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Every now and then, I will devote a post on this blog to an academic publication (usually ones that are available in Open Access), so as to give you an idea of what I am working on. This post turns the spotlight on an edited volume, edited by myself, that appeared as a special issue of the peer-reviewed journal Amsterdammer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik . The entire volume has now become available in Open Access and this blog post will guide you through its contents.
As the subtitle of this special issue suggest, this volume commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of the Dutch-Flemish Society of Old Germanicists, a society for scholars of the language, history and culture of Old Germanic peoples in the Middle Ages. The collection brings together contributions by both veteran and early career members of the society and centres on the theme of the encounter between the familiar and the foreign, as I explain in the volume’s introduction (available here). This theme is intentionally vague and the contributions represent the broad scope of Old Germanic studies, ranging from philology to historical linguistics, through to history, text editions and manuscript studies, and spanning the geographical area from Iceland to the Mediterranean. The topics covered include cultural contact, literary representations of the ‘Other’, loan words, contact-induced sound changes, distinctive linguonyms and obscure riddles. A brief summary of all the articles follows below; you can click on every header to open the Open Access articles in a new tab.
The first article of the volume focuses on the influence of the story of the Anglo-Saxon singer Caedmon, found in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, on two texts about religious poets on the continent: the Bernlef episodes in the Lives of Liudger and the Latin prefaces to the Old Saxon poem the Heliand. In this article, Veenbaas makes a revolutionary claim: he suggests that Bernlef might well be the poet of the Heliand.
In this article, we explore the displaying of body parts (notably the arm of Grendel and the head of the Danish advisor Æschere) in the Old English poem Beowulf. We argue that the display of Æschere’s head on top of the cliff towering over Grendel’s mere resembles the Anglo-Saxon heafod stoccan, ‘head stakes’, which acted as boundary markers (see Heads on sticks: Decapitation and impalement in early medieval England). Next, we argue for reinterpreting other potential boundary markers in the poem, including Grendel’s arm and the dragon’s corpse. Along the way, we also try to solve two textual cruces (= difficult passages) in Beowulf’s speech prior to his fight with Grendel. If that was not enough of a teaser, we also discuss the presence of an impaled decapitated head on Noah’s ark!
Christine Rauer’s article discusses how literary productions in Mercia may have rivalled those literary efforts associated with King Alfred the Great of Wessex. In fact, Alfred’s famed ‘educational reform’ may well have been inspired by what was going on in the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia!
The next article moves beyond early medieval England and focuses, instead, on one of the early settlers of Iceland: Auðr djúpauðga ‘Aud the Deep-minded’. It draws on the fascinating Old icelandic Sturlubók and reconstructs Auðr’s life story. Fans of History Channel/Netflix’s Vikings may have spotted Auðr/Aud accompanying Floki to Iceland in series 5!
This German-language article deals with various fascinating Old Dutch glosses found in the Lex Salica, compiled around the year 500 AD by Clovis, king of the Franks. Quak also discusses glosses that are made up of elements from different languages; my favourite one he discusses, for obvious reasons, is the word hof-porcus, which features the Old Dutch hof ‘court’ and Latin porcus ‘pig’!
It is a well-known fact that the closest language to Old English is Old Frisian – the two languages share many features and they likely derive from a common linguistic ancestor (Anglo-Frisian). But not all similarities can be ascribed to a common ancestor, as we find out in this article that discusses the similar but independent developments of Old English būtan ‘but’ and Old Frisian būta ‘but’.
Continuing the line of questioning the origins of similar linguistic developments is this article by Kariem Philippa – he looks at the monophtongization of a set of diphthongs, found in a number of Germanic and Arabic dialects, and wonders whether these changes may have been caused by language contact between speakers of Arabic and Germanic. The answer: very unlikely, but the article does highlight some interesting instances of contact – including how the Arab Aḥmad ibn Faḍlān met some Nordic merchants (ibn Faḍlān is the inspiration for Antonio Banderas’ character in the 1999-film The Thirteenth Warrior).
Where does the term Dutch come from? And how does it differ from the Dutch word Duits, meaning ‘German’? These and other questions are answered by this lengthy German-language article; highly recommended for those people who are confused over why the Dutch national anthem has the phrase “ben ik van Duitsen bloed” and think it mean “I am of German blood”.
In this last German-languaqge contribution, the authors edit and solve four 16th-century riddles. As they demonstrate, solving these riddles requires a knowledge of multiple languages, musical annotation and cryptography!
I hope that some of these articles were of interest to you and that you have taken the opportunity to use the fact that they are now Open Access! If you are interested in more Open Access publications, you can check out my Research and Publications tab for more and/or you can follow this blog and wait for a future update!
This post is the first in a series on the reception of the Old English poem Beowulf in the Netherlands. The post centres on a popular sketch about ‘fake news’, first performed in 1909, with the title ‘De geschiedenis van het broodje van Beowulf’ [The history of Beowulf’s sandwich]. Regrettably, the text of this sketch has been lost, but an attempt is made here to reconstruct it on the basis of scattered newspaper reviews.
Mr. A. W. Kamp (1879-1945): A performance artist at the start of the twentieth century
‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ is first mentioned in 1909 as part of a playlist of a Dutch performance artist A. W. Kamp. Kamp performed the piece in various towns across The Netherlands between 1909 and 1917. In 1910, he even took his performance to the Dutch East Indies, where he performed at various ‘white societies’. The apparent author of the sketch was one ‘Max Speyer’, whom I have not been able to identify further. To date, it appears as if A. W. Kamp has been the only person to have performed the piece. Who was this perfomance artist?
Anthonij Willem Kamp was born on 2 februari 1879 and received a law degree from the University of Leiden. He later worked as a lawyer and journalist. He had a love for poetry and, in addition to translating various works from English, French and German (including pieces by Shakespeare, Goethe and Voltaire) into Dutch, he wrote his own songs and sketches. Kamp appears to have enjoyed some popularity in his own days, even though he is no longer well-known today. The following words of wisdom attributed to Kamp by a Dutch quotation website suggest he was primarily a humorist: “Humour desires to temper the tragedy of life.”
Indeed, newspaper reports on ‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ praise Kamp as a comic performer. One advert for Kamp’s performance guarantees “a great laughter-success” (Haagsche courant, 30-12-1916), while many reviewers praise his command of voice, mimicry and funny accents:
In the field of performance, he is like a caricature-artist in the world of painting. He performs with his voice, his posture, his flexible face, almost like a mad man. But at all times that which he provides remains recognisably the silliness that he has found in the everyday doings of human beings, which he so goofily exaggerates that the audience blurts with laughter. (Middelburgsche courant, 11-02-1909)
‘Beowulf’s sandwich’, in particular, was reviewed favourably as “a most entertaining piece” (Amersfoortsch Dagblad, 12-03-1913).
The history of Beowulf’s sandwich: A reconstruction
The text of ‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ has not survived, but, on the basis of five relatively detailed newspaper reviews (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), it is possible to give a rough reconstruction of the contents of the sketch.
Act I: How it really happened
The young prince Beowulf is brought to school by his father’s master of arms. Along the way, he loses his sandwich, which ends up in the mud. A hungry girl brushes off the dirt with her skirt and eats it. This is the only fact in the sandwich’s whole history, the rest is fantasy, made up by various individuals who recount the story in different ways and contexts.
Act II: The history of the sandwich in the Provincial Newspaper of Krussa, the favourite magazine of Berengarius XIX
A sensationalist reporter for this court magazine paints a grand image of the scene: the generous prince Beowulf gracefully feeds the poor with his goose liver pie.
Act III: The history of the sandwich in the social-democratic magazine ‘The Scorpion’
A labourer, speaking with a thick rural accent, retells the story as an example of the unjustifiable gap between the elite and the lower classes, who are forced to eat the elite’s mud-covered scraps.
Act IV: How cardinal Vaporetto recounts the history of the sandwich in the acts of the canonization of Beowulf
Taking on the guise of a whiny old cardinal, Kamp relates the ‘Miracle of the Holy Beowulf!’. No doubt, the sandwich here acted as a miraculous relic. During one performance, the audience reacted so enthusiastically to this bit, that Kamp himself burst out laughing himself.
Act V: The history of the sandwich in the catalogue (no. 480) of the National Beowulf Museum
The crust of Beowulf’s sandwich ultimately ends up as a curiosity in the National Beowulf Museum. The curator praises the crust as a most important piece of evidence for the history of nutrition.
Act VI: A historical-critical research into no. 480 of the catalogue
A historian painstakingly questions the authenticity of the crust of Beowulf’s sandwich on the basis of thorough research of the ways flour was processed in the early Middle Ages.
As one contemporary reviewer put it, ‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ is “a wonderful satire on the unreliability of tradition and the exaggeration of reports and the pedantry of scholars” (Nieuwsblad van Friesland, 06-10-1909). Today, we might associate the various partisan and biased reports of Beowulf’s sandwich as examples of ‘fake news’.
“Beowulf’s sandwich” as an idiomatic expression for ‘fake news’
For as far as we can trace, the phrase “Beowulf’s sandwich” was used only once without an explicit mention of Kamp’s performance. On 14 April 1910, it was used in a letter to the editor of Het nieuws van den dag voor Nederlandsch-Indie [The News of the Day for the Dutch East Indies] in order to complain about an exaggerated news report on the active volcano Tangkuban Perahu (Java):
Mister Phyto writes to us:
The description of the activity of the Tangkuban Perahu has by some newspaper correspondents been made into a repetition of ‘Beowulf’s sandwich’. They have looked for an effect in foolish exaggeration.
According to the letter writer, reports on the volcano’s being covered in one and a half meters of ash due to a destructive eruption that destroyed all nearby flowers were nothing but a pack of lies: the ash didn’t even come up to 15 centimeters and there had never been flowers in the first place. The use of the phrase “Beowulf’s sandwich” to classify this exaggerated report is intriguing and may be attributed to Kamp’s performances in the Dutch East Indies earlier that year – apparently the sketch had made quite an impression and the letter writer assumed his readers to be familiar with the phrase. Regrettably, this idiomatic expression for ‘false or exaggerated reporting’ did not stick – but it is never too late for a comeback: Make fake news Beowulf’s sandwich again!
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy:
- Spoiling the Mystery: Grendel in Beowulf Movies
- “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880
- Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition
© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
For a bonus question on one of my Old English literature exams, my students used their artistic talents to draw their own rendition of Grendel’s mother from the Old English poem Beowulf. Together, these doodles give a neat overview of how Beowulf criticism has approached this feminine ‘monster’ and what my students have remembered of the poem.
i) Grendel’s mother: An enigmatic being
Of the three main foes of Beowulf in the poem, Grendel’s mother is perhaps the most enigmatic. Scholars have long since debated what to make of this “brimwylf” [sea-she-wolf] Beowulf, ll. 1508, 1601), living in an underwater-hall. She is presented as monstrously violent, but her actions are motivated by a completely understandable (and human?) desire to avenge the death of her son. Is she a monster or a human?These drawings by my students clearly demonstrate this complex ambiguity, ranging as they do from catlike, beastly mothers to fair-haired dinosaurs, through to a green-scaled woman in a dress:
ii) Grendel’s mother enters the scene: A woman on a mission
Grendel’s mother makes her appearance halfway through the Old English poem. The poet has just recounted how Beowulf has defeated the monster Grendel by ripping off its arm. This arm is hung underneath the roof of the great hall Heorot as a sign of Beowulf’s victory and there is much rejoicing. King Hrothgar gives a lavish feast and, that night, the Danes fall asleep, confident that the monster Grendel no longer poses a threat. Enter Grendel’s mother, hell-bent on revenge:
She trashes the Danish slumber party in Heorot, grabs hold of Æschere, King Hrothgar’s “best friend”, and then returns to her underwater hall.
According to some critics (and students), there is a particular ‘poetic justice’ about the fact that Grendel’s mother takes Hrothgar’s ‘right-hand man’ in retribution for Grendel’s ripped-off arm:
iii) A mother in her mere
The next morning, Hrothgar wakes up to the news that his friend Æschere has been killed and, spurred into action by Beowulf, he leads a troop to Grendel’s mere. Grendel’s mother, we are told, had ruled this place for fifty years.
This eery pond is inhabited by strange monstrous creatures and none but Beowulf himself dares enter it. He swims down to Grendel’s mother’s underwater lair and soon finds out that his sword Hrunting is useless. Luckily, Beowulf finds a giant sword and manages to kill his female foe. Beowulf next finds the body of Grendel and decapitates it, turning the mere red with blood. The Danes see the blood and think Beowulf has lost, but the “faithful Geats remain in the neighbourhood waiting for Beowulf to emerge”:
iv) Grendel’s mother: An exotic monster?
As noted above, Grendel’s mother is often interpreted as a monster. How else could she live in an underwater lair and pose a threat to the strong hero Beowulf? Surely, she must have had sharp teeth, claws, webbed hands, flipper feet, “light eyes to see under water” and “biceps because she’s strong”:
Another student imagines a monster of another kind, one with a beard [the reference to the ‘Wonders of the East’ is to another text in the Beowulf manuscript, see The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex]:
Yet another student thought Grendel’s mother may have hailed from Eastern Europe and was distressed because it could no longer feed its son a bowl of borscht:
v) Grendel’s mother as a human woman
Some critics (and students) downplay the idea of Grendel’s mother as a monster. Their main argument revolves around the interpretation of the phrase “ides, aglæcwif” Beowulf, l. 1259a), used for Grendel’s mother. This phrase has been rendered rather negatively in some Beowulf translations, ranging from “wretch, or monster of a woman” (Klæber), to “monstrous hell bride” (Heaney), “monster-woman” (Chickering) and even “ugly troll lady” (Trask). These rather monstrous descriptions of Grendel’s mother are problematic: the word “ides” means ‘lady’ and is used in the poem to refer to queens, including Wealhtheow (wife of Hrothgar, king of the Danes); the first part of “aglæcwif” is indeed used of the monster Grendel and the dragon (both called “aglæca”), but it is also used of Beowulf and another human hero, Sigemund. Since there is no indication for calling Beowulf ‘ugly troll’, ‘monstrous’ or ‘monster’, it seems strange to give the word a negative meaning when it refers to Grendel’s mother. Hence, the word “aglæc” may be best rendered as ‘opponent, adversary’. The following student certainly remembered that bit:
The next student, too, sees Grendel’s mother as “not a monster, just a sad woman”:
Æschere’s bloody head on a pole is a nice touch. In an article I recently co-authored, we argue that Æschere’s head was indeed used as a boundary marker (see: Thijs Porck & Sander Stolk, ‘Marking Boundaries in Beowulf: Æschere’s Head, Grendel’s Arm and the Dragon’s Corpse’).
The following student blamed Grendel’s mother’s misfortune on her ugly baby:
vi) The Jolie-i-fication of Grendel’s mother
Beowulf has been brought to the big screen many times and these cinematic adaptations have certainly influenced how we visualise the monsters of this poem (I wrote about this here: Spoiling the Mystery: Grendel in Beowulf Movies). One of the most memorable depictions of Grendel’s mother was the 3D animation of Angelina Jolie in the 2007 film Beowulf. The Jolie-i-fication of Grendel’s mother is captured beautifully by this student’s drawing:
vii) The Pietà of Grendelangelo
The last student drawing is something special. It is not an exam doodle, but a ‘commissioned piece of art’. I asked Jolene Witkam, a student who wrote an excellent BA thesis about Grendel’s mother’s human nature ánd a skilled artist, to draw Grendel’s mother and Grendel in the poses of Mary and Christ of Michelangelo’s famous Pietà statue. The endresult, you will agree, is absolutely stunning:
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy other student doodle editions:
- The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition
- Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition
- The Old English Judith: A Student Doodle Edition
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” (H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature). The secret to any, successful scary monster story is to keep your monsters clouded in mystery; a secret that was known to the Beowulf poet, but sadly lost on modern movie makers.
Grendel goes to Heorot
Grendel is one of the three monsters that feature in the Old English poem Beowulf. We are introduced to Grendel as an “ellengæst” [bold spirit] (l. 86a) who has spent the last twelve years harassing the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, devouring anyone who spent the night there. A Geatish hero, Beowulf, arrives to save the day. After a long battle, Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm and the monster, mortally wounded, returns to his home in the swamp and dies.
A troll, a giant, a monstrous man or a bipedal dragon; what exactly is Grendel? The nature of Grendel is a matter of scholarly debate and the various solutions offered depend, mostly, on circumstantial evidence. The poem itself reveals very little about the monster; at one point, Beowulf himself confesses that Grendel is “sceaðona ic nat hwylc” [an enemy, I do not know what kind] (l. 274b). Throughout the poem, Grendel is described by generic terms, such as “grimma gæst” [grim spirit] (l. 102), “feond mancynnes” [enemy of mankind] (l. 164b) and “manscaða” [vile ravager] (l. 712a), and his physical description leaves much to be desired. At first, we only learn that “him of eagum stod ligge gelicost leoht unfæger” [from his eyes issued a distorted light, most like a flame] (l. 727b), that he drinks human blood and eats their bodies whole. It is only after Grendel is defeated that we learn a little more about him. The Danes report that he was wretchedly shaped like a man and very large:
hie gesawon swylce twegen
micle mearcstapan moras healdan,
ellorgæstas. ðæra oðer wæs,
þæs þe hie gewislicost gewitan meahton,
idese onlicnæs; oðer earmsceapen
on weres wæstmum wræclastas træd,
næfne he wæs mara þonne ænig man oðer;
þone on geardagum Grendel nemdon
foldbuende. No hie fæder cunnon (ll. 1347-1355)
[they had seen two such big boundary-steppers holding the moors, bold spirits. One f them was, as they were most certainly able to discern, in the likeness of a lady; the other was wretchedly shaped in the forms of a man, he trod in the exile’s tracks, but he was bigger than any other man; people called him grendel in the days of yore. They did not know his father.
Whatever kind of monster Grendel may be, what becomes clear from the poem is that Grendel is the ultimate ‘Other’. While the Danes enjoy life in a lighted hall, revelling in songs and enjoying each other’s company, Grendel dwells in a dark swamp, he does not speak and he lives the life of an exile, alone with his mother. Even Grendel’s parentage is obscured: whereas the Beowulf poet, rather annoyingly, mentions the father of every other Tom, Dick and Harry in the poem, we never find out who Grendel’s father is. We do learn that Grendel and his mother are descendants of Cain, just like “eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, swylce gigantas” [ogres, elves, orcs and also giants] (ll. 112-113a).
In short, Grendel is a mystery monster, unknown and different. The Beowulf poet must have realised that the omission of descriptive details was an effective narrative method which would stimulate his audience to participate actively with his story. The vague description of his monster allowed his audience to imagine its own nightmare being.
Grendel goes to Hollywood
Beowulf has been brought to the big screen on six occasions (Not counting the Beowulf-inspired TV episodes of Animated Epics, Star Trek and Xena: Warrior Princess; and happily ignoring the rather licentious adaptations in the Sci-Fi-Channel television film Grendel (2007) and the ITV Series Beowulf: Return to the Shield Lands). Each movie has solved the Grendel mystery in its own, unique way.
In Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (1981), an animated musical, Grendel is depicted as a slightly depressed green crocodile or, possibly, a dragon without wings. The film Beowulf (1999) features Christopher Lambert as Beowulf who battles Grendel, a muddy ogre of sorts, in a ‘post-apocalyptic techno-feudal future’. In The 13th Warrior (1999), the Viking hero Buliwyf takes on the Wendol, a group of bearskin wearing wildlings. Beowulf & Grendel (2005) depicts Grendel as an oversized, hairy human, who hits himself with rocks until his forehead bleeds. In the 3D animation Beowulf (2007), Grendel is “a hideously disfigured troll-like creature with superhuman strength”. Finally, in the movie Outlander (2008), Kainan (a man from another planet) crashes his spaceship in an eighth-century Norwegian lake and, accidentally brings along an alien, known as the Moorwen. The Moorwen takes on the role of Grendel and is best described as a fluorescent, reptile-like tiger with various tentacles at the end of its tail.
Sympathy for the devil: Feeling sorry for Grendel
Aside from making the monster’s appearance explicit, some movies also try to make their audience sympathize for the creature by adding motives for his vicious attacks on the Danes. In Grendel, Grendel, Grendel, the monster is a misunderstood intellectual that wants to be friends with the buffoonish Danes, who shun him for his monstrous appearance. Beowulf & Grendel opens with a scene where the young Grendel (a bearded baby!) witnesses the murder of his father by the Danish king. In Outlander, we learn that the Moorwen is only trying to avenge Kainan for having tried to colonize its home planet.
Who’s your daddy? Solving Grendel’s parentage
The films Beowulf (1999) and Beowulf (2007) go one step further and even solve the problem of Grendel’s parentage: Grendel turns out to be the monstrous offspring of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes. His vicious attacks on Hrothgar’s hall thus become payback for a fatherless childhood. Far removed from the original poem, the only advantage of this approach appears to be the casting of a physically attractive actress for the role of Grendel’s mother. While the poem describes her as a “brimwylf” [sea-wolf] (l. 1506a) and an “aglaecwif” [opponent-woman] (l.1259a), the 1999 film featured Layla Roberts, a former playmate (who, in one scene, erotically licks Hrothgar’s nose!), and a 3D animation of Angelina Jolie (naked, covered in gold, with a tail!) was one of the ‘unique selling points’ of the 2007 film.
To conclude, none of these movies can be seen as a faithful adaptation of Beowulf and some have argued that film is an unsuited medium for the early medieval epic poem. As long as modern movie makers feel that they need to produce stunning visual effects, to create a sense of sympathy for the ‘bad guy’ and to include steamy bedroom scenes to please their modern audience, this certainly seems to be the case. Unlike the Old English poem, none of these movies can be called a huge success in terms of cultural impact and popularity. When it comes to effective storytelling, there is still a lot we can learn from the literature produced over a thousand years ago.
If you liked this blog, you may also enjoy:
- Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition
- “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880
- Big-Boned Hero Mentioned in Beowulf on Display in Dutch Town Oegstgeest?
- The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode
In the second episode of series two of The Last Kingdom, a row of decapitated heads has been placed outside the main gate of Dunholm/Durham. As this blog post will illustrate, this practice, barbaric though it seems, is well attested for Anglo-Saxon England.
Historical examples: Saint Oswald and the real Uhtred
Perhaps the best-known example of decapitation and impalement was that of Saint Oswald of Northumbria (d. 642). After Oswald had been defeated by the pagan King Penda of Mercia, Penda had Oswald’s head and arms cut off. Penda then had these body parts put on stakes, until Oswald’s brother Oswy retrieved them, a year after the battle. Later, Oswald’s head was likely buried in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert (about whom, see: Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb) which ended up in Durham, where it still remains today. Intriguingly, aside from Durham Cathedral, four other institutions today claim to have the skull of Saint Oswald (Bailey 1995), including Hildesheim Cathedral which houses a beautiful twelfth-century head reliquary depicting the head of Oswald (see image below).
The display of decapitated heads did not die out with the arrival of Christianity. In the De Obsessione Dunelmi, a Latin historical work from around 1100, we are told of a siege of Durham by the Scots in the early eleventh century. Luckily for Durham, their bishop Ealdun’s daughter had been married to Uhtred (d. 1016), son of the earl of Northumbria and the inspiration for Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series upon which BBC’s The Last Kingdom is based. This Uhtred came to Durham’s aid and massacred the Scottish host and had the Scots decapitated. Uhtred then sent for the most attractive heads to be brought to Durham:
The heads of the slain, made more presentable with their hair combed, as was the custom in those days, he had transported to Durham, and they were washed by four women and fixed on stakes around the circuit of the walls. The women who had previously washed them were each rewarded with a single cow. (cited in Thompson 2004: 193)
Aside from the intriguing reward of a cow for washing a dead man’s head, this episode in the De Obsessione Dunelmi reveals that the display of decapitated heads remained common (customary even) until the eleventh century, at least.
Heafod stoccan in Anglo-Saxon charters
Anglo-Saxon charters often contained vernacular boundary clauses which described the areas under discussion. Within these boundary clauses, the term heafod stocc ‘head stake’ is frequently attested, suggesting that it was common practice to mark the limits of estate properties with impaled heads. Various charters locate such head stakes in the vicinity of a road: e.g., “æfter foss to þam heafod stoccan” [after the way to the head stakes] (S 115); “of heafod stocca andlang stræt” [from the head stakes along the street] (S 309); and “7lang stret to þam heafod stoccan” [along the street to the head stakes] (S 695). These examples suggest that these head stakes would have been visible for people travelling from and towards locations, possibly along main access roads. Given their use as boundary markers in surviving Anglo-Saxon charters, these head stakes must have been a permanent as well as salient feature in the landscape. The existence of head stakes is supported by archaeological evidence, which also locates execution sites at the boundaries of estates (see Reynolds 2009: 169). Just like the heads of criminals spiked on the walls of old London Bridge, the purpose of these head stakes must have been to not only mark the boundaries of an estate, but also to warn potential transgressors against the consequences of wrongdoings.
An inspiration for Anglo-Saxon authors and artists
The spectacle of decapitating an enemy’s head and putting it on display proved inspirational for various Anglo-Saxon authors and at least one artist. The Beowulf poet, for instance, has Beowulf and his men parade Grendel’s head on a stake towards Heorot: “feower scoldon / on þæm wælstenge weorcum geferian / to þæm goldsele Grendles heafod / oþ ðæt semninga to sele comon” [four had to carry Grendel’s head with hardships to the gold-hall on a battle-pole, until they came to the hall] (Beowulf, ll. 1637b-1639). Here, Grendel’s head functions as a trophy, a sign of Beowulf’s heroic triumph.
A rare visual depiction of a decapitated and impaled head is found in the Old English Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv) an eleventh-century, illustrated translation from the Latin Vulgate of the first six books of the Old Testament (see: The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book). In his depiction of Genesis 8:7 (‘And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.’), the artist of the Hexateuch deviated from the biblical text and depicted a raven pecking at a head, impaled on Noah’s ark (see below). It has been suggested that the artist was drawing on his own creativity here, given the fact that there is no iconological tradition that depicts Noah’s raven in this way (Gatch 1975: 11). Perhaps, the Anglo-Saxon artist was so familiar with the practices of decapitation and impalement that he could think of no better way to depict God’s wrath!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other blog posts on The Last Kingdom or Anglo-Saxon decapitations:
- Chop chop! Three bizarre beheadings in Anglo-Saxon England
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How a peasant beheaded himself
- Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
Works refered to:
- Bailey, Richard N., “St Oswald’s Heads,” in Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint, ed. C. Stancliffe and E. Cambridge. 195-209. Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1995.
- Gatch, Milton McC., “Noah’s Raven in Genesis A and the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch”, Gesta 14:2 (1975), pp. 3-15
- Reynolds, Andrew, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Thompson, Victoria. Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004.
For a bonus question on one of my Old English literature exams, my students used their artistic talents to draw scenes from the concluding fight in the Old English poem Beowulf. Together, these doodles cover almost the third part of the poem and document how well (or how badly) my students remembered the poem.
Drawings have long since been used for the purpose of teaching (for an example from the Anglo-Saxon period see Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels). On occasion, I use my own drawings to spice up my lectures (such as my Anglo-Saxon Anecdotes) or explain complicated bits of Anglo-Saxon literature (e.g., The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode). In recent years, I have decided to turn the tables on my students and, for a bonus point (worth 1% of the exam grade), I have them draw scenes from Old English poems, discussed in class.
While the exercise was intended as a bit of a gag, their doodles actually allowed me to see which events from the poem had captured their interest; how they (mis)remembered certain passages and which scenes, apparently, made no impact on them at all. In a previous blog post, I shared their renditions of The Battle of Maldon (The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition) . Below follows a selection of my students’ drawings that deal with the fight between Beowulf and the dragon, along with some commentary.
i) A stolen cup
In the third and final part of Beowulf, the dragon is roused from his lair by the theft of a cup, as this student well remembered. Upon discovering the theft, the dragon became “gebolgen” [enraged; Beowulf, l. 2220) or, as this student put its, he was like: “I’m mad! Gimme that cup back! Imma go kill some people now!”
Another student recalled that the thief was a slave -and- that there were some striking resemblances with a scene in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Hence, the slave was given a “Bilbo nose” in this rendition:
ii) A special shield
In lines 2522-2524, Beowulf announces that he will not fight the dragon unarmed (as he had done with the monster Gendel), since he expects “heaðufyres hates” [the heat of hateful fire]. Thus, he uses a special shield, as illustrated by this student:
Naturally, Beowulf’s shield did not have any musicians attached to it (for as far as we know). The student explains that these are “the annoying musicians who are inflicting horrible violence on their instruments in the adjoining class room, keeping me from concentration”.
iii) Beowulf as an old man
When the dragon harassed Beowulf’s people, the king had been on the throne for fifty years. Thankfully, some students recalled this and, therefore, depicted the hero as an elderly man. One of them, apparently, came prepared for the bonus question and even used several colours:
iv) The breaking of Beowulf’s sword and his company’s morale
The dramatic scene of Beowulf’s sword breaking in the heat of the battle, causing his companions to flee to the woods, appears to have left an impression on several students; even though they seem to have a hard time remembering the name of the retainer who left behind:
v) The dragon bites Beowulf in the neck
Another dramatic scene is when the dragon clamps down on Beowulf’s neck, inflicting a mortal wound.
vi) Beowulf and Wiglaf stab the dragon in the gut
The following student remembered that it was Wiglaf (not Walder or Unferth!) who stayed behind to aid his king. They also remembered how the dragon was stabbed in the gut, though I doubt the dragon would have complained about its abdominal muscles as this one does, shouting “Oh no! My beautiful stomach! I had just started working out for the summer. Noooo!”
vii) Rebuking the oath-breakers
Following the defeat of the dragon, Wiglaf condemns the retainers who fled. They broke their oath of loyalty to their rightful lord: “Shame on you”, indeed!
viii) The dragon’s treasure and Beowulf’s barrow
“fremmað gena leoda þearfe” [Beowulf, ll. 2800-2801: Tend to the need of my people], Beowulf tells Wiglaf with his dying breath, while he glances upon the dragon’s treasure that he has just secured for his nation. Wiglaf, however, decides to bury the riches along with Beowulf’s body. The dragon’s treasure, the poet tells us, remains “eldum swa unnyt swa hit æror wæs” [Beowulf, l. 3168: as useless to people as it was before]. At least one student appears to have caught on to Wiglaf’s denying his lord’s last request:
ix) An encore: Browulf and Swaglaf fight the dragon
After having been confronted by so much artistic talent and inspiration by my students, I could not lag behind. So, I used the whiteboard in my office to produce my own doodle: here are Browulf and Swaglaf fighting the dragon.
If you want more student doodles, check out The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition
At the end of the nineteenth century, Dutch schoolmaster G. J. P. J. Bolland studied older Germanic languages with a particular interest in Old English. He studied under Eduard Sievers in Jena, Germany, and spend close to a year in England, where he interacted with prominent scholars of Old English, such as Richard Morris and Henry Sweet. On the basis of his studies, Bolland tried to write a chronological survey of English literature for the use in Dutch class rooms. While the work would never be published, his hand-written drafts are of interest, since they may contain one of the earliest student summaries of Beowulf…
Bolland and Beowulf: Inglorious youths
When Beowulf returns home to Geatland and is rewarded for his deeds in Denmark, the Anglo-Saxon poet remarks the following about his hero’s inglorious youth:
Hean wæs lange,
swa hyne Geata bearn godne ne tealdon,
ne hyne on medo-bence micles wyrðne
dryhten Wedera gedon wolde;
swyðe wendon þæt he sleac wære,
[For a long time he (Beowulf) had been lowly, as the sons of the Geats had not thought him good, nor had the lord of the Weders cared to put him in possession of much on the mead-bench; they had rather thought that he was shiftless, a slack lordling.] (Beowulf, ll. 2183b-2188a, ed. and trans. Fulk 2010)
The younger years of G. J. P. J. Bolland (9 June, 1854 – 11 February, 1922) were equally devoid of promise. Born to a family of peddlers in Groningen, Bolland lost his father at a young age, which forced his mother to make a living as a prostitute. As a boy of 14 or 15 years old and having enjoyed little education, he joined the army in 1868. Bolland proved to be a problematic recruit: he was convicted for cursing and foul language on several occasions, as well as for singing illicit songs. In May 1872, he spent half a month in jail, because he had sold his underpants and lied about this to his commanding officer. In January the next year, he physically assaulted a high-ranking sergeant and was convicted for insubordination: the Groningen-born Bolland would spend the next three years in a Leiden jail-house.
His jail-time in Leiden proved to be a turn-around in Bolland’s life: he began reading books and, following his release from prison, studied hard to become a teacher. As a schoolmaster, first in Groningen, then in Katwijk, Bolland became interested in the study of older languages (Gothic, Old English, Old High German) – his Katwijk students called him ‘Meester Sanskretans’, because he would occassionally teach them about Sanskrit!
Bolland got acquainted with P. J. Cosijn (1840-1899), Professor of Germanic philology at Leiden University and a specialist in the field of Old English. Under Cosijn’s guidance (as well as his financial support), Bolland continued his studies of Old English. He spent close to a year in London and a brief period in Jena, Germany, developing his expertise. Bolland showed great promise as a Germanic philologist, but a series of events led to his departure for Batavia, where he became a teacher once more. Upon his return to The Netherlands in 1896, Bolland was made a professor of Philosophy at Leiden University and he would never return to the study of Old Germanic languages. For the next twenty-five years, Bolland would be one of Holland’s most prominent and influential philosophers (the standard biography of Bolland is Otterspeer 1995). Quite a reversal of fortunes! Or, in the words of the Beowulf poet:
tir-eadigum menn torna gehwylces
[A reversal of fortune for all his troubles came to the man blessed with glory.] (Beowulf, ll. 2188b-2189, ed. and trans. Fulk 2010)
Bolland and Moritz Heyne’s Beovulf
Despite being an autodidact student and the absence of Dutch translations of Beowulf (the first one appeared in 1896), Bolland was a serious and highly critical reader of the Old English poem. He owned several editions of Beowulf, which included those by Alfred Holder (1882-1884) and Benjamin Thorpe (2nd edn., 1875); of the latter he wrote to Cosijn “I will show you that I have every reason to despise Thorpe’s horrible edition of Beowulf“, pointing out several of misprints in the Old English text. Bolland’s Beowulf edition of choice appears to have been the one by Moritz Heyne, Beovulf: Angelsächsisches Heldengedicht (3d imprint, 1873), which according to Niles (2015) “was long admired as the most authoritative edition of Beowulf” (p. 245).
Bolland’s own copy was donated to the University Library of Leiden and features ample hand-written notes in Bolland’s hand (see image below). These notes reveal that Bolland added Dutch glosses to many of the words, grammatical analyses (providing case and number for nouns, etc.) as well as interpretations (noting, for instance, that “se fróda fäder Óhteres” [Beowulf, l. 2929] referred to Ongentheow). He was also able to add five corrigenda to Moritz’s list of “bemerkte Druckfehler im Texte” [noticed printing-errors in the text], probably on the basis of other editions. A thoughtful and diligent reader, indeed!
“A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: Beowulf in Bolland’s ‘Early English Literature’
Upon returning from his studies in London in 1880, Bolland wrote to a friend about the possibilities of publishing “A short Chronological List of English Literature, with analyses and explanatory notes, being intended as a help for the memory of all who teach or study English literature”. Regrettably for Bolland, this late nineteenth-century version of SparkNotes was never published. Two hand-written drafts related to this work have survived, however, and are currently held at Leiden University Library.
The first draft is found in a little student notebook with the title ‘Early English Literature’. In this notebook, two essays, on Old English Literature and Transitional English [Middle English], precede a brief survey entitled “Landmarks for a chronological survey of Literature in North-America”; lists of English expressions and proverbs; and a chronological overview of Arthurian literature. The essay on Old English features a brief analysis of Beowulf:
A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry is the epic poem of Beowulf, which consists of far more than three thousand lines. It is the oldest extant epic in any Germanic language and strongly tastes of ancient heathenism, in spite of a few traces of Christianity, which may be later interpolations. Its hero sails from a land of the Goths to a land of the Danes, where he frees a chief of the names of Hrôthgar from the attacks of the marshfiends Grendel and his mother, two monsters lurking in neighbouring fens and moors. In course of time Beowulf comes to be a ruler himself, and in this capacity is deadly wounded at last in a struggle with a fire-spitting dragon that had infested the environs of his residence. He is buried in great statue under a great barrow on a promontory which rises high above the sea.
This fine, brief summary of Beowulf, is followed by an evaluation of the historical value of the poem, which lies in its depiction of “actual life of ancient Germanic leaders”:
Real events have been transformed into legendary marvels in this story of old Teutonic exploits, but the actual life of ancient Germanic leaders is vividly painted. We read of feasts in the mead-hall, of the leader and his hearth-sharers, of their customs and manners, and of rude beginnings of a courtly ceremony. There is much boastful talk and reliance upon strength of hand in the poem, and a practical spirit of adventure that seeks peril as a commercial speculation. For the hero is undisguisedly a tradesman in his sword.
Following Daniel Haigh (1819-1879) (for which, see Shippey & Haarder 1998, pp. 315-317), Bolland then situates the scenery of Beowulf in Yorkshire:
The original scene of the story was probable a corner of the isle of Saeland opposite to Gothland, but though England is never mentioned it seems that the scenery for its existing English shape as taken from the coast of Yorkshire, between Whitby and Bowlby Cliff.
Next, Bolland rounds up his analysis with a few words about the Beowulf manuscript (London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv):
The manuscript in which the poem has been preserved belongs to the Cottonian library in the British Museum and is held to have been written in the tenth century. It has been much damaged in course of time and shows many gaps; especially the 32d, the 33d, and the 44th or last canto have come down to us in a fragmentary state.
Bolland, obviously, had nothing new to add to the scholarship of Beowulf, but it is interesting to see that he gave the poem such a prominent place in his survey – the analysis of Beowulf precedes his discussion of Caedmon, for instance.
Bolland’s summary of Beowulf in A short Chronological List of English Literature (1880)
Bolland’s hand-written version of A short Chronological List of English Literature (1880) expands over 400 pages and features a chronological list of landmark publications, interspersed with summaries of well-known works, such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, Spencer’s Faerie Queene and Thomas More’s Utopia. For the Anglo-Saxon period, Bolland dwells at length on Beowulf, providing a 5-page summary. I provide his full text below (with added white lines for legibility):
Hrôdhgâr, a Danish King and descendant of Scild Scefing, the mighty warrior, causes a grand hall to be built, to which he gives the name of Heorot. This hall is soon made a scene of slaugter by the mighty attacks of Grendel, a fiendish being, that lives in gloomy marshes and carries off at one time no less than thirty thanes, whom he devours in his retreat. These dreadful visitations continue for a period of twelve years. Intelligence of this calamity having reached Bêowulf, the valiant son of Ecgthêow and a nephew to Hygelâc the King of the Geats, he sets out to rid the Danes of the monster. In company with fifteen other warriors he sails from home. When reaching Hrôdhgâr’s realm he is desired by an outpost standing on the extreme point of the land to give his name and tell the reason of his coming. After a parley Bêowulf and his companions are brought before Hrôdhgâr, who recapitulates all that he has suffered from Grendel; all then sit down to drink. During their potations Hunferth, a quarrelsome and envious courtier, taunts Bêowulf on the subject of a swimming match between the latter and Breca, prince of the Brontings. Bêowulf however retorts effectually and related the perils he underwent at the bottom of the sea in his struggles with the nickers. Wealhthêow, Hrôdhgâr’s queen, then stepping in, presents the mead-cup to the guests; after a while she and her consort retire to rest, leaving Bêowulf & his companions in the hall.
Whilst the other warriors are snoring Bêowulf awaits the coming of Grendel. At last the latter suddenly appears and gets hold of a sleeping warrior whom he devours. He then is caught by Bêowulf, whose companions run to his assistance; but they find that the monster’s carcass is proof against their weapons. Bêowulf, however, grasps him & tears his arm from his shoulder; so mutilated Grendel succedes in escaping to his fen-dwelling. All the people are eager to behold Grendel’s hand & arm; the praises of Bêowulf are sung and one of the King’s thanes recites the heroic deeds of Sigemund Waelsing & Fitela his son & nephew. After this a horse race is held. Heorot is restored to its former splendour and at a great feast Bêowulf & his companions are munificently rewarded for their services. A glee-man having sung some heroic deeds Bêowulf is presented with a rich dress & golden collar.
When the warriors have betaken themselves to sleep Grendel’s mother, bent on vengeance for her dead son, enters the hall; the warriors rousing themselves she hastens back, not however without taking with her Aeschere, an old friend of Hrôdghâr’s. When hearing of this new disaster Beowulf courageously resolves to attack the monsters in their own retreat, and accompanied by Hrôdhgâr he sets out on an exploring expedition towards the marshes. On their way they find Aesc-here’s head lying on the bank of a lake. Notwithstanding its horrid aspect and the monstrous beings it contains, Bêowulf makes up his mind for a descent, armed as he is with a famous sword named Hrunting, lent him by Hunferth. Having plunged into the water he encounters Grendel’s mother, and an awful struggle ensues. After an anxious suspense Hrodhgâr sees the brave Gêat reappear a victor, with Grendel’s head for a trophy, which is borne before Bêowulf in triumph. Bêowulf presents Hrôdhgâr with the hilt of a magic sword found by him in the sub-marine cave; the blade of this goodly weapon melted away when he slew the witch, through the heat and venom of her blood. The monsters now being destroyed once for all, the Danish King & Beowulf take leave of each other. Richly endowed with presents Bêowulf and his warriors return home. They find a welcome reception, and Bêowulf relates his story to Hygelâc, his kinsman.
By a series of subsequent events Bêowulf becomes the successor on the throne of the Gêats; in the latter part of his reign a dragon begins to sorely invest the neighbourhood of the residence. This monster is the keeper of a treasure hid in a mound and laid down there by some prince in by-gone days. He has been enraged by the theft committed by a subject of Bêo-wulf’s, who, having to meet the demands of his master, has ventured in his despair to invade the spell-bound cave. The dragon begins to vomit forth glowing embers and devastates the whole neighborhood. If the dreadful foe is not to lay waste every particle of land the old king must make an effort to overcome him. Bêowulf accordingly prepares for the conflict. In the ensuing struggle the old hero is reduced to great straits; valiantly the noble Wiglaf, his kinsman comes to his help, notwithstanding the cowardice of the followers of the King, who seized by a panic, have fled to a wood.
The fight continues; Bêowulf’s sword, Naegling, snaps asunder and the dragon clutches the aged hero in his talons. Wiglâf having wounded the dragon, Bêowulf draws his knife with which he puts an end to the struggle by cutting the monster through the middle. But though a victor now he feels his own death too to be at hand, the dragon having infused his venom into his veins. Sitting on a stone he bids Wiglâf go and bring the treasure from the cave, that, having looked at it, he may die in peace. Coming back from this mission Wiglâf finds his lord dying; and Bêowulf breathes his last after having given his faithful kinsman his directions for the funeral. Bitterly are the king’s men reproached by Wiglaf having left their prince in the lurch at the time of his need, after having received so many favors at his hands. The funeral pile is constructed according to the wishes of the dying king, and a mound is erected in Hrones-naes as a token of remembrance, that the sailors who will afterwards pass by it, call it Bêowulf’s mount.
His incorrect notion that the dragon clutches Beowulf in its talons and infuses him with its venom notwithstanding (the dragon fatally bites Beowulf in the neck), Bolland provides an accurate and fairly detailed summary of Beowulf. The text holds few surprises for readers who are familiar with the poem, but it is as useful today as it would have been in the 1880s. Bolland’s interesting use of slightly archaic and highly idiomatic English is noteworthy – not bad for a Dutch autodidact student, who spent the first twenty-five years of his life in the gutter of Groningen and a Leiden jailhouse!
This is the third in a series of blogs related to my research project “My former Germanicist me”: G. J. P. J. Bolland (1854-1922) as an Amateur Old Germanicist , which explores how a Dutch student at the end of the nineteenth century tried to master Old English. Other blog posts include:
- Henry Sweet: The Man Who Taught the World Old English
- Benjamin Thorpe: The Man Who Translated Almost All Old English Texts
Works referred to:
- R. D. Fulk, ed. and trans., The Beowulf Manuscript. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
- John D. Niles, The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England 1066-1901: Remembering, Forgetting, Deciphering, and Renewing the Past, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
- Willem Otterspeer, Bolland: Een biografie, Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1995.
- T. A. Shippey and Andreas Haarder, Beowulf: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1998.
Even though the last native speaker of Old English died over 900 years ago, the language of the Anglo-Saxons is making a comeback in modern cinema. This blog post calls attention to five TV series and movies that use Old English.
1. The Rohirrim speak Old English: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of Old English at the University of Oxford and his fictional work is infused with his academic interests: the languages and literatures of the peoples of the medieval North-West. The Rohirrim, in particular, were modeled on the Anglo-Saxons. The riders of the Mark (itself based on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom Mercia) even speak Old English in the books, as when Éomer greets Théoden with “Westu Théoden hal!” (cf. “Wæs þu Hrothgar hal!” Beowulf, l. 407). The names of the Rohirrim also derive from Old English: Théoden means ‘king’ (< Old English þeoden) and Éomer means ‘famous horse’ (< Old English eoh ‘horse’ + mær ‘famous’). (If you are interested, I wrote an article on the influence of Old English language and literature on Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which you can find among my publications)
In the successful movie adaptations, the use of Old English (regrettably) is scarce and limited to the extended edition of the Two Towers. In a scene called ‘the funeral of Théodred’, Éowyn (‘horse-joy’) sings a funeral dirge, in Old English (singing starts at 0:48):
freone frecan. forþ onsended
giedd sculon singan. gleomenn sorgiende
on Meduselde. þæt he ma no wære
his dryhtne dyrest. and maga deorost.
[Baleful death has sent forth the noble warrior, sorrowing singers will sing a song in Meduseld that he is no more, dearest to his lord and dearest to his kinsmen.]
The actress Miranda Otto actually does a great job when it comes to pronouncing the Old English (would she have followed a course?). The song also features a line which is similar to Beowulf, ll. 2265b-2266: “bealocwealm hafað / fela feorhcynna forð onsended” [baleful death has sent forth many warriors].
2. It speaks? IT SPEAKS! In Old English! Beowulf (2007)
Robert Zemeckis’s adapatation of Beowulf did not only give us a 3D animation of Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother (naked, clad in gold, with a tail), he also had the monsters attempt to speak in Old English. An intriguing example can be seen here, in the scene where Grendel loses his arm:
Beowulf: Your bloodletting days are over, demon!
Grendel: Arr – Ic nat daemon eam [I am not a demon]
Beowulf: It speaks? IT SPEAKS!
Grendel: Hwæt eart þu? [What are you?]
Arguably, the Old English is not very well done and the pronunciation is awful (there is some more in Grendel’s death scene, where you can hear ‘min sunu’ and ‘sin nama wæs Beowulf’). The decision to have the monsters (attempt to) speak Old English, though, is an interesting one: is it a way of stressing their antiquity? To separate them from the human world? To emphasise their monstrosity (I would hope not!)?
3. The magic of Old English: BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012)
The BBC series TV series focusing on the adventures of the young Merlin at Arthur´s court used Old English as the language for the various magical spells. A rather odd decision, seeing as Merlin should probably be associated more with the Celtic speaking peoples, rather than with the Old English speaking Anglo-Saxons that were fought by the pseudo-historical Arthur. Here are all the spells from the first series:
“Berbay odothay arisan quicken” <Old English Bebiede þe arisan cwican [I command you to arise alive]
(You can find more transcriptions of spells here)
The pronunciation, again, leaves something to be desired. However, often the Old English spells make sense, as in the example quoted above: Merlin wants to make a statue of a dog come alive; he tells it to come alive in Old English; presto! The dog is alive (it also affects the snakes painted on a shield in the next scene). If only that worked in real life!
4. The Shadow of Boniface: De Schaduw van Bonifatius (2010)
De Schaduw van Bonifatius [The Shadow of Boniface] is an ambitious short film, directed by Thijs Schreuder as a graduation project for the Film Academy in Amsterdam. It focuses on the missionary activity of the Anglo-Saxon Boniface (d. 754) in Frisia. While the film was praised for its use of special effects (similar to the LOTR-movies), its use of languages is also of interest: all dialogues are in Latin, Old English and Old Frisian.
I particularly like the scene that starts at 08:00, in which Boniface confronts a group of pagan Frisians at their sacred tree. Boniface speaks in Old English, the Frisian leader replies in Old Frisian. Seeing as these two medieval languages are closely related, it is highly probable that the Anglo-Saxon missionaries in Frisia could indeed converse with the people in their native tongue:
Boniface: Ondfo Godes lufu! Ondfo His miltse! [Receive God’s love! Receive his mercy!]
Frisian chief: Bonifatius! Thi mon ther thera Fronkena leinlika gode menniska bibiāt. ther tserika timbriath mith ūre hāligum bāmum. [Boniface! The man who sacrifices to the false gods of the Frankish people. Who builds churches with our holy trees.]
Boniface: For iūre hreddunge. Hæfth iūre goda thunor smiten mē? Habbath hīe me thone wei thweorod? Se ondswaru is ‘nā’, ond for thǣm the iċ ēom hēr swā thæt ġē ġebīdath thæs cræftes thæs ǣnigan, sōthan Godes![For your protection. Has the thunder of your gods smitten me? Have they barred my path? The answer is ‘No’ and therefore I am here, so that you will experience the power of the only, true God!]
The actors do a fine job and the Old Frisian and Old English sounds rather authentic. No surprise there, since the actors were taught by a leading expert on both Old Frisian and Old English: prof.dr. Rolf H. Bremmer Jr. (You can read about his involvement here, in Dutch).
5. Hwæt sægest þu? Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-)
In De Schaudw van Bonifatius, Old English was used to create at least the impression of historical accuracy . Much the same can be said for the use of Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-). While the show’s authenticity is fiercely debated (see, e.g., this blog post), the makers of the show must certainly have thought that the use of early medieval languages, such as Old English and Old Norse in the first two seasons and Old French in the third season, would contribute to a sense of realism. The first scene to feature Old English is the prelude to the Viking raid of Lindisfarne in 793:
Monk: Gesawe þu þæt, brodor Æþelstan? Gesawe þu hit? Saga me þæt þu hit gesawe.
Athelstan: Gea, brodor. Ic hit gesawe.
Monk: Hit is awriten and swa hit hæfþ alimpen. God us helpan, god us helpan.
The monks looking at the thunder and seeing a viking ship in the sky is an obvious reference to the famous entry for the year 793 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
Her wæron reðe forebecna cumene ofer Norðhymbra land, 7 þæt folc earmlic bregdon, þæt wæron ormete þodenas 7 ligrescas, 7 fyrenne dracan wæron gesewene on þam lifte fleogende. [In this year, terrible omens came about over the land of the Northumbrians, and miserably frightened the people: these were immense thunders and lightenings, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air.]
The second scene in the YouTube clip above shows Athelstan speaking Old English to some hostages. The Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, apparently, is able to understand their conversation. This is not too surprising, since Old Norse and Old English would have been mutually intelligble at the time. In terms of its language use, then, History Channel’s Vikings makes a good effort at historical accuracy.
Hwæt’s next? BBC’s The Last Kingdom (2015-) and ITV’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (2016-)
Over the last 15 years, Old English has been embraced by movie makers; first as a language of fantasy, monsters and magic, later as an instrument for historical accuracy. With upcoming TV series such as BBC’s The Last Kingdom, set in ninth-century England, and ITV’s Beowulf: The Return to the Shield Lands, based on the Old English poem Beowulf, we will undoubtedly hear more Old English from our TV sets in the future. The Last Kingdom, for instance, uses Old English place names, such as Bebbanburg (Bamburgh), Oxanfyrde (Oxford) and Wintanceastre (Winchester). Perhaps, it is time to pitch our courses in Old English to acting hopefuls and up-and-coming film makers. The native speakers of Old English may be long dead, in Hulferes wudu (Hollywood) their language is still alive!
With special thanks to Rolf Bremmer (Leiden University) for sending me the script he translated for De Schaduw van Bonifatius.
If you liked this post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or read the following posts about modern uses of Old English and Anglo-Saxon culture?
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
- Medieval manuscripts in modern media: Anglo-Saxon manuscripts spotted in Vikings, The Last Kingdom and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
- Old English memes
According to an early medieval ‘book of monsters’, the bones of the sixth-century, gigantic king Hygelac were shown to travelers on an island in the Rhine, where this river flowed into the sea. Recent excavations in Oegstgeest (South Holland) and the finding of the unique silver Oegstgeest bowl have brought to light international activities in the Rhine estuary in the early medieval period. Could these excavations hold a clue to the location of the bones of Hygelac, who is also mentioned in the Old English poem Beowulf?
A Book of Monsters
Hermaphrodites, dragons, centaurs, pygmies, elephants and a whole lot more. Around the year 700, an anonymous Englishman wrote the Liber monstorum de diversis generibus [The book of monsters of all sorts] and provided an overview of the ‘freaks of nature’ that he had heard and read about. A ninth-century manuscript of the text is currently held in the University Library in Leiden (VLO 60). In this overview of monsters, the author describes Hygelac, a gigantic king of the Geats (a people that lived in southern Sweden):
There are also monsters of an incredible size, such as King Hygelac, who ruled the Geats and was murdered by the Franks; from the age of twelve, no horse could carry him. His bones are preserved on an island in the river Rhine, where it flows into the sea, and they are shown to travelers from afar as a marvel.
Apparently, an Englishman around the year 700 had heard a of an island in the Rhine estuary, where travelers would come from faraway and where they would be shown the gigantic bones of Hygelac. Could this be Oegstgeest? And who was this King Hygelac?
Oegstgeest: An island in the Rhine?
Present-day Oegstgeest certainly does not look like an island, but the medieval situation was wholly different. The name Oegstgeest derives from the personal name Osger and the Middle Dutch word ‘geest’, a term denoting a raised area of sandy soil. In the Middle Ages, Oegstgeest would have been more elevated than the surrounding landscape, which consisted mainly of water (the Rhine and various waterways) and marshland. As such, medieval Oegstgeest may very well be considered an island in the Rhine, which then still had its main estuary in nearby Katwijk (on the medieval history of Oegstgeest, see Lugt 2009).
Recent excavations in Oegstgeest uncovered not only the unique silver bowl, but also imported pottery and wine barrels. Together with a previous find of an Anglo-Saxon belt buckle in nearby Rijnsburg, these finds are indications of international activity in the Rhine estuary in the early medieval period. These archaeological discoveries might now be linked to the text of the Liber monstrorum and the island in the Rhine estuary where, according to the English author, “travelers from afar” were shown the bones of Hygelac.
Who was Hygelac?
Although the Liber monstrorum is the only text to comment on Hygelac’s size, his death around the year 525 AD is described in three early medieval texts. The historian Gregory of Tours (ca. 538-594) wrote that Hygelac died in a naval battle, as he returned from a raid to the north of Gaul. The anonymous Liber Historiae Francorum, written two hundred years later, gives a similar story, but places Hygelac’s raid in the area inhabited by the “Att-oarii”, a people that possibly lived near Nijmegen (Storms 1970).
Hygelac is also mentioned in Beowulf, a long poem in Old English (the language spoken in early medieval England). The poet reports that Hygelac took on the combined forces of Franks, Frisians and “Hetware” (the “Att-oarii” of the Liber Historiae Francorum) and that he died in Frisia:
faran flotherge on Fresna land,
þær hyne Hetware hilde gehnægdon,
elne geeodon mid ofermægene,
þæt se byrnwiga bugan sceolde,
feoll on feðan; nalles frætwe geaf
ealdor dugoðe. (Beowulf, ll. 2914b-2920a)
[Hygelac came sailing with a naval army to Frisia, where the “Hetware” assailed him in battle. They acted with courage and superior force, so that the byrnie-warrior had to bow down, he fell in the battle; this leader did not at all give treasures to his warriors.]
In the early Middle Ages, ‘Frisia’ was larger than present-day Friesland and it extended along the North Sea coast, from North-Western Germany south to well beyond the Rhine estuary.
Where did Hygelac die?
Concerning the location of Hygelac’s death, the early medieval sources are not in agreement: to the north of Gaul, near Nijmegen or in Frisia? Gregory of Tours’ naval battle, the mentioning of the Frisians in Beowulf and the text of the Liber monstrorum all seem to indicate a location at least close to the North Sea.
Hygelac’s bones have never been found. In the fifties, a scholar suggested that the bones may have been kept on the island Goeree Overflakkee (Magoun 1953). Given the recent archeological excavations in Oegstgeest and the evidence outlined above, Oegstgeest within the Rhine estuary appears a more likely option. Due to the scarcity of sources for the early Middle Ages, the best we can do is speculate, but I would not be surprised if the archeologists in Oegstgeest should stumble upon some gigantic bones in the ground!
This is a slightly edited version of a blog previously posted on the Leiden University website. If you liked this blog post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or continue reading the following posts on Beowulf:
- “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880
- Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition
- The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode
Works referred to:
- Lugt, F. (2009), Het Goed van Oegstgeest: De Middeleeuwen in Oegstgeest, Poelgeest, Kerkwerve, Rijnsburg en Nieuw-Rhijngeest. Leiden: Ginkgo.
- Magoun, F., Jr. (1953), ‘The Geography of Hygelac’s Raid on the Lands of the West Frisians and the Hætt-ware, ca. 530 AD’, English Studies 34.
- Storms, G. (1970), ‘The Significance of Hygelac’s Raid’, Nottingham Mediaeval Studies 14,3-26.