Seminary LXV: pagans, shamans, teenage vampires and John Blair

When the first e-mail on two successive days has to be an apology for something that went on the blog the day before, which you then have to edit, and you’re getting people’s names wrong in comments, many would advise that you should step away from the keyboard for a short while and get some sleep. I heard this advice “that I giv’ meself”, but I have so much stuff to write up… So let’s see if I can recover some generosity of spirit and discretion of approach with a seminar write-up, to wit, John Blair presenting to the Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar to the title “Can we know anything about the beliefs of the laity in pre-Christian and early Christian England?” on 27th April just gone.

Zoomorph biting its own back, detail from a seventh-century gold brooch, Fitzwilliam Museum M.63-1904

Zoomorph biting its own back, detail from a seventh-century gold brooch, Fitzwilliam Museum M.63-1904

Blair started by asking, as a framing question, whether we can say what was in the mind of an Anglo-Saxon convert to Christianity. There are of course Bede’s famous exempla, the sparrow flying through the hall and so forth, but Blair wanted to use archæological and anthropological evidence to put flesh on the bones, or in some cases add bones to the flesh I suppose. Starting with pre-Christian beliefs, he was suitably circumspect but pointed out the pronounced focus on animals in ritual and art from that period, especially animals fighting each other, birds and snakes, birds and fish, zoomorphs at each others’ necks, etc., which he suggested might be good and bad principles of violence locked in combat, and also their presence in ritual deposits.1 (This included a nice instance from the letters of Saint Boniface condemning interlace, the same sort of interlace perhaps that has been found carved into the portals at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, indicating that views differed.) The animal focus led him to parallels with shamanic religions still or recently recorded, though he stressed firstly that the parallels are inexact, and secondly that those religions are (as m’colleague T’anta Wawa would doubtless insist) much altered by exposure to modern society, his example being a Mongolian (I think) shaman woman photographed rolling up to a ritual in the 1960s in her chauffeur-driven car. All the same, the idea of mediating supernatural forces expressed as animals may provide a parallel.

Modern illustration of St Sefan of Perm cutting down a sacred tree of the Komi people in the 1380s

Modern illustration of St Sefan of Perm cutting down a sacred tree of the Komi people in the 1380s

He next spoke about shrines, of which we know very few, and which may have been solely vegetational in many cases, but he suggested that there was an increasing trend to monumentalisation by 600 or so, barrows, burials, cairns and so on, and also to development of complex sites, such as Yeavering, as well as the adaptation of older monuments like Iron Age and Bronze Age barrows.2 This, to me, sounded very much like what Martin Carver‘s been saying about Sutton Hoo since the early 1990s and it was odd not to hear him name-checked; certainly the same idea came up, that this might be a reaction to an incoming, coherent and monumentalising Christianity.3 Another change that Blair highlighted from this same sort of time was an increased manufacture of amulets (though this bothered me: surely the evidence is of increased survival, which isn’t the same thing) and a shift in the amulets’ cores from carnivore teeth to beaver teeth, especially in women’s graves.4 This struck me as really interesting, but mainly because while apparently demonstrable it seems almost inexplicable in any terms we can so far reach. It does illustrate that there is source material for beliefs in this kind of study, though. Some of these amulets are Christian, too, as demonstrated by Scriptural inscriptions in them, and here of course obvious parallels came from the Staffordshire Hoard’s gold strip.

Seventh-century Anglo-Saxon beaver-tooth pendant, on display at the British Museum

Seventh-century Anglo-Saxon beaver-tooth pendant, on display at the British Museum

The next section of the talk focused on Viking evidence, for which Blair relied pretty much on Neil Price‘s book The Viking Way; this seems well-regarded, but I hadn’t heard of it before, I must fix this.5 From that Blair drew us a picture of women seers, women authoritative within the household; if this went for pagan Anglo-Saxon England too, Blair wondered, how does this affect convert-period monasticism? He mentioned double monasteries under women like Barking Abbey, but one could also think to Bede’s Letter to Egbert about family monasteries, and that would seem to support this picture less well.6 The possible rôle of some women as mediators with the supernatural however had a darker side, as revealed in burials that contained bodies bound up so as to be unable to walk, staked through the heart and so on.7 He drew a parallel between these bodies that, it was apparently feared, would not die properly, and the incorrupt bodies of some saints, in particular two roughly contemporary cases, none other than St Æthelthryth of Ely, found incorrupt at translation with great celebrations huzzah huzzah &c., and a 12-year-old girl put into a barrow at a cemetery of the same period just down the road, on the perimeter of whose attendant burials was a decapitated disjointed woman whose legs had been tied and who had been buried with a load of amulets, the disjuncture apparently having happened after she’d been in the grave some time.8 There is a reasonable if small literature about such ‘walking dead’, of course, to which Blair himself has just contributed, but the parallels with Audrey would never have struck me otherwise, and as he said, there would have been people in Ely who were aware of both exhumations.9

Face-down burial with legs bent found at Whitehall Roman villa, 2003

Face-down burial with legs bent found at Whitehall Roman villa, 2003; the webpage insists this isn't a deviant burial, and it's centuries too early, but by gosh it looks the part

Words like ‘witch’ and ‘vampire’ are of course hanging all round this, and shouldn’t really be used because they only get defined in the way we now understand them in the sixteenth century, and it’s not clear that we’re talking about any of the same complex of beliefs here, even if there is a clear relation. It is however clear in the evidence that most of these burials, not all but most of those where it can be checked, were young women. This, as with the beaver teeth, seems to me to be real evidence of something of which we haven’t yet got clear sight. The other thing, though, is that they increase in incidence at about the same period as the other changes Blair had focussed on, monumentalisation, ‘beaverisation’, and so on. Blair’s overall picture, then, was that in the conversion period disruption to earlier religious practice, most specifically burial, rises towards the end of the seventh century and reaches a peak, after which it almost disappears. A scholar called Dunn, whose work I don’t know, apparently suggests that this may be related to the plague of those decades,10 but Blair adduced parallels from anthropological work in Greece where the cause of upset was changes to family structure, because a lot of importance was placed on the flow of blood within families and that was now being constrained. In Anglo-Saxon England the result of this pressure, on whatever we choose to blame it, seems to have been manifested as fears about the dead, which could obviously be tied up with ideas of resurrection in the body and so on but might have equally been a crystallisation of non-Christian belief needing to make itself evident, if Carver be followed. Interesting stuff! And it will be really interesting to see how far Blair can make this stuff go, because after reading Nancy Caciola’s article I would have said there was little more that could be done. In fact, it would seem that, as I should maybe already have known from Andrew Reynolds’s new book that I haven’t yet had time to read,11 the answers may yet lie in the soil…


1. Blair’s cite for this, which I crib from his really useful bibliography handout, was Tania M. Dickinson, “Symbols of Protection: the significance of animal-ornamented shields in early Anglo-Saxon England” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 49 (London 2005), pp. 192-239.

2. Blair’s handout suggests that we should read J. Blair, “Anglo-Saxon Pagan Shrines and their Prototypes” in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 8 (Oxford 1995), pp. 1-28. All I know about Yeavering, meanwhile, I got from the original excavation report, Brian Hope-Taylor’s Yeavering: an Anglo-British centre of early Northumbria (London 1977), but a recent conversation at Heavenfield alerts me to the fact that there is more recent work, though I don’t know what to recommend from it. Michelle may be able to add more…

3. Most obviously in M. Carver, Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings? (London 1998, repr. 2000, 2005), but there is a swathe more indexed here along with some classic pictures of the man himself through the ages.

4. Blair cited Audrey Meaney, Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 96 (Oxford 1981).

5. Neil Price, The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (Oxford 2002), currently being revised after at least some critical adulation, or so it seems from this page.

6. Bede’s harangue about false monasteries does seem to include some that were occupied by members of both sexes, indeed by married couples, but there’s nothing in it that seems to me to justify any idea that women ruled these mixed communities; he sees them as entirely secular ventures of implicitly male landholders (Bede, Letter to Egbert, cc. 12-15).

7. Here Blair’s cite was himself, J. Blair, “The Dangerous Dead in Early Medieval England” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine Karkov, Janet Nelson and David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Aldershot 2009), pp. 539-559. I do wish Patrick could have seen some of this stuff.

8. Published by Sam Lucy, Richard Newman, Natasha Dodwell, Catherine Hills, Michiel Dekker, Tamsin O’Connell, Ian Riddler and Penelope Walton Rogers, “The Burial of a Princess? The Later Seventh-Century Cemetery at Westfield Farm, Ely” in Antiquaries Journal Vol. 89 (London 2009), pp. 81-141, the ‘princess’ in the barrow pp. 84-91 and the teenage vampiredeviant pp. 91-94. Told you this bibliography was good!

9. I would first think, always, of Nancy Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture” in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 3-45, online here, but see now also Blair, “Dangerous Dead”, obviously. Caciola’s article also uses lots of juicy evidence from the Continent.

10. Blair’s bibliography gives this as M. Dunn, The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons (2009), and full details appear to be Marilyn Dunn, The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons c. 597-c. 700: discourses of life, death and afterlife (London 2009), as you can see from this review by Barbara Yorke at Reviews in History, where the work is called “erudite, but sometimes controversial”.

11. Andrew Reynolds, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs (Oxford 2009), which is one of the few things not in the bibliography.

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15 responses to “Seminary LXV: pagans, shamans, teenage vampires and John Blair

  1. Well, I can try. Here is the url for an interview I did years ago on the cemetery at Bamburgh that shows a transition between Britons and Anglo-Saxons.

    http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/4/Bamburgh.html

    There is also a newish book out on research on Yeavering since Brian Hope-Taylor.

    The plague certainly made people revert to their old practices. Bede refers to people going back to their old amulets etc when faced with the plague in the Life of Cuthbert and the History. Sussex was an area that had to be converted several times because they would revert when faced with an epidemic.

    The face down grave above looks like someone who was kneeling before falling or being pushed in the grave, maybe even trussed up in that position. Any signs of execution?

    Face down burial always suggests to me that they were still (or recently) alive when they were thrown in the grave. Whether alive or dead there is no reason to lay someone out face down. On the other hand, if you are throwing them in with no concern for the grave, then face down is probably fairly common.

  2. Price’s Viking Way is pretty cool — I scored a copy of the 1st edn (from Oxbow, I think) shortly before heading west-over-sea. I like it well enough that I may well put up with whatever Herculean labours are necessary for me to score the eventual 2nd edn, however miniscule (or not) the changes might be. That said, and much though it is right up my righteous old folk-and-myth alley, I wish there was more similar and relatively recent work in its vein — partially because there should just be more of this stuff :) but also partially because Price seems to have a corner on the market and it would be fun to hear some other voices. Nothing against Price’s work! I just like to have second opinions even when the first seems pretty good.

    • It does seem from the reviews and blurb like ‘hard folklore’, like Alaric Hall’s book on elves in Anglo-Saxon England, and there should be more of this stuff, I agree. There’s a chap at Cardiff working on masculinity whose name I have to look up—aha, David Wyatt—who is using the same sort of approaches but with a much less total scope. There must be others, but I don’t know who…

  3. A shift in the type of amulet could indicate a different reason for wearing it. That could certainly point toward the plague for the seventh and possibly early 8th century. Carnivore teeth for men in particular could be amulets for success in war. Beavers could be more for fertility or healing.

    I haven’t heard anything about the 12 year old in a barrow before… How do you know the woman with the amulets was related to the girls burial?

    As for Æthelthryth she wasn’t the first saint to be translated, I don’t think. Oswald’s incorrupt arm predated this and his bones were moved a couple times. Cuthbert would soon follow as a complete incorruptible.

    As for wise women, Hild and Abbe would be better examples. They were both counselors of kings. Really when you think about it how rare is it that the synod of whitby would be held at a double convent run by a woman? How may other synods were held at double houses or convents?

    • I’m not sure I’d want to try and gender the symbolism of the times, myself, but I gathered that such explanations have been suggested. The girl with the amulets is one of a circle of burials placed around the barrow in which the alleged princess is buried, and so appears to be topographically associated; also, I think these were two of the burials that were carbon-dated, though the article linked would be the place to check that. It was only dug in 2008, so not hearing about it yet is forgiveable. It’s quite local to me and I’d still missed it.

      I didn’t, and neither did Blair, pick Æthelthryth because she was first to be translated, but because she was famously free from decay and so, apparently, were these walking girls.

      Lastly, as to synods I couldn’t begin to guess, but I imagine it’s probably not the only one. There’s a fairly specific window during which double monasteries are a lot more common than otherwise, though, isn’t there? Hild did get mentioned, not least because of her fame as a healer too.

  4. My friends who are more up-to-date on Scandinavian matters seem rather divided on Price’s work: they all say he raises interesting points, but I gather he does fall into the rather dangerous trap of reading sources from the 12th and 13th centuries and lining them up with archaeology from the 9th and 10th centuries. To then go from that, to speculating as to Anglo-Saxon practices in the 6th century, strikes me as quite a leap (though, to be fair, it sounds like Blair was using the book more as inspiration for what kinds of things one might anticipate finding, rather than mechanically mapping the findings onto England).

    • He was indeed very good at avoiding anything that could be classed as ‘mechanical mapping’, but the danger of anachronism still looms I think. On the other hand, a model is better than having no idea at all…

      • Yes, the problems Price faces are faced by pretty much everyone who is trying to look at both written and archaeological sources for pre-conversion Scandinavia: inevitably, one ends up using post-conversion sources from several centuries after the murky and effectively prehistorical periods one is really interested in. This is, of course, not without value (and is, of course, little different than many other scholars in many other fields must likewise do). But it requires great care, and (certainly in the case of Scandinavia) often been done badly and uncritically in the past. Scholars are often drawn to this sort of material through an explicit or implicit “Romantic streak” — a streak they must be then very wary of when actually doing the work!

        But, then, all this is why it would help to have more voices in such debates, so the watchers can all watch each other. :)

  5. I’d give an eyetooth to hear/read Blair’s paper! Many thanks for posting.

    Two notions I had reading your thoughts:

    1) The switch from carnivore/predator to beaver tooth might not be anything to do with culture but with environment. I’m just guessing, but it seems to me possible that there were fewer top predators (big cats, wolves, bears) around in, say, the 7th C than, say, the 6th. (As I say, I’m guessing, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find there was increased trade in the 7th C, stemming from increased production, from, in turn, increased farming and, very possibly, clearance of land previously wild.)

    2) I can absolutely see the notion of the dead rising being connected to plague for one simple reason: mass burials. You throw a bunch o’ bodies in a pit and when they swell the ground heaves open; it will look as though the dead are trying to escape. There are eye witness reports of this from the Great Famine in 18th C Ireland–though sadly I can’t remember the reference offhand.

    Also, for what it’s worth, I’ve always believed that Hild was very much involved in the deliberations of the Whitby synod–that is, with the decisions/agenda put together before the actual meeting. I have zero evidence for this but, eh, imagining such thing is what I do :)

    • I quite like that first point, not least because in reading it it strikes me that either way, we are still talking about a big and dangerous-looking tooth. Increased land clearance and a shift away from hunter-gathering (or even warrior-dominated levy-taking) would however also cause a change in social ideology, though, wouldn’t you guess? I wonder about cause and effect here.

      As to the plague pits, that’s also a thing worth considering, but it again has the problem that it only operates when there is mass mortality, rather than the rest of the century. Also, Blair was (perhaps wrongly, who knows) considering that these bodies attracted attention because they were not decaying. I mean, I want to know why they picked that girl’s grave to reopen. Were they already suspicious of her when they buried her with her amulets, and were they habitually checking in on such graves? Or what? There are just too many variables here, but the practise Blair was describing does seem to be highly individuated, not the kind of zombie apocalypse scenario you’d get from a plague pit bursting…

      As to Hild, given it was in her nunnery and her royal connections, one would imagine she got some kind of input, wouldn’t one? The extent to which they’d have had to simply ignore her otherwise doesn’t fit at all with the respect we are told she was accorded. So I think you possibly do have some evidence, even if it’s Bede being partisan… :-)

      • Cause and effect, chicken and egg: yep, a bit of everything when it comes to the tooth amulets.

        I think mass burials and the ground-heaving afterwards would have been so traumatic that, for a generation afterwards, anyone regarded as uncanny in any way would have had special precautions applied to their burial–and obsessive checking afterwards.

        Throw in, perhaps (total speculation) that a young girls, strange in life, might have starved herself to death (anorexia) and very possibly the rate of decay would have been slower than usual, leading, perhaps, to apparently miraculous preservation.

        As I say, pure speculation :)

  6. highlyeccentric

    Oooh, I think I need to read this ‘dangerous dead’ article – sounds like fun :D

    • I think you could probably find a lot to interest you in that volume. I’ve just looked again at the contents list and realised that I probably have to buy it at Leeds. It’s not cheap, but so much stuff that I should already know…

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