Gosforth Cross details, including Loki bound with his wife Sigyn protecting him.
Detail from Gosforth Cross, Cumbria, England
Original photograph from Finnur Jónsson, Goðafræði Norðmanna og Íslendinga eftir Heimildum, 1913.
We speak of “war” as if it is a singular experience. But every time, every culture, does war in their own particular way (and some not at all).
War was central to the Anglo-Saxon experience - and they went about it in a very peculiar way. Many of our modern concepts of war and warriors actually start here in Anglo-Saxon culture. However, much of the Anglo-Saxon approach to war is now entirely alien to us.
But, if you want to understand the Anglo-Saxons you have to understand war the way they saw it. This episode is about the famous (and infamous) Anglo-Saxon Warband.
For anyone interested in old books and medicine, the Wellcome Library in London has (excitingly) digitized a huge chunk of their extensive library of antique domestic “recipe” books and manuscripts. Spanning three hundred years (their collection begins in the 1500s), the 270+ books are an amazing window into old medicine and household lore. Above are images from two randomly selected manuscripts, both from the mid-1600s. Look closely, and you might get some pointers on how to prevent bed wetting, or help should you suffer from a “pinne or a webbe in the eye.”
To jump straight to a list of all the available manuscripts, go here.
Major Viking exhibit comes to the British Museum in 2014
In March 2014 the British Museum will be unveiling a new exhibition on The Vikings: Life and Legend. Created with the help of the National Museum of Denmark and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, it focuses on the core period of the Viking Age from the late 8th century to the early 11th century.
The exhibition will capitalise on new research and thousands of recent discoveries by both archaeologists and metal-detectorists, to set the developments of the Viking Age in context. These new finds have changed our understanding of the nature of Viking identity, trade, magic and belief and the role of the warrior in Viking society. Above all, it was the maritime character of Viking society and their extraordinary shipbuilding skills that were key to their achievements.
One of the highlights of the exhibition will be a reconstruction of the surviving timbers of a 37-metre-long Viking warship, the longest ever found and never seen before in the United Kingdom. The ship, known as Roskilde 6, was excavated from the banks of Roskilde fjord in Denmark during the course of work undertaken to develop the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum in 1997. Since the excavation, the timbers have been painstakingly conserved and analysed by the National Museum of Denmark.
The exhibition will also include the skeletal remains from a mass grave of Vikings that was discovered in Dorset in southwest England in 2009. To learn more about this archaeological find, please see Death on the Dorset Ridgeway: a Viking Murder Mystery
Weapons and looted treasures demonstrate the central role of warfare to the identity of the Vikings. Recently excavated skeletons from a mass grave of executed Vikings near Weymouth in Dorset, will provide a close-up encounter with ‘real’ Vikings and illustrate what happened when things went wrong for Viking warriors on British soil.
This exhibition is currently on about to finish its run at the National Museum of Denmark – you can read a review of it from Medieval Histories. Vikings: life and legend will be shown at the British Museum, from 6 March – 22 June 2014, and then at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, 10 September 2014 – 4 January 2015.
Source: Copyright © 2013 Medievalist
Caedmon’s Hymn is a short Old English poem originally composed by Cædmon, an illiterate cowherd, in honour of God the Creator. It survives in a Latin translation by Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and in vernacular versions written down in several manuscripts of Bede’s Historia. The Hymn itself was composed between 658 and 680 and recorded in the earlier part of the 8th century. It is Cædmon’s sole surviving composition
Nu sculon herigean heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte and his modgeþanc
weorc wuldorfæder, swa he wundra gehwæs
ece drihten, or onstealde.
He ærest sceop eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe, halig scyppend;
þa middangeard moncynnes weard
ece drihten, æfter teode
firum foldan, frea ælmihtig
Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven, the might of the architect,
and his purpose, the work of the father of glory as he, the eternal lord,
established the beginning of wonders.
He, the holy creator, first created heaven as a roof for the children of men.
Then the guardian of mankind, the eternal lord, the lord almighty,
afterwards appointed the middle earth, the lands, for men.
Ongietan sceal gleaw hæle hu gæstlic bið,
þonne ealre þisse worulde wela weste stondeð.
(A wise man shall understands how spectral it is, when all this world’s wealth lies to waste.)— The Wanderer - Old English poem
Myths about the poem Bēowulf
Disclaimer: I have been studying the poem of Bēowulf for three years, but in the interest of understanding life in ancient Scandinavia and in writing my own dramatically different version of the story, rather than in understanding and interpreting the original story’s canon. I have not extensively read the original poem in quite a long time, maybe two years. To be quite honest I find the heorot.dk annotations to be far more interesting to read than the text itself. I am also not a professional scholar, merely a college nerd with a lot of free time.
Also, I typed this whole thing up out of the top of my head at a whim last night with no internet access and thus no access to research, another reason to not classify it as a reliable resource.
Myth 1: Bēowulf takes place in Anglo-Saxon England
Bēowulf takes place in Denmark and in Geatland (Gotland, now part of Southern Sweden). It is not about Anglo-Saxons in a literal sense. However, the version that was preserved was written in Old English of the Anglo-Saxon period, by Anglo-Saxons after the story was passed down orally, so naturally the story can give an insight into Anglo-Saxon values and life.
Myth 2: Bēowulf the character is Swedish/Danish
He is Geatish. The Geats, also known as Gautar, inhabited the now Swedish region of Gotland. For many centuries they were a distinct ethnic group before finally being assimilated by the Swedes.
Myth 3: Heorot is located on continental Denmark.
The historical seat of the Scyldingas is said to be on Sjælland, Denmark, more specifically around the modern village of Lejre. A remarkable mead hall for its time, from the late-fifth-early-sixth century, was uncovered in Lejre. Lejre is a few minutes away from the younger, modern city of Roskilde, which is named after Hrōðgār, “Ro” being another, heavily contracted form of his name.
Myth 4: The þyle in Hrōðgār’s court is called Unferð.
In the manuscript, his name appears four times, and each time it is written as “Hūnferð” (minus the diacritic). The name Hūnfrið was known in Anglo-Saxon England, and its appearance in the manuscript as Hūnferð is analogous with the name Sigfrið appearing in the manuscript as Sigferð, suggesting a regional variation in the element “-frið”. After the Norman conquest, a cognate form of the name, “Humphrey”, displaces “Hūnfrið”.
In many translations or Old English transcriptions of the text, the ‘h’ in Hūnferð’s name is removed to force it to alliterate with his father’s name, Ecglāf, however I personally don’t believe such a correction is necessary.
Myth 5: Scyld Scefing’s son is named Bēowulf. or: “Bēowulf” Scylding is the same as Bēowulf Ecgþēowing.
The manuscript gives his name as “Bēowulf”, but this is likely to be a scribal error. In all other traditions about Scyld Scefing, he is succeeded by a Beow/Beaw, whose name literally means “barley”. It is possible it was given in an older copy of the text as “Beow”, and the scribe, knowing the poem was about Bēowulf and either not familiar with Beow or not paying close attention, may have hyper-corrected it to “Beowulf” in the copying process.
Beow and Bēowulf Ecgþēowing, the protagonist of the poem, are two completely different people. Beow lived a few generations before Bēowulf and was the son of Scyld. The protagonist is the son of Ecgþēow.
Myth 6: Grendel is a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Grendel’s descriptions in the poem are very vague, possibly metaphorical and sometimes peppered with artistic liberties by translators. His nature seems to invoke that of an Eoten, or Jötunn, but again it is vague. He has also been compared to a berserkr in nature.
The vagueness of Grendel’s nature leaves him free to the reader’s interpretation, but I hope I shouldn’t have to elaborate on why the Tyrannosaurus Rex idea is ridiculous.
Myth 7: Bēowulf’s name means “wolf of barley”, referring to the psychoactive fungus called ergot which grows on barley, and the whole thing was composed by a bunch of dudes high on ergot.
The poem’s language and story structure is too well-organized, and it has too many allusions to Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon history and oral tradition to have been someone’s hallucinogenic fantasy. It is clearly a product of centuries of oral tradition. Also, although the Anglo-Saxon scribes never used diacritics so it is hard to say for certain, the rhythm of the poem in the Old English suggests that the “eo” in Bēowulf is a long vowel. the “eo” in “beow”, barley, is a short vowel. Vowel length is distinguished in Old English phonetics, and the length of a vowel also determines how it is affected by the Great Vowel Shift centuries later.
Myth 8: Bēowulf is an entirely Christian poem, or Bēowulf is an entirely pagan poem. The peoples in the poem were historically Christian in the 6th century.
The nature of religion in the existing version of Bēowulf is complex. It clearly has Christian elements and there is a passage that demonizes and condemns pagan worship, but it also has a pagan nature, for example Wealhþēow presents Bēowulf with a necklace that belonged to Frige (?? I am unclear on details, it’s a while since I read the original).
In truth the version of Bēowulf that was written down has a hybrid pagan-Christian nature. It was also written down during a period of transition in the Anglo-Saxon world from paganism to Christianity, and it was not uncommon for the two religions to be practiced side by side, or for Christianity to be somewhat “paganized” to make it easier for the people to appreciate. Christianization in Europe was more or less a trickle-down sort of process that began with the royalty and hit them and their ways the strongest, reaching the remote agrarian commoners the weakest. So the version of Bēowulf that was written down was hybrid pagan and Christian for a hybrid pagan and Christian audience.
Personally I believe that Bēowulf was composed early enough in the history of the Germanic language family for it to have originally had a totally pagan nature, then undergone a Christian transformation in Anglo-Saxon England as it was constantly being told and retold by an increasingly Christian people.
In this poem Bēowulf and many other characters are presented as Christian, however they would not have been Christian. It takes place in Scandinavia during the early 6th century, and the Christian world had barely yet even touched the Scandinavians at that time.
Myth 9: Bēowulf is the first work of literature in the English language.
Far from it. The first SURVIVING English work of literature of any kind is likely to be Caedmon’s poem, although it is impossible to say whether or not it was actually the first since there may have been earlier works that were since lost. Bēowulf is the first SURVIVING work of fiction in the English language, it is highly unlikely to have been the first work of fiction as stories in English (as in all other languages) were first told orally before being written down, and there could have been other stories written down that did not survive. Bēowulf itself only survives because the one manuscript was saved from a fire in the library of the 17th century antiquarian who collected it.
Myth 10: Bēowulf takes place during the Viking Age.
Bēowulf is set in the early 6th century, which is before the Viking Age, which begins in the 8th century. It takes place during the Migration Period or late Germanic Iron Age.
Myth 11: There are mountains in Denmark; Heorot is surrounded by mountains.
There are no mountains in Denmark. Absolutely none whatsoever, not even on continental Denmark (which seems to have been inhabited by Jutes at the time and may not have necessarily belonged to Danes). Any illustration or description of Heorot or Grendel’s mere as sitting in the mountains is rooted in absolute fantasy and complete misunderstanding of geography.
Kenneth Branagh seems to believe that there were mountains in Denmark, according to a scene in his film production of Hamlet in which the protagonist shouts at the sky in a chain of what has to be imaginary mountains. He is wrong, do not listen to him.
Myth 12: Heorot is a castle, or a palace.
Heorot was not a castle, and it was not a palace in our sense of the word. Germanic architecture, even for kings, was very modest. The hall of Heorot was magnificent in the sense that it was large for a mead hall of the time, it was sturdily built (so sturdily that even after its posts have been removed or rotted away the postholes still remain to this day!), likely ornately carved. The 6th century hall foundation unearthed in Lejre was about 50 feet in length. It did not have a stone foundation, otherwise it or an impression of it would have been left behind. It likely would have had one floor and a single interior with a central hearth that may possibly have been divided into a few large rooms. The king and his relations slept in a common room. The Germanics had different standards about privacy than we do.
Make no mistake! Heorot must have been beautiful, awe-inspiring when you walked into it, and a wonderful place to live! But it was not a palace as we think of a palace.
Myth 13: Bēowulf had sex with Grendel’s mother.
The nature of Grendel’s mother is even more vague than that of Grendel. Make of it what you will. But one thing that is certain is that in the original version of the poem they did not have sex. This is a myth perpetuated by the fact that many people have only seen the 2007 film and never read or investigated the original. The dragon also had nothing to do with Grendel or his mother, although modern writers like to invent a connection in their own tellings of the story, which is fine as long as it is well done. If I recall correctly the film implies that Grendel is Hrōðgār’s son; there is no evidence of this in the original poem.
There are many myths perpetuated by people watching only the 2007 film and thinking it is canon. This is the only one I will address.
Myth 14: The poem has Nationalist values.
Nationalists like to perpetuate these kinds of myths because they try to read their own ideology into things they enjoy, even if it’s a children’s cartoon about talking horses. In fact, nationalism did not exist in the ancient Germanic world, and I think it is an absolutely silly, if not harmful projection for them to infer the ancient Germanics were anything like modern Nationalists in anything other than language family and physical appearance, and it gives Germanic Nationalism way more credibility than it actually deserves, and paints a false picture of both ancient Germanics and Germanic nationalists and what they really stand for, or stand against. For one, ancient Germanics were an ethnic group and were thus as divided in opinion as modern Germanics. Germanic Nationalists, on the other hand, are an ideological group and are thus not as widely divided in opinion, and represent a very narrow slice of the diverse spectrum of opinions held by Germanic people.
I also think it is absolutely silly to judge ancient works as adhering to any kind of modern ideology. The poem Bēowulf has traditional 8th-11th century pagan-Christian Anglo-Saxon values, any and all of which could be held by either a Nationalist or a non-Nationalist. That’s about it.
Myth 15: Anything that Bēowulf, the character, says is absolutely true and thus canon.
For supposedly being all about him, we don’t actually learn too much about Bēowulf and his nature from the poem. Although he is presented as an ideal Scandinavian figure and honesty was highly valued in ancient Scandinavian societies, deceit and trickery considered to be effeminate and anti-masculine, he still might not be a trustworthy individual, or he might simply not be entirely truthful.
The only source for Hūnferð killing his brother is Bēowulf’s word. How do we know that he is right and that this is what happened? Even if he is telling what he believes to be the truth, how do we know he wasn’t misinformed?
Bēowulf and Hūnferð present two contrasting accounts of the incident with Breca. How can we tell which one is correct?
One of my favorite things about the poem is that a lot of it is very much open to personal interpretation, which makes the poem serve as an excellent source and springboard for stories, adaptations, and ideas. You could even question the poem at a more meta level and challenge the very validity of the canon! Where did it come from? What were the storytellers’ various agendas as they first composed it, then passed it down from generation to generation? What has been obscured and hidden in the years it was told before it was written down? That is how flexible the poem of Bēowulf is, and I absolutely love it.
Myth 16: Bēowulf is a silly fairytale about a dude who kills monsters. It has no literary value apart from as a linguistic and historical source.
JRR Tolkien had a famous lecture challenging the myth, perpetuated by the literary scholars of his time, that Bēowulf had no value as a story, called Monsters and Critics, and he certainly addresses what’s wrong with this myth far better than I would be able to myself, as I personally don’t read Bēowulf for the story. If you like Tolkien’s works and/or are interested in Bēowulf at all, I recommend reading Monsters and Critics, it is an excellent lecture.