The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

There is an important historical document (er, documents…but more on that later…) from the Early Middle Ages that I will confess I hardly looked at when doing my research for my trilogy. Which might seem odd, seeing as I have already explained how there are very few contemporary historical documents from this era. So why did I not dive into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle?

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The statue of King Alfred the Great, by Hamo Thornycroft, erected in Winchester in 1902. I really love this king. I will definitely write a blog post about him some day! 

Part of the reason was timing. This chronicle was begun, as far as we can tell, sometime around the year 891 AD, during the reign of Alfred the Great, in Wessex. So it mainly describes the events after that year, although there is some reference to what happened before that, starting at Caesar’s invasion in 60 AD. But mainly that history was taken from other sources, most importantly from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and so I relied more on Bede’s accounts than the Chronicle, as Bede’s was the more contemporary source.

Another reason was that of setting. As Alfred was King of Wessex, he was most interested in chronicling the history of the kingdom of Wessex in particular. Understandably, of course. So while there are details about that kingdom in the Chronicle (especially regarding those years before the scribes starting writing it) there is not much about the northern kingdoms, which of course I was more interested in. Not to say that there weren’t interesting things happening in the south, but you can only cover so much, right? So, for example, here is the entry about the year that my book opens, 643 AD:

A.D. 643 . This year Kenwal succeeded to the kingdom of the West-Saxons, and held it one and thirty winters. This Kenwal ordered the old church at Winchester to be built in the name of St.
Peter. He was the son of Cynegils.

As you can see, not much there that could help me with my book, which is set in the kingdom of the Angles, in Bernicia and Deira.  In contrast, here is a random entry from the year 978 AD. At this time scribes were writing down what they thought was pertinent information as each year passed, so you get some fascinating tidbits about the year’s events:

A.D. 978 . This year all the oldest counsellors of England fell at Calne from an upper floor; but the holy Archbishop Dustan stood alone upon a beam. Some were dreadfully bruised: and some did not escape with life. This year was King Edward slain, at eventide, at Corfe-gate, on the fifteenth day before the calends of April. And he was buried at Wareham without any royal honour. No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain. Men murdered him but God has magnified him. He was in life an earthly king — he is now after death a heavenly saint. Him would not his earthly relatives avenge — but his heavenly father has avenged him amply. The earthly homicides would wipe out his memory from the earth — but the avenger above has spread his memory abroad in heaven and in earth. Those, Who would not before bow to his living body, now bow on their knees to His dead bones. Now we may conclude, that the wisdom of men, and their meditations, and their counsels, are as nought against the appointment of God. In this same year succeeded Ethelred Etheling, his brother, to the government; and he was afterwards very readily, and with great joy to the counsellors of England, consecrated king at Kingston. In the same year also died Alfwold, who was Bishop of Dorsetshire, and whose body lieth in the minster at Sherborn.

Compared with the terse, factual events of the 643 AD entry, there is lots of drama and intrigue here! The collapse of an upper floor of a building which killed and maimed many of the important counsellors to the king; the king himself murdered and hastily buried without due honour, which prompted a medieval tongue-lashing from the outraged scribe; and the king’s brother, Ethelred, consecrated king with “great joy”. Hmm. My writer’s brain could do a lot with this. The death of the counsellors, prompting some instability in the kingdom? The elder statesmen, who could have tempered the younger hot-heads, gone, allowing youthful ambition to fester? Was it perhaps the king’s brother, with the aide of those younger counsellors, behind the plot to kill the king and so gain the throne? Which is why he was welcomed so eagerly? Lots of things one could research further and write about!

This immediacy of detail is the most fascinating and valuable aspect of the Chronicle. But it is not just one document. The Chronicle is actually several different documents. The original one was begun in Wessex at Alfred’s command, and several copies were made of it and sent to various monasteries across Britain. From there those documents were independently updated as the years went by. In one case the Chronicle was still being updated in 1154! All told, nine manuscripts survive for us to study today.

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This map shows the various places the surviving chronicles were written, and where they are now kept. As you can see, the focus was definitely on southern England.

Of course these documents that make up the Chronicle cannot be seen as being 100% accurate, even though they were being written contemporarily. There are parts where the different versions contradict each other for the same year, and there could be many reasons for that. The scribes would rely not only on their own knowledge of what happened that year, but also on word-of-mouth as to what happened in the rest of the country. So information certainly could get easily distorted. And sometimes, the scribes, having agendas of their own and kings that they were beholden to, would distort information to favour these. Propaganda is a very old art, indeed. The whole idea of objectivity would have been quite foreign to their mind set, so all the information has to be cross-referenced with whatever sources can be found outside of the Chronicle to get a closer handle on exactly what happened.

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The opening page of the Peterborough Chronicle, the latest surviving version, begun in 1120, after the monastery was destroyed by fire. If a monastery’s copy of the Chronicle was destroyed or lost, other monasteries would lend their copies so that the monastery could copy the entries from before the date their copy was destroyed, and begin again the contemporary entries. In this case, although the earlier entries were transcribed in the original Anglo-Saxon (Old English) the newer parts contain some of the first written examples of Middle English.

But even with these caveats, this marvellous undertaking  opened up a window to this era that is invaluable to historians and interested amateurs alike. We owe a great deal of debt to the foresight of King Alfred, who made the original decision to begin to write down the events of his kingdom, as well as to Bede, whose account  likely inspired him to begin a similar work.

The Chronicle is seen as the single-most important document to come out of the Early Medieval period. Our knowledge of this time would be scarce, indeed, without it.

 

Photos from WikiCommons

Wandering Through the Web, Again

Awhile back I posted about some of the places I have enjoyed while trekking through cyberspace. Today I thought it might be interesting to you to have a look at some of the specifically Dark Ages or historical websites I like to visit when I am looking for information on the people and places that make up Northumbria in the 7th century.

  1. Bamburgh Research Project – for approximately twenty years there has been an archeological dig going on at Bamburgh. The team have explored various places on the site, and post about their important discoveries on this blog. Piece by piece they are giving historians a better picture of what this site actually contained throughout the years. Every summer they have spots for students and community members to take part in the dig as well. Oh, how I would love to do that! One of these days I would like to do a more complete post on this important project, so stay tuned…

2. Regia Anglorum – this is the website of an early medieval re-enactment and living history society, specializing in the 9th-13th centuries in Britain. So yes, they make their own costumes and get together to re-inact important battles, etc. Which sounds like quite a lot of fun, doesn’t it? Although their specialty is a time period a couple hundred years after the 7th century, this website has a wealth of information about the early middle ages in general.This is one of the sites I used the most at the beginning of researching my book, when trying to get a handle on understanding practical things that a writer needs to know, such as clothing, culture, social structure, food, customs, and all the other details that bring a book to life. Wonderful resource! And, they also have a permanent site in Kent where they are constructing a fortified manor house (a long hall) in the style of the late Anglo-Saxon period. Another place to add to my ever-growing list of places to visit.

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The gang from Regia Anglorum in front of Wychurst, their Anglo-Saxon hall. Photo from Regia Anglorum.

3. Heavenfield – I mentioned this site before, but it’s worth mentioning again. This site is run by historian and scientist Michelle Ziegler, and it is full of great information about the early middle ages. Particularly if you are interested in plagues and disease, this is the place for you, as she often links posts from her other blog, Contagions.  But disease isn’t her only interest. This page on the site has some really good articles about some of the Early Medieval Kings, all backed by solid research.  Ms. Ziegler can be found in other places around the web as well. I found  this article from The Heroic Age magazine really crucial in helping me to understand the interconnecting relationships of the various kings of the region, and in particular, the section entitled “Politics of Exile” gave me a way into understanding Oswy’s story that I hadn’t had before.

4. Other Dark Ages authors – often authors who write about a particular era will have interesting facts and information about that era on their website or blog. I try to do that here, too! I have found some great information on other author’s blogs, including that of A.J. Sefton,  Carla Nayland, and Octavia Randolph.

There are numerous other web resources out there for research into the Dark Ages. Wikipedia has a lot of information, of course. But one must always be careful when you are using the web for research. Check the sources of the article you are looking at, and always look at more than one source for the information you are seeking. That will help you to avoid misinformation and inaccuracies that would be easy to find if you don’t research properly.

 

St. Patrick’s Breastplate

As you all likely know, St. Patrick’s day was celebrated yesterday, so I thought it would be appropriate to delve into his story on the blog today.

St. Patrick was an important person in the history of Ireland, and many know the legends surrounding him – that he brought the Christian faith to Ireland, that he drove the snakes out of Ireland, that he explained the Trinity to the people using the three-leaf clover.

But his story involves so much more than these legends, and it is actually a fascinating one which includes a small glimpse into the world of the British Isles in the 5th century.

First, a word about dates. There is nothing conclusive to fix the year of Patrick’s birth or death, so scholars disagree about when exactly he lived, other than that he lived during the latter part of the 5th century.

Interestingly, Patrick himself wrote a memoir of sorts, called the Confessio in Latin, meaning “Confession”. It begins,

My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon, his father was Potius, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time. At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others. 

There are several things to note in this remarkable introduction. First of all, Patrick was not Irish. There are debates about where exactly Bannavem Taburniae is, but most agree it is a Romano-Christian settlement in Britain. His father was a deacon, his grandfather a priest. Despite his disclaimer that he is a “simple country person” it seems that his family was probably a higher class family, by these references to his lineage.

We learn from this, secondly, that there was an established church in Britain, that continued even after the Roman troops were recalled away from Britain in 383 AD to defend the Empire on the continent from the barbarian hordes, never to return. During the Saxon invasions in the mid 5th century this Romano-British church (and the society it thrived in) was gradually eroded, replaced by the Germanic polytheism of the invaders. But the church was not completely destroyed, it was pushed out to the fringes in the west and north and continued to flourish among the Celts who were never really conquered by the Romans nor the Saxons, and it is during this period of relative isolation that the Celtic Church and it’s slightly different practices from Roman Christianity began to develop.

But back to Patrick. As the Roman troops left, lawlessness began to seize the island. Legend says the British warlord, Vortigern, invited some Saxon troops as mercenaries to help keep the peace, a plan that backfired as they liked what they saw and invited many more of their compatriots, triggering the Saxon invasions. And indeed, in the beginning of Patrick’s Confession we see an illustration of the lawlessness that was rampant at the time. The Irish swoop down on the unprotected Roman settlements and carry away many into slavery, 16 year old Patrick amongst them.

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Slemish Mountain, County Antrim, Ireland (photo on WikiCommons. This is the area associated with where Patrick was held as a slave. In his Confession he writes, describing his time as a shepherd for his master, Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in once day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain. 

There are many other fascinating tidbits of Patrick’s life to be found in the Confession, including how this slave to the Irish eventually escapes and yet later decides to come back to be a missionary amongst them, but I will save that for perhaps another time.

Today I wanted to share with you one of the legacies of St. Patrick that is not often celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day, and that is the lorica (deer’s cry) or Breastplate prayer. There is a whole legend about why Patrick wrote this prayer which space doesn’t permit me to go into here, but if you are intrigued go look it up!

Now, it is possible that this prayer does not originate from St. Patrick himself. Like just about everything that might originate from this time period, it is difficult to say if Patrick himself penned it. There seems to be some agreement that the prayer actually originates from the 8th century, not the 5th. But wherever it comes from, it is a beautiful prayer that once again is a small window into the worldview of the Celtic Christians from so long ago.

Here is the prayer. It is long, so bear with me. I would encourage you to read it slowly, and let the phrases sink in. I will have a few comments at the end.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.


I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.


I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,

In the predictions of prophets,
In the preaching of apostles,
In the faith of confessors,
In the innocence of holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.


I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.


I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near.


I summon today
All these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel and merciless power
that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul;

Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me an abundance of reward.


Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.


I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

There is much in here that relates both to the pre-Christian beliefs as well as the Celtic Christian worldview. It is in the style of a Druidic incantation, which of course would make sense as the Druids were powerful at the time of Patrick’s mission to Ireland. And you see in there the Celtic Christian’s love of creation (which also relates to their Druidic traditions), with the references to the sun, moon, lightning, wind, etc. And as I mentioned in a previous post, the repetitive phrases you see here are classically Celtic in style.

I also love the glimpse into the world of the author, whether it be Patrick or someone else. Surrounded by pagans, heretics, idolaters, false prophets, poisons, devils, spells of witches and wizards, and even his inward temptations, he seeks God’s protection.

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Ok, that made me laugh. From catholic company.com

But the heart of the prayer is the “Christ with me” section. Here you see a person who seeks to be surrounded by Christ, to see Jesus in every eye that looks at him, who implores Christ to be with him coming and going. This sense of the nearness of God, who permeates all, is also a classically pre-Enlightenment worldview. After the Enlightenment people tended to think of God being “up there”, in heaven. This way of looking at life as exemplified in the prayer is a very different one.

This is a morning prayer –  “I arise today” – meant to be prayed in the morning as the person wakes up and faces the day ahead. Not a bad way to start the day, in my opinion!

So here’s to St. Patrick and his legacy of faith, missionary zeal, and devotion to Christ. He left a great impression on the society of his time, so much so that even all these centuries later we are still talking about him. That, if nothing else, tells me he must have been a most remarkable man.


 

Featured image: Statue of St. Patrick near Saul, by Albert Bridge, on geograp.ie

 

 

 

 

Bamburgh: Seat of Kings

Last year on the blog I  highlighted one of the major settings for my novel, that being Lindisfarne, and I thought it was time to  give you a glimpse at another one.

Bamburgh (pronounced bam-brah, not bam-burg) is located on the north-east coast of Britain, about a half-hour drive south of Lindisfarne, and in fact you can see Holy Island from the upthrust rock formation which mirrors the one at Lindisfarne, and upon which Bamburgh Castle sits. In between Lindisfarne and Bamburgh there are some spectacular beaches and coastline!

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Can you find Bamburgh there, on the upper right? That little axe-shaped island to the north is Lindisfarne.

Bamburgh was originally called Din Guardi, and was the seat of the British kings of Byrneich, from which the latter-day Bernicians drew their name. The invading Angles, led by Ida, conquered the kingdom in 547 AD. His grandson Æthelfrith renamed the fortress Bebbanburgh, after his wife Bebba, and eventually that name morphed into the present-day name of Bamburgh.

Bebbanburgh in the 7th century in some ways would have looked very different than it does now, and in others it is exactly the same. The landscape hasn’t changed, featuring the rocky dolerite outcropping which commands the magnificent view of the country all around it, the churning North Sea lapping at the sweeping beaches below the outcrop, the sandy dunes that line the beach.  The major difference, of course, would be the castle. Present-day Bamburgh has a castle on top of the rocky promontory that is the major feature of the area. The core of this castle was built during Norman times and expanded throughout the following centuries to become the fortress you see today.

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A good look at the rocky outcrop that Bamburgh sits upon. Photo by Glen Bowman, on WikiCommons

 

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Some of that spectacular coastline and beach around Bamburgh. Photo on WikiCommons.

But in the 7th century the building on top of the outcrop would have been an Anglo-Saxon hall, the seat of the king. We can have a good idea of what that hall would have looked like, as it would have been the typical “mead hall” of Anglo-Saxon literature such as Beowulf.

These structures were long, narrow buildings built of wood, with thatched roofs (or wood), two doors (one on either end) and perhaps some shuttered windows. The interior would have been dark, and smoky, with the hearth fire in the middle and perhaps a couple smaller fires inside. There were no chimneys, the smoke would filter out through the thatching, cough cough! There might have been a raised platform at one end, where the king and his family and retainers would sit separately from the rest, which might also included the king’s throne. There also might have been a separate room in the hall used as the king’s residence. You  note all the “mights” in my description – unfortunately since these halls were made of wood, not much archeological evidence survives to give historians really clear pictures of what they were like. But there are some hints in Beowulf and other places that give us a bit of an idea.

Bamburgh Castle today has a replica of an Anglo-Saxon stone chair, based on a 9th century carved stone fragment found on the grounds in the 19th century. This “chair” could be a throne, of a “gift-stool” where the king would sit to be presented with tribute, and it features the typical Anglo-Saxon design work of the times.

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Bamburgh’s stone chair. Thanks to author Matthew Harffy, who graciously shared his pictures of his trip to Bamburgh with me, including this one! 

Long benches lined the walls of the hall, where the king’s thegns and retainers would feast and drink, and even sleep at times!  Ale would be plentiful, and the more high-class mead (honeyed wine). It was a gathering place for the king and his people where battles and strategy would be discussed, victories would be celebrated, and tribute would be both given to the king and shared by him.

There is some discussion in historical circles about the presence or absence of a town or village at Bamburgh during Anglo Saxon times.  In my books I have placed a village there, at the foot of the outcrop, because Bede mentions the “town” being threatened by fire during an attack against it by Penda in 651 AD, saved by miraculous intervention by Aidan. So I feel justified in my imaginary village!

After the Viking invasions the Northumbrian kingdom was destroyed in 867 AD, but the Northumbrian kings still held this fortress as sub-rulers under them, until 993 AD, when the Vikings destroyed it, exactly 200 years after their first invasion at Lindisfarne.

All in all Bamburgh is a fascinating place, with a long and important history. I will definitely be visiting here the next time I go to Britain!


 

Feature photo by Michael Hanselmann, on WikiCommons

 

 

The Carmina Gadelica

One of the delights of writing historical fiction is the fun of trying to get a clear picture in your head of the culture and customs of the time you are writing about as well as the hard facts of what happened and when. Research, in other words. One of the best ways to do this is to read some material written during the time that you are interested in. It really helps you to get a flavour of what the people sounded like and what they thought about the issues of the day.

This is great advice in general to all historical fiction writers, but I quickly learned that the time and place I chose to write about had little of this source material to study. The only surviving literary works from Northumbria in the 7th century comes, in the main, from the monasteries. There is correspondence of a sort between monasteries, but mainly concerned with religious matters of one sort or another. There are works such as Bede’s, and other educational treatises on religious, scientific, or philosophic matters; or others detailing the lives of Kings and Saints, but nothing in the way of material written by ordinary people cataloguing their ordinary lives. The people outside of the monasteries, were, for the most part, illiterate, and so trying to understand the ordinary person’s life in Britain in the 7th century can be somewhat of a challenge.

But the fact that they were illiterate society didn’t mean they lacked knowledge, or even education, of a sort. News was passed orally, along with the traditional stories and poems of the culture. In the Celtic areas of Britain this oral emphasis dovetailed nicely with the Druidic emphasis on the importance of oral knowledge. The people in those areas were used to mesmerizing long pieces of information, whether it be the latest news from Rome or a charm to cure sickness. All these in turn were passed along from one generation to another, and that practice continued even to the nineteenth century.

In the middle of the 1800s, a Scottish exciseman named Alexander Carmichael (a tax man, for lack of a better word), began to realize that many of the oral charms, prayers, songs, and customs of the Scottish Celts were beginning to be lost, and he began to collect them as he travelled throughout Scotland, mainly in the Outer Hebrides, in the course of his work. He eventually published two volumes in 1900, entitled Carmina Gadelica (Songs of the Gaels) but the work was not done and his family and others continued to publish continuing volumes until the last one, which was published in 1971.

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Alexander Carmichael by William Skeoch Cumming – Public Domain, wikicommons

There has been some controversy about the Carmina, accusations that Carmichael edited the original material so thoroughly the historical value was lost. The 19th century society in which he was doing his work had little positive opinion of the Scottish Gaels, seeing them as boorish backwater barbarians, for the most part. It is possible that part of the reason Carmichael wrote the Carmina Gadelica was to counteract this prevailing view. And so, in it you will find statements like this:

During his visit to us, Mr Campbell expressed to my wife and to myself his admiration of these and other men with whom we had come in contact. He said that in no other race had he observed so many noble traits and high qualities as in the unlettered, untravelled, unspoiled Highlander.

Okay, a little over the top, right? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and so I don’t treat Carmichael’s work as entirely historically factual but nor do I dismiss it’s contribution to the understanding of the culture and oral history of the Celts. The entire collection is now online, and scholars are now able to examine in detail Carmichael’s notebooks (written in his native Gaelic). Study continues on this important body of work, and I’m sure more revelations will be forthcoming.

All that aside, however, the Carmina is fascinating reading.  Many of the entries are presented without comment, but my favourite ones are the ones in which Carmichael added a note about who he got the prayer or charm from, or other background information about the entry, such as this one, which is the opening entry in the first volume:

Old people in the Isles sing this or some other short hymn before prayer. Sometimes the hymn and the prayer are intoned in low tremulous unmeasured cadences like the moving and moaning, the soughing and the sighing, of the ever-murmuring sea on their own wild shores. 

They generally retire to a closet, to an outhouse, to the lee of a knoll, or to the shelter of a dell, that they may not be seen nor heard of men. I have known men and women of eighty, ninety, and a hundred years of age continue the practice of their lives in going from one to two miles to the seashore to join their voices with the voicing, of the waves and their praises with the praises of the ceaseless sea. 

Isn’t that lovely? He was a native Gaelic speaker, and you can hear the poetry and rhythm of that language coming through in his comments, written originally in Gaelic, but the translation is provided on the online document.   The prayer (which apparently was a prayer-before-the-prayer!) that follows was this:

I am bending my knee
In the eye of the Father who created me,
In the eye of the Son who purchased me,
In the eye of the Spirit who cleansed me,
     In friendship and affection.
Through Thine own Anointed One, O God,
Bestow upon us fullness in our need,
           Love towards God,
           The affection of God,
           The smile of God,
           The wisdom of God,
           The grace of God,
           The fear of God,
           And the will of God
To do on the world of the Three,
As angels and saints
Do in heaven;
     Each shade and light,
     Each day and night,
     Each time in kindness,
     Give Thou us Thy Spirit.

I don’t know about you, but reading this brings me a lovely, peaceful feeling. It’s the kind of prayer that you have to say slowly, to savour the words and the images it evokes.

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I also love the details which Carmichael gives of the specific person he got the charm or prayer from, as in this case:

This poem was taken down in 1866 from Mary Macrae, Harris. She came from Kintail when young, with Alexander Macrae, whose mother was one of the celebrated ten daughters of Macleod of Rararsay, mentioned by Johnson and Boswell. Mary Macrae was rather under than over middle height, but strongly and symmetrically formed. She often walked with companions, after the work of the day was done, distances of ten and fifteen miles to a dance, and after dancing all night walked back again to the work of the morning fresh and vigorous as if nothing unusual had occurred. She was a faithful servant and an admirable worker, and danced at the leisure and carolled at her work like ‘Forsgag Moire,’ Our Lady’s lark, above her. 

The people of Harris had been greatly given to old lore and to the old ways of their fathers, reciting and singing, dancing and merry-making; but a reaction occurred, and Mary Macrae’s old-world ways were abjured and condemned….But Mary Macrae heeded not, and went on in her own way, singing her songs and ballads, intoning her hymns and incantations, and chanting her own ‘port-a-bail’, mouth music, and dancing to her own shadow when nothing better was available. 

This is the prayer she gave Carmichael:

GOD with me lying down,
God with me rising up,
God with me in each ray of light,
Nor I a ray of joy without Him,
Nor one ray without Him.

Christ with me sleeping,
Christ with me waking,
Christ with me watching,
Every day and night,
Each day and night.

God with me protecting,
The Lord with me directing,
The Spirit with me strengthening,
For ever and for evermore,
Ever and evermore, Amen.
Chief of chiefs, Amen.

These repetitive sentences are classically Celtic in style. Also classically Celtic is the emphasis on the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The symbol of “three” was a powerful one in pagan Celtic times; the legend of St. Patrick explaining the Trinity by showing the people a three-leaved clover is possibly closer to the truth than not.

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Included in the Carmina are these lovely Celtic illustrations, done by Alexander Carmichael’s wife, Mary Frances Macbean. They were adapted from medieval insular manuscripts and stone carvings. This entry is entitled “Thanksgiving”, and the first line is “Thanks to thee, O God, that I have risen today, To the rising of this life itself…”

One of the things you realize immediately when reading the Carmina is how encompassing faith was to the Celtic Christians. They spoke a prayer for everything they did – waking, sleeping, kindling the fire in the morning, smooring the fire at night, walking, milking the cows, shearing the sheep, etc. Their minds and hearts were continually God-ward. For example, here is Carmichael’s entry on the Loom Blessing, along with the first part of the prayer itself:

In the Outer Isles women generally do the weaving, while in the Inner Isles and on the mainland it is usually done by men. In Ulst, when the woman stops weaving on Saturday night she carefully ties up her loom and suspends the cross or crucifix above the sleay. This is for the purpose of keeping away the brownie, the banshee, the ‘peallan’, and all evil spirits and malign influences from disarranging the thread and the loom. And all this is done with loving care and in good faith, and in prayer and purity of heart. 

BLESS, O Chief of generous chiefs,
My loom and everything a-near me,
Bless me in my every action,
Make Thou me safe while I live.

From every brownie and fairy woman,
From every evil wish and sorrow,
Help me, O Thou helping Being,
As long as I shall be in the land of the living.

In name of Mary, mild of deeds,
In name of Columba, just and potent,
Consecrate the four posts of my loom,
Till I begin on Monday.

It’s hard for us, with our Enlightenment-soaked worldview, to imagine this world, where it was as natural to pray over every part of one’s day as it was to breathe.

Equally fascinating are the charms, incantations and customs that Carmichael recorded that surely had their roots far in the pagan past. For example, here is the explanation of the  “Augury of Mary” (in Gaelic, Frith Mhoire):

The ‘frith,’ augury, was a species of divination enabling the ‘frithir,’ augurer, to see into the unseen. This divination was made to ascertain the position and condition of the absent and the lost, and was applied to man and beast. The augury was made on the first Monday of the quarter and immediately before sunrise. The augurer, fasting, and with bare feet, bare head, and closed eyes, went to the doorstep and placed a hand on each jamb. Mentally beseeching the God of the unseen to show him his quest and to grant him his augury, the augurer opened his eyes and looked steadfastly straight in front of him. From the nature and position of the objects within his sight, he drew his conclusions. 

There are pagan hints in all of this – the first Monday of the quarter, immediately before sunrise, bare feet and head – all of these details would have had a specific meaning to the pagan Celts, which were combined by the Celtic Christians into their faith to give it the unique flavour that coloured these people’s lives.

It is all fascinating stuff. I’m so glad Carmichael took the time to record these tidbits of history before they were gone forever. It’s a small window into a long-distant past, in which we can get a glimpse of these people who lived so very long ago.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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A Celtic Cross in Knock, Ireland. Photo from Wikicommons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Reposting: The Thin Places

Note: There’s been some new followers to the blog lately (thank you!) and seeing as I am off celebrating thirty years of marriage to my wonderful hubby this week, I thought it might be a good time to repost one of my earlier posts. Hope you enjoy, and I’ll be back with something new next week! 


Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the Thin Places that distance is even smaller – Celtic proverb.

The ancient Celts had a concept of Thin Places, where the veil between the worlds was easily crossed. The Celtic Christians, whose practice of the faith was a delightful mixture of earthy and mystical, eagerly co-opted this idea of their pagan forefathers into one of their own. The Thin Places, in their reckoning, were places where earth and heaven were particularly close together, where the sacred and the mundane were juxtaposed, where one could as likely encounter the King of Heaven striding across a misty dew-soaked field as a roe deer.

The Hill of Tara in Ireland, Glastonbury Tor in England, and St. David’s in Wales are some of those places, sacred to the ancient Celts and ones which became holy to the Celtic Christians as well. All were known as Thin Places before the advent of Christianity in Britain, and after.

What is it about these places that the Celts found compelling? Natural beauty, to be sure, was a factor, but there seems to have been something else that set them apart. Something  that awakened the longing  that C.S. Lewis described so well many centuries later:

The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from – my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” (Till We Have Faces).

To the Celtic Christians that longing seemed especially poignant in the Thin Places. The lay of the hills or the misty seascape lodged in their hearts like an arrow, piercing through their everyday concerns and bringing them face to face with Heaven.

I knew I had to have some Thin Places for my characters to stumble across in my historical fantasy trilogy, which is set in Northumbria, 642 AD.  It was fun to imagine what function they might have in the books, how my characters would react to them. After all, how does it feel to stumble across one of these places? And would it feel different to a 7th century monk as opposed to a 21st century man?

It’s tempting to think of these places in a pagan sense, as the ancient Celts did, to imagine that the landscape itself is what is eliciting the transcendent effect. In the Christian teachings, though, the Creation is a signpost to the Creator. The heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1). The Celtic Christians saw the Thin Places as ones where that glory was particularly accessible. As St. Columbanus (6th century Irish monk) said, “Understand created things if you want to understand the Creator.”

I have tried to infuse this understanding of the Thin Places into my books, which has challenged me to have eyes that see, to look for the evidence of God in all the natural beauty of the Creation. Is there something of God that I can learn from a tree? The breaking waves on the shore? When I start to slow down and notice, I can see that even the steadfast devotion of my dog carries hints of that greater love that never fails us.

This whole idea of Thin Places is just one of those fascinating details that make historical fiction so much fun to read, and to write. I love discovering these little treasures that not only enrich my story world, but my own as well.

photo credit: “Here Sleep Deer” by Stuart Williams, CC via Flickr

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Your thoughts? Have you ever encountered a Thin Place? If so, why do you think so? Is there any place for this concept in our understanding of the world today?