Crowns and Helmets

I am currently writing about the transfer of power in East Anglia in the years 634/5, when Sigeberht retired into his monastery at Beodricesworth (Bury St Edmunds) and Ethelric became sole king of the East Angles.

Now, I have been unable to find out when Anglo-Saxon kings were first ‘crowned’ and I had been mulling over the idea of giving Ethelric some sort of ceremonial wreath – of oak leaves, perhaps. But this does not really ring true to me.

However, last night I was reading Bernard Cornwell’s new book, The Empty Throne, and he has a Mercian ceremony involving a helmet. Does this make more sense? Helmets are certainly rare objects archaeologically, and those that have been uncovered do seem to be invested with symbols of status and power.

So were Anglo-saxon rulers helmeted rather than crowned?

Posted in Anglo-Saxon Law, Historical characters | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

St Guthlac and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

This is not the sort of thing that I normally write about. Indeed, I am about to wax rather ahistorical; not me at all. However, three things came together last night and the thought that they fired off in my brain amused me. So perhaps it will amuse someone else out there.

1: Last week, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ran a number of programmes designed to raise awareness about mental health issues. One of the programmes was a three-part documentary filmed in the mental health unit of a major Sydney Hospital. In many ways, it was positive because all the patients featured on screen got better. We know this because it was an integral part of the show. They had to give consent for the footage to be shown whilst mentally well, in addition to giving consent to be filmed whilst unwell and in hospital.

All the same, it was a sobering documentary and taught me a great deal about mental illness.

2: yesterday, as a part of research for my novel, set in seventh century Britain, I re-read Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac, written c. 730-740. Guhlac lived c. 673-714. Now Guthlac was a member of the Mercian nobility and grew up with a privileged background, before putting together a band of warlike friends and fighting somewhere on Mercia’s borders, almost certainly against the Welsh.

Opening page of Felix's Life of Guthlac, via Wikimedia Commons

Opening page of Felix’s Life of Guthlac, via Wikimedia Commons

According to his hagiographer, he lay waste to towns, villages and fortresses with fire and sword, collected booty and engaged in plunder and slaughter until the enemy was exhausted. But then he had a change of heart, became a monk, and eventually a hermit on an island in the Fens. There, he battled all manner of demons, possibly encouraged by the fact that he set up house inside a robbed out burial mound.

Image from the Guthlac Roll, c. 1210, a visual history of his life in the British Library, via Wikimedia Commons

Image from the Guthlac Roll, c. 1210, a visual history of his life in the British Library, via Wikimedia Commons

3: Yesterday evening, I watched another television program, this time about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among Australian soldiers who have returned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Well, I thought – well I never I thought – it is almost as if Guthlac was suffering from PTSD

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Layered Lives, or thoughts from Hong Kong

Sarah Woodbury, the author of the Gareth and Gwen series of detective novels set in medieval Wales, has chosen for Gareth to be given land on Anglesey in exactly the site where I open the first book of my trilogy. The photograph above that heads this blog was taken there. I give the land to Heled the Tall, daughter of a king of Gwynedd, sister to King Cadfan of Gwynedd and widow of the last king of Elmet.

When I visit sites like that, I am made powerfully aware of the sense of other lives lived there in the past, layer upon layer of people looking at the same sea and walking on the same sand. The people come and go; the trees and flower and shrubs come and go; but the landscape endures, season by season, and some landscapes are more evocative than others. Ruined buildings, of course, testify to past lives in a way that well-maintained buildings do not.

Sitting in a hotel in Kowloon, looking out over Hong Kong harbour, traces of the past are all around me, just as they are in Anglesey, Los Angeles, Lake Titicaca. But here, as in any other thrusting, thriving city, they are hard for me to read. The present is as unavoidable as the humidity, demanding of all the senses.

Partly this is about education, of course. In a city that I know well, like Nottingham, I can read the built environment and make sense of how and why it has come to look the way it does. I can see ghosts of the nineteenth-century manufacturing city, the medieval market town and the early medieval river crossing behind the twenty-first century shopping centres and ring roads.

Writing this makes me realise something about myself, though, that I did not really know before. I grew up in rural England and Wales, life a sequence of farm cottages and tiny village primary schools as my father changed jobs. I should therefore not be surprised if my ability to read the landscape is always greater in the countryside than in urban areas.

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More on Rushlights

Thinking about the rushlight story, these would only have been readily available to the poor where there was easy access to animal fat. This could have been a problem when only the elites ate meat on a regular basis. Perhaps we can envisage a scenario where rushes were collected and stripped and the pith ‘wicks’ dipped in melted fat in the autumn, when animals that could not be fed over the winter were slaughtered?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a range of devices were made for holding rushlights. Unlike wax candles, they don’t drip, so carrying them around was not a problem, but they don’t stand up on their own. The Victorian Web has an interesting little piece by Gertrude Jekyll, the famous English gardener, written in 1904 and it includes some helpful photographs.

See also:

Posted in Anglo-Saxon History | 6 Comments

Flora Britannica

On a recent trip to England, I discovered a marvellous book: Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica (Chatto & Windus, London, 1996).

This is not a dry encyclopaedia of plant descriptions but rather a wonderful social history of human relationships with the plant world and of the changing symbolic and utilitarian meanings of plants. Most of the stories relate to living memory, but there is also a great deal of plant lore that hints at earlier understandings. There is also an enormous body of very useful information on when particular species were introduced to the British Isles.

Mabey makes use of contributions from many thousands of members of the public, as well as his own research. Among other concepts, this book documents how intensely local, personal and important plants are as a part of the autobiographies of modern Britons. Plant lore is not a thing of the past, as the following example demonstrates.

Concerning Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), Mabey provides us with the sort of information that we might expect: that it was ‘once planted by houses as a protection against witches…’ (p. 203), but he also provides us with rather more surprising modern detail. In the Isle of Man, it would seem, crosses made from rowan twigs and bound with wool ‘taken from the hedge. If the wool is from the native Loaghtyn sheep, so much the better.’ are still put up above the lintels of houses on May Eve, when it is also considered a good thing to have primroses in the house. (pp 203-4).

But this book also contains many little gems relevant to early medieval Britain. Dyers greenweed (Genista tinctoria), despite the name, produces a yellow dye, not green. Mabey explains that in the area around Kendal, the wool was first dyed yellow with dyers greenweed, then mordanted with alum, before being dipped in a vat of woad to produce ‘Kendal Green’. Now alum does not occur naturally in Britain and in medieval times it was imported from Italy. However, Mabey tells us of an early medieval alternative. Remains of dyers greenweed were found in the Viking levels in York together with residues of clubmoss (Diphasium complanatum). The moss is native to Scandinavia, not Britain, and can be used as a mordant in place of alum.

To take another example, field maple (Acer campestre), not to be confused with the introduced sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), is an ancient native British tree. The wood was much favoured by medieval wood-carvers and both the harp found in the Sutton Hoo ship burial and the harp excavated from the Saxon barrow at Taplow were made of maple (p. 264).

But the story that really set me thinking was about rush lights. These were made from the soft rush (Juncus effusus) and feature in many a nineteenth-century novel as the light source of the poor. Mabey reminds us that Gilbert White wrote about rush lights in his Natural History of Selborne (1789) and so did William Cobbett in his Cottage Economy (1822). But how far back in time were rush lights used? 17th century? 16th century? Does anybody out there know? Was this an early medieval light source as an alternative to the (always expensive) wax candle?

As might be expected, this book is full of information on traditional herbal remedies, but I was interested to see that Mabey conducts his own assessment of the efficacy of herbal remedies, based partly on the number of his contributors who vouch for the cures. Four plants, he found, stand out as being particularly efficacious: Celandine, Comfrey, Dandelion and Feverfew.

In a way, these are just ‘the usual suspects’, but I note that only dandelion is cited as effective for its traditional use as a diuretic (common names revolve around the wet-the-bed, piss-the-bed theme). Feverfew, it would appear, is effective in helping to reduce the frequency of migraines, rather than in reducing fever. Comfrey poultices are good for bruises and sprains, despite the common names revolving around the theme of ‘bone-knit’. While celandine is definitely not good for eye problems, whatever the Romans and subsequent Anglo-Saxon herbals may have said, but the juice is widely claimed to be efficacious in removing warts.

All in all, this book provides a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in conjuring up the feel of the natural world in the past and I would highly recommend it to all historical novelists, as well as to social and environmental historians.

Posted in Ancient Welsh History, Anglo-Saxon History, Landscape, Seventh-Century medicine and health beliefs | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

East Anglia in Spring

I am currently visiting family in England and over the weekend, we drove to Suffolk and stayed in Woodbridge, just across the River Deben from Sutton Hoo. It was my first visit to the site and although I found the museum slightly disappointing, the burial mounds themselves are very atmospheric. The weather was cool and windy, but spring in England is just so extravagantly lush and shaggy compared to Brisbane that I found the whole experience quite delightful.

The River Deben is tidal and the tide was well and truly out whilst we were walking around on Friday afternoon, leaving all the boats high and dry on the mud. There is a tide mill in Woodbridge, restored to working order, which is fascinating. I have never seen one before.

On Saturday, we went to Orford, just a bit further up the coast and equally wet and windy. The River Ore has a long, southerly route out to the sea, leaving a long narrow island/spit of land accessible by ferry. There is a 12th century castle. The outer walls etc have long gone but the keep has been restored and you can climb rather a lot of spiral staircases to the roof and views out to sea.

All in all, the visit gave me a very useful glimpse of the whole ‘feel’ of that part of the Suffolk coast and a reminder of just how muddy life must have been in seventh-century Britain. I am reminded of a reality TV show, many years ago, where a group of people set out to live an iron-age life for several months. At the end, they said that the main thing they missed about modern life was gumboots!

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St Oswald’s Bones

I have just finished reading The Pagan Lord by Bernard Cornwell. Among other things, the plot covers Cornwell’s version of the removal of St Oswald’s bones from a grave somewhere south of Lincoln, to form part of the Christian armamentarium of Aethelfled’s kingdom of Mercia, in her struggles against the pagan norsemen.

Some months ago, I read The Bone Thief by V.M Whitworth and her plot revolves centrally around the same move of St Oswald’s bones. So I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast the two fictionalised versions of the same event.

St Oswald’s head is supposedly in Durham cathedral and one of his arms is reputed to have found its way from Bamburgh to Peterborough, but the rest of him was moved first to Bardsey Abbey in Lincolnshire and then, in about 910 some time after the abbey was burned by the Danes, to Gloucester, where they remain.

12th century portrait of St Oswald from Durham cathedral, where his head is buried. Photo Wikimedia Commons

12th century portrait of St Oswald from Durham cathedral, where his head is buried. Photo Wikimedia Commons

Firstly, although very different in style, these are both wonderful examples of the art of writing historical fiction. Cornwell’s hero, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, grabs the reader by the throat and hauls us bodily through his latest adventure. As in previous episodes of his marvellous saga, Uhtred is introduced slap bang in the middle of a difficult situation and we see him extricate himself with a mixture of quick-thinking and violence, tempered by great care for those he loves. As always, the battle scenes are the standard against which all other fictional medieval battle scenes must now be measured. And St Oswald’s bones? Well, I am not giving anything away when I say that with Cornwell/Uhtred’s typical cynicism, the bones that are recovered could belong to anybody and the hunt for them in the first place is the result of a Danish trick, designed to lure Mercian forces away from home. And as for Aethelfled, the Lady of Mercia (daughter of King Alfred), well she is as feisty and decisive as we might expect of a heroine beloved by Uhtred.

Whitworth, however, paints on a completely different canvas. We see the world from the perspective of Wulfgar, a cleric in Aethelfled’s service. This hero also loves the Lady of Mercia, but is certainly not her lover! Instead, he worships a delicate and distant being, struggling to escape from the machinations of the men who surround her. This is a far more historically probable Aethelfled, with extraordinary constraints on her freedom of action as a woman. Wulfgar is charged with the task of retrieving St Oswald’s bones from enemy territory and sets off with only minimal help. The contrast with Uhtred is extreme. Here we have a hero who struggles to ride a horse and has no military prowess, but he has enormous courage. Some of the strongest passages in the book are where Whitworth describes Wulfgar’s encounters with fearsome Danish chieftains. She conjures up the threat of bullies and gangs of ruffians just brilliantly.

I am not sure, but I think there are now four books in the Uhtred of Bebbanburg saga and Cornwell promises us another. Write on, I say, write on.

So far s I can tell, Whitworth has only written two stories about Wulfgar (The Traitors’ Pit is the second.) Please, please write another! The world needs more of your vision of the tenth century.

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The Limits of Wergeld

I am currently wrestling with a problem and I would very much value any advice as to where I might find the answer.

In theory, as I understand it, when someone was killed, there was a price on their life which varied with their social status. The killer and their kin were responsible for paying this to the kin of the victim. In the law codes, the amount is usually given in shillings (200 for a free ceorl, for instance). There was very little coin in early seventh-century Britain, so I assume that compensation was paid in kind, in cows for instance. So far so good.

But in working out how to incorporate this practice into my novel, I have encountered two problems.

1: what sort of killings could lead to compensation (or the alternative which compensation was designed to avoid: blood feud)? In particular, given the number of small kingdoms in early seventh-century Britain, when were the kin of anyone killed in battle entitled to any form of compensation? Presumably, during skirmishes between neighbouring lords, the answer was yes, whereas for skirmishes between ‘kings’ the answer was no. That seems to have been at least partly what the regulations concerning wergeld were about: enforcing ‘royal’ power and confining the right to kill to kings. But has anyone written about this? I would really value more information.

2: Who was entitled to receive the wergeld? Was it only male kin, or did female kin qualify? And to what degree? Father’s brothers yes? But what about mother’s brothers? Sons and brothers yes, but what about sisters and daughters? And if there were no surviving kin of the right degree, who got the wergeld? The king? A more local lord? Or were the killer and their kin home free?

Can anyone help with this? I have done my best, combing through various translations of the surviving seventh century law codes, but they don’t seem to hold the answers.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon Law | Tagged | 9 Comments

Women in the Seventh Century

In response to Michelle’s comment on my last post, I thought I would give special prominence to a link that she provided to a late seventh-century Irish law code.

Reading through this is a particularly powerful way of glimpsing the gulf between the way that I, a well educated, middle class, twenty-first century British/Australian woman, look at the world and the views of seventh-century Irish elite men. As an historian, I suppose that I have always seen it as being my business to try and elucidate the differences between thinking ‘then’ and thinking ‘now’. At least, that his been what I have tried to do since taking a course many years ago on writing history from diaries with the late lamented Professor Rhys Isaac. But the Law of Adamnan is simply astonishingly confronting, not least because although it purports to be about protecting women, it is actually mainly about protecting children (read boys) and clerics and about paying compensation to the church.

This is clause 3 from the Law as it appears in the above link to Fordham’s Medieval Sourcebook:

3. The work which the best women had to do, was to go to battle and battlefield, encounter and camping, fighting and hosting, wounding and slaying. On one side of her she would carry her bag of provisions, on the other her babe. Her wooden pole upon her back. Thirty feet long it was, and had on one end an iron hook, which she would thrust into the tress of some woman in the opposite battalion. Her husband behind her, carrying a fence-stake in his hand, and flogging her on to battle. For [2] at that time it was the head of a woman, or her two breasts, which were taken as trophies.

I know, I know, we recognise the world of the oldest sagas and of course the law is playing up the ‘bad old days’ for the sake of emphasising the good brought by Adomnan, but all I can say is, we’ve come a long way. Or have we only come a long way in some parts of some countries?

Incidentally, one of the commonest units of value in the Law of Adomnan, used as a reckoning for compensation for offences including rape and murder, is a ‘cumal’. A cumal was a female slave. This leads to clauses such as the following (again copied from the link above to Fordham’s Medieval Sourcebook site):

50. If it be rape of a maiden, seven half-cumals (is the fine) for it. If a hand (is put) upon her or in her girdle, ten ounces for it. If a hand (is put) under her dress to defile her, three ounces and seven cumals for it. If there be a blemish or her head or her eyes or in the face or in the ear or nose or tooth or tongue or foot or hand, seven cumals are (to be paid) for it. If it be a blemish on any other part of her body, seven half-cumals are (to be paid) for it. If it be tearing of her dress, seven ounces and one cumal for it.

Now presumably the woman could be compensated by the equivalent value in cows or in silver, etc., but on the face of it, the compensation for rape or assault resulting in permanent injury was payment in female slaves. What sort of implications can we draw, I wonder, about a society that uses female slaves as a unit of value?

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Sex, Violence and the Seventh Century – oh, and Slavery

Recently, I read a review of Slaves and Warriors in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800-1200 by David Wyatt (Leiben and Boston, Brill, 2009). The review was by Richard Marsden and published in issue five of the Kelvingrove Review.

I have not yet got hold of a copy of Wyatt’s book, so what follows is based entirely on Marsden’s review. However, the story seems to be very thought-provoking. If I understand it correctly, Wyatt is arguing that rape and enslavement following anything from a raid or skirmish to a full-scale battle was an institutionalised right of passage for members of the warrior elite.

The picture that this conjures up is quite startlingly awful – as if fit young men were not only encouraged to engage in violence and rape, but that the moral tone of society was set by this pattern of behaviour. Wyatt apparently goes on to argue that the Christian church was instrumental in modifying this pattern, at least partly by attempts to confine sex within the bounds of marriage. This puts a whole new (for me, at least) spin on the impact of the church.

So, this set me to thinking. Firstly, does my admittedly ‘cosy’ version of the seventh century do a grave injustice to seventh century women and also, incidentally, to the Christian church?

Secondly, how does this illuminate the legend of St Winifred?

Now Winifred was theWelsh saint beloved of Brother Cadfael in the murder mystery series written by Ellis Peters. Her name is associated with a well on the western bank of the estuary of the River Dee, which is still a popular site of pilgrimage. There are many versions of Winifred’s story, but the core component is attempted rape, followed by murder. The man in question, usually called Caradog or Caradoc, cut off her head with his sword. The head rolled down hill and a spring miraculously emerged, which has been there ever since. Beuno (later Saint Beuno) put her head back in place, covered her with his cloak and went away to pray. When he returned, she was alive and went on to be Abbess of two institutions, one near the site of her beheading and the other inland, in Snowdonia at Gwytherin. Caradog was either killed by demons or by Winifred’s brother, Owain.


Stained glass windows in Shrewsbury Abbey depicting the he martyrdom of St Winifred. Her body was moved to the abbey in the 12th century

Stained glass windows in Shrewsbury Abbey depicting the he martyrdom of St Winifred. Her body was moved to the abbey in the 12th century

There is no suggestion that Winifred was at risk of being enslaved after her rape. Caradog, it would seem, wanted to ‘marry’ her, but she had already decided to become a nun. However, this decision is given as the reason why she refused Caradog, not that she did not like him or that she wanted to marry someone else. And indeed, I am tempted to speculate that a decision to enter the church was the only viable option for seventh-century women who did not want to marry – whether a particular person, or in general.

Bede seemed to believe that only celibate women were truly virtuous. I do not recall anywhere that he celebrated motherhood, for instance. I also don’t recall that he has much to say about the virtues of celibacy for men, either, only for women, which is interesting in itself.

So is/was Winifred a touchstone for all those women ‘married’ against their will and/or raped and enslaved? Resistance was possible; it might even succeed; and it would be applauded by the church, if not by men in general? I wonder …

Posted in Early Christianity, Murder | Tagged , | 2 Comments