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Dem bones – a visit to the ossuary at Rothwell

6 Aug

I usually associate rows of skulls and piles of bones with something terrible – the genocide in Cambodia, for instance.  But last week, I stood looking at the remains of some 1,500 people and, rather than disgust or fear, I sensed respect, care and pragmatism – and, over the week since we visited, I’ve thought so much about the emotions it stirred in me, I wanted to write about it.

The bone crypt at Holy Trinity, the main church in Rothwell, Northamptonshire, is one of only two bone crypts that still survive in the UK today.  The other is in Hythe, Kent – but there is every possibility there are others out there that just haven’t been found.

The crypt at Rothwell was re-discovered in the early 1700s – even though scientific analysis suggests it had been used a little over 100 years before.  It is accessible through the interior of the church (itself a wondrous building), and down a spiral staircase through two tiny doorways.

When you enter the room, you’re greeted with an enormous pile of leg bones, carefully laid in a large wooden frame.  I’d estimate the pile was roughly six feet high (taller than me) – and then wider and longer again.  There was also a second frame of an identical size behind it.

Along the walls, skulls were carefully spaced on shelves, all facing forward.

Some were numbered.

The frame and the shelves were not original; the handout we picked up suggested that the bones were originally just mixed in together, much like this small pile of bones on the floor towards the back of the crypt.

The only bones they’ve found in the crypt are skulls and thigh bones, known as ‘cross bones’.  (We’re most familiar with this pairing and terminology from the legendary pirate flag.)  Around 90% of the bones appear to have belonged to men – and, again, scientific analysis suggests the bones derive from two different phases, the older group coming from the 1200s and the more recent from the late 1500s.   Fascinatingly, the analysis of the blood types of the bones shows the same blood groups in the same proportions as modern-day Rothwell.

So what prompted the people of Rothwell to retain only these three bones out of the 200 plus we have?  What prompted them to bury them on mass?  And why mainly retain the men?

The main theory seems to have been that the bones in the crypt were simply the result of two different disinterments.  Rothwell was a busy medieval town – in 1204, King John even granted it a charter to hold a market – and it’s likely that the graveyard quickly ran out of space.  (Bill Bryson writes on the problem of country church graveyards in his recent work Home; he explains that the reason churches sometimes look like they’re sinking is simply the sheer amount of bodies buried in the ground around them.)

So it’s entirely possible the good people of Rothwell, with their obvious sense of pragmatism, decided to make space in their graveyard for more recently-deceased individuals.  And the building of the bone crypt was, to my mind, an act of respect for the dead.  They deliberately chose the bones that were believed necessary for Resurrection, they dug out a crypt – and they built the crypt directly under the Church, keeping the bones on sacred ground.

So while it may look gruesome or careless to ‘dump’ bones in a room, I think the people of Rothwell found a compromise between allowing later generations to continue to use the sacred ground to bury their loved ones, while respecting the beliefs of the dead from generations past by ensuring they’d be ready when the Resurrection came.

And the mystery of the absence of women?  Did that suggest these people didn’t respect their females as much?  As we paid our entrance fee, the lady who took the money whispered to us she reckoned there was another undiscovered crypt on the other side of the church, but couldn’t persuade anyone to dig it up to look.  So if she was right, not only did the people of Rothwell respect people’s religion, they also thought of their modesty and dignity and separated the sexes even in death.

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On the watershed – how a geographical feature began a hotly-debated issue of censorship

12 Jun

There’s been a lot of news coverage recently about the TV watershed – the mythical point on the clock at which all the children are allegedly in bed, and adults can enjoy more graphic content.  Campaigners argue that children are currently exposed to far too much adult content too early in life – and that includes unsuitable content and language used on TV ‘pre-watershed’, throughout the day and early evening.

It got me thinking –  why do we use ‘watershed’ to describe this family-friendly / adult invisible boundary in our TV viewing?

We also use ‘watershed’ to refer to a defining moment in time – a major change, e.g. “it was a watershed moment in British history”.

But neither of these uses appear to have anything obvious to do with water, or, for that matter, sheds.

So what’s going on?

The OED suggests the original use of ‘watershed’ was geographical, rather than political or cultural.  It refers to the place, usually a high ridge, where waters separate to flow into different rivers or basins.  It was first used in English in the 19th century – that great age of scientific discovery – and the rather strange combination of ‘water’ + ‘shed’ is thought to be derived from the German wasserscheide, a word the Germans had used since the 14th century.

Here’s an early usage of that geographical meaning by that most famous of 19th century scientists, Charles Darwin, is his account of the voyage of The Beagle: “The line of watershed, which divides the inland streams from those of the coast, has an elevation of about 3000 feet.

Seventy-five years later, the word ‘watershed’ had taken on a metaphorical meaning.  Just as the watershed is effectively the point of no return for waters as they flow into separate rivers, a watershed moment came to refer to any point of no return, the time after which everything changes.

It was an American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who first coined this usage in his poem The Two Rivers in 1878:

Midnight! the outpost of advancing day!

 The watershed of Time, from which the streams of Yesterday and To-morrow take their way.

This sense of a turning point in history was rapidly adopted, as is demonstrated here in a quote from Nation in 1893:  That resolution marks the water-shed of our Revolutionary politics.

The usage of ‘watershed’ to refer to a dividing line on television doesn’t appear until the 1960s, I suppose the point at which TV ownership had become more widespread.

I’ve often heard it said that we owe the TV watershed to the famous campaigner Mary Whitehouse – but if the OED and Wikipedia are both to be believed on the topic, then the watershed was in place before Mrs Whitehouse began her campaigning.

The OED first lists the usage of the word ‘watershed’ in a BBC Handbook from 1962:

The BBC’s Code of Practice on Violence, its new 9.30 p.m. watershed policy, its intention to distinguish those programmes which it thinks unsuitable, and perhaps more important, suitable for childrenshow that both sides are aware of the problem.

However, the entry on Mary Whitehouse in Wikipedia suggests she did not begin campaigning until 1963, a year after the BBC had formulated a policy on the watershed, so perhaps the BBC deserves a little more credit than it’s normally given, even though that would perhaps greatly upset Mary to hear me say that!

A linguistic excursion to the north-east – Mackem, Anish Kapoor and a Viking version of Jabba the Hut

1 Jun

We’ve just come back from a lovely weekend in the north east of England.  Sadly, we didn’t make it up to Northumbria, one of my favourite places ever, but we visited Sunderland (to see Take Take), Durham, Middlesbrough, Whitby and York, the latter on the way home.

Robbie Williams did a solo stint in the concert and sang a topical ditty to the tune of ‘Make ’em Laugh’.  Aside from the references to superinjunctions (!) in the song, he also referred to the crowd as ‘Mackems’.  I’ve met enough people from the north east to know there’s an important distinction: Geordies are from Newcastle or around the River Tyne, Mackems from Sunderland or around the River Wear.

It seems like ‘Mackem‘ is a fairly recent nickname for people from Sunderland; the earliest suggested written appearance in the OED is from a printed sports programme for a Sunderland rugby and cricket club from 1973: “We still ‘tak ’em and mak ’em and ye canna whack ’em.”  It’s not until 1981 that the proper word ‘mackem’ appears in print – in a Newcastle Football Club programme of all things! – ” Steve Cole, John Evans, [etc.] took the field against the ‘Mackems’ in a darts and doms double header.

There are a couple of theories on where the word ‘mackem’ comes from; the most popular seems to relate to the shipbuilding industry that was prevalent in the area.  The Wikipedia article on this topic suggests the ships were built in Wearside – ‘we make ’em’ – and then taken to Tyneside for fitting out – ‘and they take ’em’.  This is the theory supported by the OED, which also mentions the complementary theory that the pronunciation of ‘make’ and ‘take’ differed between Wearside and  Tyneside.   (A number of references to ‘Mackem’ online mention the fact it was featured on the BBC’s Balderdash and Piffle – and the OED revised their entry on the topic thanks to the viewers’ input.)    A secondary theory suggested by the Wikipedia article is that the origins of the word could lie in a local beer – the ‘Double Maxim’.

From Sunderland, we travelled to Whitby via Middlesbrough.  We wanted to see the football ground and the famous transporter bridge – but between the two lay Anish Kapoor‘s 110-metre long, 50-metre high ‘Temenos’.  To describe it as spectacular doesn’t do it justice. The photo below hopefully gives some sense of scale – Temenos is dwarfing a football stadium!

Temenos is a Greek word, meaning ‘a sacred piece of land’, or the land around a temple.  It derives from the Greek word ‘to sever’.  I think it’s an interesting choice of name given the location of the statue.  It’s between the football ground (a temple to many!) and the transporter bridge on the other side, surrounded by this incredible industrial landscape that’s undergoing  a regeneration, so is a mix of the swanky and modern surrounded by the grim and hard-edged.  I gather it’s the first of five such ‘giants’ that Anish Kapoor is building around the north-east area.

From Middlesbrough, we took the coast road, crossing into God’s own county, Yorkshire, to arrive at the charming seaside town of Whitby.  It’s definitely somewhere I’d go back to – one night wasn’t enough to enjoy its many attractions!

Whitby is famous for many things – the haunted ‘Hands of Glory’, the whaling industry, Dracula – and perhaps the most prosaic by comparison, Whitby Jet.  Jet is a black stone that was commonly worn in the Victorian period when mourning.  Wikipedia tells me it’s not a proper gemstone or mineral, but is rather a mineraloid as it’s made from compressing decayed wood.  All the mentions of ‘jet’ did make me wonder what jet (the mineraloid) has in common with a jet engine or a jet of water.  Is it something to do with pressure?

It seems like the words, although appearing the same, actually have little in common etymologically.  ‘Jet’ in the sense of an engine or a water jet derives from the French ‘jeter’ – to throw or to cast.   It was first used in English to mean a projection or protruding part; from this meaning, we also derive words like ‘jetty’ and ‘jut’.   The word also came to stand for a particular type of movement – darting or jerking forward – and then came to stand for a stream of water or liquid that spurts out at high pressure, as in this definition of 1696: Jet,‥a spouting forth of Waters.

The sense of ‘jet’ as meaning a spout or nozzle didn’t appear until the 1820s, and it’s not until after Frank Whittle invented the jet engine in the late 1920s  that we see the word applied to a particular type of plane:  “The advantages of the jet are so great that I am sure their development will be rapid.” (1944)

By contrast, the ‘jet’ that we wear in jewellery derives from the Old French, jaiet, which ultimately derives from the Greek gagate (jet).  It’s this sense of ‘jet’ that gives us the adjective ‘jet black’.

Finally, on the way back home, we called into York for a few hours in the pouring rain.  Many of the street names in York’s city centre end with ‘gate’ – Coppergate, Gillygate, Walmgate and so forth.  The ‘gate’ derives from the Old Norse ‘gata’ or street, reflecting York’s extensive Viking heritage.  Having looked up the etymology of ‘gate’, I think I might leave that for a future entry; it’s phenomenally complicated!

I particularly liked this street, Jubbergate, which gave me visions of Jabba the Hut wandering amongst York’s Viking settlers. Sadly, the Vikings didn’t appear to take their inspiration from George Lucas.  The Jubber is perhaps related to the word ‘Jew’, as the street was once known as Jubretgate, suggesting it might have been part of a Jewish quarter within York.

On Wetwang, Souldrop, Piddle and why Ashby-de-la-Zouche is the most fascinating place name in England

29 Apr

I’ve already blogged twice about surnames – once on the history of surnames, the other on how posh your surname is.  I have an equally-fervid love of the history of place names (toponymy), although it’s a little less interactive as, unlike the many curiously-named people I question, I am yet to find a place name sign that answers my questions …

I think I enjoy anything that gives an insight into how people used to live – and place names, like personal names, do just that.   They tell us about the physical environment, including natural and manmade features, they tell us what people did on the land, about ownership and the roots of the people who lived there and sometimes even about the social organisation.

Here are just a few examples of some of the most common, or most interesting, parts of English place names.

Places named after people

Many towns or cities are named after an ancient local leader or warlord – and, in some cases, we only know the person existed as they’ve left a place name behind them, such as Pada, the original ‘owner’ of Paddington.  The Welsh county of Gwynedd is also named after Cunedda, a 5th century leader.

-ING

The suffix –ingas was used in the Anglo-Saxon period to indicate something along the lines of ‘stronghold or settlement of the followers of X’ – so the first part of Paddington means ‘settlement of the followers of Pada’.

Barking and Reading are all well-known examples of the use of noun + ingas.  Where I live, Wellingborough, is thought to be named after a man called Waendal, who is now celebrated each year by a walking festival!

(There is an interesting argument that suggests these –ingas names tended to come in pairs as rival factions wanted to mark out territory.)

-HAM

The Old English for ‘home’ is hām (pronounced with a long a), and it’s thought this was used to mean ‘homestead’ or settlement in place names.

So Nottingham means the ‘homestead of the followers of Snot’.  (The city has conveniently dropped that first ‘S’ … I wonder why!)    Or Birmingham as ‘the homestead of the followers of Beorma’).

-SEX

We do see some counties that famously ended with the suffix -sex – Essex, Sussex, Middlesex and the former county of Wessex.  The –sex ending doesn’t imply anything rude, merely that Saxons had settled there after they invaded. So Essex is kingdom of the East Saxons (Ēastseaxe), Wessex the West, Sussex the South and Middlesex the Middle kingdom.

-TON or –TUN

You see -ton and -tun used both as a prefix (Tunbridge Wells or Tonbridge) and a suffix, Brighton.  Much like –ham, it’s thought to have meant homestead or settlement, and you may recognise the roots of the modern word ‘town’.

WICH, -WICK, -WYCH AND -WYKE

When I was small, we had a book about the Green Witch of Greenwich, the Wool Witch of Woolwich, the Old Witch of Aldwych and so forth.  Given that the ‘w’ is often silent, I often wonder how foreigners manage to travel anywhere in the UK as the pronunciation of our place names is so confusing!

There are a few possible definitions for –wich.  Most commonly, it’s thought to have meant ‘settlement’, ‘abode’ or ‘dwelling place’ from the Old English wíc derived from the Latin vīcus.  By the time of the Doomsday Book in 1986, wíc was also in use to mean ‘farm’, particularly ‘dairy farm’.

For places on the coast or rivers, particularly it’s also thought that -wic meant ‘bay’, derived from the Old Norse vík, and came to be used for busy sea or river ports like York (Jorvik), Ipswich, London (Lundenwic) and Southampton (Hamwic).

And in places like Droitwich , Middlewich, Nantwich, and Northwich, the –wich is thought to signify a place connected with salt – either a spring or a saltwork.

-BOROUGH, -BURY, -BROUGH AND –BURGH

This suffix, derived from the Old English burg, indicated that there was a fort in the location, or the settlement had some sort of fortification, such as walls.  With Edinburgh, it’s easy to see the fortification (it still stands!) but with other locations, such as Aylesbury or again, where I live in Wellingborough, the fort has long been long.  You can also see the same suffix appear in other European place names – Hamburg, Luxembourg or Strasbourg are three obvious examples.

-BY

The suffix –by is fascinating as it derives from Old Norse, rather than Old English – and its usage largely coincides with the areas that were settled by the Viking raiders, particularly in the North and the East of England.  It meant ‘farmstead’, so we see place names like Whitby, Appleby or Grimsby.  Here’s a chart above, showing the distribution of Old Norse (Viking) place names in the UK.  You can see by the purple that the names co-incide with the parts of the country settled by the Vikings.

-HOLM

I’ve always been interested in –holm, which is the Old Norse word for ‘island’ as there are islands in the Severn Estuary, Flat Holm and Steep Holm, visible from my home town of Cardiff.  The majority of place names that use –holm are in Scotland, particularly in the Orkneys and Shetland Islands.  So how did it end up in use in South Wales, a long way from the areas the Vikings settled in Britain?  The Vikings did raid along the coast lines of Wales and the West, and the evidence suggests that a Viking raiding party ended up taking refuge on these islands following a failed attack on a settlement in Somerset, hence the name.

Other Old Norse endings, indicative of Viking settlement are: -thorpe (farm), –thwaite (clearing), -ey (island) and –ford (fjord).

-CHESTER, -CASTER, CESTER

This suffix, one of the most common in English place names, derives from the Old English ceaster, which in turn comes from the Latin castra, or camp.  It’s thought to have been used to indicate a place of Roman military settlement – although there is an argument that says the Anglo-Saxons then used it to just mean ‘settlement’, regardless of whether the Romans had ever been there or not!  But the majority of usages of this suffix do appear in England where the Romans were well established, and not, by comparison, in Scotland, where they scarcely made it over the border.

We can see this suffix in places like Chester, Lancaster, Gloucester, Bicester, Manchester, Doncaster, Leicester and Worcester.  The Celts also adopted this word – and you can see in place names like Cardiff (Fort on the River Taff) or Caerleon (Fort of the Legion).

 REGIS

I’ve included Regis not because it’s necessarily common, but because it’s another curio of language.  Regis was used to indicate royal patronage.  The monarch may have owned the lands, given a Royal Charter to the area (as happened to Lyme Regis in 1284) or have spent considerable time in the location, such as Bognor, which received a ‘Regis’ title as late as 1929 after George V spent months recuperating there.

You also see places called ‘King’s’ (as in King’s Lynn) or Royal (Royal Berkshire), both of which also indicate royal favour.

-SHIRE

We see –SHIRE in our county names – Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Worcestershire, Oxfordshire, Lancashire and so forth.  Its etymology is particularly interesting as it didn’t mean anything to do with geography; its original Old English form scír meant something along the lines of ‘official duty’ or ‘office’ (in the sense of a formal position).  So an alderman, bishop or lord may have had a scír – and the word came to mean not just the duty itself, but the area and its people who were part of that duty.  We can see this usage clearly in 1338:

The bisshop of Canterbire þerof payed was he, For him and alle his schire

We’ve then adopted the word as a suffix to mean an administrative area – and most of our English county names (and many Welsh) have had –shire attached to them at some point in their history, even if they don’t use it now (Devon and Rutland being two examples who have dropped the ‘shire’).  The exceptions to the ‘shire’ suffix tend to be in the south-west (Cornwall), South-East (Kent, Sussex, Essex etc.) and the north (Northumberland, Cumbria).

Finally, in my title, I mentioned a few of my favourite English place names:

Wetwang, which the Oxford English Dictionary of Place Names suggested may have meant ‘field for the trial of a legal action’, from the Old Norse vætt-vangr.

Souldrop – no, not a place to commit suicide, but the same book suggests it means ‘outlying farmstead near a gully’ from the Old English sulh + throp.

Piddle – a source of much amusement, but probably just means a marsh or a fen.

And Ashby-de-la-Zouch is interesting as it contains three different languages in one title.  The ‘ash’ bit is Old English, the –by an Old Norse ending, and the ‘de la Zouch’ derives from the name of the Norman family that once owned it!

The fly in the ointment

23 Jan
Titlepage and dedication from a 1612-1613 King...

Image via Wikipedia

In October last year, I played the birthday card and persuaded my husband to give up his Friday night to accompany me to the ‘Warwick Words’ festival to see David Crystal talk on the King James Bible.

It was an evening of warmth, wit and insight – much like the many brilliant books David Crystal has written.   He’s a fantastic presenter, and even my husband, who has no particular interest in the English language or the King James Bible (the subject of the talk), thoroughly enjoyed the session.

In his talk, David debunked some of the myths around the King James Bible – that it is the ‘DNA’ of our English language.  The influence of the King James Bible, he argued, is not in the grammar, syntax, vocabulary or spelling of English.  Instead, he claims that where it is influential is in the use of idiom – ‘the fly in the ointment’, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’, ‘a man after my own heart’, a ‘two-edged sword’, ‘pearls before swine’ and many, many more.

Here’s a list of those idioms from phrases.org.uk

But as David went on to explain, there are surprisingly few idioms truly original to the King James Bible.  Many had actually appeared in earlier versions of the Bible, and I think (and I may have misremembered) that David counted only 18 idioms that could first be traced to the King James version.

There’s a great interview with David on icons.org.uk (and it’s great to see him on this site as he is one of my icons!)

David’s also written an article for the Oxford English Dictionary site on this topic.

Finally, here’s David’s book Begat on the King James Bible.  I haven’t read it – but if it’s like any of the many other books of his I have read, it’s bound to be a delight.