Monday, November 26, 2012


London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, f. 13r, Giants, the Hexateuch.

The converted Anglo-Saxons considered Scripture to be the most reliable source of information, literally accurate in all its details. Beginning with Genesis, the book of the Old Testament most often reproduced in Anglo- Saxon England, we read that "giants were on the earth in those days." This verse merited illustration in the Hexateuch, an extensively illuminated volume containing the first six books of the Old Testament, introduced by a prefatory letter by Ælfric.  These figures fill their half-page frame. They are logically the largest among the thousands of figures in this massive volume, as if drawn to scale within the manuscript, but they are otherwise not particularly fearsome or monstrous. Quite to the contrary, they gesture to one another in a restrained manner as they seem to hold a polite conversation. Their modes of dress, hair and beard in no way distinguish them from the rest of the biblical characters. There are numerous other references to giants and other monsters in the Old Testament, with Goliath as the most famous example. While twenty-first-century readers might scoff at the notion of turning to the Bible for scientific information about the races of the Earth, this was still being done well into the nineteenth-century, when prolific essayist and novelist Charles Mackay wrote that Acts 17:26 (God made of one blood all nations of the earth.) was in common usage by "preachers, professional lecturers, salaried philanthropists, and weak-minded women . . . together with the philosophers and the strong-minded women . . . and all the multitude of theorists" in discussions of the human races. 

Giants also appear as a common Anglo-Saxon poetic trope. As part of a semi-mythical history, they were credited with having built the monumental stone structures which remained from prehistory and the Roman occupation of Britain.  The Ruin describes one such building in its opening lines: 

Splendid is the rampart, broken by fate;
the burg burst apart, the work of giants crumbles.  

This enta geweorc, this work of giants, was considered to be too great to have been the product of human labor. The trope of enta geweorc served to distance the Anglo-Saxons from the entirely human past of Britain. Of course, all the Christian and, indeed, Jewish and Moslem world would have had the Biblical texts which may have inspired some of these later accounts, and yet "there is something distinctly Anglo-Saxon about this fascination with giants conjoined to the formation of alienated, human identities." In an Old English homily, giants were connected with two other traditions: Classical antiquity, kept alive through the monastic copying of texts, and Germanic religion, still very much alive in the living memories and beliefs even of longconverted groups. Biblically sanctioned giants are used by an Anglo-Saxon homilist as an explanation for the otherwise inexplicable worship of beings outside the Christian context: 

The devil ruled men in Middle-Earth, and all that time he worked against God and God's servants, and he raised himself over all, and so the heathen men would say that the gods must be their heathen leaders, just as was Hercules the Giant and Apollo, for whom they forsook the great God; Thor also and Odin, whom heathen men praise exceedingly.

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