Beowulf: Is the Oldest English Epic Historical Fiction?


Was Beowulf the product of a poet’s lively imagination? Borrowed from tales told by the fire? Based on actual historical events? The more I look into the origins of oldest epic in the English language, the more I believe it is a combination of all of the above.

Beowulf was composed somewhere between the middle of the seventh century and end of the 10th, a period that overlaps with the migration of peoples who lived in Germany and Scandinavia. Faithful readers of the poem will remember that it’s set in Scandinavia, so it should come as no surprise that the migrants took their stories with them. They maintained cultural ties to the Baltic in the fifth and sixth centuries, and Anglo-Scandinavian trade in glass claw beakers (fancy drinking vessels) continued into the seventh.

The folk might have told tales about a ruler’s death in battle on a foreign land. They might have made references to a sixth century enemy from today’s Sweden. They might have woven in objects from daily life such as harps and helmets. If the purpose was to entertain rather than educate during long winter nights, someone might have embellished the tale with a hero and monsters.

Beowulf on a ship
By J.R. Skelton, 1908 (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Today, we have tantalizing clues to where the poet borrowed from history. Gregory of Tours’s History of the Franks recounts a Danish-Frankish war, estimated to have occurred around 523, in which the Danish king was killed – similar to passages describing the death of Hygelac, Beowulf’s kinsman. A high-status burial mound in Sweden may be the final resting place of Ohthere, a king who is named a few times in the poem. Artifacts from Sutton Hoo are consistent with objects mentioned in the epic.

We might never know the true origin of the oldest epic in the English language and will likely never know who wrote it. But even with its mysteries, it reveals something valuable: the culture of its writer.

Through the poem, we see that the characters in Beowulf are Christian but practice their faith differently than most modern day believers. They are much most interested in justice than mercy. When Grendel, the monster descended from Cain, wreaks havoc, they want vengeance. The pagan influence was still strong. The image of the boars on the helmets were a sign of strength as well as beast sacred to a god, and the characters burned their dead, piling grave goods on the pyre.

Whoever wrote Beowulf likely meant to entertain his contemporaries, perhaps even a lord looking for a diversion or claiming descent from the hero to assert power, but the poet left a gift for all generations.

Beowulf being served a drink
By J.R. Skelton, 1908 (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney (very good reading, even if you’re not doing research)

The Origins of Beowulf: And the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia, by Sam Newton

“Formation and Resolution of Ideological Contrast in the Early History of Scandinavia” (PhD thesis) Carl Edlund Anderson. University of Cambridge, Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic (Faculty of English)

Originally published April 21, 2014 in English Historical Fiction Authors.

Queen Cuthburga: Sinner or Saint?



As the training ground of medieval female missionaries, burial place of royalty, and college of secular (nonmonastic) canons, Wimborne Minster in Dorset holds an influential place in history, but little is known about its eighth-century founder, Saint Cuthburga.

Trying to research the woman and her life has raised many more questions than answers, and the variant spellings of her name are the least of our problems. Her birth date is unknown, and she died Aug. 31, perhaps in 725. We know with certainty that she was the sister of King Ine of Wessex, and she was married to Northumbrian King Aldfrith, from whom she separated to join the religious life.

Whether Cuthburga and Aldfrith parted before or after their marriage was consummated depends on whether we believe manuscripts written in the 12th and 14th centuries. In the latter manuscript, whose author took the creative liberties of a historical novelist, Cuthburga wanted Christ as her spouse, and on the night of her nuptials, she quoted Scripture to her husband to extol the virtues of virginity, a higher calling than marriage. Although Aldfrith desired her, he released Cuthburga from her marital vows and even asked her to pray for him.

Medieval wedding nights were not private events. In a state of undress, the bride and groom accepted each other in front of witnesses. So, the 14th century description stretches credibility.

A more plausible possibility is that Cuthburga took the veil after failing to produce an heir. If she was already drawn to a spiritual life, she might even take the lack of a child as a sign from God. As an abbess, she would still have a position of wealth and power – plus the independence of not having a man telling her what to do – while Aldfrith could free himself for another marriage.

Anglo-Saxon couple
An Anglo-Saxon couple (from Costumes of All Nations, public domain)

Aldfrith had a son, Osred, around 696, but Cuthburga did not act like the boy’s mother. Osred was 8 when his father died around 704. In such cases, the queen mother often was regent until the son came of age. Cuthburga did not play that influential role. In fact, she seemed to have nothing to with Northumbrian politics.

After leaving her husband, Cuthburga went to Barking, perhaps for a yearlong novitiate under Abbess Hildelith. By 705, she founded the double monastery at Wimborne in Wessex and was joined by her sister and later successor Cwenburga. Cuthburga’s time as a princess and queen would have prepared her to lead an abbey, and this one became a center for teaching religious women. Later, Saint Boniface turned to Tetta, one of Cuthburga’s successors, when he needed nuns to serve as missionaries on the Continent.

If we are to believe Rudolf of Fulda in his 9th century hagiography about Saint Lioba, men and women at Wimborne lived on the grounds in their own houses and did not interact. The only time the women saw a man was when the priest celebrated Mass. Three centuries later, William of Malmesbury calls Cuthburga’s community “a full company of virgins, dead to earthly desires and breathing only aspirations towards heaven.”

Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The 14th century manuscript has Cuthburga living a saintly life of fasting and prayer and being well loved by her sisters. When she was gravely ill, they prayed for her to be restored to health, and she told them to let her go.

Yet her fate in afterlife is uncertain. According to an eighth-century anonymous monk, the former queen is screaming in a penitential pit with a couple of other aristocrats, having their carnal sins thrown in their faces like boiling mud. Could the monk have meant a different Cuthburga? He mentions her once being a queen but nothing of her being an abbess.

However, she was canonized by the 14th century, and I prefer this entry from a manuscript of that era: “She was buried with fitting honour in the same church which she had built to the holy mother of God, where by her merits very many miracles were wrought and many benefits were bestowed on the sick; the power of walking was restored to the lame, hearing to the deaf, sight to the blind, through the tender mercy of Jesus our Christ, whose majesty and sway remain for ever and ever.”


A Dictionary of Saintly Women, Volume 1, by Agnes Baillie Cuninghame Dunbar

William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England: From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen (12th century, 1866 translation)

Hell and Its Afterlife: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Isabel Moreira and Margaret Toscano

Woman under monasticism: chapters on saint-lore and convent life between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500, Lina Eckenstein

A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain: England, Scotland, and Wales, C. 500-c. 1050, Ann Williams, D. P. Kirby

The Collegiate Church of Wimborne Minster, Patricia Helen Coulstock

The Marriage of St. Cuthburga, who was afterwards Foundress of the Monastery at Winiborne,” by the Rev. Canon J.M.J. Fletcher, Proceedings – Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society, Vol. 27

Medieval Sourcebook: Rudolph of Fulda: Life of Leoba

This post was previously published on English Historical Fiction Authors and Unusual Historicals.

Thanksgiving Dinner for 142



The first Thanksgiving was a three-day feast, so the modern-day holiday would be the equivalent of day two of the 1621 event for what was then an English settlement.

At the party were 52 English settlers and 90 Wampanoag guests. That’s right. The guests outnumbered the hosts. The cooks among the settlers: the four surviving married women, five teenage girls, and a maidservant.

Many traditions we associate with Thanksgiving are from the 19th century. It wasn’t even an annual holiday until President Abraham Lincoln designated it in 1863.

In the 17th century, the settlers didn’t know they were setting a precedent, which likely occurred between September 21 and November 11. They were just glad to be alive after a year of hunger and hardship, and they wanted to celebrate with food and recreation.

The First Thanksgiving
“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

According to settler Edward Winslow, four Englishmen had gone fowling and killed enough to feed the settlers for a week. The Wampanoag guests stopped by, were entertained for three days, and contributed five deer (about 360 pounds of venison if they were mature bucks).

The fare was not as portrayed in Standish of Standish: A Story of the Pilgrims, an 1889 novel by Jane Goodwin Austin (an account later taught as part of school curricula). Among other things, Austin describes a long table laden with stew, clam chowder, turnips, oysters, venison, ale and root beer, hasty pudding, and of course a turkey, only stuffed with beechnuts instead of bread.

The real menu probably had fowl, venison, corn (also called maize), ale, and perhaps cod and a pudding made from goat’s milk. It’s possible the fowl was wild turkey – the Plymouth Plantation is in its range – but the area also supported geese, ducks, and passenger pigeons.

The tale of two disparate peoples coming together to celebrate has been mythologized over the centuries. Still, I must admit I love this story of friendship and fellowship, even though I feel sorry for the women who had to cook for all these people.

Originally published November 2013 in English Historical Fiction Authors.


The First Thanksgiving,” Christian Science Monitor

Butcher & Packer

Eating History, Andrew F Smith

A Thousand Years over a Hot Stove, Laura Schenone

Sheepskin Cloaks: The Most Practical Medieval Fashion


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If we are to believe Notker the Stammerer (and there are plenty of reasons not to), Charlemagne was trying to make a point when told his courtiers they ought to go hunting. At that moment. No changing clothes.

Charles was wearing a sheepskin cloak. His followers were bedecked in silks, pheasant skins, ribbons, ermine robes, peacock feathers, and other finery. So they trekked through forests thick with briars and tree branches, got drenched with rain, and oh yeah, got spattered with blood from their prey.

The next day Charles ordered them to appear before him with in yesterday’s clothes. The courtiers’ garments were tattered and stained, not good for anything but rags, but once brushed off, Charles’s sheepskin was as good as new.

Then Charles asked his courtiers which garments were truly worth more, and the courtiers were duly ashamed of their vanity.

Shepherd in sheepskin cloak
A painting of a shepherd in a sheepskin cloak by Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918)

Writing about 70 years after Charles’s death, Notker probably made the whole thing up. Such a stunt would more likely cause resentment, and for Charles to rule such a vast empire, he needed trustworthy allies within his realm.

Besides, Einhard, a more reliable biographer who actually knew the monarch, doesn’t include a sheepskin in Charles’s outfit. To stay warm, Charles favored a vest of expensive otter or marten furs and a blue cloak.

But Notker’s anecdote does illustrate the practicality and durability of sheepskin cloaks.

Medieval folk depended on sheep, which were only a third of the size of today’s breeds or smaller. While alive, they were a source for wool and milk. Slaughtered, they provided meat, tallow for candles, and bones that could be made into anything from flutes to dice. Their skins could be used for parchment or cloaks.

Sheep pen
A 14th century sheep pen from the Luttrell Psalter

A sheepskin cloak might cost a commoner as much as a live sheep or farm dog. When you consider that a peasant family might have thought themselves well off if they had a mix of 16 sheep, cows, and pigs, such an item isn’t cheap, but it is within reach. A sable-lined garment cost about 10 times more, and the marten and otter furs were 30 times as much.

To a family planning to keep a sheepskin cloak for years, it was worth the expense. The fleece kept its wearer warm and the lanolin repelled water when someone had to go outside to fetch firewood, walk to church, or get food from the cellar. It was valuable indoors, too; fires did not adequately warm the house.

Notker probably crafted his story to entertain his patron, Charles the Fat, and show the king how wise and pious his great-grandfather was. And perhaps Notker, like many writers, was fulfilling a wish. I can’t help but wonder if he had seen noblemen showing off their wealth with fancy, impractical clothes and wanted someone to teach them a lesson.

Images are public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Originally published Nov. 24, 2015, on English Historical Fiction Authors.


The Monk of Saint Gall: The Life of Charlemagne

Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne  

Katie Cannon’s Craft

Pierre Riche’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne

Daily Life in Medieval Times by Frances and Joseph Gies

Did the Pagans Kill the Saints to Save Their Community?


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How could two Northumbrian priests be considered such a threat that a pagan mob would murder them?

The seventh century martyrdom of Saints Ewald the Fair and Ewald the Black in Saxony leaves a lot of unanswered questions, but their story could have been in Charlemagne’s mind as he started a series of wars against pagan Saxon tribes almost 80 years later, and those wars would result in the obliteration of the Continental Saxons’ religion.

What information we do have about the Ewalds is far from an objective account. They were educated at Irish schools, and Ewald the Black was the more learned of the two. There, they likely met St. Willibrord. He in turn might have been influence by Ecgbert, who wanted to evangelize the Continental Saxons but was prevented from doing so.

Whether or not they accompanied Willibrord to the Continent, the Ewalds began their mission about the same time, around 690. About five years later, their journey took them to the house of a steward of a Saxon nobleman in Westphalia. The priests said they had an important message to give the aristocrat, and the steward promised to take them to him.

Statue of Ewalds the Fair and Ewald the Black
Photo by Velopilger released to public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For some reason, the priests had to wait several days and were the steward’s guests. With their tonsures and robes, they would have already stood out, and they held Masses, prayed often, and did whatever else their faith required.

Did the practice of their religion also include preaching, with a call to destroy sites sacred to the pagan villagers? On the North Sea island of Fositeland (Heligoland), the Ewalds’ contemporary Willibrord insulted the pagans by baptizing people at a fountain holy to them and having sacred cattle slaughtered for meat.

In Germanic religions, the stakes were higher than hurt feelings. The gods held power over every aspect of their lives, from the farm fields to the battlefield. Angry gods could cause famine or defeat in battle. 

The story goes that Saxon villagers believed the priests were trying to convert their chieftain and destroy their temples, and if we are to read between the lines, they thought the aristocrat could be swayed. In those days, religion was not merely a personal matter. The reason priests tried to convert a lord is that his followers might also renounce their gods and embrace Christianity.

Perhaps the people who attacked the priests feared disaster. They killed Ewald the Fair with a sword and tortured and dismembered Ewald the Black, who was the spokesman. The two bodies were thrown in the Rhine.

Martyrdom of Ewald the Fair and Ewald the Black
Photo by Raymakers released to public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When the nobleman found out about the deaths, he was furious. He ordered the murderers to be killed and the village to be burned. Was the nobleman outraged that guests in his house, and therefore under his protection, had been slain (never mind his obligation to protect the village)? Or is this element included to give the audience a sense of justice, important to Germanic societies? I leave that up to the readers. As I do the stories of the miracles that followed.

A spring of water gushed from the site where the priests had been martyred. The bodies were carried for 40 miles upriver to where the priests’ companion were, and a bright pillar of light shone above the martyrs. One of the Ewalds appeared to a monk and told him how to find the bodies.

The story made its way to Christian Francia. Hearing of the miracles, Pepin of Herstal had the saints’ relics translated to a church in Cologne. It is possible that one of his great-grandsons, Charlemagne, heard about the saints decades after the martyrdom. How it influenced his perception of the Saxons and their religion is a mystery. Perhaps it underscored his belief that they worshipped devils.

In 772, he led an army that destroyed the Irminsul, a pillar sacred to the Saxon peoples. It was the start of decades of bitter warfare, with brutality on both sides. But in the end, the thing the murderous Saxon mob feared came to pass: their religion was lost.

Originally published in English Historical Fiction Authors.


Sts. Ewald” by Columba Edmonds, The Catholic Encyclopedia

Alcuin’s The Life of Saint Willibrord

Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

Teutonic Mythology, Volume 1, Jacob Grimm

An American Horror Story: Andersonville Prison



In S.K. Keogh’s newest release, The Edge of Hell, a novel about friendship during the Civil War, some of the most vivid, horrifying, and moving scenes take place in Andersonville prison. Here, Susan discusses the real Andersonville and her research for her book.—Kim

By S.K. Keogh

S.K. Keogh

I don’t remember how old I was when I read John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary, but I was somewhere in my early teens. It made a lasting impression on me, so much so that many years later Andersonville found its way into my writing. Perhaps my fascination and desire to learn more was influenced by the spirit of one of my ancestors, Newman Easlick, who was a prisoner at Andersonville, a fact I was unaware of when I first wrote The Edge of Hell.

Andersonville survivor

If you saw the above picture of this emaciated prisoner out of context, you would no doubt think he was of a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. However, the man in the photograph was a Union soldier who had been a prisoner at Andersonville. Just as Hitler was responsible for the extermination of thousands of his own citizens, the Southern Confederacy during the American Civil War was responsible for the deaths of thousands of its countrymen in Andersonville’s brief, infamous history. In fairness, I will add here that Northern prisons during the Civil War had notorious histories too, but nothing truly compares to the horrors of Andersonville.

Andersonville, located southwest of Macon, Georgia, first opened in late February 1864 and saw its last prisoners depart in May 1865. During that time 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned there, and nearly 13,000 died. That was more deaths than on any battlefield in the war.

Many of the diseases that killed prisoners by the thousands could have been eradicated simply by improved and more plentiful food and water, and better sanitation. But by 1864, the Confederacy could barely feed and equip its armies, let alone care for its ever-growing prison population. Henry Wirz, the camp commandant, was put on trial after the war for conspiracy to kill or injure prisoners in violation of the laws of war. One hundred and fifty witnesses testified against him, and he was hanged on November 10, 1865.

Tents in the prison

The largest number of prisoners held at one time was 33,000 in August 1864. The original wooden stockade covered approximately 16.5 acres but was enlarged in June 1864 to 26.5 acres. Imagine 33,000 men crammed into that space, living with no permanent shelter and exposed to the elements. For perspective, imagine a modern-day sports arena, like the Staples Center in Los Angeles or Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit. Those venues hold 20,000 spectators. Now add 13,000 more men to those confines, and you’ll have a better idea of the overcrowding at Andersonville.

While researching The Edge of Hell, I traveled to Andersonville National Historic Site where I was graciously assisted by Alan Marsh, Cultural Resources Specialist. The physical location of the prison includes reconstruction of parts of the stockade such as one of the gates, shown below, for educational purposes.

Gate to Stockade
Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress

A spring house was built where Providence Spring burst forth from the ground during a violent storm in August 1864, depicted in my novel, providing the prisoners with much-needed fresh water.

Providence Spring
Photo courtesy of Dsdugan, CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

There are also a few monuments, many erected by individual Northern states. I found the inscription on the Wisconsin monument particularly moving. It’s from poet Thomas Campbell and reads: “To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.”

The cemetery contains row upon row of small, starkly white, tightly spaced headstones. Prisoners were buried in trench-like mass graves. To see the thousands of markers in person is overwhelming. It brought me to tears. While there, I visited the individual markers that bore the names of some of the real-life prisoners who appear in my novel. It felt like I was visiting the graves of old friends. A sobering experience, to say the least.

After the war ended, Dorence Atwater—an ex-prisoner who had kept record of the names of deceased Union soldiers—and Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross, traveled to Andersonville. Thanks to their efforts of identifying the dead, only 460 of Andersonville’s graves had to be marked “unknown U.S. soldier.” Barton once said, “We owe it alike to the living and the dead, that a proper knowledge and a realization of the miseries which they endured be entertained by all.”

I hope my novel helps perpetuate the memory those who suffered at Andersonville, including my ancestor.

Images are in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise noted.

S.K. Keogh’s The Edge of Hell is available on Amazon.

The Edge of Hell book cover

Thirteen thousand Union soldiers will lose their lives at Andersonville prison. James Keenan is determined Nate Calhoun will not be one of them.

James and Nate have nothing more in common than their rural hometown. In Burr Oak, class distinction and petty jealousies pit the two young men against each other. Their combative relationship carries over into the ranks of the Eleventh Michigan Infantry, where Nate struggles to live up to the reputation left behind by his brother, and James contends with an abusive sergeant, Robert Langdon. Once a preacher in Burr Oak, Langdon seeks retribution for James’s part in his fall from grace.

The bloody battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga wipe away past differences and forge a deep bond between James and Nate. As Sherman’s armies march inexorably toward Atlanta, Nate’s capture puts that bond to the test. Determined to rescue his friend from notorious Andersonville prison, James risks desertion to embark on a dangerous journey through the wilderness of war-torn Georgia, pursued by Langdon, bent on revenge.

The Edge of Hell tells the story of the rank and file from small-town America—farmers and shop-owners who made up the nucleus of the Federal army and, through extraordinary valor, preserved the Union.

Read my review.

Dark Ages Slavery and the Battle for Souls



Bishops in Carolingian Francia disliked the slave trade, but not for the reasons you might think.

When Carolingian kings conquered a pagan land, it was an opportunity for Christian missionaries to spread the faith. That chance, along with many souls, was lost if war captives were shipped off to Muslim Spain, Egypt, or other parts of Africa or they became the property of Jews.

Bishop Agobard of Lyon was irked to find out that Emperor Louis the Pious required slaves owned by Jews to have their master’s permission before being baptized. In On the Insolence of Jews (as anti-Semitic as it sounds), Agobard rails against allowing Jews to own Christians at all because the Christians might pick up the Jews’ bad habits of observing the Sabbath on Saturday, working on Sunday, and eating the wrong food at the wrong times during Lent.

Bishops who assembled at Meaux in 845 objected to Christian and Jewish traders driving Slav war captives to be sold to Muslims. They thought it better to redeem the captives and baptize them than to allow them to fill the ranks of the infidels.

Reeve and serfs
14th century illustration of reeve and serfs (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the mid-eighth century, King Pepin forbade the sale of Christian and pagan slaves. Perhaps realizing sales couldn’t be stopped completely, Pepin’s son Charles (Charlemagne) tried to regulate the practice, requiring the presence of a count or bishop and prohibiting sales beyond the frontiers.

Before Pepin became king, a male slave might have been worth slightly over half the price of a horse, the most expensive livestock. In the later years of Charles’s reign, the enslaved man might be about the same price as a horse.

Not only does this show inflation and why the slave trade became more attractive; it shows what slaves were worth compared to other possessions, more than most livestock and most garments.

Medieval serfs or slaves
Costume of serfs or slaves (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A slave owned by an aristocrat might physically be better off than a peasant. In a time when having enough food to last through winter was not guaranteed, a servant in a noble household was more likely to have food and clothing. Nor was the servant subject to conscription in the army.

But slaves were vulnerable to abuse. A maid could not refuse her lord’s unwanted advances. If the master needed funds for a horse and armor, he could sell slaves and break up families.

In other words, slave were commodities in the eyes of traders and their customers, and war captives were inventory. Churchmen, however flawed their motives by 21st century standards, did see war captives as humans with souls worth saving.

Originally published June 29, 2016, on Unusual Historicals.


Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Agobard of Lyon: On the Insolence of the Jews to Louis the Pious (via Medieval Sourcebook)

Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce AD 300-900 by Michael McCormick

Who’s Guilty? In Medieval Times, God Knows.



Delve into the justice system of early medieval Francia and you might find yourself grateful for what we have today, imperfect as it is.

And I’m not only talking about the punishments for the guilty: slit nostrils, the slow strangulation of hanging, chopping off a hand, the witch’s death of being sealing in a barrel and thrown into a river, or the traitor’s death of being tied to stallions and torn apart, to just give a few examples. Even with recognizable elements such as oaths, the trials themselves are problematic to a modern audience.

But those trials make sense in the medieval mind, which believed that the God who intervened on the battlefield would not let an innocent person be falsely convicted. The procedure depended on who was conducting the trial, which could be for a crime or a dispute between neighbors.

Duels between aggrieved parties, or champions fighting on their behalf, were an acceptable way to determine who was right. So was trial by ordeal, which predates Christianity among Germanic peoples.

Ordeal of boiling water
Ordeal of boiling water, from a 14th century manuscript (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Both parties, or their champions, swore oaths and then did something to hurt themselves. The methods varied. The men might stick their hands in a pot of boiling water to grab a rock or walk over red-hot or white-hot irons. However they were injured, the wounds would then be bound and whoever got an infection was in the wrong. Healing or the lack thereof was a sign from God. Another sign came from an ordeal where the parties held out their arms in the shape of a cross. Whoever stumbled or could no longer hold up their arms was guilty.

Trial by ordeal was widely accepted, even among Christian clerics, but some scholars, including Agobard and Theodulf, argued trial by ordeal was impious.

I used this history to write a murder trial, excerpted from my second novel, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar:

In the receiving room, the abbot sat on an ornate, high-backed chair resembling a throne, and the priest and three monks sat on stools to either side. A clerk stood to the far left with a wax tablet. A stone pedestal held a piece of wood, a relic of a saint, Deorlaf guessed. On the wall behind the abbot was a mural of the Final Judgment, where a giant figure of Christ had a book spread before Him and a long line of tiny, naked people awaited their fates. To Deorlaf’s relief, there was no boiling water or hot irons for an ordeal. Apparently, this abbot frowned on such tests of guilt.

Two burly tenants brought Usumund in chains. His face bruised and his lip swollen, he had the look of a cornered boar determined to gore its way out. After the abbot’s prayer, everyone took an oath, swearing on the relic, a piece of a fallen branch from a tree Saint Riquier liked to rest under.

Usumund’s story was even more inconsistent this time. Deorlaf was not surprised when Usumund again called him a God-cursed Saxon and devil worshipper, but a chill coursed up the back of his neck when Usumund brought up the thieving and killing.

“What say you, Deorlaf?” the abbot said in a tone that was more command than question.

Not wishing to lie outright, Deorlaf searched for an answer, glancing at the cross that hung from his neck. The cross, it holds my freedom! The tight bands on his chest loosened. “As Usumund pointed out, I am a Saxon, but I was baptized when I had seen…” he counted on his fingers, “twelve winters. I never made sacrifices to the Devil before or after my baptism.”

“He is lying,” Usumund shouted.

“Quiet, Usumund,” the abbot barked, “you have said your piece. Deorlaf, why would Usumund say you are a killer and a sorcerer if it wasn’t true?”

“Usumund and I have never been friends,” Deorlaf said, his voice steady as he stuck to the literal truth. “He is still angry that I foiled his attempt to rape a woman. I knew of no other way except to say a few words in Saxon and tell him it was a spell to unman him. Yes, I lied to protect a woman, but I used no black magic.”

“Father Abbot,” Ives said, stepping forward, “if Deorlaf wished to damn Gosbert, why does he try to lessen our friend’s time in purgatory by giving alms? You have heard Usumund’s lies with your own ears. First, he swears Deorlaf killed Gosbert by magic. Then, he insists Deorlaf gave Gosbert nightshade. Now his story is that Deorlaf enchanted him to poison Gosbert. How can Usumund be telling the truth when he cannot tell the same story about two nights past?”

Ives never raised his voice, but a current of fury ran through it. A whimper drew Deorlaf’s attention. Julien seemed ready to faint or spew. Deorlaf had to explain the boy’s behavior. “Father Abbot, Usumund offered Julien the nightshade first. The thought that someone would do him ill fills him with dread.”

The abbot nodded. In turn, he asked Deorlaf, Ives, and Julien about the night Gosbert had died. All of their stories were consistent.

“I need time to deliberate with my fellows,” the abbot said.


Pierre Riché’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne

Ordeals” by Johann Peter Kirsch, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 11, 1911.

Originally published Sept. 8, 2014, on

Grendel: Pagan or Christian?


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Grendel and his mother, the first two monsters Beowulf faces in the poem bearing his name, are both frightening and fascinating—and their creator blends pagan beliefs with a deep understanding of Christianity.

We might never know who penned the oldest English epic poem between the middle of the seventh century and end of the 10th, but it is proof that its author had a great intellect and great imagination, even though most people who lived in the Dark Ages could not read or write. (And like many medieval writers, Beowulf’s creator included a healthy dose of gore.)

Called a “demon”, “fiend out of hell,” and “shadow stalker,” Grendel shares many of traits of a draugr, an undead creature from Scandinavian mythology. He resents the living, wreaks murderous havoc, cannot be placated, and cannot be slain by ordinary weapons.

Otherworldly beings were so real to an early medieval audience, the folk took precautions to appease or hinder them such as having a wake for the dead or burying a corpse with a Host—the presence of Christ—in their mouth.

However, Grendel is living enemy. Instead of a burial mound, he inhabits a fen.


Yet the poet bases his explanation for Grendel’s monstrosity on Christian beliefs by saying Grendel is a descendant of Cain. The poet might have read a letter from the Apostle John, who exhorts Christians to love one another and not be like Cain, not only because the character is murderous but because by that act, he became more like Satan than Adam.

So Grendel is not only the bane of Heorot Hall; he is an enemy of God. The poet calls him “God-cursed” and says he bears God’s wrath.

The only way to stop Grendel is to kill him. Beowulf delivers the fatal blow by tearing off the monster’s arm while they wrestle. Grendel flees home. In the morning, the men get a good look at the disembodied limb, which is like “barbed steel,” and they realize none of their weapons would have worked.

Like some draugrs, Grendel has a mother, and in grief, she is more dangerous than her son. She doesn’t have a name, which makes her even more fearsome.

In one sense, the reader can sympathize with her. Sure her only child was a monster (literally), but he was still her son. And she, like the humans, will avenge her dead loved one. She claims the king’s right-hand man the very night Heorot Hall celebrates Grendel’s demise.

The only way for Beowulf to stop her is to pursue her to her underwater lair and kill her with a weapon in her hoard, another element of pagan mythology. The sword is so heavy only Beowulf can wield it, and when he uses it to claim Grendel’s head a trophy, the monster’s blood is so toxic it melts the weapon to the hilt. Like a good Christian warrior, Beowulf credits God for the victory when he later recounts the fight. 

With these monsters and other elements, Beowulf gives modern readers a glimpse how Christian and pagan beliefs coexisted in early medieval times.

Illustrations by J.R. Skelton (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Originally published on English Historical Fiction Authors April 5, 2016.


The Walking Dead: draugr and Aptrgangr in Old Norse Literature,” The Viking Answer Lady

“Beowulf’s Monsters: Comparing the Mythology of Grendel, Cain, and Satan” by Sean Hadley

Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney

Medieval Misconception: All Women Were Chattel


Early medieval women were far from passive damsels waiting for a knight to rescue them.

Of course, this time period is hardly an ideal time for women: childbirth so risky expectant mothers were urged to confess their sins before they went into labor, fathers choosing whom a girl would marry, age 13 considered marriageable, wife beating defined as a right.

But to say that girls were nothing but pawns valued only for their ability to produce sons grossly oversimplifies medieval women’s reality, and it gives a false impression of that women in this era were merely victims who contributed little to their society. Truth is, they tried to shape their situations.

19th century illustration of court ladies
From Braun and Schneider’s 19th century History of Costume (public domain image)

In the mid-eighth century, Saint Boniface depended on both nuns and monks to assist him in his mission to strengthen the church in Europe and spread Christianity. The women left the security of their abbey in Britain and took an uncomfortable, hazardous journey to areas east of the Rhine. Those who were appointed abbesses were not only pious. They were in a position of influence and needed to act independently.

On the secular side, aristocratic women did more than produce an heir, although husbands did try to set aside wives unable to bear children. The queen’s role was “to release the king from all domestic and palace cares, leaving him free to turn his mind to the state of his realm,” according to the ninth-century treatise The Government of the Palace. In an age when the personal and political were intertwined, the queen was the guardian of the treasury, and she controlled access to her husband. When houseguests were foreign dignitaries, royal hospitality was key to international relations.

Bertrada, Charlemagne’s mother, had been her husband’s full partner as they seized the kingdom of Francia in a bloodless coup. After he died, she became a diplomat whose most important mission was peace within her own country. Her sons, Charles and Carloman, each inherited half the kingdom, and Bertrada needed to keep the rivalry between the brothers, ages 20 and 17, from escalating to civil war.

Bertha Broadfoot, 1848, by Eugène Oudiné
Bertha Broadfoot, 1848, by Eugène Oudiné at Luxembourg Garden, Paris. (copyrighted photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons).

Bertrada is just one example. After Carloman died of an illness and Charles seized his dead brother’s lands, the widow Gerberga was not about to let her toddling sons lose their kingdom without a fight. Likely a teenager, Gerberga crossed the Alps with two little boys in tow and sought the aid of Desiderius, the Lombard king furious over Charles’s divorce from his daughter. Later, Charles’s third wife, Hildegard, might have been the one to convince him to make her sons his heirs, perhaps excluding the son by his first marriage.

These historic women are why the heroines of my novels try to solve their own problems, even when it’s painful. Alda in The Cross and the Dragon has a household to run and servants to keep in line. She bargains with the merchants and gives to charity. Leova in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar is a peasant, but at the beginning of the novel, she is a free woman with responsibilities, including children to raise and a house and farm to maintain with her husband. When she is betrayed and sold into slavery, she resents being seen as property and yearns to be a respectable woman again.

The existence of slavery meant that some women were chattel, but so were their male counterparts. But as you will see in this excerpt from The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, even slaves could use their wits to get their way.


Looking down, Leova stepped forward, her limbs stiff. Her thoughts were consumed with worry that Deorlaf would rush forward to defend her, just as Derwine would. She glanced over her shoulder.

Sunwynn stood rigid. Deorlaf’s body was tense like a cat ready to pounce into a fight. His hand strayed to his belt where his eating knife used to be. Deorlaf, don’t!

“Peace, Deorlaf,” Ragenard called over Leova’s shoulder. “I mean your mother no harm.”

She felt Ragenard’s hands on her sides and started. The touch against her ribs was gentle. Turning toward Ragenard, she met his gaze. She saw no malice in his amber eyes. A smile flickered on his lips. Then, he straightened and dropped his hands.

“You have cared for her well, my lord,” said Ragenard, his chiseled features impassive. “She is comely and has the temper I seek. So many other serving women are crushed and almost useless or lazy and willful. But this colt is worth more than the best maidservant.” He patted the sleek animal’s shoulder. “He is in his prime, obedient to the rein, yet has enough spirit to charge into the hunt.”

Leova seized the opportunity. “You’re right, Ragenard,” she said, hoping to keep the tremor from her voice. “A horse is worth more than me. Take the children as well.”

“Be still, woman,” Pinabel snarled. “Or I’ll rip out your tongue.”

Originally published Sept. 25, 2014 on Every Woman Dreams…


Medieval Women Monastics: Wisdom’s Wellsprings, edited by Miriam Schmitt, Linda Kulzer

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Walters Scholz with Barbara Rogers

“Pavia and Rome: The Lombard Monarchy and the Papacy in the Eighth Century,” Jan T. Hallenbeck, published in 1982 by Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

“Women at the Court of Charlemagne: A Case of Monstrous Regiment?” Janet L. Nelson, The Frankish World 750-900

“Family Structures and Gendered Power in Early Medieval Kingdoms: The Case for Charlemagne’s Mother,” Janet L. Nelson. Women Rulers in Europe: Agency, Practice and Representation of Political Powers (XII-XVIII)

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Pierre Riche