Unearthing the personal beliefs of Medieval monks
There are many qualities you might associate with a Medieval monk, but a superstitious belief in elves probably isn’t one of them. Yet a community dig at Kilwinning Abbey in North Ayrshire has uncovered an intriguing clue about the possible personal beliefs of one of the monastery’s former inhabitants.
While investigating the abbey’s chapter house as part of the Kilwinning Community Archaeology Project, volunteer Jeni Park came across a leaf-shaped arrowhead dating from c.3500 BC – an unusual find for a Medieval religious building. The chapter house was not only the part of the monastery where monks met daily to hear a chapter of the Benedictine Rule read aloud (hence the name), administer discipline and discuss monastery business, but also the place where abbots and senior monks were buried. In the trench where the Neolithic arrowhead was found, archaeologists also found an undisturbed grave thought to represent a Medieval shroud-wrapped burial.
Project directors suggested that these were ‘most likely the remains of one of the abbots, as only such important figures were buried in the chapter house’ and that the arrowhead might originally have been associated with another monastic burial, disturbed during the extensive excavations carried out 50 years ago by the Ministry of Public Works. If this is the case, the small piece of retouched flint might have been kept by its owner as ‘elf-shot’, a kind of amulet protecting against illness.
Lead archaeologist Tom Rees, of Rathmell Archaeology, said: ‘The use of elf-shot in the Medieval period is well attested. So long as sensible caveats are inserted this is a great way to show how the Medieval mind rationalised archaeological material into their contemporary culture.’
During the Middle Ages Neolithic arrowheads were thought to be projectiles used by elves to harm humans and livestock. The belief that unexplained shooting pains, rheumatism and muscle cramps were caused by these otherworldly weapons is known from the Anglo-Saxon period; Wið Faerstice, a metrical charm against such afflictions, is found in a manuscript dated to the late 10th or early 11th century. ‘Elf-shot’ was used both as a protective amulet and to treat those whose illness was thought to have been caused by supernatural means as a kind of sympathetic magic, using elvish tools against elvish attacks.
Kilwinning Abbey was a Tironensian house (a reformed Benedictine order) and was established by monks from Kelso in the 12th century. Over the next 400 years it became one of the wealthiest and most flourishing monasteries in Scotland, but it was repeatedly plundered in the 16th century during the Scottish Protestant Reformation. Abandoned and worn down by wind and weather, the abbey soon became reduced to a useful source of building materials for the local population.
Now a ruin, the site was first excavated in the 1960s by the Ministry of Public Works. Much of the chapter house was dug out at this time, but no written, photographic or drawn records survive from this investigation. Now in its second season of digging, the Kilwinning Community Archaeology Project, supported by Rathmell Archaeology, is trying to make sense of this previous work.
Text by Carly Hilts