Society News: The Kings (and Queens).

Today’s post is part of a new series up here on the blog, in which I examine the societal structure of 7th century Anglo-Saxon Britain. Last week I introduced the series, and this week I present Part 2, in which we will look at the top of the heap, the kings (and queens). Subsequent posts will follow in the New Year, but not one after the other. So keep your eyes open!


 

In the seventh century, Britain was very much an agricultural society. People lived in “holdings” – a plot of land in which they farmed and raised livestock. Everyone was engaged in this activity, from kings on down to the commoners. Of course, the further “up the ladder” you were in social standing,  the more land you would own and the more you would be able to fob off all the hard work to others.

Naturally, the kings were at the top of the social structure. How they got there, however, may not be as cut and dry as you might think. One fascinating fact about kingship at this time is that succession to the kingship of the various kingdoms did not necessarily depend upon familial ties. In other words, if you were the oldest son of a king, that didn’t  necessarily mean that you would take over as king when your father died.

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Beautiful icon of Oswald, King of Northumbria, available at ByzantineArt

This is because the Anglo-Saxons were warrior kings. A king had to prove himself a worthy warrior to become a king.* When one king was killed in battle (which was the usual and preferred way for a king to die) the king’s closest advisors, consisting of the highest ranked of the nobility and clerical class, would elect a new king. This group of advisors was called the Witan, although there is some dispute about that term today. But for the sake of ease, I will use that term.

Generally, of course, the Witan would choose the new king from the surviving family members of the old king. But the new regent had to be wary, for the Witan could also dispose of a king they felt was unworthy to rule. This happened only rarely, but it did happen nonetheless, and the new king had to keep this in the back of his mind. He had to win the favour of the Witan in order to keep his throne, and he would do that by showing his prowess in battle and showering his warriors with land, battle booty, and other honours.

The Witan would meet at least once a year, and always at the pleasure of the king. It did not have a fixed place to meet, but would happen wherever the king happened to be. At this meeting, called a witenagemot,  laws would be discussed, complaints could be heard, the king would endow people with land or titles, etc.

While not at battle, the king would spend much time travelling his kingdom and accepting foodrent, or feorm, from his subjects. The king had various royal vills, places he would go to during his tours of the kingdom, and it was there that the peasants would bring their feorm to the king. The amounts were based on how much land the peasant farmed, the basic unit being one hide, which was the amount of land needed to support one family. It would include things like honey, loaves of bread, ale, livestock, butter, cheese, and even eels (which seem to be a staple in the Anglo-Saxon diet. Eeww.). In return, the king was expected to keep good order in the kingdom, and deal with the mundane business of keeping roads and bridges in order. The king would have underlings who would do this work for him, of course. He would also take part in judging of legal cases, and also craft new laws of his own, all with the aim of keeping the kingdom working smoothly.

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Yeavering Bell, Northumberland. Located at the northern edge of the Cheviots, near the border of today’s Scotland, this was the site of one of the royal vills of the Bernician kings. At that time it was called Ad Gerfin (“hill of the goats”, for the wild goats that still populate the area). The faint line at the top of the hill marks the site of an Iron Age hilltop fort, the Anglo-Saxon settlement was on the other side of the hill, on a flattened area.  This was an important residence for the Bernician kings, a centre of power in the northern edge of their kingdom. A Roman style auditorium is part of the complex, and you can just imagine Oswald or Oswy holding court, surrounded by his loyal subjects. Image from Wikicommons.

Because his standing as a king depended on how generous he was with his loyal retainers, kings at this time spent a lot of time fighting, as this was the way they expanded their territories and gained treasure. The battles could be small ones; border skirmishes or minor raids into another’s territory. Or, they could be major battles, in which they deposed another king and expanded their own territory even further. It is because of this that most of the kings of this time died in battle, rather than of old age or infirmity. In Anglo-Saxon culture, dying in battle was the ultimate way to die for a warrior. Honour and loyalty to your lord was paramount, even to the extent that if your king died in battle, it was seen as cowardice if you did not die in battle beside him.

At the beginning of the seventh century there were twelve kingdoms, and by the ninth there were only four. This is due to the various kings conquering one another and amalgamating territory into bigger and bigger areas. Of course, although highly important, warfare was not the only way in which kings gained territory and expanded their kingdoms. There was also the tried and true method of treaties and marriage negotiations, whereby a king might marry the daughter or sister or other female relative of a neighbouring king, and/or negotiate treaties with them instead of going to war. War was expensive, and when it involved large numbers of men, it involved a lot of disruption for the ordinary people who would be called up to fight for the king. This would usually be in the summer, when they would rather be making sure they had enough food to eat for the winter.

The Anglo-Saxons had a patriarchal society, so, although women did have freedoms and power that we might find surprising in comparison with women in the later medieval period, the Anglo-Saxon queens were generally not rulers in their own right, nor were they regents on behalf of a under-age son. If a king was killed in battle, the surviving wife and children would often have to flee and seek shelter elsewhere, so that they would not be killed by the new king who would not want them around as usurpers. This is why Oswald and Oswy and their brothers were sent to exile among the Scots (Irish) of Dal Riata after their father Aethelfrith was killed in battle and Edwin took over the Bernician throne.

But the Queens were no milquetoasts, either. Generally they were daughters of kings and held influence and power of their own. And they were definitely not above getting involved in the politics of the day in order to further their husband’s or son’s or father’s ambitions, even, in some cases, going to the extreme. Penda of Mercia’s son, Peada, ruler of Middle Anglia, was said in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have been murdered through the treachery of his Northumbrian wife (King Oswy’s daughter, Alhflaed. Perhaps at the instigation of her father? Who knows, but it’s interesting to speculate!).

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Cynethryth was the wife of Offa of Mercia (757-796 AD). She seemed to have a considerable amount of influence, and her husband even had coins struck in her name, one of the very few medieval women to have this honour. Image from Medieval Girl

All in all, a king had a better standard of living than the common people, but his life was often cut short by war. A bit of a trade-off, I suppose. But one that most commoners would be willing to make, if given the chance!


*Another important qualification for kingship at this time was that the potential king’s  family lineage could be traced back to the god, Woden. Interestingly, this was important for pagan and Christian kings alike.

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Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, PT. II

Two weeks ago we left off with Cuthbert, prior of Lindisfarne, taking a break from his rigorous duties and retiring from the world to live the life of a hermit on the Inner Farne Island, a few miles east of Lindisfarne. We’ll pick up the story from there….


The island of Inner Farne was deserted….or was it? Bede tells us that the first thing Cuthbert does is to banish some devils from the island who presumably had moved in once Aidan left, as the first Bishop of Lindisfarne had once used the Inner Farne as a place of retreat as well.  Once the island is cleansed from evil spiritual influences, Cuthbert is now free to build his hermitage.

The Inner Farne is one of a group of wild, windswept islands. Certainly Cuthbert got his wish to be free of human company, but even today the wildlife there is quite extensive, including over 100 species of seabirds (the Cuddy Duck among them) and myriads of seals. I imagine Cuthbert strode into this wild and rugged environment with a smile on his face, eager to begin his life of prayer and contemplation.

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The south end of Inner Farne. Cuthbert’s hermitage was on the north end. The white on the cliffs is from bird droppings! Today, many go to the Farne Islands for bird watching as it is one of the most famous sea bird sanctuaries in Britain, home to over 22 species of seabirds, including Cuthbert’s favourite Eider Duck and over 70,000 puffins!

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This map, from farne-islands.com, gives you a good view of the Farne Islands, and where they lie in comparison to Lindisfarne. The Inner Farne is the island on the very bottom, closest to the main land. You can also see that some of the islands join to make larger ones at low tide.

For Cuthbert and the monks, the spiritual disciplines of prayers, fasting and communion with God were not to be taken lightly. They considered them labour, spiritual labour, whereby they were praying not only for themselves but for any and all concerns. Just as Cuthbert had fought against the Mercians as a soldier, he now took all the spiritual discipline he had learned as a monk and used it as spiritual warfare, conquering the devil’s temptations and standing against the work of the devil in the world through prayer, always seeking to draw closer and closer to Christ.

But he couldn’t just sit out in the open in the gusting wind and rain. His second order of business, after the clearing the place of devils, was to build himself a cell for shelter and prayer. Practically speaking, this would not be easy. After all, he is alone. Bede’s description of Cuthbert from when he first becomes a monk at Melrose gives you a hint that he is capable of the task:

Like the mighty Samson of old, he carefully abstained from every drink which could intoxicate; but was not able to abstain equally from food, lest his body might be thereby rendered less able to work: for he was of a robust frame and of  unimpaired strength, and fit for any labour which he might be disposed to take in hand.

So, he was up to the challenge, and he sets himself to work. It is possible that some of the brethren may have helped Cuthbert. Bede doesn’t say. But he does describe the result:

The building is almost of a round form, from wall to wall about four or five poles in extent: the wall on the outside is higher than a man, but within, by excavating the rock, he made it much deeper, to prevent the eyes and the thoughts from wandering, that the mind might be wholly bent on heavenly things, and the pious inhabitant might behold nothing from his residence but the heavens above him. The wall was constructed, not of hewn stones or of brick and mortar, but of rough stones and turf, which had been taken out from the ground within. Some of them were so large that four men could hardly have lifted them, but Cuthbert himself, with angels helping him, had raised them up and placed them on the wall. There were two chambers in the house, one an oratory [a place for prayer], the other for domestic purposes. He finished the walls of them by digging round and cutting away the natural soil within and without, and formed the roof out of rough poles and straw. Moreover, at the landing-place of the island he built a large house, in which the brethren who visited him might be received and rest themselves, and not far from it there was a fountain of water or their use.

Pretty impressive, huh? I find these details fascinating, especially considering Bede almost certainly visited this hermitage after Cuthbert’s death. Unfortunately nothing remains today of Cuthbert’s buildings.

Although Cuthbert is alone on his island, he is not completely cut off from the world. The mention of the guest-house above gives you a clue. Cuthbert was visited regularly, firstly by the monks who would also bring him food and water. He would minister to them as well, in prayers and spiritual advice. There is a lovely mention in Bede’s account of how he would wash the monks’ feet, and they his, showing  their mutual submission to one another, and to God.

But Cuthbert’s fame as a holy man was spreading, and he began to get others coming to him for advice or blessings as well, including Elfleada, the daughter of King Oswald of Northumbria, who had taken over as Abbess of Whitby Abbey after Hild‘s death. He could not refuse this royal personage and met her on another island, further south from Inner Farne.

As time went on Cuthbert decided he should grow his own food and not be dependant on the Lindisfarne brethren, so he plants some barley, reprimanding a flock of birds who come to eat it, who promptly depart, never to return.

Cuthbert seems very content on his island, and withdraws even further from society, only interacting with people through a window he cuts in the wall of his hermitage. But in 684 AD his idyll comes to an end. He is elected in abstentia as Bishop of Hexham abbey at a synod, which comes as a great surprise to him and he refuses, even disregarding the tears and pleas of his fellow monks. It takes King Ecgfrith coming to his island to persuade him for him to finally relent, but only if he can swap with Eata and become Bishop of Lindisfarne instead, which they agree to.

But his time as Bishop would be short. In 686 AD he returns to his island home, having been told by God that his time is near, and after two months becomes afflicted with some sort of sickness, possibly tuberculosis. On March 20, 687 he dies there, while at prayer in the oratory. He is  accompanied by Herefrid, the abbot of Lindisfarne, who then tells the rest of the gathered monks outside who had been spending the night in prayer and watchfulness alongside their beloved Bishop. Immediately one of the monks ascended a hill with two lit candles, as they had agreed upon this signal as a means of telling the brethren at Lindisfarne the news, and the watching monk at the monastery hurried to tell the others.

Cuthbert had previously agreed that he would be buried at Lindisfarne, and so the brethren bring his body back and inter him near the altar there. But his death was not the end of Cuthbert’s remarkable story.

Many miracles continued to be reported by people who visited the monastery and his fame continued to grow. The first Anonymous Life of Cuthbert was written in the early 720s, and it is around this time that Bede wrote his poem about Cuthbert.

As Cuthbert’s fame grows, the monks at Lindisfarne decide that it would be a good idea to dig up his bones and put them in a small box as objects of veneration. So, eleven years after his death they dug up the coffin and opened it, and to their shock and amazement they discover that his body is perfectly preserved. As Bede recounts,

…opening the tomb, found his body entire, as if he were still alive, and his joints were still flexible, as if he were not dead, but sleeping. His clothes, also, were still undecayed, and seemed to retain their original freshness and colour. When the brethren saw this, they were so astonished, that they could scarcely speak, or look on the miracle which lay before them, and they hardly knew what they were doing.

This amazing occurrence sends the Cuthbert-cult into high drive, and it is this event that prompts the Lindisfarne community to commission Bede to write a new account of Cuthbert’s life and spread the news of this miracle. The monks hastily make a new, oak coffin to house the saint. This coffin, built in 698 AD, still can be seen today, and is one of England’s most important wooden objects from before the Norman conquest.*

In homage to Cuthbert, and to God, Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, creates the Lindisfarne Gospels, one the greatest treasures of the Early Middle Ages (arguably one the greatest works of art ever produced).  Cuthbert (now reburied in his new coffin) becomes a huge draw to pilgrims.

Disaster strikes in 793 AD with the first Viking attack on a Christian church in England. The Vikings had first appeared in 789 AD, off the coast of Wessex, killing a king’s reeve. But the attack on Lindisfarne was different, as it struck at arguably one of the holiest places in Britain, desecrating the church with the blood of the monks, the church itself partially burnt down, the precious objects ransacked and taken away as treasure. Some of the monks were carted away as slaves.

However, somehow the Gospels survived.* In the chaos of that day (and many more, for the church was attacked many times after that), the monks preserved this precious book, for which we owe them our eternal gratitude.

But by 875 AD the monks had had enough. They fled Lindisfarne, taking with them what ever precious items they had, chief among them the Lindisfarne Gospels and the body of Cuthbert. They also had with them some of the bones of Aidan (the rest buried at Lindisfarne), and the head of Oswald, the great king (and saint in his own right by this point). They wandered about Northumbria, settling here and there and getting driven out again and again by the maurading Danes, but always taking their relics and the marvellous book with them.  The monks were no milquetoasts, though. At the prompting in a vision from Cuthbert himself, they were involved in a bloodless coup by saving the young Dane Guthred from slavery who ended up deposing the current Viking leader of  Crayke, near York.

Finally after seven years of wandering they settled at the old Roman town of Chester-le-Street, and built a monastery, staying there for a hundred years. But in 995 AD the Danes were threatening again so off they went, carting their book, the relics, and Cuthbert, and went to Ripon. When things settled down they started back, but on the way the wagon carrying the heavy coffin became stuck on the road, and the monks took this as a sign that this was where the saint wanted to be laid to rest (maybe the poor monks were exhausted, too.).

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I love this sculpture, located in Durham, which commemorates the journeys of the Lindisfarne monks as they travelled across Northumbria.

The site was Durham, and here they built a church and monastery, replaced by a cathedral after the Norman invasion. Cuthbert’s fame was at its peak at this point, and they wanted a church worthy of the great saint. However, people were skeptical of the story of the incorrupt body and so, before he was interred by the altar, the monks opened the coffin again and found the body still preserved inside. The coffin was placed in a beautiful shrine and visited by a great many pilgrims.

Alas, during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry the VIII , the shrine was dismantled and the coffin reburied (not after opening it and once again finding the body complete!).

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This beautiful pectoral cross was found in the folds of Cuthbert’s vestments when his coffin was opened in 1827. It almost certainly belonged to Cuthbert himself, and he would have worn it around his neck. When Henry VIII’s reformers plundered the monasteries and opened Cuthbert’s coffin, looking for treasure, they missed this little cross, because it was hidden. Thankfully!

In 1827 the coffin was opened one last time, and a skeleton was found (darn). A post-mortem was done and the doctor said the bones were consistent with everything they knew about Cuthbert. He was laid to rest the final time in Durham Cathedral, where you can still visit his tomb today.

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The final resting place of Cuthbert is in Durham Cathedral, interred under the marble slab bearing his name. Behind the tomb is damaged statue of Cuthbert (ironically without at head), holding Oswald’s head, an object of veneration in its own right and which made the long journey with Cuthbert along with some of Aidan’s bones. Durham is a definite must-see for my next trip to Britain. Bede is also buried there, in a separate tomb!

….Or can you? There is a legend that before Henry’s agents could come and destroy the church and presumably Cuthbert’s coffin, the monks opened the coffin and replaced Cuthbert’s body with that of a recently deceased brother monk. They spirited Cuthbert’s body away and buried it in a secret location in the grounds of Crayke Abbey. The location was only known to twelve monks, revealed to another only when one of the twelve dies.

So ended the life and travels of Cuthbert. It is said that with all the travelling he did as a monk and the journeys he took after death with his fellow monks, that he was one of the most well-travelled people of Britain at the time. There is some dispute about the exact route, but after they left Lindisfarne the monks travelled between five hundred and a thousand miles before settling in Durham!

Cuthbert had a remarkable life, and a remarkable death. No wonder he is still celebrated today!

 


* Click here to read a fascinating article about a new display in Durham Cathedral of that coffin and some of the objects found in it.

**It weighs close to eighteen pounds, and due to its size, would have probably taken two people to carry.

Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Pt. 1

I realized a few weeks back when I wrote a post about clothing in the 7th century, that I have yet to write a post about one of the most influential figures of the Early Middle Ages, that being Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne (634 AD – March 20, 687 AD).

It’s time to rectify that!

Cuthbert is a fascinating figure whose life echoes throughout the centuries until even today. After his death he became possibly the most popular saint in England, eclipsed only by Thomas à Beckett who died in 1170 AD. In fact there is so much to say about Cuthbert that I am going to present his story to you in two parts. I will follow up with Part II next week.

Most of what we know about Cuthbert comes from the hand of Bede, the famous Early Medieval historian, sometimes called the Venerable Bede.  Bede actually wrote three accounts of Cuthbert’s life. One was a  poem, one was a work of prose, commissioned by the brethren of Lindisfarne, and one which was included in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. 

What fascinates me about this is that Bede was actually a contemporary of Cuthbert. Bede was fourteen when Cuthbert died and, although he never met him, in writing his Life of Cuthbert he spoke with many who knew Cuthbert well. As he puts it in the introduction to the Life (addressed to the Lindisfarne community which has commissioned the work):

…I have not presumed without minute investigation to write any of the deeds of so great a man, nor without the most accurate examination of credible witnesses to hand over what I had written to be transcribed. Moreover, when I learnt from those who knew the beginning, the middle, and the end of his glorious life and conversation, I sometimes inserted the names of these my authors, to establish the truth of my narrative, and thus ventured to put my pen to paper and to write. But when my work was arranged, but still kept back from publication, I frequently submitted it for perusal and for correction to our reverend brother Herefrid the priest, and others, who for a long time had well known the life and conversation of that man of God. Some faults were, at their suggestion, carefully amended, and thus every scruple being utterly removed, I have taken care to commit to writing what I clearly ascertained to be the truth, and to bring it into your presence also, my brethren, in order that by the judgment of your authority, what I have written might be either corrected, if false, or certified to be true.

After he had completed the task the book was read by the Lindisfarne elders and teachers for final approval before it was allowed to be copied for wider distribution.

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This is the earliest surviving copy of Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert. It dates from the 9th century and was found in France, which shows you how far-reaching Cuthbert’s popularity was, even at that early date. Image from the British Library. 

Now let’s remember that these hagiographies (biographies of saints), are always meant to popularize the said saint in order to attract people to the monasteries that saint was associated with. In other words, nothing negative was going to be included in Bede’s Life of Cuthbert. Hagiographies were a kind of medieval one-up-man-ship: “Yo, my saint’s better than your saint, dog!” .  So we do need to keep that in mind as we read these accounts.

However, with all that being said, I love the fact that Bede’s Life of Cuthbert was written in consultation with people who actually knew the man and who had seen themselves the stories they recounted to Bede. And I love that Bede tried to make his account as accurate as possible, using many witnesses and checking and rechecking the stories. We have so few credible accounts of people’s lives from this era. It’s wonderful having this window into one person’s life, even though that window may be squeaky clean indeed.

What is also interesting is that Bede’s Life of Cuthbert was not the first one to be written. Bede completed his work around 721 AD, but the earlier one was completed around 700 AD. This earlier work, like Bede’s, was commissioned by Bishop Eadfrith* of Lindisfarne, which is the monastery most associated with Cuthbert. The earlier Life of Cuthbert is often called the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert, because we are not sure who the author was, although it most certainly was one of the monks at Lindisfarne.

Although you wouldn’t know it from his introduction quoted above, Bede draws heavily from the anonymous Life in his work. In fact you might accuse Bede of being a little disingenuous in his introduction, but I guess I can forgive him seeing as Eadfrith and the other monks certainly knew all about the other anonymous Life, and possibly the author of the previous version may still have been at Lindisfarne. The Latin of Bede’s Life is apparently much more classical and stylized than the earlier one, which is perhaps one of the reasons why Bede was asked to do another one. The other reason we will discuss in Part II, so come back next week to find out!

So, now that we know the source(s) of our information, let’s get to Cuthbert himself.

He was  born in 634 or 635 AD, just as Aidan was invited by King  Oswald to found the monastery at Lindisfarne and become its Bishop. He was born in Dunbar, located on the east coast of Britain at the mouth of the Firth of Forth. At the time this was part of Northumbria, but now it is in Scotland.

There are indications that Cuthbert came from noble birth, perhaps even son of a king, but other historians discount this, and say that he was more likely born to a poor family. Either way, he grew up near Melrose Abbey (at the time called Mailros)  on the banks of the river Tweed.  He was by all accounts a devout youngster, and one night in 651 AD, when he was seventeen, he had a vision while he was watching the sheep. In the distance he saw angels coming down to earth and escorting a soul to Heaven. The next day he discovered that Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne had died, and decided then that he would also join a monastery and devote his life to God.

However, the real world interfered with this plan. At the time Oswy, King of Northumbria, was engaged in an epic struggle with Penda of Mercia over who would eventually have control over Northumbria. Like most of the men of fighting age at the time, Cuthbert became a soldier and fought with the Northumbrians against the Mercians until the decisive battle of Winwidfield in 654 AD. While we don’t have the exact date of his entrance into Melrose as a monk (Bede let us down there) it seems that some time after 654 AD he arrived at the monastery with a spear, and on horseback–one of the reasons some say he came from nobility, as only the wealthy had horses.

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Unfortunately, there is nothing left of the original Mailros Abbey, founded by Aidan and the monks from Lindisfarne around 650 AD. This is the little interpretive centre built on the site associated with the monastery. Image from saintsandstones.net

Along with the epic political struggle between Penda and Oswy for control of Northumbria that was occurring at this time, there was also an epic struggle in the ecclesiastical world. On side was the Celtic British monks of the north-west, nurtured under Columba‘s Rule at Iona, whose influence had spread across northern Britain, and on the other, the southern Roman Christians, whose practices of the faith stemmed from Rome (this is a very simple explanation…one day I will do a more detailed post on this).

Us moderns have a hard time understanding the nature of this conflict between two “styles” of Christianity, for it seems to us to revolve mainly around what style of tonsure the monks should wear, and, most importantly, how one should calculate the date of Easter. Indeed, these are the outward expressions of this conflict, but it goes much deeper than that.

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Two styles of tonsure: Roman, on the left, and Celtic, on the right. Or is it? Technically we are not entirely sure of the Celtic tonsure. We know that the hair was cut from ear to ear, but some suggest that the opposite of this look, in other words the hair at front is kept and all the hair from the ear back is shaved off! Image from Church History for Everyday Folks.

As a Celtic Christian monk who learned the monastic rule from the community at Lindisfarne, Cuthbert was by no means unaware of this conflict, and it shaped his life in significant ways. He quickly distinguished himself at Melrose, and when a new monastery was founded in Deira at Ripon,  he was sent there as guest-master along with Eata, who became Bishop.  But in 661 AD Cuthbert and Eata returned to Melrose, ousted from Ripon by King Alhfrith of Deira (son of Oswy) who had put the ambitious monk Wilfrid in Eata’s place. Alhfrith and Wilfrid were proponents of the Roman practices, and Ripon was thus changed from a Celtic Christian monastery to a Roman one.

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St. Wilfrid. Oh, he was a wily one. Soon I will be doing a post on him…stay tuned. 

Soon after their return, some type of plague strikes Melrose, and many of the brethren there are afflicted, including Cuthbert, but he recovers.

However, by 664 AD Cuthbert must have seen the writing on the wall, for he has a change of heart. In the hugely important Synod of Whitby that year, King Oswy decrees that henceforth the Roman practices would be the ones followed in the Northumbrian monasteries. Some of the Northumbrian monks balk at this, but Eata accepts the ruling, and Cuthbert follows his mentor’s lead.

Back at Melrose, the abbot, Boisil, dies of the pestilence, and Eata is named Abbot/Bishop (these offices were somewhat fluid at the time).  Cuthbert becomes prior (second in rank to the Abbot). While there he became a great evangelist, travelling around the country and up into the mountains to preach the gospel to the pagan people where others feared to go. He also encouraged those Christians who had given up the faith in the face of the plague and had resorted back to their pagan practices to rid themselves of the sickness.

It is during this time at Melrose that one of the most famous stories of Cuthbert occurs. Cuthbert often left the monastery to spend the night in prayer. One night one of the monks follows him to see where he goes. He follows him down to the sea, and watches as Cuthbert wades out into the waves, until the water is up to his arms, and begins to pray.

As dawn breaks he comes back on to the beach, falls on his knees, and continues to pray. The monk watching is astonished to see two otters come out of the ocean, breathe upon Cuthbert’s feet, and lay down upon them to dry his feet with their fur. Cuthbert blesses them for their duty and the otters scamper back to the waves. The astonished monk confesses his spying to Cuthbert and the Bishop forgives him, but asks him to tell no one of it until his death, a promise the monk keeps.

Eata is in charge of both Ripon and Lindisfarne, and sometime in the 670s  he assigns Cuthbert to Lindisfarne as prior. Cuthbert is given the task of reforming the monastery from the Celtic practices to the Roman ones. This would not have been easy, and it seems it caused some bitterness among the brethren there. But he was a perfect one to do it, seeing as he was raised in Northumbria and trained in the Celtic practices himself as a monk.

Let’s hear Bede’s explanation of this:

There were some brethren in the monastery who preferred their ancient customs to the new regular discipline. But he got the better of these by his patience and modest virtues, and by daily practice at length brought them to the better system which he had in view. Moreover, in his discussions with the brethren, when he was fatigued by the bitter taunts of those who opposed him, he would rise from his seat with a placid look, and dismiss the meeting until the following day, when, as if he had suffered no repulse, he would use the same exhortations as before, until he converted them, as I have said before, to his own views. For his patience was most exemplary, and in enduring the opposition which was heaped equally upon his mind and body he was most resolute, and, amid the asperities which he encountered, he always exhibited such placidity of countenance, as made it evident to all that his outward vexations were compensated for by the internal consolations of the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes retreat is a good offence, it seems. I can think of a few meetings I have endured where this strategy could well have been employed!

At any rate, it is after the reforms are completed, in 676 AD, when he is 42 years old, that Cuthbert decides he wants to withdraw even more from the world and become a hermit. I suppose after the harrowing work he had to do to change the monastery’s practices and dealing with the difficulties that caused I can’t blame him for having enough of people and wanting to renew his spirit by time alone in prayer!

He first finds an isolated spot on the outskirts of the monastery, but finding even that not quite isolated enough (too easy for the other brothers to get to him, I imagine) he sets himself up on Inner Farne Island, a deserted island some miles east of Lindisfarne.

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Eider ducks are known as Cuddy Ducks in Northumbria, after Cuthbert. While on the Inner Farne Cuthbert became enamoured of these ducks, and instituted laws to protect them as people often would harvest both the eggs and the birds. So aside from his religious accomplishments, Cuthbert thus became the world’s first conservationist! Image from wikicommons

Thus ends the first part of Cuthbert’s fascinating life. But there is much more to come. I hope you join me next week as we learn more about Cuthbert the hermit and the influence he continued to have, even after separating himself completely from the world.  And even after his death, as we shall see.


*Fun fact: Eadfrith is also the man responsible for the Lindisfarne Gospels. And by “responsible”, I mean he is one who actually designed, drew, and painted them, as historians have determined that the Gospels were the work of one man alone.  What wonderful treasures he gave us!

Featured image is an icon of Cuthbert, from Aidan Hart Sacred Icons. Note the otter at his feet, and also the raven. Ravens are associated with Cuthbert because, as he was building a shelter on Inner Farne for visiting brethren, three ravens came and pulled out the thatch on the roof. Cuthbert banishes them from the island, but they return, and in a penitent manner bowed their heads and showed signs of asking forgiveness. Cuthbert does so, and they bring him a piece of hog’s lard, which he uses to grease the visiting monk’s shoes.

Superstition in the Dark Ages

It’s Friday the 13thAlthough we have left a lot of our superstitions behind in this supposedly enlightened age, there are still many people who will not be travelling today (or doing all sorts of other things), simply because of the date.

Which got me to thinking: would the people of 7th Century Britain be superstitious about this day, too? And if not, why not? What might they have been superstitious about that we are not?

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First of all, let’s start with a definition. Google the word and you will find a couple of definitions:

  • excessively credulous belief in and reverence for supernatural beings.
  • a widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief.

I have written before about how differently people in 7th century Britain saw the world, compared to us. For them there was no separation between the religious and the secular. Everything related to God (or the gods) and everything you saw, especially in nature, had a deeper meaning beyond itself. It’s very hard for us to enter into this mindset, almost impossible, but not completely. It means turning off your rational, scientific brain, which is hard for us to do. But seeing as there are plenty of superstitions that still survive today, including the one about Friday the 13th, it’s not impossible for us, it seems!

So in one sense, the 7th century people of Britain were superstitious about everything. But it is interesting to dig into the research and find out some specific things that they may or may not have been superstitious about. Here’s just a few for you to ponder on this Friday the 13th:

Friday the 13th – funnily enough, although the people of 7th century had plenty of superstitions, this particular one was not one of them.  People became superstitious about this day as being one in which bad things might happen because it combined two things that people were superstitious about: Fridays in general, and the number thirteen. In Christian history Friday was seen as a day in which bad things happen because Christ was crucified on a Friday (paradoxically called Good Friday, because of the results of that crucifixion was salvation being made available to all, which is a Good Thing). The number thirteen was an unlucky number because there were thirteen people at the Last Supper (Jesus, plus the 12 disciples, and the “13th man” is generally said to be Judas). However, it seems that neither of these superstitions were evident before the 13th century. So, our seventh century friends were not too concerned about Friday the 13th. And realistically speaking, they weren’t too concerned about what the exact date was in general. Calendars were more for monks (or the pagan priests) than for ordinary people. The monks kept track of the feast days and the high holy days of the year, especially Easter. In the pagan world, the Druids and the pagan Saxon priests would certainly pay attention to, and track, the Solstices. But having to know the exact date of other, ordinary days, were not too important to the general population.

Black cats – this one is a little more tricky, but in general, in the 7th century in Britain, black cats would not have been seen as unlucky, or as witches’ companions or consorts of the devil. Those ideas again come from a later time period, specifically from the time the Pilgrims arrived in America in the 17th century. Therefore the idea of the black cat being unlucky is far more prevalent in America than in European folklore. In many parts of Britain, black cats were seen as bringing good luck rather than bad (in other words people still had superstitious beliefs about them, but not in a negative sense). The Celts, including the Scots and the Irish, did have a legend surrounding the Cat Sith or Cat Sidhe, which was a fairy that shape-shifted into a black cat with a white patch on its chest. This cat was feared because they believed it would steal the soul of a recently dead person before the gods (or God, in the Christian era) could claim it, so they would have special distractions during the wake to keep the cat away before burial, such as leaping and wrestling, catnip, and forbidding fires in the room the body was laid (as we all know cats are attracted to warmth).

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Doyle based this famous Holmes story on the legends of the black dogs common in Britain

Black dogs – the black dog is a much more fearsome being in British folklore than the black cat ever was. Stories of large, black dogs, often with blazing red eyes, are common throughout the British Isles, and more common there than anywhere else. They are often seen as being harbingers of death or even directly harmful to those unlucky enough to encounter one. Due to its prevalence in the British culture stretching back just about as       far as we can track, superstitions about black dogs would definitely have been part of 7th century life.

Knocking on wood (or touching wood) – this is another superstition which goes back a long way. Both the Celts and the Saxons saw trees as sacred objects, and the practicing of knocking or touching wood after good fortune could have been a way to rouse the spirit of the tree to protect someone so that their luck wouldn’t turn, or to scare away evil spirits which might come around seeking to reverse your good fortune. Add to this the reverence for the cross of Christ and you can see why this particular phrase and action got so embedded in western culture that it has survived even to this day. However….there are some researchers that scoff at this explanation and trace the practice back to a 19th- century children’s game called “Tiggy Touchwood”, which was a type of tag where a player was “safe” if they touched some piece of wood or tree. So I’ll let you decide on that one!

To wrap up, I thought I’d leave you with something from Bald’s Leechbook, which is a medical text that comes to us from the Early Medieval period. In a previous post I explained that this is a compilation of many remedies for all sorts of injuries and diseases, most of which comes from the medical knowledge handed down from the Greeks and Romans. But there is one section which contains a lot of strange and wonderful “cures”, many of which are very superstitious sounding indeed.

Here’s an example:

Against elf-disease: take marsh mallow, fennel, lupin, the lower part of bittersweet nightshade and the lichen from a holy crucifix and frankincense. Take a handful [of all of the plants]. Bind all the plants in a cloth. Dip [them] into a fountain with holy water three times. Let three masses be sung over them: one Omnibus Sanctis, another Contra Tribulationem, a third Pro Infirmis. Then put hot coals in a chafing dish and lay those plants in [it]. Smoke that person with the plants before 9 a.m. and at night, and sing litanies and credos and Pater Noster, and write the sign of the cross on each of his limbs, and take a little handful of the same plants of that kind, likewise consecrated, and boil in milk. Drip three [drops] of the holy water into [it] and sup [it] before his food. Soon he will be well.

Ok. First of all, what exactly is “elf-disease”? The Anglo-Saxons believed in elves, and that they interfered with humanity with often malevolent results. Sudden pains in the body were seen as being the result of elf-shot; in other words, that an elf has shot you with an arrow. So conditions such as arthritis or even growing pains could have been explained that way. There are remedies for being elf-shot in the Leechbook. So, perhaps elf-disease is something similar? Who knows?

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Some historians believe that finding obsidian arrow heads (like this one, made into a necklace) left behind from the ancient people who populated the British Isles was the origin of the idea of “elf-shot”. Photo from wikicommons

I suppose that is exactly the point. While the medical practitioners of the day knew quite a bit about wounds, infections, broken bones, and things like childbirth, etc, they didn’t know about germs and what might cause something like cholera or even the plague. So some vague sickness that had no obvious external cause would have been a mystery to them. So, elf-disease was as good as an explanation as any, right?

All the rigmarole about the plants and the masses and the prayers and the holy water speaks to the desperation of the patient and the physician alike to “do something” to fix someone when they are ill. According to the Christian faith, we are called to pray for those who are sick, and in some instances anoint with oil. The other practices detailed above were definitely not mentioned in Scripture. So where did they come from?

Somehow simply praying for someone doesn’t seem enough, especially if you contrast that with the magical charms and rituals that the pagan culture around you would have been using when faced with mysterious illnesses. So to avoid the people turning to those more pagan remedies, the monks and other Christian healers would have felt much more comfortable with adding these more Christian practices to their healing repertoires when simply praying for someone didn’t seem as spectacular in comparison.

We all know the power of the placebo…and while that connection would not have been immediately understood by the healers of the time they may have seen times when these types of “cures” actually worked, either through the patient believing they were going to work or just simply the body fighting off whatever was ailing it, and so these practices became worthy of inclusion in the Leechbook.

Superstition? Yes, of course. But you can understand where they come from, when you live in a world where terrifying things happen that have no logical cause that they could see.

I hope you have a great day today, Friday the 13th and all! I’d wish you good luck, but that would be superstitious….

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.

In the ancient world there was 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! There is some debate as to whether the Anglo-Saxons practiced this technique. There has only been one nåilbound sock found in in Britain (the Coppergate sock), dating from the 10th century, and it was likely an import. But, with the deterioration of fabric and the scarcity of finds from this age, we can’t say for certain that they didn’t use this technique for making garments.

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.

Saint_Brigid's_cross

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!

440px-KildareCathedral

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!