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!

Bald’s Leechbook: The Doctor is In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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

What’s for Dinner, Ecgfrida?

As a historical fiction author, getting all the little details right about the era you are writing about can make you break out in a cold sweat. Unless, of course, you happen to be an expert in that era of history and can write all about it with ease. Most of us, however, rely on research to get the details needed to support the story we are trying to tell and make the era come alive.

Little details,  like what the people of the time wore, and, more importantly, what they ate. Why is food so important to a writer? Well, if you think about it, we humans spend quite a lot of time acquiring food, preparing food, and eating food, don’t we? Perhaps “acquiring” doesn’t take so long in our modern era, but in the Dark Ages they didn’t exactly have supermarkets to run to when they ran out of milk.

It’s not to say that your story has to have endless lists of what people are eating, but when you do have your characters sitting down for a meal, you had better know what’s on the menu, right? I suppose you could  avoid writing about eating at all. But doing so takes away from the writer an important setting in which people talk to one another. Having your characters sit down at a meal is a handy way to have them interact.

So, figuring out what they would be eating is important. It gets complicated, though.  First of all, forget the food for a moment. My books are set in Anglo-Saxon 7th century Britain. What about the plates? Utensils? They wouldn’t be dining on fine china and using the family silver, right?

There’s not a whole raft of information out there about the Dark Ages in general and the 7th century in particular, although there is more than you might think. However, little details like this are even more difficult to determine, just because we don’t have a lot of first-hand written information about the customs of the people, especially those of the everyday people.

But for a quick answer, no, more than likely people would not use plates, at least not china ones, but bowls or wooden (or bread) trenchers. Pottery dishes were used, and even glass ones, but those would have been for the upper class, only. Horns from cattle and oxen were also made into drinking vessels, decorated with bands of silver or brass. Utensils would consists of  spoons and knives, but no forks. Those came much later.

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Amazingly, this 7th century glass beaker was found intact (!) by a bulldozer operator in 1977, in Cambridgeshire. Note the narrow, rounded bottom. It was not meant to be set on the table, but held in the hand until the drink was finished. Bottoms up! Image from BBC History of the World.

So, back to the menu. What were the Anglo-Saxons eating, anyway?

Much less meat than we do, for a start, and a whole lot more grains, legumes, vegetables, and fish. Fruits, such as grapes, apples, and pears, were fairly common in Britain at the time, along with various nuts such as hazelnuts and walnuts.

There was game to eat, certainly, such as hares (rabbits were imported by the Romans but didn’t get established in the wild until the twelfth century), deer, and the Saxon’s favourite, boars. Poaching (and the related land laws) was not as big a deal at this era as it would become later, so ordinary people could hunt for game. But hunting was not exactly easy, and it required specialized tools (bows, spears, or even falcons), and it came with a certain amount of danger as well as uncertainty.

In other words, if you didn’t have the time or means to hunt, you couldn’t rely on it for a steady source of meat. One alternative, which was much more popular (at least according to archeological digs, where they can see what kind of bones are left behind) was fish and seafood.

This makes sense, seeing as Britain is a relatively small island, with access to both the sea and lakes and rivers. And people made use of the bounty they found there. Fish, oysters, mussels, even porpoises show up in Anglo-Saxon garbage heaps. And don’t forget the lowly eel, which seems to have been very popular as a dish.

Other sources of protein were eggs, and milk. Milk was probably not drank much past childhood, but it certainly was made into cheese and butter. Cows as well as sheep and goats would be a source of milk. Also a source of meat, although it seems, from what archeologists can determine, that pigs were the domesticated animal most often eaten by the regular person. Which makes sense, I suppose. The other animals are useful for other things besides their meat, but what else can you do with a pig? Plus, although all of the domesticated animals then would have been smaller than today’s varieties, pigs can provide a fair amount of meat.

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In 2012, archeologists found the skeleton of a woman who had been buried with a cow in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, dating from the late 5th century. This is extremely unusual, only 31 animals have ever been found buried in England, all horses buried with men as part of their grave-goods.  A cow is a high-value item due to it’s meat, to bury it with the woman shows the respect others had for her. She also had jewelry and other objects indicating high status. Photo (and interesting article, click on link to read) from BBC.com

Cultivated grains and legumes were of course a large part of the menu. Barley was the most common cereal grain to be grown, but wheat started to make an inroad at this time, and other grains such as rye and oats were also eaten. Bread, using barley, and in the later years, wheat, was baked on hearth-stones, and would have been small, and round. It could be unleavened, or made with wild yeast (captured from the air) or even made using the sourdough method, by which you keep a continual source of fermenting dough on hand.

After the cereal grains, the most important part of the diet would have been pulses such as beans and peas. In fact, it seems likely that each household probably had a pot of briw  simmering over the fire all the time. This was a sort of pottage or stew in which broth, cereal grains, peas or beans, and whatever else was handy was thrown together. If you were lucky the day’s briw might even contain some meat.

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A typical Anglo-Saxon briw. Image (and pottage, with anachronistically orange carrots) by Abigail Young on PictureBritain

The leek was the vegetable of choice for the Anglo-Saxons, which was a catch-all word that covered not only what we think of leeks but also garlic and onion. They also grew cabbage, beets, turnips, and carrots (which were white, not orange). Potatoes were not introduced into Britain until much later, 1586 to be exact). Herbs were grown, too, although it seems that many of the herbs we would use for flavouring they used for medicinal purposes, and not for food.

People did drink water, if they could find a spring or other sources of fresh water. But just like us, they would prefer some kind of flavoured drink such as beer, ale, or cider over plain water. Ale (a type of beer made without hops) was a popular drink, but don’t think that everyone was drunk all the time because they drank a lot of alcohol. The alcohol content in their everyday ale would have been quite low, although I am sure that for special feasts they would make stronger drinks. Wine and mead (a type of honeyed beer) were mainly for the upper class.

Honey was used for a sweetener. Sugar, although being produced in Africa at the time, did not generally make it to Britain’s shores. There is some evidence of sweet treats being made for desserts but these were not on the menu regularly.

On the whole the Anglo-Saxons had a fairly healthy diet, especially in comparison to our own, with its over-indulgences in meat and sugar. Their main problem would have been getting enough to survive and on top of that, giving some to the king as food-rent for the privilege of being his subject (basically…although the king was supposed to provide things like roads and bridges and the upkeep of such, as well keep a secure and prosperous kingdom, etc).  But if the harvest was good and your animals free of disease (or attack by wolves) and the winter not too harsh and the kingdom (and therefore your holding) not in upheaval due to wars or raids, you had a good chance of sitting down to a fairly good meal every day.

Smoked eel, anyone?


Featured image by Mandy Barrow, from PrimaryHomeworkHelp

 

 

Hild of Whitby

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Bede says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 

 

Giving Thanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

 

 

 

 

Oswald, King of Bernicia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aragorn = Oswald?

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

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


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

Featured image from The Diocese of Lancaster

 

 

 

Review – Abomination, by Gary Whitta

The year is 888 AD, and Alfred the Great is the king of the last remaining English kingdom of Wessex. He has made an uneasy peace with the fierce Norsemen and Wessex has enjoyed relief from the long years of war that the Danes brought to England’s shores. But rumours are beginning that a second wave of invasions are coming, and Guthrum, the Danish King Alfred had entered a truce with, is nearing death.

So when Aethelred, Archbishop of Canterbury, tells Alfred that he has found some ancient scrolls containing incantations and rites that could create horrible monsters from ordinary animals, Alfred is intrigued. Aethelred sees this as a way to create an invincible army against the Danes, and although Alfred is troubled by the occultish nature of the rites, he agrees to let Aethelred try to use this knowledge to defeat the Danes once and for all.

But of course things rarely go as planned and soon Alfred is faced with the problem of an army of abominations led by Aethelred, who has gone mad under the influence of the dark powers he has been dabbling with. Athelred sends his most trusted warrior, Wulfric, to deal with the problem, who soon discovers that Aethelred has one last incantation up his sleeve that results in terrible consequences for Wulfric and all he loves…..

Although Abomination is his first novel, Gary Whitta is not a new writer. He is a screenwriter with several impressive credentials to his name; in particular, he was the screenwriter for The Book of Eli, the blockbuster post apocalyptic thriller starring Denzel Washington. He was a co-recipient of  a BAFTA award for his work as story consultant and writer on Telltale Games’ interactive adaptation of The Walking Dead, and has also worked with Lucasfilm on Star Wars projects for both film and television.

So, needless to say,  Whitta knows how to tell a good story, and Abomination doesn’t disappoint. It is a historical fantasy thriller that sucks you in and keeps you reading. Be warned, there is some violence, suspense and dark fantasy here, but it’s all in moderation. I was surprised, however, to find a couple of places in the book where I noticed rapid point of view switches from one paragraph to another. This was the only fault I found in an otherwise well-constructed book.

Of course, seeing as one of my favourite kings, Alfred the Great, is one of the characters, and that the book takes place in Dark Ages England, I was inclined to like it right away. The history part of it is pretty light, though, Alfred has only a minor part at the beginning and then disappears from the book, and Whitta isn’t too concerned with making his setting too heavy on historical details. But that’s ok. It was a perfect summer reading book – a story that doesn’t tax your brain too much but is a fun ride with the appropriate twists and turns to keep you guessing.

The central character, Wulfric, is a sympathetic reluctant hero, who would rather be home with his wife and newborn babe than scouring the countryside in search of Aethelred and his abominations. I liked him right away, and when the first section of the book closed with the terrible event that sets the stage for the rest of the book which continues fifteen years later, I could hardly wait to find out what had happened to him. This section of the book introduces the second main character, Indra, a young woman on a quest to fulfill the requirements of becoming a member of the Order her father founded to hunt down and kill the remaining abominations. But they are few and far between now, and her quest brings her squarely into the path of Wulfric, who is harbouring a terrible secret.

Whitta’s Book of Eli had some definite spiritual themes in it, and I was interested to see some here as well, albeit not as overt. Bishop Aethelred is responsible for the abominations, but Whitta  includes the brave priest Cuthbert who opposes him and places where Indra quotes Scripture to explain why she comes to the rescue of the down-and-out Wulfric. The fact that I noticed this shows you just how rare it is to see Christianity depicted in anything but a negative fashion in most contemporary fiction.

All in all, I enjoyed this book and am looking forward to what else Gary Whitta might have next!