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A Guide to Medieval Guernsey

By Minjie Su

For those who are not overly familiar with the geography of the English Channel, Guernsey is an island just off the coast of Normandy. With a few smaller surrounding islands, the bailiwick of Guernsey is one of the Crown dependencies that belong to Britain. About a month ago, I visited the island more or less on a whim to escape work (which is on medieval things), but as it turned out, the island is in fact loaded with medieval things, which I’ve decided to share with you here.

The Name

Although I have to confess that my desire to visit Guernsey was mainly borne from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the island first came to my knowledge when I was researching for that medieval horse article I wrote in the summer. According to one interpretation, the island’s name derives from Grani – it is Granisey, Grani’s island. Grani is the famous horse of Sigurðr the dragon-slayer, the tragic hero of Vǫlsunga saga and a descendant of Odin; as befitting his master, Grani is a descendant of Odin’s horse, Sleipnir, the only creature that can leap through the nine worlds, thanks to his eight legs. The Grani in Guernsey, however, is believed to have nothing to do with the horse. Perhaps the island was named after some Norseman named Granni, perhaps not; no one knows for sure.

However, we do know for sure that Guernsey, like its neighours Jersey and Alderney, is Old Norse-y: the –ey part – from Old Icelandic ey (gen. eyja, ‘island’) – leaves little room for doubt. That Guernsey and the other islands should have a Nordic origin comes as no surprise at all, considering that they became part of the Duchy of Normandy in 933, when the Duchy was created and granted to the Norseman Rollo. But Rollo was not the first Norseman to come (if he ever set foot on Guernsey): though archaeological evidence renders very little on the occupation of Guernsey between the Romans and the Normans, it is certain that the Vikings did at least raid on the island.

A gaming counter dated back to the 9th century; now on display in Guernsey Museum at Candie, St Peter Port. Photo by Minjie Su

The Site

Located so strategically between England and France and so dangerously close to France, Guernsey in the Middle Ages (and beyond) is hardly the paradise island that nowadays some people romanticised it to be. But its tricky in-between location means a defence system, and defence system means – castles! The coastline of Guernsey is dotted with castles and forts, both big and small, and many of them can be traced to medieval times. Castle Cornet is certainly one of them. Just a short walk from the town centre of St Peter Port, this impressive castle was first constructed in 1206, when King John ‘Lacklack’ lost Normandy to Philip Augustus of France. The Channel Islands, however, stayed and therefore needed to be fortified quickly. Another castle that was constructed around the same time is Chateau des Marais, a motte-and-bailey fortification erected on a Neolithic mound and built over an older structure; but it was out of use after Castle Cornet was completed.

Castle Cornet – photo by Minjie Su

One interesting medieval site is the lonely islet of Lihou, a little tidal island just off western Guernsey – the –hou part in the name possibly comes from the Old English hoh, which is found in many English place names (such as Sutton Hoo) and indicates a hill or slope of certain shapes. As attested by Lindisfarne and Mont St. Michel, tidal islands are favoured places to build monasteries and churches: a priory dedicated to the Virgin Mary was established in the early 12th century, under the authority of the Abbey of Mont St. Michel.

The Legend

This landscape dotted with ancient sites – prehistoric, Roman, medieval – gives rise to a rich tradition of storytelling in Guernsey; in return, those half-forgotten places are given a new life in words and language.

Due to their oral nature, the tales as we know today are probably quite different from what they were when they were first conceived; nor will we be able to find out how the stories evolved during the centuries. The one version we do have is Guernsey Folk Lore, by Sir Edgar MacCulloch, a Guernsey native and Bailiff of Guernsey from 1884 to 1895. A more updated book is Folklore of Guernsey, first published by Marie de Garis in 1986. In both books, the author penned down stories and tales collected throughout Guernsey and around.

Even if you just skim through the pages, it is not hard to realise that most of the stories are highly localised and bound to specific sites. The dolmens, for instance, have caught the fancy of the Guernsey inhabitants. Stories of Spirit Guardians circulate around those megalithic burial mounds, to warn off anyone who may want to dig up buried treasures. The belief that treasure may be buried in these mounds is interesting, too, for it echoes many mound-breaking episodes in medieval Icelandic sagas, where heroes descend into some burial mounds to fight against revenants and monsters to gain ancient treasure.

There is an interesting story about werewolves; here we see different traditions merge: the varou (‘werewolf’ in Norman patois) originally refers to a demon who often takes human form; he is marked by an unnatural appetite and debauchery. Later the word becomes ‘werewolf’ under the influence of English and French traditions. Perhaps it is the unnatural appetite that link the man and the wolf together. But I wonder if there is already something wolfish in varou – after all, the word looks curiously similar to the Old Norse vargúlfr, a word coined by the Norwegian translator of Marie de France’s lais in the 13th century. This is pure speculation, but considering Guernsey’s Norse connections, it may not be nonsense entirely.

Le Déhus dolmen, a passage grave first excavated between 1837 and 1847; a carved bowman is found in one of the capstones in the main burial chamber. Photo by Minjie Su

To learn more about the island, please check out the Visit Guernsey website

You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

Click here to read more articles by Minjie

Top Image: Map of Guernsey and Alderney with Island of Sark, created in 1748.

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