Sunday, December 6, 2015

Cross-fertilization of Religions in Late Anglo-Saxon England

by Deborah Bogen

Much of what I’ll be sharing here comes from a fascinating book, Popular Religion in Late Saxon England by Karen Louise Jolly. I ran into Jolly’s work while researching The Witch of Leper Cove and The Hounds of God, books that examine the interplay of the early Inquisition and herbal healers circa 1230 A.D. in England.

The historical record confirms many interesting combinations of the popular Anglo-Saxon culture (that embraced elf charms, dwarfs, Ald Trees, and the magical powers of plants) and the new teachings of the Church (forerunner of the Catholic Church) with its emphasis on God as the source of all healing, Jesus as the necessary savior for the attainment of heavenly afterlife and suffering as a spiritual good.

The extent to which Christian and popular folk-based religious views not only co-existed but interrelated was a surprise to me. However, texts created by Christian scribes evidence a strong assimilation of many “pagan” practices. For example, charm remedies in which magical acts are performed were not uncommon. This will seem less surprising once we note that the pre-church popular religion was one in which the entire world was alive with spiritual presences. To the Anglo-Saxons it may have seemed perfectly reasonable that where elves and dwarfs impacted the lives of men, saints and demons could also do so and that a combination of these two groups might yield strong results.

And in an era in which survival from one growing season to the next was always in question it should not surprise us that any avenue of ensuring a good harvest might be pursued. One example of this is a field remedy (blessing of the fields) that has been found on a number of different folios dating from the late 10th and early 11th century. In this ritual the entire village or congregation participated in the performance of magical acts as it walked around the growing field and to the local church accompanied by the local priest. What I give you here is an abbreviated portion of a long ritual.

The supplicants (or active magic practitioners – depending on your point of view) were instructed to cut four sods “from four sides of the land and mark where they were before. Then take oil and honey and yeast and milk of the animal that is on the land, and a piece of each type of tree that grows on the land…and put then holy water thereon…and then say these words: Crescite, grow et multiplicamini, and multiply, et replete, and fill terre, the earth….”

When this was done the villagers were instructed to take the sod into the church where a priest would sing four masses over them. The green sides would be turned to the altar “before the sun sets.” A cross was made for each sod, and they were named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

At this point in the ritual these words were repeated nine times (it should be noted that nine is a very important number in the world of Anglo-Saxon charms.) Here is part of what they chanted:

Eastwards I stand, for mercies I pray
I pray the great dominie I pray the powerful lord
I pray the holy guardian of heaven-kingdom
earth I pray and sky
and the true Holy Mary
and heaven’s might and high hall
that I may this charm by the gift of the lord
open with my teeth through firm thought
to call forth these plants for our worldly use
to fill this land with firm belief
to beautify this grassy turf as the wiseman said
that he would have riches on earth who alms
gave with justice by the grace of the lord.

The ritual continues with turnings to the sun and a plea (or calling to) both Erce earth’s mother and the eternal lord.

There’s great deal more to this ritual, but it seems clear that at least two traditions are being implored and employed. All the Church’s powerful are called out, but so are sky and earth. The Church’s holy language (Latin) appears but so does vernacular speech. This kind of combination ritual is sometimes called a “middle practice” since it incorporates portions of two belief systems that we may have viewed as doctrinally separate and perhaps even temporally consecutive.

The interesting question to scholars is whether the view that once prevailed, that the Church assimilated folk religion, is supported by fact. An argument from texts such as this one might argue that the popular religion of the day, at least to some extent, assimilated Christian belief (and its pantheon of God, angels, savior, saints etc.) While the Catholic Church’s current global constituency and economic power suggests that it eventually won out over popular folk-based religion, there are those who think the jury is still out. According to credible polls (Pew and others) individuals self-identifying as observers of pagan, wicca, neopagan or even new age belief systems within the US appears to be growing. And whether a religion is called Christian or pagan, ideas like the belief that the wine in the communion cup actually becomes the blood of Christ (rather than symbolizing it) certainly point to the presence of magical thinking.

Given that many religious practitioners who currently self-identify as pagan are likely to have been raised in what is now commonly described as a more traditional faith (e.g., Christian, Jewish or Islamic) it’s possible, indeed probable, that we, like the Anglo-Saxons of the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries, are living in an era of cross-fertilization amongst religious cultures.

For those of us who write about very early England this is both important and interesting stuff. For relevant fiction read Bernard Cornwall’s Saxon Tales series and for a more scholarly take check out Jolly’s book. Should your cow ever get sick, she may be able to help you out.


Deborah Bogen is the author of The Witch of Leper Cove and The Hounds of God, the first two volumes of The Aldinoch Chronicles. These books bring 13th century to life as they tell the story of three orphans who find themselves up against the early Inquisition. She's also written three prize winning books of poetry.

The Witch of Leper Cove

The Hounds of God


  1. Fascinating - I write about the 9th and 10th centuries and my research suggests that a lot of the old practices were still relevant to many folk and there was indeed a lot of 'cross-fertilisation'. Interesting point about the belief in elfs: the idea that illness often came as a result of elf-shot, i.e. that illness came from outside the body, is much more in keeping with modern medical thinking that the later medieval idea of blaming everything on the 'humours' within. Wonderful piece, thanks!

  2. Thank you for posting this fascinating article. I once wrote a paper on Anglo-Saxon magic - only to lose it to a Queensland flood - now my interest is sparked anew. I recall a surprising amount surviving in the Old English vernacular (:-) There's a lot of wonderful primary source material.


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