The Wanderer – If you’ve read or watched The Lord of the Rings you might recognise some lines from this wonderful Old English poem!


This is the fourth of the Old English poems usually referred to as ‘elegies’, and it’s many people’s favourite – J. R. R. Tolkien being one of its fans of course. It has been studied and discussed by Old English scholars for more than a hundred years now, and there are thousands of published articles about it, with different takes on what it means – as a whole poem or even just debating individual words. And it’s not just the British who love it – scholars and enthusiasts from all over the world, from Germany to the US, Japan to Canada – have chosen to spend time studying this poem in the original language.

One of the major discussions centres around when the speeches of the wanderer begin and end – there is no punctuation to guide us in the manuscript, and the actual language does not always make this clear. Is there one person speaking in the poem, who sometimes speaks aloud, and sometimes muses to himself? Or is the narrator telling us the words of another man, a ‘sage’? You will notice that The Wanderer is very much a companion piece to The Seafarer: many themes and images are common to both poems. At the end of The Wanderer a wise man sits apart, remembering his younger years as a warrior. He is an exile, far from home and friends. Soon, we gather, he will set off on the seas again, to continue his search for a new life, a new home. He is constantly sad and lonely, but he keeps his feelings hidden: no one is left alive he can unburden his heart to, but he also believes that it is more admirable to suffer in silence, and that complaining will not change his fate. He lives with his memories and his dreams – of feasting and songs, of gifts and recognition, of companionship – but then came wars and having to bury his Lord.

Like the seafarer, the wanderer spends much time traveling by sea, often in winter, and this experience lives in his mind as if he were still there on the yellow water with the seabirds and the icy waves. Like in The Seafarer the poem jumps from one thought to another, and from one memory to another, so that it is hard to decide whether the wanderer is now on a ship or on land, with people or alone. He links the decline of his own life with the decline of the world – the end of cities and civilisations – and he mourns the loss of all this, including the end of the giants (the immense stone buildings scattered over Britain from the time of the Romans, together with huge monuments such as Stone Henge, were thought by the Anglo-Saxons to have been made by a race of giants who once inhabited the land). The wanderer’s only comfort now is in God, and this has helped him bear his sorrows patiently (hence many scholars argue the old Germanic warrior code becomes the new Christian code).

I’m using the same sources for the original and the translation as in my previous three blog posts on the elegies – just for consistency. I have highlighted the section (in italics) adapted by Tolkien for Aragorn’s song of the Rohan in The Lord of the Rings (The Twin Towers, chapter 6). Note: Tolkien’s version is not meant to be a translation – he changed the words to suit his story.

The Wanderer

‘Often the solitary man enjoys
The grace and mercy of the Lord, though he
Careworn has long been forced to stir by hand
The ice-cold sea on many waterways,
Travel the exile’s path; fate is relentless.’
So spoke a wanderer who called to mind
Hardships and cruel wars and deaths of lords.
Frequently have I had to mourn alone
My cares each morning; now no living man
Exists to whom I dare reveal my heart
Openly; and I know it for a truth
That in a man it is a noble virtue
To hide his thoughts, lock up his private feelings,
However he may feel. A weary heart
Cannot oppose inexorable fate,
And anxious thoughts can bring no remedy.
And so those jealous of their reputation
Often bind fast their sadness in their breasts.
So I, careworn, deprived of fatherland,
Far from my noble kin, have often had
To tie in fetters my own troubled spirit,
Since long ago I wrapped my lord’s remains
In darkness of the earth, and sadly thence
Journeyed by winter over icy waves,
And suffering sought the hall of a new patron,
If I in any land might find one willing
To show me recognition in his mead-hall,
Comfort my loneliness, tempt me with pleasures.
He knows who has experienced it how bitter
Is sorrow as a comrade to the man
Who lacks dear human friends; fair twisted gold
Is not for him, but rather paths of exile,
Coldness of heart for the gay countryside.
He calls to mind receiving gifts of treasure
And former hall-retainers, and remembers
How in his younger years his lordly patron
Was wont to entertain him at the feast.
Now all that joy has gone. He understands
Who long must do without the kind advice
Of his beloved lord, while sleep and sorrow
Together often bind him, sad and lonely,
How in his mind it seems that he embraces
And kisses his liege lord, and on his knee
Lays hand and head, as when he formerly
Received as a retainer in the hall
Gifts from the throne; but then the joyless man
Wakes us and sees instead the yellow waves,
The sea-birds bathing, stretching out their wings,
While snow an hail and frost fall all together.
The heart’s wounds seem to be yet heavier,
Grief for the dear one gone; care is renewed,
When memories of kinsmen fill the mind,
He greets them gladly, contemplates them keenly,
But his old friends swim frequently away;
The floating spirits bring him all too few
Of the old well-known songs; care is renewed
For him who must continually send
His weary spirit over icy waves.
Therefore I see no reason in the world
Why my heart grows not dark, when I consider
The lives of the warriors, how they suddenly
Have left their hall, the bold and noble thanes,
Just as this earth and everything thereon
Declines and weakens each and every day.
Certainly no man may be wise before
He’s lived his share of winters in the world.
A wise man must be patient, not too hasty
In speech, or passionate, impetuous
Or timid as a fighter, not too anxious
Or carefree or too covetous of wealth;
Nor ever must he be too quick to boast
Before he’s gained experience of himself.
A man should wait, before he makes a vow,
Until in pride he truly can assess
How, when a crisis comes, he will re-act.
The wise must know how awesome it will be
When all the wealth of the earth stands desolate,
As now in various parts of the world
Stand wind-blown walls, frost covered, ruined buildings.
The wine-halls crumble; monarchs lifeless lie,
Deprived of pleasures, all the doughty troop
Dead by the wall; some battle carried off,
Took from this world; one the dire bird removed
Over the ocean deep; one the grey wolf
Consigned to death; and one a tear-stained hero
Concealed from daylight in an earthy cave.
Just so in days long past mankind’s Creator
Destroyed this earth, till lacking the gay sounds
Of citizens the ancient world of giants
Stood desolate. He who has wisely thought
And carefully considered this creation
And this dark life, experienced in spirit
Has often pondered many massacres
In far off ages, and might say these words:
‘Where is the horse now, where the hero gone?
Where is the bounteous lord, and where the benches
For feasting? Where are all the joys of hall?
Alas for the bright cup, the armoured warrior,
The glory of the prince. That time is over,
Passed into night as it had never been.
Stands now memorial to that dear band
The splendid lofty wall, adorned with shapes
Of serpents; but the strong blood-greedy spear
And mighty destiny removed the heroes,
And storms now strike against these stony slopes.
The falling tempest binds in winter’s vice
The earth, and darkness comes with shades of night,
And from the north fierce hail is felt to fall
In malice against men. And all is hardship
On earth, the immutable decree of fate
Alters the world which lies beneath the heavens.
Here property and friendship pass away,
Here man himself and kinsmen pass away,
And all this earthly structure comes to nought.’
Thus spoke the thoughtful sage, he sat apart.
Blessed is he who keeps his faith; a man
Must never be too eager to reveal
His cares, unless he knows already how
To bring about a cure by his own zeal.
Well shall it be for him who looks for grace
And comfort from our father in the heavens,
Where is ordained all our security.

Old English original of The Wanderer (untitled in manuscript)

Oft him anhaga are gebideð,
metudes miltse, þeah þe he modcearig
geond lagulade longe sceolde
hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sæ,
wadan wræclastas. Wyrd bið ful aręd!
Swa cwæð eardstapa, earfeþa gemyndig,
wraþra wælsleahta, winemæga hryre:
“Oft ic sceolde ana uhtna gehwylce
mine ceare cwiþan. Nis nu cwicra nan
þe ic him modsefan minne durre
sweotule asecgan. Ic to soþe wat
þæt biþ in eorle indryhten þeaw,
þæt he his ferðlocan fæste binde,
healde his hordcofan, hycge swa he wille.
Ne mæg werig mod wyrde wiðstondan,
ne se hreo hyge helpe gefremman.
Forðon domgeorne dreorigne oft
in hyra breostcofan bindað fæste;
swa ic modsefan minne sceolde,
oft earmcearig, eðle bidæled,
freomægum feor feterum sælan,
siþþan geara iu goldwine minne
hrusan heolstre biwrah, ond ic hean þonan
wod wintercearig ofer waþema gebind,
sohte sele dreorig sinces bryttan,
hwær ic feor oþþe neah findan meahte
þone þe in meoduhealle min mine wisse,
oþþe mec freondleasne frefran wolde,
weman mid wynnum. Wat se þe cunnað,
hu sliþen bið sorg to geferan,
þam þe him lyt hafað leofra geholena.
Warað hine wræclast, nales wunden gold,
ferðloca freorig, nalæs foldan blæd.
Gemon he selesecgas ond sincþege,
hu hine on geoguðe his goldwine
wenede to wiste. Wyn eal gedreas!
Forþon wat se þe sceal his winedryhtnes
leofes larcwidum longe forþolian,
ðonne sorg ond slæp somod ætgædre
earmne anhogan oft gebindað.
þinceð him on mode þæt he his mondryhten
clyppe ond cysse, ond on cneo lecge
honda ond heafod, swa he hwilum ær
in geardagum giefstolas breac.
ðonne onwæcneð eft wineleas guma,
gesihð him biforan fealwe wegas,
baþian brimfuglas, brædan feþra,
hreosan hrim ond snaw, hagle gemenged.
þonne beoð þy hefigran heortan benne,
sare æfter swæsne. Sorg bið geniwad,
þonne maga gemynd mod geondhweorfeð;
greteð gliwstafum, georne geondsceawað
secga geseldan. Swimmað eft on weg!
Fleotendra ferð no þær fela bringeð
cuðra cwidegiedda. Cearo bið geniwad
þam þe sendan sceal swiþe geneahhe
ofer waþema gebind werigne sefan.
Forþon ic geþencan ne mæg geond þas woruld
for hwan modsefa min ne gesweorce,
þonne ic eorla lif eal geondþence,
hu hi færlice flet ofgeafon,
modge maguþegnas. Swa þes middangeard
ealra dogra gehwam dreoseð ond fealleþ,
forþon ne mæg weorþan wis wer, ær he age
wintra dæl in woruldrice. Wita sceal geþyldig,
ne sceal no to hatheort ne to hrædwyrde,
ne to wac wiga ne to wanhydig,
ne to forht ne to fægen, ne to feohgifre
ne næfre gielpes to georn, ær he geare cunne.
Beorn sceal gebidan, þonne he beot spriceð,
oþþæt collenferð cunne gearwe
hwider hreþra gehygd hweorfan wille.
Ongietan sceal gleaw hæle hu gæstlic bið,
þonne ealre þisse worulde wela weste stondeð,
swa nu missenlice geond þisne middangeard
winde biwaune weallas stondaþ,
hrime bihrorene, hryðge þa ederas.
Woriað þa winsalo, waldend licgað
dreame bidrorene, duguþ eal gecrong,
wlonc bi wealle. Sume wig fornom,
ferede in forðwege, sumne fugel oþbær
ofer heanne holm, sumne se hara wulf
deaðe gedælde, sumne dreorighleor
in eorðscræfe eorl gehydde.
Yþde swa þisne eardgeard ælda scyppend
oþþæt burgwara breahtma lease
eald enta geweorc idlu stodon.
Se þonne þisne wealsteal wise geþohte
ond þis deorce lif deope geondþenceð,
frod in ferðe, feor oft gemon
wælsleahta worn, ond þas word acwið:
“Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga!
Eala þeodnes þrym! Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.
Stondeð nu on laste leofre duguþe
weal wundrum heah, wyrmlicum fah.
Eorlas fornoman asca þryþe,
wæpen wælgifru, wyrd seo mære,
ond þas stanhleoþu stormas cnyssað,
hrið hreosende hrusan bindeð,
wintres woma, þonne won cymeð,
nipeð nihtscua, norþan onsendeð
hreo hæglfare hæleþum on andan.
Eall is earfoðlic eorþan rice,
onwendeð wyrda gesceaft weoruld under heofonum.
Her bið feoh læne, her bið freond læne,
her bið mon læne, her bið mæg læne,
eal þis eorþan gesteal idel weorþeð!”
Swa cwæð snottor on mode, gesæt him sundor æt rune.
Til biþ se þe his treowe gehealdeþ, ne sceal næfre his torn to rycene
beorn of his breostum acyþan, nemþe he ær þa bote cunne,
eorl mid elne gefremman. Wel bið þam þe him are seceð,
frofre to fæder on heofonum, þær us eal seo fæstnung stondeð.



The British Museum – ‘Vikings: Life and Legend’, and the newly reopened Room 41 (Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100)


Yesterday I went to London to visit the British Museum. As an adult this is only the second time I’ve been, with not living in London, which is remiss of me as most of it is free and it is even more impressive and welcoming now they’ve roofed over the courtyard with a beautiful light-filled dome.

I had booked to see the special exhibition on the Vikings (6th March – 22nd June 2014) but I also wanted to revisit Room 41, which has recently had a ‘major redisplay’ (as the Museum website / blog calls it). The Museum says it’s 30 years since they’ve put on a major exhibition about the Vikings. Since then our view of them has changed considerably ie we no longer focus just on the marauding and pillaging and violence. The view in Denmark has also changed – they don’t want the Vikings to be the only thing they are known for – so for your information they are also great on renewable energy (loads of wind farms which I think look great, but I like pylons too!), and they have lovely coastal areas, and nature reserves like the Wadden Sea (which I recently cycled around).

The Viking exhibition was put on with the help of museums in Denmark and Germany, and the main focus is the biggest Viking ship ever found, at an estimated 37 metres. There is lots of information on how their boats were constructed, seafaring and trading, and how we know about the boats (from stories, burials and shipwrecks etc). You aren’t permitted to take photos in the exhibition, but there is a detailed ‘catalogue’ (hardback £40, paperback £25) you could look out for online (I’m sure there will soon be copies on eBay!), or buy in the Museum shop. Personally I opted for the book on Viking ships as a memento of the exhibition – which I thought was very good value at £5. It is written by the British Museum curator who was involved in staging the exhibition, and includes quite a few images of objects and images I actually saw there.


I really enjoyed the exhibition – it reinforced and extended what I already knew, and I’m fascinated in this period of history in North Western Europe. However, I recently (last week) visited Ribe in Denmark with my boyfriend for a few days, where we went to the Viking Centre (with reconstructed Viking houses from different periods) and the Viking Museum. Beautiful Ribe is the oldest town in Denmark, and was a Viking trading town from the 8th century. At the Viking Centre ( one of the senior enactors, who described herself as something of a Viking era ‘geek’, told us she had seen the exhibition in Copenhagen before it came to England, and she thought there were some inaccuracies. She told us she was not impressed with the exhibition, but also admitted perhaps she knew so much already that it was not really aimed at her.


Well I don’t know enough about the Vikings to be able to spot those kind of inaccuracies, but I do have my opinions about the early Anglo-Saxon era, as you will know if you have read earlier entries in this blog. So while I was at the Museum I also dropped in at the newly improved and re-opened Room 41, which houses the Anglo-Saxon Britain permanent display – with a focus on the Sutton Hoo boat burial ‘treasures’ and other informative and often spectacular finds from pagan graves.

I wonder if the same British Museum curator responsible for the Viking Exhibition and the Viking ships book, ie Gareth Williams, is partly responsible for the content of these rooms too, as this seems to be his period of expertise, judging from his range of publications. Anyway, I was disappointed to find that the British Museum still goes along with the old mass migration after the withdrawal of the Romans explanation for the origins of the Anglo-Saxons.


Here are two photos I took of the new display boards. OK, so the invasion hypothesis has quietly been dropped, but how long will it be before the British Museum admits that this emphasis on incoming Germanic peoples may not be correct either?


We are constantly re-evaluating our views of ancient peoples, and new technologies available to archaeologists are increasing our knowledge, but there is a very slow filter down into the ‘story’ we the public are told. One problem is that the senior generation of archaeologists either a) don’t publish their research very quickly, or b) have too much power over the ‘story’, and aren’t ready to completely rethink their ideas, which in the case of the Anglo-Saxons is what is called for (even the name is not really appropriate in my view). It looks like the British Museum is also part of this cover-up – what a disappointment.

Of course all opinions on this blog are my own, and I may be entirely wrong! And don’t let this stop you going to the British Museum – it is brilliant and FREE. Everywhere you wander there are amazing things you’ve heard of and seen images of, and there they are (and often huge) – it is a really WOW place if you are into world history, archaeology, art and culture. When we were in Denmark we had to pay for the museums we visited, but in Britain they are paid for through taxes and sponsorship etc – though museums all push more and more for voluntary donations from visitors as their support lines are cut by a cash-strapped government.

Of course one problem with the British Museum is that it was built on the proceeds of the British Empire, quite literally, and furthermore many of its exhibits were basically plundered from ancient buildings abroad, like the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens that the Museum and the British Government have refused to return to Greece. This kind of politics is very much missing from the display boards in the Museum, or its website. No doubt there are people who want the Anglo-Saxon ‘story’ in Room 41 re-writing, but we the public are not likely to be privy to the machinations that go on whenever a new exhibition is staged or the permanent displays rewritten. What a pity – personally that makes it all so much more interesting! But of course ordinary people have more of a voice now due to the internet – we can add our comments to websites and write blogs like this one – so let’s celebrate that at least.


The Seafarer – find out about another wonderful Old English poem that will open your eyes on the period still mistakenly called the ‘Dark Ages’


The only surviving copy of this poem is in the Exeter Book manuscript, so, like ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ and ‘The Wife’s Lament’ which I looked at in earlier posts, this poem was written more than a 1000 years ago (and perhaps originally composed considerably earlier – the tenth century is the date of the manuscript, but we know nothing about how any of these poems came to be within it).

Once again the poem has a narrator, so we have a clear feeling that this lonesome traveller / pilgrim / exile is speaking to us across the ages. The poem contains the musings of a seafarer, currently on land, vividly describing difficult times at sea. The paradox is that despite the danger and misery of previous sea voyages he desires to set off again. Remember though, that there are other ways of interpreting/ translating this poem.

Most Old English scholars have identified this as a Christian poem – and the sea as an allegory for the trials of a Christian seeking his God. If you only read the first half of the poem you won’t come to this conclusion, as it appears to describe real sea travel, together with memories of the narrator’s lost time as an Anglo-Saxon warrior (well that’s one way of interpreting these lines). From about half way through the poem the narrator starts to refer to his Lord/god, and we begin to view the first half of the poem in a different light.

The last part of the poem contains a more conventional homily praising the seafarer’s (Christian) god and advising followers how to conduct their lives in order to reach heaven. This ending seems quite different in tone (and originality and hence poetic quality) from that which goes before – early translators often excluded this part from their translations of ‘The Seafarer’, considering it to be a separate poem.

I do appreciate the religious side of the poem, although I am not ‘religious’ myself (like many 50+ people in Britain I was brought up within the Christian tradition – I love cathedrals and old village churches, rituals like harvest festival, the Bible with its wonderful language and stories, hymns we sung at school as a child etc). However, what I really love about this poem is the images of the sea and the birds, and how the seafarer shares his memories, feelings and longings with the reader. It makes you want to know more about the poet, and the character in the poem that he speaks through.

In this poem there is no church, no tradition, no priest telling you what to believe – it’s a time when Christians were in a minority and followers were genuine pilgrims searching for ‘truth’ and this appears to be one aspect of the poem, but a love of the sea and nature also comes through very clearly. You want to know more about this person, and about the poet. As usual with the Old English poems ‘The Seafarer’ leaves you with many questions that will never be answered, but this means you have a chance to reach your own conclusions on what it’s about – like all good poetry.

The poem is 125 lines long – I have included all of it here but you’ll have to do a bit of scrolling to get through it (first in Old English, then in translation into modern English). As in my previous posts I’m using the edition of the poem from The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records edited by G.P. Krapp and E.V.K. Dobbie in 1936, and the translation from Richard Hamer’s 1970 anthology, A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse. You’ll find if you look at other translations that each one of them provides a different interpretation of what is happening, and hence a very different poem / story.

The original manuscript has no punctuation as we understand it (a few random dots are scattered about, but modern editors have identified no purpose for them) and no capitals to signal proper nouns. It is not even set out in ‘lines’ of verse. Editors have to add these layers of meaning, and each editor makes different decisions.

There are also a few words that are indecipherable towards the end of this poem, where the manuscript has been damaged, so editors leave gaps or guess the words from the few letters they think they can identify (they use a lot of technology to examine the manuscripts – as you can imagine given the world we live in); translators usually fill in the gaps with what seems to make the most sense.

There are links to a couple of online versions here:
You could also try using Google Books or Amazon to look at some of the many books of Old English poetry, or even a library or a bookshop (not quite yet extinct!). You can listen to the poem spoken in Old English on YouTube, just to give you a flavour of the language – it sounds a bit like a cross between German and English.

(Untitled in manuscript)
Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan,
siþas secgan, hu ic geswincdagum
earfoðhwile oft þrowade,
bitre breostceare gebiden hæbbe,
gecunnad in ceole cearselda fela,
atol yþa gewealc, þær mec oft bigeat
nearo nihtwaco æt nacan stefnan,
þonne he be clifum cnossað. Calde geþrungen
wæron mine fet, forste gebunden,
caldum clommum, þær þa ceare seofedun
hat ymb heortan; hungor innan slat
merewerges mod. þæt se mon ne wat
þe him on foldan fægrost limpeð,
hu ic earmcearig iscealdne sæ
winter wunade wræccan lastum,
winemægum bidroren,
bihongen hrimgicelum; hægl scurum fleag.
þær ic ne gehyrde butan hlimman sæ,
iscaldne wæg. Hwilum ylfete song
dyde ic me to gomene, ganetes hleoþor
ond huilpan sweg fore hleahtor wera,
mæw singende fore medodrince.
Stormas þær stanclifu beotan, þær him stearn oncwæð
isigfeþera; ful oft þæt earn bigeal,
urigfeþra; ne ænig hleomæga
feasceaftig ferð frefran meahte.
Forþon him gelyfeð lyt, se þe ah lifes wyn
gebiden in burgum, bealosiþa hwon,
wlonc ond wingal, hu ic werig oft
in brimlade bidan sceolde.
Nap nihtscua, norþan sniwde,
hrim hrusan bond, hægl feol on eorþan,
corna caldast. Forþon cnyssað nu
heortan geþohtas, þæt ic hean streamas,
sealtyþa gelac sylf cunnige;
monað modes lust mæla gehwylce
ferð to feran, þæt ic feor heonan
elþeodigra eard gesece.
Forþon nis þæs modwlonc mon ofer eorþan,
ne his gifena þæs god, ne in geoguþe to þæs hwæt,
ne in his dædum to þæs deor, ne him his dryhten to þæs hold,
þæt he a his sæfore sorge næbbe,
to hwon hine dryhten gedon wille.
Ne biþ him to hearpan hyge ne to hringþege,
ne to wife wyn ne to worulde hyht,
ne ymbe owiht elles, nefne ymb yða gewealc,
ac a hafað longunge se þe on lagu fundað.
Bearwas blostmum nimað, byrig fægriað,
wongas wlitigað, woruld onetteð;
ealle þa gemoniað modes fusne
sefan to siþe, þam þe swa þenceð
on flodwegas feor gewitan.
Swylce geac monað geomran reorde,
singeð sumeres weard, sorge beodeð
bitter in breosthord. þæt se beorn ne wat,
esteadig secg, hwæt þa sume dreogað
þe þa wræclastas widost lecgað.
Forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð ofer hreþerlocan,
min modsefa mid mereflode
ofer hwæles eþel hweorfeð wide,
eorþan sceatas, cymeð eft to me
gifre ond grædig, gielleð anfloga,
hweteð on hwælweg hreþer unwearnum
ofer holma gelagu. Forþon me hatran sind
dryhtnes dreamas þonne þis deade lif,
læne on londe. Ic gelyfe no
þæt him eorðwelan ece stondað.
Simle þreora sum þinga gehwylce,
ær his tid aga, to tweon weorþeð;
adl oþþe yldo oþþe ecghete
fægum fromweardum feorh oðþringeð.
Forþon þæt bið eorla gehwam æftercweþendra
lof lifgendra lastworda betst,
þæt he gewyrce, ær he on weg scyle,
fremum on foldan wið feonda niþ,
deorum dædum deofle togeanes,
þæt hine ælda bearn æfter hergen,
ond his lof siþþan lifge mid englum
awa to ealdre, ecan lifes blæd,
dream mid dugeþum. Dagas sind gewitene,
ealle onmedlan eorþan rices;
næron nu cyningas ne caseras
ne goldgiefan swylce iu wæron,
þonne hi mæst mid him mærþa gefremedon
ond on dryhtlicestum dome lifdon.
Gedroren is þeos duguð eal, dreamas sind gewitene,
wuniað þa wacran ond þas woruld healdaþ,
brucað þurh bisgo. Blæd is gehnæged,
eorþan indryhto ealdað ond searað,
swa nu monna gehwylc geond middangeard.
Yldo him on fareð, onsyn blacað,
gomelfeax gnornað, wat his iuwine,
æþelinga bearn, eorþan forgiefene.
Ne mæg him þonne se flæschoma, þonne him þæt feorg losað,
ne swete forswelgan ne sar gefelan,
ne hond onhreran ne mid hyge þencan.
þeah þe græf wille golde stregan
broþor his geborenum, byrgan be deadum,
maþmum mislicum þæt hine mid wille,
ne mæg þære sawle þe biþ synna ful
gold to geoce for godes egsan,
þonne he hit ær hydeð þenden he her leofað.
Micel biþ se meotudes egsa, forþon hi seo molde oncyrreð;
se gestaþelade stiþe grundas,
eorþan sceatas ond uprodor.
Dol biþ se þe him his dryhten ne ondrædeþ; cymeð him se deað unþinged.
Eadig bið se þe eaþmod leofaþ; cymeð him seo ar of heofonum,
meotod him þæt mod gestaþelað, forþon he in his meahte gelyfeð.
Stieran mon sceal strongum mode, ond þæt on staþelum healdan,
ond gewis werum, wisum clæne,
scyle monna gehwylc mid gemete healdan
wiþ leofne ond wið laþne bealo,
þeah þe he hine wille fyres fulne
oþþe on bæle forbærnedne
his geworhtne wine. Wyrd biþ swiþre,
meotud meahtigra þonne ænges monnes gehygd.
Uton we hycgan hwær we ham agen,
ond þonne geþencan hu we þider cumen,
ond we þonne eac tilien, þæt we to moten
in þa ecan eadignesse,
þær is lif gelong in lufan dryhtnes,
hyht in heofonum. þæs sy þam halgan þonc,
þæt he usic geweorþade, wuldres ealdor,
ece dryhten, in ealle tid.

The Seafarer
I sing my own true story, tell my travels,
How I have often suffered times of hardship
In days of toil, and have experienced
Bitter anxiety, my troubled home
On many a ship has often been the heaving waves,
Where grim night-watch has often been my lot
At the ship’s prow as it beat past the cliffs.
Oppressed by cold my feet were bound by frost
In icy bonds, while worries simmered hot
About my heart, and hunger from within
Tore the sea-weary spirit. He knows not,
Who lives most easily on land, how I
Have spent my winter on the ice-cold sea,
Wretched and anxious, in the paths of exile,
Lacking dear friends, hung round by icicles,
While hail flew past in showers. There heard I nothing
But the resounding sea, the ice-cold waves.
Sometimes I made the song of the wild swan
My pleasure, or the gannet’s call, the cries
Of curlews for the missing mirth of men,
The singing gull instead of mead in hall.
Storms beat the rocky cliffs, and icy-winged
The term replied, the horn-beaked eagle shrieked.
No patron had I there who might have soothed
My desolate spirit. He can little know
Who, proud and flushed with wine, has spent his time
With all the joys of life among the cities,
Safe from such fearful venturings, how I
Have often suffered weary on the seas.
Night shadows darkened, snow came from the north,
Frost bound the earth and hail fell on the ground,
Coldest of corns. And yet the heart’s desires
Incite me now that I myself should go
On towering seas, among the salt waves’ play;
And constantly the heartfelt wishes uege
The spirit to venture, that I should go forth
To see the lands of strangers far away.
Yet no man in the world’s so proud of heart,
So generous of gifts, so bold in youth,
In deeds so brave, or with so loyal lord,
That he can venture on the sea
Without great fears of what the lord may bring.
His mind dwells not on the harmonious harp,
On ring-giving or on the joys of woman,
Or worldly hopes, or anything at all
But the relentless rolling waves;
But he who goes to sea must ever yearn.
The groves bear blossom, cities grow more bright,
The fields adorn themselves, the world speeds up;
Yet all this urges forth the eager spirit
Of him who desires to travel far
On the sea-paths. Likewise the cuckoo calls
With boding voice, the harbinger of summer
Offers but bitter sorrow in the breast.
The man who’s blest with comfort does not know
What some then suffer who most widely travel
The paths of exile. Even now my heart
Journeys beyond its confines, and my thoughts
Over the sea, across the whale’s domain,
Travel afar the regions of the earth,
And then come back to me with greed and longing.
The cuckoo cries, incites the eager breast
On to the whale’s roads irresistibly,
Over the wide expanses of the sea,
Because the joys of God mean more to me
Than this dead transitory life on land.
That earthly wealth lasts to eternity
I don’t believe. Always one of three things
Keeps all in doubt until one’s destined hour.
Sickness, old age, the sword, each one of these
May end the lives of doomed and transient men.
Therefore for every warrior the best
Memorial is the praise of living men
After his death, that ere he must depart
He shall have done good deeds on earth against
The malice of his foes, and noble works
Against the devil, that the sons of men
May after praise him, and his glory live
For ever with the angels in the splendour
Of lasting life, in bliss among those hosts.
The great old days have gone, and all the grandeur
Of earth; there are not Caesars now or kings
Or patrons such as once there used to be.
Amongst whom were performed most glorious deeds,
Who lived in lordliest renown. Gone now
Is all that host, the splendours have departed.
Weaker men live and occupy the world,
Enjoy it but with care. Fame is bought low,
Earthly nobility grows old, decays,
As now throughout this world does every man.
Age comes on him, his countenance grows pale,
Grey-haired he mourns , and knows his former lords,
The sons of princes, given to the earth.
Nor when his life slips from his body
Taste sweetness or feel pain or stir his hand
Or use his mind to think. And though a brother
May strew with gold his brother’s grave, and bury
His corpse among the dead while yet he lives,
Wishing them to go with him, yet can gold
Bring no help to the soul that’s full of sins,
Against God’s wrath, although he hides it here
Ready before his death while yet he lives.
Great is the might of God, by which earth moves;
For He established its foundations firm,
The land’s expanses, and the sky above.
Foolish is he who does not fear his Lord,
For death will come upon him unprepared.
Blessed is he who humble lives; for grace
Shall come to him from heaven. The Creator
Shall make his spirit steadfast, but his faith
Is in God’s might. Man must control himself
With strength of mind, and firmly hold to that,
True to his pledges, pure in all his ways.
With moderation should each man behave
In all his dealings with both friend and foe.
No man would wish the friend he’s made to burn
In fires of hell, or on an earthly pyre,
Yet fate is mightier, the Lord’s ordaining
More powerful than any man can know.
Let us think where we have our real home.
And then consider how we may come thither;
And let us labour also, so that we
May pass into eternal blessedness,
Where life belongs amid the love of God,
Hope in the heavens. The Holy One be thanked
That he has raised us up, the Prince of Glory,
Lord without end, to all eternity.

The East-West Divide: Stephen Oppenheimer’s ‘The Origins of the British’


Stephen Oppenheimer is an ‘Associate’ of the University of Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, a popular science writer and a public speaker. In this book he drew on the research of many geneticists, archaeologists, historians, linguists, geologists, climatologists etc. He is a primarily a geneticist himself (his first career was in medicine and medical research) – and I’m sure it is the DNA data, that is only just starting to be uncovered, that is going to solve this riddle of what really happened in Dark Age Britain. I’ve seen Oppenheimer interviewed on television about his other important book ‘Out of Eden: The Peopling of the World’, where some of his ideas are new and hence controversial, as are his ideas about the origins of the British that I discuss here.

Stephen Oppenheimer’s argument in this book from 2006, as far as I understand it (and without all the nuances of his 600+ pages), is that Britain was re-peopled during the period since the northern ice sheets last retreated by different peoples from geographically separate areas of Europe.
Note: the end of the last glacial period was around 12,000 years ago – before that Britain was under a thick layer of ice and no one lived there permanently; and at that time and until about 8000 years ago it’s also important to realise that Britain was still attached by a ‘land bridge’ to Northern Europe ie to what is now Denmark, Holland and northern Germany, so it was not an island.

These different peoples that Oppenheimer proposes came to Britain had different cultures and presumably spoke different languages, and this latter is the aspect I am most interested in. Germanic people (whose language probably became English) arrived in the east side of Britain (possibly some even walked over the land bridge). People from the French south west coast and northern Spain migrated to the western side of the country and to Ireland. Oppenheimer suggests that the Celtic language(s) spoken in the west which eventually became Welsh, Cornish and the long extinct Cumbric (and Breton still spoken in Brittany in Northern France) may have arrived later with another group of peoples. Note: Gaelic and Irish and Manx form a different branch of the insular Celtic languages of the British Isles and may have arrived/developed separately.

Oppenheimer’s explanation is quite complex – languages and cultures may have arrived at different times, and over extended periods – but the basic idea is the same ie an ancient East-West divide of Britain, with peoples of different origins and languages present from early times. This probably happened thousands of years before the period of the Roman occupation of Britain, let alone that of the Anglo Saxons who ‘arrived’(?) in the fifth century when the Romans left.

The assumption has always been that all the peoples of Britain at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43 spoke one language – Britonnic, a Celtic language. Thus the argument goes that the ‘poor’ native Britons who spoke this Celtic language must have retreated to the fringes of Britain – to Scotland/Cumbria and Wales and Cornwall – by the ‘nasty’ Germanic speaking Anglo Saxons who first settled in the East of the country and then moved further and further west – or so the story goes. However, all our history/pre-history books are wrong if Stephen Oppenheimer’s ideas about the origins of the British prove to be correct. Perhaps the British Celts were not so downtrodden, and the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were not so oppressive as we have all been led to believe.

I could never understand how the Anglo Saxon ‘invaders’ could have brought English with them and imposed it on the indigenous Britons. My gut reaction has always been that this makes no sense. When I discovered this book by Stephen Oppenheimer it was a Eureka moment – and I couldn’t figure out (and still can’t) why everyone else wasn’t convinced by it, and why just about every history book or passing reference to the Anglo Saxon period continues to trot out the same old story (first told to us by Saint Bede in 731 AD in the ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English people’).

Archaeologists have found no evidence of war or destruction at the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon period – the native population was not wiped out, and there is evidence of continuous occupation of farming communities throughout the period eg at West Heslerton in East Yorkshire (I’ll be looking at this and other archaeological evidence in future posts). Yet the idea has persisted that there was an ‘invasion’ and this is how the English language arrived in Britain.

More recently some historians and archaeologists have started talking about an Anglo-Saxon elite, a small rather than mass migration, imposing their language on the native population. They’ve had to switch to this theory due to new DNA evidence, and the lack of a invasion evidence in the archaeology. According to this theory the Anglo-Saxon elite did not allow the native Britons to have children which is one way to account for new genetic evidence.

However, this seems just as unlikely as an invasion if you consider what happened when the Romans and the Normans came – both of which consisted of elites who took power. Think about this: a) when the Romans came in AD 43 they stayed for nearly 400 years but their language (Latin) didn’t stick; b) when the Normans came in 1066 they spoke French, which was used at court and by all people in positions of power in England and Wales for the next 400 years, but then English re-emerged – with lots of French and Latin now incorporated, but still basically English.

What is very interesting is that recent linguistic research (as I briefly mentioned in my first post on Francis Pryor’s TV programme ‘Britain AD’) shows that English was influenced by Celtic in its grammar. There is archaeological evidence in West Heslerton from the people buried in its cemeteries in the early Anglo-Saxon period, that a lot of people from the west of Britain were emigrating east – up to 50% were in-comers from western areas according to Powlesland’s research (based on teeth enamel evidence).

These internal immigrants probably spoke a dialect of Celtic, which may have been what caused changes to English grammar (when it starting diverging from other Germanic languages which use inflected grammar systems ie word endings change meaning rather than word order as in English). The proposal is that Celtic in-comers, who spoke English as a second language, struggled with the word endings, and eventually their ‘mistakes’ started to be used by native speakers, creating the next reincarnation of the English language.

English is a world-wide language today because it has always absorbed vocabulary from other languages, it has been adopted by different peoples, and now we learn it probably absorbed grammar changes from Celtic. Even in Britain today, the original home of English, there are many different regional accents and dialects – eg depending on if you are in Liverpool or Newcastle or London etc – which is one of the things second language speakers struggle to deal with when they come to live here. But we are a global community now and we need global languages – surely this is how a global language (a new phenomenon) could be expected to develop – no one owns it, and it changes and adapts – like any living thing.

I know when I write about Britain I talk about it in a very ethnocentric way – it’s hard to break out of that habit. But in fact I wasn’t born on this patch of earth, one of my parents is (or rather was, as he has recently died) American and his ancestors that carried my surname originally came from Bavaria (before Germany existed as a nation) to the US in 1851. So I am not British through and through, but I am a first language English speaker, and I suppose that’s where I feel I belong – part of a language community as much as a geographical one.

In my lifetime there has been the revolution of the internet and the world wide web, and then Facebook and blogging and other forms of social media, and we need global languages we can identify with in order to develop an exciting, creative and friendly global community. But we all know English speaking people have dominated empires and imperial world views over the last 500 years or so, and this is definitely a mark against the language. After all the Roman Empire and Latin similarly dominated until 1500 years ago, and look what happened to them.

In addition, we mustn’t forget that we need the history and ideas that are wrapped up in all of the 7000 or so languages that are spoken around the world today (plus the ‘dead’ ones like Latin and Old English, and those struggling to survive like Manx, Cornish and many others) – every language is so rich and exciting, and I so admire people who can speak/understand more than one (I have tried to learn lots and always failed!).

So what do other people think? I will be returning to these issues, including other research I have touched on here, and to Stephen Oppenheimer’s book, in future posts, but meanwhile I would be interested in anyone’s comments.

The Wife’s Lament: A story poem composed more than a thousand years ago



I took this photograph (a bit fuzzy) of a photograph of the first few lines from ‘The Wife’s Lament’. These facsimiles of the Exeter Manuscript are in Anne Klinck’s The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study (1992). Beautiful, neat, and all done by hand – this scribe took a lot of care.

(Note to male readers / poets – you may think that this post is not for you, because it focuses on a ‘female’ poem, but let me inform you that there are only two Old English poems where women get much of a look in – most of the others have male first person narrators, or predominantly feature male characters, and tend to explore conventionally ‘male’ themes and interests such as armed conflict, adventures at sea, the loyalty a follower owes his leader etc. I will be looking at some of these poems in future posts – they are equally stirring. But meanwhile you might be interested to learn that my proof reader boyfriend has to read every post I write and he has absolutely no interest in poetry whatsoever, so pity him! Anyway I hope you will keep reading whoever you are.)

I mentioned in my last post that there are two Old English (OE) poems that have female narrators. We cannot assume that the authors were female – there is no information about an ‘author’ for these or most other OE poems – but they both feel authentic, as if they describe a woman’s experience, that if not written down by a woman, certainly feels as if it was spoken by one. The way the Old English scholars know a poem has a female narrator is via the use of grammar. In modern English we still have male and female personal pronouns like he/she, her/him, hers/his, which carry through from OE, and are used to point to a person or character, and occasionally for pets and even boats. But the Old English language also has other words that are inflected (that’s the technical name for this aspect of grammar) depending on the sex of the speaker – and each of these poems has some of these words eg ‘my’ is different depending on if a man or woman is speaking – hence the narrator in this poem speaks in line 2 about ‘minre sylfre sið’ (my self/own experience/journey/tale/personal history) and we know it’s a woman who is addressing us.

There are ongoing debates within academia about the origins of the Old English poems – some propose female authorship for the two ‘women’s poems’, some argue that most of the OE poems probably developed from oral compositions, and these are labelled by some scholars as women’s songs. Oral poems within an oral culture (prior to the use of written language) are performed, and this is how they are experienced and passed on. They grow and change with each re-telling, sometimes over many generations, partly in response to audiences, and thus they don’t belong to one author or performer. Eventually they are written down, and hence frozen in time by one person, who may have added their own embellishments, and has certainly provided their own interpretation. This may or may not be the same person who records the poem in the manuscript – this person may only be a scribe, and a compiler under the direction of another more powerful person – but even a scribe may make their own small changes, or copy the original inaccurately. We will never know for sure how most of the OE poems came down to us – as often all we have is one manuscript copy of each poem surviving, and nothing more – so we can imagine for ourselves, or decide it doesn’t matter anyway (people are people), and focus on the poem itself.

However, the Old English poems were written down at a time when very few people could read, it was not the habit to read silently, and books were not only very precious but mostly in the possession of the Christian church – thus these poems would have probably been performed or read aloud to an audience. And I’m sure people have always been like us today – we are often as interested in the poet as the poem (a charismatic performance poet today always develops a faithful following) and no doubt it would have been the same a thousand years and more ago. If you picture that person singing, reciting or reading the poem to an audience – a noisy Anglo-Saxon warriors’ feast near Offa’s Dyke*, a hushed conclave of tenth century nuns in Exeter’s Minster/Cathedral, an excited gathering of female kin in a pre-migration Germanic ‘homeland’ – you will begin to appreciate how differently the poem below would be received depending on the audience and the context.

Here is the Old English version of the 53 line poem ‘The Wife’s Lament’ from The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records edited by G.P. Krapp and E.V.K. Dobbie in 1936. Below that is the translation by Richard Hamer (1970) found in A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse. Note: the original OE poems did not have titles – these have been added by modern editors and translators.

Ic þis giedd wrece bi me ful geomorre,
minre sylfre sið. Ic þæt secgan mæg,
hwæt ic yrmþa gebad, siþþan ic up weox,
niwes oþþe ealdes, no ma þonne nu.
A ic wite wonn minra wræcsiþa.
ærest min hlaford gewat heonan of leodum
ofer yþa gelac; hæfde ic uhtceare
hwær min leodfruma londes wære.
ða ic me feran gewat folgað secan,
wineleas wręcca, for minre weaþearfe.
Ongunnon þæt þæs monnes magas hycgan
þurh dyrne geþoht, þæt hy todælden unc,
þæt wit gewidost in woruldrice
lifdon laðlicost, ond mec longade.
Het mec hlaford min herheard niman,
ahte ic leofra lyt on þissum londstede,
holdra freonda. Forþon is min hyge geomor,
ða ic me ful gemæcne monnan funde,
heardsæligne, hygegeomorne,
mod miþendne, morþor hycgendne.
Bliþe gebæro ful oft wit beotedan
þæt unc ne gedælde nemne deað ana
owiht elles; eft is þæt onhworfen,
is nu fornumen swa hit no wære
freondscipe uncer. Sceal ic feor ge neah
mines felaleofan fæhðu dreogan.
Heht mec mon wunian on wuda bearwe,
under actreo in þam eorðscræfe.
Eald is þes eorðsele, eal ic eom oflongad,
sindon dena dimme, duna uphea,
bitre burgtunas, brerum beweaxne,
wic wynna leas. Ful oft mec her wraþe begeat
fromsiþ frean. Frynd sind on eorþan,
leofe lifgende, leger weardiað,
þonne ic on uhtan ana gonge
under actreo geond þas eorðscrafu.
þær ic sittan mot sumorlangne dæg,
þær ic wepan mæg mine wræcsiþas,
earfoþa fela; forþon ic æfre ne mæg
þære modceare minre gerestan,
ne ealles þæs longaþes þe mec on þissum life begeat.
A scyle geong mon wesan geomormod,
heard heortan geþoht, swylce habban sceal
bliþe gebæro, eac þon breostceare,
sinsorgna gedreag, sy æt him sylfum gelong
eal his worulde wyn, sy ful wide fah
feorres folclondes, þæt min freond siteð
under stanhliþe storme behrimed,
wine werigmod, wætre beflowen
on dreorsele. Dreogeð se min wine
micle modceare; he gemon to oft
wynlicran wic. Wa bið þam þe sceal
of langoþe leofes abidan.

The Wife’s Lament

I sing this song about myself, full sad,
My own distress, and tell what hardships I
Have had to suffer since I first grew up,
Present and past, but never more than now;
I ever suffered grief through banishment.
For since my lord departed from this people
Over the sea, each dawn have I had care
Wondering where my lord will be on land.
When I set off to join and serve my lord,
A friendless exile in my sorry plight,
My husband’s kinsmen plotted secretly
How they might separate us from each other
That we might live in wretchedness apart
Most widely in the world: and my heart longed.
In the first place my lord had ordered me
To take up my abode here, though I had
Among these people few dear loyal friends;
Therefore my heart is sad. Then had I found
A fitting man, but one ill-starred, distressed,
Whose hiding heart was contemplating crime,
Though cheerful his demeanour. We had vowed
Full many a time that nought should come between us
But death alone, and nothing else at all.
All that has changed, and it is now as though
Our marriage and our love had never been,
And far or near forever I must suffer
The feud of my beloved husband dear.
So in this forest grove they made me dwell,
Under the oak-tree in this earthy barrow.
Old is this earth-cave, all I do is yearn.
The dales are dark with high hills up above,
Sharp hedge surrounds it, overgrown with briars,
And joyless is this place. Full often here
The absence of my lord comes sharply to me.
Dear lovers in this world lie in their beds,
While I alone at crack of dawn must walk
Under the oak-tree round this earthy cave,
Where I must stay the length of summer days,
Where I may weep my banishment and all
My many hardships, for I never can
Contrive to set at rest my careworn heart,
Nor all the longing that this life has brought me.
A young man always must be serious,
And tough his character; likewise he should
Seem cheerful, even though his heart is sad
With multitude of cares. Since my dear lord
Is outcast, far off in a distant land,
Frozen by storms beneath a stormy cliff
And dwelling in some desolate abode
Beside the sea, my weary-hearted lord
Must suffer pitiless anxiety.
And all too often he may call to mind
A happier dwelling. Grief must always be
For him who yearning longs for his beloved.

This poem appears to be less ambiguous than ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, which I looked at in my last post, but there are still endless debates surrounding its interpretation amongst the scholarly community. What crime has the husband committed? Does the ‘wife’ really still care for him? Are there two men involved? (This translation leads us to understand there is only one, but other translations create two.) Is this a literal story or should it be interpreted allegorically? On this last debate, some scholars have argued that the narrator/wife represents the Christian church, and the Lord/husband represents Jesus – this poem was in a manuscript belonging to Exeter Cathedral: is the poem really as secular as it seems to us today, would it have been given manuscript space if it didn’t have some significance for Christians?

If you are interested in the Old English poems or the Old English language you should have a look round the internet as there are websites and webpages that will give you side by side translations, and you will see how different translations can completely change the stories in the poems. And if you don’t recognise any of the written OE words try listening to some spoken OE – many people find the sounds closer to modern English than the written form (which confuses us by using some unfamiliar alphabet characters like þ which sounds like ‘th’ – so OE þing = ‘thing’ – and sometimes pronouncing letters differently eg ‘g’ is often used to indicate the ‘y’ consonant sound as in ‘yellow’.).

*BREAKING NEWS (10th April 2014) from the Offa’s Dyke Path website is that some parts of the Dyke may have been constructed in the 6th century not the 8th century (when Mercia was ruled by King Offa from 757-796) – see their website (I will remove or update this link once this is no longer ‘breaking news’) –


Wulf and Eadwacer – a mysterious Old English poem telling a woman’s sad story


Leodum is minum      swylce him mon lac gife;
willað hy hine aþecgan,      gif he on þreat cymeð.
Ungelic is us.
Wulf is on iege,      ic on oþerre.
Fæst is þæt eglond,      fenne biworpen.
Sindon wælreowe      weras þær on ige;
willað hy hine aþecgan,      gif he on þreat cymeð.
Ungelice is us.
Wulfes ic mines widlastum      wenum dogode;
þonne hit wæs renig weder      ond ic reotugu sæt,
þonne mec se beaducafa      bogum bilegde,
wæs me wyn to þon,      wæs me hwæþre eac lað.
Wulf, min Wulf,      wena me þine
seoce gedydon,      þine seldcymas,
murnende mod,      nales meteliste.
Gehyrest þu, Eadwacer?      Uncerne earne hwelp
bireð wulf to wuda.
þæt mon eaþe tosliteð      þætte næfre gesomnad wæs,
uncer giedd geador.

This 19 line poem is written in Old English (OE), which is the original form of English spoken in Britain during the time of the Anglo-Saxons (and perhaps even earlier – read my history&archaeology posts!). You may or may not have come across this language before, but the first time I did I was amazed. I especially love to hear Old English spoken aloud – you can hear samples on the internet if you search around. It’s so tantalising – familiar sounds, words you can almost grasp, veiling the voices of people from the distant past, who likewise seem strangely familiar.

‘Wulf and Eadwaver’ is one of the Old English ‘elegies’, the small group of poems that initially sparked my interest in the Anglo-Saxons. There is only one surviving original of this poem, in the Exeter Book manuscript compiled in the tenth century. As the manuscript is more than a 1000 years old it is worn and difficult to read, with some words being indecipherable or unknown, so there are slightly different versions of the poem produced by different editors. The one quoted here is from The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records edited by by G.P. Krapp and E.V.K. Dobbie in 1936. As with the majority of Old English literature, we don’t know when this poem was written or who the author was – all we have is a manuscript.

Even though the manuscript has been in the possession of Exeter Cathedral for most of its existence, not all its poems are clearly Christian, and ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ in particular is usually described as secular rather than religious (though that is one of the things scholars debate about of course). We should celebrate – how lucky we are that the Exeter Book manuscript survived: we have striking poems that are well over 1000 years old (which may have been composed orally and recited hundreds of years before that), written in an ancient language which evolved into the modern English spoken today by people in every country around the world.

There are many many translations of this poem, because there are a number of different interpretations of almost every OE word it uses – and this poem is often described as the most ambiguous and cryptic piece in the entire OE corpus. The translation below is by Richard Hamer in the small anthology he edited in 1970, A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse (which is where I myself first discovered Old English poetry – and was hooked, as they say). Do compare this with other translations, as you can end up with a totally different poem (there are literally hundreds of scholarly articles discussing the interpretation of the poem, and quite a few translations available out on the web).

Only two poems in the entire OE corpus are narrated (though not necessarily written) by female characters – this one and The Wife’s Lament, which I will discuss in a later post. One theory is that these two poems were originally songs.

Wulf and Eadwacer

It is as though my people had been given
A present. They will wish to capture him
If he comes with a troop. We are apart.
Wulf is on one isle, I am on another.
Fast is that island set among the fens.
Murderous are the people who inhabit
That island. They will wish to capture him
If he comes with a troop. We are apart.
Grieved have I for my Wulf with distant longings.
Then was it rainy weather, and I sad,
When the bold warrior laid his arms about me.
I took delight in that and also pain.
O Wulf, my Wulf, my longing for your coming
Has made me ill, the rareness of your visits,
My grieving spirit, not the lack of food.
Eadwacer, do you hear me? For a wolf
Shall carry to the woods our wretched whelp.
Men very easily may put asunder
That which was never joined, our song together.

We can see that the narrator is in a difficult situation, that she is deeply unhappy, and is missing someone desperately, which has caused her to fall sick. She appears to have very little control over her life. There are a number of questions raised but not answered by the poem, and others have been resolved via the choices this particular translator has made. Every reader or listener will come to different solutions to the following:
Where are the islands where the poem takes place?
When does the poem take place? Is the context Christian or pagan?
Who is the narrator? What is her status? Who are her ‘people’?
Is it the narrator’s own kin or tribe that she is describing as ‘murderous’?
Why is Wulf with a troop – is it to rescue the narrator, to attack her people, to defend himself?
What is her situation on the island she mentions – is she imprisoned?
Is she alone with only a guard, or are her people nearby?
How do we explain the delight and pain generated by Wulf’s embrace?
Is Wulf the narrator’s lover, or has he assaulted her?
Are Wulf and Eadwacer the same person?
Does Wulf return her feelings or is he indifferent to the narrator?
Is Eadwacer a family member, her husband, her betrothed, a guard?
What is the present? A pregnancy? The sure capture of a warrior from another tribe?
Is the whelp the woman’s child or unborn child?
Did Wulf, or perhaps Eadwacer, make her pregnant, perhaps against her will?
What is going to happen to the child – is it going to be exposed and allowed to die in the woods?

Whatever the context, whatever the full story, it’s a really stirring tale which gets you thinking and feeling, which is what poetry is all about.

‘Britain AD: King Arthur’s Britain’ by Francis Pryor


This review and discussion is on the UK TV Programme (first broadcast 2004), which was based on Pryor’s book with the same title (also published in 2004). Pryor wrote and narrated this series of three episodes, which are available on 4oD (Channel 4 On Demand – you can access these programmes via the website once you have registered – but be warned, you won’t be able to skip the adverts). There is a very clear argument running through these episodes, most of which rang true for me, though there are some aspects I’m not so sure about, as you will see below. Prior describes himself as a ‘pre-historian’, and his own archaeological research has focused on the bronze age in Britain, so in this series he talks to many archaeologists in the Roman and Anglo-Saxon period, and other specialists such as geneticists and linguists, rather than presenting himself as the expert on the period. And of course he walks about in front of various ruins and across various landscapes as he unfolds his argument, which is why TV is such an enjoyable medium when it is done well.

If you are a King Arthur fan there is not a lot of support for the historical existence of this person in the series, but Pryor does keep returning to the King Arthur myth to see what its significance and origins might be (especially linking it in episode 1 to religious practices where swords were deposited in sacred waters, which has occurred through thousands of years of history, though of course not just in Britain). However, I think Pryor has primarily used this title to entice people to watch the programme, which really concerns what happened in Britain during the Roman period and the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon – in what has long been known as the ‘Dark Ages’ from 410-597AD. Pryor points out that the term ‘Dark Ages’ as applied to Britain in this period is completely inaccurate – that in fact this is when the light of creativity and intellectual thought was turned on in north west Europe, not turned off, of which more below.

I learnt a lot from these programmes about the west side of Britain during this period, whereas my own focus has always been the east side. In the second episode we learn that due to Britain’s natural resources, mostly to be found in the West – particularly tin in Cornwall, which was a valuable and scarce commodity in Europe at the time – trade still continued after the Romans withdrew at the beginning of the 5th century. Archaeological evidence shows that this trade was mostly with the Byzantine empire, with ships bringing amphorae of wine or oil, fine pottery and other goods from the Mediterranean to the west coast of Britain. Here, in West Britain at least, Christianity continued after the Romans left, and thousands of stones carved with classical Latin inscriptions of a high calibre (according to Latin scholar Dr David Howlett, interviewed in two of the episodes) testify to the educational ability of at least the elite in the native population.

There is also new evidence of impressively large timber halls being built in the mid 5th century on the site of Roman ruins (at Beadoswald on Hadrian’s Wall and in Wroxeter) – pointing to the existence of powerful rulers rather than the chaos we have been told must have occurred once Roman troops were pulled out in 407AD. In York pottery was still being manufactured in this period ie some people continued to live in Roman towns rather than returning to rural living and subsistence agriculture, and pollen analysis shows that fields did not revert to wild wood except in a very few areas. It’s time to ‘rewrite the history books’ according to Pryor, much of what we have been led to believe about this period is ‘rubbish’!

Pryor’s thesis in the first episode is that the Romans were not an oppressive occupying force, native Britons were not always ‘tragic victims’, and the invasion of Britain in 43AD ‘may not have been forced’ but by invitation of client kings looking for support against other local rulers. Often Romanised native Britons were allowed to rule in the name of Rome – these were the people who lived in the grand Roman villas of the 3rd and 4th century AD, whose mosaics portrayed a deliberate mix of Roman and native gods. This fits in with Pryor’s thesis (though he doesn’t quite seem to join the dots as I am doing here with these comments) as it means the British were not a helpless people left to marauding warriors from all points of the compass, as has often been assumed in the past. According to Pryor Britain ‘thrived’ on foreign influences and, what is more important, the instability that affected the rest of Europe when Rome went into decline did not reach Britain, which actually became a bastion of civilisation in the north west just as Byzantium (centred on Constantinople, now Istanbul) did in the East.

I personally think this argument is a little over-stretched, but it makes good television. Where is the centre of power that balances out Constantinople? The beach parties held in Cornwall between the traders and the natives that Pryor points to hardly seem sufficient evidence of a meeting of civilisations or an exchange of intellectual ideas. None the less I am sure he is right that there was no widespread chaos when Rome left, that the native Britons presented a strong face to the world, and were not invaded by anyone (there is no archaeological evidence for the Anglo-Saxon invasion as Pryor points out – no war cemeteries or burnt buildings – unlike Boudica’s revolt in AD60, and the attacks of the Vikings starting in AD793).

In the third episode, Pryor visits one of the ‘Saxon shore’ forts which stretch along the south and east coast of Britain. There are new arguments (here presented by Andrew Pearson) that these massive stone forts built by the Romans may not have been defensive, but instead used to store grain, ie with an economic rather than a military purpose. The significance of this is that there were no attacks from Saxons and other Germanic tribes on Britain. I personally believe, from various throwaway comments I’ve read made by historians of the classical period, that this area could have been called the ‘Saxon shore’ by the Romans because the people who lived in this part of Britain spoke ‘Saxon’ ie a Germanic language (rather than Celtic as in the West of Britain), and had trade and other links with the Germanic tribes across the North Sea and the Channel, rather than being threatened by them.

The fertile flatlands of the east and south east of Britain were the grain basket of the land, grain which was no doubt needed to support the Roman armies scattered throughout Europe, and this valuable commodity was stored up ready to be shipped abroad from these forts. In the past the existence of these imposing stone forts (many of which still stand nearly 2000 years later), and their ‘Saxon’ label in a contemporary source, has led historians and archaeologists to assume that there was a huge threat from across the water, but there is no written record or significant archaeological evidence for such attacks, during or after the Roman era in Britain.

The idea of two languages / cultures sitting side by side in Britain at this time is not the conclusion Pryor comes to when he moves on to this topic in episode three of this series, and I have not heard it suggested by anyone except Stephen Oppenheimer, whose book and ideas I will be discussing in a future post. Pryor talks to Katie Lowe, a linguist, about her research into Celtic influences on Old English. Previously linguists have looked at the vocabularies of the two languages and found very little overlap, but Lowe has been studying the grammar and word order of English, and argues that the English language changed from an inflected language (grammar information primarily found in word endings) to one based on word order, which could have been due to Celtic speakers trying to learn English as a second language, and this would have had to take place over many generations to have caused these changes to English.

Pryor also talks to Dominic Powlesland who has been researching settlements in the Yorkshire Wolds around West Heslerton for most of his career. The evidence there shows peaceful continuity from Roman times through into the middle Anglo-Saxon period. Stable isotope analysis of teeth enamel shows that very few people buried in the early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in the area came from abroad, but nearly half grew up in the west of Britain and thus would most likely have been Celtic speakers. However, Pryor skips over discussing how this Germanic language got to Britain. I would argue that this evidence could point to a form of Germanic already being spoken in the area, rather than being brought in by migrating or invading Anglo-Saxons – for which there is very little evidence. Then over several generations of West British immigration of Celtic speakers this language of the east English evolved into a new language that was distinctly different in grammar to the Germanic spoken on the continent – Old English.

My main disagreements with Pryor’s thesis are that Pryor treats Britain in the period he investigates in Britain AD as one country, though much of his evidence seems to point to clear differences between West and East, such as the presence or absence of Christianity in the early Anglo-Saxon period. Secondly he clearly chose not to delve any deeper into the origins of the English language, perhaps deciding that was taking him too far away from his own areas of expertise. There will be more on this and other issues raised by Pryor’s stimulating TV series in future posts.