Tag Archives: Medieval Literature

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

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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Death for Dinner: The Battle of Auberoche and French Tactical Ignorance

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A Scribe’s Life (3): Snorri Sturluson

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

Scribe: Snorri Sturluson
Lived c. 1179 – 1241
Location: Reykholt, Iceland
Notable works:
Prose Edda – literary work, mythological narrative, and poetics guide
Heimskringla (History of the Norwegian Kings) – political chronicle
Egils saga (?) – Icelandic family saga/warrior-poet narrative

Of all the historians and scribes this series will be covering, there are few who will have such a prominent life outside of their written works than the Icelander Snorri Sturluson. He is almost certainly the only historian we will be covering with the political agency to directly disobey a king and be assassinated for his temerity. Unfortunately, Snorri’s own fascinating story and contentious political life is generally subordinated in the popular consciousness to his most famous work, the Prose Edda, a text simultaneously praised as our primary source for much of what we know of Old Norse mythology, and condemned refracting that mythology through the lens of Christianity. But to construe Snorri’s legacy as being the Prose Edda, and construe the Prose Edda as being a flawed recollection of pre-Christian belief, is more than a little reductionist and not really fair on either.

Continue reading A Scribe’s Life (3): Snorri Sturluson

Viking Women & Authority in the Icelandic Outlaw Sagas of Gisli and Grettir

There is nothing like a good outlaw story, they tend to contain some very enjoyable motifs – a trickster hero, feats of derring-do, vengeance, comeuppance and, usually, some interesting female characters. A bit of recent Twitter chatter (here and here) have brought to mind a couple of strong women in two Icelandic outlaw sagas – Auð Vesteinsdottir of Gísla saga Súrssonar and Thorbjorg ‘the Stout’ in Grettis saga. So today I thought we would take a look at these two women, and their roles in the male-dominated Icelandic society in which law, feud, and honour created and pursued outlaws. Strong female characters can be found all throughout Old Norse literature – it is one of the things that makes the sagas so pleasurable to read, and speaks to a culture in which women were able to exercise some personal agency. Auð and Thorbjorg are excellent examples of this agency and we will focus on them as such – the broader topic of women in Old Norse society would be a book-length study (which happily Jenny Jochens has provided). Continue reading Viking Women & Authority in the Icelandic Outlaw Sagas of Gisli and Grettir

A Scribe’s Life (2): John of Worcester

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

Scribe: John of Worcester
Lived: c.1075 – 1140
Location: Worcester Priory
Notable works: Chronicon ex chronicis

John of Worcester was a contemporary of William of Malmesbury, Orderic Vitalis, and Henry of Huntingdon (among others) and, while it may be fair to say that his name is lesser known of this esteemed company, his Chronicon is an important and unique source of English history. John’s chronicle provides much in both content and approach to differentiate it from other contemporary histories, while at the same time being invaluable for the evidence it provides of inter-connected networks of scholarship in post-Conquest England. Naturally, the Chronicon finds its greatest direct historical value in its record of post-Conquest history, as this was the cultural milieu in which John operated. However, John was an excellent scholar and the work he did in compiling a history of Anglo-Saxon England from varied sources, grafting it to material relating to broader Western European history, is masterful. (Almost all the work I do with John’s Chronicon relates to pre-Conquest history). Yet for many, John’s name is more likely to evoke the spectre of an ongoing scholarly debate than it is a hard-working scribe and historian, a scholar thought of highly by Orderic, and a correspondent of William, with whom he exchanged sources. You see, until quite recently, the Chronicon was believed to be primarily the work of Florence of Worcester, based on this entry for the year 1118:

Dom Florence of Worcester, a monk of that monastery, died on the 7th July. His acute observation, and laborious and diligent studies have rendered this chronicle of chronicles [chronica ex chronicis] above all others. Continue reading A Scribe’s Life (2): John of Worcester

A Scribe’s Life (1): William of Malmesbury

This is the first of an ongoing series of short biographies of medieval scribes.

Scribe: William of Malmesbury
Lived c. 1095 – 1143
Location: Malmesbury Abbey, England
Notable works:
Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings) – political chronicle (449 – 1120)
Gesta pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Bishops) – ecclesiastical chronicle (449 – 1120)
Historia Novella (The New History) – history of contemporary events (1126-1142)
Vita sancti Wulfstani (Life of Saint Wulfstan) – hagiography
De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae (The Early History of Glastonbury)

It is probably a little unfair to reduce William of Malmesbury to the role of ‘scribe’ or even ‘cleric.’ William was a scholar, an historian, an author and hagiographer, a competent linguist, reluctant politician, librarian and manuscript collector, and (to be a little cynical) something of a forger, propagandist, and historical revisionist. There are few historians and theologians from medieval England that have left such a broad corpus of material for us to examine, and none between Bede in the eight-century, and William in the twelfth. Continue reading A Scribe’s Life (1): William of Malmesbury

Northern Ambitions – Æthelstan and the Annexation of York and Northumbria

On the death of Sihtric, the Danish King of York, in 927, King Æthelstan seized control of the Viking Kingdom of York. It was an event reasonably early in his reign, Æthelstan had only come to the throne of Mercia in 924 and of Wessex in 925. In 926 he had sought a peaceful co-existence with York and Northumbria, marrying his sister to Sihtric, but with the Dane dying less than a year later, things didn’t go according to plan.

Clearly, we’re back with Æthelstan today. Specifically, I’m going to look at his annexation of north-eastern England – York and the region of Northumbria. Chronologically, in previous articles I have worked through Æthelstan’s youth, and his (potentially) troubled succession to the throne of Wessex (I’ve also published an article on the reliability of our key source for these early years of Æthelstan’s life). So, we’re moving the narrative forward today. Originally, my intent was to do this via the medium of a charter (like our article on Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey). The grant of land in question, contained in a charter known as S407, gifts lands at a place called Amounderness to the church of St Peter, York. It provides interesting evidence of Æthelstan’s methods of territorial and political control. But I am going to save that for my next article. You see, I started writing up the context we needed in order to be able to understand the content and strategy behind that charter and, as it grew and grew, I realised that what I had written a full-length article looking at how Æthelstan assumed control of the northern territories without ever getting to the charter! So we’ll stick with the annexation of the Kingdom of York and territories today.

Continue reading Northern Ambitions – Æthelstan and the Annexation of York and Northumbria

Shame and Masculinity in Medieval Iceland – The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck

There was a man named Thórarin, who live in Sunnudalur; he was old and nearly blind. He had been a fierce viking in his youth, and in his old age he was not an easy man to deal with. He had an only son, whose name was Thorstein; he was a big man, and very strong, but even-tempered. He worked so hard on his father’s farm that three other men together could not have done better.

This simple introduction to Þorsteins þáttr stangarhöggs (The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck) immediately lays out the problem at the heart of this brief tale. Thórarin was a warrior in his youth and remained a violent and problematic character into his old age, Thorstein in contrast was a farmer, a hard worker who was disinclined to engage in violence and feud. But which man conformed to medieval Icelandic expectations of masculinity? Could Thorstein remain an even-tempered farmer his whole life, even when slighted? What of honour? What of vengeance? What of shame? Continue reading Shame and Masculinity in Medieval Iceland – The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck

Harbard the Ferryman & the Embarrassment of Thor – On the Presence of Odin or Loki in Hárbarðsljóð

Hárbarðsljóð is a flyting poem from the Poetic Edda, in which Thor is challenged to battle wits with a ferryman named Harbard (Hárbarðr) for passage across an inlet. Interestingly, Harbard gets the better of the exchange, ultimately denying Thor passage and sending him around the bay on land. By which we may surmise that Harbard is not a simple mortal to have bested a god in a flyting and confidently sent him away.

In fact, it is something of a trope within Old Norse/Icelandic mythological and legendary literature for gods to travel the world in disguise. There are possibly two figures within the Norse pantheon best known for this trick. Loki, variously appearing as a salmon, a mare and, possibly, an old woman, also noted for disguising himself and Thor as a bridesmaid and bride (respectively) in the famous wedding-feast sequence from Þrymskviða. Loki certainly has form for embarrassing Thor and, of all the gods, he is the most noted for flyting, courtesy of his exchange with the gods Asgard after gate-crashing a feast in Lokasenna. (Both Þrymskviða and Lokasenna also form part of the collection known as the Poetic Edda). Yet Loki’s disguises almost invariably involve shape-shifting. The old ferryman is far more in line with the trope of the Odinic wanderer – Odin-as-vagabond, wandering the worlds of Norse mythology and meddling. And, among his varied roles, Odin does perform as the god of (good) poetry. Cases have been made for Harbard being either of these gods in disguise, and that is what I intend to look at today – the elements of the poem that correlate with other representations of Odin and Loki and thus point to Harbard’s true identity. (Spoiler – it’s Odin). Continue reading Harbard the Ferryman & the Embarrassment of Thor – On the Presence of Odin or Loki in Hárbarðsljóð

A Case of Clerical Fraud – King Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey

The Norman Conquest changed the character of the English church. Anglo-Saxon clergy were ousted, churches and cathedrals began to be built on a much larger scale, the king wielded direct influence over the church, and it marked a period of monastic expansion that saw the number of clergy and religious houses expand fourfold.  Yet despite these changes, it remained that, in Anglo-Norman England, many individual institutions had their origins in the pre-Norman period. Given the fierce competition for land that accompanied the arrival of a new nobility and many new religious houses, these abbeys and churches had a useful tool: the ability to lay claim to a region as the bequeathal of a long-dead Anglo-Saxon king. However, if the religious house in question did not have an extant charter or writ (diploma), and only held the land by right of tradition, how did they prove their ownership? Easy. They created a new one, and believe me, clerical fraud was rife. So, in today’s post we will look at one such example of a fraudulent charter. Known as S 436 and purported to date to 937, the charter we are looking at records King Æthelstan’s gifts of land at Wootton, Bremhill, Somerford, Norton and Ewen to the brothers at Malmesbury Abbey. Continue reading A Case of Clerical Fraud – King Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey

Berserks, Revenants, and Ghost Seals – Surviving a Saga Christmas

Christmas in the Icelandic sagas is not always pleasant. Perhaps a shipload of berserks will arrive at your isolated farmstead intent on rape and slaughter. Or maybe the undead have become active, killing your shepherds or overrunning your mead-hall. Or, worst-case scenario, are trolls haunting the landscape and ghost seals haunting your floorboards? These are all tales I will be exploring today as we look at the dangers of a saga Christmas.

It is a curious thing that such ill-deeds occur on Christmas in the sagas and there appears to be two reasons for this. The first is didactic. Bad things happen to those who fail to celebrate the festival – for example, things do not end well for the berserks who decided to undertake a raid on Christmas Eve. The second follows from this, and reflects an inherent tension between Christianity and paganism that exists within many Icelandic sagas. The saga world is one in which Christianity was a relatively new player and, in these narratives, there is a recognition that paganism was still active in society, as was belief in creatures of pre-Christian origin, and there is an apparent desire to repress both. This is certainly true of the sagas we are looking at today: the events of both Eyrbyggja saga and Grettis saga occur within a Christianised or Christianising Iceland and, more importantly, the authors of both wrote within a thoroughly Christian milieu. Continue reading Berserks, Revenants, and Ghost Seals – Surviving a Saga Christmas