Creating, Capturing, Converting: The Seventh-Century Burwell Work-Box

By Jennifer Coulton

Figure 1: The Burwell Work-Box.[i]

In 1927, T. C. Lethbridge uncovered a seventh-century female grave in Burwell, Cambridgeshire, with an unusual grave-good — a work-box, a type of early medieval reliquary typically used by women.[ii]

Yet, the decoration on the Burwell work-box is strange. On the lid of the work-box, there is an image of a man and a beast struggling within a cross. The man has a raised arm, and grips something that terminates near the creature. Most scholars read this as a unique representation of a dragon-fight from oral myths, with the man stabbing the creature.[iii] Yet, why was this ‘pagan’ imagery used on a Christian object? If we can answer this, we can get a closer look at the amalgamation of England’s conversion-era Christianity, and explore how this religious transition was experienced and expressed.

When looking at the comparative material, the image may not be a unique, one-of-a-kind representation. From the pagan graves of Torslunda and Vendel (both in Sweden), plates have been found which show a man with an axe binding a struggling creature. This motif is sometimes called the ‘Beast-Tamer’.[iv] The compositional similarities are clear with Burwell’s work-box. It seems that the man does not stab the creature, but rather holds something that wraps itself around the creature’s neck. It would not be surprising if the inhabitants of Burwell knew about these Swedish motifs, since pictorial motifs found at Swedish burial sites repeat in English sites, as at Sutton Hoo.

Figure 2: Detail from the lid of the Burwell work-box.[v]

Figure 3: Pressblech plate.[vi]

If the Burwell work-box has the same image as the Torslunda and Vendel plates, it means we can try and piece together an interpretation and explanation. The ‘Beast-Tamer’ in pagan contexts has had many interpretations, but one of the most convincing is that it represents Tyr binding Fenrir. In the myth, the Norse god Tyr sacrificed his hand to bind the monstrous wolf Fenrir. The wolf was to be bound until Ragnarok, the end of the world, when he would be released and devour the god Odin, then be killed and the new world order would emerge.[vii]

If Tyr and Fenrir are represented on a Christian object, it may not be as odd as one might assume. The myth had clear eschatological associations about the end of the world, and when the tenth-century Norse invaders converted, Fenrir was often used alongside Christian images of the Last Judgement, as at Kirk Andreas.[viii] Burwell’s work-box might be an early example of this, encouraging the owner to meditate on the Last Judgement by using an iconographic narrative they were more familiar with, and which probably stirred up visceral reactions.

There may be a further web of associations that are, unfortunately, now obscure. Namely, work-boxes are typically found with textile remains, which were associated with female supernatural power.[ix] In the ninth-century life of St Leoba, for instance, the thread that erupts from the Anglo-Saxon nun’s mouth is interpreted as a sign of divine inspiration. The Torslunda and Vendel ‘Beast-Tamer’ plates were probably originally from a man’s helmet. Weaving and military activity were linked in several ways: weaving equipment could be made from weapons[x] and in literature, it is common to find ‘woven’ pieces of military armour.[xi] Most interesting is Exeter Book Riddle 56. This is a riddle about a loom and uses military language and, crucially, describes the production of cloth as the binding of a beast.[xii] Did the Burwell work-box therefore use this image to metaphorically represent its possible contents, a scrap of textile which was likely a secondary relic?

It is certainly intriguing to speculate how an early medieval owner would have experienced this object and how the variety of associations translated their devotion into a familiar visual language. I would like, lastly, to step away from religion, and suggest another reason the image was used. The suite of Northern Germanic motifs discussed were almost always found with wealthy male individuals: the Burwell work-box is the only object where one of these Northern Germanic elite images appears on a female object in England. Why did this image change gendered contexts? It may be tied to a wider trend in the late seventh century where elite women took over from men as the site of elite display.

This change has been well documented with mortuary rituals. While male graves were the wealthiest in the early seventh century, women started to be buried with a suite of elite goods post-650 CE. Indeed, the woman in Burwell grave 42 was buried with both keys and goods concealed in a box, which were signs of an elite women in this phase.[xiii]

Moreover, the appropriation of male iconography by powerful women happened elsewhere. Michaela Helmbrecht, for instance, found that images of men in horned headdresses originally only turned up in male contexts, but by the Viking Age most instances were in female contexts.[xiv] Similarly, Dieter Quast found that while the seventh-century Merovingian motif of a mounted rider originated in male contexts, it proliferated on female dress accessories.[xv] In this light, the Burwell workbox fits into this wider social trend across Europe.

The Burwell work-box is only a single object, but it is an insightful one. It shows that conversion in England was not a simple replacement of one culture by another, but rather it involved shades of appropriation, assimilation, and contestation. It was an object that could only be created in the transitional period of the conversion, and reveals how closely webs of religion, identity, and authority intertwined.

Jennifer Coulton

University of Oxford

Jennifer Coulton is recent MSt graduate in Medieval Studies from the University of Oxford. She specialises in early medieval English culture, ritual, and iconography. Jennifer’s current focus lies on the role of gesturers and figurative motifs in early medieval English art, and she intends to continue her research at PhD level.

References: [i] The Burwell Work-Box (Lethbridge, Pl.2 and Fig.A. By kind permission of Cambridge Antiquarian Society). [ii] T. C. Lethbridge, ‘The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery, Burwell, Cambs’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, 29 (1928), 84-94. [iii] For instance, Audrey Lilian Meaney, Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones (Oxford: BAR Publishing, 1981), p. 186. See also Anthony Gibson, ‘Anglo-Saxon “Work Boxes” and the Burwell Grave 42 Box, Christian or Pagan?’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, 104 (2015), 149–60, p. 156. [iv] Stephen Pollington, Lindsay Kerr, and Brett Hammond, Wayland’s Work: Anglo-Saxon Art, Myth & Material Culture from the 4th to the 7th Century (Little Downham: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2010), p. 448. [v] Detail from the lid of the Burwell work-box (Lethbridge, Pl.2 and Fig.A. By kind permission of Cambridge Antiquarian Society) [vi] from Torslunda, Öland. [vii] Sigmund Oehrl, Vierbeinerdarstellungen auf schwedischen Runensteinen: Studien zur nordgermanischen Tier- und Fesselungsikonografie (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010), pp. 172-78. [viii] Ibid, p.181. See also Lilla Kopár, Gods and Settlers: The Iconography of Norse Mythology in Anglo-Scandinavian Sculpture (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2012), pp. 90-94. [ix] Catherine Hills, ‘Work-Boxes or Reliquaries? Small Copper-Alloy Containers in Seventh Century Anglo-Saxon Graves’, in Studies in Early Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology: Papers in Honour of Martin Welch, ed. by Stuart Brookes, Sue Harrington, and Andrew Reynolds (Oxford: BAR Publishing, 2011), 14–20, p. 16. See also Meaney, pp. 191-89. [x] For instance, grave 95 at Lechlade included a weaving batten made from a spearhead. Sue Harrington, ‘Stirring Women, Weapons and Weaving: Aspects of Gender Identity and Symbols of Power in Early Anglo-Saxon England’, in Archaeology and Women: Ancient & Modern Issues, ed. by Sue Hamilton, Ruth Whitehouse and Katherine Wright (London: Institute of Archaeology of University College), 335-52, pp. 337-38. [xi] Megan Cavell, Weaving Words and Binding Bodies: The Poetics of Human Experience in Old English Literature, Weaving Words and Binding Bodies (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), p. 50. [xii] Megan Cavell, ‘Looming Danger and Dangerous Looms: Violence and Weaving in Exeter Book Riddle 56’, Leeds Studies in English, 42 (2011), 29–42, pp. 30-31. [xiii] Helena Hamerow, ‘Furnished Female Burial in Seventh-Century England: Gender and Sacral Authority in the Conversion Period’, Early Medieval Europe, 24.4 (2016), 423–47, p. 447. [xiv] Michaela Helmbrecht, ‘Figures with Horned Headgear’, Lund Archaeological Review, 14 (2008), 31–53. [xv] Dieter Quast, ‘Merovingian Period Equestrians in Figural Art’, Archaeologia Baltica, 11 (2009), 330–42.

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