Cats in the Days of King Arthur

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In 5th-century Britain, cats helped humans survive winter, but the way people regarded them depended on their religious beliefs.

Romans introduced housecats to Britain in the 1st century. The island already had native feline species: the lynx (now extinct) and the Scottish wildcat (now endangered). But these animals had no interest in humans—today a Scottish wildcat remained wild, even if it’s raised in captivity. The most significant difference between the housecat and the wildcat is temperament. Housecats live with us, although we’re big enough to be predators.

Unlike a lot of other animals, the early medieval housecat is similar to today’s domestic shorthair. By contrast, horses and sheep were smaller in the Dark Ages. Pigs had bristles and tusks. While some dog breeds such as greyhounds and mastiffs go back to the ancients, many were quite different from today. Some canines, like a hunting and herding dog called alaunt, have since become extinct.

Mosaic of cats and ducks
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Cats brought by the Romans descended from the Near Eastern wildcat, a species that hunted mice in granaries about 10,000 years ago. Today’s Near Eastern wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica, also called the African wildcat) looks like a large housecat with longer legs and a more upright posture when sitting or walking. In ancient times, the friendlier felines domesticated themselves by hanging out with the humans who fed them table scraps. Just like a cat who decided to live with me and my husband in the 1990s. After my husband fed her, she left a dead mouse on the doormat. A thank-you gift, apparently.

We named the cat Ellie, and she went on to become a pampered pet, still killing rodents on occasion. Had she lived in Arthurian Britain she would have had a job to do—just like every human and every other animal. The only pets, as we understand them, were toy-breed dogs for the wealthy who wanted to show off that they could have an animal that didn’t need to do anything. I suppose those dogs had a job, too—status symbol.

Housecats, along with ferrets and weasels, had the essential job of killing rodents that would otherwise eat the stored grain humans needed to get through winter. Perhaps, it is not too far a stretch for the Egyptians to see them as divine.

Egyptian wildcat
By Edward Howe Forbush (1858-1929) (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

When the Romans occupied Britain, housecats and other rodent killers played an important role in the international economy, too. Surplus grain from Britain was exported to the rest of the empire. A lot of people depended on cats’ hunting skills.

Cats had a spiritual role as well. With their reproductive abilities—a female cat can have two to three litters a year, with up to eight kittens—they were symbols of fertility, an important thing in an age when aristocrats needed heirs and people didn’t know how many children would live to adulthood.

Egyptian artifacts
By Carole Raddato from Frankfurt, Germany (CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Romans might have smuggled housecats from Egypt, where they were believed to be too sacred for export, and some Egyptian beliefs about the cat-headed Egyptian goddess Bastet might have seeped into Greco-Roman mythology. Bastet, goddess of fertility and motherhood and protector of the home, became associated with the Greek Artemis and by extension the Roman Diana.  A dream about a cat was a good omen and a sign of a good harvest.

Roman amulets to ward off evil have images of cats. Feline images appear on a sistrum, a bronze musical instrument a handle and a rounded open frame with bronze rods that rattled. Common in Egypt, the sistrum, associated with fertility, also was used throughout the Roman Empire and even as far as London.

The Celts, particularly the Irish and Scots, had their own belief about cats. It’s possible the Kellas cat, a black hybrid of the Scottish wildcat and housecat, had something to do with it. In the Highlands, the large black Cat Sidhe or Cat Sith could steal the soul of the dead before the gods claimed it, and the folk had several rituals to distract the creature until the body was laid to rest. At Samhain, they left a saucer of milk for the Cat Sidhe, who would bless the house. Those who neglected to leave the treat would be cursed.

Kellas cat
Photo of Kellas cat by Sagaciousphil (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Christian clergy saw them as companions—purring sphinxes. Greek monks who came to Europe brought cats with them to share their cells. One of the most delightful poems about a churchman’s relationship with his pet is the 9th century “Pangur Ban.” The Irish monk compares his hunt for knowledge to his white cat’s hunt for mice and the joy each of them feels.

In 5th century Britain, religious beliefs were fluid. Pagan and Christian beliefs coexisted, often in the same person. A Christian might wear an amulet with a cat right beside their cross. They might interpret a dream of a cat as a good omen right before they attend sunrise Mass.

Regardless of religious beliefs, people would have appreciated how the felines preserved the food supply. That furry creature who killed and ate mice in the granary was still essential.

Wildcats
Photo of wildcats by SuperJew (CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Sources

Greek and Roman Household Pets” by Francis D. Lazenby

“Cats were so nice, they conquered the world twice” by Nsikan Akpan, PBS News Hour

The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat” by Donald W. Engels, Classical Cats

A cat that can never be tamed” by Bec Crew, Scientific American

The Cat Sidhe by Deborah MacGillivray

“House Cat Origin Traced to Middle Eastern Wildcat Ancestor” by Brian Handwerk, National Geographic News

Originally published Nov. 20, 2017, in English Historical Fiction Authors.

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Writing about Saints—the Holy and the Human

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Today, it is my pleasure to welcome my friend Tinney Sue Heath, author of Lady of the Seven Suns. This is a fabulous story about Francesco (St. Francis) and Giacoma, a Roman noblewoman who was one of his most devoted supporters (read my review on Goodreads). Here, Tinney discusses how she chose to portray Francesco as both a holy man and a real human being.—Kim

By Tinney Sue Heath

Tinney Sue Heath

I still can’t quite believe I wrote a book with Saint Francis of Assisi as a major character.

It’s downright frightening to write about saints, especially when it’s fiction, and historical fiction rather than religious fiction. Saint Francis, or “Brother Francesco” in my book, is beloved by so many people of all faiths and no faith, all across the world, and each one of them has a unique idea of what he must have been like, and what he taught and believed.

Some see the happy little friar covered with twittering birds and surrounded by Disney-like animals. Some see the radical revolutionary who challenged the wealth and complacency of the church by his example. And some see the man who suffered as he tried to imitate Christ, even to bearing the stigmata on his own body.

My main character, Giacoma, is a historical woman who seems an unlikely friend, follower, and supporter of the saint. She was a wealthy and powerful Roman noblewoman, and he was a barefoot friar who steadfastly refused to own anything. Yet the two of them formed a deep and lasting bond of friendship. Francesco even summoned “Brother Giacoma,” as he called her, to be present at his death. It was this apparent mismatch along with their profound mutual loyalty that intrigued me and inspired me to write the book.

By Pedro Subercaseaux Errázuris, OSB

One thing I learned is that saints tend to congregate. In Lady of the Seven Suns you will meet not only Saint Francis (Francesco), but also Saint Clare (Chiara), and there is a brief appearance by Saint Agnes (born Caterina, and Chiara’s younger sister). In addition to these religious luminaries, another character, Brother Egidio, was beatified.

Saints Francesco and Chiara, Saint Agnese, Blessed Egidio

Giacoma herself may have been beatified, or canonized. I’ve found claims for both possibilities, though some say no official ceremony ever took place. I cannot locate evidence for either one, but Franciscan communities celebrate her feast day on February 8.

So this writer found herself in exalted company, trying to write about these deeply religious people from a historical and secular point of view. But even saints have a human side and a worldly history, and sainthood is not conferred upon them until after they have lived out that history. So I took a deep breath and dug in, trying to understand the world they lived in and the loyalties, beliefs, and experiences that helped shaped them into the extraordinary people they were.

The reader’s first glimpse of Francesco in Lady shows him before his religious awakening, a confused young man trying to decide what to do with his life. This view of him is documented in the early biographies and hagiographies—a rich source of stories, like the one about the brothers presenting Giacoma with a lamb. While I appreciated the symbolism, being the secular novelist that I am I couldn’t resist imagining what it would be like to share your Roman palazzo with a sheep, so I played with that idea. Many other scenes and incidents in Lady originated in those early writings.

By José Benlliure y Gil

I came away from my writing experience with a new appreciation for what Francesco faced as he blazed his own trail and brought something genuinely original into his medieval world, and what Giacoma faced as she went against all the expectations for someone of her sex and her social caste. I don’t claim to be in any position to interpret the religious beliefs of these remarkable people, but I hope I have at least managed to show them as they might have appeared to their contemporaries.

To learn more about Tinney, visit her website, tinneyheath.com. There, you can sign up to receive her monthly newsletter and get your free copy of Cantilena for Seven Voices: Dante’s Women Speak. You can also follow her on Facebook.

All images, with the exception of the author photo and book cover, are public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Saint George in Dark Ages Britain

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Long before Richard the Lionhearted invoked him in the Crusades, before he became England’s patron, Saint George was a popular figure in medieval Christianity.

The basic story is that George was born to noble Christian parents in Cappadocia and moved with his mother to her native Palestine after his father died. He joined the Roman army and was named a tribune. Sometime in his career, he rescued a princess from a dragon in the city of Selena. However, Emperor Diocletian issued an anti-Christian edict. Refusing to renounce his faith, George resigned his commission and complained to the emperor. For his troubles, he was imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded around 303.

Regardless of whether the events are historically accurate, Saint George’s legend captured medieval Christians’ imagination. The saint’s tomb is in Lydda (later Diospolis then Lod in Israel), and after Constantine issued an edict of tolerance in 314, churches were dedicated to George in the region. Perhaps, pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land brought the saint’s legend back with them to Europe and the British Isles.

If you’re familiar with the hero’s epic of Beowulf, it’s easy to see why Saint George caught the interest of Christians from warlike Germanic cultures such as the Saxons and the Franks. Like Beowulf, Saint George is a tough guy who killed a monster. The greatest different is that George makes the ultimate sacrifice for God, while Beowulf dies in a fight for the sake of his people.

Vitale da Bologna’s Saint George’s Battle with the Dragon (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

On the Continent, the Franks knew about Saint George by the sixth century.  After King Clovis was baptized in 496, he founded a monastery at Baralle in George’s honor. Clovis’s wife, Clotilda, who wanted her husband to convert in the first place, also honored George by building an altar and the church at Chelles.

Whether Saint George’s story had crossed the Channel at that time is uncertain. However, around 670, Bishop Arculf, a pilgrim from Gaul, was blown off course on his return from the Holy Land and landed on the island monastery of Iona (also called Hy), near today’s Scotland. His host was the Irish abbot Adamnan. As Arculf talked about the Holy Land, Adamnan wrote down his guest’s account on wax tablets, then transcribed them to parchment and presented Arculf’s descriptions to the king of Northumbria in 698. The Venerable Bede also used that information in his own writing about holy places, and his martyrology included Saint George.

Might Arculf have also told the story of Saint George during his visit? It’s possible. Saint George’s acts were translated into Anglo-Saxon, and churches were dedicated to him before the Norman Conquest. Artwork of George slaying the dragon dates back as early as the seventh century. Perhaps the image of a hero literally driving a lance through a symbol of evil (or paganism) inspired medieval Christians.

Sources

Herbert Thurston, “St. George.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6, 1909.

Godefroid Kurth, “Clovis.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4, 1908.

William Grattan-Flood, “St. Adamnan.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1, 1907.

Thomas Walsh, “Arculf.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1, 1907.

Herbert Thurston, “The Venerable Bede.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2, 1907. 14 Jun. 2014

The Edinburgh Review: Or Critical Journal, Volume 177

About Saint George

EWTN

StGeorge.org

Originally published June 22, 2014, on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Character Interview: The Heroine of ‘The Cross and the Dragon’

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Alda, the heroine of my first novel, The Cross and the Dragon, shares her thoughts with me on the eve of Francia’s invasion of Hispania in 778, even though we have a language barrier. I speak American English; Alda speaks Frankish and Roman.

Why do you prefer Hruodland to Ganelon?

Hruodland is a good husband. Not only is he fond of me; he respects me as well. He doesn’t deny me anything. He likes a woman who understands politics and the importance of good defenses. He was willing to protect me from Ganelon, even before it was his duty.

As for Ganelon, God blessed him with good looks but not a good brain, and his heart is as black and twisted as a spent log in the hearth. If we had wed, I would have been at Ganelon’s mercy, and he has no mercy. The marriage would have cost me my life or made me a murderer.

Are you still afraid of Ganelon?

When the king ruled that my betrothal to Hruodland was valid, Ganelon swore vengeance. My family thinks he has forgotten it. After all, he married another woman of noble blood. He was gracious to my kin at the spring assembly in Paderborn last year and did not give me even a hard look.

But I learned that his wife died. He said the Lord took her after she gave birth to a girl. Something in his manner tells me it’s not the complete truth.

What do you fear?

Losing Hruodland in Hispania. I keep thinking disaster will strike.

Why did King Charles decide to invade Hispania?

At the assembly in Paderborn, three emirs – Islamic noblemen – asked for my king’s aid to overthrow the ruler of Cordoba, even though he is a follower of Muhammad like them. They said he is seeking to expand his realm beyond the Pyrenees and said that his subjects would rather have a godly Christian king than someone from an ungodly and corrupt family. Winning this war would give us access to trade routes as well as more iron for our swords and armor. And we must consider that Church in Hispania is under Islamic rule.

My Uncle Leonhard argued that we shouldn’t get in a fight between Islamic factions. He might be right. I had a bad feeling when I heard them make their request, and I cannot shake it.

Why are you having a premonition?

It goes against all reason. God has granted our king victory against the Aquitainians, the Lombards, and the Saxons. So why would He not grant us victory this time? Hruodland thinks it’s my humors. But he is having nightmares, and I fear they might be an omen.

I gave him my amulet so that he would have the protection of the dragon’s blood in its stone, and I will pray for victory every day and give alms.

Where did the stone come from?

Drachenfels, the mountain where Siegfried slew the dragon. It is across the Rhine from my birthplace.

As he lay on his back in a trench, Siegfried knew he had but one chance to slay the beast. If his blow was not true, he would be sprayed with venom. He stabbed the monster in its underbelly as it passed over him and then bathed in its blood. The magic made him invulnerable. Almost. Except for where a leaf fell on his shoulder.

The mountain’s rocks hold the magic of the dragon’s blood, and I can feel it in my amulet.

Forstmann Nonnenwerth Painting
This circa 1870 painting by Arnold Forstmann (1842–after 1914) shows Nonnenwerth, along with Rolandsbogen and Drachenfels. (Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.)

Originally published June 1, 2013, on Laurie’s Paranormal Thoughts and Reviews.

Queen Eadburh: Maligned but Not Murderous

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A woman who was once a murderous queen of the West Saxons winds up begging in the streets of Lombardy. Lovely poetic justice, if only it were true.

Eadburh, daughter of Mercian King Offa and Queen Cynethryth, was a real person. She did marry a king and was widowed. And she might have ended her days in Lombardy, but not begging and for much more mundane reasons than those in a story written by an author currying favor with a political enemy.

Offa (d. 796) was known for his ruthlessness and for the dike bearing his name. Like most aristocrats, he and his wife arranged for their children to marry for political advantage. In 789, Eadburh wed Beorhtric, king of Wessex.

An Anglo-Saxon king and noblewoman from Costumes of All Nations (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The alliance had a mutual benefit. Beorhtric might have come to power as an outsider taking advantage of a power vacuum when his predecessor died. Marriage to the daughter of a powerful Mercian king solidified his claim. In his part of the bargain, Beorhtric teamed up with Offa to drive rival Ecgberht out of England. Beorhtric also had the dubious honor of having Vikings land on his shore and kill his reeve.

Apparently, Eadburh did wield power and influence. She gave away land in her own name and witnessed charters with her husband and her brother. Even though her marriage to Beorhtric lasted several years, they didn’t have children. Men in this age sometimes tried to repudiate wives who didn’t produce a healthy son. Beorhtric seems to have been a steadfast husband. Or maybe he feared upsetting Eadburh’s parents more than dying without an heir.

After Offa died, his son, Ecgfrith, succeeded him, and Beorhtric and Eadburh supported him. But Ecgfrith’s reign didn’t last even a year. He died, likely not of natural causes.

Eadburh and Beorhtric’s marriage lasted until his death in 802. He didn’t die of old age, either.

A 13th century image of Beorhtric (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

And now we get to the fiction, an account by Asser, who wrote Life of Alfred in 893. The title character was Ecgberht’s grandson. Asser supposedly includes Eadburh’s story to explain why the wives of the Wessex kings weren’t crowned queen like Eadburh was and not take her seat beside him on the throne. More likely this is an attempt to discredit the rival family.

If we are to believe Asser—and I don’t—Eadburh was tyrannical like her father and dominated the relationship (not good in medieval eyes). If her husband liked anyone she didn’t, she would poison the friendship, and if that didn’t work, the poisoning took a literal turn. Poison, the weapon of women and cowards, fits nicely into the narrative.

Eadburh planned to kill a young man she thought was getting too close to her husband. The victim took the poison. So did Beorhtric. Oops.

In reality, Ecgberht is the more probable culprit. He might have invaded Wessex with his followers, and Beorhtric fell in battle. Ecgberht subsequently seized the throne.

According to Asser, Eadburh took treasures and fled. That much is believable. What’s next is a stretch, and that’s being charitable.

Eadburh went to Charlemagne’s court. The emperor, whose fifth wife had died, asked Eadburh if she wanted himself or his son Charles. Eadburh said she preferred the younger man. Charlemagne told her had she chosen the father, she would have gotten the son, but now she could have neither.

This doesn’t pass the laugh test. By medieval standards, Eadburh was not a desirable bride, especially for a royal marriage. Her father and brother were dead, leaving her without the family connections needed to form alliances.

1725 Statue of Charlemagne by Agostino Cornacchini
Equestrian statue of Charlemagne, by Agostino Cornacchini (1725), St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican (photo by Myrabella via Wikimedia Commons, used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License)

Instead, Charlemagne appointed her as an abbess. Using another time-honored technique to discredit women, Asser says that Eadburh was caught fornicating with one of her countrymen and expelled from the convent on Charlemagne’s order. Somehow she made her way to Pavia with a slave and ended her days in shame and misery as a beggar.

She might have spent the rest of her days in Lombardy but not as a punishment or in poverty. A confraternity book written between 825 and 850 shows an “Eadburg” as an abbess of a large Lombard convent. If this Eadburg is the former queen of Wessex, she would be in her 50s to her 70s.

It was common for a widowed queen to retire to a convent, and if the emperor thought her a reliable ally, he might appoint her as the abbess. An abbess was a leader, controlling land and the convent’s other assets, and she usually did not live an ascetic lifestyle.

The real Charlemagne very much believed in the power of prayer, and that extended to winning wars. If he trusted Eadburh to lead her sisters in prayer, it is possible he or his successor, Louis the Pious, might have bestowed the abbey upon her.

This post was originally published May 16, 2018 on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Sources

“Eadburh” by Janet L. Nelson, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

“Beorhtric” by Heather Edwards, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Asser’s Life of Alfred

Asser’s Life of King Alfred, together with the Annals of Saint Neots erroneously ascribed to Asser by John Asser, d. 909, edited by William Henry Stevenson

A handsome, but wretched head.” by Lisa Graves, The History Witch

Eadburh, Queen of the West Saxons” by Susan Abernethy, The Freelance History Writer

Charlemagne and Offa, Their Kids’ Failed Betrothals, and Trade

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About 790, Frankish King Charles (Charlemagne) had a proposition for Mercian King Offa: one of Offa’s daughters marry one of Charles’s sons.

Charles likely saw this as a way to secure an alliance between a powerful kingdom in England and his vast realm—stretching from the Atlantic to east of the Rhine, from the North Sea to the Pyrenees and part of Italy. If Charles did not sire any other sons, the bridegroom, his son Charles (whom I call Karl in my books), stood to inherit all but Aquitaine and northern Italy.

Gervold, abbot of St. Wandrille, served as Charles’s envoy to work out the details. The two kings likely brought their wives into the discussions. Frankish Queen Fastrada and Mercian Queen Cynethryth were both strong-willed women. Although Karl might have also favored the marriage, but we don’t know the sentiments of the young woman involved.

In some modern eyes, princesses and other young noblewomen appear to be pawns. In medieval parents’ minds, daughters had an important role in forming the alliances and swaying their husbands to uphold her family’s interests. A husband would think his wife should convince his in-laws to side with him.

Offa of Mercia

Offa of Mercia by Matthew Paris (1200-1259) (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Offa, who had seized power in 757 during a civil war after the murder of his cousin, was no exception. Although one daughter, Æthelburh, was an abbess—an influential position—another daughter, Eadburh, wed Beorhtric, king of Wessex. The marriage solidified Beorhtric’s claim to his throne, and the father- and son-in-law drove out Ecgberht, son of Kentish King Ealhmund and a rival for the West Saxon crown.

Offa had another daughter, Ælfflæd, who remained unattached in 790. Offa might have wanted her to wed a ruler in a neighboring kingdom rather than go to the continent. (She would marry Northumbrian King Æthelred I two years later.)

Offa made his own offer to Charles. He would only agree to the Frankish king’s proposition if Charles’s daughter Bertha married his son, Ecgfrith. Crowned co-ruler with his father in 787, Ecgfrith was quite the bachelor, assured of succession. Offa had, ahem, reduced the number of claimants to the throne.

But why Bertha, too young to marry at only age 11, and not her older sister, Hruodtrude, who was the marriageable age of 15? Hruodtrude had been betrothed to Byzantine Emperor Constantine, whom she never met, but that agreement fell apart a few years before.

Apparently Offa was willing to wait a couple of years as he expanded his rule into Kent. Perhaps, he thought the marriage of Charles’s second daughter to his son would remind the Kentish folk of a successful royal couple from long ago: a Merovingian princess named Bertha and Æthelberht, the most powerful Anglo-Saxon king in the late sixth century.

Charlemagne

Charlemagne, as he appears in the 1888 The German Emperor by Max Barack (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Charles was not having it. Not at all. While he was willing for Offa’s daughter to come to Francia, learn the ways of the Frankish court, and benefit from the scholars there, he might not have wanted his own child to live in Mercia. He might have heard firsthand accounts of Offa’s ruthlessness and did not wish to subject Bertha to it.

Charles became angry, and that led to Mercia and Francia closing their ports to each other’s merchants.

This isn’t the first time a failed betrothal in Charles’s family had international consequences. According to the Revised Royal Frankish Annals, Constantine, furious at being refused Hruodtrude’s hand in marriage, ordered the Sicilians to attack Benevento, a duchy recently allied with Charles. (Exactly who dashed Constantine’s hopes is unclear. Both Charles and Empress Mother Irene take credit for the breakup.)

Yet I wonder if the cause of Charles’s ire was something in addition to a failed betrothal. Perhaps, Offa brought up another issue. Charles was sheltering Ecgberht, among other exiles, and that must have irked Offa, who still saw Ecgberht as a threat. Might Offa have demanded Charles surrender his guest as a condition for their children’s marriage? If that was the case, I can imagine Charles feeling indignant.

Charlemagne at court

Jacob van Maerlant’s 14th century interpretation of Charlemagne at court (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

By 796, the two monarchs reconciled, and trade resumed. In an April letter from that letter, Charles calls Offa “dearest brother.”

Still, it turns out that Bertha was better off staying at home. Offa died in 796, and his son succeeded him, but Ecgfrith’s reign didn’t last even a year. He died, likely not of natural causes.

796 was a bad year for Ælfflæd, too. Her husband, Æthelred, had been a ruthless ruler, and two ealdormen took matters into their own hands and murdered him. Ælfflæd might have joined her sister Æthelburh in the cloister, a common refuge for a widowed queen. Karl himself never married. The reason remains a mystery.

Had politics not interfered with Karl and Ælfflæd’s betrothal, what kind of a couple would they have been? We’ll never know.

Sources

Charlemagne: Empire and Society, edited by Joanna Story

Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity by Rosamond McKitterick

“Carolingian Contacts,” by Janet L. Nelson, from Mercia: An Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in Europe, edited by Michelle P. Brown, Carol A. Farr

“Offa” by S.E. Kelly, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Carolingian Connections: Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Francia, c. 750–870, by Joanna Story

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

Originally published at English Historical Fiction Authors on Sept. 26, 2018.

Poetic Intellect in the Dark Ages

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A poem within a poem. And the author’s only tools are stylus and wax tablet, pen and parchment.

Early medieval intellect is overshadowed by the period’s war, poverty, disease, superstition, and brutal justice. But it did exist even in an era commonly called the Dark Ages. And one wonderful example is Alcuin of York’s acrostic poem, “De Sancta Cruce” (“The Holy Cross”).

Starting with Crux decus es mundi, Iessu de sanguine sancta (“Cross, you are the world’s delight, sanctified in Jesus’s blood”), it reads line by line like a devotional piece about redemption through Christ’s sacrifice, but when read as a cross within a diamond within a square, each line has a message of salvation. The structure of the acrostic lines is symbolic. The diamond represents the world redeemed by Christ’s death and the symbol of His faith. See Futility Closet for an image of the poem and a translation.

Writers who marvel at this sophistication might wonder: How long had Alcuin worked on this poem? Did he start out writing it in this style, placing the words in a certain way, or did the structure emerge in the creative process? Did he go through several drafts on wax tablets before putting quill to expensive parchment?

Those questions remain unanswered. We do know Alcuin was educated. Born about 735 to a noble Northumbrian family, he entered the cathedral school at York as a child and was a bright pupil. Later, he directed the school for 15 years. While returning from Rome in 781, he met Charlemagne and became part of the Frankish monarch’s court.

Charlemagne's Court

Charlemagne receives manuscripts from Alcuin (1830 painting by Jean-Victor Schnetz, public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to being a great military leader, Charles was interested in Church reform, liked to surround himself with scholars, and had both his sons and daughters educated. The king himself could speak Latin and Greek and read, but he could not write despite an attempt to learn later in life.

Charles, his family, Alcuin, and others were among an elite few who could read. Even fewer early medieval people could write. The main reason, I suspect, is that books were expensive. They were so precious that owners invoked dire consequences if they were damaged. One scribe wrote: “The book was given to God and His Mother by Dido [of Laon]. Anyone who harms it will incur God’s wrath and offend His Mother.”

Parchment came from sheepskin, and a large book required a lot of sheep. So to have the raw materials for a book, someone needed enough land to devote to feeding sheep instead of raising crops. On top of that was the cost of labor. A normal size manuscript took a team of scribes two to three months to copy by hand, and then it was edited by the head of the shop. That doesn’t include the artist to decorate letters and paint leaves kept in reserve or the assembly and binding.

So an early medieval person’s ability to read lay in their social class rather than their intelligence.

Had books been more affordable and literacy more widespread, what other poems and writing could be with us today? What talent was never realized?

Sources

Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance, edited by Peter Godman

Alcuin” by James Burns, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907), retrieved from New Advent

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riche

Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne by John Butt

Originally published April 8, 2015, on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Osulf: the Prince’s Friend or Lover?

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We know the British Saxon Osulf and Charlemagne’s son Charles were close, but just how close remains a mystery.

The intrigue centers on a poem by the courtier Theodulf. The Visigoth composed a parody of Virgil’s Second Eclogue, about the shepherd Corydon and his love for the boy Alexis. In Theodulf’s version, the prince, Charles the Younger, is playing a flute for Mochanaz, whose name is similar to Arabic muhannat, meaning catamite. Mochanaz might be Osulf. Theodulf’s poem praises Charles the Younger (called Karl in my books), but his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather are urged to scourge Mochanaz.

Osulf was a part of the prince’s retinue, but were Karl and Osulf lovers? Hard to say.

Karl was one of three heirs to Charlemagne’s realm, and he led soldiers into battle during the later years of his father’s reign. When the emperor wrote his will, he divided it among the three sons he had with the late Queen Hildegard. Louis got Aquitaine. Pepin got Italy. Karl got everything else.

Yet Karl never married and never had children. His two full brothers had married young and had fathered lots of kids.

Charlemagne's Palace School

Charlemagne’s Palace School (1900 image, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Could the reason Karl remained a bachelor be that he was gay? We don’t know Karl’s sexual orientation, but attraction or love for a man would not prevent marriage to a woman. As long as the husband fulfilled his duty to his wife—the conjugal bed was her right as well as his—and sired children, what he did outside the marriage was between him and his confessor. Homosexuality was considered a sin, but most often it was tolerated on the same level as adultery (for men) and premarital sex (for men). If a man fathered a baby by a woman other than his wife, he was expected to acknowledge and support the child, but otherwise, no one thought much of it.

Perhaps, Theodulf’s target was not Osulf but the Visigoth’s rival Alcuin, a scholar from York. Osulf was among four pupils who accompanied Alcuin from York to the Frankish court. In 781, Alcuin had met Charlemagne in Parma. Alcuin had already earned a reputation as master of the cathedral school at York, and Charlemagne invited him to lead the Palace School in Francia. Alcuin agreed, after he got permission from his superior upon his return to York.

Charlemagne had a circle of scholars in his court—the brightest minds in the realm. They might have had the egos to go with them. They were not above using their poetry to tease and snipe at each other.

Charlemagne and Alcuin

Charlemagne and Alcuin (1830 image by Jean-Victor Schnetz, public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Theodulf did not target Alcuin directly, although Alcuin might have loved other men. A missive to Arno, the bishop of Saltzburg, reads like a love letter, where Alcuin expresses deep feeling and physical longing. But Alcuin affections were for a bishop, albeit an influential one, not a prince. Theodulf likely saw an opportunity in Osulf, who caused Alcuin frustration. We don’t know what Osulf did exactly, but there are a few clues, none of them about homosexuality.

In a letter to Mercian King Offa about Osulf or another student whom he calls “my dear son,” Alcuin asks the monarch not to “let him wander loosely or fall into drink. Give him boys to teach, and see that he teaches them with energy. I know he can, because he was a good student.”

In a letter directly to Osulf, Alcuin laments, “Why hast thou abandoned thy father who has educated thee from thy childhood, who has instructed thee in the liberal sciences, and led thee in the ways of virtue, and furnished thee with the doctrines of external life? Why hast thou joined thyself to a troupe of harlots, to the revels of the drunkard, to the follies of the vain? Art thou that youth who was praised by every tongue, lovely in every eye, commended to every ear? Alas! Alas! Now thou art censured by every tongue, hateful to every eye, and cursed to every ear.”

Another manifestation of Alcuin’s frustration is in his interpretation of another student’s disturbing dream: “O Osulf, thou wretched one, how oft I have warned thee, how oft corrected! Much labour did I devote to thine uncle, that he should reform and begin to walk in the way of the commandments of God; and I told him that if he did not he would be smitten with the plague of leprosy; which thing happened to him. And to thee, my son, I predict of Osulf, of whom is this vision, that neither in this land, nor in the land of his birth, shall he die.” (Osulf would die in Lombardy.)

Knowing Osulf was a beloved, if flawed, pupil of Alcuin, Theodulf likely took aim at his rival by criticizing Alcuin’s failure to rein Osulf in.  Theodulf’s poem seems to say more about the poet and his spite for a rival that a courtier’s relationship with a prince.

Sources

Alcuin and the Rise of the Christian Schools by Andrew Fleming West

Alcuin of York by George Forrest Browne

Alcuin, friend of Charlemagne: his world and his work by Eleanor Shipley Duckett

Charlemagne by Johannes Fried

“Presidential Address: England and the Continent in the Ninth Century: IV, Bodies and Minds” by Janet L. Nelson, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society: Volume 15: Sixth Series, edited by Aled Jones

The Life of Alcuin, Frederick Lorenz, translated from the German by Jane Mary Slee

Gay History and Literature

Originally published June 27, 2018, on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Did Charlemagne Pray for a Daughter?

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When his third wife died in 783, Charlemagne might not have wanted to marry again. Yet a few months later, he wed Fastrada, the heroine of my latest book, Queen of the Darkest Hour.

So why would a king not want another spouse, then change his mind? A possible answer is politics. Charles likely grieved for Hildegard, but his love for her did not play a role in his decision. Marriage in early medieval times was a matter of the head, not the heart.

In Rome two years earlier, two of Hildegard’s sons were named to subkings of their father’s empire. Her middle son, 4-year-old Carloman, was baptized and renamed Pepin, even though Charles had a child by that name. The younger Pepin (whom I call Carloman in my first two novels and Little Pippin in Queen of the Darkest Hour) and her youngest son, 3-year-old Louis, were named subkings of Aquitaine and Italy. Her daughter Hruodtrude was betrothed to another child, the Byzantine emperor (his mom was regent). Like most medieval noblewomen, Hildegard was ambitious for her children.

With the elder Pepin, the son of Charles’s first ex-wife (later declared a concubine), likely destined to enter the Church as an archbishop, Hildegard probably expected her eldest son, Karl (called Charles the Younger by scholars) to inherit the rest. Frankish tradition was for each son born in wedlock to inherit a kingdom, rather than primogeniture (only the eldest legitimate son gets the throne).

Charlemagne and Louis the Pious

Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious, Grandes Chroniques de France (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Charles had not yet designated the rest of the realm—dividing the kingdom prematurely could lead to literal battles if the monarch fathered another son—but Charles might have favored Hildegard’s plan. This way of distributing the lands would have given each of Hildegard’s sons a sizeable inheritance and maintained the alliance with her powerful family. Charles could only hope that his sons would avoid the conflict that had threatened the peace between him and his late brother, Carloman.

To marry again after Hildegard’s death would be a gamble. If Charles had a son by another wife, this additional claimant to the throne would lessen Karl’s lands, and it could complicate matters with Hildegard’s powerful kin.

A few months after losing Hildegard, Charles went to war in Saxony (again). Although victorious, he must have realized he needed to bolster his alliances in the eastern part of the realm. He married Fastrada, an East Frank, that October and took the risk.

Already a father of seven (and probably an eighth on the way by a concubine), he might have been happy if all Fastrada did was oversee his treasury, control access to him, and tend to the household. She did not need to conceive to secure her position, but conceive she did.

And I can’t help but wonder: Did Charles pray for a girl?

This post was originally published on Susan Keogh’s blog on Sept. 5, 2018.

 

Why Alcuin Joined Charlemagne’s Court

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In 781, Alcuin had a choice. Should he accept an offer from Frankish King Charles (Charlemagne) to teach in the brand new Palace School or should he continue serving as master of the Cathedral School of York as he had for 15 years?

At the time, the Northumbrian was about 46. (His exact birthdate is unknown; the estimate is 735, which is good enough for me.) He had been with the York school since he was a child, placed there by his noble parents. York was a prestigious place, second only to Canterbury. York’s archbishop, Ecgberht, was King Eadberht’s brother.

Alcuin proved to be an apt pupil and said the school taught him “with tenderness of a mother’s love” and “a fatherly chastisement.” He attracted the attention of Ælbert, the master of the school, and Ecgberht.

In the morning, Ecgberht taught Latin literature, Greek, Roman law, astronomy, music, and theology such as the New Testament.  Ælbert’s subjects were rhetoric, grammar, jurisprudence, poetry, astronomy, and the Old Testament. The students attended Mass at midday, followed by dinner and recreation, which included discussions and debates of the morning’s lesson. At vespers, students knelt for blessing.

Alcuin also might have grown up hearing about missionaries such as Willibrord and Wigbert, who tried to convert pagan peoples on the Continent. He likely knew about Boniface and the nuns and priests who followed him across the channel to strengthen Christianity. Alcuin would have been 19 when Boniface was martyred.

All this must have instilled a deep faith and devotion to scholarship in him. Later he would write, “My master Ecgberht used to tell me that the arts were discovered by the wisest of men, and it would be a deep and lasting shame if we allowed them to perish for want of zeal. But many are so faint-hearted as not care about knowing the reason for such things.”

Alcuin at Charlemagne's court

1830 painting by Jean-Victor Schnetz (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

When Alcuin was 20, Ecgberht sent him to the Continent to acquire books to enrich York’s library, an expensive and hazardous mission. Alcuin risked his ship sinking, bandits on the road, being robbed by hosts, and sudden turns in the weather. Books were precious. Made of sheepskin, a large tome could require a whole herd. They were copied by hand, and those beautiful illuminations and ornate covers added to the price.

Yet York had a collection to boast about. It included work by Greeks and Romans (Aristotle, Virgil, Cicero, and Lucan), Church fathers (Jerome, Ambrose, Hilary, Augustine, Leo, and Gregory the Great), historians (Bede and Aldhelm), and grammarians (Donatus, Probus, and Phocas).

We don’t know how long Alcuin’s first errand for the archbishop lasted, but it likely took months. At home, the political situation was unstable. Alcuin thought King Eadberht, the archbishop’s brother, had a prosperous, harmonious, and militarily successful reign. But in 756, when Alcuin was 21, Eadberht suffered a disastrous defeat. Two years later, the king received the tonsure and joined his brother at York. The king’s successor, his son Oswulf, was murdered a year later.

In 766—and two more Northumbrian kings later—Ecgberht died. Ælbert succeeded the archbishop, and Alcuin, newly ordained a deacon, became master of York’s school. Alcuin must have been a good teacher. He attracted students from all over Britain and abroad, including Frisia and Ireland.

Politics remained volatile. In 774, another king seized the crown after his predecessor was deposed and exiled. Four years later, Ælbert resigned his archbishopric to retire, and Alcuin’s friend Eanbald succeeded him.

Alcuin at Charlemagne's court

19th century image (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In 779, yet another king ascended to the Northumbrian throne: Ælfwald, son of the murdered Oswulf and grandson of Eadberht. Although Alcuin admired Eadberht, he didn’t think much of the current king: “From the days of King Ælfwald fornications, adulteries, and incest have flooded the land, so that these sins have been committed without any shame and even with the handmaids of God.” (Ælfwald reign ended with his murder in 788.)

Ælbert died in 780. Soon after, Eanbald sent Alcuin to Rome to fetch a pallium (a woolen band with pendants that symbolize authority). Alcuin was on his way home when he met the king of the Franks. What was running through Alcuin’s mind when Charles asked him to come to the Frankish court?

Here is my speculation. He might have craved stability on the political front. In the past 10 years, Northumbria had three kings, and the current one was leading his realm into immorality. Charles had ruled the Franks alone since 771. Twice divorced, the king of the Franks had his own shortcomings, but he was a steadfast husband to his current wife. More important, he was an ally of the pope and providing missionaries like Alcuin’s friend Willehad with the military support for they needed to bring Christianity to pagans. In the Frankish court, Alcuin could interact with scholars from Italy, Francia, Ireland, and Hispania. He would still teach. His students would be the royal family and their close friends.

The prospect of leaving York might have been nerve-wracking, yet the opportunity to do something different might have excited him. Alcuin returned to York to get his superior’s permission to join the Palace School in Francia. With that choice, he would help build the intellectual foundation for Charles’ empire.

Sources

Alcuin: His Life and His Work, by C.J.B. Gaskoin

Alcuin, by E.M. Wilmot-Buxton

Alcuin” by James Burns, The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 16 Jun. 2018 [].

The Oxford Companion to British History (2 ed.), edited by Robert Crowcroft and John Cannon

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

This post was originally published on English Historical Fiction Authors.