What would Dante have thought about free speech? How would Martin Luther have coped with the internet? Would Hildegard von Bingen have been a proponent of civil rights?

These are the kinds of questions that WWWD? aims to answer. Medieval thought has a lot to tell us about the world surrounding us, and this blog's contributors want to give you some idea of how their favourite medieval figures might have reacted to the news and issues that are current today.

Our Anglo-Saxon commentators are enjoying giving you their perspectives, and we'd love to recruit a few more writers to provide views from other parts of the medieval world! If you'd like to contribute to WWWD? once in a while, please tell us about it.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Never between friends?

Another crossword for your delectation. Click on the image for better resolution. Enjoy!

1: Wind in Central North-East finds bard. (7)
4: Scottish poet's dingy drinking hole. (6)
8: Small consideration for you elderly. (4)
9: Robbery laws keep jewel safe. (5)
10: Parasitic healer. (5)
11: Small spear's movement is informally done. (4)
12: Hear a complaint? Oh, stuck on mead, perhaps? (4)
13: Community for alchemists and others... Amazing! (3)
14: Fragile, without extra money for Henryson poem. (5)
16: (see 21 down)
17: Monarch turns down longish road. (6, 9)
19: Exchange your diminished pious dead. (6)
20 (& 7 down): Pip's own realm is strange allegory. (5, 7)
22: Are you ancient, lacking energy? Farewell, then! (3)
23: Archetypal character is capable, they tell us. (4)
24: Horse's hipbone carries Viking raiders. (4)
25: 1, 2, 3 creators. (5)
26: Turns records? (5)
27: Suspend changes with loss of churches. (4)
28: Different angles in Gregorian thought. (6)
29: Funny bare lad is this French thinker. (7)

2: Prayer series is new in Latin - English is central. (6)
3: Girl, very angry, provides alternative site for Old English poem. (8, 5)
5: Agincourt's winning points, as required, file South. (6)
6: Drunken pariah - go to buy Margery's book. (13)
7: (see 20 across)
9: Disease on a pubic bulge? Upsetting! (7, 6)
15: Poet, not dead, shut out. (3)
17: Mail is endless pull and jerk. (7)
18: Go out with bishop's seat. (3)
19: Sorcerer in Summer linens. (6)
21 (& 16 across) Brigand peers at Medieval Germans. (6, 6)

Monday, June 30, 2008

Serious concerns

The battle against online pornography is full of outrage, scepticism, and no small amount of hysteria. Recent British legislation criminalising the possession of “extreme” pornography has caused emotional outbursts on both sides of the debate and arguably left consenting adults at risk of prosecution for owning photographs or even computer-generated images of practices which are, in themselves, legal.

When the issue involves child pornography, it becomes even more difficult to discuss, or even consider, objectively. In many ways, that’s how it should be. To talk about the extreme exploitation of children without some emotional reaction is very difficult. Nonetheless, reactions to recent moves against newsgroups which carry child pornography have been angry and cynical.

Discussions of child pornography and abuse will often attract one or two comments about the cultural specificity of attitudes towards the sexuality of children and young people. Past societies, it is pointed out, arranged marriages between infants, and sexual competence was linked to the onset of puberty rather than emotional maturity. The fact that regulating current laws and moralities according to the mores of our ancestors would also have us burning old women with black cats at the stake and washing ourselves maybe once a year, suggests that such an argument may have limited validity. Nonetheless, I was interested in asking what someone like Aelfric would have thought about this argument.

There are two main strands to the question of legislation to censor certain types of content. The first is consideration of the content itself; the second is the question of restricting access to that content.

Attitudes towards children and sexuality are not easy to pick out of extant Old English texts. One of the clearest sources we have are the Old English penitentials, texts which list sins and the penances which must be imposed for them. The kinds of punishments we see here are generally restricted to fasting and, occasionally, corporal punishment. These are ecclesiastical punishments, meted out and administered by priests rather than secular authorities, and it is in these texts that what George Orwell referred to as “sexcrime” is most fully dealt with.

The penitentials suggest that a girl becomes fit to consent (”have jurisdiction over her own body”) at age 13 or 14. A boy is under his father’s jurisdiction until he is 15, when he can choose to become a monk. At these ages, parents can give their children in marriage – we must note, though, that the penitentials emphasise that the young person must consent to the marriage for it to be valid.

Other references to young people are less clear about age. One penitential states that “If a small boy has been forced by a larger one into intercourse, he (is to fast) 5 nights. If he consents to it, he is to fast 15 nights.” These are probably boys living in a monastic context, under the direct jurisdiction of the church. The interesting point to note here is that the penance concentrates on the child we would see as the victim, the younger one, who is punished even if he is forced into sex.

Punishment of victims is also suggested in other penances: “If anyone deprive another of his daughter by force, he is to make amends to the relative and each of them is to fast 1 year on Wednesdays and Fridays on bread and water and on the other days partake of their food except for meat, and afterwards he is to take her in lawful marriage if the relative wishes it.” Again, the age of the daughter is not stipulated, but since the lawful age of marriage appears to have been around 13 or 14, we can assume that this discussion relates to the rape of a girl of that age. Again, not only the perpetrator of the crime but also the victim is made to do penance by fasting. There is, perhaps, a fear that young people who are forced into sex may secretly enjoy it; certainly, they are seen to be defiled by it.

This is just a small selection of the kinds of penances which Aelfric, as a cleric, would have been familiar with. He might well, therefore, have been rather surprised that we set the age of consent at 16 rather than at the onset of puberty. Relatively shorter lifespans and high rates of infant mortality possibly fed into the desirability of marrying young, since it offered a higher chance of successfully raising children. And, of course, Christianity taught that raising children was the highest good of sex. Aelfric made it plain to his congregation that the ideal was for a couple to refrain from sexual activity altogether once they were no longer able to bear children.

To say that a tenth-century monk would be mystified by our particular rules about interaction with children, however, is not to say that he would have approved in any way of sexual abuse and exploitation. Sexualisation was far less prevalent or culturally acceptable to the Anglo-Saxons, and the revealing outfits and t-shirts bearing legends such as “Boy Magnet” or “Sexy” made for four-year-old girls would have horrified Aelfric. The point of human beings, in Aelfric’s view, was not to titivate themselves and make themselves sexually attractive, but to glorify God and to make their souls beautiful to him. Sex for its own sake was not acceptable, whoever one’s sexual partner, and the maltreatment of the vulnerable is a constant theme in his hagiography. The rights of young women and men to choose their own sexual identity, and to refrain from marriage or other relationships which they did not want, were central to some of Aelfric’s most powerful saints’ lives.

We will never know how prevalent the sexual abuse of children may have been in Anglo-Saxon England, especially within families. Pornographic materials relating to children, however, have never been discovered, and the few erotic texts which we have rely on punning and double-entendre rather than explicit descriptions of people or activities. Erotic riddles are found in the Exeter Book, a manuscript which combines religious and secular texts, and which suggests that mild eroticism was even acceptable in an ecclesiastical context. The kind of pornography we see today would almost certainly have disgusted people like Aelfric, and its suppression by any means would no doubt have been very welcome to him.

I have already suggested that Aelfric was no supporter of free dissemination of texts. The taboos of unorthodox religion and sex are certainly areas in which he would have approved of keeping people in the dark, for their own good.


Childline: an excellent British children's charity.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


I'm not sure whether Wulfstan would have liked crosswords. They do help the long winter nights to fly by... Then again, you need a fixed spelling system, widespread literacy and easy access to printing and writing technology. Which explains their limited popularity in Anglo-Saxon England.

However, unencumbered by such limitations, you and I are free to enjoy this wordly pleasure to our hearts' content. And here, just for you, is a medieval-themed crossword. It's a cryptic; if you need tips on solving, this site is helpful. I'll post up the solution... when I feel you've had enough time to torture yourself with it!


2: Energetic person central with poet. (5)
5: Knight's assistant is diminutive U.S. lawyer. (3)
9: Shape left out one of Zephyrus's spheres of influence. (5)
10: Short Langland hero goes well with 5 down? (3)
11: Condition of good sword, side down. (5)
12: Singular newspaper, right for bishop. (7)
14: I sue rich man, Conservative mixed up in literary movement. (13)
17: Loud man has strange insides, an area of conflict. (7)
18: Bestial auctor has an exacting standard of purity, at first. (5)
19: "Take away the drug, Boss" says early Italian monarch. (3)
20: State of polyphonic manuscript? (5)
21: Notice Dominic Mancini. (3)
22: Fruit left precious poem. (5)

1: Toilet free of dirt, fit for a king. (4, 8)
3: Oh, magic! Bizarre alphabet! (7)
4: Free promo - more mess for Constantine. (7, 2, 4)
6: Perplexed defence destroyed Norse hero. (9)
7: Medieval tipple sounds like a survivor. (4)
8: Get Jean muddy, frantic for Old English work. (9, 3)
13: The boat contains article conferring rank. (9)
15: Lover embraces knight who illuminates manuscripts. (7)
16: Urge chivalric aid. (4)

Friday, March 14, 2008

More cartoon protests

Just when you thought that the furore over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed was last year's news, someone decided to reprint them.

Ælfric had good reason to sympathise with the Muslim protestors. Danes were not his favourite people. Violent pagans, worshipping false gods and slaughtering English Christians indiscriminately, Viking raiders had already proved their destructive prowess in the eighth and ninth centuries. Their return in the late tenth century was a real source of horror for people like Ælfric, who imagined their whole way of life going swiftly down the tubes. Even though a lot of Danes were Christian by this point, in Ælfric's mind the invaders were still heathens whose presence in England risked dragging the native population back to their pre-Christian idolatry. Ælfric's warning to his countrymen that anyone who follows Danish fashions, including those who sport Danish-style haircuts, should be excommunicated reminds me of the constant controversy over women wearing headscarves. Relatively minor aspects of our appearance become a means of categorization, and provide a focus for prejudice and hatred. Ælfric was no stranger to racist polemic, nor was he squeamish about using it in the service of his doctrine.

Ironically, of course, it wasn't the Danes that Ælfric really needed to worry about. Around fifty years after his death came the Norman Conquest; the rest is history. I get the feeling, though, that he would have been rather happier with the course of English history under the Normans, with the flourishing of Christianity and the institutional Church, than with a takeover by heathens who risked plunging every English soul down to hell.

Despite his primal fear and hatred of the Danes, though, it isn't too likely that Ælfric would have taken the Muslim side in this argument. Islam wasn't a well-known or understood religion in the Anglo-Saxon period. Ælfric would have read about Saracens in Bede, and probably been aware of the tradition that related them to Ishmael. But whether the Saracens were understood as having a separate religious system, or merely as another group of perfidious barbarians, isn't clear. What we can say with some confidence, is that Ælfric wasn't very keen on dark-skinned foreignners. Being fair and blonde-haired was an ideal, and at best the people of countries such as India turn up as excessive, exotic, erotic figures of dubious morality. At worst, Ælfric uses dark-skinned people to represent the devil.

On the whole, race was a subsidiary issue for Ælfric. What he really valued was orthodox Christianity. As such, he would probably have had little time for either the Danes or the Muslims in this modern controversy (unless they were willing to listen to his arguments for conversion, of course). But he would understand the mindset of the protestors; standing firm against a tide of heresy and insult was crucial to Ælfric, a lesson he preached to all who would listen.

Monday, March 10, 2008

It's still winter...

The Anglo-Saxons weren't big fans of bad weather. Not surprising, perhaps, since finding heat and light wasn't a matter of flicking a switch, and freezing conditions made death a real possibility if you were unprotected. For the anonymous author of The Wanderer, cold and damp are metaphors of exile and hardship; the lonely man stirs the ice-cold sea with his hands, as frost and snow and hail darken his already depressed mind. Similar imagery is used by the narrator of The Wife's Lament, imagining her exiled lover sitting under a storm-battered, frosty cliff. Snowmen and hot cocoa are not part of the story in an Anglo-Saxon winter.

With this context in mind, it isn't surprising that destructive storms are one of the signs that Wulfstan interprets as showing God's wrath towards his countrymen. Alongside malice, disease and bloodshed, "excessive taxes have afflicted us, and storms have very often caused failure of crops". Wulfstan sees both the malice of men and the malice of God as just punishments for his nation's sinful excesses: "this nation, as it may appear, has become very corrupt through manifold sins and through many misdeeds: through murder and through evil deeds, through avarice and through greed, through stealing and through robbery, through man-selling and through heathen vices, through betrayals and through frauds, through breaches of law and through deceit, through attacks on kinsmen and through manslaughter, through injury of men in holy orders and through adultery, through incest and through various fornications."

Wulfstan isn't one to pull his punches, his polemical excesses leading modern readers to wonder whether his "Sermo Lupi" isn't really a "Sermo Loopy"... But I digress. We aren't unfamiliar with this kind of rhetoric - though perhaps many of us wish we were. Religious leaders (and others) blaming natural phenomena such as weather conditions and diseases on the wrath of God towards a sinful nation rear their ugly heads occasionally, to the dismay even of some of their co-religionists. But whereas modern Christianity is one religion amongst many, and is constantly subject to disagreement and question, in Wulfstan's time Christanity was officially established as the one true religion of the country. Modern preachers warning us of impending judgement for our sins are likely to provoke humor or disgust in a large number of people. Wulfstan, on the other hand, probably scared the pants off the majority of his audience.

Our ability to question authority when we need to is surely an improvement, and a return to the restrictive orthodoxy of the Anglo-Saxons would hardly gain much support in Modern Britain. Though perhaps we could bring Wulfy back on a one-time contract just to deal with Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse?

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Authenticity and the internet

Newsweek reports a trend against user-generated content like Wikipedia. "The expert is back", trumpets the article, citing Google's Knol project and Mahalo as examples of a backlash against the unfiltered crud that so often turns up on the internet.

Wikipedia, needless to say, would have mystified our Ælfric. An information source so ubiquitous and accessible that the majority of the English people (his chosen audience) could read it and publish to it? Sheer lunacy! But what would have struck a chord with Ælfric is the problem of authentication.

The problem with Wikipedia or any other user-generated website is the supreme difficulty of sorting out correct information from lies, inventions and mistakes. If we really want to read something that has a high probability of being reliable, we seek out named authors writing for reputable publications. Ælfric would have done something very similar. Anglo-Saxon prose authors were perennially concerned with authenticating what they wrote. Apart from a very few exceptions, they were writing Christian texts for a people whose Christian tradition was young and unstable, so what they wrote needed to be orthodox and, to some extent, provable.

Some sources of information were considered more authoritative than others. The Bible and the Church Fathers were, of course, practically unimpeachable. Beyond this, hearsay evidence from men of honourable reputation, particularly holy men, was considered perfectly good enough even for what we would now consider quite amazing tales of miracles and wonders. Events that seemed particularly remarkable might draw extra emphasis on authenticating evidence. Ælfric is very keen to prove the virginity of the twice-married St. Æthelthryth not only by recounting the many miracles surrounding her corpse, but also by citing the supporting testimony of St. Wilfrid. (How exactly the holy Wilfrid was supposed to know for sure that Æthelthryth was a virgin, we're never quite told.)

Ælfric's anxiety about the authenticity of his sources was paralleled by anxiety over the authenticity of his own texts, as they were passed on and re-written. Like most writers of the period, he wasn't too concerned about maintaining named authorship of what he wrote. His chief worry was that his message would be adulterated with mistakes. He concluded the preface to his translation of the Biblical book of Genesis by urging, in the name of God, that anyone who copied his work should do so carefully: "much evil is done by an inaccurate scribe if he does not correct his work."

The evils that worried Ælfric were theological ones; an inaccurate translation of the Bible could be a matter literally of life or death for the soul of the reader. It's unlikely that anyone would claim that Wikipedia has the same importance. Nonetheless, access to reliable information remains as much an issue for us as it was for Ælfric. The anxiety and excitement of finding things out is an experience that we share with our medieval ancestors, although in different ways. I have a sneaking hope that an ultimately authoritative source never materialises.

Ærest þinga...

Leofan men, ge sindon wilcuman! Ic grete ge swiðe freondlice innan blogospheran.

Wulfstan of York, Maimonides, Dante Alighieri... They and others like them taught us well back in those dark, dark ages. And yet now, their voices are practically silenced. Free speech for the dead should be a fundamental right; this blog aims to rehabilitate our medieval forbears as apt and insightful commentators on the modern world.

Whether it's protests over artistic expression, expanding methods of distributing knowledge, or the aggressive tactics of international corporations, Wulfstan and the rest of the crew have their opinions on all the news stories that matter to you.

While WWWD? is in no way seeking to rival the genius of Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog, and can't claim the great men themselves as contributors, we will channel the thoughts and opinions of the premier medieval minds and give you a whole new (old) perspective on the things you read.

Wes hal!