Sunday 30 October 2011

Divining a Witch

It is All Hallows Eve; a time for witches, dressing up and apple bobbing.  The Historich Openlucht Museum(open air History Park) is on the outskirts of the Company town of Eindhoven, originally built to house the workers employed in the Phillips Electrical business. 

The park is a medieval time slip. As you enter you approach the Bronte Os (Multicoloured Ox) Inn and nearby a set of human sized wooden scales loom invitingly and hinder your further progress. Beside them a medievally attired matron rolls balls of clay into weights. Her scribe is poised with his quill and ink waiting to record judgement. Could you be guilty of witchcraft? The scales do not lie.

The park contains reconstructed buildings from the iron age and the medieval period.  I visited on Friday and felt as if I had been dropped into a Medieval world.
From Holland, through Europe right into the heart of Britain wichcraft was a real living force feared by some but indulged by others.

Medieval Eindhoven had its share of witches. The History Park has reconstructed buildings in archeological and architectural detail using the same building techniques as were used centuries ago. There are several iron age farms and medieval halls, a smithy, a weaving shed, shops, boats including a great Viking ship, a grave yard, chapel, a kitchen garden and a number of examples of medieval loos. See some below.

I particularly liked the sheep farm from circa 500BC, the Noble farm-house from 950 AD, the weaver's house approximately 1250 AD and the Inn from circa 1560.

In walking the wooded pathways  with their twists and turns, you stumble upon rune stones dangling on twine from the branches of overhanging trees. There is a tangible air of mystery. The spell is obviously taking. Some Dutch witcherey must be afoot.

Beyond the runes on the edge of the wood, a rude tent stitched together from recycled canvas strains to provide protection to the sacred spiral walk carved on the sward below. Friendly helpers  (one is pictured below so you'll recognise them for what they do should you ever bump into one) reassure you that the witches will eventually be hunted out and the inhabitants of Medieval Eindhoven will be safe from their spells. They offer you a soothing decoction to soothe your rising (gulp) fear.

Reassured for the moment that I am protected from any itinerant witches, I enter the Noble House, a tenth century Viking hall. People are gathered around the raised hearth, dipping string into a bubbling cauldron of wax, and over the course of repeated dipping they create their own rudimentary candles. The atmosphere is warm and friendly. There is a fine air of good humour about the huge hall. The woven willow shutters, the hand dyed fabrics and wooden chests would have impressed followers of the Arts and Crafts movement many centuries later. Before I could leave, my new found medieval Dutch friends insisted that I undergo trial by scales. They led me from the hall to the market place.

The Viking Hall and ship

 Enter the Viking Hall

The clothing chest

The Iron Age Farmstead House

Iron Age Grain Store

Inside the Iron Age farmstead

Thus, I sat on the dubious scales. The lady who had earlier been  fashioning weights from clay now began piling them on the opposing scale. Was there now a malicious light in her suddenly beady appearing eyes?My life was hanging in the balance. The ricktety wood frame shuddered, but dear reader the balance lifted not. Apparently my embonpoint, such as it is, was enough to ensure I lacked the necessary airiness to guarantee broomstick liftoff. I signed my certificate of innocence, with the proffered quill and walked away, reluctantly headed back to the real world.


Happy All Hallows Eve to all.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Sutton Hoo and Handfastings

On Sunday  I made the trip to Sutton Hoo for the first time. This is the site of a 7th century burial, a spectacular Saxon ship and mound graves containing grave goods which tells us much about life in East Anglia during the seventh century. The National Trust Museum on the site brings to life the treasure that was unearthed here. Sutton Hoo is of a primary importance to historians because it sheds light on a period of English history which is on the margin between myth, legend and historical documentation. Use of the site culminated at a time when the ruler of Anglia, Redwald held senior power among the English people and played a dynamic if ambiguous part in the establishment of Christian rule in England; it is generally thought most likely that he is the person buried in the ship discovered here. Importantly, the site has been vital in understanding the early Anglo-Saxon period, in particular East Anglia.
Paul Mortimer, author of Woden's Warriors models the helmet
The purpose of my visit was to attend a one-day seminar about History and Fiction in the Age of Sutton Hoo. Local authors of historical fiction and non-fiction set in Anglo-Saxon England discussed their work.These writers included writer P.M. Sabin Moore, Paul Mortimer, Steve Pollington and Carla Nayland, author of a fiction set in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria titled Paths of Exile.

The highlight was finding out what Paul Mortimer (above) and Steve Pollington thought about handfasting. Paul has written a non fiction study of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture, Steve's books  on Anglo-Saxon history and culture are highly regarded for their basis in archeological research.

The Handfasted Wife

It is probable that a whetstone was used in the handfasted ceremony. The whetstone was important in oath taking as well as its traditional use for sharpening ceremonial swords. Weighing around six kilos, it had an significant place in the culture of a Saxon mede hall. The replica I saw on Sunday was exquisitely decorated with stone carvings depicting a man and a woman, thus indicating its possible use in the handfasting ceremony. On the whetstone's top a golden deer stands proudly on a very large golden ring. In this ceremony the bride would face the groom as they made their oath to eachother, their hands clasping the ring at the top of the stone. Interestingly, the groom would give a bride price for his intended, rather than the traditional situation we know later, the provision of a bride's dowry from her family. These historians suggest that handfasting continued throughout the Anglo-Saxon period.

At the top of the Whetstone is the Ring used for oath-taking

Snippets About Anglo-Saxon Women

The Anglo-Saxons often made marriages to create new kindreds out of existing foes thus the notion of the women as peaceweavers.

High status women could hold political influence. Kings and princes might ask their advice as they did of Abbess Hilde in the 600s.

Women owned property and made wills. Places were named after them. Look at maps and you should find female names from Saxon times.

Women had distinct social roles. As early as the 670s Queens had their separate households. These included weaving, advising, managing resources and as practitioners of medicine. From this period we have the notion of the 'distaff' side. Women served the mede horn in the Hall and they traditionally made speeches when their menfolk returned from battle. 

A Special Place

The magic of Sutton Hoo lingers in that gentle Suffolk coastal territory. The wealth this society possessed is illustrated by their gorgeous jewellery, the sapphires, the rubies, rare blue glass and garnets and gold. It is possible to imagine a king wearing the magnificent engraved golden helmet, pictured at top of blog, with its garnet eagle eyes watching as we trespass on their past. And as the sun set and I headed  home, I hoped that the ghosts of Sutton Hoo had not minded too much that we, had but briefly passed through their world.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Edith Swan-neck

 Shortly after The Battle of Hastings Eadgifu Swanneshals, known as Edith Swan-neck was brought to the field at Senlac by two priests of Waltham Abbey, Osgod Cnoppe and Elthelric Childemaister, to identify King Harold’s body.  Amongst the slain, she discovered his corpse, almost unrecognisable, stripped of all regal insignia. The Waltham Chronicler writes:
‘She had at one time been the king’s concubine and knew the secret marks on his body better than others did, for she had been admitted to a greater intimacy of his person. Thus they would be assured by her knowledge of his secret marks when they could not be sure from his external appearance.’

 Waltham Chronicle 12th Century
What do we know about Edith Swan-neck? Women are marginalised in early historical accounts so Edith presents a challenge for any twenty first century writer.  
Edith is recorded in the Domesday Book as Edfgifu the Rich, an heiress who brought extensive lands to Harold’s support when he was created Earl of Anglia in 1042. She was an Anglo-Danish noblewoman.
‘Count Alain holds Cherry Hinton…There is land for 13 ploughs…19 villans, 22 borders, with 9 ploughs…Eadgifu the Fair held this manor…’  The Domesday Book also records that she held other manors in Hertfordshire, Berks, Essex and Cambridgeshire and dwellings in Canterbury. She was a woman of some substance.

 Wife or Concubine
Edith and Harold were married More Danico. This was a system whereby the bride and groom were hand-fasted which perhaps nowadays might be compared to a civil partnership. Historian, Frank Barlow suggests that they were cousins in the fifth degree, indicating that a Church wedding was unacceptable. However, the arrangement allowed Harold to later remarry within the Church. In 1066, he made a politically expedient marriage to Aldgyth, sister of the Northern Earls.  Although Edith had now become his “concubine” he was, I suggest, still deeply attached to her and their six surviving children, Godwin, Edmund, Magnus, Gytha, Gunnhild and Ulf. The importance of these children is indicated by the fact that one of them was held hostage in the aftermath of the battle.  

A Noble Lady
The swanlike white skin of her neck was a sign of beauty amongst English noble women. She would have been greatly admired. As a wealthy aristocrat, she had her personal goldsmith, Grimwald. As a noble woman she probably received a basic education. We know that she donated a valuable Gospel to Thorney Abbey. Moreover, she was the benefactress of St Benet’s Monastery.
  After the Great Battle
Bayeaux Tapestry Historian, Andrew Bridgeford suggests that she fled when the Normans burned Godwin property in Sussex. He posits that this estate is The Burning House depicted on The Bayeux Tapestry. After the Battle, Edith disappears from historical record. By 1086, her lands had passed to an invader, Alain of Richmond. Possibly she joined Harold’s mother Gytha in Exeter from where she may have been exiled after the siege in the winter of 1068; perhaps she joined her exiled sons in Ireland or Denmark. Equally, she may have lived out her life in a Nunnery. Whatever happened after she identified King Harold’s corpse, I like to think that she survived the terrible aftermath of 1066. As Harold ’s lover and mother of his six children she has a place in the epic story of 1066 and therefore should be remembered.

This blog is part of a sequence in commemoration of the Battle of Hastings and there is a competition being run by the Historical Novels Society on this link.  There are questions on the six blogs and the chance to win £50 worth of Amazon vouchers.