Penda: King of Mercia

 

Note: I am currently on vacation in the sunny south, but I spent some time writing up a new post all about Penda of Mercia. I was just about done when I realized that I had already written a post about him. Oops. So, while I was prepared to take some hours out of my vacation time to write one post for the blog, I just couldn’t face writing another one. Seeing as even I had forgotten I had written this post, I figured you might have, too. And you may be a new reader, who hasn’t seen this yet. With my apologies for recycled content, here is my original post on Penda, King of Mercia, which first appeared on the blog in the summer of 2017. Hope you enjoy! 


One of the joys of writing about any period of history is discovering some of the fascinating people who lived at that time, at least some of the ones whose stories have come to us through the long years that separate us. Of course, they are usually kings or high churchmen, or upper class nobles, or the like. The regular people, although no doubt fascinating in and of themselves, don’t get any ink.

I have highlighted a couple of the people who lived during the time that my books are set, that being Britain in the 7th century A.D., including Oswald, King of Bernicia, and the Venerable Bede.

Penda, the wily king of Mercia, the powerful pagan king of the Midlands who was a thorn in the side of Oswald and his brother Oswy in their rule of Northumbria, is another figure who looms large over the 7th century landscape, and he is a fascinating man. Although there is quite a lot we know about him, relative to others in that time period, there is also quite  a lot we do not know.

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Mercia was located on the south west of Deira, surrounding the river Trent.  It’s capital was Tamworth, which is located in present-day Staffordshire. The marvellous Staffordshire Hoard was found close to Tamworth – it could have come from a Mercian warlord hastily burying his treasure as he escaped from a battle. Maybe it belonged to Penda himself…?

First of all, his origins are rather murky. The name, Penda, could be of British (Welsh) origin, which might help to explain the various alliances this pagan Saxon king had with some the Christian kings of Wales. Conversely, the name might also have Germanic origins. We don’t know for certain. We do know that he was the son of Pybba, possibly one of twelve sons, but some of the names listed as sons of Pybba could have been added to his line after the fact by other kings purporting to be descended of Pybba as well.

Why would other kings do this? Well, Pybba was an Iclingas, from the House of Icel, a legendary (or perhaps semi-legendary) figure from the time when the Anglo-Saxons were first migrating to Britain after the Roman legions left.  And Icel’s lineage went right back to Woden, one of the Saxon gods. Having Woden in your lineage was an important thing for the Saxon kings. So if your own family history couldn’t be traced that far back, it would be in your advantage to claim that you were related somehow to someone who certainly could, and in that way gain legitimacy for your kingship. And after a few generations had passed, who was going to dispute the claim?

Penda, being a legitimate son of Pybba, definitely had the credentials, then, to be king, but interestingly enough there is some doubt about how and when he actually gained the throne. The king just before Penda, Cearl, is another murky figure, who might have been a dynastic rival of Penda’s, but at any rate he seems to be off the scene by 626 A.D..

You will note that I haven’t given the date for Penda’s birth. That’s because we don’t know what it was. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that he became king in 626 A.D. and ruled for thirty years, and was fifty at the time he became king. However these dates need to be taken with a grain of salt, because that would make him in his eighties when some of his children were still quite young, so that’s not really likely. Most historians prefer Bede’s dates in the Ecclesiastical History of Britainwhich states that Penda became king in 633 A.D., after he and Cadwallon of Gwynedd combined forces to defeat Edwin of Northumbria in  the Battle of Hatfield Chase.

Murky, like I said. It seems to me more likely that he was a younger man in 633 A.D. rather than an older one. Some suggest that perhaps the Chronicle meant that he was actually fifty when he died in 655 A.D., not when he gained the throne. And as for what happened between 626 and 633 in Mercia in terms of who was the ruler, well, it’s unknown. Penda could have been one of multiple rulers of Mercia, each being overlord of a small portion of it.

It is also possible that Penda was a landless noble of the royal Mercian house, a mercenary of sorts, who, with his loyal war band, managed to fight his way onto the throne, basically. There is no doubt he was a powerful king. Once crowned he managed to hold onto his throne for twenty-two years (if you agree with Bede), and that is a long time by the standards of the day.

He is also a pivotal figure in British history as he is the last pagan king of Mercia. It is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration to say that when he died, the pagan Saxon religion died with him, but certainly by the time of his death Christianity was well-established in the island and the writing was certainly on the wall.

Throughout his reign he did what successful Saxon kings did best: made war on his neighbours in order to expand his kingdom and have more tribute to distribute to his loyal retainers. There is a suggestion that he could have been a co-ruler with his brother Eowa for the early part of his reign, who may or may not have been a puppet of Oswald of Northumbria (the mind boggles at all the scheming and plotting that must have occupied their days).

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Replica of the beautiful reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet, done by the Royal Armouries for the British Museum. This helmet is from Wessex, not Mercia, but it is contemporary to Penda’s time and he might have worn a helmet quite like it. Photo from Wikicommons

At any rate he quickly became a force to be reckoned with, and some suggest that it was his burgeoning power that prompted Oswald to take him out, so to speak. Which didn’t turn out so well for Oswald, for Penda (and his Welsh allies) killed the powerful bretwalda (High King) at the battle of Maserfield and, adding insult to injury, cut up his body and impaled his head, arms and hands on spears.

This was certainly insulting, but it is possible that it also was a sacrificial offering to the pagan Saxon gods. Eventually one of Oswald’s arms and his head managed to get back to Bernicia, where they became powerful relics of the Church, but that is another story!

Although the Northumbrians had lost Oswald, their powerful king, they were not out of the picture by any means. Certainly the united kingdom of Northumbria broke back down into its two sub-kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, and Oswy, Oswald’s brother who gained the Bernician throne, had to start the work of trying to gain the thegns and aethelings trust and respect in order for him to reach the same heights of power his brother had achieved.

Penda would not make it easy for him, of course. The prize of overlordship of all of Mercia and Northumbria was an irresistible one for Penda and Oswy both, and these two kings tangled frequently over the next decade. There were some periods of calm, and even an alliance or two involving their children, and once Penda had Oswy on the ropes, laying siege to Bamburgh itself.

But in the end, Oswy had the upper hand, defeating and killing Penda in 655 when  Penda invaded Bernicia, even though Penda’s army was much larger than his own.

Penda was a quintessetial Saxon warrior-king, who managed to carve out a stable kingdom in the chaos of 7th century Britain. He must have had some charisma and some leadership skills, plus his skill as a warrior,  in order for him to stay on the throne that long.

And even though the uncertain details of his origins and his rule are frustrating for historians, I don’t mind it much as a novelist. It gives me freedom to spin my own story of this Dark Ages king who was a worthy adversary to Oswy, the king who features in my books.


Featured image:  Stained glass window in the cloister of Worcester Cathedral representing the death of Penda of Mercia. From Wikicommons.

The Celtic Cross: A History

What with book launch and all the assorted tasks that has come with it, my blog has been sadly neglected. I have some great ideas for new content, and you will be seeing that over the next couple months. But for this week I’ve reached back into the archives from last year to bring you this post that I really liked, about the Celtic cross. It didn’t get too many views the first time around, as it was posted in the dog days of August, so I’m hoping more people get to see it this time. Hope you enjoy! 


 

I’ve been spending a lot of time here on the blog giving you a detailed look at life in England in the 7th century, from the various classes that make up that society, to the literature they produced, and to important places such as Bamburgh.

Lately I’ve been focussing mainly on one section of that society, that being the Anglo-Saxons. But of course there were other groups of people living on the British Isles at that time, one of the biggest being the Celts.

I’ve touched on their society here and there, mainly in explaining how the Celtic Christianity of the native Britons differed from the Roman Christianity brought to England by Augustine in 597 AD. But I thought I should spend some time here delving into their culture a little bit more deeply.

Much of it is similar to the Anglo-Saxons. Both were warrior cultures, for example. But just as there are some significant differences in how they practiced their religion, there were significant differences in other aspects of their culture as well.

I will explore some of those societal differences in future posts. But to start with,  I wanted to look a little more closely at one of the symbols of the Celtic Church. The Celtic Cross, with its distinctive circle encompassing the cross-beams, has become an iconic representation of Celtic Christianity, and as such, I wanted to give you some background on how this cross became to be used by the Celtic Christians.

Deep breath. There are a whole lot of rabbit trails that one can go merrily along when studying this subject. I am going to give you just a brief overview, but if you are interested I encourage you to do some research yourself.

One of the legends about this unique style of cross was that Saint Patrick combined the Christian cross with the sun cross, a pagan symbol, in order to make Christianity more appealing to the pagan Britons. This theory also surmises that putting the cross on top of the symbol was a way for Patrick to show the superiority of Christ over the pagan sun-god.

The sun cross is a circle divided into four quadrants, and this symbol has been found in religious objects from Bronze Age Europe (and in many other times and cultures as well). In the European context, it is speculated that this symbol represents the wheel of the chariot of the sun god.

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The Fahan Mura Slab is an early form of Irish Celtic Cross. Initially they were merely incised upon a stone slab, and then they got a little more intricate. You can see how the carving here is more bas-relief. This eventually resulted in the free-standing stone crosses that became so prolific across Ireland. Even now, after many centuries of wear and sometimes deliberate destruction, there are at least a couple hundred crosses in various states of repair still standing across Ireland, and there are more in Scotland, Wales and Northumbria.

 

I think this explanation of the origin of the Celtic cross might be stretching things a bit. First of all, it seems to be a little too speculative. There is a lot of uncertainty about what that “sun cross” really represents, so right there we are treading in murky waters.  I do believe that St. Patrick  presented the new faith using language and symbols (and places) that were familiar to the pagan Celts of Ireland, but to definitively say that he “invented” the Celtic cross in order to aid him in this seems a bit of a stretch.

But I don’t discount that theory completely. I’m not a historian, so there may be compelling evidence out there that I don’t know about which would show me wrong. But until I know of it, I’ll stick with my gut feeling on that.

What I think might be more plausible are a couple of other theories I’ve come across. One being that the circle on the Celtic cross originated from an even earlier symbol of Christianity, the chi-ro. 

Let’s back up a bit. The cross was not the preferred symbol of the early Christians. To them, who lived in the Roman Empire, the cross was an instrument of torture and death. They used other symbols, which are another very fascinating rabbit trail to go down, but I’ll stick to the main point here.

One of those early symbols was the Chi-Ro, which was a stylized combination of the first two Greek letters of the word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ  – Christos, or “Christ”.

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The Chi-Ro

The Emperor Constantine, after his conversion to Christianity, made his new faith the official state religion in the fourth century, and he was the one who popularized the chi-ro. Christians began to show this symbol with a laurel wreath superimposed on top, to symbolize the resurrection of Christ as the victory over death (the laurel wreath being worn by Emperors and awarded to victors in the Games).

 

So you can see how this idea of having a Christian symbol (the Chi-Ro) with a circle on top could explain a Celtic Cross, once the cross became a popular symbol of the faith (which happened after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the end of public crucifixions).

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A chi-ro carved into the rock in the  catacombs at San Callisto, Rome. One of my favourite memories of Rome is going into the catacombs and seeing the evidence of the early Christians there. They used the catacombs as hiding places from the Roman authorities during the time of persecution in the early years after Christ. Image by Dnalor_1 on Wikicommons

Another theory is a much more practical one. It postulates that the stone crosses were modelled after the earlier, wooden ones, which may have had cross beams supporting the horizontal beams of the cross for strength and stability. The stone carvers wanted to have the same support when making the heavy stone crosses, and so used the stone circle for that end.

It’s impossible to know for sure. Likely there is some truth to all of these theories. But no matter the origins of this unique style of cross, by the seventh century large, intricately carved stone crosses began to become a regular feature of the landscape in Anglo-Saxon England and across what later became known and Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The Irish monks who established monasteries began to erect them both at their monasteries and churches but also in public squares. They became teaching tools, with the elaborate carvings a visual representation of important Biblical characters and events.

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This close up shows another feature of many of the Celtic Crosses – that of the notched arms where the two beams meet. Some speculate that this also hearkens back to the original, wooden crosses, which could have been notched right there to allow for the two pieces to be lashed together with a rope. Image from pxhere

 

They are beautiful to look at now, but would have been even more spectacular to see then, because they originally were painted in bright colours, to draw the eye and attract those who saw them. In a future post I want to examine one of these crosses in more detail, to give you an idea of the intricate work with profound theological significance that adorn them.

The faithful Christians who built them made them to last, and they have certainly done that. But I’m sure even they would be astonished to know that some two thousand years later their work is still on display for all to see and admire, in many cases in the very spots, or very close to it, that they themselves erected them.


Don’t forget….WILDING:BOOK ONE OF THE TRAVELLER’S PATH, is NOW available. A historical fantasy set in 7th century England, WILDING introduces a long-ago world, and a young man whose choices could have disastrous ramifications for it—and ours.

Here’s the links for all the places WILDING is available. PLEASE NOTE: Outside of Amazon, there is only the ebook format available. Apparently it takes a little while (up to a month) for the paperback to be available on the rest of the retailers sites. So if you are wanting to get a paperback immediately, Amazon is the only place it is available for now. By the end of the month you should be able to get the paperback through all the channels. It will also be available for libraries and bookstores to purchase at that time. 

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Barnes and Noble

 

To Lent, or not to Lent….

I’m in the midst of a crazy time right now and writing time has dwindled to pretty much zilch. But I thought that seeing as we are in the midst of the Lenten season, I could re-post this post which appeared here on The Traveller’s Path back in my first year (2016). Hope you enjoy, and I’ll be back with fresh content at the end of April! 

Don’t forget, if you want to keep up with my book publication progress, sign up for my newsletter here!  I send out an update about once a month. I won’t spam you, promise! 


Believe it or not, this was a vitally important question back in 7th Century Britain. Not so much whether or not to celebrate Lent, but when. The whole question of when Easter began, and thus, when to start celebrating Lent, was the source of great division and controversy.*

It may seem silly to us now, but it was a serious problem for the Church. It’s a difficult one to encapsulate in one blog post, but I’ll give it a shot.

Christianity first arrived in Britain with the Romans, who conquered the island (or parts of it, anyway) in the early parts of the 1st century. By the time the legions withdrew somewhere near the end of the 4th century, the Church had established a presence in the island, but it was not a major presence, just a religion among the other pagan religions that people followed, and it likely might have died out as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded and brought their own pagan religions with them. But the Celts in the South-west and North resisted those invasions as they had resisted the Romans, and Christianity survived and indeed began to flourish in those corners of the island.

However, they were cut off from Rome, and their practice of the faith began to take on a decidedly Celtic feel. The Irish and British priests and Bishops still venerated the Roman pope, but in all practicality their allegiances were much more tribal, and the Abbots of the monastery  had more sway in spiritual matters than the Bishops of the dioceses. In some cases, the Abbot was both Abbot and Bishop.  The Abbots were often descended from ruling Irish families, and held great influence over their people.  The practice of the faith was very much centred around the monasteries, as opposed to the dioscean, urban model developed in Rome.  Due to their influence, the monastic lifestyle was held up as the ideal of Christian living in the Celtic church.

Unbeknownst to the Celts in Britain, the Roman church had abandoned the original method for dating Easter, making some changes based on astronomical calculations (and other considerations, such as wanting to distance the resurrection of Christ from the Jewish passover) which are too complicated to get into here. Pope Gregory sent Augustine to Britain in 597 AD to convert the southern Saxon kings of England, which gave the Roman Church a firm hold on the southern parts of the island. But the it quickly came into conflict with the established “Celtic” church in the north as their differences in practice came to light.

All this brings us to the date of my  novel, set in 642 AD, and the situation in of the northern kingdom of Bernicia, which illustrates some of the difficulties in having two sets of practices. King Oswy of Bernicia, who, although a Saxon, had been brought to the Church through his exile in Dál Raita, and the influence of the monks at Iona, the island monastery off the west coast of what is now Scotland. For political reasons he married Eanflead, a princess of Kent, who was a Roman Christian. Therefore, at Easter, one spouse could be celebrating Christ’s resurrection while the other was still practicing Lent. It was all very awkward and, I imagine, confusing for the lay people.

There were other differences as well, including the style of tonsure worn by monks. The Roman monks shaved the top of their heads, leaving a ring of hair, echoing Christ’s crown of thorns. The Celts shaved the front of their heads from ear to ear, in what some surmise was the same haircut that the Druidic priests once wore.

This conflict between the two approaches to the faith continued until the Synod of Whitby, in 664 AD, instigated, interestingly enough, by King Oswy. He wanted to determine once and for all which practices would be the ones to follow for the Church in Britain as a whole (one wonders how much pressure his wife put on him to get it all sorted out!). Based in part on the influence of the charismatic Bishop Wilfred, Oswy ruled in favour of the Roman practices and the Celtic style began to be phased out, although the Church in Britain retained a couple of hold-overs from its Celtic monastic past, including the emphasis on missionary work and its dedication to intellectual pursuits. Pockets of resistance to this change lasted until the 9th century.

It may seem a tempest in a teapot to us, but at the time it was a vitally important matter as power, politics, and religion were all stakeholders in this conflict. The upshot of the whole thing was that the Church in England remained staunchly Roman until the marital shenanigans of Henry the VIII brought a whole new religious controversy to Britain.

*Interestingly, there is still a difference today between the Eastern Orthodox church calendar and the Western (Roman) one, but for different reasons than the ones delineated in this post.

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What do you think? How important is the dating of Lent to you? Does this seem a silly thing to disagree about? What are some practices that the Church disagrees about today that might be equally as silly?

Photo credit: Celtic Cross at Ballinskellig Priory by Ulrich Hartman

 

Society News: Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England

In this series of posts about what Anglo-Saxon society was like in 7th century England, I have been covering the various classes and people groups including Kings and Queens, the upper class, the church, coerls, and others. 

Finally we have reached the bottom of the rung, that being the class of slaves.

Slavery is common to all societies throughout history, and it was no different in 7th century England. People could be bought and sold as slaves at that time, and in some cases they even sold themselves into slavery.

So, it was not an usual thing. Perhaps the most famous slave of the Early Medieval period in England was St. Patrick. HIs Confessions detail his early life. Born as the son of a wealthy Christian Romano-British family, while he was a young boy Patrick was captured by Irish raiders who carried him back to their island home where he worked as a slave. It was while shepherding his master’s sheep that he had the vision from God that propelled him to escape and make the dangerous journey back home to England. Eventually he came back to Ireland as a missionary and became Ireland’s most famous saint.

Patrick’s story illustrates just one of the many ways you could find yourself sold into slavery. Raids between warring kingdoms were common, and along with the cattle or sheep that might be taken, sometimes people were taken, too. Another way to become a slave would be to be part of a losing group of fighting men in a battle. Those who weren’t killed would either be taken as slaves and sold for profit, or kept as hostages, if they were part of a noble family who could afford to pay for their release. However many of the warriors would generally be killed in battle, as it was shameful to survive if your lord was killed. This meant it would be the surviving women and children who would then be taken off as part of the battle booty and sold as slaves.

A person could also be born into slavery, if their parents were slaves. There was also penal slavery, in which a person could be made a slave as a punishment for a crime committed.

Finally, you could sell yourself into slavery, as mentioned above. This might sound like an odd thing to do, but actually it was a way to survive in times of famine or other difficulty.   By selling yourself and your children into slavery you were ensured of a roof over your head and a food to eat. Keeping in mind that everyone in this society worked hard, from the kings and nobles down to the lowly slave, it meant that often the amount of work you would have to do did not differ much between slaves and freemen and women. The idle upper class did not come along until centuries later.

Bede tells us that the Augustinain mission to England came about because Pope Gregory saw some fair-haired children in the slave market in Rome. Taken by their fair hair and curls, he inquired where they were from. Hearing they were Angles, he declared, “Not Angles, but angels!” and resolved to send missionaries to their land to teach them the Gospel of Christ. Image from Lawrence OP, on Flickr

Slaves were the one class of people who had no weregild, but that didn’t necessarily mean they were unprotected by law. In fact, slave-owners had a duty to feed and care for their slaves, which is why selling yourself into slavery was a viable option for those who faced starvation otherwise. Slave-owners were also legally responsible for the actions of their slaves, so owning slaves came with some heavy responsibilities.

Although they had no weregild, slaves were valuable as property, and so if someone killed or injured a slave, recompense would be made to the owner. However, killing your own slave had no legal ramifications, but it was still seem as murder under church laws and therefore if the owners were Christian, they would face the sanction of the church. The Church also frowned upon selling slaves outside of England, as they would be exposed to heathen religions and ways, and so as Christianity flourished the selling of slaves overseas lessened, but of course never stopped completely.

The Church also often would buy slaves on the market and free them as an act of charity. Often these slaves would then enter a monastery or convent, which would make sense, as they could be far from home and family who could shelter them.

The laws of Alfred the Great in the 9th century shows us that slaves were allowed some time off on certain feast days, and that slaves were encouraged to better their lot by selling gifts they may have recieved in order to eventually buy themselves out of slavery. We don’t know for certain, but I would suspect that customs were not much different in the 7th century, even though they had not been codified by law.

Slaves were also freed as acts of compassion and religious observance by thier owners on special feast days, or as part of the owner’s will. The ceremony to free someone was a solemn affair, with witnesses and legal documentation.

The amount of slaves during the Early Medieval period in England was considerable. By the time of the Norman conquest and the Domeday Book was compilied, around 10% of the population were slaves. However, the Viking occupation perhaps increased that number over what it had been in Anglo-Saxon times, but we can’t say for sure.

Life was hard in the 7th century, and slaves had it harder than most. But they had food, shelter, some protection by law and the Church and the opportunity to better their lot, and so I suppose one could say they had it better than other people who became slaves in other times and places. 

Still, I suspect they would rather be at the top of the ladder than at the bottom, if they had the choice. 
 

 

Anglo-Saxon Elves

Today is a special day on The Traveller’s Path – this is my first crosspost! My post today is also being featured on the Superversive Inklings Blog…many thanks to them for allowing me to share their space…

One of the intriguing questions about the Anglo-Saxons who lived in England in the Early Middle Ages revolves around their religious beliefs and mythologies. Pretty much all of what we know of these beliefs were written down by Christian monks, and so it’s tricky to tease out the truth of that second-hand information. Bede gives us some glimpses of their religion, but by the time he was writing his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed around 731 AD, the religious practices of the pagan Anglo-Saxons had pretty much disappeared from England, so he was writing about beliefs and practices that were pretty much legend in his time.

The Anglo-Saxons of the 7th century* were, of course, descended from the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who migrated to Britain after the Romans left the island defenceless in the 4th century. There is considerable discussion about whether these migrants came as conquerors or settlers, and the truth is likely a mix of the two.

These groups of people came with their own set of beliefs and worldview that were distinct from those of the Celtic and Romano-British people who populated Britain at the time. They were Germanic people, and shared the rich heritage of the Norse and Germanic religions. They certainly were not Christians, but encountered a strong thread of Christian culture in Britain, a legacy of the Roman occupiers.

So in trying to determine the religion and mythologies of the pagan Anglo-Saxons, scholars and historians look to the beliefs of their contemporary Germanic and Norse kin who lived on the Continent during the time they settled in Britain. But of course, their culture and beliefs slowly diverged from their Continental neighbours as time passed, and as they began to be integrated with the local population.

I don’t have the time or expertise to cover all of the Anglo-Saxon beliefs and mythology, but I thought I could give a brief overview of their mythologies about elves, seeing as I did some research on this in writing my first novel, Wilding: Book One of the Traveller’s Path (coming early 2019).

Much has been made of Tolkien’s elves, and many scholars with far more expertise than I have written about Tolkien’s understanding of the Saxon myths and religion and how he incorporated that into his Middle Earth (itself an Anglo-Saxon term) and his conception of elves.

I have posted before about how the concept of “elves” is a feature in many different cultures’ mythologies across the world. In that post I wrote:

Elves are fascinating creatures of legend, and their roots go deep into our history. And when I say “our”, I mean collective mankind, for although we may think that the concept of elves is a Western European one, you can actually find elf-like creatures in most of the world’s mythology. In the Norse and Germanic cultures they are alfar, supernatural beings having great beauty and long lives, sometimes helping humans, sometimes hindering them.

Our English word, “elf”, comes directly from the Anglo-Saxon word ælf. This means “white being”, which seems to relate to ideas of the supernatural, divine, or of feminine beauty. At any rate, the Anglo-Saxon elves were thought of as being human sized, and indeed, generally they were said to look human, although usually they were thought of as being exceptionally beautiful. They could make themselves invisible, or change shape. These are not “Tinkerbells”. The conception of elves (or “fairies”) as being diminutive beings with wings came much later, in the Late Medieval period.

Elves were not to be trusted in Anglo-Saxon mythology. They could be helpful, but they could just as easily be tricksters, or worse. They could lure both men and women into illicit sexual unions, or into a bargain that inevitably would end badly for the human.

They certainly were seen as the cause of some illnesses, both amongst humans and livestock. In Bald’s Leechbook, you can find charms or remedies against what is called “elf-shot” – a sudden, sharp pain, which was caused by being shot by an invisible arrow from an invisible elf.

 

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Bald’s Leechbook. Image from The British Library

Another great danger the Anglo-Saxon elves posed was their penchant for stealing children. It is said that they would take a human child and switch it with one of their own, a sickly, wizened being that would be known as a changling. Human parents who suddenly had a fractious, sickly baby would fear that they had been the recipient of this type of switch. There were also tales about human women who were tricked by elves to become wet nurses for their offspring. And of course, time moves differently in the elves’ world. The woman could emerge from the Otherworld to find that three hundred years had passed when she thought it was only three.

Speaking of the Otherworld, it is very difficult to determine exactly where the Anglo-Saxons thought their elves lived, or where they came from. That’s because the mythology of Anglo-Saxon elves has been conflated with the British Celtic views on these beings, whether they be Irish, Scottish or Welsh, and so to tease out what is specifically Anglo-Saxon about the legends in this regard is tricky. However, it does seem that the general idea was than the elves lived in hills under the earth, which would sometimes open up and reveal the elves singing, dancing, and feasting, which were favourite activities of theirs. They are also associated with certain trees, especially oaks.

The mention of elves from this time period comes from either medical treatises or from epic ballads such as Beowulf. In that poem, the elves are lumped in with other creatures such as giants and demons, who are all descendants of Cain. These are creatures exiled by God that feud endlessly with mortal men, who are the descendants of Seth (Adam’s son) and Noah. This assumes that their home is on Earth, but that they are hidden in some way from men until they make themselves known.

In general, then, when trying to categorize the elves of Anglo-Saxon lore, it is best to think more of Tolkien’s depiction than Disney’s Tinkerbell. Keep in mind, however, that Tolkein was writing fiction, and brought both his own imagination and some later Scandinavian legends and stories for his idea of elves. Not everything in Lord of the Rings corresponds with actual Anglo-Saxon beliefs about them. Especially not the pointed ears!

But because of Tolkien’s influence, there is still interest in these stories and legends that otherwise we likely would have forgotten or ignored. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors would likely be amazed to know that, this many centuries after they are gone, we still tell stories about the elves and their kin.


*As my book takes place mainly in 7th century Northumbria, that is the time period that is the focus of this blog. Although there would be some differences from the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon migration until the time of the Vikings, these broad strokes are pretty close to what most of them would have believed throughout that time.


Featured image: Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, by William Blake (1786) This painting comes from the 18th century, but I think that it is actually not a bad depiction of Anglo-Saxon elves! Image from sussexarch.org.

 

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Anglo-Saxon Literature: The Wife’s Lament

On of the poems contained within the Exeter book is one called “The Wife’s Lament”. It’s an elegy, a poem that is a melancholy lament on death or other such sorrow, In this particular poem, a wife laments her separation and exile from her husband. It is written in Old English. As the Exeter book dates back to the late 10th century, we know that this poem is at least that old.

I have given you some simple facts about this poem in that first paragraph, but actually some of them are not facts, they are conjecture. Which makes this poem very tricky to write about! Like the Franks Casket, this little poem (53 lines) is subject to many interpretations and much scholarly debate.

Before we get into the general murkiness of the poem’s meaning, I will start with the bare bones of what it is about, in the minds of most scholars. The poem begins with a woman’s general lament over the state of her life. Keeping in mind that Old English is very difficult to translate, and so there are many variations of translations available, here is one fairly easy to understand version of the first stanza:

I make this song of myself, deeply sorrowing,
my own life’s journey. I am able to tell
all the hardships I’ve suffered since I grew up,
but new or old, never worse than now –
ever I suffer the torment of my exile.

The poem then gets into the details of her “life’s journey”. She is in exile because she has married into a different tribe/kingdom, and is without friends or family. And a secondary exile seems to take place in the poem, as he husband leaves her, the reason for which is unclear. Perhaps because of a feud, or a crime, we don’t know enough to say. The upshot of this is that the woman leaves as well, to look for her husband.  She is thwarted in this by her husband’s kinsmen, and is then commanded to live in a hole in the ground. Which leads her to pen this sorrowful poem. Can’t say I blame her.

There is also a section in the poem that could be about a tryst with another lover (perhaps that’s why she is put in the hole), or could also refer to a betrayal of her love by the husband. Some say that the “hole” is actually a grave, in other words, that the woman has been killed, and this is her ghost speaking. Either way, it’s all gloomy.

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Photo by Kat J on Unsplash

So, getting back to the first paragraph of this post, here’s a little more enlightenment on the controversies surrounding this poem:

The title – It is true that the poem is found within the Exeter Book, and is written in Old English. But, like the other elegies and poems in that book, it doesn’t actually have a title in the original manuscript.  The poem simply starts with the first line.  The first person to name it, Anglo-Saxon scholar Benjamin Thorpe, actually named it “The Exile’s Lament” in 1842. It wasn’t until eight years later that the title was changed to “The Wife’s Lament”. What’s going on, here?

Well, first of all, the Old English equivalent for the word “wife” does not appear in the poem. The poem is clearly meant to be in a woman’s voice, however, because the pronouns and adjectives in the poem are written in the Old English feminine form, rather than masculine. And by the way, this is one of the first pieces of English literature written from a woman’s point of view, which makes it pretty special aside from anything else, don’t you think? This is likely why Benjamin Thorpe did not ascribe it to a woman, because there isn’t much literature from a woman’s point of view that comes from this male-dominated era. Perhaps he was just not expecting to see that, and so he didn’t. And as I said, Old English, especially poetic Old English, is very tricky to translate.

The subject of the poem is of a more domestic nature, as compared to the heroic poems such as “Beowulf”,  with its monsters, fighting, and mead-halls. This also makes “The Wife’s Lament” stand out amongst the other poems we have from this era.

Of course, just because it’s in a woman’s “voice” doesn’t mean the creator of the poem was a woman. Don’t forget, very few people could read or write at the time. These poems were meant to be spoken, performed for an audience. It is possible that there were women who created poems, but it is likely that it would only be men who performed them. We only have a few poems from this era that were captured by a scribe at some point and written down. This scribe, however, could have been male or female, as this work was done pretty much exclusively in monasteries or nunneries.

Because of the female voice of the poem’s narrator, she is assumed to be a wife of the “lord” that she is mourning over in the poem. Hence, “The Wife’s Lament”.

The style of poem – although the interpretation of the poem being an elegy is the most common one, some scholars think that this is not an elegy, but is actually a riddle. They believe this because of a lot of complicated textual analysis that I can’t claim understand well enough to write about, so I will take their word for it. The poem ends, Woe to the one who must suffer longing for a loved one. This type of epitaph is typical of Anglo-Saxon riddles, which always end with these bits of what is called “gnomic” wisdom.  It is interesting that this poem, along with “The Wanderer “and “The Seafarer”, are found in the Exeter Book, which also contains 92 other riddle poems. So, I suppose it’s possible….

Unknown

Yeah. Basically. 

We have comparatively little extant written material from the Early Middle Ages, and so each piece we have is so very important to help us understand the culture and the times in which it was written. “The Wife’s Lament”, in particular, even with it’s difficulties, puts a small spotlight on a woman’s perspective (albeit a very sad one!), and that makes it very special, indeed.


Want more? Here are the posts in my Anglo-Saxon Literature series:

The Dream of the Rood

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Wanderer

What’s In a Word?

Bald’s Leechbook: The Doctor is In

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Cotton Library

Cynewulf the Poet

Beowulf Basics

Cynewulf the Poet

The Exeter Book

 

Feature image of the Exeter Book from exeter-cathedral.org

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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