Wednesday, 16 October 2019
Beowulf - and more
Just a short post to say that I've written a piece on Beowulf for this month's issue of the BBC History Magazine (not online at the moment, but I'll add a link if it turns up on their website.) It's very much a basic introduction to the poem, but I tried also to suggest some of the complexities of the poem's worldview and its approach to legend and history.
Shocking as this might be to confess, Beowulf is not a poem I'm naturally drawn to; I had to teach myself to find it interesting, and though I do appreciate its fine qualities I somewhat regret that it so much dominates public perception of early medieval English literature. It's the only Anglo-Saxon text most people have ever heard of - in the UK, Beowulf is often the very first thing people think of when they hear the term 'Anglo-Saxon'. (Second is primary school lessons about the Battle of Hastings!) Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that even one Anglo-Saxon poem has that kind of name-recognition, and it's important to have a reference point which can help people steer their way through this largely unfamiliar landscape. Yet in many ways Beowulf is not particularly representative of the rich and varied body of literature which survives from early medieval England (for one thing, it doesn't take place in early medieval England!). There are many other fascinating texts, poetry and prose, which will never make their way into any popular history magazine, nor ever be turned into a blockbuster film, but which are nonetheless very much worth exploring - remarkable for their poetic dexterity, their sensitivity of thought, their glimpses into an unfamiliar cultural world.
So if you're new to Anglo-Saxon literature other than Beowulf , and would like to explore some less well-known texts from the period in translation, here a few freely accessible online resources which you may not have come across before:
The Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project is an extraordinarily ambitious and wide-ranging collection of open-access translations of Old English poems - from short lyrics on all kinds of subjects to long and complex narratives telling stories from the Bible and the lives of saints.
The Riddle Ages blog translates and discusses the Old English riddles of the Exeter Book, a fabulous set of little poems by turns witty, beautiful, and mystifying (and often all at the same time).
A diversity of many types of short Old English texts, with valuable discussion, can be found at the wonderful blog 'For the Wynn' - there you will encounter Anglo-Saxon prayers, prognostics, medical and scientific texts, charms, and much more...
If you like Beowulf, you'll really like this post on the poem Widsith, and other material at the same fine blog.
I've written here often about some of my own favourite Old English poems: this tag will take you back through the archive, and if you'd rather go through it seasonally, here's a page with links to many posts on The Anglo-Saxon Year. A couple of times I've written for History Today about Anglo-Saxon texts: this on a beautiful poem about the seasons and the natural world, and this on a collection of 11th-century proverbs.
In terms of prose, you can read many of the sermons of the great Anglo-Saxon teacher, preacher and writer Ælfric in parallel-text translation here - the translation is old-fashioned, but solid. There are some of his saints' lives available here and here, and I've posted a few translations and discussions of Ælfric's sermons under this tag. (His works for teaching are fun too...) You can also read a translation of Ælfric's short work which he intended to introduce a few key principles of early medieval science, from equinoxes to leap years and the causes of different kinds of weather.
You can also read the entirety of Bede's Ecclesiastical History online in translation from the Latin. Translations (older, but still useful) of the longer prose Old English works are available through archive.org, such as the English version of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy associated with Alfred the Great. You could even read the West Saxon translation of the Gospel of John, and follow along in a modern English translation...
And because English and Latin were not the only literary languages to be found in Anglo-Saxon England, let's have a word for the Old Norse poems I sometimes talk about which were (probably) performed in this country, such as those composed for Cnut when he was king of England and Denmark. Translations of some of these can also be found online, if you know where to look: this is a poem in praise of Cnut's conquest of England which glories in his victories over the English, enumerating his battles across the country, north and south, by the Ouse, the Tees and the Thames. (Just in case you ever wondered what the Vikings called Norwich or the Forest of Dean.) If you prefer your triumphal poetry to be at the expense of the the Normans, here's a short poem about the Anglo-Danish earl Waltheof and his victory over Norman forces at York in 1069.
Should you read those and then decide 'forget the Anglo-Saxons, I want to read Old Norse!', the Viking Society have got you covered with their wonderfully generous archive of open-access publications. It's a long way from Beowulf, but not entirely so - because Beowulf is about Scandinavians, after all... ;)