Ella’s bloody eagle: Sharon Turner’s History of the Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Saxon history

  • Donna Beth Ellard


This essay, inflected by the psychoanalytic research of Abraham and Torok and the sociopolitical implications of their work on transgenerational haunting, examines Sharon Turner’s History of the Anglo-Saxons as a crypt into which the unmourned losses and unacknowledged traumas of British colonialism are deposited. It argues that Turner, a historian inspired by the Old Norse poem Krákumál and driven by imperialist ideology, is haunted by a restless colonial ‘other.’ Its encrypted form stirs about the pages of his History, making ‘incomprehensible signals.’ Turner narrativizes these signals as the blood-eagle, ‘a cruel and inhuman retaliation’ that rips apart Ella’s body and tears out his lungs so that his Northumbrian kingdom might be conquered and colonized. Turner, terrified by the ghostly sounds that emerge from his narrative voice, buries Ella’s blood-eagled body within his History, which becomes a crypt across which Ella strays. This essay suggests that Turner, an ambiguous ‘father’ of Anglo-Saxon studies, has transmitted Ella’s blood eagle, an encrypted specter of empire, to his ‘children.’ It contextualizes scholarly quotes regarding the blood eagle within the setting of late-twentieth century decolonization, arguing that scholars return to the blood eagle and ‘act out’ the trauma that Turner has passed on to them to try and heal the hidden wounds of colonialism. This essay discusses Turner in order to ask what twenty-first century future has been and might be imagined for Anglo-Saxon history from over two centuries of wrestling with these encrypted ghosts of empire.



Research for this chapter was assisted by a New Faculty Fellows award from the American Council of Learned Societies, funded by The Andrew Mellon Foundation. A very special thank you to Melissa Gniadek for many conversations about this essay and others.


  1. Abraham, N. and M. Torok . 1994. The Shell and the Kernel, vol. 1, ed. and trans. N.T. Rand. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  2. Anonymous. 1804. The Second Part of the History of the Anglo Saxons: From the Death of Egbert to the Norman Conquest. In The Edinburgh review: Or Critical Journal, ed. F. Jeffrey, no. 6, 360–374. London: T.N. Longman and O. Rees.Google Scholar
  3. Baraz, D. 2003. Medieval Cruelty: Changing Perceptions, Late Antiquity to the Early Modern. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Jan, F. 2007. A Viking Slave’s Saga: Jan Fridegård’s Trilogy of Novels About the Viking Age, ed. R.E. Bjork, Tempe, AZ: ACMRS.Google Scholar
  5. Bones. 2009. Season 4, Episode 20. ‘Mayhem on a Cross.’ 16 April 2009.Google Scholar
  6. Boucher, L. 2009. Trans/National History and Disciplinary Amnesia: Historicizing White Australia at Two fins de siècles. In Creating White Australia, eds. J. Carey and C. McLisky, 44–64. Sydney, Australia: Sydney University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Brooks, N.P. 1979. England in the Ninth Century: The Crucible of Defeat. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series 29: 1–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Campbell, J., E. John and P. Wormald . eds. 1982. The Anglo-Saxons. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Derrida, J. and B. Johnson . 1977. Fors. The Georgia Review 31 (1): 64–116.Google Scholar
  10. Dibdin, T.F. 1824. The Library-Companion: Or the Young Man’s Guide and the Old Man’s Comfort in the Choice of a Library. London: Harding, Triphook, and Lepard.Google Scholar
  11. Einarsson, B. 1986. De Normannorum Atrocitate, or on the Execution of Royalty by the Aquiline Method. Saga Book 22 (1): 79–82.Google Scholar
  12. Einarsson, B. and R. Frank . 1990. The Blood-Eagle Once More: Two Notes A. Blóðörn – An Observation on the Ornithological Aspect B. Ornithology and the Interpretation of Skaldic Verse. Saga Book 23 (2): 80–83.Google Scholar
  13. Farley, F.E. 1903. Scandinavian Influences in the English Romantic Movement. Boston, MA: Ginn & Co.Google Scholar
  14. Foot, S. 2011. Æthelstan: The First King of England. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Fradenburg, L.O.A. 2009. (Dis)Continuity: A History of Dreaming. In The Post-Historical Middle Ages, eds. E. Scala and S. Federico, 87–116. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Frank, R. 1984. Viking Atrocity and Skaldic Verse: The Rite of the Blood-Eagle. The English Historical Review 99 (391): 332–343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Frank, R. [1985] 2005. Skaldic Poetry. In Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide, eds. C.J. Clover and J. Lindlow, 157–196. Toronto, ON: Toronto University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Frank, R. 1988. The Blood-Eagle Again. Saga Book 22 (5): 287–289.Google Scholar
  19. Frantzen, A. 1990. Desire for Origins. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Frantzen, A. and J. Niles . eds. 1997. Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity. Gainesville, FL: Florida University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Frosh, S. 2013. Hauntings: Psychoanalysis and Ghostly Transmissions. London: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gibbins, D. 2006. Crusader Gold. London: Headline.Google Scholar
  23. Higham, J. 2002. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Hirsch, M. 1997. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Jeffrey, D.L. 1996. People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.Google Scholar
  26. Johnstone, J. 1782. Lodbrokar Quida; or The Death Song of Lodbroc; now first correctly printed from various Manuscripts, with a free English translation. Printed for the Author.Google Scholar
  27. Jones, G. [1968] 2001. A History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Jónsson, F. ed. [1912–1915] 1973. Den norsk-islandske skjaldedigtning. B: Rettet tekst. Copenhagen, Denmark: Villadsen & Christensen, Rosenkilde & Bagger.Google Scholar
  29. Karkov, C. 2012. Postcolonial. In A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies, eds. J. Stodnick, and R. Trilling, 149–164. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Longman Manuscript. 1393. Records of the Longman Group. University of Reading.Google Scholar
  31. McTurk, R. 2007. Samuel Ferguson’s ‘Death-Song’ (1833): An Anglo-Irish Response to Krákumál. In Constructing Nations, Reconstructing Myth: Essays in Honour of T.A. Shippey, eds. A. Wawnwith, G. Johnson and J. Walter, 167–192. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Mortensen, P. 2000. ‘The Descent of Odin’: Wordsworth, Scott and Southey among the Norsemen. Romanticism 6 (2): 211–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  34. Patton, K.C. 2009. Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity. New York: Oxford.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Pearson, J. 2000. Crushing the Convent and the Dread Bastille: The Anglo-Saxons, Revolution and Gender in Women’s Plays of the 1790s. In Literary Appropriations of the Anglo-Saxons from the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Century, eds. D. Scragg and C. Weinburg, 122–137. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Percy, T. 1763. Five Pieces of Runic Poetry Translated from the Islandic Language. London: R. and J. Dodsley.Google Scholar
  37. Pratt, L. 2000. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes?: Alfred the Great and the Romantic National Epic. In Literary Appropriations of the Anglo-Saxons from the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Century, eds. D. Scragg and C. Weinburg, 138–156. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Rashkin, E. 2008. Unspeakable Secrets and the Psychoanalysis of Culture. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
  39. Ridyard, S. 1988. The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: A Study of West Saxon and East Anglian Cults. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Rix, R. 2009. The Afterlife of a Death Song: Reception of Ragnar Lodbrog’s Poem in Britain Until the End of the Eighteenth Century. Studia Neophilologica: A Journal of Germanic and Romance Languages and Literature 81 (1): 53–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Ross, M. 1998. The Norse Muse in Britain 1750–1820. Trieste, Italy: Parnaso.Google Scholar
  42. Ross, M. 2001. The Old Norse Poetic Translations of Thomas Percy. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols.Google Scholar
  43. Russell, C. 2005. Blood Eagle. London: Hutchinson.Google Scholar
  44. Sawyer, B. and P. Sawyer . 1993. Medieval Scandinavia: From Conversion to Reformation, Circa 800–1500. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Sawyer, P. [1962] 1971. The Age of the Vikings. New York: St Martin’s Press.Google Scholar
  46. Sawyer, P. 1969. The Two Viking Ages of Britain: A discussion. Mediaeval Scandinavia: A Journal Devoted to the Study of Mediaeval Civilization in Scandinavia and Iceland 2: 163–207.Google Scholar
  47. Schwab, G. 2010. Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  48. Scragg, D. and C. Weinberg . 2000. Literary Appropriations of the Anglo-Saxons from the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Shippey, T.A. 1998. ‘The Death-Song of Ragnar Lodbrog’: A Study in Sensibilities. In Medievalism in the Modern World: Essays in Honour of Leslie J. Workman, eds. R. Utz and T. Shippey, 155–172. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols.Google Scholar
  50. Shippey, T.A. 2000. The Underdeveloped Image: Anglo-Saxon in Popular Consciousness from Turner to Tolkien. In Literary Appropriations of the Anglo-Saxons From the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Century, eds. D. Scragg and C. Weinberg, 215–236. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Simmons, C. 1990. Reversing the Conquest: History and Myth in Nineteenth-Century British Literature. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Smyth, A. 1977. Scandinavian Kings in the British Isles: 850–880. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  53. Smyth, A. 1999. The Effect of Scandinavian Raiders on the English and Irish Churches: A Preliminary Reassessment. In Britain and Ireland, 900–1300: Insular Responses to Medieval European Change, ed. B. Smith, 1–38. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Stenton, F.M. 1943. Anglo-Saxon England. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  55. The Vikings. 2012. Season 1, Episode 6. ‘Burial of the Dead.’ 7 April 2013.Google Scholar
  56. Turner, S. 1802–1805. The History of the Anglo-Saxons, from Their Earliest Appearance above the Elbe, to the Norman Conquest. Paternoster-Row, London: T.N. Longman and O. Rees, Printed for the Author.Google Scholar
  57. Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.Google Scholar
  58. Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. 1975. Early Medieval History. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  59. Wawn, A. 2000. The Vikings and the Victorians: Inventing the Old North in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer.Google Scholar
  60. Wawn, A., ed. 2007. Constructing Nations, Reconstructing Myth: Essays in Honour of T.A. Shippey. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Wintle, M. 2011. Editor’s Introduction: Ideals, Identity and War: The Idea of Europe, 1939–1970. In European Identity and the Second World War, eds. M. Spiering and M. Wintle, 1–18. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Donna Beth Ellard
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EnglishRice UniversityHouston

Personalised recommendations