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Winter of the Soul

Yesterday on the tube I became wholeheartedly engrossed in Winters in the World, a book I am reading by Historian Eleanor Parker.  It really does, as the Guardian says, ‘act as a portal’ back to  Anglo Saxon Britain.

If you thought today’s England is obsessed with weather you should read what the Anglo Saxons had to say about it. To be fair their whole lives were dominated by it,  they feared the settling of the ice and the bitter winds, they found joy in the first buds of spring and renewal of hope, they celebrated the excesses of harvest with feasts of joy. Their existence was not one of thermal vests and radiators and they most certainly were not cosseted from the elements as we are today.

I delved into the text, finding it hard in part to get excited about weather when suddenly I was I stopped in my tracks, gobsmacked by one story which appealed  to my lifelong fascination of the ethereal.

A pivotal point in the story of how paganism changed to Christianity on these rugged isles is summed up in the story of King Edwin of Northumbria and Ethelburh of Kent.  Ethel (lets get cosy with names here) was already Christian and she married Pagan king Ed aroundabout 625AD give or take a few years .  She got a missive from Pope Boniface saying, do what you can about converting your pagan husband Ed to Christianity.  Well as you know women can be very persuasive! He did convert although not straight away. Apparently he was one to mull things over. He and I share that. Others call it procrastination but I think there is nothing wrong with carefully considering all options.

Conscious of his role as leader of his people and careful not to impose a new religion on them without consultation he sat down in a big hall for a feast with his advisors and probably a few hundred hangers on (jesters/cooks/the local scallywags) and discussed the possibility of becoming a Christian kingdom.

Now pay attention cos this is the bit that tickled me.  We only have the writings of Bede the Monk and scholar who wrote the account 100 years after the event. Bede might have liked a bit of drama.. there are a lot of us around to be fair.

Bede tells us that an anonymous advisor said the following:

‘O King, the present life of men on earth seems to me in comparison to the time which is unknown to us, as if you are sitting at dinner with your men and counsellors in the wintertime with a good fire kindled on the hearth in the midst of the hall and all inside well warmed, while outside storms of winter rain and snow are raging. A sparrow comes swiftly flying through the hall; it enters at one  door, and soon goes out through the other. During the time it is inside , the storms of winter cannot touch it; but after the briefest moment of calm weather, it vanishes from your sight, quickly returning from winter to winter. In the same way, this life of men appears for the brief moment; what went before, or what will come after, we do not know at all. If therefore this new teaching offers something more certain, it seems worthy to be followed’.

The beauty of this is that the pagan Anglo Saxons used a sparrow to signify the soul.

I cannot tell you why that spoke to me so deeply. Perhaps it was the knowledge that our ancestors were as deep and introspective as we can be.  Perhaps it was their total connection with nature and the use of a sparrow and winter as metaphors for life and eternity.

Keen to find out where my family was at that time, whilst all this was going on in Northumbria I did a bit of heavy delving and discovered that Begga of Andenne my grandma 39 times removed was over in Belgium with Grandad Ansegisel von Metz, he unfortunately got murdered in a feud which wasn’t very nice for Grandma Begga and she decided to go and be an Abbess, which is exactly what happened to Ethelburh of Kent. It’s not so surprising to be honest. That happened lots back in those days.  Especially if you didn’t want to be married off to anyone else.  What didn’t usually happen was that you were made a Saint.  Now I don’t want to brag here but in between all the vagabonds and debtors, painters who found fame and died paupers it’s nice to know that Grandma Saint Begga was doing a bit of popish reverance and got her just rewards. I also discovered we have a feast day on 17th December which I might just begin to celebrate (any excuse to raise a glass and scoff a bit of French nosh).  I am however, a bit disappointed that we weren’t a pagan family. There’s something very interesting about being an Anglo Saxon Pagan. I guess you can’t have it all.

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