Travels with Gervase of Tilbury; 2 Wandlebury

I once went to Wandlebury.  I was a student at Cambridge.  It was a terrific day for a student excursion.  We got there by bus and footpath.  On the way back, the supposed Roman road we were following was more a less a swamp.  One of us tried to walk through the edge of a sodden ploughed field and sank thigh-deep in Cambridgeshire loam.  How we laughed.  And there was a pub, where only the one with the cleanest shoes was allowed in to order, and another bus.  Such fun.

It had been my idea to go to Wandlebury.  It is the only bit of Cambridgeshire which threatens to rise above sea level, and moreover it is an Iron Age site.  Iron Age sites, in the days when I could still walk uphill, were places I needed to be.  I risked my life on two hideous descents – one on the cliff side of Pen Dinas, Aberystwyth; the side which doesn’t show in this free picture, but where a sidelong wind tries to peel you off the gorse-infested slope, illustrating why the intelligent Iron Agers didn’t bother with defences on that side.   Stephanie Jennison dared that descent with me.  (The thing which looks like a chimney is a botched monument to Wellington, which, for no good reason, dominates Aberystwyth.)

Pen Dinas, Aberystwyth

The other descent was of Caer Caradoc above Church Stretton, and who cares who dared it with me.  Suffice it to say that I would have done better to do the map-reading for myself.

Wandlebury is fascinating enough without Gervase.  I haven’t personally infested it since the 1980’s, but the clue is in the name.  This is a pre-Roman hill-fort, a major Iron Age settlement, which survived to become a Saxon burh – a defensive point where troops could gather.  The location is also called Wandlebury Rings in reference  to the ditch and bank fortifications, of Iron Age origin, which surround it.  It is today a country park, adequately described in the Wikipedia entry.



But the Wikipedia entry omits a more contentious side to the location, discussed separately here.  When I visited, I knew that 1954 excavations by T.C. Lethbridge had led to claims that the hillside had once sported chalk carvings of Iron Age gods.  If this were true, the site would be of exceptional interest.  At any rate, when I visited, there was nothing of Lethbridge’s imaginings to be seen.  The most notable feature was the four-square stable block, which is all that survives of a mansion on the site, dating back to the 17th century, demolished in the 1950’s.  The incongruous stable block is liminal enough, all by itself.  This is a site where the essential persists, obscured by the accretions of time.

So what does Gervase have to say about it?  I translate to save us copyright problems, though you really do need to own the edition by Banks and Binns.  In Otia Imperialia III 59, de Wandlebiria, he says:

In England, on the edges of the Diocese of Ely, is the town named Cambridge, and nearby, within its territories, is a place which people call Wandlebury, for the reason that the ‘Wandali’ [Vandals] pitched camp there, when they ravaged Britain, savagely slaying the Christians.

Gervase understands that bury means some sort of fort.  The idea that Vandals ravaged Britain is sheer fiction, derived from the name current in his day, whatever it was, Latinized as ‘Wandalebiria’.  He continues

Where they pitched camp at the top of a hill, a circular plateau is surrounded by earthworks, with entrance by a kind of gate.

Gervase means that there is a gap in the earthworks – the usual entrance into an Iron Age fort, which, in its day, may have been accompanied by a wooden gateway.

There is a story, widely attested,  going back far into antiquity that if any knight , after the silence of night has fallen, enter this plateau by moonlight, and shout. ‘Let a knight meet a knight!’ then a knight will come to meet him, ready for conflict; their horses come together and he either overthrows his opponent or is overthrown.  But I should tell you of a pre-condition; the knight has to enter the enclosure alone through the entrance, though his companions are not prevented from watching from outside.

In support of this, Gervase tells the story of Osbert Fitz Hugh, who, not long ago (paucis exactis diebus) met the mysterious knight under the specified conditions, and was wounded in the thigh but won the contest.  It was an empty victory.  The wound broke out each year on the anniversary of the fight, and the remarkable black horse, black caparisoned, which was Osbert’s trophy, escaped at cock crow.  Osbert died on the Crusades – saving his soul.

All of which goes to suggest that Gervase spent time in Cambridgeshire, where he heard the story from the locals (ab incolis et indigenis).  Perhaps he was visiting the University, supposedly founded in 1209, but in being as a scholarly community some time earlier.  By 1209, Gervase was probably established in Arles.  So if you want a liminal destination, I recommend Wandlebury.  Take sandwiches, because there isn’t a tearoom.




Travels with Gervase of Tilbury: 1 Haveringemere

Haveringemere (Otia Imperialia III 88)

At this point in the Otia Imperialia Gervase is reporting stories of bodies of water punishing people for inappropriate behaviour.  Gervase accepts this as a scientific phenomenon because he doesn’t have the resources to enable him to evaluate his sources.   Tales about malicious water bodies could not be ignored, as they often reflected genuine nautical hazards, personalised as dangerous spirits or monsters.

The story of Haveringmere comes from the Welsh Marches – Banks and Binns list Newton Mere, Shropshire and Hanmer, Clwyd as candidates.  It is nothing to do with Havering in London.  The place name is of standard Saxon form, meaning the people (ing) belonging to Haefer.   Mere means a lake.  Unless the Northern Marches had some really dangerous local weather, the story may reflect a surviving pagan belief in local water spirits.

Gervase writes, in mixed Latin and Middle English:

Also in the same region is Haveringemere, and if anyone crossing it shouts out ‘Phrut Haveringemere and alle tho the over the fere’ he is immediately caught up in a sudden storm and sinks with his boat.

Gervase could clearly speak Middle English, and, since this is a local tale, we presume he had connections with the area.  The modern English is ‘Phrut Haveringemere and all that travel on you.’  ‘Phrut’ may be an actual expletive or represent a rude noise, like raspberry blowing.   Gervase goes on to say that it is extraordinary that a lake should take offence in this way.

Ellesmere, Shropshire
Newton Mere, Shropshire

The North Marches has several large bodies of water, including Ellesmere, which is rich in its own lore.  The whole area is called ‘the Meres’.  While not exactly the Lake District, the area is extremely beautiful, and I understand that it is ideal for walking holidays.

Dealing with travellers’ tales like this, I always find the question ‘WHY?’ interesting.  Why did this story get into circulation?  Why did people take it seriously?  A story like this could be anecdotal.  If a boatman is hurling abuse at a lake, he may already be under some stress and very possibly drunk, which might explain him sinking in bad weather.  But this kind of explaining away may miss the point completely.  Perhaps there is or was a local weather phenomenon which made the mere surprisingly treacherous.  Perhaps the story is based on a strong local pagan tradition about that particular mere spirit and is therefore serious evidence for pagan survival.  Perhaps the whole thing started as a joke, and is just evidence for how difficult it was for Gervase to get reliable sources.  It is certainly evidence for how complex and inexplicable the Mediaeval environment could seem, even to educated observers.

In the interests of science, I am looking for a kayaker or coracler  to make the experiment.  There are two main questions to answer; do any of the meres respond, and if so, which one?   We need to know.


Travellers’ Tales in the Otia Imperialia of Gervase of Tilbury.

Dedicated to Meg T who introduced me to Gervase and all his best stories.

This post is only an introduction to the good stories, which will follow in other posts.

Sometime at the end of the twelfth century, one Gervase, an Anglo-Norman, possibly from Tilbury, went to Bologna to study canon law, and from there to a career as jurist and administrator in England, Sicily and France.   At some point he made time for his own mission to educate, inform and entertain, aimed in particular at the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto IV.  The large resulting book is the Otia Imperialia (Leisure Reading for an Emperor).  The copy I am using is edited and translated by S. E. Banks and J.W. Binns for the Oxford Medieval Texts series  For copyright reasons, I shall use my translation , but for obvious reasons, it will be not unlike that in the edition.  And so I add this disclaimer: quod apud illustrissimos Banks et Binns optime legendum est, hoc loco minore arte Anglice redditum expono, ut in reti quoque narrationes Gervasii abundent.

Leisure is not something you would readily associate with Otto IV, who spent a great deal of time battling for his throne, and ultimately losing it.  But in case he had spare time, Gervase provided him with three volumes.  Book I chronicles the world from creation to the time of Noah.  Book II continues the history up to the Norman kings of England.  And Book III, on marvels of the world is where the best stories are, many of them based on Gervase’s travels.

The history of travellers’ tales in European literature is long and fascinating.  Homer’s Odyssey might be a good place to start.  Herodotus is the obvious next main stop on the line – the man who gave us the sheep with such fat tails that they have to pull them around in little carts.  The important thing about travellers’ tales is that they have to be believed to be true information about the real world.   And, apart from being really entertaining, they are seriously interesting in many ways.  It isn’t that they ‘have a grain of truth in them.’  Some of them do, others are absolutely true, although often oddly expressed, others are utterly insane.

Self-castrating beaver from Bibliotheque Nationale de France, lat. 6838B folio 5v

Here, for example, not from Gervase, but from bestiaries throughout the Middle Ages, and going back at least to Hierocles the Stoic in the 2nd century AD is the self-castrating beaver.  There already is a blog about this entertaining critter here.



I may come back to the beaver, whose non-existent behaviour proves many things about God and the universe.  But for now my heart is with Gervase and the search for knowledge in a very unreliable world.