The Old English world centered around the chieftain, the king (cynning). His kinsmen would be noblemen, thegns or thanes, also called eorls. Ordinary people of no rank at all would be ceorls. There were also slaves.
Family and kinship thus meant a lot to the Anglo-Saxons, and they valued loyalty very much. • Because of this sense of loyalty, when somebody was killed, the killer had to pay wergild (“man-gold”, blood money) to the victims family, or there would be blood feud. • The blood money for an ordinary man, a ceorl, was the price of thirty oxen. For an eorl it was five times this.
The chieftains had to be generous, distributing treasure and gifts among their people. Thus they were “ring-givers”, “gold-friends”. They would entertain their retainers in the mead-hall every evening, where a gleeman (“music man”) or a scop would recite poems in the company of a harp. Both gleeman and scop meant “bard”.
Treasure items from the 6th century. What Hrothgar gave Beowulf would look like these.
The Germanic people had a difficult alphabet called the Runic Alphabet, which they used only to exchange short messages or for monumental inscriptions. Thus Old English Poetry was oral, and it was not written down until long after the conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. As a result, very little survived of Old English Poetry.
The Beowulf Manuscript itself survived in only one copy, and was not discovered until the 18th century, when it was damaged in a fire. Although the manuscript was written in the 10th century, it refers to events that happened in the 6th century. • Its setting is the land of the Danes in the early 6th century, and the title hero, Beowulf is a Geat (from southern Sweden). But it is written in Anglo-Saxon language, and in a dialect spoken in the Midlands.
The Anglo-Saxons were pagans until the 6th century. They did not believe in life after death, and they had difficult lives in a cold, wet climate, in very harsh conditions, surrounded by war, death and hardship. As a result; • The very little that survives of their poetry is gloomy, melancholic and elegiac. • Their only hope of immortality was by leaving a good, heroic name behind.
Heroic Ideal A hero, to achive immortality through his deeds, had to have these qualities: • Bravery • Loyalty • Generosity We see that Beowulf also : • Is a good orator (he talks cleverly and impressively) • Has sense of honour, pride • Wants to gain fame • Loves freedom (prefers to act independently)
The few other samples of Old English poetry that has survived has a lyric quality. • “The Wanderer”, by an anonymous poet, is about a persona who has lost his chieftain and all his friends and kinsmen. He is exiled from his homeland, he set out to the cold sea to find a refuge, but is lost. On the sea, he hallucinates about his beloved lord and the dead heroes who were his friends. He is hopeless and lonely.
All is full of trouble, all this realm of earth. Doom of weirds is changing all the world below the skies. Here our foe is fleeting, here the friend is fleeting. Fleeting here is man, fleeting here is woman; All the earth’s foundation is an idle thing become.
In “The Wife’s Lament”, the persona is a woman. She has been married into a different tribe to end a feud, but her husband has left, and her husband’s kinsmen drove her away from her home. Friendless and very far away from her own kinsmen, she is forced to live in a cave by an oak tree in the wilderness. She is very lonely, she watches happy young lovers on the beach, and she misses her husband very much. The last line translates as: “Woe is the one who, languishing, waits for a lover.”
Old English poetry had no end-rhyme. It depended on alliteration and assonance. • Alliteration is the repetition of the initial consonant eg. swift swallow flying to the south eg. hlafordes hryre, heorth geneatas
Assonance is the repetition of vowels creating a kind of internal rhyme. eg. Dead in damiddle of littleItaly, littledidwe know that weriddled some middle men who didn't do diddily
Every line consisted of two “verses” separated by a ceasura or a pause: Swa begnornodon / Gaeta leode hlafordes hryre, / heorth geneatas
Two aspects of the style of Beowulf is striking. • The anonymous poet uses a lofty, formal language, but is often ironic (as in parts where he uses ironic understatement). • In his descriptions, he uses a figurative device called kenning. These are compound descriptions used to describe ordinary things in remarkable ways.
Kenning: e.g. Swan-road means “sea” whale-path means “sea” sea-steed means “ship” battle-lightning means “sword” war-sweat means “blood” death-house means “grave”
Archeological finding of a ship like the one used in the funeral of Scyld Scefing (his was sent out to the sea, this one was buried)
Reconstruction of the burial chamber on the ship, with the shield, weapon and valuable possessions
Chain mail shirt worn as body armor, Beowulf’s “glitters” as he first goes to Heorot.