Unit 14 The Universe

Section 1

Using the browsing searches option, select ‘TOE Browse’, then ‘The Physical World’, ‘Firmament’ and ‘Heaven(s), sky’. You will notice that the first word, heofon(as), is recognisable as the ancestor of our ModE word ‘heaven’. Another word, hrof, is the ancestor of ‘roof’: the Anglo-Saxons often conceived of the sky or the heavens as a roof over the world. You will also notice that there is no word resembling ModE ‘sky’: this word was borrowed from Old Norse in the 13th century.

Using the browsing searches option again, select ‘Religion’, ‘The extrasensorial world’, then scroll down to 16.01.02 ‘The heavens, sky’. You will notice that some of the words are the same as, or similar to, those categorised as part of the physical world. For example, swegl and uprodor are included in both, while uplyft is related to lyft, upheofon to heofon(as), and heahrodor to uprodor.

Q1. Why do you think these two sections have been separated? Can you see any reasons that they might have been combined? Answer Q1

Look up ‘earth’ using the modern English word search, and select ‘earth, world’. Again, you should notice that the basic words are recognizable: eorþe > earth and woruld > world. Many of the other words are compounds and you might be able to work out the meaning of one or both of their parts: for example, brytengrundas ‘ground/place of the Britons’ and eorþstede ‘earth-place’. The word rice ‘kingdom’ is used in two of the compounds: eorþrice ‘kingdom of earth’ and gumrice ‘kingdom of man’. An interesting development can be seen in middangeard ‘middle-yard’ which evolved to become middle-erd and eventually middle-earth, the word used by J. R .R. Tolkien to refer to the realm of men in his fiction. That the earth is in the ‘middle’ seems to refer to its occupying the middle region between heaven and hell, although it could also refer to its being in the middle of the seas (which is the meaning of its cognate miðgarðr in Old Norse mythology).

Q2a. Look up ‘sun’ in the ModE word search and view the first section. Again, the basic word in ModE is a reflex of an Old English word: sunne > sun. Many of the other words are metaphorical compounds or ‘kennings’, which can be divided into their parts: for example wyn-candel ‘joy-candle, a candle which gives delight’; wuldor-gim ‘a glorious gem’; mere-candel ‘sea candle’ (referring to the sun when it sets or rises over the sea); and friþ-candel ‘peace candle’.

Work out the meanings of the kennings below, using the information above.
Notes: dæg = day; tacn = a sign; weder = weather.

1. dæg-candel;   2. heofenes gim;   3. weder-candel;
4. weder-tacn;    5. woruld-candel
Answer Q2a

Q2b. What do the kennings meaning ‘sun’ in Old English suggest about Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the sun? Answer Q2b

Q2c. What do the flags attached to these kennings tell you about their use? Answer Q2c

Now look up ‘moon’, ‘planet’ and ‘star’ in the Modern English word search. As with the other words which describe the basic elements of the universe, our words ‘moon’ and ‘star’ derive from Old English: mona and steorra. However, ModE ‘planet’ was not used in Old English, but borrowed from French in the 14th century; the Old English word for planet (amongst other things) was tungol.

Q3a. Using the Old English word search, choose ‘Beginning-of-word’ and enter tungol. What else does tungol mean, and what other words is it part of? Answer Q3a

Q3b. What do the words for ‘planet’ tell us about Anglo-Saxon astronomy? Answer Q3b

Section 2

Astronomy and conceptions of the universe
There is a relatively developed understanding of astronomy in Anglo-Saxon writing, especially in Bede, and also in Ælfric’s De temporibus anni (On the seasons of the year) and Byrhtferth’s Enchiridion (Manual). Of course, in that pre-Copernican era, it was believed that the earth was at the centre of the universe and that it was stationary while the planets revolved around it. However, learned Anglo-Saxons knew that the earth was round and that the planets travelled on different orbits and at different rates. They also understood about eclipses and equinoxes, and about the moon’s influence over the tides.

It is less evident, however, that there was much interest in astronomy in itself: both Bede and Byrhtferth wrote about the motions of the planets in order to develop the science of computus or time-reckoning, particularly so as to calculate the date of Easter. Furthermore, it is not known to what extent the astronomical knowledge of learned monks would have filtered down to ordinary Anglo-Saxons. Certainly, some of the statements in Ælfric’s On the seasons of the year, which was written for laymen, suggest that he was dispelling popular erroneous notions. For example, he writes that although the sun and stars appear small, this is only because they are far from our sight, and they are in fact very large. It is quite possible, then, that unlearned Anglo-Saxons thought that stars were mere specks in the sky, or that the earth was flat. Or possibly, as C.S. Lewis suggests, they did not think that the earth was round, but they did not think it was flat either – they simply did not think about it.

The image of the universe depicted in Anglo-Saxon poetry differs somewhat from the astronomical model. Several Anglo-Saxon poems do not portray the earth as at the centre of a revolving firmament (as Bede and Ælfric do) but at the centre of a stable hierarchy, with heaven above and hell below. Heaven, or the sky, is often described as a roof, sometimes adorned with stars, while hell is an abyss or dungeon below. It is a very structured universe, and the description of the creation in the Old English poem Genesis is of God creating order out of chaos.

To an extent, the Anglo-Saxons saw themselves at the centre of a universe that was created for them: in Cædmon’s Hymn, the sky is a roof for men, and in Christ, it is the protection of men. At the same time however, as Tucker (1957) shows, Anglo-Saxon poetry often depicts the universe as indifferent to the fortunes of men. For example, in Andreas, the sun shines while St. Andrew is tortured on the cross, while in The Battle of Brunanburh, ‘God’s bright candle’ shines all day over the blood-stained battlefield.

Astrology and divination
The number of words for ‘astrology’ and ‘astrologer’ in Old English suggests that this concept was familiar to Anglo-Saxons. In some uses, it was frowned upon by the Church. For example, Ælfric, in his Homilies, wrote that the idea of men being born under stars which determine their destinies is a heresy. The very fact that he wrote this suggests that this kind of astrology was practised to some extent in Anglo-Saxon England, but there is otherwise little evidence that the use of horoscopes was widespread.

However, in an agricultural society where observance of the moon and the weather was part of daily life, a more natural form of astrology was prevalent. One popular form of this was the notion that comets were evil omens. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes several appearances of comets which were felt to presage events such as famines, death, and most famously, the Battle of Hastings (a scene in the Bayeux Tapestry shows people pointing to the comet – Halley’s comet – in amazement). Furthermore, this kind of prediction does not seem to have been prohibited by the Church. Byrhtferth, in his Manual, wrote that comets foreshadow famines, pestilence, war, the earth’s destruction or terrifying winds, while Bede wrote that comets presage evil. Both Bede and Byrhtferth were monks.

There were also various superstitions about the moon: it was believed that there were lucky and unlucky days, that the prescription of medicine should be governed by the phase of the moon, and that plants were only to be picked at certain times of the month. These beliefs were all deplored by Ælfric, who wrote (in On the Seasons of the year) that Christian men should not divine anything by the moon.

Section 3

Further Reading

Baker, S. and Lapidge, M. (eds). 1995. Byrhtferth’s Enchiridion. Oxford: Oxford University
          Press (with face-to-face Old English and ModE translation; see especially parts i and ii).
Bradley, S. A. J. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. 1982. London: Dent. (in translation)
Flint, V. I. J. 1991. The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, Part II ‘The Magic of the Heavens’.
          Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Hollis, S. 2001. ‘Scientific and Medical Writings’. A Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature, eds
          P. Pulsiano and E. Treharne. Oxford: Blackwell, 188-208.
Lewis, C. S. 1971. The Discarded Image, Chapter 5 ‘The Heavens’. Cambridge: Cambridge
          University Press.
Meaney, A. L. 1984. ‘Ælfric and Idolatry’. Journal of Religious History 13, 119-135.
Neville, J. 1999. Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry. Oxford: Oxford
          University Press.
Roberts, J. 1985. ‘A preliminary “heaven” index for Old English’. Leeds Studies in English
          16, 208-219.
Stevens, Wesley M. 1985. Bede’s Scientific Achievement. Jarrow: Rector of Jarrow.
Stevens, Wesley M. 2013. ‘Astronomy’. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon
, eds M. Lapidge et al, 2nd edn. Chichester: Wiley, 52-54.
Tester, J. 1987. A History of Western Astrology, Chapter 5 ‘The Latin Middle Ages’.
          Suffolk: Boydell Press.
Tucker, S. 1957. ‘The Anglo-Saxon poet considers the heavens’. Neophilologus 41, 270-275.


For those with a reading knowledge of Old English, the website
contains selections of Old English poetry and prose grouped thematically: sections 2 (the creation), 4 (the sun) and 5 (the moon, stars and destiny) are particularly relevant to this subject.

The text and facing translation of Bede’s account of Cædmon, with the poem, accompanying notes and commentary, are available at https://www.heorot.dk/bede-caedmon.html

There is also an online translation of Ælfric’s On the Seasons of the Year at

An image of the section from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting Halley’s Comet can be viewed at

There is an interesting illustration of hell in the Tiberius Psalter (c1050), reproduced at
http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=cotton_ms_tiberius_c_vi_fs001r (click on the drop-down box in the top right corner, and choose f.14r)
It shows Christ bending down to rescue good souls from the mouth of hell, with Satan bound beneath him.

Another illustration of hell, in the manuscript Junius 11 (c1000), can be viewed at
Here, Christ is shown throwing the rebel angels into hell, while Satan lies bound, being tormented by demons.

Useful links to articles on the history of astronomy (although some of the links are no longer active) can be found at

Ideas for essays and projects

1. Using the ‘Flags indicating restricted occurrence’ search, choose ‘g occurring only in glossaries’ then ‘split into major Thesaurus categories’. Click on ‘The physical world’, then ‘Firmament’, then ‘Heaven(s), sky’. Make a note of the number of words in this section which are labelled g, i.e. only occur in glossaries.
Repeat this process using the flag search but select ‘o single recorded example’ and then ‘p occurring only in poetry’.
Repeat all of these searches but choose a different category: when you have chosen ‘split into major Thesaurus categories’, click on ‘Religion’, then ‘A divine being’, then ‘The heavens, sky’.
You should now have a list of the number of words in the two sections on ‘heaven, sky’ which are found only in glossaries or in poetry, or which are recorded as occurring only once. How do these results support or contradict your findings in Activity 1? Repeat the searches, but this time look more closely at the subcategories in which words are marked as g, o, or p (for example, a lot of the poetic words in ‘The physical world’ are for ‘sun’). How do these findings influence your answer?

2. Look up the words for ‘hell’ and consider how the idea of hell fitted into the Anglo-Saxon conception of the universe. You might also want to think about the portrayal of hell in the Old English poems Genesis and Christ and Satan and in manuscript illustrations (see the website links above).

3. Discuss the reasons for the Church’s ambivalent attitudes towards astrology in the early Middle Ages.