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A Scribe’s Life (5): The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

This article is part of an ongoing series of short biographies of medieval scribes (except not really this time – we’re more focused on the source itself).

Scribe: Multiple, unknown
Lived: c.890 – c.1154
Location: England
Notable works: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

The texts collectively known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (which I’ll call ‘the Chronicles’ throughout), form an inherently complicated source. Many modern readers who are exposed to the Chronicles as quoted in history books, or who own a translated edition could be under the impression that it is a single homogeneous text. It is far from that though! Setting aside partial texts, lost texts, the chronicles of Æthelweard, and that of St Neots, we are actually working from six different texts each with their own nuances resulting from where they were maintained and when they were copied. Continue reading A Scribe’s Life (5): The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

Blood Eagles and Fatal Walks Revisited: Orms þáttr stórólfssonar

It’s nearly two years since we posted our article on the viking tortures of literature and the likelihood that the acts as described ever occurred. This included two implausible instances of brutality: the ‘blood eagle’ and the ‘fatal walk’. We looked at the blood eagle in the context of the death of Hálfdan Longlegs, son of the Norwegian king, at the hands of the Orkney Earl, Torf-Einnar, and in the light of the more famous death of King Aella of Northumbria at the hands of the sons of Ragnar Loðbrók. The ‘fatal walk’ was considered as described in Njals saga as the punishment for Broðir, the Scandinavian mercenary who reputedly killed King Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf. However, these are not the only examples of the two punishments (although it’s pretty close for the blood eagle). In fact, there is one tale in which both tortures are described that I didn’t tackle last time: Orms þáttr stórólfssonar. So that is our focus today, the bloody Tale of Orm Storolfson, the man who ‘blood-eagled’ a troll (or giant). But first a bit of a recap. Continue reading Blood Eagles and Fatal Walks Revisited: Orms þáttr stórólfssonar

Reading England in the Icelandic Sagas: Cultural Memory and Archaeology

In those days’, Gunnlaugs saga relates of the eleventh-century, ‘the language in England was the same as that spoken in Norway and Denmark’. It is an assertion which raises some compelling questions around perceptions of England in saga literature.

Travel to Anglo-Saxon England is common in the Íslendingasögur (Icelandic family sagas), but rarely is it depicted with any distinctively English cultural nuance. Rather, saga authors treat England as an extension of the Scandinavian world of their own cultural milieu with little differentiating detail. This is, broadly, what I want to look at today. The Íslendingasögur are mostly written around two centuries after the events they purport to describe. So knowledge of eleventh-century England (and earlier) was either something drawn from a collective memory that extended beyond living memory, or was a product of authorial invention. Though, if you are familiar with cultural memory theory, you may suggest they are one and the same!

Now, this is not something I have done on the blog before, but the text of this article is largely that which I presented at a recent conference. Usually I reserve conference papers as research to later turn into academic articles. In this case however, I was presenting to a non-expert audience and the paper is geared as such: a general introduction to cultural memory and intertextuality in the Íslendingasögur, and how these may relate to the archaeology of Anglo-Scandinavian interaction. Hopefully you enjoy it! Continue reading Reading England in the Icelandic Sagas: Cultural Memory and Archaeology

Queenship and Power: The Political Life of Emma of Normandy

There are few women in late Anglo-Saxon England for whom we have as much information as Emma of Normandy. The wife of two kings, we find her name in charter witness lists, mentioned in chronicle entries and histories, and she also leaves to history the earliest biography of a secular English female political figure – the Encomium Emmae Reginae. That she commissioned it herself and that it is most often characterised as propagandist praise-narrative is, no doubt, problematic. But it remains a fascinating historical document that reveals glimpses of the events she operated within and sought to control and, perhaps more importantly, gives us a window into her political thought and strategies.

Now, my intent here was to write the marriage of King Cnut and Emma of Normandy in 1017. Historians tend to treat it with a somewhat casual acceptance, yet their marriage is somewhat surprising to the initiate in late Anglo-Saxon history. Emma’s first husband, King Æthelred II (the Unready), had died in London in April 1016, besieged in the city by the invading Cnut who sought to wrest the English crown from him. When Cnut ultimately did obtain the English kingship of his own right, the newly widowed Emma married him. Continue reading Queenship and Power: The Political Life of Emma of Normandy

A Scribe’s Life (4): Saxo Grammaticus

This article is part of an ongoing series of short biographies of medieval scribes.

Scribe: Saxo Grammaticus
Lived c. 1150 – 1220
Location: Lund, Denmark (modern Sweden/Scania)
Notable works:
Gesta Danorum – a history of Denmark from pre-history to the late 12th c.

Saxo Grammaticus was a Danish historian working at the same time as Snorri Sturluson (who we have already covered in this series). While his life was not the roller-coaster of political intrigue of Snorri’s, Saxo still hobnobbed with the elites and wrote history under some significant pressure from these patrons. Indeed, Saxo was in the employ of the archbishop of Lund, Absalon (apparently as his secretary according to Absalon’s will), and important enough to have appeared in a witness list on one of Absalon’s charters. Continue reading A Scribe’s Life (4): Saxo Grammaticus

Chaucer and English Maritime Culture

There is something of the sea inherent in English identity. After all, the ocean makes up over 90% of England’s borders, it has long dictated external political and military policy, and defined mercantile activity.  Throughout the middle ages, the sea enabled England’s engagement in everything from international politics to the exchange of ideas, from commercial fishing and the wool trade that made her rich. Englishmen crossed the oceans as merchants, mercenaries, fishermen, warriors, and diplomats to foreign ports and courts, while in turn continental traders and dignitaries were frequent visitors to busy southern cities such as London and Canterbury. So it should be of little surprise that the sea would have a presence in the conversations of, say, thirty pilgrims making their way London to Canterbury. Likewise, it is unsurprising that Geoffrey Chaucer, that adept observer of fourteenth-century English culture, should provide some commentary on the role of the sea in English life within The Canterbury Tales.

If you are familiar with The Tales, I anticipate you will immediately think of one of the pilgrims: the Shipman. If you are not familiar with Chaucer’s opus, it is perhaps best characterised as a collection of stories, loosely held together by a framing narrative in which a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury engage in a story-telling competition. The Shipman is one of these pilgrims, not a character of one of the tales. For our purposes here, the tale he tells is of less interest than the storyteller, and what his character can tell us of a fourteenth-century English man of the sea. The Shipman gives little away in the opening passages of The Tales to give us insight into his status, but later he is referred to as a ‘ship’s master’ and ‘mariner.’ While the term ‘shipman’ itself is a little generic, the ship’s master resides in the upper echelons of the seaboard community. Though unlikely to have owned his own ship or been a direct investor, we can expect our Shipman, as a ship’s master, held direct financial control over the trading ventures while at sea and in foreign ports (unless one of the owners travelled with the expedition).

chaucer - shipman
‘The Shipman’ – from Huntington Library MS EL 26 C 9 f. 72r.

A ship’s master held broad authority to make independent decisions regarding the venture, providing the necessary flexibility to cope with the unforeseen that so often occurs during seafaring. Thus, a good master was well in demand. But our Shipman may have been more of the middling sort. He rides a cart-horse, he wears plain simple clothes, he carries a dagger. That both his cloak and weapon are almost certainly imported speaks to the mariner’s peripatetic life, but nothing in his kit demonstrates any great wealth (though he has sufficient funds to undertake his pilgrimage). Let’s leave him there for a moment though.  The Shipman is not alone in The Talesin providing insight into English maritime culture and practices. We will also be taking a look at Man of Law’s Tale, a narrative that provides some insight on how the English perceived themselves in relation to both the ocean, and their place in the wider world.

The Man of Law’s Tale focuses on the person of one Constance – daughter of the Roman emperor. Historically (if we dare try to locate the narrative within a historical timeline), the events are set in the late sixth century, based on the presence of King Ælla of Deira in the narrative. At the start of the story, reports of Constance’s beauty have made their way to the ears of a Saracen sultan via Syrian merchants. The sultan and the emperor negotiate a marriage which requires the sultan’s conversion to Christianity; the sultan’s mother is not a fan, and (to cut a long story short) Constance is set adrift at sea washing up on the shores of Northumbria. Constance performs a few miracles, converts Ælla, marries him, and bears a son; Ælla’s mother is not a fan, and (to cut a long story short) Constance is set adrift at sea washing up on the shores of Spain. Constance performs a few miracles, is found by a senator returning from Syria, returns to Italy in his household, reunites with Ælla (who comes on pilgrimage to Rome), returns to Northumbria, their son becomes king. Huzzah!

The tale has a number of notable features and tropes, but the geographical breadth of Constance’s travels is particularly remarkable. Now, we should not suppose that Chaucer sat with a map of the Mediterranean before him as he wrote the Man of Law’s Tale. The geography and topography of the tale are deliberately obscure, and Chaucer’s intent is to ascribe the very randomness of Constance’s drifting at sea to the demonstration God’s guiding hand. Yet, setting aside the implausibility of Constance surviving these journeys alone and ill-equipped, such travels by sea were fundamentally plausible. Moreover, Chaucer shows a familiarity with sea-charts and mappae mari or at least the tradition that informed them, referencing both the Sea of Greece and the Strait of Morocco in Constance’s journey to Northumbria, and Gibraltar and Ceuta in her return journey.

higden mappa mundi
Mappa Mundi attributed to Ranulf Higden c. 1350, BL Royal MS C.IX f. v1-r.2

Sea-charts may need a little explaining, as our perception of medieval maps is often limited to the famous but stylised mappae mundi – many of which were contemporary with Chaucer’s time. The mappae mundi were attempts to depict the entire world, as perceived by the medieval understanding of geography, and in so doing sought to represent the scale of the known lands, but not their representation in space. In contrast, sea charts were more localised and intended to depict coastlines in such a manner to help mariners navigate between ports. It is this tradition Chaucer accesses, and he is clearly aware that such navigation is largely coastal – fourteenth-century English mariners were not bravely pointing their bows to the open ocean. We see this demonstrated in the Shipman’s boast that he: ‘knew all the havens, as they were, from Gotland to the cape of Finisterre, and every creek in Britain and in Spain.’ It is apparent that the Shipman was used to navigating the European coasts, believing he knew every safe place and port for his ship throughout Britain and from Denmark to Spain.

14th c. portolan chart (mediterranean)
Portolan chart made by a pilot of Genoa c. 1320, Library of Congress G5672.M4P5 13– .P6

So where did Chaucer gain such insights into maritime practices? Firstly, Chaucer travelled. Certainly as a soldier to France in his youth, likely as an ambassador to Italy, and possibly as a pilgrim to Spain. As such, Chaucer had personal experience of the mariner’s trade. But more than this, Chaucer’s life outside his works demonstrates that ubiquity of the sea to England. Chaucer was transported across the Chanel as a soldier pursuing the crown’s martial endeavours, then he was sent through the Strait of Gibraltar as a diplomat to pursue the crown’s political aims, then he embarked on a voyage to Spain as a private citizen for the benefit of his soul. Secondly, Chaucer’s position as comptroller of the customs port in London required regular interaction with seafarers. Chaucer’s Shipman is precisely so interesting to modern readers because he is so well observed, built upon the poet’s own experience with the maritime traders. Thirdly, Chaucer seems to have had access to both sea charts and travel literature – a result of both his roles as comptroller and patronised author. The Mediterranean and the pilgrimage routes from London to places like Rome are well attested in both sea charts and travel literature, being some of the most regularly traverse sea-routes. There is little reason to doubt Chaucer drew on this tradition in including the geographical references we noted in the accounts Constance’s journeys.

We shouldn’t understand Chaucer’s experiences with the sea as unique (though the extent of his travels may well have been so). Many other young Englishmen travelled to the continent as soldiers in the fourteenth-century. The English crown had many diplomats of various standings to send to continental European courts and cities. While those with the means often engaged in pilgrimage to Rome or Santiago de Compostela or other such destinations. And this does not take into account the more everyday interactions with the sea represented by trading and fishing. The sea connected England to Europe on many levels. For this reason, the sea is undeniably present in the culture of fourteenth-century England as represented in The Tales, and we are fortunate to have in Chaucer an observer with some familiarity with maritime culture and practices. Yet, as a closing note to this rather brief sketch of the sea in The Tales, I want to highlight how prosaic the depictions of the sea and travels upon it are, both in the Shipman’s prologue and the Man of Law’s Tale. The sea is almost something of an unremarkable background character, merely a conveyance facilitating the actions of a character or events at a destination. It speaks to the sheer ubiquity of the sea to fourteenth-century English culture, to the people of an island at the edge of European civilisation.

-Matt Firth

References: 

  1. Feature image: Treaty of Amiens, National Archives E 30/1113.
  2. Alfred Hiatt, ‘“From Hulle to Cartage”: Maps, England, and the Sea,’ in The Sea and Englishness in the Middle Ages, edited by Sebastian I. Sobecki, pp. 133-58.
  3. Craig Lambert and Andrew Ayton, ‘The Mariner in Fourteenth-Century England,’ Fourteenth Century England 7 (2012), pp. 153-76.
  4. William Sayers, ‘Chaucer’s Shipman and the Law Marine,’ The Chaucer Review 37 (no. 2, 2002), pp. 145-58.
  5. Scott D. Westrem, ‘Geography and Travel,’ in A Companion to Chaucer, edited by Peter Brown, pp. 195-217.

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