Trading in butter?

You just never really know when you are going to find something unexpected. I’ve known for a long time that early medieval Ireland had a heavily cattle based economy, really a dairy based economy. Most of this product would be used for local consumption,  as a primary source of both calories and protein. During my research for Kalamazoo this past spring, there were many things I learned that were along the lines of what I expected.

The Irish recognized several forms of milk and milk products. Law codes and other sources mention whole milk, skim milk, buttermilk, cream, curds and whey, and nine different kinds of cheese (graded based on their chewiness!). Butter was a special food for the elite and eaten both fresh and salted. Out of these products, I would have expected cheese to be a primary foodstuff and a trading product. Afterall, cheese is the most durable dairy product. Yet, I really couldn’t find evidence for trade in Irish cheese.

Butter! Butter is the only dairy trading product mentioned. Why butter? Well, real butter doesn’t need refrigeration so it could be transported. Kerr, McCormick and O’Sullivan found a letter between Waldebert and Bobolenus found within the prologue of Jonas’ Life of Columbanus, written in the 640s, that life at Bobbio in northern Italy was so austere that  the monks barely have enough Irish butter (‘ex Hibernia…butyrum’) to get by compared to the luxury Mediterranean goods at other monasteries. They view this as indicating that Irish butter was cheap and plentiful as far away as Italy. They note that in the 19th century, Irish butter was traded across the Atlantic without refrigeration so that it would have been possible. Ok, so we have Irish butter kings… (sounds odd) but never the less, still why butter rather than cheese? Perhaps since cheese is more durable, making butter was something only done where there really is a lot of excess milk, not often done in most areas with fewer cattle. Kerr, McCormick and O’Sullivan calculate that an average productive medieval cow could produce about one pound of butter per day easily producing enough for trade and local consumption. That being said, Irish cattle management was not very advanced; many of their cattle would not have been productive. Cattle in Ireland at the time didn’t calf until age 4 and a calf had to be kept with them to keep them milking. There is little evidence of butchering calves or yearlings.

So for all the novelists out there, feel free to spread the butter around. Only put it on bread for elites though, because the poor didn’t have much bread at all. They ate mostly gruel or porridge made from barley or oats (essentially oatmeal). I imagine they cooked with a lot of milk, cream or butter for added nutrition and flavored with salt and honey. They could also add some meat (mostly pork) and vegetables including peas or  beans. I imagine ham and beans could have been on the menu occasionally.

(Another cattle based trade product was leather. Not just as raw leather hides but shoes are specifically mentioned in trade accounts. Irish ships arrived on the continent with clothing and shoes for trade.)



McCormick, F. (2008). The decline of the cow: agricultural and settlement change in early medieval Ireland. Peritia, 20(-1), 209–224.

Kerr, T., McCormick, F., & O’Sullivan, A. (2013). The Economy of Early Medieval Ireland. (pp. 1–103). Irish National Strategic Archaeological Research (INSTAR) program 2013. (open access)

McCormick, F., Kerr, T. R., McClatchie, M., & O’Sullivan, A. (2011). The Archaeology of Livestock and Cereal Production in Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100 (pp. 1–813). Early Medieval Archaeology Project (EMAP2). (open access)

Ireland’s First Easter Vigil

This is one of my favorite posts from the Heavenfield archive:

From Muirchu’s Life of Patrick:

“And on the very night that St Patrick was celebrating the Passover, they were partaking of the worship of their great pagan festival. Now there was a custom among the pagans — made clear to all by edict — that it would be death for anyone, wherever they were, to light a fire on the night before the fire was lit in the house of the king (ie the palace of Tara). So when St Patrick celebrating the Passover lit the great bright and blessed divine fire, it shone clearly and was seen by nearly everyone living on the plain of Tara. And those who saw it viewed it with great wonder. All the elders and nobles of the nation were called in the king’s presence and he spoke to them. ‘Who is this man who has dared to commit such a crime in my kingdom? Let him perish by death!” And the answer from those around him was that they did not know. Then the wise men answered: “‘O king, life forever!” This fire, which we see lit this night before the fire of your own house, must be quenched this night. Indeed, if it should not be put out tonight, it will never be extinguished! You should know that it will keep rising up and will supplant all the fires of our own religion. This one who lit it, and the kingdom he bringing upon us this night, will overcome us all — both you and us– by leading away everyone in your kingdom. All the kingdoms will fall down before it, and it will fill the whole country and it ‘shall reign forever and ever.'”

[The king and men confront Patrick to try to kill him but he and his followers escape. The king sees only 8 deer and one fawn in the darkness…]

“The next day, which [for us] was the Day of the Passover [Easter Day], was for the pagans the day of their greatest festival…. While they were eating and drinking in the place of Tara,…Patrick with only five companions appeared among them, having come through ‘closed doors’ in the way we read about Christ. He went there to proclaim and demonstrate the holy faith in Tara in the presence of all nations.” (Davies and O’Loughlin trans, Celtic Spirituality, Paulist press, 1999, p. 99-100, 102)

Theology as narrative at its best. As Thomas O’Loughlin describes it in his Celtic Theology (2000, p. 107):

“Muirchu had a few uncertain traditions about Patrick, but he had one theological certainty: the changing of people from being not-the-people-of-God to being part of Christ was the drama of the Paschal Mystery; the Paschal Mystery was entered through the drama of the liturgy, so the story of his people was the story of Easter Night. From his perspective as theologian/churchman could he have provided a more fitting origin story — a people reborn in the great event of Christian rebirth– for his people’s faith?”

Muirchu never calls Patrick’s fire a bonfire that is our assumption. The divine fire that Patrick lights represents the Paschal candle lit during the Easter vigil symbolizing the light of Christ in the world. Just as Muirchu claims that every fire in the kingdom was to be lit from the king’s pagan fire, every candle used during the easter vigil is lit from the paschal candle. Muirchu wrote for and was read by primarily monastics who would have immediately recognized this divine light as the paschal candle that they light every Easter Vigil. This candle is known to go back to at least the time of Jerome in the 4th century. Paschal means passover, and Muirchu calls Patrick’s Easter Vigil his celebration of Passover. In early medieval literature, including the Historia Brittonum, Patrick is consistently linked with Moses.

Muirchu says that Patrick went to Tara to speak to all the nations this is because the King of Tara was the High King of Ireland and representatives from most of the kingdoms of Ireland would have been present for the greatest pagan festival of the year.

Have a blessed Easter Sunday!


The Death of King Diarmait

I’ve been browsing through the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland for you know what, plague, and I came across an interesting entry.

665 Kl. The death by plague of the son of Áed Sláine, i.e. Blathmac [], i.e. in Calatruim. Diarmait died in the same place, standing, stretched against a cross, watching the Laigin army approaching to kill him. His soul departed from him. It is found in some books that these two kings, Blathmac and Diarmait, reigned twelve years. In others, however, … years, which we follow. These two kings of Ireland, then, Blathmac and Diarmait, died in that plague, i.e. the Buide Conaill. (FA 28)

The Annals of Ulster has a king Diarmait son of Aed Slaine and a king Blathmac who died of plague. There is nothing about being “stretched against a cross, watching the Laigin army approaching to kill him.” I don’t think that I’ve seen anything quite like this before. This would seem to have a Leinster (Laigin) connection, like some of the other hints in plague lore like the name Buide Conaill itself (Conaill being the dynastic founder of the Leinster). Has anyone seen anything like this before?

Cattle Plagues in the Annals of Ulster, 699-708

From the archives a couple years ago:

I’ve been looking at the Irish annals for references to plagues and I came across a couple of references to cattle plagues. Now these plagues are probably not the same disease causing human deaths in the annals. There is a species barrier for most diseases, but not all. Yersinia pestis is one that can cross the species barrier but I don’t think cattle are frequent plague victims in large numbers. Further, if humans were also victims they would be mentioned more prominently in the entries.

More importantly, cattle plagues cause human famines and protein malnutrition that can last for a decade or more. A massive loss of cattle can’t be replaced in a year or two. You can’t just order up replacement cattle. I was at a talk last year at Kalamazoo where they showed that the cattle plague that preceded the beginning of the Black Death took nearly 20 years for cattle stocks to recover. This caused a full generation of protein malnutrition. I would also add that milk would have also supplied a considerable amount of fat in the diet. We have too many fats in our diet today but in a medieval diet, milk fat (in butter, cheese and whole milk) would have been a significant dietary resource. Where else would a medieval diet have gotten protein or fat? With a short supply of cattle, there would have been little meat available (leaving probably mostly pigs, sheep, and birds for meat). Under normal circumstances milk and eggs would have supplied a significant amount of protein.  This would have left people relying very heavily on carbohydrates for all their nutrition. Its hard to get a enough protein from vegetables alone. Eggs would have become a critical protein source.

This all reminds me of Bede’s claims that the Irish monks relied heavily on cattle. On Lindisfarne, they drank only milk and water. He claimed that St Cedd fasted at Lastingham eating only a little bread, a hen’s egg, and watered milk. Likewise St Egbert fasted on only a little piece of bread and skim milk.  The Irish could survive quite healthily on just milk and cereals. Milk supplies protein, fat and sugar. Cereals supply carbohydrates. There are your four basic food groups, if not a lot a variety. However, this leaves them highly reliant on one type of animal and a cattle plague/murrain could be disastrous.

The Annals of Ulster record that the cattle murrain starts among the Saxons in 699 and it appeared in Mag Trega in Tethba (Ireland) on the Kalends of February in 700. Mag Trega is Moytra in County Longford, Ireland. It then records also in 700 that “famine and pestilence prevailed in Ireland for three years, so that man ate man.” Obviously this is a retrospective entry for it to list that it occurred for three years.  Nevertheless, it illustrates how dependent the Irish were upon their cattle. The Annals of Ulster recorded a mortality of cows again in 701. It wasn’t over yet. Again in 708, another cattle murrain is recorded.

The cattle plague would also seem to suggest that there was some trade in cattle across the Irish Sea. The annalist recorded the cattle deaths beginning among the Saxons, then spreading to Ireland. We also have to keep in mind that cattle were wealth certainly in Ireland, but perhaps also in Britain. We are left to wonder what political ramifications resulted not only from the famine and deaths but from the loss of cattle wealth. Would this have made cattle raiding more fierce over the cattle that were left, or would elites look from something else by which to calibrate their relative wealth? Could this have led in part to an increase in coinage at the turn of the 8th century? What could have replaced cattle (or leather) as a trade good? Remember it can take 10-20 years for cattle stocks to recover have a major cattle plague.

I looked at all the entries from 650 to 730 and these are the only cattle deaths mentioned. The human plague reports and the cattle deaths are distinct. The pestilence recorded that accompanied the famine in c. 700 was probably gastrointestinal since in such a severe famine people would have been eating anything they could find. Scavenging for food coupled with a lowered immune response makes people very vulnerable to food poisoning / intestinal disease. Weakened immune responses could have also led to a variety of infectious diseases striking the population, much as they do in refugee camps. Between the human plagues that struck in the 660s and 680s, and the cattle plague at the turn of the century every generation in the second half of the seventh century would have coped with illness and death en masse.

The Mortality of Children, Ireland 683-685

683 The beginning of the children’s plague in the month of October (AT, AU, AI), which lasted for three years in Ireland. (FAI); A plague was in Ireland (AC)

684: The plague of youths, in which all the chieftains and nearly all the young Irish noblemen perished. (FAI); The mortality of little ones (AT) / children (AU). Loch nEchach was turned into blood this year. (AU)

AU= Annals of Ulster; AT = Annals of Tigernach, FAI= Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, AC = Annals Cambriae

When I first found the annal entries above, I was intrigued. These brief annal entries rarely give clues to the type of disease, and almost never refer to children at all. Before we dig into these entries a little deeper, lets look at why some diseases at times occur primarily in children.

What makes a ‘childhood disease’? This simplest answer is that it is disease that the adults are immune to due to previous exposure. There is nothing special about these organisms that targets them to children or makes children uniquely vulnerable to them. The one thing they have in common is that these organisms are so abundant in the environment that few children get through childhood without being exposed.

Which pathogens cause ‘childhood diseases’ change over time depending on the available organisms and the immunity of the collective community (herd immunity). When I was a child, chickenpox was the most common childhood disease that most of my classmates all contracted. When my parents were children, measles and mumps were the common dangers of childhood. For my grandparents generation the most feared childhood disease may have been polio, whooping-cough and diphtheria/croup.

Hans Holbein, "The Dance of Death", bef. 1538

The nature of childhood diseases has changed rapidly over the 20th century solely because vaccines have immunized children before exposure. Today it’s not uncommon for my college students to have never seen a case of chickenpox. Nevertheless, the organisms are still very present in our environment as the climbing rate of measles in the last few years illustrates.

When looking at medieval populations, the same factors come to play but in different expressions. Not  all pathogens that we are familiar with today existed in the seventh century. For example, measles is predicted to have evolved around the twelfth century. Other diseases did not yet have a global (or Old World) spread. Conversely diseases like the plague that are infrequent today were much more common in the early medieval period. Vaccines obviously did not exist to provide safe immunity. Previous epidemics were the only way for a community to develop herd immunity.

Returning to the seventh century, the context of these entries can suggest the nature of this ‘mortality of children.’ Three years earlier in 680 the Annals of Ulster records a “most severe leprosy in Ireland called bolgach (smallpox)”. If smallpox had been a major epidemic just a couple of years before there wouldn’t be the kind of differential in immunity between adults and children needed for a children’s epidemic, so we can rule out smallpox. There are records of other adult deaths due to ‘pestilence’ around this time in Britain and in 685 the deaths of two elites by disease are recorded in the Annals of Ulster. Bede also writes about plague in Northumbria before and after 685 in the Life of Cuthbert. The British sources, including Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, indicate widespread disease and depopulation that doesn’t single out children as the victims. With that being said, the one detailed example Bede gives of the plague of c. 685 is of Bishop Cuthbert comforting a mother who had already lost one young son to the plague and was holding another dying son whom Cuthbert blessed and survived. William MacArthur (1949) also concluded that these entries refer to a wave of bubonic plague based on their context. He also compared these entries to similar records of child deaths in the second wave of plague that followed the Black Death in England, 1361.

The later Fragmentary Annals of Ireland suggests that the mortality of children doesn’t necessarily refer only to actual children. The epidemic when “all the chieftains and nearly all the young Irish noblemen perished” suggests a succession crisis more than indicating the age of the victims. The Irish practiced a form of succession where a couple of generations of descendents of a previous king were eligible to succeed. It was not uncommon for cousins to succeed each other and sons were not necessarily favored to succeed. This method would normally weather epidemics, famines, or constant petty warfare well because there were so many eligible successors. If this is the bubonic plague as the context suggests then this would be the second major wave of plague within twenty years, and therefore, two successive generations were severely depopulated causing rare succession crises.

This does tell us something about the severity of both the plague of 664 and 683 in Ireland. Enough adults in the 680s must have been survivors of a bubonic plague infection in the 660s to be immune. This would tilt the incidence of the disease toward youth up to 20 years old. A loss of teenagers would have depleted any major kingdom of a majority of its young nobles and a considerable proportion of its young warriors. Then as traditionally now, most warriors would have been 15-25 years old. It is quite possible that there may not have been many young nobles in their early twenties because they would have been vulnerable infants during the plague of the 660s.

There isn’t much evidence of plague-related succession crises in Britain. Although, it is possible that we just don’t have reference to the deaths of secondary heirs or really any children. Northumbria’s succession crisis upon Ecgfrith’s death in 685 is usually considered to be more political secondary to his potential infertility and the early death of his younger brother. Yet there does appear to be a lack of other eligible Æthelfrithings which could be due to the plagues. We are usually all too ready to accept that other Æthelfrithings died in battle or due to political intrigue.  Even if Ecgfrith had a son, it unlikely he would have been old enough to successfully succeed in 685. The Annals Cambriae also credits the death of King Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon of Gwynedd to this plague. Succession of the major British kingdoms in Wales seem fairly unstable at this time as well, but we don’t have enough information about them to understand why. So, while there isn’t evidence of plague-related royal instability it is a possibility.

One further thing to explore in these entries is the claim that the water in Ireland and Britain turned red that year. In entry 684 above “Loch nEchach was turned into blood this year (AU).” Loch nEchach is the largest freshwater lake in Ireland, sometimes called the ‘eye of Ireland’. Likewise in Britain there are  claims that “rain turned to blood in Britain, and ‡in Ireland‡ milk and butter turned to blood (AC, 689)”. In 685 there are also widespread records of an earthquake, probably in the Irish sea. Given the way these early annals are constructed and differences between them, it is unclear that these environmental events were securely after the beginning of the plague or what they mean by water turning to blood over such a large area. None of this suggests that the epidemic was anything other than the plague. Environmental disruption could also trigger a plague outbreak from rodent hosts within the islands.


Colgrave,Bertram. (1940, 2007 repr.) Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert. Cambridge University Press.

MacArthur, William P. (1949) The identification of some pestilences recorded in the Irish annals. Irish Historical Studies, 6 (23), 169-188.

AU= Annals of Ulster; AT = Annals of Tigernach, FAI= Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, AC = Annals Cambriae

Lady Æthelflaed’s Defense of Chester, c.907

I was reading through the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland and I found a very interesting story. It details Lady Æthelflaed’s defense of Mercia from the Vikings in c. 907. I’m just going to quote it in full and let it speak for itself.

Now the Norwegians left Ireland, as we said, and their leader was Ingimund, and they went then to the island of Britain. The son of Cadell son of Rhodri was king of the Britons at that time. The Britons assembled against them, and gave them hard and strong battle, and they were driven by force out of British territory.

After that Ingimund with his troops came to Aethelflaed, Queen of the Saxons; for her husband, Aethelred, was sick at that time. (Let no one reproach me, though I have related the death of Aethelred above, because this was prior to Aethelred’s death and it was of this very sickness that Aethelred died, but I did not wish to leave unwritten what the Norwegians did after leaving Ireland.) Now Ingimund was asking the Queen for lands in which he would settle, and on which he would build barns and dwellings, for he was tired of war at that time. Aethelflaed gave him lands near Chester, and he stayed there for a time.

What resulted was that when he saw the wealthy city, and the choice lands around it, he yearned to possess them. Ingimund came then to the chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes; he was complaining bitterly before them, and said that they were not well off unless they had good lands, and that they all ought to go and seize Chester and possess it with its wealth and lands. From that there resulted many great battles and wars. What he said was, ‘Let us entreat and implore them ourselves first, and if we do not get them good lands willingly like that, let us fight for them by force.’ All the chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes consented to that.

Ingimund returned home after that, having arranged for a hosting to follow him. Although they held that council secretly, the Queen learned of it. The Queen then gathered a large army about her from the adjoining regions, and filled the city of Chester with her troops.

?918 Almost at the same time the men of Foirtriu and the Norwegians fought a battle. The men of Alba fought this battle steadfastly, moreover, because Colum Cille was assisting them, for they had prayed fervently to him, since


he was their apostle, and it was through him that they received faith. For on another occasion, when Imar Conung was a young lad and he came to plunder Alba with three large troops, the men of Alba, lay and clergy alike, fasted and prayed to God and Colum Cille until morning, and beseeched the Lord, and gave profuse alms of food and clothing to the churches and to the poor, and received the Body of the Lord from the hands of their priests, and promised to do every good thing as their clergy would best urge them, and that their battle-standard in the van of every battle would be the Crozier of Colum Cille—and it is on that account that it is called the Cathbuaid‘Battle-Triumph’from then onwards; and the name is fitting, for they have often won victory in battle with it, as they did at that time, relying on Colum Cille. They acted the same way on this occasion. Then this battle was fought hard and fiercely; the men of Alba won victory and triumph, and many of the Norwegians were killed after their defeat, and their king was killed there, namely Oittir son of Iarngna. For a long time after that neither the Danes nor the Norwegians attacked them, and they enjoyed peace and tranquillity. But let us turn to the story that we began.

The armies of the Danes and the Norwegians mustered to attack Chester, and since they did not get their terms accepted through request or entreaty, they proclaimed battle on a certain day. They came to attack the city on that day, and there was a great army with many freemen in the city to meet them. When the troops who were in the city saw, from the city wall, the many hosts of the Danes and Norwegians coming to attack them, they sent messengers to the King of the Saxons, who was sick and on the verge of death at that time, to ask his advice and the advice of the Queen. What he advised was that they do battle outside, near the city, with the gate of the city open, and that they choose a troop of horsemen to be concealed on the inside; and those of the people of the city who would be strongest in battle should flee back into the city as if defeated, and when most of the army of the Norwegians had come in through the gate of the city, the troop that was in hiding beyond should close the gate after that horde, and without pretending any more they should attack the throng that had come into the city and kill them all.

Everything was done accordingly, and the Danes and Norwegians were frightfully slaughtered in that way. Great as that massacre was, however, the Norwegians did not abandon the city, for they were hard and savage; but they all said that they would make many hurdles, and place props under them, and that they would make a hole in the wall underneath them. This was not delayed; the hurdles were made, and the hosts were under them making a hole in the wall, because they wanted to take the city, and avenge their people.

It was then that the King (who was on the verge of death) and the Queen


sent messengers to the Irish who were among the pagans (for the pagans had many Irish fosterlings), to say to the Irishmen, ‘Life and health to you from the King of the Saxons, who is ill, and from the Queen, who holds all authority over the Saxons, and they are certain that you are true and trustworthy friends to them. Therefore you should take their side: for they have given no greater honour to any Saxon warrior or cleric than they have given to each warrior or cleric who has come to them from Ireland, for this inimical race of pagans is equally hostile to you also. You must, then, since you are faithful friends, help them on this occasion.’ This was the same as saying to them, ‘Since we have come from faithful friends of yours to converse with you, you should ask the Danes what gifts in lands and property they would give to the people who would betray the city to them. If they will make terms for that, bring them to swear an oath in a place where it would be convenient to kill them, and when they are taking the oath on their swords and their shields, as is their custom, they will put aside all their good shooting weapons.’

All was done accordingly, and they set aside their arms. And the reason why those Irish acted against the Danes was because they were less friends to them than the Norwegians. Then many of them were killed in that way, for huge rocks and beams were hurled onto their heads. Another great number were killed by spears and by arrows, and by every means of killing men.

However, the other army, the Norwegians, was under the hurdles, making a hole in the wall. What the Saxons and the Irish who were among them did was to hurl down huge boulders, so that they crushed the hurdles on their heads. What they did to prevent that was to put great columns under the hurdles. What the Saxons did was to put the ale and water they found in the town into the towns cauldrons, and to boil it and throw it over the people who were under the hurdles, so that their skin peeled off them. The Norwegians response to that was to spread hides on top of the hurdles. The Saxons then scattered all the beehives there were in the town on top of the besiegers, which prevented them from moving their feet and hands because of the number of bees stinging them. After that they gave up the city, and left it. Not long afterwards there was fighting again …

CELT edition, Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, FA 429  (p. 169-173 in Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. Joan Newlon Radner (ed), first edition [xxxvii + 241 pages] Dublin Institute for Advanced StudiesDublin (1978)

I nearly called this post the beer and bee defense of Chester. It makes me wonder how many bee hives they had within the city walls. I guess there is clear association between the number of bee hives and the number of barrels of mead/ale. 🙂 They were clearly pulling out all stops to hold off the Vikings. Interesting though that they were able to send messengers back and forth to the Lady Æthelflaed and also to the Irish.

Why would an annalist insert a story of a battle in Fortriu in the middle of the Chester account? Reading through the Fragmentary Annals I can’t help noticing all the references and stories to either Adomnan or Columba.

Plague Tales: Willibrord’s relic

I thought I would celebrate the feast day with a plague story related to King Oswald of Northumbria who died on this day, August 5, 642. For those of you not familiar with King Oswald his reign is flanked by two remarkable events. His reign began effectively on the eve of battle in a battle camp that was later called Heavenfield (yes, for which this blog is named) where Oswald personally raised a cross and dedicated his whole kingdom, then functionally non-Christian, to Christ and went out to defeat the greatest enemy his people faced before the Vikings, Cadwallon of Gwynedd. After defeating his enemy, Oswald invited missionaries from Iona into his kingdom who evangelized over half of ‘England’ and brought Anglicanism a Celtic flavor that lasts through today. King Oswald was killed at the battle of Maserfelth somewhere in the English midlands by pagan King Penda of Mercia after a short eight year reign. To celebrate his victory Penda had Oswald dismembered and placed his head and arms on stakes. The exact location of this display is unclear but probably at the battlefield or the Northumbrian – Merican border. Within a year Oswald’s brother Oswiu led a raid to this site and recovered Oswald’s head and arm(s) taking them back to the Bernician fortress of Bamburgh. The location of the blood-soaked stake that had held Oswald’s head is unclear but was apparently available to relic collectors who considered him a martyr. King Oswald is one of the few early saints who was really chosen by the common people who began reporting miracles and relic collecting at the site of his death immediately before his family or the church embraced him as a saint.

One relic collector was a young monk from Yorkshire named Willibrord who spent most of his youth at the Deiran monastery of Ripon. In the late 670s Willibrord leaves his homeland to study in Ireland and takes a piece of Oswald’s stake with him as a relic. Willibrord became quite a famous Anglo-Saxon in his own lifetime. After spending several years studying in Ireland, he undertook a mission to Frisia (Netherlands) setting up his cathedral at Utrecht. He was made Archbishop of Frisia by the Pope and his mission became the gateway for Anglo-Saxon missionaries to the Germanic peoples east of the Rhine. With all his later success and even fame in his lifetime, Willibrord kept home near him in the form of the relic of St Oswald’s stake.

While he was Archbishop of Frisia (around 706?) he received a visit from his old abbot, now exiled Bishop Wilfrid of York and his priest Acca, on their way to Rome. During their stay Willibrord related many stories of miracles tied to his relics of Oswald there in Frisia and also during his stay as a younger man in Ireland. Later when Acca became Bishop of Hexham, he collected many miracle stories related to Oswald and relayed this one told to him by Willibrord to Bede:

‘At the time of the plague’, he said, ‘which caused widespread havoc both in Britain and Ireland one of the many victims was a certain Irish scholar, a man learned in literary studies but utterly careless and unconcerned about his everlasting salvation. When he realized that he was near death, he trembled to think that, as soon as he was dead, he would be snatched away to bondage because of his sins. As I [Willibrord] happened to be near by, he sent for me, and trembling and sighing in his weakness, tearfully told me his troubles. ‘You see’, he said, ‘that I am getting worse and how have reached the point of death; nor do I doubt that, after the death of my body, my soul will immediately be snatched to everlasting death to suffer the torments of hell; for in spite of all my study of the scriptures, it has long been my custom to entangle myself in vice rather than obey God’s commands. But I have made up my mind, if, by the grace of Heaven I am granted any further term of life, to correct my vicious ways and to devote my whole heart and life to obeying the divine will. I know indeed that it will not be through any merits of my I own that I shall receive a new lease on life, I can not hope to receive it unless perhaps God should deign to grant me forgiveness, wretched and unworthy though I am, through the intercession of those who have served him faithfully. Now we have heard a wide-spread report about an extremely holy king of your race named Oswald, and how since his death the occurrence of frequent miracles has borne witness to his outstanding faith and virtue. So I beg you, if you have any relics with you, to bring them to me, so that the Lord may perhaps have mercy on me through his merits.’ I answered, ‘I have some of the wooden stake on which his head was fixed by the heathen after he was killed. If you firmly believe with all your heart, God, in His grace, can grant you a longer term of earthly life through the merits of this man and also fit you to enter eternal life.’ He at once answered that he had complete faith in it. Then I blessed some water, put the splinter of the oak into it, and gave it to the sick man to drink. He immediately felt better, recovered from his sickness, and lived for many years. He turned to the Lord in his heart and deed and, wherever he went, he proclaimed the goodness of the merciful Creator and the glory of His faithful servant’. Bede HE III:13

There are many things to unpack in this story. Starting with the belief in intercessors, medieval people transferred their methods of dealing with secular powers to dealing with divine powers. If you need something badly from a local, secular ruler then it best to have a well placed, respected person intercede for you with the ruler. Saints are well placed, respected/glorified people who can intercede with God on your behalf based on their relationship with God. Just as you curry favor with earthly people who are close to the ruler, likewise with the saint.

Bede also made a conscious choice in including this story out of all those Willibrord told to Acca. Some people have seen it as slamming the Irish but I don’t necessarily think so. Bede generally has a good opinion of the Irish and I’m sure he of all people knew that anyone was vulnerable to the moral of the story — a good scholar who knew his material, the scriptures, but missed the point of his material, the salvation of his soul.

Last but not least, we have the use of a relic for healing. This type of relic based medicine was very common in Antiquity and medieval period. It was used in addition to the work of physicians. However, the work of physicians was not very helpful so people often felt their chances were as good or better with relics. Given the harm some practices like bleeding could do they may indeed have been better off with religious healing that at least would not harm.