Syncretism in the Hêliand

Bust of Charlemagne (14th century), Aachen Cathedral Treasury

The Hêliand represents a towering yet puzzling work of early continental Germanic literature whose deliberate fusion of Christian ideas with the language of warrior elites creates a rich and intense patchwork for audiences. Composed in the first half of the ninth century in the Carolingian Empire at a time when the emperors sought to impose Christianity on their newly conquered Saxon subjects, the text consists of a lengthy verse Gospel paraphrase completed in the so-called Old Saxon dialect—a predecessor of Middle and High varieties of Low German spoken throughout the northern regions of contemporary Germany. The religious subject of the poem is translated into the language of a Germanic warrior culture in order to reach a wide audience of lay—especially male—elites. This, in turn, transforms the narrative of Jesus’ life into a uniquely Christian-Germanic epic propped up by the language of fidelity and war.

The statue of Charlemagne erected in Aachen’s Market Place, 1620

One of the moments in the Hêliand where the juxtaposition of Christian ideas and prophecy with a Germanic vocabulary of warrior elites comes in the work’s fifty-sixth fitt (“song”), the Last Supper narrative. Linked is an excerpt and translation from this turning point in the text (Hêliand 56, lines 4665-4701), revolving around Simon Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ forecasting of the former’s impending betrayal (which I have titled “Peter’s Promise”). Throughout his speeches, Jesus relies upon the vocabulary of fidelity and lordship, while Peter’s promise to sacrifice himself “an uuapno spil”—literally “in the play of weapons”—reads as a transparent euphemism for the scourges of battle.

Jake Coen
PhD Candidate in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

Viking Eyeliner from Sea to Sea

The first written description of the personal appearance of the Vikings comes from a letter written by tenth-century English abbot Ælfric of Eynsham:

Ic secge eac ðe, broðor Eadweard…þæt ge doð unrihtlice þæt ge ða Engliscan þeawas forlætð þe eowre fæderas heoldon and hæðenra manna þeawas lufiað…and mid ðam geswuteliað þæt ge forseoð eower cynn and eowre yldran mid þam unþeawum þonne ge him on teonan tysliað eow on Denisc, ableredum hneccan and ablendum eagum.[1]

I say likewise to you, brother Edward…that you do unrightly when you forsake the English customs which our fathers held and hold dear the customs of heathen men…and by that make manifest that you scorn our kind and our forefathers with that evil practice by which you, to their shame, dress yourself in Danish fashion, with bald neck and blinded eyes.

Bayeux Tapestry Detail
Shaved necks and blinded eyes on the Bayeux Tapestry. Image in the Public Domain.

The verb ablendan means “to blind,” and the long bangs hanging onto the foreheads and perhaps impeding the vision of certain warriors on the eleventh-century Bayeux tapestry might explain these “blinded eyes.” Other options for this “blinding” hinge on the description of the inhabitants of the city of Shalashwīq (Hedeby) given  in the later tenth century by Ibrāhīm ibn Ya’qūb al-Isrā’īlī al-Turtūshī, a native of the Cordoban city of Tortosa,[2] who noted that “both men and women [there] use a kind of indelible cosmetic to enhance the beauty of their eyes.[3]

Speculation based on this and similarly loose translations has suggested white lead or even eye drops containing the alkaloid atropine, a compound present in deadly nightshade and henbane, as the “indelible cosmetic.” Both Dionysian furies and the ladies of the medieval Spanish court knew the pupil-dilating effect of the first substance, its association with beauty suggested in the name belladonna. Called hennebane, hennedwole, or hennebelle in Middle English herbals, black henbane was used in medieval England and Viking Scandinavia, and its seeds—their psychoactive effects linked to berserker behavior—have been found in some quantity in Viking graves.

Despite the attractions of these toxic European plants, a closer look at the original text gives a reading that points in another direction. Ibrāhīm writes:

 وبها كحل مصنوع اذا اكتحلوا به لا يزول ابدا ويزيد الحسن في الرجال والنساء[4]

“…on them is fabricated kohl, if they color their eyes with it, which never vanishes and beauty increases among men and women.”

Egyptian Musicians with Kohl
Detail of Kohl-Wearing Musicians and Dancers at the Tomb of Nebamun. Image in the Public Domain.

Ibrāhīm actually describes the Danes at Hedeby as lining their eyes with kohl (كُحْل‎ kuḥl), a cosmetic widely used in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and north Africa and particularly recommended by the prophet Muhammad. Though we will likely never know how exactly the Danes “blinded” their eyes, Ibrāhīm’s description points to fascinating global connections in the tenth century, from Scandinavian raiders in England to Cordoban Jews visiting northern Germany, suggesting a more inclusive picture of history than traditional narratives tend to imagine and reminding us that the middle ages really were the crossroads of everything.

Rebecca West, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[1] Mary Clayton, “An Edition of Ælfric’s Letter to Brother Edward,” in Early Medieval English Texts and Interpretations: Studies Presented to Donald G. Scragg, ed. Elaine M. Treharne, Susan Rosser, and D. G. Scragg (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2002), 280, 282.

[2] Schleswig, (Hedeby), now in northern Germany but even into the modern period intermittently under Danish control. The section discussed here is transmitted in the 1068 Kitāb al-masālik wa’l-mamālik (Book of Roads and Kingdoms) of Hispano-Arabic geographer, botanist, and historian Abū ‘Ubayd al-Bakrī.

[3]  Aḥmad Ibn Faḍlān, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North, trans. Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone (London: Penguin, 2012), 163.

[4] (wa-bihā kuḥl maṣnū‘ idhā ktaḥalū bihī lā yazūlu abadan wa-yazīdu l-ḥasan fī l-rijāl wa-l-nisā’) Zakarīyā ibn Muḥammad al-Qazwīnī and Ferdinand Wüstenfeld, Zakarija Ben Muhammed Ben Mahmûd El-Cazwini’s Kosmographie, vol. 2 (Göttingen: Verlag der Dieterichschen Buchhandlung, 1849), 404. Thanks to Alexander Beihammer for his help with the Arabic text.

Whose Runes are These? I (Don’t) Think I Know

In the mid-twelfth century, a stoneworker in the far northwest of England at Bridekirk, Cumbria cut a lavishly-decorated baptismal font with reliefs of dragons, mysterious figures, and, curiously, a line of runic writing. By the early modern period, the characters on the Bridekirk font were nothing but strange. Early English historian and chronographer William Camden, who included a sketch of the runic inscription in the 1607 edition of his Britannia, declared himself perplexed: “Quid autem illae velint, et cuius gentis characteribus, ego minime video, statuant eruditi.”[1]

The east face of the Bridekirk font, by permission of Lionel Wall. 

First published in 1586, Camden’s massive historico-chronographical Britannia went through six editions in the author’s lifetime, and Camden continually updated and expanded the text, augmenting it with maps and diagrams, such as the rendition of the Bridekirk runes seen below. The last Britannia edition on which Camden collaborated was a 1610 English translation by Philemon Holland, who translates: “But what they signifie, or what nations characters they should be, I know not, let the learned determine thereof.” Camden’s uncertainties cut straight to the heart of the matter: whose runes are these? and what do they mean?

The Bridekirk runes as pictured in the 1607 edition of Britannia. Courtesy of Dana Sutton.

In the more than 400 years that have passed since the publication of Camden’s Britannia and despite the best efforts of the eruditi, no simple answer has been found to either of Camden’s questions, the first of which I’ll consider in today’s post. Whose runes are these?

Danish antiquarian Ole Worm learned of the inscription from the Britannia and included his own version of the runes in a 1634 letter to one Henry Spelman:


Translation:
But if a well-printed text of the monuments inscribed with our characters that exist [in England] is sent to me, they would make up the much-desired appendix to those from our country. As far as the one Camden shows us in his book Britannia, I hardly know whether it can be read: [RUNES] That is, as I interpret it according to the laws of our language: “Harald made [this] mound and set up stones in the memory of [his] mother and Mabrok.” But I claim nothing as certain until someone can supply us with a more accurate description.[2]
Leaving aside Worm’s wildly inaccurate translation, which he based off of the second-hand evidence of Camden’s printed transcription, I’d like to note that Worm seems to claim the Bridekirk runes among the monumentorum nostris notis consignatorum (monuments signed with our script): he counts these as Scandinavian runes.

At other times the inscription has been claimed as English. The description of the Bridekirk font in Charles Macfarlane’s Comprehensive History of England, first published in 1856, praises the “ingenuity of design and execution” of the font and notes its “Saxon inscription.”[3] 

The font as pictured in Macfarlane’s History. 

Modern scholars agree with Worm that the incised characters are, in the main, Scandinavian. But the inscription is not wholly so: the text employs a few non-runic, decidedly English characters, including ⁊, Ȝ, and a bookhand Ƿ. Moreover, the language is not the Norse one might expect from Scandinavian runes but rather English:

Ricard he me iwrokte to þis merð ʒer ** me brokte.[4]
Richard crafted me and brought me (eagerly?) to this splendor.

So if the runic inscription is neither fully Norse nor fully English, whose runes (cuius gentis) are they? While Charles Macfarlane claimed them as “Saxon” and Worm counted them as Scandinavian, the runes are actually neither but rather the product of a mixed society continuing to encode both English and Norse cultural practices on stone. Most literally the runes represent phonological values and a particular message, but for most of the font’s history the place of these symbols in cultural memory – whose runes they have become – has been just as important as what they originally meant. The cultural equivocality of the Bridekirk inscription is emblematic of larger ambiguities involving Anglo-Scandinavian ethnicity and culture as imagined by the post-Hastings medieval English. These ambiguous cultural signs, later re-imagined in the early modern period, raise the question of what it meant to be Anglo-Norse in an Anglo-Norman world.

Rebecca West, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[1] William Camden, “William Camden, Britannia (1607) with an English Translation by Philemon Holland: A Hypertext Critical Edition,” ed. Dana F. Sutton (The Philological Museum, 2004), Descriptio Angliae et Walliae: Cumberland, 7.

[2] Ole Worm, Olai Wormii et ad eum doctorum virorum epistolæ, vol. 1 (Copenhagen, 1751), Letter 431. This translation is my own.

[3] Charles MacFarlane, The Comprehensive History of England :Civil and Military, Religious, Intellectual, and Social : From the Earliest Period to the Suppression of the Sepoy Revolt, Rev. ed. (London, 1861), 164.

[4] The transliteration above is based on that of Page, who reads “+Ricarþ he me iwrocte / and to þis merð (?) me brocte.” R. I. Page, Runes (University of California Press, 1987), 54.