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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Brave – a medievalist’s take

A pedant-medievalist could have drawn up a list of anachronisms a hundred items long within the first half hour of Brave. But the only impropriety that really grated – the thrum of Hollywood cicadas in the Highland dusk – was geographical rather than historical; and faced with such an exuberant delight in Scotland’s history and landscape, it’s difficult to take that kind of thing too seriously.

There is a lot in Brave that will please anyone who appreciates medieval Scotland – double discs, z-rods and other Pictish symbols, a battle-horn which looks very like the Deskford carnyx, and settlements built in the shadow of older, stranger landmarks (like the standing stones beyond the village, a superbly crafted version of the Ring of Callanish on Lewis). The clan chief is distinguished by his almighty belt buckle, just as the archaeological record tells us he should be; people hunt with deerhounds, one of the oldest breeds in existence; some of them paint their faces with woad; and, if they need to go anywhere further than the next glen, people travel by sea.

Things don’t always come in the right order. The carnyx seems to have been disappeared from use by the middle of the first millennium, when Pictish symbol stones were just beginning to appear. The film’s chief castle looks suspiciously post-Norman, while the clan system on display seems largely early-modern. And Highland games were a Victorian invention, developed in their current form after the Clearances and the end of the clans. So really it’s impossible to say when Brave is actually set, except that it is in the past.

But if one accepts this kaleidoscopic approach – and why shouldn’t we, since history functions so well as a playground for the imagination – the experience is a rewarding one. There are some fine touches. One young nobleman speaks in Doric – a good way of establishing regional complexity, notwithstanding the reality that all Scots dialect postdates the arrival of the English language north of the border. Excellent use is also made of the Lewis chessmen, the ivory figures (probably carved in twelfth-century Norway) which, more than anything, represent the history of Scandinavian Scotland. The chessmen are used to tell the story of a line of old kings, one of whom overreached himself in his pursuit of power and ended up bereft of his kingdom – a poignancy which the chessmen, an inheritance from the vanished Kingdom of the Isles, capture very well indeed.

The supernatural elements are fittingly vague. There are will-o-the-wisps, living deep in the woods, fleet of foot, unintelligible of speech and disconcertingly ambiguous of allegiance, much like the aes sídhe or the kelpies of Gaelic mythology. The makers of Brave did well not to go into too much detail in this respect, as everyone seems to have their own ideas about what these beasties were really like.

And most of all there is the landscape, animated (if that is still the right word) with truly exceptional craftsmanship. At times it rose almost to the standard of Princess Mononoke and some of the other Studio Ghibli films, which is high praise indeed. Last but by no means least, there’s skirling and hooting aplenty in Brave, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that.

Posted in Celtic, Pop Culture | 3 Comments

Saga Conference Part II: On Support and Controversy – A Newcomer’s Perspective

This was not my first conference. But it was the first time that I went to a conference of this size and importance, and when I registered for it, I was as excited about it as my 17-year-old self before her first festival. And in many ways, the Saga Conference was like a festival: seeing the people live who you normally only listen to (musically or in articles); getting to know new people, new approaches, new countries; sleeping less than is good for you; and going home tired but happy and full of fresh memories.
Two years ago, I went to Aarhus for a summer school, and on the first day it simply felt good to be back. It was good that we had some time to settle in, because the next day we were thrown into registration and a reception, and I found myself not only talking to graduate students from other universities and countries, but also to such eminent scholars as John Lindow. And that was only the beginning.

The next day, Lars Lönnroth opened the conference, recounting its history, and calling us to battle. In his opinion, scholars of Old Norse are becoming to comfortable in their positions and friendly with each other, there are no fights, no controversies anymore. But we have to be controversial, we have to disagree, to survive in a world that does not value the arts and humanities in general (let alone something as odd and specialised as Old Norse!), a world in which the pursuit of knowledge has to be profitable.

And there were some controversies and disagreements – and in fact I myself disagreed with several papers I went to – but I never got the impression that hostilities arose. I have heard different stories from other fields, where people regularly fall out with each other over a drink. The Norse world does not seem to be like that, or at least I – certainly one of the youngest and most inexperienced attendees – did not see it. But for me, the young scholar freshly come to the field, this friendliness and the warm welcome I was met with made settling into that quite intimidating experience much easier than it could have been.

Personally I think that this is what could make the Old Norse world stronger than other areas in the humanities. Whether you find yourself talking to one of the most well-known scholars on the bus, or dancing with someone you have quoted in your dissertation after the conference dinner, whether you email someone for a reference or an article or
drink that one final pint of Saga Brew with some great scholar (and probably neither of you should have had that drink) – people are interested, mostly open-minded and just genuinely nice. Everyone I spoke to showed interest in my project, and that support is invaluable for a newcomer like me, because it gives me courage and makes me look forward to the next three years. And to the next Saga Conference in 2015.

What will happen there? I do not know. But I know that I will want to give a paper. Then I will see if people will meet me with the same friendliness and interest they showed me now, before ever having heard any of my strange ideas. Or if support and controversy are mutually exclusive.

The 16th International Saga Conference will be held in Zurich in 2015; the theme is “Sagas and Space”.

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Review: 15th International Saga Conference (5-11th August 2012, University of Aarhus)

If I remember correctly, Þórr did not wear tight spandex and dance about on stage waving his hammer.* The Norse mythological cosmos was not made up of different dimensional ‘bubbles’, and saga scholars were chained to their desks in dusty old offices, not trekking around the Icelandic wilderness in a battered old Landover. In fact, I thought academics discussed metre and metaphors, not smells and sign language. Yet these quirky papers set the tone for what was to be an inspiring 15th International Saga Conference (University of Aarhus, 5th-11th August): pushing the boundaries, thinking outside of the box, and engaging in a discourse beyond that of the medieval saga.

Of course, the traditional Old Norse super-heroes were there in full force: John Mckinnell, Margaret Clunies Ross, Lars Lönnroth, Ted Andersson, John Lindow, Judith Jesch, Sverre Bagge, Mathew Driscoll, Pernille Hermann and Carolyne Larrington to name but a few of the world-leading experts of the Scandinavian scholarly community who gathered together to show-case their most recent research and inspire awe (…or strike terror?) into the hearts of aspiring young scholars. With over 330 participants attending five parallel sessions running over five days, Aarhus not only boasted faultless organisation and smooth-running, but was by far the biggest Saga Conference yet.** It’s success is a testament to all those involved in Old Norse studies, proving that the medieval Scandinavian world is as popular as ever. Of course, old ideas were revisited, but many were given a new twist: Terry Gunnell’s paper combining archaeological evidence, place-name theory and literature forced listeners to reconsider the idea of a Norse ‘pantheon’, whilst Guðrún Nordal brought the sagas to life as she explored the very real links between saga-patron, audience and character.

Yet it was not always the Stephen Hawkings and Robert Winstons of the Norse scholarly community who stole the show. A whole host of papers by independent scholars and PhD students presented some extraordinarily well-researched and occasionally radical ideas, often approached from unusual angles. Amongst them, Arngrímur Vídalín’s scientific map with the y-axis draugr and x-axis  narrative periphery memorably springs to mind, as does Emily Lethbridge’s (perhaps more convincing argument) that the sagas should not be read chronologically but according to landscape. Sarah Lütje’s project exploring the performance and reception of the Edda involved Japanese manga and Viking metal, whilst Leszek Gardela’s high-gore content paper dazzled (or, in some cases, mildly nauseated) members of the audience with graphic drawings of decapitated Vikings. One word: awesome.

It was great to see such diversity of papers and, whilst the dichotomy between old and new scholarly practice was sometimes marked, more often than not the boundaries were blurred. Those well-known academics who we revere and love epitomised traditional academia at its very best, but at the same time a new body of scholars with new approaches, broader ways of thinking and a sense of adventure emerged from the mists. It is this combination of old and new, of established and experimental, that allowed such dynamism and discourse to take place. The Saga Conference was an exciting and intellectually stimulating event, thoroughly enjoyed by all who attended — although, of course, I’m sure the specially brewed ‘Saga Ale’, and bountiful wine at the final Conference Dinner helped somewhat…….

*this was actually a video-clip: unfortunately, no scholar dressed up as Þórr-in-spandex.

**special thanks to the organisers Pernille HermannJens Peter Schjødt, Ulla Loumand and the fantastic student helpers.

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Review: Elizabeth Boyle, ‘Closing the Book on Celtic’.

Having donned a ridiculously fluffy hood and finally graduated from Cambridge, I thought I had escaped the clutches of ASNaC (a friendly acronym for my degree in ‘Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic’) for good. Less than three weeks after strolling down the steps of the Senate House, however, I found myself staring at something of a distinctly Celtic flavour. It felt strange seeing Elizabeth Boyle’s name on the front page of History Today (August 2012), right next to the oh-so-familiar image of a medieval manuscript. Despite the stirrings of the inner Germanicist inside me rearing its head in rebellion, I felt compelled to read on. I’m glad that I did.

In a tight, well written article entitled Closing the Book on Celtic, Elizabeth Boyle addresses some of the problems facing the historian of ‘British’ (which she clearly distinguishes from ‘English’) history; namely that nationalistic tendencies in Celtic-speaking countries serve to segregate the discipline (i.e. Welsh studied in Wales, Irish studied in Ireland) rather than unite it. As is sometimes the case with other ASNaC subject areas, Celtic scholarship is hampered by politics — both ‘academic’ and ‘real world’. Elizabeth fears that research into British history will not only be divided amongst, but limited to, those who are native speakers of a Celtic language. Elizabeth makes the point that recent requirements to study Old Irish at the National University of Ireland in Galway involved speaking Modern Irish to a level bordering on fluency, whilst the Chair of Celtic at Edinburgh remained unfilled due to local political – as opposed to academic – concerns. These are just two examples of the problems nationalistic tendencies present to the non-native scholar. If I thought ASNaC dead and buried, Elizabeth’s article proved me wrong: the subject area is very much alive, full of debate and, thanks to scholars like Elizabeth, engaging with ‘real world’ concerns directly affecting our areas of study.

It is great to see the problems of Celtic scholarship being given a voice within such a popular, widely-read magazine as History Today. We all know that in the ASNaC world, scholarly politics has a tendency to remain internalised within a niche academic circle. Yet Elizabeth’s article appears side-by-side with reviews ranging from Chinese urban life to the American Civil War. With such a broad readership in mind, it is hoped that the danger facing the study of a history dependent on minority languages such as Welsh, Irish, Gaelic and Brittonic – especially when they are moving towards segregation and are subject to political and nationalistic tendencies – will be more generally realised in a bid that the gateway to Celtic studies remains open. Moving in the right direction are the Universities of Toronto and Bonn which have, in the past few days, advertised jobs with a much broader and international conception of what ‘Celtic Studies’ means; yet, sadly, these Universities remain outside of Celtic-speaking countries.

Elizabeth’s article proves that a nation’s past does play an important role in both its present and its politics, and asks that the general reader be aware of current concerns faced by the scholar of British history. Heavens, if a Germanicist sitting at home in her wellies reading History Today with a cup of tea can be abreast current Celtic scholarly concerns, anyone can.

Elizabeth’s article, Closing the Book on Celtic, is available: History Today Vol. 62, Issue 8 (August, 2012).

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