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 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.

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.

PW: Genevieve of Paris

I have to admit that St Genevieve of Paris holds a special place in my heart. She is one of a very small collection of saints outside my chosen study area who resonate with me for one reason or another. I think there is a good chance that St Genevieve (423-502) was the first non-biblical saint that I became conscious of. This is for a completely non-religious reason… the town of Ste. Genevieve Missouri (called “St Gen” locally) was an important marker on my family’s trips to visit my great grandparents house in southern Missouri. If I recall correctly, we crossed the Mississippi River into Missouri at the old bridge at Ste. Genevieve, and then traveled further south to Cape Girardeau, and then we were really close. It was the longest trip I can recall when I was really little, younger than five years old, and great grandparents always have a special place in the life of a child. Those old French names had an embedded sense of history in a regional community of primarily German and old stock American ancestry. For me, “St Genevieve” always brought to mind the saint as much or probably more than the town, perhaps because we rarely actually stopped in the town. It was a signpost on the highway and where we crossed that really big river.

So as I was thinking of what to write for this post, it occurred to me that the only other French saint that really resonates with me is Joan of Arc and how much Genevieve and Joan have in common. First, they are both non-royal and although Genevieve’s family is not well known (and may have been aristocratic) her family did not play a role in her promotion as a saint. Both the Virgin of Paris and the Maid of Orleans were dedicated religious women, but neither had a typical religious career. Neither of them were cloistered or a founder of an enduring monastery. Both of them defined their own way of religious life on their terms. Both of them won early improbable support from local leaders, in Genevieve’s case that would be Bishop Germanus of Auxerre. Both saved their people by military successes: Joan in the relief of Orleans and elsewhere and Genevieve in her reputed turning of Attila the Hun from devastating Paris and obtaining relief for the people besieged by Frankish King Childeric. Of all the female saints, it seems to me that Genevieve is the best forerunner for Joan.


Unlike Joan, Genevieve lived a good long life of 80 years, full of healing miracles and church building. She builds the Cathedral of St. Denis and had won over the Frankish kings Childeric and his son King Clovis I. Clovis’ queen St Clothild insured that Genevieve was buried with honor in Clovis’ new church in Paris, later renamed for St. Genevieve, and there is reason to believe that St. Clothild had the Life of Genovefa written in about 520, 18 years after Genevieve’s death.

Further reading:

Life of Genovefa in Jo Ann McNamara & John Halborg with E.G. Whatley , ed and trans. Sainted Women of the Dark Ages. Duke UP, 1992.

Forthcoming in 2008:

Lisa Bitel’s Landscape of Two Saints, a book on the cults of St. Genevieve of Paris and St Bridget of Ireland.