Seminar CXLVI: heroes and gods at Old English courts

My declaration of intent has proved sadly hollow, and what was feared has come to pass: I am more than a year behind with my seminar reports. I live in hope of catching up, but the time to do so is proving hard to find. Nonetheless I plug on, and today I do so with the fact that on the 17th October 2012, the David Wilson Lecture was given to the British Museum and University College London Institute of Archaeology Joint Seminar and the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar by Professor Barbara Yorke of Winchester, with the title, “Weland, Woden and Anglo-Saxon Court Culture, c. 600-900″, and it was really interesting.

The earliest manuscript of the Old English Boethius, British Library MS Cotton Otho A vi

The earliest manuscript of the Old English Boethius, British Library MS Cotton Otho A vi: not the easiest read… Image licensed under Creative Commons.

What Professor Yorke was trying to do with this piece was find ways to describe the culture of Anglo-Saxon royal courts once princely burial fades out in the early seventh century, depriving us of our best index of what people in power thought was impressive and culturally significant. With no Sutton Hoo treasures to guide her, she therefore resorted to literature on heroes and their deeds, in which relatively few texts, and not least of them the Old English translation of Bœthius’s Consolation of Philosophy, which is quite a step away from its original, have to do quite a lot of work. That forces one to rely on figures who come up a lot, and there the obvious ones are Woden, probably the head of the Anglo-Saxon pagan pantheon, and Weland, a smith-hero of fable most famously depicted on the Franks Casket as you see here.

Front panel of the Franks Casket, in the British Museum, showing Weland the Smith on the right and the Adoration of the Magi on the left;

Front panel of the Franks Casket, in the British Museum, showing Weland the Smith on the right and the Adoration of the Magi on the left; image from Wikimedia Commons

To categorise Woden as god and Weland as man is probably too simple, however: by the time Bede wrote about Woden, which he was seemingly happy to do, he was no more than a distant ancestor shared by many of the Anglo-Saxon royal families, with a father as well as sons, eheumerised into humanity, whereas Weland, though likewise mortal when he shows up, was a worker in precious metal (at least for the Bœthius writer) whose forge is eternal and who escapes captivity by ascending into the sky in a flying suit he’s made.1 In that last it’s hard to pick what references might be being made: Dædalus, another famous craftsman, is an obvious one but Ascension by a character both human and divine would also have had other resonances in the late ninth or early tenth centuries… The depictions on the Franks Casket throw Weland and other stories we don’t recognise into a sea of references from the Bible, Roman history and Roman myth as if all these things had a message to communicate to the same audience. And the Bœthius author doesn’t stop there, Heracles also turns up with very similar qualities (demi-god, worker in metal, cunning). There’s a particular importance to the word `craft’ here, which has the sense of `crafty’ as much as `craftsman’ in the Old English, if not rather more so. These were all characters who could see cunning and unconventional solutions to problems, be they diverting a river through a mucky stable or penetrating enemy strongholds in disguise, to pick two possible examples. This, along with bravery and fearsomeness, seem very likely to be characteristics people thought important for kings, rulers and nobles to possess throughout this period, but it is definitely nice to be able to show some basis for believing this in evidence of the time.2

Scutchamer Knob, Oxfordshire

Scutchamer Knob, Oxfordshire, also known as Cuckhamsley Hill and behind that, sometime long before, as Cwichelmes Hlaew, `Cwichelm’s Barrow`. Sure, it looks nice enough in daylight… Image from Wikimedia Commons

The other line of argument, a lesser one, that was pursued which might interest readers of this blog was an attempt to link the Old English Bœthius back to the court of King Alfred, in full knowledge of Malcolm Godden’s arguments against this.3 This was only tentative, and really more aimed at getting us to think of Alfred as this sort of king than to categorically refute Godden. After all, consider the Alfred of Asser: an artificer (clocks, ships), a lateral thinker and an organiser (clocks, again, but also fortresses, army rotas), a warrior and, if not ascending to Heaven by his own direct agency at least aiming that way due to suffering and great responsibility piously met.4 This formed part of a larger final point about the continuing sacral flavour of kingship, with such figures’ burials still being `known’ in the Wessex landscape in Alfred’s time (Scutchamer Knob above being a mangled version of an Old English phrase meaning Cwichelm’s Barrow and Wayland’s Smithy, indeed, so-called in the tenth century too, very close to where Alfred fought the battle of Ashdown).5 In part this was a kind of continuity, no doubt, but it was also a symptom of the great inventiveness of the minds generating our sources in borrowing, adapting and modifying motives from almost anywhere to make the men they praised seem as contemporary as they did ancient. It makes me think of chronology-mashing speculative fiction writers like Michael Moorcock, generating figures like Jerry Cornelius who are (often unwitting) members of many different mythologies simultaneously, or indeed the fun that an unjustly-forgotten author called John James had writing the life story of the man he invented to fit behind the Odin (and perhaps also Woden) myths.6 The writers Alfred and his successors could find may not have been as many as he would have wished, but they should probably not be reckoned any less, well, crafty than ours…


1. The Bede reference is in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book I chapter 15, which you can find in your edition of choice or here. For Weland I have much less idea what to cite: this Encyclopedia Britannica article‘s a start…

2. For an argument that fearsomeness may have been very important to early medieval kingship, see Régine Le Jan, “Timor, amicitia, odium: les liens politiques à l’époque mérovingienne” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 217-226. This, for me, fits quite nicely with Weland’s vengefulness and violence; part of the king’s charisma is that he might just kill you out of hand and no-one could gainsay him. Professor Yorke was arguing that the reading of the Franks Casket that sees it as providing good and bad examples of conduct in the manner of Bede’s History was mistaken, and that they were actually all favourable models including the ultra-violent and genocidal ones, by means of this kind of reasoning.

3. Malcolm Godden, “Did King Alfred Write Anything?” in Medium Ævum Vol. 76 (Oxford 2007), pp. 1-23; cf. Janet Bately, “Did King Alfred Actually Translate Anything: the Integrity of the Alfredian Canon Revisited” in Medium Ævum 78 (2009), pp. 189–215.

4. Asser, De rebus gestis Alfredi regis, most easily accessible in Simon Keynes & Michael Lapidge (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’ and other contemporary sources (London 1983). It is probably off-colour to wonder how many days’ agony in the privy (Asser, c. 74) might have been reckoned to equal three days’ hanging in a tree, or indeed one hanging on a cross, but you have to admit this kind of lecture makes the comparison seem less originally horrible. Not that we know what was actually wrong with Alfred, of course: see Paul Kershaw, “Illness, power and prayer in Asser’s Life of King Alfred” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 10 (Oxford 2001), pp. 201-224.

5. For really illuminating discussion of this kind of thing, including these two cases, see Margaret Gelling, Signposts to the Past: place-names and the history of England (London 1978, repr. 1979), pp. 154-161.

6. With Moorcock it’s just hard to know where to start, he’s written so much and so much of it really quite similarly generic from when he was cranking out a novel every month or so in the sixties. I think his most enjoyably reference-messy one that I’ve read is The Condition of Muzak (London 1977) but you do have to have read about twenty of his other books before the play with the recurrent characters and storylines seems impressive rather than perverse and obscure, I suspect. As for James, the book in question is Votan (London 1966), which is bloody marvellous (both marvellous and bloody) and was succeeded by the hardly-less splendid Not For All the Gold in Ireland (London 1968) which takes the same character stamping unawarely through the world of Celtic myth too.

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3 responses to “Seminar CXLVI: heroes and gods at Old English courts

  1. I am very happy to read your “old” seminar reports—it’s not as if I have the opportunity to attend them, so your reports are much better than never hearing about these things at all. Of course, we’re in different fields, so there’s no problem for me in being behind the times; I’m just curious about what’s happening, rather than needing to keep up with the scholarship. Anyway, thank you for keeping on with these, as you are able.

  2. I came to the comments section to thank you for posting your seminar reports, and to say that the delay doesn’t matter as far as I’m concerned – the reports are still just as interesting to me. I see that someone else has already said the same!
    The subject of heroes and gods and their relationship to the desired attributes of early English kingship is especially interesting to me, because it chimes in with things I have been thinking myself (although from a different perspective).
    So I hope you do keep plugging on, as and when you can. It’s appreciated.

    • Thankyou, that’s good to hear. I continue to hope for the skies to clear of teaching prep., house problems and funding deadlines, but it isn’t yet that they will. I also comfort myself that I am slowly amassing an archive, too, and that for some eventual readers it won’t matter that these things are arriving so disjointedly.

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