Boreal Master 2009 – Holy Socks

Holy Socks: How The Berserker’s Laundry List Explains a Curious Omission from Reliquary Lists

By Lady Katherine Ashewode

In recent years, scholars researching North Sea reliquary lists have encountered a curious phenomenon. Among the various holy objects kept in monasteries in northern France, northern Germany, and southern England are an abundance of clothing items. Indeed, the types of clothing are as diverse as the saints that wore them: veils, belts, and tunics are abundantly represented. But one type of clothing is notably absent from the relic lists: socks. For several years, researchers have wondered at this odd omission, for all other types of clothing seem to be abundantly represented. It was not until the unfortunate discovery of the Boreal Master’s Berserker’s Laundry List that the mystery could begin to unravel.

One typical example of a reliquary list can be found in the Livre de la trésorye de l’abbaye d’Origny-Saincte-Benoicte (ms. Saint-Quentin Bibl. Mun. 86 [75]). Origny Saint-Benoit was a nunnery located in Picardy, France, in the district of Laon. The reliquary list is located on pages 234 to 241 of the manuscript, and contains a total of 176 relics, 131 of which are defined beyond simply “relic.” Of these 131, 14 relics, fully 10.6%, are clothing items. A great variety of clothes are represented, from veils to Christ’s shoe-soles. One clothing item that does not appear on the list at any point is socks. Since the field of reliquary list research is still naiscent, this omission has only been given a passing mention in the scholarly research to this point, and no credible theories have been proposed for the omission.1

In stark counterpoint to the Origny reliquary list, the Berserker’s Laundry List by the Boreal Master contains socks in abundance. Indeed, though the poem is only 56 lines long,2 the word “socks” appears a startling 15 times, and an entire 18-line section is devoted entirely to socks. The crew’s fixation with socks is not surprising, given that they were at sea in cold and chaotic weather, and good footwear would have been of paramount importance.3

It is clear that many of the socks Snorgloid’s crew possessed were the result of plunder. Lines 32-33 are a particularly clear indication of this: “Some were family heirlooms / trophies won in battle.” No doubt Snorgloid’s crew engaged in the typical past-time of Viking sailors, namely raiding and pillaging for their vital necessities. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that among their battle-trophies, Snorgloid’s crew took clothing items they thought would be particularly useful.4 The the phrase “family heirlooms” indicates that this practice had been occurring for some time, perhaps signalling that the crew’s ancestors had also been raiding and plundering for socks for generations.5

Though the crew may have raided coastal villages, the text of the Berserker’s Laundry List implies that at least some of the socks on Snorgloid’s ship were taken from monasteries, and in particular the monastic reliquaries. First, line 49 uses the descriptor, “Ancient, venerable socks.” While we have already seen that plundered socks may have been passed down through generations of crew-members, the use of the adjectives “ancient” and “venerable” implies that the socks were even older than the plundering. They must have already been quite old by the time of the raids, indicating that they may very well have belonged to ancient saints. Second, line 51, “None would steal another’s socks,” indicates that there was some special quality to these socks that other items of clothing did not possess, as we are told that “shirt were known to wander / and tunics were shared like toothbrushes.” (lines 52-53) With a crew as covetous as Snorgloid’s, only fear would have prevented thefts of such a valued item as socks. Many reliquary lists, including the one belonging to Origny Saint Benoit, contain stories of what happened to thieves who tried to steal monastic relics, detailing such unpleasant outcomes as sores, boils, paralysis, and death. While no doubt the crew did not consider these consequences during the initial raid, they may have found it useful to propagate these stories to prevent their own socks from being stolen.

Finally, line 50 contains an unexpected instance of Christian imagery: “Father’s socks for son’s feet.” This line could be interpreted at its superficial level, tying into the ideas of “family heirlooms” and “ancient, venerable socks” discussed earlier. However, it could also be a reference to the Father / Son aspects of the Christian Trinity. We have already seen that Christ’s shoe-soles were among the relics at Origny, and it would not be a terrible stretch of the imagination to believe that Christ’s sock once sat on the reliquary shelves as well and was taken during the raid. The references to “Father” and “Son,” in their Christian sense, could have been transferred to the crew along with the physical objects.

One final item leads to the conclusion that the socks on Snorgloid’s shp originated from plunder, and most likely the plunder of monasteries. This comes from a copy of the Berserker’s Laundry List found in Montreal, Quebec.6 On it, inscribed in the left-hand marginalia about halfway down the page, is the following:

Holey, threadbare socks, Batman!7
Our feet are wet and frozen.
I hope that we stop somewhere dry
Before we get to Orkney.

While it could be argued that the crew wanted merely to stop to dry or darn their socks, the use of the words “holey” and “threadbare” indicate that the crew would rather replace than repair their footwear. And while certainly a common peasant’s pair of socks would have sufficed, blessed monastic socks would no doubt have been even better.

Thus the mystery of the missing monastic socks has been solved. The reason socks are missing from many reliquary lists is because they were plundered by Snorgloid’s crew to wear on their journey to Orkney.

There are a number of directions for future research based on these findings. First, it will be necessary to examine why Snorgloid’s crew apparently stole only socks and not the myriad other relics found in the monasteries. Second, did the theft of monastic socks also lead to the spread of Christian culture to Snorgloid’s crew? We have already seen that they may have internalized the Father / Son schema of the Christian Trinity, but did they also adopt the stories of the various saints whose socks they wore? And finally, what is the significance of associating Snorgloid with Batman and what are the implications on modern pop culture? Clearly, all of these questions provide fruitful areas of much potential research, and no doubt there are many impressive discoveries yet to be made.


1 Among the few papers that make even passing reference to socks in monastic reliquary lists are John Farmer, “Reliquary lists and other boring documents I must analyse to get tenure,” Oxford U.P., 2006; Peter Dandy, “Socks, stockings, and leggings: a history of tight male undergarments,” New York School of Fashion, 2003; and Arthur Doyle, “The case of the missing wardrobe: a Medieval mystery,” Strand Publisher, 2001.
2 Though some scholars have argued that this is, in fact, 55 lines too many.
3 To prove this axiom, I enlisted a team of my graduate students to row across the English channel. Within the first twelve hours, they were already complaining of damp and cold feet. They were also complaining that they had not been given any food, that the oars were sub-par and had broken around hour three, and that the rowing benches were unsanded and prone to splintering. This excirse has proven, therefore, that in addition to footware being of the paramount importance, graduate students today are much less tough than they used to be.
4 Though apparently, they did not take any toothbrushes.
5 Indeed, the idea of a multi-generational crew is one that deserves further research and investigation, though it is beyond the scope of this paper. One intreguing finding is suggested by T.H.E. Loudmouth in his paper, “Hurrah, Hurroh: Lullabies as used in the Lay of the Rowing Bench and the possibility of infants in Snorgoild’s crew,” Miskatonic U.P., 2004.
6 This copy was found when a water main burst on the busy corner of St. Catherine Street and St. Laurent. In addition to gallons of water and tons of underground silt was a vellum page, marvelously intact. The first workman who looked at it clawed at his eyes with one hand and used the other to try to burn the page with a cigarette lighter, to no avail. During his convalecense in the Douglas Asylum, the page was sent for laboratory testing, where it was dunked in acid, burned in an incinerator, and eaten by the lab’s chimpanzee. That it emerged whole and intact from these myriad tortures proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is, in fact, an authentic Boreal Master manuscript.
7 This is arguably the first use of this common modern phrase. Of course, here “holey” is used in the sense of “full of holes” as oppoosed to its more modern use of “sacred.” The idenficiation of Snorgloid with Batman is extremely interesting and beyond the scope of this paper, though the author hopes that some young scholar will investigate this connection and reveal his or her findings at a future symposium.

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