Originally posted 2nd February 2024

Very few contemporary written sources survive on the people generally known today as the Vikings, and most of those were written by clerics who lived outside the Viking homeland of Scandinavia, some of whom had never even visited. The surviving written records by the Vikings themselves almost all come in the form of runestones. About 45 of these stones survive in modern Norway, 220 in modern Denmark, and about 2,500 in modern Sweden, though some of those are only fragments. The stones were carved by specialists and these artists were the only craftsmen in the Viking age who signed their work: we know the names of Asmund Karesson (who signed more than 20 stones), Opir (about 50) and Fot (8), all of whom worked over a significant geographical area. Traces of paint on some surviving stones suggests that they may originally have been painted, creating a very striking image.

As well as being examples of the runic writing system, runestones give an insight into cultural and political history as well as social organisation. For example, the term “bryti”, meaning a steward or leaseholder, survives on runestones and other runestones describe large landholdings, suggesting a system by which landholders would lease out smaller portions of land. Sweden’s runestones are also evidence of travel to all corners of the known world, though mostly eastward; this was where the people raising the stones had acquired the money to afford them. Several record raids on England, including one that memorialises men who were buried in London.

Runestones were usually raised as memorials by and for Christians, sometimes by the surviving relatives of a deceased person - often women - but sometimes by the person memorialised themselves; one stone in east Sweden - which was one of a set of which six survive - was raised by a man named Jarlabanke between 1050 and 1100, and said that “Alone he owned the whole of Taby” and that he had built the assembly space where the stones stood. The most impressive, though, were part of the royal memorial complex at Jelling, Sweden, created by Harald Bluetooth to celebrate himself and his parents. The largest runestone on the site carries a clear political and religious message to glorify Harald for posterity: “King Harald commanded these monuments to be made in memory of Gorm, his father, and in memory of Thorvi, his mother - that Harald who won the whole of Denmark, and Norway and made the Danes Christian.”

Originally posted 10th February 2024

Holy Trinity Bridge, Crowland, is an unusual three-way footbridge that used to cross parts of the River Welland, which ran through the town, though the rivers have now been diverted and their former riverbeds paved over. It consists of three arches, each with a stairway converting at the top. The present bridge was built in around 1375, though it replaced an earlier similar bridge which was mentioned in a charter in 943.

The bridge is associated with Crowland Abbey, which was originally founded in 716 by Ethelbald, King of Mercia, and one of the streams it crossed was diverted from the main course of the river to flow through the Abbey grounds. Another association between the monastery and the bridge comes from the statue of a king holding an orb on one of the stairways. Some sources suggest it shows King Ethelbald, but it is more generally believed to show Christ in Majesty. In either case, it dates from about 1260 and came from the gable on the west front of Crowland Abbey, which was demolished in 1720.

The streams and the unusual bridge were also notable during our period; in his History of England the historian and topographer William Camden compared the town of Crowland and its monastery to Venice, describing its three streets divided by canals and joined by “a triangular bridge of admirable workmanship”.

Originally posted 15th February 2024

The Knights Templar were originally founded as a protection force for pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem and its environs following the success of the First Crusade, since despite military victory over organised Arab armies there was still a significant problem with bandits preying on travellers. However, especially as they became more numerous and financially powerful, they rapidly suffered from mission creep until among other things they functionally became one of the first international banking institutions.

While the Templars were based in the Middle East, they received extensive gifts from people across Europe, including gifts of land that provided income. Accordingly, they had to set up houses to manage land and income and to receive and store gifts. These establishments were often physically secure and were also protected by the fact that they were religious institutions and raiding them would incur eternal damnation. It therefore made sense to use Templar houses for treasure storage and Henry II began depositing royal treasure at the New Temple in London in 1185.

By the 1240s, the Templars provided safe storage for important and valuable documents for the kings of England and France, distributed money promised by governments to their foreign allies, and arranged large loans. As kings turned to the Templars as a bank, lesser noblemen and even commoners began to do the same, some leaving their entire fortune in trust with the Templars before going on crusade or pilgrimage, along with instructions for its distribution if the owner didn’t return.

Templars could also carry out money transfers; a man could deposit money with one Templar house and then redeem it in another city or even on another continent, reducing the need for bullion or other valuables to be transported. The earliest surviving cheque dates from 1368 and was drawn on an Italian bank and similar orders for payment appear to have existed in Byzantine Egypt and the Muslim world - the word “cheque” may come from Arabic “sakk” - but in 1240 Pope Gregory IX set up an arrangement with the Templars which allowed papal income from England, Scotland, and Ireland to be collected into Templar houses and for creditors in Paris to present themselves at the Templar house there to receive payment directly. From the 1240s onwards it was relatively common for members of the nobility to delegate their financial management to the Templars.

Unfortunately for the Templars, the massive wealth they had stored aroused the avarice of Philip IV of France and his ministers and probably contributed to his decision to attack them and begin the destruction of the order in 1307.

Originally posted 22nd February 2024

Aelfric of Eynsham was the first abbot of the monastery of Eynsham, having spent most of his career up until that point as a scholar and teacher in various other monasteries. His scholarship and writing are the traits for which he became famous; he was one of the most gifted and prolific writers in Old English and his work continued to be copied into the 1100s, about a century after his death. Several centuries later, his Homilies - collections of sermons - were also used by Reformation writers, who cited his teaching on Communion as proof that the Early English church did not believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation: the belief that the bread and wine at Communion actually become the body and blood of Jesus.

Aelfric’s Homilies were his most famous work. He wrote two series of a total of forty sermons to begin with, aimed at members of the clergy but also an educated lay audience, the first on the chief events of the Christian calendar and the second on church doctrine and history. Later, he was persuaded to begin a third based on saints’ lives, which he completed in around 996-997. In the second and third series of homilies he began to write in a rhythmical “alliterative” style popular at the time; this was the type of verse used for Beowulf, which was written at around the same time.

Between his second and third books of homilies, Aelfric also wrote a Latin Grammar, written in Old English to help teach Latin to Old-English speakers. It was based on the structure of fully-Latin grammar textbooks but was unusual not only because it was the first such grammar textbook written in a non-Latin language but also because Aelfric made it clear that he intended it to be used to teach Old English as well as Latin. However, scholars generally agree that if this was his intention he did not follow through; the book contains little or no description of Old English grammar, though it could have been a useful source of terminology for educated Old-English speakers to use when describing Old English.

He also wrote a Glossary and Colloquy to go with it, a Colloquy being a staged conversation in Latin accompanied with an Old English translation. Together, these three books were evidently intended to increase Latin literacy among his students - most likely the inhabitants of the abbey of Cerne Abbas in Dorsetshire, where he had gone at the request of its chief benefactor to act as a teacher to the monks. However, the exact identity of the audience is not certain and the preface addresses the readers as “young boys”. Judging by the number of surviving manuscripts, the Grammar must have been one of the most popular texts in England during the 1000s-1100s.

It is unknown when Aelfric died, but a will dating from 1020 mentions Aelfric Abbot, probably referring to him, so he was likely to still have been alive at that time; he would have been about 65 and may not have lived much longer.