Woden: Allfather of the English

Last week we learned about the deified Woden, often identified with the Old Norse god Oðinn. But not everyone agreed that Woden was divine.

No detailed account of Woden and his mythic adventures survives from early medieval England; nevertheless, this ancestral figure remains present in the cultural imagination of the English people even centuries later. The famous 8th-century ecclesiastical historian Bede is the first known Anglo-Saxon author to describe this mythic genealogy in Book I, Capitula 15 of his Historia claiming: Duces fuisse perhibentur eorum primi duo fratres Hengist et Horsa….Erant autem filii Uictgilsi, cuius pater Uitta, cuius pater Uecta, cuius pater Uoden, de cuius stirpe multarum prouinciarum regium genus originem duxit, “From the first their leaders (the Anglo-Saxons) were held to be two brothers, Hengest and Horsa….They were sons of Wictgils, whose father was Witta, whose father was Wecta, whose father was Woden.”

Image from the Peterborough Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 636, f. 1r. © All Rights Reserved.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, surviving in nine extant manuscripts and probably completed under King Ælfred the Great in the 9th century, reiterates Bede’s Wodinic genealogy. Almost a century later, in a Latin adaptation known as Chronicon Æthelweardi, the 10th century historian Æthelweard (descended from the 9th-century King Æthelred I, the elder brother of the King Ælfred the Great) laments Woden’s divine status within the Norse Pantheon. In his chronicle, Æthelweard complains that ignorant Scandinavian pagans have mistakenly deified Woden, whom Æthelweard identifies as king of the barbarians. He bemoans how these pagans honor Woden as a god rather than the ancestral chieftain that Æthelweard, like so many Anglo-Saxon authors, understood him to be.

Well after the Norman Conquest of 1066, Woden was still making his way into English manuscripts, especially in depictions of Anglo-Saxon royal lineages. At roughly the same time as Snorri was composing his Edda, and Geoffrey of Monmouth his Historia, Wodinic genealogy remains present in the English written record, remembering the Anglo-Saxon kings of old who trace their ancestry back to this deified chieftain.

Woden, depicted as ancestor of the Anglo-Saxon Kings. The British Library Board Cotton Caligula A.viii f. 29r © All Rights Reserved.

The Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum adventulocated in a 12th-century manuscript (London, British Library Cotton Caligula A. viii) and often attributed to Symeon of Durham—contains an illustration of Woden, crowned as ancestral king of the Anglo-Saxons. The text surrounding the illustration describes the royal lineages of the kingdoms of Kent, Mercia, Deira, Bernicia and Wessex respectively, each claiming descent and the right to rule from this legendary figure.

Woden genealogically linked to King Henry II of England. The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 66 p.69 © All Rights Reserved.

A strikingly similar image of Woden as a crowned English ancestral figure surrounded by his royal descendants accompanies the 12th-century Historia Anglorum by Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon (located in Cambridge Corpus Christi College MS 66). This text connects Woden with Henry II, the contemporary king of England.

Ernulf’s Wodinic genealogy for the Kings of East Anglia. From Rochester Cathedral Library, MS A.3.5 © All Rights Reserved.

Likewise, Ernulf, Bishop of Rochester describes the kings of East Anglia as descendants of the legendary Woden in his 12th century Textus de Ecclesia Roffensi (found in Rochester Cathedral Library, MS A.3.5).

In medieval English historiography, Woden appears to have been used to establish dynastic legitimacy for kings in early medieval England. Long after Woden may have been worshiped as a god, well past the Anglo-Saxon conversion and even through the Norman Conquest, the importance of this legendary figure continues to loom large in the cultural imagination of those living and ruling in medieval England. Although today nowhere near as popular or well known as Arthur, the so-called king of the Britons, the earliest kings ruling in England turned to Woden, not Arthur, in order to affirm and legitimize their royal lineages.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame

Special thanks to David Ganz, Andrew Klein and Christopher Scheirer for their contributions to this post.

Further Reading:

Davis, Craig R. “Cultural assimilation in the Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies.”  Anglo-Saxon England 21 (1992): 23-36.

Hill, Thomas. D. “Woden and the pattern of nine: numerical symbolism in some old English royal genealogies.” Old English Newsletter 15.2 (1982): 41-42.

John, Eric. “The Point of Woden.” In Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 5. Oxford University Committee for archaeology, 1992.

Lutz, Angelika. “Æthelweard’s Chronicon and Old English Poetry.” Anglo-Saxon England 29 (2000): 177-214.

Meaney, A L. “Woden in England: a reconsideration of the evidence.” Folklore 77.2 (1966): 105-115.

—. “St. Neots, Æthelweard and the Compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Survey.” In Studies in Earlier Old English Prose: Sixteen Original Contributions. State University of New York Press, 1986: 193-243.

Meehan, Bernard. A reconsideration of the historical works associated with Symeon of Durham: manuscripts, texts and influences. University of Edinburgh, 1979. Dissertation.

Moisl, Hermann. “Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies and Germanic oral tradition.” Journal of Medieval History 7.3 (1981): 215-248.

North, Richard. Heathen gods in Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Rowsell, Thomas. Woden and his Roles in Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogy. Medievalists.net, 2012.

Whitbread, L. “Æthelweard and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.” The English Historical Review 74.293 (1959): 577-589.

Primary Sources mentioned concerning Woden/Oðinn:

Æthelweard. Chronicon Æthelweardi (The Chronicle of Æthelweard). A. Campbell (ed and trans). Oxford University Press, 1962.

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Colgrave, Bertram, Mynors, R.A.B. (eds). Oxford University Press, 1969.

Ernulf, Bishop of Rochester. Textus Roffensis: Rochester Cathedral Library manuscript, A. 3.5.

Henry of Huntingdon. Historia Anglorum (The History of the English People). D. E. Greenway (ed). Oxford Medieval Texts, 1996.

Symeon of Durham (possible author). De primo Saxonum adventu. In  Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea I. Blackwood and Sons, 1868: 202-203.

Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Anthony Faulkes (trans and ed). David Campbell Publishers, 1987.

Swanton, Michael, (trans and ed). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Phoenix Press, 2000.

The Froissart Harley: Caricature on the Margins?

Miniature of a joust between Pierre de Courtenay and Sire de Clary with marginalia of a stag with wings and a sow with a conical hat on stilts on the left-hand side. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379 f. 19v.

The Froissart Harley, Harley MS 4379, is a manuscript filled with popular conceptions of the medieval period: knights, jousting, courtiers, war, queens and kings. Harley MS 4379 consists of the fourth volume of Froissart’s Chronicle, which recounts the events of the Hundred Years’ War. The manuscript was produced between 1470 and 1472 at the behest of Philippe de Commynes, one of the most powerful members of Charles the Bold’s court.

Detail of miniature of a joust between Pierre de Courtenay and Sire de Clary. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379 f. 19v.

Froissart’s Chronicle explores courtly life, the sphere of the nobility, but his work also teaches noble listeners: it includes emblematic examples of good, contemporary rulers, meant to advise a young lord in the proper governance of his subjects.

Detail of a miniature of tents and mounted knights, with marginal illumination, including a rabbit and snail jousting on the shoulders of monkeys. Netherlands (Bruges) Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379, f. 23v.

Although the text itself instructed its readership in proper chivalric behavior, the illustrations and marginalia enliven dry discussions of events such as siege warfare and provide images to connect to the chapter text. One particularly interesting feature of Harley MS 4379 centers on the depictions of animal marginalia and how they relate to the text.

Detail of a marginal painting of a winged stag. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379, f. 19v.

Any medieval reader would have comprehended allegorical associations with animals. One notable example of such symbolism occurs in the hunting scene in Fit 3 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. While Gawain remains in Bertilak’s castle with Bertilak’s wife, his host hunts for three days: the first day he hunts deer, the second a boar, and the third a fox. The alternating hunting scenes and bedroom scenes narrated in Fit 3 parallel one another, underlining the analogous relationship between his lady’s attempts to trick Gawain and the Bertilak’s attempts to catch his prey.

Detail of a marginal painting of a rabbit and a snail jousting on the shoulders of monkeys. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379 f. 23v. Knights jousting against snails are a common occurrence in medieval manuscripts, but no satisfactory explanation has been supplied as to why!

However, the animal symbolism in the Froissart Harley differs from the hunting scenes in Gawain in an obvious fashion. While Gawain’s animals are meant to reinforce Gawain’s perilous situation, the marginalia in the Froissart Harley seem to caricature their own text. Regarding the rabbit and snail jousting, neither animal symbolically represents the jousting knights in the center miniature, nor do these two animals have a broader meaning in medieval bestiaries concerning jousting. These marginalia are meant to represent and enhance the text they accompany, but this point is problematic when considering the Burgundian approach to chivalry, the milieu out of which this manuscript emerged. Burgundians valued chivalric ideals above all else, as is shown by the great status granted to those of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a knightly order created by the dukes of Burgundy. Associating a rabbit and a snail with the jousters of Inglevert, perhaps the most vibrant and epic tournament in Froissart’s Chronicle, most likely would not have pleased a Burgundian audience.

Detail of a marginalia painting: a sow with a conical hat on stilts, playing a harp. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379 f. 19v.

Nor does the Master of the Froissart Harley spare courtly women in his caricatures. On the margin of folio 19v, the illustrator places a sow on stilts wearing a conical hat, playing the harp. This sow draws attention to the miniature of female courtiers, all wearing conical hats on watching the tournament in the middle of the page. Again, this characterization is paradoxical in a Burgundian context: pigs typically represented uncleanliness and greed, unfortunate traits for a woman trying to navigate the vicissitudes of court.

Detail of a miniature of courtiers watching a joust. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379, f. 23v.

Sean Sapp
PhD Candidate
Department of History
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of an ongoing series on Multimedia Reading Practices and Marginalia: Medieval and Early Modern

Further Reading:

Froissart’s Chronicle trans. John Jolliffe (New York: Random House, 1968).

Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

Laetitia Le Guay, Les princes de Bourgogne lecteurs de Froissart : les rapports entre le texte et l’image dans les manuscrits enluminés du livre IV des Chroniques (Turnhout: Brepols, 1998).

Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe (Los Angeles: Getty Pulications, 2003).

Willene B. Clark, A Medieval Book of Beasts: The Second-family Bestiary: Commentary, Art, Text and Translation (Boyden Press, 2013).

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/09/knight-v-snail.html