Society News: Ceorls

In every society you have the elites and the rest. The percentage of people belonging to those two classes will fluctuate, and those broad categories are almost always broken down into further sub-categories, but in general, that’s how human societies tend to organize themselves.

The Anglo-Saxons were no different. The elites were made up of the Kings, Earldomen, and to a lesser extent, the thegns and the clergy.  These were the powerful people, the ones with wealth and prestige. They owned the most land, and had the political power. The movers and shakers, as it were. It’s impossible to say exactly how many  there were at that time, but suffice to say that they were not the majority. The majority of the people were the lower classes, those who were called the ceorls. We would call these the peasants.

The word ceorl is where we get our English word churl from, but that word has connotations that give us a false picture of this class of people in 7th century England. The ceorls were freemen who owned or rented land, or were the tradesmen who were the silversmiths, weavers, carpenters, etc. They would work the land cooperatively with their neighbours, often sharing the burden of planting and harvest. Which would mean they would live in close proximately to each other in order to accommodate this division of labour, and as well as for protection.

Often there was a lord, such as a thegn, to whom the ceorls would give either rent and/or labour to in exchange for protection. The thegn would also call on these ceorls as a fighting force, or fyrd, when needed.

That is the broad strokes. Looking more closely at the ceorls, you will discover that this class was further broken down into three sub-classes, divided up by how much land the ceorl owned and therefore how wealthy they were.

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Typical clothing of the ceorls. Image from ThoughtCo.com

The highest class amongst the ceorls was the geneatas. These were the peasant aristocracy, who owned the most land, sometimes as much or more as a thegn. They might not have to work the thegn‘s land in exchange for his protection, but they would have to pay some kind of rent or payment for his services. This could be in the form of food or livestock, not just money. They also could be messengers for the thegn, or help build fences around his lord’s land, or even provide entertainment.

Below the geneatas were the kotsetla. They would provide labour on their lord’s land at least one day a week, and up to two or three days per week during harvest. The rest of the time they would work their own land. They could also do other work for the thegn, such as helping during the hunt or coast guarding duties. They could also be called up for  duty in the fyrd. 

The gerburas were the lowest class of ceorl. They owned the least amount of land, or none at all, and in order to survive had to depend on their lord for land they needed to produce the crops and livestock to feed themselves and their families.  In exchange they would work the lord’s land, at least two days a week, and  more during planting and harvest. They would not have much free time to improve their lot, and would have been the ones with the hardest lives in Anglo-Saxon England (excluding the slaves, whom I will write about in a future post).

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Definitely my favourite peasants ever…

It’s important to note that there was opportunity for movement between the classes. If one was born a gerbur, it didn’t mean you would necessarily be one for life, although, as I mentioned, the lower down you were the harder it was to move up.

But in Anglo-Saxons society, hard work and service to your lord, whether that be militarily or otherwise, could be rewarded with gifts of land or booty from the latest military campaign, so it was definitely possible for people to improve their lot in life–if not for them, at least for their children. A hard-working ceorl who fought valiantly at his lord’s side could find himself rewarded generously in land, bumping him up the social scale.

It was even possible for slaves to move up the social ladder,  but that is a tale for the next post in this series! Stay tuned…


Note: this post is part of a series on the class levels that made up Anglo-Saxon society in  7th century Anglo-Saxon England. For other posts in this series, check out the links below:

Society News: Introduction

Society News: The Kings (and Queens).

Society News: The Upper Crust

Society News: The Church

Society News: Weregild


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


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The Celtic Cross: A History

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.

 

 

The Exeter Book

This post is part of an ongoing series of posts on literature from Anglo-Saxon England.

Lnks to other posts in this series can be found at the end of this post. 


 

One of the important sources of surviving literature from Anglo -Saxon England is the Exeter Book. There are only four surviving collections of Anglo-Saxon literature, and of these, the Exeter Book is the oldest, most varied, and the best preserved. I have mentioned this book before in posts on various manuscripts that are found within the book, and I will be highlighting more in the future, but I thought you might find it interesting to know more about the book as a whole.

The Exeter Book was donated to the library of Exeter Cathedral in 1072 AD by Leofric, the first Bishop of Exeter, and there it has stayed ever since. In his will, which details the sixty-seven books and other objects he wished to be donated to the then-impoverished Cathedral, Leofric describes  “a large English book of poetic works about all sorts of things,” which is believed to be what is now known as the Exeter Book, or as the Codex Exoniensis.  Scholars estimate that is was compiled somewhere between 960-990 AD, and is a collection of various works of religious and secular Anglo-Saxon poetry, including The Wanderer. In fact it contains over 1/6th of the surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry. It also includes over ninety Anglo-Saxon riddles. Several of the poems included in the book are much older than the tenth century compilation date; some go as far back as the seventh century. In many cases the Exeter book contains the only known source of these works. All in all it’s the largest known collection of Anglo-Saxon literature in the world, and as such was recognized by UNESCO in 2016 as one of the “world’s principal cultural artifacts.”

One of the most fascinating entries in the book is The Rhyming Poem, which dates to the tenth century. It consists of Old English rhyming couplets, which is quite different from any other Anglo-Saxon poetry, which was done in alliterative verse.

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This is an excerpt from Riddle 24 of the Exeter Book. Can you see the runes embedded in this it? They are towards the bottom.  This is an example of a riddle-within-a-riddle. In this case the answer to this riddle, which is “magpie” is spelled out by those runes. (see my post on Cynewulf the poet for another example of this). There are other riddles in the Exeter Book which also include runes as an aid for the reader who is able to read both Old English and the runes. Riddle 24 is fairly straightforward, but there are others, even with the aid of the runes, are still so obscure that the riddle has still yet to be solved. Cool, hey? If you want to read more about this, check out this fascinating article from the University of Notre Dame , which is where this image comes from. 

The book itself is visually unremarkable, however, especially compared with the beautifully illustrated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Book of Kells.  It was inscribed with brown ink on vellum, likely copied from an earlier version, and has minimal decorations on a few leaves. A couple of initial letters are slightly ornamented. It has lost its original cover as well as the first original eight pages, which were replaced by others at a later date.

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One of the ornamented letters. Image from exeter-cathedral.org

It’s been used as a coaster at some point, you can see the water ring left behind. The early pages are scored through with a sharp object, so perhaps it was also used as a cutting board. The final pages bear some scorch marks. So despite the value of its contents, perhaps its ho-hum appearance was the reason that it was left behind at Exeter Cathedral when a bunch of the Cathedral’s most precious books were donated to the newly founded Bodleian Library at Oxford in 1602 AD. It was obviously not deemed very valuable.

So, it is still at Exeter Cathedral. If you go to visit, you can see it on display there, along with a bunch of other intriguing books and manuscripts, including a Shakespeare Second Folio. But of all of them, the Exeter Book is the greatest treasure.

The Exeter Book still is not recognized today as the important work of literature it is. Most people have barely heard of it, compared with the Diary of Anne Frank or the Magna Carta, both of which have also been recognized by UNESCO and entered into their Memory of the World register.

But that might change. Exeter University professor Emma Cayley began developing an app in 2016 to make the book more accessible to the  public. I checked, but it’s not available yet. I hope it is soon! I can’t help but think that Leofric would be pleased.


Links to other posts in this 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


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Featured image: The Exeter Book on display at Exeter Cathedral. The book is open to The Wanderer. Image from UNR English 440A, photo credit UMD iSchool

Re-post: The Wanderer

Note: this is a fun post from a couple years ago. The blog is on hiatus this week but I’ll  be back with fresh content next week. In the meantime I hope you enjoy this “wander” down memory lane….


One of the poignant moments in Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers is the scene where King Théoden, newly restored to himself after Wormtongue’s enchantment, prepares for the upcoming battle of Helm’s Deep. Have a listen:

Wonderful! Just this little snippet made me want to go back and watch all three movies, but I digress…

The poem that Théoden quotes here comes from Tolkien, but in the book it is said by Aragon, as he introduces the Riders of Rohan to his companions. It has been condensed somewhat in the film, the original version is this:

Where now are the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?

Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?

Where is the harp on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing? 

Where is the spring and the harvest, and the tall corn growing? 

They  have passed like rain on the mountains, like wind on the meadow;

The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into Shadow.

Who shall gather the smoke of the deadwood burning? 

Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning? 

One day I am going to do a longer post about Tolkien, the Anglo-Saxons, and Aragon in particular, but for today I wanted to give you just a little tidbit, illustrated by this poem.

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Ah, yes, Aragon, aka Strider, aka son of Arathorn, aka heir of Esildur, aka…well, stay tuned to the blog to find out!

Tolkien, of course, was an Anglo-Saxon scholar, and in particular he modelled the Rohirrim after the people and culture of Anglo-Saxon Britain.

This poem that Aragon quotes is adapted from one of the poems that survive from that period, called The Wanderer. It begins like this (translated, of course, from Anglo-Saxon):

Often the solitary one 

finds grace for himself

the mercy of the Lord.

Although he, sorry-hearted,

must for a long time

move by hand [i.e. row]

along the waterways,

(along) the ice-cold sea,

tread the paths of exile. 

Events must always go as they must! 

This poem can be found in the 10th century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry called the Exeter Book, but many scholars believe that this poem existed long before then in oral tradition, and could date back to the 6th century.

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Facsimile of the first page of The Wanderer from the Exeter Book (from Wikipedia). This looks like it is written like prose, not poetry, but if you look carefully you will see extra spaces between words, which is the indication of a half-line division of a line of poetry. Also you will see some dots between words, which is also meant to show other half-line breaks.

 

The poem itself is about a warrior who is wandering in exile, having lost his liege lord, kin, and comrades in battle, defending his homeland from attack. It is melancholy in nature, which comes as no surprise – for in the Anglo-Saxon culture with its emphasis on close family ties and allegiance to a lord, to be alone in a strange land with no kin or lord to protect you is almost a fate worse than death.

In the first stanza quoted above, you can see a fascinating mix of the old Saxon religion and beliefs and the new Christian ones. It shows a culture in the midst of transition from the old ways to the new. The opening lines show that the warrior is looking for mercy from God, but at the end of the stanza you see “Events must always go as they must!” 

When you look up this poem you will find that there are many different ways to translate the Anglo-Saxon original, so that last line I can also find translated as, “Fate is established!” or “Fate has been decreed.”

This is the Saxon concept of wyrd, the inexorable fate that binds every person, that cannot be denied. So the poem begins with both the Christian concept of God’s mercy and the Saxon idea of fate. And you will see these two world-views juxtaposed throughout the poem.

In the midst of The Wanderer is the part that Tolkien adapted for The Two Towers. It comes in the poem after the warrior has contemplated the brevity of life, “as now in various places throughout this middle-earth walls stand, blown by the wind, covered with frost, storm-swept the buildings.” After meditating on this the warrior says,

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? 

Where the giver of treasure? 

Where are the seats at the feast? 

Where are the revels in the hall? 

Alas for the splendour of the prince! 

How that time has passed away,

dark under the cover of night, 

as if it had never been! 

It’s all a bit gloomy, I’ll admit, but I can imagine the effect of the scop singing or reciting this poem on the people gathered in the mead hall, snug against the winter storms, surrounded by their kin and secure in their own place in the world. It would have given both a sobering contemplation of the fate of the exiled stranger, and the delicious relief that they were not him. Kinda like the effect of a thunderstorm when you are in bed, you feel extra cozy knowing that you are  not outside in the storm itself.

The Wanderer ends with the counsel, “It is better for the one who seeks mercy, consolation from the father in the heavens, where, for us, all permanence rests.” The Christian world-view has obviously won out for the original writer of the poem. Of course there are other speculations that one could make, for example, that some scribe along the way altered the poem, adding more overtly Christian elements than were originally in there. It’s hard to say, and I guess we will probably never know.

One of the best ways to understand a culture is to read their literature. Unfortunately, as the Anglo-Saxon culture was in many ways an oral culture, we have lost so much of their stories. I’m so glad this poem survived to open up to us the world of the mead-hall, and to enable us to meet the exiled wanderer, journeying alone through the icy mist.


I took my translation of The Wanderer from Anglo-Saxons.net. Hop on over there if you want to see the whole poem in Anglo-Saxon along with the English translation.

And just for fun, click here if you want to hear it read in the original Anglo-Saxon.


Featured photo: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich, from WikiCommons

 

Year of Reading Buechner: Godric

Godric is the second of Frederick Buechner’s books that take place in early medieval England. I reviewed Brendan: A Novel, here on the blog a couple months ago. This month, I turned with great eagerness to Godric.

Godric was published in 1981, so it came before Brendan, which was published in 1987. Probably if I was clever I should have read them in order of publication, but ho hum, oh well.

Godric was published to great acclaim. Edmund Fuller of The Wall Street Journal said in his review, “With a poet’s sensibly and a high reverent fancy, Frederick Buechner paints a memorable portrait.” Similar praise came from The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, and Publisher’s Weekly. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

All this to say that this is a remarkable novel, and again, Buechner succeeds in bringing this all-to-human saint to life, warts and all.

I didn’t realize until 3/4 of the way through this book that this story, like Brendan’s, was based on the life of a real person, St. Godric of Finchale (1065 – 1170AD). Godric was a popular medieval saint, but he was never formally canonized.

His official hagiography (life of a saint) was written during his lifetime by Reginald of Durham, a monk who knew Godric, and who apparently had Godric bless his manuscript before Godric died. There are apparently other hagiographies of Godric as well, but Reginald’s is the most important.

Godric-Finchale

St. Godric of Finchale, from the Cotton Faustina B manuscript, in the British Library. Image from Wikicommons

The bare bones of Godric’s story is that he was born to poor parents, and became a pedlar, merchant, and finally a sailor, plying his trade to places both near and far. It is possible he owned the ship that ferried the crusader king Baldwin I of Jerusalem to Jaffa in 1102 AD to prepare for a siege against Jerusalem.

During his years at sea, he apparently went to Farne Island, where he had a spiritual encounter with Cuthbert, the beloved Bishop of Lindisfarne, who was long dead by this point. This encounter changed Godric. He dedicated himself to Christ and devoted the rest of his life to Him.

Eventually Godric ended up at Finchale, which is around four miles from the monastery at Durham, where Cuthbert was buried. He lived there for around 50-60 years as an extremely ascetic hermit and died as a very old man.

Godric’s story is a fascinating one. That Reginald actually knew the saint makes his hagiography even more interesting, I think. But even so, it is a “official” account of his life, with hardly a wrinkle showing.

Buechner’s account has no such restraints. There are plenty of wrinkles in this tale. Buechner’s Godric is irrascable, selfish, bitter, and guilt-ridden, and he spends much of the book pining for the love of his life, who happens to be his sister.

I’m glad that I have read a couple of Buechner’s other biographical works – The Son of Laughter (the story of the biblical patriarch Jacob), and Brendan. Both of those books I enjoyed, but they gave me some familiarity of Buechner’s penchance for presenting “holy” figures as all-too-human, no halo attached.

As always, the writing in this book is strong. Buechner gives us lyrical and thoughtful prose, filled with sentences that make you stop and ponder. For example, when he takes his mother to Rome to pray for his father’s soul, they look out over the ruined Coliseum and weep.

Why did we weep? I asked myself. We wept for all that grandeur gone. We wept for martyrs cruelly slain. We wept for Christ, who suffered death upon a tree and suffers still to see our suffering. But more than anything, I think, we wept for us, and so it ever is with tears. Whatever be their outward cause, within the chancel of the heart it’s we ourselves for whom they finally fall. 

The book is full of passages like this. It’s a book that wrestles with faith, doubt and devotion, and what those things meant to Godric in his time and place, and gives you pause to ponder what they mean to you in yours. It’s a portrait of a sinful man who seeks absolution and mercy, and who tries in his humanness to overcome his flaws.

It’s a book that requires more than one reading, I think. I will admit that I did not love it upon first reading, but as I flip back over the pages and see all the places that I underlined and marked, I feel a greater appreciation for it. It’s a book that, like Godric himself, I suspect, you have to sit with awhile to really get to know and appreciate.

There’s a reason why this book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. This honest look at one person’s spiritual journey refuses to rest on pat answers or platitudes, yet it remains reverent all the same. In the book Buechner gives Godric more than one encounter with Cuthbert, and as well with a mysterious figure named Gillian, an angel-type being that encourages him even before he meets Cuthbert to embrace Christ. And despite his flaws, and turnings away, Godric’s life is a trajectory towards Christ all the same.

Godric’s story is not told in chronological order. It starts with Godric as an old man, looking back on his life, telling the story to Reginald, and this older Godric’s story is interspersed with the tale of his life as a child and going forward. I think this makes for a richer book, as we get Godric’s interpretation of his life’s choices and reflections on them as the book moves along, which makes the story deeper.

I can’t quite decide whether I found this book depressing or hopeful. It’s a bit more gloomy than the other two biographies, to be sure, and because of that I found it more difficult going. But it’s not all shadows. The light peeks in here and there, sometimes more strongly than others. Godric’s final words in the book, just before he dies, are, All’s lost. All’s found. Farewell. That pretty well sums up  the tension in the book between despair and hope.

At one point Godric remarks, How seemly is a life when told to children thus, with all the grief and ugliness snipped out. I suppose it’s how monk Reginald will tell of mine. 

This book contains all the grief and ugliness, to be sure. But because of that, the light that shines is all the brighter.

It’s a complex book. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s a marvellous portrait of one man’s life, in all it’s glory and shame, and the telling of it asks questions of us. And in the end, that’s the kind of book that means the most.


Other posts in the Year of Reading Buechner series:

2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

Year of Reading Buechner: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation


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Book review: The Private Lives of the Saints, by Dr. Janina Ramirez

The subtitle of this book, Power, Passion and Politics in Anglo-Saxon England, is a clue to why I was attracted to it. There is not a lot of books on Anglo-Saxons out there, and even fewer on the saints of the period. I was very glad to see that someone had tackled this subject!

Dr. Ramirez is an Oxford lecturer, BBC broadcaster, researcher, and author. Her aim in this book is to widen the stories of the Anglo-Saxon saints to encompass the times in which they lived, and to show how their influence in that tumultuous time gives us clues about the culture and society of the Anglo-Saxons themselves. The book was published in 2015 by WH Allen.

Needless to say, this is a subject near and dear to my heart, so it was with great eagerness that I opened the book. I was a little afraid that Dr. Ramirez would start from the seemingly more and more popular societal view that the Christians were the source of all that is wrong in our world (ok, maybe an exaggeration but you know what i mean, don’t you?), but thankfully I did not see that bias in this book. I found it to be a fair, balanced, and ultimately fascinating view of these real people who lived so very long ago.

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I will admit to knowing nothing about Dr. Ramirez before reading this book, but I was delighted to find she is has many BBC TV specials to her name (including one on The Treasures of the Anglo Saxons) , as well as print publications both academic and mainstream. She has her PhD thesis, The Symbolic Life of Birds in Anglo-Saxon England available at her website. Cool! Plus, she does many lectures and hosts a podcast, Art Detective. Phew! Busy lady! Image from her Facebook page. 

The book begins with a short but succinct description of Anglo-Saxon England. as well as an important explanation of the word, “saint”.  Too often we take our modern definition of “saint” – an extra-holy person officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church – to frame our understanding of these early saints. However, in the Anglo-Saxon period, a person was declared a saint by the common consensus of the people, which meant that pretty much anyone with influence and high status could earn this title. And even some without those qualifiers.

The lines between secular and sacred, the worldly and the otherworldly, are incredibly hard to define in the early medieval period. A king could be a saint, and a bishop could rule like a king. The idea that someone could be declared a saint simply due to popularity is something that is hard to grasp from our twenty-first century perspective. 

Ramirez gives us a good example from modern times to help us understand how this worked. Princess Diana was a royal figure, who lived in the public eye, and who was known for her good deeds and kindness. Her death sparked worldwide mourning on an heretofore unseen scale. In Anglo-Saxon England, Diana would likely have beeen heralded as a saint (with the caveat that of course, a saint in the early medieval period would also have the added mantle of Christian piety attached). But her example gives us an understanding of the mixture of public status, power, and virtuous living that seized the imaginations of the Anglo-Saxons and prompted them to confer the title of “saint” on various people in their society.

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Princess Di, a modern-day saint? Image by John McIntyre on Flickr

The book looks at the important Anglo-Saxon saints in chronological order, starting with Alban, Britain’s first Christian martyr in the 3rd or 4th century,  and ending with Alfred the Great (died 899 AD). Along the way she covers many of the saints that I have discussed on the blog, such as Brigid, Patrick, Columba, Cuthbert, Hilda, and Bede; plus a few others that I haven’t got to  yet: Alban, Gregory, Wilfrid, and Alfred.

In each chapter Dr. Ramirez gives us a thorough understanding of the times in which the person lived, and attempts to go beyond the official hagiographic account of the saint to explore what this person was really like, as well as their impact on their society. Along the way we learn fascinating details about the Anglo-Saxons and the incredible diversity of people, religion and culture that made up the mix of life at that time.

Dr. Ramirez gives us a really good principle to follow when studying the past, and it’s one that resonated with me. It is exactly this principle that has made it easier for me, as a novelist, to tackle the sometimes daunting task of bringing an era that is so far removed from our own to life:

…it is a central premise when studying the past to remember that humanity never changes beyond recognition, and regardless of the seeming differences between people past and present, basic human interests remain largely the same. 

It is this connection to the humanity of these sometime plastic and daunting figures that makes The Private Lives of the Saints so interesting.

I was happy to see that my own ramblings on these subjects on the blog lined up fairly well with what Dr. Ramirez presents in her book. As I have said before, I am very much an amateur on these subjects – I’m a novelist, not an academic historian – but I have done careful research on the times and people of the Early Medieval period in order to present that era as accurately as I can in my novel.

Dr. Ramirez does take a different view of Brigid than I did, which is fair. She come down on the side of the theory that Brigid was not a real person, but her cult grew out of a Christianizing of the goddess Brigantia. I won’t quibble with her. I think there are compelling cases to be made for either view. And I would certainly not recommend you skip that chapter if you disagree with her on that, because if you did you would miss one of the highlights of the book for me. The chapter on Brigid contains a wonderful explanation of the history of monasticism and how the Celts looked to the early Desert Fathers for inspiration as they established their monasteries in extreme, harsh locations. This chapter is well-worth reading, even if you might not agree with her ultimate conclusion about Brigid.

I also loved that Ramirez included a couple of favourites of mine who are not officially names “saints” but whose influence cannot be denied, that being the Venerable Bede and Alfred the Great (I haven’t done a post on him yet, but I definitely will!).  They were highly important figures not only in their day but also in our own. We owe a lot to them both, and in this book you will find out why.

I highly recommend The Private Lives of the Saints. I learned a lot, but never get bogged down in dry history. Dr. Ramirez has brought these people and the era in which they lived into bright relief. I really appreciate her careful and thorough scholarship throughout, as well as her knack of making it all so very interesting.

I give this one 5 stars. Perfect for lovers of history, especially of the Anglo-Saxon era, but really for anyone who wants to understand more about these fascinating people who have shaped the world we live in today.


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Society News: Weregild

Before I go any further in my series on the different parts and classes of 7th century Anglo-Saxon society, I thought I should pause for a moment and tackle the subject of weregild.

I don’t blame you if that term is unfamiliar to you, but it is vitally important in this whole discussion of Anglo-Saxon society.

In previous posts I have written about the various levels of that society, starting with the kings and queens and working on down to the ealdormen and thegns, and then to the church. It’s pretty obvious that the king would be the top, right? After that, though…how exactly is class measured? How do we measure it today? Generally, in terms of wealth, I suppose, at least here in North America. It’s an interesting topic once you start to think about it. In terms of the Early Middle Ages, wealth is certainly part of the equation. But with a bit of a different twist.

In my post on the church, I stated that a priest had the same rank in society as a thegn, and a bishop was seen as equal to an ealdorman. How can we be that precise?   Well, it’s relatively simple, and it all ties back to the concept of weregild. 

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Some of the Anglo-Saxon enthusiasts from Regia Anglorum. Pretty much the coerls depicted here, I would say. No one is dressed well enough (or has the proper weapons) to be thegns or ealdormen. Image from wildwoodtrust.org

Before we discuss that in too much detail, let your imagination do some work for a moment and think about a society that had no police, no courts, no jails, and in many ways, no laws. At least not any that were written down. What would keep that society from devolving into anarchy? What would happen if someone stole from someone else, or worse, murdered someone else? Well, likely, revenge of some sort would be in order, don’t you think?

In the early 7th century, King Ethelbert of Kent recognized that the blood feud, a practice inherited from Anglo-Saxons Germanic forebears, was a problem. These feuds could go on for generations, and got more and more bloody as the years and generations passed. So, he introduced the concept of weregild, basically, “man-payment”. This was a fine that was levied on those who committed crimes, to be paid to the victim or the victim’s family in compensation. This applied to the crime of murder at first, but eventually expanded over the centuries to include other crimes such as theft or injuring another, or even adultery or desertion from the army. In some instances part of the payment would also go to the king or the lord, in recompense for the loss of the victim’s service.

These fines were not equal, though. They varied according to your rank in society. So, the king’s weregild was the highest, of course, and then the payments decreased the lower down in society you were situated. All classes in society were protected by weregild, except for slaves. However, even in the case of slaves, a nominal payment was made to the slave’s owner, but more as a recompense for lost property than as a valuation placed on their lives.

It is also interesting to note that the weregild itself varied among the kingdoms which made up England in the Early Middle Ages. So in the seventh century, the weregild for a nobleman in Kent was 300 shillings, and that of an ordinary freeman (a coerl) 100 shillings. In West Saxon, the corresponding sums were 1200 shillings and 200 shillings. However, the value of a shilling was not standard across the kingdoms, so these sums are not necessarily equivalent.*

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Anglo Saxon shillings. Image from coinweek.com

There were precise rules set out for the payment of weregild, which covered the time period over which the payment would be made, as it was not a lump sum given all at once, but rather a series of payments over time. In theory, if the weregild was not paid, the victim’s family could then resort back to the blood feud or to taking revenge in whatever way they saw fit.  This did happen on occasion, but in general it seems like the weregild was the preferred method to compensate people for the various crimes committed against them.

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In The Lord of the Rings, Isildur reveals in his journal that he took the One Ring as weregild for the deaths of his father and brother in battle. Oops. 

The concept of weregild served to not only provide a way for victims of crimes to be compensated without resulting in the shedding of blood or other vendettas, but it also cemented the person’s rank in society. It was gradually replaced by capital punishment starting around the ninth century, and disappeared entirely by the twelfth.


*For example, in Kent, a shilling was the equivalent of the worth of one cow. Other kingdoms gave the shilling the same value as one sheep.

Want to know more about Anglo-Saxon society? Here’s my previous posts in this series: 

Society News: Introduction

Society News: The Kings (and Queens)

Society News: The Upper Crust

Society News: The Church

Featured image: copy of a gold coin from the reign of Offa, King of Mercia, from Wikicommons. (If you look closely you will see the coin has Arabic writing on it…there is a story behind that, and maybe I’ll tell it one day!)