In Search of the Dark Ages by Michael Wood (2005)

Michael Wood

This is Wood’s first book. Back in 1979 he burst onto our TV screens as the boyishly enthusiastic presenter of a BBC series about ‘the Dark Ages’, spread across eight episodes, his hippy length hair and flapping flairs striding along castle walls and over Iron Age forts. I remember chatting to a middle-aged woman TV executive who openly lusted after Wood’s big smile and tight, tight trousers.

Since this debut, Wood has gone on to present no fewer than 19 TV series as well as eight one-off documentaries and to write 12 history books. In fact I was surprised and dismayed to read that the former boy wonder of history TV is now nearly 70.

Dated

The first edition of this paperback was published in 1981 and its datedness is confirmed by the short bibliography at the back which recommends a swathe of texts from the 1970s and even some from the 1960s i.e. 50 long years ago.

The very title is dated, as nowadays all the scholars refer to the period from 400 to 1000 as the Early Middle Ages;’ no-one says ‘Dark Ages’ any more – though, credit where credit’s due, maybe this TV series and book helped shed light on the period for a popular audience which helped along the wider recategorisation.

But the book’s age does mean that you are continually wondering how much of it is still true. Wood is keen on archaeological evidence and almost every chapter features sentences like ‘new archaeological evidence / new digs at XXX are just revealing / promise to reveal major new evidence about Offa/Arthur et al…’ The reader is left wondering just what ‘new evidence’ has revealed over the past 40 years and just how much of Wood’s interpretations still hold up.

Investigations

It’s important to emphasise that the book does not provide a continuous and overarching history of the period: the opposite. The key phrase is ‘in search of…’ for each chapter of the book (just like each of the TV programmes) focuses on one particular iconic figure from the period and goes ‘in search of’ them, starting with their current, often mythologised reputation, then going on to examine the documentary texts, contemporary artifacts (coins, tapestries etc) and archaeological evidence to try and get at ‘the truth behind the myth’.

The figures are: Boadicea, King Arthur, the Sutton Hoo Man, Offa, Alfred the Great, King Athelstan, Eric Bloodaxe, King Ethelred the Unready, William the Conqueror. Each gets a chapter putting them in the context of their day, assessing the sources and material evidence for what we can really know about them, mentioning the usual anecdotes and clichés generally to dismiss them.

Contemporary comparisons

Part of Wood’s popularising approach is to make trendy comparisons to contemporary figures or situations. Some of this has dated a lot – when he mentions a contemporary satirical cartoon comparing the Prime Minister to Boadicea (or Boudica, as she was actually called) he is of course referring to Margaret Thatcher, not Theresa May. When he says that the late-Roman rulers of Britain effectively declared U.D.I. from the Empire, I just about remember what he’s referring to – Rhodesia’s declaration of independence from Britain back in 1965 – and it’s a thought-provoking comparison – but most readers would probably have to look it up. He says that contemporaries remembered the bad winter of 763 ‘just as we do that of 1947’ – do we? He says the Northumbrians felt about Athelstan’s conquest of their kingdom ‘the same way as we feel about the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia’ (p.145).

That said, I found many of the comparisons worked well bringing these ancient people to life, in highlighting how their behaviour is comparable to the same kind of things going on in the contemporary world:

For example, he compares the native British merchants getting involved with Roman traders like entrepreneurs in contemporary Third World countries taking out, for example, a Coca Cola franchise – or compares Boudica’s rebellion against the imperial Romans with rebellions against British Imperial rule – the most disastrous of which was probably the ‘Indian Mutiny’ – invigorating my thinking about both.

In the 440s the British King Vortigern invited warbands from Germany, Frisia and Denmark to come and help him fight against the invading Picts and Scots. As we know, a number of them decided they liked this new fertile country and decided to stay. Wood entertainingly compares the situation to modern mercenaries deciding not just to fight in but to settle and take over a modern African country.

The seventh-century English kingdoms were ruled by the descendants of the illiterate condottieri who had seized their chances in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is, let us say, as if Major ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare had founded his own dynasty in the Congo in the early sixties. (p.63)

I understood the reference the more since Hoare is mentioned in the memoirs of both Frederick Forsyth and Don McCullin who covered wars in Africa back in the distant 1960s.

Elsewhere he compares the builders of Offa’s Dyke to modern motorway construction companies, kingly announcements as sounding like modern propaganda by Third World dictators, the lingering influence of Rome on the 7th and 8th century kings comparable to the lingering afterglow of European imperial trappings on African dictators like Idi Amin or Jean-Bédel Bokassa. He compares the partition of England between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings to the partition of Israel, and the readiness of armed civilians to mobilise against the invader as comparable to the readiness of Israeli reservists (p.124); the burning of Ripon Minster by the southern army of King Eardred marching north to confront Erik Bloodaxe ‘had the same effect that the shelling of Reims had in 1914 (p.181).

Learning that King Athelstan was the first king to definitively rule the entire English nation and in fact to extend his mastery over Wales and Scotland, you might think ‘game over’, it’s all peaceful from now on, but far from it. The decades after Athelstan’s death in 939 saw the ravaging of the north of England by conflicting hordes of Saxons, Vikings, Northumbrians, Scots and Welsh, until it became a kind of ‘Dark Age Vietnam’, despoiled by the Dark Age equivalent of our modern ‘saturation bombing’ (p.165).

Quibbles and kings

Pedants might quibble that Boudicca’s rebellion against the Romans took place in 60AD, quite a long time before the official start date of the Dark Ages/Early Middle Ages, which is generally given as 400. But I can see the logic: a) Boudicca is more or less the first named leader of the Britons that history records and b) the themes of Roman colonialism and British resistance and c) the broader themes of invasion and resistance are set up very neatly by her story. In fact, given that a lot of the book is about invasion and resistance, leaving her out would have been odd.

For invasion is the main theme: the Romans arrived to find the native ‘Britons’ illiterate and so it’s only with the Romans that the written record begins, although archaeology suggests that successive waves of peoples had arrived and spread over Britain before them. But after the Romans there is a well-recorded set of invaders:

  • First the Angles and Saxons under their legendary leaders Hengist and Horsa in the 450s; the legend of King Arthur grew out of stories of native ‘British’ resistance to the Germanic invaders in the late 400s and Wood, like every other serious historian, concludes that there is not a shred of evidence for Arthur’s actual historical existence.
  • It is from the period when the Anglo-Saxon invaders settled into different ‘kingdoms’ – in fact themselves made up of loosely affiliated tribal groups – that dates the stupendous grave at Sutton Hoo with its wonderful Dark Age treasure: Wood goes ‘in search’ of the king who was buried there but, like every other scholar, says we will probably never know, though the name of King Raedwald of the East Angles is most often referred to in the scholarly literature.
  • King Offa of Mercia (757-797) was the most powerful king of his day – he was even deemed worthy of correspondence from the great Charlemagne, king of Francia (768-814) and Wood goes in search of his royal ‘palace’ at Tamworth.
  • It was King Alfred the Great (871-899) who had to deal with the arrival of a massive Viking army and, although pushed back into the marshy maze of the Somerset Levels, eventually emerged to fight the invaders to a truce, in which the Danes held all of England east of a line drawn from London to the Mersey – the so-called Danelaw.
  • It fell to his son, Edward, to successfully continue the fight against the Danes, and it was only in the reign of his son, King Athelstan (927-939) that all of England was for the first time unified under one ruler.
  • In fact, the Danes fought back and the Norse adventurer Eric Haraldsson, nicknamed Eric Bloodaxe, briefly seized and ruled Yorkshire from York. When he was finally overthrown (in 954), that was meant to be the end of Danish rule in England…
  • Except that the Danish King Cnut managed, after a long campaign led by his father, to seize the English throne in 1016 and reigned till his death in 1035, and was succeeded by his son Harthacnut, an unpopular tyrant who reigned for just two years (1040-42). During Cnut’s reign England became part of his North Sea Empire which joined the thrones of Denmark and Sweden.
  • Cnut’s Anglo-Danish kingdom is generally forgotten because it, like a lot of Anglo-Saxon history, is eclipsed by the Norman Conquest of 1066, with which Wood logically concludes his story.

Brutality

Though he conveys infectious excitement at the achievement of an Offa or Athelstan, Wood is well aware of the brutality which was required of a Dark Ages king.

For most Dark Age kings had the inclinations of spoilt children and their moral sense was unrefined. (p.221)

We learn that after Offa’s death the men of Kent rose up against Mercian rule and were crushed, their king, Eadberht Praen, taken in chains to Mercia where his hands were cut off and he was blinded (p.107). The Vikings practiced a ritual sacrifice of their fallen opponents to Wodin, the blood eagle, which involved cutting the ribs and lungs out of the living man and arranging them to look like eagle’s wings (p.114). The great Athelstan himself barely survived an attempt apparently organised by  his brother, Edwin, to capture and blind him (p.140). When the invading Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard died in 1014, his army elected  his son, Cnut, as king to replace him. Ethelred took advantage of the hiatus to raise levies and attack Cnut in Gainsborough, forcing him to go to sea. But the Danes had taken a number of nobles or their sons hostage for good behaviour, and Cnut put them all ashore at Sandwich, after cutting off their noses and hands (p.216).

Ravaging not fighting

There was no shortage of battles during this period (the thousand years from Boudicca’s revolt in 60 to Hastings in 1066) but what I began to realise was the steady drip-drip of ‘campaigns’ which never involved two armies directly confronting each other; instead during which one or more armies rampaged through their opponents’ territory, murdering, raping, destroying crops and burning down villages, in order to terrorise their opponents into ceasing fire and offering a truce. The Romans, the Britons, the Saxons, the Welsh, the Scots and the Picts and the Irish, the Vikings, the Danes and the Normans – all in their time waged ‘military’ campaigns which amounted to little more than systematic murder, rape and plunder of completely unarmed peasants as a deliberate war strategy.

I’ve always wondered why there’s a massive statue of Boudicca opposite the Houses of Parliament given that one of her main achievements was burning London to the ground, after previously ravaging all Roman settlements in her native East Anglia; and a thousand years later William the Bastard, having defeated the main Wessex army at Senlac Ridge, then set about ravaging the countryside in a wide circle to the west and up and around London – then when the English in the north resisted him, William went on a massive campaign of destruction known as the Harrying of the North (1069-70) resulting in huge destruction and widespread famine caused by his army’s looting, burning and slaughtering.

From Boadicea to the Bastard, a thousand years of horrific violence and destruction.

As David Carpenter points out in his history of the Plantagenet kings, direct confrontation in battle is risky; quite often the bigger better-led force loses, for all sorts of reasons. Hugely more controllable, predictable and effective is to ravage your opponents’ land until he sues for peace. You lose no soldiers; in fact the soldiers get all the food they want plus the perks of raping and/or killing helpless civilians, which saves on pay as well; if you do it long enough your opponent will cave in the end.

This is the depressing logic which means that, time after time, king after king and invader after invader found it cheaper, safer and more effective to kill and burn helpless civilians than to engage in a set piece battle. And it is a logic which continues to this day in horribly war-torn parts of the world.

Slavery

I’m well aware that slavery was one of the great trades of this era, that slaves were one of Roman Britain’s main exports and were still a mainstay of the economy even after William the Bastard tried to ban the trade a thousand years later, but Wood himself admits to being astonished by the range of breadth of the Dark Age slave trade (pp. 183-185):

  • The Spanish Arabs engaged in a lucrative slave trade with the Dublin Norse who often planned their attacks on Christian towns to coincide with Christian festivals when they’d be packed e.g. the raid on Kells in 951 in which the Norse took away over 3,000 slaves to sell on.
  • The Church in Britain was economically dependent on its slaves.
  • The Norse settlements on the east coast of Ireland served as clearing houses for slaves seized from the interior or Wales or England and then sold on to Arab Spain, to North Africa or via the Baltic via the Russian river routes to the Islamic states of the Middle East.
  • An Arab traveller of Erik Bloodaxe’s time (the 950s) reported from Spain on the great numbers of European slaves in the harems and in the militia. The Emir of Cordoba, in particular, owned many white women.
  • Most British slaves seem to have ended up being sent via the Russian river route to the Middle East. The numerous Icelandic sagas mention the slave trade and even give portraits of individual named slave impresarios.
  • The Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (962 – 973) captured tens of thousands of Slavs in his conquests eastwards, sending them in chains back to be processed by Jewish and Syrian slave merchants in Verdun, and then shipped south into Arab lands, many of them castrated first so as to be fit servants in the harem.
  • An eighth-century pilgrim in Taranto saw nine thousand Italian slaves being loaded aboard boat, just one of countless shipments to Egypt.

Almost everything about the Dark Ages is terrifying, the never-ending warfare, the endless ravaging burning and looting, but I think the vision of an entire continent dominated by the trade in slaves is the most harrowing thing of all.

The inheritance of Rome

Chris Wickham’s book, The Inheritance of Rome (2009), makes the claim that only in recent times have we come to realise the extent to which the legacy of Rome lived on for centuries after the end of the Roman Empire in the West (traditionally dated to the death of the last emperor in 475). So it’s interesting to read Wood making exactly the same point in 1980:

For the so-called barbarians of the seventh and eighth centuries, the Roman empire cast the same sort of afterglow as the British Empire did in post-colonial Africa… The ruins of Rome stood around them in tangible form, of course. But it went deeper than that. The Northumbrian bretwalda, Edwin, unsophisticated but immensely proud, as Bede portrays him, made the point of having the insignia of Roman office carried aloft before him in public. He was baptised by a Roman missionary in the Roman city of York, and for all we know held court in the still standing Roman HQ building there. Such men were setting themselves up as civilised heirs of Rome… (p.108)

Conclusion

All in all this is a popularising and accessible account, dipping into the most dramatic highlights of this long period, a quick entertaining read, with many stimulating thoughts, insights and comparisons thrown in.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris (2008)

This is a really good book about a key figure in medieval history: it feels deep and rich, comprehensively researched, and consistently thought-provoking. It provides a long, thorough and convincing portrait of this ‘great’ medieval king, with lots of insights into the culture and society of his time, not only of England, but of Wales and Scotland too. Above all, ploughing through this detailed account of the challenges Edward faced gives you a profound understanding of the sheer difficulty of being a medieval king.

You can read a good account of Edward I’s reign on Wikipedia. From Morris’s book a number of themes and ideas emerge over and above the basic facts:

The name ‘Edward’

Edward was an odd and unfashionable name for a Plantagenet king. It is a Saxon name from the same stable as Egbert and Aelfred – starkly different from the French names Norman aristocracy and royalty were used to – Guillaume, Henri, Jean, Richard and so on. This was because Edward’s father, Henry III, a feeble king, grew increasingly obsessed by religion and in particular with the last king of Saxon England, the saintly Edward the Confessor. Henry went so far as to have the Confessor’s bones dug up and reinterred in Westminster Abbey, which Henry also had rebuilt to the Confessor’s greater glory. And this is why he named his first-born son Edward.

Young manhood and education

Born in 1239, Edward grew up amid the chaos of the reign of useless father, Henry III. A major contributing factor to the chaos was the corrupt and violent behaviour of Henry’s in-laws, the French de Lusignan family (relatives of Henry’s scheming wife, Eleanor of Provence).

Discontent erupted in 1258 when a group of Henry’s senior nobles staged what was in effect a coup, forcing the king to expel the de Lusignans and to agree a comprehensive reform programme known as the Provisions of Oxford. From this high point the barons’ coup then slowly crumbled from within as they squabbled among themselves, but Henry was unable to regain full control of his kingdom and the ongoing instability led to another eruption in 1263, named The Second Barons War.

The rebel barons were led by the religious fanatic and land-grabbing baron Simon de Montfort. There’s quite a back story here, because earlier in his reign the impressionable Henry had allowed the charismatic and overbearing Montfort to marry his sister (against a lot of courtly opposition), so the rebel leader was in fact Henry’s own brother-in-law.

The rebels won the bloody Battle of Lewes in 1264, taking Henry and prince Edward (aged 25) prisoner. Edward was moved to a ‘safe’ castle in the west of England and generously given free reign which proved to be a mistake because one day he escaped on horseback to rejoin his royalist colleagues. The regrouped royalists brought the rebels to battle at Evesham in the West Midlands, killing the leading rebels including de Montfort.

Henry III was restored to a shaky sort of power, but now limited by the charters and rules he’d been obliged to comply with – the rough outlines of a ‘constitution’. For example, it was agreed that there would now be regular meetings of his nobles, the knights of the shires and burgesses from the major towns and cities. The new word ‘parliament’ began to be applied to these triannual meetings.

Henry III at first fiercely punished the rebels, confiscating their lands, imposing massive fines – but slowly discovered that this only drove the scattered rebels into further confrontation. Soon there were so many of them they acquired a name, ‘the Disinherited’, and hid out in remote parts of the realm such as the Isle of Ely, where they were difficult to defeat.

Edward learned a lot from all this.

a) In the initial stages of the rebellion he had (unbelievably) sided with de Montfort; only later, when push came to shove, did he rejoin his father’s party. Because of this he acquired a reputation for deceit and flipping sides which, as king, he was determined to rise above, by making clear and consistent decisions.
b) He realised it is a bad tactic to fiercely crush the defeated (cf the Allies’ behaviour to Wilhelmine Germany after the Great War) – you only sow the seeds for further conflict. Much better is the grand magnanimity and forgiveness practiced by his great-grandfather, Henry II, who repeatedly forgave his rebellious sons and other nobles (or America’s astonishingly forgiving attitude to defeated Japan in 1945).
c) Regular parliaments are an excellent way of letting disgruntled citizens state their problems. Right from the start of Edward’s reign he instituted regular meetings of the ‘parliament’ and he made a point of following up problems of corruption and out-of-date laws.

Crusade

If his father was besotted with the historic figure of Edward the Confessor, Edward developed a cult for the legendary King Arthur. Morris has some amusing pages explaining the rise of the legend of Arthur and the key part played in it by the fraud Geoffrey of Monmouth whose History of the Kings of Britain (written about 1136) is a farrago of fantasy and tall stories, but which devotes 60 or so pages to this King Arthur, providing a ‘factual’ basis which later writers spun out into extravagant stories.

So the first thing Edward did after marrying Eleanor of Castile was take his new bride to Glastonbury to see the (alleged and certainly faked) burial caskets containing Arthur and Guinevere. Edward was always to understand the importance of managing public events connected with the monarchy with high drama and theatrical trappings so as to imbue them with the maximum meaning and power.

He made a grand ceremony of ‘taking the cross’ to go a-crusading in 1268, in his father’s waning years. Morris shows in detail how he then set about mulcting the kingdom for the money he would need to lead his pack of knights and hangers-on to the Holy Land. Part one of the route was to head to the South of France to rendezvous with the senior partner in the crusade, King Louis IX of France. But on arrival at the Mediterranean he was dismayed to discover that Louis had been persuaded by his brother, Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily, not to sail to the Holy Land, but to Tunis in North Africa, to put down pirates who were causing Charles trouble. By the time Edward arrived in Tunis, Louis had made a peace treaty with the local emir so there was no fighting to be done.

The two fleets then sailed to Sicily but here a massive storm wrecked the French fleet, anchored on one side of Sicily, and the French king decided to go home. Edward continued with the English fleet – safely anchored on the other side of Sicily – to the Holy Land. His time here wasn’t quite a fiasco but it wasn’t a stunning success: Jerusalem had fallen fifty years earlier and the Crusader ‘kingdom’ more or less amounted to the town of Acre and a slender stretch of coastline. This was menaced by the Mamluk Muslims under their canny leader Baybars. A pointless foray to attack some Arab villages led to ferocious counter-measures.

The Crusaders’ best hope was to make an alliance with the new threat from the north, the Mongols, who had swept out of central Asia in the late 1100s and now held territory right across Asia, including to the north of Palestine in modern Iran. For various reasons the alliance didn’t come off. Edward realised the futility of his presence when Hugh II, king of Jerusalem, was forced to sign a peace treaty with Baybars, and all offensive operations were cancelled.

The most dramatic thing that happened to Edward in the Holy Land was an assassination attempt by a lone killer sent from Baybars, who made his way into the royal chamber and then attacked Edward with a knife. He managed to wound the king in the arm before Edward overpowered and killed him. The wound took some time to heal, but eventually Edward was well enough to pack up and set off back to England.

It was en route, in Sicily, that he learned that his father had died, in November 1272. Surprisingly, he didn’t rush home, but took his time, visiting his lands in Gascony, south-west France, and then making a point of visiting the French king and renewing his father’s fealty to him i.e. confirming the arrangement that Edward ‘owned’ Gascony on behalf of the French king.

It is a forlorn theme of the rest of Edward’s life, which Morris brings out, that he repeatedly made massive efforts to raise the money to go on a further crusade – but every time his preparations were stymied by the outbreak of conflict nearer to home and the money and troops raised to free the Holy Land were repeatedly decoyed into the never-ending conflicts in Wales or Scotland or France.

France

Edward’s father, the weakling Henry III, had been compelled in 1259 to travel to Paris and kneel before King Louis IX. Under the Treaty of Paris, Henry gave up any claim to his family’s lands in the north of France – this represented the final irrevocable loss of Normandy, Brittany, Anjour, Maine – all the territories his father (John) and uncle (Richard) and grandfather (Henry II) had laboured so long and hard to preserve. In return, though, Henry – and Edward after him – were confirmed as the legitimate rulers of Gascony, the rich wine-growing region in south-west France – so long as they did homage and recognised Louis as their feudal lord for these possessions.

Although it was an unstable arrangement, Edward had good personal relations with the French kings of his day, travelled to Paris more than once to confirm the arrangement and so – eerily – we were at peace with France for the first half of his reign.

This changed abruptly in Edward’s final, troubled decade, with the advent of a new French king, Philip IV. The French encouraged their merchant ships in the Channel to clash with English ships, with casualties on both sides. When Philip requested Edward to attend in person in Paris to discuss these and other minor skirmishes, Edward was too busy in Scotland to attend and so the French king declared Gascony forfeit.

Outraged, for the next ten years Edward tried to organise a major reconquest of Gascony but kept getting derailed by his troubles in Wales and Scotland. Some expeditionary forces were sent to the province, but generally were defeated or made small gains which were overturned by the much larger French forces. In the end it was the pope who came to Edward’s aid, demanding a peace between the two Christian kings and the restoration of the province by the French under pain of excommunication. We regained Gascony thanks to the pope.

Wales

The leading figure in late 12th century Wales was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. He was based in the core Welsh territory in the north, Gwynedd, which included the Isle of Anglesea. During the turmoil of Henry III’s reign, Llywelyn – via the 1267 Treaty of Montgomery – had expanded his territory to include the Four Cantrefs of Perfeddwlad and was recognised in his title of Prince of Wales.

Morris explains how different Welsh laws and customs were to English ones. The Welsh regarded themselves as heirs to the Britons who once inhabited all of Britain but had been disinherited twice over – once by the invading Anglo-Saxons from the 500s  and then by the Normans after 1066. Successive English kings had allotted the lands along the border with Wales to their strongest nobles. The border was known as the March and the nobles collectively as the Marchers. March lands had their own laws and customs and the Marcher lords liked to think that they were bounden to neither Welsh nor English laws. Low-level conflict between the Marcher lords and the Welsh was almost permanent.

English estates were passed on through primogeniture i.e. the eldest son inherits the entire estate. This has the merit of keeping grand estates united, making clear who the heir is, and has the spin-off effect of motivating younger sons to go and do something worthwhile like fight for the king or go on crusade. The Welsh had a completely different system of partitioning the estate of a dead man among all his male heirs. This led to the continual fragmentation of Welsh territory into small, relatively powerless estates, and to continual conflict between male members of families, and their allies.

So it was that Llywelyn’s fiercest enemies weren’t the English Marcher lords, but his own family, specifically his younger brother Dafydd. In 1274 Dafydd and Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys organised an assassination attempt against Llywelyn. It failed and they defected to the English, promising to fight for Edward in return for part of Llywelyn’s land. Morris enumerates the numerous minor incursions and skirmishes between English and Welsh in these years – but the snapping point came when Llywelyn announced his intention to marry Eleanor, daughter of Simon de Montfort, the great enemy of his father. The alliance of his Welsh enemies with the powerful de Montfort family on the Continent was too dangerous to be allowed. In November 1276 Edward declared war on Llywelyn and invaded with a massive force of 15,500 – of whom 9,000 were Welshmen. There wasn’t any single major battle, just skirmishes, the Welsh making hit-and-run guerrilla attacks on the larger force then running back to the hills.

(In fact it’s a characteristic of medieval warfare that there were very few battles; campaigns consisted of armies making great marches destroying, burning and pillaging everything in their path. It’s startling to read that, when King Edward finally brought William Wallace to battle at Falkirk on 22 July 1298, it was the first battle Edward had been involved in for 33 years, since the Battle of Evesham in 1265!)

Edward reinforced his advance by setting masons to build castles at key defensive points on his march into Llywelyn’s heartland. While his military campaign squeezed the Welsh into more remote fastnesses, the castles were built to protect Edward’s rear and to provide a permanent means of controlling the region. Llywelyn was forced to surrender. By the Treaty of Aberconwy in November 1277, Llywelyn was deprived of all his conquests of the previous twenty years, and left only with the core heartland of Gwynedd, and the rather empty title of ‘Prince of Wales’.

Edward pressed on with his castle-building. Most of the castles which the Welsh Tourist Board invites you to come and marvel at are in fact symbols of their nation’s subjection by the English.

But the insensitive imposition of English law and practices turned many minor Welsh nobility who had been neutral in the Llywelyn war against the settlement, and in 1282 war broke out again, led again by the difficult Dafydd. This time Edward was angry at the breach of the peace treaty, and invaded in full strength determined to take no prisoners. Llywelyn was killed at the Battle of Orewin Bridge in December 1282. In June 1283 Dafydd was also captured, taken to Shrewsbury, and hanged, drawn and quartered. The heads of the rebellious brothers were sent to London to be exhibited on spikes.

But peace in the Middle Ages never lasts long. There were further rebellions in 1287–88 and, in 1294, a serious uprising under the leadership of Madog ap Llywelyn, a distant relative of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Edward successfully suppressed both, but at some cost, and causing disruption to his other plans (the Holy Land, Gascony).

Edward was determined to stamp complete control on Wales. By the 1284 Statute of Rhuddlan, the Principality of Wales was incorporated into England and was given an administrative system like the English, with counties policed by sheriffs – ‘coins, laws, towns and charters’ as Morris sums it up. Edward embarked on the full-scale English settlement of Wales, creating new towns like Flint, Aberystwyth and Rhuddlan. The inhabitants of these towns were to be solely English, with the Welsh banned from living in them. Morris doesn’t hesitate to call this a form of apartheid.

(A fascinating aspect of these new towns or bastides is that, contrary to popular belief that the Middle Ages built everything in quaint windy lanes, they were laid out on a rigid grid pattern as this aerial view of Winchelsea, one of Edward’s English new towns, makes clear.)

Castles

The main medieval strategy for securing a conquered territory was to build castles. We are lucky in having the name of Edward’s master mason, an Italian he recruited in his slow journey back from the Ninth Crusade – Master James of Saint George.

Master James built the castles of Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech, which were intended as both fortresses and royal palaces for the King. These strongholds made a strong statement about Edward’s intentions to rule North Wales permanently. They drew on imagery from both the Byzantine Empire (in the shape and coloration of the buildings) and the legend of King Arthur, to assert the legitimacy of Edward’s rule.

In 1284 King Edward ensured that his son Edward (later Edward II) was born at Caernarfon Castle – another deliberate statement about the new political order in Wales. In 1301 at Lincoln, the young Edward became the first English prince to be invested with the title of ‘Prince of Wales’ – a tradition which continues to this day – and was granted land across North Wales with a view to permanently controlling the region.

Scotland

Morris has an interesting few pages about 13th century English racism i.e. the firm conviction that the Welsh, Irish and Scots were semi-human barbarians. This was based on their poverty relative to lush fertile England, to their chaotic social structures (the hosts of petty ‘kings’ always fighting each other), to their different attitudes to sex and marriage, and to their traditions of Christianity, alien in many ways to the orthodox Catholicism of the English and especially of the Europeanised Norman kings.

But within this general observation there are fascinating insights.

For example, the Welsh were ethnically very unified, descendants of the Britons, the original inhabitants of the island, who had been pushed west by the Romans, more so by the Angles and Saxons, and then again by the Norman invaders. Yet, partly because of their tradition of partitioning estates at the death of their owner among all adult males, the country was in a permanent state of infighting among a host of petty lords.

This contrasted strongly with 13th century Scotland, which was a surprisingly multi-ethnic society: in the south-west were the original ‘Brittonic elements’, but the south-east was mostly populated by English, remnants of the extensive Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria; in the west the inhabitants were of Gaelic stock, having immigrated from Ireland during the Dark Ages; and all around the coast, especially in the islands, lived people of Norwegian (Viking) stock (p.241). Then, after the Conquest, numbers of Norman knights settled in Scottish lands and, in the mid-12th century, there was a large influx of Flemish settlers.

Yet despite this multi-ethnicity, ironically the Scots had a more unified political culture than the Welsh, mainly because they had adopted the European idea of primogeniture, which ensured the maintenance of a strong central power. There were still civil wars and rebellions, but behind them all was always the established idea of one king of Scotland, in a way that there wasn’t an accepted idea of one central king of Wales.

It’s interesting to learn that around the end of the 11th century Scotland underwent a significant ‘anglicisation’. It is usually dated to the rule of Scots King David I. David had been brought up at the court of Henry I, around 1100, where he imbibed the courtly and urbane manners of European culture. As Morris points out, before this Scots kings had generally had Gaelic names, like Malcolm (Máel Coluim); afterwards they tended to have classical, Biblical or Norman names – Alexander, William, David. In fact, so sweeping were the changes that medieval scholars refer to them collectively as the ‘Davidian Revolution’:

The Davidian Revolution is a term given by many scholars to the changes which took place in the Kingdom of Scotland during the reign of David I (1124–1153). These included his foundation of burghs, implementation of the ideals of Gregorian Reform, foundation of monasteries, Normanization of the Scottish government, and the introduction of feudalism through immigrant Norman and Anglo-Norman knights. (Wikipedia)

All this meant that the kings of England tended to have much more respect for the King of the unified Scots than for the prince of the squabbling Welsh. They were more their idea of what kings should be. Edward I had been on good terms with the Scots king of his day, Alexander III (reigned 1249 to 1286), who paid him homage for the English lands he held of him (much as Edward paid the King of France homage for his territory of Gascony).

But when Alexander’s two sons and daughter all died young, and then Alexander himself died in 1286, and then his grand-daughter, seven-year-old Matilda, died while sailing back from Norway (where she’d been born) in 1290, there were no blood relatives left – the line of Alexander became defunct. This led to a massive succession crisis known in Scotland as ‘The Great Cause’.

There was a wide range of candidates to succeed and so an independent arbiter was needed. The nobles in charge of the process, the so-called ‘Guardians’ of Scotland, decided to ask King Edward to adjudicate the various claims. But Edward promptly horrified the Scots nobles by claiming complete sovereignty over Scotland. This set off a long train of highly legalistic disputes, claims and counter-claims. Morris details the complex negotiations whereby both sides tried to reconcile their conflicting views.

In fact a distinguishing feature of this book is the detail Morris goes into to show how legalistic so many of these disputes were in origin and enactment. I.e Edward was generally at pains to establish his right to a territory or cause; in the case of the Scots legalistic attempts to establish the next king dragged on for years before there was any hint of violence and many of the details are illuminating and amusing, for example the refusal of the Scots nobles to pay homage to Edward on English soil, leading to a lot of toing and froing over the bridge over the Tweed which formed the border between the two kingdoms.

On a high level, the legal approaches broke down and led to open warfare, which dragged on for the rest of Edward’s reign. The English beat the Scots, the Scots beat the English – either one of the two main contenders for the throne – Robert the Bruce or John Balliol – alternately allied with Edward then turned against him. Stirling castle was lost, then won again, then lost again.

In a way these wars are like love stories – ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again’ is the famous summary of all Hollywood love stories – similarly, ‘King of England conquers Scotland (or Wales or Ireland), King of England loses Scotland (or Wales or Ireland), King of England conquers Scotland (or Wales or Ireland) again’ is the high level summary. the interest is in the detail, and a lot of the detail in fact comes down to money.

Taxes

In his preface Morris says this is the first full-length biography of Edward for a century. I would guess that some of the biggest changes since the last one would be a more politically correct, culturally aware sense of the impact of English rule on the other nations of Britain (described above). But I also imagine this book goes into much greater detail about the economics of kingship.

These kings lived in a state of permanent financial crisis. The uprising against Henry III was prompted partly because of the corrupt influence of foreigners at court, but also because of Henry’s arbitrary and fierce levying of taxes on his subjects. The single biggest theme in Morris’s book isn’t war or King Arthur or Scotland – it is Edward’s permanent struggle to find enough money to pay for everything.

Crusades, building castles, fighting the Welsh, fighting the Scots, defending Gascony – they all cost money, drained the royal coffers, and Morris goes into exacting detail about Edward’s finances. Broadly speaking, in the first half of his reign Edward went out of his way to appear constitutional, to confirm the annual calling of parliaments, to confirm Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forests, to review grievances and issues all around his kingdom, to tour his lands and listen to local sheriffs and knights. Morris details the clever arrangement Edward devised with his Italian bankers, the Riccardi family from Lucca, whereby Edward swore over to them a fixed annual percentage of his wool tax in return for loans.

But in the 1290s this system broke down under the pressure of multiple threats, in Wales, Scotland, Gascony and then the brief intense threat of invasion from France (French ships raided and burned some of the Cinque Ports on the South Coast). Edward was forced by the huge expenditure required by these simultaneous wars to break many of the good practices of his early reign, by imposing a bewildering range of clever and onerous taxes, on towns and merchants, on the entire wool trade, on nobles and barons, and a punishing set of taxes on the (very wealthy) English church. Among many other things, the book is a thorough introduction to the world of medieval taxes, to maltotes and prises, to scutage and tallages and fifteenths and thirtieths.

The last quarter of the book describes how Edward threw away much of the goodwill generated by 20 years of good kingship, and comprehensively alienated every element in society, prompting armed insurrection by a number of leading nobles (most frequently the earls of Norfolk and Hereford, Roger Bigod and Humphrey de Bohun). In the legalistic way of the age (and of Morris’s account) this led to numerous parliaments and confrontations – but by 1300 England teetered on the brink of a civil war, with church and nobility allied against the king, which hadn’t been seen since the bad days of King Henry in the 1250s.

Luckily, this very moment saw the eruption onto the scene of the Scottish nationalist William Wallace, who raised forces in the west of Scotland and went onto win a series of devastating victories against the (badly supplied) English garrisons. As news of these reached England, the crisis (temporarily) united king and aristocracy into a determination to defeat Wallace.

But even though the nobility closed ranks, Morris’s account is fascinating in showing just how hard it still was for Edward to persuade his nobility to fight at all – many of them refused the call to rally to the king’s standard or marched north only to hesitate and pull out at the last moment. Time and again Morris shows how the initially impressive levies of infantry quickly melted away once they’d crossed the border, basically because the king ran out of money and couldn’t afford to pay them. Edward’s letters to his Exchequer survive and record a king driven to mounting rage and frustration at not being sent enough money to pay  his troops, which melt away just at vital moments of the campaign.

I came to this book knowing that Edward was known as ‘the Hammer of the Scots’ but come away with a much more informed sense of the difficulty of funding medieval kingship and the really immense challenge of raising enough money to fund even a single military campaign.

In a telling symbol, Morris points out how Master James the castle builder had thousands of pounds in the 1280s to build edifices like Caernarfon out of solid stone, but by the late 1290s the money had slowed to a trickle and he was being paid only £20 a week to build the final castles of the reign, Linlithgow and Selkirk – and in wood!

The last seven years of his reign (to his death in 1307) involved more fighting against the Welsh and Scots and French but none of these was brought to a final resolution and he handed over the conflicts, the dire state of royal finances, and a nobility and church very disgruntled at being repeatedly fleeced and mulcted, over to his son, Edward II.

Wife and children

When he was 14 Edward was married off by his father to 13-year-old Eleanor, the half-sister of King Alfonso X of Castile. The idea behind this alliance was to make the southern borders of Gascony safe from attack. In this respect it worked but also, unusually for a medieval royal couple, Edward and Eleanor fell deeply in love. For their entire adult lives they were inseparable.

When Eleanor of Castile died, aged just 49, in 1290, Edward’s grief was immense and sincere. He built the largest funerary monument ever created in England – separate tombs, at Lincoln and Westminster. And a series of twelve large stone and marble crosses to mark each of the resting points of her corpse as it was carried from Lincoln to London – the last one being in central London at the station now known as Charing Cross (corrupted from the French chère reine or ‘dear queen’).

Eleanor of Castile had borne Edward 15 or 16 children (the precise number is uncertain). Only four of these were boys and so able to inherit the throne, but two died very young, John aged 4 and Henry aged 6. The succession then passed to the third son – Alfonso. Alfonso. There could have been an English king named Alfonso! But in the event, prince Alfonso also died relatively young – aged just 9 – and the throne was to pass to Edward and Eleanor’s 12th child and 4th son, also named Edward.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books

The Muse Among the Motors by Rudyard Kipling

‘A series of verses on motoring and motorists, in the form of parodies in the style of earlier writers’

a) Kipling was an early enthusiast for motor cars from the moment his friend, the newspaper tycoon Lord Harmsworth, arrived at his Sussex home in one in 1900. He quickly bought a very early model – in fact a soon-to-be redundant steam-powered car, a ‘Locomobile’ – and employed the first of a series of chauffeur-engineers to drive and maintain it for him.

b) Kipling’s family was very artistic and throughout the children’s childhood and youth, the whole family read poetry and plays together, especially Shakespeare. Encouraged by this cultured environment, Kipling showed a precocious ability at writing pastiches and parodies from an early age. One of his first books was a self-published collection of parodies titled Echoes, printed when he was just 19.

After the turn of the century, when the South African war was over and Kipling had settled into his new home in rural Sussex, the two interests came together in a series of light-hearted pastiches of early, medieval and romantic poetry, with Kipling copying the styles of various classic poets (Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Donne, Milton, Byron Wordsworth and so on) as if they’d written poems about motor cars.

The first 14 were published in the Daily Mail in 1904 – to which he added six more in 1919, and a further six in 1929, making 26 in total. Some are very short. None are masterpieces. Some are mildly amusing. I like his take on the alliterative four-stress line of Anglo-Saxon poetry:

The Advertisement

(In the Manner of the Earlier English)

Whether to wend through straight streets strictly,
Trimly by towns perfectly paved;
Or after office, as fitteth thy fancy,
Faring with friends far among fields;
There is none other equal in action,
Sith she is silent, nimble, unnoisome,
Lordly of leather, gaudily gilded,
Burgeoning brightly in a brass bonnet,
Certain to steer well between wains.

and his spoof of Chaucer (I particularly like the line about Paris, that is exactly the kind of thing Chaucer says about his characters):

The Justice’s Tale

(Chaucer)

WITH them there rode a lustie Engineere
Wel skilled to handel everich waie her geere,
Hee was soe wise ne man colde showe him naught
And out of Paris was hys learnynge brought.
Frontlings mid brazen wheeles and wandes he sat,
And on hys heade he bare an leathern hat.
Hee was soe certaine of his governance,
That, by the Road, he tooke everie chaunce.
For simple people and for lordlings eke
Hee wolde not bate a del but onlie squeeke
Behinde their backés on an horné hie
Until they crope into a piggestie.
He was more wood than bull in china-shoppe,
And yet for cowes and doggés wolde hee stop,
Not our of Marcie but for Preudence-sake—
Than hys dependaunce ever was hys brake.

and this one, copying Adam Lindsay Gordon who I’ve never heard of, but which has the combination of sentimental pathos and humour of the Barrack-Room Ballads and also the punchiest final line.

The Dying Chauffeur

(Adam Lindsay Gordon)

WHEEL me gently to the garage, since my car and I must part –
No more for me the record and the run.
That cursèd left-hand cylinder the doctors call my heart
Is pinking past redemption – I am done!

They’ll never strike a mixture that’ll help me pull my load.
My gears are stripped – I cannot set my brakes.
I am entered for the finals down the timeless untimed Road
To the Maker of the makers of all makes!

Related links

Other Kipling reviews

A History of the English Church and People by the Venerable Bede (732)

Bede’s life

Bede was a monk who spent most of his life in the monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth and its companion monastery, Saint Paul’s in modern Jarrow, in the Dark Age Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. He lived from 672-735. The honorific Venerable (as in ‘the Venerable Bede’) apparently derives from the tombstone erected some years after his death.

Bede was fortunate in that his monastery was run by the enlightened abbot Benedict Biscop and his successor, Ceolfrith. It also contained probably the most extensive library in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Thus encouraged by kind sponsors and in a uniquely well-provisioned environment, Bede began to write and went on to compose some 40 works, including commentaries on numerous books of the Bible, a life of St Cuthbert, lives of famous Saxon abbots, and so on. (He usefully lists his works at the end of his masterpiece.)

But Bede is best-known for his masterpiece, regularly described as the first and greatest work of English history, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People). I have the old 1955 Penguin translation by Leo Sherley-Price, who translates the title as A History of the English Church and People.

Bede is called the Father of English History for several reasons:

  • He checked his sources, requesting documents and information from libraries in all the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, correlating documents against each other, enquiring of eye-witnesses or descendants of eye-witnesses wherever possible – he clearly lays out his methodology in the introductory letter, and thus established a tradition of scrupulously checking the facts.
  • He describes in wonderful detail a period – from the Roman departure 410 until his own day, the 720s – for which we have pitifully little alternative material. Without his history there would be a big hole in our knowledge of the period and, since this was when our country was founded, he is an invaluable source for the earliest years of our nation.
  • Bede’s whole conception of History is wonderfully rounded. At a time when his contemporaries were struggling to produce the blunt line-for-each-year Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede set the events he reports in the context of Papal, European and wider British history, going backwards and forwards in time to create themes and develop strands as well, of course, as within the overarching framework of God’s great redemptive plan.

Structure of the Ecclesiastical History

The work is divided into five books, each of which covers a certain period. But the more important division is of each book into 30 or so one- or two-page chapters. These focus on one incident or theme (the miracles of so and so, the death of one bishop and succession of another) and are obviously designed to provide good, practical meditations for his (entirely religious) audience to hear read out loud and ponder.

Leo Sherley-Price

Sherley-Price’s prose translation is crisp and brisk, presumably a faithful translation of Bede’s practical style. But the most striking thing about this translation is Sherley-Price’s attitude: he is himself a devout Christian and his beliefs come out in the introduction and (brief) notes, in a way a modern writer would not permit themselves. Thus his note on Pelagianism:

Pelagianism, ‘the British heresy’, denied the reality of original sin, and affirmed that man could attain perfection by his own efforts, unaided by the grace of God. This misconception is still strong today! [emphasis added]

In the introduction he gives a stout defence of miracles and the presence of the miraculous in the History:

Even when ruthless pruning has greatly reduced the number [of plausible miracles in the text], there remains an indissoluble core that cannot be explained by any known natural means, and attributable solely to the supernatural power of God displayed in and through His saints. And this is as it should be. For a true miracle (and who may doubt that such occur?) is not due to the supersession or inversion of the natural laws of the universe ordained by the Creator, but to the operation of cosmic laws as yet unrealised by man, activated by non-material forces whose potency is amply demonstrated in the Gospels. (Introduction, page 30)

These are words from a pre-’60s era which, in its own way, seems as remote as Bede’s 8th century. But the most telling sign of their datedness is, I think, not his Catholic faith as such – there’s no shortage of relic-kissing Catholics in 2013 – it is that he tries to make a rational, scientific distinction between improbable or forged miracles, and those which are undoubtedly the real thing. He thinks it is worthwhile to make the distinction, like a member of the Brains Trust, a reputable academic puffing a pipe and debating atheism with Bertrand Russell, like CS Lewis in his apologetic works, naively confident that you can reason someone into belief. Our understanding of texts and discourses has leapt forward massively in the past 60 years.

The miraculous in Bede

In my opinion, S-P is missing the point. The miraculous is the element in which Bede lives and breathes. God is all around him and his angels regularly appear to people he is describing, to people he actually knows, with important messages and predictions. Bede’s world is full of miraculous recoveries, holy rescues and blessed cures as God’s angels and saints battle demons and spirits, the forces of the Old Enemy, who are at work everywhere and in everyone.

The miracles in Bede aren’t incidental; they are symptomatic of a world utterly drenched in the presence of God’s powers. To try and unpick the more likely from the less likely ones is to completely miss the point, the coherence, of the imaginative world, the worldview, the psychology, the culture Bede inhabits, according to absurdly flat and literalistic criteria. It is like undertaking a scientific assessment of which bits of magic in Harry Potter might actually be feasible. You are missing the point; the point is to abandon yourself entirely to the endless wonder and richness and unceasing miraculousness of Bede’s world where God always helps his saints and always punishes his sinners.

Some miracles

  • Book I, chapter 7 St Alban, sentenced to execution by the Roman authorities, can’t cross the packed bridge into Verulamium, so the river blocking his way dries up just as the Red Sea did. As the executioner decapitates Alban, his own eyes pop out.
  • I, 17 as Germanus sails to Britain, devils raise a storm and the ships are in peril of foundering when Germanus prays and sprinkles holy water on the waves which puts the demons to flight and the storm passes.
  • I, 18 using relics he’s brought from Rome Germanus cures the blindness of a tribune’s young daughter.
  • I, 19 a fire threatens the house where Germanus is staying but he calls on the Lord and the flames turn back. Demons throw Germanus off his horse and he breaks his leg. In a vision an angel raises him and lo, his leg is healed.
  • I, 20 Picts and Saxons invade but bishops Germanus and Lupus organise the defending Britons who call on the Lord and leap out of hiding shouting so effectively that the Saxons and Picts all run away, many of them drowning in the river.
  • I, 21 Germanus heals the crippled son of the chieftain Elaphius.
  • I, 33 the priest Peter is drowned off the coast of Gaul and buried by the locals in a common grave but God makes a bright light shine over the grave every night until the locals realise he is a holy man and get him buried in a church in Boulogne.

The power of Christianity

The miracles are just the most striking way in which, for Bede and for all the missionaries, bishops and believers he describes, Christianity works. It is better than paganism because its believers wield the real power which drives the universe, not the foolish, deluded voodoo of illiterate peasants who believe in amulets and spells and worship stones and trees.

For many profaned the Faith that they professed by a wicked life, and at a time of plague some had even abandoned the Christian sacraments and had recourse to the delusive remedies of idolatry, as though they could expect to halt a plague ordained of God by spells, amulets, and other devilish secret arts. (IV, 28)

Christianity is good juju, it is the Real Thing, it is the real magic that pagans only pretend to harness. Believers in it win victories and become kings or emperors (as Constantine famously did at the Battle of the Vikings), they heal the sick and raise the dead and cast out demons and do battle with devils and quench fires and bring down rain and make the crops grow. It is all the supernatural things paganism claims to be – except it actually is.

Crediting witnesses, believing in miracles

Bede goes out of his way to tell us that he has many of these stories from people who knew the saints in question, and listened to their stories of angelic visitors and wrestling with devils and curing the sick and coffins which magically resize themselves to fit the bodies of deceased saints.

An old brother of our monastery, who is still living, testifies that he once knew a truthful and devout man who had met Fursey in the province of the East Angles, and heard of these visions from his own mouth (Book III, chapter 19)

I have thought it fitting to preserve the memory of one of these stories, often told me by the very reverend Bishop Acca, who said that it was vouched for by some very reliable brethren of the monastery. (IV, 14)

Among those who told me this story were some who had actually heard it from the mouth of the man to whom these things happened, so that I have no hesitation  about including it in t his history of the church as it was related. (IV, 23)

My informant in all these events was my fellow-priest, Edgils, who was living in the monastery at the time. (IV, 25)

We in our sceptical age all  know someone who knows someone who knows a waterworker who has definitely seen the crocodiles in London’s sewers. We know all about urban legends, about legends and myths of all types, about the irrationality and credulousness of human beings, about the ability of people under stress to clutch any straw, to believe their prayers saved the plunging plane or their sick relative or clinched the extra time winner. But we also know about the Somme, the Holocaust, about 9/11, we know that vast massacres occur and no-one is saved and God is nowhere to be seen.

Anyone could tell me of a miracle and I will apply David Hume’s Calculus of Probability to it – is it more likely that the vast and universal laws of Nature were suspended (often for a childish and petty end), or that the people who say they were have a need to appear important or are propagandising for their faith or are naive and credulous? Sadly, it will always be the latter. An entirely rational assessment will always balance against miracles. But where, then, is the point or pleasure in reading Bede or indeed any other Christian literature?

Some more miracles

  • Book IV, chapter 28 Cuthbert makes spring water appear on a barren hillside and crops to grow out of season.
  • IV 29 Cuthbert prophetically foretells his own death.
  • IV 30 Eleven years after his death Cuthbert’s body is found to be uncorrupted, soft and sweet.
  • IV 31 Brother Baduthegn suffers a paralytic stroke but drags himself to Cuthbert’s tomb where he dreams a great hand touches his wound and he awakens healed.
  • IV 32 Hairs from Cuthbert’s corpse cure the tumour on a brother’s eye.
  • V 1 The hermit Ethelwold calms a storm threatening to drown some monks.
  • V 2 Bishop John cures a dumb, scrofulous servant.
  • V 3 Bishop John cures Coenburg, a sick serving girl.
  • V 4 Bishop John cures the thane Puch’s wife.
  • V 5 Bishop John cures thane Addi’s servant.
  • V6 Bishop John cures a brother who foolishly races a horse, falls off and cracks his skull.
  • V 8 Archbishop Theodore foresees his own death in a vision.
  • V 9 Holy Egbert plans to evangelise the Germans but is prevented by God who sends visions and a storm.
  • V 10 Two missionaries to the Old Saxons are murdered by pagans but their bodies are washed upstream and a light shines over them every night till their companions find them and give them decent burial.

And so it goes on… To try to weight up the ‘valid’ miracles from the ‘invalid’ may be an interesting academic exercise but is pointless. Take out the miracles and there’d be nothing left. The entire story of the growth of the English church is, for Bede, miraculous and made up of miracle piled upon miracle.

Therefore, we should embrace the supernatural elements of Bede’s history unquestioningly, both as a vital component of his worldview, without which his whole history is pointless; and also because of the sheer pleasure it gives. How wonderful to live in this world of angels and demons! Surrender to its visions and what a wonderful, informative, imaginative, delightful book this is!

But what did pagans believe?

Notoriously, Bede (as all the Christian writers of the Dark Ages) tells us almost nothing about what his heathen and pagan opponents actually believed. Worshiping trees, stones and rivers, wearing amulets and slaughtering horses seem to be part of pagan belief but we only glimpse these as throwaway asides. There are a few exceptions, a few places where Bede paints a ‘conversion scene’ and allows us to see what the pagan worldview actually consisted of.

The most famous is in Book II, chapter 13, where King Edwin of Northumbria has already converted but needs to take his nobles with him. He convenes a council (AD 627). They are sitting in the king’s large hall, illuminated by a huge fireplace and maybe other torches, but with glassless windows. And one of the king’s thanes uses their setting for a famously beautiful metaphor of human life.

Another of the king’s chief men signified his agreement and went on to say: ‘Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.’

The conversion of King Sigbert of the East Saxons

There is another exchange, less poetic but, I think, more revealing in Book III, chapter 22:

About this time also, the East Saxons, who had once rejected the Faith and driven out Bishop Mellitus, again accepted it under the influence of King Oswy. For Sigbert their king, successor to Sigbert the Small, was a friend of Oswy and often used to visit him in the province of the Northumbrians. Oswy used to reason with him how gods made by man’s handwork could not be gods, and how a god could not be made from a log or block of stone, the rest of which might be burned or made into articles of everyday use or possibly thrown away as rubbish to be trampled underfoot and reduced to dust. He showed him how God is rather to be understood as a being of boundless majesty, invisible to human eyes, almighty, everlasting, Creator of heaven and earth and of the human race. He told him that he rules and will judge the world in justice, abiding in eternity, not in base and perishable metal; and that it should be rightly understood that all who know and do the will of their creator will receive an eternal reward from him. King Oswy advanced these and other arguments during friendly and brotherly talks with Sigbert, who, encouraged by the agreement of his friends, was at length convinced. So he talked it over with his advisers, and with one accord they accepted the Faith and were baptised with him by Bishop Finan in the king’s village of At-Wall, so named because it stands close to the wall which the Romans once built to protect Britain, about twelve miles from the eastern coast.

In the context of the Dark Ages this is gold dust. The level of detail! How fabulous to be told so much detail about these obscure kings, Oswy and Sigbert, about social intercourse between the kings of these early English kingdoms, about the relationship between a king and his advisers, about the geography of the region.

Christianity trumps paganism

But the core of the passage is the absolute crux of Bede’s History (and of Richard Fletcher’s book about the conversion of Europe) – the sheer majesty and breathtaking sweep, the intellectual, moral and imaginative scale and thoroughness and universality of Catholic Christianity compared with the thin, local, petty and shallow gods and practices of paganism. For me this one chapter shows how Christianity was a VAST improvement on the limited, dark, unintellectual world of the pagan gods.

Miracles and all, if you compare the intellectual coherence of Bede’s position with the worldview of the pagan Poetic Edda, Christianity wins hands-down for its scope and thoroughness. Thor throwing his hammer at giants is for children, the Last Battle between gods and giants is a fable for fatalistic warrior-kings which just can’t stand comparison with the wonder and coherence of the Christian notion of one, all-powerful, all-loving Creator, with his flocks of angels ready to help the mightiest king or the lowliest serf to lead a more holy, just and – ultimately- satisfying life. One by one, the kings of Dark Age Britain who Bede describes realised this and bowed to the inevitable.

Little was Bede to know that 60 years after his death furious straw-haired pagans were to appear from across the sea and do their damndest to destroy everything held most sacred. But that is another story…

Related links

"The Venerable Bede Translates John" by James Doyle Penrose (Wikimedia Commons)

“The Venerable Bede Translates John” by James Doyle Penrose (Wikimedia Commons)

On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain by Gildas

“Alas! the subject of my complaint is the general destruction of every thing that is good, and the general growth of evil throughout the land.”

The 6th century Welsh monk Gildas is the patron saint of all those well-educated people who think the country’s going to the dogs. He is the first Daily Mail leader writer, 1,400 years before the Daily Mail was founded. He even blames the immigrants for bringing the country to its knees – though for him it isn’t blacks or Asians or Poles – it’s the damn Angles and Saxons and Jutes.

And I thought to myself, ‘If God’s peculiar people, chosen from all the people of the world, the royal seed, and holy nation, to whom he had said, “My first begotten Israel,” its priests, prophets, and kings, throughout so many ages, his servant and apostle, and the members of his primitive church, were not spared when they deviated from the right path, what will he do to the darkness of this our age, in which, besides all the huge and heinous sins, which it has common with all the wicked of the world committed, is found an innate, indelible, and irremediable load of folly and inconstancy?’

These quotes are from his best-known work, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) in which he bemoans everything. The work is in 110 paragraphs which are conventionally divided into three parts: the background or history (the bit we’re interested in); a short condemnation of three contemporary kings followed by a long sequence of extensive quotes from Old Testament prophets to back Gildas up; and then condemnation of his fellow religious, priests and monks – all are to blame for the dire state of affairs in sub-Roman Britain.

Despite its slavish, often obscure and extremely lengthy references to Scripture and its convoluted style, the De Excidio is the only significant source for the period written by a near contemporary of the people and events described – and as such is invaluable.

But it is, alas, not a history:

To my mind, it is a grave mistake to call Gildas a ‘historian’: neither Columbanus, writing about forty years after his death, nor Alcuin, in the last quarter of the eighth century, regard him in this light… Gildas would never have regarded himself as a ‘historian’: he is a preacher, a revivalist, who will ‘attempt to state a few facts’ (pauca dicere conamur), by way of illustrating his message, that divine anger must visit with punishment a sinning people and priesthood. (Hugh Williams).

It is a sermon against unjust rulers, a Tract for the Times, a warning and a harrowing blast against ungodliness. The brief history it contains is just an introduction to the lengthy diatribe.

Choice of editions

I am aware of three web locations for the text:

Summary

Preface Paragraphs 1-2 – Preface and motives for writing

Part I Paragraphs 3-26 Description of Britain and a history from the Romans to Gildas’ time. His account of the 400 year Roman occupation seems garbled: he thinks the Romans only stayed periodically, arriving to put down incursions by the Picts and Scots or Boadicea and promptly departing. Very wrong. He skips several centuries from Boadicea to arrive at the crowning of Maximus emperor who takes the Roman legions with him to claim his throne on the continent in the 400s. It is in this section that we have our only reference to the letter supposedly written to Aetius the Roman by the Britons once they’d been abandoned to their fate by the departed legions:

Therefore, the wretched remnant, sending to Aetius, a powerful Roman citizen, address him as follow:—”To Aetius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons.” And again a little further, thus:—”The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned.” The Romans, however, could not assist them…

For Gildas the greatest catastrophe was to invite the Saxons to come help us against the raids of the Picts and the Scots in the North:

Then all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant Gurthrigern [Vortigern], the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations. Nothing was ever so pernicious to our country, nothing was ever so unlucky. What palpable darkness must have enveloped their minds-darkness desperate and cruel!

The Saxons ask for more and more pay until open hostility breaks out with their British hosts and, as the Saxons recruit more and more reinforcements from across the North Sea, the Britons are forced to retreat in their own land:

Some therefore, of the miserable remnant, being taken in the mountains, were murdered in great numbers; others, constrained by famine, came and yielded themselves to be slaves for ever to their foes, running the risk of being instantly slain… some others passed beyond the seas with loud lamentations instead of the voice of exhortation… Others, committing the safeguard of their lives, which were in continual jeopardy, to the mountains, precipices, thickly wooded forests, and to the rocks of the seas (albeit with trembling hearts), remained still in their country.

But the remnant is led by one Ambrosius Aurelianus who leads the Britons to victory against the Saxons at the battle of Mons Badonicus, and a period of peace ensues, though a peace among the ruins.

But not even at the present day are the cities of our country inhabited as formerly; deserted and dismantled, they lie neglected until now, because, although wars with foreigners have ceased, domestic wars continue.

These three – the begging letter, the invitation to the Saxons, the battle of Mons Badonicus – occur in no other source and are taken up by all succeeding historians down to our own time.

Part II Paragraphs 27-37 form the Denunciation of the Five Kings for their various sins, a list which includes utterly obscure figures and relatively well-documented ones:

  • Constantine, the tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia: charged with murdering two royal youths in a church – murder and sacrilege – putting away his first wife – adultery & fornication
  • thou lion’s whelp (as the prophet saith), Aurelius Conanus, a pagan, charged with murder, fornication, adultery
  • Vortipore, thou foolish tyrant of the Demetians – growing old and rich in murder and adulteries and the practices of a shameless daughter
  • Cuneglasse who has rejected his wife and married her sister
  • Maglocune who killed his uncle, the king, converted to become a monk, but then abandoned his vows to revert to being a dissolute licentious king, murdering his nephew and first wife. Gildas says his sin is all the worse because he had the most eloquent master in Britain as tutor. Who?

How useful it would have been to have their family trees explained, their achievements listed and their supposed crimes explained; instead Gildas resorts to lengthy biblical quotes and exegeses which bury the reality of historic individuals under tonnes of second hand verbiage:

And here, indeed, if not before, was this lamentable history of the miseries of our time to have been brought to a conclusion, that I might no further discourse of the deeds of men; but that I may not be thought timid or weary, whereby I might the less carefully avoid that saying of Isaiah, “Woe be to them who call good evil, and evil good placing darkness for light, and light for darkness, bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter, who seeing see not, and hearing hear not, whose hearts are overshadowed with a thick and black cloud of vices; “I will briefly set down the threatenings which are denounced against these five aforesaid lascivious horses, the frantic followers of Pharaoh, through whom his army is wilfully urged forward to their utter destruction in the Red Sea, and also against such others, by the sacred oracles, with whose holy testimonies the frame of this our little work is, as it were, roofed in, that it may not be subject to the showers of the envious, which otherwise would be poured thereon.

BUT, Gildas’s learning and sense of design is to be noted a) the five princes chosen for vilification are described with the same adjectives as the beast in the Book of revelation b) the long section in which Gildas quotes the authority of the prophets to back up his condemnation of the kings follows the same order of the source books in the Old Testament.

He was known as Gildas Sapiens, Gildas the Wise, and is referred to in letters of St Columbanus to the Pope around 600, and by Alcuin in the later 700s. He was clearly a name, a big man, in his time.

Part III Paragraphs 38-63 Extensive quotations from Scripture against wicked kings. Gildas works systematically and in order through the books of the Old Testament taking quotes which rail against unjust kings and how they will be sent to Hell.

What then shall unhappy leaders do now? Those few who have abandoned the broad way and are finding the narrow, are forbidden by God to pour out prayers for you, who persist in evil and tempt Him so greatly: upon whom, on the contrary, if you return with your heart unto God, they could not bring vengeance, because God is unwilling that the soul of man should perish, but calls it back, lest he who is cast away should utterly perish. Because, not even Jonas the prophet, and that when he greatly desired it, could bring vengeance on the Ninevites. But putting aside, meanwhile, our own words, let us rather hear what sound the prophetic trumpet gives: And if thou say this in thy heart, wherefore are these evils come? They come for the greatness of thy iniquity. If the Ethiop can change his skin, or the leopard his spots, ye also can do good, who have learnt to do evil.

Part IV Paragraphs 64-110 a similar attack upon the British clergy of the age which holds up to them lengthy examples of self-sacrifice and holiness from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Lives of the Saints and Martyrs.

Priests Britain has, but foolish ones; a great number of ministers, but shameless; clergy, but crafty plunderers; pastors, so to say, but wolves ready for the slaughter of souls, certainly not providing what is of benefit for the people, but seeking the filling of their own belly. They have church edifices, but enter them for the sake of filthy lucre; they teach the people, but by furnishing the worst examples, teach vice and evil morals; they seldom sacrifice, and never stand among the altars with pure heart; they do not reprove the people on account of their sins, nay, in fact, they commit the same; they despise the commandments of Christ, and are careful to satisfy their own lusts with all their prayers: they get possession of the seat of the apostle Peter with unclean feet, but, by the desert of cupidity, fall into the unwholesome chair of the traitor Judas.

Regret

The De Excidio is a fascinating insight into the mindset of a 6th century Welsh monk, a very educated man living in difficult times whose entire mental outlook, whose intellectual framework, is completely determined by Christian Scripture and teaching, its slightly hysterical millennial sense of the nearness of Doomsday and the burning urgency of repentance and prostration before God. Compared to the suave ironies of the pagan Tacitus, this is the new verbose, florid and emotional voice of the Christian Middle Ages.

But oh oh oh if only he had made fewer tedious references to the Old Testament we all know too well and had elaborated just a little on the pagan Britons’ religious beliefs and rituals of which we know virtually nothing:

I shall, therefore, omit those ancient errors common to all the nations of the earth, in which, before Christ came in the flesh, all mankind were bound; nor shall I enumerate those diabolical idols of my country, which almost surpassed in number those of Egypt, and of which we still see some mouldering away within or without the deserted temples, with stiff and deformed features as was customary. Nor will I call out upon the mountains, fountains, or hills, or upon the rivers, which now are subservient to the use of men, but once were an abomination and destruction to them, and to which the blind people paid divine honour.

What diabolical idols? Where were these temples, what were they like, what ceremonies were carried out there? Why were the idols features stiff and deformed? How did the people pay honour to the mountains, fountains, hills and rivers?

So tantalisingly close – and yet so frustratingly far.

More about Gildas

1638 translation of Gildas into English

1638 translation of Gildas into English

Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics by JRR Tolkien (1936)

Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford from 1925 to 1945. In 1936 he delivered this lecture about Beowulf to the British Academy. It is often cited as a turning point in studies of the poem because it completely changed the focus of study from seeing Beowulf as a primarily historical document which frustratingly fails to explain the many legends it refers to and wastes all its energy on childish monsters – to viewing it as a sophisticated work of art which uses its fairy-tale monsters to convey a surprisingly modern and relevant worldview about the ubiquity of Evil and the need to confront it, no matter what the cost.

Beowulf misused as history Tolkien claims that up to his time Beowulf has been recognised as important by critics and historians but consistently misinterpreted. By historians, philologists, archaeologists etc it has been mined for information about Germanic customs and religion and clothes and warfare. But Beowulf is not a historical document: it is a poem, a work of art. Its very success as a poem has created the sense that it is historical when, in fact, the most recent research tends to highlight (as with Shakespeare’s treatment of history) only its inconsistencies and cavalier approach.

So far from being a poem so poor that only its accidental historical interest can still recommend it, Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts… that research has discovered. It is indeed a curious fact that it is one of the peculiar poetic virtues of Beowulf that has contributed to its own critical misfortunes. The illusion of historical truth and perspective that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry, is largely a product of art. The author has used an instinctive historical sense – a part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy), of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.

Critics despise the monsters And literary critics have consistently been embarrassed by the centrality to the plot of the monsters which Beowulf has to kill – Grendel, his mother and the dragon. Literary critics up to Tolkien’s day preferred the many Germanic tales which are alluded to throughout the poem, stories which dealt with purely mortal men and sounded a lot like the classical tragedies they all did in Classics at school. For these critics, the Beowulf poet was guilty of crass bad taste in banishing these moving adult tragedies to the periphery and placing at the centre of the poem a series of childish folk tales, dealing with creatures out of fairy story or nursery rhyme. Tolkien quotes the great critic WP Ker, who in 1905 wrote:

The great beauty, the real value, of Beowulf is in its dignity of style. In construction it is curiously weak, in a sense preposterous; for while the main story is simplicity itself, the merest commonplace of heroic legend, all about it, in the historic allusions, there are revelations of a whole world of tragedy, plots different in import from that of Beowulf, more like the tragic themes of Iceland. Yet with this radical defect, a disproportion that puts the irrelevances in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges, the poem of Beowulf is undeniably weighty. The thing itself is cheap; the moral and the spirit of it can only be matched among the noblest authors.

Tolkien’s counter arguments It is this damning perception which Tolkien sets out to overturn: he succeeded so well that his lecture is cited by every study since as marking a sea change in attitudes. For Tolkien asserted that, far from being the rag-tag miscellany of an immature and juvenile culture, of a poet overwhelmed by silly folk stories and stitching them together willy-nilly – the Beowulf poet was a latecomer, arriving at the end of a mature and full civilisation, after it had been converted to Christianity, well aware of all the old legends and stories, who made a conscious choice to place the monsters at the centre of the poem because they are in fact the quintessence of the old pagan worldview: they encapsulate on a mythical level the evil, unreason and unavoidable death which all men face.

Tolkien marshals a range of arguments:

  • Other long Old English poems – eg Andreas, Guthlac – which contain just as dignified and high a style, somehow fail to have anything like the impact of Beowulf – could it be the much-condemned mythical subject matter which gives Beowulf depth and not its peers?
  • Criticism of the triviality and folk-taleness of the plot stem from reducing it to a synopsis, telling the story in outline – a fine methodology for comparative folk tale analysis but disastrous for poetry, which is made out of the texture of the words.
  • A deep prejudice of taste makes the critics of his time rate purely human tragedies as the highest genre – “Doom is held less literary than άµαρτία”. This represents a lack of feeling for “the mythological mode of imagination”

The significance of a myth is not easily pinned down on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and, what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.

  • The very process of analysing the poem, for purely historical or archaeological or narratological purposes, destroys its greatest effect, its power in every part.

Far from putting the essential legends of Germanic heroes at the periphery and filling the foreground with triteness, the Beowulf-poet has summarised the essence of  the Northern worldview, of a doomed hero with his back against the wall – the exaltation of undefeated will. This is the Northern spirit which receives such stirring expression in the words of Byrhtwold at the battle of Maldon.

It is in Beowulf that a poet has devoted a whole poem to this theme, and has drawn the struggle in different proportions, so that we may see man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time… The particular is on the outer edge, the essential in the centre…

When we have read his poem, as a poem, rather than as a collection of episodes, we perceive that he who wrote hæleð under heofenum may have meant in dictionary terms ‘heroes under heaven’, or ‘mighty men upon earth’, but he and his hearers were thinking of the eormengrund, the great earth, ringed with garsecg, the shoreless sea, beneath the sky’s inaccessible roof; whereon, as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat….

Beowulf is not, then, the hero of an heroic lay, precisely. He has no enmeshed loyalties, nor hapless love. He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy…

It is not an irritating accident that the tone of the poem is so high and its theme so low. It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone:

lif is læne: eal scæceð leoht and lif somod.

So deadly and ineluctable is the underlying thought, that those who in the circle of light, within the besieged hall, are absorbed in work or talk and do not look to the battlements, either do not regard it or recoil. Death comes to the feast, and they say He gibbers: He has no sense of proportion. I would suggest, then, that the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness.

By putting the monsters at the centre of his poem, the poet transcends the details of time and place to confront the timeless Problem of Evil

Tolkien goes on to address various other criticisms which have been made, such as that the poet’s combination of Old Testament with Germanic legends shows confusion and primitiveness. Tolkien argues at length that it shows just the opposite – a profound mind meditating on and assimilating the implications of the new Christian worldview:

In the poem I think we may observe not confusion, a half-hearted or a muddled business, but a fusion that has occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion. But that shift is not complete in Beowulf – whatever may have been true of its period in general. Its author is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die. A theme no Christian need despise…

Yet this theme plainly would not be so treated, but for the nearness of a pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’or ‘civilization’) ends in night. The solution of that tragedy is not treated—it does not arise out of the material.

We get in fact a poem from a pregnant moment of poise, looking back into the pit, by a man learned in old tales who was struggling, as it were, to get a general view of them all, perceiving their common tragedy of inevitable ruin, and yet feeling this more poetically because he was himself removed from the direct pressure of its despair. He could view from without, but still feel immediately and from within, the old dogma: despair of the event, combined with faith in the value of doomed resistance. He was still dealing with the great temporal tragedy, and not yet writing an allegorical homily in verse.

Tolkien contrasts Beowulf with the southern, Mediterranean world of the Classics, which so many of his contemporaries were brought up on and against which they are judging Beowulf and finding it lacking:

It is the strength of the Northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them Victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage. ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable.’ So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work, even as it did work with the goðlauss viking, without gods: martial heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.

Unlike, say, the Odyssey with its strange, hanging happy ending or the Iliad which ends in media res with the funeral of Patroclus but the war still unconcluded, Beowulf ends with the funeral and burial of the hero and the threatened end of his people, the Geats. Although it manages to have Christian sentiment throughout, the final feeling is of a very modern existentialist view of the world, as cold, heartless, shelterless, where most of us are abandoned to figure out our lives by whatever code or guidelines we can muster. For Tolkien, writing in the 1930s, in the shadow of the Nazis, the heartless Northern view of life must have seemed much more pressing and contemporary than the sweet perfections of the Classic tradition.

Hygelac's watchman greets Beowulf's boat

Hygelac’s watchman greets Beowulf’s boat

Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics online

Beowulf – elements of style

In the introduction to his Penguin 1973 edition of Beowulf, Michael Alexander summarises elements of the style of Beowulf and their consequences. (All quotes in the following are from Michael Alexander’s 1973 translation, reproduced with kind permission of the author):

1. The alliterative verse line

Number one is the use of alliteration as a device to order the verse rather than end-rhyme. Alliteration is much more intrusive, up to three words are dictated by the form as opposed the one of end-rhyme and this helps the tendency to clump words into alliterating stock phrases. Next is the inflected nature of the language which allows complex meaning to be conveyed by one word, and powerful meanings by just two. Compact and energetic. But the real key to Old English verse structure is the caesura which divides the two half lines, holding in balance the short clauses:

þaér æt hýðe | stód hringedstefna

There at hythe [harbour] | stood the ringed-prow [ship]

This balancing has all kinds of affects, as Alexander puts it:

Traditional oral composition by phrase accounts for an exclamatory lack of syntactic subordination and for the tacking, eddying, resumptive movement of the sense.

There is a continual play between the demands of sense ie the syntactic units not to be too far apart – and of the alliterative scheme ie some sets of words fit fluently together regardless of sense and so being grouped together regardless of sense: an accumulation of short stocky phrases.

The symmetry of the halves of the line produces balance, antithesis and chiasmos much more commonly than in unrhymed iambic pentameter, and the forward movement is much more impeded than in later English blank verse. The halves of the line are, as often as not, out of the natural sequence of prose or spoken syntax and, as the mind reshuffles the parts of the sentence, the tendency is for the half-lines to move apart; but the alliteration and the stress pattern bind them together. The final impression of the verse in Beowulf is of contrasting energies being held in a rhythmic balance – and this is also the impression of the poem as a whole.

This is what Alexander captures in his use of “exclamatory”. Reading Anglo Saxon verse is like a series of hand grenades going off in your mind, in your mouth, as punchy phrase follows punchy phrase. Or, as Tolkien puts it in his famous essay, The Monsters and the Critics:

We must not view this poem as in intention an exciting narrative or a romantic tale.The very nature of Old English metre is often misjudged. In it there is no single rhythmic pattern progressing from the beginning of a line to the end, and repeated with variation in other lines. The lines do not go according to a tune. They are founded on a balance; an opposition between two halves of roughly equivalent phonetic weight, and significant content, which are more often rhythmically contrasted than similar. They are more like masonry than music.

2. Other elements of style

The kenning is a figure of speech in old Germanic or Norse literature which uses two words, one in the genitive or possessive case, to create a periphrasis or roundabout way of describing an object. Thus, in Beowulf, the sea is described as the seġl-rād “sail-road” (1429b), swan-rād “swan-road” (200a), hron-rād “whale-road” (10). (Riddles were a big part of Germanic culture. There are two entire sets of riddles in the AngloSaxon corpus, 90 riddles survive in the Exeter Book. Kennings are a kind of miniature riddle).

From the south blazed
the sun, the world’s candle (1965-6)

When heaven’s jewel
has glided from the world… (2073)

God they thanked
For the smooth going over the salt-trails (228)

Day in the east grew
God’s bright beacon, | and the billows sank… (571)

… a chief shall greet
his fellow with gifts | over the gannet’s bath (1861)

Riding at anchor
the strayer of ocean… (1882)

A special sea dress, | a sail, was hoisted… (1906)

… until they took part | in that play-of-the-shields… (2038)

the daring-in-battle | would address the harp,
the joy wood… (2108)

since the legacy of the hammer [sword], | hard and battle-scarred,
the iron edges, | had utterly destroyed him (2828)

As this selection shows they are good but not that good. Some of them stray from being kennings to being simple metaphors. In fact it’s surprising and a little disappointing that there are so few kennings in Beowulf, I counted fewer than 20 in total. This is not where the poet’s energies were directed. More effort went into…

Pleasure in elaborating – armour God, kings, heroes and some classes of objects tend to have repeatable descriptive phrases cluster round them in apposition.

He then saw in the hall | a host of young soldiers,
a company of kinsmen | caught away in sleep,
a whole warrior-band. (728)

the grisly plaint of God’s enemy,
his song of ill-success, the sobs of the damned one
bewailing his pain. (786)

Let’s take objects first: the poem is awash with description of objects, especially those manmade objects which indicate status and class and that means, pre-eminently, arms and armour. Finely carved armour, especially if it involved gold, was possibly the most precious and rare object in the Migration Age; cups, goblets, jewellery come a close second but armour was heavily invested with the masculine values of the time – the strongest warrior was expected to wear the finest armour; and arms and armour were also an important part of the gift-giving which bound Dark Age society together:

The war-coats shone
and the links of hard | hand-locked iron
sang in their harness | as they stepped along
in their gear of grim aspect | going to the hall.
Sea-wearied, they then | set against the wall
their broad shields | of special temper,
and bowed to bench, | battle-shirts clinking,
the war-dress of warriors. (322-8)

Then as a sign of victory | the son of Healfdene
bestowed on Beowulf | a standard worked in gold,
a figured battle-banner, | breast and head armour;
and many admired | the marvellous sword
that was borne before the hero. (1021-5)

Against sea-beasts | my body-armour,
hand-linked and hammered, | helped me then,
this forge-knit battleshirt | bright with gold,
decking my breast. (550-3)

Then the cup was taken to him | and he was entreated kindly
to honour their feast: | ornate gold
was presented in trophy: | two arm-wreaths,
with robes and rings also, | and the richest collar
I have ever heard of | in all the world. (1192-6)

On a side note, much of the armour has the image of a boar on it. Not sure if this was a generic symbol of warriors or relates to a particular tribe but, strikingly, boar motifs were found on the armour at the famous Sutton Hoo archaeological site.

Over the cheek-pieces
boar-shapes shone out, | bristling with gold,
blazing and fire-hard, | fierce guards
of their bearers’ lives… (303-6)

where the bound blade, | beaten out by hammers,
cuts, with its sharp edges | shining with blood,
through the boars that bristle | above the foes’ helmets! ( 1285-87)

He was my closest councillor, | he was keeper of my thoughts,
he stood at my shoulder | when we struck for our lives
as the crashing together | of companies of foot,
when blows rained on boar-crests. (1325-8)

Boar carved in iron on a helmet from the Sutton Hoo excavations

Boar carved in iron on a helmet from the Sutton Hoo excavations

Elaboration of names Not only are important objects described at length but important people tend to have multiple epithets clustered around them, “a series of synonyms in apposition”. A king or hero will be named and then their position as leader or their family position clarified, their genealogy or their deeds will be summarised in an apposite phrase or two. It bigs them up, it makes them more potent (as, to this day, we give the royal family or eminent soldiers or notable citizens an accumulation of names, titles and awards).

It also has a secondary affect, as Alexander points out, of placing everything and everyone within a realistically-conceived world. Characters don’t appear out of nowhere: their names, their deeds, their family and their history are all explained, and this technique is part of what gives to the poem its epic quality of describing a real and objective world.

to earth’s men the most glorious
of houses under heaven, | the home of the king (309)

“The Master of the Danes,
Lord of the Scyldings, | shall learn of your request.
I shall gladly ask | my honoured chief,
giver of armbands, | about your undertaking… (350)

“The Master of Battles | bids me announce,
the Lord of the North-Danes, | that he knows your ancestry…” (391)

To you I will now
put one request, | Royal Scylding,
Shield of the South-Danes, | one sole favour
that you’ll not deny me, | dear lord of your people,
now that I have come thus far, | Fastness of Warriors.. (426)

Great then was the hope | of the grey-locked Hrothgar,
warrior, giver of rings. | Great was the trust
of the Shield of the Danes, | shepherd of the people… (607)

… hoping that their lord’s son | would live and in ripeness
assume the kingdom, | the care of his people,
the hoard and the stronghold, | the storehouse of heroes,
the Scylding homeland. (910)

… stepping on eagerly | to the stronghold where
Ongentheow’s conqueror, | the earl’s defender,
the warlike young king… (1967)

The protector of warriors | rewarded me
with a heap of treasure, | Healfdene’s son. (2142)

… when Hygelac was slain
when that kindly lord of the peoples, | the king of the Geats,
the son of Hrethel, | among the hurl of battle
slaked the sword’s thirst… (2355)

Elaboration of God’s names And of course this applies most of all to descriptions of God who, naturally, merits multiple appositional phrases, to big up his magnitude, as he does in all churches to this day. To this day it is felt by many users of English that the only way to convey somebody or something’s power is to give them multiple epithets. More is more:

The Maker was unknown to them
the Judge of all actions, | the Almighty was unheard of,
they knew not hot to praise | the Prince of heaven,
the Wielder of Glory. (180)

The Father in His wisdom
shall apportion the honours then, | the All-Holy Lord… (687-8)

The ancient arose and | offered thanks to God,
to the Lord Almighty, | for what this man had spoken. (1396)

“I wish to put in words my thanks
to the King of Glory, | the Giver of All,
the Lord of Eternity, | for these treasures that I see… (2794)

Understatement of experience “Litotes is a figure of speech in which understatement is employed for rhetorical effect, principally via double negatives. Rather than saying something is attractive (or even very attractive), one might merely say it is ‘not unattractive'”. A bluff Northern Yorkshire understatement is meant to be a leading characteristic of Norse and Anglo Saxon verse but I found litotes relatively rare in Beowulf.

Nor was it ungraciously | that he greeted the strangers (1892)

The wind did not hinder | the wave-skimming ship (1907)

There was little cause | for crowing among the Hetware
for their conduct of the foot-fight… (2363)

Related to it is the way eloquent verse paragraphs often end with a short, pithy, blunt, ironic comment, like a capstone.

The Scylding champion, | shaking with war rage,
caught it by its rich hilt, and, | careless of his life,
brandished its circles, | and brought it down in fury
to take her full and fairly across the neck,
breaking the bones; | the blade sheared
through the death-doomed flesh. | She fell to the ground;
the sword was gory; | he was glad at the deed.

The last line and a half is the conclusion and climax of 50 lines describing the fight between Beowulf and Grendel’s dam, and very characteristically Anglo Saxon in its sudden laconic brevity: three short, pithy half lines, summing up the action with Nordic indirectness (“the sword was gory”) and understatement of emotion (“he was glad at the deed”).

He had dived to his doom, | he had died miserably;
here in his fen-lair | he had laid aside
his heathen soul. | Hell welcomed it. (850-52)

There were melting heads
and bursting wounds, | as the blood sprang out
from weapon-bitten bodies. | Blazing fire,
most insatiable of spirits, | swallowed the remains
of the victims of both nations. | Their valour was no more. (1120)

Before morning’s light
he flew back to the hoard | in its hidden chamber.
He had poured out fire | and flame on the people,
he had put them to the torch; | he trusted now to the barrow’s walls
and to his fighting strength; | his faith misled him. (2320)

It was not granted to him
that an iron edge | could ever lend him
help in a battle; | his hand was too strong.
I have heard that any sword, | however hardened by wounds,
that he bore into battle, | his blow would overtax
– any weapon whatever: | it was the worse for him. (2682)

Archaic and artful Anglo Saxon poetic diction is deliberately more archaic and elaborate than Anglo Saxon prose which tends to be simpler and more analytic. Many words occur in the poetry which are found nowhere in the prose, some of them related to older Norse terms. Ie Anglo Saxon poetry is a highly artificial and artful creation. The use of multiple short, laconic, forceful phrases in apposition creates a steady, powerful impact. As Alexander eloquently puts it:

the effect is of strenuous and untiring eloquence.

Full text of Beowulf with parallel translation

All quotes copyright © Michael Alexander 1973, reproduced with kind permission of the author.

Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode by JRR Tolkien (1982)

Known to millions as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien earned his living as a philologist, a specialist in Anglo Saxon, Middle English, and medieval Norse and German at Oxford University. His core activity was establishing the meanings of Anglo Saxon and Norse words which often exist only in a handful of forms, in a handful or only one manuscript, identifying where scribes and copyists made mistakes (as they often did), establishing their cognate forms in other early medieval texts, languages and dialects, with the ultimate aim of establishing ‘good’ texts. For 40 years, from the late 1920s to the early 60s,  he lectured and wrote about all aspects of Anglo Saxon (and its cousin, medieval Norse) literature.

The historic ‘interludes’ in Beowulf

The 3,000 line Old English ‘epic’ Beowulf contains quite a few references to the collective history of the north European Germanic tribes of the Dark Ages; the stories of various heroes of legend are told within the poem by the bards who populate the various kings’ halls (Hrothgar the Dane, Hyglac the Geat), but always quite allusively – the audience who heard these poems knew the stories extremely well; the pleasure was in the way the poet shaped and formed them.

Unfortunately, to us, 1,500 years later, these tellings are tantalisingly obscure, hinting at back stories which we can almost never verify or only painfully piece together from other fragments and damaged texts which happened to survive from Europe’s ‘Dark Ages’. This book is about one particular such legend which occurs around line 1,000 of Beowulf:

The Episode, Beowulf 1063-1160

After Beowulf fights and defeats the monster Grendel in Heorot, the meadhall of King Hrothgar the Dane, the king’s bard sings in celebration a brief summary of the story of Finn, Hnaef and Hengest. The ‘Episode’ as it’s called, lasts only 100 lines before the plot moves swiftly on, leaving a number of unresolved queries in its wake: what happens at Finn’s hall? Why is there a fight at all? Who exactly is it between – Danes and Frisians are mentioned, so where do the Jutes come in? Why does Hengest replace Hnaef as leader of the Danes? Is Hengest even Danish or some kind of exile or mercenary? Has he got anything to do with the Hengest who the Venerable Bede records as leading the Jutes who invade and start to settle Kent in 449AD? Why does Hengest decide to stay, along with the Danish warband, under the hospitality of the Frisian King Finn for an entire winter after Finn and his men have treacherously attacked them?

The Fragment

As chance would have it, and it really is the randomest of lucky chances, in the 1700s a scholarly vicar, George Hickes, published a fragment of Anglo Saxon verse he had found on spare sheet of manuscript in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s library. The sheet has since disappeared. All we have is his transcription, riddled with mistakes. But it is a fragment (starting and ending in mid-sentence) which seems to come from the story of Hnaef and Finn and seems to describe in hectic immediate style the start of the dramatic fight at Finn’s hall. This text has become known as the Fight at Finnsburg, also known as the ‘Fragment’.

Gathering Tolkien’s papers

When Tolkien died he left a vast amount of papers, published and unpublished, scholarly or part of his great imagined world of Middle Earth. His son, Christopher, has dedicated his life to establishing order and publishing definitive versions of these texts (hence, for example, the 12 volumes of the stories of Middle Earth). Over his career Tolkien lectured and speculated repeatedly about the relation between the Fragment and the Episode (which has also attracted a huge amount of attention from other scholars of the period).

Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode was compiled by the OE scholar Alan Bliss in an attempt to create a definitive version of Tolkien’s thoughts on this popular subject. It is divided into four parts:

1. Glossary of Names A very detailed consideration of the origin, meaning, other citings and interrelations of all the proper names used in both the Fragment and Episode: Hnaef, Healfdene, Scylding, Hengest, Finn. You get a good flavour of just how complicated it is trying to establish order and consistency from the wealth of fragments and references to names which differ in every citation and from language to language, in the Wikipedia article about Hrothgar, lord of the Danes, whose meadhall Beowulf visits and protects from the monster Grendel.

Investigating all the names which occur in both Fragment and Episode provides a foundation for…

2. Textual Commentary A detailed examination of key words and phrases in the text which shed light on the mystery. This is like the textual apparatus you get with any classic text, explaining in detail all the editorial choices and decisions. This passage gives a good flavour of the book. It is analysing lines 43-45 of the fragment which, in George Hickes’ transcription reads:

Þā gewāt him wund hæleð | on wæg gangan,
sǣde þæt his byrne | ābrocen wǣre,
here-sceorpum hrōr, | and ēac wæs his helm þyrl…

Then a wounded hero | away turned,
said that his byrnie | was a-broken
active in his armour| and also his helm pierced…

about which Tolkien writes:

45 Hickes [ie George Hickes’ transcription has…] Here sceorpum hror. ‘Active in his armour’ makes no sense in this context, which clearly is a complaint that their weapons are no longer serviceable. Compare the exclamation of Hjalti (Hialto) in Saxo’s translation of Bjarkamal: “Already, grievously have sword and darts cut to pieces my shield… of the broken shield the arm thongs alone remain.” Compare also the situation in Olafr Trygvasson’s last fight:

“Ōlāfr konungr Tryggvason stōð ī lypting ā Orminum, ok skaut optast um daginn, stundum bogaskoti, en stundum gaflǫkum, ok jafnan tveim sęnn. Hann sā fram ā skipit, ok sā sīna męnn reiða sverðin ok hǫggva tītt, ok sā at illa bitu; mælti þā hātt: ‘hvārt reiði þēr svā slæliga sverðin, er ek sē at ekki bīta yðr?’ Maðr svarar: ‘sverð vār eru slæ ok brotin mjǫk.’

In that case read hreosceorp (pl.) unhror. Unhror does not else occur, and hror is usually applied to persons – its sense is ‘valiant, mighty’ (but etymologically ‘active, agile’). Neither of these is a fatal objection to weapons. Cf. fyrdsearo fuslic (B.2618) ‘gallant’. The classic example is cene ‘noble’ – ‘bold’ – ‘sharp’. The accentuation héresceorp un| hrór (Type E) is not unprecedented: cf. se þe unmurlice | madmas dæleþ (B.1756), þæt is undyrne | dryhten Higelac (B.2000). Technically as a “noun-compound”, un- should have the accent, but in spite of the additional logical reason for accenting the negative un- it was clearly often unaccented (like ne) – owing partly to the influence of the simplex and partly to sentence-rhythm. It is often in origin an IE unaccented form. Cf. “the ùnknown warrior”, “into the ùnknown”; cf. also ON ó– accented, ú– unaccented.

That is Tolkien’s reasoning for changing hrōr to unhrōr in the passage quoted above, so that his amended version now reads:

Þā gewāt him wund hæleð | on wæg gangan,
sǣde þæt his byrne | ābrocen wǣre,
here-sceorpum unhrōr, | and ēac wæs his helm þyrl…

Then a wounded hero | away turned
said that his byrnie | was a-broken
his armour inactive | and also his helm pierced…

If you’re looking for hobbits, forget it. The whole book is written like this.

3. Reconstruction A brief conclusion, based on the detailed evidence of the previous two sections of what the actual story was, what are the historical events behind the legend, namely:

Finn is king of the Frisians., a border people caught between the powerful Franks to the south, Danes to the north. He has married Hildeburh, sister of king Hnaef of the Halfdanes, probably in an attempt to patch up some feud between them. The Halfdanes are probably a family or tribe on the edges of Danish royal influence proper, types of colonists. The Frisians are an ancient tribe recorded by the Romans as far back as the first century. Hnaef Halfdane takes 60 thanes to visit Finn; this half Danish, mixed nature of his following explains why a number of his followers appear to be Jutes from the Jutland peninsula. Presumably he was visiting his sister; probably he was bringing back Finn’s son who he had been fostering as per northern Germanic custom. He planned to spend the winder with Finn, his brother-in-law.

It seems that Hnaef the half-Dane, with Jutes among his retinue, arrives at Finn’s hall/stronghold to find there are a number of exiled Jutes there who have fled some internal Jutish feud. There is very bad blood between the Jutish contingents. The atmosphere is tense. The half-Danish contingent, housed in the guests’ hall, that night notice shields and armour creeping up on them in the night. This is where the Fragment starts with the first assault on the hall: Hnaef despatches men to guard the two doors; Garulf among the attackers falls; they fight for five days, with the attackers suffering grievous casualties, when an attacker turns to his king (Finn?) to say his armour is packing up, the king replying, How are the two others (presumably the pair of defenders defending the door) doing…?

The Episode starts with queen Hildeburh surveying the carnage “when morning came”. King Hnaef of the defenders has been killled. So has Hildeburh’s son by Finn (the assumption is that he had been sent as a ward to the court of Hnaef, had therefore slept with the half-Danes, had for some reason been forward in the defence and so killed). But Finn has suffered more with most of his thanes killed in the assault. Therefore he is forced to make a peace treaty with Hengest, who has succeeded Hnaef as leader of the guests. In it Finn promises to call off the attack, lease them the hall for the winter, give them as much gold and rings as he usually gives his Frisians; so that they in every way become his subjects. The treaty agreed, many of the Frisians return to their homesteads leaving Hengest and the half-Danes to winter with Finn. Hengest broods all winter long on the conflict between his duty to avenge his dead leader Hnaef and the peace treaty he has agreed with Finn. In the spring the sea thaws and a number of the half-Danes sail away to Denmark, taking the tale of the treacherous attack on them and the murder of Hnaef. They return with reinforcements. One of the half-Danes places a well-known sword in Hengest’s lap and the next thing we know Finn is dead, his hall burnt down, and the half-Danes have taken queen Hildeburh and all Finn’s gold back to their native land.

Popularity

The tale, and references to Finn, seem to be so widespread in the ancient literature because:

a) historically, it captures an important moment in the troubled tribal wars of the North Sea and Baltic, one which seems to have crystallised certain shifts of power towards the Danes, against the Frisians and which, importantly for the later English tribes, prompted Hengest’s mission to Britain.

b) culturally, it deals with the classic dilemma explored again and again in the Icelandic sagas: Hengest’s conflict between the prime duty to avenge a murdered lord and some other duty either of marriage or, as here, a sworn treaty.

c) of its psychological complexity: almost certainly Finn didn’t initiate the attack on the half-Danes, his Jutish guests did and he found himself dragged in to fight against his wife’s kin; he sees his own son killed; he himself dies and loses everything. It is a very Northern, bleak outcome. But also the wrecca or adventurer Hengest didn’t expect a fight, and probably finds leadership of the survivors thrust upon him. His ethical dilemma (described above) is at the centre of the Episode. And queen Hildeburh is a victim like Hecuba or Andromache; through no fault at all of her own seeing first her son then her husband killed, her marriage hall going up in flames and herself taken like booty back to her homeland with ashes in her mouth. She is a character worthy of Greek tragedy.

Three Appendices One of the appendices is a tentative chronology of the events outlined above: I was electrified to discover Tolkien thought that Beowulf must have been born around 500AD; and that, with his breadth of knowledge and command of the sources, he thinks the powerful wrecca (exile, adventurer) Hengest, whose brooding character dominates both Fragment and Episode, is the same Hengest who the Venerable Bede records as invading Kent with his partner Horsa in 453! Tolkien’s full chronology is:

410 Romans leave Britain
425 Hengest born
430 Healfdene born
Fight at Finnsburh occurs about 452. Hnaef aged about 30 dies. Hengest the king’s thegn is 25. Hildeburh, Hnaef’s sister, older than him, 33, so as to have a son old enough to fight (and die) 15?
453 Hengest, victorious in the fight at Finnsburh, but with all sorts of enemies, leads a war band along with Horsa in the invasion of Kent. He has an infant son Oesc. Horsa is killed in battle soon after.
460 Hrothgar, second son of Healfdene born
470 Oesc becomes a warrior. 473 last mention of Hengest, in a chronicle. He probably lives to old age.
480 Hygelac of the Geats born.
490 Kingdom of Kent established with Oesc as head of the new royal line.
495-505 death of Healfdene Scylding; accession of his second son Hrothgar aged 35 or so.
495-500 Beowulf born.
512 death of Oesc, recorded in Chronicle.
520 Beowulf, aged about 20, travels from the court of King Hygelac of the Geats to visit Heorot, hall of King Hrothgar of the Healfdenes. Fights Grendel and her mother.
525-30 death of King Hygelac in a battle with the Franks, as recorded in Gregory of Tours’ Historia Francorum.
570 the aged Beowulf sets out to battle the dragon who is terrorising his people. Dies and is buried beneath a great mound by the sea.

Criticism

I am not scholar enough to criticise the contents of this book in detail. The editor, Bliss, keeps up a steady stream of footnotes pointing out where Tolkien’s theories are out of date or wrong. And the book was published in 1982 – who knows what further discoveries and insights have been published in the past 30 years?

It is a big effort to read this book, but working through all 150 pages of Tolkien’s densely argued notes really takes you into the guts of the text with all its possible variant readings and interpretations. Even an amateur like myself comes away with a much more vivid feel for the complexity of the texts, for the power and beauty of the poetry, for the pathos of the central characters, and excited by the tantalising crossovers with actual recorded historical events.

The only criticism I can confidently make is that the book should have included the text of the poem Widsith. This 140-line Anglo Saxon poem is a lament by a wandering minstrel for the courts and kings he has known and performed for: some are clearly fantasy (Caesar, the king of the Egyptians) but others are highly factual references to real kings of Germanic tribes. Early in the poem he refers to Hnaef and Finn, lines Tolkien includes in his list of four sources of evidence which he will consider. It would have been easy and very convenient for the reader trying to follow the repeated references to Widsith if the book had included the full text and a decent prose translation of it.

Book jacket for Finn and Hengist, copyright John Howe and Random Books

Book jacket for Finn and Hengist, copyright John Howe and Random Books

Sagas

The pleasures of Anglo-Saxon poetry

Anglo-Saxon poetry offers a range of pleasures which can, perhaps, be arranged in a hierarchy.

The pleasure of the sounds

First, there is the pure pleasure of the sounds – the tremendous compacting of meaning into abrupt gutteral syllables compressed into short alliterative lines which sound great when recited aloud. They nakedly convey the pagan energy from the origin of our speech which usually lies hidden beneath layers of mellifluous Norman French, Latin and all the other languages we’ve rifled and pillaged. There is a sonic purity which is reinforced, the more you understand the history and subject matter, by a kind of ideological or historical sense of primalness.

Art and style

There is the art and style: as you practice you gain a deeper understanding of the skilled use of alliteration, the division of sentences into compact semantic units or stock phrases (“hard under helmet”), the laconic understatement (“the blow was not welcome”), the pleasure of deciphering riddles or kennings.

Subject matter

There is the the “sweet sorrow” of the subject matter, broadly dividing into:

  • elegies of profound loss, to the passing of great men, great times, great buildings – Durham, The Ruin, Deor, The Seafarer, The Wanderer, The Wive’s Lament
  • overtly Christian poetry, but tinged with the same pagan sense of loss and sadness – The Dream of the Rood
  • warrior legends and epics: Beowulf, the Fight at Finnsburg, The Battle of Maldon – always with the same dying fall, Beowulf’s fate, Finn’s defeat, Byrhtnoth’s ofermode

Virility

Poetry which manages to convey sensitivity to the sad plight of fallen humanity with tremendous energy and virility. It assumes a very masculine worldview, one of continual physical competition, bravery and strength in contests and fights.

Our heritage

William Morris crystallised the plaint why tens of millions of English people know the story of the Odyssey or the wooden horse of Troy who have never heard of Beowulf, Maldon or Finnsburg. These are the myths and legends of our forebears, of the Germanic tribesmen who invaded and settled our country 1500 years ago, giving their name to our country and to our language. Their word-hoard, their myth-kitty, their songs and lays are intrinsic to our language and heritage. Almost nobody knows or studies them. (This Amazon book review claims in 99% of schools Old English isn’t taught at all, and only appears in 10% of university departments.)

The pathos of survival

Because so little survives – only 30,000 lines of poetry, of which Beowulf comprises 10% – and most of which has survived by the slenderest of threads, there is a strong sense of the preciousness and uniqueness of what we have. There is a close analogy with the Sutton Hoo treasure, enormously rich in itself but indicating by its very richness – like Beowulf – the enormity of what has been lost.

Dead language

Then there is the very academic pleasure of studying and trying to understand a dead language. But not one like Latin or ancient Greek which were kept alive by scholars through the Middle Ages and Renaissance and then widely studied as a sign of culture in the Victorian period and beyond. Anglo Saxon has always been a tiny minority pursuit (oddly, since it is the origin of the most successful language on the planet). Yet the more you study, the more you enter the treasure house of a lost world.

Philology

Not only does so little survive but what we have was written in different places in different dialects  which themselves changed and evolved over some 600 years, so it’s not even one language but a range of quite distinct sub-languages we are dealing with. Trying to piece together all the scattered fragments of text – and the scattered dialects in which they’re written – to create a consistent understanding of the Anglo Saxon languages has been the work of two centuries of philologists and sooner or later even the casual reader finds themselves drawn into speculation about the meaning of this or that word, and then into the long history of debates about it…

For example, the precise meaning of ofermode in the battle of Maldon is debated to this day and has large ideological and historical overtones – is the poet criticising or praising Byrhtnoth? is the entire poem a critique of the craven policy of King Aethelred? – but all these depend on the most technical of philological interpretations which requires a detailed knowledge, training and understanding in the Anglo Saxon languages…

Beowulf lines 1127-37

Hengest ða gyt
wælfagne winter | wunode mid Finne
eal unhlitme. | Eard gemunde,
þeah þe he ne meahte | on mere drifan
hringedstefnan; | holm storme weol,
won wið winde, | winter yþe beleac
isgebinde, | oþðæt oþer com
gear in geardas, | swa nu gyt deð,
þa ðe syngales | sele bewitiað,
wuldortorhtan weder. | ða wæs winter scacen,
fæger foldan bearm.

Hengest there yet
the woeheavy winter | waited with Finn
all unhappy. | His home-earth beminded
though there he might not | on the mere drive
his ring-prowed ship; | whelm storm swelled
waged with wind, | winter waves belocked
ice be-bounden, | until another came
year in the homeyards | such now yet does
those which continually | observe the seasons,
world-wondrous weather. | Then was winter scampered
fair felt the earth.

Related links

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial (Wikimedia Commons)

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial (Wikimedia Commons)

Beowulf – the epic

Beowulf is the longest Old English poem, some 3,200 lines in length, representing a tenth of the 30,000 lines of OE poetry which survive. It relates events set during the European Migration Era (400-600); was probably composed before the death of Bede (735); and the version we have was probably written down around 1000.

Setting All the events of Beowulf are set in Denmark and southern Sweden; it doesn’t even mention Britain or England which makes it odd that it is routinely discussed as the first great work in English literature – though having read the Eddas I now appreciate that Germanic culture, language, myths and legends stretched during this period in a continuum from the Black Sea to Iceland. Beowulf was only given its current name in 1805 and was first published in 1815.

Manuscript Beowulf survives, like most OE, in just one manuscript, in this case British Library Cotton MS Vitellius, which was damaged in a fire but luckily survived. The manuscript also contains handwritten texts of a homily on St Christopher, the Marvels of the East, the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle and an imperfect copy of another Old English poem, Judith. All five texts concern or mention fabulous beasts so the MS may well have been assembled around this theme. The verse is written out as continuous prose, divided into numbered sections. So the layout of all modern editions into traditional poetic lines, often with clearly marked half line-breaks, the punctuation, commas, full stops and speech marks, are all the work of modern editors.

First page of the Beowulf manuscript; legible but damaged

First page of the Beowulf manuscript; legible but damaged

Above, the first page of the Beowulf manuscript, from which scholars extract lines of verse, thus:

Hwæt! We Gardena | in geardagum,
þeodcyninga,  | þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas | ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing | sceaþena þreatum,
5monegum mægþum, | meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas.

Author Of course no-one knows who the author was or even where it was written: but scholars agree it is the work of a sophisticated and well-educated Christian, maybe even a monk, probably associated with one of the royal courts which flourished in the 700s, either of Wessex or Mercia or Northumbria.

Plot In his youth Beowulf the Geat, from south Sweden, sails to the legendary court, Heorot, of King Hrothgar the Dane, and frees it from being terrorised by the monster Grendel who has been attacking and sweeping off warriors to kill and eat for 12 long years. No sooner is Grendel defeated than his mother attacks. Beowulf tracks her back to her lair beneath a lake, there fighting and killing her. He returns in honour and laden with gifts to Geatland and his king, Hygelac. Eventually Hygelac and his son die and Beowulf becomes king of the Geats. 50 years later his own kingdom is threatened by a dragon. Beowulf heroically defeats the dragon but is himself killed; he is burnt on a pagan funeral pyre, buried in a mound by the sea, and it is predicted that his people will now perish. It is not a happy ending.

Historical provenance Beowulf is nowhere attested in the historical record. Maybe he is entirely fictitious. But his Geatish lord, Hygelac, was certainly real: he is recorded as dying in a skirmish against the Franks about 520 in Bishop Gregory of Tour’s History of the Franks. So soon after is when Beowulf would take over as king; and fifty years later would date his fight with the dragon and death around 570AD.

Network of references If the plot is so simple, how come the poem is so long? Partly because it is enmeshed in scores of references to other Germanic legends of the Migration Era. These were clearly designed to pad, bolster and ennoble the main plot, but are a stumbling block to the modern reader: whereas the contemporary audience would have caught the subtlest reference to these stories, we know next to nothing about these long-lost legends;  many are only barely explicable by reference to scattered and obscure references or fragments.

The Penguin translation Penguin translations have a long tradition of being old-fashioned and often poor quality. But Michael Alexander’s introduction and translation are both excellent. (Nota bene: I am referring here to the 1973 translation and introduction; Alexander updated his translation and completely rewrote the introduction in 2003.)

Michael Alexander’s introduction His main claim is that Beowulf is an epic, if we define epic as having these attributes:

1 inclusiveness of scope
2 objectivity of treatment
3 unity of consciousness, of ethos
4 an action of significance – epic amplitude – fullness of epic narration

An epic should be universal, taking in all of life and representing it in such a way that the general truth of the presentation is universally recognised. Its scope should embrace war and peace, men and gods, life and death in a comprehensive and encyclopedic way. And its presentation should be objective…. One’s consciousness of unity in the Iliad, and in epic generally, springs not from a unity of action but a unity of consciousness, an ethos which arises from a primitive intuition of the cosmic solidarity, organic unity and continuity of life.

1. Inclusiveness of scope Beowulf comprehends life and death, man and God, peace and war. It opens with the funeral of one hero, follows the career from young glory to aged defeat of another hero: a lifecycle. The entire life of a people, the Geats, its rise and fall, is described. Peace with its beauty and ceremonies in the hall of Hereot is described, and war and its devastating consequences among the Germanic tribes is continually referred to. Goodness and civilisation at the hall are disrupted by evil incarnated in the monsters. The start of history is captured by the scop or bard, who inaugurates Hereot by singing a poem of God’s Creation of the world – and the end of the history is symbolised by the prophesied extermination of Beowulf’s people after his death. God is seen intervening at key points throughout the poem; but the Devil is alluded to once and his forces, the monsters, drive the plot which is a microcosm of the endless battle of Good against Evil in a fallen universe. “The whole life of the people and of mankind is involved in the struggle of the hero-king against the dragon.” In its way, it is as cosmic in ambition as Paradise Lost.

2. Objectivity of treatment

  • The dignified presentation of death Alexander considers the poem gives weight and due importance to all its characters and especially to their deaths : “Every single one of the numerous individual deaths in the poem is given its full weight and significance… Homer and Tolstoy do not outdo Beowulf in their respect for the gravity and commonness of dying.” Though Alexander admits that the poet does intervene, does comment, does include homilies and morals, thus falling short of the “blithe cosmic impartiality” of Homer. But then who doesn’t?
  • Stock scenes “Much of the objectivity – the truth – comes from the traditional presentation of life in the heroic world. It is crystallised into generic scenes: voyage, welcome, feast, boast, arming, fight, reward… have the traditional and practised feel of solid simplicity and consistency… The familiar nuts and bolts of life are presented in stylised, elevated but simple form…”
  • Values “Value are constant: sunlight is good, cold is ominous.” Constant, simple and dignified. Feasting in the firelit hall is good. Being isolated in the cold moor is bad. Fighting alongside your brother warriors is good. Being betrayed by a colleague is bad.
  • Nature “The stage upon which the drama is set is large and simple. Men are haeleth under heofenum, ‘heroes beneath the heavens’, they are be twaem seonum, ‘between two seas’,  on middanyeard, on ‘middle earth’, swa hit waeter bebugeth, ‘surrounded by water’. Every event and action is positioned in a landscape which is both realistic but raised to a level of stylised simplicity, given a symbolic depth. “The sense of never losing one’s bearings is not only spatial but temporal. The coming of day or night or the seasons is never omitted.”
  • Genealogy “Likewise we know where ever man comes from… A man is identified as someone’s son or as someone’s kin. For important people or things, complete genealogies or lists of owners are given… Each action in Beowulf has a full spatial and temporal dimension, and the cosmic envelope of space and time is always assumed and usually felt to be there, immutable.”
  • Impersonal “In epic, human and non-human actions are felt to be part of a larger impersonal if organic process, the authority of which is not questioned, but accepted and respected. (Critics of Homer speak of the aidos, or respect, felt for the operations of the process.)” Alexander concedes the poet’s Christian comments and interventions do break this impersonality; they intrude sermonising; they prevent Beowulf rising to the heights of Homer. Nothing in western literature does.
  • Already known Unlike most modern narratives, whether novels or plays or movies, in an epic poem the audience knows the story and outcome before the start. This means a) the audience and poet are interested in the treatment not the plot b) the poem is full of flashbacks, recapitulations, anticipations: these amplify the sense of completeness, of pattern, of objectivity and detachment from events.

3. Unity of ethos is related to objectivity. The one enables the other. The poet achieves his objectivity because he is working within an objective worldview. “The stability of the system of epic formulae perpetuates the tribal view in the hallowed tribal words. This system is itself an organism. Each verbal formula is the tribe’s crystallisation of an aspect of experience…” The crystallisation is possible because of the tribe’s shared views. The tribe’s shared views are crystallised in the formulae. This is why the way in which OE alliterative verse tends to separate stock phrases in apposition into stand-alone units, also emphasises the deep, archaic, shared value in these phrases – and smoothing their clunky positioning out into fluent modern English prose completely obliterates not only their poetical, but their ideological impact, which is enormous.

Lofgeornost The last word of the poem is lof-geornost “most eager for praise” and “this is the primary theme of all heroic poetry, the prowess, strength and courage of the single male, undismayed and undefeated in the face of all adversaries and in all adventures. The hero surpasses other men, and his aristeia is rewarded by fame.  He represents the ultimate of human achievement in a heroic age, and embodies its ideal. Though he must die his glory lives on.”

The Aeneid issue CS Lewis divided epic into primary epic (made by a sometimes illiterate near-contemporary in the culture he is describing – Homer) and secondary epic (a conscious recreation of a vanished world by a highly literate author from another culture – Virgil). Beowulf is nearer the second category because, as all scholars acknowledge, although it is written about preliterate pagan Germanic society in pagan Germanic poetry using pagan Germanic formulae, it was actually composed by a highly literate Christian, possibly even a Christian Anglian monk, just about as far removed from the world of feasting, fighting German pagans as he could be. He is in love with the pagan world and its culture; presumably so is his audience or there would have been little point composing the poem; but he is decisively separated from it by his Christian faith.

Secondary epic This is what makes Beowulf a secondary epic: that the poet is not only looking back at a legendary past; he is looking back at the pagan world looking back at its legendary past. Not only is there a dying fall to his depiction of the pagan world (itself obsessed with the sense of transitoriness and passing-away); but he sees that the entire pagan worldview epitomised in his subject matter and in the Germanic style of stock phrasing, was wrong. There is a deeper level of melancholy. “To a literate consciousness deepened by Christianity, the heroic world of these heathen ancestors must have seemed doubly admirable and the limitations of heroic life doubly tragic.”

4. A significant action At its core Beowulf is a folk story or, deeper, a myth. A hero fights monsters three times: the first two times he conquers; the third time he is old and the monster kills him. It is a profound emblem of the life of man, overcoming challenge after challenge, but unable to avoid, ultimately, his own mortality. If, at a deep, mythical level, the story is about Man confronting his own Mortality, Alexander suggests that at a higher level the “significant action” or actions emphasise the importance of loyalty to the chieftain as the fundamental tie in heroic society; Beowulf dies on a mythic level because the dragon kills him, but on a social level because his 12 thanes abandon him; at his moment of need the bonds of allegiance break down; and that is symbolic of the fragility and vulnerability of heroic society as a whole. It has the same elegiac feel as the collapse of the Order of the Round Table. Sure, it’s attacked by external enemies; but it is its internal weakness that condemns it.

And here again the “Aeneid effect” kicks in – the poem laments the passing of one warband, one people, the Geats – but the Christian poet, at a higher level, laments the passing of the entire pagan way of life. It is a double elegy. It is made up of dynamic, vigorous, virile verse which, at every moment, is haunted by the transitoriness of human power and life. It is wonderful.

Beowulf sailing home by John Howe © John Howe (http://www.john-howe.com)

Beowulf sailing home by John Howe © John Howe (http://www.john-howe.com)

John Howe The illustrator John Howe has created a wonderful series of illustrations of Beowulf on his website. Enjoy and marvel.

Energy is eternal delight as William Blake said. Both Tolkien and Alexander emphasise the power and forcefulness and energy of the verse which, of course, reinforce the subject matter of the poem which is, ultimately, the hero’s virility. Beowulf has “a hero’s delight in his own prowess and a hero’s magnanimity to lesser men”. His virility burns bright in his youth; then diminishes and is conquered in old age, by death. It is no shame. We all share the same destiny. Beowulf is revered for his defiance, his unwillingness to go gentle into that good night, for his prowess.

The critics write of: “sustained energy as poetry”, “an utterance of power”, “characteristic power and beauty”, “powerful and unique power”…

All quotes copyright © Michael Alexander 1973, reproduced with kind permission of the author.

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