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

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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

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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.