On a walk in the Dorset countryside, the Cerne Abbas Giant is probably the most striking figure you could come across. The Giant, undeniably naked and wielding a knobbled club or staff, stands 180-feet tall on the hillside, with his outline cut into bright, crushed chalk.
The irreverence of the Giant’s depiction has endeared him to generations of visitors to Cerne Abbas, but the simplicity of this hill figure’s design also gives it a timelessness that has frustrated researchers’ attempts to discover its provenance. Previous dating estimates have ranged from prehistoric, to Roman, to seventeenth century. Such a broad possible time frame for the origin of the Giant has naturally led to a variety of suggestions as to the identity of the individual the hill figure is supposed to represent. Leading theories include the Celtic god Belenus, the legendary Roman hero Hercules, or a particularly unflattering satirical depiction of Oliver Cromwell.
Recent sediment analysis carried out by National Trust archaeologists, however, has completely upended our understanding of this much-loved landmark. By taking samples of the most deeply buried material from when the Giant was first cut, researchers have been able to establish that the figure dates from the early medieval period, within the date range of 700-1100 AD. Such a timeframe upends preconceived notions about the Giant’s origins and functions, requiring us to essentially start from scratch in our interpretation of this turf titan.
One key piece of evidence is that Cerne Abbas’s other notable landmark, its Abbey, was founded during this date range, in 987AD. There seems an obvious contrast between the chaste discipline of a Benedictine monastery on the one hand and the starkly prurient Giant on the other–who is best known in the popular imagination for his prominent penis, measuring 36 feet long. This led National Trust senior archaeologist Martin Papworth to speculate as to some kind of rivalry between followers of a pagan deity, as depicted by the giant, and proponents of the Christian faith, with the abbey being established to convert local people from the worship of their nude idol. Such a theory does not stand up to scrutiny: the conversion of English pagans had been completed over 300 years prior to the establishment of the abbey in the tenth century. But this idea does serve as a perfect example of the continuing manner in which the Giant has been viewed as an alien feature within the landscape into which it has been cut; a disruptive enigma at odds with the sleepy village it presides over. Whether thought of as ancient or modern, understandings of the Cerne Abbas Giant have long been grounded in either the mystery or the earthy comedy inherent in the figure. New evidence provided through sediment analysis gives us an exciting opportunity to radically reinterpret him in light of the rich medieval history of the area, as both a product of his local environment and as integral to the lives of those who resided there.
To do so requires the introduction of a more obscure figure than Hercules or Cromwell: the ninth-century hermit St. Eadwold. Eadwold was purportedly born a prince and a brother to St. Edmund, the King of East Anglia, who became a martyr after viking invaders tied him to a tree and shot him with arrows. Renouncing his royal upbringing, Eadwold lived as a hermit on the hills of Dorset, only a few miles away from where the village of Cerne Abbas now stands. Eleventh and twelfth-century writers describe how Eadwold lived off a sparse diet of bread and water and performed a number of miracles, one of which I shall return to shortly. After his death, Eadwold was first buried near to his hermit’s cell (perhaps located in the village of Stokewood) and later moved to Cerne Abbey in the early eleventh century. This association with Eadwold turned out to be highly lucrative for the monastery. Its status as the centre for his veneration rapidly allowed the monastery to become the third richest in England. While all but unknown to a modern audience, Eadwold was clearly a monumentally important figure in medieval Dorset, to the point of acting as a local patron saint.
This does, of course, beg the question: what does a pious hermit have to with the Cerne Abbas Giant, who is not only naked but also seemingly brandishing a club? The answer may be found in the Life of St. Eadwold, a text most likely composed at Cerne Abbey by the eleventh-century author Goscelin of St. Bertin. Amongst Goscelin’s effusive praise of Eadwold’s many Christian virtues, one miracle is of particular note: on a sloping hill in the area, Eadwold is said to have planted his pilgrim’s staff in the ground, at which point the dead wood of the stave miraculously returned to life, sprouting branches and becoming a living tree. Following this act, Eadwold saw a silver fountain where God had commanded him to spend the rest of his days in worship. A holy well can be found on the site where Cerne Abbey was founded, just down the slope from the hill figure. I believe there is a strong possibility that the hill figure is intended to depict St. Eadwold in the action of completing this miracle. Rather than a club, we are instead looking at a staff in the process of blossoming into a tree.
The nudity of the Giant might strike a modern audience as out of place in the depiction of a holy man but as a number of other scholars have pointed out, monks of the period were no prudes, reading innuendo-laced riddles alongside serious theological works in compendiums like the Exeter Book. There are specific circumstances explaining Eadwold’s nudity: one set of medieval rules for monastic life specifies that part of the renunciation of worldly goods entails the rejection of clothes themselves, with utter nakedness being a sign of particular sanctity. Furthermore, the exposed ribs of the figure may signify the restricted diet of the hermit and his emaciated frame. The length of the Giant’s phallus was also extended and combined with a pre-existing navel in the modern period. Rather than being primarily understood as erotic or lewd, these features make up a strong circumstantial case for the figure’s association with eremitic practice during the medieval period.
If this figure does represent St. Eadwold, then in the tenth century it would have been inextricably linked with the nearby Cerne Abbey, with both acting as central components of the saint’s veneration in the region. Dr Helen Gittos’s excellent twitter thread contextualises the Giant within the early medieval period, by suggesting that processions between the hill figure and the well at the abbey may have constituted an important element of Christian worship. Beyond this function, the Giant would also provide indicative and compelling evidence for the form of popular, locally-rooted Christianity practiced by everyday people in this area of eleventh-century England: while monks appreciated Goscelin’s Life of St. Eadwold, villagers pondered the same tale of a hermit’s miracle, simply by glancing to the hillside. The public life of a saint was inscribed and preserved in the landscape alongside its literary counterpart held within the monastery: the former on turf, the latter on parchment. These devotional and communal chalk-lines extend into the landscape, outside the domain of illuminated manuscripts and stone churches. In this way, they may provide an exciting snapshot into one form that Christian worship took for a section of the general populace in early-medieval England.
So, does this conclusively solve the mystery of the Cerne Abbas Giant? The answer, as with much of the history of early medieval England, is decidedly more complicated than the straightforward argument outlined above suggests. The sediment analysis’ date range of 700-1100 AD constitutes a lengthy stretch of time and if the construction of the Giant fell towards the earlier end of that span, then it may well predate the ninth-century Eadwold. Furthermore, elements of the original design such as a cape on the outstretched arm and possibly a severed head by the Giant’s side, appear to have been erased to leave the present form. Was, therefore, this figure originally meant to be Hercules or a West-Saxon legendary figure, whose depiction was altered to instead represent Eadwold as the saint’s worship in the area intensified in the tenth century? Further research is necessary to provide fuller answers, but for now, new avenues have been opened for the understanding and appreciation of an iconic talisman in the British landscape.
Tom Morcom is a medievalist teaching and researching in the University of Oxford’s Faculty of English. His research focuses upon Old Norse and Old English literature, in relation to which he has published articles on topics including narratology, masculinity, gerontology, and insult contests. His next research project will be on the Colonial Mindset in Medieval Iceland, charting shifts in Icelandic identity following the loss of independence to Norway. He tweets @ThomasMorcom