THE OTHER SIDE: THE MAGIC DELL OF ELVEDEN
Photo (c) Sarah & Austin Houghton-Bird
The text was written in Latin by a hagiographer (a person who writes biographies about saints). It’s called ‘Miracula sancta Wihtburge,’ and documents the life of Saint Withburga, an East Anglian princess and abbess who built a monastery in Dereham. (As the story goes, the Virgin Mary sent two milking does to feed the workers during the monastery’s construction, and after Withburga died, her body had not decayed after 50 years. Her tomb was later violated and her body stolen, after which a spring welled up in its place, which is still flowing to this day.) Amid the account of Withburga’s life, the 12th century hagiographer mentions a place that seems to be Elveden. Translated from the Latin, the description reads:
“…from the land of the king and martyr the blessed Edmund, which is called the valley of the nymphs in English.”
At that time, nymph was the English approximation of the word elf, suggesting that in Old English Elveden’s name would have been aelfe-dene, the ‘valley of the elves.’ And when we look back at Anglo-Saxon culture, this seems a likely truth. To the Anglo-Saxons, who populated East Anglia before the arrival of the Normans, elves were akin to fairies. They were dangerous supernatural beings, small yet human-like, and they caused illnesses in both people and livestock. As the Anglo-Saxons walked through the woods of Elveden, just as our young girl did in the 1800s, it’s easy to see how mischievous little eyes might have peered out at them from behind the leaves.