Wild: Tales From Early Medieval Britain
Amy Jeffs is an early medieval specialist but she is also a writer and artist. In her second book, WILD: Tales from Early Medieval Britain, she powerfully combines these skills to recreate for us the wildernesses, both geographical and psychological, experienced by our ancestors over a thousand years ago. Gleaning characters and tantalising snippets from manuscripts and artefacts produced between 600-1000 CE, Jeffs creates new stories and accompanying wood engravings. She brings our early medieval ancestors to life while simultaneously revealing their distance. Then, as now, humans had a profound affinity to the wilderness. They too battled with changing climate, extreme weather, violent incursion and pestilence; profound fears were both expressed and relieved by voyaging into the wilderness. ‘Bleak and chilly as the early medieval portrayal of the wild often is, the philosophies that lie beneath send up rays of brilliant hope,’ writes Jeffs.
Jeffs’ primary sources are writings of the period, especially the ‘elegies’. These non-rhyming poems of deep mystery and emotion are found in the Exeter Book, ‘the foundation volume of English literature and one of the world’s principal cultural artefacts’ (UNESCO). Jeffs also goes to Irish and Welsh nature poems from the 8-10th centuries and the insular Latin spoken here after the Roman occupation. Like a crow with jewelled eye, she picks through the treasures of Sutton Hoo and runes scratched in whalebone and stone. She shows us the wonder of these extraordinary survivals and keeps them alive for a modern audience.
These isles were a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities and religions in the Middle Ages. Celtic Britons ruled in the west, Germanic tribes were settling in the east, Irish kingdoms vied with Picts in the north and Norse incursions threatened the coasts; all this against the backdrop of a prolonged period of cold, stormy weather. The voices of the dispossessed Jeffs listens to particularly closely: exiles, lepers, ghosts, the enslaved, the wise mad and monsters, whether they be underground, at sea, in fen or forest. Her stories are powerful and tantalising. Each is followed by reflections on the sources and her own experiences of tramping similar ground. Somerset-based, she descends into Mendip caves and kneels among the bones of executed women in ancient barrows. She loses herself in a medieval hunting forest and the riddle landscape of fens. One medieval text contains an island of fallen angels transformed into singing birds; Jeffs finds in the dawn murmurations of starlings that same harmony of action and connection. She helps the reader use the modern world as a bridge to the mentality of the past.
In this beautiful and moving book, Jeffs shows us how our ancestors found hope in wildness, even in the face of betrayal, oppression, loneliness, illness, heartache, catastrophe and death. ‘I draw strength,’ writes Jeffs, ‘from people who, for all their fallibility and the perils of their age, saw in the wilderness a potential for harmony and took action according to their understanding. Now, we can do the same.’