Early medieval England experienced nothing quite like the Coronavirus, although plagues and afflictions of other kinds came all too frequently. The venerable Bede (d. 735) and other contemporary writers preserved grim accounts of waves of plague that swept over all Britain in the 660s. Later, 896 saw the end of three years of an unspecified illness that had caused more deaths than the Viking army that ravaged England during the same period. The situation may have been even worse in the eleventh century: 1044, 1046, 1047, 1048 and 1054 all saw either ‘mortality’, ‘murrain’ (both here used for unspecified but widespread sickness in men and/or beasts) or famine. Although the early kings of the English gradually developed an impressively coherent and effective infrastructure that knitted the whole kingdom from York to the Channel into one, they were not in a position to mitigate the medical or economic consequences of these public health disasters. Whatever the situation, it simply had to run its course. No casualty figures are provided for any of these or other incidences of epidemic disease – but the sad inference to be drawn from this litany of disaster is that loved ones and livelihoods must have often been torn away from the people of England at this time.
This was one reason why social distance and isolation loomed large in early medieval England. They constituted a challenge, something to be endured, to the extent that they could be seen as a positive religious virtue: to embrace real, or at least social, solitude brought one closer to God. The English inherited from their Irish neighbours the idea of peregrinatio pro Deo, ‘pilgrimage for God’, meaning pilgrimage as permanent state of exile: living outside one’s homeland for the sake of God, as in the case of the missionaries like St Boniface (d. 754) who left England for Germany and the Netherlands in the late seventh and eighth centuries. Closer to home, devout men and women retreated from their families and homes to live in remote places, dedicating their lives to God. Some lived in monasteries in a state of collective solitude; others lived alone as hermits. The latter form of isolation was a sign of deep holiness, or at least was presented as such by the devoted followers of its practitioners: St Cuthbert (d. 687) supposedly had to be dragged kicking and screaming away from his hermitage when he was elected bishop of Lindisfarne.
For those outside the orbit of religious life, in which social distance translated to spiritual strength, isolation was liable to be a serious threat – to the extent that it was used as a punishment, in the form of outlawry. This meant something quite different from the derring-do of Errol Flynn or Kevin Costner as Robin Hood. Outlaw does not imply someone who lives outside the confines of the law; rather, it meant having to get by without its protection – the whole point was that outlaws were fair game. Their lives and property could be taken without society enforcing any sort of consequence. Given that most of the population of England lived within the small, face-to-face world of rural society, and so would be familiar to the bulk of their neighbours, a sentence of outlawry in practice meant exile or worse.
This form of isolation involved being forced from one’s home. Isolation at home and without loved ones offered a different kind of hardship. At one extreme was Alcuin (d. 804): the great Yorkshire scholar who won the admiration and patronage of Charlemagne, and spent much of his professional life training the intelligentsia of his empire. Alcuin forged close attachments with his pupils, and in later years he wrote streams of plaintive letters after them, lamenting the loss of companionship that came with the passage of time and the challenge of distance that could only be surmounted in writing. His plight resonates with that which confronts many older, vulnerable members of society in 2020 – with the caveat that Alcuin and his correspondents knew nothing different, and did not face a pandemic that limited direct human contact.
The Anglo-Saxons harboured even darker ideas on the significance of isolation, though less obviously tied to real-life situations. A group of Old English poems has been classed by modern scholars as elegies because of their powerful evocation of loss and isolation. They portray an amplified, overbearing version of the real world full of forbidding landscapes and devoid of civilisation or comfort; any human presence is either alone in the wilderness or a darkly menacing force that is the cause of misfortune. One poem, known as The Wanderer, gives voice to the inner thoughts of an isolated figure who grieves for his bygone home, lord and family as he treads the ‘paths of exile’. This and related texts capitalise on tension between nostalgia for a mythic, bygone heroic era, and the acceptance of earthly transience that came with Christianity. A different yet no less threatening vision of isolation comes from the poem known as The Wife’s Lament. This highly allusive, yet deeply affecting, text comes from the perspective of an unnamed woman who has been forced into captivity in a remote wooded grove; there she must sit, with all ‘the summer-long day’ to think about the losses and misadventures that have turned her life into an unending, unmoving ‘journey of exile’.
These images of isolation evoke a deep concern with the loss of human contacts. Then as now, people poured energies and emotions into their nearest and dearest, and the rupture of those ties through illness, distance or force was painful. As the modern population sits indoors, enduring the increasingly summer-long days of May with video calls and all the pastimes the twenty-first century can muster, these voices from a millennium ago provide one more reminder of what mental and emotional challenges we face, and also of the reason behind these privations: saving lives, and striving to shorten and lighten the journey of exile for all.