Early Medieval Europe
The north-west of Europe, in spite of its underlying differences of linguistic heritage – Goidelic, Brittonic, Gallic; its varieties of Germanic; and the powerful intrusion of spoken Latin – is as it were a single philological province, a region so interconnected in race, culture, history, and linguistic fusions that its departmental philologies cannot flourish in isolation.

J.R.R. Tolkien, “English and Welsh,” O’Donnell Memorial Lecture, 1955.

I was aimlessly wandering around in the ‘B’ collection at my university when happened upon this lecture in a fascinating volume called “Angles and Britons” compiling a number of these O’Donnell Lectures. I had heard of it before, as a keen Tolkienophile, but this was the first time I had ever laid eyes on it.

Highlights from the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest Anglo-Saxon treasure trove ever discovered - it was only dug up in 2009! There’s some quite exquisite work here. It’s also quite early stuff, possibly 7th or 8th century Mercian (Staffordshire was part of Mercia, but it’s possible that the hoard is from elsewhere). Much of it is certainly Christian in inspiration, such as the gold band with the latin inscription “surge d[omi]ne [et] dispentur inimici tui et fugent qui oderunt te a facie tua.”

Highlights from the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest Anglo-Saxon treasure trove ever discovered - it was only dug up in 2009! There’s some quite exquisite work here. It’s also quite early stuff, possibly 7th or 8th century Mercian (Staffordshire was part of Mercia, but it’s possible that the hoard is from elsewhere). Much of it is certainly Christian in inspiration, such as the gold band with the latin inscription surge d[omi]ne [et] dispentur inimici tui et fugent qui oderunt te a facie tua.”

A Sot and a Scot

‘Quid distat inter sottum et Scottum?’ - Charles the Bald, Frankish King

(What separates a sot and a Scot [ie. a drunkard and an Irishman])

‘Mensa tantum.’ - John Scottus Eriugena, Irish Philosopher

(‘Only a table’).

William of Malmesbury’s account of an exchange between the King and the Philosopher, who were drinking together at the time.

St. Patrick’s Breastplate (excerpt)

"Críst limm, Críst reum, Críst im degaid
Críst indium, Críst íssum, Críst úassum
Críst dessum, Críst túathum
Críst i llius, Críst i ssius, Críst i n-érus
Críst i cridiu cach duini rodomscrútadar
Críst i ngiun cach oín rodomlabrathar
Críst i cach rusc nomdercadar
Críst i cach clúais rodomchloathar.”

"Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.”

Excerpt from “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”, traditionally attributed to St. Patrick (5th century), but possibly written in the 8th century.

Folio 15b from the Utrecht Psalter, 9th Century Carolingian, illustrated in pen and ink. I love the free-flowing, modern-looking style of this and other Carolingian illuminations, such as the Ebbo Gospels, which are quite unlike what we usually expect from medieval illuminations!

Folio 15b from the Utrecht Psalter, 9th Century Carolingian, illustrated in pen and ink. I love the free-flowing, modern-looking style of this and other Carolingian illuminations, such as the Ebbo Gospels, which are quite unlike what we usually expect from medieval illuminations!

Anhaga

Anhaga is a word that crops up remarkably often in Old English poetry. Most famously it is in the first line of The Wanderer:

 Oft him anhaga      are gebideð…

“Always the lonely one waits for mercy…”

(The Wanderer, 1)

In this case it is used quite generally to mean anyone who is alone and forced to rely solely on God’s grace, without the security of community. When the poet wants more specifically to imply ‘exiled wanderer’ he uses eardstapa, which has the sense of ‘earth-stepper’ or one who must walk the paths of the world without rest. 

So to be an anhaga seems to be an emotional state, a feeling of isolation, of being cut off, as well as the social state of being without kith and kin. This is implied by the word’s etymology: ‘an’ (one or lone) + ‘hecgian’ (to enclose), which is related to the modern word ‘hedge.’ It has been suggested that its original meaning implied more of the self-inflicted seclusion of a hermit hedging himself off from the world (Dunning and Bliss, The Wanderer, London: Methuen, 1969, p.38). This may be demonstrated by a maxim from the Cotton manuscript: 

                    wulf sceal on bearowe,

earm anhaga;

“It is natural for a wolf to be in a barrow, the wretched loner.”

(Cotton Gnomes or Maxims, 326)

This is evidently a more active sense of the word - the wolf is not made solitary by circumstance, as the wanderer is, but is by nature a solitary predator. If we take that and run with it, we might suggest that when anhaga is attached to one who is cut off from society by fate (in the Wanderer’s case, he is the sole survivor of a raid against his lord’s hall), it implies a reversal of man’s nature. “It is not good for man to be alone,” and to be without community leaves a man exposed to cold, hunger and despair.

Thus anhaga can be applied both actively to one who encloses himself, and passively to one who is enclosed and must survive alone. In Beowulf, the exact same words as were applied to the wolf in the Cotton Maxim are applied to the hero after he escapes as the lone survivor of Hygelac’s disastrous raid against the Franks:

Oferswam ða sioleða bigong     sunu Ecgðeowes,

Earm anhaga     eft to leodum…

“He swam over the expanse of the sea, Ecgtheow’s son,

The wretched lonely one, back to his people.”

(Beowulf, 2367-68)

Beowulf is reduced by fate to being earm anhaga, a state that befits a wolf but which is bitter indeed to a human. He may count himself luckier than the Wanderer, however. At least he has a people to return to, his enclosing being only temporary. The Wanderer is doomed to wander ever onwards, although his lot is perhaps not entirely hopeless. That must be discussed another time.

Varangian Guardsmen, Illumination from the Byzantine Chronicle of John Skylitzes. The Chronicle was written in the 11th century, covering the previous two hundred years of Byzantium’s history. This manuscript was produced in Sicily in the 12th century. It depicts Constantinople’s Varangian guardsmen, fierce Norse and English warriors who guarded the Emperor.

Varangian Guardsmen, Illumination from the Byzantine Chronicle of John Skylitzes. The Chronicle was written in the 11th century, covering the previous two hundred years of Byzantium’s history. This manuscript was produced in Sicily in the 12th century. It depicts Constantinople’s Varangian guardsmen, fierce Norse and English warriors who guarded the Emperor.

Franks Casket, 8th Century Northumbrian, Whalebone. Rear panel depicts the sacking of Jerusalem by Titus in 70AD, with inscription in both Old English and Latin, in both runic and latin letters:her fegtaþ
titus end giuþeasu HIC FUGIANT HIERUSALIM
afitatores
Here fight/Titus and the Jews. Here flee of Jerusalem/the inhabitants.
Other sides of the casket depict the Adoration of the Magi, Romulus and Remus, and the Germanic legend of Wayland the Smith.

Franks Casket, 8th Century Northumbrian, Whalebone. Rear panel depicts the sacking of Jerusalem by Titus in 70AD, with inscription in both Old English and Latin, in both runic and latin letters:

her fegtaþ

titus end giuþeasu HIC FUGIANT HIERUSALIM

afitatores

Here fight/Titus and the Jews. Here flee of Jerusalem/the inhabitants.

Other sides of the casket depict the Adoration of the Magi, Romulus and Remus, and the Germanic legend of Wayland the Smith.

Welcome!

Like many people, it was Tolkien who first got me interested in the wonders of the Early Middle Ages. From the age of 12 (when I first read the Lord of the Rings) I wanted nothing more than to learn Old English and become a professor who wears a tweed jacket and spends his days reading curious old books. This blog is an expression of that longing, my attempt to share with the world some of the things that I find so captivating about the time between the Romans and the Normans. It was the time of endings and beginnings, the passing away of the marble-clad classical world and the brutal pagan days, and the birthplace of Christian Europe. I can only beg, as Bede did, your pardon for failings of mind and body, of which there will undoubtedly be many.

I earnestly request all who may hear or read this history of our nation to ask God’s mercy on my many failings of mind and body.” (Praeterea omnes, ad quos haec eadem historia pervenire potuerit nostrae nationis, legentes sive audientes, suppliciter precor, ut pro meis infirmitatibus et mentis et corporis apud supernam clementiam saepius intervenire meminerint)
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Jarrow, 8th Century, trans. Leo Shirley-Price.