Species: Semi-domestic wild sow (Sus scrofa).
Source: ‘De Antiquitate Glastone Ecclesie’ (The Early History of Glastonbury), originally by William of Malmesbury but heavily edited by monks at Glastonbury Abbey.
Date: Originally composed c.1129 A.D., but earliest extant version mid twelfth century.
Highlights: One day an old pig was so fed up it went exploring in a marsh, and sat under an apple tree on an island. When Farmer Glateing found it, he liked the place so much he named it Glastonbury. Aww, cute.
If you believe that, it’s because you aren’t used to the politically cut-throat, properganda-filled world of the medieval church!
In the medieval period, Glastonbury Abbey was one of the richest and most powerful institutions in the country. It was THE hip place for pilgrims to visit, it was a centre for Christian heritage and history, and if you lived in the pre-Reformation south west of England, it may well have been your landlord.
This considerable power was mainly due to its monks’ clever P.R. skills. They constructed a narrative brand for Glastonbury Abbey which was hard to compete with. For example:
- Glastonbury ‘discovered’ King Arthur. In 1189 the monks of Glastonbury ‘discovered’ the bodies of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere (the Latin word used is, ironically, ‘inventum’). This was a winning situation because (i) the grave attracted pilgrims and (ii) Glastonbury became known as a prestigious place to be buried. It also helped the royal family because (iii) it helped challenge the anti-establishment myth that Arthur was not dead and would one day return. Being the burial place for King Arthur won the Abbey mega-props (Gransden, 2001).
- Glastonbury was built immediately after Jesus died. Around the same time, the idea surfaced that Joseph of Arimathea (one of Jesus’ disciples) had himself founded the first church in Britain at Glastonbury, which the Abbey was built around. This was a winning situation because (i) Glastonbury became the oldest spiritual authority in Britain and (ii) Britain gained a tradition that it had been Christianised before rivals in Europe like France, and thus had better spiritual authority (Carley, 2001).
A winning tradition like this takes work to create and maintain it. In 1129, seeing downturn in profits after a fire, Glastonbury Abbey commissioned one of the country’s best scholars, William of Malmesbury, to write a history of the Abbey. Malmesbury was paid to link the Abbey closely with famous St. Dunstan and generally give the place a good reputation and review (Scott, 1981:15-26). This was the medieval equivalent of a celebrity endorsement.
A few years after completion the text was amended and added to by the monks. By the time it was complete, the history (i) sparkled like a shiny vampire, and (ii) had no historical legitimacy (also like a shiny vampire). The original was (purposefully) lost, and the only version we have is incorporated into the mid-thirteenth century version (Scott, 1981:34-39).
‘The Early History of Glastonbury’ was the first text to mention the legend of the pig founding Glastonbury:
It was this Glasteing who, following the sow through the kingdom of the inland Angles from near the town called Escebtiorne up to Wells, and from Wells along an inaccessible and watery track called Sugewege, that is ‘the Sow’s Way’, found her suckling her piglets under an apple tree near the church of which we have been speaking [Glastonbury].
From this it has been passed down to us that the apples from that tree are known as Ealde Cyrcenas epple, that is Old Church apples. Similarly the sow was called the Eald Cyrce suge. While all other sows have four feet, this one had eight, remarkable though that may sound.
As soon as Glasteing reached that island [Glastonbury] he saw that it abounded with many good things and so came to live on it with all his family and spent the rest of his life there. That place is said to have first been populated by his offspring and the household that succeeded him. These things have been taken from the ancient books of the Britons. (Scott, 1981:53)
One interesting thing to note from this passage is how wet everything is. Before the Somerset Levels were drained, Glastonbury probably was an island, much like the nearby Athelney, the fortress of Alfred the Great. People who have been to Glastonbury Festival might even protest that the drainage is still not complete. The common crane (Grus grus), a locally extinct marsh bird, has recently been reintroduced nearby and appears to be prospering.
The pigs in this area in the period were not today’s pink porkies in pens, but enclosed semi-wild boar. They were often allowed to roam alone through certain parts of the year, sustained on the land under a practice called ‘pannage’ which I described previously.
This legend may have been based on older sources. The Old English terms certainly lend an air of authenticity, but clearly this is by design. The story equally could also have been borrowed to explain the name Glastonbury. Sows are portrayed elsewhere as psychopomps or guides to the otherworld (see: Green, 1992:170). In the ‘Mabinogi of Math’, Gwydion is guided to the find the injured spirit of his foster son, Lleu Llaw Gyffes by following an old sow (Davies, 2008:62). The nearby city of Bath was also discovered by pigs in the medieval legend of Bladud, which might have provided a good source, although the folklore cannot be shown to predate the seventeenth century (Clark, 1994).
But the origin of the legend is not as important as its function. In the ‘Early History of Glastonbury’, Glasteing was useful because he provided a useful half-way point between the old, Celtic and possibly invented name Ynyswitrin (the Isle of Glass) and another name which Glastonbury wanted to claim – Avalon, the mythical other-world island of Arthurian fame.
The monks explain it here:
Of the various names of the Island
This island was at first called Ynyswitrin by the Britons but at length was named by the English, who had brought the land under their yoke, Glastinbiry, either in translation into their language of its previous name, or after the Glasteing of whom we spoke above. It is also frequently called the island of Avalon, a name of which this is the origin. It was mentioned above that Glasteing found his sow under an apple tree near the church. Because he discovered on his arrival that apples were very rare in that region he named the island Avallonie in his own language, that is Apple Island, for avalla in British is the same as poma in latin. Or it was named after a certain Avalloc who is said to have lived there with his daughters because of the solitude of the spot. (Scott, 1981:53)
The monks have borrowed so many names for Glastonbury because they need it to be many things. In order to be the centre of Arthurian cult, they need to be associated with the name Avallon. In order to claim high antiquity they need a British name like Ynys Wytrin (the Isle of Glass). The use of the Legend of Glasteing represents a compromise which allows them to link their common name (Glastonbury) with at least one of these identities.
Why should we care that an eight legged sow discovered Glastonbury? We’ve found three good reasons:
- Exploration of the background of the sow helps us to understand the political and historical realities of the time.
- Exploration of the sow helps us reconstruct common themes of the time (sows functioned as otherworldly-guides)
- Exploration of the sow helps us imagine the historical landscape: unsupervised semi-domestic pigs are able to find hidden paths through the flooded Somerset Levels.
Carley JP (2001) A grave event: Henry V, Glastonbury Abbey and Joseph of Arimathea’s Bones. Carley JP Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian Tradition. D.S. Brewer, Cambridge: 285-302.
Clark J (1994) Bladud of Bath: The Archaeology of a Legend. Folklore 105:39-50.
Davies S (2008) The Mabinogion. Oxford University Press.
Gransden A (2001) The growth in the Glastonbury traditions and legends in the twelfth century. Carley JP Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian Tradition. D.S. Brewer, Cambridge: 29-54.
Green MA (1992) Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. Routledge, London.
Scott J (1981) The Early History of Glastonbury: An edition, translation and study of William of Malmesbury’s De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie. Boydell Press, Woodbridge.