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Jonathan Lindsell 25/04/2011 How can the historian use the evidence of Anglo-Saxon vernacular poetry?
Taken exclusively, Anglo-Saxon poetry in Old English rather than Latin can prove to be rewarding, interesting and informative. From it we can guess how its authors perceived, or perhaps idealised their society, what their religious persuasions were, and how they looked upon kinship and Lord-retainer relations. However, when taken out of isolation and used in conjunction with archaeological evidence like the Sutton Hoo burials, and supposedly non-fictional documents such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Bede's works, then we are able to explore and confirm a whole host of information. What Michael Alexander calls "the very best1" of early English poetry; The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Battle of Maldon and The Dream of the Rood, together with the more famous ballad, Beowulf, will be the main focuses of this essay. One of the elements of Anglo-Saxon society that comes through in a number of the poems is the strength of the bonds of kinship. It is important to note that the Germanic conception of kinship did not only include blood and marriage relations, but also adoption. Thus when Hrothgar, in appreciation for Beowulf's slaying of Grendel, declares, "I now take you to my bosom as a son, O best of me and cherish you in my heart. Hold yourself well In this new relation!2", he is not merely being hyperbolic in his thanks, but entering a genuine verbal contract of fellowship with the Geatish hero. There is no conflict in the fact that Beowulf also loves his own father, Edgetheow, whose name often precedes his own in the poem. The strength of such relations is shown not only in speech but in action- at Beowulf's death, Whitelock notes how the hero's kin sing dirges and laments and ride about the tomb in ceremonial guard3. Whitelock explores the examples of kinship ties in poetry further, pointing foremost to the feud. The obligations of the feud and of loving ones family tears apart King Hrethel in one of Beowulf's asides- "he took to his bed and died when one of his sons accidentally killed another, for there could be no vengeance nor compensation within the kindred"4. Noted alone, the kinship bonds in Beowulf would show nothing, since they could be examples of the anomaly rather than the norm. However, we learn from the Laws of Alfred, Ethelred and Edmund that feuding was heavily entrenched in the structure of Anglo Saxon society, which makes the passion and emotion of seeking vengeance more believable. If Beowulf hints at the strength of family relations, then it explicitly states the customs regarding the social contract between a Lord and his warrior-retainers. Nor is it the only poem giving evidence of the exchange of treasure for loyalty and service and of the need for the King to be strong in war. This is perhaps the area about which poetry gives us the most evidence - the connection between the warrior-aristocrat class, and the chieftain-king class. We learn firstly about the way leaders were expected to be both generous with their wealth, and 1
The Earliest English Poems, trans. Michael Alexander, p IX Beowulf, trans. Michael Alexander, lines 946-949 3 The Beginnings of English Society, Dorothy Whitelock p39 4 Ibid, p40 2
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