As a break from writing, I do a lot of reading, and because I’m interested in history I’ve recently been reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It’s a history of what happened in England between 60 BC (when Julius Caesar tried to invade Britain) and 1154 AD (when King Stephen died), and it’s written mainly by monks. In the earlier sections of the chronicle the writers were simply putting down what they’d read or heard from others, but in the later sections they were recording events shortly after they happened, and, in many cases, it’s clear that they were eye-witnesses. It certainly opened my eyes to the fact that Anglo-Saxon times were very violent. Clearly the ordinary people must have lived much of their lives in fear, not only of regular marauding invaders, but also afraid of the king and the earls who were either in power at the time, or hoping to wriest it from those who were.
I love history, so I found it really interesting, but, as a writer, one thing that really struck me was the amount of fantastic words that are included in it, that have since fallen out of common use. Some of my favourites (that I intend to try to use as much as I can!) are –
- ‘Swinck’ (sometimes also spelt ‘swink’ or ‘swinc’) – to harass someone. Also, ‘swinkful’ – someone who’s planning to either cause trouble or do a bit of harrassing.
- A ‘baptismal friend’ – on the surface, someone who was very spiritual, but actually, someone who was likely to be standing around the font at christenings, gossiping.
- ‘thitherwards’ – wandering off in a vague direction.
- ‘heavy-timed’ – a difficult time.
- ‘nighest’ – nearest.
- ‘tilth’ – land that’s been tilled.
- ‘very manifold commotions’ – a lot of trouble.
- ‘firmament’ – the sky.
- ‘hairy star’ – comet.
- ‘the abode of the whale’ – the sea.
- ‘be-ebbed’ – stranded in the mud on the bank of a river that has, unfortunately, turned out to be tidal.
- ‘betwixt’ – between.
- ‘Christmas-tide’ – the 12 days of Christmas, all of which was set aside for feasting and mirth.
I was also interested in the fact that Christmas and Easter weren’t the only common religious Christian feasts; important celebrations happened several times during the year, when all the important people in the land would gather at the King’s court (which was wherever he happened to be at the time). There was –
- ‘Candlemas’ (2nd February – celebrating Jesus’ presentation at the temple).
- Lammas Day (1st August, although it can move) which celebrates the wheat harvest.
- ‘Michaelmas’ (29th September – the feast of St Michael and the Archangels. Michaelmas was also important as it was one of the ‘quarter days’. The other three days which were quarter days, were ‘Lady Day’ on 25th March, ‘Midsummer Day’ on 25th June and Christmas Day. These were the four days of the year when servants could be hired, school terms started and rents needed to be paid.).
- ‘Martinmas’ (11th November – the feast of St Martin, also sometimes called ‘Old Halloween’ or ‘Old Hallowmas Eve’).
All of these, and many others besides, seemed to be occasions for feasting and general merriment.
However, I was shocked by the huge amount of plagues and famines. Famines often seemed to be brought on by diseases of cattle or by poor weather leading to the failure of the crops. How hard life was, might be one of the reasons why people’s aged were described, not as ‘twenty years old’ but as ‘twenty winters old’ – clearly, you were much less likely to survive the winter in those days that you are now – assuming, of course, that you weren’t slaughtered by marauding invaders.
I also really liked reading about the very down-to-earth points that the writers thought fit to include, such as what the weather was like, and when comets or solar or lunar eclipses had been seen, which made it all seem very real. Also, in the section that described the death of William the Conqueror in 1087 AD, I found it amazing to read, ‘If any person wishes to know what kind of man he was… then we will write about him as well as we understand him: we who often looked upon him and lived sometime in his court.’ Wow! The person writing this section had actually met William the Conqueror!
Anyway, as I write this I can see the dog giving me a swinckful eye as he threatens heavy-times and very manifold commotions, if I don’t take him out to wander thitherwards, so I’d better finish for now. Until my next blog-post – enjoy preparing for Christmas-tide!
Wither reference to ‘The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – Illustrated and Annotated’, Edited and Introduced by Bob Carruthers, pub. in 2013 by Pen and Sword Military Books, Yorkshire and Philadelphia.