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10 posts from February 2018

06 February 2018

Independent woman: Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

If you live in the United Kingdom, you may be aware that 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, which for the first time gave some women in Britain the right to vote. The commemorations being held this year celebrate earlier efforts to enfranchise women, as well as examples of remarkable women from former times. In recent months, this blog has featured the Greek poet, Sappho, and Lady Jane Grey, England's forgotten Queen. 2018 also marks the 1,100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, who is the subject of today's blogpost.

A detail from a manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, showing the name of Æthelflaed, Queen of the Mercians.
Æthelflaed’s name (spelled Æþelflæd), in the B-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 30r

Æthelflaed was the eldest child of Alfred the Great, king of the West Saxons (reigned 871–899), and his wife Ealhswith. Ealhswith may have been related in turn to the royal house of the nearby kingdom of Mercia. Under pressure during the viking invasions at the end of the 9th century, King Alfred made an alliance with Æthelred, lord of the Mercians. Æthelflaed subsequently married Æthelred, strengthening this bond.

A page from a Mercian prayer-book, showing an enlarged decorated initial.
This Mercian prayer-book probably belonged to Æthelflaed's mother, Ealhswith: Harley MS 2965, f. 4v

By the first years of the 10th century, Æthelred had become very ill. When he died in 911, Æthelflaed became the ruler of the Mercians in her own right. As lady of the Mercians ('Myrcna hlæfdige'), Æthelflaed expanded her territories to the north, east and west. She fortified settlements, or burhs, and led her armies into Wales and Northumbria. In the final year of her life, the people of York even pledged to obey her ‘direction’ ('rædenne'). It is possible that some of her military exploits were coordinated to help her brother, King Edward the Elder (reigned 899–924), but at other times Æthelflaed seems to have been acting independently.

A page from a manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, showing entries from the Mercian Register.
A page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle showing the entries of the Mercian Register: Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 140v

You may wonder how we know so much about Æthelflaed. We are fortunate in Æthelflaed's case because a narrative of Mercian affairs, for the years 904–924, is found embedded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This is known as the ‘Mercian Register’, and it provides a very different account of events from the main text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which focuses on Edward the Elder. For example, when discussing what happened during the same months in 916, one chronicle focuses on Edward building a burh; the other details the causes and results of Æthelflaed’s military campaign into Wales.

The Mercian Register was copied into three manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, all of which are held today at the British Library (Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, Cotton MS Tiberius B I and Cotton MS Tiberius B IV). A medieval library catalogue from Durham also refers to a copy of ‘Elfledes Boc’, now lost, which can possibly be identified as ‘Æthelflaed’s chronicle.’ Although Æthelflaed is mentioned in West Saxon and later Irish sources, our knowledge of her career would be greatly diminished if the Mercian Register did not survive.

A detail from a 13th-century genealogical roll, showing a portrait of Æthelflaed, Queen of the Mercians.
Æthelflaed was remembered long after her death. Here she is depicted in a roundel from a 13th-century geneaology of the kings of England: Royal MS 14 B V, membrane 2

Æthelflaed’s reign was unusual. Her successful political career did not necessarily reflect tolerant contemporary attitudes towards women, and (with one brief exception) she did not pave the way for future Anglo-Saxon female leaders. According to Asser, her father’s biographer, the West Saxon court where she grew up was particularly opposed to over-mighty queens: 'The West Saxons do not allow a queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called a queen, but only the king’s wife [because of] a certain obstinate and malevolent queen [from Mercia], who did everything she could against her lord and whole people' (Asser, Life of Alfred, chapter 13, translated by M. Lapidge and S. Keynes, Alfred the Great).

Æthelflaed was initially succeeded by her daughter, Ælfwynn, whose reign was significantly shorter. The Mercian Register claims that just one year later, in 919, 'the daughter of Æthelred, lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all authority in Mercia and taken into Wessex, three weeks before Christmas' (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation, trans. by D. Whitelock and others (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), p. 67). England would have to wait several hundred years for another queen to rule unchallenged in her own right.

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

01 February 2018

A calendar page for February 2018

It’s February: time to light candles and clear away some vines, according to the ‘Julius Work Calendar', an 11th-century calendar made in southern England. 

A detail from an Anglo-Saxon calendar, showing an illustration of labourers clearing away vines.
Labourers clearing away vines, from a calendar, England (Canterbury?), mid-11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

The main illustration associated with February in both this and a related 11th-century calendar (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1) involves workers clearing away vines. Above, their tools are depicted in detail and may reflect actual 11th-century agricultural practices. The men wield curved knives. Below, the man on the furthest left holds a bigger, curved blade attached to a longer handle.

A detail from an Anglo-Saxon calendar, showing an illustration of labourers clearing away vines.
February, from a geographical collection, England (Canterbury? Glastonbury?), mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 3v

The curling vines are reminiscent of the artistic flourishes that late 10th- and 11th-century English artists used to adorn their initials and borders.

A detail from an Anglo-Saxon copy of the Rule of St Benedict, showing a decorated initial with foliate decoration.

Detail of an initial with foliate decoration, from a copy of the Rule of St Benedict, England (St Augustine’s, Canterbury?), late 10th century: Harley MS 5431, f. 39v

It is not clear why the two calendars are so similar. Some people have suggested that they were made at the same scriptorium, and that one might be a copy of the other. However, the poem that accompanies the calendar is slightly different in the two manuscripts, so the text does not seem to have been copied directly from one manuscript into the other. For example, the Julius calendar does not mention the death of Alfred the Great (d. 26 October 899) and his wife Ealhswith (d. 5 December 902), unlike the Tiberius calendar. Alternatively, both calendars could have been based on related exemplars which are now lost.

The zodiac sign associated with this month is Aquarius, based on the constellation that is said to look like a water carrier. Below, Aquarius is depicted standing on one foot, supported by a staff. He pours out a jug of water. The artist has cleverly posed him so his arm curves around a flaw in the parchment. However, these details are a little difficult to discern, because this manuscript was damaged in the Cotton fire of 1731. In particular, the heat warped the image as the edges of the parchment shrunk.

A detail from an Anglo-Saxon calendar, showing an illustration of Ganymede the water-carrier, the symbol of the astrological sign Aquarius.
Detail of Aquarius: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

One early user of this calendar has put gold crosses next to two feast days in February. The first cross appears next to the feast for Candlemas on 2 February. This feast commemorated the Virgin Mary’s ritual purification after giving birth and Christ’s presentation in the temple. This manuscript was probably produced and owned at a reformed monastery or cathedral, where Candlemas was the subject of an elaborate liturgy. The ceremony involved a procession with candles that were blessed. This was followed by a service where monks continued to hold their candles, at least for the opening section (according to the Regularis Concordia: see Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 14r).

A detail from the page for February from an Anglo-Saxon calendar, showing a verse in Latin marked with a gold cross.

The second verse marked out with a gold cross is actually in incorrect Latin. The scribe has replaced the name of St Matthias (Mathiano) with the word for middle (mediano), or possibly ‘Methano’. He may have misread his exemplar. The red text next to the gold cross reads ‘sol in Pisces’. It is one of a series of notes about the sun’s position and other astronomical and astrological patterns that were noted in red in the margin of this calendar.

A detail from the calendar for February from an Anglo-Saxon manuscript, showing the Feast of St Valentine.
Feast of St Valentine: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

St Matthias’s feast day is not the only place where this scribe made a mistake. Another is above, in a verse about St Valentine, whose martyrdom is commemorated on 14 February. Instead of writing ‘Rite…’ (‘Solemnly/customarily…’), the scribe has written ‘Ride…’ (‘Laugh!’ ). It is tempting to wonder whether the scribe misheard or misremembered the verse, since ‘t’ and ‘d’ can sound similar, but ‘-te’ and ‘-de’ do not look similar in this script.

The calendar for February, from an 11th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript, with an illustration of labourers clearing vines beneath the text.
February, from a calendar, England (Canterbury?), mid-11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

For more on this manuscript (and details about when you will be able to see it in person), please see our calendar post for January 2018. For previous years’ calendar pages, and an explanation of medieval calendars, read our blogpost 'A Calendar page for January'.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

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