Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Brown Mouse Plague ~ Irish 9th Century

....And this is the second plague next, namely the Brown Mouse; that is , a puppy which a widow's son found in the hollow of a tree-trunk, and the widow reared it until it was big, At last however it turned against the widow's sheep, and killed her cows and her son, and killed her herself; and went after that to the Great Pig's Glen. It would devastate a farmstead in Ulster every night, and lie asleep every day. "Rid us of it, Celtchar!"! said Conchobar. Celtchar went to the woods and brought away an alder log, and a whole was bored through it as long as his arm, and he boiled it in fragrant herbs and honey and grease, until it was supple and tough. Celtchar went to the cave where the Brown Mouse used to sleep, and entered the cave early before the Brown Mouse should come after its ravages. It came with its snout lifted up to the scent of the trunk, and Celtchar pushed the trunk out through the cave towards it. The hound took it in its jaws and set its teeth in it, and the teeth stuck in the tough wood. Celtchar dragged the trunk towards him and the hound dragged in the other direction; and Celtchar thrust his arm along inside the log, until he brought its heart up through its mouth, so that he had it in his hand. And he took its head with him.... 

~  Irish ninth century

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Scribe ~ Irish 9th Century

"Over my head the woodland wall
Rises; the ousel sings to me.
Above my booklet lined for words
The woodland birds shake out their glee.

There's the blithe cuckoo chanting clear
In mantle green from bouth to bough!
God keep me still! for here I write
A scripture bright in great woods now."

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Anglo-Saxon Christianity

The Anglo-Saxons entered the historical scene in the fifth century CE as pagan Germanic pirates and mercenaries, accompanied by their camp-followers. This was part of a much wider movement of 'barbarian' peoples (those living beyond the frontiers of Roman territory) who forced their way into the empire, stimulated by a variety of motives. By the time of the Norman conquest in 1066, Anglo-Saxon England was one of the most sophisticated states of the medieval West, renowned for its cultural and ecclesiastical achievements and possessing complex administrative, legal and financial structures, many aspects of which were preserved by the new Norman élite. Command of the written word, in addition to a well-developed oral tradition, was of tremendous importance in this transformation.

The Anglo-Saxons were introduced to a full system of literacy as part of the process of conversion to Christianity, an enterprise launched by both the Celtic and Roman churches, with some Gaulish participation, in the late sixth century. Within a century they and their Celtic neighbours had transformed the book into a rich vehicle for their distinctive art and culture, which was to exert an influence throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

The Anglo-Saxon period may perhaps usefully be viewed as a series of phases: first, the sub-Roman and migration period (early fifth to late sixth century); second, the insular period (later sixth to mid-ninth century); third, the Alfredian renewal (late ninth century); fourth, the later Anglo-Saxon period (tenth and eleventh centuries, to 1066).

Each phase brought new developments to the history of the book. The sub-Roman period witnessed a certain level of continuity of the literacy of antiquity, through the agency of the church. In the face of the pagan Germanic onslaught, the indigenous British church largely retreated into the 'highland zone' (modern 'Celtdom'). It participated actively in the conversion of Ireland where a distinctive Christian culture emerged, noted for its learning and influenced by its Celtic and British legacies and those of the eastern Mediterranean, Gaul and Spain. Episcopal and monastic organisations were adopted, Latin was learnt systematically as a new language, and a system of scripts was developed, free from the vulgarisation often experienced in areas of the old empire (of which Ireland never formed a part). The earliest surviving books from these islands (such as Codex Usserianus and the Springmount Bog Tablets) were produced in Ireland, probably during the early seventh century.

In England the resistance to the Germanic advance, associated with Ambrosius Aurelianus and the historically elusive figure of Arthur, had collapsed by the second half of the sixth century (as lamented by the British monk Gildas), and by c.600 a myriad of small Anglo-Saxon political units had been established, out of which several larger kingdoms emerged. Of these Kent, Essex, Sussex, Wessex, East Anglia, Northumbria (Deira and Bernicia) and Mercia assumed prominence. Pockets of indigenous British settlement and some kingdoms (notably Strathclyde, Rheged and Elmet) survived, but the bulk of the population was forced into Wales, Cornwall and southern Scotland, whilst many migrated to Brittany.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Prayer against Viking Raids ~ Charles the Bald c.870

"Pity the highest favor by preserving and guarding our bodies, free us from the savage Norman tribe who devastates our realms.
They aged and young would have their throats slit, and maidens and lads too, and the multitudes also. Repel the evil from us, we altogether implore [thee]. Bring thee the ruling realm, we plead on our knees, to the king of glory, who pity us with true peace, soundness, hopes and strength. Give us peace and harmony. Bestow us unmitigated hope, genuine faith also; concede us continual charity and let completed be. Sanctify our prayers that we be availed in achieving this, that we be rejoiced in glorious measure. Praise be peace and glory, to the Trinity who wholly most-magnificent for the people. 

From the collection of Charles the Bald c.870

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011


The Early Welsh Poets are known collectively as Y Cynfeirdd, a literal translation. Taliesin is one of the most well-known and highly-regarded early Welsh poets, one of Y Cynfeirdd, dating from the sixth century.

Taliesin is often referred to in early poetry and legend as Taliesin Ben Beirdd, meaning Taliesin, Chief of Bards. He is noted in a now famous passage of the Historia Brittonum, a Latin work that some associate with a Welsh cleric called Nennius (c.800) but others attribute to an unknown writer, as being one of a number of early poets who flourished in the late sixth century:

"Then Talhaearn Tad Awen gained renown in poetry, and (A)neirin and Taliesin and Blwchfardd and Cian who is called Gwenith Gwawd gained renown together at the same time in British poetry."

Poems attributed only to Taliesin and Aneirin have survived. No poems by the other three poets mentioned in the Historia - Talhaearn, Bluchbard and Cian - have survived, and may have been lost at an early date.

"Fair Elffin, cease your lament!
....Though I am weak and small,
On the wave crest of the surging sea,
I shall be better for you
Than three hundred shares of salmon.
Elffin of noble generosity,
Do not sorrow at your catch.
Though I am weak on the floor of my basket,
There are wonders on my tongue....''

"Floating like a boat in its waters,
I was thrown into a dark bag,
and on an endless sea, I was set adrift.
Just as I was suffocating, I had a happy omen,
and the master of the Heavens brought me to liberty."
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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Anglo-Saxon Verse ~ The Flood begins! Genesis XX

"Until the sons of God began to seek out wives
among the kindred of Cain, an accursed folk,
and they chose women there over the favor of the Maker,
the sons of man, women more wicked yet beautiful and fair.
Then spoke the Sovereign of the Skies, angry at mankind
and speaking these words: “They are not free from my punishment
in spirit, the progeny of Cain, but that kindred has sorely
enraged me. Now the children of Seth has renewed my anger
and take to themselves the women of my foes as mates.
The lovely women penetrate there troublesomely,
the beautiful faces of the ladies, and my eternal enemy
into the multitude of my people, when they were before 
in my protection.”

Much more at the excellent ~

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Celtic Cross

The Celtic Cross had it's evolution in the British Isles, with it's earliest form dating to approximately the ninth century and appearing mostly in Ireland. This early version is called a recumbent cross-slab, lying flat rather than standing upright. Eventually these made their way into an upright position (now called erect cross-slabs), and acquired a slightly rounded top. Both versions were often decorated with key patterns, interlaced knotwork, and spirals.

The celtic cross then underwent another change. Extraneous rock was carved away from the head of the slab, leaving the rock with the outlined shape of a tall cross, usually on a wider base. Because the cross form was in effect "freed" from the rock now, these types of crosses were commonly called erect free-standing crosses. From these, the arms of the cross eventually became extended beyond the ring of the cross, and the inner quadrants between the rings and the arms were cut away or recessed from the rest of the cross design. The free-standing crosses were elaborately made, and often composed of several pieces of stone. A large cross could have been made of up to four pieces of stone (the base, the shaft, the head, and the upper cross arm), held together by mortise and tenon joints carved into the stone.

The celtic cross and Irish cross shape itself has been widely used by many ancient peoples, long before the arrival of Christianity. Its four arms were perfect for denoting the four elements, the four directions of the compass, and the four parts of man - mind, body, soul and heart. The addition of the ring around the cross has had many explanations, everything from sun worship and symbolism, to creating a shape with the cross that was well contained and aesthetically pleasing.

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