Alfred’s “Orosius” & Its North European Geography

King Alfred of Wessex (871-899) was a true Renaisance man and this too quite a few hundred years before the Renneissance.  He ran England, fought Viking invaders and in spare time wrote and translated ancient tomes.  Amongst his works was, until recently, thought to be a translation (into Old English) of Paulus Orosius’ (375 till after 418) book “History Against the Pagans” (Historiarum Adversum Paganos).  That book (or books, since there are, technically, seven such books) contains a version of the history of the world (as per Orosius) up until the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410.  (There are now some who question whether Alfred (who did write books) was the translator of Orosius).

Whether it was Alfred or someone else, the fact is that the Old-English Orosius also contains a 9th century imprimatur on Orosius, namely, a geographical section describing the continents as known at the time of Alfred.  Here we have the first medieval references to lands of Northern Europe, including those then occupied by the Slavs.  Tacked onto that geography are also the stories of the journeys of Ohthere north of Norway into the White Sea and of Wulfstan along the Pomeranian coast to the trading emporium at Truso.


We will, of course, return to Ohthere and Wulfstan in their own time.  In the meantime, however, let us look at what the good king Alfred wrote about the lands and tribes of Northern Europe.  These are from Book I, Chapters 11 and 12.  The latter we broke up into four pieces to make it easier for the reader to follow.  Each piece is further subdivided into the Old-English, English and general observations sections.  A copy of the relevant text from the Lauderdale manuscripts precedes the Old-English version.  The references to Slavic or likely Slavic tribes or localities are in red.  Note too that the Old-English text contains three letters no longer in use:

  • Þ þ – “thorn” – basically a “th”;
  • Ð ð – “eth” – roughly the same “th”;
  • Æ æ – “ash – representing a middle sound between “a” and “e”;

Finally, we note that there are only two surviving manuscripts of Alfred’s Orosius.  The so-called Lauderdale manuscripts (aka the Tollemache or Additional 47967) and the Cotton Tiberius B.i.  The first may have been written in Alfred’s time (and court) or in the first half of the 10th century.  The second has been dated to the early 11th century.  Both of these manuscripts (as per above references) reside in the British Library.  The British Library is woefully behind France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland and the Czechs in their digitization efforts so only certain pages are available online.  The below is a montage of the Lauderdale and the Cotton manuscripts taken from the Bosworth (1859) & Sweet editions (1883). We lean towards the latter, e.g., we use lond rather than land following Sweet (and ie rather than ea).

Chapter 11


Old English

“Nu wille we ymb Europe lond-gemære reccan, swa mycel swa we hit fyrmest witon. — Fram þære ea Danais, west od Rin da ea, (seo wyld of þæm beorge þe man Alpis hæt, and yrnd þonne nord-ryhte on þæs garsecges earm, þe þæt land utanymblid, þe man Bryttannia hæt); — and eft sud oþ Donua þa ea, (þære æwylme is neah þære ea Rines, and is siddan east yrnende wid [norþan] Creca land ut on þone Wendel-sæ); — and nord oþ þone garsecg, þe man Cwen-sæ haet: binnan þæm sindon manega deoda; ac hit man hæt eall, Germania.”


“Now we will speak as much as we know about the boundaries of Europe from the river Don westward to the river Rhine (which springs from the mountains called Alps and then runs right north into the arm of the ocean that lies around the country called Britain) and again south to the river Danube (whose spring is near the river Rhine and which afterwards runs east by the country north of Greece into the Mediterranean Sea) and north to the ocean which is called the White Sea within there are many nations but they call it all Germania.”


Obviously quite an interesting text for many reasons.  Note that the Anglo-Saxon words used are much closer – both in meaning and in form – to similar Slavic words:

  • reccan – to speak – today’s remnant of that being reckon with “I reckon” originally probably meaning no more than something like “I say”; see, e.g., Polish rzekac or Czech rikat;
  • witon – to know – today’s German wissen; see, e.g., Slovenian vedeti (to know) but also videti (to see) – same concept, obviously; also same as Svante-vit – the name of the Rugian God and, maybe, as Ario-vistus;
  • manega deoda – many peoples/nations – today’s German manche or Englich many; previously too Gothic manags; see, e.g., Polish/Russian, etc mnogi/mnogo (numerous, plentiful) or, for that matter mnożyć (g >ż as in Bóg > Boży), i.e., to multiply; thus you can see that the “g”, common to all these languages was dropped from English/German but remains in Slavic languages.  Deoda itself is likely related to leuda as in Slavic lud;

As regards some geographic names, Creca land is not Cracow but Greece or, really, by that time, the Byzantine Empire (but, of course, there could always be an unexplored link (!between the Slavs and the Greeks).  Wendel-sæ (Sea of the Vandals) is not the Baltic Sea but the Mediterranean Sea.  Finally, note the priceless statement regarding Germania being the home of many nations – in the 9th century at least.

Chapter 12

Section I


1) Old English

“Þonne wyð nordan Donua æwylme, and be eastan Rine syndon East-Francan; and be suþan him sindon Swæfas, on oþre healfe þære ie [same as Bosworth’s ea] Donua.  and be suþan him and be eastan sindon Bægware [Bosworth uses Bægð-ware], se dæl þe man Regnesburg [Bosworth Regnes burh] hætt.  and ryhte be eastan him sindon Bæme [Bosworth – Beme], and eastnorþ sindon Þyringa(s).  and be norþan him sindon Eald-Seaxan, and be norþanwestan him sindon Frysan.  and be westan Eald-Seaxum is Ælfe-muþa þære ie, and Frysland.”

1) English

“Then to the north from the spring of the Danube and to the east of the Rhine are the East Franks and to the south of them are the Suabians on the other side of the river Danube.  To the south and to the east are the Bavarians that part which is called Ratisbon.  Right to the east of them are the Bohemians and north east are the Thuringians.  To the north of them are the Old Saxons and to the north west of them are the Friesians.  To the west of the Old Saxons is the mouth of the river Elbe and Friesland.”

1) Observations

Not much here.  The Bohemians are obvious.  The Swæfas are the “modern” Germanic Swabians.

Chapter 12

Section II


2) Old English

“and þonan, west-norð is þæt lond þe mon Ongle hæt, and Sillende and sumne dæl Dene.  and be norþan him is Afdrede and eastnorþ Wilte, þe mon Hæfeldan hætt.  and be eastan him is Wineda lond, þe mon hætt Sysyle, and eastsuþ, ofer sum dæl, Maroara.  and hie Maroara habbað bewestan him Þyringas, and Behemas, and Begware healfe; and be suþan him on oþre healfe Donua þære ie is þæt land Carendre suþ oþ þa beorgas þe mon Alpis hæt.”

2) English

“From thence north west is the country called Anglen and Zealand and some part of Denmark.  To the north are the Afdrede and north east the Wylte who are called Haefeldan.  To the east of them is the country of the Wends who are called Sysyle; and south east at some distance the Moravians.  These Moravians have to the west of them the Thuringians and Bohemians and part of the Bavarians.  To the south of them on the other side of the river Danube is the country Carinthia lying south to the mountains called the Alps.

2) Observations

The Afdrede are most likely the Slavic Obotrites perhaps on the River Wirra (today’s Werra, a tributary of the Wesser) about the future town of Bremen (see “in Vulgmodia in loco Bremon vocato super fluvium Viraam” – wir is obviously a Slavic word).

The Wilte are the Veleti of whom we wrote copiously before.

The Sysyle are the Susli/Suseli/Susły mentioned along with the Sorbs in a revolt of 869 or 874 (as per the Fulda Annals) and later too by Otto III (985) who wrote about the main towns of the Suseli. Elsewhere, it has been claimed that the name Shesil engraved in runes refers to the Susli.   Also, the ode of Harald the Valiant mentions a “tour” by Harald’s ships of Sicily – though some suspect the Susli country is meant.  This is unlikely as the Vikings did in fact take Sicily itself (as did the Vandals earlier).  There is also a reference in one of Snorri’s Sagas to the Syslo kind who, allegedly, put an end to the Swedish King Yngvar (Ynglinga Saga chapter 16) – there is no proof that such a king ever existed.  Much of this derives from the suppositions of Forster (who also sees the Susli as coming as far East as the Esti/Osti – presumably, he thinks, in Estonia – but see below not that topic).

The Moravians (like the Bohemians) need no introductions.

Finally, Carinthia was the seat of the Slavic Carantani since at least the time of Samo (indeed, at least one source claims Samo was Carinthian) but by 745 fell into the hands of the Franks.  The Carinthinians are the ancestors of southern Austrians and of Slovenes.

Chapter 12

Section III


3) Old English

“To þæm ilcan beorgan licgað Begwara landgemæro and Swaefa.  Þonne be eastan Carendran londe, begeondan þæm westenne, is Pulgara land. and be eastan þæm is Creca land.  and be eastan Maroara londe is Wisle lond.  and be eastan þæm sint Datia, þa þe iu wæron Gotan.  Be norþaneastan Maroara sindon Dalamentsan and be eastan Dalamentsan sindon Horigti.  and be norþan Dalamentsan sindon Surpe;  and be westan him Sysyle.  Be norþan Horoti is Mægþa land; and be norþan Mægþa londe Sermende oþ þa beorgas Riffen.”

3) English

“To the same mountains extend the boundaries of the Bavarians and of the Suabians and then to the east of the country Carinthia beyond the desert is the country of the Bulgarians and to the east of them the country of the Greeks.  To the east of the country Moravia is [the country of the Wisle or Vislaland] and to the east of them are the Dacians who were formerly Goths.  To the north east of the Moravians are the Dalamensan, and to the east of the Dalamensan are the Horithi, and to the north [?] of the Dalamensan are the Surpe and to the west of them are the Sysele.  To the north of the Horiti is Maegtha-land and north of Maegtha-land,  are the [Sarmatians?] even to the Rhipaean mountains.”

3) Observations

The Pulgara land reference is an obvious to the Bulgarians, the former Turkic people who by the 9th century (in fact much earlier) had taken over the Slavic tribes of the Black Sea.

Wisle lond or Wisle land designates the country of the Vistula (presumably not the Oder by this time!)  Whether that country formed an independent polity at the time or whether it was just a geographical description is uncertain.  In the Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith we have the “wood of Wistla” – Wistlawudu (“ymb Wistlawudu wergan sceoldon“) but not much else.  However, that poem refers to a much earlier time.  Nevertheless, the tribe of the Vistulians – in the form Vuislane – is mentioned by the Bavarian Geographer.  And there is the letter from Methodius to the “duke in Vislech” from the tenth century, suggesting a polity did arise there in the 9th century – presumably around Cracow – perhaps even before Gniezno.

The Dalamensan are likely the tribes of the Tollensee – the Redarii.  This was the tribe of the Rethra/Redegost temple – a member (at some point) of the Veleti confederation.

Continuing on: the Horigti or Horoti are likely the Croatians of White Croatia – presumably somewhere in Poland.  Into the speculation of whether these (and indeed the Croats) were the same as the earlier Harudes/Harudi of Caesar we will not go into now (though some suspect that the Harudes came from the region around Lake Constance, i.e., Lake Venetos).  Incidentally, the Cotton manuscript has Horithi and Horiti, respectively.  Apparently, neither scribe was able to keep a name spelling straight even for a few lines.

The Surpe are the Sorbs of White Serbia/Sorbia.

Finally, the mysterious Maegtha-land, as the name may suggest (if you believe it refers to the German Mägd, as in English maid, meaning also “servant girl” or, just girl) may refer to :

  • the mysterious City of Women of Ibrahim ibn Ya’qub which according to him was located somewhere “West of the Rus”;
  • the land of the Amazons from the Ravenna Geography (though that was in Hour 9 whereas the Slavs feature in hour 6) and many ancient sources (a survey for another time).

Whether that place of Amazons has anything to do with the Polish central region of Mazovia where, according to Jan Dlugosz, long after the baptism of Poland, people worshipped the Goddess Lada is uncertain.  (Later sources point to south-central Poland too; on Lada, generally, see also here).

The Sermende seems to mean “the Sarmatians” – whether that covers people belonging to a specific set of tribes (Alans?) or is simply an ancient use of the term, we do not know.

Chapter 12

Section IV


4) Old English

“Be westan Suþdenum is þæs garsecges earm þe þe liþ ymbutan þæt land Brettania; and be norþan [him] is þæs sæs earm þe mon hæt Ostsæ; and be eastan him and be norþan sindon Nortðdene, ægþer ge on þæm maran landum ge on þæm iglandum; and be eastan him sindon Afdrede; and be suþan him is Ælfe muþa þære ie and Ealdseaxna sum dæl. Norðdene habbað be norþan him þone ilcan sæs earm þe mon hæt Ostsæ, and be eastan him sindon Osti þa leode; and Afrede be suþan.  Osti habbað be norþan him þone ilcan sæs earm, and Winedas, and Burgendan; and be suþan him sindon Hæfeldan.  Burgendan habbað þone (ilcan) sæs earm be westan him; and Sweon be norþan; and be eastan him sint [Sarmatians?], and be suþan him Surfe.  Sweon habbað be suþan him þone sæs earm Osti; and be eastan him [Sarmatians?] ; and be norþan him ofer þa. westenne is Cwenland; and be westannorþan him sindon Scridefinnas; and be westan Norþmenn.”

4) English

“To the west of the South-Danes is the arm of the ocean, which lies around the country of Britain; and to the north of them is the arm of the sea called the Baltic [Ostsee]; and to the east and to the north of them are the North-Danes, both on the continent and on the islands: to the east of them are the Afdrede; and to the south of them is the mouth of the river Elbe with some part of the Old Saxons.  The North-Danes have to the north of them the same arm of the sea called the Baltic [Ostsee]: to the east of them are the Osti population and the Afdraede to the south.  The Osti have, to the north of them, the same arm of the sea, and also the Wends and Burgundians; and to the south are the Haefeldan.  The Burgundians have the same arm of the sea to the west of them, and the Swedes [Sweones] to the north: to the east of them are the Sarmatians, and to the south the Sorbs.  The Swedes [Sweones] have, to the south of them, the Estonian arm of the sea; and to the east of them the Sarmatians: to the north, over the wastes, is Cwén-land, and to the north-west are the Scride-Finns, and to the west the Northmen.”

4) Observations

As a geographic/linguistic curiosity we should mention that the name for the Baltic Sea, i.e., the Ostsee may not in fact mean East-Sea.  Rather, it is possible that the name derives from the people who populated its shores – the Osti.  If so, then the “Westsee” name for the North Sea would simply be an indication of the ignorance of the origin of the name for the Baltic – though an ignorance that made sense in this case and “fit”, so to speak.

Most likely these people are the same as the Esti – a people mentioned by Tacitus and many others (including, as Esti, the traveling Wulfstan about whom we have written and will write again).  However, there have been many controversies surrounding the question and some have tried to place the Osti – whether or not these be the same as the Esti) at the mouth of the Oder river (or is that the Vistula?) – were that the case then their interactions with the Susli may have taken place (on the Susli see above).

The Haefeldan are the Hevellians, which, here presumably (see above) means the same as the Veleti (“Wylte who are called Haefeldan”).

The listing of the Sorbs as Surfe is likely not an indication of their favorite pastime.

Shaettner Rickover & Borg Corporation – Copyright ©2015, All Rights Reserved

August 3, 2015

2 thoughts on “Alfred’s “Orosius” & Its North European Geography

  1. Pingback: Wulfstan (& Ohthere) on the Wends (and a little bit on the Aisti) | In Nomine Jassa

  2. Pingback: Wends in Early Western Sources – Jonas Bobiensis, Fredegar Anonymous & Others | In Nomine Jassa

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