)  are, or what legend they refer to. There are also possible references to the Norse god Woden, as the symbols under the legs of the horse are ones that could refer to him.

Some believe this picture refers back to Hengist and Horsa again. The word “horsa” means “horse” in Old English, so perhaps this depicts Horsa mourning over the death of his brother Hengist.

There are several other interpretations of this panel which I won’t go into here. Needless to say, it’s a mystery!

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Right side panel (this is the cast that was made from the original). Image from Wikicommons 

So, the pictures and inscriptions on the casket are a great source of scholarly discussion. To top it all off, there seems to also be some numerological significance to the number of runes on the casket. There are 72 runes on the front and left panels, and a total of 288 runes in total. The 72 could correspond to the 72 disciples mentioned in the Latin Vulgate Bible familiar to the Anglo-Saxons. The number 288 is a multiple of 24, which is the number of runes in an early continental Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, which had magical significance for the Anglo-Saxons.

Phew! No wonder many scholars have devoted so much time and effort on trying to decipher the runes and pictures on this little box. The more you look at it, the more you discover.

This beautiful box has so much to tell us about this fascinating period in England’s history. It’s an extremely important object that demonstrates for us the rich cultural milieu from which it sprang, giving us tantalizing hints into the way they saw themselves.


Featured image from Wikipedia


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4 thoughts on “The Franks Casket

  1. […] WHALE OF A TALE. L.A. Smith has a fascinating writeup about this 8th century artifact — “The Franks Casket” – carved from […]

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  2. Fascinating. The three figures in the right-side panel have longer skirts than the Magi on the front. Could they be women? Maybe the Norns?

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  3. Lesley Ferguson says:

    The box is beautiful and mysterious. Found this very interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

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