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Subscribe to this list via RSS Blog posts tagged in Anglo-Saxon poetry

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Riddle Me This

One of the genres you may not expect to be popular in the Middle Ages is that of riddles. They're not usually as straightforward as the riddles we know. They tend to be more metaphorical. I mentioned before in The Magic of Names the riddle that has 'magpie' as its solution (probably). Many of them are scatalogical or full of double entendres, which also doesn't fit our image of pious monks -- but it's our picture of monks that's wrong.

The myth persists that the church ruled the Middle Ages with a heavy hand. Like the myth that people thought the world was flat, it's just wrong. Many people who thought of themselves as Christian went to church once a year to confess and that was enough for them. Many monks who were part of the church were no more devoted to their religion than the average slacker working for a giant corporation is. It gave them a living if they weren't inheriting any wealth. For many it was an easy life (see Chaucer's monk for example).

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Tasha Halpert
    Tasha Halpert says #
    Sweet riddle! Love it. Thanks for sharing! A most interesting blog.
  • Dragon Dancer
    Dragon Dancer says #
    Haha, I was gonna say apple.
  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity says #
    The answer is of course -- an onion!

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
The Magic of Names


The Exeter Book is a collection of medieval poetry from the late tenth century written down by a single scribe. Amongst other treasures, it contains almost a hundred riddles. If you think of medieval monks as pious and devoted -- well, for one thing, you've probably not read Chaucer! Many of the riddles are bawdy and full of double entendres, just like the songs the monks would sing. 

Much of our casual information about life in the Middle Ages comes texts like these: details of natural phenomena or the habits of birds. Riddle 68 is particularly delightful not only for the vivid depiction of the magpie, but also the embedding of the runic puzzle of its name which adds an additional challenge to the reader. 'Hiroga' the Anglo-Saxon name for magpie is only apparent once you unscramble the runic letters.  

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Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Sounding Out the Water Elf

If someone suffers from the disease brought by the 'water elf' the Anglo-Saxon medieval charm advises that one ought to make a compound of nineteen different herbs, soak them in ale then add holy water. Of course to make them effective, the important step is to also sing over them this charm three times:

Ic binne awrat betest beadowræda,
swa benne ne burnon, ne burston,
ne fundian, ne feologan, ne hoppettan,
ne wund waxsian,
ne dolh diopian;
ac him self healde halewæge,
ne ace þe þon ma þe eorþan on eare ace.

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Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Medieval Consolations

The test of any philosophy is how it helps you survive difficulty. It is simple enough to hold the line in good times, but when your misfortunes seem to know no end, your patience and perseverance were truly tested. The Anglo-Saxons had a trust in wyrd both as pagans and as Christians. The thought might best be summed up in the refrain from the poem Deor:

Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg. 

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Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Getting Medieval

Sometimes gifts arrive in a timely manner. Just in time for the beginning of the semester, a news story broke that provided fodder for first day discussion in my medieval courses: Pagans demand return of church buildings 'stolen' 1,300 years agoUsually it's great when the news covers the Middle Ages because it makes the period seem more relevant to my students who generally think things that happened a couple of decades ago are 'ancient' already.

This news item gave me a chance to say yes, it was the practice to 'repurpose' temples: we have a letter from Pope Gregory instructing an abbot to follow this advice:

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  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    "these modern pagans have no leg to stand on with their argument that the buildings belonged to them. The temples might just as we
  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity says #
    There were translations of portions of the bible: King Alfred had Genesis translated in the ninth century because he was afraid of

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Winter Cold

As the solstice comes upon us here in the Northern Hemisphere our thoughts turn to surviving the cold. While it's considerably milder here in Scotland than it was while I was teaching in New York, cold it is and cups of tea provide welcome warmth. It's hardly surprising that people in the Middle Ages measured their lives in winters survived. In many ways the mid-winter celebrations offer a chance to celebrate that hope and restore it for the lean months ahead.

It's the perfect time to consider the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer, which I think of as a companion to The Wanderer. Both elegiac poems that mourn a lost past, they celebrate the power of the comitatus, the loyal troop of warriors and find poetic resonance in the harsh world of winter.

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Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Autumn's Chill

There's a wonderful passage in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where the poet leads us through the changing seasons. I've always been struck by the poet's evocation of the harshness of winter's chill -- no surprise at time when people still reckoned age by how many winters they'd survived.

After þe sesoun of somer wyth þe soft wyndez
Quen Zeferus syflez hymself on sedez and erbez,
Wela wynne is þe wort þat waxes þeroute,
When þe donkande dewe dropez of þe leuez,
To bide a blysful blusch of þe bryȝt sunne.
Bot þen hyȝes heruest, and hardenes hym sone,
Warnez hym for þe wynter to wax ful rype;
He dryues wyth droȝt þe dust for to ryse,
Fro þe face of þe folde to flyȝe ful hyȝe;
Wroþe wynde of þe welkyn wrastelez with þe sunne,
Þe leuez lancen fro þe lynde and lyȝten on þe grounde,
And al grayes þe gres þat grene watz ere;
Þenne al rypez and rotez þat ros vpon fyrst,
And þus ȝirnez þe ȝere in ȝisterdayez mony,
And wynter wyndez aȝayn, as þe worlde askez,
no fage,
Til Meȝelmas mone
Watz cumen wyth wynter wage.

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