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MEDIEVAL-RELIGION  November 1998

MEDIEVAL-RELIGION November 1998

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Subject:

Re: Holy wells

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Date:

Tue, 24 Nov 1998 16:47:37 -0400 (EDT)

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the only location that most people would agree is to be associated with
the Irish hermits is the Westman islands, a group of islands off the south
coast. There is not, to my knowledge, any evidence of springs with such
associations. The closest I can come is a settler on the south coast with
Irish antecedents whose local river was regularly full of salmon; when 
chased away from it by pagans, the fish were found in the river near his
new settlement. I suspect these stories to be 12th c. place-name stories;
there appear to be no special properties associated with the rivers. I
apologize for not providing proper references; my library is elsewhere.
this thread is suggesting a lot of interesting areas that need to be
checked out. Incidentally there is no evidence for Irish influence in the
earliest Icelandic liturgies, nor in saints venerated there.
after these singularly unhelpful comments, dare I ask for references to
the availability of skulls for theraputic purposes? This is attested
in Iceland, at an earlier date than the springs; when the first two 
icelandic saints were translated c. 1200, the relics were washed and 
the water kept and used for healing.
Meg


> Given the paucity of physical evidence, other than the church-related spring
> sites (which actually form a substantial corpus not so far systematically
> investigated), we are forced back on to other categories of evidence. Ingegerd's
> own initial research points in one such direction: name analysis.

> In one of those infuriating moments of memory loss, I've failed to find a recent
> note about a spring that goes under the name of Raven's well in an Old English
> set of charter bounds and turns up later as, I think, St Antony's well. (Given
> the association between Raven and Odin, conceivably that's a case of
> Christianisation - except that a _hrafn_ well might be Hrafn's well and thus
> secular.)

> I _have_ found, however, my notes on 195 well and spring names in the area of
> the pre-Reformation diocese of Worcester, and a striking feature of this group
> is that the largest category of names not associated with a specified saint (the
> latter accounting for 69 cases) comprises those 22 wells and springs which
> allude to divination. I have included 'penny' wells in this category since my
> understanding is that coins are taken to represent wishes, but I stand to be
> corrected if necessary on that score. More than half the cases are of 'Seven'
> wells, the earliest having a date in the eighth century, and I take the sense of
> 'perfection' to point to 'luck', though it might equally point to 'good',
> 'healthy', and that leads to a second feature of the corpus.

> This is the general absence of names alluding to health (unless 'honey' wells
> and suchlike should be so interpreted). Yet the huge number of modern references
> to wells being 'good for eyes', 'good for skin', and so on, should surely
> convince us that wells with particular medicinal qualities figured strongly in
> the most basic rungs of medieval therapeutic strategies. Possibly such wells
> were the most likely to be given the names of saints, and that's where they lie
> in this Worcester material.

> Given the general absence also of onomastic evidence for wells and springs with
> saints' names before, say, c. 1100, perhaps the church's strategy until then had
> been to leave it to episcopal and conciliar condemnation to deal with well
> 'worship' while allowing the use of wells for medicinal remedies and divination
> to continue unregulated. Certainly an analysis of the titulars of wells points
> towards a 'popular' (and relatively late) pattern of naming, not obviously
> influenced by an official concern to involve the universal cults (and perhaps
> this was the last thing the church wanted, given the robust association between
> springs and 'popular' customs). There are numbers of cases in which a saint's
> name has been attached to a spring by folk-etymology, but not always in a random
> fashion.

> Lastly, there's probably a wealth of evidence to be gleaned from a detailed,
> comparative investigation of sites associated with saints' beheading. It has
> been suggested that Kenelm's cult, to take but one example, was the result of
> a tenth-century campaign of Christianisation. But when we get into these
> cults, their complexity is daunting. Kenelm's body was translated to Winchcombe
> but possesion at the Romsley well-chapel of an image of the saint's head
> inevitably prompts comparison with sites where a saint's skull was available for
> therapeutic use by the faithful.

> Such sites are found in Ireland as well as mainland Britain, and I can't help
> asking Meg whether there's any indication in Iceland, given the stable
> chronology of Scandinavian settlement and conversion, that some at least of
> the later 'holy' wells could be associated, locationally or otherwise, with the
> cells of the shadowy (?Irish) monks who are said to have made landfall there before the
> Scnadinavians' arrival.

> Graham Jones

> ***********************************
> Dr Graham Jones
> Leverhulme Special Research Fellow
> University of Leicester
> Department of English Local History
> Marc Fitch House
> 5 Salisbury Road
> Leicester LE1 7QR
> United Kingdom

> Tel: (44)-(0)116-252-2765 (direct)
> 		2762 (department)
> e-Mail: [log in to unmask]
> ***********************************


Margaret Cormack			[log in to unmask]
Dept. of Philosophy and Religion	fax: 843-953-6388
College of Charleston			tel: 843-953-8033
Charleston, SC 29424-0001


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