In preparation for the V International Congress of the John Gower Society in Scotland this summer, I’ve been exploring a twisted little tale from John Gower’s Confessio Amantis known as the “Tale of Albinus and Rosemund.” The story sees Albinus, the newly crowned king of Lombardy, married to Rosemund, daughter of the previous king whom Albinus has slain. Despite the couple’s love for each other, Albinus tricks his wife into drinking from a cup that has been fashioned from the skull of her late father.
Having been so elaborately adorned with precious stones atop a gold pedestal, the vessel no longer resembles a skull, and Albinus bids his bride, “Drink with thi father, Dame.” Rosemund drinks. Albinus then reveals his cruelty, and Rosemund proceeds to have him murdered.
The tale made me wonder about the extent to which skulls have been used as drinking cups and whether the practice existed in the medieval period, perhaps even in Britain. I wondered, too, whether any remnants remained, particularly any as dazzling as the one Albinus debuts to Rosemund’s horror.
Vikings might seem the likely culprits, but Vikings did not, it seems, drink from the skulls of their enemies despite how deeply ingrained the association has become in popular culture. That said, the Poetic Edda contains a reference to cups created from skulls in the story of Wayland the Smith, who seeks vengeance against the king for his violent imprisonment. In the Old Norse narrative, Wayland kills the king’s two young sons and gifts their silver-gilded skulls to him, their eyes gruesomely replaced with glittering jewels.
Early Britons, however, did use skulls as crockery.
In 1987, researchers discovered cups crafted from human skulls in a cave in Somerset, England. The three cups, made from the skulls of two adults and a three-year-old child, were re-examined in 2011 and dated to 14,700 BP. As reported in The Guardian, “Detailed examination of 37 skull fragments and four pieces of jaw using a 3D microscope revealed a common pattern of hard strikes followed by more finessed stone tool work that turned a freshly decapitated head into a functional cup or bowl.”
Markings on the bones suggest that the bodies were butchered for meat before the heads were severed, but there is no physical evidence to suggest that the skulls served as trophies for those who repurposed them. Rather than being enemies, they may have died of natural causes, and it’s possible those who survived them intentionally preserved their skulls as a way of honoring them in death. But it is also possible that the skulls belonged to enemies according to Dr. Bruno Boulestin, an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France, who stated that “in ‘nine out of 10’ societies known from historical or ethnographic records, skulls were removed as trophies for the purpose of humiliating the enemy.”
Whatever the circumstances, the cups were by no means haphazardly made, and the physical evidence, including engraving on the bones, appears to be ritualistic, rather than simply cannibalistic. Based on research by scientist Dr. Silvia Bello, the Natural History Museum in London explains, “The painstaking preparation of the skull-cups suggests that they were prepared for a special purpose rather than just for nutrition. After all, it would have been much quicker and easier to just smash the skull the access the fatty brain inside.” The craftmanship, therefore, is deliberate and thorough, even if the goblets themselves are not as glamorous as the one depicted in Gower’s tale.
At nearly 15,000 years old, the cups found in Gough’s Cave obviously predate the medieval period, but Wales, in fact, retains a skull cup originating in the Middle Ages, as it was made from the remains of a 6th-century monk and bishop known as Saint Teilo. Set in silver atop a silver stand, the cup now sealed behind glass at Llandaf Cathedral was once used for healing purposes, apparently as recently as the 1940s. The water from Saint Teilo’s well, also located in Wales, was said to be most effective against chest ailments, especially when drunk from Saint Teilo’s skull and even more so if distributed to the sick by the hands of the skull’s keeper. Like other saintly relics, the cup is attributed with healing properties, largely separating it from the gore associated with dismemberment.
Returning to the skull cup from which Rosemund drinks, I have yet to render my verdict on the vessel’s meaning but see it as a vehicle signifying both consumption and catharsis not unlike these others from early Britain. After drinking from the body of her father, Rosemund releases her rage in retaliation against her husband’s tyranny, embodying the conqueror and effectively ending Albinus’s reign.
Emily McLemore, Ph.D. Department of English University of Notre Dame
Henry Longfellow’s “Musician’s Tale: Saga of Saint Olaf” from his Tales of the Wayside Inn may appear on the surface to be little more than a retelling of the Old Norse-Icelandic saga and a versification of the medieval story honoring Saint-king Olaf Haraldsson into a modern English translation suited for American audiences and mediated through Samuel Laing’s translation that Longfellow is working with as a model. However, situating the poem in its the historical context illuminates some of the rhetorical implications surrounding early American works of medievalism, such as Longfellow’s “The Saga of Saint Olaf.”
Medieval English diction, especially Old English terms and compounds, adorn the epic poetic retelling of the saga, such as the line “Through weald, they say, and through wold,” which include two “weald” (a forest) and “wold” (a wooded hill), both deriving from the same Old English word [wold] for wilderness and this imbues archaisms into the poem.
The story, in large part, tells the tale of conversion and Christianization of the pagan North by Saint Olaf. This is the same Olaf Haraldsson featured as a villain in the new sequel on the History Channel’s Vikings: Valhalla, where Saint Olaf appears as a militant Christianizer, unafraid to convert by the sword and slaughter those who refuse. This characterization of Saint Olaf is not far off historically.
Olaf II Haraldsson (Old Norse-Icelandic Óláfr Haraldsson) was known as Olaf “the stout” and Olaf “the big” during his reign. Olaf Haraldson was also called Olaf “the Lawbreaker” because of the violent and brutal means by which he converted the Norwegian people. In Norway today, he is commonly called Olaf “the Holy” (Olav den hellige) or Holy Olaf (Heilag-Olav) in recognition of his sainthood.
Olaf Haraldsson, later known as Saint Olaf, lived from 995 to 1030 and was King of Norway from 1015 to 1028. One year after his death in the Battle of Stiklestad, Olaf was canonized by Bishop Grimkell, which was later confirmed by Pope Alexander III in 1164, and this formal recongition encourages Olaf’s designation as Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae “eternal king of Norway”. His remains were enshrined in Nidaros Cathedral, built over his burial site, and his canonization encouraged widespread and violent Christianization in medieval Scandinavia.
In the previous blog, I included the opening stanza of the epic poem, “The Challenge of Thor” which Olaf then answers:
“And King Olaf heard the cry, Saw the red light in the sky, Laid his hand upon his sword,
There he stood as one who dreamed; And the red light glanced and gleamed On the armor that he wore; And he shouted, as the rifted Streamers o’er him shook and shifted, “I accept thy challenge, Thor!”
This initiates the presentation of Olaf as a violent converter and warrior of Christ, which makes him an enemy of indigenous Scandinavian religion.
Religion continuously causes tension in the poem. When Queen Sigrid, whom Olaf pursues as his queen, refuses to convert to Christianity, he beats her in punishment, demonstrating again his use of violent conversion.
“A footstep was heard on the outer stair, And in strode King Olaf with royal air.
He kissed the Queen’s hand, and he whispered of love, And swore to be true as the stars are above.
But she smiled with contempt as she answered: “O King, Will you swear it, as Odin once swore, on the ring?”
And the King: “O speak not of Odin to me, The wife of King Olaf a Christian must be.”
Looking straight at the King, with her level brows, She said, “I keep true to my faith and my vows.”
Then the face of King Olaf was darkened with gloom, He rose in his anger and strode through the room.
“Why, then, should I care to have thee?” he said,– “A faded old woman, a heathenish jade!
His zeal was stronger than fear or love, And he struck the Queen in the face with his glove.“
This section, surely designed to demonstrate Olaf’s Christian zeal, reveals to Sigurd how abusive a husband he would be, and her decision not to wed him, while couched in fidelity to her indigenous beliefs, could have just as much to do with the violence he displays toward her as a result of her assertion of her voice and her commitment to her beliefs.
Olaf’s violence persists as he converts the pagans—frequently called warlocks and witches—but Longfellow seems to applaud the deliverance of his enemies for “thus the sorcerers were christened!”
Held up as validation of his conversionary conquests, Olaf finds the ghost of Odin, and proclaims the Allfather dead:
“King Olaf crossed himself and said: “I know that Odin the Great is dead; Sure is the triumph of our Faith, The one-eyed stranger was his wraith.”
Longfellow’s narrative takes this a step further later in the poem,
“All the old gods are dead, All the wild warlocks fled; But the White Christ lives and reigns, And throughout my wide domains His Gospel shall be spread!” On the Evangelists Thus swore King Olaf.
When it comes to human sacrifice, Olaf threatens that if the pagan practice continues, then it will be the upper not the lower class offered as sacrifices to the gods, and in making this threat of violence against the aristocracy, convinces them to give up the practice.
“Such sacrifices shalt thou bring; To Odin and to Thor, O King, As other kings have done in their devotion!”
King Olaf answered: “I command This land to be a Christian land; Here is my Bishop who the folk baptizes!
“But if you ask me to restore Your sacrifices, stained with gore, Then will I offer human sacrifices!
“Not slaves and peasants shall they be, But men of note and high degree, Such men as Orm of Lyra and Kar of Gryting!”
Then to their Temple strode he in, And loud behind him heard the din Of his men-at-arms and the peasants fiercely fighting.
There in the Temple, carved in wood, The image of great Odin stood, And other gods, with Thor supreme among them.
King Olaf smote them with the blade Of his huge war-axe, gold inlaid, And downward shattered to the pavement flung them.
At the same moment rose without, From the contending crowd, a shout, A mingled sound of triumph and of wailing.
And there upon the trampled plain The farmer Iron-Beard lay slain, Midway between the assailed and the assailing.
King Olaf from the doorway spoke. “Choose ye between two things, my folk, To be baptized or given up to slaughter!”
And seeing their leader stark and dead, The people with a murmur said, “O King, baptize us with thy holy water.”
Even the notoriously unruly Thangbrand, described repeatedly as “Olaf’s Priest” and credited with Christianizing Iceland through violence, is praised for his efforts and paralleled with Olaf’s missionizing work:
All the prayers he knew by rote, He could preach like Chrysostome, From the Fathers he could quote, He had even been at Rome, A learned clerk, A man of mark, Was this Thangbrand, Olaf’s Priest.
He was quarrelsome and loud, And impatient of control, Boisterous in the market crowd, Boisterous at the wassail-bowl, Everywhere Would drink and swear, Swaggering Thangbrand, Olaf’s Priest
In his house this malcontent Could the King no longer bear, So to Iceland he was sent To convert the heathen there, And away One summer day Sailed this Thangbrand, Olaf’s Priest.
Of course, when met with resistance from those still adhering to indigenous cultural practice, Thrangbrand resorts to violence, in accordance with his benefactor:
Hardly knowing what he did, Then he smote them might and main, Thorvald Veile and Veterlid Lay there in the alehouse slain. “To-day we are gold, To-morrow mould!” Muttered Thangbrand, Olaf’s Priest.
Much in fear of axe and rope, Back to Norway sailed he then. “O King Olaf! little hope Is there of these Iceland men!” Meekly said, With bending head, Pious Thangbrand, Olaf’s Priest
The final line of this stanza is repeated twice in the poem, communicating the violent nature of Olaf’s mission and emphasizing the brutality associated with his Christianization of the indigenous cultural practice.
In their temples Thor and Odin Lay in dust and ashes trodden, As King Olaf, onward sweeping, Preached the Gospel with his sword
The ethnonationalist overlay, as well as situating this saga retelling as a tale in colonial America, parallels the violent Christianization of indigenous peoples in North America, extending from the earliest colonial period to the ongoing American “Indian wars,” which the United States government was conducting, and which would not conclude until after the Civil War. “White Man’s Burden” justifications loomed large, and literature such as Longfellow’s “Musician’s Tale” support the continued Christianization and Westernization of indigenous cultures in the United States as around the globe to European colonial powers.
Although primarily revered as a scholar and poet, Longfellow was also an abolitionist who supported the anti-slavery movement in the mid-nineteenth century with both his art and his resources, and in 1842 write Poems on Slavery in an effort to draw attention to the inhumane cruelty of slavery, and he contributed financially to abolitionist organizations and individuals. Additionally, Longfellow was intrigued by indigenous peoples, and Longfellow’s most famous poem, The Song of Hiawatha, tells a fictionalized tale in part inspired by Ojibwe legend, but likely influenced by nationalistic epic projects, such as the Finnish Kalevala. Of course, Longfellow’s goal to include Anishinaabe legend in American literary canon could be viewed as inclusive in that it offers Anishinaabe peoples representation that might help preserve and celebrate their cultural heritage. However, Longfellow’s poem, perhaps unconsciously or subconsciously, reinforces harmful stereotypes and corroborates assimilation attempts by missionaries and government Indian agents to Anglicize indigenous people, which worked to erase cultural practices and identities.
Longfellow’s interest in Saint Olaf aligns him with other romantic antiquarians, but the rhetoric that emerges from a retelling of an Old-Norse Icelandic saga as a tale told in the cozy Wayside Inn in colonial Massachusetts creates an ethnonational link with medieval Europe and a religious model for conversion subjugation of indigenous peoples and belief systems by force and through an overt threat of violence. Since the advent of early modern European colonialization, efforts to Westernize indigenous people in North America were part of the same tradition of civilizing heathens through violent missionizing, just as certain early medieval Christian saint-kings, such as St. Olaf and Charlemagne, practiced conversion by the sword.
Longfellow articulates a melancholy nostalgia and romantic reverence for indigenous people, stating:
“As population advances westward, the plough-share turns up the wasted skeleton; and happy villages arise upon the sites of unknown burial-places. And when our native Indians, who are fast perishing from the earth, shall have left forever the borders of our wide lakes and rivers, and their villages have decayed within the bosom of our western hills, the dim light of tradition will rest upon those places, which have seen the glory of their battles, and heard the voice of heir eloquence;—and our land will become, indeed, a classic ground.”
However, the use of pronouns—us and them—demonstrates Longfellow’s view that the time for the indigenous is over as United States continues expanding west, an idea that remains toxic to the numerous, yet all-too-invisible, indigenous communities who resides in every state in the union.
Moreover, Longfellow’s medievalism participates in a broader social trend that serves to connect America with Europe through a shared historical and ethnonationalist identity. This rhetorical implication and paralleling create an historical allegory and provides the rationale for acts of genocide perpetrated by the American government and European colonists against indigenous peoples in North America, and the “New World” more broadly. It further reinforces as well, the New World—Old World rhetorical connection. Like many medieval theologians parallel the Old Testament with the New Testament, and at times use the Old Testament as a source of prophecy, Christianization of the indigenous Old World of the pagan North serves as a prophetic roadmap for Manifest Destiny and American westward expansion, which frequently employ violence and committed acts of genocide as a means of Christianizing and Westernizing indigenous peoples.
Richard Fahey, Ph.D. Medieval Studies University of Notre Dame
In July 2022, metal detectorist James Mather was in a field in south Oxfordshire when he came face-to-face with medieval history. It was a warm summer’s day, the sun high in the sky. Mather knew the landowner well; it was not the first time he had detected here. Having recently recovered from a bout of COVID, Mather was enjoying being back out for what, so far, had been a normal day’s detecting.
A red kite landed in the stubble field, some distance away. As Mather himself says, ‘many detectorists are superstitious.’ He took the kite as an omen and began searching the area. He has training in landscape archaeology, and his reading of the site also told him that it was a logical place to look for metal artefacts.
He got a good signal. It was shallow, about four inches deep. He carefully began to dig away the topsoil. Before long, he uncovered the source: it was circular, crooked. It looked like it might be silver, and ancient. Whatever it was, Mather knew to follow protocol. He alerted the Finds Liaison Officer (FLO), Dr. Ed Caswell, and sent over a picture on his phone. Caswell thought it might be early medieval, perhaps a decorative dress pin, but said he would need some time to confirm the object. In the meantime, Mather notified the landowner that he may have found treasure, and set up a grid pattern search extending thirty feet around the find spot to look for more.
What Mather had found was a unique piece of Anglo-Saxon history. He reached out to Dr. Gabor Thomas at Reading University, who forwarded the photographs to Professor Elizabeth Okasha. The experts agreed that it probably dated to the 9th century, and was most likely a gilded silver brooch. Far from a plain metal disc, the brooch bears an intricate cross pattern with a raised centre, and an inscription around the edge. Sadly, the years have not been kind to the object, and several letters have been lost. However, it seems that the text is announcing the object’s owner: ‘Ælfgeo… owns me…’ Who is this mysterious Ælfgeo? The gendered end of the name is missing, so we may never know this crucial detail about them. Indeed, there is a lot we don’t know yet. This may be one of the earliest personally inscribed brooches found in the UK, however far more research is needed on the topic. But one thing is clear: this significant find in a field in sunny southern Oxfordshire is a tantalising contribution to our understanding of this early period.
Metal detecting is an increasingly popular hobby in the UK. As of 2021, there were around 20,000 detectorists in the nation, and the number continues to rise. Of the over 1,300 pieces of treasure found in 2019, 96% were discovered through metal detecting. Mather attributes this popularity to a number of things: the popularity of TV shows like The Detectorists (created by and starring Mackenzie Crook, who you might recognise from Pirates of the Carribean), the publicity surrounding major finds, and a general improvement in the public’s attitude towards detectorists. As Mather says, ‘people didn’t fully understand the responsibilities that go with the craft, and thought that detectorists were finding things and not declaring them.’ The perceived lack of regulation and stories about ‘Night Hawkers’ (the name given to those who metal detect illegally, without landowner’s permission or announcing their finds) fuelled public distrust.
In 2017 an enhanced Code of Practice was devised, which set out clear guidance for metal detectorists. Permission from the landowner must be obtained, and the landowner informed of any significant archaeological finds. Generally, objects found on the land belong to the landowner, so it is advised that detectorists create a formal, written agreement with the landowner deciding on future ownership of finds. Detectorists should report finds to their local FLO, to be added to the Portable Antiquities Scheme database. Guidelines should be given for detecting in different environments, like pasture, ploughed land, or coastlines. This all supplemented the very comprehensive 1996 Treasure Act, which covers the law relating to detecting and defines exactly what counts as ‘treasure,’ and how to report it.
Thanks to these regulations and the dedication of detectorists across the UK, the last few decades have seen significant contributions to our historical knowledge of medieval Britain. For example, the Marlow Warlord, an Anglo-Saxon warrior, was found by detectorists Sue and Mick Washington in 2018. In 2021 in Cookham, detectorists from Maidenhead Search Society assisted archaeologists from the University of Reading to uncover the lost monastery of Queen Cynethryth of Mercia, of which she became abbess after the death of her husband, King Offa.
Mather himself made a major discovery in 2015, when he uncovered the Watlington Viking Hoard. The hoard of about 200 Anglo-Saxon coins and Viking elements, including seven jewellery items, and fifteen silver ingots was found near Watlington, Oxfordshire. Thirteen of the coins were rare: ‘Two Emperors’ pennies, representing Kings Alfred of Wessex and Ceolwulf II of Mercia sitting side-by-side beneath a winged figure. This suggests that the two kingdoms were allies and successfully challenged the belief, long held by historians, that Ceowulf was merely a Viking puppet, dismissed in the A version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as a ‘foolish King’s thegn’. Thanks to the presence of a ‘Two-Line’ penny, the hoard can be dated to after the Battle of Edington in 878. Such a discovery has seriously shifted our understanding of the politics of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the period.
Becoming a Detectorist
What drives detectorists out into the fields in all weathers, scanning the ground and hoping for a signal? For Mather, though it is a very practical process. There is something magical about it: ‘to find something interesting and significant that no one has held for thousands of years is pretty remarkable.’ The value to the individual is immense. It has plenty of physical and mental benefits: ‘green exercise is especially beneficial, you get close to nature, and it’s great psychologically.’ This may be why several veterans groups have picked up the craft, Mather suggests. You can do it in solitude, or with like-minded buddies. Then there’s the value to landowners and to national heritage. ‘Some finds really can rewrite history,’ like the Watlington Hoard.
Of course, it takes both financial and time commitments. To buy a mid-range detector would set a UK detectorist back £500 (about $600 USD) not to mention the spade and other tools you need. It takes resilience, and you need to be comfortable spending hours on unforgiving terrain. Success is a function of how long you spend doing it. You need a decent site, suitable kit, good technique and a big slice of luck! Plus, you need to be able to at least roughly identify the materials you find. After all, you don’t want to throw away scraps of metal that may be significant.
In a place like south-eastern England, with its accreted centuries of history, you can find plenty of archaeological artefacts. Mather has found a curious 18th century button with a sunburst face—‘when light strikes it, the eyes follow you around’—a Palaeolithic stone hand axe (found ‘eyes only,’ without using a detector), several religious pendants, a 13th century seal, and plenty of shotgun shells and bottle caps to boot. For 28 years he searched for an Anglo-Saxon sceatta, a tiny silver coin. He finally found one on the excavation for Queen Cynethryth’s monastery. ‘I finally did it. You never know when you’ll find something.’
For Mather, there are still many more finds on his bucket list. Top of the list is Bronze Age ring money. ‘They were worn decoratively and may have been used as a form of currency. But they’re very difficult to find.’ A complete Bronze Age axe head is another one.By those standards, his last bucket-list item is practically cutting-edge modern. ‘A cartwheel tuppence,’ he says. ‘They were only made in one year, 1797, under George III.’ These huge coins can sometimes be found in antique shops, repurposed as small containers. But to find one in the wild would be a significant moment.
Responsible metal detectorists like Mather have contributed significantly to our knowledge of history. Without their expertise, and their dedication, finds like the Watlington Hoard, the Marlow Warlord, and countless others would still be sitting below ground, gradually corroding or sinking beyond reach. History is a living thing, always taking on new shapes as more information about the past is discovered. Mather, and other detectorists like him, remind us that we can help shape that history, and we can all become part of it.
Will Beattie Ph.D. Candidate in Medieval Studies Medieval Institute University of Notre Dame