Sunday, 26 July 2015

Havelok, Literature's Nicest Viking

If you feel like spending some time this weekend reading about Vikings (and who wouldn't), have a look at a piece I wrote for the BBC History website about the thirteenth-century romance Havelok the Dane.

As I hope I managed to convey in the article, Havelok is a thoroughly loveable poem. It comprised a whole chapter in my thesis, so I'm naturally fond of it! It was underrated for a long time; some of the early scholarship on it is breathtaking in its snobbery, littered with words like 'rough' and 'naive' and 'bourgeois' (fortunately things are mostly better now). It's true, Havelok is not the most learned poem; it doesn't name-drop Dante or paraphrase Petrarch, not even once. But it's full of energy, wit and heart, and it tells a good story with a sure hand. It has a strong care for social justice and for right and wrong (not a 'naive' care, unless to have such principles is automatically naive), but it doesn't take itself too seriously; it draws the reader into a fun community of listeners enjoying a story together, even when read on the page. Although it's about a displaced prince and princess and places great importance on royal blood, it's the least snobbish of romances: it finds value and meaning in the ordinary day-to-day labour of fishermen and cooks and handymen, and its hero is shown to merit his eventual happy ending not just through his royal descent but because of his willingness to do an honest day's work, to treat everyone equally, and to make a friend of anyone he meets. And its hero and heroine are perhaps the most mutually supportive and tender couple in medieval romance - give me Havelok and Goldeburu over Lancelot and Guinevere any day!

All this is very appealing, and Havelok has the extra charm of being an interesting take on English, or more accurately Anglo-Danish, history, as seen from the perspective of Lincolnshire and the north-east. It gives a romantic origin-story to the town of Grimsby, about as unromantic a place as one could imagine - and why not? I was very pleased to see that among the people who shared the link to my piece on Twitter, there were some Grimsby residents saying 'That's how my town got its name!' - which is exactly what the poet would have wanted them to say. Perhaps it's no surprise that a story which weaves a romance out of the history of Grimsby should have suffered from academic snobbery (funny story: I wrote this BBC piece shortly after an occasion on which I presented on Havelok in a job interview, to withering scorn from the professor on the other side of the table. I didn't present especially well (withering scorn tends to impair one's performance) but I've since wondered if it was not just me but Havelok this man thought so far beneath his contempt!). But if liking Havelok is naive, I don't want to be sophisticated.

You can read the whole poem here, in Middle English but with a handy gloss. To give you a taste, here's a characteristic extract, which illustrates something of the poem's best qualities, including its lively dialogue, its fast narrative pace, and its fondness for invective against the wicked villains. This passage comes when the usurper Godrich, who has seized the English princess Goldeboru's rightful inheritance, decides to get her out of his way by marrying her off to Havelok, whom he believes to be a common kitchen-boy (but is actually the heir to the throne of Denmark.) This is a serious moment in the poem - Goldeboru is being very badly treated, and the poem's full of sympathy for her, with a poignant little moment in which she reflects that such unwilling marriages are often a woman's lot. But it's tinged with humour, too, in Havelok's childishly innocent reaction 'What would I do with a wife?' and even in Godrich's naked villainy - he's practically cackling in his evilness here. Yes, it's OTT, but the poem is enjoying the excess, the sheer narrative pleasure of seeing our heroes in danger when we know it's all going to be OK in the end.

On the morwen hwan day was sprungen
And day-belle at kirke rungen,
After Havelok sente that Judas
That werse was thanne Sathanas,
And saide, "Maister, wilte wif?"
"Nay," quoth Havelok, "bi my lif!
Hwat sholde ich with wif do?
I ne may hire fede ne clothe ne sho.
Wider sholde ich wimman bringe?
I ne have none kines thinge -
I ne have hws, I ne have cote,
Ne I ne have stikke, I ne have sprote,
I ne have neyther bred ne sowel,
Ne cloth but of an hold whit covel.
This clothes that ich onne have
Aren the kokes and ich his knave!"
Godrich stirt up and on him dong,
With dintes swithe hard and strong,
And seyde, "But thou hire take
That I wole yeven thee to make,
I shal hangen thee ful heye,
Or I shal thristen uth thin heie."
Havelok was one and was odrat,
And grauntede him al that he bad.
Tho sende he after hire sone,
The fayrest wymman under mone,
And seyde til hire, fals and slike,
That wicke thrall, that foule swike:
"But thu this man understonde,
I shall flemen thee of londe;
Or thou shal to the galwes renne,
And ther thou shalt in a fir brenne."
Sho was adrad for he so thrette,
And durste nouth the spusing lette;
But they hire likede swithe ille,
Sho thouthe it was Godes wille -
God that makes to growen the korn,
Formede hire wimman to be born.

I made a quick recording of myself reading this, although I think I'm a bit too southern RP to do justice to this fine Lincolnshire poem! My grandmother was from Lincolnshire and all her ancestors for generations lived and died within the county, but I can't convincingly put on a Lincolnshire accent, I'm afraid :D

The next morning, when day had sprung
And the day-bell at the church was rung,
For Havelok sent that Judas,
Who was worse than Satan,
And said, "Boy, do you want a wife?"
"No!" said Havelok, "by my life!"
What would I do with a wife?
I couldn't give her food or clothes or shoes.
Where would I take a woman?
I don't have anything at all!
I don't have a house, I don't have a cottage,
I don't have sticks or wood for a fire,
I don't have either bread or sauce,
Or clothes except an old white cloak.
These clothes that I have on
Are the cook's, and I'm his servant!"
Godrich jumped up and hit him,
With blows very hard and strong,
And said, "Unless you take her
I'm giving you as your wife,
I shall string you up on high,
Or I'll thrust out your eye!"
Havelok was alone, and was afraid,
And promised all that he demanded.
Then he sent after her at once,
The fairest woman under the moon,
And said to her - so false and cruel,
That wicked slave, that foul traitor! -
"Unless you accept this man,
I shall banish you from this land,
Or you'll have to go to the gallows
And there burn in a fire!"
She was afraid at his threats,
And did not dare prevent the marriage.
But though it pleased her very ill,
She thought, it was God's will:
God who makes the corn to grow
Caused her to be born a woman.

And so they get married:

Hwan he havede don him, for drede,
That he sholde hire spusen and fede,
And that she sholde til him holde,
Ther weren penies thicke tolde
Mikel plenté, upon the bok -
He ys hire yaf and she is tok.
He weren spused fayre and well,
The messe he dede, everi del
That fel to spusing, an god clek -
The erchebishop uth of Yerk,
That kam to the parlement,
Als God him havede thider sent.

When [Havelok] had promised, out of fear,
That he would marry her and support her,
And she that she would him have and hold,
The pennies were counted out,
Many of them, on the book,
He took hers, and she took his.
They were married fair and well.
The mass was performed, every bit
Which pertains to marriage, by a good cleric:
The archbishop of York,
Who was there at the parliament [taking place in Lincoln]
As God had him hither sent.

If you went to Lincoln Castle, c.1330, you could see the chapel where this wedding took place...


Anonymous said...

It seems to me, Clerk of Oxford, (a) that you can really write, (b) that in these days in which professional scholars are trying to rediscover how to communicate their publicly funded research to more general audiences, many of them are finding they are not very well suited to it, and (c) that what you should really be doing is writing books that open up this stuff to more popular audiences.

There are and have always been more ways of being a scholar than working in a university. Fortunately, people still want nicely written and nicely made books, and in a great enough supply that there must be a living to be had for someone like you. Not all scholarship can easily be fitted into a popular form, but it's certainly not the case that writing for a general audience need constrain one's interest in serious scholarly research.

Jennifer said...

I do so hope you heed anonymous's advice. I am one of the audience/readership to which he refers. Thank you for your blog and twitter. You have enriched and expanded my own learning so much. Today you have opened up an area I did not really know existed. I am full of questions and wanting to know more.

Peter Mullins said...

One of your very appreciative Grimsby-resident readers is trying to balance "some of the early scholarship on it is breathtaking in its snobbery" in one paragraph and "Grimsby, about as unromantic a place as one could imagine" in the next; there is a poem in the Orkneyinga Saga which already makes the Grimsby-grim pun, so I suppose we ought to be used to it by now. Could you add to my knowledge of Ormulum (or is this a bit late?) as a gesture if not of contrition then of further celebration of Lincolnshire?

Clerk of Oxford said...

I'm sorry - I only meant it *sounds* unromantic! What do you want to know about the Ormulum?

Peter Mullins said...

I've enjoyed very amateur internet based exploration of it (some of which I assume is inevitably academically out-of-date) and once looked at your Labels side bar to see whether it was a topic you also posted about in the vague hope that you might fill in some of my "unknown unknowns". I once got as far as spotting that in one passage (John 3.2-5) his use of the Vulgate consistently takes each phrase of the Latin and expands it into one of his couplets.

Clerk of Oxford said...

In that case you might be interested in this excellent blog:, written by a scholar who is working on the Ormulum. She's been also posting an ongoing translation of it there.

Jeff said...

Many years ago, I translated Havelok for use in an American classroom, doing my best to preserve the meter and the yo-ho-ho spirit of it all. My translation was creaky, but my undergraduates loved it; it gave them a strong sense of popular romance, they threw themselves into spirit speculation about the poem's audience, and they came away with a greater understanding of the refinement of, say, Chaucer and the Gawain-poet.

An administrator who visited my classroom that week gave me a chary look and whispered, "That's not in the Norton Anthology." We politely disagreed about the implications.

OneEnglishLady said...

I would like to encourage you to consider the words of Anon concerning writing, could I also add an idea of audio...I really enjoyed hearing you read part of the poem and imagine others would too. I read it aloud for myself but hearing you pronounce the words as they are supposed to sound was great....and having the translation to read whilst I was listening was icing on the cake...just an idea.