This week, we’re revisiting the first published episode of “Meeting in the Middle Ages.” Back in 2022, we sat down with Dr. Andrew Irving, assistant professor of religion and heritage at the University of Groningen. We spoke to him about his journey to Medieval Studies, his work on the 11th century Uta Codex, why one should always weigh their books, and why liturgy is like a Wagnerian opera.
Dr. Irving’s story is one of a truly international scholar. A native of New Zealand who moved to the US to study for his PhD at Notre Dame, he now works in Europe on a broad range of medieval subjects. His stories of archival work highlight some of the unexpected challenges that researchers can face: limited access to resources, unconducive weather (it helps to examine books in “raking light”), or flat out denied permission to consult a manuscript. Traveling to another country to visit a library and examine its rarest materials can be intimidating, especially for young scholars. But Dr. Irving demonstrates that a personal connection and diligent preparation can pave the way for a smooth experience. It’s an instructive tale for young scholars, and sheds light on a part of scholarly work that may seem mysterious to the uninitiated.
Dr. Irving’s work is about place. His career has taken him all over the world, of course. But the place in which texts exist is also paramount. Through his work on texts like the Uta Codex, he provides some great examples of how a manuscript has to be considered in terms of its home. Where was it kept? What was the environment? What was the history of that home? Was it ever destroyed, raided, burned? If it was a written document, was it read aloud? To whom? Was it carried about? How much did it weigh? All of these questions must be asked to get at the truth of an object. A text has to be wrestled with on its own terms—in isolation—but this is only half the story. Each historical artifact is living history: it was created by someone for someone or something. We have to be prepared to engage with it in a multitude of ways. We must be historians, linguists, theologians, art historians, literary critics, and more. That is what it is to be a medievalist.
Thanks for listening. See you next time in the Middle Ages.
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
When the Vikings invaded the northeastern coast of Britain in 793, they raided the monastery at Lindisfarne. The monks fled – and they carried with them the remains of Saint Cuthbert.
His coffin not only contained a corpse but also material relics, the Saint Cuthbert Gospel among them. The book so well preserved in his coffin has been recognized as a marvel among medieval manuscripts, along with the Lindisfarne Gospels, which the monks also saved from destruction by the Danes. Much like these extraordinary books, the embroidery that survived alongside Saint Cuthbert’s body is remarkable for its rarity.
Cuthbert of Lindisfarne was born in 634 and spent his life as a monk, bishop, and hermit in the Kingdom of Northumbria. When he died in 687, he was buried at Lindisfarne. As the Venerable Bede recounts the story, Saint Cuthbert’s coffin was opened again 11 years later with the intention of removing his bones to a reliquary, but his body was found to be perfectly preserved.
Under the duress of Danish attack, it was more than 100 years before the monks laid Saint Cuthbert to rest in Durham, where they settled in 995. Several artifacts accompanied Saint Cuthbert as he traveled posthumously around the English countryside, and the book and embroidery are very special for their survival.
The Saint Cuthbert Gospel was discovered when the coffin was opened at Durham Cathedral in 1104, and like the body of its patron, the book remained incredibly well preserved. Dated to the early 8th century, it is the earliest European book to retain an original, intact binding. The covers are made from goatskin that has been dyed red and decorated; the tooled leather is stretched over wooden boards, most likely birch. It is a pocket-sized book measuring 5.4 by 3.6 inches, and the manuscript contains the Gospel of Saint John.
The British Library’s description of the binding beautifully correlates the book’s cover with its content. On its front cover, “the central motif of a stylised vine sprouting from a chalice reflects Christian imagery from the eastern Mediterranean. The plant on the cover of the Gospel has a central leaf or bud and four fruits, echoing the text, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’, from St. John’s Gospel 15:5.” On the back cover appears “rectangular borders containing a geometric, step-pattern double-armed cross, recalling John’s central role in the Crucifixion narrative.”
The other relics were discovered much later when Saint Cuthbert’s tomb was opened in 1827. In addition to the saint’s body, Canon James Raine found a pectoral cross, a portable altar, an ivory comb, and a set of embroidered vestments. The vestments, or religious robes, date between 909 and 916 and are the earliest pieces of embroidery that survive from the medieval period in England.
Only a few pieces of Anglo-Saxon embroidery survive at all, and these pieces are unique among the extant examples in that they feature full-length human figures. The vestments include a stole decorated with figures of Old Testament prophets and Apostles, as well as a maniple, a girdle, and bracelets. They are made from Byzantine silk with silk and gold thread decoration. According to inscriptions on the fabric, the vestments were commissioned by Queen Aelfflaed for the Bishop of Winchester and produced between 909 and 916. Her stepson, King Athelstan, who ruled England from 927 to 939, placed them in Saint Cuthbert’s tomb when he visited the shrine in 934.
The style of embroidery called Opus Anglicanum, or English Work, was used on clothing, hangings, and other textiles, often created with silk and gold or silver-gilt threads stitched on linen or velvet backgrounds. Between the late 12th and mid-14th centuries, these luxury goods were in great demand across Europe. Often they were procured as diplomatic gifts, and they were very expensive. They were produced for both secular and ecclesiastical use, but most of the surviving examples were designed for liturgical use like those found alongside Saint Cuthbert.
Although English embroidery was renowned for its beauty during the medieval period, the majority has been lost to neglect or destroyed for the extraction of precious metals or stones, such as pearls and other jewels mentioned in inventory descriptions. Fragments, however, can be found in museums, and one of the most substantial collections of Opus Anglicanum can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The vestments recovered from Saint Cuthbert’s tomb can be seen on display at Durham Cathedral, where visitors can view the entire Treasures of Saint Cuthbert collection. The oak coffin made to cradle the saint’s body when he was found incorrupt in 698 also resides among the relics, its own fragmented body a reminder of what arduous travels medieval artifacts endure to remain with us in our own time.
Emily McLemore, Ph.D. Department of English University of Notre Dame