Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries


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Places of Anglo-Saxon worship

Anglo-Saxon scholarship has long recognised that the Old English words hearg and weoh denoted some sort of places of worship of the pre-Christian deities. Many books and web sites translate hearg (sometimes spelt heargh) as 'temple' and weoh as 'shrine' or 'idol'. This seeming double-meaning of weoh will be discussed in a different article (Hohs and hlaws ) but for the moment I will look specifically at hearg. This Old English word is closely linked to the Old Norse word hörg which denotes a temple or sanctuary. But we must be wary as temples are a comparatively late addition to Scandinavian paganism (and may, perhaps, emulate Christian churches) – the more typical venue for rites was either an open-air sanctuary or inside the local leader's hall.

Nevertheless Anglo-Saxonists have for a long time adopted this dual sense of temple or sanctuary to translate the Old English word hearg. Until recently the assumption was that the size of such sanctuaries probably compared to Christian churchyards. After all, village churchyards predate parish churches by a few hundred years and are quite likely to emulate such pagan places of worship.

The Old English word hearg evolves into the Modern English word 'harrow' when it appears in the names of places such as Harrow on the Hill, formerly in Middlesex. However the name of a much more recent farming implement allows for much confusion so we cannot assume that places called 'Harrow Farm' are necessarily evidence for a hearg (although, as I have discussed in The Especially Sacred Grove: Six Hills and Vernemetum, Leicestershire, an example of Harrow Farm in north Leicestershire is associated with much clearer evidence for a hearg).

Harrow Hill

Harrow Hill, overlooking Long Compton, Warwickshire

One of the distinctive features of what seem to be genuine heargs is that they are prominent hills. And these hills are often, though not always, of a distinctive 'beached whale' shape, as the photograph of Harrow Hill in the parish of Long Compton, Warwickshire shows.

Rethinking heargs

Back in 2007 Sarah Semple published a paper which looked in more detail at Anglo-Saxon hearg sites and concluded that:


What is profoundly apparent is that the concept of the hearg needs to be rethought – hearg was never applied to a Germanic or Anglo-Saxon pagan temple structure. The hearg seems to have constituted a naturally significant location that formed a place of gathering and ritual for many generations over a long period of time.
(Semple 2007: 383)


Based on the available archaeological evidence, Semple specifically argues that hearg sites are not comparable to Christian churchyards – 'God's acre' – but, rather, spread over several hectares. Although the name hearg itself clearly does not predate the Anglo-Saxons, there is more evidence at hearg sites for Iron Age and Roman ritual activity than there is for Anglo-Saxon rites. This is probably because there were fewer Anglo-Saxons and also because the pagan depositions are associated with a material culture which is mostly or entirely organic so rarely survives for archaeologists to discover ('posh' items such as metal brooches may be found with burials but not as part of a typical hearg depositions).

Most significantly, all this ritual activity is within an area devoid of any evidence for occupation. It is hard to imagine that the Anglo-Saxons were fully aware that these hallowed sites had been used for well over a thousand years, although they would of course recognise more substantially-built Roman shrines or such like. The Anglo-Saxons may have had little idea of how much 'history' they were continuing, but they would have fully recognised that these were the places where the deities were thought to dwell, or be more readily contacted. Along with the re-use of Bronze Age burial mounds for burials this was part of the ways in which the landscape of England was 'read' according to the 'psychogeography' which mythologised the landscape of their Continental homelands.

Interestingly, none of the place-names associated with hearg sites reveal a connection to any specific deity. So a hearg was not dedicated to, say, Odin, or Thor, or whoever. This implies that they were 'pantheons' where individual families or clans paid their respects to their own preferred deity or deities, without any one deity taking pride of place overall.

The assumption that a hearg is a tribal cult centre is fairly inescapable. This means we need to look also for local cult centres associated with –ing and –ingas ('the people of') place-names. In Wiltshire Waden Hill at Avebury would seem to be cult centre of the Canningas tribe. Andrew Reynolds has suggested that after the Romans departed the Canningas established control of an area approximately twenty miles across, from the former town of Verlucio (now Sandy Lane near Calne) in the west, to Cenutio (now Mildenhall – pronounced 'Mynull' – to the east of Marlborough), up to the dramatic ridge above the Thames valley to the south of Swindon with the villages of Chiseldon and Wroughton, and to the south as far as the eponymous All Cannings and Bishops Cannings (near Devizes)(Reynolds 2004). Waden Hill is both central to this area and immediately adjacent to the small Roman town recently discovered near Silbury Hill.

Waden Hill

Waden Hill, Avebury – possibly the cult centre for the Canningas.
In the foreground are two stones of the Neolithic avenue.

Interestingly Waden Hill has the same 'beached whale' shape I previously noted for harrow hills. The early records show Waden is from weoh don (discussed further in weohs and stapols) so ignore out-of-date literature which erroneously suggests this is 'Woden's hill'. If Reynolds' suggestion is correct, to all intents and purposes this weoh don functioned as a hearg for the Canningas.

Open air meeting places

Sarah Semple revisited her 2007 ideas about hearg sites in her chapter in Signals of Belief (Carver et al 2010) which looks more broadly at Anglo-Saxon open air meeting places. These encompass natural places, groves and woodland clearings and hilltops.

We know about these open air meeting places mostly because of their use in the later Anglo-Saxon period as moot sites for administrative hundreds (the early medieval counterpart to 'borough councils', although there were no counties or county councils at that time). Some are also the venues for the higher-level royal court which met as the king progressed endlessly around his kingdom.

What is much less clear from the available evidence is the extent to which these meeting places had been hearg sites since 'time out of mind'. And, given that during these meetings various solemn oaths were sworn, to what extent did all such meeting places take on some of the sanctity once given to hearg sites?

Place-name evidence suggests that the Anglo-Saxons thought of the landscape as containing any number of natural features which were regarded, if not necessarily as 'sacred' or 'numinous' then at least places where the supernatural was a little closer. Semple's list includes:

  • springs and wells
  • hollows and fissures
  • caves and openings
  • hilltops, knolls and natural barrow-shaped features
  • specific trees and shrubs
  • standing stones and stones with natural holes
Groves and open spaces seem more likely to be associated with specific deities – there are various place-names where Woden, Thor and Tiw are all found in combination with leah ('woodland clearing') or feld ('large open field').

We should imagine both woodland clearings and large open fields as places used for pasturing animals – indeed as communal pasturing for all the animals of a community. Using woodland for pasturing animals is now rare in Western Europe but was necessary in the era before haymaking was invented to provide winter forage.

Semple also discusses in some detail the variety of hill shapes associated with hearg place-names and other ritual meeting places. Although detailed her discussion is not exhaustive. For example, her examples of 'dramatic rises of land which at a distance, however, are hidden from view' does not include Waden Hill at Avebury, which most certainly fits that description. Nevertheless her insight into visually dramatic sites which are to some extent hidden also provides clues to locate hearg sites which are known only from place-name evidence (as I have done for Vernemetum in The Especially Sacred Grove).

Anglo-Saxon cemeteries share some of the same sort of locations as hill-top sanctuaries. While a small number of Anglo-Saxon burials have sometimes been found at hearg sites, these seem to relate to specific – presumably high-status – individuals. Extensive cemeteries – presumably for the less honoured members of the community – seem to be distinct from heargs.

Constantly evolving religious and administrative open-air meeting places

The same sort of sites which place-name evidence suggests were used as pre-conversion sacred places also appear later in the Anglo-Saxon era as administrative meeting places – more commonly for hundredal 'moots' but also as places where the peripatetic royal court met for administrative purposes.

There is considerable detail in Semple's study of Anglo-Saxon open air meeting places (not least her citations of relevant work by other researchers). However the evidence for open air meeting places is only one aspect of Anglo-Saxon ritual activity. So I will consider some of these other aspects before coming back to draw upon Semple's detailed remarks.

For the moment there is one consideration which seems to link together all Semple's various examples. And that is the same places (or, more pedantically in many instances, the same place-name elements) reflect both continuity and reuse of specific sites but at the same time shifting and ever-evolving meanings. So we cannot simply discuss 'Anglo-Saxon open air meeting places' – or whatever – as more-or-less fixed entities which span the centuries. Even such distinctions as pre- and post-conversion are too crude to be effective. What Semple demonstrates – although does not overtly discuss – is that while there is continuity of places there are also successive changes in their meaning and significance.

From frithgeard to churchyard

The later phases of this 'continuity and change' are of course linked to conversion to Christianity. Open air meeting places of the hearg kind survive only in place-names. They are not mentioned in post-conversion charters or legal documents. There are references, in both Latin and Old English, to pre-Christian 'altars' enclosed by either fences or hedges. By the eleventh century the word frithgeard ('sanctuary', literally 'hallowed yard') is used to refer to these.

But by that time an entirely novel type of 'hallowed yard' was commonplace in England – what we now know as the churchyard, although the presence of a church in the middle was still novel in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Before there were parish churches these were just enclosed spaces used for worship and burial. The main distinction to pre-conversion heargs was that they were in the midst of villages. But, to all intents and purposes, the church became the frith – sometimes complete with a frithstol or 'frith stool' as a place of sanctuary for criminals, if we can generalise from the still-extant example at Beverley Minster.


The frithstool at Beverley Minster

Before there were churches in churchyards there would have been crosses. Most would have been wooden, although stone examples have survived. Indeed, the word 'cross' comes into English from the Latin crux and may originally have denoted only crosses carved from stone. The wooden ones would have been called in Old English a treow, beam or rood, although it is not clear what distinction there was between the three words. Beam often appears in the compound 'blood beam' so is at the least a cross and perhaps a crucifixion. Treow becomes the modern word 'tree' but, interestingly, it has a homonym treow which meant 'truth' or 'oath' (Modern English 'true'). Treow also has the sense of gibbet, as in the place-name Oswestry which is a contraction of Oswaldes treow. After the battle of Maserfelth in 642 Penda executed his rival Oswald (whose name has the literal meaning of 'power of god' or 'rule of god') and placed his body on a gibbet, henceforth known as 'Oswald's tree'.

'Rood' has the primary sense of 'gallows' and is the Old English counterpart to the Latin word 'crucifixion'. The least-common Old English term was 'Christ mael' 'the Christ mark(er). Mael is the precursor to the Modern English word 'mole', a freckle-like mark.

But if the churchyard was created, initially, to enclose a treow, cross or beam, what did a frithgeard enclose? The Old English words are weoh and stapol. These words both refer to carved wooden posts, with stapols larger than weohs. They will be discussed in more detail in a separate article Weohs and stapols but, for the moment, simply take note that we can be fairly confident that the first wooden crosses and crucifixes in churchyards were the continuation of a well-established tradition of erecting wooden 'idols'.

Until the construction of stone-built minsters in the eighth and ninth centuries, stone working was absent from Anglo-Saxon culture. They would have been well aware of the ruins of Roman buildings – and may have re-roofed some of them – but these were enta geweorc – the 'work of giants' – as in the Old English poem known as The Ruin which opens with the lines:


Wondrous is this stone wall, smashed by Fate;
the city is broken to pieces, the work of giants has crumbled.


Wood was a living material which was integral to everyday life – capable of being shaped and joined to form the homes, tools and utensils. Stone was inert and recalcitrant. The shift from wooden carvings – whether weohs and stapols or beams and roods to carved stone crosses was not simply a shift of medium. The 'message' also shifted somewhat too. The message is more Biblical, alluding the Old Testament passages which refer to the bethel, or 'Stone of God'.

The next article, In the name of the wood… continues this discussion of pre-conversion places of worship.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013


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