Nuns and Princesses (Middle Saxon Edition)

Posted on March 18, 2012


Catching up with reading recent archaeology news, I am coming late to the Cambridge Archaeological Unit’s report that they titled Mystery of Anglo-Saxon teen buried in bed with gold cross. Great website from Cambridge University, lots of good long contextual quotes, and a sympathetic subject: a teenage girl buried with a piece of craftwork comparable to the best previously known works from the time.

So, I read, and read, and read, and read. I will admit that I was reading to see if/where/when gender stereotypes would enter into the reporting.

What happened instead as I read this way was that I noticed something different, a challenge for those of us trying to project contemporary archaeology into the public. Try reading the stories I did in the order I did (helpfully, the links above are in order). Go ahead. I’ll wait….

OK, now that you are back: by the time we reach the US press, the story is all about the things.

The use of a bed in the burial and the pectoral cross are foregrounded by the Chicago Sun Times. Notice that the wider context at the site itself is reduced to one sentence:

Three sets of Anglo-Saxon remains were also found nearby, but it’s not clear to what degree any of the people buried there were related.

The British newspaper The Guardian retained more from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit press release about the context:

The field where she lay… hid a previously unknown Anglo-Saxon settlement. It may have been a wealthy monastic settlement – more of it probably lies under the neighbouring farm and farmyard – although there are no records of any church earlier than the 12th century village church which overlooks the site.

The part of the original archaeologists’ report that inspired this passage is expanded on by the British Independent:

The female graves, the high status nature of the site and the Christian burial rite all combine to suggest that the  princess and her companions may well have been nuns – and that the settlement may have been part of a nunnery. It’s known that the various newly Christianized Anglo-Saxon monarchs of the time competed with each other to establish monasteries and  nunneries as a proof of their Christian piety. Indeed it’s conceivable that the princess’s parents enrolled their daughter in such a nunnery to further demonstrate their commitment to their new faith (a common practice at the time).

That last bit got me thinking about how this find might be contextualized, not just as it already is in the history of Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity, but in the archaeology of sex and gender.

As it happens, next week the students in my course, Archaeology of Sex and Gender, will be reading work about celibacy and sexuality. This entire unit of the course was originally inspired by the work of Reading University’s Roberta Gilchrist, whose 1997 book Gender and Material Culture was one of the first book length studies of archaeology of sex and gender written by a single author about a single subject. Subtitled “The Archaeology of Religious Women“, in the book, Gilchrist does something incredibly original: she treats celibate women as a subject worthy of historical attention.

While I do not think it was not her intention, for me, Gilchrist raised the question of the degree to which our discussions of women in the past have been dominated by an implicit assumption that women’s social importance came from their role in reproduction. Compare the visibility of women as wives and mothers with the relative invisibility of women who might not have married, might not have had children (whether married or not), might not have engaged in sexual relations with men (whether oriented to same sex partners or, as in the instances Gilchrist studies, celibate). So my students will be reading her chapter in the landmark Archaeologies of Sexuality, “Unsexing the Body: The Interior Sexuality of Medieval Religious Women”.

Gilchrist has extensively published about medieval burial practices as well. My understanding of the inclusion of things like the cross in this conversion-period grave is helped by a talk I heard her give on inclusion of amulets in much later medieval Christian burials. Now published as an award-winning paper, it argues that these later burials “have a connection to folk magic, performed by women in the care of their families, and drawing on knowledge of earlier traditions” during the conversion period, when the newly described Cambridge burial was created.

If the tentative speculation of the archaeologists is correct, this is a context where celibacy emerged as an alternative life for some women. Historical evidence suggests that women of the nobility were prominent among early converts to Christianity, among other things providing a demand for pieces like the striking enameled gold cross worn by the teenage girl in the newly reported burial.

Archaeologist Sam Lucy is quoted as saying that during the seventh century, “Christian conversion began at the top and percolated down”:

To be buried in this elaborate way with such a valuable artefact tells us that this girl was undoubtedly high status, probably nobility or even royalty. This cross is the kind of material culture that was in circulation at the highest level of society.

Alison Dickens, described as the leader of the excavation, adds that the cross (apparently sewn onto clothing through loops on each arm) simultaneously indicated the elevated social status of the woman as well as her religious devotion:

You can tell from the shiny look of three of these loops, where they have rubbed against fabric, that this item was worn in daily life, most likely as a symbol of social status as well as religious affiliation.

It is Dr. Lucy who raises the possibility that the girl and the other people buried near here– two of them also young women, the third of undetermined biological sex– were members of an early religious community:

Did she have a formal role in the church? The site is just behind the village church, which is first documented over 400 years later. Perhaps there was a monastery – even a nunnery – there before that we don’t know about.

There is a subtle difference between the way these archaeologists talk about the people involved in the conversion process and the Independent‘s presentation of the young woman as, essentially, a pawn under her parent’s control. This difference almost certainly reflects the specialists’ knowledge of the active role of noble women as participants in the conversion process, including their roles as patrons of new religious establishments.

At the very end of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit report, we get this fascinating proposal:

There may even be a possible link to the founding of the first monastery in Ely at around the same time. St Æthelthryth (or Etheldreda), daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, established the female-headed house at Ely in 673 AD. A cemetery found in Ely by the CAU in 2006 also contained a later 7th-century burial of a 10-12 year-old with a delicate gold cross pendant, who was thought to have been associated with the monastery.

Roman Catholic tradition about the origins of the Diocese of Ely describes how the Anglo-Saxon Princess Etheldreda avoided consummating a marriage that she did not want by founding her own religious community on land that had been settled on her from a first marriage (also, tradition says, chaste); drawing on the wealth of her family; influence that she gained through patronage of other church building; and the ideology of the then-new faith. She was followed in the role of Abbess by a succession of royal relatives, as Wikipedia notes, “all royal princesses and two of them widowed queens”.

The last paragraphs of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit press release provide hints about other evidence for the possible presence at Trumpington of a religious establishment. The reference to the archaeological settlement here is relatively brief:

initial assessment of the pottery has suggested the presence of some high status imports, of a type usually only associated with high status ecclesiastical centres.

More detail is available from the website of the Trumpington local history group, including an account of a visit to the site while it was under investigation with photos of the below-ground-surface building pits from the Saxon period.

The Independent, without giving a precise source, describes the high status imports found that were typical of monastic sites as “fragments of posh French-originating  shiny black ceramic wine jugs”. That is enough of a thread to trace what probably is present at Trumpington: North French Blackware. The type, of middle Saxon date (AD 650-850), is said to be mainly jugs, and the only illustration I could find (in a study of the London area) shows a spouted pitcher.

The dates are right about when the newly described burial was put in place in Trumpington. The time span also includes the founding of a community of religious women at Ely in AD 673 by Queen Etheldreda.

Archaeologist Paul Blinkhorn identified a few sherds of North French Blackware in excavations at the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral.  Blinkhorn says that North French Blackware is “rarely found at inland sites, except those of some status”, explaining that they “occur inland at sites with a significant ecclesiastical component…and at royal estates”.

In an Appendix on pottery in a report on pre-construction archaeology at another site in Cambridgeshire, Willingham, Blinkhorn describes the single sherd of North French Blackware recovered, a piece of a pitcher. He suggests the Middle Saxon residents at Willingham may have been wealthy enough to have visited markets at Ely and purchased imported goods.

His study of North French Blackware clearly inspired the report in The Independent, directly or indirectly:

Willingham is just the fourth site in the county to produce such material…. In Cambridgeshire, three sherds of North French Blackware occurred alongside an assemblage of Ipswich Ware at the Lady Chapel, Ely (Blinkhorn in archive), seven sherds were noted at a probable Middle Saxon nunnery at Castor in the extreme north-west of the county (Green et al. 1987), and a single sherd was noted from excavations at Chatteris.

While the spectacular cross will undoubtedly continue to dominate coverage of the burials from Trumpington, teasing out this history strikes me as a lot more interesting. The roles that women really had in Middle Saxon England put them in the position to control wealth, to foster major shifts in cultural practices, and oh yes: to help promote international trade through the kinds of consumption that the new religious communities could promote.