Saturday, February 4, 2017

Elesa/Esla and Cerdic of Wessex

Quite a few years ago I was asked why, if Cerdic of Wessex is actually Ceredig son of Cunedda, the former's father is given in the early English genealogies as Elesa.  I had provided the explanation in an essay entitled CUNEDDA AND THE IRISH IN WALES, which I thought lost.  I've now found it posted on an old archived listserv and can provide the relevant selection here:

In the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE, Cerdic's father is named Elesa, his grandfather Esla (a simple metathesis of Elesa) and his great-grandfather Gewis or Giwis, eponymous king of the Gewisse.  But Kenneth Sisam (in his "Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies",PROCEEDINGS OF THE BRITISH ACADEMY, 1953) long ago suggested that 

"...Cerdic's pedigree was copied from this part of Ida's, and that Giwis was substituted afterwards to give it a West Saxon coloring. The substitution exactly at ths point might be made because the association of Bernic with Bernicia was obvious. Bernic, who appears only in the pedigree of Ida, is generally    regarded as an eponymous king derived from the name of the Bernicians, and Giwis, who appears only in the pedigree of Cerdic, seems to be derived in the same way from Gewissei, a name for the West Saxons... the original entry may have had Bernic for Benoc, and Alusa (possibly Ealusa or a form nearer Elesa) not Aloc... Aluca (CHRONICLE Aloc)... may have been substituted for Alusa in Cerdic's pedigree... if the framework of Cerdic's pedigree is somehow borrowed from Ida's, his real pedigree was almost certainly unknown."

I would add that his real pedigree may well have been known, but that it was altered to conform with the needs of Wessex political history.

Another listserv I discovered contains similar information:

I think that the important article by K. Sisam, "Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies", in Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 39 (1953), pp. 287-346 (required reading for those who really want to understand some of the processes by which early genealogies were faked), which was recently reprinted in the collection "British Academy Papers on Anglo-Saxon England" (Oxford University Press, 1990), shows that Cerdic's genealogy was, in fact, pretty much "made out of whole cloth". Cerdic's genealogy is interesting because enough manuscripts survive to show some of the stages of the falsification process. What follows is my attempt to outline Sisam's reconstruction of this
process (but read his article for a better explanation).

It started with the pedigree of the kings of Bernicia, which begins Woden, Baeldaeg, Brand, Benoc, Aloc (Alusa in some manuscripts), etc., followed by several more generations until you get to Ida (6th century), king of Bernicia. One early version of the West Saxon genealogy goes Woden, Baeldaeg, Brand, Giwis, Aluca, Cerdic, and the one given by Asser is very similar: UUoden, Beldeg, Brond, Geuuis, Elesa, Cerdic. Thus, in the early stages of the fake West Saxon pedigree, the first five generations of the Bernician pedigree are used, except that Benoc is replace by Giwis, and then Aluca (i.e. Aloc) is made the father of Cerdic. This pretty much kills the idea that the name Elesa is related to the similar Welsh name, for the name Elesa is in fact the name Aloc, "borrowed" from the royal genealogy of Bernicia, and Aloc, if he ever existed at all, would have been a many-generations-removed ancestor of Ida, and would have lived well before the Angles had any Welsh influence. The name "Gewisse" was the early name for the West Saxons, and the name Giwis which was used to replace Benoc was almost certainly invented to explain the name of the tribe, much like "Brutus" was invented explain the name Britain.

- Stewart L Baldwin

Welsh hagiography tells of a certain Caradoc son of ALAOG of NE Wales.  Here is what little we know of this petty chieftain, drawn from P.C. Bartram's A CLASSICAL WELSH DICTIONARY:

While it is tempting to try and relate this personage to Cerdic son of Elesa, he was a contemporary of St. Gwenfrewy (Winifred), who was born c. 575,  Thus he is way too late to be Cerdic of Wessex.

However, many years ago in another now defunct essay entitled ELAFIUS/ELESSA, THE LAME SON AND GREEK GUIOS, I demonstrated a better solution to the problem of Elesa in the genealogy of Cerdic.  

To begin, I had noticed that Elesa bore a striking resemblance to Elafius, a name found in the Life of St. Germanus of Auxerre.  /s/ and /f/ were frequently confused for each other in MSS.  The story of Elafius runs as follows (from

Chapter Twenty-Six

Meanwhile evil spirits, flying over the whole island, made known through the involuntary prophecies of their victims the coming of Germanus, with the result that one of the leading men in the country, Elafius by name, came hurrying to meet the holy men without having had any news of them through any regular messenger. He brought with him his son who had been crippled in early youth by a grievous malady. His sinews had withered and the tendons of the knee had contracted and his withered leg made it impossible for him to stand on his feet.

The whole province came along with Elafius. The bishops arrived and the crowds came upon them unexpectedly. At once blessings and the words of God were showered upon them. Germanus could see that the people as a whole had persevered in the faith in which he had left them and the bishops realized that the fallings-away had been the work only of a few. These were identified and formally condemned.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

At this point Elafius approached to make obeisance to the bishops and presented to them his son, whose youth and helplessness made his need clear without words. Everyone felt acutely for him, the bishops most of all, and in their pity they had recourse to the mercy of God. The blessed Germanus at once made the boy sit down, then felt the bent knee and ran his healing hand over all the diseased parts. Health speedily followed the life-giving touch. What was withered became supple, the sinews resumed their proper work, and, before the eyes of all, the son got back a sound body and the father got back a son.

The crowds were overwhelmed by the miracle and the Catholic faith implanted in them was strengthened in all of them. There followed sermons to the people to confute the heresy, the preachers of which were by common consent banished from the island. They were brought to the bishops to be conducted to the Continent, so that the country might be purged of them an they of their errors. The effect of all this was so salutary that even now the faith is persisting intact in those parts. And so, with everything settled, the blessed bishops made a prosperous journey back to their own country.

It's the lame son here who is vitally important.  Why?  Because there is a Greek word guios, 'lame.' I'm certain some learned monk had chosen to "interpret" Gewis, the eponymous founder of the Gewissei, with this word.  Which would mean, of course, that the lame son of Elafius = Gewis and Elafius = Elesa.  

The Vita sancta Germani was produced by Constantius of Lyon in the 5th century. Thus the source is very early and could well have influenced the compilers of the Anglo-Saxon genealogies.  An Elesa as an immediate descendant of Gewis must assuredly be the correct Celtic form of the name, as the Gewessei were indisputably Irish (or at least in part Hiberno-British).

Scholars have pointed to the name Eliseg of the famous Eliseg Pillar in Powys.  Sometimes the name is also spelled Elisedd.  According to Dr. Simon Talyor of the University of Wales, the name is decidedly Biblical in origin:

"Patrick Sims-Williams (BBCS, 38 (1991), p. 51, n. 1) has argued that Eliseg, Elised are hypercorrect forms of Biblical Elise (who appears as an ancestor of the Welsh in the Historia Brittonum). These forms would thus date from a period after the loss of final /ɣ/ in speech, and occasional loss of final /ð/ (cf. OW triti beside tritid ‘third’, and cf. mini for mynydd ‘mountain’ in Modern Pembrokeshire Welsh). This seems to be generally accepted now: recent publications by John Koch and Thomas Charles-Edwards modernize the name of the king as Elise."

However, in my opinion the Biblical name may represent a substitution for an attested Irish name Ailgesach, Ailgheasach, Ailiosach, at least in the case of Elesa of the Gewessei genealogy.  The name comes from the following word (eDIL listing):

Cite this: eDIL s.v. áilgesach or
Forms: álgasach, áilghesach, áilgeasach

adj o, ā (áilges). Also álgasach.

(a) importunate . In name of poet Athairne áilghesach , Ériu xiii 13.13 . ailgesach dunaid ┐ rl. lán eneclann don rig a nailges do gabail de a sloigedh no a ndunaid, O'D. 1618 (H. 5.15, p. 14a).

(b) eager, zealous: ógh alghasach, Gorm. Mar. 29 gl. 5 . ba h-ailgiusach le hA. Serlus d'feicsin, ITS xix 32.14 . is urlum ailgiussach sindi im gach ni uas ail letsu, TTebe 674 . rob onorach ailgiusach leo a scela do cloisteacht, 1829 . oibreacha áilgheasacha na haithrighe, TSh. 1813 .

Note also: áilgeasach ` dysenteric ', Celtica vi 68 .

I have shown in my comparison of the heavily altered Welsh genealogy for Cunedda and that of the original version from the Irish that this Irish chieftain's father Aeternus is a reflection of the name Aithirne of Dun Aithirne, who is the same mythological poet as the Athairne ailghesach in the aforementioned eDIL definition.

Therefore, we can say with a fair degree of certainty (as the Cunedda genealogy as found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle runs backwards, a fact I have discussed elsewhere) that Elesa = the legendary Aithirne ailghesach.

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