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Beowulf Notes

History Notes > British History, 400-1088AD Notes

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Question: What are the strengths and weaknesses of Beowulf as evidence for the nature of early Anglo-Saxon society?
How can the historian use the evidence of A-S vernacular poetry?
The Text: Exists in many translations (including a recent one by Seamus Heaney). I would recommend the Penguin Classics verse translation by Michael Alexander. To do the question justice, obviously requires leaving plenty of time to read and absorb the poem. Other comparable A-S material: For exam purposes, it is essential to have read wider than Beowulf, in order to answer at all satisfactorily a general question on A-S poetry. The Maldon poem is particularly useful, as both dated and late in date. I would particularly recommend, for lordship and the war-ethic, the poems The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Dream of the Rood, and the Battle of Maldon. All can be found in several collections - eg in the Penguin Classic The Earliest English Poems (trans. Michael Alexander). For similar values in a saint's life: B. Colgrave (ed and trans), Felix's Life of Saint Guthlac, 1956, chaps. XVI-XIX, XXV-XXVII & XXXI. For material from a chronicle source, and from the laws: D. Whitelock (ed and trans), English Historical Documents, Vol.I, 'The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' entry for 757 (pp.175-7); and no.38 'Edmund's code concerning the blood-feud' (pp. 427-9). On the poem and its background: E.G. Stanley, 'The date of Beowulf: some doubts and no conclusions', in C. Chase (ed.), The Dating of Beowulf, 1981, pp.197-211. (It is not necessary to get exercised over the problem of the date of the poem, but you must form some impression of the problems and implications of different datings.) Beowulf and 'History/Society' - General: D. Whitelock, The Beginnings of English Society, 1974, Chap.2.

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