Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Alliteration As An Aid: What's in a Name?

A lot of people tell me that they find the 'Anglo-Saxon' personal names quite challenging, and I know what they mean: all those Æthels and Ælfs... 

They are tricky partly because they come from what is essentially a different language. But then so do Spanish and French names, and we don't struggle so much with them. I think the main reason Old English names are difficult is because they use letters which we don't use any more, such as the Æ diphthong, which is very common. 

Æthelwulf of Wessex

And, the 'Anglo-Saxons' didn't have surnames. If you were to talk about Henry VIII's various advisers and members of the court, and take away their surnames, you'd find an awful lot of people with the exact same name. Wolsey, Cranmer, Cromwell, More, Tallis, Wyatt, Boleyn: all had the name Thomas.

Apparently, when Henry the Young King (eldest son of Henry II) held his Christmas court in Normandy in 1171, it was said that the guests included no fewer than 110 knights all called William.*

I know that the Æthels and Ælfs can be utterly confusing but sometimes it helps to look at the second part of the name, where, unlike the Thomas' and Williams, they alter slightly. Mostly, the Old English names are compounds, and Æthel means noble. So Æthelwine has two elements, noble being the first, and wine (friend), being the second, while Æthelred, or more properly Æthelræd, means noble counsel (ræd = counsel). I wrote a post a while ago about these various names, but this time I want to talk about what historians have gleaned, or surmised, from looking at these names; in particular, alliteration.

There was certainly a tendency for various royal houses to have alliterative names. Names beginning with Cyne or Cen can often be associated with the kingdom of the West Saxons, which is why King Penda of Mercia's wife Cynewise is often presumed to have hailed from there. It doesn't always work, for there were plenty of Mercians with those names too, but often they are assumed to have descended from a branch of the family descended from a West Saxon.

Alliteration can help with identification in some cases. Because all these people came from the royal family of Kent - Eormenred, Eorconeberht, Eormenhild, Eorcongota, it's likely that a bishop named Eorcenwald did too.

If the name is Sigeheard, Sigered, Sigeric, Sæberht Sexred, or Saeward, then they're probably a member of the East Saxon royal house. But there were plenty of 'Siges' who were Kentish nobility too, so it doesn't always work. 

St Seaxburh - image attribution link
The name element Seax is more commonly found among the East Saxons than the West. Yet even here it's not failsafe, as Seaxburh, queen then abbess, was actually the daughter of an East Anglian king.

In seventh-century Mercia, King Penda, menitoned above, had rather a lot of offspring. One of his sons had an odd name, which has the element walh, which can mean Welshman, foreigner, or even slave. It's unlikely that this man was a slave, but he might have been Welsh. Anyway, historians have sometimes argued that he couldn't have been Penda's son because his name, unlike another of Penda's sons, Peada, didn't alliterate. Personally, I don't think Merewalh, for that was his name, was Penda's son, but not because of the alliteration argument, which falls down when you look at all of Penda's other children:
sons Wulfhere and Æthelred, and daughters, Cyneburh, Cyneswith and possibly Cynethryth. There may have been two other daughters, Saints Edith and Eadburh and another possible daughter, Wilburg.

So not much alliteration there really, certainly not with Penda's name, and only one Æthel too! ** 

However, Merewalh's family certainly all belonged together. By two wives, he had:
daughters Mildburg, Mildrith and Mildgyth,
and sons, Merchelm, Mildfrith and Merefin.

Alliteration can, then, indeed indicate close family ties. But it shouldn't be relied upon. One historian looked at the circumstances of one of Penda's daughter-in-law, a lady by the name of Osthryth, who married Penda's son Æthelred. She was the daughter of Penda's enemy, Oswiu of Northumbria and the reason for, and the timing of, the marriage are somewhat hazy. The main thing about Osthryth is that she was killed (by Mercian nobles), and no reason was given in the chronicles.

A tribe of the midlands, the Hwicce, originally had their own kings, who gradually got demoted to subkings of Mercia. Some of them had alliterative names, such as Oshere, Oswald and Osred. One historian suggested that these people were somehow related to the Northumbrian kings, Oswald and Oswiu. Oshere of the Hwicce was also a possible murder victim and the argument was that the Hwicce royals were all members of a branch of the Northumbrian royal house, trying to overthrow the Mercians, and that Osthryth was part of that plot, and was murdered because of it. It's not a theory that is given much credence by other historians.

Alfred's Will
However, another 'Os' connection has been argued. It is thought by some that Alfred the Great had a bastard son. Alfred’s will contained a bequest for a man named Osferth who is described as the king’s kinsman. He also appears in a charter of Alfred’s son Edward, where he is described at the king's brother (frater regis). But it seems unlikely that he was Alfred's illegitimate son. Historian Simon Keynes says that the name suggests a relationship to the family of Osburh, Alfred’s mother. Alternatively, he might have been a son of Oswald filius regis who attested at least three charters and might have been a son of Alfred’s brother Æthelred. In both cases, alliteration of names directs the argument.

In other cases, non-alliteration can be powerfully suggestive. Alfred the Great did have plenty of legitimate children and those who survived beyond infancy were:

Æthelflæd, the first-born daughter, Edward, who ruled Wessex after his father, then two more daughters, Æthelgifu and Ælfthryth, and another son, Æthelweard. Interestingly, the only one there who is neither an Æthel or an Ælf is Edward. It has been suggested*** that he was named after his Mercian maternal grandmother, Eadburh. (Edward would have been spelled Eadward, so the first element of both names would be identical.)

Margaret arrives in Scotland
Queen Margaret of Scotland had an interesting lineage. The daughter of a man who so very nearly could have been an English king, she was [probably] born in Hungary and came to England with her father, who was the son of Edmund Ironside, but had to flee when her brother Edgar, involved in the resistance against William of Normandy, found life in England a little perilous. The family landed in Scotland, which might or might not have been deliberate, and the benefits of an alliance quickly became clear. Margaret was married to Malcolm of Scotland and made a successful life in her adopted country. Her children were a huge part of her legacy. Matilda married Henry I of England, bringing English blood back in to the monarchy there. Margaret's children took precedence over Malcolm's children by his first wife, but it may also be significant that some of them were given very English names. Of her eight children with Malcolm, four were:
Edward, Edmund, Ethelred, Edgar and indeed Matilda is said by some to have been christened Edith. 
Surely no one in the Scottish court by this stage could have thought for a moment that Margaret and Malcolm's children had any chance of sitting on the English throne, nor is it at first glance likely that Margaret thought of herself as English. And yet, she did much to help displaced Englishmen, and her biographer, who also happened to have been her chaplain, said that her first language was English. Was the naming of her children a nod to her English heritage, a reminder of her illustrious ancestry or was it perhaps even a signal of defiance? 

Although Edgar, Edward and Edith are easier names there were still a lot of Æthels and Ælfs in the later period, but in time the Danes came along and helped a bit, bringing some Harolds and Sweins into the mix. 

But no, it's not easy making head and tail of Old English names. Sometimes they can provide a clue to family identity and sometimes they can't. Alliteration is fascinating, but it can't be relied upon. Surnames though, well, they'd have definitely helped.

*Thanks to Charlene Newcomb for this nugget.
**However, it must be said that Penda's wife was called Cynewise, so maybe the daughters, the ones we're sure about, were all given names that alliterated with hers. For more on who Penda's children were, and whether they were full or half-siblings, see
*** By historian Pauline Stafford

Friday, 30 August 2019

It's All About Context: Deciphering Old English

Context is everything. I don't claim to be any great shakes at Old English, but I am learning to recognise certain words and phrases.

Most people, I suspect, who saw this word would not have a clue what it means or how to say it, much less what it means: þrīe. Similarly, this word: mōnaþ

But if we start with some pronunciation hints, then it gets easier. The þ is a th sound. So mōnaþ is month. I'll come back to þrīe later.

Other words still in use today are also fairly unrecognisable in their original form: dæg and geong.

If I said, "Se mann is eald", I might not be understood. But if I tell you that g is often a soft y sound, then you'll know that dæg means day. And armed with that fact, and that "Se mann is eald" means the man is old, then deciphering geong might become easier if we say "Se mann is geong." Yes, geong means young.

So now we know that þ is equivalent to th, we can work out what broþer means. Especially if we see it alongside other words: fæder, mōdorbroþer, dohtor.

Wudu on its own doesn't look much like a modern word. But if we team it with ford and weald, then we have wood, ford and forest. Ford and weald are both in use today.

Going back to þrīe. If you haven't worked it out already, let me put it with its friends:


It doesn't always work though. The numbers 1-10 might now be recognisable, but although mōnaþ is now clearly month, it's only vaguely helpful here:

Æfterra Gēola
Ærra Līþa
(and Þrilīþa which is a sort of leap-month!)
Æftera Līþa
Ærra Gēola

However, look at the first and last of the list of months. Remember that G is a soft y sound, and you'll see Yule. Specifically, After-Yule and Before-Yule. Also see if you can spot Holy-Month and Blood-Month. Now that you know before and after, then the middle months, before and after Līþa, make sense as being before and after something, in this case, midsummer

Eald and geong, once we know about pronunciation, can morph easily into old and young.

But another of pair of words is not so easy: lytel and micel. You can probably work out little, but what about micel, which means great? Well, it does still exist in a modern form, as the dialect word muckle.

There are other words which seem far removed from their modern counterparts. Dōm, for example, meaning judgement. But if we remember the rather more archaic word doom, then it makes sense.

As I said, context is everything. I recently went into the local school where I teach and read them this: 

Fæder ūre, þū þē eart on heofonum, 
Sī þīn nama gehālgod. 
Tō becume þīn rice. 
Gewurde þīn willa 
On eorþan swā swā on heofonum. 
Urne gedægwhamlīcan hlāf syle ūs tōdæg. 
And forgyf ūs ūre gyltas, 
Swā swā wē forgyfaþ ūrum gyltendum. 
And ne gelæd þū ūs on costnunge, ac alȳs ūs of yfele

Fæder ūre is the giveaway, especially if we switch those two words around, which gives us 'Our Father' and suddenly eart on heofonum looks more like 'art in heaven'. Of course, now that we know that dæg means daytōdæg shouldn't present a problem. Some of the pupils guessed what it was, but if I'd shown them this to start with, I think they'd have been stumped. 

Even so, once we know some of the strange Old English letters and some basic pronunciation rules, then this line
si þin nama gehalgod (think: si thin nama ye-halyod) reveals itself to be 'hallowed be thy name'.

As I said, I am far from an expert (and should point out that there are other Old English letters, one of which, ð, can also be th) and can only pick out the odd word or phrase. This post is just meant to be a bit of fun. But Old English, when you look closely, does very often translate easily into modern English. It's just a question of looking closely, and sometimes joining up a few dots.

So, here's one to leave with you, and if you follow the rules above, you should have no problem working it out: þrītig*.

[Thanks to Dawn Burgoyne for permission to reproduce here her wonderful version of the Lord's Prayer which she wrote out and illuminated for me. Spellings of OE words taken from A Guide to Old English by Bruce Mitchell & Fred C. Robinson. *thirty]

Thursday, 25 July 2019

The History of English Part II: From Conquest to Printing Press

I'm currently writing a story set in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings. One of the immediate changes must have been the language barrier which was surely constructed. Or was it?

The first part of my story of English (see HERE) concluded with the coming of the Normans, and a tale from the 12th century sums up what happened after the Normans settled. A local priest witnessed a miracle, where after the laying on of hands, a mute man was cured and was thereafter able to speak English and French. The priest was resentful. Brother William, he said, had laid hands on this man and instantly he could speak two languages, whereas he, the local priest, had to remain dumb in the presence of the bishop. This priest, it transpired, knew little Latin, and no French.

A page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

In 1154, the English monks who had written the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (established by Alfred the great) put down their pens. French was the language to speak, and Latin was used for writing and remained the principal language of religion and learning. A visitor from another planet would assume that English disappeared, to be replaced permanently by French.

However, we know this is not so.

In a document from c.1100, Henry I addresses “All his faithful people, both French and English.” Orderic Vitalis (1074-c.1142), an historian born of a Norman knight and an English mother, complained when he was sent to a monastery in Normandy that he heard “A language [French] that I did not know.”

Imagine a minor Norman knight being given a small manor in the English countryside. Surrounded by English-speaking ‘natives’, he would have to pick up a fair amount of English if he wished to be understood.

Perhaps we can also thank ‘Bad’ King John for the survival of the English Language. His loss of the French territories forced the nobility to choose one or the other. “My brother Amaury” said Simon de Montford, “released to me our brother’s whole inheritance in England, provided that I could secure it; in return I released to him what I had in France.” In 1244 the king of France declared that, “As it is impossible that any man living in my kingdom, and having possessions in England, can competently serve two masters, he must either inseparably attach himself to me or to the king of England.”

King John

In the 1230s, Henry III had become the first king of England since 1066 to give distinctively English names to his sons – Edward and Edmund. The eldest son, Edward I, was very conscious of his Englishness, and French gradually became an acquired language. Documents began to be written in English again and during the 100 Years War there was a massive impetus to speak English. Church sermons, prayers and carols were all expressed in English. During the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, Richard II spoke to the peasants in English.

But English was now what we term Middle English (ME) – a written record of what had been happening for a while in spoken English. An example of how the language was changing is the case of the letter y. In Old English (OE) it represented a short vowel, written by French scribes as u. The OE word mycel became ME muchel, which became modern much. When y stood for a long vowel it was written by the French scribes as ui. So the OE fyr became the ME fuir and the modern fire. This sound, though, was pronounced differently in different parts of the country, sometimes representing the i in kin, but in Kent and parts of East Anglia it was more like the e in merry. In the west it was the oo in mood, but spelt with a u. So the OE for kin, cyn, could be kyn, ken, or kun.

The OE byrgen had ME variants birien, burien, berien and became our modern bury, using the Kentish pronunciation berry, yet busy has the western spelling but is pronounced as the London/E Midlands bizzy.

The five main speech areas – Northern, West and East Midland, Southern, and Kentish are similar to contemporary English speech areas.

The triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London shared the same kind of English, which may be said to have become the basis for Standard English of the modern age.

Geoffrey Chaucer

London English came to be exemplified by one man: Geoffrey Chaucer. Choosing to write in English, he brought about the rebirth of English as a National Language. One line from his Troilus and Criseyde shows the journey of the language up to that point:

Criseyde says to Troilus: "Welcome, my knight, my pees, my suffisance."

Welcome, my, and knight, are all English words, although the original OE cniht meant boy, before it became loaded with French military connotations. Pees (peace) is one of the earliest words to come with the conquest, replacing the OE grith. Suffisance, an overblown synonym for satisfaction, is from French, via Latin.

Chaucer’s time also saw another monumental change, with the emergence of surnames. People began to be associated with where they lived (Brooks, Rivers, Hill, and Dale) or their occupation (Butcher, Hunter, Glover, Sadler, Miller, Cooper).

Chaucer wrote in English, but the official language of government was still, for the time being, French. Henry V became the first English king since Harold to use English in official documents and, in the summer of 1415, when he crossed the Channel to fight the French, the first letter he dictated was, symbolically, written in English.

Chaucer Manuscript

English spelling is confusing, as we explored last time, but if you wonder why head doesn't sound like heat, or why steak doesn't rhyme with streak, and some doesn't rhyme with home, you can blame the Great Vowel Shift. Between roughly 1400 and 1700, the pronunciation of long vowels changed. Mice stopped being pronounced meese. House stopped being pronounced like hoose. (Although there is an area near Sheffield where it is pronounced arse*.) Some words, particularly words with ea, kept their old pronunciation. Northern English dialects were less affected.

It might reasonably be argued that in some ways the regional dialects of the north remain closer to the original OE or even Old Norse (ON). Melvyn Bragg (A Cumbrian-born broadcaster and writer) overheard someone in a Scandinavian restaurant proclaim “As garn yam” (I’m going home.) To this day, inhabitants of Cumbria would understand this. Cumbrian vowel sounds probably did not shift to the same extent, so that we might still hear someone at Windermere telling us “I’m aboard a boat I bought about a week ago” with vowel sounds that make it seem more like, “As aboard abort about a boot a week sin.”

In other areas of the country, use of words typifies dialect. In the east of England, particularly Norfolk, the word that replaces it at seemingly every opportunity. “Thank you for bringing that book back, I’ll put that back on the shelf.” “That’s now raining.” “That’s a cold wind in the east; that don’t go round you, that go right through you.”

But I digress. English spelling was about to be not standardised, but dictated, by the printers. And here we come back to those spelling anomalies which I mentioned in more detail in Part I.

Ever wondered about the silent middle of words like night and right? In OE, the letter h was used for words like ham (home) and niht (night). This puzzled the French scribes, who couldn’t use a g, which was already in use, nor h, for the same reason. So they compromised with a gh to denote the sound. Although the pronunciation of this sound was dying out (it’s still in use in Scotland nicht/night) the spelling had become established and, crucially, William Caxton used it. His first printed book has a preface dedicated to Philip, Duke of Burgundy, whom he describes as a “Ryght noble, gloryous and myghty prince.”
Brut Chronicle, printed by Caxton

Gradually, spelling was falling prey to rules, although it had some way to go. And while French did not ‘take over’, its influence on spelling is clear. OE had a word sinder, meaning the residue left by metal in a furnace, the French had cendre, meaning ashes, and the two fused to become the modern word, cinder.

By the time printing arrived, in the 1470s, the above-mentioned Great Vowel Shift was well underway. Caxton himself lamented the variety of spelling and pronunciation: “And certainly our language varyeth far from that which was used and spoken when I was born.” With the arrival of printing came a more systemised way of using punctuation marks, but spelling was still quite varied. What printing did do, however, was sound the death knell for the OE letters ‘thorn’ (þ) and ‘eth’ (ð) and ‘yogh’ (Ȝ). Spelling might not yet be standardised, but the alphabet was.

*The Arse that Jack Built - BBC Radio 4

Part I: The Early History of English

Further Reading:
A Little Book of Language – David Crystal
Spell It Out – David Crystal
The Story of English – McCrum, Cran & MacNeil
Whatt Fettle Mun: A Celebration of Cumbrian Dialect – T Barker
Broad Norfolk - J Mardle
A Dictionary of Cumberland Dialect – Richard LM Byers
Concise Oxford Dictionary
Wordcraft – S Pollington

Find me at
And on Amazon

[A version of this article originally appeared on the EHFA Blog]

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

The Senses in Anglo-Saxon England

A friend told me once that he had been reading about the Roman occupation of Britain and he asked me why, when the abandoned towns and villas were still there, did the Angles and Saxons not move into them?

We know they were still there because they were given ‘English’ names and yet archaeological evidence points to the Germanic settlers building their own wooden houses and villages, in some cases very near to the abandoned buildings. Did they not have the skills required to restore and maintain these buildings?

Attribution Link

Reconstructions, such as those at West Stow, and the excavation of great halls such as Yeavering, show that they were not incompetent builders. Tacitus said that none of the Germanic tribes on the continent lived in walled cities, so it’s more likely that the Anglo-Saxons preferred to live in buildings that kept them feeling close to the natural world. So how did that affect the way they communicated? What was sound like for them?

The acoustic properties of wooden buildings offer opportunities for intimate conversation. Sound will fall away, muffled by the absorbent materials in the building. Living communally provides companionship and a strong sense of belonging, but it must have been a boon to be able to conduct private conversations if the need or urge arose. Stone buildings have large spaces where sound echoes and resonates.

Towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period these cavernous buildings were being built and we have evidence that people were exploiting this, to great effect. The Winchester Troper dates from around AD1000 and includes possibly the oldest written music, designed to be performed in Winchester Cathedral. A sample can be heard on YouTube.

The Anglo-Saxon period covers more than half a millennium and by the end of the period many folk were living in towns rather than small hamlets, but it has been estimated that in early modern England, sounds above 60 decibels were rare; it is safe to assume, therefore, that this applies equally to the early medieval period.

The loudest natural sound was probably thunder, followed by animal noises. Of man made noises, in the earlier period, musical sounds would have been produced from lyres and wooden flutes. Louder sounds would be made by timber construction, the metallic clanging emanating from the smithy, and explosions. Not gunpowder, but the ignition of flour dust in mills.

As Kevin Leahy, author of Anglo-Saxon Crafts, explained to me, when I was looking for a plausible way for one of my novel’s characters to make murderous mischief: “The suspension of fine flour in air is a highly explosive mixture which could be set off by a candle or a bearing of [a] wheel running hot. I suppose an Anglo-Saxon water powered mill is less likely to run away than a wind-mill (supposedly introduced during the Crusades) but in any event the explosive mixture would have been present.”

As mentioned above, there were no windmills, but the sound of the water mill wheels would have been familiar to most - a man was considered to be a wealthy thegn if he had a water mill of his own and a fine example of a water mill has been excavated at Tamworth.

With the absence of modern background noise, the sound of birdsong would have been prominent and the sounds of domestic animals, the bark of a dog, the sound of cattle or sheep, would have been identifiable, not just to the owners, but to all those who lived nearby.

As for the sense of touch, no doubt wood and metal felt the same 1000 years ago as they do now. The Anglo-Saxons would also have been familiar with the texture of enamel, which they worked into their jewellery, Cloisonne-style, and coloured pot and glass beads.

We know that they combed their hair with combs made from antler bone, which must have felt a little different from our plastic ones.

As for clothing, a well-known author once said to me that she assumed that the Anglo-Saxons just wore sacks tied round the middle. Well yes, let it be said that their costumes were not as elaborate as those of later periods. The simplest weave they produced was a plain, or ‘tabby’ weave which varied in quality from coarse (yes, that’s the sacking!) to very fine fabrics including not just wool, but linen too: at Sutton Hoo, the remains of a fine linen pillowcase were found.

There were also patterned twills, made using a more complex weaving sequence and used for luxury fabrics. Sometimes they employed a method called ‘pile-weaving’ where loops were inserted during the weaving process, resulting a sort of ‘shaggy’ material which was occasionally used for cloaks.

So they were familiar with a number of different textures, and, though it was generally imported early in the period, the richer folk knew what silk felt like. King Oswald of Northumbria (AD634-42) is known to have given silk and gold hangings to his religious foundations.

At the very end of the period, Edward the Confessor’s body was wrapped in a golden-coloured silk shroud woven using a ‘damask’ technique.

We know that fabrics were not simple; a charred shirt found at Llangorse, where a scene in my book shows Aethelflaed avenging the murder of one of her abbots, is an example of embroidery from the early 10th century.

Silk threads were also woven through fabrics to give an iridescent shimmer. There has been a great deal of debate on the precise meaning of the term “Godweb” which might have been a description of this fine, silken weave. It is certainly probable that contrasting colours were woven to produce a form of what we would call ‘shot silk’.

Many scraps of material have been found on the back of brooches: The Fuller brooch, dated to the ninth century, depicts all the senses, in the form of a man pictured rubbing his hands, smelling a plant etc. It is made of niello (a black mixture of copper, silver and lead sulphides used as an inlay) and silver, and is perhaps associated with the court of Wessex.

Attribution Link

Brooches, used for decoration as well as for holding garments in place, were often fashioned using complex metal-working techniques.

We are all familiar with the exquisite jewellery of Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard, but the Anglo-Saxons also worked with leather and used this to decorative effect on sword sheaths and embossed leather book binding. The Stonyhurst Gospel buried with St Cuthbert in AD687 is a lovely example.

Attribution Link

Mention of leather and metal working should move me on to discuss smell, but whilst there were dangers inherent in jewellery-making - as Stephen Pollington told me: “Processes such as fire-gilding (with mercury as the vehicle) are incredibly dangerous and … an unwary goldsmith overcome by mercury fumes is [a] possibility” - mercury is actually odourless.

And it seems that during this period, urine was not used in the tanning process; instead they used tannic acid derived from oak bark or oak galls. However, the process of removing the hair and fur from the skins involved folding the hides and leaving them to ‘sweat’ in a warm place to encourage bacteria to eat away at the hair root to allow it to be scraped. This is essentially a rotting process and cannot have smelled pleasant.

The Anglo-Saxons called November ‘Blood Month’ and again, the smell of slaughtered animals must have been quite overwhelming. Of course, the occasional bread oven aside, most cooking was done on open fires, and hearth fires blazed inside buildings, integral to warmth, well being and the culture of hearth-companions. Glynis Baxter, Heritage Officer at West Stow summed it up succinctly when she said to me, “The only thing we can say with any certainty is that the houses and clothing of the Anglo-Saxons would have smelt of smoke!”

This comment came at the end of a discussion about the use of ‘strewing herbs.’ Later in the medieval period, herbs such as meadowsweet were strewn on the floors as an early form of air-freshener. Since meadowsweet was known to the Anglo-Saxons (they called it meadow wort) and they had a term, bench plank, which refers to sprung wooden floors, I think it is plausible that they might have strewn herbs on their floorboards to make the halls smell a little more fragrant.

Reconstruction artists such as Judith Dobie and Peter Dunn show us how the buildings, villages and towns might have looked. But what else could the Anglo-Saxons see?

We know about the texture of fabric, but gold work was used for edging garments such as tunics at the neck, wrist and hem. Colours were bright; blue was derived from woad, red from madder and purple from lichen. There was a visible social distinction between rich and poor, but even ‘homespun’ garments would have had variations, deriving from brown, black, white and grey sheep.

Such beasts would have looked different from modern farm animals and there is plenty of information about rare and ancient breeds for us to be able to picture what these animals would have looked like, for example the long-snouted Tamworth pig.

Attribution Link

And bacon was available all year round. As far as taste is concerned, Anglo-Saxon food was limited, as you might expect, but they had a variety of foods to choose from: a typical feast would contain some of the following: beef, mutton goose or pork in the winter, and game, lamb or kid in the summer and along with bacon, poultry was available all year round.

People living near the sea or a river would have fresh fish, and shellfish in the winter. Cheeses would be fresh in the spring and summer, and hard (having been hung and smoked) in the winter. Fruit, nuts, pulses and beans were all available as were various fresh vegetables.

Wine, mead and beer were drunk, whilst milk and buttermilk were served to children. Foods were therefore largely seasonal and local, but bread was of course, a staple. However, many people did not have access to mills, or the means to pay the lord to use his mill, and would grind using quernstones.

Loaves were not always baked and risen and often folk ate flatbreads. Perhaps all we need to know about the taste is that bread was contaminated by pieces of grit from the millstones so that by middle age, many people had teeth so worn down that they would be in constant pain caused by exposed dentine.

A rather sad side-note is that grain was often infected, with the seeds of the corn cockle (which are poisonous) and with Ergot, a fungal disease. It seems likely that the hero of my second novel perished from eating contaminated bread. But historical fiction is a wonderful thing and I allowed him to die less prosaically, in battle!

With no surviving buildings it might seem hard, at first, to begin to piece together what the Anglo-Saxons heard, saw, smelled, tasted and felt. But archaeological evidence, extant texts, and the occasional haul of treasure allow us, slowly, to build a picture of how they lived their daily lives.

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[This article was originally written by me for EHFA]


Further reading/references:
Beowulf Aelfric’s Colloquy
Anglo-Saxon Crafts - Kevin Leahy
Anglo-Saxon Food - Ann Hagen
The Mead-Hall - Stephen Pollington
The Senses in Late Medieval England - CM Woolgar
Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England - Debby Banham
Dress in Anglo-Saxon England - G Owen-Crocker
The Real Middle Earth - Brian Bates

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

"Word Hoard" and the Difficulties of Making Dialogue Authentic

"I hold your oaths fulfilled." These words are spoken by Aragorn in the film version of Tolkein’s The Return of the King

I found myself thinking about whether all of the dialogue was derived from Old English (OE). The short answer is no, but it did remind me of a time when I decided to see if it was possible to construct dialogue for my novels – set in Anglo-Saxon England – using only words derived from either OE, or old Norse (ON).

Here’s some dialogue from a very early draft of one of my novels: 
"No no, all is well; you sit. It is cooler here in the yard. I was thinking, though, that the roads from the south may be hard enough to ride on now, which means that Lord Helmstan might be home soon. Can we bake a few more loaves? Would it help to knead the rest outside?"
 "It would, my lady, thank you. There is enough flat bread to see us through, but if I can find how my idle daughters do with the grinding, I can bake with yeast and the finest ground meal to make bread for the lord. With your leave, I will go now and get that husband of mine to lift me down another bag of meal."
Hmm. It doesn't flow brilliantly well, does it? And the words aren’t even all derived from OE, or even pre-Conquest words. Lift, for example, is 12th-century ON, while bag is 13th-century ON.

So, if we want to pepper the dialogue with OE-derived words, what can we use, and what can't we use? It's surprising:

Alliterative couplets are okay - hale and hearty, forgive and forget.

But whilst we can reckon, we can't count.

We can't want, but we can crave, or wish.

We can eat our food at the board, but not the table, and we'll sit on a stool, not a chair.  Sounds a little uncomfortable; a bit basic. It gets worse:

You can't smile; you can only smirk or grin. (But since that means 'to bear your teeth' it doesn't sound as benign as a smile, somehow.)

You can't have a smell or an aroma; you can only have a stench. And this leads to another problem: so many OE words now have these negative connotations, and we have the Normans to thank for a lot of that.

And as for those Four-Letter-Words, well, the really nasty ones are not Anglo-Saxon and oddly, although I've just said that they hold such negative connotations, the Anglo-Saxon four letter words are now considered relatively inoffensive and, after all, they simply described body parts/functions - shit, arse, etc.

Of course, it can also boil down to a matter of how the words and phrases sound. If you were to discuss an 'Ursine preference for forest-based defecation' it would somehow sound more archaic than saying 'Bears like to shit in the woods,' and yet one would be more authentic than the other (even though like is 12th-century ON).

It seems that we really need those ON words. When, in Alvar the Kingmaker, I needed Alvar to respond to a threat, I found I couldn’t do it without the word ‘try’, which is thirteenth-century ON. But "You can try. Mercia has never yet bent to the rule of a Dane, be he Viking or Churchman," was preferable to: "Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough." All OE-derived words, yes, but a little too modern-sounding!

Some other words just don't translate at all - for flower you'd have to use blossom but that's not really a singular noun, in so far as one couldn't pick a blossom. You can't have ceremony, or feast, or celebration. The OE word for such occasions is symbel, but it hasn’t survived in modern English.

We also need to consider that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t think in the same terms as we do. Interestingly, while eyes, chin, nose, brows and cheeks could all be used, I could find no OE word which equates to face (a word which traces its origins only to the thirteenth century) and to describe beauty in OE terms you’d have to talk of winsomeness.

Bearing in mind these differences in concepts, I tend to have my characters say naught because nothing meant something entirely different, akin to being an outcast, literally no thing. Dream is another word which conveyed a different concept, being more like a waking vision, or daydream, rather than something which visits only the sleeping mind.

It doesn’t do to be too strict with the language when discussing familial relationships, either. We can't have uncle, aunt or cousin, although we can have brother, sister, mother and father. Grandmother should really be greatmother, but it's clunky. In other family matters though, we can choose the OE forms, and have burials instead of funerals and weddings instead of marriages, which helps to build up the Anglo-Saxon 'voice'.

So, wherever there is a viable alternative to a modern/French-derived word, I’ll use it. Where it becomes nigh on impossible, though, is with the little, useful words. The following dialogue, from To Be A Queen, would have been difficult to write without using the conjunction because:

"So be it. But it is only because she is my sister that I bow to you."
   The sharp scything noise set his teeth on edge. Every Mercian in the room had his hand on his sword hilt, the blade hitched up to protrude from the scabbard. Alhelm stepped forward and fixed the piercing blue gaze on Edward once more. "No, my lord, it is only because she is your sister that we bow to you."

Could I have used an alternative? Sometimes, therefore will do instead, but not in all cases. I asked Jim Sinclair, OE specialist, for a suggestion, and he told me, “One possibility is for or that, as in 'But it is only for that she is my sister (Ac hit is ānlīce for þæm þe hēo is mīn sweostor.)’” While this might have been more authentic, I think it would have weakened the sound of the exchange between the characters.

Because is not the only ‘little’ word which is necessary to aid flow. Others are seem, appear, doubt, and grateful (which is very modern, originating in the sixteenth century).

In another line from Alvar, the titular character gets rather cross with Bishop Oswald and Alvar’s brother asks him if he is behaving himself. Alvar replies: 
 “I should have felled him where he stood. Rotting crow-body…” Alvar sat down and shoved his legs out straight in front of him. “I reminded him that he is not one of us, but I only spoke the truth.”

For authenticity, I’d have needed to find another word for reminded. But it’s not so easy. Perhaps, ‘I bade him hark back'? Hmm, I don’t think it works as well.  Try it yourself - and no, you can't have reconsider, or pointed out!

In the following passage from To Be A Queen, the words in bold are Edward’s thoughts. They are not OE, but they are short, conveying urgency:
Five or six more steps through a river suddenly flowing treacle brought him to the bubbles of wet cloth. Batting aside a floating shoe, he grabbed the centre of the sodden, sinking lumps. Waist deep only, merciful Jesus, but so many weeds. Come here girl. He flipped her over and lifted her clear of the dragging wetness. Legs planted, he centred his weight and brushed the hair from her face. She coughed and he allowed himself to breathe again.
Girl is 13th century, merciful is 12th century. Could I have used OE? Again, I asked Jim Sinclair who said, "Tricky. Girl would be maid or maiden which are somewhat archaic and so narrower in meaning, though would work quite nicely in OE. Merciful is virtually impossible; there are some wonderful words for mercy/merciful in OE which haven't [survived] and the closest I can get is mild-hearted, which I don't think really does it."

Later in the chapter:
"I am here to look after you while my father cannot. As one day I will look after Wessex as my father has not. You are my sister. What else is there to know about why I saved you from drowning?" 
I asked Jim how I could say this without using save or rescue. He told me, "There's no obvious candidate here that I can think of. Possibly something simpler like kept from (Why I kept you from drowning) but, again, it's not really the same." Furthermore, drowning is 13th c. Drenching is the closest we can get using OE, but it doesn't convey the same meaning.

In the following two short sentences, is there a pithy alternative to the bold words?

1. "Kings are only as strong as the men who surround them."  Jim’s response was, "In OE you would use the word ymb meaning about, so maybe "Kings are only as strong as the men about them," or " the men they keep about them."
2. "Sometimes it is but one man who makes the difference."  Jim told me, "There are few OE options that have survived, but maybe an alternative idiomatic expression might be 'to turn the tide' - "Sometimes it is but one man who can turn the tide?"

So, whilst we seem to have established that it's necessary to use later words to make the dialogue flow, there are some which can nevertheless be used to give a 'flavour' of the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking and talking. 

For example: 
"Hit one, and the other will bleed. Ceolwulf only wears the king-helm because Guthrum's Vikings hold it on his head."

Here, I feel that king-helm is better than crown, and king-seat would be a better alternative to throne. (Even today, modern German is full of compound nouns.) Weapon-man is better than warrior; fyrdsman better than soldier. To continue giving a sense of time and place, in describing a royal vill and its layout, I used fowler's hut instead of mews.

Still, as authors we can't be sticklers; I'm not sure we would want novels set in Chaucer's time, for example, to have dialogue in impenetrable Middle English. 

I find that I can now hear my characters speaking in a way which is nothing like Old English, but is also not too modern sounding and I hope I’ve found a happy medium. Ultimately, then, it has to be a tale (not a story!) of authenticity (14th via Old French) versus truth (OE).

And if you don't agree, then have a read of this book and see if you still want to use only OE words:

You can find all my books in hardback, paperback* and Kindle format HERE

* Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom is not yet available in paperback.

[a version of this article appeared on EHFA]