Cynethryth, Queen of Mercia

It’s not very easy to find information about the women of Anglo-Saxon times. But there are a few women we know about, because their names or histories, or both, have been preserved in works such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But there is only one woman who had coins minted with her name and likeness, in fact she is unique in that aspect for all of Western Europe for that time. She is Queen Cynethryth of Mercia (dates uncertain, possibly died AD 798).

We don’t know a lot about Cynethryth that is certain. It is possible, due to the similarity of her name to the wife and daughters of King Penda of Mercia (Cynewise, Cyneburh, and Cyneswith) that she was Anglo-Saxon and descended from him. There is a 13th century account that she was Frankish, condemned for a crime and set adrift in a boat on the open sea. She landed in Wales and was taken to Offa, where she pleaded that she was of the Carolingian royal house and had been persecuted by Charlemagne. Offa fell in love with her and subsequently married her.

However, this seems a little fanciful, and seeing as it comes from centuries after her life, I’m not sure we can entirely believe it. I prefer the other explanation, myself. At any rate, we don’t have a date for their marriage, but she first shows up in history as being witness to her husband Offa’s charters (documents that set out rights or privileges) after the birth of their first child, Ecgfrith, in AD 770. By AD 780 she is listed on some of the charters as “Cynethryth, by the Grace of God, Queen of the Mercians.”

map-of-england-c-800She appears in some of the correspondence of Alcuin, a cleric who was also a scholar, poet and teacher. He was also somewhat of a diplomat, it seems, who had ties between Offa’s court and the Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne. He almost certainly knew Offa and Cynethryth, and likely travelled between the two courts. In fact there are hints in his letters to others that he also had correspondence with Cynethryth, although no such letters have survived, unfortunately. He refers to her as the “controller of the household”, which echoes the role of the Carolingian queens, who were responsible for the management of the royal household.

This reference to the Carolingian Empire is interesting. Charlemagne (AD 768-AD 814) was certainly the  most powerful ruler in western Europe at the time. Offa was similarly one of the more powerful kings in Anglo-Saxon England, and the two kingdoms engaged in trade and other diplomacy together. In fact, in AD 789-90 Alcuin was involved in negotiations regarding the marriage of Offa’s son and heir, Ecgfrith, and Charlemagne’s daughter. There are no other kingdoms of the time that Charlemagne considered marriage alliances with, except for the Byzantine Empire, which shows the status of Offa at the Carolingian court.

However the marriage negotiations, almost certainly aided by Cynethryth, fell apart due to Offa’s insistence that they be tied to another marriage, that of one of Offa’s daughter to Charlemagne’s son. Kind of a package deal, so to speak. Perhaps Offa was getting too big for his britches on that one, however, and neither marriage alliance came to pass.

Alcuin also urges Ecgfrith, in a subsequent letter to the royal prince, to emulate the piety of his parents, Offa and Cynethryth, so it seems she must have had a good reputation. This was important to Offa, as he attempted to bring legitimacy to his reign and his heirs by contrasting it to that of his predecessor, Æthelbald, who was accused by church officials of stealing from the church and fornicating with nuns, among other things.

Cynethryth was also named as co-ruler with Offa by Pope Adrian I when he wrote to them regarding an ecclesiastical matter. So perhaps it is not surprising that Offa struck coins not only with his image, but with Cynethryth’s as well. However, it is also possible that Offa was styling himself as a Roman-type emperor, as the coins are similar in design to coins that Roman emperors had struck in the names of their wives. Whatever the reason, it still remains highly unusual that a queen consort (one who is queen by virtue of being married to the legal king, not because she is queen herself by birth) have a coin struck in her honour.

Coins themselves were not uncommon during Anglo-Saxon times. Mostly they were made of silver, such as the ones that bore Cynethryth’s image.  The coin depicts a bust of Cynethryth in profile, wearing a tunic with round fasteners at the shoulders. Her hair streams back from her head in stylized waves, and she wears a simple diadem on her head. On the front of the coin, beside her image, is the word EOBA, which was the name of the moneyer who struck the coin (typical of the time). On the back is CENEÐRYÐ REGINA (Queen Cynethryth), and there is a stylized M in the middle for Mercia.

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Cynethyrth’s coin. Image from Wikicommons

Offa died in AD 796 and Cynethryth, like many royal widows of the time, retired into religious life. She became abbess of a monastery of Cookham and also managed the church at nearby Bedford, where her husband was buried. She is still alive two years later, in AD 798, where she is mentioned in a dispute over church land with the Archbishop of Canterbury during a synod that year. But then she disappears from history, and we assume that she died that year, but of course we cannot know for certain.

In the 13th century Cynethryth’s reputation is sullied in a literary history called The Lives of the Two Offas, written by a cleric in the monastery of St. Albans, which had been founded by Offa. In this history, Cynethryth is described as being the evil power behind the throne, urging her husband to kill King Æthelbert of East Anglia, who was a suitor to their daughter. The story recounts that Offa refused to do the deed, so Cynethryth took it upon herself, luring the hapless king to her bedchamber where she and her handmaids suffocated him (or, in another version, thelbert was beheaded).

An entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does briefly mention the murder of King Æthelbert, saying the deed was done on the orders of King Offa in 794. It is possible that the revised history was written by the monks of St. Alban to polish their founder’s reputation and throw the blame on his wife, instead. Easy enough to do when everyone involved was long dead.

Legends aside, I hope you agree with me that Cynethryth was a fascinating figure.  Her coins point to her importance at the time, and give us a little more knowledge about the lives of royal women in Anglo-Saxon times.

Featured image from medievalists.net. Technically this is Queen Emma, mother of Edward the Confessor, but hey, I couldn’t find any images of Cynethryth…


Wilding Twitter Header w Apple Books

A Tale of Two Book Journeys

It’s been a crazy few weeks here at The Traveller’s Path. I’ve been consumed with getting all the details ready for the big launch of my book, which happened on Saturday! Whoop!

Like everything else associated with this writing journey, the whole process of the book launch turned out to be way more complicated than I thought it would be. So, just for fun, this week on the blog I am giving you a Tale of Two Book Journeys. I’ll let you guess which one mine has been like so far….


Book Journey One

The author has a great idea for a book, and after clearing her calendar of all other distractions, her manuscript is written within a year. After carefully vetting through many agent and publisher requests asking for the privilege of representing her, she decides to take her destiny into her own hands and go the self-publishing route.

She sets a date six months ahead for launch day, picking a time that is most opportune for her for the big day. After skimming a few books and blogs on the self-publishing process, she easily compiles her manuscript from Scrivener, the fabulous writing program she uses, formatting it into the three different formats she will need – one for Kindle, one for everything outside of Kindle, and one for paperback.

She then turns her attention to the launch. She calls up the many successful authors she knows for advice on how to do this, and they are happy to oblige, giving her some great tips. She spends a couple months preparing: writing newsletters and blogs in advance for the month before and the month after, setting up blog tours to promote her book, making contacts with influential people who can do reviews and get the book in front of important influencers. She gets some Advanced Reader Copies to people who can read the book and review it, so that right away it will start moving up the sales chart on launch day. She gets a series of count-down newsletters written, and develops a bunch of swag to give away at her book launch: bookmarks, buttons, and even cute little journals featuring quotes from her book, designed by someone who had heard about her book and wanted to help promote it for free.

All of this takes longer than she thought it would, but no worries. Her other job has given her a paid leave of absence, because they support the arts. Her husband and family continually shoo her into her office, urging her to keep on going.

Two days before launch she uploads her book, as per recommendation (just in case there are some problems with getting the file uploaded), but everything goes smoothly, and she is excited to see her book up live. Pre-orders have skyrocketed, her mailing list is booming thanks to all the clever bonus items she has developed for new subscribers. She is giddy with anticipation for the launch.

Launch day arrives, and she can sit back and watch the sales start. Her social media is buzzing, thanks to all the scheduled FB and Twitter posts she had prepared weeks ago. Occasionally she hops onto her social media channels to offer live updates.

The day ends with a successful party, where friends and family gather to toast her success! She’s got lots of activity planned for the next month, which will ensure her book’s placement on the top rankings at Amazon and the other retail sites for a few weeks at least.

She goes to bed excited and grateful, ready to start Book Two!!

Book Journey Two

After wanting to write for most her life, our author finally decides when she turns 40 that she isn’t getting any younger so she better get started. She is raising three kids and has a busy life of work and volunteering, but she carves out time on the weekends and in the evenings to write. She starts with short stories, and joins an online writing workshop. But her ultimate goal has always been a book, so after about three years of learning the writing craft she starts. She has a general idea of a story. It’s so exciting to get going!

After awhile the story fizzles. It’s just not working. Now what? She tries other angles, ignores the prompts to explain WHY her 21st century main character showed up in Dark Ages England, then finally gives in and abandons the story she thought she was going to write to explore the one that showed up, instead.  The story takes unexpected directions, some of which are good, some are not. And why did she decide to write about Dark Ages England, anyway? So much to learn….but it’s fun, and she perseveres.

Finally, about a decade later, she types THE END! Phew! Of course there is revisions needed….a couple more years pass and it’s ready to go. She ships the manuscript around to agents and publishers. There’s not a lot of those for historical fantasy set in the Dark Ages, it seems! She gets a couple nibbles, but she’s getting nowhere fast. After some research she decides to self-publish, and after saving up a large sum, hires a professional editor to guide her through the final revisions.  She eagerly waits to hear the feedback.

Hmm. Editor says it’s a good concept, and the writing is okay, but it’s too long. Only one POV, please. Take the trilogy you have written and make it into one book. Much gloom commences. Finally the author picks herself up and tries to do as the editor suggests. She trims half of book one out, taking out all other POVs except the main character. It’s ok, actually, and she starts to have hope this will work. But she just can’t make the three books fit into one, or even two. Back to square one. Three books it is.

She sends out the revised manuscript to a new Editor, because in the process of revisions she concluded that Editor #1 was not quite jiving with the vision she had for the book. She does a little research, and remembers an editor she had connected with a few years past. She contacts her, and joy! She’s available and interested. Editor #2 does the final edits. Some changes are needed, but it’s doable. Author gets back to work sets a date for Book Launch.

Book Launch date comes and goes. She’s running into trouble with those final revisions, it’s taking longer than she thought. And the tangle of info on self-publishing is getting very confusing. She pushes the launch date back. The second date comes and goes. Oh, this is getting frustrating. She’s got the manuscript ready now, but how on earth is she supposed to figure out all this publishing stuff? She reads endless blogs, books, and listens to podcasts and other experts on what to do and when. She sets another date. She’s sticking with this one, no matter what!

She starts a course on marketing. Great info, but yeesh…the work….She learns about Amazon keywords, reader magnets, blog tours, etc  and starts to try to implement these. Life outside of writing is crazy, and the work on the book suffers. The book launch date is looming. Time to compile her manuscript out of Scrivener (her fabulous writing program). Almost done now!

But wait! She has updated Scrivener to the new version. There was a warning before doing it that the new version handled compile differently than the old one, but she ignored it. She’s been using Scrivener for a long time. How hard can it be?

Gloom. Turns out, very hard. She spends hours figuring out how to do it the new way. Hours. Scrivener forum, online help, emailing Scrivener….finally she gets it done. Super. Now to get it uploaded into Amazon and the other book distributor. Amazon goes great! IngramSpark, the distributor most recommend to handle all other channels besides Amazon, is a different story. Formatting the files is torturous. There may have been a bit of weeping at the kitchen table.

Finally, FINALLY she figures it out with a little help from family, friends, and virtual strangers on the internet, other authors who have travelled the path before her…although one of those sent her down a complete dead end, which wasted quite a bit of time. Not the other author’s fault, entirely hers, but still…

Book launch is a week away! She is so behind…she is supposed to be writing blog posts, newsletters, pre-scheduling Facebook and Twitter posts, but the uploading of files to Ingram has taken another turn, and she’s stuck again. Argh. This has to work for book launch to happen, so she has to let the other stuff go and focus on that. She gets her author proof copy from Amazon – yay! She’s holding her actual book! But there’s a few things that need to change, so she does that, which means that she has to re-upload files to both Amazon and Ingram (super)…

The book has an Acknowledgements section, in which she asks people to sign up for her newsletter. She indicates that they will get a short story featuring one of the characters in the book as a bonus. It was a great idea at the time. But this story is just not coming together. Book launch is looming and she is frantically trying to make it work.

IT’S LAUNCH DAY! Her book is live! Yippee! Or is it? She can’t find it…not everywhere. It’s on the US Amazon store, and then she can’t find it. Oh, it’s back. Phew. But what happened to the paperback? It should be there on the Canadian Amazon store? Ah, it’s there. But it’s certainly NOT on iTunes. That’s one of the places Ingram is handling distribution to. Grrr….no time to look into this now. She spends the morning scheduling a bunch of posts for Twitter and FB to broadcast her big news throughout the day, as well as trying to design and print some bookmarks she wanted to bring to the launch. Nope, it’s not going to work, and she gives up. Ack. She has some friends and family coming for dinner so she abandons everything else and gets supper ready….

What a great time! Everyone is so kind. And then it’s off to the Launch Party! She has a wonderful evening with the people who came to hear all about her book and to congratulate her. Fabulous!

She goes to bed happy and grateful, excited to get to work on Book 2….


And here I am, six days after launch. There is still so much to do, and so much to learn. I’m still working on the bonus short story for newsletter subscribers – it’s almost done! I’m also working on getting the book ready for iTunes. Apologies to those who want to download it for their iPad or iPhones. Apparently there was a section of the IngramSpark website that I missed in order to have Apple distribute my book. Drat. I’m working on that now and hope to have it resolved soon. 

 Phew! I’ve learned so much and I know next time it will be so much easier. I HOPE. 

Thanks to all of you who have stuck with me so far. 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. 

amazon.ca

amazon.com

chapters/indigo

Barnes and Noble

 

 

LAUNCH DATE! 

I know it’s been a long time coming, and I apologize for that.

I’ve given you launch dates, and have had to push them back.

But hold on to your hats, folks, the wait is (almost) over!

Wilding will launch on June 1st!

That means it will be available for sale on that date on all the major online retailers, like Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, etc.

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It has been a looong road to get to this point. And I can’t believe how very hard this process has been. It seems like other authors breeze through it, so I don’t know exactly why it’s been so hard for me. But, now I can say that I have a firm date.

However, as per usual it seems, there’s a couple caveats.

  1. Authors can choose to use Kindle Direct Publishing. (KDP) to make their books available both on the Amazon site and everywhere else. However, that’s is not generally recommended for various reasons I won’t go into here. The recommendation is for authors to use KDP for Amazon and then another distributor for all the other channels such as Kobo, iTunes, etc. There are many other distributors, but one of the ones recccomended most is IngramSpark. So that is what I have done. However, the process of getting the files ready to upload on Ingram is more complicated than for Amazon, and so as of this writing they are not quite ready . I will be working diligently to get them ready, but just in case I can’t, it might be the case that the book will only be available as an ebook for Kindle, and as a paperback on Amazon, on June 1st. There’s only a few minor things to figure out, so I’m not expecting this to be the case, but I thought I should mention it in case someone clicks on Kobo on June 1st and can’t find it.

2.  The second issue could be a little more tricky. My faithful iMac is sick. I love my Mac computers, and I hardly ever run into problems with them, but for about 6 months or so I have been having issues with it. I was really hoping I could limp it along until after the launch, but it’s becoming just about impossible to do anything on it. So I have to take it in to have it looked at. As I live in a small town, I have to wait until the weekend when we are going to the city to take it in, and it will likely take a couple days to diagnose the problem, and then who knows how long to fix it. Needless to say, this is not optimal when I”m getting ready to launch in a couple weeks. Sigh. It shouldn’t impact the launch, as I will have everything stored on the cloud, but mostly I am working on my aging iPad, which makes things harder. I still have little things to fix on my files to get them ready to upload, and I can do that on my iPad, but not as easily. So I’m a little worried how this will impact everything, but there’s not much I can do about it.

But, I’m forging ahead!

June 1st, here I come! 

The Celts: 7th Century Ireland

I have several series going on here on The Traveller’s Path, in which I delve into one topic a little more deeply over many posts.

This post is the third one on the Celts. The first was an introduction to the series, and the second featured 7th century Wales.

Today I’m going to feature the Irish, who in the seventh century, were a force to be reckoned with, indeed. It seems appropriate, as next week is St. Patrick’s Day!

(Just as an aside, you might wonder why the narrow focus on the seventh century. It’s because that is the era I have researched most deeply for my novel, Wilding, and so I feel somewhat more comfortable writing about it. Plus, this is only a blog post. There’s only so much I can fit in!)

First of all, I’ve explained before that the Irish in seventh century England were not actually called “Irish”. The Romans had called them the Scotti, and that name still stuck here and there, but the Irish people themselves did not seem to have a name that they collectively called themselves, or at least not as far as I can see. I think they identified more closely with their clan groupings, such as the Ui Neill, rather than as a people group as a whole.  For clarity’s sake, however, I will refer to them as the Irish, and the island as Ireland, even though it was not called that then.

Ireland in the seventh century was distinctly rural. There were no cities, or towns. People lived dispersed among farms, in kinship groupings.  The society was very much a tribal one, with clans warring with one another for land and especially, cattle, which represented wealth. Individual families would live in circular dwellings, their land ringed by an earthen or even stone barrier to discourage raiders. These hillforts could be small or more elaborate, depending on who lived there.

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A typical Irish ringfort, showing the circular wattle and daub houses, plus the underground souterrain commonly found in structures from this time. Historians believe these were either used for storage or for hiding or escape during war or raids, as many of them were connected by tunnels as well. Image from The Áed. 

There were no roads to speak of. The Romans, with their impressive engineering and road-making skills, had never conquered this part of Britain. Which means Ireland was left without the benefits of their nice, straight roads. People would either walk or ride horses along the cow paths, or travel by boat to get where they wanted to go.

The main source of wealth was cattle, and cattle-raiding was a fierce contest between rival clans. There were some rules around it, such as no man could take more cattle on a raid than he could drive away successfully, and they were not allowed to take so many (or all!) of another’s cattle such that the person would be left destitute. Cattle were too valuable to be used as meat, however. They were a source of milk and dairy products. Other livestock, such as sheep or pigs would be used for meat. Game such as deer or wild boar could also supplement the diet, as well as fish or seafood, of course.

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The green, rugged beauty of Ireland. Image from Pixnio

The society was made up of the túath, a kinship group which lived in a defined area, about the size of a town. These túatha were ruled over by a petty king or chief, who in turn were ruled over by slightly more powerful overlords, who were in charge of their own túath, plus several neighbouring ones. Finally, at the top there were the five most powerful kings, who each ruled over one of the traditional five kingdoms of Ireland.

The practice of fosterage was very common in Ireland at this time. Children were often sent to other families (or monasteries/nunneries) to be raised and educated, only coming home when they had reached adolescence. It served to bind kinship groups or political allies closer together. But it could also have a detriment on the family of origin, as siblings could therefore be virtual strangers to each other, making it easier for rivalries to spill over into feuds and violence.

Irish society was organized similarly to that of the Anglo-Saxons, with the kings on top, followed by the nobles (professional warriors like the Anglo-Saxon thegns) on top, the various ranks of freemen made up of farmers of differing levels of wealth, churchmen and women, and slaves on the bottom. Slavery was big business in Ireland. Irish raiders frequently prowled the coasts of Britain and would swoop down and gather up slaves. St. Patrick was one such victim, a son of a wealthy Romano-British family who was taken by the Irish in a raid. Slaves could also be taken from a conquered enemy.

Additionally, there were a couple of important hereditary castes in Ireland at this time, the filid (poets) and the brehon (judges). Brehon law had been handed down over the centuries, a system of common law, and was learned and interpreted by the brehon. These laws covered all aspects of society, including inheritance or divorce, for example, as well as the more serious crimes such as theft or murder. There were no penal laws, however, in terms of capital punishment or imprisonment. People found guilty of a crime had to pay compensation to the victims in terms of land, or livestock. But not coins, as they were not used at this time in Ireland. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon kings at this time, the Iris kings had no part in making or interpreting laws. All of the legal aspects of Irish life were handled by the brehon, every king would rely on their judgements and interpretations of the brehon law. The brehon could be either male or female.

In the seventh century, Ireland was mainly a Christian society, although it is possible that there were still people who followed the old ways of the druids. But for the most part, the unique brand of Christianity we now call Celtic Christianity was reaching its zenith in the seventh century, responsible for establishing great centres of learning in the monastic schools and creating beautiful works of art, particularly in the form of illuminated manuscripts. The monks were also taking their culture and scholarly mindset with them on their missionary journeys into Anglo-Saxon England and the continent, where they were had a big part in re-converting Europe after the fall of Rome had decimated the Church and society there.

Abbey_on_the_Isle_of_Iona_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1459438

The Abbey of Iona today. These buildings were built in 1938, part of a general restoration of the fifteenth century monastery buildings. Of course, in the seventh century, the buildings would have been small, wattle and daub buildings, which have not survived. Image from Wikicommons 

 

In the seventh century the Irish were not just confined to Ireland. They held territory on the mainland as well, in the kingdom of Dál Riata. This kingdom seems to have been Irish on the east side of the mountains and Scottish on the west, but the lines are a little blurry from this far away in time. At any rate, there was a definite Irish part of Dál Riata, that much we know for sure, even if we don’t know exactly where the boundaries were and how long the kingdom itself lasted. The famous monastery of Hii, now called Iona, was part of Irish Dál Riata, and it was the heart of the Celtic Christian Church.

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This is a handy little map! It shows you the various kingdoms, languages, and people-groups in the British Isles at the beginning of the seventh century. Note Dál Riata, which encompasses part of Ireland and the mainland. 

The common practice of fosterage allowed the Anglo-Saxon æthelings, including four-year-old Oswy, to come to Dal Riata and be sheltered there after the death of their father, Æthelthrith. Æthelthrith had conquered part of Dál Riata during his time as king of Northumbria, and obviously had some ties in that kingdom, as his sons (and wife? I assume?) were sent there after his death, safely out of the clutches of Edwin, who had taken Æthelthrith’s throne. Therefore Oswy grew up in the Irish Christian culture, which he then brought back to Bernicia when he became king. He requested an Irish Christian monk from Iona to come and establish a monastery to begin the work of converting the Angles of his new kingdom. This resulted in the establishment of Lindisfarne, with St. Aidan at its head as abbot.

Ireland has a rich and fascinating history. The seventh century is but one small part of it, but it is an important part. At that time it was a small country with relatively few people situated on the far edge of the known world, but its influence loomed large, creating echoes that still resound today.


Note: If you want to know more about Ireland in the seventh century, check out this fascinating article by Eamon O’Kelly, on Quora. It’s a good summary which gave me quite a lot of information.


My historical fantasy novel, Wilding, set in seventh century Northumbria, will be published in spring of 2019 (hopefully May!). To keep up to date on publication news, and to learn more about my writing in general, subscribe to my monthly newsletter. As a thanks you will get the first chapter of Wilding for free! 

 

 

 

Anglo-Saxon Literature: The Seafarer

The Seafarer is one of the Anglo-Saxon poems found in the Exeter Book. We don’t know who exactly wrote it, nor the date that it was composed. The Exeter Book itself dates from the tenth century, so all we know for certain is that the poem comes from that century, or before. Keeping in mind that in general, Anglo-Saxons heard their poetry rather than read it, this poem is likely one that was originally memorized and then recited, possibly with musical accompaniment, as form of entertainment at the mead-hall.

Like The Wife’s Lament and The Wanderer, other poems I have discussed here on the blog, The Seafarer is an elegy – a meditative poem that shares common themes of loneliness, exile, and the passage of time. In other words, it, too, is rather gloomy!

It is written in Anglo-Saxon, of course, which means that it can be tricky to translate. Anglo-Saxon is a “dead” language – no one speaks it now, nor have they for a very long time. And so to translate it is difficult, as there are disagreements about what certain words actually mean. In the poem itself, portions are damaged, making it even more difficult to understand the meaning.

However, enough of it survives, and there is enough general consensus about the translations, that we can get a fairly accurate idea of the broad strokes of what the poem is about.

seafarer

This is The Seafarer, in the Exeter Book. I never cease to be impressed by the beauty of the uncial writing. If you look carefully, you can see the extra spaces between some of the words, where the reader is meant to pause (see note, below).

It consists of 184 lines of poetry, and is written in the typical Anglo-Saxon alliterative style. Words don’t rhyme, but there is a rhythm to the poem created by having lines of poetry containing the same number of stressed words,  pauses between words, and words that begin with the same letter. All of these things make for a pleasant hearing experience.*

The poem begins,

I can make a true song

about me, myself,

tell my travels,

how I often endured days of struggle,

troublesome times,

(how I) have suffered

grim sorrow at heart,

have known in the ship

many worries,

the terrible tossing of the waves

where the anxious night watch

often took me

at the ship’s prow,

tossed near the cliffs.

Now a modern listener/reader might be tempted to tell the bard to just get on with it already, and, by the way, lighten up, but I suspect these opening words would have a different effect on the warrior in the mead-hall.

He would have been given several clues about what he was about to hear from these words, and perhaps from the music that would accompany the poems. The opening line, “I can make a true song about me, myself,” would have been a signal that the tales to follow were ones that the author of the poem (which may or may not be the one reciting it) actually experienced. The word translated here “true song” is the Anglo-Saxon word, soðgied. A gied was a specific type of song, sung by bards in front of an audience. Often these were heroic ballads about the daring deeds of warriors and kings. But any hope our warrior has that this will be that type of song is quickly dashed, as the “me, myself” indicates this will be a song about the speaker/author, not about someone else.

I wonder if the music for these types of songs might be different than what would accompany the recitation of Beowulf, for example. I picture that particular music to be more stirring, to suit the action of the verses. Perhaps the bards would give these  mournful elegies a slower, more minor key accompaniment? Who knows?

At any rate, music aside, our warrior-listener has the sense that perhaps this might be a song about love lost, or family forsaken. The words, struggle, troublesome times, endured, sorrow, certainly give him the idea that this is going to get sad. But there’s that intriguing word, travel to perk him up a bit. Who doesn’t love a good story about a difficult journey, especially if the person triumphs at the end, even if the way there is hard?

Well, our warrior won’t be disappointed. This poem is pretty much like that. It tells the tale of the seafarer, describing his journeys alone on the cold sea in the middle of winter, picturing all those on land enjoying a night in the mead hall with friends and family while he’s in the cold, all alone.

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A stormy sea at Coldingham Bay, St. Abbs, Scotland.  Photo by Walter Baxter, at geograph.org.uk

But unfortunately our warrior will not get much description of foreign places other than that. This poem is really more about the journey, not the destination itself.

There are hints that the reason why the seafarer wanders the seas, far from hearth and kin, is that he is an exile. This echoes The Wife’s Lament. There’s also the hint that even when the seafarer is on land, and spring is coming, he longs for the life at sea. No pleasing him, in other words.

The Anglo-Saxon language is full of poetic words called kennings, which are two words put together to give deeper meaning to the concept described. In this poem we get a good example of this. Often the author uses the word whale-road, or whale-path, to describe the sea. What a great picture, no?

This is a mournful poem, full of images of cold, loneliness, and dissatisfaction. But it ends on a brighter note. At the end, after describing his lonesome journeys on the sea, and equally dissatisfying time on land, the seafarer says,

Let us ponder

Where we have our homes

and then think

how we should get thither–

and then we should all strive

that we might go there

to the eternal blessedness

that is a belonging life

in the love of the Lord,

joy in the heavens.

This turn towards contemplating the eternal end of man and the joys to be found in Heaven has caused some debate among scholars. Some feel that the end third of the poem, which includes these Christian elements, was tacked on at a later date. Others argue that it was part of the poem from the beginning. Myself I tend to agree with the latter. I think this is another wonderful picture of the time when the society was teetering between pagan Anglo-Saxon beliefs and the Christian faith. The Seafarer contains elements of both, and it shows how the mindset of the people of the time could easily accommodate both beliefs, at least for awhile.

Some scholars argue that the poem is meant to be an allegory of a person’s life, wandering through a hard world with little to bring them happiness, longing for the ultimate joys of their eternal reward. I suppose that you could make that argument, but I’m not sure that the author set out with that effect in mind. It seems a bit too much of a metaphorical approach for our earthy Anglo-Saxons. Certainly that idea is there, in the closing stanzas. But I tend to think that the poem starts in the concrete and then moves to the “lesson” that the author had in mind. Of course, we don’t really know either way.

I think that our warrior, sitting in the warm, cozy mead hall with a mug of fine ale at hand, would have enjoyed this melancholy tale of loneliness and hardship. It would have given words to emotions he would have had in his own life, if not in the same circumstances as the seafarer, but in others just as lonely and hard in their own way. The ending call to contemplate what might await after death would have been a challenge to pagan and Christian alike.

I imagine the bard would have got a fine round of applause and a few coins thrown his way after this one, don’t you? Although he probably would have had to follow this up with Beowulf, I think!


To read the entire poem and the see the original Anglo-Saxon alongside it, click here.


*Just to give you a better sense of this, here is what the first lines look like, with the pauses included (these pauses are included in the written poem in the Exeter Book, that’s how we know where to put them) :

I can make a true song          about me myself,
tell my travels,          how I often endured
days of struggle, troublesome times 

Can you get a sense of the rhythm of the poem? It’s a bit tricky, as our English words don’t sound the same, nor have the same number of syllables as the Anglo-Saxon ones. The translator here has also tried to include some of the repeated sounds (me myself, tell my travels, troublesome times).


My first novel, the historical fantasy book, Wilding: Book One of the Traveller’s Path, set in 7th century England, is coming in spring of 2019. To be kept up to date on publication news, and to get the first chapter of Wilding, sign up for my newsletter! 

Not the Post I Wanted to Write Today

So, it’s February 5th, 2019. The date that I have been advertising for quite some time would be the publication date of my first novel, Wilding

I was expecting to have a post today about the book, and my excitement over publishing, and what’s coming next.

Instead I am writing a post about why it’s not being published today.

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Sigh. I am discouraged, yes, but trying to find some optimism in the midst of it.

Why no publication today? Well, it came down to two factors. First of all, I have to set up a U.S. bank account so that Amazon and other retailers can direct deposit royalty payments there. Because I’m Canadian, that proves to be a bit tricky. I looked into this about a month ago, and although I got the information on what accounts to set up, I didn’t see anywhere detailed info about how long this would take.

I just got back from a two-week winter holiday. I had given myself about a week after getting back to get all the final pre-publication details in place, including the banking. But what I hadn’t thought about was that two of those days were weekend days, and one and a half of the other days were working days. I couldn’t get an appointment in the bank until yesterday, only to find out that I could not get this special U.S. account set up that day, I would have to make another appointment for later in the week. There is an online option to sign up for this account, but that would take about a month for the details to be finalized rather than the couple of days it will take through the bank.

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Yup. Shoulda looked where I was going, right? 

Ack. In order to set up my Amazon publishing account, I have to enter the bank details. So I can’t actually publish until that is sorted out.

Faced with delaying publication in order to get that in place, I thought that I should probably have a think about all this. The other piece, which I’ve known for awhile, is that getting the details ready in terms of having a physical copy of the book available to order was going to take me some time. I knew that I couldn’t have that ready for today, but I was thinking I would go live with the digital copies and add that later, in about a month or whenever I was ready for that part. I know that it’s better, in terms of Amazon’s willingness to promote you, to have as many purchasing options as possible ready to go all at once, but I was willing to make that compromise in order to make my pre-announced publication day.

But seeing as I am going to have to delay because of the banking issues, I thought I may as well delay further in order to get the physical copy details sorted out as well. I’ve never done this before, so in a lot of ways I’m flying blind, researching things online and trying to wade through the weeds. But as far as I could tell it would probably take me at least a month for that, as I have to get the cover designed to add back cover copy, get the MS formatted for print, upload it to the site, and then order an author copy to make sure it all looks right. Plus make changes afterwards if I see things that need fixing. I don’t know how long it will take to get my author copy, because it seems that it might take longer (1-3 weeks?) for them to get it to me because again, I am in Canada.

That takes us to March sometime. Which causes another issue. I have something happening in my non-writing life in March (I think! Not guaranteed….life is so complicated, right?) that will make it impossible for me to work on book-related things. There’s lots of advice out there to take the month after launch and do a bunch of promo things – social media related mainly – and I won’t be able to do that if I’m in the midst of this other issue.

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Argh. So, in order to give myself lots of time, and avoid having to announce a date and then not be ready once more, I’m pushing the launch out until May. Right now I’m looking at May 9th, but I don’t want to give a hard date until I know for certain how all this will play out. Some of it will depend on the timing of the other issue I’m having to work around, and I won’t know that for a month or so.

I’m sorry if I have disappointed you. I know there are some who are really looking forward to the book. Believe me when I say I’m disappointed, too!

Because this is the first time I’ve ever done this, I’m not doing it perfectly, that’s for sure! It’s a huge learning curve. The next time around, it will be much easier.

I will work hard to get everything in place for the launch, so that I don’t have any last-minute surprises. Once that is ready, I can turn my attention to Book 2, which is waiting in the wings. I’m looking forward to that.

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I also hope to work on something special for my newsletter subscribers, as a little “thank you” for putting up with the delays. If you want to get in on that, sign up for my newsletter! You will also get the first chapter of Wilding as a thank you, to wet your whistle, so to speak! Generally you will get something from me once a month, with the occasional special edition. As publication looms you may get more frequent editions. But I won’t spam you, I promise! And I won’t share your email address with any one else.

Thank you again for all your patience, and for your interest in the work I do. I am so grateful. Hopefully the wait will all be worth it for you, once May comes along!

 

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.