Category: Daily life in Anglo-Saxon England

Farming in Anglo-Saxon England

by Geoff Littlejohns, gesith

A calendar page for November, from a calendar made in southern England in the first half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8r

The overwhelming majority of the English population of Anglo-Saxon England lived in the countryside, grew crops, herded livestock and were self-sufficient. Academic work, however, has made little effort to investigate life on Anglo-Saxon farms– even though this was clearly the most fundamental feature of Anglo-Saxon history. I shall attempt a survey.

The Anglo-Saxon era is often broken into three periods – Early, Middle and Late. This periodisation provides us with a tool for assessing the rate and extent of change. We should, nevertheless, be cautious. Agricultural practices will vary according to region as these have to be responsive to different soils and conditions. Innovation in one district may be resisted in others, making any conformity within a historic period unlikely. Different farmers may uphold different methods and customs between and within regions.

Nevertheless periodisation lays out a framework for analysis. Let us start with the Late or Anglo-Scandinavian period of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Here we can make use of the priceless Domesday Book. This outlines a well-worked landscape, marked not just by ploughland but meadows – valuable for providing winter fodder – and wood-pastures – valuable for providing firewood and timber. Very many water-mills are recorded, suggesting that villagers were ready to accept new technology and to abandon the drudgery of the hand quern. Domesday also reveals estates, and therefore social diffferentiation within rural communities.

This pattern of a well-worked and well-settled landscape is not the image we have for the Early Anglo-Saxon period – the two centuries after the fall of Roman Britain. According to a wide-ranging review of research into Anglo-Saxon farming (Debby Banham & Rosamond Faith), this was a time of agricultural ‘abatement’. Under the rule of Imperial Rome, the land had been worked intensively. The villa owners had grown rich while their wheat had been exported to feed the armies on the Rhineland frontier. This system of intensive cereal production seems to have collapsed once the Roman control had weakened and then removed itself. The evidence of pollen samples, however, indicates that secondary woodland did not expand dramatically over the land where wheat had been grown before. Using the arguments of the Dutch ecologist, Frans Vera, that heavy animal grazing will check the spread of woodland and scrub, Banham and Faith believe that we should envisage the English farmers of the ‘abatement’ period as predominantly sheep, cattle and pig herders, who gained much of their protein from ‘secondary products’ like milk, butter and cheese.

According to this interpretation, Early Anglo-Saxon settlers did not necessarily seek out land that was easiest to plough and cultivate but lush meadows from which hay for winter fodder could be mowed and lines of access to moorland, woodland, downs and marshes where herds could be set to graze over wide  tracts of land. The human population would have been widely dispersed and often very mobile, driving herds between summer and winter grazing, the system known as transhumance.

This leaves us with the period in-between – the Middle Anglo-Saxon  – the seventh to early ninth centuries. Was this the period when Anglo-Saxon farmers began to turn from predominant pastoralism (livestock herding) and to rely more on arable farming with wheat and barley growing? Did the origins of the open-field system of high mediaeval England lie in this period? Or was the farming landscape depicted in Domesday Book the product of recent changes, changes that were only beginning to be introduced in the tenth and eleventh centuries?

More traces of cereal growing can be detected in mid than early Anglo-Saxon deposits and, according to the respected historian Helena Hamerow, the revival of arable may have started in the Middle Anglo-Saxon period, although Banham & Faith are more cautious, citing the difficulty in interpreting the archaeological evidence that survives. There is still much to understand about life on the farms of Anglo-Saxon England.

  1. Debby Banham & Rosamond Faith  Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farmimg  2014

Wildlife in Anglo-Saxon times

By Geoff Littlejohns, gesith

We can start this survey of wildlife in Anglo-Saxon times by mentioning some species which had lived in the British Isles in prehistoric times but for which there is no evidence by AD  450.  The Wild Horse and the Bison (or Wisent) became extinct in the British Isles at the end of the Paleolithic.  The Elk (known as ‘Moose’ in North America), a noble, wandering animal that requires a large feeding territory, has been considered to have become extinct in the Mesolithic but an elk bone from a Neolithic pit in Cambridgeshire was identified in 2018.  It was dated to around 2500BC.  Unless this animal bone was ritually significant enough to be worth importing, this bone indicates that a few Elk may have survived in Britain from the Mesolithic into the Neolithic. 

The magnificent Aurochsen, or Wild Cattle, had probably gone from these islands in the Bronze Age and our modern domestic cattle, including all the rare breeds, descend from imported stock in the Neolithic and later.  There is some debate over the survival of  Brown Bears as the Ancient Roman poet Martial made a reference to a savage ‘Caledonian Bear’ used to execute criminals in the Roman arena.  This is not strong enough evidence to support the assumption that Brown Bears were living in Scotland in Roman times as Martial may have chosen to assume that the bear came from a distant and cloudily romantic source.  To have proposed a more realistic origin for his bear in Italy or the Alps might have lessened the interest of his story.  There is no other evidence for bears in Roman Britain, but bear-lovers can live in hope that some future excavation in Scotland unearths some bear bones dateable to the Roman period.

Lynx in the Bavarian Forest National Park, Germany
Lynx in the Bavarian Forest National Park, Germany By Aconcagua (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Lynx is a species that was long considered to have died out in Britain at the end of the Mesolithic.  Roger Lovegrove in ‘Silent Fields’ (2007) updated this belief by stating that lynx may have survived in remote areas of Scotland and Yorkshire as late as the time of the Roman occupation.  More recent radiocarbon dating of bones discovered in a North Yorkshire cave have confirmed that lynx survived in that Upland district up to the 6th century AD and so into the Anglo-Saxon era.  Lynx may have survived longer in the Lake District as a 7th century Cumbric lullaby may be referring to lynx hunting there. The eastern Grampians in the Highlands of Scotland could have been supporting a lynx population in an even later period. 

Eurasian beaver near its dam
Eurasian beaver near its dam By Klaudiusz Muchowski CC BY-SA 3.0

With Beavers we are on more secure ground as several Anglo-Saxon place-names refer to them.  The name of Beverley indicates that a clearing associated with beavers, perhaps living along the River Hull.  Bevercotes, near the River Maun, is given in the Nottinghamshire English Place-names Survey as ‘The beaver cotes or dwellings’, with the assumption that the name referred to dams or other structures built by the local beavers. Well after the Anglo-Saxon period, Giraldus Cambrensis testified that beavers were living in the Teifi riverside in west Wales in AD 1188.  This however was their only dwelling place in England and Wales, although he claimed that they also lived along an unnamed river in Scotland.  These were relicts as populations, so we may assume that the distribution of beavers in the earlier Anglo-Saxon centuries would have been wider.  In fact some surprising discoveries recently found within entries in parish records suggest that beavers might have survived for a considerable time in remote places with little attention from humans.  They might have been surviving deep in wet woodlands until the 16th century.

Wild boar
Wild boar By Jerzy Strzelecki – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Similarly Wild Boar were certainly living in England through the Anglo-Saxon centuries.  Eversden in Cambridgeshire and Eversley in Hampshire, for example, derive from Eofor, the Englisc for Wild Boar.  As with beavers, mediaeval evidence for boar indicate that they must have been present in earlier centuries.  Wild Boar were still being hunted vigorously in both the Forest of Pickering and the Forest of Dean in the mid 13th century.

Wolf in Bavarian Forest National Park, Germany
Wolf in Bavarian Forest National Park, Germany By Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

Some sceptics have sought to throw doubt on the evidence for Wolves in Anglo-Saxon England.  That an outlaw was known as a ‘wolf’s-head’ does not necessarily prove that wolves still roamed the woods and moors of pre-Conquest England, any more than do the common names of Wulfstan, Wulfhere or Æþelwulf.  The dramatic mention of wolves in battle-poems may well be examples of poetic licence.  The names given to topographical features are more difficult to argue away. Wulf-hlið, hillside inhabited by wolves, Wulfsēað, wolf’s hole, Wulfslǣd, valley of wolves, strike me as convincing proof that wolves were common.  Nevertheless Rackham was not convinced.  He asked rhetorically;

‘who can tell which of the wolf-springs, wolf-hedges, wolf-leaps, etc. in Anglo-Saxon charters have some such metaphorical meaning and which are connected with actual wolves?’  (Rackham)

The balance of probability, however, surely lies with the likelihood that a wolf-pit or a wolf-hedge was referring to the deterrence of real wolves.  As with beavers and boar, the documented activity of wolves in mediaeval England indicates that they had survived through the earlier centuries.  Bounties were paid as rewards for the killing of wolves right up to the late thirteenth century.  The final record for wolves in mediaeval England came even later.  At Whitby in 1394-6 the monks recorded that they paid a large sum of 10s. 9d for ‘tawing 14 wolfskins’.  The wolf is a resilient animal, capable of travelling widely and so of moving, in Anglo-Saxon times, beyond the Highland zone where I presume they would have found a refuge.  Unfortunately its archaeological remains are usually impossible to distinguish from many domestic dogs.

Roe Deer
Roe Deer by LubosHouska, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

While Red Deer and Roe Deer were common in Anglo-Saxon England, the status of Fallow Deer is still debated.  It is likely that they were imported for religious rituals by the Romans, but then perished as the Roman Empire came to an end in Britain.  Fallow Deer were returned to Britain by the Normans who may have brought them in from Sicily.

Flock of Spoonbills
Flock of Spoonbills by Artemy Voikhansky, CC BY-SA 4.0

The position of bird life is less problematic.  Bird species that were forced into extinction in the historically documented era – the Crane, the Spoonbill, the Great Auk, the Great Bustard, the White-tailed Eagle and the Osprey – were victims of the invention of firearms which made killing all too easy.  In Anglo-Saxon times the technology of bow & arrow and falconry did not allow people to inflict such havoc.  So the very recent natural return of the Osprey, Crane and Spoonbill to our islands has restored to us birds that would have been familiar to our ancestors and we should welcome, also, the translocations by ecologists that have restored the Great Bustard and the White-tailed Eagle, along with further Red Kite populations to the bird life of Britain.  Sadly the Great Auk cannot be reintroduced as human destructiveness killed off the last of the entire species in the mid-Atlantic in the mid 19th century.

This impression that the bird-life of Anglo-Saxon England must have been extraordinarily rich is confirmed by the presence of many species’ names in the Englisc (language of the Anglo-Saxons) word-hoard.  The surviving literature from before AD 700 includes the Gannet, Whooper Swan, White-tailed Eagle, Crane, Quail, Whimbrel, Kittiwake, Carrion Crow, Raven, Cuckoo, Woodpigeon, Swallow, Nightingale, Robin and Chaffinch.  Subsequent writings before the Middle English of Chaucer have pushed the list of bird names to just under a hundred.  Other bird names that are not recorded in the early lists clearly have their origins in Englisc and must have been used in Anglo-Saxon times but not recorded on surviving manuscripts.  The Redshank, Redstart, Yellow Hammer and the Godwit must derive from scanca, steort, amore and wiga.  Had the name of the Redshank been coined in the Modern English period, it would be probably now called the Red-legged sandpiper and the Redstart the Redtail.

The Re-wilding Movement began in North America with the intention of restoring as far as is feasible the splendour of the bio-diversity of the North American Pleistocene.  The present Re-wilding Movement in Britain, as far as I am aware, has not declared any purpose of reviving a species list quite as it was in historic or prehistoric times.  Instead its prime aim is to revitalize our landscapes and transform them into habitats for balanced populations of large herbivores and carnivores of once native (or similar) species.  Hence bison, konik ponies or elk could fulfil a role in an English re-wilded landscape. 

This means that re-wilders are not concerned with reviving a fauna that would be a strictly Anglo-Saxon one.  Nevertheless, we as Anglo-Saxonists, may wish to welcome the current efforts of re-wilders to restore lynx, beavers, wild boar, white storks and even wolves to parts of our archipelago.  Of course we would prefer to see re-wilding that showed concern for historic provenance, as it seeks to protect, enrich or restore landscapes.  A historically-mindful approach is perhaps particularly needed when we are engaged in large-scale tree-planting, but an English landscape that is rich in balanced wildlife must be a landscape that helps bring us closer to the lived experience of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, dwelling as they did in the heart of a natural world. 

Read about the Anglo-Saxon Countryside


The Anglo-Saxon countryside

by Geoff Littlejohns, gesith

The condition of wildlife depends on the condition of its habitat and eco-system.  Before we can appreciate the richness and variety of wildlife in Anglo-Saxon times, we have to be aware of the variety of the English countryside. 

Chronologically we can draw distinctions between the Early, Middle and Late Anglo-Saxon periods and understand that the countryside would have been exploited at a different tempo and intensity in each of those periods. 

Period dates: Early 450-650; Middle 650-850; Late 850-1066

The wealth of local detail in Domesday Book allows us to bring together an image of much of the English countryside as it was in the Late period (AD 850-1066).  Oliver Rackham, in his magisterial study, “The History of the Countryside” (1986), used this Great Survey of 1086 to estimate that around 35% of the land recorded in Domesday was farmed as arable, around 15% held in wood or wood pasture, around 30% kept in pasture and around 20% left as waste – in other words, upland moors, scrub and fens. 

The details that appear in Domesday Book suggest that fertile land was relatively intensively exploited with the arable production of the ploughlands supported by the activities associated with hay meadows, water-mills, fish weirs and wood pasture.  A monetary economy meant that surplus agricultural production could be released to markets for trading.

For the Middle Anglo-Saxon period (AD 650-850) we rely on the evidence of place-names and of charters to provide an impression of conditions in the countryside.  We can assume that agriculture was less intensively organized and the countryside less populated than it was in the Late period.  Place-names such as ‘Barton’, with their reference to barley growing, indicate that specialization was already being undertaken.  Estates had formed and must have been producing surpluses so that the rural population was no longer struggling to survive at subsistence level.  Evidence from charters indicates that the Open-Field system was being introduced in some areas during the Middle period. 

For the Early Anglo-Saxon period (AD 450- 650) we have very little evidence to carry us beyond suppositions.  Pollen analysis can be misleading if evidence drawn from a limited number of sites is applied to draw general regional or national conclusions.   

Map of Britain divided into landscape regions
Map of Britain divided into landscape regions (c) Geoff Littlejohns 2021

We should understand the variety within the Anglo-Saxon countryside not just in chronological but geographical terms.  Rackham was at pains to distinguish three distinct zones within the English countryside – the Highland zone, the Lowland ‘Planned Countryside’ and the Lowland ‘Ancient Countryside’.  The Highland zone encompasses the Peak District, Devon & Cornwall and all the northern areas which now lie within or close to our National Parks.  To quote Oliver Rackham, ‘although not all of high elevation, this is the land of moors, dales, ancient oakwoods and a mountain way of life.’  (Rackham 1986 p4)   In these areas, as in nearly all Wales, the human population would have been very low, transhumance with livestock undertaken regularly and arable-agriculture small-scale and unreliable.  With little surplus extracted from the soil or livestock, local farming would have been largely at subsistence level. 

One of the key themes within Rackham’s work is his stress on the long-running distinction in lowland England between two contrasting types of countrysides.  The division was observed long ago by F.W. Maitland in his ‘Domesday Book and Beyond‘ (1897).  The ‘Planned Countryside’ of today is the countryside redrawn in the 18th and 19th century Enclosure Movement, a landscape now of isolated farm-houses standing within regular fields enclosed by blackthorn and hawthorn hedges.  Before the great enclosures swept over this zone of the English countryside, the landscape would, however, have been totally different in appearance and arrangement.  Nucleated villages would have been surrounded by two, and later three, vast open-fields, each subdivided into selions, or strips, allocated, and regularly reallocated, to various members of the village community.  The fields are known as ‘open’ because no hedges marked out their iinternal subdivisions.  The agricultural tasks and routines of the villagers would have been closely organized and regulated with crops rotated each year among the open-fields.  The fallow seasons would have been strictly enforced to allow for grazing by villagers’ livestock over the ground left fallow for that year.  Beyond the open-fields, wastes could provide for more grazing.  We can discover traces of the long strips of the mediaeval open-field system in the ridge and furrow patterns that are still there set on the ground within the later grass-covered grazing enclosures.

The Open-field system never covered all the regions of England.  The ‘Planned Countryside’ of the Open-fields stretched across England from the East Riding and Vale of York in the north southwards over the East Midlands to reach Dorset on the south coast.  The 18th & 19th century Enclosure Acts undid the open-fields over around 4½ million acres which covered one-seventh of England’s land surface.  Earlier enclosures had destroyed open-fields in some other areas, such as in County Durham and the Suussex coastal plain.

The other English lowland zone where open-fields do not seem to have been maintained systematically Oliver Rackham christened ‘the Ancient Countryside’.  He wrote lyrically about the appearance of this type of countryside;

‘On the one hand, as in Essex or Hertfordshire, we have the England of hamlets, medieval farms in hollows of the hills, lonely moats and great barns in the clay-lands, pollards and ancient trees, cavernous holloways and many footpaths, fords, irregularly-shaped groves with thick hedges colourful with maple, dogwood and spindle – an intricate land of mystery and surprise.’ (Rackham 1986 p4)

He described the Ancient Countryside as the product ‘of at least a thousand years of continuity and most of it has altered little since 1700.’  (Rackham p5)

This remarkable description raises interesting questions for Anglo-Saxonists.  When did these two contrasting landscapes arise?   Was the division of lowland England into two contrasting zones as much a feature of Anglo-Saxon England as it was in later periods?  Can we work out when the open-field system began or decide just how ancient Rackham’s ‘Ancient Countryside’ was?  The open-field system was undoubtedly in operation during the High Middle Ages of post-Conquest England as manorial records confirm, but can it be dated back to Anglo-Saxon times?  

Oliver Rackham was confident that the open-field system did go back beyond the Late Anglo-Saxon to the Middle period.  He found evidence for this in place-names and in the charters.  His analysis of certain Englisc (the language of the Anglo-Saxons) words found in charters also indicates that the difference between ‘Ancient Countryside’ and ‘the Planned Countryside’ was already becoming a feature of the English landscape in the Middle Anglo-Saxon period.  He looked at gāra, furh, æcer,  furlang, hēafod, hlinc and foryrþ.

He found that gāra, or ‘gore’ in later English, was mentioned five times as often in extant charters from sites within Planned Countryside as from those from within Ancient Countryside while furh, orfurrow’, appeared eight times as often in what was to be Planned Countryside.  Æcer, ‘acre’ and furlang, ‘furlong”, units of measurement in the open-field system, also appeared more abundantly in areas of Planned Countryside.  Hēafod probably referred to a ‘headland’ in the open-fields.  As with the other key words it appeared more abundantly within charters relating to Planned Countryside.  Hlinc which may have identified baulks and ridges in the open-fields was again more frequent in Planned Countryside while foryrþ, ‘fore-earth’, has a similar distribution.  Rackham provided a table of his findings that made clear the number of occurrences of these key words with the different areas where they were abundant.  (Rackham p174)

Eric Kerridge in his ‘The Common Fields of England‘ (1992) also found evidence for an open-field system in the Middle period.  Acording to Kerridge, the earliest reference to the common fields can be found in the ‘Dooms’ of King Ine who ruled over the West Saxons between AD 688 and AD 726.

‘Gif ceorlas gærstun hæbben gemænne othe other gedalland to tynanne and hæbben sume getyned hiora dæl sume næbben and etten hiora gemænan æceras othe gærs gan tha thonne the thæt geat agan and gebete tham othrum the hiora dæl getynedne hæbben thone æwerdlan the thær gedon’.

(‘if churls have common meadow or other deal-land to fence and some have fenced their deal, some never, and their common plough-acres or grass be eaten, go they then that own that gap and make amends to them others that           have fenced their deal for damage that there be done.’

The words ‘gemænne’ and ‘ gedalland’ arekey here‘Gemænne’ translates as ‘held in common’ and ‘gedalland’  as ‘divided-up land’.  This indicates that at the time the charter was written the commonly-held land of the open-fields was being divided up and dealt out in strips to the churls.  Kerridge concluded that;

‘the evidence plainly shows that the introduction of common fields in (but not throughout) England started before 726 and had run much or most of its course by about the year 1000.’   (Kerridge p22)    

If the open-field system had its beginnings in the Middle Anglo-Saxon and the distinction between Planned and Ancient countrysides was already visible then, we can ask how the countryside in the Early Anglo-Saxon period was similarly or differently organized.  Rackham declared that as far as he knew there was not the slightest evidence that open-fields existed in the Roman period.  David Hall in ‘Medieval Fields‘ (Shire 1982) confirmed this view;

‘Aerial photography and excavation prove that strip fields are later than all Roman (and earlier) sites.  More surprisingly, strips overlie early and middle Saxon sites as well.  The early Saxon settlement pattern is not at all like that of the medieval nucleated village.  Sites are are limited to light soils. … The settlements are small … There is no evidence of subdivided fields associated with them.’  (Hall p45/6)

Hall argued that the Early Anglo-Saxon farmed sites were deserted some time in the eighth and ninth centuries AD and the settlements moved into nucleated villages at the same time.  He used the word ‘catastrophic’ to apply to what may have been imposed changes;

‘thus there are two “catastrophic” events happening in the middle Saxon period: a resiting of villages and the laying out of subdivided fields.’   (Hall p46)

He pointed out that there was no evidence of continuity as open-field furlong boundaries appeared not to have the slightest relationship with earlier landscape features.

This assessment provides support for Rackham’s view of the nature of the coming of the Open-fields.  He suggested that the agricultural landscape for this zone of lowland England was suddenly and comprehensively transformed in a rapid process that affected social life as much as it did the lay-out of fields and hedgerows.  It was as momentous a change as the 18th century Enclosure Movement that swept away the open-fields.

‘From the Dark Ages onwards, a “De-Enclosure Movement” flooded like a tide. … The English Midlands were submerged so widely and for so long that now little remains of the pre-open-field agricultural landscape. … Open-field with its rapid spread has all the marks of a Dark Age invention. … It appears also to have been part of a social revolution, in which people took to living in villages instead of the earlier hamlets and farmsteads.’  (Rackham p178)

It is perhaps regrettable that Rackham used the term ‘Dark Age’ as the great changes in agricultural organization and settlement would seem to come in the age when literacy (and thereby light) had returned. This was the period when powerful kingships were being formed, buttressed by clerical authority and organization.  At a local level the new power and authority were being reflected and secured by the establishment of large concentrated estates. 

Why did these enormous changes appear to have affected the lowland zone of the Planned Countryside and not the zone of Ancient Countryside?  The explanation may of course lie in the nature of soils, altitude and localized climatic conditions.  We may, however, wonder whether the changes may not be related to the expansion of the great kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria.  The Ancient Countryside is not situated in one contiguous block but includes parts of Yorkshire, Lancashire, the West Midlands, western Wessex, the Thames Valley, Surrey & Kent and parts of East Anglia.  South Essex has no history of open-fields. 

This Ancient Countryside may not have been all of one piece.  Kerridge looked at East Anglia and Kent.  He found that there were some common fields set up here but stressed that they had not been imposed in a single moment of reorganization as;

‘they arose less from the planned and orderly distribution of lands amongst service-tenants and more from the haphazard division of large family holdings into smaller ones.  And this would seem to accord with what we know of the manner in which the Germanic peoples first settled the land in those places.  It seems to have been more by infiltration and less by conquest than it was in           Wessex and the Midlands.  (Kerridge p46)

Kerridge’s statement surely implies that what we may be seeing in the Ancient Countryside of Essex, Sussex, Kent and East Anglia, in the heaths, woodlands and irregular fields of those areas, is a lasting heritage of the Early Anglo-Saxon settlement of our country, one that was so entrenched that it was impossible for the fragile kingships of Middle and Late Anglo-Saxon England to break it down and to enforce reorganization in those areas.  Features of that landscape may possess not just a thousand years of continuity but date back five hundred more years to the earliest years of our ancestors’ settlement. 

As for the other regions of Ancient Countryside, in parts of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, the West Midlands and western Wessex, the particular landscape may reflect their marginal geographical position as they all lie close alongside the upland zone or may reflect a historic reality in which the Anglo-Saxon push westwards in the fifth and sixth centuries ran out of manpower, making settlement and farming inevitably more dispersed and tenuous.  I imagine that both factors were and have been at work.

Whatever may have been the case, the Ancient  Countryside of lowland England was not the creation of the Romano-British.  Rackham observed;

‘After the Roman period there seems to come a break in the organization of fields.’  (Rackham  p164)

Prehistoric field-organization also appears to be quite different from the pattern of any of the farmed landscape we have now.

The variety of the landscapes of England both in time and place can make it misleading to draw conclusions about the distribution and survival of the wild-life living within them.  An animal long extinct within the relatively intensively farmed Planned Countryside might have survived well in other zones.  In the Early Modern period Wild Cats and Pine Martens seem to have been flourishing in the Upland zone of England and perhaps in the Ancient Countryside as well.  What may have become extinct in the closely farmed Planned Countryside of open-fields could certainly have flourished centuries longer where game-keeping and vermin control were less eagerly practised.

Read about Anglo-Saxon Wildlife

Wildlife and the Countryside in Anglo-Saxon times

Epping Forest, Essex
Epping Forest, Essex By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Anglo-Saxon England must have been, by our present standards, impressively rich in wildlife and general bio-diversity.  The human population was less than a tenth of its current size and that population used organic food and clothes. Tools, when not made of iron, were made from natural materials such as bone, horn, wood and leather. There was none of the application of chemical fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and manipulated animal feeds that happen today, so the pollution of the Anglo-Saxon environment would have been relatively minimal.

You can read more about the countryside and the wildlife in our detailed articles:

Read about the Anglo-Saxon Countryside  

Read about Anglo-Saxon Wildlife

Life in Edwards England

When Edward came to the throne in 1042, Vikings were no longer the constant threat they had been in previous generations. England was becoming one of the richest countries in Western Europe, and her population was slowly growing.
Edward had a government which ran the country very efficiently for the times, although he had to be careful not to upset the handful of very powerful earls in the land: they were all rich, and each had plenty of armed followers.
There were mints across the country producing millions of silver pennies, which improved trade and made life easier for everyone.
There were Christian churches throughout the land, mostly small wooden buildings, and people’s lives were dominated by their beliefs. Country priests constantly reminded them of the torments of Hell. Indeed, many people had expected the world to end in 1000AD, but nothing had happened, and life went on as before.
London was becoming one of the most important cities in England, with perhaps 15,000 inhabitants. York had a population of around 8000, and there were a dozen or so other cities in England with two to four thousand inhabitants. But the great majority of people – more than 90% – lived in the countryside, kept animals and grew crops. There were perhaps between one and two million people in the whole of England – that’s about one-fortieth of today’s population!

The earls owned vast estates – bigger than counties today – but they relied on their ‘thanes’  to run things for them. Thanes were the lords of each village, and were expected to fight for the earl or the king if necessary in return for the land they’d been given.
The thanes in turn gave some of their land to ‘churls’, who were free men, but worked for the lord in exchange for their fields. Churls weren’t normally expected to fight.
Churls could rent out bits of their land to much poorer folk called ‘cottars’, who had very few rights.
In Edward’s England, there were still slaves at the bottom of the social scale, but slavery was beginning to die out.
Before he became king, Edward had spent his younger days across the sea in Normandy, where he had become friends with the noble men and women of the Norman court. By 1065, he was an old man, and gained a reputation as a devout Christian. He had no children, and his thanes were uncertain about who was to succeed him when he died. In 1051, while in Normandy, he had apparently assured young William that the English crown would pass to him, but this promise wasn’t taken very seriously in England. He apparently entrusted the throne to Harold Godwineson on his deathbed, but it was the custom for his advisors to make the final decision.
For anyone who thought they had a claim to the throne, it was clear that England was a very rich prize indeed. When Edward passed quietly away in his new Abbey at Westminster (where he still lies to this day), there were several contenders prepared if necessary to fight for that prize…

The Black Poplar tree in Anglo-Saxon England

By Peter C Horn, gesith

The distinguished botanist, the late Edgar Milne-Redhead, from the mid 1970’s, did much to draw attention to the Black Poplar, Populus nigra subsp. betulifolia, as a splended, but largely overlooked, English native tree.  In a letter to the writer, in 1993, he mentioned that he was overwhelmed by correrpondence received, over 500 letters, regarding the distribution of this tree in England.

Richard Mabey says it is our grandest native tree and that it has a thick fissured trunk covered with massive bosses and burrs, growing to over 100 feet if uncut.(Mabey P. 134). Oliver Rackham, the leading expert on British trees, says, no other tree can compare with its rugged grandeur. Its massive, straight, but leaning trunk often reaches 100 feet tall and 6 feet thick” (Rackham, 1986, P.207). It would originally have grown on the unstable flood plains of rivers (Rackham, 1976/2004, P. 22).Kemble Martin says, of Betulifolia, perhaps native by streamsides (1982). As a very impressive, native tree it must have been known to the Anglo-Saxons, who were particularly noted for their use of the wood of various trees for all manner of purposes.

Other Species of Poplar in England

The Aspen, Populus tremula, is native to Britain. The White poplar, Populus alba, is said to be an early introduction, but according to Rackham, may be native. The  Grey Poplar, Populus canescens, appears to be a hybrid between the Aspen and the White Poplar.  The Middle English name Poplar comes from the Old French poplier (from Latin populus of uncertain meaning). The Middle English Abele, applied to the White Poplar and sometimes to the Grey Poplar, is from the French and Latin abel, meaning white.

Application of Names

At Nowton in Sufflok in 1310, John Petrys was fined 2s for felling a poplar and Will Gunnild felled an Abel worth 2s6d (Rackham 1976/2004 P188).    This seems to show that, at that time, the term poplar was not applied to the White Poplar.  Rackham says Poplar is richly recorded in medieval documents. The word popel or popular is systematically distinguished from Aspen (aspe) and white poplar (abel) and must denote black poplar. (Rackham, 1986 P.207). Rackham, examining Anglo-Saxon Charters, says One mention of popul at Michelmarsh, Hants, may refer to Black Poplar, which would otherwise be unaccountably absent from the Anglo-Saxon evidence (1986. P.210). The infrequent appearance of Black Poplar in Anglo-Saxon records may be because it is not a woodland tree, but a tree of fens and flood plains.

Early Glosses and Runic Poem

Having established above that when the Anglo-Saxons used the term popul or populus they probably meant the black popular, the problem arises as to why, in the following glosses, populus is equated with birce (the birch tree):

Epinal-Erfurt 792                                    populus: birciae

Corpus 1609                                              populus: birce

Wright, Voc 1 33 2 80 13                       byrc: populus

Anecdota Oxon, 56 364 365                  byric: populus betula

The last gloss leaves no doubt that it is the native birch tree, Betula pendula that is being equated with the black poplar.

In the Anglo-Saxon Runic Poem, under the tree called Beorc, the description of the tree does not seem to relate to the birch tree. The poem reads as follows:

Beorc by∂ bleda leas, bere∂ efne swa ∂eah                              Birch is fruitless. Eeven though

Tanas butan tudder, bi∂ on telgum wlitig                               It bears twigs without offspring

Heah on helme hrysted fægere                                                    It is in its branches beautiful

Geloden leafum, lyfte getenge                                                     High on crown and fairly adorned

(Dickins 1915)                                                                                  Laden with leaves towards the sky

(Writer’s translation)

Dickens points out that the description of the tree in the poem is more suggestive of a species of poplar than a birch tree. The poem seems to describe a tree larger and taller than a birch and it describes a tree that does not regenerate from seed, which again does not apply to the birch tree. Dickens, influenced by the early glosses listed above, concludes that the tree in the poem is the Grey Poplar, Populus canescens, which is taller than the birch and also, according to Dickens, does not readily regenerate from seed. However, as mentioned above, the Grey Poplar is accepted as being a hybrid and is unlikely to have been known to the Angl0-Saxons.  The Anglo-Saxons, according to Rackham as mentioned above, probably applied the name popul/populus to the Black Poplar, and the latter, according to Marren, has no seed dormancy and in consequence hardly ever produces a tree (Marren, 1999). Therefore the Black Poplar would be a better candidate for the tree described in the Runic poem.

The question remains as to why, if the tree described in the Runic poem is a Black Poplar, the name Beorc (Birch) was applied to the treeand why, likewise, was the name populus equated to the name beorc in a number of glosses. This calls for some explanation. The Anglo-Saxons would have been very familiar with their limited range of native trees, but there does not seem to be an Old English name for the black poplar, or, at least, no such name has come down to us. The name populus or popel is Latin, or a corruption of a Latin name. Instead, they seem to be using the Old English name beorc to include both birch tree and black poplar. What, if anything have the two species of tree in common to warrent the extended use of the name beorc?  

At first the two species look very different, but a clue lies in the botanical name of the black poplar, i.e. Populus nigra subsp betulifolia. The term betulifolia means Birch leaf and refers, in this instance, to the diamond-shaped, lightly serrated leaves of the black poplar, which are very similar to the leaves of the Birch tree.  And, as Cockayne says, similarity of leaves seems to have been the chief guide to Saxon nomenclature (Vol 2, Glossary p 379). It was not until much later that botanists emerged with their detailed studies of plant morphology. Another example of the Saxon scribe being confused by the similarity of leaves is given by Cockayne, which involves Ceaster æsc that is Helleborus niger also known as Black Hellebore, which has leaves like those of the ash tree (Cockayne, Vol. 2 p 368). Thus it seems not unlikely that the Black Popular could have been regarded by the Anglo-Saxons as a larger variety of the Birch tree.


Mabey R. Flora Britannica, 1996

Rackham O. The History of the Countryside, 1986

Keble Martin W. The New Concise British Flora, 1982

Rackham O. Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape, 1976/1990

Dickens B. (Ed) Runic & Heroic Poems of the Old Teutonic Peoples, 1915

Marren P. Britain’s Rare Flowers, 1999

Cockayne Oswald, Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, 1864/2001

Archery & the Anglo-Saxons

By David Jones, in Wiðowinde #168 (Winter 2013)

“In July 1346 Edward [III] landed in Normandy…with 3,250 mounted archers…and 7,000 archers on foot…” Strickland & Hardy 2005

“…gave the victory…to the English archers alone, and the magnates and men-at-arms remained idle spectators of the battle.” Thomas Walsingham, Historia Anglicana

“Between them, the English archers were shooting about a thousand arrows every second…” Mortimer 2009

“Indeed I thought…Englishmen most apt for shooting and I saw them daily use shooting…” Roger Ascham, Toxophilus

A very English preoccupation

Such medieval victories as Crecy, Homildon Hill and Agincourt, and the habitual practice with bow and arrow necessary to achieve them, made archery a defining characteristic of the English people and nation, something that persisted until long after the military role of the bow was supplanted by artillery during the later Tudor period.

Much has been written on medieval and later archery; partly because we know much about the military deployment of archery and its practice in this period. Ironically, it is from the Tudor age that we get most of our archaeological evidence for premodern military archery in England: through the dozens of longbows and arrows recovered from Henry VIII’s sunken warship, Marie Rose. This one find essentially provides our baseline for defining the earlier medieval weapon that has come to be known as the longbow; no bows survive from the medieval period, when this weapon reached its apogee in England [13]. But what if we go back further, to the Anglo-Saxon period?

Archery glossary

flatbow: a bow with a high width to depth ratio

stacked bow: a bow with a low width to depth ratio

selfbow: a bow with a stave made from a single piece of material, usually wood

composite bow: a bow made from multiple pieces of material

recurve bow: a bow where the limb tips curve away from the archer

tanged arrowhead: a head with a prong projecting back from the tip, which was inserted into the arrow-shaft to secure the head

The basics of archery

Of course, the innovation of bow and arrow is a technology that goes deep into prehistory, and so a brief summary of northern European archery prior to the departure of the Romans is necessary to place Anglo-Saxon evidence in context. We do have a few dozen bows and bow fragments from pre-Roman northern Europe, together with large numbers of arrowheads. Prehistoric bows did follow any standard design, but came in two basic categories: flatbows and stacked bows [7]. Some of the latter are remarkably similar the weapons later called longbows, such as the Ashcott Heath bow from Somerset [11]. The northern European prehistoric bows discovered to date are all wooden selfbows [4, 11]. Arrowheads from this age were typically flat, often barbed so that they stuck in the wound, made of bone, various rocks and minerals, and, later, iron. They were also tanged [12].

outlines of different style archery bows.
Outlines of different styles of archery bows.

The arrival of the Romans produced a discontinuity in British archery, at least in a military context. The Romans principally favoured a third type of bow: the recurve [11]; these bows were also usually composite bows. The Romans produced a variety of arrowheads, but in military use, often employed heads with a distinctive square or triangular cross-section [13], unlike the flatter heads native to northern Europe at this time.

So what evidence do we have for Anglo-Saxon archery?

Literary evidence

A people’s language reflects how they perceive the world, and the Old English vocabulary relating to archery is sparse, to say the least. There is one word for bow: boga, from which we derive our modern term. There are three nouns that in all recorded contexts appear to denote arrow [3]: arwe, earh, scytel; the former being the ancestor of our modern term. There is also the related word earhfaru for a flight of or the shooting of arrows. Another half dozen or so nouns refer to missiles generically – and contingent on the context may  therefore refer to arrows – together with associated terms for flights of missiles. A couple of verbs are used for the casting of missiles: strælian and sceotan; neither refers exclusively to the shooting of arrows. No word exists for crossbow; the loan word arbalest was used for this [5], suggesting that despite their recorded use on the continent at this time, crossbows were essentially unknown in Anglo-Saxon England. Compare this lexical paucity to the twenty or so nouns for sword [14]. This imbalance suggests that the bow and arrow did not enjoy as prominent a place in the Anglo-Saxon mind as other wargear, but also important is how regularly these archery terms are employed within the Old English corpus.

In poetry, archery is certainly mentioned, but not focussed upon to quite the degree that the use of other weapons is [13]. It’s important to remember though, that Old English poems were not the objective reporting of impartial war correspondents, but the romanticised compositions of oral artists, known as scops in Old English. Moreover, Old English poetry was typically written in alliterative verse, and whilst a skilled scop could doubtless manoeuvre deftly around this compositional constraint, specificity may have been sacrificed for generality for the sake of an effective aural result. However, some of the better known apparent references to archery in Old English poetry are worth scrutinising. The translations below are my own fairly literal efforts.

The poem commemorating the Battle of Maldon is often cited as including several references to archery. This piece details the confrontation between a group of East Anglians, led by Byrhtnoð, and a group of Vikings. Initially, the tidal river Panta separated the two  forces, and so

“Ne mihte hyra ænig oþrum derian,

buton hwa þurh flanes flyht fyl gename.”

“One could not any of the other harm,

save someone, through missile’s flight, seized death.”

The noun flan means missile, and since we don’t know what distance separated the two forces, it is difficult to determine whether it refers to arrows or javelins. A javelin can be thrown a considerable distance. However, later in the battle:

“…bogan wæron bysige…”

“…bows were busy…”

So there were some bowmen present! Frustratingly no indication of which side’s bows were busy. Certainly at least one individual on the Anglo-Saxon side was:

“He ne wandode na æt þam wigplegan,

ac he fysde forð flan genehe;

hwilon he on bord sceat, hwilon beorn tæsde,

æfre embe stunde he sealde sume wunde,

þa hwile ðe he wæpna wealdan moste.”

“He did not falter at that warplay,

but he drove forth oft a dart:

he shot now onto a shield, now a warrior he injured,

ever and again he gave some viking a wound

while he might have hold of a weapon.”

The ‘weapon’ referred to here is often translated as ‘bow’, and this may well be the poet’s intention. The fact that this individual is shooting repeatedly would argue for this interpretation, as it is easier for an individual to transport a large number of arrows than a large number of javelins. In the poem commemorating the battle of Brunanburh, where Æðelstan successfully fought a combined Scottish, Welsh and Northumbrian force and was consequently acknowledged as the first king of all lands that now form England, the generic missile term gar is used, so this may be what the warriors have been shot with, rather than arrows:

“…þær læg secg mænig

garum ageted, guma norþerna

ofer scild scoten…”

“…there lay many a warrior

with missiles strewn, northern fighters

over shield shot…”

The epic poem Beowulf has one passage referring unequivocally to archery:

“Nu sceal gled fretan,

weaxan wonna leg wigena strengel,

þone ðe oft gebad isernscure,

þonne stræla storm strengum gebæded

scoc ofer scildweall, sceft nytte heold,

feðergearwum fus flane fulleode.”

“Now must fire devour

Waxing dark flame a warriors’ lord,

he who oft endured an iron squall,

when missile storm, by strings impelled,

shot o’er shield wall; a shaft fulfilled,

eager in feathered garb, an arrow obeyed.”

Strings and feathers? It can surely mean nothing else! The references to an iron squall and a missile storm are also noteworthy, suggesting massed archery. Of course, in an age when a group of fifty might be considered an army, ‘massed’ may refer to a equivalently light shower. A solution to one of the riddles of the Exeter Book is also likely to be ‘bow’, with foga described as an early form of boga [2], or perhaps simple scribal error.

“Agof is min noma eft onhwyrfed;

ic eom wrætlic wiht on gewin sceapen.

þonne ic onbuge, ond me of bosme fareð

ætren onga, ic beom eallgearo

þæt ic me þæt feorhbealo feor aswape.

Siþþan me se waldend, se me þæt wite gescop,

leoþo forlæteð, ic beo lengre þonne ær,

oþþæt ic spæte, spilde geblonden,

ealfelo attor þæt ic ær geap.

Ne togongeð þæs gumena hwylcum,

ænigum eaþe þæt ic þær ymb sprice,

gif hine hrineð þæt me of hrife fleogeð,

þæt þone mandrinc mægne geceapaþ,

fullwered fæste feore sine.

Nelle ic unbunden ænigum hyran

nymþe searosæled. Saga hwæt ic hatte.”

“Wob is my name, reversed.

I’m a strange beast, in battle shaped;

when I am bent and from my belly flies

a poisonous point, I am all eager

that I drive afar that deadly bale.

After my wielder, who wrought for me that pain,

loosens limb, I am longer than before;

’till I spit the deathblended,

all fell poison, that ‘ere I swallowed;

it does not leave any warrior

easily, that I here speak of

if that which fiercely flies from me feels him;

so that through the banedrink

he buys quickly full atonement for life;

I will not, unbound, any man heed

only when skilfully tied. Say what I am called.”

In prose, Ælfric provides a third hand account of the famous ninth century death of Edmund, king of the East Angles, at the hands of the Vikings:

“Hi scuton þa mid gafelucum, swilce him to gamenes, oð

þæt he eall wæs beset mid heora scotungum…swa swa

Sebastianus wæs.”

“They shot [Edmund] then with missiles, as if a game to

them, until he was all beset with their missiles…just as

Sebastian was.”

If gafelucum refers to arrows here, it seems to be the only recorded example in the entire Old English corpus; in all other contexts, gafeluc means javelin [3]. However, Ælfric writes in alliterative prose, and he may have used the term simply as a pleasing match for the subsequent gamenes. Scotungum simply denotes that which is shot or thrown, and provides no further specification on the nature of the missiles. We know Edmund fell during a conflict with the Vikings, although whether in such personal circumstances is open to debate. The distance of Ælfric from the event provides some concern for the accuracy of his account,  and the reference to Sebastian, the 3rd century Roman executed for his faith, possibly by massed arrowshot, raises the ever-present spectre of classical imitation [13].  Unfortunately, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles make no mention of the manner of Edmund’s death.

There are other scattered references to archery in prose: Aldhelm provides a couple.  However, bows and arrows are not attested in Anglo-Saxon wills, and are not included in death duties [13], probably because they were neither as valuable nor, because of their wooden composition, as enduring, as other weapons, such as swords. Once beyond use, they would have been recycled or broken up as firewood, rather then handed down the generations as treasured possessions.

Visual evidence

When considering visual representations from this period, it is important to remember that artists at this time were far more preoccupied with symbolism than realism, and that emulation, particularly of classical models, was considered a virtue, rather than plagiarism. Bearing that in mind, what can the occasional representations of archers tell us?

The Ruthwell Cross, an 8th-9th century Northumbrian sculptured cross, features an  apparently decorative archer [5, 13]. An 11th century pectoral cross as walrus ivory, includes an archer, possibly Ishmael [13]. The whalebone Franks Casket from c. 700 has a figure on the lid panel defending itself with a bow and arrows; possibly Egil, brother of Wayland [5, 13]. These representations all serve merely to confirm that Anglo-Saxons were familiar with archery, but their comparative rarity probably supports the conclusion drawn from literary evidence that archery was not an activity that greatly preoccupied the earliest English.

The Bayeaux Tapestry provides our most comprehensive visual record of archery during the Anglo-Saxon period, portraying the only battle of this age where the role of archery can be examined. We must again be wary, because there are no literary accounts of archers at the Battle of Hastings [5], and it is likely that none of the individuals involved in Tapestry’s creation, from its commissioner, Bishop Odo, to the seamstresses who did all the real work, had any extensive military experience, and did not experience the battle itself first hand. This probably explains why many of the featured military details are known to be incorrect [5]. With these caveats in mind, what can the Tapestry tell us?

There are 29 archers on the Tapestry: 28 are Normans, one is English [5, 13]. Symbolically, this suggests that the Normans had a greater archery corps and / or placed more emphasis upon archers [11]. The lone English bowman is depicted as half the stature of the infantry, and is not helmeted or mailed. Again, this suggests English bowmen were of lower rank, and / or of less important in Harold’s force [5]. The fact that the Normans employed cavalry extensively and largely with impunity, the very units that were to prove so vulnerable to archers in the later, medieval period, demonstrates that the English bowmen were certainly not being deployed as they would be several hundred years later.

Four of the Norman archers are portrayed together, perhaps symbolising a corps, although in this group stands the only Norman archer in mail, possibly a captain, the remainder being of comparable low status to the English bowman [5]. Details such as the length of bows relative to the archers and the style of drawing the bow varies greatly, and despite Bradbury’s [5] attempt to wring information from them, probably cannot be relied upon as useful, and are generic images based on other sources.

Perhaps the most significant role archery played in the battle was when King Harold received an arrow in the face. The reality of this incident has been questioned, and the insistence on a hit specifically to the eye does nothing to aid its plausibility. Left to the ministrations of contemporary medicine, one is unlikely to walk away from receiving an arrow square in the face; it need not be a perfect eye shot. Regardless, if the figure being cut down by cavalry in the immediately following section is also Harold, then his fate was sealed. The loss of the English leader is one of the key factors that influenced the outcome of the battle; some would argue the main reason for the English defeat [15].

Archaeological evidence

Two essentially complete bow staves of Anglo-Saxon age are preserved from of northern Europe [5, 11, 13] The Hedeby bow is from the southern Jutland peninsula, is probably Danish, made of yew, and differs in form from the Marie Rose specimens only by having enlarged knock points (where the string is attached at each end of the bow stave). The Ballinderry bow, found in a crannog in Ulster, has been interpreted as Norse, given its context, and is almost indistinguishable from the classic selfbows from the Marie Rose. From an Anglo-Saxon (or perhaps more likely, Jutish) context, we also have outlines of bows 160 cm or more in inhumations, for example from cemeteries at Bifrons in Kent, and Chessell Down on the Isle of Wight [13].

The albeit scant archaeological evidence therefore suggests these bows differed at most only in degree from later medieval and Tudor bows. This makes sense: the combination of depth and length gives these bows their effectiveness. The depth of the cross-section allows two

types of wood to be effectively incorporated: the heartwood on the belly of the bow, facing the archer, which is best at accommodating the compressive forces occurring there when the bow is strung and drawn; sapwood on the back of the bow, facing away from the archer, best at handling the tensile forces occuring there. However, a larger cross-section also increases the force needed to draw the bow [9]. The long limbs compensate for this,  providing a longer lever and thereby making the bow easier to draw [9]. The long limbs also store more potential energy, converted to kinetic energy when the arrow is loosed, and allow a greater draw length and hence range [4, 6]. Whether used in war or hunting, it is likely that people would gradually develop and use this efficient design if they could. All this suggests that bows from the Anglo-Saxon period were predominantly, if not exclusively, the style of stacked selfbow that later came to be called a longbow. The term longbow did not come into widespread use to describe these stacked selfbows until the sixteenth century, and then probably to distinguish it from the crossbow [5]. This produces the idea, only recently and seemingly still not fully debunked, of a much shorter, weaker precursor during the early medieval and Anglo-Saxon period. Regardless, the absolute length of the stave is not the diagnostic characteristic of these stacked selfbows. Certainly, such bows are long relative to the archer’s height, but there are short and tall archers, so there are shorter and longer bows. What defines such bows is length relative to the archer, and the deep rounded or D-shaped cross-section.

Of course, archery is not just about the bow. The Anglo-Saxons were clearly proficient metal workers, but most of the heads recovered from England dating from early in the Anglo-Saxon period are flat and leaf-shaped, with a diamond-shaped cross-section, probably used for hunting [8, 12]. They make a large, clean cut the maximise blood loss in the prey, and may then fall out, perhaps to be recovered. Early in the period, they were also usually tanged [12]. Tanged arrows do not work so well against armour, because the force of impact against a hardened surface produces a high risk of splitting the arrowshaft [12], diffusing the force of impact and rendering the arrow un-reusable. Vikings also used this style of head, but additionally produced a much narrower form. Although Jessop [8] in the most recent arrowhead typology seems to describe these as multipurpose heads, I would tend to side with Stretton [12] that these were probably more dedicated military arrowheads, because they exhibit design features to aid in defeating armour: a midline ridge, to prevent the head curling on impact with a hard surface; a socket and rivet, to set the head firmly on the shaft and distribute the force of impact more effectively without splitting the shaft; and a narrow, cruciform cross-section to slip more easily between the links of mail armour and provide additonal cutting edges. Subsequently, the English also adopted these narrower, socketed heads [12], which would ultimately develop into the armour-defeating medieval bodkin heads.

A matter of numbers?

“I am of the opinion that the most important thing in the world in battle is the archers, but they must be in thousands, for in small numbers, they do not prevail.”

Jean de Waurin [5]

So by the eleventh century, it seems the English probably had the technological essentials to employ archery effectively in battle. This begs the obvious question: why didn’t they?

Was there a cultural aversion to missile weapons, as somehow being dishonourable compared to hand-to-hand combat? There may an element of this, but it’s unlikely to be the whole story. The Vikings and later the Normans, northern European cultures which both arguably exhibited a more overtly warrior-centric structure than the English, clearly had no compunction about developing archery technology and deploying it on the field. So this concern would perhaps have been important for the highest status English warriors, such as the huscarls, but for the common soldiery, the fyrd? These were mostly farmers, and during battle would surely have been more concerned with survival than honour.

I suspect another key factor was numbers. I would tend to agree with the statement above by de Waurin, a fifteenth century French soldier and chronicler. Certainly, my re-enactment experience in archery is that as part of a small group of archers, when shooting ballistic volleys from a distance, the infantry suffer comparatively few direct hits to the body, even though the arrows may all fall in their vicinity or glance off shields and weapons. From above, they are simply a very small target area. For the archers, this small target area has to be compensated for by a larger number of arrows. Of course, more enemy soldiers will also increase the target area, but then the increase in hits has a proportionally lower impact on the larger overall enemy numbers.

So, you probably need a lot of bowmen to unleash the full lethality of archery on the battlefield. The archery corps alone of Edward III’s force in France was comparable in size to the entire army that any northern European power could place on the field, even early in the eleventh century. Most armies at this time were simply not big enough to include an effectively large archery corps, let alone all the additional infantry required to shield to archers from opposing troops while they went about their business. Concomitantly, I suspect that, having never seen first hand the effectiveness of a large corps of archers on the field, it might never have occurred to an Anglo-Saxon military commander to deploy the archers in great numbers, even if those numbers were available. Therefore, the fyrd would probably muster with predominantly close quarters weaponry: clubs, spears and axes.

Training may have been a final barrier. Acquiring proficiency in combat archery is harder than with a club, spear, or axe. Because, compared to their more martial Viking, Norman and perhaps even Celtic neighbours, the Anglo-Saxon state was relatively pacific, the fyrd was more focused on farming than on the hours of military practice and developing the discpline required to master battlefield archery, even if individuals were adept at using a bow for hunting.

Other factors may well have contributed to the limited use of battlefield archery by the Anglo-Saxons, but whatever the reasons, where deployed, Anglo-Saxon bowmen seem to have been predominantly used as skirmishers, to disorganise and disorientate the opposing side. And although in small groups they could not prevail alone, they could influence a battle, as at Hastings. The technology behind the English tradition of archery was essentially in place by 1066. The final innovations were tactical: the deployment of very large, coordinated and well trained groups of archers [13]. This could only happen as the population increased, allowing larger armies to be mustered, and with the development of an increasingly well trained army.


1. Ascham, R 1545 Toxophilus

2. Baum, P F 1963 Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book. Duke University Press, Durham, Carolina. Accessed at

3. Bosworth, Joseph 2010 An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online. Eds. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others. Comp. Sean Christ and Ondrej Tichý. Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague. Accessed October 2013.

4. Bergman, C A, McEwen, E & Miller R 1988 Experimental archery: projectile velocities and comparison of bow performances. Antiquity 6, 5870.

5. Bradbury, J 1985 The Medieval archer. The Boydell Press.

6. Denny, M 2003 Bow and catapult internal dynamics Eur. J. Phys. 24, 367 – 378.

7. Greenland, H 2004 The traditional archer’s handbook: a practical guide. Sylvan Archery.

8. Jessop, O 1996 A new artefact typology for the study of medieval arrowheads. The Society for Medieval Archaeology 40, 192 – 205.

9. Karpowicz, A 2007 Ottoman bows – an assessment of draw weight, performance and tactical use. Antiquity 81, 675–685.

10. Mortimer, I 2009 1415: Henry V’s year of glory. Vintage Books.

11. Soar, H D H 2010 The crooked stick: a history of the longbow. Westholme Publishing.

12. Soar, H D H, Stretton, M & Gibbs, J 2011 Secrets of the English warbow. Westholme Publishing

13. Strickland, M & Hardy, R 2005 From Hastings to the Mary Rose: the great warbow. Sutton Publishing.

14. Thesaurus of Old English.   Accessed October 2013.

15. Walker, Ian W 1997 Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King. Sutton Publishing

The Sound of the Sutton Hoo Harp

It was not that long ago (1970’s) when writers were expressing doubts about what musical instrument was meant by hearpe in the Old English literature. The question was ‘Why have only two been found?’ (Grose & McKenna, Old English Literature, 1973). A few years later the question required no answer, because by then there was evidence of at least 15 hearpes, from various sites in England and Germany, all similar to the Sutton Hoo hearpe.

This early musical instrument,  called by the Anglo-Saxons a hearpe, is what we call today a round lyre. The triangular frame-harp came into use much later in the Anglo-Saxon period.

This pan-Germanic hearpe or lyre, the most famous example of which is the Sutton Hoo harp, is the musical instrument associated with the early Old English poetry, such as Beowulf. It is a simple yet very elegant musical instrument; aesthetically pleasing in its rounded shape.

This six-stringed instrument, light in weight and not too large in size would have been easy for the travelling scop to carry from place to place. The hollow sound-box looks alarmingly shallow, being no more than 25mm in the case of the Sutton Hoo harp, but it can produce a sound appropriate in volume for the germanic mead-hall.


The wooden tailpiece at the foot of the hearpe, which restrains the strings, need not be much more than 50mm long, in order that the bridge may be moved to a position that will give the strings a vibrating length of about 575mm. This should give the sound a reasonably low and full tone, and, particularly when tuned to a suitable pentatonic scale, the compass of the instrument will lie within the normal tenor register. Because of the nature of the construction of the hearpe, it will in most cases go out of tune much quicker than most other instruments. This tendency can be avoided by making sure that the strings are held firm enough at the base and in the pegs. The  hearpe should then remain in tune without the need for adjustment for some weeks.


Information regarding the tuning of a six-stringed lyre is to be found in a work entitled De Harmonica Institutione (c 880) written by Hucbald (c840-930) who was a Flemish monk. This tuning, when starting from the first note of the C major scale, comprises the first six notes of that scale, namely CDEFGA.

However, Hucbald is not describing, or providing, any information on, the tuning of the Anglo-Saxon or Germanic hearpe. Hucbald is explaining how the Roman philosopher, Boethius (480-524) would havge tuned the classical lyre; an instrument which, as Hucbald notes, additional strings were often added to accomodate the ranges of the various modes.

Whether the Anglo-Saxon scop tuned his harp to Hucbald’s scales later in the Anglo-Saxcon period is not known, but certainly in the pagan period the scop would not have been familiar with the modes used by Boethius.

The Pentatonic scales

It seems fairly certain that the Anglo-Saxon hearpe would have been tuned to a pentatonic scale. The notes of these scales lie naturally to the musical ear between the octave and the instrument has six strings, which gives the five notes of the scale plus the octave note.
Pentatonic scales are very common throughout the world, being much used in the early folk music of various countries.

Any scale comprising of five different notes may be termed ‘pentatonic,’ but there are a number of early forms of pentatonic scales. The G flat major pentatonic scale is the base of melodies that may be played using only the black notes of the piano. The scale C D E G A (c), is the scale used in the early music of China.

The minor pentatonic scale, C Eflat F G Bflat (c), is the scale used in Appalachian folk music and it is also the scale used in early English folk-song music. Tuned to this scale, quite a number of early English folk melodies may be played on the Anglo-Saxon hearpe. Because these early English folk-song melodies go back many centuries, it is I think reasonable to assume that the Old English Scop would have tuned his hearpe to this pentatonic scale. We can therefore, I believe, bring back to life the sound of the Sutton Hoo harp.


The main problem that remains is how was the hearpe played? Did it involve, as some have suggested, a technique called ‘block and strum? The problem with this technique is, if carried out for any length of time, it becomes very tedious to the ear. It is, I think, worth examining the Old English literature to see whether there is any mention of technique whilst playing the hearpe.

There is a late reference to ‘singing to the harp,’ that is Old English salletan  (The Paris Psalter 104). But this term can also mean ‘to sing psalms’ (Latin psallere), and when sung with a harp it would have been the later triangular frame harp, such as is shown in the 11th century Psalter in St. John’s College Cambridge.

The Finnsburh Episode in Beowulf (Lines 1063-1065) seems to suggest that hearpe and song were conjoined:

∂ær wæs sang and sweg samod ætgædere  

Fore Healfdenes Hilde-wisan

Gomen-wudu greted gid oft wrecan

(There was song and sound together gathered

before Half-danes battle leader

Game-wood played, tale often repeated)                                                                                                                                                                           But sweg here may mean the general sound in the Hall, the background noise, rather than hearpesweg (the sound of the harp). This interpretation is perhaps strengthened by gomen-wudu greted coming in the next line; gomen-wudu (joy-wood) being one of a number of kennings for the hearpe.

A passage in Widsi∂ provides another reference to the joining together of hearpe and voice:

Donne wit Scilling sciran reorde

For uncrum sigedryhtne song ahofan

Hlude bi hearpan hleo∂or swinsade                                                                                                

When Scilling and I with clear voice

raised a song for our victorious Lord

Loud was the sound of the harp’s melody)                                                                                                                                                                                           In this passage Scilling is sometimes taken to be the name of Widsi∂’s hearpe rather than another person. But in either case it is not made absolutely clear that the hearpe and voice are heard together at the same time. 

In The Gifts of men the hearpe appears to be played quite quickly and skifully and separately from the voice of the Scop:

Sum mid hondum mæg hearpan gretan

Ah he gleobeames gearobrygda list

(One with his hands may play the harp

He has on the glee-wood a quick-playing skill)

Note here also the term gleobeames (glee-wood), another kenning for the hearpe, sometimes appearing as gliwbeam. The late equation of this term with the timbrel (tambourine or drum) is either by extension or error. A play-wood or pleasure-wood, or perhaps music-wood, is the meaning of the term; the hearpe, basically, being a thin wooden board in appearance. The term gleo in the form glee, has come down to the present day, but now with the meaning part-song.

An extract from The Fortunes of Men describes a lively hearpe-playing style:

Sum sceal mid hearpan æt his hlafordes fotum sittan

feoh ∂icgan ond a snellice snere wrætan

lætan scrælletan sceacol, se∂e hleape∂

nægl neomegende, bi∂ him neod micel.

(One shall with hearpe sit at his Lord’s feet,

receive treasure and rapidly twang

the harp-string, letting the plectrum loudly sound,

which leaping nail sounds sweet

and brings much pleasure.)                                                                                                                                       Here we see that the hearpe was, at least sometimes, played loudly and quickly leaping from one string to another.

Finally, some lines from the Riming Poem:

L 25   gellende sner  (harpstring resounding)

L 27/28  scyl wæs hearpe

hlude hlynede, hleo∂or dynede                                                                                                                                 

(clear-sounding was harp

loudly resounding)

Macrae-Gibson in his glossary (The OE Riming Poem, 1983) gives gellende, hlynede and dynede all as ‘resounding,’ but they must surely have had, at least, slightly different meanings. The sublety of meaning being lost means we have lost some information regarding the sound of the hearpe. Macrae-Gibson translates the lines as ‘ringing loudly so that the sound re-echoed;’ but this is a personal intepretation.

One thing to bear in mind is that, when the poetry is composed later in the period, it may well be that the references are to the triangular frame- harp rather than the earlier germanic round hearpe.

The Rhythm of the Poetry

Pope argues that the verse was rhythmically, rather than metrically, regular (J C Pope, The Rhythm of Beowulf, 1942 rev. 1966). He suggests that Old English verses ‘were chanted whilst being accompanied by a small harp which provided a drone.’ (ibid). However, the Old English extracts above do not support this suggestion. It does seem to be the case that, by slightly emphasizing the alliterated syllables, the natural rhythm of the poetry emerges.


We see from the Old English passages above that the hearpe was played in a number of different ways. It was played loudly, quickly, with leaping notes, sweetly and with a resounding sound. The technique was not restricted to a drone (though a sort of drone may be sustained if required), nor was it restricted to repetitive ‘block and strum,’ which soon becomes wearisome.

It is reasonable to assume that the hearperes would have had some differences in their techniques; there is no reason to assume that there was a standard method of playing the instrument. The hearpe would have been very useful during the recital of the poetry. It might have been played during short interludes, especially when the scop needed to collect his thoughts. It must surely have been used to reflect the various moods, actions and atmosphere of the poetry.

(Based on Article published in Withowinde, Spring 2005)

Alcoholic drinks of the Anglo-Saxons

The four alcoholic drinks of the Anglo-Saxons were beor, ealu, medu and win. Today we have similar names for some alcoholic drinks, i.e. beer, ale, mead and wine, and it is commonly, and quite naturally, assumed that our modern drinks must be similar to those bearing similar names in Old English.

However, some writers have expressed doubts as to whether beor was in fact a malt-based drink similar to beer today. It has been suggested that the drink the Anglo-Saxons called beor was in fact the drink we now call cider. It has also been suggested that beor was a strong alcoholic, sweet fruit-juice; a short drink sipped from little cups. Of course both these suggestions cannot be correct, at least not at the same period of time. The following is mainly an attempt to see if there is any evidence for or against either of these suggestions. Also will be examined a related problem, namely, if Anglo-Saxon beor was similar to the drink we now call beer, how did beor differ from the drink they called ealu (ale)?

Old English beor is a very early drink-name. Compounds such as beorsele (beer-hall) and gebeorscipe (drinking party) show that the name beor had been in existence long enough for it to be used in a general sense to mean ‘strong alcoholic drink,’ in addition to its use as the name of a specific alcoholic beverage. Thus we have Gif ∂onne on gebeorscipe (Ine’s Laws AD688-94); and beorsele appearing only in early poetical texts and therefore indicating a term going back to the pagan period. It would certainly be extremely strange if a name for a high-status drink, drunk in the pagan beer-halls, was derived from monastic Latin.

From the Roman, Cornelius Tacitus, born c. AD 56, we learn that the alcoholic drink of the Germanic folk was a liquor made from barley, or other grain, fermented to produce a certain resemblance to wine (Germania: 23). It is interesting that Tacitus does not mention mead or cider. The drink of the Germanic folk, or at least their main drink, was, it seems, the drink that today we call beer or ale. We know from the Old English medicinal recipes that beor was much stronger than ealu and it would seem natural to assume that beor was the drink of the warriors in the Hall and ealu was the drink of the members of the family.


When Tacitus says that Germanic beer had a ‘resemblance to wine’ he perhaps should be taken as meaning that, not having vineyards at that time, the Germans made their alcoholic drink from barley, which they grew in quantity, and that this was their equivalent alcoholic drink to the Roman wine made from grapes. In other words, the Romans drank wine and the Germans drank beer. He probably did not mean that the Germans were trying, and failing, to make a drink up to the standard of Roman wine. This insulting view was however promoted by the Roman elite at a later date, for example by the Roman Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus (AD 331-365) who maintained that Roman wine was like nectar whereas Germanic beer stank like a Billy-goat.

From the 7th century AD the Anglo-Saxons had a small number of vineyards and, to some little extent , adopted the Roman drink. But wine was never plentiful throughout the period and was therefore expensive and available only to a relatively small number of wealthy people. In Ælfric’s Colloquy the conversation runs as follows:

Ond hwæt drincst ∂u? (And what do you drink?) Ealu, gif ic hæbbe, o∂∂e wæter gif ic næbbe ealu (Ale, if I have it, or water if I have no ale)

Ne drincst ∂u win? (Do you not drink wine) Ic ne eom swa swedig ∂æt ic mæge bicgean me win. (I am not so wealthy that I may buy wine)

There was a warmer climatic phase from the 9th – 13th centuries, when it would have been easier to cultivate vines in England, though wine was still not drunk, certainly in any quantity, by the mass of the people. In his description of Britain in the middle of the 8th century, Bede says that vines grow ‘in some places’ (on summum stowum wingeardas growa∂). Wine was mainly produced for personal comsumption by the lord and his retinue (Hagen p.221) and later for those in the great monasteries.

Few monasteries were without a vineyard. Wine was needed for the Eucharist and the monks were usually allowed generous amounts for their own consumption. In the Old English medicinal recipes wine appears more frequently than any other alcoholic drink. This is partly due to the fact that the vineyards and the medicinal texts are both closely associated with the monasteries. In addition, the great use of wine reflects the Mediterranean origin of many of the recipes.

Wine has by far the greatest number of name compounds. According to Fell, the name win has fifty compounds whereas beor has eleven. Hagen points out that many of the win compounds are functional and descriptive, relating to wine production; for example, winbeam (vine), winberige (grape), wingeard (vineyard), Wingeardseax (pruning knife), winreafetian (gather grapes), winwringe (wine press) and winwyrcend (wine dresser). In passing, it should be noted that beor does not have these functional compounds. If the term beor was used by the Anglo-Saxons to mean cider, then we would expect to see compounds of the word beor relating to cider production; but there are none.  This is a strong indication that beor was not cider.

Wine was not an early, traditional drink of the Anglo-Saxons. From early, pagan times their high-status, strong alcoholic drinks were beor and medu (mead). These were the drinks of the warriors in the Hall and thus we have the terms beorsele (Beer Hall) and meduhealle (Mead Hall). Mead is a honey-based drink and it has been suggested that Beor was also a sweet drink. But having two high-status sweet drinks seems to reflect Roman rather than Germanic practice. One would have thought that beor would have been the strong drink made from barley mentioned by Tacitus, thus providing a choice between a sweetish drink (mead) and a thirst-quenching bitter drink (beor).

Mead and other Honey-based Drinks

The name mead does not seem to have germanic origins. Thus we have not only OE medu, OFris mede, OHG medo and ON mio∂r, all drinks made from honey and water, but also Lith medus and OSlav medu, meaning honey and Greek medu meaning wine and Sanskrit madhu meaning honey-sweet wine. Therefore others had ancient drinks similar to the mead of the Germanic folk.

The plant called in Old English Meduwyrt is usually taken to be, and probably was, the plant we now call meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). This is often said to be a plant used by the Anglo-Saxons to give additional flavour to their mead.

In addition to mead there were a number of foreign drinks, some mentioned in the Old English medicinal recipes, that involved the use of honey, namely:

Ydromellum – Apples and honey fermented together, usually in water but one recipe gives wine (Cockayne Lb II iv).

Oxymel – a mixture of vinegar, honey and water.

Mulsum – wine and honey or wine, water and honey.

Hydromel – Honey diluted in water (becomes mead when fermented).


The view that beor was cider or a sweet alcoholic drink is largely based on certain glosses where beor is equated with various foreign drinks, as follows:

Beor is glossed Ydromellum (Wrt Voc 27 43)
Ydromellum is glossed Æppelwin (Wrt Voc ii 49 57)
Æppelwin is glossed ‘cider’ (WW430)

Therefore, from all these glosses, it would appear that Beor=Ydromellum=Æppelwin=Cider, and that beor is another name for cider. But we have more glosses: Beor is glossed mulsum (Wrt Voc 27 46), Mulsum is glossed ‘cider’ (Isidore 7th cent) and Mead is glossed ‘cider’ (Isidore 7th century). From these glosses it appears that beor=mulsum=cider, but mulsum is a drink made from wine and honey and is not therefore cider. Furthermore, in the 7th century cider (syder) was simply a name for a strong alcoholic drink. There is another gloss:  Ydromellum glosses ofetes wos (fruit juice) (BL Ms 32246f 7b) From all these glosses it would appear that Beor=Ydromellum=mulsum=mead=Æppelwin=cider=fruit juice, which of course is complete nonsense.

Bill Griffiths warns ‘the equivalence between incompatible drinking practices must be unsafe’ (2001). Unfortunately, Fell uses these ‘unsafe’ glosses to support her view stating ‘Old English beor was a drink made from honey and the juice of a fruit other than grapes, as the glosses ofetes wos and æppelwin suggest (Fell p 90). From these glosses it appears that any one of the drinks named is synonymous with any other drink named. The question arises as to why these glosses all appear to be in error. The answer would seem to be that the glosses are either equating drinks that are to some extent similar, or they are equating an alcoholic drink of one culture with an alcoholic drink of another culture. Thus beor is glossed cider simply because they are both strong alcoholic drinks and not because they are the same drink. It hardly needs to be said that any hypothesis based on these glosses is likely to be unsound.

What type of drink was beor?

One suggestion is that beor was a short, sweet, highly alcoholic drink. This seems to be only partly true. The evidence does show that beor was stronger than ealu (ale) (see Cockayne Lb II lxvii), but in the medicinal recipes beor appears as a long, bitter drink rather than a short, sweet drink. For example, genim bollan fulne leohtes beores (take a full bowl of light beer) (Cockayne Lac 18). Presumably a light beor would not be up to the usual acoholic strength. Another recipe states ‘ after eating salty food, by no means let him drink beor and wine and ale moderately’ (Cockayne Lb I xxxvi). In other words a long drink is needed to quench one’s thirst, therefore beor, like wine and ale, was a long drink to be had after eating salty food.

In the recipes, honey is sometimes added to wine or skimmed milk, but never to beor. Fell believes that this was because beor was sweet enough without the addition of honey (Fell 1975). However, if beor was a enjoyed as a thirst-quenching bitter drink, what would be the point of adding honey to it? The question is why was it deemed necessary to add honey to the wine or the skimmed milk?  A likely answer is that, whereas beor was a palatable drink in itself, the skimmed milk, particularly at that time, would be improved by sweetening. As to the wine, it seems that Anglo-Saxon wine was naturally dry (Hagen p227) but swete win sel mylt ∂onne ∂e afre (sweet wine digests better than rough) meant that the Anglo-Saxons sometimes sweetened their wine (Hagen ibid). Therefore honey is added to the milk and wine to make these drinks more palatable whereas beor did not require the honey because it was palatable in itself.

An interesting Old English medicinal recipe provides us with information regarding the relative weights of beor, win and ealu compared to a pint of water. This states that a pint of beor weighs 22 pennyweights less than a pint of water (Cockayne Lb II lxvii). Fell points out that given the same measure of water and a sweet alcoholic drink, the alcohol could not weigh less than the water (Fell ibid). Therefore it follows that beor was not a sweet drink. However, Fell maintains that the Anglo-Saxon scribe must have made a mistake regarding the weight of the beor, and sticks to her view that beor is a sweet drink.

Another medicinal recipe states that a pregnant woman should not eat anything salty, nor anything sweet, nor drink beor, nor eat pig or anything fatty, nor drink till she be drunk (Cockayne Lb III xxxvii). In other words she should have a bland or neutral diet – which is good advice. It is interesting to consider why, specifically, she should not drink beor. Was beor forbidden because, as some maintain, it was a sweet drink? Probably not, because she has been told to avoid anything sweet and then told to avoid beor; she is not told to avoid anything sweet like beor. In other words, there are two things she must avoid, namely, sweetness and beor. It is more likely that she is told to avoid beor because it is a strong alcoholic, bitter drink. (bitter drinks reduce body heat and dry body fluids and strong alcohol obviously should be avoided when pregnant). Therefore again the evidence, properly interpreted, shows beor to be a bitter rather than a sweet drink.

The comparative evidence from Old Norse is relevant if, as most seem to think, the drink called bjorr is the same type of drink as beor. Where beor or bjorr is said to be ‘sweet,’ it should be noted that ‘sweet’ in Old, and modern, English can mean pleasant, and, as Fell says, where svass is applied to bjorr, ‘precious’ is perhaps the nearest translation (Fell ibid) Therefore, when beor or bjorr is said to be sweet, it may mean that the drink is pleasant or precious and not sweet in the way that honey is sweet. More straightforwardly, in the second Lay of Gudrun, in the Elder Edda, said to date to the early 10th century, bjorr is presented as being served in a full horn of drink, cool and bitter. Thus bjorr, like beor, was a long bitter drink.

Some Post Anglo-Saxon references to beor/beer

1205   drink of his beore  (Layamon’s Brut)
1216    hi nabbeth noth win ne bor/beor (Owl & Nightingale)
c 1300  alle drunken of the ber  (King Horn)
c 1325  Rymenhild pours beer (King Horn)
c 1330  of hir bere & of hir wine (Guy of Warwick Auch )
1377 – 99    beir, a last iiij d; and for each barel (Oath book Colchester)
1391     in pane, beer, mede  (Acc. Exp.Derby Camden)
1397    Item ii beere val liii s iiiid  (Early Eng Customs System)
1400   Good ber & brygt wyn both  (Gawain)
1420   iii barellis biere   (Early Eng Custom’s system)
1440   bere, a drynke: Cervisia hummulina  (PParv Hrl 221)

There would seem to be no reason to doubt that all the references to a drink called beor or beore/bor/ber/beer/beir/beere/biere/bere, as shown above,are all references to the same type of drink. If the beor of the Anglo-Saxons was a short drink, very sweet and made from fruit, then the question arises as to what date did the name change its meaning and become applied instead to a drink made from fermented grain? According to Fell, this change in meaning occurred in the 15th century when there were large-scale imports of hopped beer from Flanders into England. However, against this explanation is the use of the word beer in c 1300, where Rymenhild fills a gallon bowl with beer and offers it to Horn (King Horn). Beer therefore in 1300 was a long drink, and Fell is proved wrong. Furthermore, it is hard to accept that the name of an old, traditional, alcoholic drink in England should, in the 15th century, stop being applied to a short, sweet drink and be applied instead to a long bitter drink made from grain, without this being mentioned anywhere in the literature.  It is difficult to see how this change could have been achieved, without a great deal of confusion over an extended period of time.

The Semantics of Beor

The Old English names for barley are beowand bere. We know from Tacitus (see above) that the germanic folk were noted as having an alcoholic drink made  from barley. Therefore it seems more than reasonable to take the ancient Old English drink called beor as being made from fermented barley, because the name of the drink seems to derive from the very similar name for barley. This was accepted without question until recent times, when, mislead by the glosses, as discussed above, it was maintained that beor was either cider or a short, sweet drink made from fruit and drunk out of tiny walnut cups. To fit in with these latter views it was necessary to find a different origin for the name beor. It was then suggested that beor was not derived from the name for barley but from the monastic Latin biber meaning ‘to drink.’ If this is so then it is, it seems, no more than a remarkable coincidence that the name they derived from the Latin biber happened to be so similar, sometimes identical, to their name for barley.

Types of Beor and Ealu

There were various types of Anglo-Saxon ale. Ealdus ealo∂ (Old ale) is mentioned in a fly-leaf leechdom. According to Cockayne, even without hops, a strong ale would keep until it became ‘old ale.’ Keeping and careful treatment would secure its being clear (Cockayne Glossary). They had strang hluttor ealu (strong clear ale), suran eala∂ (sour ale), god ealu (good ale) and niwe which is probably new ale. There is also a reference to twybrownum eala∂ (twice-brewed ale) (Cockayne LB I xivii 3), but this is probably a translation from a Mediterranean recipe and may not therefore be, as some suggest, evidence that the Anglo-saxons brewed their ale twice to make it a stronger drink.

There were also various types of Anglo-Saxon beor. There are references to swi∂e beore (very good beor?), strangan beor (strong beor), leohtes beors (light beor) and wearmum beore (warm beor). In the Old English herbarium, which is a translation of Mediterranean medicinal recipes, the Anglo-Saxon translator uses the native term beor to translate the foreign drink mulsum. As pointed out above, this does not mean that beor was the same type of drink as mulsum. It is from the Herbarium that one of the mis-leading glosses , i.e. beor = mulsum, has been derived. However there is a particular reason why the Saxon scribe translated mulsa as beor, which is discussed below.

We know, as earlier discussed, that the term beor was sometimes used as general term for strong alcoholic drink, as well as a specific term for a particular alcoholic drink. As a general term, beor was used to translate a number of foreign drinks, such as mulsum and syder (cider). However, in the Old English Herbarium, it is li∂on beor that is used to translate aqua mulsa, as follows:

Manuscripts   Ms V (OE)                                            MS O (OE)                                      Ms Vo (Lat)Herb 1                   beore                                                        beore                                                   aqua mulsa
Herb 11                 niwe beor                                                beor                                                     aqua mulsa
Herb 90                swy∂e god beor                                      swy∂w god beor                                      –
Herb 140              li∂on beore                                              li∂e beore                                          aqua mulsa
Herb 146              li∂on beore                                              li∂e beore                                          aqua mulsa
Herb 158              li∂on beore (twice)                                        –                                                           –
Herb 181              li∂on wætan beores                              li∂e beore                                          aqua mulsa
Herb 185              li∂on beore                                                      –                                                   aqua mulsa

In Herbarium Section 11 (Ms V) the requirement for ‘niwe beor’ seems not that important since in Ms O the scribe gives simply beor. However, since aqua mulsa is nearly always translated as li∂on beore it seems likely that in Herb 1 and Herb 11 beor should also have been translated li∂on beor. This we have li∂on (mild) beor as a translation of aqua (watered down) mulsa. It would seem fairly certain that, in Herb 181, the li∂on wætan beores is the scribe’s attempt to translate the ‘watered down mulsum,’ but is does not follow from this that the Anglo-Saxons watered down their beor. The Anglo-Saxon scribe has the difficult problem of trying to translate foreign terms from a culture that incorporates drinking practices that are not always shared by both cultures. We have no latin original for Herb 90, which is a pity since iy would have been interesting to see whether swy∂e god beor was a translation of simply mulsa, that is to say a drink not required to be watered down.

In Herb 1 the recipe states that honey is to be added to the beore, but again the scribe is substituting a native term, as a general term, for the foreign term mulsa and therefore it does not mean that in practice honey would have been added to beor, when we take beor as a specific term, because if a sweet drink was needed then a honey-based drink such as mead would have fitted the bill. In the original Latin, adding extra honey to mulsa makes sense, but it does not make sense to add honey to a drink that is valued because it is bitter. In Leechbook II the foreign drink mulsa is translated by the Anglo-Saxon scribe as mulsa not beor. He states Drince mulsa ∂ is gemilscede drincan ælce dæge (drink mulsum that is, dulcet drinks every day); this being a translation from a Mediterranean text. Here the scribe is avoiding confusion by not using the term beor and he obviously knows that mulsum is a sweet drink and therefore should not be equated with beor.

Wylisc Ealu (Welsh Ale)

Ale was the commonest drink in Wales according to the Laws (Hagen p 217); therefore it is not surprising that some of this Welsh Ale made its way into England in the later Anglo-Saxon period, thus appearing in some of the Old English medicinal recipes and Food-Rent lists. In these lists Wylisc ale is sometimes called ”Sweet” Wylisc ealu, but there is no evidence to support the suggestion that Wylisc ale was a sweet, honeyed, spiced ale similar to the drink later called bragot. Ale has a sweetish flavour as long as the malt sugar in it is not completely fermented (Hagen p 216). Therefore Welsh Ale may have been a swete ealu as opposed to a hluttor ealu (clear ale).


Adding hops to beer, clarifies, preserves and gives it a bitter taste, which makes the drink more thirst-quenching. The practice of adding hops to beer may well have been done, in England, earlier than was once thought; though not done to any great extent until the 16th century. The inflorescences and nuts of the hop contain the bitter acids humulane and lupulone which have antibiotic and hence preservative qualities (Wilson).  Hildegard von Bingen in the 12th century mentions the preservative quality of hops: Its bitterness inhibits some spoilage in beverages to which it is added, making them last longer (Throop 1998).

It is not known whether the Anglo-Saxons were aware of the keeping qualities of hops; if used it may have been simply the bitter taste that was valued. It is often suggested that they used a number of different herbs to flavour their beer, but the evidence for this appears only to practices later than the period. For example, the name beerwyrt applied to the herb meadowsweet, a herb also associated with mead. According to Hagen, sap from sycamore trees was used to make beer stronger. This may be the case, but not in the Anglo-Saxon period because the sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), a native of Central Europe, was not introduced into England until the 16th century. The oft-repeated statement that the Romans introduced sycamore is based on no evidence (Rackham 1986). On the other hand, there is some evidence that hops were used by the Anglo-Saxons, later in the period, to flavour, if not preserve, their drink.

Old English hymele (hop) appears in a medicinal recipe (Cockayne Lac Fo. 139a). The hop is the fructification of the female plant and Cockayne says the name eowohumelan (Lb III ixi) is probably ‘ewe hop-plant’ – i.e. the female plant. The Lacnunga (Fo 133b) also refers to hegehymele (hedge-hop), a name which, according to Cockayne, implies a possible cultivated hop plant (his view is repeated later by Wilson and Hagen). But this is not necessarily the case as wild hops grow, quite naturally on hedges, which, as a climbing plant, they need for support. There is a difference between evidence and interpretation of that evidence and, if there is doubt then the, doubt usually applies to the latter.

Wild hops have been part of the British flora since long before the adoption of agriculture (Godwin 1956). Their natural habitat is wet alder and oak woods and the ‘wild hops’ seen in hedgerows today are sometimes relics of these habitats or relics of former cultivation. Cockayne points out that three Saxon legal deeds refer to a hide of land at Hymel-tun (Hop-farm) in Worcestershire (Cockayne Vol 2 Pref ix). This may indicate that hops were cultivated or it may just have been a place/farm where wild hops were abundant and therefore named accordingly.

Section 68 of the Old English Herbarium at first seems to provide clear evidence that the Anglo-Saxons added hops to their drinks. This section refers to Herba brionia ‘which some call hymele (hop). In Section 68 (Ms V) the Saxon scribe states the hop is so approved and praised that men mix it with their usual drinks. Cockayne says that this remark about adding hops to the usual drinks is not in the original Latin and therefore must refer to an Anglo-saxon practice (Cockayne, Vol 1 p 173 fn). Unfortunately, Cockayne did not check all the Latin versions. In Section 68 (Ms Ca) the Latin reads hæc herba tamlaudabillis est ut (et in tyriacis) potionibus mittatur, which shows that the Saxon scribe was in fact translating from the Latin and the passage therefore does not necessarily reflect Anglo-Saxon practice.

In Kent documents exist which refer to hop-gavel. This involves pre-conquest land tenure and shows that hops were used as a customary due or rent-in-kind payable by certain tenants (Wilson/Connelly). Also in Kent was found the Graveney boat, apparently abandoned in the 10th century, which when found still contained a cargo of hops in some abundance, presumably intended to be used for brewing.  Wilson takes the presence of these hops in this boat as providing the first concrete evidence that hopped beer was known in Britain in the 10th century (Wilson ibid). Also, from the 9th century onwards there is good evidence that French monasteries were making beer with hops (Wilson), therefore it seems quite likely that this use of hops spread from France into Kent in the 10th century, with the Graveney boat offering evidence of this import.


Cider is a foreign drink that was eventually introduced into England. In France the term sidre was commonly used to mean a fermented drink made from apples, and later the same term (ME sidre) was used in England with the same meaning. Earlier forms of the term (Med.Latin cisara and Late Latin sicera) simply meant ‘strong drink.’ This earlier sense was retained in translations of the Vulgate, where forms of the term, such as ciser,cisar and cyser, were used by Christian writers to translate the Hebrew term shekar, a term also meaning ‘strong drink.’

According to Walter Baver’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament in Aramaic, Sikera derives from the Akkadian shikaru, with the meaning of ‘barley beer,’ but it is unlikely that this would have been known to the Anglo-Saxon scribes when they used their term beor to translate the foreign term sicera. The term cider is from Old French cisdre, earlier from Low latin cicera (strong drink), from Greek sikera from Hebrew shekar (strong drink). The name was at one time applied to a drink of various fermented fruits, then subsequently to a drink of fermented pears or apples, then, finally, more specifically, to a drink of fermented apples.

Many historians have presumed that the Anglo-Saxons made cider but did not have a name for it says Hagen.  She suggests that they did have a name for it, and that name was beor. The term for cider in German is Apfelwein (Applewine). In Danish it is Æblevin and in Dutch Appelwijn. It might be supposed that the Anglo-Saxons had a similar name for cider, and in fact Old English Vocabularies do give cider as Æppelwin (WW 430), but this is no more than a book-name. The real reason why the Anglo-Saxons had no name for cider is because they had no cider, and if they had had cider they would no doubt have followed the example of other Germanic folk and called it Applewine. The term beor is never mentioned in association with apples in the Old English literature.

Lots of suitable apples are required to make any amount of cider. The native Crab apple (Malus sylvestris) provided the only available apple throughout most of the Anglo-Saxon period, but these Crab apples would have been unsuitable as cider apples. The vast majority of Crab apple trees that are seen today, in England, are in fact Wildings. That is to say they are mostly trees that have hybridised, over the last 800 years, with various varieties of cultivated apple, and consequently their fruit is larger and not so sour as the original crab apples known to the Anglo-Saxons. The fruits of Wildings, often still called ‘Crab apples,’ are sometimes suitable for making cider. It should also be pointed out that in Anglo-Saxon times the native Crab apple trees were not all that plentiful anyway. It is described by Rackham as an anti-gregarious tree. This is why it was suitable to be used as a boundary marker. The cultivated apple first appeared in England at the very end of the Anglo-Saxon period.

There seems to be no mention of apples in Anglo-Saxon food-rent lists, but they are mentioned a few times in the medicinal recipes. However, it should be remembered that the term æppel in Old English can mean any type of fruit. For example, brembel æppel ( Lb I Ixiv) is the blackberry, and the ‘apples’ mentioned in another recipe (Lb II xxiii) are in fact pomegranates (Cockayne ibid). Wudusur æppel and surne æppel both refer to the native sour Crab. In Leechbook II apples are mentioned in half a dozen recipes, but these are all translations of Mediterranean recipes. There is one recipe where apples are used in a drink, but again this is a foreign recipe. (The writer deals with the native Crab apple and its fruit in more detail in an earlier article (Horn 2003)).

The exact date when apples were first cultivated in Britain is unknown, because cultivated apples cannot be distinguished from the native Crab using the plant material remains found in archæological excavations. It has been said that the cultivated apple was introduced into Britain by the Romans, but even if this is the case, since the trees do not grow ‘true to type’ from pips, they would not have survived throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. Celtic and Cornish dialects have words for apples, but it is most probably the indigenous crab to which they refer. There is, however, some evidence that a sweet, non-native apple was grown in one location in England towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period (Horn 2003).

At the end of the Anglo-Saxon period some fruit trees were being cultivated in orchards, but all on a small scale (Harvey 1981). The term orceard (orchard) was beginning to take on its modern meaning, but the term æppulretun should not necessarily be taken as meaning ‘apple orchard’ because æppel sometimes meant generically fruit. However, an extensive apple orchard is recorded in the Domesday Book (Hagen ibid), but the fact that only one is recorded, albeit described as extensive, is significant.

Cultivated apple varieties spread across Europe from the mediterranean into France. The Normans had a strong tradition of cultivating apples and were familiar with cider production. They introduced  a number of varieties mainly into the south of England. A variety called Pearmain, recorded in 1204, is the oldest cultivated apple name in England. Its name is derived from the French word for a group of apple varieties. Later the famous Cox’s Orange Pippin was first propagated in Kent, as was the Bramley apple. The term pippin is derived from a French word meaning ‘seedling.’ Thus, like the use of hops in brewing, the cultivated apples came from France into Kent, and, to this day, hops and cider are largely associated with Kent.

Cider was established in France much earlier than in England, but the exclusive use of apples for cider-making came rather late. Bartholomeus Anglicus, who spent some time in France, describes, in about 1250, cider as being a drink made from fruit, which may have included apples and pears. In Anglo-Saxon England, the fruit of the wild pear, if it could be found, would have been even less suitable for cider-making than the crab apple. The earliest reference to a cultivated pear in England is in the 12th century, when Wardoun pears were developed at Warden Abbey in Bedfordshire.

The increase in Apple Orchards in the 14th century coincided with a decline in vineyards in England. According to Landsberg the vineyards dwindled in England mainly no doubt due to the cooler and wetter weather. In addition,…good wine was at that time readily available from France. As the vineyards closed in England they were replaced by orchards, even in monasteries such as Peterborough and Christ Church Canterbury (Landsburg).It was at this time that cider started to become a popular drink, mainly in the south of England. Thus we have the first record of a form of the name cider (syder) appearing in the English language; this being in the Shoreham Poems (1333).

The terms Beer and Ale

The two high-status drinks in the Anglo-Saxon hall were medu and beor. As Griffiths says, the association of beor with sweetness in glosses of Latin terms may be a misleading clue. The Romans seemed to have liked their wine sweet, but did not favour beer at all (Griffiths ibid). If Griffiths had continued researching along these lines he would probably have anticipated this article. The Romans liked their drinks to be sweet, but it does not follow that the Anglo-Saxons would have wanted both their high-status drinks to be sweet. A choice of sweet mead or bitter beer in the Hall seems more likely. The tiny silver or walnut cups, sometimes found as grave goods, do not in themselves constitute evidence that a particular drink was served in them. The large drinking- horn was the favoured drinking vessel. To be offered alcohol in a horn was a mark of status (Hagen ibid). When not a horn, the drinking vessel was a bowl not a cup.

The terms  beer and ale, in varying forms are used in many other, mainly germanic, countries as names for a drink made from fermented grain. In Europe there are four different terms: ale is the northern term, beer the western term, cervisia the southern term and pivo the eastern term for the drink. About 40 countries use a form of the word Beer and about 10 countries use a form of the word Ale, for a drink made from fermented grain. Some of the western and northern terms are as follows:

Western Terms

Old High German      bior
High German              bier
Low German                beer
Frisian                          bier
Dutch                            bier
Old Norse                    bjor
Old English                 beor
Mod English               beer

Northern Terms

Latvian                         alus
Lithuanian                  alus
Danish                         ol
Norwegian                  ol
Swedish                       ol
Old Norse                    ol
Old English                ealu
Mod English              ale

Most countries use either a form of the word beer or a form of the word ale for a drink of fermented grain. The question arises, if beer and ale are basically the same type of drink, why are both terms used in Old English, Modern English and Old Norse. We know there must have been some difference between beor and ealu because both terms sometimes appear in the same sentence. In most countries the question does not arise because only one of the terms is used for the drink.

A number of writers, for example F Kluge, have maintained that Bjor is a loan-word into Norse from Old English. Jan de Vries mentions Kluge’s hypothesis (Altnordisches Etymologisches Worterbuch 1962 p  40). The Icelandic dictionaries of Cleasby-Vigfousson and Fritzer give the translation of bjorr as beer or ale. The view that Old Norse bjorr may be of foreign origin is also in Cleasby-Vigfusson’s Icelandic Dictionary. There are also two references to bjorr in Sturlunga Saga, both of which deal with getting the drink from ships, suggesting that Icelanders were importing bjorr and that the drink was not a native drink to Iceland. (Fell ibid).


The appearance of both terms, beor and ealu, is to be expected in Old English, because the invading Germanic tribes brought into England both Western and Northern languages, and both terms have survived down to the present day.  If a term is given a useful meaning in a language, it will survive. In more modern times the difference between beer and ale is that only the former includes hops. However, this was not always the difference between the two drinks. In the times when hops were not used, or less widely used, the difference was a difference in alcoholic strength. According to Wright’s dictionary, beer was a malt liquor, stronger and superior to ale, brewed from the first mashing of the malt, and ale was a weaker brew, brewed from the malt after the beer had been extracted from it. This seems to be the difference in Anglo-Saxon times. Beor was the stronger, high-status drink, drunk usually from a horn and ealu was the weaker, common drink of the people, drunk from a bowl and no doubt safer, as well as nicer, than drinking river or well water. The term beor also survived as a general term for strong alcoholic drink.


Tacitus                        Germania 23  Penguin 1970
Ælfric’s                       Colloquy, Ed G N Garmonsway  1991
Bede                            A History of the English Church and People
Hagen A.                   A Second Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink, 1999
Fell  C.                         Old English Beor
Cockayne O.             Leechdoms, Wortcunning & Starcraft of Early England
Wright T.                   Wrt Voc Vocabularies 1857 & 1873
Wright & Wulker     Vocabularies 1884
Isidore of Seville      Etymologiarum sive Originum
BL                                Blickling Glossaries
Griffiths B.                 Notes on Beer/Ale.  Internet
Clark Hall                   A Concise  Anglo-Saxon Dictionary
King Horn                  OUP for Early English Society 1962
Wilson D G                Plant Remains from Graveney Boat, New Phytologist, 1975
Wilson/Connelly     Plant Remains including Evidence for Hops.
Rackham O.               The History of the Countryside, 1986
Throop P.                   Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica, 1998
Godwin H.                 History of British Flora, 1956
Horn P C                     The Apple Tree in Anglo-Saxon England, Withowinde 130, 2003
Bartholomeus           Bartholomeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum
Harvey J.                   Mediæval   Gardens, London 1981
Landsberg S.            The medieval Garden
Wright T.                   English Dialect Dictionary.

(Based on Article in Withowinde 146,  2008)

Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England

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