Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University


Christian Heroism and the West Saxon Achievement:

The Old English Poetic Evidence

Kent G. Hare

In 797, the Northumbrian scholar Alcuin, resident in the Frankish court of Charlemagne, inquired of Higbald, bishop of Lindisfarne, "Quid Hinieldus cum Christo" (Dümmler 183) ("What has Ingeld to do with Christ?"), raising issues surrounding the relationship between Christianity and Germanic society and culture explored by numerous modern commentators, from J. R. R. Tolkien to Michael D. Cherniss and others. By his question, Alcuin declared succinctly his own disapproval of the fondness displayed by the monks of Lindisfarne (and doubtless elsewhere) for listening to heroic song and poetry rather than to sacred wisdom. Ingeld was a heroic figure from Germanic tradition whose renown is attested by the bareness of the allusion to his story in the Beowulf poem (lines 2020 ff.) and the weight of heroic legend with which Alcuin burdened him (Tolkien, "Beowulf" 22).1 Christ was of course the proper model for Christian monks. Alcuin’s rhetorical query stands in a long tradition initiated by St. Paul in his second Epistle to the Corinthians: "[W]hat concord hath Christ with Belial?" (6:15). The paradox was perhaps expressed most clearly by the early Church Father Tertullian’s "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Academy to do with the Church?" or St. Jerome’s three-fold query "What does Horace have to do with the Psalter? Maro with the Gospels? Cicero with the Apostles?" (Brown 482). As "Maro" was Virgil, the pagan poet of the heroic epic on the founding of Rome, Jerome’s question most closely parallels that of Alcuin in the opposition of pre-Christian heroism to Christian teachings. It is obvious from the literary and historical context that for Alcuin the pagan and worldly nature of the songs entertaining the Lindisfarne community made them utterly unsuited for recitation in the monastic refectory where attention should be given not to the concerns of this world but to the next. In the context of Alcuin’s other letters to Lindisfarne and Northumbria during the same decade, a charge is implicit that such deviation from Christian ideals is what brought disaster in the form of the infamous raid of 793 which in hindsight inaugurated the trauma of the Viking Age.

Despite the stark opposition between the heroic and the Christian that Alcuin and others perceived, the fact that the Lindisfarne community could fall subject to such criticism is evidence that others even within the Church saw things differently. Ever since the Germanic entry into early medieval Christendom wrought what James C. Russell termed a "Germanization" of Christianity, the Germanic warrior ethos had come to inform early Anglo-Saxon expressions of Christian asceticism and episcopal activity while Christian motives and interpretations were imposed upon the military activities of Anglo-Saxon kings. Examples of both abound in the Venerable Bede’s eighth-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People. But in the context of a necessary defense of Christian society against the pagan Vikings in the late ninth century and changing ideas of Christian kingship in the tenth century there resulted, paradoxically, both legitimization of holy warfare and its detachment from the royal estate. This shift is implicit as the context for the late Old English poem on The Battle of Maldon, which recounts the fall of the aged Ealdorman Byrhtnoth of Essex to the returned Viking marauders of 991. From other contemporary sources, most notably Byrhtferth of Ramsey’s Life of Archbishop Oswald of York,2 we know Byrhtnoth as a non-royal, pious nobleman, a holy warrior killed in battle defending English Christendom, but the old heroic ethos which long retained vitality shines nowhere more brilliantly than in the poetic commemoration of his defeat, through the words of the old retainer Byrhtwold in his own final moments after his lord has been cut down:

Hige sceal the heardra,         heorete the cenra
mod sceal the mare,         the ure maegen lytladh.
Her lidh ure ealdor         eall forheawen,
god on greote.         A maeg gnornian
se dhe nu fram this wigplegan         wendan thencedh. (312-16)3

Resolution must be the tougher, hearts the keener, courage must be the more as our strength grows less. Here lies our lord all hacked down, the good man in the dirt. He who now thinks of getting out of this fighting will have cause to regret it forever.

But Christian themes as well appear in the Maldon poem, in the words and sentiments of Byrhtnoth before and during battle, and in his final prayer as death becomes imminent, as they do in other heroic poems, those from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle commemorating tenth-century West Saxon victories against the Vikings, and even in the epic masterpiece of Old English verse, Beowulf.4On the other hand, heroic themes appear in a number of Old English poems taking as their subjects various events and figures from Christian tradition. In the Old English poetic tradition, the Christian religion itself took on a heroic cast and transformed the heroic ethos in turn.

The syncretic martialization of the Christian ethos in the Old English poetic record expressed a new order of Christian heroism which was in fact harnessed through the poems to the West Saxon achievement in the tenth century. In the historical context of resistance to the pagan Vikings and consolidation of the kingdom of England in the tenth century, the Christian heroism that permeates the poems played a crucial role. Heroic deeds celebrated in religious poetry, as well as religious significance invested in Christian contemporaries such as the pious ealdorman Byrhtnoth in the current struggle, could serve to inspire the audience gathered in the halls of the late Saxon warrior aristocracy to comparable deeds of valor in service to the dynastic interests of the House of Wessex.

Except for a few scattered poems, most of the Old English poetic material we possess comes to us in four manuscripts. Two are poetic anthologies: the Junius manuscript, containing the "pseudo-Caedmonian" poems adapting scriptural stories; and the Exeter Book, a mixture of religious and more secular verse as well as the famous Old English riddles. The Vercelli Book contains a mixture of poetry and prose, the latter being mostly homiletic in nature. Finally there is the fire-damaged Beowulf manuscript, which contains in addition a substantial fragment from a poem on the Old Testament character Judith as well as a few bits of other material. Besides these four manuscripts we have few other substantial examples of Old English poetry, most important among which are the fragmentary Battle of Maldon (which we have only in an early eighteenth-century transcript from an original which was lost to fire soon thereafter), a scattering of poems inserted into the manuscripts of the collectively named Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (beginning with the annal for 937, The Battle of Brunanburh), and Old English versions of a seventh-century Hymn of Creation attributed by Bede to the Northumbrian cowherd Caedmon. There are, to be sure, other materials that seem to some observers to be poetic in nature. Most notable are the writings of Aelfric of Eynsham, from the same period ca. 1000 as the four poetic manuscripts. Debate continues regarding the fundamental nature of Aelfric’s work, the style of which is, however, better described by Alexandra Hennessey Olsen as "alliterative ‘rhythmical prose’" (2) rather than outright poetry. As important as such works are in tracing the development of an ethos of Christian heroism in late Anglo-Saxon England, they fall outside the scope of this article.

Dating the composition of individual Old English poems is a particularly vexing problem for scholars seeking to interpret historical trends and events from the poetic materials. Beowulf, variously dated from the seventh century to the eleventh, provides only the most notorious example of the fluidity in dating to which Old English poetry is subject.5 For all but a handful of the poems, most notably The Battle of Maldon and the Chronicle poems, a wide span of time separates the earliest speculated date for their composition from the time they appeared in the written form that we have. In the absence of any firm consensus obtainable by traditional linguistic and metrical tools, however, we must give priority to the one fact that we do possess: that the four manuscripts which contain the lion’s share of Old English poems that we have are firmly datable by paleography to some time ranging from the late tenth century or to soon after the year 1000.6 Questions of original composition and oral transmission, or even whether there were pre-existing written exemplars, are ultimately less important than the seeming purpose in systematically compiling these poems in their existing forms as happened around the turn of the millennium. Based on this fact, therefore, Norman F. Blake argued radically but most cogently that the poems as we have them should be taken to be most reflective of the later phase of Anglo-Saxon history, and that they are products, at least as we have them, of a literary program of collection, translation, and composition having its origins in the Alfredian period, with aims both religious and political ("Dating"). D. A. Bullough and more recently David Dumville have demonstrated this program to have continued through the tenth century under King Alfred’s successors. Even Beowulf, traditionally considered a product of the seventh or eighth century, fits well into this broad historical context of the late ninth to early eleventh century, Blake argued, whether as an example of court-centered heroic epic or even as part of a program of religious instruction ("Dating" 24). Other scholars have agreed; Colin Chase considered Beowulf and Asser’s biography of Alfred the Great, written in the 890s, to have in common "an unresolved but balanced duality between heroic values and Christian piety" ("Saint’s Lives" 170). Such a perhaps uneasy but nevertheless fruitful wedding of the heroic and Christian indeed marks virtually the entire corpus of extant Old English poetry, which displays an ethos of Christian heroism well upon its trajectory of development. The heroism of the latest Old English poems, those commemorating current events of the tenth-century conflict against the heathen Vikings, is suffused with an aura of Christian martial piety which plainly foreshadows that of the age of the crusades commencing a century later.

In 1972, Alcuin’s opposition of Ingeld to Christ which opened this article provided Cherniss with the title of his valuable study considering the relation of the Christian and the heroic in Old English religious poetry. He argues that old Germanic heroic concepts were at first imported wholesale into Christian poetic expression but gradually lost their significance and were rejected, eventually to fade from use in Christian poetry even as convenient poetic devices. Beowulf represented the early heroic ideal, its "pervasive but superficial" Christianity no more than the product of a Christian poet singing a traditional song in the heroic mode (Ingeld 249-53). Cherniss’ tidy thesis both presumes and implies a thoroughly traditional dating sequence for Old English poetry–e.g., Beowulf is "early"–but such a diachronic interpretation may have little validity if the poems are in fact more or less contemporary in their extant forms.7 If Blake is correct in his suggestion that the poetic manuscripts were part of an extended Alfredian program and that the poems therein were thus composed or at least collected and committed to writing in their "final" forms to inculcate certain values to the Christian warrior elite of tenth-century England, then what were those values and how do the poems of the four codices reflect them? Cherniss presumes much more exclusivity between Christian and heroic values and concepts than is warranted. Anglo-Saxon Christians of the tenth century interpreted their religion in heroic terms. The Battle of Maldon and the other late battle poems represent not, as Cherniss would have it, an enduring heroic tradition tempered little by Christianity (Ingeld 255-7), but rather express the very same ethos as the religious poetry.

Crucial to understanding the literary context proposed here for the bulk of the Old English poetic corpus is the historical context of tenth-century England, which was rooted in the cataclysmic events of the last quarter of the ninth century. From the late eighth century and with escalating ferocity in the ninth, Anglo-Saxon England had come under attack from the Vikings and fought for its existence. Three of the four major kingdoms that existed in England in the mid ninth century fell in quick succession after 865, until only Wessex remained. Then, under King Alfred the Great (r. 871-899), the West Saxons rallied to fight the invaders to a standstill culminating in division of the southern part of the island into two regions: that ruled respectively by the House of Wessex to the southwest of a line running roughly from London to Chester, and that under the domination of the Vikings to the northeast of that line, the "Danelaw." Important in the West Saxon resistance, especially in the mind of King Alfred, was the renewal of the Christian life of his people who suffered this pagan onslaught because they had lapsed from God’s favor (Keynes and Lapidge 25-26). In his prose preface to the Old English translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, Alfred recalled:

Gedhenc hwelc witu us dha becomon for dhisse worulde, tha tha we hit nohwaedher ne selfe ne lufedon ne eac odhrum monnum ne lifdon: dhone naman anne we haefdon dhaette we Cristene waeren, & swidhe feawe dha dheawas. (Sweet 4)

Remember what punishments befell us in this world when we ourselves did not cherish learning nor transmit it to other men. We were Christians in name alone, and very few of us possessed Christian virtues. (Keynes and Lapidge 125)

In that same work, Alfred outlined a bold new initiative to remedy the situation:

[M]e dhyncdh betre . . . dhaet we eac sumæ bec, dha the nidbedhyrfesta sien eallum monnum to witanne, thaet we tha on thaet gedheode wenden the we ealle gecnawan maegen, & ge don, swa we swidhe eadhe magon mid Godes fultume, gif we tha stilnesse habbadh, dhaette eal sio giogudh the nu is on Angel kynne friora monna, dhara dhe dha speda haebben thaet hie dhaem befeolan maegen, sien to leornunga odhfaeste, tha hwile the hi to nanre odherre note ne maegen, odh dhone first the hie wel cunnen Englisc gewrit araedan: laere mon sidhdhan furdhur on Laedengedheode tha the mon furdhor laeran wille & to hierran hade don wille. (Sweet 6)

[I]t seems better to me . . . that we too should turn into the language that we can all understand certain books which are the most necessary for all men to know; and accomplish this, as with God’s help we may very easily do provided we have peace enough, so that all the free-born young men now in England who have the means to apply themselves to it, may be set to learning (as long as they are not useful for some other employment) until the time that they can read English writings properly. Thereafter one may instruct in Latin those whom one wishes to teach further and wishes to advance to holy orders. (Keynes and Lapidge 126)

Alfred undertook a religious and cultural reform, gathering to his court scholars from throughout England and beyond, and with them he translated into Old English a number of works immediately relevant to the Anglo-Saxon crisis of the late ninth century. Among the translations into the Old English vernacular were, in addition to the Pastoral Care: Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, and Orosius’ History against the Pagans (Keynes and Lapidge 28-35). Each was immediately relevant to the Anglo-Saxon situation in the 880s and 890s. The Pastoral Care provided bishops with the necessary instructions to carry out and to fulfill their duties and to retain God’s favor. According to the Consolation of Philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom is the obligation of a godly man. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History was a reminder to the English people of their Christian heritage, while Orosius’ History provided comfort to Christians beleaguered by the pagan Danes in the ninth century as it had those after the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in A.D. 410. Alfred found his own predicament portended in the first fifty Psalms, which he rendered into English, proclaiming the lamentations of another warrior king facing odds against a foreign, ungodly foe surmountable only with the aid of God (Keynes and Lapidge 31-32, 153, 301-03). Translations comprised only part of the Alfredian literary efforts, however. Production included original works in both Latin and Old English, such as Asser’s Latin Life of King Alfred and the vernacular Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, first compiled as a national chronicle in the early 890s.8

The propagandistic nature of the literary sources for the Alfredian period was persuasively argued by R. H. C. Davis. Through the works cited above, as well as his laws incorporating precedents from throughout England, Alfred placed himself as heir to the earlier kings of the various Anglo-Saxon peoples, and especially to those who could be presented as bretwaldas or "overlords," drawing on a tradition first recorded by Bede in his eighth-century Ecclesiastical History (2.5) but seeking to solidify that tradition under a title appearing only in the Chronicle (s.a. 829).9 The new national record showed that the House of Wessex always emerged victorious despite inevitable reverses and opposition and would provide natural leadership in any recovery against the Vikings. The efficacy of Alfred’s reforms and renewed divine favor was apparent to one contemporary, who wrote in the Chronicle entry for 896 concerning briefly renewed Viking invasions: "Naefde se here. Godes thonces. Angelcyn ealles for swidhe gebrocod" (Earle 94); "By the grace of God, the army had not on the whole afflicted the English people very greatly" (Keynes and Lapidge 118, emphasis mine).

Under Alfred’s tenth-century successors, Wessex gradually reconquered the Danelaw and consolidated the whole into one unified kingdom of England. The role of the tenth-century Anglo-Saxon church in cooperation with the House of Wessex has been well-documented by Eric John ("King," "Age"). Blake proposes this basic historical context for the composition and collection of the poems in the four poetic codices, one of a thoroughly militarized Christian society in a state of expansion and consolidation. As Richard P. Abels has shown, personal lordship was one of the "twin pillars" upon which the military organization of Anglo-Saxon England rested (186). While dependent land tenure provided the material means for warriors to fulfill their military duties, the ideological glue that held together the army or fyrd, the royal warband, and which imposed those military duties was that of the old Germanic comitatus. As Tacitus stated hundreds of years before in chapter fourteen of his Germania, the Germanic warrior fought for his lord, whatever that lord’s motivation might have been: "Principes pro victoria pugnant, comites pro principe" (Anderson n.p.n.); "The chiefs fight for victory, the followers for their chief" (Mattingly 113). Alfred and doubtless his successors aimed to enhance the strength of the lord-thane bond as well as to rebuild the Christian character of their people, and they showed the two sets of values as not incompatible but rather complementary. For their most important audience, the lay aristocracy who formed the core of the royal warband and were accustomed to hearing the heroic poems and songs of Germanic tradition, the medium of poetry would have been ideal. And so was conceived an essentially new corpus of poetry, doubtless drawing upon traditional songs of the scops, as well as upon stories from Christian scripture and legend. In the newly developing Old English literary tradition born in the Alfredian program, that these would be written down was only to be expected. The resulting body of Old English verse shows a poetic reimagining of Christian characters and concepts in heroic terms as well as traditional Germanic themes cast in Christian terms.

This was not an entirely new innovation. As early as the seventh century, the Northumbrian cowherd Caedmon incorporated into the religious vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon Christianity the language of the Germanic warband. Within fifty years of the conversion of Northumbria came this earliest appearance of any form of the Old Germanic secular and military word truhtin, "warlord," applied to the Christian God in Caedmon’s Hymn of Creation (Green 287):

Nu scylun hergan         hefaenricaes uard,
metudaes maecti         end his modgidanc,
uerc uuldurfadur,         sue he uundra gihuaes,
eci dryctin,         or astelidae.
He aerist scop         aelda barnum
heben til hrofe,         haleg scepen;
tha middungeard         moncynnaes uard,
eci dryctin,         aefter tiadae
firum foldu,         frea allmectig. (emphasis mine)

Now we must laud the heaven-kingdom’s Keeper, the Ordainer’s might and his mind’s intent, the work of the Father of glory: in that he, the Lord everlasting, appointed of each wondrous thing the beginning; he, holy Creator, at the first created heaven for a roof to the children of men; he, mankind’s Keeper, Lord everlasting, almighty Ruler, afterwards fashioned for mortals the middle-earth, the world.

This poem is from the Northumbrian dialect as it appears in the Moore manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (Cambridge, University Library Ms. Kk. 5.16).10 Dryctin in its later normalized West Saxon form dryhten is the most common form of reference to the Lord, God or Christ. Although Bede states that Caedmon sang of many other Christian subjects, from the Old Testament and the New (EH 4.24), the nine-line poem quoted above is all that we have from him; the poems of the Junius manuscript were once thought to be his, but scholarly consensus has long since discarded any possibility that they are canonically Caedmonian, although the label has stuck. Bede’s statement is important testimony to the fact that by the early to mid eighth century there were other such poetic versions of Christian materials, but the fact remains that there is no indication that we now possess any of them.

That such poems had a wide circulation and influenced what we do have is, however, evident. The most fully developed reimagining of the Gospel in heroic terms with Christ as leader of the apostolic warband comes from outside England in the early ninth-century Old Saxon Heliand (Murphy, Heliand xiii; Saxon Savior 11-31)11 a poem of almost 6000 lines which may or may not owe its inspiration to English influence (Wormald, "Anglo-Saxon Society" 8-9; Bostock 177-83) but which was demonstrably known in tenth-century England; the better of the two manuscripts of the Heliand which exist was copied at Winchester in the second half of the century (Murphy, Saxon Savior 26-27). More directly pertinent to this discussion, several shorter Old English poems present a comparably heroic Christ as chieftain of angels and men. In the Old English Christ poems, the Savior is called, among other epithets: "sigores frea," ("Lord of Victory"; Christ I 404), "wigendra hleo . . . / helm alwihta" ("Defender of those fighting the fight, Protector of all creatures"; Christ I 409-10). He is Judge (a medieval lordly function; see in particular Christ III 1199-1220), an "aedheling . . ./ beorn," ("Prince and Hero"; Christ II 448-49) Who passed from this world to heaven, joining His celestial comitatus or warband while remaining the Chieftain of "his thegna gedryht," ("His band of thanes"; Christ II 457) in this world. He is envisioned as "hyra sincgiefan" ("their Dispenser of treasure"; Christ II 460) Whose gifts will continue (see Christ II 476-80, 488-90), including:

                        . . . sped
. . . aet guthe,         thonne gargetrum
ofer scidhreadam         sceotende sendadh,
flacor flangeworc. (Christ II 673-76)

martial success in battle when bowmen send flying barbed missiles at the armed contingent above the shield-phalanx.

There is little indication that these gifts are meant figuratively in this passage, although the similar gifts of The Descent into Hell, "sweord ond byrnan, // helm on heoroscorp" ("sword and breastplate, helmet and fighting-gear"; 72-73), seem more obviously spiritual along the lines of Ephesians 6. As in The Heliand, the Passion itself takes on heroic form. In the Christ poems as well as The Dream of the Rood the Crucifixion is envisioned as active self-sacrifice rather than passive submission; the Dream adds yet another dimension to the Anglo-Saxon reimagining of the "geong Haeledh, / (thaet waes god aelmihtig)" ("young hero, who was almighty God"; 39). 12 Not only is the event seen as a victory by a warrior Christ over His enemies, but it is indeed effected by His wielding the Cross as a weapon (Cherniss, "Cross"; del Mastro).

Christ is of course the greatest example to Christians, but other figures from Judaeo-Christian tradition provided equally heroic models. Besides the negative example of the rebellious thane Satan in Genesis B, proudly defying his Maker, wooing Adam and Eve away from their rightful Lord by playing on the respective roles of men and women in the comitatus (Stratyner 126-39), the Anglo-Saxons recalled Abraham, and especially Moses, and even Judith as God-sent leaders of His people.13 Guthlac, Elene, Andreas, and Juliana each present its saint as a hero contending against evil. John Hermann places the three latter hagiographic poems, along with Exodus and Judith, in the tradition of the fourth-century poet Prudentius’ Psychomachia allegory conceiving the life of the soul as warfare between contending personified virtues and vices (8). He further regards this Old English "allegory of war" as "complicitous with social violence" (5). Adolf Harnack argued long ago that militaristic analogies in religious expression prepared the way for Christian holy wars (63). Such was precisely the Alfredian and West Saxon agenda in the late ninth and tenth centuries; the "social violence" that they advocated was warfare against the Danish Vikings, first invaders and then unwelcome settlers on English soil. Aelfric of Eynsham, writing ca. 1000, testified that the story of Judith provided an example for men of his own age, that they might likewise defend their country against renewed Scandinavian invasions:

Iudith seo wuduwe, the oferwann Holofernem thone Siriscan ealdormann, haefdh hire agene boc betwux thisum bocum be hire agenum sige; seo ys eac on Englisc on ure wisan gesett eow mannum to bysne, thaet ge eowerne eard mid waemnum bewerian widh onwinnendne here. (Aelfric, On the Old and New Testament 772-80)

Judith the widow, who overcame Holofernes the Syrian general, has her own book among these, telling of her own victory. We have also translated it into English as well as we could and place it before you men as an example, that you may take up arms to defend your own land against the attacking host. (my trans.)

The Old English poem on Judith accomplished a stirring expansion of the Biblical story to include extra-scriptural martial elements that fit well into the tenth-century milieu. In a prayer anachronistic on the lips of this Jewish matron (83-94), the heroine invokes to her aid the Triune "frymdha god / ond frofre gaest, // bearn alwaldan" ("God of beginnings, Spirit of comfort, Son of the universal Ruler"; 83-84), that she "mid thys sweorde mote // geheawan thysne mordhres bryttan" ("might hew down [the] dispenser of violent death") with his own sword (89-90), and later receives the plunder of a warlord:

                        Hi to mede hyre
of dham sidhfate         sylfre brohton,
eorlas aescrofe,         Holofernes
sweord ond swatigne helm,         swylce eac side byrna
gerenode readum golde,         ond eal dhaet se rinca baldor
swidhmod sinces ahte         odhdhe sundoryrfes,
beaga ond beorhtra madhma,         hi dhaet thaere beorhtan idese
ageafon gearothoncolre. (334-41)

As a reward, the celebrated spear-men brought back for her from the expedition the sword and the bloodied helmet of Holofernes as well as his huge mail-coat adorned with red gold; and everything the ruthless lord of the warriors owned of riches or personal wealth, of rings and of beautiful treasures, they gave it to that beautiful and resourceful lady.

In scripture Judith receives only "gold, and silver, and garments and precious stones, and all household stuff." (Jth. 15:14).

It is tempting to recall the traditional though often disputed hypothesis that the heroine of Judith in some way represents Aethelflaed, the "Lady of the Mercians," of whom the most significant overview remains that of F. T. Wainwright. Such a stark literary parallel is perhaps not necessary, but it is certainly attractive considering the valiant efforts of this daughter of Alfred the Great, sister of Edward the Elder, and wife of Aethelred, the Ealdorman of Mercia in the reconquest and consolidation of the Danelaw in the decades after 900.

The ongoing conflict in the Danelaw inspired several poems firmly datable to the tenth century because based upon definite historical events. Two in particular appear in the context of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The entry for 937 which appears in four of the manuscripts (A-D) is particularly notable because here, for the first time, an annalist recording the passage of years in the Chronicle "breaks into song" to celebrate the great victory won by King Athelstan and his brother Edmund, grandsons of Alfred the Great, over an alliance of Scots, Picts, and Vikings from Dublin led by King Constantine of Scotland, at a now uncertain location called "Brunanburh." The change in tone is quite welcome after the preceding annals noting little more than consecrations and deaths in the Chronicle’s more typically terse and uninspired manner. Despite S. A. J. Bradley’s caveat that "since no distinction of layout was observed between prose and poetry in A[nglo-]S[axon] manuscripts it is hardly less arbitrary to print the annal for 937 according to the typographical conventions of poetry than it would be to print large tracts of [the homilist] Wulfstan . . . in the same way" (515), the stark contrast between this annal and especially the bare annotations that immediately precede it make it obvious that here we have an intentionally different breed of annal. It must be significant in the context of the social and literary program posited in this article that the entry for 937 suddenly deploys the traditional formulaic diction of Germanic heroic poetry in celebrating this victory of the tenth-century English under the House of Wessex. Oddly enough, although one (F) of the two Chronicle manuscripts (E and F) mentioning the battle in a much shorter, non-poetic entry makes clear that "[Crist]e fultumegende sige haefde" ("with the help of Christ they had the victory"),14 such an explicit sense of Christian militancy is missing from the poem, when such an interpretation might well have been expected given Athelstan’s patronage of the Church (Bradley 516).15 Perhaps casting the Battle of Brunanburh as one of Christian versus pagan would have been too difficult considering that Constantine’s Scots at least were Christians in an unholy alliance with the Danes of Dublin. The poem nevertheless does convey an indefinable "feel" of Christian exultation and almost seems to invoke the watchful eye of God over the battlefield:

                        feld daennede
secga swate,         sidhthan sunne up
on morgentid,         maere tungol,
glad ofer grundas,         godes condel beorht,
ces drihtnes,         odh sio aethele gesceaft
sah to setle. (12-17)

The field grew wet with men’s blood from when in the morning-tide that glorious star, the sun, glided aloft and over earth’s plains, the bright candle of God the everlasting Lord, to when that noble creation sank to rest.

The Battle of Brunanburh has been compared with the Old High German Ludwigslied, which celebrates in clearly martial Christian terms the 881 victory of the West Frankish King Louis III over the Vikings at Saucourt (Wolf 75-76, 80-81). John Bostock bluntly assesses the Ludwigslied as "a glorification of the Church Militant, and of the king, its servant" (241). The historical events are portrayed as entirely in God’s hands, from the coming of the heathens as a scourge on the Frankish people because of their sins, to Christ’s calling Louis to battle to help the repentant people, to the Frankish victory through the divinely inspired valor of Louis. According to Alois Wolf, the two poems are similarly "steeped in patriotism, king, Christianity, and territory" (81). John Hill took a similar position in a perceptive discussion of The Battle of Brunanburh as one in a series of late ninth- to tenth-century Chronicle entries effecting the construction of a new mythology of Christian kingship in service to the House of Wessex (93-107). I would argue for a wider program marshaling not just Chronicle entries but the Old English poetic corpus to the cause of the West Saxon heirs of Alfred the Great.

Still more similar than Brunanburh to the Ludwigslied is the poetic annal for 942 in the Chronicle, casting the West Saxon recovery of five boroughs in the Danelaw as a "redemption" of an oppressed Christian people (see Mawer 551-57):

                        Daene waeran aeror
under Nordhmannum         nyde gebegde
on hæthenra         haefteclommum
lange thraga         oth hie alysde eft
for his weorthscipe         wiggendra hleo,
afera Eadweardes,         Eadmund cyning. (9-13)

Long had the Danes under the Norsemen
Been subjected by force to heathen bondage,
Until finally liberated by the valour of Edward’s son,
King Edmund, protector of warriors. (Garmonsway 110-11)

This annal is interesting furthermore because it reveals that the conflict was seen in fundamentally religious rather than ethnic terms. The Christian population of the boroughs liberated from the pagan Norse ruling in York are called Danes; as far back as 878 the leader of the Danish Vikings who had contended with Alfred had accepted baptism for himself and his people settling the Danelaw as the price of peace. Certainly since the beginning of the tenth century the Danes resident in England had been more or less Christianized; Oda, the archbishop of Canterbury in 942 and an early proponent of ecclesiastical reform, was of Danish parentage (Williams, et al., s.v. "Oda"). The heroism of a Christian king in defense of an oppressed Christian people is clearly employed poetically in the service of the House of Wessex in a manner very similar in spirit to that of the Ludwigslied, and within a similarly short period. The Ludwigslied, commemorating the 881 Battle of Saucourt, appears in a manuscript dated to about the year 900 (Wolf 75); the Chronicle entries for Brunanburh (s.a. 937) and the Capture of the Five Boroughs (s.a. 942) were written into the so-called "Parker Chronicle" (= ASC ms. A) by the year 955 (Fulk and Cain 223).

But by far the most famous Old English battle poem is The Battle of Maldon, a 325-line fragment missing its beginning and end, commemorating not a glorious victory but rather a devastating defeat suffered by the English in 991, early in the second phase of the Viking Age when invasions from Scandinavia had resumed after a long lull. In the estimation of crusades scholar Christopher Tyerman, the Maldon poet had in two passages, a century before its time, the "spirit of crusading . . . close by the hand" (11). At the height of the battle, already wounded yet having dispatched his attacker and indeed another Viking,

                        [s]e eorl waes the blithra,
hloh tha, modi man,         saede metode thanc
dhaes daegweorces         the him drihten forgeaf. (146-48)

The earl [Byrhtnoth] was all the happier; he laughed then, a man of spirit, and said thanks to the Ordainer for the day’s work that the Lord had granted him.

And later, after Byrhtnoth has fallen and as the thanes who have remained faithful to him proclaim their intent to avenge him or die trying, they

                        god baedon
thaet hi moston gewrecan         hyra winedrihten
and on hyra feondum         fyl gwyrcan. (262-64)

prayed God that they might be allowed to avenge their lord and friend, and wreak destruction upon their enemies.

Although Byrhtnoth’s early exultation was quickly followed by his own fatal wound, and the retainers’ later prayer went unanswered, the poet clearly saw no incongruity in such battlefield invocations of the Christian God.

After Beowulf, Maldon must be the most discussed and debated poem in Old English. Although based upon a firmly datable event, the date of the poem is surprisingly controversial. Dates have been posited from soon after the battle (a view favored by historians, who wish to see a reliable account of the battle) to as late as the reign of Cnut in the eleventh century (the later view favored mainly by linguists) (see Scragg, "Fact or Fiction" 26). But even a late composition fits the overall program suggested by this article. The poem would work quite well as a condemnation of the disloyalty which undercut the English defense in the early eleventh century; treacherous acts such as lamented by Wulfstan of York in his Sermo Lupi and exemplified in the career of the infamous Eadric Streona (see Robinson 76-90; John, "Return" 192-213) may well have inspired a response based on the doomed but heroic loyalty of Byrhtnoth and his men. Of seemingly more import than the date of the poem, therefore, is the question of its essentially heroic or fundamentally Christian nature, which turns on the portrayal of Byrhtnoth himself.

The doomed hero of Maldon has been considered by various commentators anything from a (flawed) "hero who is Christian" (Cross 93) to a Christian saint in an essentially hagiographical poem having more in common with the Old English poetical and prose lives of saints than with battle poems such as Brunanburh (Blake, "Battle" 332-45). The characterization of Byrhtnoth as saint and martyr is the subject of long-standing debate, but one contemporary view, promoted by the monks of Ely whom he had long supported, was that Byrhtnoth had sacrificed his life heroicly defending a Christian society against pagan attack (Bradley 518-19; Hare, "Christian Heroism" 186-89, 269-70). It must be admitted, however, that for whatever reason a "cult of Byrhtnoth" does not seem to have extended far beyond Ely. John Damon has thoroughly considered this issue and its implications for a wider "crisis of faith" among the Anglo-Saxon warrior elite who, in the era before the Crusading ideal, found themselves barred from outright sanctity by their status, being neither religious nor royal, which conditions seem ca. 1000 to have been prerequisites for sanctification ("Sanctifying" 185, 191-94; Soldier Saints).

The Maldon poem would appear to present a major stumbling block to any interpretation exalting Byrhtnoth. At issue is the interpretation of a single passage, even a single word in which the poet seems to express severe criticism of a figure otherwise clearly heroic. After holding against the raiders the causeway from the island on which the Vikings were gathered, Byrhtnoth accepted their request for an unobstructed crossing to the mainland and a pitched battle.

Dha se eorl ongan         for his ofermode
alyfan landes to fela         lathere dheode. (89-90, emphasis mine)

Then the earl, because of his extravagant spirit, yielded too much terrain to a more despicable people.

Bradley’s translation, quoted above, departs from the usual rendering of the key word, ofermod, as "pride," e.g.:

Then because of his pride the earl set about
allowing the hateful race too much land (Scragg 21, emphasis mine).

Much ink has been spilt at least since Tolkien suggested that Byrhtnoth suffered from "overmastering pride" as he rendered the word, for which the earl and his men paid with their lives ("Homecoming" 19-24). That the word in contention does convey a pejorative meaning is generally accepted, following Helmut Gneuss as the definitive study. Scragg, for instance, annotates his edition and translation of The Battle of Maldon with the assertion that ofermod "has to be interpreted in the light of other instances of this and related words in Old English as a pejorative term meaning ‘pride’" (36 n. 10). However, dissenting views persist as voiced, for instance, by George Clark ("Hero"), and the semantic range of ofermod might very well have borne a positive as well as a negative connotation, just as does "pride" in modern English, particularly in a heroic rather than specifically religious context. Bill Griffiths points out that the choice of the particular word may have been due to metrical and alliterative needs and "may not involve the sort of criticism often attributed to it" (8). Consideration of the lines in their poetic context indeed reveals that the poet’s criticism of Byrhtnoth was not as damning as certain modern critics would have it; certainly Byrhtnoth did not contend against his Lord as did Satan. In the social and religious context of the day, such self-centered prideful disruption of the ideal of societal ordo was considered the deadliest of sins, and Clark argues that modern scholars like J. E. Cross who interpret ofermod as a word of harsh condemnation would thus implicitly consign the earl to hell in the eyes of his contemporaries ("Hero" 264-65, 280-82). Clearly that goes too far. Byrhtnoth acted according to the dictates of his station in society both as leader of the English and as retainer of his own lord the king (Maldon 50-54, 202-04; see Clark, "Hero" 281); loyalty and duty are the great virtues celebrated by the poem (Robinson 76-98).

Paul Szarmach has recently examined the Maldon poem in the context of what he calls a literary "(Sub-) Genre" of Christian-Viking conflict which includes the Ludwigslied as well as the Bella Parisiacae urbis of Abbo of St.-Germain, a Latin poem in three books totaling about 1400 lines describing the Viking siege of Paris and related events from 885 into the 890s. He explains the role of ofermod in the Maldon poem as fulfilling a necessary literary element in the "(sub-) genre" whereby the only possible explanation for failure was moral (59). Anglo-Saxon ideas were quite in line with those of Szarmach’s continental poems; from Bede and Alcuin through Alfred to Wulfstan of York, national ill-fortune, including military disaster at the hands of the Vikings, was recognized as the wages of sin. But in most cases the sins for which punishment is due are clear and specific, at least in the minds of the contemporary writers, and the connections are, moreover, crystal clear.16 Even in the Song of Roland, the tale of another Christian hero whose pride led his men to disaster, to which The Battle of Maldon has been often contrasted and compared (see Wolf 81-83; Clark, "Byrhtnoth and Roland" 288-93), the specificity of the sin precipitating the disaster is apparent, not least to Roland (1854-68). Note especially Roland’s lament, "Barons franceis, pur mei vos vei murir" (1863), for which Harrison’s translation, "French lords, because of me I see you dying" (108), is clearer and preferable to Brault’s "French knights, I see you dying for my sake" (115). When his own death looms, Roland prays God for forgiveness (2369-72, 2384-88). Not so in Maldon. If Byrhtnoth’s action in accepting pitched battle was indeed a tactical error motivated by sinful pride, the poet never elaborates on the point and none of the participants seems to recognize it. Byrhtnoth’s last words, a prayer to his God, express no remorse for his deed:

Gethancie the,         dheoda waldend,
ealra thaera wynna         the ic on worulde gebad.
Nu ic ah, milde metod,         maeste thearfe
thaet thu minum gaste         godes geunne,
thaet min sawul to dhe         sidhian mote,
on thin geweald,         theoden engla,M
mid frithe ferian.         Ic eom frymdi to the
thaet hi helsceadhan         hynan ne moton. (171-78)

I thank you, Ruler of nations, for all of those joys which I have experienced in the world. Now, merciful ordainer, I have the greatest need that you should grant my spirit the benefit that my soul be allowed to journey to you, into your keeping, Lord of the angels, to pass in peace. I beseech you that hellish assailants be not allowed to harm it.

None of his followers, even those who fled after his death and assured the defeat of those who remained, bewail his actions. The poet in fact put words of praise for that "swa leofan men" ("man so dear"; 319) into the mouth of the aged retainer Byrhtwold as he expresses near the end of the poem the warriors’ resolve to go down fighting. And the specific "ofermod-passage" in question is followed immediately by what Blake regards as clear indication from Byrhtnoth’s own mouth that his "pride" was not that of presumption in assuming that victory would be with the English ("Battle" 338):

                        god ana wat
hwa thaere waelstowe         wealdan mote. (94-95)

God alone knows who will be allowed to control the place of slaughter.

The character of the pious earl Byrhtnoth is in no other source besmirched by even the hint of sin, but is praised for his piety and devotion to the Church.17

Tolkien argued that Byrhtnoth’s "fault" was one characteristic of the heroic aristocratic ethos of his age: "Owing to a defect of character, no doubt; but a character, we may surmise, not only formed by nature, but moulded also by ‘aristocratic tradition,’ enshrined in tales and verse of poets now lost save for echoes" (Tolkien, "Homecoming" 21). However, the poet was more likely constrained by convention than was the earl, who had little choice but to fight then and there, or watch the Vikings sail merrily away to further harry his lands (John, "Return" 198). In such a situation, George Clark argues, Byrhtnoth lacked any other viable and responsible tactical option ("Hero" 273), and moreover, given the relative numbers of the opposing forces, there is no reason to assume that the earl accepted a battle he knew he would lose (262). The literary tradition identified by Szarmach, part of a wider and ancient tendency to attribute disaster to sin, may have forced the poet to posit some such explanation for the resulting defeat. But in doing so he cleverly employed a term of brilliant vagueness and otherwise betrays only admiration for his Christian hero.

It remains to discuss briefly the epic masterpiece of Old English poetry in the specific context of the tenth century and the proposed argument that the Alfredians and their successors sought to provide models of Christian heroism to serve as examples in the expansion of Wessex and the consolidation of England. Blake’s dating of the present redaction of the Beowulf poem to the tenth century is at least as reasonable as any other assignment. As Cherniss argues and others have observed, the poem is the product of a Christian poet telling a traditional story. But, contrary to Cherniss’ judgment that the Christianity of Beowulf is merely a superficial overlay (Ingeld 133), the poet’s view of Beowulf as essentially a Christian–or more correctly, a Godly–hero shines clearly in the text. The distinction between "Christian" and "Godly" is necessary because our poet was perhaps nowhere more skilled than in what David Wright called his display of "historical tact . . . in addressing to a Christian audience a work which is set, in time, in a pagan world" (18). Beowulf is a hero sent by God who fights with God's aid and in His service. He is sent by God to the aid of Hrothgar’s Danes:

                        Haefde kyningwuldor
Grendle togeanes,         swa guman gefrungon,
seleweard aseted;         sundornytte beheold
ymb aldor Dena. (665-68)

The heaven-King, so people heard, had appointed against Grendel a hall-guard who had a special duty towards the lord of the Danes.

He contends with the enemy of God, Grendel, the monster who "godes yrre baer" ("bore . . . God’s anger"; 711), was "godes ondsacan," ("God’s adversary"; 786) and was "faeg widh god" ("antagonistic towards God"; 811).18 Beowulf’s strength comes from God:

he gemunde         maegenes strenge,
gimfaeste gife         dhe him god sealed
ond him to anwaldan         are gelyfde
frofre ond fultum; (1270-73)

he bore in mind the potency of his strength, the liberal gift which God had granted him, and he entrusted himself to the grace of the one Lord, to his mercy and help.

He trusts in that strength and in God against Grendel:

[h]uru Geata leod         georne truwode
modgan maegnes,         metodes hyldo. (669-70)

[a]nd certainly the Geatish leader readily trusted in his own intrepid strength and the protection of the ordaining Lord.

and is aided by God in battle against Grendel’s mother:

Haefde dha forsidhod         sunu Ecgtheowes
under gynne grund,         Geata cempa,
nemne him headhobyrne         helpe gefremede,
herenet hearde,         ond halig god
geweold wigsigor;         witig drihten
rodera raedend,         hit on ryht gesced
ydhelice. (1550-56)

Ecgtheow’s son, the Geatish campaigner, would have perished then down in the vast deep, had not his battle-corslet, his sturdy soldier’s mail-coat, afforded him help; and were it not that holy God held sway over victory in war. The wise Lord, arbiter of the heavens, easily determined the matter on the side of right.

In the end, the poet even tells us that Beowulf attains salvation:

                        [H]im of hredhre gewat
sawol secean         sodhfaestra dom. (2819-20)

[T]he soul departed from him to seek the glory of those steadfast in the truth.

As Edward B. Irving pointed out, "that is certainly not the way Beowulf would describe it" (10), but that is the way the Christian poet described it for a Christian audience. Examples of most of the above points could be multiplied. Such a reworking of a suitable traditional story would have been a natural product of the didactic impulse posited for the Alfredians and the West Saxons in the tenth century.

Certain relationships observable or merely hypothesized between Beowulf and other Old English texts are pertinent as well. The apparent dependence of Andreas, Exodus, and other works such as the late tenth-century Blickling Homily 17 upon Beowulf is more explicable, argued Blake, if all are literary products of the same era ("Dating" 26). Not all commentators would agree. Such similarities are usually dismissed as simple oral-formulaic coincidence rather than literary dependence, as are the similarities between Beowulf and the Exodus poem observed by Bradley (50). But the manuscript context of Beowulf, adjacent to the poem on Judith which we have seen works quite well as a piece intended to inspire resistance against the Vikings, is also notable. Judith, in fact, fits better beside Beowulf than with the other scriptural poems. Marie Nelson recently termed it "a story of a secular saint" (12-13, my emphasis): "Judith fights a secular fight against hostile human beings, not a spiritual fight against devils" as do the other two saintly heroines of Old English religious poetry, Helen and Juliana (13). But the heroism displayed by all three, and indeed by all the heroes and saints of Old English poetry, is presented as equivalent. Beowulf and Judith, no less than Saints Andrew, Guthlac, and the rest, contend heroically against enemies of the Christian God and His people on whatever field; all are motivated by notions of service and self-sacrifice very much compatible with a Christian, saintly ethic, as postulated by Roberta Frank with regard to the question of whether the retainers’ sentiments and actions as described in The Battle of Maldon accurately reflect a living heroic ethos at the end of the tenth century or is instead merely a literary convention as argued by Rosemary Woolf. In a way, the particularly close correspondences between Andreas and Beowulf suggests that the Old English poet reconceived St. Andrew as an explicitly Christian saintly counterpart to a great pre-Christian heroic figure of Anglo-Saxon tradition.

Such efforts to create a new tradition of literature carried out by the Alfredian scholars in the late ninth century and their successors in the tenth century would have served the interests of the House of Wessex well in its drive for territorial expansion and consolidation across the Danelaw while they fulfilled Alfred the Great’s program of rebuilding the Christian character of the English people. The two purposes were by no means incompatible and could be viewed as inseparable. Asser’s religiously motivated Alfred, a Christian warrior king, had, after all, "saved" England; such was at least the message of the frankly propagandistic literary sources we have from his circle of scholars. As Tyerman observed, "The efficacy of Alfred’s policy depended less on intellectual niceties than on the blending of an ideal of the holy warrior with secular niceties and with the existing military habits and cultural expectations of his thegns" (11). This fusion found expression in the manuscripts of Old English poetry which, as we have them, were produced in the century after Alfred. As usually posed, the often-debated question regarding the origin and nature of the heroic ethos that permeates the poetry has little relevance. Sometimes framed as a conflict between opposed pagan and Christian impulses, more (but not most) correctly by Cherniss as competition between "‘pre-Christian’, ‘Germanic’, and ‘heroic’" concepts and Christian values (Ingeld 29), the distinction between heroic and Christian is in fact less important than the fact of their reconciliation. In the poems as they have come down to us, products by and large of the tenth century, the dominant ethos is one of Christian heroism. Sacrifice and endurance are at the heart of heroism whatever the cause, and we have seen that it was easy–in fact inevitable–that a Christian society placing such value on heroism would reimagine the Sacrifice of Calvary in heroic terms as Christ’s decisive victory over the greatest enemy of God and man. As Christ is for Christians the center around which all sacred history orbits, it was just as inevitable that the Old Testament figures that preceded Him, and His saints who followed, contending against various enemies of God both natural and supernatural, would be likewise re-imagined in similarly heroic terms. And if heroes of the past such as even Beowulf could be cast as Godly heroes, why not Christian contemporaries such as the pious ealdorman Byrhtnoth in the current struggle? The deeds of all, celebrated in poetry in the halls of the aristocracy, could serve to inspire the audience to comparable feats of valor in service to the House of Wessex. The old controversy over the heroic or the Christian nature of The Battle of Maldon, for one, is therefore of little import. Certainly that question would have far less meaning for men of tenth- and eleventh-century England than it does for twentieth-century critics and historians who approach the matter from what would have been to their forebears a totally alien perspective. An aristocratic and fundamentally Christian heroic ethos was an integral part of Anglo-Saxon civilization. The loyalty of Byrhtnoth’s thanes, based ultimately in the old ideal of the Germanic comitatus, could only be strengthened by notions of Christian service and sacrifice that could themselves inspire deeds of great heroism.


1 A brief summation of what an Anglo-Saxon audience would have known of Ingeld was provided by Chambers in his commentary on the Old English catalog-poem, Widsith 78-81. Return

2 On Byrhtferth’s authorship of this work, see Lapidge, "Life" 51. Return

3 For this article, unless specified otherwise, reference is made by line number to the editions of Old English poems as presented in the pertinent volumes of The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records as follows: Krapp, Junius Manuscript; Krapp, Vercelli Book; Krapp, The Exeter Book; Dobbie, Beowulf and Judith, and Dobbie, Minor Poems. Unless specified otherwise, Old English poetry is translated according to Bradley. Return

4 A number of more secular poems such as the Finnsburh Fragment, Waldere, Widsith, Deor’s Lament, The Husband’s Message, and The Wife’s Lament, to name a few, sometimes show varying intrusions of Christian ideas. They are primarily heroic in nature, however, and thus of use in examining the Germanic heroic ethos of the comitatus. Cherniss bases his definition and discussion of heroic concepts upon these "least overtly Christian poems in the Old English corpus" as well as Beowulf (Ingeld, 28); see also Stratyner. These poems are of limited use to the present study, however, because the warrior ethos therein seems little Christianized. Return

5 See the articles in Chase, Dating, particularly Chase’s own introduction, "Opinions." The current heavyweight championing an early composition for Beowulf and indeed most other Old English poems is Fulk, History. Evans provides an excellent, concise discussion of the issues, scholarship, and implications for historical interpretation. Return

6 Ker dates the four codices as follows: The Exeter Book "s. x2"(= 975 25); The Junius Manuscript "s. x/xi" (= 1000 25) for Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel, and "s. xi1" (= 1025 25) for Christ and Satan; The Vercelli Book "s. x2" (= 975 25); and the Beowulf Manuscript (Ms. Cotton Vitellius A.15) "s. x/xi" (= 1000 25). See pp. xv, xvii, and xviii. I have here provided parenthetically my interpretations of Ker’s dating codes according to his p. xx. Return

7 Cherniss’ selection of poems also seems a bit arbitrary; the most conspicuous absence is The Dream of the Rood, which he does admittedly consider from a totally different angle in a subsequent article ("Cross"). We are left to wonder where in his overall model Cherniss would place this important poem, with its clear evocation of the warband with Christ both as thane to His Father and Lord to the Cross and the Dreamer. I feel obliged to acknowledge a great debt and to make it clear that, while contemplation of the Old English poetic corpus in its historical context led me to conclusions very different from Cherniss’, his work was immensely helpful in my foray into unfamiliar literary territory and gaining familiarity with the crucial issues and problems of the field. Return

8 Despite the extensive arguments of Smyth, which elicited a quick rebuttal from Lapidge ("King"), the consensus remains that The Life of King Alfred was written by his Welsh priest Asser. Return

9 Many questions not directly pertinent to this article surround the elusive "office" of bretwalda, major among them being whether there ever was such an institution of supreme royal overlordship in Anglo-Saxon England, as opposed to harsh realities of military dominance. "Reality" is considered a doubtful proposition in most recent estimations; see esp. Fanning 1-26, and Wallace-Hadrill 59. Higham sees such an office even in the early period, as a survival of a late Roman British ideal; Rollason is specifically dismissive of this notion (38). The main importance of the idea seems to lie in its promotion by the church of Canterbury as an ideal of political unity to foster religious unity (see Wormald, "Ninth Century" 99-100, and "Bede, Bretwaldas" 99-129), and even more so in how the Alfredian circle seized upon it as precedent for West Saxon aspirations to overlordship in late-ninth to tenth-century England. It is uniquely in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (s.a. 829), a product of that Alfredian circle, that such putative overlordship is given the title bretwalda. No other Anglo-Saxon writer ever betrayed knowledge of any special term for the list of seven kings whom Bede cited as ruling "imperially," which the Chronicler supplemented with an eighth, Alfred’s grandfather, Ecgberht of Wessex. Return

10 On the Moore manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, see Colgrave and Mynors xliii, xliv. A late ninth-century West Saxon version of the hymn may be found in Miller 1:344, as well as Dobbie, Minor Poems 106. Return

11 I follow Murphy in terming the fusion of Christian and heroic as a "reimagining." Return

12 The translation given is basically Bradley (161), except that I follow Dubs’ assertion that "‘Haeledh’ . . . clearly signifies ‘hero’" (614). Return

13 Abraham: in his rescue of his captive kinsman Lot, the poet of Genesis A "skilfully draws upon the formulas, the terminology, and the images of conventional Germanic battle poetry (lines 1982-2005 and 2039-95)" (Bradley 48); Moses: see Exodus 8-22; Judith: see below. Return

14 "Her Aedhelstan cing and Eadmund his brodher laedde fyrde to Brunan byri . . . and [Crist]e fultumegende sige haefde" (ed. Earle 113, trans. Garmonsway 107). Garmonsway translated according to the sense of the passage, which has a dual subject, rather than adhering to the grammatically incorrect singular verb haefde. Ms. F is a twelfth-century bilingual (Old English and Latin) version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The compiler, who derived the Old English from ms. E, which has merely a single-line prose notice that Athelstan led the fyrd to Brunanburh, also worked from a Latin text closely related to a lost Winchester chronicle, from which he translated the attribution of the victory to Christ; see Campbell 149-50. Return

15 On Athelstan as an exemplar of Christian heroism, including his patronage of the Church, see Hare, "Athelstan." Return

16 See Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and his Letter to Bishop Ecgberht; Alcuin’s Letter to Ethelred, king of Northumbria (793); Alfred’s introduction to the Pastoral Care; Wulfstan, Sermon of the Wolf, all readily available in Whitelock’s English Historical Documents. From outside the Anglo-Saxon milieu and slightly later, early western accounts of the First Crusade likewise ascribed Christian failures to sin: see, for example, Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolimitanorum 9.24, 9.29, 10.34, 10.38; Raymond d’Aguilers, Historia Francorum Qui Ceperunt Iherusalem chs. 4, 7, 11, 14; Fulcher of Chartres, Chronicle 11.8-10, 12.1-5, 15.13-14, 19.3-4, 20.3. Return

17 See Byrhtferth’s Life of Oswald fols. 18r and v, ed. and trans. Lapidge, "Life" 51-55, and also the twelfth-century Liber Eliensis bk. 2, ch. 62 (ed. Blake, repr. and trans. Kennedy 63-65). Return

18 Other examples include: "ellorgast" ("alien being"; 807), "helle haefton" ("hell’s prisoner"; 788), "feond on helle," ("fiend in torment"; 101) more literally "fiend in hell" (Duncan 96). Return



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