Cynewulf the Poet

There are only a few Old English poets known by name, and Cynewulf (pronounced “kin-eh-wolf”) is one of them. We can definitively ascribe four poems to him, which may not seem like a lot, but these four poems together comprise several thousand lines of poetry. There are a couple more which are possibly his, including The Dream of The Rood, which I blogged about here.

It is difficult to determine exactly when Cynewulf lived. His poems appear in two of the manuscripts that survive from the Early Medieval period, the Exeter and Vercelli books, both of which are a collection of poems and other works.  These date to the second half of the tenth century, so we know he lived before then. Dates as early as the 8th century and as late as the 9th are given as to when he actually lived and wrote his poems, with perhaps more credence being given to the 9th century dates, for reasons I don’t have space to catalogue here.

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Lindisfarne Island, Northumbria. Home of Cynewulf? We just don’t know for certain…. CC image courtesy of David Newman on Flickr

Little is known about the poet himself, but he does leave a few clues behind. First of all, linguistic evidence in his poems tells us they are written in the Anglian dialect of the Anglo-Saxon language (our Old English), as opposed to the Saxon dialect. Therefore scholars believe that he lived in Northumbria, and possibly Mericia,. The Saxon dialect was more prominent in Wessex and Kent.

Secondly, he was a learned man, as we see a high level of sophistication in his poetry. As the poems are religious in nature, he was likely a monk or priest. That he came from the Church is also surmised by the fact that his poems referenced other Latin works, and only the people in holy orders knew Latin.

Scholars disagree as to who, exactly, Cynewulf was. His name is of Anglo-Saxon origin, so he was likely not a Celt. There was a Bishop of Lindisfarne named Cynewulf, who died around 780 A.D., who is named as a likely candidate. Others postulate he could be a priest of that name who lived in Dunwich in the 800s, or even Cenwulf, the Abbot of Petersborough, who died in 1006 AD. But this is all speculation, based upon these figures having the same name and living Northumbria or Mercia, so we can’t say for certain.

From the autobiographical epilogues in the poems, we know that at one point in his life he enjoyed the favour of princes and the gifts of kings. He could have been a thegn or a high-ranking scopScholars also presume he was a warrior at some point, and as well that he knew much about sea travel, based on the content of his poems. Other than these tantalizing tidbits, we do not know anything about the poet himself.

 

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The Old English and modern English translation from the beginning of Christ II. Image from Mere Inkling

You might wonder how we know that four poems in particular, namely, Juliana, Christ II (both found in the Exeter Book), Elene, and the Fates of the Apostles (both found in the Vercelli Book), were actually written by Cynewulf. Well, it’s simple. He signed his name to them.

Not just any old signature, though. In the poems’ epilogues in which he gave some of the story of his life and asked for prayers,  he included a runic acrostic containing the letters c, y, n, (e), w,u,l,f. The “e” is not included in all four signatures.

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Runes are the characters used in Anglo-Saxon writing. In the poems these runes both spell his name and stand for a word, so it is not necessarily easy to see that he has signed his name to the poems. However, he does leave us a clue, for in one of the epilogues he says, Here anyone who takes pleasure in songs, if he is sharp of mind, may discover who composed these verses. 

The  Vercelli Book languished in a dark corner of the Capitulary Library of Vercelli, in northern Italy, until it was re-discovered in the late 1800s and translated by scholars. One of these, John Kemble, is credited with discovering Cynewulf’s acrostic signature in one of the poems and subsequently it was found in the other three as well.

Interestingly, this is thought to be the first “signed” work in English literature. Previous to this, writers of such works preferred to remain anonymous, so as to give God all the glory for their acts of creativity.  However we shouldn’t assume that by signing his name  Cynewulf  sought personal glory. He states that he wished others to pray for him, thus perhaps emphasizing spiritual rewards rather than material ones for his work.

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I have been unable to find a picture of Cynewulf’s acrostic runic signature as seen in the original MS, but here is a typed version of the autobiographical epilogue in Elene, where you can see how he integrated the Anglo-Saxon runes into the Latin characters of the other words. Image from Pgenglish2015

The four poems are written in the typical alliterative style of Anglo-Saxon poetry, such as BeowulfElene is the longest poem, comprised of 1,321 lines, and it is about the finding of the True Cross by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. It not all poetry, it also contains a prose section. It is thought to be his finest work, and because of that, some speculate it is the last one of the four to be written, but of course we do not know this for sure. Juliana (731 lines), is another hagiographic poem, about St. Juliana, who was martyred for refusing to marry a pagan man. Christ II (427 lines)also known as the Ascension, is a meditation on a sermon given by Pope Gregory, on the resurrection of Christ. It is the second part of a trilogy on the advent, ascension, and second coming of Christ, all of which are by different authors. The Fates of the Apostles (122 lines), is a poetic telling of the life and death of the twelve apostles of Christ.

Aside from the hidden runic acrostic signature, which I think is pretty cool, the other cool thing about Cynewulf is that he is responsible for one of the most iconic terms in our modern day. As many of you know, J.R.R. Tolkien, aside from being an author, was first and foremost an Anglo-Saxon scholar. He, of course, was very familiar with Cynewulf and his poems, and it is in the poem Christ II where he found the term middangeardwhich translates as, “middle-earth”.

The lines read:

Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, above the middle-earth sent unto men, and true radiance of the sun, bright above the stars – thou of thy very self illuminest for every season!

Very Tolkien-esque, no? Earendel can be translated, “radiance of the dawn”, and is a reference to John the Baptist in the poem. But these words had a profound effect on Tolkien, inspiring him to write the “Lost Voyage of Earendel” in 1916, where the character Earendel is transformed into a voyager who carries the morning star on his brow across the sky.

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Earendil, by Alarie Tano, on DeviantArt

Amazing that this long-dead, obscure poet could still have such a profound impact on our culture today. I’m sure he would be stunned if he knew.

But maybe he does. Perhaps Tolkien and he have had great discussions in the world beyond this world. I’d like to think so!


This post is one of a continuing series on Anglo-Saxon literature. You can see the other posts by clicking the following links: 

The Dream of the Rood

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Cotton Library

Beowulf Basics

 

Featured image is the Exeter Book, from Wikicommons

 

 

 

Making a Date in Anglo-Saxon England

Probably most of you know that our calendar comes from the Roman one. January is named after Janus, the two-faced god who looked front and back simultaneously, March comes from the Roman god Mars, the god of war, etc.

But the Anglo-Saxons of 7th century England had a very different calendar.

The most detailed account of this  Anglo-Saxon calendar comes from Bede, who, in his book, The Reckoning of Time, written in 725 AD, details each of the months. It’s interesting to note that by the time Bede writes this book, this is very much an “old” way of reckoning the calendar year. The Julian calendar we still follow had come to England along with the Gregorian mission in 595 AD, and as Christianity spread, the old Germanic calendar fell into disuse.

It’s a good thing Bede bothered to include this old, “heathen” calendar in his book,  because his summary preserved for us a bit of history we would not have, otherwise.

The Last Chapter

The Venerable Bede

The Anglo-Saxon calendar was a lunisolar calendar, based on the moon’s cycle. But as the lunar cycles are about 29.5 days each, the year ends up with 354 days instead of 365. After two or three of these shortened twelve month years, the lunar cycle would be out of line with the solar year by about a month. The Anglo-Saxons got around this by inserting an extra month in summer time every so often to keep it all synchronized properly.

According to Bede, the new year began on December 25th, called Modranecht, or “Mother’s Night”. There is much speculation about what these “mothers” might be, but there is a tradition of Germanic peoples honouring female ancestral spirits, so possibly this is what Bede is referring to. It happened at the winter solstice, which was a very important day for the Anglo-Saxons, know as Geola (“Yule”).

The months of the year were as follows:

JanuaryÆfterra Geola, or “after Yule”.

February – Solmonað,  roughly translated as “mud month”, which Bede says refers to the cakes they offered to their gods in that month. However, the word “sol” is not generally translated as “cakes”, but “mud”. So maybe their cakes looked like mud? Or it’s a reference to the soggy English winter? Hard to say.

March – Hreðmonað. Bede tells us that this refers to the goddess Hreða, whom they sacrificed to in this month. We don’t know a lot about this goddess today. There is not much existing Germanic lore about her.

April – Eostermonað, corresponding to the goddess Eoster or Eostre, who was celebrated this month. This is where we get the name Easter, for the Christian celebration of Christ’s resurrection, which is usually celebrated in April. Interestingly enough, like Hreda there is no information about Eostre apart from Bede’s writings.

May – Ðrimilcemonað, or “month of three milkings.” The idea being that the grass is so plentiful and rich that the livestock (cows, sheep, goats) could be milked three times in one day.

June – Ærra Liða, or “before mild”.

July  –  Æfterra Liða, or “after mild”. “Mild” refers to the calm breezes that made it easy to sail on the sea in the summer months (as well as the mild summer weather). At the height of summer, another month would be added occasionally to compensate for the shorter lunar cycles, a “leap month”, if you will. This month was called Thriliða, or “third mild”.

August – Weodmonað, or “weed month”. I’m sure modern gardeners can relate! However, to be fair, the word “weod” could mean “weeds” or could also refer to herbs, or grass.

September – Haligmonað, or “holy month”Unfortunately Bede lets us down here and doesn’t give us any details as to why this month was given this name. Perhaps there were celebrations that happened to do with harvest. He merely says it was a month of sacred rites.

October – Winterfylleth, or “winter full moon”. This refers to the fact that the Anglo-Saxons counted the beginning of winter as the first full moon in this month.

November – Blotmonað, or “blood month”, as this was the month where surplus livestock would be slaughtered in preparation for the winter season, and/or sacrificed and consecrated to the gods.

December – Ærra Geola, or “before Yule”.

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The early Germanic people counted the day as starting at sunset, not sunrise. It is possible the Anglo-Saxons did the same. The concept of the “week” came from the Romans, and was adopted by the Germanic peoples as well.

Although the Anglo-Saxon names of the months have not survived in today’s modern English, we can’t say the same about the names of the week. Perhaps I will do a blog post about those echoes from the Anglo-Saxon past that are still in use today.

In the meantime, I hope you have a happy Ðrimilcemonað!

Featured image is found at Medievalists.net, and is the phases of the moon, from an 11th century manuscript.


 

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Society News: The Church

This post is part of an ongoing series, in which I look at various classes of 7th century Anglo-Saxon England society. For previous posts, click the links below. 

Society News: Introduction

Society News: The Kings (and Queens).

Society News: The Upper Crust


I am working my way down through Anglo-Saxon society in these series of posts, and this week I will be discussing the church.  First, just to clarify terms, when I say “the church”, I’m not writing about the average everyday people who might attend a service on Sundays. In particular, I am writing about the men and women who made up the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the seventh century.

The men and women of the Christian church had a bit of a dual identity in terms of where they stood, society-wise. The church was made up of individuals who came from various classes of society, and so there you would find the sons and daughters of kings rubbing shoulders with those who were further down the social ladder. Monks and nuns could be just about anyone, and in theory, so could the abbots and bishops and abbesses, given that they were taken from the ranks of the regular clergy.

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The Anglo-Saxon church at Monkwearmouth, which, together with its “twin” at Jarrow, was one of the earliest monasteries in Britain. The bottom part of the tower and the west wall are from the original building, built in 674 AD. It is where the Venerable Bede lived and worked.

However, it is true to say that many of the higher-ranking clergy also came from the higher ranks of society. Both St. Aidan and St. Columba were from the Ui Neill clan of Ireland, a very powerful and influential clan, and it is likely that both of these men were high-ranking men in their clans, perhaps even of royal blood.  There were exceptions, of course. St. Patrick of Ireland started off as an English slave in Ireland, you don’t get much lower class than that! Depending on which story you believe, St. David may have been the result of a rape, and grew up in a nunnery. Both these men became the most-respected clergymen in their countries, and so you can see that in the church hierarchy a person’s worth was not necessarily tied to their original status in society.

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Beautiful stained glass commemorating Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, found at St. Michael Church, Workington. Cuthbert is one of those whose original status in society is disputed. Some scholars suggest he came from noble birth, others that he came from a poor family. Either way, he became of one England’s greatest saints. Photo from Wikicommons. 

As the Christian church began to get established in Northumbria, it began to amass land, through gifts from kings who wanted to see the church succeed. Most notably, we can see that the monastery Lindisfarne was begun by the Irish bishop/abbot Aidan, who was granted land by the Bernician King Oswald in 634 AD  to start a monastery close to his royal seat at Bebbanburg. Oswald had converted to Christianity while in exile in Dàl Raida, and when God granted him victory over King Edwin in 633 AD, restoring his family’s claim to the Bernician throne, he wanted to make sure his fellow Angles in Bernicia were converted to the new faith as well. As Aidan and his monks spread out through Northumbria in their missionary journeys and people began to accept Christianity, more monasteries were established along with more gifts of land.

The abbots and abbesses in charge of the monasteries (the Celtic Church allowed for double monasteries, housing both monksand nuns in separate buildings, often presided over by women) became local agents of the king, in many cases, although in theory, their ultimate obedience was always to God. The monasteries were centres of learning, operating schools for the sons and daughters of the local nobility as well as for the novices who joined the monastery, looking to one day become monks and nuns themselves. They also were orphanages and hospitals, taking in the sick or homeless. And so the local people had a certain amount of respect for the clergy which was tied to what they did as well as who they were socially, in terms of what family they originated from.

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St. Hilda (Hild) of Whitby, the important double-monastery of which she was Abbess. Hild’s father was the nephew of King Edwin, so she certainly came from an upper class Northumbrian family.

The locals gave tithes to the monasteries in terms of food, services, land rent, etc, just as they gave tribute to the kings each year (the concept of taxes goes a long ways back!). A priest had the same rank in society as a thegn, and a bishop was seen as equal to an eoldorman.

Although the life of a monk or nun was not an easy one, they certainly were able to have a fairly secure life, and had a mainly respected role in society. This may help to explain why the monasteries grew so rapidly in the Early Medieval period, with some of the major ones boasting a population in the thousands. It was a fairly unusual place in that society, where someone from a very low class could end up being as highly respected as a king or queen. This opportunity for upward social mobility may have attracted some to the church. But bottom line, spiritual devotion was still very important. There may have been some of the excesses in the church that characterized the institution later in the Middle Ages and beyond, but at this time devotion to God and obedience to the monastic rule was still very much emphasized.

The next post in this series will not tackle a certain social class, but I will pause for a moment to explain something that was integral to this whole idea of societal ranking: the concept of weregild. 

That post will be coming up in the next month or so…I hope you join me!

 

 

Repost: To Lent, or not to Lent?

Note: I originally published this in 2015, in the first year of my blog, and it didn’t get a lot of traffic. As we have just begun Lent, I thought this post would fit in nicely this week. It explains one of the key controversies in Northumbria in the 7th century. I hope you enjoy! 


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.

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Image from Pixabay

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 diocesan, 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.

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The two tonsures: on the left, the Roman style, and on the right, the Celtic. Or is it? It’s a bit obscure from the explanations we have that come down to us from this time. “Shaved from ear to ear” could also mean shaving all the back of the head and leaving hair in front. We’re just not sure.  Image from Church History for Everyday Folks

 

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.

Photo credit: Celtic Cross at Ballinskellig Priory by Ulrich Hartman

 

Society News: The Upper Crust

A couple months back I started a new series, consisting of posts about the various classes of 7th century Anglo-Saxon society. I began at the top, with the Kings and Queens, and gave you a brief idea of what their roles were at the time.

Today we are going to move a little further down the ladder to the next class, which consisted of three groups: the aethling, ealdorman, and thegn. 

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These terms were not necessarily exclusive of one another, and their meanings can be difficult to interpret with the little information we have. So, again, bear with me as I try to explain something that can be murky at best to even trained historians!

Technically, in the 7th century, an aethling could refer to any high nobleman, but as time went on the term began to get more precise, and by the ninth century it referred specifically to the sons or brothers of reigning kings.

Ealdorman is also a rather fluid term in the seventh century context. It refers to high-status men, including those of royal birth; but generally more so to those who had power and authority independent of the king.

Thegn and ealdorman could be used interchangeably, both referring to the men of high status described above.  But generally, kings would be the top, followed by the aethlings, the ealdormen, and then the thegns. For the purposes of this article, I will refer mainly to thegns, but understand that both aethlings and ealdormen had much the same status and function as thegns in Anglo-Saxon society at this time.

And before we go any further, I should note that it seems as if the word thegn replaced the original term, gesith, or king’s companion (especially in a military sense, but not exclusively). By the time of the Norman Conquest the term gesith  had pretty much disappeared, replaced by thegn. But as for when exactly this exchange of terms happened, historians are unclear.

So, who were the thegns, and what did they do? And how did one achieve this high status?

To answer those questions, you have to get a broader picture of the society in general at the time, which was, of course, agriculturally based. A thegn would have been considered wealthy because he had a considerable amount of hereditary or granted land (or likely both), and perhaps even some property in a town. The land may or may not be in the same counties; it wasn’t until later that land began to get consolidated under one person in one area.

The thegn would be socially connected to important people as well as royalty, and he would be the manager of a large estate consisting of many men under him in status. The thegns were the king’s right hand, literally (in battle) as well as figuratively, doing a lot of the administrative work of the kingdom.

Thegns could hold important positions in the king’s court or household, or be appointed to the office of reeve (or manager) of one of the kings estates (vils); or sheriff (shire-reeve), charged with managing the affairs of a certain area.

All of the thegns had military obligations to the king. They would fight in the king’s battles and would gather men in the fyrd to fight under them.

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Fairly accurate representation of how a thegn might dress for battle. Note that he doesn’t have a sword, those were for only the really wealthy. He carries at his waist the more typical seaxe, the weapon of choice for the Anglo-Saxon warrior. The most wealthy might have some chain mail, and a horse.

Anglo-Saxon culture was honour-based. Loyalty to one’s lord was very important. From what I can tell, a formal spoken oath came along later in the Anglo-Saxon era, so in the 7th century it’s unclear whether or not a thegn would give such a spoken pledge. And perhaps this is why, as I explained last week, that the thegns and other noblemen of the kingdom had the power to withdraw their support of a king and elect another in his place. The relationship between the two was very much reciprocal–if the king was not a worthy warrior and the thegns did not get suitable treasure from their lord in thanks for their loyalty to him, they had the power to replace him.

Treasure in this context was not just shiny things, although those were certainly important. Kings would also grant land seized from defeated rivals, along with slaves.

The thegns and ealdormen had a great deal of power in Anglo-Saxon society. Many people would never see the king, but the thegns held local authority, and were the ones who would be administering justice, arranging for the local bridge to be repaired, or gathering support for the king in his military ventures.

All in all, the upper crust of Anglo-Saxon society had it pretty good, relatively speaking, compared to the class below them, called the coerls. They will be the subject of my next post in this series.

Stay tuned!


Feature image is an artist’s reconstruction of Tintagel, off the coast of Cornwall, in 600 AD, from English Heritage

 

 

 

Everything Means Something, or How To Think Like a 7th Century Celtic Christian

I’m off on a winter holiday, so I thought I would look back in the vaults again and share another post from my first year of blogging. It didn’t get a lot of looks, but it’s one I’m fond of!


I sat on my chair, reading, the afternoon sun pouring through the windows. My dog, a big goof of a Labrador/Newfoundland mix, came into the living room and I watched as he walked around the room, sniffing at things. I had to watch him carefully; at this stage in our lives together he was known to not stop at sniffing, but to take the next step of grabbing some treasure in the hopes of inducing a mad chase around the house as I attempted to get the treasure back. But no, he was content to wander and sniff this time, circling the coffee table a few times as he did so. I watched him carefully, seeing that he was circling the table counter-clockwise, and he did it three times, before settling down, and I thought about “widdershins” – circling counter-clockwise – and the number three. I wondered the deeper meaning of this, what sign could I read in it?  Three is the sign of the Trinity, true. The movements of Creation, in this case my dog, often held deeper meanings than the obvious, so why counter-clockwise? What did it all mean?

It was a brief thought, fleeting, only, and in the next split second I snapped back to my more modern-day mindset. But I treasure that small split-second, because it gave me just a tiny glimpse into the worldview of a Celtic Christian back in the 7th century.

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A Celtic Cross in Knock, Ireland. Photo from Wikicommons

At that point I had been studying the Celts and their unique take on Christianity for a couple of years, on and off, all part of my research for my Traveller’s Path trilogy. I had also started writing the book (which turned into three, and now maybe back into two), and had come smack up against one of the great difficulties of writing historical fiction: how do I, as a 21st century novelist, truly represent the worldview of a 7th century person?

The short answer is, I can’t. Not really. If you think about the gulf that exists between here and then, the changes in the world, the history that lies behind us which the 7th century people could not even imagine, it becomes pretty clear that to write with the “true” point of view of someone from that time and place is nearly impossible. However, I believe that this element of historical fiction is often where the “bad” is separated from the “good”, and the “good” from the “excellent”. When I finish a historical novel, do I feel like I have truly visited that time and place, or do I feel like the characters reacted in a far too “modern” fashion to the events of the day? Writers come their work with lots of ideas about religion, equality, wealth, democracy, etc that, for most people in most of the world’s history, would be utterly incomprehensible. If they are not careful, those ideas can leak through into a story in inappropriate places.

So what is a historical novelist to do? How do you step into the mind and worldview of a time so far removed from your own?

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Well, I don’t want to speak for all historical novelists, as I’m sure every one has a different method, but I can tell you what I did.

First of all, I cheated. Hah. I knew from the outset that I couldn’t do justice to the time and place in a way that I would be satisfied if I tried to make my POV character someone from that time. And besides, the type of novel I  love to read is the portal fantasy, in which a person from our time/place is somehow transported into another. Think of the Pevensies going through the Wardrobe, or even Harry Potter entering Hogwarts. So I decided that my main POV (point of view) character would be from our time, who, on Halloween, has an unfortunate encounter with demons and ends up in the 7th century.

This enabled me to write about the 7th century from a modern mindset, and allowed me to insert some explanations of events or culture that the person native to that time and place wouldn’t think twice about. And I could do that without too much difficulty or awkwardness in the narration.

After I got going, I did some writing from the POV of some of the characters in the book, just to help me get into their heads, so to speak. Some of those made it into the book, eventually. Hopefully they will “sound” realistic to the readers!

Secondly, research. Which goes without saying, of course. I found this fascinating, but also harder than I expected. For example, one of the best ways a historical novelist can learn about the mindset of people who actually lived in the time they are writing about is to read documents and letters actually written during that time period. There isn’t much of that available for 7th century Northumbria. This wasn’t an especially literate age. So while you can extrapolate a certain amount of things, in the end a lot of what the scholars have to say about the lives of ordinary people is speculation. So at times I felt like I was skating on thin ice as I wrote, but I consoled myself with the fact that, hey, this is fiction, after all, not a strict historical survey of the times.

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Well, yes, Google is helpful! But I promise I also did research that involved actual books…

Immersing myself into the people and times of the book, and imagining in fictional form what life was like from their point of view brought me to that day as I watched my dog wander around the living room.

The Celts practiced a polytheistic religion, worshipping many gods which controlled many different aspects of life, especially nature. When they converted to Christianity, this sensitivity to the natural world was enhanced, for now they recognized God Himself, the Creator, as being responsible for everything around them.The pagan Celts would see significance in the direction a crow would fly, so too would the Christian Celt, but in a slightly different way. God created all and directs all, they reasoned, and since God is a loving, intelligent, all-powerful Being, it is obvious that everything that happened was directed by Him to happen. Christians today still believe this of course, but the Celtic Christians took this very seriously. So, in their view, if my dog was circling around the table counter-clockwise three times, he was prompted by God to do so, and therefore there was divine significance in it, and if I would meditate on this, and prayerfully ponder it, the message might become clear.

To live as a Celtic Christian was to live in a world that was hyper-saturated with God’s presence, where the natural world was a form of revelation to us in a way we find hard to understand today. It takes a certain form of seeing which we dismiss now as superstitious, but in reality was far from it. As the title of this post say, basically Everything Means Something, and not just “something”, but in particular, Everything is a message from the God of Creation to us, if we would but have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Which is why, that day in my living room, when I got a tiny flash of what it would mean to live in a world like that, I was profoundly grateful. It was a very small link to some of my ancestors in the faith, and it gave me a glimpse of a world drenched in meaning and haunted with God’s presence in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

I don’t have the ability to stay in that world for too long. My mind has inherited the Enlightenment and the Age of Rationality and Materialism and all the other schools of thought between that time and our own.

But that’s why historical fiction is so much fun. For a short time we can leave our time behind and enter another one, and get a taste of what it was like “back then.” And for the writer, this is both a terrifying challenge and a deeply satisfying exercise, if your words come out just right.


Photo credit: Celtic Cross, St. Patrick’s, Drumbeg, by Albert Bridge

Society News: The Kings (and Queens).

Today’s post is part of a new series up here on the blog, in which I examine the societal structure of 7th century Anglo-Saxon Britain. Last week I introduced the series, and this week I present Part 2, in which we will look at the top of the heap, the kings (and queens). Subsequent posts will follow in the New Year, but not one after the other. So keep your eyes open!


 

In the seventh century, Britain was very much an agricultural society. People lived in “holdings” – a plot of land in which they farmed and raised livestock. Everyone was engaged in this activity, from kings on down to the commoners. Of course, the further “up the ladder” you were in social standing,  the more land you would own and the more you would be able to fob off all the hard work to others.

Naturally, the kings were at the top of the social structure. How they got there, however, may not be as cut and dry as you might think. One fascinating fact about kingship at this time is that succession to the kingship of the various kingdoms did not necessarily depend upon familial ties. In other words, if you were the oldest son of a king, that didn’t  necessarily mean that you would take over as king when your father died.

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Beautiful icon of Oswald, King of Northumbria, available at ByzantineArt

This is because the Anglo-Saxons were warrior kings. A king had to prove himself a worthy warrior to become a king.* When one king was killed in battle (which was the usual and preferred way for a king to die) the king’s closest advisors, consisting of the highest ranked of the nobility and clerical class, would elect a new king. This group of advisors was called the Witan, although there is some dispute about that term today. But for the sake of ease, I will use that term.

Generally, of course, the Witan would choose the new king from the surviving family members of the old king. But the new regent had to be wary, for the Witan could also dispose of a king they felt was unworthy to rule. This happened only rarely, but it did happen nonetheless, and the new king had to keep this in the back of his mind. He had to win the favour of the Witan in order to keep his throne, and he would do that by showing his prowess in battle and showering his warriors with land, battle booty, and other honours.

The Witan would meet at least once a year, and always at the pleasure of the king. It did not have a fixed place to meet, but would happen wherever the king happened to be. At this meeting, called a witenagemot,  laws would be discussed, complaints could be heard, the king would endow people with land or titles, etc.

While not at battle, the king would spend much time travelling his kingdom and accepting foodrent, or feorm, from his subjects. The king had various royal vills, places he would go to during his tours of the kingdom, and it was there that the peasants would bring their feorm to the king. The amounts were based on how much land the peasant farmed, the basic unit being one hide, which was the amount of land needed to support one family. It would include things like honey, loaves of bread, ale, livestock, butter, cheese, and even eels (which seem to be a staple in the Anglo-Saxon diet. Eeww.). In return, the king was expected to keep good order in the kingdom, and deal with the mundane business of keeping roads and bridges in order. The king would have underlings who would do this work for him, of course. He would also take part in judging of legal cases, and also craft new laws of his own, all with the aim of keeping the kingdom working smoothly.

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Yeavering Bell, Northumberland. Located at the northern edge of the Cheviots, near the border of today’s Scotland, this was the site of one of the royal vills of the Bernician kings. At that time it was called Ad Gerfin (“hill of the goats”, for the wild goats that still populate the area). The faint line at the top of the hill marks the site of an Iron Age hilltop fort, the Anglo-Saxon settlement was on the other side of the hill, on a flattened area.  This was an important residence for the Bernician kings, a centre of power in the northern edge of their kingdom. A Roman style auditorium is part of the complex, and you can just imagine Oswald or Oswy holding court, surrounded by his loyal subjects. Image from Wikicommons.

Because his standing as a king depended on how generous he was with his loyal retainers, kings at this time spent a lot of time fighting, as this was the way they expanded their territories and gained treasure. The battles could be small ones; border skirmishes or minor raids into another’s territory. Or, they could be major battles, in which they deposed another king and expanded their own territory even further. It is because of this that most of the kings of this time died in battle, rather than of old age or infirmity. In Anglo-Saxon culture, dying in battle was the ultimate way to die for a warrior. Honour and loyalty to your lord was paramount, even to the extent that if your king died in battle, it was seen as cowardice if you did not die in battle beside him.

At the beginning of the seventh century there were twelve kingdoms, and by the ninth there were only four. This is due to the various kings conquering one another and amalgamating territory into bigger and bigger areas. Of course, although highly important, warfare was not the only way in which kings gained territory and expanded their kingdoms. There was also the tried and true method of treaties and marriage negotiations, whereby a king might marry the daughter or sister or other female relative of a neighbouring king, and/or negotiate treaties with them instead of going to war. War was expensive, and when it involved large numbers of men, it involved a lot of disruption for the ordinary people who would be called up to fight for the king. This would usually be in the summer, when they would rather be making sure they had enough food to eat for the winter.

The Anglo-Saxons had a patriarchal society, so, although women did have freedoms and power that we might find surprising in comparison with women in the later medieval period, the Anglo-Saxon queens were generally not rulers in their own right, nor were they regents on behalf of a under-age son. If a king was killed in battle, the surviving wife and children would often have to flee and seek shelter elsewhere, so that they would not be killed by the new king who would not want them around as usurpers. This is why Oswald and Oswy and their brothers were sent to exile among the Scots (Irish) of Dal Riata after their father Aethelfrith was killed in battle and Edwin took over the Bernician throne.

But the Queens were no milquetoasts, either. Generally they were daughters of kings and held influence and power of their own. And they were definitely not above getting involved in the politics of the day in order to further their husband’s or son’s or father’s ambitions, even, in some cases, going to the extreme. Penda of Mercia’s son, Peada, ruler of Middle Anglia, was said in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have been murdered through the treachery of his Northumbrian wife (King Oswy’s daughter, Alhflaed. Perhaps at the instigation of her father? Who knows, but it’s interesting to speculate!).

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Cynethryth was the wife of Offa of Mercia (757-796 AD). She seemed to have a considerable amount of influence, and her husband even had coins struck in her name, one of the very few medieval women to have this honour. Image from Medieval Girl

All in all, a king had a better standard of living than the common people, but his life was often cut short by war. A bit of a trade-off, I suppose. But one that most commoners would be willing to make, if given the chance!


*Another important qualification for kingship at this time was that the potential king’s  family lineage could be traced back to the god, Woden. Interestingly, this was important for pagan and Christian kings alike.

Feature image is an artist’s reconstruction of Tintagel, off the coast of Cornwall, in 600 AD, from English Heritage

 

Posts in this series: 

Society News: Introduction