23 June 2023

A new piece in an old jigsaw?

 In the Times of 20/6/2023 is a news item I find most intriguing.

A grave excavated in 2012 is one of a number of 'bed burials' found in Britain ... all of women; two of them from the Cambridge area. This particular Cambridge inhumation has now yielded 'isotopic' information showing that the lady concerned had lived, until she was seven, close to the Alps. These results match those of 18 other women, who, similarly, were buried on beds. A Newnham don who has researched the question  says that the evidence really does seem to suggest the movement of a small group of young elite women from a mountainous area in continental Europe to the Cambridge region in the third quarter of the seventh century.

When I read about noble Saxon Ladies, daughters of Saxon kings, acting as abbesses in Saxon England (naturally, my mind turns to our S Frideswide of Oxford, and S Osyth of Chich in my own corner of Essex), I wonder ... who were the other women who lived with them in their religious community? Of course, local women from elite families probably participated or were 'offered' for this role. But it is surely likely that, to provide a suitable group or pool of 'civilised' and Christian ladies, the early Anglo-Saxon Church may have shipped across surplus girls from upper-class Christian families on the mainland, to assist and to accompany the christianisation of the Saxon ruling class. (This young lady was wearing, incidentally, 'a rare gold and garnet cross as a brooch'. There are at least two comparable crosses in Ashmole, one from Yorkshire and another from Ixworth in Suffolk.)

Since the Cambridge girl came to England aged seven, she will remind us of S Bede the Venerable, who tells us that he began his monastic life at about that age. There is, of course, later Saxon evidence about pueri oblati (or nutritii) and, suggestively, about the adaptation of similar conventions to females. This appears to have included production of copies of the Regula with the grammatical genders adapted to females.

If your resources ran to dowries for fewer daughters than God had granted you, giving some of your girls to the Lord Christ was perhaps a respectable, even a meritorious, way of providing for them. And if you could send a girl off with a gold-and-garnets brooch or the means to acquire one, perhaps that enabled her, throughout her future life, to demonstrate that--although she had not secured by dowry the position of a great man's spouse--she nevertheless had retained social status.

And the beds? Surely, they imply the existence of women of lower status who would not be sleeping in beds! In many socially stratified societies, there might be divisions within monastic contexts like those which, very much later, distinguished 'choir nuns' from 'lay sisters'.

This is great fun, isn't it?


Oliver Nicholson said...

Bede (HE III, 8) provides evidence of movement in the opposite direction in the mid-7th century, notably from E. Anglia to Faremoutier-en-Brie:
"Nam eo tempore necdum multis in regione Anglorum monasteriis constructis, multi de Brittania monachicae conversationis gratia Francorum vel Galliarum monasteria adire solebant..."
Plummer's note ad loc. gives further illumination.

Eric said...

It is really amazing that the time period you are speaking of was so very long ago and in such a very different age and yet these people are Catholics like us and the Church in their long ago age was already quite old and venerable.

Kathleen1031 said...

I'm intrigued to know how they would bury anyone on a bed! How would that be done.
Yes this is a fascinating thing to consider, and how deep and how vast is European history.
We need to commit to never allowing it to be distorted or erased by anyone.

Banshee said...

I suppose it would depend on how big a bed you're talking about. A rope and wood frame bed would be fairly light, like a cot. You'd basically be lowering a pallet into a grave, much like the paralyzed man in the Gospels was lowered into Jesus' house.

So it might be convenient to use the whole bed as a stretcher and bier, and then leave the bed in the grave.

If we're talking a giant wooden bedstead, mattress, etc., it would be more of a production.