Aldhelm on the Medicinal Uses of Beavers

Riddle 56

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 by 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.

Answer: the beaver.

Aldhelm, Enigma 56 ( trans. Nancy Porter Stork, 1990,  p. 170-171)

Reading Cameron’s Anglo-Saxon Medicine this afternoon, I came across his short discussion of Aldhelm’s riddles (Engima) having the earliest mention of Anglo-Saxon medical practices. Aldhelm  includes the medicinal use of the beaver (above) and also of the leech in this riddle on each.  Aldhelm’s riddles were part of a manuscript sent to his good friend, then king Aldfrith of Northumbria (r. 685-704), probably early in his reign.  Michael Lapidge has argued that Aldhelm was a relative of Cuthburgh, wife of Aldfrith and sister of King Ine of Wessex. She is mentioned in another of Aldhelm’s poems (On Virginity) as one of the nuns of Barking. In the letter linked to the text including the riddles, Aldhelm reminds King Aldfrith of their youthful training together and which would have had to have been in the early 660s. We know that Aldhelm later trained under Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus who arrived in Canterbury in 672.  Archbishop Theodore is credited by Bede with being well versed in the medicine, but none of his or Abbot Hadrian’s teachings or texts have survived. Having recently arrived from the Mediterranean where plague was common, it is possible that Theodore or his friend Hadrian the African brought plague treatments with them to their new post in England.

Beaver from the Medieval Bestiary, British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 9r.

Aesop’s Fables, Pliny the Elder and Isidore of Seville all mention that the testicles (actually inguinal glands) of beavers are used in medicines.The 13th century bestiary in Harley MS 4551 illustrates the story in Aesop’s Fables,  Isidore and Pliny that beavers will castrate themselves in order to escape hunters (shown to the left).  These glands were the source of an oil called castoreum.  However, at least Isidore does not say what the medicines are used to treat. Cameron notes that Aldhelm’s use of beaver as a component in a remedy is not found in any Anglo-Saxon medical text. I’ve consulted three translations and they all say that the beaver is used to treat plague (Latin text). It makes some sense from their point of view to include castoreum from the inguinal gland in a remedy for a bubo that is usually found in the inguinal or thigh region. If anyone knows of other plague remedies that use any beaver parts, please leave a comment!

Ironically if Aldhelm and Aldfrith were together as students on Iona in the mid-660s they may have been safe from the plague of 664 that Adomnan of Iona claims did not reach Iona. According to Bede, Aldfrith was on Iona when his brother died in May 685, keeping him safe from the plague of the mid 680s until he took the throne. (Adomnan claimed that neither plague epidemic that struck Britain in his time reached Iona, which he credited to St Columba’s protection.) On the other hand, Aldhelm would have been in Wessex during the plague in the mid 680s and if he sent the riddles to Aldfrith shortly after he came to the throne in 685/6, then the plague was still circulating in England at the time. From what is know of King Aldfrith, he was  high educated for a secular man at the time and enjoyed cosmology, and so animal lore is not far removed. Lapidge argues that Aldhelm read and studied Virgil on Iona. So it follows that Aldhelm would have known some of classical literature Aldfrith had learned. (Though it also has to be noted that Bede knew of Virgil’s works and had Pliny’s Natural History and he certainly didn’t study on Iona so these classical works may have been found in the better libraries in England.) Either way, Aldhelm may have included this clue in the riddle to make it harder to solve and allow Aldfrith to show his cleverness to his court.

References:

The Medieval Bestiary: Beaver

M.L. Cameron. Anglo-Saxon Medicine. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 7. Cambridge, 1993 (repr. 2006)

Lapidge, M. (2009). The career of Aldhelm. Anglo-Saxon England, 36, 15. doi:10.1017/S0263675107000026

 Nancy Porter Stork, trans. 1990 , Through a Gloss Darkly: Aldhelm’s Riddles in the British Library MS Royal 12.C.xxiii. Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Onterio. (Latin text also found at this link)

Holmes on Animals in Saxon & Scandinavian England

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Matilda Holmes, Animals in Saxon and Scandinavian England: Backbones of Economy and Society. Sidestone Press, 2014.

I didn’t plan on writing another book review this soon but I do have to share the news on this book – my find of the month. I discovered that this valuable book is available from the publisher in PDF form for only  € 4.50 ! Its also available in print for about $40 and somewhere in between for e-books from other vendors. The PDF works just fine on e-readers.

On to the review: This is the publication of Matilda Holmes PhD thesis on archaeozoology of early medieval England. Holmes cataloged and analyzed 315 archaeological reports or collections from 241 sites. Results are segregated into Early Saxon (450-650 AD), Middle Saxon (650-850 AD), Late Saxon (850-1066 AD), and Saxo-Norman. Not only does she catalog the regular domestic animals (cows, pigs, sheep/goats) but also horses, dogs, chickens and geese. It doesn’t stop there! She also does a variety of deer, hares, 38 species of wild birds, 27 taxa of freshwater and migratory fish, and 37 marine taxa of fish. The main domestic species- cattle, pigs, and sheep – have additional data on age and distribution of butchered parts. All of this data is listed by site and period. She then analyzes it for type of site to look at the economy and evolution of sites like wics and ecclesiastical sites. So if you want to know exactly what was found at Ælfric’s abbey at Eynsham it is here for domestics, game, fish and fowel. Same for site of Hartlepool for the entire period, and multiple collections for sites like York or Wroxter. Unfortunately the ongoing excavations from Lyminge are not included, and neither are the excavations from Bamburgh. I suppose these haven’t been published yet.

I haven’t had time to completely explore all the data tables. A few things jumped out though. Remember that story in Bede’s History that Bishop Wilfrid taught the people of Sussex to fish for something other than eels? Well, guess what, the only fish remains found at Bishopstone in Sussex in the Early Saxon period are eels (freshwater) and whiting (marine). Not an abundance of fish species. This of course doesn’t really say anything about the Wilfrid story other than that they really did fish for eels.  Overall, eels are very abundant at sites all over England. So were pigs in towns, as well as in rural areas. Its not surprising that there were significant differences between rural areas and wics or burghs, but former Roman towns also had distinctive profiles including the early period of Wroxter. There is so much data here it will take a while to digest.

This is an interesting book for practically any topic involving animals in early England. The data presented there is likely to be the foundation for many studies to come and the PDF is at a price that can’t be beat. I couldn’t help but think of the novelists who read here and how useful this would be for them. I hope you all check it out.

King Offa’s tomb

Coin of King Offa

Coin of King Offa

How does one leave a legacy? All leaders care about their legacy. Modern politicians seem preoccupied by both leaving a legacy and what it will be. Medieval kings did not count on historians to keep their legacy or even memory alive. Most early medieval kings are known only as a name in a list, a signatory on a charter, maybe found on a couple of coins if they are lucky. Merican King Offa is a classic case in point. Everything we know about him comes from outside references, coins, charters, and landmarks. These sources suggest a major, long-lived king, but we have no official narrative record of his reign from within England.

“Overall, Matthew’s writings about Offa indicate how, 450 years after his death, even people with the skill and desire to learn about him had little to go on. What St.Alban’s historian wrote about Offa’s tomb is revealing in this regard. Hearsay suggested Offa was buried in 796 in a chapel on the banks of the river Ouse near Bedford, north of St. Alban’s, but the river soon washed the chapel away. Summer time bathers in the Ouse told Matthew  [of Paris] that sometimes one could spy Offa’s sepulcher beneath the river’s clear waters; however, all attempts to retrieve it failed. Like the historical figure about whom Matthew wanted to know, Offa’s tomb was unreachable.” (Squatriti, 2004, p. 51)

 There is at least some basis for Offa’s burial near Bedford. King Offa’s wife Cynthryth became an Abbess at Cookham and has charge over a church at Bedford where her husband was buried. However, was he buried in a church or in a chapel so close to the river that it eventually wound up submerged so deeply that no could get close to it? Or could it be a Roman mausoleum? And why were they trying to reach it? Had St Alban’s or locals really tried to “retrieve it”, or just to confirm that it is Offa? We are left with even more questions that Matthew of Paris.

Reference:

Squatriti, Paolo. “Offa’s Dyke Between Nature and Culture.” Environmental History, 2004, 37–56.

Btw, this is my 400th post on Heavenfield!

Glasses on Guthlac’s Monks?

Roundel 14, Harley Y.6  'the Guthlac roll'

Roundel 14, Harley Y.6; ‘the Guthlac roll’

I was looking at the Guthlac roll in the British Library online and I noticed something rather odd. Have you noticed it? The two outer figures are wearing glasses! According to the British Library page for the roll, its dates to c. 1175-1225 and is believed to be prototypes for stained glass windows. This seems a bit early for glasses. The guy on the right has particularly modern looking specs. Come to think of it, the one on the left in addition to the glasses has a rather flamboyant feather in his hat. What do you all think? Are these objects c. 12th century or has someone added these to the roll?

St Oswald and the Sussex Plague

Modified from the vault for St Oswald’s Day:

Happy St. Oswald’s Day!

It has been a while since I wrote but I can’t miss the feast of St. Oswald.

What little time I have had for medieval topics this summer has been focused on the plague, so this brings to mind the unique place King Oswald has in Anglo-Saxon plague history.

oswaldPlague isn’t recorded in Anglo-Saxon England during Oswald’s lifetime. Oswald’s legacy surely was in the thoughts of his countrymen in 664 when the plague is first recorded, but his role as founder of the Irish church of Lindisfarne would have made him a rather controversial topic in 664. Remembrances of St Oswald were also just beginning in 664. Although I think that his hand had probably been translated into a shrine in the church of Bamburgh by this time, other sites associated with his veneration (like Heavenfield and Bardney) still didn’t have official recognition or had not yet been established.

By the time the second major wave of plague circulated around Britain in the 680s much had changed. Although there are no plague associated miracles at Bardney, this is about the time it was established and he was credited with healing miracles there. Likewise, the site of Heavenfield was probably contained within the monastic grounds of Hexham by then under the rule of Bishop Wilfrid of York.

It was at one of Wilfrid’s monasteries in Sussex that St Oswald was said to have interceded on behalf of the monastery to stop a plague. As far as I can recall, this is the only plague intercession in Bede’s History. [As a matter of fact, I can only think of two plague intercessions in 7-8th century Britain -- this one by Oswald and Adomnan's credit of his preservation from the plague while visiting Northumbria to Columba.]  It is significant that Bede notes that it was from this point that Oswald came to be widely celebrated throughout southern England. This may indicate that he was, at least for a while, seen as an intercessor for the plague in a time of plague.  The vision of Sts. Peter and Paul telling the child that the monastery was being spared further plague by the intercession of St. Oswald for his people on the day of his own death (August 5), the day of the vision, is surely unique. It also satisfies the Wilfridian circle’s need for a Romanist vision vouched for by two primary Romanist saints.

We can be skeptical that this miracle occurred in one of Wilfrid’s monasteries, given that Wilfrid also controlled Heavenfield, but Wilfrid is unlikely to have really embraced the idea of a royal intercessor, given his own troubles with kings and that royal power was in conflict with episcopal power. I’ve discussed Acca’s role in developing Oswald’s veneration before, but it is possible that this miracle, a late insertion into Bede’s History, really was considered a major event in Anglo-Saxon England. Bede surely didn’t have to make such a late insertion. Its unlikely that this is the type of material that King Ceolwulf would have demanded.

In much later medieval times, Oswald was considered a plague intercessor in Italy. People would make long pilgrimages into the Alps to visit his shrine there seeking his intercession for their illnesses, so this was a theme of Oswald’s medieval cult.

What ever you think about such miracles, today is a day to recall St Oswald and ponder on the cultural role of Anglo-Saxon kings.

The Bone Thief: Stealing St Oswald

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[I didn't intend to be gone this long. I hope someone is still out there!]

Its been years since I’ve taken much time to read novels. I’m embarrassed to say how few I’ve read in the last couple years, but the Bone Thief finally was a temptation too great. How could I resist a novel about the theft/transfer of St Oswald’s bones from Bardney to Gloucester?

VM Whitworth‘s The Bone Thief did not disappoint. Readers of this blog will know that Oswald’s relics were enshrined at St Oswald’s Minster in Gloucester, so I don’t want to give away anything else. Not surprisingly it follows a quest tale type but it’s not a very typical quest. He doesn’t have to go  very far, but Whitworth finds plenty of obstacles and surprises to keep the tension. She nails the shifting loyalties and tensions of the time perfectly and managed to place Oswald’s relics centrally in West Saxon – Mercian politics  without cheapening their spiritual importance. I loved the way she treated St Oswald throughout the book (and what a nice little surprise at the end!).  I highly recommend the Bone Thief.

For a glimpse into Lady Ætehlfled’s Mercia, here is a previous post on their defense of Chester.

Captivated by the Cross

I’ve been captivated by this image since I found it earlier this week. It was taken by David W Coigach and posted at deviantART. Taken at Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Galloway  (Southwest Scotland), this imagery seems so right for Heavenfield  with the ravens circling overhead. Ok, so I’ll admit heavenfield didn’t have a stone cross, which seems really odd, but I guess a miracle working wooden cross was enough!