The significance of ‘holy’



The significance of ‘holy’   In this deconstruction of ‘the holy well’, one strand of tradition is left behind: the existence in large numbers of sites called halig wella and the like. If there is no longer a self-evident, timeless model for what a holy well is, then how are we to understand the motives which made people speak of a spring as the Holy Well? In this context the Winchester scribe’s casual remark about the ash tree of Taunton Dene takes on a new significance. It is unusual for a mediaeval writer to reflect on the interpretation of halig as an element in toponymy.

He wasn’t doing it as an academic exercise, of course. Neither were the draftsmen of thirteenth-century diocesan instructions when they insisted that ‘not stones nor woods, trees or wells… should be worshipped as if they were holy’. This is part of a longstanding tradition of pastoral control over laymen’s claims to have discovered holiness in the landscape. In the 990s, probably the same time that the Winchester scribe made his point, Aelfric was ticking off his audience for offering gifts to ‘some earthfast stone or tree or well-spring’. This three-fold denunciation – of wells, trees and stones – was already routine when Anglo-Saxon preachers derived it from Continental sources (Rattue 1995, pp.78, 87).

Christian clergy were definitely condemning the idea – even the name – of the holy tree and the holy well. It suggests that halig might bear some kind of non-Christian, pre-Christian sense. The search for underlying meanings of this kind has become almost a scholarly convention, despite the reluctant acceptance in English Place-Name Elements that ‘it is generally not possible to find any heathen allusion in the use of this word’ (Smith 1956, 1.225). The Rutland place-name Holyoaks has certainly been interpreted in this way: recent discussion would have it suggest ‘an enclave where pagan practices flourished’ (Cox 1994, pp.298-9). But this is more than the evidence will bear.

There were wells in Anglo-Saxon England which fell on the wrong side of the boundary between religion and superstition, but they were not called holy. At Elwell in Dorset and (confusingly) Holywell in Lincolnshire, wella is compounded with hæl, ‘omen’; and Rumwell in Somerset and Runwell in Essex, it appears with run, ‘secret’ (Smith 1956, 2.250),. These names suggest practices which it would be very difficult to bring within a Christian interpretation, and it is quite clear from the laws prohibiting frehtwellas, ‘springs used for divination’, that these places were linked with paganism in the official mind. Nonetheless, they flourished, examples being known from Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Nottinghamshire and the West Riding (Hough 1996).

But ‘paganism’ is not a neutral term in the primary sources. It is meant to condemn the practices against which the author writes his sermon or treatise. The very persistence of this literature of denunciation – and it stretches from the fifth century to the twelfth, and beyond – suggests that its authors were marginal to the society which they had so obviously failed to influence. As Valerie Flint has suggested, these purist preachers often took their stand because they disapproved of the work of their contemporaries in dedicating and consecrating landscape features. One priest’s pagan abomination might very well have been his colleague’s popular shrine (Flint 1991, pp.204-216). If we are to pin the label of paganism onto Holyoaks in Rutland, what are we to make of Cressage in Shropshire, ‘Christ’s oak’? There is a Christow in Devon, which bears the same relationship to the Halstow forms (Cameron 1996, p.124).

An oak tree, or a well, has a direct physical presence. You can walk around it, listen to it, respond to its atmosphere. But a stow is something rather more abstract – a place where people assembled, in the earlier records, and in the later ones simply a place. Saints own their stows, and have given their names to them at Bridestow, Marystowe, Petrockstowe and other places in Devon and Cornwall, but the emphasis seems to be on their ownership, rather than their presence (Smith 1956, 2.158-161). Christow, then, is not ‘the place where Christ can be found’, but ‘the estate property offered up to Christ’. The same goes for stoc. Visitors to Halstock may be disappointed if they expect a revelation from the sacred landscape. Its name seems to be linked to the cult of St Juthware there, afterwards reinforced by the possession of the property by Sherborne Abbey. It is true that the place of St Juthware’s cult, with its holy well and tree, may have inspired a tingle of religious awe. But is that what mediaeval holiness was really about? Another local saint has his stoc at nearby Stockwood, once Stokes sancti Edwoldi, and there is Kewstoke on the Somerset coast. But then a little to the east we find North and South Stoke, so called because they belonged to Bath Priory, and in Dorset there is Stoke Abbott, the property of the Abbot of Sherborne (Smith 1956, 2.153-5). The abbot may have been a good man but name-givers were interested in him as a landlord, not as a sacred presence. The holy names which govern stoc and stow – and, by imputation, halig itself – are words used to talk about ownership, not about feelings.

We accept these things, perhaps with some regret, but we would still like to feel that there was something special about ðan halgan æsc at Halse, or about the numberless holy wells – something evocative, numinous, which made people call them holy. This may be a distinctly modern outlook. Certainly we find that later in the Middle Ages, people could be very matter-of-fact about holiness. There is a Holy Brook at Reading – le Granators Broke als le Hallowed Broke 1552; it seems to have given a name to le Haliwatereslane 1301 (Gelling 1973, 1.11, p.172). It took its name, not from any veneration of the water, but because it flowed past Reading Abbey: in fact it looks suspiciously as if the water did its holy service operating the abbey mills. An excellent purpose, to be sure, but not the sort of thing to get them all worked up at the Sacred Land Project.

Holiness in place-names is not necessarily something to do with experience: it may be more to do with ownership. After all, ownership is what most place-name records are about. Holy Island succeeds Lindisfarne, not as a statement about the haunting quality of the place, but to indicate that it belongs to a monastery and no longer to the Lindisfaran. Holywick in Buckinghamshire belonged to Medmenham Abbey (Smith 1956, 1.225). A similar interpretation of Halliford in Middlesex, halgan forde 962, and Hallington in Northumberland, Halidene 1247 (Ekwall 1960, p.212) would see them as the ford and valley which led to, or belonged to, a religious body. Other landmarks include the halig stan of Halsdon House at Dolton in Devon (Gover 1931-2, p.367) and Holystone in Northumberland, Halistan 1242 (Ekwall 1960, p.247). It is tempting, but probably misleading, to regard these as further enclaves of pagan activity, furtively assembling at megalithic sites. In fact the Northumberland Holystone gets its name from the monastery on the site.

Halmpstone farm in Devon lies near the parish boundary of Bishops Tawton. This village is said to have preceded Crediton as the diocesan see for Devon, which would account for the name, Halgmerston 1285 (Gover 1931-2, p.352). The ‘holy boundary stone’ is holy, not because the stone itself is to be revered, but because it marks the land of the holy man. A general respect for boundaries would explain the name of the Holybourne in Hampshire, Haliburne 1086 (Coates 1989, p.94), which demarcates two manors.


Pagan or Christian sanctity?

The description of natural features as ‘holy’ does not necessarily mean that they received veneration from Christians, let alone from pagans. But there is a group of place-names which can be described, without ambiguity, as pagan: those which relate to the worship of the old Germanic gods. The corpus of these place-names has been subject to revision, but there are still enough of them to offer a picture of pre-Christian practice (Gelling 1978, pp.158-161). They are quite different from names of the Holyoaks type. The names of the discredited gods – Woden, Thunor, Tiw and Frig – typically compound with words for open spaces, feld and leah; sometimes with beorh and hlaew, which might mean either ‘hill’ or ‘barrow’. The principal word for temple, hearg, belongs exclusively with dun, ‘hill’. Weoh or wig, which seems to mean a temple of smaller and more local status, follows the same pattern, although there is a single instance of it combined with wella, at Wyville, Uuiuuella 1106-23, in the Lincolnshire parish of Saltby (Ekwall 1960, p.541). Apart from that, the pagan elements are not used to qualify stones, trees or wells, while halig is never found with a word for open spaces and only once with one for a hill (Hillborough, halig beorh, in Kent – Smith 1956, 1.225). Clearly there are two separate religious traditions at work here.

This is unusual, since all of these words have a common origin in pre-Christian Germanic worship. Wig is a substantive formed from weoh, ‘sacred’, which has a semantic field close to that of halig. The early missionaries in England chose halig to translate Latin sanctus, and rejected weoh as pagan: but Wulfilas, faced with the same linguistic or doctrinal problem among the Goths, chose their equivalent word weihs and firmly rejected hailags (Green 1998, p.360). At first sight the words might appear interchangeable. But there is more to it than that.

The adjective heilag is found in every Germanic language, and takes its meaning from a complex of ideas represented by two forms of heil, a noun meaning ‘good fortune’ and an adjective meaning ‘healthy, whole’. Other associated senses include ‘omen’, ‘blessing’, and in a Christian sense ‘salvation’. The adjective heil, ‘fortunate’, can yield a substantive meaning ‘talisman’ – just as in English we can speak of ‘the Luck of Edenhall’. But this is not just the kind of luck which we hope for as we toss a coin. Heil was the noble power, handed down from the gods, which carried kings to victory in battle. Through this divine quality, priests could see into the future and let the land grow rich. Healers, too, could be strengthened to banish the demons of disease. And the tools of their trades – swords, ritual staffs, amulets and so on – they were heilag too (Green 1998, pp.16-20).

Places in the landscape, including water features, could be heilag. This is certainly the case for the Norse form heilagr. The ninth-century poem speaks of ‘the holy places of the powers’ (Davidson 1964, p.76). When the hero Helgi was born, ‘the holy streams were flowing from the hills of heaven’ (Helgakviða 2). Place-names of this sort were given in formal ceremonies: the hill called Helgafell in Iceland was consecrated to the cult of Thor by the settler Thorolf Moster-beard (Hreinsson 1997, 5.134).

There must have been similar processes at work in Britain, although the only evidence we have for halig in a pre-Christian context refers, not to a place, but a time. Bede obligingly tells us that September was Halegmonath in the old calendar, and that ‘Halegmonath means ‘month of sacred rites’’ (De Temporum Ratione 330, in Bede 1999, p.53). Presumably this was something on the lines of a harvest festival.

But the holy trees, stones and wells of Anglo-Saxon topography are not likely to perpetuate a pre-Christian geography. One good reason for doubting this is their distribution: there is no concentration of sites in the old pagan districts, the ones to which the names with hearg and wig are confined. Quite the reverse. We have already met with ðan halgan æsc in the fertile, late-settled farmlands of Taunton Dene.

Can we trust the apparent evidence for geographical distribution? There is little doubt that the concentration of pagan place-names in eastern England reflects real geographical facts – even though there is no simple, one-to-one relationship between the original worship of the gods and the survival of references to them in place-names. But the evidence for an uneven distribution of halig is much less certain, because this element is commonest in field names and the names of small settlements: the earliest volumes of the English Place-Name Survey, those which cover the heartland of Old English paganism, didn’t include names of this kind.

All that can be said is that in Dorset, Somerset and Devon, where names indicating pagan worship are almost unknown, we find numerous place-names of the Holywell type. Taking into account the dates at which the western shires of Wessex were annexed into an English-speaking kingdom, this suggests that halig was being used to form local names after the eighth century, in many cases after the ninth. And this is to a large extent confirmed by the chronology of wella as a place-name element.



Editors’ note


The significance of ‘holy’

Pagan or Christian sanctity?

A chronology of well-names

Cultural development and well-names

Final thoughts



Page designed by Rich Pederick (© Living Spring Journal, MM)
Written & maintained by Katy Jordan & Rich Pederick
Created  May 1, MM

%d bloggers like this: