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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!
Many legends referred to in medieval Germanic literature, ranging from the Old High German Hildebrandslied to Icelandic sagas, are set in the age of the Germanic Migration Period (4th to 6th centuries). The same goes for several Old English heroic poems, including Beowulf (set in early 6th-century Scandinavia), Waldere (about a legendary 5th-century Visigothic king) and The Finnsburg Fragment (set in Migration Age Frisia). The Old English poem Widsith too refers to this crucial period in the early medieval history of Europe. This blog post focuses on one reference in Widsith in particular: to the Burgundian King Gundahari (d. 437), who also appears in the much later Volsunga Saga (as Gunnar) and the Nibelungenlied (as Gunther).
Widsith, the widely travelled
Ic wæs mid Hunum ond mid Hreðgotum,
mid Sweom ond mid Geatum ond mid Suþdenum.
Mid Wenlum ic wæs ond mid Wærnum ond mid wicingum. (Widsith, ll. 57-59)
[I was with the Huns and with Goths,
with Swedes and with Geats and with the South-Danes.
With the Vandals I was and with Varni and with the Vikings.]
Widsith is the name given to a 143-line poem in Old English that survives in the 10th-century Exeter Book (but was probably composed centuries earlier). In this curious poem, the speaker identifies himself as Widsith [‘broad journey’]; an apt name, since he claims to have travelled among no fewer than fifty different tribes, ranging from Fins, to Huns, through to Saracens, Egyptians, Indians and Frisians. He also claims to have interacted with various historical figures, including Julius Caesar (d. 44 BC), Ermanaric, king of the Goths (d. 376) and Alboin, king of the Lombards (d. 572). Clearly, we are dealing here with a fictional travelogue, unless we assume Widsith truly spanned the known globe and lived to at least 650 years of age.
The Anglo-Saxon poet of Widsith shows a familiarity with stories surrounding pseudo-legendary historical figures from the Germanic Migration Period, who are also mentioned in other Old English poems. These include the Danes Hrothgar and Hrothwulf (mentioned in Beowulf), as well as the Frisian Finn and Half-Dane Hnæf (mentioned in Beowulf and The Finsburg Fragment; see: The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode). In this intriguing catalogue, Widsith also mentions a magnanimous Burgundian king:
ond mid Burgendum, þær ic beag geþah;
me þær Guðhere forgeaf glædlicne maþþum
songes to leane. Næs þæt sæne cyning! (Widsith, ll. 65-67)
and among the Burgundians, there I received a ring;
there Guðhere gave me a shiny treasure,
as a reward for a song. That was not a thrifty king!
This Guðhere is a historical king of the Burgundians who plays an intriguing role in various Germanic literary traditions.
Gundahari: A Burgundian king, defeated by Huns
Even though the names may seem wholly different, etymologists will tell you that the name “Guðhere” in Widsith is the Old English reflex of the Burgundian name Gundahari. Old English gūþ ‘war’ and gunda both derive from Proto-Germanic *gunþī-/*gunþjō– ‘fight’ (just like Present-Day English mouth and German Mund both derive from Proto-Germanic *munþa- ‘mouth’); Old English here ‘war’ and hari come from Proto-Germanic *harja- (the Burgundians spoke an East Germanic language which, like Gothic, did not undergo i-mutation [a change in vowels followed by an i or j in the next syllable]). (For Proto-Germanic etymologies, see Kroonen 2013)
Gundahari was a historical fifth-century king of an East Germanic tribe known as the Burgdundians. He ruled a kingdom at Worms (Germany) which was overrun by Huns in the year 437. Gundahari was killed and, defeated by the Huns, the remaining Burgundians started to migrate and ended up in the area of Savoy (France).
Some of these Burgundians settled on the estate of the Roman diplomat and poet Sidonius Apollinaris (c. 430-489). In a letter to his friend Catullinus, Sidonius gives a fabulous description of these Germanic barbarians:
Why — even supposing I had the skill — do you bid me compose a song … , placed as I am among long-haired hordes, having to endure German speech, praising oft with wry face the song of the gluttonous Burgundian who spreads rancid butter on his hair? Do you want me to tell you what wrecks all poetry ? Driven away by barbarian thrumming the Muse has spurned the six-footed exercise ever since she beheld these patrons seven feet high. I am fain to call your eyes and ears happy, happy too your nose, for you don’t have a reek of garlic and foul onions discharged upon you at early morn from ten breakfasts, and you are not invaded even before dawn … by a crowd of giants so many and so big that not even the kitchen of Alcinous could support them. (trans. Anderson 1936)
Sidonius’s gives the Burgundians a harsh review: they eat him out of house and home, they smell of garlic and onions, spread butter in their hair and sing horrible songs. It is most unfortunate that Sidonius did not record any of these Burgundian songs; who knows? They may have been singing of their king Gundahari and the crashing defeat by the Huns.
It is certain that the name Gundahari was well remembered among the Burgundians. One of Gundahari’s successors, King Gundobad (c. 452 – 516 AD) issued a law code known as the Lex Burgundionum [The Law of the Burgundians], which includes Gundahari in a list of memorable kings, along with Gibica, Godomar and Gislahari:
That songs were indeed sung about Gundahari is further suggested by his appearance in other Germanic literary traditions.
Sneaky Huns and sleepy snakes in the Völsunga Saga
The thirteenth-century, Icelandic Völsunga Saga synthesizes various older (oral) stories about the history of Sigurd the dragon slayer and the destruction of the Burgundians. In the Völsunga Saga, Gundahari appears as Gunnar, son of Gjuki (that is: Gibica!), King of the Burgundians. After a series of tragic events, Gunnar acquires the great treasure of Sigurd. This treasure rouses the interest of King Atli (that is: Atilla the Hun!). Through trickery, Atli lures Gunnar to his court and demands the treasure be handed over. Gunnar refuses and says that he has deposited the gold into the river Rhine. A battle between the Burgundians and Huns ensues and Gunnar is bound and thrown into a snake pit. Gudrun, Gunnar’s sister and Atli’s wife, helpfully hands Gunnar a harp and, in a desperate attempt to save his own life, the bound Gunnar begins to play the instrument with his toes. Almost all of the snakes fall asleep, but one stays awake and bites Gunnar to death.
Gunnar’s marvellous death scene was rather popular in medieval art and perhaps the most famous depiction of Gunnar in the snake pit is on the doorway of a 12th/13th-century stave church in Hylestad, Norway:
Variations of the story of Gundahari/Gunnar appear, among others, in the Old Norse Edda and the Middle High German Nibelungenlied (in this version, Gundahari is named Gunther and is beheaded by his sister – no sleepy snakes involved). The Burgundian king that was struck down by Huns in 437, it seems, had truly become a legend.
The reference to Gundahari in Widsith attests to the fact that this fifth-century Burgundian king was also known in early medieval England. In this Old English poem, Gundahari is not linked to Atilla the Hun, there are no snakes, nor helpful (or vindictive) sisters; but the poem does associate the Burgundian king, explicitly, with treasure and song: this was not a thrifty king and he rewarded his poets well! These rewards, judging by Gundahari’s place in various literary traditions, certainly paid off!
If you enjoyed this blog, you may also like the following blog posts:
- Boars of battle: The wild boar in the early Middle Ages
- The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode
- A medieval giant on display: Last resting place of Beowulf’s Hygelac discovered?
Works referred to:
- Anderson, W.B., trans. (1936). Sidonius: Poems and Letters (Cambridge, MA)
- Kroonen, G. (2013). Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic (Leiden & Boston)
N.B. Gundahari also gets a reference in the Old English Waldere, but that is something for another blog post!
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