Lien by Slettestrand at Jammerbugten in Denmark © Schousboe 2021

The Frightening Landscape in Northern Europe in the Early Middle Ages

During the first millennium, northern and eastern Europe was sparsely populated and devoid of anything but wilderness. How did it feel to live in this medieval world?

For most of the Middle Ages, natural forces spelled numerous disasters in the form of floods, water erosions, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, storms and droughts. In this perspective, landscapes were experienced as constantly shifting, feeding a sense of awe and fright among people suffering at the visible hand of the invisible God, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans [1].

While the Roman landscape in Antiquity had been considered an orderly construction with a peaceful centre – the villa surrounded by civilisation – the landscape of the Early Middle Ages in Northern Europe was univocally sensed as a scary place into which Christian athletes and ascetic monks might seek to find solace amid empty wildernesses, deserts, caves or among wild beasts in the arenas. Later, we may even find their ancestors battling dragons while trying to reclaim a final resting place [2].

We get a sense of this pervading idea of constantly shifting baselines in the writings of the Venerable Bede (672-735) in his famous description of the sparrow, which finds a brief moment of solace in the warm hall during winter.

Thereafter, another of the king’s chief men, approving of his wise words and exhortations, added: “The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So, this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before, we know nothing at all. Therefore, if this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.” By Divine prompting, the other elders and king’s counsellors spoke to the same effect [3].

Jörmungandr gets fished by an ox head, from the 17th century Icelandic manuscript AM 738 4to. Wikipedia
Jörmungandr is caught with an ox head, from the 17th century Icelandic manuscript AM 738 4to. Wikipedia

The Landscape in Beowulf

Another take on this “frightening” landscape may be found in the 7th-century poem Beowulf, where descriptions point out the liminal character of the outlying landscape.

At the centre is the civilised built compound featuring a grand mead hall, Heorot [4]. Attached to this dwelling are the living quarters of the king and queen and likely other buildings such as stables, a baking house and a smithy. Access to this settlement is a stone-paved road leading from the shore to the hall. In between lies the “land” through which the shoreguard guides them. The text says that Heorot shine “ofer landa fela” v. 311 (over many lands). Further, this land is bordered, fitted with a “landgemycu, literally “land-boundaries” (v. 209b) located at the cliffs – the “brimclifu, or the “beorgas steape” Later, we are told that the monster Grendel is a “mære maercstapa” – a renowned transgressor or borderliner (literally one who steps over the mark).

Three other words in the Beowulf-text expand on this cosmos with a dwelling surrounded by land and bordering on the sea.

One is -hlið, which is usually translated as (steep)slope. The word is also found in Old Norse (Old Icelandic: hlið, Danish and Norwegian: li(d). Further, the suffix may be found in a series of placenames all over Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England and denotes a hill or mountainside ending abruptly in a hollow or dead ground at the foot. In the poem, Grendel emerges from a misthleuðum, a damp and spooky hollow of mist. After he is fatally wounded, the monster returns to his fenleoðu, the hole in the marshes, fens. Another topographic word, -hop, also feeds our imagination with its connotation of a place outside the well-ordered world. In Beowulf, we meet the suffix as in fen-hop, an enclosure in the fens or marshes, also known in Kent and Essex. The etymology is probably “hof”, an enclosed “farm”, or “dwelling”; a fen-hop likely refers to a dwelling on higher ground in the marshes. Possibly, it means the same as a wharf, the artificial mounds erected in the marshes by Frisians. Indeed, “remote and secret” outliers in the landscape. Finally, a third topographic word, gelad, also touches upon this watery, marshy landscape. In old English, the word refers to a course, a way, a lode, a watercourse or simply a water crossing. We may imagine that the fen-gelad and the uncuð gelad in Beowulf mean difficult water crossings in the marshy fens.

To sum up: the world of Beowulf seems to consist of a sea, a marshy and misty foreland filled with monsters and challenging to traverse, and – finally – ending in a hollow beneath a steep cliff. On top of this overhang, a paved road leads inland (through the land) to Heorot, the shining hall of Hrodgar.

The layout of this land reminds us of the cosmology of the Norse people, as do other settlements.

Gudme – Cosmology in the Landscape

The Norse Cosmology as described in the Prose Edda © Ove Juul Nielsen
The Norse Cosmology as described in the Prose Edda © Ove Juul Nielsen

In Scandinavia, several places are called Gudme, Gudum, Gudsbjerg, Gudhjem (Gudhem), or Gudumlund. Meaning “the home, the mountain or the forest of God”, such places are known from both Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

In Funen in Denmark, in the Lundenborg area, a central place from the Late Roman Iron Age was excavated 9n the 1980s and 90s, documenting how people perhaps planned the location to be a visual rendition of the Germanic cosmology. At the centre of a large settlement estimated to consist of 40-50 farms lay a great hall, unique for its times as to its size and construction. In and outside the hall, more than ten hoards have been excavated consisting of Roman gold and silver coins, golden neck- and armrings, and the finished product, bracteates and other golden jewellery revealing Gudme’s character as a ceremonial and ritualised centre recasting and repurposing imported golden objects to prestige gifts visualising the cosmology and beliefs of the people living at or travelling to Gudme. Part of this cosmology is marked out by the three hills located to the north, south and west of Gudme, Gudbjerg, Albjerg and Galbjerg, meaning, respectively, the hill of the gods, the hill of the shrine and (likely)the hill of sacrifice (of galtr = boars) or enchantments (galdr). To the west was Gudme lake, fed from local springs. From northeast to southwest Gudme and its main burial ground was skirted by the river Tange, and to the east lay Lundeborg with its sheltered landing place, the gate to the Home of the Gods.

Perhaps, Gudme was a reimagination of Asgaard, a symbolically invested site mirroring the fabled “home of the Gods”? Featuring Idavoll – the high ground – with its hallowed centre with the great hall and the additional buildings, it may have mirrored Gladsheim with Hlidskjalf (Odin’s high seat), Vingolf reserved for the women, and Vallhall reserved for the (slain) warriors. Also, the smith, with his central work, cut out transforming ingots to bracteates were located at the centre. At the back to the west would have been Urd’s and Mimer’s Wells, while the entrance to the compound would have been through the burial ground along Tange Å to the southeast. May this have been understood as Niflheim or Hel? Anyway, the entrance into the “Home of the Gods”, Gudme, is believed to have passed through here from Utgard (Lundagaard) – the equivalent of the outer world of Grendel and his mother.

Golden hoards from Gudme. The finds to the left were discovered beneath a post, the bractate shows the story of Baldur from the Nors Mythology. © Natmus/Lennart Larsson and John Lee CCBYSA
Golden hoards from Gudme. The finds to the left were discovered beneath a post, the bractate shows the story of Baldur from the Norse Mythology. © Natmus/Lennart Larsson and John Lee CCBYSA



Lien (the hlið) bordering the foreland and the shore at Slettestrand on the Jammerbugt in Denmark © Schousboe 2021


[1] The expression was introduced by the German Theologian, Rudolph Otto (1869-1937), to describe a basic concept in the phenomenology of religion, that is the awe-inspiring discovery of the numinous.

[2] This fate was part of the so-called translation of St. James from Jerusalem to Santiago. After his decapitation in AD44 in Jerusalem, the story was told in the 9th century that the Apostle was returned to Galicia on a rudderless boat. After reaching land, his apostles had to fight a dragon, tame a herd of wild oxen and overcome a local king bent on destroying them and their cargo. Luckily the bridge broke down between the king’s wilderness and the civilised resting-place they found under the “Marbled Arches”. See Translating the Relics of St. James. From Jerusalem to Compostela. Ed. By Antón Pazós. Routledge 2017.

[3] Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, Book 2.13 (ed. Lapidge, SC 489, 364). Translation:
Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, A Revised translation with Introduction, Life, and Notes by A. M. Sellar. London, George Bell & Sons, 1907.

[4] The “Beowulf”-Poet’s Vision of Heorot. By Karl P. Wentersdorf (2007). In: Studies in Philology, Vol. 104, No. 4 pp. 409-426


Scandinavian ‘Central Places’ in a Cosmological Setting
By Lotte Hedeager
In: Central Places in the Migration and Merovingian Periods. Papers from the 52nd Sachsensymposium, Lund, August 2001

Gudme-Lundeborg on Funen as a model for northern Europe?
By Lars Jørgensen, Copenhagen
The Gudme-Gudhem Phenomenon: papers presented at a workshop organized by the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology (ZBSA), Schleswig, April 26th and 27th, 2010 / [ed] O. Grimm & A. Pesch, Neumünster: Wachholtz , 2011

Gudme on Funen: a central sanctuary with cosmic symbolism?
By Olof Sundqvist
IN: The Gudme-Gudhem Phenomenon: papers presented at a workshop organized by the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology (ZBSA), Schleswig, April 26th and 27th, 2010
Neumünster: Wachholtz , 2011, p. 63-76


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