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The earlier Germanic runes consisted of 24 characters but the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc added to and adapted these. The Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem (there are others eg from Iceland, Norway and Continental Europe) is known only from an early 18th century copy and has been tentatively dated to the 9th century. It was recorded as being based on a single sheet, lost in the fire at Ashburnham House in 1731, which had been inserted into an 11th century collection of saints’ lives. The poem has a short verse about the subject represented by each of the runes.
You can read more below about each character and its meaning, as well some ideas for why it was important to the Anglo-Saxons; in reality we have no way of knowing what associations and meanings the Anglo-Saxons themselves would have understood by the individual characters.
The translation of the Rune Poem we are using here is taken from Stephen Pollington’s “Rudiments of Runelore”, and other translations of the poem will vary from these.
FEOH (f) – Wealth
Feoh byþ frōfur fira gehwylcum;
sceal ðēah manna gehwylc miclun hyt dǣlan
gif hē wile for drihtne dōmes hlēotan
Wealth is a comfort to any man; yet each person must share it out well, if he wants to win a good name before his Lord.
The word feoh also has the meaning of cattle or domesticated beasts described as “lacking wisdom or cunning”. They are often contrasted with wild animals. Initially, before they moved to a cash economy, the Anglo-Saxons would have used the animals in trade, and so the association with wealth makes sense. Cattle are sometimes referred to as “gangende feoh” or “walking wealth”. This link is not uncommon in many cultures around the world, for example today in the stories of the “Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” set in Botswana, where cattle and wealth traditionally have been intertwined.
However, the Anglo-Saxons did adopt coinage in the middle and later periods, and kings were quick to realise that control of coinage was a powerful tool. The Romans had of course used coins widely, but after the withdrawal of the Roman armies by the early 5th century, the coin economy collapsed.
Gold coins were sometimes used as a way of storing wealth or as ornament, but by the early 7th century smaller gold coins appeared, probably the “scillingas” mentioned in the law codes, sometimes referred to as “thrymsas”. They seem to have appeared in Kent under Eadbald (616-640 AD) and were based largely on continental Merovingian models.
Towards the end of the 7th century the silver penny appeared, and the first to bear a king’s name were from Northumbria. King Offa of Mercia later introduced the Carolingian-style penny which always carried the name of the ruler and the moneyer. Standardisation continued to develop until in the reign of Edgar in the late 10th century a single uniform coinage for England was achieved. Not only did he ensure a standard design, but also standard weight, quality and control of the mints, of which there were around 50.
Towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, the number of mints rose to around 70 and the coinage was being recalled and reissued every few years to maintain control and generate income for the throne eg through fees for changing currency into the new, legal tender. This system continued until the 12th century.
Because pennies were still relatively high value (eg a sheep was worth 5 pence and a pig 10 pence in the early 10th century), the coins were often cut into halves or quarters, creating halfpennies or farthings.
UR (u) – Aurochs / Ox
Ur byþ anmod ond oferhyrned,
felafrecne deor, feohteþ mid hornum
mære morstapa; þæt is modig wuht.
Aurochs is fierce and high-horned; the courageous beast fights with its horns; a well-known moor-treader, it is a brave creature.
The European Aurochs was not a domesticated animal, but was a larger animal standing at around 17 hands high (1.75m) at the shoulder. The males were black and the females were reddish in colour and smaller than the males. Calves were born reddish brown but males changed colour when they were a few months old. Aurochs also varied in size across Europe with those in the north generally being larger than those in the south.
The aurochs horn was distinctive shape and curved in three places: upwards and outwards at the base, then swinging forwards and inwards, then inwards and upwards. They could reach 80 cm in length and between 10 and 20 cm in diameter. The horns of bulls were larger, with the curvature more strongly expressed than in cows.
Aurochs seem to have lived in herds, at least part of the time, and both sexes probably fought to obtain social status. Evidence from bones indicates they lived in flood plains or marshy areas, grazing alongside rivers.
They were aggressive and highly prized in the hunt as a result.
However, the aurochs was extinct in Britain by the Anglo-Saxon period, having died out there during the Bronze Age, although some continued to survive on the Continent. Caesar described aurochs in Gaul in his writings, and in Germanic traditions Siegfried killed an aurochs. The last sighting of the European Aurochs is recorded as 1627 in Poland, and they are now extinct. However, some genetic code has been passed on to domesticated breeds.
THORN (th) – Thorn
Ðorn byþ ðearle scearp; ðegna gehwylcum
anfeng ys yfyl, ungemetum reþe
manna gehwelcum, ðe him mid resteð
Thorn is painfully sharp to any warrior, seizaing it is bad, excessivelt severe for any person who lays among them.
How true! Who wants to sit on a thorn? The world was still wild and uncomfortable away from the delights of hearth and hall without good roads or even safe routes in many cases. Travelling a significant distance may well have required sleeping in the wild, and thorn bushes would have been avoided.
In Old English the thorn rune was represented the “th” sound. Using the runic letters was phonetic so you said what you saw written, unlike quite a lot of Modern English.
In the later Latinised script for Old English there were two options for a “th” sound: thorn = þ and eth = ð. They were both used in Old Norse as well where the sound of each letter varied slightly. However, the Anglo-Saxons don’t seem to have made the same distinction and often swapped the two letters around in writing, often on the same page or even word.
Most languages have dropped the use of the difficult “th” sound today, but it remains in English and Icelandic. In fact Icelandic still uses both the thorn (þ) and eth (ð) characters as well as retaining the sounds.
OS (o) – A god
Os byþ ordfruma ælere spræce, wisdomes wraþu ond witena frofur and eorla gehwam eadnys ond tohiht
(A) god is the origin of all language, wisdom’s foundation and wise men’s comfort, and to every hero blessing and hope.
Here we learn a little about how gods and men related. While this verse would still be acceptable in a Christian context, pagan Anglo-Saxons would have understood it as referring to their own gods.
We know very little about Anglo-Saxon beliefs prior to the conversion to Christianity, and most of what we do know is from Christian writing or from place name evidence. It is tempting to compare their beliefs to the Norse stories, or the earlier Germanic traditions, but this is speculative to a large degree.
In the Norse sagas Oðinn was the source of Poetry, for example, and it is possible that Woden had a similar role although we cannot be certain. Poetry did play an important part in Anglo-Saxon culture, with warriors expected to be able to compose and recite verse at a basic level. The story of Cædmon, recorded by Bede, illustrates the shame felt by a man unable to participate in the “passing of the harp” at a feast, where the participants all took turns to sing or recite to those present. “Os” also appears as an element in a number of personal names, including the Northumbrian royal line of Oswald, Oswiu and so on. The Coppergate Helmet, an Anglian helmet from York, has an inscription identifying the owner as Oshere.
It wasn’t just used as a male name either; there were plenty of women called, for example, Osburh or Osgyð too.
Rad (r) – Riding
Rad byþ on recyde rinca gehwylcum
sefte ond swiþhwæt, ðamðe sitteþ on ufan
meare mægenheardum ofer milpaþas
Riding is for every man in the hall easy, and strenuous for him who sits upon a powerful horse along the long paths.
From the beginning of Anglo-Saxon culture, the importance of the horse is signified by the names of the legendary warrior-founders of the English-speaking peoples in Britain, Hengest and Horsa. Horsa and Hengest (trans. Horse and Stallion) were the legendary leaders of the first Anglo-Saxons to arrive in Britain at the invitation of the indigenous king, Vortigern. Bede repeats the foundation story of the Anglo-Saxons that these two warriors came to Britain to fight as mercenaries against the Picts. According to Bede, Hengest and Horsa were the sons of Wictgils, son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden. Hengest was also identified as the first King of Kent.
Germanic legends can be traced back even further to the Indo-European peoples, where there is evidence for the horse playing a central role in their culture. There are a number of stories in later cultures derived from the Indo-European peoples which are about divine twins where the horse is a critical feature of the myth. In the case of the Anglo-Saxons this was Hengest and Horsa. The White Horse of Kent dates back to the 5th -8th century Jutish Kingdom, and commemorates Horsa who died in battle against the British.
Horse imagery is prominent in early Anglo-Saxon art. In addition there is considerable archaeological evidence for horse sacrifice in both cremation and inhumation burials of the 5th to 7th centuries, often with highly ornate tack. Burials with horses include Sutton Hoo Mound 17 and the burial at Lakenheath and date to the 5th-7th centuries, particularly in East Anglia. Some burials are in a shared grave, while others are in separate co-located graves. There is also plentiful evidence for the inclusion of horses in cremations, and the meaning associated with these two forms of practice can vary, as can the status and nature of the human associated with it.
“Indeed, the connection between genealogy and ostentatious funerary theatre is demonstrated in the Anglo-Saxon text Beowulf. It may have been via the creation and dissemination of such oral genealogies and poetry connected with ruling groups, that elite burial fashions, such as horse and boat burial, were transmitted across Europe. That the rite was employed as an aspect of social display in England, as on the Continent, may be suggested by the concentrated distribution of horse inhumations in the vicinity of the Rivers Cam and Lark, in East Anglia. Here a distinct phase of funerary competition between local elite groups is indicated, including the two very similar horse burials from the adjacent Eriswell cemeteries, which we might suppose would each have been deliberately visible from the other.
Perhaps because of its contrasting ‘popular’ character and fire-transforming connotations the animal cremation rite in Europe has attracted very different interpretations from the perspective of cosmological and religious beliefs. Most recently, the Anglo-Saxon rite has been interpreted as a funerary expression of communal animal/human shamanism.” (Chris Fern, 2007)
Old English has a wide range of words for “horse” in its vocabulary, distinguishing between pack-horse, carthorse, riding horse, breeding horse, noble horse and warhorse. Horses were used to transport baggage and people, and also were raced. There is a reference to a race-course in a 10th century charter, for example, as well as the story about St John of Beverley’s clerk who participated in horse racing (to his detriment, of course!).
However, the early Anglo-Saxons at least do not seem to have fought on horseback, but instead relied upon the Shield Wall. Tis does not exclude the possibility that mounted warriors did participate in battles on occasions, but it was not the main element of battle planning in the early period as far as we can tell. However, by the 11th century there was some cavalry being used and there are finds of stirrups and spurs. In some older analyses, the Battle of Hastings was described as “the inevitable victory of stirruped cavalry over helpless infantry”; today it is noted that the Anglo-Saxon shield wall at Hastings withstood four Norman cavalry charges before breaking, and this only after the deaths of their commanders.
Native British ponies had been improved during the Roman period by cross breeding with Roam cavalry stock. The animals increased in height, weight and speed. Initially the breeding programme may have foundered after the Roman troops withdrew, but the importance of horses remained high and breeding programmes were eventually restored.
Bede tells us that Bishop Aidan apparently gave his well-bred horse, a gift from King Oswin, to a beggar. Although Oswin was initially angry he soon realised that he had given the horse as a gift to Aidan and so it was Aidan’s to dispose of as he chose. The 7th century laws of King Ine mention that the horse-wealh was responsible for the king’s stud, and also refers to the position of horse-weard, the watcher of the king’s horses. The horse-wealh is also mentioned in Æþelberht’s laws. These references suggest that the horse-wealh managed a stud, where controlled breeding took place, while the horse-weard managed a system allowing stallions to run with mares in a less-controlled fashion.
King Æþelstan (10th century) received gifts of horses in a marriage proposal for his half-sister Eadhild from Duke Hugh in Frankia. Although he was glad to accept the imported animals, Æþelstan later banned selling them abroad, although they were still allowed to be sent as gifts. This accords with the gift-giving of horses which occurs a number of times in the poem “Beowulf” and is also referenced in the “Battle of Maldon.” In the latter poem, a warrior called Godwin runs away from the battle (and his lord) on the horse given him by the same lord in return for Godwin’s loyalty and service in battle: “þe hit riht ne wæs” (although it was not right), the poet comments.
Horses were also bequeathed in wills: Wynflæd (10th century) left her bed-linen and her tame horses to her grandchildren. Æþelstan Æþeling (d. 1014) also left various horses to a number of people, as well as his stud-farm to his huntsman.
Read more about the eh (horse) rune futher down the page.
Cen (c) – A Torch
Cen byþ cwicera gehwam, cuþ on fyre
blac ond beorhtlic, byrneþ oftust
ðær hi æþelingas inne restaþ
The torch is known to each living being by fire, radiant and bright; it usually burns where nobles rest indoors.
When the mead hall is mentioned in poetry it is almost always in the context of feasting and fellowship, formal and informal. The indoors was associated with light, shelter, friendship and community. Outdoors was dangerous and dark. We can see this contrast in Bede’s story of the sparrow flying through the hall:
“The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant.”
So what did Anglo-Saxons use for light? Gathering together in the mead hall they would have had illumination from the large central fire pit which ran down the middle. The larger halls used the fire for light and heat rather than cooking, which took place elsewhere. However, away from the central fire it would have been dark.
The Mound 1 burial at Sutton Hoo included a small lamp. This was a cup held with three iron strips which met together underneath and then formed three splayed feet. Traces of beeswax were found in the cup indicating a beeswax candle was used to produce light. Similar lamps have also been found at Broomfield and Prittlewell.
The Anglo-Saxons did make candles from tallow (animal fat) as well as beeswax, although the latter was a high status option for nobles, as in the lamp described above, and later for churches. The cheapest option was a rushlight, which was a rush dipped in animal fat. Wealthier people might have used cressets containing oil with a wick to burn.
Old English has a range of words for lighting-related items and many of these are the root of modern English words today: as well as torch (cen, but also fæcele) there are words such as tapor (taper), weaxcandel (wax candle), candelsticca (candlestick) and weoce (wick).
Gyfu (g) – A Gift
Gyfu gumena byþ gleng and herenys,
wraþu and wyrþscype and wræcna gehwam
ar and ætwist, ðe byþ oþra leas
Gift is an honour and grace of men, a support and adornment, and for any exile mercy and sustenance when he has no other.
Gift giving was an essential oil to the wheel of relationships and oaths of fealty in the Anglo-Saxon world. Time and again in the surviving poetry we see references to lords giving their men gifts in return for their loyalty and their service in battle. This in turn meant that successful lords had to continue to win more wealth with which to reward their followers, who might leave them if they failed to maintain their gift-giving. Such failure was seen as a sign of the gods’ (later God’s) disfavour. However, deserting a lord who had given generously was ultimately shameful.
In the “Battle of Maldon” men who flee the fight are held up as examples of dishonour:
Then they retreated from the battle spineless in the fray. There the son of Odda was first to flight, Godric from the fight, and abandoned the good man who many times often given him a horse; he leapt on the steed which his lord owned, in those trappings which he had no right to take, and his brothers were with him, both running away, Godwine and Godwig, caring not for the fight, but they turned from the war and sought the forest, flying into the fastness and protecting their lives, and more men as well, more than was proper, if they had remembered all their favours that Byrhtnoth had done for them to their glory.
In Beowulf (ll 1020-1049) there is a long list of splendid gifts presented to the eponymous hero by Hrothgar, including eight horses, following the successful outcome of the battle with Grendel. Beowulf later gives most of his treasures to his own lord when he returns home. And after Beowulf’s final battle against the dragon, Wiglaf is merciless in speaking to the men who deserted their lord despite his well-known generosity to them:
Now must all treasure-taking and sword-giving, all the joys of home, all comfort, cease for your kindred. Every man must turn away, deprived of their land-rights and their families, after nobler men shall learn from afar of your flight, this glory-shorn deed. Death would be better for every earl than a life of shame!
Wyn (w) – Joy
Wyn ne bruceþ ðe can weana lyt
sares and sorge and him sylfa hæfþ
blæd and blysse and eac byrga geniht
Happiness he cannot enjoy who knows little woe, pain and sorrow, and has for himself wealth and joy, and sufficient protection too.
Although Anglo-Saxon poetry has a reputation for frequently being elegiac (ie mournful), references to joy crop up often enough to give us a clue as to what made people happy, although usually this is because the poet is mourning the absence of a cause of joy.
In the translation here, joy is effectively defined as prosperity, happiness (peace of mind?) and home (protection) valued in contrast to other sufferings. However, Old English is never that straightforward, and the ambiguity and word-play which is a key feature of the riddles is also demonstrated in much of the poetry. Speakers of Old English would have enjoyed the layered meanings within such lines.
For example, “blæd” has a few different meaning depending on context: a leaf (cf blade of grass), a cup or bowl, a flower or fruit, and a breath (of wind or spirit). The word is also tightly linked to “prosperity” eg “blæddæg” is “day of prosperity” and “blædgifa” is “giver of prosperity”, and so on.
“Blysse” means “bliss” and is related to the verb “blyssian” meaning “to rejoice” or “to make glad”. Although the context for its use is often religious, as in celebrating religious occasions or festivals, it also means friendship as in this extract:
Hí me to wendon heora bacu bitere, and heora blisse from
They turned their bitter backs on me, and [took] their friendship from [me]
Finally “byrga” means dwelling or settlement (as in “burh”). However, it can also mean pledge or a creditor (one who has made a pledge). “Geniht” means “abundance” or “sufficiency”.
Where does this leave us? Prosperity, happiness and a secure home are wonderful things, but perhaps the Anglo-Saxon would also have put a high value on food (fruits), friendship and trust.
Hægl (h) – Hail
Hægl byþ hwitust corna; hwyrft hit of heofones lyfte,
wealcaþ hit windes scura; weorþeþ hit to wætere syððan
Hail is whitest of corn; from heaven’s height it whirls, winds blow it, it becomes water after.
Food production in the early medieval period could be unpredictable and a good summer might make the difference between feast or famine, so this imagery of weather linked to cereal crops is probably not surprising.
The period between 450-950 AD has been called the “Dark Ages Cold Period” during which there were two huge volcanic eruptions: in 536 AD in the Tropics, and then in 539/40 AD in El Salvador at the caldera, now called Lake Llopanga. The latter ejected up to 87 km3 of volcanic material.
The impact of these eruptions continued to be felt for decades afterwards. In fact the effects lasted almost 100 years. Tree ring analysis indicates that 536 AD was the coldest year of the last 2000 years and was followed by the coldest decade, with the second eruption in 540 AD exacerbating these difficulties. The effects of the eruptions have been recorded all over the planet from China to South America, as well as in Europe which is the focus of our interest. Temperatures fell by up to 2°C due to particles in the atmosphere blocking sunlight, and resulted in widespread famine.
In 536 AD for example, Procopius, a Byzantine historian, recorded:
And it came about during this year that a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed. And from the time when this thing happened men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death.”
Annals from Ireland also refer to the “failure of bread” in 538 AD.
The famine was followed by plague, whether as a direct or indirect result of the changes is not known, and by social dislocation. The Justinian Plague, as it was called, may have killed 40% of the people in Constantinople. From there it spread out across Europe and the Middle East although within Europe one author has described it as “purgative rather than toxic” – which would undoubtedly have been of little comfort to its victims. It continued to break out over the next 200 years in various locations; in Britain it is probably related to the sickness called the “Plague of Cadwaladyr’s Time” around 682 AD, and in Ireland to the outbreak in 664 AD. It continued in intermittent cycles in Europe into the mid-8th century then did not re-emerge as a major epidemic until the 14th century.
By 950 AD however, things were swinging back to a warmer climate and the Early Medieval Warm Period then lasted until the middle of the 13th century, although this was less consistent across the planet.
Meanwhile agriculture in Britain had developed during the Roman period with the introduction of a heavier plough and larger animals to draw it, while the earlier, Iron Age field systems and patterns endured. As the new communities began to emerge following the end of Roman rule, the local soils and harvests probably shaped the fortunes of each settlement for good or bad.
Poor weather or an outbreak of disease could make the difference to the success or failure of a community. Robin Fleming quotes two examples of such fate or wyrd: the 6th century cemetery in Cambridgeshire where almost 40% of skeletons show signs of malnutrition or serious childhood illness, while another cemetery in Kent from the same period has only a small proportion (around 5%) of similar problems. Burials from Cambridgeshire around the 7th century show that almost 20% of people suffered from chronic anæmia, which may be caused by starvation, poor diet, or more commonly through blood loss (eg through diarrhoea) or infections; however, this is often an indicator of poor sanitation rather than diet.
Nyd (n) – need or trouble
Nyd byþ nearu on breostan; weorþeþ hi þeah oft niþa bearnum
to helpe and to hæle gehwæþre, gif hi his hlystaþ æror
Need is hard on the heart; yet for men’s sons it often becomes a help and healing, if they heed it before.
According to the Bosworth Toller dictionary, “nyd” has some distinctions in meaning and it is interesting to read the verse with each of these in mind:
what ones wants
What might “need” have meant for Anglo-Saxons in daily life? It could have been very basic need indeed: home, food, security from violence. There are recorded instances of people selling themselves into slavery in time of famine or disaster rather than starving to death. But beyond the immediate catastrophe, there was a sense of reciprocity in such an arrangement. The lord to whom they gave their freedom, perhaps for an agreed term, was responsible for feeding and protecting them. Whereas to the modern mind it appears almost inconceivable, to the Anglo-Saxon mind it would have been a pragmatic solution, even though not one willingly entered into.
The sense that troubles teach us valuable lessons is also apparent in the verse. It is interesting to compare the way other rune poems describe “need”.
The Icelandic rune poem says:
Need is a bondswoman’s hardship
And hard circumstances
And laborious work
The Norwegian rune poem has:
Need makes for little choice
A naked [man] chills
In the frost
These indicate less of a sense of possible benefit or learning and seem to focus more exclusively on the negative connotations.
The corpus of Anglo-Saxon poetry is noted for the elegiac quality of many of its best known works, mostly found in the Exeter Book. Elegy, to define it broadly, provides serious reflection and a sense of sorrow or lament. It might be in memory of a loved one now lost, or concern for one’s own current situation. It is aware of the passage of time and a sense of fate, or “wyrd”, but is not despairing or sentimental.
Examples of need expressed through elegy include Deor, in which the eponymous poet (scop) has been replaced in his lord’s esteem by a rival, and writes verses reviewing the difficulties faced by characters from history and legend, repeatedly reflecting that “þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg” – “that passed by, this may too.” The favour of a lord was key to a successful and even meaningful life.
This concept is echoed and extended in The Wanderer, the story of a man in exile, whose lord and companions have been killed. Here we find in the opening lines a summary of his desperate position:
Oft him anhaga are gebideð,
metudes miltse, þeah þe he modcearig
geond lagulade longe sceolde
hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sæ,
wadan wræclastas. Wyrd bið ful aræd!
Often the solitary man awaits the mercy of God, while full of care and for a long time he has to stir with his hands (row) the ice cold sea and wander the paths of exile. Fate is fully set.
In a later passage we also learn the honourable way to respond to such afflictions:
Til biþ se þe his treowe gehealdeþ, ne sceal næfre his torn to rycene beorn of his breostum acyþan, nemþe he ær þa bote cunne, eorl mid elne gefremman.
Good is he who keeps his integrity,
and he who never too quickly shows
grief from his heart, unless he first knows
how to effect the remedy with courage.
Finally let’s look at The Wife’s Lament, told by a woman whose husband has been exiled overseas and left her in a hostile environment. She has been forced to live apart and has no friends left. Again the theme of separation underlines the Anglo-Saxon need for membership of a community group for protection and support.
sindon dena dimme, duna uphea, bitre burgtunas, brerum beweaxne, wic wynna leas. Ful oft mec her wraþe begeat fromsiþ frean.
Dark are the valleys, the mountains so lofty, bitter these hovels, overgrown with thorns. Shelters without joy. So many times here the disappearance of my husband seizes me.
Is (i) – Ice
Is byþ oferceald, ungemetum slidor,
glisnaþ glæshluttur gimmum gelicust,
flor forste geworuht, fæger ansyne
Ice is too cold and extremely slippery; glass-clear it glistens most like gems; a floor made of frost, fair in appearance.
As part of his cultural and educational project in the late 9th century, King Alfred encouraged travellers and traders to share stories about their voyages with his court. Two accounts have survived, being written down in Old English attached to the translation of Orosius: those of Ohthere of Hålogaland and Wulfstan of Hedeby.
Ohthere lived in the far north, near Tromsø, in the north of Norway. Here is the beginning of his tale:
Ōhthere sǣde his hlāforde, Ælfrede cyninge, þæt hē ealra Norðmonna norþmest būde. Hē cwæð þæt hē būde on þǣm lande norþweardum wiþ þā Westsǣ. Hē sǣde þēah þæt þæt land sīe swīþe lang norþ þonan, ac hit is eal wēste, būton on fēawum stōwum styċċemǣlum wīciað Finnas on huntoðe on wintra and on sumera on fiscaþe be þǣre sǣ.
Ohthere told his lord, King Alfred, that he lived the furthest north of all the Northmen. He said that he lived in the land northwards of the West Sea (Atlantic). He also said that the land extends a long way north, but it is all waste, except for a few places here and there the Finns live, hunting in winter, and in summer fishing in the sea.
He then explains that he sailed north for another three days, further than the whale hunters had gone, and then for three days more. Then he had to wait for favourable winds to change direction and then he sailed east for four days. Once again he had to change direction and wait for the winds to sail southwards to the mouth a great river. He then turned back for fear of the tribes that had settled the river banks.
Ohthere then added that the Bjarmians (a particular group of Finns that were known for their wealth and trade in many Norse sagas) told him stories about lands beyond but he wasn’t sure if they were true. He visited them to trade walrus ivory and he also told the king about his own hunting trips, where on one occasion he and his men had killed more than 60 animals in a couple of days.
Ohthere then began to talk about his own wealth and homeland. He had a large herd of reindeer (600), and a small farm with cattle, sheep and pigs, and horses to plough, However he also received tribute from the Lapps on a sliding scale depending on the rank of the Lapp in question.
He then described the land of the Northmen, where it was fertile, where rocky, and the lands of Sweden (Sweoland) to the south and Kven Land (Cwena Land) to the north across the moors. Where he lived himself was called Hålogaland, about a month’s sail away. It was the settlement furthest north and about 5 days sail to Hedeby.
Wulfstan of Hedeby also provided a contribution about his voyage to Trusö in seven nights and days:
Wulfstān sǣde þæt hē ġefōre of Hæðum, þæt hē wǣre on Truso on syfan dagum and nihtum, þæt þæt scip wæs ealne weġ yrnende under seġle. Weonoðland him wæs on stēorbord, and on bæcbord him wæs Langaland and Lǣland and Falster and Scōneġ; and þās land eall hȳrað tō Denemearcan. And þonne Burgenda land wæs ūs on bæcbord, and þā habbað him sylf cyning. Þonne æfter Burgenda lande wǣron ūs þās land þā synd hātene ǣrest Blecinga ēġ, and Meore and Eowland and Gotland on bæcbord; and þās land hȳrað tō Swēon. And Weonodland wæs ūs ealne weġ on stēorbord oð Wislemūðan.
Wulfstan said that he travelled from Hedeby to Trusö in seven days and nights, that the ships was under sail the whole way. Wendland (Weonoðland) was to his starboard and Langland, Lolland, Falster, and Skåne were to his larboard (port). That land all belonged to the Danes. Then Borgholm came on larboard and they had their own king. After Borgholm were the lands that were ever called Blekinge, Möre, Öland, and Gotland. Those lands belong to the Swedes. And Wendland was to the starboard all the way to the mouth of the Vistula.
The Vistula, a very large river, and another river, the Elbing, joins it in a lake called Estmere.
Þæt Ēstland is swȳðe myċel, and þǣr bið swȳðe maniġ burh, and on ǣlċere byriġ bið cynincg. And þǣr bið swȳðe myċel huniġ and fiscað; and se cyning and þā rīcostan men drincað myran meolc, and þā unspēdigan and þā þēowan drincað medo. Þǣr bið swȳðe myċel ġewinn betwēonan him. And ne bið ðǣr nǣniġ ealo ġebrowen mid Ēstum, ac þǣr bið medo ġenōh.
Estland is very large and there are many burhs, and each burh has a king. There is a great amount of honey and fish; and the king and the richest men drink mares’ milk and the poor and the slaves drink mead. There is a great deal of fighting between them. And there is no ale brewed there among the Estonians but there is plenty of mead.
The Estonian dead are left in their houses, unburied, for a month or more, and longer if a king or noble. A wake is held during this time with feasting and drinking, paid for the by the dead man’s estate. Once it is time to burn his body, his wealth is divided up and buried with a mile of his village, the largest portion furthest away. Then men race their horses from 5 or 6 miles away to find the treasure and whoever gets there first wins it. Once his wealth is divided up the body is burned on a pyre with his last few possessions, and no trace must be left on penalty of a fine.
The Estonians can magically summon cold so the bodies do not decay above ground.
This text is said to be the earliest known written source in English for the term “Denmark” (dena mearc), and perhaps also for “Norway” (norðweg).
Ger (j) – Harvest
Ger byþ gumena hiht, ðonne God læteþ,
halig heofones cyning, hrusan syllan
beorhte bleda beornum ond ðearfum
Harvest is men’s hope when god allows, holy king of heaven, the earth to give up fair fruits to warriors and to wretches.
The Anglo-Saxons would be delighted to come to the end of the lean time of the year when food was running low, and be able to start bringing in a new harvest. So what food would they be looking forward to enjoying?
There are no recipe books from the period, but residue on pot sherds can guide us a little and texts can also help to tell us what people ate. We know that Anglo-Saxons generally ate wheat, barley, oats and rye for bread, stews, beer and ale. They also had a range of vegetables such as peas, beans, root vegetables (carrot, parsnip, turnip), alliums (garlic, leek, onion), cabbage, lettuce, and dairy produce and eggs from a variety of birds. Meat was a high status food, although fish would have been more widely available.
Because the early medieval period covers around 600 years there were changes in diet during it. People moved from a more traditional diet to a “late medieval” one as more modern varieties of bread wheat became available. Incredibly we do have some examples of 11th century loaves from a fire in Ipswich which ironically preserved them, and these were made from a mix of wheat and rye.
Hops were available to brew beer, which was the primary drink as it was cheaper than wine and safer than water. The beer would have generally had a relatively low alcohol content by modern standards.
Stews would have been flavoured with herbs. Some spices, such as pepper, ginger and coriander for both medicine and cooking, were imported as luxury items so not widely available. Finally there were fruits which grew natively, such as apples, pears, plums, cherries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries. Grapes were also grown during the warmer period from the 9th century.
Bee-keeping was important and mead was another luxury drink. Honey was used as a sweetener, and beeswax made high status and church candles. Honey was regularly included among food rents, emphasising its value.
Animals were slaughtered in November (Blood/sacrifice month) and meat preserved as far as possible. This also reduced the need to feed beasts through the winter months. Salt was traded from the earliest times.
Ælfric of Eynsham’s “Colloquy on the Occupations” (10th/11th century) was written to help boys learn Latin. It comprises a series of dialogues with different craftsmen talking about their work, and these include ploughmen, shepherds, oxherds, hunters, fishermen, fowlers, merchants, leather workers, salters and bakers, each of whom describes their daily routine.
The shepherd tells us that as well as protecting and herding the sheep he also makes butter and cheese. The hunter catches harts, bears, does, goats and some hares for the king, and sometimes a boar. The fisherman catches eels, pike, minnows and dace, trout, lamprey and any other species that swim in the rivers, like sprats. He also occasionally goes out to sea to catch herring, salmon, dolphins, sturgeon, oysters, crabs, mussels, cockles, flatfish, plaice, lobsters and so on, but avoids whales because they are dangerous; however other men do hunt them. There is also a salter whose produce is essential to everyone:
Nan eower blisse brycð on gereduncge oþþe mete, buton cræft min gistliþe him beo…..
Efne, butergeþweor ælc ond cysgerunn losaþ eow buton ic hyrde ætwese eow, þe ne furþon þæt an wyrtum eowrum butan me brucaþ.
No-one enjoys his breakfast or dinner unless my skill is present in it.…..
Indeed, all the butter and cheese would go bad unless I looked after it. You would not be able to use your vegetables without my skill.
The baker makes bread and the cook ensures food is prepared well. The teacher, who is asking the questions, suggests that anyone can cook and it is not particularly skilful, and the cook offers a spirited defence:
Gif ge forþy me fram adryfaþ, þæt ge þus don, þonne beo ge ealle þrælas, ond nan eower ne biþ hlaford
If you did drive me out, as you would like to do, then you would all be cooks and no one would be a lord.
Later in the Colloquy the boys go on to describe what they have eaten that day: meat, vegetables, eggs, fish and cheese and all “clean” food, although they do not eat everything at once, but different things at different times. They also drink ale or water, and can’t afford wine.
Monks of course ate relatively well compared to the peasant classes, but the range of foods available is of interest. One source of information on the monkish diet can be found in the “Monasteriales Indicia”, a handbook of sign language developed for use in monasteries adhering to the Benedictine Rule. This required silence and became widespread following the church reforms of the 10th century. A version was translated into Old English, presumably to be taught to children or other members who did not have good Latin. It includes a number of signs for use during mealtimes, to ask for a napkin, or for beans, cheese, pottage, boiled vegetables, fish, eggs, honey, drinks and implements etc.
For example, here’s how to ask for an apple:
Þonne þe æpples lyste þonne cryp þu þinne swiþran þuman to midde wearde þinre handa and befoh hine mid þinum finger and rær up þine fæste
When you want an apple, then crook your right thumb towards the middle of your hand and grasp it with your fingers and raise up your fist
Eoh (ih) – Yew
Eoh byþ utan unsmeþe treow,
heard hrusan fæst, hyrde fyres,
wyrtrumun underwreþyd, wyn on eþle
Yew is an unsmooth tree, hard, earthfast, fire’s keeper, underpinned with roots, a joy in the homeland.
The Fuþorc includes a number of runes representing important trees, and later in the series we will look at oak (ac), ash (æsc) and birch (beorc), which you can also read about on this page.
In the Rune Poem, the yew is described as “fire’s keeper”, which would have had a more significant meaning than simply making good firewood. The fire was central to the hall and represented the sense of community and belonging so integral to Anglo-Saxon culture. The yew also makes an appearance in the early poem “The Dream of the Rood” as one of the trees used to make the rood (cross) on which Christ was crucified.
Yew trees are notoriously long-lived; the Fortingall yew in Glen Lyon (Scotland) has been estimated to be anything from 2,000-9,000 years old; it is probably actually around 5,000 years old. Because the core of the tree decays as it grows older, and becomes hollow, it is particularly hard to date individual trees, and this is usually achieved by measuring its girth and estimating how long it took to grow. Being a slow growing tree makes the wood tight grained and springy, useful for bows, spears and staves. In fact we´ll be looking at yew bows as a separate rune too.
Yews have had spiritual significance seemingly across many ages and cultures. The Egyptians, and later the Greeks and Romans, used the foliage of the yew as a symbol of mourning and the Romans also used the wood for funeral pyres. The Druids in Britain and Ireland recognised the yew´s longevity and ability to create new life when branches drooping to the ground took root. The toxicity of its needles further linked it to death. Although the symbolism is frequently linked to death, the evergreen branches are also linked to fertility and new life, particularly at Yule. Yews are also meaningful in Japanese, Maori and American traditions, among others.
Meanwhile, the Anglo-Saxons seem to have used significant trees as boundary markers or meeting places, as can be seen in charters defining land boundaries, and this included yews. It is thought that trees were considered to be spiritually significant because they linked the underworld, middle-earth (where men live) and the heavens.
There is an Anglian (earlier Germanic) myth of the sacrificial king known as Ingui, who married, in spring, a woman who was the manifestation of the goddess of the land, and was killed the following spring by another man and hung upon a yew tree.
The “Tree of life” is an ancient and universal symbol to be found in Palaeolithic cave paintings and Sumerian writings, as well as Hebrew, Islamic and Christian texts. The ancient symbol of the “tree of life” may have been understood by pagan Anglo-Saxons as something akin to Yggdrasil in later Norse mythology. Although this has often been interpreted as an ash tree, there are some who argue it was a yew tree. In Norse mythology (and so potentially in Anglo-Saxon religious symbolism which came from a common Germanic tradition) the yew was linked to the ancestors and may have been the sacred tree at the temple at Uppsala dedicated to the Norse god Þorr / Thor (Anglo-Saxon equivalent is Þunor / Thunor), Oðin (Anglo-Saxon equivalent is Woden) and Freyr (Anglo-Saxon equivalent is Freya or possibly Ing).
Taplow Barrow in Buckinghamshire, a burial mound dating to the early 7th century before the Christian conversion, originally had a large yew tree at its top which was destroyed during the 1883 excavations. During the dig, soil from beneath the yew tree collapsed into the trench, injuring the archaeologist. On resuming the project, they found the remains of a body which had been buried beneath the mound, but shortly after the yew tree fell into the trench, and delayed the project further. Only after the tree was removed could the grave goods be recovered.
Later the location of a number of new Christian places of worship centred on previous pagan sites (British or Anglo-Saxon) and this meant that yews were often found in churchyards and again were associated in Christian symbolism with death and resurrection. Old churchyards with ancient yews may still display a circular and sometimes raised geography which may date back to Bronze Age tumuli or even Neolithic burial mounds. Later Christians believed that planting yews in churchyards would draw any “evil vapours” from the graves into the branches and keep the area safe for the living. As a symbol of resurrection yew shoots were put into the shrouds of the dead.
Peorð (p) – Gaming piece
Peorð byþ symble plega and hlehter
Wlancum …… ðar wigan sittaþ
on beorsele bliþe ætsomne
Gaming is always play and laughter to proud men, where warriors sit in the beer-hall happily together.
The meaning of the word Peorð is not confirmed but the context of the rune poem indicates some kind of entertainment, and one suggested translation is “gaming” or “gaming piece”.
We can do know about a couple of games played by the Anglo-Saxons (as well as various peoples across Europe, including Vikings, Romans and Britons).
The first game is tæfl, often called by its Viking name of hnefatæfl. As with chess this is a two player strategy game with very simple rules but potentially more complex play depending on the expertise of the players. It was particularly popular in the Norse countries but played also by the English. The original rules have been lost as it was replaced in popularity by chess later in the medieval period, but some rules have been reconstructed from fragmentary evidence in documents and from the form of the game called Tablut enjoyed by the Sami. Unusually each side has a different number of pieces, with more attackers than defenders. Pieces move in a straight line but not diagonally and the attacker has to capture the King piece by getting an attacker on either side, or the defenders have to get the king to the edge of the board. It has been suggested that it may be a derivative of the ancient game of Petteia (“Robbers”) played by Romans, Greeks, Persians and Egyptians.
Another two player strategy game was Merrills (also known as Nine Man´s Morris). This involved equal numbers of pieces where the first player to reduce the opponent´s pieces to two is the winner. Initially pieces are placed on the board in attempts to make a line of three (like noughts and crosses) and once they are all placed players can then slide pieces along the board lines to try and make new sets of three. Each time a three is completed, the player removes an opponent’s piece from the board. It is suggested the name of Merrills derives from the Latin “merellus” meaning “game piece”. It was extraordinarily popular for long after the end of the Anglo-Saxon period and game boards have been found carved in masonry and cloister seats as well as references being made to outdoor versions cut or mown into village greens as late as the 17th century. The Merrills World Championship used to be held every September at the Ryedale Folk Museum in Hutton-le-Hole, North Yorkshire until the late 1990s.
Eolh-secg (eolhx) (x) – Elk-grass
Eolh-secg eard hæfþ oftust on fenne
wexeð on wature, wundaþ grimme,
blode breneð beorna gehwylcne
ðe him ænigne onfeng gedeþ
Elk-grass most often dwells in a fen; grows in water, harshly wounds, marks with blood any warrior who tries to take it.
This rune derived from the Germanic z-rune to stand for ‘x’ under the influence of manuscript production and so is slightly later in the history of the Anglo-Saxon rune tradition.
So – what is elk-grass? In this context it is clearly not the North American plant, but refers to the European Cladium mariscus, or sawgrass. It became a kenning, or metaphor, in Old English poetry for a sword or blade due to its sharp, saw-toothed, leaf edges.
The plant is frequently encountered in fenland where it may form dense stands which can lead to reduced plant diversity and it may need to be cut back to reduce the threat to other growth. The plant has recently declined because of drainage projects, and some lowland sites are currently threatened by scrub invasion with the fen water being overly enriched from run-off in the soil causing algae growth and oxygen depletion.
In the Anglo-Saxon period before much of the fens and wetlands of England were drained in land reclamation schemes the plant would have been a familiar sight. The natural landscapes our ancestors knew were not the same as today.
The rune poem has a fairly grim representation of the plant, focusing as it does on its tendency to cut and wound. However, this was not restricted to Old English poetry and in later periods it continued to have a negative connotation.
It turns up in Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci” to evoke a lonely and dreary landscape where the knight is brooding over his lost fairy lover:
Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, Alone and palely loitering? The sedge has withered from the lake, And no birds sing.
The association with dark, gloomy days and sadness seems to have remained consistent in poetic convention over the centuries.
Sigel (s) – Sun
Sigel semannum symble biþ on hihte,
ðonne hi hine feriaþ ofer fisces beþ,
oþ hi brimhengest bringeþ to lande
Sun to seamen is always a hope when they travel over the fish’s bath, until the sea-steed brings them to land.
The Anglo-Saxons, like their cousins in Scandinavia, were excellent sea-farers and travelled primarily by boat. Some of the earliest references to them are the Roman records of Saxon pirates attacking the shores of the Province of Britannia.
Being a sea faring people the sun was essential for navigation, particularly for crossing the sea away from the shore line. Indeed the “hæfdes segl”, or “sun of the head” was a term for the eye. They used the sun and stars, the wind and migration of birds, and knowledge of landmarks. These would have been transmitted orally until texts were more widely available, and the description of Ohthere’s journey north along the coast of Norway which we discussed above when looking at the rune for Ice (Is), is an example of this.
Meanwhile the writer Sidonius Apollinaris presents us with more detailed descriptions of terrifying Saxon “pirates”. In a letter dated 478 he refers to the “blue-eyed Saxon, lord of the seas” and in another letter of 480 AD to his friend Namatius he wrote:
But, joking apart, do let me know how things go with you and your household. Just as I was on the point of ending a letter which had rambled on long enough, lo and behold! a courier from Saintonges. I whiled away some time talking with him about you; and he was very positive that you had weighed anchor, and in fulfilment of those half military, half naval duties of yours were coasting the western shores on the look-out for curved ships; the ships of the Saxons, in whose every oarsman you think to detect an arch-pirate. Captains and crews alike, to a man they teach or learn the art of brigandage; therefore let me urgently caution you to be ever on the alert. For the Saxon is the most ferocious of all foes. He comes on you without warning; when you expect his attack he makes away. Resistance only moves him to contempt; a rash opponent is soon down. If he pursues he overtakes; if he flies himself, he is never caught. Shipwrecks to him are no terror, but only so much training. His is no mere acquaintance with the perils of the sea; he knows them as he knows himself. A storm puts his enemies off their guard, preventing his preparations from being seen; the chance of taking the foe by surprise makes him gladly face every hazard of rough waters and broken rocks.
Moreover, when the Saxons are setting sail from the continent, and are about to drag their firm-holding anchors from an enemy’s shore, it is their usage, thus homeward bound, to abandon every tenth captive to the slow agony of a watery end, casting lots with perfect equity among the doomed crowd in execution of this iniquitous sentence of death. This custom is all the more deplorable in that it is prompted by honest superstition. These men are bound by vows which have to be paid in victims, they conceive it a religious act to perpetrate this horrible slaughter, and to take anguish from the prisoner in place of ransom; this polluting sacrilege is in their eyes an absolving sacrifice.
The early ships of Germanic and Anglo-Saxon finds (and there are not many) seem to indicate that they were built with a keel plank rather than a proper keel. The keel is used to balance the height of the mast, and so it is possible they did not have masts. This may be true of the ship at Sutton Hoo, which had been used actively prior to its role as a burial ship for the king, as well as two early ships found in Denmark (Nydam and Gredstedbro). So while there is no strong evidence for sails on these early boats masts do appear more definitely after 800 AD in the Viking Age ships such as the Oseberg ship (c. 800 AD). However, clearly sails were known and used prior to this, certainly by the Romans, so it may be that the archaeology is yet to be discovered.
Tiw (t) – Tiw/Tir
Tir biþ tacna sum, healdeð trywa wel
wiþ æþelingas; a biþ on færylde
ofer nihta genipu, næfre swiceþ
Tiw is one of the signs, holds faith well with noblemen, on a journey is always above night’s gloom, never fails.
As we see from the rune poem quoted above, Tiw may also be rendered as Tir or even sometimes Tig (pronounced “tea”). In the poem Tiw seems to be a star or constellation. However, the term “tir” relates to “glory” and is used in poetry eg Judith where the eponymous heroine summons the “splendid dealer of glory” (ie God) to give her the strength to behead her attacker Holofernes. This may be a coded reference to the old god in a Christian context.
Tiw gives his name to Tuesday, and the derivation of it implies he was once a “sky-father” god akin to Zeus / Jupiter. Tuesday is linked to Mars, the god of war, in the Roman calendar; “dies martis” was the day of Mars, god of war (cf. Mardi = Tuesday in French). The Romans had a habit of linking other gods to their own, interpreting them as “versions” of the Roman pantheon.
Tacitus tells us Mars was a principal god among many Germanic tribes but this does not explicitly match him to Tiw. However, the Tiw rune is found inscribed on a number of warrior artefacts such as sword pommels, thus linking Tiw to the role of god of war, but also potentially to that of dispenser of justice and defender. The Elder Futhark used by the Norse also had a rune for Tyr (Tiw) which was used in this way:
Victory runes you must know
If you want to have victory,
And scratch them on a sword’s hilt,
Some on the grip
And some on the guard,
And twice name Tyr.
The Norse sagas tell the story of Tyr binding the wolf Fenrir. Tyr had taken care of Fenrir as a wolf cub when no one else could manage him. In the story only Tyr was brave enough to put his right hand in Fenrir’s mouth as a pledge of good faith; when Fenrir was then bound and held captive, Tyr’s hand was indeed bitten off. The story of Tyr sacrificing his hand to bind Fenrir has been suggested as the basis for the imagery on the Sutton Hoo purse lid which would indicate an Anglo-Saxon version of the same root mythology. This would mean that the haloed figure on the purse lid, beside the figure of the man (or god) and wolf, may represent the sun shining from clouds as a further reference to Tiw. However, there is also some conflicting evidence in the alteration to one of the figure’s eyes which would identify it as more likely to be an image of Woden. The imagery of a male figure with his hand in the jaws of an animal has been found as far back as 6th century Sweden on the Trollhättan bracteates, so this story is probably quite ancient.
Hand imagery is certainly evident in Anglo-Saxon art as well as poetry. Images of a figure being bitten by or attacked by a wolf have been found in a number of locations, most famously on the Sutton Hoo purse lid, while in poetic language, war may be referred to as “hand-play”. In the story Tyr accepted mutilation in order to keep his people safe. In the same way Beowulf risks being maimed in his wrestling match with Grendel, although ultimately Grendel is the one who loses a limb. There is thus a suggestion that Beowulf may represent a Tiw-myth, in that the poem uses the terminology of “hands” throughout, recalling Tiw’s one-handedness, and also casting Grendel as the Shadow-Walker and inhabitant of dark and shadowed places, in contrast to Tiw as Shining, or, as in the rune poem, riding above night and never failing. Beowulf tends to avoid weapons preferring to rely on the strength of his hands, and other references to “hand-play” for battle and “mund” meaning both “protection” and “hand”, are repeated throughout the poem.
There is also some evidence that Tiw may have been associated with justice. This is partly from an early Germanic alternative of his name, *þingsaz, which links him to “things” or councils. A 3rd century votive altar at Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall references him by this name, and was probably used by the Germanic foederati who were serving in the Roman Army there. In the Norse sagas Loki also mocks Tyr because he can longer be the right hand of justice, having lost it to Fenrir. However, despite the loss of his hand Tiw was still regarded as the most proficient with a sword in his left hand and so continued to be invoked for victory.
Tiw is a hard god to trace in a specifically Anglo-Saxon context, despite his presence in the rune poem, and it is unclear whether the name is of a specific god or just a general term for a god. In earlier Germanic texts *teiw, an earlier derivative of Tiw, seems to be a more generic term.
Examining the derivation of the name leads back to Proto-Indo-European (PIE) where *deiwos means “shiner” or “shining sky” and so implies a sky-father deity. The term is cognate with Zeus and Jupiter (*dius-piter = sky-father).
Place names are another source of information and there are a few in England linked to Tiw: Tuesley and Tishoe in Surrey, Tyesmere in Worcestershire and Tysoe in Warwickshire for example. Tysoe stands in the Vale of the Red Horse, named for a hill figure of a horse which was cut into the turf. Although there is no specific known association between Tiw and horses, the animals were associated with warriors and Tiw did later become seen as a god of battle so a connection is theoretically possible.
The confusion over Tiw’s role and name has resulted in the suggestion that originally (very much before the Anglo-Saxon period) he was a more significant Germanic god who was later replaced by Woden. Tyr appears to be much older than most, if not all, of the other gods. He is highly regarded as an exemplar of honour, a defender of his people, and a noble warrior.
Beorc (b) – Birch
Beorc byþ bleda leas, bereþ efne swa ðeah
tanas butan tudder, biþ on telgum wlitig,
heah on helme hrysted fægere,
geloden leafum, lyfte getenge
Birch is fruitless, yet bears shoots without seeds, is pretty in its branches high in its spread, fair adorned laden with leaves touching the sky.
The Anglo-Saxons were expert wood workers, and the trees they used all had symbolic meaning as well as practical applications. They appear commonly in place names and were often used as boundary markers in charters.
Trees were considered to be spiritually significant because they link the underworld, middle-earth (where men live) and the heavens and the “Tree of life” is an ancient and universal symbol to be found in Palaeolithic cave paintings and Sumerian writings, as well as Hebrew, Islamic and Christian texts. The ancient symbol of the “tree of life” was probably understood by pagan Anglo-Saxons as an equivalent of the Norse Yggdrasil, the world tree.
Ancient wildwood was unlikely to have been very dense as browsing animals would have prevented thick growth. In Britain Mesolithic people had already cleared large areas of woodland to attract the animals which they hunted. The woodlands did not regenerate until late in the Anglo-Saxon period when large tracts of land were set aside by royalty for hunting as a sport – a practice continued by the Normans and later aristocracy.
Now we come to birch I particular. Birch was very common in northern England and in Scotland; as a “pioneer” species it was among the first to re-populate deforested areas. It is a robust, if short-lived, tree and some species can survive further north than any other broadleaf tree, making it common in Scandinavia and one of the few trees native to Iceland and Greenland.
It was used universally for buildings, fences, farm implements, reels and bobbins, and household items. Although it was little used in herbal remedies, in folklore it had a significant role being linked with the goddess Frige, who was associated with love, sex, reproduction, magic and death, as well as giving her name to Frigesdæg / Friday. Birch’s association with fertility may relate to the fact that it is one of the earliest trees to sprout leaves and catkins in northern forests.
In particular birch was favoured for cradles as it drove away evil spirits. It was also used to beat demons out of lunatics.
Eh (e) – Horse
Eh byþ for eorlum æþelinga wyn,
hors hofum wlanc, ðær him hæleþ ymb[e]
welege on wicgum wrixlaþ spræce
and biþ unstyllum æfre frofur
Steed is a nobleman’s joy before heroes, a hoof-proud horse, where about it warriors rich in stallions exchange words and is always a comfort to the restless.
Horses were central to the pagan Anglo-Saxon culture and remained highly prized into Christian times. In this verse we picture noble warriors bragging about their horses, and archaeological evidence for horse equipment, such as cheek pieces and decorative medallions for the harness, demonstrates that these could be high quality products. Though some of them are made of iron, there are also finds made of gold and silver, such as at Sutton Hoo and Lakenheath.
Horses were used for transport, hunting, sport and work, as well as supporting military campaigns on and off the battlefield. Their use as food in the early period or in ritual is however unclear. The later concern of the Church in legislating against sacrifice and the consumption of horse meat hints at the existence of a horse cult; this may have been (re)introduced by the Scandinavian population during the Viking period, or it may have survived well beyond the conversion to Christianity in the 7th-8th centuries. The existence of horses in cremations and burials and on cremation urns also supports the possibility that there was a cult.
One early story of the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons on the shores of Britain revolve around the exploits of two semi-mythical warrior brothers, Hengist and Horsa, whose names mean “Stallion” and “Horse”. These figures are probably related to the divine Indo-European horse twins. They established kingdoms for themselves after the Romans had left the island in the 5th century and Hengest is believed to be the founder of the Kentish royal dynasty through his son Oisc.
Legend has it that the British king Vortigern invited them to fight the Picts, who were ravaging his kingdom and against whom he had little or no martial success. However, when Vortigern failed to meet their demands they revolted against him and with reinforcements from their homelands they conquered the British. In particular they are associated with the kingdom of Kent. Bede effectively presents a foundation myth of the English people in Book 1 Chapter 15 of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People:
IN the year of our Lord 449, Martian being made emperor with Valentinian, and the forty-sixth from Augustus, ruled the empire seven years. Then the nation of the Angles, or Saxons, being invited by the aforesaid king, arrived in Britain with three long ships, and had a place assigned them to reside in by the same king, in the eastern part of the island, that they might thus appear to be fighting for their country, whilst their real intentions were to enslave it. Accordingly they engaged with the enemy, who were come from the north to give battle, and obtained the victory; which, being known at home in their own country, as also the fertility of the country, and the cowardice of the Britons, a more considerable fleet was quickly sent over, bringing a still greater number of men, which, being added to the former, made up an invincible army. The newcomers received of the Britons a place to inhabit, upon condition that they should wage war against their enemies for the peace and security of the country, whilst the Britons agreed to furnish them with pay. Those who came over were of the three most powerful nations of Germany – Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. From the Jutes are descended the people of Kent, and of the Isle of Wight, and those also in the province of the West Saxons who are to this day called Jutes, seated opposite to the Isle of Wight. From the Saxons, that is, the country which is now called Old Saxony, came the East Saxons, the South Saxons, and the West Saxons. From the Angles, that is, the country which is called Anglia, and which is said, from that time, to remain desert to this day, between the provinces of the Jutes and the Saxons, are descended the East Angles, the Midland Angles, Mercians, all the race of the Northumbrians, that is, of those nations that dwell on the north side of the river Humber, and the other nations of the English. The two first commanders are said to have been Hengist and Horsa. Of whom Horsa, being afterwards slain in battle by the Britons, was buried in the eastern parts of Kent, where a monument, bearing his name, is still in existence. They were the sons of Victgilsus, whose father was Vecta, son of Woden; from whose stock the royal race of many provinces deduce their original. In a short time, swarms of the aforesaid nations came over into the island, and they began to increase so much, that they became terrible to the natives themselves who had invited them. Then, having on a sudden entered into league with the Picts, whom they had by this time repelled by the force of their arms, they began to turn their weapons against their confederates. At first, they obliged them to furnish a greater quantity of provisions; and, seeking an occasion to quarrel, protested, that unless more plentiful supplies were brought them, they would break the confederacy, and ravage all the island; nor were they backward in putting their threats in execution. In short, the fire kindled by the hands of these pagans proved God’s just revenge for the crimes of the people; not unlike that which, being once lighted by the Chaldeans, consumed the walls and city of Jerusalem. For the barbarous conquerors acting here in the same manner, or rather the just Judge ordaining that they should so act, they plundered all the neighbouring cities and country, spread the conflagration from the eastern to the western sea, without any opposition, and covered almost every part of the devoted island. Public as well as private structures were overturned; the priests were everywhere slain before the altars; the prelates and the people, without any respect of persons, were destroyed with fire and sword; nor was there any to bury those who had been thus cruelly slaughtered. Some of the miserable remainder, being taken in the mountains, were butchered in heaps; others, spent with hunger, came forth and submitted themselves to the enemy for food, being destined to undergo perpetual servitude, if they were not killed even upon the spot some, with sorrowful hearts, fled beyond the seas. Others, continuing in their own country, led a miserable life among the woods, rocks, and mountains, with scarcely enough food to support life, and expecting every moment to be their last.
Horse burials are a feature of Anglo-Saxon inhumations and linked to high status individuals as part of an older Germanic warrior tradition. The site at Sutton Hoo has a “prince and horse” burial in Mound 17 and the Spong Hill site also has numerous instances of horse cremation. However, beyond recognising that horses were ritually important, we cannot be entirely sure what they actually meant. They were an elite animal, as opposed to the ox and cow, which could be used for food, ploughing and other material. Although the most commonly used term for horse is “hors”, there are several terms to describe horses used to pull carts (stot, crætehors), horses to carry luggage (ealfara, seamhors), horses to ride (hors, radhors, hengest), horses for breeding (stodmyre, gestedhors, stodhors), horses for kings and the nobility (friþhengest, steda, blanca, mearh, wicg) and horses for war (eoh) – this last being the “eh” of the rune poem. According to the Laws of the Dunsæte, different horses also had different levels of value or compensation, indicating their use in different levels of society. Lower value animals (such as the stottas) were also included in some food rents for Bury St Edmunds.
Place-names illustrate that herds of horses were maintained throughout Anglo-Saxon England and for charters indicate that there was in place, a system of management for horse breeding to develop and enhance valuable traits such as size, speed and colour. This was expensive as the animals needed feeding and stabling over winter and their breeding had to be controlled eg through gelding and keeping them fenced in particular areas. Foreign horses were introduced to Britain and cross-bred with British animals to improve the stock, which had already been influenced by Roman cavalry animals some centuries earlier. The depiction of Harold’s unique horse on the Bayeux Tapestry indicates that by the 11th century breeding had been effective at producing distinctive and high quality animals. The horses in the Sutton Hoo and Eriswell burials are estimated to have been around 14 hands.
Certainly by the 9th century Alfred’s troops had to be mounted to offer any opposition to the Vikings who moved rapidly. The establishment of the defensive burhs (fortified settlements) would probably have been connected by mounted messengers to alert them to raiding parties. From the mid-10th century wills began to discuss horses more frequently, along with horse gear such as saddles and harness, while a number of specific horses and a stud farm are mentioned in Æþelstan Æþeling’s will of 1015. Nobles were also expected to pay a death duty which included horses and equipment according to their rank.
Although it is often said that the Anglo-Saxons did not employ cavalry there is no real reason to suppose they never fought on horseback; in particular, mixed troops of Welsh and English warriors (such as used by Penda and his allies) are likely to have adopted mounted tactics. Contact with the Continent, where cavalry was often used, continued throughout the period, and is likely to have influenced insular strategies. By the time of Edward the Confessor there are references to cavalry tactics in the Marches, and in the Bayeux Tapestry Harold Godwinson participates in William’s mounted campaign very successfully.
However it was not only warriors who owned horses; they appear in the wills of bishops too, such as that of Bishop Ælfwold (c. 1012) and were also calculated as part of his death duty to the king. Abbeys also possessed stud farms.
There is of course the story Bede tells of Herebald, a young cleric with John of Beverley who fell from his horse while galloping it in a race. Bede quotes Herebald’s own telling of the story:
When in the prime of my youth, I lived among his [John’s} clergy, applying myself to reading and singing, but not having yet altogether withdrawn my heart from youthful pleasures, it happened one day that as we were traveling with him, we came into a plain and open road, well adapted for galloping our horses. The young men that were with him, and particularly those of the laity, began to entreat the bishop to give them leave to gallop, and make trial of the goodness of their horses. He at first refused, saying, it was an idle request’; but at last, being prevailed on by the unanimous desire of so many, ‘Do so,’ said he, ‘if you will, but let Herebald have no part in the trial.’ I earnestly prayed that I might have leave to ride with the rest, for I relied on an excellent horse, which he had given me, but I could not obtain my request.
When they had several times galloped backwards and forwards, the bishop and I looking on, my wanton humor prevailed, and I could no longer refrain, but though he forbade me, I struck in among them, and began to ride at full speed; at which I heard him call after me, ‘Alas how much you grieve me by riding after that manner.’ Though I heard him, I went on against his command; but immediately the fiery horse taking a great leap over a hollow place, I fell, and lost both sense and motion, as if I had been dead; for there was in that place a stone, level with the ground, covered with only a small turf, and no other stone to be found in all that plain; and it happened, as a punishment for my disobedience, either by chance, or by Divine Providence so ordering it, that my head and hand, which in falling I had clapped to my head, hit upon that stone, so that my thumb was broken and my skull cracked, and I lay, as I said, like one dead.
Fortunately John was able to pray successfully for Herebald’s recovery.
Read more about the rad (riding) rune further up this page
Man (m) – Man
Man byþ on myrgþe his magan leof:
sceal þeah anra gehwylc oðrum swican,
forðum drihten wyle dome sine
þæt earme flæsc eorþan betæcan
Man is dear to his kinsmen in mirth; yet each one must fail the others, since by his judgement the lord wishes to commit the poor flesh to earth.
Let’s compare this verse to the Old Norse Havamal:
Cattle die, friends die, and the same with you; but I know of something that never dies and that’s a dead person’s deeds
In contrast to the Norse focus on reputation as a means of immortality (a theme echoed fully in Beowulf) the Christianised Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem looks at the inevitability of death and the grief of friends.
It’s interesting to compare the respective guidance on living a good life for the pagan Norse and their Anglo-Saxon Christian cousins. The Norse Havamal might be considered to represent a later version of an early and shared Germanic ethic. It comes down to us from the 13th century manuscript of the Codex Regius but contains material which is dated to an earlier oral tradition. The Anglo-Saxon Maxims, like the Rune Poem, are from a Christian document but share a Germanic heritage, and can be compared quite closely with, for example, Beowulf which again contain echoes of earlier material within a Christianised context. All of these sources provide guides to appropriate behaviour.
Both documents place value on wisdom, hospitality, friendship and prudence. The Germanic code of ethics was not very different to the classical virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, courage) which Christianity took alongside faith, hope and charity to form the seven cardinal virtues.
The Anglo-Saxons lived in close-knit communities, and oaths of loyalty and bonds of friendship were vitally important. The elegies frequently refer to the “paths of exile” which a man without a lord or kin is forced to wander. Most famously perhaps this was expressed in the poem we call “The Wanderer/Earthstepper”:
Often the solitary man awaits the mercy of God, while full of care and for a long time he has to stir with his hands (row) the ice cold sea and wander the paths of exile. Fate is fully set. So spoke the wanderer [earth-stepper], mindful of hardships, of fierce slaughters and the downfall of kinsmen.
Anglo-Saxon poetry also tells us about how men should behave, keeping their sorrows to themselves. Lords, kings and princes were expected to reward loyalty with gifts of gold and land; there was the concept of a reciprocal contract which we see repeatedly reflected in the poetry. For example in the Battle of Maldon the men are called to remember that they should fight for their lord in return for the favours he has given them. The great hero Beowulf was generous, courageous, boastful, a strong warrior and a protector of his people. He was of course “most eager for fame” because that was how he would build his warband in life and achieve immortality after death.
The Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem and Maxims remind us that we all must die, and that how we are remembered matters.
Lagu (l) – Ocean
Lagu byþ leodum langsum geþuht,
gif hi sculun neþan on nacan tealtum
and hi sæyþa swyþe bregaþ
and se brimhengest bridles ne gym[eð]
Water is seemingly endless to men, if they must fare on a tilting ship and sea-waves frighten them mightily and the sea-steed does not heed the bridle.
In our rune series we have already talked about ships and sailing skills and how the Anglo-Saxons viewed the ocean as a means of transport rather than a barrier. We have also talked about horses. In this verse we have the “sea-steed” (brimhengest) which is a kenning for ship. So let’s have a look at kennings in Old English poetry, because there are quite a few for the sea and ships in general, as well as many other subjects of verse, such as battles and heroes and scavengers and monsters and treasure and…..
So what is a kenning? A kenning is a metaphor commonly used in Old English, and Old Norse, poetry. It’s a compound noun (usually made up of two parts, like sea + steed). We still use them in modern English, eg “gas-guzzler,” “book-worm” or “ankle-biter”. It isn’t a literal phrase; the combination means something more than or different from the separate nouns. A car is neither gas, nor something that eats its food quickly. A ship is neither a horse nor water, nor a sea animal.
Poets would learn a number of kennings which they could use to enliven their poems and also to ensure they achieved the alliteration they needed to form acceptable Old English verse. Later, kennings became much more elaborate, for example a ship became a “foamy-throated ship,” then a “foamy-throated sea-stallion,” and finally a “foamy-throated sea-stallion of the whale-road.” The use of this kind of metaphorical language is typical of the Anglo-Saxon love of ambiguity and word-play.
Let’s start with a couple of examples for the sea itself. They are mostly self-explanatory:
Dolphin’s riding (path)
The sun might be called the “sky-candle” or “sky-jewel”. A battle was a “sword-storm”, blood was “battle-sweat”, the body was “bone-house” and “sleep of the sword” was death. A corpse was “raven-harvest” and a chieftain/king was “breaker of rings” because he might take off an arm ring and break it up to give pieces of gold to his followers. As well as “sea-steed” a ship might be a “wave-floater”. A sword could be “battle-light” or (wound-serpent” or “filed leavings” ie the remaining blade after the edges had been filed down.
In Beowulf Grendel is referred to, among other things, as the “twilight-spoiler” because he attacked at night. There are quite a few compound terms for Grendel in the poem, such as marsh-stepper, but they are not all kennings; in this example Grendel did step, or walk, over the marsh.
Let’s get back to sea-steeds and the ocean, and finish where we began. In the poem “The Sea-farer” the speaker talks about the desire to travel across the ocean, no matter how hard it is – he has already described the harsh weather and the loneliness. In one line he manages to introduce two kennings, one for sea and one for sea-bird:
gielleð anfloga, hweteð on hwælweg
hreþer unwearnum ofer holma gelagu
the lone-flier screams, urges onto the whale-road
the unresisting heart across the waves of the sea
Ing (ng) – A god
Ing wæs ærest mid East-Denum
gesewen secgun, oþ he siððan est
ofer wæg gewat; wæn æfter ran;
ðus Heardingas ðone hæle nemdun
Ing was first among the East-Danes seen by men, until he later eastwards went across the waves, his waggon sped behind. Thus the Heardingas named the hero.
In the rune poem the name Ing is represented by the runic character and glossed with “Ing” on the page and is thought to be a shortened version of the god Ingwe. There are other references in Old English texts to the Ingwe or Ingui, who was probably similar to the Norse god Yngvi and there are cognates in older languages such as Gothic (Enguz or Iggws). He appears in Anglian royal genealogies of Bernicia which trace the descent of kings back to the gods.
Tacitus, the Roman historian who wrote about the early Germanic tribes in the 1st century AD, describes a tribe called by the Romans the Ingvæones who were “the people bordering on the ocean”. This may be the Latinised version of the Ingwine / Ingwini referenced in Beowulf and meaning “friends of Ing(we)”.
The East Danes mentioned should probably be understood as the people from Skåne in what is now southern Sweden, rather than East Anglia in England. However, the point of interest in the rune poem verse is the reference to the chariot or wagon.
Tacitus is again our source for a description of a similar procession linked to the goddess he called Nerthus. Referring to a number of tribes, including the Anglii (Angles), he says:
they unite in the worship of Nerthus, or Mother Earth; and suppose her to interfere in the affairs of men, and to visit the different nations. In an island of the ocean stands a sacred and unviolated grove, in which is a consecrated chariot, covered with a veil, which the priest alone is permitted to touch. He becomes conscious of the entrance of the goddess into this secret recess; and with profound veneration attends the vehicle, which is drawn by yoked cows. At this season, all is joy; and every place which the goddess deigns to visit is a scene of festivity. No wars are undertaken; arms are untouched; and every hostile weapon is shut up. Peace abroad and at home are then only known; then only loved; till at length the same priest reconducts the goddess, satiated with mortal intercourse, to her temple. The chariot, with its curtain, and, if we may believe it, the goddess herself, then undergo ablution in a secret lake. This office is performed by slaves, whom the same lake instantly swallows up. Hence proceeds a mysterious horror; and a holy ignorance of what that can be, which is beheld only by those who are about to perish. This part of the Suevian nation extends to the most remote recesses of Germany.
The Merovingian kings continued a tradition of travelling to their annual public assembly in a two-wheeled chariot which may have been the remnant of a tradition of the king being wedded to the goddess. Religious observances associated with wagons date back to the Bronze Age at least.
The feasting and celebrations which took place as the wagon processed from place to place were likely linked to fertility rites, and Ingwe does seem to have been a fertility god. It is possible that the figures found at Carlton Colville in Suffolk and elsewhere are related to his worship. The Carlton Colville figure is a silver-gilt pendant of a bearded man without his trousers on; it’s 43mm in height and is dated to the early 7th century.
Eþel (œ) – Homeland
Eþel byþ oferleof æghwylcum men,
gif he mot ðær rihtes and gerysena on
brucan on bolde bleadum oftast
homeland is very dear to every man, if there rightfully and with propriety he may enjoy wealth in his dwelling generally
The concept of “homeland” was very close to the Anglo-Saxon heart, and it’s a term that crops up repeatedly in texts. For example, in the Charm against a Swarm of Bees we read:
Be as mindful of my wellbeing
As every man is of his dinner and homeland
The Anglo-Saxons displayed a seemingly visceral need to be part of a close-knit community; the fellowship of such a community seems to have been as important as the physical place, if not more so. The imagery of the “paths of exile” is a theme often repeated in poetry, lamenting the loss of belonging as exiles wander the earth bereft of lord and kin. It afflicted women as well as men, as we can see in the poem “The Wife’s Lament” which describes the life of a woman whose husband has left – either deserting her or driven out, it is not entirely clear. Meanwhile she is trapped or imprisoned alone in the wilderness.
Ful oft mec hēr wrāþe beġeat fromsīþ frēan. Frȳnd sind on eorþan lēofe lifġende, leġer weardiað, þonne iċ on ūhtan āna gonge under āctrēo ġeond þās eorðscrafu. Þǣr iċ sittan mōt sumorlangne dæġ; þǣr iċ wēpan mæġ mīne wræcsīþas, earfoþa fela, for þon iċ ǣfre ne mæġ þǣre mōdċeare mīnre ġerestan, ne ealles þæs longaþes þe mec on þissum līfe beġeat.
Very often here my lord’s absence cruelly comes over me. There are living in the world dear lovers, who lie in their beds, while I before dawn must walk alone under the oak-tree, through this earthy cave. There I must sit all the summer-long day, there I may weep for my exile, my many hardships, for I never can set at rest my sorrowful heart, nor all the longing which has seized me in this life.
In the later Christian period there was a strong drive to return to the Homelands of “Old Saxony” to bring the new faith to their perceived kin. There seems to have been genuine concern for the fate of the souls of those who were seen to be cousins, albeit rather distant now. Veneration of ancestors was a core part of the early Germanic tradition and had carried across to Britain during the migration. It seems to have remained a core belief which was fed into the new religion and was enacted as missionary work.
Dæg (d) – Day
Dæg byþ drihtnes sond, deore mannum,
mære metodes leoht, myrgþ and tohiht
eadgum and earmum, eallum brice
day is the lord’s sending, dear to men, god’s splendid light, joy and hope to the blessed and the wretched, a benefit to all.
While the rune poem refers to day as the glorious light of the Creator, in fact the Anglo-Saxons measured the beginning of one day (24 hour period) to the next from evening until the following evening. They also used kennings in poetry for the sun such as a “day-candle” or “dægcandel”.
The idea of dividing the seasons into weeks probably derived from the Romans. The Anglo-Saxons then used the names of gods who were more familiar to them than the traditional Roman ones, and we still use these names today. They are among the few direct clues we have to the gods of the Anglo-Saxons (along with eg place name evidence).
The Anglo-Saxon days of the week were:
These days correspond well to similar Roman gods; for example, Tuesday is named for Tiw, and in Latin for Mars, both warrior gods.
Dividing the day into sunrise, morning, noon, afternoon and so on was enough for most people, but monks and priests needed more accurate ways of telling the time to regulate the different services held throughout the day in monasteries. For them daytime was divided into twelve ‘tides’ or hours, but just as the length of daylight varies according to the season, so the hours could vary in length throughout the year. The monks used various systems (eg gradated candles, sand-timers, sun-dials, dripping water) to calculate the correct time for different services, and rang bells accordingly. The Benedictine Rule also laid out the different schedules for winter and summer hours for the monasteries to follow. On a number of churches we find sundials, such as the one at St Gregory’s Minster pictured above; read more about Orm’s sundial at St Gregory’s or the portable Canterbury sundial. Everyone else probably used shadows of fixed objects and the position of the sun to estimate how much time had passed.
Dividing the year was more complicated; over time the year became out of synch with the original months which had been based on the cycle of the moon. So nowadays when we say, for example, that “ærra geola” is equivalent to December, this is really an approximation to the way the Anglo-Saxons would have measured it. A lunar month is only around 29 days, and so 12 months only added up to 348 days per year. The Anglo-Saxon solution to this was to add an extra month every now and then. Meanwhile, the Roman calendar which was eventually adopted had already strayed from its original links to lunar months and no longer matched the cycle of the moon, no more than we do today.
It is most likely that the people were also much more attuned to the waxing and waning of the moon than most of us are now, and better able to tell the age of it throughout its cycle. The moon cycles were the measure of the seasons, with the solar solstice and equinox festivals being one of the ways of marking the larger scale passing of the year.
Ac (“a” as in “can’t” in southern UK English) – oak
Ac byþ on eorþan elda bearnum
flæsces fodor, fereþ gelome
ofer ganotes bæþ; garsecg fandaþ
hwæþer ac hæbbe æþele treowe
oak is for the sons of men on earth a feeder of flesh, often travels over gannet’s bath, the ocean tests whether the oak keeps good faith.
The acorns from the oak tree, as described in this verse, were valuable to feed foraging pigs. This was called “mast” from the Old English “mæst”, meaning the nuts of trees that have fallen on the ground. Letting the pigs forage for mast is called “pannage” and was so important that it is used in the Domesday Book as a means of assigning value, for example one pig might be paid to a lord in return for pannage for a number of pigs, or woodland was measured by the number of pigs it provided pannage for. When the pigs rooted for the acorns or other mast (such as beech nuts) they broke up the soil and released nutrients for plant growth. The mast itself was rich in goodness and fattened the pigs quickly for slaughter in the winter. However, in excess it is poisonous to cattle and horses so another benefit was that the pigs cleared the ground safely for other livestock.
The oak was an important tree, and its wood was used for buildings including halls and churches, as well as ships due to its strength. The verse refers to its strength being tested on the ocean.
In medicine, it was thought to cure leprosy, joint pain and cancer. It also was used for stomach complaints. Today we know the bark is rich in tannins which protects the lining of the gut.
Oak trees were also used to identify assembly boundaries and places for meetings, for example to hear complaints and dispense justice. Some such trees were known as the “Shire Oak” derived from the Old English “scir ac.” In Old English “sc” is pronounced “sh” and “scir” means “shire” (just as “sheriff” comes from “shire reeve” or “scir gerefa” – originally the chief magistrate of a shire).
Maypole dancing was originally performed around an oak tree to celebrate the arrival of spring. The Anglo Saxons also had “marriage oaks” around which couples danced after their wedding to ensure fertility.
Ash (“æ” as in “ash”) – Ash tree
Æsc biþ oferheah, eldum dyre
stiþ on staþule, stede rihte hylt,
ðeah him feohtan on firas monige
ash is very tall, dear to men, strong in foundation, holds its place properly, though many men fight against it.
One of the main uses for ash for the Anglo-Saxon was in making spears, to such an extent that the word is often used to mean “spear” in poetry. For example in the Battle of Maldon we read:
Byrhtnóþ wánd wácne æsc
Byrhtnoth brandished his slender ash (ie spear)
A warrior was known as an “ash-bearer” (æsc-berend) and an armed force was an “ash army” (æsc here) while combat was the “ash-play” (æsc-plega) or “ash-strength” (æsc-þræc). A successful warrior might be called “ash-famed” (æsc-rof).
Graves that contain weapons mostly included a spear; these weapons would have been the cheapest and easiest to make, whereas swords were elite weapons requiring a great deal of skill and resource to produce.
Spears were versatile; they could be thrown or used to jab. They were valuable at keeping the enemy at a distance from the shield wall, and they could be held either over-arm or under-arm depending on the battle formation. The Franks Casket shows the latter technique, and the Bayeux Tapestry the former.
Like oak, ash was also used in ship building (an “ash-man” or “æsc-mann”, was a sailor /pirate) and in more mundane items such as buckets. In medicine the bark was used for headaches, sores blotches, leprosy, palsy and healing wounds. The split trunk of an ash tree was also used to heal both people and animals. Babies or sheep are recorded as being passed through the gap to make them well or keep them healthy.
Yr (y) – Bow
Yr byþ æþelinga and eorla gehwæs
wyn and wyrþmynd, byþ on wicge fæger,
fæstlic on færelde, fyrdgeatewa sumyew-bow for every noble and warrior is a joy and adornment, is fair on a steed, a trusty piece of war-gear for a journey
We have already talked about thorn (þorn), birch (beorc), oak (ac) and ash (æsc). The final tree in the Futhorc is Yew. The Old English for Yew is “iw” so here we are specifically focusing on its use as a bow, “yr”.
The wood most associated with the longbow is yew. Historically the yew bow was crucial to the English Longbow tradition, and in the later medieval period was well represented at battles of the 100 Years War such as Crecy, Poitiers and, of course, Agincourt. The Anglo-Saxons would have been expert at producing bows for hunting and warfare as required.
A yew bow was quick to make and useful in hunting but may not have lasted for long as the wood has a tendency to become brittle and inflexible as it dried and aged due to the damp English climate. This means that it may have been less popular in campaigns, although it may have sufficed for a season.
Archers were certainly part of the Anglo-Saxon military, in the 11th century at least. In 1066 an English archer killed Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, just as a Norman archer killed King Harold Godwinson a few weeks later at Hastings. Archers are shown in the Bayeux Tapestry in the battle scenes.
However, archaeological evidences for archery is slim compared to that for spears, axes and seaxes (long knives) or swords. Although there is trace evidence for bows in some burials, there are few metal arrowheads, which would survive more reliably. It is possible the arrows were also organic constructs, such as pointed hardened wood, or antler or bone, which would all degenerate more rapidly.
Of the arrow heads that do survive, there are three main types: socketed leaf shaped; bodkins; and barbed head. It is suggested that the bodkins may have been developed specifically to attack armoured opponents, while the other two types were derived from hunting pieces. Bodkins are narrower and tapered in such a way they can piece ring mail.
Although the archaeology is rather limited we do have a description of arrows in the poem recording the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 AD.
There lay many warriors, seized by the spear, the northern men, over their arrowed shields, likewise the Scottish also were weary, saddened by war.
Iar (ia) – Beaver
Iar byþ eafix and ðeah a bruceþ
fodres on foldan, hafaþ fægerne eard
wætre beworpen, ðær he wynnum leofaþ
beaver is a riverfish, yet it always enjoys food on land, has a fine dwelling surrounded by water, where it lives happily.
The translation we are using here is by Stephen Pollington, but other translations have suggested an eel instead. We‘ll keep with the mammal for our discussion, although eels were also an important food source in Anglo-Saxon times. Ea-fix (or ea-fisc) literally translates as “river-fish”, which might seem a little odd for a beaver but in the context of the verse it does make sense. However, in another manuscript Ælfric glosses the Latin “fiber” (beaver) with Old English “beofer” (the middle “f” would be pronounced “v”) which is the root of our modern term. This is the word which gave the East Yorkshire town of Beverley its name from the 10th century: befer leah, or beaver lea/clearing.
It has been pointed out by Raye (2016) that if the translation of “iar” as beaver is accepted the verse might be a very early reference to the tradition later repeated by Gerald of Wales that some religious communities ate the beaver on meat-abstinence fasting days because they considered it as fish rather than as animal. However, the evidence in his view is purely based on the context of the verse and linguistically is not supported elsewhere (whereas there are multiple references to beofer/befer in texts).
It seems that the beaver population in Britain was mostly extinct around or soon after the Norman invasion, although it is likely that small populations continued to survive for a while longer. Evidence for a significant beaver population is substantial up until the Late Saxon Period (c. 800-1066 AD). There have been some remains found as late as the 12th century, possibly even 13th, and Gerald of Wales attests beavers in Wales at this period, with later evidence for Scotland (16th century).
Prior to their extinction beavers may have held an important role in Anglo-Saxon thought: a beaver tooth pendant excavated from an adolescent’s grave in Watchfield, Oxfordshire. It is held in place by a gold band with decorative horizontal lines. The gold setting implies that the tooth was highly valued by its owner. It is thought that this object was a charm or good luck symbol.
Interestingly in later medieval manuscripts (after beavers had died out in Britain) the beaver has a very specific trope associated with it, as the British Library reports:
Beavers are immediately recognisable in medieval [13th century onwards] bestiaries because they are always depicted the same way: on the run, pursued by a hunter, who is frequently blowing a horn and accompanied by hunting dogs. The story of beavers as related in the bestiaries is extremely colourful. The beaver was highly sought after for his testicles, which had many medicinal uses. The clever beaver was aware of the desirability of these organs, and had a strategy to ensure his escape. If he found himself pursued by hunters and was unable to get away, the beaver would bite off his own testicles and throw them into the hunter’s path. With no further motivation for pursuit, the hunter would give up and the beaver live to see another day.
This ploy could only work once. What if the beaver found himself pursued a second time? On that occasion, he would stop and roll over, showing his pursuer that he no longer had the prize so ardently sought. The disappointed hunter would abandon the chase, again allowing the beaver to live.
This legend may result from the supposed medicinal use of castoreum, a secretion from a gland under the tail, which beavers use to mark territory. Aldhelm (7th century) referenced this usage in one of his riddles although there are no such references in Anglo-Saxon medical texts or herbal remedies:
I am a dweller on the edge of steep stream banks, and not lazy at all, but warlike with the weapons of my mouth. I sustain my life with hard labour, laying low huge trees with my hooked axes. I dive into water, where the fish swim, and immerse my own head, wetting it in the watery surge. The wounds of sinews and limbs foul of gore I can cure. I destroy pestilence and the deadly plague. I eat the bitter and well-gnawed bark of trees.
Ear (ea) – grave
Ear byþ egle eorla gehwylcun,
ðonn[e] fæstlice flæsc onginneþ,
hraw colian, hrusan ceosan
blac to gebeddan; bleda gedreosaþ,
wynna gewitaþ, wera geswicaþ
grave is frightful to every warrior, when the flesh begins inexorably – the corpse – to cool, to embrace the earth, the dark as its companion. Fruits fall away, joys pass away, promises fail.
It was the habit of later Anglo-Saxons to be buried in unfurnished graves, so we often do not have many grave goods through which we can learn more about those people. However, earlier graves are more likely to contain artefacts. St Cuthbert’s coffin (7th century) for example, with its marvellous grave goods, can be seen at Durham Cathedral.
The most common items found include dress fittings (buckles, brooches, pins etc) along with knives and weapons. However, they can also include pots or containers or animals. Some graves include evidence for coffins, others appear to suggest the occupant was buried directly into the earth. Of course, there are also the spectacular high status graves which were prepared within boats (eg Sutton Hoo), beds (eg Streethouse) or chambers (eg Prittlewell).
Goods seem to be linked to sex of the occupant, so weapons mostly with males and jewellery, keys and workboxes with females. Pots, knives and belts appear to be gender neutral. Although some children were buried with smaller versions of items, they were more often buried with an adult-sized ones, which emphasises the ritual or symbolic nature of the grave goods as opposed to a literal interpretation. Where someone was cremated rather than buried, the remains often also include an animal carcass although otherwise grave goods are less varied. Some items were old when buried, so may have been heirlooms; others may have had some kind of significance for the after-life, in the form of amulets, rather than just representing personal adornment.
As a result, grave items do not necessarily represent the everyday items used by the person in question. For example, tools are rarely deposited in graves but are found quite widely in the archaeology of settlements.
Equally over time the type of goods varied. In the earliest centuries (5th and 6th) regional variation was quite marked. In the later 7th and 8th centuries there was increasing standardisation as well as becoming more limited. The richest finds have concentrated in the early 7th century with the dramatic “princely” burials which displayed huge wealth and lavish craftsmanship. It has been suggested that this pattern of wealth concentrated in fewer high status graves might represent the emergence of kingdoms as well as increasing stratification of levels in society.
Another fascinating feature of graves of the 7th and 8th centuries is the grave markers or “pillow stones” which have been discovered at Hartlepool and elsewhere. The most common grave marker seems to have been a large slab, displayed either upright or horizontally, it is not clear which.
However, at Hartlepool and elsewhere smaller “pillow” stones have been found. They are usually around 15cm x 20 cm in size and along with a cruciform decoration include a name. They were brightly painted and the name was often written in both Futhorc runes and Latin script. Again it is not clear whether they lay flat (perhaps under the head, hence “pillow” stone) or upright.
Finally the Scandinavian influence in the north resulted in the creation of a number of hogback grave markers, again with scenes sculpted on them, often merging references from sagas with Christian elements.
The Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, or alphabet, is a set of runes which were used as a writing system before the adoption of the Latin alphabet. The characters are formed from straight lines to make them easier to carve into wood, or occasionally metal or stone; ink and parchment were not generally used for writing before the arrival of the Christian Church.
The futhorc, named after the first six letters of the sequence, differs from the Futhark of the Norse. There were different runic alphabets in use around northern Europe, including versions used by the Northern Germanic peoples. Each character in the series had its own meaning, and as a result could condense messages or charms into few characters. In general the characters represent quite simple, day-to-day objects, such as trees, weather or animals. It is suggested that the names are more likely describing the shape of the character to help memorise it.
The word “rūn” (meaning “rune”) referred to both the characters and also meant “secret”, and the related verb “rūnian” means “to whisper”. Runes could be used for charms and spells but were also probably mostly used for more mundane purposes such as brief messages, memorials or records. Although there is an idea that they were related to magic and divination, in fact this is not particularly supported in the Anglo-Saxon evidence, and runes are most widely attested in Christian sources which implies such a link was not explicit at the time; runes could be used to write charms, but not all writing in runes was magical.
Surviving runic inscriptions
The earliest runes in England have been found on a cremation urn in Norfolk and dated to the 4th-5th centuries. When coins later began to be produced runic lettering was used on some of them. Later still runes were used more widely in commemorations such as the memorial stones from Lindisfarne and Hartlepool, on stone crosses and even St Cuthbert’s coffin.
The Frank’s Casket is an early 8th century whalebone chest with carved panels on the sides and lid depicting stories from Roman, Jewish, Christian and Germanic tradition. It has inscriptions in Old English and Latin using both Latin and runic characters, including an entire riddle.
The Ruthwell Cross, standing at 6m high, is an important Northumbrian sculpture, also dating to the 8th century. It has four extracts from the early Christian poem “The Dream of the Rood” carved on its sides in runes and linked to the images on the panels depicting key scenes from the Crucifixion. It is not unique in having runes inscribed on it, as runes also appear on the Bewcastle Cross for example; however, the lengthy extracts from a poem are unique in this context.
A particularly unusual find was a 10th century scramseax, or long –knife, found in the Thames and referred to as “Beagnoth’s seax”. The blade has Beagnoth’s name and a copy of the futhorc inscribed along it.
Runes also occur in various manuscripts as shorthand for whole words; they also are used in Cynewulf’s poems. Cynewulf is one of the few named poets (we also know of Caedmon) from the Anglo-Saxon period and we know his name because he left his signature in runes among some of his poems. He wrote verses so that he was able include the words represented by the futhorc characters which spelled his name. He may have done this in order for his name to be remembered so that later people would pray for his soul. Four poems have been identified as his, and they are known by the modern names of: The Fates of the Apostles; Elene; Christ II; and Juliana.
Another poem, The First Dialogue of Solomon and Saturn, also includes runes but here they are used more to represent letters rather than words.
Finally, some of the riddles from the Exeter Book also use runes as clues to help the audience solve them. However, it is fair to say that debate continues as to many of the solutions to the riddles – and perhaps they were never intended to have a single answer.
The Old English poem “Deor” is unique in that it has a repeating refrain “þæs oferēode, þisses swā mæg” (That passed away, and so may this). It also describes five disastrous events in history or mythology, which would have been familiar to the audience, and which are used to demonstrate that terrible situations can be overcome. The poet then explains his own difficulty – he has been replaced in his lord’s favour by a rival.
The five stories mentioned in the poem are:
Weland was the mythical smith-god disabled by King Niðhad upon whom Weland took terrible revenge which included the rape of Beadohild, the king’s daughter and the murder of his sons, before escaping. He is depicted on the 7th century Northumbrian Franks Casket;
Beadohild’s own story in which she is said to have given birth to the hero Widia;
Mæthilde was rescued from drowning by the harpist Geat following her capture by the demonic River King;
The reference to Þeodric is more difficult to interpret; it may be the king or his people who are suffering. The poem could refer to one of the many kings by that name. One option is that is means Þeodric the Great who ruled for 33 years at Ravenna, where he was a strong king but also a heretic in the eyes of the Roman Church. He was responsible for the death of the admired philosopher Boethius (whose work King Alfred believed was one of those “most needful for men to know”);
Eormanric, King of the Goths, died in 375 CE. He appears as a cruel tyrant in a number of stories. Widia is said to have fought for him against Þeodric (the Great).
After this reference there is a more philosophical passage, quite Christian in nature, about the hardships of life.
Finally we discover that Heorrenda is the one who has replaced Deor. He was a poet who helped King Heoden to marry Hild and Deor was (until now) the poet of the same people, the Heodeningas.
You can listen to a reading of the poem and read the text and translation below.
Leofwin2010’s version (abridged) of Deor
Wēlund him be wurman wræces cunnade, Welund of the Wurmas suffered woe, ānhydig eorl eorfoþa drēag, Proud lord, he suffered torments long, hæfde him tō gesiþþe sorge and longaþ, Sorrow and longing were his company, wintercealde wræce; wēan oft onfond Exile cold as winter. Hardship was his lot þæs oferēode, þisses swā mæg. That passed away, and so may this.
Þēodric āhte þrītig wintra Theodric ruled for thirty years Maeringa burg; þæt wæs monegum cūþ. In the Mearings’ city. That was well-known þæs oferēode, þisses swā mæg. That passed away, and so may this.
we geāscodan Eormanrīces We’ve heard much ofthe wolvish nature wylfenne geþōht; āhte wīde folc Of king Ermanaric who long ruled Gotena rīces. Þæt wæs grim cyning. The gothic realms: that was a cruel king. þæs oferēode, þisses swā mæg. That passed away, and so may this. ic bi mē sylfum secgan wille, I wish to speak about myself þæt ic hwīle wæs heodeninga scop, Once I was minstrel of the Heodenings, dryhtne dyre. mē wæs Dēor noma. Dear to my patron, my name was Deor. āhte ic fela wintra folgað tilne, Many years I had a fine position holdne hlāford, oþþæt heorrenda nū, And a loyal lord, until Heorrenda now, lēodcræftig monn, londryht geþāh That skilful poet, has received my lands, þæt mē eorla hlēo aer gesealde. Which once my noble lord gave to me. þæs oferēode, þisses swā mæg. That passed away, and so may this
The Battle of Maldon is an Old English poem which records a contemporary event. The battle itself was fought in 991 CE on the mainland opposite the island of Northey betweent he English levy and Viking raiders, probably including Olaf Tryggvason. This is close to Maldon in Essex and the island was accessible at low tide by a causeway but isolated at high tide (a bit like Lindisfarne still is today). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the defeat.
The poem deliberately copies the older heroic style of verse such as Beowulf. It is not complete, starting mid-line “…brocen wurde” so the beginning is not known and could affect the theme of the poem. It is often suggested that the battle was lost because of the leader Byrhtnoð’s pride – he allowed the invading Vikings onto the mainland to fight when they were isolated on the island at high tide. However, other interpretations are possible: the poem may be emphasising the effects of disloyalty among his men. It has also been suggested that it was a piece of propaganda against the rule of the king, Æðelred the “Unready”, whose reign suffered badly from Viking raids and the effects of disloyalty and internal fighting.
Furthermore Byrhtnoð was in a difficult postion in real life. If he had refused to allow teh Vikings ashore they could have sailed further along the coast and ravaged areas where there was no levy at all to oppose them.
Leofwin2010‘s version of Battle of Maldon – Byrhtnoth’s Challenge(ll. 42-61)
Byrhtnōð maþelode, bord hafenode,
wand wācne æsc, wordum mǣlde,
yrre and ānræd āġeaf him andsware:
“Gehȳrst þū, sǣlida, hwæt þis folc seġeð?
Hī willað ēow tō gafole gāras syllan
ǣttrynne ord and ealde swurd,
þā hereġeatu þe ēow æt hilde ne dēah.
Brimmanna boda, ābēod eft onġēan:
seġe þīnum lēodum miċċle lāþre spell,
þæt hēr stynt unforcūð eorl mid his werode
þe wile ġealgean ēþel þysne,
Æþelrēdes eard ealdres mīnes
folc and foldan. Feallan sceolon
hǣþene æt hilde! Tō hēanliċ mē þinċeð
þæt ġē mid ūrum sceattum tō scype gangon
unbefohtene, nū ġē þus feor hider
on ūrne eard in becōmon.
Ne sceole ġē swā sōfte sinc ġegangan;
ūs sceal ord and ecg ǣr ġesēman
grim gūðplega ǣr wē gofol syllon.”
Byrhtnoth spoke back, raising up his shield,
waving his slender spear, speaking in words,
angry and resolute, giving them answer:
“Have you heard, sailor, what these people say?
They wish to give you spears as tribute,
the poisonous points and ancient swords,
this tackle of war that will do you no good in battle.
Herald of the brim-men, deliver this again,
say unto your people a more unpleasant report:
here stands with his troops a renowned earl
who wishes to defend this homeland,
the country of Æthelred, my own lord,
and his citizens and territory. The heathens
shall perish in battle. It seems a humiliation
to let you go to your ships with our treasures
unfought—now you have come thus far
into our country. You must not get our gold
so softly. Points and edges must reconcile us first,
a grim war-playing, before we give you any tribute.”
There are several manuscripts concerning medical treatments and charms, and most of these were collected and published in the 19th century by Thomas Cockayne in a series called “Leechdoms Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England”. Some are copies in Latin and some are in Old English translation of earlier works, but there are a few original Old English texts.
The major manuscripts comprise:
Bald’s Leechbook, c.950 CE, the oldest surviving Old English medical work; “leech” here is from the Old English word “lǣce” meaning “healer” and does not refer to actual leeches.
The Old English Herbarium, a translation of the Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius
The Lacnunga Manuscripts, a slightly disordered collection of manuscripts on healing and herblore.
There are a few other references to herblore and healing in other manuscripts, but these are relatively minor entries.
An example from Bald’s Leechbook, Book I, ch. Xi.
“For sore lips”
Wiþ sarum weolorum gesmire mid hunige þa weoloras
genīm þonne ægerfelman besceað mid pipore
For sore lips, smear the lips with honey,
then take film of egg, scatter it with pepper,
and lay on
“Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England, Vol II.”, Cockayne, Thomas Oswald, 1864, Longman
Listen to a reading in Old English by Stephen Pollington here:
View the mid-10th century manuscript of Bald’s Leechbook online at the British Library
Only around 30,000 lines of Old English poetry survive and Beowulf comprises around 10% of these, at about 3,000 lines. The British Library holds the manuscript and it can usually be seen on display or viewed in their digital collection.
Beowulf is the longest surviving epic poem in Old English. It relates the exploits of its eponymous hero, and his successive battles with a monster named Grendel, with Grendel’s revengeful mother, and with a dragon which was guarding a hoard of treasure.
It survives in a single medieval manuscript. The manuscript bears no date, and so its age has to be calculated by analysing the scribes’ handwriting. The poem was copied by two Anglo-Saxon scribes, working in collaboration in the 10th – 11th century. Nobody knows for certain when the poem was first composed but many scholars do support an earlier original composition.
The first-recorded owner of Beowulf is Laurence Nowell (died c. 1570), a pioneer of the study of Old English. Beowulf then entered the famous collection of Sir Robert Cotton before passing into the hands of his son Sir Thomas Cotton (died 1662), and grandson Sir John Cotton (died 1702), who bequeathed the manuscript to the nation.
During the 18th century, the Cotton manuscripts were moved for safekeeping to Ashburnham House at Westminster. On the night of 23 October 1731 a fire broke out and many manuscripts were damaged, and a few completely destroyed.
Beowulf escaped the fire relatively intact but it suffered greater loss by handling in the following years, with letters crumbling away from the outer portions of its pages. Placed in paper frames in 1845, the manuscript remains incredibly fragile.
You can hear the opening lines of Beowulf in the following reading:
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.
Lo! we have heard the glory of the kings of the Spear-Danes in days gone by, how the chieftains wrought mighty deeds. Often Scyld-Scefiing wrested the mead-benches from troops of foes, from many tribes; he made fear fall upon the earls. After he was first found in misery (he received solace for that), he grew up under the heavens, lived in high honour; until each of his neighbours over the whale-road must needs obey him and render tribute. That was a good king!
“The Song of Beowulf” trans. Professor R.K. Gordon, 1922
In the late 800’s, Alfred the Great ordered the making of a history, or Chronicle, of England and the English. The history was back-dated to Roman times, and was maintained for over two hundred years after Alfred’s death in 899 CE until 1154.
It isn’t a single document but is made up form a number of different copies which were written at Winchester, Canterbury, Peterborough, Abingdon and Worcester, and were all based on a common core which is now lost. Each manuscript has some extra information added to this core text and each covers a different range of years depending on what has survived.
It’s a major source for historians of the Anglo-Saxon period, and was written in ‘Old English’, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, from which modern English is derived. Two extracts are given below as examples.
Britain and the coming of the English
This example has been adapted and abridged from the opening entry of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle followed by part of the entry for the year 449 AD. Much of the early sections of the Chronicle, before Alfred’s time, were copied form Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”.
brittene igland is ehta hund mila lang and twa hund brad. And her sind on þis iglande fif geþeode: englisc and brittisc and wilsc and scyttisc and pyhtisc and boc leden. erest weron bugend þises landes brittes.
of iotum comon cantwara and wihtwara. of eald seaxum coman east seaxa and suð sexa and west sexa. of angle comon est angla, middel angla, mearca and ealle norðhymbra. heora heretogan wæron twegen gebroðra: hengest and horsa.
The island of Britain is eight hundred miles long and two hundred broad. And there are on this island five languages: English and British and Welsh* and Scottish and Pictish and book-Latin. First inhabiting this land were Britons.
From Jutes came Kent-people and Wight-people. From old Saxony came east-Saxons and south-Saxons and west-Saxons. From Angle** came east Angles, middle Angles, Mercians and all Northumbrians. Their leaders were Two brothers: Hengest and Horsa.
Part of the entry for 1066 from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Our second example from the entry for 1066 describes the Battle of Hastings. At the time the English Church believed that the defeat was God’s punishment for the sins of the people.
Þa com Wyllelm eorl of Normandige into Pefnesea on Sancte Michæles mæsseæfen, and sona þær hi fere wæron, worhton castel æt Hæstingaport. Þis wearþ þa Harolde cynge gecydd, and he gaderade þa mycelne here, and com him togenes æt þære haran apuldran, and Wyllelm him com ongean on unwær, ær þis folc gefylced wære. ac se kyng þeah him swiðe heardlice wiþ feaht mid þam mannum þe him gelæsten woldon, and þær wearð micel wæl geslægen on ægðre healfe. þær wearð ofslægen Harold kyng, and Leofwine eorl his broðor and Gyrð eorl his broðor and fela godra manna, and þa Frenciscan ahton wælstowe geweald, eallswa heom God uðe for folces synnon.
Then came William earl of Normandy into Pevensey on Michaelmas eve, and as soon as they were prepared they built a castle at Hastings. This was then made known to King Harold, and he then gathered a great army and came against him at the ancient apple-tree, and William came at him unawares, before his force was deployed. But the king still fought back hard with the men who would stay with him, and there were many battle-losses on both sides. There King Harold was slain, and earl Leofwine his brother, earl Gyrth his brother, and many good men, and the French held the battlefield, as God granted them for the people’s sins.
The 10th century Exeter Book (from Exeter Cathedral) contains a number of Old English texts which include more than 90 riddles. There may originally have been 100.
The riddles are mostly fairly short poems and are playful in tone. The object described often talks to us directly, even if it is in fact inanimate, such as a book or a weathercock or a butter churn. They vary in style: some are fairly simple descriptions, others may notoriously be rather rude double-entendres, while yet others have never been solved for certain. This was entirely deliberate by the creator(s) and would have provided entertainment at feasts as the guests argued over the solution before it was revealed. Many continue to be argued over and be open to different solutions today.
Here is an example of one of the riddles for you to try and solve. There is an agreed answer to this riddle, which is offered at the end, but be inventive and argue your case!
Oft ic sceal wiþ wæge winnan ond wiþ winde feohtan, somod wið þam sæcce, þonne ic secan gewite eorþan yþum þeaht; me biþ se eþel fremde. Ic beom strong þæs gewinnes, gif ic stille weorþe; gif me þæs tosæleð, hi beoð swiþran þonne ic, ond mec slitende sona flymað, willað oþfergan þæt ic friþian sceal. Ic him þæt forstonde, gif min steort þolað ond mec stiþne wiþ stanas moton fæste gehabban. Frige hwæt ic hatte.
Oft I must with water battle and with wind fight; together, against them contend; then I depart to seek earth swallowed by waves; from me the homeland is estranged. I am strong in that contest, if I fixed become; if I fail at that, they are greater than I, and rend me, soon drive me to flight, will bear off that which I must protect; I resist that from them, if my hold endures and resolutely with me stones might hold fast. Ask what I am called.
“…Their ancient verses which are their only record or annals…”
Tacitus Germania Ch2
I AM A POET, AND WINNER OF THE LATEST Cædmon Prize as voted for by gesithas (thanks to everyone who took time to vote). At the last symbel and folcgemot I recited the poem and was asked to explain the techniques that went into writing this style of verse. So here’s a look at aspects of how poetry was constructed in Old English, and how this can be emulated in Modern English.
Firstly a question: what differentiates poetry from normal language?
If I stood up at a gesithas feast and spoke some words, how would you know I was reciting a poem rather than giving a speech, reading out our gerefa’s annual report, or telling a short story? Poets utilise various techniques to make their verses stand out from everyday language. Some common ones are repetition, simile and metaphor, alliteration, rhyme, but the most important is rhythm. To understand why we have to look back at the origins of English poetry.
Poetry began as a spoken art form. It had no choice, it is older than writing. Only with the advent of mass literacy in Victorian times did the poem on a page to be read silently to oneself become prevalent. Old English verse (and Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s) was designed by the poet to be recited out aloud to an audience.
Therefore as spoken art, the spoken rhythm of the poem was crucial. A regular rhythm would contrast with the randomness of ordinary speech. It would also provide the framework to aid memorisation. Having had to learn poetry and monologues, I can certainly vouch that the rhythms of the former makes it easier to recall. As Tacitus indicates in his Germania, verses were used to record history. It would certainly be easier memorising a long list of ancestors or battles using a spoken cadence. In Old English verse this rhythm is accented by the use of alliteration, which would also help with recall.
But what provides the rhythm?
The English language (both Old English and Modern) is stress based. This means that extra emphasis is put on vowel sounds in important syllables to create the spoken rhythm of the language. Linguists work with a complicated system that distinguishes six levels of stress. Luckily for poetry three levels will do. In the various examples I use below, I have indicated the stressed syllables with bold and underline to make them stand out using the following key.
• Primary stress– syllables that carry the main stress
• Secondary stress – syllables that carry lesser stress.
These are often found in longer polysyllabic words, eg. the secondary stresses gale and path in Nightingale, Sociopath.
• Unstressed – syllables that aren’t emphasised.
The spoken stresses can fall on syllables within words and words within phrases. Poets need to consider both when creating their verses.
Stressed syllables within a word
This can best be heard in words with the same vowel sound in each syllable. For example say out loud the words: photo, uncut, infill. Can you hear the slight difference between the stressed and unstressed vowel in each example? It is subtle but it is there. To produce this emphasis English speakers tend to use a combination of three techniques…
• The pitch (musical note) of the vowel is raised in the stressed syllable.
• The stressed syllable can be pronounced slightly louder.
• The vowel in the stressed syllable can be prolonged. This is something TV presenter Lloyd Grossman was famous for doing to excess, but in moderation it is a valid way to add weight to a syllable.
The other technique used to highlight stress within a word is to deemphasise the vowel in any unstressed syllable. This increases the contrast between the vowel sounds. There is less emphasis if the unstressed vowel is shifted to an easier to make vowel sound. In some words this has turned unstressed syllable’s vowel sound to schwa (. in the International Phonetic Alphabet (I.P.A. for short)). This is a mid-central vowel that produces an ‘ehr’ like sound, eg. the second syllables of china and thorough. The other vowel sound that is shifted to for de-emphasis is ‘i’ (1 in I.P.A). for example the ‘e’ in beholdand the second ‘e’ in Element. This process of altering vowel sounds in unstressed syllables started while our ancestors were speaking Old English and was completed by the time Late West Saxon dialect was used c.1000 AD.
In Old and Modern English the main stress would usually fall on the root syllable of a word. This would normally be the first syllable unless preceded by a prefix. Most prefixes were unstressed in Old English as most are in Modern English. Needless to say, as with any language rule there were exceptions. The most important occurred where the prefix was more essential to the meaning of the word than the root syllable. For example: utweard in Old English (like its descendant in Modern English outward) would have the stress on the prefix ut– as it was crucial to the meaning. The word weard indicated that a direction was being headed towards, but the prefix added the detail of the particular direction.
Old English suffixes like –ung, –nes were also unstressed and furthermore they didn’t shift the stress in the root word. Unfortunately for poets trying to recreate an Old English verse style in Modern English certain suffixes picked up from Latin and Norman French can move the stress from the root syllable to the one before the suffix. The suffixes –ity, –ual, –ial in the following examples all shift the stress: electric becomes electricity, context becomes contextual, manor becomes manorial.
Stressed syllables within phrases
There is not much poets can do about the stress within words. Which syllables are accented is pretty fixed, though there are some dialectal variations and a few words change over time. Within phrases the stressed syllables are easier to manipulate. Words can be divided up into two types when considered as part of a phrase or sentence. Lexical words give meaning so they tend to contain stressed syllables. Nouns, adjectives, principle verbs and adverbs are all lexical. Grammatical words explain the relationship between lexical words, for example, articles, prepositions and auxiliary verbs. These words tend to be unstressed. In the phrase ‘the cat sat on the mat’, the lexical words are: cat, sat, mat and the grammatical words are: the, on, the.
Of course context is everything when dealing with stress in phrases. Words that are grammatical can be stressed in certain situations. For example an emphatic And or But or even Or could bear stress. A brief example in Modern English, that I use in my poetry workshops, is the line: ‘I won’t write the poem now’. Depending on which word is stressed, the sentence can mean very different things.
Iwon’t write the poem now. (Somebody else will write it)
I won’twrite the poem now. (I refuse to do it)
I won’t writethe poem now. (I will not write it down, perhaps compose it in my head instead)
I won’t write thepoem now. (I will write another one)
I won’t write the poemnow. (I will write something else)
I won’t write the poem now. (I will write it some other time)
Hopefully the context of surrounding lines would indicate where the stresses would fall within the phrase. Of course there a examples of obscure or damaged lines in Beowulf where the context is uncertain. This has allowed various scholars to debate with each other over which words take stress, and thus what overall significance the poet is trying to imply within sections of the poem.
So how are these two types of stress used to compose lines of traditional verse in Old or Modern English?
A typical line of Old English poetry was split into two half-lines, each containing 2 stresses. The rhythm that the English ear is most comfortable with is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. Experts argue as to why that is. Theories include hearing the heartbeat in womb, or that this pattern is the commonest structure of words in the English language. Whatever the reason, the hearing of a stressed sound followed by an unstressed one is heavily ingrained. For example if I asked you what noise a clock made, you would tell me it is ‘ticktock’. Except it isn’t. Our ears might hear this, but a clock actually goes ‘tick tick’. Listen carefully, it does!
A half-line with the following makeup: stressed syllable, unstressed one, stressed syllable, unstressed one, is the basic building block of poetry in Old English. This type of rhythmic pattern is termed falling. Including half-lines with extra unstressed syllables the falling pattern is heavily used. It accounts for 40% of the half-lines in Beowulf.
In Old English poetry, stress patterns were further accented by alliteration. The first stress in the second half of the line alliterated with either or both of the stresses in the first half of the line. The second stress in the second half of the line didn’t alliterate with either of the stresses in the first half of the line. As I mentioned at the start of the paragraph this is all for a typical line of poetry, there are numerous exceptions and variations. But a standard line like Beowulf Line 4…
oft ScyldScefing sceaðena þreatum
has its first three stresses alliterating while its last one does not.
Working out the patterns of stresses in Old English poetry lines is something that has kept scholars busy arguing amongst themselves for the last hundred years. The first comprehensive methodology for classifying half-lines of Old English verse was devised by Eduard Sievers in 1885.
Despite coming up with a reasonably robust system, there were problems with his classification. Unfortunately, Sievers thought that vowel length indicated the primary syllables as in various Latinate languages. As was shown earlier, Old English like Modern English is a stress based language. If we substitute stress for vowel length as the indicator of primary syllables, we get the types listed below. (Here primary stresses are indicated with a 1, secondary stresses with a 2, and unstressed syllables with a hyphen).
Max Kaluza refined Sievers system. To accommodate all the stress pattern variations in Beowulf he had to expand the 5 types of half-line up to 90. A J Bliss also worked out a more flexible and accurate system for mapping out the stress patterns but again at the expense of complexity.
J C Pope used a system of musical notation so that each line was of equal time length. This included rests where no words were spoken and the gap was filled by a strum of the harp. This system was a good solution for some of the awkward lines that didn’t fit neatly into Sievers’ system, but at the same time required other simple lines to be squashed or stretched unreasonably. Robert Creed and John Nist each came up with alternative theories working from the basis of Pope’s musical patterning. No one theory is universally accepted.
Unfortunately for the scholars we don’t know how harp strums were used within a poem or whether each line was of equal duration. What we do know from Bede, is that Cædmon’s fellow farm workers were expected to be able to compose poetry at a feast, and the fact that Cædmon couldn’t was seen as unusual. Therefore the rules of composition must be simple enough for anyone with an ear for rhythm and good turn of phrase to produce acceptable verse.
Table 1: Sievers Stress Patterns
Sample from Beowulf
syððan ærest wearð
Rising / Falling
2 Stress Start
Falling . Rising
So, luckily being a poet rather than a scholar I don’t have to follow any particular theory. Personally, I think that if we want a system that describes the stress patterns of most halflines in Old English verse, then the one based on Sievers and shown in the table above will do. As long as we realise it is not a definite rule and plenty of exceptions occur, we can use it as a basis for writing traditional style verse in Old or Modern English.
Tricks of the trade
As well as rhythm and its associated alliteration, Anglo-Saxon poets used other techniques to make their verses stand out as poetry. I mentioned some that modern poets use at the start of the article. Here I shall mention some that were used in Anglo-Saxon times and will give a traditional flavour to a verse if a modern poet adopted them.
Compounds: Old English poetry was full of compound words, these were usually two nouns joined together. They could be literal or figurative or somewhere between. At the figurative end you have kennings like woruldcandel used to describe the sun. At the more literal end are words like maððumsweord meaning precious sword from the Old English words for treasure and sword. In the middle are compounds like heaðowæd from the nouns heaðo meaning battle and wæd meaning garb thus creating a word meaning armour. Often the root syllable of the second element in compound words would receive a secondary stress which is useful for forming Sievers type D and E stress patterns.
Poetic vocabulary: Words like guð meaning war and reced meaning hall are only found in poetry not prose. Therefore they would seem to be special poetic or possibly archaic wordings. This is tricky to replicate now. Littering a poem with verrily and doth wouldn’t work in Modern English unless writing a pastiche. In my verses I sometimes include Anglo-Saxon terminology that has dropped out of use eg. shieldwall. I think this falls somewhere between the use of poetic vocabulary and the use of compound words, but still gives an Anglo-Saxon flavour to verses.
Reiteration: This uses various expressions to refer to the same object or person, repeatedly describing them in different term or attributes. This adds volume to the description for extra emphasis. Kings in Beowulf are often referred to: as protectors of their people, as givers of treasure, by whose son they are, and by who they’ve slain, as well as by name.
Self containment: Though half-lines are continuous grammatically, they are often almost self-contained syntactic units. The gap between the half-lines is seen as a divide and phrases tend not to run on through it. For example if I wrote the line…
warily the wounded warrior battled
I would have put the two closest related words, the noun warrior and its adjective wounded in separate half-lines running over the divide. I have also split the adverb warily from its verb battled. Rearranging the line into…
the wounded warrior warily battled
better fits the syntactic units into the half-line structure.
This style of self-containment lends a steady sweeping grandeur to a lot of Anglo-Saxon verse.
Alternate alliterative patterns: Once the regular alliteration has been established, other variations can be used occasional as a contrast. These can include…
Bunched alliteration. This is where one or two alliteration sounds are used repeatedly in nearby lines. In Beowulf lines 760-764 have many stressed syllables starting with f and w.
Transverse alliteration where the second stress in the line instead of alliterating with the first and third stresses, alliterates with the fourth. An example from Beowulf is line 39…
hildewæpnum ond heaðowædum
Triple alliteration where in Type D or E half-lines the secondary stress also alliterates with the two primary ones. For example in the first half of Beowulf line 743…
synsnædum swealhsona hæfde
Alternatively in a line with two or more secondary stresses they could alliterate with each other rather than the primary stress. eg. Beowulf line 236…
mægenwudu mundum meþelwordum frægn
Similarly unstressed syllables could alliterate in this manner, but as they were unstressed the effect would be more subtle.
Follow on alliteration is another pattern, where the fourth stress of one line alliterates with the stresses on the next line. In Beowulf lines 1949-50, the word flet alliterates with the first three stressed syllables in the following line.
æþelum diore syððan hio Offan flet
ofer fealone flodbe fæder lare
An Example in Modern English
So below is my Caedmon Prize winning poem. It is written in Modern English but using the form of Old English poetry. I have put the verse in a font where all the letters are the same width. This makes it easier to lay the poem out. I have indicated the primary stresses with bold and underlining, secondary stress with bold, and left unstressed syllables unembellished. I have included the Sievers Type for each half-line and a line number for easy referencing. X indicates that the half-line does not fit easily into the basic Sievers system. I have added notes explaining some of the effects included in the poem.
E 01 I’m careworn weary
B B 02 a faceless facein a flockof suits
X A 03 a sullen shieldwall shifting homeward
B B 04 from platform pushto packedout train
A E 05 crumpledin carriage I’m careworn weary
B B 06 enclosedby stressand collar white
A B 07 my neckabraded I needescape
A A 08 boundto bosses bondsman loyal
X A 09 tiedby necktie tightly knotted
E A 10 oathsworn to office unappreciated
C B 11 the railsrumble a rhythmic dirge
A B 12 an uneasy echo of my empty life
B A 13 a sorrowful soundsetsme mourning
C X 14 then brakesbiting breaksthe spellsong
B A 15 a squealing screamshriekof ravens
A X 16 slowsto standstill our steel paved journey
B A 17 this trainof thrallstiredand jaded
B B 18 that waitsfor wordof whatis wrong
A C 19 the carriage carries its crowd nowhere
C E 20 I cravecomfort I’m careworn weary
C A 21 the guardgivesa grimannouncement
B E 22 an obstruction struckstopping allroutes
A E 23 mutecommuters makeno complaint
A X 24 a broken body blocksthe homepath
C B 25 my nervesruined I needed escape
A C 26 but stoppedbesideme the austeremortgage
A E 27 with finger fetters fast round my throat
A B 28 its threata whispered “I know whereyou live”
As a final point on the poem, I will leave you to decide whether the commuter is in the train, on the tracks or both.
Line 1b: The secondary stress worn alliterates with the primary stresses of the next syllable to produce an unusual rhythm that highlights the words which provide the mood of the poem, and are repeated later.
Line 2a: Repetition of face as stressed syllables, and the paradoxical image of a faceless face. I’ve included these early as effects to show this is a poem.
Line 3a/8b/10a: Using terms (shieldwall, bondsman, oathsworn) to replicate the Anglo-Saxon style poetic vocabulary.
Line 3a: Doesn’t neatly fit within Sievers’ types. This makes the poetic archaic compound word shieldwall a little more noticeable, which hopefully adds to the Anglo-Saxon flavour of a poem set in the modern world.
Line 5b: Repeats the first half-line of the poem to reinforce that this is a poem and to restate the mood of the commuter.
Line 8-10a: Reiteration of the same point in different terms to heighten how the commuter feels trapped by his job.
Line 9: Uses transverse alliteration, this should give a constricting feel to match the subject matter at this point. This is further accented by another X type half-line that contrasts with the two A types that precede it.
Line 10b: In the word ‘unappreciated’ the syllable ‘pre’ takes primary stress and ‘un’ and ‘at’ secondary stress. So I choose to raise the ‘un’ to a main stress in the poem and try to emphasise that when reciting it.
Line 11-13: To simulate the rhythm of the railway tracks, I recite this section using the ideas of J C Pope, trying to make each half-line last the same length of time.
Line 14b: Uses a compound word spellsong and an unusual half-line rhythm to emphasise it.
Line 15b: shriek of ravens as an image to describe the train brakes, also adds a bit more Anglo-Saxon flavour.
Line 16: Contains the most stressed syllables in the poem. It stands out when recited, thus emphasising the line that divides the poem in half and holds important meaning.
Line 18: The visual joke of the word wrong that looks to alliterate with other Ws but doesn’t. Of course this doesn’t come across during a recital.
Line 19: The A followed by C half-lines pushes the emphasis onto the no of nowhere as does the alliteration of the three previous stresses.
Line 20b: Repeats the opening half-line to contrast with the dramatic developments within the poem.
Line 22a/23a: Like line 2a, these half-lines use identical stressed syllables (obstruction struck & mute commuters) as poetic effects.
Line 22b: In the words all routes the all would not normally take much stress but can do so. Therefore I give it some emphasis to make an E type half-line.
Line 24b: Like line 14b, uses a compound word homepath and an unusual half-line rhythm to emphasise it.
Line 27b28a: Follow on alliteration of throat & threat is given extra potency by the similarity of the two words. This change of alliterative pattern is a hint the poem is reaching its conclusion.
Line 28b: Like my example of ‘I won’t write the poem now’ any word in this half line can take stress. When reciting out aloud I tend to emphasise the words where (as the anthropomorphic Mortgage will have the commuter’s address) and live and this neatly creates a B rhythm. Thus the poem matches its words, ending sharply with a stressed syllable rather than dribbling on with a couple of unstressed one
I would encourage anyone to write poetry in a traditional Anglo-Saxon style. There are conventions but poets never hold conventions in high regard, so don’t let them limit your creativity. Once you have written your verse I would urge you to recite it out aloud to yourself. Your bathroom mirror is your best friend. You will be able to hear which bits work and which need changing, while catching an echo of a rhythm that stretches back over a thousand years.
Randolph Quirk & C.L. Wren, An Old English Grammar 1955 Cambridge University Press
J.D.A. Ogilvy & Donald Baker, Reading Beowulf 1983 University of Oklahoma Press
Philip Davies Roberts, How Poetry Works 1986 Penguin George Jack (ed.), Beowulf: A student edition 1994 Oxford University Press