Bald’s Leechbook: The Doctor is In

I find as I do research on the so-called Dark Ages that time and time again, my preconceived notions about what life must have been like have been proven wrong. It’s hard to fight against the popular culture’s perception of the Early Middle Ages, that perception that people’s lives were “nasty, brutish, and short.” The Roman Empire had collapsed, the barbarian hordes had destroyed civilization as we know it, and the world was plunged into a cultural, scientific, and artistic darkness that would last until the Renaissance.

Some of that is true, up to a point. But the more I read about this time period, the more I find ways in which all of those assumptions are challenged.

Take medicine, for example. How did people treat the various diseases or injuries they suffered? I don’t know about you, but what springs to my mind is a muttering priest praying over a patient or a cackling crone stirring up a brew of some entirely unhelpful mix of ingredients, and administering it, along with a spell or two, to the sick.  Mainly, I imagine that people died of things that are easily cured today, and that people then had no idea of how the human body worked or how to fix anything that might go wrong with it.

Well, the truth is skirting around the edges of those ideas, to be sure, but perhaps, like me, you will be surprised to discover exactly how medicine was practiced in those days.

First of all, I have explained before about how the lack of written material from this era makes it hard for us to understand the customs and people of the day. But surprisingly, there are around five hundred leaves of connected medical texts in Old English that survive from this time period. So when you think about how little written material we have, to have this many medical texts surviving gives you a clue that there must have been a lot of medical texts available at the time.

The most important of these texts, called Bald’s Leechbook, presumably owned or named after a physician named Bald, comes to us from the ninth century, but is a copy of a work from about fifty years before. A leech was another name for a physician, because, yes, they did use leeches to treat some ailments (they are surprisingly effective in reducing swelling and bruising after an injury, because they are great at sucking blood out). It is a compilation of the best of medical knowledge stretching back to the Roman and Greek empires, and ultimately back to the celebrated Roman physician, Galen.

This gives us an important clue that the medical knowledge of the Greeks and Romans was not lost in Dark Ages Britain. From references in Bede’s histories, we see that both laymen and clerics were named physicians. And from looking at the remedies prescribed in the Leechbook and from other sources, we can see that a wide variety of cures and treatments for various maladies and injuries were available to the Anglo-Saxon physicians of the time. Most of these were plant-based herbal remedies, made up of both locally available plants and even some exotic ingredients such as cinnamon, pepper, or ginger, that would have been obtained from the far East through Arabic traders into the Continent, finally reaching Britain.

Some of these ingredients were helpful, some neutral, and some harmful. Others, containing ingredients such as garlic, onion, oxgall and copper salts, are very useful indeed against bacterial infection.

Just how useful was proven in 2015. Microbiology experts at the University of Nottingham recreated a recipe that was meant to be an eye salve, for eye infections. At the time, of course, physicians had no idea of bacteria or viruses, but found this recipe effective against eyes that were inflamed and sore. The university scientists recreated the recipe, consisting of crushed garlic and onion, 25 ml of English wine (which they obtained from a historic vineyard near Glastonbury) and bovine salts dissolved in distilled water. Bovine salts consist of dried bile from a cow’s intestine, in case you were wondering (I had to look it up, too!).

They thought it might have some positive effect, based on the ingredients, and made a large batch, which they tested on one of today’s antibiotic-resistant superbugs named MRSA. To their great astonishment, the mixture wiped out almost 90% of the MRSA bacteria. They cannot completely explain this, for the ingredients, separately, will not have the same effect. So it is the combination of the ingredients mixed together that prove effective, and they cannot, as of yet, explain why or how. Research is continuing.

There is evidence from studying skeletons found from this era, and from treatments prescribed in the Leechbook,  that surgery was also attempted at this time, and in some cases, successfully. Amputations for gangrenous limbs, using silk thread to suture abdominal wounds, and even plastic surgery in terms of suturing cleft palates was practiced.

Even brain surgery. Yes. Some skulls from this period (and even from pre-historic times, believe it or not) show evidence of trepanation. This is the drilling of a hole through the skull to expose the dura mater that covers the brain. This could be done after a head injury, to clean out the bits of bone and blood that collect under the skull and relieve pressure and pain that results. If you have ever drilled a hole in a fingernail to relieve that throbbing pain that results from an injury to a finger where blood is collecting under the nail, you get the idea.*

Even more astonishing than the fact they attempted this is the fact that the patient often survived, as shown by the trepanned holes in the skulls being edged with new bony growth, meaning the person lived for some time after.

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A trepanned skull of a 50 year old woman from 3500 BC (!), France.  Yup, she survived this (see the rounded edges of the bone?). That’s one huge hole….This procedure wasn’t always just for head injuries. Condidtions such as epilepsy or other psycological ailments could have trepanning as a “cure” – to let the “evil spirits” out. Image from wikicommons

There is, however, some “darkness” in Dark Ages medicine. There were certainly things that physicians could treat – mending broken bones, infections resulting from wounds, etc. However, there were maladies that they had no understanding of the causes and therefore had to resort to guessing how to fix it, or to charms. Things such as eczema or allergic reactions, or even the plague, would have been beyond their understanding as they didn’t know about the causes of these and so could not treat them.

Enter the Lacnunga (“Remedies”), a tenth century collection of medical and related materials. It is this collection that has given Dark Ages medicine it’s bad name, so to speak, for here we find the various remedies for ailments that involve charms, incantations, and other odd practices. Often they are a combination of ancient pagan practices with Christian prayers or symbolism. So we have, for example, this charm:

If cysts pain a man at the heart, let a virgin go to a spring which runs straight east, and draw forth one cup full, with [in the direction of?] the current, and sing thereon the Creed and Pater noster, and then pour it into another vessel; and let him/her draw again a second and sing again the Creed and the Pater noster; and do so that you have three [cupfuls]; do this nine days; soon he will be well.

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The first page of the Lacnunga. Image from wyrtig.com

 

Here we see sacred waters (the spring), running east (the direction of the coming Day of the Lord, when Christ will rise in the east), the virgin (note male or female), the number three, the number nine, the Creed (the Apostle’s Creed, the fundamental beliefs of every Christian), the Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer). This is a marvellous mixture of both pagan and Christian elements, and it shows in a very elemental way how the culture of the time was being tugged between these two belief systems, just as do Beowulf and the insular art of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

But as a medical treatment for “cysts of the heart” (whatever that may be), it is, of course, useless. Except in the giving of hope, which as we all know, is a powerful kind of medicine all in itself, so it’s not to say that these charms were always ineffective.

So were Dark Ages physicians simply ignorant hacks that killed more patients than they cured, using guesses and folklore to treat their patients?

I believe the evidence says no. As the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England states, 

If we can trust the evidence of the surviving medical literature it appears that Anglo-Saxon medicine was no worse than any other of its day, and that at its best it was probably better than most.

And maybe even better than our own, in treating MRSA, at any rate!


*I never, ever do this. My hubby has done this to himself. I can’t watch. I can’t even imagine doing this to treat a head injury. “Come here, Ecbert. Let me drill into your head with this big drill. It will make you feel better. Honest. “ Yikes. They were made of sterner stuff than I, to be sure.

 

Featured image: a facisimle page from Bald’s Leechbook, from Wikipedia

Hild of Whitby

There a few women whose stories are known from the Early Middle Ages – although, perhaps more than you think are mentioned in the scant sources of information that we have from this era. Most of those are Queens, but some are not. Hild of Whitby is one such woman, whose remarkable life ensured her story would remain to come down to us today.

Hild (sometimes called Hilda) was born to a Deiran noble family in 614 A.D.. Her father was the nephew of King Edwin, but Hild never knew him, for when she was an infant he was poisoned while they were in exile at the court of the  King of Elmet, now West Yorkshire. Edwin eventually avenged her father’s death by killing the King and annexing his territory, which I assume was not the result the Elmet King had in mind when he committed this murder.

Hild and her older sister (and mother, presumably) became part of the royal household, and was baptized along with the rest of the court when Edwin, influenced by his new wife Aethelburh of Kent, converted to Christianity in 627 A.D.

The curtain closes on Hild until 647 A.D., when she was 33. It’s likely she would have been married, as she was an eligible princess and thus useful for Edwin in making strategic alliances with his various neighbours and/or enemies. We don’t know. What we do know is that in 647 A.D. Hild is single, and heads to East Anglia to join her widowed older sister Hereswith who has become a nun in France (technically Gaul).

She spent a year in East Anglia preparing for the convent, but she never made it there. Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne asks her, instead, to come back to Northumbria. One assumes that Aidan knew her, or at least knew of her reputation of piety and intelligence. After another year, in which Bede says she “lived a monastic life, with few companions”, presumably being trained in the monastic life, Aidan appoints her as Abbess of Hereteu monastery.

Hereteu (now called Hartlepool, further south along the coast from Lindisfarne) had been founded by Heiu, the first Northumbrian woman to become a nun. But Heiu leaves soon after and Aidan fills the vacancy with Hild.

As Bede says,

Hilda, the handmaid of Christ, being set over that monastery, began immediately to order it in all things under a rule of life, according as she had been instructed by learned men; for Bishop Aidan, and others of the religious that knew her, frequently visited her and loved her heartily, and diligently instructed her, because of her innate wisdom and love of the service of God.

In other words, she was a smart cookie. After a few years, King Oswy gifted her some land, possibly as part of a vow he made in connection with his victory over Penda,  a little further south from Hartlepool. There Hild established a monastery in 657  A.D.. At the time it was called Streaneshalch, but now is known as Whitby.* Hild was now technically Abbess of both monasteries, but she lived at Streaneshalch.

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A detail from the monument of St. Hilda at Whitby. Note the five bishops peering over her shoulders! Also, she is not standing on waves, but snakes. According to legend she turned snakes into stone, and fossilized ammonites found on the shore at Whitby were proof of this. Image from Wikipedia.

Now if you know anything at all about monasteries, you should be thinking, “Wait. How can a woman become the head over a monastery?”

Ah. Good question! I have mentioned before that there were some differences between the Celtic “brand” of Christianity and that which was brought to the Island with Augustine in 597 AD from Rome when Pope Gregory sent him on a mission to convert the Angles. However, there were some of the native British (Celts) who didn’t need converting, as they had been happily practicing the faith on their own since the Romans left them to their own devices almost two hundred years before. When the Roman church finally caught up to them again, the Celtic church had developed a few inconsistencies from Rome. Not in doctrine, mainly, but in practice.

The big ones in the eyes of Rome seemed to be the tonsure and the dating of Lent, but another significant one was that it was quite common for the Celts to have double monasteries, containing both monks and nuns, living separately but with a common church in the middle at which they worshipped together.

Hartlepool was one such monastery. The fact that Hild was the Abbess over the monastery speaks both to her intelligence and her character, and it also gives us a little glimpse into the role of women in Celtic society.

The idea of double monasteries was not unknown at this time. There were some in Gaul, which was also populated by Celts, and it seems that Hild took her inspiration from both Aidan and the example of the monasteries in Gaul when she established Whitby.

The roles of  women  in Celtic societies were quite different from that of women in Greco-Romano culture. Tacitus, the Roman historian, wrote of the Celts, “There is no rule of distinction to exclude the female line from the throne or the command of the armies.” The most famous example of that would be Boudicca, Queen of the Celtic tribe known as the Iceni,  who led an uprising against the Romans in Britain in 60 or 61 A.D.

In the pagan religion of the Irish Celts, women could become priests, and I suppose it is this cultural custom that allowed for women to be the head of a double monastery in the Celtic Christian church of the time.

At any rate, Hild did an exemplary job as Abbess, from all accounts. Well, at least from Bede’s account, which is pretty much everything that we know about her. He writes,

She taught [at Whitby] the strict observance of justice, piety, chastity, and other virtues, and particularly of peace and charity; so that, after the example of the primitive Church, no one there was rich, and none poor, for they had all things common, and none had any private property. [By primitive Church, he is referring to the first Christians in the book of Acts. See Acts 2:42].Her prudence was so great, that not only meaner men in their need, but sometimes even kings and princes, sought and received her counsel; she obliged those who were under her direction to give so much time to reading of the Holy Scriptures, and to exercise themselves so much in works of justice, that many might readily be found there fit for the priesthood and the service of the altar.

One has to keep in mind that Bede, being from the Roman Christian persuasion, does generally not look too fondly on those who followed the Celtic Christian ways. In his mind, they were skirting around the edges of heresy. Therefore it is all the more remarkable when you find him praising a monk or nun (or Abbess, as in this case) who was a Celtic Christian, as he does here.**

He certainly can’t deny her influence, because in the next paragraph he tells us that under her tutelage and example, five men from Whitby became bishops, including the darling of the Roman Christians, Wilfrid, who was another fascinating figure that I will be writing about on the blog some day.

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The dramatic ruins of Whitby Abbey. This is the ruins of the 13th century Benedictine Abbey that was built on the same site as Hild’s Abbey. Her monastery would have been in the Celtic style: small wooden, thatched roof buildings that housed one of two monks/nuns each, with a larger church and other buildings such as a guesthouse, school, kitchen, etc. Unfortunately the original monastery was sacked by the Viking invaders in 867 A.D. 

Running a monastery (or two!) required more than just teaching skills, in fact, the bulk of the work would probably be more administrative. She had lands and people to manage as she kept the work of the monasteries going.  The monasteries had land on which they grew crops and raised animals, in order to feed the monks (and the poor who came to them for charity) but also for the production of vellum for the manuscripts they produced.

They would also have craftsmen who would make the liturgical vessels and the ordinary implements used by the monks in their herb gardens, kitchens, and ale or mead making endeavours.

She must have had quite the reputation at the time, for many nobles and kings came to her for advice, and would have also sent their children to her monasteries for schooling under the monks and nuns.

Ultimately it was at Whitby that King Oswy decided to hold his famous meeting with all the nobles and high-ranking churchmen of the day, in which they were going to decide once and for all whether to follow the Celtic or Roman customs of the faith.

That he would hold such an important meeting there shows the respect he had for Hild. He must have valued her advice a great deal.

She also had time for the common people, it seems, though. One of the charming stories Bede relates is that of Caedmon, the first English poet. He cared for the animals at Whitby, and through miraculous means God gave him the words of the first English Christian hymn, and it was through Hild’s encouragement that he developed his gift of song and poetry. A lover of the arts, then!

I am so grateful that Hild’s story survives. It gives us a glimpse into the life of an extraordinary woman living in difficult times, who made a substantial impact on her society.


*Fun fact about Whitby: Bram Stoker was holidaying in Whitby (the town that grew up around the Abbey) when he wandered into the library and discovered a book about Vlad the Impaler, which was his inspiration for Dracula. In the book Dracula (in the form of a large dog) comes to England after a shipwreck and bounds up the 199 steps to St. Mary’s Church, situated below the Abbey (which is on the headland looking out to sea).

**Bede does not call them Celtic Christians, he refers to them as the British, as opposed to the “English”. He is not necessarily defining them on tribal grounds but on religious. It is true that it  was mainly the Celts (the native British) who followed the Celtic Christian path, although, due to the influence of the Irish monks, the Christian Anglian kings of Northumbria practiced their faith in the Celtic style too. In order for clarity I refer to them by the term Celtic Christian rather than British.

Featured image from Wikicommons. She is portrayed in this icon as holding Whitby Abbey.

 

 

Oswald, King of Bernicia

There are so many fascinating people who lived in the 7th century. I have highlighted a couple of them on the blog. And it’s well past time to introduce you to one of the most important figures of the time: Oswald, King of Bernicia. He is relatively unknown now, but for centuries after his death in 642 AD he was famous throughout Europe, venerated as a Saint for his role in establishing the Christian church in England.

Oswald was the oldest son of the Anglian king Æthelfrith, who had a fierce reputation among the native Britons he fought against in his occupation of their ancient lands. They gave him the nick-name Flesaur, which means “twister”, which gives us sense of the perhaps begrudging respect his enemies gave to this most canny of warriors.

Æthelfrith is the first Bernician king of Britain that we really know much about with any accuracy, and that is probably because of his prowess as a warrior and a king.  He defeated Ælla of Deira, sending Ælla’s son Edwin into exile, and became the first king of both Bernicia and Deira (the area we know now as Northumbria). He eventually married Ælla’s daughter Acha, probably to legitimize his hold on the Deiran throne by marrying the former king’s daughter. Æthelfrith was a pagan, like the other Angles and Saxons of the time.

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Bamburgh, the seat of the Bernician kings, was known as Bebbanburg in ancient times. It was called by the Irish, Dún Guaire, but re-named Bebbanburg in honour of Bebba, Æthelfrith’s wife. And yes, he was also married to Acha. Perhaps he married Bebba later in his reign, after Acha died, or it is also possible he was polygamous, which was not unknown at the time among the pagan Anglo-Saxon kings. Photo by Michael Hanselmann, on WikiCommons

Oswald was born in 604 AD, at the height of his father’s power. He was not the first son and heir, that honour went to his older brother Eanfrith. But when Oswald was twelve, his life as a privileged atheling (prince) of the ruling family came to an abrupt end. In 616 AD, Æthelfrith’s past came back to haunt him in the form of Edwin, who joined forces with Rædwald of Wessex to oust Æthelfrith from the throne, killing him in battle.

For their safety, Oswald and his siblings (there were actually eight of them altogether) fled  north, to the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, out of Edwin’s reach. And from all accounts, Oswald thrived there during the long years of exile. He quickly adapted to the Irish culture and became fluent in the language, and even fought on the side of his hosts. And, importantly, he was taught by the monks at the school at Hii (Iona), and through their influence converted to Christianity.

In 633 AD Edwin was killed by the combined forces of Cadwallon of Wales and Penda of Mercia, and Northumbria was divided into Bernicia and Deira once again. Perhaps because of a previous alliance of some sort with Cadwallon, Eanfrith returned from exile and was crowned king of Bernicia. He was, after all, the heir to the Bernician throne. But if there was an alliance, it quickly fell apart. Cadwallon slew Eanfrith the next year when Eanfrith went to him seeking peace, and Cadwallon took his place as king of Bernicia (Game of Thrones, anyone?).

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Although George R.R. Martin purportedly got his inspiration from The War of the Roses, he could have just as easily looked a few centuries back to Dark Ages Britain! There was a whole lot of throne-swapping, alliances, and treachery going on then, too. Photo credit: Flickr

Enter our hero, Oswald, the next in line to the throne. From the historian Bede’s account, Cadwallon was a vicious, tyrannical ruler – killing, raping, and pillaging the Angles and Saxons in his new kingdom with impunity. We can take this account with a grain of salt, perhaps, but safe to say something dire reached Oswald’s ears about the upheaval in Bernicia, and we can only imagine how he felt about it.

Regardless of how he felt, we do know what he did, which was to gather an army, most likely made of some of the retainers that had accompanied the royal children while in exile, some of his brothers, and  a contingent of Irish warriors, and return to Bernicia to attempt to wrest the throne from Cadwallon and restore his father’s legacy.

And what happens next is remarkable, and has implications that reverberate down to us, today. Bede tells us that,

After the murder of his brother Eanfrith, Oswald arrived with an army small in numbers but protected by their faith in Christ, and he slew the accursed leader of the Britons and all that vast army that he boasted none could resist…

That is the summarized version, but Bede goes on to tell us the details. He writes,

On approaching this battle Oswald set up the sign of the holy cross…it is said when the cross had been quickly made and a hole made ready for it to stand in, Oswald himself, fired by his faith, seized it and placed it in its hole and held it upright with both hands, until the soldiers heaped up the soil and made it fast in the ground. Thereupon he raised his voice and cried aloud to the whole army: “Let us all kneel, and together pray the almighty, everliving and true God to defend us by His mercy from a proud and cruel enemy; for He knows that the war we have engaged in for the deliverance of our people is a just war.” They all did as he had ordered and, advancing thus against the enemy as dawn appeared, won the victory as the reward for their faith. 

Perhaps Oswald was inspired by the story of Constantine, who conquered his enemies under the standard of the Cross. But be that as it may, the prayer and Oswald’s example certainly inspired his army, resulting in the route of Cadwallon’s larger army, the death of the usurper, and the restoration of a son of Æthelfrith to the throne of Bernicia.

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The cross at Heavenfield, commemorating Oswald’s victory over Cadwallon. Photo: David Dixon

But not just any son. A Christian, who had been educated in the Irish north, and who came to faith under the influence of the Celtic Irish monks of Iona. And a man who wanted to bring that faith to his people. One of his first acts as king was to send a message back to Iona, asking them to send someone to begin spreading the Gospel among the Bernicians. Which eventually resulted in the mission of Aidan, who resided at Lindisfarne in the monastery established at that rocky outcrop close to Bamburgh on land granted by Oswald.

Oswald and Aidan began the  work together, Bede tells us, with Oswald travelling along with Aidan in the early days, acting as his translator between the Irish bishop and the Anglian people. This mission was responsible for the conversion of the pagan Bernicians to Christianity, and was the first church-state alliance in England’s history.

Oswald himself became a king to be reckoned with. With perhaps a touch of his father’s wily intelligence, he negotiated and fought his way to becoming king of a once-more united Northumbria, and one of the most powerful kings of England. He is one of the  kings given the honorific, bretwalda, meaning a king holding more than one territory.

Oswald ruled over Northumbria for less than ten years, which although is a short period by our standards, by the standards of the day is actually quite a long reign, given the penchant of the early medieval kings to make war upon another. He brought relative peace and stability to Northumbria, and the beginnings of a Christian society.

Alas, all good things must eventually come to an end, and in August of 642 AD, Penda of Mercia killed Oswald at the Battle of Maserfield, subjecting poor Oswald to the fate of having his body chopped up into parts and displayed in pagan fashion upon spikes as a way of celebrating the victory. Which eventually leads to the daring recovery of his brother’s arm by his younger brother Oswy and the later cult of Oswald’s arm, which is a whole ‘nother story…..

But although an obscure king today, you can still find Oswald hinted at in one of the most famous works of literature in our day. As I explained here, J.R.R. Tolkien was himself a scholar of Anglo-Saxon history, and included in The Lord of the Rings many nods to Anglo-Saxon culture and history. In reading Max Adams’ fascinating book, King of the North: Oswald of Northumbria (recommended reading if you want to know more about Oswald and the times in which he lived), Adams hints that perhaps Tolkien’s character, Aragorn heir of Elisdur, could perhaps have been based on the story of Oswald.

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Aragorn = Oswald?

I think Adams has a solid idea here. Think of it. Aragorn is the exiled son of a king, waiting to take his place on the throne. And when his people are threatened by an evil ruler, he reappears, ready to fight and reclaim the throne. And what about the Battle of Helms Deep, when Aragorn and Gandalf appear at dawn to help route the much larger orc army? Oswald won his great victory at dawn, too!*

Anyhow that’s just a fun example of how the legacy of Oswald still echoes today. I suspect, however, that he would be more gratified that his legacy of faith begun so many years ago with his friend Aidan still continues in the wild northlands of Britain, the ancient home of the Bernician kings.


*For more on the link between Oswald and Aragorn, see this article. And for a fictional take on Oswald, check out Oswald: Return of the King, by Edoardo Albert, the second book in his Northumbrian Thrones series. I reviewed the first book, Edwin: High King of Britain, here on the blog and have Book 2 on my must-read list!

Featured image from The Diocese of Lancaster

 

 

 

Canada and a 6th Century Monk

In honour of Canada Day, I thought it might be fun to share with you one of my favourite stories from the Britain’s Early Middle Ages; that of the 6th century monk known as Brendan the Voyager. This story has a Canadian connection because it has been speculated that Brendan and some fellow monks, not the Vikings, were the first Europeans to set foot on North America, specifically Newfoundland.

Some 50 years after St. Patrick died in 461 A.D., Brendan and other Irish monks continued Patrick’s work of converting the pagan Irish Celts to Christianity. Brendan was born in 484 A.D. in County Karee in the south-west of Ireland, and was ordained as a priest at the age of 28. He frequently sailed the seas to bring the gospel to not only Ireland but also Scotland, Wales, and Brittany, the Gaulish outpost in the north of present-day France.

This method of travel was not unusual at this time. Overland journeys were dangerous. The roads themselves may or may not be in repair, and one could easily get stuck or delayed by bad weather. The impressive roads that the Romans engineered as a means of moving their legions easily around the country were slowly falling into disrepair, making travel difficult.  As they were the main highways they were often frequented by outlaws, which was another outcome of the absence of Roman government. The tribal kings were meant to keep their people safe in return for their tribute, but it wasn’t the same as having the might of Rome patrolling the roads.

The other small, rutted tracks that criss-crossed the country could be difficult to navigate, and what if you came across a bridge that hadn’t been kept up?

For all these reasons, plus speed of travel, people of the day often preferred travelling by boat along the rivers or in ships along the coastlines, and many were quite at ease handling their vessels on the open sea to get between Britain and the continent. It is astonishing to learn of the people who voyaged between Britain and Jerusalem, and to begin to understand the amount of trade that went on between Britain, the rest of Europe, and beyond to Asia, as shown by various archaeological finds.

For the Irish, the traditional vessel of choice was called the currach. This was a wooden-framed boat over which was stretched animal hides. The seams were sealed with tar, or animal fat and grease. This could be rowed, and for larger, sea-going vessels, a mast and sail would be attached.

There are two main sources of information about Brendan and his journey; The Life of Brendan, and The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot.  The second one, the Voyage is the more better-known of the two, and in fact became one of the most popular and enduring legends of the time. The earliest extant version of this dates from around 900 AD, but scholars feel that it was written sometime in the second half of the 8th century, due to references to it in other earlier manuscripts.

The Voyage is written as a type of immram, which was a genre of popular literature peculiar to Ireland at that time. These works were adventurous stories of seafaring heroes. The writer of the Voyage merged this type of story with that of the traditional stories of the aesthetic Irish monks who would travel alone in boats, just as the Desert Fathers of the 2nd and 3rd century used to isolate themselves in caves.

The Voyage is fantastical reading, and that’s what makes it so fun. According to the tale, sometime between AD 512-530 Brendan  became inspired by the stories of another monk called St. Barinthus who claimed to have sailed to an island found beyond the horizon. Brendan gathered some other monks and after the requisite prayers and fasting set off to find this island. They journeyed for seven years, during which time they encountered various mysterious islands and creatures, including an Ethiopian devil, birds that sing psalms, magical water that put them to sleep for a number of days, a huge sleeping whale they mistake for an island which is roused when they build a fire on it, gryphons, crystal pillars floating in the ocean, giants tossing fireballs, sea creatures, and my personal favourite – Judas, sitting on a rock in the middle of a cold, dark sea, on his weekly respite from Hell.

It is a religious work, meant to teach others about salvation,obedience, and faith. But there have been many scholars who have attempted to determine if Brendan actually took this voyage by trying to figure out the places mentioned in it. And this is where it gets interesting.

Trying to sift through the legends and myths in the story is difficult, but there are suggestions that make sense. The great crystal pillars could be icebergs. The giant demons tossing fireballs could be volcanic eruptions on Iceland. And when you look at a map, you can start to see that the journey from Ireland to present-day Canada actually might have been possible, for it is not just heading out in the open sea, but a series of navigations to the Faroe Isles, and then along the coasts of Iceland and Greenland, and finally to the shores of Labrador. This type of coastal navigation interspersed with short hops in-between would have been quite familiar to sailors of that time, as previously explained.

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The possible route Brendan could have taken to reach Canada in the 6th century. Map from irelandofmyheart

If you are still skeptical that such a small and fragile vessel could survive such a journey, consider that in 1976 explorer Tim Severin built a currach using traditional methods and materials such as would be common in Brendan’s time and successfully used it to travel from Ireland to Canada in an attempt to recreate Brendan’s journey.

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Model of the currach Tim Severin built to cross the Atlantic, displayed at Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. From Wikicommons.

There has also been arguments made that Christopher Columbus learned from the Voyage the directions of the prevailing winds and therefore the most favourable routes to take to and from North America on his famous journey of discovery.

It’s all fascinating stuff. So, today on Canada Day I’m hoisting my cup of tea to St. Brendan the Navigator, who possibly was the first European to set foot on our shores.

Here’s to you, Brendan, an honorary Canadian if there ever was one!


Featured picture is the marvellous bronze statue of St. Brendan crafted by Tighe O’Donaghue/Ross, found on Fenit Harbour on Great Samphire Island, in Ireland. He is depicted in traditional dress, clutching a Gospel book, leaning into a force 10 storm such as he might have faced on his travels, his cloak streaming out behind him. He points out to sea, urging us ever forward to spread the word of God. Picture from vanderkrogt.com

 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

There is an important historical document (er, documents…but more on that later…) from the Early Middle Ages that I will confess I hardly looked at when doing my research for my trilogy. Which might seem odd, seeing as I have already explained how there are very few contemporary historical documents from this era. So why did I not dive into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle?

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The statue of King Alfred the Great, by Hamo Thornycroft, erected in Winchester in 1902. I really love this king. I will definitely write a blog post about him some day! 

Part of the reason was timing. This chronicle was begun, as far as we can tell, sometime around the year 891 AD, during the reign of Alfred the Great, in Wessex. So it mainly describes the events after that year, although there is some reference to what happened before that, starting at Caesar’s invasion in 60 AD. But mainly that history was taken from other sources, most importantly from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and so I relied more on Bede’s accounts than the Chronicle, as Bede’s was the more contemporary source.

Another reason was that of setting. As Alfred was King of Wessex, he was most interested in chronicling the history of the kingdom of Wessex in particular. Understandably, of course. So while there are details about that kingdom in the Chronicle (especially regarding those years before the scribes starting writing it) there is not much about the northern kingdoms, which of course I was more interested in. Not to say that there weren’t interesting things happening in the south, but you can only cover so much, right? So, for example, here is the entry about the year that my book opens, 643 AD:

A.D. 643 . This year Kenwal succeeded to the kingdom of the West-Saxons, and held it one and thirty winters. This Kenwal ordered the old church at Winchester to be built in the name of St.
Peter. He was the son of Cynegils.

As you can see, not much there that could help me with my book, which is set in the kingdom of the Angles, in Bernicia and Deira.  In contrast, here is a random entry from the year 978 AD. At this time scribes were writing down what they thought was pertinent information as each year passed, so you get some fascinating tidbits about the year’s events:

A.D. 978 . This year all the oldest counsellors of England fell at Calne from an upper floor; but the holy Archbishop Dustan stood alone upon a beam. Some were dreadfully bruised: and some did not escape with life. This year was King Edward slain, at eventide, at Corfe-gate, on the fifteenth day before the calends of April. And he was buried at Wareham without any royal honour. No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain. Men murdered him but God has magnified him. He was in life an earthly king — he is now after death a heavenly saint. Him would not his earthly relatives avenge — but his heavenly father has avenged him amply. The earthly homicides would wipe out his memory from the earth — but the avenger above has spread his memory abroad in heaven and in earth. Those, Who would not before bow to his living body, now bow on their knees to His dead bones. Now we may conclude, that the wisdom of men, and their meditations, and their counsels, are as nought against the appointment of God. In this same year succeeded Ethelred Etheling, his brother, to the government; and he was afterwards very readily, and with great joy to the counsellors of England, consecrated king at Kingston. In the same year also died Alfwold, who was Bishop of Dorsetshire, and whose body lieth in the minster at Sherborn.

Compared with the terse, factual events of the 643 AD entry, there is lots of drama and intrigue here! The collapse of an upper floor of a building which killed and maimed many of the important counsellors to the king; the king himself murdered and hastily buried without due honour, which prompted a medieval tongue-lashing from the outraged scribe; and the king’s brother, Ethelred, consecrated king with “great joy”. Hmm. My writer’s brain could do a lot with this. The death of the counsellors, prompting some instability in the kingdom? The elder statesmen, who could have tempered the younger hot-heads, gone, allowing youthful ambition to fester? Was it perhaps the king’s brother, with the aide of those younger counsellors, behind the plot to kill the king and so gain the throne? Which is why he was welcomed so eagerly? Lots of things one could research further and write about!

This immediacy of detail is the most fascinating and valuable aspect of the Chronicle. But it is not just one document. The Chronicle is actually several different documents. The original one was begun in Wessex at Alfred’s command, and several copies were made of it and sent to various monasteries across Britain. From there those documents were independently updated as the years went by. In one case the Chronicle was still being updated in 1154! All told, nine manuscripts survive for us to study today.

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This map shows the various places the surviving chronicles were written, and where they are now kept. As you can see, the focus was definitely on southern England.

Of course these documents that make up the Chronicle cannot be seen as being 100% accurate, even though they were being written contemporarily. There are parts where the different versions contradict each other for the same year, and there could be many reasons for that. The scribes would rely not only on their own knowledge of what happened that year, but also on word-of-mouth as to what happened in the rest of the country. So information certainly could get easily distorted. And sometimes, the scribes, having agendas of their own and kings that they were beholden to, would distort information to favour these. Propaganda is a very old art, indeed. The whole idea of objectivity would have been quite foreign to their mind set, so all the information has to be cross-referenced with whatever sources can be found outside of the Chronicle to get a closer handle on exactly what happened.

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The opening page of the Peterborough Chronicle, the latest surviving version, begun in 1120, after the monastery was destroyed by fire. If a monastery’s copy of the Chronicle was destroyed or lost, other monasteries would lend their copies so that the monastery could copy the entries from before the date their copy was destroyed, and begin again the contemporary entries. In this case, although the earlier entries were transcribed in the original Anglo-Saxon (Old English) the newer parts contain some of the first written examples of Middle English.

But even with these caveats, this marvellous undertaking  opened up a window to this era that is invaluable to historians and interested amateurs alike. We owe a great deal of debt to the foresight of King Alfred, who made the original decision to begin to write down the events of his kingdom, as well as to Bede, whose account  likely inspired him to begin a similar work.

The Chronicle is seen as the single-most important document to come out of the Early Medieval period. Our knowledge of this time would be scarce, indeed, without it.

 

Photos from WikiCommons

Year of Important Books: Watership Down, by Richard Adams

This book, published in 1972, will forever be associated with the taste of malted chocolate Easter eggs in my mind. My parents had a tradition of giving us a small gift at Easter, often a book, and happily in Easter of 1975 I found Watership Down, by Richard Adams, propped up at the foot of my bed as I awoke on Easter morning. After searching through the house on the Easter egg hunt, I happily settled down with my new book and my favourite Easter treat – “robin’s eggs”, malted chocolate eggs covered with a hard candy shell, speckled to look like eggs.

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This book has seen a lot of love, as you can see. 

The other books I have read in my series thus far were classics long before I got to read them. With Watership Down I got in on the ground floor, so to speak, as this book has since become a literary classic, beloved by many. I’m not sure exactly why my mum picked this book for me, but I can guess at two reasons. One being that the cover featured a picture of a rabbit, which seemed to fit the Easter theme, I suppose.; and secondly, in order to forestall my never-ending quest to get a dog my parents had relented a few years previous and allowed me to keep the baby bunny the neighbours had given me. So naturally they would have assumed a tale about rabbits would appeal to me.

And they were right. As I ate my Easter candy and began to read this story of Hazel, Fiver, Pipkin, Bigwig, and the rest, I quickly got caught up in the tale and after that first reading went on to re-read it many, many more times.

Adams was born in 1920 in England, and yes, he is still alive! At the time of this writing in 2016 he is 96 years old. Watership Down was his first book. The genesis of this book, like so many of the others I have read this year, was in tales told to his daughters, who then begged him to write them down. But this beloved book did not have an easy time of it. Four publishers and three writing agencies turned down the book before Rex Collins took a chance on it and published it in 1972, and the rest is history. The book went on to win two of the most prestigious British book awards: the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

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Richard Adams reading from Watership Down at a 2008 exhibition of paintings by Aldo Galli, which illustrated a special anniversary edition of the book. Photo by Andrew Reeves-Hall

The book follows the adventures of a group of rabbits who leave their warren on the promptings of a prophetic rabbit named Fiver who has forebodings of disaster to come if they stay put. Hazel, the sensible rabbit who becomes the group’s steadfast and courageous leader, gathers the small number of rabbits who are willing to listen to Fiver’s warnings and together they leave the warren, heading for the hospitable terrain of Watership Down, some 4 miles away. Not a long journey for a man, but for a group of rabbits out in the open, without holes to bolt into at the first sign of danger, it is a long and harrowing trek, dodging men and their snares and guns, predators and even other rabbits. But through their journey the group becomes a tight knit group of companions, and arrive at Watership Down relatively unscathed. But danger lurks there, too, as they soon discover.

In a bid to obtain some does for their warren (the ones who leave with Hazel are all bucks), they encounter the strange warren of Efrafra, ruled over by the foreboding and dictatorial General Woundwort. Suffice to say that Hazel quickly realize their task will not be easy, and that they must draw on all their strength and courage, and a little rabbit trickery besides, to achieve their goal.

On the back of my copy of the book there is a quote from The Times in London, which states, “Mr. Adams wanted to write ‘a proper grown-up novel for children’, and this is what he has achieved.” This is a marvellous summary of this book. It is a children’s book, but it is so much more.

Right away, in the opening paragraph of the book, Adams grounds his rabbits in a realistic setting.

The primroses were over. Towards the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog’s mercury and oak-tree roots. Not he other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit-holes. In places the grass was gone altogether and everywhere there were clusters of dry droppings, through which nothing but the ragwort would grow. A hundred yards away, at the bottom of the slope, ran the brook, no more than three feet wide, half-choked with king-cups, water-cress and blue brook-lime. The cart-track crossed by a brick culvert and climbed the opposite slope to a five-barred gate in the throne hedge. The gate led into the lane. 

The May sunset was red in clouds, and there was still half an hour to twilight. The dry slope was dotted with rabbits – some nibbling at the thing grass near their holes, others pushing farther down to look for dandelions or perhaps a cowslip that the rest had missed. 

There are many passages and details like this in the book – so many flower and trees and trees are named that at times I felt like I needed to stop and Google-search them all. But this realistic portrayal of a particular, small piece of British countryside, a hill in the north of Hampshire, England, where Adams himself grew up and obviously knew intimately, adds immediate realism to the more fantastical parts of the book – Adams’ imaginative take on rabbit society, language, and myths.

Adams researched the life and habitats of rabbits, and in particular pays credit in the introduction to Watership Down to a book by R. M. Lockley called The Private Life of the Rabbit as a book that gave him particular inspiration. Indeed there are times in the book where Adams quotes from Lockley’s book directly. Therefore the rabbit behaviour in Watership Down is very accurate and gives the readers a whole bunch of fascinating information about rabbits that they likely didn’t know.

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The book that Adams relied on for his research, by Welsh ornithologist and naturalist Ronald Lockley. Adams and Lockley were friends, and subsequently introduced Lockley as a character in Adams’ later novel, The Plague Dogs. 

But it is not just factual information about rabbits that Adams presents to the readers in his book, he invents a whole language (called Lapine), social structure, and mythology for rabbits as well. And this is what makes the book really come alive. In particular, the legends and tales of the rabbits’ legendary hero and founder, El-ahrairah, which are interspersed in the book, serve to make this rabbit society one with great depth and complexity.

There is no doubt that this book can be frightening and disturbing to children at times. The animated film based on the book, released in 1978, has been responsible for many a nightmare and complaints by parents, who thought they were taking their children to see a Disney-esque movie about bunnies. The rabbits in this book are in great danger, and some of them die. For myself, it was the depiction of Bigwig in the snare that really haunted me.

But the menacing figure of General Woundwort and his rule of the cowed rabbits of the Efrafra warren is the largest shadow that looms large over the idyllic life that Hazel builds for his rabbits at Watership Down, and the plot to best Woundwort and steal some does away from Efrafra is the highly entertaining and suspenseful climax to the book. I was just as caught up in this during my read of the book as an adult as I was when I was younger.

Interestingly enough, the BBC and Netflix are teaming up to produce a new animated mini-series adaptation of the book, to air in 2017, with actor James McAvoy as the voice of Hazel. Their hope is to do a faithful adaptation of the book but to tone down the scary parts which made the earlier animated film so disturbing to children. I am very much looking forward to seeing this, and will write a review on it once it airs.

I really enjoyed re-visiting this book again, and highly recommend it to upper elementary aged children and up.

 

 

 

 

 

Wandering Through the Web, Again

Awhile back I posted about some of the places I have enjoyed while trekking through cyberspace. Today I thought it might be interesting to you to have a look at some of the specifically Dark Ages or historical websites I like to visit when I am looking for information on the people and places that make up Northumbria in the 7th century.

  1. Bamburgh Research Project – for approximately twenty years there has been an archeological dig going on at Bamburgh. The team have explored various places on the site, and post about their important discoveries on this blog. Piece by piece they are giving historians a better picture of what this site actually contained throughout the years. Every summer they have spots for students and community members to take part in the dig as well. Oh, how I would love to do that! One of these days I would like to do a more complete post on this important project, so stay tuned…

2. Regia Anglorum – this is the website of an early medieval re-enactment and living history society, specializing in the 9th-13th centuries in Britain. So yes, they make their own costumes and get together to re-inact important battles, etc. Which sounds like quite a lot of fun, doesn’t it? Although their specialty is a time period a couple hundred years after the 7th century, this website has a wealth of information about the early middle ages in general.This is one of the sites I used the most at the beginning of researching my book, when trying to get a handle on understanding practical things that a writer needs to know, such as clothing, culture, social structure, food, customs, and all the other details that bring a book to life. Wonderful resource! And, they also have a permanent site in Kent where they are constructing a fortified manor house (a long hall) in the style of the late Anglo-Saxon period. Another place to add to my ever-growing list of places to visit.

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The gang from Regia Anglorum in front of Wychurst, their Anglo-Saxon hall. Photo from Regia Anglorum.

3. Heavenfield – I mentioned this site before, but it’s worth mentioning again. This site is run by historian and scientist Michelle Ziegler, and it is full of great information about the early middle ages. Particularly if you are interested in plagues and disease, this is the place for you, as she often links posts from her other blog, Contagions.  But disease isn’t her only interest. This page on the site has some really good articles about some of the Early Medieval Kings, all backed by solid research.  Ms. Ziegler can be found in other places around the web as well. I found  this article from The Heroic Age magazine really crucial in helping me to understand the interconnecting relationships of the various kings of the region, and in particular, the section entitled “Politics of Exile” gave me a way into understanding Oswy’s story that I hadn’t had before.

4. Other Dark Ages authors – often authors who write about a particular era will have interesting facts and information about that era on their website or blog. I try to do that here, too! I have found some great information on other author’s blogs, including that of A.J. Sefton,  Carla Nayland, and Octavia Randolph.

There are numerous other web resources out there for research into the Dark Ages. Wikipedia has a lot of information, of course. But one must always be careful when you are using the web for research. Check the sources of the article you are looking at, and always look at more than one source for the information you are seeking. That will help you to avoid misinformation and inaccuracies that would be easy to find if you don’t research properly.