Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Spotlight on Anglo-Saxon women is start of new approach, says Michael Wood

Rewriting a classic book on Anglo-Saxon England to recover the stories of forgotten women such as a 10th-century People’s Princess is the beginning of a new approach to early medieval history, according to Michael Wood.

The historian and broadcaster was speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival about the 40th anniversary edition of In Search of the Dark Ages, the original version of which accompanied his 1979-81 BBC TV series. He said he had done extensive rewriting “mainly taking account of the huge expansion in women’s history,” as well as archaeological and archival discoveries.  

Eadgyth, right, with Otto the Great. Photo: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

New chapters on women in his book include one on Eadgyth, a member of the House of Wessex and wife of Otto the Great, the future Holy Roman Emperor. He said: “‘The People’s Princess’ — that’s Hrotsvit of Gandersheim describing Edward the Elder’s daughter who married Otto of Germany and became Queen of Germany. She became the most important woman in Europe. Do we read about her in our history books in England? No. The history has never been pieced together by anybody in an English history book because most of the sources are from Germany.”

He said it was in fact quite possible to assemble her biography. There are detailed records of the German embassy to England that preceded her marriage to the prince, and the subsequent English embassy that accompanied Eadgyth to Germany, carrying “exceedingly precious treasures”. Hrotsvit, the German chronicler, said that Eadgyth was admired by her subjects for her personal qualities, her charm and her common touch. Another chronicler emphasised that she shared in her husband’s rule. This must have required rare abilities during the period of turmoil and civil war following her husband’s succession as King of Germany in 936.

He added: “With Eadgyth we can go one further, with an extraordinary discovery that happened ten years ago or so. There’s a tomb in Magdeburg that was claimed to be her tomb. When it was opened a lead coffin was found inside . . . And when the bones were examined it turned out to be a woman aged around 36, as she [Eadgyth] was when she died — as was the other People’s Princess. A woman who had spent her early life in the South West of England and been brought up on a diet of fish, who had spent a life in the saddle. There were all sorts of things they could find out about her. It was Eadgyth.

Why didn’t I do it 40 years ago? I don’t know.

Michael Wood

On the impact of his addition of Eadgyth and other women to his book, he said: “From her story and [those of] other women, including Wynflaed, the Lady of Ebbesbourne, I think it’s the beginning of a different kind of look at Old English history, especially 10th-century history, and I really enjoyed writing it. It was a new task, a very refreshing task. 

Another of Wood’s new chapters is on Alfred the Great’s daughter Aethelflaed, who ruled Mercia in the Midlands as sole ruler during the early 10th century. Among other achievements, she retook extensive territories from the Danes and strengthened Mercia with the construction of burhs, or fortified settlements.

“It is an incredible story,” he said. “Why didn’t I do it 40 years ago? I don’t know. Maybe we thought it wasn’t possible to tell the biography of a woman — but it is . . . Modern times have construed her as a kind of Wonder Woman leading her armies to battle. I think she did lead her armies to battle and she certainly founded fortresses and founded cities. I don’t think she actually leapt over the battlements on a horse.”

He added: “We know about her because of an extraordinary chronicle which is only now being untangled — a Mercian chronicle which tells the tale from her side. You can see their pride in her, the agency of a woman who in the last eight years of her reign ruled alone and also that sense of admiration and pride in Mercian history. And out of this you can construct a story of the woman, the female leader, the female lord, not only leading the armies and directing campaigns, but directing construction jobs, sending messengers and chairing the council . . . So here’s a life that can be recovered if we look hard enough.” 

Wood’s update doesn’t only add women’s history. He has a new chapter on Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury from 668-690, and Theodore’s friend, the African Abbot Hadrian.

“It is the story of two men who came to Britain in 669 and who really initiated the input of Mediterranean civilisation, Latin and Greek, into that province of Anglo-Saxon England,” he said. “One of them, Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek, educated in Syria, in Antioch and Edessa, and the other Abbot Hadrian of Canterbury, vir de natione Afir, a man of African race, of African nation. Together these two friends came in 669 and began an extraordinary cultural project which is perhaps the most influential education project in our history.

“They came with a targeted mission. In their saddlebags were books, manuscripts, history, philosophy, grammar, biblical studies . . . They’re trying to build up from scratch: culture has been destroyed in many parts of Britain [after the fall of Roman Britain], especially in the eastern parts . . . And this was the great cultural movement that led to the founding of the famous monasteries in Wearmouth and Jarrow, which would play such a role in the history of England and indeed in Europe.

“Because manuscripts that were being gathered in Italy by their friends like Benedict Biscop and that accompanied them to England, those manuscripts were then copied in Wearmouth and Jarrow and other places and then disseminated across the whole of Europe.” 

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