Myltestran 7 myrðran: infanticides and stillbirths in Anglo-Saxon England

‘Prostitutes and killers of children’. The two form part of a long list of alliterating pairs of social dangers in Wulfstan’s Sermo Lupi Ad Anglos. They can be found with man-slayers and woman-slayers, priest-destroyers and church-haters, and so on.

I remarked to the Bocera this afternoon that it was a bit harsh, equating prostitutes with killers of children. Some early form of ‘but think of the children!’ hysteria? The Bocera looked over his glasses at me and pointed out that ‘killers of children’ is probably referring to abortions or child abandonment- and who would be in a worse economic or social position to raise children than prostitutes?

He then went on to tell me that in excavations of Anglo-Saxon settlements, it is not uncommon to find the bones of newborns in the rubbish heap, and that presumably these were the successful abandonments, since they weren’t discovered and given a proper burial.

But what about still-births, I asked. Still-births, he informed me, were always given a proper burial. In the excavation of Anglo-Saxon churches and cemeteries, the graves of children who died before baptism are usually found under the eaves of the church, in the hope that they would be ‘baptised’ by the water running off the sanctuary.

I learn something new every time I see the Bocera.1 Today: one gruesome, one sweet, and both sad…


1. Did you know that Neil Ker died by falling out of an apple tree? The Bocera tells me, with his impenetrable Bocera expression, that this is not an uncommon way for scholars to die.


6 Responses to “Myltestran 7 myrðran: infanticides and stillbirths in Anglo-Saxon England”

  1. Ahsavka Says:

    How a culture deals with its dead neonates is always fascinating. An archaeologist professor told me of how once she found a big jar buried underneath the floor of a house, and was just cleaning out the mud when she found tiny bones and lapis lazuli beads. The people living in the area often buried babies and very young children inside or under the house — the thought was that this way the spirit of that baby would perhaps be born into the next child because they didn’t have much of a chance the first time around.

    The way she told it got straight to my heart, though. “Someone loved this little baby,” she said. Gave it a beautiful necklace before it went down into the ground.

    Baptized by rainwater. That tugs at my heart, too.

  2. highlyeccentric Says:

    Oooh. Poignant…
    Where/when was it, do you remember

  3. Ahsavka Says:

    My bad, I thought I mentioned it. This is a horribly big window, I’m afraid, but our material was about the ancient near east, between the Tigris and the Euphrates, sometime after 3000 BC. but before 1200 BC, I think. I [i]think[/i]. I am far from my notes, alas, and I can’t remember if she was talking about a dig from a later period … but it was definitely in that geographic area.

  4. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Now I have terrible visions of scholars falling out of apple trees onto each other and thus discovering gravity. Really: bad luck Dr Ker but an impressive obituary. (Not uncommon? How many others exactly? Do you trust everything this person tells you?)

  5. highlyeccentric Says:

    It’d make a great headline:
    Anglo-Saxonists finally discover gravity! Protests were made that ‘gravity’ is not supported by the texts under study, but when respected scholar Neil Ker fell out of an apple tree on Sunday, his bereaved colleagues were forced to concede that Newton was onto something after all…

    (*innocent look* How could I not trust my supervisor’s every word?)

  6. daiskmeliadorn Says:

    hey, funny you should mention this. as i was eating lunch today i heard a program on radio national about the history of death and burials in australia – and my supervisor was one of the Experts saying clever things!

    also, i hope i die from falling out of an apple tree. with a tasty apple in my mouth. no, wait! i want to be like snow white instead, and *almost* die with a piece of apple in my mouth, but be saved by prince(ss) charming… and, presumably, live forever.

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