Queering the Anglo-Saxons through their psalms

Martine Mussies

Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands

[0.1] Abstract—For fan fiction based on the TV serial drama The Last Kingdom (2014–), some authors use fragments of the translations of the Psalms by King Alfred of Wessex (849–899) to firmly ground their stories in the historical reimagination of the Anglo-Saxons. In the 2019 short story "Æthelflaed and Lagertha," fan author Bandi Crawford uses an Alfredian psalm to connect The Last Kingdom to another major TV series, Vikings (2013–). By developing bisexual and biromantic story lines along the lines of Alfredian Psalms, Crawford constructs a twenty-first-century neomedieval-based culture in which the Alfredian Psalms are reinterpreted or critically reexamined through a queer lens, thereby negotiating more diversity within a favorite show's story world.

[0.2] Keywords—Alfred the Great; Fan fiction; The Last Kingdom; Slash fiction; Vikings

Mussies, Martine. 2019. "Queering the Anglo-Saxons through Their Psalms." In "Fan Fiction and Ancient Scribal Cultures," edited by Frauke Uhlenbruch and Sonja Ammann, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 31.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Fan fiction based on the Netflix series The Last Kingdom (TLK; 2014–) reuses Alfredian (Anglo-Saxon/Old English) translations of the Psalms in new ways. Some of these fan fics reinterpret the text of the Psalms; others explicitly question the Psalms's authority. By examining two examples of slash fiction based on TLK, I hope to demonstrate how use of the Alfredian translation of the Psalms permits authors an "active rewriting" of the stories (Haraway [1992] 1999, 355) in order to queer female characters who appear to be solely heterosexual in TLK, thereby giving them lesbian desires and relationships.

2. Heteronormativity in TLK

[2.1] TLK is based on Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories series, an historical interpretation of England in the ninth and tenth centuries. It is centered around a fictional depiction of King Alfred of Wessex (c. 849–899; r. 886), the first king of the Anglo-Saxons, and in Cornwell's historical interpretation, the creator of England. There is much discussion about the series in the blogosphere, but the series has not yet attracted much academic attention. The blogs that post about TLK tend to focus on the historical (in)correctness of the clothing, sets, and weapons. As such, there has been little discussion of the show's interpersonal relationships or the fan fiction TLK has generated. The main focus in the series is on the fictional character of Uhtred—born a Christian, raised a Dane—and his complicated relationships with the other main characters, including King Alfred himself and various fierce females, many of whom express sexual and romantic interest in Uhtred at some point. Other female characters—such as Alfred's wife, Queen Ælswith (historically spelled as Ealhswith or Ealswitha)—display sexual and romantic interest only in men. As of this writing, the series has depicted no lesbian, bisexual, or biromantic scenes.

[2.2] The lack of homosexuality in the TLK fits the image that modern audiences have of this period. The Anglo-Saxons were familiar with homosexuality, but they defined it entirely as an act of same-sex intercourse rather than as a personal identity or an orientation. As Christopher Monk (2014) explains, homosexuality is not referenced in any of the surviving Anglo-Saxon laws (c. 600–1025), which may be because it was considered far less disruptive to society than (heterosexual) adultery, which is frequently mentioned. The Anglo-Saxon church did forbid it, as can be seen by the frequent mentions and penalties found in surviving religious texts (Bailey 1995). Priests were one of the few groups who could read Latin, and works such as Augustine's De Bono Coniugali (On the good of marriage) were widespread and probably formed the basis for the surviving Anglo-Saxon penitentials (Frantzen 1995). One such example is the Scriftboc, a "tenth-century compilation, whose principal source is the Penitential of Theodore" (Hamilton 2005, 87). It offers a biblical manual for everyday life, including "what was considered a proper marriage and acceptable sexual relations" (Meyer 1990, 53). The full text of the Scriftboc is available online ( and has three classifications of homosexual behavior. First, if a young man is forced into sex by an older man, he should fast five nights, but if he agrees, then the fast should last fifteen nights. Second, a man who has sex with another man or with an animal must fast for ten winters. Finally, if a woman has sex with another woman, she has to fast for three winters. Thus, despite the heteronormativity depicted in TLK, homosexuality was indeed known to the Anglo-Saxons. Apparently homosexuality existed and was visible, but it was certainly not the norm. This might explain the heteronormativity in TLK, but it could also be that TLK, as a product of the current media environment, is just another example of the cultural assumptions that homosexuality is a modern invention rather than a product of historical research. Even if homosexuality was unknown to the Anglo-Saxons, the show's producers made a variety of choices in their narrative for a variety of reasons, many of which may not have been historically correct.

3. Slash fiction

[3.1] Following Abigail Derecho (2006), fan fiction texts may be described as archontic—that is, texts that are archives. As Peter Güldenpfennig explains, when viewing fan fiction, one can "see the text as an entry to an open archive with the original artefact as the basis for this same archive" (2011, 14). My focus here is on depictions of bisexuality in fan fiction about TLK. As of May 2019, the Archive of Our Own (AO3; listing for TLK has only three entries in the F/F category that could be labeled as bisexual and or biromantic. One is a fic entitled "For Me, There Is Only You" (2019) by Immortalgothgirl. This short story depicts Alfred's servant girl, Kela, having sex with Queen Ælswith. The second, "Lessons" (2018) by ifinkufreaky, features Brida and Ragnar engaging in a ménage à trois with a girl called Cynwise. The third is "They Will Tell Tales of Us" (2019) by Artemis1000, in which a heated argument between Alfred's daughter, Æthelflæd, and the Viking sorceress Skade ends with a passionate kiss. In these three examples, female characters who appear heterosexual in the show's canon have been rewritten as bisexual/biromantic.

4. Fan works and the Psalms

[4.1] In my own (alter) ego-inserting fan fic, "The Cyborg Mermaid Meets King Alfred" (2019), I reference Alfred's translations of the Psalms:

[4.2] "'When the Sun

Clearest shineth Serenest in the heaven,

quickly are obscured All over the earth Other stars.'"

[4.3]She shrugged, adding, "I've always wondered what it meant. Which other stars? Which sun? I know so few of them."

[4.4]Alfred was staring at her in a most curious way. Without taking his eyes off her face, he reached across the table and picked up a smaller book. Using an inkwell nearby, he copied the passage Tamar had recited into the book and then stashed it in the folds of his shirt.

[4.5] Although this text imagines an alternative origin for some of the Alfredian Psalms translations originally spoken in dialogue (Parker 2014), the authors of two other fan works go farther, changing the (implied) meanings of the Psalms and using them to confirm the bisexual relationships of their main characters.

[4.6] Here I focus on two works that queer the sexual and romantic orientations of two female TLK canon characters. The first, "Æthelflaed and Lagertha," by Bandi Crawford (2019), is a crossover between TLK and the television series Vikings (2013–). The second, "For Him It Is as for the Tree," by Cheyenne (2019), tells the story of a conversation between King Alfred of Wessex and Hild (both TLK canonical characters) regarding Hild's love for an original character named Emma. The two stories I have chosen as exemplars were selected for their reuse and reinterpretation of the Alfredian (Anglo-Saxon/Old English) translations of the Psalms in new ways, thereby subverting their presumed heteronormativity. In their rewriting of the Psalms, these two authors follow in the footsteps of King Alfred of Wessex, whose translations were informed by his personal experiences (Abels 2013).

5. Crawford's "Æthelflaed and Lagertha"

[5.1] "Æthelflaed and Lagertha" connects two popular TV shows, TLK and Vikings, through the writings of the only historical figure common to both series: King Alfred. In this piece of fan fiction, TLK canon character Æthelflaed and Vikings character Lagertha discuss a translation of the Psalms while at the same time exploring their desire for each other. The same-sex desires explored in this fan fic are absent in both TLK and Vikings canon; in canon, Æthelflaed marries Lord Æthelred of Mercia (following Anglo-Saxon history) before falling into forbidden love with fictional protagonist Uhtred; and Lagertha is married to Ragnar Lothbrok, a character of dubious historicity. Æthelflaed gets stuck in her explanation of her father's translation, "And does not stand in the way of the sinful," which is the second part of the first line of the psalm in question. Notably, the translation used by Crawford faithfully captures Alfred's original: "Ne on þām weġe ne stent synfulra."

[5.2] In "Æthelflaed and Lagertha," as the two women debate the concepts of "sinful" and "pestilential," a sensual power play arises:

[5.3] Æthelflaed's cheeks shaded as pink as a summer rose. "'And does not sit in their pestilential seat,'" she continued. "Pestilential?"

[5.4] Lagertha repeated with a tilt of her head. When Æthelflaed pointed out the word, she lay her hand on top of hers. Both had smooth skin. Æthelflaed had been about to explain but found herself lost in the softness.

[5.5] The story has an open ending, with the Viking shield-maid expressing dry, perhaps even mocking, humor about the mix of power and purity expressed in the translation of the Psalms: "That is something I can understand. A balance. Like a goose and a blade." This is a wink to Æthelflaed's banner, a white goose holding a sword and a cross. With these new interpretations, Crawford provides her audience with an original twist to the challenge proposed by Norman F. Cantor in order for "a neo-medieval-based culture for the twenty-first century to be constructed" (1991, 412).

6. Cheyenne's "For Him It Is as for the Tree"

[6.1] Cheyenne's story, "For Him It Is as for the Tree," refers to the third line from the first of the Psalms, referring to a biblical image also present in Ezekiel 47:12 and Jeremiah 17:8. Following the structure of the psalm, this story continues where Crawford's story ends. The historical King Alfred translates this line as "Him bið swā þām trēowe," thereby explaining the Latin "et erit tamquam lignum" (and he will be like the tree) in a grammar typical of Old English, with the dativus "he" provided without a preposition (Baker 2012). The text continues with an explanation that the tree "is planted near streams of water, that yields its fruits at the appropriate season, and its leaves and its blades neither yellow nor wither" (my translation).

[6.2] The first psalm is generally interpreted as teaching the reader how to stand firmly rooted and fruitful in life, to come to full bloom. This reading plays a crucial role in Cheyenne's story. But though for the historical Alfred this most likely meant a desire for his subjects more in line with Paul's prayer—that people take root in the love of Christ—this story features a queer-friendly Alfred giving a rather different explanation for this psalm:

[6.3] What makes you think that it isn't the same for you? That your love isn't as firm as that tree by the water, that your love won't grow like the leaves in the branches, that your love isn't like the never-ending stream of a river? What makes you think that what you have isn't exactly the same as what a man and a woman have? Is there a part of you that thinks your love for that woman isn't as strong, isn't as powerful? That it doesn't bear the same fire a man has for his wife, or the other way around?

[6.4] The tree symbolizes strength, for a tree has roots burrowing deep and steady into the soil ("and you rooted and founded remains in love"; Ephesians 3:14–19). Moreover, the "leaves in the branches" reach high in the sky, which could be interpreted as a connection between earth and heaven. With the king himself giving this explanation to Hild, he conveys approval of her feelings for Emma.

7. Conclusion

[7.1] To firmly ground their stories in the historical reimagination of the Anglo-Saxons, some fan authors use fragments of translations of the Psalms by King Alfred. However, by using queered readings of these Alfredian Psalms in works focusing on female same-sex desire, these fan authors have constructed a twenty-first-century neomedieval-based culture in which the Alfredian Psalms are reinterpreted or critically reexamined through a queer lens. In "Æthelflaed and Lagertha," Crawford uses the second part of the first line of the first psalm to connect TLK to Vikings. The two characters are heterosexual in canon, but they express hidden biromantic desires in this fan fiction, in which their desires are expressed in a subtle way—yet what is clear is that these women doubt the text in the translation of the Psalms rather than their feelings for each other. The doubt considering these biromantic feelings is also expressed by the Hild in "For Him It Is as for the Tree," in which Cheyenne uses the arboreal analogy by the psalmist from the third line. Cheyenne lets King Alfred explain to Hild that she could be blossoming like a happy, healthy tree in her love for Emma. With these rewritings, fans negotiate biromantic diversity within their favorite show's story world and rebel against heteronormativity.

8. References

Abels, Richard. 2013. Alfred the Great: War, Kingship, and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. New York: Routledge.

Bailey, Derrick Sherwin. 1955. Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition. London: Longmans, Green.

Baker, Peter S. 2012. Introduction to Old English. 3rd ed. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Cantor, Norman F. 1991. Inventing the Middle Ages. New York: Morrow.

Cheyenne. 2019. "For Him It Is as for the Tree." Fan fiction. Republished with permission of the author at">">

Crawford, Bandi. 2019. "Æthelflaed and Lagertha." Fan fiction. Republished with permission of the author at">">

Derecho, Abigail. 2006. "Archontic Literature: A Definition, a History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction." In Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, 61–78. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Frantzen, Allen J. 1995. "Studying Sexuality in Anglo-Saxon England: Queer Theory and the Corpus of Penitentials." Paper presented at the Seventh Biennial Meeting of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, August 6–12, 1995.

Güldenpfennig, Peter. 2011. "Fandom, Fan Fiction and the Creative Mind." MA thesis, Tilburg University.

Hamilton, Sarah. 2005. "Remedies for 'Great Transgressions': Penance and Excommunication in Late Anglo-Saxon England." In Pastoral Care in Late Anglo-Saxon England, edited by Francesca Tinti, 83–105. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer.

Haraway, Donna. 1992 (1999). "The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others." In Cybersexualities: A Reader on Feminist Theory, Cyborgs, and Cyberspace, edited by Jenny Wolmark, 314–66. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Meyer, Marc A. 1990. "Early Anglo-Saxon Penitentials and the Position of Women." Haskins Society Journal 2:47–61.

Monk, Christopher. 2014. "The Worst Sin? Are You Forty? A Married Man? You've Been Warned!" The Medieval Monk (blog), November 27, 2014.

Mussies, Martine. 2019. "The Cyborg Mermaid Meets King Alfred." Fan fiction. Martine Mussies (blog), May 25, 2019.

Parker, Joanne. 2014. "England's Darling": The Victorian Cult of Alfred the Great. Manchester: Manchester University Press.