28 April, 2010

Old English gods and myths: the worlds

Heaven, earth and hell

The Old English word for earth is middangeard, Middle Earth, (yes, this is where Tolkien got it from). It has cognates in Old Icelandic (Midgard), Old High German (mittigart, mittingart) and Gothic (midjungards) (Branston 1957; Oxford English Dictionary). So the world was conceived as being in the middle of something.

The term occurs in Beowulf:

Manigre mægthe geond thisne middangeard
(Modern English translation: many a tribe over middle earth)
--Beowulf, line 75, available online

and in the poem known as Caedmon’s Hymn:

Tha middungeard moncynnæs uard,
eci dryctin, æfter tiadæ,
firum foldu, frea allmectig
(Modern English translation: Then the Lord of mankind, the everlasting shepherd, ordained in the midst as a dwelling place, Almighty Lord, the earth for men)
--Caedmon’s Hymn, original and translation both given in The Earliest English Poems, 1991

Bede gives a Latin translation of Caedmon’s Hymn in his Ecclesiastical History, where he tells us that Caedmon composed it (and much other poetry) at the monastery of Whitby around 680 (Bede, Book IV Ch. 24).

As discussed in an earlier post, the word ‘hell’ also has cognates across various Germanic languages. It shares a root with the word for ‘hole’, and indicated a cold, dark, miserable underworld.

‘Heaven’, Old English ‘heofon’, is cognate with Old Swedish himin, Old Danish himaen, Old Dutch himil and Old High German himil, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Like ‘middangeard’, it occurs in both Beowulf and Caedmon’s Hymn:

under heofones hwealf
(Modern English translation: under heaven’s vault)
--Beowulf, line 576, available online

efne swa of hefene hadre scineth
rodores candel
(Modern English translation: a clearness such as the candle of heaven sheds in the sky)
--Beowulf, line 1571-2, available online

heofonrices weard
(Modern English translation: keeper of the kingdom of heaven)
heofon to hrofe
(Modern English translation: heaven as a roof)
--Caedmon’s Hymn, original and translation both given in The Earliest English Poems, 1991

These seem clear enough that ‘heaven’ was considered to be in the sky, or the sky itself. The reference to ‘keeper of the kingdom of heaven’ in Caedmon’s Hymn also indicates that heaven was considered to be the realm of the Christian god. While this may be purely a Christian concept, it is also possible that it reflects an earlier pagan world-view, in which the gods inhabited a world above the world of men. This is explicit in Snorri Sturluson’s description of the Norse world view in his Prose Edda, written in thirteenth-century Iceland:

...the gods built a bridge from the earth to the sky and it is called Bifrost. You will have seen it, and possibly you call it the rainbow.
--Prose Edda, 13

This gives us a three-fold division: heaven, the world above; hell, the world below; and earth, the world in the middle. The words for this three-fold division are shared across several Germanic languages, so it appears to be a shared concept. It also has obvious parallels with the Greco-Roman idea of a miserable Underworld inhabited by the dead, the gods living high up on Mount Olympus, and humans living on the earth in the middle.

Worlds within worlds

Within this threefold division, there were other distinct worlds. The Old English Nine Herbs Charm, written down in the tenth-century manuscript Lacnunga, mentions seven worlds, without naming any of them:

The wise lord shaped these plants
While he was hanging, holy in the heavens
He set them and sent them into the seven worlds
--Nine Herbs Charm, Lacnunga 80, translated in Pollington 2000

The Norse poem Voluspa (‘The Sibyl’s Prophecy’) refers to nine worlds:

Nine worlds I knew, the nine in the tree
--Voluspa, 2, available online

The Prose Edda also refers to nine worlds:

Evil men go to Hel and from there into Niflhel, which is below in the ninth world
--Prose Edda, 3

Hel he threw down into Niflheim and made her ruler over nine worlds
--Prose Edda, 34

However, trying to make a list of the nine worlds quickly becomes confusing:

Evil men go to Hel and from there into Niflhel, which is below in the ninth world
--Prose Edda, 3

Niflheim was made many ages before the earth was created
First was that world in the southern region which is called Muspellheim
--Prose Edda, 4

The world is circular around the edge and surrounding it lies the deep sea. On these ocean coasts the sons of Bor* gave lands to the clans of the giants to live on. But further inland they built a fortress wall around the world […] and called this stronghold Midgard
--Prose Edda, 8

...[the gods] made a stronghold for themselves in the middle of the world, and it was called Asgard
--Prose Edda, 9

There are many magnificent places [in heaven]. One is called Alfheim. The people called the light elves live there, but the dark elves live down below in the earth.

It is said that a second heaven lies to the south and above this heaven. It is called Andlang. Still further up, there is a third heaven called Vidblain. We believe that this region is in heaven but now only the light elves live there.

--Prose Edda, 17

Njord [...] was brought up in Vanaheim, but the Vanir sent him as a hostage to the gods
--Prose Edda, 23

All-father sent Skirnir down to Svartalfheim (World of the Dark Elves), and there he had some dwarfs make the fetter called Gleipnir...
--Prose Edda, 34

Have you lost count yet? I make that: Hel (which might or might not be distinct from Niflhel), Niflheim (which might or might not be distinct from Hel and/or Niflhel), Muspellheim, the land of the giants (Jotunheim), Midgard, Asgard, Alfheim (which might be the same as the third heaven called Vidblain), Svartalfheim (unclear whether the dark elves employed or perhaps had captured some dwarfs, or are the same as dwarfs, or if they share a world with dwarfs), a second heaven called Andlang, Vanaheim. And that’s only one source. The poem Voluspa also mentions a place called Nithavellir, which may be a home for the dwarfs (if they had their own world and were distinct from the dark elves). Depending how you count it, you can get to anything up to a dozen or so. And that doesn’t count the numerous halls and fortresses, like Odin’s hall Valhalla.


The apparent confusion may simply indicate that the exact number of worlds and their position in relation to each other were not important. In a tale about, say, a hero journeying to a perilous land to win a treasure from dangerous supernatural enemies, the question of whether the enemies live in a separate world or in a fortress in a distant and dangerous region of this one may be no more than a minor detail. One storyteller might choose to make it a separate world in order to describe a magical journey or the hero’s supernatural powers; another might set it in the universal ‘far away and long ago’ of story so as to deal with the journey there in a line or two.

The worlds and their inhabitants may also have varied at different times and places, depending on local environment and cultural influences. The Nine Herbs Charm was written down in the tenth century, by which time the English had been Christians for three hundred years, and may have been influenced by classical ideas of the seven planets or the seven days of the week in the Christian calendar. Muspellheim, the land of fire, could be seen as an Icelandic concept in response to the local geology. The Prose Edda mentions worlds for the light elves and dark elves, mentions dwarfs in the world of the dark elves and also has a story about the origin of the dwarfs (Prose Edda 14), but does not name a world for the dwarfs. Did the dwarfs not have a home of their own, or did they share a world with one of the other groups, or were they another name for the dark elves, or did they have a world that happens to have missed being named (perhaps the Nithavellir mentioned in Voluspa), or did this depend on the stories the teller happened to be familiar with? Even if there was a poetic convention about the number of worlds, it doesn’t necessarily follow that there was a definitive list. Indeed, it seems most unlikely that there could be a definitive list, given that the stories and myths were a living oral culture, told and retold over hundreds of years and thousands of miles of distance.

I would say that the threefold division into here (earth), up above (heaven, sky) and down below (hell, the underworld), was important, since the words are shared among several Germanic languages. Within that, the number and relationships of sub-worlds and their inhabitants was probably somewhat fluid. Trying to define a precise number of worlds is probably unnecessarily pedantic and may well be missing the point.

I happen to like the phrase “the nine worlds”, partly because the Nine Herbs Charm is full of references to three, thirty and nine and the seven looks a bit out of place, and partly because the idea of a threefold division of the major threefold division has a pleasing symmetry. So in creating a fictional culture for the Anglian characters in Exile, I picked nine worlds – though I imagine that the different characters would probably come up with different, partly overlapping, lists depending on the stories they happened to be familiar with.


Alexander M (translator). The earliest English poems. Penguin Classics, 1991, ISBN 978-0-140-44594-7.
Beowulf in Old English, available online
Beowulf, translated by Michael Alexander. Penguin Classics, 1973, ISBN 0-14-044268-5.
Branston B. The lost gods of England. Thames and Hudson, 1957. ISBN 0-009-472740-6.
Pollington S. Leechcraft: Early English charms, plantlore and healing. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2000, ISBN 978-1-898281-23-8.
Prose Edda, by Snorri Sturluson. Translated by Jesse Byock. Penguin Classics, 2005, ISBN 978-0-14-044755-2.
Voluspa, translation available online

*The three sons of Bor were the god Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve

26 April, 2010

Cute spring lamb

Cute spring lamb

Fluffy baby ducklings. The ducks of Dedham Vale are always among the first to produce babies, and this season is no exception. This harrassed mother duck was on a busy stretch of river on a sunny Sunday afternoon, trying to keep her brood of 10 or so ducklings from getting entangled with two rowing boats, a kayak, assorted stick-chasing pet dogs and a supercilious Canada goose. All that free food comes at a price in tranquillity....

Handsome pair of shelduck on the lower estuary. I wonder if they will have ducklings in due course? I must go back later in the summer and see.

23 April, 2010

April recipe: Sweet and sour chick pea fritters with stir-fried cabbage

Stir-fried green cabbage goes well with the sweetness of the pineapple in the sauce. Chinese cabbage works especially well, but ordinary green cabbage is also fine. This dish also goes very well with a green lettuce salad, but in April I still have a while to wait for lettuce from the garden (especially in a late spring, as it is this year).

If you remember to soak and cook the chick peas in advance (or if you use tinned ones), this is a quick meal to cook. The fritter batter keeps well in the fridge for two or three days, so if you want a smaller quantity you can just fry as many fritters as you want and keep the rest of the batter for later. The batter will separate during storage (which looks alarming the first time it happens); just stir it thoroughly with a spoon and it will soon go back to normal.

Serves 4.

Sweet and sour chick pea fritters with stir-fried cabbage

6 oz (approx 150 g) chick peas
4 oz (approx 100 g) plain flour
1 egg
0.25 pint (approx 150 ml) water
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) soy sauce (optional)

1 onion
1 green pepper
Approx 1” (approx 2.5 cm) cube root ginger
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) cornflour
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) tomato puree
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) wine vinegar
12 oz (approx 300 g) tin pineapple pieces in juice (NOT in syrup)
Approximately 0. 5 pint (approx 300 ml) water

Approx 1 lb (approx 450 g) green cabbage or Chinese cabbage
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) soy sauce
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) cooking sherry

Soak the chick peas for 6-8 hours or overnight. Cook in boiling water until tender (usually about 1 – 1.25 hours). Drain. (Or you can use tinned chick peas; follow the cooking instructions on the tin)

Wash, trim and finely shred the cabbage.

Mix the egg, flour and soy sauce (if using) to a thick paste. Gradually mix in the water to make a smooth batter. Season with salt to taste, and leave to stand for half an hour or so if possible (not necessary if you’re in a hurry).

Peel and chop the onion. Peel and shred the root ginger. Remove the seeds from the green pepper and chop.

Fry the onion, pepper and ginger gently in cooking oil in a small saucepan until starting to colour.

Stir in the cornflour and mix well.

Pour in the contents of the tin of pineapple including the juice, followed by the water. Add the wine vinegar and tomato puree. Bring to the boil, and leave to simmer on a low heat while you make the fritters.

Stir the cooked and drained chick peas into the batter.

Heat cooking oil in a wok or frying pan. Drop spoonfuls of the chick pea batter into the hot oil and fry over a medium heat until golden brown on the underside (2-3 minutes approx). Turn the fritters and fry the other side. When cooked, lift the fritters out of the oil and keep warm while you fry the next batch of fritters, either on a tempura rack over the wok if you have one or in a low oven.

When all the fritters are cooked, add the shredded cabbage to the wok and stir fry for 2-3 minutes over a high heat until starting to wilt. Stir in the sherry and soy sauce and cook for another half-minute or so.

Put the fritters on a warm serving dish or plates, pour the sweet and sour sauce over them, and serve with the stir-fried cabbage and noodles.

20 April, 2010

The Moon on the Hills, by Bill Page. Book review

Troubadour Publishing 2009, ISBN 978-1906510-589, 314 pages. Review copy kindly supplied by author.

Set in Roman Britain in the late spring of 367, in the area around Corinium (modern Cirencester), The Moon on the Hills follows a civil guard captain, Saturninus, as he searches for his lost lover and the meaning of a strange and terrible dream. All the main characters are fictional.

Saturninus, the captain (Primicerius) of the Corinium civil guard, is an ex-soldier with a troubled past. He and his father were on the losing side at the terrible battle of Mursa in 351, and Saturninus is a survivor and casualty of the Persian wars of 359-363. Scarred mentally and physically by his experiences, he was discharged from the army on medical grounds. On his way back to his home town of Corinium, he met and fell in love with a girl named Pascentia, only to lose her when the ship she was travelling on disappeared in a freak storm. Then Saturninus experiences a strange dream in which he glimpses Pascentia alive and sees himself killed under a full moon by a man called Caelofernus. Saturninus knows he must find and kill Caelofernus before the next full moon to save his own life and perhaps have a chance of finding Pascentia again – but he has no idea who Caelofernus is, and the full moon is only four days away.

The Moon on the Hills has some lovely, lyrical descriptions of the Cotswold landscape and wildlife – the wild boar sow with her family of striped piglets, the spring flowers in the grass, the clear streams of the limestone hills. Saturninus is acutely aware of the beauties of the natural world – perhaps because he fears these may be his last few days of life – and they are skilfully described to transport the reader to a late spring in the Cotswolds, bursting with the promise of new life. The dialogue is lively and believable, written in straightforward modern prose with a salting of the wry humour one might expect from old soldiers.

The plot seemed to me rather meandering, and there are quite a few turns that could seem like coincidence if not for the strong feeling that events are controlled by the guiding hand of Fate. It is narrated in third-person, mainly but not exclusively from Saturninus’ viewpoint, and uses present tense throughout. This is probably intended to convey a sense of urgency, as Saturninus searches for his unknown foe with the time of the full moon drawing inexorably closer; however, for me it had the effect of putting everything into slow motion.

The dreamy atmosphere suits the subject matter, which is concerned mainly with the characters’ religious and mystical beliefs. Although Christianity is firmly rooted in Roman culture now, beliefs in pagan gods, goddesses and spirits are still strong. This is a world in which a change in the weather, an encounter with an animal, a shift in the wind, a dream or a half-seen figure glimpsed out of the corner of an eye in a town street or a woodland path can all be seen as omens, signs from the gods.

Beside this spiritual world, the practical quest to find and kill Caelofernus takes something of a back seat. Many plot threads are never resolved (or it was too subtle for me) – who was Caelofernus? Was he really intending to kill Saturninus at the full moon? Even the fate of Saturninus himself and Pascentia is left open; although the reader has a fair idea of what probably happened to them, it is not fully spelled out. This suits the otherworldly tone of the novel – as the jacket copy says, “….nothing is certain, not even the past.” However, readers who like to finish a book with everything neatly resolved may find the ambiguity frustrating.

There’s a useful gazetteer of place names and their modern equivalents, for readers who would like to trace Saturninus’ journeys on a modern map. A list of historical events and the emperors of the period gives the context for some of the characters’ remarks and references, and will be helpful for readers who aren’t familiar with the history.

Beautifully described, otherworldly evocation of the landscape, religions and beliefs of Late Roman Britain.

14 April, 2010

Early medieval surgical knowledge

Occasionally I get asked whether the medical details in Paths of Exile have any basis in history. As is often the case for the seventh century, direct evidence is thin on the ground, though surviving evidence from other areas provides a starting point for inference and extrapolation.*

I suppose I should add a disclaimer: this article is for historical and literary interest only, and in no way represents any medical advice of any kind. If you are looking for medical help, consult a qualified medical practitioner.


In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede tells us that Saint Etheldreda (Aethelthryth), Abbess of Ely, underwent surgery for a tumour on her neck:

…the physician Cynifrid, who was present at both her death and exhumation. Cynifrid used to relate that during her last illness she had a large tumour under the jaw. “I was asked,” he said, “to open the tumour and drain away the poisonous matter in it. I did this, and for two days she seemed somewhat easier […]
There I saw the body of the holy virgin taken from its grave […] and when they had uncovered her face, they showed me that the incision which I had made had healed [….] there remained only the faint mark of a scar.”
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV, Ch. 19

The matter-of-fact tone of Bede’s account indicates that surgery was accepted as normal. The apparent healing of a surgical scar after death is treated as a miracle (I can think of natural explanations, not all of them unpleasant), but the surgery itself is treated as a routine procedure with nothing magical or mystical about it. Etheldreda died in 660, and Bede was writing in 731. From this we can reasonably conclude that surgery was known and practised in the late seventh and early eighth century in England, although how widely is a matter for conjecture. It may have been confined to the religious and social elites; Etheldreda was a king’s daughter and a queen before she became an abbess. Unfortunately (perhaps because it was routine), Bede gives no details of the techniques used.

Leechbook of Bald

The Leechbook of Bald is an Old English medical textbook, compiled in the late ninth or early tenth century possibly as a result of Alfred the Great’s encouragement of learning and scholarship. Some of the information contained in it may also have been in circulation in earlier centuries. The Leechbook does not have very much to say on surgery, but does mention it in a couple of places:

For hare lip, pound mastic very small, add the white
of an egg, and mingle as thou dost vermillion, cut
with a knife the false edges of the lip, sew fast with
silk, then smear without and within with the salve,
ere the silk rot. If it draw together, arrange it with
the hand ; anoint again soon.
--Leechbook of Bald, Book I chapter 13, translated by Cockayne, 1860, searchable online

If someone’s bowels be out [….] put the bowel back into the man, sew it together with silk
--Leechbook of Bald, Book III chapter 73, translated in Pollington 2000

Again, there is not much in the way of detail, perhaps because a surgeon or medic of the time would be expected to know the techniques. Silk sutures have a long history in surgery, although they have now been largely displaced by modern synthetic materials (Kuijjer 1998). It can reasonably be inferred from these terse references that surgery was known and practised when the Leechbook was compiled. The instructions for hare lip indicate that plastic surgery was in use at this date, and also suggest that surgery was not necessarily confined to trauma or life-threatening conditions. This may further imply that the success rate was reasonable, making the surgical risk worth taking for the benefit of repairing a hare lip.

Celsus, De Medicina

De Medicina (‘On Medicine’) is a Roman medical textbook dating to about the first century AD and attributed to an author called Celsus.

Celsus provides a detailed description of abdominal surgery techniques:

Sometimes the abdomen is penetrated by a stab of some sort, and it follows that intestines roll out. When this happens we must first examine whether they are uninjured, and then whether their proper colour persists. If the smaller intestine has been penetrated, no good can be done, as I have already said. The larger intestine can be sutured, not with any certain assurance, but because a doubtful hope is preferable to certain despair; for occasionally it heals up. Then if either intestine is livid or pallid or black, in which case there is necessarily no sensation, all medical aid is vain. But if intestines have still their proper colour, aid should be given with all speed, for they undergo change from moment to moment when exposed to the external air, to which they are unaccustomed. The patient is to be laid on his back with his hips raised; and if the wound is too narrow for the intestines to be easily replaced, it is to be cut until sufficiently wide. If the intestines have already become too dry, they are to be bathed with water to which a small quantity of oil has been added. Next the assistant should gently separate the margins of the wound by means of his hands, or even by two hooks inserted into the inner membrane: the surgeon always returns first the intestines which have prolapsed the later, in such a way as to preserve the order of the several coils. When all have been returned, the patient is to be shaken gently: so that of their own accord the various coils are brought into their proper places and settle there. This done, the omentum too must be examined, and any part that is black is to be cut away with shears; what is sound is returned gently into place in front of the intestines. Now stitching of the surface skin only or of the inner membrane only is not enough, but both must be stitched.
[detailed instructions on stitching technique follow]
--Celsus, De Medicina, Book VII Ch. 16, available online

Having said that a wound to the small intestine is hopeless, Celsus also provides instructions for diagnosis:

The signs when the small intestine and the stomach have been wounded are the same; for food and drink come out through the wound;
--Celsus, De Medicina, Book V Ch. 26, available online

The standard antiseptic appears to have been honey, which Celsus recommends in many places for the cleaning of wounds (e.g. after draining an abscess):

…a little honey will be infused into the cavity to clean it...

-- Celsus, De Medicina, Book V Ch. 2, available online

Honey has antiseptic properties due to its high sugar concentration. When bacteria are exposed to a high concentration of sugar (or anything with a high osmolarity), water is drawn out of the bacterial cells and they become dehydrated and die. Honey may have some specific antibacterial properties in addition to the effect of its high sugar concentration, though this has not been confirmed (Moore et al 2001). Honey and/or sugar paste are sometimes used for the treatment of wounds in modern surgical practice (Moore et al 2001; Newton 2000) and in veterinary medicine (Matthews and Billington 2002).

Celsus clearly had detailed and practical knowledge of surgery, including the treatment of stab wounds to the abdomen. I wonder if he was a retired Roman army surgeon, or had access to someone who was.

A specialist military medical corps was introduced by Emperor Augustus in the first century AD, when the Roman Army became a professional standing army composed of trained (and therefore expensive) soldiers (Jackson 1988). Roman military doctors were highly respected, and probably also treated civilians living near army bases. Jackson (1988) suggests that the Roman army was probably the most powerful single agency in spreading Roman medicine around the empire. Some Roman army doctors may have settled locally and continued in civilian practice after their retirement (Jackson 1988), thus potentially establishing a source of Roman medical techniques that could continue independently of the army, if, for example, the local army unit was transferred to another base. Medical expertise has obvious utility in any society, and it would be reasonable for at least some medical knowledge to be handed down as doctors trained their successors. How much knowledge could have been transmitted, for how long, and how garbled it got, is open to question. Nevertheless, it does not seem unreasonable to me that at least some of the skills in Celsus’ textbook could have been handed down to early medieval Britain. The Christian Church, with its Latin literacy and respect for learning, is the most obvious method of transmission, but not necessarily the only one.


Heimskringla is a collection of sagas about the kings of Norway, written by the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson in the thirteenth century. The saga of King Olaf Haraldson (St Olaf) describes how the king’s skald Thormod was treated for his wounds after the battle of Stiklestad in 1030:

The girl said, "Let me see thy wound, and I will bind it."
Thereupon Thormod sat down, cast off his clothes, and the girl
saw his wounds, and examined that which was in his side, and felt
that a piece of iron was in it, but could not find where the iron
had gone in. In a stone pot she had stirred together leeks and
other herbs, and boiled them, and gave the wounded men of it to
eat, by which she discovered if the wounds had penetrated into
the belly; for if the wound had gone so deep, it would smell of
--Heimskringla, available online

This is consistent with Celsus’ method for diagnosing a perforated intestine (see above); if the intestine has been pierced, food (or in this case the smell of food) will come out of the wound. So the same knowledge was being applied in eleventh-century Norway (if the account is an accurate description of the battle; or in thirteenth-century Iceland if it is something that Snorri added from his own experience) and in first-century Rome. This could reflect continuity in the transmission of knowledge, as suggested above, or it could reflect empirical discoveries made independently. A warlike society has plenty of opportunity for studying wounds, and skills that increased the recovery rate from battlefield trauma would have been of obvious value to kings and warlords. It’s also worth noting that in the Norse saga it is a woman who examines the wounds and makes the diagnosis. Nursing is a traditional female occupation, and it seems that in the Norse world at least it could extend into specific medical treatment.


Usually the only part of a body that survives to be discovered by archaeology is the skeleton, so any soft tissue surgery would have disappeared without trace. Only surgery that directly affects the bones would leave evidence on the skeleton, and then only if the bones are sufficiently well preserved. So one would expect the archaeological record to under-report surgery, perhaps to a large extent.

Nevertheless, various archaeological excavations have found evidence for surgery in pre-Norman Britain. For example:

  • evidence of brain surgery in a young woman in Donegal in around 800 AD. Her skull had a hole cut in it, and bone growth around the hole showed that she had survived the operation (reported in the Irish Times, 10 November 2009)

  • evidence of surgical treatment of a fractured skull in a man in Wharram Percy, Yorkshire, in 960-1100. The man was aged about 40 and had suffered a depressed fracture of the skull caused by a blow from a blunt weapon. Left untreated, the depressed bone fragments would have pressed on the brain and proved fatal. Surgery had removed the bone fragments, and the fracture had healed (reported in BBC News, October 2004)

By their nature, reports such as these are sporadic; they show us that cranial surgery happened at those times and places but do not say how widespread it was. However, Wharram Percy is an ordinary village, not an elite settlement. Unless the man at Wharram Percy was unbelievably lucky that a skilled healer happened to be passing through the area at just the time he had his skull fractured (which is possible), this may suggest that high levels of medical skill were more widely available than popular stereotype would suggest.


Surgical knowledge and techniques with a sound basis, sometimes still reflected in current or recent practice, were clearly known in first-century Rome, early medieval Britain and eleventh-century Norway. Whether these represent the same body of knowledge being handed on, or the independent empirical discovery of effective techniques, or both, is open to question.

Surgical treatment of trauma tends to be an acute procedure, in which the cause of the problem is clearly identifiable (the injury or lesion) and the link between treatment and outcome is direct and likely to be apparent fairly quickly. These features support the empirical development of new skills and the evaluation of old ones; when the link between cause and effect is readily recognisable, you can see what works and what doesn’t. A warlike society has plenty of opportunity to observe wounds and gain experience in treating them, and veterinary experience may provide additional knowledge that can be applied. It is therefore quite possible that the same or similar techniques were invented independently at different times and places. Continuity of transmission is possible, but not necessary.

Skilled surgery may have been confined to the military, religious and social elite. Bede and Heimskringla both describe surgery in high-status contexts, a royal abbess and a king’s warband, respectively. It is impossible to say how far access to skilled surgeons extended into the wider population. However, the man at Wharram Percy may indicate that high levels of surgical skill were widely available (although he may just have been very lucky), and unless the girl at Stiklestad was attached to the king’s household (which is possible) her medical skills were presumably available to her local community. Access to skilled and effective surgery may have been more widespread than popular stereotypes about the ‘Dark Ages’ would like to believe.


Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Celsus, De Medicina, available online
Heimskringla, available online
Jackson R. Doctors and diseases in the Roman empire. British Museum Press, 1988, ISBN 0-7141-1398-0
Kuijjer PJ. History of healing: wound suturing. Ned Tijdschr Geneeskd 1998;142:473-479. English-language abstract available online on PubMed
Leechbook of Bald. Translation by Cockayne, searchable online
Matthews KA, Billington AG. Wound management using sugar. Veterinary Compendium 2002;24:41-50, available online. Note: some of the photographs in this article may be upsetting. If you’re squeamish, consider yourself warned.
Moore OA, Smith LA, Campbell F, Seers K, McQuay HJ, Moore RA. Systematic review of the use of honey as a wound dressing. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2001;1:2, available open-access online
Newton 2000. Using sugar paste to heal postoperative wounds. Nursing Times 2000;96:15, available online
Pollington S. Leechcraft: Early English charms, plantlore and healing. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2000, ISBN 978-1-898281-23-8.

*If you’ve read Paths of Exile, you may recognise the sources of some of the medical techniques used in the story.

11 April, 2010

Orc Farm

You thought Orcs were a figment of Tolkien's imagination? Think again...

Seen near Thorington Street (map here), on the Suffolk-Essex border.

07 April, 2010

Within the Hollow Crown, by Margaret Campbell Barnes. Book review

First published 1948. Edition reviewed, Sourcebooks 2010, ISBN 978-1402239212, 333 pages, uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

Set in 1381 to 1400, Within the Hollow Crown tells the story of Richard II from the Peasants’ Revolt to the end of his reign. All the main characters are historical figures, including Richard II, his beloved queen Anne of Bohemia, his mother Joan “the Fair Maid of Kent”, his uncles, advisors and counsellors, his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV), his favourite Robert de Vere and the writer Geoffrey Chaucer.

Richard II came to the throne at the age of about ten, owing to the untimely death of his father Edward “The Black Prince”, and real power is in the hands of his uncles and counsellors. When the unprecedented Peasants’ Revolt brings England to the brink of revolution, the fourteen-year-old Richard gets his first taste of responsibility and success. Later, buoyed by the perfect love he finds with his wife Anne of Bohemia, Richard defies his council and takes power into his own hands, developing one of the most glittering and cultured courts in Europe. But in the wake of a devastating loss, Richard allows the shadows of old hatreds to grow in his heart, as much a threat to his crown as any of his enemies.

Like his later namesake Richard III, Richard II has had a bad press. He has a reputation for tyranny and for ratting on the promises he made to defuse the Peasants’ Revolt. Within the Hollow Crown appears to be aiming to redress the balance by giving a pro-Richard portrayal. Handsome, glamorous, intelligent, imaginative, courteous, sensitive and cultured, the Richard II in these pages is an attractive character. Not entirely without flaws, although the reader has to be alert to pick up small clues. Most of the novel is told from Richard’s viewpoint and his enemies, not unnaturally, tend to get an unsympathetic portrayal.

For example, Richard seems to be almost as unlucky in his choice of favourites as his great-grandfather Edward II (whose grisly fate is used in the novel to terrify the sensitive adolescent Richard), but as the reader only sees his tinselly favourite Robert de Vere through Richard’s eyes, there’s little to suggest that other people might have good reason to dislike the relationship until Richard himself is forced to recognise reality. Similarly, Richard regards his opulent, cultured court as the way things should be and those who complain about his extravagance as penny-pinching boors. Only one brief line from a wise advisor hints that Richard’s expenditure might actually give just cause for disquiet. Richard’s emotional vulnerability appeals to the reader’s sympathy, and even when he is callously contemplating murder he justifies it to himself and, by extension, to the reader. Only when Richard recognises himelf momentarily in a verse from one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s poems does the reader get an inkling that Richard’s dictatorial rule may not be quite as benevolent as he thinks it is and that his opponents may have genuine grievances.

I found this focus on Richard’s personal life had both positive and negative effects. On the one hand, it’s a challenge to pick up the tiny hints of trouble ahead, and the reader gets almost the same shock as Richard when situations start to unravel. On the other, Richard’s political opponents appear as crude, obstructive, destructive and/or thick, and I doubt that the situation was quite as one-sided as that. I would have liked to see more of the other side of the story.

Richard dominates the novel so completely that everyone else fades into obscurity by comparison. Of the other characters, the charming lightweight Robert de Vere, the gruff pirate knight Edward Dalyngrygge, his sultry wife Lizbeth, and Richard’s old nurse, the enigmatic Mundina Danos, were the most strongly drawn. I admit I don’t quite see the significance of the subplot involving Lizbeth’s attempts to get Richard into bed. Mundina, on the other hand, is at the centre of a subplot that hinges on the medieval beliefs in damnation and redemption after death. I have no idea whether the events in the subplot are historically accurate, but the motivation is firmly rooted in the time and place, something I always admire in historical fiction.

Richard is sensitive to beauty in all its forms, and this is reflected in the graceful prose, especially the descriptive passages. The idyllic romance between Richard and his beloved wife Anne of Bohemia is a lyrical description of perfect love. Perhaps a little too perfect for realism, but that doesn’t detract from its beauty on the page.

A useful family tree at the beginning of the novel helps in keeping track of Richard’s various uncles and cousins and the relative strength of their claims to the throne. The very brief Author’s Note acknowledges that Richard II is a controversial figure and provides a bibliography of books consulted by the author. (How this relates to modern scholarship on Richard II, 60 years after the novel’s original publication, I have no idea).

Intelligently written, sympathetic account of Richard II and his reign.