At the edges of Old English toponomastics 2: a textual sidelight on Clandon

Seconds out, round two…

Like Wanborough, the place-name Clandon (shared by two parishes east of Guildford) represents a compound of two Old English words, in this case clǣne and dūn (e.g. CDEPN, 140). The qualifier occurs most frequently with OE feld (“open land”) but has been noted compounded with dūn, the commonest of Old English’s many words for types of hill, in five major and minor place-names in the southern half of England (Parsons 2004, 96). To these can be added two occurrences as names of points in Old English boundary descriptions, for Berwick St John in Wiltshire (S 582, of 955 but its authenticity has been questioned) and Brabourne in Kent (S 877, of 996 and commonly considered to be an authentic text).

Old English clǣne has a fairly obvious sense of “clean, clear”; its occurrence in the phrase on clænum lande (for the Latin terra quae nullis spinis habuit) in the famous Old English translation of St Gregory’s Cura Pastoralis has led to more specific interpretations along the lines of “clear of unwanted plants or obstacles” (see Smith 1956, 97 – the only known example of the compound clǣne-land is a late-recorded West Yorkshire field-name: Parsons 2004, 97). I can now offer further insights drawn from an Old English translation of a Latin prose text.

You’ve been warned… Notice at the start of the 2002 Herbarium translation underlining that the remedies may not be as efficacious as the reader might like to believe.

The Old English Herbarium is one of the most unusual textual remnants of the Anglo-Saxon period, a translation – most likely made in the first half of the eleventh century – of a fifth-century text known as the Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius which outlines the medicinal uses of plants. Karen Jolly (1985, 288) appositely observed how classical medical texts were ‘somewhat debased in Anglo-Saxon books’, and this exemplified by the applications of Old English clǣne in the Herbarium translation. The term’s connection with dūn is most evident in the first of this brace, though the second must be countenanced in order for it to be understood fully. The relevant transcribed text below is from Hubert Jan de Vriend (1984, 30 – bold emphasis my own) and the translation is more or less that published by Anne Van Arsdall (2002, 138):

ÐEOS WYRT þe man betonican nemneð, heo biþ cenned on mædum 7 on clænum dunlandum 7 on gefriþedum stowum;

“This plant, which is named betony, is grown in meadows, on cleared hilly land, and in sheltered places”

The original editor of the Herbarium, Rev. T. Cockayne, played an even straighter bat in translating clænum dunlandum as “clean downlands” (Van Arsdall 2002, 138 note 69). All well and good you might think, only problems emerge when it is compared to what is effectively the Latin source text, namely the version of the Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius contained in a sixth- or seventh-century codex preserved at the Bibliotheek der Rijksuniversitat, Leiden:

Haec herba vettonica nascitur in pratis et in montibus, locis mundis et opacis circa frutices (de Vriend 1984, 31)

It’s a while since I studied Latin, but I make the above as meaning “This herb bettony grows in meadows and on hills, in clean places and in shady places around bushes”. Leaving aside my shaky Latin, the main point to note is that the two words we are interested in, montibus and mundis, clearly do not form a compound; on the contrary, they refer to separate types of place where betony might grow. Which, given the Latin text ‘may be regarded as a near relation of the exemplar used by the Anglo-Saxon translator’ (de Vriend 1984, l), is a remarkable divergence.

This has echoes of the Herbarium entry for wild strawberry, said to grow on dihglum stowum 7 on clænum 7 eac on dunum, which the recent published translation gives as “in shady places, in cultivated spots, and on hills” (de Vriend 1984, 84; Van Arsdall 2002, 168). This sets the two terms in opposition to one another. I would argue there are two shortcomings in Van Arsdall’s translation. First is her rendering of clænum, which is a little too applied; “clean” or “clear(ed)” or would be more appropriate. More important, however, is her treatment of the word as a noun rather than an adjective. The word order would seem to confirm this, as would the relevant Latin passage (locis opacis et mundis et collibus – in this case the source text is a ninth- or tenth-century codex from the Archivo della Badia in Montecassino, as the earlier Leiden codex is defective by this point of the Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius: de Vriend 1984, lii and 85). However, I have it on good authority that it is more likely clænum is being used adjectivally here, referring back to stowum, whereas dunum is better interpreted as a standalone noun (hence the use of Old English eac), all of which recommends a translation as “in shady places and in clean/clear(ed) places and also on hills”.

The best translation of the betony passage is hence something along the lines of “in meadows and on clean/clear hilly land and in sheltered places”. This broadly supports the published translations of Van Arsdall and Cockayne before her, as well as those place-name scholars who have treated clǣne solely as an adjective. But what has gone unnoticed by all is how the word order chosen by the Old English translator follows an agenda other than verbatim accuracy. I would argue this fact points to clǣnedūn having been lexicalised by the eleventh century as part of the vocabulary of the agricultural landscape (a comparable toponymic example might be winterdūn, for which see Page 1997). Such an idea correlates with my belief that Clandon was an important sheep-farming centre, potentially from the late seventh century. To keep land clean and clear doesn’t require overpriced facewash but some means of controlling the growth of shrubs and saplings, and the most effective solution is grazing livestock. It would be nice to see evidence of one or two sheep-related place-names hereabouts but nothing jumps out from the OS map. Perhaps if I was to apply myself a bit more to the task then I might be suitably rewarded.

Thanks to Dr Paul Cavill for his assistance with understanding the Old English word order.


The Old English Herbarium and Medicina de Quadrupedibused. by Hubert J. de Vriend, Early English Text Society Original Series, 286 (London: Oxford University Press for Early English Text Society, 1984)

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

Page, Raymond I., ‘Old English winterdūn‘ in Names, Places and People: An Onomastic Miscellany in Memory of John McNeal Dodgson, ed. by Alexander R. Rumble & A. D. Mills (Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1997), 301-306

Parsons, David, The Vocabulary of English Place-Names (Ceafor-Cockpit) (Nottingham: Centre for English Names Studies, 2004)

Smith, A. H., English Place-Name Elements, 2. Jafn-Ytri (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956)

Van Ardsall, Anne, Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine (Abingdon: Routledge, 2002)

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 Anglo-Saxon, Books, Clandon, Landscape, Latin, Old English, Place-Names and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to At the edges of Old English toponomastics 2: a textual sidelight on Clandon

  1. I retrospectively added the photo to this post for a touch of visual levity, but there is another necessary addition that I will note here rather than rejig the text yet again – OE clæne is used a third time in the Herbarium translation, as part of the opening to the entry for Heliotropes. The construction of the passage is very similar to the one for the Wild Strawberry quoted above: ‘on beganum stowum & on clænum & eac on mædum’ (for Latin ‘locis cultis et mundis’), “in cultivated places and in clean/clear places”, hence the same conclusions can apply to it. I found out about this third occurrence of the word by doing what I should have done in the first place, check the Toronto Dictionary of Old English (which it transpires is comprehensive in a way Van Ardsall’s glossary regrettably is not). Perhaps I’m still not yet up to speed with having access to such resources. I’ll get there eventually.

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