At the edges of Old English toponomastics 1: a textual sidelight on Wanborough

Learning Old English is no cakewalk, as I’m sure anyone who has done it will agree, but it does open a window into a fascinating world of writings, both Anglo-Saxon and modern. One of the first things I was given to read as part of the course was a brilliant little essay by Angus Cameron (1985), which hammers home the breadth of the surviving Old English canon and why scholars working on the language should look beyond traditional favourites like Beowulf and Ælfric. Having spent years reading the (now discontinued?) annual bibliography in the back of the journal Anglo-Saxon England and marvelling at how much time and effort was expended by so many scholars on so few key authors and pieces of literature, the latter point struck a chord with me. It has spurred me to seek out complete editions of texts I have encountered little snippets of during the course of my language work. In the last few weeks, this has led me to two obscure prose texts which I believe offer some extra evidence that can inform and perhaps improve the present understanding of the sense and derivation of each of the Surrey place-names Wanborough and Clandon. To try and keep a lid on things word-wise, I’m going to present the evidence for each place-name and text separately, commencing with…

Wanborough, on the opposite side of the Hog’s Back ridge from Puttenham, first appears in Domesday Book as Weneberge, which alongside later spellings reveal its derivation from a compound of Old English wenn, wænn, “wen, tumour” and bergbeorg, “hill, mound” (PNS, 151; Parsons & Styles 1997, 88). By my count, it occurs three other times in English place-names: in Sussex, Somerset and Wiltshire. The last of these is not only the only other parish-level example, but is also the earliest to be recorded. The charter in which it appears (S 313) is deemed to be an early eleventh-century text masquerading as ninth-century charter, which moreover looks to be the basis for S 312, held in even lower scholarly regard but with the added advantage of a vernacular boundary delineation including reference to (on) Wenbeorhge. (LangScape translates OE wenn as ‘wen, barrow’ in its database of words used in vernacular bounds, which is perplexing given its frequent compounding with beorg and may be due to its postulated significance in the place-name Wanstead – CDEPN, 649.)

The author or authors of the entry for Old English berg in The Vocabulary of English Place-Name Elements are surprisingly reticent to emphasise its connection to barrows. Fortunately, other scholars have been more forthcoming, not least Sarah Semple who, in her newly-published Perceptions of the Prehistoric in Anglo-Saxon England (top of my Christmas list but which for the time being I’m consulting through its mostly-but-not-entirely complete Google Preview version), lists an astonishing number of Wiltshire charter-boundary points with names consisting of or containing beorg. Concerning Wenbeorhge, Semple (2013, 160) suggests its name stems from the physical attribute of the barrow, in that it was ‘presumably boil-shaped’. The piece of textual evidence given below admits the possibility that a different, more magical explanation is worthy of consideration.

The following passage comes from a late (first half of the twelfth century?) recording of an un-datable Old English charm. Karen Jolly (1985) argued for the key Anglo-Saxon charm texts to betray clear signs of having been ‘quite thoroughly Christianized’ and not unadulterated pagan survivals, but this one is hard to interpret in such a fashion. Save for my highlighting the relevant Old English words in bold and the introduction of “barrow” for “hill”, the transcription and translation are as per Godfrid Storms’ Anglo-Saxon Magic (Storms 1948, 154-55):

Wenne, Wenne, Wenchichenne

her ne scealt þu timbrien, ne nenne tun habben

as þu scealt norþ heonene to þan nihgan berhge

þer þu havest ermig enne broþer.

“Wen, wen, little wen,

here you shall not build, nor have any habitation,

but you shall go north, hence to the neighbouring barrow,

where you wretch have a brother.”

Leaving aside the presumption that the barrow/mound/hill would be north of the afflicted person(s), the above sets up an unequivocal relationship between the monument and the wen/tumour. (On the question of what is meant by wenn in Old English charms, Grattan & Singer 1952, 111 footnote 1, argue that it was ‘usually applied to wart or skin tumour’ but qualify this immediately with the statement that this ‘cannot be forced on it in all instances’, so I’m going to keep my renderings of it multifold and broad.) What is more, as I read it, the brother seems as if he could also be a wen/tumour. If correct, this establishes that he is permanently present at the barrow (or hill, or mound…), making it by definition a wenn-berg.

The text going on to explain how the latter will be shrunk to nothing through the use of, among other things, a wolf’s paw and an eagle’s feather. It’s not easy to follow what’s going on at any point in the charm since it’s addressed to the source of the illness, on account of it being one intended to be spoken by a healer. John Niles, in the only published contextual assessment of the charm I’ve been able to find, considers that the stipulated assortment of paw, feather and eagle claw ‘probably alludes to tokens of power that the shaman wears or brandishes’ (Niles 2010, 136). Were this to be the case, the charm provides a very rare insight into some of the kit of a non-Christian – and potentially pre-Christian – healer. Although I agree with Jolly’s reading of many Old English charms as inflected with Christian ideas and practices, to the point that the ritual elements of most are either overtly Christian or not specifically pagan (1985, 288-89), I cannot construe such syncretism in this charm (though, not being a scriptural scholar, my investigations in this regard have gone no further than a Google search for instances of the “shamanistic” accoutrements in Bible verses – the best I could conjure up was Daniel 4:33 and it’s still a poor fit).

The concept of banishing the wen to the (wen) barrow is the most straightforward reading of the charm text; after all, a wen – particularly in the form of a tumour or cyst – is not a good thing and so would need to be removed from the sufferer and their home environment. Nevertheless, it’s very abstract in its requirement that there would be a barrow somewhere north of the location of the wen sufferer and charm-reciting healer. Does this embody a presumption that the Anglo-Saxon landscape was sufficiently littered with (wen-shaped?) barrows that it could be applicable more or less anywhere? Or was it a charm that required proximity to a barrow designated/noted for wen-healing? In short, did the performer of the ritual banish the wen to a remote barrow, or were they and the sufferer at one already when the charm was spoken?

The negative implications of the limited but nonetheless informative Anglo-Saxon textual material relating to barrows have been much discussed in recent years, a debate largely inspired by the thorough analysis provided by Sarah Semple in a landmark 1998 article (I’m sure the same stuff is covered in her new book, but the Google Preview doesn’t include the relevant pages!), albeit not thorough enough as to encompass this wen charm. She concludes that the negative attitude towards barrow found in Middle and Late Anglo-Saxon sources are at odds with a much less fearful approach in the preceding centuries witnessed by archaeology, including isolated and grouped inhumation burials (Semple 1998, 118-21).

The historic settlement of Wanborough can, from certain angles, be seen to be set on a low hill, but all explanations of its name have looked south and up at the higher ground of the Hog’s Back – rightly so, in my opinion. Here a destroyed round barrow, latterly known by the name “Wen Barrow” (apparently a modern back-formation from the settlement name which originated from the barrow – all very circular), was excavated in the 1960s but has only just received formal publication (English 2013). This report does, however, propose the former existence of a second barrow a short distance to the west, obliterated without being subject to any formal excavation (English 2013, 173). Accepting that we know nothing about the archaeology of the latter barrow (if it ever existed), what is interesting about its partly-excavated counterpart is that even fairly limited exploration of it recovered artefacts of Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, Anglo-Saxon and probably medieval date; the only finds from the Old English period were two bits of pottery, one Early and one Late Anglo-Saxon (English 2013, 169).

Also found during the “Wen Barrow” excavation was the unfurnished inhumation of an adult male, placed partly in the infilled barrow ditch and which may or may not be dated by a Roman coin of unspecified date found a few centimetres above the skeleton. Furthermore, Rev. Charles Kerry provides several notes of nearby inhumation burials discovered earlier in the nineteenth century, from the top of the Hog’s Back ridge on the Puttenham side and lower down on the Wanborough side (English 2013, 173). Again, there are no references to grave goods, meaning they can be interpreted in a number of ways, though a ?sixth-century strap mount found in the vicinity of the Wanborough burials and might be contemporary with them. It is at least possible that all of the burials were associated with the barrow, if not in physical congruence then in the reason for interment being made in its vicinity, and moreover that these were made prior to the barrow acquiring any negative associations.

I am inclined towards reading the various bits of evidence as pointing to the eponymous wenn-berg of Wanborough being a specific elevated place (in this case an artificial barrow, but elsewhere perhaps a natural eminence) to which people suffering from wens/cysts/tumours went with such corporeal ailments in search of a cure or respite. Possibly the barrow or mound in question was chosen because of its perceived resemblance to the growths. Quite what happened once the sufferer was there is hard to comprehend unless the charm text is to be taken as read and the requisite body parts of wolves and eagles were to hand, logically in the possession of a healer (Niles 2010, 136). It is, however, interesting to note both wolf (wulf) and eagle (earn) barrows/hills occur in English place-names (Parsons & Styles 1997, 90). The direct evidence for such healing (re)use is absent, though it might be permissible to draw loose parallels with Early Anglo-Saxon square enclosure constructions superimposed on Bronze Age monuments (Semple 1998, 116-18), though there are no clues as to their function(s). The claim that something similar can be perceived in the Guildown cemetery at the eastern end of the Hog’s Back from the distribution of the Late Anglo-Saxon execution burials (Semple 1998, 119 Fig. 3b) is dubious in view of the length of time such a “pagan” structure would have had to survive for.

The other thing that has got my juices going about “Wen Barrow” is how it contrasts with “seven ditches” further west along the Hog’s Back, especially in the implications of the two names. Jolly (1985, 288) notes the number nine is a recurrent theme in the Old English charms, feeding back to Indo-European or Germanic tradition, and “Wen Barrow” likewise was a place which might have had positive associations, at least for a time. On the other hand, if equivalent names in other historical and contemporary cultures are a good guide, the number seven had a negative connotation associated with punishment and penitence, hence its use as an execution place and cemetery. Whether broader archaeological characterisations of ostensibly numerical place-names would support this distinction between seven and nine would be most interesting to find out.

I cannot deny imbuing a couple of fairly unremarkable-looking Old English toponyms with such semi-religious significance at so early a point in time asks a heck of a lot of the evidence, but I would comment that the evidence is unusually suggestive, especially that pertaining to the likely wenn-berg, and so encourages more specific interpretations to be proffered as long as this is done in a justifiable manner. While the use of wenn to characterise a natural or artificial topographical eminence which bore an obvious visual resemblance to a wen must be retained, I would contend in some cases a “wen barrow/mound/hill”, far from being one of those repellent, here-be-monsters liminal places that textual sources would lead us to believe were such a feature of the Anglo-Saxon physical and mental landscape, could have been somewhere to which people were drawn in life and in death. It is perhaps for this reason that the compound survived attached to settlements and their respective land units.

(This post was updated on 25th November 2013 to take account of John Niles’ interpretation of the wen charm, omitted from the first version despite it being the source of my knowledge of the text in question – d’oh!)


Cameron, Angus, ‘The Boundaries of Old English Literature’ in The Anglo-Saxons: Synthesis and Achievement, ed. by J. Douglas Woods & David A. E. Pelteret (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1985), 27-36

English, Judie, ‘A barrow on the Hog’s Back, excavated by A J Clark’, Surrey Archaeological Collections, 97 (2013), 161-76

Gover, J. E. B., A. Mawer & F. M. Stenton, The Place-Names of Surrey [PNS] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934)

Grattan, J. H. G., & Charles Singer, Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine (London: Oxford University Press for The Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, 1952)

Jolly, Karen Louise, ‘Anglo-Saxon charms in the context of a Christian world view’, Journal of Medieval History, 11.4 (1985), 279-93

Niles, John D., ‘Pagan survivals and popular belief’ in The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, ed. by Malcolm Godden & Michael Lapidge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 126-41

Parsons, David, & Tania Styles, The Vocabulary of English Place-Names (Á-Box) (Nottingham: Centre for English Names Studies, 1997)

Semple, Sarah, ‘A fear of the past: the place of the prehistoric mound in the ideology of middle and later Anglo-Saxon England’, World Archaeology, 30.1 (1998), 109-126

Semple, Sarah, Perceptions of the Prehistoric in Anglo-Saxon England: Religion, Ritual, and Rulership in the Landscape (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Storms, G., Anglo-Saxon Magic (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1948)

Watts, Victor, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names [CDEPN] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) 

About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Archaeology, Barrows, Charters, Landscape, Old English, Phenomenology, Place-Names, Religion, Ritual, Seven ditches, Topography, Wanborough, WPLongform and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to At the edges of Old English toponomastics 1: a textual sidelight on Wanborough

  1. Mick Deakin says:

    A tenth-century charter C.S.888 refers to a Berkshire place-name Weonfelda (later recorded as Wenfield), thought to be present day Wokefield. The consensus is that the name means ‘sacred field’ from OE weoh + feld.

    I have an alternative suggestion which may interest you.
    In 1985, a Bronze Age bell barrow was excavated at Field Farm in the village of Burghfield (beorg+feld) adjacent to Wokefield. It is thought likely that the barrow must have remained as a visible earthwork up until the Saxon period, as it appears to have been used to mark the position of a 6th/7th century inhumation cemetery. This would have been a large barrow approximately 50 metres in diameter, and as a bell barrow, would have been ‘wen’ shaped.

    • Hello Mick, thanks for your comment and a very interesting suggestion. Has the Burghfield barrow been suggested to be the source of the first half of the place-name? It would make sense, especially given the demonstrated early Anglo-Saxon reuse of the barrow. I suppose a similar wen-like artificial landscape feature may have existed in neighbouring Wokefield. However, the -eo- vowel pairing in the 10th-century spelling is not found in any other use of Old English wenn I have come across (admittedly, I have not gone beyond the online Bosworth-Toller dictionary). Margaret Gelling suggested Wokefield came from *Weohhan-feld, essentially “the feld of a man named *Weohha”, which accounts for the phonology, but she doesn’t cite the later form Wenfield you mention. So, the matter may still be open to debate!

  2. Mick Deakin says:

    I have just been on Google Earth ‘street view’ around Burghfield and I must admit that the landscape around Burghfield Hill seems to fit Gellings ‘gently rounded’ profile of a typical beorg.

    Should have checked up on that in the first place !

    The reference to Wenfield is Frank Stentons comment
    ” The name survived in the form Wenfeld as late as the reign of Edward I, but has now disappeared”.

    Great site -interesting topics.

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