Sunday 29 April 2018

The Fates of the Sons of Ragnar

Publication day is fast approaching for my book, Dragon Lords, which explores a range of medieval legends about the Vikings in England. These legends - some well-known, others not at all - offer a kind of alternate history of the Vikings, as they were perceived by medieval English readers and story-tellers long after the end of the Viking Age. How did medieval writers imagine the Vikings intervening in English history, and where, and why? The answers to those questions are sometimes very surprising. I discovered all kinds of wonderful stories in the course of researching this book, and over the coming weeks and months I'll share a few of my favourites here...

Some of these legends were very popular in medieval England, and are widely recorded from across the country - for instance, the story of Havelok, a Danish king of England who (legend said) was brought up in poverty in Grimsby, is attested in a large number of sources and was generally accepted as historical fact. Other stories are recorded in detail, but only from one or two sources - so we know a version of the legend, but can't guess where else, or in what different forms, it might have been known. And then there are some which have to be reconstructed from scattered references and allusions, which attest to widespread interest in and tales told about particular Viking warriors, but don't give us anything like as detailed a story as we would wish to have.

In the last category, the most interesting example is the English legends about the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, one of the best-known Vikings in Old Norse literature - especially famous today, of course, because of Vikings. That show and most modern tellings of the story are based (roughly) on the detailed legends of Ragnar and his many famous sons - Ivar the Boneless, Ubbe, Bjorn Ironside, and all the rest - recorded in medieval Scandinavian sources, texts which mostly date from the twelfth century and later. The historical origins of Ragnar himself are very uncertain, but Ivar and Ubbe and some of the other sons were certainly real people (not necessarily all brothers, nor 'Ragnarssons' in the earliest sources), who invaded, raided, and ruled in Ireland, England and elsewhere during the second half of the ninth century. They made a huge impact at the time, and in later sources they were among the most celebrated warriors of the Viking Age - famous for their notorious cruelty and wickedness as well as for their successful conquests.

England, especially Northumbria, features prominently in the Scandinavian legends about Ragnar and his sons, because it was not only part of the Ragnarssons' area of rule but also the site of Ragnar's death. However, most of the stories you may know about Ragnar - how he got the name 'Lothbrok', his fights against serpents, his succession of warrior wives, his defiant last words as he lay dying in a snake-pit - are only recorded in the Scandinavian texts, and are not found at all in English sources. Medieval English writers do, however, record some different variations of the 'Lothbrok legend', and there are also stories attached to individual sons. It's clear from the surviving evidence that there's a connection between the Scandinavian traditions and the English ones, but we can't be sure exactly what that connection may be; since we're dealing with what was in origin almost certainly a collection of oral traditions, not written down until many years after they were first told, the surviving textual record doesn't necessarily help us to reconstruct where and when these stories developed. (Though there have been various theories!)

One key idea the traditions do have in common is that Ragnar - who is never actually called by that name in English sources, where he's only 'Lothbrok' - was killed, cruelly and perhaps unjustly, in England, and that his sons invaded England to avenge his death. In the book I look in detail at the different versions of this story, and explore what it seems to suggest about how medieval writers in eastern England - particularly East Anglia - interpreted Viking invasion rather differently from the standard view of most medieval historians.

Ivar and Ubbe invading England to avenge Lothbrok, from a 15th-century English manuscript (BL Harley 2278, f. 47v); 
note the names 'Lothbrok', 'Hyngwar' and 'Ubba' in the surrounding text

But just as interesting are the scattered references to the fates of Lothbrok's sons, which connect them with particular places in England in some surprising ways. One of my favourites comes from a brief note, written on the blank leaf of a twelfth-century manuscript of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica - a later writer adding a bit of 'extra history' of which Bede could never have dreamt! The manuscript now belongs to Pembroke College, Cambridge, but it was probably written at Tynemouth Priory, a monastery on the coast of Northumbria which was once a place of great royal connections. Several of the early kings of Northumbria were buried there, and one of the additional notes in the manuscript records information on that subject.

The ruins of Tynemouth Priory (Picture: JohnArmagh)

Other notes, however, deal with the sons of Lothbrok, in English and in Latin. In English we get a little bit of verse:

Yngvar and vbbe beorn wæs þe þridde
loþebrokes sunnes loþe weren criste

Which means 'Ivar and Ubbe, Beorn was the third, Lothbrok’s sons, hateful to Christ.'

That's all - if there was ever more, it's lost! In Norse legend Lothbrok has at least eight sons, sometimes more, but in English sources, as here, he usually has just two or three: most often Ivar and Ubbe, with or without the addition of Beorn (i.e. the equivalent of Bjorn Ironside). There's some alliterative wordplay in this verse on the name Lothbrok and the Middle English word loþe, which means 'hateful' or 'hostile' (both seem possible translations here). Old Norse sources have an elaborate story about the name Lothbrok which interpret it to mean loðbrók, 'shaggy breeches', and explain that Ragnar got that name because he wore woollen breeches coated with tar to defend himself from venom-breathing serpents. This may, however, be a post-hoc interpretation, and scholars have suggested other possible non-serpent-related etymologies for the name (which is not recorded until the late eleventh century, long after the lifetime of the historical Ragnar and his sons). But to medieval English ears, the loth bit must have seemed very appropriate for a Viking so famously loathsome, and this two-line verse is not the only place where the name is interpreted in that way.

In addition to this verse, the Tynemouth manuscript also offers a note in Latin which gives some information on the supposed fates of Ubbe and Beorn. Some English sources are fairly sympathetic towards the sons of Lothbrok, but not here - they are characterised as very wicked, hostile to Christianity, and richly deserving of the punishments which struck them down. Ubbe, we are told, caused terrible devastation and slew many Christians, and was then punished by being killed by God at a place called 'Ubbelawe' in Yorkshire. Ubbelawe is also mentioned by an earlier source (Gaimar's early twelfth-century Estoire des Engleis) which instead locates it in Devon, and says that Ubbelawe was actually the name of Ubbe's burial-mound - the name means Ubbe's hlæw, an Old English word for a burial-mound which is also preserved in names like Cwichelmeshlæw. Anglo-Saxon sources record that one of the brothers of Ivar was indeed killed in battle in Devon in 878; apparently later sources decided (or knew) that brother was Ubbe, and that Ubbelawe was the site of his burial. There have been attempts to identify Ubbelawe with a landmark near Appledore, on the Devon coast, which has now been lost to the sea, but which in the eighteenth century was known as Ubbaston or Whibblestan.

And meanwhile - the Tynemouth manuscript goes on - Beorn attacked a nunnery on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, and violated the nuns there. But he too was suddenly struck down by an act of God, swallowed up by the earth – horse and armour and all – as he was riding at Frindsbury, near Rochester. To this day, the note says, there is a deep fissure in the road at Frindsbury, twenty feet wide, where Beorn was engulfed by the earth, and the water at the bottom of it is always tinged red, as if with Viking blood. (Isn't that amazing!) It's not at all clear where this story might have come from, especially since Tynemouth is a long way from Rochester; in the Scandinavian sources, Bjorn Ironside retired from raiding to live happily ever after as a prosperous king of Sweden - but that's not so satisfying a moral...

So, that's what happened to Ubbe and Beorn. What of Ivar? Ivar's name usually appears in medieval English texts as Inguar or Hinguar, and this explains another story not unlike the one of Beorn, though recorded in a different source. This is a late fourteenth or early fifteenth century collection of texts from Hyde Abbey in Winchester, which says that it was Ubbe who was swallowed up by the earth with his horse while he was riding, and Ivar (Hinguar) was drowned while crossing a ford in Berkshire. The place where he died came to be named after him, Hyngarford – modern Hungerford.

A pretty and peaceful river in Hungerford today...

The name of Hungerford probably, alas, has nothing to do with Ivar; but we might link this supposed etymology to the fact that Hungerford is one of the places known to have celebrated the late-medieval festival of Hocktide, often explained at the time as a commemoration of victory over the Danes. These are both retrospective - and very late - explanations of existing names or customs which account for them by linking them to the Vikings, whom late-medieval writers knew had indeed fought battles in this area of Wessex. Since there were few things medieval writers liked more than speculating about etymology, especially names, it's not surprising that some bright spark spotted a link between Hungerford and Ivar. What's important about these details is not whether they tell us anything about the real Ivar, Ubbe and Beorn - almost certainly not, though you never know! - but what they suggest later medieval writers found interesting about them. Here, it's explaining local names or landscape features by connecting them to famous Vikings, whose names clearly meant something to a contemporary English audience, even without the elaborate legends which were attached to them in Scandinavia.

In recent years, archaeologists have been exploring the possibility that one of the men among the Viking army buried at Repton in Derbyshire may in fact be Ivar the Boneless himself. That's a fascinating idea, and Ivar's death and grave were apparently of as much interest to medieval historians as they are to modern archaeologists, since we have not only this reference to Hungerford but also, more importantly, the Old Norse legend about 'Ivar's howe'. This is the story of Ivar's burial-mound on the coast of Cleveland in Yorkshire, from where the spirit of this fiercest of Vikings posthumously guarded the English coast against invasion. Until, that is, William the Conqueror got wise to this, and went north to burn his bones and break the spell...

Sunday 15 April 2018


The spring has come late this year, but it has come at last. As I was admiring some newly-sprung blossom yesterday (that's it in the picture above), I was reminded of a phrase which comes up again and again in medieval English romance, generally used to praise the beauty of a woman, a particularly handsome young man, or a child: 'bright as blossom on briar'.

This (and variants thereof) is a common simile in Middle English poetry - one of those phrases which is so widespread as to be almost a cliche, and when you've read it enough times you stop noticing it. These kinds of stock phrases are very prevalent in some types of Middle English verse, and later editors have typically been rather hard on them (one editor says contemptuously of this one 'what could be more banal?'); modern critics prefer poets to come up with their own similes, and admire originality over a well-worn phrase. But medieval poets and their readers thought differently. Such phrases - often alliterative, as this one is - are part of a poetic style still very much influenced by the culture of oral poetry, with its time-honed formulae; they're both beautifully adaptable and (like many cliches) popular because they're recognisable and true. Two of my favourites are 'as fain as a fowl on a fair morning' ('as happy as a bird on a bright morning'), and the simile often used in carols to describe the conception of Christ, 'as sun that shineth through the glass...' These may have been cliches in the fourteenth century, but they're fresh to us.

And calling a person 'bright as blossom on briar' is really lovely. 'Bright' seems at first like a throwaway word (it's an all-purpose term of praise in Middle English) but it's perfectly appropriate for blossom: blossom is 'bright' not only because it's often vividly white - or pink-and-white! - but also because it connotes the joy of spring, the brightness of the season of returning warmth and sunshine. And perhaps there's something too about the surprise, magic-trick effect of blossom - one day not there, the next day suddenly sprung, transforming an ordinary tree or a shady lane into a scene from fairyland. The kind of beauty suggested by this phrase is fresh, full of vitality and new life - the beauty of youth and the young.

Anyway, it made me think about blossom. Blossom can be found just about everywhere in certain genres of medieval poetry, and I thought I'd collect a few examples together in this post. Blossom is one of those words which has changed very little in form or meaning from Old English, where it's blostma; in Old English it seems to refer to a broader range of flowers than it does now, since any flower could be called blostma - not just the flowers of fruit-bearing trees - but in practice blossom is often used in that extended sense today as well. The OED insists that one ought to distinguish between blossom and bloom (because, you see, blossom 'is more commonly florescence bearing promise of fruit, while ‘bloom’ is florescence thought of as the culminating beauty of the plant. Cherry trees are said to be in blossom, hyacinths in bloom.'). But I suspect many people aren't particularly alert to that distinction, and in any case poets do not always hold themselves bound by rules of botanical accuracy...

Metaphorically speaking, this blogpost is a kind of blossom itself, because the word can also be used to refer to a collection of texts, what we call an anthology. The etymology of the Greek word anthology is 'a gathering of flowers' (as with its Latin equivalent, florilegium), and this metaphor can be found in English too: the Old English version of Augustine's Soliloquies, one of the books translated as part of the education programme instigated by Alfred the Great, refers to its text as blostma and seo gadorung þære blostmena - a gathering of 'blossoms' gleaned from Augustine's thoughts. The image fits with the translator's famous metaphor in his preface, where he says that the act of translating a text is like going to the woods to collect timber, gathering materials for building and coming back laden with branches, yet still seeing 'in every tree' something you need and more than you can carry home. (And so, he says, every reader of a translation ought to go to the woods themselves, and gather materials to build a house of books where they can dwell in peace. With the extracts below, I've given links to the full texts so that you can do this for yourself.)

Let's start with two brief but favourite Anglo-Saxon examples. First, of course, The Seafarer:

Bearwas blostmum nimað, byrig fægriað,
wongas wlitigað, woruld onetteð;
ealle þa gemoniað modes fusne
sefan to siþe, þam þe swa þenceð
on flodwegas feor gewitan.

The woods take on blossoms, towns become fair,
fields grow beautiful, the world hastens on;
all these things urge on the eager mind,
the spirit to the journey, in one who thinks to travel
far on the paths of the sea.

In Old English poetry blossom, alliteratively, blowað ('blooms'); so in the Menologium, in May:

sigelbeorhte dagas sumor to tune,
wearme gewyderu. Þænne wangas hraðe
blostmum blowað, swylce blis astihð
geond middangeard manigra hada
cwicera cynna, cyninge lof secgað
mænifealdlice, mærne bremað

sun-bright days bring summer to town,
with warm weather. Then the meadows
quickly bloom with blossom, and bliss mounts up
throughout the earth among many kinds
of living creatures, who in manifold ways
speak the praise of the King, extol the glory
of the Almighty.

Those 'manifold' voices suggest, I think, the chatter of birdsong - almost incessant at this time of year, when the sun is shining! The alliterative link between blossom and bliss, seen in the third line here, continued to be a very popular one in English poetry (until bliss started to shift its meaning a little). Just as May is always 'merry', so 'blossom' and 'bliss' go together...

The following little extracts all come from Middle English poems (from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries) which celebrate the spring, and its connections with love and fertility - human love is one with all the associated sounds and signs in the natural world.

Lenten ys come with love to toune,
With blosmen and with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth;
Dayesezes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales;
Uch foul song singeth.
The threstelcoc him threteth oo;
Away is huere wynter woo,
When woderove springeth.
This foules singeth ferly fele,
And wlyteth on huere wynter wele,
That al the wode ryngeth.

Spring is come with love to town,
With blossom and with birds' song,
Which brings all this bliss.
Daisies in the dales,
Sweet notes of nightingales;
Every bird sings a song.
The threstlecock is chiding,
All their winter woe is gone
When the woodruff springs.
These birds sing in great numbers,
And chirp about their wealth of joys,
So that all the wood rings.

(read more)

Ac ich alle blisse mid me bringe:
ech wiȝt is glad for mine þinge,
& blisseþ hit wanne ich cume,
& hiȝteþ aȝen mine kume.

Þe blostme ginneþ springe & sprede,
boþe ine tro & ek on mede.
Þe lilie mid hire faire wlite
wolcumeþ me, þat þu hit wite,
bit me mid hire faire blo
þat ich shulle to hire flo.
Þe rose also mid hire rude,
þat cumeþ ut of þe þorne wode,
bit me þat ich shulle singe
vor hire luue one skentinge.

But I all brightness with me bring:
Each creature's glad at my coming!
They all rejoice when I arrive,
And at my coming all are blithe.
The blossom starts to spring and spread,
Both in the tree and on the mead.
The lily, white and fair as snow,
Welcomes me, as you well know;
And beckons with her pretty eye,
To say that I must to her fly;
The rose, with her complexion red,
Growing from the thorny hedge,
Bids me that I must sing,
For her love, one little thing.

(The speaker/singer is a nightingale; read more here)

In May hit murgeþ when hit dawes:
In dounes wiþ þis dueres plawes,
Ant lef is lyht on lynde;
Blesmes bredeþ on þe bowes,
Al þis wylde wyhtes wowes
So wel ych vnderfynde.

Y not non so freoli flour
Ase ledies þat beþ bryht in bour,
Wiþ loue who mihte hem bynde.

In May it's merry when it dawns;
On the downs the animals play,
And leaf is light on linden-tree;
Blossom burgeons on the boughs;
All the wild creatures woo,
As I well perceive.
I know of no flower so fair
As ladies who are bright in their bowers,
If they may be bound with love.

(read more)

When the nyhtegale singes,
The wodes waxen grene,
Lef ant gras ant blosme springes
In Averyl, Y wene;
Ant love is to myn herte gon
With one spere so kene,
Nyht ant day my blod hit drynkes
Myn herte deth me tene.

When the nightingale sings
The woods grow green,
Leaf and grass and blossom spring
In April, I believe.
And love is to my heart gone
With a spear so keen,
Night and day my blood it drinks
My heart causes me pain.

(read more)

Then there's the lovely snippet from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where a sprinkle of spring rain suddenly brings forth a burst of blossom:

After Crystenmasse com þe crabbed lentoun,
Þat fraystez flesch wyth þe fysche and fode more symple;
Bot þenne þe weder of þe worlde wyth wynter hit þrepez,
Colde clengez adoun, cloudez vplyften,
Schyre schedez þe rayn in schowrez ful warme,
Fallez vpon fayre flat, flowrez þere schewen,
Boþe groundez and þe greuez grene ar her wedez,
Bryddez busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of þe softe somer þat sues þerafter
bi bonk;
And blossumez bolne to blowe
Bi rawez rych and ronk,
Þen notez noble innoȝe
Ar herde in wod so wlonk.

After Christmas comes the crabbed Lent,
Which tests the flesh with fish and simpler food;
But then the weather of the world wages war against winter,
Cold clears away, clouds lift,
Brightly sheds the rain in warm showers
And falls upon fair fields, where flowers appear.
Both the ground and the groves put on green garments;
Birds begin to build, and brightly sing
For delight in the soft summer coming thereafter
To the banks;
And blossoms burgeon into bloom
In rows rich and abundant;
Then notes noble indeed
Are heard in the woods so wild.

For many medieval poets, trees and their springtime flowers also suggested another blossom upon another tree: Christ on the cross. The idea of the cross as a real tree, with roots and leaves and branches and blossoms, was much more prevalent in medieval poetry than it is today, and Christ is often described as its 'blossom' or its 'fruit'. He is a blossom both at the beginning and the end of his life, since he is also the blossom which flowers (through Mary) from the root of Jesse, as this fifteenth-century carol says:

There is a flower sprung of a tree,
The root thereof is called Jesse,
A flower of price;
There is none such in paradise.

This flower is fair and fresh of hue;
It fades never, but ever is new;
The blessed branch where this flower grew
Was Mary mild who bore Jesu,
A flower of grace!
Against all sorrow it is solace.

The seed thereof was of God's sending,
Which God himself sowed with his hand;
In Bethlehem, in that holy land,
Within her bower he there her found.
This blessed flower
Sprang never but in Mary's bower.

When Gabriel this maiden met,
With "Ave, Maria," he her gret [greeted]
Between them two this flower was set,
And was kept, no man should wit, [know]
Til on a day
In Bethlehem, it began to spread and spray.

When that flower began to spread,
And his blossom to bud,
Rich and poor of every seed, [i.e. kind]
They marvelled how this flower might spread,
Until kings three
That blessed flower came to see.

A thirteenth-century Life of St Margaret addresses Christ as brihtest bleo of alle þet eauer weren iborene, blostme iblowen & iboren of meidenes bosum, 'brightest one of all who have ever been born, blossom bloomed and born of a maiden's bosom...' This brings us back to those romance descriptions of a pretty child as 'bright as blossom on briar'; a child, a little sprig of new life from the family tree, is particularly blossom-like.

But Christ is a blossom too upon the cross - an image less familiar to us, and perhaps strange to modern ears. In medieval writing the image of cross-as-tree is almost ubiquitous, perhaps most famous from the 'Crux fidelis':

Crux fidelis, inter omnes arbor una nobilis:
nulla silva talem profert,
fronde, flore, germine.
Dulce lignum, dulces clavos,
dulce pondus sustinet.

Faithful cross, above all other,
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be:
sweet the wood, and sweet the iron,
and thy load, most sweet is he.

Or in a Middle English translation:

Steddefast Crosse, inmong alle other,
Thou art a tree mikel of prise;
In brawnche and flore swilk another
I ne wot non in wood no ris.
Swete be the nalis, and swete be the tree,
And sweter be the birdin that hangis upon thee.

This tallies with medieval iconography of the Crucifixion, where the cross is so often depicted as a real tree, or even some other kind of plant - like the images of Christ crucified upon a lily which are found in late-medieval art. When poetry of spring and love and blossom and birdsong was so very popular, it's no surprise that these two branches should become entwined, and the love-poetry of blossoming spring should become the love-poetry of Eastertide:

When I se blosmes springe,
And here foules song,
A suete love-longynge
Myn herte thourhout stong,
Al for a love newe
That is so suete and trewe,
That gladieth al my song.
Ich wot al myd iwisse
My joie and eke my blisse
On him is al ylong.

Of Jesu Crist hi synge,
That is so fayr and fre,
Swetest of alle thynge;
His othwe hic oghe wel boe.
Wl fer he me sothte,
Myd hard he me bothte,
Wyth wnde to and three;
Wel sore he was yswnge,
And for me myd spere ystunge,
Ynayled to the tree.

When I see blossoms spring,
And hear the birds' song,
A sweet love-longing
Entirely pierces my heart,
All for a love new
That is so sweet and true,
That gladdens all my song:
I know in truth, iwis,
My joy and all my bliss
On him is all ylong. [is all because of him]

Of Jesu Christ I sing,
Who is so fair and free, [noble]
Sweetest of all thing;
His own ought I well to be.
So far for me he sought,
With suffering he me bought,
With wounds two and three;
Well sore he was swung,
And for me with spear was stung,
Nailed to the tree.

(read more)

Here the springtime blossom recalls to the speaker that other 'tree', with its sweet burden and the 'bliss' its blossom bought. It's a beautiful image but also a paradoxical one: of death and life, joy and sorrow, the most natural of images but also a terrible distortion of the beauty of nature - because a criminal hanging on a tree is a dying man, the furthest thing possible from a springing blossom. 'Allas!' cries Mary, in the York Crucifixion play, as she stands before her son hanging on the Cross, 'that this blossome so bright / Untrewly is tugged to this tree!' Here the conventional image of Christ as blossom becomes powerfully disturbing: tugged means 'attached' - a profoundly unnatural image, blossom 'stuck' to a tree it did not grow from - and its connotations of rough handling fit so painfully with the delicacy and fragility of a blossom.

Christ crucified on a blossoming tree (from St Mary's, Iffley)

But medieval poets loved paradox, especially when it came to Christ's body. Our last example of blossom comes from a devotional prayer intended to be said by a layperson, privately, during Mass at the moment when the Host was lifted up by the priest:

Welcome, Lord, in form of bread!
In thee is both life and death,
Jesus is thy name...

Hail man of most might,
God's Son that art so bright,
Of Mary thou were born.

Hail God, blest thee be,
Hail blossom upon tree,
Heried be thy wonde! (praised be thy wounds)
Hail fruit, hail flower,
Hail be thou, Saviour
Of water and of land.

'Blossom' is just one of numerous images in this poem applied to Christ's body in the Eucharist, but here it's appropriate in several ways. This kind of devotional poetry on the Eucharist likes to dwell on its paradoxes, as a thing which, as another poem has it, 'seems white but is red' and 'is quick though seems dead' (i.e. a living thing, though it doesn't look like it). Blossom too is white but full of life, with the vitality of the youthful beauty of those characters of romance with which we began, who are 'bright as blossom on briar'. Conventional image it might be, but it does something beautiful here. The poem, with its short rhyming lines, is intended to be memorable - perhaps once read, it's meant to spring unbidden to the reader's mind as they lift their eyes to gaze upon the round white petal of the Host. And in reverse: to prompt their eyes, when they look upon blossom, to see the body of Christ.