Thursday, 3 January 2013

Arm Rings

Arm Rings; Bling or Bank-Account?

Increasingly, the image of wealthy or accomplished heroes from the Migration and 'Viking' ages is changing to include fine jewellery. Indeed, in Bernard Cornwell's popular "Saxon Stories" series, the protagonist Uhtred of Bebbanburg is described as wearing many glimmering arm-rings -prizes accumulated gradually during his career as a warrior. To what extent are such pieces of jewellery evidenced, and what purpose did they serve?

Conjectural golden arm-ring created by George Easton (danegeld.co.uk)
Gold geriseþ on guman sweorde, ...sinc on cwene.Gold is seemly on a man’s sword, ...jewels on a woman.
This Anglo-Saxon gnomic maxim associates jewellery with women. However, other writings indicate that men also wore frætwa (jewellery). They wore finger-rings (hringes) and cloak-brooches (siglu) although these were never quite so elaborate as those of women. The most favoured item of masculine adornment, however, was the arm-ring or béag.

Such arm-rings were made from copper-alloy, perhaps gilded, silver or for the very rich, of pure gold. As is described in Beowulf : 
“... guðrinc goldwlanc, ...since hremig”                 (1881)
... warrior brave with gold, ... exulting in his jewellery
Later texts give more details. In 1040 CE, Earl Godwin is recorded to have gifted Harthacnut with a longship and 80 hand-picked warriors, each of whom had two arm-rings on each arm, each ‘bracelet’ containing 16 oz. of gold.
"Octoginta milites qui haberent in brachiis singulis armillas duas, unamquamque sedeam unciarum auri."
Not surprisingly, Anglo-Saxon men were described as being laden down with such arm-rings. Gold béagas featuring in wills are both costly and heavy. Ælfflæd left four gold arm-rings worth 300 mancuses* (45oz.) and Æðelmær four worth 200 mancuses (30oz.). A further two bequeathed by Ælfflæd weighed 2lb. Most arm-rings would have been considerably lighter (probably about 12 oz.).
*(a mancus was a gold coin with a weight of 4.25 grams (0.15 oz.) 

circa 10th Century Wendover Arm-Ring (British Museum)
The gold arm-ring discovered in Wendover and now safe in the British Museum, was decorated with filigree work. Formed from elegantly twisted soft gold strands it forms an incomplete circle; a common design, allowing it to be opened slightly and then closed to secure it on the arm. Such designs are recorded in Beowulf;
“earm-béaga fela, searum gesæled”
many arm-rings, cunningly twisted.
Such arm-rings often had ornate animal-head terminals. Other arm-rings were formed as flat bands with stamped decoration, for neither English nor Norse were inclined to leave anything plain.
These costly adornments often had personal or symbolic associations. They were given out by a king or dryhten (overlord) as bonding gifts between the lord and his followers. They were also given as rewards for brave or faithful service. The giving out of rings was central to the relationship between the lord and his war-band. Thus a lord was styled as a Ring-Giver or béag-gifa.
“Cyning sceal on healle beagas dælan.”
A king in the hall deals out arm-rings.
Such rings were often bequeathed to a warrior's lord upon death as part of heriot. However, If the dryhten was too poor or parsimonious to reward his warriors, he might well find them leaving for pastures new. Hence the advice from the Gnomics :
“Geongne æþeling sceolan gode gesiþas byldan to beaduwe and to beahgife.”
Good companions must urge a young, unproven prince to battle and the bestowal of rings.
Ultimately arm-rings allowed folk (both male and female) to keep their wealth safe about their person while clearly displaying their status in society. Although sometimes worn as bracelets, originally arm-rings would have been worn on the upper arm, just below the biceps but above the elbow with the terminals facing outwards.

Conjectural golden arm-ring by George Easton (danegeld.co.uk), with horse-heads from the Staffordshire Hoard
The Eddas tell that the god Óðinn possessed a useful golden arm-ring called Draupnir (Dropper) which had been forged by the dwarf Brokk. Every ninth night, eight new rings, each as heavy as the original (but non-magical), dropped from it. Óðinn later laid it on Balder's funeral pyre but Balder sent it back from Hellheim with Hermóðr. 
“Baug ec þer þa gef þann er brendr var  
meþ vngom Oþins syni; atta ero iafnhafgir,  
er af drivpa ena nivndo hveria nótt.”
“Báug ec þiccac, þot brendr se

meþ vngom Odins syni; era mer gvllz vant 
i garþom Gymis, at deila fe faþvr.” 
Skirnir spake: "Then do I bring thee | the ring that was burned of old with Othin's son; 
From it do eight | of like weight fall On every ninth night." 
Gerth spake: "The ring I wish not, | though burned it was Of old with Othin's son; 
In Gymir's home | is no lack of gold In the wealth my father wields."
The gold or silver arm-ring was thus a highly portable, convenient form of personal wealth and it is no surprise, therefore, that according to the Anglo-Saxon poem, the Battle of Maldon, it was in the form of arm-rings that the Vikings demanded their Danegeld.

Original "Fenris Wolf" Viking wrist-torque by "The Celtic Goldsmith"
Perhaps this is why Anglo-Saxon gold and silver arm-rings are so uncommon in the archaeological record. Maybe they were cut up and used as ‘hack-silver’ in place of coin or melted down. Certainly the much less valuable bronze examples are more common grave finds, whereas gold and silver arm-rings are only found in hoards.

Arm-Ring : called a béag, béah or earm-béag in Old West Saxon English. A twist-formed ring would be a béagwriða. An arm ring would be called a bég or arm-bég in Anglian dialects of Old English such as Mercian, and baugr in Old Norse.

Old English Compounds include béag-gifa- ‘Ring-Giver’, béag-hord- ‘Ring-Hoard and béaghroden- ‘adorned with rings’; the equivalent of which in Old Norse would be baugvariðr. 

The word béag derives from the Proto-Germanic *baugaz (“ring”), and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European *bheugh-, *bheug- (“to bend”). It is cognate with German dialectal Baug (“ring, collar”) and the Icelandic baugur (“ring, circle”). Amusingly, its closest Modern English relative is bagel which comes from from Yiddish word beygl by way of the Old High German boug "a ring".

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