Living with the Anglo -Saxons (7)

Anglo Saxon women: peace-weavers or shield-maidens?

I was interested to catch up with Kathleen Herbert’s excellent little book “Peace-Weavers and Shield Maidens” (2013, first published in 1997) on the image of women in early English society. She begins by commenting that people often tend to think of ‘English life’ as dating from 1066 whereas the first account of the ‘English’ (the ‘Anglii’, a Germanic race) was in Cornelius Tacitus’s ‘Germania’ in 98 AD and they worshipped a goddess, Nerthus (among other gods). As an aside, I’m not so sure about the 1066 bit – I would have said that people do tend to think of the Anglo Saxons from the 5th/6th centuries as the original ‘English’, despite the fact that before those migrants hit our shores the population comprised mainly Britons and Celts.

However, the stories and legends focusing on women, Herbert suggests, tend to fall into two archetypes: we might call them peace-weavers and shield-maidens. Herbert argues that women did fight and lead troops in early history, but were also literally and metaphorically peace-weavers, often through expedient marriages to form alliances with other kingdoms to avert potential strife. This seems to have been a widespread tactic to retain peace. Women might also be shield-maidens, literally or metaphorically as strategists in times of conflict. The two terms might well be interlinked and overlapping.

This is not to say that there weren’t violent battles for supremacy of a geographical region, that new kingdoms were not formed through victory in war. Of course, we have evidence of many battles leading to changes in power across different regions. But we also have evidence of deals and negotiation to co-exist.

Britain was composed of many small kingdoms, and kingdoms fought to take over other kingdoms and thus wield greater power over a larger region. But our theories of this time of great change are beginning to recognise the way that stable everyday life and the quest for peace were also significant. Hence, in my Dr DuLac Anglo-Saxon time-slip series (#1 A Shape on the Air and especially its #3 sequel, The Rune Stone, coming out soon), I have Lady Vivianne (early 6th century ‘cūning’ or king/queen) as “peace-weaver”, although her husband is a fighting warrior. Her elevation to respected status over other kingdoms, and especially that of the Icelings in The Rune Stone, is to all intents and purposes that of honorary “warrior”, a status almost always used for men who were normally the fighters, but this is as a result not only of her strategising but also of her peace-making abilities.

Yes, the term “peace-weaver” was often used for women who brought peace between two kingdoms through marriage, but it was also used for women who were more active on their own account in the forging of peace between kingdoms, as Lady Vivianne is depicted as undertaking in my series. These female leaders could be strategists, not necessarily fighters joining battle; they could be mainly working for the defence of their kingdom: active peace-makers. These were leaders whose warrior status was conferred not by fighting but by directing. Annie Whitehead (in Women of Power, 2020) refers to a saying about Ǣthelflaed, the10th century Lady of the Mercians and daughter of King Alfred, who strategized battles to take Derby, Leicester, York, that she was a “man in valour, a woman in name”. So, to all intents and purposes we can take Lady Vivianne as one who, like Ǣthelflaed, is a brave and courageous ruler; she is a true “cūning” and “peace-weaver”.

Read about Lady Vivianne and her present day counterpart Dr Viv DuLac in A Shape on the Air at http://myBook.to/ASOTA

Living with the Anglo-Saxons (4)

What would an Anglo-Saxon village look like?

The Anglo-Saxon village or settlement consisted of wooden thatched huts, ceorls’ houses, and larger timber halls for the thegns, usually single storey and all grouped around a central mead hall and large chieftain’s hall. In many cases, these could be combined into one large ‘long hall’. The mead hall served as the venue for feasting with huge celebratory banquets, although generally restricted to the wealthy thegns and ealdormen, and as a place for meetings, sometimes referred to as ‘moot halls’ , the moot being the council meeting or gathering where the higher rungs of society met to discuss the settlement’s important matters of defence, judgement and punishment, tythes or food provisions. A large mead hall might contain rooms for the family of the chieftain (or cūning). As the period progressed halls became bigger and more splendidly furbished to signal the chieftain’s power and status. Recent archaeological work has uncovered huge halls for such purposes.

Even the early Anglo-Saxon villages would be fortified against raiders and would have a band of warriors ready to fight for their society’s protection and security. There would be stables for horses, granaries for storing precious grain, and along the dirt roads would be clusters of tradesmen’s workshops often with wooden shelves or counters outside, displaying their wares: the wood-worker, the metal-worker, the communal bakery, the baker, the weaver, the pottery kiln, and so on. When coinage was scarce, trade was often through exchange or barter of goods or services.

Thatched single-room huts of wattle and daub or wood comprised much of the settlement and these were often flanked by small plots allowed for vegetable growing for the family’s own use (the precursor of our gardens) and middens for human sewage – which proved invaluable for manure to fertilise the vegetable plot!

Gradually the Anglo-Saxons moved away from their pagan heritage and by the 6th century were embracing Christianity, partly through missionaries from Rome or Celtic lands, and simple timber churches could be found in settlements, often adopting pagan sites such as burial mounds, sacred wells or standing stones as their locations.

By the later period, the 9th  to the 10th centuries, we might expect to see the wide development of village churches, still often timber built which didn’t survive the ages, but which later developed in size, architecture, building materials and adornments as the period continued. Many village churches of today bear evidence of their Saxon and Celtic origins, perhaps where they were built in stone (rare) or reveal a Saxon cross in the churchyard.

NEXT TIME: Anglo-Saxon diet and health …

For more about Anglo-Saxon life, my Anglo-Saxon/present day time-slip with mystery and a touch of romance can be found at:

http://myBook.to/ASOTA

How ‘primitive’ was the early Anglo-Saxon period?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Was the early Anglo Saxon period ‘primitive’? part 1: the legacy of the Romans

So, before the advent of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes from the European continent, Britain was now embarking on a new age, alone without its Roman protection and orderliness. But was it ’dark’ because it was primitive, ungoverned, lacking in culture and sensitivities?

What happened to the culture and yes, even spirituality of Roman times, and of pre-Roman Britain? Religion, beliefs, gods and their effect on mankind were strong influences on Roman life, demonstrated in their art and craftwork; icons and imagery of beliefs or superstitions (call them what you will) were rife. Did it all disappear in the early to mid-fifth century AD?

Or was Britain ‘dark’ because we simply don’t know to any degree of certainty, because of the paucity of archaeological or documentary evidence, what it was like? So, what if all that did not crumble and disappear from everyday life after the Romans left Britain? After all, why should it all be forgotten in the disappearing flash of Roman swords from our shores? Wouldn’t the British still retain something of their Roman past and indeed of their pre-Roman ways?

Today, we still have our Roman roads, our sites of Roman towns and villas, some have been adapted, some in ruins. Were these splendid constructions simply abandoned in the early fifth century AD and left to rot as the occupying forces left, as we have long believed?

Was the early Anglo Saxon period ‘primitive’? part 2: a mix of cultures

I argue that during the long Roman occupation, rather than two opposing and alien cultures, there would have been a mingling, intermarriage between the ‘invaders and the ‘native’ Britons, Celts, and other groups, that these resulting communities would have perhaps settled, compromised and accommodated each other’s ways.

After the withdrawal of the Roman legions and administrators, the people, the so-called ‘abandoned’ Britons and remaining Romans who had established homes and families after inter-marriage, would have used Roman effects in their subsequent buildings and settlements, and likewise would have retained aspects of their cultural heritage that were important to them, their craftwork, their art, their beliefs.

Granted, there would have been challenges and tensions between different cultures which by the late fifth century would have comprised a complex mix deriving from native groups (Celts, Britons), remaining Romans, occupying warring migrants in the northern territories (Picts, Scots), and new migrants (Saxons, Angles, Jutes). Many Celtic-speaking Britons would have adopted the Christian religion of their forebears and of many converted Romans, yet with the sweep of the Saxons northwards after the Roman withdrawal, paganism returned before a more widespread Christianisation in 597 AD with Pope Gregory’s emissary St Augustine.

Archaeological evidence, including artefacts, indicate that there was a rich culture here which embraced imports from trading across the world: rich religious icons, amphorae for storing wine, red Samian tablewear, glass, gold, jewellery for example, as well as wall hangings, imported olive oil, wine and foodstuffs. Gradually the mix of cultures brought new ideas, skills and an increasing trade to create a wealthy and sophisticated culture in 5th to 6th century England.

Read more of this fascinating period in A Shape on the Air and its forthcoming sequels. Go to …

http://myBook.to.ASOTA

A Shape on the Air: an early Anglo-Saxon time-slip mystery. “a wealth of historical research”, “fascinating historical period”, “the atmosphere evoked is fabulous, “I just couldn’t put it down”, “the women in this story are both brilliant and strong characters”, “Both the story-lines (in the time-slip) are equally compelling … an amazingly delightful and fast-paced read!”