Out With the Old, In With the New (Year)

As I look back over the previous year and look ahead to the next, there’s a lot to think about. First, let’s start with 2019.

The Blog 

Followers: In August I mentioned that I had published my 200th post, and that I was close to 200 followers. I hoped to make it to 200 by the end of the year. I’m pleased to say that I have reached and exceeded 200 now. As of today, I have 206 followers. Yippee! Now, this is pretty minuscule by most standards, but hey. I’m pleased as punch I have had 206 people like my content here enough to actually click the “follow” button. Thank you, thank you! Special mention to notjustagranny who stumbled across my blog late in the year and has been avidly reading pretty much every post since, as well as leaving comments along the way. Great to have you aboard!

Most popular day/hour for people to view my posts? Sunday, 2 PM. Perhaps that’s the most popular day/time for people to read blogs in general. Who knows?

June 18th was the day with the most views this year. Not sure exactly why. My book had launched on June 1st so perhaps this was people who had read the book and had gone to check out my blog?

Most popular post: What They Wore: Clothing in the 7th Century. This one actually topped my previous all-time most-viewed post (Review: The Last Kingdom), but that one still came in second. Glad to see a new one come out on top, although, like the review post, this was an old one, from 2018. The post from 2019 that got the most views was Anglo-Saxon Literature: The Husband’s Message.  

Favourite post of mine: That’s a hard one. I’ve really enjoyed looking at the various people, customs, and places of 7th century England throughout the year. My new series on the Battles of Anglo-Saxon England has been a fun one. And I loved taking another look at Bede this year, as he remains a favourite for me. But I guess if I had to pick, I would have to say that Star Wars and 7th Century Monks would have to be my fave from the year. I’ve been fascinated by Skellig Michael for a long time, and it was a delight to take a close look at it and learn more about it. It was especially fun to do that in the context of Star Wars. I also really appreciated the thoughtful comments that the post generated. It was great to hear another perspective on the movie. So, a win-win for me!

This year I reduced my frequency of posting from once a week to bi-monthly. This was a very good decision. It gave me the space I needed to focus more on the book/publication. I am going to continue that frequency this year. I will admit that I didn’t always post twice a month. Sometimes I just couldn’t fit it in. I imagine that will be true again this year.

I had the privilege of doing a post on St. Gildas over at the English Historical Fiction Author’s Blog. This was a great experience, and gave me some new readers and some eyes on my book, as they ran an ad for the book on the page the same day as my post.  I am hoping to do another post for them again this year.

The Book

As you all know, my first novel, Wilding: Book One of the Traveller’s Path, launched on June 1st. Wow, it’s still kinda hard to believe. Here’s a few reflections of the journey as I look back:

  1. Being an indie author is a LOT of work. I remain amazed at how long it took me to figure out just the mechanics of how to get my book out of my writing program (Scrivener) and into the formats needed to upload to the distribution sites. Basically I had to format it into three files – mobi (for Amazon/Kindle), epub (for Kobo, Apple, and others), and a special PDF template for paperback. You wouldn’t think that would be so hard. Especially since Scrivener basically makes it easy by allowing you to select each of those formats when you go to compile your manuscript and export it out of Scrivener. However…Scrivener went through a major redesign just before I started on the compile. And silly me, I decided to update the software before compiling. In the past, when there have been updates, things haven’t changed “that” much. This time, they did. Specifically they completely overhauled how to do the compile. Yikes. It has honestly taken me hours to “forget” how I did it before and relearn the new method.

I have just finished compiling Book 2 so I can send it out to the beta readers. Ugh. Back at square one again. Supposedly you can save all your compile settings and use it again in another project, so you only have to go through the set-up once, but I decided to change something (add chapter titles, instead of numbers) and…hoo boy, back to confusion. I still LOVE Scrivener but honestly I wanted to tear my hair out at times.

   2. Being an indie author is a lot of work (pt 2). Once I had the file formatted properly, I then could upload it to the various platforms. Amazon for Kindle, and Ingram Spark for everywhere else. Easy, right? Nope. To be fair, Amazon was just that easy. Click and off it went. But Ingram Spark….oh my. Hours and hours spent trying to figure how to fix the error that popped up. I mean, what would you do if you got an error message saying,

“PDF CONTAINS ICC COLOR PROFILES: We request files with no color profiles assigned. Please convert all colors to grayscale for black and white images, or CMYK for color images and remove all color profiles. Saving a new PDF with the default setting of PDF/X-1a:2001 will address the issue. For best results, please correct the issue(s) listed. You may refer to the File Creation Guide for further instructions on creating a compliant PDF.”

Well, what I did was have a good cry. This particular issue also took days to figure out. In the end, in case anyone else reading this is running into the same problem, to “fix” it I ended up sending the file to my son who has Adobe Photoshop, and he was able to tweak the file using that program and send it back to me. I still have NO idea how a person who doesn’t have that program (which is really expensive) can get around this. Sigh.

3. I have a great family, and great friends. So many of them read the MS more than once, and offered valuable suggestions on how to make it better. I got tons of encouragement and support all along the way. And I had a great book launch party, with some friends even coming from two hours away to attend! So much fun!

3. Marketing and promotion is hard. Especially with just one book. I purchased a course on marketing for indie authors, got an author newsletter started, got a professionally designed book cover, had professional edits done of the book, had a professionally designed ad done and utilized it a couple times….all of which cost a significant amount of money, for me at least. And yes, I’ve sold a few books. But certainly not enough to recoup any significant costs. But, onward and upward. I’m hoping that with Book 2 I will gain a little traction. We’ll see. I’m not expecting a bestseller (although that would be nice!) but it would be nice to get a little money back to make up for what I’ve spent. Of course, I’m not about to launch into all those costs for Book 2….round and round we go. Suffice to say, I’m doing this more for the love of doing it, not for any monetary gain, at the moment.

Looking ahead:

As I look into 2020, I have a few goals in mind:

  1. New Website – I am working on this right now. I have had to put it on the back burner while I finished the Book 2 edits, but now that the MS is off to the betas and my editor, I can get going on this again. I hope to have this ready to launch by March, if not before. I’m looking forward to showing off the new design!

2. Book 2 Launch – I am planning on releasing Bound: Book 2 of the Traveller’s Path, on June 1st, 2020.  I hope to do a better job of getting pre-launch excitement going for this book. Maybe offer pre-orders. We’ll see….

3. Blog changes – this blog will become one page of the new website. I’m not exactly sure how that will change things. I will continue to post twice a month as I am able, at least, that’s the plan right now. I hope to do a couple of interviews and maybe even a book review or two.

That’s it for now. I’m looking forward to the New Year and the challenges it brings. I hope you are too!

Thank you again for your faithful support of my writing. If you have left a comment, read a blog post, or (especially) if you have purchased a book, I am so very grateful.


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St. Wilfrid of Ripon, Part 1

One of the really interesting people in 7th century Anglo-Saxon England is Wilfrid (AD 633 – AD 709/10), abbot of the monastery of Ripon, and Bishop of Northumbria. Wilfrid has been on my list of people to write about from the very beginning of this blog, but I haven’t had the gumption to tackle him until now.

Wilfrid is a very complicated figure. He has a huge part to play in the story of Anglo-Saxon England, and there is quite a lot written about him. But his story is interwoven with the political and ecclesiastical landscape of Northumbria, and there are a lot of details to get straight. I was never sure if I could do his story justice in the limited space I have here. But I just couldn’t avoid him any longer! However, to avoid swamping you with too many details all at once, I have broken it down into two posts. Part II coming in the New Year, so watch this space!

One of the things that is rather unusual about Wilfrid is that both of the main sources of information about him were written by people who actually knew him. The first was a hagiography written by a monk named Stephen, who lived at the Ripon monastery founded by Wilfrid. He wrote his Vita Sancti Wilfrithi  (Life of Saint Wilfrid) shortly after Wilfrid died. It was a promo piece, to bolster Wilfrid’s reputation as a saint and attract attention to the monastery he founded. This is typical of the usual hagiographies (biographies of saints), but most of those are written many years, sometimes even centuries, after the person had died.* The second account of Wilfrid’s life comes from Bede, who includes a lot of information about Wilfrid in his Ecclesiastical History of Britain. Bede, of course, was a contemporary of Wilfrid and knew him personally.

Bede’s account drew on Stephen’s, but it has a different tone than the first one, much less rah-rah Wilfrid. In fact, some scholars suggest that Bede disliked Wilfrid, and that his negative feelings about him come through in his account. I will come back to that speculation in the second part of this account of Wilfrid, once we have delved a little deeper into who Wilfrid was and his impact on the 7th century Northumbrian landscape, both political and ecclesiastical.

Wilfrid was the son of a Northumbrian nobleman, and as a youth went to the royal court at Bamburgh to be noticed and to make a mark for himself. Luckily he found a patron in Queen Eanflead, Oswy’s wife, and she sent him to be trained under Aidan in the religious life at Lindisfarne, and from there to the court of her kinsman, King Earconberht, in Kent.*

Somewhere in the 650s, when he was a young man, Wilfrid went to Rome. He went with Benedict Biscop, another of Eanflead’s charges, who also was studying at Lindisfarne.** This was the first recorded English pilgrimage to Rome, but it certainly wasn’t the last. After Wilfrid, many of the subsequent ecclesiastics and even Anglo-Saxon royalty would try make this journey at least once. To visit the places so intertwined with the Christian faith, the touchstone of the church, was highly desired, leaving great impressions on those who went there. And so it was for Wilfrid, but in his case even more so. The time in Rome left an indelible impression on Wilfrid, and set in motion a chain of events that led to the church in England taking a final decision on the conflicts that had arisen between the Irish monks and the church of Rome.

Biscop and Wilfrid parted ways in Lyon, then a part of Gaul. Wilfrid stayed behind, while his companion continued to Rome. Wilfrid  stayed as the guest of the archbishop of Lyon, Annemund, and it seems that they developed quite a friendship. He eventually went on to Rome, where he stayed for a time, did some studying, and had an audience with the pope. He then went back to Lyon, staying there for a few years. Tragically, Annemund was beheaded by the King as part of a treacherous plot against him. Wilfrid offered to be killed alongside his bishop and friend, but the king refused and sent him back to England.

 

It is quite clear, from both Bede’s account as well as Stephen’s, that Wilfrid was an ambitious man. It seems as if the pomp and circumstance of Rome appealed to him. Seeing as his patron, Queen Eanflead, followed the Roman Christian practices as opposed to the Irish Church practices of Lindisfarne (and of Eanflead’s husband, King Oswy), it is perhaps not surprising that Wilfrid was predisposed to be open to the Roman methods for dating Easter, and the Roman tonsure. But the differences were deeper than that. The organization of the church of Rome was a much more hierarchal one, and more organized, than the Irish church had evolved to be during the years after Rome’s legions withdrew from Britain and contact from mother church was diminished.

Stephen tells us that Wilfrid was tonsured during his time away, which would normally mean that he became a monk. However the tonsure could also signify that he merely entered the clergy, but didn’t join the monks. Bede does not say that Wilfrid was ever a monk. So it is not certain if Wilfrid ever took this step. I could believe that the asceticism and humility required of the monks was not something that suited Wilfrid’s nature.

When Wilfrid returned to Northumbria, somewhere around AD 658, he joined the court of Ahlfrith, who was the son of King Oswy of Bernicia, and sub-king of Deira under the direction of his father.  There was some resistance to Oswy’s overlordship in Deira, and Ahlfrith may have played on this to gain some independence of his own. Certainly, once Wilfrid arrived, he began to rebel against his father and to champion the Roman ways of the church over the Irish Celtic practices that his father preferred. One can only assume that Wilfrid had a great part in this, for by this time he was certainly convinced that the Celtic Church practices were bordering on the heretical, especially as it concerned the dating of Easter. He was convinced that the English church needed to cast them aside and join in with the Roman ways.

Ahfrith had given land near Ripon, North Yorkshire to a group of Irish monks from Melrose Abbey. The monks, headed by their abbot, Eata, established a monastery there. But sometime before AD 664 Eata, along with Cuthbert (who would become a great saint in his own right) were bustled out of Ripon so that Ahlfrith could install his protege, Wilfrid, as abbot instead. Bede says, tactfully,

…when given the choice, they preferred to leave the place rather than change their practices.

I can just imagine that this one little sentence covered a lot of conflict!

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Statue of Wilfrid in Ripon Cathedral. Photo by Lawrence OP, on Flickr

This conflict was about to spill over into the wider church. In AD 663, Wilfrid was ordained as a priest. Soon after, in AD 664, Ahlfrith persuaded his father, Oswy, to host a synod of church leaders, where they would settle on the matter of the Roman vs Irish practices one way or another. The Synod was held at the double-monastery of Whitby, presided over by the Abbess Hild.

The English Church had come to a crossroads, and Wilfrid was poised to make his mark. The Frankish Bishop Agilbert had been appointed as the spokesperson for the Roman side but he  deferred that task to Wilfrid, whom he had recently ordained as a priest. He explained to the King that Wilfrid was better suited to it, as Wilfrid spoke English fluently, whereas he, Agilbert, would have to work through a translator.

There is much to say about the Synod of Whitby, and it warrants a separate post. For now I will just say that Wilfrid’s arguments won the day, and King Oswy decided to abandon the Irish Church methods and to adopt the practices of the Roman Church, both personally and in Northumbria.

Wilfrid had won, but in doing so, he made enemies. The echoes of this conflict would haunt him for the rest of his life.

To be continued in Part 2, coming in the New Year!


*One of the side-trails in searching out information on Wilfrid is discovering his close association with many women in Anglo-Saxon England. For more info on this, see this fascinating blog post by Michelle Ziegler

**Interesting note – Stephen’s Life of Saint Wilfrid is one of the earliest hagiographies we have. Stephen’s Life was used by Bede as one of his sources when he wrote his Ecclesiastical History.

*** Biscop later became the founder of the Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, where Bede lived. Bede studied under Biscop and would have had lots of first-hand information about Wilfrid from him, as well. It is speculated that Biscop and Wilfrid parted in Lyon due to a conflict of some sort. It is odd that they didn’t go on to Rome together.

Featured image is an icon of St. Wilfrid, by Aidan Hart. I’m sure that Wilfrid would be pleased to be depicted with his Roman tonsure firmly in place! 

Yeavering: A Royal Villa

About twenty miles almost straight west of Bamburgh, on the edge of the Cheviot Hills,  lies a small hamlet called Yeavering. Very few people live there now, it is mainly a scattering of farms in the area. But don’t be fooled by this sleepy bit of English countryside.  This obscure little place has a history of great importance and was a significant place indeed in 7th century England.

Truth be told, it was a significant place long before the Anglo-Saxons even arrived, and so there is where our story of Yeavering must begin.

The name Yeavering comes from the Celtic name of Gefrin, which means “hill of the goats”. This name survives as our modern name of Yeavering.  It lies at the end of a valley at the edge of the Cheviots. The most prominent feature of the area is the twin peaked hill known as Yeavering Bell. At the top of this hill is the remains of an ancient Iron Age hill fort, but there is evidence that there has been human activity in the area from at least 15,000 years ago, in the Mesolithic Age.

The hill fort was an extremely important one before the Romans arrived in the first century AD. It was the largest of its kind in Northumbria, and had stone walls constructed around both of the peaks of the Bell. Over a hundred Iron Age roundhouses had been constructed on the hill within the walls, which is evidence of a large population. There is archeological evidence of Romano-British occupation of the site in the 1st-5th centuries AD. So by the time the Romans left and the Anglo-Saxons arrived, this area had been an important settlement for a long time.

North of Yeavering Bell the land drops off into a “terrace”, about 72 meters above sea level. It is on this terrace, known as the “whaleback”, that our interest is focussed, as this is where an Anglo-Saxon settlement was situated in the 7th century AD.

There is a theory that the Anglo-Saxon kings had two distinct populations to govern: the immigrant settlers from the Continent who had mainly settled along the coasts, and the native British population who were the descendants of the Romano-British, who lived inland.* So it is speculated that the Bernician kings set up two seats of royal power, one in Bamburgh to govern the Anglo-Saxons, and one in Yeavering, to address the native British population.

 

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Here you can see Yeavering Bell, with the Cheviots behind. In the foreground is the whaleback, where the Anglo-Saxon settlement was situated. Image from Durham University. 

This theory of two distinct populations has some merit, but I’m not sure they were as clearly separated as that theory might imply, especially by the 7th century, when the Anglo-Saxons had been in England for a couple of hundred years. However, we do know that Yeavering was an important site for the Bernician kings. How do we know this? Because Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the British People, tells us so. He records that King Edwin of Bernicia, shortly after his conversion to Christianity in AD 627, brought the priest Paulinus to his “royal seat” at Yeavering, where he preached to the local population with the result of many conversions and subsequent baptisms in the nearby River Glen.

In 1949, following an unusually dry summer, some aerial photographs were taken of the area which gave some hints that this might be the location of the Anglo-Saxon settlement mentioned by Bede. The surrounding landscape fit perfectly with Bede’s account as well. So in 1952 archeological work began on the site, with a rich result.

Foundations of numerous buildings were excavated (ie post holes showing where the buildings were built and how large they were) as well as evidence of a large enclosure (presumably for cattle or livestock), a possible pagan temple, and a couple of burial sites.

There are two structures in particular that are very interesting. One is the Great Hall. This was a massive building, about 80 feet long and 40 feet wide. It also must have been very tall, as the posts were set into the ground eight feet deep. Possibly a second floor? We can’t say for sure. It had partitions at both ends of the building, giving two ante-chambers within.

Clearly this was a mead hall as described in Beowulf, the place for feasting and the giving and receiving of tribute, where the ale would flow and alliances made and broken. Here the kings would stay with their retinue for some time out of the year, doing the work of kingship.

The other interesting structure found at Yeavering is unique, in that a similar structure has never been found in any other Anglo-Saxon sites (yet!). It was a small amphitheatre of sorts, made out of wood, which could accommodate up to three hundred people. It faces a small stage area which had a curved wall built behind it, presumably to focus the sound from the speaker upwards to the seated audience. There is some speculation that this was built for Paulinus in his initial work of conversions, and later used by kings as a place to meet and discuss with the nobles the business of the kingdom. Historians are not exactly sure, but it is an amazing structure all the same, don’t you think?

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An artist’s rendering of the amphitheatre, from pastperfect.org

The kings of Bernicia, like all Anglo-Saxon kings, would have spent much time throughout the year going on tours of their kingdoms, gathering tribute from the people and acting as judges over disputes. It is clear, both from Bede’s comment and from the archeological evidence, that Yeavering, along with Bamburgh, was one of the places that kings would live for part of the year, a major seat of kingly power, where the ale flowed liberally in the mead hall and the people could meet with their king.

Today the area where the settlement stood is a plowed field, a humble strip of land for hiding such a storied piece of history.


*Of course there were also the Celts, who more or less did their own thing on the furthest west and north of the island

Featured image is of the Great Hall and the grand enclosure at Yeavering, from pastperfect.org

Battles of Anglo-Saxon England: Weapons and Armour

Before I get too far into this series on the Battles of Anglo-Saxon England here on The Traveller’s Path, I thought I should give you all a bit of an understanding of how, exactly, the Anglo-Saxons conducted their wars, and what weapons they would have used. Of course, like with all things Anglo-Saxon, there is not a lot of information about all this, and so historians differ on how exactly warfare was conducted in this era, and by whom. So, as always, keep that in mind as you read!

There was no such thing as a standing army in Anglo-Saxon England. Each king would have his war-band, made up of loyal followers and nobles, along with a regular supply of landowners who looked to the king as their personal lord. It is likely these would serve in the king’s war-band on a rotational basis, for no one could afford to be gone for long stretches of time from their crops and holdings. The main work of everyone in the Early Middle Ages, kings and commoners alike, was providing food and shelter for themselves and their families. So even military service would have to take second place to that. While they took their turn serving the king in this way, it is likely they would do some military training if there were no raids or skirmishes during that time.

Aside from the king’s war-band, a similar arrangement would be the case for every wealthy nobleman. They would all have a war-band, which could be called into service when needed. All of these smaller groups of fighting men could be called to fight for the king if a larger group of fighting men were needed to defend the kingdom. However, communication was difficult, and so it was not exactly easy to coordinate this type of defence, as the lightning-fast Viking raids showed.

These groups of fighting men were called the fyrd. They would consist of a few trained soldiers, supplemented by men from the surrounding area who could be called on for defence of their lands or for fighting in the king’s battles.  They would be expected to provide their own weapons and armour (and possibly food), and they didn’t have a choice in whether they participated or not. If they refused military service, they could be fined, with differing fines for the differing class levels.

The fighting seemed to be mainly on foot; historians disagree whether or not mounted warriors were part of the fyrd. There is mention in one of the accounts of a battle of mounted warriors going to the battle on horseback, but then dismounting and leading their horses away from the battle area. But that’s just one account, so it’s hard to say it was the normal practice. The terrain of that battle might not have been optimal for horses, for example.

It is also unclear exactly what role archers might play. Certainly the bow and arrow were common in hunting, so it’s very likely it was a weapon used in warfare as well. At the very least, archers were part of the initial stage of the fighting as the two combating forces lined up, each behind a shield wall. Arrows and other missiles (aces, javelins, rocks) would be thrown to inflict as much damage as possible before the hand-to-hand combat began.

Surviving helmets from the Anglo-Saxon era are very rare; in fact, only a handful exist. These are all high-status objects which may have only been ceremonial in nature, not actually used during in battle. It’s highly doubtful that the average warrior would have worn an iron helmet, although some might have worn headgear made of boiled leather.

Likewise, mail body-armour is not likely to have been common in this time. There is some mention of it in a couple of literary texts such as Beowulf, and only a couple examples from this era survive, including one found at Sutton Hoo.

The main weapons of the fighting man were the sword, spear, axe, and knife (saex); and for defence they would use the shield. Here’s a little information about all of these:

Sword – the double-edged long sword was a luxury item. Only the wealthiest and highest class man would have one of these weapons. These swords were objects of beauty as well as practical weapons. They were around 90 cm long, or longer,  and often had gold, silver and jewels on the hilts and scabbards. The blades were made using an elaborate “pattern-welding” technique, which consisted of the metalsmith folding alternate layers of molten steel over and over, resulting in a distinct pattern on the blade.  Different types of metal could be used, with iron in the middle to provide flexibility and springiness, with steel edges. These swords were highly desired objects; passed along in wills, valued trophies of war,  and prized possessions of whomever was lucky enough to have one.

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A beautiful gold and garnet hilt and pommel from the Staffordshire Hoard, with a replica of how it might look on an actual sword. Add a scabbard with similar bling, and you can see why these weapons were so prized. Image from the Birmingham Museum. 

Spears/Javelins – the spear was by far the most common weapon of the fighting man. They outnumber swords found as grave goods by more than 20:1. Owning a spear and a shield was a sign of free status. The spear tips were iron, and varied in size and form. The long poles were made of ash. Mainly the spear was used to keep the enemy at a distance, enabling the bearer to be out of range of a man with a sword. Of course they were also used as a throwing weapon (javelin), and even as a grappling weapon if the spear had hooks in the tip.

Axes – another common weapon, for axes were common in everyday life, for use at the holdings for chopping wood or other tasks. Axes could be used single-handed or double-handed, and could also be thrown.

Knife – the Saxon saexes was a single-edged dagger, with blades up to around 80 cm. The word saex means knife, and it is also the word that the name “Saxon” derives from, hinting at its popularity. These weapons varied considerably in size and shape.

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The remains of a saex, with a reconstructed replica. The tang in the blade was a typical feature of this weapon. Image from Wikipedia

Shields – round, and made of wood, with a hand hold in the middle and an iron boss on the other to protect the hand. These could be elaborately decorated, depending on the wealth and status of the warrior.

The Anglo-Saxons would fight using the “shield-wall” formation – a line of men, protected by their shields in front, and, when necessary,  on top, to protect them from flying missiles. The two lines would advance, and the first engagement would be precisely that, a volley of airborne missiles such as arrows, javelins, or even rocks. Eventually one side would close the gap, and they would fight shield to shield, seeking advantage. If one side did not prevail, they would retreat to rest and then try again. Eventually one side would break through, and the finale would be the rout and pursuit, where the vanquished would flee and the victors would pursue, cutting down men as they found them. Some of the losing side might make a stand, especially the kings or leaders, and their men were expected to fight with them to the death, if needs be. It was a shameful thing to leave the field of battle alive, if your lord had perished.

During the time when they were fighting shield to shield, the spears would help to keep the enemy at bay. But of course men would inevitably get injured or killed, leaving the wounded or dying man lying where he fell. This is where a brave man could leave the protection of the shield wall to grab the booty of the fallen man’s weapons, especially if a sword was in the offing. But of course this left the man exposed to death or injury himself, so those who attempted it would be lauded for their courage once the battle was over. Often those who threw the javelin would be the ones to grab the booty, as they had to run forward to get velocity for the throw, leaving the shield wall and exposing themselves, in turn, to injury or death. It was a high risk/high reward scenario, that’s for sure.

I don’t know how long the typical battle would last. I would guess that it wouldn’t be all that long, especially once the fighting started in earnest. Hand-to-hand combat, with the added weight of shield, spear, or sword, would get exhausting after too long.

But in this warrior society, it was a necessary part of life. To die in battle was far preferable than dying of disease or old age. And without the battles, what would there be to talk and sing about on the long winter nights in the mead hall?


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The Venerable Bede, Part 2

I have written before about Bede, the 7th century Northumbrian monk who wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In that work Bede gives us a rare glimpse of the history and times in which he lived.

Bede is sometimes called the Venerable Bede, which is a title given to those a little lower than full Sainthood in the Catholic Church.* His work on the Ecclesiastical History would alone be enough to ensure his fame, but the wonderful thing about Bede is that he is the author of many, many books and letters on a wide-ranging scope of topics, including biblical commentaries, science, mathematics, geography, hymns, poetry, and school textbooks. In fact, when you add up all that he wrote, the total number is over forty.

You may wonder how we know that all the books purported to be by him are, in fact, actually written by him. This is a good question. But in fact we can state exactly what books he wrote with complete accuracy, as at the end of the Ecclesiastical History, he included a list of the other books he had written. For a handful of these we have no extant copies available, unfortunately. There are also a few manuscripts that are attributed to Bede that are not listed in the Ecclesiastical History, because they were written after that work was completed. Some of these are disputed, but others are confirmed as Bede’s work after careful analysis of the works and comparisons to his other writings.

Besides the Ecclesiastical History, the works of Bede that really fascinate me are his scientific treatises, De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things) and De Temporum (On Time). “Scientific” is not exactly the right term for these books, as of course “science” as we understand it was not something that Bede would have been familiar with (ie the scientific method comes much later, in the 19th century). But at any rate these works are attempts to understand and explain the natural world and how to calculate and understand the passage of time, and as such, they are extremely valuable windows into the mind of a 8th century Christian monastic scholar.

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Part of a 10th century copy of De Natura Rerum. Image from British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog

These books were written in AD 703**, early in Bede’s career as a monk. He would have been around thirty years old, teaching in the monastery of Monkwearmoth-Jarrow, and he had just been ordained as a priest. These books are a distillation of all that he knew about these subjects at the time. In AD 725 he expanded On Time  and wrote another book, named De Temporum Ratione, or On the Reckoning of Time. The best guess is that De Natura Rerum and De Temporum are likely his first literary works.

Bede was not writing about these things in isolation, of course. His books rely heavily on a previous work that was much admired at the time, also called On the Nature of Things, by Isidore of Seville (AD 560-636). He also compiles and draws upon the Classical understandings of these topics from works of Pliny and Augustine, among others.  But there is also original thinking in these books. They are not merely a regurgitation of what had come before.***

The books present a thoroughly Christian view of cosmology, of course. Part of the reason for Isidore’s book was to combat the superstitious practices and beliefs brought about by the solar and lunar eclipses in AD 611 and 612. Isidore, and Bede after him, sought to bring an understanding of the order and rationality of the Creation, and that things such as eclipses or other phenomenon such as volcanoes or earthquakes were part of this natural order, ordained by God, not the works of demons.

The other reason for Bede’s books were to explain how to calculate time, and most importantly, how to calculate the date of  Easter. Easter is a movable date based on the cycles of the moon. It was vitally important in the Christian church to be able to calculate when this most important day would be recognized, and so a complicated method of doing so, named computus, was developed. Bede’s influence, through these books, on the development of these mathematical and scientific calculations cannot be understated.

The first book, On the Nature of Things, includes fifty-one short chapters, starting with the fourfold work of God (Chapter One), the formation of the earth (Chapter Two), what the world is (Chapter Three), and the elements (Chapter Four). He goes on from there to cover a wide range of topics, in which he starts from the heavens and works his way downwards. He has chapters on the stars, the planets, the moon, eclipses, comets, rainbows, lightning,  hail, snow, the sea, the tides, the earth, earthquakes, and many, many more.

I wish I had a copy of these books, but I am forced to rely on a few quotes and snippets here and there that I have found on the web, as well as studying some of the commentaries that explain what is in the books. One of these days I will have to order a translation of my own. But one thing is abundantly clear. The depth of Bede’s intellect and his understanding of the natural world is truly astounding, especially when we consider the times in which he wrote.

I have written before that too often our perception of the so-called “Dark Ages” is skewed. The people then (at least the educated people) understood a lot more than we give them credit for. For example, Chapter 46 of On the Nature of Things is titled, Why the Earth is Like a Globe.” Yup. Even in back-water Northumbria at the beginning of the 8th century, Bede knew the Earth was round. Fascinating, hey? He also discusses the effect of the moon on the tides

I found a quote from Chapter Three, “What the World Is”. Bede states,

The world is the whole of everything, which is constituted by the sky and the land, the four elements in the form of a completely rounded sphere: fire, by which the stars shine; air, which all living things breathe; waters, which surround the land, encircling and penetrating; and the land itself, which is the middle and core of the world, hanging unmoving, with everything turning in equilibrium around it.

Again, note the “rounded sphere”.

On Time/The Reckoning of Time are Bede’s explanation of the calculation of time, and include a fascinating descriptions of the ancient calendars of the Hebrews, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, and Anglo-Saxons. They also include detailed overviews of the seven days of Creation, lunar cycles, Paschal calendars (Bede explains the different ways to calculate the date of Easter and presents his reasoning for the method he prefers), and the Six Ages of the World (based on Biblical narrative; the First Age being from Adam to Noah, the Second Age from Noah to Abraham, the Third Age from Abraham to David, etc).

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A beautifully illustrated 13th century copy of De Temporum, showing zodiac symbols. In this book Bede goes into detail about how to calculate the course of the sun and moon through the zodiac. Image from Medieval Manuscripts Blog .

When you consider Bede’s historical treatise and all his other works, including these wonderful books on the natural world and time, it’s no wonder that he became one of the Early Medieval period’s most famed and studied scholars. It is precisely because his books were so popular that we have so many of his works available today. Many copies of the books were made and they circulated widely over not only England, but the Continent as well.  Because so many were made, it increased the opportunity for them to survive.

These books point to a truly remarkable and fascinating man. I’m so glad my research on Wilding, my historical fantasy book, brought me to his doorstep, so to speak, and that I can now share him with you!


*Those given the title “venerable” in the Catholic Church are deemed “heroic in virtue”, but in order to be declared “saints”, they must also either be a martyr, or have been proven to have miracles associated with them.

**We know this because at the end of On Time, Bede included a world chronicle from the beginning of time at Creation to his present, where he states “At this time Tiberius is in the fifth year of his rule…” This refers to Tiberius III Apsimar, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from AD 698-705.

***In fact, Bede is accused of heresy in later years because of some of the content of On the Reckoning of Time. Perhaps the subject of a future blog post…who knows?

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Battles of Anglo-Saxon England: Badon

I thought it might be fun to look at some of the battles of Anglo-Saxon England here on the blog. Seeing as warfare was something that certainly happened on a regular basis throughout the Anglo-Saxon era, it really is something I should talk about here, too.

Generally I focus on the 7th century, as that is the era in which Wilding,  my historical fantasy is set. But to give myself more scope to write about, I thought I would use this sub-series in my blog to look at some of the major battles of the Anglo-Saxon era throughout the time period, from the 5th to the 9th century. So strap on your armor and grab a sword, we’ve got some fighting to do!

I thought I should start with an early battle that occurs a few decades after the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon era, and one that results in a very important victory for the British.

This battle, which likely happened in the late 5th or early 6th century,  featured the Celtic and Romano-Britons fighting against the newcomers from the Continent. Such was the scale of the victory it resulted in a decades long peace between the native British and the Anglo-Saxons. And to a great extent, the victory is laid at the feet of the great hero, Ambrosius Aurelianus, the Romano-British warrior many associate today with King Arthur.

The historical veracity of any of the Arthur tales is difficult to pin down. I’m not even going to try to explain all the various theories of who he was, when he lived, and what exactly he accomplished. There’s a huge rabbit hole on the Internet named “King Arthur”, and if you are interested, I invite you to dive right in!

For the purposes of this blog post, however, I will just say that I agree with those historians who theorize that Ambrosius Aurelianus was a warrior of Roman/British extraction, who made alliances with the native Britons (the Celts) and together with the remaining Roman/British people who lived in Britain after the Roman legions left, managed to create a resistance of sorts against the Germanic tribes that began to flood into Britain after the chaos of Rome’s defeat at the hands of the barbarians.

The involvement of Arthur at this battle is first mentioned in the 9th century Historia Brittonum, an account of the British people by the Welsh monk Nennius. However, there are accounts of the battle that come from much earlier, most notably De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), written by St. Gildas in the 6th century.

Gildas, who wrote his account much closer to the time of the battle (in fact he states that the battle happened the year he was born), doesn’t mention Arthur at all, leaving some to assume that the later mention of him in Nennius’ work was an insertion of a legendary figure with no basis in fact. The fact that Gildas was actually alive during Arthur’s supposed lifetime does make it odd that Gildas does not mention him.

However, there are a couple of explanations for this. Firstly, some scholars argue that Arthur’s fame was such that the people of the time who read Gildas’ work would have known that Arthur was there, without the monk having to mention it. No one has to say that George Washington was at Valley Forge, for example, or Napoleon at Waterloo. Gildas’ work was not meant to be a detailed account of the battle, it just summarizes the result; that peace reigned over the land for many decades after.

Secondly, In the 12th century a hagiography of Saint Gildas states that indeed, Gildas had praised Arthur extensively in his account of the battle, but that after Arthur killed Gildas’ brother, Huil Mab Caw, a Pictish warrior and rival of King Arthur, Gildas excised all mention of Arthur from his historical account of Britain

After Gildas’ work, the next mention of the battle comes from the 8th century, from the hand of my favourite historian of the era, the Venerable Bede. Frustratingly, however, Bede only makes small mention of the battle. He states that 44 years after the “invaders” arrive on Britain’s shore (the date of which he gives as between AD 449-456), there was a “siege of Mount Badon, when they made no small slaughter of those invaders”. But then, he airly adds, “But more of this thereafter,” and then never mentions it again. Drat.

So what actually happened? Well, again, the details are murky, most especially the exact date and location of the battle.  There are many places around England that claim to be the spot, but we can’t say exactly which is the historically true one. Gildas puts the battle at the Roman town of Bath, but neither Nennius, Bede nor other early historians mention the location, other than to say it happened at Mount Badon. It seems like Bath could be a plausible location, however. It is in the centre of England, close to the Bristol Channel, which, if controlled by the Saxons, would have basically cut England in two, with the Saxons controlling the South. So this was a strategically important spot.

There was obviously a mountain or hill involved, as the early accounts all speak of “Mount Badon”, and as it happens, there is an ancient hill fort near Bath, on Little Solsbury Hill, over looking Bath. Archeological evidence gives proof that the British occupied that fort in the 5th century. Finally, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle* gives the name of Bath as Badanceaster, or “City of Badan.” All of these clues give scholars some confidence that the battle was in that location. But there are others who would argue!

Here’s a little video of Little Solsbury Hill from the air. It really is more a hill than a mountain, so seeing a still picture isn’t very dramatic.

 

It’s impossible to say what happened during the battle. And perhaps it was more than just a battle, as Bede and Gildas both speak of a “siege”, likely of the hill-fort. Whatever happened, it resulted in a major victory. Bede speaks of the British forces slaughtering “no small number of their foes”.

What we do know from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is that all mentions of the Saxon kingdom of Sussex, begun in AD 477 by the warrior Ælle, cease after AD 491. It is not mentioned again in the Chronicle until it’s re-founding  over a century later. Archeological finds support the idea that something dramatic happened, as there have been no discoveries of Saxon burials in the area from the late 5th to the late 6th centuries, and there is also a break in the discovery of Saxon ceramics in this area during this time, suggesting they withdrew from the area. We don’t know why, but perhaps the victors were able to broker a truce, claiming that part of England for the British for a few more decades.

So it seems likely that early in the 5th century the Romano-British and Celtic British did engage the invading Saxons in a decisive battle, stopping their advance into England for decades after.

A most important battle, indeed, and one in which the legend of Arthur becomes intertwined. Nennius says Arthur slaughtered 960 men himself that day. Whether Arthur was involved or not, the battle gives us a fascinating glimpse into a time when England’s future hung in the balance.

*Funnily enough, the Chronicle itself does not mention this battle. 


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New Anglo-Saxon Era Discoveries

Over the summer I was alerted to two important discoveries from the Anglo-Saxon era in England, and I thought you might be interested in hearing about them, too. It’s so exciting that we are still discovering important artifacts from this long-ago time. Every discovery that is made adds tremendously to our knowledge. It’s tantalizing to wonder what is still out there, awaiting our discovery…

  1. “A British version of Tutankhamen’s Tomb” 

The Prittlewell Royal Burial Site, dubbed “a British version of Tutankhamen’s tomb” by researcher Sophie Jackson in the Independent (May 9, 2019),  is not exactly a “new” discovery. In fact, it was discovered way back in 2003, when archeologists did some investigations of a site in Essex, in the south of England, that was due to be part of a road improvement. Anglo-Saxon era graves (as well as other indications of Roman and even older human habitation) had been found in the area in the 1880s, 1920s, and 1930s, so they knew that some archeological investigation needed to be done before doing the road work. But they certainly did not expect to find what they did: an intact burial chamber which included objects of such quality and amount (over 110 objects!) that they knew it had to be a high-status, likely royal, personage who was buried there. In fact, it is only the second intact (i.e. undisturbed) royal burial chamber ever found in England, the first being Sutton Hoo. An amazing discovery, indeed.

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This was the mound, before excavation. It’s right in-between a busy road (the one they were going to widen) and a railway line. Somehow it survived intact, for over 1400 years. Image from independent.co.uk

You might wonder why this burial mound, discovered and excavated sixteen years ago, is making news now. It’s because it has taken that long for the archeologists, historians, and scientists to study the grave goods in order to figure out exactly what was in the grave, and to whom the grave belonged. That analysis is now complete enough that in May they were able to reveal what they have discovered so far, much of it new material that hadn’t been reported up to this point.

The chamber was originally a wooden chamber, but the walls and ceiling had gradually collapsed, filling the contents with decayed wood remains and soil. It’s about 13′ square, and is the largest chambered tomb ever found in England.

One of the new pieces of information was the educated guess as to who, exactly, was buried in the tomb. The acidic sandy soil had completely dissolved any remains such as bones, leaving only a few teeth, but even these were so degraded scientists could not find any DNA in them. Originally the dating of the tomb came from dating the gold Merovingian coins found in the tomb. But even that is not as easy as you might think, due to various complicated scientific reasons I won’t go into here. But based on the coins, scientists had thought the individual had been buried there in the early 7th century, and guessed that it could either be Sæberht of Essex, the first Christian king of Essex, or his grandson, Sigeberht II.

But in May, the museum announced that they had been able to do some carbon testing on the tomb, and discovered that it was built earlier that those dates, likely in the late 6th century, from AD 575-605, and they theorize that the occupant could have been Sæberht’s brother, Sæxa, who died before his brother.

Whoever he was, he truly deserved the title “King of Bling”, given to him at the time of the tomb’s discovery. The amount and quality of the grave goods are extraordinary.

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An artist’s rendering of the burial chamber, with the objects in the approximate place in which they were found. The body was in an ash coffin, which is shown open here, but would have been closed. Both body and coffin had been destroyed by the acidic soil, but the iron brackets that held the coffin together remained. Image from independent.co.uk

Here are a few of the objects found in the burial chamber:

A lyre – the instrument itself had completely decayed, but it left behind a stain on the soil, as well as some of the metal fittings. CT scans and other investigations revealed the form of an intact Anglo-Saxon lyre, the first time a complete form of one of these musical instruments from this era has been found.  It’s evident that the instrument had been snapped in two at one point and then repaired, showing its value to the owner. Either this man played a lyre or it, along with the drinking horns and flagons, were representative of the feasts at the mead hall he undoubtedly hosted.

A sword – the reason why we know the person buried there is a man is because of the sword (although, to be fair, we have also just recently discovered that a Viking burial long thought to be a man because of the armour and weaponry was actually a woman, so…). This iron blade of the sword has been degraded, but tests reveal it was a typical pattern-welded sword of the time, of the type that would only belong to the very wealthy. Unusually, it was placed outside the coffin, on the floor, in a leather/sheepskin holder and wrapped in cloth. This could demonstrate the clash of cultures/religion at the time. The man was a Christian, as indicated by the gold foil crosses placed over his eyes, but he was buried as a Saxon warrior, with grave goods and weaponry. Placing the sword outside of the coffin could indicate those who buried him were aware of the contradictions involved in this.

Glass goblets – four beautiful blue and green glass goblets.

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See what I mean? Beautiful! Image from Flickr

Copper flask – for holding water, this came from Syria, and was often brought back to Europe from Christian pilgrims. Other Mediterranean objects in the grave include a silver spoon and a copper basin. These objects, plus the Sri Lankan garnets on the lyre fittings, show just how cosmopolitan the “Dark Ages” could be.

Folding stool – stools of this type from this era have been found on the Continent, but this is the first one to be found in England. It was possibly a “gift seat” , where the lord would sit while dispensing gifts and/or judgement.

Gold coins – from Merovingian France.

Gold foil crosses – two small crosses, likely placed over the eyes of the deceased.

Painted wooden box – the only painted wood from Anglo-Saxon times found to this date. Only a fragment remains. Inside the box were some objects of special significance to the owner, including a silver spoon, a comb, an iron knife in a holder, fire steel, and some material which might have been undergarments! The featured image above is of the fragment of the box, from independent.co.uk

Shield and other weaponry, including what is thought to be a standard, for carrying heraldry to battle.

And much, much more.

It is truly amazing. If you want a more in-depth look at some of these objects, check out this fascinating link from the Museum of London Archeology. 

Or, if you are so lucky to be in England, you can see the objects yourself at the Southend Central Museum.

2. A hoard of Anglo-Saxon/Norma era coins, valued at over $6 million USD.  

Yes, you read that right. $6 million USD. Wow. It’s a smaller find in size than the Staffordshire Hoard, but worth more in value, because some of the coins are very rare and therefore very valuable.

Chew Valley Hoard

The find has been named the Chew Valley Hoard, after an area in North Somerset. These are just some of the coins found. Image by Pippa Pearce, on BBC.com

The hoard of silver coins was found in January 2019 by metal detectorists Adam Staples and Lisa Grace in a field in Somerset (exact location is being kept quiet, for obvious reasons). The find consisted of 2,571 late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman era coins. The really rare coins are the mint condition King Harold II coins. Harold II only reigned for eight months, and died at the Battle of Hastings when the Normans conquered England, so up until this point, few examples of his coins have been found. It is theorized that these coins were likely buried sometime after the battle, probably before 1072.

The detectorists were actually training some friends on how to use their machines that day, and it was one of the friends that found the first coin, one depicting William the Conqueror. The rest of them were found by Grace and Staples.

Not a bad haul for an afternoon’s work, I’d say! Work continues by researchers on analyzing and cataloging the coins. I’m sure we will be hearing more about this stunning find in the months and years to come.


*Fun fact: After the excavation and all the contents of the tomb were taken away by the museum for further study, protestors moved in at the site to prevent the original road-widening plan, as the proposed route would go over the burial site. Protestors camped there for five years (!) until 2009, when an alternate plan was decided. Phew!


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