Cat of four silver tails

The last few posts’ illustrations have been extremely manuscript-heavy. I make no apology for that but all the same some variety is nice: what do you make of this?

Silver scourge from the ninth-century Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410.4

Silver scourge from the ninth-century Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410.4

I think it’s fair enough to say you don’t see this every day, even if you work at the British Museum, since it’s in store, but also because it’s pretty much unique. It was part of a hoard of silver objects found in 1774 in a streambed running out of some tin workings at Trewhiddle in Cornwall, these objects having come to be the types of a particular style of Anglo-Saxon metalwork which they embody, but this scourge is not really in the style since, as you can see, it’s hardly ornamented at all. It’s very fine: what you’re looking at is strands of silver chain held together by loops and broken out into four strands with plaited lumps at the ends, and a loop at the other end, presumably for hanging the thing up? But it’s not sophisticated, and it seems to raise a lot of questions, not the least of which is what it was for.

Items from the Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410

The rest of the hoard items as now conserved. I count a chalice, two buckles, three lengths of ornamented silver strip (two curved, all toothed), three silver pennies (one in fragments), a hook-tag, one sword-pommel, two diamond-shaped mounts, two strap-ends, the scourge and the two bits that look like fragments of some apparatus of rods at top-left, including the one with the peculiar dodecahedral termination. But there was more! British Museum 1880,0410.

Now, OK, you might think the answer to that is obvious: it’s a scourge, it’s for hitting people. But really? It’s silver. I don’t have a lot of experience myself with whips and flails but from what talking I’ve done with people who do, I’m pretty sure this would draw blood if used in any kind of anger, and blood is hard enough to get out of most things, let alone plaited silver wire. Anyone who owns any silver will know how hard it is to stop it taking a tarnish; now count that difficulty strand by strand and tie them all together… I don’t know what one would have cleaned silver with in the early Middle Ages: I guess a pad of wool soaked in urine would get most stuff off, but what you’d polish up with afterwards that would stop the effects of even that mild acid I’m not sure at all. If this had ever been used to strike people with, even if then cleaned, I’m pretty sure the ends would be blackened in a way that even the best metals conservators couldn’t remedy, at least after nine hundred years in the Cornish ground to finish the job.

A depiction of of the god Osiris from the tomb of Seti I, with crook and flail

A depiction of of the god Osiris from the tomb of Seti I, with crook and flail

So, OK, if it’s not for use it must by symbolic, right? And indeed my son, when I described it to him, immediately thought of the flail borne by the Egyptian pharaoh in depictions, presumably (though not certainly) to symbolise his power to punish. And that makes extrinsic sense but in an Anglo-Saxon context, as Trewhiddle is usually seen, it’s still weird, because in Anglo-Saxon law corporal punishment is really something done only to slaves. Freemen paid fines, or were reduced to slavery if they couldn’t, and anyone who had slaves had the right of punishment over them, so there was nothing exclusive about it worth symbolising in silver, or so it seems to me. But on the other hand we are not necessarily in an Anglo-Saxon context here. The hoard is no longer complete: when found, as well as the items depicted above, there were some things now lost and a lot of coins whose dates make a deposition date of around 868 seem likely. That was of course a reasonable time for hiding treasure, in as much as there were large numbers of Vikings about, but the goods also send mixed signals, as the British Museum website now points out.

“The accompanying metalwork presents an intriguing mixture of ecclesiastical and secular material, and in addition to its obvious and predominant Anglo-Saxon components includes one brooch of Celtic origin.”

That brooch was I guess not wholly of silver and thus now stored somewhere else in the BM? In any case, it’s not obviously in the picture borrowed above. But, aside from the odd bits of broken stuff, there are some unique things. One is the scourge, which seems to have attracted really very little commentary, but the chalice is another, the only known Anglo-Saxon silver chalice says the BM website (though it also says that the interior was gilded), and its best parallels all come from Ireland. And all this reminds me that this hoard was in Cornwall, which had at this point been under definitive Anglo-Saxon control only for a generation or so but which prior to that had been the rump of the British kingdom of Dumnonia. While it’s absolutely true that much of the material in the hoard is culturally or at least artistically Anglo-Saxon, other symbol libraries were surely available in this area, and that scourge is so simple of manufacture that it’s pretty hard to date… It could be a deal older than some of the other things in the hoard. Is there, I wonder, anything in Welsh or Cornish myth that gives a whip or scourge some important rôle? Early medieval Welsh law, in so far as we really have it, is firstly still supposed to be later than this and secondly just as compensation-focused as the Anglo-Saxon ones, but I wonder if some royal or ex-royal family had a story about themselves that made this tool an important thing to display…

I stubbed this post when I met this item in Leslie Webster & Janet Backhouse (edd.), The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon art and culture AD 600-900 (London 1991), no. 246 (b), and that’s still quite informative but the website link I’ve given here has all that material and more up-to-date references, so I see no point in my usual array of footnotes for once…

13 responses to “Cat of four silver tails

  1. akismet-3b8615532e86201680fac9aeca7333f6

    Surely the scourge would have been used for self flagellation? So with the chalice this looks like a hoard from a cleric, if not a monastery.

    As for cleaning, fresh blood can cleaned with fresh water, dried blood will dissolve in salt water. Silver tarnishes in the presence of sulphur, and the most common source of which has been the burning of coal. I’m going to guess here that coal fires in Cornwall in the 9th century were quite rare.

    • Self-flagellation is a practice of a later era, usually, I think, but with Vikings at the door some extra-penitential behaviour might not be out of the question I suppose! This is very expensive penitence, all the same. And, OK, maybe not tarnish, but have you seen what salt water can do to silver? All the same, you might be right that I exaggerate the cleaning difficulties. Persistence would be most of what one needed, I suspect, and of that there was likely a good supply.

  2. I think it could be a symbol of the “correction” named in St. Benedict Rule, and so it could be part of an abbot tomb.

  3. I wonder what specific analogues Webster, Backhouse and anyone else at the BM had in mind when they interpreted it as a scourge? Or was it simply on the basis of its form? From The Making of England I note the terminal loop is made of glass – surely not the most obvious let alone practical thing to hold a scourge by. I know more or less zilch about Anglo-Saxon-period dress, but might it be possible to associate such a fixture with something suspended from a belt? By sheer good fortune I have a 60cm metal ruler by my desk, ever so slightly longer than the measurement of the artefact supplied by W&B, but significantly shorter than contemporary swords if the ones listed a few pages later in the book are any guide. From my hip, 60 cm comes down to around my knee, hardly a major encumbrance, though I concede my height may not be equivalent to the average for a ninth-century (Cornish)man! If we have such a range of fancy jewellery in this period – brooches, strap-ends, rings etc. – could we not consider potently symbolic but entirely decorative precious-metal accessories a possibility?

    • The question of how it would be held, given it has no handle, is one that also bothered me. There seems to be enough above the bead for a hand-hold, but it still bothers me that that bit isn’t within a grip (though would a wood or hide one have survived?). The glass ring seems almost too narrow to get much more than a thong through, so it being suspended from something also seems quite probable. Not sure how we show that that was costume, but at the least if it was for storage I’d expect clearance for a hook or peg, and I don’t think there is…

  4. Perhaps it is a symbolic flagellation that doesn’t really even hurt. Could be used in monastic practice or by a bishop as part of a public penance.

  5. Michelle and Mercuriade seem to be thinking on convergent lines here, and I’m inclined to be persuaded. Secular correctio may not have involved flogging but ecclesiastical discipline certainly could! (I love this blog’s commentators.)

  6. Obviously some chap in a rage took a scourge to his wife, repented, and apologised by gifting her a silver simulacrum. Obviously.

  7. By coincidence, there is an image from the Guthlac Roll featuring two whips in the BL’s Medieval Manuscripts blog this weekend — St Bartholomew presents Guthlac with a whip to drive off the demons, who are whipping Guthlac in turn (probably speaking Welsh, or Cornish, all the time!)[1]


  8. Meli Diamanti

    Please check the method of construction, if you can access the actual scourge instead of photos. Others have described it as knitted (meaning one long thread of wire), not braided or twisted (multiple wires) and not made of links (individual rings). Can you provide more detail? Is it an example of “Viking knit” technique or not?

    • Sadly, I am a long way from the British Museum and have no more access than do you. Their website (linked through the image) says:

      “One strand of trichinopoly chainwork is doubled and the two strands so formed are held together by plaited loops of wire at five unequally spaced places. The chain terminates in a large loop, or knot, from which issue four slender pendant tails each terminating in a plaited knot.”

      Does that help?

      • Meli Diamanti

        Perfect! Trichonopoly is the proper term for “Viking knit” (a term adopted by modern users). So that answers my question. Thanks

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