Thursday, January 3, 2008

History Meme Game

This blog has moved. My blog now lives here:

I'm writing a novel about Hild of Whitby, also known as St. Hilda, who lived in seventh century Britain. For about ten years I've been researching, on and off, the basics: language, the politics of conversion, food, arms and armour, textile production, etc. The more I learn the more I realise I don't know. So I started fossicking about online and came across a few early medieval blogs (where I suspect I've made a bit of a nuisance of myself). One of the bloggers, Michelle at Heavenfield, has tagged me for a blog game. One is supposed to

  1. Link to the person who tagged you.
  2. List 7 random/weird things about your favorite historical figure.
  3. Tag seven more people at the end of your blog and link to theirs.
  4. Let the person know they have been tagged by leaving a note on their blog.

But in order to play, one has to have a blog. So after some thought, I'm building this one. I hope lots of people come and offer friendly advice, ask interesting questions, or just nod and say hello.

So, obviously, the subject of my game will be Hild. Not much is known about this fascinating woman, and all of it from Bede. (From here on, everything in this post in parentheses is speculative, i.e., I made it up.) Hild was born c. 614, after her mother had had a dream about her bringing light to the land (this sounds like a good ploy from a homeless, widowed pregnant woman: don't hurt me, what I carry is important!). Father Hereric, of the royal house of Deira (possibly son of Æthelric, king of Deira 599-604 when Æthelfrith killed him), who was killed at the court of Ceredig, king of Elmet just before Hild's birth. Mother Breguswith, family unknown (but I'm thinking possibly--per a conversation on Heavenfield--she was a sister of Rædwald, king of East Anglia). Older sister, Hereswith, who married Athilric, son of Eni--who was brother of King Rædwald--and brother to King Anna; Athilric was briefly co-king, with Sigiberht, before Anna took the throne. Hild, along with many of Edwin's household, was baptised by Paulinus c. 627 in York. She then disappears from the record until 647, when after a year in East Anglia she's about to take ship for Gaul to join the widowed Hereswith in an abbey (Bede says Chelles--but Chelles wasn't founded until Balthild took the veil, so I think probably Faramoutiers). It's at this point Aidan, bishop of Lindisfarne (essentially the go-to God Guy for Northumbria), invited from Iona at the behest of Oswald, who is currently king, recruits her to his church, and Hild heads back north. There she spends a year on a plot of land on the Wear (I've never been wholly convinced of this location, but I don't have alternative suggestions, where she is essentially being deprogrammed--stripped of worldliness--and retrained as an abbess). Then she is sent to Hartlepool to restore order (Heiu, the previous boss, goes off and founds another house--in/near Tadcaster?). At Hackness Hild does a cracking job and is given a bigger, better abbey, Whitby/Streanæshalch (which she may or may not have founded). Oswald's brother, Oswiu, now king, sends his infant oblate daughter, Æfflæd, to Whitby. After Oswiu's death, his widow Eanflæd (Æfflæd's mother) joins the abbey. At Whitby, Hild trains five bishops, and hosts the Synod where Oswiu rules in favour of Roman practise. She is known as 'mother' and is a consultant to kings and princes. She persuades Cædmon, a cowherd, to write the first vernacular poem. She dies November 17 680, attended by the usual hagiographic visions of her soul ascending to heaven, and is declared a saint almost immediately. (She was probably buried at Whitby, and then had her remains translated to Glastonbury some time later.)

Everybody who has read Bede knows all this. So writing seven weird/interesting/obscure facts seems rather pointless. Instead, I'll write seven things no one knows about Hild (because I made them up--some informed guesses, some wildly speculative, some naked fictionalisation for dramatic purposes).

1) Hild's real name. Hild is half a name. Her full name could have been almost anything, but I think the two most likely are Hildeburh and Hildeswith. They follow the alliterative H (Hereric, Hereswith). The -with suffix is extremely likely, given Breguswith and Hereswith, but for some reason I don't like the notion of Hild being Hildeswith. It just doesn't sound strong enough. So I'm thinking--per Christine Fell--that -burh is better. 'Hild' means battle, and I think she lived up to it.

2) The murderer of Hild's father. I think Edwin did it. He wanted to be king, and was busy forming alliances all over the country (they all went wrong, with a vengeance; clearly, he wasn't a likeable man)--but so was/did Hereric. So Edwin paid Ceredig of Elmet to remove him (or it could have been an early move by Cadwallon in the kill-the-foster-brother game those two played over decades), and then used the murder as an excuse to drive Ceredig from the forest and annexe Elmet.

3) Hild's husband. Much as I'd rather, for dramatic reasons, she didn't marry, Hild would have definitely have done so. Firstly, all women did. Secondly, she was a valuable game piece in the endless politicking and alliance-forming/breaking of the 7th C. Thirdly, Bede never refers to her as 'virgin'. But I can't decide who Edwin--the man ultimately in charge of her life--would have wanted to hook into his web of allegiance/obligation/hegemony. He already had Mercia (via his wife, Cwenburh--though, again, it went disastrously wrong) and East Anglia (Hereswith) so maybe he tried for a British alliance e.g. Alt Clut. The fact that Bede doesn't mention Hild's husband means she married someone beyond the pale--either a pagan, or a British or Irish royal. But who? I'm utterly stumped here. If anyone is willing to speculate, please help.

4) Why Hild preferred the Ionian to the Roman way of doing things. She was baptised by Paulinus (Roman) and recruited by Aidan (Ionian) while waiting, supposedly, to take ship to Faramoutiers (or some other Gaulish abbey) which would have been more Roman than anything. She was hooked into the Gaulish church six ways from Sunday (probably related in some distant way--through her mother, maybe, or at the very least though Hereswith's marriage--to Balthild) so why didn't she go over there and run something Roman? Instead, she ran Hackness and Whitby under the aegis of Lindisfarne. And she hosted the Synod of Whitby where the vote (okay, Oswiu didn't exactly vote, being, y'know, king) went to Rome.

5) What Hild's role in the early church really was. I think she was a facilitator--my guess is that although Bede doesn't say so, it was Hild's influence and presence in the room at Whitby that kept things civilised, that engineered the appointment of an acceptable compromise candidate to Lindisfarne upon Colman's departure.

6) How well she got on with her family. Hereric died (could have been poisoning--deliberate or accidental--could have been appendicitis, no way to tell) and that death left Hild and her mother and her sister at the mercy of the world. I imagine there was a bit of irrational blame there: you bastard, you left us alone! And then the three women would have to have stuck together to face the world. But mothers and daughters don't often get along so well after puberty. And Hereswith got the good marriage (at least insofar as we know). There again, Hild was the one who got the from-mummy prophecy about being a light of the world. Also, for dramatic purposes, I've decided Hild has a half-brother, Cian (son of Hereric by a British woman, Onnen), who is raised with her but unacknowledged.

7) Why she chose Whitby/Steanæshalch. It has a great harbour, yes, and a high cliff--always good for contemplative-while-seeing-trouble-coming purposes--and there were plenty of Roman roads and old tracks leading to and from busy places. But, still. It's a long way from York, and Bebbanburg, and Dùn Èideann etc.

So here are the seven things I'd most like to know about Hild:

1) why did she spend a year in East Anglia? Did she?

2) who did she marry, and why? What killed her children--plague? War? Malaria?

3) why did she choose Whitby/Streanæshalch? Was there already a small church there?

4) what did Whitby look like? Built of wood, yes, but dormitories or huts? How many people lived there? (When will the latest excavation be published?)

5) what was her favourite colour? Yep, sounds trivial, but it's not. I mean, women of those times would spend about 65% of their days on textile production (cf Penelope Walton Rogers), and when you're that intimately involved in your own clothes, colour choice is a big deal. Plus there would have been rules--at least customs--about who was allowed to wear what. So what does the granddaughter of a deposed king get to wear? And what colours were possible? (How deep a blue could you get?)

6) what time of year was she born? I think autumn. Why? Well, Old English poetry reeks of elegy, and the most elegaic season is autumn, so I like the notion of making the end of Sept/beg of Oct her particular time.

7) what made her tick? Bede tells us Hild ran her abbeys in orderly fashion, and that everyone called her mother. It makes sense, then, that this was possible because she was reasonable, calm, competent, flexible, able to adjust to the evidence i.e. she's like a disciplined scientist who sees an odd result and thinks, huh, that's weird, let's find out why... I bet she loved the Easter calculus. I bet she loved the inherent mathematics (though she wouldn't have know that what it was) of the soaring music James the Deacon brough north. I bet she loved Isidore's attempt to explain and codify the known world in his etymologies (though it's pretty unlikely she had access to this book; but it's not impossible, so I think I'll take some licence). I bet she encountered an abacus at Gipswic when she accompanied Edwin to East Anglia to sort out Hereswith's marriage. She was probably an accomplished linguist, speaking British, Anglisc, Irish, and Latin. How else could she be held in such high regard by so many people? She talked to them. She listened. She let them know they had been heard.

  • Cloth and Clothing in Early Anglo-Saxon, Penelope Walton Rogers (CBA, 2007)
  • A History of the English Church and People (don't remember which translation I used or who published it but, y'know, it's Bede--go look it up)
  • Women in Anglo-Saxon England, Christine Fell (Blackwell, 1987)
So here's the tricky question, who do I tag? I don't really know anyone in medieval blog world who hasn't already been tagged/played. And the few historians I know don't have blogs. So I'll have to go for other writers: L. Timmel Duchamp, Colleen Mondor, Mark Tiedemann, Gwenda Bond, Gwyneth Jones and Jenny D.

This blog has moved. My blog now lives here:


  1. "hello"... really looking forward to a new Nicola book!

  2. Thanks. Let's hope I can pull it off...

  3. Wow - I'm excited about your new project (new to me - you clearly have been living with it awhile.) Now I've got to go and read up on Hilda, her times, etc.

    I can't imagine anyone better to do something very interesting with this 'character.'

  4. This is great! It's a real gift to be able to follow along (for as long as you feel like having us with). And your -- gemæcca -- great idea.

  5. S., on some level I've lived with it all my life. I've been hoarding it as my magnum opus, but a few months ago I thought, Just Do It, so here I am.

    jennifer, thanks. it's a bit scary to have the process out in the open air like this, but I'll hang in for a while.

  6. By the way, this is a fabulously interesting meme. I'm mulling my response, but will post it on Monday!

  7. Yeah, it interested me enough to pull my finger out and actually make a blog. I'll look forward to finding out who you pick.

  8. Not academically inclined, eh? We will be calling you Professor Nicola in no time. But on the other hand, here you already are accusing some poor dead guy named Edwin of murder. Sounds like the makings of a murder mystery also! Good luck with the research.

  9. Well, from what I can gather from Bede and other sources, Edwin strikes me as an indecisive weasel who is very, very good at really aggravating people with whom he supposedly forms alliances: relatives of his first wife, his foster brother, etc. You don't piss off powerful kings unless you do seriously bad things. So, yeah, I think he set up countless murders.

    You disagree?

  10. Well, the Brits called him "Edwin the deceiver". :-)

    Lots to comment on here:

    Can I make a couple minor corrections?

    Hild takes the veil during the time of the split kingdom (Oswy in Bernicia and Oswine in Deira).

    I don't think there is any proof that Hild's brother in law Aethelric became king, but you could make him one in the chaos. I always imagined that he died a noble death in one of many coups that when on until after the death of Penda of Mercia.

    Aelfflaed was probably given to Hild at Hartlepool. Oswiu gave her Whitby a couple years later, possibly as one of the 12 estates given after the victory in 655.

    I don't know that women are ever said to choose the site of their monastery. They take what the king wants to give them. I suspect that Oswiu wanted a monastery under his royal control at the site of such an important port, or rather where he wanted to build at important port. Monasteries are often placed on borders to mind the border for the king- control traffic, trade and provide intelligence. Deira still wasn't very securely under Bernician control in Oswiu's time. His nephew and son both rebelled against him.

    I've always thought that the rest of Hild's name was something terrible - explaining why it was never recorded. Something like Brunhilda. ;-)

    Why do you think that Edwin had trouble with his in-laws in Mercia? They all disappear before he becomes king, probably killed by Aethelfrith.I don't think that Penda was related to Ceorl at all. You could make them related though...

    You should probably know that there is a theory that Edwin gave an older daughter from his Mercian marriage to the king of Alt Clut, who was the mother of Brude ap Beli, who kills Ecgfrith in 685. Th e HB claims that Ecgfrith was killed by his cousin.

    As this post is already getting way too long I'll stick with one fairly easy question. I would think that a common favorite color would be red. If you look at AS jewelry (or reports of it) there are only four common stones, pearls, amber, jet, and red garnets. Bede talks about pearls in the HE, but I don't recall seeing any in jewelry. Amber and jet are really common, so probably cheap gems. The red garnet is saved for the best stuff and Bede talks about making a great red dye that doesn't fade. Most clothing would probably have been undyed. Purple and blue were prized colors associated with royalty (hence "royal blue").

    So do you read the Sister Fidelma novels? One of them is set at the Synod of Whitby.

  11. I'll have to check my (disorganised) notes and try work out where I got the notion that Hereswith's husband actually got to be co-king. It's not too important to my story, though, so I can just let that one float for now.

    Ooops, yes, I think I knew that about baby Aefflaed. Thanks for the reminder. Ditto the split kingdom. I always end up eliding things when summarising. Bad habit :)

    And, wow, no, I didn't know about the older daughter and Brude. I'll have to go away and chew on that. Very, very interesting.

    Colour-wise, red was the first thing that occurred to me but, as a novelist, I'm always suspicious of the easy answer. I live in dread of cliche. But it's easy to take that too far. Jewel-wise, I already know what Hild will love. It's red, kind of, but not a garnet. And the rest will have to be a surprise :)

    I tried to read the Sr. Fidelma novel set during the Synod but, well, it wasn't at all to my taste.

  12. On Edwin's older daughter, its a theory put out by Alex Woolf, if I remember correctly. She is hypothetical.

  13. Hypothetical but, to me, very exciting. How far do you think we could stretch 'cousin'? Would Hild qualify, do you think? I'd have to fudge some dates...

  14. Hild would be the cousin of all of Edwin's children and grandchildren.

    The theory is that the term used by the Historia Brittonum is for a special type of cousin, two sons of two sisters. Ecgfrith is the son of Eanflaed and so Brude King of Picts would have to be the son of a sister, and Beli King of Alt Clut.

    I referenced Alex Woolf's paper in this post:

  15. fratruelis, okay. Sigh. Still, thanks for pointing me in the direction of Elmet again in your other comment. I shall ponder this.

  16. Hey there! I don't have time to write a proper response to the meme, REALLY busy right now & with a book to revise by the end of the month, but I was thinking along more frivolous lines--something like this (scroll down for the list):

    Good luck with this project!

  17. Good luck with that revision (oh, I know how that goes...) and thanks for dropping by.

  18. I'm in the middle of reading Women in Anglo-Saxon England by Christine Fell - researching for my medieval-kids-vs.-alien armada novel "Castle Rising" which kicks off in 1147. One of my characters is a young Anglo-Saxon female autistic apprentice scribe passing as a male in post-Conquest England. I've been reading lots of books on Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest and am following your Hild project to get more recommendations.
    I also get to research Angkor Wat, the Anasazi pueblos at Mesa Verde, and the African castles of Great Zimbabwe - homes of the other main characters.

  19. Medieval kids vs. aliens sounds pretty cool! The most interesting part, for me, would be how 12th C people might interpret the notion of 'alien'...

  20. I assume that my 12th Century English Christian character would equate aliens with demons and that the other characters would draw on their various theologies.

    I'm just beginning research for Castle Rising which I plan to write after I finish my poli-sci-fi chiller Palin/Cheney 2012. I just spent a fruitful hour reading old posts and comments on this blog - taking notes and requesting books from the local Wisconsin library system. Thanks!


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