The Franks Casket

by Diana Ellis

            The Franks casket is a carved Anglo-Saxon whale-bone artifact measuring 12.9 x 22.9 x 19.1 cm. which was discovered in Auzon, Haute Loire, France in the nineteenth century.  Donated to the British Museum[1] by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks in 1867, the artifact has aroused considerable interest and debate.  In 1890, the missing right hand panel was found in Italy and is now in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.[2]

            As a bone carving in purely Germanic style, the casket is a singular example of its kind among early Insular artifacts and thus comparisons are extremely difficult to find.  The inscriptions and pictorial fields are executed in bas relief and, although the panels may well have been crafted by different hands, the form and design of each panel show a uniform concern for balanced composition along with an indifference to corporeality and realistic proportions.

            The fragmentary nature and low survival rate of Anglo-Saxon works of art make the dating of extant artifacts extremely difficult.  Scholarly consensus places the Franks casket in 7th/8th century Northumbria based on linguistic evidence.[3]  Considering both the fierce scholarly debate that surrounds dating on paleological and linguistic grounds and the unique nature of the artifact, it seems reasonable to keep an open mind on the conjectured date and provenance of the casket.

Amy Vandersall points out that the casket has linguistic forms comparable to those in Beowulf.[4]  "Expert" attempts to date Beowulf have spawned a number of conflicting conjectures that span fully four centuries and, not surprisingly, scholars are moving closer to the opinion of Nicolas Jacobs who asserts that "linguistic evidence [for dating] is tenuous in the extreme."[5]  But as late as 1959, R.W. Elliott remarked:  "The date and provenance of the Franks casket have been established beyond reasonable doubt by Napier's linguistic analysis.[6]  The language is unmistakably Anglian and certain forms limit it further to Northumbria, and, in point of time, to the early eighth century."[7]  Such pin-point accuracy is astounding.  The text requires spelling emendation to provide syntactic sense, and Napier's linguistic analysis and conjectures which place the casket in Northumbria predate the most detailed philological accounts of the Old English Language.  Moreover, it may be entirely possible that the artist copied the inscriptions from a prototype produced in an earlier time or different locality, or even that his work reflected his own linguistic anomalies[8] rather than the usual orthography of the workshop.  Elliott notes that "all the runes belong to the common Anglo-Saxon twenty eight letter fuporc", so they do not presumably limit the text to a specific location. Without a transcendent view of the past, a definite datable comparison, or a contemporary written document to support a specific place and period, the origins of the Franks casket will remain enigmatic.

The traditional date and provenance of the casket have also been challenged on art-historical grounds. G. Baldwin Brown found the episodes dealing with Germanic saga puzzling in a Northumbrian context, ca. 700, and although he appreciated the aesthetic merit of the casket, he argued that the artist was "technically far inferior to the classically-inspired figure sculptors of the best Northumbrian crosses."[9]  He also noted similar iconography to the saga scenes on the casket on carved stones in Scandinavia, especially those of Gotland.

If one questions Northumbria as the point of origin for the casket, the way is open to consider other Anglian areas for a suitable historical context.  Since the casket does not exhibit Celtic elements, the eastern areas of Britain with close Scandinavian ties, such as those of the Wuffing dynasty in East Anglia, are worth considering.  Martin Carver notes that grave goods of the sixth century suggest "contact was strong between East Anglia, Norway, Denmark and the Uppland area of Sweden."[10]  Moreover, during this period East Anglian kings shored up their political power by "heavy signalling of kingly status and tradition, legitimizing the ethnic consistency of the new region, and their family claim to it, with genealogies, laws and regalia; but ideological pressure from the Roman Christian missions was a related political issue, from which one could not stay aloof for long."[11]  Nonetheless, the Church was careful in converting the pagans to accommodate their beliefs as far as possible.  In a letter written before 725, Bishop Daniel of Winchester advised the missionary Boniface "how to confute the heathens from their own falsorum deorum genealogia"[12] by not proffering opposition to the pagans' beliefs, but to concentrate on proving that their gods were mortals.  Their pagan beliefs were gradually suppressed by the Christian teachings but not entirely negated[13] and, as Dodwell notes, the representations on the Franks casket would appeal to both Christian and pagan sentiments.  He believes that "paganism was never entirely eradicated from Anglo-Saxon England, [and] although it might be converted into relatively harmless forms, it could still find open expression ... in the tenth and eleventh centuries" as noted in Wulfstan's Canons of St. Edgar and the Homilies of Elfric.[14]

In the eighth and ninth centuries, Anglo-Saxon genealogies confirm that the Gemanic kings continued to value their northern ancestries, many tracing their lineage back to eponymous Scandinavian heroes and Norse gods.  Furthermore, by the end of the eighth century, the East Anglian Kings claimed Roman forebears.  Caesar follows Woden in the East Anglian genealogy[15] and, as James Campbell points out, "they seem to have taken this claim seriously, for Romulus and Remus appear on East Anglian coins, and [as far as we know] on them alone; and one of the only two other [extant Anglo-Saxon] depictions of Romulus and Remus comes from East Anglia":  the she wolf suckling the twins is found on a fragment of a one casket or book cover from Larling, Norfolk.[16]  Just as the Sutton Hoo burial provides insight into the diverse trade patterns and eclectic tastes of the East Anglian culture of the early seventh century, the casket reflects a similarly eclectic disposition which, from extant evidence, would seem to suit an East Anglian provenance in the 8th or 9th century.[17]  Several scholars have hypothesized that a likely source for the mediterranean scenes depicted on the casket would have been an illustrated universal history such as the Scaliger Barbarus or an illustrated world chronicle like that of Theophilus of Alexandria, and Late Antique boxes have been suggested as a likely prototype for its form.[18]

Highly stylized poetic diction, the mark of Old English poetry, finds parallels in Anglo-Saxon artistic conventions. The artist's sense of spatial design and attention to detailed patterning outweighs concern for realistic proportions, a sense of depth or the effects of gravity.  Any extra space on the panels are filled with decorative details and, as can be seen on the lid, the figures themselves are adapted to create a pleasing overall design.  C.R. Dodwell comments on the Germanic dress depicted on the casket, and notes that they are similarly attired to Tacitus' description of the Germanic tribes in A.D. 98 and to Anglo-Saxons portrayed in manuscript illustrations in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Even the magi wear Germanic dress rather than the flowing robes connected with the East.

On five surfaces of the casket legible runic and non-runic texts provide a frame-work around the pictorial panels.  Elizabeth Okasha describes the text as latin descriptive formula type b, Insular majuscule and runes.[19]  The figural panels, carved in barbaric style in low relief, seem unequivocally Anglo-Saxon in contrast to the diversity of subject matter:  a blending between Roman history, Roman legend, Germanic sagas and Christian myth.  The panels offer narrative details and, as with Old English literature the events/actions depicted are emphasized rather than the visual form of the representation.  The decorative patterning around the figures fill the space and give an impression of energy.

The front panel of the casket has two scenes which provide a sense of visual symmetry which is enhanced by multiple framing devices.  The "rope" band enclosed with two plain borders frames a runic fence, which is itself enclosed in a single frame and is used to define the pictorial field.  The central divider mutes the impact of the rectangular area which would have held the clasp, and heightens the balance of the panel as a whole.  Initially, the juxtaposition of the Adoration of the Magi with the Revenge of Weland seems startling and perhaps even disconcerting for a viewer far removed from both Anglo-Saxon artistic conventions and a medieval world-view.  However, as stark juxtapositions are an Anglo-Saxon literary device, it is reasonable to suppose that the Franks casket might have been created with a similar artistic mindset.  In the oral narrative tradition, abrupt digressions often allude to known lays which rely on the audience's knowledge of particular myths and legends.  Vandersall notes that on the front panel "one rune reading "Magi" is incised in the right-hand field, … but the [field] on the left is presented in solely pictorial terms with no verbal hint of its subject (the only case on the casket).  [She questions if it] should … be assumed that those using the casket were thoroughly familiar with the tale."[20]  Certainly the fame of Weland is confirmed by the allusions to his work and legends in extant Old English poetry.   Fred Robinson notes that such knowledge "liberated the poet from any obligation to tell his story in exhaustive detail with who, what, when, where and how spelled out at every point. … [Just as on an orthographic level, the scop frequently] combined two independent words with independent meanings and then expected his audience to ponder their relationship and appreciate the tertium quid that emerged from their juxtaposition, so also he placed one episode alongside the other or one scene in juxtaposition to another and expected [his audience] to divine their relationship."[21]  Similar enigmatic and allusive cross-currents interplay thematically on the Franks casket, not only between the juxtaposed scenes but also between the text and the pictorial depictions.

The runic inscription on the front of the casket interacts in subtle ways with the depicted scenes.  A literal translation of the runic text reads, "The flood raised the fish onto the cliff-bank—when he, sad savage animal, swam onto the sand.  Whale's bone."  The stranding of the whale through forces beyond its control and its subsequent death are misfortunes which produced the bone for the craftsman to create the casket.  Just as word-play was enjoyed by the Anglo-Saxon scop, the craftsman who fashioned the front panel of the casket seems to be indulging in some visual interplay.  Banfåt in Old English has several meanings:  bone vessel, body, or corpse.  The inscription acknowledges that the corpse/banfåt of the whale provides the bone for the casket/banfåt, while the self-reflexive allusion to the creation of the casket ties in with the figure of the wondrous smith, Weland.[22]  As the Anglo-Saxon audience would know, the legend of Weland is also concerned with corpses and vessels.[23]  Weland exacts terrible revenge for enforced servitude to royal power by killing the two sons of King Nithhad and fashioning banfatu out of their skulls in the form of gold-covered vessels as presents for the King.  Thematically, the left-hand panel is both parallel and opposite to the panel on the right.  Where Weland offers revenge and death, Christ offers atonement and life.  Weland offers gifts to the secular king, Nithhad; the wise men offer gifts to the heavenly king Christ. The revenge of Weland ends with the death of an earthly king's sons; the atonement through Christ begins with the birth of the Heavenly King's son.  Moreover, Christ's embodiment at birth would be seen as his spirit entering an earthly banfåt.  The Anglo-Saxon taste for enigmatic apposition is verified by the alternative visual allusions to various themes:  revenge and atonement, secular force and heavenly power, life and death, beginnings and endings.  Finally, one may wonder if the banfåt created from whalebone may in fact be a reliquary/ banfåt.

Many of the themes from the front panel carry over to the depiction of Romulus and Remus on the left-hand panel.  As grandsons of a deposed king, the twins are flung into the Tiber and, like the whale, they are beached on the shore at Rome.  The exile and intended death becomes a new beginning which contrasts with a later episode:  the death of Remus at his brother's hand.  Nonetheless, Romulus founds Rome and becomes its first ruler, a fact that links with the Roman Emperor Titus' sack of Jersusalem.  In both there panels, the artist's main concern seems to be with balance and design.  The left side, i.e. the depiction of Romulus and Remus, has a similar border to the front panel and, in deference to symmetry, the craftsman has carved two extra "shepherds" and an extra wolf as well a executing the bottom runes upside-down.  Again the figures are simply depicted with little regard for corporeality:  the boys and the top wolf appear to be floating unsupported.  Similarly, the pictorial field which portrays the sack of Rome is designed with notable attention to balance.

On the back of the casket, the two horizontal registers are divided by an arch which imitates the device that surrounds the schematic depiction of the madonna and child on the front panel.  The runic and latin inscriptions elucidate the various episodes depicted:  the top runes read, "Here fight Titus and the Jews"; the latin on the right reads, "Here the inhabitants flee from Jerusalem"; at the bottom of the left panel is one word, dom which means judgement; and on the right the word gisl or hostage.  Of this panel, particularly regarding the figures wearing long cloaks, Vandersall offers valid comments:  "there are strong suggestions of three-dimensional corporeality.  This is effected by depicting the cloaks behind the legs and by the use of angular cuts to render drapery folds.  The composition also shows … overlapping of figures and a greater variety of postures and facial views than occur elsewhere on the casket.  There can be little doubt that this is a vestige of antique illusionism and spatial suggestions not yet fully translated into the dominant abstract sign language of the casket, and it is in very much the same spirit as the Latin inscription on the panel, which is only partially dressed in runic garments."[24]  Because of the rareness of Titus' Sack of Jerusalem in medieval art, Vandersall suggests an unusual or little used source as a prototype.

The panel seems to speak of the hazards of life among warrior nations:  power and victory for one meant captivity or death for another.  The tenuous nature of life is reiterated in various ways on the panel.  The stoic world-view of a warrior society is also elucidated in the Sigurd panel on the right-hand side which depicts scenes from the Volsunga Saga.  As with the Weland panel, the Sigurd scenes represent episodes from well-known legend.  The group on the right depicts a female figure flanked and restrained (?) by two hooded figures; the central scene appears to be Sigurd's horse, Grani, lamenting the death of his master, with Sigurd's corpse in a barrow-mound; and the left side, after a Hel-ride to Valhal, shows a rejuvenated and fully armed Sigurd, presenting himself at the entrance of Odainsaker.[25]  Like the tripartite scene which depicts Weland, the episodes from the Volsunga Saga provide a visual field which seems to be a mnemonic device for recalling the narrative of the Sigurd legends.  In this way, these two carvings stand apart from the others on the casket, and show an iconographic affinity for Scandinavian picture stones in Sweden.

The purpose of the casket can only be a matter for conjecture.  Three panels derive from Germanic legends, two from Roman history and myth, and one from Christian iconography.  Because of the "preponderance of Pagan myths, northern or antique, and the folkloric nature of the Magi story itself, …. [Vandersall argues that] the casket is secular both in origin and purpose."[26]  Goldschmidt suggests a generic relationship with the tenth-century Byzantine ivory caskets which were used for storage of gold and his point that "several scenes on the casket deal with the subject of treasures" is an interesting one.  Apart from the obvious treasure-giving by the Magi and the fashioning of Treasure by Weland, the sack of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. resulted in Titus' triumphant return to Rome with ecclesiastical treasures.

Pertinent to this, and to the casket as a whole, is Anglo-Saxon society's concept of power and kingship. As Patrick Wormald argues, "royal power was based on the ability to attract heavily armed warriers, and thus on the capacity to reward them with treasures and lands.  Only when resources ran low—as, classically, with Einhard's Merovingians—were kings reduced to powerlessness."[27]  The demand of gift-giving was a constant one for an Anglo-Saxon ruler, and the need to reward loyality, and occasionally buy it, meant that wealth had to be continually acquired by means of war.  Just as wealth brought a king power, it gave the heroic warrior status in the comitatus.  Thematically, the casket portrays scenes which concern central issues in Anglo-Saxon political life.

As one might expect, the artistic design and style of the Franks casket shows similar conventions to those in Anglo-Saxon literature.  Within a culture, language and art are intimately connected:  one reads art; one imagines literature.  The predisposition towards a particular mindset at any given time saturates all the various aspects of a culture such that the literature elucidates the art and vice versa.  In complement to the extant literature of the Anglo-Saxon period, the Franks casket offers insights into the allusive and eclectic taste of an Anglo-Saxon audience.



[1] British Museum, London, no 1867.  1-20.1.

[2] Carrand Collection no. 25

[3] Amy Vandersall notes that "among the roughly 175 items in a recent comprehensive bibliography of the Franks Casket, fully 75% deal with linguistic and literary aspects of the carvings.  Of the remaining studies … only a handful can claim to offer significant information concerning the relationship of the casket to the art of the Northumbrian Renaisssance..."  The assignation of ca. 700 Northumbria dates back to George Stephens work in the last quarter of the nineteeth century, a conjecture supported by linguists for almost a century.  However, recent studies tend to approach dating and localization through linguistic evidence with great caution.

[4] Amy Vandersall, "The Date and Provenance of the Franks Casket", Gesta Volume XI/2, 1972, 10.

[5] The tendency in the last decade has been to date Beowulf closer to the extant manuscript, ie. 9th or 10th century.

[6] Elliott refers to Napier's work, "The Franks Casket", An English Miscellany, Oxford, 1901, 362-81.

[7] Cited in Vandersall, p. 10, with quotes from Elliott's book, Runes:  An Introduction, Manchester, 1959 p. 108.

[8] As a case in point, the orthography of Beowulf in the extant manuscript clearly distinguishes the practices of Scribe A, who copied up to moste, line 1939, and Scribe B who completed the poem, despite the fact that they worked in the same scriptorium.  Given orthographical discrepancies within a scriptorium, can we assume workshops would be immune to similar inconsistences?

[9] Quoted in Vandersall, p. 11.

[10] Martin Carver, "Kingship and material culture in early Anglo-Saxon East Anglia", The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, Stephen Basset Ed., (Leicester UP, 1989), 152.

[11] Ibid, 158.

[12] Kenneth Sisam, "Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies", British Academy Papers on Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford UP, 1990) 182.

[13] Richard N. Bailey, Viking Age Sculpture in Northern England. (London:  Collins, 1980) 130.

[14] Dodwell, p.4, and notes, p. 239.

[15] David Dumville, "The Anglian Collection of Royal Genealogies and Regnal Lists".

[16] James Campbell ed., The Anglo-Saxons.  Oxford, 1984, 67.

[17] It is interesting to note that recently scholars have been postulating a ninth century date for Beowulf.

[18] Vandersall (p. 11) cites Adoph Goldschmidt's theories from Die Elfenbeinskulpturen aus der Zeit der Karolingischen und sachsischen kaiser, Berlin, 1918, II, (Nos. 186-187), pp 56-57, a work on medieval ivory carvings.  He "suggested a generic relationship with the tenth-century Byzantine ivory caskets, noting that the latter were used for storage of gold and pointing out that several scenes on the casket dealt with the subject of treasures.  He stated that either the early dating of the casket must be given up in favour of a later date or else it must be assumed that the Byzantine caskets reflect an older, and no longer extant type.  The latter solution was, in his opinion, consonant with the tendencies of Byzantine art in the period."

[19] Hand-list of Anglo-Saxon Non-Runic Inscriptions, Cambridge UP, 1971, 50.

[20] Vandersall, p.12.

[21] Fred Robinson, "An Introduction to Beowulf", Beowulf, Marijane Osborn, translator, xii-xiii; xiv.

[22] Weland was revered as a legendary smith with extraordinary skill in a country renowned for its metalwork.  In his translation of Boethius regarding the passing of time, King Alfred changed his source to appeal to his Anglo-Saxon audience:  "Ubi nunc fidelis ossa Fabricii manet?" he translated as "Where are the bones of Weland now?"  As Richard Bailey notes, the inference is that the Weland story was well known to his audience.  Weland's skill is alluded to in Beowulf and Waldere; his enforced servitude to Nitthad and his revenge, the rape of Beadohild, are the subject of the opening twelve lines of Deor.

[23] The earliest written version of Weland's story is told in the thirteenth century manuscript Eddic Volundarkvipa.

[24] Vandersall, p. 15.

[25]The scenes from the Sigurd legend depicted here are carefully explained by Eleanor Clark in her impeccably researched paper.

[26] Vandersall, 17.

[27] Patrick Wormald, "Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Kingship", Sources of Anglo-Saxon Culture.  (Western Michigan UP, 1986) 153.