Aethelred the Misled & Misleading

On this day in 1002 the English king Aethelred the Unready decreed that all Danish colonists in England should be put to death. I have this on the authority of Wikipedia.

The information has come as rather a shock to me, I have to admit. Like many people (those who’ve actually heard of him) I’ve always imagined King Aethelred as a sweetly ineffectual figure, the Prince Charles of his day. How could he be otherwise with an epithet like “the Unready”?

Alas, it turns out that “Unready” is a mistranslation of the Anglo-Saxon “Unræd”, which actually means something like “no counsel”. It refers to the notoriously poor quality of the advice (“ræd”) that Aethelred received from his Council, known as the Witan. This advice, it seems, was the root of his political problems, rather than any “unreadiness”; indeed he seems to have been all too ready to act if the decree mentioned above is any guide. The King’s name translates as “noble counsel” (“æþel”= noble) so the epithet was a pun: “noble counsel, no counsel”. Get it? Ah, those Anglo-Saxon jokes, they do it for me every time.

Why on earth was Aethelred trying to “ethnically cleanse” his realm of Danes of all people though? After all, nowadays we think of Scandinavia* as a beacon of progressive ideals, cheap furniture and (excellent) crime fiction; the least likely military aggressors in Europe? Yet then it seems it was a different story. The last two and a half centuries of Anglo-Saxon England were a constant (and bloody) struggle against Danish Viking encroachment.

Again, for many years, in my mind, the Vikings were Norwegian. Why? Well, they were also known as “Norsemen”, weren’t they? “Norse” and “Norwegian”: that the former was just an alternative (archaic) term for the latter seemed obvious. Another example of the way words mislead us.

* I have to admit, I have no associations specific to modern day Danes except maybe a vague image of farmers (bacon? blue cheese?). Apologies in advance to any Danish person who reads this!

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