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  • 35 cms from Oxfordshire November 10, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

    Beachcombing’s ordeal of single parenthood is coming quickly to a close. Mrs B.’s conference is all but over and by tomorrow morning the house will be a happier place. In the meantime 35 centimetres of soil from just off Goldbury Hill, near West Hendred in Oxfordshire; 35 centimetres that often pass through Beachcombing’s mind when his elder daughter is dropping off to sleep.

    At this spot there was a small, Anglo-Saxon cemetery dug by Helena Hamerow in the early 90s. And the 35 centimetres of soil? Archaeologists at first believed that it was the grave of a baby, given the size of the diminutive skeleton within. But careful examination of the teeth revealed that surprisingly this was a two to three year old child. The only explanation was that the child in question had stopped growing in his (or her) first year. An illness or congenital condition, the kind that in another age would have sparked talk about changelings, had frozen the bairn’s development and bone analyst Sally Crawford (also an outstanding historian) speculated in her writing about a hole in the heart (96).

    Anglo-Saxon graves have been used to tell stories from rapes, to witchcraft, and from murders to shamanism, but this particularly struggle against and within life has gone almost unnoticed. However, make no mistake, a story here there is. A child who stops growing in the first year is often difficult to keep alive in a modern hospital. But at West Hendred an Anglo-Saxon family – with Welsh raids, snow storms, Mercian taxmen and famine conditions to contend with – managed to keep their ill heir going through two or perhaps three years. The screaming, the sleepless nights, the growing despair…

    Too often records from the past – a famous letter from Roman Egypt comes to mind – lead us to think that ancient and particularly that tribal societies washed their hands of ‘broken’ or unwanted children. And there is no question that infanticide did take place and that countless children were left on the village dung heap: Beachcombing has previously looked at hints of another form of infanticide on the barbarian Rhine. Nor do sociologists help with their chatter that childhood (along with romantic love) is a modern invention and that our ‘contemptible’ sentimentality would have gone unrecognized in the medieval or classical world.

    Of course, for the most part the medieval and classical world cannot answer back. But every so often there are these small one line postcards from the past that, in their way, are superior to ten thousand words of Tolstoy.

    Beachcombing is always interested in tales from the grave: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com