Someone deeply familiar with the seventh century recently admitted she’d had to go hunting on my other blog, Gemæcca: The story of a novel about Hild of Whitby for the meaning of gemæcca. It occurs to me that if she doesn’t know the word, few others will. So here’s some thoughts about the term, lightly adapted from a post I wrote four years ago.
I subscribe to British Archaeology, a bi-monthly magazine stuffed with dug-up-in-Britain wonders, covering everything from how to excavate an abandoned Ford Transit Van to discovery of tools created half a million years ago. The thrill factor is variable (I often read it in bed and nod out over the articles). But just as I was beginning Hild, I read a review that knocked my socks off, of a scholarly text about textile production in the early middle ages, Cloth and Clothing in Early Anglo-Saxon England, AD 450-700, by Penelope Walton Rogers (CBA, 2007).
For me, as a writer, that was a problem: if a woman is spending two thirds of her waking life working on textile production, how do I make her life exciting and particular? (This is such a huge subject that it will require its own blog post, so more on this another time.)
So I repurposed the word. And used it as the title for my research blog. And, much later, wondered if I should use gemæcce, with an e. Pronounced something like Yem-ATCH-ee. And frankly I still don’t know. I just don’t know enough about Old English nouns to be able to work it out (I get lost in the strong vs. weak noun thing and retire in disgust). But I like the ‘e’ better than the ‘a’, so that’s what I’ve been using in the novel.
One of Hild’s most important relationships is with her gemæcce, Begu. They’re not related, they don’t have sex, they’re utterly different. One a chatterbox, the other mostly silent. One short, one tall. One a thegn’s daughter, the other royal. But when they meet they fall in friend-love (as I think most really good friends do). And that friendship sustains them through joy and tedium and horror (as really good friendships do). Yet Begu would never have existed if I hadn’t stumbled across that review, if I hadn’t formed the sudden conviction that I had to have this book, if I hadn’t allowed my whole notion of Hild’s life to reform itself.
You never know when some tiny detail will change everything.