When research meets reality: Anglo-Saxons in the present day

When all of the people that you are studying died around a millennium or so ago, it’s easy to feel far removed from your subject matter. Every now and then, however, something pops up to make me think that the Anglo-Saxon era was not so long ago after all – though perhaps none of these was arresting as the time I got an official letter confirming that I was going to be teaching a course on the Old English language:

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Don’t be late for seminars!

A few years earlier, in the autumn of 2005, I was sitting in the reference room of my local library, doing a bit of preliminary reading for the MA in Medieval Literature which I was about to begin: Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The early chapters recount how, in the first days of the English church, St Augustine of Canterbury wrote a letter to Pope Gregory asking his advice on a few clerical and pastoral matters. One of these relates to the degrees of consanguinity in marriage: just how closely related can a husband and wife be? And what about marrying in-laws? The answer from Rome was: no, definitely, definitely not:

It is a grave sin to marry one’s stepmother, because it is written in the law: ‘Thou shalt not uncover thy father’s nakedness.’ Now the son cannot uncover his father’s nakedness, but because it is written, ‘They twain shall be one flesh’, he who presumes to uncover his stepmother’s nakedness who was one flesh with his father at the same time uncovers his father’s nakedness.

 (Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Judith McClure and Roger Collins, p. 44)

That afternoon, I took a break from my reading to leaf through a newspaper in the reference room, and discovered that the laws on the very same issue were being repealed. I’m not suggesting that these prohibitions have remained in place unchangingly from that day until 2005; rather, that that was when the idea of forbidding in-law marriage for Christian reasons was first laid down in writing, and that it was a pretty impressive coincidence that I should be reading that letter just at the moment that the same idea was being rejected.

Not all Anglo-Saxon cultural prohibitions, however, were based on Christian doctrine; others simply existed, parts of traditional culture which continued into the Christian era. I was reminded of this in early 2013, when a number of European food companies were found to be selling horsemeat under the guise of other meats. Aside from the dubiousness of deliberately mis-selling food, or not knowing what you are selling, a lot of British people simply didn’t want to find themselves eating horse. Or, as an Anglo-Saxon homilist put it,

We do not eat horsemeat. This is for no religious reason, but for old custom.

(If memory serves, that was Ælfric of Eynsham: I remember reading that in one of his many homilies, or possibly in an unrelated penitential.  Unfortunately, I am struggling to track down the quotation, despite a vigorous search of the Old English Corpus. Anyone have any ideas?)

My first thought is that perhaps this ‘old custom’ dated back to the pagan era, in which specific honour was given to horses. Though in an age in which animals were essential for both farmwork and travel, I suppose it hardly mattered whether you worshipped Woden or Christ: horses were always going to be pretty important.

So the roots of our present-day behaviour can sometimes be found in social taboos dating back many centuries. But what about the things that we don’t do anymore? What if Anglo-Saxon writers had some knowledge, however imperfectly gained, that might have an effect on us today? In 2015, the answer to this question turned out to be ‘… quite possibly, yes.’ Freya Harrison and Christina Lee of the University of Nottingham experimented with a remedy for eye infections in the tenth-century Leechbook manuscript, testing its efficacy on a sample of MRSA. Despite difficulties with the preparation of the remedy – how do we know what garlic looked like before the last millennium of selective breeding? – the scientists were “blown away” by the results. As I have long been interested in Anglo-Saxon medicine, and have worked on the Leechbook several times, I think that the day I heard about this was possibly the best day that I have had as an Anglo-Saxonist in a long time. Medieval physicians may have been lacking in so much knowledge concerning the origins of illness, but they evidently had some understanding about the properties of plants, and probably experimented with things that they knew would work until their remedies were improved. I would be very interested to read about the Nottingham team’s work as it continues.

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The eye salve remedy in the Leechbook.  London, British Library Royal 12 D. xvii, fol. 12v

So the Anglo-Saxon era lives on – and, if there’s any doubt about that, take a read of the New Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a revival of the Old English repository of important happenings, going up to and into the twenty-first century.

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