What They Wore: Clothing in the 7th Century

When you think of people in Britain in the Dark Ages, or, as I would prefer to call it, the Early Middle Ages, how do you picture their clothing?

You might picture a peasant in bare feet wearing rough-hewn sackcloth and a fraying rope tied around his waist, or, you might think of a king, dressed in rich, fur-lined robes and a golden crown upon his head.

That’s pretty much how I pictured the people of the times when I first starting doing the research into my book, at any rate. And this was one of the first things I looked at, because it’s awfully hard to get a picture in your mind of the people of the day without some sense of what they wear, after all.

And once again, I found my suppositions challenged as I looked at the historical evidence.

Once again, information is scanty, but perhaps a little more exists than you might think. First of all, there are some artwork  from this time that helps to flesh out our understanding of clothing styles. In the illuminated manuscripts you get pictures of people, who are wearing what we assume would be the typical dress of the day. There are also tapestries such as the Bayeux Tapestry which commemorates the victory of William the Conqueror in 1066, which, although a few hundred years after the 7th century, still gives us some ideas as to clothing.

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A detail from the beautiful Bayeux Tapestry. It is not actually a tapestry, but embroidery, as you can see here. Anglo-Saxons were famous for their embroidery, and you can see why from this example.

We also have grave goods. There are very few items of actual clothing recovered from graves. Due to its nature cloth does not survive burial, unless it is in anaerobic conditions (waterlogged but without oxygen) which does not occur very often. And of course there are many pagan Saxon burials which were cremations. However, in some burials there impressions left behind on items of jewellery or in the earth that gives us an idea of the cloth that had been laying there, such as if you pressed a piece of clothing into the dirt and saw the impression of the pattern of weave left behind.

There are also items of jewellery and other objects found in graves that give hints as to clothing. For example, women are found with two brooches at each shoulder, often with a string of beads between them. These were the clasps that held up the tunic she was buried in. You will also find knives and other items such as leather pouches at the waist, indicating that they wore these things on a belt.

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This gives you an idea of what an Anglo-Saxon woman might have worn. Note the long dress over top of the long sleeve shirt, fastened together at the shoulders by brooches. Wealthier people might have embroidery along the neck edge or cuffs of the shirt. She seems to be tying her belt. Belts could also be made out of leather, and would hold  knives, keys, or pouches. She probably should have some kind of headdress or veil to make this costume completely authentic. Image from Richard’s Ramblings

The standard items of clothing in the Anglo-Saxon areas of Britain* in the 7th century for men were undershirts, long tunics over top, some type of trousers (sometimes with leggings underneath), a belt, and a cloak. Shoes or boots would be made out of leather. In some areas the fashion was for strips of leather or cloth to wind around the leg, binding the cloth of the trousers close to the leg. Hats, or hoods (separate from the cloak), gloves, and mittens would also be worn as weather dictated. For women it was much the same, except that the tunic would be a dress, and it’s unclear whether or not they were wore underwear (a tad chilly in winter, especially in the North, one would think!).

The clothing was likely more colourful than you might think. There were various ways to dye cloth, using oak bark, plants, vegetables and the like, producing blues, greens, and yellows, and even some red and purple.

Linen was a common fabric, as was wool. Silk would have been very expensive, as it would only have been available through trade, coming from China. Only for the very wealthy!

People would also likely use fur on their garments such as the lining of a cloak, to keep them warm in the winter.

Anglo-Saxons had a type of needlework which was a precursor to knitting and crocheting called nålbinding, which was basically knitting with one needle, using short strips of yarn. If you want to see a video demonstration you can find one here. This creates a fabric that is similar to a knitted one, and in fact is very difficult to distinguish from knitted fabrics. Socks, leggings, mittens, and other garments needing a circular shape could have been made this way. This ancient needleworking method (nålbound socks have been found from the Coptic Christians in Egypt from the 4th century AD, and nålbound fabrics from Peru from 300 BC) was still being used in parts of northern Europe until the 1950s! It almost died out at that point but is undergoing a bit of a revival today.

Surprisingly enough, both rich and poor dressed alike most of the time. But when you think about it, the same is true today, right? The difference would come in the quality of the material used for their clothing. The more affluent would have finer woven linen undershirts and woollen shirts and cloaks that were of better quality than the average coerl ‘s rougher and itchier garments. Because all of the clothing was handmade, it was patched and reused until it was unable to be repaired any longer. Clothing, especially the more expensive and luxurious items of the nobility, would have been either handed down to one’s children or given to the church for use by the church leaders for special occasions.

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In 1867 St. Cuthbert’s coffin was opened, and inside, along with the fabulous St. Cuthbert Gospel, were found the remains of a stole and maniple, shown here. This is an embroidered strip of cloth that hangs draped over the left arm when worn. This one was made of silk (almost all decayed away), embroidered with gold thread, and is the oldest surviving embroidery from the early Middle Ages. The figure portrayed is St. Peter. It is dated from 909-916 AD, long after the time of Cuthbert, who died in 687 AD.  On the back of stole and maniple is embroidered “”Aelflaed ordered this to be made”, and “for the pious bishop Frithstan”. Aeflaed was the second wife of Edward of Wessex (son of Alfred the Great). Edward’s son visited Cuthbert’s shrine in 934 AD and donated a number of articles, including a stole and maniple.

Speaking of the monks, priests, Abbots, and other church officials, you may as well get rid of the picture of the monk in a brown robe, tied at the waist with a rope. That kind of costume did not come until much later in the medieval period. The monks and church officials would dress simply, but in much the same fashion as everyone else, except that during church services they would have special vestments such as the alb (long white tunic with long sleeves, belted at the waist), chasuble (semi-circular cape of wool, embroidered along the edges) and stole (long strip of embroidered silk or linen, worn around the shoulders).

The wealthier people would have some luxury items of clothing, heavily decorated with embroidery and made out of the finest fabrics and even decorated with gemstones, but they didn’t wear these all the time, just for special occasions. Again, which is just like us, today. We don’t wear our fanciest outfits for everyday wear, either.

If you were not wealthy and couldn’t afford a tailor to make you clothing, you would either have to make it yourself (generally women’s work, along with the repair of said items) or bought or traded for at a market. Or you could have it handed down to you from a deceased relative.

However you obtained it, you would not have as much of it as the average person does today, that’s for sure!


*Clothing styles differed slightly from the south to the north, and the British Celtic people had slightly different dress from the Anglo-Saxons.

Featured image is from the BBC and shows a typical Anglo-Saxon house with a family gathered outside, wearing the clothing of the day. Hmm…one of these days I’m going to have to do a post on architecture….

Unlocking the Word-Hoard, Pt 2

Last week on the blog I wrote about the scops, and their place in 7th century Britain. This week I wanted to touch on the gleemen, and to highlight one particular form of poetry they would use in their entertainment. Riddles, anyone?

To recap, last week I explained that the scop was the poet/singer that wrote poetry extolling the virtues and accomplishments of the king (mostly). He would generally be attached to one court, and not travel around too much.

The other entertainers, called gleemen, were closer to what we think of as the travelling minstrel, who would go from place to place and sing songs and recite poetry in exchange for gifts and presumably, shelter and food. These would generally not compose their own material, but would rely on the work of the scop for their poems and songs. Which was handy for the scop, as it provided a way for the renown of his king to be known far and wide. And his own renown as well, if the songs were popular.

I’m using the word “song” loosely. It’s hard to say exactly how these poems were performed. As I mentioned last week, they might have been recited with the strumming of the lyre used as emphasis in the background. Or, they could have been set to music. There is no musical notations surviving from this era so we really don’t know what it would have sounded like, sadly.

There were other instruments other than the lyre that both scops and gleemen could use, such as drums, horns, and whistles made out of bone or antlers. Other stringed instruments such as the harp, lute, and the early type of violin known as the rebec appeared later, in the 9th to 12th centuries.

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This is an illustration from The Vespasian Psalter (prayer book, consisting of the book of Psalms), produced sometime in the second half of the 8th century AD. It adorns Psalm 27, and is meant to show King David playing his harp. It gives us a good look at the instruments of the day: the lyre, the bone whistles, and the horn. Image from wikiwand

It’s possible the scop would begin his career as a gleeman, travelling around and learning his trade, hoping to get good enough to attract the eye of a king or an up-and-coming war leader (who might possibly become king one day) and be invited to become his personal entertainer. He might also have a couple of other musicians travelling with him, but likely it would be just him. It would be easier for ordinary people to provide hospitality (i.e. food and drink) to just one person, rather than a group.

Gleemen, being travellers, would also spread news of what was going on in the kingdom. Most people did not travel much. It was too dangerous and difficult, and going any length of distance meant you had to somehow find food along the way, which was not easy. So having a travelling gleeman stop by your holding would have been a welcome diversion from the hardships of everyday life, both in terms of the entertainment he provided and the news he carried.

Part of that news, of course, would be the battles that the kings had taken part in. This is where the scop’s poems would come in handy. It’s much easier to remember poems than prose, which is why the battles were recounted that way. But there was another popular form of poem which were a type of riddle.

Here is an example, from the Exeter Book, a tenth century collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry, containing poems that dated from much earlier.

I saw a thing     in the dwellings of men
that feeds the cattle;     has many teeth.
The beak is useful to it;     it goes downwards,
ravages faithfully;     pulls homewards;
hunts along walls;     reaches for roots.
Always it finds them,     those which are not fast;
lets them, the beautiful,     when they are fast,
stand in quiet     in their proper places,
brightly shining,     growing, blooming.

Can you guess what the “thing” is? I’ll let you think about it for awhile.*

Here’s another one:

I am atheling’s     shoulder-companion,
a warrior’s comrade,     dear to my master,
a fellow of kings.     His fair-haired lady
sometimes will lay     her hand upon me,
a prince’s daughter,     noble though she be.
I have on my breast     what grew in the grove.
Sometimes I ride     on a proud steed
at the army’s head.     Hard is my tongue.
Often I bring     a reward for his words
to the singer after his song.     Good is my note,
and myself am dark-colored.     Say what my name is.

What do you think?**

Tolkien, himself an Anglo-Saxon scholar, used these types of riddles in the Lord of the Rings when Gollum bargains with Bilbo when Bilbo is seeking a way out of Gollum’s caverns.

Of course, Bilbo’s last riddle, “What do I have in my pocket?” is not one of these types of riddles. Bilbo cheated on that one, as Gollum rightly accuses him of doing. Good thing for Bilbo, though!

There are over ninety such riddles in the Exeter Book, covering all sorts of topics, but  much has been made of the eight which are the “off-colour” ones. The Anglo-Saxons apparently had a ribald sense of humour (same could be said of us, I suppose), and it shows in these riddles. Here’s an example.

I’m a wonderful thing,     a joy to women,
to neighbors useful.     I injure no one
who lives in a village     save only my slayer.
I stand up high     and steep over the bed;
underneath I’m shaggy.     Sometimes ventures
a young and handsome     peasant’s daughter,
a maiden proud,     to lay hold on me.
She seizes me, red,     plunders my head,
fixes on me fast,     feels straightway
what meeting me means     when she thus approaches,
a curly-haired woman.     Wet is that eye.

Er, yes. The answer, of course, is onion. What were you thinking?? Best appreciated in the company of warriors in the mead hall, drinking down the king’s fine ale, methinks.***

Here’s one spoken out loud in Anglo-Saxon, to give you a sense of how the language sounds, and shows you the use of word-puns in the riddle itself. Those Anglo-Saxons were clearly cheeky devils.

To be a person wandering around the country from holding to holding was not without danger. Outlaws along the roads could be a problem, as well as the inherent dangers of always being a stranger, without the backing of kith or kin if something goes wrong. It would have been a hard life in some ways, but it had it’s advantages. I’m sure that there were some who enjoyed this life on the road– heralded wherever he went, showered with gifts. He would have been seen as an exotic figure, knowledgable and mysterious, who has seen the world “out there” and lived to tell the tale, a friend of kings and commoners alike.

He held in his possession the vast treasures of the word-hoard, shared not only with the people of the times but with us today. They, and the scops, are romantic figures who come down to us from the mists of time in the very poems and songs they performed so long ago.

Wouldn’t you love to see one perform? I would. But I’m glad I don’t have to try to beat one in a riddle game!


*Rake

**Horn (Made from an antlers, and often given to a scop in appreciation for his work)

***It’s not just the mead-hall that rang with song after a feast. This was a regular feature of most gatherings, it seemed,  Even in the monasteries the monks would pass around the lyre for each to sing for the other’s entertainment after a feast. We know this from Bede, who recounts the story of Caedemon, a lay brother at Whitby Abbey, who was so ashamed of his lack of ability to put words to music that he left a feast before he was put on the spot. During the night he had a vision from God in which he composed a hymn and in the morning he recounted the vision to the Abbess, Hild. Hild was so impressed she encouraged him to take his vows and to learn history and doctrine, which he subsequently turned into verse. He is the first poet whose name is recorded in English history.

St. Brigid of Kildare

There are some really interesting women whose names come down to us through history from the Dark Ages, and Brigid is one of them. Born in 451 AD in the north of Ireland, in County Lough, she,  along with Patrick and Columba, is one of the patron saints of Ireland. She is also known as Brigit or Bride (pronounced more like breed than bride).

As is the case with many of the people whose stories come to us from this period, caveats abound in the recounting of their stories, and in Brigid’s case, there are more caveats than most.

The biggest caveat is that there is some controversy as to whether she even existed at all. She shares a name with an important goddess of the Celtic pagans who lived in what is now known as Ireland. This goddess was associated with healing, smith-craft, and fertility; some of these are also associated with St. Brigid, in terms of the miracles attributed to her. Some suggest that the Celtic god Brigid was Christianized into the Saint we know as Brigid. It is true that the Christian church did appropriate pagan sites for their churches, and superimposed their own religious festivals on top of the existing pagan ones. So it is possible that some of that has gone on in the stories that come down to us about Brigid.

However, I tend to think that she was a real person, and although some of her story might be mixed up with the pagan god Brigid I am going to proceed under the assumption that she did, indeed, exist.

The main details of her life come to us from a few sources, mainly hagiographies*. The earliest of which was written around 625 AD, about a hundred years after Brigid died in 525 AD, by St. Broccan Cloen (said to be the nephew of St. Patrick).  Another was penned in the 8th century by Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare. There are a couple of others, referred to in a forward added to Cloen’s biography, by an Irish bishop in the 8th century.

It is worth noting, on the question of whether or not Brigid was a real person, that scholars have found eleven people mentioned in her biographies who are independently verified in other sources. So that lends a little veracity to the story of her life included in her biographies.

Brigid, by all accounts, was born a slave. She was the daughter of the Pict Brocca, a Christian, who was the servant to Brigid’s father, Dubthach, a pagan chieftain of county Leinster. It seems that Dubthach’s wife was not too impressed when Brocca became pregnant, and forced him to sell her (and her unborn child) to a druid. There are various stories of miracles surrounding Brigid as a child, including that she was unable to eat the food provided by the druid (because of its unclean nature, one presumes) and a white cow with red ears appeared to provide for her (in milk and cheese) instead.

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St. Brigid’s Cross. Tradition says that she was tending to a pagan chieftain (perhaps her father) on his deathbed, and she picked up some rushes from the floor and began weaving them into a cross in order to explain the Christian gospel to him. He was so enamoured of her words he accepted the faith and was baptized before he died. Traditionally, every year on the eve of her feast day (Feb. 1) Irish Catholics will weave a cross and put it up on the inside of their house, over the door. Image from Blarney.com

She was returned to her father at around the age of ten as a household servant, and impressed all by her acts of charity. However her father wasn’t too pleased, as being a servant Brigid had no property to speak of, and so the items she gave away to the poor were in fact his. The final straw came when he got fed up and tried to sell her (or in some stories, marry her) to the king of Leinster and while they were negotiating the deal, Brigid tried to give away her father’s jewel-encrusted sword to a leper. The king recognized Brigid’s holiness and persuaded her father to grant her freedom, that she might become a nun.

Around 480 AD, when Brigid was around thirty, she built an oratory (place of prayer) at  Kildare. This name is Anglicized from the Celtic, Cill Dara, “church of the oak”. This is because the it was established on the site of an older, Celtic druidic shrine, which featured a large oak tree, sacred to the Celts.

It’s fascinating to see the intersection of pagan and Christian beliefs, and how the  Celtic Christians attempted to not just eradicate the old ways, but to fold them into the new beliefs. It seems that along with the sacred oak, pagan women would tend to an eternal flame at this site, the goddess Brigid being associated with smith craft, which took fire, of course.

Brigid the Abbess did not quench this flame, but instead had a group of her young nuns tend it, after being consecrated to Christ, one assumes (some stories say this started after her death, in honour of her). Amazingly, this flame was kept burning until the 1200s, when it was put out by the Archbishop of Dublin, due to his fears that it fostered superstition.

The small oratory soon expanded. The Celtic Christians were unique in that they allowed for women and men to serve in monasteries together (although in separate buildings) and the monastery at Kildare was the first of these in Ireland, presided over by Brigid as Abbess, who appointed the hermit Conleth to co-rule with her (and presumably take care of the monks). Kildare thus became the first organized centre of spirituality for women in Ireland.

Kildare quickly became an important centre for religion and learning, which drew students not only from Ireland but from all across Europe. Brigid is credited with founding a school of metal-working and art on the site, and although the illuminated manuscript produced there, known as the Book of Kildare, disappeared during the Reformation (grrr) by all accounts it was exceedingly beautiful. The church itself was also said to be very beautiful and lavishly decorated with embroidered tapestries and pictures, and featuring elaborately carved windows and doors.

Brigid did not just rest on her laurels at Kildare, however. She travelled extensively through Ireland, founding many churches. It is said that she had a great friendship with St. Patrick, who was her contemporary.

She died at Kildare in 525 AD. Tradition says she died on February 1st, which became her feast day. That may or may not be true, I’m a little suspicious about that. Simply because February 1st is also Imbolc, the pagan festival celebrating spring. Possibly this is one of those times when the Church added a Saint to a pagan festival to Christianize it.

No matter what the actual date was, it is said that as she lay dying, she was given the last rites by a priest named Ninnidh, and  that afterwards, he encased his hand in metal, so as to never again touch anything with the hand that had touched Brigid, becoming known as “Ninnidh of the Clean Hand.” The patron saint of all those who swear never to wash their hands again after touching someone famous, I suppose!

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This is the cathedral at Kildare today, a restoration of the medieval buildings destroyed during the Reformation. Brigid’s original buildings would of course been made out of wood, or wattle and daub. Image from Wikipedia

Brigid’s remains were interred at the altar of Kildare, with a costly tomb adorned with jewels and precious stones raised over her. But due to the Viking raids, her relics were taken from there and re-buried in the tomb of Patrick and Columba, which shows the high esteem the people of Ireland had for her. Today, she is known as the “Mary of the Gaels.”

There is a prayer purported to be Brigid’s, which I really like. It’s impossible to say whether or not this does actually come from her, but nevertheless it gives you an idea of either her own perspective or how she was seen by others:

I would like the angels of Heaven to be among us.
I would like an abundance of peace.

I would like full vessels of charity.
I would like rich treasures of mercy.
I would like cheerfulness to preside over all.
I would like Jesus to be present.
I would like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.**
I would like the friends of Heaven to be gathered around us from all parts.
I would like myself to be a rent payer to the Lord; that I should suffer distress, that he would bestow a good blessing upon me.
I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I would like to be watching Heaven’s family drinking it through all eternity.

From Brigid or not, this definitely belongs to the Early Middle Ages, however. The last couple lines comes straight from the mead hall, evoking the scene of the warriors drinking and celebrating after a battle, with the ale flowing liberally. So if that is how an earthly king’s victories is celebrated, how much more should we celebrate the victories of the King of Kings? With a lake of beer, of course, and drinking throughout eternity!

The Celts had a culture in which there was considerable equality between men and  women, and where women were involved in positions of power, even so far as to going to battle and being judges and Queens. It was a much more matriarchal society than those which came from the Greek and Roman tradition. So it’s not surprising that the Celtic Christians incorporated this into their church structures, allowing for double monasteries, and powerful women church leaders like Brigid and Hild of Whitby.

Brigid, by all accounts, was a strong but humble leader, generous and hard-working, devoted to God. She left an indelible impression on Irish society which remains to this day.


* A hagiography is a biography of a saint. In the rest of this post I will use the word “biography”, as it is the more familiar one. But that word gives us the modern connotation of objectivity. A hagiography most certainly was not.  Generally they were not written with an eye for exact historical details, but rather to extol the virtues of that particular saint, who likely was the founder the monastery to which the author belonged. In other words, you have to take these with a grain of salt. There was a lot of “my saint is better than your saint” involved. They are similar to the stories of the kings and other important people that come down to us from this era and earlier ones, except these try to extol spiritual strength, not worldly.  It was more about proving that your “guy” (or gal) was the best – the strongest, the most heroic, the most virtuous, the most whatever. It’s not to say that these don’t have any nuggets of historical truth in them, though. You just have to sift through some of the flowery details to find them. 🙂

**The three Marys appear in Scripture and in church tradition, referring to the three Marys at the crucifixion and/or the three Marys at the resurrection.  Mary was a common name at the time, and so in Scripture you find Mary, mother of Jesus; Mary Madgelene; Mary of Bethany; Mary, mother of James the Less; Mary of Cleopas; Mary, mother of John Mark; and Mary of Rome. Some of these may be the same person.

Featured image is from St. Brigid’s Parish, Gisbourne, and is an icon of Brigid. I like that she is holding the flame!

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.