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
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
American mythology is filled with larger-than-life figures, like the axe-wielding Paul Bunyan and the rattlesnake-handling Buffalo Bill. Some of them are historical or pseudo-historical, such as Davy Crocket and Daniel Boone (who both famously die in the Alamo siege during the Texas revolution). Of course, there is little ground more fertile for American mythology than the colonial and revolutionary historical periods, with George Washington’s cherry tree and Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride to alert colonists in Lexington and Concord of the British army’s approach. Both of my latter examples demonstrate how historical figures are imagined and reimagined by subsequent generations of Americans, considering that Washington probably never actually chopped his cherry tree, nor did Paul Revere quite make it to Lexington or Concord to warn that the redcoats were coming toward the rebel munitions stored there. Indeed, all of the aforementioned mythic American figures and stories are somewhat less invested in historical fact and more in the self-fashioning of a European ethnonationalist identity in the United States.
In early America as elsewhere, storytellers and mythographers, such as Washington Irving (who famously wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” about a little haunted town in New York), begin not only looking to the colonial period but also across the pond to European ethnonationalist antiquarianism in the construction of distinctly American mythology following a successful revolutionary war overthrowing the British government. This is observable in another of Irving’s works, “Rip Van Winkle” which tells the tale of a man who meets with a dwarvish fairy in the Catskill Mountains and falls magically asleep for the bulk of his life, only to awaken as an old man and find his children grown. This fantastic story brings early medieval fairy lore—elves, dwarves and the like—into the American frontier and invites these supernatural beings from the “old world” into the newly formed United States.
The story begins with an explicit epitaph from the tomb of one Diedrich Knickerbocker that invokes the pre-Christian Germanic mythic figure “Woden, God of Saxons” (1):
By Woden, God of Saxons, From whence comes Wensday, that is Wodensday, Truth is a thing that ever I will keep Unto thylke day in which I creep into My sepulchre
(Irving , “Rip Van Winkle” 1-5).
In order to grow, myths need both substance and storyteller—in other words both the story itself and persons to pass the tale along to others. The art of storytelling and oral narratives are seemingly as old as humankind, but storytelling as a pastime is regularly associated with the medieval period, made famous by late medieval works of literature such as Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Indeed, in the tradition of English literature, Chaucer’s work looms large, and has inspired numerous imitators and allusions even in recent years.
Margaret Atwood’s book, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), follows in this tradition, and her novel’s name serves both as a pejorative toward the historical period—suggesting the future could go backwards in time in terms of social progress with respect to religiosity, intellectual freedom and gender equality—and as a simultaneous homage to the literary influence of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Atwood, whose novel is understood by the reader to be an academic transcription of a personal diary, logged on a voice recorder and being discussed centuries later after the log is transcribed and analyzed by a scholar who gives the book its editorial title included in the back “Historical Notes” section of the book:
“The superscription ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was appended to it by Professor Wade, partly in homage to the great Geoffrey Chaucer…I am sure all puns were intentional, particularly that having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail…”
(Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 300-301).
Similarly, Harvard professor and early American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, follows Chaucer’s model in his collection of poems, Tales of the Wayside Inn, where a group of fictitious European colonialists meet for some storytelling at what is now a famous inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts. As fate would have it, my maternal grandparents happened to live right down the road from the Wayside Inn in Marlborough and as a child they would take me and my siblings to play in the nearby woods and explore the nearby grist mill where I would search for dinosaurs and dragons with my twin brother and younger sister. So, you can imagine, I’ve had my share of meals and heard my own share of tales at the Wayside Inn—in fact my father’s second marriage held its reception there—so the place has special meaning to me, a sort of gravitas. Having grown up a few towns over in Massachusetts, I always found the inn and surrounding area charming, but the historical and literary influence of the space in which I have lived most my life continues to find new ways of inspiring me, especially as I have recently returned to work and teach in Marlborough and have begun to reconnect once again with the area. This brought my mind back to Longfellow’s tales.
Longfellow writing on the eve of the American Civil War is none other than the author credited with reimagining the story of Paul Revere’s midnight ride, in his “The Landlord’s Tale” also known as “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” in which American revolutionary figure, Paul Revere, is the dashing hero who delivers the all-important message, undercutting Samuel Prescott’s successful journey out of the story entirely, and erasing Revere’s capture and partial failure by replacing it with a version of events in which Revere is victorious in his epic quest.
So through the night rode Paul Revere; And so through the night went his cry of alarm To every Middlesex village and farm,— A cry of defiance and not of fear, A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door, And a word that shall echo forevermore! For, borne on the night-wind of the Past, Through all our history, to the last, In the hour of darkness and peril and need, The people will waken and listen to hear The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed, And the midnight message of Paul Revere!
(Longfellow, “The Landlord’s Tale: The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” 199-130).
Other tales told by European colonials at the Wayside include: “The Student’s Tale” “The Spanish Jew’s Tale” “The Sicilian’s Tale” “The Musician’s Tale” “The Theologian’s Tale” and “The Poet’s Tale”. These titles chime with Chaucer’s titles named for each distinct pilgrim on the road to Canterbury, some of which include “The Knight’s Tale,” “The Miller’s Tale,” “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” and “The Pardoner’s Tale.”
My blog today will end with a brief introduction to Longfellow’s “The Musician’s Tales” which is also called “The Saga of King Olaf” in reference to Old Norse-Icelandic Saga Olafs konungs Tryggvasunar. Structurally, the tale is the longest tale—a sort of epic poem—with subtitled chapters.
i. The Challenge of Thor ii. King Olaf’s Return iii. Thora of Rimol iv. Queen Sigrid the Haughty v. The Skerry of Shrieks vi. The Wraith of Odin vii. Iron-Beard viii. Gudrun ix. Thangbrand the Priest x. Raud the Strong xi. Bishop Sigurd at Salten Fiord xii. King Olaf’s Christmas xiii. The Building of the Long Serpent xiv. The Crew of the Long Serpent xv. A Little Bird in the Air xvi. Queen Thyri and the Angelica Stalks xvii. King Svend of the Forked Beard xviii. King Olaf and Earl Sigvald xix. King Olaf’s War-Horns xx. Einar Tamberskelver
This heavily alludes to Old Norse-Icelandic Heimskringla which Longfellow had access to via Samuel Laings’ modern English translation published in 1844. In doing so, this tale draws directly from Old-Norse Icelandic saga literature and serves to connect early American literature and mythography with early medieval Europe and antiquarian notions of “The Germanic” and “Anglo-Saxon” ethnonationalist identities. The first poem, “The Challenge of Thor” demonstrates how Viking warrior ethics and mythology are interwoven directly into early American literature and mythography. The challenge reads almost as an invocation to the pagan god of Northern medieval Europe in a romantic display of American eurocentrism:
I am the God Thor, I am the War God, I am the Thunderer! Here in my Northland, My fastness and fortress, Reign I forever!
Here amid icebergs Rule I the nations; This is my hammer, Miölner the mighty; Giants and sorcerers Cannot withstand it!
These are the gauntlets Wherewith I wield it, And hurl it afar off; This is my girdle; Whenever I brace it, Strength is redoubled!
The light thou beholdest Stream through the heavens, In flashes of crimson, Is but my red beard Blown by the night-wind, Affrighting the nations!
Jove is my brother; Mine eyes are the lightning; The wheels of my chariot Roll in the thunder, The blows of my hammer Ring in the earthquake!
Force rules the world still, Has ruled it, shall rule it; Meekness is weakness, Strength is triumphant, Over the whole earth Still is it Thor’s-Day!
Thou art a God too, O Galilean! And thus single-handed Unto the combat, Gauntlet or Gospel, Here I defy thee!
(Longfellow, “The Musician’s Tale: The Challenge of Thor” 1-42).
The references to hazardous weather and natural disasters, such as earthquakes, lightning and thunder, and allusions to Mjölnir (10) and Thor’s girdle (16), are enveloped in the themes of “Force rules the world still” (31) and “Meekness is weakness” (33) in the poem. Additional references to Thor’s “red beard” (22), his goat-drawn “chariot” (27) and his syncretism with Thor and Zeus is dramatized in the line “Jove is my brother” (25). As Irving does with Wednesday as “Wodensday” (2) in “Rip Van Winkle,” Longfellow too emphasizes how Thursday derives from “Thor’s-Day” (36) and thus highlights the pervasive cultural resonance rooted in the medieval lore sung by the musician in their tale. The challenge ends with a direct conflict between Thor and Christ, the “Galilean” (38). Thor names Christ a “God too” (37) but stresses his own continued cultural influence which Thor frames as an affront to Christianity, juxtaposing “Gauntlet or Gospel” (42) and adamantly opposing Christian virtues by challenging Christ’s ethical superiority. This rhetorical move reminds the reader, and perhaps also many early Americans living in the antebellum United States, that United States’ cultural inheritance was repeatedly upheld as distinctly European, and that eurocentric ethnonationalism would remain a shared legacy in both the “old” and “new” worlds thereby helping to erase and ignore indigenous and non-white perspectives.
Further discussion of Henry Longfellow’s medievalism in “The Saga of King Olaf” centered on some of the subsequent sections will be featured in a blog later this spring, so check back soon!
Richard Fahey, Ph.D. Medieval Institute University of Notre Dame