Æthelstan, Alfred or Bob: royal baby names that Willz n Kate should totes consider

Sorry, but I couldn’t resist  –  it seems that baby banter has royally exploded all over my facebook wall today, and even in rainy Reykjavík I can’t escape the hype seizing the thousands of Brits desperately clasping their union jack flags whilst weeping ecstatically at the birth of an extraordinarily privileged miniature-person.

So, it’s a boy. Bravo. (no, seriously – well done Kate. At 8lbs 6oz, that’s like pushing out an award-winning watermelon). But what will the dear little tyke be named? As a nerdy medievalist, I personally vote something of a more Anglo-Saxon flavour…..Edgar or Æthelwulf, Ceolwulf or Offa. After all, it’s only respectful to the crown’s heritage which, this time 1,000 years ago, was being dangerously threatened by a bunch of axe-wielding danes. (In 1013, dear old Æthelred the Unready got the boot whilst Danish king Svein Forkbeard plonked himself on the then-‘English’ throne).

Of course, we could be respectful to the crown’s last 400-years-or-so more ‘British’ identity and go with something safe like Jimmy or Bill, but in terms of aesthetic value, the William-Henry-George-Charles fashion is getting a bit boring. Why not go with something cool like ‘Æthelstan’? He could be called ‘Stan’ for short, allowing for such witty puns as ‘Stan the Man’ by The Daily Mail and what not. How about ‘Rædwald’? ‘Prince Rædwald’ by day and simply the elusive ‘Red’ by night. Gosh, he would sound like some sort of wonderful perfume-range and dodgy Amsterdam district hybrid all in one. I actually think a case can be made for a predilection towards ‘old fashioned’ names at the moment — from what I hear, the Bettys and Brians, Esthers and Emmets are all the rage.

So, I vote that we urge the royal love-birds to embrace their inner medievalists and break with tradition (look at the recent change in succession law, for example – the time is right, my friends!) and name the wee princelet something utterly cool and awesome like Offa or Alfred or Bert (from OE *Æthelbert). Alternatively, we could give up on the medieval angle altogether and go full-out Game of Thrones – ‘HRH, Prince Joffrey of Wales’, sounds kinda cool, though slightly unnerving. Maybe Kate could have an entourage of dragon babies, whilst Willz sends Harry off to ‘The Wall’ and chills out on his Iron Throne. Perhaps a different, somewhat wiser option would be, however, to ignore the whole royal baby hype and monarchy-malarkey altogether. Instead, the British public should turn their attention to a petition requesting the Queen to name her Corgis Byrhtnoth and Hodder, and make them chase cats dressed as vikings and wildlings through Buckingham Palace. Now that would be cool, and definitely worth every penny of the taxpayers’ money.

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Giants and Dwarves Wear the Great Woolly Jumper of Interdisciplinary Make-Over

Interpreting Eddic Poetry Workshop
4th – 6th July,  St. John’s College Oxford

It turns out that Norse-themed conferences offer amazing free sandwiches. Pesto and goats’ cheese nestled themselves snuggly between the bready layers of wholegrain goodness, whilst the falafel rocked out solo within a delightfully tahinified layer of hummus-ey wonder. But this is perhaps only of secondary importance – a side order, or apperitif if you will. What’s important is, of course, the workshop itself.

Interpreting Eddic Poetry was an interesting and intellectually stimulating two-day workshop held at St. John’s College, Oxford (4th-6th July). The workshop successfully pulled together the various strands of eddic scholarship, weaving them into a cosy interdisciplinary jumper with distinctly Norse-themed trimmings. For those unacquainted with the 13th-century Icelandic poems, ‘eddic poetry’ is in fact a modern term used to cover the anonymous alliterative verse from Norway and Iceland (and a term with so many connations, in fact, that one scholar scoffed that we should dismiss the term entirely).

Although in their medieval manuscript context they take the form of poetry, these sneaky verses hold the interpretive key (although sometimes a rusty key with a padlock that won’t quite open) for many questions regarding religious, mythological and social thought not only in Iceland but the wider context of pre-Christian Scandinavia. As a result, these poems have been prodded and poked from the perspective of archaeology, anthropology, textual criticism, fokllore, gender issues, philology and performance amongst many others.

So, what happens when you shove a bunch of eddic-obssessed academics in a room for two days and shout, GO? Well, although I like to think you get a Lord Of the Flies-esque rampage of wode-painted loin-clothed gentlemen flinging obscure quotes at one another, what you actually get is a nice (though not necessarily more civilised….) pulling together of scholarly consensus, alongside the opening up of new ideas and innovations within the field. John Lindow, for instance, argued that the so-called boundary between mythological and heroic poems within the eddic corpus is so blurred that it should be dissolved altogether. Others, such as Terry Gunnell and Lars Lönnroth, called for more attention to be paid to the performative element of the poems, an exciting avenue for which only a little solid research has been properly done.

The Interpreting Eddic Poetry Workshop signals the start of what hopes to be a much larger research project concerned with innovative, interdisciplinary approaches towards eddic poetry. Steered by Judy Quinn, Carolyne Larrington and Brittany Schorn, the project is already gaining momentum: Brittany Schorn has been awarded the position of Research Associate in cooperation with the project, and next year’s workshop is already in the pipelines. It is always great to get people together who are passionate about poetry but come at it from different angles. With a bit of luck then, the workshop  is only the beginning of what promises to be an exciting eddic journey (if we can use the term ‘eddic’ at all). So, stay tuned for more exciting events to come……hopefully with a side-order of delicious sandwiches. Om nom.

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In Our Time: Melvyn Bragg gets jiggy with the Icelandic Sagas

Melvyn Bragg had done his homework. He is terrifying, yes, but he certainly knows his parchment from his paper, his saga from his settler and his author from his oral tradition. I am of course talking about BBC 4’s In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, recently featuring (*get ready to Old Norse geek-out*) the juicy topic: ‘Icelandic Sagas’. Forty-five minutes of saga talk? What bliss, what joy, what music to the medieval-minded ears, I hear you cry! …Well, go to the BBC’s website and listen to it then: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01s8qx9. Be warned, you may have to make several cups of tea, gorge yourself on countless biscuits and start manically flicking through your dog-eared version of Laxdæla Saga trying to work JUST WHO DID GUÐRÚN REALLY LOVE MOST whilst listening to this interesting discussion, rooted in a world of heroes and outlaws, blood-feuds and love-triangles, personal politics and society in 13th-century Iceland.

But how on earth did dear old Mel know such mind-blowing facts? Well, apart from his own careful research (impressive, given that most presenters usually lump ‘sagas’ together with popular images of monk-bashing vikings), he was helped by the three musketeers of saga scholarship: Dr. Carolyne Larrington (University of Oxford), Dr. Elizabeth Ashman Rowe (University of Cambridge) and Dr. Emily Lethbridge (Árni Magnússon Manuscripts Institute, Reykjavík). Between them, the speakers take the listening audience on a brief tour around the vibrant, creative literary landscape of 13th- and 14th-century Iceland, remarking on some of the impulses and ideas behind the famous Íslendingasögur (Sagas of Icelanders).

A 13th-century illuminated Icelandic Saga manuscript, nabbed from the Guardian's website (of all places) which informs me the photograph was taken by Bob Krist/Corbis. So there you are.

A 13th-century illuminated Icelandic Saga manuscript, nabbed from the Guardian’s website (of all places) which informs me the photograph was taken by Bob Krist/Corbis. So there you are.

After a short, sharp introduction courtesy of Mr. Bragg, the panel begin with a brief overview of early Icelandic history. Delving a little deeper, Carolyne Larrington and Elizabeth Ashman Rowe consider Iceland’s move to a more literary culture* following the country’s conversion to Christianity c.999/1000 AD. The coming of Christianity of course brought a crucial new technology – writing – allowing Icelanders, for the first time ever, to take their fluid oral tradition and write it down, fixing their stories and poems via pen to parchment.

Emily Lethbridge expands on Carolyne and Elizbeth’s observations with a discussion of the (often fragmentary) manuscripts in which the sagas are preserved. Emily’s comments lead on nicely to a general discussion between the three academics about the sagas themselves; the unruly chieftain Hrafnkel and his holier-than-thou horse, Freyfaxi, are mentioned, as is the famous love-fuelled feud between Guðrún, Bolli and Kjartan in Laxdæla Saga. Zombies, cheese-theft and prophetic dreams all get a mention, leaving me feeling rather alarmed at my general preference for eddic and skaldic verse over sagas (first world problems an’ all). After all, the impression I get whilst chomping away on my hob-knobs is that SAGAS ARE RIDICULOUSLY AWESOME.

Of course, it would have been nice to discuss the gods and giants of eddic poems, but this would have taken a rather wide detour and parked about 70 miles away from a discussion solely focused on the ‘sagas’. Perhaps another time – In Our Time: Icelandic Stuff Inc. Awesome Poems Part II? I for one would like to see dear Braggers navigate his way through the riddling intricacies of cryptic, skaldic verse (I bet he could, as well). But alas, I digress. In Our Time: Icelandic Sagas is a discussion about sagas, and it is by all means a truly interesting one. Furthermore, it is exactly what scholarship should be about – converting niche and narrow (but nonetheless important), highly specialised areas of research into bite-size chunks for general public consumption. Between them, Carolyne Larrington, Elizabeth Ashman Rowe and Emily Lethbridge get the tone just right. The discussion is not pitched at too high-brow a level (no discussions on Carolingian minuscule and Gothic hybrid, thank heavens), yet it is not dumbed down either: all three academics retain proper Icelandic pronunciation of names and places, whilst ensuring that important details (such as the Celtic injection into Icelandic settlement and the Christian influence framing the written texts) are not skipped over.

So, whether you are currently writing your thesis on vowel shifts present in the orthography of Old Icelandic legal texts, or you thought that Iceland was a place you could buy frozen samosa’s with Kerry Katona grinning manically at you from behind the check-out, this short 45 minute discussion really is worth a listen. It is academia in action, bringing the world of saga heroes and their adventures across the radio-waves and into the living rooms of marginally less rugged, feud-obsessed people of today. As our dear old saga author himself might say: ‘that was well done’.

* Of course, oral traditions in Iceland didn’t stop when pen was put to paper. Instead, Iceland enjoyed an oral-literary continuum long after the introduction of writing, as is proven by the many interesting manuscripts variation (yes, ‘variations’, NOT ‘errors’ – screw you, A. E. Houseman).

Posted in Books, History, Norse, Pop Culture, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The V-Word: a ‘Valkyrie’ figurine found in Denmark

Everyone is pretty quick to jump on the bandwagon and call the awesome new find in Denmark a ‘valkyrie’. I’ll admit, this stunning little 3D figurine of a woman with some sort of dagger and shield is fantastic, and it is tempting to turn to the mythological texts and slap the big fat ‘V-word’, on her forehead. But despite newspapers such as The Guardian openly lauding: ‘the only 3D representation of a valkyrie ever found’, and many medieval bloggers going nuts over the ‘unique silver valkyrie’, found in Hårby, Fyn (Denmark), can we really call this figurine a ‘valkyrie’, with such sure-fire confidence? I hate to be the moany voice of reason, but I feel a semi-critical eye would be of use here. I’d like to urge caution and consideration before calling this figurine a ‘valkyrie’, straight off. 

The 'valkyrie' found recently in Denmark, thought to be from c. 800 AD

The ‘valkyrie’ found recently in Denmark, thought to be from c. 800 AD

Of course, in many respects, this little figure ticks all of the boxes: turning to the mythological descriptions of valkyries written down in 13th-century Iceland, there is clearly a strong oral poetic tradition linking the valkyrie to battle. ‘Kennings’, which are normally used in a poetic sense as a round-about way of saying things (almost like an uber-allusive metaphor), are popping at the seams of Old Icelandic skaldic verse. It is in these kennings that valkyrie names often occur. Take, for instance, the kenning: veðrum Göndlar (‘the winds of Göndul > valkyrie) or Hildr hjaldrs (‘the Hildr > valkyrie of battle’). The substitution of a valkyrie name for the meaning ‘battle’, convincingly points to an association of such women with warfare. Even the word valkyrie in Old Norse means ‘chooser of the slain’, and many of the valkyries cropping up in the Poetic Edda are described as wearing armour or doing battlely-like things.

Yet the presentation of the valkyrie is not always consistent within eddic mythology and skaldic verse. In the eddic poem Sigdrífumál, for example, the valkyrie Sigdrífa imparts knowledge of runic lore and wisdom to the hero Sigurðr; she has nothing to do with giving victory in battle. Similarly, the most famous valkyrie, Brynhildr, is known more for her passionate love entanglements with Sigurðr and Gunnar than rampaging about on the battle field. Whilst Snorri Sturluson’s prose account of Norse mythology explicitly says that Óðinn sends his female entourage out onto the battlefield, he also notes (probably with misogynistic glee) that she is also given the glamorous job of barmaid: she is a waitress for the drunken dead in Valhöll, serving them drink and keeping the cutlery nice and tidy.

Of course, what a 13th century Icelandic scribe, compiler or writer says about a valkyrie is somewhat removed (and modified by various changing social, religious and political conditions) from a 9th century, Danish perception of a valkyrie. This is exactly my point. The Old Icelandic texts are useful, as they give us access to words which we can try to apply to pictures, figures and finds unearthed by archaeology: yet in all the pictorial representations of ‘valkyries’ that we have, none of them have a note scribbled underneath saying: ‘psst, by the way, did you know that I’m actually a valkyrie?’. Just because they have a mead horn in their hand, for example, it doesn’t make them a valkyrie: the giantess Gerðr, for instance, is known to offer mead, as does the goddess Sif  and various other non-valkyrie figures.

a 'guldgubber' depicting a woman with a hair-knot and a drink

a guldgubber depicting a woman with a hair-knot and a drink

In fact, the images of mythological women that we have from the late Iron Age to beginnings of the Christian period in Scandinavia are all remarkably similar, making them incredibly difficult to pin down to a particular type of or individual mythological ‘woman’. The Gotland picture stones often depict women welcoming male figures with what looks like a mead horn. She is noted for her long dress and recognisable ‘top knot’ hair-do (a proto-hipster, perhaps?). Similarly, the gorgeous little gold-foil finds called ‘guldgubber’, often represent women with a similar hair-do, sometimes with a mead horn in her hand. It is impossible to say whether these images represent valkyries, goddesses, dísir or other supernatural beings, and it is not impossible that each one had its own meaning for the local community or individual using/crafting it.

Yet, despite being separated over time and space, these images all persist with the same general motif. This is what makes our new ‘valkyrie’ figure so interesting: she is the first 3D find of her type, she has the same ‘hair knot’, motif but, instead of a mead horn, she is holding a shield and sword. She is perhaps, with her associations of battle, the closest thing to what the 13th-century Icelandic texts might call a ‘valkyrie’. But ideas and perceptions of images change over time, and it is impossible to say exactly what 9th century Danes (or whoever made/observed this figure) considered this woman to represent.  Admittedly, it  is nice to think of this new find as a battle-maid of Óðinn,  but in all honesty  I’m not sure that we can call her a ‘valkyrie’ so easily and comfortably without really looking into the range of literary and iconographic depictions of valkyries first. Only then can we tentatively suggest how this new archaeological find fits in amongst the already huge, kaleidoscopic variety of female mythological figures we have available to us. But still, it is pretty awesome – and everyone should check it out when it comes to the British Museum, 2014!

A link to the Guardian’s article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2013/mar/04/viking-valkyrie-figurine-british-museum

Posted in Archaeology, Art, History, Norse, On Display, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

New Resources for Non-Academics

In the past few weeks there have been two announcements of exciting resources aimed at non-academics.

The first is the London Anglo-Saxon Symposium (March 8, 2013) hosted by the School of Advanced Study at the University of London. The day-long conference will feature talks about the history and archaeology of Anglo-Saxon and Viking London presented by scholars from institutes and museums around the city. The speaker lineup, posted on their website, is:

PROGRAMME: Click below for PDF versions of the paper abstracts.
2.15-3.00 Registration and Welcome
3.00-4.00 Session 1: Understanding the City (Chair: Dr Jennifer Neville)
Dr Michael Bintley (Canterbury Christ Church University): ‘Imagining the City in Anglo-Saxon England: Representations of Settlement in Old English Literature’ [PDF 102.kb]
Dr Alfred Hiatt (Queen Mary, University of London): ‘Anglo-Saxon London and Spatial History’ [PDF 29.kb]
4.00-4.30 Coffee Break
4.30-6.00 Session 2: City Life (Chair: Professor Richard North)
Lyn Blackmore (Museum of London Archaeology): ‘Anglo-Saxon London: Recent (and Not So Recent) Work and Finds’ [PDF 9.kb]
Professor Derek Keene (School of Advanced Study, University of London): ‘Anglo-Saxon London as a Commercial Centre’ [PDF 48.kb]
Dr Joy Jenkyns (King’s College London): ‘A Walk around Anglo-Saxon London: The Westminster Bonds’ [PDF 46.kb]
6.00-6.45 Closing and Wine Reception

See their website for paper abstracts and more information.

The second exciting announcement of the past week is that until March 5 all journals published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press will be available online for free after a short registration. This is a great opportunity to read up on the latest research and get behind the Berlin Wall of institutional logins. Well worth checking out.

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When Earthly Beauty is Beautiful

It is all too common to hear dogmatic medieval Christian writers talking about the falseness of earthly goods, the inferiority of earthly beauty, etc. etc. True beauty is with God and in the afterlife – nothing else is worthy of notice.

So it was quite interesting to come across this line in one of Alcuin‘s letters, discussing the beauty of Wearmouth and Jarrow monasteries:

‘Videte librorum thesaura; considerate ecclesiarum decorem, aedificiorum pulchritudinem, regularis vitae ordinem. Rememorate, quam beatus est homo, qui de his pulcherrimis habitaculis ad caelestis regni gaudia transeat’ (MGH, Alcuini Epistolae 19)

‘Look at the treasure-chests of books; think on the adornments of the churches, the beauty of the edifices, the order of the regular life. Think how blessed is the man, who from these most beautiful dwellings should cross over to the joys of the heavenly kingdom’ (My translation)

Of course the heavenly kingdom is still the desired end result, but Alcuin nontheless instructs the monks to think about the beauty of the buildings, the chests full of books and, yes, the spiritual beauty of the rule to which they adhere. He asks them to take a moment to think about everything that is beautiful in this life, and see the heavenly kingdom as enhancing something which is already worth valuing.

This letter was written in 793, after the first Viking attack on Lindisfarne. Since Wearmouth and Jarrow are located relatively near to Lindisfarne on the coast of Northumbria, as far as Alcuin knew this could very well be one of the last times that the monks would get a chance to appreciate what was one of the wealthiest, best endowed, most culturally advanced monasteries in Europe at the time.

map Lindis WJ

Elsewhere in the letter, Alcuin tells the monks to stay strong, stick fast to their prayers, and trust in the love of God and in their spiritual strength to protect them.

Of course, the fact that this beauty was about to be destroyed by angry northmen also means that appreciating it fits nicely into the ubi sunt (translated as ‘where are…’) motif that is so beloved of Old English poetry. The most famous example is in the wanderer:

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
[…]Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall?
[…]How that time has passed away,
grown dark under cover of night, as if it had never been

Therefore Alcuin’s admonition may not be as aberrant as it seems at first glance. Nonetheless, it is touching to see the nostalgia and perhaps somewhat personal attachment (Alcuin was Northumbrian, after all) that a very public medieval figure had to something so earthly and so human.

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A Gloves and Manuscripts PSA

Gloves and Manuscripts

It’s something I’ve heard too often – if you’re filmed handling manuscripts, wear gloves. Otherwise, the broadcaster receives hundreds of letters from the concerned public complaining about the cavalier treatment of national treasures.

So let me just put this out there once and for all: researchers do not, and should not, wear gloves while handling vellum or parchment manuscripts.Vellum and parchment are treated sheep or calf skins, and are the material in most medieval manuscripts. The oil from your fingers is therefore actually good for the pages, and keeps them moisturised and supple. Gloves, on the other hand, make it impossible to feel the pages you’re handling, making it more likely that you will accidentally tear or crease them, or otherwise damage the codex.

So next time you see a scholar on TV handling a medieval manuscript with bare hands, trust that he knows what he’s doing!

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Merry Christmas, and Please Don’t Be Eaten

Giljagaur, 'Gully-Gawk'Last week I paid a visit to Viking-central Hafnafjörður, about ten minutes outside of Reykjavík, to experience the delights of the town’s Christmas Market (Jólaþorpið) and join in the festive spirit. Yet the well-known, jolly-red Santa Claus with white beard and magical reindeer was nowhere to be seen; instead, I was greeted by a terrifying hag who chased children, and surrounded by what appeared to be the Seven Dwarves with ASBOs.

Meet Iceland’s most dysfunctional family: thirteen mischievous ‘Yuletide Lads’ (Jólasveinar), their child-eating troll mother Grýla, and her latest husband Leppalúði (she ate her last one, apparently). Last but not least is the household pet, Jólakötturinn (‘Yule Cat’) who, like its blood-thirsty owner, likes to eat people who are not lucky enough to receive new clothes before Christmas. For most of the year Iceland’s most infamous family dwells in the mountains, but during the Christmas Period, watch out: this motley crew of trolls come down to feast on children and cause mayhem.

The main troublemakers the 13 Yuletide Lads, a gang of chaos-causing tricksters whose various names say it all: amongst them are Bjúgnakrækir (‘Sausage-Swiper’) who steals sausages, Hurðaskellir (‘Door-Slammer’) who bangs doors noisily and Gluggagægir (‘Window-Peeper’) who is usually found creeping around outside and perving on unsuspecting folk through their windows. First to arrive in town is Stekkjastaur (‘Sheep-cote clod’) who comes down from his mountain-home on December 12th to harass sheep, but usually fails given his ridiculous wooden peg-legs. After Stekkjastaur, each Yule Lad arrives one day after another until the 24th December, when Kertasníkir (‘Candle-Stealer’) rocks up to complete the ‘Lads on Tour’-esque troop.

Far more terrifying than these 13 young delinquents is, like something out of Eastenders, the Yule Lads’ rampaging mother, Grýla. Although Snorri mentions Grýla in Skáldskaparmál (the section on ‘the language of poetry’ in his 13th-century Edda), her name appears only as one of many in his list of ‘troll-wives’. In fact, Grýla as we know and (maybe not so much) love her pops up a lot later in Iceland, dating as late as the 17th-century. Yet just like times of old, today Grýla still has an insatiable appetite for human children, a blood-lust that sets her tearing through the towns in Iceland in search of naughty girls and boys to munch on. Far less fussy over such trivialities as young-age is the trolls’ trusty household pet, Jólakötturinn (‘Yule Cat’), who happily gobbles up anyone, child or adult, who has not received new clothes for Christmas: a walking version of Cosmo, this style-conscious kitty is on the prowl for anyone in last season’s outfit and will gladly nom on anyone not fortunate enough to replenish their wardrobe.

So there you have it. No rosy-faced, mince-pie munching Santa or his friendly (apparently less fashion-conscious) pet reindeer for Iceland. A family of criminal youths, a troll mother and human-eating cat form the heart of Icelandic Yuletide tradition. In fact, this family of mountain dwellers were deemed so scary that in 1746 a public decree was announced, forbidding the use of Grýla and her posse to terrify children. Nowadays, however, the Yule Lads have turned away from a life of felony and theft, instead leaving small presents in children’s shoes left by the window (and no, that isn’t a euphemism). Rather than dobbing the naughty children in to their hungry mother Grýla, the Yule Lads stay shtum and leave a potato (instead of a present) for undeserving kiddies. Grýla has apparently gone vegetarian, and the Jólakötturinn is no more than your regular, fluffy moggy. Actually, Grýla and her hubby Leppalúði are more commonly seen as the name of Eymundsson’s epic Christmas coffees, complete with a delicious topping of nuts, chocolate and Irish cream: not a child-stew in sight.

It is lovely to see Icelanders so caught up in their own folk tradition. It makes a refreshing change from obese, borderline-alcoholic Santas who grace English and American shops from mid-October, and it is nice to think Iceland is not supporting an international elf-sweatshop trade (even if it does support commercial whaling, grrr). Yet it is still not clear to what extent this tradition really does have earlier, unrecorded medieval precedents or whether it is the product of a later invention entirely, characterised by nationalistic sentiments and Iceland’s constant desire to distinguish itself as ‘different’. Either way, it is a fun tradition and, what’s more, a tradition that justifies a massive shopping splurge before the Christmas sales even set in. After all, you wouldn’t want to offend the Yule Cat would you?

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Medieval Penitentials on Childbirth and Abortion

Once again, I find myself apologising for a long posting hiatus. Whoops. I promise the radio silence over the past three months hasn’t been in vain… I’ve spent the time outlining a PhD thesis, writing a tiny bit of a chapter, reading everything I could wrap my brain around, and learning loads of cool things to share with you.

Such as some interesting papers at the Generation and Reproduction in Medieval Europe conference at King’s College, Cambridge. The conference opened up with a lecture on “What the ‘Small Print’ in the Early Medieval Latin Pentitentials Tells us about Abortion”, presented by Marianne Elsakkers, which discussed the attitude of penitentials (manuals to help priests determine the punishment for sins) to childbirth and abortion.

Drawings of foetal position in BL MS Sloane 249 f 197

Drawings of foetal position in BL MS Sloane 249 f 197

One of the things Elsakkers discussed is the idea of ‘ensoulment’ – that the soul only enters a foetus after a period of 40 days, when the foetus becomes alive. In my last post, I mentioned an Anglo-Saxon chidbirth charm to ensure a healthy pregnancy and birth. Marie Nelson and L. M. C. Weston have argued that as the mother in the charm steps over a grave and then her husband, she is symbolically carrying her child over this liminal barrier of ‘ensoulment’, when the child transitions from ‘dead’ to ‘living’.

The Birth of Caesar from BL MS Royal 16 G VII f.219

The Birth of Caesar from BL MS Royal 16 G VII f.219

Those who watched the US election are probably already thinking about the natural corrollary, abortion. Most interesting, and most relevant to the modern-day debate, are ideas about abortion following rape. Elsakkers found four mentions of rape in the penitentials, and while women who aborted the products of a rape were forced to do penance, it was also considered an ‘exceptional circumstance’ (see, for example, P. Merseburgense A, 8th-9th C.) and punished with a shorter and lighter penance than in the case of other motivations. These penitentials did, however, still label the mother as ‘guilty’, though leaving the implications of that label unclear.

It should be noted that ‘rape’ had a different connotation in the medieval context than it does today. The Latin rapio, rapere means ‘to seize and carry off, to snatch, tear, drag, draw, or hurry away’ (Lewis & Short), and placed emphasis on the abduction of a woman, particularly in the context of ‘stealing’ her from her father or husband, along with the implications for lineage and inheritance, rather than on sexual violation, though the act was, necessarily, still considered.

If you’re interested in reading more on this, Elsakkers’ dissertation seems to be available online at the University of Amsterdam’s Digital Repository.

Posted in History, Medicine | 1 Comment

Anglo-Saxon Medicine? That’s Leeches and Bloodletting, right?

Right! Well, kind of.

I get that question every time I tell someone what I research, and I love it. It gives me a basis to talk from. Much preferred to the alternatives of ‘Medieval studies? That’s…a real major?!’ or ‘Medieval studies? So like…Knights and armour and stuff?’.

There was some bloodletting in Anglo-Saxon England, mostly visible in lists of so-called ‘Egyptian Days’, days of the month on which letting blood was either dangerous or especially healthful. It should be said that medieval physicians were also well aware of the differences between individuals, and warned that treatments, including bloodletting, should be suited to each individual patient’s strength. Leeches must have been used as well, but are mentioned rarely. The theory of humours was clearly known, as it is mentioned occasionally, but was not very common and was not as central to the understanding of disease as it would become.

However, as always, the reality is much more complex and interesting than just that.

The Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, in an initial in the ‘Lacnunga’, BL MS Harley 585

Most Anglo-Saxon medicine, in fact most early medieval medicine, involved herbal simples or compounds – drugs made of single or multiple plants. Some would have been very effective.  The example par excellence is an eye salve from Bald’s Leechbook:

Make an eyeslave for a wen: take cropleek and garlic equal amounts of both, pound well together, take wine and bull’s gall equal amounts of both, mix with the “leeks”, then put in a brass vessel, let stand for nine nights in the brass vessel, wring out through a cloth and clear well, put in a horn and about night time put on the eye with a feather. The best remedy. (Translation from M. L. Cameron, ‘Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Magic’, p. 201)

This is just a compound drug, not all that different from the drugs that we are used to taking today. Cameron explains that it could also have actually been effective:

The ailment (a stye on the eyelid) would most likely have been a staphylococcal infection of a hair folicle. The ingredients of the salve were onion, garlic, bull’s gall, wine and copper salts (these last produced in the brass vessel). Onion and garlic are antibiotics…Bull’s gall, still in the pharmacopoeia as oxgall, has detergent properties which make it an effective agent against many bacteria, especially Gram-positive ones such as the staphylococci…The chief value of the wine in the recipe would be to react with the copper of the brass vessel to form copper acetates and copper tartarates. The acids of the plant juices would also form copper salts.These salts are all cytotoxic, destroying human cells as well as bacteria. The loss of a few tissue cells would be a small price to pay for the destruction of many bacteria and the clearing up of the infection. It is significant that the preparation was to be kept in the brass vessel for only nine days (during which the copper salts would form) after which it was to be stored in a non-reactive horn container until needed. (Cameron, ‘Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Magic’, 202).

Other scholars suggest that Cameron was a bit too optimistic about the salve’s effectiveness, but the point is that here, as in most early medieval remedies, there is no ritual or magic involved.

Another page from the ‘Lacnunga’. Spot the dragon initial!

That’s not to say that all early medieval medicine was as ‘rational’ (to use an extremely loaded term). Magic and ritual certainly do make an appearance, as in this childbirth charm from the Old English Lacnunga:

The woman who cannot rear her child: let her go to a dead man’s grave and then step thrice over the grave, and then say these words thrice:
This (is) my remedy for the loathsome (?)slow birth;
This (is) my remedy for the grievous black birth;
This (is) my remedy for the loathsome misformed birth’.

And when the woman is with child and goes to her husband in his rest [or bed], then let her say:
Up I go, over you I step;
With a living child, not with a dying one,
With a child brought to full-term, not with a doomed [i.e. premature] one.

And when the mother feels that the child is alive, then let her go to church, and when she comes before the altar let her say:
(?)To Christ, I have said, this is made manifest.

The woman who cannot rear her child: let her take part of her own child’s grave, the wrap it in black wool and sell it to traders and then say:
I sell it, you sell it!
This black wool and grains [or seed or source] of this sorrow.(Pettit via Sanburn).

Cameron has pointed out that magical remedies were usually reserved for conditions that are difficult to treat, as a kind of last resort.

So, while they did sometimes make an appreance, early medieval medicine was not all newts and witches:

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