Don’t Mess with Norse Women

Humourous Hagiography will be late this week- I’ve packed up Skeat in preparation for trundling off to Awesome’s place to cat-sit for a few weeks.

Instead, have a cross-dressing Norse tale, courtesy of the Goblin:

I have read about sorceresses, and shape-shifters. I learned about preterite-present verbs and how to hate them. I have read of women who murder their children in order to avenge their brothers and women who sleep with their brothers in order to avenge their fathers and (other) brothers.

I have learned not to mess with Icelandic women. Hoo boy.

Guðrun Osvifursdottir, the protagonist of Laxdœla saga, is my very favourite example of this. She has four husbands over the course of the narrative, becomes the first nun of Iceland and achieves great literary fame. She is also a stone-cold bitch when she has to be, even if she is not on the same scale as the other figures named Guðrun in Icelandic sagas.3 The story I want to show is that of her second husband, Thord Ingunnarson. Guðrun gained Thord after she divorced her first husband -using Thord’s advice- and he divorced his wife on Guðrun’s. Thord’s wife Aud does not take kindly to losing her husband.4

The manner in which this is laid out is very amusing. The story should of course be read in context to be fully appreciated, but we shall start with Guðrun’s first husband, Thorvald. Following rumours that Guðrun is having an affair with Thord, Thorvald slaps Guðrun during a fight. After responding that he has given her what every woman wants- good colouring, Thord arrives. She asks him how to respond to the insulting slap:

Thord smiled and said, “I have a good solution for this. Make him a shirt with such a wide neck opening that by wearing it he gives you grounds for divorcing him.

Cross-dressing was illegal in early Icelandic law, and was grounds for divorce. A wide-opened shirt was for exposing…well. You’ve all seen bad fantasy movies. You get the idea.

Of course, poor Thorvald has to wear a shirt his wife made for him, and winds up divorced. One can’t help but think he is better off; Guðrun might be beautiful, but she never liked him.

Later on, Guðrun opens a conversation with Thord along similar lines:

“Is it true, Thord, that your wife Aud always wears breeches with gores in the crutch, like a man’s, and cross-garters almost down to her shoes?

He said he had not noticed it.

“There can’t be much truth to the story, then,” said Guðrun, “if you hadn’t noticed it. But why, then, is she known as Breeches-Aud?”

We can see where Guðrun is headed here. Soon enough:

One day Thord Ingunnarson asked Guðrun what the penalty was for a woman who always wore breeches like a man’s.

Guðrun replied, “The same penalty applies to women in a case like that as to a man who wears a neck-opening so wide that his nipples are exposed: both are grounds of divorce.”

Oh, Guðrun.

Of course, Thord divorces Aud then and there, and Guðrun and he go off and get married. Their marriage is very happy, apparently.

Aud takes her abandonment…bitterly, singing a brief poem. But she does not sit on her hands, because one does not mess with Icelandic womenfolk. She sends a shepherd boy to find out how many men are at Thord’s farm- upon disovering that it is only Thord and Guðrun’s father Osvif, she goes after her ex-husband:

…a little before sunset Aud mounted her horse, and she was certainly wearing breeches then. The shepherd rode the other horse and could scarcely keep up with her, so furiously did she spur her horse. […] She went into the living-room and over to the bed-closet in which Thord lay sleeping. […] She went into the bed-closet; Thord lay on his back, sound asleep. She woke him up, and he turned on his side when he saw that a man had come in; Aud drew a short-sword and lunged at him with it, wounding him severely; the sword caught his right arm and gashed him across both nipples. So fierce was the thrust that the sword stuck fast in the bed boards.

Osvif offers to go after her, as Thord is too weakened by loss of blood. However:

Thord would not hear of it on any account, saying that she had only done what she had to do.

She had only done what she had to do. Thord knew that which we should all learn: do not mess with Icelandic women. They will cut you.===

3: You should all read the poem Atlakviða and the Völsunga saga. Guðrun Gjukadottir is amazing.
4: All quotes are from Laxdœla Saga, translated by Magnus Magnusson and Herman Palsson. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1969. The chapters in question are 34-35, pp. 124-128.

Hum. And now, I shall trundle off to the library at this late hour, to take back overdue interlibrary loans…


Humourous Hagiography: Now a Weekly Feature

Well, I enjoyed St Eadmund so much that I think it deserves to be a weekly feature. Humourous Hagiography will be published on the Naked Philologist on Wednesdays or Thursdays for the next month or so, and next semester will be published likewise on the day of or the day after my AS class for the week.

Next week: St AEthelthryth- a lesson in the power of NO.

In the meantime, some interesting side facts about St Eadmund:

  • Ari, the author of the Islendingabok, and scrupulous collector of historical materials, dates the settlement of Iceland by the year in which Edmund died. He gets the year wrong, which we know by comparision with the other date he gives, the reign of Harold the Fair Haired in Norway, but it’s by Ari’s testimony that we know Hinguar was Ivarr, son of Ragnar Lothborok. What source Ari had for his information on Edmund is an interesting question- there was a Latin life circulating, by Abbo of Fleury, and upon which AElfric based this tale which I have just bastardised. However- and I only have the word of the Bocera on this- there have been found Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in Iceland, particularly saints lives, and it’s not impossible that the Norse, great lovers of etymology, could translate if not read directly from the Anglo-Saxon.
  • Moving on a handful of centuries, pause for a second over C.S. Lewis. Medievalist and devout Anglican, don’t think he picked the name for his sacrificial character, later ruling as “the Just”, simply because he liked the sound of “Edmund”. The story is far from parrallel- in fact, in places it’s a complete inversion. Lewis must have known he was doing it, though. The Bocera, who accuses me of ‘not paying enough attention to etymology’ (by which you can tell that he really loves etymology), points out that ‘Eadmund’ means ‘noble mouth’- Our Eadmund lives up to his name, but there might be a deliberate irony there in the case of young Edmund Pevensie.

The Hilarious (After)Life of St Eadmund, with still more apologies to AElfric.

King Eadmund lived a boring life full of piety, generosity and justice. Things hotted up when Vikings stalked in his land and ran off with his head. But wait, it doesn’t stop there! What Eadmund’s life lacked in action and adventure, he made up for in the afterlife.

Last week, we left the East Angles as they ventured into the forest in search of Eadmund’s missing head. Off they went, into the deep dark forest, and, as sensible woodsmen do, they shouted out to one another as they went:

Where are you, comrade?

Where are you, comrade?

And the head shouted back to them:

Over here! Over here!

As often as one of them shouted out Where are you, comrade?, the head of King Eadmund shouted back: Over here! Over here! And soon enough they came across the head, nestled between the paws of a slavering, ravening wolf. This wolf really, really, desperately wanted to eat the head. Om nom nom, tasty head. However, luckily for the East Angles, God had given the wolf divine orders not to eat the head of king Eadmund. Not even a little bit. Not even a tiny snacking around the ears. (Unlike the Wolfish stalking Hinguar, real wolves obey God. Vikings are mean and nasty and diabolical. Subtlety and tolerance? Not Aelfric’s cup of tea.)

The East Angles were quite pleased to have the head back, and they grabbed it out of the wolf’s paws and scurried back to the castle. The wolf followed them all the way back to the town, and, realising that it wasn’t going to get even a nibble of the head, finally gave up and went home. Poor wolf.

Delighted with the way things were going (despite the obliteration of their king and most of their countrymen), the East Angles got together and put up a church over Eadmund’s body. Some time later, (in 869) their descendants decided that a shoddy job and been done, and built a grand shiny new church. Predictably, when they pulled out Eadmund’s body, it was all perfectly intact, head attatched, wounds healed, the whole works. (‘Now, if I were a skeptical person,’ says a devout audience, ‘which I’m not, that might suggest to me that it wasn’t the same body.‘) What’s more, there’s a nice silk thread around his red throat. (‘If I were a skeptical person,’ says my devout listener, ‘I might be inclined to think it was the body of a recently hanged man…’)

The ruins of Bury St Edmunds Abbey, est. 869.

At any rate, miraculous preservation of body achieved, King Eadmund is set up in a brand spanking new church, with a holy widow to keep him company and clip his fingernails. (Her name was Oswyn, and her fondness for barbering and manicuring dead saints is all we know of her.) All the locals brought gifts and offerings in Eadmund’s honour, and Bishop Theodred decked the church out in gold and silver. The afterlife was going well for King Eadmund, but a rich church will attract unwonted attention, and one night, eight ‘unblessed’ theives turned up, bent on knicking off with the offerings.

Some of them slogged at the door haspe with sledge-hammers; some filed around it with files; some of them got spades and tried to dig under the door; and some of them brought ladders and tried to get in by the windows. For a mere eight thieves, they were swarming all over the place like flies. But for naught- St Eadmund, it turns out, was the best kind of saint: better than a closed-circuit video camera. He froze those theives in their tracks, and held them there all night. When the townspeople (and presumably the monks) turned up in the morning, they found eight thieves- some hanging from ladders, some frozen over spades, and so on, stuck fast in their tracks. They picked them up (apparently without un-freezing them) and dragged them off to Bishop Theodred.

Now, Bishop Theodred was a pretty good bishop, but not the best bishop around. He was good about donating silver and gold to churches, not so good on his canon law. And so he (conveniently?) forgot that he, as a bishop, shouldn’t be sentencing anyone to death, and ordered the poor frozen thieves to be hung. And hung they were, nowhere does AElfric mention any un-freezing.

After the thieves were good and dead, Bishop Theodred thought to look in his books1, and suddenly remembered that he was a churchman, and not supposed to be orchestrating hangings. He was properly sad, and feared for his immortal soul, and ordered the East Angles to fast with him for three days and pray for his salvation. (Salvation: so much easier if you have minions!)

Next up, a fellow named Leofstan, of a more skeptical bent than was generally good for you in Anglo-Saxon England, came along and demanded to see the intact body of St Eadmund. The monks were obliging, and opened up the tomb for him to have a looksee. Leofstan looked, and saw, and went barking mad and ran off and committed suicide. I’ve no idea what was going on there, but AElfric assures us it was a copycat miracle, in the model of St Lawrence, who sent mad seven men who dared to look upon his intact body.

Apparently many more hilarious miraculous things happened to St Eadmund in his afterlife, but AElfric didn’t feel like writing them down for us, and so we don’t get to find out what they were.


1. Look, look, books! AElfric and Wulfstan seem to be on common ground here: books (ie, canon law books) are crucial to proper bishoply behavior.

The Hilarious Death of St Eadmund, part two

Firstly, allow me to gloat about three things:

1. I finally finished the dratted chapter. It was supposed to be half a chapter but blew itself out to around 4000 words. I sat down to write 800 or so concluding words last night and ended up writing 2500 words. But I think they’re bloody good words, so that’s happy.

2. I have been relieved of the deadline (which, to be fair, I nominated in the first place) for my Anglo-Saxon essay. Apparently since there’s only me in the class, I can write whatever I want and hand it in whenever I want.

3. The University appear to have put five hundred dollars in my bank account without warning or explanation. This is exciting (pays for flights to the Australian Early Medieval Association conference in October…), but also somewhat disconcerting (what if I wasn’t meant to get five hundred dollars?). I am supposing that it is the same prize I won last year, and that information to that effect will turn up eventually.

And now, on to

The Hilarious Death of St Eadmund, with apologies to AElfric:

Last week, Stalking Hinguar and his ravening Vikings were on their way to take King Eadmund of East Anglia captive. Scary stuff.

King Eadmund stood in his royal hall, resolute and noble, and completely without backup. Into the hall came Hinguar and his Vikings, and Eadmund raised up his weapons and….

Hurled them. Not at the Vikings; just away. This, AElfric opines, is because he was imitating Christ, who wouldn’t let Peter defend him with weapons, when Christ was under attack. Christ’s example or no, this is not a good way to deal with Vikings.

Hinguar and his Vikings marched straight up to the dais, grabbed King Eadmund and trussed him up like a christmas ham. They poked fun at him and battered him with cudgels, and then stuck him under their arms, dragged him out of the hall, and shackled him to a tree. Then, moderation not being a traditional virtue of pillaging Vikings, they proceeded to whip him with scourges. AElfric tells us that King Eadmund ‘cried out to the Savior Christ’ the whole time. I’m not sure why this is surprising, really. If someone was thrashing me with a scourge, I would certainly be shouting ‘JESUS CHRIST!’, and every other swear word I knew.

Eadmund’s caterwauling eventually pissed off the Vikings. Taking a few steps back, they shot him repeatedly with spears, until he was stuck all over with them, just like hedgehog’s bristles, not unlike St Sebastian.

Hinguar then got really fed up with Eadmund, who was still kicking up a stink and shouting about Jesus. He waved a commanding Viking hand, and someone lopped off Eadmund’s head. Eadmund died crying out to Christ, and we know this because, conveniently, there was a watching Anglo-Saxon nearby, miraculously hidden from the Vikings.

Soon enough, what remains of Eadmund’s people come along, and, shock and alarm, they find the body of King Eadmund, but Hinguar and co have nicked off with the head. (Leave a body with its head, after all, and it’s only a matter of time before you have a zombie on your hands…) The Mysterious Watcher chooses this moment to unveil himself, and to conveniently announce that he saw the Vikings peg the head off into the forest somewhere.

So off they go into the forest, the remnant of the East Angles, poking around in the bushes for a decorpsed head. What will happen next? Tune in next week to find out!

The hilarious death of St Eadmund: Part One

I’ve been translating AElfric’s Life of St Eadmund this past week. Which is funny, because it contains very little of Eadmund’s life at all, but a whole lot of hilarity surrounding his death. Tonight, because sleep is for the weak, I present to you: St Eadmund Without the Boring Bits

narnia,iconzicons,medievalKing Eadmund ruled in East Anglia, and he was the most awesome king you could possibly imagine. He was gentle and generous and just, he was pious and princely, he was faithful and fair. He ruled over his people like a father and a shepherd.

Unfortunately for Eadmund, East Anglia had a sudden case of Vikings. A fellow named Hinguar stalked on the land, like a wolf, and then slew the people. Interestingly, this same Hinguar was Ivarr, son of Ragnar Loðborok (‘Hairy-Pants’, or more stodgily, ‘Shaggy-breeches’). Ragnar had been busy sacking Paris, and Ivarr later went on to cause havoc in Ireland. And while Hinguar was stalking around in East Anglia, his brother Hubba was controlling Northumbria. Quite a respectable lineage of Vikings, they were.

But you don’t want to know about Hinguar’s family tree. What you want to know is that he sent Eadmund a message saying:

You are powerless, and my army need somewhere to stay for the winter. Give me all your goldhoards, and I will let you live as my underking.

Eadmund was a little taken aback by this, and he called a nearby bishop. This bishop was a pragmatic sort of fellow, and he said to King Eadmund: ‘Look, your kingliness: you’re outnumbered, you have no army, and you’re going to die. Either agree to his terms or run away.’

Eadmund thought about this for a while, and then he said to the bishop: ‘Hang on, bishop! I’ve never run away from my enemies yet, and I’m not about to start now!’

So king Eadmund went back to the messenger and said:

You’re an arrogant bastard of a Viking, and I ought to kill you, but I won’t defile my hands with your blood. You tell your chief Hinguar to bugger off- I won’t serve him, unless he converts to Christianity first.

So the messenger trotted back the way he had come, and along the way, he met Hinguar, with his bloodthirsty band of Vikings, all ready to take Eadmund down.

‘No luck,’ says the messenger. ‘The snotty little English king is going to be all honourable about things.’

Whereupon Hinguar smirks, and gives orders that his henchmen go after the unprotected Eadmund and take him captive.

What will happen next? Tune in to the Naked Philologist for talking heads, miraculous uncorrupted bodies, bumbling theives, and a madman.

Word of the Day!

Hello and welcome to ‘Highly has a new favourite word and will wander around muttering it under her breath for the next week’!


Say it nice and slowly. be-ste-al-kee-an1 It means ‘to move stealthily, to stalk’, and it has the most fabulous past tense form you could imagine:

Hinguar færlice swa swa wulf on lande bestalcode and Þa leode sloh…2

Hinguar (that’s particularly nasty Viking) suddenly, like a wolf, stalked on (the) land and then slew (the) people.3 Bestalcode. Isn’t it… sinister?

medieval,Why the hell not?,nerdAll the sinister effect is ruined by the fact that Hinguar’s fellow-scary-Viking-Chief-dude is named Hubba. Sorry, can’t afford you any respect at all with a name like Hubba.


1. I think. In three years I still haven’t internalised the c/ch rules. I think, from peering at Alex Jones’ Guide To Everything, that that’s how it goes. And then you have to deal with the fact that my phonetic description may not match your phonetic description. No, I don’t know IPA, but I probably should learn it sometime.
2. Which is from AElfric’s Life of St Edmund, around l. 156 in the Mitchell & Robinson textbook edition.
3. Or ‘stalked on the land and slew the people’. Leod being a feminine singular accusative, Þa could be the accusative definite pronoun. Or not. I like it better not.

Let’s talk about Vikings!

As it turns out, my father has uninstalled Adobe Reader, and the freeware version he has on this computer appears to hate JStor files. Accordingly, I cannot print out and read Whitelock’s ‘Archbishop Wulfstan- Homilist and Statesman’, or anything else, and so instead, let us talk about Vikings.

medieval,Why the hell not?,nerd

Vikings can really spice up your century or three. The quick outline of English political history that I carry in my head, cobbled together from the battered copy of Carter & Mears’ A History of Britain (Oxford UP, 1937) which my father acquired when I was a teenager, and from Awesome’s introductory lectures two years ago, is quite light on chronology. I know there were two waves of Viking invasions, in between which, the descendants of Alfred had time to unite the kingdom and sponsor some monastic reforms, and I know a few details of kings or battles and religious politics, but all of these bits of knowledge float around on the loose. I can remember, more or less, what happens, but not the relationship in time, and this, as it turns out, is quite important if you want to think about things like the progress of Norse settlement in England.

Some weeks ago now, I sat in on a Norse Symposium at USyd, solely for the purpose of hearing one paper, entitled ‘The Viking Experience in Ninth Century England’. The presenter, Shane McLeod from the University of Western Australia (whaddya know, they have medievalists in Perth…), is a PHD student, working on applying something called ‘migration theory’ to the Norse invasions, and making deductions about the type of people who would have settled in England (apparently, not only the invading armies- ‘chain migration’ means that, as long as communication remained open with Scandinavia, those friends and relatives looking for a new start who could afford the journey would have been likely to come). Shane is also tracing links between Viking groups across Europe, England and Ireland, which suggest that not only did raiders pick up and head off to assist their fellows somewhere else, but that settlers are likely to have moved in and out of England and other occupied territories. I remember being taught by the formidable Margaret Clunies Ross that amongst the early settlers of Iceland were Norsemen who had previously settled in the Orkneys, and (in decreasing order of probability, as I remember it), the northern isles, Scotland, and Ireland, so this last suggestion fits in with what I already knew of Viking habits.

At the end of his presentation, I was wondering about two things:

1. What was the relationship between the Norse invaders and the local English communities? Did your bog-standard English farmer, over the process of a hundred years or so, start speaking Norse?
Migration theory in Celtic studies, as I learnt it from Lynette Olson, currently holds that, rather than a ‘wave’ of Celtic invasions across Europe, a phenomenon of successive ‘celticisation’ saw small groups of Celts setting up in a position of cultural dominance, replacing some ruling groups and allying with others, and the local peoples- both those now under Celtic control and those independent groups who saw fit to emulate Celtic lifestyles for political purposes- picking up Celtic language, religious customs and artwork. I’ve not made much investigation into it, but it seems logical that the same sort of thing would have come with the Anglo-Saxon invasions (aside from Dr Olson’s favourite genetic evidence, I’m thinking of those independant Celtic kingdoms which hang on for a while and then seamlessly dissipate into the surrounding Saxon kingdoms…)
It would follow, then, that any Norse settlement in England cannot have been wholesale replacement of the locals, and that said locals may have ‘Norsified’ (Vikingised?) under their new leaders/ more powerful neighbours. What happened to the local English under the Norse? And what’s more, what happened to those Englishmen when, after a generation or so, they found themselves under English rule again?

2. Along the same lines- what happens to the Norse settlers, the farmers and craftsmen, the women and so on, in the period between ‘invasions’? Presumably they can’t have all turned around and gone home- so what happened to them when the new Viking invaders turned up in the late 10th century? Did they still identify as ‘Norse’? Or had they settled into their new home?

Well, I now have my hands on both Carter & Mears, and Edward James’ excellent textbook Britain in the First Millennium. Coming next on the Naked Philologist: Highly sorts out her chronology, and learns some basic facts of Anglo-Saxon politcs, which will provide a sketchy answer to question 2, and perhaps some thoughts on question 1 as well.