The Venerable Bede, Part 2

I have written before about Bede, the 7th century Northumbrian monk who wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In that work Bede gives us a rare glimpse of the history and times in which he lived.

Bede is sometimes called the Venerable Bede, which is a title given to those a little lower than full Sainthood in the Catholic Church.* His work on the Ecclesiastical History would alone be enough to ensure his fame, but the wonderful thing about Bede is that he is the author of many, many books and letters on a wide-ranging scope of topics, including biblical commentaries, science, mathematics, geography, hymns, poetry, and school textbooks. In fact, when you add up all that he wrote, the total number is over forty.

You may wonder how we know that all the books purported to be by him are, in fact, actually written by him. This is a good question. But in fact we can state exactly what books he wrote with complete accuracy, as at the end of the Ecclesiastical History, he included a list of the other books he had written. For a handful of these we have no extant copies available, unfortunately. There are also a few manuscripts that are attributed to Bede that are not listed in the Ecclesiastical History, because they were written after that work was completed. Some of these are disputed, but others are confirmed as Bede’s work after careful analysis of the works and comparisons to his other writings.

Besides the Ecclesiastical History, the works of Bede that really fascinate me are his scientific treatises, De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things) and De Temporum (On Time). “Scientific” is not exactly the right term for these books, as of course “science” as we understand it was not something that Bede would have been familiar with (ie the scientific method comes much later, in the 19th century). But at any rate these works are attempts to understand and explain the natural world and how to calculate and understand the passage of time, and as such, they are extremely valuable windows into the mind of a 8th century Christian monastic scholar.

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Part of a 10th century copy of De Natura Rerum. Image from British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog

These books were written in AD 703**, early in Bede’s career as a monk. He would have been around thirty years old, teaching in the monastery of Monkwearmoth-Jarrow, and he had just been ordained as a priest. These books are a distillation of all that he knew about these subjects at the time. In AD 725 he expanded On Time  and wrote another book, named De Temporum Ratione, or On the Reckoning of Time. The best guess is that De Natura Rerum and De Temporum are likely his first literary works.

Bede was not writing about these things in isolation, of course. His books rely heavily on a previous work that was much admired at the time, also called On the Nature of Things, by Isidore of Seville (AD 560-636). He also compiles and draws upon the Classical understandings of these topics from works of Pliny and Augustine, among others.  But there is also original thinking in these books. They are not merely a regurgitation of what had come before.***

The books present a thoroughly Christian view of cosmology, of course. Part of the reason for Isidore’s book was to combat the superstitious practices and beliefs brought about by the solar and lunar eclipses in AD 611 and 612. Isidore, and Bede after him, sought to bring an understanding of the order and rationality of the Creation, and that things such as eclipses or other phenomenon such as volcanoes or earthquakes were part of this natural order, ordained by God, not the works of demons.

The other reason for Bede’s books were to explain how to calculate time, and most importantly, how to calculate the date of  Easter. Easter is a movable date based on the cycles of the moon. It was vitally important in the Christian church to be able to calculate when this most important day would be recognized, and so a complicated method of doing so, named computus, was developed. Bede’s influence, through these books, on the development of these mathematical and scientific calculations cannot be understated.

The first book, On the Nature of Things, includes fifty-one short chapters, starting with the fourfold work of God (Chapter One), the formation of the earth (Chapter Two), what the world is (Chapter Three), and the elements (Chapter Four). He goes on from there to cover a wide range of topics, in which he starts from the heavens and works his way downwards. He has chapters on the stars, the planets, the moon, eclipses, comets, rainbows, lightning,  hail, snow, the sea, the tides, the earth, earthquakes, and many, many more.

I wish I had a copy of these books, but I am forced to rely on a few quotes and snippets here and there that I have found on the web, as well as studying some of the commentaries that explain what is in the books. One of these days I will have to order a translation of my own. But one thing is abundantly clear. The depth of Bede’s intellect and his understanding of the natural world is truly astounding, especially when we consider the times in which he wrote.

I have written before that too often our perception of the so-called “Dark Ages” is skewed. The people then (at least the educated people) understood a lot more than we give them credit for. For example, Chapter 46 of On the Nature of Things is titled, Why the Earth is Like a Globe.” Yup. Even in back-water Northumbria at the beginning of the 8th century, Bede knew the Earth was round. Fascinating, hey? He also discusses the effect of the moon on the tides

I found a quote from Chapter Three, “What the World Is”. Bede states,

The world is the whole of everything, which is constituted by the sky and the land, the four elements in the form of a completely rounded sphere: fire, by which the stars shine; air, which all living things breathe; waters, which surround the land, encircling and penetrating; and the land itself, which is the middle and core of the world, hanging unmoving, with everything turning in equilibrium around it.

Again, note the “rounded sphere”.

On Time/The Reckoning of Time are Bede’s explanation of the calculation of time, and include a fascinating descriptions of the ancient calendars of the Hebrews, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, and Anglo-Saxons. They also include detailed overviews of the seven days of Creation, lunar cycles, Paschal calendars (Bede explains the different ways to calculate the date of Easter and presents his reasoning for the method he prefers), and the Six Ages of the World (based on Biblical narrative; the First Age being from Adam to Noah, the Second Age from Noah to Abraham, the Third Age from Abraham to David, etc).

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A beautifully illustrated 13th century copy of De Temporum, showing zodiac symbols. In this book Bede goes into detail about how to calculate the course of the sun and moon through the zodiac. Image from Medieval Manuscripts Blog .

When you consider Bede’s historical treatise and all his other works, including these wonderful books on the natural world and time, it’s no wonder that he became one of the Early Medieval period’s most famed and studied scholars. It is precisely because his books were so popular that we have so many of his works available today. Many copies of the books were made and they circulated widely over not only England, but the Continent as well.  Because so many were made, it increased the opportunity for them to survive.

These books point to a truly remarkable and fascinating man. I’m so glad my research on Wilding, my historical fantasy book, brought me to his doorstep, so to speak, and that I can now share him with you!


*Those given the title “venerable” in the Catholic Church are deemed “heroic in virtue”, but in order to be declared “saints”, they must also either be a martyr, or have been proven to have miracles associated with them.

**We know this because at the end of On Time, Bede included a world chronicle from the beginning of time at Creation to his present, where he states “At this time Tiberius is in the fifth year of his rule…” This refers to Tiberius III Apsimar, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from AD 698-705.

***In fact, Bede is accused of heresy in later years because of some of the content of On the Reckoning of Time. Perhaps the subject of a future blog post…who knows?

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New Anglo-Saxon Era Discoveries

Over the summer I was alerted to two important discoveries from the Anglo-Saxon era in England, and I thought you might be interested in hearing about them, too. It’s so exciting that we are still discovering important artifacts from this long-ago time. Every discovery that is made adds tremendously to our knowledge. It’s tantalizing to wonder what is still out there, awaiting our discovery…

  1. “A British version of Tutankhamen’s Tomb” 

The Prittlewell Royal Burial Site, dubbed “a British version of Tutankhamen’s tomb” by researcher Sophie Jackson in the Independent (May 9, 2019),  is not exactly a “new” discovery. In fact, it was discovered way back in 2003, when archeologists did some investigations of a site in Essex, in the south of England, that was due to be part of a road improvement. Anglo-Saxon era graves (as well as other indications of Roman and even older human habitation) had been found in the area in the 1880s, 1920s, and 1930s, so they knew that some archeological investigation needed to be done before doing the road work. But they certainly did not expect to find what they did: an intact burial chamber which included objects of such quality and amount (over 110 objects!) that they knew it had to be a high-status, likely royal, personage who was buried there. In fact, it is only the second intact (i.e. undisturbed) royal burial chamber ever found in England, the first being Sutton Hoo. An amazing discovery, indeed.

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This was the mound, before excavation. It’s right in-between a busy road (the one they were going to widen) and a railway line. Somehow it survived intact, for over 1400 years. Image from independent.co.uk

You might wonder why this burial mound, discovered and excavated sixteen years ago, is making news now. It’s because it has taken that long for the archeologists, historians, and scientists to study the grave goods in order to figure out exactly what was in the grave, and to whom the grave belonged. That analysis is now complete enough that in May they were able to reveal what they have discovered so far, much of it new material that hadn’t been reported up to this point.

The chamber was originally a wooden chamber, but the walls and ceiling had gradually collapsed, filling the contents with decayed wood remains and soil. It’s about 13′ square, and is the largest chambered tomb ever found in England.

One of the new pieces of information was the educated guess as to who, exactly, was buried in the tomb. The acidic sandy soil had completely dissolved any remains such as bones, leaving only a few teeth, but even these were so degraded scientists could not find any DNA in them. Originally the dating of the tomb came from dating the gold Merovingian coins found in the tomb. But even that is not as easy as you might think, due to various complicated scientific reasons I won’t go into here. But based on the coins, scientists had thought the individual had been buried there in the early 7th century, and guessed that it could either be Sæberht of Essex, the first Christian king of Essex, or his grandson, Sigeberht II.

But in May, the museum announced that they had been able to do some carbon testing on the tomb, and discovered that it was built earlier that those dates, likely in the late 6th century, from AD 575-605, and they theorize that the occupant could have been Sæberht’s brother, Sæxa, who died before his brother.

Whoever he was, he truly deserved the title “King of Bling”, given to him at the time of the tomb’s discovery. The amount and quality of the grave goods are extraordinary.

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An artist’s rendering of the burial chamber, with the objects in the approximate place in which they were found. The body was in an ash coffin, which is shown open here, but would have been closed. Both body and coffin had been destroyed by the acidic soil, but the iron brackets that held the coffin together remained. Image from independent.co.uk

Here are a few of the objects found in the burial chamber:

A lyre – the instrument itself had completely decayed, but it left behind a stain on the soil, as well as some of the metal fittings. CT scans and other investigations revealed the form of an intact Anglo-Saxon lyre, the first time a complete form of one of these musical instruments from this era has been found.  It’s evident that the instrument had been snapped in two at one point and then repaired, showing its value to the owner. Either this man played a lyre or it, along with the drinking horns and flagons, were representative of the feasts at the mead hall he undoubtedly hosted.

A sword – the reason why we know the person buried there is a man is because of the sword (although, to be fair, we have also just recently discovered that a Viking burial long thought to be a man because of the armour and weaponry was actually a woman, so…). This iron blade of the sword has been degraded, but tests reveal it was a typical pattern-welded sword of the time, of the type that would only belong to the very wealthy. Unusually, it was placed outside the coffin, on the floor, in a leather/sheepskin holder and wrapped in cloth. This could demonstrate the clash of cultures/religion at the time. The man was a Christian, as indicated by the gold foil crosses placed over his eyes, but he was buried as a Saxon warrior, with grave goods and weaponry. Placing the sword outside of the coffin could indicate those who buried him were aware of the contradictions involved in this.

Glass goblets – four beautiful blue and green glass goblets.

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See what I mean? Beautiful! Image from Flickr

Copper flask – for holding water, this came from Syria, and was often brought back to Europe from Christian pilgrims. Other Mediterranean objects in the grave include a silver spoon and a copper basin. These objects, plus the Sri Lankan garnets on the lyre fittings, show just how cosmopolitan the “Dark Ages” could be.

Folding stool – stools of this type from this era have been found on the Continent, but this is the first one to be found in England. It was possibly a “gift seat” , where the lord would sit while dispensing gifts and/or judgement.

Gold coins – from Merovingian France.

Gold foil crosses – two small crosses, likely placed over the eyes of the deceased.

Painted wooden box – the only painted wood from Anglo-Saxon times found to this date. Only a fragment remains. Inside the box were some objects of special significance to the owner, including a silver spoon, a comb, an iron knife in a holder, fire steel, and some material which might have been undergarments! The featured image above is of the fragment of the box, from independent.co.uk

Shield and other weaponry, including what is thought to be a standard, for carrying heraldry to battle.

And much, much more.

It is truly amazing. If you want a more in-depth look at some of these objects, check out this fascinating link from the Museum of London Archeology. 

Or, if you are so lucky to be in England, you can see the objects yourself at the Southend Central Museum.

2. A hoard of Anglo-Saxon/Norma era coins, valued at over $6 million USD.  

Yes, you read that right. $6 million USD. Wow. It’s a smaller find in size than the Staffordshire Hoard, but worth more in value, because some of the coins are very rare and therefore very valuable.

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The find has been named the Chew Valley Hoard, after an area in North Somerset. These are just some of the coins found. Image by Pippa Pearce, on BBC.com

The hoard of silver coins was found in January 2019 by metal detectorists Adam Staples and Lisa Grace in a field in Somerset (exact location is being kept quiet, for obvious reasons). The find consisted of 2,571 late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman era coins. The really rare coins are the mint condition King Harold II coins. Harold II only reigned for eight months, and died at the Battle of Hastings when the Normans conquered England, so up until this point, few examples of his coins have been found. It is theorized that these coins were likely buried sometime after the battle, probably before 1072.

The detectorists were actually training some friends on how to use their machines that day, and it was one of the friends that found the first coin, one depicting William the Conqueror. The rest of them were found by Grace and Staples.

Not a bad haul for an afternoon’s work, I’d say! Work continues by researchers on analyzing and cataloging the coins. I’m sure we will be hearing more about this stunning find in the months and years to come.


*Fun fact: After the excavation and all the contents of the tomb were taken away by the museum for further study, protestors moved in at the site to prevent the original road-widening plan, as the proposed route would go over the burial site. Protestors camped there for five years (!) until 2009, when an alternate plan was decided. Phew!


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Penda: King of Mercia

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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…


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Anglo-Saxon Literature: The Husband’s Message

As I explained in a previous post, The Exeter Book is a manuscript dating from around 1050 AD, and contains many poems and riddles from Anglo-Saxon England. I’ve written about some of the material in the Exeter book before on the blog as part of my series on Anglo-Saxon literature, and I wanted to return to it today to tell you about the fascinating poem called The Husband’s Message.

The Husband’s Message is by an unknown author; just like the rest of the material in the Exeter Book it is anonymous. It has about 53 lines and is the sixtieth entry in the book. It follows immediately after The Wife’s Lament, and some scholars think the two poems might be linked. They speculate that The Husband’s Message could be the male side of the story of The Wife’s Lament.

Unfortunately the poem is near the end of the Exeter Book, which is a portion of the book that has been most damaged by fire, and therefore some of it, especially portions of lines 2-8, have been destroyed.

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Here is the poem, in the Exeter Book. The mark is a repaired burn, caused by someone laying a burning stick on the vellum (oops). Image from Asymptote Journal. If you click on the link to this online journal you will also find another link there where you can hear the poem read out loud, in the original Old English, as it was meant to be heard. Cool!

But even with that, we can still get a pretty good idea of what the poem is about. The “voice” of the poem is a piece of wood, possibly a rune-stave, which is a stick with runes carved on it. It is a message from a lord to his lady, urging her to come across the seas and follow him into exile, as he has been driven away by a nasty feud in which he obviously was the loser.  He urges her to remember the vows they have spoken, and tells her that he has made a nice life for himself over the seas, and wishes to have her at his side again, sharing in his wealth and being his lady, giving  out the gold and other booty to his warriors and loyal companions in his mead-hall.

The first two lines of the poem read:

Now in private, I will reveal

The kind of wood I grew up from as a young offspring

Right away we enter one of the scholarly controversies about this poem. There are different types of poems in the Exeter book, some are elegies, such as The Wife’s Lament, or The Wanderer but others are riddles, in which the poem is spoken from an object’s point of view, and the reader (hearer) is challenged to guess what the object is. In fact, the sixty previous entries in the Exeter Book are all riddles of this type. Because the poem starts this way, some feel that it might be a type of riddle.

The next lines, 2-8, are:

In me men . . . have other land
to establish . . .
salty seas . . .
Very often in a boat I . . . sought
where my lord . . .
over the high seas.

Drat. The ellipses are the places where the words have been destroyed by fire damage. So you can see the difficulty of determining who or what the “speaker” of the poem is, exactly. Obviously he/it has been on a boat, travelling the high seas, seeking his/its lord, or perhaps with him.

Most of the rest of the poem is legible. The next few lines make things much clearer:

Indeed, he who engraved this wood instructed me to ask
that you, adorned with jewels, yourself remember
in your mind the spoken vows
that you two often spoke in former days,
while you were permitted to occupy a home
in the cities where mead was drunk, inhabit the same land,
and show your friendship.

Aha. The speaker seems to shift slightly. Perhaps now the poem is in the voice of the person carrying the rune-stave, or whatever piece of wood that has the message carved on it. Or, it’s possible that this is still the wood itself speaking. Either way, the speaker goes on to remind the lady of the love that the two previously shared, and expresses hope and confidence that she will join him again, where he waits “beyond the ocean-path”.

It is this joyful confidence that sets this poem apart from the more gloomy nature of the elegies. The speaker lays out his case for his wife’s* return, reminding her of their love, and seems confident that she will go to him.

The final stanza of the poem contains one last surprise and mystery. Here is the text:

In accordance with the past vow of the two of you,
I hear
S joined together with R
and EA and W and M to declare an oath
that he would keep the pledge
and the vow of friendship as long as he lives,
that which in former days you two often uttered.

Those letters, S,R,EA, W, and M, are not written in the Old English Latin alphabet, but are indeed Anglo-Saxon runes. We are back in riddle territory again, harking back to other poems such as X which contained runes in the midst of the poem, a puzzle to be solved. In this case, the runes stand for: sigel, rad, ear, wenn, and monn, which mean sun (or sail), road, , sea (also could be ear, or grave), joy and man (could also be the rune for day).

Are these direction for the lady, written in a code only the two of them know? Perhaps. If the husband is indeed in exile, hiding from his enemies, he wouldn’t want them to chance upon his exact location, would he? But let’s keep in mind this is not a literal letter, it’s a poem, or a riddle, and this extra puzzle at the end was part of the experience of the poem for the hearers.

These Anglo-Saxon poems are so wonderful, as they give us a glimpse of so many facets of their culture that we would not know, otherwise. And they give us a glimpse of how they think, too, with their love of puzzles and riddles, and the flair for the dramatic.

This poem is a small treasure in a whole book of treasures. I like to imagine the monk or scribe who wrote these down and preserved them in this book. We owe him (or her, if it was a nun!) a great debt!

*It’s possible the lady is not his wife, but a lover, or someone who has vowed to marry but has not done so. But the most likely description would be wife, especially when we see the picture included of the lady handing out the booty in the mead hall alongside her lord.  That is the job of the wife, the highly valued companion, not a lover or friend.


Note: I got a lot of this information from the website Shmoop, which does a great job of analyzing poems and other works. If you want to dive even further into an analysis of  The Husband’s Message, click on the link! And don’t be scared off by fears of a “scholarly” analysis. Although they do a great job of the analysis, their style is readable and fun, and is aimed at teens. For example, here’s part of the summary of the poem:

Our speaker in “The Husband’s Message” entices his ladylove with the promise of lots of bling and fun parties at which she’ll be the belle of the ball. But his trump card is definitely the fact that he and his lady have a history together. They spoke vows. Were those just empty words? Did they mean nothing to her? Mix this guilt-trip in with a little bit of flattery and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty darn convincing let’s-get-back-together text message.

See what I mean?  🙂

Featured image of the Exeter Book is from exetercatherdral.com


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Letters from the Dark Ages: Berhtgyth

It’s that time of year when letters and cards might actually arrive in your mailbox. Real letter, hand-written by a friend or loved one who lives far away. Isn’t it wonderful? One of the sad things about this modern age is the pen-and-paper letter has gone the way of the dodo, for the most part.

Of course, this is a relatively new phenomenon. Up until even thirty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to get a letter from someone far away. And even in Anglo-Saxon England, in the midst of the so-called Dark Ages, there were people who communicated to one another via letters.

This was not an easy task, and, just like today, not exactly a common one. There wasn’t the convenience of a centralized postal system which would handily take care of getting your letter to its destination. You had to find someone who was going to the letter’s intended destination, and then someone at that destination had to get that letter to the recipient.

Couple these difficulties with the fact that most people could not read and write, and you can easily see that for the general population, this means of communication was not possible. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but for most of human history, when people left their homes to go to faraway places (in those days, that could even be relatively close by, to our minds), it was likely that they would never be heard from or seen again by their loved ones.

Having said all that, it’s amazing that some letters from the 7th century survived through the centuries. They are  fascinating, as they give us a first hand view of one person’s life at the time. Since these close and personal glimpses of life in the Early Middle Ages are few and far between, these letters are very instructive to us today.

The one group of people who could easily write and send letters were those in religious life, as they learned to read and write as part of their vocations. And because there were often travellers between the various monasteries, they had a way for letters to be carried back and forth. So, it’s not surprising that the letters we have are mainly from Church men and women.

And seeing as the Church was engaging in missionary work at this time, establishing monasteries on the Continent, there were even opportunities to send letters back and forth across the ocean.

Today I want to introduce you to Berhtgyth, a Anglo-Saxon nun who grew up in Wessex. She eventually went overseas to Germany as part of a mission to that country, likely with her mother, Cynehild, and taught in the region of Thuringia, Germany. She likely worked under the leadership of the Abbess Leoba. At the end of the 8th century* she  wrote some letters to her brother, a monk named Balthard, who at the time of receiving the letters could have been Abbot of the monastery at Bad Hersfeld, in central Germany. The letters themselves aren’t clear exactly where Balthard was, but it is evident he was some distance away, either in Germany, or perhaps even back in England.

We don’t have Balthard’s side of the correspondence; just three letters that Berhtgyth wrote to him have survived. You might wonder why. Although it seems she was a learned woman and accomplished teacher, Berhtgyth was, by all accounts, an ordinary nun, doing the work set out for her as part of an English missionary circle which included the much more famous Boniface, the celebrated English missionary to Germany.

According to a later, 11th century Life of St. Boniface, Berhtgyth’s mother Cynehild was a maternal aunt of Lull. Lull (or Lullus) was the eventual successor of Boniface as Archbishop of Mainz. Because Boniface and Lull were both important figures, the correspondence between the two of them, as well as letters to and about Boniface, were saved for posterity. In the midst of that bundle of letters that have been saved (probably compiled by Lull), you will find these three letters from Berhtgyth to her brother Balthard. I will touch on why this might be so later.

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Statue of St. Lullus, in Bad Hersfeld. Image from Wikipedia

The letters are short, but remarkable. To give you a taste, here is the opening of the second letter:

Most beloved brother in God and dearest in the flesh, Berhtgyth salutes Balthard in the name of Christ. 

My soul is weary of my life because of our fraternal love, for I am alone, left behind and without help of kin. For my father and my mother abandoned me, but the Lord has taken me up. Many are the congregations of water between me and you, yet let us be joined in love because true love is never divided by the borders between places. But still I say that sadness never recedes from my soul, nor can I rest my mind in sleep, because love is as strong as death. I therefore ask you now, most beloved brothers to come to me or have me come to you, so that I might see you before I die, because your love never leaves my soul. Brother, your only sister salutes you in Christ. 

All three letters follow this theme. In them, Berhtgyth begs her brother to come and visit her, and expresses her loneliness and sadness at being abandoned by her parents (by their death). In fact, as you can tell from this excerpt, she does lay it on rather thick. However, we have to keep in mind that this type of overblown rhetoric only seems that way to our  modern eyes. In some of the other literature we have looked at, such as The Wife’s Lament, you can see hints of this same style, so it’s not like this was unusual for the times.

In the third letter, we get a glimpse of some of the ways letters travelled from one person to another, as we see that Balthard has obviously replied to Berhtgyth’s letter.

It may be known to you that your missionary words came to me through a faithful messenger named Aldraed,  together with gifts that are embraced with intimate love. And now I confess to you that with the help of God I long to fulfill all that you instructed me, if your will might deem it worthy to come to me, because I cannot in any other way suppress my fountain of tears.

Aldread has brought a letter back to her from Balthard, along with some gifts. It almost seems like the package of a letter and the gift maybe passed through more than one hand, finally getting to Aldread and thus to Berhtgyth. And at the end of the letter, she reciprocates:

A little present, although small, still loaded with great love, which we send to you by the faithful messenger named Alfred; that is a ribbon.

Try to look past the “fountain of tears” to see the woman who wrote the words, who has given up husband and family to serve Christ as a nun, and who is missing her only kin, her brother, longing for a glimpse of home in a foreign land. They write back and forth, sending gifts via a messenger or messengers they can only hope and pray will reach their destination. It’s really rather touching, don’t you think?

There is some speculation that these letters were included with the bundle of Boniface correspondence as a type of “form letter” that others could use in their own correspondences to use in similar circumstances. If you were missing your brother/sister/aunt/uncle/mother/father, etc, you could pull out these letters, personalize it with the appropriate names, and you would have a letter already done for you. Keep in mind that letter writing was an important skill that was taught in Classical times, and although we don’t know for sure, there are hints that it could have been taught throughout the Early Medieval period in England as well at the monastery schools. It was expected that letters would follow certain forms and include specific parts. It would have been handy to have examples of a “good” letter to work from for busy church men and women.

At any rate, no matter why there are there, I’m really glad these letters still survive. We get a small glimpse of an ordinary person of the times, in her own words. That it is a woman’s voice we are hearing is even more remarkable. These letters are a small window into this long-ago time, one far removed from the battles, warriors, and saints we usually see.

But I wish we knew whether Balthard finally visited Berhtgyth or not, don’t you? I really hope so!


Featured image from medievalists.net

If you want more in-depth info on Berhtgyth’s letters, have a look at Berhtgyth’s Letters to Balthard, a scholarly paper from the University of Iowa by Kathryn Maude.

 

Anglo-Saxon Elves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Bald’s Leechbook. Image from The British Library

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

 

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