Aidan of Lindisfarne, pt 1

Oswald, King of Bernicia, had a problem. He had spent long years of exile amongst the Dál Riatan Scots* after his father, Æthelfirith, was slain and his throne taken by Æthelfirith’s brother-in-law, Edwin. Approximately 16 years later Edwin was slain by Cadwallon of Gwynedd, and Oswald’s older brother, and heir to the throne, Eanfrith, rode south from Dál Riata with a war-band to sue for peace. But Cadwallon was not much interested and killed Eanfrith, taking the Bernician throne for himself.  Cadwallon promptly spent a year raping and pillaging his conquered territory, as Bede puts it, “like a cruel tyrant ravaging and tearing them apart with dreadful loss of life.” Oswald, being next in line for the throne and hearing these distressing reports of the murder of his brother and the ravaging of his people, rode off to war with a small army to re-take his ancestral throne back from the British king.

During the time he had been in exile amongst the Dál Riatans, Oswald and his brothers had become Christians, due to the influence of the monks at the island monastery of Hii (now called Iona) where they would have been sent for education. Oswald was facing a bigger army and the odds were not good, but the night before the battle he fashioned a wooden cross and knelt and prayed for victory, his army kneeling at his side (although many of them, being Angles, would have been pagans).

Oswald received a vision from the monk Columba, founder of Iona, who promised him victory, and sure enough, Gwynedd’s army was routed and Oswald crowned King of Bernicia and Deira. Seeing this success, his nobles and war chiefs all were baptized and agreed to follow Christ.

All was proceeding smoothly, and Oswald went back to Bamburgh, his royal fortress on the north-east coast, and began to organize his kingdom. His first priority was to bring a monk from Iona to begin a missionary work amongst the pagan Northumbrians. There is no doubt that Oswald was a sincere Christian, and this would have been something he was eager to do, but as well it is likely that the military support that he gained from Dál Riata during the battle came with a price tag–to start a missionary work in Bernicia.

And then the first hiccup occurred. The monk, Cormán (or Gorman, in some accounts), was singularly unsuited for the task, and by all accounts the mission was a disaster.

What went wrong? This is how Bede puts it:

….[a] man of sterner temperament was sent at first; but although he preached among the English for some time he met with no success, and the people were unwilling to listen to him. He therefore returned home and announced at a meeting of the elders that he had been able to make no headway in teaching the nation to which he had been sent, for they were an intractable people of stubborn and uncivilized character.

Hmmm. Certainly a measure of pointing the finger there, to be sure, but I have a twinge of sympathy for Corman, thrust from the civilized world of the Irish, where learning was prized, to the world of the pagan, uncouth Angles. He would not have known the language, and the people would have been inclined to hostility, I would think, given their treatment at the hands of Cadwallon’s British occupying army. The native Britons were called wealas by the Angles, meaning “foreigner” (the origin of the word Wales), which is ironic, seeing as it was actually the Angles who were the foreign occupiers of British territory, but oh well, to the victor belongs the spoils, so they say. And here was yet another wealas bossing them around and telling them to give up their gods and their glorious afterlife of riches and feasting for the discipline of a Christian life where the individual’s will was brought into subjection to Christ, the strange “white god” who couldn’t be much of a god if he allowed himself to be killed.

The return of Corman and his entourage of monks back to Iona could be nothing but a disaster, both spiritually and politically. Here was an opportunity to claim a kingdom for Christ, but the door had been closed. And what of Oswald, the Dál Raitan foster-son, who had lived and fought alongside them and converted to the faith, who had begun his rule with a great sign from God? His people had proven too much of a challenge for an experienced monk. For Corman to pack his bags and go home would have looked very bad for Oswald. What would that say about Christianity to his watching thegns and earldomen whose conversion to the faith had likely been prompted more by the desire to back a winner than out of real understanding of it.

Iona Abbey, Scotland, by Roy Lathwell, on Flickr.  It is located on an island off the west coast of Scotland. Another place on my bucket list!

Iona Abbey, Scotland, by Roy Lathwell, on Flickr.
The beautiful abbey of Iona. The buildings date from medieval times. It is located on an island off the west coast of Scotland. Another place on my bucket list!

To have Corman slink away with his metaphorical tail between his legs would have made Oswald’s faith look weak, and in extension, would have made Oswald himself look weak in the eyes of his subjects. And weak kings in Anglo-Saxon England did not last long.

Back to that meeting of elders described by Bede, where Corman has just laid out his case for why he came back. You can imagine the dismay at his words. They all knew what was at stake. One of the attendees of the meeting was Aidan, at that time a Bishop of Scattery Island.

We don’t know a lot about the early history of Aidan (anglicized form of the Gaelic Áedán or Aohdán). But in my next instalment I will tell you what we know, and give you a clearer picture of this man, whom I found by happy accident while researching the people and the places of the era of my novel, who has come to be known as the Apostle of the English…


*Today this is Ireland, but no such designation existed then. The Irish were called the Scotii by the Romans, which morphed into our modern-day word for the Scots. I know, confusing.

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Book Review: Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

I approached this book with a mixture of heady anticipation and fearful doubts. I absolutely love Novik’s Temeraire series, which, in a nutshell, is an alternate history series speculating on what the Napoleonic Wars would have been like if the countries had dragons to help them fight. Those books are delightful, and I highly recommend them. There are eight books so far in the series, with another one on the way in 2016 (whoop!).

Novik took a break from dragons to write this book, an homage to the Polish/European fairy stories she enjoyed as a child. However, there IS a dragon in it, but this “dragon” is a wizard who protects a small village from the near-by menacing Wood and selects a village girl every ten years, for what exact purpose the Villagers don’t know. As the main character, 17 year old Agnieshka, says in the opening paragraph,

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would ban together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful. 

It’s hard to follow up a tremendously successful series, especially one in which the characters are so finely drawn and the voice so singular, as is the case of the Temeraire books. (Temeraire is the name of the dragon who is discovered and raised by the main character, Captain Lawrence). Which is why I was a bit afraid to read this book. It’s been out for a few months, but I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as the others.

Well, I needn’t have worried. Did I like it as much as the Temeraire books? No, but that’s okay. I still enjoyed it very much. Novik is a wonderful writer, and she pulled me into this world very quickly. It does read like a Grimm’s fairy tale, with wizards and the menacing evil of the Wood hanging over all, and I enjoyed that flavour to it.

The story opens with Agnieshka and the rest of the 17 year old girls getting ready for the feasting day when the Dragon will come from his tower and pick the girl he will take. In this case, everyone assumed that his choice would be Kesia, Agnieshka’s best friend, who is beautiful and graceful, everything that Agnieshka isn’t. But when the moment comes, to everyone’s surprise, it is Agnieshka who is taken.

Agnieshka is an appealing character, clumsy and ill-kempt, but with some spunk to her. I liked her from the get-go, and sympathized with her plight. The Dragon is cold and impatient, especially when he begins to teach her some magic; for the reason he chose her was because, unbeknownst to her, she had magical abilities that the rest of the girls did not have.

I enjoyed the comparison of Agnieshka’s magic to that practiced by the Dragon. Agnieshka’s magic is much more organic and intuitive, while the  Dragon’s is  logical and mathematical. Novik does a good job of describing the two and their burgeoning partnership as Agnieshka begins to learn her magic under the Dragon’s exacting tutelage.

There are some funny parts to this novel, and some creepy ones as well. This is not a book for younger teens, in my opinion. There are some sexual scenes, which, although tastefully done, are not appropriate for that age. And the scary bits might be quite unsettling to younger readers. For example, here is the description of the Wood:

No one went into the Wood and came out again, at least not whole and themselves. Sometimes they came out blind and screaming, sometimes they came out twisted and so misshapen they couldn’t be recognized; and worst of all sometimes they came out with their own faces but murder behind them, something gone dreadfully wrong within.

Working on intuition and spurred on by her love for her friend, Agnieshka manages to save Keisa when she is captured by the Wood. Her success is not complete – Keisa is changed by her time spent in the Wood, with superhuman strength and other inhuman qualities, but her personality is intact. Because of this success, Agnieshka is roped into a plan to save the country’s Queen from the Wood, who disappeared there some years before.

There is a wider world beyond the confines of the Valley and the Tower, and Agnieshka’s magical abilities involve her in the politics of the country and the people who had only interested her Valley people as fodder for tales and legends. Despite their doubts about the wisdom of doing such a thing, Agnieshka and the Dragon manage to rescue the Queen, but it quickly becomes apparent that something is terribly wrong with her….

I won’t give any more away, for I would recommend this book as one for you to read. It’s a modern-day Grimm fairy tale, with humour, a European flavour, and a romantic element to it as well, although the fact that Agnieshka is only 17 put me off the  physical side of the romantic relationship. There is an interesting magic system and a creepy evil to be vanquished, and it’s all done in Novik’s very competent writing style.

I did enjoy this book…..but I really can’t wait to return to Captain Lawrence and Temeraire’s world  in League of Dragons, coming sometime in 2016, I understand….

The Lindisfarne Gospels

There are many seeds that an author can point to that lead to an idea for a book. Looking back I can identify quite a few that led to my fantasy trilogy, The Traveller’s Path. Without a doubt one of those was planted on a summer’s day in 1987 when I saw the Lindisfarne Gospels in person for the first time.

My husband and I were spending a glorious summer travelling through Europe. We began our travels in Britain – I have relatives there that I had not seen for over a decade, who live in Wales. But before we got there we spent three or four days in London (which is truly one of my most favourite cities in the world). One of our first stops was the British Museum – we are both history buffs and we couldn’t wait to see the treasures there. And indeed we found treasures galore, too many to mention here, but I could write tomes about them all. A happy, happy place for us!

Towards the end of the day, after we had wandered through the Egyptian exhibits (mummies! Book of the Dead!) and the Ancient Cultures (Nebuchanezzer! Treasures from Ur!!) and the Greek rooms (Pantheon Friezes!) we saw that there was a section of the museum called the British Library (this is housed in its own building now, separate from the Museum, but at that time it was part of the Museum itself). Being book lovers as well as history buffs we figured we should go have a quick look around.

Walking into the exhibit rooms the first thing we saw displayed was a large glass cabinet, with a big book open inside: the Lindisfarne Gospels.

I had never heard of this book before, but I was immediately captured by the sheer beauty of the thing. It was the first illuminated manuscript I had seen in person, and the details and exquisite craftsmanship absolutely stunned me.

The first page of the Gospel of Matthew, consisting of the first sentence (in Latin):

The first page of the Gospel of Matthew, consisting of the first sentence (in Latin): “Liber generationis Iesu Christi filii David filii Abraham” (The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.) The letters on the side are the Old English translation, added 250 years after the Gospels were finished.

Just spend a moment pondering that page. I can assure you that the impact is magnified ten-fold when you see it in person; the colours are much more vibrant, and you can really get close and see the details. Here’s a close up of part of an other page:

A detail from the second initial page from St. Matthew's Gospel.

A detail from the second initial page from St. Matthew’s Gospel.

Not every page were illuminated like this, of course. The main body of the book was written in the beautiful “uncial” style of writing, developed in Britain at this time. Here’s an example:

A page from This is one of the very few pages on which Eadfrith's original 7th century script can be admired almost entirely free of the gloss added by Aldred in the 10th century. Clear and black, very assured and regular in form, this script, designed for formal use, is known technically as insular majuscule. The page gives details of particular passages in St John which are to be read on specific feast days.

You can see Aldred’s gloss of Old English up at the top, the rest of the page is one of the few places in the Gospels where you can see Eadfrith’s script free of the gloss and admire the beauty of his lettering. The page consists of instructions on which passages of the Gospel of St. John should be read on specific feast days.

There are reams and reams of scholarship available on the Gospels, I can’t begin to go into the depths of detail about this wonderful book that it really deserves, but let me give you just a few quick details:

  • Best guess for when the book was finished is 698 AD, as part of the celebrations at Lindisfarne of the translation of St. Cuthbert’s relics to the high altar of Lindisfarne. Cuthbert was one of Lindisfarne’s most famous abbots. Other scholars place the date of completion around 710-720 AD.
  • it is a compilation of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), in Latin, from the Latin Vulgate. It was written on vellum, the very finest calfskin available, and it would have taken 300 cattle to make the book. The pigments used were from local sources (ores, lead, etc) but possibly also some lapis lazuli from the foothills of the Himalayas.
  • The translation of the Latin into Old English (Anglo-Saxon) was done by Aldred, a priest, 250 years after its creation. Aldred also added a colophon in which he gives some of the history of the book’s creation.
  • The artist/scribe used lead point (the forerunner of the pencil) to do preliminary drawings on the back of the page, using compasses and dividers as well, and then backlit the pages in some way, perhaps using a transparent horn desk found in the Islamic territories. He then traced the design on the front and painted it.  In some cases he deviated from the design he originally drew, obviously struck by inspiration as he worked.
  • It was bound together and given a jewelled cover; the original was lost, unfortunately, but it was given a new cover in 1852.
  • It was taken by the monks from Lindisfarne during the era of the Viking attacks, and preserved by them until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1500s. It’s history is murky after that, but somehow it ends up in the collections of Sir Robert Cotton in the 1800s, who collected many early Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and whose collection formed the basis of the British Library.
  • It is the work of one man, likely Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne at the time.

Go back and look at the second image for a moment, and think of Eadfirith, in the scriptorium at Lindisfarne, likely cold and drafty with its open windows to let in the light. He is the Bishop, busy with the administration of this monastery, and aside from his duties as Bishop, like all the monks he participates in the rhythm of monastery life: eight times during the day and night to drop everything to attend the services of the Divine Office, plus doing the work of the monastery such as tending the livestock, brewing ale, etc, plus time for study and contemplation. Think of the concentration necessary to do such fine, detailed work, and the planning that was needed to develop the designs. Other Gospel books, such as the Book of Kells, were the work of a team of scribes. Eadfrith was the lone creator of this one, a fact attested to by Aldred’s colophon as well as careful analysis of the writing and art contained within it.

It is estimated that someone today, working two years full time with electric light and heating, could make something similar, but not up to the standard displayed here. It likely took Eadfrith approximately ten years to complete the Gospels.

It’s an incredible, unbelievable achievement. Eadfrith would have begun each session dedicating his work to God, for this was truly an Opus Dei, a work of God. He would have seen every stroke as part of a prayer he was offering on his behalf and on the behalf of the community at large, each word a “wound on Satan’s body”, according to the Roman monastic founder Cassiodorius, whose works would have been very familiar to the monks at Lindisfarne.

Looking at the Gospels I was struck by the devotion and dedication of this man, and I began to wonder what it was like to create this, what spurred him on to do it, how he accomplished it. Those questions lay buried in my mind for twenty years until a few other seeds came together and began to take root and grow into Wilding, Book One of The Traveller’s Path.

I knew that I had to include Lindisfarne, and those monks, in my book. As it turned out Eadfrith himself isn’t in the book, as Wilding takes place (mainly) in 642 AD, but his incredible workmanship displayed in the Lindisfarne Gospels was a huge creative inspiration to me as well as a spiritual one.

Eadfrith died in 721 AD. If you accept the later date of the Gospel’s completion, it would mean he died shortly before it was finished. And indeed, there are places in the book where the drawings are unfinished, where paint was obviously meant to be added but was left undone. I can’t imagine Eadfrith not finishing it if he was at all able to do so, so I can see that the reason why it was left undone was that he died before he could complete it.

It was his life’s work, the Word made word, done to the glory of God. It’s a challenge to us to make our lives count for more than ourselves, and a reminder that dedication and single-mindedness can help you achieve something glorious. And that every brush stoke of our lives can be dedicated to God as a prayer, trusting in faith that something of it will survive for His glory.