Friday, 18 October 2019

An Alternative History of England

Cnut fights Edmund Ironside in a 13th-century manuscript CCCC MS. 26, f.80v

October is the season of conquest anniversaries. Four days after the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings falls a less well-known date: on 18 October 1016, a Danish army led by Cnut defeated the English king Edmund Ironside in battle at a place called Assandun in Essex, the last battle in Cnut's conquest of England. I wrote about that battle in detail, and the sources for our information about it, in this post from 2016, and about a visit to the area here. Like Hastings, Assandun was a battle which won a kingdom; but unlike at Hastings, the leader of the losing army was not killed, and so the aftermath was more complicated. It resulted in a treaty which divided England into two parts: Wessex for Edmund, and what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls the norðdæle, 'the northern part', for Cnut.

This division of the kingdom between north and south reflected a regional split in England which by that time already went back more than a hundred years. Parts of northern England had been settled by Scandinavians and under Scandinavian rule at various times since the ninth century, and their culture, language and perhaps political affiliations were still significantly influenced by this settlement. When Cnut's father Svein Forkbead launched a serious invasion in 1013, he seems to have felt able to count on political support from at least some among the leaders of the north for Danish rule, and he and Cnut treated the north differently from Wessex during their invasions. The division of the kingdom proposed in 1016 thus reflected a pre-existing cultural divide, of which the legacy can still be seen with extraordinary clarity today in the place-names and dialect of northern and eastern England.

The exact regions which are meant to be encompassed by the term norðdæle in the 1016 division are not entirely clear, but it probably means Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia - a huge area, stretching from the south Midlands to north Northumberland, and geographically speaking, much more than half of England. (norðdæle is the term used in ASC D; other versions of the Chronicle just mention Wessex for Edmund and Mercia for Cnut, leaving unsaid what happened to the rest of the country, but perhaps implying Cnut's control of those areas further north was already established.) Although over the course of the tenth century the kings of Wessex, Edmund Ironside's ancestors, had extended their power over the rest of the formerly independent kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, some of these areas had also been ruled by Cnut's predecessors among the kings of the Danes. By 1016 both Cnut and Edmund could claim that not only had both their fathers, Svein and Æthelred, ruled the whole kingdom of England (though in Svein's case only very briefly) but that both had ancestors who had ruled regions of the country. It would be wrong to imply that everyone in this vast norðdæle thought of themselves as culturally Scandinavian or 'Danish', or that even if they did it would necessarily have translated into political support for a Danish king; but they may not all have thought of themselves as 'English', either. Regional identities, such as 'Northumbrian', may have mattered as much or more. The point is that we are dealing with a large area and a mixed population, whose perspectives and identities would have varied considerably, and whom it is difficult to label. The chronicler's use of norðdæle seems to imply a division between Wessex vs. 'everything else', but that 'everything' included a great variety.

As it turned out, the division between Wessex and the rest of England lasted only a few weeks. Edmund died on 30 November that same year, and left Cnut as king of the whole country, which he then ruled (with Denmark, and eventually Norway too) until his death in 1035. But let's pause a little in that brief period when England was split between the two kings. It's an opportunity to think about how the movements of history which can, with hindsight, appear irresistible are actually far from being so. If Edmund had lived, and the division of the country had lasted, perhaps there would never again have been a single kingdom of England. It's a reminder that political unions which may seem to us inevitable and eternal can, in fact, fracture very rapidly.

The distribution of Scandinavian-influenced place-names in England, from this site

Since I've already written quite a bit here about Assandun, I want today to share another edited extract from my book which offers an unusual perspective on the roots of Cnut's conquest and its place in English history. What I wanted to explore in the book was how medieval writers and audiences in England, between the end of the Viking Age and the fifteenth century, understood and interpreted the history of Viking activity in this country - activity which includes not just raiding, but also this history of substantial Scandinavian settlement and periods of rule by Scandinavian kings. To understand this question, it's important to realise that our modern academic knowledge of the Viking Age, as well as the idea of 'the Vikings' which is so prevalent in popular culture, both first emerged centuries after the end of the medieval period. Almost everything you think of when you think 'Viking' comes from the 19th- and 20th-century rediscovery of medieval sources of information which were not available in medieval England, whether that's the huge amount of written sources from Scandinavia and Iceland - not accessible to English-speakers in any real quantity before the 19th century - or other sources of information unavailable to medieval historians, such as archaeology, the scientific study of place-names, linguistics, and much more. The very word 'Viking', while frequently found in Old Norse sources, was not a word used in medieval England; it was introduced into English in the 19th century, as a result of English-speakers beginning to have access to - and fall in love with! - Old Norse sagas. (There was an Old English cognate, wicing, but it doesn't have exactly the same meaning, did not survive into Middle English, and is not the origin of the Modern English word.) Instead of 'Vikings', medieval English writers tend to talk of 'the Danes' instead, which is of course a massive oversimplification given what we know about the complex and fluid make-up of the Vikings, and yet reveals something about how English writers saw them. It makes a difference that 'Danes' relates to a specific country, and one geographically close to England.

So how did England's early medieval history look if you didn't have the vast majority of the sources of information which have fed our modern understanding of 'the Vikings' - if you had never read a saga, or seen a reconstructed Viking ship or a map of the Danelaw? There are quite a lot of answers to that question, depending on the perspective, time and (especially) place from which medieval writers look back on the Viking past.

A map of Scandinavian-influenced place-names in Lincoln Museum.
One reason local history museums are so important...

In the British Library's superb 'Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms' exhibition last year, which gathered together such a glorious wealth of material from early medieval England, the one thing I came away reflecting on with some regret was the absence of discussion of what happened to the north and east of England under Viking rule. The course of Anglo-Saxon history wended its way from Kent up to Bede's Northumbria down to Mercia and Wessex, but once we reached Alfred the Great and his successors, the centre of attention was firmly in the south, and stayed there. The Vikings were seen doing their 'Viking' thing, burning monasteries and looting the Codex Aureus, but they were certainly marginal to the main story; as soon as they appeared, the focus moved south. There was, as far as I spotted, only one brief reference to the Viking kingdom of York, and only in the context of Athelstan claiming control of it; none of its kings were named, and there was nothing to suggest the importance of this kingdom which extended across the Irish Sea to Dublin. It inherently reflects a particular perspective on 'English' history to treat Athelstan as a major figure and not even give Sitric a name. There was also no mention of the many forms of evidence for the lasting impact of Scandinavian settlement in the north, and no reference to Old Norse as a spoken language in England or its significant influence on the present-day English language. Of course I wanted to see those things in part because they're my special interest, but I'm also conscious that treating that aspect of Anglo-Saxon history as marginal means overlooking an important part of the story of northern England and its particular relationships with neighbouring peoples in Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavia (and again, we're talking about what is geographically at least half of England - not just Northumbria, but the East Midlands and East Anglia too.) This is more an observation than a criticism of the exhibition; it was so very good, and no exhibition can include everything. You might well object that the Viking rulers of Northumbria or East Anglia weren't technically 'Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms', which I suppose is true. But perhaps it's also part of the problem. Both 'Anglo-Saxon' and 'English' are terms which in this period have political force, and reflect a certain perspective on what 'England' is and what it should be. 'Anglo-Saxon England' is more an idea than a place, an idea formulated in the first instance by elites in particular times and places who wanted to bring it into being, and as historians have long been aware, it's an idea which (like 'the Vikings') doesn't always map onto how these peoples saw their own identity. So does it include the Scandinavian settlers and their descendants and those who lived alongside them? Well, that's the question. It does and it doesn't; depends who you ask. The 'Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms' way of telling the story of early medieval English history is certainly a well-established and familiar one; it already was by the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, because it's the story as seen from the perspective of the people who by that time were doing most of the history-writing. But it was not inevitable that it should be so; it was not inevitable that 'the history of the kings of Wessex' should merge seamlessly into 'the history of England'. If we look closely at the sources we can find alternative histories, different ways of telling the story, where other people and other places are not marginal but central to the imagined narrative of English history.


Here's one alternative history of early medieval England which comes from 12th-century Lincolnshire. It's predicated on the idea that the Danes, far from being late-comers to England - invaders and raiders and enemies of the English - were actually there first, and had a presence in at least parts of the country long before the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. (Though modern historians now question the traditional idea of the adventus Anglorum, 'the coming of the English/Angles', most medieval historians accepted it as established fact, so just go with it...)

This story is recorded by a writer named Geffrei Gaimar in his Estoire des Engleis, written in c.1136-7. The Estoire tells the story of the 'history of the English', in sprightly Anglo-Norman verse, all the way from the coming of the Saxons to the death of William Rufus in 1100. Gaimar wrote for a female patron, a woman named Constance Fitz Gilbert, a member of a well-connected aristocratic family in Lincolnshire. The Estoire is, therefore, intended primarily for a secular, aristocratic, French-speaking audience, which makes its version of Anglo-Danish history all the more interesting. Gaimar presents a narrative of English and British history freely drawn not only from his two main sources, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but also from romance and oral tradition which he probably encountered in Lincolnshire. It's a potent blend of history and legend, with just enough of each to keep things lively.

Gaimar tells stories about a number of semi-legendary Danish kings who supposedly ruled in England as long ago as the days of King Arthur, which here means some time in the fifth century - kings whose historical basis is not clear, though some of them do appear in other sources. The powerbase of these Danish kings is in Lincolnshire and East Anglia, but they also rule lands in Denmark itself. They're at war with Arthur and his descendants, and then when the Saxons come they're at war with them too. First there's King Adelbriht, who starts off as king of Norfolk, but then extends his rule down as far as Colchester in Essex. (Adelbriht would generally be an English name, but he's explicitly said to be Danish). His royal capital seems to be Thetford, since that's where he is when he dies, and he's buried in Colchester. His daughter Argentille marries Haveloc, the son of another Danish king named Gunter; Haveloc has been orphaned as a child and brought up in Grimsby, but there's a long story about how he rediscovers his true identity and becomes a successful king. (It's an alternative version of the Havelok legend which I've written about elsewhere and discuss at length in the book; and see also this post by Caitlin Green on Gaimar's Haveloc and Lincolnshire history) The story of Haveloc and Argentille ends with them ruling a Danish kingdom which stretches from Colchester up to the Humber, and apparently includes at least part of Denmark too.

And by this point in the story it's still only 495! It's only now that the Saxons begin to turn up in (what was to become) England. Later we meet Wasing - whose name might have something to do with Walsingham - a Danish king of Norfolk who goes to war with the Saxons of Wessex. And so when some Danish ships arrive on the coast of Dorset in 789, an incident recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which later historians often took to be the 'beginning of the Viking Age', it's not really the beginning at all:

E en cel tens vindrent Daneis
pur guereier sur les Engleis:
un senesçal al rei oscistrent,
la terre saisirent e pristrent,
mult firent mal par les contrees,
si nen u[re]nt ke treis navees.
Puis realerent en lur païs
si asemblerent lur amis;
en Bretaigne voldrent venir,
as Engleis la voldrent tolir
car entr’els eurent esgardé
e dit ke ço est lur herité,
e mulz homes de lur linage,
urent le regne en heritage
ainceis kë Engleis i entrast
ne home de Sessoigne i habitast:
li reis Danes tint le regnez,
ki de Denemarch[e] fu nez:
si fist Ailbrith e Haveloc,
e plus en nomerent ovoc,
purquai il distrent pur verité,
Bretaigne ert lur dreit herité.
(2065–86)

It was during this time that the Danes arrived to wage war on the English. They killed a certain royal steward, seized and secured the land and, despite their only having three ships, caused a great deal of damage throughout the region. They then returned home and enlisted their allies with the intention of coming to Britain to seize the island from the English, for they had reached the decision between them, and claimed that this country was part of their heritage, and that many of their ancestors had established an inheritance claim before any English had even arrived or before anyone from Saxony came to live there. King Dan, who was born in Denmark, had ruled over the kingdom, as had Adelbriht and Haveloc, and they named others in addition who had done so. It was on this basis that they claimed it to be true that Britain was their rightful inheritance.
Geffrei Gaimar, Estoire des Engleis: History of the English, ed. Ian Short (Oxford, 2009), pp. 114-15.

According to this story, Viking attacks on England aren't opportunistic raids of plunder but a coordinated attempt at national expansion. The Danes are would-be conquerors who target England - and actually the whole of Britain - specifically because their ancestors had once ruled there, not only Adelbriht and Havelok, as described above, but also this mysterious 'King Dan'. King Dan does not appear in any other sources from England, but there are several references in Scandinavian historical writing to a king named Dan, progenitor of the Danes. The Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus begins the first book of the Gesta Danorum by naming the brothers Dan and Angul as the originators of the Danish and English nations, respectively. According to Saxo, this Dan was the grandfather of Sciold/Scyld, from whom the Scyldings were descended (the Scyldings are the Danes in Beowulf, Hrothgar et al, and Cnut seems to have considered himself a Scylding too). Dan is also found in some other Scandinavian sources: a King Dan is mentioned in the twelfth-century Chronicon Lethrense as a king who ruled Denmark in the time of the Emperor Augustus and gave his name to the Danes, and Snorri Sturluson, in the prologue to Heimskringla and in Ynglinga saga, says that Dan was the first person to be called king by the Danes.

King Dan is probably a purely legendary figure, a back-formation from the name of the Danes, as Angul is from the English. It's possible that Gaimar and these Scandinavian sources arrived at the same name independently (it would be a natural etymological deduction!) but it's also possible that the ultimate source of Gaimar’s information was connected to these beliefs about Danish history - an Anglo-Danish tradition in Lincolnshire, perhaps. This East Midlands perspective, with its specific focus on ties to Denmark (rather than, for instance, Norway) is itself likely to be very different from ideas which might have been current elsewhere in northern England.

Cnut and Edmund in CUL MS. Ee 3 59, f. 5

And that brings us to Cnut. When Gaimar tells the story of Cnut and Edmund Ironside meeting to divide England between them in 1016, he has Cnut inform Edmund that they are both the sons of kings who have ruled the country, but that his ancestors held England many years before the coming of the Saxons:

e bien sachez, loi[n]gtenement
l’urent Daneis nostre parent:
prés de mil anz l’out Dane aince[i]s
ke unc i entrast Certiz li reis.
Certiz, ço fu vostre ancïen;
e li reis Danes fu le mien.
Daneis le tint en chef de Deu,
Modret donat Certiz son feu:
il ne tint unkes chevalment,
de lui vindrent vostre parent.
Pur ço vus di, si nel savez,
si vus od mai [vus] combataz,
l[i] un de nus ad greignur tort,
ne savom liequels en ert mort.
Pur ço vus vol un offre fere
e ne m’en voil de rien retrere:
partum la terre dreit en dous,
l’une partie en aiez vus,
l’altre partie me remaigne!
(4315–33)

Our Danish ancestors, I’ll have you know, have been ruling here for a very long time. Almost a thousand years before king Cerdic came to the throne, Dan was king. Cerdic was your ancestor, and king Dan was mine. A Dane held the land in chief from God. It was Mordred who granted Cerdic his fief; he never held it in chief, and your family is descended from him. In case you don’t already know, I’ll tell you that if you fight me, one of us is going to be in the wrong more than the other, though we don’t know which one of us will die as a result. This is why I’m willing to make you an offer – one that I will not seek to back down from: let us divide the kingdom exactly in two, with one part going to you and the other remaining with me.
Gaimar, Estoire des Engleis: History of the English, ed. Ian Short, pp. 234-7.

Cnut is claiming that the Danes have a prior claim to England dating back to centuries before the foundation of the kingdom of Wessex, long before Cerdic and Edmund Ironside's other ancestors had ever come to the country. Numerous other medieval chroniclers have versions of a story about this meeting between Cnut and Edmund (I wrote about some of them in a previous version of this post), but no one else includes this bold claim to ancient Danish sovereignty. From a historical point of view this clearly can't be accurate, but what's interesting is that Gaimar treats it as basically a sound and legitimate argument: it's only repeating what has already been shown several times in the Estoire, and Edmund Ironside is said to admire ‘how humbly and how justly the good king spoke to him’. Edmund agrees to the division of the country along the lines proposed by the Danish king, and his response to Cnut’s argument implicitly accepts it as a valid interpretation of the history. Cnut’s offer to divide the kingdom, in this light, is a magnanimous one: he has a prior claim to rule the country, and is generously conceding part of it to Edmund to put an end to the fighting. (Most medieval and indeed many modern retellings of this story would put it the other way around - that Edmund is the one conceding something rightfully 'his'). Morally and historically, Cnut is on the strongest side.

So what's going on here? Gaimar's narrative is a fascinating mash-up, combining Anglo-Saxon historical sources with the newly popular world of Arthurian romance beloved by the Norman aristocracy; but the firm belief in Danish right to rule and the general sympathy with Danes over Saxons suggests that at least some of this material has its roots in the Anglo-Scandinavian society of 12th-century Lincolnshire, where Gaimar was writing. It's worth pointing out that in the 1130s Danish claims to rule England were not only the stuff of distant history, but also of the fairly recent past: there were serious threats (or promises, I suppose, depending on your view) that the Danes would invade England on and off well in the 1080s. Yet, as the title of the Estoire suggests, the Danes and Saxons all form part of the 'History of the English' - and so, implicitly, do the French-speaking audience of the Estoire. Gaimar retells the story of pre-Conquest England for a Norman aristocratic audience who may have seen themselves as the latest in a long line of conquerors, relatively new to England but nonetheless heirs to its land and its history. Danes, Saxons, Normans - 'English' is a capacious term which expands to include these new arrivals.


Of course, the Estoire is not actually wrong to suggest that the Danes had a long-established history in England, or that they had ruled in the East Midlands: Adelbriht and Haveloc and King Dan are (probably) fictional, though there may be a grain of truth in their stories, but certainly there had been Danish kings of East Anglia of whose existence we can be confident. The Estoire just locates this history about five centuries too early, perhaps as a way of claiming primacy over an alternative version of pre-Conquest history: that centred on Wessex. It's the Wessex version we get almost everywhere else in late Anglo-Saxon sources, and in most of the Anglo-Norman chroniclers who follow them - the version which sees the creation of a kingdom of England, ruled from the south, as the teleological end-point of Anglo-Saxon history. So in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's account of Assandun, for instance, the chronicler can insist by fervent repetition that Edmund is fighting on behalf of 'all the English people', while Cnut is an outsider whom only traitors support:

Se here gewende eft up on Eastseaxan, 7 ferde into Myrcan, 7 fordyde eall þæt he oferferde. Ða se cyning geahsade þæt se here upp wæs, þa gesamnade he fiftan siðe ealle Engla þeode 7 ferde him æthindan, 7 offerde hi innon Eastseaxan æt þære dune þe man hæt Assandun, 7 þær togædere heardlice fengon. Þa dyde Eadric ealdorman swa swa he ær ofter dyde, astealde þæne fleam ærast mid Magesætan, 7 swa aswac his kynehlaforde 7 ealle þeodæ Angelcynnes. Ðær ahte Cnut sige, 7 gefeaht him wið ealle Engla þeode. Þa wearð þær ofslægen Eadnoð biscop, 7 Wulfsie abbod, 7 ælfric ealdorman, 7 Godwine ealdorman, 7 Ulfkytel of Eastenglan, 7 Æþelward Ælfwines sunu ealdormannes, 7 eall seo duguð of Angelcynnes þeode.

[The [Danish] raiding-army turned back up into Essex, and went towards Mercia, and destroyed all that they overtook. Then when the king [Edmund] heard that the army was inland, he gathered all the English people for the fifth time and travelled behind them, and overtook them in Essex at the hill which is called Assandun, and there they fought a hard battle together. Then Eadric the ealdorman did as he had so often done before, and first began the flight with the Magonsæte, and so betrayed his king and lord and all the English people. There Cnut had the victory, and won for himself the whole people of the English. There Bishop Eadnoth was killed, and Abbot Wulfsige, and Ealdorman Ælfric, and Ealdorman Godwine, and Ulfcytel of East Anglia, and Æthelweard, the son of Ealdorman Æ[thel]wine, and all the best of the English people.]

The chronicler here uses 'Engla þeode' and 'Angelcynnes þeode' interchangeably, and both should probably be translated as 'English people' (þeod might equally be translated, with caveats, as 'nation'). But it's important to be alert to the extent to which this use of 'English' is propagandistic, deliberately exclusionary, defining 'the English people' to mean 'Edmund Ironside and his supporters'. It is a much more restricted definition than that put forward by the French-speaking Gaimar 120 years later, for whom Engleis potentially includes anyone living in England. Here, 'English' is made to exclude not only people of Danish birth, like Cnut, but even those among the English who were supporting him; by going over to the Danes, they have somehow forfeited their 'Englishness'.

But would people have recognised this restricted definition in Lincolnshire, or other parts of the former Danish-ruled areas of England? Might some of them have thought there was another version of history in which a concept and term like 'all the English nation' could readily encompass Danes and Danish kings, since it had done so in the past? That was certainly the approach Cnut himself took as king: ready to rule like the kings of Wessex from Winchester, but happy to be compared to long-ago Viking kings who had ruled from York. One of his poets lauded him by reminding the king and his followers that:

Ok Ellu bak,
at, lét, hinns sat,
Ívarr ara,
Jórvík, skorit.
Ok senn sonu
sló, hvern ok þó,
Aðalráðs eða
út flæmði Knútr.

Ívarr, who ruled at York, had Ælla’s back cut with an eagle. And Cnut soon defeated or drove out the sons of Æthelred, every one.

Ivar is the famous Ivar the Boneless, Ælla a Northumbrian king who was one of his victims, and it was 150 years or so from their time to Cnut's. Whether Cnut or his supporters really did trace the precedent of a Danish England all the way back to King Dan, this poem too finds a precedent for Danish rule in an alternative reading of English history which places its Danish kings front and centre. Here it's the West Saxons who are a footnote, the sons of Æthelred (like Edmund Ironside) who are the ones driven away, marginalised, swept out of the mainstream by history's apparently inevitable onward tide. It could easily have been that way. It very nearly was.

A pendant of Thor's hammer found in Lincolnshire,
one of many found across the areas of Scandinavian settlement in England

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Beowulf - and more


Just a short post to say that I've written a piece on Beowulf for this month's issue of the BBC History Magazine (not online at the moment, but I'll add a link if it turns up on their website.) It's very much a basic introduction to the poem, but I tried also to suggest some of the complexities of the poem's worldview and its approach to legend and history.

Shocking as this might be to confess, Beowulf is not a poem I'm naturally drawn to; I had to teach myself to find it interesting, and though I do appreciate its fine qualities I somewhat regret that it so much dominates public perception of early medieval English literature. It's the only Anglo-Saxon text most people have ever heard of - in the UK, Beowulf is often the very first thing people think of when they hear the term 'Anglo-Saxon'. (Second is primary school lessons about the Battle of Hastings!) Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that even one Anglo-Saxon poem has that kind of name-recognition, and it's important to have a reference point which can help people steer their way through this largely unfamiliar landscape. Yet in many ways Beowulf is not particularly representative of the rich and varied body of literature which survives from early medieval England (for one thing, it doesn't take place in early medieval England!). There are many other fascinating texts, poetry and prose, which will never make their way into any popular history magazine, nor ever be turned into a blockbuster film, but which are nonetheless very much worth exploring - remarkable for their poetic dexterity, their sensitivity of thought, their glimpses into an unfamiliar cultural world.

So if you're new to Anglo-Saxon literature other than Beowulf , and would like to explore some less well-known texts from the period in translation, here a few freely accessible online resources which you may not have come across before:

The Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project is an extraordinarily ambitious and wide-ranging collection of open-access translations of Old English poems - from short lyrics on all kinds of subjects to long and complex narratives telling stories from the Bible and the lives of saints.

The Riddle Ages blog translates and discusses the Old English riddles of the Exeter Book, a fabulous set of little poems by turns witty, beautiful, and mystifying (and often all at the same time).

A diversity of many types of short Old English texts, with valuable discussion, can be found at the wonderful blog 'For the Wynn' - there you will encounter Anglo-Saxon prayers, prognostics, medical and scientific texts, charms, and much more...

If you like Beowulf, you'll really like this post on the poem Widsith, and other material at the same fine blog.

I've written here often about some of my own favourite Old English poems: this tag will take you back through the archive, and if you'd rather go through it seasonally, here's a page with links to many posts on The Anglo-Saxon Year. A couple of times I've written for History Today about Anglo-Saxon texts: this on a beautiful poem about the seasons and the natural world, and this on a collection of 11th-century proverbs.

In terms of prose, you can read many of the sermons of the great Anglo-Saxon teacher, preacher and writer Ælfric in parallel-text translation here - the translation is old-fashioned, but solid. There are some of his saints' lives available here and here, and I've posted a few translations and discussions of Ælfric's sermons under this tag. (His works for teaching are fun too...) You can also read a translation of Ælfric's short work which he intended to introduce a few key principles of early medieval science, from equinoxes to leap years and the causes of different kinds of weather.

You can also read the entirety of Bede's Ecclesiastical History online in translation from the Latin. Translations (older, but still useful) of the longer prose Old English works are available through archive.org, such as the English version of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy associated with Alfred the Great. You could even read the West Saxon translation of the Gospel of John, and follow along in a modern English translation...

And because English and Latin were not the only literary languages to be found in Anglo-Saxon England, let's have a word for the Old Norse poems I sometimes talk about which were (probably) performed in this country, such as those composed for Cnut when he was king of England and Denmark. Translations of some of these can also be found online, if you know where to look: this is a poem in praise of Cnut's conquest of England which glories in his victories over the English, enumerating his battles across the country, north and south, by the Ouse, the Tees and the Thames. (Just in case you ever wondered what the Vikings called Norwich or the Forest of Dean.) If you prefer your triumphal poetry to be at the expense of the the Normans, here's a short poem about the Anglo-Danish earl Waltheof and his victory over Norman forces at York in 1069.

Should you read those and then decide 'forget the Anglo-Saxons, I want to read Old Norse!', the Viking Society have got you covered with their wonderfully generous archive of open-access publications. It's a long way from Beowulf, but not entirely so - because Beowulf is about Scandinavians, after all... ;)

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Barking Abbey


My latest column for History Today can be read online here. It's about the nuns of Barking Abbey in Essex, and one specific text which I've been working on this year: an Anglo-Norman Life of Edward the Confessor written in the second half of the twelfth century.

Its author was an educated woman, able to turn a Latin source into engagingly chatty French verse, and Barking Abbey must have been a congenial environment for her. Founded in the seventh century, Barking was one of the foremost nunneries in the country, a wealthy abbey which was home to many well-connected aristocratic and royal women. Its abbesses were frequently appointed from the sisters and daughters of kings and, around the time our nun wrote her Vie d’Edouard le Confesseur, Thomas Becket’s sister Mary – herself a woman of literary interests – was made abbess of Barking in compensation for her brother’s murder.

Across its long history of more than 850 years, Barking Abbey was a centre for women’s learning. It has been described as ‘perhaps the longest-lived ... institutional centre of literary culture for women in British history’ and it had a strong literary and scholarly tradition that spanned the Middle Ages. In the early medieval period, authors such as Aldhelm and Goscelin of St Bertin wrote learned Latin works for the nuns of Barking; later, several nuns composed their own poetry and prose – even their own plays. In the 12th century, when women were increasingly becoming patrons, readers and, in some cases, authors of literary texts, Barking produced more than one talented writer. The first female author in England whose name we know, Clemence of Barking, was a nun there; she wrote an accomplished Life of St Catherine of Alexandria, a saint associated with female learning.
Read the rest here. There's a lot of excellent scholarship on the medieval literary culture of Barking Abbey, and if you're interested in following it up a good place to start is Barking Abbey and Medieval Literary Culture: Authorship and Authority in a Female Community, ed. Jennifer N. Brown and Donna Alfano Bussell. The description of Barking as 'perhaps the longest-lived... institutional centre of literary culture for women in British history' is from the entry on Clemence of Barking by Jocelyn Wogan-Brown in the Dictionary of National Biography, which is full of useful information. Those links will take you to the resources, but to access them you will need an institutional academic log-in (or £60 to spend on the book). That's one reason it seemed worth writing a little bit about this topic in a more public forum like History Today.

There are other reasons, and I feel the need to explain them a bit. I maintain this blog, and write publicly about medieval literature in various forums, because I believe in making academic scholarship open and accessible - and access is not, of course, just a matter of being able to log in to the DNB. Let me tie this up with my previous History Today column, which I haven't yet linked to here, in which I confessed (a little tongue-in-cheek) that I'm envious of archaeologists. Over the past few years I've learned a lot from following archaeologists on Twitter, both from projects sharing discoveries-in-progress and from specialists posting more generally about interesting objects and sites. The main reason I envy archaeologists is not just because they have so much cool stuff, and not really because they get all the media attention, but because so many of them seem willing and able to take good advantage of that attention for public outreach, education, and community engagement.

This summer I called in at Lyminge in Kent, where for some years an ongoing project has been investigating an important early Anglo-Saxon site linked to the Kentish royal family, particularly St Æthelburh. You can read all about the project here. They've made some exciting discoveries, including most recently the remains of one of the earliest stone churches built in Anglo-Saxon England. Back in August I was in Kent, and after seeing a report on the local news issuing a general invitation to the public at large to come and see what had been found, I went down to take a look. It was a beautiful summer afternoon - late on a weekday, so there weren't many people around in the village. Lyminge is a small place a few miles from Folkestone, never very busy. Volunteers and students were hard at work digging in the churchyard, and there were welcoming signs saying something like 'this way to the archaeology' - so we went that way, and asked them questions, and looked at what they were working on. They were happy to talk, perfectly relaxed about having us just wander in. From a public viewing walkway, it was possible to look at what had been uncovered.


It's really something special. The Anglo-Saxon church lies right next to the present-day one, under the path which leads up to the church porch, the main entrance. I've visited this church a number of times before, and in doing so had been walking right on top of the old church's footprint without knowing it. The people of the village, such as the locals we met who were volunteering at the site, must have walked across it hundreds of times, at carol concerts and on Sunday mornings, at baptisms and weddings and funerals, or just as a short cut on their way to the shops. No wonder they seemed so excited about what had been found beneath their feet, so glad to be helping, so ready to talk about it.


As well as this, there was an exhibition in the church of information about the project's findings - even a display about a new pilgrimage route, 'The Royal Saxon Way', which has been developed as a community project to offer new ways of engaging with the history of early Anglo-Saxon Kent. Take a look.


It was all so open. It was as if it was perfectly natural that the public should have a stake in what was going on, and should be allowed and encouraged to take an interest in it - not just the people of the church and the village, but anyone who wanted to turn up (and for anyone who couldn't physically go there, there's their online postings). It was an exemplary instance of community engagement, and I was so impressed.

It made me think a lot about my own field. For an academic who works on medieval literature and history, what's the equivalent of being as open as this - building a walkway to let the general public wander in and take a peek at your research? Since I started this blog as a Masters' student, a little more than ten years ago, I've tried to use social media like that - first my blog and Twitter, and then as a consequence of that other kinds of public writing and involvement with various projects, both online and offline. It has been immensely rewarding and has brought me into contact with all kinds of people, more than I can categorise or count; I can look back on years of wonderfully positive interactions, of people who have told me they've gained something they value from my work. People do 'wander in' - that's the best thing about it - looking for something else, or just by chance, and they stay and find something they like.

But in some ways it seems to be getting harder, not easier, in terms of the reaction it gets from other academics (hence, in part, my silence on the blog this year). As someone who is pretty shy in real life, is better at writing than speaking, and doesn't have the money or time to travel much, experimenting with different kinds of academic 'openness' online has generally worked better for me than the offline equivalent. But online spaces are increasingly toxic, the political climate in the UK and elsewhere is increasingly polarised, and in that context writing about anything at all seems increasingly risky. Writing about academic topics for a non-academic audience means being willing to compromise, and there's no room for compromise in a polarised world. The compromises are not so very shocking - really only a matter of recognising that different audiences have different needs, and that's not an idea you would think should be especially controversial. It means trying to say something useful in 750 words about a topic which could be the subject of a monograph, on the grounds that saying something, however brief, about an unfamiliar topic might be better than nothing at all. It means being alert to what your particular audience do and don't know, and the language and references they will best recognise and understand, and adapting your own language accordingly - not insisting on speaking in terms which only you and your colleagues comprehend. It means dealing with editors and fact-checkers and proof-readers who have their own priorities and imperatives, whose job is to produce something clear and useful for their audience, not something designed for academics who have studied the subject for decades. Those are small compromises and ones I'm very willing to make, because I think it's important; but I know I don't always get it right, and I've made enough mistakes to be unwilling to criticise anyone else who is trying to do a similar thing. Not everyone is going to have the same views on how much openness or adaptation is too much, but most people are just doing their best; when others make choices I personally wouldn't make, it seems kindest to give the benefit of the doubt.

So why write about Barking Abbey - to take one example? The main reason is that the subject itself in interesting and important, and not that familiar outside the specialists who study this place and period. You can't do much in 750 words, but you can just briefly introduce ideas which may seem obvious to specialists but emphatically are not: a medieval woman writing history; the suggestion that saints' lives are a kind of history-writing; the idea that twelfth-century Norman aristocrats took an interest in, and sometimes enthusiastically embraced, the pre-Conquest English past; the multilingual nature of medieval Britain; the social role of nunneries; even the fact that medieval nuns performed plays. These things aren't obvious, even to people with a general interest in medieval history, and that seems to me enough reason for writing about it. At the same time, it's also a 'walkway' past some of my academic work-in-progress - I've been looking at this text for a collaborative project I'm involved in, an open-access database of medieval translated texts, which has just launched.

St Edward in a manuscript of the Barking Vie (BL Add. 70513, f. 55v)

And then there's another reason. Besides the scholarly motives I just mentioned, there is a more personal reason why I'm interested in Barking Abbey, and why I chose to write about it. My mother is from Barking, and grew up there. To most overseas readers of this blog, the name 'Barking and Dagenham' probably won't mean anything; perhaps it just sounds like one of those funny British names, like something out of Harry Potter - not a real place where real people live. But a British audience will have a very different, and very specific, set of associations with the name. If I say that my mother was born on a post-war Barking council estate, most British readers will immediately be able to guess something about what that means in terms of my family's class background, level of education, and opportunities in life. They will know, or at least be able to make an informed speculation, about all such a background brings with it and how it forms you: the assumptions people will make about you, the accent you will be judged for and learn to hide, the places you will be made to feel unwelcome, the extent to which talent, education and hard work can - and cannot - overcome the limitations imposed by class and culture. A British audience will understand why History Today titled my article 'The Cultured Women of Essex' - to be the exact opposite of the sexist, snobbish term Essex girl. They might even be able to guess something of what it means for me, as a product of this family, to have come to a place where I have the opportunity to write about Barking in a magazine like History Today, and what it means to be able to speak about this, publicly and with respect: to praise learned women of Barking, who made the most of the educational opportunities they had - even if they were restricted by the circumstances into which they were born - and were creative and generous with their learning.

In some ways, the aristocratic nuns of medieval Barking Abbey are worlds away from my working-class family, and have nothing in common with them (generally speaking the medieval nuns were probably better off). But in physical space, it's not worlds away at all; only yards away. My family's lives were lived very close to where the abbey once stood - sometimes literally in the ruins, which are now a public park. They didn't know anything about the abbey. On its own, without explanation, it wouldn't have meant anything to them, and there was no one to tell them that it could. The ruins were there, the abbey and all its history were there, but its story was not accessible to them in any meaningful way. If you take that into account, you might understand why it was such a wonderful surprise to me when in the course of studying medieval literature I started coming across references to the idea of Barking as a centre of women's learning. And specific details about the women who lived and worked there! It interested me from an academic point of view but of course it spoke to me personally too. How could it not? I was able to share that with my mother, to whom it was completely new. I was able to make those nuns part of her story - our story.

You have to understand what it's like to be from a place which no one seems to value to understand why this matters so much. If you have lived all your life with conflicted feelings about the place you come from - part proud and loving and fond of your home, part self-conscious about how people will judge you for it - it's a strangely empowering thing to learn it has a history you never knew about, which is worthy of respect. Very little connects my family in Barking with the women of medieval Barking Abbey, except the place - but when the place is inescapably part of your identity, for good as well as ill, its history is yours too. I've written before about what a surprise it was to me when I learned at university that the place where I grew up - whose very name, like Barking, will evoke for a British audience specific stereotypes about working-class culture, or would have done twenty years ago - also has a significant medieval history. Why did no one ever tell me, I wondered, at 18 years old. Why didn't we learn about this in school, when we were all bemoaning what a cultural wasteland we came from, and telling each other that no one from such a backwater could achieve anything in the world? I learned about it in my first weeks at university, because it's literally point 1a in the basic undergraduate introduction to early medieval English history. I learned it along with a group of other students who were already at university, already succeeding, to whom the name didn't mean anything at all - but the people back home, the people I went to school with, were the ones who needed to hear it. They were the ones to whom it might have meant something.

For me this is an important personal context in almost all the writing I do publicly. What I experienced myself, I know I've been able to provide for other people - to help them access a history which they have a right to know about, which they should never have been denied. My academic research is partly about stories of place, and my first book was about a variety of different regional histories about the Vikings. The histories I was writing about have been overlooked in part because they deal with regions of the country, particularly in the north of England, which are often unjustly ignored and marginalised; these accounts have been taken seriously by local historians, but not always by the mainstream of academic history. (I chose to publish my book in the venue I did because I just couldn't stand the idea of writing a book about popular and local histories which was beyond the financial reach of anyone without access to a university library.) Regional inequality - distinct from, but often related to, issues of class - has long been and continues to be a serious problem in the UK, and has become an increasingly pressing one in the past few years. I've written before about how medieval English literature, because of its regional character, can offer something powerful to parts of the country which are now treated as marginal, and I see this again and again in how people respond to my blog.

But it's not only about place; there are so many other ways in which the structures of academia hoard knowledge and information, and fail to connect it with the communities for whom it is personally and culturally meaningful. In many ways - social, racial, geographical, religious - the academic establishment is on one side of a deep divide, talking about, but not to, people and communities who have every reason to be invested in their research, if anyone ever bothered to tell them about it. It has always seemed to me fundamentally wrong. The only reason I started this blog was that I could never exactly see why the kinds of medieval texts I was reading as a student shouldn't be made accessible to non-academic audiences who might be interested in them - and I still don't, really. But 'accessible' doesn't only mean 'available'; some degree of interpretation, mediation - translation in the broadest sense - is necessary too. Some compromise.

Many academics, individually and collectively, work hard to bridge these divides, but it has to be done sensitively, in different ways appropriate for different contexts. I know that much of what I'm saying here will be incomprehensible to many non-UK medievalists, certainly to the small group of them who are most powerful online. It's clear from the way they talk about this stuff that they don't get it, and why should they? To them Barking and hundreds of places like it really are just funny names, nothing more. If they are still hazy about the difference between 'English' and 'British' (and worse, don't think it matters), if their only knowledge of modern British culture comes from Downton Abbey and an occasional research trip to London, the rest of the country might as well as be Middle Earth for all the reality it has for them. They don't know what British poverty looks like; they don't know what British social divisions look like (not like Downton Abbey); and they literally can't see the ways in which medieval history speaks to, and is bound up with, many divisions which are of immediate importance in this country: in class, in race, in religion, in the relationships between the different nations of the UK, or with Ireland, or the rest of Europe. Fair enough; how could they be expected to see it? I don't expect them to know or care about these things, and they have their own problems to deal with. But here the globalised nature of online discussion becomes a problem. I'm a British academic writing primarily for British audiences (not that I'm not glad to have other readers too!), but online those distinctions are blurred; other academics will pass judgement, from half a world away, on conversations they only half understand, and some of them are very resistant to the idea that in different contexts it might be necessary to speak in different languages, to ask and answer different questions. Even the basic idea that words have different connotations in different varieties of English seems to surprise them. In their particular cultural context, medieval history intersects with questions of identity and exclusion in very different ways, and they won't believe anyone who tries to tell them things don't operate like that everywhere in the world. Some feel entitled to demand that every discussion which touches on 'their' subject should address their own immediate social and political concerns - not those of (for instance) the people of Barking, of whose existence they are so loftily unconscious. Recently, they have decreed a blanket ban on a well-known historical term, because it has racist connotations in the US. Personally I'd be perfectly happy to stop using this term in academic discourse, but I can't help worrying about the effect of banning one of the few terms from medieval history which is widely recognised and understood by a general audience. Ceasing to use this term in the UK (where it has very different connotations from the US) would mean that academic usage would suddenly be out of step with every school curriculum in this country, every museum big and small, every heritage organisation and every media channel which offers to connect academic expertise with the general public. It would create a greater divide than ever between academia and the audiences some of us are trying to reach. While that's not an irresolvable problem, it is a problem, and not one this group seem even willing to discuss. Perhaps it's that they really can't see or imagine why anyone other than professional medievalists might have a stake in medieval history? I don't know. Often people like this just act like new versions of the old academic gatekeepers (and there are plenty of the old kind still around as well) - determined to police the boundaries of anyone else's interest in 'their' subject, anywhere in the world. One reason for my continuing discomfort in academia is that I feel much closer, in all kinds of ways, to the non-academic audiences I write for, who are my neighbours and my family and the people I grew up with, than I do to academics like that. (I don't suppose they like me much, either.) We all have to do what seems best to us in our own context, and I'm sure they are doing that; I only wish they were capable of seeing that the rest of us are trying to do the same, just not in the same way.

When I think of that walkway at Lyminge, of the ruins of Barking Abbey, and of all the less tangible mental and cultural 'places' which they might be taken to represent, I simply can't feel that their history should be controlled and fenced-off by the academics who study it away from the people who live in, care for, and have been formed by it. Other audiences have a stake in the questions academics discuss, and they don't have to be merely passive consumers of what academics decide to tell them. For me it comes down to this: I've had educational opportunities which no previous member of my family could have dreamt of, for generations and generations back; but that doesn't make me better than any of them, only luckier. I couldn't have got them, or made the most of them, without my family and lots of other people who have been very good to me, though they never set foot in a university. My mother, in particular, never had the opportunity to do what I do, but all the things which make me any good at it, I learned from her: love of language, excitement about knowledge, a passion for teaching and an urgent desire to communicate to other people things which matter to them. The only reason I do any of this, teach or write or lecture or anything, is because when I learn something new and interesting, I can't be satisfied until I've passed it on to somebody else - and I get that from her.

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Birds and Angels

St Michael, with bright wings (BL Royal MS 18 D II, f. 161v)

Today is Michaelmas, the feast of St Michael and All Angels - a beautiful feast at perhaps the loveliest time of the year. In honour of the day I want to post a medieval English poem which I stumbled across for the first time recently. It's not strictly for Michaelmas (it's set in the spring) but by the time you reach the end of it you'll understand why I'm posting it today.

For reasons which may become obvious, this poem reminds me a little of the 14th-century masterpiece Pearl, a glowing jewel of a poem, a meditation on love, grief, and loss which attempts to render in the intricate beauty of its words something of the surpassing beauty of heaven. This poem is nowhere near as ambitious or accomplished, but like Pearl it begins with the loss of something precious, couched in metaphorical terms which seem to hint at a deeper grief. The precise circumstances are kept obscure from us, and are more powerful for not being openly expressed. Within the first few stanzas of this poem the speaker meets, falls in love with, and loses a beautiful bird. By the time he meets her again, if we are even vaguely familiar with medieval love-poetry, we probably think we know what we are dealing with here: the bird is a woman, he's her lover, and he's going to try and woo her back again. But when he does begin to woo her, he does so in a way that confounds our expectations - and from there the poem becomes something stranger, richer, and more beautiful.

The poem comes from a 15th-century manuscript which was probably written in the West Midlands. You can view images of the manuscript here, and read a list of the poems it contains here. Some of the poems in the manuscript are relatively well-known - it contains, for instance, 'The Boar's Head Carol'! - but according to DIMEV this one has only been edited once. You can read that edition online here to get the Middle English text, but I've given the poem below in modernised spelling, with some glosses. The opening lines, which are so conventional and idiomatic as to be difficult to translate literally, just mean something like 'Good lords and ladies, splendidly-dressed women, and all who listen to my story...'

Lovely lordinges, ladies lyke,
Wives and maidens ryallyke,
So worthy under wede,
And all who listen to my talking,
God grant them his dear blessing,
And heaven to their mead. [as their reward]

By a forest as I did ride,
I saw a bird by a wood-side,
Bright she was of blee. [complexion]
Her wings were of colours rich,
As an angel methought her like,
Full semely it was to see. [very beautiful to look on]

The bird was gone; my joy was still,
For woe, alas! myself I spill. [destroy]
To Christ I make my moan, [lament]
For a love that was so new,
That so bright was of hue,
From me was she gone.

A blissful song that bird did sing
And I abode for love talking,
To wit of whence she were. [to find out where she came from]
And as soon as she saw me,
She took her flight for to flee
To a holt so hoar. [a wood which is 'hoary' white, probably with blossom]

Forth I walked in that forest,
By a river east and west,
Under a holt side, [beside a grove of trees]
Till I come under a lovely tree,
That semely one I did see [I saw that beautiful one]
Under a busk abide. [stopping by a wood]

That lovely bird on boughs bare,
She sang a song with sighing sore
Upon a hazel tree,
With words mild and hende, [gentle and courteous]
To that bird did I wend,
Of bale her bote to be. [to be her relief from sorrow]

When that I to her come,
By the wings I her nome, [took, caught]
And stroked her full soft,
With words mild and still, [gentle and quiet]
I asked the bird of her will [what she wanted]
Fele times and oft. [again and again]

Up to this point, the allegory seems straightforward enough. The clues are all telling us that the bird is a beautiful woman, and this is a love scene. The word 'bird' in Middle English is frequently used as a poetic term for a lady; to call a woman a 'bird' today (at least in Britain) is not exactly polite, but in Middle English its connotations were quite different - burd meaning 'lady, noblewoman' was actually in origin a separate word, nothing to do with feathered birds but with high birth and noble lineage. By the time this poem was written the two words had already become very similar in form and spelling, and poets play on the similarity between the two: if you can compliment a woman (whether it's your lover, or the Virgin Mary) by calling her a dove or a lark or a falcon, you can certainly call her a 'bird', most politely, in both senses of the word. Most of the phrases the speaker uses to describe this 'bird' are also terms often used in Middle English poetry to describe women, such as 'bright of blee', 'that semely one', etc. And he also says she seems to him like an angel. That, too, is a conventional term of praise for a woman - but keep it in mind...

The language in this last stanza is distinctly euphemistic, full of romantic and sexual connotations: we seem to be witnessing a seduction, and in another poem that's exactly what this would be. He's found her and caught her, is stroking her softly, and now he wants, in a conventionally euphemistic phrase, of bale her bote to be, that is, (put it in air quotes in your mind) 'to relieve her sorrow'. What you might expect next in such a poem is for the bird/woman to put up some resistance, and then either give in or make her escape, having shamed her would-be seducer. Here, too, she does protest:

The bird answered and said, 'Do way! [Leave off]
Me likes not of thy play, [your play is displeasing to me]
Nor talking of thy tales.
I am known under this tree,
Just as I came, let me flee,
By downs and by dales.

For wont I was to be in cage, [I was accustomed once to live in a cage]
And with my feres to play and rage, [and to play and sport with my companions]
With game and with glee, [merriment]
Now I fly with my feather-hame, [plumage]
As wild fowl and nothing tame, [as a wild bird, not a bit tame]
By dear God, woe is me!'

Now things start to get surprising. Her lament is not what you might expect: you might predict this bird will demand her freedom, telling the man she's happier without him, and doesn't want to be caught. A wild bird, 'nothing tame', seems an image of freedom and liberty - but this bird feels differently. For this bird, her freedom is a burden; it's loneliness, separation from her friends back in the cage where they were happy and carefree together. She's not a wild bird but a lost bird, and she wants to return to her home.

And our speaker (whoever he is) begins to offer her that home:

'Nay, dear bird, let be thy care. [cease your sorrow]
If thou wouldst gladly with me fare, [go]
And believe in my talking,
Of thy ruth I would aruwe, [I would have pity on your sorrow]
Thy cage shall be made anew;
Thou shalt have thy lykynge.' [pleasure]

The bird answered with words free,
'Whereof should my cage be,
If I thee love would?'
'The floor should be of argentum, [silver]
Clean silver all and some, [entirely of pure silver]
That true love might behold.

The walls shall be of galmeowne, [?jasmine]
Frankincense and lymesone, [?tortoise-shell]
The savour that is so sweet. [the scent of which is so sweet]
The posts shall be of cypress,
The first tree that Jesu chose,
Of bale to be our bote. [to relieve us from sorrow]

This is an allusion to the tradition that the cross was made in part from the wood of the cypress-tree. The phrase used here for Christ's act of redemption, the turning of sorrow into joy, is 'of bale to be our bote' - the same conventional phrase which a few stanzas earlier seemed to have clearly romantic connotations. Here it's been transformed, transmuted, from romantic to divine love, without anything to signal the slippage from one world to another. We started off by hearing a description of a pretty bird-cage for a treasured pet, but this is becoming something else: this is a description of heaven.

The towers shall be of ivory,
Clean carved by and by, [perfectly carved all about]
The door of whale's bone;
The cowpuls all of galyngalle, [?corbels of ginger-root]
The beams all of rich coral,
Royally begone; [adorned]

The dosers all of camaca, [tapestries of rich fabric]
The benches all of taffeta,
The cushions all of velvet;
The windows all of jasper stone,
The pillars of coral every one,
With joy joyned in gete. [beautifully joined at the top]

The roof thereof shall be blue,
And diaper-cloth with azure hue,
Comely for the nonce; [very beautiful indeed]
Pinnacles all of aurum, [turrets of gold]
Clean gold all and some,
Full of precious stones.

The crest blue and white as rice,
The pinnacle shall go all by vysse, [?be made as it ought to be]
Within and without,
With Veni Creator Spiritus,
And Gloria in excelsis
With angels' song all about.

Five wheels therein shall be,
In the middle shall be the Trinity,
Which peer has none,
And the four thereabout,
To Jesu Christ for to lowte, [bow]
Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

The perch shall be of carbuncle stone,
To rest you on, my joly lemone, [my merry darling]
So semely is to my sight; [so beautiful in my sight]
The nightingale, the throstlecock, [song-thrush]
The popinjay, the joly laverok, [the parrot, the merry skylark]
Shall sing to you day and night.

The popinjay, your lady free,
In your cage with you to be,
You to honour and queen.
The throstlecock Gabriel,
Who greeted Our Lady well,
With Ave, gratia plena.

The nightingale with benedicite [a blessing]
In your cage with you to be,
For the fiend's rout; [to drive away the devil]
The laverok shall sing high,
With Gloria tibi Domine,
And bless the cage all about.

This cage is made without weme, [flaw]
For the love of one woman,
Mary, who is so free. [noble]
The man who better cage make can
Take this bird to his lemman, [to be his beloved]
That is the Trinity.

God, that is full of might,
And suffered for us pain's plight,
For his orders ten, [ten orders of angels and human beings]
Save and keep this company
From shame and eke from villainy,
Ad vitam etemam. Amen. [to eternal life]

Angels encircling Christ, Mary and St Peter (from a manuscript of Dante's Paradiso)

It was these last stanzas which attracted me to this poem. The idea of heaven as a gilded birdcage is an odd one, and perhaps not immediately appealing (we'll get to that), though the description of the riches of the heavenly cage is at least useful in providing lots of Middle English vocabulary for jewels and spices and architectural features. Some of my glosses are the MED's conjectures, because the words aren't recorded anywhere else, and some are just guesses - but the general sense of splendour and luxury and beauty is clear, if not especially original. (And Pearl does it better...)

But once we are inside the birdcage, and the birds have been transfigured into angels, that's a remarkable moment. 'The throstlecock Gabriel'! The whole poem is worth it for that one line - for the startling idea of Gabriel's Ave, gratia plena, the greeting which in medieval thought was perhaps the most important utterance in human history, as the chirp of a thrush's song. The skylark singing Gloria, the nightingale with its holy benedicite as a guard against evil, and Mary, who seems to be both the lady who treasures this beautiful cage and the popinjay (the parrot) who sings within it. Heaven as a cage of singing birds: what an idea.

Birds and cages (from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves)

Songbirds and angels: the visible and the invisible, the tiny and the mighty, the familiar and the utterly strange. In some ways they could not be more different, but to yoke them together as this poem does encourages us to consider how they might be akin. Medieval ideas of angels are not generally sentimental; these are beings of cosmic power, especially the archangels: Michael the warrior, Gabriel the great ambassador from the heavenly regions, Raphael the guide and healer. But fundamentally they are creatures of joy, messengers of a mighty gladness. They are an assurance that the cosmic forces of the universe, fearsome as they may be in their power, are on the side of good, and of human happiness; in their different ways, they are all instruments helping to bring about the triumph of right over wrong, light over darkness, joy over sorrow. In medieval poetry about the Resurrection, angels do not only sing but laugh at the moment of Christ's triumph over death, because this is a victory of ultimate joy - the divine comedy. Songbirds, you might imagine, offer the same message in miniature. In Middle English birdsong is proverbially joyful: a happy person might be said to be 'as glad as a bird on a bright morning', and in religious poetry the dawn chorus may be imagined as a joyous herald of the coming of the eternal day. Perhaps birdsong and angels' song are thought of as notes in the same melody: the singing of larks and thrushes, which we can hear, is a contribution to what we cannot, the angels' endless song of joy.

Though I've never encountered anything exactly like this equation of birds and angels elsewhere in medieval poetry, bird imagery for Mary, too, is not surprising; any kind of rare or beautiful bird seems to have been thought fitting for her. Thus John Lydgate in his Ballad in Commendation of Our Lady:

O trusty turtle[-dove], trewest of al trewe,
O curteyse columbe, replete of al mekenesse,
O nightingale with thy notes newe,
O popinjay, plumed with al clennesse,
O laverok of love, singing with swetnesse.

Or indeed in Pearl:

Now for synglerty o hyr dousour
We calle hyr Fenyx of Arraby
That freles flewe of hyr fasor.

(Because of her unique sweetness
We call her Phoenix of Arabia,
Who flawless flew from her creator...)

And in one of James Ryman's carols about the Assumption, Christ invites his mother into heaven by saying: 'Come, my myelde dove, into thy cage, / With joye and blis replete whiche is...' 

Saints surrounded by birdcages (from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves)

Still, the idea of heaven as a birdcage needs a little unpacking. It wasn't an image I'd come across before, and I expect I won't be alone among modern readers in finding it a bit strange at first glance. The immediate connotations seem to be of restriction and imprisonment - at the very best, the dwelling of some pampered pet. The mind jumps to brightly-coloured budgies and canaries singing in a Victorian drawing-room! It would be very different if the bird was promised a beautiful nest - that would seem homely and comfortable, not constraining. But that image wouldn't work as well for what the poet is doing. A nest is something a bird might construct for itself, while a cage is a gift from someone else, a more powerful being, a guardian and provider, who fashions it as an act of care - surely a better analogy for the relationship between the soul and God. This birdcage, made of gold and silver and precious stones, with towers of ivory and cushions of the richest fabric, is absolutely a constructed thing: designed and built of the finest, most priceless materials, because every beautiful detail is a token of the maker's love.

In any case, medieval readers clearly did not have difficulty associating positive connotations with a birdcage. As I learned from a fascinating chapter in this book, the birdcage is used in medieval iconography in some very complex ways, including as a metaphor for various aspects of well-ordered religious life: an image, for instance, of the monastic vocation, where one might choose to live within an enclosed space in order to pursue contemplation and meditation - and, of course, to sing the praise of God by day and night. Or the birdcage could be used as a metaphor for the well-trained monastic memory, where information is organised in the mind like doves in a dovecote, each piece of information in its own mental 'pigeonhole'. Not so far a step, then, to think of heaven as another kind of birdcage.

Once we have ended in this heavenly birdcage, of course we have to go back and reconsider our reading of the opening of the poem. The little lost bird is not, it seems, a wooed woman at all, but a soul - perhaps the speaker's own soul, which he loves and loses sight of, chases and seeks to win back to its heavenly home. Or is the speaker Christ himself, promising the soul her rest in heaven? The image of the soul as a bird is an ancient one, of course - and now we understand why, when the speaker first saw this bird-soul, he thought her 'like an angel'. So she is, not in any loose romantic cliché but in the most literal sense, the sense of the psalm: 'thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with majesty and honour'. If the angels are birds, so is this anxious, restless, lonely bird a creature who belongs among the angels: her true home is in their glorious palace-cage, joining in their song of praise.

St Michael with golden wings (Haddon Hall, Derbyshire)

In medieval art, you do fairly often see angels depicted with colourful birds' wings. In this 15th-century Book of Hours, St Michael with his bright wings is triumphing over one winged creature (the dragon) while keeping company with two others in the margin - a peacock and a butterfly:


And on birdsong as one of the delights of heaven, compare the homilist John Mirk describing St Matthew preaching about paradise:
[Matthew] prechet hom þe ioye of paradyse, and sayde how þat þere was euer day and neuer nyght, ther was euerlastyng youþe and neuer eld, algates helþe and neuer sekenes, song and myrþe wythout sese, roses and flowres wythout welewyng, popynjayes and bryddes euermore syngyng, loue, and rest, and all maner lykyng.

[Matthew] preached to them about the joy of paradise, and said how there was ever day and never night, there was everlasting youth and never age, always health and never sickness, song and mirth without ceasing, roses and flowers without withering, popinjays and birds evermore singing, love, and rest, and all manner of delight.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

On the coast of Yorkshire on a September day

It's the time of year for a favourite story of mine, which seems like a good opportunity to break a long blogging drought. Here's a short summary of an episode which I discuss in further detail in my book, as a taster to induce you to notice that it's currently on sale...

Harold Hardrada's army landing in England, in a 13th-century English manuscript

On or around 18 September in the autumn of 1066, the king of Norway, Harald Hardrada, arrived on the coast of Yorkshire with a large army. In his company was Tostig, the brother of Harold Godwineson, king of England, who had joined forces with the Norwegians against his brother. Harold Godwineson himself was occupied elsewhere, on the south coast, having spent the summer awaiting a Norman invasion which had not - yet - come. Soon after their arrival the Norwegian forces won a battle at Fulford, near York, but were defeated a few days later by the English king at Stamford Bridge. In this battle, Harald Hardrada was killed. Accounts of the Norwegian invasion of 1066 in medieval English sources tend to be fairly brief, since it came to be overshadowed by the Battle of Hastings a few weeks later; but in Scandinavian history Harald Hardrada was a major figure, and so many Old Norse sources tell detailed and powerful narratives about the last days of his life. Written centuries after the events they describe, they are not really intended to be reliable sources for what actually happened in 1066; instead, they show us how later Norse writers thought about this period of history, which was (among other things) a turning-point in England's relationship with the Scandinavian world.

One such is a text called Hemings þáttr, a narrative written in Iceland in the thirteenth century, which deals at length with the attempted Norwegian invasion of England, the Norman Conquest, and its aftermath. Following other Norse sources, it tells how Harald's last days were marked by a cluster of omens which seemed to show the king that his death was approaching; Harald is shown embarking on the invasion with a sense of foreboding, increasingly confident that this will be his last expedition, the end of a magnificent career. He has been talked into it by Tostig, egged on to ambition by a bitter and vengeful man - Tostig is jealous of his brother, wants power for himself, and is trying to use the Norwegian king to get it. Harald knows Tostig is using him, knows he can't be trusted, and yet agrees to support him. Almost before he has done so, the bad omens start: Harald's men have threatening dreams, sailors report mysterious fires at sea and blood pouring out of the sky, a ghost rises up from a graveyard to prophesy that the king will fall. Worst of all, before setting sail, Harald has a vision of St Olaf, his martyred half-brother, who angrily chastises him for what he is about to do. Harald is shaken and Tostig, a wily 'man of many words', has to talk him round, telling him it's just some 'English witchcraft' trying to frighten him. But the signs could not be clearer that this invasion will not end well.

By the time they reach the English coast, the relationship between the king and his English egger-on is strained. One thing that's interesting about this part of the story is how precise the geographical references are, compared to the English sources; the Old Norse sources are much more specific about locating Harold and Tostig in particular places as they travel along the coast of Yorkshire, and Cleveland, Scarborough, and Ravenser are all mentioned by name. (Sometimes medieval Icelandic writers knew more about northern England than historians in the south of England did.)

It's at Cleveland that Harald and Tostig have a terse, tense conversation:
Þeir taka land ok ganga þar upp sem Kliflond heita. Konungr spyr Tosta, 'Hvat heitir hæð su er þar er norðr a landit?' Tosti segir, 'Eigi er her hverri hæð nafn gefit.' Konungr segir, 'Nafn man þo þersi eiga, ok skalltu segia mer.' Tosti segir, 'Þat er haugr Ivars beinlausa.' Konungr svarar, 'Fair hafa þeir sigrað England er at hans haugi hafa fyrst komit.' Tosti segir, 'Forneskia er nu at trua sliku.'
They reached land and came ashore at a place called Cleveland. The king asked Tostig, ‘What is the name of the hill which is along the land to the north?’

Tostig said, ‘Not every hill here has a name given to it.’

The king said, ‘But this one has a name, and you shall tell it to me.’

Tostig said, ‘That is the howe of Ivar the boneless.’

The king replied, ‘Few who have landed in England near this howe have been victorious.’

Tostig said, ‘It’s just superstition to believe such things now.’

Ivar the Boneless was one of the most famous Vikings to invade England, and stories about him abound in both medieval English and Scandinavian literature. The context for this superstition about his burial-mound is explained in another Old Norse saga, Ragnars saga:

Ok þa er hann la i banasott, męllti hann, at hann skylldi þangat fera, er herskat veri, ok þess kvazt hann vęnta, at þeir mundi eigi sigr fa, er þar kęmi at landinu. Ok er hann andaz, var sva giort, sem hann męllti fyrir, ok var þa i haug lagidr. Ok þat segia margir menn, þa er Haralldr konungr Sigurdarson kom til Englandz, at hann kęmi þar at, er Ivar var fyrir, ok fellr hann i þeirre faur. Ok er Vilhialmr bastardr kom i land, for hann til ok braut haug Ivars ok sa Ivar ofuinn. Þa let hann giora bal mikit ok lętr Ivar brenna á balinu. Ok eptir þat berzt hann til landsins ok fęrr gagn.
When Ivar lay in his last illness, he said that he should be carried to the place where armies came to harry, and he said he thought they would not have the victory when they came to the land. And when he died, it was done as he had said, and he was laid in the howe. And many people say that when King Harald Sigurðarson [i.e. Harald Hardrada] came to England, he landed at the place where Ivar was, and he died on that expedition. And when William the Bastard came to the land, he went to the place and opened Ivar’s mound and saw Ivar, undecayed. Then he had a great fire made and had Ivar burned in the flames. After that he fought battles across the country and won the victory.

The difference between the two invaders of 1066 is shown by how they react to Ivar's burial-mound: William is prepared to risk the wrath of the great Viking by burning his bones, but Harald, already convinced he is doomed to die on this expedition, accepts the bad omen as his fate.

I'm interested in the burial-mound story, but I've written about that before, so here I'll instead explain why I also very much like how Hemings þáttr imagines the little dialogue between Harald and Tostig. Picture them, on the coast of Cleveland on a warm September day, steeling themselves for coming battle and passing the time with this ill-tempered conversation. This is the kind of naturalistic moment at which Icelandic sagas excel - more like something from a modernist novel than a medieval history. It's sparse and tense, and what matters most is what's not being said. (It will now take me three paragraphs to explain what the saga leaves unsaid...) As battle approaches, the two allies are getting on each other's nerves: Tostig thinks the king is losing his grip, and Harald is increasingly frustrated with Tostig's evasions. Harald already fears the answer to his question about the hill - he intuits that they have landed in an ill-omened place - and he wants to make Tostig confirm it. Tostig's irritable attempts at deflection suggest he knows it too, but doesn't want to say so.

Sagas of this genre are often interested in the relationship between kings and their advisors - what it is and isn't safe to say to a powerful man, and how best to say it - and there's some of that going on here, all tact and tactics as Tostig tries to distract the king from fears which might become self-fulfilling prophecies. There are also some undercurrents to do with Tostig's status as an outsider Englishman (as this saga presents him) and a Norse writer's view on whether the English in general can be trusted to speak the truth. In his ambition for power Tostig has set himself apart from his countrymen and keeps telling Harald 'you can't trust the English', speaking as if he's not one of them - but in the eyes of the Norwegians he absolutely is, in part because he's the most untrustworthy of all. Harald knows that the English hate Tostig, and Tostig knows it too - so perhaps it needles him to be called on to act as guide to the English landscape. 'You're from around here, you're supposed to know this place - tell me what that hill's called'.

And there's something memorable and almost proverbial about Tostig's brittle riposte, 'Not every hill has a name'. Not everything is an omen, he's trying to say, not everything is about something else - just focus on the job in hand! I think of that sometimes as a useful little self-rebuke against the tendency to take things too seriously. (But in this case he's wrong, of course: this is an omen.) Altogether it's a brilliant evocation of eve-of-battle nerves, and the sense of anticipation, of something momentous drawing near, is very strong. What comes next you can read about here. (And in my book - did I mention it's currently on sale?)