Follow the garnets

by Michelle Ziegler

Last month was this blog’s tenth anniversary, so I thought I would celebrate with a little bling. What is more iconic in Anglo-Saxon jewelry than the near universal garnets? Not only are garnets the most common gemstone found in Anglo-Saxon artifacts but they are also widely scattered over Anglo-Saxon territory. Helen Hamerow’s recent review of the distribution and use of garnets offers some interesting insights.

A carry over from Roman tradition, Germanic leaders looked to red-cloaked Roman military officers as role models. Garnet encrusted weapons and cloak fasteners may have been a stylistic bridge between Roman military dress and that of later medieval nobles.

Garnet distribution

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Distribution of garnets in Anglo-Saxon England. Left: garnets found in graves, Right: garnets registered with the Portable Antiquities Scheme. (Hamerow, 2017, fig 1 & 2).

These maps show the garnets found in graves  (left) with caches marked (+), and lost items reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (right). Based on the distribution of discovered garnets, she suggests that in some areas burial of garnets in graves simply wasn’t done. Metal detectorists have found enough widely scattered garnets to imply that the goods did reach all throughout at least southern Anglo-Saxon England.

Caches of garnets show a different pattern. Most of the caches found in England are tiny fragments, some too small to use in jewelry (which makes them very tiny indeed!). These could be wastage from cutting stones or stones that fell out of a finished object. All of the caches in England were found in graves (three female and two male).This contrasts sharply with Scandinavia where none of the caches from Scandinavia are from graves.The most elaborate male grave from  Tatershall Thorpe (Lincolnshire) also included tools, a weigh pan and other scraps that suggested it was a smith’s grave in an area known for international exchange of goods. Breakage of several of these garnets has led to speculation that they were intended for repair work.  Provisional composition analysis done on garnets in three brooches found in Wessex indicate that the stones come from two batches of the same parent stone. This suggests that batches of garnets “could reach a goldsmith’s workshop in a relatively unmixed state, despite the long distances traveled.” (Hamerow, p. 77)

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Loose garnets caches in Northern Europe, 400-700. (Hamerow 2017, fig 3)

The Scandinavian caches all from known high-status sites with elite sponsored craftsmen. These sites begin in the ‘migration period’ but tend to be later and extend beyond 700 AD. Hamerow concludes that at least within Scandinavia the garnets were kept under the close control of ruling families who used their products within their political exchange networks.

Sourcing and Supply lines

Garnets arrived in northern Europe in two waves. The first surge in garnets occurred in the fifth and sixth century and are found in Late Antique brooches. Chemical analysis places the origin of these early garnets in Sri Lanka and India. The stones would have come across the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea entering the Mediterranean trade networks through the remaining Roman ports. It is interesting that this is the same route that the Plague of Justinian may have taken to the port of Pelusium in 541. Although the flow of garnets to Europe dropped to a trickle by the sixth century, these garnets peaked in Anglo-Saxon products in the seventh century. Perhaps not coincidently, plague followed the same pattern, peaking in England in the seventh century. This may say more about functioning trade networks than any correlation between garnets and fleas. At the same time, the flow of gold from Byzantine coins was also dwindling. The traditional reason for the reduction of garnets and gold is the expansion of the Sasanid expansion cutting off that trade route (although that does not explain the lack of Byzantine gold coins). By the late seventh century, Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths were clearly repurposing stones from old pieces to meet the demand for new pieces.

Hamerow stresses that the decrease in garnets and gold coinage was not due an overall economic downturn. Other precious goods are increasing across the seventh-century.  In the mid-seventh century precut cabochon garnets begin to appear with new exotic goods. Chemical analysis suggests that at least some of the cabochon’s come from the area of Bohemia, a new source carried possibly along new trade routes.  By the early eighth century, some garnets may have been mined in southwestern Sweden, so the later Scandinavian caches were of mined locally or perhaps brought in via riverine routes through Russia.  These later garnets are cut more crudely.

While trade with the Franks was undoubtedly an important factor in goods arriving in Anglo-Saxon England, it was not ultimately the critical factor in the flow of garnets, nor probably other gemstones.


Hamerow, H. (2017). The Circulation of Garnets in the North Sea Zone, ca. 400-700. In A. Hilgner, S. Greiff, & D. Quast (Eds.), GEMSTONES IN THE FIRST MILLENNIUM AD MINES, TRADE, WORKSHOPS AND SYMBOLISM (pp. 71–86).

Heavenfield Round-up 5: Signs of Power and Piety

The find of the week was the grave of a medieval abbot of Furness Abbey in Cumbria. Past Horizons has the best write up of the discovery at the abbey, which is just southwest of the Lake District. They have also had good features on reinterpreting the mass grave of Vikings found in Oxford, and possible remnants of the first Anglo-Saxon church at York.

Antiquarian’s Attic also has featured the finds at Furness abbey, and the purchase of the St Cuthbert Gospel by the British Library.

Karen Jolly of Revealing Words is investigating the design of the church at Chester-le-Street for her novel, and refining her design here.

Tim Clarkson of Senchus reviews People of Early Scotland, and on his blog Heart of the Kingdom looks at the hogbacks of Govan and Penrith.

Esmeralda’s Cumbrian Folklore and History brings us a picture of Cumbria’s oldest cat from St Cuthbert’s church, Penrith.

Jonathan Jarrett of A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe reviews James Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland (and hits the nail right on the head),  his digital work, on Alex Woolf’s vision of early medieval Scotland, and writes about Anglo-Saxon moneyers (or lack of them) and coin distribution.

Curt Emanual, the Medieval History Geek, takes up the defense of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus this week.

Magistra et Mater writes about the complicated history of Justinian’s code and its use in later Italy.

Nicola Griffith of Gemæcca writes about her vision of York and its church during King Edwin’s time.

Historian Sally Wilde has a new blog to write about her crime novel project on the murder of Hereric, father of St Hild. She has several posts up in the last week.

Clas Merdin has posts on Arthur’s Stone and on the Oxford mass Viking grave.

Geoffrey Chaucer hath a Blog and he also hath a new post up.

Mak Wilson of Badonicus posts about his plans for his Arthurian project.

Viqueen of Norse and Viking Ramblings writes about a fieldtrip to the Isle of Man to study runes.

Bamburgh Research Project blog has a new video up of excavations in the west ward of the castle and a post on Bamburgh village.

From the Professor Awesome’s Unlocked Wordhoard: The Battle of Maldon

The Plague Ship of Marseilles, 588 AD

Plague has always traveled long distances by ship. A ship creates the perfect environment for containing, incubating and magnifying the contagion. Even so, we don’t have very many descriptions of plague ships. Gregory of Tours may provide perhaps one of the earliest description in his History of the Franks (IX:20-21).

“At this time (588 AD) it was reported that Marseilles was suffering from a severe epidemic of swelling in the groin and that this disease quickly spread to Saint-Symphorien-d’Ozon, a village near Lyon. … I want to tell you exactly how this came about. … a ship from Spain put into port with the usual kind of cargo, unfortunately also bringing with it the source of the infection. Quite a few of the townsfolk purchased objects from the cargo and in less than no time a house in which eight people lived was left completely deserted, all of the inhabitants having caught the disease. The infection did not spread through the residential quarter immediately. Some time passed and then, like a cornfield set alight, the entire town was suddenly ablaze with pestilence. … At the end of two months the plague burned itself out. The population returned to Marseilles, thinking themselves safe. The disease started again and all who had come back died. On several occasions later on Marseilles suffered from an epidemic of this sort.”

Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, IX: 20-21. Lewis Thorpe, trans. Penguin. p. 509-511

Bubonic plague, identified by the severe epidemic with a swelling in the groin. Gregory often refers to it as inguinal pestilence. This passage is a classic description of what we should see for bubonic plague. Gregory specifies that the initial victims handled cargo from the ship; no mention of ill crew or passengers.

Mind the gaps. There was a passage of time between the first eight victims and the explosion of pestilence throughout Marseilles. This would be when the rat epizootic was occurring. It explodes throughout the city when the rats are dead and the fleas move on to humans. Contagion transmitted by cargo is the movement of fleas only. I doubt many rats left plague ships. When the Marseilles rats come to feed on the cargo, they contract the infection from fleas in the grain, other foodstuffs or textiles.

Many of the people of Marseilles must have fled, as they often do before the plague, to return when word got out two months later that the sickness was gone. The second wave of pestilence was triggered by contagion left in the town by persistent fleas, possibly still in foodstuffs. If the returning people brought new rats into the town with them by bringing in fresh supplies, that could also restart the epidemic. The more intense the initial epidemic was, the more bacteria would be scattered in the environment to infect the returning people.

Gregory of Tours died in 594, so the several epidemics in Marseilles that he refers to must have happened between 588 and 594. Marseilles was one of the busiest Frankish ports because it was one of their only ports on the Mediterranean sea. It is likely that over at least the next century, many plague ships visited the port of Marseilles.

Heavenfield Round-up 3: Medievalists at Work

The Medievalists out there must all be incubating new projects because the blogosphere has been a little quiet again for the last few weeks, not that I have helped out much there. Yet, there are hints of these bigger projects in their posts, so lets get right down to it.

Guy Halsall of Historian on the Edge posted a presentation he gave as the York Medieval Lecture this term on Changing Minds around 600 and also posted a draft of a paper he is working on: Officers or Gentlemen? Frankish Aristocracy in the 6th Century Part 1 (of 4 posted).

Karen Jolly of Revealing Words is exploring Cumbria for locations for her novel.

Tim Clarkson of Senchus writes about the queen who inspired Lady Macbeth. On his Govan blog Heart of the Kingdom, Tim writes about hair styles of warriors on the carved stones.

Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History & Folklore has a nice post on the Treaty of Eamont Bridge in 927.

Badonicus is continuing his series on King Arthur- Man, Myth or both? with Part II and Part III.

Not usually part of my medievalist round-up but Kristina Killgrove of Powered by Osteons has her latest Roman Bioarchaeology carnival up.

Carl Pyrdum of Got Medieval looks at ring dances in illuminated manuscripts and urban legends of the plague.

Andy Gaunt of Archaeology and History of Medieval Sherwood Forest looks at the history and use of caves in the forest and about Bestwood Park.

Bamburg Research Project blog writes about the Anglo-Saxon church in the village.

Over at Contagions, I also wrote about how the plague has altered our perceptions of the last 1500 years of history with what historians of medicine call Gothic Epidemiology.

So there you have it, some medievalists at work.

Baldhildis Ring

Bathild ring, found Norfolk, East Anglia.

Over at Got Medieval Carl provides a link the to the famous Baldhild ring on the feast of St Balthild this month. This is the first time I’ve had a good look at the famous ‘erotic’ ring found in Norfolk, East Anglia. If you click on the picture it will take you to the museum website where you can zoom and see the reverse. Supposedly this ring shows Bathild and the king “having sex”. Hmmm… takes some imagination even with the zoom. This ring is less than a centimeter in diameter, so the impression it would have left would have been quite small. For all we know they are holding hands (or were intended to be holding hands). This would make much more sense. This scene could represent a wedding especially with the cross over them.

For the obverse, it only says Baldhildis. I’m not sure why it is assumed that this is a queen’s ring. Click on the photo to the left and you can zoom in on the photo. The museum comments on the long straight nose but really it looks to me like they struck the long arm of the cross down over the face.

At only 1 cm in diameter, the detail can’t be great because its just too small, about half the diameter of a dime. ( A dime is 1.79 cm.) They were carving this without the use of a magnifying glass. Its a amazing they got this much detail on a tiny disk with half the diameter of a dime and only 4mm deep. High magnification photography makes it look deceptively primitive and deeply carved until you realize how small the entire object is. It looks like the bodies and heads were made with a square ended metal spike and all three heads with a rounded ended spike. These heads are only 2-3 mm in size for the couple and only a little bigger for the obverse. It would have taken a great deal of skill to get them to look this good and ingraving two sides doubly hard.

I don’t see why this couldn’t be the ring of a noble woman from that time or later. Given how few names we have for English queens and even fewer noblewomen, it could be for a woman other than Frankish Queen Balthild. Given that Queen Balthild was an East Anglian slave, presumably former royalty sold after her family was defeated, it is possible that Baldhild/Balthild was a common name among local royal women. The scene of the couple may not have been as rare as we assume given that there are no names or other identifiers, and no crown or royal sign. If it was a rarity it would have been because of the skill required to produce it.

As for how it was used, this is a pretty tiny seal ring.  First if they are holding hands under a cross (possibly representing a wedding) it could have been used on messages sent to anyone. Second, given the small size of the seal, both sides could have been used on the same seal, side-by-side. Using both sides would still produce a fairly small wax seal to hold a heavy parchment roll.

The Grandfather Effect

As I worked on this month’s lost kingdom, my mind wondered on to the grandfather effect. There is this trend for the dynastic founder to be the grandfather of the first great king. This is not to say that the grandfather wasn’t an important king in his own time, but he could have easily become an intruder in the status quo which returns as soon as he falls. The real success of a king is whether or not he can pass the kingdom peacefully on to his heir. Perhaps most importantly the grandfather defines the nobles of the great king — his brothers and first cousins — and his potential heirs. Sons are not always the heir of a great king; it may be his brother or cousin, but the dynasty endures and his sons or grandsons depending on the local system are eligible heirs of his successor, if they don’t directly succeed.

In time the grandfather becomes a figure of legend and must be puffed up to make him a suitable founder for the great dynasty built primarily by the grandson. So we hear in the Historia Brittonum particularly that Ida of Bernicia once ruled the left side of Britain (ie also Deira) or that Octha of Kent was the son of Hengest who was the first in Britain. Bede tells us that Wuffa was the founder of Raedwald’s dynasty and although some have contended that Anna and his brothers were unlikely first cousins of Raedwald, all sources claim Anna was the great grandson of Wuffa. There is no confusion as there is among the genealogical sources for Cynegils of Wessex; his pedigree is a mess. The sources can’t even agree on Cynegils father. As usual Mercia is an exception. It is clear that Penda was the effective founder of Mercia but Icel is considered the founder (but where is the source?). Icel can’t be explained by later kings needing to be traced to a common ancester since all the later kings trace thier descent to Penda’s father Pybba. (Does anyone know where the Icel is first named as a dynastic founder? I have a feeling that it may be an early Anglo-Saxonist!)

Here is a partial list of the dynastic founders and their more impressive grandsons:

Ida grandfather of Æthelfrith — Idling dynasty (Bede V.24, HB)

Oeric Oisc grandfather of Eormanric father of Ætelberht of Kent – Oiscing dynasty (Bede II.5)

Wuffa grandfather of Raedwald of East Anglia – Wuffing dynasty (Bede II.15, HB)

Cunedda grandfather of Cadwallon Long arm father of Maelgwn Gwynedd  – dynasty of Cunedda (Historia Brittonum)

Charles Martel grandfather of Charlemagne — Carolingians

Well, two dynasties have great grandsons as who we recognize as the first great king, though we don’t know much about their fathers. Cadwallon Long Arm is credited with uniting the core of Gwynedd, probably securing all of Angelsey and oddly removing all the Irish. The Irish in 5th century Wales are a fascinating topic but one for a later day. Maelgwn appears to be the first to dominate his neighbors and create ‘greater Gwynedd’ much of which was later annexed, not unlike Æthelfrith being the first to create a proto-Northumbria. Yet, there are hints that his father Cadwallon Long Arm was an important king. The other great grandson is Æthelberht of Kent, but we should recall that his father Eormenric was probably the first Kentish king of note (stripping out the Hengest legend) who married a Frankish princess. If Æthelberht came to the throne later than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claims (as some historians believe), then his father may have have built a far greater kingdom. Indeed we have no idea how Æthelberht gained his extended hegemony given that no where is he credited with military success. It is quite possible that Eormanric was able to pass an extended hegemony to his son, perhaps with Frankish help. The only battle Æthelberht is mentioned in on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is one in which Ceawlin and the men of Wessex drove Æthelberht into Kent and killed two ealdormen in 568. Most historians now believe that Æthelbert came to power after 568 (30 years before Augustine arrives). If this is a misplaced entry for a real battle, then it shows Æthelberht loosing to Wessex. I have always had the feeling that Æthelberht is parlaying hegemony won by someone else and bolstered by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Canterbury’s support of Kent’s hegemony is probably a direct result of his father Eormanric’s connections to the Franks in the previous generation and connections that continued with his son Eadbald, who married the daughter of a Mayor of the Palace. To take it one step further, Eormanric has a name that is common among the nobles of the Franks, so one wonders if the royal dynasty of Kent were not Frankish colonists.

I got a bit off topic here but my main point is that the declared founder is most often the figure that unites the heirs of a first major king who sets nobility for a century or so. In the time of the ‘founder’ no unbiased observer probably expected him to be the founder of a great dynasty, as much as they may have hoped.

St Geretrud and the Irish

I’ve been browsing through Paul Foracre and Richard Gerberding’s Late Merovingian France: History and Hagiography 640-720 (Manchester, 1996) this Easter break and I came across a curious account in the Life of St Geretrud.

Geretrud was the daughter of Peppin I and his wife Itta, born in about 621, and the first solidly saintly ancestor of the Carolingian dynasty. After the death of Peppin, his widow Itta and their daughter Geretrud founded the monastery of Nivelles where Geretrud spent the remainder of her life. Geretrud became abbess at age 26 and after a relatively quiet tenure died at the age of 33. She was succeeded by her niece Wulfetrud in about 653. The house of Nivelles therefore became one of the earliest Carolingian houses.The painting to the right is a Flemish painting of St Geretrud from Wikipedia commons.

In the contemporary vita written for the saintly Geretrud we can see the ruthless political pressures and manipulations that surround young noble girls. Geretrud’s desire to be the Bride of Christ confounds most of these pressures.

One of the few times that we can see Geretrud and her mother Itta intervening in political matters is when they give refuge and aid to Abbot Foillan when Erchinwald expels the former East Anglian missionaries from Peronne where St Fursey was buried. Sheltering Follian from such a powerful enemy was probably at least suggested by Geretrud’s brother Grimoald I, a major rival of Erchinowald. According to the ‘Nivelles Supplement (to the Vita Fursei) on Foillan'(written 650-657), Geretrud’s mother gave the Irish missionaries refuge and helped them establish the Irish monastery of Fosses. When Foillan disappears, it is Abbess Geretrud who sponsors the long search for him. His body was found after 77 days of searching and brought to her monastery of Nivelles and presented to the conspirators Bishop Dido of Pointiers and her brother Grimoald I. Grimoald and Dido then personally carry Foillan’s body on their shoulders to Fosses for burial.

Foillan’s murder just as Grimoald and Dido were planning the exile of Prince Dagobert raises questions. Was Foillan’s murder planned because he opposed Dagobert’s exile? Was Foillan murdered because he was part of the plot by those loyal to Dagobert? Grimoald and Dido seem particularly upset by his murder. Did Geretrud expect her brother’s involvement and ensure his contrition? The result seems fairly certain; Follian’s murder made the Irish of Fosses more willing to help in the plot and Dagobert was exiled to Ireland.

None of this business with Foillan is mentioned in the Life of St. Geretrud, written after the execution of her brother Grimoald for treason. The holy virgin Geretrud is not to be tarnished with her brother’s crimes. Yet, the Irish still left a trace on the Life of St Geretrud. As Geretrud is dying she sends for the hermit of Fosses (usually considered to be Ultan, Foillan’s brother) to ask when she will die. The hermit of Fosses responds saying:

“‘Today is 16 March, tomorrow during the solemn mass the maidservant of God and virgin of Christ, Geretrud, will go forth from her body. And say this to her, let her neither fear nor be alarmed concerning her death, but may pass on joyously because blessed Bishop Patrick with the chosen angels of God and with great glory are prepared to receive her. Go now quickly.'” (p. 326)

He goes on to tell her and she accepts this joyfully. Just as the hermits prophesies, during the mass the next day Geretrud dies just as the mass finishes on March 17th in her 33rd year of life.

To the Irish attached to Nivelles and at Fosses Geretrud’s death on the feast of St Patrick must have seemed a very favorable event supporting their continued association with Nivelles and the Carolingian family. Not only had Geretrud befriended Foillan and company when they were driven from the shrine of St Fursey at Peronne, she had sponsored the search for Foillan’s body, ensured that he was properly buried and then died herself on the feast of St Patrick. The Addendum Nivialense de Fuilnano also shows us that it was appended to the Life of Fursei at Nivelles between 650 and 657, the tenure of Geretrud or her niece Wulfetrud. This suggests that the cults of Fursey and Foillan were valued at Nivelles from Geretrud’s time.