Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Reaching Across the Centuries

The Anglo-Saxons are remote. They were folk who left comparatively little behind, certainly in terms of where they lived and how they dressed. Scraps, fragments, post-holes; sometimes a massive hoard of jewellery and weapon adornments, but even these finds leave more questions than answers.

They remain behind a line, drawn across history by the Norman Conquest. They stayed in pre-1066 England, with their unpronounceable names, and their wooden halls buried beneath the stone-built Norman keeps.

So how do we find them, get to know them? Well, through the written evidence: the chronicles, charters, law codes, saints' lives and other documents, such as the Regularis Concordia, drawn up as a sort of template for monastic life.

We even learn a little about the chroniclers themselves. William of Malmesbury, writing in the eleventh century, fretted that his readers would find him boring, and complained about the English climate:
It has also been a terrible year for weather. Every month has had thunder and lightning. It has rained almost every day without stopping. Even the summer months were wet and muddy. (Gesta Pontificum Anglorum)
William continues with a partisan appraisal of the good folks of the UK, when he states that the speech of the Northumbrians grates harshly upon the ear of southerners, and that the reason the northerners are unintelligible is because of their proximity to barbaric tribes.

William tells us about the career of seventh-century Bishop, later Saint, Wilfrid, and adds colour to his story by telling us that when he was fourteen,
he left his father's home out of hate for his haughty stepmother, his own mother having died (Gesta Pontificum Anglorum)
In amongst the details of the careers of bishops and saints, dealings with the Church and with the pope, it is interesting to find nuggets such as this one, which could be speaking of any boy, at any time of history. The dynamics of step-families always have the potential for conflict.

The will of Wulfric Spott, a wealthy thegn who died probably sometime between 1002 and 1004, is a significant document. It gives scholars information about the extent to which wealthy men held land and it provides insights into the loyalties of the great families during the reigns of Æthelred the Unready and Cnut, but there is also a poignant detail, in the inclusion of one simple word. 

Wulfric's will lays out various bequests, but he leaves estates at Elford and Oakley to his poor daughter * and asks that his brother be protector of her and of the land. We can only surmise that his daughter was either unmarried, or a widow, but the inclusion of that simple word brings this family off the pages of history and makes it easy to relate to them.

There may be unfamiliar terms in this document - gold mancuses, for example - and obscure place-names such as Snodeswic and Waddune, but there is also the simple yearning for a father to ensure his daughter's well-being and security in the event of his death.

Charter confirming Wulfric's foundation of Burton Abbey

The compilers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sometimes leave us scratching our heads when contemplating the choices they made about what to put in the annals, and what to leave out. They don't tell us who won the battle of Otford in the year 776, for example, but they do tell us that in that same year, marvellous adders were seen in Sussex.

They tell us very little about Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians ** but we do know that when she retook Derby from the Danes, she lost four of her thegns who were dear to her.

There may be significance in the word used here: besorge. Besorge is not a common word and it carries connotations of anxiety as well as love. It has been argued that its use, instead of the more usual leof, may have been specifically to denote a woman's care and authority (Thompson - Death and Dying in Later Anglo-Saxon England.)  Warrior leader she may have been, but this suggestion adds a depth of emotion that allows us to glimpse the woman.

Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

Roger of Wendover, writing in the thirteenth century, tells a story of St Swithun in 862. As Roger says, this holy man, bishop of Winchester, had many miraculous powers but Roger says he was equally eminent for his compassion and humility, demonstrated in this incident where he feels sorry for an egg-seller whose eggs had all been broken. Making the sign of the cross, the bishop effected a miraculous repair of the eggs. 

But this story appeals to me because it speaks down the ages of a scene that seems universal. For the beginning of the tale says that the reason the eggs were broken was because workmen, with saucy insolence, flocked around her and broke every egg. The episode doesn't seem so very far removed from the modern equivalent, that of 'wolf-whistling'.

Roger is scathing of these men, and no doubt we would expect nothing else from a monk. Monks were serious, pious people, weren't they?

The Regularis Concordia could be described as a handbook for monastic life, and yes, there is much in it concerning prayer and contemplation, when the brethren should put on their day shoes, and when they should read. 

But arrangements for their physical comfort are not overlooked, and in winter, 
when the storms are harsh and bitter, a suitable room shall be set aside for the brethren wherein, by the fireside, they may take refuge from the cold and bad weather.
Not quite a Health and Safety in the Workplace manual, but it is a consideration as welcome today as it would have been then.

Though there would surely be no fear of death, even so, the brothers are enjoined to visit their sick brethren and to be solicitous in rendering aid to [the sick man.]

Caring, cared for, and perhaps sometimes just a little bit like the rest of us:
The auditorium is excepted from the rule of silence; indeed, it is called by that name chiefly because it is there that whatever is commanded by the master be heard; neither is it right that tales of gossip should go on there or anywhere else.
A letter tucked away at the back of a huge collection of documents is of interest to historians because it ignores the fact that Cnut was king of England at the time of writing, and addresses him only as most noble king of Denmark. But what I like most about this letter is the tone, which seeks to damn with faint praise. I imagine Fulbert, bishop of Chartres, wondering if he should have it reworded, or whether he could get away with it. He starts off by acknowledging receipt, but not giving thanks for, the gift conferred by Cnut and says he was amazed at Cnut's wisdom and piety:
wisdom, indeed, that you, a man ignorant of our language... piety, truly, when we perceive that you, whom I had heard to be a ruler of pagans... (EHD Vol I 233)
Hardly an unqualified endorsement of Cnut's qualities!


Even in Asser's Life of King Alfred, so invaluable to historians studying the period, there are details so mundane one wonders why he included them. But I am so very grateful that he did, for such details paint a picture of two recognisable figures, simply filled with enthusiasm for the project at hand. And no, it's not war, or royal alliances, but the copying out of a passage of Holy Scripture.
When he urged me to copy the passage as quickly as possible, I said to him: "Would it meet with your approval if I were to copy out the passage separately on another sheet of parchment? For we don't know whether we might at some point find one or more similar passages which you would like; and if this were to happen unexpectedly, we'd be glad to have kept it separate." (Asser Ch 88)

Yes, these people lived many centuries ago, and much of what they built and wrote was destroyed, either by 'Vikings' or Normans. Much of what is left was written with religious motive, and whilst useful to the historian, is peppered with miracles, and discoveries of un-corrupted saintly bodies, but search around, and there are also many glimpses or ordinary people, doing very ordinary things. 

* I'm grateful to Christopher Monk for his insights into the translation here
** The 'Mercian Register' being the exception

Recent Posts: ~
The 'Evil' Women of Mercia
The Battle Site of 'Heavenfield'
Anglo-Saxon Childhood


  1. I like what you're doing here, Annie. I too love to tease out the mundane from Anglo-Saxon texts. I think a similar thing can be done with Anglo-Saxon art. I think the important thing is to use our imagination as a tool of enquiry. I think you're well placed as both historian and novelist to do this. Look forward to reading your book for Amberley when it's published.

    1. Thanks - I do like to try to get a picture of what these people were like, and why they did what they did and yes, that's probably the driving force behind my fiction. Am struggling to get a 'handle' on a couple of characters for the Amberley book, but I'm hoping that will change!

  2. Fabulous post Annie. I think Christopher is right, being a historian who is also a novelist makes a lot of difference to how you approach certain aspects of history. Loved reading this, its a great insight into the fact that although the mindset is different, nothing really changes

    1. Thanks Paula :-) Weird, isn't it, that by fictionalising some of these characters we make them more real? But sometimes it's not necessary to do that; the chroniclers do it for us!