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).

The Bavarians from the Ground Up


Archaeological sites in Bavaria.  Cross marks Aschheim where plague DNA was isolated. (Hakenbeck et al, 2010)

Since written history doesn’t spread very much light on the people who lived in sixth century Bavaria, let’s literally look to the ground and examine what their cemeteries tell us about them.  Aschheim is the only place where plague aDNA has been found, but as far as I know, it is the only Late Antique place that has been investigated for plague.

Aschheim and nearby Altenerding represent two different styles of cemetery covering nearly the same fifth to sixth century time period. Aschheim is a row cemetery with no apparently clustering, while Altenerding has several founder graves with stylistically distinct related graves surrounding each. Both collect graves from nearby rural small settlements and both are located near (but not on) a Roman road.

One of the distinctive features in these cemeteries are a number of ‘hunnic’ modified skulls. This modification is not a marker of the Huns, who were a multiethnic federation anyway. It was common around the Black Sea and Carpathian basin in Romania and Hungary where it was praticed equally among men and women and found in all ages. The oldest are assoicated with the Sarmatians predating the Huns by a couple centuries. Even where it is common, it found in a minority of graves suggesting that it was reserved for a specific, presumably elite group. They are also common around foritifications in the Roman province of Pannonia. In these eastern areas, the modifications are found among a riot of mixed styles in grave goods and in local style graves. Harkenbeck (2009) suggests that the eastern modifications represent a frontier hybrid culture that was encouraged to develope a local identity.

2009 Hakenbeck

Modified skull in Late Antique Europe. Red circle encloses the Bavarian cases. (Modified from Hakenbeck 2009)

Modified skulls found west of the Alps paint a very different picture. They are thinly spread over a vast area including Bavaria, Bohemia, the Rhine valley, and into southern France. The big difference is that 71% are female and their dates are restricted to the mid-fifth to mid-sixth centuries (Hakenbeck 2009). There are no modified skulls in children suggesting that the modification method was not actively practiced in these communities at all. According to Hakenbeck, 98% of those found in Bavaria and central Germany are mature adults or elderly. She notes that they are primarily found along the Rhine and Danuabe rivers that were highways as much as frontier borders. Indeed, their frontier status was only contemporary with the Roman empire. These rivers were not frontiers before or after the Roman empire.  In Bavaria, they cluster around the Danuabe and down along the River Isar including at Alternerding and Straubing. Hakenbeck suggests that these indicate the increased female migration at marriage that genetics suggests usually happens in a more archaeologically invisible way. She notes that the five women with modified skulls at Alternerding were dressed and buried in an unremarkable local pattern with very typical grave goods of mixed styles.


‘Hunnic’ modified skulls from Alternerding with accompanying grave goods. Hakenbeck et al, 2010

The grave goods are mostly these brooches or clothing clasps. Hakenbeck notes Frankish/Almannic, Ostrogothic, Thuringian and even rarely Anglo-Saxon styles. Even when a brooch represented one foreign style, it was still worn in a local pattern reflecting being worn on clothing of a local sytle. The mixture of styles (often within the same piece) tells me that they were more fashion than markers of ethnicity. These must represent artisans who felt free to experiment with different styles and still sell their wares. None of these sites are really high status enough to represent royal or elite interests.

Inidcators of female migration go beyond the cranial modification. Skeletal measurements of males and females in Bavaria (at Altenerding and Neuburg near Straubing) suggest that the genders have different source populations. Hakenbeck (2009) notes that in the past jewelry was used to trace migrations but this is directly contradicted by biological analysis in Germanic areas where skull modification and isotopes often contradict the origins of material goods. The migration of women occurred at all social levels and was not associated with folk movements, tribal migrations or military expansions. Bavarian isotopic data is not very clear but the outliers do support some of the women having a significantly different diet for part of their lives.

One interesting grave discussed by Hakenbeck (2009, 2010) was of a high status elderly woman whose burial and grave goods connect her with Scandinavia or the Baltic.  Her isotopic data support her being a migrant. Along with some Anglo-Saxon influence in some of the jewelry, she is a reminder that communication and/or migration occurred with people to the north as well.

Hakenbeck (2011) proposes that Alternerding was is the result of two to three large extended kindreds with their associated staff.   The first generation had more distinctive styles that eventually became a more common, mixed style goods. Each family seems to have had its own section of the cemetery surrounding a founder grave.  The men in these areas had more similar accoutraments most likely related to current military affiliations. Weapons in the graves along with some high status brooches suggest that these were freemen. Interestingly, she noted that in the seventh century Byzantine and perhaps Lombard fashions began increasing in the Bavaria. Once the Byzantines were satisfied with the Franks holding a northern border including Bavaria, the Franks (and their territories) were allowed to prosper from close ties with the Byzantines and the Lombards. Symbols of Christianity do not appear in Bavaria until the seventh century along with the Byzantine influence. The appearance of the first Bavarian dukes in the mid-sixth century also stimulated the begennings of the development a Bavarian style.

The mechanism behind this fifth to sixth century migration is not well understood. Do these marriages reflect trade links? Alternatively, did men of all social levels seek wives from distant communities? Were these marriages made during military service far from home? Could some of them have been slaves taken as wives?  Afterall, two Merovingian kings married slaves who became, as far as we can tell, full status queens.  Obviously, long distance marriage does not necessarliy mean continuing long distance connections. It is notable though that the presence of these modified skulls end about 550 CE. Those of us interested in the plague have to realize that the Gothic War was probably a bigger factor in altering migration in the Danube valley than the plague. The Goths provide an environment where connections to the Black Sea area would have been possible. The impact of the Gothic war on migration, military movements, trade and communication has to be a major factor in looking at the plague in this region.



Hakenbeck, S. (2009). “Hunnic”modified skulls: physical appearance, identity and the transformative nature of migrations. In Mortuary Practices and Social Identities in the Middle Ages. University of Exeter Press.

Hakenbeck, S. (2011). Roman or Barbarian? Shifting identites in early medieval cemeteries in Bavaria. Post-Classical Archaeologies, (1), 37–66.

Hakenbeck, S., McManus, E., Geisler, H., Grupe, G., & O’Connell, T. (2010). Diet and mobility in Early Medieval Bavaria: a study of carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 143(2), 235–249.

Wagner, D. M., Klunk, J., Harbeck, M., Devault, A., Waglechner, N., Sahl, J. W., et al. (2014). Yersinia pestis and the Plague of Justinian 541–543 AD: a genomic analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 14(4), 1–8.

The Plague of Justinian is Finally Plague!

A group of German biological anthropologists gave me a good 6th anniversary present for Heavenfield. There is now good confirmation that the Plague of Justinian was the Plague! I know that sounds a little anti-climatic but some have fought the diagnosis against the odds for years now. We still need more data from well dated cemeteries but some things are clear.

Plague was diagnosed in Bavaria beyond the Roman world where plague had never been documented. Two sites from Gaul have also produced plague protein  results and well documented symptoms from Gaul and the Mediterranean suggests that it was wide-spread in the Late Antique world. I’ve written about the details of this newest discovery on Contagions.

The cemetery is well dated archaeologically to the 6th century and radiocarbon dates support that date. There were no disordered mass graves. So the graves all looked reasonably normal except there were a greater than normal number of multiple graves, but still well-ordered 2-5 person graves. I would take these graves to be household size. From what little I know of sixth century Bavaria this fits a diffuse settlement patterns without large urban areas. So far no historian of Germanic territories has written about this discovery to help put it in better context. A full write-up of this cemetery should be illuminating. The first paper on this cemetery reported that the grave contained some high status and trade goods.

Now that plague genetics seems to be getting sorted out, hopefully I’ll be able to spend more time  on the first pandemic and related topics here on Heavenfield.

Confirming Queen Eadgyth

Six months ago I wrote about the discovery of the remains of Queen Eadgyth of Germany, half-sister of King Æthelstan of England and grand-daughter of Alfred the Great in Magdeburg Cathedral. Eadgyth was the first wife of Otto I of Saxony, later after her death he became the first German Holy Roman Emperor. Through her children, Eadgyth was an ancestor of many European royal families. Historian and broadcaster Michael Wood has written an upbeat biography of her life, claiming that she was the Princess Diana of her time.

Eadgyth and Otto

It had been thought that Eadgyth’s remains had been lost in the renovations of Magdeburg Cathedral, that the late medieval sarcophagus was empty, but much to their surprise, when it was opened earlier this year a bone box was found inside. It had an inscription saying that it held the rescued remains of Queen Eadgyth found in the second restoration of her tomb in 1510.

When I wrote earlier tests on the bones were still pending. Last week the test results were announced. The tests turned out to be more of challenge than I think they expected. The video below has parts of the archaeologists discussion of their findings.

They failed to get usable DNA and the radiocarbon dating of the bones predicts an age 200 years too old. This seems ominous but they assure us that the early date is because she ate so much fish! James Barrett explains here why a high marine diet alters radiocarbon dating; basically, the ratio of C14 to C12 is different in marine and terrestrial environments. Alone this would be quite a problem but there are other isotope tests that can predict the ratio of marine to terrestrial sources in the diet. We’ll have to wait, perhaps years, for a proper archaeological report to see the data. The failure to get viable DNA is puzzling considering that they should have been protected in a coffin in the cathedral since her death even if they had been reburied up to five times.  They believe that they have identified textiles dating to each reburial.

With these standard tests failing, they next turned to strontium isotope analysis from her teeth.  Mike Pitts discusses how isotopes are used to reveal personal histories here. Strontium and oxygen isotopes show that the remains came from a woman who grew up in southern England. In her early years she moved frequently but after about age 10 she says in one area around Winchester. This fits the predicted movements of Eadgyth. In her very early childhood she would have moved with Edward the Elder’s royal court, specifically her mother, around southern England. After her mother’s divorce, her mother and probably Eadgyth are sent to a convent.

Several news pieces refer to Eadgyth being “banished” from the royal courts as a youth. I think they are looking at this the wrong way around. It seems likely to me that girls remained with their mothers until marriage. It would be better to say that her mother got to keep her daughter(s) with her in the convent than to say that the girls were banished. It seems likely that many young noble women would have been sent to monasteries as teenagers to keep them ‘safe’ until their marriages were arranged. They would have probably got most of their education then also. Its fairly likely that they were not the only noble girls in their convent. It is even possible that Eadgyth and her sister would have been sent to a convent even if Edward hadn’t divorced their mother.

The skeleton supports the identification of a 30 to 40 year old woman. Eadgyth was age 36 when she died in 946. The only other insight the bones revealed is wear on the femur that suggests a lot of horseback riding. This is generally viewed as being supportive of an aristocratic lifestyle. For all of their advantages, life was short in the 10th century. Eadgyth was only 36 when she died, but she lived longer than both her recorded children. Her son Liudolf died of fever at 27 and his sister died four years before him (and probably 5 years or more younger). Both her children, Liudolf (930– 957) and Liutgarde (d. 953), were buried at Saint Alban’s Abbey in Mainz.


” Tests confirm that bone are from medieval queen” Medieval News. 17 June 2010

Bones confirmed as those of Saxon Princess Eadgyth, My Science, 16 June 2010.

Ellie, Long-lost bones belong to Saxon Queen Eadgyth Heritage Key, June 17, 2010

Michael Wood (BBC) The life of an Anglo-Saxon princess. The Guardian, 17 June 2010.

Mike Pitts (editor of British Archaeology) How the study of our teeth is revealing our history, The Guardian, 17 June 2010.

James Barrett, The Fish Eaters of Orkney. Orkney Archaeological Trust. Papers and Pictures in Honour of Daphne Home Lorimer MBE, Feb. 2004.

Hello Eadgyth! (previous Heavenfield post)

St Oswald Hagiography & Literature

This post is a run down of existing hagiography and literature on St Oswald. I’m really concerned here more with literature than history. The works listed on the indented bullet under each work lists the known sources or influences in that work. I may also list a few key translations or secondary works on these pieces.  If diagrams worked better in blogs I would have done one with all the lines connecting the works, but this will have to do. This list is necessarily a work in progress.

As you will see the literature really forks in four directions:

  1. Historical directly from Bede through William of Malmesbury, Simeon of Durham, and others. Only the earliest historical works are listed here.
  2. Hagiographical from Bede and Adomnan through the various hagiographical versions that often derive directly from Bede.
  3. Matter of Britain: Geoffrey of Monmouth really does some interesting things with his last chapter that are usually completely overlooked because they contradict history (as with everything else he writes) and do not include Arthur. Yet this last chapter is key to understanding Geoffrey’s overall purpose.
  4. German Literature: Mostly falls into the bridal quest category. The Munich Oswalt holds an important place in the development of German courtly literature.

Original Sources: Oswald died August 5, 642.

  1. Iona Chronicle (lost) – no longer exists but the Annals of Ulster is usually considered to be the closest. The Iona Chronicle could have been contemporary with Oswald.
  2. Adomnan of Iona, Life of St Columba, Latin, c. 700. (earliest surviving source)
    1. Sources: Adomnan heard his account from his predecessor Failbe who as a child overheard it directly from King Oswald to Abbot Segene.
  3. Willibrord of Frisia, Calendar of Willibrord, Latin,  c. 702-5.
    1. Willibrord was educated at Ripon and had connections to Lindisfarne and Ireland.
  4. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Latin,  c. 731.
    1. Sources: Acca of Hexham collected stories, oral tradition, local calendars and regnal lists.

Hagiography and Literature

  • Old English Martyrology, Mercian, Old English, 8th century, narrative martryology
    • Bede, History
  • Historia Brittonum, Gwynedd, Latin, 825
  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Old English. c. 900.
    • Bede, History
    • Historia Brittonum ?
  • Ælfric of Eysham, Life of St Oswald, Latin, c. 1000.
    • Bede, History
  • Bonedd y Sant (Pedigrees of the Saints), Welsh, 12th century (a blog post)
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, historical fiction, Latin, 1130s?
    • Bede, History
  • Wace, Roman de Brut, Old French, Historical fiction
    • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History
  • Layamon, Brut , Middle English, c. 1190, historical fiction
    • Wace, Roman de Brut
    • oral history and local legend
  • Breton version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain has a particularly touching version of Oswald’s death.
  • Reginald of Durham, Life of St. Oswald, Latin, 1165
    • Bede, History
    • Adomnan, Life of Columba
    • oral history in Northumbria and Mercia
    • perhaps Symeon of Durham

  • Anonymous, Brut y Brenhydd (History of the Kings), Middle Welsh, 13th century. Welsh translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth with modifications including of Oswald material.
  • Munich Oswalt, Old High German, Bridal Quest., 15th century

    • Reginald of Durham, Life of St Oswald
    • Bede, History
    • Translation: JW Thomas. (1989) The ‘Strassburg Alexander’ and the ‘Munich Oswald’: Pre-courtly Adventure of the German Middle Ages.

    Wiener Oswald, 15th century, Bridal Quest

  • Dat Passionael “Oswald”Van Sunte Oswaldo, Deme Konninghe (About St. Oswald, King),  Low German, 1478
    • Translation and disucssion: Marianne Kalinke, St Oswald of Northumbria: Continental Metamorphosis, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renassiance Studies, 2005.
  • Osvald’s Saga, Middle Icelandic, Bridal Quest/Conversion/Martyr legends/miracles, c 1530
    • Translation and disucssion: Marianne Kalinke, St Oswald of Northumbria: Continental Metamorphosis, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renassiance Studies, 2005.
  • John Dryden,  ‘King Arthur, or The British Worthy’, English opera, 1691. (“Oswald of Kent” is Arthur’s English opponent!)

Hello Eadgyth!

Eadgyth and Otto I. . Statue from Magdeburg Cathedral. Photo from Medieval News.

Earlier this week an Anglo-Saxon princess, Eadgyth, made a splash in the news. Her grave and body had been found in a German Cathedral. As the granddaughter of Alfred the Great, and half-sister of Æthelstan, first recognized king of the English, she has got the interest of historians and archaeologists in England. Being of interest only for her links to them – rather than for herself – is a feeling Eadgyth would have been all too familiar. Its pretty well known that Æthelstan sent 19 year old  Eadgyth and another sister Algiva/Adiva to 17 year old Otto (912-973), son of King Henry of Germany, and told him to take his pick, the other being married off to some Alpine prince whose name has never been recorded. King Henry probably got to arrange that marriage as another perk. Nice guys all around, huh?

Eadgyth married Otto in 929 when she was about 19. He (or perhaps really his father King Henry) gave her the city of Magdeburg as a wedding gift. I’ve read elsewhere that it was dowry, but husbands don’t give dowry. She gave birth to their son Liudolf in 930 and then a daughter Liutgarde. Otto became King of Germany and Duke of Saxony upon the death of his father in 936. She was Queen of Germany for ten years before her death at age 36 on 26 January 946. She was buried in convent in Madeburg, where she was probably a patron. She was recently discovered in a stone sarcophagus in Magdeburg Cathedral. After her death, Otto continued his conquests until he became Holy Roman Emperor in 962. Otto lived nearly another 30 years and remarried, but he still returned to Magdeburg where he was also buried.  Eadgyth was moved and reburied in stone sarcophagus in Magdeburg Cathedral in 151o.

Tests are being done to confirm that these remains are Eadgyth’s because they were found in a lead coffin inside the stone sarcophagus with the inscription “The rescued remains of Queen Eadgyth are in this sarcophagus, after the second renovation of this monument in 1510.” The bones wrapped in white silk appear to be of a woman in her thirties. Isotope analysis will be able to identify where the woman spent her childhood. Presumably they will also do radiocarbon dating and it would be nice if they did a facial reconstruction. Assuming the skull is intact and they have access to it, they should be able to make an accurate model of it and do a facial reconstruction with that without damaging the remains.

Eadgyth gains special attention from English historians (and Anglophiles) because she is believed to have promoted the veneration of St Oswald, King of Northumbria in Saxony and Germany. Why did she have a special attraction to St Oswald? The women of the house of Wessex had a special attraction to King Oswald because his wife was the daughter of King Cynegisl of Wessex, later recorded as Cyneburg. Eadgyth’s half-brother Æthelstan may have been a fosterling in the court of their aunt Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, when she rescued St Oswald’s relics from Viking-occupied Bardney in the year before Eadgyth’s birth. Æthelflaed moved the relics to their new minister at Gloucester, later renamed St Oswald’s Priory. This priory was to be the primary church for the Mercian royal family and their burial place. Lady Æthelflaed also established veneration of St Oswald at Chester alongside St Wereburg (Thacker,1995), a daughter of King Wulfhere of Mercia and great niece of St Æthelthryth of Ely. It is interesting that Lady Æthelflaed translated Wereburg’s relics to Chester but not the relics of St Æthelthryth of Ely, especially given that Wereburg was Abbess of Ely. Yet, Wereburg was a daughter of Mercia where the other abbesses of Ely did not have a connection to Mercia or Wessex.  Chester and Gloucester were the two primary cities of Mercia under Lady Æthelflaed with eastern Mercia either ruled by Vikings or in the frontier zone.

Through this marriage, Oswald becomes kinsman and uncle of the Wessex royal family. When Æthelstan sent his sisters to Germany to marry Otto, Eadgyth was described as being of of the “blessed line of King Oswald” (nata de stirpe beata Oswaldi regis) (Thacker, 1995). A bit of an exaggeration that she was a descendant at least by our understanding of kinship and descent. How a culture views kinship is dynamic, not a static thing. In the Gesta Ottonis, written under the orders of Otto’s niece Abbess Gerberga by Hrotsvitha of Gandrersheim in c. 965, Eadgyth’s lineage is held to be greater than her half-brother Æthelstan in part because of her kinship with St Oswald. Otto’s marriage to this Anglo-Saxon princess helped solidify his rule over Saxony (O’Riain-Radel, 1995). It is possible that Eadgyth came to Otto bearing relics, possibly of St Maurice, the leader of the Theban legion, to whom the Cathedral of Madeburg is dedicated. As we know that Æthelstan had received relics of St Maurice, O’Riain-Radel hypothesizes that she brought some of these relics with her to Saxony and were established in the Cathedral where they were both eventually buried. St Maurice, like Oswald, was another soldier saint and perhaps attractive to warrior kings like Æthelstan and Otto. We also know that manuscripts were gifted in both directions between Æthelstan and Otto, including gospel books but perhaps also hagiography. It seems likely that written legends would have accompanied Eadgyth on any saints Wessex wanted to promote in Germany. These would have been valuable to Otto and his father King Henry as information on a holy (Anglo-)Saxon king could have been used to help them get established in Saxony. Yet, the fact that Oswald was a foreign king meant he would not have had local kinsmen to challenge their rights in Saxony.

As the romance of Oswald developed around the marriage of Oswald to Cyneburgh, he would have become all the more attractive to other Wessex girls.  From the German point of view, a Wessex princess like Eadgyth could have easily been portrayed as being like Cyneburgh, the Wessex princess that became St Oswald’s wife. There is little evidence of Oswald’s romance within England (and few English medievalists today are aware of it) but it flourished in Germany where these Wessex girls sponsored his veneration. The only trace of the romance in England is the raven and ring iconography found in some Oswald artwork, but most of this artwork is quite late and often lacks the ring (so it could represent the raven in Reginald’s Life of Oswald that had nothing to do with romance). Editions of the German romances are listed in the reference section below; Kalinke being the most complete analysis.


Alan Thacker, (1995) “Membra Disjecta: the division of the body and the diffusion of the cult”. Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Paul Watkins.

Dagmar O’Riain-Radel (1995) “Edith, Judith, and Matilda: the Role of Royal Ladies in the Propagation of the Continental Cult” Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Paul Watkins.

Medieval News. (20 Jan 2010) Remains of Eadgyth, Anglo-Saxon Queen, discovered in German Cathedral. (actually Anglo-Saxon Queen of Germany)

Additional references for St Oswald on the continent:

Marianne  Kalinke    (2005)  St. Oswald of Northumbria: Continental Metamorphoses, with an Edition and Translation of the ‘Osvalds saga’ and ‘Van sunte Oswaldo deme konninghe’. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Annemiek Jansen. (1995) The Development of the St Oswald Legends on the Continent. Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Paul Watkins.

JW Thomas. (1989) The ‘Strassburg Alexander’ and the ‘Munich Oswald’: Pre-courtly Adventure of the German Middle Ages.

Peter Clemoes. (1983) The Cult of St Oswald on the Continent. Jarrow Lecture 1983.

EP Baker. (1949) St Oswald and his church at Zug. Archaeologia 93: 103-123.

EP Baker (1951) The Cult of St Oswald in Northern Italy. Archaeologia 94: 167-194.

Negotiating Conversion

I was just looking at one of my favorite articles on St Oswald this morning. Tolley’s “Oswald’s Tree” is a unique article that sets Oswald’s actions and the development of his veneration within the semi-pagan times that he lived. So few people consider the pre-Christian context and what that means for conversion. Today, the word conversion is often used for switching from one Christian denomination, from one Abrahamic religion to another, or from no religion at all to a faith. While all of these conversions are major life changes, they don’t really compare well to the conversion from Germanic or Celtic belief systems to Christianity. Perhaps the best comparison in today’s would be Hindu to Christian. Of the major world religions today, only Hindu has the multiplicity of gods and the well developed belief system tied to the land and customs that can compare with Germanic and Celtic pre-Christian belief systems. Although Christian missionaries have been in India since the time of the apostles (reputedly St Thomas), Christianity is practiced by less than 5% of the people of India.

I wish I could remember where I read a great quote about conversion being the ability to translate symbols from one system to another. Although every belief system certainly has unique attributes and beliefs, all religious belief systems must be able to answer some of the same questions to the satisfaction of the conversion generation, particularly on questions on creation and an afterlife. Various cultures imagined creation and the afterlife differently -Hebrew, Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Norse and German all imagined differently. Some saw creation as a well-watered garden, others as the products of fire and ice.

As the secondary title title of this blog shows: “Caelestis campus, a name which it certainly received in the days of old…signified that a heavenly sign was to be erected there” shows, Oswald’s first association with a tree was at a place that was already known as a holy site. It was at Heavenfield (hefenfelth) that Oswald chose a tree and had a cross made from it on the site and used it to lead his retinue in prayer before the battle of Denisesburna the next day. Trees held a central role in Germanic belief systems. The World Tree stood at the center of a beautiful meadow with its roots reaching into the underworld and its branches reaching the heavens. The well of wisdom was located at its base and supernatural birds rested in its branches. This is a landscape that will be associated with Oswald’s death at Maserfelth/CrosOswald/Oswestry/Oswald’s Tree in the western midlands as well.  The beginning of his career and evangelistic efforts is at Heavenfield, so the cross at Heavenfield, perhaps envisioned as standing in an open plain, evokes some of the same imagery — the cross linking heaven and earth. Over the 1400 years since King Oswald erected the cross at Heavenfield, its exact location has been lost; the church and meadow there now do not go back to the seventh century. Yet, placenames reflecting the holy place spread wider to include the what was once possibly one continuous highlands meadow or estate. It surely helps that this part of Northumbria is fairly mountainous so there are wide vistas.


C. Tolley (1995) “Oswald’s Tree”, p. 149-173 in Pagans and Christians: The Interplay between Christian Latin and Traditional Germanic Cultures in Early Medieval Europe. Edited by T. Hofstra, LAJR Houwen, & AA MacDonald. Groningen: Egbert Frosten.

Christianity in India, Wikipedia.