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.

 

 

Giving Thanks

Here in Canada we are celebrating Thanksgiving this weekend. We don’t have the stories of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower, but we do have a wonderful tradition of giving thanks in this country as well. I didn’t know much about the history of our Thanksgiving, but in a quick search on the web I found these fascinating details:

  • Some historians say that the first North American Thanksgiving was held in 1578 as explorer Martin Frobisher, who with a fleet of ships was searching for the Northwest Passage, gave thanks and celebrated Communion after a particularly harrowing voyage from Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island and back again.
  • French settlers who crossed the ocean with Samuel de Champlain and arrived safely in Canada with him in 1604, celebrated with a feast of Thanksgiving. They formed the Order of Good Cheer (don’t you love that name?) and held weekly feasts, during which they shared food with their First Nations neighbours.
  • Thanksgiving Days were celebrated to commemorate important events, such as the end of the Seven Years War (1763), the end of the War of 1812, the end of the Lower Canada Rebellion (1838), and even the recovery of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) from a serious illness in 1872.
  • It wasn’t until 1957 that the second Monday in October was officially designated Thanksgiving Day by Parliament.

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Sir Martin Frobisher, the first to celebrate Thanksgiving on North American soil. Apparently after returning to Frobisher Bay after the harrowing voyage in which one ship was lost and another returned to Europe, the chaplain, Robert Wolfall, “made unto them a godly sermon, exhorting them especially to be thankefull to God for theyr strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places.” Photo : Portrait of Sir Martin Frobisher, by Cornelis Ketel, on Wikicommons

In doing the research on my books, I discovered that the Celtic Christian monks of the early Middle Ages excelled at thanksgiving. Their lives were founded upon praise, celebration and giving thanks. Every day they would recite Psalms 148-150, the praise psalms, which all begin and end with “Praise the Lord”. These words etched their way into their hearts and minds. They would find it very odd indeed to be “thankful” without that thankfulness spilling over into specific thanks to God, the Creator and Sustainer of all.

I don’t want to distract you for too long from your turkey feasts and family celebrations, so I will leave you with this ancient Celtic Christian prayer, recorded in the Carmina Gadelica. Whether you are in Canada or not, why not take some time this weekend to say this prayer slowly, with gratitude for all God has given you? We are truly blessed to live where we do and in the time in which we live.

Thanks to thee, 0 God, that I have risen to-day,
To the rising of this life itself;
May it be to Thine own glory, 0 God of every gift,
And to the glory of my soul likewise.

0 great God, aid Thou my soul
With the aiding of Thine own mercy ;
Even as I clothe my body with wool,
Cover Thou my soul with the shadow of Thy wing.

Help me to avoid every sin,
And the source of every sin to forsake ;
And as the mist scatters on the crest of the hills,
May each ill haze clear from my soul, 0 God.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

 

 

 

 

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 Carmina Gadelica

One of the delights of writing historical fiction is the fun of trying to get a clear picture in your head of the culture and customs of the time you are writing about as well as the hard facts of what happened and when. Research, in other words. One of the best ways to do this is to read some material written during the time that you are interested in. It really helps you to get a flavour of what the people sounded like and what they thought about the issues of the day.

This is great advice in general to all historical fiction writers, but I quickly learned that the time and place I chose to write about had little of this source material to study. The only surviving literary works from Northumbria in the 7th century comes, in the main, from the monasteries. There is correspondence of a sort between monasteries, but mainly concerned with religious matters of one sort or another. There are works such as Bede’s, and other educational treatises on religious, scientific, or philosophic matters; or others detailing the lives of Kings and Saints, but nothing in the way of material written by ordinary people cataloguing their ordinary lives. The people outside of the monasteries, were, for the most part, illiterate, and so trying to understand the ordinary person’s life in Britain in the 7th century can be somewhat of a challenge.

But the fact that they were illiterate society didn’t mean they lacked knowledge, or even education, of a sort. News was passed orally, along with the traditional stories and poems of the culture. In the Celtic areas of Britain this oral emphasis dovetailed nicely with the Druidic emphasis on the importance of oral knowledge. The people in those areas were used to mesmerizing long pieces of information, whether it be the latest news from Rome or a charm to cure sickness. All these in turn were passed along from one generation to another, and that practice continued even to the nineteenth century.

In the middle of the 1800s, a Scottish exciseman named Alexander Carmichael (a tax man, for lack of a better word), began to realize that many of the oral charms, prayers, songs, and customs of the Scottish Celts were beginning to be lost, and he began to collect them as he travelled throughout Scotland, mainly in the Outer Hebrides, in the course of his work. He eventually published two volumes in 1900, entitled Carmina Gadelica (Songs of the Gaels) but the work was not done and his family and others continued to publish continuing volumes until the last one, which was published in 1971.

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Alexander Carmichael by William Skeoch Cumming – Public Domain, wikicommons

There has been some controversy about the Carmina, accusations that Carmichael edited the original material so thoroughly the historical value was lost. The 19th century society in which he was doing his work had little positive opinion of the Scottish Gaels, seeing them as boorish backwater barbarians, for the most part. It is possible that part of the reason Carmichael wrote the Carmina Gadelica was to counteract this prevailing view. And so, in it you will find statements like this:

During his visit to us, Mr Campbell expressed to my wife and to myself his admiration of these and other men with whom we had come in contact. He said that in no other race had he observed so many noble traits and high qualities as in the unlettered, untravelled, unspoiled Highlander.

Okay, a little over the top, right? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and so I don’t treat Carmichael’s work as entirely historically factual but nor do I dismiss it’s contribution to the understanding of the culture and oral history of the Celts. The entire collection is now online, and scholars are now able to examine in detail Carmichael’s notebooks (written in his native Gaelic). Study continues on this important body of work, and I’m sure more revelations will be forthcoming.

All that aside, however, the Carmina is fascinating reading.  Many of the entries are presented without comment, but my favourite ones are the ones in which Carmichael added a note about who he got the prayer or charm from, or other background information about the entry, such as this one, which is the opening entry in the first volume:

Old people in the Isles sing this or some other short hymn before prayer. Sometimes the hymn and the prayer are intoned in low tremulous unmeasured cadences like the moving and moaning, the soughing and the sighing, of the ever-murmuring sea on their own wild shores. 

They generally retire to a closet, to an outhouse, to the lee of a knoll, or to the shelter of a dell, that they may not be seen nor heard of men. I have known men and women of eighty, ninety, and a hundred years of age continue the practice of their lives in going from one to two miles to the seashore to join their voices with the voicing, of the waves and their praises with the praises of the ceaseless sea. 

Isn’t that lovely? He was a native Gaelic speaker, and you can hear the poetry and rhythm of that language coming through in his comments, written originally in Gaelic, but the translation is provided on the online document.   The prayer (which apparently was a prayer-before-the-prayer!) that follows was this:

I am bending my knee
In the eye of the Father who created me,
In the eye of the Son who purchased me,
In the eye of the Spirit who cleansed me,
     In friendship and affection.
Through Thine own Anointed One, O God,
Bestow upon us fullness in our need,
           Love towards God,
           The affection of God,
           The smile of God,
           The wisdom of God,
           The grace of God,
           The fear of God,
           And the will of God
To do on the world of the Three,
As angels and saints
Do in heaven;
     Each shade and light,
     Each day and night,
     Each time in kindness,
     Give Thou us Thy Spirit.

I don’t know about you, but reading this brings me a lovely, peaceful feeling. It’s the kind of prayer that you have to say slowly, to savour the words and the images it evokes.

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I also love the details which Carmichael gives of the specific person he got the charm or prayer from, as in this case:

This poem was taken down in 1866 from Mary Macrae, Harris. She came from Kintail when young, with Alexander Macrae, whose mother was one of the celebrated ten daughters of Macleod of Rararsay, mentioned by Johnson and Boswell. Mary Macrae was rather under than over middle height, but strongly and symmetrically formed. She often walked with companions, after the work of the day was done, distances of ten and fifteen miles to a dance, and after dancing all night walked back again to the work of the morning fresh and vigorous as if nothing unusual had occurred. She was a faithful servant and an admirable worker, and danced at the leisure and carolled at her work like ‘Forsgag Moire,’ Our Lady’s lark, above her. 

The people of Harris had been greatly given to old lore and to the old ways of their fathers, reciting and singing, dancing and merry-making; but a reaction occurred, and Mary Macrae’s old-world ways were abjured and condemned….But Mary Macrae heeded not, and went on in her own way, singing her songs and ballads, intoning her hymns and incantations, and chanting her own ‘port-a-bail’, mouth music, and dancing to her own shadow when nothing better was available. 

This is the prayer she gave Carmichael:

GOD with me lying down,
God with me rising up,
God with me in each ray of light,
Nor I a ray of joy without Him,
Nor one ray without Him.

Christ with me sleeping,
Christ with me waking,
Christ with me watching,
Every day and night,
Each day and night.

God with me protecting,
The Lord with me directing,
The Spirit with me strengthening,
For ever and for evermore,
Ever and evermore, Amen.
Chief of chiefs, Amen.

These repetitive sentences are classically Celtic in style. Also classically Celtic is the emphasis on the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The symbol of “three” was a powerful one in pagan Celtic times; the legend of St. Patrick explaining the Trinity by showing the people a three-leaved clover is possibly closer to the truth than not.

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Included in the Carmina are these lovely Celtic illustrations, done by Alexander Carmichael’s wife, Mary Frances Macbean. They were adapted from medieval insular manuscripts and stone carvings. This entry is entitled “Thanksgiving”, and the first line is “Thanks to thee, O God, that I have risen today, To the rising of this life itself…”

One of the things you realize immediately when reading the Carmina is how encompassing faith was to the Celtic Christians. They spoke a prayer for everything they did – waking, sleeping, kindling the fire in the morning, smooring the fire at night, walking, milking the cows, shearing the sheep, etc. Their minds and hearts were continually God-ward. For example, here is Carmichael’s entry on the Loom Blessing, along with the first part of the prayer itself:

In the Outer Isles women generally do the weaving, while in the Inner Isles and on the mainland it is usually done by men. In Ulst, when the woman stops weaving on Saturday night she carefully ties up her loom and suspends the cross or crucifix above the sleay. This is for the purpose of keeping away the brownie, the banshee, the ‘peallan’, and all evil spirits and malign influences from disarranging the thread and the loom. And all this is done with loving care and in good faith, and in prayer and purity of heart. 

BLESS, O Chief of generous chiefs,
My loom and everything a-near me,
Bless me in my every action,
Make Thou me safe while I live.

From every brownie and fairy woman,
From every evil wish and sorrow,
Help me, O Thou helping Being,
As long as I shall be in the land of the living.

In name of Mary, mild of deeds,
In name of Columba, just and potent,
Consecrate the four posts of my loom,
Till I begin on Monday.

It’s hard for us, with our Enlightenment-soaked worldview, to imagine this world, where it was as natural to pray over every part of one’s day as it was to breathe.

Equally fascinating are the charms, incantations and customs that Carmichael recorded that surely had their roots far in the pagan past. For example, here is the explanation of the  “Augury of Mary” (in Gaelic, Frith Mhoire):

The ‘frith,’ augury, was a species of divination enabling the ‘frithir,’ augurer, to see into the unseen. This divination was made to ascertain the position and condition of the absent and the lost, and was applied to man and beast. The augury was made on the first Monday of the quarter and immediately before sunrise. The augurer, fasting, and with bare feet, bare head, and closed eyes, went to the doorstep and placed a hand on each jamb. Mentally beseeching the God of the unseen to show him his quest and to grant him his augury, the augurer opened his eyes and looked steadfastly straight in front of him. From the nature and position of the objects within his sight, he drew his conclusions. 

There are pagan hints in all of this – the first Monday of the quarter, immediately before sunrise, bare feet and head – all of these details would have had a specific meaning to the pagan Celts, which were combined by the Celtic Christians into their faith to give it the unique flavour that coloured these people’s lives.

It is all fascinating stuff. I’m so glad Carmichael took the time to record these tidbits of history before they were gone forever. It’s a small window into a long-distant past, in which we can get a glimpse of these people who lived so very long ago.

 

 

 

Everything Means Something, or, How to Think Like a 7th Century Celtic Christian

I sat on my chair, reading, the afternoon sun pouring through the windows. My dog, a big goof of a Labrador/Newfoundland mix, came into the living room and I watched as he walked around the room, sniffing at things. I had to watch him carefully; at this stage in our lives together he was known to not stop at sniffing, but to take the next step of grabbing some treasure in the hopes of inducing a mad chase around the house as I attempted to get the treasure back. But no, he was content to wander and sniff this time, circling the coffee table a few times as he did so. I watched him carefully, seeing that he was circling the table counter-clockwise, and he did it three times, before settling down, and I thought about “widdershins” – circling counter-clockwise – and the number three. I wondered the deeper meaning of this, what sign could I read in it?  Three is the sign of the Trinity, true. The movements of Creation, in this case my dog, often held deeper meanings than the obvious, so why counter-clockwise? What did it all mean?

It was a brief thought, fleeting, only, and in the next split second I snapped back to modern-day rationality. But I treasure that small split-second, because it gave me just a tiny glimpse into the mindset of a Celtic Christian back in the 7th century.

At that point I had been studying the Celts and their unique take on Christianity for a couple of years, on and off, all part of my research for my Traveller’s Path trilogy. I had also started writing the book (which turned into three), and had come smack up against one of the great difficulties of writing historical fiction: how do I, as a 21st century novelist, truly represent the worldview of a 7th century person?

The short answer is, I can’t. Not really. If you think about the gulf that exists between here and then, the changes in the world, the history that lies behind us which the 7th century people could not even imagine, it becomes pretty clear that to write with the “true” point of view of someone from that time and place is nearly impossible. However, I believe that this element of historical fiction is often where the “bad” is separated from the “good”, and the “good” from the “excellent”. When I finish a historical novel, do I feel like I have truly visited that time and place, or do I feel like the characters reacted in a far too “modern” fashion to the events of the day? Writers come their work with lots of ideas about religion, equality, wealth, democracy, etc that, for most people in most of the world’s history, would be utterly incomprehensible. If they are not careful, those ideas can leak through into a story in inappropriate places.

So what is a historical novelist to do? How do you step into the mind and worldview of a time so far removed from your own?

Well, I don’t want to speak for all historical novelists, as I’m sure every one has a different method, but I can tell you what I did.

First of all, I cheated. Hah. I knew from the outset that I couldn’t do justice to the time and place in a way that I would be satisfied if I tried to make my POV character someone from that time. And besides, the type of novel I  love to read is the portal fantasy, in which a person from our time/place is somehow transported into another. Think of the Pevensies going through the Wardrobe, or even Harry Potter entering Hogwarts. So I decided that my main POV (point of view) character would be from our time, who, on Halloween, has an unfortunate encounter with demons and ends up in the 7th century.

This enabled me to write about the 7th century from a modern mindset, and allowed me to insert some explanations of events or culture that the person native to that time and place wouldn’t think twice about. And I could do that without too much difficulty or awkwardness in the narration.

After I got going, I did some writing from the POV of some of the characters in the book, just to help me get into their heads, so to speak. Some of those made it into the book, eventually. Hopefully they will “sound” realistic to the readers!

Secondly, research. Which goes without saying, of course. I found this fascinating, but also harder than I expected. For example, one of the best ways a historical novelist can learn about the mindset of people who actually lived in the time they are writing about is to read documents and letters actually written during that time period. There isn’t much of that available for 7th century Northumbria. This wasn’t an especially literate age. So while you can extrapolate a certain amount of things, in the end a lot of what the scholars have to say about the lives of ordinary people is speculation. So at times I felt like I was skating on thin ice as I wrote, but I consoled myself with the fact that, hey, this is fiction, after all, not a strict historical survey of the times.

Immersing myself into the people and times of the book, and imagining in fictional form what life was like from their point of view brought me to that day as I watched my dog wander around the living room.

The Celts practiced a polytheistic religion, worshipping many gods which controlled many different aspects of life, especially nature. When they converted to Christianity, this sensitivity to the natural world was enhanced, for now they recognized God Himself, the Creator, as being responsible for everything around them.The pagan Celts would see significance in the direction a crow would fly, so too would the Christian Celt, but in a slightly different way. God created all and directs all, they reasoned, and since God is a loving, intelligent, all-powerful Being, it is obvious that everything that happened was directed by Him to happen. Christians today still believe this of course, but the Celtic Christians took this very seriously. So, in their view, if my dog was circling around the table counter-clockwise three times, he was prompted by God to do so, and therefore there was divine significance in it, and if I would meditate on this, and prayerfully ponder it, the message might become clear.

To live as a Celtic Christian was to live in a world that was hyper-saturated with God’s presence, where the natural world was a form of revelation to us in a way we find hard to understand today. It takes a certain form of seeing which we dismiss now as superstitious, but in reality was far from it. As the title of this post say, basically Everything Means Something, and not just “something”, but in particular, Everything is a message from the God of Creation to us, if we would but have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Which is why, that day in my living room, when I got a tiny flash of what it would mean to live in a world like that, I was profoundly grateful. It was a very small link to some of my ancestors in the faith, and it gave me a glimpse of a world drenched in meaning and haunted with God’s presence in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

I don’t have the ability to stay in that world for too long, my mind has inherited the Enlightenment and the Age of Rationality and Materialism and all the other schools of thought between that time and our own.

But that’s why historical fiction is so much fun. For a short time we can leave our time behind and enter another one, and get a taste of what it was like “back then.” And for the writer, this is both a terrifying challenge and a deeply satisfying exercise, if your words come out just right.


Photo credit: Celtic Cross, St. Patrick’s, Drumbeg, by Albert Bridge 

Reposting: The Thin Places

Note: There’s been some new followers to the blog lately (thank you!) and seeing as I am off celebrating thirty years of marriage to my wonderful hubby this week, I thought it might be a good time to repost one of my earlier posts. Hope you enjoy, and I’ll be back with something new next week! 


Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the Thin Places that distance is even smaller – Celtic proverb.

The ancient Celts had a concept of Thin Places, where the veil between the worlds was easily crossed. The Celtic Christians, whose practice of the faith was a delightful mixture of earthy and mystical, eagerly co-opted this idea of their pagan forefathers into one of their own. The Thin Places, in their reckoning, were places where earth and heaven were particularly close together, where the sacred and the mundane were juxtaposed, where one could as likely encounter the King of Heaven striding across a misty dew-soaked field as a roe deer.

The Hill of Tara in Ireland, Glastonbury Tor in England, and St. David’s in Wales are some of those places, sacred to the ancient Celts and ones which became holy to the Celtic Christians as well. All were known as Thin Places before the advent of Christianity in Britain, and after.

What is it about these places that the Celts found compelling? Natural beauty, to be sure, was a factor, but there seems to have been something else that set them apart. Something  that awakened the longing  that C.S. Lewis described so well many centuries later:

The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from – my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” (Till We Have Faces).

To the Celtic Christians that longing seemed especially poignant in the Thin Places. The lay of the hills or the misty seascape lodged in their hearts like an arrow, piercing through their everyday concerns and bringing them face to face with Heaven.

I knew I had to have some Thin Places for my characters to stumble across in my historical fantasy trilogy, which is set in Northumbria, 642 AD.  It was fun to imagine what function they might have in the books, how my characters would react to them. After all, how does it feel to stumble across one of these places? And would it feel different to a 7th century monk as opposed to a 21st century man?

It’s tempting to think of these places in a pagan sense, as the ancient Celts did, to imagine that the landscape itself is what is eliciting the transcendent effect. In the Christian teachings, though, the Creation is a signpost to the Creator. The heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1). The Celtic Christians saw the Thin Places as ones where that glory was particularly accessible. As St. Columbanus (6th century Irish monk) said, “Understand created things if you want to understand the Creator.”

I have tried to infuse this understanding of the Thin Places into my books, which has challenged me to have eyes that see, to look for the evidence of God in all the natural beauty of the Creation. Is there something of God that I can learn from a tree? The breaking waves on the shore? When I start to slow down and notice, I can see that even the steadfast devotion of my dog carries hints of that greater love that never fails us.

This whole idea of Thin Places is just one of those fascinating details that make historical fiction so much fun to read, and to write. I love discovering these little treasures that not only enrich my story world, but my own as well.

photo credit: “Here Sleep Deer” by Stuart Williams, CC via Flickr

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Your thoughts? Have you ever encountered a Thin Place? If so, why do you think so? Is there any place for this concept in our understanding of the world today?