Originally posted 6th October 2022
During the Anglo-Saxon period of English history, people were interested in the history of the land where they lived just as we are today. They recognised the stone ruins that dotted the countryside as Roman and Saxon poetry such as The Ruin imagines the old cities filled with life and people. The Ruin may be describing Bath and calls it “the work of giants” in reference to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, in which giants build a tower to reach Heaven but are destroyed by their own arrogance. As that suggests, the fall of the great civilisation of “renowned swordsmen” that had built the city was used as a cautionary tale in Saxon poetry: another poem, The Wanderer, explicitly points out “how appalling it will be when all the wealth in this world stands waste - as even now randomly throughout this middle-earth walls are standing, wind-blown”.
Educated Saxons also had access to some Roman history from writers such as Saint Gildas, who wrote On the Ruin of Britain: a three-part sermon lambasting his contemporaries for falling from the glory days of the Roman empire. His writing wasn’t intended as history, but it provides evidence of what people in the 500s remembered about the Romans and copies of it circulated throughout our period; it was mentioned by Bede and the oldest surviving manuscript dates from the mid 900s. It is currently in the British Library (BL Cotton Vitellius A VI).
Roman sites were also popular as foundation sites for early churches, partly because they were socially important and connected to Rome (the origin place of the Augustine mission) and partly because they were an excellent source of suitable building stone.
Originally posted 13th October 2022
In Europe during our period, leopards were believed to be hybrid animals like mules; a leopard’s mother was a lioness and its father was a creature called a pard (hence, leopard: lion (leo) + pard), which was also identified with a male panther. This was based on Pliny’s Natural History, written in the first century AD, which along with a lot of other Roman learning was picked up and used without much questioning by later medieval writers; he wrote that Africa produced a huge number of hybrid creatures where animals met at watering holes.
Leopards had a peculiar role in heraldry; more pedantic heralds, especially in France, insisted that a lion could only be described as a lion if it was rampant: standing upright on its hind legs. If the animal was shown walking it was by definition a leopard even if it had a mane. Accordingly, an early record of the English royal heraldry from 1250 describes it as including three golden leopards, not lions.
Leopards, pards, and panthers were also subject to wildly different treatment in different medieval bestiaries, which were designed as moral and religious allegories rather than actual natural history but were nonetheless very influential. Two bestiaries from the middle of the 1200s contain opposite descriptions of the pard and the panther: Bodleian MS Bodley 764 describes the pard as “very swift, thirsty for blood” and representing “either the Devil, full of a diversity of vices, or the sinner, spotted with crimes and a variety of wrongdoing”, citing Bible verses in which the Antichrist is compared to a leopard. On the other hand, BL Arundel 292 describes the panther as a beautiful animal whose breath is so sweet it draws all other animals to it, except dragons, which hide from it. In this bestiary, the panther represents Christ, as does the lion.
The negative view of pards was the one that appears to have entered contemporary pop culture; in the Song of Lewes, composed by an ally of Simon de Montfort to justify his victory in battle over Henry III, Prince Edward, later Edward I, was compared to a leopard: he combined the courage and pride of a lion with the unreliability and untrustworthiness of a pard.
Originally posted 13th October 2022
The Tribal Hidage is a list of geographical or political areas in Anglo-Saxon England which was written on a blank page in a manuscript otherwise mostly filled with grammatical essays. Other writing in the same book which appears to have been added by the same scribe gives the date of Easter that year as 2nd April and says it’s a leap year, placing it as 1032. However, it is probably a copy of an earlier lost original. It assigns a round number of hides to each of the districts and is the only source we have for the existence of many of those districts. It also appears in a few other manuscripts that also appear to have been copied from an original and, in some cases, translated to Latin. As well as being a rare survivor among Anglo-Saxon documents, it is the earliest surviving document that mentions East Anglia as a single district.
The list is ordered in a roughly clockwise direction, starting with an area centred on Wroxeter, moving down the east side of England, including East Anglia, and then across the south. It’s not clear how the numbers of hides assigned to each district was determined; they don’t match with geographical area and the hide can’t be used as a measurement of area until the Domesday Book; even there, its meaning is inconsistent. The most spectacular aberration is Wessex, which is assigned 100,000 hides: more than three times as much as the whole of East Anglia. It’s possible it was a ranking, using arbitrary numbers; large kingdoms such as Mercia which could field a large warband were scored at 30,000 hides, smaller kingdoms 7,000, and so forth down to the tiny provinces which were scored at only a few hundred. This would still suggest Wessex was almost absurdly large and powerful.
Another theory is they were taxation or tributary obligations and Wessex had been given a punitively large assessment after a military defeat. It’s not clear where the list was compiled - a fact that might give a hint about the compiler’s relationship with Wessex - but it may have been Mercia (which leads the list) or Northumbria (which is left off the list).
Originally posted 27th October 2022
During our period belief in werewolves was fairly widespread. Its nature changed over time even within England, but it regularly showed up in stories and lays, as well as folklore and religious morality stories.
One example of a werewolf story is given by Gerald of Wales in his book Topographia Hibernica (Geography of Ireland), which was written in around 1188 for Henry II after Gerald had accompanied Henry’s son John to Ireland. He told the story of a priest travelling from Ulster to Meath who encountered a wolf. The wolf addressed him in English and had some knowledge of Catholic religious teaching, and he explained that he came from a group who were under a curse: every seven years a man and a woman had to take on wolf shapes and go out into the wild for seven years, whereupon they would be replaced by another man and woman and so forth. The werewolf’s female companion was dying and he wanted the priest to give her the last rites since she was, after all, a human woman under the wolfskin. Gerald seems very uncomfortable with the fact that the priest agrees; he adds a long passage musing on the question of whether a creature that appeared to be an animal could be considered human if it had a human intellect.
In some stories, the werewolf was more central: in the stories of William of Palerne and Bisclavert the werewolves were noblemen who are hidden in the shape of wolves and have to regain their human forms in order to reclaim their property and birthright.
The poem of William of Palerne is a Middle English translation of an earlier French poem telling the story of Guillaume de Palerne. The two follow the same basic plot, though the French version is significantly more graphic: William/Guillaume is kidnapped by a wolf at age four to save his life. He is then adopted and raised by a cowherd and then discovered and taken to court by the Roman emperor. He falls in love with the emperor’s daughter and the wolf - who has watched over him all his life - helps the two to escape and guides them back to William’s home in Palermo, where he reclaims his birthright. Also, the wolf’s true identity is revealed when he throws himself at the feet of the king of Spain: he is actually Prince Alphonse of Spain, who was transformed into a wolf by his evil stepmother. The story ends with Alphonse being returned to his true form and also reclaiming his kingdom.
In Bisclavert, an unnamed knight - known as Bisclavert, which is the Breton term for a werewolf - confesses to his lady that the reason he disappears for three days out of every week is that he spends that time as a werewolf, living wild in the forest. He transforms by removing his clothes and turns back into a human when he puts them back on, but if his clothes were taken from their hiding place while he was a wolf he would never be able to change back. The lady goes to another knight and explains the situation - in some versions she’s been looking for a way to get rid of her husband, in others she’s too frightened to continue living with a werewolf - and they steal her husband’s clothes while he’s in wolf form. In the eyes of the world he has simply disappeared and after a proper mourning period the lady marries the knight who helped her. However, Bisclavert is still alive, trapped as a wolf. He had a close miss with the king’s hunting party, but he still had a human mind and recognised the king, so he ran to him and asked for mercy by licking his foot. The king, surprised and charmed, adopted him and he lived at court, consistently well-behaved and gentle until his former wife and her new husband arrived, whereupon he threw himself at them in a rage. Surprised by this out-of-character behaviour from his pet wolf, the king questioned the pair and the wife admitted what had happened. When his clothes are returned and he is left alone in the king’s room, Bisclavert gets dressed and returns to human form. The king then returns his fief and property and exiles his former wife and her new husband. This story was evidently well-known; it appears among the lays of Marie de France and something like it is also mentioned in three Arthurian stories: La Morte d’Arthur mentions it in passing as having happened to one Sir Marrok; the Breton lay of Melion includes a similar adventure for the titular Sir Melion; and Arthur and Gorlagon involves Gorlagon telling Arthur the story of how his wife tricked him and trapped him as a werewolf.