Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Caedmon's Dream, Part II

From the series "Ring Hoard"

When people reflect on the Anglo-Saxon worldview they sometimes invoke an image which has passed into the general fund of anecdote: this life is like a sparrow which flies into the Great Hall in winter -- it passes from the dark and cold through a splendid warmth and brightness, briefly, then flies back out into the dark and cold again.

Setting aside the utter unlikeliness of this scenario -- a sparrow flying straight through the hall, rather than perching gratefully in the rafters and shitting in your mead? -- it does have a certain resonance, and casts a spiritual light onto a people generally characterised by a stoic grumpiness, a love of strong drink and garish jewellery, and an inexplicable urge to die in battle (which may explain the subsequent reputation of the British abroad).

The source of this little parable is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), written around 730 AD by the Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk. In Book II, chapter xiii, to be precise (read it yourself -- link here). Read in context, however, the tale of the allegorical sparrow is actually more poignant, and more comic, than it might seem.

The context is Bede's account of the conversion to Christianity of the pagan Edwin, King of Northumbria, around 625 AD.

Previously on Bede's Ecclesiastical History:

Following an encounter with a mysterious tall, dark stranger in a dream and a foiled assassination attempt when in exile with King Raedwald, Edwin has been predisposed to conversion at the hands of Paulinus, a Roman missionary who is said to have borne a striking resemblance to the tall, dark stranger in Edwin's dream, and who miraculously turns out to know the secret hand gesture revealed to Edwin in the dream.

Being a good Anglo-Saxon, however, Edwin cannot convert his people without at least a pretence of consultation (plus ├ža change...). So he gathers the council of wise men -- in Anglo-Saxon, a moot, or possibly a thing. The main item on the agenda -- after taking apologies, minutes of the last moot, and moot points arising -- is:

1. So, what do we make of this Christianity business? Any objections?

First up is the Top Pagan Priest. Surprisingly (at least in Bede's account) he's all for it. Indeed, he says, I knew the pagan thing was rubbish all along -- look, if it wasn't rubbish, why aren't I richer and more powerful? "I move: let's convert to Christianity immediately. Hey, I've seen the jewellery these Roman boys wear! And check that big curly stick!"

Next up is wise old warrior man, Sitting Bull with a gigantic sword and a snowy white beard. He utters the immortal parable of the sparrow. Very cool, wise old Geordie warrior. But, if you actually read it, what he is saying is this:

"There is an infinity of unknowable darkness before and after the brief span of a human life. Getafix over there has never had anything useful whatsoever to say about those dark bits fore and aft. If the new priestly boy does have something useful to offer -- and especially if it stops my Missus gibbering about timor mortis in the small hours -- then, hey, WTF?"

[A grunted chorus of "WTF! WTF!" applauds these words]

Boss Priest is back on his feet. "Through the Chair! Through the Chair!! I totally agree with my scary warrior friend from Sunderland. In fact, the old ways were such rubbish, that I'm going to ride over to the shrine ... right now ... on a stallion ... with a SPEAR and a SWORD ..."

[sharp intake of communal breath at this heresy]

"... and totally TRASH the place! Anyone else up for it? I reckon this Christianity is going to be fun!"

["Yeah! WTF!! WTF!!" Stamping of feet. They saddle up and ride out.]

As Bede wrote:

The multitude, beholding it, concluded he was distracted; but he lost no time, for as soon as he drew near the temple he profaned the same, casting into it the spear which he held; and rejoicing in the knowledge of the worship of the true God, he commanded his companions to destroy the temple, with all its enclosures, by fire. This place where the idols were is still shown, not far from York, to the eastward, beyond the river Derwent, and is now called Godmundingham, where the high priest, by the inspiration of the true God, profaned and destroyed the altars which he had himself consecrated.

Bede does not record whether item 2 on the agenda -- the Mead Fund -- ever got discussed.

From the series "Ring Hoard"

So, if nothing else, you can perhaps see the thinking behind my Ring Hoard -- the battered remnants of a sacred cache of rings, perhaps hidden in a remote corner of North Herts near the Saxon settlement of Stithenaece, just inside the Danelaw, within the lands once dominated by the Iceni...

Next: A Song for Hilda


Martyn Cornell said...

Ah, Stithenaece – a propos of nothing whatsoever, I've never been satisfied with the usual explanation of that name as the Old English for "at the strong oak" (or "stiff oak"). What is a "strong/stiff oak" and how could it be so distinguishable at a glance from any other oak that you'd name somewhere after it?

Baldock = bald oak, fine, that's believable. "He lives up by the Strong Oak" - not so much. "Do you think this is the Strong Oak he meant?" "No, that one over there looks a big stronger to me …"

It's a great example of someone apparently expert (the English Place Names Society) coming up with an explanation for something ("oh, it means Strong Oak") and everyone else repeating it uncritically without anyone saying at any point: "Errr - what is a Strong Oak when it's at home and how does it make sense as a placename?"

Skeat suggested "stithan haecce", meaning "at the strong hatch/gate" (as in Colney Hatch), and since we're talking about somewhere that was (originally) up on a hill and presumably easily defendable, and which perhaps guarded the point where the road from Hitchin met the road from Baldock and the north, my money for a properly believable origin would be on "strong gate". (Actually, my money would be on "neither of the above, but some other origin we've lost sight of over 13 or more centuries", but I'll still put "strong gate" well ahead of the nonsensical "strong oak".)

Trivia: the arms of Stevenage Borough Council reflect the "strong oak" interpretation of the name, the arms of the old Stevenage Development Corporation reflect the "gate" interpretation.

Nice modernisation of Caedmon's Dream, by the way …

Mike C. said...

Oh, don't get me started (again) on place name etymologies -- as a field of study, it makes aromatherapy look downright positivist... I suspect the membership of the various place name societies is entirely composed of vicars with too many dictionaries.

On good ol' Stithenaece, I think my money is also on "neither of the above, but some other origin we've lost sight of over 13 or more centuries".

N.B. that was Edwin's dream -- we haven't got to Caedmon's yet. As I'm at home today feeling distinctly unwell, there may be a little wait before we do.


Kent Wiley said...

Thanks for the updated version of the story: not likely to bother w/ the original, so your "previously on" is quite helpful for us pathetic ignoramuses.

Struan said...


They say that studying history reveals more about the historian than the subject. This could be exhibit A.

If you haven't seen it, you need to watch this:

Serious symmetry point: your ring hoard series have perfect twelvefold rotational symmetry (allowing for photoshop-induced missing bits). One of the things that is so fascinating about dark ages decorative arts is that they have a less rigid relationship with symmetry. It's there, but as a guiding, organising principle, not as a definitive rule. Rather like the way people are not actually bilaterally symmetric if you actually look at them, it makes the patterns more interesting.

Mike C. said...


Hmm, too perceptive for comfort, your comment on the symmetry... That's really why I abandoned the original project -- it started out as a bit of idle fun, had some interesting results for very little input (other than twiddling dials), and developed its own dynamic.

But when I sat back to look at them (I have literally hundreds of basic patterns to play with), I had similar thoughts. Not that I'm aiming at "authenticity" -- quite the reverse, as the project (which I've sort of revived) is intended to end up as a spoof archaeological investigation (I love the "look" of technical drawings and photos, with rulers and coins included for scale, etc.). But it all seemed a little too easy (I know, my inner Scot speaks up...).

I'm working on it, though, and will show new things as they emerge on the blog -- all comments will be appreciated. What I am enjoying is reviving some "painterly" skills (and deploying some low cunning) to produce some unique things which are fun to look at.