Glossary of Terms
atheling: the highest (and smallest) class of noblemen, related to the King or heir to the King
aurochs: bos taurus primigenius a giant (skeletal remains show them as being fully 2 m tall at the shoulder) form of early cattle, no longer found in Britain after the Bronze Age but which continued to wander the forests and grasslands of Southern and Central Europe. The last Aurochs, a cow, died in Poland in 1627. Aurochs horns were used as high status ceremonial drinking horns, embellished with silver fittings. Such an aurochs horn was laid with the dead king in the Sutton Hoo burial, circa 625 CE.The aurochs was memorialized in the second letter of the runic alphabet, the futhark, the letter Ur signifying primal strength. The Old English Rune Poem describes the letter Ur thus: Aurochs is fierce and high-horned/the courageous beast fights with its horns/a well-known moor-treader, it is a brave creature (translation Stephen Pollington, Rudiments of Runelore)
baldric: a long shoulder strap which runs diagonally across the chest, from which a sword scabbard is attached. The hilt of the sword rests not at the hip but higher up against the chest
Bookland/Folkland: distinctions of land ownership. Bookland (bocland) was land held by charter (by “book”) from the King and his Witan, was often granted to religious houses, and was mainly exempt from the three obligations which holders of Folkland were subject to, that of sending warriors to the King’s army (fyrdfare); the repairing of forts, roads, and bridges (burhbot and bricgbot); and the requirement of paying taxes to, and feeding and sheltering the King and his men when visiting (gafol).
bourn: in this sense, its ancient meaning, a destination or goal
browis: a cereal-based stew, often made with fowl
burh: A fortified village or lordly residence with administrative responsibilities. Fortifications included palisade walls, ditches, and earth works surrounding the enclosed buildings. King Ælfred (r 871-899) decreed during his reign that such a burh be established every 40 miles apart throughout Wessex so that in times of emergency the entire populace would be within 20 miles -or a day’s journey by foot – of protection. Some burhs were reused Iron Age and Roman forts, but many were built new during Ælfred’s reign.
ceorl: (“churl”) a freeman ranking directly below a thegn, able to bear arms, own property, and improve his rank
cottar: free agricultural worker, in later eras, a peasant
cresset: stone, bronze, or iron lamp fitted with a wick that burnt oil
ealdorman: a nobleman with jurisdiction over given lands; the rank was generally appointed by the King and not necessarily inherited from generation to generation. The modern derivative alderman in no way conveys the esteem and power of the Anglo-Saxon term.
frumenty: cereal-based main dish pudding, boiled with milk. A version flavoured with currents, raisins and spices was ritually served on Martinmas (November 11th) to ploughmen.
scop: (“shope”) a poet, saga-teller, or bard, responsible not only for entertainment but seen as a collective cultural historian. A talented scop would be greatly valued by his lord and receive land, gold and silver jewellry, costly clothing and other riches as his reward.
seax: the curve-bladed dagger which gave its name to the Saxons; all freemen carried one.
Sun-stone: the mineral Iolite. A slice of this mineral acts as a polarizing filter, so that the position of the Sun may be determined even in an overcast sky. Iolite can appear violet, blue, or yellow, depending on the direction of the viewer.
thegn: (“thane”) a freeborn warrior-retainer of a lord; thegns were housed, fed and armed in exchange for complete fidelity to their sworn lord. Booty won in battle by a thegn was generally offered to their lord, and in return the lord was expected to bestow handsome gifts of arms, horses, arm-rings, and so on to his best champions.
trev: a settlement of a few huts, smaller than a village
tun: a large cask or barrel used for ale
weir: a trap for catching fish made by pounding stakes into the bed of a river or stream and so creating an enclosure in which the captured fish can be easily dipped out or speared
wergild: Literally, man-gold; the amount of money each man’s life was valued at. The Laws of Æthelbert, a 7th century King of Kent, for example, valued the life of a nobleman at 300 shillings (equivalent to 300 oxen), and a ceorl was valued at 100 shillings. By Ælfred’s time (reigned 871-899) a nobleman was held at 1200 shillings and the ceorl’s at 200.
Witan: a council of ealdorman, other high-ranking lords, and bishops; their responsibilities included choosing the King from amongst their numbers.
withy: a willow or willow wand; withy-man: a figure woven from such wands