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The Heroic Age

Issue 3

Summer 2000

Shaping Anglo-Saxon Lordship in the Heroic Literature

of the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries


John Hill
US Naval Academy

 Abstract: Most scholars of Anglo-Saxon heroic story think of that literature as embodying conventional virtues (generosity, bravery, boasting), obligations (to kin and lord) and conflicts of loyalty. This overview of a contrary view stresses the political nature of those stories -- whether in prose or poetry -- and argues, essentially, for the reformation of traditional codes and obligations. That reformation has the strengthening of lordship and, ultimately, of kingship in mind. The reshaping of traditional codes begins in the literary record during the period of Alfred's father and grandfather, early to mid-eighth century, and continues down to the end of the eleventh century. [2 files ]


Outside of Beowulf and a few fragments, the recording of Anglo-Saxon heroic story begins with a ninth-century entry in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 755 (actually 757). To this we can add a few of the annals devoted to the combats of King Alfred's son and grandsons in the tenth century and stop at some point near the end of King Aethelred's reign in 1016. While not a Chronicle poem, The Battle of Maldon has a place in this range, if only as an inspired response to what otherwise the Chronicle (in the Canterbury and Peterborough manuscripts ) records for 991 as ealdorman Byrthnoth's death in battle at Maldon. Typically, guides, translations and readers introducing students to Old English texts highlight three of the stories from this range of years: the story of West Saxon feud we call "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" (chronicle entry 755), The Battle of Brunanburh, (entry for 937), and The Battle of Maldon (sometime after 991). Traditionally, and here all introductions in Old English readers follow suit, these narratives are seen as enshrining, in some literary intensified way, heroic values reflecting their ancient, Germanic roots.

The more sophisticated introductions will place the poem or prose piece in an Anglo-Saxon context, as S. A. J. Bradley (1995) does for his edition of Anglo-Saxon poetry in translation. For example, he thinks of The Battle of Maldon as part of the secular and religious response to Danish incursions. Traditional heroic values in the poem combine with a sense of oneness with God and king (principally through Byrthnoth's devotion to King Aethelred and his dying prayer for the safe journey of his soul). Bradley also sees The Battle of Brunanburh as in part a propagandistic claim by King Alfred's grandsons of sovereignty over much of England (p. 516). While these notions are improvements over still current views -- such as the Fred C. Robinson and Bruce Mitchell (1986: 225, 234, note for lines 255-9) idea that The Battle of Maldon is about how men bear up when things go wrong, in this case by upholding the old code of honor requiring warriors to avenge their slain lord or die trying -- there is no clear sense of just how or even why a "propagandistic" strain joins with traditional heroic themes. We need to look to recent scholarship for a sense of what might be happening in the course of the Chronicle stories and poems. By doing so we will trace a line of development culminating outside the Chronicle in that apotheosis of new retainership we can find in The Battle of Maldon, especially in its regrouping of the loyal retainers.

John D. Niles (1993; 1994), Peter Richardson (1995), Martin Irvine (1991) and others have newly approached Old English literature-whether heroic poems, prose annals, genealogies, law codes, or religious poems and tracts -- by asking questions about the ideological "work" a poem or a prose text does in its cultural time and place. While this approach does not directly explore the individual or even vagrant insights present in given texts, it is a highly fruitful line of inquiry, especially for Chronicle entries, law codes, or some of the heroic poems more than others. That approach is less successful for Beowulf, if we keep to Beowulf's dramatic complexities. It also does not greatly illuminate those fragments we call "Finnsburg" and "Waldere." In what follows I will take a sketchy overview of some very general lines of development. Detailed support and elaboration can be found in my new study: The Anglo-Saxon Warrior Ethic: Reconstructing Lordship in Early English Literature (2000).

The major areas for political reform are kinship ties and obligations, especially regarding the feud; the transferable nature of retainer loyalty (that one might leave the service of a particular lord and seek service with another); the potentially autonomous nature of warriorhood; and the nature and weight first of lordship then of kingship. Political reformation in these areas requires greatly diminishing the pull of kinship. It also requires eliminating the possibility of a free warrior life, as reflected in Beowulf both in the allusion to a roving, legendary Sigemund (along with Fitela, his nephew) and in Beowulf's freedom to act independently of Hygelac's wishes. And it requires a redefining of lordship in relation to both loyalty and kingship. Accordingly, the places of honor and glory, as well as the focus of revenge, shift. Honor and glory become less the concerns of the independent, kinship-obligated, provisionally affiliated individual -- this regarding the warband -- and more those of a great lord's absolutely loyal retainer. In this shift, the kinship of the hall (expressed as sibbegedriht, "kindship-like warband", in Beowulf) becomes more than an appropriate metaphor; politically, as centered on all-important lordship, it becomes everything. Such constructed kinship will come to demand utter sacrifice after the lord's death from the retainer who would have glory and fame. This will become a kind of sacrifice we do not see in Beowulf, a kind that in Anglo-Saxon contexts probably differs greatly from whatever might have existed among the Germanic peoples we know of mainly through Tacitus.

In his unpublished essay, "Prescription and Description in Anglo-Saxon Literature," Peter Richardson (1995) takes up Niles's suggestion that Anglo-Saxon literature did important ideological work. He considers the various ways in which genealogies, annals, poems, and stories might be seen as caught up in the issues of Anglo-Saxon state formation. He agues that traditional loyalties are appropriated to model new ideas of loyalty to a state, a modeling process that seems seriously underway if we look at the various literary projects -- The Parker Chronicle, the laws, the translation of Gregory's Pastoral Care, and the Old English Orosius -- of the Alfredian period. But the "cooptation of medieval family values" can best be seen, according to Richardson, in The Battle of Maldon, where kinship loyalty models and reinforces the emergent claims of the state, as best exemplified, for Richardson, in Aelfwine. Recall that he is the retainer who says he fights because Byrthnoth is both his kinsman and lord. Presumably, in fighting on to avenge Byrthnoth, Aelfwine fights on, not for a live lord with whom he has a continuing, personal relationship, but for that lord in principle, behind whom is that lord's king, Aethelred.

John Niles sees Maldon as a cautionary story. While presenting "a complex vision of reality whereby conflicting desires and codes of conduct meet," the Maldon poet glances with "longing eyes at a vanished world where heroes could act like heroes . . . [while pointing] ineluctably to the need for leadership of a more supple kind than Byrthnoth is shown to offer" (Niles 1994:113). Niles supports this position with a subtle reading of why the loyal retainers stay and fight in a situation they do not explicitly acknowledge as hopeless: pointedly, they would do the second of two things, that is, avenge their beloved lord, not simply lose their lives. I differ with Niles regarding the contextual, ongoing import of various speeches as I imagine the retainers' situation in a more dramatic and eventually death-driven way than he does. But I agree that the poem does major ideological work for its time and place.

That work, however, is not a plea for supple, perhaps yielding leadership. Rather, it is the completion of a stunning, new ideology of retainership and loyalty in the face of overwhelmingly triumphant lordship (whether the lord who embodies that lordship is victorious in the slaughter place, as in Brunanburh, or dies fighting, as in Maldon). Byrthnoth himself, however later sanctified as he was by the monks of Ely, does not matter. What matters most here is that ideology of triumphant lordship, an ideology under development at least since Alfred's day, and one that requires a new, matching ideology of retainership. Quite apart, then, from any readerly concerns we may have regarding Byrthnoth's battlefield actions and motives -- whether he is flawed, or proud, or whatever -- his order of battle is quite right. After his death, his loyal retainers dynamically reorder and redefine themselves in an ongoing, group effort, just as they should. The noble ealdorman dies; but triumphant lordship and equally triumphant, now sacrificial retainership lives -- transcending the living ties involved.

Still, both my reading of the poem and the Niles and Richardson kind of reviewing point to a fundamental difference between Byrthnoth's literary world and Beowulf's, especially given the inset summaries of the Hengest, Ingeld, and Eadgils stories in Beowulf. No matter what ideological work we think Beowulf does in whatever Anglo-Saxon milieu we place it, the stories of conflict, relationship building, and group reformation in Beowulf are told by a more meditative poet -- a poet more aware of the complex contingencies of heroic affairs and of violence and honor than are the makers of the narratives of Cynewulf and Cyneheard, Aethelwold's rebellion, The Battle of Brunanburh or The Battle of Maldon. For my purposes, the former two mark a separation of some kind between Beowulfian story and the later, even more politically heightened appropriations of heroic formulae and themes in the accounts of battle at Brunanburh and Maldon.

The poems inspired by the latter events, while composed carefully by makers who understand complexly the situations and persons involved, are simply much more polemical when compared to Beowulf and its inset stories. They are shaped more as arguments than as presented worlds, arguments regarding entirely justified violence. That violence serves one or another of the following processes: the defining and asserting of sacrosanct lordship and kingship; the erecting of a mythologically, legislatively, genealogically, and ecclesiastically inclusive kingship; or else the dramatic, speech ennobled shaping of that jewel in the crown of triumphant lordship -- the ideal of transcendent, sacrificial, retainer loyalty. A sense of this movement from reasserting lordship to defining a new retainership can inform a review of literary uses of Germanic heroic situations and themes in the course of the ninth and tenth centuries.

We might assume that Beowulf is not composed new in the very early eleventh century, the period to which the surviving manuscript dates. Also, we might assume that some version of the poem existed perhaps in East Anglian or Mercian contexts before the ninth century -- as many, including most recently Sam Newton (1993) and Peter Clemoes (1995), have argued (although Niles (1994) offers circumstantial argument for the tenth century). Given these assumptions, we could develop a kind of timeline from Beowulf, through the story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard, down to The Battle of Maldon. But doing so on shaky chronological grounds is both troublesome and unnecessary. Simply put: there is no gradual development from Beowulf to the politically shaped heroic stories noted in this essay. We have Beowulf and then we have all the rest, with differentiations given subject matter and theme among them.

The Beowulf poet is a "master of the aristocratic oral tradition" (Niles 1993: 104). His work just stands out as a complex counter to the politically shaped narratives emerging in the ninth century and continuing down virtually to the end of the Anglo-Saxon period. But Beowulf does not simply stand in monumental exception. We can further suppose, along with Kirsten Hastrup (1990: 6), that later writers may use old material in a spirit of corporate inclusiveness. They may, that is, assert a kind of sameness between present and past -- an assertion opposing the idea that an Anglo-Saxon poet would necessarily distance himself radically in his Anglo-Saxon present from the heroic past to which he gestures. For Beowulf this would mean that the poet of course knows the past is both past and different in some respects from his present. Yet his story provides a myth embodying both heroic values and a complex vision of worldly affairs. That myth, the poet's means of forming an image of himself and his present to himself and his peers, would have been taken up in subsequent versions of the poem and in the same ways.

Beowulf gives us the fullest display of heroic values, choices, and exigencies in the poetic corpus. For example, Beowulf contains no suicidal code of battlefield loyalty -- no automatic code at all. The nearest expression of such an impulse might be Wiglaf's effort to rally Beowulf's retainers in defense of their fire-encompassed king against the dragon. Among other things, he says that he would rather that fire embraced him with his lord than that he and the others should bear shields back to their homes -- unless they first slay the monster in the course of defending the life of the lord of the Weders (ll. 2650-55). The affair here is presented as still ongoing and thus open-ended. Beowulf has not died yet. Thus, an active, participatory defense is what Wiglaf urges, not anything absolutely doomed.

The entire story of Wiglaf's assistance to Beowulf is far from a dramatization of automatic response given some principle of retainer and kinsman loyalty. Neither an automaton nor an idealized companion, Wiglaf acts within complex circumstances of obligation, grief, and shame. He can be said to embody the poet's idea of a person quite mindful of all the honorable and worth-conferring things Beowulf has done for him. Consciousness of this has him gloss his action as a reciprocal one. But internalized need, mixed with magnanimity, impels him as much as would thoughts of live obligations now falling due. Moreover, his relationship to Beowulf is hardly fixed at the beginning, needing only an illustrative acting out. He is a kinsman of some sort and a fellow countryman; but he becomes much more than that in the course of violent assistance from behind his lord's shield. His new identity, forged in the heat of battle, is that of an adopted son and worthy, warrior successor.

Beginning as a general kinsman, the last of Beowulf's Waegmunding people, Wiglaf emerges from the dragon fight as Beowulf's now noble kinsman. After Beowulf's death he is both Beowulf's executor in the matter of funeral ceremonies and the wise, battle-worthy, chooser of thanes -- a hard-won status in that Wiglaf, in effect, sacrificed his right hand in the dragon's flames. Indeed, it is in these warlord capacities -- wisdom, martial worthiness, chooser of thanes-- that he exercises a command independent of one of Beowulf's last wishes. Beowulf would have had the dragon's treasure compensate the Geats for his death. Wiglaf acts independently when he takes seven of the best king's thanes with him into the dragon's barrow. Together they remove the treasure and eventually inter it again in Beowulf's mound. In this respect heroic story in Beowulf is complex and open to change. It becomes the world as the poet would know it, not an array of attitudes, norms, or situations from which the poet can pick for decidedly ideological reasons (though of course he does select what he emphasizes and he has ideals).

The inclusion of the Finn, Ingeld, and Eadgils stories in Beowulf provides highly framed opportunities for literary response to heroic circumstances. Elsewhere, in my forthcoming study, I have explored the grievous situations that in time come to define or else call out the righteous choices made by Ingeld in his situation, or Hengest in his, or, finally, Eadgils in his. Recall that during wedding festivities, one of Ingeld's old warriors urges on a young warrior against a visiting Dane who sports a weapon taken in earlier battle from the young warrior's father. In the Hengest case, after a disastrous attack upon visiting Half-Danes by cohorts among their hosts, a mixed group of Frisians and Jutes, the Danes suffer through the winter months in a terrible peace alliance with Finn and his Frisians (who killed the Dane's leader, Hnaef, Hengest's lord). But spring brings the urging and taking of revenge. In Eadgils case, his uncle, Onela, attacks him and his brother, both of whom have sought an exile's haven among the Geats. Eadgils survives the attack, whereas his brother does not.

In two cases the key turn involves a rupture of whatever social harmony prevailed before the initial outbreak of violence. In Eadgil's case, some such rupture may have precipitated his alliance with his brother against Onela, their paternal uncle, but in the story as we have it, the terrible rupture is Onela's attack upon Eadgils and Eanmund in their haven among the Geats. In the course of that attack, Eanmund dies (killed by Weohstan, Wiglaf's father), along with Heardred, Beowulf's cousin and king. It is at this point that Beowulf, apparently with Onela's approval, assumes the kingship Heardread's death vacated.

Practically and psychologically, these ruptures fully justify the settlements achieved or attempted in consequence, although the slaughters that ensue have disturbing undertones. The poet's ambivalence here, however, does not amount to a critique of the institution of feud. Nor does the poet reach for an ideologically or else thematically inspired resolution regarding feud-generated violence. Simply, again, this is how the world is, how the poet sees things.

In each case the poet develops those circumstances in terms of their shaping contingencies without judging either the heroic actions when taken or when forestalled. Nor does he draw those actions toward a moral or toward a purpose extrinsic to the contingent affairs dramatized. Moreover, he never narrows the scope of those actions or simplifies the realm of choice for some ideological reason. When Hengest accepts Hunlafing's laying of a sword on his lap, and when revenge falls upon Finn, we face a violent settlement that Danes in Heorot celebrate during the great banquet scene. But we are not asked either to consider those Danes witless or else to embrace an all-encompassing principle: that one must always avenge the death of a lord sooner rather than later (or else die trying if one cannot avenge him and live). Nor does an idea emerge that would have one never follow or else have no ties with the slayer of one's lord . This is no more the case than is the existence here of a view of revenge feud that characterizes such events as inherently destructive, as beyond human powers of control (the usual view in Beowulf criticism of feud and the revenge motive).

Circumstances might make "violations" of the first two precepts quite acceptable, at least in the short run. After that, however, the changeable calculations of honor and the availability of a suitable object will determine what happens next. Finn is close to hand and spring apparently brings opportunities in the form of Danes urgent now about the terror they have suffered. But elsewhere in Beowulf one's lord's slayer is not obviously killed, although the lord's death is avenged. Beowulf slays Daeghrefn and destroys Daeghrefn's warband (avenging Hygelac's death by Frisians); and Beowulf helps Eadgils assume the Swedish throne in revenge for Onela's attack on his (Onela's) recalcitrant nephews, who, while refusing to accept Onela's kingship, had received asylum among the Geats. These conflicts between two generations of the Swedish royal house are not moralized upon or otherwise offered as part of the construction of a countervailing idea, say of respect for lordship, or of the evil of rebellion, or of the interminable imperatives of feud.

However, the poet might have done something like that for the Freawaru and Ingeld story. There the Danes experience a strong reversal from the peaceful hopes and expectations with which Hrothgar broaches the marriage-alliance between Danes and Heathobards. The abrupt, bloody end of the wedding alliance in the resumption of violence between Danes sporting the weapons of slain Heathobards and those an aggrieved, old Heathobard urges on seems too intense to dismiss with just a worldly shrug. But then that seems to be the poet's point: we can neither dismiss this violence nor condemn it. We must take it as a complex development and remain open-eyed, aware of these deeply mixed affairs -- open-ended affairs that can easily unfold violently between recently warring and only briefly accommodated parties. This is especially something to worry about when the great hope of an illustrious marriage and a concomitant peace-kinship leads to an alliance between two peoples.

Thus I have elsewhere argued that in these cases the Beowulf poet's response to heroic story is open-ended, emotionally complex, and at least ambivalently accepting within the limits of loyalty understood as reciprocal between right-minded lord and right-minded retainer. Such loyalty is of course built out of the needs of warriors who would, when appropriately urged by others or else otherwise awakened to their own sense of obligated identity, avenge the losses they have suffered -- that is, within a psychology of moral or juridical choices resident in heroic scenes.

The poet's degree of acceptance, however, does not mean that he makes no judgments whatsoever regarding the violent affairs he recapitulates. For example, he does not, it seems clear, embrace those threads in heroic story that implicitly celebrate even as they seek to contain the actions of berserkers. I see little approval in his treatment of the enraged Ongentheow who, in lines 2936-40, is said to promise dishonor to the bodies of those Geats he plans to kill in the morning. Nor does the Beowulf poet embrace even for entertainment's sake the taste for adventure that leads some warriors into criminal acts (whatever it was that Sigemund and Fitela did together or to others). Nor does he look neutrally upon those who terrorize others (as Swedes do when they ambush Geats after Hrethel's death) rather than settle feuds or preempt aggression. The latter is what a fierce king does, as when Scyld Scefing attacks his neighbors and settles his borders.

Still, the poet's range is great and his scenes alive with their contingent complexities, much more so than are the situations in the story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard. The composer of this narrative, given as the entry for 755 in the A or Parker Chronicle (but composed in the late ninth century according to Chronicle scholars) seems to pick among a number of heroic gestures or tableaux in the course of establishing a novel construction of lordship. He does this without vilifying the king-killing nobleman, Cyneheard, or without making a saint of the attacked king, Cynewulf. Indeed, both antagonists have faults -- as far as we can tell, Cyneheard's is simply that he went too far in his effort to settle some dispute with Cynewulf (over Cynewulf''s effort to exile Cyneheard, for some reason not given). And Cynewulf's fault is that in trying to drive Cyneheard out of the kingdom he would do something (the 'driving out') that seems to involve unjustified violence nearly everywhere else in the Parker Chronicle . Moreover, a degree of moral taint appears in the fact that Cyneheard surprises Cynewulf in the embrace of a woman some distance from where his retainers lie sleeping. Yet, Cynewulf is the West Saxon king. He has done nothing unjust to his retainers or to his people, and he fights bravely, nearly slaying his attacker, Cyneheard, before Cyneheard's men kill him.

This sets up the composer's display of heroic possibilities in the episode. With Cynewulf dead, a tableau appears that resembles the one later used in Maldon, as the remaining retainers see their dead lord, Byrthnoth, flanked by the loyal dead. Much as those retainers will regroup under a new definition of loyalty, so Cynewulf''s scrambling retainers -- who have heard sounds of battle and the cries of the woman -- have an opportunity to define their loyalties, and in relation to whom, once they rush (perhaps Wiglaf-like) into the terror that has befallen Cynewulf (now dead -- a situation they perhaps do not discover until they get there). Offered treasures and their lives, they refuse to a man, instead fighting on furiously until all lie dead but one.

This begins to look like the triumph of what we can call, retrospectively, the Byrthnoth principle -- the mute demand for revenge and even for suicidal revenge on behalf of the slain lord. But not quite: for Cynewulf's retainers do not pose such alternatives to themselves, not even to pick revenge over death. Their actions are suggested as those of the moment, in the heat of the moment, after they vigorously refuse "drinking" (implicit in the verb thicgan, 'accept') to Cyneheard's offer. Yet their scene contrasts notably with the situation in Finn's territory when Hengest and his battle reduced warband accept terms with Finn and thus with the slayer of Hengest's lord.

The composer's rapid summary in the 755 episode, even in his inclusion of indirect speech, accords well with his insistence that no complicating contingency is possible. Killing a sitting king is bad; under no circumstances will that king's honored, worthy supporters yield to the killing, even if they are (presumably) disadvantaged in their relatively small numbers and disheveled preparations (having been roused in a hurry from their disarmed sleep). The magnitude of the deed, and its ultimate futility: these, rather than some underlined principle of retainer loyalty, are what the annalist insists upon most.

When in the morning Cynewulf's army shows up, led by his ealdorman, Osric, and by a great thane named Wiferth, yet another tableau comes together. The possibility arises, Hengest-like, of making peace or at least of forming some kind of reciprocal pact with one's lord's slayer -- complicated somewhat by the noted presence of kinsmen on both sides. If they will let him be king, Cyneheard, in trying shrewdly to deflect the question of following one's lord's slayer, offers them, unto their own choice, both lands and riches. This is a kind of self-judgment, offered bizarrely as far as the Alfredian composer seems concerned. When told, in addition, as part of Cyneheard's general strategy of persuasion, that there are kinsmen of theirs in Cyneheard's warband -- kinsmen who will not abandon Cyneheard -- Osric and Wiferth reply that no kinsman is dearer to them than is their lord. Refusing to sidestep the lordship issue, they say that they will never follow their lord's slayer. Nevertheless, they add, their kinsmen may safely emerge from the fortified enclosure Cyneheard has seized.

Hengest's situation thus appears here in a collapsed form, without the contingencies of circumstance or without the preceding context of suffered terror. Osric and Wiferth have not been terrorized by a sudden onslaught in the course of which their lord dies and their numbers, in bloody ways, diminish. Moreover, regarding Osric and Wiferth, the kinship motif is added, in contrast to Hengest's case, to cloud the lordship issue initially (Cyneheard seems to be saying that we have kinsmen on both sides -- this is all in the family -- as a way of deflecting attention from the sore point of accepting terms). The issue of kinship then comes to reflect Osric's and Wiferth's steadfastness, that is, their unwavering loyalty to their lord in their refusal to serve or else come to terms with his slayer. Yet theirs is not a live choice between traditional loyalty to kinsmen or to lord (as usually claimed in Old English Readers) because they offer a solution that conserves both. It is up to their kinsmen in Cyneheard's service to choose seemingly between lord and kinsmen, seemingly, that is, because theirs is really a choice between a free offer to leave the fortified enclosure or to stay and fight alongside Cyneheard. Citing the furious example of Cynewulf's slain hearthtroop, they say that they will do no less than did Cynewulf's warriors. So they stay and die with everyone else in Cyneheard's small army (except for one, Osric's godson) in the subsequent onslaught.

Although in fact complex enough when we examine the implications of choices and offers, clearly these affairs have been orchestrated to a specific end. Loyalty to a personally just lord is an unqualified good, no matter the circumstances; and loyalty to the greatest of secular lords, one's king, is sacred in effect if that king has been good, but not at the necessary expense of loyalty to kinsmen (that can be accommodated). Again, the upshot is that king killing, especially among collateral branches of the royal family, is most foul -- even if the king has criminally tainted himself as somehow a king did, one Sigebryht, Cynewulf's predecessor. His deposition actually begins the 755 entry, before we get to the fight between Cyneheard and Cynewulf. Sigebryht is deposed, although tellingly neither exiled nor killed, for unspecified, unjust deeds. As noted already, that one must not kill kings hangs heavily over the entire narrative.

The onus of king killing, then, controls this story's development -- an issue that matters greatly in the Alfredian program that would both raise the king above all great lords and newly inculcate a sense of duty to lords in general. In contrast, no particular point is ever made in Beowulf about the bad form of king killing -- not when Onela is killed, anyway, and not even when hostile parties kill one's own king. In the latter cases, of course, one must avenge such a killing, as Beowulf does, first on Hygelac's behalf, then later on Heardred's.

When we look to Brunanburh, probably composed not long after 937, and then to Maldon, it becomes clear that a political literature has superimposed itself upon the materials and themes of heroic scenes and heroic story. The appearance in The Parker Chronicle of the Cynewulf and Cyneheard story, along with the literarily similar account of Aethelwold's rebellion (entries for 901 and 905), suggests that Alfredian composers have an admonitory genre close to hand for both events. Then the appearance of The Battle of Brunanburh and "The Five Boroughs" poem (celebrating King Edmund's wresting of several districts from heathen Danish control) should be enough to confirm our suspicion that these stories and poems are part of Alfredian historiography, serving the lordship, kingship and dynastic interests of that historiography. But Chronicle context alone would not be sufficient evidence for this argument -- the Chronicle has its oddities of inclusion. When we look closely at internal evidence, then the direction of shaping is clear. The Brunanburh poet, for example, responds to heroic affairs without much meditation by emphasizing what I will call the "Scyld seizes their meadbenches" principle. The poem even has some heroic verse set-pieces, such as the beasts of battle theatre, but used in unconventional ways -- not as anticipatory; rather as an expression of triumph over enemies killed in a nearly sacred defense of land, hoard, and home. Moreover, this exultant poet of absolute victory over rightly savaged foes produces a poem that is also one of genealogical justification. At least it is one of ancestral justification of the sort that establishes the fame and martial merit in Beowulf of Heorot, Hrothgar's hall, given Hrothgar's premier, warrior-king genealogy going back to Scyld Scefing.

In Brunanburh, the great victory Athelstan and Edmund, King Alfred's grandsons, achieve is one that circles around through Alfredian claims of dynastic right and nobility. Noble in their lineage, Edward's sons are virtually born to their roles as conquering warriors. They appreciate the violence of lawful victory because through such violence they demonstrate their essential nobility. Indeed, they demonstrate their right to conquer and thus to rule well beyond any right they have simply through their ties to the House of Alfred -- to which they are linked through their father, Edward, Alfred's son. With his poem, the Brunanburh poet appropriates for them the entire history of nobility in victory -- this in terms of all the victories of ancient Angles and Saxons, beginning with the heroic invasions of Britain and the overcoming therein of the Welsh. In Brunanburh, heroic poetry serves a dynastic argument. The poet in effect argues for the almost destined, lawful primacy of that family of warriors, the Alfredian, West Saxon kings.

While The Battle of Maldon appears independently of the Chronicle, politically it is of the same world, connected internally as it is to Alfredian kingship, Aethelred's in this case. The new order the poet urges is one that transcends all living relationships, whether to kin, lord, or even (by implication) to a living king. Retainers die to embody this transcendent loyalty, the terms of which redeem them. That loyalty marks both the total inclusion and transcendence of all possibilities of ongoing, reciprocal ties between battlelord and loyal retainer -- this in the poet's insistence on an absolute commitment to live with one's lord or, on the battlefield, avenge his death until one can do no more. Presumably, if one can slay the enemy entirely, then one can go home honorably. However, the poet does not plot matters that way, staring as he does at the implications of battlefield defeat for those retainers who would triumph anyway, after their lord has fallen. In effect, the ongoing, consequential recommitments of those retainers become increasingly untenable militarily, until approaching and reaching the suicidal -- a gesture treated as the ultimate expression of keen heart and mind, of love and loyalty as strength and military success wane.

Dealing with great lords who are unreliable as often as not, and who may at times have hoped to serve some other lord, King Aethelred--whom historians have considered weak, vacillating, and perhaps tainted by the appalling murder of his half-brother, Edward the King and eventual Martyr--must have hoped devoutly for ealdormen like the Byrthnoth depicted in Maldon. He must especially have hoped for warrior groupings that define themselves in the way Byrthnoth's loyal hearthtroop does. Aethelred's strategies against Viking raids do include, as Richard Abels (1991: 144-5) tells us, both efforts to divide Viking armies against each other and diplomatic initiatives aimed at depriving them of cross-channel ports. Aethelred also undertakes comprehensive programs of fortification and naval construction and deployment. But his efforts suffer from what Abels terms "the treachery and incompetence" (Abels 1991:145) of the thanes and ealdormen he appoints to lead his armies and navy.

Certainly the Maldon poet can have his own view of whether military effort or else the paying of tribute is the better strategy in dealing with serious, often quite destructive Viking incursions. But how we see this matter affects our evaluation of Byrthnoth and of the poet's point of view. John Niles (1994) thinks the poet prefers a more flexible strategy than the one he has Byrthnoth adopt. That may be so as an intention governing the poet's view of Byrthnoth's tactical mistakes. But I do not see any confirmation of such a supposition in the crucial series of retainer commitments that follow upon Byrthnoth's death, the flight of the cowards, the breaking in consequence of the shield wall, and thus the crisis of fight or flight. The retainers who face that crisis are made to resolve it by aligning themselves entirely with Byrthnoth, first to avenge him if they can, then to share his fate.

Entries in The Parker Chronicle for 991 (the date of the battle) through 994 almost breathlessly reflect this policy debate -- armed resistance or else payoffs for peace (which might involve, as some recent commentary has suggested, a post-Benedictine effort at a pacifistic conversion of the Vikings)? Clearly the recommendation to pay tribute is an issue of policy, not desire. Recommended initially, we learn, by Archbishop Sigeric in 991, perhaps in response to Viking harrying after Byrthnoth's death, this policy is followed reluctantly, out of weakness or else given political divisions as well as the confusion that treachery and fecklessness among the English produce. Unable either to catch marauding Viking armies or else defeat them in the field, Aethelred in 992 decides to stop them preemptively, if he can, at sea. But the ealdorman he trusts most and to whom he gives the command, Aelfric, warns the Vikings and flees from the levies. The Viking host escapes. In 993 the Chronicle records yet another debacle caused by cowardice. The leaders of a great levy gathered to confront the Viking host were among the first to flee. These kinds of events establish a sad pattern-one that recurs in one way or another year after year.

As the annalist for this period in the Laud version of the Chronicle laments, efforts at resistance were either scattered or undermined (aside from the stout defense of London and, occasionally, of other fortified sites) and tribute was not paid soon enough to ward off wide-spread destruction. Reluctantly, Aethelred and his counselors agree to pay tribute on several occasions when the country seems on the verge of complete destruction. I think The Battle of Maldon fits eloquently into this context. Had numerous leaders and their levies joined battle with Byrthnoth's resolve and the absolute commitments of his loyal retainers, the various Viking hosts might have been defeated and the country saved from great destruction. Only an unrealistically compliant policy of tribute paid immediately upon sighting a Viking fleet could have forestalled the devastation suffered by shire after shire. Such a policy, in effect, would have meant total capitulation, leaving Viking hosts with only themselves as contestants for English wealth. In effect, this nearly happens in 1012 and 1013 when, successively, much of the country submits to King Svein, while King Aethelred is confined largely to London at first but then finally crosses the channel into exile.

I think the Maldon poet, no pacifist bent on converting the Vikings, shares Aethelred's hope for reliable, vigorous ealdormen and for staunch warbands and associated levies. Even then one might not prevail in given battles, although surely one could inflict significant damage upon a Viking army (as some levies occasionally did). Over time one could wear down, outwit, outmaneuver, or even surprise the Viking hosts and eventually defeat them -- much as, beginning in much more desperate straits than Aethelred faced in the 990s, Alfred did in his time more than a century earlier. Men like the Byrthnoth of poetry and his loyal retainers might yet appear to lead armies and bolster the defenses of heavily raided counties. As Byrthnoth is a triumphant model for great lords, so, corporately, the loyal retainers form a new ideal for ambitious, right-minded warriors. Those loyal retainers construct, piece by piece, a refurbished, group-ideal of glorious action. And so it is here, in a master-stroke of heroic transformation, that Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry and its past complexities will come to an end in the developing, pre-Norman record.




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Copyright © John Hill, 2000. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright @ The Heroic Age, 2000. All rights reserved.