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Author Topic: Toddler on the Roof  (Read 4637 times)


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Toddler on the Roof
« on: September 10, 2019, 02:27:45 PM »
Was just re-reading my Survivals of Paganism in Anglo-Saxon England article by Wilfred Bonser, a photocopy of which I bought through the long-loan back in 1992 but was first published in 1932 on pages 37-70 of volume LVI of the Transactions of the Birmingham Archaeological Society, last night, and it has reminded me of that Old English cure for a poorly child: putting it on the roof.

Irksomely it has also made me realise that, no matter how much evolutionary psychology I have read about religion, anthropology about shamanism etc. in general and despite reading what you’d expect to be relevant about the Old English ( Bill Griffiths’ Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, ISBN 1-898281-33-5 Anglo-Saxon Books 1996 for instance) in particular... I still haven’t a bleedin’ clue what an Old English mum thought she was playing at, putting her poorly child up on the roof.

Furthermore, Bonser’s reminder came on the form of a quote from Archbishop Theodore’s Penitential: “If a woman shall have placed her son or daughter upon the roof for the sake of its health, or in the oven, she shall do penance for seven years.”

Now I can imagine an explanation or two for why you’d want to put a child in an oven.  In winter, a warm oven could make for a life-saving incubator for a victim of infant pneumonia.  That nearly killed me at nine months old, and was certainly a killer in yesteryear.  Or since fresh ashes are clinically clean, letting them stick to an injury could make for a septic-proof dressing.  Say.  Yet how on earth could putting a child out on the roof be supposed to accomplish anything?

Furthermore, a seven-year penance suggests that the Church regarded this as no trivial matter, but grasped the Heathen significance of what such mothers were up to well enough to mark the practice.

So what indeed can the Heathen significance of putting a sick child on the roof have been?  Was he or she meant to wave to a flying saucer?  Throw bread to that vasa mortis beastie out of Solomon and Saturn?  Prove its kindred don’t hate thatch?

Has any ġesīþa a clue, here?

Thoughts?  Suggestions?


The moral right of the author to be identified in the Nazca Lines of Peru has been asserted.
« Last Edit: September 17, 2019, 02:37:49 PM by Bowerthane »


  • Ealdormann
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Re: Toddler on the Roof
« Reply #1 on: September 10, 2019, 05:12:27 PM »
Didn’t ancient societies “expose” very ill or unwanted children? Perhaps they thought they weren’t actually killing them because the weather would? Maybe the pagan AS were thinking that way? Sorry to come up with such an extreme explanation! Perhaps after all they thought a bit of sunshine might cure all!


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Re: Toddler on the Roof
« Reply #2 on: September 14, 2019, 01:44:25 PM »
I can see what you’re saying, Eanflaed.  We can only imagine how commoner infanticide was than it was talked about.  If my understanding serves, during the Peloponnesian War the reason the Athenians never used Spartan infanticide as a propaganda stick with which to beat the Spartans was because the Spartans were only doing out in the open what most communities in the ancient world seemed to have done too, only ‘round the back door’.  The title role in the Classical play Ion was abandoned as a baby at the Delphic Oracle, in the service of which he grew up.  Are you familiar with Mary Renault’s novels set in that period?  If so, you may recall that the I-narrator of The Praise Singer narrowly escaped being slung “out on the midden” because of his birth defect.  If anything, the Spartan custom worked out as less inhumane. 

Nor in the ancient world.  When Captain Coram’s Foundling Hospital opened in Hanoverian times, it was swamped by the numbers of abandoned babies and unwanted children.  ‘Temple’ is supposed to be a common surname in London phone books because the lawyers of the Inner Temple supported Coram’s scheme, and allowed the Foundling Hospital to use their chapel to baptize foundlings too young to have a name.

One of my girl characters who washes up at Lady Ethelflæda’s court school was found as a baby abandoned in a bag at the foot of a stone rood in Gloucestershire.  Found by a shepherd so inobservant he thought she was a boy and handed her, bag and all over to St Andrew’s Abbey just outside Gloucester.

However, Theodore’s “for the sake of its health” doesn’t seem to lend itself to that interpretation to me.  Do you mean some complicated euphemism is at work here, or some cultural conundrum we needn’t expect to understand, at this distance in time?   

Perhaps after all they thought a bit of sunshine might cure all!

Well... sick people do go pale whereas sunbathing gives you a tan.  Maybe they thought that, by making a sickening child go back a healthy colour, that was curative in itself?

Curiously enough, lately I’ve developed an interest in the nuclear option for saving our dear, old Eorþan Mōdor from AGW. According to SONE and other Supporters Of Nuclear Energy radiation is widely and ludicrously overrated as a health hazard. So much so that, by a kind of DIY nocebo effect, ignorance and paranoia about non-existent or perfectly safe levels of radiation are a far greater threat to public health than radiation.  For of course sunshine is a form of natural radiation, which is how the ultraviolet end of it may give you skin cancer if you overdo the tanning – or if you listen to the other side of the argument, only if you live to be 400 years old.   For the natural background radiation in parts of India and Pakistan ( arguably of Highland Scotland too) is higher and none of it has any known affect on public health in such areas, what so ever.

The point is there’s even something called hormesis, which refers to the extent to which exposure to mild and/ or natural doses of radiation is positively healthy.  This began in the 1970s when a team of scientists noticed that those of their lab rats they kept shielded from radiation sources were in worse health than the irradiated ones.  It is still not well understood scientifically ( “the jury is out” was James Lovelock’s comment in 2007) so their best guess is that, just as your immune system needs bit of dirt, germs, Bernard Cornwell etc. to get straight its job description, our bodies are so used to mild/ natural radiation they kinda pine away when stinted of it.

Sunshine comes into it because, whilst a lovely tan is nothing but the result of ultraviolet radiation damaging our outer skin cells, the reason our holiday tans fade after we come back from the Costa del Sol is because new skin cells replace the damaged ones from the inside out, in a perfectly normal and healthy way, perchance all the healthier for being exercised... 

So... yes, sunshine may indeed be mildly healthy.  I mean, look what happened to Gollum FFS.

Or if nothing else, as the wizened old man in Life of Brian said of crucifixion, “At least it gets you out in the open air.”

The moral right of the author to identify characters from The Singing Ringing Tree has been asserted.
« Last Edit: September 17, 2019, 02:39:39 PM by Bowerthane »