I invite you to imagine that on the same day in 641AD that St. Kyneburgha was born in Tamworth in her father’s palace, here in Huntingdonshire in the village of Water Newton was born another woman, Godgifu, into very different circumstances. She was the daughter of a miller. There is no definitive list of Anglo Saxon watermills, but we do know that the Romans, who occupied the area, built them. By the time of the 1086 Domesday inventory, there were 5,624 of them; just about one for every village and hamlet in England, many of which would have been around for multiple generations.
Godgifu had eight siblings, one sister did not make it beyond their first year due to a mysterious illness and another, an older brother, died in a milling accident. As the second eldest sibling, even at the age of 9 or 10 she would be expected to assist with all younger siblings. Milling grain would have been a respected trade, and — provided that the crops did not fail — ensured that young Godgifu and her six surviving siblings had something to eat. In return for milling grain, rather than a monetary payment, the miller would receive a percentage of the milled flour.
Unlike St Kyneburgha (in part two of this blog series), Godgifu’s diet would have been predominantly vegetable-based but the family may have kept a pig which would have been slaughtered in winter to provide cured meat for the lean winter months. In the seventh century, Enga-lond did not yet have spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, runner beans, Brussel sprouts, potatoes or tomatoes (let alone tea, coffee, chocolate or sugar), so these would have been completely alien to Godgifu!
Families were dependent upon their own agriculture, unable to pop to the supermarket for out of season foods shipped from hotter climates or grown in greenhouses, what they ate depended on the time of year. July was the toughest month of the whole year, as any reserves had run out and spring crops had not yet matured. This was known as ‘the hungry gap’ – a time when the divide between Kyneburga and Godgifu would have been most apparent: whilst Kyneburgha’s family would have had large stores of food, Godgifu and her family would have been forced to survive on smaller and smaller portions of food until the new crops became edible.
Godgifu’s preparation for adult life would have begun early, helping her parents with household tasks from as soon as she was able. We know from the graves of female Saxons that hand spindles and looms were common and suggest that wool-making would have been a household process; as a young woman, she would have learnt these skills from her mother. In Old English, male persons were described as ‘waepenedmenn’, or ‘weaponed-persons’, whereas the words for women (‘wifmenn’) and ‘wife’ derived from the word for weaving, revealing gender perspectives at the time.
Aged 11, she would have watched her 12 year old brother pledging his oath of allegiance to a local lord and leave home to serve him. A year later, she too would be considered to reach maturity, when she would enter into the care of her future husband, a local ploughman many years her senior. Seventh century laws, which varied across Saxon kingdoms but often had similar values and moral codes, describe how a woman’s duty is ‘to obey her lord’ (from The Laws of King Ine of Wessex). Taken alone this female marital duty may seem to us to be rather sexist, however there is some similarity here in that both sexes would be answerable to their lord.
Marriage contracts concerned allocation of property and negotiation of the price of the ‘morgengifu’, or ‘morning gift’ (much as the name ‘Godgifu’ means ‘God’s gift’), payable by the groom upon the satisfactory completion of the wedding night. Interestingly, this payment was for the woman herself, an endowment to ensure her security in the event of her husband’s death and an incentive to keep her virginity until marriage.
If Athelbert’s laws — operating for around half a century in Kent by the time of Godgifu’s birth — are comparable to what was expected in East Anglia, we know that Godgifu and her husband would have had legally enshrined rights: Godgifu not to be sexually harassed by other men and her husband not to be duped into marrying her without knowing that she was already pregnant with another man’s child. There would have been clauses detailing Godgifu’s property claims if she ever wished to leave her husband.
As a wife, Godgifu would be responsible for household tasks but would be no mere housewife, as she would do her share of whatever work was required. The prevalence of keys in female burials show that being a key keeper and guardian of possessions in a house was a female responsibility, and Godgifu may have been given a key to symbolise her sexual maturity (with its phallic symbolism). She may also have been in charge of the fire steel, tools used to keep a household fire burning, and even today in some societies this is considered a women’s role.
Though Christian religion was becoming increasingly organised, some pagan rituals would still remain – if you weren’t one hundred percent certain which god to follow, you would want to hedge your bets, with some households worshiping both the old gods and the new one. One such ritual she might have observed to guarantee a plentiful harvest would be to bake a cake for her husband to put into the ground speaking the words;
“Earth, Earth, Earth! Oh Earth our Mother! / May the all-wielder, Ever-Lord grant thee / Acres a-waxing, upwards a-growing, Pregnant with corn and plenteous in strength”
Godgifu would have woven cloth for her family’s clothing and was also responsible for curing ailments. Weaving was considered a kind of magic and a potential source of remedy: female graves often have thread boxes with scraps of material and herbs — possibly a kind of miniature first aid kit. The ninth century text, ‘Bald’s Leechbook’ (i.e. medicine book), details common remedies which were likely already in use during Godgifu and Kyneburgha’s lifetimes, including; binding the herb crosswort to the head with a red bandana to cure headache; using eggs, wine and fennel root to treat chilblains; and smouldering goat’s hair to ease back pain.
Godgifu would have prepared these remedies for her husband, herself and their children. She had her first pregnancy at 15, with seven more pregnancies over the course of her life. No doubt she would have known various cures for ailments associated with pregnancy and childbirth, such as tying grains of coriander seed in a clean cloth to her left thigh to aid childbirth.
A document in the library at Canterbury records that by the late Anglo-Saxon times, three centuries after the lives of Godgifu and Kyneburgha, learned people already understood that:
“In the sixth week the brain is covered with a membrane on the outside; in the second month the veins are formed… and the blood then flows into the feet and into the hands, and he is then articulated in limbs and altogether developed; in the third he is man, except for the soul”
Despite this knowledge, even if you were born the privileged daughter of a King, little could be done to help you in childbirth if there were complications – the first successful caesarean in which the mother survived was not reported until the eighteenth century. Godgifu herself is unlikely to have known much about foetal development, except for if she was unfortunate enough to miscarry. The Canterbury text does, however, imply that up to the third month and perhaps beyond there would have been no ethical issues with aborting a child prior to the fourth month, which may be surprising today.
Whilst Kyneburgha lived to the upper end of Saxon life expectancy at around 40, many adults would not live beyond their mid 20s. Godgifu is no exception – she died in childbirth aged 27.
A difficult and dangerous time to be alive regardless of gender, our local Anglo Saxon women would have been required to show real strength and fortitude in the face of daily challenges. It is easy to see why comfort was found in faith and ritual and the promise of an easier life thereafter. Kyneburgha and Godgifu were more fortunate in some ways than those who came after, as one hundred years later the Danish came raiding from over the seas, signalling the start of the Danish wars.
Victoria Calleway is a very amateur historian indeed but learnt to be discerning about her sources through her English Literature and Theatre degree. Incidentally, these are a few of her favourite things, along with board games, cheese, and her cats, Asparagus and Macavity.