Star Wars and 7th Century Monks

If you start a conversation about the Star Wars: The Last Jedi, you are likely going to get some conflicting opinions on whether or not it was a worthy addition to the Star Wars canon. Or maybe you won’t. Does anyone think it was? Heh. I digress.

I will admit that I was less than impressed by the movie. Could they not show some originality in the screenplay? How many times must we see the same battle scenarios over and over again? And don’t get me started on Kylo Ren. Ugh.

But there was one part of the movie that had me absolutely giddy with delight. That was when Rey and Luke are together on the ancient Jedi temple on Ahch-To. We saw a glimpse of this at the end of the previous movie, The Force Awakens, but in The Last Jedi we are treated to more of the scenery and buildings that make up the old temple as Rey tries to convince Luke to join her in the fight against the First Order.

Trust me, it wasn’t because of the plot or acting that made me so happy at this part of the film, although both actors handed their scenes well enough. No, it was the setting that gave me such delight.

That is because this part of the movie was not made up of CGI enhanced buildings or scenery. This was filmed in a real place, the beautiful little island of Skellig Michael situated off the south-west tip of Ireland, and it has a place in the story of seventh century Ireland.

In real life, this wasn’t a temple, but it was a religious site, a monastery built in the Early Medieval period. The little “beehive” building that Luke lives in and the stone steps that Rey climbs are all real features, built by the monks themselves.

Skellig Michael is a small island (54 acres), consisting of two rugged vertical peaks, with a couple of flatter spots in-between peaks where the structures are located. There are three bays on the island where the monks could land, depending on the time of year and the weather, and there are stone stairs leading up to the buildings from each of them. Today only one of them is safe (ish) for use. The island is named after the archangel Michael. The word skellig comes from the Old Irish Gaelic word sceillec which means small or steep area of rock.

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This is a daunting place to live. Howling, near-hurricane force winds are common, and the seas around the island are often rough. Modern visitors are only allowed on this World Heritage Site in the summer. No children are allowed, as the stairs are too steep and dangerous for them. Visits are limited to six hours, and only 180 people are allowed at one time, to protect the structures.

The monastery itself consists of two oratories (places where the monks could pray) a cemetery, crosses, cross-slabs and six domed beehive cells, given that name because of their resemblance to beehives. There is also the remains of a later medieval church.The cells and oratories are all of dry-built construction and the church is of mortared stone. There is also a hermitage on another part of the island, possibly built in the 9th century. This would have been a  place for visitors to stay who might have come there for retreat, or for the abbot or another monk to withdraw even more from the world.

It is thought that there would have been maximum twelve monks and one abbot on the island at one time. The monks would likely have shared their beehive cells. The cells  vary in size, and some may have had an upper loft. It’s hard to know exactly when the first monks came there to establish the monastery, called St. Michael’s. The monastery could have been founded in the 5th century, as I mentioned earlier, but the first historically reliable reference to it comes from the 8th century, in the recording of the death of “Suibhini of Skelig”. I imagine he was likely a monk or an abbot of the monastery.

One wonders how the monks survived in this remote, wild, harsh environment. There is some evidence of gardens on the small areas that allowed for growing. Of course fish, birds, and eggs were plentiful. Making their way up and down those steps would have been a challenge, but it was a journey the monks would have to make any time they went on/off island or down to the spots where they could fish.

The cleverly constructed dry-stone cells are good shelter against the harsh winds and rain, but it must have been a cold, miserable place when the freezing winds howled and the sleety rain lashed against their walls. The monks were made of sterner stuff than I, but this place suited the aesthetic bent of these Celtic Christians very well. It was isolated, harsh, and difficult. A perfect place to stretch one’s dependence on God.

It’s not an easy place to visit, even now, but I sure would like to try. Another place to add to my places of pilgrimage for the next time I get to Great Britain.

I’ll leave you with a bonus clip of Mark Hamill discussing the filming of Star Wars on Skellig Michael.


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The Celts: 7th Century Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The green, rugged beauty of Ireland. Image from Pixnio

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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


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


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

 

 

 

Society News: Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England

In this series of posts about what Anglo-Saxon society was like in 7th century England, I have been covering the various classes and people groups including Kings and Queens, the upper class, the church, coerls, and others. 

Finally we have reached the bottom of the rung, that being the class of slaves.

Slavery is common to all societies throughout history, and it was no different in 7th century England. People could be bought and sold as slaves at that time, and in some cases they even sold themselves into slavery.

So, it was not an usual thing. Perhaps the most famous slave of the Early Medieval period in England was St. Patrick. HIs Confessions detail his early life. Born as the son of a wealthy Christian Romano-British family, while he was a young boy Patrick was captured by Irish raiders who carried him back to their island home where he worked as a slave. It was while shepherding his master’s sheep that he had the vision from God that propelled him to escape and make the dangerous journey back home to England. Eventually he came back to Ireland as a missionary and became Ireland’s most famous saint.

Patrick’s story illustrates just one of the many ways you could find yourself sold into slavery. Raids between warring kingdoms were common, and along with the cattle or sheep that might be taken, sometimes people were taken, too. Another way to become a slave would be to be part of a losing group of fighting men in a battle. Those who weren’t killed would either be taken as slaves and sold for profit, or kept as hostages, if they were part of a noble family who could afford to pay for their release. However many of the warriors would generally be killed in battle, as it was shameful to survive if your lord was killed. This meant it would be the surviving women and children who would then be taken off as part of the battle booty and sold as slaves.

A person could also be born into slavery, if their parents were slaves. There was also penal slavery, in which a person could be made a slave as a punishment for a crime committed.

Finally, you could sell yourself into slavery, as mentioned above. This might sound like an odd thing to do, but actually it was a way to survive in times of famine or other difficulty.   By selling yourself and your children into slavery you were ensured of a roof over your head and a food to eat. Keeping in mind that everyone in this society worked hard, from the kings and nobles down to the lowly slave, it meant that often the amount of work you would have to do did not differ much between slaves and freemen and women. The idle upper class did not come along until centuries later.

Bede tells us that the Augustinain mission to England came about because Pope Gregory saw some fair-haired children in the slave market in Rome. Taken by their fair hair and curls, he inquired where they were from. Hearing they were Angles, he declared, “Not Angles, but angels!” and resolved to send missionaries to their land to teach them the Gospel of Christ. Image from Lawrence OP, on Flickr

Slaves were the one class of people who had no weregild, but that didn’t necessarily mean they were unprotected by law. In fact, slave-owners had a duty to feed and care for their slaves, which is why selling yourself into slavery was a viable option for those who faced starvation otherwise. Slave-owners were also legally responsible for the actions of their slaves, so owning slaves came with some heavy responsibilities.

Although they had no weregild, slaves were valuable as property, and so if someone killed or injured a slave, recompense would be made to the owner. However, killing your own slave had no legal ramifications, but it was still seem as murder under church laws and therefore if the owners were Christian, they would face the sanction of the church. The Church also frowned upon selling slaves outside of England, as they would be exposed to heathen religions and ways, and so as Christianity flourished the selling of slaves overseas lessened, but of course never stopped completely.

The Church also often would buy slaves on the market and free them as an act of charity. Often these slaves would then enter a monastery or convent, which would make sense, as they could be far from home and family who could shelter them.

The laws of Alfred the Great in the 9th century shows us that slaves were allowed some time off on certain feast days, and that slaves were encouraged to better their lot by selling gifts they may have recieved in order to eventually buy themselves out of slavery. We don’t know for certain, but I would suspect that customs were not much different in the 7th century, even though they had not been codified by law.

Slaves were also freed as acts of compassion and religious observance by thier owners on special feast days, or as part of the owner’s will. The ceremony to free someone was a solemn affair, with witnesses and legal documentation.

The amount of slaves during the Early Medieval period in England was considerable. By the time of the Norman conquest and the Domeday Book was compilied, around 10% of the population were slaves. However, the Viking occupation perhaps increased that number over what it had been in Anglo-Saxon times, but we can’t say for sure.

Life was hard in the 7th century, and slaves had it harder than most. But they had food, shelter, some protection by law and the Church and the opportunity to better their lot, and so I suppose one could say they had it better than other people who became slaves in other times and places. 

Still, I suspect they would rather be at the top of the ladder than at the bottom, if they had the choice. 
 

 

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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The Celts: 7th Century Wales

At the time of the 7th century, the Celtic peoples had been pushed by the Anglo-Saxons in to three main areas of Britain. These correspond roughly to what we call Wales, Ireland, and Scotland today. In the next few posts on my series on the Celts, I will focus on each of these three places in turn.

I’m going to start with Wales, because that lovely little piece of the world holds a special place in my heart, as my mother was Welsh, born in the charming town of Mumbles, on Swansea Bay in the south of Wales.

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Sigh. The rugged beauty of Northern Wales. Image from pixabay

Wales in the 7th century was, of course, not known by that name, although the name “Wales” does originate from this time. It comes from the word, wælas, meaning foreign, strange  in Anglo-Saxon. The word wælisc therefore meant foreigner, or stranger, and it was the word they would use to refer to the Celtic Britons who lived in England at the time. Which is ironic, seeing as the Britons were there first. It gives you a sense of the hostility that simmered between these two groups of people.

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The Welsh flag. The dragon has been used on flags in Wales for centuries. Some suggest it came from the draco military standard brought over by the Roman legions, and was adapted by the prominent Romano-British families thereafter. The green and white stripes were additions of Henry Tudor in the Middle Ages. 

The Welsh called themselves the Cymry (CUM-ree), which loosely translated means, fellow-countrymen. Today the word for Wales in the modern Welsh language is Cymru (also pronounced CUM-ree). But in the 7th century, the place we now call Wales did not have one name.

That is because, like the rest of Britain, Wales was divided up into several kingdoms. These were very much based on tribal and kinship allegiances rather than territory, although of course they did generally correspond to one area or another. The borders were fluid, due to the penchant of the kings’ attempts to expand territory by raids and warfare against other tribes/kings. The history of the various kinship groups and the territories they held are rather murky, and it’s difficult to say for certain a lot about the specifics of Welsh in the Early Middle Ages because of this. Certainly the people of Gwynedd in the north were a prominent group at this time, and we also know some about the kingdoms of Dyfed and Gwent. The kingdom of Powys was not referred to by that name in this time, although it certainly existed, under a different name. The name Powys does not surface until the 9th century.

Wales at this time was very much a rural society, with no large civic centres to speak of. The kings didn’t govern in the way we think of it, they were mainly the chief warriors who expanded the territory of the tribe/kinship group and who doled out the rewards of conquest to his faithful retainers. They might also give judgements on disputes, but only in consultation with the local elders. The local head of the kinship group would be the one to whom people looked to for the day-to-day stuff of making life work.

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The Bodvoc Stone. This dates from the late 6th century-early 7th century, and was originally set on a prehistoric barrow on Margham Mountain in South Wales. The inscription reads “The stone of Bodvoc. He he lies, son of Cattegern, great-grandson of Eternalis Vedomavus.” It’s the earliest known family lineage in Wales. Image from britain express.com

Wales was a Christian society at this time.  There were several monasteries in Wales, the most famous being the one founded by St. David, in the south. The Welsh followed the practices of the Celtic Christian church, which had some differences from the Roman Christian practices, most notably in the style of tonsure and the dating of Easter. There some other, cultural differences, too.

Just as they were never completely subdued by the Romans, the Welsh were never completely subdued by the Anglo-Saxons who followed them. The mountains of the north were a formidable barrier to any invaders, and the fierce independence of the Welsh made them difficult adversaries in any battles. Various of the Welsh tribes/kingdoms did form alliances with certain Anglo-Saxon kings, most notably with Penda of Mercia, in their fights against the Northumbrian kingdoms, and there was some intermarrying that went on as well. They also had some alliances with their neighbouring Celts in Ireland, and would make war with them on the Picts or Anglo-Saxons at times.

For the most part, the Britons who lived in the place we now call Wales were a strong, independent people, well used to defending their territories and their customs against all who encroached upon them. Which is the reason why Wales survives today as a unique part of the United Kingdom.

Cymru Am Byth!* 


For more posts on this series on the Celts, see this introduction to the series.

Are you interested in 7th century England? Do you want to know more about my historical fantasy novel, set in 7th century Northumbria? Do you like getting exclusive bonus material and articles? If you answered YES to any of the above, sign up for my newsletter, and you will get all that and more! 


*”Long Live Wales!” This is the motto of Wales.

 

Anglo-Saxon Literature: The Wife’s Lament

On of the poems contained within the Exeter book is one called “The Wife’s Lament”. It’s an elegy, a poem that is a melancholy lament on death or other such sorrow, In this particular poem, a wife laments her separation and exile from her husband. It is written in Old English. As the Exeter book dates back to the late 10th century, we know that this poem is at least that old.

I have given you some simple facts about this poem in that first paragraph, but actually some of them are not facts, they are conjecture. Which makes this poem very tricky to write about! Like the Franks Casket, this little poem (53 lines) is subject to many interpretations and much scholarly debate.

Before we get into the general murkiness of the poem’s meaning, I will start with the bare bones of what it is about, in the minds of most scholars. The poem begins with a woman’s general lament over the state of her life. Keeping in mind that Old English is very difficult to translate, and so there are many variations of translations available, here is one fairly easy to understand version of the first stanza:

I make this song of myself, deeply sorrowing,
my own life’s journey. I am able to tell
all the hardships I’ve suffered since I grew up,
but new or old, never worse than now –
ever I suffer the torment of my exile.

The poem then gets into the details of her “life’s journey”. She is in exile because she has married into a different tribe/kingdom, and is without friends or family. And a secondary exile seems to take place in the poem, as he husband leaves her, the reason for which is unclear. Perhaps because of a feud, or a crime, we don’t know enough to say. The upshot of this is that the woman leaves as well, to look for her husband.  She is thwarted in this by her husband’s kinsmen, and is then commanded to live in a hole in the ground. Which leads her to pen this sorrowful poem. Can’t say I blame her.

There is also a section in the poem that could be about a tryst with another lover (perhaps that’s why she is put in the hole), or could also refer to a betrayal of her love by the husband. Some say that the “hole” is actually a grave, in other words, that the woman has been killed, and this is her ghost speaking. Either way, it’s all gloomy.

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Photo by Kat J on Unsplash

So, getting back to the first paragraph of this post, here’s a little more enlightenment on the controversies surrounding this poem:

The title – It is true that the poem is found within the Exeter Book, and is written in Old English. But, like the other elegies and poems in that book, it doesn’t actually have a title in the original manuscript.  The poem simply starts with the first line.  The first person to name it, Anglo-Saxon scholar Benjamin Thorpe, actually named it “The Exile’s Lament” in 1842. It wasn’t until eight years later that the title was changed to “The Wife’s Lament”. What’s going on, here?

Well, first of all, the Old English equivalent for the word “wife” does not appear in the poem. The poem is clearly meant to be in a woman’s voice, however, because the pronouns and adjectives in the poem are written in the Old English feminine form, rather than masculine. And by the way, this is one of the first pieces of English literature written from a woman’s point of view, which makes it pretty special aside from anything else, don’t you think? This is likely why Benjamin Thorpe did not ascribe it to a woman, because there isn’t much literature from a woman’s point of view that comes from this male-dominated era. Perhaps he was just not expecting to see that, and so he didn’t. And as I said, Old English, especially poetic Old English, is very tricky to translate.

The subject of the poem is of a more domestic nature, as compared to the heroic poems such as “Beowulf”,  with its monsters, fighting, and mead-halls. This also makes “The Wife’s Lament” stand out amongst the other poems we have from this era.

Of course, just because it’s in a woman’s “voice” doesn’t mean the creator of the poem was a woman. Don’t forget, very few people could read or write at the time. These poems were meant to be spoken, performed for an audience. It is possible that there were women who created poems, but it is likely that it would only be men who performed them. We only have a few poems from this era that were captured by a scribe at some point and written down. This scribe, however, could have been male or female, as this work was done pretty much exclusively in monasteries or nunneries.

Because of the female voice of the poem’s narrator, she is assumed to be a wife of the “lord” that she is mourning over in the poem. Hence, “The Wife’s Lament”.

The style of poem – although the interpretation of the poem being an elegy is the most common one, some scholars think that this is not an elegy, but is actually a riddle. They believe this because of a lot of complicated textual analysis that I can’t claim understand well enough to write about, so I will take their word for it. The poem ends, Woe to the one who must suffer longing for a loved one. This type of epitaph is typical of Anglo-Saxon riddles, which always end with these bits of what is called “gnomic” wisdom.  It is interesting that this poem, along with “The Wanderer “and “The Seafarer”, are found in the Exeter Book, which also contains 92 other riddle poems. So, I suppose it’s possible….

Unknown

Yeah. Basically. 

We have comparatively little extant written material from the Early Middle Ages, and so each piece we have is so very important to help us understand the culture and the times in which it was written. “The Wife’s Lament”, in particular, even with it’s difficulties, puts a small spotlight on a woman’s perspective (albeit a very sad one!), and that makes it very special, indeed.


Want more? Here are the posts in my Anglo-Saxon Literature series:

The Dream of the Rood

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Wanderer

What’s In a Word?

Bald’s Leechbook: The Doctor is In

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Cotton Library

Cynewulf the Poet

Beowulf Basics

Cynewulf the Poet

The Exeter Book

 

Feature image of the Exeter Book from exeter-cathedral.org

The Franks Casket

The Franks Casket, also known as the Auzon Casket, is a singularly fascinating object from early 8th century Anglo-Saxon England, probably Northumbrian in origin.

It is a small chest (the word “casket” is a bit deceiving, it is only 9″ by 4″). It’s unknown exactly what its original purpose was, but possibly it was made to hold a Gospel book or a book of Psalms (a psalter). It is made out of whale bone.

It is amazing that this small chest survived at all through the centuries. It first came to light in medieval France, as a reliquary in St. Julien’s Basilica in Brioude. It next appears on the record as a possession of a family in Auzon, France. Possibly it was looted from the church during the French Revolution, but it’s hard to say. At any rate, the box was used as a sewing box until the silver hinges and fittings were taken off and traded for a silver ring.

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Sir Augustus Wolloston Franks, described by Marjorie Caygill, historian of the British Museum, as “arguably the most important collector in the history of the British Museum, and one of the greatest collectors of his age”. Image from Wikicommons

Without the hinges the box fell apart, and the panels were shown to a professor who sold them to an antique dealer in Paris. Three of the panels were bought by Sir Augustus Wolloston Franks in 1857, and he donated them to the British Museum as he was the Keeper of the British and Medieval collections there,

The missing fourth panel (the right end) was found in a drawer by the family in Auzon and sold to the Bargello Museum in Florence, where it still resides.  It wasn’t until 1890 that the discovery was made that it belonged to the other pieces in the British Museum. The British Museum made a cast of the missing piece and reassembled the casket, and it is now on display there.

What is so interesting about this small chest are the exquisite carvings that adorn the sides and the top. Each panel depicts a different scene, all of them include runic inscriptions of varying lengths, with one Latin word thrown in for good measure. The dating and place of origin of the Franks casket comes mainly from the linguistic evidence of the words and the artistic style of the carvings.

The inscription on the front is a riddle, which also includes the answer. It is a riddle that describes what the box is made out of:

The flood lifted up the fish on to the cliff-bank;
the whale became sad, where he swam on the shingle.

Whale’s bone.

The casket was most certainly made in a monastery for some important figure, likely a king. There have been some attempts to tie it to the monastery at Ripon, founded by Wilfrid, but nothing definitive can be said about that.

There have been reams of scholarship on the decorative carvings, and that is because they are all so very different, and have many possible interpretations. The runes are not exactly straightforward, either, as in one spot the carver has used a simple substitution cipher to encrypt the words, and in other places has even written words backwards. This type of playing with words and letters is familiar – the use of riddles and encryption is seen in other surviving manuscripts from this time period. Anglo-Saxons obviously had a great respect for the power of the written word, don’t you think? I find it so fascinating, Don’t you wish you could sit down with the maker and find out exactly what was in his mind as he made this object?

Originally all the carved panels were thought to be random scenes, placed with no overall thought or design in mind. However, scholars are starting to reject that idea. They are now coming to see the carvings as an extremely clever and intellectually rich commentary, chosen precisely for how they all fit together.

The trouble is that the overarching theme or commentary is still unknown, and likely will never be known. Some postulate that the casket is telling the story of the history of England, from its pagan past to its Christian present (at least at the time of the 8th century, when it was created). Others see it as a commentary of the superiority of Christianity over pagan religions.

Because the obviously Christian element on the panel is only one small part of it, though, the thinking is that the casket was likely meant for a secular ruler. There are certainly  many references to secular/pagan legends and history.

There is so much informed and scholarly thought about what each of the carved panels represent that it would be a longer blog post than you likely want to read to tell you all of the possible interpretations. But, in a nutshell, here are a brief description of the panels and some of the proposed meanings of them.

Front panel – contains the riddle described above, flowing around the top, bottom, and sides of the panel, written in runes. The pictures are broken up into two distinct scenes. One the right, you have the only obviously Christian scene on the casket, that of the Adoration of the Magi after Christ was born in Bethlehem. We know this because the maker has helpfully included the word “mægi” over the three figures who are bowing to the baby held by the woman. Easy-peasy.

On the left, there is something completely different, namely, a depiction of part of the Germanic legend of Weyland the Smith. In this scene Welyand has been captured by the cruel king Niohad.. It also depicts the headless body of Niohad’s son, whom Weyland has killed in revenge for his captivity. Weyland is holding a goblet in his tongs, this could be the missing head, which he has made into a goblet. In the legend he offers a goblet of drugged beer to Niohad’s daughter, whom he then rapes. A female figure is in this scene, probably this is her.

Why on earth would the creator of this casket put these two scenes together? Possibly it is juxtaposing the benign Christ and his rule as opposed to the darkness and death of paganism from which the Saxons have escaped.

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Front panel. Image from John W. Schulze, on Flickr

Left side panel – this is a depiction of the legend of the twins Romulus and Remus, the two founders of Rome. The legend states that they were suckled by a she-wolf. The panel shows the wolf on her back, protecting and suckling the twins, with four men with spears watching. The runic inscription says, Romulus and Remus, two brothers: a she-wolf fed them in Rome city, far from their native land. 

This legend shows up in other Anglo-Saxon artifacts from the 8th century, so it’s not necessarily surprising to see it here. There are some parallels to it and the story of Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon brothers who were the legendary founders of England. Bede tells us that they were invited to Britain by King Vortigern along with a mercenary army of Saxons, Angles, and Jutes, to help him fight against the Picts of the north in the light of the departure of Rome’s legions in the 5th century.  Soon the money ran out and the erstwhile saviours turned against the British and began to claim England for their own.

Therefore, this panel could also be a reference to England’s past.

Alternatively, Rome was the centre of the Christian church at the time, so this could be symbolizing the aid and succour that Mother Church gives to her children.

I hope you are starting to see the difficulty scholars have in interpreting these scenes!

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Left panel. Image from Wikicommons

Back Panel – this depicts the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD by Titus. Again, the runic inscription explains this. Interestingly, some of the words here are carved in Latin script, not with the runic alphabet.

Again, one might wonder why this scene is included here. This conquest of the Jews  by the Gentile Roman, Titus, was seen as a divine punishment by God for the wickedness of the Jews in their rejection of Christ. Similarly, Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of England,  presents the invasion of the Saxons as punishment of the Britons for their moral laxity. This panel, then, could be a subtle, or not-so-subtle, commentary on a painful episode in England’s history that God used to chasten his wayward people. Others speculate it is more general than that, and is a commentary of the triumph of Christianity over Judaism.

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Back panel. Roman soldiers are on the left, beseiging Jerusalem. On the right are the captive prisoners being led away. Note the Latin letters on the top right. Image from Wikicommons

 

Lid – The top is missing the two panels that border the centre panel, which, assuming it was similar to the sides, contained the runic inscription. Perhaps these were made of silver as well, with the runes etched on it? Hard to say.  It also has a round spot in the middle which could have had an embellished silver boss or a knob-like handle attached.

Without the helpful runic inscriptions, it’s a little harder to suss out the meaning of the carvings. Some speculate it depicts an unknown part of the legend of Egill, a Germanic hero who is Weyland’s brother. There is one runic word incorporated in the carving, which says Ægill, hence the above interpretation. Other scholars argue that the word is actually referring to Achilles, and the carving is a depiction of the death of Achilles at Troy.

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Lid. Image from Wikipedia

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Here you can see the centre panel on the lid, with the obvious missing pieces on either side. Image from Wikicommons

Right Side Panel – this is the most enigmatic of all, and the one that generates the most scholarly debate. The inscription reads,

Here the horse stands above the mound of woe,
It suffers tribulation; just as to her Erta appointed anxiety,
A grave of grief, in sorrow and anguish of heart.

Wood. Biter. Rush.

Hmm. Not really helpful. This is the panel that contains the encrypted words, and as well the words run together without separation between them, adding to the difficulty of translation.

The picture is of a horse standing over a mound, which contains a human-like figure (possibly a burial mound, the “mound of woe”). On the left there is a strange figure with the body of a man and the head of a horse sitting on a mound, with a man wearing a helmet and carrying a spear in front of it. On the right there are three figures. This possibly echoes the three magi on the front.

The word “horse” is sometimes translated as Hos, a name. But no one knows who Hos and Erta (or Eratae)  are, or what legend they refer to. There are also possible references to the Norse god Woden, as the symbols under the legs of the horse are ones that could refer to him.

Some believe this picture refers back to Hengist and Horsa again. The word “horsa” means “horse” in Old English, so perhaps this depicts Horsa mourning over the death of his brother Hengist.

There are several other interpretations of this panel which I won’t go into here. Needless to say, it’s a mystery!

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Right side panel (this is the cast that was made from the original). Image from Wikicommons 

So, the pictures and inscriptions on the casket are a great source of scholarly discussion. To top it all off, there seems to also be some numerological significance to the number of runes on the casket. There are 72 runes on the front and left panels, and a total of 288 runes in total. The 72 could correspond to the 72 disciples mentioned in the Latin Vulgate Bible familiar to the Anglo-Saxons. The number 288 is a multiple of 24, which is the number of runes in an early continental Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, which had magical significance for the Anglo-Saxons.

Phew! No wonder many scholars have devoted so much time and effort on trying to decipher the runes and pictures on this little box. The more you look at it, the more you discover.

This beautiful box has so much to tell us about this fascinating period in England’s history. It’s an extremely important object that demonstrates for us the rich cultural milieu from which it sprang, giving us tantalizing hints into the way they saw themselves.


Featured image from Wikipedia


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