Tag Archives: IHR seminars

Seminar CLXXXI: things missing from the Miracles of Saint Faith

Somehow my seminar report backlog is still in May 2013, which was clearly a very busy month, but this was the last thing in it, 29th May when Dr Faye Taylor came to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to give a paper entitled “Miracles and Mutation in Southern France”. This was part of a larger project in which she was evaluating what hagiography can tell us about the social changes enveloped in the interminable debate over the supposed feudal transformation, and here she focused on one of the two pieces of it that have been made most crucial to it, and one beloved of this blog, the Miracles of Saint Faith.1

The reliquary of Sainte-Foi de Conques

The lady herself, in her somewhat incongruous housing at Sainte-Foi de Conques.

To remind you of the nature of this text, it is a four-part collection of miracles performed by Saint Faith, or Sainte Foy, a child martyr under Diocletian who in the ninth century was stolen from her first burial place and set up at the abbey of Conques, where she seems to have liked it and caused a great many miracles while the abbey grew slowly and steadily due to her and its position on the pilgrim route to Compostela. The first two books were written by a northerner, a Chartres-trained clergyman called Bernard of Angers, whose changing reaction to the saint’s cult from shock at the idolatry of the reliquary statue and the processions it got taken on slowly becomes convinced and somewhat blinkered devotion to the cult, so that he wound up collecting its miracles and then updating them. The third and fourth books are however later additions done in-house by anonymous authors, and are worth considering separately. Bernard’s work was very good, though; as I have observed here before, it’s very hard to read the stories he gathered and not get a clear sense of the saint as a sort of gleeful magpie child with powerful friends in Heaven, and I’m not going to attempt to rationalise her out of my prose in what follows.

View of the rooftops of Conques, SW France

View of the rooftops of Conques, SW France. By Peter Campbell (self-made, Canon A70) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

For Dr Taylor, however, the best way to see Saint Faith in these stories was as a saint becoming a lord. Apparently Conques shed its vicecomital abbots in the late tenth-century; this now confuses me looking back at my notes, because I have it down that these abbots were of the vicecomital family of Conflent, which is to say that we’re talking the kindred of Bishops Guisad II and Sal·la of Urgell and of the vicar Sal·la of Bages, all figures well-known on this blog, but I knew nothing of this and even now can’t find any other note of it.2 So I think I must have misunderstood. In any case, without their lay lords’ protection the monks at Conques seem to have relied on their saint, putting her reliquary up behind the altar and before long getting a bright young man from Chartres in to write up how dangerous she was to cross.3 46% of the miracles involve people of the knightly or castellan classes, who were presumably the intended audience for these cautionary tales (and Faith’s miracles are apparently unusually often punitive, 176 punishments in 155 stories!), and a lot of them are located in the Rouergue, at least early on; in the later books the focus shifts, Book III especially liking Clermont and the Auvergne whence came the then-Abbot Odolric, which is suggestive. Faith defended her patrimony, therefore, she had fideles who helped from whom she expected devotion and service, and she went visiting; she was carried in procession in the reliquary to her various properties, apparently before this was usual. She was not necessarily a figure of peace, however, and neither were her monks: Pierre Bonnassie saw in the Miracles a landscape of castellan violence but Conques itself was retaining mercenary soldiers and some of its monks bore arms! It’s hard not to see the abbey as as much of a participant as any of the people the miracles are directed against in the general fragmentation of peace and defence that makes up a lot of the so-called Transformation.4

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques

If it’s possible to do a post about Conques without picturing its fantastic Romanesque tympanum, I don’t want to know. By Peter Campbell (self-made, Canon a70) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the violence and the castellans and the shift to, er, alternative norms of conflict resolution, there are some things in the stories that one would not expect and some things that one would missing, or so Dr Taylor argued.5 In some of these cases I agree with her, but in others my sketchy acquaintance with the text leaves me not quite comfortable with her argument. Certainly, I agree and had not previously noticed that the language of feudalism, beyond fidelis, is basically absent here: the lordships we see are not ‘banal’, don’t have judicial power and so on; they are based on little but lineage, wealth and warfare, at least as we see them active. Neither have we any trace of ‘bad customs’, feudal dues and so on; in this respect everything is as it was although, according to Dr Taylor, missing the big lords who had once held it together. I thought that this might be fair for Conques itself, which does seem somewhat to sit in a bbubble in these texts, but though they might be locally forgotten they don’t seem to have been gone: at the occasional councils we see in the Miracles there are still dukes, counts and so forth, and they knew who Faith was.6 That was indeed more or less the point of including such stories, I think Dr Taylor and I would agree, but as with the Peace of God, another supposedly missing element, that they only come up in such contexts is hardly proof of their absence. It is surprising, however, how little such supposedly big movements in society seem to have affected Saint Faith and her followers, I do agree there.

Manuscript portrait of Pope Gregory VII receiving inspiration from the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove

A man who knew about reform, Pope Gregory VII, apparently borrowing the Advice Dove beloved of his predecessor Gregory I. Does anyone know what manuscript this image is from? It’s floating around the web without attribution. At least it means I haven’t used exactly the same images as I did in the last Saint-Foi post…

The biggest of these missing elements, however, was reform, and here it’s too intensely subjective to be able to call. I think that the various places I’ve been in hearing people argue about the Church reform of the tenth and eleventh centuries have convinced me that although Popes Gregory VII and Innocent III knew and could say what they meant to be done in the name of Church reform, and we might also be able to say this in England thanks again to a few figureheads with a clear agenda, on the ground and especially early on it was a lot less clear what reform should mean.7 A new freedom from lay lordship, as at Conques, might indeed have been part of it in most places; views on Church wealth, clerical marriage and even payment for office however took a lot longer to be widely shared and we can easily find tenth- and eleventh-century churchmen doing reform-like things on some of these scores while completely ignoring other parts of the later agenda. (Bishops Sal·la of Urgell and Miró Bonfill of Girona would be classic cases indeed, and the latter especially: he went to Rome and was charged by the pope with the task of reforming the Catalan Church, apparently without reference to the fact that Miró himself was also Count of Besalú!8) Dr Taylor put some work into arguing that once it had shed its lords (whom I wish I could find) Conques was as unbothered by reform as it was from these other currents of the age, on which it bobbed without being moved. Me, I have to wonder whether the monks would have agreed…


1. Auguste Bouillet (ed.), Liber miraculorum sanctae Fidis, Collection des textes pour servir à l’étude et à l’enseignement de l’histoire 21 (Paris 1897); Pamela Sheingorn (transl.) with Robert A. Clark (transl.), The Book of Sainte Foy (Philadelphia 1994).

2. On that family see Manuel Rovira, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Vic 1981), pp. 249-260, online here.

3. Cf. Barbara H. Rosenwein, Thomas Head and Sharon Farmer, “Monks and Their Enemies: A Comparative Approach” in Speculum Vol. 66 (Cambridge 1991), pp. 764-796, DOI:10.2307/2864632. On the text see Kathleen Ashley & Pamela Sheingorn, Writing Faith: Text, Sign, and History in the Miracles of Sainte Foy (Chicago 1999).

4. Pierre Bonnassie, “Les descriptions des forteresses dans le Livre des Miracles de Sainte-Foy de Conques” in Mélanges d’Archéologie et d’Histoire Médiévale en l’Honneur du Doyen Michel du Boüard, Mémoires et Documents publiés par la Société de l’École des Chartes 27 (Geneva 1982), pp. 17-26, transl. J. Birrell as “Descriptions of Fortresses in the Book of Miracles of Sainte-Foy of Conques” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. J. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 132-148; Thomas N. Bisson, “The Feudal Revolution” in Past and Present no. 142 (Oxford 1994), pp. 6-42. I don’t myself remember references to such monastic soldiery in the text but I don’t have any trouble believing that there are some.

5. Stephen D. White, “Debate: the feudal revolution. II”, ibid. no. 152 (1996), pp. 205-223, repr. as “The ‘feudal revolution': comment. II” in idem, Feuding and Peace-Making in Eleventh-Century France, Variorum Collected Studies 817 (London 2005), II; idem, “A crisis of fidelity in c. 1000″ in Isabel Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimation in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and societies, 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 27-48.

6. Liber Miraculorum Sanctae Fidis I.28.

7. For example see John S. Ott & Anna Trumbore Jones (edd.), The Bishop Reformed: Studies of Episcopal Power and Culture in the Central Middle Ages (Aldershot 2007).

8. A paper on each of these guys lurks among my conference trash, and writing this up makes me think suddenly that perhaps they are in fact the same paper. For now, please forgive me if I don’t give a reference here: I just have too many! Miró’s trip to Rome is documented in Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Antoni Riera i Viader, Manuel Rovira i Solà (edd.), Catalunya Carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Empúries, Besalú i Peralada, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica LXI (Barcelona 2003), doc. no. 469, however.

Seminar CLXXIX: mocking Irish clergy in the tenth and eleventh centuries

Once returned to the UK after the trip to Catalonia lately recounted, I was happy to be heading back to the Institute of Historical Research, whose Earlier Middle Ages Seminar has in these last two years run to a shortened programme in the summer. First up in the summer 2013 series on 22nd May was Elizabeth Boyle, an old acquaintance from Cambridge. I would therefore have been down to London for this anyway, but her title, “Lay Morality, Clerical Immorality and Pilgrimage in 10th- and 11th-Century Ireland”, also intrigued. Since the IHR has been in exile for some years now, it took some finding, but finally with us all gathered in a huge basement room where we could hardly see people come in to find us, Lizzie told us a couple of excellent but odd Irish stories and drew some tentative points of bigger social import out of them.

Folio 53 of the Book of Leinster

Book of Leinster, folio 53” by Áed Ua Crimthainn et al (12th century) – Laighean53a at web site of Trinity College, Dublin. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The common links between the stories are firstly that they are next to each other in the so-called Book of Leinster, secondly that they both involve unnamed kings acting to correct the morals of Irish clerics fallen into sin, and thirdly that they relate to pilgrimage, which was where Lizzie had come in as she was at this time working on a project comparing contacts with Rome between England and Ireland in the tenth and eleventh centuries.1 This seems to have been a period in which there was both a substantial rise in pilgrimage (which has certainly been detected in Catalonia too, though there it could be just more evidence; not so in Ireland, where there is actually far less evidence than in the centuries before) and also a current of scepticism about the practice.2 This was neatly expressed in an anonymous ninth-century verse Lizzie gave us in the handout (in both Old Irish and her translation, but I shall stick to the latter because I can’t really even pronounce the Celtic languages, let alone understand them):

“Going to Rome:
great hardship, little benefit.
The King you seek here:
if you don’t take Him with you, you won’t find Him there.”

These stories are in something of the same vein. In the first, Cethrur Macclérech (‘Four Junior Clerics’), the protagonists, whom Lizzie compared to gap-year students, head for Rome and are put up by ‘a renowned man of the Franks’, who makes roughly the above point to them and persuades them to accept a living from him in exchange for their prayers. They go to Rome anyway but when they come back he throws a local hermit out, who is obviously delighted by this further adversity (apparently really),3 and they are just moving in when one of them says, “May it be lucky,” at which point the king responds: “‘Out of the country with them! they are heathens! Let them not even drink the water of the country.'” So they head off dejected, but next day while washing in a stream a box floats down to them and bounces into the arms of their leader (called a bishop, now) and he sends it back to the king. It turns out to contain six bars of silver and one of gold, all of equal weight, and the king expounds this as an allegory on the days of the week and Sunday observance, but accepts the clerics back as long as they never think of “‘luck'” as long as they live. It looks as if there were several moral points knocked into a single story here, but the point about luck being superstition is the one the scribe ran with.

Manuscript depiction of medieval Rome as widow during the period of the Avignon Papacy

This is really nothing to do with the post, but it came up as I searched for medieval images of Rome and is just too much fun not to include, Rome shown as a widow during the residence of the papacy in Avignon. Seriously: how many of the Avignon popes were good husband material, Mrs Allegorical Rome? Consider your options! “BNMsItal81Fol18RomeWidowed“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The second interested me more, since I found in it faint points of contact with other stories I know dimly, not least from Chrétien de Troyes, that feature a King of the Greeks (and there are five more of these in the manuscript, apparently).4 Here, that king is the unfortunate butt of the story, but certainly its moral champion. A bishop who has gone to Rome on pilgrimage determines to go on to Jerusalem, and meets a “wonderful king” of a land on the way who points out to him that “God is in every place” and installs him as the royal confessor, and indeed also treasurer. Because the king was frequently out, the bishop heard the queen’s confession more often than the kings and eventually wound up, er, giving her something worth confessing, an incident that quickly becomes habit-forming. The king is told and comes back and besieges his wife and the bishop in their ‘stone mansion’. She won’t open up and in the night the bishop repents, does 300 prostrations and faints, and the angels come and carry him to his church, where he wakes and gratefully starts celebrating nocturns. The king then hears and realises his suspicions are misplaced, so goes to abase himself before the bishop, who is at least conscious that he hasn’t really deserved this break (“It is not upon me alone that disgrace from the devil has been exercised”) and resumes his pilgrimage. The real winner here is the queen, to whom the king had to pay compensation for false accusation so that she would remain with him (which is Irish law, not Roman, as Lizzie noted). The point here is supposed to be that we can’t know what God will or won’t forgive, but again it seems clear that there’s a lot of other points you could make with this tale.

The early medieval Gallerus oratory in County Kerry

A stone mansion of the sort imagined by our story-teller? The early medieval Gallerus oratory in County Kerry. The linked page gives you a handy short account of the debate over the Céli De.

The points that Lizzie chose to emphasise, at least, hung around the purity of the clergy. This is a fairly obvious target of both these stories, albeit perhaps an incidental one, but there was at this time in Ireland some dispute over the peculiarly Gaelic clerical movement known as the Céli De, ‘clients of God’, who do not easily fit into our categories either of reformers or hermits, being something of both and not enough of either for the Gregorian Reform movement and those moving within it to be quite happy with them.5 They did undertake lay ministry and confession, and these were far from the only tales about how that could go wrong (a style of story I attempted to classify as “swyve or shrive?” in questions, gleefully ignoring the fact that this only works in a different dead language). Whether the clerics here are actually supposed to be Céli De is unclear, however (though the bishop of the Gaels in the second story is so called in its last line) and the manuscript context may even suggest that these were tales in which Céli De poked fun at their mainstream, travel-happy brethren. In the end what was mainly clear here is that there were some moral arguments going on that the writers and users of this manuscript and those who copied its tales were pursuing through low humour, and anything we might want to say beyond that about authorship, purpose and reception was hard to settle. But medieval use of humour is itself worth remembering, and unlike many these stories’ fun has held some of its meaning.6


1. The Book, or Lebor na Nuachongbála to its old friends, is Dublin, Trinity College MS H 2. 18, and is printed as R. I. Best et al. (edd.), The Book of Leinster, formerly Lebar na Núachingbála (Dublin 1954-1983), 6 vols, or so says Lizzie’s handout. Meanwhile, investigation by web reveals that this paper is now published as E. Boyle, “Lay Morality, Clerical Immorality, and Pilgrimage in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century Ireland: Cethrur macclerech and Epscop do Gaedelaib” in Studia Hibernica Vol. 39 (Dublin 2013), pp. 9-48, so you can follow up the references and see if the conclusions changed from what I heard if you like!

2. The locus classicus here is Kathleen Hughes, “The Changing Theory and Practice of Irish Pilgrimage” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 11 (Cambridge 1960), pp. 143-151, but I guess there must be more now, and that Lizzie will be providing yet more shortly! The Catalan side of things is covered, again classically, in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Els primers comtes catalans, Biografies catalanes: sèrie històrica 1 (Barcelona 1958, repr. 1980), pp. 302-313.

3. Lizzie’s translation has it as: “‘I give thanks to God’, said the hermit: ‘My earthly king ejecting me; my heavenly king coming into it.'”

4. Chrétien de Troyes, Cligés, ed. P. Kunstmann in Base de français médieval, online here, last modified 31 July 2013 as of 27 April 2014, ll. 43–58. For interpretation I’m only immediately able to proffer Barbara N. Sargent-Baur, “Alexander and the Conte du Graal” in Arthurian Literature Vol. 14 (Woodbridge 1996), pp. 1–19, but there must be something more general about the world of the Greeks in romance… Aha! Regesta Imperii proffers Rima Devereaux, Constantinople and the West in medieval French literature, Gallica 25 (Cambridge 2012), which I haven’t seen but must at least be relevant.

5. Lizzie cited the work of Westley Follett, Céli Dé in Ireland: monastic writing and identity in the early Middle Ages (Woodbridge 2006) here, but her handout also offers Aubrey Gwynn, The Irish Church in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries, ed. G. O’Brien (Dublin 1992), which may be what Follett is kicking against? I dunno guv’, this is really not my field!

6. Jokes are a medium hard to interpret over a thousand years and a linguistic divide, but that doesn’t mean they should be forgotten: here Lizzie cited, as would I have, Guy Halsall, “Introduction: ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got the key'” in Halsall (ed.), Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2002), pp. 1-21.

Seminar CLXVIII: managing chaos in early Wessex

As we have often seen already here while dealing with my seminar report backlog, Spring 2013 was apparently a time in which, whether I wanted to or not, I could not get away from people talking about Anglo-Saxon England. Mostly this was in Oxford but even London got in on the act on 6th March 2013, when James Lloyd, then finishing his Ph. D. in Cambridge, came to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to talk to the title, “Local Government in Wessex before the Hundred”.

Map of Anglo-Saxon Wessex c.900

Wikimedia Commons turns out to have this quite neat map of Wessex circa 900 available, and I struggled to think of illustrations for this post, so, here you are!

You can perhaps already see how this linked up for me with a lot of things I’d been picking up while in Oxford. There had been lots in my world about the organisation of territory and space in Anglo-Saxon England coming into my mental mill for grinding, but John Blair’s Ford Lectures had focused much more on the area of Mercia than on Wessex, because that was where the bulk of the archæological evidence is to be found, and George Molyneaux’s powerful argument that the structures of the Anglo-Saxon state formed up most obviously in the tenth century raised the question of what had gone before, which Andrew Reynolds’s work on assembly sites had sharpened rather than answered. Mr Lloyd’s work thus not only promised at least some kind of thought about the spaces left out in that assemblage of others’ work but also played to my own interests in what happens in these spaces before, after or between jurisdictions where people had some kind of scope to build their communities as they found made sense in their particular circumstances. All that said, the principal problem with such work is that by its very nature it wants to know about areas outside the procedures of government that usually lead to records surviving. This is essentially why the original plan for my thesis wound up being an article and my thesis wound up being about communities responding to authority rather than the creation of those communities: that’s where the evidence was.1 So, OK, enough about me, how did Mr Lloyd approach it all?

A copy by T. King of a 1519 painting by Lambert Barnard of King Cædwalla of Wessex making a land-grant to Bishop Wilfrid in 662

A copy by T. King of a 1519 painting by Lambert Barnard of King Cædwalla of Wessex making a land-grant to Bishop Wilfrid in 662, from Wikimedia Commons; as a charter historian I think you should regard this as a dramatisation…

It’s probably best to work backwards and start with Mr Lloyd’s conclusion, which was that Wessex in the late seventh century, “is not a system, it is managed chaos now under overhaul” (my notes rather than his words). At that point was beginning, as he saw it, a process of depressing and downgrading local jurisdictions vis-à-vis the king that would, by means of making royal reference integral to their operation, slowly make them into things that could be treated as groups of similar size and rôles, like hundreds, shires, courts and so forth. This process, begun by King Cædwalla’s defeat of many of the other rulers of the south of England, would be continued by King Ine and later by Alfred and perhaps between times by others of whose work we have less trace, but before that looking for the fundamental structures of West Saxon society is a fool’s endeavour, there were probably nearly as many as there were communities. This is how Mr Lloyd thought we can best explain the fact that in sources before Cædwalla and Ine Wessex appears to us as a territory with many kings or sub-kings whose various jurisdictions and origins can only sketchily be brought into relation to each other; those origins and jurisdictions did not in fact relate, but by the warlike actions of an unusually successful line of kings (with Church backing, not much mentioned not least because Mr Lloyd was looking at the period beforehand, but I think it must be part of that hardly-visible process) people who had been kings were brought to admit they were, for now, sub-kings and part of something larger, and thus slowly a kingdom began to form.2 But what about before?

The text of the genealogy of the kings of the West Saxons as recorded in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, fo. 67r

The text of the genealogy of the kings of the West Saxons as recorded in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, fo. 67r: probably not the whole story of power in Wessex

Well, Mr Lloyd certainly attempted to describe the prior situation, but making sense of chaos gets all the harder when your conclusion is that actually, there was no single sense to make of it. What one could do is to impose some kind of artificial classification which at least shows us how we might begin to explain such variety. Thus, one source of authority, jurisdiction or just local definition might be blocs of territory that had somehow held together from before, Glanville Jones’s multiple estates or Hector Chadwick’s royal estates which acquired dependent territories with which to feed their (very small-scale) kings, but the latter runs into problems quite quickly if one believes that such groupings would have been inherited: we can easily imagine them thus ceasing to be royal, if royal status was in any way marked out from nobility by such rights to demand, and then what would hold them together? At which point, one winds up imagining that such units might have been in fairly continuous creation and fragmentation as a local ‘big man’ managed to establish claims on their components and then lost his grip or died—although perhaps still being reckoned a ‘king’ by whatever records underlie the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for this period while he was on top of things—or else that Jones was right and that community adherence long pre-existed the authorities that periodically acquired control of such groups.3 Or, as it might well be in different places, both!

Troston Mount, nr Honington, Suffolk

Troston Mount, near Honington, Suffolk, the old meeting site for Bradmere hundred

The other major category of articulation would however be jurisdiction rather than territory, here again covering a variety of forms. Even if they were not centres of hundreds as they became, we know that there were local meeting sites in the countryside and that people met at them for centuries before hundreds were settled on some of them: Andrew Reynolds’s example of Saltwood is still a good one.4 Presumably, people knew to what site they should go to get a judgement, to find a judge, to carry out a sale with the kind of witness that would prevent it being questioned later. Who would those judges have been, and how were they supported? The Old English word scir helps emphasise the ambiguity here: the root of our modern ‘shire’, when referring to an eleventh-century earl it carries clear senses of geographical territory within which that earl administered top-level justice and called out the army, but at its root it means merely ‘office’, ‘charge’ or similar, and has no necessary relation to any given unit or person. Someone who held a scir could, etymologically, have easily been elected by a folk-moot as a kind of speaker as nominated by a king to represent him in the community. And of course the cunning king would want to turn the former into the latter. In this respect, ealdorman, gerefa and sub-king become almpst inseparable concepts: without the later hierarchy within which we read these titles, they could be words for the same people viewed from different perspectives or distances.5 And of course all this is made harder for us to grasp because at the very outset we have sources that were created not within these small units of either land or people or followings or any two or all three, but at a level where many such units could be seen as part of a larger grouping called the West Saxons (or the Gewisse or both), so that the systematisation has already started before we even have words recorded for any of these things.

Map of the hundreds of Dorset as of 1834, from Wikimedia Commons

Map of the hundreds of Dorset as of 1834, from Wikimedia Commons

This all provoked discussion of course, not least a wry comment from Susan Reynolds that she rather thought she remembered writing a book about such processes once upon a time,6 but also a debate around the important question of military service, raised by Stephen Baxter. Cædwalla and others can start to surmount this variety because they could call on men to fight for them: how come? Mr Lloyd felt that there was little sign that such authorities were not ad hoc things grown out of personal house-troops, and someone I didn’t know suggested that such things might be larger and more organised at the edges of territories compared to the centre, which not only fits with the anthropological idea of borderlands and many many a Roman coup by a victorious frontier general but also, if you stop and think about it, the way Mercia came out of almost nowhere in the early seventh century.7 Susan Reynolds also made the sharp point that authority over people and authority over territory are obviously hard to separate when people are settled, and that the only time where the separation might be clear is when populations were moving, so that again by the time we can see communities it’s already too late. Issues like these make it clear that figuring this stuff out is probably doomed to slow if any progress, but it remains so fascinating for people like me and, clearly, Mr Lloyd, that we are probably also doomed to go on trying.


1. The article, J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †A. Deyermond & M. Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London 2010), pp. 97-127; the thesis, Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of London 2005, online here, rev. as idem, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), available for purchase here, but you all knew that, right? Sorry.

2. The obvious starting point here now seems to me to be Barbara Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester 1995); Mr Lloyd’s handout references D. P. Kirby, “Problems of Early West Saxon history” in English Historical Review Vol. 80 (Oxford 1965), pp. 10-29, as fundamental, and it also reminds me of the annal for 626 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in which a campaign by King Edwin into Wessex “slew five West Saxon kings, none of whom was the West Saxon king, Cynegils” (Lloyd’s paraphrase). There might be a number of ways to explain that but none of them will likely work without change both before and after…

3. G. R. J. Jones, “Multiple Estates and Early Settlement” in P. H. Sawyer (ed.), English Medieval Settlement (London 1979), pp. 9-34, and Mr Lloyd’s handout also alerts me to Jones, “Multiple estates perceived” in Journal of Historical Geography Vol. 11 (London 1985), pp. 352-363; Hector Munro Chadwick, Studies on Anglo-Saxon Institutions (Cambridge 1905).

4. Stuart Brookes & A. Reynolds, “The Origins of Political Order and the Anglo-Saxon State” in Archaeology International Vol. 13 (London 2012), pp. 84-93, DOI: 10.5334/ai.1312.

5. My go-to work on this kind of thing nonetheless remains Alan Thacker, “Some Terms for Noblemen in Anglo-Saxon England, c. 650-900″ in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 2 (Oxford 1981), pp. 201-237.

6. That book of course being S. Reynolds, Kingdoms and communities in Western Europe, 900-1300 (Oxford 1984, 2nd edn. 1997).

7. Though here cf. Morn D. T. Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008, pp. 26-34.

Seminar CLXIII: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, IV

Continuing to tackle the seminar write-up backlog, I must reluctantly skip over the next paper I went to, Zubin Mistry’s “Tradition in Practice: thinking about abortion under the Carolingians” at the IHR, because it has already been well-covered at Magistra et Mater, which means that five in six of the last posts will have been about Anglo-Saxon England one way or another. Looking back at this, it does become a bit clearer why I was finding it so hard to make progress on things Catalan in Oxford… Anyway, after Zubin’s paper came school half-term, which meant that I unfortunately had to miss one of John Blair’s Ford Lectures, “From Central Clusters to Complex Centres: economic reorientation and the making of urban landscapes”, and whatever was following it the next week in various places, and resume seminar attendance with the fifth of those lectures, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape (5): landscapes of rural settlement”.

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The subject of this lecture was basically the village, and how and when it moved from being a relatively loose association of linear enclosures to the houses-all-facing-one-road croft-and-toft layout that the English now think of as being typical for an old village. One way at this is via boundary ditches, and there are lots of these known, but eighty per cent of them date from after 1050, and the remainder from the seventh to ninth centuries, with nothing in between! If you buy John’s idea that use of grids and standard measurements bespeaks monastic involvement in laying out the land, even if they just provided consultant expertise when divisions were needed or something (as John thinks detectable at Stotfold in Bedfordshire), then there is presumably rather a lot of less orchestrated settlement that we are simply not seeing here, and in the ninth to eleventh century gap it’s almost all of it.

Map of present-day Stotfold, Bedfordshire

Map of present-day Stotfold, Bedfordshire; the Anglo-Saxon settlement was located south of the roundabout at bottom right

Stotfold actually makes a good example of how such a community might develop. The place-name derives from a very large cattle corral (a stud-fold) that seems to underlie the early settlement; in this was later built a church and three farmsteads, with one more outside, two of the farmsteads inside having been divided on a grid plan. Each of the farms seems to have had a circle of ‘inland‘ around it, but the old corral puts them all in the same gathering somehow. Was this a village? Is it nucleated? Is it dispersed? Are these even real categories? What it’s not, anyway, is toft-and-croft down a road with common fields: that all seems to be eleventh-century or later, here around the Norman church, and then to have endured until the ninenteeth!1 Before that, however, we’re not looking at anything that would be sensibly called a ‘manor’ or similar; John prefers Rosamond Faith’s terms warland and inland, free warrior tenancies versus slave-farmed reserves, the latter of which have no documentary presence of course.2

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar again, because it’s good

The revival of planning in settlement layout is also almost entirely within the area John had earlier noticed as significant, the catchment of the Wash understood in broad terms, or in other words the east and south Midlands and northern Home Counties extending towards the Thames Valley. In this area we have plenty of what might be warland settlements, but what is oddly lacking is much sign of very large estates such as might belong to major aristocrats. Even the supposed palace sites we have are in relatively minor estates as far as can be told, leading to Cheddar’s description as a hunting lodge.3 As had been discussed in one of the earlier lectures, early and middle Anglo-Saxon high status just doesn’t seem to have had a great deal of immovable expression of hierarchy.

Reconstruction drawing of late Anglo-Saxon Goltho

Reconstruction drawing (and a highly fanciful one) of late Anglo-Saxon Goltho as proposed by its excavator

In settlements like Stotfold and the more famous Goltho, with whose dating John has strongly-expressed issues, he sees then the housing of the rising low-grade nobility, the thegns vying for social promotion, and sees this as a fairly late phenomenon. What we have here is the burhs that the tenth-century laws required such men to have if they were to claim thegnly status, which raises the question of whether there are fortified examples of such houses.4 To this John’s answer was so characteristic that I wrote it down verbatim: “The answer seems to be, yes there are and they’re egg-shaped!” You may blink somewhat at this but Goltho, and also Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire, another and perhaps better candidate for a late Anglo-Saxon ‘castle’, and Sulgrave, Northamptonshire, all show ovoid ramparts around relatively small halls that fit this expectation, and there are probably more under later Norman motte-and-bailey overlays. That however takes the lectures into something quite like a new society, and this was left for the last one the next week.


1. John had a clutch of references that kept coming up for later medieval villages and settlement, and this time I wrote them down. They were: B. K. Roberts & S. Wrathmell, Region and Place: a study of English rural settlement (London 2002); A. Lambourne, Patterning within the Historic Landscape and its Possible Causes: a study of the incidence and origins of regional variation in Southern England, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 509 (Oxford 2010); and Tom Williamson, Environment, Society and Landscape in Early Medieval England: time and topography (Woodbridge 2013), the last of which he must have had in draft I assume!

2. I’ve linked to Rosamond Faith’s The English Peasantry and the Growth of Lordship (London 1999), which covers this formulation in great detail pp. 15-136, but another work of hers that kept coming up was eadem & Debby Banham, Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming (Oxford forthcoming) which is obviously going to be pretty good news for those who are interested in such things when it finally emerges.

3. See once more J. Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121, DOI: 10.1017/S0263675100001964.

4. The source here is a tract associated with Archbishop Wulfstan II of York (which puts it in that most dangerous category, draft moral legislation) called Geþyncðo, translated by Dorothy Whitelock as “Concerning Wergilds and Dignities” in her (trans.), English Historical Documents vol. 1: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), doc. no. 51(a). On it in this sense see Ann Williams, “A bell-house and a burh-geat: lordly residences in England before the Norman Conquest” in C. Harper-Bill & R. Harvey (edd.), Medieval Knighthood IV: papers from the fifth Strawberry Hill Conference 1990 (Woodbridge 1992), pp. 221-240, repr. in Robert Liddiard (ed.), Anglo-Norman Castles (Woodbridge 2003), pp. 23-40, and more generally W. G. Runciman, “Accelerating Social Mobility: the case of Anglo-Saxon England” in Past and Present no. 104 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3-30.

Seminar CLVII: finding friends in tenth-century England

Even my implicit schedule is getting off-kilter here, sorry. This week has been busy with job applications and seminars, on which latter subject on 23rd January 2013 I was at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar of the Institute of Historical Research to hear Els Schröder, then of the University of York, present a paper entitled, “Searching for Friendship in Anglo-Saxon Sources: multilingual insights into tenth-century elite culture”, and I thought you’d maybe like to hear about it.

The pact of homage between Count Guillem Ramon of Cerdanya and Bishop Folc of Urgell in the <em>Liber Feudorum Maior</em> of the Counts of Barcelona

An illustration, not of Anglo-Saxons but of the problem: were these two men… "friends"? The pact of homage between Count Guillem Ramon of Cerdanya and Bishop Folc of Urgell in the Liber Feudorum Maior of the Counts of Barcelona

Dr Schröder completed her thesis in 2012, and was here doing that trickiest of things, trying to compress a 90,000 word thesis into a 9,000 word paper and still be comprehensible and interesting, which she certainly managed.1 There was still something of a chapter-by-chapter structure visible, so that we got methodology and literature first. That revealed that, unusually for the early Middle Ages, the sources here are unusually secular. For some reason we have no tenth-century letter collections, for example, so the usual focus on lettered ecclesiastics isn’t available. The relatively few charters also don’t use such language or work in such terms. There thus isn’t enough material to approach without models, and one needs several: the sources call ties of dependency as well as interdependency friendship, and such language is especially strong at court where the stakes are much higher and the social distances greater than we would find in wider society.2 Dr Schröder therefore called for more discourses to be brought into play.

One source of material is the Anglo-Saxon royal lawcodes, but here friendship turns up mainly as something the kings can make perform official functions: a `friend’ will stand surety for someone, will do the king’s bidding if they wish to retain his `friendship’, it’s quite formal and of course may not have actually worked. Such relationships where we can see them in operation are explicable in terms of negotiation as much as attachment, and may have been quite evanescent. (I myself think that such relationships, if detectable over time, must indicate a kind of attachment too, even if only an ability to get along for the parties’ mutual good, but I admit that even that model fails to register short-lived and unsuccessful friendships, which might be very useful to be able to cultivate for just long enough… Here, well out of my usual period, Richard the Lionheart’s persistent ability to bounce back from disaster by relying on even his enemies’ goodwill often strikes me like this.3)

Cover of Linda Tollerton's Wills and Will-Making in Anglo-Saxon England

The only decent image I can quickly find of an Anglo-Saxon will is on this, the cover of a work by another York doctoral alumnus and published by the same people as my book … so I guess I’ll link!

Wills look slightly better for the enquiry, as 15 out of 67 use this kind of language. Here again we see these relationships under strain, especially as what is being envisaged here is kind of the last call upon them, be that dependents appealing upwards or lords and husbands trying to call on loyalties in life to protect their wife and children after their death. The problem still exists that informal relationships are here being turned into obligations, just as in the laws.

Thus one winds up forced onto the writings of people like Ælfric and literature like Beowulf, as usual dragged to whatever century one needs for the argument—the field will probably collapse if we ever do agree a date for that poem… But here we get words like ‘leof’ (love) much more, even if Ælfric does tend to gloss it in Latin as ‘venerabilis’, venerable, or ‘honorabilis’, honourable, rather than, you know, ‘amatus’. Again, to an extent, we see these terms because people place obligations on them, to support the person expressing the tie either in preaching or in battle; the language is evoked to formalise a relationship into expectations of action. This also clouds the occurrences in hagiography: St Dunstan wound up looking after the treasury of King Eadred because he was the king’s ‘specialis amicus’, which thus winds up looking more like an office than a relationship, and is of course the same sort of arrangement as we see in the wills: you will do this, because you are my friend… Even advice and counsel can be viewed through this frame and once one sees the frame it’s hard to unsee it.

I presume that there must have been people in Anglo-Saxon England who got on with each other as friends in our sense of the term, but what this paper seemed to show is that our sources are largely using such terminology as cladding for something else when they write about it. Bernard Gowers made the excellent point that we only have such writing because the parties in a relationship are not, or are not going to be, in regular touch; we wouldn’t have anything from people who saw each other ever day and hung out together precisely because they could communicate face-to-face. Alice Taylor re-emphasised that these sources don’t see friendship as a relationship of equals, as we tend to do, and wondered what other terms could be searched for that might correspond more closely to our frameworks, but Dr Schröder thought that both level and hierarchical relationships could be found, and it seemed to me that we were seeing the terms in use when someone wanted to use the relationship, thus converting it into a power relation in which someone can deny a demand only at the cost of continuing the relationship. There are also issues about family, who don’t get treated separately by the language of friendship, and of gifts creating or cementing such relationships…4 the enquiry is not over. It was, all the same quite clear that there had been a thesis’s worth of work in getting this far, and it will be worth hearing about Dr Schröder’s next steps!


1. Her thesis was “Friendship and Favour in Late Anglo-Saxon Élite Culture: a study of documentary and narrative Sources, c. 900-1016″, unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of York, 2012), online here.

2. The two works whose models my notes suggest were drawn on, and ultimately found wanting, were Gerd Althoff, Amicitiae und Pacta: Bündnis, Einigung, Politik und Gebetsgedenken im beginnenden 10. Jahrhundert, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Schriften) XXXVII (Hannover 1992), transl. as Family, Friends and Followers: Political and Social Bonds in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 2004), and Stephen C. Jaeger, Ennobling love: in search of a lost sensibility (Philadelphia 1999).

3. My pet episode of this is when Richard lifted Saladin’s siege of Joppa in 1194. He charged ashore in full armour, bust into the city and commandeered the three horses left there, but when the Earl of Leicester was dismounted in a press of fighting, Richard weighed in and put the guy on one of his spare horses, at which point Saladin’s brother Saphadin sends a man into the battle with two more mounts for Richard, saying to the king that he looks as if he’s running short! The two accounts of this differ on whether Saladin himself had sent the horses or not, and the matter is complicated by the fact that Richard had knighted Saphadin’s son earlier in the campaign. It could also be intended as a barb or a display of the disparity of resources, of course, but if so it’s still a joke between people who shared a frame of reference. Not in any way the same cultural circumstances of course, but Richard did go on to lift the siege, so those cultural circumstances got him out of his mess and he’d helped to create them… Source texts in Helen J. Nicholson (transl.), Chronicle of the Third Crusade: a translation of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, Crusade Texts in Translation 3 (Aldershot 1997), VI.14-24, the knighting of Saphadin (Sayf al-Din)’s son at V.12; variant testimony noted p. 364 n. 67.

4. ‘Friends by blood’, as Marc Bloch put it. This subject is one of those many where it doesn’t seem like a few pages of Bloch’s Feudal Society (transl L. A Manyon (London 1961), 2 vols, I pp. 123-125 for ‘amis charnels’ and 231-238 for dependency expressed as friendship) ought to be able to say everything there is to be said on a subject and yet it’s really really hard to surpass them…

Seminar CLI: Spain and Africa’s earliest Romance

Let me make clear straight away, this post is about the Romance languages, not the literary genre. In fact, it is specifically about the birth of Romance in Spain, and with work on that of course comes indelibly associated the name of Professor Roger Wright, and so it will not surprise you to gather that this post is because on 21st November 2012 he was presenting to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar with the title, “African Invaders and Very Old Spanish”.

This paper was, as Roger admitted straight up, based on published work, and it would only be new to us if we hadn’t read enough of his stuff, but nonetheless, since his thinking has in fact moved on since the works for which he is best known, not least because of dogged opposition from certain quarters, it was new to me and the questions suggested I wasn’t the only one.1 The starting premise, dear to my heart, is that Castilian is weird in Romance terms, having many features that other Romance languages don’t, and the basic question was whether this can be put down to influence from Africa.

Haplogroup Distributons in Iberian, North African, and Sephardic Jewish Populations (Adams et al. 2008)

How does one picture a language? Here is another way, then, in which African influence in Spain has been tracked; click through if you missed that post…

Now, the obvious conduit for African influence on Spain is of course the Muslim conquest, but since here we’re talking about Latin usage, unless one accepts Richard Hitchcock’s argument that much of the Muslim army that mounted the 711-714 campaigns that felled the Visigothic kingdom of Spain would have been Berber and North African recruits who, since they couldn’t yet have really learnt Arabic, must have had only Latin as a lingua franca, we need to look further back, and indeed even if Hitchcock is right the influences could still be older. Augustine of Hippo apparently reports being teased for his provincial Latin, and Isidore of Seville, Visigothic knowledge collector par excellence, reckons there are several peculiar things about the African Latin of his day. Several of these symptoms (betacism, the swapping of ‘b’ and ‘v’, much older than the QWERTY keyboard layout as my documents quickly made clear to me) also appear in the Visigothic slates.2 And, when one considers the respective difficulties of travel across the Pyrenees and across the Straits of Gibraltar, without considering modern state boundaries, obviously that makes sense.

Subsequent additions to the Africa of the Roman Empire would have been unlikely to have dented this African Latin, argued Roger: the Vandals, by the time they hit Africa at least and probably from much further back, are unlikely to have been a linguistic unity and their only common language must also have been various versions of Latin; they would have relied on Latin to deal with the locals, anyway.3 The Byzantine reconquest of Africa from the Vandals would also have had the administrative need to work in Latin as indeed it still partly did even at Constantinople; and the Visigoths meanwhile connected Spain and Africa by their grasp on what is now Ceuta (and still part of Spain, often forgotten except by Morocco). Berber languages, hardly an addition but arguably stronger after the loss of Africa as a Roman province, nonetheless seem significant only inland in this period. There is, in any case, no sign of any Berber influence on Spanish (and only one word in Portuguese) and no mention of Berbers (as opposed to the much vaguer Mauri, Moors) in the texts that describe the Muslim conquest such as the Chronicle of 754, which also doesn’t mention interpreters, Roger pointed out.

Section of handout from Roger Wright, &quo;African Invaders and Very Old Spanish&quo;

Professor Wright’s handout where it gives examples of African symptoms in Latin shared by Castilian

Nonetheless, although reconstructing African Latin’s distinctive characteristics is hard, it does seem hard to find them in Spanish Latin before 711. Isidore, as we say, sees a difference; Paul Alvarus of Córdoba, writing c. 860, does not. Betacism is rare before the seventh century, much more common later. Weirdly, and significantly, Arabic in Andalusia, the most heavily-settled area of course, also shows this symptom. Similar things can be said of the distinction between long and short vowels, the African difficulty Augustine describes: Roger pointed at Castilian ‘montes’ and ‘fuentes’, mountains and springs, from Latin ‘montes’ and ‘fontes’ respectively, to show this lack of distinction in action, and another symptom is the lack of a simple past tense in Castilian, where the past can only be formed by using the verb ‘to have’ an a participle. This doesn’t occur in Catalonia in the period of my documents, and modern Catalan retains as does French a preterite, even if neither are usually used in speech; I noticed the compound tense with excitement in the Beaulieu cartulary towards the close of the ninth century just the other day; but this was already settling in in Africa before the conquest, apparently, and now survives in Castilian. And there were a number of other cases of phonetic, syntactic and vocabulary resemblance that cumulatively seemed hard to argue with, though if you’d like to try I give the relevant section of Roger’s excellent handout as a scan above.

Thus, although the gap between say, 600 and 840, is still hard to fill in terms of linguistic development, in Spain it seems reasonably clear that the 711 invasion is one of the branches, with the consequent implication that its armies and settlers were many of them Latin-speaking. The further implications of that had, as I say, already been somewhat explored by Richard Hitchcock in 2007, but as far as I know Professor Hitchcock has never published that, and though what I’ve said here is as far as Roger went it’s still plenty to think about…


1. The obvious works of Roger’s to refer to are his Late Latin and Early Romance in Spain and Carolingian France (Liverpool 1982) or R. Wright (ed.), Latin and the Romance Languages in the Early Middle Ages (London 1991), but by now he might prefer that we checked his A Sociophilological Study of Late Latin (Turnhout 2003) or specifically on this question R. Wright, “Late and Vulgar Latin in Muslim Spain: the African Connection” in Frédérique Biville, Marie-Karine Lhommé & Daniel Vallat (edd.), Latin vulgaire, latin tardif IX : Actes du IXe Colloque International sur le Latin Vulgaire et Tardif, Lyon, 2 – 6 septembre 2009, Collection de la Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée : Série linguistique et philologique 8 (Lyon 2012), pp. 35-54. For opposition, I suppose one would look most obviously to Michel Banniard, Viva voce : communication érite et communication orale du IVe aui IXe siècle en Occident latin (Paris 2002) but more anciently Rosamond McKitterick, “Latin and Romance: an historian’s perspective” in Wright, Latin and the Romance Languages, pp. 130-145 or Michael Richter, The Oral Tradition in the Early Middle Ages (Turnhout 1994).

2. For an edition of the slates, aimed at just this question, see Isabel Velázquez Soriano, Las pizarras visigodas: entre el latín y su disgregación. La lengua hablada en Hispania, siglos VI-VII (Madrid 2004). I observed in questions, largely on the basis of this post at Magistra et Mater I admit, that this also happens in Lombard Italy, to which Roger’s response was to suggest bad spelling and to observe that almost everything that can happen to Latin happens in Italy. Well, OK, but…

3. Here Roger cited Jonathan Conant, Staying Roman: conquest and identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439-700 (Cambridge 2012) and Yitzhak Hen, Roman Barbarians: the royal court and culture in the early medieval West (Basingstoke 2007), neither of which I’ve read but both of which, and perhaps especially teh former of which I had no knowledge before this, I really should.

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.